Wanted Adventurers – The First of Many Side-Quests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Friends of the Guild?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll cover first round,” Monty said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monty raised his eyebrows.

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

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

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

The two slammed their mugs down at the same time.

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

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

Temperance broke the scowl-off first.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lockdown Times, Life, and Raising Kids During COVID-19

Happy…what day is it? Tuesday. Happy Tuesday! For those of you for whom it applies: happy book birthday to The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. I have my copy and I’m eager to devour it.

Tonight’s post is a study in messing around with the WordPress mobile app to post. I apologize for no formatting issues. Not sorry at all.

I’ve been dwelling on a few things that have happened during these strange Quarantimes, and so I decided to share some of them. This is a partially selfish post as it’s to quiet some of the noise in my brain, and partially to share my experiences. Partially to help commiserate, perhaps?

I’m going to focus on positive shit because I started typing about the bad moments from 2020 and it made me tired so I said the Hell with it. There’s enough negative out there.

Distance Learning, The Beginnings, were a real treat. It was a wild learning curve for Kiddo 1, and for Steff and me. Seesaw wasn’t terrifically cooperative, and there were a few nights I was up until after 11 recalling my third grade math skills. It was a bonding experience wrapped in shared frustration, but we survived it without my daughter trying to kill me while I slept. And that’s really the heart and soul of parenting. (It isn’t. I’m just very bad at parenting.)

I accidentally killed the oven. The stove top still works. The silver lining? I’ve gotten really damn good at prepping pork chops and chicken breasts in the skillet. Our go-to Tuesday dinner comfort food is my half-assed take on chicken divan. I enjoy cooking and I’ve had no complaints from my family thus far, so I’ll chalk that up as a win.

We got some projects finished around my house. I didn’t succeed at writing the next best-selling novel. I didn’t read a book a week. I still haven’t fully prepped for NaNoWriMo. There are definitely days I think about those things, but increasingly I focus on the things I have managed to accomplish. I’ve been writing four serial stories consistently. I’ve kept up, mostly, with a personal productivity tracker. I tried a weekly planner and discovered it wasn’t for me.

I’ve consumed a modest amount of whiskey, but stopped drinking soda entirely.

This year has been an adventure so far. It has been far from perfect, but I’m grateful for the good that has come of it. I hope anyone who reads this has had some good in 2020 as well.

I could write more, but my dishes still don’t wash themselves and it’s a work night. I like writing, but I like sleep a little more. Take care, folks.

Warpt Factor – Installment 15

Izzy sat in the captain’s quarters of The Lofty Albatross, and appreciated how it wasn’t over-the-top. It was, in terms of size, perhaps a little larger than a broom closet. A reasonable bed, a small desk equipped with outdated tech, and a miniature nutritional station that fed from the ship’s automated kitchen took up most of the space, with little of the floor unoccupied.

It felt like what life at Spiral Reach should be like, she thought.

“Wonder how Ursula’s doing,” Izzy muttered to herself. “And good, old what’s-his-face.”

The ship’s commlink blinked, indicating an incoming transmission. Izzy sat up in the bed, leaning forward just enough to reach the desk. The alert shifted to the wall behind the desk, and the wall converted to a secondary console. The contact was heavily encrypted, and indicated for Captain’s Viewing Only.

Izzy exhaled slowly. unclenched, and selected to accept the communication. She presented her best diplomatic smile as the communication was patched through, and Izzy found herself smiling reflexively.

High Chancellor Kadimova smiled in return. “How fare your travels thus far, young Captain Warpt?”

“You’re a sight for sore eyes,” Izzy said. She slumped. “Y’know, I’m not sure. You could’ve warned me the First Officer on this ship is…A challenge.”

“And deprive you of learning experiences? Never a chance of that,” Kadimova said. He wagged a finger. “Don’t sell yourself short, by the way. I’ve heard some very promising things through all of the right channels. Word is already spreading of a Spiral Reach Academy Captain who brought improbable peace to Rigel Six.”

Izzy reflected on the events on Rigel Six, and what she learned about the Rigellian and Ruklan leaders.

“Didn’t feel like much of a win to me,” Izzy replied.

Kadimova waved a hand dismissively. “To be perfectly frank with you, Captain Warpt, you managed what many higher ranking Spiral Reach Academy officials have long avoided. When I’d gotten word of where you were, I might have needed a strong drink or two.”

Izzy raised an eyebrow. “Thanks…For that vote of confidence, I guess?” she said. “Anyway, their politicians were all working with someone to get weapons or tech to fend off the weapons. So they were all scuzzy scumbags stuffed full of corruption.”

“You did magnificently, and you should be pleased with yourself,” Kadimova said. “You’re already doing splendidly on our mission, and so long as the crew remains unaware we will be able to recall you sooner than later. Make you an official Captain. Godspeed, child, and take care. You’ve got someone debating whether or not they should disturb you outside your room.” Kadimova winked, then ended the communication.

Izzy swung her feet over the edge of her bed, leapt up, and opened the door right as CMO Carter had raised her hand to knock.

“Oh, good. You’re awake,” CMO Carter said, lowering her hand. “Didn’t want to disturb you, but the crew wanted to see if you were hungry.”

Izzy smiled. “I guess I could use a snackaroo or two,” she said. “You draw the short straw on who had to come check on me?”

CMO Carter stifled a laugh. “Perhaps, but I was concerned about you as well,” she said. “That was certainly an unsettling note on which we left Rigel Six. Sounded like they had quite a bit left to sort out.”

Izzy nodded. “So what’s our destination,” she asked, stepping out into the corridor.

“Can’t say,” CMO Carter said. “I’m sworn to secrecy. Fontaine wrote up a very formal document and made Professor Everest and me sign it, and then he signed it as well. It’s a secret until we arrive.”

“What a uniquely First Office deCourville thing to do,” Izzy said, shaking her head. “Wish I could say I’m surprised. Even a little surprised. Like, just a smidge. I’m not. Here, watch this.”

They passed the cramped kitchen and dining space, the AI that ran it watching them intently and with an air of wanting no visitors. Izzy opened the door to the bridge of the Albatross. Both Fontaine and Professor Everest turned to look.

