“I do not wish to believe such things,” King Ulyssius said. “For if there is such evil in the world once again, I’m afraid our age of peace might be over.”
Jade said, “I believe the peace ended some years ago. We are all just late to realize it.”
The adventuring group known as the Phantom Five journey to the empire’s capital to warn of the threat against it. But instead of a welcome reception, they find a city wrought with deception. The royal children are missing, murders happen overnight, and the group’s own loyalties are questioned. Worse, their one contact in the capital, Unolé’s Shadow Guild, has marked her as a traitor.
All the while, rumors spread of a great storm over Soleia hiding a monster within. And as their attention is divided in a world crumbling into chaos around them, Jade knows the clock is ticking on her visions. If she doesn’t make it to Oceala soon, everyone in her city will die.
At the same time, Taliesin and Ruuda remain locked in prison by order of the Citadel mage. As they plot their risky escape, they discover secrets about one another’s past. And why they ran away from home in the first place.
The desert sun was hot on Draxis’ skin. It felt good. Ever since Soleia had been buried, he’d avoided returning. But now with the city restored and golden again, he felt at home.
In his Human form, he looked out over the balcony of the palace to the streets below. The city had only been returned for a week, but already a difference showed. More people visited, and the sound of music and smell of spices drifted into the air. The vast desert known as the Expanse stretched out all around. A golden ocean featureless and barren save for this city.
“It is good to see Soleia thriving,” Vicrum’s voice sounded from behind him. “I have great plans for the future.”
Draxis turned to see the dark-skinned Dwarf approach and lean on the balcony’s railing. “Does part of the plan include moving my treasure hoard from the islands? I do miss basking in it.”
Vicrum chuckled. “I’m sure we can arrange something. I would like to see what you’ve accumulated in the centuries since I was imprisoned.”
The gold dragon slumped, a regretful sigh escaping him. In this form, he wore the guise of a bald man with an open vest and golden-brown skin. He moved one hand up to rub at a short black beard. “I wish I had known you were still alive, Vicrum. I would have come after you.”
“I know, old friend. But Fenvell hid me away too well. In the end, it was he who brought attention to the Lantern. Otherwise that adventuring group, the Phantom Five, would never have come to the desert.”
Draxis looked down at the King of Soleia. “Are you certain he is dead? Fenvell?”
A frown crossed the Dwarf’s face, and his eyes narrowed in contemplation. Just as he opened his mouth to answer a rumble sounded and the ground beneath the city suddenly shook. Startled cries ran up from the streets.
“That is odd,” Vicrum muttered. “I don’t recall the Expanse experiencing earthquakes.”
Draxis’ forehead creased as he looked about the city. The rumbling carried on, vibrating the brown stone of the balcony under his bare feet. A shadow fell over the palace, and his head snapped up to see a storm birth overhead. Bubbling and expanding, dark gray clouds masked the once clear blue sky.
“Something is wrong,” Draxis said, immediately taking up a defensive position before the Dwarf King.
Vicrum gripped the amulet around his neck. The symbol of the Holy Dragon. “It can’t be the Foresight. Fenvell said they were going to target An’Ock on the summer solstice.”
Violent, hot wind ripped flags from their poles. The clouds crackled with lightning, flashing with an eerie glow. Suddenly there was a great heave of the ground and the two stumbled backwards. Screams sounded from streets that were plunged into darkness as the storm covered the entire city. A great cracking noise echoed up from below. Draxis raced to the balcony’s edge and leaned over, searching for the source of the quaking.
The center of the city collapsed as a giant sinkhole formed. Sand spilled into it like a massive waterfall, taking chunks of street with it. Market stalls tumbled in, as well as people who didn’t flee fast enough. It opened wider and wider, a great black abyss in the desert.
“Gods protect us!” Vicrum gasped.
A roar erupted from the sinkhole, loud enough to shake the buildings. Immediately rain slammed down from the storm, turning the sand to mud. Lightning struck the top of a building. Deafening thunder followed, and Vicrum’s hands quickly covered his ears.
Rain rolling down bare skin, Draxis’ eyes widened as a blue-scaled foot reached up from the sinkhole and stuck into the side of a building. Claws as long as spears sunk deep into the stone. The ground shook violently again as the clawed foot was joined by a second, and they pulled a long reptilian body from beneath the sand. A tail slashed through the air like a whip, a horned head raised high above the ground, and a pair of wings extended from its back.
A blue-scaled dragon.
“Get the people to safety!” Draxis shouted.
He vaulted over the side of the balcony and free fell towards the ground. In mid-air he twisted and transformed back into his true body. A dragon of gold scales. He dove down towards the other dragon as its head swiveled towards him. It opened its mouth and a bolt of lightning shot out. Draxis dodged, colliding with a wall of the palace and sending cracks up it as the electricity barely missed him.
And then he was on top of the blue dragon. The two turned and fought, claws raking at each other’s bodies. Wings beat heavy in the air and they both lifted from the ground. Another flash of lightning showed Soleia in a panic. People were sucked into the sinkhole, buildings toppled, and mud slides destroyed the streets.
Draxis shoved away from the blue dragon, both roughly landing on the roofs of opposite buildings. Rain ran down his scales and dripped from his wings. Draxis glanced down to see Vicrum shouting from the lower balcony of the palace, directing people to come inside for safety.
Draxis turned his gaze back to the other dragon. “Why are you here?” he demanded in Draconic.
The blue dragon simply hissed, electricity crackling at the edges of its mouth. It reared back like a snake, preparing to strike again, when a thunderous beat caught both of their attention. Draxis turned his long neck to see a massive creature coming through the storm clouds. Bigger than himself, and bigger than the blue dragon. He made out the silhouette of two great wings and a tail.
Another dragon? Draxis thought, panicked. How is this possible?
In a burst through the rain and lightning a huge red dragon landed on the very top of the palace. Its roar shook Soleia, and Draxis could feel it in his very bones. Its head swiveled about to take in the destruction around it. The blue dragon stared at it hesitantly, seeming uncertain whether it was friend or foe. The red dragon then folded in on itself, shrunk, and became a person that Draxis was readily familiar with. The head turned to look at him directly.
“What in Hells are you doing?” Draxis shouted to the form, shocked.
The person then turned to look at Vicrum and raised a slender hand. Magic shot out in a black line and impacted the Dwarf on his back. He immediately went down.
Draxis screamed and took off, flying towards his friend. Rain hammered against him and lightning lit up the city in white light. As he dove down, he saw the person turn back into a red dragon again, wings spreading. It watched him closely, ready to pounce. And just as he got to Vicrum, the red dragon was after him.
He scooped his friend up in his claws and shoved off from the palace. The city was in chaos below, but he couldn’t worry about that right now. He flew out over the desert, still underneath the storm that had grown to massive proportions. Sand dunes, brown boulders, and cactus flashed by underneath him. He could hear the beat of the red dragon’s wings behind him. He felt the heat just before the fire hit. Draxis veered to the side, narrowly avoiding a line of flame.
He had no idea what was going on. Where had the blue dragon come from? Why was the red dragon attacking them?
Draxis flew as fast as he could, Vicrum unconscious in his grasp. The Dwarf’s body felt so small in his large, clawed hand. He didn’t know what spell was cast, but he had to get the Dwarf to someone who could help. A Cleric was his best bet; he needed to get to a city.
A roar sounded as the red dragon came alongside him. The wind from its wings stirred up more sand, almost creating a dust storm around them. The coarse grains pelted off his scales as Draxis gave a warning growl, baring sharp teeth. Words in a language Draxis did not understand came from his opponent’s mouth, and another black line of energy shot between them and hit him in the chest.
The effect was immediate. His mind spun; his thoughts jumbled. He struggled to push the effects away. What was happening? He lost altitude before quickly righting himself. Vicrum needed help. He couldn’t stop flying. The red dragon came at him, jaws open wide. Draxis attempted to spin out of the way but he was losing his coordination. Teeth clamped around his front leg, and there was horrible pain. His scream came out in a great roar that blasted fire in the red dragon’s face. The dragon veered away.
Draxis flew on and on. Escape. That was the only way out of this. He couldn’t think clearly. Couldn’t fly right. Agony pounded from his wound. He could only think of one safe haven. And as his mind slowly went blank, he hung onto that one thought.
Unolé stared hard at the warm drink in her hands, as if it would provide answers. Here in Somberdale, in a corner table of the Arrowed Knee Tavern, was not where she had expected to find herself when she’d set out after her sister. A journey that had taken her into two different planes of existence. The Hells and a demi-plane called Glenpeleg. Now she was back in Corventos, although still far from her home. And she wasn’t sure if she was closer to finding her sister, or further.
As if sensing her mood, Teshuva’s voice sounded in her mind. “Do not be troubled. I believe aligning ourselves with these adventurers will help us find Unatchi. They are resourceful and will have connections.”
Unolé looked down at the colorful coatl wrapped around her forearm. “Do you think I should keep traveling with them?”
“For the time being, yes. If we do not find more answers, we can continue on our own again.”
She sighed, but nodded in agreement. She couldn’t forget the image of her sister limp on the ground, seemingly lifeless. And that beast that had carried her away. Winged like a bird, but with four legs and wreathed in shadow. Teshuva seemed certain it was an interplanar beast, but so far they hadn’t been able to track down where it took her sister. Or why.
