Trials of Tannen 01: The First Adventure

The Trials of Tannen 01: The First Adventure
By Light Clark

Synopsis: It was just a regular game night for Elizabeth, Claire, Mark, and Anthony until, suddenly, the lights went out. The next thing they knew, they were in another place, facing an annoying little boy. Strangely enough, the boy claimed to be a god, and that the only way for them to get home was to champion his cause by winning a grand contest. Like that, a very different game from the one they’d intended began.

Chapter 01 - Game Night

“Ugh … where is she?” Mark groaned as he drew his card for the turn. It wasn’t a particularly useful one, unfortunately, leaving him still far behind in the game. That fact only added to his current frustration. Tossing the card haphazardly onto the board, he grumbled out an angry, “Damn it.”

Across the table, Anthony chuckled under his breath. “You sound like one of my coworkers. He always stands there, looking over my shoulder, asking if I’m done yet. He doesn’t seem to get that some things take time.”

“I get that things take time, Ant!” Mark shot back. “That’s why we schedule these game nights in advance, so people have time to get their shit done and be ready. That way we can play, instead of sitting around twiddling our thumbs while we wait on people to get here.”

“Well, I’m playing something right now,” Anthony pointed out. “If you’re not, though, it would explain why you’re losing so badly.”

Sitting to her husband’s right, Claire giggled softly at the witticism. Doing so got her included in Mark’s follow up withering glare. Of course, the glare didn’t improve his position any, and Anthony’s next play was top notch, all but sealing the game for him.

“Fuck this game!” Mark huffed as his next draw revealed an even worse card than the last, getting him to toss his whole hand on the table in disgust. “You win!”

“Jeez … “ Anthony breathed in shock as he saw the awful hand Mark had tossed away. “How can you even be that unlucky?”

Mark shrugged. “God must hate me. It’s the only explanation. I mean, look at me.”

In spite of his being used as an example of someone unlucky in the looks department, Mark wasn’t a terrible looking guy. He was of middling height and a little on the husky side. That combined with a big nose, glasses, and a limp mop of dull brown hair meant he wasn’t a stud, but he was pretty average looking really.

The loving couple across from Mark weren’t really any better off. Anthony was a little shorter than Mark, but very thin. He too had glasses on and wore a beard to hide his weak chin. Of course, that just meant there was even more orange fuzz on his head. Meanwhile, his wife Claire was a short, plump, blonde girl with big rosy cheeks, crooked teeth, and beady eyes. Strangely, in spite of her eyes’ beadiness, she was the one member of the group that didn’t wear glasses.

“Here, maybe a cookie will cheer you up,” Claire offered, getting up to grab a plate of chocolate chip cookies that were sitting on the counter.

“Unless you put some magic potion in it, it’s not gonna make me any prettier,” Mark commented, though, it didn’t stop him from taking one of the cookies and chomping down on it.

“Nope just lots of sugar and butter,” Anthony replied. “It’s magically tasty, though.”

Still munching, Mark nodded before speaking with his mouth full, “Magically fattening, too, I’m sure.”

The sound of the doorbell interrupted any further banter, getting Claire to perk up. “That must be Liz,” she remarked as she started off to go get the door.

“Finally!” Mark exclaimed as he continued to consume his comforting, consolation cookie.

A few moments later, the final member of the group, Elizabeth Danvers, entered the kitchen. She was a middle school math teacher, and looked the part with a hawkish face and short, rail-thin body. Her brown hair was pulled back in an austere bun that worked with her glasses to really complete the bookish look.

“Sorry for being late. One of my kids’ moms called me to complain about his marks,” Elizabeth explained. “Apparently, it’s somehow my fault that he spends the entire class period playing with his phone rather than listening.”

“Well I’m inclined to agree with the mom, though, that’s mostly because YOU’RE LATE!” Mark declared angrily.

Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “Yeah, yeah, I’m not happy about it either, so keep whining and see what happens to your character.”

“You wouldn’t dare,” Mark retorted, narrowing his eyes at Elizabeth.

Grinning wickedly, Elizabeth shrugged. “The dice have a way of getting back at players that are mean to their game master.”

“Yeah … the ‘dice’,” Mark replied, adding air quotes with his fingers on that last word.

“Anyway …” Anthony cut in to put an end to the back and forth. “We’re glad you could make it Liz.”

“Me too,” Elizabeth responded. “I’ve been looking forward to this next scene all month.”

Mark let out a groan. “Ugh … that’s never good.”

Elizabeth shot a reproving glance at Mark. “You guys’ll enjoy it too, you little whiner.”

“Did you want to hang out for a bit first or get right into it?” Claire asked, before Mark could pick a fight over the new topic.

“Let’s just get right into it. I don’t want to run out of time,” Elizabeth answered. “Just give me a couple of minutes to set up.”

Anthony nodded. “Sure thing.”

“You need any help?” Mark asked.

“You just want to sneak a peek at what’s coming,” Elizabeth accused.

Mark frowned at the insult. “Hey! Don’t confuse my desire to hurry up with a desire to cheat. I’m not that kind of gamer!”

“Yeah, you’re just the kind that likes powers that feel like cheating,” Anthony joked, getting a laugh from the group.

Mark’s frown quickly turned into a threateningly glare. “Laugh it up while you can, funny man. Next level, I get an non-resistible spell that can turn you into a frog, then we’ll see who’s laughing.”

“Nice job proving my point, you idiot,” Anthony quipped, getting another round of laughs.

“Don’t worry, sweetie, if he turns you into a frog, I’ll just kiss you to turn you back,” Claire added, giving her husband a kiss. “That and cleave his stupid mage’s skull in half with my axe.”

Mark rolled his eyes. “Damned married couples, always ganging up on the single guy.”

Claire snorted. “Psh, marriage has nothing to do with it. I just can’t have you hurting my healer. I need him to save my butt after I charge in like an idiot.”

“A butt that I am happy to save,” Anthony assured his wife.

Chuckling, Elizabeth shook her head and started toward the dining room to set up on the table for the game. “Well, I’m gonna go set up. Try to get all the bickering out before the game please.”

“We’ll try, but there’s an awful lot of bicker in Mark,” Anthory told her. “Or is that bitter?”

That joke got a grouchy harrumph from Mark as he slouched into a pout in his chair. “Oh I see how it is … fine! I’ll take ya both on!”

“Yeah right,” Anthony remarked dismissively. “You always say that, but in the end you always remember that you need us to protect you while you cast your spells.”

“I’ll hire henchmen to protect me instead!” Mark retorted stubbornly.

“Yeah, like you could convince someone to work for you more than a week without them murdering you in your sleep,” Anthony shot back. “Hell, people would probably attack your character on sight if we weren’t around to clean up your messes!”

Scrunching his face up in anger, Mark fumed. “I’ll use magic to charm people then!”

“Charm spells don’t last forever,” Anthony noted.

“Fine then–” Mark started to argue.

Stepping back into the kitchen, Elizabeth interrupted the quarreling. “Hey, game’s ready. You want to keep tossing threats around or get to playing?”

Glancing between Anthony and the dining room, Mark gave that question serious consideration before finally say, “Play.”

With that, the fight ended and the group quickly filed into the dining room. Inside, there was a long rectangular table that was perfect for gaming. There were no distractions around, plenty of space, and it was a nice flat surface for rolling dice. Of course, with the four of them, they didn’t even use half the seats, with Elizabeth taking one end seat, Mark sitting to her right, and Claire and Anthony on her left.

“Now, then …” Elizabeth began once everyone was seated. “I believe we were right at the point where –”

“The lights went out,” a new, childish sounding voice finished for her.

Right in time with the proclamation, the lights cut out, plunging the room into total darkness. What followed was a single panicked moment in that darkness where everyone gasped or squealed in surprise, all while wondering what had just happened – and more important what was about to happen. Minds raced with ideas of serial killers and horror movie monsters that for some reason had chosen their little group for victims.

A moment later, a new trick happened within the gloom to toy with the group’s mind. The chairs they sat upon as well as the table in front of them vanished. Not a single person didn’t grunt or yelp as they flopped awkwardly onto the carpeted floor beneath them.

Before the friends even had time to react to the sudden loss of furniture, the room changed again. This time, it wasn’t darkness but a brilliant light that assailed the friends and illuminated the world around them. It was definitely not the lights turning back on, however. This radiance was far too bright, like the sun glaring down on a hot summer’s day without a cloud in sight to offer shade. To eyes used to the dim interior lights and the brief moments of darkness that had followed them, it was painfully blinding, forcing everyone to slam their eyes shut. Only after they had done that, could they crack them open to little slits to squint against the glare.

Slowly, eyes adjusted to the headache inducing brightness. The pain faded away in turn, allowing frazzled minds to start processing information again. The information that came to the four friends, however, served only to further confuse rather than elucidate.

The first and most obvious of things the group noticed was that they were no longer inside. That was easy to tell not just from the bright, hot light that beat down upon them, but from the fresh air tinged with the smell of wildflowers, as well as the course prickly mat of edges they could feel underneath them – clearly grass not carpet. Squinting eyes managed to make out a vast rolling grassland around them with what appeared to be a small, rustic town off in the distance. The friends might have continued to look around in curiosity, if not for other, more pressing, concerns reaching their minds.

“What the fuck!” Mark exclaimed, the first of the group to break the stunned silence of their confusion. However, the voice he exclaimed in was far from his usual slightly nasally tenor. Instead, it was decidedly high and breathy, edging on shrill in its panic. It made him sound more like some horror movie starlet than a man in his thirties.

The source of Mark’s panic was quite apparent as he stared down at his chest – well someone’s chest at least. It certainly wasn’t the one he was used to looking down at. The main reason for this was because this chest had a pair of a very expansive breasts sprouting from it which were quite snugly contained in a black and red dress with a neckline intent on showing them off.

Unable to believe they were real, Mark clutched at his new assets, with small delicate hands that were every bit as strange as the orbs they held. They weren’t the only oddities of his form either. Everywhere he looked, seemed to be nothing but the body of a slim, very well endowed girl.

In spite of Mark’s outburst, he received only cursory attention from the others, mostly because they had their own discoveries to deal with. Claire had one hand pressed to a decidedly flat looking tummy, something she’d never had, even when she was little. It was just one aspect of her now very athletic frame. At the same time, the other hand rubbed at the back of the first, feeling the softness of what appeared to be tawny fur growing from her skin.

Next to Claire, Anthony glanced rapidly between himself and his wife, unsure of which was more worthy of his attention. Part of this was that his own changes did not seem as extreme as Claire’s. Physically, he was obviously much broader and more muscular than he was used to, but otherwise not too strangely formed. He was a little more shocked, though, by the short sword he found belted at his waist and the strange, medieval looking clothes that he wore.

Rounding out the group was Elizabeth, taking the same approach as Mark of clutching at something that she wasn’t used to having attached to her. The major difference was that what Mark was clutching was hanging out there for everyone to see, while Elizabeth’s was not. Still, judging by her large, well-muscled, and obviously male physique, it was easy to guess what might lie between her legs that hadn’t before.

“My my, there’s no need for such language. They’re just teats,” the childish voice from before scolded Mark.

Hearing that sound got every person in the group to shift their focus from their bodies to the source of the voice. What greeted them when they looked up was the sight of a small boy of about seven with sandy blonde hair and bright green eyes. He had a warm reassuring smile on his face, that was made less reassuring by the fact that he floated a good two feet off the ground.

“What did you do to us, you psycho?!” Mark growled, or at least tried. The cute sound of his voice made it sound more like the petulant whine of a child or young teen than the threatening growl that he’d intended. As he spoke, he got himself awkwardly to his feet, wobbling unsteadily from the unfamiliar balance of his body.

“My my, you are really going to have to work on these outbursts of yours,” the boy chided. “They could get you into real trouble here.”

“Answer the question!” Anthony barked as he shoved himself up off the ground as well. His voice, which was low and gravelly not thin and whiny like his real voice, was much more suited to such an outburst than Mark’s was.

Also rising, Elizabeth gave the kid a wary look, before commenting in a rich, manly tone. “You two might not want to antagonize the person that could transform us like this and transport us to God knows where.”

“Ah, finally, the voice of a reason. I knew I picked you to be the leader for a reason,” the kid remarked. “Also, your choice of phrase is actually quite apt in regards to me.”

“You’re supposed to be God?” Mark asked incredulously as he peered dubiously at the small child.

“Well, not the, but a,” the kid answered. “My name is Lyren, and I am one of the twelve deities that watch over the land of Tannen.”

That declaration was met with looks of skepticism from the group, but they found it hard to argue with the claim when they could just look down to see proof of the kid’s power. That brought up the next question, which Mark helpfully voiced. “Alright, ‘Lyren, the god’, what do you want with us then?”

“Ah good, on to the task at hand already. You four are proving to be everything I hoped you’d be … a good choice indeed,” Lyren muttered, seeming to speak more to himself than the group. “You have been chosen as my champions in a little contest that the other gods and I are competing in.”

This announcement was met with even more skepticism than the child’s claim of being a deity. “Why us?” Anthony asked. “We’re nobodies.”

Lyren’s smile spread into a full on grin. “And that is why you are perfect. If you were special, we’d have to fight over who got which champions, but because you’re so thoroughly mundane there was no cause for quarrel. And to save on the question and answer time, we brought you here, because unlike denizens of Tannen, you are relatively blank slates with no investment in who we are or what goes on in this world. As for the transformation, that is an effort to create a level playing field. Think of your new selves like characters in one of your games. Each has strengths and weaknesses that are worth points and each god had a limited number of points to spend on their champions. I did my best to match your characters to your personal preferences.”

“These!” Mark spat, pointing at his chest. “Are not my preference – at least not when they’re attached to me! Turn me back into a guy!”

“Wait … you’re Mark?!” Claire gasped in a low, sensual voice that was as different from her usual high, chipper tone as everyone else’s new voices. As she did, she looked wide-eyed at first Mark and then Elizabeth. “Then you’re …”

“Liz,” Elizabeth answer solemnly.

At that revelation, Anthony snorted out a little laugh as he looked at Mark. “You really are unlucky, man.”

Clearing his throat, Lyren continued. “Ahem … now I could spend a lot of time explaining exactly why things are the way they are, but that’s what the handbook in Anthony’s pack is for. It has outlines of your characters, information on the world, and a guide to the various peoples and beasts that populate it. I’m sure, if you give it a good read, you’ll figure it all out. I will say that the first thirty days are a warmup period to acquaint yourself with the situation, but don’t rest on your laurels. There is a lot you can do during that time to gain an edge in the main event.”

“And why should we care about this main event after what you’ve done to us?” Mark demanded angrily.

“Well, if you manage to win, I will reward you by returning to your own world rather than leaving you stuck here,” Lyren explained. “Also, the contest does involve violence between the competitors, so doing poorly might result in an untimely end for you, and unlike in your games, if your character dies here, you die right along with it.” That got a gulp of dread from the group of friends. “Anyway, good luck.”

With that said, the boy just vanished without a trace, leaving the four friends alone on the grassy hillock. Still processing everything, they just stood there silently for a moment, staring at the spot the god had previously occupied. It was only after they’d taken that moment to recover from Lyrens declaration and subsequent disappearance, that someone finally spoke.

“Well, I guess we should start with this handbook thing,” Mark declared. “The sooner we learn about this place, the sooner we can win this contest and get back to our own bodies.”

“That’s a good idea – for you,” Anthony agreed, rolling a backpack off his shoulders so that he could look inside. It took him a moment of rummaging about before he finally pulled out a very thick, leather bound book. “Geez, this thing is huge.”

“It better be, considering it has to tell us everything about the game’s setting and rules,” Elizabeth remarked, treating this like some source book for a roleplaying game. “Let’s look up our characters first.”

Nodding, Anthony opened the book. As soon as the cover was open however, the pages start to flip by on their own, rolling by incredibly quickly. A moment later, they came to a stop with a page of words on one side and a picture of tall handsome man that appeared to be Elizabeth’s character on the other.

“Altanus Calidorn,” Anthony began. “Human lord of the town of Lyr. Seems to be some kind of noble warrior.”

“Great, now why don’t you look up why the hell I’ve got tits,” Mark cut in.

Uncertain if he should keep reading or comply with Mark’s demand, Anthony looked up at Elizabeth. The new lord of Lyr just waved him to go ahead, and Anthony turned a couple of pages until a picture of a short, busty, blonde girl was showing. “Terra. Some kind of elven mage. No explanation for her having boobs the size of her head.”

“Maybe it’s because she’s an elf?” Claire spoke up helpfully. “They could all be busty women or something.”

“Hmm, good point, sweetheart. Guess I should look up elves then,” Anthony agreed. As soon as the words left his mouth, the pages started to turn until a page marked ‘Elf’ in big block letters at the top appeared. “Elf, one of the demi-human races of Tannen, and the only one of which that has natural magical ability. Elves are predominantly female, with males making up less than two percent of the population. Female elves are much more capable with magic than their male counterparts.”

“There’s your explanation,” Elizabeth interrupted. “You like playing spellcasters, and female elves are probably the best at it of the available options.”

Mark looked down at his chest dubiously. “So I’m stuck with these because I like magic? Talk about having to pay a price for power ...”

“Too bad you aren’t a male elf,” Anthony remarked as he continued skimming the entry for elves in the book. “Not as good with magic, but apparently, their main purpose is to sex the females.”

“Seriously? Why couldn’t I be one of those?” Mark questioned, shaking his head in frustration. “Man, never lucky ...”

While Mark moped about his situation, Claire perked up, bouncing on her feet energetically. “Do me next!”

“Sure thing, sweetheart,” Anthony answered, getting the book to magically flip back to the character section. This time, it landed on a page with a picture of a tall, athletic catgirl. “Hmm, Adria. She’s a feelan, which I guess is the name of the race of catgirls. Looks like some kind of ranger or rogue.”

“Cool!” Claire chirped, clearly quite happy with her lot.

“And that makes me … “ Anthony continued, flipping the page to a stout looking fellow with black hair sporting white streaks and a broad, strong-featured face. “Elric Colture. I’m a kredger … whatever that is. Some kind of dwarf, maybe?”

Claire looked her husband over who was now a few inches shorter than her tall, lithe frame. “You don’t look short enough for a dwarf. I’m pretty sure I’m taller than I was before, and you’re only like three inches shorter than me.”

“According to this, I’m five-five. That’s kinda short,” Anthony noted. “Apparently, I’m also an alchemist, which I guess might be this world’s healer class. If so, it’s actually a pretty well-rounded party. That kid knows his stuff.”

