Animus Lost

Ring around the… Dammit.
Part Four of Fritz's Frazzled Foregoings

Spring, Year 113 of the Third Age
10 Months before the events of Animus Lost

Fritz strolled into the Muddled Mongrel, a small tavern on the outskirts of Crossing, and waved at the barkeep as he walked to the room he had rented a few nights before. He arrived at his door and fiddled around in his pockets for the room key. His fingers swiped across the ring he’d recently acquired, as he fumbled for the key, eventually bypassing it for the key itself.

Fritz didn’t like the ring, it gave off an eerie aura that reminded him of being underdressed in winter. But, he couldn’t argue with a ten-thousand gold reward for such a simple task. The Solomon Estate was mostly guarded on it’s perimeter, and Fritz didn’t even see any guards on the inside. Aside from the occasional servant or two—one of which he had to subdue because he had accidentally backed himself into a room—the place was basically dead. His employers had chosen an ideal time to give him the contract, as Lord Solomon and company were off in Cliffport for Imperial business.

Fritz took the key out his pocket, shaking off the cold feeling from the ring, and unlocked his room door. He entered the room and stretched before taking off his pack. After closing his door and tossing his backpack to a corner of the room, he moved to a coat rack and started to take off his overcoat, but was interrupted as a small metal clinking noise echoed throughout the room. Fritz glanced down and saw the 10,000-gold ring slip under his bed. Fritz sighed and hung his coat up before kneeling down to look under the bed.

Luckily, the ring was just about an arm’s length away from him, so there was no need to move the bed. Laying on his stomach, he reached his hand under the bed, blindly feeling for the ring. After a moment, he noticed it—slightly further away then he had predicted—so he began batting at it with his middle finger. Before he could react, the ring slipped over the top of his finger, and shot down to the joint where the finger met his palm.

Fritz recoiled in surprise as an intense burning sensation erupted in his hand and slowly crawled up his arm. All Fritz could do was clench his jaw, and try to apply as much pressure as he could as the pain kept advancing. After what felt like an eternity of agony, the burning reached his shoulder, and—surprisingly—stopped as swifty as it started.

Sweating, Fritz stayed on the ground for a few more seconds before taking a deep breath and slowly sitting up. He examined his hand, and found a burn mark on where the ring had settled, before torturing his arm; but the ring itself was gone. Instead, was a dark band had appeared, wrapped around his finger where the ring had been. After wiping sweat off his forehead with his other hand, he examined the rest of his arm: a serpent pattern had been burned into his arm, starting with its head on the back of Fritz’s hand, and running up to the top of his shoulder.

Fritz stood and began pacing the room, all the time reexamining the new “tattoo” he had acquired. He needed to get the ring off—if he could, he might still get paid for the job. But then, the contracted stated that they’d know if he tried to wear it, on purpose or not; he guessed that they had a good idea of what the ring would do, if worn. After several more minutes of thought, he settled on something that had worked a long time ago. He had to run, but he didn’t want to make the same get-away as last time. Fritz actually liked this new life of his.

He pulled out the chair of a small desk the room had provided, and pulled out a piece of parchment from his travelpack. He dipped his pen, and wrote:

Dear Geoffrey Finkel,

In light of recent events, I will be unable to complete my current contract. As such, I need you to pass on a message to Ashll Rad’yer. Tell her that she was right about the contract and to go into hiding as soon as possible. I fear that my contractors won’t just target me in this matter but her as well.

I ask you, Geoff, that you don’t just leave a note, but wait for her return and tell her personally. You can also regard this message as my resignation from the Guild of Deals. I thank you and your father for your support over the years.

Yours truly,
Fritz

After signing the letter, Fritz folded it, and placed it in an envelope. Once he had addressed it to Geoffrey, he sealed the envelope and grabbed all his gear. Fritz looked over the room to make sure nothing was left behind and, then, headed to the bar.


Fritz walked into the main room of the tavern and headed straight towards the bar. After sitting down, he looked around the room. There was nothing out of the ordinary. There were farmers enjoying their time off for the day, what appeared to be a very drunk monk, and a small group of mercenaries who were enjoying a game of cards. Satisfied that the room was safe, he addressed the barkeep.

“Hey Bloche,” Fritz called to the ‘keep, trying to keep an upbeat attitude as he placed a few gold pieces—and his letter—on the table, “I’ll be checking out tonight. Mind sending a letter off for me? I’ve included the price of sending it, and little extra.”

“‘Course, Fritz,” Bloche, a slightly heavy man who wore a dirty cloth apron, said as he walked down the bar towards Fritz, “mind if I ask why you’re leaving? You got the room for another night.”

“Finished business earlier than expected,” Fritz replied flatly, “Can I get an ale before I head off?”

Bloche nodded, took the coins and letter, then served Fritz a pint of ale before returning back to his business of cleaning mugs with a slightly dirty rag. Fritz liked Bloche, the keep was friendly and didn’t press for information. Over the past several days, he had come to know a bit of the man. If Fritz got this ring business settled, the Muddled Mongrel would be a good place to come back to.

Fritz took a sip of his ale and realized that one of the mercenaries, a Cambion, was observing him. Most specifically, he was eyeing the serpent’s head that showed on Fritz’s hand. Realizing that Fritz had noticed him, he casually returned to his card game. It was time to go. He wouldn’t put it past his unknown employers to hire mercenaries, give them orders to stake out the taverns of Crossing, and make sure Fritz was doing his job to the letter.

Fritz stood, mug in hand, and walked down the bar towards the drunken monk. He placed the mug, as well as a gold coin, in front of the monk. The monk looked up at Fritz, his eyes glazed over and his mouth slightly ajar.