Unolé looked about the tavern. It was small but cozy, half full of people drinking and laughing. Lanterns gave a honey glow to the area. The hour was late, past midnight now. As soon as the Scarlet Maiden sailed into port Zok and Jade had taken Sen to the Temple of the Holy Dragon. The red Dragonborn was still wounded and unconscious from his imprisonment and torture at the hands of Corentin. Unolé hoped he would be all right. As Artemis and Skar had stayed at the port to help with the ship, it was agreed they would all meet at the tavern as soon as their errands were done. The Half-Fiend had needed time to think, so she had gone straight to the tavern to await her companions’ arrival.
She was sore from the fight with the vampire, but she was thankful to be alive. She certainly owed that to her new friends. Since they had promised to help her find Unatchi, perhaps she should help them in their needs. She’d hadn’t left Glenpeleg completely empty-handed, at least. Aside from her new companions, she’d gotten a new skull-hilted sword that healed her upon damaging others. A weapon that would surely be useful in the adventures ahead. The way it had briefly spoken in her mind had alarmed her, but she was sure she could fix it in the future.
As she waited, sipping on some beer, she saw a hooded figure two tables over staring at her. The Rogue raised an eyebrow and stared back, although the red mask over half her face hid the expression. The figure made a few complex gestures with his fingers. Surprise went through her. Thieves Code. She had learned it at the Shadow Guild. Recognizing the symbols as an invitation to join and an offer for a job, Unolé went over and took a seat, the wooden legs of the chair scraping across the floor.
“Hello,” she greeted. “I didn’t expect to see that code in this little town.”
The person pulled down his hood, revealing a green-skinned Half-Orc with messy black hair. “I’m not from here, either.”
She looked him over. She’d seen a few Half-Orcs in An’Ock, which was quite a diverse city. She’d never met a full blood Orc, but she’d only heard bad things about their culture. Those that were birthed from such strange unions were generally untrusted. But Unolé did not judge. She was a Half-Fiend herself, an orphan with no knowledge of the Hellish bloodline of her parents. She was used to her horns, tail, and pointed incisor teeth causing stares. Many did not trust her kind, either. It made her feel at ease talking to this stranger. A shared experience and silent bond.
“You have a job?” Unolé prompted.
“I’m here seeking a medallion,” the Half-Orc said as he leaned forward. “An important item to my people that’s been lost in the Firelit Forest. I don’t know this area and found myself wandering aimlessly in the forest. I’m hoping to hire someone to get it for me.”
Unolé hesitated. She did not know the Firelit Forest well, either. But she did know Jade had suggested it as a route to An’Ock. As soon as they were finished with their business in Somberdale they planned to head to the capital city of the Korventine Empire and warn the king about Fenvell’s threat. That next summer solstice, nearly a year away, the Foresight would come. Unolé had agreed to take her friends around the city since she knew it so well. If it was on their way, perhaps it couldn’t hurt to look for this medallion.
“The Firelit Forest is huge,” Unolé said in a guarded tone. “I’ll need more details than that to locate this medallion.”
“Of course,” he replied. “A recent scry showed it to be in a ruined fortress. I could not find it myself, unfortunately.”
She could work with that. If Jade knew the forest so well, surely the Druid had heard of this ruin. “And what does the medallion look like?”
He hesitated, then said, “It’s made of silver and has a relief of a three-headed dragon on it. I will give you five hundred gold coins if you bring it back to me.”
That got her interest. Trying to not look too eager, Unolé replied, “Well, I can’t give any promises. But I will head out tomorrow and see if I can find it.”
“Thank you,” the Half-Orc said. “I’ll be here in the tavern for the rest of Hildri. Just ask for Brix.”
She nodded, surprised at first by the mention of the current month. But then she realized it had been awhile since she’d left An’Ock. Morívaec was over, and autumn continued on. She headed back to her table. Just as she sat down her friends, the Phantom Five, walked through the door. They looked tired, but palpably relieved to be home. Unolé settled back with the drink in her hands, hoping to appear as if she’d just been sitting this whole time.
Jade spotted her and gestured for the others to follow. The Wild Elf Druid sat down at an empty chair, followed by Zok, Artemis, and Skar.
“How is your friend, Sen?” Unolé asked.
Zok sighed, running his fingers through his shoulder-length brown hair. “We took him to the Temple of the Holy Dragon. Our Clerics are seeing to him now. All we can do is wait and pray.”
“Did you tell them about Fenvell?” Artemis asked, reaching down to pet the head of her large gray wolf. “About Priest Jafr, Liana, and Whitney? The reason that Amon man was murdered.”
Zok’s shoulders sagged wearily. “Yes, I told them the truth of what happened to High Priest Amon and why. I was admonished for not sharing this with the other priests and priestesses of the temple. But they were glad to hear justice had been served. It also helped that I told them we are going to An’Ock to ensure Fenvell’s threat doesn’t come to fruition.”
Jade glanced about the table. “Are we all still planning on going?”
As Artemis and Skar nodded their agreement, Unolé replied, “Definitely. And I think we should take the route through the Firelit Forest since you know it well, Jade. That’s better than traveling unfamiliar routes.”
“It would be nice to check in with my Druid Circle again,” the Wild Elf mused. “They can offer us shelter.”
“Would it not be faster to go directly south?” Skar asked, his face shadowed by the hood of his dark blue robes.
“There is no crossing of the Great Divide that far northwest,” Unolé responded. She knew that for certain, since her contracts with the Shadow Guild often sent her to the farmlands between the capital city and the river. “We’d have to go around to the east, anyway.”
“If you don’t mind the detour,” Jade began, “I really would like to report to my Circle regarding Fenvell and this Jenkins man.”
“Do you work for this Circle?” Skar asked.
The Druid shook her head, the beads and braids in her brown hair swaying with the movement. “No, we are a group of Druids that keep watch over the lands around the Firelit Forest. We protect nature and counter threats to it. I’ve been a member for over a hundred years.”
“What’s the most dangerous thing you stopped?” Artemis asked eagerly, her blue eyes lighting up.
A small smile crossed Jade’s face before it fell away and her gaze grew distant. “A warlock was making his way up the Amakiir River and then to the northwest with forces of undead at his back. He was capturing and sacrificing people to his god, the Life Drinker. We tracked him down as he entered the village of Skyview and stopped him. It was not an easy fight and it came at a great price.”
Zok patted his friend on her shoulder and said, “It’s settled, then. We’ll cross the Doorway Mountains and head south along the Firelit Forest until we come to a crossing in the Great Divide. We’ll rely on your navigation once we get into the city, Unolé. You said you grew up there, correct?”
The Half-Fiend nodded. “That city is my home.”
“Should we leave tomorrow?” Artemis asked. “Or is there more to do here in Somberdale first?”
“We do need to talk to Tymus about the bottomless bag,” Jade reminded. “But beyond that I’m eager to speak to my Druid Circle and take care of things in An’Ock.”
Zok inclined his head. “The sooner we go, the better. The temple wants me to see this through personally as reparations for keeping secrets.”
“Sounds great,” Unolé stated, happy that the opportunity to earn five hundred gold coins was in the near future. “Shall we meet up in the morning?”
“Meet outside the Temple of the Holy Dragon,” Zok said. “Then we can head to Tymus’ tower together.”
“No Sen, I suppose?” Artemis sighed.
The Paladin’s face fell. “It seems unlikely. But we will check on him again in the morning.”
The group parted, and Unolé got a room in the tavern for the night. She headed up the narrow staircase and to a small chamber. A window allowed a view over the ocean, and the salty smell was pleasant. She’d never seen the ocean before, the brief sail back on the Scarlet Maiden had been interesting. She wished it hadn’t been night so she could properly see the waves around her. Perhaps in the morning she’d get to visit the beach before they left. That would be fun.
Unolé took off her outer clothes and boots, setting her two daggers and whip to the side. Stretching, she then climbed into bed as Teshuva curled up past her feet. The gentle rhythm of the waves was calming. She would rest well this night.
“Good night, Teshuva,” she said softly.
His deep, gentle voice spoke in her head. “Goodnight, Unolé. May I ask why you didn’t tell our friends about this contract from Brix?”
“I don’t want to share the money with them.”
She was taken aback by his tone of disapproval. “What? I’m sure they all have their own sources of income. This is mine.”
She could not believe he was going to make her feel guilty over this. “If they really need it, of course, I’ll share. But I don’t want to divide it up. That will only be one hundred gold!”
“Trust is an important part of friendship.”
She hesitated, then said, “I don’t know if I trust them. I barely know them.”
He also paused before responding, “Perhaps I am not the best to lecture on this matter. I have put my trust in the wrong person before.”
That caught her attention. “You did? What happened?”
“ . . . It’s painful to talk about.”
“Oh. I understand. But, if you ever want to talk about it, I’m here.”
His tone held some amusement. “Thank you, Unolé. I hope one day you and I can fully trust each other.”
Unolé lay awake for some time after that, thinking over his words. She did not know much about him. Only that he served a goddess known as the Silver Dancer and that her will directed him to Unolé. She did not fully understand the intricacies of religion. Perhaps that was a common thing that happened to people. After all, Zok seemed to feel each challenge he was presented with was personally selected by the Holy Dragon. Maybe it was all true. Or maybe it was just a nice sentiment.