“Good to see you, Captain,” First Officer deCourville said, both sets of hands clasped behind his back. “Is there something you need? Are you all right?”

“Don’t you fret about the state of things out here,” Professor Everest said. “We’re on our way.”

“Yes! On our way, and no more need to be said on the subject,” First Officer deCourville.”

Izzy looked from her First Officer to Professor Everest and back. She smiled. “Nah, no needs here. I emerged from my hermitage for just long enough to get a snack and bumped into CMO Carter. Either of you want anything before I stop by the kitchen?”

A sharp buzz resounded throughout the bridge, followed by the cooking AI’s voice. “Please refrain from ‘visiting’ the kitchen, as you are a collection of potential contaminants. Order from your quarters and you will receive your desired sustenance in a timely manner.”

Izzy shrugged. “Moody, isn’t it? Guess I’ll just have to be patient and see what kind of adventures you have in mind for me. You know where to find me if you need me, crew.” She nodded, turned, and began to walk away.

“You’re welcome to join me if you wanted to chat for a bit, Carter,” Izzy said. The two walked back to her room, ordered a number of snacks, and CMO Carter politely listened while Izzy speculated on their secret destination.

***

Weapons Master Roderick Weston hated having to waste perfectly good equipment, but in some cases he knew it couldn’t be avoided. The flunkies he had assigned to Rigel Six, after all, had failed, and so they had to be eliminated.

He sat at his desk, a drink prepared for the transmission he knew was pending.

The screen shifted to a heavily encrypted communication, overriding the numerous firewalls. An individual, cloaked in digital shadow, sat centered in the screen.

“Suspend your current project,” commanded the individual. “You are to shift the entirety of your focus to The Lofty Albatross. Discover what makes its Captain tick. When you do…”

Roderick nodded. “I’ll figure out what makes her Captain tick, and then I’ll take that apart gear by gear until she breaks.”

“Good. Don’t fail me, Roderick.” The communication ended. Roderick switched to the NavCom dashboard and punched in a series of commands. An icon appeared moving along the gulf of open space. Roderick sneered, tapped a series of additional commands, and set a course to pursue The Lofty Albatross.

Wanted Adventurers – Bonding Over Getting Mugged

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Awfully quiet,” Aranza muttered.

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

“Too quiet, perhaps,” Temperance replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You following her?” Monty called after.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You die now!” shouted the one Kobold.

“We take your gold!” shouted the other.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I…Well, perhaps…” Temperance said.

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

Temperance nodded, following along.

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

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

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

“Hail and well met,” Temperance said.

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

Temperance blinked. “I beg your pardon?”

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

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

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

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

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

Aranza offered a curt nod.

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

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

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

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

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

Piece 14 – The Long Sunset

The Wolf was one and also many. It fractured into several wolves to launch complicated attacks on the Orcs, then gathered into one Wolf again when it struck at the Treants.

“How far do we have to go?” Curian asked Gnarlroot. The Treant raised a mighty branch and pointed. In the distance. A tree stump taller than a noble’s estate stood in the distance. A dull glow emanated from it, and Curian realized it looked like embers still burning.

“Kil’Gronn! Gnarlroot! Now’s the time!” Curian shouted.

A din of laughter arose from the Wolf. “It hardly matters.”

Gnarlroot and Kil’Gronn reached the remains, and a bright light erupted forth. In the distance, birds began chirping as a light breeze danced through the upper reaches of the trees.

“Thank the Gods,” Curian blurted out.

The chase continued, the charred remains of Elderbark just a few lumbering Treant steps ahead.

“Something’s not right,” Curian muttered.

A chorus of laughter rose up from the wolves that made up the Wolf. “You’re catching on, but will you figure it out before I claim your soul?”

Sophia looked around frantically as one of the wolves leapt from branch to branch. It swiped at her with its claws, only having narrowly missed as the Burlknot slammed it back to the ground.

“Hope your little, mountain-mud brain comes up with something,” Burlknot shouted with an offer of an unexpected smile. Curian chuckled; she took note of the insult and told herself she’d have to return the favor later.

If there was a later, of course.

The last several times they’d reached the remains played back in Curian’s mind.

“Kil’Gronn, do you trust me?” Curian shouted over the madness.

Kil’Gronn shrugged. “As much as I’d like to, which is only about half as far as I could throw you.”

Curian nodded. “Good enough,” she said. “Bet you could throw me pretty damn far. What about you, Gnarlroot?”

“Your heart beats like one who is not trying to deceive, and so I will afford you my trust,” Gnarlroot replied.

Sophia furrowed her brow. “I already know that look,” she shouted. “You’ve got something mad and foolish planned, haven’t you?”

“Hey, Gnarlroot! Throw me to the ashes!” Curian shouted.

The colossal leader of the Treants stopped suddenly. Curian held on with all of her strength, the rush of wind from the abrupt stop nearly throwing her from where she stood.

“Just do it, damn you!”

Gnarlroot plucked Curian from his upper branches as gently as they could, swung back the mighty branch that held her, and then released with as much calculated care a sentient tree of some thousand years in age could muster.

Curian soared through the air that spanned the distance between the chaos of the Wolf, the Treants, and the Orcs, her face pinned back by the wind. Her eyes watered and she tried to keep focused. The ashes arrived far quicker than expected, and Curian had only enough time to land with an awkward forward roll that narrowly avoided hitting the far edge of the depression in the mighty stump.

She fumbled with various concealed pockets without looking, her eyes fixed on the wolves as they coalesced into one massive form. Behind it, everything else had frozen in place.

“Here goes nothing,” Curian said as she retrieved a small tool she’d stolen from an Artificier at The Hobbled Drake Tavern after he had shared a few too many opinions with her about he she could be more appealing to the eyes. It was a simple box with a curious wheel at its top next to a small opening that occasionally stunk like bogwater.

Curian flicked the wheel. A small spark issued, but nothing followed. She repeated, watching as the Wolf reared back and leapt at her.

“Shit!” Curian shouted as she repeated the action one last time. The spark ignited, and she dropped the device into the heart of the Heart of the forest. The ashes erupted in brilliant green flames around Curian, though they did not touch her.

