Piece 14 – The Long Sunset

The Wolf was one and also many. It fractured into several wolves to launch complicated attacks on the Orcs, then gathered into one Wolf again when it struck at the Treants.

“How far do we have to go?” Curian asked Gnarlroot. The Treant raised a mighty branch and pointed. In the distance. A tree stump taller than a noble’s estate stood in the distance. A dull glow emanated from it, and Curian realized it looked like embers still burning.

“Kil’Gronn! Gnarlroot! Now’s the time!” Curian shouted.

A din of laughter arose from the Wolf. “It hardly matters.”

Gnarlroot and Kil’Gronn reached the remains, and a bright light erupted forth. In the distance, birds began chirping as a light breeze danced through the upper reaches of the trees.

“Thank the Gods,” Curian blurted out.

The chase continued, the charred remains of Elderbark just a few lumbering Treant steps ahead.

“Something’s not right,” Curian muttered.

A chorus of laughter rose up from the wolves that made up the Wolf. “You’re catching on, but will you figure it out before I claim your soul?”

Sophia looked around frantically as one of the wolves leapt from branch to branch. It swiped at her with its claws, only having narrowly missed as the Burlknot slammed it back to the ground.

“Hope your little, mountain-mud brain comes up with something,” Burlknot shouted with an offer of an unexpected smile. Curian chuckled; she took note of the insult and told herself she’d have to return the favor later.

If there was a later, of course.

The last several times they’d reached the remains played back in Curian’s mind.

“Kil’Gronn, do you trust me?” Curian shouted over the madness.

Kil’Gronn shrugged. “As much as I’d like to, which is only about half as far as I could throw you.”

Curian nodded. “Good enough,” she said. “Bet you could throw me pretty damn far. What about you, Gnarlroot?”

“Your heart beats like one who is not trying to deceive, and so I will afford you my trust,” Gnarlroot replied.

Sophia furrowed her brow. “I already know that look,” she shouted. “You’ve got something mad and foolish planned, haven’t you?”

“Hey, Gnarlroot! Throw me to the ashes!” Curian shouted.

The colossal leader of the Treants stopped suddenly. Curian held on with all of her strength, the rush of wind from the abrupt stop nearly throwing her from where she stood.

“Just do it, damn you!”

Gnarlroot plucked Curian from his upper branches as gently as they could, swung back the mighty branch that held her, and then released with as much calculated care a sentient tree of some thousand years in age could muster.

Curian soared through the air that spanned the distance between the chaos of the Wolf, the Treants, and the Orcs, her face pinned back by the wind. Her eyes watered and she tried to keep focused. The ashes arrived far quicker than expected, and Curian had only enough time to land with an awkward forward roll that narrowly avoided hitting the far edge of the depression in the mighty stump.

She fumbled with various concealed pockets without looking, her eyes fixed on the wolves as they coalesced into one massive form. Behind it, everything else had frozen in place.

“Here goes nothing,” Curian said as she retrieved a small tool she’d stolen from an Artificier at The Hobbled Drake Tavern after he had shared a few too many opinions with her about he she could be more appealing to the eyes. It was a simple box with a curious wheel at its top next to a small opening that occasionally stunk like bogwater.

Curian flicked the wheel. A small spark issued, but nothing followed. She repeated, watching as the Wolf reared back and leapt at her.

“Shit!” Curian shouted as she repeated the action one last time. The spark ignited, and she dropped the device into the heart of the Heart of the forest. The ashes erupted in brilliant green flames around Curian, though they did not touch her.

“Elderbark,” Curian said as she grasped for the right words. “I, uh…I release you to the next life. Your watch of this forest has ended, and a new one has begun. Rest!” She had little time to be proud of her eulogizing as the Wolf growled, prowling on the outer edge of the flames.

“I will tear the flesh from your bones first,” the Wolf snarled. “Then rend your pitiful soul from your body. I will savor it as your eternal screams roll down my throat.”

The flames burned brighter and brighter. There was an explosion of light outwards, rolling over every inch of the forest. Curian shut her eyes against its radiance, and when she opened them the Wolf was gone. She found herself standing at the foot of the tree stump, her hands shut tightly around something.

“One of the Pieces,” she gasped as she opened her fingers.

“Guess there’s more than dirt between those ears,” Burlknot said, roaring with laughter. The Orcs, slowly, joined in the merriment.

“Thank goodness you’re okay,” Sophia said as she was set down. “How did you know that would work?”

Curian scratched at the back of her head. “Call it a hunch, I guess?”

Sophia massaged her temples.

