Wanted Adventurers: An Unhappy Alliance

Aranza and Monty had been escorted to a small holding room–not a cell, the guard emphasized, as it had no bars and pleasant accommodations–while Temperance presented her case against being saddled with such criminals.

“She seemed very nice,” Monty said, leaning back in one of the antique, hand-carved wooden chairs in the room. Its legs creaked with alarm, and the guards at the door cringed visibly. It was a reaction Monty had discovered accidentally and decided to replicate as many times as possible.

Aranza shrugged. “Don’t care much for her.”

Monty raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t care much for me either when we first met, if I recall.”

“Don’t know what you’re on about,” Aranza shot back.

“You tried to murder me, I recall,” Monty said as he leapt to his feet and his chair fell backwards to the floor with an unfortunate thackathack of wood against stone. “The only thing that stayed your hand was your realization I wasn’t sent to govern over your fair city, but I had arrived to eliminate my uncle and free your people.”

Aranza looked away. “Not a proud moment for me, all right?”

There was a sharp knock at the doors. The guards both jumped, visibly startled. They opened the doors, and Temperance walked briskly past. Alistair walked in, his gait more theatrical than practical, and gestured for the guards to leave. They exited quickly, shutting the doors behind them.

Temperance exhaled slowly. She looked around the room as if intent on not looking at Monty or Aranza.

“Lord Alistair, I must protest,” Temperance said. She turned to face Alistair, scowling at Monty as her gaze passed over him.

Alistair sighed. “My good and thoughtful Paladin of the Guild, you have protested and your concerns have been logged appropriately.”

Temperance deflated, the words a pin lancing through the waterskin that held any hopes remaining of her escaping such a task.

“Now I happen to believe there’s good in the hearts of these two,” Alistair continued. “They’re lousy thieves or deliberate prisoners, and they don’t seem very good at either of those things.” He offered Aranza the warm smile of a parent who acknowledged their child’s insistence of not having taken a cookie while spotting the crumbs around their lips, and Aranza couldn’t help but smile in response.

Alistair glanced at Monty and offered a similar smile. Monty remained stoic.

“It should be little to no surprise that I did a bit of reading up on the two of you,” Alistair explained. “I think you two can learn a lot from Temperance, but I also think she can learn a lot from you two as well.”

“Forgive me if I am anything but doubtful,” Temperance replied.

Alistair shrugged. “Doubtful or not, Temperance of House Ravencroft, you succeed or fail with them. Their punishment becomes yours. Rough deal, but you know how Alexandros is. Spare the rod and spoil the child.”

Alistair produced a magnificent flask, a dragon whelp snaked around it with its head resting peacefully on the lid. He prodded the dragon with his finger. It stirred, snorted a small plume of smoke, and shifted just enough out of the way. The aroma that spilled in the room was as if someone had set an entire cart’s worth of sun-spoiled fruit on fire. Alistair took a healthy swig. He winced, but his face gradually melted into a more peaceful expression.

“Forgive me, but this makes bad news easier to deliver,” Alistair conceded. He reached into his cloak and produced a scroll held tightly shut with a deep purple wax seal. He held it out to Temperance, but before her fingers could close around it Monty had grabbed it away.

“This is some kind of twisted joke, yes?” Monty snapped.

Temperance tried to retrieve the scroll only to have it pulled from her grasp again, this time by Aranza.

Aranza turned the scroll over in her hands before fixating on the seal. “Guess you’re not taking many bets on how long will last, are you old man?”

Alistair shook his head, though he looked somber despite the potent spirit he’d indulged.

“If one of you could be so kind as to explain, please, as I am cursed with your presence as my wards as it is,” Temperance sneered.

Aranza waved the scroll in front of Temperance’s face. The Paladin narrowed her eyes, annoyed but patient enough, and finally grabbed it. She stared at the seal, then turned the scroll over in her gauntleted hands. At last, she frowned and looked to the others.

“I’m not familiar with this seal or these markings,” she conceded.

Monty clicked his tongue. “We would be so fortunate as to be blessed with the greenhorn Paladin.”

“Don’t be an asshole, Monty, because we’re in no better shape right now,” Aranza shot back. She stepped closer to Temperance, who reflexively backed away. Holding out one hand, she gestured to the scroll with the other. Temperance reluctantly handed it back over.

“Purple wax means magic user,” Aranza explained. “Unless the coding’s changed.”

Alistair shook his head. “You know how long it took us to get that nonsense sorted? It would take the Gods themselves to change it. Not even sure they could manage to achieve such a feat.”

“A simple yes would have sufficed,” Monty replied.

Aranza pointed to the seal again. “Purple means magic user, then, but this particular seal is awfully elaborate. The spikes around the edge and the symbols around the center tell a story, right?”

Alistair smiled. “Very clever,” he replied. “I don’t suppose you were once a Guild Initiate?”

“Used to steal Guild communications and sell them to put food on the table,” Aranza said with no further explanation. “Don’t know what they mean, but if I had to guess we’re going after a bounty. The big, ugly skull in the middle of the seal is what tells me we shouldn’t make any plans for the long-term.”

Temperance furrowed her brow. “If you know so little of reading these seals, how can you be sure?”

Monty stepped forward and exchanged glances with Aranza. “There are countless beings capable of wielding magic,” he said. “Even you can grasp that. The rest, however, and especially the skull? They point to a very specific variety of bounty we’ll be facing.”

Temperance opened her mouth to respond, closing it and opening it several times as the answer slowly dawned on her.

The world faltered, the nicely-furnished holding room–not a holding cell–suddenly replaced by a dark, subterranean tomb.

“And then you arrived here, eager to cause havoc at my expense?” Archlich Karaxis asked, an edge of impatience to his hollow voice.

Temperance shook her head. “Not so simply, no,” she replied. “I’m only just beginning.”

Follow The Ashes: Splinters of the Past

Cas remained still as her eyes adjusted to the darkness. She could see the shape of a small tent in the distance. A small light from within the tent cast Raph’s shadow against the cloth wall.

“I know you’re watching me, asshole,” Cas said to the darkness.

“Not very nice of you, but I’m hardly surprised by your hostility,” Gavin replied, his voice echoing from all around. “Given how busy you’ve been, how could I not keep an eye on you? You’ve caused a lot of problems.”

Cas massaged her temples. “I don’t feel like playing games with you,” she snapped back. “What did he mean when he called me Commander? Who are you people and why am I here?!”

Gavin’s laughter was quiet enough that there was no way Raph could hear it, but loud enough to ensure Cas heard it loud and clear.

“Asking the big questions now,” Gavin said. “Perhaps you should investigate and see what you learn on your own.”

There was a shift, small but perceptible, in the atmosphere, and Cas could tell that Gavin was gone. At the very least, he had stopped watching for now.

Cas sighed, considering her options. Talking to Raph could very well be part of an elaborate trap, as he had helped her escape Gavin before but showed no signs of recognizing he did as much. She steeled herself for the worst, took a deep breath, and walked towards the tent. Raph’s silhouette indicated he was sitting with his back to the door, hunched over something. Cas cleared her throat and watched as Raph turned around. He poked his head out of the tent’s opening seconds later.

“Yes, Commander? Didn’t expect you so soon. Is all well?”

Cas considered her words with care. “At ease,” she said, and Raph seemed to relax a little. “Let’s say I am testing you. Care to answer a few questions?”

“Of course, Commander,” Raph replied. He stepped out of the tent. “Ask away.”