“Don’t compliment him!” Mark spat, still sore over the character he’d ended up with. “We could’ve done better if we’d gotten to pick.”

Anthony shrugged. “Maybe. Who knows what the rules were, though, or how selfish one whiny brat would’ve be just so he didn’t have to play a girl.”

“Yeah like you’d wanna be stuck like this if that’s what it took to be a healer!” Mark spat furiously.

“Alright, enough!” Elizabeth interrupted. “No one is happy we got transformed against our will and conscripted into some death match. There’s no point in getting angry with each other over it. It’s that brat’s fault.”

Sighing, Mark nodded in understanding. “You’re right ... sorry.”

“Me too,” Anthony mumbled insincerely.

“Good, now, I think it would be best to treat this just like we would a game,” Elizabeth proposed. “We find out everything we can, we try our best,and we stay in character.”

“You want me to pretend to be this ... Terra girl?” Mark questioned uneasily.

Elizabeth nodded. “Yes, because if we go around calling you Mark, we have no idea what the people in this world will do. If it’s medieval, like our clothes and weapons might suggest, they probably don’t treat their mentally ill very well. So unless you want to be some asylum’s new sex toy, I suggest you stick to being Terra, because that’s who the world is going to see.”

“Oh … good point,” Mark conceded, shuddering at that scary possibility.

“Everyone else okay with that?” Elizabeth asked, getting nods from Anthony and Claire. “Good, now then … Elric was it?”

“Yes, my lord,” Anthony answered, falling into character.

Elizabeth smiled at his compliance. “Can you figure out if that town is the one I’m supposed to be lord of?”

Quickly, Anthony turned back to the book which promptly flipped to a new page. “Well, there’s no way to know for sure, but it matches the description in here for the town of Lyr in the kingdom of Metellan.”

“Good, then we should be able to find shelter there easily enough,” Elizabeth commented. “It doesn’t look too far, but it’s not gonna get closer until we start walking, so we might as well get moving. And remember, stay in character.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter 02 - Day 01

Huffing for breath, Terra trudged along through the various grasses and brush that covered the countryside that she and her friends had been dumped in. In the sky above, the yellow star that seemed so much like the Earth’s Sun beat down, hot and bright. She had no way to know if it was summer, or if this world even had seasons, but it sure was hot enough to be.

Swiping a stray lock of hair out of her face, Terra lifted her gaze to peer jealously forward at the rest of the group. In the front, looking every bit the regal lord that he apparently now was, Altanus rode atop a large warhorse. It, and the pack horse that trundled along behind it, had been tied off not far away from where the group had first appeared. Seemingly, both were the property of the handsome lord. He definitely was handsome, too, looking like he belonged on the cover of some cheesy romance novel. Tall and muscular, he sported strong, rugged features, and a thick shock of shoulder length, dark brown hair that was a near perfect match for his brooding eyes. All of that was attired just like one would expect of a medieval lordling with a fine leather doublet over a chain shirt, embroidered tunic, and sturdy trousers. Bouncing at his left hip was a long sword that was joined by a small dagger on the other side.

Following on foot behind Altanus was the sturdy Elric. He bore a slight resemblance to a badger with his stout frame, longish nose, and broad, but attractive, face. The most telling feature he had was the streaks of white that ran through his short black hair. That hair also spread to his ears, making them seem to be covered with black fur. Like the lord, he also wore fine medieval clothes and was well armed, sporting a matching chain shirt, a short sword, and a crossbow. On his belt were also several pouches and metal vials, both presumably filled with alchemical concoctions of some sort or another.

Next in line, Adria loped along gracefully, seeming to almost float across the land. She was quite pretty, in an exotic and decidedly feline sort of way. Short, tawny fur covered her body except for the top of her head, which had longer hair of a rich brown like a human or possibly like a lion’s mane. In addition to the fur, she also sported triangular cat ears on the top of her head, and a long, tawny tail with a tuft of brown hair at the end. She was more lightly dressed than the two men, wearing only a sturdy leather chest piece, trousers, bracers, and boots which were fairly snug on her lithe, toned figure. On her belt, twin hand axes rested in little loops, and in her hand, she held a spear that she was currently using like a walking stick.

Bringing up the rear of the group was the panting, pointy-eared Terra. It was quite obvious exactly why the elf was out of breath. Unlike the other members of the group, she was neither dressed nor built for hiking through the countryside. She wore a black and red dress that looked like it belonged on a can-can dancer complete with ruffles along the skirt that constantly snagged on random brush and debris. Part of that outfit included a rather uncomfortable bodice to restrain her chest while restricting her ability to take deep breaths. It did not however do anything to disguise her slim figure or the soft, exaggerated curves that it possessed. At least she had sturdy black boots on and not impractical, sexualized footwear of some kind. Furthering her troubles, she was also by far the shortest of the group, nearly half a foot shorter than Elric, forcing her to quicken her steps to keep up. All of that combined with her beautiful face, long platinum blonde hair, and soft blue eyes to make her look like a ditzy prostitute that had wandered out of her brothel and gotten lost in the prairie.

As Terra looked forward, Altanus glanced behind him to check on his three friends, like he had every handful of minutes since they’d started the journey to the town. Elric was engrossed in the handbook that he had been given, studying as best he could while he walked so that the group could benefit from its knowledge as quickly as possible. Behind him, Adria bounded along with a spring in her step, seeming to just enjoy the act of hiking through the country.

While the first two were clearly fine, a frown creased Altanus’s lips as he watched Terra struggling along in the rear. The elf had not complained since the march had begun, not even during the break that they’d taken not all that long ago, which Altanus took as a bad sign. To him, that meant that she was stubbornly trying to fight her situation, probably out of some machismo, without realizing the real problem. Mages were not physically oriented characters, and Terra was no exception to that norm, being small, weak, and clearly lacking in stamina. Such traits not usually an issue when playing games, because rules related to exhaustion were rarely enforced. Reality, however, presuming that this Tannen place was part of reality, always enforced the rules.

Deciding that he’d let this issue go on long enough, Altanus turned his horse around, walking it back to Terra. Seeing him double back, the other three came to a halt, looking at him curiously, but he ignored it. Instead, he just stopped next to Terra and offered the girl his hand. “Come on. We can’t have you collapsing. Ride with me the rest of the way.”

“What? No way,” Terra protested, even as she gasped for air. “I’m fine.”

“You can barely walk,” Altanus pointed out in perfect time with the elf swaying unsteadily.

“I’m. Fine,” Terra repeated icily.

Altanus rolled his eyes. “Oh stop it. You’re a mage. You’ve probably got like a single digit stamina stat. Just ride with me.”

“Oh? What happened to not breaking character?” Terra remarked acerbically.

Starting to get annoyed, Altanus was about to retort when Elric spoke up. “She may actually have a point.”

“Huh? What do you mean?” Altanus asked.

“Well, I was just reading through some of our bios, and well … Terra and I are actually your slaves,” Elric explained.

“What?! I am no one’s fucking slave!” Terra shrieked defiantly.

While not screaming, Altanus was not happy with the news either, frowning deeply. “Are you sure?”

Elric nodded. “Very sure, especially in Terra’s case. There’s no such thing as a free elf in this kingdom. They are all kept as pleasure slaves or rarely personal sorceresses. As for kredgers, they are very rarely freed for valor in military service, but my bio explicitly states that is not the case for me.”

“You have got to be kidding me …” Terra groaned.

Elric shook his head. “I’m afraid not, and having a slave ride with her master might cause problems.”

“See if the book knows for sure,” Altanus ordered before dismounting. “Until then, we’ll take a short rest here.”

“Yes, my lord,” Elric replied, preparing to search the book.

“Am I a slave too?” Adria inquired before Elric could get back to his reading.

Momentarily confused, Elric glanced up before shaking his head. “Oh … uhm … no. feelan slaves are supposedly rare, rarer than just about all the other demi-human races, and your bio didn’t mention anything about you being one.”

“That’s a relief,” Adria breathed, before catching herself. “I mean … it still sucks about you two, though.”

After that, the group fell into silence for a bit while Elric searched the book. He scanned quickly through a couple of pages before finally shaking his head. “There’s no section on proper slave etiquette.”

Altanus nodded. “Alright, Terra and I will ride together then. If people find it weird, we’ll just pretend she’s hurt or something. A slave owner wouldn’t want to abandon or permanently damage his property.”

“That’s great except for one thing ...” Terra began. “I still don’t want to ride with you!”

Exasperated by the elf’s stubbornness, Altanus rolled his eyes. “Look, I know you hate this situation, but you’re being ridiculous. If this was a game and I was telling you that your mage was taking damage because he was overexerting himself, what would you do? Would you ride the horse then, or would you just keep walking until your character collapsed and died?”

“... Ride,” Terra begrudgingly admitted.

“Then swallow your pride, and get up here,” Altanus ordered.

For a moment, Terra glared defiantly up at Altanus, but it didn’t last. Finally, she huffed, “Fine.”

“Good. Now, Elric, are there any other major facts like two of you being slaves that you’d like to share with the group?” Altanus asked.

Elric shook his head. “Nothing major like that, no.”

Nodding, Altanus turned to Adria. “How about you, Adria? Any problems that you’ve been hesitant to share?”

Adria shook her head as well. “No, although, I did find out I have retractable claws.” She demonstrated by holding up a fist and flexing muscles around her knuckles. From in between her non-thumb fingers, a trio of of claws about three inches inches long extended. “I thought that was pretty cool.”

“Duly noted, and yes, that is pretty cool. If that’s all, let’s get moving again,” Altanus replied, before turning to mount his horse again. Once he was up, he once again offered a hand to Terra who reluctantly took it. With that, he easily pulled the small elf up behind him. As soon as she was situated, the group started off again.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

The town of Lyr was not the quaint, little, idyllic village one would expect from upbeat movies, nor was it the muddy, rundown, slum town that was usually portrayed on the other end of the tone spectrum. Instead, it was somewhere in the middle of those two, showing the flaws of antiquated building techniques and limited maintenance. A single, bare, dirt street cut through the line of buildings, wide enough for two wagons to go abreast. Clustered along its sides were twin lines of small, thatch-roofed buildings sporting signs out front. The signs dangled over the stoop and had no words, just roughly drawn and weather worn pictures that indicated what service each place provided.

The people on the street were like the town itself, a little dirty and threadbare, but otherwise pretty typical peasant fare. There weren’t many of them milling about in the afternoon, but there were some. The ones that were out, certainly found the new arrivals in town quite interesting, pausing in whatever tasks they were about for to sneak glances and whisper rumors.

“It seems we’re drawing quite a bit of attention, my lord,” Elric noted quietly after walking up beside Altanus’s horse.

“So it would seem, but it doesn’t appear to be hostile or anything,” Altanus replied as he tipped his head in greeting to a pair of men in front of a nearby store. Immediately, the men bowed deeply in response.

“We do make for quite the crowd,” Adria spoke up from the other side of Altanus as she looked around curiously. “Everyone around here looks human, except us, and Altanus is the lord of the town.”

Letting out an annoyed sigh, Terra grumbled from where she rode behind Altanus, doing her best to stay on without having to rely on holding onto him. “I still don’t like it.”

“Neither do I, so let’s get through it quickly,” Altanus replied.

“Well, our best chance of getting out of prying eyes is your estate, my lord,” Elric commented. “If the map of Lyr in the book is right, just go straight until the town square and turn left.”

Nodding, Altanus led the way down the road. It wasn’t long before the group found the town square. It was a large open space with all manner of wagons and carts scattered about. Some were selling goods right out of them, while others were just loading or unloading. There were far more people milling about in the area too, but surprisingly that actually meant less attention for the friends as people were too distracted with everything else to waste much time on them.

In addition to the bustle, the town square had four roads that came off it, counting the one the group had just come down. Going straight seemed to lead to another row of shops and then out of town. It was the other two directions that were far more interesting.

To the right was a short road with what appeared to be houses on it. At the end of the road was a large open courtyard right in front of an equally large stone structure. The place looked much like a gothic cathedral with buttressed walls and a high steeple.

“That would be the temple of Lyren,” Elric provided helpfully, before turning to point the other way. “And that would be your estate.”

To the left was another short road, but it did not have houses on it. It had larger buildings along the side including an inn, a stable, and a large dormitory looking building that the friends guessed was a barracks. At the far end of the road was a low stone wall, a little taller than a man, with a squat looking gate in the middle. Beyond the wall, the second story of a graceful looking manor home could be seen, seeming out of place against the rest of the town with its more victorian style of architecture.

“Wow …” Adria breathed in marvel at the sight. “Nice house you got there.”

“Seems there are some perks to being a noble,” Altanus remarked before turning his mount toward the manor.

“This would probably be a good time to give you guys some information on current affairs from our character bios,” Elric spoke up as they continued on.

Adria perked up, ears little twitching, at the news. “Ooo, this should be fun.”

“Not really,” Elric replied solemnly. “Our bios mention that we are returning from a war with the orcs, a war which is considered a defeat for the humans of Metellan. Lord Altanus was presumed slain during the war when his company was eradicated, but with luck in the form of help from Adria, who was uninvolved in the war, he managed to escape that massacre.”

“Do I even want to know what I was doing during all of this?” Terra asked in disgust.

Elric smirked. “You were apparently won by Altanus in a game of cards on his way home which was followed by a duel to the death over the efficacy of that game. Meanwhile, I was his personal medic on the field, which he retrieved after returning to camp alive.”

Terra let out a groan. “Unbelievable …”

“If it makes you feel any better, you were apparently quite valuable,” Elric offered. “His lordship had to put up nearly his entire fortune against you.”

“That does not make feel better …” Terra sighed morosely.

“Anything else we should know?” Altanus asked, slowing his horse a bit in case more time was needed.

Elric shook his head. “No, at least not anything that I read. You’ll probably want to read your own section at some point, though, my lord. It’s much more involved than the rest of ours.”

“I will once we get settled in,” Altanus assured him, picking up the pace again.

Within just a few moments, the group came to a stop in front of the gate. The gate did not just immediately open for them, however, nor did anyone appear to be on duty. That left them to wonder how to get through.

“Try calling out to the guards?” Elric suggested helpfully.

With a shrug, Altanus called out like suggested. “Open the gates!”

At first, nothing seemed to happen, but a moment later, a pair of guards popped up from behind the wall to look down at the group. “Lord Altanus?!” the first guard gasped. “Is that really you?!”

“It is,” Altanus answered stiffly.

“Rumor had it you fell on the battlefield,” the second guard noted.

“I certainly would have if not for the aid of my feelan friend here,” Altanus told them. “She pulled me right from a dastardly ambush by those rotten orcs.”

“Sounds like quite the tale, m’lord,” the first guard commented.

Altanus nodded. “Indeed it is, but I am too weary from my journey to tell it right now. Open the gates, so I can finally get off this horse and rest.”

“Yes, m’lord,” the two guards answered in unison before disappearing once again. A few moment’s later, the huge wooden doors creaked as they swung inward. As soon as it was open, one of the guards positioned themselves at attention, while the other scurried off into the grounds beyond.

With the gate out of the way, Altanus kicked his mount to get it moving again, entering into the estate grounds. The estate, like the village itself, was not quite what one would expect. There were no grand waterworks or bushes shaped like rare animals. It was a simple open area with some nice landscaping in terms of flowers and shrubs. A cobbled path went from the gate to the front door of the manor, in front of which sat a small copper fountain that had long ago rusted to a bluish green hue.

“Well it’s not exactly Buckingham Palace, but I suppose this is pretty good,” Elric remarked once the group was well past the guard.

“Especially for a group of newbies,” Adria added.

“At the very least, we shouldn’t be hurting for funds and equipment,” Altanus agreed with his friends.

From the back of the horse, Terra just mumbled to herself, “I can’t believe he gets this place while I got won in a game of cards …”

As the group neared the main entrance, the door opened and out came a trio of stiff looking men. They all wore matching uniforms, but no weapons or armor, which seemed to imply that they were servants. The man in the lead of them was an older fellow, with a few gray hair spattered into his brown locks. In spite of his age, he was in good shape, looking like he could fight alongside the guards if it was needed.

“Lord Altanus!” the lead man greeted warmly when he saw the other man. “I am so glad to see you well. We had heard the worst.”

“That’s the thing about rumors, they’re always worse than the truth,” Altanus replied as he reined his horse to a stop. Once he had, he helped Terra off then dismounted as well. “As you can see, however, I am none-the-worse for wear.”

“Most fortuitous, my lord,” the man replied, bowing his head politely. “Benwald, take the lord’s horses to the stable, please.”

One of the two men bowed and stepped forward. Silently, he took the reins from Altanus, bowed again, then led the horses away. As he left, Altanus called after him. “Make sure to bring all my gear inside as well.”

“Of course, m’lord,” the man answered, turning to bow once again before hurrying off.

Hoping that the horses were properly taken care off, Altanus turned to the leader of the group of servants. “Now then, we are tired and hungry.”

“Of course, my lord. I’ll have some food and drink brought to your study for you and your guest,” the lead man agreed compliantly, before turning to the remaining man. “Herron, take his lordship’s new acquisitions to the overseer.”

Surprised by the order, the group just stood there stunned as Herron sketched a quick bow and stepped past Altanus toward Terra and Elric. Unfortunately, the first person to react was the blonde elf, glaring at the man threateningly. “You’re not taking me anywhere, ‘Herron’.”

Herron heard the command, but he clearly didn’t intend to follow it. Rather than stay back, he stepped forward and lashed out. His hand came around too fast for Terra to react. The next instant, the backhanded slap cracked against her cheek hard enough to not just twist her head to the side, but knock her clear off her feet.

While the friends might have been slow to react to everything leading up to that point, they didn’t remain so. Elric’s hand fell to his sword’s hilt as he stepped forward. He was beaten to the punch, though, by Adria’s spear which the feelan had thrust to within a couple inches of Herron’s face.

Of the three, it was Altanus that reacted most usefully, albeit slowly. Seeing the situation escalating quickly, he reached out and grabbed the Herron’s collar, yanking him away from his friends’ weapons. “What do you think you’re doing?!”

“I-I was just putting the halfling in her place, m’lord,” Herron stammered out, clearly confused.

“Idiot!” Altanus growled, shoving the man back toward the servant leader. “Do you have any idea what I had to risk to acquire her?! I ought to throw you in chains for this.”

“M-My apologies, m-mlord,” Herron stuttered. “I-I d-didn’t know.”

Spitting out a huff of frustration, Altanus spun from the man and walked over to kneel down next to Terra to quietly ask, “You alright?”