“That was very brave of you, little one,” Gnarlroot harrumphed.

Kil’Gronn stepped forward, bowing to Curian. Curian returned the gesture.

“Very brave indeed,” Kil’Gronn said. “You are welcome to visit my…” She hesitated, her attention briefly turned to the Treants.

“Our” Kil’Gronn corrected herself, “forest whenever you like.”

Curian smiled. “Only so long as you’re not trying to kill each other,” she said.

Kil’Gronn and Gnarlroot exchanged sheepish glances.

“I believe there is much mending of old wounds to be done,” Gnarlroot said. “As for you two, where will you go next?”

Curian looked toward the sunset, its last rays of light pooling high in the distance on snow-capped mountains.

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.”

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.

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.”

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!”

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.”

Piece 11 – A Tale of Trees

Curian and Sophia backtracked slowly along the path to the Orcish encampment, the sun still exactly where it was overhead.

“Wonder how long we were there,” Curian muttered as she constantly scanned the trees for any signs of movement. Kil’Gronn had warned the Treants were excellent at remaining unseen until they wished to be observed, and that by then it was often too late.

“Keep your wits about you,” Sophia chided.

Sophia replied with a mock salute.

“Soph, your head’s full of knowledge,” Curian said. “Where would we be looking for this ol’ Treefellow’s ashes?”

“Elderbark,” Sophia corrected. “Treant burial mourning and burial practices vary from grove to grove, so I can’t say for sure. Since we’re looking for the remains of one of their leaders, however, I’d say we’ve got quite a challenge ahead of us.”

Curian sighed. “I was worried you’d say something like that,” she said. She paused, holding a hand out to stop Sophia. She pointed to a between two trees flanking the path. A slim branch shifted gently, its motions mimicking a light breeze blowing through.

Sophia nodded. “We’re not alone, that much isn’t in question. What is it they’re waiting for, I wonder.”

Curian stroked her chin. “I’ve got an idea,” she whispered to Sophia. She turned to face the moving branch and offered a silent thumbs-up to Sophia.

“Hey, you! Shady pine over there!” Curian shouted. “What’s your plan for us once you’re done watching?”

“Subtlety isn’t something you pride yourself in, is it?” Sophia asked, eyes fixed on the now-stationary branch.

“When it counts, sure,” Curian said, smiling.

“A question you’ve asked, an answer you’ll receive,” rumbled a voice from among the trees behind Sophia and Curian. They turned around as the trees parted. Two Treants stomped their way into view, their faces worn by the elements but not beyond the point of recognition.

They did not look pleased.

“Crush these intruders now and leave their remains for the Orcs to find,” said the one Treant. It was the slightly shorter of the two, its bark dense and covered in callous-like knots. A dense tangle of vines fell from its canopy.

The other Treant, taller and lanky, its trunk and branches slender and stripped of much of their bark, made a grumbling sound. “These are no Orcs, no, but what curious creatures. An elf and a….”

Curian sighed. “Half-dwarf,” she said.

“Oh, how delightful,” the taller Treant replied. “I used to hear about Dwarven-kind all of the time from my saplings along the mountains.” They turned to the shorter Treant and gestured to Curian and Sophia with a long branch.

“Not Orcs.”

“Intruders,” the other one snapped back. “And we watched them go along with the Orcs.”

“As prisoners. Isn’t that what you saw earlier, Gnarlroot?”

A rumble issued from the other side of the trail, and a third Treant stomped into view. It grumbled and rumbled, moss-ringed eyes fixed on Curian as if it were looking through her.

“I do not trust this one,” Gnarlroot said. “She is an abomination.”

Curian clenched her fists and her sides. She inhaled deeply and let her breath out slowly, between clenched teeth. Sophia placed a hand on her shoulder. Curian flinched, almost imperceptibly, and Sophia took a step back.

“You look like a tree that’s seen its fair share of bird droppings,” Curian said. “Birds who like berries, I’d bet.”

The two Treants were silent, their focus fixed on Gnarlroot, whose expression remained impossible to read.

After a painfully long silence, Gnarlroot let out a low, long sound. It was like a persistent breeze dragging fine branches against a cliff wall. The other two Treants joined in.

“Oh, thank the Gods,” Curian muttered. “They’re laughing.”

Gnarl root leaned forward, its face taking up most of Curian’s field of vision. “Why are you free, little ones? What did you give to the Orcs in exchange for you release?”

“They told us a story and let us go,” Curian said.

“Liar!” snapped the shorter Treant.

Curian tensed. “I’m not lying,” she replied, taking a step back only to bump into the towering leg of the taller Treant.

