The Campaign, part 4

It wasn’t a tree, as Dorian had feared, but it wasn’t much better.  Zanth led the companions a small alcove, little more than a depression against a rock wall, likely where storm runoff had carved away the ground over the years, but was ideally situated for giving them protection from almost all sides and keeping them hidden through the night.  Still, the ground was more damp than not and if a storm passed in the night it could leave them in a tricky spot.  Zanth assured him there was no chance of rain.  He was almost always right so Malland and Dorian kept their grumbling to a minimum.  As it was, they were exhausted and ready to bed down anywhere Zanth said was good enough.

They took turns on the watch and the sun began to warm the horizon without incident, which they were all thankful for.  Rifling through their packs they scrounged together enough of a meal to ease their hunger but realized they’d need to hunt or find a town before too long.  They’d planned on being home and their packs weren’t exactly overflowing with provisions.

“Alright, what does that rest of that note say?” Zanth asked.

Malland pulled out of his pocket and reread what’d he read the night before. Then continued, “That’s it, except this signature at the end.  I think it says ‘Lord Fendall.’”

He passed the note around and Zanth and Dorian both agreed that’s what the signature likely said.  Then Zanth asked, “Isn’t he the seat of power for the mountain region west of here?”

“That sounds right,” Malland said.  Dorian grunted in agreement.

“Well, that’s settled then,” Zanth stated with a sad smile.  “I guess we have to go find out why Lord Fendall wants us captured.  I certainly don’t remember running afoul of him recently.  Do either of you?”

Both Dorian and Malland shook their heads.

Zanth squinted into the surrounding forest.  From where they were stashed only the tops of the nearest trees were visible with just the slightest hint of the warming sky beyond.  While he let his gaze drift through the canopy he made a few quick mental calculations and once he was decided he addressed his friends again.  “I think there is a town about a day’s journey from here where we can resupply.  Let’s head there first and then we can track down Lord Fendall.”

They packed up their gear and Zanth led them back through the dense forest.  It was slow going at first but then they came across a game trail, Zanth said it was a likely last used by a bear, and their progress sped up some.  They only stopped once, for a brief lunch, before Zanth stopped them as the forest began to thin out.  They could see the smoke from home fires drifting lazily into the sky and they could faintly hear the hustle and bustle of small town life.  Mothers called to their children.  Merchants hawked their wares.  It was peaceful and the trio took a moment to soak it in.  It was what they’d hoped to come home to the day before.  It was a peace they may not know again for quite some time and could easily shatter just by showing their faces in the little town before them.

Zanth asked under his breath, “Ready?”

Dorian and Malland nodded and the three walked confidently forward.  As far as they knew, they had nothing to fear in this town.  News of what had happened the night before couldn’t have beaten them there.  So, there was no need to skulk about, there was no need to be any more cautious than normal.

For a time, it seemed like they wouldn’t have any trouble.  Nobody asked them who they were or what they were doing in town.  But then they tried to barter for some food to fill their packs and the prices were outrageous.

“Well, what do you expect?” Said one merchant.  “Nobody here is going to sell to the likes of you for a decent price.  This is food for our neighbors.  Selling to you means one of them might go hungry.”

With a sad shake of his head, Zanth pushed Dorian onward.  The dragonborn had begun to growl low in his throat and that wouldn’t serve any help in this situation.  They would just press on and find someone who would sell to them for a reasonable price or they would find their own food.  The last year on the trail had made them quite adept and hunting and preserving.  But, seeing as they had a few more gold coins than they’d started the previous night with, it amused all of them to spend Lord Fendall’s gold on the provisions that would help carry them to the man that was trying to hunt them down.

The Campaign, part 3

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The sound of the posse grew louder.  Torch light splashed on the walls a couple streets over.  Zanth pierced the darkness with his elven eyes but couldn’t make out how many were coming yet.  There were too many buildings in the way.

“We’ve got nothing to fear,” Dorian growled.  “We were in the right here.”

“That’s never been a problem for us before, right?” Malland scoffed.

Dorian chuckled in response.  He’d been joking.  A Dragonborn, a Tiefling and a Half-Elf, the three friends rarely were given the benefit of the bout, even in their home town.  Now that they’d been away for a year and at least one powerful person didn’t want them around anymore, it was hard to see anyone taking their side in this mess.

Zanthalaso sighed and returned his attention to his friends, “Let’s search these fools for some sort of clue and then get the heck out of here.  I don’t like what I’m hearing.”

Dorian and Malland how learned to trust the half-elf’s hearing long ago.  The three companions quickly stopped and rifled through the pockets of the dead men at their feet.  Standing at nearly the same time they all produced the same results, 5 gold coins.  Malland was the only exception, not only did he have the gold coins, he also had a note.  Catching the light from the moon, he read aloud, “This contract is for the capture, dead or alive, of the Half-Elf known as Zanthalaso, the Dragonborn known as Dorian, and the Tiefling known as Malland.”

“Well, that’s cheery,” Dorian stated flatly.

“Indeed, and now let’s get out of here before we have to find out how many other people in town received the same payment,” Zanth replied.