“A gift from the ‘keep,” Fritz said, feigning a smile. “Feel free to get those fine gentlemen playing cards a round from me.”

“Mur drinks,” the monk mumbled before standing up and starting his journey to the barkeep. “‘M happier than a duck in a pond.”

As the monk got the ‘keep’s attention for more drinks, Fritz casually strolled towards the exit. Before he stepped outside, he heard the sound of the monk crashing into the card game, drinks in hand. Fritz smiled as he left the Muddled Mongrel, and headed towards the lightning rail station.


Fritz stood on an unusually crowded lightning rail station, for the time of day. He looked around the terminal for several seconds before finding his target. The train was going to arrive any second now, and Fritz needed a ticket without a paper trail.

Fritz approached an armored orc with a bundle of parchment sticking out of his belt talking to lightly armored human with bow. Fritz kept his gaze set on a point beyond. Once close, Fritz ‘tripped’ and bumped into the orc. He gracefully picked and pocketed the papers, apologized to the orc, and continued down the terminal. Once out of direct line of sight from the orc, he checked the papers. Viola, a few papers down was a direct ticket to Cliffport.

A few moments later, the train arrived. While passengers disembarked, a line formed to present tickets and board the train. Fritz made sure to enter the line several people in front of the orc he acquired his ticket from. After giving the conductor his ticket and being instructed to go to the third train car, Fritz boarded the lightning train.

Fritz entered the assigned traincar to see a an assorted bunch of mercenaries. Fritz froze in for several seconds before a rather short dwarf spoke. “Ye lost, lad?” The dwarf asked, looking up at Fritz, “This be th’ compartment for great adventurers and mercenaries goin’ to Cliffport, to protect mapmakers of the Cartographers Guild.”

Fritz smiled and sat down in the chair next to the dwarf, “Nope, not lost anymore.”

“Good, good,” the dwarf replied, sticking out his hand. “The name be Albin.”

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On Sharing

A staggeringly powerful gust of wind erupted from beneath the Dragon’s wings, and threatened to push some of them off the landing, plummeting the hundred or so feet to the city streets below. The Dragon Grakkas took flight, and was a tiny dot on the horizon in barely more than a minute, leaving behind a city that could have no doubt used his help, had any of them recognized him. Silence reigned atop the tall tower for a long moment, each of the six mercenaries-turned-adventurers taking their time to process the events that had just transpired, and to make the best sense of it all. Even Goldie, normally fidgety and talkative, had fallen abnormally quiet as the weight of Cerlissa’s words—and what they meant for New Turath—began to nestle in her mind. It was Fritz who finally broke the silence, suggesting that they should probably try to get some rest. “We have an important job ahead of us,” he mentioned, as he made for the staircase. He placed a reassuring hand on Nameless’ shoulder as he passed, in recognition of the selfless act the Beastman had performed; though he now held another Pact with yet another impossibly powerful being, him doing so freed everyone else from being under Cerlissa’s thumb—for now, at least. The Elf’s gesture spoke to how everyone else felt. On the way down, Goldie’s signature optimism returned, and she started pestering the others with questions about “Valley-roarer.” Unsurprisingly, many of the inquiries were centered on bears, and what kind of bears she should expect. Normally something of a showffish know-it-all, Arkh was silent in the face of her questions, and remained so for most of the descent down the tower, and into the streets. It wasn’t until Fritz approached him that he said anything. “What do you think?” Arkh took a moment to extract himself from the daze he was in. Turning his head as he walked, he looked Fritz up and down. “What do you mean?” Fritz stuck his thumbs into the shoulder straps of his pack and leaned back. “I mean, what do you think about all this? About everything that just happened, and what’s about to happen. You always have an opinion, but you’re unusually hesitant to share it.” He shrugged. “So I wanna know what you think.” The two walked in silence for a moment while Arkh compiled his thoughts, the rest of the group a few paces in front of them. Eventually, the Orc drew in a breath through his nose, and spoke. “Well, I think that a lot of what’s going on revolves pretty heavily around belief.” Fritz tilted his head and cocked an eyebrow. “I don’t follow.” Arkh lifted his eyebrows briefly, and continued. “Well, Astrid seems to believe that her Empire is under attack by an unseeable, unstoppable force. She believes it so strongly that she abandoned a mission given to us by Gwind herself, and even left Rikkas behind in pursuit of it.” Fritz nodded, understanding. “Cerlissa would seem to believe that her city has been ravaged by a disease that no one understands, and claims that Grakkas is somehow the key to fixing it. So firm is this belief of hers that she was willing to give us that sword—thereby placing countless lives in very real danger—to make sure that Grakkas agreed to help.” Fritz scratched an itch on his cheek, gazing off thoughtfully. “And what do you believe?” Arkh took in a deep breath, and exhaled slowly before speaking. “I believe that I am infected with a disease that just killed a hundred-thousand people: among them, one of the best friends I ever had. I believe that, despite my medical knowledge, there is nothing I can do to stop or slow its spread.” He stared at the ground as they walked, continuing. “I believe that I just handed the most dangerous sword in the world to the most dangerous warrior in the world, and though I believe Grakkas’ intentions are pure, I don’t believe that Cerlissa’s are. I believe that Cerlissa is still hiding a lot from me—from us.” He fell silent for a moment, as they walked through a crowd. As they emerged on the other side, Arkh turned to Fritz, stopping his walk for a moment. “You said that you want to know what I think.” He frowned a bit, and broke eye contact for a split second. “And my response is that… I don’t think you do.”

