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.

Follow The Ashes: An Attempted Coup, Take Two

Cas walked along the field, the tall grass swishing gently at her sides. There was nothing particularly striking about the landscape–the occasional boulder here or tree stump there, but otherwise it seemed like there was nothing, and an abundance of it extending far into the distance.

“Question everything,” Cas muttered, thinking back to her time with Raph. “Well, what am I looking for here? How do I proceed?” She sat down on a tree stump to pause for a moment. There was a sharp clicking sound, followed by the click-click-clicking of gears. The stump rose up, lifting Cas just high enough her feet weren’t touching the ground. Before she could react, the field in front of her lowered into sharp decline into darkness.

“Oh, shit,” Cas said as tilted forward, dropping her down the ramp. She fell into the darkness. Every muscle tensed as she focused on not screaming. She landed on something smooth and continued her descent, sliding along without control nor any light to allow a guess as to what her destination may have been.

Cas’s downward journey ended as suddenly as it began. She fell forward onto something soft, face-first, and groaned quietly.

“I should hope I don’t experience that again any time soon,” she muttered to herself.

The room exploded in blinding white light. Cas shielded her eyes, wincing in pain. There were footsteps very near. Someone pulled Cas to her feet and bound her hands behind her back before shoving her away. She landed on the soft surface of the floor, and waited.

“Who sent you?” The voice was strangely familiar, but Cas couldn’t place it. She hazarded opening her eyes slowly, the sting from the shift from absolute darkness to blinding light still lingering. The room was less harshly lit, and outlines of several people–blurred, but gradually coming into focus–surrounded Cas.

One leaned forward and snapped in front of Cas’s face. “Who sent you?” she demanded.

Cas blinked. The woman wore a simple gray jumpsuit, a patch sewn on above her heart depicting a phoenix rising from flames.

“No one,” Cas said. “I was lost, and found this place purely through bad luck.”

A man, remarkable in how average he was, stepped approached the woman. “Ma’am, the footage shows our guest wandering the Stratofield outside of Junction proper,” he said, adding. “She’s clearly lost, if not perhaps even clueless.”

Cas narrowed her eyes at the man. “Yes, thank you for vouching for me, a stranger who is also obviously a buffoon,” she snarked in response. “And what is Junction, exactly?”

“Junction’s the reason we’re down here,” the woman replied. “If you’re not with them and you weren’t sent by them, you’re about to get put to work. we need all the able bodies we can get for this mission and you look capable enough.” She extended a hand to help Cas to her feet, then smirked.

“Hang on a second,” the woman said. She reached into a pouch on a small belt around her hips and produced a thin strip of metal that gave off a dull blue light. The woman squeezed the piece of metal between her thumb and index finger, and Cas felt whatever had held her hands together behind her back as it fell away.

“Thank you, I suppose,” Cas said, massaging her wrists where she’d been bound. “If I am to aid in whatever it is you need of me, perhaps some details could be provided. Is that fair to ask?”

The man looked nervous, but the woman shrugged. “You’re here, like it or not, but I don’t see how having some intel on what you’ve gotten yourself into could hurt,” she said.

“Call me Gin,” she said. “Good a name as any. You got a name, newbie?”

“Cas,” Cas replied. “Also good a name as any, as I’m not even certain if that’s my name.”

“Sounds fine to me,” Gin replied. “Don’t need to know your past. Walk with me.” She offered Cas her hand again, and Cas accepted. Gin pulled Cas to her feet effortlessly, turned, and walked towards a large opening.

Cas followed, finding herself on a long catwalk flanked by modest dwellings.

“Welcome to Junction,” Gin said. “Datum Junction. Or Neo-Junction if you ask the Stratodwellers. Sometimes they even call it Dead Junction when they don’t realize we’re still around, walking among them.”

Cas attempted to take in her surroundings while also focusing on Gin as she spoke. The technology of the houses looked very modern. Display panels in place of windows, each capable of going fully transparent on command. Doors opened and shut based on the approach or departure of the homeowner.

“Dead Junction?” Cas repeated, curiosity piqued. “This seems a bit too lively to have been labeled as dead.”

“You’d think that, right? And I can’t fault you for thinking that way,” Gin said. “Makes sense.” She stopped, turning around on the catwalk. She gestured broadly at the homes and people.

“You’re looking at one of the last pockets of our society,” Gin explained. “The Imperious family, wealthy and endless in their ability to overlook their least cared-for people, ceded control of the oxygen pumps to the power barons. Rich goons running the power plants that keep the lights on in Junction. They keep the party going, sure, but there’s a cost. Only so much power to go around.”

Cas considered this. “And so it’s diverted from here to keep things moving there,” she thought aloud.

Gin snapped her fingers, pointing at Cas. “You got it,” she said. “They make sure the lights stay on there and, hey, if part of the less important population suffocates in the middle of the night it’s not a major loss.”

“That’s monstrous,” Cas replied.

“A strong grasp of the obvious,” Gin said. “We’ve tried reasoning with the Imperious family, but haven’t made any progress. Tonight’s the night that’ll change.”

“How so?”

Gin tilted her head to the left, then to the right. “Good question,” she asked. “Let me answer with a question of my own. Ever overthrow a government?”

Cas raised an eyebrow. “Not that I can recall, and I suspect that’s a detail of one’s life they would remember,” she said.

“I’d hope so, or you must have a pretty damn intense life,” Gin said. “Anyway, you’re here and you’re going to help assassinate the Lady Imperious Regina Andromedus tonight. The coronation ceremony has already begun, a long party in the streets before they arrive at the Room of Unity.” Gin laughed mirthlessly.

“If I refuse?” Cas replied.

