Phantom Five – Book 1 – Read a 4-Chapter Excerpt

“In this great and intricate web of life, souls of nobodies meet, intertwine, and shake the fates around them.”

The sudden death of a high priest in a sleepy coastal village has rocked aspiring Paladin Zok’s world. Finding evidence of murder, he can trust no one in the temple as a dark plot unravels itself. Zok teams up with a group of adventurers to seek answers deep within the desert.

He’s joined by a nomadic Druid who is haunted by visions of a calamity, and an orphan thief who is chasing her kidnapped sister across the planes. And by a boisterous pirate, an enigmatic Wizard, and a Ranger fugitive of war. If they cannot put aside their differences, they will not survive the world of occult magic, interplanar monsters, and hungry undead that await them.

And halfway across the land, Taliesin and Ruuda are two fugitives from their oppressive homes. They venture out in a world where they must hide their identity or risk execution.

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Prologue


UNOLÉ

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The field of tall grass, bronze in the harsh sunlight, slapped across Unolé’s skin as she ran. It tugged at her legs, threatening to trip her. But she pushed on. She had to. At least until she and her sister found somewhere to hide. All that mattered now was keeping the little girl at her side safe.

Her vision was a blur of grass with flashes of blue sky. The pounding of her heart in her ears almost drowned out the shouting of the man behind them. The man they’d come to steal from. It was not supposed to be a dangerous contract. The Shadow Guild didn’t often send members as young as Unatchi on deadly assignments. Perhaps that was why Unolé had let her guard down. The staff they’d been sent to steal had been guarded by arcane wards. It had alerted the owner to their presence. And then everything went wrong.

She couldn’t fathom why someone who appeared to be a farmer would possess a magic staff the Shadow Guild had interest in. Not this far outside of An’Ock. They were so far away from the capital that it was hard to make out the skyline of the rising castle. Farmland stretched as far as the eye could see.

“Unolé!” Unatchi gasped at her side, her small boot caught in the weeds.

Unolé spun around, her tail lashing out to help keep her balance. She crouched, desperately trying to untangle her sister. The weeds cut at her hands but she didn’t feel the pain. She could hear the man running closer, shouting, “Demons! Unholy! Get off my land!”

The words had long since lost their sting. It was nothing she hadn’t been called so many times before.

As she ripped the last tangle free, and Unatchi let out her breath in relief, the man was on them. He was silhouetted against the sun, staff raised high.

He shouted again, “Demons!” Then he swung the staff in a wide arc at their heads.

Unolé grabbed her little sister and threw them both backwards, avoiding the blow. There was a flash of green light in the air, blinding, and then they landed hard on the ground. Unolé wrenched her dagger free from its sheath and held it in front of her protectively. She glared up at the man, and made sure to bare her teeth. The pointed incisors had always been useful for intimidation. But he wasn’t looking at her. He stared at her sister with his mouth open in shock.

Unolé’s head whipped around to the side, and saw her sister unmoving, eyes gazing sightlessly up at the sky. There was a rustle of movement as the man ran off, vanishing into the grass. But Unolé hardly noticed. The world around her locked.

“Unatchi?” she whispered, laying a hand on the girl’s arm. Surely the magic had only paralyzed her. Stunned her. She would be better in a minute. She searched those large eyes for life. They were beautiful, a light purple, the same as her own. Unatchi’s hair still held some blonde in it, tied into pigtails. Unolé’s hair had long since lost that same blonde, now it was only white, despite her twenty-four years of age. Staring at her sister there, waiting for something to happen, made her realize again how young she was. The horns on either side of her head were small and brown, unlike Unolé’s that had grown to a graceful curve on both sides of her face. Surely the man would not have killed someone so innocent looking.

“Unatchi?” she asked again, her voice hoarse from all the running.

A huge shadow passed overhead, eclipsing the sunlight. Unolé flinched, head snapping up to look at the sky. A black beast with wings. It circled the farmland and then made a lazy turn, heading in her direction. Panic seized her. She had no idea what this monstrosity was, but it was huge. She scrambled backwards in the grass, working her way into a muddy hole that offered better cover. Crouching low, she watched the beast warily.

Its black wings flapped, sending a burst of wind that momentarily scattered the grass. Then it landed with a heavy thud that shook the ground. A raven-like head swiveled from side to side, observing the land around it. Now that Unolé had a closer look, she could see it was very bird-like. She would have thought it was a great eagle or roc if it hadn’t been for its four legs that ended in talons as long as swords.

She held her breath. Was this something the staff had conjured? She’d lived in this area all her life and had never once seen this beast.

Its head turned to where her sister lay.

No! she thought, horror turning her blood to ice. She hoped it couldn’t see a girl so small. Hoped it wouldn’t be interested.

A great flap of its wings sent another blast of wind that made her eyes water. Relief washed over her. It was leaving. But just as it lifted a couple feet from the ground one of its talons shot out and picked up Unatchi. Another thunderous flap and it took to the sky, turning around to fly off.

Unolé leaped up, racing after the beast. Her legs shook and her breath came out in raspy gasps. She was so tired from all this running. But her sister needed her. Pursuing the beast, she pushed her body to its limits, struggling to keep up. But the creature was too fast. Soon it was gone. She stumbled to a stop, breathing heavily. Her mind spun. The world was soon to follow. She lost her balance and dropped to her knees, gasping.

It had taken Unatchi. It had taken her sister. Was her sister . . . dead?

Her mind just couldn’t wrap around this. And so as she sat there, shaking, she noticed drifting from the sky four black feathers. They landed a few inches from where she knelt. Unolé reached over and picked them up. They were silky and nearly a foot in length.

She held them in her hand. And stared at them until the sun set.

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Part I


Zok


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Zok struggled to worm his way through the crowded tavern. The patrons were either too drunk or too excited to notice him, making his journey more difficult. Feet stomped, cheers sounded, beer was raised high into the lantern-lit air. Gold coins jingled as they passed from hand to hand. Bets taken, changed, and raised against the two brawlers in the fighting pit. From this vantage point Zok could not see them, but he could hear them all too well. Even over the din in the Arrowed Knee Tavern. Grunts, slaps, punches, howls of pain. And deep laughter. His friend, Sen, fighting again.

A small smile crept over Zok’s face as he pushed further in. It was a wonder anyone still challenged Sen to fight. If not from his appearance alone, certainly from his reputation as the undefeated brawler of the tavern. He normally didn’t come to see his friend fight. The temple certainly wouldn’t like it. But it wasn’t the first time he was in a gray area with his oath and he was sure it wouldn’t be the last.

Another push got him to the inner circle of spectators, and now he had a clear view of the fighting ring. There was a soft rub against his leg. He didn’t need to look down to know it was a red fox. Smiling, Zok gave the animal a scratch behind the ears. Happy to be noticed, the fox led him along the ring of people. He followed at a slower pace, dodging waving hands and spilling beer. His clothes were a bright, clean white. He wasn’t about to get them dirty here, of all places.

Looking up, he spotted the bright red and orange feathers tucked behind a pointed ear. “Jade.”

She turned and waved at him as her fox took his place again at her side. “Zok, glad you made it.”

“How is he doing?” he leaned against the metal railing alongside his friend. “There is a lot of anticipation for tonight.”

The Wild Elf smiled, lantern light gleaming in her dark green eyes. “It is never much of challenge for him.”

Zok turned his attention to the fighting. The ring was wooden, the floor stained with old blood and cracked from heavy falls. A man was there, shirtless and sweating. His fists were up to protect his face, which already had some bruising. The man was big, but who he faced down was bigger. Standing over seven feet tall of solid muscle covered in red scales, Sen the Dragonborn had a lazy grin over his lizard-like face. His heavy leather boots stomped around the ring as he dodged and struck, landing blows and deflecting others. Even when one of the smaller man’s fists managed to strike Sen in the gut, he didn’t seem to feel it.

The red fox stood up on his hind legs, resting his front two paws on the rail to mimic his owner, eagerly watching the combat. Jade absently pet the animal, an amused smile on her tan face as she watched the fight.

