It’s been a couple weeks, so it’s high time for a new adventure!
The dim interior of the inn allows patrons a small bit of privacy. Like the dimness dampens sound, everyone talks in hushed tones and the music being strummed from the bard’s lute is soft, almost hypnotic.
You watch his fingers move across the strings from where you sit in the corner with your own fingers wrapped around the warm clay of a mug full of cider. No one speaks to you, which suits you just fine. You chose this inn for its quiet atmosphere, for its out of the way location and its delicious cider. The cider’s a weakness of yours but the innkeeper’s kind and lets you have it in exchange for odd chores around the place.
It’s been months since you’ve stopped in, however, and this time he simply nodded to you and set the mug on the table with a, “First one’s on me.”
Perhaps he sees the weariness in your eyes or maybe he can feel the disappointment eking from your pores. Either way, he hasn’t bothered your table since he gifted you the mug.
You sip the cider and savor its warm, spicy flavor as it washes down your throat.
“Cider’s soon gone,” says a deep voice. “And then you’ll have to face the day again.”
You look over to find a large man sitting in the chair across from you. He wasn’t there a second before. You didn’t hear the scrape of the chair or see him sit down. He’s just there.
He’s a weather worn figure but then, most in the inn are. It’s the heavy brows and the spark in his eyes that makes you lean back in your chair for that extra inch of distance.
“Not looking for company,” you tell him.
His eyes crinkle in mirth but it’s a knowing mirth. “Didn’t figure you were.”
A mug appears in his hand. The innkeeper didn’t set it there and moments before that hand sat flat against the rough grained wood of the table. But now steam rises from the clay and he raises it for a small sip.
“Ahhh,” he sighs. “It does lift the spirits, doesn’t it?” The mug thumps softly as he sets it back down. “I’ve got a job for you,” he says.
“Don’t want a job,” you say. You just finished a job. A job that set you up to take the fall for something you didn’t do. A job that left your name in the mud.
“Didn’t figure you did,” the man says. “But this job might fix things for you.”
“Fix things?” you ask.
“You were hired to transport the princess’ dowry across the boarder,” he ticks this off with a finger, “that transport was given a five man escort,” two fingers, “and was attacked in Mirrorland forest,” three fingers, “only one left alive was you,” four fingers, “so you take the fall as the inside man on the job. Am I about right?”
You sip from your mug.
“I’m right,” the man says. “Here’s the other side of the coin. I was hired to protect that dowry too.” At this, he extends his left hand across the table until the sleeve pulls away from his wrist. There, in faded blue and black ink, is etched the tattoo of the country wizards. “But my reporting instructions were wrong and I didn’t meet up with the transport before it was taken.” He pauses to pull his sleeve back down. “We were set up.”
You gesture at the mug in front of him. “So make the dowry reappear.”
He snorts. “I know these mugs exist right there in the back room of this inn. I know the cider’s in that pot over the hearth. Thus,” he gestures and a third steaming mug appears on the table, “I can move those items to this table.”
“You don’t know where the dowry was taken?” you guess.
He touches the side of his nose. “Just so.”
“What’s this got to do with me?”
“Wizard law allows me to produce,” he gestures at the mugs, “the dowry because I was hired to watch it. Nothing more, nothing less. I will do just that once you figure out where it’s being hidden.”
“Why me?” you ask again.
“No one will talk to a wizard.” It’s a flat statement. “And you have a vested interest in securing that dowry.”
“Last man I knew to deal with a wizard got turned into a toad,” you say.
He shrugs, “vested interest.”
“No toads,” you say. “No turning me into anything.”
He huffs, “fine. It’ll be a boring job.” He extends a hand to shake on it.
You hesitate and then shake with him, feeling his hand engulf your own and wondering if you just agreed to your own demise.
“I figure,” he says, “we can either investigate the woods where the transport was ambushed or question the King’s Captain who set up the transport. What’s your poison?”
Investigate the woods?
Question the Captain?
Set Up-Investigate the Woods
The sun plays in and out of the forest above onto the pathway as you walk. Compared to the evening you were ambushed, it’s a quite place, peaceful. Birds chirp and a squirrel chatters loudly as you get too close to his tree.
Beside you the wizard walks with surprisingly soft steps for his size. His large hands stay stuffed into the pockets of his robe and his eyes stay fixed on the road, on the sides of the path, and the forest surrounding you, like he’s just waiting for something to go awry.
In the inn he looked like a large man. Now, walking beside him in Mirrorland Forest, he’s a giant. Several times as you walk he ducks to avoid hanging branches from the trees. No wonder whoever took the dowry made sure he never even met up with it.
He introduced himself as Wizard Ezekiel. You wonder if calling him Zek would be an offense.
“The transport was ambushed just ahead,” you say and point up the road to a spot where several large boulders encroach on the path.
“What do you remember?” he asks in his rumbling deep voice.