“I feel like half my face is broken,” Terra grumbled softly, rubbing at her cheek with one hand.

“If it was, you wouldn’t be talking about it,” Altanus teased in a whisper as he pulled Terra’s hand away to check her face. Nothing looked broken, just a little red and swollen, but he wouldn’t be surprised if she had a black eye or something later. With her injuries minor, he helped Terra to her feet then spun back to the servant. “Luckily for you, your foolishness doesn’t appear to have caused any lasting damage.”

Herron visibly sagged with relief. “That is wonderful news, m’lord.”

With that handled Altanus turned back to the lead man. “These two are very special. They are to be treated, fed, and housed like proper guests. Make sure the other servants are aware of this.”

The lead servant nodded immediately. “Yes, Lord Altanus. Will they be joining you and your guest in your study then?”

“They will be,” Altanus replied. “Also, make sure this man is properly punished for the damage he has done to my property.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter 03 - Day 01

“So that man ordering the other servants around was the steward?” Altanus asked, pointing at the entry in the book on his lap. “This Sir Kellan Grund guy?”

“I believe so,” Elric confirmed. “Unless the steward has changed since the book was given to us which seems unlikely.”

Nodding, Altanus leaned back in his seat to gather himself. After some pampering by the staff, he and his friends had finally been left alone again. This time, they were in a comfortable sitting room with plenty of plush furniture to relax on. Relaxing was exactly what the friends were currently doing while they tried to review the situation they’d found themselves in. Adria had curled up on a small sofa, enjoying the rich food and wine that the steward had brought for them. Elric had pulled up a chair near Altanus, so that they could go over the book together. Finally, off to the side, Terra hunched quietly in a chair, arms wrapped around herself with her gaze distant and on the floor.

Shaking his head, Altanus forced himself to focus on the game that he and his friends had been thrust into. “Alright, Elric. You’ve had some time to read. Can you give us an overview of system mechanics? What magic do we have, what healing potential, what kind of hits can we take, and anything else along those lines you can think of.”

“Well … that’s complicated. Healing wise, this world is a bit weak compared to what most games offer,” Elric informed the others. “There’s nothing like a priest class, not even for someone with natural magical ability like Terra, so it looks like we’re going to have to live without actual healing magic. The best we’ve got, in terms of a replacement, is alchemical healing potions, which in this world are applied to the wound, not drunk like in most games. The strong ones are pretty great, closing major wounds in seconds. They’re also expensive and difficult to make. The best I’ve got on me right now, though, will generally heal a similar wound in ten minutes or so, and I don’t have many of those. The weak stuff takes about a day to heal anything even remotely serious.”

“So we should avoid getting hurt,” Altanus concluded.

Elric nodded. “Definitely, especially since, from what I can tell, we should be pretty comparable in durability to what we were used to back on Earth. The book compares Tannen humans to Earth humans, specifically mentioning that they are very similar. Demi-humans are all supposedly offshoots of humanity, so I doubt even an abnormally tough race, such as what I am, is all that durable.”

“Oh so you’re tough?” Adria asked. “What about feelans, what are we?”

Furrowing his brow, Elric considered that question for a moment before responding with, ”You’re probably most similar to what elves are in the games we usually play. You’re supposedly graceful, woodland dwelling, and good at hunting.”

“If I’m an elf, then what’s an elf like Terra supposed to be?” Adria questioned.

“I don’t know, a nymph?” Elric joked, looking over Terra’s way expectantly. The elf girl didn’t react to the joke at all, though.

“Speaking of Terra, what’s her magic capable of?” Altanus inquired, getting the group back on topic.

Elric rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “If I had to describe it, she’s more like an elementalist than a classic wizard. From what I could find in the book, there aren’t really any complicated spell effects like disease clouds or enchantments. That stuff, when it’s even possible at all, is all done with alchemy. Her magic is mostly just stuff like summon rock, then hurl that rock. That said, from what I could guess from the descriptions about spells effects and our durability, I wouldn’t underestimate it. I’m pretty sure magic is very lethal. As for Terra herself, based on her profile, she is sort of a mixed bag in terms of capabilities. She’s only had limited training with here abilities, but supposedly, has great potential.”

“Training? Does that mean we are supposed to have access to the skills our characters have?” Altanus wondered.

“Yes, at least, when I messed around with my alchemical equipment a bit during the walk, I seemed to know what I was doing. It was sort of like I was picking up some skill that I hadn’t used in a while but still remembered,” Elric confirmed. “I suspect you’d feel the same way with a sword in your hand or if Adria tried to pick a lock.”

“Does that mean the little brat just inserted knowledge into our brains, because that’s kinda creepy …” Adria muttered uneasily.

“Well, it’s certainly more convenient than trying to figure out how to do all this stuff from scratch,” Elric pointed out rationally. “But, yeah, I don’t like the idea of some god using my head as a playground. Who knows what he did to us.”

Slumping in his chair, Altanus let out a sigh. “Probably a lot more than we’ll ever be able to figure out. Gods in stories are typically known for being manipulative but not usually honest or forthcoming. I doubt real ones are any better.”

“True, especially if those stories happen to be based on real gods, since apparently they can exist,” Elric remarked. “We should probably be at least a little leary of any information he gives us until we can confirm it first hand.”

“Well if his story about a contest is true, then we can probably trust any information that will help us win,” Altanus deduced. “Otherwise, he would only be hurting his own chances.”

“Assuming he both wants to win and there’s even a contest at all,” Elric pointed out. “The whole thing could just be some kind of elaborate prank.”

That elicited another sigh from Altanus. “Yep ...”

Filled with doubt, the group fell silent for a few moments before finally Adria broke it by asking, “Well … let’s assume it is true. What should we be doing to win?”

“Hmmm … Lyren mentioned a level playing field, so we should probably assume that there are other champions out there for the other gods with capabilities similar to our own,” Elric postulated. “However, that should only be true when we were all brought here. If we grind for experience, we might be able to gain an advantage by the time the actual contest starts.”

“You’re wrong,” Terra spoke up for the first time since entering the manor.

“What?! No, I’m not!” Elric protested defensively. “That’s exactly what we need to do to hone our skills.”

Letting out a dejected sigh, Terra just shrugged and muttered, “Whatever.”

Elric and Adria shared a concerned look, but it was Altanus that spoke up. “No. Tell us what you’re thinking.”

“As you wish, master,” Terra replied with false servility, getting a annoyed look from Altanus for her attitude. “There’s a difference between the world we’re in now and the games we play. There’s more to our characters than how good their dice rolls are. What they are matters. Look at what happened with the servants before. Altanus talks, and they rush to obey. I talk and ...” She paused to tap her fingers lightly on her sore cheek. “... wham.”

Altanus rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Hmm, you have a point. Presumably, this isn’t just some framework for an adventure. It’s an actual world with social structures, history, and no concern for whether or not we have a compelling story.”

“I guess that means we need to reevaluate what stats are worth then,” Elric noted. “As well as what even counts as a stat for that matter.”

“Well, we can’t evaluate anything until we have some understanding of our characters and the world,” Altanus stated. “We’ll need to take turns with the book. If no one objects, I’ll read tonight. Tomorrow, we’ll do some combat practice to get into the flow of things.”

Elric nodded. “That’s fine with me.”

“Sure. Getting to fight for real sounds fun,” Adria commented.

With Terra just remaining silent, that gave Altanus all the answers he needed. “Alright, then I’m going to go study. I’ll make sure the servants know not to bother you guys.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

With nothing but a couple of candles for light, Altanus leaned over the book that the group had been given as he carefully read every word. It was quite the tome, large, thick, and filled with useful pictures and detailed descriptions about practically everything. It was much like a source book for a roleplaying game, but without the kind of hard rules information that Altanus was used to having. It didn’t list hit points, but just described something as tough or frail. It didn’t give attack values, just described things as strong or weak. The gamer within Altanus found that lack of precision frustrating, but it was nonetheless an engrossing read.

“Interesting … no wonder my bio claimed I was nearly fifty when I look like I’m in my twenties,” Altanus muttered, having just read through the section on humans. Humans in Tannen were longer lived than their Earth counterparts, not showing significant signs of age until they were around a hundred. Not only was a prolonged youth a nice bonus, assuming he and the others were stuck there a while, but it also implied things about the society these humans had created.

The kingdom of Metellan was a more stagnant place than a similar country would be on Earth. Diseases were not as common as they were in medieval Europe, and long lives meant that advancement within society was slow. To offset this, the kingdom had lots of rules to allow those in power to be deposed, from duels and games of chance like the ones that had won Terra, to legalized forms of coups. This all created a shifting web of political alliances that Altanus suspected would be important in the upcoming contest.

“Terra was right. This game is definitely different from the ones we usually play,” Altanus mused, leaning back in his chair. “There is no sense of balance. It’s not meant to be fun or fair.”

The word fair stuck in Altanus’s mind. He’d already perused the group’s character sheets, but the more that he’d read, the more certain he’d become that their ‘stats’ were not evenly distributed like they would be in a game. It was quite clear that Terra and Elric, and possibly even Adria, had been short changed in order to create Altanus, assuming the theory that everything was a stat was true. Demi-humans were all but excluded from political advancement within the kingdom and would be treated with prejudice by most people. None of the three had any wealth or position to their name. Even when it came to skills, Altanus was loaded with a wide variety of capabilities, while the others, Terra especially, were more limited.

“No, they aren’t less capable … they’re focused,” Altanus corrected his assessment. Elric was built as a stalwart second, a bodyguard and medic to keep Altanus safe. Terra may only have beauty and magic going for her, but she had incredible talent in both areas. With Adria serving as a scout and assassin, it was clear that those three characters had been designed as tools for Altanus to use. Any stat that they didn’t need had been stripped away and dumped onto him to establish the position he had in the world. They were like pieces in chess, and just like in chess, if the king falls the game ends. The others would not be able to do much without Altanus.

Frowning, Altanus didn’t know whether to applaud Lyren for his creations or curse him. Certainly, specialization made sense. As a group, they were far more influential with one noble and three outcasts than they would be with all four of them being every day peasants. In terms of maximizing the value of the points, it made sense, but it neglected something important. One person was not playing all four characters – four were. Altanus had run enough games to know that imbalances like these were bound to cause strife amongst the group which would in turn hinder their ability to perform at their best. All Altanus could do was hope that he could keep it from spiralling into disaster.

As if cued to thoughts of disaster a faint knock sounded on the door to Altanus’s room before it opened to allow Kellan to step inside. “My apologies for disturbing you, my lord,” he announced before gesturing at someone behind him to enter. A moment later, Terra stepped inside, and Kellan quickly ducked back out into the hallway, closing the door behind him.

For a moment, the two friends just stared at each other silently before something seemed to click for Terra. The moment it did, she planted her face in her hand. “Oh no …”

“What’s wrong?” Altanus asked, worried that another incident with the servants had occurred. Rising from his seat, he approached the girl, looking her over for signs of new abuse.

“It’s nothing. I should have expected this,” Terra sighed, lifting her head to look Altanus in the eyes. Her own eyes were filled with defeat.

Confused, Altanus furrowed his brow. “Expected what?”

“I told the steward that I was ready for bed,” Terra began. “And where does a pleasure slave sleep?”

“In her master’s bed …” Altanus finished with a groan. “Don’t worry. I’ll sort this out, so you have your own room.”

“Don’t bother,” Terra huffed, walking over to flop onto the bed. Once she was there, she let out a sad, little sigh.

Hearing that sound caused Altanus to wince while he silently cursed Lyren for setting up the group’s characters the way that he had. “It’ll only take a moment …”

“And how many moments do you intend to spend getting everyone in the whole damn world to not treat me like your personal whore?” Terra questioned angrily, sitting up on the bed to peer at Altanus. The fight in her vanished almost as soon as it had appeared, leading to a soft sigh and slumped posture. “You shouldn’t waste your time on a slave girl.”

“You know, I’m never going to treat you like a slave,” Altanus assured her.

Terra nodded. “I know, or at least I hope so, but everyone not in our group will. You going to sort them all out?”

Whether he wanted to or not, Altanus knew the answer to that question was no. They would undoubtedly meet people in this world that were above even a lord like him. Even among those that weren’t, trying to force them to change would be met with resistance, or worse, backlash. It just wasn’t practical to try to stop their assumptions.

The silence from Altanus brought a wan smile to Terra’s face as she added, “You were right. We do need to stay in character, which means it looks like we’re sharing a bed. Try to keep your hands to yourself, though.”

Altanus chuckled at that last part. “That shouldn’t be a problem. You’re not exactly my type.”

“Yeah … it’s too bad we didn’t get each other’s characters,” Terra remarked as she reached behind her to fiddle with the bodice of her dress.

“Yeah, no … I think it’s better it worked out the way it did,” Altanus replied. “You probably wouldn’t have been able to resist taking advantage of having a cow-titted sex slave.”

“Hey!” Terra protested. “I’ll have you know that I’m a paragon of self control. Besides, I’m sure you wouldn’t have even wanted to turn me down if I was a hunk like Altanus.”

Altanus shrugged. “Hmm … maybe not.”

“See!” Terra exclaimed smugly right before a frown creased her face. That frown quickly turned in an exasperated huff. “Damn this thing! How are you supposed to get it off?!”

“Well, given the time period of this world, you’re probably supposed to get help. Here, let me,” Altanus offered, gesturing at Terra to turn.

Rolling her eyes, Terra turned around and swept her long blonde hair over one shoulder to get it out of the way. “What kind of person invents clothes that take more than one person to put on and take off.”

“Rich people who have servants to dress them,” Altanus explained as he figured out how the lacing on the bodice worked and started to undo it. Almost as soon as he got started, the bodice visibly loosened under the pressure from Terra’s chest.

As the bodice loosened, Terra let out a soft moan of relief. “Ahh, finally … I can breath again.”

“That would be another problem with clothes from this time period. They were designed for appearance, not comfort,” Altanus noted as he quickly undid the remaining laces. “There you go.”

“Thank you,” Terra breathed as she divested herself of the bodice and turned back around. Without the confining garment, the elf’s chest looked even larger than it had before. It also swayed gently with her movements in a way that proved to be quite alluring.

Suddenly realizing where his eyes were, Altanus jerked his gaze up to Terra’s. “You’re welcome. Let me know if you need help with the actual dress too.”

“Let’s see,” Terra responded as she reached behind her back, thrusting her chest out in the process. “Nope, this one’s much easier.”

“Good,” Altanus said, starting to turn to go back to his desk.

“Damn it!” Terra cursed. “How many layers of clothes am I wearing?!”

Hearing the outburst, Altanus turned back around to see Terra in nothing but a simple white chemise that pretty clearly had nothing else underneath it. The garment was little more than an old-style nightie, and no less appealing in its own way. “Ahem … I … uhm … I think that’s your last layer. You might want to use it as a nightgown.”

“Right … I guess I wear stuff like that now, huh,” Terra mumbled as she tossed the rest of her clothes aside and crawled onto the bed. “Anyway, enjoy your reading.”

“Thanks,” Altanus muttered, turning back to his book. His attention was focused on different problem at that moment, though, a problem that he had no experience having to deal with. He knew one thing about it though, and that was that apparently Terra was more his type, or at least Altanus’s type, than he’d originally thought. Silently cursing Lyren again, he tried very hard to focus on reading and not the beautiful elf in his bed.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

“The Calidorn family sure has a good wine cellar,” Elric commented as he finished gulping down what liquid was left in his goblet.

“No kidding. I’ve never tasted anything like this,” Adria agreed as she too finished off her current drink with a long swig. “I wonder if we can drink it all?”

“Well, we can sure as hell try!” Elric exclaimed, getting unsteadily up from his seat to grab the bottle and pour him and Adria another round. Once he had, he raised his drink in the air in a toast. “To crazy fantasy worlds and their equally crazy collections of wine!”

Adria raised her goblet as well. “Here here!”

After the toast, they both took a draught, glugging down the aged liquor like it was cheap grape juice. Once that was done, they both let out a sigh of delight. Elric even went so far as to plop down on the sofa next to Adria.

“It’s hard to believe we’re really in some crazy fantasy world,” Elric remarked after a moment of silence.

“Yeah, but I mean, look at us,” Adria replied, gesturing down at herself. “I’m skinny and covered in fur, and you’re all bulky and rugged and mmm …” Rather than try to find more words, she just trailed off into a purr as she reached over to rub Elric’s well-muscled shoulder.

“You look pretty mmm, yourself,” Elric returned the compliment, turning to face his wife. He even started to lean in for a kiss, but he pulled back before their lips could touch.

Frowning, Adria gave Elric a look of concern. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s just … I know it’s you in there, and you look … mmm, but … “ Elric trailed off into a growl. “Grr … it just doesn’t feel right. Like I’m cheating on you with you somehow. Not that that makes any damn sense.”

“Why? It’s not like this would be the first naughty roleplaying session in our marriage,” Adria pointed out. “Not the first time with characters we were playing in an otherwise serious game either.” She giggled softly. “Not even the first one that involved cat ears.”

Elric nodded in understanding. “I know, but this is in the flesh. These aren’t just characters we’re playing. We actually are these people. Maybe that’s part of the problem. Maybe that brat did something to us, changed us. How do we know we’re even still us?”

Adria could only shrug. “I guess we can’t. What I do know is that I still love you, even if you do sorta look like a grouchy, old badger.”

“I love you too, you ...” Elric replied, trailing off into a smile. “Well I can’t think of anything negative to say about how you look, so let’s go with sexy kitten.”

Adria giggled. “Ooo, I like that. This is certainly the first time I’ve ever had what it takes to look good in a catsuit.”

That joke got Elric joining in the mirth. “I don’t know about that. I think the real you would’ve looked pretty damn sexy in one.”

“Now you’re just trying to flatter me,” Adria chided. “It’s not necessary, though. I’m already in the mood. I’m just waiting here, hoping you get in the mood too …” As she spoke, she leaned up against Elric, wrapping her arms around his neck. “ ... desperately hoping.”

“Well, what kind of husband would I be if I didn’t save my wife from such desperate straits?” Elric asked facetiously.

“A terrible one, and we both know you aren’t that,” Adria answered. “So why don’t you do something about it, stud?”