 The two danced back and forth in the ring, the Human more and more desperate while the Dragonborn sauntered after him. One punch, another, and then a third finally knocked the Human from his feet. He didn’t get back up, instead holding up a hand in surrender.

The crowd burst into cheers, the noise rattling the wooden walls of the tavern. Jade and Zok clapped, laughing at the way Sen strolled the ring. The Dragonborn shook his fists to the sky, flexing muscles. His deep voice boomed through the room as he shouted, “The next round is on me!”

Thunderous applause followed. The barkeep hopped over the rail and into the ring, holding a piece of paper. He cleared his throat to get the crowd to settle some before reading, “The Arrowed Knee Tavern would like to commemorate this day, the fifteenth of Morivaec, as the day Captain Sen won his hundredth fight over exactly one hundred days.” More cheering followed. “From this day forward, Sen drinks free!”

Over the crowd Sen roared, “Party on my ship tonight! Everyone is invited!”

It took several minutes for the tavern to clear out and fans to finish congratulating Sen. By the time Zok and Jade were able to make their way over there, the Dragonborn was lounging in a chair and putting all the gold rings back on his fingers. He adjusted the black bandana that was tied around his head, but other than his bright purple pants he was bare.

Seeing the two approach brought him to his feet. “Jade! Zok!” He scooped them both up in a hug with one arm, the other holding a massive tankard of rum. He sat them down and pet the fox that bounded around his legs. “Good to see you, too, little Foxy.”

“Congratulations,” Jade said.

“One hundred is an impressive feat,” Zok added. “Maybe you and I should spar one day. You could teach me some things, I’m sure.”

Sen gave a deep laugh. “I don’t think your little Half-Elven body could handle it, my friend, but I’m always up for embarrassing you.” He took a drink and then asked, “Are you two coming to the ship tonight? It will be a wild party.”

Jade chuckled. “Wild parties aren’t really my thing, but I’ll certainly be there to honor your victory over the sad brawlers here in Somberdale.”

The Dragonborn winked one eye. “I may have to find a new favorite port for some fresh blood in the fighting rings.”

Zok smiled. He knew Sen was jesting. Somberdale had a charm. A remote port village far to the northwest in the Korventine Empire, it drew little notice from the law while still being considered a safe harbor for families. Sen’s often illegal excursions at sea made it too risky to make port closer south towards the capital city. Zok found the temple here to be a welcome home. One where he could have peace and where his contributions went far. It had been a surprise, years ago, when he’d first come to Somberdale to see Jade here. He knew she was a nomad, and they’d crossed paths many years ago in the Elven town of Vesper. She was a good friend. The three of them had grown quite close in this small village.

They headed out of the tavern and into the night. The stars shone brilliantly over Somberdale. A pleasant wind blew Zok’s shoulder length brown hair from his face. Street lights illuminated the houses, shops, and roads that were some parts stone, some parts dirt. One tall tower rose up over the other buildings, the home of a local eccentric wizard. The ocean could be heard rushing on and off of the beaches. And against the night sky the masts of ships large and small swayed and creaked. A light blossomed on one ship in particular as the patrons of the tavern boarded for a long night of partying. Already a banjo was playing a lively tune.

The three headed down the central road of the town, Foxy trotting along beside Jade. Zok looked up at his large friend. “One hundred fights, Sen. That is truly something.”

“And many more on the high seas and in various tavern brawls,” the Dragonborn chucked. “What can I say? I’m like a barbarian.”

Zok knew the Dragonborn was deadly with his giant fists. But Sen was even more deadly with the weapon strapped to his back. A massive two-sided axe. It was never far from him. The edges were stained with old blood, the wood of the handle sturdy but weathered from life on the seas. Even in arms as powerful as Sen’s, it required two hands to wield.

Zok chose to use an iron hammer to defend himself. One that could be swung with both hands or one if he had his shield with him. He typically dressed in the formal armor of his order. All shining gold and white. But not tonight. Tonight was a celebration, one where he could shed his formality and be with his friends. But he still kept the hammer strapped to his back, and a dagger on his belt. Somberdale was considered safe, but the surrounding lands were not. Danger lurked in the expansive Doorway Mountains. Feral animals and creatures that preyed on unsuspecting travelers. There was also the danger of enemies coming in from the ocean. But despite carrying his weapons, despite usually wearing his armor, and despite training daily, Zok had never run into any danger inside the town.

Jade carried no weapons on her, but Zok knew she was never unarmed. She was a spellcaster. Her magic always took the form of nature and of the elements. She referred to herself as a Druid. He wasn’t entirely sure what that title entailed, but he knew she had other Druids she kept in contact with and they helped protect the wild lands.

Sen asked, “Would either of you two ever fight in the pit?”

Zok shook his head. “The temple wouldn’t allow it. Fighting for gold in a crowd of drunkards is not considered honorable.”

Sen waved a hand dismissively. “You and your honor. What about you, Jade?”

A smile spread across her face. “They couldn’t handle me.”

The Dragonborn gave a hearty laugh at this, patting her on the back more roughly than intended, making her stumble. But she laughed along with him as they walked.

Conversation quieted down. There was a moment of solitude, where they three were the only ones in the town center, before a man in a dark cloak could be seen further ahead, rushing in their direction. His form was small and hunched, and Zok did not pay much attention until the man drew closer, making it clear he was coming at them. Ragged breathing sounded as he scuttled up. Once he was within fifteen feet he shouted, “Help! Help!”

The three gave a start. “What’s wrong?” Zok asked, taking in the man’s elderly and lined face. A small silver beard was visible. He was thankful for his Half-Elf blood in times like this as it helped him see in the dark. He wasn’t thankful for it in any other aspect of his life. It wasn’t something easy to hide. He had pointed ears but a full brown beard. Elves couldn’t grow beards, and so the Human side of him was easily given away.

The old man regarded him with sharp eyes. “My son! My boy! He fell. Tripped in the dark. Couldn’t see where he was going.”

Zok stole a glance at his friends. Sen seemed interested, Jade seemed skeptical. Her face slightly scrunched in a frown, crinkling the red band tattoo that crossed from ear to ear.

“Where did he fall?” Zok asked.

The old man pointed to the well just off the street. “In there. I’m too old to climb down. Could you three help him?” His eyes darted over to Sen. “You’re big and strong.”

Zok touched the medallion he wore around his neck. A golden symbol of an eye. “The Temple of the Holy Dragon is happy to assist. We will get your son out shortly.”

The three jogged over to the well, looking down as the elderly man hung back. “I got this,” Sen stated, pulling a length of rope from his thick belt and tossing it over the side. One hand still holding his drink, the other tied the rope off against the well. He gestured with one massive hand towards Jade. “After you.”

Jade glanced over her shoulder at her animal. “Stay here, Foxy. We’ll be right up.” She gracefully moved over the side and slid down along the rope, her brown hair flowing out behind her.

Sen went next, making a great deal of noise as he climbed over the edge of the well and hopped onto the rope. Some rum splashed out of his glass and onto the Wild Elf below. Jade’s voice sounded up, “Sen! I’m still climbing.”

Zok looked back at the old man. “I could wait here with you?”

The man waved his hands frantically. “No, please go! Your friends may need your help.” His eyes flitted over Zok, taking in the formality of his clothing. “Paladin.”

Something didn’t feel quite right. But the Half-Elf couldn’t be sure what it was. Touching the symbol of his deity for guidance, he leaped over and onto the rope, making his way after his friends.

It was a long way down into darkness. The muscles in his arms tensed as Zok slowly lowered himself.  He immediately was suspicious. He should have hit water by now. But instead the rope kept going through air. He peered down with his darkvision. He could see a stone bottom.  Sen and Jade had just landed and were taking in the area. As he reached the end of the rope it dangled about ten feet from the ground. Zok landed lightly, his feet splashing in a few inches of water. Curious it wasn’t fuller. He had expected to be searching for a drowning boy. But if a child had fallen this distance, he would be seriously injured.

“What is this?” Jade asked, her voice echoing slightly.