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On Attention Spans

“Actually, it’s pronounced ‘val-ih-RAAR-uh,’” Arkh clarified, hefting his encyclopedia onto the table. “And the name itself is actually quite fascinating. It’s a more contemporary derivative of an ancient word meaning ‘’holy forest.’” He chuckled as he searched through the massive tome for the right section. “The funny part is that, when spoken in the modern Fey tongue, it closely resembles the word ‘Valiraare,’ meaning ‘sanctuary,’ which goes a long way in explaining a lot of the Fey people’s shared culture, as well as their isolationist attitudes.” Having found the page he was looking for, he set the tome down on the table in front of him, and looked up and smiled. Goldie sat across him, a completely blank expression painted on her face, her eyes utterly unfocused. After a brief second, she snapped back into the moment, and noticed Arkh staring at her. “I’m sorry,” she giggled. “I was thinking about bears.” Arkh lifted an eyebrow, but remained silent as she continued. “Anyway, you were gonna tell me about Valley-roarer.” Pinching the bridge of his nose, Arkh grumbled. “It’s ’val-IH-raar-UH.” “That’s what I said.” Goldie offered, confused. Arkh sighed a bit, and returned his gaze down to the book. “Regardless, what were you curious about?” “Well Albin’s got that seed thingy crammed into his beard, I want to know what we’re going to do with it.” Arkh perked up a bit, and immediately started flipping pages. “Actually, that’s a very good question. The more intimate details of Fey culture and religion are still very new to the Cartographers, and we don’t have a lot of information compiled on the subject yet; though I do have a few theor—” His thought process was interrupted, as Goldie had slammed both hands down on the table and leaned forward, her arms outstretched to almost reach where he was sitting. Her eyes were wide open, and her gaze was fixated on Arkh, rapidly making him more and more uncomfortable. He moved to speak, but her mouth flung open before he could get a word out. “Your skin is not as green as I thought it would be.” Arkh tilted his head away slightly as his eyes widened in anxiety. “What does that mean?” Arms still outstretched, Goldie sat up, pulling her arms in closer. “Orcs in the stories always have skin as green as pine needles. Yours is more of a poop green.” Arkh furrowed his brow and sagged his shoulders. “I much prefer to consider it an earthy, almost ashen green.” Goldie giggled, completely oblivious to his response. “Heh, poop,” she mumbled. Frustrated, Arkh closed the encyclopedia, and moved to return it to his pack. Goldie waved her hands. “Wait, you were gonna tell me about Valley-roarer!” Arkh cast Goldie a sidelong glance, finished packing up the tome, then leaned forward across the table, his gaze locked in with Goldie’s. After a moment, he drew in a breath, and spoke rapidly. “It’s where the Fey are from. It’s a really big forest that the Fey have guarded with their lives for almost a thousand years. It is no doubt rife with culture and interesting creatures—possibly even some new types of bears—that we should all be very excited to see. It will be a tremendous honor for us to set foot in it, if they allow us. Otherwise, not much is known about it.” Goldie leaned forward as well, following Arkh’s dramatically rapid explanation, her face mere inches from his. “Thank you,” she whispered. Then, almost as if she had just realized something, spoke in a much louder voice. “Let’s go say hi to the horses!” Arkh winced a bit, and rubbed the side of his head as he stood. Goldie was already out the door by the time he managed to reply, “Yes, let’s.”

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On Forged Bonds

Arkh brought his hammer down hard, sending small flakes of red-hot steel flying in all directions. He lifted his arm, and brought the hammer down again, and again, and again, his heart quickening and his breath growing shallow. When his arm could no longer take the burn, he turned, and dunked the metal blade in the water at his side, instantly filling the forge with hissing steam.

“So what’s your plan then, lad?” Albin’s deep voice cut through the forge. He was sitting a few feet away, working some strips of leather into a grip, which would later become the hilt for the blade Arkh was working on. Their Nameless Beastman friend had requested a new claymore, after his last one had been badly dulled and nicked during the Slive attack—with how valiantly he’d fought for them over the last few weeks, the two smiths were more than eager to oblige.

Arkh pulled the blade out of the water and began inspecting it, checking it for imperfections and testing its sharpness. “I’m honestly not sure yet. Obviously, I’m not interested in participating, but this isn’t exactly the kind of thing I can just say ‘no’ to.” Satisfied, he set the blade down on a metal table and went looking for a file set.

“She’s got something important to say, I’d wager.” Albin called through the forge.

Files in hand, Arkh walked back into the main area, and pulled up a chair. “What do you mean?” He tested to make sure the blade was cool enough to handle, then began filing the tang down into a usable size.

“Well,” the Dwarf continued, “I’ had a few encounters with her before, and I’ve physically spoken to her a coupla times now. And she ain’t the kinda lass to send messengers, ya know?” Sensing that Arkh did not, in fact, know, he continued. “She does ’er own dirty work, lad. And that…” he gazed knowingly at the sword at Arkh’s hip, “…be some damned dirty work.”

Arkh followed Albin’s gaze to the sword, hanging loosely in his belt, following their failed attempt to seal it inside the scabbard. “You’re saying this isn’t something she can do on her own?”

Albin nodded softly, as he began wrapping the leather around the hilt. “Aye, I think so.” He returned to focusing on his work.

Arkh lifted his gaze back up to Albin. “But why me, then? I’m just a Cartographer.”

Without looking up, Albin shrugged. “Wrong place, wrong time, lad.”


“Trinkenkampf!” Arkh declared.

Albin raised an eyebrow. “Gesundheit.”

Arkh scowled at the Dwarf. “The Trinkenkampf were a tribe of Dragonkin that used to live in the area where Haven is now, before it was founded by the Silverclaws. They were famous for their alcohol tolerance, their fighting ability, and their tendency to combine the two.”

Albin considered the thought for a moment, then let loose a loud belly laugh. “Ah, it’s perfect!”

The two of them studied the newly-minted stein while Albin put the finishing touches on his armor. It was a moment before either of them noticed the silence, and another moment before Arkh finally spoke. “I’m going to cooperate with her.”

