A Rise of the Runelords campaign journal that turned into a book

31. A bitter departure

5th of Neth – Monday – 44th day in Varisia

Hook Mountains

“Vale! Vale! Somebody help Vale!”

“Hnngggh.. bastard.. that’ll leave scar..”

“Are they dead? ..Nine hells! Nuuta ittee traako!”

“..and get that traitor! DRAKE! Don’t move!”

“Hold on. Hold on.. Hold on…”

**

Vale made it. Half his body in ruins, he still clung to life. But only barely, and he owed everything to Harsk. He told me when he reached him that Vale’s soul had almost left his body behind. If he had begun his spell-casting just seconds later, the Black Arrow would have joined his dead brothers at the side of their gods in Heaven.

My respect for the cleric grew in leaps and bounds. Barely clinging to life himself, his first action was to save Vale. He didn’t pay any attention to the wounds he had suffered at Lucrezia’s hands.

We were lucky to have a person like him with us.

After a while, both Alice and Dûath returned from their hasty retreat. Despite everything the Kreeg, the stone giants and Lucrezia had thrown at us, we were all alive – small miracle. But we were still left in the dark. Both the necromancer giant and Lucrezia were slain, their wounds too lethal for us to try bringing them back for interrogation. I should’ve been happy that the soul stealing sisters were dead and I could rest assured my soul was not in anyone’s hit list. But I wasn’t.

For Ilori, some justice had been served, a vengeance exacted. I felt empty in that regard – not because the mission had been accomplished, but because deep down I knew it had been a hollow one from the start, a personal crusade. We barely knew each other but despite it and for that reason I didn’t think for a second Ilori would have wanted me to do anything like this for her. This had been something to make me feel better. Why I had ultimately wanted to chase Lucrezia across Varisia, I didn’t know, and I didn’t want to – I needed to turn the page.

Nevertheless, I had other things to worry about. My brother. The shit we had got ourselves mixed up with, the atrocities around Varisia that were beginning to reveal themselves as a part of something bigger.

Both the giant and the serpent lady had died without divulging any information about their motives, allies and superiors. Thankfully, we found a clue among the treasure the stone giant had hoarded: a short message written with clumsy, big letters on a mammoth’s hide. It was in Giant but Jakardros was nice enough to translate it to us.

BARL – LATEST CONTACT WITH TERAKTINUS INDICATES HE HAS NARROWED THE SEARCH – HE BELIEVES A HUMAN TOWN CALLED SANDPOINT COULD HIDE WHAT MY LORD SEEKS. TERAKTINUS WILL LEAD SEVERAL OF THE PEOPLE, AS WELL AS THE DRAGON, ON A RAID INTO THE TOWN SOON. WHEN THEY RETURN, THEY MAY BE PURSUED, AND I MAY NEED YOUR OGRE SLAVES TO AID IN TERAKTINUS’S RETREAT TO JORGENFIST. BE READY TO RETURN AT MY COMMAND! M

The name of the necromancer stone giant was Barl, it seemed. And he served someone who’s name began with an M, who too bowed to this ‘my Lord’ like Xanesha and Lucrezia had.

The mention of an attack against Sandpoint raised some hackles. Especially Alfred and Harsk were rather wound up about it in a bad way – Alfred because he had lived there half his life and Harsk because he was Harsk. I wasn’t happy either – I thought about the good people there, Ameiko, Savah, Shayliss, Daviren Hosk, Larz Rovanky, Chask Halladan – and how they would fare if a group of giants supported by a dragon came to storm the town.

They would have no chance. Their Sheriff, Hemlock, was a good man, and a fine peacekeeper, but he wasn’t a commander of an army. And what I had seen, he commanded a garrison of town guardsmen who couldn’t tell the pointy end of a spear from its butt. They would need help – if the town still stood, that is. We didn’t know how recent the message was. They could be all dead already.

The message gave birth to a few more questions and my thoughts wandered. Who is Teraktinus? Where is Jorgenfist? Is Jorgenfist also where this M is located? What does their Lord seek – what is in Sandpoint?

