Wanted Adventurers – A Tale of Two Towns

“Murkmuck Heights was beautiful, it was,” Brutus explained. “Bogwater to the edge of each yard gave us all ample fishing spaces, and the crops we grew…” The Bridge Troll’s eyes focused on a distant place not of the world but instead in a place of memory.

“I was but a young lad when Murkmuck was that way, before these thieving, thoughtless fools showed up,” Brutus continued, his gaze now fixed on the people of Ankheim who cowered just within the city’s gates, visible but clearly ready to flee to safety.

The old man stepped forward and straightened up, his expression sour. “That’s not how I recall it, and I was nearly an old man when you were the young troll you say you were back then,” he snapped.

Aranza produced a throwing knife in each hand, prepared to strike. “Give me a reason,” she hissed. “Just one.”

Monty raised a hand. “What’s your name, elder?” he added. “Let’s start with that, and be cautious to not provoke my travel companion as she has something of a temper. Her aim’s truer than any you’ve ever met.”

The old man hesitated, his eyes flicking between Aranza and Monty. “Graham Lockhaven. The current mayor. The last one fled, screaming, across the bridge into the night and was never seen again. Likely eaten by that foul creature!”

Aranza sighed. “You were doing so well.” She raised a dagger, but stopped short of throwing it.

“Thank you,” Monty said.

“Yes, I would prefer to not have to detain you,” Temperance added.

Aranza glared at her travel companions. “I didn’t do it for either of you,” she snapped. “Those aren’t the eyes of a murderer or a thief. A sad old man, maybe. I see a lot of regret in those eyes.”

Graham winced, looking away. “We didn’t come by this land the most honest way, but the damn trolls certainly didn’t make us feel welcome.”

Aranza returned the blades to their sheaths with a sigh. “Fine. What did the Trolls do? And why is there only one?”

“My family’s legacy was here! We were all driven away, and I vowed to reclaim what was ours!” Brutus sneered.

Graham shook his head. “We came here after we were chased from our homes in Northern Verdanthia, back when the drakes still roamed freely,” he said. “Back before the Guild helped bring peace. We begged and gave everything, and the trolls agreed to give us space…So we built together. Only when the Trolls demanded we offer up more…”

“Your ilk drained the bogs! Our precious fishing grounds, all but gone and replaced with this!” Brutus snarled in response.

Aranza looked around as she listened. Monty kept a watchful eye on her, and when he saw a familiar expression cross her face he stepped aside as she walked back across the bridge. Temperance began to step into her path, but was stopped.

“Best leave her to whatever she’s up to,” Monty said as Temperanced walked to the opposite shore, then along the cliffs and out of sight.

“Oy! I didn’t say you could go!” Brutus shouted. “Definitely a Guild type, that one. No manners to speak of! Where was I, now?”

Temperance shook her head. “You were bickering back and forth regarding who was more at fault, I believe,” she replied. “I lost it somewhere along the way when my head began to hurt.”

Monty chuckled. “You’ve got some jokes, I see,” he replied.

Temperance raised an eyebrow, shifting. “I…I suppose I do,” she replied.

A bright flash of light illuminated Ankheim, its rays rushing along the valley and giving the river far below an ethereal glow. The deafening explosion followed immediately behind, the sound and shockwave enough to knock trees over. Brutus braced against it with ease, while Monty and Temperance struggled and Graham was knocked to his side.

Graham struggled to stand back up. A hand was held out, and he gasped as he saw Brutus towering over him.

“Steady does it, old man,” Brutus said. “No toll for this one. What do you reckon caused that noise?”

Graham’s eyes grew wide. “Oh Gods no,” he muttered. “Everyone inside! The damn dam’s been downed!”

Temperance and Monty followed Graham’s gaze with their own, and saw something unsettling in the distance. A towering wall of water capped by roiling foam roared onward along the valley, its height great enough to threaten the bridge.

“Lovely time to visit Ankheim, don’t you think?” Monty said, grabbing Temperance’s hand. He broke into a sprint, Temperance easily outpacing and then dragging him along. She scooped up Graham with her free arm and made it past the gathering of people.

Brutus ran after, but the gate began to shut.

“No, damn it, let him in!” Graham shouted.

The doors shut just as the tempestuous wall of water crashed down.

Wanted Adventurers – This Land Called Betrayal

Temperance narrowed her gaze, her blade still at the ready. The Bridge Troll wielded a club that was twice as wide as Temperance, armor included, and looked like a fast way to answer the unspoken question of what could knock an entire dimension worth of depth out of a knight in plate armor.