The next morning Unolé left the Arrowed Knee Tavern with Artemis and Skar and headed to the temple. She found Somberdale to be a charming coastal village. So very different from An’Ock. The market was small, the people all smiled, and the air was fresh and clean. Jade met them along the central road with a bag full of supplies for their journey.
The Temple of the Holy Dragon was beautiful. Settled on the coast, its gardens were immaculate and it rose three stories tall, all white and gold. Stained glass windows of blue reflected the sun. As they approached Unolé stared out at the beach in wonder. It was more beautiful than the temple. The ground was pliant under her feet. A glance down showed the grass interspersed with sand.
“Have you never seen the ocean before?” Jade asked with a wide smile.
“I haven’t,” Unolé answered.
The Wild Elf’s green eyes turned to look over the waves. “It is quite a sight.”
The Half-Fiend Rogue watched the steady roll of the ocean, and a cool wind blew her white hair back from her face.
“Taking in the view?” Zok walked up from the temple grounds. His beard was neatly trimmed and his gold and white clothes were spotless once again. All the dirt and blood from their journey through Glenpeleg gone.
“It’s stunning,” Unolé responded. “I’ve never been to the coast.”
Two people approached behind Brother Zok. One was a gangly young boy holding a small satchel. The other was a Human male with wavy blond hair and a handsome face.
Zok stopped before his friends. “A few of you already know each other. But this is Brother Baelfire, a Cleric here at the temple. And this is Phil, a new squire. They helped me pack for our journey this morning and are going to take us to see Sen. Baelfire and Phil, this is Artemis Wolfsbane, Skar the Wizard, and Unolé of An’Ock.”
“It’s a pleasure,” Baelfire said. “I’m glad you all brought Brother Zok back home safely. I was beginning to think he’d fallen down another well.”
Zok seemed amused. “Not this time. I promise the next time I’m gone for two weeks I’ll tell you first.”
Baelfire chuckled. “Two weeks? It’s been three, my friend.”
Confusion passed over the Half-Elf’s face. He looked at his friends. “Three weeks?”
Artemis shook her head. “I didn’t keep exact track, but I thought it was the third of Hildri?”
“It’s the tenth,” Baelfire answered.
Unolé noticed their shocked faces. She had not kept count of the dates at all once her sister was lost. It had been the last thing on her mind.
“Is everything all right?” Baelfire pressed, concern crossing his tanned face.
“It is,” Zok said, quickly recovering his composure. “I suppose we just lost track of time.”
The Human Cleric offered a smile. “That is what happens when you sail. Follow me, you can see your friend. I’m afraid he’s not awake yet.”
Baelfire and Phil led them into the gardens and towards the temple. Unolé had never seen so many flowers in one place before. She could see other members of the temple going about their daily lives, all dressed in white and gold. They all had the same necklace around their necks. A golden symbol of an eye.
Inside the temple was circular and expansive. They received a few curious glances but were not interrupted as they were led down a side corridor and into a room. A window let in the morning sunlight. The room was bare save for a table with some medical equipment, and a bed on which Sen lay. His huge Dragonborn body barely fit the frame. The red of his scales was dulled, and numerous bandages wrapped around his wounds.
“Will he live?” Artemis asked, no emotion in her voice.
“He will,” Baelfire replied. “But he needs time to heal. He was hurt very badly.” He paused, then said, “These are wounds from torture. Who did this to him?”
“Someone who is dead now,” Jade answered, an angry tone to her voice. “They won’t hurt anybody else like this.”
“When he wakes,” Brother Zok said, “Please tell him that we left for An’Ock. And that we miss him.”
“Of course,” Baelfire nodded.
They spent a few more minutes in the room, staring at their unconscious friend. The sight gave Unolé chills. She had spent her life on the streets and the last few years with the Shadow Guild. She was used to cruel, ignorant, and manipulative people. But this. This was evil. How could someone take pleasure in causing so much pain to another? It was unsettling. It reminded her of her brief time in the Hells searching for her sister. She wondered if here, on this Material plane, in Corventos, such malice existed. Were there those that tortured for sport and delighted in death? If there were, she hoped to never meet them.
They left the temple and emerged back into the sunlight.
“Thank you for taking care of him,” Jade said to Baelfire.
“Of course,” he replied with a smile. “Captain Sen has a big heart. He deserves only the best care. I will-“ He broke off as the ground rumbled beneath their feet. The temple residents all stopped, turning as one in the direction of the Doorway Mountains.
Unolé frowned and followed their gaze, her tail flicking to keep her balance with the shaking earth. Far in the distance, a green light erupted from the ground and shot into the sky. It was far, far away, but its brilliant glow could still be seen.
“What is that?” Skar gasped, his red eyes wide.
After only a few seconds the light vanished, and the rumbling stopped. Baelfire looked at them all grimly. “This has been happening for the last week. The ground shakes, the light appears, and then it stops. It’s from the direction of the Firelit Forest.”
“Has anyone been sent to investigate?” Jade asked, a deep frown across her tan face.
Baelfire gestured to the central street. “These soldiers from An’Ock assure us everything is under control. But I haven’t seen any of them leave.”
“I noticed them,” the Druid replied with a bitter tone. “How long has this been going on?”
“About the same amount of time.”
Unolé blinked in surprise. There was a handful of armored soldiers wearing the Greycastle insignia of three towers on their breastplates walking through the streets. She hadn’t thought anything of it, but clearly their presence made the group around her uncomfortable. She deduced that the soldiers didn’t often come this far from the capital.
“What are they doing here?” Brother Zok inquired.
Baelfire answered, “The king and queen’s children are missing. Search parties have been sent all over the Korventine Empire to hunt for them.”
“That’s crazy,” Artemis said, tightening her blonde braid. “Why would anyone take such a risk with royal children? Has there been a ransom note?”
The Human Cleric shook his head. “These soldiers won’t tell us anything. Since you are going to An’Ock, maybe you’ll hear more about what is going on.”
“We’ll certainly look into it,” Zok said. “And we should be on our way. Thank you for your help, Brother Baelfire. And you as well, Squire.”
The two smiled in response and Phil bowed very low. Baelfire gave a small salute. “Be careful, all of you. Your faces will certainly be missed.”
Bidding their farewells, Unolé followed the group as they crossed through Somberdale. Market stalls sold fresh lobster and shrimp, chickens pecked at the grass, and a couple led a cart full of apples and pears down the road. It was a pleasant atmosphere, but she could feel the tension from the group around her.
“We can’t have been gone three weeks,” Artemis stated matter-of-factly.
“I agree,” Brother Zok sighed, his white cloak trailing behind him as he walked. “Just like that planar portal deposited us in a difference spot, I think it shifted time as well. We lost a week.”
“I’m glad we didn’t lose more time than that,” Jade stated.
Unolé mused that the first of Hildri was Foundation Day in An’Ock, celebrating the city’s birth. It was often a good time to pickpocket people on the streets. Her sister had been exceptional at weaving through legs to get to coin purses. Her life was quite different now than it had been a year before.
Their destination was clear. Unolé saw the tall stone tower easily, set against the backdrop of the Doorway Mountains. She followed the Phantom Five down a long stone path and up to a heavy door. Zok knocked on it, then stepped back to wait.
“Who lives here, again?” Unolé asked, squinting her purple eyes as she stared up the tower.
“A Gnome Wizard named Tymus Altawayne,” Jade replied. “Truthfully, we don’t know him very well. But he’s friendly enough.”
“Ah,” Unolé nodded. “Interesting. I’ve never met a Wizard before. Aside from you, Skar.”
The bronze Dragonborn flashed a smile of all sharp teeth.
The door to the tower opened and a young Human male with a sullen face looked out at them. In a monotone voice he asked, “What can I help you with?”
“Hello, Jem. We are here to see Tymus,” Zok responded, squaring his shoulders. “Tell him it’s Zok and Jade with some friends. We are the ones who brought him the book from Rowland.”
The youth, Jem, just blinked and then turned back inside, shutting the door behind him.
“Are we going to be allowed in?” Skar inquired.
“I . . . assume so . . . “ Zok answered.
A few moments later the door burst open to reveal a Gnome dressed in every color of the rainbow, and possibly every pattern imaginable. His short hair was a bright pink, along with his tiny mustache. Standing two feet tall, he still seemed to take up the entire threshold as he spread his arms and grinned broadly. “Brother Zok! Jade! And friends! Please, please come inside!”
Unolé’s eyebrows rose at the warm welcome. As the Paladin and Druid greeted the small Wizard, they all filed inside the tower. The Rogue was shocked at the interior. Furniture was arranged haphazardly, bookshelves crammed against the walls, and tables set at strange angles. Everything was stacked with items. Plants, vials, books, parchments, and bizarre trinkets she couldn’t even name. It was all exceedingly colorful and smelled of soil and herbs. A winding staircase led up and down. She noticed Jem standing in a corner, watching them impassively.
“It is good to see you, Tymus,” Jade smiled. “These are our friends Artemis, Skar, and Unolé.” Foxy and Wolfie immediately went about the large room, smelling everything.
“How did your visit with Rowland go?” Zok asked. “Sadly, we have been out of town.”
Tymus’ face fell. “He did not come by! I still have that book, and I’ve translated it, but he hasn’t come to pick it up.”
