It had been a long day for Berg, and the night had been even more grueling. He usually enjoyed the attention, but tonight had been too much. Everyone was asking too many questions, and it was making his head hurt. He was finally sitting by himself, trying to order his thoughts.
“Are you alright, baby?” a voluptuous woman wrapped her arms around Berg’s neck. Her breasts pushed against the back of his head, sending waves of heat through his otherwise cold body. Berg thought for a moment about turning her away, but decided against it. He could use the distraction. His body language told her that he was interested. “Want to head over to my place and I can make you feel better?”
Berg did not want to waste his night with Beth. “How about we just go outside?”
Beth didn’t really care to spend the full night with Berg, but she had a fire of her own that the frost demon spawn always seemed to know exactly how to extinguish.
They made their way outside and the woman dropped her dress down, exposing her ample breasts. The frigid night air made her nipples harden. Beth gave Berg the look, promising pleasure and release. Berg approached and kissed her neck. As his skin touched hers, goose bumps sprang up across her flesh. His hands went to her ass, and she whimpered with practiced perfection.
Berg almost failed to hear the muffled cries over Beth’s moaning. Almost. He pushed her away.
“What…” Beth started, but Berg put his finger over her mouth. Then, she heard it as well. As Berg took off toward the sounds, she quickly pulled her dress back over her shoulders.
Larkin and Dani finally entered the Crab Trap to join the celebration. The man wore simple clothes, but Dani felt the need to dress up. She did not want the people of Dorsi to start mumbling that Larkin deserved better. Larkin gave her a smile, his pearly white teeth shining through his beard. She knew that he would never lay with another women; his honor was too strong. However, she wanted to make sure that he never wanted to.
Everyone congratulated him on the great victory. Larkin smiled, and shook hands. Dani knew that he hated the attention, and Larkin squeezed her hand as the words poured over him. Usually Berg would absorb the praise, but the half-demon was nowhere to be found.
Larkin saw Ricci approaching and tried to find a way to avoid the interaction. There were simply too many people around. Larkin felt the man’s hand on his shoulder. He spun and feigned surprise.
“Larkin, I need to have a word with you,” Ricci said without any need for small talk. Then he walked back to the same table where Berg had denied him earlier. Larkin did not immediately follow Ricci. He made his way to each of the soldiers who had been with him that day; giving his thanks to them. By the time Larkin got back to Ricci’s table, the head of the city was fuming.
“Sorry,” Larkin stated, “I had to talk to my men.” Ricci glared. “You remember my wife, Dani?” The woman smiled at Ricci, despite the fact that she hated the man.
Ricci did not even acknowledge Larkin’s wife. “I need to know what happened out there today.”
Larkin put his nose against Ricci’s nose. “I said it. You sit there, all fat and happy, but I remember when we were boys. You were Ricky then, but still a coward. You disrespect my wife, and then ask for information? You are a fool, among your many flaws.”
Ricci pulled away. “You think I can’t get the information from one of your men?”
“I know you can’t.” Larkin answered without hesitation. “If I find out that you have even tried, then I will beat your ass down.”
“A threat?” Ricci tried to sound brave, but his voice cracked and betrayed his bravado. He tried to recover, “I have the law on my side, Larkin.”
“My authority comes from a higher power,” Larkin smiled. “If you challenge me, you will lose.”
Berg quickly located the sounds. It seemed a man was trying to take advantage of a lady. The man was having a rough time of it, however. It was about to get much worse for the man. Berg grabbed the man by his tunic and pulled him off of the woman. The man threw a wild elbow into the frost demon’s chin. The air grew immediately colder. However, Berg did not have to strike the man; for the woman came up and clawed her attacker’s face. Then she grabbed hold of his ear and tried to rip it off.
Beth grabbed the woman, and pulled her away from the man. She started to try to calm her down, which was no easy task. Berg was glad that Beth was with him. As Berg looked at the two women, he realized that it was just a child in Beth’s arms.
“She wanted it,” the man screamed as he tried to shrug Berg off.
“She just tried to rip your ear off,” Berg responded. “I have enjoyed some crazy nights, but it never escalated into missing ears.”
Beth, too, realized that she held a girl not a woman. “This is a child,” she stated with disgust. There was no hiding the repulsion in her voice.