“Elderbark,” Curian said as she grasped for the right words. “I, uh…I release you to the next life. Your watch of this forest has ended, and a new one has begun. Rest!” She had little time to be proud of her eulogizing as the Wolf growled, prowling on the outer edge of the flames.

“I will tear the flesh from your bones first,” the Wolf snarled. “Then rend your pitiful soul from your body. I will savor it as your eternal screams roll down my throat.”

The flames burned brighter and brighter. There was an explosion of light outwards, rolling over every inch of the forest. Curian shut her eyes against its radiance, and when she opened them the Wolf was gone. She found herself standing at the foot of the tree stump, her hands shut tightly around something.

“One of the Pieces,” she gasped as she opened her fingers.

“Guess there’s more than dirt between those ears,” Burlknot said, roaring with laughter. The Orcs, slowly, joined in the merriment.

“Thank goodness you’re okay,” Sophia said as she was set down. “How did you know that would work?”

Curian scratched at the back of her head. “Call it a hunch, I guess?”

Sophia massaged her temples.

“That was very brave of you, little one,” Gnarlroot harrumphed.

Kil’Gronn stepped forward, bowing to Curian. Curian returned the gesture.

“Very brave indeed,” Kil’Gronn said. “You are welcome to visit my…” She hesitated, her attention briefly turned to the Treants.

“Our” Kil’Gronn corrected herself, “forest whenever you like.”

Curian smiled. “Only so long as you’re not trying to kill each other,” she said.

Kil’Gronn and Gnarlroot exchanged sheepish glances.

“I believe there is much mending of old wounds to be done,” Gnarlroot said. “As for you two, where will you go next?”

Curian looked toward the sunset, its last rays of light pooling high in the distance on snow-capped mountains.

Wanted Adventurers: An Unhappy Alliance

Aranza and Monty had been escorted to a small holding room–not a cell, the guard emphasized, as it had no bars and pleasant accommodations–while Temperance presented her case against being saddled with such criminals.

“She seemed very nice,” Monty said, leaning back in one of the antique, hand-carved wooden chairs in the room. Its legs creaked with alarm, and the guards at the door cringed visibly. It was a reaction Monty had discovered accidentally and decided to replicate as many times as possible.

Aranza shrugged. “Don’t care much for her.”

Monty raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t care much for me either when we first met, if I recall.”

“Don’t know what you’re on about,” Aranza shot back.

“You tried to murder me, I recall,” Monty said as he leapt to his feet and his chair fell backwards to the floor with an unfortunate thackathack of wood against stone. “The only thing that stayed your hand was your realization I wasn’t sent to govern over your fair city, but I had arrived to eliminate my uncle and free your people.”

Aranza looked away. “Not a proud moment for me, all right?”

There was a sharp knock at the doors. The guards both jumped, visibly startled. They opened the doors, and Temperance walked briskly past. Alistair walked in, his gait more theatrical than practical, and gestured for the guards to leave. They exited quickly, shutting the doors behind them.

Temperance exhaled slowly. She looked around the room as if intent on not looking at Monty or Aranza.

“Lord Alistair, I must protest,” Temperance said. She turned to face Alistair, scowling at Monty as her gaze passed over him.

Alistair sighed. “My good and thoughtful Paladin of the Guild, you have protested and your concerns have been logged appropriately.”

Temperance deflated, the words a pin lancing through the waterskin that held any hopes remaining of her escaping such a task.

“Now I happen to believe there’s good in the hearts of these two,” Alistair continued. “They’re lousy thieves or deliberate prisoners, and they don’t seem very good at either of those things.” He offered Aranza the warm smile of a parent who acknowledged their child’s insistence of not having taken a cookie while spotting the crumbs around their lips, and Aranza couldn’t help but smile in response.

Alistair glanced at Monty and offered a similar smile. Monty remained stoic.

“It should be little to no surprise that I did a bit of reading up on the two of you,” Alistair explained. “I think you two can learn a lot from Temperance, but I also think she can learn a lot from you two as well.”

“Forgive me if I am anything but doubtful,” Temperance replied.

Alistair shrugged. “Doubtful or not, Temperance of House Ravencroft, you succeed or fail with them. Their punishment becomes yours. Rough deal, but you know how Alexandros is. Spare the rod and spoil the child.”

Alistair produced a magnificent flask, a dragon whelp snaked around it with its head resting peacefully on the lid. He prodded the dragon with his finger. It stirred, snorted a small plume of smoke, and shifted just enough out of the way. The aroma that spilled in the room was as if someone had set an entire cart’s worth of sun-spoiled fruit on fire. Alistair took a healthy swig. He winced, but his face gradually melted into a more peaceful expression.

“Forgive me, but this makes bad news easier to deliver,” Alistair conceded. He reached into his cloak and produced a scroll held tightly shut with a deep purple wax seal. He held it out to Temperance, but before her fingers could close around it Monty had grabbed it away.

“This is some kind of twisted joke, yes?” Monty snapped.

Temperance tried to retrieve the scroll only to have it pulled from her grasp again, this time by Aranza.

Aranza turned the scroll over in her hands before fixating on the seal. “Guess you’re not taking many bets on how long will last, are you old man?”

Alistair shook his head, though he looked somber despite the potent spirit he’d indulged.

“If one of you could be so kind as to explain, please, as I am cursed with your presence as my wards as it is,” Temperance sneered.

Aranza waved the scroll in front of Temperance’s face. The Paladin narrowed her eyes, annoyed but patient enough, and finally grabbed it. She stared at the seal, then turned the scroll over in her gauntleted hands. At last, she frowned and looked to the others.

“I’m not familiar with this seal or these markings,” she conceded.

Monty clicked his tongue. “We would be so fortunate as to be blessed with the greenhorn Paladin.”

“Don’t be an asshole, Monty, because we’re in no better shape right now,” Aranza shot back. She stepped closer to Temperance, who reflexively backed away. Holding out one hand, she gestured to the scroll with the other. Temperance reluctantly handed it back over.

“Purple wax means magic user,” Aranza explained. “Unless the coding’s changed.”