Cas paused, wondering what a good starting point would be. “This is all artificial,” she said gesturing to the field around them, pausing to point at the trees before gesturing towards the sky. “What purpose does it serve?”

Raph smiled. “An easy first question, Commander,” he said. “We are here to rigorously test the simulated environments before they are deemed acceptable for population. We evaluate the quality of each simulation and pass those evaluations on to high command.”

Cas nodded. “And from there?”

“Well above my pay grade, Commander,” Raph replied.

“Good answer,” Cas lied. She decided quickly this was not a line of questioning worth pressing and moved on. “Have you seen Gavin?”

Raph raised an eyebrow. “The Lieutenant? Not since you sent him off on his special assignment.”

“Special assignment?”

Raph blinked. “You wouldn’t tell me and he kept very quiet about it, unlike his usual routine,” he replied. “Highly classified from the sound of it.”

Cas nodded. She considered her options as she didn’t know what would or wouldn’t raise red flags. “All right. Good answers so far. Last question.”

Raph offered a polite smile. It was only at this point that Cas realized what seemed off about him. He had none of the scars she was used to seeing on his face.

“First thing that comes to mind when I give this command,” Cas said. “Follow the ashes.”

The stars went out, and with them all light left the wooded area. Cas couldn’t see her hand in front of her face, and suddenly she felt very alone.

The room lit up, the metal poles that stood in place of trees her only company. The walls were covered in endless data streams, the information moving too rapidly for Cas to process. The only detail she could focus on was a solitary word present on each wall.

“Rebooting.”

“Just another simulation,” Cas muttered to herself. She looked around until she spotted a door. She walked over to it, absentmindedly allowing her hands to graze the placeholders for trees and shrubs as she walked. She half-heartedly acknowledge the presence of ashes on the door handle before she opened it, stepping out into a control room.

A series of panels stared down at her from their lofty posts along where the wall met the ceiling.

She hesitated, however, when she spotted an envelope propped up against one of the consoles. It was plain and unassuming, the only markings on it her name in swooping, elaborate script. Not just Cas, however.

Sharp pain rolled over Cas as her vision grew dark. She tried to muscle through it, and when she felt herself getting the better of whatever was happening she noticed the envelope was gone.

The door on the opposite side of the control room was slightly ajar, and so Cas approached it, opened it, and crossed the threshold without hesitation.

She needed answers, and she was determined to stop letting them slip between her fingers.

Piece 13 – The Truth in the Shadows

Burlknot was the first to speak after Curian’s insult. “Is she always like this? This…pleasant?”

Sophia offered a slight shrug. “Her heart’s in the right place, but it occurs to me she hasn’t slept since we’ve set out on our journey,” she said.

“I’m perfectly fine, thank,” Curian snapped back, stopping short as she fell forward. Her face landed in a dense moss patch, and she began to snore almost immediately.

“Perhaps we could allow her time to rest before resuming things,” Gnarlroot reasoned. “It seems we both have made a deal with her, after all, and she did have some rather strong words just now.”

Curian snored loudly, face partially buried in the moss.

“If any of you Treants try anything, don’t think we’ll hesitate to cut you down where you stand,” Kil’Gronn said.

Burlknot stomped forward, stopped short by Gnarlroot.

“You keep watch from your side of the path and we will keep watch on ours,” Gnarlroot snapped back.

The fog was dense, but Curian knew the way. She followed the ruined stair, her fingers running along the moss and vines that covered much of the wall next to her.

A starless, cloudless sky greeted her as she reached the top of the crumbling castle’s highest tower. A foul, bitter wind threatened to knock Curian over the edge, but she braced herself against it. In preparation of what was waiting for her. She felt a familiar gaze and knew it was just a matter of time.

The fire erupted from around the edges of the tower, spreading until Curian was trapped. Shadows formed on the other side of the raging flames, coalescing into a single figure that stepped through unscathed.

Dullahan.

“Across the gulf of darkness, from beyond thresholds I may not cross, you seek me out,” Dullahan taunted. “Your efforts are in vain.”

Curian drew a sword she didn’t remember acquiring, its glittering blade giving off a warm light from within. Runes glowed softly along its hilt. She pointed it at Dullahan, eyes narrowed.

“I cannot let you harm my world,” Curian said.

Dullahan let out a chilling laugh. “You never had a say in the matter. From the moment you brought the Prognosticarium back here you already ensured I would travel world to world, and the darkness would follow in my wake. Not that you’ll need to worry about that for long…”

Curian lunged, sword raised, but fell short as the castle beneath her began to quake violently. She stumbled forward, looking around wildly in hopes of seeing what had happened. The entire world was shifting and shaking wildly, cracks of light breaking through all around.

“Wake up, damn you!” a voice rang out. “We’ve got a situation here!”

The world exploded in a blur of light, and when Curian’s eyes adjusted she found herself face-to-face with Sophia.

“Forgive me. I know you must have been tired,” Sophia said. She jerked backwards, and as Curian’s eyes focused she saw Kil’Gronn behind Sophia.

“Talk later,” Kil’Gronn demanded. She threw Sophia upwards into Burlknot’s waiting branches.

Curian did not have a chance to say anything before Kil’Gronn repeated the process on her.

“Hold tight, loud little one,” Burlknot grumbled. “Would hate to drop you before I have the chance to make you regret that remark you made.”

Curian chuckled. “Ah, that little gem,” she said. “What’s going on, exactly? I feel like I’ve missed something.”

Sophia pointed to the ground below. The forest had gotten significantly darker to the point where Curian couldn’t see any of the Orcs below. She glanced up and noticed the sun was still just where it had been before. When she looked back down towards the ground, Curian could feel something watching her.

Two crimson eyes, deep tears cleaved in the gathered shadows, appeared fixed on Curian.

“Little traveler, you are so far from home,” growled a voice from the shadows. “Let us ease your troubles. Come to us and we will give you peace.”

The shadows shifted and rolled over one another, gathering together to form a massive, singular form. Their edges blurred with the air around them but its shape was unmistakable.

“Wolf,” Curian muttered.

“Gods no,” Sophia whispered. “One of the Morrigan.”

A low guttural sound crept up from below, building to a dull roar. The wolf was laughing.

“I’m so glad we could find you before our sisters,” the Wolf said. “They would have surely robbed us of this joy.”

“Hate to ruin this moment for you, but the bird-brained one tried to kill us already,” Curian said.

Sophia glared at Curian. “Don’t taunt the Morrigan, please.”

“Hey, Angerbranch,” Curian said.

Burlknot groaned. “You are a very difficult creature to tolerate.”

Curian nodded. “I get that a lot,” she replied. “Listen. I think we need to fix this forest. You up to the task? Time to put differences aside because…” She pointed at the Wolf.

“Gnarlroot, what say you?”

Gnarlroot signaled to the other Treants, who began scooping up the Orcs. “One day, we will have to sit down and come to terms with our past,” he roared. “Today is not that day! With me, Treants! We must gather the ashes!”

The Treants moved in great strides across the forest, the absence of wind creating a horrifying echo from the howls that followed behind them. They moved fast, but the Wolf moved even faster. She tore at the Treants roots and leapt upwards, digging her claws into their trunks.

An alcove of trees that stood higher than the rest loomed in the distance. Above the din of madness and fury raging behind them, Curian could hear Kil’Gronn as if they were next to each other.

“Beautiful,” Kil’Gronn gasped. “Not what I expected at all.”

“It would seem we have some misconceptions about each other,” Gnarlroot said, not breaking stride as another Treant was felled, this one even closer.

