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?!”

Piece 9 – The Forest Where Time Dare Not Dwell

Curian and Sophia bobbed gently up and down in the net of vines, their involuntary rhythm matching that of their captors’ steps as they moved along the dense underbrush of the forest. Massive leaves and awe-inspiring flowers shifted past but appeared as if they had not moved.

“Fascinating,” Sophia murmured, wide-eyed.

“Oh, thank the Gods,” Curian replied. “I was worried there was some sort of poison in these vines or I’d been bitten by something. This place is doing something strange, yeah?”

“Keep quiet!” hissed a voice from outside of the net.

Curian glanced up and her eyes locked with a glare so frigid it should by all rights have frozen her to death. She looked at the others helping hoist the net along and those walking around them.

All of their captors, Curian noted, were all Orcs. Their skin was the fair, soft green of willow fronds. They wore patchworks of dark leather mottled with plants that blended in seamlessly with the surroundings. Several of the orcs leading the group were only visible when the sunlight hit them just right.

“Not that you asked before you kidnapped us, but my name’s Curian,” Curian said, addressing the Orc who had demanded her silence only moments prior. “This is Sophia. She’s the brains of this operation. I’m the brawn. We share the burden of being the looks.”

The orc snorted, her eyes still fixed on a point ahead.

“Strong, silent type, I see,” Curian continued. “I tried going for that vibe once and ended up getting thrown out of a tavern for starting a brawl. Might have had more to do with me having a couple too many ales and accidentally tripping a wizard.”

Sophia shook her head. “If wizards from your world are anything like the ones here, they shouldn’t be trifled with much less tripped.”

Curian snapped her fingers. “Shit, I almost forgot the best part,” she added, careful to pause for effect. “Turns out it wasn’t actually a wizard, but three gnomes in a wizard’s robe they stole to sneak into the tavern. Turns out they had been banned.”

Sophia chuckled. “You do seem to attract chaos wherever you go,” she said.

“Is Chaos a nickname of yours I didn’t know about?” Curian shot back with a wink. Sophia sputtered, averting her eyes.

The orc who had commanded they be quiet chuckled. It was a short burst of laughter, immediately masked by the orc’s default stoicism. Hints of a smile remained at the edges of the orc’s lips around where her tusks jutted out.

The path had taken on a steeper slope down a hillside. In the distance, in the valley below, Curian could see wisps of smoke rising from what, at a glance, looked to be moss-covered boulders or lightning-split tree trunks. The trees surrounding the narrow path loomed tall, the canopy dense and allowing little sunlight through to the forest floor.

Curian realized for the second time since their capture that something seemed unnatural about the forest.

“Quiet,” the orc said again, her voice considerably more hushed this time. It was at this moment Curian realized what seemed off. The forest was completely silent. Even the orcs’ footfalls made no sound despite the countless plants that jutted out into their and the twigs littering the dirt trail they followed. No birdsong filtered down from the branches above.

The trees.

Curian couldn’t help but feel as though she was being watched as she looked up into the highest reaches of the trees. The demeanor among the orcish captors had shifted significantly. Though they had ignored Curian and Sophia for the most part once they had been secured in the net, the orcs carried on quiet conversations with each other–some joking, some serious, but none of that continued once they began their descent into the valley within the forest.

Curian nodded in response to the orc. She held a finger to her lips.

A faint shimmer, like lamp oil spilled on a rain-dappled cobblestone road, ran through the air just ahead of the small collection of cleverly disguised dwellings. The air hummed with magic Curian was familiar with but couldn’t place why she knew it so well, and as it passed over her as the orcs carried her and Sophia beyond it she felt her hair stand on end.

“Kir’Gronn,” said a familiar voice beside the net. Curian glanced at the Orc, an eyebrow raised.

“You asked my name, little chatterbox,” the Orc named Kir’Gronn said.

Curian beamed. “Nice to meet you, Kir’Gronn,” Curian said. “It would be nicer if we weren’t in this net.”

“I agree, and would like to also inquire as to where we are being taken,” Sophia added. “Would it be possible we walk alongside you?”

Kir’Gronn’s smile gave way to something more stern bordering onto severe.

“You are strange outsiders to this forest, and your presence makes no sense,” Kir’Gronn said. “No one has dared ventured to this forest since Time left us, and so you are abominations.” The group reached a broken stump, a relic of what must have been a mighty sentinel in the past. The orc at the head of the group pressed a knot with one hand and pulled a branch down with his other hand, and a portion of the stump slid away to reveal a spacious room. Sophia and Curian were carried in and set down on a large, circular platform at the center of the room.