“There’s a signature here at the bottom,” Malland said, squinting down at the paper in his hands.

“Fine, we’ll look at it later, but can we go?  Whether they’ve been paid or not, I have zero interest in spilling the blood of the people I’ve called neighbors.”

Zanth, not waiting for a reply and knowing his friends would follow, turned on his heel and headed away from the coming posse.  Dorian and Malland exchanged an amused glance.  Malland stashed the contract into a pocket and the two of them followed after their friend.

Dorian whispered, “I’m not sure what he was waiting for anyway.  I was waiting for him to take the lead.”

“Right,” Malland agreed.  “He doesn’t have to get so upset about it.”

Zanth had only gone a short distance before pausing in the shadow of a building for his friends to catch up.  Once the trio were together, Zanth quickly and quietly turned down a side street and began leading them from shadow to shadow until they had reached the outskirts of town.  Just as they were about to cross the open field and head into the forest beyond they heard an angry outburst from behind them.  “They’ve found the bodies,” Zanth confirmed grimly.

Malland pointed to the forest and said, “Lead on.  We’ll follow.”

The half-elf took long, graceful strides into the moonlit field.  He was across and had been swallowed by the darkness of the forest before Dorian and Malland were halfway.  They weren’t worried, though.  Zanth would scout ahead and find the best route and then come back to them and show them where he wanted them to go.  It was how they’d spent the last year and they quickly fell back into the routine. 

After travelling for an hour, sometimes along game trails and sometimes completely across wild country, they reached a part of the forest that was so dense none of the moon’s light filtered through the canopy.  Dorian and Malland stopped short, waiting for their eyes to adjust.  Zanth called quietly to them from a short distance ahead, “I’ve found a good place to rest for the night.”

“I bet it is a tree,” Dorian grumbled.

Malland sighed, “I was so looking forward to my bed.”

the campaign, part 2

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The three friends finished their next round and the round after that.  They said hello to some neighbors they hadn’t seen sense they left.  They made small talk with some others in the bar they weren’t as familiar with.  They ordered a bit of food and polished the course off with a final round of ale.  Mostly, though, they were biding their time.  They expected to be ambushed in some fashion leaving Fireside Inn and they were hoping by stalling the four men who wished to cause trouble would grow frustrated and either stalk off or make a mistake when they did try to spring their trap.

An hour or so before dawn, with the sky not yet showing signs of the sun’s approach, Malland, Zanthalaso, and Dorian said their goodbyes and made their exit.  They acted drunk, staggering and talking boisterously of their recent exploits, egging each other on, but all the while their swords were loose in their scabbards and their eyes darted here and there.  A decent array of stars and a bright moon provided some light but also created an abundance of shadows.  Zanth’s elven-vision gave him a slight advantage but none of three wanted to get caught off-guard.

It was Zanth, though, who gave the warning as he spotted the heat signatures of two of the men hiding in a darkened doorway.  As one, swords were drawn and the three friends created a circle so they wouldn’t be blindsided.  The other two men detached themselves from different doorways and the four advanced on the companions.

“This is a mistake,” Zanth called to them.

“That may be,” their leader replied, an edge to his voice, “but you aren’t wanted here and we’ve been paid to see to it that you leave.”

Dorian said, “There’s a tavern full of people behind us who feel differently, strangers.  It’s far more likely that you aren’t wanted in town.”

One of the other men scoffed, “Just look you.  Bunch of freaks.”

Dorian growled low in his throat again.  Malland closed his eyes long enough to concentrate on casting Darkness.  He wasn’t a magic user, but as part of his condition, part of his curse, he had the ability to cast two spells.  Zanth, trying one last time to not spill any blood in their hometown, raised his sword at the leader and said, “Whoever has paid you, has paid you only to die.  Tell us who it was and we’ll go see them ourselves.  You do not need to do this.”

“Yeah, we do,” was all he said before stepping forward with a long sword clutched in his hands.

Malland cast Darkness and a fog pushed away from his circled friends to envelop their attackers.  There was a call of surprise from within the fog.

“You obviously haven’t been well informed about us,” Zanth called out.

“They aren’t even wearing armor,” Dorian stated quietly so only his friends could hear him.

With a yellow, half of fear and half of battle rage, the leader burst out of the fog swinging his sword.  Dorian easily blocked the strike with his own sword and then turned the block into a strike of his own, slicing through the man’s exposed torso.  He went down with a grunt and did not get back up.

The remaining three came out of the fog more cautiously.  The last one through saw their leader had already fallen, and immediately turned tail and fled back into the fog.  The two who remained exchanged blows with Malland and Zanth.  The far more experienced friends easily out-matching the strangers.  One fell to Malland’s sword and the other fell to Zanth’s.

The fight over, Malland dispersed the fog with another moment of concentration and a wave of his hand.  Zanth and Dorian checked the men they’d fought and came up shaking their heads. All three had died. 

“Such a waste,” Zanth said with a heavy sigh.

The friends were just discussing what they should do next when they heard shouting and the sound of many more people headed their direction.  The one who’d fled had gone and fetched a posse. 

