Barbarians are some of the worst guests known to Tunaria. They wake up after just a few hours of sleep and always insist on doing their morning exercises. On this morning, a few had gathered together with some of the full-time Castle residents and were limbering up before the journey to the Northern Pass.Their huge bodies, some standing almost nine feet tall, caused the ground to shake as they went from standing to sitting and then back to standing again. God forbid they start doing jumping jacks.
I rolled over in my bed and reached for a match to light the candle on the floor. Nearly every wall and floor in the Castle was made of stone. It was cold and damp but there was almost no chance of the place burning down.
I lit the match and held it over the wick until the flame took hold. The chamber in which I had slept in last night remained depressing. A Barbarian is much better with killing than with comfort. My bed had been much too hard and much too large for a traveling musician such as myself. Yet, I wasn’t about to complain. Most of the men slept on the ground in the stables.
I sat up in my bed and rested my feet on the floor. Though hard, a polar bear’s hide had been stretched out to provide some sort of padding for the Castle guests. I could feel the stone floor shake as if the earth below my very feet was about to give way. Jumping jacks. Those assholes.
I took a swig of the apple cider that I usually carry in my belt and stood to stretch. With just my green shirt and wool pants on, it was nice to be free of the armor that I have to wear at all times. My bracelets, which give me the dexterity of the gods, were on the floor beside the candle. I reached down and fastened them tightly to my wrists. Beside them lay my amulet and war earrings. It is tradition in all Tunarian cultures for men and women to wear two earrings for strength and charisma.
In the corner, my leggings, boots, helmet, and breastplate sat folded against the wall. They were each a fine, dark gold chainmail that had been won in many battles past. The story behind it lies in the tales of the ancient Dwarves of Moradhim crafting the finest set of armor and then losing it to the dragons of the Sky.
Years earlier, I brought several friends with me, all of whom have long since died, on a journey to one of the Planes. We weren’t the first to wreak havoc on the area and we certainly were not the last. However, we were highly successful and the results of the raids are in the trophies I wear today.
I choose not to wear chain gloves. They’re much too heavy to play any sort of instrument. Also, operating a bow with the links in the chainmail can create some unneeded problems. Instead I always choose a thin leather glove that was given to me by a Teth Druid. She too has left Tunaria.
The final piece of my armor is perhaps the most important one of all. It is the symbol of my nobility, which in itself is quite strange given that I was born in the same slums that only harvest thieves and assassins. My ceremonial vestment covers me from neck to toe. Around the waste I tie the cord together, tightening it so that I can attach my belt. The vestment is very rare and few remain. When I was given the item, I was told to never trade it for no more exist. It was created by a group of bandits led by Franco Willenforge in the hills near the Black Swann Inn. His place was ransacked during the expansion of warriors across Tunaria and pretty soon the bandits stopped making the vestments at all. It’s the only white robe available to someone that wields a blade.
On my belt sit my two identical weapons. They are rapiers that sparkle blue and silver. On both swords’ hilt, there are rubies and emeralds encrusted into the thin layer of gold. The weapon was crafted by the head blacksmith in Forkwatch and customized to my specifications. Its blades allow for a quick slash and jab. They are not free from magic either. During a fight, it is not uncommon to see a blast of arcane energy spew forth, damaging the enemy. Moreover, these rapiers are incredibly lightweight. I tried to carry the Dragoneye once. It was a failed effort and after three full swings I was more exhausted than if I had just ran the Desert Ro. I’m tough, no doubt. But I’m still a Bard.
Finally, I hooked my bag containing most of my inventory and my bow around my neck. It sat like a satchel on my hip.
When I walked out of my chamber, I could see the Barbarians wrapping up their exercises. They were fully limber now, even though they still walked like stiff cats. Looking out into the courtyard, I could see Dawnseer Mistwielder and Lythan Trueshot speaking with Captain Drailis. In the blacksmith, Captain Volgo was checking his armor. A group of wizards, alchemists, and a magician stood in a circle chatting about something that I couldn’t quite hear. The grey-haired Gadenon Flamefist was in the middle. He must have been coaching them. MuNan, the druids, the rangers, and the other monk were exchanging small talk while the warriors and paladins looked over one another’s armor for any imperfections. They looked like apes searching for fleas on a family member. The healers, always the quiet bunch they are, crowded in the corner nearest my chamber door and were showing off their most impressive heals and buffs. The mystics and elders from Halas could always draw a good crowd with their polar bear forms, avatar, and spirit shield.
