Wednesday, November 25, 2009

New Star Wars Game to be Announced 12/12

According to Kotaku, a new Star Wars game will be announced at the Video Gaming Awards on December 12th. I am hoping for a Battlefront 3 (though with Pandemic gone, that is a long shot) or a Tie Fighter remake. I highly doubt it will be either of those though.

NANOWRIMO 2009 Complete

NANOWRIMO Winner Logo 2009

Yep, I hit 50K words about an hour ago. Original story arc was planned to go longer, but I always wanted to expand what I hadn't written. I plan on breaking the original arc into 2 books, the problem now is writing a 2nd one.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Dragon Age: Origins: Origins Round-Up

This last week I went through the remaining origin stories and thought that I should put up a post on my thoughts on them. Overall, the stories really railroad into a situation the writers want you in so that you can move on to the Grey Wardens. I guess I shouldn't expect too much from the 1-hour stage setting that it provides, but I would have liked more options.

Human Noble-
The first one I played and I enjoyed it quite a bit. Sure it is the typical cliche fantasy tale of going out for revenge, but the writing team pulled it out enough to get me interested. I was glad I was able to get the Dog in the story and could take him on to the rest of the game, something I wish other origins would have had.

I clashed the most against the writing in this one. I had no feelings on the blood mage and his forbidden romance. Even though we were set-up to be friends, I just didn't care. I felt as though I was forced to pick a side on the debate. I would rather been able to be indifferent and done nothing to help with later accusations of aiding them forcing my exit.

Dalish Elf-
This one was a pretty good start. I choose to kill the humans for trespassing as that was the mentality I was taking with the character and the plot twist of being infected with the taint provided the impetus for leaving. I liked how they made you leave, knowing the player wouldn't want certain of staying.

City Elf-
Thankfully they set it up as an arranged marriage, which allowed me to be overly snarky to him. Not bad of an opening, but I just can't put my finger on where it fell flat. As a note, my city elf is replacing my mage character for the second playthrough because I like the direction I'm taking with her, anything to get ahead.

Dwarf Noble-
My second least favorite as I felt as though I had no say in anything. Shit was going to go down and I would be blamed with no chance to defend myself.

Dwarf Commoner-
Third least favorite. I just don't know what it is about the dwarves in this game but I can't stand their story arcs. I had to do what my pimp said and had no illusion of choice.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Star Wars: The Old Repulbic: Class Disappointment

So the last two classes for TOR have been leaked and much to my dismay, they are two more force-sensitive classes. I thought for sure that having eight classes would lead to a nice variety of playability with differing roles. But instead, Bioware decides to make half the characters wield lightsabers. What about droids or other more interesting class combinations.

It seems to me that the whole Jedi Guardian, Consular, Sentinal issue could have been covered through the use of skill trees. Have one Jedi class and let the people decide how to specialize it, much like WoW's paladin, not add 25% more force users. And really, how are they going to differentiate the story all that much between the classes. I was hoping to level 8 characters through the story line because I am always a fan of Bioware story, but will it be worth playing 2 separate Jedi/Sith classes.

Since they can't go through and change the classes, I hope the writing team put in some extra time to differentiate the stories.

Found on Darth Hater via BioBreak.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

NANOWRIMO Compilation: Chapters 19-25

Chapter 19 – The Escape

This was a fight that they did not need at the moment. Not only would all of the noise from fighting attract the remainder of the guards in the mansion, and eventually the town, but it was an unmatched fight to begin with. Six heavily armored guards against an elf and soldier clad solely in cloth armor and carrying only daggers and short swords for armament. Arynn, left Howe sitting on the ground and went to stand next to Keladkha for the upcoming fight.

The first of the soldiers charged directly at her, sword raised for an overhead swing. As he brought the blade down at her, she nimbly deflected it with one of here own daggers. As the blade crashed into the ground next to her, sticking in the floor, she counter attacked with the other blade. The blade slashed across the guards throat, causing a torrent of blood to shoot from the gaping wound and quickly puddling on the floor. His body slumped to the floor in front of her, as she stared down the remainder of the guards.

Rather than charging one by one as the first one had so foolishly done, the remaining five guards all charged at one. Three of them quickly had Keladkha surrounded, forcing him to fend off sword slashes from all directions. The battle was not starting off well for him, as he took several short, shallow cuts across the chest and back, not enough to do any serious damage, but just enough of a hindrance. He finally was able to deflect a blow enough to allow an opening for a counter-attack. As the opponent's slash went harmlessly by, he plunged one blade into the guy's foot and the other straight into his chest. He quickly drew the blades back and turned to face the remaining two, thankfully no longer having anyone on his backside.

Arynn was faring even worse in her encounter. The men were using their strength advantage to knock her back onto the ground constantly. Numerous times she had to roll away at the last second to avoid being impaled on the end of a sword. Her clothes were glistening with blood that was escaping a nasty cut she had taken across the abdomen. After being knocked down yet another time, she finally saw an opening for an attack. She quickly jabbed one of the daggers into the man's thigh and as he recoiled in pain, she lept up and jammed the other blade into the bottom of his jaw, piercing the brain.

As the limp body hit the floor, she turned around and went on the offensive against her remaining foe. He backed up, constantly managing to deflect the quick, nimble thrusts from her daggers. She finally back him up into the corner of the room, cutting off much of the space for him to maneuver his blade. In one final act of daring, she took a running leap at him and plunged both blades deep into his chest, pining him up to the wall behind him. It did not all turn out well though as he had just managed to position his sword in just such a way that it pierced through her side as she lept at him. She fell to the ground next to the pinned body, the sword still sticking through the wound as blood stained it crimson.

On the other side of the room, Keladkha was unaware of what had happened to his companion as he continued to fight the two remaining guards. As one of the guards charged him, he quickly sidestepped and kicked out, knocking his opponent to the ground. Before the guard had a chance to recover, he rushed over and plunged one of the swords deep into the man's abdomen, causing a torrent of crimson blood to spill onto the floor.

Almost as soon as he turned back around, the other guard was on top of him. He did not have any time to react as the guard sent the hilt of his blade into his chest, knocking the wind straight out of him and sending him flying to the ground. As the guard stood over him waiting for the final blow, Keladkha realized that there was nothing he could do. He was wheezing much too hard to be able to dodge the attack from an opponent with superior positioning.

But just as the guard was about to the bring the blade down for the finishing move, Keladkha was surprised to see the man's eyes open wide in terror. He then noticed that there was a crimson stain slowly spreading across the front of the man's armor shortly before the man feel to the ground in a heap. Standing behind where the man just had been was Earl Howe. Sometime during the fight he must had managed to remove his manacles and recovered a dagger. When he had seen Keladkha on the ground with the guard over him, he had sprung to action and attacked before the final blow could be dealt.

Keladkha struggled to his feet to thank Howe for his actions in saving him, but before he could get the words out, he saw Arynn slumped on the floor in the corner of the room. He limped over to her body and saw the sword sticking out from her side. He slowly removed it, all the while applying pressure to halt the bleeding. He was pleased to not that she was breathing, though it was apparent she had blacked. With no signs of additional guards approaching for the moment, he went about patching up her wounds. He gently applied a gauze with a healing salve and then used some coarse linen bandages to wrap her abdomen tightly to restrict blood flow to the area.

After dealing with his own wounds, Keladkha turned to face Earl Howe. “I must thank you for what you did to save me.”

“For all you have to help me up to this point, I had to do something. But I must ask, what are you doing here? Are you insane, the number of pirates around here against just you two.”

“Well, we managed to get this far. Nothing says we can't get back out.”

The conversation then changed to that of how to escape from the area. Going back to the rear of the compound allowed them the best chance of getting out of the city unnoticed, but it the problem was going to be escaping through the house in the direction they had just come while carrying the unconscious body of Arynn. It was at that point that Keladkha remember he had seen that a secondary roof between the second and third level wrapped around the house and was not very steep.

Walking over to the window, he saw that he was able to easily slide it open. He peeked his head out and noticed that they would in fact be able to climb along it to reach the rear of the house. The lamps that hung in the streets were not strong enough to illuminate the area greatly, so they would be able to move along it in the shadows. He walked back over to Arynn's form and picked her up and slung her over his shoulder. Thankfully she was pretty lightweight, what seemed to be normal for elves, and would not provide too many problems on the return trip.

He slowly ducked through the window, careful not to bump her too hard on the window frame. Once outside, he looked around for any people that could see their escape. Not seeing any, he motioned for the Earl to follow them out onto the rooftop. They closed the window behind them not a moment too soon, for as soon as they began taking their first few steps along the roof, they heard a commotion from the room they had just left. Apparently the guards from the first floor had finally decided to check out what the commotion had been and would now be furiously searching the house for the culprits. With the windows closed, they never even thought that the attackers could have been mere feet away.

They continued along the rooftop at as quick of a pace as they could manage given their injuries and extra weight to carry. When they had finally maneuvered around to the back of the house, Howe was the first to climb down into the backyard. When he motioned that it was clear, Keladkha lowered Arynn's body down to him before hopping down onto a crate that shortened the distance. He took back up her weight and while crouched down, hurried through the tall grass back to the back wall of the compound. Once there they found a stump that allowed them the ability to climb over. Once again, Howe lead the way, checking for any patrolling guards. Keladkha hefted Arynn's body up onto the wall and climbed up himself before handing her back down to Howe and jumping off.

In the clear for the moment, the two of them began tracing the steps they had taken earlier in the night to get to this point. By this time though, the guards from the mansion had sounded the alarm and sounds of people getting up and heading out to search for the intruders came from all around them. They mostly kept to the side streets and ducked into the darkened alleyways every single chance they got. They were going to take this journey as slowly and safely as possible. The last thing they wanted to do was run headfirst into an oncoming patrol.

Numerous times along the escape route they had close calls. One of these almost saw them turn the corner straight into an oncoming patrol. Luckily, one of the soldiers had something with just enough time to allow the Earl and Keladkha to backtrack and hide in an alleyway. Once the patrol had past, they darted from the shadows and continued heading for the outskirts of the town.

The return trip was taking much longer than the infiltration attempt, but at last they had reached the edges of the city and were able to see the campfires from the Earl's armies' camp. They picked up the pace as they crossed the darkened No Man's Land. They greeted the guard at the entrance to the camp and headed in, weary from the night's events.

Chapter 20 – The Final Showdown

They spent the short remainder of the night in a tent that the Earl had allowed them to use as thanks for the rescue. The sleep came blissfully that night as they rested in a place of safety and didn't have to constantly keep watch for any number of things that could have killed them in the night. The camp was noisy, as soldiers constantly passed by on the way to their postings, but it failed to interrupt their sleep.

