10 March, 103 CY
The sun arose over the ranch house owned by Rene and Amerie Shepherd that morning to find its occupants already awake and digging in to breakfast. Their son Aramis had arrived the day before, marking the first return to his hometown since his wife had died almost two years before. In that time, he had entered the clergy of the goddess of death, the mysterious Raven Queen, a fact that his family seemed loathe to accept. A young woman called Azal, whom he’d met and befriended in Brindinford, the city where he’d made his new home, had accompanied him on this journey. Though the Shepherds had been hesitant to let a tiefling into their home, their sense of hospitality (and some prodding from Aramis’s more worldly sister-in-law Iva) had shamed them into accepting Azal as a guest.
They had come in response to a request Aramis had received in a letter from Kerowyn Hucrele, the owner of the largest trading company based in Oakhurst, and a personal friend. Her son Talgen and daughter Sharwyn had gone missing near an ancient ruin west of Oakhurst, and no one had heard from them in weeks. She’d asked Aramis to help her find her children. He’d asked Azal to come along since Talgen had been the one to introduce them.
While they were finishing breakfast, Aramis’s brother Orson entered the house and pulled the boys’ father aside. They spoke in low voices for a moment before the older man excused himself from breakfast and followed his son back outside. Mrs. Shepherd looked at the door with a bit of concern, but she turned a smile on those at the table when she saw the watching her. “I’m sure it’s nothing. Don’t you kids worry. Ranch stuff.”
Aramis watched them leave, but allowed Orson’s wife Iva to distract him with a bowl of potatoes. “Tubers are good for the soul,” she said, to which her mother-in-law simply rolled her eyes good naturedly. Azal’s eyes flicked curiously from those leaving to her friend and then to the food.
Aramis began to help himself commenting, “Did you try these, Azal? Mother never did tell me the secret ingredient.”
The tiefling’s eyes grew big as she took in the spread of food, and she shook her head. “No I haven’t yet… I would love to try though,” she said, reaching out for bowl as he passed it over.
“I imagine so,” he said, smiling. “Days on the road with only hard tack and no end to the rain. And now, a feast!” Azal smiled gently at Aramis, pleased to see that he seemed to be in a better mood than he had on the trip from Brindinford, where she’d grown up. She had her own reservations about how well his family was really accepting her presence. Still, the home cooked meal was certainly helping to ease the tension. A bit. Aramis prompted her to have some more. “It’s a long way into Oakhurst, so eat all you can. There’s more where that came from.”
Iva took a seat next to Azal and asked, “So, how’d you meet Aramis, sweetie? Last night, I think I heard something about a mutual friend, but I’m afraid I was a little preoccupied with Henri.”
Noticing his friend’s hesitation, the young man answered for her, “Talgen introduced us. You know, Madame Hucrele’s son? He was at the military academy in Brindinford.”
Azal picked at her food a bit, still not eating much, and said in a low voice, “Talgen was kind to me in Brindinford. We’ve become close friends.”
Aramis nodded, “He was usually busy there, so Azal agreed to show me around the city when I first arrived.”
Iva looked between the two of them, nodding in reply to their explanation. “So, you’re something of a tour guide, then?” she asked Azal.
The tiefling looked up at Iva and smiled shyly, “Well I wouldn’t say that… I just know the town well. I’ve lived there all my life,” her voice trailed off, and she seemed surprised to have strung two sentences together.
“I think we were both grateful for the company,” Aramis said warmly.
Iva laughed, an infectious sound, and said, “Don’t worry, Azal. I didn’t mean it to sound like I was giving you the third degree. I was just curious.”
“Of course,” the tiefling responded succinctly. She looked gratefully at both Aramis and Iva and smiled, beginning to eat a bit more heartily.
Breakfast continued uninterrupted until Mr. Shepherd returned from outside, wiping his hands. A few red streaks were threatening to stain his clothing, and he walked over to the basin where he began to wash up.
“Father? Everything all right?” Aramis asked with a frown, starting to get up. Azal’s eyes flitted back and forth from Aramis to his father.
The older man grunted, not looking up from washing his hands. “Lost a ram. Not sure to what.”
Aramis stood and put his plates away. “I’ll take a look,” he told his father.
“Want some help?” Azal asked.
She nodded quietly and likewise put her plate away before following him out the door. Mr. Shepherd paused in his washing to watch over his shoulder as his son walked out the door.
Azal moved quickly behind Aramis, grabbing her cloak and wrapping it around her as they walked. The priest commented, “I was up for half the night, and I didn’t hear any of the dogs barking. Does seem strange.” His eyes scanned the yard, seeking his brother. He spotted Orson busily preparing to salvage what meat he could from the dead ram. It hung from the thick limb of an oak in the side yard.
“Is there anyone in town that would attempt anything against your family?” Azal wanted to know.
Aramis shook his head, “Not that I know of. We used to have a bit of a rivalry with the Redwing farm, until my sister married one of them…”
Orson looked up as the pair walked over, frowning deeply. “What? Gonna do some work around here again?”
Aramis didn’t slow as he approached, “If need be. Do you know what happened to him, Orson?” Azal stayed close behind her friend, remaining quiet.
