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Beschreibung

What do you get when you mix a novice wizard, a reckless warrior, a sharp-tongued thief, & a saintly cleric? Swords, sorcery, & sarcasm.

Glolindir thought he knew all about magic until he came face to face with his very first monster. He only survived thanks to his new friends: a gallant warrior as talented as he is reckless, a mysterious halfling whose knives are nearly as sharp as his tongue, and a saintly gnome whose very touch can heal.

Unfortunately, that was just the beginning of their troubles. Strange things have been happening around the little town of Ravenford. Before they know it, they are up to their necks in monsters and worse.

From eerie ruins to underground caves to a ghostly forest devoid of life, they encounter the forces of darkness. Can they overcome their faults and work together to save the town, or will they die trying?

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Ruins on Stone Hill

The Heroes of Ravenford

Book 1

F.P. Spirit

Copyright @ 2019 F. P. Spirit

Cover Art by Jackson Tjota

Cover Typography by Amalia Chitulescu

Interior Design by Designs by Shannon

Edited by Sandra Nguyen

ISBN 978-0-9984715-7-0

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in retrieval system, copied in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise transmitted without written permission from the publisher. You must not circulate this book in any format.

Thanks to Tim for creating the world of Thac, and to Eric, Jeff, John, Mark and Matt for their roles in bringing the Heroes to life. Also, thanks to the rest of my friends and family who gave their time and support into the creation of this book.

Other Books in this Series

The Ruins on Stone Hill

The Serpent Cult

The Dark Monolith

The Princess of Lanfor

The Baron’s Heart

Contents

Map of Thac

1. The Red Warrior

2. A Strange Alliance

3. The Road to Ravenford

4. The Charging Minotaur

5. Maltar

6. Into the Dead Forest

7. Bugbears

8. Stone Hill

9. Inside the Ruins

10. Through A Mirror Darkly

11. In the Dungeon

12. Necromancers

13. Unexpected Reunion

14. Stone Golem

15. The Ancient Scroll

16. Wizards’ Duel

17. Ravenford Keep

18. The Truth about Lloyd

19. Troubled Hearts

20. Back to the Bendenwoods

21. Orc Ambush

22. The Cave Guardian

23. The Elven Bard

24. Down the Well

25. Captive Audience

26. Lost in the Caves

27. Bringing Down the House

28. Celebration

29. The Enchanted Hammer

30. Giant

31. Return to the Ruins

32. A Cry in the Night

33. Battle in the Dead Forest

34. The Serpent Cult

Story Continues

The Serpent Cult Excerpt

Also by F.P.Spirit

About the Author

Eastern Thac as depicted at the Great Library of Palt on the Isle of Lanfor. Though there are still ancient copies on parchment, this visual representation of the map is magically maintained by the librarians there. This is evidenced by the addition of recent towns such as Ravenford and Vermoorden. However, it should be noted that landmarks such as Cairthrellon are still represented here, even though the great elven city “disappeared” over 500 years ago.

- Lady Lara Stealle, High Wizard of Penwick

1

The Red Warrior

Speed and silence, deadly both

The aged ash trees reached toward the sky. Glimpses of deep blue peeked through the treetops, the light of the afternoon sun barely penetrating the dense forest foliage. The fresh scent of the surrounding trees and bushes, mixed in with the earthy aroma of grass, wafted on the cool crisp air. A trace of dust lingered, churned up by the wheels of the wagons that had traveled the well-worn dirt road, cutting a path through the looming forest.

Other odors also rose from the earth: the musky, warm smell of horses, the heady memory of wine, some pungent herbs, and dried hay. These scents were attached to a group of travelers. Horses pulled wagons filled with boxes, barrels of goods, and beverages that the caravan owners were carting to their destination. The wagon floors were lined with hay in a vain attempt to make passengers more comfortable.

The clip-clop of horse hooves, the squeaking of turning wheels, and the creaking of wagons announced the caravan’s presence along the dirt road. Bright-voiced birds and rustling leaves accompanied its passage through the forest.

Glolindir sat in one of those wagons on a pile of hay—his back propped against a box of goods with his cloak thrown over it in an attempt to make the seat more comfortable. Being an elf, Glo did not look much different from a human. Standing at about six feet tall with flaxen hair, blue eyes, and fair skin, he was perhaps a bit thinner than most humans, but the only trait that gave away his heritage was his pointed ears.

Glolindir had been lulled into a half-trance by the rocking motion of the wagon, and the soft sounds of the forest. The young elf was quite content, until he realized that something was different. There was a subtle change in their surroundings, but he could not quite tell what it was. He opened his eyes and gazed around, straining his senses.

His friend, Aksel, was doing the same. A few minutes ago, the gnome had been lounging across from him on a second pile of hay. Now Aksel was standing up, his three-foot frame tensing as he listened with his own pointed ears.

They were both transfixed, trying to place what was amiss. Aksel gazed at him. Glo shook his head at the silent question that passed between them. They were missing something obvious, something that was just at the edge of their awareness. Both friends turned to gaze at Seth.

The halfling sat in the front of the wagon next to the driver. His small frame, just barely shorter than Aksel's, was dwarfed next to him. Seth’s head was slightly cocked as if also listening.

Listening. That was it! There weren't any forest sounds. The birds had stopped chirping their songs, and even the rustling of leaves had died down. Glo continued to strain his ears, but the surrounding woods remained quiet. He opened his mouth to say something when a strange sensation washed over him. It hit him like a crashing wave, making every nerve taut. His heart raced, sweat gathered across his brow, and he felt a bit light-headed.

Aksel must have noticed his sudden change in condition. “Are you alright?”

Glo ignored the gnome, his eyes darting from side to side. He searched for any sign of danger, yet saw nothing to warrant such an intense reaction. What is causing this sense of dread? It suddenly dawned on him—it was his familiar, Raven. He was linked empathically to the tiny magical beast, and these feelings of fear were coming from her!

Glo stood up and poked his head out of the wagon, looking up into the trees. Where is she? He scanned all around, his heart still pounding. There she is. He spotted her up the road ahead of them, winging her way back in a state of utter panic.

Aksel’s head suddenly appeared next to him. “What's going on?”

"It's Raven. Something has her really spooked—something on the trail ahead."