I walked down the ramp and into the courtyard, past the healers and warriors, past the glass cannons, and past Captain Volgo. I walked directly up to Drailis, Trueshot, and Mistwielder.
“Well good morning, Sir Quicksteed,” said Drailis. There was a hint of displeasure in his voice that was obviously due to my tardiness.
“Good morning to you, Captain. How is everyone this dark morning?” The sun had not risen. Castle Light Wolf is so far north that dawn doesn’t occur until late in the morning.
Mistwielder, the Teth Druid, turned to me and nodded.
“We’re doing well. Are you ready to head out?” she asked.
“Of course, of course!” I lied. I kind of wanted to grab a bite to eat. Grocer O’Leary was in the back of the Castle and it would take me several minutes just to get to him.
“Do I have a second to go grab a muffin?”
Drailis smiled as if he had known this was coming.
“Of course, of course!” he mocked.
I ran back up the ramp and followed the path into the central tower. Grocer O’Leary had just set up shop and thankfully he would be willing to open up before dawn to accommodate an old friend. I had been to Castle Light Wolf on several occasions before and I knew O’Leary well. The eight-and-a-half foot Barbarian saw me flying up the ramp to his stand.
“Sir Keegan, I had no idea you would be in town! If I had known, I would have made you the best muffins in the land. Unfortunately this morning I only have a couple dry bran,” he said this as if it pained him.
“Benen, none of your foods are ever poor,” I reassured him.
“Thank you, Sir.”
I gave him the 700 tunar it cost for the muffins and then laid down an extra 700 for his kindness. When I got back down to the courtyard, the groups were lined up and ready to begin the journey. We headed out the gate and the Guard Yates wished us luck. Earlier, I had mentioned that just less than 400 men and women remain on the face of Tunaria. What I should have explained is that they are the last remaining explorers and warriors. There are thousands and thousands of men and women, children and pests that live in villages for their entire life. They keep cities such as Qeynos clean and the young Erudites erudite. Benen O’Leary and Guard Yates are examples of these folks. I have deep respect for them but their lifestyle is much too boring for a Bard.
The road leading out of Castle Light Wolf heads directly south before bending west. You must pass by Light Wolf Inn and then walk a mile or so till the road straightens north. In theory, a man could run straight west out of the Castle gates but there is a great chance of running into ice wasps, werewolves, and polar bears. There’s way too much stuff to save our troops energy for than getting in a scuffle with a bear.
We had just passed the Inn when I noticed Snyde Cragsmear and his two rogue sidekicks standing out behind the building. They looked to be strategizing before, when, out of thin air, all three disappeared. It was clear to me that Snyde and his assassins were going to be making their own trail.
Our goal for the day was to get to the frozen lakes outside of Lady Vox’s Castle. We made good time to the Northern Pass. The guards there offered us an early lunch of salted meats and we happily accepted.
After an hour, we lined our troops up for a quick update on the next part of the journey. Captain Volgo, the Barbarian Warrior, stood in front of a line while Captain Drailis paced in front of him. Drailis spoke first.
“Troops, from the North Passage until Vox’s castle, we’ll have two main hurdles. First, there are the ice giants. We can steer clear of these as long as everyone is aware that there are multiple spots these one-eyed giants spawn. Second, the Khal gangs, with their Warlord roam the lakes to the east of Vox’s Castle. You cannot hide from these enemies the way you can hide from the ice giants. We’ll have to organize before we leave these gates.”
And so, Captain Volgo began to shout out directions and orders to the army. Every group was to have a healer. In total, there were fourteen healers. The clerics were the most treasured pure healers but the Druids and Shaman had abilities that could turn any enemy inside out.
I was assigned to command a group of two rangers and a druid. The rangers were from Teth and they were brothers, Elwyn and Selwyn. They were both highly experienced archers that could shoot a hare from a quarter mile away. Our healer was a Druid named Quinn. She was the youngest of the Druids but still seasoned from battle. She was in her wolf form and was circling the group, checking out her new allies. The spiky white mane and her shining yellow eyes sent a shiver down my spine.