When they had finally slept off the tiredness from the previous night's excursion, they made their way back to the center of the camp and the General's tent. By now it was well into mid morning and they were surprised to find that the army was not pushing out for an assault, instead staying in the camp and making preparations. They had finally reached the large, circular tent that housed all of the high ranking members of the army and were let inside by the guard at the door.

Once on the inside, they watched as the Earl and his generals planned another assault on the city. From what they were able to overhear, it sounded as though this would be a night assault and that the primary target would be razing the city to the ground. “With the pirate lord dead, his troops will be demoralized.”

“Or having their fighting spirit reinvigorated,” one of the general's muttered, obviously annoyed.

“I'm telling you the plan will work. At sundown the archers ignite fires as far into the city as possible, and while they are dealing with that, we lead a charge straight to the heart.”

“Yes sir,” all the generals replied, not wanting to get on Howe's bad side.

As most of the general began to exit, Howe noticed them and motioned them over to the maps showing the battle plan. “Tonight we are going to end this pirate threat once and for all. It will be my most glorious battle.”

“I'm sure it will be, but I must talk to you as to why we originally came here.”

“Probably has something to do with Tiethal's death, doesn't it?”

“Yes. All the troops of the empire are needed in the capital to prepare for an assault on the forces that attacked us. Also, the nobles are needed to help decide the succession to the throne. We have already summoned Earl Eamon of Caendor to the city and you need to head there as soon as possible to help get the process underway.”

“I see. Stay and help me on this night and I will do as you ask.”

“We will sir.”

Keladkha and Arynn mulled around the camp for the remainder of the day, watching as all the preparations were made for the upcoming battle. Every soldier would be taking part in this final blow and the camp was abuzz with activity. Blacksmiths went about repairing arms and armor that had seen damage in the previous clashes. Doctors were getting the most able injured healed enough to be able to join their comrades. The stable workers were donning the war horses in their battle armor and making sure they were all set.

As the sun began to set on the eastern horizon, the troops began assembling in formation on the edges of the camp. The archers were the closest to the city for the moment, as they would be launching many volleys of flaming arrows in attempts to create a firestorm that would hopefully kill off most of the pirates. Behind them were the cavalry, who would be the first to charge down the streets into enemy lines.

A nervous energy was running through the air as troops wondered if they would live to see their families ever again. This was unlike all the previous forays and such a large scale assault would most likely mean high casualty numbers. The hope was that the fires would do most of the work and they would merely be heading in clear up the rest and raze the remainder of the town.

When the all light from the sun had finally vanished, torches were lit and the entire army moved into a position not that far from the first of the destroyed buildings on the edge of the city. At the signal from one of the generals, numerous men carrying torches stepped towards the lines of archers. With another signal, they began sprinting down the lines and lighting the cloth attached to arrowheads.

The archers released the arrows as soon as the cloth caught fire, sending them on a high arc into the city center. This process continued for nearly an hour, exhausting the entirety of the ammunition supply. From the edges of the city, they were unsure how much damage they were actually causing. But from what they were able to see, numerous fires had been lit across the city, giving it an ominous orange glow in the night sky. Arrows gone, the archers retreated to the back of the lines and rearmed with swords for the fight ahead.

The generals rode up and down the lines on horseback, shouting out last minute instructions to their troops. With everything squared away, the horn was finally blown to charge. The mounted combatants took off like a gunshot, barreling down into the city. The encountered little resistance throughout much of the first half of the city. That changed though when they finally reached the town square, which was not quite fully guarded as some obviously had been sent to fight the fires.
The horses broke on a wall of pikes, suffering many casualties, but causing nearly as many from trampling the lines. The cavalry continued pushing as far as they could, eventually pushing the enemy back behind its fortifications. By this time the foot soldiers were beginning to arrive, so the horsemen pulled back and prepared to find a way around to flank.

The ground troops were taking a constant peppering of arrows from pirates hidden behind the makeshift walls. They continued to push though, eventually reaching the gate and bringing a battering ram forward. The shoddy construction soon fell to the sheer power of the ram. As the gates swung open, the defenders on the inside were met with an onslaught of charging soldiers. Morale was quickly broken and they retreated into the mansion that was the centerpiece of the square.

Rather than risking men in the close combat that would characterize fighting indoors. The generals signaled that they would try and burn the defenders out. Under constant fire from archers firing from the upper windows of the mansion, troops ran up and used torches and some oil to ignite the outer walls. It would now be a waiting game to see if the enemy would wait it out and die by fire or make a counterattack. In the mean time, patrols were sent out from the square to check the remainder of the city.

These patrols went from building to building, searching all the floors for any people inside. If they found any, the were killed instantly as there was going to be no quarter was going to be given to pirates. Once they had searched the house, they used torches and any fuel to be found to light the house on fire before moving on to the next one. As time went on, the streets became choked with heavy clouds of black smoke, reducing visibility and causing rampant coughing. Even with all of the clouds, the fires lit the streets up almost like it was the middle of the day.

The troops surrounding the mansion were surprised as each minute passed that the pirates did not leave the mansion. Sporadic fire was still coming from the upper levels, but most of the building was engulfed in flames. Almost at once, the doors burst open and nearly a dozen men burst from the building, their clothes covered in flames. The soldiers waiting near the doors, cut them down before they got too far though as well as the few others that followed as time went on.

Nearly an hour later, the flames weakened the structure of the house enough that it was no longer able to support itself. It finally collapsed into a heap of burned timber and flames, signaling the end of the pirate resistance. The patrols had been making quick work of the remainder of the city, and before the morning rays even broke the horizon the city was successfully destroyed.

As the army finished its work, Earl Howe returned to the camp to meet with Keladkha and Arynn, who had stayed behind to help with any of the wounded brought back. “The battle is won.”

“Congratulations sir. I assume you will uphold your end of the bargain.”

“I will, my troops will be marching within a week. Your service here is through if you need to head off.”

“Yes, we will be taking our leave. We shall meet again in Belnor. Best of luck.”

With that he turned around and mounted up on his horse. The two of them rode from the encampment, leaving the city billowing black smoke behind. They were headed back towards the Great Road and off to the Shalomnori Wilds to meet with the wood elves again.

Chapter 21 – On the Road Again

Their travels once again took them through the marshes and by the spot where Shen had fallen. Keladkha brought his horse to a stop, next to the still barely visible bloodstained dirt and dismounted. He knelt down on one knee and said a little prayer of the Maker in honor of his fallen comrade. Then without another word, he climbed back up onto the horse and began riding at a good clip away.
The camp for that night was once again plagued by the tiny, biting gnats that were so prevalent in these parts. No matter how much they tried to keep them away, with multiple blankets, thick smoke from the fire, they kept on coming back in force.

They finally were able to drift off into blissful sleep when a light rain shower moved in a couple hours before morning. It was miserable when they awoke though, as the rain had wiped out their fire and soaked everything completely. With the rain still coming down, they would be unable to start up another fire to dry it out. As a result, they gathered the belongings and mounted the horses in their soggy armor for a miserable day of riding.

Rather than the showers breaking up in the hot air as they had hoped, they managed to intensify as the hours trudged on. While the morning sky had only been filled with light gray rain clouds, they were now black and ominous looking. The area around them was darkened, looking almost like it did shortly after the sun set. Flashes of lightning darted between the cloud tops, briefly lighting the way. Rumbling thunder provided an eerie soundtrack as they continued moving. Soon, the rain was coming down by the bucketful, so heavy that they could barely make out the road not ten feet in front of them.

Any hope of a dry camp for the night was lost as the area grew darker and darker, signaling that the remaining daylight had been exhausted. The managed to find a slightly higher patch of grassy ground to set their bedrolls on, but the area was mired in mud. With every step they took, their boots would sink into the muck and required great effort to pull free. The rain finally broke sometime during the night, leaving a warm, muggy, and cloudy morning behind. The path had turned to mud and the horses were struggling to make any good speed at all, yet they continued to push onwards.

By mid-afternoon, they had finally broken free of the marsh roads and entered the paved roads of the Great Road. The pace quickened and their spirits lifted as the scenic beauty of traveling the road returned. It wouldn't be too long before they reached the edges of the forest and headed in to speak with the wood elf people for aid. That night, they stopped at a small roadside inn that was the usual stopping point for merchants along the road. Business was light however and they were easily able to get two rooms for the night.

Given the chance of finally having a nice hot meal after the days of cold bread and jerky, they gratefully took the chance of ordering food in the main room with other few guests stopped there. As they chowed down on a delicious meal of steak and potatoes, they chatted with the other guests to get news on happenings in the empire. It appeared as though the southern folk of the Tracopes were once again attempting to assert their independence now that the king was gone. They were also glad to hear that Earl Eamon had arrived in the capital and taken control of the defense and rebuilding projects that the city faced. Also, there were no further stories of attacks on settlements, though a few travelers along the road had gone missing with wagons found destroyed.

With their stomachs full of food and ale, they finally retired to their rooms well after midnight to slip blissfully into a good night's sleep. It was probably the best night of sleep that they had enjoyed since leaving the generous confines of Caendor and the hospitality of Eamon. Once the first rays of the morning sun popped through the windows, they were gathering their belongings and headed back out onto the road. Their goal for the day was to enter the forest and at least make it a good portion of the way to the elven capital.

By the late afternoon they were deep into the trees when caught sight of some movement ahead. Not wanting to give away their position while they scouted it out, they dismounted and tied their horses to some nearby trees and set out on foot. As they closed in on the source of the sound, they noticed that it sounded as though multiple persons were walking through the underbrush. Peeking into a slight clearing ahead, they saw what appeared to be a scouting party of five orcs.

Given the chance of finally being able to ambush the enemy rather than be on the receiving end, they quickly snuck their way around onto a path ahead of the party. They crouched behind trees and waited as the orcs worked they way up to the positioned. At Keladkha's signal, Arynn quickly unleashed two arrows onto the party, felling two orcs before they even knew they were there.

As the orcs turned to determine where the shots had come from, Keladkha burst from behind his tree and lopped off one of the orc's head. It fell to the ground as the now empty neck spurted blood like a geyser. He swung again and slashed across the chest of another one of the creatures dumbly turned around. Before the body had even hit the ground, the last member was felled by another arrow. As they quickly searched the bodies for any supplies of note, they had forgotten a fact gleaned from the last time they had been attacked: that orcish scouting parties consisted of two groups of five.