The room was wide and square, the stonework damp. It was completely dark other than a ring of symbols in the center. They glowed with light, each a different color. Zok approached them cautiously. “I don’t understand the language.”

Jade knelt down, getting a better look. “It’s not a language. They are arcane symbols. Be careful, magic could-“

Sen jerked back from where he’d touched one of the symbols, a burst of electricity rippling over him. He roared with pain and then a slew of profanity came from his mouth, ending with, “Those are dangerous.”

Jade gave him a heavy frown. “You know I’m better with magic, Sen. Let me investigate things first.”

“You are a Druid,” the Dragonborn stated. “This is not a plant. Best way to tell what it does is touch it.”

The Wild Elf gave her friend a glare as she stood. “Your recklessness is going to be the death of you one day, pirate.”

Sen laughed. “I certainly hope so.”

Zok began to walk the length of the room. “I don’t understand. Why would magic be down here? What purpose-“ He broke off as the stone wall at the far end cracked, the noise echoing throughout the room. A gray hand emerged from the crack, then an arm, and then a full body. Rubble tumbled to the floor as a man made of stone tore itself free from the wall. Its body was badly damaged and cracked, and two blue lights shone in place of eyes. A golem controlled by magic.

“Alright, a fight!” Sen reached over his shoulder and unhooked his weapon. The heavy two-sided axe shone in the light from the arcane symbols. With a great roar he sprang forward, coming down towards the golem.

A stone hand struck out lightning fast. It caught Sen in his side and sent him flying into the wall. He hit roughly and fell to the ground with a splash. The golem then turned its head towards Zok and charged. From beneath his white cloak the Paladin unhooked his iron war hammer. He wished he had his armor on as he ducked under a swipe from the golem. He swiveled around and swung his hammer as hard and heavy as he could to its side. A crack splintered off from the impact, but that was it.

Zok only had a moment to see a stone fist coming towards his face before a green vine ripped free from the ground and caught its wrist. The golem struggled against the binding, and its head swiveled over to where the Druid stood, her hands outstretched from the spell she’d cast.

The golem grabbed the vine with its free hand and snapped it in half, then lunged at Jade. She spun out of the way, but the back of her foot caught one of the arcane symbols on the ground. She cried out as a burst of fire erupted, catching at her brown and green clothes. She dropped to the watery ground and rolled to put it out.

Zok ran up behind the golem and swung hard with his hammer again. His arm vibrated from the impact as his weapon struck. More cracks splintered along the golem’s body. Its hand reached behind at an impossible angle and grabbed hold of his tunic. Zok’s cry echoed through the room as he was pulled from his feet and tossed.

He hit the stone hard, the breath forced from his lungs and his hammer from his hand. He slid across one of the arcane symbols and burning cold spread across his shin. As he came to a stop, groaning from the pain, he looked down to see ice incasing his leg. Just as quickly as it came it melted away, leaving a lingering ache.

The golem loped towards him and then Jade ran in between, standing her ground as her hands filled with fire. She aimed her fists forward and the fire shot out in two bolts, hitting the enemy with enough force to stagger it to a stop.

With a great shout Sen rushed in from the side, hitting the golem with his shoulder. It was knocked from its feet, and one arm broke off as it landed roughly. The Dragonborn hefted his axe and came down with a heavy swing. The golem rolled out of the way, getting back to its feet in a smooth movement. It kicked out and caught Sen in the stomach. The Dragonborn wasn’t used to an opponent with so much strength behind its attacks. He braced himself to absorb the blow and instead was sent sliding back, barely keeping his footing.

Zok scrambled up, his clothes now heavy with chilly water. He ran the distance to pick up his hammer just as the golem was on him, its punch aiming for his head. He deflected the blow with his weapon, grunting from the effort. The impact reverberated in the room.

Zok then twisted around and swung his hammer at the golem’s midsection. He hit, more cracks spiderwebbing through its body. A stone elbow came at his head and the Half-Elf jumped backwards, barely avoiding the blow. The golem then turned on him again, the cold fire in its eyes staring him down.

With a thunderous shout Sen leaped through the air, enormous axe held high overhead. Zok had barely enough time to jump out of the way as the Dragonborn crashed down on the golem, his axe splitting it completely in two.

There was a pause as the two halves stood on their own. And then they fell to the floor, crumpling in a pile of rubble. The head fell with a splash and the lights in its eyes went out.

The echoes died down to silence as the three regarded the broken stone man. The arcane symbols on the floor flickered and then faded out, plunging them into darkness.

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Jade

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“There is no child in here,” Jade said angrily, looking about in the dark. Zok did a final search of the room, his white cloak trailing out behind him.

Jade approached the golem and knelt down beside it. Now that she had a closer look she could tell it was shoddily made. Or being sealed under the well had damaged its structure. Whichever the case, it hadn’t been a golem at full strength. There were no runes on it to give details of the enchantment. No markings from the maker, either.

The Druid sighed. “There are no clues on this golem to tell us why it was down here.”

“I don’t understand,” Zok muttered. “If there is no child, why would that man send us down here?”

“Let’s find out,” Jade turned to the Dragonborn who patiently waited against the wall, unable to see without a light source. “I’ll help you, Sen.”

She grabbed her friend’s huge arm, leading him over to the rope. She made sure to hand him the drink he’d sat down as well and he climbed up with one arm. She and Zok shared a worried look. It didn’t make any sense. She’d used water from this well only this morning. It couldn’t have gone dry within a day. And who would have put a golem underneath Somberdale? Unless it was from ages past, she couldn’t see any logic behind it.

The three climbed out of the well, fresh air hitting their faces. The elderly man still stood where they’d left him, but this time the fear was gone from his face. He stood tall with a wide smile, his arms crossed.

That was enough to set Jade off. “What in the Hells?! Was that some kind of joke to you? We could have been killed.”

“It was all in good fun,” the man chuckled. “I knew three capable warriors like you could handle it.”

“Then what was the purpose?” Zok demanded, the night breeze ruffling his hair. “Who are you? I’ve never seen you here before.”

The man’s smile widened. “I’m sure you’ll see me again.” He drew a symbol in the air with his fingers and whispered the words of a spell, then vanished.

Jade growled in frustration.

“You know,” Sen said thoughtfully, taking a sip of rum. “I used to have an uncle. A grouchy old Dragonborn named Jenkins. He liked to play pranks on the younger generations, usually involving some level of danger to see who was the strongest of our bloodline. Kinda barbaric, you know? Never sat well with the rest of the family. He died a very unpopular guy. This old man reminded me of Jenkins.”

“So you think he was just a prankster?” Zok questioned. “Just a traveler looking to entertain himself at the cost of others’ pain?”

Sen shrugged one massive shoulder. “Some people are just like that. Let’s go party now.”

Jade gave her friend a smile. Ever the optimist. The party would be a good distraction from what happened. Still, something did not feel right. She had been alive a long time, and had encountered many people across Corventos. Most who engaged in such acts were harmless. Just looking for a quick laugh. But others were much, much worse.

Zok nodded. “I’ll be right behind you. I’m going to inform the temple about what has happened to the well. Perhaps some of our more powerful spellcasters can fix it.”

Jade felt a pang in her chest at that sentence. There was a time she could have fixed it. But that was long ago, now. She wasn’t as powerful as she used to be.

They spent most of the night on Sen’s ship, the Scarlet Maiden, enjoying frivolities with the crew and some residents of Somberdale. It wasn’t until many hours later that one of the Clerics from the Temple of the Holy Dragon approached them and said the well had been investigated. But it was found to be full of water, with no golem and no magic inside.

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Morning sunlight awoke Jade, coming through the trees. She opened her green eyes, gazing up at a maze of branches and leaves. She could see the tips of some leaves turning red and orange. It was halfway through the month of Morivaec, the first month of autumn. She knew further south in Corventos the trees would be showing more. She remembered fondly the southern edges of the Firelit Forest during autumn. She and her Druid master Galen would walk among the trees and feel their spirits settling in for a winter slumber.