**

Drake sobered after the serpent woman had perished. Apparently he had been under the influence of a mind-controlling spell or something similar, possibly enabled by the Sihedron tattoo he had on his back. Surrendering to us without a fight, he admitted that it was him who had supplied the information about the Black Arrows to Lucrezia, thus allowing the ogres to attack the rangers when they were at their most vulnerable. He accepted his former brothers’ judgement, and pledged no mercy.

Jakardros cut his throat with an arrowhead, despite the objections of both Alfred and Harsk. I however thought the old ranger was too lenient. Throwing him off the mountain or shackling him to a rock for beasts to devour would have been more in line with what he had done.

After the fight, Alfred looked shaken and his guffaws were forced. Shalelu took care of his wounds, and he recuperated quickly thanks to her magics, but I could see the tension in him. He knew how close the fight had been. Still, I felt he was strangely drawn to combat in general. Being a mercenary was all good and proper for him, and it paid him well and took him around Varisia, but I started to wonder was there something else beneath the obvious. An addiction to danger, like his addiction to booze and whores. Maybe he was a thrillseeker.

Following our only clue, and still feeling heroic despite the beating we had endured, we decided to leave for Sandpoint as quickly as possible. Heck, I had begun to enjoy hunting giants and ogres. But we would have to do something about the dragon.

Still unconscious, Vale was however in no condition to travel, and it was late afternoon anyway, so we had to spend the evening and night at the mountain. We fetched some coals from the forge for a fireplace, and laid beartraps to the pass before setting camp around the throne of the Kreeg. We burned the remains of Barl, Lucrezia, the nameless stone giant and Drake.

Jakardros, Alfred, Shalelu and I shared the night watch, letting the others rest. During my two hours of staring down the pass at the entrance to the cave chamber with my drowsy panther, I thought about nothing. I’ve found sometimes it is better that way.

**

The night was uneventful, and the light of a new day woke us up. Vale was more or less recuperated from his three-time near-death, so we didn’t want to waste any more time at the mountain. We had a quick trail breakfast and headed out.

From Barl’s loot, I took a quiver full of enchanted arrows. Some were even giant-bane, which I re-purposed with great pleasure. Majority of the treasure Barl had accumulated was assorted gold and silverware, jewels and other valuables. There was, and I do not exaggerate, around three hundred pounds of treasure stashed behind the stone throne. Getting all that down from the mountain would have been an impossible task, but luckily we had Harsk and his magic. It was amusing to watch the little man lift the huge bag of jewels up his shoulder like it weighed nothing.

Outside the weather had improved considerably. And when I say considerably, I mean that there was actual sunlight and only a hint of overcast. The weather made the descent from the mountaintop a breeze.

**

Razmus the hill giant kept his word and peered at us from behind a large boulder as we marched through the Valley of Broken Trees. I spotted him in the distance and pointed him out to Harsk. I’d like to think the giant’s fear of Harsk increased as he saw the dwarf handle 300 pounds of valuables with one hand.

Encouraged by our success with the Kreeg and the stone giants, Alfred was eager to have a ‘friendly chat’ with the giant. He took off running towards the hiding monster, leaving us to pace across the valley. I exchanged knowing glances with Alice, and we followed him. Somebody had to save the sellsword if he got his teeth kicked in for the third time in a span of a day.

As he saw us approach, the hill giant moved to the open and pointed us with his earthbreaker and roared. Very stupid, or very brave of him, I thought and considered drawing an arrow. Dûath, always close to me, growled. But Razmus did not act otherwise aggressively, so we stayed our hands.

“Good morning!” Alfred began nonchalantly. I began to roll my eyes at the sellsword but stopped. How the nine hells do you start a conversation with a creature that thinks its leagues above you, but to which you can easily hand his arse to? By not giving a damn what the creature thinks, I guess.

Razmus was offended of course, but kept his mouth shut. He just grunted in irritation and furrowed his brow. Alfred did not care, and continued in a carefree manner.