“Out this late? With a dress like that?” the man argued. “How could I know?”
“If you were deceived, which I doubt, it was because you wanted to be fooled.” Berg slapped the man in the face. “Her dress does not fit, loose in all the places a woman would fill. No make-up and no jewelry. My guess is that her mother would notice if the make-up had been used; and she couldn’t risk losing any jewelry. However, the dress; her mother probably outgrew the dress with hopes but no realities of wearing it again someday. A child playing dress up; nothing more.”
“How do you know all that?” the man asked.
“Because I did not want to be fooled.”
“Just kill me,” the man begged. “If my wife finds out…”
Berg slapped the man again. “I hope she kills you. No, I hope she ruins you. I want her to absolutely destroy you; the way you tried to ruin and destroy this girl’s life.” Berg motioned for Beth to take her home. Beth slapped the man as they walked past, and his mouth filled with blood. “Pull your pants up, and let’s go have a talk with Larkin.”
“No, not Larkin!” the man shouted as he pulled his pants up around his waist. Berg slapped him again.
Ties That Bind
The Cave Tree
Calidorn’s broad fingers tinkered with Qari’s bird skull helmet while the two talked about their past. Qari explained how his tribe had been slaughtered by the blood monkeys while he was away. He explained that all of the surrounding tribes had suffered the same fate. Rolo was out searching for food; it had been a while since the anteater had been allowed to freely hunt. However, now that his master was safe Rolo enjoyed romping through the forest without a saddle.
“What about you?” Qari asked. “Did the monkeys take out the others in your party?” Calidorn had explained that he was part of a mining expedition that had found this cave particular cave.
Calidorn shook his head. He fidgeted with the helmet and attached some adornments. “No, not the monkeys.” The elephant man handed the bird skull back to Qari. “It was the jaguar.”
“Yeah, the jaguars are bad,” Qari put the helmet on, and it fit perfectly.
“Not the jaguars,” Calidorn picked up his hammer as the memory came back to him. “THE JAGUAR.” Qari didn’t understand what he meant, but when Calidorn did not elaborate he knew better than to pry.
Instead the small human decided to change the subject. The past was filled with too much bloodshed. “So how far back does this cave go?”
“It goes pretty deep. I shrunk down as much as I could, but still couldn’t slip through a few places.” Calidorn’s eyes seemed to lose the sadness in his eyes.
“Wait, did you say ‘shrunk down’?”
“Oh, yeah!” Calidorn grew to stand about eight feet tall. Then he shrunk back down to around four or so feet high. Qari was amazed. Calidorn just laughed. “Want to go exploring? I bet you can fit through some of the cracks that I couldn’t. You are skinny.”
So the two new friends set off to travel deeper into the cave. Qari trusted that Rolo would be safe. Anteaters survived in the wild on their own all the time. Further and further they went, and it got cold to the shirtless human. Calidorn offered the man a cloak to help with the chill. “Gets cold down here.”
They passed over a small underground stream. “I have been able to get fish out of here sometimes. They are small, but at least it gives me something to eat other than fruits and roots.”
“How long have you been surviving down here?”
“Somewhere around a moon cycle,” Calidorn answered. At first, Qari was amazed at how the elephant creature had made it so long. Then he realized that he and Rolo had been running for almost two weeks. It was intriguing the lengths living creatures would go to ensure survival.
Calidorn led them to a small crack in the wall. Qari would not have even noticed it if it was not pointed out to him. “I have heard strange sounds through this crack. I know it leads somewhere.”
“Go it alone, eh?”
“As I said, I can’t fit,” Calidorn laughed. “You don’t have to go, if you don’t feel comfortable.”
Qari chuckled nervously. “I will go. If I don’t come back, take care of Rolo.” He was only half kidding. With a deep breath, the small man slipped into the small crack. He had been in a cave the whole time, but being unable to move in any direction except sideways was overwhelming. Qari considered going back, but he heard a sound that he was all too familiar with; monkeys.
Anger drove him along. Hate pushed him through even though it took the skin off of his ears and cheeks. Qari climbed and climbed as he made his way toward the sounds of his most hated enemies. Finally, he saw a small light up ahead. He cautiously poked his head out into a large open chamber which spilled light into his crevice.
