Piece 10 – Elderbark and Gronn: Eternal Enemies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Snagged us good, too,” Curian muttered.

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

“Catchy name,” Curian said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Captured us,” Curian added.

Kil’Gronn nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wanted Adventurers: It Began with a Plan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, I’m good,” Aranza said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re doing what?!”

Piece 9 – The Forest Where Time Dare Not Dwell

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

“Fascinating,” Sophia murmured, wide-eyed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The trees.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wanted Adventurers – A Story to Tell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You should reconsider,” the paladin commanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Piece Five – Seaside Symphony, and the Journey Ahead

Sophia lead the way through the Astrarium, back to the main chamber. From there, they entered another arched doorway which opened to a winding spiral staircase that extended both upwards and deeper into the lower levels. They took the stairs upwards, Sophia continuing at a steady pace as Curian tried to keep up.

“Not to be an inconvenience, but could I offer a friendly reminder my legs aren’t exactly built for this?” Curian asked as they reached a landing.

Sophia paused, turning to face Curian. “Ah,” she said, looking somewhat sheepish. “My apologies. We’re almost there. You’re in for a treat, I should say, as this is the first time an outsider has been allowed into the Eye of the Sea.”

Curian offered a thumbs-up. “I’ll be sure to keep that in mind so long as my legs don’t fall off before we get there,” she replied. The stairs ahead stopped in a circular chamber, and Curian realized that the room seemed smaller than the previous ones. The ceiling was directly above, domed as it had appeared from the outside, and the walls were covered with shelves packed with yet more books.

“I should warn you, I suppose,” Sophia said as Curian stepped further into the room.

Her warning, however, was too late. Curian glanced down, and saw clear down to the chamber she had first arrived in. She leapt back to the edge of the stairs in a flash.

“Glass floor,” Sophia added. “It allows us to see everything going on in the lower levels should there be an emergency. It’s dragonbreath glass, so rest assured it will not break under something as gentle as our footfalls.”

Curian eyed the transparent floor suspiciously. “What is it you needed up here again?” she asked. “You keep saying ‘we’, by the way, but I’ve still only seen you. Where are the others?”

Sophia sighed. “I suppose I do owe you that answer,” she said. “Do you recall when you first arrived how I mentioned a storm?”

Curian cocked her head, thinking back beyond the sudden landing in the cold waves. “There weren’t any clouds around and I saw no sign of rain, so it struck me as odd,” she said. “Mind, I was also a bit distracted at the time. Focused on not drowning.”

“Understandably so,” Sophia said. “The storm I was referring to is a collection of Sirens who have besieged the Astrarium in recent days. It’s unusual for them to hunt in packs, but their behavior suggested they weren’t hunting.”

Curian raised an eyebrow. “Apologies, but all of that leaves me with more questions,” she said. “When you say Sirens you’re talking about fishy-folk who sing at sailors, who stupidly follow their songs to their deaths? Those Sirens?”

Sophia nodded, a hint of a smirk. “That’s certainly a way of putting it, yes,” she replied.

“And they managed to get everyone else here outside except you?” Curian asked.

Sophia shrugged. “Their songs didn’t quite reach me,” she replied. “I was unaffected by their wiles and so I did not succumb to their lure.”

Curian scoffed, and Sophia raised an eyebrow. “Passing thought not worth sharing,” Curian said. “Think they may still be out there? I’d like to give those fishfaces a piece of my mind or two.”

“That may not be the best idea,” Sophia said. “However, if you can get even some clues as to the well-being of the other Astrarium Keepers…I would be most appreciative.”

Curian nodded. “A deal, then,” she said. “You find what books and scrolls and…” She trailed off gesturing towards the variety of texts along the walls.

“The things you were going to look into regarding the piece you still have,” Curian continued. “And I’ll do what I can about your Siren troubles. Fair?”

“That’s most agreeable, I should say,” Sophia said. “Although I would be remiss to not admit your chances are concerning.”

Curian shrugged lazily. “Dwarven resilience has served me well so far,” she said. “Don’t suppose there’s a way out onto the island that won’t leave me falling on my face, is there?”

Sophia crossed the floor to the opposite curve of the dome’s wall. She held out a hand, but hesitated. “If it’s all the same, I’d prefer you be ready to step outside first,” she said. “If they are waiting, they could very well enter and that is not a risk I’d like to take.”

Curian furrowed her brow. “Sure, I guess I can accept that,” she said.” She shut her eyes and sprinted across the floor that appeared to not be there at all, skidding to a stop with hopes that she wouldn’t collide with the wall, Sophia, or any of the books–likely worth more gold than Curian would see in a dozen lifetimes–along the shelves. She opened her eyes and cursed, having stopped short. Points of magicked torchlight flickered at each floor giving Curian the feeling she was staring up into the sky from a crowded city–not much to see, and not much she wanted to see.

She inhaled deeply, fixed her eyes ahead, and walked the remainder of the way to Sophia.

“Wasn’t so bad, was it?” Sophia asked, offering a polite smile.

“My honest answer would likely harm our chances at friendship beyond necessity,” Curian answered flatly. “Let’s get this over with, please.”

Sophia pressed her hand against the wall, her fingers tightly together this time. Lines of blue, white, and silver light spiderwebbed from her touch outwards, and a portion of wall slid away.

“Go!”

Curian leapt forward onto the nearly nonexistent shoreline that wreathed the Astrarium, and the door snapped shut behind her. The sun had almost completely set since her arrival. Shades of deep red, purple, and hints of night’s black had settled on the ocean’s surface ahead, though her life beneath the mountains allowed her to see enough to detect two figures lurking not far from shore. They had not yet, however, noticed Curian.

“Oy! Here, fishy fishy!” Curian called out. The two figures stopped swimming. She watched as they both jerked their heads to face her, light glinting off of an overabundance of knife-sharp teeth.

The slighter, more feminine one spoke first, gliding closer to the island. “Only a cur would use such an awful slur to speak to ones so divine,” she sang in a lilting alto.

“To suffer the presence of such a knave,” sang the other, his voice a resounding baritone, “we should drag her beneath the waves.”