“As the lady commands,” came Elric’s final reply before his lips met Adria’s. This time, there was no hesitation, no desire to pull back. The two just enjoyed the mix of something new and exciting yet loving and familiar.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter 04 - Day 02

Two unexpected sensations greeted Altanus when he woke. One was something warm and very soft pressed against him. The other was a stiffness between his legs that felt decidedly out of place. His eyes popped open at those sensations, showing him a richly decorated and unfamiliar looking room that was lit by sunlight from one uncovered window. Even as his eyes adjusted to the light, his mind finally started to catch up, reminding him of where he was, and the fact that he was actually a he at the moment. That explained the stiffness he was suffering, but not the soft warmth. For that, he had to look to his left.

Instead of being on the far edge of the bed like she’d been when he’d had gone to sleep, Terra had apparently rolled over next to Altanus sometime during the night. Now, she was curled up against him, her beautiful, peaceful face mere inches from his own. At the same time, her ample chest was pressed up against his arm, even going so far as to wedge that appendage partially between the hefty mounds. The stiffness approved of this situation, but Altanus most certainly did not.

Carefully, Altanus scooted away, carefully slipping out of the bed. Only then, did he reach out and gently shake her shoulder. “Hey. Terra.”

Sleepily, the blonde’s eyes fluttered open to try to focus on the source of the voice. When they finally did, they shot wide open as their owner jerked back a couple of inches. The moment of panic vanished quickly, though, as Terra rubbed at her face. “Damn. It wasn’t all just a dream, was it?”

“Afraid not,” Altanus told the elf, chuckling softly. “I just wanted to let you know that I’ll have them send someone up to help you dress.”

“Ugh … that’s right. I’m gonna have to wear that damn corset thing again,” Terra groaned, her morning utterly ruined within moments of waking.

“Probably. Even if we could find something else that fit you, it would likely still involve wearing one,” Altanus confirmed. “Also, it’s called a bodice actually.”

While still rubbing at her face sleepily, Terra waved her free hand dismissively. “Yeah, yeah, I got it. Just have them wake me when they get here.”

“Will do,” Altanus agreed, leaving the elf to get some more sleep. She had time to kill until she could get ready anyway.

Turning from the bed, Altanus started rummaging through the various chests and wardrobes in the room in search of clothes for himself. It wasn’t too hard to find a similar outfit to the one that he’d worn the day before. He pulled on his chain mail from the day before as well, figuring it would be useful for the combat practice that the friends had planned for that morning.

Once he was dressed, Altanus rubbed at his chin, at first absent then out of intense curiosity. As his fingers moved, there was the scratchy feeling and sound that came from beard stubble. It was a sensation he had felt before on others, but never on himself.

“I guess, I need to shave,” Altanus murmured to himself, not really too worried about it. It wasn’t like he wasn’t used to having to shave things. It just had never been his face before.

Walking over to his gear, Altanus searched through it for the shaving equipment that he vaguely remembered seeing in there when he’d looked through it the day before. With that in hand, he dragged a chair over to the small dressing table with a mirror on it. Plopping down in the chair, he prepared himself to try his hand at his first shave.

While tentative at first, Altanus quickly got into the flow of things. In fact, shaving his face seemed oddly easy, like he’d been doing it his whole life. That seemed to be proof of what Elric had said about the friends having inherited their characters’ skills.

After he’d finished his shave, Altanus gave a quick swipe of his chin to test how good of a job he’d done. It wasn’t as smooth as he was used to from men when he’d been Elizabeth, but it was more than passable. A little pleased by that fact, he smiled as he got up, grabbed the book from his desk, and left his bedroom in search of a servant to help Terra.

Out in the halls, it wasn’t too hard to find what he was looking for, a scullery maid who was about her morning chores. He sent her up to help Terra, but not before he got her to tell him where his other two friends were. When she told him that they had slept in the sitting room, he couldn’t help but shake his head. As he set off that way, he hoped the two hadn’t indulged too much the night before. There was work to be done that would be more difficult if half the group had hangovers.

In the sitting room, Altanus found Elric and Adria, snuggled up together on the floor underneath a blanket. He was thankful for the blanket at least, because it was quite clear that neither had anything on underneath it, since their clothes were scattered haphazardly around the room. Judging by the empty bottles of wine on one of the tables, there had been plenty of fun had by the couple the night before.

“Lucky little shits,” Altanus muttered jealously. Of course, the opportunity for a little karma was right before him. “Hey! Get up!”

The couple woke in unison. They also groaned in unison. They even rubbed at aching heads in unison. If it weren’t the standard reaction to a hangover, it might have been a touching show of how close they were.

“What the hell?” Elric grumbled as he tried to fight through the hangover to access his memories of the night before. “Oh … right …”

“Ugh … keep it down,” Adria whined from beside him.

Altanus chuckled at the couple’s discomfort. “Sorry, but keeping it down isn’t in the schedule today. We’ve got practice, remember?”

“Oh no … “ Adria moaned apprehensively.

“Li-err-I mean my lord. Last night, we–” Elric started to explained.

“I don’t want to know anymore than I already do about what you two did last night,” Altanus interrupted. “You’re both adults. What you two do together at night is none of my business. It’s day time now, though, and we’ve got work to do.”

That information got another groan from the couple. At the same time, though, Adria also nodded. “Alright alright, we’re getting up.”

“Good, I’m gonna go make sure there’s breakfast around here somewhere for us,” Altanus replied. “You guys get ready and come find me. After we eat, we’ll head out to the courtyard and run through what we can do.”

This time it was Elric’s turn to nod. “We got it. Now get going so I can start finding my pants.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

“You better go easy on me, sweetheart,” Elric pleaded as he squared off against his wife in the gardens behind the manor. In his hand, he held the short sword that had been belted at his waist all of the day before. “You’re supposed to be a lot better at this than I am.”

“Aw, but if I go easy on you, how will you learn?” Adria purred, adopting a rather lax pose with one hand axe resting on her shoulder and the other dangling loosely by her side.

“If you don’t, all I’ll learn is how good I am at making healing potions!” Elric replied. “Besides, We’re just supposed to get a feel for what we can do today, not trying to become the greatest swordsmen to ever live.”

Rolling her eyes, Adria just sighed. “Fine fine. I’ll try not to chop too many pieces off you.”

“That’s all I ask,” Elric accepted.

Without further preamble, Adria burst into motion. Her previously lax posture vanished as her axes came up in front of her and her feet drove her forward. As she came, she brought one axe around in an overhead chop, followed quickly by the other coming in from the side.

Surprised by the catwoman’s quickness, Elric barely got his sword up in time to intercept the first axe chop. Steel edges bit hard against each other, ringing out loudly in the morning air and causing Elric’s sturdy muscles to strain to push Adria back. He managed to accomplish that, but it took too much time. The other strike was already coming and he was out of position.

Just before Adria drove her axe blade into Elric’s side, she twisted her wrist, flipping the weapon around. Instead of cleaving flesh, the haft and back smacked in like a small hammer. It still hit with enough force to crumple Elric around the weapon and drop him to his knees.

“Gah … shit … “ Elric gasped breathlessly.

“Sorry!” Adria exclaimed, retracting her weapon and rushing to Elric’s side. “I didn’t think I could hit with that.”

Elric shook his head, fighting off the pain from the strike. As he did, he pressed his fingers against his side. Nothing felt broken and the pain was already starting to dim. It seemed his chain mail and padded shirt were enough to keep him safe. “It’s fine.”

“You’re okay?” Adria questioned uncertainly.

This time, Elric nodded, forcing himself back to his feet with a grunt. “Yeah, I seem to be. I’m definitely going to be sore later, though. You’re a lot stronger than you look.”

Grinning sheepishly, Adria rubbed at the fur on the back of one hand. “Yeah … I may have gotten a little carried away. You wouldn’t believe how good it feels to be able to move around like this.”

Elric had a pretty good idea. Normally scrawny and frail, he’d never been particularly athletic. Suddenly being strong and capable for a change felt good to him, and Adria’s change from a short, heavy, girl to what amounted to a agile, powerful amazon was even more significant than his own. “Yeah, it felt great right up until you beaned me in the kidney.”

“I said I was sorry!” Adria whined.

Elric chuckled at his wife. “Come on, let’s go again. I want to at least get through a few strikes without getting whacked.”

Adria grinned. “That’s sounds like a challenge.”

“Well it’s not!” Elric retorted. “I’m not your punching bag, damn it!”

“Well if you’re not, then you’d better fight back,” Adria shot back, right as she charged in for another go.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

“So are we going to fight like those two?” Terra remarked as she watched Adria and Elric clash for the second time. It wasn’t quite as lopsided as the first time, but Elric was still bested in just a few blows. “Because unless I can bludgeon you with my chest, I don’t seem to have any weapons.”

Altanus chuckled. “No, I’ll get some time in with Adria later to practice. For now, we need to work on you.”

Turning away from the fight, Terra looked up at Altanus in confusion. “Me?”

“Yep, you, because you are the one member of the group that has an ability with no analogous real world activity,” Altanus replied before pointing off into distance. Twenty feet away, in the middle of one of the paths in the garden sat a small clay pot. “And that pot is going to help.”

“So, magic practice then,” Terra surmised, eyes twinkling eagerly. “This should be fun.”

Altanus nodded in confirmation. “Yep, magic practice. Now, I read through everything in the book on magic, elves, and Terra in particular. Essentially, there are four basic elements fire, water, storm, and stone. Elve’s typically have an affinity for one element, which is all the magic they can use. You, however, are apparently quite gifted and have the ability to use all four. There is also a fifth, element, force, that all elves can use. That one is basically very rudimentary telekinesis, and it’s also what you’re going to use to break that pot.”

“Sounds simple enough, so how do I start blasting things?” Terra responded, flexing her fingers in anticipation.

“That’s the tricky part. Everything I read about it seemed to imply that magic use should be intuitive,” Altanus explained. “You should be able to feel some sort of connection to the elements in the world and be able to bring them forth. My best guess is close your eyes and try to concentrate.”

Looking dubious, Terra nodded and closed her eyes. Trying to be meditative about it, she slowed her breathing, taking the deepest breaths her constricting clothes would allow. At first, all she could think about was her current body, the awkward feeling of its shape, the heaviness of its curves, the hair tickling the back of her neck. Then, something different tweaked her thoughts, causing her head to twitch slightly. It was deep within her, hidden under all the other distractions, but it was definitely there.

“I’ve got this,” Terra declared as she opened her eyes. The next moment, her hand lifted up, one finger extended to sketch a quick swirl through the air. As it moved, her finger left behind a trail of golden light, like the tail of a comment. At the same time, the tingle of power building spread through her, causing her eyes to glow softly. The next moment, the swirl was over and she thrust out her hand with her palm out and her fingers spread. Golden light coalesced into a small ball a couple of inches in diameter in front of her palm and shot outward with blinding speed, racing toward the pot.

The orb missed. It zipped passed the pot a couple of inches to the left and sped right on by. A moment later, the orb’s downward angle carried it into the path where it cracked into the dirt, kicking up a small dust cloud in its wake.

“Damn it!” Terra cursed, glaring at the missed pot.

Next to the elf, Altanus was just staring at where the orb had struck the ground with a look of surprise on his face. Seeing magic, real magic, was stunning even when he had every reason to believe it was coming. “Wow …”

“I’m goin’ again,” Terra muttered, starting another swirl. Once again the tingle built within her and her eyes started to glow right before her palm thrust out.

Another orb sprang into being and lept outward. This one cut through the air to the right of the pot, before burying itself in the path as well. Just like the other orb, it kicked up a small cloud of dust as it crashed in.

“Damn it!” Terra cursed again, stamping her foot in frustration at her miss. Immediately, she started yet another swirl.

Lashing out, Altanus grabbed Terra’s hand and forced her to stop. “Wait.”

Feeling the building power fade away, Terra turned to glare at Altanus. “Why’d you stop me?”

“I want to see what these orbs are doing to the path,” Altanus explained.

“Oh … good idea,” Terra mumbled, her fervor for hitting the pot dimming.

Instead of throwing more orbs, the two just stood there waiting for the cloud of dust to clear away. It took a few seconds, but when it finally did two gouges could be seen dug into the dirt of the path. They were quite deep, looking like someone had ripped short lines into the path with a pickaxe.

“You need to work on your aim,” Altanus stated while thinking of what a similar impact would do to a person. He doubted it would be pretty. “Make sure you don’t hit anyything you don’t want to hit.”

Surprised by how much force the little balls possessed, Terra nodded. “Yeah … that would be bad.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Falling back a step, Altanus tilted his sword down while shifting his hands up. The move put the blade in the perfect position to catch the axe chop aimed at his shoulder. It did not however, put him in a good position to block the follow up swing from Adria’s offhand, forcing him to improvise.

Rather than try futilely to bring his sword around, Altanus stepped forward and thrust his hands ahead, driving the pommel of his sword right at Adria’s face. Forced to abandon her swing, Adria faded down and back to her right, keeping her nose from getting smashed. Even as she fell back, though, she crouched down into a tight coil, ready to spring forward on offense again.

“My lord,” Kellan’s voice cut into the sparring match.

Falling back a step, Altanus put a hand up to signal a halt to the sparring match. “What is it, steward?”

“My apologies for interrupting your match, my lord, but there is a disturbance at the gate,” Kellan explained. “I had the guards make some rabble leave until you are hearing pleas, but they just returned with more people, demanding to speak with you.”

Frowning, Altanus silently cursed feudalism’s disregard for peasants. “Do you know what they want?”

“Who knows with them, lower taxes, more food. It’s always something,” Kellan replied dismissively.

Altanus clenched his jaw. “Well, I’d better go deal with them, then. Next time, find out what people want before you just send them away.”

Kellan bows his head politely. “Of course, my lord.”

“I’ll be back as soon as I can be, Adria. Try not to kill Elric while I’m gone,” Altanus told his sparring partner before starting off toward the gate.

“No promises!” Adria called after him. A few moment’s later, the clang of steel could be heard as the married couple picked up where Altanus had left off.

Leaving his friends to their practice, Altanus marched across the grounds with Kellan following at his heels. Before he even got close to the gate, he could already hear the yelling and bustle of people coming from the other side. From that, he knew that there had to be quite the crowd over there.

“Open the gate!” Altanus ordered once he was near.

“But, my lord … the mob …” one of the guards protested.

“Will get to speak their piece directly to me rather than listen to me proclaim my will while I hide behind a wall like a coward,” Altanus answered. “Now, open it.”

Immediately, the guards moved to obey. Within moments, the gate was unbolted and pulled wide. On the other side, was what could best be described as an unruly mob, filled with men carrying farming implements like weapons. Their unruliness died down, though, when the gates opened and Altanus stepped forward. Instead, they looked stunned, as several bowed their heads to their lord.

“Greetings, my people. You have my apologies for being turned away when you had urgent business with me, but I am here to listen to you now,” Altanus declared. “Could someone that speaks for you step forward to air your concerns?”

The members of the mob glanced around at each other uncertainly, but one did eventually step forward and bowed. He looked young, but Altanus knew that didn’t really mean much in this world. He could be quite a bit older than the lord without looking it.

“What’s your name?” Altanus asked.

“Kerrod, m’lord,” the man answered, still bowing low.

Altanus nodded. “Then raise your head, Kerrod, and explain to me why there is a mob at my gates.”

“W-Well, m-m’lord,” Kerrod began uncertainly, his tone respectful. “We have come because of The Painted Hand.”

“The Painted Hand?” Altanus repeated the phrase, trying to remember if he’d read anything about such a thing in the handbook. Nothing sprang to mind.

“It is a bandit group, my lord,” Kellan offered helpfully. “They’ve been plaguing the region for much of the war.”

That explanation cleared things up quite well for Altanus. With lords like Altanus going to war, and taking many people of fighting age with them, the area would be easy pickings for a group of bandits. The greedy seldom let such opportunities pass by untaken, no matter how much trouble it caused.

“I understand your plea, and it will not go unanswered. Give me some time to gather myself after my journey and I will deal with this Painted Hand, personally,” Altanus declared to the peasants, before addressing Kerrod once more. “Is that all, good man?”

“Uhm … y-yes, my lord,” Kerrod stammered out with a stunned look on his face.

“Good, then return to your work and your families, so that I may get started on this problem,” Altanus directed, waving the mob away.

At the command, the crowd began to disperse, albeit it uncertainly. Most of the people walked off in a dazed silence, while others murmured amongst themselves about what had happened. There didn’t seem to be any signs of the previous anger, however, so Altanus considered it an acceptable conclusion.

With the crowd dealt with, Altanus turned to Kellan. “We must not let bandits think they can do as they please on my lands. Gather all the information you can find on this Painted Hand, where they operate, their methods, estimates on numbers, anything that might be relevant to dealing with them. Have it all ready for me in my sitting room when I finish sparring.”

Kellan bowed graciously. “Yes, my lord.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

“A group of bandits attacking the townsfolk?” Elric questioned as he looked over the maps and other documents that Kellan had gathered for Altanus.

The lord nodded. “Indeed. They seem to operate all over the area, extorting money from farmers and attacking merchants on the road. We need to stop them.”

“It’s our first quest!” Adria exclaimed, excited by the prospect of a real adventure.

“Yes, in a manner of speaking anyway,” Altanus confirmed.

Skeptical, Elric glanced toward Terra who had snuggled into a chair and fallen asleep within moments of plopping down. Apparently using magic was rather strenuous, which meant that her practice had left her pretty exhausted by the time the friends had come inside. “Are you sure we’re ready for this?”

“No, but I'll never be sure we’re ready for anything,” Altanus admitted. “The reports on their numbers don’t seem excessive, they are hindering our power base with their actions, and we need some real combat to test us. The results of our practice today were good, so I think this is a good place to start.”

The day’s practice had gone quite well as far as the group could tell. They had been able to confirm their access to all of their characters various skills. Adria and Altanus were both quite good in combat, good enough to quickly defeat Elric, who, through testing, they had discovered was about as good at fighting as any of the guards were. They had ranged combat abilities too, with Altanus having skill with a bow, Adria being able to throw both spear and axe, Elric handling a cross, and Terra proving that she could blast a hole through a plate chest piece with ease – if she managed to land a direct hit and not just wing it anyway. Even outside of combat, they’d tested things, like Adria’s stealth and lockpicking skills as well as Elric’s ability to make and use potions. Everything had seemed solid.

Still skeptical, Elric rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Practicing in a garden is not real battle, though. We’ll want to keep the first engagement small at the very least; pick off a stray group or something.”

“Definitely,” Altanus agreed. “We’ll want to spend tomorrow working on some group tactics too, so that we can integrate you and Terra’s abilities properly with our frontline combat. Otherwise, we’ll risk getting caught in spells and potions aimed at our enemies.”