What he saw nearly took his breath away. He was midway up the wall overlooking an open cavern. In the middle of the cavern was a large tree. A small opening in the top of the cave gave enough sunlight to keep the tree alive. Strewn throughout the tree were abyssal plant vines. Their smell washed over the small man, and nearly made him swoon. He covered his face with the cloak Calidorn had given him earlier.
Monkeys leaped from the opening into the tree and climbed up and down. At the base of the tree, Qari saw something that he did not expect. There were about thirty humans and elves sitting under the tree. What are they doing? Why are they just sitting there? Qari wanted answers. Some of the men at the bottom of the tree were tribesmen. Could some of my people have survived? Qari hoped, but he needed to get down to them.
Suddenly Qari heard a powerful call from the opening. He looked up to see a spider monkey with blood red eyes. The beast hooted and barked and all the monkeys rushed up the tree and followed him. In a matter of seconds, the cavern was completely quiet. Qari courageously jumped from his perch and grabbed hold of a branch. He quickly climbed down, making sure that the cloak stayed wrapped around his mouth and nose.
When he reached the humans and elves, he puked into the cloak. The abyssal plants had caused them to be lulled into a near catatonic state. They were sedated and did not even notice the small human that had climbed down among them. Worse than that was the fact that they were covered in blood sac oozes and leeches. The blood sac oozes where heavy with the life essence of their host. Qari realized that the monkeys were using them to harvest blood. He could see scars and some fresh wounds where the monkeys had pulled the oozes and leeches away.
Qari sank to one knee and contemplated just staying there; giving up hope. He realized quickly that he had to get away from the effects of the abyssal plants, or he too would become a feeder for the monkeys. If he had more time, he would have killed every one of the damned souls under the tree. However, he had no weapons and no time. Qari climbed the tree and made a leap back to the crack. He had to catch the ledge and maneuver his way back in, but he managed it with some difficulty.
Qari stopped about halfway back to Calidorn and cried. He let out all of the anger, hurt, guilt, shame, regret; all of it. His eyes were red and puffy when he stepped out of the hole, but he had a plan. He was going to kill every blood monkey he saw. There was no more running. It was time to hunt.
Zoe and the Outcasted
Metal Among the Trees
Chaff was cloaked in an old robe that once belonged to Zoe’s father; hiding his unique appearance. He and Zoe made their way through the streets of Pinevale without any notice at all. They had considered making their way around the city, but decided it would be faster to cut straight through. Also, they hoped that Pinevale’s magical energies would drown out the power of the gauntlets. The minions did not dare attack inside the walls of the great city. Their reasoning was sound, and nothing bothered them.
However, they had to travel through dense forest to get from Pinevale to Locwood, the home of the orcs. The major road was dangerous, as many displaced orcs sought easy prey. A fourteen year old girl and a harvester would be no match for a group of robbers. So, the duo was forced to take their chances in the pine forest.
Both Zoe and Chaff were amazed at how beautiful the pines grew. The admiration did not last long before the minions of Rainor stormed over them. It was as though they had been waiting for Zoe.
There were thirteen of the winged beasts, and they ranged from tamarin to gorilla. Chaff ripped off his cloak and raised his bladed arms. Zoe raised her magically armored hands. The rubies encrusting the gloves glowed red, and Zoe herself seemed to radiate heat. The winged minions hooted and screeched at the display of magical power. Their excitement was short-lived.
From each gauntlet sprang a flaming whip, ready to do the girl’s bidding. Zoe spun her new weapons around, getting a feel for their length. One of the gorillas attempted to take the gauntlets, but he was met with lash after fiery lash from the whips. The other minions hesitated before staking their claim on the magic item. Chaff was not interested in letting them regain their composure. The harvester sprang on them with his scythe-like arms cutting several of the smaller monkeys down among the pine needle floor.
A few of the quicker, smaller winged monkeys manage to escape the carnage. A large and hairy orangutan with tiny wings was not so quick. Zoe wrapped him in her burning coils as he attempted to flee into the forest. The dying creatures cries could be heard in both Pinevale and Locwood.