Alistair shook his head. “You know how long it took us to get that nonsense sorted? It would take the Gods themselves to change it. Not even sure they could manage to achieve such a feat.”

“A simple yes would have sufficed,” Monty replied.

Aranza pointed to the seal again. “Purple means magic user, then, but this particular seal is awfully elaborate. The spikes around the edge and the symbols around the center tell a story, right?”

Alistair smiled. “Very clever,” he replied. “I don’t suppose you were once a Guild Initiate?”

“Used to steal Guild communications and sell them to put food on the table,” Aranza said with no further explanation. “Don’t know what they mean, but if I had to guess we’re going after a bounty. The big, ugly skull in the middle of the seal is what tells me we shouldn’t make any plans for the long-term.”

Temperance furrowed her brow. “If you know so little of reading these seals, how can you be sure?”

Monty stepped forward and exchanged glances with Aranza. “There are countless beings capable of wielding magic,” he said. “Even you can grasp that. The rest, however, and especially the skull? They point to a very specific variety of bounty we’ll be facing.”

Temperance opened her mouth to respond, closing it and opening it several times as the answer slowly dawned on her.

The world faltered, the nicely-furnished holding room–not a holding cell–suddenly replaced by a dark, subterranean tomb.

“And then you arrived here, eager to cause havoc at my expense?” Archlich Karaxis asked, an edge of impatience to his hollow voice.

Temperance shook her head. “Not so simply, no,” she replied. “I’m only just beginning.”

Piece 13 – The Truth in the Shadows

Burlknot was the first to speak after Curian’s insult. “Is she always like this? This…pleasant?”

Sophia offered a slight shrug. “Her heart’s in the right place, but it occurs to me she hasn’t slept since we’ve set out on our journey,” she said.

“I’m perfectly fine, thank,” Curian snapped back, stopping short as she fell forward. Her face landed in a dense moss patch, and she began to snore almost immediately.

“Perhaps we could allow her time to rest before resuming things,” Gnarlroot reasoned. “It seems we both have made a deal with her, after all, and she did have some rather strong words just now.”

Curian snored loudly, face partially buried in the moss.

“If any of you Treants try anything, don’t think we’ll hesitate to cut you down where you stand,” Kil’Gronn said.

Burlknot stomped forward, stopped short by Gnarlroot.

“You keep watch from your side of the path and we will keep watch on ours,” Gnarlroot snapped back.

The fog was dense, but Curian knew the way. She followed the ruined stair, her fingers running along the moss and vines that covered much of the wall next to her.

A starless, cloudless sky greeted her as she reached the top of the crumbling castle’s highest tower. A foul, bitter wind threatened to knock Curian over the edge, but she braced herself against it. In preparation of what was waiting for her. She felt a familiar gaze and knew it was just a matter of time.

The fire erupted from around the edges of the tower, spreading until Curian was trapped. Shadows formed on the other side of the raging flames, coalescing into a single figure that stepped through unscathed.

Dullahan.

“Across the gulf of darkness, from beyond thresholds I may not cross, you seek me out,” Dullahan taunted. “Your efforts are in vain.”

Curian drew a sword she didn’t remember acquiring, its glittering blade giving off a warm light from within. Runes glowed softly along its hilt. She pointed it at Dullahan, eyes narrowed.

“I cannot let you harm my world,” Curian said.

Dullahan let out a chilling laugh. “You never had a say in the matter. From the moment you brought the Prognosticarium back here you already ensured I would travel world to world, and the darkness would follow in my wake. Not that you’ll need to worry about that for long…”

Curian lunged, sword raised, but fell short as the castle beneath her began to quake violently. She stumbled forward, looking around wildly in hopes of seeing what had happened. The entire world was shifting and shaking wildly, cracks of light breaking through all around.

“Wake up, damn you!” a voice rang out. “We’ve got a situation here!”

The world exploded in a blur of light, and when Curian’s eyes adjusted she found herself face-to-face with Sophia.

“Forgive me. I know you must have been tired,” Sophia said. She jerked backwards, and as Curian’s eyes focused she saw Kil’Gronn behind Sophia.

“Talk later,” Kil’Gronn demanded. She threw Sophia upwards into Burlknot’s waiting branches.

Curian did not have a chance to say anything before Kil’Gronn repeated the process on her.

“Hold tight, loud little one,” Burlknot grumbled. “Would hate to drop you before I have the chance to make you regret that remark you made.”

Curian chuckled. “Ah, that little gem,” she said. “What’s going on, exactly? I feel like I’ve missed something.”

Sophia pointed to the ground below. The forest had gotten significantly darker to the point where Curian couldn’t see any of the Orcs below. She glanced up and noticed the sun was still just where it had been before. When she looked back down towards the ground, Curian could feel something watching her.

Two crimson eyes, deep tears cleaved in the gathered shadows, appeared fixed on Curian.

“Little traveler, you are so far from home,” growled a voice from the shadows. “Let us ease your troubles. Come to us and we will give you peace.”

The shadows shifted and rolled over one another, gathering together to form a massive, singular form. Their edges blurred with the air around them but its shape was unmistakable.

“Wolf,” Curian muttered.

“Gods no,” Sophia whispered. “One of the Morrigan.”

A low guttural sound crept up from below, building to a dull roar. The wolf was laughing.

“I’m so glad we could find you before our sisters,” the Wolf said. “They would have surely robbed us of this joy.”

“Hate to ruin this moment for you, but the bird-brained one tried to kill us already,” Curian said.

Sophia glared at Curian. “Don’t taunt the Morrigan, please.”

“Hey, Angerbranch,” Curian said.

Burlknot groaned. “You are a very difficult creature to tolerate.”

Curian nodded. “I get that a lot,” she replied. “Listen. I think we need to fix this forest. You up to the task? Time to put differences aside because…” She pointed at the Wolf.

“Gnarlroot, what say you?”

Gnarlroot signaled to the other Treants, who began scooping up the Orcs. “One day, we will have to sit down and come to terms with our past,” he roared. “Today is not that day! With me, Treants! We must gather the ashes!”

The Treants moved in great strides across the forest, the absence of wind creating a horrifying echo from the howls that followed behind them. They moved fast, but the Wolf moved even faster. She tore at the Treants roots and leapt upwards, digging her claws into their trunks.