Aksel raised an eyebrow. Seth’s eyes narrowed. Even the wiry old wagon driver knew something was wrong. He glanced over at Glo and said, "Son, you don't look so good."

Glo steadied himself. "I'll be fine."

They scanned the woods ahead, three pairs of keen eyes scrutinizing either side of the trail.

"Over there!" Seth pointed up ahead off the trail to the left.

Glo focused in on the spot, but at first saw nothing. Abruptly something moved. It looked like the top of a bow. Glo strained his eyes, trying to get a better look. Is that an arm? Yes, he saw an arm—a bare green arm. It was sticking out from behind a bush and holding a drawn bow with a nocked arrow. As he continued to watch, a gust of wind briefly blew the bush aside. For just an instant, he got a look at a face.

It was not quite human, but brutish, almost monkey-like with green skin and two short tusks protruding from the lower jaw. Glo was momentarily startled. He'd seen such a creature before, but only in books back home. That’s an orc! A wave of nervousness passed through his body. Orcs were nasty creatures—carnivorous humanoids who did not mind feeding on the flesh of people. They were all in grave danger.

Aksel and Seth must have seen it as well. Aksel let out a soft gasp, and Seth’s eyes went dark, a twisted smile crossing his face. Glo pushed down his rattled nerves, and took a deep breath.

“Orc!”

His voice startled the driver, and the man nearly fell out of his seat and off the wagon. He recovered and pulled hard on the reins, bringing the wagon to a complete halt. The driver then turned, dove into the wagon, and crawled back behind the barrels and boxes.

The reaction had caught Glo by surprise. He tore his eyes away and peered out ahead of them. The other wagons had also stopped.

Aksel distracted him yet again. “Where did Seth go?”

In all the commotion, Seth had disappeared. Glo scanned the area, his heart pounding in a frantic rhythm. He finally caught sight of Seth stealthily crawling under the stopped wagon in front of them. He was about to cry out to him, when a whizzing noise came out of the forest. Glo instinctively ducked down into the wagon, Aksel beside him. A split second later, two arrows embedded themselves into the seat above. Both elf and gnome flinched at the sight.

Glo swallowed hard. “I think he’s headed toward the front of the caravan!”

Aksel merely shook his head. “Doesn’t surprise me.”

Glo silently hoped that Seth knew what he was doing.

Aksel mirrored his thoughts. “I just hope he knows what he’s doing.”

“He was well-hidden beneath the wagons.” Though he tried to sound comforting, Glo was equally worried about their friend. In fact, he was concerned about all of them. Orcs were not creatures to be trifled with. This was a deadly situation—one they just might not survive.

Seth crawled under the two lead wagons. He stayed on his belly until he made it to the front of the caravan. Once there, he scanned the area. Up ahead he spotted the two sentries, who were supposed to protect the caravan, on the ground unmoving, with numerous arrows protruding from their backs. Seth did not blanch. He was used to death; he had experienced it up close more times than he cared to admit.

A brief image of his old master came unbidden to him. The halfling momentarily shuddered as he relived the moment his tutor died—disappearing in a conflagration of fire before his eyes. He could feel the heat as it wafted over him and he smelled the sick odor of burning flesh. Seth woke up many a night in a cold sweat after witnessing that same scene over again in his dreams.

The halfling shook himself. This was neither the time nor the place. Swallowing hard, he forced down the memories, allowing his training to kick in. Seth scanned the rest of the area around him, but there were no more bodies to be seen. The others must have heard Glo’s warning and ducked inside. Bowmen were now returning fire from the wagons, but it was not enough to keep their attackers at bay.

The orcs began to charge, green faces snarling, from the trees on either side of the road. A few of the vile creatures were felled by arrows, but two of them made it to the lead wagon and tried to climb aboard.

Seth stood up, a sharp dagger suddenly appearing in his hand. He barely slouched as he crossed under the wagon, till he stood face to kneecap with one of the orcs. The creature was so close that the fetid odor of unwashed flesh and filth filled his nostrils. Seth scrunched his nose in an effort to avoid the smell. Gods, don’t these things ever bathe?

The wagon tilted as the orc lifted one leg off the ground and began to hoist itself up the side. The screams of the people inside spurred Seth into action.

Speed and silence, deadly both. His master’s creed echoed in his thoughts as he rolled out from underneath the wagon and leapt up behind the vile, smelly brute. The bristly hair poked Seth's skin through his black leathers as he grasped the oversized left ear of the orc, his hand slipping slightly from the greasy filth on the rough skin. With practiced ease he brought his dagger to the creature’s throat.

Once again, he heard his master’s voice: All things with heads, from animals to men, need blood to reach their brains. Open those channels and the life will pump out of any foe. Seth’s blade moved across the orc’s throat, quick and clean, cutting a deep gash clear across. The brutish fiend tried to reach back and grasp its attacker, not realizing that it was already as good as dead. Seth let go and dropped softly back down to the ground.

He immediately launched himself into a forward roll beneath the wagon, the body of the slain orc hitting the ground behind him with a loud thud. Seth caught a glimpse of a second orc on the other side of the wagon. He continued rolling until he came out behind it—his dagger in hand as he leapt at the monster. Seth grabbed on tight, and with a quick slash of his dagger dispatched the second creature.

A sudden premonition, perhaps from his years of training, made Seth flip off the orc’s back. A second later, a flurry of arrows buried themselves into the falling body. No honor among these creatures, Seth thought. He swiftly launched himself underneath the wagon again and gazed out from his hiding place. A group of orcs approached the wagon, bows nocked with arrows. The lead creature squinted with its glowing red eyes and pointed to the place where he had just disappeared.

Abruptly, the four lead orcs fell to the ground, their previously nocked arrows flying haphazardly in all directions. The three behind tripped over their companions and landed in a heap on top of them.

Seth darted out from under the wagon and chanced a quick look down the line of wagons. He saw Glolindir standing in their original wagon, his staff in his left hand and his right hand outstretched. Seth flashed the wizard a quick smile, and Glo winked back. Handy having a wizard around who can put enemies to sleep!

As the fallen orcs tried to get up, they were riddled with arrows from the wagons. Within seconds, all the vile creatures were lying on the ground in a heap of ugly flesh.