“You’d be dooming the rest of these people to untimely deaths,” Gin said. “I’d ensure your survival just so you knew what you did. One death versus hundreds. That sit well with you?”

Cas tensed. “I have no choice, then,” she replied. “What role will I play?”

Gin stared at Cas for a moment. “That’s it? No other questions?”

Cas looked around. There was little effort by the many people watching from their homes to hide that they were watching the conversation between her and Gin. Many of them looked anxious or afraid.

“No,” Cas replied.

“One death over hundreds of murders it is, then,” Gin said. “You and I will be there to see this through while a handful of my most trusted soldiers will keep Junction’s guards busy.” Gin turned on her heels and continued forward. The catwalks sloped gently upwards, stopping at a tall building that reached into the earthen ceiling.

“The Nexus of Gathering,” Gin said. “It’s directly beneath their Room of Unity, and how we’ll arrive to the party in time to put a very early end to Lady Imperious Regina Andromedus’ reign.”

They entered the chamber. Gin paused at the doorway, retrieving a hooded cloak and two pistols.

Cas froze as Gin donned the cloak, her face shrouded by artificial shadow upon pulling the hood over her head. Gin held out a pistol, which Cas reluctantly accepted.

“Something wrong? Or have you had a sudden change of heart?” Gin asked.

Cas shook her head. “No, it’s…” she paused. “There’s no way I’ve met you before, is there?”

Gin shrugged. “I’ve lived in Datum Junction since I was a child,” she said. “Never met an outsider until today, so I’d say no. Don’t know you. Never met you.” She pointed upwards.

Staircases lined the walls, crossing overhead before winding their ways back to the walls. Points of artificial light were barely visible high above.

“Better get moving,”

Gin approached the stairs along the left wall and started walking up them, not waiting for Cas.

“Suppose I should follow.” Cas began to climb the stairs, pausing for a moment. Gin moved with purpose, the pistol at her side. Cas glanced at the identical pistol she’d been given. It looked simple, almost primitive, compared to some of the tech around them.

“Hurry it up or we’ll miss our chance,” Gin demanded.

Cas climbed the stairs faster, ignoring the dull ache beginning in her legs. Above, she could hear a crowd cheering. The door they arrived at was concealed in a pillar. Gin pushed it open silently, disappearing into the room beyond. Cas followed, and was immediately swallowed up by the crowd on the other side. Brightly colored clothing and masks everywhere.

“Good people of Junction!” boomed a man’s voice. “It is my great honor to present the crown to our beloved Lady Imperious Regina Andromedus. May she watch over us and guide us to continued prosperity for one hundred years or more!”

“Now!” Gin shouted over the roar of the crowd. “They’ve spotted me! Do it now!”

Cas looked to the stage ahead, targeting Lady Imperious Regina Andromedus with the pistol she’d been given. Cas froze, unable to process what she was seeing.

The woman on the stage – Regina Andromedus – looked exactly the same as Gin.

There was a loud crackling sound and a blinding pain. She fell forward hard, and the world went dark.

A deep, warm voice said something Cas could barely hear. “This didn’t go as it should have either. Third try’s the charm, yes?”

The field was empty, stretching out far in each direction around Cas as she staggered to her feet. A dull ache pervaded the back of her head.

“What the hell happened?” Cas asked.

“An excellent starting point,” boomed a warm, familiar voice. “Asking questions.”

Cas spun around, fists raised. A portly man stood where Cas was certain no one had been seconds before, dressed in an elaborate, garishly colorful outfit. He offered a polite smile.

“There isn’t much time,” the man said. “Very little time indeed. We must get it right this time, so I’ll need you to listen to me and do exactly as I say. I know that’s asking a lot, but can you do that?”

Cas winced, the throbbing pain in her head rearing its ugly head again. She squinted through the pain, and when her vision refocused she noticed something out of place. A smudge of gray-white among the bright colors.

Ashes.

“Something tells me I’ll want to hear what you have to say,” Cas said. “What is it I must get right?”

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.”

Warpt Factor – Installment 9

The Ruklan soldier tapped a few points on its body armor. The visor of his helmet became transparent, revealing a crescent moon shaped eye arching along his forehead.

“Surrender or die, Rigellian scum!” the soldier said with the measured tone of one repeating a well-rehearsed line.

“Yep, sounds good,” Izzy replied. “Take us to your leader, please. Do people actually say that?”

“In movies?” CMO Carter offered in response.

The Ruklan soldier furrowed his brow. “Surrender…” he said, pausing. “Excuse me a moment, I apologize. The software for the translator unit just updated and I’m not entirely sure I heard you correctly. Did you say you surrender?”

Izzy nodded, offering a thumbs up briefly before considering she didn’t know what it may have meant on this planet. “You heard right,” she said. “Thing is we aren’t Rigellian, though. I’m Captain Isabelle Warpt of Spiral Reach Academy. This is my crew, more or less. Plus one. My crew plus a guest.”

Fontaine chittered nervously, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.

“We have no quarrel with you or your people, then, so why are you here?” the soldier replied.

Izzy tapped at the chin of her helmet as she considered her response. “First thing’s first,” she said. “How about a nice icebreaker? Get to know each other. What’s your name, soldier? Rank? Reason for going all pewpew on the Rigellians? Oh, and favorite dessert! What’s your favorite dessert?”

“I fail to see how this is even remotely productive!” Fontaine snapped, shrinking back upon realizing he’d captured the Ruklan soldier’s attention.

The soldier blinked. “This conversation seems a bit unorthodox,” he said.

Fontaine threw all four arms up, heaving an exasperated sigh. “Thank you! See? Finally, someone with some sense!”