An alcove of trees that stood higher than the rest loomed in the distance. Above the din of madness and fury raging behind them, Curian could hear Kil’Gronn as if they were next to each other.

“Beautiful,” Kil’Gronn gasped. “Not what I expected at all.”

“It would seem we have some misconceptions about each other,” Gnarlroot said, not breaking stride as another Treant was felled, this one even closer.

A tree trunk stood alone in the center of the copse, its center darker than the surrounding wood.

“Ashes!” Curian called out. “Kil’Gronn! Gnarlroot!”

Kil’Gronn leapt from Gnarlroot, hurtling downwards. Gnarlroot extended a branch and Kil’Gronn vaulted off of it, landing with a careful forward roll on the tree stump.

“No! Gods damn you, no!” the Wolf howled.

Light exploded outwards from the heart of the tree stump, engulfing everything in the forest. When the light dimmed, the Wolf had gone. Several Treants lay in ruin, the Orcs they had been carrying dead around them.

In the distance, birds had begun chirping as a soft breeze blew between the branches.

Warpt Factor – Installment 13

Izzy stood in the guestroom she’d been guided to upon arrival at the Rigellian Palace. Stars twinkled in the ceiling’s perfect recreation of the night sky. A bed bigger than Izzy’s room took up a great deal of the floor, and on the bed rested a dress the color of vibrant rust.

“I’ve got my eye on you, fancypants formal nonsense,” Izzy said. “Sure, you’re very nice looking, and wow you are soft. But you’re so boring.” Izzy huffed, plopping down on the enormous bed, sinking into its sea of softness.

Everything about the room looked like big dollar signs, and the whole thing was enough to make Izzy want to find the nearest, greasiest fast food place.

There was a soft knock at the door.

“Captain Warpt,” CMO Carter said. “May I enter? Sorry, are you decent?”

Izzy stifled a laugh. “Sure, come on in,” she replied. “This room’s big enough for, like, a family of five and their twelve pets.”

CMO Carter opened the door, peering into the room. “That was an oddly specific number. Speaking from experience?” She hesitated, her eyes falling on the dress. She was still in uniform. She exhaled slowly.

“Not a fan,” Izzy said. “Is it poor manners to refuse?”

CMO Carter looked as if she was fighting against a smile that was winning out. “Truthfully, Captain Warpt, I was hoping to take my lead from my commander on duty.”

Izzy stared blankly for a moment, the words processing. CMO Carter continued to stand at attention.

“Oh, duh. Sorry, Carter. Still getting used to that,” Izzy said. “Izzy, please. Call me Izzy when we’re not doing official stuff. I can’t do serious twenty-four seven, it’ll kill me.”

CMO Carter smiled. “Duly noted, Izzy,” CMO Carter said. “Still getting used to helming a vessel?”

“Adjusting to the crew,” Izzy said. “It’s just First Officer deCourville, Professor Everest, and me on the Albatross. What’s your story, Carter?”

“Mel works better since we’re not being so official,” CMO Carter replied. “I was stationed at Medical Station Astras. Not much going on out here since the other Spiral Reach stations were decommissioned, so I keep an ear out. There are some interesting music stations out here if you figure out the right CommLink protocols. Heard some interesting chatter, so two others and I chose to investigate.”

Izzy nodded. “Heard there could be danger and didn’t wait for the cavalry to arrive.”

CMO Carter replied with a sheepish grin. “When you put it like that.”

“No, no,” Izzy said, holding a finger up. “I’d rather do the right thing a hundred times over doing it by the book once. Yeah, there are loads of rules you’ve got to follow, but Spiral Reach extends its arms to those in need. Right? I feel like there’s a lot of room for interpretation there.”

CMO Carter smiled. “My colleague have been released,” she said. “Though I suspect they are on their way back to the station as they didn’t seem particularly keen to join in this, well, very formal dinner with our captors.”

“Not up for being pals with the people who threw them in a dungeon,” Izzy replied.

CMO Carter laughed. “No, I suppose not. On the subject of dinner, however.” Her eyes shifted back to the dress, then to Izzy.

“Nope, no thanks,” Izzy said. “I think it’s best we represent Spiral Reach in uniform. We are proud officers who have no need to fancy ourselves up. These uniforms? Fancy enough.”

“Captain’s orders, then. I wouldn’t want to disregard those.”

Izzy furrowed her brow, her lips pursed. “Orders nothing!” She paused, considering the rest of what CMO Carter had said. “Sorry, I had a little crazy stuck in my ear. What was that?”

There was a second knock at the door, the rapid and urgent one of someone with something important to say. “Captain Isabelle Warpt,” said a nasally from outside of the room. “Please follow me to the grand dining hall. Dinner is about to be served.”

“To be continued,” Izzy said. “I’m bookmarking this conversation for later.” Izzy motioned for CMO Carter to follow. Beyond the door was a long hallway lined with doors, which Izzy assumed opened into rooms similar to the one she was in. No one, however, was waiting to guide her and CMO Carter to the grand dining hall.

“Apologies for the confusion,” a voice resonated from nowhere, but sounded like its speaker was directly next to Izzy. “I am one of the many autonomous Helper units. We have been summoned to bring you to dinner. Please observe the lights in the floor as we guide you to your destination.”

The beautiful, red carpeting glowed faintly to Izzy’s left. Izzy turned and stepped in that direction, and more of the hallway began to light up. She continued along, CMO Carter following suit.

Antique candelabras fitted with arcing plasma in place of flames lined the hallway.

The hallway reached a junction, at which point the Helper guided them to go left. This hallway had fewer doorways, paintings occupying the space between the rooms. They loomed from the floor to the ceiling, and were each different styles of painting that all depicted the greatness of the Rigellian Empire.

The hallway split off to a long, winding stairway, mirrored by a twin stairway further down the hallway. The stairways reunited at a landing just before the floor, a short few steps flowing down to just below magnificent double-doors like a pooling river.