“Then tell the rest of it,” the taller Treant instructed. “We can tell if you’re not being honest.”

Sophia snapped her fingers. “That’s right, how could I have forgotten,” she said. “Treants can detect deception easily as they can sense changes in breathing.”

“Hearts beat faster at the thrill of a lie,” Gnarlroot grumbled. “You’re not lying, I don’t think, but you’re not telling the whole story. Tell, or I’ll let Burlknot punish you.”

“I’d like that,” the shorter Treant, Burlknot, said, clenching and unfurling the thick, dense branches of its hands.

“A question first,” Curian said. “Fair?”

Gnarlroot straightened up, looking skyward for a moment. “Perhaps. Yes, I suppose that would be fair. What is your question?”

“No story has just one way of telling,” Curian said. “What’s the Treant side of how things played out between Elderbark and Kil’Gronn?”

Gnarlroot grumbled and rumbled. “A story our ancestors have passed down, muddied by time,” Gnarlroot said. “The Orcs arrived on the eve of longest day, their numbers few. They paid no attention to our kind, as if they knew not of our presence.”

Gnarlroot waved a mighty branch through the air, and a dense curtain of pollen fell. Shapes moved through it, dark outlines easily visible amid the particles. A line of small figures moved through a miniature representation of the forest. The trees, many of which Treants, watched the Orcs silently. One Treant loomed taller and mightier than the others. It watched the Orcs closely, following after them from a distance.

The Orcs gradually slowed to a stop. They spoke to each other, animated in their gestures but with no words. One Orc stepped forward, a mighty spear in hand, and the other Orcs knelt down and gave him their undivided attention. They began to craft simple huts from mud and fallen branches.

The shapes sped along in the pollen, Gnarlroot waving its branch to add to the pollen occasionally.

The Orcs began to cut down trees.

“The Orcs cut down trees at first, and then they came for Treants,” Gnarlroot said. “Elderbark, the first of our kind to spring forth from the soil of this forest, would not stand idly by. They confronted the Orcs, asking that they simply take no more than they need.”

The Orcs grew darker amid the pollen, outlines of weapons becoming clearer. Some, however, wielded clubs surrounded by pollen with an ethereal glow. The glow spread from the clubs to anything they touched, and soon the pollen was gone.

“The Orcs caused much destruction that day,” Gnarlroot said. “It was only once their foul leader, Gronn the Terrible, was felled that we could find peace. Or so our ancestors had thought.”

Sophia stepped forward. “I’m beginning to think I understand,” she said. “I wonder if there may be a way to help both you and the Orcs, but I suspect it will be no small feat.”

Gnarlroot leaned down, closer once again. “And just why would that be, do you think?” they asked.

“I believe,” Sophia replied, “that your kind and the Orcs would have to work together.”

A rustling sound came from the underbrush. Orcs rushed forth, weapons at the ready. Kil’Gronn emerged, a broadsword held effortlessly in one hand.

“We would sooner die than ally ourselves with these murderous trees!” Kil’Gronn shouted.

Burlknot roared with laughter. “Allow me to make that a reality!”

Wanted Adventurers: The Heist, and A Secret

The Broker laughed throughout the meal, which was perfect and undoubtedly cost more gold than both Aranza and Monty had combined. Dessert arrived–candied fruits served with caramel sauce and saffron cream accompanied by the three glasses of mead–and The Broker perked up significantly.

“Have we got a deal?” The Broker asked.

Monty turned to Aranza, smiling. “The heist to end all heists,” he said. “We could take the payment and enjoy retirement far from our troubles.”

Aranza smiled in response, holding up a finger as she reached into the leather pouch at her side. She produced a scroll held shut with a wax seal.

“Didn’t think I’d have to break this out so soon, but here we are,” Aranza said. She offered the scroll to Monty.

“What’s this?” Monty asked, turning the scroll over in his hands. “I thought we had agreed on to not have any contractual agreements in our mutually beneficial companionship.”

Aranza shook her head. “No contract at all, friend,” she said. “Just a long-running list of the bad ideas you’ve dressed up as our ticket to freedom from our past. Some of the examples even have pictures. Drew those when you were going on about other big, great ideas.” She leaned back, hands behind her head, and shot Monty a wink.

The Broker cackled. “What a delight she is,” he said.

Monty turned the scroll over in his hand. “It’s sealed, though,” he said. “That must mean you’ve come to your senses and now understand I have excellent ideas.”

Aranza chuckled. “Oh, honey, that’s cute,” she replied. “I’ve got at least six more of those and one in the works. I might have to devote a whole-ass scroll to just this dumb idea.”