Cringing at that idea, Adria clutched a hand to her stomach. “Yeah, I definitely don’t want to be anywhere near Terra’s line of fire when she starts blasting. I don’t need any more holes in me.”

“We’ll probably need a protection scheme for her too, since she can’t fight and has no armor,” Elric pointed out, before tilting his head slightly in realization. “In fact, it might be easier to just leave her here.”

Frustrated at having this issue already coming up, Altanus shook his head. “No. Terra is no different than having a low level mage in a party. We need to cover for her while she learns.”

“It would hardly be the first time we’ve had to carry one of her characters out of the first few levels,” Adria commented helpfully.

Elric nodded. “Alright, I can stay back with her, use my crossbow and potions, and intercept anyone that gets past you two.”

“Thanks, Elric,” Altanus told the kredger.

Elric shrugged. “No worries. It’s bad practice to have the healer on the front line anyway. Just don’t let too many people slip by.”

“Oh, I won’t,” Adria purred menacingly, eyes sparkling at the promise of battle.

With planning for the next day handled, Altanus rose from his seat. “Alright, since Terra’s already asleep, that means it your turn with the book Adria, so try to actual read instead of having another drunken … whatever again tonight.”

Adria pouted at the order. “Fine … I guess I can live without for a night.”

“Thanks,” Altanus told the feelan as he gently shook Terra’s shoulder. Rather than wake up, she just snuggled deeper into the cushions of her seat. Sighing, he bent down to scoop her up, intending to carry her to bed. As he did, he marveled at how light the blonde actually was, even with how strong he knew that he was now. She felt so small and soft, too, curled up against him in his arms. Just as that thought crossed his mind, the problem from that morning sprang up again, getting him to wince. The elf girl sure was trouble.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter 05 - Day 03

“So how’d you like the book?” Elric asked as he stabbed a fork at his plate to retrieve his first mouthful of breakfast.

Already chewing, Adria only shrugged until she managed to swallow. “I don’t know. The world seems interesting enough, but I just couldn’t really get into it.”

“Really? You usually like going through the source books for games,” Elric noted.

“I know, and I tried, but I just couldn’t stay focused,” Adria replied, looking down at her hands. “I guess, it’s because, normally, I’m trying to get myself into the world by reading about it, but this time we’re already completely in it, so I want to go live it rather than just read about it.”

“Makes sense,” Elric told the feelan. “Hopefully, you at least got through the bits about your character and your race.”

Adria nodded. “Yep, sure did. Gotta say, this character is amazing. I’m not sure I could’ve made her better if I’d gotten to pick for myself.”

“Well at least one of us is happy with how they ended up,” Elric replied.

Tilting her head, Adria gave the kredger a worried look. “You don’t like Elric? I would have thought that he was good fit for you.”

Elric shrugged. “He’s fine, I suppose. I like the alchemy, but not his race. I’ve never liked dwarf races, plus there’s the whole slave thing to worry about.”

“Yeah … that part sucks,” Adria agreed. “Maybe we can get Altanus to give you to me. I mean, you were basically my slave in the real world anyway.”

Elric laughed. “I prefered the term ‘husband’.”

That response got a dismissive hand wave from Adria. “Same thing.”

“Speaking of slaves …” Elric changed the subject as Terra made her way into the dining room. “If it isn’t our little sleeping beauty, napping the morning away.”

Tossing a glare Elric’s way, Terra flopped into one of the seats at the table. “I wasn’t napping. It takes like fifteen minutes just to cram me into this stupid dress and then even more time to brush out my hair, which the serving girl insists that I have to do every day.”

“Well of course. Otherwise, hair that long would be nothing but a mess of tangles in no time,” Elric pointed out. “Besides, isn’t looking your best sort of your thing? I mean it’s not like you can hit anything with those spells of yours.”

Letting out a weary sigh, Terra ignored the teasing and reached out for some food. As she plopped some green salad thing onto her plate, she gave it a disgusted look. “Who the hell eats lettuce for breakfast anyway?”

“Oh, that’s not lettuce,” Elric noted, grinning mischievously.

Peering down at the green leafy vegetable on her plate, Terra furrowed her brow. “What are you talking about? Sure it is.”

Elric shook his head. “Nope. That’s actually fur.”

“You’re joking!” Terra retorted, pulling back from the plate just a bit. “... right?”

“Afraid not. It grows on these sheep-like creatures that look like walking cabbages,” Elric explained. “I read about it in the book. They’re not the only weird thing we’ve eaten either.”

“Well … at least it tastes like lettuce,” Terra tried to reassure herself as she tentatively forked a bite. Still, she chewed that bite very slowly before finally forcing herself to swallow.

While Terra fought to hold her food down, Adria picked up one of the leaves to peer at it in curiosity. “Huh … are there any of these walking cabbages around here? I wanna see one.”

“I assume so. It doesn’t stay fresh that long and it’s not like there’s a fridge,” Elric replied.

“Actually, there is,” Altanus cut in as he entered the room. “Well … an icebox really. In this heat, though, the only way to get ice is with water magic. It’s one of the things elf slaves are sometimes used for. However, from what I understand, it’s a fairly advanced spell.”

“So Terra can’t do it, then. Damn,” Elric cursed in annoyance.

The elf winced at the insulting dismissal of her capabilities. She didn’t say anything, though. Instead, she just stuffed another mouthful of fur-lettuce into her mouth and chomped loudly on it.

“Not yet, but she will be able to eventually,” Altanus admitted. “I think there’s also a alchemical potion that makes cold too, isn’t there?”

Elric nodded. “There is, but the ingredients are rather rare and expensive. It’s not practical for everyday use.”

“You know, with all this talk of magic, I’ve been wondering. Are there magic items?” Adria asked.

“Yes,” Elric answered. “Well there are alchemical processes to strengthen weapons, and even imbue certain properties into them. In my recipe book, there’s a recipe for making a flaming weapon … problem is you need dragon blood for it.”

“There are dragons here?” Adria questioned.

Elric nodded. “Sure are, and they’re pretty similar to what you’d expect from one of our games, except, unlike in those games, we can’t survive getting clawed by something ten times our size.”

“Yikes,” Adria hissed, wincing at the idea.

“Well, luckily, we’re not trying to fight one of those,” Altanus remarked. “What we are trying to fight, though, are bandits, so hurry up and eat so we can get moving.”

“We’re ready whenever Terra is,” Elric answered.

Immediately after that was said, Terra pushed her still mostly full plate away and stood up. “I’m ready to go, too.”

“Great. I’ve already got the horses saddled,” Altanus responded. “Get your gear and meet me out at the stables.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Looking through a spyglass, Altanus could see a small farmhouse off in the distance. It was a rundown little thing, starting to crumble back into the dirt. The fields around it had long ago given up that fight, returning to the wild brush of the grasslands. In spite of its abandoned appearance, Altanus could see hints of movement through the windows and missing door.

“This is the place,” Altanus announced to the group. Stuffing the spyglass into his belt, he dismounted and led his horse back down the hillock to the others. “We’ll take a rest here for a bit, then approach on foot.”

“Thank God,” Terra breathed in relief as she slid off her mount. “My butt was falling asleep.”

“Really? My butt’s completely fine. Then again, I wasn’t riding side saddle,” Elric teased as he and Adria dismounted, the latter giggling softly.

Terra shot a glare at the kredger. “It’s not like I had a choice! This stupid dress isn’t exactly designed for straddling things.”

“That’s odd, because it’s certainly designed to make people want to straddle something,” Elric continued his tormenting.

“That’s enough you two,” Altanus cut in. “We’re about to go into a real battle, with real weapons, and real consequences. We need to plan it out carefully.”

Terra and Elric shared a look, hate-filled on one side and mocking on the other, but they nodded and fell silent. In fact, the whole group was silent for a couple of moments as the tension of what they were about to get into sank in. None of them had ever fought anyone for real, not even in a fist fight. With swords and bows and lethal magic, this fight was going way beyond that. Naturally, they were all a little worried.

“Alright then, the first thing we’ll need is to get some intel,” Altanus began, breaking through the silence. “From what Kellan could gather, there are maybe five guys or so here, but I want to be sure. Adria, that will be your job. Get in close, and see how many of them we’re dealing with. We’ll hang back and cover you from range. If you’re spotted, run, and we’ll start picking off pursuers.”

Adria grinned confidently. “Don’t worry. I won’t get spotted.”

“I’ll keep track of you from afar,” Altanus told her. “If there are more than five, come back, but otherwise, give me a signal, and the rest of us will move into position. I’ll sneak around back to cut off any escape from there. Terra and Elric, use your range to get anyone that gets past Adria. Adria, you’ll be responsible for flushing them out.”

“Let me flush them out,” Terra cut in, getting dubious looks from the others. “I can light the roof on fire with my magic.”

“You’re not going to miss and accidentally roast me or something are you?” Adria questioned.

Terra shot a glare at the feelan. “No, I’m not going to roast you. I can hit a fucking roof.”

“Alright, that sounds like the better option, so let’s go with that,” Altanus decided before there could be any more back and forth. “I’ll leave the spyglass with you when I move out. Once you see me in position, torch the roof and we’ll pick them off as they come out. The last thing to note is that we’re not here to kill these guys. We need them for information. Try to capture as many as you can, but don’t take big risks for it. If someone is too dangerous or going to get away, put them down for good. Understood?” The whole group nodded in agreement. “Good. Adria, you can move out whenever you’re ready.”

“Which is right now,” Adria declared right before she took off, loping through the grassland low and quiet.

With Adria on the move, the other three trekked up the hillock so that they could peek over the crest and watch. That didn’t prove easy to do, though, as the tawny furred cat woman melded easily into the dry grass and brush. If they had not known where to look, they would have never noticed her, and even knowing she was there, they occasionally lost her in the brush as the distance grew.

Cutting through the grass, Adria could feel her heart thumping in her chest in anticipation of the fight ahead. There was a touch of nervousness within her, but for the most part it was just excitement, an excitement that only grew more intense as she closed on her prey’s location. It didn’t hinder her efforts to remain stealthy, though. Staying low and quiet as she moved, she slowed her stride as she got closer, turning the loping run into a patient creep so as to approach the house without any chance of being detected.

Making it to the wall of the house, Adria paused to listen. Inside, she could hear men talking and laughing, clearly not in any way alarmed. Peeking up over the sill of a nearby window, she could even see them, six men, gathered around a table in the middle of the room playing some sort of dice game. There were numerous weapons strewn about as well, making it clear that these men weren’t farmers of any sort. There didn’t even seem to be a guard. It would be so easy for her to take out two or three of them before they even realized what happened.

“Stick to the plan,” Adria whispered to herself, forcing her excitement down.

With a measure of calm, Adria tried to think of what she should do. The plan called for her to go back since there were more than five bandits inside, but six didn’t seem like it would be a problem. It was just one extra, and this was a perfect opportunity to strike. If she fell back, it would only increase the chances of them getting detected before they could engage. Plus, it wasn’t like the group would just run away because there was one more bandit than expected. Resolved that she was making the right call, she signalled Altanus to set up for the attack.

Atop the hillock, Altanus nodded. “Alright, there’s the signal. Here’s the spyglass. When you see me get around behind the house, it’ll be on you to start the fight.”

“Got it,” Terra replied as she took the little telescope.

As he started to move, Altanus passed close by Elric so that he could whisper. “Keep her out of trouble.”

“I will,” Elric promised the lord.

After that exchange, Altanus stopped by his horse to grab a small pack then started off as well. He was far less stealthy than Adria, lacking both her skill and her camouflaged clothes and fur. He was still good enough to stay out of sight, carefully making his way around the house in a wide arc to avoid detection. By the time he slipped around to the back, there was still no sign of any reaction from the men inside.

While Altanus crept into position, Terra turned to Elric. “We’re going to have to get closer.”

“What? You didn’t say anything about that,” Elric hissed.

“I don’t think my spell will go that far,” Terra admitted. “Besides, we’re pretty far away even for your crossbow. It’ll be hard to support the others from here.”

Looking out toward the farmhouse, Elric had to admit the elf had a point. He wasn’t that great of a shot. At such a long distance, he would probably miss more than he would hit. At the same time, though, there was a problem with getting closer. “You think we can do it without getting spotted? Neither of us has stealth skills, and that dress isn’t exactly inconspicuous.”

Terra nodded. “We don’t have to get close, just closer.”

“Alright, I’ll take the lead,” Elric told her. “Let me know when we’re close enough.”

With them both in agreement, Elric and Terra set off as well. Neither was what could be described as stealthy. Terra’s red and black dress was both easy to see and snagged on brush constantly, while Elric was harder to spot, but clomped along quite loudly. Luckily, they didn’t have to get too close before Terra stopped them.

“This should be good,” Terra announced when the distance between them and the house had been roughly halved. It was still a pretty good distance, though, maybe forty yards.

“Then do your thing,” Elric hissed while wringing his hands on the stock of his crossbow.

Nodding, Terra shook out her hands to loosen up before she began her spell. Her finger traced a quick swirl through the air as the power built within her. A couple moments later, she thrust her palm out.

With a hot crackle, a small ball of flame burst into existence and shot off, trailing fire in its wake. It arced across the grassland right on target for the farmhouse’s roof. When it struck, it splattered like a raindrop, scattering, small droplets of fire all over the thatch roof. They didn’t remain small for long, though, quickly spreading through the dry kindling until the whole roof was a giant bonfire.

“Got it!” Terra squealed in delight at her success.

“Good job,” Elric complimented as he lifted his crossbow and took aim on the front door.

Within moments of the fire beginning, the first occupant of the house rushed out of the front door with a sword in hand. Before Elric could even react, much less check his aim, and pull the trigger, a tawny blur came cutting across from the side. Adria’s spear lanced into the bandit’s chest as she went, carrying both him and her past the door. A couple of steps later, the man flopped to the ground, only then revealing that Adria had used the butt of her spear to take him down.

So stunned by the feelan’s speed, Elric nearly didn’t notice the second guy coming out of the house at all. Once he finally did, he jerked his crossbow into line, but even as he drew a bead, his finger hesitated. The hesitation gave the bandit the time he needed to spot Adria and bring his own spear into line.

Seeing a weapon trained on his wife was all the motivation Elric needed to finally take the shot. The crossbow clicked as the levers inside it worked, releasing the string and launching the bolt toward the bandit. The projectile flashed across the distance in an instant, digging deep into the man’s shoulder before sending him spinning to the ground.

By the time the third guy was out, Adria was back into the fray, leaping at the new adversary ferociously. She caught his axe chop under its blade with her spear. Using the lock to her advantage, Adria twisted her spear around and back, yanking the axe from the rogue’s grip and sending him stumbling toward her. He barely got a step before her knee came up into his groin and dropped him to his knees. A quick slap on the side of the head from the butt of her spear took him out of the fight for good.

By the time Adria had the third guy down, two more had streamed out from the farmhouse. From afar, Elric worked frantically to reload his crossbow, cursing the ancient technology under his breath as he did. As the two foes started to close in on Adria, he finally got a bolt loaded. Jerking the crossbow up, he rushed his aim and fired. The bolt sailed right in between the two enemies to crack into the wall of the house beyond them.

“Shit!” Elric spat, furious at himself for missing at such a crucial moment. It would be seconds before he could fire again, several seconds where his wife would be fighting two on one.

Suddenly, a ball of golden light shot out from beside Elric, cutting across the distance to the two bandits. It wasn’t a great shot, but it managed to nail one of the two men in the thigh. As it did, it lanced straight through, leaving behind a sizable hole in its wake before continuing on to smash a small chunk out of the farm’s wall.

“Yuck ...” Terra commented from beside the kredger, cringing at the sight. Meanwhile, the man she’d hit dropped to the ground, clutching at the gory wound and wailing in agony.

Back at the house, Adria grinned as Terra’s spell took out another foe, leaving her one on one. Eagerly she leapt forward, taking advantage of the man’s gawking at his fallen ally’s terrible injury. The bandit managed to get his sword up to parry a thrust of the spear, but that had just been a feint anyway. Before the two weapons even met, Adria yanked her spear out of the way, bringing the bottom around behind the man’s leg in the process. She hooked him behind the knee and yanked, ripping his feet out from under him. Balance lost, the bandit flopped painfully onto his back, losing his weapon in the process. Adria leveled the point of her spear against his neck to make sure he stayed down.

From the side, there came the sound of a man roaring, getting Adria to look up. Charging right at her was the sixth man, a spear in hand. Just as she started to react, though, another figure cut across in front of her. A long sword, hacked the spear’s point into the ground, before the pommel of the weapon lashed upward into the man’s nose, shattering it. A moment later, the final bandit crashed to the ground.

Standing over the fallen enemy, Altanus lowered his sword and turned to Adria. There was not a happy look on his face when he did. “You wanna tell me why I’m counting six bandits right now?”

Adria shrugged. “It was just one extra.”

“That’s how people get killed, you know,” Altanus growled angrily.

“I just thought we’d end up fighting anyway, and I didn’t want to waste the opportunity,” Adria explained anyway.

Altanus sighed. “You’re probably, right. Still, it would have been nice to know what to expect.”

“Sorry,” Adria apologized, seeing her friend’s point.

“Everyone alright?!” Elric cut in with a shout as he hurried over. Behind him came Terra, lagging behind a bit.

Altanus nodded as he shouldered off the pack he’d grabbed from his horse. From it, he started pulling out bits of rope. “So it would seem. Adria, strip them of their weapons. Elric, see what you can do about the injured ones. I’ll start tying them up.”

“”So we won?” Terra asked as she finally caught up with the rest of the group.

“We kicked their butts is more like it,” Adria gloated as she kicked a sword away from one of the downed men. “They didn’t even land a hit.”

“The plan worked perfectly, too,” Elric added.

Bending down to starting tying up the first bandit, Altanus nodded. “There were a few … snags, but it was definitely a decisive victory. Good work everyone.”

Grinning at the compliment, Terra turned to Adria and pointed up at the burning farm house. “See … I told you I wouldn’t miss a house.”

“You were right. It was a good shot,” Adria replied.

“Yeah, but she had to cut the distance in half first,” Elric commented.

Terra tossed a glare at the kredger. “Yeah well, I still didn’t miss, damn it!”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter 06 - Day 03

All around, people were shouting and jeering as the group of friends brought back their prisoners. Some did not content themselves with just words, either. They waded forward to shove or spit, while the particularly cruel minded threw rocks or refuse at the bandits. It was the sight of one such rock that caused Altanus to wince as it sailed through the air to crack against the head of one of the men as he trudged along.