The doors opened with ease, automated but programmed to await someone to reach out to open them. The grand dining hall was true to its name, vast and bustling with people. The center of the room was dominated by a long banquet table, levitating at just the right height thanks to the anti-grav boosters on its underside. The Ruklan President, Prime Minister, and Archbishop had gathered with Supreme Leader Calvin Rigellus.

Prime Minister Todan spotted Izzy. She smiled, waving her over. “Thank goodness, child, you’re a breath of fresh air,” Todan said, excusing herself from the group. “None of the servants bring the good sweets over for fear of some sort of political faux-pas. I don’t suppose I could convince the two of you to join me in seceding to form our own table, can I?”

“It’s tempting, but decorum or whatever,” Izzy replied. She glanced around the busy room, then returned her attention to the Prime Minister.

“Where’s the rest of my crew?”

Prime Minister Todan chuckled. “Your First Officer is still being calmed down, I believe, the poor darling. I’ve never met a Cicardox quite so…easily upset.”

“Oh man, the stories,” Izzy started. She took a deep breath, and continued. “I understand where he’s coming from, I think. He’s got brains for days and I bet he’s all soft and warm under that barrier of snootiness he puts up. He’s got a very bright future ahead of him, I’m sure. I’ll do what I can to get him there.”

Whatever thoughts Prime Minister Todan had in response to Izzy were never fully communicated. She gave a simple nod, placing her hands on Izzy’s shoulders.

“The tall fellow was looking after him, I believe,” Todan continued. “I’ll make sure a Helper is sent for them. And then perhaps a Helper for the Helper, just to air on the side of expedience.”

“There she is,” rasped the now-familiar voice of Calvin Rigellus. He was shorter in person, the wrinkles in his brow and around his eyes far more pronounced. His face was one of someone who hadn’t slept in days, but his energy was contagious. Izzy couldn’t help but smile back.

“You remind me of my Gramps,” Izzy blurted out before she could stop herself.

Calvin rumbled with laughter. “I’ve got quite a few grandbabies of my own, but given what you accomplished in so little time I think I could take on an honorary one. We’ve been busy talking, and have come to some very interesting conclusions.”

“Care to continue?” Izzy asked, eyebrows raised.

“Those details will wait for the speech I’ve prepared,” Calvin replied. “For now, please mingle. Enjoy the food and drinks! I promise you this will be a wondrous meal to signal wondrous beginnings! Excuse me, I believe the Ruklan Generals have arrived. I’d like to greet them.” He rushed off into the crowd.

Izzy watched as Calvin disappeared from sight, then turned to Prime Minister Todan.

“He’s not the same guy I threatened with a doomsday device earlier, right?” Izzy asked. “Doppelganger? Good twin to the evil one from before?”

CMO Carter and Prime Minister Todan both laughed.

“My dear, the delicate minutiae of diplomacy are tedious and boring, but when utilized well they make for all the difference,” Todan explained. “Getting a message of peace across to all of our people will take time, but it has to begin somewhere. We’ve already had a number of breakthroughs in this short time.”

“Things can only get better from here,” Izzy replied.

“With the right effort, yes,” Todan said. “I don’t suppose you’ve got your remarks prepared, do you? After all, you did threaten to blow up the planet.”

Izzy looked around the room for a quick diversion, and happily found one in spotting Professor Everest.

“Oh, hey. Brannigan’s here. Better go rendezvous with him to, uh, ship captain stuff,” Izzy replied rapidly before rushing off towards her crew.

Brannigan greeted Izzy with a warm smile and a thumbs-up. “Quite the plan you cooked up there, Captain!

“Hardly a plan,” First Officer deCourville snapped, appearing from behind Brannigan. “You could have gotten us all killed, you know, along with every Ruklan and Rigellian.”

“Didn’t hear you offering up anything better,” Brannigan chided.

“No, Professor, he’s right,” Izzy said. “it was the best I could come up with in the moment, but it was a gamble. A crap-shoot. A real roll of the dice, yeah? So next time we go in better prepared.”

“Exactly the kind of contrary response I expected…” First Officer deCourville snapped, stopping mid-thought. “Beg you pardon, what did you just say?”

“Attention, esteemed guests,” the Helper voice boomed throughout the vastness of the grand dining hall. “Please locate your designated seats as dinner is about to be served. Speeches to follow from our Magnificent Supreme Leader and his Ruklan cohort.”

“Leaving you on a cliffhanger,” Izzy said with a wink. “Speech to give and dinner to not eat because speeches give me anxiety. See you around!”

Izzy’s place setting was directly next to Prime Minister Todan’s, though she distinctly remembered it being to the immediate left of the Supreme Leader. CMO Carter was seated with the rest of the crew at one of the smaller tables that seemed to be slowly gravitating around the main table.

Prime Minister offered a polite smile and a pat on the back as Izzy sat down. “You’ll do just fine, Captain Warpt,” Todan said. “I believe in you.”

Food was brought out course by course, with each one more awe-inspiring than the last. Izzy had provided no information beforehand, but was offered dish after dish of her favorites. By the time dessert had arrived, the only thing she could think of was how nice a nap would be.

“Honored guests, Rigellian and Ruklan,” Calvin said, his seat having shifted to become a floating platform upon which he could stand. “And what an honor, I would like to add, is it to be able to greet Rigellians and Ruklans together on good terms.” He paused until the applause quieted.

“I am not always quick to admit my faults and failures, and it took our fair planet reaching the brink of war and destruction to get there,” Supreme Leader Calvin said, pausing until the laughter at his self-deprecation died down. Video screens manifested in the air around the room displaying pictures with dates from hundred years prior.

“The Ruklans and Rigellians lived in harmony for years, and though we did not always approach issues the same way we were still able to put our differences aside. We allowed a grievous and terrible rift to develop, and I certainly did my part to only worse than. I am so sorry for that, but will not stop with mere words. An apology is only as good as the actions that follow it.”

Calvin gestured to President Geln. She stood, her seat becoming a platform similar to Supreme Leader Calvin’s.

“There is still much to discuss, and even more rebuilding to be done by both sides,” President Geln added. “The road ahead is long and will take time and hard work to traverse. I am confident we will get there together.”

Supreme Leader Calvin nodded. “As part of the first step, I am stepping down as Supreme Leader as of this moment.”