The Broker leaned forward, the smile gone from his face. “What if I sweetened the pot?” he offered. “I can’t say much, what with client-Broker confidentiality, naturally, but there are a few especially juicy details you might be interested in. Care to hear?”

Monty glared at The Broker. “You were holding out on me?”

“No, no,” The Broker said, wagging a finger. “Not you. I know you’re interested. I was talking to the discerning, charming young orc woman who has clearly been keeping you alive.”

Aranza snorted. “Flattery doesn’t pay for food or grog,” she replied.

The Broker held up his hands in mock-surrender. “But of course! This, however, is information that is more valuable than gold,” he explained. “And I suspect you’re the kind of clever that could put it to good use.”

“You’re the kind of guy who doesn’t give something for nothing,” Aranza said. “What’s in it for you?”

The Broker offered a Cheshire smile in response. “I share these very valuable details with you and then you must accept being part of this heist,” he responded. “You’ll find the two things are quite inextricably intertwined. A puzzle wrapped in an enigma, battered in a riddle, and then fried in a conundrum.”

Aranza shook her head. “How’s about we eat dessert first and then you tell me?” She pointed at The Broker’s face. “You, uh…You’ve got a little drool.”

Dessert was enjoyed in silence, Monty occasionally stealing glances at the scroll Aranza had given him. The Broker dabbed at the corners of his mouth with a handkerchief.

“Lean closer, please,” The Broker said to Aranza. “I don’t bite, I promise.”

Aranza narrowed her eyes. “You do and it’ll be the last bite you ever take,” she replied. She leaned closer, and The Broker whispered something that made her jaw fall slack.

“Griffinshit,” she muttered.

“All from reliable sources, as all of my sources are reliable,” The Broker said, wagging a finger. “You are not to share that information with a soul. Let it serve you well, and it will serve you well.”

Monty opened his mouth, and was immediately hushed by The Broker.

“Absolutely don’t tell this one,” The Broker instructed Aranza. He turned his attention to Monty. “I won’t lie and suggest no offense was meant, as you’re a darling and you’re so reliable. You also can’t keep a secret to save your life.”

“So very happy I could arrange for you two to meet and torment me over dinner,” Monty huffed.

“Trust me, Mont,” Aranza said, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Just trust me.”

Monty studied her face for a moment, waiting for the smirk. The chuckle. Anything to indicate some levity, but such a sign never arrived.

“Here are instructions,” The Broker said, handing a small square of parchment to Aranza. “Follow them precisely, and when the time is right they’ll sort themselves out. As for you, my dear Monty? Listen to your Orcish partner-in-crime and don’t die. Can’t pay you if you’re a corpse, you know.”

He gestured to the glasses of mead before them, grimacing. It was a necessary evil to seal their pacts–the original pact Monty had set out to satisfy with The Broker, the whispered pact with Aranza, and perhaps more.

“To success,” The Broker said, raising his glass.

“To obscene riches,” Monty added to the toast.

“May the Gods be with us in our journey, or at least have the decency to greet us if we die,” Aranza concluded.

“I’ll certainly drink to that,” The Broker said.

The trio chugged their mead. Aranza drained hers first, loosing an impressive belch upon completion.

“You really get the notes of wildflowers, you know,” Aranza said, wincing, “when it creeps back up your throat.”

The Broker and Monty both finished drinking their mead, similar looks of disgust on their faces.

“No need to be so colorful with your language unless your goal is to make one of us revisit that foul brew all over the table,” The Broker snarked. “The pact is sealed, then. Payment will occur once my client is thoroughly satisfied.”

“Nothing out of the ordinary there,” Monty replied.

The Broker gave a slight nod, clapping his hands three times. The valet appeared at the table with two leather satchels. They handed one to Monty, then one to Aranza.

“Parting gifts, as we discussed,” The Broker said. “The sun should be low on the horizon, and you’ve both got places to be.” He averted his gaze elsewhere to indicate he was finished with having company.

***

The Guild’s headquarters was an unremarkable building left of center to the main crossroads of Valarmount, and often referred to as the heart of the city. Only Guildmembers were allowed entry, and so the true nature of the headquarters was only known through rumors. The one detail that remained consistent was a simple warning: no one who valued their lives would cross the Guild by trying to enter without invitation.

“You seem to have warmed to this,” Monty whispered, sidling up to the back wall, his nightshade cloak rendering him inconspicuous enough in the low light of dusk.

Aranza rolled her eyes. “You know I’m not telling you anything.”