Orson picked up a blade, his face sour as he prepared to begin his work. “Predator, most like.”
Aramis examined the carcass, noting that it appeared to have been pierced by dozens of needlelike claws. Turning to Azal he said, “We’ve had wild dogs, even wolves before…but something got in and did this without bothering any of the dogs.” He paused a moment before continuing his train of thought, “Unless…are the dogs accounted for?” Orson looked up at his brother, giving him a “Do You Think I’m A Total Idiot” look.
Missing the exchange, Azal’s face grew worried, “This is different though…”
Turning away from Orson, Aramis said, “I think you’re right, Azal. Look here…”
She knelt near the carcass asking, “What is it?”
They could both hear Orson’s teeth grinding as Azal approached, but he made way for their examination. He exhaled loudly and then began to speak again. “Ain’t the first we heared of this sort of attack,” he admitted grudgingly. “Jist the first we seen it firsthand.”
Aramis looked up, “Oh? What have you heard?” Azal’s eyes widened and she listened to the two.
Orson shrugged, “Similar wounds. Ain’t nothin’ but thorns to be found. Some of ‘em bled out, only ain’t nobody found enough blood to account fer how much was lost.” He shivered a bit, “Unsettlin’ is what it is…”
Aramis nodded and replied in a quiet voice, “Agreed.”
Orson shook himself, and his voice became gruff again, “But this ain’t yer concern no more, brother.” He made the final word sound a curse. Azal stood back up and glared a bit at Orson, surprised by his words.
Aramis was unfazed. “Fate brought it to my attention. That makes it my concern.”
His brother only scowled harder at him, “I got work to do. You and Fate see yerselves elsewhere.”
The priest gave Orson a level look, replying calmly, “As you like it. Come, Azal. Let’s finish packing.” He headed back toward the house without a backward glance. Her face twisted in confusion at the way Orson had acted towards his own family, but then Azal turned to follow Aramis, a forced smile on her face. Neither noticed Iva watching the exchange through the window.
Aramis stopped his dark muttering when Azal noticed that he was doing it. “Tell me what to do,” she said gently, “I’m here to help as much as possible.”
He sighed heavily. “Let’s just get to the village. I’d like to find out what Madame knows before we start looking for Talgen and the others.” He paused at the front door, looking Azal in the eyes, “I may have made a mistake coming back here. No point making it any worse by hanging around.”
Azal nodded and looked worried again by both her friend’s words and by the mention of Talgen’s name. “My things are already packed. I left them that way last night as I wasn’t sure how long we would linger here. I’m ready when you are.”
Iva gave each of them a comforting look as they walked back inside the house. Aramis paused before announcing, “We should be on our way.”
Iva nodded, “I’m sorry about Orson. He’s just…concerned. This strangeness…and Henri.” Her face grew pained for a moment and her voice softened.
Aramis paused in the act of gathering his things, “What about Henri?”
Iva shook her head, “We don’t know, really…”
Aramis crossed the room to his sister-in-law. “Tell me, Iva. Please.”
She averted her gaze until Amerie intervened, placing her hands on her son’s shoulders. “There now, boy. Don’t push. It’s a sensitive matter, and now is not the time.”
He looked back and said, “Very well, Mother,” although the look indicated that the issue wasn’t closed. He continued packing his belongings, squeezed into his chainmail, then grabbed his pack and crook.
Azal wanted to say something, but wisely bit her tongue, not wanting to intrude on personal matters. She was not really sure how to deal with the emotional scene in front of her, and so she stayed well out of it. She pulled the hood of her cloak up around her hair and horns and nodded at Aramis to let him know she was ready. Seeing the gesture, Aramis said his goodbyes and began to head out the door.
His mother intercepted him and gave him a big hug. “Don’t be a stranger. We love you, you know…” Over her shoulder he could see Iva offer a sad smile.
He nodded, still frowning. “I know. I’ll be back.” He paused, seeming to struggle with the words, “I…I love you, too.” Then he turned and left, Azal following closely in his wake with her head down.
. . .
The sun shined across the plains as the pair made their way east along the New Road from the Shepherd family ranch to the village of Oakhurst. It was a few hours trip, and as they walked they could see the Ashen Plain, a sandy wasteland to their right, shimmering in the morning light. They drew nearer to the town, noting several other people going about their morning chores, bringing in carts full of produce, wool, and other items to sell or trade. A pair of young humans, male and female dressed in leather armor and holding quarterstaffs, stood watch on the outskirts of Oakhurst near a two-story building. The young man hailed them as they approached.
“Good morrow, travelers,” he said, eyeing both their assorted equipment curiously and flinching a bit at the sight of the tiefling, standing slightly behind. She fidgeted with her cloak under the young man’s inquisitive gaze, pulling the cowl lower to better cover her horns. “What brings you to Oakhurst?”
Aramis replied directly, “Calling on Madame Hucrele to search for her missing children. I am Brother Aramis, recently of Brindinford, and this is my companion Azal.” The tiefling was content to let the priest do the talking.
“Madame Hucrele, you say?” the guard asked hesitantly, but his partner interrupted.
“Aramis? Izzat you?” she asked with a smile.