It had been a while since my group was full of Elves but for the first time in my life, I understand how a Barbarian felt. These Elves were a foot smaller than me. Though they were beautiful people, their ears and small mouths were tough to get past. I had to wonder how a race of people like the Elves produced such adequate singing Bards. They must have sounded like small children.
A mile north of the Passage gate, we came across our first ice giant camp. They stood around a monument, each looking as if they were keeping guard of some invisible enemy. They saw us in the distance but ice giants are lazy and their depth perception is quite horrible given that they only have a single eye. It would be pure humor to be in a chase with one. And this, they knew.
We saw several more of the ice giant camps along the way. With each one, we kept our distance. Again, we could have held our own just fine but that was not the goal. We had no interest in running down our armor or our energy.
We cleared the last camp without incident. That had been the easy part. A stationary enemy in a wide open valley are a traveler’s dream. It’s the wandering ones that have no fear of running after you that should terrify every adventurer.
In the distance, we could see small fires burning where the Khal had taken over years ago. I hadn’t been in the area since their arrival and to be truthful, I would have preferred not to be there now.
Our group of a Druid, two Teth Rangers, and a Bard proved to be a speedy traveling group. None of us had ample amounts of armor and we all were in the best shape. Plus, Elves are always quick little devils.
The four of us began to creep around the Khal camps. It was our goal to get through without finding ourselves with a Khal knife pressed against our throats. Yet, that’s how it felt. We literally pressed all the way up against the ice shelf and began to slide across, praying to not be noticed.
As we got deeper into the camp, I could smell something rancid. There was a Khal cooking gooey ice worm meat on an open fire. It was the Warlord. He was the head honcho and not someone to be taken lightly. Of course there are always tricks in Tunaria to fix the game but the Warlord had two cavalry guards that could make things difficult.
Our slow pace had allowed for the Warriors to catch up. They were too dumb to notice that they were walking directly into the Khal camp. That or they were just bored. A loud yell poured out over the frozen lake. Captain Volgo, the great Barbarian that he is, came storming into the Khal camp with his two-handed blade high above his head. The Khal went into an early panic as their soldiers began to fall. The Warriors were hacking off any Khal head they could find. Their healers, two Clerics and a few Druids, sat back and made sure their meat-shields didn’t get minced.
Selwyn looked over at Elwyn who looked at me. Quinn kept her gaze on the Warlord.
“Well?” asked Elwyn.
Damnit. I really didn’t want to shed any blood today, especially Khal blood. Our choices were minimal now. Our location is completely concealed and we could easily keep sliding by. On the other hand, once that Warlord gets loose with cavalry of guards and targets the Warriors, it’ll just be a matter of time before everyone is wiped out.
“Prepare yourselves,” I commanded. Spells of armor, strength, and agility fell down upon us. The Rangers and I removed our bows. We moved in closer, we had to pull the cavalry guards from the Warlord. The Warriors against the Warlord would be no problem but the guards could shatter the best built breastplate.
Quinn stayed behind the three of us. I gave them the go ahead and the two hunters released a series of shots that turned the lake green, then blue, then red, then green again. It was like fireworks were exploding from their bow. All of their shots hit their targets. The two cavalry guards came storming in a heap of rage as the enflamed arrows burned out on their woolly backs.
The unfortunate part about a Bard is that he’s always in the middle of things. And in a group of Rangers and Druids, the Bard takes on a new role as the tank. I ran forward, tightly gripping my rapiers. My plan was to attack the first cavalry rider and then quickly make my way to the second. Anger them enough and they’ll take it out on me and not the brothers, or even worse, Quinn.
My first two swings landed directly on the nose of the cavalry rider’s mount. I slashed through the wolf and began to line up my combos for a second attack. These hit the rider in the chest and he fell from his stumbling wolf. The Khal cavalry rider, now just a foot soldier, turned in his rage and glared at me. I swung away from him and ran to the second oncoming rider just as eight arrows from Elwyn and Selwyn rained down on the back of the first Khal. He collapsed and died almost instantly.
The second rider put his head down and tried to trample me. I was able to roll out of the way and position myself so that the rider’s back was to the Ranger brothers. Once again, they unleashed hell, skewering the rider before he landed a single paw.