“Shouts,” you answer. “I was the rear guard. When I heard the others shouting, I rushed to join them. Someone caught me there,” you point to an oak tree that overhangs the road, “from above. Dropped on top of me and, the next thing I knew, I was being woken by the King’s men who were sent to find the transport when it didn’t show up on time. Rather un-heroic moment for me.”
Wizard Ezekiel doesn’t respond to your last admission. He walks underneath the oak and stares up into its heavy branches.
“Piece of hair,” he holds out his hand.
“I need a piece of your hair.” He snaps his fingers. It startles the birds into silence for a moment.
You hesitate. “No toads,” you remind him.
He snorts and shakes the large hand he’s holding toward you. With a resigned sigh, you pull a strand of hair and give it over.
“This isn’t enough to turn you into an amphibian anyway,” he gives a devious half grin as he twirls the single strand between his fingers. Chuckling at your consternation, he turns away and places the hair onto his large palm. He holds it up toward the tree’s overhanging branches and gently blows the strand into the leaves.
Just like that, you’re looking at a hazy image of yourself running down the road. In the oak sits a cloaked figure. With the cloak and his absolute stillness, he blends almost perfectly into the leaves of the tree. It’s only his hazy outline and the fact you know he’s there that you spot him.
You and the wizard walk around until you can see the figure’s face.
“We know him,” you say in shock.
“Hmm,” Wizard Ezekiel agrees.
The innkeeper’s face is lined and focused but his usual friendly smile is not in evidence. Instead, he’s staring at your running figure with consternation and a kind of guilty realization.
“I think you’re alive because he knows you,” the wizard says. “I’m starting to think you were not supposed to live.”
“What’s that?” you point to a piece of paper sticking out of his breast pocket.
With gentle fingers, Wizard Ezekiel pulls the phantom paper free and unfolds it like it’s made from brittle bark.
“Contract.” He tilts the yellowed page for you to see. Orange stains pock mark the paper, making you think of the man’s cider.
“For the dowry—” you trail off as you read the rest, “and two other jobs.”
“One of which happens tonight when the princess leaves for her wedding,” Wizard Ezekiel points to the date.
The hazy memory image dissipates like smoke.
“This,” the wizard gestures at the tree where the image just stood, “is not enough to convince the King of the man’s guilt. He does not trust magic evidence. We need something more.”
“We could ambush the ambushers tonight?” you suggest.
“Or let the princess’ guards know about the ambush,” Wizard Ezekiel offers back.
You shake your head. “Both of us are under suspicion from the first job. The guards are not likely to trust us. We might be able to get the innkeeper to turn to our side if we confront him.”
Wizard Ezekiel shrugs. “You’re better with people. Which option do you fancy?”
Ambush the Ambushers?
Set Up-Ambush the Ambushers
Trees tower in dark columns as night falls and obscures the fine detail of their shapes. Above, a small sliver of a moon peeks through the canopy but it’s the mass of stars that appear with it that give you any real light. Their silvery cast turns the road to a light gray pocked with shadow.
Much earlier in the day you and Wizard Ezekiel picked out two locations in which to hide. Now, you’re hunkered in a deep gray cloak as you sit on the hard ground. You blend perfectly with the boulders to the right and left of your position.
Across the road sits the Wizard. Before night fell you could just pick out the rounded gray top of his head covered by his own cloak but now, even knowing his location, you can’t exactly say what’s him and what is the rock surrounding his position. He stays unnaturally still.
You keep half an eye on the road and half an eye on his general location. He set up several signals in which to communicate and, although they’re all sound signals, you strain to keep track of anything coming from his spot.
This diligence pays off when two cricket chirps pierce the stillness. There’s a pause and two more echo into the trees.
Two men spotted on the Wizard’s side of the road.
Movement catches your eye. It detaches from the trees and settles into the rocks to your right.
You blink and see another shape join the first. The darkness hides much of their outline but you blink again to be sure. Something else is making it hard to see. Then you feel a chill touch your exposed face and moisture beads against your skin.
You give two chirps, pause, and give two more to tell Wizard Ezekiel about the men on your side of the road.
He immediately responds with three chirps.
You’re stomach rolls with new apprehension. There’s a second wizard out there. That explains the fog that’s rolling in now in waves. Even with the dim light, which is dimmer now than before since you can’t see the stars, you can make out gusts of fog rolling around you.
The crunch of coach wheels on the hard packed road fills the eerie pea soup. By now it’s so thick you can’t make out the shapes of the men to your right but you can tell the coach is close.
You brought your sword but with the current weather, you don’t want to simply attack anything that moves.
Instead, you fall back onto the other plan you and the Wizard discussed.
“It’s an ambush! RUN!” Your shout breaks the quiet like shattering glass.
A muffled curse comes from your right, followed by the ringing of steel as it’s drawn from a sheath.
There’s the crack of reins and the whinny of horses and then the coach hurtles past your position.
All of this is drowned out by the sudden, blinding crack of lightening. You see it streak through the fog and crash against the road behind the sudden shadow outline of the coach. Then everything goes dark again. The outline of the lightening bolt is printed on your eyes and this almost makes you miss the approach of one of the ambushers.