Skar frowned. “Who is this Rowland?”
Jade replied, “A Wizard of the Citadel who we met some weeks ago in the tunnels under the Doorway Mountains. He was sent to seal away a large beast that had gotten loose from another plane of existence. He found a red tome in the tunnels and asked us to deliver it to Tymus for translating.” She turned to the Gnome. “That is very strange. He can’t possibly still be under the mountains.”
Tymus’ face brightened again. “I’m sure it’s all fine! He may be doing more investigating, or tracking down a new lead! Rowland always has his head in the clouds.”
Unolé noticed a few gems glittering on a table. Her eyes lit up. She slid a bit closer, but then noticed Zok give her a serious look. She withdrew reluctantly.
“What did that book say?” Jade asked. “The one you translated?”
Tymus rubbed his chin. “Well . . . It was written in the language of the Hells. When I did start to read it, I felt a presence attempt to enter my mind, but I was able to force it out. Scary stuff! It talked about a creature known as an Infernal crossing into our Material plane. Possibly the one Rowland was after.”
“Why would such a being want to come here?” Skar asked.
Tymus shrugged. “So many reasons. Easy prey, new territory, less competition. You don’t want to go to the Hells, my large Dragonborn friend. It is a terrible place!”
Yes, Unolé thought, Yes, it is.
“We don’t wish to take up too much of your time,” Zok began, “but on our adventures we found a bag with a magic enchantment on it. One that makes it bottomless. We want to use it, but we have no way of knowing what contents are already in it. We’ve heard people can turn these items inside out to discover the contents, but, of course, we want a safe place to do so. Would you be able to help us?”
Tymus clapped his hands in excitement. “Such fun! Of course! Of course! Follow me, I have just the spot.” He made a few gestures in the air with deft fingers and a shimmering circle appeared before him. He hopped on and sat down, riding it like a floating disc. As he drifted towards the stairs, he called over his shoulder, “Where did you find this item?”
They followed across the room and down the steps, Foxy and Wolfie trailing with their tails wagging. The stairs were wide and clean, glowing orbs giving ample light to the area.
“In the Expanse,” Artemis answered. “It was on the body of a Minotaur. One which I wanted to eat, but some people thought that was disgusting.”
“Ooo, that sounds delicious!” the Gnome piped. “If you ever get your hands on more Minotaur meat, Half-Elf, please bring some to me!”
Unolé had no idea what to make of that sentiment, so she followed quietly behind as they reached a lower level of the tower. It was another wide, circular room. But this one was mostly bare save for a table full of vials and a large arcane circle drawn on the floor.
Tymus pointed to the circle. “Glyphs for warding and sealing and the like. Nothing placed there should be able to get out.”
“Should?” Artemis repeated.
The small Wizard shrugged. “Magic is crazy! Hand me the bag, if you please.”
Zok passed it over and Tymus floated into the center of the circle. He spoke some arcane words and the lines on the floor lit up in pink light. He dropped the bag to the ground and then floated back out next to the others. The light reflected in all their eyes. Unolé watched as Zok’s hand closed around his sword hilt, Artemis grabbed one of her daggers, and Jade held up her hands to prepare a spell. They were nervous.
Tymus moved his hands about in complicated gestures and whispered a new spell. The bag lifted in the air, then flipped inside out. Immediately a pile of items fell to the floor with a clatter. There was a tense pause as everyone held their breath . . . and then relaxed as nothing living or dangerous emerged from the bag.
“See?” Tymus smiled. “No problem!”
The group cautiously approached the arcane circle, looking over the items within. There were some bones, some torn pieces of cloth, a three-pointed hat, a pair of boots, and two green stones.
“New toys!” Artemis cheered, bounding into the circle to look closer. “I wonder what these are?”
Jade surveyed the pile. “If these are from adventurers the Minotaur killed, they could be enchanted.”
Zok scooped up all the items. “Great! They will be useful to our journey, then.”
Unolé’s eyes drifted over the items, when a sealed envelope slipped out from the pile and landed on the stone floor. The writing on it immediately caught her attention. She froze, and for a moment the world around her locked. The others hadn’t seemed to notice. She could barely hear them griping at Zok for taking charge of the items. Her vision focused as she kneeled next to the envelope.
Unolé slowly lifted it from the ground. In curving writing along the front it said her name. She flipped it over. It was sealed with red wax in the shape of a spider.
Teshuva’s voice, edged with worry, spoke in her mind. “Unolé . . . Careful.”
Unaware she was holding her breath, the Rogue broke the seal and opened the envelope. She slid out a small piece of parchment. There was only one sentence written on it. But it changed everything.
I am safe.
Taliesin leaned back against the stone wall of the dungeon cell, fingering the spider medallion around his slender neck. He had the feel of it memorized. The smoothness of the body, the sharp points of the legs and fangs. It brought him comfort. He certainly needed that comfort in a situation like this.
He and Ruuda had been locked in the cell six hours ago. No one had come to speak to them since. They had been led inside one of the towers, down a flight of stairs, and into a corridor that had four empty cells with iron bars along the fronts. They were relieved of their armor, weapons, and bags. Luckily Taliesin’s necklace had gone unnoticed. It was a conduit for his spells; a focus for his magic. He could use it to help them escape. If only they had a plan that would turn out better than the last one.
Ruuda leaned against the wall across from him, her arms folded over her chest. “How long do they intend to keep us down here? There’s barely any room to move about.”
The cell was a five by five space, and both of their legs pressed alongside each other’s. Aside from a chamber pot, there were no blankets, beds, or furniture. The air was cool, stuffy, and smelled musty.
“This is ridiculous,” the Dark Elf griped. “They can’t keep us down here without an interrogation.”
“Who in the Hells are these people?” Ruuda demanded. “Three of them wore that awful pink color. And they flew! What is the Citadel?”
“I have no idea. Who would willingly wear such an ugly color?”
The Dark Dwarf glanced beyond the bars to their pile of belongings. “I hope they don’t go through my barrel. All my personal stuff is in there.”
“They didn’t take everything,” Taliesin said. “I still have my holy symbol of the Silk Weaver. I can use magic through it. And, I have my Dwarvish belt.”
She seemed confused for a moment, then remembrance crossed her face. “Oh yes, you showed that to me awhile ago. Why do you have it covered with that white sash? It’s a fine Dwarvish artifact. You should display it proudly!”
He pulled up the white cloth to reveal the metal belt that was etched with angular designs and had a Dwarf head carved in the center. “This ugly thing? Why would I want anyone to see this?”
Her tone took on offense. “That item helps protect you from injury, right? And let’s you speak Dwarvish. You should be proud to wear it.”
“But then I have a stern, bearded face lording over my groin.”
She threw her head back and laughed, and he couldn’t help but grin. Their situation was grim, certainly. Anything to alleviate the stress was welcome.
Survival had been their primary focus when they both left the Deep Hollows together. He had no idea how long ago that was. Months, certainly. They had journeyed away from their underground homes up to the Surface. It had all been so strange, and so exciting. The colorful city of Eleste’si, the open land outside of the city walls, the huge river that had been their guide. As he’d searched for spiders – which had seemingly vanished entirely within the last year or so – they had relied on one another to get through each day. His wealthy upbringing put him at a disadvantage, but Ruuda had easily taken charge in locating and setting up camps and hunting for food. Some days they’d had less to eat than others, but they never starved. And he’d learned a lot from her.
The weather had taken some getting used to. The varying clouds and piercing sun, the wind, and then a terrible thunderstorm they took shelter from. They had overheard some travelers mention a town called Vesper and had declared that their next destination. Taliesin had been hopeful more information could be learned about the missing spiders there. But there had been a checkpoint along the river. An attempt to pass through peacefully did not work out. Their race had made them targets. Trying to flee showed them outmatched against the powerful spellcasters at the tower. And so, they had been arrested.
Ruuda’s green eyes sparkled with amusement as she looked at him. Pushing strands of her thick, fiery hair back from her face, she said, “So, we have a belt and a necklace. What’s our plan of escape, then?”
Taliesin frowned, rubbing at his chin. “I think we could possibly get out of this cell. But that’s not the issue. The issue is escaping the tower without being seen. Last time we tried to run and were easily chased down. Let’s not make the same mistake twice.”
“I liked our plan,” Ruuda responded. “We just did not expect such powerful people here.” She sighed. “My family would be horrified if they knew I was locked up in a dungeon.”
He chuckled. “My family would tell me I deserved it. The High Priestess would definitely be happy about it.”
She frowned and tilted her head to the side. “That doesn’t seem right. Why would they react like that?”
“Because I have a history of doing things they disagree with. And my run-in with the High Priestess did not end well.”
“This sounds like a story I need to hear.”
He hesitated. “It’s a long story.”
Ruuda gestured widely to the dungeon. “We have time.”
“Alright, then. Since it’s partly my fault you’re in here-“
“No,” she said firmly. “It’s not your fault.”
“But you’re only on the Surface because I told you to come with me. As repayment for saving your life.”
“And it was my choice to come along.”
He frowned, yellow eyes glancing to the side. “Ruuda, you’ve done so much already . . .”
“Oh? Is my debt repaid then?”
“Well, I wouldn’t say that.”