I looked up at the brothers and they were smiling. Quinn, on the other hand, was in a full sprint directly past me. I followed her and looked up see Captain Volgo locked blades with the Warlord. They must have started fighting soon after we killed the first cavalry rider.
Volgos was sweating and he had to be tiring. The other Warriors were finishing off other Khal members in surrounding camps. All that Volgo had was a cleric who was doing everything he could to keep the Captain alive.
In the distance, I could hear Flamefist and Mu Nan yelling. They were just now approaching the camp but I wasn’t sure if they could make it in time to help. I turned back to Selwyn and Elwyn and shouted at them to move in on the Warlord.
In an instant, the two came flying down from the ridge with their bows in hand, already loaded with four arrows to be shot in one pull. All four were lit with a different color of flame.
Quinn reached Volgo first just as the Captain swung a defensive move to push back the Warlord. The force of the push caused him to fall down to his knees. Quinn jumped between them and unleashed a spell that burned the Warlord to the point of screaming. As much as he tried, it would not come off. In a burning madness, the Warlord stormed Quinn and swung close enough to knick her. She retreated to a safer spot as the Warlord stamped out the remaining flames on his fur.
I was running full speed. When I was within damaging bow range, I jammed my left foot into the thin layer of snow that had formed on the ice lake. I pivoted and drew my bow with an arrow pointing directly at his head. Just as I released it, I heard the faint whistle of the Ranger brothers’ arrows sailing past me.
Everything seemed to slow down. When you have been in as many battles as I, you think and act differently than when you are wet behind the ears. Volgo was still on his knees and Quinn had begun to gain her bearings for a defense when the Warlord’s eye’s turned black. They rolled back in his head and he collapsed. The arrows that the brothers and I had shot sped by, missing their target.
The Warlord fell onto his back and then rolled onto his side. A puddle of blood began to coat the white snow around him. Standing above the slain Warlord, Snyde and his two rogue counterparts, a Barbarian and an Elf, sheathed their daggers. Snyde looked up at Volgo and then at me. He nodded and before any words were exchanged, the three assassins vanished.
Mu Nan and Flamefist, along with Trueshot and Drailis arrived at the scene a few moments later. The healers gathered around Volgo to check and make sure he was alright. The other Warriors that had been hacking down Khal came back completely unaware of the danger Volgo had subjected them to. Drailis reached out and gave Volgo a hand to standup.
We fell back into our groups and continued west. In the distance, Vox’s Castle was forming on the horizon. We made our way underneath the bridge and found a safe spot in the frozen lake to set up camp. Dusk was just minutes away and the army fell asleep as soon as they could. Only the leaders stayed up to discuss the events.
“What the hell were you thinking?” Drailis shouted at his fellow Captain. He of course hadn’t seen the event but from everyone’s accounts it sounded as if Captain Volgo had gone in there like a madman, swinging his sword as if to prove a point.
“I have been in much worse situations than that. I slightly underestimated the Warlord,” he replied, attempting to defend his honor.
“Underestimated? Underestimated! We don’t stand a chance against the Angel of Death, much less the First Horseman without you as our tank! At what point will you pick your battles wisely?”
Volgo held a stern face. He knew his importance to the mission. He knew that Drailis, while still a strong tank, couldn’t handle the beating that something like the Angel of Death would deliver. He just shook his head.
“It’s over now,” said Mistwielder. She had been in the final group to arrive at the Khal camp and was not in the least bit surprised at the action by Captain Volgo. Or her daughter, Quinn. She looked over at Trueshot who then reached into his bag and lay the stored food onto the table.
“Now eat and be merry,” she commanded.
Volgo walked out of the tent and headed back to his place. Everyone else remained around to chat. I spoke with Trueshot and Mistwielder about how Snyde and his two assassins had saved Volgo’s life.
“He’s awfully shady,” I said.
“You get used to it. I grew up with him. He was always a lone-wolf type,” remarked Trueshot.
“Speaking of wolf, how’d Quinn do?” asked Mistwielder.
“She did great. All the courage in the world. Clearly the daughter of a Mistwielder.”
She smiled as if she were vicariously living through her daughter’s fearlessness.
We continued to talk until much too late and everyone headed to bed. I’m not sure where Snyde and his boys ended up but the next time they show themselves, I’ll ask how long they waited before stepping in. I bet it was right after Volgo showed fear in his eyes.