The Orcs each took up a position standing along the wall of the circular room, weapons at the ready. Kir’Gronn walked past the platform, hands folded behind her back. She turned and sat in a simple throne carved into the wall.

“Think long and hard before you answer,” Kir’Gronn instructed. “Lie and you die. Were you summoned here by Elderbark? Why have you entered this forsaken forest?”

Wanted Adventurers – A Story to Tell

Dark magics drifted visibly through the air of the crypt, tendrils of miasma grasping blindly for something they couldn’t quite locate. It was a vast space, its ornate design a reminder it wasn’t a crypt meant for burial so much as it was for ceremony. At the center of the domed chamber, above the surrounding floor, floated a fragmented dais.

Above the dais, as is the case with many such crypts, an Arch Lich hovered with a practiced indifference to his unspeakable, nearly unmatched power. In life he had been known as Karaxis Illwill, but upon completing his unholy transformation he took on the name Karaxis the Endless Dread.

Karaxis’s many followers bowed below, to the best of their ability as they were all tied up or shackled to one another. This was a somewhat new development, and the display of fealty to their master was all the clumsier because of it. He considered them for a moment before returning his attention to the two figures suspended in the air mere feet beyond the edge of his dais.

“When I had heard the Adventurer’s Guild had put a bounty out on my head, I had expected a little, oh, I don’t know,” Karaxis mused. “More impressive perhaps. A battalion of elite soldiers, perhaps. Or an entire army. Certainly not disgraced highborne royalty, a peasant orc, and…” Karaxis absentmindedly clicked a finger against his jawbone, the deep crimson flames in his eye sockets scanning the room.

“There was a third to your perilously stupid party, was there not?” Karaxis asked. “Well? Lightfoot?”

The highborne elf glowered. “Swiftstep. Monty Swiftstep. I’m no royalty, though, and you know that you damn stupid bag of bones. You holding up all right, Aranza?”

The orc suspended near Monty blinked several times, her forest green eyes focused again. “You say something, Mont?” she asked. “You know how I can’t stand rambled speeches.”

Archlich Karaxis leaned forward, his skull easily dwarfing both adventurers in size. “This doesn’t have to be slow and painful, you know,” Karaxis said. “I could kill you with as little effort as you might pick a pocket. You just need to tell me where your third is.”

Aranza sneered, her lower tusks jutting out. “The paladin? She clearly only cared for saving her own hide,” she spat. “Smug little dwarf with a messiah complex.”

“She got us this far,” Monty snapped back. Sweat trickled down his face, the light from Karaxis’ eyes casting sickly shadows on his fair, lavender colored skin. The long, jagged scar across Monty’s left eye looked darker despite the light being so close.

Aranza turned her head as far as she could, restrained by the miasma, to look Monty in the eye. The miasma loosened, allowing Aranza to move just enough.

“We would’ve never even known Miss Holier-than-Thou existed if you weren’t why we got caught!” Aranza yelled over the roar of Karaxis’ laughter.

Monty covered a gasp, eyes wide. “You blame me? Me?” he barked back. “If that isn’t the most heaping hill of horseshit I’ve ever heard in my life. If you had just let me kill the guards instead of knocking them out we would be free and rich. Think about that for a second.”

Karaxis continued to roar with laughter, the horrible sound reverberating throughout the crypt and echoing back in on itself creating a cacophonous din.

“As much as I love this, and I certainly do, I suppose I should just kill you both now,” Karaxis said with the plainness of someone suggesting they might take an afternoon nap. “Free up my afternoon to find and torture your friend into telling me what you three were doing here.” The flames in Karaxis’ eye sockets grew brighter, and terrible, ancient, best-forgotten words oozed from between the Archlich’s jagged fangs like great, glowing serpents ready to strike.

There was a great, resonating sound, impossible to miss even over the dread incantation. Karaxis hesitated, losing his place in the spell that was slowly sapping the life from Aranza and Monty. He started over, chanting faster to accelerate the spells.

Another sharp sound rang throughout the crypt, once again stealing Karaxis’ attention.

“What in the Hells is it now?” Karaxis demanded, looking towards the source of the noise.