“Vicious, aren’t they?” Terra remarked quietly from where she rode behind the lord, having had to give up her own horse so that it could carry the bandit whose leg she’d torn apart with her magic.

“This is their revenge for months of harassment,” Altanus muttered back as he looked around at the angry crowd that had slowly gathered as they’d walked through the town. “I’m surprised it’s not worse, actually.”

Trying to ignore the brutality of the mob, the group just kept on riding until finally they reached the gate of Altanus’s home. It swung open immediately to let them inside, allowing them to leave the angry mob behind. By the time they crossed the ground to the house proper, however, servants were already starting to gather like the townsfolk had.

“It’s good to have you back, my lord,” Kellan greeted as the group of friends reined to a stop in front of the manor. “Still, I am surprised.”

Helping Terra down first, Altanus dismounted to greet Kellan. “What, didn’t expect me to make it back in one piece?”

Kellan shook his head. “No. Naturally, I knew you would be victorious. It’s just … when you asked for rope … I assumed you meant to deal with these vermin while where you found them, not return with them in tow.”

Stiffening slightly at the idea of hanging men, Altanus glanced back at his prisoners which were more than a little worse for wear after the fight and following hike back to the manor. “No, these men are just fools lured by the promise of easy money. What I care about is getting the one that lured them. Only once he’s dealt with will the banditry come to an end. Hopefully, these men will tell me where to find him.”

“Ah, of course, my lord. I should have known,” Kellan replied, bowing respectfully. “Shall I have them jailed or thrown in the stocks until you are ready to interrogate them.”

“Jailing will do fine for now,” Altanus ordered, not keen on the idea abusing the bandits further. “I expect them to be quite eager to talk once they’ve recovered and heard what I am willing to offer them in return for their cooperation.”

“As you wish, my lord,” Kellan responded, bowing once again before he hurried off to organize the guards and remove the prisoners.

While Kellan handled the prisoners, Elric and Adria dismounted as well. Once they had, servants moved forward to collect the horses and lead them to the stables. That left the group of friends alone once again to go inside and discuss their plans.

“That guy really thought you were just going to hang them out in the fields?” Elric questioned once they’d settled into the sitting room.

Altanus shrugged. “That seems to be the case. Justice used to be a lot harsher and swifter than what we’re used to back home. Rounding up criminals for a hanging, or other form of lynching is probably pretty common here.”

“Why bother capturing someone alive just to hang ‘em, though?” Adria asked. “Seems like a lot of extra effort for nothing.”

“That I don’t know,” Altanus admitted. “Perhaps to give someone a clean death?”

“Or a chance to repent their sins before they meet their maker,” Elric offered.

Adria didn’t seem to be accepting of those possible answers. “Sounds worse than just getting it over with quickly, if you ask me.”

“Well, it doesn’t matter, because we’re not going to be killing those men, unless they are really stupid,” Altanus remarked. “I intend to offer them their lives in exchange for information on their boss and operation.”

“You think they’ll actually believe you’ll spare them?” Elric questioned.

Altanus let out a sigh. “I hope so. Having to resort to torture doesn’t really agree with me, and I’d rather not have to execute them and go find more to try again. I think they’ll see reason, though.”

“Those townsfolk out there aren’t going to be too happy about you freeing them,” Terra commented.

Adria shrugged. “They just want someone to hate, right? They can hate the group’s leader after we pummel him.”

“I’m not sure that’s the best idea,” Altanus replied. “Remember what we talked about the first night we were here. This place isn’t some adventure world. Killing the bandits doesn’t give us some nice pile of gold or a fancy new magical item as a reward.”

Elric tilted his head from side to side. “Sure, but it would stabilize the region, and improve commerce. That’s a kind of reward, especially since you’re the lord of the region.”

“You’re right, but it also has its downsides. Namely, it removes a piece from the board,” Altanus explained. “Another piece might move into the place it’s vacated, or it might just be a resource that is forever lost to us.”

“A resource?” Adria questioned, scrunching her face up dubiously.

Altanus nodded. “Yes, a resource. Remember, we’re going to be starting a contest in a month. A small army of men without a lot of moral issues could be very useful against the other teams.”

“Is that a road we really want to go down?” Elric asked. “These men are murderers and thieves, hardly the kind of people that inspire trust.”

Altanus shrugged. “If we give them a reason to think they’ll profit by siding with us, they will be as loyal as anyone that isn’t one of us.”

“Yeah, but it’s just kinda … dirty fighting, right?” Terra spoke up. “Why can’t we just stick with the four of us? We did pretty good out there today.”

That question got a slight wince out of Altanus. “Because, I don’t want to lose one of us. This isn’t our monthly session where we pretend we’re heroes, anymore. I don’t care if we have to fight dirty, as long as the four of us get out of this alive. The other groups will probably feel the same way. If we limit what we’re willing to do, we just put ourselves at greater risk.”

“I’m not sure I want to get out of here alive if I don’t like who I have to become to do it,” Terra responded.

“So you do like being a busty elf wench!” Elric teased. “I knew it!”

Terra tossed a glare at Elric. “No, but I’d rather be stuck like this than have to be evil to change back.”

“That probably isn’t the choice you’ll be making,” Altanus pointed out. “I highly doubt our bratty little friend is going to be okay with his champions sitting out of the big contest. There’s a very real chance that the only way we get out of this alive is to win.”

“I have faith in us,” Terra stated adamantly.

Altanus nodded. “How about you two? What do you think is the right choice?”

“I’m with Terra on this. We can take the other groups on our own,” Adria answered confidently. “Besides, I’d rather fight than skulk about getting other people to do my fighting for me.”

While Adria’s answer came immediately, Elric’s did not. He looked down thoughtfully, carefully thinking it through. “I understand where you’re coming from on this Altanus. I’m not above playing a little dirty, and your way is the safe play. That said, I don’t think I could handle supporting people that go around ruining lives just to save my own butt. We wouldn’t even be considering this if we were still on Earth, would we?”

“Probably not,” Altanus admitted before sighing. “Alright, it’ll be harder and a lot more dangerous, but we’ll get rid of the bandits.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Laying in bed, Altanus tried to go over the day’s events, thinking about how the fight with the bandits had gone. It had been a good test of the group’s talents and tactics, and he needed to figure out how to apply what they’d learned from it to future battles. That was all the more important now that they’d decided to eliminate the bandits. There was just one problem with his plans for the evening.

Subconsciously, Altanus’s eyes drifted toward the side of the room. There, sitting at the desk in nothing but her chemise, was Terra carefully studying the handbook that the group had been given. As she read, the candlelight danced bewitchingly across her face and hair as shadows left things further down just barely, and tantalizingly, visible.

Forcibly, Altanus jerked his eyes back up to the canopy above his bed. Keeping them focused there, he tried to get his thoughts back on track. In the morning, he’d get the information the group needed from the bandits that they’d captured. With that, they could start planning to take down the leader. It probably wouldn’t be as easy as the first group had been, however. It might even be good to …

Without even realizing that he’d moved, Altanus once more found Terra in his field of view. His thoughts drifted toward her as well, ruining his train of thought. She’d actually done quite well in the fight, given her character’s limits. Setting fire to the house had been a great suggestion, and she’d even taken out one of the bandits. It wasn’t an all-star performance like Adria’s, but it showed the potential that she had.

Straightening up, Terra rolled her shoulders back and stretched her hands over her head. As she did, she looked off to the side, her gaze happening to meet Altanus’s own. When it did she smiled. “Can’t sleep?”

Averting his eyes, Altanus nodded. “Yeah. Too much to think about.”

Terra giggled. “You do always get all pensive after a session.”

“Gotta figure out what worked and what didn’t, so it’s better next time,” Altanus explained.

Terra nodded. “I understand. I’m sure there’s a lot we can improve on from today’s fight, but at the same time, I’m just really happy with how it went.”

“Oh? Why’s that?” Altanus asked.

Terra shrugged. “I guess because for the first time since we got here, I didn’t feel like I was holding the rest of you back.”

“Terra …” Altanus began.

The elf girl just waved a hand dismissively. “I know I know. I’m like a low level mage, and I’ve gotta train up. I’ve already given myself that pep talk. The thing is, none of you are low level. Elric’s probably the closest to where I am, but he’s still way ahead of me. Plus … this character …” She trailed off into sigh as she looked down at herself. “Just keeping up with you guys as we move around is a challenge, much less actually contributing something.”

Altanus understood exactly what Terra meant. He knew from the handbook just how poor her character’s stats were. “You did quite well today, though.”

Smiling softly, Terra nodded. “Yeah …”

“You know, I actually think you’re going to turn out to be sort of our trump card,” Altanus told her.

Terra let out a self-deprecating laugh. “Ha, yeah right.”

“No, I’m serious,” Altanus replied. “I believe there’s a good chance that most of the other groups won’t have a mage at their disposal.”

“Why not?” Terra inquired.

“Because of the elf requirement,” Altanus explained. “Being weak, fragile, enslaved, and all the rest isn’t exactly appealing to most people.”

Terra looked skeptical of that observation. “But won’t their gods just force the situation on them like Lyren did for me?”

Altanus shrugged. “Maybe, but I doubt it. Forcing that on most people would just breed resentment and spite. Some might even prefer to die than be stuck like that for any length of time.”

From the way Terra looked down at that last part, Altanus guessed that she’d felt at least some of those things since coming to Tannen. It wasn’t a surprise to him. Even he was having some troubles getting used to his character, and he had a much easier situation to deal with than she did.

“A-Anyway … I should get back to reading,” Terra stammered. “Sorry for disturbing your thinking.”

Altanus couldn’t help but smile at how Terra had no idea how much ‘disturbing’ she’d been doing to his thoughts. “Don’t worry about it. I’m always happy to talk.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Huffing for breath, Elric yanked the string back on his crossbow, and flipped it up to the ready position. As soon as it was mostly level, he set a bolt and lifted it to his shoulder. With barely a moment to aim, he fired, the weapon clicking, and the bolt shooting off down the torchlit range to thunk into the target at the other end. It was wide right and high, probably a miss on an actual person. Cursing his poor aim, he dropped the crossbow back down to start all over again.

“Elric? What are you doing out here?” Adria asked, cutting into the practice.

The feelan’s voice was so close, that Elric jumped in surprise. When he turned, he found Adria standing only a few feet away, having easily snuck up on him while he’d been occupied with shooting. “I’m practicing.”

“Obviously, but why?” Adria inquired, tilting her head curiously.

“Because I screwed up in the fight today,” Elric explained as he bent down to load the crossbow again, then fired, this time barely hitting the edge of the target. “Badly.”

Adria gave the kredger a confused look. “What do you mean? I don’t remember anyone messing up.”

“Well that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen,” Elric growled as he started to load another shot.

Before Elric could even get the string pulled back, Adria’s hand grabbed his wrist to stop him. “Stop and talk to me.”

Sighing, Elric turned to give his wife his full attention. “I just kept messing up all fight. First, I was too slow to shoot the first bandit, or maybe that was a good thing, because if I had shot then, I might have hit you instead of him. Then, I was too busy watching you and barely got the shot on the second guy before he attacked. After that, I struggled to load this thing fast enough to fire again, and when I did, I rushed the shot and missed. If not for Terra practically blasting the leg off one of those guys, you would’ve been stuck in a two or even three on one while I loaded another shot.”

Taken aback by the outpouring of mistakes, Adria took a moment to answer. “I made mistakes too you know. I gave you guys the attack signal, even though there were six bandits not five. Then, to add to my stupidity, I forgot about the sixth one, forcing Altanus to cover for my blunder. That stuff happens, though, especially in our first fight ever. It’s no reason to be out doing target practice in the middle of the night.”

“Yes, it is!” Elric blurted, before reeling his frustration back in. “I mean … what if something had happened? It’s not like we can just roll new characters, there’s no resurrection magic, and I can’t even heal most injuries quickly. If I make a mistake, it might cost me a friend, it might cost me you, especially with you fighting in the front like this.”

“I’m always our frontline, sweetie,” Adria pointed out.

“In games!” Elric exclaimed.

Adria chuckled. “So what, you want to switch positions. I can worry about you, instead, while throwing my weapons from afar. Or better yet, you could wrap me up in so much armor that I can’t even move, so that no one could ever possibly injury me. Would that make things better?”

Hearing how silly he was sounding, Elric could only shake his head. “No.”

Stepping forward, Adria wrapped her arms around her husband. “I get being worried, but stressing yourself out like this is going to cause you to make more mistakes, not less.”

“You’re right,” Elric replied, returning the hug. “I shouldn’t let this get to me and make it worse.”

“Exactly,” Adria told him as the embrace finally broke. “Now, how do you feel about coming back inside with me?”

“Pretty good,” Elric replied.

Adria grinned. “Good, because I know just the thing to help us both relieve a little stress.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Day 04

The smell of dank, stale air wafted across Altanus’s nose as he entered the estate’s dungeons. The place was rather dark, lit only by a couple of braziers on each end of the hall, and sported a very grim atmosphere. In between the braziers were shadowy cells with rusty bars which housed the men that he had come to see, and hopefully, convince to talk.

At the sound of the lord’s entrance, the prisoners all moved. Clambering up to the bars, they looked out at him with dirty, beaten faces and pleading eyes. “Please, m’lord, spare u–” one of them began to plead.

Altanus held up a hand to cut him off. “Let’s dispense with the begging until I have said what I came to say.”

“But m’lord–” the man started to protest.

“Unless you’d rather expedite your execution,” Altanus remarked. The men gulped their way into silence. “Good. Now then, I want to start by saying that I know you are all decent men fallen to crime for one reason or another. I understand that the temptation of easily earned wealth is a difficult one to resist. That is why I am willing to spare your lives, if you are willing to help me take down whoever it was that led you down this ill-fated road. Give me the name and location of The Painted Hand’s leader, and if it proves true, I will let you all walk out of here as free men.”

The bandits looked around at each other as if each was asking his fellows what they should do. Altanus had expected this confusion. After all, they had no way of knowing if they could trust him. They also had no way of knowing what punishment awaited them if their leader found out that they had betrayed him.

“I will give you until sunset to discuss it amongst yourselves,” Altanus informed the bandits. “When I return, though, you will either give me the information that I seek or you will go to your executions, so do choose wisely.”

The declaration got some worried and desperate looks from the men, but none stepped forward to speak. After waiting just a moment to make sure, Altanus just turned and walked out without saying another word. Any more talk would just be wasted at that point.

“Come sunset, I will want them brought to me one at a time,” Altanus told Kellan once he was out of the dungeon. “They will be more likely to talk if the others aren’t there to provide solidarity or judge them for their actions. Also, be prepared to follow through on their executions if they don’t provide me with the answers I need.”

“Yes, my lord,” Kellan replied dutifully. “How would you like the deed to be done.”

Trying to appear callous about ending lives, Altanus shrugged. “Use your discretion. Something that is easy to set up and will serve as a good enough show to appease the masses’ thirst for blood.”

Kellan bowed his head. “As you wish, my lord.”

With that, the two men parted, Kellan hurrying off to his duties. Altanus, though, returned to the house, while he went over the brief exchange with the bandits to see if there was anything to glean from it that he might have missed. It didn’t seem so, which meant that there was little that he could do beside wait for sunset to come.

“Any luck getting them to talk?” Elric asked as Altanus entered the dinning room where the rest of his friends were eating breakfast.

Altanus shook his head. “No. I gave them the day to stew on it.”

“So we have to wait? Damn … I was hoping for another fight,” Adria grumbled. “I guess it’s back to practicing then?”

“Actually, I was thinking it might be good for us to take the day off,” Altanus suggested. “We’ve been going pretty hard since we got here, and this is a good chance for us to take a break and unwind a little.”

“Is there even anything to do around here, though?” Terra asked. “It’s not like they’ve got video games or the internet.”

Elric chuckled. “There are things in the world besides computers, you know.”

“Yeah, boring things,” Terra shot back.

“I’m with Terra on this one. Just sitting around the house seems pretty dull,” Adria concurred.

Elric huffed in annoyance. “Well, I will be glad to sit around and read some more of that handbook Lyren gave us or even try out the library we have here.”

Adria rolled her eyes at her husband. “Ugh, boring,” she groaned before turning to Altanus. “What about you Altanus? Wanna get some sparring in with me?”

“Sorry, I’m planning to use the day for research too. There’s a whole kingdom worth of politics to catch up on,” Altanus replied. “Maybe some of the guards would spar with you.”

Sticking her tongue out, Adria made an annoyed noise. “Thbt, those pushovers aren’t worth my time.”

Altanus chuckled. “Sorry. I guess you’ll have to find something else to do then. There’s gotta be something around here that could help you unwind.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter 07 - Day 04

The smell of books permeated the air as the light from a single window lit the expansive room. The other windows were all covered with curtains to protect the delicate old texts that filled the shelves of the massive two story library. Those texts covered all manner of things from botany to fishing to the glorious kings of old to myths of how the world began. It was a treasure trove of knowledge that was so large that it would take decades for a person to get through it all. With only a single day to work with, Elric was trying his best to consume as much of it as he could.

Having long ago set aside the handbook that the group had been given for the world, Elric was pouring through the books and maps in the library. It was there that he could find the history that had guided this world, from the day the gods had led the first humans to this new land to the recent wars between the forces of man and orc. It was there pouring through those books that made the world truly feel alive and real to him.

“So how’s the library?” Altanus asked as he slipped through the door. “As impressive to read as it is to look at.”

“More so,” Elric answered, looking up from his most recent book to look around at the numerous shelves. “There’s a whole world catalogued here, every bit as complicated as our own, and going back for hundreds of years. It’s like finding some alien civilization.”

“It’s probably exactly like that,” Altanus remarked. “I mean, this planet has to be somewhere, right?”

Elric chuckled. “I suppose. There’s not usually magic wielding elves and terrifying dragons in science fiction, though.”

“There are, however, plenty of strange races and improbable beasts. They just usually come up with different names for them,” Altanus pointed out.

“True enough,” Elric conceded. “So what about you? How are the politics coming?”

Frowning, Altanus let out a weary sigh. “Tediously. It is very time consuming to catch up on an entirely new realm where I’m supposed to have been active in politics for decades.”

“That does sound hard,” Elric admitted. “If it helps, I’ve probably picked up a few useful bits from what I’ve read.”

“It never hurts to know more,” Altanus replied.

“Oh, speaking of knowing more about things,” Elric began. “I learned a little something about our godly little friend.”

Intrigued, Altanus raised an eyebrow. “Oh? And what was that?”