A tree trunk stood alone in the center of the copse, its center darker than the surrounding wood.

“Ashes!” Curian called out. “Kil’Gronn! Gnarlroot!”

Kil’Gronn leapt from Gnarlroot, hurtling downwards. Gnarlroot extended a branch and Kil’Gronn vaulted off of it, landing with a careful forward roll on the tree stump.

“No! Gods damn you, no!” the Wolf howled.

Light exploded outwards from the heart of the tree stump, engulfing everything in the forest. When the light dimmed, the Wolf had gone. Several Treants lay in ruin, the Orcs they had been carrying dead around them.

In the distance, birds had begun chirping as a soft breeze blew between the branches.

Warpt Factor – Installment 13

Izzy stood in the guestroom she’d been guided to upon arrival at the Rigellian Palace. Stars twinkled in the ceiling’s perfect recreation of the night sky. A bed bigger than Izzy’s room took up a great deal of the floor, and on the bed rested a dress the color of vibrant rust.

“I’ve got my eye on you, fancypants formal nonsense,” Izzy said. “Sure, you’re very nice looking, and wow you are soft. But you’re so boring.” Izzy huffed, plopping down on the enormous bed, sinking into its sea of softness.

Everything about the room looked like big dollar signs, and the whole thing was enough to make Izzy want to find the nearest, greasiest fast food place.

There was a soft knock at the door.

“Captain Warpt,” CMO Carter said. “May I enter? Sorry, are you decent?”

Izzy stifled a laugh. “Sure, come on in,” she replied. “This room’s big enough for, like, a family of five and their twelve pets.”

CMO Carter opened the door, peering into the room. “That was an oddly specific number. Speaking from experience?” She hesitated, her eyes falling on the dress. She was still in uniform. She exhaled slowly.

“Not a fan,” Izzy said. “Is it poor manners to refuse?”

CMO Carter looked as if she was fighting against a smile that was winning out. “Truthfully, Captain Warpt, I was hoping to take my lead from my commander on duty.”

Izzy stared blankly for a moment, the words processing. CMO Carter continued to stand at attention.

“Oh, duh. Sorry, Carter. Still getting used to that,” Izzy said. “Izzy, please. Call me Izzy when we’re not doing official stuff. I can’t do serious twenty-four seven, it’ll kill me.”

CMO Carter smiled. “Duly noted, Izzy,” CMO Carter said. “Still getting used to helming a vessel?”

“Adjusting to the crew,” Izzy said. “It’s just First Officer deCourville, Professor Everest, and me on the Albatross. What’s your story, Carter?”

“Mel works better since we’re not being so official,” CMO Carter replied. “I was stationed at Medical Station Astras. Not much going on out here since the other Spiral Reach stations were decommissioned, so I keep an ear out. There are some interesting music stations out here if you figure out the right CommLink protocols. Heard some interesting chatter, so two others and I chose to investigate.”

Izzy nodded. “Heard there could be danger and didn’t wait for the cavalry to arrive.”

CMO Carter replied with a sheepish grin. “When you put it like that.”

“No, no,” Izzy said, holding a finger up. “I’d rather do the right thing a hundred times over doing it by the book once. Yeah, there are loads of rules you’ve got to follow, but Spiral Reach extends its arms to those in need. Right? I feel like there’s a lot of room for interpretation there.”

CMO Carter smiled. “My colleague have been released,” she said. “Though I suspect they are on their way back to the station as they didn’t seem particularly keen to join in this, well, very formal dinner with our captors.”

“Not up for being pals with the people who threw them in a dungeon,” Izzy replied.

CMO Carter laughed. “No, I suppose not. On the subject of dinner, however.” Her eyes shifted back to the dress, then to Izzy.

“Nope, no thanks,” Izzy said. “I think it’s best we represent Spiral Reach in uniform. We are proud officers who have no need to fancy ourselves up. These uniforms? Fancy enough.”

“Captain’s orders, then. I wouldn’t want to disregard those.”

Izzy furrowed her brow, her lips pursed. “Orders nothing!” She paused, considering the rest of what CMO Carter had said. “Sorry, I had a little crazy stuck in my ear. What was that?”

There was a second knock at the door, the rapid and urgent one of someone with something important to say. “Captain Isabelle Warpt,” said a nasally from outside of the room. “Please follow me to the grand dining hall. Dinner is about to be served.”

“To be continued,” Izzy said. “I’m bookmarking this conversation for later.” Izzy motioned for CMO Carter to follow. Beyond the door was a long hallway lined with doors, which Izzy assumed opened into rooms similar to the one she was in. No one, however, was waiting to guide her and CMO Carter to the grand dining hall.

“Apologies for the confusion,” a voice resonated from nowhere, but sounded like its speaker was directly next to Izzy. “I am one of the many autonomous Helper units. We have been summoned to bring you to dinner. Please observe the lights in the floor as we guide you to your destination.”

The beautiful, red carpeting glowed faintly to Izzy’s left. Izzy turned and stepped in that direction, and more of the hallway began to light up. She continued along, CMO Carter following suit.

Antique candelabras fitted with arcing plasma in place of flames lined the hallway.

The hallway reached a junction, at which point the Helper guided them to go left. This hallway had fewer doorways, paintings occupying the space between the rooms. They loomed from the floor to the ceiling, and were each different styles of painting that all depicted the greatness of the Rigellian Empire.

The hallway split off to a long, winding stairway, mirrored by a twin stairway further down the hallway. The stairways reunited at a landing just before the floor, a short few steps flowing down to just below magnificent double-doors like a pooling river.

The doors opened with ease, automated but programmed to await someone to reach out to open them. The grand dining hall was true to its name, vast and bustling with people. The center of the room was dominated by a long banquet table, levitating at just the right height thanks to the anti-grav boosters on its underside. The Ruklan President, Prime Minister, and Archbishop had gathered with Supreme Leader Calvin Rigellus.

Prime Minister Todan spotted Izzy. She smiled, waving her over. “Thank goodness, child, you’re a breath of fresh air,” Todan said, excusing herself from the group. “None of the servants bring the good sweets over for fear of some sort of political faux-pas. I don’t suppose I could convince the two of you to join me in seceding to form our own table, can I?”

“It’s tempting, but decorum or whatever,” Izzy replied. She glanced around the busy room, then returned her attention to the Prime Minister.

“Where’s the rest of my crew?”

Prime Minister Todan chuckled. “Your First Officer is still being calmed down, I believe, the poor darling. I’ve never met a Cicardox quite so…easily upset.”

“Oh man, the stories,” Izzy started. She took a deep breath, and continued. “I understand where he’s coming from, I think. He’s got brains for days and I bet he’s all soft and warm under that barrier of snootiness he puts up. He’s got a very bright future ahead of him, I’m sure. I’ll do what I can to get him there.”

Whatever thoughts Prime Minister Todan had in response to Izzy were never fully communicated. She gave a simple nod, placing her hands on Izzy’s shoulders.

“The tall fellow was looking after him, I believe,” Todan continued. “I’ll make sure a Helper is sent for them. And then perhaps a Helper for the Helper, just to air on the side of expedience.”

“There she is,” rasped the now-familiar voice of Calvin Rigellus. He was shorter in person, the wrinkles in his brow and around his eyes far more pronounced. His face was one of someone who hadn’t slept in days, but his energy was contagious. Izzy couldn’t help but smile back.

“You remind me of my Gramps,” Izzy blurted out before she could stop herself.