“We defeated the Kreeg clan and emptied their lair, just that you know.” Another grunt, this one contemplative rather than irritated. I should have known to try this cock-waving power play the first time I tried to reason with the giant. The giantkind respected strength and strength only. Well, you learn something new every day.

“We have some questions if you may”, Alfred went on. “Do you know where is Jorgenfist?” This made the giant lower the earthbreaker’s hammer to the ground. Leaning his massive hands on the top of the shaft, Razmus considered the question. I almost heard the hollow wind blow between his ears.

“Hmmmhh… Jorgenfist.. a cursed city of the stone giants. It is somewhere in the Storval Plains”, Razmus grumbled. Alfred gave him a nod. “Why is the city cursed?”

The giant gestured dismissively. “I don’t know tiny one, I don’t wander the Plains.” He pointed to the valley around him. “This is my home. The mountains.. have one name.. that is good.”

I cut in, already desperate. “Do you know of Barl the stone giant necromancer, or anyone called with a name that begins with an M who could command Barl?”

Razmus just grumbled, his voice a small earthquake. “A necromancer.. I smelled the bastard when he came.. but I don’t know him or anyone called M..”

Ultimately Razmus was unable to provide us with any valuable information, so we left him and his valley and continued down towards Fort Rannick.

**

To our surprise, Fort Rannick was full of life when we arrived in the early afternoon. Dozens of men, women and children were camped behind its walls, and more were arriving. Huddled around fires, I felt their eyes upon us as we approached the broken-in southern gate. Deer’s eyes of scared refugees. They were the folk of Turtleback Ferry.

Harsk dropped the oversized bag of valuables and paced to greet the people at the gate. He looked worried.

“Any news of Turtleback Ferry”, he asked the group, three men and a woman carrying a sickly child. One of the men, a bit older than the others, was pointing a couple with the child where to get settled. They just looked at us, their faces unable to hide their fatigue and loss. They did not recognize the dwarf, but as Jakardros made his way to them, the older fellow with some aura of authority greeted the grizzled, one-eyed ranger.

“Well met, Black Arrow”, he began. “Horrible times, truly heartbreaking. The town was swept by a sudden flash flood. Monsters attacked.. we came here for help.. but found your keep ransacked and broken. Where are your brothers?” His every word was smothered with desperation.

Harsk opened his mouth to respond but Jakardros was quicker. He was beaten and he had lost everything, but he managed to sound like he genuinely believed what he said. “The Brotherhood has suffered terrible losses, but it will continue its mission to protect the people of Turtleback Ferry. Your people are welcome to the shelter of these walls.”

The old man nodded his thanks to Jakardros and went to help his people. Vale went to follow him. He had the corpse of Bayden in his arms, and the old ranger gestured Vale to bring him in, but I stepped in front of Vale. “No. There is still Myriana. We need to bring the Commander to her. There is a slight chance that she can bring him back to life.” I lied between my teeth – I had no idea if that was possible. But it would’ve been foolish not to try. The rest of our group echoed my sentiment, and after a short discussion, Vale agreed to bring Bayden with him to the nymph creature.

Leaving Shalelu and Jakardros to coordinate help for the refugees and after storing the valuables in a vault inside the keep, we continued south along Skull River, towards Shimmerglens and Whitewillow.

**

“Oh sweet ass of Desna”, Alfred commented as Turtleback Ferry came to view. From our high position across the river, we could easily see the devastation. Even though the waters had already receded, no less than a third of the town, its southern and south-western parts, were in ruins. Most of it was due to the flash flood, but the church of Erastil in particular was wrecked beyond what a flood could inflict. Something huge had utterly levelled it. It had to be the monster the old man had told us, the ancient sea beast Black Magga I had read about in the Syrpent’s Tane. There were still people at the town, picking up the pieces, looking for loved ones, but we did not cross the river to help them.