The paladin stood at the top of the stairs, framed by a doorway of a once well-hidden door that lead farther into the crypt. A long, coal black braid hung to the left side of her face and her smirk tilted slightly to the right. The likeness of a solitary raven taking flight was the only identifying feature on her armor, standing out against the inner glow her silver plate armor seemed gave off.

“Glad you could join us,” Aranza said. “And right on time.”

“On time nothing,” Monty snipped back. “What took you so damn long, Tempy? It’s not like he had any look-outs left.” The paladin cringed at the nickname.

She raised her colossal warhammer high and brought it down against the floor hard enough that sparks and stone fragments issued forth from where the hammer struck.

“Excellent,” Karaxis said. “I can kill all three of you now and free up my schedule. And, I suppose, I could free up my acolytes. Who were careless enough that you managed to restrain them all.” Karaxis lacked the lungs needed to heave a proper sigh, but the noise he let loose was an impressive attempt nonetheless.

“You should reconsider,” the paladin commanded.

Karaxis cackled. “And why is that? Who dares tell me what I, Karaxis the Endless Dread, should do?”

“I am Temperance, Paladin of the House Ravencroft,” Temperance said. “Though that may mean little, I believe this will.” She glanced downwards, shifting her warhammer to position it over something. Karaxis followed Temperance’s gaze and gasped.

“My phylactery!” Karaxis howled. “How did you find it? And so quickly? I hid it using magics more complex and powerful than any mere mortal could possibly understand!”

Temperance shook her head. “This isn’t the part where you get to ask questions, I’m afraid,” she said. “First you need to listen.”

The archlich cocked its skull to the side. “Listen?” he asked. “To what, exactly?”

Temperance narrowed her eyes, lowering the warhammer’s head slowly and deliberately. The blessed metal making up the weapon caused sparks of fel magic to spark and hiss where it met the surface of the phylactery.

“The lady said it’s not the time for questions,” Aranza taunted. “You got dirt in your ears?”

“Fine,” Karaxis said. He waved a clawed hand through the air at Temperance. “You have my undivided attention.”

Temperance nodded. “Perfect,” she said. “I’m sure you’re wondering what we’re doing here. It’s a long tale, and it all began with those two would-be burglars and an attempt to rob the Adventurer’s Guild’s coffers.”

Monty cleared his throat loudly. “Maybe we could skip some of those details? Focus on the important parts?”

Karaxis raised a single, pointed finger and a haze of miasma clouded over Monty’s mouth. “Quiet,” he said. “Now I’m certainly curious as to how this tale plays out. Do go on. I do so hope there is danger and intrigue in this tale.”

“Thank you,” Temperance replied. “Now, where was I? Ah, yes. The night of the heist.”

Piece 8 – The Race to Reclaim the Pieces

A gust of wind slammed hard against the door, though thankfully the door barely budged. The inside of the hut was simple but cozy–a bed jutted out from one wall; a fire crackled in the hearth, magnificent tongues of emerald, amethyst, and amber flames flickering around the iron cauldron held aloft by a single hook that didn’t appear to be attached to anything; a modest-sized table flanked by mismatched, hand-carved chairs on all four sides, took up a sizeable portion of the floor.

“You were followed,” The Soothsayer said. “Not that I’m surprised. I was expecting three guests. One familiar, one harboring ill will, and a stranger from far away.”

“I’m guessing I’m the stranger?” Curian hazarded.

The Soothsayer turned, his eyes meeting Curian’s causing her to flinch. His eye sockets weren’t empty–something was there, but it was like a hint of fog. Through it Curian could see bone.

“You’re not of this world,” The Soothsayer said, returning his attention to the cauldron. He shuffled to a small cabinet and produced two tankards. He took them to the cauldron, their handles gripped in one hand, and ladled a dark liquid into each. He turned to the table, setting the tankards down.

“Sit, please,” The Soothsayer said as he took the seat nearest to him. Curian and Sophia sat at each of his sides.

“Tea?” Curian guessed, glancing into to the tankard-full of inky black liquid. It looked more like the sea on a stormy night to her, and she found she couldn’t look at it for too long without shapes forming beneath the surface. She noticed The Soothsayer watching her intently.

“See something?” The Soothsayer asked, smiling.

Sophia opened her mouth to speak, but stopped short when The Soothsayer raised a hand.

Curian looked into the tankard. Shapes began to move around in the liquid again, gaining clarity the longer Curian observed them.