The ambushers were now the ambushed as a two arrows pierced the back of Keladkha's armor, sending him sprawling to the ground. Spurred to action, Arynn quickly spun in place and unleashed an arrow at the first orc that burst from the tree. As it hit the ground with a loud thump, two more popped up in its place. She dropped her bow and pulled out her daggers to fight, but they were two much for her and quickly overwhelmed her. She could only watch as they brusquely tied her hands and feet together with coarse rope. Keladkha was given the same treatment, wincing as they roughly treated his wounds.

They began dragging them through the woods, though the destination was unsure. It seemed as though the orcs took a morbid pleasure in ramming them into every root sticking from the ground and through every set of brambles. They were quickly coated in dirt and muck from the ground. Keladkha's wound was growing even more painful with every bump he hit. The rough bandage they had placed on it was already soaked through with blood.

About an hour had passed, and they were bruised and battered from being dragged through the underbrush. All of a sudden though, the orc that had been dragging Arynn fell limp to the ground, an arrow sticking out of his head. Seconds later, the other three orcs met the same fate, arrows straight through the head. Keladkha tried to rollover to get a better view of what was happening when he saw four elves step from the brush on the side of the path. They quickly trotted over and cut them free from the bonds.

“You are lucky to be alive human. We have been tracking this group for most of the day when we stumbled across the bodies of their comrades. If we hadn't noticed the signs of someone being dragged, we wouldn't have followed,” one of the elves stepped forward.

“I guess I owe you many thanks,” Keladkha replied.

“I don't want your thanks human. You are lucky these orcs are more of an enemy than you or otherwise we wouldn't have cared.”

“Wait, Princess Arynn? What are you doing in the company of a human?” one of the other elves spoke up, realizing who his companion was.

The first elf took a rough hold of Keladkha and brought him close, “You better explain yourself here.”

“Leave him alone, Attan, I am here on the Queen's orders. He is fighting our enemies as well,” Arynn spoke up, walking over.

“Yes, your majesty,” the elf replied, letting Keladkha go but still glaring at him.

“You must take us back to the capital, we need to speak with my mother.”

“Right away, mam.”

They walked between the trees at a good pace, causing Keladkha to need to stop several times to catch his breath. Even though the wound had been cleaned and redone by Arynn, it still required constant changing as the walking didn't help the blood flow to stop. After what seemed like hours of walking they finally made camp under the stars. Sleep came quickly to Arynn and Keladkha. They were unhappy in the morning when the elvish patrol got them moving again before the sun had even risen.

It was late afternoon after a full's day march that they finally reached the outer sentinels protecting the elvish city. With some doubtful looks from the guards at the human, they were allowed to pass. Rather than heading straight to the Queen's quarter, they first went to Arynn's hut for some food and decent night's sleep.

Chapter 22 – An Audience With the Queen

Once morning had fallen over the land, the guards arrived at the hut to escort them up to the palace to meet with the Queen. Even though he had been in the city before, he noticed that the guards seemed uncomfortable having a human around and constantly kept one hand on the hilt of their weapons. They arrived at the main tree and began the long ascent to the throne room.

Quickly making the climb, they were ushered into an audience with the Queen nearly immediately. As they entered the room, the queen stood up and immediately walked over to her daughter. “The stench of death hangs heavily over you. The journey has proven to be a long one.”

“Yes mother, the human king has been killed and now Keladkha is uniting the people to restore the empire,” Arynn replied.

“The task seems to be a great one and not one to be taken lightly. How has it proceeded?”

“We have gathered troops and the nobles from two of the three fiefdoms. Only one remains before we will be able to hold the Landsmeet to decide on the new King of Ortheon and then formulate a plan of attack for striking back at the orcs,” Keladkha responded.

“I see, but if you have not gathered all of your troops, why have you entered the forest again. It seems like more pressing matters are at hand than to be walking between these trees.”

“Mother we came because the humans need troops to strike back against this blight on the land. We will not come through this unscathed if the humans fall.”

“You ask me to put our lives on the line for those that so willingly murdered our people not too long ago? You know my stance on the matter, we will fend for ourselves as we have done for centuries. The rise and fall of humans is of no matter to us.”

“But it is mother... our fates are intertwined. We can not live while they fall.”

“Your thoughts are clouded by your feelings for him. I can sense what you feel when you look at him. You would betray our own people in favor of a mere human. A human whose soul is black with sorrow and hate, motivated by a blood lust for some wrong that was done on to him.”

“You have him all wrong. He is trying to do the world right and you are acting to the contrary. You are dooming the world to an endless darkness.”

“I should never have let you leave with this human. It has changed you greatly and now I regret what I must do. You two are forever banished from the Shalomnori Wilds. If you are ever seen again on our lands, you shall be killed on sight. Now gather your belongings and leave.”

As she finished this proclamation, she turned away from them and began walking back to her throne, ignoring the pleas from her daughter. The guards closed in around them, and forcibly started to shove them from the throne room. Arynn continued to struggle against the guards, still trying to get her mother's attention. Keladkha accepted the fate, as he walked towards the door, guards one step behind him looking for any sudden movements.

They were lead all the way back down from the palace along the long, winding path that ran down the tree. The guards stayed outside of Arynn's hut as they were given ten minutes to pack up all of their belongings and stash it on their horses. With everything gathered, they were led from the city by the head of the guard, who once again reiterated their punishment.

On the outskirts of the capital, they were finally set free to go on their own way, yet unable to come back for help. The riding for the remainder of the day went without talking on either side. The trees and shrubs seemed to slowly move by as boredom began to set in. The ride to the Tracopes was going to be a long one and they had hoped that it would have been buoyed with good news of elven hope. Instead, it began with a sense of dread on what was to come. They were in need of as many allies as they could possibly get and this was going to be a major setback.

Camp for that night just seemed to continue the gloomy mood that they had both sunken into. For some reason, a camp fire just did not want to catch, even though they were doing it in the exact same manner that had been doing it all the time. As a result, they were forced to sit in the cold, darkness eating cold bread and tough jerky. Very few words of conversation were said between the two, until Arynn finally broke into a rant, “What is my mother thinking? Banishing her only child from the city over such a simple issue. She has to know what will happen if your kind fails in its task, it would only be a matter of time before the remaining elves are purged from the map. Something must be up with her to have her act like this. It is uncharacteristic even for her wild mood swings.”

“I don't know. But if we aren't going to get help from her, we are going to need to get double our efforts in securing more support. The Tracopes are not going to be friendly to us, but we will have to get their help somehow.”

After the short burst in conversation, each one went back to brooding on their sides of the camp. It was Keladkha's turn to take the first watch and stood up and began traversing the camp in circles to get a lay of the land. As he returned to the camp, he stopped and stared at Arynn for awhile as she sat cross-legged, deep in meditation as was the elven way. He had her mother's words running through his head, those about how she felt when she looked at him. He wondered if it was true that she was harboring feelings for him. While he definitely felt the twinges of affection for her, it was also problematic to become attached with one who he had to work so closely with.

Breaking off the thought train, he continued to make some rounds about the camp until it was time to for him to rouse Arynn for her turn to keep watch. He made his way back to where she was sitting and gently shook her from her thoughts. As she got the cobwebs out her head, Keladkha climbed down onto his bedroll and gratefully fell into a deep slumber for the remainder of the night.

Arynn was still fuming over her banishment from her homeland and the apparently strange behavior of her mother in the discussion. She had thought for sure that her mother would have agreed to help aid the humans and realized the immense dangers that they faced from the coming of the orcs. She continued mulling this over as she made her way around the camp, keeping one eye out for any possible movements in the darkness.

Having made numerous rounds around the camp, she walked back and sat down on a log. As she sat there, she looked longingly at Keladkha sleeping form. Her mother had been right about the feelings she felt towards him. Every time she looked at him, she felt butterflies in her stomach and a deep desire arose. The problem though was that it seemed that he not at all interested back. He hadn't been particularly open with her in the early going and he had only shut himself off more in the time since Shen's death. Sighing, she got back up to do some more rounds about the camp.

Chapter 23 – The Demons Are Everywhere

When morning came, they packed up their camp and set forth again on horseback. They were hoping to break free from the forests and get back onto the Great Road. From there it would be a week long journey across the heart of the empire to reach the southern borders that were home to the Tracopes and its capital, Andor. Along the way they planned to rest for a couple of days in Caendor to replenish the supplies it would take to survive in the jungles.

With their luck of late, a snow storm managed to blow up as they were just exiting the last trees of the Wilds. The winds were some of the strongest that they had encountered of late. The snow stung their eyes as it whipped by at gale forces. Drifts began forming in the low-lying portions of the roads, forcing the horses to work harder to make the same amount of progress. Thankfully, the storm was brief and they had ridden through it by the time they were going to make camp for the night.

With another hard day's ride, they caught sight of the spectacular white walls of Caendor before night fell. The guards at the gate recognized them almost instantly and allowed them entrance without too much hassle. Once inside, they were quickly shepherded into the castle where the Countess was waiting to greet them. After the pleasantries were exchanged, the servants took them to their rooms and set them up with some hot bath water.

They lingered in the castle for the next two days, in a life of relative luxury. When it came time to finally pull themselves away, they were not happy to leave the soft beds and warm baths behind. But with packs full of freshly prepared food, the journey for the remainder of the way didn't look too bad. They set out onto the plains with clear blue skies above and a cool breeze from behind, helping them on their way.

The journey to the southwest from Caendor was smooth and easy sailing. They hardly ran into anyone traveling across the road, save the occasional merchant, and the picturesque quality of the road continued to leave them amazed. The temperature continued to rise as they made their way to the south, much to their delight as they no longer had to spend it shivering on frigid bedrolls on the frozen ground. They no longer had to rely on the fire as the sole source of heat.

It was the third day of riding when they came across a strange looking fellow standing in the middle of the road. His robes were torn and he was constantly chewing on his nails and pacing back and forth across the road. As he saw them approaching, he broke into a trot towards them, “Oh please you have to help me. It is horrible, there are demons everywhere.”

“Demons, what the hell are you talking about man?” Keladkha questioned skeptically.

“I am... am... a part of a... certain community for the... er... practice of magic, and something... went terribly wrong.”

“A mage, I thought they banished your kind from the continent decades ago.”

“They tried... but we have kept the practice alive... in small communes.”

“And now you want us to help you?”

“Yes please, you have to kill all the demons in our facility.”

“How do I know you aren't some kind of foul demon monster trying to murder us by having us go visit your friends. Or how do I know you aren't some crazed duster who is merely so fucking high right now that you don't know who you're talking. Or better yet, are you a highwayman who will try robbing us after luring us over to your buddies.”

“Please you have to believe me. You must help.”

“Well, it's not like we have anything better to do. I always did enjoy slicing demons, brought a gleam to my eye and ectoplasm to my sword,” Keladkha said rolling his eyes as he motioned for the crazed person to lead them to wherever this building was.