Calvin rumbled with laughter. “I’ve got quite a few grandbabies of my own, but given what you accomplished in so little time I think I could take on an honorary one. We’ve been busy talking, and have come to some very interesting conclusions.”

“Care to continue?” Izzy asked, eyebrows raised.

“Those details will wait for the speech I’ve prepared,” Calvin replied. “For now, please mingle. Enjoy the food and drinks! I promise you this will be a wondrous meal to signal wondrous beginnings! Excuse me, I believe the Ruklan Generals have arrived. I’d like to greet them.” He rushed off into the crowd.

Izzy watched as Calvin disappeared from sight, then turned to Prime Minister Todan.

“He’s not the same guy I threatened with a doomsday device earlier, right?” Izzy asked. “Doppelganger? Good twin to the evil one from before?”

CMO Carter and Prime Minister Todan both laughed.

“My dear, the delicate minutiae of diplomacy are tedious and boring, but when utilized well they make for all the difference,” Todan explained. “Getting a message of peace across to all of our people will take time, but it has to begin somewhere. We’ve already had a number of breakthroughs in this short time.”

“Things can only get better from here,” Izzy replied.

“With the right effort, yes,” Todan said. “I don’t suppose you’ve got your remarks prepared, do you? After all, you did threaten to blow up the planet.”

Izzy looked around the room for a quick diversion, and happily found one in spotting Professor Everest.

“Oh, hey. Brannigan’s here. Better go rendezvous with him to, uh, ship captain stuff,” Izzy replied rapidly before rushing off towards her crew.

Brannigan greeted Izzy with a warm smile and a thumbs-up. “Quite the plan you cooked up there, Captain!

“Hardly a plan,” First Officer deCourville snapped, appearing from behind Brannigan. “You could have gotten us all killed, you know, along with every Ruklan and Rigellian.”

“Didn’t hear you offering up anything better,” Brannigan chided.

“No, Professor, he’s right,” Izzy said. “it was the best I could come up with in the moment, but it was a gamble. A crap-shoot. A real roll of the dice, yeah? So next time we go in better prepared.”

“Exactly the kind of contrary response I expected…” First Officer deCourville snapped, stopping mid-thought. “Beg you pardon, what did you just say?”

“Attention, esteemed guests,” the Helper voice boomed throughout the vastness of the grand dining hall. “Please locate your designated seats as dinner is about to be served. Speeches to follow from our Magnificent Supreme Leader and his Ruklan cohort.”

“Leaving you on a cliffhanger,” Izzy said with a wink. “Speech to give and dinner to not eat because speeches give me anxiety. See you around!”

Izzy’s place setting was directly next to Prime Minister Todan’s, though she distinctly remembered it being to the immediate left of the Supreme Leader. CMO Carter was seated with the rest of the crew at one of the smaller tables that seemed to be slowly gravitating around the main table.

Prime Minister offered a polite smile and a pat on the back as Izzy sat down. “You’ll do just fine, Captain Warpt,” Todan said. “I believe in you.”

Food was brought out course by course, with each one more awe-inspiring than the last. Izzy had provided no information beforehand, but was offered dish after dish of her favorites. By the time dessert had arrived, the only thing she could think of was how nice a nap would be.

“Honored guests, Rigellian and Ruklan,” Calvin said, his seat having shifted to become a floating platform upon which he could stand. “And what an honor, I would like to add, is it to be able to greet Rigellians and Ruklans together on good terms.” He paused until the applause quieted.

“I am not always quick to admit my faults and failures, and it took our fair planet reaching the brink of war and destruction to get there,” Supreme Leader Calvin said, pausing until the laughter at his self-deprecation died down. Video screens manifested in the air around the room displaying pictures with dates from hundred years prior.

“The Ruklans and Rigellians lived in harmony for years, and though we did not always approach issues the same way we were still able to put our differences aside. We allowed a grievous and terrible rift to develop, and I certainly did my part to only worse than. I am so sorry for that, but will not stop with mere words. An apology is only as good as the actions that follow it.”

Calvin gestured to President Geln. She stood, her seat becoming a platform similar to Supreme Leader Calvin’s.

“There is still much to discuss, and even more rebuilding to be done by both sides,” President Geln added. “The road ahead is long and will take time and hard work to traverse. I am confident we will get there together.”

Supreme Leader Calvin nodded. “As part of the first step, I am stepping down as Supreme Leader as of this moment.”

“And I as President,” Geln added. “Today marks the end of old, divided factions, and the beginning of a unified government on Rigel Six. One that is an extension of Rigel Six’s people.”

“All of them,” Supreme Leader concluded. “It took a substantial wake-up call for us to come to these terms, and it is in no small part thanks to the actions of one very brave, perhaps unorthodox, Captain of the Spiral Reach Academy.”

Izzy felt her face warming and knew she had to be blushing. She quietly cursed herself as she knew what would follow.

“That very Captain, Isabelle Warpt, has joined us with her crew to celebrate on this evening as we move forward together to begin repairing our broken and divided past,” Calvin continued. He gestured to Izzy, who stumbled to stand in time before the seat was gone completely.

The room roared with applause from both Ruklan soldiers and Rigellian civilians. Brannigan, taller than anyone in the room, hooted and hollered as the crew’s table moved past. He half-stood, precariously balanced on his chair. CMO Carter also applauded.

Izzy saluted her crew, and found herself a little surprised when all–including Fontaine–returned the gesture.

“Hey, everyone!” Izzy said cheerfully. She paused, startled by the unexpected magnification applied to her voice. She couldn’t help but notice everyone in the room was watching her, and a nagging voice in the back of her head reminded her of every nightmare featuring a similar situation. She cleared her throat, straightened up, and continued.

“Families are crazy,” Izzy said. She paused, aware of the people looking around to see where this was going.

“Families are crazy. They’re a little bit of all sorts of people, with different personalities and interests and so many feelings,” Izzy continued. “And so many arguments, like when your uncle decides he’s going to try to rob a bank and no one has the sense to stop him until, like, halfway through the whole mess, but then it turns into a big, confusing conversation about who has to bail him out of prison.”

Murmurs of confusion rose among the gathered crowd.

Izzy took another deep breath and continued. “You’re all like a family,” she said. “I look out at you and I see mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. You don’t always get along, but you make the best of it. Tonight? Totally making the best of it. Tomorrow? Only one way to find out.”

“But I believe in you all. I believe you’ll all take those nasty thoughts and toss them in the trash where the belong, and give each other a chance. I may have helped push things along, but the rest is up to everyone here, and everyone across Rigel Six. The best part? You can definitely do it, and it’ll be amazing! Thank you for letting me be a part of this.”

Izzy could feel the sweat on her forehead and her palms. She shook slightly, but not enough to be seen, and waited.

Both Geln and Calvin lead in the applause. A number of others joined in, and before long the roar was so great that nothing could be heard over it. Izzy sat down as soon as her platform cooperated.

“Very personal,” Prime Minister Todan said. “I’ll have to ask for the stories behind it some day, I think.”

“A toast to Captain Warpt and Spiral Reach Academy!” Calvin added.

Glasses were still raised high in the air when the screens abruptly cut out. They returned featuring a single figure, shrouded in darkness.

“Forgive my interruption, but I would hate for such a momentous gathering to go without giving a few words,” the shadowy figure said. “After all, I sacrificed a great deal of time and money to provide the Ruklans and Rigellians with such impressive arsenals. It’s the least I deserve.”