“The Crow commands the skies, their talons judgement rained down from the heavens,” Curian said, the words falling forward on command. “The Eel lords over the deeps, devouring anything and everything to satisfy their endless greed. The wolf prowls the forests and the plains, ceaselessly seeking out lost souls to snuff out. Three that are one. One that is three.”

“The Morrigan,” Sophia whispered. “I had always thought them a fairy tale meant to keep unruly children in line.”

The Soothsayer shook his head. “Your knowledge thwarts your wisdom,” he said. “The Morrigan are very real. Where Dullahan rides, The Morrigan follow to claim the fallen souls. We have much to discuss and only so little time, stranger.”

“I normally prefer Curian,” Curian offered.

“Let us compromise by saying I will call you stranger,” The Soothsayer replied, “and you will be able to remain safe in my home while Babd circles high above.”

“Fair enough,” Curian replied, eyes darting to the ceiling.

The Soothsayer sighed. “We have much to discuss and only so little time, I’m sorry to say,” he said. “I took the liberty of drawing up a map and marking down the places you must travel to should you wish to thwart Dullahan. I can give you no more information than that and would give you no less.”

Curian furrowed her brow. “Why can’t you?”

“And thank you for what you can provide!” Sophia added hastily.

The Soothsayer shook his head. “The spirits only give me so much to work with, after all, and my sight is clouded by something frightful on the horizon. You need to collect the pieces of the Prognosticarium before Dullhan, or he shall ride from world to world with death following in his stead.”

Curian stood up. “I won’t stand for that,” she said, trying to sound brave.

“And I’ll travel alongside you on this journey,” Sophia added.

The Soothsayer smiled. “You’re both quite brave,” he said. “Perhaps too brave? Time will tell. Drink up. That tea should keep you energized long enough to at least make it to the end of the tunnel.”

Curian raised an eyebrow. “Tunnel?” she asked.

The Soothsayer stood up, gesturing for Sophia and Curian to do the same. They did, picking their tankards up. The Soothsayer laid his hands down on the table, palms flat, and pressed down.Nothing happened at first, but after a moment of him pressing down on the table there was a light click. The floor beneath the table crumbled, slowly and deliberately, until it formed a narrow spiral staircase.

“Mind your step,” The Soothsayer instructed. “Give your eyes a moment to adjust once you’re down there, then follow the tunnel. You’re not yet ready to face Babd”

Curian gulped down the tea. It tasted far less terrible than she’d expected, but was more complex a drink than she’d normally reach for and so she offered a polite smile followed by a very abrupt and unexpected belch.

“The greatest sign of approval one could give,” The Soothsayer chuckled. “Now go. Time is a precious resource, and you’re both wasting it dallying here.” Curian lead the way with Sophia following slowly behind.

Curian paused, Sophia nearly bumping into her. “Thanks for saving us from the murder-bird,” Curian said. “And the tea. And the cryptic help, I suppose.”

The Soothsayer waved a hand in the air dismissively. “Less talking,” he scolded. “You can thank me later.”

Curian offered a lazy salute. Sophia bowed. They continued down the stair, the light fading the deeper they moved. The dim light from above was gradually replaced by a soft, green glow emanating from dense patches moss on the tunnel walls. Trickles of water trailed down the walls, tracing shallow valleys in the earth around them.

“Hope this is as sturdy as The Soothsayer’s place,” Curian said, glancing at the tunnel’s ceiling.

“Let’s move quickly so we don’t have to further investigate your line of inquiry,” Sophia replied with a smile, walking a little faster. Curian chuckled, following Sophia’s lead.

The tunnel sloped gently downwards, the glow from the moss shifting colors to a deeper green. Water dripped freely from the ceiling, its plunking against the tunnel floor the only interruption to the silence.

“Where do you think it opens up?” Curian asked.

Sophia stopped, glancing around. “I can’t say with certainty,” she said. “Only one way to find out, yes?” She smiled at Curian reassuringly, turned, and continued walking along.

The floor of the tunnel gradually, almost imperceptibly, began to slope back upwards. The gradual slope gave way to a more noticeable incline. The flat, featureless floor gave way to meticulously carved stairs. The duo climbed the stairs, the light of the moss gradually dimming as the tunnel walls grew closer and the moss grew more sparse.

Sophia stopped abruptly with a thud and a muttering of curses. “I suspect I found the exit,” she grumbled.