The Ruklan soldier responded by delivering an audible jolt of electricity to Fontaine’s midsection with his weapon, causing Fontaine to drop to the ground.

“I’m not saying he deserved that, Captain, but I’m also not saying he didn’t either,” CMO Carter said, glancing down at Fontaine’s unconscious form.

***Far from Rigel Six, in a Ziggaraut-class war-fortress***

The assembly line upgrades were completed, producing three times as many plasma cannons and neutrino grenades as they had been only a week prior. There was, naturally, no shortage of interested customers, and that knowledge brought an unsettling grin to Weapons Master Roderick Weston’s face.

His teeth were of his own design, sharpened to points so fine they could pierce like hypodermic needles while still packing enough of a punch thanks to his augmented jaw that he could bite through the hull of a ship should he want to do so. The significant tuft of clay-red beard that dominated much of his face did little to reduce his general appearance. Sweat glistened on half of his bald head–the other half of his head was polished titanium, left visible by choice to remind any who saw Roderick that much of his brain was a sophisticated computer.

A small light blinked in the periphery of Roderick’s vision, prompting him to glance over.

“Incoming communication from Eyes in the Sky Epsilon,” a computerized voice announced.

Roderick waved a hand through the air. A screen manifested, and two shadowy figures appeared.

“Ruklans overthrow the Rigellian High Court yet?” Roderick asked, an edge present to his question that suggested he had a particular answer in mind.

The two figures exchanged glances.

“Actually, sir, there’s been an anomaly,” one said.

“A Spiral Reach Academy vessel showed up,” the other added.

Roderick stroked his beard, grumbling under his breath. “One ship, you say? What’s it’s name? Who’s her Captain?” He held up a finger, making it a point to stare down both of his lackeys.

“You’re not calling to say you expect an issue in my flawless coup, are you?” Roderick asked. It was a question but also a very clear threat.

“No, sir!” said the one.

“Not in the least,” said the other. “Getting that information for you right now.”

Roderick huffed. He gestured at the screen, moving his fingers through the air with skilled precision. A smaller screen appeared next to the original. It began to play video footage of Rigel Six’s orbit. He watched eagerly as the unexpected vessel appeared. He closed his right fist, and the footage paused with a clear view of the ship.

“The Lofty Albatross,” Roderick muttered to himself, his face scrunched as though the name he’d just spoken had left a foul taste in his mouth. He manipulated the second screen further, and after a moment a placeholder Captain’s photo appeared.

“Get me visuals on the Ruklan Citadel immediately,” Roderick snapped. “Something is askance here. This operation is too valuable to leave anything up to chance.”

“Yes, sir!” the two said in unison.

***Back on Rigel Six***

Izzy sat on a rock, occasionally glancing at Fontaine. “He’ll be okay, right?”

The soldier shrugged. “We avoid lethal force when possible,” he replied. “Your Cicardox friend will wake with a very unpleasant headache and need of an electrolytes patch.”

Izzy nodded. “Didn’t hear you say he’s dead in there so that’s one for the win column,” she replied. “Anyway, we need to speak with your leader. Don’t suppose you can arrange that, can you?”

“To what end?” the soldier asked defensively. “We have had plenty of talks. Rigel Six belongs to us as much as it does the Rigellians. More, perhaps, as we were here when they first arrived. They took endlessly and left us with little.”

CMO Carter stepped forward. “Permission to speak freely, Captain Warpt?”

“Granted,” Izzy replied.

“My understanding of this conflict is there are more than two sides to things,” CMO Carter explained. “The issue, of course, is that there’s a number of contradictions in each, both against the opposing narratives as well as to their own. Correct me if I’m wrong, Captain, but I believe Captain Warpt’s intent is to help shed light on the truth, and to bring both sides to an agreeable conclusion to this conflict.”

“True story, every word of it,” Izzye replied.

The Ruklan soldier laughed until tears streamed from his eye. “From anyone else I would say such thinking is the mark of hubris,” he said. He pressed a finger against the side of his helmet and spoke briefly, but without translation.

A Proteus Tank–something Izzy had only ever seen in pictures and video games–emerged from the ground behind the soldier like a great white shark breaching the ocean’s surface. A hatch on its front slid open.

“This way, please,” the soldier said.

Professor Everest reached down and scooped up Fontaine like he was the morning newspaper, hoisting his unconscious comrade over his shoulder.

“We have your word you will take us to your commanding officer?” Izzy asked.

The Ruklan soldier flinched in response. “Inar. General of the Ruklan Seventh Heavy Arms Battalion,” he replied. “I have a fondness for Saturnian Custard Biscuits, if you must know. Is that enough?”

Izzy smiled. “Respectfully, you skipped a few questions but I suppose we can get to those later. Plenty of time to talk and get to know each other, right?”

They boarded the tank quickly, and the hatch slid shut once everyone had entered. Inar approached a small console hanging down from the ceiling. The tank shuddered, tipped forward, and began its descent.

CMO Carter tapped Izzy on the shoulder, motioning for her to step aside. Izzy followed to a small bench along the outer wall of the tank.

“That was a bold approach, playing on the Ruklan’s sense of honor like that,” CMO Carter said.

“Oh, that?” Izzy said. “I wasn’t sure what to say in the moment, honestly, so I went with my gut.

“Strong intuition,” CMO Carter said. “I can appreciate that. A Ruklan is only as good as his or her honor, so to suggest Inar would have duplicitous intent likely hit him hard. I don’t want to speak prematurely, but I dare say we are making some very promising progress here thanks to you.”

Izzy nodded. “Sure, nice progress,” she said. “Good news all around. Glad to be able to help.” She walked away without another word, unaware of CMO Carter watching her closely.