Seth ran out to the pile of enemies, making certain the top ones were dead. He then dispatched the remaining monsters before they woke up from their magically induced “nap.” All the while, he kept eyes and ears open for attackers, but no more emerged from the surrounding woods.

It looked as if they would make it out of this after all, when the underbrush parted up the side of the trail. A brute of an orc stalked out of the woods. It was huge, with massive shoulders and long, wicked tusks dripping with saliva. In its right hand, it held a curved sword easily twice the size of the little halfling. Glowing hate-filled eyes surveyed the caravan and the fallen bodies of its brethren.

Right, Seth thought. This monster was beyond anything they could handle. Still, he was not the type to give up. His mind raced, searching for some tactic to use against the beast.

The monster stared at the wagons for a moment, then lifted its head to the sky, letting forth a savage scream. The ferocity of it shook Seth to the bone. The creature then lowered its head, lifted its huge sword, and charged toward the wagons with a vicious growl.

Glolindir spotted the monstrous orc at the same time as Seth. The wizard waited till it charged, then lifted his arm and pointed a finger at it. As he did so, mana, the energy that flows in and around all things, gathered within him. He drew the energy inward with concentrated will and focused it with a gesture. All that was needed now was a verbal command to trigger it.

The orc had closed half the gap to the lead wagon when Glo spoke the words that released the spell, “Nullam Telum.” A projectile of arcane energy leapt from his finger and spiraled out toward the charging creature. The purple missile met the beast in midstride and connected with an audible thud.

The monster appeared neither shaken, nor hurt. Instead it merely glanced down at its chest, reached up with its free hand, and touched the smoldering spot.

Glo’s eyes went wide. This huge orc was far tougher than he imagined—he had severely miscalculated. He watched in horror as the creature dropped its hand and turned its feral gaze toward him. An evil grin spread across the monster’s maw, then it charged.

Glo froze in place, unable to move a muscle. He had been so sure of himself. He had studied his spells and creatures and practiced his art tirelessly. Yet none of that had prepared him for this. Here was a real live monster bearing down on him, fully intent on ripping him limb from limb. It swiftly closed the gap between them and would be on him in seconds.

My father was right. He was woefully unprepared to cope with this. At that moment, he wished that he had listened to his father’s advice and stayed in the safety of their elven home.

Aksel climbed out of the wagon just in time to see the creature rushing toward them. “Well, that doesn’t look good.”

“Agreed,” Glo said through barely moving lips.

When Seth saw the monstrous orc charge his friends, he threw aside all reason. There was no way the two of them could handle that monster alone. He wasn’t sure if he would be much help, but he had to do something.

Seth took off at a dead run. The monster was moving quickly, but if he could intercept it he might be able to distract it away from his friends. Swiftly reaching the second wagon, he leapt up the side. Seth landed on the soft wagon top and raced across it, precariously balancing on the thin fabric. He stopped at the very edge, and was about to launch himself onto the beast’s back, when shouts came from the front of the caravan. Seth paused, chancing a quick look toward the lead wagon.

Down the road and closing fast was a rider dressed in red armor, yelling something that sounded like Pen-ick. The warrior repeated the cry as he closed in on them, and Seth heard it clearly this time—Penwick. More orcs appeared at the head of the caravan, but they now turned toward the approaching rider with startled grunts and noisy growls.

Seth turned back toward the monstrous orc, but to his surprise, the beast had pulled up short. It had turned toward the approaching challenger, curiosity written on his hideous face. Luckily, Seth’s reflexes kept him from falling. Otherwise, he would have ended up landing on the beast’s face—not the most ideal place to be.

The crowd of orcs stared all around, as if unsure what to make of the lone rider. Finally, they mustered up their courage and charged to meet him—all except for the huge one. It seemed to have forgotten all about Glo and was now glaring at this brazen newcomer.

Seth glanced over at his elven friend. He was white as a sheet, still frozen in place. A Seth’s lips twisted sideways as he turned back toward the coming battle. The rider had nearly reached the caravan and now stood in his saddle. A second later, the figure launched himself off his horse, unsheathing two large swords as he arced through the air. The red-armored rider landed in the midst of the orcs that had charged to meet him. Before any of them could touch the man, his blades began to swing around.

This guy is huge! Seth thought. He was a head taller than the monsters, easily as large as the huge orc standing below him. Despite his great size, his moves were swift, weightless. He twisted and twirled, dancing through the attackers, blades darting in and out. One orc after another fell. The big man mowed down their enemies like a scythe cutting through weeds.

Seth glanced back at the wagon and saw Aksel standing next to Glo, trying to snap the wizard out of his fear-induced trance. Below him, the monstrous orc had not moved. It stared intently at the warrior, seemingly oblivious to everything else.

The fight continued on, orc after orc falling. Some of them pulled back from battle and drew their bows. Abruptly, four of them fell to the ground, motionless. The two remaining orcs jumped back in fright, glancing around to see what had felled their comrades.

The corner of Seth’s mouth lifted slightly. Aksel must have finally gotten through to Glo and the wizard was back to work. Seth reached into a pouch on his belt and pulled out two thin black knives. In one swift motion, he flicked his wrists, letting the knives fly from his fingertips. The triangular projectiles covered the distance to the two orcs in less than a second and stuck with a soft thwack. Both creatures fell to the ground, a thin black dagger between their eyes.

Seth glanced over his shoulder, but the huge orc remained motionless, its attention on the large man mowing down its brethren. Seth turned back toward the fight just as the red-clad warrior felled his last opponent. The man stood alone now, orc bodies strewn all around him. His face was covered in sweat from exertion, but did not seem to be breathing heavily at all. The forest had gone quiet; the rest of the orcs were either dead or asleep. Some heads popped out of the other wagons, cautiously peering up and down the trail.

Abruptly, a bone-clattering scream shattered the silence. All of those heads quickly disappeared back into the wagons. The huge orc’s head was reared toward the sky, its maw still hanging open from that unearthly cry. It slowly dropped its head and glared balefully at the warrior. The orc stood there for a few moments, then charged its new foe, its heavy footsteps causing the wagon to shake underneath Seth.

“Look out!” Seth did his best to hold on. The warrior glanced up and gave him a brief smile, then rushed forward to meet the charging orc. Large as he was, he somehow managed to move with incredible speed. He hurtled toward the monster, his two great swords spread out on either side.