They followed him into the woods for nearly a half of an hour before they came to a clearing in which a building stood. From the outside, they could already tell that something strange was going on on the inside. Random shrieks and shrills emanated into the forest and the windows showed an ominous green glow. “Maybe he wasn't joking after all,” Keladkha muttered.

“I'll have to follow you inside because I will need to pull up the summoning circle on the second level to make sure no others can get it,” the mage spoke.
“Whatever, I just want to get this over with so we can get back to the task at hand,” Keladkha angrily replied as he dismounted his horse. Arynn dismounted soon after and the group made its way up to the front door which had been smashed down at some point in time.

Keladkha was the first one to make his way through the opening into the darkened room on the inside. The other two quickly followed and gawked at the scene inside. Bodies of other men dressed in the same manner as the mage who had hailed them littered the floor, their bodies ripped to shreds by what looked to be some powerful hands. The walls, ceiling, and floor were covered in the dark green sticky substance that was known as ectoplasm, a residue left behind by the demons that occasionally passed into this realm from the shade.

They readied their weapons and prepared to move on to the next room, what the mage said was the dining room. Thankfully the building was small and there wouldn't be too many places for demons to hide and strike out at them. Standing at the door, Keladkha slowly swung the door open and peered inside. On the opposite side of the room stood three demons. These demons were piles of purple gelatinous goo that seemed to hover a foot off the ground. They had no legs and only short stubs for arms. The head was one with the body with a giant toothy grin and gigantic bug eyes.

The door creaked as he opened it fully, attracting the attention of the demons. Keladkha and Arynn took a few steps into the room and stood ready with swords and daggers in hand, as for some reason, the creatures were immune to arrows. The creatures slowly started gliding over in their direction, their eyes glowing bright red as they did. Keladkha ran forward and met the first of the demons with an overhead slash. The blade easily worked its way through the goo, causing the beast to end up as a pile on the floor.

Before he could react to the other, he was forced to watch as one of the other demons opened its mouth and shot a stream of slime onto him. It kept coming and coming until it had completely covered him. Almost as soon as it had made contact, it began hardening. Keladkha became unable to even move his arms or legs as it became almost like he had been encased in a hard plaster.

Arynn watched as this happened and reacted by flinging one of her daggers straight through what could be considered its head. The pile of goo flopped down onto the ground. Just as the last demon was turning to coat Arynn in the same substance as Keladkha, the mage stepped from the shadows at the door and unleashed a fireball at the beast. Upon contact, the entire creature was coated in flames and floated about the room shrieking in agony.

When the creature had finally succumbed to the flames, Arynn ran over to the now rigid form of Keladkha. She took one of her daggers and hit the hard coating with the hilt. The shell cracked a bit, allowing her to pick off some of the hardened goo. She continued the process until he was able to move his arms and help in the process of removing the remainder.

With it finally gone, Keladkha commented, “Well that was fun. Remind me to do that again sometime.”

The couple of other side rooms on the first floor, thankfully proved to be empty. The mage was able to account for most of his fellow magi through all of the corpses on the ground. It appeared as though none had been as lucky as he had been to escape. The ordeal was taking its toll on him though, as he appeared to grow more and more depressed with each body they found. Eventually it was time for them to head upstairs to what, according to the mage, was one large room that served as the living quarters.

As they walked up the stairs and into the room, Keladkha got a first glimpse of what they were up against. “This is my kind of demon,” he remarked.

“It's a desire demon, they try and give you deepest desires so that you will submit to them and then they remove your soul and take over your body,” the mage responded, looking into the room.

“Doesn't sound all that bad to me.”

The three of them walked into the room, weapons drawn. The desire demon, which resembled a nude form of a female, turned around as she heard them coming. She began speaking in a low, sultry voice as they got closer. “There is no need for fighting here. I can satisfy everything you have ever desired if you just put the weapons down.”

“Hmm, funny my desire involves my sword, you, and a whole lot of blood. So how's this going to work?”

“Are you sure that is your deepest desire? Because when I look into your soul, I see something very different. How about trying this on for size?” she uttered in her seductive tones. She quickly spun around and when she was facing them again, she had taken the form of Arynn. “This is the sense I'm getting here,” she said, voice mimicking Arynn's perfectly. “Now put down your weapon and I will be able to satisfy everything you have ever wanted.”

“You drive a hard bargain, but I like the real version better than some creeped out demonic one,” he responded, charging forward with his sword held high.

As he approached, the demon flung forward an arm and unleashed a major shock wave that picked him and threw him backwards onto the ground. As he groggily looked up, Arynn and the mage had been petrified in place, unable to help out in the battle. He picked himself up from the ground and began moving towards the demon. With another wave of the hand, there were suddenly three exact copies of her. Taking a swipe at the nearest one, the blade went straight through the illusion, causing it to vanish into thin air.

The other copy vanished with another quick swipe from his blade, leaving him face to face with the desire demon. Out of thin air she summoned a massive two handed battleaxe, looking almost comically large in her hands. He took another swing, but she expertly blocked the blade with the hilt. Keladkha was forced to dodge to the side as she responded with a large overhand swing. Before he was able to stand back up, the demon walked over to him and stood above him. She reached down and grabbed his chin with her hand and said, “We don't have to fight you know? We can be happy together.”

“I know,” he responded as he kicked up and threw her off balance. Before she could bring up the axe in defense, he had stood up and taken a massive swipe at her neck. The blade easily sliced through the skin and the entire demon quickly dissolved into a pool of ectoplasm on the floor of the room. Keladkha turned around to see the mage and Arynn drop to the ground as they were no longer petrified. He walked over to them as they stood up, looking around confused.

“Where is the demon?” Arynn asked.

“Dead. She is now a pool somewhere over there.”

“Thank you so much for your help cleaning this place out,” the mage spoke up.

“Kind of glad I did though, I thought you were just some crazy person on the road when you stopped us earlier. What is your name anyway?”

“Makatak. Um... Would I be able to... tag along with you? I have nowhere else to go.”

“Already got an elf, why not add an illegal mage to the party? Yeah, you can join us, just try not to get in the way too much. Now what was this about the summoning circle?”

“It is straight ahead, along the windows over there. Some of my fellows were experimenting with wild magic that was too much for them. It should be a simple process to remove though.”

With that, Makatak walked over the windows and knelt down over a shimmering circle on the floor. As he said a few words, there was a flash of light and it was gone. So that no one would stumble across all of the remains in the future, they decided to set fire to the building before leaving. They made their way back on to the Great Road, leaving the pillar of black smoke long behind them.

Chapter 24 – Ambushes

The remainder of the journey to the Tracopes was fairly uneventful. The mood around camp was lightened considerably with a new member to converse with and get a sense of his story. Makatak had spent nearly his entire life in the small building studying magic after showing signs of it at an early age. His parents had been worried what the King's forces would have done if they had found him, so they it was they who decided to give him up to the fellowship of magi.

While studying there, he had endured a rigorous and disciplined life. It was up with the sun and within an hour they would be deep into lessons about harnessing the power for good. These would last until a very brief lunch break which was followed by practical instruction in the use of spells. After dinner, they were given their only free time with the stipulation that it be used for the advancement of their studies. This included practicing alchemy or enchantments until the elder decided it was time for the lights to be extinguished. This pattern repeated itself for years.

Makatak was considered short for being a human, only standing as high as Arynn. The use of magic had been widely known to cause some premature aging in its practitioners and he was no exception. His shoulder length black hair was streaked with bits of gray and his face was creased and leathery. So even though he was shy of three decades old, he looked much beyond his years.

The sheltered life he had experienced with the fellowship had obviously not prepared him well for a life on the road in the wild. Every rustling sound in the undergrowth frightened him and he found it hard to sleep on a cold hard bed roll at night. Even though he had a horse from the fellowship's stables, he was unfamiliar with the beast and could barely manage to keep it under his control. His ability in magic did come in handy when it came time to set up the camp though as he was able to light a fire that needed no wood to burn and set up on a magical barrier that would alert them if anything came near them, eliminating the need for nightly watches.

The temperature continued to rise as the road continued winding its way to the south. Gone were the days of bearable days and comfortable nights, now replaced by sweltering sun parched days and warm stuffy nights. The humidity of the air around them also rose, leaving them to feel the sweat remaining on their bodies unable to evaporate into the already saturated air. Frequent rain showers also popped up, lasting no longer than an hour or so each time they arrived but managing to make the humidity even more unbearable.

The forests surrounding the them changed from the temperature trees to those of a jungle nature. More colorful flowers and plants sprinkled the undergrowth and the jungle seemed more alive with animals of every sort and nature. But as they moved into this territory, they had to be on their guard more than ever. The people that called this swath of land home weren't exactly the friendliest to the King's troops and could strike from hidden locations in the undergrowth at any time.

Running low on fresh water supplies after days of traveling, they decided to strike a path deep into the forest to find a spring of some sorts to refill their jugs. A couple hours into the trek, they finally came across a fast moving river that was so clear that they could see all they way down to the bottom. Canteens and jugs were gratefully dipped into the water, refilling their stocks to the fullest in days.

As Arynn and Makatak went about filling up the water and washing some of the armor and clothing, Keladkha took the chance to explore some of the surrounding area. As he beat his way through the bush, he came across some stone ruins that seemed oddly familiar to him. All of a sudden, the realization hit him that this was where his army had camped so many years ago during the Tracopian Reunification War. The ruins of the town they had been ordered to destroy was not going to be too far off.

Without a word to the others, he continued his journey further and further off of the beaten path. Eventually, he stumbled across some rotted and burned timbers littering an overgrown clearing in the trees. The memories flooded back into his head, unbidden. The painful thoughts of rounding up the villagers and forcing them into the town hall were all that was able to come to mind. He walked through the almost indistinguishable ruins, tears welling up in his eyes as all the painful memories returned. He eventually found the spot where the town hall had once stood. As he stepped between the fallen timbers, he disturbed some bones that were hidden under the plant growth.

The tears still streaming down his face, he knelt down amongst the bones and said a prayer for the villagers. After he was done, he continued to kneel there as he remembered all of the terrible things they had been ordered to do during the fateful war. He was unsure of how long he was there but the voices of Arynn and Makatak finally jarred him away from his thoughts. Arynn's questions about why he had been crying were merely shaken off as a remembrance of past wrongs.

With stocks restored, the party returned to the roads and their journey to Andor. The following day, they noticed a marked increased in the movement of creatures in the underbrush on either side of the road. About mid day, as the stifling heat was at its worst, they found the source of the increased activity. An ambush had been laid for them to ride into. By sheer dumb luck, they had accidentally taken a smaller side path off of the road and came up around behind the tribal people lying in wait.