“Hey, General Inar,” Izzy said, approaching. “A word, please? Well, more than one. Like, maybe a paragraph or two worth give or take? I can get a little winded. Or so I’m told, at least.”

Inar glanced at Izzy, eyebrow raised, but said nothing. He piloted the tank without watching, waiting for Izzy to speak.

“Hope I didn’t offend you back there,” Izzy said. She hesitated, then added, “No, that’s shitty of me. What I said, I mean. I’m sure you’re a very honorable soldier doing what’s best for your people.”

Inar placed a hand on Izzy’s shoulder. “Should I be so inclined to guess, you are perhaps no older than my daughter,” he said. “There is a hunger in your eyes I know too well. For knowledge. Glory. To leave a lasting impact.”

Izzy smiled.

“You will not always be right, and you will not always do the best thing,” Inar said.

Izzy winced, the words hitting her hard.

Inar raised a finger. “That isn’t to say you won’t learn and grow,” he added. “I accept your apology, Captain Warpt.”

Izzy nodded. “Thank you, General.”

The tank shuddered to a stop, and the hatch opened once again. General Inar walked around the control panel and out, motioning for the others to follow without looking back.

First Officer deCourville began to stir. He groaned, looking around. “Where are we now?”

“Best keep your mouth shut,” Professor Everest said. “Let me help you up.” He assisted the First Officer in standing, and all eyes fell on Izzy.

“Come on, then,” Izzy said. “Forward march. One foot in front of the other. All that jazz.” She half-marched, half-skipped out the hatch, and the others followed along.

The cavern was awe-inspiring, lit by glimmering geodes and long strands of omnidirectional plasma lumites.

“Welcome to the Citadel,” Inar said, waving ahead. The pride in his voice was undeniable, and not unfounded.

The Citadel was carved out of the very bedrock itself, modified only as much as necessary but largely carved earth. Elaborate spires flanked its central structure, which ran from the cavern’s ceiling down into a large pit dug out of the floor. A bridge spanned the gap to the Citadel’s looming main entrance, a number of guards standing at the ready outside.

Nothing was visible in the abyss beneath the bridge.

One of the guards spoke to Inar as they approached, and he laughed and gave an untranslated response. The other guards laughed as Inar, Izzy, and her crew entered.

“What did they say?” Izzy asked. “Er, that is if you don’t mind me asking of course.”

Inar chuckled. “They asked if you were prisoners of the war effort,” he said. “I told them you might be. That’s still to be determined.”

“Oh. Ha. You’re a funny one,” Izzy said nervously.

The interior of the Citadel was even more breathtaking than its exterior. The central room was alive with activity, soldiers and civilians milling about. Two long, elaborately carved stone staircases rose into the higher reaches, disappearing from view where they passed beyond the ceiling.

“We will meet with Prime Minister Todan, President Kelran, and the Archbishop Geln,” Inar said. “They will no doubt be eager to hear what you have to say.”

Izzy nodded. “Right, what I have to say,” she said. “The words I’ve carefully planned out to really make a point.”

They ascended the stairs almost complete silence, save for Fontaine’s occasional pained grumblings, and emerged in a second large room. A large monitor adorned its far wall. Similar to the room below, soldiers rushed around from one console to another as they monitored live footage of the battle on the surface.

“General Inar, it is good to see you have returned safely,” boomed a voice from behind. Izzy tried to hide having jumped, staggered forward, and spun around to face the speaker.

“I see you have brought guests.”

Three Ruklans, each at least twice as tall as General Inar, sat in thrones. Their eyes were fixed on Izzy.

Izzy studied each of the three carefully. The one in the center was dressed in a plain suit. She wore a hat that, at a glance, looked to be an impossible shape.

The man on the left throne was adorned in armor marred with deep gouges as though he had just returned from battle. A scar ran from his scalp and crossed his face diagonally passing along his eye.

The woman on the right throne wore a bright, expensive-looking garb that glittered with fine jewels.

Izzy inhaled deeply, sighed, and bowed. She glanced to the occupant of the left throne first. “President Kelran,” she said.

“Prime Minister Todan,” she said, turning to the occupant of the right throne, offering another bow.

Izzy then turned her attention to the center throne’s occupant and offered a particularly deep bow, her eyes locked with the Ruklan royalty she was about to address.

“Archbishop Geln,” Izzy said. “I am honored to be in your company. To have your time? Excuse me, this is foreign territory in more than one way.” The woman nodded approvingly in response.

“Tell me, Inar, did you school her before they arrived?” Archbishop Geln said with a chuckle.

Inar shook his head.

“All me using my noggin,” Izzy said.

“And what business do these interlopers have here?” Prime Minister Todan barked, her voice sharp and cold.

Izzy waved a hand enthusiastically. “Oh, this is an easy question to answer,” she shouted cheerfully. “I’d like to offer my suggestion on how you can finally end this fight with the Rigellians once and for all. It’s a crazy, one-in-a-bajillion chance idea, but I have like ten of those before breakfast every day and most of them are pretty solid.”

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?!”

Follow the Ashes – The Attempted Coup

A soft breeze carried a curious blend of smells–campfires and diesel fuel–across the field. The skyline in the distance was a curious fusion of Medieval architecture blended with towering skyscrapers, curls of smoke drifting upwards from lovingly hand-crafted stonework chimneys.

Cas stood in the field, once again uncertain as to where she was going. What might be waiting for her. She was alone in the field, having just emerged from a tent moments before only to find the tent was no longer there. Wild grass swayed gently around her, patches of it rising up as high as her waist. Behind her, Cas noted, was a vast expanse of field whereas ahead there was at least signs of civilization.