“I am,” he said, trying to place the woman’s face or voice. After a second or so, recognition dawned and he exclaimed, “Lu!”
“Hah! Ye do remember!” she returned, pleased. “It’s been awhile. Brindinford? What’s the big city got that we ain’t got, eh?”
Aramis looked around, searching for a response. He finally settled on, “Now that I’m back, I can’t recall.”
Lu turned to her partner and said, “Ben, you remember Aramis, don’t ye?” He stammered uncertainly, his eyes continuing to flit to the tiefling still standing behind the priest. For her part, Azal watched the two of them, and smiled softly at the friendliness Lu was showing Aramis.
“From the sheep ranch off the Old Road,” Aramis supplied helpfully, before frowning at the man’s continued scrutiny of his friend.
Lu, oblivious to her partner’s attitude said, “Madame Hucrele’s practically adopted son? Damn, man! Don’t you pay attention to anything ‘round here?”
Ben seemed to snap back to the conversation, “Ah. A shepherd, you say?” he said dubiously.
Azal stifled a giggle and tried to cover it with a cough, but Aramis could tell what was really distracting Ben, and it made him more than a little uncomfortable. “I left about two years ago,” he said finally, before Lu shoved Ben behind her and took control of their half of the conversation.
“Aye, that sounds right. Right after, well… You have my condolences. Our condolences.” She poked Ben with her staff, and he muttered something noncommittal.
“Thank you,” Aramis said quietly.
“So, ye’re back to visit Hucrele, eh? She’ll be glad of that,” continued Lu.
Aramis nodded uncertainly, asking, “Is there anything going on around town we should know about?”
Lu snorted, “Ain’t much ever really changes ‘round here. A strange predator killin’ livestock out in the more distant farms and such, but…”
Aramis nodded, “We witnessed some strangeness this morning, I believe.”
She paused, apparently having remembered something. “And, you know, it’s strange. I just caught that you were here about the Hucrele kids. I guess they been missin’ a couple weeks or more now.”
“Yes, that’s why we’ve come,” the priest replied.
“Yes. Right,” Lu said, seeming to take an actual look at the priest for the first time. She placed a hand on the holy symbol across Aramis’s chest and asked “What’s this, then?”
“I now serve the Raven Queen, spinner of fate,” he said, automatically shrinking away from her touch.
She seemed not to notice and whistled appreciatively, “Well, now. Comin’ up from sheep to souls, then eh? Or do I misremember me stories?”
Aramis shook his head, “No, you’re not wrong.”
Ben interjected, “Lu, I think you’ve kept him long enough. I’m sure he and his…companion have business to be about.”
Azal noticed Ben’s demeanor for the first time, an almost hurt look forming on her face before she shook it off and turned a smile on the priest, “Yes, I’m sure your friend is waiting for us Aramis.”
Lu looked over her shoulder, then back at the pair smiling, “Too right. Sorry ‘bout that, sirrah. Madam. Off ye go. Ye know the way still, I wager.”
“I do.” He frowned at Ben before turning back to Lu, “Thank you. I’ll be around.”
He began to walk away, leading Azal toward House Hucrele. The tiefling followed quickly after, catching her friend’s mood. “You okay, Aramis?” she asked.
“Fine,” he said absently. “I just want to get this over with.”
They both overheard Ben speaking to Lu in a tone that did not quite fail to carry. They only caught part of the sentence, ”...devil…witch…” but that was enough. Azal stopped for a moment and turned her head swiftly at the words, causing her raised cowl to fall. Aramis noted that her hands trembled a bit. He touched her shoulder and said in a voice that he hoped was reassuring, “They’re small people, Azal. They don’t know any better.” She nodded once, her face softening at his words, and then followed him wordlessly.
They heard an unusual sound that caused their ears to perk up as they walked down the street towards Madame Hucrele’s abode. A man’s voice, a delightful tenor, was singing somewhere nearby. They looked around for the source of the song and within moments they had found it. Sitting with his back to the town well, a young handsome halfling sang while looking up into the sky, apparently counting clouds.
“Bink’s Sake is getting warm! I have to deliver it…”
In addition to Aramis and Azal, other villagers stopped their morning errands to listen to the halfling’s song. Seeing an audience, he stood up and continued.
“Across the waves and through the skies until it comes back home!”
He tumbled toward Azal and Aramis, ending on his knees while presenting a wildflower to the lady.
“Will you come along with me, to deliver Bink’s Sake?”
Azal looked at Aramis and then back to the singer, giggling slightly. “Another friend of yours?” Smiling broadly, the halfling bowed with a flourish as the lyrics reverberated through the morning air and he finished with a crescendo.
“Across the waves and through the skies until we come back home!”
Aramis almost forgot why he’d even come to Oakhurst, so enraptured was he by the strange song. “I don’t think so,” he said. “I feel sure I’d remember this man.”
Azal nodded, “He sure is an interesting fellow.” Realizing that the song was concluded, there was a scattering of applause before people went back about their business.
The halfling looked over the pair – the female twice – before saying, “You have the look of adventure about you!”
“We…yes. We are on a mission, of sorts. Mister…?” replied Aramis cautiously.