She waved her hand dismissively. “Then get on with the story, Dark Elf. I need something to pass the time.”
He bit his lower lip and grinned. Then took a breath and began. “My whole life I’ve wanted to become a priest of the Silk Weaver. But her chosen are women. Men are not allowed to serve as priests or leaders. But that’s never stopped me. I guess I was always optimistic that with enough push and determination, I could achieve this.”
Ruuda studied his face a moment before asking, “So, when did that change?”
“The first time I went to the temple of the Silk Weaver.”
Taliesin stared up at the massive temple, all made from polished black stone and shining in what little green light existed in Berenzia. It was his first time to attend a religious ceremony. And he was very eager. His sister, twenty years his senior, already attended regularly. She aspired to become a priestess, after all. And with only eight priestesses at any given time, Andraste had to prove herself extremely worthy.
“There are so many people coming this month,” his father, Lucan, observed. “I wonder what the occasion is?”
“They all want to see if the rumors are true,” Andraste piped conspiratorially. “That on the altar is-“
“Hush,” his mother, Sariel, scolded.
Taliesin glanced around. Thin lines of Dark Elves made their way towards the structure. White hair was done up elegantly, dark clothes showed a great deal of gray skin on the men and the women, and there was an air of importance in the gargantuan cavern that Berenzia called home. The homes and buildings gave way to a courtyard of stone that surrounded the temple. Those Dark Elves that had been to the Surface claimed the temple of the Silk Weaver rivaled the palace of Eleste’si. Taliesin had never been to the Surface and had no idea if that was true. He was only ninety-seven years old. For the Dark Elves that could live one thousand years, maturity wasn’t considered reached until a one hundredth birthday.
The temple itself sat in the exact center of the city up on a hill. Its base contained a circular building that a singular tower rose from, soaring hundreds of feet into the air. From that tower seven arches curved into seven smaller towers that surrounded the structure. Eight towers in total. Eight priestesses. Eight legs of the Silk Weaver. Their goddess, Aranese.
They approached the large double-doors that led into the temple. As they drew within twenty feet, Sariel’s hand suddenly closed around Taliesin’s neck and pushed him against the wall of the temple. He stared up at her in shock.
“You will behave in there,” his mother snapped, her red eyes narrowed. “Do not speak out of turn or do anything without my permission. You are representing the prestigious House Ostoroth and will act like it. Each visit to this temple is important to your sister. Do not ruin things for her.”
His mother’s hand did not squeeze, but the threat was implied. He glanced past her at the throngs of people heading into the temple. They barely paid any notice to the scene. His sister watched with passive amusement. His father gave him a somber look.
His gaze returned to his mother. “I’ll be on my best behavior,” he answered in irritation.
“No talk of this priest nonsense?”
He could feel a retort build up in his throat but held it back. He really wanted to see inside the temple. He wanted to experience a ceremony to their goddess. So he replied, “I won’t talk about it.”
Sariel visibly relaxed. “Good.” She let go of this throat and eyed him over. Then she brushed strands of hair away from his eyes. “Make sure everyone can see how handsome you are.”
They headed again to the temple and crossed through the doors. They filed down a long, wide corridor, weaving between other Dark Elves that had stopped to chat, before entering the ceremonial chamber.
Taliesin’s breath was taken away by it all. It was incredibly huge, able to seat thousands. Formed into an octagon, at the far end was a raised platform for the priestesses. In a half circle around the rest of the room were steps of the same black stone for spectators. Each was three feet deep with two feet between each level. The exact center of the room was just an empty, flat floor. Already many Dark Elves were kneeling on the ground or on the stacked steps. Torches flickering with green fire lined the walls. The ceiling rose high into a point above them. A chandelier shaped like a spider’s web glittered with diamonds, and a mock egg sac made of crystal hung in the center.
“Come,” Sariel said, turning towards the platform. “We must introduce Taliesin to the High Priestess.”
Taliesin knew this was standard for every new Dark Elf that came to the temple. He was excited to meet the woman that led the entire city of Berenzia. The one that would ultimately decide if he could be a priest or not.
Lucan leaned close to his ear and whispered, “Men are not allowed to speak directly to her. Say nothing. Your mother will do all the talking.”
They ascended the steps to the large platform. Eight chairs for the priestesses sat on one side. In both back corners a large spiderweb clung to the wall. A slave was spread upside down in each, nude and covered in marks of torture. It was a male and female High Elf. Their fair, pinkish skin and blond hair stood out against the Dark Elves that all had white hair and gray skin that ranged from nearly white to nearly black. Both silently cried.
In the exact center of the platform was the altar to the Silk Weaver. A black, rectangular stone slab with intricate carvings of spiderwebs on it. Four leather straps were affixed to each corner, and restrained in them was a nude male Dark Elf. He, too, bared marks of torture all over him. An Obedience Gag covered his mouth, and over his heart was branded an M.
Andraste whispered to Taliesin, “That is the High Priestess’ most recent consort. She brands them all to show that they are her property and no one else is allowed to touch them. I’ve heard rumors of what he did to end up on the altar.”
“What did he do?” Taliesin asked, intrigued, as they went up the last steps and onto the platform.
“He was caught feeding secret information to a lesser House that wanted to assassinate one of the priestesses so their daughter could join the eight. He’s marked for death now. The Matriarch of that House and the daughter have gone missing. People say they’ve been taken to the torture chambers of this temple to suffer for eighty days and then they’ll be sacrificed on the altar, as well.”
“Whoa,” Taliesin breathed. “That is a thorough punishment.”
Andraste chuckled. “Nobody crosses the High Priestess. She’s left a trail of blood and death on her ascension.”
Taliesin’s gaze was drawn from the doomed consort to the wall behind the altar. A massive relief of Aranese was carved there. It was the top half of a female Dark Elf, her expression fierce and terrible. She had four eyes and two spider-like fangs that curled from her mouth. She was garbed in webs and a hand reached up into a fist, as if to strangle whoever looked upon her. The lower half of her body was a colossal spider, covered in hair like a tarantula. The front two legs came out of the wall to sit on either side of the altar. The two fangs, as well, protruded out to hang over the victim. The relief itself was so huge it nearly took up the entire wall, commanding and imposing. It was one of three supposed forms of the Silk Weaver. The other was a full spider, and the third was that of a seductive and vicious Dark Elf.
And standing beside the altar, gazing up at this depiction of their goddess, was the High Priestess. Sariel led her family over to her and bowed her head in respect. The others mimicked the gesture.
“High Priestess,” Sariel said in a reverent tone. “My only son is attending a ceremony for the first time.” She stepped slightly to the side and held out her hand. “This is Taliesin Ostoroth.”
Taliesin stared up at the High Priestess. She was extremely beautiful, with wavy hair that tumbled down past her chest. Her eyes were the same color as the ruby necklace that hung against her collarbone. The neckline of her dress plunged all the way down to her navel, and the sleeves were shaped like webs.
Her gaze went up and down his body before settling on his face. “Hello, Taliesin. I’m Maiathah Xanphia, the High Priestess of Aranese.”
He felt his father’s hand push against his lower back, signaling for him to bow. He did, but just slightly. His attention was drawn again to the consort on the altar. The owned lover of this woman who stood so casually by him. He wondered how much longer the man would live.
When Taliesin’s yellow eyes returned to Maiathah, she seemed to have noticed where his gaze wandered, for a small smile twitched at her lips. She cocked an eyebrow, as if daring him to say something. He almost did. The urge was nearly irresistible.
But then Sariel said, “Aside from his obvious good looks, he was the top male of his class in spellcasting. We’re sure he’ll make an excellent husband to a powerful House, or an excellent consort to any influential female who finds herself with an empty bed.”
Maiathah’s red eyes moved to his mother. “I’m sure you will find a sufficient use for him.”
Sariel bowed again, her family following, before turning and leading them back down the steps. Taliesin stole a glance over his shoulder, but the High Priestess had returned to her contemplation of the relief of their goddess. As they reached the central floor, Sariel led them to the first row of Dark Elves that knelt in preparation for the ceremony. They took a spot on the far end. There were no chairs or pillows or rugs. Just hard stone. Taliesin knelt uncomfortably between his mother and sister.
“That went very well,” Sariel said, breathing a sigh of relief. “I’m glad you did not speak, Taliesin.”
“It went well?” he questioned. “It was so . . . brief.”
“You should feel honored she even looked at you, let alone talked about you. Clearly, we are within her good graces. Your future continues to look promising, Andraste.”
His sister beamed.
Several more minutes passed as the rest of the chamber filled up. Taliesin watched it all with great interest. Physical appearance was of the upmost importance in Berenzia. But in this temple, especially, everyone looked their best. His mother and sister wore off-shoulder gowns with platinum necklaces. His father wore a tunic with an open front, a platinum belt keeping the cloth in place, and his pants had strategic cut-outs on his inner thighs. Taliesin had put on a soft black tunic with spiderweb designs across the torso. A few braids were weaved into his long hair he’d tied back from his face. Braiding hair was considered a very formal style, and Sariel had nodded with approval when she’d seen him. He was glad. He didn’t want to be excluded today.
Finally, the last of the Dark Elves entered, thousands kneeling towards the raised platform. The seven other priestesses had joined Maiathah now, standing across the stage and observing the chamber. The High Priestess walked back and forth once, surveying the audience as all became quiet. She had an imposing air about her. Chin held high, shoulders back, she gazed across the room in a way that revealed complete control of everything around her.