“So far down she’ll never see the light of another day,” they sang in unison, stopping at the edge of the shore.

Curian pursed her lips, her brow furrowed. “Catchy, I’ll admit, but a little lazy on the rhyming,” she replied. “Can’t drown me if I won’t get near enough.”

The two Sirens exchanged curious glances. Their skin was a light blue, giving of a soft light of its own. They wore tattered remnants of clothing strung together with woven ropes of seaweed accentuated with shells and hints of treasure.

“You should be fumbling our way, drooling and in a stupor,” said the lady Siren. She looked back to her partner. “You didn’t quite hit your high notes as well as you normally do,” she added.

The man Siren recoiled. “Oh, is that so?” he snapped back. “Your notes were flatter than a flounder!”

The two began exchanging barbs, both verbally and by swiping at each other with the clawed fins along their fingers. Curian plopped down in the sand, sitting with her legs folded beneath her, and watched the two Sirens bicker as she waited for them to remember she was there. After a few long moments of increasingly pointed remarks, she cleared her throat and the two stopped.

“Let’s start over. I’m Curian, and my friend inside,” she said, jerking a thumb towards the Astrarium, “says you’ve taken away all of the others who live her. Watchers? Scholars?”

The lady Siren sighed. “Keepers, darling,” she replied in a sing-song tone. “The word your pawing for is Keepers.”

Curian snapped her fingers. “That’s the word, yes,” she said. “You must be the brains of the operation.”

The lady siren smiled. At this distance, it was very clear she possessed more than one row of sparkling, white, incredibly sharp teeth. Curian considered her lack of weapons at this particular moment, and then realized she had not done anything to indicate where the door had been.

“A discerning eye,” the lady Siren replied. “How refreshing for someone of the land to see the worth of the sea.” The man Siren huffed loudly.

“What’s it to you, anyway?” he asked.

“What good are they to you?” Curian replied. “Have you eaten them? Drowned them?”

The two shook their heads. “Nothing so barbaric,” they both replied.

Curian smiled. “So you kept them alive, then?” she said. “What for?”

There was a measured silence, as the Sirens exchanged glances. There was something close to worry that kept crossing their features, but it was a slippery thing to catch. Gone in an instant, but Curian had seen enough to know there was more to this than a simple matter of Sirens acting as a group.

“You didn’t take them for yourselves, did you?” Curian asked.

The man Siren let out a shrill yelp, quickly clasping his hands over his mouth.

“Oh, very good,” Curian said. “I’m getting warmer. That someone must scare you, too, for that to be the response.”

The lady Siren visibly shifted while the man Siren refused to look at Curian. Curian leaned forward, eyebrows arched.

“What is it that would scare some of the most frightening dwellers of the deep?” she asked pointedly. “Turn you sharks into guppies?”

In a flash of scales and teeth, the lady Siren was inches away from Curian’s face, mouth agape to reveal a seemingly endless number of fangs. Long, pointed claws were poised at each side of Curian’s face, ready to strike.

Yet Curian remained still. The lady Siren’s eyes darted around Curian’s face as she tried to read the dwarf’s expression. After a tense, oppressive silence, she retreated.

“Struck a nerve?” Curian asked. The lady Siren sighed, and the man Siren began to weep.

“We lured them away because we had no choice,” the lady Siren said, and she began to sing. “Not to feed upon nor drown, not out of need of our own.”

Between tears, the man Siren added, “For this great, ghastly eel we’ve found, has laid a claim upon where we roam.”

“It demands we pay it tribute, but that tribute must be alive,” the lady Siren added.

“For you see it feeds on fear, and on their fear it will always thrive,” the man Siren added.

Curian whistled. “Sounds like a real charmer,” she said. “What if I were to offer you and your ilk safety? Could you release the Keepers?”

The Sirens gasped at the suggestion.

“You must be out of your mind!” the man Siren said.

“Or foolish beyond compare,” the lady Siren added.

Curian held her hands out as if weighing the comments. “A bit of both, or so I’ve been told,” she replied. She paused, and against her better judgment added, “Let me sweeten up the deal, and offer to hunt a certain eel?”

Both Sirens gagged.

“That was just vile,” the lady Siren said.

“Not a hint of finesse,” the man Siren said.

They looked at one another again, the flashes of worry now far more abundantly clear. Curian got to her feet and walked to the dome, gently knocking on its wall with her fist. Sophia appeared in a small opening at eye level, but no door opened.

“Oh, thank the Gods you’re still alive,” she said. Her cheeks grew red as soon as the words left her mouth. “Not that I didn’t have the greatest faith in your ability to navigate these curious waters, as it were.”

“Good to see you, too,” Curian said. “Listen. I’ve got a bit of an odd question for you, but I don’t suppose there would be room for a few tanks of water down below.”

Sophia looked thoroughly confused. “We keep vast stores of salt water so as to keep our recent fishing catches alive until we are ready to make use of them,” she replied. “Does that answer your question?”

Curian nodded. “Any chance some of those could be cleared out for, say,” she replied. “A number of Sirens? A storm of Sirens, I think you called them.”

“And why would I do such a thing?” Sophia snapped back.

Curian smirked. “The other Keepers could keep them company?”

Sophia gasped. “They’re alive?” she asked. “They’re alive!” she repeated.

“Sure are, and I think we can get them back safe and sound as long as we are willing to do a little for the Sirens,” Curian said. “What say you?”

Sophia nodded. “We can work out the specifics, but only once I see the others are truly alive and well,” she said.

Curian turned and walked back to the shore’s edge. “You have my word we can keep you safe from this eel that’s been troubling you so long as you return the Keepers,” she said.

“You’re in luck,” the lady Siren said. “The eel was due to return on the night of the full moon for its first offering. You’re a day early.” She hesitated.

“Do you truly promise our safety?”

There was something in the way the Siren asked the question that resonated with Curian. It was the sound of trust trying to creep in where it had been broken far too many times before. Without considering the possibility of not keeping all of her fingers, Curian reached out and placed a hand on the lady Siren’s shoulder.

“On my life, I will not let that damn eel harm any of you,” Curian said. She blinked, uncertain as to what came over her in that moment. They were her words, but spoken with greater confidence than she had expected.