It was her favorite season. She knew many Druids preferred the spring. Life awakening again in every plant, animals coming out to frolic in the greenery and sunlight. But she liked the relaxed feeling of the autumn months. The sunset of nature before a cold night of winter. It was only fitting that the first day of Morivaec held the Festival of the Tamer and Dusk. Elven gods of nature celebrated in a month named in honor of the Elves. Jade worshipped these two gods in everything she did. She felt her Druid magic, at its core, was a worship of them.

She sat up from the bed of grass she’d slept on. She preferred to sleep outside rather than in a tavern. Not only did it make her feel closer to nature, but it was also simply something she was used to. She grew up in a nomadic tribe of Wild Elves. Sleeping on the ground felt natural to her.

Foxy stretched, coming out of her lap. She stroked him and stood up, heading over to a creek. Its water trickled over smooth gray stones. Jade cupped some of the cold water in her hands and washed off her face. Her fox drank beside her, fur shining an illustrious red in the morning light.

She took some time to pray to her two gods before getting ready to go into Somberdale. She put small braids into her chest-length brown hair. Brown boots were pulled on, outer layers of her clothes attached, and her red and orange feathers tucked behind one pointed ear.

Satisfied, Jade and Foxy made their way towards Somberdale. It was only a twenty minute walk. She heard the noises of the village before she crossed into its border. Residents went about their daily business, and ships came and left from the docks. Snacking on a breakfast of fruits from her pack, the Wild Elf made her way towards the beach. She needed to gather more ingredients for her healing balms. Magic was certainly useful for sealing up wounds, but nothing could replace the usefulness of plants for long-term healing. It was also a good way for her to make money. She tried to live as coin-free as possible. There simply wasn’t much use in gold for a person who lived off the land. But, needs still arose and so some form of income was always necessary. It was a side business she had done for many, many years.

The ocean was aquamarine in the morning light as Jade made her way onto the beach. The area she ventured to was mostly empty. A family with a few children played in the waves. Much further down she could see the busy docks with their workers and stalls. And out on the Millennium Sea fishing vessels bobbed with the waves, catching lobster and shrimp that would be sold along the wharf later.  Jade searched the sand, looking for a specific kind of seaweed that would wash up. She was so caught up in her concentration that a male voice had to repeat the word “Miss?” a few times before she turned around.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Jade apologized, taking in a young Human that was dressed in the garb of the tavern employees. “I wasn’t paying attention. Can I help you?”

He held out a letter that fluttered in the ocean breeze. “You’ve got a guest at the Arrowed Knee Tavern wishing to speak to you. He paid me to deliver the message to you.”

Jade took it with a frown. “Thanks.” The young man lingered, looking at her expectantly. She passed him a gold coin and he took it with a smile, heading off. That irritated her. She didn’t understand the concept of tipping. The materialistic ways of urban life could even worm their way into a town as small as Somberdale, it seemed. Opening the letter, she read:

Jade,

It’s been too long since we’ve chatted. I find myself in Somberdale and would enjoy catching up with you. Please meet me at the Arrowed Knee Tavern at your earliest convenience today. I will wait for you.

Sincerely,

Therond

A smile broke across her face. Tucking the letter into her bag, she and Foxy left the beach and quickly headed for the tavern. The name Therond warmed her heart. It had been over a decade since she’d last seen him. She missed their conversations. She barely took in the beauty of Somberdale as she passed back through, mist lifting off the mountains that bordered the town. She wound her way down the cobblestone streets, passing under the shadows of trees that clustered at each corner. The market had just opened, stalls selling all kinds of fish, brightly colored fruits, bandanas, and shell jewelry. After another turn she came upon the Arrowed Knee Tavern, its outer white paint peeling in the wind and the sun. She headed inside. 

It was much darker inside the tavern, but open windows allowed shafts of sunlight to fall in like waterfalls and create pools on the floor. Her eyes scanned the mostly empty space until they found the blond High Elf at a table in the corner. He raised his hand in greeting, smiling.

Jade crossed the space to him, her brown boots making barely any noise on the wooden floor. She sat down at the table, and her fox curled up underneath the chair. “Therond! It’s been far too long.”

“It is so good to see you,” he grinned. “This is rather far west for you to be living now, isn’t it? I thought you preferred Eleste.”

She chuckled. “Well, it’s a port town. I thought I would spend some time getting to know new people. What brings you to the coast? Surely it’s not just to see me.”

His blue eyes twinkled at that. Though Therond was two hundred years her senior, his face still held the smoothness of youth that all Elves were blessed with. Even Elves towards the end of their lives barely showed their age. The hair only lost its color, and some of the agility and grace with which the Elves moved slowed. His longer blond hair had traditional braids weaved through it. And his clothes, while functional for traveling, still had all the splendor and fine quality of a High Elf from Eleste’si.

Therond answered, “Part of it is to visit my old friend, of course.”

Jade raised a brown eyebrow. “The rest is business for the Queen?”

“It is. Which I’m sure you’re not interested in.”

“I am not. But do tell, how is her all-mighty Highness?”

Therond couldn’t maintain the disapproving frown he was trying for, amusement cracked through into a small smile. “She is fine. But you did hear that the King passed away, correct?”

“Oh.” Some shame from her attitude clenched her stomach. “I did not. How long ago?”

“About fifteen years now, I believe.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. What happened?”

“His age just caught up with him. He died peacefully in his sleep.”

Jade sighed heavily. “Well, I’m sure he will be missed.”

He glanced her over. “Are you still going by Galanodel or should I refer to you as Jade Moontide around here?”

A small smile passed her lips. “This far out it is safe for me to introduce myself as Jade Galanodel. However, I try to remain on a first name basis with as many as possible. I know what family name I choose in my heart. That is all that matters.”

“Certainly.”

 “How was your trip west? That is quite the distance to travel.”

“Fairly uneventful until I arrived in the Doorway Mountains.” He made a gesture to the windows, indicating the mountain range outside. “I got attacked by goblins in the middle of the night. I don’t pride myself on my fighting capabilities, but I was able to defend my life and my belongings until they scattered. They did steal one pack, unfortunately.”

“Ugh, goblins are disgusting. What did they steal?”

“The pack didn’t contain anything important in it. Extra gear for traveling, a change of shirt. But during the fight one did manage to take my ring off.” He rubbed the finger where it had been. “That was difficult to lose. Not only was it of familial value, it was highly magical.”

“It was enchanted?” Jade did not know this about her friend. “What did it do?”

“It had anti-divination magic. It prevented me from being the target of a scrying spell. As someone who does many errands for the Queen, it’s been irreplaceable as a means of secrecy.”

“I could get it back for you,” she offered, leaning forward. “I’ve traveled all over that range. To make income while here in Somberdale I’ve been acting as a guide for travelers across the Doorway Mountains. If you could give me the general location I’m sure I could track it down.” She reached into her pack and pulled out a map. It was a bit wrinkled and the edges were torn from use, but the ink still held clear and black as she spread it over the table. It was a map of all of the Korventine Empire, the Eleste Highlands and Lowlands, the Southern Kingdoms, and the Iron Gauntlet.  Many of the places she’d travelled. Other details had been acquired through research.

Therond smiled, his blue eyes gazing over it. “Still making maps, I see. Beautiful craftsmanship.”

Her eyes meet his. “Somebody has to help educate all the generations of Humans, Dragonborn and Half-Elves what the world looks like. They certainly don’t live as long as the rest of us. Maybe one day I’ll be able to travel the rest of Corventos and verify my information.”

His finger traveled over the lines of the Doorway Mountains until he stopped at a location. “It was around here.”

Jade brought her own finger up, tapping on the area. “That is less than a day’s journey. I know there is a cavern system in that area, that is probably where the goblins went.” Her finger looked so dark next to his pale skin. She was a Wild Elf, her race known for living close to nature, brown of skin and hair. But he was a High Elf, living in the luxury of the Elven capital city, Eleste’si. Pale skin, blond hair, and blue eyes marked his kind. Despite everything the Elves had in common: their beauty, their dexterity, and their long lives, they were a deeply divided group. When Jade had lived in Eleste’si, it hadn’t always been easy. The city was dominated by High Elves and she wasn’t always welcome. She’d heard that far underneath the city the malevolent Dark Elves lived, often creeping out at night to kidnap citizens who would never be seen again. Slavers and torturers that dwelled in the lightless tunnels of the Deep Hollows, performing vile rituals to their spider goddess.