And then, she spoke. “The Silk Weaver allows us our magic. She permits us this home. She rewards those that please her. We are chosen above the weak and pathetic races that roam the Surface. We rightfully grind the Humans, the High Elves, the Half-Elves, and the other scum under our feet and turn them into our slaves and prisoners.”
The two High Elves trapped in the spiderwebs sobbed loudly now.
Maiathah continued, “We humble ourselves before our Matriarch of Malice and offer her our prisoners to torture and sacrifice. May their screams sing to her ears. May their pain satiate her lust. And may their blood fill her belly.”
The High Priestess made the gestures of a spell and the relief of the goddess was suddenly outlined in green fire. Taliesin stared up at it in awe. No heat was cast from it, only cold. The green reflected in all the eyes around him.
“Women,” Maiathah said, “strive to become like Aranese. Men, humble yourselves before her.” She gestured widely across the chamber, and flickering green flames followed her fingertips.
Taliesin heard chanting from various women throughout the room. He glanced about curiously. The women had their eyes closed, heads tilted up, a string of words in the harsh language of the Chasm spilling from their mouths.
“Taza le di apaxvyn dzigodin. Di quabul al kabbanh.”
“What’s happening?” he whispered.
Sariel replied, “It is the Malice of the Silk Weaver. Those that open themselves to her and ones she deems worthy are momentarily filled with her hatred and anger.”
Taliesin watched as some of the chanters began to convulse. And then they stood. The women wandered about the room, as if in a trance, their eyes rolled back. One went up to a Human slave that stood against a far wall. The Dark Elf backhanded the slave hard enough to send her sprawling to the ground. Another went to one kneeling Dark Elf male and grabbed a fistful of his hair, yanking his head back. She proceeded to kiss him fiercely, and then shoved him to the ground and straddled him.
Taliesin’s head whipped around as she saw his sister stand up, the same chanting coming from her. Sariel gasped in delight as Andraste walked around the room, enraptured by their goddess. For many minutes this carried on. The women experiencing the Silk Weaver’s Malice proceeded to beat slaves, have intercourse with seemingly random men, or simply stand and chant. He noticed one of the priestesses beckon to a young Dark Elf. He tentatively came up onto the platform as the priestess sat back on one of the chairs. She said something to him Taliesin couldn’t hear, and then he got on his hands and knees. She placed her feet across his back and utilized him as a living footstool.
Taliesin frowned at everything that was happening. He felt . . . uncomfortable. Was his only role in all this truly just to sit and watch? He wanted to be up on the stage talking about their goddess.
His attention was drawn to two young women chanting slowly and walking towards him. He stiffened, unsure how to react if they decided to touch him. But as they came within a few feet Sariel put a hand on his leg and said to them, “You should find someone more worthy of your time.”
The two young women scowled at her, but turned and left. Taliesin looked curiously at his mother.
Sariel answered the unspoken question. “They are from a lesser House. I will not allow such peasants to touch my only son. They are beneath us, Taliesin. Never forget you are of a powerful House.”
After an hour of this the chanting stopped, the women seemed to return to themselves, and resumed their seats in the chamber. Andraste was sweaty and panting as she knelt beside her brother once again, despite having only stood in one place the entire time, lost in the trance. She smiled broadly at him.
“I am proud of you,” Sariel said to her daughter, leaning past Taliesin.
Maiathah strode before the altar. She reached her hand out and trailed the back of her fingers along her former consort’s torso, and then fondled him. He twitched in his restraints, eyes tightly closed. Maiathah then stepped back and spread her arms out wide, gazing up at the representation of their goddess. She drew wide, shadowy symbols in the air with her hands.
She said, “All the blood and all the death and all the pain belong to you, Aranese.”
Then she closed her fists with a flash of green light. The fangs of the spider that hung directly over the altar flashed, as well. For a moment, the consort trashed wildly, attempting to free himself. But then from the points of the fangs two spectral blades shot down and embedded themselves in his heart and his stomach.
Taliesin watched the blood run from his wounds, onto the altar, and down into a groove he hadn’t noticed before. The groove ran down the stage and to a small grate on the floor.
He whispered to his sister. “Where is the blood going?”
She shrugged. “Who knows? This temple is massive. I’ve only ever been to this room.”
The ceremony ended after that, and the Ostoroth family made their way through the city streets and back to their three-story home. Taliesin was surprised to see the Matriarch of House Rinn waiting past the iron gate and by the front doors. Her hair was pulled up into a bun and her face was narrow and shrewd. Earrings of emeralds hung from her ears.
“I’ve had to wait awhile, Sariel,” the woman spat.
Sariel inclined her head. “There was a great deal of peasants at the temple today. I believe a separate ceremony should be reserved for those of lesser Houses.”
“Ha! We agree on that.”
Sariel turned to her family. “Matriarch Ella of House Rinn will be joining us for dinner.”
Andraste smiled sweetly. “We are delighted.”
It certainly wasn’t the first time they had hosted another family for dinner. But never just a Matriarch by herself. Taliesin wondered what was going on. But his thoughts were too jumbled with all the happenings at the temple to care about questioning. He had gotten inside! He had met the High Priestess! That was the first step to finally becoming a priest.
Dinner was served by their slaves in the long, dark dining room. Candlelight flickered off of platinum silverware and plates. Conversation stayed casual, and both Matriarchs bragged on their daughters excessively. The oldest daughter of House Rinn was named Leyla. Anytime Taliesin tried to talk his mother would interrupt him and change the subject. It was frustrating, but eventually he settled on just silently thinking about the temple and his future. He could already picture himself as the first priest, standing among the eight! Perhaps even with Andraste there, too. Helping the High Priestess with the ceremonies. She could keep the torturing and sacrificing. He had no taste for that. But he would enjoy representing their goddess as the first male ever worthy to do so. He could just imagine-
“Lucan and Andraste, leave us,” his mother’s stern voice cut through his thoughts.
He frowned, glancing across the members of his family as everyone paused. Andraste tried in vain to hide a smile as she and Lucan stood up, the legs of their chairs scraping across the marble floor. Staring at him over their shoulders they quickly walked out of the room.
Taliesin looked over to his mother, “What-“
“Stand up,” she commanded.
He was very confused but did as he was told, leaning his back against his chair as Sariel and Ella stepped in front of him. He opened his mouth to speak but the look his mother gave him made him close it. What was going on?
“Hm,” Ella said, tapping her chin and looking him over. “Not bad. He’s good with magic, you say?”
“What kind of magic does he specialize in?”
Sariel hesitated, then replied reluctantly, “Healing. But, it has its uses. Leyla will be well protected from assassinations.”
Taliesin’s brow furrowed. He could tell where this was going, and he didn’t like it. “What-“
Ella cut him off as she stepped right up to him and gripped his jaw. She tilted his head back and forth, studying him closely. “His hair is nice. It’s too bad he has yellow eyes, though.”
“It’s been a generation since that trait was seen in our family with his grandfather,” Sariel responded. “So, if you desire children with red eyes, that is the most likely outcome.”
Taliesin looked accusingly over Ella’s shoulder and at his mother. Her stare shot daggers at him, threatening against any word or step out of line.
Ella ran her free hand through his hair and down his neck. Her other thumb lifted to trace his bottom lip. “What a lovely mouth. He-“
Taliesin had run out of patience. He violently wrenched away, snapping, “Stop!”
Sariel’s jaw dropped open, horrified. “Taliesin!”
Ella smirked, holding up a placating hand. “It’s all right, Sariel. Leyla likes them with some spirit. It’s more fun to beat it out of them.”
“I will not marry or be a consort to your daughter,” Taliesin growled. “Do not touch me again.”
Sariel looked as if she would explode, her eyes bulging from her head and hands clenched into fists. Ella stood much calmer, but her mouth was now pressed into a thin line, and her eyes narrowed. Her bony hand drifted to a whip hooked on her belt.
Sariel quickly interjected. “I will handle the punishment.”
Ella sneered, dropping her hand to her side. “Good luck with this one, Sariel. He could use a good whipping. Or some time in an Obedience Gag.” With that she turned abruptly and stalked out.
As soon as the Matriarch of House Rinn left, Taliesin relaxed. “Ugh. I can’t believe she thought-“
His mother’s hand lashed out and popped him in his mouth.
He took a step back, bumping into the chair. “Mom, I-“
She hit him again, cracking his head back, and then stepped over him. “You ruined an excellent marriage, Taliesin! Rinn is a strong and prestigious House. I am completely furious at you!”
He glared up at her. “I don’t want to marry Leyla. I want to be a priest.”
From between her clenched teeth she hissed, “Go to your room immediately. I don’t want to see you the rest of the night.”
He held her eyes a moment longer before slipping past her and heading to the grand, curving staircase. As he reached the first step, he glanced down the hall to see his father and sister there, pressed against the wall. Andraste looked as if she’d just overheard the best gossip. Lucan just shook his head in disappointment.
He bounded up the steps and to his room.