“Namely that Lyren is the god of hope, renewal, and … trickery,” Elric answered.

The last word prompted a groan from the lord. “Tell me you’re joking.”

Face completely serious, Elric shook his head. “Afraid not. He’s part of a pantheon of twelve major gods that are, or at least were, ruled over a being known as Tanaris. Apparently, this Tanaris fellow has been missing for roughly a decade, causing something of a holy war between the various faiths. There hasn’t been much in the way of open fighting, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been plenty of casualties.”

“That might explain what this contest we’re here for is all about,” Altanus remarked. “Assuming there even is a contest, and this Lyren isn’t just lying to us about everything.”

“Well, he apparently has a reputation for never outright lying,” Elric noted. “However, He does phrase things in misleading ways and leave out crucial information.”

Altanus nodded. “Well he didn’t really say much to us, so he’s got the leaving stuff out part down.”

Elric wagged a reproving finger at Altanus. “Ah ah, you’re forgetting something. He’s also the source of this handy guidebook of ours.”

“Shit,” Altanus cursed at that realization. “That’s been our primary source of information since we got here.”

Elric nodded. “That’s why I’m going through and checking on what I can. So far, I haven’t found anything wrong with it, though, which has only made me more worried.”

Humming thoughtfully, Altanus rubbed at his chin. “Maybe that book wasn’t made by him. He’d said something about a level playing field. Maybe one of the other gods wrote the book and each team got a copy.”

“Wouldn’t that make it easy for the writer to spread bad information to the other teams while telling their own team to just ignore the book?” Elric postulated.

“Maybe,” Altanus conceded. “There must be some kind of judge or referee to keep things fair, though, right? Maybe that’s who wrote it.”

Elric snapped his fingers. “One of the gods is named, rather aptly, Justice. She’s the goddess of judgement, balance, and duty. She’d be a perfect referee.”

“If she’s judging the event, then she’s probably not competing, too,” Altanus remarked. “That means at most ten other teams.”

“Nine,” Elric corrected. “The missing one, Tanaris, is one of the twelve major gods. He presumably doesn’t have a team.”

Altanus nodded. “Nine then. A lot fewer than I was expecting to have to deal with.”

“Is that good or bad, though?” Elric inquired.

Altanus shrugged. “I don’t know.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Little twinkles of sunlight managed to filter through the leaves of the tree as they danced around in the wind. None of those little stars were strong enough, though, to disturb the elf girl that sat underneath the green boughs, leaning up against the tree. Their dance and the soft rustle of the leaves that danced with them was so peaceful and soothing that Terra felt no need to move or even think as she basked in the energy of the world around her.

“I’m bored,” Adria cut in, interrupting the moment of tranquility.

The feelan was so close that she could have whispered her words in Terra’s ear, causing the elf girl to start with surprise. A cute little yelp escaped her lips as she clutched a hand to her chest. When she saw who it was, though, the panic quickly faded.

“Jesus, Adria. You nearly gave me a heart attack,” Terra grumbled.

“I’m bored!” Adria repeated more loudly, not even acknowledging the scare that she’d just given her friend.

Folding her arms across her chest, Terra leveled an exasperated look at the feelan. “And how is that my problem?”

“Because the boys are being all boring cooped up in the house with their dusty old books,” Adria replied. “You aren’t doing anything, though, so I figured we’d could do something together, y’know just us girls.”

“You do know I only look like a girl, right?” Terra questioned. “It’s still me in here.”

Adria rolled her eyes. “Whatever. With Altanus being all ‘lordly’ you’re the closest thing I’ve got, so get off that overly shapely butt of yours and come explore the town with me.”

“But my butt’s comfy!” Terra whined petulantly.

“I don’t care!” Adria shot back. “Now, are you going to get up or am I going to have to pick you up?”

Sighing in defeat, Terra clambered to her feet while muttering, “Alright alright.”

“I knew you’d see reason,” Adria responded smugly. “Now, come on.”

Without waiting for a reply, Adria started off toward the gate. Her long strides forced Terra to jog to catch up with her. “Hey! Slow down!”

“Oh, sorry. I forgot how short you are,” Adria teased, slowing herself down to Terra’s speed.

Terra tossed an annoyed look at the feelan. “Watch it, or I’ll use my magic to cut you off at the knee. We’ll see who’s shorter then.”

Adria snorted in amusement. “Yeah, like you could even hit my knee.”

“I hit the house, I can hit you too,” Terra stated confidently.

“Did you just compare me to house? Because if either of us has room for someone to live in, it’s you and that cleavage of yours,” Adria shot back.

“Yeah well, I bet you have fleas!” Terra retorted.

Rather than make another comeback, Adria just tilted her head to the side curiously. “Huh, I wonder if feelans can get fleas. Are there even fleas in this world?”

Terra shrugged. “I have no idea. You’d have to ask Elric. He’s the one that’s super into learning every pointless detail about this place.”

“I will, if I can manage to remember,” Adria replied disinterestedly, her attention already on something else, namely the gate they were approaching. “Hey, guards! Open the gate!”

The two men on duty looked up at the order, giving the two girls a confused look. “Why do you need the gate opened?”

“So we can go out, obviously,” Adria answered snidely.

That answer just got the guards to share a look, before the one that had spoken turned back to Adria. “Uhm … you are of course free to leave, cat, but that,” the man pointed at Terra, “is the lord’s property. We can’t just let you abscond with it.”

“Abscond?” Adria repeated the word in confusion. “I’m not stealing her, you idiots. We’re just going into town for a bit.”

The insult caused the guards to stiffen, hands falling to their swords. “Elf, go back to the manor, now.”

Surprised by the order, Terra nearly retorted before memories of the last time she’d spoken out of turn stifled her desire to speak. Uncertainly, she bowed her head and started to turn away, but Adria grabbed her arm to stop her. “Hey! She’s not yours to boss around, buckethead!”

The scrape of metal announced the guards drawing their weapons. “Release her, halfling!”

Baring her teeth, Adria started to gear up for a fight until Terra hissed suddenly from beside her, “Adria!”

The elf’s voice penetrated enough to get Adria to not pounce on the guards and turn to her friend. Terra stood there, shaking her head to get Adria stop. It was the pleading look in her eyes, though, that got Adria to let the elf go.

The moment that she was released, Terra smiled in relief. “Come on. We’ll just go talk to Al-my master and sort out this misunderstanding.”

“Right … “ Adria muttered before turning back to the guards. “You hear that, bucketheads? We’re going to go get your lord’s permission to go out.”

“Hanley, go with them and make sure they do as they claim,” the lead guard ordered. The other guard nodded, stepping forward warily. With that, the two friends returned to manor with the suspicious man in tow.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Clenching his fists tightly at his sides, Altanus had to resist the urge to slug the guard in front of him as he recounted what had transpired at the gate. That was no way for a lord to act, though, so he kept himself restrained. He had to at least pretend to understand what the guard clearly considered to be reasonable actions.

“My thanks for your vigilance, but Adria does in fact have my permission to take the elf into town,” Altanus replied, keeping his voice as neutral as possible. “I merely forgot to relay that information to you.”

Glancing warily at Adria and Terra, Hanley nodded. “Understood m’lord. I just wanted to be sure. You know how these types can be.”

“Yes, again, you have my thanks for your dedication to your work,” Altanus forced himself to say. “However, Adria has proven her trustworthiness time and time again, and is a valued servant. In the future, I would like you to presume that she is operating either under my orders or at least with my knowledge and permission. I don’t always have time to make sure every one of my servants is apprised of every detail.”

“Of course, m’lord. I’ll let the others know,” Hanley promised, bowing his head.

“Good. You are dismissed then,” Altanus ordered. The guard sketched a quick bow and turned to leave the room.

The moment the door closed behind the guard, Adria leveled a glare at Altanus “I can’t believe you let that asshole off the hook like that! Hell, you even thanked him for harassing us like this!”

Altanus let out a weary sigh. “I’m sorry about what happened, Adria, but what am I supposed to do?”

“You’re supposed to stick up for us!” Adria growled. “That’s what friends do!”

“I wish I could, but feelans are known thieves and raiders, and Terra is literally property. You might as well have tried to walk out of the front gate with a ski mask on your head and your arms loaded with jewels and silver,” Altanus explained. “If I’d tried to reprimand him for something like this, I’d just piss off every guard in my employ. Hell, they’ll probably still be mad that I am making them trust you from now on, or that I even talk to you at all.”

Adria’s jaw clenched. “Easy for you to say as everyone scurries around grovelling to you with their ‘m’lord this and m’lord that’ nonsense. Meanwhile, the rest of us have to deal with shitty, little, asshole guards of dinky, little, country towns looking down on us because we’re all slaves and outcasts.”

“That’s not fair, and you know it. I didn’t choose to be a lord, and I didn’t choose for this world to be like this,” Altanus argued. “I’m just trying my best to work with what we were given.”

“Yeah, sure you are,” Adria spat sarcastically before she spun on her heels and stormed out, slamming the door closed behind her.

Wincing at the crack of the door, Altanus turned to Terra who had stood there quietly this entire time. Her eyes were on the floor at her feet as she stood there with her hands folded in front of her. She made no move to leave, though, so she had to be there for something.

“Well, what is it, Terra?” Altanus demanded angrily. “You want to take a few shots at me too?”

Not looking up, Terra shook her head and answered softly, “No.”

Finally recognizing the downcast expression for what it was, Altanus let out another sigh, feeling guilty about his outburst. “Sorry. It’s just frustrating that Lyren saddled us with this nonsense.”

“I know,” Terra replied quietly.

Furrowing his brow, Altanus peered at the elf in worry. “You alright?”

Terra nodded. “Yeah. I think I might go lie down, though. Is that okay?”

“Uhm … yeah … of course, if that’s what you want,” Altanus answered uncertainly.

“I’ll see you later then,” Terra told Altanus before she turned to go.

Watching the elf walk away, Altanus could only nod. “Yeah … see you later.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

“Alright, let’s get this started,” Altanus declared. “Bring the prisoners one at a time, bound of course. Do not speak to them except as needed to direct them to me. Once I am finished with one, do not return him to his cell. Take him off to the holding area I designated and keep him there so he can’t talk to the ones that haven’t yet talked to me. Understood?”

The pair of guards that were assigned to this task nodded. “Yes, m’lord.”

“Then go,” Altanus ordered, waving a hand to dismiss the guards, who immediately bowed and hurried off, leaving Altanus with just Kellan at his side.

“May I speak plainly, my lord?” Kellan remarked once the two were alone.

Altanus nodded. “Of course. What’s on your mind?”

“It’s just … you’re different since you came back, more commanding, more structured, more serious,” Kellan commented.

“War changes people,” Altanus replied, hoping that would be sufficient explanation for any differences in personality that he had shown.

“Indeed it does, and if I may be so bold, I’d say for the better in this case,” Kellan responded.

Not really sure how to respond to that, Altanus just tipped his head slightly at the compliment and stayed silent. It was a bit worrisome to think that he was acting differently enough for a subordinate to comment on it. That could be a problem when dealing with people that knew the old Altanus. At least, the idea of the war being responsible for the change seemed acceptable, so hopefully, there wouldn’t be a problem.

The silence did not last long before the first bandit was brought to see Altanus. He was not an impressive man, short and lean with the unkempt features of the poor. There was defiance in his eyes, though, that made it clear that he had no intentions of talking.

“Well then, will you give me the name and location of the leader of The Painted Hand or will you face the gallows?” Altanus asked simply.

“Suck a teat,” the man spat, adding literal spittle to the words.

Altanus sighed in disappointment. “Very well. You can be the first in line to meet your end. Take him away.”

Perhaps having expected Altanus to try harder, the guards and even the bandit were momentarily still. It passed quickly, though, as the guards grabbed the bandit and dragged him away. All the while, the man cursed and struggled to no avail.

Once again, there was silence as Altanus waited. At his side, he could feel Kellan giving him uncertain looks, but the steward did not speak up to question him. Altanus hoped that that was a sign of faith not resignation.

The second man came and went as quickly as the first, but his defiance was not as clear. By the time the third man came, he was twitching and fidgeting nervously. He all but reeked of his fear of death.

“Ah, another man on the precipice of disaster. Do you think he’ll be smart enough to step back from the ledge, Kellan?” Altanus remarked to his steward.

“Perhaps, my lord. He does seem like a bright lad,” Kellan replied. “Certainly smarter than the previous two.”

Altanus nodded. “Indeed, he does. Perhaps smart enough to know that the leader of his band will not save him, no matter how fervently he clings to his loyalty. Perhaps even smart enough to realize that I am his only salvation in this desperate hour.”

The aside proved quite effective against the man, fanning the flames of his fear until he was a panicked mess. “P-Please, m’lord –”

“Ah ah,” Altanus cut off, waving a reproving finger at the man. “Begging will not save you, bandit. Something else can, though. All you have to do is give me the information that I seek. Once you do, you and your friends will be saved. No one will even know that you were the one that told.”

Conviction already failing, the man glanced about desperately in search of the support of his comrades. There was no one there except enemies, though. Only Altanus offered him any form of hope.

“Alright!” the man blurted, deciding his own skin was worth more to him than those of his comrades. “There’s a series of caves in the hills to the north. That’s where the main group hides.”

“And what of your leader? What is his name?” Altanus asked.

Twitching in panic, the man shook his head fiercely. “I-I don’t know. No one does. He wears a mask all the time, so we just call him Mask.”

“Has anyone ever seen him without this mask?” Altanus inquired.

The man shrugged. “I … uhm … maybe? There are rumors of what he looks like, that he’s hideously deformed or a lord in disguise or –”

Altanus held up a hand to stop the man. “That’s enough. I do not need rumors. You have given me what I needed. Now, you will be taken somewhere for holding, while I talk to the ones that remain. This is for your protection, so that no one will be able to know who was the one that spoke out. All you must do is tell them that you told me nothing. Once I have verified what you’ve told me and captured this Mask, I will release you and your friends. Understood?”

The man nodded rapidly. “Yes, m’lord.”

“Good. Take him away,” Altanus directed.

After that, the lord worked his way through the remaining three bandits. Two of them also broke, giving much the same story as the third man about a leader that wears a mask and was hiding in a series of caves to the north. It would take some scouting to confirm, but Altanus was fairly sure that the men had been honest.

“Now that that’s over,” Altanus announced, once the last bandit was taken away. “Have them all taken back to their cells to stew while we confirm this information. If they’ve lied, their stay of execution ends, but if not, I want all the guards ready for a battle.”

Kellan bowed his head subserviently. “Of course my lord. I will see it done.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

The crunch of metal hacking through straw sounded through the air as bits and pieces of the golden sticks tossed about in the air. It was followed by a loud crack as Adria ripped her axe blade free of the bale she was hitting, sending a shower of plant bits flying. She didn’t even notice that, though, just kept going, flowing into her next strike with feline grace. That brought her right back to the crunch of an axe digging into straw.

“Sweetheart? What are you doing out here?” Elric interrupted the feelan’s rampage on her straw adversary.

Huffing in anger, Adria ripped her axe free only to slam both of her weapons down in an overhead chop that lodged them deep in the bale. “Tearing this thing apart.”

“I can see that. Why, though?” Elric inquired. “We’re supposed to be relaxing today, and you’re about as far from relaxed as I’ve ever seen you.”

“You should ask ‘Lord Altanus Calidorn’ about it,” Adria answered, adding a mocking tone to Altanus’s name. “I wish his head was this bale of hay.”

Hearing the venom in his wife’s voice caused Elric’s eyes to widen in surprise. “Jeez, Adria. What the hell happened?”

“Oh, nothing. Terra and I just tried to go look around town and the guards mistook it for me trying to steal her from Altanus. Then, we got escorted back to his lordship by an armed guard who Altanus thanked for his ‘dedication to his duty’,” Adria explained, her tone hostile and angry. “Can you believe that shit?! He treats me like some kind of criminal and Terra like chattel and Altanus fucking thanks him!”

Anger welling up again, Adria lashed out to grab her axes. The moment they were in her hand, she started attacking again, tearing several chunks off the bale. Only then did the flurry end in another two-handed strike that drove the axes into the each side of the bale, leaving Adria standing there panting for breath.

Reaching out, Elric rested a reassuring hand on his wife’s shoulder. “I get being mad, but you know it’s not Altanus’s fault that things are like this.”

“I know that,” Adria sighed. “But I’m still mad about it.”

Elric chuckled. “And you have every right to be. I’d be mad too. At least you're taking it out on straw. I don’t think I’d have that much self-control.”

“I didn’t either,” Adria admitted, looking down. “I nearly attacked two armed guards while I had nothing but my bear hands.”

Elric winced. “Yikes. That would have been bad.”

“Yeah … luckily Terra stopped me before I did. I guess she realized how that was going to turn out,” Adria replied.

“Probably because of how she got clocked for talking back the first day we were here,” Elric noted.

Adria shrugged. “Maybe, but that just proves how stupid this all is. We’re finally in a real live fantasy world, and rather than being off on some grand adventure, we’re sitting around the house getting treated like trash for not being human.”

“Well, if it makes you feel better, we’re sort of in the middle of an adventure with this whole bandit thing,” Elric offered. “Maybe you can take your frustration out on them? If it help any, they’re probably racists, too.”

“I guess,” Adria admitted, her mood improving slightly. “It should be a pretty good fight, at least.”

“Hopefully, not too good,” Elric replied. “I’d much rather we stomp them like we did the first group than have some drawn out nailbiter where I’m constantly afraid someone’s gonna get hurt.”

Giggled, Adria bumped Elric’s shoulder with her own. “You’re such a worrywort.”

“Of course. Worrying about everyone else is the healer’s job,” Elric responded. “After all, someone’s gotta keep you power mad warriors from rushing off to your death.”

“Hey! I’m not power mad! That’s Terra!” Adria protested, folding her arms indignantly. “I’m bloodthirsty.”

Elric chuckled. “Sorry. I’ll try to do a better job of keeping you two’s suicidal tendencies separate from one another.”

“Good,” Adria retorted with mock seriousness.

“Anyway … you wanna come inside?” Elric asked. “Altanus says he got some information on the bandits to share with us.”

“I hope it’s good, because I’d really love to bash some skulls in right about now,” Adria remarked as she turned to grab her axes and rip them free of the bale of hay.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter 08 - Day 04

“So that’s what they gave me,” Altanus stated as he finished recounting the results of the interrogations. “None of them had accurate counts of the number of men, nor any information on the capabilities of this Mask. As such, I was thinking tomorrow we’d do a scouting mission to confirm the location and get an idea of what we’re up against.”