Albin tugged at a strap he’d just riveted, to test its strength. “That so?”

Arkh nodded, setting the stein down on the table between them. “Mhm. But not until she tells me why.”

“Why what, lad?”

“Why she needs to talk to Grakkas. You said she hasn’t shared much information with you guys, beyond what you absolutely need to know.” Albin nodded in silent affirmation, as Arkh continued. “Well that’s not my style. I’m in this for the long haul, but I’m not about to work for someone who won’t talk openly with me.” He pointed towards his Junior Cartographer badge, now dirty and dented from weeks of heavy travel. “I am a scholar, after all. Information’s my life’s blood.”

Albin extracted himself from his work, taking a moment to size up Arkh. “And you’re sure that’s wise?”

Arkh frowned a bit as he grabbed the stein, examining his handiwork. After a brief moment, he shrugged. “Probably not. But I’m gonna make sure she knows that if she wants my help, she can’t treat me like one of her minions.”

Mock offense painted on his face, Albin growled at his Orc friend. “What’cha saying about us, lad?”

Arkh chuckled as he stood, placing the stein in a small linen sack. “I’m saying that you’re damned good at saving my ass, and you’d best get used to doing it. I’m not done getting you guys in trouble.”

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On Showmanship

“The Phoenix Treaty, signed at the Summit of Trieste in the 54th year of the Third Age, placed the responsibility of Utica’s reconstruction in the hands of the Fey, in exchange for ownership of the city.” Arkh offered an almost bored look as he recited his answer.

“Very good, Apprentice,” Senior Cartographer Winter said. “You have answered thirty-two questions correctly, out of thirty-two so far.” Her pitch-black eyes met Arkh’s as she set down the book she was reading out of. “You have completed part two of this Assessment, and may take a ten-minute break, if you wish, before moving on to part three.”

Arkh waved gingerly with his right hand as he shook his head. “No thank you, Senior Cartographer. If its all the same, I’d prefer to just move on.”

The Cambion raised an eyebrow, and hesitated for a moment. This was her first Assessment with her new Apprentice, and was still getting a feel for how the Orc worked. She wasn’t sure if this display was motivated by eagerness, or arrogance. “Very well,” she finally said, after a moment. “Please put away your maps and notes for part three.”

Arkh gathered his things up off the desk and returned them to his pack. He pulled out a small stack of blank parchment and a quill, then sat back in his chair. Senior Winter noticed his advanced preparations, and decided to take the opportunity to learn about him. “Actually, Apprentice, I’m going to administer part three orally, this time.”

Arkh gave a brief, confused look, then nodded. “Okay,” he said, as he emptied his desk. “Then I guess I’m ready,” he chuckled, through a slightly uncomfortable smile.

“Very good,” Senior Winter said, clearing her throat as she cracked open a different book. She took a moment to study the section before reading aloud. “You are traveling through Valiraura with the intent of acquring detailed maps of the region. You have received Guid permission to survey the land, but Fey soldiers in green and brown are blocking your passage, declaring that they never approved a Guild excursion. You have a single bodyguard with you, as well as your surveying equipment, and supplies enough for the two of you to last three more weeks. How do you proceed?”

Arkh knew almost immediately that the expected answer would likely be “return to the Guild for clarification of mission.” However, he did not want to fumble this opportunity to impress his new professor. That—and he was still frustrated at the loss of Master Banagher, and wanted to prove that he was, in fact, field material. He thought for a moment, then leaned forward. “And I was foolish enough accept this mission without personally seeing approval from the Fey?”

Senior Winter cracked the smallest of smiles. “You were.”

Arkh nodded in contemplation, then spoke again. “Where in Valiraura am I?”

“You are… ninety miles west of Mooring,” Winter said, after thinking for a moment.

“Oh, so I’m speaking to deserters?”

Senior Winter tilted her head slightly, and narrowed her eyes. “I’m sorry?”

“You said that they’re in green and brown—which means they’re Oak Court—yet being ninety miles west of Mooring would put me just outside the Fey town of Birchwall, which belongs to the Amber Court. And unless Oak is planning military action, the presence of their soldiers in Amber territory would be an unacceptably hostile demonstration. So they’re deserters.”

Winter furrowed her brow in frustration. “Incorrect, Birchwall is property of the Oak Court.”

Arkh smirked a bit as he sighed. “Well, yes, it was. But Master Cartographer Aldrich pubished a thesis last week that detailed his most recent excursion to Valiraura, and how tensions between some of the Courts in the east have been tightening lately. At one point, he mentioned that Birchwall was recently gifted to the Amber Court as a gesture of goodwill, in an effort by Oak to quell rising hostilities.”

Winter’s red skin was now more red than it was when they began. Her gentle, inquisitive smile, had faded to a cold frown, and her black eyes had, somehow, gotten blacker. Wordlessly, she produced a stamp, stamped a Certificate of Passage, and presented her Apprentice with the ‘Field Readiness: Valiraura’ Ribbon, which Arkh proudly pinned to his robe.


Arkh was sitting in the courtyard, trying to sit up straight, as to show off his newest Ribbon. This one was particularly important to him, as it was not ony his first Field Readiness Ribbon, but it was his twentieth Ribbon overall; he now qualified for promotion to Junior Cartographer. He certainly didn’t expect it right away, but he knew that it wouldn’t be long before he got it—a year at most. It was a good moment for him.

He was in the process of trying to look like he was reading, when a sudden clamor erupted from the field behind him. He turned on the bench to see a circle of Apprentices surrounding two others. One was a small, lanky-looking human, clearly very afraid of his opponent. Across the circle from him stood an ebon-skinned Elf girl, hunched down with clenched fists, clearly ready for a good fight. Arkh sighed, set down his book, and got up off the bench. “I just know I’m gonna get blamed for this one,” he thought, as he approached the fight, rolling up his sleeves.