Upon the tribals realization of what had just occurred, they stood up to begin the assault just as the three party members had dismounted their horses with weapons drawn. Makatak was the first to react, throwing out his hands, causing a blast of wind to shoot out and threw three of the six assailants several feet onto their backs. Taking advantage of the temporary drop in enemy numbers, Keladkha charged forward and hit the lead assailant in the face with the hilt of his sword, stunning him and causing him to drop to the floor.

Arynn just managed to duck under the wild swing from the blade of one of tribals. As his momentum took him by, she quickly darted out with her daggers and plunged both of them deep into the enemy's back. The attacker fell to the ground, two torrents of blood pouring out of his wounds. Keladkha didn't even see the third assailant come up and slash with a sword. Luckily, Keladkha's heavy armor managed to protect him from wounds but not from being knocked backwards. As he looked up, he watched as the tribal attacker was suddenly frozen from another hand thrust by Makatak. The mage followed it up with what appeared to be a large rock. As the rock made contact, the frozen person burst into a thousand pieces of ice, a violent looking end.

By this time, the other three attackers had recovered from being knocked back and were making a charge. The mage was the first to respond, throwing out his hand yet another time. This time a swarm of stinging, biting insects flew out, looking like more violent versions of the ones they had encountered in the marshes. The flew straight towards the tribe member on the right, quickly engulfing him. His charge suddenly slowed as he began screaming out in agony as the insects began to eat his flesh. Right before their eyes, he vanished into a bloody mist as the bugs devoured everything.

Keladkha had stood back up and took advantage of the distracted attackers to run up and take a mighty slash with his broadsword. It went straight across the chest of the nearest assailant, digging several inches into the flesh. A geyser of blood shot out as the body fell lifeless to the ground. Arynn dealt with the remaining attacker by dispatching him with two quick arrows to the neck.

It was at this time that they heard rustling in the undergrowth behind them. They quickly spun around to see one of the tribal members, that Keladkha had knocked with the hilt of his sword, standing up and fearfully looking at them. “Please don't kill me, I surrender.”

“Least I knocked some sense into you, but I can't risk leaving you alive. You could bring more reinforcements onto our position and have us murdered for what we've done.”

“Please no. I can join you so that you aren't attacked anymore.”

“How do I know that I can trust you?”

“Please you have to. I have seen what you are capable of and know that if I betray you I will be given no quarter.”

“Just keep that in mind. Man, an elf, a mage, and now a tribal, who would have thought this would be an adventuring party. What is your name?”

“Zephyr, and thank you so much.”

With no horse of his own to ride on, Zephyr joined Makatak on his. After cleaning up and patching up the few wounds they had sustained, it was time for them to move back on. As night fell on the area, they set up camp and sat around the fire, getting to know their new guest some more.

Zephyr was apparently a member of the Yuanti tribe, a group of nomads that swore no loyalty to either the empire or the nobility in Andor. They had long been the target of military campaigns aimed at driving them from the forests are they were thought to pose a risk to the frontier settlers. In reality, they were more the victims of unjust perceptions about their religion, which consistently included the use of human sacrifices to their pagan gods.

As a senior member of the tribe, Zephyr was considered the rank equivalent of a captain in the army. He had his own garrison of troops and normally led scouting parties to determine new camp locations and check on the incursions of settlers and farmers. The tough life in the jungles of the Tracopes had aged him considerably, leaving him with shoulder length silver hair and a faded tattoo across the entirety of his face. He stood a couple inches taller than Keladkha, yet was noticeably thinner in stature.

Chapter 25 – Shadows in the Night

On the following morning, they picked up camp and set back out onto the road. Their travels were continuously peppered by passing showers that came and went without any warning, that still managed to soak them to the bone. They hoped to cover the remaining distance to Andor by mid afternoon. Thankfully, their travels were unimpeded by any more tribes as they continued to traverse the winding roads.

By the time the sun was already on its downward path they finally caught sight of Andor. It was the least impressive of the fiefdoms of Ortheon, having been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times during constant wars that raged in the jungles. The outer walls were an eclectic mix of wooden palisades and stone foundations. A remaining layer of ancient stones served as the base of the wall and wooden palisades had been built on top. The wood was chosen when the stone quarries that had supplied the area for centuries dried up many years ago. The main gate showed numerous instances of the wood rotting way from life in a wet, humid climate.

Walking inside the city left them surprised at how deteriorated of a state the city currently was in. The homes and shops were nothing more than shacks built with scrap wood and were so shoddily put together that it appeared as though a stiff breeze would cause them to collapse. Filth and waste were piled up in the streets, attracting copious numbers of bugs with an atrocious smell of rotting food and human waste. As they walked the streets, they had to jump to the side more than once to avoid feral dogs snapping at them for getting too close to their food.

The noble district didn't prove to be in much better of a shape, unlike when they had visited Trelnoth. There was noticeably less filth littering the streets, though packs of feral dogs still ruled the streets, snapping at anyone who got to close to their scavenging piles. The houses lining the streets had been built decades ago and the poor economy that had plagued the city for most of its existence left many of the owners unable to pay for the repairs. The nobility here was by title only, as the families barely lived in conditions better than the peasants. Numerous homes they passed were filled with broken windows, peeling paint, and sagging, rotting porches.

As they found themselves wandering through the market district, an old man with a peg leg bumped into Keladkha. As he did so, he muttered, “Meet me in the old clock tower on the other side of town as the bell tolls twelve.” Immediately after saying this, he yelled, “Bug off!” and limped off into a dark alleyway before they could even respond to the strange situation.

“What the hell was that about?” Keladkha wondered aloud.

“We heard that these people want to break off from the empire, so it might be an ambush,” Arynn ventured.

“An... ambush? Maybe we shouldn't go,” Makatak said, nervously scanning the crowd around them.

“If they wanted to kill you, they would have just done it now. Anti-imperial fervor is peaking right now and no one would care if a soldier was killed in the streets,” Zephyr added.

“Well that's good to know,” Keladkha uttered sarcastically.

The group then decided that they should try to seek an audience with the earl to see if he would willingly help them. They easily found the lord's estate, as it was the only building in the place to be constructed entirely of stone and looked to be well maintained. The guards at the door stonewalled them, refusing to even send a message back to the earl that a representative of the King's army wanted to speak with him. With some threats of violence, they finally managed to persuade him to take the word back. The reply that returned was not what they were hoping, more guards to escort them from the premises. The earl was going to have none of the king's business on this day.

With the rest of the evening to kill before the meeting with their mysterious contact, they decided to stop in the nicest bar they had seen all day. The Prancing Pony, as it was called, would have been considered the dirtiest hole in the wall place to drink in any other city of the empire, yet here it was the cleanest and nicest spot they had seen. They drew some attention when they walked in for the seemingly random assortment of characters in their group, but the attention soon went back to the other conversations going on.

While they had hoped to gain some information regarding the political climate and situation in the city, the only information they were able to glean from the clientele regarded whores, prostitutes, wenches, and ladies of the night. It was not the most enlightened bar they had ever been in. As the darkness grew outside the windows, they downed the remainders of their ales and headed back out into the now emptied streets.

They slowly made their way to the opposite side of the town, where the meeting had been arranged. When they arrived though, they looked at the clock to tell that they were still over an hour early. Rather than go to find another spot to pass the remainder of the time, they stood against the walls and chatted to make time pass quicker. The guards wandering the streets were not happy to see people loitering there and yelled at them to move along. Knowing they were doing nothing wrong, the group ignored the patrols and waited for the bell to toll midnight.

When the bells finally began ringing out their mournful tone, the four of them quickly ducked inside of the building. They hadn't been told where inside to meet, but it was smart assumption that it would be at the top of tower where they didn't risk any interruptions. Upon reaching the top of the stairs, they found two figures lurking in the shadows, one of which was obviously the peg-legged old man that they had bumped into earlier. The other was much younger and looked to be a servant of some kind in the royal house.

“Good, you decided to show. I was worried that you wouldn't want to help me out,” the old man said, stepping forward.

“Help you out? We are here on important business, you better be helping us out,” Keladkha replied angrily.

“Well let us just say that our interests are mutual. If the earl decides to break away from the empire, it will hurt our struggling economy even more and I will be unable to earn future profits.”

“Okay, so how do we fit into your plan?”

The old man fidgeted around a bit, obviously worried about what they would think of his plan. “We are going to assassinate the earl, his son is much more open to our interests.”

“Okay, how?”

“Wait... you agree to this without any qualms?”

“He stonewalled us earlier. I need a quick solution and it is probably the most straightforward and easiest task I've been presented in my travels.”

Flustered by Keladkha's easy acceptance, the man continued, “We want to have you replace this servant in the house. That way you can administer this poison to his meal tomorrow at mid day,” he said, pulling out a small vial of clear liquid.

“Sounds good, I assume you will smuggle me in tonight.”

“Yes, if you just put on these servant clothes, I will take you to the mansion straight away.”

Keladkha took the linens from the old man and stripped off his armor and weapons, handing them to Arynn. He slid on the servant's clothes quickly and stashed a pair of daggers under the waist band. Without any further delay, he left the other members of his party to get a room at an inn for the night and followed the peg legged man through the streets. They finally reached the earl's mansion and maneuvered around to a back door entrance that was unguarded. Once inside, the old man directed him to the servant quarters and left him to prepare for morning.

It was well before sunrise that a guard entered the servant's quarters and rang a bell, signaling the beginning of a hard days work. None of the other servants gave Keladkha a second look as he assumed the role of Tack, a cook's assistant. He hadn't even been up for an hour before he was already slaving away over a raging fire, stirring a massive pot of oatmeal. The cook was a surly sort, constantly criticizing his work and trying to get him to work faster and harder.

There was no break after the preparation of breakfast was completed. Once the food had been served, he was put to work scrubbing out all of the pots and pans they had used. He was working closely with another servant but no words passed between them as they worried that any conversation would draw the ire of the cook and lead to a whipping. Thankfully, preparations for the lunchtime meal started soon afterward. A couple hours and the earl would be dead and Keladkha could convince his son to join the cause and be back on his way to Belnor.

When the food preparations were complete and ready to be served to the waiting guests, Keladkha took the earl's plate of food out of sight. There he pulled out the small vial of poison and poured it over all of the food. With that finished he carried the plate out to the earl and returned to continue delivering food to the rest of the guests. When everyone had been served, he tried sneaking to the back door to escape, but the chef saw him and sent him back out to the dining room to attend to any of the earl's need.

