Where have all the serials gone?

“Happy Friday!” is a thing I often shout across the void of the internet. It’s already almost halfway through November! How time certainly flies when the world is on fire and the President is actively casting doubt on the very bedrock of the voting process. Such fun.

By now some of you have noticed an absence of Fantasy Friday and Sci-Fi Saturdays. On the plus side, this reminds me that people are actually reading them – thanks for that! On the downside, it means I should’ve made up my mind sooner. I owe some explanation as to what happened.

November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. It’s that magical time of year during which people try to write 50,000 words – the equivalent to an average length novel. After taking last year off, and with a great deal of encouragement from my wife, I decided to tackle this beast of a challenge. During a Presidential election cycle that has been nothing short of off-the-rails. While also still working my day job.

I am not a clever man.

My original goal was to continue the serials uninterrupted, but it became very clear that was not going to happen within the first week. Writing novels is exhausting. I’ve been staying up past midnight to hit the average word count needed to make it to 50k by the end of November (approximately 1,667 words per day).

So what does this mean for the serials? Glad you asked, hypothetical reader. The serials will resume in November. I’m still working hard on ideas for them as their stories aren’t complete and some of the details are whim decisions.

Sorry to surprise folks with this sudden pause, but I promise I’ll make it worth it when they resume.

Stay safe out there and take care, folks.

Wanted Adventurers – Need for Steed

Aranza read the scroll, muttering key points as she did. “To our esteemed assets and their handler. There is a Bridge Troll just south of Ankheim Village who has taken over the only safe passage in and out of their fair town. As a Guild-protected territory, it falls on you to address this concerning issue.”

Temperance raised a finger. “I’m sorry, are we simply going to gloss over how you waxed poetic for a moment there?”

“Yes,” Monty replied. “You’ll get used to it, and eventually those moments will be like background noise. Anyway, what’s this about a Bridge Troll?”

Temperance pursed her lips. “Vile creatures, often acting on behalf of more powerful fiends,” she explained. “They prevent travelers from crossing a bridge they’ve claimed, demanding gold and devouring any who fail to pay.”

Aranza chugged the remainder of her pint before taking the rest of a neighboring stranger’s, and then the entirety of Monty’s. Monty did not protest, and held up a hand when Temperance appeared ready to do so.

“Not worth it,” Monty said.

Aranza stood up abruptly, belched, and shook her head. “I believe it’s time to call it a night,” she said. “Ankheim’s, what, half a day’s ride from here? Get your armor nice and shiny, Paladin. We need to con someone into lending us horses because I’m not breaking the bank to buy ’em.” She offered a lazy salute to Temperance, then offered both middle fingers to Monty who returned the gesture.

“Certainly a curious relationship you two have,” Temperance said.

Monty shrugged, the gesture lazy and half-hearted at best. “Pardon my lack of warmth, but I don’t believe the arrangement we’re currently bound to requires a cheerful sense of camaraderie. Probably best we try to get some rest as well.”

Temperance nodded.

Grimsby sat by the door. He blinked slowly as Monty and Temperance approached, but said nothing as they passed. His eyes remained fixed on a point somewhere between where he sat and the heart of existence, and it seemed unwise to interrupt his concentration.

The trio departed the inn shortly after sunrise. The stables were impossible to miss, settled opposite the town square from the inn.

Temperance approached, head held high. “Good day to you, stablekeeper,” she said to the Goblin tending to the horses.

“Sure thing, yeah, good whatever to you, too, Guild Paladin,” the Goblin replied as he continued to divide hay among the stabled horses.

“Very astute of you. We are on a Guild mission and find ourselves in need of horses,” Temperance replied.

The Goblin turned to her, one especially bushy eyebrow raised. “Yeah? Me, too,” he said. “These horses aren’t mine to offer up. I know you Guild-types. You lot go off on some quest and the horses are the first to bite it.”