Monty held his hands up in mock surrender. “I would not dare attempt to break your oath to The Broker,” he replied. “I don’t suppose he provided some information on how to get in, though, did he?”

“He did,” Aranza said. Her eyes were fixed on the horizon. The last of the sun’s rays, barely visible through the clouds, crept from view. The clock tower began to chime, and Aranza counted along under her breath with each chime.

The bell sounded for a fifth time. Aranza grabbed Monty by the arm and pulled him towards the wall–stone, iron, and very solid as it was–and the two passed through as if it were fog drifting about a field. The room they found themselves in was cramped, an extinguished torch mounted on each wall.

Monty turned around and placed a hand against the wall, finding it quite present.

“You have additional steps to follow beyond that initial one, yes?” Monty asked, a hint of concern bleeding through in his words.

Aranza held a finger up as she considered the room. She retrieved a small scroll from the leather satchel The Broker had given her and unfurled it, her eyes darting from the curious writings on it to the walls and back. She reached into the leather satchel and produced a ruby vial. She removed the stopper, whispered something into the container, and replaced the stopper. Liquid within the ruby vial glowed with a brilliant light.

“Hope your friend’s half as smart as he thinks he is,” Aranza muttered as she removed the stopper again and poured the glowing liquid onto her free hand. The glow spread to her skin, her palm radiating light.

“The path ahead is open to those who know the way,” Aranza said as she reached out and ran her glowing palm down the torch on the wall ahead of them.

“The light will guide those who walk its path,” Aranza added, reaching out and touching the torch on the wall to her right.

“The way is hidden only to those who do not know to seek it,” Aranza said, an air of finality to her words, as she reached out to the torch on the wall to her left. She stepped back, standing next to Monty.

The three torches sprang to life, ruby flames curling upwards from them towards the ceiling. The floor shuddered, heaving upwards, and then down. A section of it sunk a little further, followed by another shudder. The process repeated, gradually revealing a spiral stone staircase that lead downwards. Whatever waited at the bottom of the stairs was bathed in a soft blue light.

“Only one way to go,” Aranza said. She followed the stairs downwards, Monty following close behind her. The walls were stone, until suddenly they weren’t.

The stone staircase stood in the middle of a vast chamber, its floor far below. The blue light, however, was from no torch. A faint glimmer of magic was all that stood between the room and a vast underground lake. Dark shapes, larger than any ship Monty had ever seen, glided through the deep blue distance and made the highborne elf feel very small and uneasy.

The staircase continued beyond the floor of the chamber, spiraling downwards to their end. The landing stood at the lowest point in a long chamber, the doors at the opposite end taking up the entire wall. Golden dragons framed the edges of the massive double-door, their ruby eyes fixed in sightless gaze upon the room leading up to them.

Aranza put a hand out, stopping Monty abruptly. She turned him to face her, eyes fixed on his.

“You trust me, right?” she asked. “I need you to trust me or this could fail.”

Monty glanced at the doors, then back to Aranza. “Treasure’s just beyond those doors, yes?” he asked.

Aranza nodded.

“Not just treasure, is there?”

Aranza hesitated, then shifted her head upwards ever so slightly.

“I trust you,” Monty said. “We’ve traveled this long and far together. If I die in your company, then I will have peace.”

“Sweet of you, but I’d bring you back from the dead just to knock some sense into that vacant head of yours for being so dumb as to bite it too soon,” Aranza said. She walked along the incline of the room, pausing at the doors until Monty was there by her side.

Rings of light, interwoven and ever-moving, danced along the elaborate carvings in the wooden doors’. Aranza glanced at the scroll, noting the instructions once again.

She unsheathed one of her many concealed daggers and stabbed it into the tail of the dragon nearest to her. The spells stopped moving on the door, their barely-visible lines suddenly blinding, bloody red. The ruby eyes of the dragons began to flash as well, a deafening roar piercing the air.

At least a dozen knights emerged from hidden passageways along the walls at a full sprint, surrounding Monty and Aranza in seconds.

The captain, whose armor was far more decorated and elaborate than the others’, stepped forward.

“And to what end do you try entering The Guild’s vault?”

Aranza straightened up, staring down the captain. “We seek to serve the light, and so we hurl ourselves to the darkness to find our way into its sight.”

Monty blinked, hesitating. “Yes, absolutely what she said,” he added as their arms were shackled behind their backs and they were marched away from the vault and its treasures.