Therond had always been kind to her, however. This line of thought made her offer a sad sigh. “I do miss your friendship. I wish I could go back to Eleste’si. But I can’t. Not just because of what happened while I was there, but it’s too hard now. The memories are still too fresh.”

“I understand. I don’t think you should go back, either.”

They both sat back as the map curled in on itself.  There was a moment of silence. Then she said, “Somberdale is a nice place, truly. I don’t know if I’ll stay here for too much longer, though. If this place does not provide answers, I will have to move on.”

“Answers to the visions you’ve had?” His tone was serious. Her family had dismissed her concerns. But Therond had taken them seriously.

“Yes,” she replied. “I feel that time is running out. But the trade of information here is good with all the ships coming to and from the port. I’m remaining hopeful that one day the answers I need will reveal themselves.”

“I certainly wish I could help. I will remain alert, as I always do. Keep my network open. If I hear of anything related to your visions, I will find a way to get in contact with you.”

“Your network? I forget how fancy you are, Therond.”

His eyes twinkled in amusement. “Well, perhaps that was an ambitious promise. The Greycastles of An’Ock are forthcoming. But the Dwarves of De Behl Marr are less communicative. And the gods only know what it would take to get the Citadel to divulge any secrets. I always will try, though.”

“Thank you, my friend.”

“Of course. I appreciate you going after my ring. Will you go alone? Surely a wanderer like yourself has some brave and noble adventurers to take with you.” He smiled.

Jade grinned back. “I don’t know about those adjectives. But I do know two I can convince to help.”

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The mountain peaks were all too familiar to Jade as she led Zok and Sen along the difficult terrain. Foxy bounded ahead of her, happy to be out in the wild. She smiled at the red animal as his bushy tail twirled with each leap. She’d gotten the fox not too long ago in the Firelit Forest. She’d found him as a baby in a hunter’s trap. After freeing the fox she’d dispatched of the hunter. It wasn’t her proudest moment, but it was a dark time in her life. One she hoped to never revisit again.

She glanced back at her friends. “The sun is setting soon; we can make camp and enter the caverns in the morning.”

The two certainly didn’t move quietly. Sen lumbered through every weed and bush, carrying a bottle of rum at his side. Zok had his full Paladin armor on, the white and gold sparkling in the lowering sun. It clanked with his movements and made him shine like a beacon in this world of greens and browns.

Well, at least they were good fighters.

“You blend into your surroundings,” Sen said to Jade. “Don’t go too far ahead or we might never find you again.”

She laughed. Her clothes were the colors of the forest, and the beads that were woven into her braids and on her clothes were the colors of autumn. She’d always felt a special connection with nature. The Elven gods of the wild had blessed her with a unique relationship to the world around her. It was what led her to pursue training as a Druid. A spellcaster who specialized in nature, animals, and the elements. The three of them certainly made an interesting adventuring group. Her with her magic, Sen with his axe and fists, and Zok who was a warrior for the Temple of the Holy Dragon, the god he worshipped. Jade didn’t know much about the order other than the inductees had to take an oath to do good. She didn’t like rigid structure and routine. That life could never have been for her.

They hiked for another half hour before Jade found a good spot to make camp. It wasn’t far from where she knew the caverns were, but it still offered protection. Trees grew thick in the area, and the ground was even and soft. They ate some food they’d brought along, breads, hard cheeses, and jerky. They didn’t light a campfire so they could keep their location hidden.

“Who is this Therond, again?” Sen asked, tearing into his meat with sharp teeth.

“And old friend,” she replied. “An old friend I met on my many travels. He’s helped me in the past, so I think it’s only right I return the favor.”

“You’ve been far more places than I have,” Sen stated. “How old are you, anyway? Don’t Elves live like thousands of years?”

She chuckled. “We don’t live over a thousand, typically. I myself am 406 years of age.”

Sen spit out the meat he was chewing. “Incredible! And you’ve spent that whole time traveling?”

“Most of it. I grew up in a nomadic tribe. I’ve stayed in different cities for a few decades. But the wild calls to me.” She glanced out into the darkness of the mountains. “To be among the trees is to be at peace.” She looked over at Zok. He stared at his hands, his blue eyes far away. “Are you alright, Zok? You’ve been really quiet.”

He blinked, his attention returning to the moment. “I am fine. Just tired today.”

“Well,” she said, “I do appreciate you both coming to help me. And I know Therond will be grateful to get his ring back.”

Sen clenched one hand into a fist, punching it into his other open palm. “You never have to ask me twice for a rumble! Someone my size against goblins hardly seems fair, maybe I’ll fight them with only one hand.”

A smile did pull at Zok’s somber face then. “One goblin is never a threat. That’s why they travel in groups. So they can overwhelm and out-maneuver with their numbers. That being said, I still would like to see you fight with one hand.”

The Dragonborn laughed. “Clearly I’ve never told you of the time my crew clashed with some other pirates at sea. They came upon us in the middle of a party. I fought the entire time with a tankard of rum in one hand.”

They listened to Sen’s tale as the night grew deeper. And eventually it was time to rest. They slept in bedrolls on the ground. Jade loved sleeping in the forest. The smell of bark, the sound of leaves, the life of insects and animals hummed around her. Foxy curled up against her torso, her arm draped over him. She knew Sen preferred the sway of his ship and Zok a bed, but the hike had been long and strenuous and the three fell asleep quickly.

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Hushed whispering awoke Jade. She couldn’t quite make out what words were spoken. She stirred, eyes blinking open in dawn light. The sun hadn’t risen yet, but color slowly seeped back into a world of grays.

She turned her head towards the noise, Foxy’s fur soft against her neck. Movement was beside Sen. Two small figures going through his pack. Goblins? No, they were too petite. Just as she began to lift a hand to wake her friends up, Sen’s yellow eyes snapped open and his fist swung across his body, punching one of the small forms in the face. There was a high-pitched yelp of pain and the two fell back, crying and cowering.

“How dare you go through my things!” Sen roared, getting to his feet.

Zok started awake at this, sitting up quickly with his hair at crazy angles. “Wha-?”

Jade scrambled to her feet, holding her hands up to cast any spell necessary. But then she got a good look at the intruders. It appeared Sen did as well, for his demeanor immediately shrunk, his fists falling to his side.

Two Halflings cowered upon the grass. Standing only three feet tall and dressed in simple clothes, they stared up at the big pirate in horror. One held a hand to his nose where blood trickled out. “We’re sorry! We were only looking for weapons.”

A look of disbelief crossed Sen’s face. “You thought you could possibly use a weapon meant for me?” He gestured to his muscular arms.

Jade sighed, stepping up next to her friend. As the sun broke the horizon, she could see the Halflings had short blond hair and dirty clothes. Their ears were pointed but were short and wide, not long and narrow like hers were.

They said, “We figured between the two of us we could wield one of your weapons. We’re sorry! We just need to rescue our friends.”

“Rescue them from what?” Jade asked.

“Goblins,” one spoke. “We were crossing the mountains yesterday and were attacked. They took three of our friends. We got away.”

Jade turned back towards Zok as he got to his feet. They exchanged concerned looks. Goblins were always dangerous to unskilled warriors and unsuspecting travelers, but kidnapping people? She’d never heard of that before. Unless they had developed a taste for Halfling flesh.

“You’re in luck,” Sen said. “The three of us are going goblin hunting today. You can come along if you can hold your own.”

The one that had the bloody noise sniffled. “I’m in a lot of pain.”

Jade knelt in front of him. “I can help with that. Move your hand.” As he did, he revealed a severely broken nose. She sighed. “Sen.”

The Dragonborn shrugged. “I hit first and ask questions later.”