Aranza pushed past Temperance and handed the Goblin a leather pouch. The Goblin eyed it suspiciously, turning the pouch over in his hand. It clearly had heft to it.

“Fifty gold,” Aranza said. “That’s for three horses with a reasonable Keep Your Damn Mouth Shut fee included.”

The Goblin smiled, eyes fixed on the content of the pouch. “You speak my language, lady,” he said. “Take Thunder, Typhoon, and Trundles here.” He jerked a thumb to the three stalls behind him to the left.

“Careful with Trundles,” he added. “Meanest bastard of a horse I ever took care of.”

The three glanced past the Goblin toward where Trundles was kept. Trundles, at a glance, was a lot of things. His qualities included a serious intimidation factor, an strong spirit that likely would require a capable rider to tame, and tusks long enough to skewer the densest stone giant.

“Forgive me, but are you aware Trundles is a feral boar?” Temperance asked.

The Goblin clicked his tongue, shook his head, then turned his attention back to Aranza. “Keen eyes and a wit sharp as a bar of soap,” the Goblin said. “Make sure your Guild pal here doesn’t get my boss’ horses killed or your Keep Your Damn Mouth Shut fee won’t cover my These Jerks Stole Your Horses cost.”

Aranza nodded. “Fair enough,” she said. “Time to hit the road. I call dibs on Trundles!”

Piece 16 – Bird-Words, and Fractured Reality

The air outside of the cavern shimmered. The vast shadow cast by the Crow seemed to disappear. A tall woman robed in a black, feathered cloak walked into the cave. She stopped at the edge of the runic wards, her face a mask of contempt. Long, midnight black feathers stood out on her head where hair should have been. Her smile was abundant in pointed fangs.

“I thought it might perhaps be easier to address me in a more relatable form,” Badb said. “You mortals have such fragile minds and it’s so easy to upset you.”

“Really nice of her,” Curian snarked in response. “Big, mean bird thought about our feelings.”

Badb continued, clearly not bothered. “My sisters and I serve a purpose far beyond your comprehension,” she said. “There are many more worlds than there are stars in the sky, and for every world there are far more people.”

Curian yawned loudly. “Yeah, this is the part where you tell us about how those people need to die for whatever reason, justifying you stuffing your ugly faces with souls,” she said. “I’ve fought monsters like you. I know the kind of twisted reasoning you use to justify your actions. You’re all the same.”

“Oh? Is that so, little world-traveler?” Badb replied, her voice suddenly bitter-cold.

The air in the cave wavered, a strange glamour suddenly present.

“Fiend, what trickery are you trying?” Sophia snapped.

Badb stepped back. “This is no magic of mine. I take my leave, but this is not the last you’ll see of me. Next time I will be far less kind.” She vanished from sight, the last signs of her presence was the sound of monstrous wings as she took flight.

There was a soft pop and faint sparkle to the air.

“That was unusual,” Sophia muttered. “Something must have set off the magic of the wards, perhaps.” She waited for a smart remark from Curian, which had become her default expectation.

“The realism of this haunted house is wild,” muttered an unexpected voice. “These spiders seem real. Really real. Too real, maybe. Oh, damn. They’re actual spiders.” Sophia glanced over slowly as whoever was next to her shook several large, confused spiders from her sleeve.

Sophia reached for the dagger at her belt, taking a step back.

Not-Curian looked around. She was shorter than Sophia, although only a little, with a shock of pink hair that practically glowed in the cave’s low light. Her armor did not look terrifically sturdy, Sophia noted.

“Witch! What have you done with my friend?” Sophia said, immediately cursing herself. Curian would have had some remark about the generous use of the word friend. “Traveling companion. What have you done with my traveling companion?”

“Uh, what did you do with me? And did you call me a witch? A real witch or just like an insult, because neither option is terrifically nice,” Not-Curian said.

“Just who are you, exactly?” Sophia demanded.

“Captain Isabelle Warpt of Spiral Reach Academy. Izzy to my friends. Jury’s out on you, person who calls people witch right when you meet them.”

