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Friday, April 29, 2011

Will You Run... Or Will You Stand?

            The companions spent an uneasy night in their room at the Backhand Tavern.  The continuous rumble of thunder made sleep difficult, but not impossible.  It was decided that this day would be spent restocking supplies and maybe picking up some much needed gear for the trials that are sure to come.  Murook traded some diamonds he found within Fredregar’s laboratory for some gold and the four companions spent the day traversing the crowded streets of Highmoon that remained flooded with a worried mass of people staring up at the full, red moon still hanging overhead.
            As dusk settled over the town of Highmoon, the group of four friends again felt the weight of the events of the past five days.  They all wondered what happened to the town of Phlan after their escape.  Was the town destroyed, or did the city guard manage to fend off the cyclops?  Did more of the one eyed giants come through the portal and lay waste to the town?  They all found themselves considering the fact that they should have stayed and helped where they could, but each also knew that if they had stayed they all would be dead, or even worse.
            They thought of the red moon and the clouds that ringed it.  Was it connected to the orb and Thaelioth somehow, or a sign from the gods themselves of some other disaster on the horizon?  The thunder that had followed the red moon seemed less today than yesterday, but still it was difficult to have a conversation without shouting.
            “So what can we do now?”  Aelar said while they were walking back to the Backhand Tavern.  The four of them were all thinking the same thing, and in truth, none of them had an answer to the elf’s question.  What did they really know about anything that was going on around them?  Why did Thaelioth place this burden upon them?
            “This orb is a curse!”  Murook blurted out finally after a few moments of silence.  “I wish I had never laid eyes on this damned thing.”  After he finished his shoulders slumped and he seemed at that moment to be carrying a weight that was much too heavy even for the burly half orc bare.
            “What choice did we have?”  Archelios added.  “The sorceress apparently chose us to keep the orb safe.  Remember what she told us in her library.”  The drow sorcerer stated as he walked along with the others.
            “Magic orbs, dragons, cyclops ‘n evil cults makes no difference.  It only matters that we be doin’ the best we can with what we be given.”  Boucher said.  “I mean, you came to be at the Academy for the same reasons we all came to be there, right?  You be wantin’ to learn the ways of battle right?  Well, I’d say ya were taught well enough my big friend, and now it be time to put them lessons to good use.  We have a chance here to be makin’ a difference in what’s to come.”  Boucher finished his speech with a huff and a firm nod to accentuate his point.
            “Are you willing to die in service to a sorceress who’s motivations we know nothing about?”  Aelar asked Boucher directly.  “Can any of you tell me that Thaelioth’s motivations are just?  I certainly cannot say that, and I suspect that’s true of every one of us, including you my dwarf friend.”  He finished with a resigned sigh as he looked to Boucher.
            “Her motivations aren’t clear, I’ll admit, but you cannot deny that the things pursuing us are not the gold standard of righteousness either.”  Archelios quipped in a playfully sarcastic tone.
            “Gold standard or not, when will we get cornered by something we can’t escape and we can’t defeat?  Will we all die saying that we did it all for the greater good, or will we wonder if we were just pawns in some grand game played by powerful beings?  I know which one I’d be thinking.”  Murook’s last statement caught the others by surprise and caused them all to view their discussion in a different light.  They all thought of death every day since the attack on the Academy.  Before the attack, they were students in training for a life of adventure and excitement, not adventure and possible death.  Mortality rarely enters the minds of the young.  They all had done a bit of growing up in the last five days and now, knowing the foes that pursue them, death was on all of their minds.  Boucher seemed to be the most comfortable of the four facing death.  He was the only one of them that was dedicated to a chosen deity.  His faith in the afterlife that awaited him gave him comfort in the fact that, when he met his end, he would join Amanautor in his sunlit realm of peace and tranquility.
            “You may be right, my friend.  We may be just pawns to be manipulated by the powerful, but again I ask all of you, what choice do we have?”  Even the monotonous thunder did nothing to diminish Archelios’ question.  The question that none of them wanted to ponder.  The question that seemed to suggest that they were stuck, and there was no going back.
            “We could’ve left the orb in its hiding place at the Academy.”  Aelar put in tentatively.
            “Aye, we’d have been much better off if we had.”  Murook immediately chimed in.  If it were only that simple he thought.