Taliesin was interrupted from his story as the sound of a door opening echoed in the dungeon. He and Ruuda straightened, turning to face the entry to their cell. He quickly slid his spider medallion inside his black shirt; he didn’t want to risk losing it. Footsteps drew closer along with a soft light source. A form stepped before the bars, wearing pink robes with blue arcane sigils. Blonde hair was pulled back into a high ponytail, and the typical fair features of a High Elf were set into a frown. A small arcane globe of light hovered at the tip of a quill that was tucked into her sash alongside a leather journal.
“So,” Jasita sighed, “I have some questions.”
Taliesin watched her guardedly. He knew what ‘questions’ meant in Berenzia. But he didn’t know what to expect here on the Surface. “Oh? I’m not sure I feel in the mood to answer any. We’ve been down here all night.”
Ruuda’s red eyebrows pulled low over her eyes, glaring up at the High Elf.
Jasita looked over them both, then addressed Taliesin. “You used magic while fleeing from the guards. What kind of spellcaster are you?”
He watched her look over his clothes. She was looking for clues. “Let us out of here and we can talk.”
“You can’t be serious. I know your kind, Dark Elf. You capture our people and turn them into slaves. You worship a goddess that delights in death. And you, Dark Dwarf. Your people are slavers, as well, and steal from the Surface.”
Taliesin climbed to his feet, gripping the bars. The metal was cold and gritty against his hands. “Neither of us have done those things. I’ve never captured any slaves or tortured anyone.” He was surprised that he had to look down at her; she stood a couple inches shorter than him. Female Dark Elves were all taller than males. His exposure to slaves of other races had been limited. Aside from a slave assigned to him personally, a cat-like humanoid called Whiskers, his mother dealt with all the household slaves.
Jasita did not look convinced. “You are all the same.”
That was unfair. He tightened his grip in frustration. “You can’t keep us in here because of our race! We haven’t done anything!”
“Consider it justice for your people’s crimes.”
Ruuda stood, as well. “You can’t hold us responsible for all of our people!”
“Actually, I can. So, this will go much easier for the both of you if you cooperate.”
The three of them held heated gazes for several moments, no one backing down. The torchlight sent their shadows flickering behind them across the stone and the bars.
Taliesin let his shoulders relax. It was time to try a different tactic. “I believe I heard your name was Jasita?”
Her eyes narrowed. “It is.”
He put one hand on his chest. “I’m Taliesin. This is Ruuda.”
“Taliesin and Ruuda.” She paused, then said, “I have questions about your people. Your home. Your capabilities. Are you going to willingly answer them?”
The Cleric frowned. “What do you intend to do with this information?”
“That’s my business, Taliesin.”
He glanced down at Ruuda. Her eyes darted up to him, and he could see the anger in them. The defiance. So, looking back to Jasita, he responded, “We’re not feeling very chatty tonight.”
She held his gaze for a long moment before she said, “Very well, then.” She turned and started to head back down the hall.
The Dark Elf leaned his face against the bars, trying to keep a watch on her as he called out, “Do you really want to keep us in here indefinitely? Isn’t that a waste of coin?”
She turned at that, a smirk crossing her face. She reached into her bag and pulled out the coin purse Taliesin had tossed to the guards right before their capture. “Oh, it isn’t costing us a thing. You are paying for your own stay.” And then she left, and the light vanished.
Jade stood in a loose circle with the Phantom Five and Tymus, all looking curiously at Unolé. She had read the letter aloud to them all. This mysterious letter addressed to her that had been inside a bottomless bag stolen from a minotaur in the Expanse. It didn’t make any sense.
“Have you ever been to the desert?” Zok asked, rubbing his beard pensively.
“No,” Unolé shook her head. “Until recently I’ve spent my whole life in An’Ock.”
Jade’s green eyes narrowed as she stared at the envelope in the Rogue’s hands. The wax seal of a spider stood out like a drop of blood against snow. “I know that symbol.”
All eyes turned to her. Unolé leaned forward hopefully. “You do?”
The Druid nodded. “I’ve seen it before, drawn on back alley walls in Eleste’si. I don’t know much about it. But I lived in Eleste’si long enough to know it struck fear into people when they saw it. Perhaps something to do with Dark Elves? Queen Mirandril and her royal guard worked hard to keep it quiet.”
Zok’s head whipped around to her, blue eyes going wide. “You used to live in Eleste’si?”
She gave a quick nod, too caught up in her own thoughts to pay much attention. “Yes, for a time.”
Artemis spoke up. “Well, in the letter your sister says she’s safe. Does that make you feel better?”
“I . . . don’t know what to feel,” Unolé replied. “I’m very confused.”
“We will find answers,” Skar said in a comforting tone. “Growing up on Volcano Island, I investigated many mysteries!”
Tymus frowned at the bronze Dragonborn. “Sorry, growing up where?”
“Volcano Island! My home.”
The pink-haired Gnome shook his head. “I’ve never heard of such a place. Where is it?”
“Well it is . . . it is . . . off the coast.”
“Which coast?” Artemis pressed, raising one blonde eyebrow.
Skar seemed to struggle, his eyes darting from side to side as he thought.
“Just a minute here,” Tymus drifted closer on his floating disc. He waved his fingers in the air and spoke a spell, a brief flash of light coming from his hand. His eyebrows shot up on his forehead, and then drew down with a heavy frown. “Oh my! You, Dragonborn, are a victim of a memory modification spell.”
There was a prolonged pause, mouths agape, as attention turned from Unolé to Skar.
“Memory modification?” Skar repeated, his tone dumbfounded. “I do not . . . I cannot . . . When? How?”
Tymus shook his head. “I truly do not know.”
“Is there any way to get it back?” Jade asked.
“Oh, possibly,” the Gnome nodded. “They may come back over time. You may need to chat with someone who specializes in restoration magic. The surest way would be to confront the person who did this directly, but that is hard to do seeing as you can’t remember who it was. Although it could be a product of an arcane accident or experiment gone wrong. These things happen, unfortunately.”
“How do I know what is real and what is not?” Skar asked.
“Where there are gaps in your memories. Things that don’t add up or make sense.”
“I’m so sorry, Skar,” Jade said. “We’ll do what we can to help.” She truly felt sorry for him. To lose one’s identity was a frightening thought. But she was relieved at this information. It answered many questions she had about the strange bronze Dragonborn.
“I have something that can help a bit,” Tymus stated, floating back towards the stairs. “Follow me, follow me! And bring your new toys from the bag. We can see if there is any value to them.”
They headed back into the upper floor and Tymus went over to one of his crammed bookshelves. He eyed the tomes over with a soft hum before selecting one in particular.
“This is the one,” he said, coming up to Skar. “An old spellbook from my time at the Citadel. I don’t need it myself, it’s mostly damaging spells. I prefer illusion-based magic. But perhaps practicing these will jog your memory.”
Skar took it reverently. “Thank you, Tymus. I appreciate the help.”
The Gnome nodded, his usually joyful face somber. Pain flashed in his brown eyes. “I advise caution in searching for answers. If someone did this to you, they should not be taken lightly.”
Their business in Somberdale came to a close, and the journey to An’Ock loomed ahead. Jade stopped by the Arrowed Knee Tavern and hired a messenger to take a letter to her grandparents in Oceala. A warning against her visions. She asked them to prepare their defenses for a possible dragon attack. And that she would be coming to the city soon. After An’Ock, she planned to go. With or without the rest of the Phantom Five. But if her visions held true, she knew they would come with her.
The items they’d found in the bottomless bag were interesting. Some of which had no value. But the pair of boots were enchanted to climb along walls and ceilings like a spider. The three-pointed hat allowed an illusion spell to be cast over the wearer. And the two green stones were Teleportation Stones. Activating one would transport the person to the companion stone.
After some discussion, it was decided that Jade would take the spider boots since, as a spellcaster, she needed to stay further from melee range. Artemis took the hat, professing to be good at talking her way in and out of situations and claiming the hat would help. Brother Zok took the coins in the bag. Unolé seemed content with her letter, still caught up in her own swirling thoughts. And Skar was content with his new spellbook. They decided to hand one of the Teleportation Stones to Sen’s crew, asking them to give it to the large red Dragonborn when he awoke. Jade kept the other in her pocket.
The journey to the Firelit Forest stretched out long before them. Jade expertly guided them through the Doorway Mountains. She had made the trek many times while leading travelers to and from Somberdale. The Druid found the quickest and easiest paths for the five of them, as well as the safest places to camp.
It was a two week journey to get into the Firelit Forest. And it would be about another week after that before they arrived in the capital city. They had a long trek ahead, and they all hoped it would prove peaceful and safe.
It was only within the first week of their travel, however, that something seemed off. The sun was setting behind the sharp ridges of the Doorway Mountains, casting the green slopes around them in twilight. Jade led the way to a small cave that would serve as an excellent camping location. She’d used it many times in her journeys. Just as she spotted the cave fifty yards ahead, she hesitated. She could feel . . . something. An unease. Like they were being watched.
“Something wrong?” Artemis asked, a hand slowly reaching for her bow.
“I’m not sure,” Jade replied. Her keen eyes took in every overgrown boulder, each thin tree, and all the positions someone could hide in the uneven terrain. “I just feel like someone is following us.”
Zok and Skar both exchanged wary glances as Unolé dropped to a crouch, relying on her training of stealth and shadows.
Artemis surveyed the ground. “I don’t see any tracks. Wolfie, do you smell anything?”