Sophia blinked. “You didn’t use dark magics to imprison Curian and take her place?”

Izzy raised an eyebrow. “Is Curian your friend? Traveling companion? Either way, that’s a definite no. I wish I could do magic, but that’s some serious fairy tale stuff. Don’t suppose you have a name, huh?”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I…It’s been a very trying day,” Sophia said. “Sophia. No nickname. May I call you Izzy or should I call you Captain Warpt?”

Izzy scratched her head. “You going to call me a witch again?”

“I suppose not, no, since it seems that was an error. My apologies,” Sophia replied.

“Izzy works, then,” Izzy said. “So where am I, exactly? Looks like I’m not in Kansas. Not that I was in Kansas.”

There was a sound from near the mouth of the cave. Izzy produced a shining, object and held it out in front of herself.

“What a curious crossbow,” Sophia commented, her eyes fixed on the mouth of the cave.

“Thanks,” Izzy replied. “It’s definitely not a crossbow. A crossbow would be more helpful about now, really. It’s a training plasma pistol. A broken one. I’ve never been too keen on hurting people.”

Steps outside of the cave grew closer.

“Me, neither,” Sophia said. She grabbed Izzy’s hand and pulled her behind a large, fallen portion of cave wall further behind the runic wards.

“Swear on me heart the runes spoke to me,” rasped a dry, hollow voice.

“That really the way you want to say that? That’s what you’re going with?” asked a second speaker. Shadows, despite the low light, crossed the cave’s threshold.

Izzy hazarded a glance around their cover and immediately fell backwards. “Oh crap, they’re skeletons,” she whispered. “Walking, talking skeletons. What the hell kind of Weirdsville is this?”

Sophia shrugged. “Evidently it’s not a Kansas,” she replied. “We’re currently traveling near the Rhimeghast Mountains, one of the major trading outposts for the Undead.”

Izzy held up a finger, her expression suddenly quite serious. “They’re real, live skeletons. Like, walking around with their skin missing. No insides or anything. Wait. How are they talking?”

“Same way we can hear you, I reckon,” replied one of the skeletons. “Clear as a bell.”

“Do come out and show yourselves, please,” said the other skeleton. “So as to not have to belabor the point, we can also see you despite not having physical eyes. Glad we could get that out of the way.”

“Don’t think I’ve forgotten about the heart comment from earlier, by the way,” the first skeleton said as Sophia and Izzy emerged. “We’ll be revisiting that when we’ve got a moment.”

Izzy raised a hand, smiling. “Now’s a moment. Why not discuss now?”

The skeletons hesitated as if considering Izzy’s suggestion.

“No, that can wait,” said the first skeleton. “First, though, we’ll need to take you to the Lady of Rhimeghast Castle. She’ll know what to do with you, you servants of the Morrigan.”

Wanted Adventurers – The First of Many Side-Quests

Grimsby sat alone at a table that partially blocked the stairs. This alone wasn’t of particular interest, but the tables nearest to Grimsby’s table were also empty. Spotless, as if they had not been used in some time.

Aranza, Temperance, and Monty had gone best out of five on several games of chance to see who would be the one who had to approach Grimsby to inquire about a room. During that time, a handful of the tavern’s other patrons had shot confused and somewhat judgemental looks their way. A few realized what they were doing, and one or two gave a murmured acknowledgement of the task ahead.

One quietly commented on having affairs in order before approaching Grimsby.

Grimsby sat on his barstool, a gnome of sub-average height, his gaze fixed on something not quite in the physical space of the tavern. When he blinked, it was one eye at a time.

“That’s a gnome that’s been through some dark shit,” Aranza said as she tried to avoid eye-contact.

“We need a room,” Temperance said. “This is hardly the time for such childish foolishness.”

Monty held up a finger, eyes narrowed. “I certainly don’t see you, oh brave Paladin, tripping over your overly shiny armor to address the gnome.”