At the last moment, you blink and catch movement to your right. Instinctively, you faint back and pull your own sword free. Your attacker’s footing on the rocks proves unstable as he overcommits and loses his balance. He cries out and in the next flash of lightening, you see him wind milling toward the ground.
He grunts as he falls.
You wait, ready for him to rise and attack again, but he doesn’t move.
“Sam?” someone hollers. “Sam, you there?”
“Sam is down,” you inform the person.
Another flash of lightening illuminates the scene. Two men now stand in the rocks with you, each with their own sword drawn.
Sam lays crumpled in the rocks with a welt swelling his temple.
There’s another flash immediately after the first. One of the men drops his sword and runs, fleeing up the road from the way the coach just came.
In the darkness that follows, you hear another sword clatter against the rocks and the pound of more running feet.
You could pursue and maybe capture them.
Across the road there’s a thud and a crack like a boulder hitting a tree. Lightening streaks through the fog and you can see the outline of the two wizards facing off. There’s no upper hand as far as you can tell.
You could help Wizard Ezekiel gain the upper hand.
Pursue the fleeing men?
Set Up-Help Ezekiel
Lightening strikes the road between you and the dueling wizards. In the brief moment of perfect brightness, Ezekiel’s tall form is outlined on the left with his hands upraised, creating a sort of shield around him. A moment later, you understand why he’s holding the shield.
The hair along your arms stands to attention and a buzzing pierces your ears. You jump from the rocks and land on the road just as a bolt of electricity shatters the boulders where you stood. Sharp splinters of stone ricochet off trees and rocks and hard packed dirt. Dozens of stings hit your skin.
A bubble, seconds too late, turns the chaos into a muffled mess around you. It stretches only a few feet in all directions with you at its exact center. Another lightening strike hits the top of the bubble directly above your head. The flash sizzles along the shield and dies in the hard dirt of the road.
A couple smaller flashes strike aimlessly into the nearby trees like the other wizard built up too much and realized he needed to discharge some before he lost control.
Those flashes reveal two things.
One, Wizard Ezekiel is only holding one shield. Perhaps he can’t control two at a time.
Two, the other wizard noticed Ezekiel is vulnerable and has turned to attack him.
“ZEK!” you shout a warning but can’t be sure in the storm if he hears you. You race for the other wizard and Zek’s bubble stays with you.
Bounding over a boulder, you land in the rocks where the attacker was standing. A sizzling tells you he’s near. You trust the bubble and the sound and charge towards that tell tale hiss.
Two blobs of faint light give a heads up that you’re slightly off and you correct your direction just as those two blobs turn into bright, hissing sphere’s of electricity. The wizard’s eyes widen as he sees you barreling toward him.
He tosses the two spheres he prepared for Ezekiel into your face. They hit Zek’s bubble and sizzle along the shield’s outline.
The timing is perfect. Just before the electricity dissipates into the ground, you reach the attacker with the outside edge of the bubble. It pops with a piercing zap that jolts the wizard off his feet. He flies backward and lands with a thud.
It’s like the gavel hitting the podium.
Just like that, the storm vanishes. Fog, lightening, sound and all, disappear. Your ears ring with the silence.
A rumbling laugh breaks it a moment later. Wizard Ezekiel ambles up beside you to stare at the downed wizard. His huge frame shakes as he continues to chuckle.
“Zek?” he asks.
You shrug. “Needed something short.”
He snorts another chuckle. “You charged a lightening wizard. Guess you earned the right to Zek.”
He lifts the now senseless lightening wizard over a shoulder and motions for you to walk with him.
You check for the other downed man, Sam, but he must have regained consciousness at some point and ran.
“What about the others?” you ask.
“They’re pawns,” Zek says. “This one’s the mind behind the attacks. Give him to the King and let the King settle out the rest.”
You sit at a rough wood table in an inn that Zek recommended. It’s a small establishment that doesn’t seem to balk at the presence of a large wizard.
Across the table sits Zek. His large hands are wrapped around a clay mug of strong tea.
“Going to pay for that?” you ask.
“Going to share?”
He grins and a second mug appears. You pull it toward you and sniff the contents.
“King arrested the innkeeper, the castle cook, and one of the stable hands last night,” Zek informs you. “The lightening wizard implicated them in his plans to kidnap the princess.”
“Why did he want the princess?” you ask.
Zek shrugs and takes a sip before answering. “No official statement,” he says. “My guess, they wanted to blackmail the King for some reason.”
“Hmm,” you grumble. It’s not a satisfying answer but it’s probably all you’ll ever know. You sip from the mug. “Gah!” You set it back down with a frown.
“Not cider,” you grumble.
“Not cider,” Zek agrees. With the innkeeper’s arrest, his cider is no longer available and not even Zek can make it appear.
You resign yourself to tea and take contentment in having your name cleared and gaining a wizard for a friend.
Thank you for joining this adventure. I look forward to seeing you next time.
Until then, many blessings,