Man and orc collided head on; two titans locked in combat. Their muscles heaved in testament to the ferocity of the struggle. Yet the warrior turned aside the fierce slashes from the monster’s huge blade. The creature swung at him again and again, grunting and heaving as it tried to cleave the man in two. Instead of dancing around this opponent, the large man stood his ground. He deftly parried those tremendous blows with one sword then the other, all the while slicing away at the vicious beast’s hide.

The monster had no real skill with its sword—most likely relying on its strength to overwhelm opponents. Soon the orc’s thick skin was deeply gashed, its greasy, green body streaked with trails of blood.

Seth took advantage of the distraction and dropped down off the top of the wagon. He crept forward to the last remaining sleeping orcs and silently dispatched the rest of them. When he looked back up, the two titans were still locked in combat.

The beast suddenly changed its tactics. Instead of another huge overhand swing, it pulled back and slashed at its opponent’s torso. If the blow had landed, it would have chopped the man’s arm off and cleaved him halfway through. The warrior swiftly blocked with a downward parry that sent the monster’s blade flying in an upward arc. As the wicked blade slid off the man’s sword, it caught him in the upper left arm.

That's not good, Seth thought. Skilled as the warrior was, there was no way he could fend off the monster with one arm. It looked like they would have to jump in to help him after all. He glanced over his shoulder and saw that Glo and Aksel had climbed out of the wagon and were watching the battle.

Seth motioned to the wizard. “Can you put it to sleep?”

Glo stared back at him, his face haggard and drawn. “I can’t! My concentration is... gone."

Double not good. Spell-casting was draining, every spell taking a toll on the caster’s mental reserves. Glo, still a novice, was mentally exhausted and could not cast a spell without a long rest. Seth turned his attention back to the battle. To his surprise, both man and beast had stopped fighting. The warrior had stepped back and was examining his arm, one eye still on the orc.

At the same time, the monster glowered at the man, its barrel chest heaving from exertion. The beast abruptly laughed, a deep guttural sound that raked its entire body. The noise sent chills through the halfling. He recognized what that meant. The monster was gloating before its final kill.

The large man did not seem intimidated at all. In fact, a grin spread across his face. “Good one!”

Seth stared incredulously at the man. Is he nuts? Then it dawned on him—this was only a young human, in his late teens at best. Appearance wise, he looked the same age as Glo, Aksel and Seth, but that was still relatively young for a human. Perhaps he didn’t realize the danger he was in.

The beast had stopped laughing. It watched the man carefully, its expression uncertain.

The young warrior’s smile faded, replaced with a tranquil expression. He held his blades out to either side, fanned away from his body. A second later, those blades began to glow. The light from the swords flared, and then burst into flame.

Seth raised an eyebrow. He had seen many things in his short life, but he had never seen anything like that.

The flaming blades must have unsettled the huge orc. The creature took a step back and muttered something unintelligible in its guttural tongue.

Without warning, the young human leapt forward and began a blinding offense that sent the orc backpedaling. The flaming swords burned brightly, sparking as they met the monster’s huge blade. Any blow that touched the creature’s skin caused the flesh to smoke and sizzle.

As the warrior continued his relentless assault, the smell of burning orc filled the air. The monster was driven backwards, cursing and screaming until the warrior landed a blow that jarred the creature’s huge sword loose. The wicked blade arced through the air, landing a few yards away, well out of the orc’s reach.

The beast screamed in frustration, rearing back from the twin fiery blades, bellowing into the sky. With almost no warning, the creature lunged at the young man, trying to crush him under its great weight. Seth thought the man would be flattened, but instead the warrior braced himself, pointing his two swords forward.

The monster realized its peril too late. It could not stop itself and neatly skewered its body on the young man’s burning blades. Time froze as the creature hung there for a moment, the back of the twin swords protruding from its massive body. The beast shuddered once, fell backward, and landed with a loud thud, a final grunt escaping its lips.

The warrior stood over the brute, dripping with sweat, his chest heaving as he took in long deep breaths. The orc lay there, its massive limbs still twitching in the dirt. Finally, the spasms subsided, and the beast lay completely still.

2

A Strange Alliance

Human, elf, gnome, and halfling—a very unlikely union

The red warrior stepped over the monster, the fiery blades now cold as they protruded from the orc’s carcass. He reached down and yanked out each blade, blood covering them up to their hilts. The warrior stepped back, took a deep breath, and sat down on a nearby rock.

Seth heaved a sigh of relief, scratched his dark hair, and cast a look at the mass of dead surrounding them. He rose from his crouched position and strode over to the big man. Glo and Aksel were only a few steps behind him, each wearing expressions of amazement. As he approached the man, he noted as heads popped out of the other wagons once again, cautiously peering up and down the trail.

Seth returned his attention to the warrior. This man was definitely tall, probably over six feet, with broad shoulders and muscular all over, but not overly so. Brown tousled hair capped his youthful features, his deep blue eyes watching with interest as the halfling approached.

“Nice job with those throwing knives.” The warrior wiped the blood from one of his blades.

Seth’s lips twisted sideways.

“Not so bad yourself with those giant pig stickers.”

The big man laughed. “Thanks! My name’s Lloyd. What’s yours?”

“Seth.”

Lloyd extended his hand. “Well met, Seth.”

Seth reached up and grasped the large hand, his own dwarfed by it. This Lloyd had a very strong grip.

“That was a neat trick with those flaming swords.”

Lloyd shrugged. “Oh, that? That was nothing. Just a little something my father taught me.”

Glo’s voice rang out from behind him. “Well, I thought that was amazing.”

Seth glanced over his shoulder as Glo and Aksel joined them. The wizard appeared quite impressed. “I’ve never seen anything like it. How did you do it?”

“I’m a spiritblade,” Lloyd replied, as if that explained everything.

“A spirit—blade?” Glo looked slightly puzzled. “Is that some sort of martial art?”

“Sort of. A spiritblade is kind of a martial disciple of the sword. We learn to use our minds and spirits as well as our bodies to wield our weapons. The spiritual energy enhances what we do, and sometimes makes it look like, well, magic.”

Seth whistled low. “That’s very interesting. Where’d you study?”

“With my father. He’s one of the best in the world.”