Temperance recoiled. “I, well…” she replied. “I was just about to do exactly that.” She turned, but hesitated.

Aranza sighed as she walked around Temperance. Grimsby’s focus remained on whatever he’d been staring at since they’d arrived, and did not shift until Aranza cleared her throat.

Grimsby let out a piercing, horrible shriek, eyes wide.

Aranza leaped back, daggers ready to be thrown at a second’s notice.

Grimsby blinked–actually blinked–and then his gaze shifted upwards to Aranza. A lazy, slow smiled crept across his face.

“Greetings, weary traveler,” Grimsby rumbled in a deep baritone. “The red crow caws at midnight, and the mist covers only that which we desire to not see.”

Aranza took a step back. “Sure, they do those things,” she replied. “Sorry to bother you there, you were obviously doing something important.”

Grimsby cocked his head, the tavern’s torchlight reflecting brightly off of his bald head.

“If it’s not too much trouble, the two idiots I’m traveling with and I need a room,” Aranza blurted out. “Gryphonshit, did I say that out loud?”

“And what perils paved your path to this fine purveyor of ales and place of rest?” Grimsby asked.

“Guild business,” Aranza answered automatically. “Not wanting to die. The two are related.”

“Friends of the Guild?”

Aranza shook her head. “We tried to rob them and we made a deal so we didn’t dance at the gallows,” she replied. “Not the Paladin. She’s stuck being our holy nanny. Damn you.”

Grimsby nodded. “Room’s on me tonight, but your drinks are up to Aloysius.”

“Stop giving out my name like it’s your business to share!” the bartender, Aloysius, shouted across the tavern. “Give them a room, but only one room. Giving away business like you own the damn place.” Aloysius continued the conversation at a low grumble under his breath, his attention returned to the other patrons.

Grimsby winked. “I do own the place.” He reached into his vest pockets, rifling around for an improbably long time. He produced a small leather pouch, which he replaced into the pocket, a sliver of metal that transformed into a startlingly sharp dagger before, and then finally a plain brass key.

“Up the stairs, second door on the left,” Grimsby said. “You do good things, you get to stay. You cause trouble, I charge you double. No need to relay your tales. The tide of your worth shall be determined by the cosmic push and pull of good and evil that you release into the world.”

“Sure thing,” Aranza said, taking the key. She walked back to Monty and Temperance, who had turned away.

“You deserve a drink,” Monty said. “You’ve been through a lot.”

Temperance shook her head. “I prefer to not indulge in such things,” she replied. “I need my wits about me so as to ensure neither of you fall into your wicked old ways.”

Aranza laughed, clapping a hand on Temperance’s shoulder. “Sounds like she’s afraid of a challenge,” she said. “Hey, Al. Three of your strongest ales and three shots of Dragonfyre, if you’d be so kind.”

Aloysius clenched his jaw, but went about retrieving the requested drinks. He placed them on the bar, then held a hand out for payment.

“I’ll cover first round,” Monty said.

Aloysius raised a hand in protest. “The half-orc with a whole lot of humor can pay,” he said. “Not even my friends call me Al.”

Aranza shrugged, producing six gold. “Struck a nerve?” she asked, plunking the gold down in Aloysius’ hand. He eyed it suspiciously for a moment before he dropped it somewhere beneath the bar and out of sight.

“Breakfast is between when I get up and when I don’t feel like cooking for you ungrateful heathens anymore,” Aloysius shouted over the crowd. “I’m closing up. If you’re staying, don’t wreck the joint. If you’re not? You don’t gotta go home, but get the hell out.” He grabbed a bottle of translucent green liquid as he walked toward the door at the end of the bar, popped the cork and took a swig, then shut the door behind him.

A number of the patrons shuffled out with only a handful moving cautiously past and up the stairs.

“All right, the rules are simple,” Aranza said.

“I’m familiar with the rules,” Temperance interrupted.