I wondered if the others felt we had did the wrong decision, going up the mountain in the first place instead of returning to Turtleback Ferry and help. Harsk possibly did, and maybe the sellsword too. Of Alice, I did not know. Me?

I knew we simply couldn’t help everybody.

**

Shimmerglens was as dead and repulsive as it had been the previous time we had visited it. There was no life beyond corpse flies and maggots, and the cleared skies did nothing to improve the condition of the marsh. Actually, the contrast between the normal autumn weather and the dead swamps made the place appear even more horrible. The marshes were still rife with weird visions and hallucinations, but we held together and with Harsk’s magic of water-walking, we soon reached Whitewillow.

Yap-Yap was still sitting on a broken tree branch, looking pale and malnourished. When he spotted us approach through the mist he took off flying, a glimmer of hope in his tiny eyes. He went straight at Alfred who was leading us, and knocked on his nose.

“Is everything fine now?” He asked in his excited, tinny and clear voice.

I developed a sudden headache by just hearing him speak. Dûath, a loyal companion, viciously bared his teeth to him.

The sellsword didn’t mind the close encounter with the pixie, but pointed with his thumb back towards Vale, who was carrying Bayden’s corpse over his shoulder. Vale frowned at the little butterfly boy. Despite serving with the Black Arrows for years I don’t think he had ever seen one. Lucky him.

“Depends on what your mistress can do for him”, Alfred explained and shook his head wearily.

“Oh dear”, Yap-Yap’s shoulders sagged and he retreated from Alfred’s way and let us continue towards the lake and the little island in its middle.

We walked over water into the island, and as our feet touched the half-dead grass and moss, the perfect stillness of the little pond at the center of the island was broken again.

Myriana rose in all her dead, mutilated majesty. When she saw what the ogres and the hags had done to him, she wailed. Her cry went straight into my soul and twisted it like an assassin snapping a man’s neck.

Harsk drew a deep breath, overcome by the raw emotion of the powerful fey creature, and managed a question. “Can you do anything for him?”

Vale, in tears, his own sorrow amplified ten-fold by Myriana’s grief, dropped to his knees and set Bayden to the ground before him. Myriana, sobbing more silently now, hovered over to the body and gently kissed her lover’s cheek. Lights, first blue, then red, yellow and finally of all colours imaginable started to shimmer within the fey as she closed her black, iris-less and pupil-less eyes. Bayden’s body lifted to the air as did Myriana, and side by side, they hovered gently to the still pond and submerged.

We waited, a short moment first, in utter silence. Alice brushed sweat off her brow and Alfred sighed in release. I realized the powerful emotional energies had subdued, and let out a breath of my own.

Vale was still kneeling in the moss, and wiped his tears. “Now what? She was supposed to help? What’s wrong?” The big man was in alarm, and I too had a bad feeling about the entire thing. I shook my head, but Harsk cleared his throat. “She was possibly able to help him”, he corrected. I guess that didn’t make the brute feel any better, but it was the truth. The cleric stepped closer to the pond with Alice and peered in. From my position ten or so feet behind, I could see it reflected all light like a mirror. Nothing within was visible. There was nothing in there but enchanted water.

But I was wrong.

A single, tiny speck of blue light emerged from the pond without breaking its surface. It flew around Harsk and Alice, and sped out into the mist. It was soon followed by another little orb of red light, and within seconds, hundreds if not thousands. An explosion of lights, really. They began to circle the island and their radiance painted the grass in the colours of the rainbow. The undergrowth itself began to change. To heal, to regain its lifeforce.

The air grew warmer, feeling like the first true day of spring. The stale, rotten stench of decay was replaced by fresh air with the aromas of a coniferous forest after rain.

Then came the butterflies. Untold hundreds of them, like the specks of light. They flew from the pond in an neverending stream, and their wings were soundless, but the sight of them was overwhelming. Like the lights, they represented every colour in an artist’s palette. We all just stood there, our mouths open, as the lights and the butterflies filled the air and danced around us. Alice carefully reached out with her hand, and one of the butterflies landed on her finger. She let out a faint, surprised laugh.