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To Lose a Legend

This Lullaby – Queens of the Stone Age

The town is silent… it hasn’t been so quiet since before the first Cambion braved the harsh mountains and claimed it as their own. An early spring snow dampens even the natural sounds of the Spine, creating a hush where thousands of people once bustled.

There is no blood in the streets.

No wailing mothers. No orphaned children.

The lights mark the quiet end of an era, brightening the streets with a cold, quiet tribute. The few who remained worked around the clock to tend to the Empty. New Turath was dead, the great Blood Wall useless against the soul plague.

It died quietly, swiftly. Even the devils of the North didn’t want it now.

Cerlissa turned from the window overlooking her beautiful stone corpse, killed by a will-o’-wisp, and faced her fears. Her love lay sick to the soul while her lover stood quietly outside.

She would always love Baldred first, and while it pained him, Anonrin could do nothing but accept it.

“Why?” Cerlissa asked aloud.

“It would weaken you…” the man looked strong, healthy, as he lay on his bed. There was no point in going to any hospital, there were no doctors left. “The Empire needs you strong. I won’t sign it.”

Cerlissa stormed across the room and grabbed the front of Baldred’s shirt, heaving him upright to face her. Their eyes met, eyebrows knitted in determination. It was Cerlissa that broke, “…please.”

Baldred lifted his hands to her shoulders, but Cerlissa flinched away, standing. She took a few short steps to point out the window and turned back to face him, “The Empire needs me for what? No one is here! They’re gone, and I can’t leave to follow until this forsaken, stubborn orc gets to Grakkas!” Breathing heavily, Cerlissa leaned against the window sill, staring out into a bleak, desperate future.

“You’re talking with him now, aren’t you?”

“Don’t change the subject.” Cerlissa snapped, then thought better of it, “Not for a while. You were sleeping when he figured out the coin. Now he’s angry that I’d use him like this.” Throwing her hands up, she huffed and stared at her feet, “I want to be furious with him for being so bullheaded. He’s probably the most educated man in all of Cinderfell, but he refuses to understand.”

Baldred only lifted an eyebrow.

“Yes, Baldred, it could have gone better,” Cerlissa spat testily, “I thought for sure it would be that Elf! He can’t keep his hands off anything! This Orc is going to be my bane until he dies. He’ll never forgive me for this.”

“He shouldn’t.”

“No! He shouldn’t! And I’ll never forgive YOU if you take you away from me!”

“Come here, Cerlissa.”

Cerlissa looked more like a daughter seeking the comfort of her father than a former lover of an old man. This time she did let him put his arms around her.

“I would leave you eventually and you know it.” Baldred held her fast so she couldn’t get up and start pacing again, “I’m a crippled old man, a Protector with no army, no city to protect. I wanted to die fifty years ago and I let you talk me out of it. Now, you’re trying to convince me again, but I’m not twenty-two this time. My son is safe from this plague, thanks to you, and I’m tired. I’m tired of running from death, and I won’t risk yours to run a little longer. I won’t risk the Empire by making you fortify an old man’s tired soul.”

Cerlissa closed her eyes and relaxed a little, and she felt Baldred relax his grip in response. It wasn’t the first time that they’d argued over this, but something about tonight felt different. Final. The two lay together quietly, until Baldred’s hand shifted, sliding up the back of her shirt. Cerlissa’s eyes widened, then she shifted to give him an alarmed, questioning look.

“As long as you promise to keep me, here,” His fingers brushed the sparkling blue jewel embedded over her heart, near her shoulder blade, causing it to twinge weirdly, “then I will go on happily.”

She relaxed again, realizing his intent was only to remind her of his gift to her; The Shen Kamaat. The glittering, drowned-blue colored beetle meant to serve as a reminder of the promises she made just after becoming Arbiter of Demons. Just after releasing Baphomet upon Cinderfell.**

They lay silently like that for a while. His hand covering the Soul Beetle, her head on his chest. He began to sing the strange, Nubian lullaby. It wasn’t long until he quieted, his fingers slowed and grew still, his breathing leveled out, asleep.

Cerlissa smiled a little and said aloud, “Hey, you never told me why you ever needed this beetle…” she looked up to his face and found him staring back at her. “Baldred?”

No response, just that blank stare. She knew the look in his eyes. She’d seen it thousands of times, in the faces of all her people that she couldn’t save.

Sitting up, she tried to stay calm. When Baldred’s body shifted to stand with her, she saw the cold, clear light slip from his body, just as all the others had. Just as it did with her youngest child, little Onan.

A sound forced its way from her chest, a barking, wailing sound, cut off in surprise. Anonrin opened the door, looking alarmed. Cerlissa could only flap her hands uselessly and try to keep from making more of those sounds. There was only Anonrin to hear it, but it seemed so loud that the whole Empire would know of her loss.

After a moment of unheard words, Anonrin scooped her up and carried her away. The door was left open for the Empty, as had become common practice in the Wandering City.

Lost it All – Avenged Sevenfold

  • For a reminder of what the Shen Kamaat is, read this story from The Dawn Patrol
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To Obtain a Husband

“Rikkus, you set me up again!” Astrid hissed quietly across the table as the young, handsome Koth man took a short leave to the restroom. “Why are you so bent on marrying me off?”

Rikkus didn’t reply, only gave Astrid a look that was both frustrated and hopeful, which told Astrid nothing of what he was trying to say. Was he trying to get her away from him, now that he knew how she felt? She decided to ask.