Piece 10 – Elderbark and Gronn: Eternal Enemies

Curian considered her words with great care. The Orc soldiers stood around the net she was still trapped in, each one wielding broadswords with the ease one might casually wave a dagger around. Sophia’s nervous gaze didn’t help reduce the pressure of the situation.

Kir’Gronn leaned forward, her chin resting in her hand. “Well?”

“Honestly, I have no idea who Elderbark is, but that sounds like the name someone with high hopes would give their wolfhound even knowing it’s going to die some day,” Curian rambled. She paused for air, then added, “We’re searching for pieces to some stupid, awful puzzle that could bring about the end of all worlds, and being all trapped doesn’t exactly aid in that quest.

Kir’Gronn chuckled. “And what of you, quiet one?”

“Sophia,” Curian said. “She’s the brains of helping me save the world. Worlds. Oh no, I hadn’t thought about it much until now.”

“Deep breaths,” Sophia instructed. “I am Sophia, a Keeper of the Astrarium and all of its knowledge.”

“The Astrarium, you say,” Kir’Gronn mused. “Then surely you know where you are, do you not?”

Sophia shook her head. “We traveled here by way of a tunnel,” she said. “I had no time to regain my sense of direction before your snare snagged us, I’m afraid.”

“Snagged us good, too,” Curian muttered.

Kil’Gronn stood, slowly approaching the net Curian and Sophia were trapped in. “Then you will find the answer varies depending on who you ask,” Kil’Gronn said. “If you were to ask my people where you are, you would be told you have found your way to the heart of Grimtusk Glade.”

“Catchy name,” Curian said.

“And who might say otherwise, if I may ask?” Sophia added.

Kil’Gronn smiled. “That answer is a story, but that story will cost you. Do you think you’re willing to accept such a steep cost?”

Curian leaned towards the netting, eyebrows raised. “What kind of cost for what kind of story? I’ve told some premium stories for only an ale or two, so it must be good. Plus you’ve got us at a disadvantage since, you know.” She gestured at the net.

Kil’Gronn unsheathed a dagger and, in a flurry of silver blurs, cut the net open. Sophia and Curian tumbled out to the floor, not a scratch from the blade on either of them.

Curian leapt to her feet, eyes narrowed despite Kil’Gronn still having her weapon drawn. “You could’ve just untied it and let us out,” she said. “Had to be flashy about it.”

“You’re free of your ensnarement,” Kil’Gronn said. “And so you can choose to listen or not. It will cost you, but trying to leave this forest on foot without our help would come at an even steeper price.”

Sophia shuddered. “So there’s something else that calls this place home,” she asked. “Is that why it felt like we were being watched as you brought us back here?”

“Captured us,” Curian added.

Kil’Gronn nodded.

Curian sighed. “We don’t have all the time in the world, you know,” she snipped. “So we’ll take whatever your cost is. Tell us a story, Queen Orc.”

Kil’Gronn tightened her grip on the dagger’s hilt abruptly. A loud crack resonated throughout the chamber, causing Curian to leap back and look away, shielding her face. She hazarded a glance back. The dagger rested on the floor, its hilt in pieces around it. Droplets of blood dripped from Kil’Gronn’s closed hand.

“I have been kind and patient with you,” Kil’Gronn sneered. “It would be wise for you to not to be so disrespectful.”

Sophia stepped in. “My apologies,” she said. “She’s not from this world.”

Curian gently moved Sophia aside, eyes narrowed. Her expression softened and she averted her gaze to not make eye contact.

“I don’t need anyone making excuses for me,” she said. “Apologies all the same. What’s this costly story of yours?”

Kil’Gronn picked up the broken dagger and sighed. “This forest was once bountiful and full of life,” she explained. “That was three generations ago, when my grandfather first brought my people to this forest.”

All of the other Orcs fell silent, their heads bowed.

“His name was Gronn,” Kil’Gronn continued. “His people respected him, and in return he never settled for anything less than seeing our people thrive. We made use of the plentiful trees here to build huts. We hunted the bountiful wild game that roamed this forest, taking only what we needed. And yet the forest grew angry with us.”

“You see, the forest happened to also be home to Ancient Treants lead by Elderbark the Terrible. He was a mighty sentinel, towering over every other tree in the forest canopy, and so my grandfather saw him approaching well before he arrived. He demanded audience with our leader, and so my grandfather met with him.”

Kil’Gronn paused, her eyes fixed on a distant place. “What my grandfather thought to be the beginnings of negotiations so that we may share the forest quickly turned into a slaughter of our people. The Treants surrounded our encampment. Their numbers were great. Their fury was inescapable. I watched my grandfather and many of my people die that day.”