Jade held her hand in front of the Halfling’s face and closed her eyes. She hadn’t done healing magic in a long time. At first she worried it had been too long. That it was yet another thing she’d lost. But as she opened her mind, listened to the sounds of the forest around her, she felt magic spark inside her. Like the start of a fire, the crash of a wave, or the call of a hawk.

She whispered her spell in Elvish, “Naturātā cho ë gan’etu cho.” And the wound closed up, the nose righting itself again.

“Incredible!” the other Halfling gasped.

The one she’d healed felt his nose and then exclaimed, “Thank you! Thank you! We’re sorry we tried to steal from all of you.”

Jade stood with a smile. “Ask for help first. There are still some good people left in this world.” She turned to her two friends. “Let’s go rescue the others.”

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Taliesin

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The Deep Hollows were not a safe place to travel. Far from the borders of Berenzia now, Taliesin knew he was alone. When – not if – he ran into danger there would be no one to help. But with each passing step through the dark and twisting tunnels, his confidence grew. He could handle himself. After what happened a year ago, it’s not like the other Dark Elves would help him, anyway. He could have lain out in the middle of the city, bleeding, and no one would have given him a second glance.

It’ll all be different soon, he thought. Once I’m successful I can come back and return to my place in society.

He knew he would be successful on his quest. He had to be. There was no other alternative. How could he return empty-handed after running off in the middle of the night? There would not be forgiveness. He stole a glance over his shoulder. Four hours had passed since he’d snuck out of his home. He needed to put as much distance between himself and the city as possible. He didn’t want to run into any other Dark Elves that he knew.

But he knew better than to move quickly through the Deep Hollows. Stealth was his friend here. His clothes were nearly entirely black, helping to hide him in the lightless underground tunnels. He did not need light. Yellow eyes flicked back and forth to keep constant vigil.

The tunnels went up and down, branched off, narrowed and widened. An interlocking network of roads. He passed only one sign, pointing to his right for Balum Guar. A city of Dark Dwarves. This intersection was worn from trade traffic.

Move fast, move fast, he encouraged himself. Trailing a gloved hand along the wall, he scurried forward. He hoped it was too early for trade traffic. That the businesses which catered to those traversing the tunnels were not yet open. If he hurried, he could-

“Wanna buy something?”

A surprised cry escaped him and he staggered back. A small Gnome had set up shop in an alcove, shaved bald with skin that was a dark blue. Enormous eyes stared up at him, approachable, but the axes on his belt served as a deterrent for thieves and trouble makers.

The Dark Gnome chuckled. “Sorry to startle you, little Dark Elf. Whatcha doin’ so far from the city?”

Taliesin hadn’t realized he’d brought his hand over his pounding heart until he could feel its beat through the silver scale breastplate he wore. He dropped his hand to his hip, fixing the man with a frown. “’Little’ is a rich adjective coming from you, Gnome.”

The Gnome grinned. “Fair enough. But I know a baby Elf when I see one. I didn’t expect anyone to be out on the trade routes this early, but I got most of m’shop out. Where ya headed? Some of this stuff could be useful.” He waved his hand over the small table he had sat before him with wares.

Taliesin took offense to that statement. He was ninety-eight years old, which was considered the edge of adulthood for Dark Elves. Though he knew Gnomes lived long lives, as well. The two-foot tall man before him was probably a few hundred years his senior. He dropped his gaze to the table. Rope, food, empty vials, a few old knives, some bandages. He had packed fairly well for his journey, he was certain. But a basket of fresh fruit caught his eye. “Where did you get this fruit? The Surface?”

The Gnome drew himself up proudly. “I stole it myself. For the effort and puttin’ meself in danger, they are a gold coin a piece.”

Taliesin had no idea if that was a fair price or not. But he had enough money with him. Fetching a coin from his bag he placed it on the table with a clink. “Sure, I’ll take one.”

The Gnome’s long grin revealed pointed and dirty teeth. “Pleasure doin’ business with you, mister Dark Elf.” He tossed the small, yellow fruit over. “Nothin’ else for your journey? Where you goin’ all alone?”

Taliesin fixed him with a disapproving look. “Mind your own business, little Gnome.” He turned and headed onward. But the Gnome’s words did shake his resolution slightly. He was all alone, after all. This was dangerous in the Deep Hollows, and even more dangerous for his destination. The Surface. A place any Dark Elf would be mad to venture except for a few hours for business, to steal items, or capture people for enslavement. But none of those were his purpose. And he would be gone much longer than a few hours.

He truly didn’t know much about the Surface. Only what he’d read in books and had been taught in school. He knew, in this region of the Deep Hollows, there was only one exit that led above ground. Supposedly it led out into a city called Eleste’si.  A place full of High Elves. He had seen plenty of this race before as slaves in Berenzia. His mother and the priestesses of his city always stated that the Dark Elves were a superior race. The other races of the Deep Hollows, Dark Dwarves and Gnomes, were tolerable. But even worse were the races of the Surface. Most especially Humans, Half-Elves, Wild Elves, and High Elves. He would need to be careful on the Surface. It was best to stay out of sight.

He ate the fruit as he walked, and it was delicious. He was sure he’d tire of the hard, dry rations he’d brought along for his travels. Any chance to eat something with more flavor would be worth it. A couple more hours passed as he wandered the caverns. He consulted the map he’d brought along a few times. He’d never been to the Surface before, let alone this far from Berenzia. Getting lost in the Deep Hollows meant certain death. Things lived down here that dropped from the ceiling on their victims, that ate minds, that could snuff out magic with a single glance.

As his thoughts wandered to his family, wondering how long before his parents and his sister realized he was actually gone, he heard scuffling up ahead. Taliesin slowed his pace, his black cloak lined with white trailing out behind him. He pressed himself against the rough rock wall and crept forward. The sounds got louder. Animal growling, snapping. The noise of steel. A cry of pain.

He moved faster up to an outcropping. Peering around, he saw four large, hairy animals attacking one prey that they had backed into a corner. The animals moved on four legs, but seemed able to use their front two paws for slashing as well. Their snouts were short and they were covered in a grayish fur. His gaze moved to their victim. It was hard to see through the beasts but he could make out a mass of wild, fiery hair, brown leather, and two flashing swords. There was another cry of pain from the prey.

I’d better help out, he thought. A thrill of excitement went through him. It had been awhile since anyone had needed his healing magic.

Taliesin spun around the outcropping and fired a silver bolt of magic from his hand. It pierced through the back of one animal’s head, dropping it instantly. He shot another one but this time the animals were aware of him. His target dodged and sprang onto him, knocking him back. There was a flare of pain as claws dug into his shoulder. He reached up and grabbed the beast’s neck, keeping its teeth from his face. He could feel the matted fur and straining muscles against his exposed fingertips. Necrotic magic flared from his hand and the animal cried out, blood seeping from its nose, mouth, and ears. It dropped over, dead.

Pushing the heavy body off of him he saw the distraction had given the prey an opening. Dual swords flashed through the air and killed the last animals. He then locked eyes with their victim. A female Dark Dwarf, with a very thick beard. She was bleeding profusely from various bites and scratches on her. The fire in her green eyes dulled and she slumped backwards.

Taliesin sprang to his feet and ran over to her. Dropping to his knees again, he said, “Hold on, hold on. I can help.” He grabbed her arm and muttered his healing spell. “Moza di dziakuj bainha dabro zakalu razam”. The magic flowed through him, like a river. His other hand grasped his medallion. A chain hooked to a spider made of silver. The symbol of his deity. Closing his eyes momentarily helped him concentrate on maintaining the spell. As it neared completion he opened them again, looking at his handiwork. The wounds were closing up. The last words came from his lips and he sat back, sighing in relief. “There you go. No problem at all.”

The Dark Dwarf sat up straight, looking over her body, eyes wide in amazement. He took a moment to study her. Her skin was a deep, charcoal gray like his, but hers also had a strong bluish tint to it. Characteristic of the Dwarves that lived in the Deep Hollows. They were also known for their red hair, but hers was more colorful than usual. Bloody red, to flame orange, to an ashy gray, and then to white at the ends. Braids weaved through it and her beard. Her clothes were made for hard travel. And curiously there was a huge wooden barrel strapped to her back.