Blood, part 4 of 4

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Richard threw the book away in disgust.  The pages fluttered as the book spun across the room to slam into the far wall with a resounding thud.  He grabbed his hair with both hands and pulled his head between his knees to keep from screaming.  Even then, a guttural sound, somewhere between a moan and growl, escaped his clenched jaws. 

Nothing.

He’d spent months now researching, following every lead he could find, digging into the depths of the most obscure references and causal mentions, trying to find a single piece of hope that he could keep his new found power without it resulting in the crushing loss of health he had experienced as a result.  And all that time spent had resulted in nothing.  There was no hope.  There was no way to continue doing blood magic at the level he desired and stay healthy at the same time.

“So be it.”

He released his head and his eyes, red and wet from frustration and pain, scanned the room to where the book had fallen.  The book wasn’t the problem, it had just been the final fruitless hope and, as such, had borne the brunt of his exhaustion and exasperation. 

Standing and crossing the room, he retrieved the book, closed it nicely, and placed it on the stack of books that now needed to be returned to their owners.  That wasn’t going to be cheap.  Some of these books had come from halfway around the world.  Some had come from further.  But return them he would.  Just because he wouldn’t sacrifice his health for this craft didn’t mean he would keep the knowledge from others.  Perhaps they had more self-control than he did.  Perhaps they were willing to give up their health.

Richard locked up and headed for his car, waving to Bree across the street as he stood at the driver door.

“Glad to see you are feeling better,” she called across to him.

“That obvious?”

“Your color is back and you no longer look like a stiff wind could knock you over.”

Richard laughed and leaned against the now opened door.  “Yeah, I am feeling better, thank you.”

She smiled and nodded and then asked, “Where you headed.”

“Going to the beach.  Trying to get some more of that fresh air and sunshine a friend of mine recommended.”

“Have fun,” she replied, even as she returned her attention to the garden patch she was weeding.

He smirked as he started the car and drove off.

Fun?  That wasn’t really the idea at all.

Power?  Now that was what he was after, what he wanted, what he craved.

Blood, part 3 of 4

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The knife dipped into his flesh, a small pool of blood welling up along the surface of the smooth blade.  He flinched.  He couldn’t help that.  As much as he had been cutting himself the last couple weeks he had not yet gotten used to that initial pinch and burn when the knife did its work.  Richard was beginning to think he would never get used to it.  And, perhaps that was for the best.  Who would he have become if he no longer felt pain when he was cut?

He removed the blade and let two drops of blood fall from his finger to the paper below.  The red splotches mostly soaked into the parchment but some excess ran in tiny rivulets along the words he had penned on the page before cutting himself.  A tingle ran up his spine before he had even touched the age of the page to the waiting flame.  A jittery excitement set his fingers to twitching and he very nearly dropped the sheet.  Taking a calming breath, he carefully passed the page into the flame and then closed his eyes as the spell took hold. 

He was attempting to restore some health.  It was a simple enough spell that he had no doubts would work on someone else.  The test here was if it would work on him.  That was only part of it, though.  He was hoping the spell would restore him to better health than he had been before he’d cut himself. 

After months of tests and trials and success after success, Richard had discovered that he did not feel well.  The power was great.  The triumphs were great.  His exhaustion, his weakness, his growing depression when not working spells were not great.  He was hoping to use the same magic that was causing the problem to fix the problem.

It was foolish.  He knew that.  If the spell worked at all it was likely to only reverse the effects of the most recent injury, the one he had caused to cast the spell itself.  But he had to know.  He had to try.

The feeling of the magic swirled around him, making him feel giddy and light, as if he could jump and the air itself would hold him up.  The pain vanished.  The sadness in his mind was pushed aside.  Everything was right with his world again.

But that feeling did not last.  Sooner than he liked, Richard felt grounded again.  Darkness crashed across his mind.  The pain did not return to his finger.  But the slice on his arm from a spell he had cast earlier in the day began throbbing again. 

He tried to gauge the level of that pain.  Was it less than it had been before he’d cast the most recent spell, the healing spell? 

Richard sighed.  If it was, it wasn’t discernible.  The healing spell may have helped his finger pinprick but it hadn’t done enough to restore him to any sort of fuller, better, level of well-being.

Taking a seat, Richard put his head in his hands for a moment, trying to stave off the tiredness lurking in the darkness in his mind.  He had come to a crossroads of sorts and he knew there was only one decision he could make here but making it was going to be extremely tough.  He could not continue to live like this as much as it would pain him to give up the power he had found.

Sighing again, Richard looked up and took in the sputtering flame sitting on the table.  The ashes of the spellwork scattered across the surface of the table.  A drop of blood he hadn’t noticed was drying among the mess.  He’d either missed the page with a drop before he’d finished the spell or it had fallen from his fingers while giving the paper to the fire. 

When he felt strong enough, Richard stood up and headed outside.  The fresh air and sunshine would do him some good, and then he’d need some food, and some rest, and then…  Well, then he would have to decide what he was going to do next.