Glo smiled. “He must be very proud of you.” His smile suddenly faded, replaced with an embarrassed expression. “Oh, where are my manners? I’m Glolindir. And this is Aksel.”

Lloyd stood up and extended a hand to Glo. As he shook the elf's hand, Seth noticed as Glo winced a bit. The big man then reached down and shook Aksel’s hand. When he was done, the gnome drew his hand back and rubbed it gingerly.

"How's your arm feeling?" Aksel asked, still massaging his hand.

“It's fine.” Lloyd moved his left arm around to support his claim. “As a spiritblade, you learn to ignore pain.”

“Pain is one thing, but it won’t do you any good if it gets infected.”

A look of doubt crossed Lloyd’s face. "That's a good point."

"I can take a look at it for you if you like.” Aksel’s concern was clear, but he was trying to be polite nevertheless.

"Are you a healer?"

Aksel nodded. "A cleric."

“Okay.” Lloyd sat down on the boulder and sighed. Aksel sat down next to him.

Lloyd removed the twin sword sheaths that were strapped over his back and then peeled off what turned out to be an armored red leather shirt. His left arm had a gash along the upper part, but was also black and blue around the cut.

Aksel examined it closely. “Ah, we’ll have that fixed in no time.” He placed his hands on the arm, and a white glow began to emanate from them. The light moved its way along Lloyd’s arm, and the wound itself began to glow; the cut closed before their eyes, and the skin took on its normal color.

Glolindir had seen healers at work before, but divine magic always amazed him. He knew that clerics manipulated mana much like wizards, but while arcane casters used intellect to concentrate their will, divine casters relied on faith. Almost any injury or ailment could be cured via this divine intervention. In fact, a cleric with enough experience could even resurrect the dead.

As Glo watched Aksel in action, he realized that his friend was particularly good at what he did. It was not just the healing power he displayed, but Aksel genuinely cared about the person he was healing. He showed concern for his patient’s mental and emotional state as well as the physical, talking gently with Lloyd and assuring him as he applied his divine power. While Aksel continued to heal Lloyd, Glo's mind wandered back to the battle.

“Sorry I wasn’t of much help back there. I only stepped out from behind my books a few weeks ago, and I guess I’m not quite as battle-ready as I thought.” Glo was furious with himself for freezing up the way he did.

Seth snorted. “Heh, battle-ready. Is that even a thing for a wizard?”

Glo glared at the halfling. Seth folded his arms and glowered back at him.

Aksel interrupted the staring contest. “Don’t sell yourself short. By my count, you put eight of those creatures to sleep.”

Glo smiled wanly at the gnome. “Maybe, but I froze when it came to taking care of that huge one.”

Lloyd’s expression was one of understanding. “Ah, that can happen to anyone. You should have seen how green I was the first time I went hunting bandits. Good thing my dad was with me.” An embarrassing smile spread across the young man’s face. “Anyway, I agree with Aksel. I am good with swords, but not quite adept at dodging arrows. You and Seth took out those archers mighty handily, and I, for one, am grateful.”

Glo began to feel a bit better about the whole thing. At that point, the rest of the wagoneers joined them. They gathered around and thanked all four of them for fending off the vicious assault. A tall, graying man addressed the foursome.

“Lucky you were all here, or we would have all been goners for sure.” He introduced himself as the caravan leader, Reise. He asked Lloyd if he would travel with them on the rest of their journey to the seacoast town of Ravenford.

Lloyd gave a boyish grin. “Sure, but after that I am heading out to Tarrsmorr.”

Aksel stared at him for a moment. “What are you headed there for?”

“I’m looking for work, of course. I want to use my skill with the sword to help others.” Lloyd paused, searching for the right words. “Things have kind of quieted down in my hometown. I could have joined the navy, but I wanted to travel a bit and lend my blades where they would be most needed.”

Seth snorted. “Well, you might want to rethink your decision about Tarrsmorr.”

“Why’s that?”

Glo explained further. “The three of us were just there looking for work. Unfortunately, the town is pretty quiet. Not much work to be had for adventurers. So we decided to try our luck on the east coast.”

"Rumor has it there's some strange happenings out there," Seth added.

Lloyd swept his gaze over them. “So where exactly are you headed?”

Aksel answered this time. “We were actually thinking of traveling to Penwick…”

Lloyd’s expression grew incredulous. “Penwick? Why, that’s where I’m from! Trust me, there’s no work in Penwick, either.” He proceeded to tell them how he, his father, brother, and sister had assisted the army in chasing the last bandits out of the Penwick area. It seemed that the entire family was as skilled as the young man.

Aksel spoke tentatively as he finished healing Lloyd’s arm. “You could travel with us. Like you, we want to lend our skills where they are most needed. You would be a welcome addition to our little group.”

Lloyd stood up, waved it around a few times, and smiled down at Aksel. “Thanks. My sister’s the healer at home. She’s always patching us up, even though we give her a hard time. Guess I never realized just how lucky we were.” Lloyd glanced at Seth and Glo. “And as for you two, you both covered my back pretty well in that fight. All in all, I’d say we make a pretty good team.”

“Then, it’s official.” Aksel put his hand out. Lloyd stared at it for a moment then bent down and placed his hand over Aksel’s. The trace of a smile crossed Glo’s lips as he looked at the large human hand dwarfing the gnome’s. The entire thing seemed a bit overdramatic, but Aksel and Lloyd both had serious expressions, so the wizard decided to follow suit. He bent down and placed his hand solemnly over the others.

All eyes turned to Seth. The halfling stood there for a moment, then rolled his eyes toward the heavens.

“Well, if it will make you happy.” He stepped forward and put his hand on top of the others.

The four of them stood there for a moment at the edge of the forest, hands joined. Human, elf, gnome, and halfling—a very unlikely union of races.

Finally, Seth stepped back. “Okay, enough with the picture-perfect moment. Now what do we do?”

Aksel smiled. “For now, we continue with the caravan to Ravenford. After all, at least one of us is getting paid.”

Seth’s face took on an innocent expression. “Does this mean that Lloyd has to split his fee with us?”

Glo and Aksel exchanged glances. They both looked at Seth and then at Lloyd, not sure what to say.