Monty raised his eyebrows.

“Go!” Aranza shouted. She threw the Dragonfyre back, then started to drink the ale. it was a dense, dark beer, and she couldn’t quite place it. It was probably one of those small batch ones, she figured, with a name that included Bogwater. She chanced a sideward glance and raised her eyebrows.

Monty was taking his time, as he did. His fair cheeks were already several shades redder than usual, and his eyes glassy.

Temperance was well over halfway into her ale with no sign of slowing. Aranza doubled down on her efforts.

The two slammed their mugs down at the same time.

“By the Heavens, it looks like you have some competition, ‘Ranz,” Monty slurred, dribbling ale down his chin. “Whoops.”

An older woman stepped forward, clearly unaware of the half-dwarf and half-orc sizing each other up, and slapped a rolled scroll down onto the bar. She shuffled out of the tavern without saying anything.

Temperance broke the scowl-off first.

“Damnation,” she muttered, grabbing up the scroll.

“What’s the problem?” Aranza said, her words and the sudden impact of the Dragonfyre enough to make her sway gently as she spoke. “Feeling a little wooo?” She waved her hands by her head for effect.

Temperance raised an eyebrow. “What? No, I wish,” she replied. “We’ve just been served.”

Monty leaned forward, his eyes level with Temperance’s forehead. “We what now?”

Temperance held out the scroll, pointing at the wax seal holding it shut. It was the Guild’s emblem. Beneath it, through the rolled parchment, the words “Wanted: Alive or Dead” were visible.

Aranza exhaled deeply, frowning. “The joy’s left me like the wind gone from a lost ship’s sails,” she said. “Let’s get some sleep. Looks like we’ve got our first side-quest to complete. Already.”

Piece 15 – The Perilous Road to the Rhimeghast Mountains

The sun was still low in the sky, the early morning frost only just having burned away, when Curian and Sophia prepared to leave the forest. The Orcs and Treants wished them a kind, long goodbye, repeatedly insisting they visit again, and so the duo departed with their next destination in mind. The Rhimeghast Mountains were still a long walk away, but they already dominated much of the horizon. Grasping vines covered in dagger-sized thorns flanked the dirt road, reaching deeper in some spots.

“The Rhimeghast Mountains used to be home to a bustling castle-town,” Sophia explained as they walked along. “That was ages ago, however. Long before the Liches claimed the mountains for themselves.”

Curian stopped without warning. Sophia bumped into her and stumbled back.

“Liches?” Curian replied. “Murderous mages who should be long-dead, but aren’t thanks to incredibly sinister magics?”

Sophia blinked. “Yes, I suppose that is one way of putting it.”

Curian held up a hand. “And we’re going to their domain, right? Where they’ll undoubtedly want to kill us.”

“If a Piece is there, what choice do we have?” Sophia asked.

Even at a distance, the jagged heights of the Rhimehast Mountains looked threatening–snow-capped claws tearing into the sky above.

“What else do you know about our destination?” Curian asked. “Shed some light on where we’re going.” She started walking along the road again.

Sophia walked a little faster to stay next to Curian, hoping to avoid any sudden stops. “Rhimeghast Castle-Town was a trade hub, and a favored place for weary travelers to rest,” Sophia explained. “It also happened to have a reputation as a place where criminals could bide their time while knights opted to look elsewhere.”

Curian nodded. “So it was interesting before Liches took over,” she said.

“Quite right,” Sophia said. “There are a number of accounts on when the Liches and their Undead troops arrived, but all agree on one point.”

“Oh? And what’s that?” Curian asked, glancing over at Sophia as they walked.

Sophia frowned. “Ah, well…The Liches aren’t particularly keen on visits from the living.”

Curian shook her head. “Of course they aren’t.”

The slopes began gradually, the last of the dense woods along the road thinning out before they gave way to boulder-strewn, unforgiving hills. The road wound along the steep incline of the hills, tracing what may have once been the safest path. Impossibly dark, gaping cave-maws were visible in the upper reaches of the hills.