The Sirens exchanged remarks in a language Curian couldn’t identify. It was soft and pleasant, but punctuated by guttural growls. They disappeared beneath the water’s surface, leaving Curian to wait patiently.

Just as Curian found herself fearful she had made a mistake, the first bubble broke the surface. It was impossible to miss, as it was larger than she was. Three figures, all unconscious, drifted within the bubble.

Another bubble surfaced, followed by several others. Each had three creatures from all walks of life–elves, dwarfs, lizardfolk, and orcs, just to name but a few–who were all in a similar sleep-like state. A host of Sirens appeared between each bubble, and the two who had first shown themselves to Curian moved to the shore.

“I hope your word is as good as it sounds,” the lady Siren said.

“Curian,” Curian said. “My name is Curian, and you better believe it will be.”

“Rhapsody,” the lady Siren, called Rhapsody, said pointing to herself.

“Bolero,” said the man Siren called Bolero.

Curian chuckled. “I’m detecting a theme,” she muttered. “What do we need to do now?”

Bolero and Rhapsody signaled to the other Sirens, who dug their claws into the bubbles. Each one popped, and their occupants gently landed in the water. One by one, the Keepers bobbed to the surface, each on looking shocked and confused. Curian helped them all ashore. It took some effort, and a little persuasion by way of careful word-choice, but Curian managed to explain why they had been lured away and what the Sirens had done at great expense to themselves.

One of the Keepers, a mountain of an Orc covered in tattoos, approached Curian. He crossed his arms over his chest and bowed–something no Orc had ever done in Curian’s presence much less to her, offering a salute of such high regard.

“I, uh. Same to you,” Curian offered.

“I, Keeper Lord Vorghan, offer you our endless thanks for saving us,” he said. “Not a drop of blood had to be spilled, but through quick wit and wisdom was the day saved.”

Curian shifted on the spot. “Quick wit and wisdom,” she said. “That’s me. Listen, not to be in a hurry but could you please work with the others to sort this out? I have to get back to Sophia. She was looking for answers for me.”

Vorghan saluted again. “If it’s answers you seek, Sophia will surely be able to find them for you,” he replied.

Curian returned to the dome to find a door waiting for her this time. Sophia sat on the floor, a number of books open around her. She waved Curian over without looking up from the tome on her lap, her eyes rolling slowly along the page.

“Sit,” Sophia insisted. “I fear the situation you have found yourself in is a dire one indeed.”

Curian moved books aside, then sat down in front of Sophia. “Ominous,” she said. “Please explain.”

Sophia held up the book, her finger just above a painted image of the creature she had seen at the castle ruins. In the painting, however, he was riding an enormous black stallion, which had reared up on its hind legs. Jets of terrible black flames issued from the horse’s eyes and mouth. The horseman held an obsidian long sword aloft in one hand. His head was held in the other, tucked beneath his arm as when Curian had met the creature. Just the sight of him made her reflexively tense.

“You are certain this is who you saw?” Sophia asked, the fear in her voice both clear and contagious.

Curian nodded. “Hard to mistake that for someone else, I hate to say,” she said. “Just who is it? Have I angered a King?”

Sophia shook her head. “I was hoping you would say this wasn’t who you saw,” she replied, massaging her temples.

“Worse than a King, then,” Curian said.

Sophia looked up, her eyes locked with Curian’s. “Far worse,” she replied. “You’ve captured the attention of Dullahan, He Who Brings Death to All Worlds.”

“Ah,” Curian said. “Gods damn it.”

Piece Four – The World's Eye at the Heart of the Sea

The hooded figure waved frantically for Curian to swim towards the strange island. She had no other options, and so she did so with more than a hint of reluctance in her heart and a worried feeling gnawing at her gut. As she reached the thin line of shore that surrounded the domed building, the hooded figure reached down and helped her out of the water and to her feet.

“Inside, quickly,” the hooded figure said. She turned and walked towards the smooth stone wall, no features offering any clue as to how exactly they would get inside. Curian shrugged, trying to will away the cold of being in soaking wet clothing. She clenched her arms at her sides as she walked, and felt the familiar warmth in her hand. Hazarding a glance, she confirmed the piece of the trinket–the Prognosticarium, as the awful creature had called it–was still there. She closed her fingers around it and returned her attention to the hooded figure and the building.

“Closer, please. It will make this less of a nuisance, I assure you.”

Curian stepped closer. The figure motioned again, and she complied despite her reservations, until she was only a pace away. She could see the face beneath the hood. She was clearly of Elven descent, her features giving away no hints to her age. Curian’s eyes met the hooded figure’s for a moment before she looked away, warmth spreading at her cheeks. Gods damn it, she thought. Her one weakness, and she was already inviting her into her house.

“You’ll want to brace yourself,” the hooded figure said, her tone difficult to read in its matter-of-factness. “This can be a bit jarring.”

“What?” Curian managed to say as the hooded figure placed a hand against a part of the wall that looked like every inch around it. Slim fingers flexed against the stone, and lines of light snaked out from around them before moving to the floor.

Suddenly, Curian found herself standing over nothing but open air. She fell into the newly-opened space, landing gently on a curved chute that seemed to spiral downwards endlessly. She clenched her fists at her sides, holding onto the piece of the trinket for dear life as she flew downwards at speeds she would’ve reserved for nights of drunken horseback riding only. Before she could force her eyes to stay shut long enough to not fully experience the constant downward movement, there was a bright light ahead. It grew rapidly until it consumed her vision, and suddenly Curian found herself falling through open air.

She screamed reflexively as she landed on a heavily cushioned surface, bounced gently to her feet, lost her balance, and fell on her face.

“Apologies, but I did warn you.”

Curian leapt to her feet, immediately adopting a defensive stance with her fists raised. The hooded figure raised hands, palms forward.

“I have no quarrel with you,” she said. “Only questions. First, I would think a change of clothes and a warm meal may do well to foster some good will, perhaps?”