“Are you trying to get rid of me? Why don’t YOU just leave, instead of trying to pawn me off on these cocky bastards?” Astrid took a sidelong glance down the long table of guests engrossed in their myriad conversations, making sure that Sir Gavid Koth wasn’t nearby, “I’m too old for a nanny, anyway, so if you’re going to stick around and you’re going to insist I get married…”

“Hello again, Miss Valentine, thank you for awaiting me.” Sir Gavid interjected loudly. The whole room was alive with conversation, and he made a point to talk over everyone in it. “And thank you, Rikkus, for looking after the lady while I was away.”

Astrid rolled her eyes just as Rikkus’ face scrunched into a slightly deeper scowl. Ladies from Koth, apparently, had to be tended to like wandering ewes. Gavid continued talking, but Astrid was only half listening. She waited for the usual cues to respond politely and pretended to be engrossed in her food while she continued to scowl at Rikkus. Gavid never caught on to her inattention, apparently confident in his capacities as a worthy stud to fertilize the new heirs to the Empire.

It wasn’t that his compliments weren’t appreciated, it was only that Astrid hated him. Astrid had hated him since they first met when she was twelve and he was thirteen. He talked down to her as if his gender overruled her blood, and she decided to prove him wrong by showing him his blood.

Apparently, he never learned from that incident, because he still spoke to her in the same infuriating way.

“…then I had a run-in with some strange Elves just North of Trada, they had these giant armored dogs fighting with them. Oh, you wouldn’t understand all that, but rest assured, we made them run off with…”

“Astrid, a moment, please.” Rikkus interjected, standing. Out of sheer force of habit, Astrid stood to follow before she realized what Gavid had just said.

“Wait, Gavid, what did you just say?”

Sir Gavid looked surprised, eyebrows high and expression a bit vacant, “Oh, it’s just a fine tale to impress beautiful ladies, dear. Go along and see what Rikkus requires of you.” he then promptly turned to chat up a finely dressed woman nearby. She couldn’t find a way to question the man without bringing too much attention to herself, so she decided to play along with Rikkus. She’d rather spend time with him than Gavid anyway.

After Rikkus had led her to the breezeway of the hall, Astrid touched his arm to get his attention before he opened the second set of doors toward the Citadel, “What’s this about?”

Rikkus put his hand over hers and bowed his head. “It’s about the truth, my girl. I’ve decided to answer your earlier question.” Keeping her hand firmly clamped onto his arm, he continued walking. Astrid didn’t protest.

After a minute or so of walking, the pair came upon the grand doorway to the Empire Suite. The doors were large and beautifully carved with images of the Ash Guard, standing sentinel against all foes. The doors were also fake. They were bolted to a solid stone wall leading to nothing but more stone. It’s commonly told that there was a magically created barrier that could only be opened by a valentine. In reality, the plain, sturdy, iron door directly opposite to the gilded facade was the true entryway to the Empire Suite. This plain, iron door being the same type of door that marked the entrances to the servant’s passageways.

Quickly checking that the hallways were clear, Rikkus opened the door and slipped inside, leading Astrid with him. The Emperor and Empress had retired early, and Astrid didn’t know what to expect with Rikkus leading her to their room.

What she saw was a strange Beastman standing over her father in his bed. When Astrid moved forward to confront him, Rikkus’ hand, still firmly holding hers, kept her still.

“This is Keen,” Rikkus gestured toward the Beastman, “The best physician that ever stitched or maged anyone back to life. He’s been working exclusively for your parents for some time now.”

It was all beginning to sink in for Astrid. The extra time they spent alone, the suitors, the urgency. “What happened?”

“Seems they came down with some kind of sickness,” The plain-looking beastman, Keen, spoke up without looking at Astrid, “Maybe it was poison, maybe it was blood magic. I haven’t figured it out, which is why I won’t be able to save them.” Looking up at Astrid, now, she saw how tired he seemed, “I apologize, Heiress, but I’ve kept them alive months past their time, already.”

“Astrid?” a thin voice rose from the bed, opposite the physician. This time, Rikkus didn’t stop her from darting forward.

“Mom, why didn’t you tell me?”

“You worry so much already, dear, it’s not conducive to romance.” Empress Everli gave her daughter a tender, knowing look.

“You know what’s not conducive to romance?” Astrid returned with wry smile, “Rikkus. He’s a terrible matchmaker. He had me sitting next to Sir Gavid Koth for the dinner tonight! Can you believe it?” She said the man’s name with throaty, mocking importance. “You can’t expect me to find my husband like this, Mamma.”

Everli’s expression swiftly became more serious, “It’s a hard choice, I know. It’s not one that I or your father ever had to make, but we can’t make you Regent until you’re married… and we need your Regency. If you can’t find a suitable husband here, then take an escort and find him somewhere else. Go to Westwater or Koth.”

“How about I go to Tuari and bring home an Orc?” Astrid shot back hotly, “Why can’t I be named Regent without a man? Like Gramma?”

“Gramma wasn’t alone, she had Rikkus and the whole Dawn Patrol to help her raise your father. It’s not a job meant for one alone, just as your father needed me.” Everli smiled a little, “And any Orc that could handle you would be a fine choice indeed. You know that we Valentine ladies can produce heirs from any man we choose. I’ll teach you how before I go, or you can go to Trieste, but the fact of the matter is that you must choose.

Deflated, Astrid could only look at her feet. After a moment, Emperor Titus waived the physician away and called to his daughter.

“This goes against everything you stand for, my dear girl, I know. Come here.” Astrid moved around to stand before her father, “It probably feels like a punishment of some kind, but there’s no way around it. At least you have some semblance of a choice.” Astrid’s scowl didn’t budge from her face, “I know you’ll do right by the Empire.”

“I’m sorry to intrude, but I must insist that you both rest.” Keen spoke up after a moment of tense silence.