Or perhaps, Cas thought, echoes of civilization.

The ashes were sneaky this time. More subtle. Cas spotted them finally as they drifted along a mischievous wisp of chimney smoke that had curled and weaved its way across the field.

“Very well, then,” Cas said to herself, curiosity renewed. “A trip to the city is in order.” She walked across the field, the grass bowing around her footfalls, bursts of wild mint and onion exploding up from the ground as she moved along. She quietly made a mental note to return to this field, if she could, once she had gotten some answers.

If you ever get answers, said an intrusive thought.

There was music, soft but still vibrant, spilling over from the city as Cas got closer. By the time Cas reached the city’s edge she could feel the songs, the rhythm of the music performing a pleasant dance with her heartbeat. The air was warm and rich with celebration, lantern-light and bright neon illuminating every inch of the road ahead.

Cas glanced along the length of road before stepping into the city, and once she was certain there was no one around she stepped onto the road. Immediately, seemingly from nowhere, a large crowd moved along the street and around her. Everyone was dressed in brilliant, vibrant clothing. Frills and accents flowed over her as people passed, hooting and cheering. A portly man bumped into Cas, backpedaled, and smiled.

“Goodness, Miss, didn’t see you there,” he said. He looked Cas over for a moment, clicking his tongue. “We’ve got to liven you up. Today’s a celebration!”

Cas realized then that the man was wearing a mask around his eyes. It sparkled with a mix of small gemstones and embedded LED lights that flickered on and off at odd intervals.

Considering her words carefully, Cas smiled. “Forgive my, ah, lack of attire,” she said. “What is the cause for celebration?” The crowd continued to move around Cas and the man, singing and dancing their way along the stretch of road as they went.

The man roared with laughter. “Not from around these parts?” he asked. “You’re in for a treat! It’s coronation day! The Lady Imperious Regina Andromedus is being crowned.” He rifled around in his jacket pockets.

“Here we are!” He produced another mask similar to his. It was a soft, wine red velvet mask with flickering points like starlight. Cas smiled, realizing the constellation it formed was familiar.

“I’ve nothing to give in exchange for such a generous gift,” Cas said, though she still reached for the mask.

The man shook his head. “I’ll hear nothing of the sort. Today’s a day of jubilation and celebration,” he boomed. “Walk with me. Nobody should be alone on a day like today.”

Cas hesitated, and was met with another broad, toothy smile. “If it perturbs you so greatly, let’s make a deal of it,” the man said. “One mask in exchange for sharing in your company on this most auspicious day!”

“I think that sounds like a most pleasant exchange,” Cas said, accepting the mask. It fit her face perfectly.

The man nodded in approval. “Doesn’t do much for the drab gray affair you’ve got on, but it’s far from my place to judge,” he joked. “Come along! We’ll miss out on the food stalls if we keep lazing around.”

Cas followed the man, watching in amusement as he shuffle-danced his way along the stone-and-steel roadway. They turned, joining another roaming celebration on a larger street. Stalls and carts and trucks lined the sides of the street, vendors throwing food out to anyone who asked. The man raised a hand, shouting something Cas couldn’t quite hear over the surrounding din, and one of the vendors threw two brown paper bags.

“Try this!” he said, stuffing one of the bags into her hand. It radiated a pleasant warmth.

“Thank you!” Cas replied. “Forgive me, but I don’t believe I introduced myself. Cas.”

“Bertram Cornelius Andromedus the third, though I prefer my friends call me Bertie,” the man, Bertie, said. After a deliberate pause and a sly smile, he added, “You can call me Bertie.”

Cas raised an eyebrow. “Andromedus?”

Bertie winked. “Eat! They’re not nearly as good once they get cold,” he demanded, pointing at the bag he’d given Cas before turning his attention to his own.

The bag’s top was rolled shut. A puff of warm, cinnamon-and-sugar sweet air hit her immediately upon opening it. She reached inside and retrieve some of the bag’s contents, which looked to be some kind of candied fruits. Bertie had already started indulging in his own, and so Cas followed suit.

“Delicious,” Cas said, enjoying each bite. There was a tartness to the fruit that was balanced out by the crunchy, sticky, sugary exterior to the treats. Before long she found her fingers meeting the bottom of the bag.

“Ah, but let’s not forget,” Bertie instructed as he flipped the bag inside out in a swift series of motions. He licked the bag clean, and Cas followed suit, smiling.

The party continued moving along, Cas and Bertie among the others, until it reached a towering building with three immense wooden doors swung open at its front. The crowds poured in, people from other streets joining the group Cas was in.

The chamber inside must have taken up much of the building, the ceiling so high above that artificial clouds drifted around in its recesses.

“The Room of Unity,” Bertie said. For an instant he looked somber, but just as quickly as his jovial demeanor had left it returned full-force. “It’s almost time!”

A bell sounded, resonating throughout the room and rippling across everyone within. The doors all shut slowly, and torchlight and spotlights illuminated the room so as to draw focus on a throne. Even without the lighting, it would have been difficult to miss as it stood high above the crowds.

A long, wide staircase lead to the throne, and two figures stood on those stairs. One was a man dressed plainly, in a gray uniform that looked familiar enough for Cas to actively try blending in with the crowd. The other was the picture of elegance, undoubtedly the Lady Imperious Regina. She wore a beautiful, sparkling sapphire gown that flowed around her slight frame as though she were standing in a rushing river.

“Good people of Junction,” the man said, his voice amplified to fill the air. “It is my great honor to present the crown to our beloved Lady Imperious Regina Andromedus. May she watch over us and guide us to continued prosperity for one hundred years or more!”

The crowd let out thunderous applause and cheers. Bertie’s voice, Cas was certain, could be heard over all of the others.