Curian lowered her fists. The dome was enormous from the outside, but it seemed impossibly far above them from the inside. The chamber was deep beneath the ground, and a number of floors were visible around the outer walls. Arched doorways opened into outer rooms at spaced intervals, and an infinite number of books lined shelves between the openings.

A chill from still being in soaking wet clothing brought Curian back to the current moment. “Suppose that’d be a good start,” she replied. “Before we go any further, I’d like a name to go with that hidden face of yours.”

The hooded figure nodded. Reaching up with both hands, she lowered her hood. What looked to be long, silver hair snaked around the top of her head in an elaborate braid, interrupted by two long horns that looked like small networks of tree branches. Eyes greener than the world on a clear spring morning gazed back at Curian, filled with visible curiosity and perhaps a hint of apprehension. Thin lips curled into a tentative smile.

“Sophia,” she answered. “And you are?”

“Sophia,” Curian repeated. “That’s a new one for me.” Sophia, the once-hooded Elven woman, raised an eyebrow.

“Ah. Sorry. Curian. My name’s Curian,” she added. She shivered again. “Now, what was that you had mentioned about dry clothes again?”

Sophia chuckled. “Follow along closely now, or you’ll get lost,” she said as she walked towards one of the arched doorways. Curian did as she was told, and found herself walking into complete darkness. There was a flash of light, and when Curian’s vision cleared she saw a small flame dancing above Sophia’s extended hand.

“Fancy,” Curian muttered.

Sophia laughed again. “You’re rather forward, aren’t you?” she said more than asked. “Not much of a barrier between what you’re thinking and what you choose to say?”

Curian was used to her approach to speaking her mind being referred to as a number of things, but she’d never heard it put quite so eloquently before. “Something like that, I guess,” she said. “Lying’s never done me many favors, so I figure if I’m just honest all the time it won’t kill me. The people it makes angry, on the other hand…” She trailed off.

The corridor, lined with even more bookshelves, sloped gently downwards. Doorways interrupted the shelves at measured intervals, just as they did in the larger chamber, and nothing was visible beyond the doorways–even with the light of the fire Sophia had conjured. An arched doorway ahead opened into a small chamber, a doorway at each of its other three walls.

Sophia gestured to a doorway on the wall to their left. “You’ll find something in there to change into,” she said. “Nothing quite as colorful as what you’re wearing, I’m afraid, but you’ll find yourself feeling warmer before long.”

Curian shrugged. “I’m no fish, so dry and plain suit me just fine for now,” she replied before she made her way to the indicated room. It was furnished simply. A small bed occupied the far wall, and a simple wooden wardrobe stood tall against another. Curian approached the wardrobe, opening its doors with care. There were a number of identical dull green tunics, each paired with similarly dull green pants. Beneath each outfit rested a pair of leather boots, all well-worn but reasonably maintained.

She grabbed up a complete outfit and approached the bed. As she had hoped, she spotted a simple bedside table she could set the piece of the trinket down upon while she changed. Each piece of her outfit hit the floor sounding like a fish flopping about on deck, each replaced by the borrowed clothing. Sophia’s words rang true–it was most certainly plain, but it was warm and comfortable, and fit remarkably well. She found a spot to hang her wet clothing to dry, retrieved the trinket piece, and returned to the chamber to find a table set up. Sophia sat at one side with a free chair at the other. A bowl sat at each place-setting, each with gentle curls of steam rolling up from the contents within, and each was flanked by an ornate drinking glass.

“You have questions, I’m sure,” Sophia said, breaking the silence. “As do I. Sit. Eat. We can get to that before long.”

Curian plunked down in the seat, surprised by how deceptively comfortable it was. “Not to spoil all of this kindness you’re offering, but I’ve had some questionable encounters so far,” she said.

Sophia arched her eyebrows. “You suspect the possibility of me poisoning you?”

“Sounds about right, if you’ll forgive the concern,” Curian replied. “And even if you don’t forgive it, I still suspect the possibility is there.”

Sophia shook her head. “Very well,” she said. First, she lifted a spoonful of the bowl’s contents–a hearty stew from the looks of it, with no shortage of meat and thickly cut vegetables–and raised it to her lips. “Or perhaps this wouldn’t be sufficient.” She returned the spoon before picking up her bowl and Curian’s, and swapping them. She took a bite, chewed, and swallowed, before taking a drip from the glass.

“You’ll find I’m both quite alive and not poisoned, if that helps,” Sophia added, mischief dancing at the corners of her eyes and the edges of her smile. She replaced the spoon, and gestured to Curian to try hers. Warmth filled her from head to toe as she took the first bite, and it tasted better than anything she’d ever managed with what money she could scrape together.

“You don’t seem to be from around here,” Sophia said. “Might I ask where you’re from?”

Curian took a sip from her glass. Gentle notes of peppermint and lemon, followed by just a touch of honey. She hated tea, but begrudgingly found herself enjoying this particular one.

“Rivenbrook,” Curian replied in between bites of the stew. “Out-of-the-way little village near the southern wall of the Westenvale Kingdoms.”

Sophia furrowed her brow. “I recall no such kingdoms nor any village by that name,” she said. Her expression brightened. “Most interesting indeed.”

Curian shrugged. “Not so much, but I guess maybe a little?” she conceded. “What is this place?” She gestured broadly with her spoon.

“An easy question,” Sophia replied. “You sit in the lower reaches of the Eye of the World. This is the seat of all of the world’s history, and a repository of much of its knowledge. I am one of many charged with its upkeep.”

“Many?” Curian asked. “I didn’t see anyone else. I mean, sure, this place makes some castles look like a peasant’s hut, but I figure I would’ve seen at least one other person here by now.”

Sophia nodded. “Astute of you, but I believe it’s my turn to ask a question,” she said. Curian opened her mouth to protest but stopping shy of saying anything.

“Go on,” Curian said, taking another sip of her tea.

“How did you end up so far out at sea?” Sophia asked. “I saw no vessel nor wreckage. I was tending to the fishing nets, and looked up in time to see you crash down into the waters.”

Curian smiled. “Lucky thing, too, since I’m not the best swimmer around,” she said. She considered the trinket piece in her hand. Sophia had been most welcoming, and had been disarmingly charming in ways that bordered onto bothersome for Curian, and yet…

She placed the trinket piece on the table. “This thing, whatever it is, brought me out here,” Curian explained. “Before that, it brought me to some old castle ruins.”