Lloyd’s expression was unreadable at first, but then he burst out laughing. “O…kay,” he said when he could finally get the words out. “I can see who is going to be the treasurer of this little group!”

“Seth? Treasurer?" Glo shook his head in disbelief. "Isn’t that like giving the wolf the key to the barn?”

Seth shot him a dirty look, but then saw the thin smile on Glo’s lips. “Very funny.”

The corners of Aksel mouth upturned. “If his money handling is as good as his cooking, then we better just bury our money in a hole and call it good.”

Lloyd, Glo, and Aksel all burst into laughter. Seth just shook his head.

As the merriment died down, Reise rejoined them. “We’ve finished gathering our comrades’ bodies and have stowed them in the wagons.”

Aksel stood up, sobering at once. “Very good. I will go and perform last rites over them.” The little cleric left to perform his somber duties.

Reise’s face still looked disturbed. “Anyway, we can move out whenever Cleric Aksel is done. If we leave soon, we can be in Ravenford by nightfall.”

Lloyd went to gather his things, while Seth and Glo headed back to their wagon. As they strode along, Glo dropped his voice to a whisper. “So, when were you going to tell us you were some kind of assassin?”

Seth stared up at him with a dark expression. “Seriously? The proper term is ninja. And the art of Ninjutsu is about surprise and deception. It is not a topic for idle conversation.”

Glo was taken aback by Seth’s vehement response. The combination of stealth, speed, dexterity, and knife handling made Glo think of an assassin. Add to the fact that Seth dressed mostly in black. Glo did not mean to offend his friend, but now realized that the label had some pretty negative connotations.

“My apologies, my friend. What I should have said is that I am greatly impressed by your prowess. Lloyd was right. You had all our backs covered in that fight. I am not certain we would have survived it without you.”

Seth responded in a flat tone. “Thank you.” His lips twisted to the side. “You weren’t so bad yourself. Now we just need to get you over your stage fright.”

Glo shook his head and smiled. A short while later, Aksel rejoined them. Seth climbed up onto the wagon and took his original seat. “Treasurer,” he murmured, “I think I like the sound of that.”

Aksel and Glo exchanged glances and grinned.

3

The Road to Ravenford

The entire western sky appeared on fire

The caravan continued east along the road and quickly exited the dense forest. It was late in the day, but the sun still shone bright in the sky behind them, hovering over the dark green trees of the Bendenwoods. The forest spread behind them as far north and south as the eye could fathom. The black heights of the Korlokesel Mountains rose up on the western horizon, then curved to the north, winding around the woods like a gigantic dark serpent.

Grasslands stretched out before them, the road unraveling across those plains and fading into a thin ribbon before completely disappearing off in the distance. Sporadic groups of trees sprung up here and there, but none were the size of the woods they’d just left. A range of rolling, tree-covered hills appeared to the north. These were known as the Vogels, and would parallel their path eastward all the way to the sea. The grasslands stretched to the southern horizon, although a glimpse of a wide, flowing river was viewable at times. This river, the West Raven, also paralleled the east road, but eventually combined with the Berribrun just west of Ravenford. From there, the Raven River flowed through the center of town and emptied into Merchant Bay, a huge body of water that opened out to the sea beyond.

The first signs of dusk appeared in the east as the small wagon train wound its way along the open road. Glo sat in the driver’s seat of the third wagon, firmly holding onto the reins, silently wondering how he had ended up in this position. He distinctly remembered admiring Lloyd’s horse, a white and brown spotted paint, and the two of them talking about horses in general. What followed afterwards was still vague in his mind. Their wagon driver had asked him about horses. He had said something about the lead driver dying, and before Glo knew it, the old man handed him the reins. Glo told them this was a big mistake, but between encouragement from Aksel and Seth and Lloyd’s promise to ride beside them, he finally gave in. Secretly, he thought that Seth only agreed to it so he could watch Glo make an idiot out of himself.

As it turned out, there was very little to worry about; the road was surprisingly smooth, and the single set of reins managed the team of horses nicely. Glo settled comfortably into his new position with Aksel and Seth on the front seat next to him. As promised, Lloyd rode alongside. Glo glanced at the young warrior. He made an imposing figure, the sun gleaming off his red leather armor, giving it a crimson sheen. Yet, despite his intimidating size, Lloyd was rather low-key outside of battle. He rode along quietly, listening to stories about their homelands and the lands to the west. At the moment, Glo was describing his home city.

“Cairthrellon lies many miles west of here, in the great forest of Ruanaiaith. But unlike other cities, Cairthrellon is a part of the forest—alive, beautiful, and ever-changing.”

Lloyd gave him a puzzled look. “How is that possible?”

Glo paused a moment, searching for the right words. When he began again, his voice was filled with passion.

“Imagine walking through the forest and finding cascading waterfalls, secret glades, green shaded arbors, and grottos as sad quiet music plays across the moonlit meadows. As you continue to wander, you unexpectedly come across beautiful statues, enchanted thickets, and sparkling fountains that seem to spring randomly from otherwise placid ponds. You can hardly see the houses as they meld into the landscape, and in the center of all of this, you find a keep of translucent quartz that changes colors with the seasons...”

The elf’s voice caught, a hint of moisture in his eyes.

Lloyd’s face softened, stirred by the elf's description of his home. “It sounds beautiful, Glolindir. If I may ask, why did you leave?”

Glo wasn’t sure how to answer. It was a complicated situation. His people were a stubborn lot, and they didn’t care much for non-elves, but he did not want to tell his new friends that. They reached a curve in the road, and Glo used the excuse to delay his answer. Once they made it around the bend, he responded.

“Let’s just say I had a difference of opinion with my father. Had I stayed at home, I would never have been able to use magic like I do now.”

“You mean freezing up at crucial moments?”

Glo glared at Seth. The halfling wore a wicked grin. Aksel, in-between the two, coughed violently into his hand.

“I think I understand,” Lloyd said behind him.

Glo gave the halfling one last dark look, then swung back to face the young warrior. Lloyd’s expression was one of sympathy.

“If I had stayed in Penwick, there wouldn’t have been anything near the fun we just had.”

Seth’s mouth half twisted. “You’ve got a strange idea of fun there, Lloyd.”

Lloyd broke out into a grin. “Yes, maybe I do, but you have to understand; I am a martial adept of the sword. We live for battle.”