“Wait,” Curian whispered. She stepped around Sophia, careful to not hit her head. She reached blindly, moving her hands along the earthen walls until they scratched against a rough wooden surface. She carefully moved her hand along the wooden surface until she found something cold. She wrapped her fingers around it and leaned into what she hoped was a door. It gave way with a dull creak, daggers of sunlight piercing in around the wooden hatch.

“Not to sound weak, but a little help wouldn’t hurt,” Curian said as she continued to push.

Sophia leaned into the wooden hatch with her shoulder, pushing upwards as well. It shifted up, then fell forward with a soft rustle. The sunlight was bright, the air outside pleasantly warm.

“So beautiful,” Sophia said as she stepped out onto the hillside. Towering trees dense with vibrant emerald leaves covered much of the horizon.

“Can’t disagree,” Curian said stepping out of the tunnel. “The forest isn’t half-bad either.” She smirked at Sophia, breaking into a full smile when Sophia blushed. The forest, she noticed, looked familiar.

“This is where one of the pieces landed!” Curian called out triumphantly. She scanned the horizon until she spotted what she was looking for–a trio of trees that stood taller than the others, each resplendent in glittering golden leaves. Curian pointed in the direction of the trees and began walking forward. Sophia tried to keep pace, catching up with Curian.

Before they could process the sharp snapping sound, the world shifted violently. The net closed around them and jerked to a stop halfway up a nearby tree. The surrounding bushes began to shake as figures, concealed in clothing perfectly matched to the terrain, emerged.

Stories ahead

It’s the start of a new week with a new month just days away, so I wanted to start something new as well. No, I’m not just talking about the EVO planner I caved and bought.

(I’m an Oracle, by the way – we’ll see how well this Oracle utilizes this planner, I guess.)

However!

In the spirit of new months and trying new things, I wanted to announce the beginnings of Fantasy Fridays and Sci-Fi Saturdays! This Friday kicks things off with the next installment of A Puzzling New World. As for Saturday? Next Friday and Saturday?

Those are surprises.

I promise they’ll be worth it, though.

And! Most amazing of all, so long as I keep with it, is there will be a regular schedule.

I’m very excited, and I hope those of you who have been kind enough to follow along (and maybe some more folks, I hope) will enjoy where these stories are going.

Piece 7 – The Soothsayer, The Crow, and the Truth

“That does present a problem,” Sophia repeated for what must have, Curian thought, been the hundredth or so time. She paused, tapping a finger against her chin. “I don’t suppose you’re familiar with where the pieces of the Prognosticarium landed, are you?”

Curian raised her gaze to meet Sophia, fingers still pressed hard against her temples.

“I caught glimpses of where the pieces landed,” Curian said, jaw clenched. “I don’t know the name of any of the places, and I didn’t see much of what was around.”

“Giving Dullahan a clear advantage, certainly,” Sophia replied. She nodded along to her thoughts for a moment, mouthing words too quickly for Curian to follow the internal conversation.

“Aha!” Sophia cried out, snapping her fingers for emphasis.

Curian raised an eyebrow. “Care to share your breakthrough?”

“The Soothsayer! He’ll be able to help!” Sophia replied. Before Curian could respond, Sophia grabbed her by the arm and lead her to the door. She stopped at the edge of the beach and stared skywards, a hand held up to the stars. She took off sprinting again, disappearing from view as she ran around the Astrarium.

“I’ll just wait here,” Curian said, sitting down in the sand. She stared out at the inky blackness of the ocean, its gentle waves distorting the night sky’s reflection. There was a brief flash of something just beneath the surface, but it vanished as quickly as it appeared. The brief, unclear vision was enough to make Curian leap to her feet and step back closer to the Astrarium.

After several moments of only the soft notes of the ocean and the occasional seabird’s caw from high overhead as her company, Curian heard something being dragged along the sand. She looked toward the direction of the sound and spotted Sophia dragging a small wooden boat along the beach.

Sophia paused, hunched over briefly before offering Curian a polite smile. “Could you help?” she asked. “It’s heavier than it looks.”

“Oh Gods,” Curian said, warmth spreading around her cheeks. She hurried over and grabbed hold of the length of rope Sophia was using to pull the boat. They made it to the water’s edge and stopped. Sophia looked around the night sky once again before returning her attention to Curian.