The battle with the minions was over as quickly as it had begun. However, there was a new problem. The dried pine was igniting from the flames of Zoe’s gloves. She dispelled the whips with merely a thought, and started trying to put out the flames. Chaff used the old robes to smother the blaze, and eventually all of the fire was out.
Zoe and Chaff were exhausted and covered in soot and ash. They needed to rest, away from the still smoking remains of their forest fires. Chaff led them down a small trail. The trail ended at a strange, vine covered tree. Chaff leaned against the tree, and threw his head back into it.
The strange tree wasn’t a tree at all. Zoe started pulling vines away, while Chaff cut, In no time, they had uncovered a large metal humanoid. The sculpture must have stood nine feet high and carried a huge axe, which was half buried in the earth. Its legs were wide cylinders, like an elephants. The arms and torso seemed to have giant springs cleverly worked into the metal frame. Zoe could not get a good look at the face, it was too high.
“I wish he would lean down so I could see his face,” she pouted.
Chaff’s heart dropped into his stomach as the metal giant slowly dropped down to one knee. It put its face down at eye level to Zoe.
“Stay back, fiend!” Chaff tried to sound brave when he finally gained his composure.
“He won’t hurt us,” Zoe stated with a certainty that the harvester felt was unwarranted.
“You don’t even know if it is a ‘He’ at all.”
The metal titan turned to Chaff and spoke in a voice that was deep and strong. “I am a he.”
Zoe and Chaff spent hours asking the creature questions. Most normal people would have grown weary of answering the non-ending barrage of questioning, but this was a machination. He was created by Rainor during the War of Hoarded Magic. This particular machination, which Zoe named LJ, was clearing a path through the forest for the orc army when the war ended. He was left with no more orders, so he had been sitting and waiting for someone to come along and give him a purpose.
Zoe and Chaff had no problems giving him orders. Once they had learned of his purpose, they asked him to cut down a large pine tree. LJ readied his huge axe and turned his torso. The great spring inside groaned under the strain, but LJ continued to turn. Finally, in a motion so quick and powerful that Zoe and Chaff hardly registered it, LJ let the tension loose and sliced through the pine in one chop.
“Yeah, he can stay with us!” Chaff stated and they shared a laugh. Even LJ seemed happy to once again have something to do with himself.
The Troy children in the city of Dorsi had their noses pressed against the glass of the windows. Each breath created a foggy patch, as the excited little faces peered out into the dark streets. The adults were all out celebrating a victory of some sorts, and the kids wanted to try to catch a glimpse of the action. The youngest child, bored with the lack of action at the window, danced to the music that could be heard throughout the entire town. He jumped up and down on the bed, swinging his arms in wild circles.
“Ouch, Paris!” Andromache squealed. The little boy had accidently hit his older sister while dancing.
“Sowwy,” Paris stated automatically, with absolutely no regrets or contrition.
“He is only three years old, Anne,” Helen, the oldest daughter, scolded. “It couldn’t possibly have hurt you.” The magic of the moment was lost, and the children moved away from the window.
Anne pouted for a moment, and then responded to Helen. “You may look like mommy, but you ain’t her.” She ran to her bed and jumped under the blanket.
“All of you need to be in bed; Pollux and Castor, you two especially.” Helen pointed at the twins. “You have a big tomorrow.” The two boys grumbled as they went to their beds. “Paris, stop jumping around and go to your bed.”
“I wanna sleep wit you!”
“You can sleep with me, buddy.” Priam grabbed Paris and gave him a big squeeze. “Let me talk to Helen for a minute and I will meet you in my bed.” Paris grabbed his crab toy and ran to Priam’s bed.
Helen shook her head, “He may as well not even have a bed if you are always going to let him sleep with you.”
“He won’t always want to be around,” Priam said as he escorted Helen out of the bedroom. “Just like you.” Helen looked confused. “I know you are planning on sneaking out again tonight, and I beg you not to go.”
“What do you know of it?”
“I know that since mom and dad started letting Hector go out during celebrations, you have been sneaking out as well.” Priam was calm; concern clear in his voice. “Hector is a young man, and that is a lot different than a young girl going out. The world ain’t right nowadays.”
Helen grabbed Priam by the arm. “You better not tell mom and dad,” she whispered sharply.
“I haven’t and I won’t,” Priam pulled his arm free. “But this is the last time. If you do it again, I am telling.”