Someone caught Cas’s eye, however. A cloaked figure moved through the crowd, noticeable for remaining silent among the roar of cheering surrounding it. Cas followed behind behind them, keeping distance and careful to avoid being noticed.

The figure stopped at the foot of the stairs, still unnoticed by those around them. There was a glint of metal at their side, which was enough for Cas to leap into action.

“No!” Cas shouted. She leapt towards the cloaked figure, knocking them to the ground. The woman staring up at Cas, eyes full of fury, looked familiar. Before Cas could determine why, she heard a voice from behind her.

“No, no,” boomed a man’s voice. “This isn’t right at all. Let’s try this again.”

Before Cas could react she felt a jolt of something. It was harsh and sudden, spreading outwards from the back of her neck. She felt a dizzying, sick feeling as the world rolled and tumbled around her. She felt herself falling forward.

The grass was soft and smelled pleasantly of wild onions and mint as Cas fell onto the ground. She stood up, dusting herself off. In the distance ahead stood a curious city, a conglomeration of Medieval building styles and towering skyscrapers. She was certain she’d never seen such curious place in all of her life, and was once again left wondering where she was to go next.

Something small emerged from a hole in the ground. It squeaked, startled by Cas’s presence, and then took off across the field. Cas turned and watched as it ran, surprised to see the creature leaving a trail of faint, gray ashes in its path.

“Very well, then,” Cas said to herself. “I suppose I’m off to explore the fields then.”

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?”

Warpt Factor – Installment 8

Previously on Warpt Factor:

Isabelle “Izzy” Warpt dreamt of becoming the greatest spaceship captain to ever graduate Spiral Reach Academy, the Milky Way’s most prestigious academy founded on a mission of spreading peace, prosperity, and good across the Universe. On her 18th birthday, thanks to a modest donation by Izzy’s Gammy Margaret, Jett Sketter–Spiral Reach’s most famous, most handsome Captain–made a special guest appearance to give Izzy the good news that she had been accepted to begin her first year as a cadet at Spiral Reach Academy.

Shortly after arriving at the Academy, through a curious incident involving her future self, some time travel, and a bad pun featuring two innocent dachshunds, Izzy found herself having gained the attention of Headmaster Archibald Cosgrove as well as High Chancellors Bennett Kadimova and Cecilia Amadeus Driscol.

Instead of facing punishment for potentially dismantling the fabric of space-time, Izzy was told the Academy needed someone of her enthusiasm and energy to help revive Spiral Reach. She’d been selected to be fast-tracked through the Captain’s program. High Chancellor Kadimova assured Izzy he would explain the details along a short walk.

The good news was that Izzy would be a Captain far sooner than expected. The bad news? She had to steal a ship to do so. Under Kadimova’s instruction, Izzy commandeered the Lofty Albatross, the only ship without a captain, and met her crew – First Officer Fontaine deCourville, a Cicardox with a chip on his four shoulders, and Professor Brannigan Everest, the ship’s mechanic. They had little time to get to know each other before they received a distress signal from Chief Medical Officer Melissa Carter.

Izzy, a Captain whose bravery knew no bounds, ordered the crew to chart a course for Rigel Six to answer the call for help. They arrived to find the Ruklan Liberation Army had launched a rebellion against the ruling Rigellians. Facing insurmountable odds, Izzy decided she needed to face the Ruklans in-person.

“Forgive me if I’m unfamiliar with all of the current approaches to Gamma Class crises,” CMO Carter said, the first to break the silence. “It’s been a few years since I’ve been in a classroom. Did you just suggest, perhaps, that we enter a hostile battlefield while vastly outnumbered?”

Izzy nodded. “Find their leader and talk it out with them,” she replied. “Oh, hey. Do we have any tea? Fruit baskets? It’s bad manners to show up without something. Makes you look cheap.”

CMO Carter arched her eyebrows. First Officer Fontaine chittered and clicked his mandibles, the secondary membranes on his eyes allowing him to look both concerned and furious at the same time.

“Captain Warpt has herself a bit of,” Professor Everest said, pausing to consider the rest of his thought. “She’s not the most orthodox in her approaches, but she’s got a good head on her shoulders that one.”

“Which will make it all the more troubling when we get court marshaled for letting her get it shot clean off in what is clearly,” Fontaine shouted, his voice increasing in volume with each word, “a suicide mission!”

Izzy shook her head. “I doubt we’d have anything too fancy in our rations,” she muttered. She noticed all eyes were on here.

“Oh wow, I’m so sorry,” Izzy added. “Spaced out for a second there. Deep in thought. Did I miss something important?”

“Captain Warpt, do you have a plan?” CMO Carter asked, her brow furrowed. It was an expression Izzy was used to seeing her mother wear when she’d discovered Izzy had come up with big ideas that could be misconstrued as minor crimes in the wrong light.

Izzy tapped a finger to her lips, her focus clearly nowhere in the room. “I remember some things I learned about the Ruklan people,” she said. “I’ll need you to follow my lead, though. No weapons.” She eyed Fontaine suspiciously.

“Give me one reason to not relieve her of her duty right this moment,” Fontaine snarled.

Professor Everest cracked his knuckles, his neck, and a number of other joints in rapid succession. Recordings used later for archival purposes picked up a sound not unlike the ancient wooden roller coasters of Earth.

“I’ve got two compelling reasons for you right here,” Professor Everest replied.

“And you, Chief Medical Officer Carter?” Izzy asked. “Are you packing heat? Got an omni-plasma bazooka you’re hiding?”

CMO Carter smiled. “I’m a medical officer,” she replied, a chuckle escaping as she spoke. “Not a single weapon on my person.”