Wanted Adventurers: The Cost of Freedom

Alistair Starspeaker smiled at Aranza and Monty. “I know you can’t speak right now,” he said. “You’re second on the agenda. Hang back and watch.” The Paladin remained silent, standing with her hands clasped behind her back. She hadn’t stopped glaring at Monty and Aranza since she had retrieved them from their cell.

There was a blinding flash of light, and the thrones were suddenly occupied. All but one–the one draped in a banner displaying, in beautifully sewn golden script, Alistair’s name.

The occupant of the center throne needed no banner to state his name. Alexandros Heavensong was revered, even among his fellow highborne elves, and bards sang songs about the songs that conveyed tales of his greatness. He was the youngest Guildmaster to leader the Guild. His two large, starry black eyes occupied much of his angular face, which was framed by long, flowing, unbelievably perfect silver hair.

To his immediate left was Alistair’s empty throne. Esra Stormcaller sat to his right. Briar of the Northern Woodlands draped himself lazily across the far left throne, while Vandra Skullcrusher barely fit atop her throne, the half-giant Berserker far larger than any of her colleagues.

“I see we have two matters on which we are presiding today,” Alexandros said, having produced a scroll from his elegant robes. He reviewed it slowly, his eyes gliding over the words on the parchment.

“Hey, Ali,” Briar shouted. ” What in the Seven Hells are you doing down there? Mingling with the criminals these days?”

Alistair shook his head, stepping forward. “I’ve done it,” he declared. “I did a crime. No, at least three crimes! You should absolutely judge me and find my guilty.”

Esra narrowed their eyes, shifting their short, stocky form in their throne. “You’re back on those insane wizard mushrooms again, aren’t you?” they asked, their smirk and tone at odds with each other.

“Not presently, I’m not,” Alistair replied. “Can’t help that you refuse to give them a try. They’re a good time, at least once the walls stop screaming. Anyway, crimes. I did ’em. Lock me up.”

Alexandros sighed. It was a soft, pleasant, melodious sound, too perfect for the emotion it was conveying. Monty was unable to speak due to the imprisonment spell, but it did not prevent him from scowling.

“Please explain yourself, Guild Lord Starspeaker,” Guildmaster Alexandros said.

Alistair smiled. “But of course! I commandeered a galleon sailing on behalf of the Cerulia Navy, deposed the head of a royal family, and I consumed at least twice my weight in alcohol before noon no fewer than three times last week! Lock me up. I deserve nothing less!”

“You kept busy on your vacation, then,” Vandra said. “Bet you did half of that just to get out of the wrestling match you owe me.”

Alexandros massaged his temples, sighing again. “Please don’t encourage him, Vandra,” he said flatly. “As for your list of crimes, I feel it is essential to point out that you took command of a ship of much-needed supplies and ensured it arrived days ahead of schedule. You destroyed the Vampire Lord Zarrok the Vile, freeing the villages around the Umbershade Woods.”

“And we overlook your drunken foolishness because you created and imbued your essence with a spell that sobers you up in seconds with no ill effects,” Briar added. “Not that you’ve ever had the decency to share that arcane knowledge.”

“I can still out-drink him,” Vandra boasted.

Alistair held up a finger, shifting his jaw this way and that as if he were chewing on what he had to say next. He exhaled slowly, deflated and defeated.

“Fine, fine,” Alistair said. “You win this time. Next time I’ll do bigger crimes.”

“Alexandros shook his head. “Please don’t,” he said flatly. He snapped his fingers and Alistair disappeared, reappearing seconds later in his throne looking slightly dazed.

“Don’t like that one bit,” Alistair said, visibly trying to will himself to not become sick.

“Onward to actual matters worth addressing,” Alexandros said. He waved a hand across the air. The magic around Monty and Aranza flickered and splintered, its remnants falling to the floor in a circle.

“You’d be wise to not try crossing that barrier,” Alexandros continued. “Doing so would prove very painful. You are aware why you stand trial before the Guild’s Council of Masters, yes?”

Monty opened his mouth to speak, but stopped. Aranza had grabbed his hand and squeezed.

“Trust me,” Aranza whispered. Monty nodded just enough that Aranza could see.

“Venerable council, we are on trial before you as we sought to take money from your vaults,” Aranza said. “We did so because we are low on funds, making our quest difficult.”

“Ooh, a quest,” Briar said, perking up. “Don’t suppose you need an experienced Ranger to help, do you?”

Alexandros glanced towards Briar, something flashing across his face for an instant, but whatever it was shut Briar up.

“There’s much evil in this world, and we are seeking to wipe it out for the sake of the Light’s goodness,” Aranza continued.

Alexandros nodded. “Are you not aware that the penalty for taking from the Guild’s coffers is public execution? That gold supports peoples far beyond Valarmount.”

“Before we do anything too hasty, might I suggest an alternative?” Alistair interrupted. “These two intrepid, capable adventurers could be of service to our causes. A mutually beneficial arrangement could be made in place of punishment, yes? Help revive the Guild’s image as benevolent and all-guiding.”

“The old drunk’s got a point,” Vandra replied. “More people cower in fear when I walk by these days.”

“You’re ten feet tall and your biceps are bigger than a man’s head,” Briar shot back. “Your last name is actually Skullcrusher.”

Vandra shook her head. “Not seeing your point here, Little Thorn.”

“There will be silence at once!” Alexandros said, his voice resonating throughout the chamber. No one spoke. Not a single sound dared defy him.

“You there. Paladin, what is your name?” Alexandros asked.

The Paladin who had been watching over Monty and Aranza bowed. “Temperance, Lord Guildmaster,” the Paladin, Temperance, replied. “Temperance of House Ravencroft, gladly at your service.”

“Very well. I have made my decision,” Alexandros said. “These two thieves shall be tasked with eliminating problematic foes of the Guild, saving those in need as an extension of our goodwill and grace.”

Aranza bowed. “Your kindness is a gift,” she said. Monty snorted, holding back a laugh.

Alexandros held up a finger. “Do not think you will be without a watchful eye,” he said. “The moment you step out of line, and I am certain you will, you will be brought back here for your very public execution.”

The room fell silent for a moment.

Alistair cleared his throat. “In case you needed a less subtle hint, Paladin Temperance,” he said. “You may now leave with these two under your watchful eye. We’ll have your first quest passed along to you shortly.”

“I…” Temperance said, trailing off.

The magical barrier around Monty and Aranza vanished. Monty reached out and patted Temperance on the back.

“Don’t fret, good Paladin,” he said. “I’m sure this will be exactly what we expect it to be.”

On Notebooks: Breathing Life into the Pages

I’ve absolutely got a problem, and that problem is I love buying notebooks. Pocket-sized notebooks. Large notebooks. Notebooks so big you can use them as makeshift tables. Plain or decorated. Notebooks of sorts.

Don’t even get me started on notebook brands. I’m a reformed Moleskine addict, though I still buy their products from time to time. Targeted ads call out to me, showcasing brands of notebooks I’d previously never heard of and immediately want to try out for myself.

Suffice it to say: I love notebooks, and my collection of various notebooks–many barely filled if used at all–is a testament to this. But what, I recently have wondered, is a notebook for without actually filling it with something? Is it not then just a rectangular footprint of space occupied by so much potential?

These are the thoughts that actually keep me up at night, when I am trying to drown out the world at large.

I have long treated notebooks like sacred objects, only worthy of the perfect notes to be entered into them. Once I commit to cataloguing one idea in a notebook I could not bring myself to shift gears and use it for other things. That would be blasphemy. Instead, I needed another notebook. Let’s not discuss the notebooks I didn’t even use as they were just too nice to deface and defile with thoughts made manifest by way of words in ink.