“You’re welcome,” Taliesin prompted.

She looked over at him. “Thank you. I mean, I had it under control. But the healing is appreciated.” Her Dwarvish accent was thick.

He smiled, tucking some longer strands of white hair behind his ear. “I am a good healer.”

She stood up and sheathed her swords. “Well, you saved my life. My honor decrees I must repay you. So . . .” she crossed her arms. “What do you want?”

Taliesin stood as well, dusting off his black pants. “It’s fine. I don’t need anything. Just wanted to help.”

She frowned. “I gotta do something for you. To return the act in kind.”

“Like what? Like you save my life?” He laughed.

“You watch your attitude, Dark Elf,” she warned. “I am good with my blades. I can guard you to your next destination. We’re in wild Deep Hollow territory, here.  It’s dangerous.”

“Well . . .” He hesitated, glancing her over. “I could use the help. I’m heading to the Surface on a research mission. I don’t know how long it will take, but I need answers before I return here. Help me on my research until your debt is repaid.”

Her face set into a deep scowl. “The Surface? I’ve never been up there before. Our kind isn’t welcome, you know. “

He winked. “Which is why I’ll need your protection.”

She gave a heavy, drawn out sigh. “Fine. Just until I save your life. Which I’m sure won’t be long. I mean, look at you. You’re so skinny.”

“You’re welcome, again, for healing your numerous and deadly wounds.”

She regarded him in exasperation. Then held out a gloved hand. “My name is Ruuda Drybarrel.”

He took it. “I am Taliesin Ostoroth.” They shook.

“So, Taliesin, do you know where to go from here?”

He pulled out the map and double-checked his path. “I do. Let’s keep moving.”

They walked in silence for a while, both of them nearly soundless through the caverns. Taliesin found his spirits lifted by the company. She could help take notes on his research while he focused on the bigger picture. Powerful Dark Elf Houses, like his family’s, kept slaves to do basic and routine tasks. Slaves that were captured during raids to the Surface. Taliesin had been too young to participate in these raids. And once he got old enough, well, that’s when everything fell apart. It was good to have someone serve him. It was almost like being back home.

“So, why are you going to the Surface?” Ruuda asked.

“Have you noticed the spiders have disappeared?”

She gave him an incredulous look. “No . . . I haven’t . . .”

“They’re gone. They have been for nearly a year now. At least, that’s when I started noticing. No searching or research here in the Deep Hollows has provided any answers. So I’m heading to the Surface to see if the spiders are gone there, too.”

“And why do you care about the spiders?”

“They have religious significance to us.”

“Strange. We’ll have to be careful up there. We are not well-liked. At least, that’s what I’ve heard.”

He bit his lower lip with a sly smile. “It is probably because we make slaves of their people.”

Ruuda chuckled. “You Dark Elves and your power systems. We Dwarves don’t rely on slaves for menial tasks. We build things with our own two hands.” To illustrate she clenched her fists, the leather of her gloves crinkling. “The Dwarves that disappoint are the ones who must suffer.”

“We, too, punish Elves that get out of line. Sometimes their crimes are so severe they get sacrificed to our goddess.” He paused. The conversation made him uncomfortable. “Why are you carrying a barrel?”

“Don’t ask about it. It’s personal.”

“Is it full of wine?”

“It’s empty and never wine. Only beer.”

He scrunched up his nose at that.

“Ay, don’t make that face! My family brews the best beer you’ve ever tasted.”

“Do you have some with you to try?”

Her gaze dropped. “Maybe later.”

Silence enveloped them again as they traveled the rest of the day. It didn’t take long for Taliesin to realize Ruuda was an excellent navigator. She used his map, expertly guided them over the terrain, and had sharp ears for creatures in the area. Often they had to sneak past a tunnel where she was sure something lived. A couple times Taliesin caught the movement of shapes, things with arms that were too long, things with tentacles, things with too many eyes. Ruuda was also good at checking the ground for tracks or fresh blood. This helped them avoid anything dangerous they came across.

As the hours dragged on Taliesin could feel weariness pulling at his body. It was time to rest. “I think we should sleep and start again tomorrow. It’s been a long day.”

She nodded, rolling up the map. “We’ve got to find somewhere we’re not too exposed.”

They searched for thirty minutes, wandering the tunnels for some form of shelter. At last they found an alcove that went a foot deep into the wall and then made a sharp turn, going in another few feet. It was small and cramped, but it was out of sight. Ruuda gestured to it proudly.

“What in the Hells is that?” Taliesin demanded, arms crossed. “There is not enough room to lie down.”

“No. We’ll have to sleep sitting up.”

He eyed the alcove uneasily. It looked incredibly uncomfortable. “I suppose I can endure one night of this. For safety.”

“By all means,” she waved her hand towards the open tunnel, “you’re welcome to sleep out there like a buffet. It’ll help repay my debt faster if you’re dead in the morning.”

He glowered at her and marched past into the recess, keeping his head low to avoid the rocks. He sat his pack to the side and propped his blanket up to cushion him as best as possible. Then he slowly sat down, wiggling himself into a curled position in the corner.

Ruuda allowed him to get comfortable before she squeezed in as well. He watched as she unstrapped her barrel, opened the lid, and pulled a bedroll from it. She made her corner comfortable as well and sat her swords across her lap. Her eyes closed for a moment, settling in, before looking at him. “Not so bad, is it?”

Well, he felt his personal bubble had undoubtedly been breached. Their feet pressed against each other’s, and her shoulder was a mere foot from his. But that wasn’t what had caught his attention the most. “You keep a bedroll in your barrel?”

A momentary look of panic passed over her face before she quickly got it under control. “I enjoy camping. So yes, I always keep one with me.”

He didn’t believe her. She was leaving. Where and why were a mystery, but having that bit of information satisfied him for the present. “You’re from Balum Guar, I presume?”

“Aye. And my guess is you’re from Berenzia?”

“Yes.”

“Never been there,” she settled back more snuggly into the wall.

“My mother runs a trading business,” he said conversationally. “Your city is a major point of trade for us. I hear its name quite a bit. Jewels, ore, metal for our weapons.”

“If your kind would drink beer our families could have traded.” Her tone was sarcastic, but a real smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.

After a moment of quiet he asked, “Should we take turns keeping watch?”

She shook her head, her eyes drifting shut. “We are out of sight. Unless something that can smell really well passes by.”

That thought did not comfort Taliesin. But his legs were sore and his stamina was low from walking all day long. And so despite the cramped and rocky sleeping quarters, he quickly drifted off.

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Pressure on his legs woke Taliesin. A heavy weight on his thighs and shins. He was disoriented. A hard surface dug into his back, and his joints were stiff and sore from sleeping in one position for too long. The smell hit him next. Rotted meat, sewage, filth.

He gagged, waking completely with a start. His yellow eyes flew open, looking to the source of the pressure.

It was an enormous rat. Its long, bulging body covered the entire length of his legs, sharp claws digging in. A pale tail draped heavily on the rock floor. Red eyes stared up at him, an open mouth revealing sharp, stained teeth.

And it wasn’t alone. Two more were behind it, creeping up silently. A fourth climbed over Ruuda’s barrel in an attempt to get to her.

“Ruuda!” Taliesin shouted, just as the rat on his legs made a bite for his stomach. Teeth scraped against scale-mail, not having enough force to penetrate the armor. It then went for the bit of exposed flesh it could find: his throat. His hands flailed out and managed to catch it in midair, the immense weight behind the bloated creature straining his forearms.

Ruuda cried out as she awoke, grabbing a sword and swinging it wide. The small space made this difficult, and the blade sliced across the walls before sinking into the side of the creature atop her barrel. It screeched as she wrenched the blade free, flinging its dead body to the ground with a wet thump.

The giant rat in Taliesin’s hands made a swipe for his face, coming up short. Hot anger flared in him and he focused his energy. His hands hummed with necrotic power that pulsed into the creature. It shrieked and blood dripped from its mouth, nose, and ears. Then it went limp.