Ale and music flowed through the tavern, and the party had even spilled out into the streets. The Crab Trap had not seen this much business since Memkin had bought the former brothel three years back. The married women of the town had dubbed the whorehouse, “The Crab Trap” and Memkin decided he liked the name, so he let the name stand. It was only fitting since Memkin made some of the finest crab dishes on the coast. He stopped trying to keep up with his gourmet cooking on this night, and just churned out food as quickly as he could. Everyone was too drunk to even taste it anyway.
A group was dancing around the tavern, led by a handsome figure with slightly pointed ears and wavy hair. His motions were smooth as he spun the ladies of Dorsi around in twists and circles; a feat which enchanted the women, but make the men incredibly jealous. He was called Berg, and he had been a hero earlier that day.
Finally after many dances, Berg had to take a seat. He plopped down next to one of the soldiers who had fought beside him earlier that day. The man’s name was Randy, but from the look on his face Berg doubted that Randy knew his own name.
“You alright, Randy?”
Randy slowly turned his head toward Berg. “You know, man…” the smell of alcohol forced Berg to turn away. “… All you care about is fighting and fucking.” Randy pointed his finger in Berg’s face while he still clutched a bottle of ale. “It ain’t right, man.”
“Ah Randy, it’s all you care about too. However, I am actually good at both of those things.” Berg patted the man on the leg and started to move along. “Oh, and don’t call it ‘fucking’; the ladies don’t like that.” Randy just nodded. He had already forgotten what Berg was talking about.
Berg was being called over to a table by man who happened to be sitting next to a beautiful woman. He decided to go on over. “Come here, Berg,” the man, Ricci, motioned for him to sit. Ricci was the leader of the city of Dorsi, but the women next to him was definitely not his wife. “So tell us exactly what happened on the bridge today.”
Berg shook his head, not wanting to give away any battle tactics. He attempted to diffuse the question politely, “A great victory for us.” He patted the table and stood to leave. Ricci grabbed his arm. Berg was so surprised by the action that he did not immediately react. However when the man did not let go, Berg started to get angry.
Ricci pulled his hand from Berg’s skin, and rubbed it with his other hand; almost as if to warm it up. “I need to know what happened out there today.”
“If you want to talk to someone,” Berg spat, “Then you need to talk to Larkin. I ain’t telling you shit about what happened.”
“Come on, Berg.” Ricci coaxed. “Everyone knows that you are the brains of the operation. Larkin is just the muscle.” The woman next to Ricci reached out to stroke Berg’s arm, but he pulled it away without taking his eyes off of Ricci.
“Well, you can take that up with him.”
“Oh, I plan to.” Ricci smiled. “I plan to.”
Larkin hovered over his wife, Dani, as she lay on her back in their bed. She chewed on her bottom lip as he stared into her eyes. Larkin always made her nervous when he looked at her like that. “Was it alright?” she asked, just like she did nearly every time the two made love.
“Perfect,” Larkin answered. “You are perfect for me.” He raised himself higher and kissed her on the forehead. His necklace swung and hit Dani in the chin. The two of them shared a laugh.
Dani grabbed the charm on the necklace, and studied it once again. It had been a while since she had really looked at it. “I still don’t understand why you wear this thing.” She ran her fingers over the whale etched on the medallion. “I mean, daddy gave you a charm but you never wore it.”
Larkin laughed. “Your dad gave me a pineapple charm that was the size of my hand.” He put his hand on Dani’s chest. “You know as well as I do that he only got me that because it was expensive.”
Dani feigned offense. Then she laughed, “It was so gaudy. Man, that thing was hideous.”
Larkin rolled over onto his back and looked at his whale medallion. “This means something, baby.”
“I know. I just hate that it is the symbol of the Knights.”
“The whale represents gentle strength, which is what this city is known for.” Larkin was talking to himself, just as much as he was to Dani. “Gentle strength. The Knights of the Coast were once the epitome of that strength.” Larkin dropped the necklace back down to his chest and looked Dani in the face. “Some of the knights I saw today had skulls on their shields and armor.”
“What exactly does that mean?”
“It means they are no longer even trying to hide their demonic nature.”
“So your dad was a demon?” a young man asked Berg. Apparently the ale had made everyone forget themselves.