In response the small man smiled even more broadly, grinning from ear to ear. “Great! You know that there’s kids missing here…and I’m going to go find ‘em. You should get your gear together so we can go. From now on, we’re an adventuring party.” He seemed quite satisfied to have made this decision himself. At the words “adventuring party” several nearby villagers make a sign used to ward off bad luck.
“I…” Aramis looked to Azal, a little lost.
The tiefling stared at the halfling, a bit shocked. “You know of the missing kids?” She turned to Aramis and said, “We probably could use the help…”
Recovering his wits, the priest nodded, “Agreed.”
As he walked over to the well to gather his belongings, the halfling spoke loudly over his shoulder. “Yes, I heard about it all the way from Ossington. So…Red Lady and Raven Man…let’s get a going or the adventure will start without us.”
“Ossington’s pretty far from here,” Aramis commented, but Azal was grinning down at the halfling, thoroughly amused.
“Well I guess that settles it, we are an adventuring party,” she said. “But…what is your name?”
“Who me?” the halfling asked, pointing a thumb at his chest. “I’m Owen Highhill of the Ossington Highhills. I’m going to be the greatest adventurer out there,” he said as though saying that the sky was blue. Azal’s smile grew.
“Yes, well,” said Aramis, trying to get the conversation back on task, “We were just about to call on the woman who needs our help.”
“That’s a good idea, Raven Man. Or else we might not know who to return the kids to,” the halfling replied, laughing heartily. Azal stifled another giggle. Tugging on his miniature scale mail armor, Owen motioned for the other two to come closer. As they did so he continued, his face serious, “But…I have to ask…”
“Work at a pet shop?”
Azal’s face twisted in confusion, and Aramis replied, very matter-of-factly, “No.”
Owen nodded seriously, “Ah, so then you are a priest.”
The cleric nodded, “Just so. I am Brother Aramis, and this is Azal.” Owen nodded with understanding, and Azal, shaking off her confusion smiled down at him once more.
“It’s nice to meet you Owen,” she said.
“It is indeed,” offered Aramis.
He extended a hand to each of them, which they accepted, “Good to meet you as well. You know, it’s bad to assume things about a person right off based on appearances. So I had to ask about the pet shop.”
Aramis, warming a little, said, “I understand.” He turned to look across the street, “The house we’re looking for is just over here.”
The indicated house, situated across New Road from the Ol’ Boar Inn, was the largest in the village, having two stories and encompassing a full “block” as such things were measured in Oakhurst. A wide wooden deck bounded three of its four sides on both levels, each surrounded by a sturdy white wooden railing. A large placard identified the building as Hucrele House, and the image of a heron was adeptly carved beneath the words. The small lawn was kept tidy, and the path to the front steps cleared of debris. Short steps led up to the porch before a set of elaborately carved wooden double doors. Everything about the building’s appearance suggested that this was a successful merchant organization.
“Should we go ahead and head over,” asked the tiefling. “I’m sure she will be glad to see you Aramis.”
“Of course,” he said, sounding like he was steeling himself anyway. He began walking toward the house, and Azal followed while pulling the cowl of her cloak back over her head.
Shrugging lightly, Owen picked up his backpack and walked with the others toward the house. He stopped and looked up at the sign as he approached.
Aramis went straight to the doors and knocked, but Azal stopped short behind Owen and asked, “Something interesting?”
Owen nodded seriously, “It’s a very nice house. It must have very nice people in it.”
She smiled down at him and said, “Lets follow Aramis in and find out then.”
The doors opened a few moments later revealing a servant dressed in white trimmed with blue. Looking down her nose, the girl takes you all in with a quick glance.
“Aramis Shepherd and friends to see Madame Hucrele,” the priest said without preamble.
“State your business,” she said curtly.
Aramis nodded, pulling the letter from his pouch to show to the girl, “We’re here about her missing children.”
She took the letter, eyes widening a bit at the wax seal and nodded, “I’ll speak to the mistress at once. You may wait inside, please?” She stepped back, holding the doors open.
“Thank you,” Aramis replied, leading the others inside.
Suddenly, Owen said loudly, “You have a tail, too! That’s so amazing! I wish that I had one.” The others whirled to find him looking under Azal’s cloak, which he had lifted up to see better. His outburst had startled the servant who looked at him sternly, but he did not notice. Azal was looking down at the halfling, shock evident on her face. She seemed at a loss. Owen muttered a bit under his breath. “Why can’t I have one? That’s really not fair now that I think about it.” Then he looked directly at Azal and demanded, “Gimme one.”
She frowned, turning to follow Aramis and motioning for Owen to do the same, “Well you can’t have one…I was born with it.” Owen followed along, scowling with his arms crossed.
A spacious foyer lay just beyond the double front doors with a number of padded benches lining the decorated walls. Paintings of natural scenes, hunting mounts, and a number of other rustic adornments prevailed. The girl gestured toward the benches and said, “I am Adell, the lady’s handmaiden. Please take a seat. I will inform Madame Hucrele that you have arrived.” She seemed to consider Aramis for a moment, before offering a small smile. In a warmer voice she said, “I’m sure she’ll want me to send you up right away.” She made her way through the doors opposite the foyer. Aramis propped his crook against the wall and sat on his hands. He looked around at the bric-a-brac even though it was all very familiar.