“Let’s start with the simple questions and work our way up to more complicated things, please,” Monty said, his hands up to showcase his empty palms.

“I weren’t born yesterday, elfling,” the Bridge Troll said. “I smell the iron of two daggers in each of them sleeves. Best keep those hands up and not make any sudden moves, lest you want your paladin pal here to become a tin of holy shit.”

“That’s a thought that’ll haunt my dreams for a while,” Aranza muttered. “What’s your name, friend?”

The Bridge Troll cocked his head, his eyes now on Aranza. “Brazen of you to call me friend, friend,” he replied. He hesitated. “Suppose no harm in telling. It’s Brutus.”

Temperance smirked. “Let me guess,” she replied. “Your last name is something like ‘Skullcrusher’.”

Aranza knocked the sword from Temperance’s hand. “We’re going to have a long, unpleasant chat about that kind of nonsense later.”

Brutus nodded. “It’s Smith, I’ll have you know, and that was my family’s trade back before the village was stolen from us.”

“The Troll speaks lies! Lies!” shouted a voice from across the bridge. The party and Brutus turned their attention to its source. A number of humanoid faces were visible between the towering doors that closed Ankheim off from the world, the doors having been opened just enough.

“Oh, good, we can have a pleasant little conversation about how you damned humans and elves conned me and me family out of our rightful homestead,” Brutus sneered.

There was a collective muttering from the people just inside the doorway, and one was shoved forward. He was an older man, his eyes sunken in and his beard down to his knees. In another life, his garb may have suggested he was a powerful wizard. His stagger and sway, however, accompanied by the silver flask gripped in his hand suggested that life was not one he remembered well unless it came to needing to not pay a bar tab.

“You rob us at every turn!” the old man shouted.

“Just like you did to me and me family!”

Monty whistled sharply enough that the old man, Brutus, and Temperance had to cover their ears. Aranza shrugged, her hint of a smirk enough to suggest she was used to hearing the noise.

“Let’s get to the bottom of this, shall we?” Monty said. “I hear two tales of taking, and I want to know the truth before we come in and do…What it is that the Guild would deem appropriate.”

The old man perked up.

“No, you shut up,” Aranza said. “I trust Brutus. He seems honest. You smell like you could catch fire if you got too close to a lit match.”

The old man furrowed his brow, though his anger gave way to acceptance. “You raise a fair point, rude Orc.”

Brutus waved a hand at Ankheim. “Several years and generations ago, what before the swamp was drained and diverted, Ankheim wasn’t Ankheim,” he said. “It was Murkmuck Heights.”

The old man made a gagging sound. “Your family had nothing more than huts and ravenous alligators that plagued you!”

“Stop talking or I’ll throw you off of the bridge myself,” Aranza replied flatly.

Brutus offered a slight nod to Aranza. “Like I were saying, they came along. It wasn’t always bad, no. They helped us build up the village from the swampland. Make it less miserable living as it was, but as is often the case with humans they inevitably betrayed us and took the results of our hard work for themselves.”

Wanted Adventurers – A Matter of Perspective

The journey to Ankheim took longer than expected, as Trundles was a boar with little attention to her rider’s directions and a powerful appetite. After three stops for snacks, it was decided a solution was needed for the sake of expediency.

Aranza smiled back at Temperance and Monty from a good distance ahead, the apple she’d rigged up to a simple combination of rope and a stick that was held just out of Trundles’ reach a powerful motivator for the boar.

“Don’t look so smug there,” Monty called. “You’ll be the first one to be eaten by the Bridge Troll if this goes sideways!”

“She had a good idea, though,” Temperance said. “Clever of her to use the boar’s endless appetite to her advantage.”

Monty gave Temperance a sideways glance. “Don’t let her hear you say that or she’ll never shut up about this.”

“Too late, I heard all of it!” Aranza shouted back.

“Gods damn it,” Monty said.

The horses clipclopped along the weathered dirt road, the metal of their horseshoes occasionally striking a stone from a time when there may have been some improvements in process before being abandoned.

“Have you ever been to Ankheim?” Monty asked Temperance, his eyes still fixed on the road ahead. They continued along at a pace that would ensure their arrival before sunset, which in turn guaranteed they would encounter the Bridge Troll they were tasked with removing.

“Sorry, did I need to use your title there or something to address you properly?” Monty asked “Guild Paladin Temperance, have you ever been to Ankheim before?”

Temperance blinked. “Oh. I’m sorry, I didn’t…” she hesitated. “I didn’t think you were talking to me, to be honest. No, I haven’t. I have heard quite a bit about it, as they pay handsomely for special Guild protections.”