“I am sorry, boy,” Berg said perplexed, “What is your name?”
“Well Hector,” Berg decided to hand out life lessons, “It is probably past your bedtime, and you really need to calm down on the ale. However, since you so rudely jumped right into my life story; I will tell you.” Hector smiled wide. “I seriously hope you have nightmares from this,” Berg added. “Seriously.”
Ties That Bind
Blood in the Water
Bynn made his way once again to the tethering pole, where the elves placed a boat full of goods for the trolls to take back with them. For years Bynn had wanted to fight the trolls, but knew better than to go against the highborn council. Batoonsta had informed him, with a lot of time and effort, that there were seven total trolls. One of them was always hidden in the water. The elves had to take him out first.
Bynn was responsible for that troll. He had sneaked to the troll boat, unseen and unnoticed. Vaidon and Batoonsta waited in the forest for the signal. If they could successfully destroy the entire troll force, then may just keep Silkwood from a war.
Bynn slowly drew back his bow. He was silent and steady; his skills honed over the years with Kaa in the dangerous forest. He waited until he saw an unnatural ripple in the water, and let his arrow fly. Bynn’s shot was perfect. The trolls on the small boat did not even stir. Still, the elf had to make sure that the troll did not survive. He started to make his way to the body, but the water started churning violently. Bynn knew that the blood had drawn the piranha, so he got back out of the water as quickly as possible.
The piranha disturbance alerted the trolls. Vaidon and Batoonsta charged out of the forest. The elf was much quicker than the minotaur and her footfalls much lighter. The ground seemed to shake as the minotaur thundered toward his former allies. One of the creatures looked over the side of the boat and called to his comrade. An arrow went straight through his neck in response. Bynn dropped his bow and quickly climbed on the boat with five angry trolls.
“HOW DARE YOU?”
Bynn did not back down at all as he drew his swords; one long and one short. He put the blades into a fine display, hoping to keep their attention as his two companions approached. However, drawing the attention of five trained troll warriors was very dangerous. They had Bynn quickly on the defensive with spears, swords and even a trident. Finally, Vaidon cut one of the trolls down with her two handed sword. She had named the sword Riven, and Bynn realized how fitting that name was as he watched the creature crumple to the deck in two separate pieces.
The odds were almost even, and the trolls realized it. More elves could be pouring out of the forest at any moment. One of the creatures dropped his weapon and jumped for the safety of the water. Batoonsta caught him by the ankle just as he entered the water. He swung the troll into the side of the boat, crunching several bones. The minotaur was not done; he pounded the troll three more times before tossing him into the water for the fish.
Bynn still had his hands full with two trolls poking and prodding at him. The trident seemed to be magical. Every time Bynn parried an attack, his sword would want to stick to the three-pronged spear. The elf had to concentrate and yank his blade away or risk being disarmed. This gave the other attacking troll a distinct advantage, and Bynn had to dodge the sword instead of parrying. Vaidon was in combat with a troll carrying a spear. She was having a hard time getting close enough to do any damage. Batoonsta was trying to make his way onto the boat, but was not as agile as the elves.
The troll’s confidence was bolstered when they realized that no more elves were joining the fight. Their joy was short-lived as the minotaur climbed onto the boat. Batoonsta nudged Vaidon out of the way as the troll jabbed his spear in their direction. The great bull-headed beast stopped the momentum of the spear with one hand, and then snapped it with his other forearm. The troll did not even have time to digest what had transpired for Vaidon’s blade sliced him from his right hip up to his left nipple.
Bynn was relieved as the last two trolls were killed by his lover and the minotaur. He was exhausted. The fight had taken all of his energy, and without help he would not have lasted much longer. “Thank. You.” He managed between heavy breaths. Bynn sheathed his swords and leaned on the rail.
“Are you alright?” Vaidon asked. She didn’t realize how draining it had been on Bynn to fight against the magic trident. Bynn just waved her concerns off and pointed at the weapon.
Batoonsta nodded and pointed at a case that was tucked away in a corner of the deck. Vaidon sheathed her sword on her back, knelt down and opened the case. She looked to her lover and smiled. Bynn took the non-verbal cue and made his way over.