This past week included organizing, somewhat, a number of these notebooks as well as purchasing the second of three Legend of Zelda Moleskine notebooks. They have Limited Edition nonsense to them, and they are very nice, so naturally I was paralyzed initially as to what I’d use them for other than display purposes.

Over the course of a conversation with a friend on Facebook, it hit me. I had, as Smee once said, an apostrophe. An epiphany. Lightning did, in fact, strike the Notebook Center of my brain.

I would use the Zelda notebooks, all three once I finished the collection, to fully reboot and revamp the Roger & Silence trilogy, a name that makes little sense to many but was a labor of love that I want desperately to revisit. Three very snazzy book ideas deserve three very snazzy looking notebooks, no?

As writers, I think we romanticize notebooks too much. They become these sacred objects instead of empty vessels to be filled with ideas and stories, characters and far-off places poured freely from our hearts and imaginations. They are treated as perfect objects, not to be marred by the words that could easily be kept track of within those pages.

Use the notebooks. Free those thoughts and fill those pages. In doing so, those notebooks are given a soul and a story. One day they will, if nothing else, be a treasure to sift through and a source of warmth on difficult days.

Happy writing, folks.

Follow The Ashes: Familiar Faces, Familiar Foes, Familiar Places

The door threw Cas forward into the room beyond, slamming shut behind her. She turned around to discover a featureless wall emitting a dull, white glow. The room was entirely plain, save for a simple, metal table and a simple metal table with one polished metal chair standing next to it. A dull hum resonated from all around.

A door, its surface like a mirror, occupied the space where two of the walls met. No soft, white light came from the door.

“Back to square one, I see,” Cas muttered to herself. She approached the door and saw her reflection staring back at her, as she expected. The surface of the door wavered, revealing a familiar face wearing a familiar smirk. A cybernetic eye glistened and blinked. Cas gasped, stepping back, and the door vanished.

There was a soft crackling sound accompanied by a soft inhale.

“You’ve been very busy, Cas,” Gavin’s voice said from all around. “Very busy indeed. Yet here you are, back where you started. Or are you?”

Cas clenched her fists, ready for a fight. “Why don’t you say that to my face, coward?”

Gavin’s laughter surrounded Cas as it echoed within the small room. “Temper, temper. Short a fuse as ever, Cas,” Gavin taunted. “I would be a fool to approach you in such a state. Oh, no. We’ll talk at a distance for now, I think.”

One of the walls disappeared, and beyond the room was a lush, sprawling forest.

“A trick, I’m sure,” Cas muttered.

A soft breeze rolled into the room, and with it the aromas of fresh rain, pine trees, and a hint of campfire smoke.

“A very convincing trick,” Cas said as she stepped into the forest. Tall grass waved gently. Numerous stars twinkled above in a cloudless, pitch black sky. Numerous trees stood tall and proud, their leaves vibrant, warm hues of near-winter autumn. Cas reached out and touched a tree, surprised to feel bark and not metal.

“There had to be a baseline to build the simulations from, naturally,” Gavin’s voice said. It was softer now, no longer amplified by the size of the space Cas occupied. The room behind her had vanished, or perhaps the wall had closed again.

“Where are you?” Cas demanded. “You can obviously see me, so why not just show yourself?”

“In due time, I assure you,” Gavin replied.

Cas inhaled deeply, eyes shut. She exhaled slowly, turned, and started walking in the direction of the campfire smell.

Wisps of smoke drifted gently through the air. A faint, warm glow was visible in the distance, casting curious shadows on the trees and along the grassy field. Cas walked towards the fire cautiously, keeping an eye out for anything suspicious.

Anything more suspicious than a real, live forest among the endless catwalks, strange places where the past and future seemed to converge, and the simulations of places Cas was certain she had been once before.

“You’ve been very busy,” Gavin said again. ” Fixing your past mistakes.”

Cas froze, suddenly tense. “What did you just say?” she demanded.

Gavin chuckled, a sound deliberately amplified to roll across the forest like thunder.

“You heard right,” Gavin said. “Fixing your past mistakes. There should have been a familiarity to the things you’ve encountered.”

Cas fell to her knees, a sharp pain suddenly present just behind her eyes. “What the hell are you doing to me?”

“Nothing,” Gavin replied flatly. “You did this all to yourself, but that’s a topic for another time. You’ve still got plenty to do before we can discuss that. Until then, Cas.”

There was a soft, metallic sound, followed by only the gentle breeze rustling through the trees and rolling along the grass.

Cas waited, and the pain slowly seemed to subside. She slowly stood up, every fiber of her being aching slightly from whatever had just hit her.

The glow of the fire seemed far closer now, and so she willed herself to continue.

The fire was bright and its warmth pleasant, even from the modest distance from which Cas watched it. She could see a solitary figure, hunched over something by the fire. The wind picked up ever so slightly, casting just enough light over the person’s face.

“Raph!” Cas cried out, running over. “Thank goodness you’re okay!”

Raph blinked, his expression blank. “Is this another test of yours, Commander? I must admit, I’m a little confused by it but I suppose I’ll play along. Yes, I’m quite adequately all right. I’ll turn in now. Your turn to keep watch.”

Raph stood quickly, turned, and walked away. A chill wind blew through, extinguishing the fire. The stars still twinkled pleasantly overhead.

Cas felt the hair on her neck stand up. Someone or something, unseen in the cloak of the darkness, was watching her intently.

Piece 12 – Peace, Even if By Force

The Treants and Orcs were frozen, their attention shifted from each other to Curian. She had started screaming every foul word she could think of in every language she knew foul words to borrow from the moment the Orcs had emerged.

“The small one can hold a great deal of air for her size,” Gnarlroot muttered.

Kil’Gronn nodded in silent agreement.

“Just give her a moment,” Sophia said. “She gets like this when she’s very upset, I’ve found, and it’s best to let the anger run its course. It’s been an eventful…”

Curian paused, glaring at Sophia. “You were going to say it’s been an eventful day, weren’t you?” she snapped.

Sophia winced. “That is within the realm of possibility.”

Curian stomped over to Sophia, her fists clenched tightly at her sides. She stormed over to Kil’Gronn, eyes narrowed, and jabbed a finger in the Orc’s direction.

“It might have been a eventful day. Or even week. Who knows?” Curian ranted. “If the Orcs and Treants would just take a break from murdering each other, maybe we could find out? But no. Nooooo~!”

Curian stormed over to Gnarlroot’s towering roots, kicked them, and let out a pained roar.

“Had to break Time!” Curian screamed.

Kil’Gronn stepped forward. “It’s hardly that simple! They murdered our people!”

Gnarlroot rumbled. “You cut down our brethren,” he replied. “Desecrated their remains for your shelters and burned them for warmth!”

Curian let out another roar. She pointed at Kil’Gronn. “Enough!” she snapped. “Same goes for you!” she added, jabbing a finger upwards towards Burlknot.

Sophia stepped forward, placing a hand on Curian’s shoulder. Curian clenched her teeth but said nothing as she visibly focused on breathing.

“I think perhaps we need to discuss this further,” Sophia said. “Gnarlroot, this was your home before the Orcs arrived, yes? Do you recall what happened?”

Gnarlroot scratched at his crown. “Only through stories passed down, I suppose,” he conceded. “I was but a sapling when Elderbark was felled and burned.”

“And you were only a child when Gronn was killed,” Sophia said. “I’m so sorry to ask this, but you said you were there. Did you see anything?”