Azal shook her head at Owen and then took a seat near Aramis. “Stop pouting and sit, Owen,” she said sternly. The halfling contented himself with picking up various interesting trinkets to examine before replacing them on different tables.
Adell returned less than a minute later and beckoned for the adventurers to follow her. She led them up the stairs beyond the door through which she’d exited earlier and knocked upon a white wooden door with the heron crest painted on it. A deeper, but still feminine voice replies from within, “Come in.” Adell dropped a quick curtsy and took her leave. Nodding to her as she left, Aramis opened the door. Whereas the exterior and more publicly visible sections of the house projected success and prosperity, this room imparted a feeling of frantic despair. A middle-aged woman whose hair must once have been red sat at a large oak desk within this untidy study, a series of apparently disorganized parchments spread out before her. She appeared to have collected herself only moments before, and she smiled up at the “adventurers”, beckoning for them each to take one of the chairs in front of the desk. She seemed to change her mind, for she suddenly rose from her chair and walked around the desk to approach Aramis. She stood much shorter than the priest and wavered uncertainly before him for a moment before impulsively leaning forward into a hug.
Startled, Aramis almost leapt out of his skin before accepting the gesture. “I’m… It’s good to see you, Madame.”
“I’m glad you’ve come,” she murmured into Aramis’s tabard, sudden tears spilling down the Raven Queen’s image.
“I only wish our reunion had come in a happier hour,” he intoned, slowly but surely extricating himself from her embrace. When he had succeeded he introduced his companions, “May I present Azal, a friend from Brindinford who has agreed to help us. She is a friend to myself and to your son. And this is Owen Highhill, from Ossington.” The two nodded acknowledgement as Madame Hucrele stepped back a bit and smiled at them warmly.
“Thank you for coming. I am Kerowyn Hucrele,” she said, once more beckoning to the chairs and picking up a stack of papers that was piled in one of them. “Please, have a seat.”
Azal made her way into the room sitting on the edge of the left chair, maneuvering a bit so her tail wasn’t in the way. Owen bowed from the waist, his eyes never leaving the old woman, before he entered and moved to stand next to Azal’s chair. Aramis took the chair beside the tiefling, leaning on the arms and steepling his fingers beneath his chin. “Now, then. Tell me everything.”
Madame Hucrele smiled sadly, “Still so direct.” He simply nodded. “Very well. The children…that is Talgen and Sharwyn, came home to visit home a month past. Talgen was in the company of two men. A Sir Braford and a man simply called Karakas.”
Azal frowned at the mention of Talgen’s name, an extremely worried look came over her face. “Sir Braford we met in Brindinford. The other name I don’t recognize,” said Aramis.
“Karakas…he’s a ranger,” Owen added in a serious tone.
Aramis looked at the halfling, surprised, “Do you know him?” Owen nodded, still seemingly intent on the tale.
Madame Hucrele nodded, “He did have the air of a woodsman about him. The boys were exchanging exciting tales. I presumed they were fictional. Sharwyn got caught up in it and mentioned the ruin in the rift.” She paused a moment before continuing, “And then they began to talk about going there. I told Talgen that I didn’t want him taking his sister off into danger. He was insistent that they would all be alright. He assured me they had no intention of going down into the rift itself…so, I told them it was alright to go and camp for the night.”
Azal frowned, “Talgen isn’t one to lie.” Her voice trailed off quickly like she was surprised she had commented.
Madame Hucrele nodded at the tiefling, “He’s never lied to me before, but then they didn’t come back. I’ve asked others to go search, even posted a reward. And now, you three have answered…”
Aramis interjected quickly, “We’ve come to bring them home.”
Azal nodded, a serious look on her face, “Talgen was…is a good friend. I’m sure we’ll find him.”
Her face pained, Madame Hucrele said, “I wouldn’t even ask. I am loathe to put more young people in danger, but…I’m so scared something has happened to them.”
“Where is the rift?” Owen wanted to know.
She looked down at the halfling, “It is about half a day’s walk down the Old Road. I’m told the entrance is at the ruin of an old bridge.”
Aramis also looked at Owen, “Shouldn’t be hard to find.” Then he turned back to Madame Hucrele, “Azal is right. We’ll find them.”
Owen nodded, “I see…” Then he picked up his bag and walked out the door with a quick, wink to Madame Hucrele, “We’ll see you again soon!”
Startled at the abrupt departure, she stammered, “Th- Thank you. Thank you so much.” Her eyes glossed over with unshed tears. Aramis also looked a little dismayed, but he stood and patted her hand. She smiled at him gratefully. “Please return safely. All of you. And find my children. Aramis, I…”
He shook his head, “There’s no need for words now. We’ll be back soon.” She nodded wordlessly.
Azal stood and started after Owen. “Better catch him before he gets too far ahead,” she explained. Her eyes came to rest on Madame Hucrele. “Well do our best,” she promised before exiting the room. “Damn, he’s fast.” Aramis, a bit reluctantly, followed after. Adell mentioned the reward for returning the Hucrele children while the group was walking out, but only Azal seemed inclined to listen.