Sophia glanced at the thing, her curiosity evident in her prying eyes. “May I?” she asked, pointing to the trinket piece.

“I’d be careful,” Curian said. “Last two times I touched that I ended up in different places from when I started, and we seem to be awfully deep in the ground.”

“I’ll take that risk,” Sophia said, picking the trinket piece up between her thumb and forefinger. She turned it over slowly, taking in its every inch. “This is part of something bigger, yes? I can’t help but feel it looks familiar somehow.”

“Huh,” Curian said. “You’d be right. I got it from someone I do business with here and there. I tinkered with it for a bit, and then I wound up at the castle I mentioned. Found it there, floating up in the sky. Some creepy critter there seemed awfully interested in it, too.”

Sophia’s attention returned to Curian, an eyebrow raised. “Creepy critter?” she asked.

“Some knightly-looking monster. Or man,” Curian explained. “He had the creepiest purple eyes and he kept moving around in the shadows.” She paused, dwelling on her encounter with the creature. She felt a wave of unease wash over her, as if she were suddenly in his gaze again.

Curian snapped her fingers. “Right,” she said. “Almost forgot, but he was also holding his head under his arm.”

Sophia stifled a gasp, her eyes suddenly wide. She finished the remainder of her food and drink. “That’s very concerning indeed,” she said. “We’ll need to continue this conversation in the Astrarium, I think, so we can both get better answers.”

Before Curian could respond, Sophia was on her feet with a flame in one hand and the trinket piece in the other, walking towards the door they’d first come through. Curian leapt up from the seat, grabbed her glass, and followed quickly after.

Piece Three – Foes or Friends to Be Found

Curian stood at the base of the stairway, her eyes fixed on the trinket as it floated above the tower in the distance. She looked around again, an uneasy feeling bubbling up in the pit of her stomach. This looked nothing like anywhere near Rivenbrook, nor the Shaded Weald near its edges. Curian had heard rumors of forgotten castles once lorded over by mighty kings and queens, all well beyond the Luminous Gates that surrounded the Westenvale Kingdoms, but they were just that–rumors. Ghost stories to tell greenhorn adventurers to keep them on their toes when venturing into the badlands beyond the kingdoms’ walls.

This looked like none of the places Curian had ever seen or heard of, and she couldn’t help but wonder how far she’d traveled.

“May as well retrieve the damned thing before I get my bearings,” Curian muttered to herself. She took a cautious first step, allowing only her toes to touch the stone first. She shifted more of her weight to her foot until finally she had fully stepped onto the first stair. There was a deafening silence as nothing out of the ordinary happened, and Curian breathed a sigh of relief.

The trinket glimmered in the air far ahead and above, bright even against the clear daytime sky. Curian gathered up her nerve and pressed onward, her goal visible and waiting for her arrival.

The castle ruins were interesting in that they didn’t seem to belong to one castle, but several. Obsidian stonework abruptly gave way to slate before shifting without warning to sections carefully crafted with clay and straw. The craftsmanship of each section was amazing, and Curian couldn’t help but admire it as she walked along. She found herself wondering who lived here that they decided to sample so many styles of building.

Curian almost missed the first royal crest, or at least what was left of it. A charred outline of a shield was all that remained, the thick layer of ash a severe contrast to the surrounding limestone. She wondered how many such things she had missed as she walked along, but her curiosity was not so great as to reverse her progress. She made a mental note and continued onward. It was, she reasoned, not uncommon for a dragon to destroy the markings of the rulers of a castle it razed. Perhaps that was the fate that had befallen this unusual place, she wondered, and her thoughts quickly turned to hurrying to the trinket in hopes that it would take her from this broken husk of what once was and back home, or at least somewhere a little more inviting.

The stairway sloped downwards, evening out until it became a pathway through a spacious courtyard. A fountain towered at its center, and its statue depicting a hero wielding a sword and shield was noteworthy for not having a head. Stagnant water sloshed gently over the lip of the fountain’s base with each breeze, a sickly green dense with plant growth. The gardens were overgrown with wild, grasping vines covered in thorns so long and sharp they could be used as daggers in a pinch. Curian followed the path along to where it forked around the fountain’s base. She felt a chill run up her spine that stopped her dead in her tracks.

Curian looked around. There was a second level overlooking the courtyard. Remnants of the floor jutted out with broken balconies extending further still. Beyond the stretch of floor, however, was darkness. The roof, or what was left of it, allowed for nothing to be seen beyond a certain point despite the sun shining through in a number of places.

A glint of deep purple was visible in the shadows for only a minute, and then it disappeared.

“Nope,” Curian muttered. “Absolutely not.” She turned on her heels and started walking faster. She reached the next portion of the stairs, which climbed along the side of a smaller tower, winding out of sight ahead. She could feel the hair standing up on the back of her neck as whatever she saw, she feared, watched her as she continued her progress towards the trinket. She walked faster still.

Her foot met the next stair, which gave like wet paper beneath her weight. She stumbled forward, grabbing hold of battered stone of the next stair. Three stairs behind her gave way, leaving her hanging on above the void. She clambered up onto the newly formed ledge, cursing the whole way, and once she was safely on part of the stairs she felt was secure and safe, Curian allowed herself a glance downwards. She immediately regretted it. Nothing was visible beneath where the stairs had broken away, or at least nothing was visible aside from the seemingly bottomless chasm that had opened up.

Curian breathed a sigh of relief before carefully getting to her feet. The stairs opened up to a small bridge that spanned between the tower she was on and the massive tower at the ruins’ heart. The trinket looked far closer now than before. Not willing to tempt fate, Curian picked up a large stone and threw it to the center of the bridge. It clicked and clacked along the stones of the floor, throwing off small sparks. The bridge held fast, not showing signs of being any less sturdy than the day it had been built.

“One easy step after another,” Curian reassured herself. “How difficult can it be? Almost there.” She stepped onto the bridge, each muscle moving into each step charged and ready for a mad dash to the other side should the bridge choose this to be its final moments. She reached the bridge’s center, and her fear began to give way to hope as the trinket seemed well within reach.