Monty chuckled. “Tell me something I don’t know,” he replied. “You’re in for a treat. Assuming we can deal with this Troll, that is. Better than going straight after a Lich, I suppose.”

Temperance smiled. “Suppose you’re right.”

A walled town appeared on the horizon. The heights of its walls glittered gold in the fading sunlight of the day. Two massive, iron doors blocked the only point of entry to the town and were the only thing separating the town from the bridge that spanned a steep valley and kept travelers from plunging into the Ankheim River. Few would suggest the Ankheim River is anything shy of a pleasant and slow-moving, but to follow it for too long beyond Ankheim would lead one to the Serpentus Falls. These were noteworthy for being a very sharp drop that was followed by an abrupt, often deadly stop.

The bridge that spanned the gap was stone, and fairly standard in appearance. Any bridgebuilder would be proud to call it their work, and rightfully so as it had occupied that span for greater than one hundred years without incident.

Aranza brought Trundles to a stop the easiest way she could manage, by dropping the apple. She dismounted, hammered a tent post into the ground, and tied Trundles’ harness to the post.

“By the Gods, you two certainly took your time,” Aranza taunted. “Busy having a buddy adventure back there while I scouted ahead?”

“You know my only friendly travel companion is you, Aranza,” Monty snarked back. “Any word on the Troll with whom we are to contend?”

They stood just beyond the edge of the bridge and considered their options. Bridge Trolls were at home in the underside of bridge, and often laid traps for careless travelers. Some, however, favored brute force over brainy approaches. The one universal truth to Bridge Trolls, however, was a simple one: pay the toll or be devoured by the troll.

Temperance unsheathed her sword and stepped forward. A sudden flurry of movement was barely visible beneath the bridge–little more than a large, dark shape that moved in the shadows.

Aranza elbowed Monty. “Don’t think we get off the hook if let her die, Monty,” she pointed out. “Flip a copper to see who goes to save her?”

Monty sighed. “You’re not wrong, but we don’t have time,” he replied. He palmed a dagger, the flash of silver gone as quickly as it appeared, and walked with purposes to meet Temperance before the Bridge Troll did.

“Let’s be reasonable here, my goodly Guild…handler? No, that’s not the word I’m looking for, is it,” Monty said as he stepped between Temperance and the last step onto the bridge. “You are clearly a Paladin of action, and that’s admirable.”

“We cannot let a monster dictate the terms by which our people live,” Temperance replied. She opened her mouth to speak again, only to shut it abruptly. Her eyes grew wide.

The rumbling grew from a subtle accompaniment to the river’s babbling below to a cacophony on par with an avalanche roaring down a mountainside.

“Monty, you were supposed to stop her,” Aranza called out as she ran over to join her traveling companions. “Not step onto the bridge, you gnollwit!” She smiled sheepishly up at the Bridge Troll.

The troll towered over the trio, at least twice Monty’s height. Muscles, built for scaling cliffs and clinging to the undersides of bridges (that also served their owner well in ventures such as smashing careless adventurers’ skulls), bulged within the troll’s stone-like slate gray skin. Long, curved fangs jutted out of the troll’s gaping maw at wild angles as it returned the smile.

“Goodness me, what a curious predicament we’ve got ourselves here,” the Bridge Troll said.

Temperance assumed a defensive pose while Monty moved out from between her and the troll while he muttered a series of apologies.

“You’re right,” Temperance said. “You’ve extorted your last gold piece from Ankheim and its good people!”

The Bridge Troll cocked his head, his large red eyes squinted in visible confusion. “The good people of Ankheim?” he roared with laughter. “You Guild types are all the same. Proper jesters and fools, really.”

Aranza stifled a chuckle. “I feel obligated to disagree presently, but say for the sake of curiosity I’d like to know what makes this particular Guild fool a fool in this case?”

Temperance shot a quick, dagger-filled glance over her shoulder at Aranza, who simply shrugged in reply.

“Ankheim weren’t Ankheim forever, you misinformed miscreants,” the Bridge Troll sneered. “That’s enough talk, methinks. Either pay the toll, or…Well, surely you lot know the rest.”

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!”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

Wanted Adventurers: Sage Wisdom in a Dark Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nothing at all,” Aranza said flatly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wealth-enriching potions?” Monty asked.

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

“Hardly your concern,” Monty said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silence settled back in and Monty resumed his pacing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She seems pleasant,” Monty snarked.

“Very talkative,” Aranza replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.