Outside, Owen stood near a wheelbarrow, eyeing it appreciatively. The other two heard him muttering, “Now only if we had a holocaust cloak.”
Azal said, “So Aramis, what’s the plan? Do we head out now and camp near there?” Owen was clumsily attempting to push the wheelbarrow away from Hucrele’s house, but he didn’t seem to be having much success. He looked up at Azal and Aramis hopefully.
Aramis raised an eyebrow, “Do you… need this?” Azal gave the halfling an equally puzzled look.
“Adventurers find things,” Owen explained. “Things that can fit in a wheelbarrow.” Then the halfling put a finger up into the air as if he had an important point to make, “But! Why take an empty wheelbarrow? It doesn’t make sense. We should obviously fill it before we leave and then we can come back with it filled with other things. Things that fit in wheelbarrows.”
“But it isn’t our wheelbarrow,” Aramis began before he shrugged, “Although Madame probably won’t mind if we borrow it.”
Azal eyed both of them askance, “We don’t need the wheelbarrow.”
Aramis seemed to return to his senses, then. “No. No, I don’t think we do. Does anyone have any more business in town?”
Azal shook her head, “I’m ready to head out when you are.”
“Nice though it would be to visit the old haunts, I hate to lose any more time,” said Aramis. “Let’s go.”
The tiefling smiled gently at Aramis, a hopeful look in her eyes. “Maybe we can visit them with Talgen when we return,” she suggested.
The priest didn’t smile, but it looked like he thought about it, “Right.”
The three adventurers traveled past the rest of the buildings in Oakhurst, hooking a right just past the shrine, which appears to revere Avandra, Moradin, and Pelor. A weird mix of emotions washed over Aramis’s face as he passed the shrine. Azal hurried past the shrine, ending up a bit ahead of Aramis and Owen. The overgrown Old Road wound through rocky downs, near stands of old-growth oak, and past a handful of abandoned farm shacks. The lonely road was empty of all other travelers. Owen began to sing again as they walked away from the village.
“March along with me.
March to the place where there is no sunrise.
Marching away to where there is no sunset.
There’s treasure and adventure and maybe some glory.
Come march along and be part of the story!”
As the song ended Aramis said, “Stay alert,” though he seemed to be miles away himself. Azal nodded and began to walk a little ahead of Owen taking note of the group’s surroundings. Then he asked the halfling, “Owen, do you know this Karakas?”
Owen stopped humming the tuned to his song long enough to answer. “Yes, I do… He was around Ossington for a while. He was a ranger, and a fairly skilled one as I recall.”
“Hmm,” said Aramis, considering this new information. Then he made a request of his new companion, “Tell me about yourself.”
Looking shocked, Owen replied, “Oh, I guess there’s not that much to say.”
“I’d like to hear it, still and all,” the priest prompted him.
“Well, adventuring is in my blood, and I want to help people. So that’s what I’m going to do,” said the halfling, warming to the subject.
“Really? You’re in it to help people?” asked Aramis, a bit skeptical.
Owen nodded. “You see,” he said, his voice getting a bit more serious. “Life doesn’t have to be as complicated as we make it. It can really be so very simple if we just let it be. Do what your heart desires, and nothing can stop you. Even if you die, if you die doing what you like to do then there’s no regret. And what I want to do is help people, by adventuring.”
Aramis nodded, apparently impressed by the answer. “You and I may have more in common than I thought.”
Owen smiled, “People try to be a lot more complicated than they are. It’s really so much easier to be well…blunt and simple.”
Aramis countered, “Not everyone appreciates a direct approach. I know.”
Azal looked back at Owen and frowned. “Things are not always so simple,” she said cryptically before turning her attention back to the road ahead.
Nodding seriously, Owen confessed, “Yes, I’ve had to learn to lie and cheat and steal, but I try not to hurt anyone.”
“Really,” said Aramis flatly. “I don’t know that I’ve ever done any of those things.”
A smile crossed Owen’s lips as he said, “You’ve lied before.”
“Have I?” asked the priest.
“Of course,” stated the halfling, matter-of-factly. Azal slid her hood off, listening to the conversation while staying ahead of them.
“When?” Aramis said.
“I don’t know!” said Owen, laughing. “I don’t know you at all.”
Aramis arched an eyebrow briefly, then changed the subject. “Have you been in any battles?”
“Yes, many,” Owen admitted.
“See, that’s something else I have never experienced,” said the priest. “Although I had to drive some dire rats off the farm once…”
“Most of my fights have been against things like goblins, never anything major though,” said the halfling. “Enough to sharpen my skills with a sword.”
“Still more than I’ve seen,” said Aramis.
The halfling’s eyes brightened. “Maybe I could show you a thing or two sometime.”
Aramis’s almost drifted into reverie, “I’d like that.” After a pause he continued, “Mind you, I’m no stranger to death. It’s the violent part I’m not familiar with.”
Azal chimed in again from the front, “Maybe we’ll need your skills once we hit the rift.”
Owen entered a mock combat while walking along, narrating, “When I focus my attention on the enemy, he can’t help but to pay attention to me. It’s deadly otherwise. Even the slightest distraction can mean your life. DO YOU HEAR ME? YOUR LIFE, ENEMY!” Then the halfling sheathed his imaginary sword.