“Good, good. But I’ve got my eye on you all the same!” Izzy replied. She waited patiently while both First Officer deCourville and Professor Everest disarmed.

Professor Everest set aside two sidearms, a matching pair of plasma knuckles, and a weapon with a barrel large enough Izzy could fit her head in it with the word “Persuasion” engraved on its handle.

First Officer deCourville produced one sidearm. He hesitated, then removed what looked to be a walking stick from his side. Izzy eyed it with no attempts at masking her curiosity.

“Don’t even think about touching that,” Fontaine said. “I’ll know. And now, Captain, I must ask how you expect an audience with the Ruklan leader.”

Izzy rolled her eyes, huffing for emphasis. “First we need to get transported down to the surface,” she explained. “Each of you has an emergency return, yeah?”

One by one, the others nodded.

“Good. Cool. So only use them if we absolutely have to, but otherwise we zip down to the surface and immediately surrender,” Izzy said.

CMO Carter blinked. “I’m very sorry, I don’t wish to come across as insubordinate,” she replied. “Did you say surrender? I must’ve had something stuck in my ear.”

“That she did, I believe,” Professor Everest said. “Clever enough plan, too.”

Fontaine started to speak, but was quickly hushed by Izzy. “On my mark, we teleport to the surface of Rigel Six. Middle of the fray. Ready?”

“As I’ll ever be,” CMO Carter replied.

“Let’s get diplomatic!” Professor Everest responded.

First Officer deCourville sighed. “At least I’ve ensured my family is well taken care of,” he huffed.

The world shimmered and stretched around the four of them as their synchronized transports initiated. In a flash of blue light they all landed softly on the soft red sand that made up much of Rigel Six’s coastal landscape–the planet’s landmasses consisting of a handful of islands largely covered in resorts that, at a glance, looked to have been converted into expensive-looking fortresses. Several Ruklan soldiers stormed past without giving Izzy or her crew a second look. They towered over all of them save for Professor Everest, their normally sparsely-clothed bodies covered in some of the best armor on the market.

Izzy watched the soldiers charge past in small packs, each one armed well enough to act as an entire militia. She spotted one who looked to be moving a little slower with a bit more calculation to their movement, took a deep breath, and stepped in front of the soldier.

The soldier clearly had not planned for this, attempting to stop so as to not bowl down the sudden intruder in its field of vision. The terrain did not lend itself well to a sudden shift in momentum. The soldier stumbled forward awkwardly before it planted face-first into the sand. It leapt to its feet, weapon at the ready–it pointed a long, two-pronged pole at Izzy, jagged arcs of starlight jolting between the prongs.

“We’d like to offer our conditional surrender,” Izzy said cheerfully, hands in the air.

The Ruklan soldier cocked its head, its facial features hidden by the helmet’s visor. It replied in a series of guttural growls and grunts, pausing periodically as if waiting for a response. Izzy offered a polite shrug, at which point the soldier tapped on a circular interface on the chest plate of its armor. It pointed to its helmet around where its mouth would be, then pointed to Izzy and her crew.

“Talk? You’re in luck,” Izzy said. “I could do that all day long if I have to, or if I want to even.”

The interface flashed a dull, white light with each word Izzy spoke, settling on a steady pulse after she’d stopped speaking.

“Calibration complete,” spoke a robotic voice from the armor. The Ruklan soldier pointed to Izzy, then to where its mouth likely was beneath the helmet again.

“Right, sorry,” Izzy said. Behind her, Fontaine began to step forward but was stopped short by Professor Everest. One hand was enough to stop Fontaine from continuing forward and the other covered his mandibles completely.

“Conditional surrender,” Izzy repeated, smiling. “Old movies used to have aliens say something like take me to your leader, I think. Do that, please?”

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.”

Follow The Ashes: The Betweenways

Cas stepped beyond the door and winced. The air was stale and cold, the path ahead obscured in darkness. There was a subtle, familiar dull hum, barely audible. Cas hesitated, uncertain of her next step.

Behind her, the door swung shut and clicked loudly. She turned and tried to open the door again, only barely surprised to discover it had locked.

“Only one way to go, I suppose,” Cas muttered to herself. Dim lights flickered to life as she turned back to face the room.

“More walkways,” Cas said to herself. The path she stood on forked into two staircases leading upwards where it met the wall. The twin staircases reached landings, then turned back towards the catwalk she stood on. They gradually, Cas saw, seemed to spiral upwards to a latticework of walkways. Beyond that, however, was too dark to see in the low light.

Both staircases looked identical, and so Cas chose one and started her ascent. As she made it to the landing, she caught a glimpse of something on the opposite landing. Motes of dust suspended in the air, she thought, or perhaps a trick of the light. She continued up the stairs, pausing on the next landing for a moment. Nothing above was visible yet, but she could hear faint noises drifting downwards. Cas tensed. It sounded almost like conversation to her. She continued upwards, slowly and ready to make a run for it if the need arose. Unfamiliar but not unpleasant scents made their way to Cas, further piquing her interest.

At the next landing, Cas could see flickering lights up ahead. She could hear the conversation clearer now, and it was punctuated with moments of laughter and warmth. In an instant, Cas let her guard down as she found herself entering a collection of makeshift tents and huts suspended over the catwalk intersections. People milled about, some pausing to exchange pleasantries with each other from time to time as others entered and exited the various makeshift dwellings. Some wore similar uniforms to the ones she’d seen earlier while others wore things ranging from simple outfits to ones showing off quite a bit of color and flair.