Curian hesitated, stepped forward, and placed a hand on Kil’Gronn’s shoulder. Tears ran down the orc’s cheeks, but rage filled her eyes.

“My mother hid me well, and the few survivors you see are those present here. One day years later, I became the Chief over my people. My first act was to take a handful of my most elite guards with me to where Elderbark slept, and when we were certain he was alone we burned the bastard to the ground.”

Sophia gasped. “The magic in a single Treant,” she murmured.

Kil’Gronn huffed. “Indeed, the magic in a single Treant, and one so ancient as Elderbark, is something to be respected and feared,” she said. “That day was the last this forest saw and it is the very one we are living this moment. None of us have aged. No animals move within the forest. All is still. In freeing myself from the pain by exacting my revenge on Elderbark, I trapped us all in that moment.”

Curian opened and shut her mouth several times. “What can we do, then, to pay the price of hearing this story?” she asked.

Kil’Gronn smiled. “In truth, you are free to go should you wish,” she conceded. “The cost is the burden of knowing the nature of this forest, and the punishment my people have faced for as long as I can remember.”

Curian shook her head. “Right, and that’s awful,” she said. “But what can we do to make this right?”

“You would seek to help us though we captured you?” Kil’Gronn asked.

“Sure, you trapped us and brought us back here, but you were nice enough to us,” Curian said. “Besides, we still need to find the piece of the Prognosticarium that fell here. No going anywhere until we do, so we might as well make a full day of it.”

“I agree,” Sophia said. “What is it we must do?”

Kil’Gronn sighed. “The Treants will ignore you to a point, as you are not one of us,” she explained. “Your task, however, is sure to capture their attention, and then they will not likely be warm in their reception of your presence.”

Curian shrugged. “What’s going to get their branches snapping?” Sophia rolled her eyes so hard it was almost audible.

“You must find Elderbark’s ashes and bring them back here,” Kil’Gronn said.

Curian blinked a few times. “Ah,” she said. “I hate this already.”

Wanted Adventurers: It Began with a Plan

Valarmount stood atop a hill that many from the surrounding lands would sooner call a mountain. It’s streets and walls were gilded with real gold and the air in the city always held whispers of how the city’s riches were there for the taking so long as one were to work hard and pay a fair share to The Guild.

The Guild, ages ago, had gone by many names and undergone a number of changes in leadership, but the only two things that survived its hundreds of years in existence were its mission – to protect all those who could not protect themselves while striving to strike down evil wherever it appeared and – and its simplified name of The Guild.

The air in Valarmount was heavy and the sky dark, the midday sun hidden behind a thick blanket of clouds.

Monty and Aranza moved along the side streets with purpose, eager to find a place to rest their heads.

“You’ve got a plan, right?” Aranza said tugging the collar of her cloak. If the heat didn’t kill her she worried that Monty’s tendency to go into things half-cocked might.

Monty glanced back, thin lips pursed. “I told you I do. Your lack of trust wounds me.”

Aranza snorted, unable to hold back her smile. “You keep your wounded pride griffinshit to yourself unless you’re buying me drinks later,” she said. “I’m too tired from the long, dumb way you knew would get us here faster.”

Monty stopped abruptly, and anyone less sure on their feet than Aranza would’ve most certainly ran into him.

“I’ll have you know I’ve done dealings with that horse merchant before and he’s never done me wrong in the past,” Monty said. “It must have been the harsh terrain we traversed.”

“Oh, you owe me two drinks you two-bit con,” Aranza chortled. “Harsh terrain? You’ve been sneaking those weird mushrooms we tried back in Terokglade, haven’t you?”

Monty reared back, clearly hurt. “I’ve done no such thing,” he shot back. “Besides, the last time we ate them it took days to get the clouds to stop screaming dirges at me. What are you getting at, anyway?”

Aranza shook her head. “If you don’t get it, you won’t get it,” she said. “Where are we heading?”

Monty smiled. “All of this warm conversation has left me in need of a cool drink,” he said. “I know just the place to get one, too.” He motioned for Aranza to follow. She shrugged but chose to comply, having nothing else to do in such a grand city. They followed the alley, careful to stay in the shadows cast by the modest houses built along Valarmount’s inner wall.

Aranza grabbed Monty by the hood of his cloak and pulled him back. Silently, in response to his glare, Aranza pointed ahead. The alley opened onto the main street a short distance ahead, and not far from there stood three guards at the city’s northern gate. Their armor shined despite the little sun shining through the amassing storm clouds.