“How curious,” rumbled a voice from ahead, though Curian could not see who had spoken. More shadows had pooled just at the edge of the bridge, blocking the path to the final stair ascending the tower above which the trinket floated.

“Curious indeed,” Curian replied, a ghost of a tremor in her voice threatening to betray the coy tone she was trying to put on. “And with whom do I have the honor of speaking? The master of the castle?”

There was a horrible sound like millstones grinding to a sudden halt. Curian could feel it deep in her bones, and it took a moment to realize what she had just heard was laughter.

“It has been some time since anyone has come here,” the voice said. “I am not used to guests. I would ask you to forgive the state of things, but it appears you are passing through and not terribly interested.”

Curian tensed. If the trinket was her way home she couldn’t risk whoever–or whatever–she was now staring down taking interest in making it theirs.

“Just a student of the architectural arts passing through, admiring the many varied facets and facades of this magnificent castle,” she replied. “Very interested in the journey. No destination in mind just yet.”

There was a sudden rush of cold around Curian’s neck, along her shoulders. She could feel a presence only a few paces behind her, and the air around it was cold as the worst of winter. She could not muster the nerve to look.

“By all means, admire,” the voice said. There was an edge of something to it that Curian couldn’t quite pin down, but it left her feeling a very strong urge to get the hell away as quickly as possible.

“You have my thanks,” Curian said. “But also my apologies, as I don’t believe I’ve gotten your name.”

More laughter, accompanied by another blast of frigid breath. “No, I don’t think you did,” the voice mused. “A discussion for another time, perhaps, as I must tend to other matters at present.”

The oppressive presence behind Curian disappeared as quickly as it had arrived, and the base of the stairway was once again bathed in sunlight.

“To the seven Hells with that,” Curian blurted out, breaking into a full sprint. She took each step along the stairway winding around the tower with great care, though each step touched the stones only as long as necessary. With one last leaping step, Curian stumbled forward onto the circular platform at the tower’s zenith. She gasped for breath, hunched over but her eyes still locked on the trinket.

“I’ve got,” Curian said between deep, gasped breaths. “Even more. Questions for you, damn it.” She straightened up and took a step towards the center of the platform. The trinket, almost as if in response to Curian’s approach, drifted downwards until it was only a couple feet above the floor.

A newly familiar, horrid laugh issued from behind Curian, causing her to flinch.

“The Prognosticarium, here and ready to be taken,” the voice rumbled. “How convenient. And I suspect I owe you the thanks for bringing it to me, so unwittingly and carefree?”

Curian spun on her heels, fists raised. “Listen, you,” she snapped, ready to teach this king among creeps a lesson they wouldn’t soon forget. The next words she had meant to say hitched just behind her teeth when she saw who had been following her. The figure depicted by the statue.

He was tall, dressed in an outfit that screamed nobility. A wine red cape fluttered around the deep purple regalia. The silver of his gauntlets shined in the light of the trinket. He smiled at Curian, his purple eyes locked with hers. His head was tucked neatly in the crook of his right elbow, his neck topped instead by a thorny crown of jagged interwoven metal bands.

“What are you?” was all Curian managed to ask.

“Hardly your concern, child,” the creature said. “Step aside. You have no idea with what you are trifling. Once I have made use of the Prognosticarium, however, I assure you that you will be…” He paused, a dreadful smile creeping across cracked lips.

“Rewarded,” he added. The suggestion his tone gave the word did little to put Curian at ease.

She took a step closer to the trinket–the thing he was calling some strange, long, important-sounding name–and raised a hand towards it.

“You don’t know me,” Curian said. “I’m not terribly good at listening. Definitely lousy at taking orders.” She leaned closer to the trinket, her fingers hovering around it.

The creature recoiled ever so slightly, eyes narrowed. “That would be…” he said. “Unwise.”

Curian let out a laugh. “Good thing, then,” she said. “I’m not always the wisest, or so I’m told. Let’s see what happens if I do this.”

The creature let out a terrible, roaring shout as Curian’s fingers closed around the trinket. It was both burning hot and painfully cold to the touch. A burst of light emanated from it, rushing over the platform and spilling out far across the open air beyond the castle ruins. She could feel it shifting in her grasp, but this time it seemed to be growing in size.

Curian could feel parts of the trinket opening up as it moved in her palm until she could hold on no longer and was forced to let go. A number of pieces orbited a core of radiance and warmth, spinning faster and faster, some having changed direction and going opposite of the other pieces. Suddenly, the pieces stopped.

Before either the creature or Curian could say anything, the pieces rocketed off across the open air one by one, until the final piece was left.

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” Curian muttered as she reached out into the final piece’s path as it screeched through the air. Her fingers locked around it, and before Curian could process what had happened she was lifted off of the platform and into the air. The world below rushed by rapidly, and Curian felt her stomach turn. She shut her eyes, clenched her jaw, and offered a short prayer to any Gods she hadn’t recently blasphemed.

She hit the water just as a wave crested, the cold salt water forcing its way up her nose. The shock of the impact caused her to gasp, and she immediately regretted it. Curian bobbed at the water’s surface, only to sink into its inky depths. She clawed at the water around her with one hand while flailing her fist–still clenched tight around the piece of the trinket she’d grabbed–until she broke the surface.

Curian gasped for air, her eyes darting around madly. There was nothing but ocean for miles in each direction, it seemed, but before she could resign herself to her clear fate she heard a voice from behind her.

“Swim this way! Hurry, or the storm will claim you as its own!”

Curian turned and spotted a robed figure, hood obscuring its face, standing on what looked to be the edge of an island taken up by one squat, dome-shaped building.

With few other options, Curian swam towards the safety of shore.

Piece Two – A Puzzling World

Curian stared intently at the curious trinket on the table before her. She had seen something very similar, if not entirely identical, to it, but so long ago it may as well have been a previous lifetime. She wondered what it could be, or what could be hidden within the trinket, and so with a deep breath and a gentle touch she picked the trinket up and began turning it over in her hands. She listened closely for any sounds, but there were none to be heard.