In the maelstrom of lights and colours, I felt the embrace of a strange peace. I closed my eyes, but I could still see.

The brown, black-dotted wings of an evening brown butterfly flitted past my eyes and I saw her, my beloved Aurora, smiling at me warmly for a fleeting second in the cloud of butterflies. Another swooped past my broken nose, a silver-studded blue, and I saw my brother, laughing, for just a second.

I looked up and fought back a tear. I didn’t want it to stop. But I also knew it wasn’t real, and I didn’t want to get lost in the visions. As if reading my mind, the strange peace retreated gently, like a mother letting go of her child.

The silence was broken by a sonorous, remarkable voice. It was like two people, a man and a woman, speaking at the same time in perfect harmony and in perfect balance.

“I am one, and I am whole.”

Above the pond, just a feet off the ground, was an awe-inspiring creature. A centaur.

I had heard stories of them, but never had I seen one in person. The lower half of its body was of a pure white stallion, and its upper body that of a bare human with pale skin. The human half was hazy, and I was unable to focus my vision upon it. It flicked every second from that of a slender, confident woman to a muscled, proud man. It was like the two occupied the same space.

“Lamatar?” Vale asked, gasping. The two voices replied, but this time, the baritone timbre of a man was stronger. “Yes… Vale.” The centaur examined us all, one by one, with a pleased smile upon her/his face. Harsk was last, and his/her gaze set upon him fully. Harsk cleared his throat, clearly anxious about the attention he was given. He didn’t know where to put his hands.

“Thank you for your help”, the centaur said, now more with the woman’s voice. There was such warmth in it, but like the sun, too much of it burns. I did not envy Harsk.

“Who are you”, I asked, still baffled and taken aback by the emotional backlash of whatever was happening around us. The centaur lowered her chin, and looked sideways under her brow at me. “Mmmm… a good question. We are the heart of this marsh and the forest beyond it.” Somehow, Myriana and Bayden had come together to create this being.

He, the man form coming to the fore again, turned its head towards Harsk as if he knew the cleric was about to ask something. “Why is the marsh dying”, the dwarf asked. The centaur just smiled widely and spread his arms, gesturing us to appreciate our surroundings. We looked, and saw the marsh beyond Whitewillow regaining its liveliness, just like the island beneath us was.

“For your good deeds, we will award you”, the Centaur stated, and out of nowhere, he pulled a simple, long horn of ivory. Its sound was low, smooth yet powerful. Harsk’s eyes began to glow with gold, and specks of silver lights began to play around him.

Hihhiiiii…

The tinny laughter came at him from the back, and Yap-Yap fluently dove under the dwarf’s armour, making his beard sway in the process. The poor cleric started to fidget, as if being tickled. Finally, Yap-Yap’s head emerged from beneath Harsk’s beard and came to stare at the dwarf.

“Your nose is big.”

Despite the positive energies still pulsing around us, I couldn’t help but feel like a spike was being driven into my head right behind my eye.

“You will have a muse, and a supporter, to accompany you wherever you go during your adventures. It will protect your good soul, and offer you guidance in times of peril.”

Yeah, right, I thought to myself. Now I really did not envy Harsk.

The cleric tried to appear grateful, but his uneasy manner betrayed him. Words betrayed him, too. “Thanks… I guess?”

“Yap-yap!”

Spike. Head.

Harsk regarded the pixie boy under his chin. “Ummm, some rules if you’re planning to stay there-“

“Yap-yap!”

The cleric sighed. “First rule, you don’t live in the beard, or touch it.”

Too late, I thought.

“Second rule, no tickling under the armour.”

I left Harsk and the irritable butterfly demon discuss the latter’s tenancy agreement, and offered the silver circlet with the wisp of nymph’s hair I had found among the Commander’s personal items to the centaur. “I guess this is yours, then.”

The centaur turned its attention to me again and laughed lightly. She took it and placed it on her head. It fit perfectly, like she was born to wear it.