No one budged until Astrid looked up, “I’ll leave in the morning. I’ll be ready to marry when I return.” Turning toward Rikkus, she added, “I’ll take seven of the Ash Guard.”

Astrid and Rikkus were shooed out of the room by Keen, who shut the door quietly behind them.

Rikkus spoke first, “They asked me not to tell you.”

“I understand, Rikkus.” Astrid said it with a cold tone, then seemed to realize it and continued more approachably, “I really do, but I want you to understand that the man I bring back to become Emperor won’t hold a candle to you. If I’m to hold up the facade, you can’t be here when I return.”

“Are you banishing me, then?”

“No, I’m sending you on a mission… unless you’d rather leave?”

“Where will you have me?”

Astrid blushed and said, “I need you to go to Trieste and learn how I can become pregnant by another race.” After a short silence reigned by Rikkus’ raised eyebrow, she continued, “It’s too awkward to talk to Mom about when Daddy’s there, and he’s always there. I want to keep my options open.”

“So you’re really going to Tuari?”

Astrid shrugged. “I’m not a fan of trains. I’ll make a loop and visit Uncle Jarl. Maybe even Cerci up in New Turath. Make the arrangements for me? I need to pack.”

“I’ll miss you, girl.” Rikkus growled.

Astrid said nothing.

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The travels of Ro part 2
Ro

When Ro left the monastery he had no concept of the world. No expectations nor any knowledge of civilized ways. He was by no means a savage with frequent visits from travelers and suppliers for the monks to give him just a glimpse of the world outside his walls. Alas he left poor, unaware, but capable.
He spend the first year or so just traveling from village to village and from town to town. At first he had no coin but an old barkeep named Thrane in Safeport taught him commerce, and with observation of his combat prowess, found him odd jobs around town.
He kept in touch with Thrane over the years as he was the only person outside of the monastery that Ro had any real connection with. Little did he know what lay ahead of him. How little did he know how far Thrane’s reach lay.

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The Minstrel's Tale
goldie, bears, beastman, jotun

“Golden Locks Kittlebee, if I have to tell you one more time to put down the axe, you are going to be in some serious trouble!” fumed Myrna. With her arms akimbo and a scowl on her face, the plump, greying woman was a formidable sight. Goldie sighed and rolled her eyes in protest, but carefully stowed the axe on its rack in the shed.

“Mother, you just don’t understand,” the teenager whined as she scuffed her way over to her irritated parent. “Weaponsmaster Careg told me that if I don’t practice with my axe every minute, I’ll never get to try out her Great Axe. And I really, realllllly want to use the Great Axe.” She raised an arm to wipe the sweat off her forehead, and pulled a face as she encountered the stench from her armpit. Gross. Maybe it was time to quit, after all.
Myrna, who had heard this same excuse for weeks now, ignored her daughter’s words and directed her toward the wash basin. “Golden Locks, cut the chatter and get yourself presentable. Yes, that means a long dress,” she said, anticipating Goldie’s next complaint.
“Did you forget that the minstrels are coming tonight? It’s midsummer night, and the Historian has promised to give the Lay of Kittlebee.”

At that, Goldie brightened. She loved the Historian, with his gruff manner and long, hairy dewlap. Although the hulking beastman pretended to be constantly irritated at the horde of village children who pestered him for stories, he was always ready with a new tale. Goldie’s favorite stories were about the mischievous duo of Raven and Fox. Northern beastpeople only gave true animal names to their mythical heroes, and sly Fox with his mate, clever Raven, were some of the most popular. No one could deliver the stories quite like the Historian. His moose characteristics were very pronounced, and he used his palmate antlers as props to display the moon that Raven stole as a bride-gift for Fox, or the sun that Fox gave her in return.

Once she was properly garbed in her only dress, Goldie made her way to the village green where the minstrels and tinkers had set up their small faire. She wandered about until she met up with a pack of her friends, and the human-formed teenagers took turns lobbing baked apples into the mouths of those who were bear-formed. Eventually it was story time, and the villagers eagerly gathered around the Story Fire, most reclining against the furry flank of a family member. There were rumors that the Historian had an apprentice, and Goldie in particular was eager to hear the new tales that he spun.

With a crash of cymbals, the minstrels signaled the start of a tale. A husky figure stepped through the curtain, and the crowd murmured in wonder as they beheld the new storyteller. He was a young beast man, the equivalent of an older teen human, and his beast was… a bear. His head was broad and covered in short black fur, with the typical rounded ears of a bear. His forehead sloped down to meet a humanoid mouth with a bear’s protruding nose. His shoulders were broad, and his body heavy enough to be called fat. Goldie was transfixed.
He was the handsomest man she’d ever seen.

Out of his mouth, in a pleasantly growly bass voice, came not the tale that they expected, but a caution. Other villages, not far away, had reported people going missing, just as they had decades ago when the Jotun were in power. A wash of fear swept palpably over the audience. “Are the Jotun stealing people from our neighbors?” a man cried out. “I can’t go through this again!” screeched an older woman, whose sons had all been turned to bears and not regained their human forms. Cheff and Myrna, Goldie’s parents, looked at each other with fear evident on their faces. They had both been fortunate enough to turn back to human after a time, but many in the village hadn’t, and no one had ever forgotten how awful it was to become something that you were not.

The bear man raised his pawlike hands for silence, and said, “No one has gone missing from as far south as Lovis, but we are spreading the word that the villages must be wary. None of the villages have forgotten what happened to Kittlebee. Although I am a naturally-born beast man, I know that the bears of Kittlebee did not choose their fate. You have created here a haven for beast people and humans to live in harmony, and the value of that cannot be denied. Our troupe must move on in the morning, to keep letting others know, and we hope that all can be as courageous as the people of Kittlebee.” He moved back as Cheff, to Goldie’s surprise, moved to stand in his place.