“All right, you go ahead and be difficult,” Curian muttered. “I’ll figure you out before long.” She picked at one of the small switches only to discover it refused to move, as if it were locked in place. She turned the trinket over in her hands and found another only to be met with the same results. She set it down on the table and sighed. She stepped away from the table, her feet leading her to a small shelf.

She retrieved a stoppered bottle of rum for which she’d traded a story and a fresh baked loaf of bread. The traveler, who had only stayed at her modest cottage for a night, insisted it was one of the finest rums she would ever drink as it had been stolen from the lost temple of some God-King whose name had been forgotten over time and lack of worship, and so it was only to be imbibed under very serious or auspicious circumstances.

Once the stopper was removed the smell hit her like a falling boulder. It was far from subtle, and stunk of very old bananas and spices. Curian tried wafting the aroma to see if that would lessen its punch. It didn’t–if anything, the potency and pungency of the rum’s funk only seemed more intense.

Curian took the small bottle of rum back to the table and set it next to the curious trinket.

“If I have to, and only if I have to, I suppose it’s worth a try,” Curian said to herself, eyeing the drink. She wrinkled her nose. “Not just yet.”

She picked up the trinket again, turning it over in her hands. A dial near Curian’s right thumb felt like it jutted out a little further than the surrounding metal. First, a turn clockwise which seemed to do nothing. She turned it back, then counter-clockwise until there was a soft clicking sound. Curian nearly dropped the trinket, excitement washing over her in a wave at the possibility of progress. She let go of the dial to explore the rest of the trinket, and the dial snapped back into its original position.

“Damn you,” Curian muttered. “That wasn’t very helpful.” She eyed the rum again. She sighed, somewhat resigned, and hoped that the traveler hadn’t been lying.

“Bottom’s up,” Curian said, pinching her nose with her fingers as she upended the bottle into her mouth. It tasted like warmth, first and foremost, followed by a powerful mix of cinnamon, bananas, and porridge. It far more dense than she had expected, but still went down smoothly and left a lingering tingling feeling dancing about her tongue and around her teeth. She set the bottle down as steadily as she could, the spirits already doing their work.

“Forgotten God-King, let’s hope your fancy swill was worth it,” Curian said as she picked the trinket back up. She turned it over in her hands, her eyes probing and poking at every inch of its surface. The dials, it seemed, as well as the buttons and switches all seemed to be at set intervals, grouped in small trios–one of each. They all looked identical, or close enough to identical at a glance, but Curian remembered the dial she had found that seemed to be recessed into the metal. She turned the trinket over in her hands again, feeling around it until she located the dial she sought. Again, she turned it counter clockwise until there was a soft click. This time, however, she held it in place. Gently, she set the trinket down on the table and held the dial with one hand while testing the button with her free hand. It moved into the trinket with a soft pop, and a silver door shut over where it had been.

Cautious, but driven by greater curiosity still, Curian attempted to engage the switch. She nudged it with her thumb, and with little effort on her part the switch moved upwards until it jutted out slightly from the trinket’s surface.

“Finally getting somewhere,” Curian murmured to the trinket only for the stench of banana funk on her breath to hit her nose. She thumbed at the switch again and it snapped downwards into the trinket. A thin line of ruby appeared where the switch was, and before Curian could react the dial slipped from her grasp and disappeared into the trinket to be covered by a small image of the sun.

That’s when Curian heard the ticking sound begin. Something had started to whir gently within the trinket, ticking not entirely like a clock and not entirely like a bomb. It had an urgency to it, and Curian could feel her breath catch as she waited. The trinket grew white hot in a flash, previously feeling cool to the touch. She dropped it to the table, and it rolled and spun gently for a moment before it stopped.

“What…” Curian said before she was cut off. The trinket spun rapidly on the table, the other dials and switches and buttons activating seemingly of their own accord. A gentle chime issued from the trinket as each set of interfaces disappeared beneath its metal surface. By the time the last one disappeared, it glowed like a coal in the fireplace. The ruby lines seemed to crawl along the trinket’s surface as the trinket continued to spin wildly. It snapped to a sudden stop, the image of the sun facing Curian.

The sun had a little face etched into its surface, and Curian was certain the face winked at her.

The trinket exploded outwards into the room in a brilliant flash of light.

“Oh, shit,” Curian managed to say as she was enveloped in the warm, brilliant bloom. Everything was suddenly dark, save for points of light that hurtled past Curian at extraordinary speeds.

Everything stopped.

Curian found herself standing at the base of a long, winding stone stairway that snaked its way through what must have been a wondrous castle at one point, though it was but an echo of its former self. To call it ruins would be generous, with parapets that sloped abruptly into courtyards and towers whose rooms were open to the air on most sides. Amidst the ruined castle loomed a tower higher than the others. The stairway wrapped and wound its way from where Curian stood to the top of the tower.

And in the air above the tower, glowing more brilliantly than a bonfire in the dead of a winter’s night, floated the curious trinket.

Piece One – The Curious Trinket

Curian hurried along the stone streets of Rivenbrook, hands stuffed firmly in her pockets and her eyes focused on a point in the distance. She was, after all, on a mission of great importance. The ring she had acquired–no, liberated–from a gang of Dunbrough Goblins had to be worth at least enough to put dinner on the table for the next month if not longer, she reasoned. Ahead, not but a few blocks in the distance, stood Alistair’s Awe-Inspiring Antiquities and Curiosities, its doors illuminated by lanterns that contained never held a flame.

The door swung open for Curian, as it had every time she arrived there to do business. On previous trips this might have made her flinch or jump a little, but the trickery was familiar now. Perhaps even a little underwhelming on days like this, when Curian’s mind was sharply focused. A labyrinth of uneven, catawampus shelves stood just beyond the doorway, their contents only fully visible when looked at directly and a blur of color and shape when not.

“You’re very nearly late, you know,” echoed the imperious, insufferable tones of Alistair’s nasal voice. He was a wood elf, displaced by tragedy but not removed from his haughty demeanor, and his sense of his place in the world was never more apparent than when he spoke to someone he saw as beneath him. Someone like Curian.