Batoonsta nodded and smiled. A smiling minotaur was a sight that most Delphians never got to see.
Bynn picked a beautiful bow from the case and held it up. The elf could feel the magic course through his arms and into his chest. It seemed as if the bow were made for Bynn. Batoonsta was so proud of himself for leading the elves against the trolls. Now, with magic weapons in hand, it was time to search for truth of the blood monkey attacks. The minotaur looted the trolls and threw them into the water.
Zoe and the Outcasted
Zoe woke in her bed, covered in her favorite blanket. She had forgotten how much she had missed her missed her own things. The war had stolen the simple joys of life as well as taken her parents. Zoe remembered the gauntlets her father had left for her. She pulled her hands from under the folds of the blanket, but they were bare. Had it all been a dream?
“Your gloves are safe, Lady Zoe.” The gentle breeze-like voice stated.
Zoe smiled and scanned the room for the straw groundling who had sworn loyalty to her. “Where are you? I thought it had all been a dream. I am so glad it wasn’t.”
“I am afraid that it may be more like a nightmare, my lady.” Although the voice was the same, the figure that slipped from Zoe’s closet was nothing like the jolly little halfling creature that had presented itself earlier that day. The girl could not hide her shock. “I know. I know,” he put up his smaller, more humanoid hands in a submissive manner. “I can only take the form of a halfling for an hour or so a day.”
“My father’s gift to you, in exchange for your loyalty?”
The groundling nodded. He had two long arms which ended in sickles. They scraped the ground as he made his way to stand in front of Zoe. “My name is Chaff.” As he got closer, the girl could make out the almost demonic look of his face. “I am a simple harvester, or at least I was before your father found me.”
Chaff handed Zoe the gauntlets and a piece of rolled parchment. “What does it say?” the girl asked as she once again donned the gloves.
“I don’t know,” Chaff said ashamed of himself.
Zoe jumped off the bed and patted the groundling on the head. “We will fix that, in time.” She knelt beside Chaff and unrolled the parchment on the floorboard of her room. “It says that father wants me to seek out a mage. He wants one of these people to take me on as an apprentice.” Zoe pointed at the list of names. “Here it lists seven mages.”
“These are names?” Chaff tapped the list with his small hand. “Your father was teaching me how to write my own name before he…” the groundling cleared his throat, then quickly changed the subject. “What are the names?”
“All of these people are either dead or missing.”
Suddenly, a figure blocked the sunlight as it appeared in Zoe’s bedroom window. It was a small monkey, but it had large bat-like wings sprouting from its back. The beast gave a scream, and jumped down into the room. Chaff forced Zoe behind him, keeping himself between monkey and girl. The winged simian quickly moved its head from side to side, trying to get a look at the gauntlets.
It ventured too close to the groundling, however. Chaff cut the monkey into three pieces with his scythe hands. Zoe stifled a scream. There was so much more blood than she expected. Chaff turned to make sure that she was not harmed in any way. Once he determined that she was alright, he searched through the small bag which was slung around the monkey’s back.
“Trinkets,” Chaff stated as he closed the bag. “Former magic items that have lost their power. We can still sell them and get what we can.” Zoe had not moved since the attack. “Are you going to be alright?”
The girl nodded, but it was not convincing. “What was that? Why did it attack us?”
“It was a minion of Rainor. Your father warned me that this could happen.” Chaff walked through the house as he spoke. He was shoving clothes into a bag. “They were sent out during the war to steal magic items for Rainor. This little guy was just following orders.”
“But Rainor is dead!”
Chaff lacked Zoe’s certainty. “Still, orders from a dead man are still orders. They were never instructed to cease their searching, so they come.”
“Why now? The gauntlets have been here for years.”
“I kept their powers hidden. When you put them on, the magical energies called out to all of the minions.” Chaff grabbed Zoe’s hand. “We need to move. There will be more coming after you.” Zoe cringed. “It is alright; I will protect you.” The girl relaxed, but only a little. “Are there no mages left on that list? Anywhere that we go?”
“They are all dead,” Zoe said sadly. Chaff shook his head. “Wait,” Zoe said with excitement in her voice. “We can go and speak with Lanie of the Yellow Hand.”
“She will help us,” Zoe took the packed bag from Chaff. “I am certain of it.”
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