Aramis watched Owen very carefully, then said, “Azal’s been in a scrape or two, or so she tells me.”
The tiefling nodded and said, “You have to when you live on the streets.”
Owen looked ahead to the tiefling, calling out, “Red Lady, don’t you want to come walk with us? Or…” He quickened his pace, “I see what you are getting at… You want to be the first one to the rift!” Owen began to jog along as though he had just begun some sort of race with Azal.
She smirked down at him, “It’s not that… I’m just trying to make sure there isn’t anything menacing that might eat a little halfling.”
“If something tried to eat a little halfling, I’d defend the poor li’l guy,” said Owen seriously. Aramis failed to keep his eyes from rolling and tried to keep up. Owen began singing again, between thrusts of his redrawn imaginary sword.
Azal giggled at him, “Save you energy… we’ll need it later.”
The halfling nodded. “Sure, I feel danger on our path.” He smiled again, “I just can’t wait!”
Azal shook her head and grinned back at Aramis, who found it hard not to smile himself.
. . .
The afternoon waned as they walked and talked, though they were untroubled along the Old Road. As evening approached, they approached a scar in the earth. The Old Road passed to the east of a narrow ravine. At the road’s closest approach to the cleft, several broken pillars jutted from the earth where the ravine widened and opened into something more akin to a deep but narrow canyon. Two of the pillars stood straight, but most of them leaned against the sloped earth. Others were broken, and several had apparently fallen into the darkness-shrouded depths. A few similar pillars were visible on the opposite side of the ravine.
Azal looked back at Aramis, “Think this is the bridge?”
He nodded, “I think this must be the place.” They began to look around the area.
The pillars were generally worn and broken, and graffiti in the Dwarven alphabet covered most of them. A sturdy knotted rope had been tied to one of the leaning pillars and hung down into the darkness below. Judging by its condition, the rope couldn’t have been tied there any longer than three weeks before. Looking down, Aramis could see older and weathered hand- and footholds had been carved into the cliff face. The area in and around the pillars had hosted countless small campfires, some of them recent. However, someone had gone to some effort to hide the evidence of the camps from casual scrutiny.
Peering down into the depths, Aramis commented, “Huh.” Then he indicated the writing on the pillars, “I know the letters, but not the language.”
Azal approached and examined the crude script. “It’s Goblin,” she said. “In not so many words, it says to stay away.”
Aramis nodded, “I’ve always been told that the goblins of the rift are territorial. More than one would-be thief came out here to try and steal one of their apples…”
At that, Owen perked up, “Apples you say? That would seem to be strange when you can just go to the bazaar and pick one up.”
The priest shook his head, “These are special apples. They cure anything that ails you, or so I’m told.” This seemed to remind him of something, for he suddenly turned to the tiefling and said, “Azal! You saw Henri yesterday. Did you see anything wrong with him?”
She looked up just as abruptly and put a finger to her lips while thinking. A few seconds later, she admitted, “No…not that I remember…”
“Nor did I,” he said, taking a deep breath. “I shouldn’t dwell on it. Fate wills what it will.”
She turned from him as he spoke of fate again and frowned a little to herself where neither of them could see.
Azal stood from where she was examining the pillars turning to look at her companions. “Well, this is apparently the entrance. Do we go now or camp for the night?” she asked.
Aramis nodded, “I’m inclined to press on, if the two of you agree.”
Owen shrugged, “Either is fine with me. We can probably solve this in an hour.”
Azal walked over to one of the campfire areas and bent down to touch it lightly. “I say we go now,” she said softly. “It’s obvious something happened here.”
“Agreed,” said the priest and halfling together.
Aramis dropped a stone into the rift to get a gauge of how deep it might be. The rock clattered against the stone floor after a second or so, indicating that the floor of the canyon must be at least a hundred feet below. Once the priest had a sunrod at the top of his pack, within easy reach, he climbed down the rope.
“Yell up when you are down, and I’ll come after,” said Azal.
“I can go down first, if you like,” the halfling said to her as the priest started his descent. “In case there are goblins.”
She smiled at Owen and patted the daggers sheathed down her leg, “Its fine. I think I can handle myself,” she asserted.
They all deftly descended the rope to find themselves atop a sandy ledge overlooking a subterranean gulf of darkness to the west. The ledge was wide but rough, covered by sand, rocky debris, and the bones of small animals. A roughly hewn stairwell zigged and zagged down the side of the ledge, descending into darkness. Aramis sparked a sunrod, illuminating the cracked but functional stairway. At the edge of sight, a fortress top emerged from the darkness. The subterranean citadel, though impressive, seemed long forgotten if the lightless windows, cracked crenellations, and leaning towers were any indication. All was quiet, though a cold breeze blew up from below, bringing with it the scent of dust and a faint trace of rot. Aramis started down the stairs, very slowly, looking around as he went. Azal followed after the priest and Owen hurried to catch up, drawing his sword.