“The Soothsayer is the only source of wisdom greater than the Astrarium,” she explained. “Some say he’s as old as the day before the world was born. With some luck and what you can recall of where the pieces landed we may get an edge over Dullahan in collecting them.”

Curian nodded along as she listened. “If Dullahan gets all of the pieces…” she said, pausing. “Bad things happen?”

Sophia pursed her lips. “I don’t have the entire answer,” she conceded. “Nothing I’ve read indicated a particularly cheerful outcome if you must know.” She sighed, shaking away whatever thoughts had crept in, and forced a smile.

“Ready to set sail?”

Curian shrugged. “I don’t suppose there’s any other way?” she asked, helping push the modest vessel into the sea.

“I see you know the answer,” Sophia replied, stepping aboard. Curian did the same, and gently pushed the boat away from the shore. The water parted gently around the small boat, ripples displacing mirrored images of the starry sky above.

Sophia focused on the stars, occasionally shifting the boat’s rudder with a mechanism at the helm. Curian fixed her gaze first on the horizon, and when that proved to be too difficult she then raised her eyes to the sky. There were so many stars, and if she watched long enough she caught one as it streaked across the blackness and out of sight.

“Beautiful,” Curian muttered.

“It is, isn’t it?” Sophia replied, still focused on guiding the boat. “Only rarely do I get chances to leave the Astrarium.”

Curian glanced at Sophia, who returned her gaze briefly. “Let’s make the best of this trip. For you.”

Sophia chuckled. “Very kind of you,” she said. “I suspect there will be many trials along the way, however.”

Curian frowned. Dullahan crept into her thoughts again, and she found herself wondering about the eel she promised to deal with eventually. She was no hero, only a lowly thief who happened to occasionally come into a few silvers here and there.

“Sure,” Curian replied absentmindedly.

A wide, long wisp of a cloud glided swiftly overhead, briefly blotting out a vast swath of night where it roamed. Curian shivered, pulling her cloak tighter around herself. She opened her mouth to speak again, but stopped short as something appeared on the horizon. It was small at first, very easy to miss against the backdrop of inky black sea and star-riddled sky.

A quaint cottage on a sprawling island, surrounded by trees.

“Our destination,” Sophia confirmed, offering Curian a smile.

The boat gently glided from sea to sand, and then it stopped. Another wide, vast cloud blotted out the night, moving opposite the previous one. Sophia tensed visibly.

“We appear to have been followed,” Sophia murmured so quietly Curian could barely hear. “We need to walk swiftly, but not run, along the path. Do as I do.”

Sophia moved along, melting into the shadows of the many trees flanking the path. This was, of course, something Curian excelled at, and so she followed suit. A sudden rush of air from above struck the ground, throwing sand up from the path. Curian shielded her eyes for a moment, and that was all it took to lose sight of Sophia.

“Gods damn it,” Curian muttered. She stared into the shadows ahead, but even with her acute Dwarven vision she still couldn’t spot Sophia.

The hair stood up on the back of Curian’s neck. Something was most certainly watching her. Another rush of air–this one hot, and right behind her. Curian hazarded a glance over her shoulder. Her face reflected in the one colossal crimson eye housed in a head easily twice her size, a gigantic, sharp beak passing by her left side.

Before Curian could react, a hand wrapped around hers. She heard a familiar voice command her to run, and before she could process what was going on she had taken off in a sprint towards the cottage. Sophia held her hand tightly, pulling her along.

Another swift burst of air followed immediately by a world-shaking caw was more than enough to let Curian know the bird had taken to the sky.

“Gods, my legs could fall off” Sophia cursed under her breath as she pulled Curian along. The door was a short distance ahead, and as Curian felt the dread giving way to a feeling of relief her foot found a root that had emerged at just the right angle. Her speed was enough to both stop her sprint and take her down hard, her hand slipping from Sophia’s as she fell to the ground. Curian threw her arms up in enough time to shield herself, and felt the warm sting of fresh woulds where the stones on the path had cleaved through her sleeves.

“Key! Give us the key!” the gigantic bird called out as it swooped downwards. Sophia grabbed hold of both of Curian’s hands and hauled her to her feet. They ran, not a word exchanged between them as the deafening roar of wings crashed through the air behind them.

The door to the cottage opened abruptly, a frail old man backlit by lanternlight suddenly visible. He held a gnarled tree branch straight ahead of himself, one eye shut and the other eye being used to line up the end of the branch with something.