            “Would ya’ve been better off?”  Boucher said as he moved to the front of the group as they kept a slow but steady pace back to the Backhand Tavern.  “It seems to me that ya’ve grown more in the last five days than ya did in three years at the Academy, all things considered.  What did ya plan to do when ya left the Academy, become a flippin’ farmer?”  Boucher said, as he threw his hands in the air clearly tiring of the current argument.
            Indeed Boucher’s last comments seemed to put an end to the debate.  Leaving the orb in its extra dimensional hiding spot, located within the Dalelands Defense Academy’s highest tower, would have been the safer route to take, but what adventurer ever takes the safer route?  The treasure, the new found wealth and the things they have seen may not have come to pass.  This was the life of an adventurer.  Dangerous and wonderful, deadly and exciting all rolled into one.  Chance was part of this life, the life that each of them wanted, or thought they wanted.  Sparring with your instructor wielding wooden weapons is not exactly the same as facing down a cyclopsian warrior that wants to smash you into a pile of goo. 
Murook found himself remembering one of Headmistress Myrnn Tyranna’s powerful lessons on the subject of living the life of an adventurer.  She had picked him out of the class to demonstrate the proper way to defend against a larger, stronger opponent.  Murook, being the only half orc and the largest student in the class by a good margin, was the obvious choice.  Although no one could ever consider the dark elf woman frail by any measure, Myrnn was at least one foot shorter than Murook and no more than half his weight, the ease at which she threw him to the ground was always surprising.
“No one said it would be easy, but nothing worth doing is ever easy.”  Myrnn smiled down at Murook as she extended her hand to help the half orc back to his feet.  “This world we live in is filled with danger.  Monsters of incredible power, hordes of goblins and powerful dragons lay waste to entire villages.”  Myrnn paused and looked him over for any sign of injury, seeing none besides the bruised ego; she turned back toward the other students and continued.  “For most people the choice is simple, run, hide or die.  But there are a few, the very few, that stand against the onslaught and hold the line against the evil that would devour the world.  The question you all must answer is… which one are you?  Will you run, or will you stand?”  Myrnn said with finality and then pronounced the lesson over for that day.  It was one of the most memorable lessons Murook learned in his time at the Academy.
The arrow that struck Boucher in the back of the left shoulder brought everyone back to reality quickly.  Boucher immediately grabbed at the protruding missile, while the new armor he had purchased earlier reacted to the attack by exuding an obscuring mist encompassing the area around the wounded dwarf offering him some defense from other arrows that might be targeted at him.  Archelios, always quick to react, spotted the archer on the roof of the baker’s shop that they had just walked passed.  He quickly enacted a flight spell on himself and Murook enabling them both to reach the roof quickly.  Murook felt the spell take hold of him and knew instinctively what to do.  Both he and Archelios were up on the roof in a flash to the great surprise of the two archers who were caught completely off guard by the sudden appearance of the large half orc and the lithe dark elf.
Aelar, seeing that Boucher was hidden in the mist and safe from further arrow attacks, quickly enacted his innate ability to change form.  He took the form of a winged stirge and followed Murook and Archelios to the roof.
The fading light of dusk settled over the street where Boucher was still struggling with the arrow lodged in his left shoulder.  He stood inside the veil of mist created by his magic armor, but the mist was disappearing quickly.  As it cleared, Boucher could make out the silhouettes of three figures that appeared further down the cobblestone street.  At first he thought that it must be the city guard coming to see what the commotion was about, but then the mist began to clear enough so that he could clearly see the wings that now unfolded from the back of the figure in the middle.  The winged figure immediately took to the air headed for the roof top behind him, and the other two were now running directly toward him.  Boucher turned quickly and ran to the door of the baker’s shop thinking it best to put something between him and the two armor clad attackers.  He shouted a quick warning to his friends on the roof top, but he doubted any of them heard it over the thunder that still rumbled in the skies overhead.
On the roof above the baker’s shop Murook, Aelar and Archelios were focused on the one remaining archer when the winged figure dropped down in front of Murook intercepting his attack that most likely would have split the human archer down the middle.  The figure’s wings were covered in dark blue, leathery skin.  The thing was easily as big as Murook and appeared completely hairless with long pointed ears and a mouth containing two sharp fangs.
“Vampire!”  Murook shouted loud enough for even Boucher to hear, who was by this time locking the door to the baker’s shop behind him.