Kil’Gronn winced, the pain on her face contagious. The other Orcs looked away, tears welling in their eyes.

“I only saw their shadows, but that was enough,” Kil’Gronn said. “My grandfather was torn limb from limb.”

Burlknot grumbled something, averting his gaze.

“Now you’ve got something to say? Spit it out, you cowardly conifer!” Curian shouted.

The Treants gasped collectively.

“You’re going to stop fighting, damn it, and we’re going to talk,” Curian said. “Or I’ll fight all of you!”

Warpt Factor – Installment 11

Izzy held her finger above the big, red button. It was the oft-spoken about, often-depicted Big Red Button. Izzy tried to keep her attention on the four world leaders she had very much gained the attention of by threatening to atomize their planet, but the button kept grabbing her attention. It was a bit underwhelming.

“You’ll kill us all if you do that,” the Supreme Leader said flatly, the sweat rolling down his face as he spoke.

Izzy shook her head. “Doubt it,” she replied. “A big, scary bomb like this doesn’t show up for free. It’s to look scary and sound scary, but there’s definitely fine print attached to it.”

Prime Minister Todan raised an eyebrow, a hint of a smile on her face. “I wonder if you’re right,” she said. “How to determine such a thing?”

“Todan, have you gone mad?” Archbishop Geln snapped. “This isn’t a matter of trial and error. She presses that button and none of this matters. The Rigellians and the Ruklans all…” Geln trailed off, realization bright in his eyes.

“Press the button,” President Kelran said.

Fontaine gasped audibly, having regained consciousness just long enough to hear the exchange, process the gravity of the Big, Red Button, and faint back into Professor Everest’s arms.

“If this actually kills us, might I offer my heartfelt apologies and a hearty oops,” Izzy said, pressing the button. A countdown appeared in the upper right corner of the monitor, beginning at 30.

“You know, this is highly irregular,” CMO Carter said. “I’m beginning to fear you’re not exactly fit to lead such a complex mission.” It was a type of doubt Izzy had grown accustomed to and learned to ignore.

Izzy instead offered a smile. “You seem nice enough, CMO Carter,” she said. “Smart, I’d bet. Looking forward to getting to know you better. How’s about this? If we all die, you’re right and wow will I be embarrassed. If I’m right, you join my crew. We could use a medic.”

CMO Carter blinked a number of times, her response stopping short of being spoken as her eyes kept moving back to the countdown.

“This wasn’t planned for at all.”

“Shit. Shitshitshit. What do we tell the Weapons Master?”

“Transmission received. Response pending…”

A sigh. “Something tells me he already knows.”

Long strings of red text, unintelligible coding language, moved up and down the display, the countdown suddenly disabled. At the same time, the Supreme Leader let out a startled cry.

“My Superheated Plasmoid Barriers are down!” the Supreme Leader shouted. “You monster, you’ve let the Ruklans right into my palace!”

General Inar’s communicator began to chirp madly. He glanced at it, then to the three leaders. “A million pardons, but these are all…Quite urgent. Excuse me.” He walked to the back of the room, towards the entrance, briskly before answering the first of many commlink calls.

Izzy couldn’t stop smiling.

“The timer,” CMO Carter muttered. It had stopped between numbers, a solid block of black.

“Color me awestruck,” Professor Everest said. “Brilliantly done, Captain!”

“Lieges of the Citadel,” General Inar said, returning. “Our troops are reporting their weapons have failed. None are functioning as the should.”

“Excellent! They will be taken into custody and interrogated,” the Supreme Leader said. “Whoever gives up the location of your wretched Citadel will be given a light sentence.”

General Inar held up a finger. “They have reported the Rigellian weapons are not working either,” he added. “The troops have set down their weapons and are…Conversing, from the chatter I’m picking up.”

“Conversing?” Prime Minister Todan asked, smirking.

President Kelran held a hand up. “It would appear there is much to discuss,” she said.

The Supreme Leader deflated, the bluster gone from him. “May a moon fall upon my house, I never thought I’d arrive at the day when I’d say this,” he said. “You’re right. We have much to discuss indeed.”

Izzy held up a hand. “Slow it down a little there, buddy,” she said. “Let’s start off with an easy-peasy question to answer. What’s your name? You weren’t born as Supreme Leader, or if you were I don’t know how you dealt with the bullying.”

Prime Minister Todan stifled a chuckle. Archbishop Geln shook his head, but a hint of a smile played at his lips.

“Calvin Rigellus, of the ruling Rigellus family,” the Supreme Leader, Calvin, replied. “Captain what was it, again?”

“Izzy Warpt,” Izzy replied.

Supreme Leader Calvin nodded. “I would expect these talks could only benefit from you and your crew present,” he continued. “Are there any objections among the Ruklan leadership?”

“I should think not,” President Kelran said, looking to the Archbishop and Prime Minister.

“Then it’s settled,” President Kelran said. “Should I assume you will be expecting us shortly?”

Supreme Leader Calvin nodded. “Our mutual troops appear to have set up small encampments around the Palace, so I’ve requested the staff to begin preparing suitable rations for all.”

“I’d like to bring Captain Warpt along if that’s quite all right,” Prime Minister Todan said.

“I see no issue with your request so long as Captain Warpt does not,” President Kelran said.

Izzy raised an eyebrow. “No problem here as long as you don’t try anything shady with my crew,” she replied. “No surprise imprisonment, please. Not a fan of that kind of thing.”

“We wouldn’t dream of it,” President Kelran said.

Prime Minister Todan rose from her throne gracefully, gliding down the stairs. She stood at least twice as tall as Professor Everest. Two of her arms were folded behind her back.

“This way, Captain Warpt,” Prime Minister Todan said, leading Izzy to a small alcove off to the side of the Citadel’s main chamber. Izzy followed, stopping at the wall they reached. The Prime Minister placed her right hand against it. A panel flashed with a dully, mossy green light for a brief moment. When the light had gone, the area that had illuminated was replaced by a simple doorway. Beyond it was a cavernous chamber lined with burrowing tanks similar to the one they’d arrived in.

“Easiest way to travel is to do so unseen by prying eyes,” Prime Minister Todan said.

Izzy chuckled. “A friend of mine’s got a similar philosophy,” she said, following the Prime Minister.

“I’d ask you listen and consider what I have to say with care,” Prime Minister Todan said. “With some measure of luck, perhaps my words will have some use to you.”

“Listening,” Izzy said. “Ears wide open.”

“You seem to be a clever young woman, full of energy and enthusiasm,” Prime Minister Todan continued. “Not everyone you meet will appreciate that. Some will twist it and try to use those qualities against you.”

“Uh-huh, I’m already noticing,” Izzy muttered in response. “Sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt.”

Prime Minister Todan shook her head. “I’ll have no apologies from you, young Captain. Your bold approach was exactly what Rigel Six needed. Not just the Ruklans. Not the Rigellians. All of us. I’d very much like to send my regards to your commanding officer on your performance here.”

Izzy stopped dead in her tracks. “Ah, yeah,” she said. “Maybe…Oh, right. Duh. This was actually a very secret mission. Couldn’t discuss much with my immediate CO, so best to keep it under wraps.”

Prime Minister Todan stopped and smiled. “Is that so? In that case, your confidential mission will remain as such for the time being.”

“Can you make sure you mention that to the others, too?”

Prime Minister Todan’s smile was a warm, summer day back at home for Izzy, pure comfort in a simple gesture.

“Don’t you worry about them,” Prime Minister Todan said. “I’ve got my ways of sorting them out, whether they realize it and admit it or not.”