Upon her hand signal, the large gray wolf smelled the wind and perked up his ears. The fox seemed to sense the animal’s awareness and copied suit. Just as the wolf turned his head to one direction there was a snap, like a branch broke.
All at once the group rushed over to the area, hopping over rocks and darting around the thick and thorny brush. Jade and Artemis arrived first, topping a small ridge and peering over the four-foot slope.
But no one was there.
Wolfie paced restlessly, smelling around, but didn’t find anything.
“Was it just an animal?” Unolé asked, peering from where she’d hidden behind a large rock in preparation for a sneak attack.
“I don’t think so,” Jade said. “Something felt . . . off. Wrong.”
“I trust your insight,” Zok commented. “Should we find a new place to camp?”
Artemis knelt and ran her pale, slender fingers over the grass. “There are tracks here, but I’m not familiar with them. Something heavy, but the movement is erratic and quick. I truly have no idea what could have made these.”
The Druid sighed and took a sweeping look over the area. That feeling of being watched no longer nudged at her, and their animals seemed relaxed. “Perhaps we scared off whatever it was. I think we are safe. Let’s take our rest in the cave.”
They kept an extra vigilant watch that night, but nothing disturbed them.
As they traveled, Skar spent his downtime reading the spellbook in hopes of regaining his memories. Brother Zok trained as often as he could with his new weapon, the Sunsword. When she thought no one was watching Unolé could be seen looking over the letter from her sister in campfire light, tracing her fingers over the edges of the page and the wax seal. As if to commit it all to memory.
Artemis often helped Jade navigate. Despite her unfamiliarity with the area, the Ranger was excellent at finding hazards, pointing out the smoothest terrain, and spotting game trails to hunt. Between Artemis and Jade, they were able to easily provide food for the group.
After a week and a half they descended the slopes of the Doorway Mountains and reached the flat plains. The mountains faded behind them as they pushed further southeast. Finally, the Firelit Forest rose up before them. The trees were thick and healthy, soaring high into the clear blue sky. Traveling inside brought a welcome relief from the sun and the wind. They pushed on until night fell, and as they made their camp the darkness of the trees suddenly sparkled with tiny points of light. The orange dots drifted in and out of the trunks, almost dense enough to feel like a starry sky.
“Fireflies?” Skar inquired.
“Yes,” Jade smiled, spreading out her bedroll. “It’s how this forest got its name. They are very dense here, particularly the further north you are.”
“It’s been years since I passed through this forest,” Zok said, leaning against a tree as he finished off his dinner. “It’s just as pretty as I remember.”
“Where were you traveling from?” Unolé asked.
“ . . . Eleste’si. On my way to Somberdale. Part of the path to become a Paladin is to visit the temples across Corventos dedicated to your deity. I am currently fulfilling my duties to Somberdale’s temple before traveling again.”
Conversation carried on for a time as they chatted about the forest and their journey ahead. Eventually tiredness from the walk brought them all to a deep sleep. Jade was assigned first watch, and she sat with her back to a tree as she kept a lookout over the sleeping group and the surrounding area.
The night was quiet and beautiful. A few pixies buzzed by, only a couple inches tall and full of mischief. Jade batted them away in irritation until they took the hint and dispersed. As a couple hours passed and her watch was nearly at an end, she heard a scuffle to the side, and a soft metallic clink.
The Wild Elf got to her feet swiftly and soundlessly. Foxy lifted his head up to gaze at her curiously. The feeling rolled over her again. Of being watched. She took a few steps in the direction of the sound, staring hard into the darkness. She had excellent dark vision, but still she could see nothing in the shadows. She held her ground, chin raised high, daring whatever was watching to come forth.
The moment stretched out. Jade felt certain something was just there, merely thirty feet away. She had lost patience with this charade. She lifted her blackened hand and flames licked up her fingers. And then she saw it move. It was big, over six feet tall, and bulky. The dark form detached itself from the shadows faster than she thought possible, and then she lost line of vision.
Swearing under her breath in an unfavorable language Master Galen had taught her, Jade gave chase. With barely a sound she bolted between the trees and leaped over ferns and roots. There was a brief rustle of noise ahead, a couple snapped twigs, and then silence and stillness. She ran twenty more feet before slowing to a stop. Holding her breath, she listened hard. But all she heard was the sound of her own heart. And the feeling of being watched was gone.
Frustrated, Jade returned to the camp, and made sure to tell Unolé when she woke her up for her watch. But they were not bothered the rest of the night.
As they traveled, the Wild Elf found her thoughts distracted. She worried about her changing vision. For the longest time she’d seen the same thing. A red dragon destroying Oceala. Her grandparents and her brother running in terror. But now it had changed. She’d seen Zok, Artemis, Skar, and Unolé fighting there. They hadn’t looked older. They hadn’t seemed very changed. Except for two key differences. Artemis had a new bow. And Zok was dramatically different.
She had known him for a few years now, ever since their first meeting in Vesper where she had saved his life. He’d always worn gold and white. He’d always had his brown hair long and a beard covering his Half-Elven face. But in this new vision, he wore all black. His hair was cut short. And his beard was gone.
Part of her wanted to discuss this with him. But that would mean discussing everything. The visions. The dragon. Oceala. Her main reason for joining this adventuring group and exploring any signs of unusual activity. And she didn’t want to do that yet. They had enough on their plate with concern about An’Ock and the Foresight. She was fine keeping this to herself.
She was eager to return to the Firelit Forest. It had been many years now since she’d walked through those trees and smelled that air. So much of her life had been centered around that forest. For one hundred years she’d trained with her Druid mentor, Galen, there. He’d built her into the warrior that she was. He’d been a reclusive man. A Half-Fiend of leathery brown skin and horns like a bull’s. His frame was slight and bony, and he had a kind and calm demeanor. It made Jade feel especially sad that he’d left society because of the fear his race brought. He always wore brown robes that looked as if they’d been made from the forest themselves.
Galen had shaped her life. And she missed him very much. She could still picture him as if it was two hundred years ago, walking around with the help of his enchanted staff. Although Half-Fiends only lived about a century, Galen’s bond with nature prolonged his life.
The loss of her magic now made her feel guilty. There had been a time when she could call the elements to her, transform her shape into powerful forms, and simply step through trees to teleport somewhere else. She wondered if Galen would be disappointed in her. Or if he would understand. After what happened, after losing him, things were different.
As the group made their way through the dense Firelit Forest, Jade was eager to come across her Druid Circle once again. She knew it was rare all of the members were at their home site at once, but she was certain their leader Cora Dale would be there. As they walked the dappled sunlight barely broke through the thick canopy. The air was cool, and autumn colored the tips of the leaves red and orange. Jade could hear Zok, Skar, and Unolé keeping closely behind herself and Artemis. She knew with the colors of her clothes and hair she blended into the surroundings.
“My Druid Circle is not far ahead,” Jade said to the others, picking her way over roots. “We can rest there for as long as we need. At the very least, I need to check in with them.”
“What do you need to check in about?” Zok questioned. His white and gold stood starkly out against the greens and browns around them.
“The Circle protects life and the natural world,” the Wild Elf answered. “We always exchange information.”
“How many members of the Circle are there?” Skar asked.
“It varies, but last there were ten not including myself. We are from different races all over Corventos.”
“It sounds a bit like the Temple of the Holy Dragon,” Zok stated.
“Or like my Guild,” Unolé added. “Though we are all native to An’Ock.”
“You’re part of a Guild?” Artemis questioned with interest, moving silently over the tangle of roots on the ground.
“It’s called the Shadow Guild,” the Half-Fiend answered. “We are all under employ of the leader, and she procures jobs for us in exchange for a home, resources, training, and part of the profit.”
“And who is your leader?” Artemis asked.
Unolé’s answer was cut off as the trees parted for a massive structure. The stone ruins of what was once a fortress. Nature had overtaken it, and ivy covered its sides.
“Wow, how long has this been abandoned?” Zok implored, walking a bit closer.
Jade shrugged one shoulder. “For as long as I’ve been in this area. Two hundred years? I believe it was an old attempt by An’Ock to claim the forest, but nature fought back.”
“We should go inside,” Unolé said quickly. “There might be some interesting things left behind.”
Jade frowned at the barely-hidden urgency behind the Rogue’s words. “There is nothing inside. But we can look if you’d like.”
“There’s people inside,” Artemis stated suddenly, pointing along the ground. “These tracks are recent.”
Jade turned her attention to the ground. It was subtle, but she could make out the disturbances. Human-sized feet. She knew there were two Human members of her Circle, neither very pleasant to speak to. But as she examined the ground more closely, she saw that it was certainly more than two people. “That is interesting. Perhaps we should see who is around here, then.”
“That green light,” Skar said, “Perhaps it is coming from here?”
Jade took in the ruins, looking for signs of magical activity. Something did feel a bit off. “Let’s be careful.”
Zok immediately walked into the ruins, his armor noisy but his face determined. The others followed more cautiously, keeping an eye out for danger. As they ducked through a few damaged corridors, vines covering the stone, they came to an entry that led underneath the fortress.
“A wine cellar or basement?” Unolé asked in a whisper.
“There’s less dirt at the entrance,” Artemis pointed out. “Someone has been going down.” She drew an arrow and smirked. “Let’s go say hello.”