“Makes me miss the cursed forest already,” Curian muttered as she braced against a bitter, frigid wind.

There was a sound like thunder, audible over the now-relentless winds. It was distant at first, growing louder with every passing second.

Curian turned around slowly, cursing under her breath. Countless birds shifted their flight path. The Crow did not care, knocking aside of the hapless avian creatures that failed to move from her path.

“Gods damn our luck,” Curian muttered. She grabbed Sophia by the hand and pulled her along. The sound of wings pounding against the air grew louder.

“We need to make it to one of the caves,” Sophia shouted. “But we have to be careful. I recall hearing tales of caves warded with protective spells. Surely some of those will have lingered.”

“And if we pick the wrong cave?” Curian replied, not breaking her stride as she continued to sprint along the winding path, cursing the inconvenient rocks her toes became acquainted with along the way.

Sophia shrugged. “We die, perhaps?”

“Delightful,” Curian replied. They reached a fork in the path, a cavemouth to their right. The trail continued to the left.

“No, keep going,” Curian shouted. “I don’t like the looks of that one.”

“Why?” Sophia asked, though she followed.

“The glowing, red eyes didn’t exactly give me big ‘come on in, we love visitors’ vibes,” Curian replied. They charged ahead, rounding the bend as the soil gave way beneath where they had just been.

The Crow flew closer, its pace measured and deliberate. Its caws sounded more like laughter as its wingbeats buffeted the hills with harsh gales.

“Not much of a choice left,” Curian said. She leaped into the nearest cave, Sophia following after. The darkness inside was oppressive, but something dull and silver was visible along the cave’s floor.

“Runes! Get behind them!” Sophia blurted out.

The wingbeats stopped, and a thunderous caw sent a blast of hot air into the cave.

“Come out, little insects,” the Crow taunted. “I won’t eat both of you. Yet.”

“Doesn’t exactly inspire confidence,” Curian replied. “We bested your sister, Badb. What makes you think we can’t get past you? Maybe you should be more afraid.”

Badb, the Crow, cackled raucously. “Your only path to the Piece you seek is through me, fools. You sacrifice but a moment of your time to me and I will allow you to continue on your pointless endeavor. Easily the most reasonable deal you’ll get.”

Curian sighed. “And the only deal,” she said. “All right, you pestilent parakeet. Talk.”

Wanted Adventurers – Bonding Over Getting Mugged

The Guild flunkies removed the burlap sacks from Aranza and Monty’s heads, hopped on their horses, and left before Temperance could free them.

“Nice of them to provide transport,” Monty muttered. He rubbed at his wrists where the rope had bitten into his skin.

“You’re lucky they brought us this far,” Temperance sneered. “As if you two deserve such kindness.”

Aranza clenched her fist, eyes locked with Temperance’s. “I’m about to stuff your cranky Dwarven ass deep into the next hill I see…”

Monty held up a finger. “You do that and The Guild will have nooses on our necks before we make it to the next Unaligned Zone,” he said. He turned his attention to Temperance, who in turn focused her scowling on him.

“Make no mistake,” Temperance said. “I am doing this as part of my sworn duty to The Guild. One failure to comply. Even a hint of committing a crime? I’ll turn you both in and wash my hands of this.”

“So we have a tentative, tenuous agreement,” Monty replied. “We stay in line and you help us complete this highly unlikely quest, and then we part ways freed from each other’s company forevermore.”

Temperance blinked as she considered what Monty had said. A brief smile flitted across her lips.

“Course, we have to take down an Archlich before we can say our goodbyes,” Aranza said. “Don’t you forget that little detail. Anyway, let’s get a move on. Sun’s gettin’ low and we need a place to rest our heads before we get moving.”