They arrived at a plain tank, unremarkable in its outside appearance. Its front hatch opened, revealing a luxuriously comfortable interior. Izzy ran past the Prime Minister, leaping into the cushioned seat. She felt the tension leaving every fiber of her body as she settled in, the Prime Minister joining her.

“One last thing,” Prime Minister Todan said as the tank closed up and began its ascent. “How are you with formal dinners? I suspect this one will have all of the trappings of one.”

Izzy wrinkled her nose. “Never been to one? Last time I had to do something even a little fancy I got my family banned from the restaurant, but to be fair it was awful and stuffy and full of people who thought their farts had greater worth than us.”

“Oh, wonderful,” Prime Minister Todan chuckled. “Did I mention you’ll certainly be the guest of honor? May want to consider having a few words prepared before we arrive, Captain Warpt.”

Wanted Adventurers: Sage Wisdom in a Dark Place

There were no bars to the prison cell, but no prisoners dared set foot near the openings to their holding cells. The air was rich with magic, the stone floor worn to an unsettling smoothness where the spellweaving touched. There was no need for a guard because of this, but there were several on rotation at all times.

The Guild didn’t want its prisoners getting any clever ideas, as it had a reputation to uphold. No one ever escaped their dungeons.

Aranza sat in the corner, her back against the walls. Her arms were folded across her chest, her eyes fixed on a point in the distance as she considered what The Broker had said to her. She and Monty were alone in their cell, the guards particularly attentive to them.

“You’re quieter than usual,” Monty said. He did not break stride, continuing to pace the width of their small space as he did when he was deep in thought.

Aranza shrugged. “Not the first time I’ve been arrested,” she said. “Nothing special about this time either.”

Monty stopped, turning to face Aranza. He waited until she made eye contact. “Nothing special about this time? Nothing at all?”

“Nothing at all,” Aranza said flatly.

Footfalls echoed along the walls of the dungeon. Aranza perked up. The spellweaving silenced all sounds so the prisoners didn’t try to talk with one another. Two guards shoved someone through the spellweaving. He staggered, nearly fell, and straightened up to face the guards.

“Don’t need to be so rough, you know,” the man grumbled. He was tall and lanky, dressed in tattered, ancient purple robes. A long, scraggly beard framed his gaunt features. He offered a sheepish grin to Aranza and Monty.

“No respect for their elders,” he said. “I’m a respectable Sage, and this is what I get?”

Monty shook his head. “This is a Guild dungeon,” he replied. “You did something to end up here.”

The old man clicked his tongue a few times before turning his attention to Aranza. “He’s a ray of sunshine.”

“Grows on you with time,” Aranza said. “What’s your story, Sage?”

The old man smiled, scurrying to Aranza. He plopped down, legs crossed beneath him.

“You are in the company of none other than Alistair Starspeaker, Sage extraordinaire!” the Sage, Alistair, declared. “And who might you two be?”

“Aranza. My traveling pal over there is Monty,” Aranza said. “What landed you in here?”

Alistair leaned back, his face a mask of exaggerated shock. “I was simply minding my own business, passing through Valarmount. I stopped to sell some of my wealth-enriching potions.”

“Wealth-enriching potions?” Monty asked.

Alistair chuckled. “Perhaps their effectiveness varies from person to person,” he admitted. “Hardly a reason to throw an old man in a dungeon, wouldn’t you say? What’d you two do to end up here, anyway? Murder? Dabbling in the occult?”

“Hardly your concern,” Monty said.

Aranza shook her head and Monty quieted himself. “I’m sure you’ll have thoughts on it,” she said.

“I’ve been around,” Alistair said. “Heard quite a few things. You’re not about to surprise me.”

Aranza chuckled. “We tried to rob the Guild’s private vaults.”

“Did what now?” Alistair said, eyes wide. He broke into a roaring laughter that seemed to draw from deep within his very core. Fine lines of tears streamed down his cheeks.

“Needed that,” Alistair said. “But what did you really do?”

“Tried to rob the Guild’s private vaults,” Aranza replied.

Alistair blinked, then shook his head as if trying to banish a particularly troubling thought. “You weren’t joking, were you? Absolute lunatics, the both of you. Why’d you go and do a thing like that?”

Aranza shook her head. “We needed money,” she said. “That’s how it started.”

“Ended with you getting caught by the Guild’s elite guards, yeah? Hardly a story,” Alistair replied with a snort.

Aranza held up a finger. “Not that simple,” she said. “My life’s been strange. Found myself wondering what good I could be doing with it. These are dark times, after all.”

Alistair grinned. “Now that’s a line of thinking I can appreciate,” he said.

Two guards appeared suddenly, moving through the spellweaving as if it were nothing.

“On your feet, old man,” barked one of the guards.

Alistair shrugged. “Guess my number’s up,” he said with a wink. “Until we meet again, Aranza.” He leapt to his feet and brushed the dust off of his robes. As the guards walked him out of the cell, he nodded at Monty.

Silence settled back in and Monty resumed his pacing.

“Hopefully the Guild goes easy on that old fool,” Monty muttered. “Probably a fanatic of those strange herbs the magically-inclined enjoy so much.”

Aranza snorted. “Who knows,” she said. Her smile gave way to a stoic expression. “We should be worrying about ourselves, anyway.” She pointed to the spellweaving in the air.

A paladin stood at the edge of the cell, hands clasped behind her back. “On your feet, prisoners,” she snapped. “You are next to face the Council of Light’s judgement.”

Aranza got to her feet slowly, dusting herself off. “Come on, Mont,” she said. “Don’t want to keep them waiting.”

Monty huffed. “Fine, fine,” he snarled. “I don’t like this, though.”

The paladin clasped both Monty and Aranza’s hands behind their back with heavy manacles. She walked ahead of them, and something in their restraints urging them forward.

The dungeon corridor was carved out of the surrounding earth, thin veins of crystal visible along the stone walls. Persistent echoes from water dripping down echoed all around.

The paladin didn’t speak a word, walking several paces ahead.

“She seems pleasant,” Monty snarked.

“Very talkative,” Aranza replied.

The corridor ended abruptly. A circular platform was visible, standing slightly higher than the floor around it. The paladin stopped before stepping onto it, turned, and pointed for Monty and Aranza to step ahead of her. Tendrils of light poured forth from the manacles and pushed them forward onto the platform before settling into markings on the floor.

Monty and Aranza both tensed as a wave of pain hit them.

“You’ll find trying to speak or move will only cause you suffering, so it’s best to simply await your time before the Council,” the paladin said. It was a statement of fact, but there seemed to be a little more to her words. She stepped onto the platform without another word.

The platform shuddered, the stones groaning quietly as it began to move upwards. The stone ceiling above was dark obsidian, polished and sharp in places. Just as the platform raised its occupants to the point their heads nearly grazed the ceiling, it shifted and vanished, allowing them to pass through. The platform stopped, flush with the floor above.

The chamber was designed to draw focus to the towering thrones along its back, semi-circle wall. Each one was draped in banners declaring a name and class of training.

“Ever the punctual one,” rasped a voice from behind the trio.

“My lord, I have brought the prisoners the Council is to judge next as asked,” the paladin replied.

There were soft, calculated footfalls. Tattered purple robes briefly flashed into view before they shimmered and were made whole again.

“Told you I’d see you again soon,” Alistair said, smiling at Aranza. “I suppose I left out the details of why. Don’t worry. This next part will be a walk in the park compared to what your futures look like.”