“My friends,” he said, his voice ringing out over the silent crowd, “this is news that we have always known was a possibility, and one that we have prepared for. Sigmund,” he indicated his ursine brother, the de facto leader of the bears of Kittlebee, “has already agreed that we must speed the training of the young warriors. The bears have agreed to be mounts for our warriors, human and beast man alike, should the need arise. They are larger than normal bears, and as we all know, fierce warriors in their own right. Kittlebee will never fall again,” he finished, with a dangerous gleam in his eye. The villagers roared their agreement, most literally, and Goldie moved away from the crowd to digest the news.

A furred hand grasped her elbow, and she looked up into the black eyes of the minstrel. “I’ll wipe out the Jotun scum that did this to my people,” she told him, her voice shaking with emotion. She somehow knew that he would understand her depth of feeling. “In just a few years, I’ll be ready to venture out and kill every one of them for how they’ve hurt my family and my friends.” The beast man, holding both of her arms now, slid his hands up to gently cup her face.

“I believe you will, Little Warrior,” he said softly, and to Goldie’s utter shock, he kissed her lightly. She quickly recovered and managed to kiss him back until she became breathless. Hands and paws roamed everyone until she noticed that they’d somehow ended up near the minstrel’s wagons. “Wait,” she panted, “I don’t even know your name!” To her surprise, he laughed. “I don’t have one yet, although some have started calling me Deepsong, for my voice. Perhaps you’ll find something better to call me, before the night is over,” he added, rumbling suggestively as he ran his hand over her ribs. Looking into his handsome face, Goldie could only nod.

**

In the morning, Honeytongue left with the rest of the minstrel troupe. Goldie couldn’t help the wide grin that graced her features for the entire day. She’d named him well.

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Nameless' Vengeance

Snoring. Maybe dreaming. For sure, not conscious. I could not feel the presence in my room. I could not hear the door flaps slap closed. I did not know it was all going according to plan.

Across town, in every house, apartment, hovel, even by the beds on the floor of the Hall on which the master fighters slept, a soldier stood quietly. None of them were ours. They waited for their signal with perfect patience. And soon, it came.

The same magic that forced the entire town to sleep forced us all to wake up. Eyes wide, we could do nothing we were not allowed to do. We each saw the soldier in our rooms. We each wore different expressions. Some, fear and mistrust. Some met their stare with eyes of stone. Some, like me, could feel the wrongness. Our eyes were wide, because we completely and perfectly understood what magic controlled us.

I could feel the compulsion spread through my veins and force me to stand, and I could feel the blood magic demand my submission. I fought it, I bared my teeth and grunted and roared and as I fought a mental battle the soldier in my room pulled a knife and slashed a neat hole in my side. Eyes wide I watched the blood hit the ground and my will was gone.

the will of the blood made me walk into the village with the rest and i am not the only one bleeding
noone i know escaped
all bled and forced to march we walk by the blood mage and can see a wide cruel smile splitting his lips AS HE COMES TO EACH OF US AND FORCES STEEL INTO OUR CHESTS WITHIN CENTIMETERS OF OUR HEARTS AND LACERATES OUR BODIES AND I WILL REMEMBER YOUR FUCKING FACE and my will is faded as the blood feeds on blood
__
[we march for miles and miles and miles until daylight comes and our captors ride their horses and wagons and our lacerated bodies are not even bleeding]
__
we reach a deep-mountains fortress
we are put in the center of a courtyard and the doors are closed

And at the same moment the magic is released and all the delayed misery and excruciation hits us in the same instant. Shrieks and yells and some of us collapse immediately, some of us simply die and we turn wildly and look around and need to know WHY ARE WE HERE?

But there are no answers.

~

More than half of the Beastmen that did not die immediately of blood loss and exhaustion attempted to force a way out. They beat on the doors until their fists broke open or legs gave out, they stood on each others shoulders to try and get over the wall, but if they got close to the top a guard on the top buried an ax in their head.

It was inexhaustibly clear that we had no control over our future.

Wanda glanced at me from across the courtyard, obscuring her face from the guards above by knotting her hands above her brow. She blew me a very soft kiss, and gave me a very weak smile. To catch it, I would have had to draw attention to myself. I would have had to move my body, too obvious an action in a sea of unmoving Beastmen. All I could do was give her a faint wink, trusting my horns to hide it from view.

Other couples had already been made an example of. The first to hold each other close received a volley of arrows in short order. The second simply held hands. The rest of us caught on.

Still, we had no idea what purpose this all served. It is plausible that the blood mage was under orders from someone. Maybe this was the beginning of a Beastman genocide. Thoughts cycled endlessly, and led me nowhere.

And then the gate opened. A guard walked in, no inch of skin uncovered by armor, taller than any Beastman here. He grabs the nearest one of us by the throat, and drags them in. None of us are close enough to act, and the gate slams shut.

It is during the second night that I quietly accept my death.

~

But it is just before the third night they tried to take her.

We were likely being chosen at random for whatever lay beyond the gate. There was no pattern to follow. For whatever reason, the guard walked immediately to Wanda, and began to drag her away.

I stood instantly and sprinted at him, war cry giving him warning. I think it was the sound of my voice that strengthened the broken resolve of the Beastmen assembled.

the fight is a jumble
we kill the big guard but the rest jump down and fight
we have no numbers no weapons no armor
we fight
we lose

(i think i die)

~

(and then i wake up)

It is mid-day, raining. I wake up softly. I roll the body off of me, sit up, look around. Everyone is dead. The guards, the Beastmen, Wanda. My heart shatters.

Why am I alive?

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