The narrow stairs emptied into a small courtyard, apparently the top of what had once been a crenellated battlement. The buried citadel had sunk so far into the earth that the battlement was level with the surrounding cavern floor. The floor stretched away to the north and south, and it was apparently composed of a layer of treacherous, crumbled masonry, which reached to an unknown depth. To the west loomed the surviving structure of what must be the so-called Sunless Citadel. A tower stood on the west side of the courtyard, upon which was visible a simple wooden door. As they neared the bottom of the stairs, they noticed something lurking in the masonry debris. As their gazes passed over two sections of the rubble, they could see three sets of red, beady eyes gleaming in the alchemical light. The eyes glinted from either side of the stairs, three pairs in all.
Aramis swallowed loudly as Azal unsheathed a dagger from its leg strap and deftly lunged towards the glowing eyes in the rubble to their left. The dire rat squealed in pain as her dagger struck true, though it foamed at the mouth and came forward anyway. The creature must have been starving! Fortunately for the tiefling, it only caught boot leather in its filthy jaws. The other two came chittering from the north, bearing down on Aramis, and they began to savage the priest’s legs with their sharp teeth. As Owen stepped forward to defend the cleric, the floor fell out from under him, dumping him into a narrow pit. He landed hard but hopped right back up and climbed back to the surface in moments. The halfling growled at Aramis, “Back up. Slowly…cautiously.” The priest shook off the rats and nodded to the small warrior. He carefully shifted to the south, the pain in his legs excruciating, before he called upon the goddess to heal his wounds. The magic washed over him and stopped some of the bleeding. Thus revitalized, he leveled his hand at the dire rat nearest to him, striking out with a lance of pure faith. Unfortunately, his wounded legs shook at the last moment and the vermin skipped aside as the blast of holy energy struck where it had been standing.
The tiefling then took her dagger in both hands with a sly flourish and plunged it down at her dire rat’s head. Again she drove her blade down into the rat’s back, eliciting another squeal. The rat that had avoided Aramis’s attack chased the priest down, while the one next to Owen turned to try to eat him instead. The vermin had less luck getting through the adventurers’ defenses on their second lunge. Unfortunately, the rat nearest Azal, driven mad with the pain of its injuries, succeeded in to sinking its fangs into her leg, drawing forth a gush of blood. Owen’s blade dug deep into his rat’s hairy back, and he slammed his shield into it, forcing it back toward the pit. The creature was driven to the edge, but it managed to pull itself back up to the ground level, though it lay on the ground, exhausted from the effort. The halfling’s watchful eye stayed on the rat, watching its every twitch and daring it to move. Aramis shifted again, to stand beside Azal and attempted another holy ray upon her attacker. The rat, emboldened by the fresh taste of tiefling blood, easily evaded the lance. Snarling, the cleric drew upon his inner reserves of will and let fly with another lance. This time, vicious creature was seared away to nothingness, the holy energy leaving only a silhouette burned into the cobblestones.
Azal turned and ran past Aramis, grimacing slightly but managing a thankful nod. She moved toward the rat that had pursued the priest and boldly sliced at it with her dagger. It chittered angrily, tearing its gaze from Aramis to this new irritant. The rat lying prone picked itself up and lunged once more at Owen, but he easily prevented its teeth from gaining purchase in his flesh. Owen slammed his shield into the distracted rat, flanked between himself and Azal, and the surprised creature wheeled on the halfling, narrowly avoiding a fall into the pit. Following the shield slam, Owen quickly pierced the rat’s hide, rupturing its kidney. With another holy word, Aramis fully healed all of Owen’s wounds before he launched another divine strike which flew just over the prone dire rat, washing over the stones near Owen’s feet in wispy, ephemeral ghost light.
The halfling smiled and shouted, “Go for the jugular, Red Lady!” Azal gritted her teeth, and moved by Owen’s encouragement plunged her dagger into the flanked dire rat’s neck. She succeeded in driving her blade deeply into the creature, yet miraculously, it yet lived. The other remaining dire rat moved behind Owen, whose attention was on its nearly dead fellow. The dire rat flanked by the adventurers also stood defiantly and tried to sink its filthy fangs into the halfling, but Owen’s combat prowess and uncanny luck allowed the wily combatant to fend off both attempted bites. The creatures only succeeded in chipping their teeth on his shield. “Aha!” he cried out loudly, lining up his next strike carefully, so that he might pierce the heavily wounded dire rat’s heart. With the precision honed from years of training, Owen skewered his target on his short blade, and then pivoted to stand over its corpse. To Azal he said, “Get somewhere safe.” She nodded at the halfling while Aramis attempted to engulf the remaining scavenger with sacred flames. Unfortunately, the dire rat was fast enough to avoid it.
Snarling, Azal pushed Owen’s head down with one hand and pulled a shuriken out of her hip pouch with another. Rolling the bladed disk along her knuckles, she flicked it at the last rat. The shuriken flew right over the halfling and dug deeply into the creature’s body. Alone, outnumbered, and heavily wounded, the dire rat had had enough of this difficult meal. It skittered off across the rubble, disappearing into one of the many cracks. Aramis and Azal, a little woozy from their wounds, sat down to rest for a few minutes. The priest examined his legs and said that the wounds were likely infected. Owen kept a sharp watch while they recovered their strength.
They sat staring at the door leading into the ruined citadel, pondering what else might lay ahead of them.