The first sign of trouble was that the earl's face began turning an odd shade of purple. He kept eating and talking, but those around him noticed that something was happening. Shortly thereafter, the earl began wheezing and was short of breath before he finally collapsed face first into his pile of food. The person next to him quickly reached over and checked for a pulse before declaring to everyone in attendance that the earl was dead.

Keladkha was going to take this distraction as his chance to escape from the building, but something happened that would change that. He saw, as he was about to slip through the door back to the kitchen, the old man that had supplied the poison stand up and announce to the room, “That servant there poisoned the earl. Look, he is trying to escape.”

Before he even had a chance to react, guards had surrounded Keladkha. They quickly locked his hands in shackles and began leading him down to the basements, where the dungeons were. Mere minutes after the earl was dead, Keladkha found himself betrayed and locked in a dank prison cell underground. If he didn't escape, death surely awaited him.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Space Shuttle Launch

Go here to watch the Space Shuttle Atlantis take off in about 20 minutes time.


Sunday, November 15, 2009

NANOWRIMO Day Compilation

Prepare for a long, at least three chapter's worth as I haven't updated in a bit.

Chapter 14 – Promises

They were glad that upon reaching the top of the cliff, the horses they had left hadn't wandered too far off. The horses were found to be grazing on a narrow band of grasses that had sprung up from the frosty soil to thrive on the sea breezes. Regardless of how badly they wanted to return to Caendor quickly, they had to stop to rest on the on the cold soil once again. Building up a nice sized fire, they sat around and warmed their chilled bones.

After an uneasy night of sleep with the wind and sea sprays constantly bombarding them, they gathered up the remaining supplies and packed them into the horses' saddlebags. Their goal was to ride hard and fast until well after sundown, hoping to reach the city shortly after daybreak on the second day. The journey went by quickly enough until the storm that had been threatening them overtook them.

Buffeted by blowing snows and high winds, the pace quickly slowed to as though they were walking through molasses. Visibility dropped to where it could be measured in feet and the temperature plummeted through the floor. Even wearing heavy woolen cloaks over the armor, each one of them was shivering uncontrollably in the matter of minutes. Drifts were gathering rapidly in front of them, forcing the horses to trudge through them. They would have stopped to wait it out but without a good place of shelter, freezing to death would be a serious concern. There was no way to even remotely keep a fire going in the conditions currently hampering the travel.

The dark gray clouds that closed in around took away sense of time. Minutes felt like hours and hours felt like days, yet they continued to trudge onwards. There was a brief let up in the ferocity of the storm, but it was only short lived and only succeeded in causing hope to plummet any further. There was no longer any clue as to whether they were even headed in the right direction anymore. Long ago they could have gotten turned around and were headed in the opposite direction of where they wanted.

After much time had passed, the winds finally began to die down and the clouds began breaking apart. They were able to watch as the morning sun rose into the sky, illuminating the path that they needed to take. Luckily, they hadn't gotten too far off track, at most few miles too far to the west. Quickly adjusting the course, they hoped that the slower travel was counteracted by them riding throughout the night.

With only a small delay to have a quick, cold meal, they continued pressing ever onward. It was with great joy that they finally saw the magnificent towers of the city sticking up from the horizon. It would be at most an hour before they could return to a nice hot meal and a warm bed. The gates to the city were opened before they even arrived, the guards generally happy to see them return with the mystical herb in hand.

The guards at the castle quickly ushered them up to the Earl's quarters. They had assembled the alchemists at the first sighting of them on the horizon. The Earl's condition hadn't changed in the nearly week that they had been away. It seemed as though he was almost frozen time, stubble was absent from his chin and he looked exactly the same as when they had left.

His wife couldn't have the same said about her. According the guards, she hardly left her husband's side since he had fallen ill. She didn't even leave to take meals, instead having the servants bring them up to the bed room. Her hair was unkempt and clothes horribly wrinkled from non-stop wear.

The alchemists took the Athaleas from them and began preparations according to the instructions found in ancient medicinal texts. According the texts, the potion that had to brewed with a number of rare plants would take a full day's worth of simmering before it they could even add the herb. Then it would take a few more days before it was ready to be given to the Earl.

With the blessings of the Countess, the three adventurers were given separate guest bedrooms with all the amenities of nobility. Each was assigned servants that did nothing but wait on them from dawn to dusk. They had water drawn for baths, armor cleaned and repaired by the master blacksmith, and full meals provided by the cooks. The food was utterly better than the hard bread they had been living off of for the past couple of weeks and an improvement over what the army served them. Roast ducks, full pigs, mountains of potatoes, fresh baked bread, and wine at a moment's notice.

While eager to move on to the other locations for gathering troops, they were starting to enjoy themselves, not wanting to leave when the potion was finished. The potion, according to conversations they held with the head alchemist, was proceeding just as the texts said it should. In a matter of days, they would know whether it was possible to save the Earl.

They were woken early in the morning by one of the guards, telling them that potion had been completed and that it would be tested within the hour. Quickly dressing, they made their way to the Earl's bedchambers, where they once again found the Countess sitting on the side of her husband's bed. The alchemists were doing some final preparations and ladling the concoction into a vial to pour down the Earl's throat.

The time had finally come to test the potion and everyone in the room waited with bated breath. As the countess held her husband's mouth open, the head alchemist poured the liquid down the throat. The seconds slowly ticked away slowly as nothing seemed to happen. Just as they were about to say it was a failure, the Earl began to show some signs of life. His eyelids fluttered open for a second, before he began coughing. As he opened his eyes, looking around in bewilderment, his wife broke into tears and buried her face in his chest, sobbing greatly in joy.

The questions rolled out his mouth almost immediately. What had happened, why was everyone in his room, why was his wife in such a mood, and where was his breakfast. Everyone broke into a raucous laughter at the last, much to the bewilderment of the Earl.

Shen, who knew the Earl quite well over his years of service, took up the task of trying to explain what happened with help from the captain of the guard as to what happened before the three of them had arrived. He was filled in on his poisoning and how they were unsure of who had done it and that no one was currently in custody for the crime. Shen recounted their arrival and the reasons behind it, much to the Earl's dismay of learning of the attack. He followed with a description of their journey through the Cave of the Winds and fighting the dragon and trials to get the herb.

“I guess I owe you much gratitude for all that you have done to save me and my throne from a dastardly attack,” Earl Eamon stated after having the full tale wash over him. “It is a shame about King Tiethal, while he was not the most popular, to be murdered along with your entire line is something so terrible that I can not even imagine. I have a question though, you only mentioned there being five corpses. What happened to the daughter?”

“The Grand Marshall was unsure of her whereabouts when we left. No one saw her during the attack or in the aftermath, so they were operating under the assumption that she was kidnapped in the assault,” Keladkha spoke up.

“I certainly hope nothing horrible has happened to her. I have known her since she was wee tot and it would kill me to know that she had been harmed in any way.”

“Sir, sorry to intrude, but there still is the matter of you and your army making way to Belnor to provide protection and set up the meeting of nobles to determine the proper heir to the throne.”

“Yes, yes. It will take a week to make proper preparations for while I am away, but you will certainly have my troops on hand.”

“Thank you kindly sir, we will have to make more stops to gather allies, but I believe royal decree makes you regent until a successor is chosen.”

With the assurances in place, the three of them left the Earl to have a chance to digest all the news that had been thrown in his direction at once. They each returned to their separate rooms to gather the belongings that had become strewn about in the days of rest here. It would take at least another day for the proper provisions to be prepared for the journey into the marshes, a dangerous place.

As a proper thanks for their work in saving him, the Earl decided to bestow certain gifts upon the party. To Shen, he bestowed a set of the Earl's own armor. It was of the top quality metal and was adorned with the seal of Caendor, a griffin taking flight. Upon Keladkha, he gave his own personal horse. It was of a long breed of horses that had served the kings and earls for centuries. It was arguably the fastest and most intelligent of the horses in all of Ortheon. Arynn was given a special quiver of arrows, with heads imbued with the elemental properties of fire, causing a burn on targets that it came in contact with.

The time finally came for them to say goodbye though, as there was still much work to be done in gathering the forces. It was with heavy hearts that they left the plush surroundings that they had grown accustomed to in the previous days. Shortly after daybreak though, they set out through the front gates, leaving the magnificent white towers and castle behind, shimmering in the early morning rays.

Chapter 15 – On the Road Again

The group made their way back onto the Great Road and headed southeast towards the marshes. They were thankful to finally be leaving the frozen wastes of the north for some of the warmer climates of the country. Some of the worries that had been following them since they left Belnor after the attack were beginning to recede knowing that the Earl of Caendor was headed to capital to help set events in motion. Their task lie before them, uniting the other members of the Empire to pledge support in this dire time.

Word must have spread from the capital in other means, as the road was the emptiest that they had ever seen it. Few were the days when you could travel for hours on the road and not run across another merchant or traveler. Those they did end up running across steered a wide swath around them, obviously worried about the sorts of folks they would meet on the road.

Their first campsite on the road was not far from where they had been attacked on the journey towards the capital. While there were bad memories in the air, the hard night of sleep was less a result of that and more of a readjustment from the plush beds they had grown used to. The one redeeming fact was that the kitchens at the castle had provided them with the best quality of provisions they had enjoyed at any part of their travels.

The weather turned favorable to their cause as they continued along the winding road to the southeast. The days were finally bearable and the nights didn't see them shivering constantly until morning. Bright blue skies and sunshine greeted them around every bend and lush green grass and trees stretched as far as the eye could see in both directions. The mountains surrounding Belnor loomed off to the right as they followed the road, providing a picturesque beauty to whole journey. The pleasant travel wouldn't last though, as the marshes were some of the most humid and unbearable portions of the continent.

As they road through small towns situated on the road, they were not welcomed, with the few people on the streets glaring at them and the militia following their every footstep. It seemed as though paranoia had gripped the citizens of the Empire and every stranger was to be mistrusted and treated badly. They even ran across some inns that refused to serve them because tales of mass betrayals in the King's Guard had been passed through, growing even worse with each retelling.

It was late on the third day before they started to enter the outskirts of the marshes. Even on the edges of the great marshes, the humidity was spiking and they could feel the sweat sitting on the skin, unable to evaporate into the already saturated air. Massive clouds of biting insects swarmed over the stagnant pools of water, flying in and attacking anyone that came too close.

Their camp that night had to be the worst they had endured at any point in the journey, worse than even the nights freezing on the northern coasts. The camp was constantly overrun with stinging insects that seemed able to get past any clothe they put up in futile hopes keeping them out. Even the fire seemed unable to keep the menaces away for too long. The marshes were filled with many strange and rarely seen varieties of animals that thrived in the stagnant waters. The watchman had to constantly investigate sounds of objects plopping into the water, to be sure that they wouldn't be overrun by any number of beasts that would kill them before having a chance to defend themselves.