But I had my reasons for the gift. From the moment we had known we had a chance to bring back the Commander, I had had an agenda of my own. I pulled back my hood so she/he could see my face in full.

“Do you remember Macharius, a half-elf brother who left the Brotherhood a year ago”, I asked the centaur, unconsciously trying to hide the tinge of hopefulness in my tone.

I should’ve known to drive my lingering notion of hope through a sharpened pole and cut off its head.

The centaur said nothing while it paused to consider for a long moment. In the end, he/she just shook their head. I balled my fists without noticing it and my mood darkened. I couldn’t believe my bad luck. I had been sure the Commander could’ve been able to give me further information about my brother than what I had read from the notebook. Disappointment flared within me like an alighted torch.

“Well do you know anything about a giant called Teraktinus, or someone who’s name begins with an M, who commands stone giants?” I spat the follow-up questions, more venomously and with more frustration that I had intended. Again, the centaur just looked at me emptily and shook his/her head before turning towards Vale, like I had never been there.

Yeah, fuck you too.

A single droplet of tear fell down the centaur’s cheek as he regarded Vale. As it hit the surface of the pond, the tear transformed into a gemstone and sunk.

“I am so sorry my friend, for how I’ve let down the Brotherhood”, the centaur apologized the ranger, and I turned my back to the exchange. There was nothing for me here – time to leave this forsaken corner of Varisia.

As I paced away with Dûath towards the shore, Alice and Alfred joined me, possibly having reached the same conclusion as I. Harsk was still arguing with Yap-Yap. At the last moment, Alfred turned around and shouted at the centaur. From his expression and tone I knew he thought his question was a long shot. “Sovereign of the marsh, can you possibly arrange us a means of quick transportation to Magnimar?”

Maybe you can ride the damn thing back to the city, I muttered the suggestion under my breath.

“Many roads and forest paths lead to Magnimar”, the man-voice begun, “but I can also open you a gate to the city”, the feminine voice added.

So he/she wasn’t worthless afterall, I considered, my brow high in genuine surprise. I had heard of magics of instant travel across large swathes, even hundreds of miles of land, and it was, as far as I knew, very powerful type of magic.

“Do you wish to leave at once?” The centaur asked Alfred. Alfred looked at us puzzled, then regained his wits. “No-no-no. But within the day perhaps?” In a form of reply, the centaur bowed her head, and we turned to leave finally.

On our way back, the marsh was transforming before our eyes. Life returned to it, and I could spot birds, insects other than flies, even small animals in the undergrowth. I heard the familiar croak of a frog, and one jumped on the instep of Alfred’s boot.

“Oh look, your friend from the mountain?” Alice teased the sellsword, who grunted in disgust and shook off the amphibian. I couldn’t hold back my laughter.

Vale caught up with us a while later. He was carrying the same ivory horn the centaur had used previously. The Commander wasn’t coming back to Fort Rannick as he had greater responsibilities now, he had told Vale, but he had given the ranger the horn, to be used in times of dire need.

**

We went straight back to Fort Rannick, passing along the Skull river again. There were more signs of life at Turtleback Ferry, and for a moment, Alfred entertained aloud the possibility of us going there to help them. We chose not to – Sandpoint was more of a priority to Harsk and the sellsword in particular. I even jested Alfred for his notions of charitability – he was a decent man I had to admit, when he wasn’t gambling, drinking, whoring or thrillseeking that is.

The number of refugees in Fort Rannick had easily doubled in the hours we had spent in Shimmerglens. I kept my panther close to avoid any misunderstandings. Alfred and Harsk went to pick up our gemstone loot, while I looked for Shahelu. I felt the elven ranger would be needed in the coming defense of the sleepy, if tormented fishing town.

I found her sharing bread to a group of rugged, dirty children.

“Shale”, I called out, “we’re leaving to help Sandpoint. You coming with us?”

She turned her head to regard me. Her expression was determined. “No, Alpharius, I’m staying here.”

That surprised me. “Really?”