“I think the keyword there is live. That doesn’t always go well with battle,” Aksel noted.

Lloyd threw back his head and laughed. “Very true, master cleric; my sister would often say the same thing.”

The foursome fell silent. Lloyd took a few minutes to scan the road ahead, but all remained still. Satisfied that nothing was amiss, he soon rejoined them. “So what about you, friend Aksel? What is your home like?”

Aksel seemed taken off-guard by the question. “Caprizon? Well it’s certainly not alive, like some folks’ homes.” He cast a sidelong glance at Glo.

Glo brushed off the front of his cloak with an impish grin. “We can’t all live in style.”

A brief smile crossed Aksel’s lips. “Touché. Anyway, it is a bit different. There’s a tall ravine where the Stilwyndle River empties into the Sea of Riazel. Caprizon is built into the cliff-sides of that canyon.”

Lloyd appeared baffled. “So then how do you get around?”

“There are ladders—lots and lots of ladders. And there are cable cars, both up the sides of the cliffs, as well as across the canyon.”

Lloyd appeared impressed. “That sounds like fun!” His horse seemed to agree, choosing that moment to whinny, tossing its head up and down.

Aksel’s expression seemed distant, as if lost in thoughts of home. “It can be. I have to admit, living on flat land like all of you took some getting used to.”

A short laugh escaped Seth’s lips. “That’s because the rest of us are normal.”

Aksel narrowed an eye at their halfling companion. “Really? Then why don’t you tell him about the great city of Ilos?”

Seth’s face took on a dark expression, his body bristling. “Because there’s not much to tell.”

Lloyd interrupted the duo. “Ilos? Isn’t that way up north?”

Seth cast Aksel a dirty look, then turned to face Lloyd. “Yeah, it’s pretty much a run-of-the-mill city. Not part of the forest, and not hanging at all crazy angles on the sides of a cliff.”

“Except that it’s all made of stone,” Glo added.

Lloyd looked impressed. “The whole city?”

Seth nodded. “Pretty much.” He appeared quite uncomfortable talking about his hometown. It was something Glo had noticed since he first met Seth a month ago.

Lloyd’s curiosity had been piqued. “Why would anyone do that?”

“Let’s just say they got tired of rebuilding it every time it got burnt down.”

“Invaders?” Lloyd’s voice took on a slight edge.

“Parthians.” Seth almost spat the word.

“Parthians.” Lloyd’s grip on his reins tightened. “They did the same thing to Penwick during the Second Parthian War.”

“They burned the whole city?” Seth asked softly. There was an uncharacteristic trace of sympathy in his voice.

Lloyd’s face turned red with anger. “More than half of it. Once the Parthians were defeated, the town was rebuilt; but then came the Golem Thrall Master and his stone armies. Penwick was overrun, and a large section of the city was burnt to the ground.”

As if to emphasize his words, a strange reddish glow flared up behind them. It cast long crimson shadows on the road ahead. Glo and Lloyd both turned in their seats, and Aksel and Seth stood up to look over the top of the covered wagon.

The sun had almost set behind the Korlokesels, with only the top of the disc still visible, and that had turned a flaming red. The rays fanned out and lit up the clouds above—the entire western sky appeared on fire. The timing was eerie, as if the sun-god Arenor had himself just acknowledged the tragedy that had befallen Penwick.

Glo tried to imagine what he would do if his home had been burnt down. It was a very real threat when one lived in the forest as the elves did. Thankfully, the trees were enchanted with spells to resist burning, but magic could only do so much. Not knowing what else to say, Glo spoke with as much sympathy as he could muster. “Your people must have been devastated.”

Lloyd was still staring at the sunset, his face awed by the raw display of nature. When he turned back around, there was a grin across his brash young face. “We’re a resilient people.”

It was good to see him smile, but then, just as abruptly, his expression darkened. “The worst of it was when the Warlord Eboneye raided us. That was only twenty years ago.”

The young man closed his eyes and took a deep breath; the muscles in his face relaxing. Glo glanced at Seth and Aksel, wondering if they knew anything about this Eboneye, but the two of them merely shrugged.

“Previous invaders occupied the city—but not Eboneye. His men were bent on looting and pillaging, with no concern for who they killed or what they destroyed. We had no choice but to fight back. The army had been routed, but a resistance was formed. They fought a slow, pitched battle against the pirate forces and eventually won back the city, but it took months.”

Lloyd’s face was now ashen. “Most of Penwick was leveled…but worse than that, nearly half the population died. When it was over, there were so many corpses that they could not all be buried. The bodies had to be burnt to avoid spreading disease.”

Lloyd was so upset that his voice cracked. He turned his head away, his fists clenched tightly on the reins of his horse. Glo looked from Seth to Aksel and saw the horror mirrored in their expressions. He felt he should say something to Lloyd, some words of understanding, but the words would not come.

The sun had finally set behind them, darkness overtaking the countryside, creating pockets of shadows underneath the trees. Seth stood up and lit a lamp that hung off an iron hook welded onto the upper frame of the wagon. Once lit, the lantern illuminated the road in front of them with a warm glow.

Glo glanced at Lloyd. His face was hard to see, but he appeared to be lost in his thoughts. “So…what’s Penwick like today?” he asked, attempting to lighten the mood.

Lloyd didn’t answer at first. Finally he replied in a quiet voice. “Today? It has been mostly rebuilt.”

Lloyd began describing the current condition of his home: the tall buildings, the great bridges, the public gardens, and the large temple dedicated to the god Arenor. As he spoke he became more and more animated. “…and there are sections of the city that rival the great capital of Lymeridia.”

“It sounds beautiful,” Aksel said wistfully.

The young man gave an enthusiastic nod. “It is. The Barony of Penwick stands strong and proud these days; its influence reaches as far north as the city of Lukescros and as far south as the town of Haggentree. And at sea, the Penwick navy is unmatched along the coast. Our ships patrol from Colossus Point to Southpoint and are avoided and feared by even the vessels of the ‘great’ city of Dunwynn.”

Lloyd now sat straight in his saddle, all traces of grief gone. Glo was glad to see the young man back to normal. He was also quite impressed with the fighting spirit of the people of Penwick. Glo glanced at Aksel and Seth. The former bore a look of admiration, while the latter wore his usual smirk.