Morning blissfully came, allowing them to saddle back up and hit the road in attempts of covering most of the distance to the city, allowing them to ride in on the following day. Trelnath was primarily a port city with a wide access to information being passed by the sailors putting into port there. They would be able to learn much about what had happened in Belnor since their departure.

They had been traveling for a good chunk of the day when they entered a portion of the road that was bordered by reeds that reached a good twenty feet into the air. It was near impossible to see past them and they managed to hem the road in a great deal, narrowing the range of movement the horses were allowed. The lack of any occurrences had caused the trio to lower their guard, as they just wanted the day to end.

They were caught by surprise when an arrow suddenly flew from the reeds and pierced the skull of Shen's horse. Taken by surprise, he didn't even have time to leap from the horse before it collapsed to the ground, throwing him violently onto the road. Spooked by the sudden flurry of activity, both Keladkha's and Arynn's horses threw them to the ground and took off down the road. The two watched in horror as two more arrows flew from the reeds and landed with a thud in the chest of Shen, who was just then trying to stand up to give chase to the attackers.

Spurred into the action of watching Shen fall to the ground again, Keladkha took hold of his sword and burst into the reeds, closely followed by Arynn holding her two daggers. It was a chaotic chase in the reeds, as they would occasionally get a glance of the attackers, but most of the time was spent blindly barreling through the green stalks. They finally burst through the other side of the plants, and got a view of three men climbing into a small boat to row away.

Before they even had a chance to pick up any speed, Keladkha was on top of them and flipped the boat, sending them sprawling into the water. As the first one stood up in shock and gasping for air, his neck quickly met with the business end of a blade swung by Keladkha. The fountain of blood quickly turned the surrounding water red and coated his armor.

The second member of the attacking group had a better reaction time out of the water, having the benefit of having watched them approach the boat. He burst from the water and before Arynn had a chance to respond, he had grabbed hold of her. He used his weight to tackle her onto the ground, the impact causing her to drop hold of the daggers. He pinned her to the ground and proceeded to continuously beat her head into the ground.

The pain coursing through her head was intense, but she took advantage of an opening while he was trying to catch his breath. She quickly rolled over, catching him off guard and throwing him to ground next to her. Reaching over, she grabbed one of the daggers that had flown off when he had tackled her. There was a look of pure terror in his eyes as he realized that it was his end as she plunged the dagger deep into the throat. Blood began pouring out of his mouth, gurgling his last words, making them unintelligible.

Meanwhile, Keladkha was giving chase to the third man, who had decided early on to not try and fight and instead took off through the waist deep water in a vain attempt to escape. The water slowed him down though and allowed Keladkha to use his strength advantage to powerhouse through the water, making up the distance rather rapidly. Once he had closed to within range, he lept from the water and landed on the man's back, taking them both under the disturbed water.

Keladkha was the first to recover and took hold of the back of the man's leather armor. He forcibly held the man under the water. While there was a lot of thrashing about in an attempt to break free from drowning, Keladkha never loosened his grip. The struggling grew to be less and less as time went, eventually having the last bubbles escape from the man's mouth, signaling that he was dead.

Keladkha let go of his grip, allowing the man to slowly float up to the surface. He turned around and began trudging back towards where Arynn had last been. He was relieved to find her alright, cleaning up her blades on the clothes of the man she had just killed. Now back together, they took off in a hurry through the reeds, hoping to reach Shen in time to administer aid and save him from dying.

Thankfully, their return path through the brush was straight enough, having been aided by the numerous broken reeds from the previous trek through. They emerged back onto the road, only a dozen feet or so from where Shen lie. There was a growing puddle of blood emanating from his body, as he lay there, gasping for air. The two of them sprinted to his side and knelt down beside him.

He looked up at them, an obvious pain in his eye, a look of a man resigned to his fate. “Did you... finish them... off?” he weakly muttered.

“Yes. Now stay with us, we are going to help you out.”

“No, my time has... come. I'm off... to a better place. Continue... the... journ...” he muttered, the light dimming in his eyes. He had passed on.

Keladkha looked on the body of his closest friend and mentor for the last decade he had spent in the Army. The tears came quickly, streaming down his face and wetting the dusty road beneath him. He didn't even attempt to stop them, as he stood up and slowly walked away from the body.

Arynn approached from behind him and put her arms around him. “He will be missed,” she whispered in his ear, trying to help him grieve.

He slowly freed himself from her grip and walked back over to Shen. Kneeling down, he picked up the body and began walking through the reeds. He carried him in the direction of where they had just fought and killed the three bandits. When he reached the battle site, he placed his friend's body into the boat. Walking away he gathered some dry kindling and stacked it next to the body. As a last measure, he lit a torch and dropped it into the boat. He stepped back and looked on in sadness as the boat quickly caught fire to the point where he could no longer see Shen's body lying in it.

Chapter 16 – Trelnoth

Not a word was spoken between the two as they started walking the rest of the distance to Trelnoth. Keladkha was definitely taking the loss of his friend hard, as he no longer was his joyous self and no longer paid any attention to the interesting sights on they came across. An hour or so after they had started walking, they came across their two horses, grazing on some reeds. Thankful to not have to walk the remainder of the distance to the city, they mounted up and got moving in a slow trot. They rode on through the night, as he made no attempts to slow the journey and ignored some feeble suggestions from Arynn to rest some.

Shortly after sunrise they came into view of Trelnoth. It was nowhere near as majestic as Caendor and Belnor, a result of being situated on the coast and in the marshes. The walls of the city, while once majestic, were now covered in green moss and splattered dirt. For all the traffic that poured through as the main port of the empire, it was not a particularly wealth fiefdom. Many of the citizens lived in small wooden shacks in the waterfront district, while the richer folk lived in masonry houses surrounding the main keep.

The merchant quarter was a particularly shady place, with shopfronts advertising everything from lost treasures to mystical cures for everything. Ladies of the night hawked their services on every street corner, attracting many sailors fresh in from months out at sea. Figures passed in the shadows, most likely thieves and pickpockets waiting for the correct moment to strike.

The docks district was just as scummy. Rats and filth filled the streets as rough, unshaven men went about their duties of unloading the shipments that the massive sailing ships brought in. Storefronts were for inns and thinly veiled whore houses. Crates of untold items were piled high on the docks, free for the taking as it appeared the town watch never even bothered to examine this area. As further examples of the crime, wanted posters filled the entire walls of some buildings, showing criminals ranging from rapists to murderers to thieves.

The noble quarters stood in stark contrast to the surrounding regions. The town watch was constantly seen patrolling the streets filled with massive masonry homes. Flower gardens stood well trimmed and watered on every corner. Nobles roamed the streets, greeting each other in their holier-than-thou ways. Their cares dealt nothing with the problems that troubled the rest of the town.

Keladkha and Arynn headed to the docks district to troll around the pubs to learn of any tales from the world around. Their first stop was called the Three-Legged Troll and was a particularly dingy atmosphere. Inside, many sailors lounged around telling whoppers of tales about their days at seas. Serving girls in the skimpiest clothing brought the drinks to the men who had probably had too much, even in the early hour of the day. The picked a table in the corner that allowed them the best chance of overhearing the conversations going on around them.

Most of the talk though, centered around topics other than the political situation of the empire. It could have been that most were of foreign origin, with many accents accentuating the talks. Whores in other lands, tales of fish that got away, and tales of pirates seemed to the most popular discussions among the men. They struck pay dirt though, with a pair of old salty sea dogs lounging in the corner of the tavern.

“I hear the Grand Marshall declared martial law in the city. People are terrified and he is only hurtin',” they overhead one of them say.

“Damn fear mongering,” the other one replied.

Having learned the only tidbit of information available, the decided to head back to the palace to seek an audience with Earl Howe. The palace walls gleamed in the sunlight, obviously better maintained then the remainder of the city. The giant oak doors were thrown open and they were allowed to walk into the great hall before being accosted by any guards.

“What are ye doing here? You shouldn't be here.”

“I am Keladkha Silverkin, a soldier in the King's army. I must speak with Earl Howe immediately, it is a matter of utmost importance.”

“From what I hear, the King is dead. He doesn't have an army anymore.”

“Regardless of what you think, I must speak with the Earl.”

“The Earl ain't here. Headed out to Starved Rock to deal with some pirates with the troops.”

Chapter 17 – In Search of Stupid

Annoyed by the this turn of events, yet another journey just to get an Earl, who by all means should be in the castle letting his generals take care of such a campaign, he stormed from the room leaving the guard wondering what that was about. Starved Rock was a location along the coast, about a day's ride from the city, that had been a haven for pirates and villainy for years. Numerous campaigns had been wrought to try and root them out, but every time they made any gains, they were quickly lost to the resilient pirates.

Without much of a delay, Keladkha and Arynn retrieved their horses and set out on the road leading to the southwest from the town. Being midday when they had left, they had traveled about half of the necessary distance before setting up camp. Keladkha was just as withdrawn and distant as he had been the night before. No matter how much Arynn tried to comfort him or get him to talk, he always just brushed her off and went back to brooding.

Their camp that night, while still in the marshes wasn't as bad as the ones they had endured during the journey to city. A stiff breeze off of the ocean managed to keep most of the annoying little insects at bay, allowing them a peaceful night's sleep at least. They had found a place that was well sheltered, so they could safely light a fire without having to worry about how could see it for miles around.

The morning rays peeking over the horizon signaled another day's journey to begin. They had had all of the materials packed into the saddlebags and had eaten prior to the first morning light even rising. They continued their ride in silence, each one to his own thoughts. While not as enjoyable this way, it avoided delays and allowed them the ability to make a good pace.

They finally reached a ridge overlooking the settlement of Starved Rock shortly before the sun had reached its apex. As they looked down upon it, the signs of an ongoing battle were clear. The Earl's army had set up its camp on the outskirts of the settlement and were also working to blockade it from the sea. Smoke rose from the shanties that littered the outskirts, the site of most of the battles. Even now, they could see soldiers and pirates fighting in hand-to-hand combat in the streets, fighting hard for every possible inch of soil.

The earl's banners flew in a cavalry regiment that was situated on one of the exit roads, ready to cut down anyone caught trying to flee. As they continued to watch, they heard the sound of a horn being blown, signaling the start of a charge. It appeared the Earl wasn't content with merely sitting on the fringes of battle, he wanted to get in and fight. They watched in horror as the horses moved into the streets and into a perfectly positioned ambush. The middle of the charge was wiped out by a sudden barrage of arrows as men rushed out with pikes to meet the front lines. In a matter of seconds, most of the regiment had been cut to shreds. Those that were able immediately began a retreat to the safety of camp. Neither of the two watching were able to tell if the Earl had survived to escape or been taken prisoner as a bargaining chip.