She nodded and offered a loaf of bread to a little girl, who took it and ran to her mother. “Yes, I am. I’ll help Jakardros restore the Brotherhood to its former strength.”

“But what about Sandpoint? The town’s in real and immediate danger, isn’t your place there”, I tried to argue, vainly. ” The elf woman just sighed. “My place is now here, beside my stepfather.”

The realization came to me, something that was long overdue. “Jakardros is your stepfather?”

She stopped what she was doing and turned to me fully. “Yes, Alpharius, he is.” She spelled it out like I was an idiot. I didn’t like that. “Didn’t I tell you all I had relatives here?”

Maybe you did, maybe you didn’t. I tried to recall, but found nothing from my depths of my memory. Just the fact I had not asked her reason to come with us to Turtleback in the first place when she joined us in Magnimar.

I wasn’t letting up. “But what about Sandpoint? You’ve defended the town loyally for ages, and now it is threatened by giants and a gods-damned dragon!”

Her reply was desert dry. “What do you know about my history, about my loyalties? Is it even your business?”

I opened my mouth to retort but she cut in before I could speak. “Just look around you. There are so many here who need my help. I can’t leave them.”

But you can leave Sandpoint. But I didn’t say it aloud. I just frowned with finality, and shot a judging look at her before turning on my heels to leave.

“Tell Alfred it was nice to see him again”, she shouted to my back. I said nothing and simply walked away.

In hindsight, I was maybe unfair to her. The decision must have been tough for the elven ranger. But she owed nothing to Turtleback Ferry, and barely knew anyone there, whereas she had friends in Sandpoint. She was leaving them when they needed her the most. But then again, if the tables would have been turned and I faced the choice between staying back with Macharius and going to help Sandpoint, I would’ve happily watched the giants pillage the town.

Our hunting trip to the Mushfens wouldn’t be happening, either, I thought grimly.

**

Irritated, I walked out of the fort and to the others who were negotiating near the southern bridge. Jakardros was talking with them about our big pile of jewels and assorted valuables. He was asking for gold, to help with the rebuilding and feeding of the refugees.

“Take three sevenths of the 300 pounds of loot we have – your, Shale’s and Vale’s shares”, I suggested sharply and matter-of-factly as I marched to them. All I wanted was to get the hell out of here, quick, hence the pointed idea. Jakardros shot me a surprised look and turned to the others. “Do you always share what you find so stringently?”

“I’m a mercenary“, Alfred said apologetically and shrugged. Harsk remained quiet, and Alice muttered something about not having spent a lot of time with these guys. Great, blame it on us, mage-school dropout. I deemed the old ranger’s question not worthy of an answer. I just stared at him, wordlessly urging him to accept the offer or bugger off.

Jakardros did accept, thanked us and started to pick up items he could sell easily. While he worked, I had time to cool my nerves and enjoy an apple under a nearby birch. After he was finished and happy what he had chosen, we got on our feet. The discussion with Shalelu and the centaur were still a thorn on my patience, but I still promised Jakardros we’d talk with Lord Mayor Grobaras about sending more troops and support to Fort Rannick when we met him. Jakardros had given me the notebook, and I owed him that much.

**

For the second time that day, we traveled to Shimmerglens and further to Whitewillow. The strange people-looking trees had started to regrow their broken and withered branches and bright green leaves covered them. For a second I thought one of the trees formed a face on its trunk and its eyes followed us as we passed the ring of trees.

The centaur was still at the little island, waiting for us patiently, when we arrived. Alfred informed him/her that we were ready to depart to Magnimar, and instantly, a disc like a hole in reality appeared before him. Within, strange colours roiled like oil against empty black. We could not see where the portal led, and I realized this mode of traveling wasn’t for the light of heart. Alfred hesitated for a second, but Alice, more informed and experienced of this type of things, rushed past him and disappeared into the portal.

Here I go. I shifted the position of my backpack with a shrug and walked abreast with my panther to the magical gate to nothingness.

“What a shitty place”, I said mostly to myself, and went in.

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