No one seemed to give Cas so much as a second glance, which put her further at ease. Allowing her curiosity to get the better of her, Cas approached a small tent. A series of levitating steps bobbed gently in front of the entrance. She pulled aside the flap covering the entrance – an old solar sail, Cas thought, from the feel of it – and entered. The first thing she noticed was that the tent seemed to be larger on the inside. Had she been her a day ago, she pondered, this may have seemed remarkable, or perhaps even shocking, but it seemed almost familiar.

The woman on the opposite side of the tent sat with her legs crossed beneath her. She was remarkably tall, her eyes meeting Cas’s gaze without having to look up despite being seated. She held a long, wooden pipe between thin, spindly fingers. A series of elaborate tattoos formed a mural from just above her eyebrows all the way along the top of her head disappearing along her neck. A series of eyebrow rings glimmered in the simulated candlelight.

She inhaled deeply, exhaling smoke that spun and twirled like distant galaxies.

Cas cleared her throat, unsure what to say. “Hello,” she ventured.

The woman smiled. “Expected you hours ago, darlin’,” the woman said. “But I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Strange shadows passing over the visions these days. Everything’s thrown off by the sudden, new light.”

“Excuse me?” Cas asked.

The woman pointed with her pipe at a small cushion opposite her on the floor. “You’ve got questions,” she stated in a way one would observe the weather. Cas nodded, sitting down in a way that mirrored the woman.

“I’ve got answers,” the woman continued. “Well, I don’t, but…” She trailed off as she reached in between layers of her flowing robes. She produced three metal cubes, each one held between her fingers. Gingerly, she set them down between Cas and her.

Cas looked at the cubes for a moment. They were smooth, devoid of any noteworthy features, and looked to be made from solid metal. She glanced up at the woman and frowned briefly. “I’m sorry, but do I know you?”

The woman smiled, but said nothing.

“What is this place?” Cas asked.

The woman smiled again. “You’ve made it to the Betweenways,” she said. “Or perhaps you’ve returned.” She offered a sly wink, and Cas felt a touch of heat at the back of her neck and around her ears. These weren’t answers so much as they seemed like coy riddles.

“I want you to think long and hard, darlin’,” the woman instructed. “Then ask the Oracle Cubes the first big, scary question that comes to mind.”

“What is this place?” Cas asked immediately.

The woman clicked her tongue. “Give it a little more thought than that,” she said. She took another long pull from her pipe and exhaled. In a fluid motion, beautiful as a well-choreographed dance, she turned her pipe over and tapped it against her free palm. Replacing the pipe between her teeth, she rubbed her hands together, causing a fine dusting of ash to drift to the floor.

Cas raised an eyebrow. “I’m lost, I think,” Cas said.

The woman smiled. “We’re all a little lost, darlin’,” she replied. “Go on.”

“The only reason I’ve made it this far is by following something I saw when I first woke up,” Cas continued. “So…I guess my question, then, is where do I follow the ashes to next?”

It started subtly enough. Fine lines moved along the surface of the cubes, beginning on one and ending on another. Faint lights emanated from within the metal, glowing in gentle hues of green and blue before giving way to deep purples and vibrant silvers.

The center cube jostled, followed by the one to its right rolling from one side to another and another. A humming sound began to build, and with a sharp snap the three cubes came together to form a short tower. Vibrant silver lines navigated the cubes’ exteriors, and upon a closer look Cas could see places where the lines vanished into the cubes.

The woman smiled once again. “The journey ahead of you will be long and not without its challenges,” she said. “And at its end, who is to say what you will find? Perhaps you will discover the truth? Or perhaps you will create your own truth.”

Cas considered this a moment. “That leaves a lot to interpretation,” she said at last, and the woman burst into laughter.

“The Oracle Cubes’ wisdom is one of databases and algorithmic predictions, darlin’,” the woman said. “But you’ll want to take those. That map should get you to where you need to be.”

Cas reached out to take the cubes. She flinched when the three cubes jostled suddenly, gradually combining and shifting until a thin, flat layer remained. Faint outlines now surrounded the original silver lines. Cas picked up the map and looked it over.

“I still don’t know where I really am,” she admitted, an edge of defeat to her voice. “Or what it is I should be doing. I’m just running from people.”

The woman produced a small satchel from in her robes, untying it with one hand while she moved her pipe into position with the other. She tamped down its contents with her thumb, a thoughtful expression the whole time. There was a soft popping sound from the pipe followed by a slow, serpentine curling of smoke. The woman inhaled, then puffed out a thin silver wisp that spiraled around her. The smoke snaked its way to, and then around, Cas before sharply changing directions and passing through the tent wall behind the woman.

Cas watched as the smoke didn’t seem to dissipate, lingering improbably.

“Speaking of running, perhaps you should resume doing so,” the woman said, her eyes darting to the back wall and then to Cas. “Right now.”

Cas became very aware of the sound of approaching footsteps. They were measured and deliberate, producing a crisp sound against the metal of the catwalks outside.

“Thank you for your help,” Cas said, leaping to her feet. She paused just before exiting. “I hope.” She pulled aside the tent’s wall and exited.

The woman’s focus, however, remained on the front of the tent. A single, glowing eye appeared in the dim light.

“Come to get your fortune told, darlin’?” the woman asked, smirking.

As Cas stepped out of the tent, her feet landed softly. Storm clouds rumbled in the distance as they drifted further away, the grass beneath Cas’ feet flattened from the rain. She glanced back to discover the tent, the catwalks, and the Betweenways were gone. Or, she considered, perhaps she had gone from that space. Pulling out the map, she tried to regain her sense of direction.

A small, blue-green dot blipped to life on the map’s surface. Cas took a step forward, and the dot mirrored her movement.

“It’s a start, I suppose,” Cas muttered to herself. “All right, then. Off I go.”