Over the remainder of the day, ground changed hands constantly, one second being held by the army and next by the pirates. The assault was finally called off shortly after the sun had fallen and the army tactically retreated to their camp. Now with the din of battle gone, Keladkha and Arynn decided it was time to make their entrance to the camp to find out what was going on.

They rode down the narrow, winding road to the camp. The wind was picking up around them and black clouds were rolling in off of the ocean. The area was occasionally illuminated by flashes of lightning darting through the sky, providing an awesome and terrifying display of power. They were stopped by soldiers before they entered the camp proper.

“We need to speak with Earl Howe or whoever is in charge immediately.”

“You'll need to speak with General Petraeus, his tent is the large circular one in the middle of the camp,” the guard responded, noticing that they bore the mark of the king and wisely didn't push them any further.

The two thanked him and began slowly riding in between the rows of tents. Screams of agony filled the camp as the doctors worked on attending to the wounded soldiers. The faces of the soldiers who hadn't been injured told a grim story, the battles were not going well and they merely hoped that they could give up and head back home to their families.

They finally rode up to the officer's section of the camp, where the tents were more spacious and had more spacing between them for privacy. They dismounted their horses next to a large bonfire outside of the largest tent, what was obviously the planning tent for the attacks. Angry voices emanated from inside, an argument was brewing between some of the commanders, one side obviously wanting to cut tail and run and the other wanted to stay in it for the long run.

Not wanting to greatly disturb the discussion, Keladkha slipped inside of the tent and stayed to one edge. Arynn waited outside with the horses, obviously not one of the army, she didn't want to draw any unneeded attention to herself. On the inside, Keladkha waited patiently for the argument to wind up so that he could introduce himself and get down to business. The two sides finally gave up the discussion, deciding to stick out the plan for a couple days at least.

As the last words were spoken, Keladkha stepped forward into the light and said, “I represent the King's army and I must speak with Earl Howe. It is a matter of the utmost urgency.”

“Good luck with that,” the General snorted, leering at him as he walked over. “He decided to play hero and got most his men killed and he was captured. We received a ransom note not that long ago.”

“So how long until you mount a rescue?”

“That will be damn near impossible. I can't risk my men on a suicide mission.”

Keladkha realized that there was going to be debating the issue with the general, so he made a suggestion, “I will go in there and try and get him out. Maybe I can reason with them and we can end this stupid feud.”

“It's your death wish. Don't blame us if anything happens.”

“Nothing will happen if I left it up to you. You are too busy trying to jockey for position to realize that you are so utterly incapable in running an assault. You have these pirates blockaded, which means they will eventually run out of food and have to accept your terms or be too weak to fight back. Yet you continue to push an attack on the place when it is built like a fortress, you send your men to an endless slaughter. If you were a part of the King's army, you would have been stripped of rank and executed for gross incompetence long ago.”

The room was left in a stunned silence after those remarks. The general was a well respected man who had served the Earl for decades. No one dared questioned the wisdom of his orders, no matter if the same thoughts had been running through their heads for the past couple of days. Before anyone even had a chance to respond, Keladkha strode angrily from the tent, meeting up with Arynn outside.

“Looks like we are on our own. We will have to infiltrate the town and get the Earl back ourselves.”

“Wait what?”

“The Earl was captured in the charge earlier today and is being held for ransom. No one here has the will to do anything about it and will just maintain the status quo. That is why I volunteered us to go in and get him back, hopefully ending this dispute.”

“Are you sure about this? That place is locked up ridiculously tight, there is no way that we will safely get in and out.”

“Going to have to, as long as the Earl is alive, he is the only one that order the troops to Belnor and help decide the new King. Without him, the legitimacy of the throne would be lost.”

“If you say so. I've got a bad feeling about his though.”

Chapter 18 – Deep Penetration

By this time, the entire camp had been shrouded in darkness, allowing the perfect cover for a covert entrance to the enemy encampment. Realizing that armor would only prove to be a hindrance, they stripped down to simple, black cloth garments. Preferring surprise to a full on battle, he opted to borrow some short blades rather than his usual two handed broadsword.

Properly attired, they began their exit from the Earl's camp. They had been given some rudimentary maps of the area, showing that Howe was most likely going to be held in the Pirate Lord's mansion at the center of town. None of the attacks had made it to this point yet, so the information on defenses in the area was rudimentary at best. They expected most of the pirates to housed in the houses in the main square in front of the mansion, with barricades and the occasional patrol to deal with.

The soon entered the very outskirts of Starved Rock, of which had mostly been turned to rumble. The shanties that had littered the area had been burned down to minimize the potential of ambushes. The bodies of soldiers and pirates littered the streets, attracting numerous rats, insects, and scavenging birds for a quick meal. Numerous times they had drop into the shadows and hold their breathes as they disturbed a bird and it flew into the air cawing madly.

When they were satisfied that no one was investigating, they would slowly inch forward through the city. Having left the city outskirts, the buildings were now more tightly packed in what appeared to have been the merchant district. While it provided amble opportunities to sneak in the shadows, they were never entirely sure if they were being watched. In any of the darkened windows, a pirate could have been sitting watching there movements, prepared to alert the main base of soldiers.

So far their movements had been unimpeded as they approached the wall surrounding the rear of the pirate lord's compound. The wall stood nearly ten feet high, and the only way they could see to get over it would be through the use of an old tree that sprouted straight from the base of the wall. Arynn nimbly darted into the tree and climbed up to a point where she would have a good view of the lawn. She signaled down to Keladkha that there were only two guards stationed on the far end of the compound. When he climbed up to join her, he noticed that they were locked deep in conversation with many empty bottles of rum around them.

With cat-like grace, they each leaped from the tree and softly landed in the tall overgrown grass on the interior of the compound. The guards either weren't paying enough attention or simply didn't hear the rustling as the two made their way hunched over through the grass. Thankfully, maintenance of the estate had taken a backseat during the siege as the unmown grass reached almost to where the guards were seated. Quickly they signed which guard, each was going to take out. Keladkha's target was the bigger, burlier one on the left who reeked of such a bad odor even this far away.

On a count, each of them burst from the grasses and stabbed the guards in the throats before they had a chance to yell out for reinforcements. Another quick jab to the heart made sure that the guards wouldn't survive to see the morning. Keladkha and Arynn propped the bodies up in the chairs, so that if any other guards walked by, they wouldn't see anything out of the ordinary.

With those guards dealt with, it was now time to search the interior for where the Earl was being held. With no idea as to the layout of the place, they decided to try and find a stairway to the basement, as that would be the most likely place for a dungeon to be held. Keladkha silently swung open the back doorway and popped his head in, quickly pulling back out as he saw a guard walking away from them. They quickly donned the armor from the two guards, hopping it would provide them with just enough of a disguise to hide from an inquisitive enemy.

With a quick motion to Arynn, they silently moved into the house and took the hallway in the opposite direction of where they had just seen the guard. As they darted through the hallways, they constantly kept their heads on a swivel in case any guard should pop out of any of the numerous rooms they had left behind. The rooms to the side were too risky of a proposition to search fully. If they happened to open a door leading the guard room, their cover would have been blown.

Luckily they found a stairwell that was headed into the basement portion of the mansion. There was a guard at the door at the bottom, but he allowed them entrance without question, as he obviously appeared to be bored out of his mind protecting whatever was down here. As they entered the room, they saw that one wall was lined with cages. Men of the Earl's army were being held here and it looked like they weren't given food or water and had not received any medical care. While they saddened by the prisoners' plight, there was no opportunity to help them at the moment, they had to find the Earl and escape without detection.

Their examination of the prisoners was not fruitful though, it didn't appear that the earl was being held down here, as all of the cages were full and none of them contained their query. With more of the compound still to be searched, they headed back out the door and past the inattentive guard. Once back on the main level, they continued the search for anymore staircases. Numerous times they were forced to duck into side passages as guards and servants seemed to endlessly travel through the halls.

Eventually, they stumbled across a stairway leading up to the second level of the mansion. Having no better leads, the decision was made to examine it for any further clues. Once on the second level, they were relieved to find that the guards traveled with much less frequency through these quarters. After briefly checking a few of the side rooms, it appeared this was where most of the servants made their homes. Small, dirty cots filled each room, with barely any personal space for each inhabitant.

The search of this floor provided no further clues as to the location of the Earl. They had found a second staircase down to the first floor and one leading up to the third and final level. It was going to have prove fruitful or the entire operation would be deemed a failure and they would have to return to the camp empty handed. With no other place to go, they slowly tiptoed their way up the stairs.

Once up there, they were able to tell that there was not much to this level. One narrow hallway with maybe a handful of rooms situated off of it. It appeared to be where the pirate lord lived and did his business. Surprising for being the main living quarters, there were no guards to be seen. Either the lord liked his privacy or something major was happening.

As they inched their way down to what appeared to be an office at the opposite end of the hall, they began hearing voices from behind a partly cracked door. One of them was definitely the frightened voice of Earl Howe and the other one they hadn't heard before.

“All I want is you to withdraw your forces and leave us pirates to be,” came the unknown voice, most likely the pirate lords.

“Never, I don't make deals with troublemakers like you. You deserve death for all you have done.”

“Why won't you just work with me? You are my prisoner and you have no power here.”

“Because I know my generals will come for me and you will pay for this.”

“I could just kill you before they ever got here, then more of your men will die for no reason other than your stupidity.”

Keladkha and Arynn inched towards the door and pushed it open a little wider so that they could get a good view of what was going on in the room. From what they could see, the pirate lord had his back to the them with the Earl kneeling before him in chains, obviously injured from the careless charge he had led earlier. From their vantage point, there was nothing to suggest that there was anybody else in the room.

They quickly decided on a plan of attack that saw Keladkha killing the lord while Arynn worked to free the Earl from his shackles. Finally, during a lull in their conversation, they burst from the door and Keladkha effortlessly slid his blade through the back of the Lord's neck, quickly dropping him to the ground. As Arynn hurriedly worked to free Howe's arms and legs, a bad sound came from behind them. In their charge into the room, they had run right past six guards that had been standing along the wall. The sound was them drawing their blades, preparing to fight.

At the sound, Arynn looked up from her work and dropped the lockpick she had been using with a gasp. Keladkha turned around and wordlessly stared at the six angry faces now looking straight at him. He clenched his hands tighter around the hilts of his sword and prepared for the inevitable fight before them. They would be heavily outnumbered by experienced fighters.