The amulet around each of the guards’ necks is what caught Aranza’s eye, however. They were simple in their design–a circular golden pendant with gemstones. Aranza tensed, memories from her childhood flooding back. Highborne elves clad in simple armor kept safe by the wards and magics held within the very same amulets she found herself looking at now in Valarmount.

“Whatever your idea is, it’s terrible and I hate it,” Aranza snapped. “And you’ll need to offer up at least three drinks in order to recapture my attention.”

Monty plucked at his goatee as he puzzled what had shaken Aranza, spotting the amulets after a moment. “I’ll even spring for one of those awful wyvern steaks you think are good food,” he muttered before taking Aranza’s hand and guiding her along.

Their destination was impossible to miss, looming tall in Valarmount’s northwestern district. Elaborate script carved into the beautiful stone archway at the building’s entrance announcing the place to be called The Tipping of the Scales. Two valets stood by either side of the entrance, their smiles ones of measured joy and eagerness.

“Welcome to the scales,” the valets said in practiced unison.

Monty approached one and held out a scrap of parchment, which briefly caused the valet to break their focus. They read the parchment scrap, smile wavering.

“Please inform our esteemed guest in the Starlight Room that his expected companions have arrived,” the valet said to their cohort, who nodded feverishly before disappearing inside the establishment.

“It is our understanding that your drinks and meals are provided at your host’s pleasure,” the valet continued. “Is there anything I may provide you while we wait for the formal announcement of your arrival is completed?”

“I’m feeling a little parched, so I’d appreciate a glass of water,” Monty said, smiling. He glanced at Aranza.

“No, I’m good,” Aranza said.

The valet nodded. “Very well,” they said. “One glass of water for now. Anything you’d like to order ahead for once you’re seated? Your host has requested the utmost privacy and so there will be minimal interaction with the staff once you’re inside.”

Monty snapped his fingers. “Ah, thank you. I’d nearly forgotten. Have three glasses of your best mead taken to the table. If there’s an Elemancer available, please request they use the spell A Long Winter’s Wind on it to keep it well-chilled.”

The valet smiled. “A connoisseur, I see,” they said. “Your host has already made a similar request, however. I’ll be back with the requested glass of water in just a moment.” They turned, disappearing through the archway. Nothing was visible beyond the entrance, a thin veil of glamour partially visible.

“You care to clue me in sometime, or is this all about mystery?” Aranza asked.

Monty shrugged. “Got a letter from an old friend telling me they’ve got a job we’d be perfect for,” he said. “Not his plan, though. He’s more of a…Well, would you look at that? We’ll meet him before I have to explain.”

The valet reappeared in the archway, glass of water in their hand. “You’re expected,” they said. “Follow, please.” They handed the water to Monty, turned on their heels, and disappeared back beyond the glamour. The air in the archway shimmered briefly before the inside became visible.

A long, winding red carpet snaked along the interior. Tables were abundant, though looked to be sparsely populated.

“Eyes forward, please,” the valet said. “Our regulars do appreciate their privacy away from prying eyes, after all, and no matter how high profile your friend happens to be it would still be problematic should you break honored rules.”

“Wouldn’t want to break those honored rules now,” Aranza replied.

Blue velvet curtains framed a doorway off to the left of the carpeted path. Small points of light were visible not from the doorway but within the curtains.

The valet stopped at the doorway, gesturing for Aranza and Monty to enter.

The room was larger than it looked from outside, a well-cushioned seat winding along the outside wall. A large, round table floated in the room’s center.

“The Broker,” Aranza said spotting the man sitting opposite the doorway.

“That is one of the names I go by, yes,” replied The Broker. He sat flanked by two spectral wyverns pups, draped in flowing emerald robes.

“Do sit, please,” The Broker said. “I trust you read the letter, hence you turning up like a cursed copper?”

Monty nodded, sitting down. “I did. I have questions before we proceed, though.”

The Broker plucked a date from the table and popped it into his mouth. “You know the deal,” he said. “I’ll say what I can, but no more.”

“How’s about we start with simple details,” Aranza said. “Why are we here?”

The Broker quirked an eyebrow. “Please sit,” he replied. “I find myself anxious when my company seems so eager to engage in battle.”

“I don’t know you from a stranger on the street,” Aranza sneered back. She turned her attention to Monty. “And you with your secrets. What’s this plan?”

“Goodness me, how delightful,” The Broker chortled. “You didn’t tell her? You’re both here to help rob the Guild’s vaults, of course. Let’s get you some food first. Can’t very well complete a heist on an empty stomach.”

Aranza blinked several times as she tried to process what The Broker just said.

“We’re doing what?!”