The Dark Dwarf got to her feet, scooping up her second sword. She brought both down in an arc, cutting a rat into three pieces as it attempted to race past her. The final made a jump for her head, its screech splitting the air and echoing off the tunnel walls.

Taliesin’s hand shot out. The magic energy that had been humming in him flew down his arm and out of his fingertips in a slice of silver light. It went straight through the rat in midair, leaving behind a bloody hole in its chest. The body dropped limp to the ground.

For a moment the only noise was their breathing. Then Ruuda spun her swords once and sheathed them. “Damn ugly beasts. We must be close to the Surface to have those things sniff us down.”

The Dark Elf felt a shiver of repulsion go through his body. “Disgusting. They smell horrid.”

Ruuda kicked at one with her thick leather boot. “Yeah, I’ve run into them once before. Ugh.” She rubbed her face, blinking tired green eyes. “Well, I feel like I’ve gotten most of an eight hour rest. We could press on?”

Taliesin let out his breath heavily, tightening the leather cord that tied his hair back. He’d been growing it out for a while, but strands that were too short to be tied back fell on either side of his face. Longer hair was favored amongst the Dark Elves, stark white against their rich gray skin. “That sounds good. I don’t want to spend another night traveling alone down here.”

They packed up quickly and left the corpses of the giant rats behind. They ate breakfast while walking, a meal of jerky made from fish, with edible moss and mushrooms in a bowl. Afterwards Ruuda kept the map out, directing them through the twisting and branching tunnels. They began to see a few other travelers. A pair of Dark Dwarves passed carrying bags full of wine that had obviously been stolen from the Surface. A female Dark Elf hurried past but went down a separate tunnel, not sparing them any glance.

Taliesin hoped this meant the Surface was not far ahead. But the hours still dragged on. They passed through a narrow tunnel full of fungus that glowed with soft blue light. Then on into an enormous cavern that had several narrow bridges spanning it on multiple levels. They could see other travelers above and below them, going about their daily business. Bats flew by overhead, the noise of their flapping wings reverberating around the chamber.

“Dark Dwarves built this, you know,” Ruuda commented as they crossed a stone bridge that was nearly eighty feet long. “It’s stood for hundreds of years.”

Taliesin glanced at some of the columns carved into walls and standing at the ends of the bridges. He could see now the artistic style of the Dwarves in the thick, angular lines, the blocky patterns, and even the reliefs of stern, bearded faces.

Once on the other side they reached an area more traveled. The steep slopes had stairs carved into them. There were more signs directing to different trade posts, an underground lake, land forms of note, and, finally, a sign for the Surface. A few hours passed and eventually they took a break for dinner, eating the food Taliesin had packed along. Ruuda revealed she had a small amount of supplies and food hiding in her barrel, as well.

All the while Taliesin kept an eye out for any spiders. But he found none. None alive, none dead, and no webs. It only confirmed his belief that something big was happening. Had they all been wiped out? Or had they all gone somewhere?

Time dragged on as they continued their journey. But at last they were heading up. Stone steps led higher and higher in the Deep Hollows. The air had a different quality. It felt lighter, and carried more scents with it. And finally, after another full day of travel, they came to a set of stairs that led to a wooden door marked ‘The Surface’.

The two shared a look of anticipation. Ruuda slowly rolled up the map, handing it back to Taliesin who tucked it away in his bag. The moment stretched out as they regarded the door.

“This is big,” the Dark Elf breathed, his heart hammering in his chest.

“It is,” she agreed.

After another moment’s hesitation, Taliesin opened the door. With a loud creak it revealed a tavern. Lanterns dimly lit the area in an orange haze. A swell of noise hit them. Patrons that mingled about the bar, that lounged at tables, and that leaned against walls were all chatting with each other in a variety of languages. Some of it seemed friendly and personal, but most seemed business-oriented. Papers were exchanged, goods were traded, information was swapped. Some tables had card games going. Food and drink filled the area with rich smells. There was an assortment of people inside the tavern. Dark Elves, Dwarves and Gnomes mostly. There was one lady of red skin, with two large horns and a pointed tail that was doing business with two Dark Elves.

“Whoa,” Taliesin gasped, taking it all in. He noted there were no windows, but instead a set of wooden stairs that went up. They were in a basement.

“We could get some food here for the road,” Ruuda suggested.

He nodded and they wandered up to the bar, weaving between the patrons. No one paid them any attention. The barkeep turned to them, a female Dark Elf with a low-cut blouse and curly white hair. She flashed a red smile at them. “What can I get for you two?”

“We’re headed out into the city and looking for some food to take with us,” Taliesin supplied. “Whatever is worth . . .” he fetched some coins from his pack and set them on the bar, “five gold.”

“I’ll get you fixed right up, handsome. Wait here.” She turned and sauntered off.

The two of them leaned against the bar, looking out over the room. Taliesin was glad to see no one he recognized. Anticipation ran through him. The thrill of the unknown, of adventure. And the fear of it. He had no idea what to expect once they went up those stairs and out into Eleste’si. He knew it was a city of High Elves, and that other races were not easily welcome there. It would be best to avoid being seen, to stick to the alleys and dark roads. To travel at night and hide during the day.

On that thought, he had no idea what the difference between night and day would be like. Only what he heard in stories. About a sun too bright to see in. And a night that had a high ceiling full of white spots that were called stars. It all seemed . . . fantastical. And ridiculous. Was the Surface really all that different from the Deep Hollows?

The barkeep returned with a pack of food. Taliesin took note that it was all food from the Surface. Cheese, leafy greens, breads, and some varieties of meat. After putting it away the two headed up the wooden steps. Ruuda’s footfalls were heavier than Taliesin’s as they wound their way up. They were only passed by one Dark Dwarf scurrying down. The noise quieted as they reached another wooden door.

Taliesin carefully opened it, finding a storage room on the other side. Barrels, boxes, and bags lined the walls, a small lantern illuminating the area. A few baskets of brightly colored fruit set about. Taliesin had to blink a few times when he took the fruit in. He didn’t even know what some of those colors were.

Ruuda pointed at another door to their left. They quietly crept through, finding themselves on the first floor of the tavern. It was nearly completely empty. A man in a hood sat in the far corner, chewing on some bread. Dust gathered on the tables and the heavy chandelier. A woman worked at the bar, cleaning off some glasses. She looked to be a High Elf, with long blonde hair and pale skin. But when she saw them her image shimmered and the illusion dropped, revealing herself to be a Dark Elf. “Are you two headed out?” She gestured with her head to the door.

“Yes,” Taliesin answered. His nerves made his throat tight, his reply coming out hoarse.

“It’s night currently so you should be safe,” she answered. “Is this your first time out? I don’t recognize either of you two.”

“It is our first time,” he admitted.

“Well, keep a low profile,” she advised. “Stick to the narrow, darker streets. There is one other tavern in the city friendly to our kind, if you need a place to sleep. It’s called the Tranquil Grail and is closer to the outskirts. There is a passphrase for both taverns to get inside. It is Sanctuary.”

“Thanks for the information,” Taliesin said.

The barkeep nodded and resumed her illusion of a High Elf again.

The two crossed the empty room to the door. As they paused before it Taliesin pulled his hood up to better hide his identity. He glanced down at Ruuda. She watched him expectantly. His hand hovered over the handle. For a moment, the gravity of his decision fell on him. He was leaving everything he ever knew behind. The comfort of his wealthy House, the familiar roads and food of Berenzia, his family. But part of him knew this nostalgia was a fantasy. A dream. From a time in his life when he didn’t fully understand his status. When he hadn’t fully comprehended the limits placed on what he wanted to achieve. There was nothing for him there anymore. His attempt to enact change and to stand up for himself had only ended in pain. If he was to return to a better life in Berenzia, he had to find out what happened to the spiders. Surely this was what the Silk Weaver wanted. And if he could contribute in this way, and bring answers back, his life would be good again. And his voice would finally be heard, his opinions listened to, his goals attainable.

Courage welled up inside of him. Courage to face whatever was on the other side of the door. And with that he turned the handle, opened it, and they stepped out into the moonlit city of Eleste’si.

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