The dirt road wound its way into a small town. Curls of fireplace smoke snaked their way from chimneytops into the crisp, evening air, and leaves crunched underfoot as the trio walked along the dirt road towards the heart of the town. The town square was empty, the numerous stands and shops lining the road closed down and boarded up.

“Awfully quiet,” Aranza muttered.

Monty held a finger up. “No one say it,” he commanded. “Nothing good ever…”

“Too quiet, perhaps,” Temperance replied.

Monty hissed several choice Highborne cursewords as the realization crossed Aranza’s face.

There was a pained groan from small side street that ran alongside the Hidden Treasure Tavern and Inn. Monty and Aranza exchanged glances.

“Yeah, I’ll take the fall for that one,” Aranza said. “I started the cursed call.”

Temperance raised an eyebrow. “You can’t mean to tell me you believe saying a place is quiet caused something to happen…”

Monty wagged a finger. “Not that simple, no,” he said. “It’s a call. One person must comment on it being awfully quiet, and then the response of it being too quiet sets things into motion.”

Another groan, slightly louder, and muttered demands could be heard from the side street now.

Temperance walked past Monty and Aranza, her armor still gleaming despite the low light. Aranza stepped into her path, arms folded across her chest.

“Listen here, Pally,” Aranza said. “I may not like you, but if we’re stuck with you I can’t let you just blunder your way into that obvious trap.”

“Someone clearly needs aid,” Temperance replied. She stepped around Aranza, and didn’t bother to look back as she continued. “How sad it must be to see the world in such cynical terms.” She disappeared into the shadows of the side street.

“Gods damn it,” Aranza said before she stormed off after Temperance.

“You following her?” Monty called after.

“Have to,” Aranza called back. “We’ve been fitted for nooses too many times for me to test my luck again. You coming along or will I have to save her myself?”

“If you insist,” Monty grumbled as he ran to catch up.

A single, sickly looking Kobold leaned against a toppled trashcan at the end of the street. He opened his eyes as the trio approached, shut them again, and groaned.

“Kindly sir, are you hurt? What happened?” Temperance asked. “Fret not, for I am an envoy of the guild and I will aid you.”

The Kobold groaned louder again. “Closer, please,” he said. “The world grows dark and cold and I fear I have not much time, goodly traveler.”

Aranza threw a dagger into the darkness behind the trash heap. There was a pained screech and a muttering of foul language.

“By the Gods, what is wrong with you?” Temperance demanded. She spun around, hand on the pommel of her zweihander. Behind her, something shifted in the shadows.

Aranza produced two more daggers from her sleeves, having adopted a defensive stance. “You want to dance, Dwarf? I’ll knock some sense into you if these muggers don’t.”

Temperance cocked her head. A rustling behind her caught her attention, and she stepped just as a Goblin leapt forward with a polearm. Her weapon’s blade struck the stone wall of the neighboring shop. Sparks rained down onto the street.

“A false dead-end,” Monty observed as he fired his crossbow into the wavering stone wall. The bolt hit something, which grunted and toppled forward onto the Kobold, which shrieked in pain.

“They had a Bridge Troll,” Monty commented. “Good thing we did assist, I suppose, or we would be cleaning our friendly Paladin off of the walls.”

“And the street. And out of those nice window boxes of flowers over there,” Aranza added.

Temperance huffed. “Perhaps I misjudged the situation, I’ll concede,” she said over metal-against-metal of her sword being unsheathed. A soft, white glow emanated from within the blade. It filled the street and banished the glamoured shadows and false wall. Two more Kobolds ran out, one with a club raised above his head and the other with a frying pan.

“You die now!” shouted the one Kobold.

“We take your gold!” shouted the other.

One of the Kobolds was knocked backwards, the back door to the inn having been thrown open abruptly. A towering Wyvernkin with a slick, black ponytail hunched in the doorway.

“Keep it down out here, wouldya?” roared the Wyvernkin, obsidian flames flickering around his fangs. “I’ve got paying customers trying to get a good night’s rest, and they can’t with you buffoons brawling back here.”