“And I as President,” Geln added. “Today marks the end of old, divided factions, and the beginning of a unified government on Rigel Six. One that is an extension of Rigel Six’s people.”

“All of them,” Supreme Leader concluded. “It took a substantial wake-up call for us to come to these terms, and it is in no small part thanks to the actions of one very brave, perhaps unorthodox, Captain of the Spiral Reach Academy.”

Izzy felt her face warming and knew she had to be blushing. She quietly cursed herself as she knew what would follow.

“That very Captain, Isabelle Warpt, has joined us with her crew to celebrate on this evening as we move forward together to begin repairing our broken and divided past,” Calvin continued. He gestured to Izzy, who stumbled to stand in time before the seat was gone completely.

The room roared with applause from both Ruklan soldiers and Rigellian civilians. Brannigan, taller than anyone in the room, hooted and hollered as the crew’s table moved past. He half-stood, precariously balanced on his chair. CMO Carter also applauded.

Izzy saluted her crew, and found herself a little surprised when all–including Fontaine–returned the gesture.

“Hey, everyone!” Izzy said cheerfully. She paused, startled by the unexpected magnification applied to her voice. She couldn’t help but notice everyone in the room was watching her, and a nagging voice in the back of her head reminded her of every nightmare featuring a similar situation. She cleared her throat, straightened up, and continued.

“Families are crazy,” Izzy said. She paused, aware of the people looking around to see where this was going.

“Families are crazy. They’re a little bit of all sorts of people, with different personalities and interests and so many feelings,” Izzy continued. “And so many arguments, like when your uncle decides he’s going to try to rob a bank and no one has the sense to stop him until, like, halfway through the whole mess, but then it turns into a big, confusing conversation about who has to bail him out of prison.”

Murmurs of confusion rose among the gathered crowd.

Izzy took another deep breath and continued. “You’re all like a family,” she said. “I look out at you and I see mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. You don’t always get along, but you make the best of it. Tonight? Totally making the best of it. Tomorrow? Only one way to find out.”

“But I believe in you all. I believe you’ll all take those nasty thoughts and toss them in the trash where the belong, and give each other a chance. I may have helped push things along, but the rest is up to everyone here, and everyone across Rigel Six. The best part? You can definitely do it, and it’ll be amazing! Thank you for letting me be a part of this.”

Izzy could feel the sweat on her forehead and her palms. She shook slightly, but not enough to be seen, and waited.

Both Geln and Calvin lead in the applause. A number of others joined in, and before long the roar was so great that nothing could be heard over it. Izzy sat down as soon as her platform cooperated.

“Very personal,” Prime Minister Todan said. “I’ll have to ask for the stories behind it some day, I think.”

“A toast to Captain Warpt and Spiral Reach Academy!” Calvin added.

Glasses were still raised high in the air when the screens abruptly cut out. They returned featuring a single figure, shrouded in darkness.

“Forgive my interruption, but I would hate for such a momentous gathering to go without giving a few words,” the shadowy figure said. “After all, I sacrificed a great deal of time and money to provide the Ruklans and Rigellians with such impressive arsenals. It’s the least I deserve.”

Wanted Adventurers: The Cost of Freedom

Alistair Starspeaker smiled at Aranza and Monty. “I know you can’t speak right now,” he said. “You’re second on the agenda. Hang back and watch.” The Paladin remained silent, standing with her hands clasped behind her back. She hadn’t stopped glaring at Monty and Aranza since she had retrieved them from their cell.

There was a blinding flash of light, and the thrones were suddenly occupied. All but one–the one draped in a banner displaying, in beautifully sewn golden script, Alistair’s name.

The occupant of the center throne needed no banner to state his name. Alexandros Heavensong was revered, even among his fellow highborne elves, and bards sang songs about the songs that conveyed tales of his greatness. He was the youngest Guildmaster to leader the Guild. His two large, starry black eyes occupied much of his angular face, which was framed by long, flowing, unbelievably perfect silver hair.

To his immediate left was Alistair’s empty throne. Esra Stormcaller sat to his right. Briar of the Northern Woodlands draped himself lazily across the far left throne, while Vandra Skullcrusher barely fit atop her throne, the half-giant Berserker far larger than any of her colleagues.

“I see we have two matters on which we are presiding today,” Alexandros said, having produced a scroll from his elegant robes. He reviewed it slowly, his eyes gliding over the words on the parchment.

“Hey, Ali,” Briar shouted. ” What in the Seven Hells are you doing down there? Mingling with the criminals these days?”

Alistair shook his head, stepping forward. “I’ve done it,” he declared. “I did a crime. No, at least three crimes! You should absolutely judge me and find my guilty.”

Esra narrowed their eyes, shifting their short, stocky form in their throne. “You’re back on those insane wizard mushrooms again, aren’t you?” they asked, their smirk and tone at odds with each other.

“Not presently, I’m not,” Alistair replied. “Can’t help that you refuse to give them a try. They’re a good time, at least once the walls stop screaming. Anyway, crimes. I did ’em. Lock me up.”

Alexandros sighed. It was a soft, pleasant, melodious sound, too perfect for the emotion it was conveying. Monty was unable to speak due to the imprisonment spell, but it did not prevent him from scowling.

“Please explain yourself, Guild Lord Starspeaker,” Guildmaster Alexandros said.

Alistair smiled. “But of course! I commandeered a galleon sailing on behalf of the Cerulia Navy, deposed the head of a royal family, and I consumed at least twice my weight in alcohol before noon no fewer than three times last week! Lock me up. I deserve nothing less!”

“You kept busy on your vacation, then,” Vandra said. “Bet you did half of that just to get out of the wrestling match you owe me.”

Alexandros massaged his temples, sighing again. “Please don’t encourage him, Vandra,” he said flatly. “As for your list of crimes, I feel it is essential to point out that you took command of a ship of much-needed supplies and ensured it arrived days ahead of schedule. You destroyed the Vampire Lord Zarrok the Vile, freeing the villages around the Umbershade Woods.”

“And we overlook your drunken foolishness because you created and imbued your essence with a spell that sobers you up in seconds with no ill effects,” Briar added. “Not that you’ve ever had the decency to share that arcane knowledge.”