Murook finished his warning and instantly flew into a series of attacks against the blue skinned, undead creature.  His new two handed, frost axe bit deeply into the creature’s flesh causing the thing  to howl in protest, but it did not seem to lose any fury as it came back at the half orc relentlessly.  Aelar switched his focus to the winged vampire.  Archelios finished off the human archer and then turned to help out the half orc.  The druid and the sorcerer blasted the vile creature with lightning, locusts and multicolored spheres of chaotic energy.  The three of them attacking together had the creature reeling and just when Murook raised his axe to finish the vile thing, the vampire became a cloud of insubstantial mist which rolled over the side of the roof down toward the front of the shop below.
Boucher slammed and locked the door to the bakery shop hoping to keep his two pursuers at bay for a few moments to give his friends time to reach him.  He turned immediately to see Lysandra, the shop’s owner and her dog, Henry peeking out from behind the counter that was set along the back wall of the small shop.  Boucher started toward Lysandra but stopped when Henry, a large wolfhound, began to growl menacingly at him.  At that moment the front door to the shop burst open and the two armor clad figures charged into the one room shop.  Boucher met them immediately to keep them from getting to Lysandra, who let out a terrified scream as the two entered the shop and surrounded the dwarf.  They each wielded a mace, and took turns attacking the dwarf knowing it would only be a matter of time until they found an opening in his defenses.  So focused on defense was Boucher that he did not notice the mist that flowed into the shop moving around his feet toward the back of the shop where Lysandra and Henry were hiding.
Murook jumped down from the roof and landed on the street right outside the front door of the shop.  Inside, through the smashed door, he could see Boucher smashing and cursing at the two attackers that flanked him.  He could also see the mist that was now reforming into the winged vampire at the rear of the shop.
Aelar and Archelios floated down to the street in front of the shop to rejoin the battle.  A lightning bolt from Aelar and a chaos missile from Archelios helped Boucher make short work of the two armored attackers.  The three of them now turned to the back of the shop to lend aid to Murook who was now reengaged with the blue skinned vampire.
The big half orc tried to keep the large, winged vampire away from Lysandra who cowered behind the small counter along the back wall, but the vile thing was fast.  The vampire furiously blocked and slapped away Murook’s attacks not wanting to feel the bit of the warrior’s nasty axe again, all the while maneuvering to get himself nearer to the defenseless woman.  It was working.  Murook’s axe was devastating, but it was also heavy and while he certainly had the strength to wield it properly, each swing overbalanced the half orc so that he was constantly shifting his feet to keep his balance.  The vampire was injured and needed to drain a victim to gain his strength back.  He saw his opening to the helpless woman and lunged for her only to meet Boucher’s mace followed closely by a powerful chaotic blast from Archelios.  The attacks had the vampire stunned and Aelar sent in a bolt of lightning that struck the undead creature in the side which set up Murook’s overhead swing perfectly.  The vampire was vanquished before it could turn to mist and escape.
Archelios went to the smashed door of the shop and searched the two dead bodies for any sign of who these brigands were, or who might have sent them.  He found his answer soon enough in the form of a bounty poster with crude drawings of Murook, Aelar and Boucher on it.  The poster offered a reward of ten thousand gold.
“The Cult of the Dragon offers ten thousand gold pieces?  That’s no small amount.  Every bounty hunter in the Dalelands and Cormyr will be after you three now!”  Archelios read from the poster as he held it in front of him for the others to see.
“Indeed, you will be added to the poster soon my friend.”  Aelar said with a resigned sigh.
Boucher helped Lysandra to her feet making sure the woman was uninjured.  Murook took care of the dead bodies and explained what happened to the city guard.  Being around this town for the last three or four years he knew most all the guards well and had no trouble convincing them that these were just bandits looking to rob poor Lysandra’s bakery shop.  The guardsmen thanked Murook and the others for standing up and vanquishing the thieves in the name of justice.
The companions went back to their comfortable room at the Backhand Tavern and settled in for some much needed rest before deciding what to do next.  With such a large bounty now hanging over them, it would be much more difficult to travel by normal means.  They would need to be more cautious than ever now.
Archelios noticed the constant thunder of the past three days was now considerably less than it had been earlier in the day.  He thought of what possible connection that the thunder or the red moon could have to Thaelioth, Traveler or this cult that now hunted them.  He decided after a few moments that he was much too tired to solve this puzzle right now.  It would wait until later.  A deep slumber soon overcame the drow sorcerer.


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