“Forgive us, good Dragonfolk,” Temperance said as she wound up and delivered a gauntlet-bolstered punch to the remaining Kobold’s snout. It crumpled to the dirt, unconscious but still alive.

The Wyvernkin huffed, shook his head, and slammed the door shut.

“Made tidy work of them, I think,” Monty said as he looked around the alley. “Best check their pockets and see if they’ve got anything worth liberating from their ownership, yes?”

“Already on it,” Aranza replied as she rifled through the Troll’s collection of skulls converted into carrying satchels.

Reluctantly, rigidly, Temperance approached one of the Kobolds and retrieved his leather wallet. She felt a thud against her back, and spun to see Aranza.

“You got cozy with that real quick, didn’t you?” Aranza said, unable to suppress a laugh.

The color drained from Temperance’s face. “I…Well, they were criminals, and so this likely belonged to someone else. It’s best we reclaim it and look into finding its rightful owner.”

“Hate to break it to you, Pally, but the rightful owner of that handful of copper and the few shiny bits we get?” Aranza replied. “Probably dead. No need to feel bad for robbing the robbers.”

“This alley could have been our untimely grave,” Monty added. “One does wonder where such a questionable crew came upon such complex glamours, however.”

Aranza clicked her tongue. “Can’t ask ’em right now,” she muttered. “Suspect we’ll find out eventually, but best to leave the trash where it lies for now. Who wants to go grab a pint? Their treat.”

“Thought you’d never ask,” Monty said. They turned to leave the side street. Temperance cleared her throat loud enough that Monty and Aranza turned around.

“I…Well, perhaps…” Temperance said.

“Second round’s on you,” Aranza said. “No one’s checking if you’re using your money or theirs, though. Sound good?”

Temperance nodded, following along.

The front door to The Hidden Treasure was storm-and-sea-weathered wood, larger than a royal galleon. It swung open with a gentle push, the room behind it warm and welcoming and filled to the brim with life. Everyone fell silent as Monty, Aranza, and Temperance entered.

The barkeeper–the Wyvernkin who had knocked one of the Kobolds out earlier–glanced up from cleaning a goblet, sneered, and resumed his task. The trio made their way to the bar.

“What can I get you, uh, group of troublemakers,” the barkeeper grunted.

“Hail and well met,” Temperance said.

The barkeeper looked up, eyes narrowed. “Yeah, yeah, drop the formalities, would ya’?” he snarled. “I’ve paid our Guild dues for this lunar cycle and I don’t much care to have you goons buggin’ my paying customers.”

Temperance blinked. “I beg your pardon?”

“if that’s what you’re into, good for you,” the barkeeper said. “Just be into it elsewhere, yeah? I got customers behind you waiting to spend real coppers here.”

Monty gently maneuvered between Temperance and the bar and offered a gleaming smile. “Our friend means no ill will,” he said.

The barkeeper looked Monty up and down, frowning. “Don’t think I care much for you neither,” he said. “You, the Orc. The one good with throwing knives. You here to cause trouble?”

Aranza shrugged. “Depends on if trouble’s here to be had,” she shot back.

The barkeeper sighed. “Tell ya’ what,” he said. “These two prim-and-proper types with you?”

Aranza offered a curt nod.

“You keep them outta other customers’ business,” the barkeeper said. “You took care of Fangra’s goons, so you’re good in my book…There are others here who might not see you the same way, you hear me?”

“Clear as a bell, and twice as well,” Temperance replied, and immediately received an icy look from the barkeeper as a result.

“You must be a real treat at parties,” the barkeeper said. “Go tell Grimsby over there what you want. Food. Drink. Whatever. I’ll give you an okay discount, ’cause you’re just okay. You planning to spend the night?”

“There a room to be had?” Aranza asked.

“Only if you promise you won’t be around long,” the barkeeper said. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a bunch of half-dead crooks I need to clean up.”

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.”