Seth was the first to comment. “That’s quite a tale. So what exactly happened to this Eboneye?”

Lloyd’s answer was quite zealous. “Don’t worry—he got exactly what he deserved. The Lord Kratos Stealle saw to that. Of course, he wasn’t a Lord back then, but he was a spiritblade—First Blade in the resistance. After the last big battle with the pirates, Eboneye tried to escape. Lord Stealle followed him to his ship, and defeated him in one-on-one combat. The ship went down in the harbor, and the pirate warlord was never seen again.”

Aksel sounded impressed. “This Lord Stealle was quite the hero.”

Lloyd cleared his throat, appearing quite uncomfortable. “Yes. He’s actually Admiral of the Penwick Navy these days.”

Glo pulled the reins as they came to another curve in the road. "With someone like that around, I doubt Penwick has much to fear from anyone.”

“Amen to that!” Lloyd patted his horse.

The conversation turned to lighter topics. The night had turned pitch dark, the moon not quite up yet. Lloyd galloped to the front of the caravan and scouted the area ahead. As it turned out, the rest of their journey was uneventful. A couple of hours later, the wagon train finally reached its destination, the seaport town of Ravenford.

4

The Charging Minotaur

May the leaves of your life tree never turn brown

By the time the caravan reached the town, it was late in the evening. The first signs of civilization were evidenced by the light of an occasional farmhouse along the roadway. As they continued eastward, the farms appeared more frequently, until they finally entered a tended orchard. When the caravan exited the grove, the travelers caught their first view of Ravenford. The foliage on both sides of them parted and the town lay sprawled before them, houses lit up and twinkling. On a hilltop to their left stood a castle, the keep’s windows ablaze, lighting up the citadel. The castle walls were lined with torches, the shadows of the occasional patrol of guards visible along the parapets.

The town itself spread away from them, down to the river and across the other side. A pair of well-lit stone bridges spanned the river, and a few docks jutted out from the opposite shore. Various-sized vessels stood moored at those docks, their silhouettes casting dark shadows on the banks behind them. The rest of the town continued south from there. The lights stretched on for some distance, and farther back, a hill rose up, crowned with what appeared to be a temple. The eastern edge of the town stood upon the shores of Merchant Bay, those calm, clear waters almost mirror-like as they spread to the far horizon. The moon had just risen, its silver light splitting the waters of the bay like some giant knife that reached from the eastern skyline all the way to the shores of the sleepy little seaport town.

A small guardhouse stood alongside the road just outside of town. The guards briefly stopped the wagoneers, but on recognizing them, let the caravan through. Glo noticed strange looks from the guards as their wagon passed. Once out of earshot, Seth turned to his friends. “These people need to get out more. You think they’d never seen an elf, gnome, or halfling.”

The caravan stopped in front of a group of buildings at the foot of the hill from the keep. There were a number of signs here: Fine Food & Drink, Mason, Leather Goods, and Wine and Ale. This late in the evening most of the shops were closed. The food store was still lit up, and as they pulled up, an older gentleman came out to greet them.

Glo did a double take. This balding, grey-haired gentleman had elven features, but with a fuller face like a human. He’s a half-elf. It surprised him to find one where there were purportedly no elves. elven/human marriages were rare enough since elves were quite long-lived—their lives measured not in decades, but in centuries. The difference in lifespan alone made such unions difficult. Not only would the elf outlive their spouse, but their children as well, making cross-race marriages nearly intolerable for elves. Glo could not imagine falling in love with someone only to watch them wither away in a few decades.

While all this went through Glo’s mind, Reise disembarked. He greeted the half-elven store owner, explaining to him all that had happened. The store owner, Pheldan, was elated to see them. It seems that they were the first caravan to make it here from central Thac in months. As the conversation continued, another figure exited the store—a young woman, perhaps in her late teens. Long dark hair reached down past her shoulders, framing a diamond-shaped face. Her complexion appeared quite pale. Her features were also elven, though not as pronounced as Pheldan’s. She turned out to be the store owner’s granddaughter, Xelda.

Glo, Seth, and Aksel disembarked, retrieving their belongings from the wagon while Lloyd dismounted and hitched his horse to a post in front of the store. Reise and the shop owners came up to greet them.

“These are the folks who saved the wagon train…” Reise began.

“An elf!” Pheldan cried. “And a gnome and a halfling. What an odd trio!”

“Grandfather!” Xelda’s eyes widened. “Where are your manners?”

“Oh. Yes, you are quite right. My apologies, gentlemen. I am Pheldan and this is my granddaughter, Xelda.”

Glo, Lloyd, Aksel and Seth introduced themselves in turn.

“Thank you for saving the caravan and our goods,” Pheldan said when they were done.

Aksel responded with a deep bow. “We are glad to have been of service. I’m just sorry we couldn’t save those poor guards and the driver.”

Reise’s voice was heavy with sadness. “They were good men and far too young to pass on; but again, thank you. Please accept these tokens of our appreciation.” He took out his purse and paid Lloyd his promised fee. Furthermore, he refunded Glo, Seth, and Aksel their passage fare. Glo raised an eyebrow—that was quite generous of the caravan owner.

Aksel cleared his throat. “Thank you. That is more than kind of you, but now I think it best if we be off. We need to find accommodations for the night.”

“Please, go down to the Charging Minotaur,” Pheldan responded. “My good friend, Telpin, owns the place. Tell him that Pheldan sent you. He will set you up nice and comfortable.”

Glolindir was touched by the gesture. “Thank you, my friend.” He added in formal elvish, “Aa' lasser en lle coia orn n' omenta gurtha.” It meant May the leaves of your life tree never turn brown.

The old half-elf’s eyes welled up with tears. “Why, I haven’t heard elvish since mother left us.” He turned to his granddaughter. “Xelda, did you hear that?”

The young woman nodded to her grandfather. “I did indeed.” She turned toward Glo. “He’s been trying to teach me elvish ever since I was old enough to walk.” She gazed from Glo to her grandfather, her eyes dancing with amusement.

“But she claimed she would never use it. If you had just listened to me, you could give this nice young fellow a proper reply.” The old man folded his arms across his chest and fixed his granddaughter with a triumphant stare.