Curian cursed under her breath. She scanned the shelves, following one path to the next. A left at the intersection of stacked umbrella stands containing old and forgotten swords, followed by a sharp right at the colossal aquarium occupied by tropical fish far from their natural home, and then one long straightaway until she reached the great gilded desk.

Alistair peered over his glasses, down his long, gently sloping nose, to Curian. His eyes drifted about her, and Curian could see the mental notes forming. The grime on her face from having fled the remaining Goblins through the Untermire. The thick mud caked on her boots, and the scratching vines still clinging to her aged and battered olive-colored tunic. Sands blown from the dunes just north of Rivenbrook, blown southwards by the ever-more-violent storms that had blown in recently clung to the sweat on her terracotta skin.

“Childling, you look simply dreadful,” Curian said, her words emphasized by her exaggerated scowl.

Alistair wagged a finger. “There will be no business, childling, with you behaving as such,” he shot back. Curian pursed her lips, but did nothing more. Alistair’s curiosity as to where his acquisitions came from only went so far, but the rules of decorum in his shop were immutable. He stared at Curian for a moment longer before holding out an immaculate palm. Long, pointed, recently manicured nails stabbed at the air between her and his hand like daggers.

“I think you’ll be please with this,” Curian said as she retrieved the object from her pocket. She placed it in Alistair’s hand gently and quickly, making sure not to not allow her hand to touch his. It had happened once, and that was enough for him to bar her entry to the shop for well over a month. Though he would not admit to it, Alistair’s disdain for Mountain Dwarves came into play with Curian whenever he saw her even though she had explained she was only half Dwarven, and that there was no reason to be such an asshole about it. Such remarks, naturally, had earned her a week of no entry to the shop.

Alistair’s fingers snapped shut and he pulled his hand close to his face. He opened his perfect, pristine fist and eyed the ring in his palm with much curiosity. It was a simple, silver band, inlaid with subtle runes that only showed when the light struck them just right. A small piece of unpolished jasper glittered in its setting on one side of the ring.

Curian leaned closer, but not too close to the desk, eagerly waiting.

“A trinket like this is a copper a dozen,” Alistair said at last, an eyebrow raised. “What is it you expect me to pay you for this?”

Anger bit at the back of Curian’s neck and around her ears. The heat of her rage crept towards her cheeks and up around her eyes. She took a deep breath, held it a moment, and exhaled.

“That’s no shoddy workmanship and you know that just as well as I do,” Curian replied, her tone as even-keel as a ship approaching stormy waters. “Runes for protection on one side, but when worn inverted they become runes of devastation. Whosoever wears this ring could raze cities or raise cities.”

Alistair nodded along, a hint of approval flashing across his face for less than the blink of an eye. “Well observed, childling, but wisdom like that does nothing to pad my pockets,” he replied. “I’ll give you ten silver and three copper, and not a coin more.”

Curian opened her mouth, fists clenched tightly at her sides, but snapped her teeth shut to keep the words she’d wanted to say locked up tight in their current cage. She would have to release them later, perhaps in the smoky, dark familiarity of the Backwater Bog Inn.

“Fine,” she said at last, holding her hand out.

Alistair retrieved a coin purse from among the heaps of things on his desk and slowly, deliberately began to count out the payment. It wasn’t nearly enough, Curian thought, but it had to do. She couldn’t bring herself to watch him count out such a pitiful sum, and so her eyes began to wander.

Something round and glittering caught her attention. She’d stood in that exact spot a million or so times, she knew, and she had not once ever noticed such a thing. She turned without fully meaning to, and there it was. A perfect sphere, copper in color with accents of silver and veins of ruby. Small dials and buttons jutted out at odd intervals. The longer Curian looked at the object, the more certain she felt it was calling to her. Only when her hand closed around it did she even realize she had reached for the curious trinket.

“Hm? Oh, that old thing,” Alistair said, clearly unable to hide his amusement. “Take it. I’ll keep the copper pieces and one silver from your payment as compensation.”

“Keep it all,” Curian muttered as she turned the trinket over in her hands, her eyes dancing along its surface as she did.

Alistair arched his slim, perfectly trimmed wisps of eyebrows. “Excuse me?”

“Keep your silvers,” Curian repeated. She pocketed the trinket. “Until next time,” she added, turning on her heels. She walked at first, moving out of Alistair’s sight as quickly as she could. Once he could no longer see her, she broke into a run.

There was something about this thing worth investigating, Curian decided, and so she exited the shop and ran down the hillside, weaving through the small crowds of people moving about the streets with little to no interest in her. She continued to run as the streets gave way to the fields beyond Rivenbrook, and before long she stood outside of her humble cottage just at the edge of the shaded copse. She threw the door open and leapt to the only seat at her table.

“All right, then,” Curian said. She removed the trinket from her pocket and placed it on the table, curiosity bordering onto madness in her eyes. “What are you? Tell me your secrets.”

An Unintentional Hiatus, and Remembering to Breathe

Life happens, or so the saying goes, as does work and writing and finding time to exercise. Organizing parties. Dozing off in the middle of the day. And so on.

I’ve certainly kept busy, and sometimes I am kept busy. Sometimes I find myself time to simply be, and sometimes I am reminded to simply be (or, with a gentle nudge and much love from my wife, I am told to simply be). It’s during the downtime of being that I find myself thinking about what I should be doing and what I could be doing, and how I’ve not necessarily gotten any closer to accomplishing those things. On the plus side, I’ve gotten no farther from doing so either. Instead, I’m enjoying the adventure of being a father to two fantastic children, navigating the adventures of marriage with my entirely remarkable wife (who supports my writing far more than I do at times), and so on.

So what’s next, then? What misadventures wait ahead?

There will certainly be more Follow the Ashes sooner than later. Still plenty of distance to travel before we reach our destination with that story.

Introductions to Amira, and her Quest, are probably in order. We’ll see.

Then, of course, there’s a small matter of things to do with ducks, and if that’s confusing to read I promise it was just as perplexing to type.

Those, however, are misadventures for other days. Today, instead, I’m choosing again to simply be and remember to breathe.