Sophia shoved Curian to the side, leaping the opposite way. A jet of painfully bright light issued forth from the branch and met its mark. The great bird reeled, its course disrupted. It sneered, shrieking something older than words and twice as foul as any curse Curian had ever heard, and then suddenly, with a thunderous flap of its mighty wings, the creature shot upwards and out of sight.

Sophia reached the doorway and old man first, stopping to catch her breath.

“You have our endless thanks, kindly sir,” she said.

“Thanks nothin’,” the old man spat. “My bones had said you would be getting her sooner. They’re never wrong.”

Curian smiled. “You must be the Soothsayer,” she said.

“And you’re a regular world-wrecker,” the Soothsayer replied. “Get your asses inside before Badb circles back or my bones will have been way off. Can’t very well have that now.”

Curian and Sophia did as instructed. As the door shut, Curian was sure she heard the beating of immense wings growing closer again.

Piece Six – Piecing Together the Quest Ahead

Curian rolled the name around in her mouth for a moment, aware she was being watched.

“Dullahan,” Curian repeated. “Should I know that name? I feel like I should know that name for some reason.”

Sophia shook her head. “Based on what I’ve found, and it’s quite severely limited I’m afraid,” she explained, “Dullahan leaves few to no survivors in his wake. If you knew of him, you should count yourself very lucky.”

Curian shook her head. “I doubt it,” she said, frowning. “What else does it say? Anything about the Prognosticarium? What it has to do with Dullahan?”

“The text stops abruptly,” Sophia said. She turned the book and held it aloft for Curian to see. One page featured a small portrait of Dullahan. Halfway down the page, the words faded into nothingness. It wasn’t as if someone had stopped writing so much as if something had taken away what had once been there.

“Someone doesn’t want us to know the whole truth about Dullahan,” Curian said.

Sophia arched her eyebrows. “And what do you suppose that means?”

“There must be a way to stop him before he gets the Prognosticarium,” Curian said, the hint of triumph in her voice building with each word. “It means there has to be a way to defeat him. Good triumphs over evil, that sort of thing.”

Sophia opened her other hand to reveal the piece of the Prognosticarium. “I don’t suppose you saw how many pieces there were other than this one, did you?”

Curian scratched her head. She shut her eyes and inhaled deeply, then exhaled. She could hear Sophia open her mouth and, without opening her eyes, raised a finger to her lips. Sophia didn’t speak.

Another deep breath in, and another slow and lingering exhale. The darkness reeled and rushed around Curian, and suddenly she found herself back when she had first saw Dullahan atop the ruined tower. She spotted herself standing next to the trinket–the Prognosticarium. It had just begun spinning rapidly, right before when it stopped and dispersed itself. Curian focused, and the world of her memory slowed around her.

One piece rocketed off towards the north. A second piece to the south. A third soared just over snow-capped mountains in the east. A fourth mired itself in marshlands to the west. A fifth piece traveled a short distance before burying itself deep in the heart of a forest. A sixth piece moved too fast for Curian to follow, even when fully focused on what she had seen. The seventh and final piece was the one she grabbed onto. The one that Sophia currently held.

Something unusual happened, however. Before she could retreat back to the present, a rush of cold air roared over Curian. Dullahan had turned his attention to her–not the Curian who had held fast to the piece of the trinket as it carried her at blinding speeds over the land before depositing her in a sea. Dullahan was looking directly at the present Curian.

“You are a fascinating little creature,” Dullahan said, chuckling. “I found myself wondering where I would find the pieces of the Prognosticarium after you so foolishly caused it to slip from my grasp, but here you are giving me a map to find its pieces.”

“What?” Curian spat. “That’s cheating, damn you!”

Curian snapped back to reality, a torrent of curses pouring from her mouth.

“By the Gods,” Sophia said. “Such foul language. What just happened? You were here but clearly not.”

Curian shook her head. “It’s a memory trick,” she replied. “Got an old archmage to each me how to do it after I beat him in a game of chance.”

Sophia nodded approvingly. “How fortuitous.”

“Helps that I cheated,” Curian replied. “Anyway, if I focus I can go back to when I’m trying to remember and watch things play out. I saw where the pieces of the Prognosticarium went.”

“That’s fantastic news!” Sophia cheered. “And yet you look displeased.”

“Dullahan saw exactly where the pieces went, too.”