“I can still out-drink him,” Vandra boasted.

Alistair held up a finger, shifting his jaw this way and that as if he were chewing on what he had to say next. He exhaled slowly, deflated and defeated.

“Fine, fine,” Alistair said. “You win this time. Next time I’ll do bigger crimes.”

“Alexandros shook his head. “Please don’t,” he said flatly. He snapped his fingers and Alistair disappeared, reappearing seconds later in his throne looking slightly dazed.

“Don’t like that one bit,” Alistair said, visibly trying to will himself to not become sick.

“Onward to actual matters worth addressing,” Alexandros said. He waved a hand across the air. The magic around Monty and Aranza flickered and splintered, its remnants falling to the floor in a circle.

“You’d be wise to not try crossing that barrier,” Alexandros continued. “Doing so would prove very painful. You are aware why you stand trial before the Guild’s Council of Masters, yes?”

Monty opened his mouth to speak, but stopped. Aranza had grabbed his hand and squeezed.

“Trust me,” Aranza whispered. Monty nodded just enough that Aranza could see.

“Venerable council, we are on trial before you as we sought to take money from your vaults,” Aranza said. “We did so because we are low on funds, making our quest difficult.”

“Ooh, a quest,” Briar said, perking up. “Don’t suppose you need an experienced Ranger to help, do you?”

Alexandros glanced towards Briar, something flashing across his face for an instant, but whatever it was shut Briar up.

“There’s much evil in this world, and we are seeking to wipe it out for the sake of the Light’s goodness,” Aranza continued.

Alexandros nodded. “Are you not aware that the penalty for taking from the Guild’s coffers is public execution? That gold supports peoples far beyond Valarmount.”

“Before we do anything too hasty, might I suggest an alternative?” Alistair interrupted. “These two intrepid, capable adventurers could be of service to our causes. A mutually beneficial arrangement could be made in place of punishment, yes? Help revive the Guild’s image as benevolent and all-guiding.”

“The old drunk’s got a point,” Vandra replied. “More people cower in fear when I walk by these days.”

“You’re ten feet tall and your biceps are bigger than a man’s head,” Briar shot back. “Your last name is actually Skullcrusher.”

Vandra shook her head. “Not seeing your point here, Little Thorn.”

“There will be silence at once!” Alexandros said, his voice resonating throughout the chamber. No one spoke. Not a single sound dared defy him.

“You there. Paladin, what is your name?” Alexandros asked.

The Paladin who had been watching over Monty and Aranza bowed. “Temperance, Lord Guildmaster,” the Paladin, Temperance, replied. “Temperance of House Ravencroft, gladly at your service.”

“Very well. I have made my decision,” Alexandros said. “These two thieves shall be tasked with eliminating problematic foes of the Guild, saving those in need as an extension of our goodwill and grace.”

Aranza bowed. “Your kindness is a gift,” she said. Monty snorted, holding back a laugh.

Alexandros held up a finger. “Do not think you will be without a watchful eye,” he said. “The moment you step out of line, and I am certain you will, you will be brought back here for your very public execution.”

The room fell silent for a moment.

Alistair cleared his throat. “In case you needed a less subtle hint, Paladin Temperance,” he said. “You may now leave with these two under your watchful eye. We’ll have your first quest passed along to you shortly.”

“I…” Temperance said, trailing off.

The magical barrier around Monty and Aranza vanished. Monty reached out and patted Temperance on the back.

“Don’t fret, good Paladin,” he said. “I’m sure this will be exactly what we expect it to be.”

Piece 12 – Peace, Even if By Force

The Treants and Orcs were frozen, their attention shifted from each other to Curian. She had started screaming every foul word she could think of in every language she knew foul words to borrow from the moment the Orcs had emerged.

“The small one can hold a great deal of air for her size,” Gnarlroot muttered.

Kil’Gronn nodded in silent agreement.

“Just give her a moment,” Sophia said. “She gets like this when she’s very upset, I’ve found, and it’s best to let the anger run its course. It’s been an eventful…”

Curian paused, glaring at Sophia. “You were going to say it’s been an eventful day, weren’t you?” she snapped.

Sophia winced. “That is within the realm of possibility.”

Curian stomped over to Sophia, her fists clenched tightly at her sides. She stormed over to Kil’Gronn, eyes narrowed, and jabbed a finger in the Orc’s direction.

“It might have been a eventful day. Or even week. Who knows?” Curian ranted. “If the Orcs and Treants would just take a break from murdering each other, maybe we could find out? But no. Nooooo~!”

Curian stormed over to Gnarlroot’s towering roots, kicked them, and let out a pained roar.

“Had to break Time!” Curian screamed.

Kil’Gronn stepped forward. “It’s hardly that simple! They murdered our people!”

Gnarlroot rumbled. “You cut down our brethren,” he replied. “Desecrated their remains for your shelters and burned them for warmth!”

Curian let out another roar. She pointed at Kil’Gronn. “Enough!” she snapped. “Same goes for you!” she added, jabbing a finger upwards towards Burlknot.

Sophia stepped forward, placing a hand on Curian’s shoulder. Curian clenched her teeth but said nothing as she visibly focused on breathing.

“I think perhaps we need to discuss this further,” Sophia said. “Gnarlroot, this was your home before the Orcs arrived, yes? Do you recall what happened?”

Gnarlroot scratched at his crown. “Only through stories passed down, I suppose,” he conceded. “I was but a sapling when Elderbark was felled and burned.”

“And you were only a child when Gronn was killed,” Sophia said. “I’m so sorry to ask this, but you said you were there. Did you see anything?”

Kil’Gronn winced, the pain on her face contagious. The other Orcs looked away, tears welling in their eyes.

“I only saw their shadows, but that was enough,” Kil’Gronn said. “My grandfather was torn limb from limb.”

Burlknot grumbled something, averting his gaze.

“Now you’ve got something to say? Spit it out, you cowardly conifer!” Curian shouted.

The Treants gasped collectively.

“You’re going to stop fighting, damn it, and we’re going to talk,” Curian said. “Or I’ll fight all of you!”