“It’s going to be hard to surveille a cave,” Elric noted, rubbing at his chin thoughtfully.

Altanus nodded in agreement. “I know, but we can’t just charge in there. At the very least, we can find the place and see what kind of defenses we’ll be going up against.”

“Maybe we can even find some sentries to pick off,” Adria added hopefully.

“Even if we do, it would be bad to take them out,” Altanus replied. “That would just alert Mask that we are on to his location. We’ll have to do our best to avoid anyone we find.”

Pouting, Adria let out an annoyed sigh. “Fine. I guess we can spare them until we’re ready to hit the main base.”

“We have a couple of other major concerns to look for while we’re out there as well,” Altanus continued on. “Because it’s a cave structure, we don’t know how many exits it may have or where. I’d be willing to bet Mask has some sort of escape tunnel for when things get dicey, and we’ll need to have a counter for that. Also, we need a means to start the attack, because trying to force our way into a fortress through the main door is going to lead to us being on the wrong side of a massacre.”

“Smoking them out worked well last time. Maybe we can do the same thing here,” Elric postulated.

Altanus tilted his head uncertainly. “Maybe, but they may have ventilation, or there might be nothing inside that we can easily burn. We’ll have to see once we’re out there.”

“I might be able to whip something up for this,” Elric noted. “There are recipes among my notes for potions that make smoke or fire. If we could get enough of those made, that would probably be enough to force them out of their hole.”

“See what they’ll take to make,” Altanus told him. “Other than that, we should probably all get to sleep early tonight, so that we’re rested and alert tomorrow. I don’t want any of us getting spotted.”

In response to that, Terra raised her hand to interject. “I don’t think I should go along tomorrow.”

Furrowing his brow, Altanus peered at the elf in confusion. “What? Why? Last time you were integral to our success.”

“Last time we were fighting,” Terra replied. “This is a stealth mission, and I’m about as stealthy as a pink elephant. I’ll just get in your way. If I stay, I can practice before we have to fight again.”

“That’s not–” Altanus started to argue, but Terra was already shaking her head, so he let his retort fade away unsaid.

“Actually, I should probably stay here too,” Elric commented. “I am not much stealthier than Terra, and besides, I should focus on getting plenty of potions ready for the battle ahead.”

Looking between the two, Altanus nodded uncertainly. “Alright. Adria and I will handle the scouting.”

“I can do it by myself,” Adria stated coolly. “You should just stay with the other two and gather your men or something.”

Recognizing that hostility for what it was, Altanus tried to think of what he should do. He didn’t like the idea of Adria doing the mission alone. At the same time, if he forced himself along, it might just aggravate the tension between them.

“I really think we should have at least two sets of eyes on this,” Altanus finally said.

Adria seemed about to argue before Elric bumped her arm. They shared a brief look followed by Adria dismissively huffing out, “Fine. We’ll do it together.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Day 05

A soft breeze whistled through the gardens, stirring some dust on the ground and rustling Terra’s blonde hair. It was warm, calming, and life giving as it entered her lungs. It was not her focus, however. Her focus was the dust that it had stirred, and the dirt beneath her boots. It was warm too, and yet also cold. It’s hardnesses supported her as she stood there, giving her world stability.

Opening her eyes, Terra raised a hand in front of her, keeping that solidity in her mind. An extended finger started to dance through the air, trailing light as the titillating tingle of energy rushed through her. Finishing the pattern, Terra thrust her hand upward, enacting her magic on the ground below, and the ground obeyed.

A clump of dirt and clay the size of Terra’s head ripped itself from the ground. It shot up into the air, going quite fast at first, but quickly losing momentum as the effect of the magic waned. It managed a good ten feet into the air before it finally ran out of steam and came crashing back down to the ground with a heavy thump.

Glaring at the clump, Terra stamped a foot in frustration while muttering to herself. “It’s too small still. I’ve got to go bigger.”

“Are you throwing dirt around?” Elric cut in, interrupting the elf’s half-whispered rantings.

Hearing her friends comment elicited a heavy sigh from Terra as she turned to face the kredger who was walking toward her with a satchel in hand. “I guess you could say that.”

“I thought you were supposed to be practicing,” Elric noted.

“Yeah, well I thought you were supposed to be making potions!” Terra retorted angrily.

Smirking, Elric reached into the bag he was carrying to pull out a small clay jar. “And I was, but now it’s time to test one of these guys out and see what it can do.”

“What is it? A bomb? Terra asked, peering at the unremarkable container.

Elric wagged a finger at Terra. “Ah ah. You first. What’s with the dirt throwing?”

Shoulders slumping, Terra looked down at the clump of dirt in disappointment. “Well, I was thinking that maybe I could use stone magic to collapse the cave, but …”

Before Terra could get past the word collapse, Elric was already snickering. “Hehe, good luck taking out a cave one divot at a time!”

Turning back, Terra leveled a withering glare at Elric. “You want to see what one of my force bolts feels like?”

“Unfortunately, I’ve got work to do, so I don’t have time to wait for you to actually hit me,” Elric rejoindered. “Speaking of work, this little guy is a smoke bomb. I couldn’t find any recipes for a normal bomb. I guess they never invented gunpowder here, assuming elements even work the same way on this weird planet. I figured we could use it to enact the ‘smoke ‘em out’ strategy from last time.”

“Cool,” Terra remarked, eyeing the jar with an impressed look in her eye. “Not as cool as actual magic, though.”

Elric rolled his eyes. “Yeah, whatever you say, dirt thrower. You wanna see what it can do or not?”

“Yeah, sorry,” Terra replied, gesturing for Elric to go ahead. “Throw away, good sir.”

“Fire in the hole!” Elric called right before he reared back and chucked the jar as hard as he could.

The ceramic container sailed through the air in a beautiful arc for quite a ways, a testament to Elric’s arm strength. Finally, though is crashed down with a loud crunch as the jar broke, splattering the gelatinous contents everywhere. Almost immediately, the goo began to smoke, starting with fine wisps but quickly building to a billowing, gray cloud that was thick enough to partially obscure vision, even outdoors in a breeze.

“Damn, that’s a lot of smoke,” Terra gasped as she watched it keep pouring out of the goop.

“Enough to smoke some scum buckets out of a cave, that’s for sure,” Elric added as he he too marveled at the bomb’s effectiveness. “I’ll make up a few just to be sure, though.”

“Yeah, they could have like the grand canyon of caves or something,” Terra agreed.

Elric nodded. “Exactly, and if not … well then they’re gonna be extra extra smokey.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

The hot rays of the sun beat down upon the rolling grasslands that were all Altanus could see in any direction. The heat was only partially countered by the slight breeze, leaving a day that was too hot for sturdy clothes and heavy armor. Unfortunately for the noble, he wore both, causing him to wipe frequently at his brow as he made his way through the wilderness.

As often as he wiped at his brow, Altanus glanced at his comrade even more. Adria rode to the side of him and a little ahead. Covered in fur, the feelan was likely sweltering in the heat, but she didn’t show it. She just kept her gaze impassively forward, not saying so much as a word.

The silence was what made Altanus keep looking toward her. Clearly, she was still mad at him about what had happened with the guards. He wanted to talk about it, to figure out a way to explain, but he couldn’t find the right words to broach the subject. As such, the silence had worn on ever since they’d left the manor. With every moment that it persisted, his standards for the right words fell.

“Adria, I … “ Altanus tried to begin, reaching the point of thinking that any words would be better than the silence. Even coming up with anything to say, though, wasn’t easy. “I’m sorry I wasn’t harsher on the guard.”

“No, you’re not,” Adria countered coolly. “You’re only saying that because you think I’m upset about how you handled it. You still think your way was the right way to do it.”

“No … I mean … “ Altanus trailed off not sure how to say anything without making things worse.

Adria turned toward him and smiled. “Don’t worry about it. I know you were just trying to not make things worse, and I suppose I’m grateful for that. It’s just … a shitty situation.”

“Yeah …” Altanus agreed. “It was so hard to not just punch that racist asshole right in the face.”

Adria laughed. “You have no idea. I almost tried to do it when there were two of them … with their swords in hand.” The mirth faded away after that. “It’s only going to get worse, isn’t?”

Altanus nodded. “Yes.”

The confirmation got a weary sigh from Adria. “It’s going to be really hard for me to just stand there and take that kind of shit.”

“It’ll be tough, but I think you’ll manage,” Altanus reassured the catwoman. “I’m more worried about the other two honestly?”

“Really? Why?” Adria asked. “Neither of them is gonna start a fight.”

“Because whether they think you’re some lesser thing or not, people still have to respect you as a warrior – like they would have to respect a bear they were trying to poke,” Altanus answered. “No one outside of us has to, or ever will, respect either of them even in their areas of expertise.”

Looking down thoughtfully, Adria nodded. “Well, what are we going to do about it then?”

Altanus shrugged helplessly. “I honestly don’t know. I’m not sure there’s anything we can do.”

“Come on. You’ve been wrangling the three of us for years, and we’ve all managed to have fun with it,” Adria retorted. “Surely you can think of something.”

Smiling, Altanus chuckled. “Thanks, but in the games we play, I’m the god not some grinning kid. I get to make all the world bits mesh to make sure you all get to have fun. That’s not possible here.”

Adria shook her head. “You’re a better game master than that. You’ll figure out a way, even if you are stuck as a mere player like the rest of us.”

“I hope so,” Altanus sighed. “Right now, I’m a little more worried about making sure we all survive this nonsense.”

That worry was met with a dismissive hand wave from Adria. “Psh, no one’s gonna die, because we’re gonna kick those other teams’ butts. Besides, we’ve already got Elric to worry about that. It’s his job, you know. He said so.”

“I suppose it is,” Altanus conceded, laughing softly. “Might be good to have more than one person concerned with our survival, though.”

Adria shrugged. “Maybe, but where’s the fun in that?”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

“So this is how you work your ‘magic’?” Terra remarked as she looked around the small alchemy lab.

The room was decorated in shelves and workbenches, both of which were strewn with various things. The shelves mostly had jars and bags, each carefully labeled with the sort of bizarre names one would expect of a witch’s ingredients. There were all manner of parts of strange beasts from livers to eyes each carefully preserved. Among the animal bits were various minerals and liquids as well, from fresh mountain spring water to a hunk of raw clay. All of it combined together to make for a very odd but pungent smell that crinkled the nose and dizzied the head.

While the shelves held ingredients, the benches held the various apparatus needed to mix them together. This amounted to what looked like some horror movie’s idea of a chemistry set with all manner of oddly shaped glass equipment and random flames to heat them. Most of the devices were currently working, carrying bubbling liquids in all colors and consistencies.

“Pretty much,” Elric answered as he walked over to one of the benches to adjust several of the flames.

“It stinks,” Terra remarked, her nose still as crinkled as the moment that she’d stepped inside the room

Elric chuckled. “Yeah, it does at that. You get used to it pretty quickly, though. Even gets to the point where you can detect all the little different smells and how they change as you work.”

“I’ll take your word on it,” Terra replied, covering her mouth and nose with one hand. “So what are you cooking up right now?”

“Oh, this is a corrosive acid that will melt steel and flesh,” Elric answered, pointing to one bench followed by a different one. “And that one is … well it’s basically a really potent molotov cocktail.”

Furrowing her brow, Terra peered at the two setups in order. “So can anyone learn how to make these things?”

“Well, yes, in theory. That’s sort of like saying anyone can learn to disarm bombs or be a surgeon, though,” Elric explained. “This requires a lot of knowledge and training as well as the smarts and manual dexterity to actually do it.”

“I’m sure it’s very hard,” Terra replied, her tone just a touch sarcastic, “but what I meant was, could our bandit friends have stuff like this?”

Elric blinked in surprise. “Uhm … I hadn’t thought of that. It’s certainly a possibility.”

“Fun,” Terra muttered. “I don’t suppose there’s a fire extinguisher potion?”

Elric shook his head. “No. Not that’s listed in my notes, anyway.”

Terra let out an annoyed sigh. “This is why I hate magic items. You never know when some schmuck is gonna just start chucking firebombs at you.”

“Isn’t that true of magic in general?” Elric remarked.

“No. Spells take time to cast, so you can see them coming. This shit is just ‘Oh look, a jar. Gah! I’m burning!’,” Terra spat in frustration, flailing her hands in the air in an imitation of being on fire.

Elric chuckled in amusement. “Well, you could always catch the jar. If it doesn’t break, the ingredients won’t mix and ignite.”

“Yeah, that’s what I want to do, try to catch the thing that will explode if I screw up,” Terra grumbled, pouting. The pout didn’t last long, though, as a realization hit her. “Hey, can I borrow one of your jars?”

Furrowing his brow in confusion, Elric shrugged. “I guess. why?”

“Because it’s made of clay. I want to see if that means stone magic will work on it,” Terra explained. “If it does, maybe I can figure out a way to throw it back, or at least deflect it.”

Elric rubbed at his chin thoughtfully. “Interesting … I don’t see why that wouldn’t work. Here, let me grab a few, and we’ll go test it out.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

There was barely a whisper of sound as Adria slipped through the tall grass. Having long ago dismounted in favor of stealth, she was now crouched so low that her eyes barely crested the plant growth around her. It was just enough to allow her look at her surroundings as she prowled along.

Surrounding the feelan was a series of bumps in the prairie that counted as hills in this area of the world. None were very tall, no more than fifty feet up, but they were enough to hinder vision and create a sort of honeycomb of gulches and valleys. It was somewhere in between the hills and the brush where the bandit’s cave was supposed to sit.

“Altanus probably already found it,” Adria muttered to herself. The two had separated back when they had dismounted, splitting up to cover the considerable amount of land that they had to search.

Continuing on, Adria snaked her way between another couple of hills. As she moved, her eyes continuously swept her surroundings, searching for not just caves, but any possible sign of bandits. It was as she rounded one particular hill that she found just such a sign.

Off in the distance, something flashed in the sunlight. Instantly, Adria’s head twitched that way. Her eyes narrowed to slits as she peered into the distance, looking for a repeat of that flash. A moment later it came, clearly sunlight reflecting off something metal.

“Bandits,” Adria purred, a grin spreading across her lips. Now, she could start to have some fun.

Dipping lower into the grass, Adria snuck her way onward, moving ever toward the source of that flash. Occasionally, she would stop, poking her head back up for just a couple of moments to check her surroundings. Once she had, she’d duck right back down, determined not to be found.

With every search, Adria spotted more and more. First, it was the shapes of a pair of men standing watch atop one of the taller hills in the area. After that, it was signs of frequent travel, with areas of the grass beaten down by foot and hoof. Finally, she spotted the cave, nestled under an overhang along the side of one of the hills.

Even once she had spotted the cave, Adria continued closer. She needed more information than just the location. First, she circled the hill the cave was in, searching for hints as to the number of bandits as well as secondary exits. After that, she moved on to the nearby hills, searching them all. That was when she made her next discovery.

At the foot of one of the nearby hills, a man sized hole covered by a lid of sticks and grass. Inside, there was a tunnel, a tunnel that led back toward the primary hill. This was the escape tunnel that she had been trying to find.

Adria didn’t linger at the hole for long, though before moving on, searching for more information. There wasn’t much to be had. The wear and tear on the ground suggested a pretty large number of travelers. There was no way to get an accurate count, though, and she couldn’t see inside the dark cave no matter how close she got to it.

Frustrated, Adria peered at the cave, trying to decide what to do. She was tempted to sneak inside, especially since here was no sign of a sentry on the actual entrance. She was sure that she could get in, peek around, and still get out without being noticed. It was a risk, though, one that she knew would having Altanus yelling at her if she took it. Her husband probably would, too, for that matter.

“Ugh, can’t you guys at least let me have fun when you aren’t even here?” Adria grumbled before turning to go. She’d handle the cave next time.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Moving quickly across the grounds, Altanus went over the information that Adria had given him in his head. As he did, he directed his feet toward Elric’s alchemy lab. He needed the group together to plan a strategy.

Coming to the lab, Altanus quickly pulled open the door and stepped through. Inside, Elric stood in front of the benches, making some minor adjustments to his equipment. “Are you busy?”

Glancing over his shoulder, Elric shook his head. “Nope. Welcome back by the way. Did the scouting go well?”

“About as expected,” Altanus answered. “Have you seen Terra? I want everyone together so we can work out a strategy.”

“Might have to leave Terra out of it then.” Elric noted. “She said she was going to bed. Can’t blame her, either. She looked about ready to fall over after all the practice and testing we did today.”

Altanus raised an eyebrow at that. “Testing? Should I be expecting some crazy new strategies?”

“Well, I’m not sure ‘crazy’ is the right term, but I do like the idea of being a mad scientist,” Elric mused before getting back on track. “We’ve cooked up a few new tricks to throw the bandits way, that’s for sure.”

“I’m glad for any edge we can get,” Altanus replied. “Now come on, Adria’s waiting.”

“Yikes, better hurry then,” Elric joked as he made a couple last second adjustments before hurrying over to the door.

After that, it wasn’t long before the pair made it to the sitting room where Adria waited. She was stretched out on the couch, absently clawing at the upholstery. She looked up languidly when the men entered. “Finally … wait where’s Terra?”

“Sleeping apparently,” Altanus answered.

Adria rolled her eyes. “That girl is always tuckering herself out.”

“I bet it’s because of the boobs,” Elric added with a snicker.

“Well if using magic is anything like exercising, it makes sense that she’d be tired,” Altanus replied, ignoring Elric’s comment. “Anyway, it looks like it’ll just be the three of us tonight. Adria catch Elric up on what we learned.”

Adria shrugged. “Not much. The cave is under a big hill. The entrance is big enough for three men on horseback riding abreast. They have two lookouts on top of the hill, and one escape tunnel – that I could find anyway. I couldn’t get a count of their numbers, but judging by their tracks, I’d guess twenty or thirty.”

That last bit got a skeptical look from Elric. “That sounds like a lot for the four of us.”

“I’ll be mobilizing the manor guard for this as well,” Altanus told him.

“Ugh! We don’t need the help of those bucketheads!” Adria protested.

“Yes, we do,” Altanus countered before turning to Elric. “Unless you and Terra cooked up something truly amazing.”

Elric shook his head. “Nothing that good. I’ve got some smoke bombs to get them to come out of their hole and couple of firebombs to make them regret it when they do.”

“Firebombs?” Altanus asked.

“Molotov cocktails except they burn bigger. Good coverage up to about fifteen feet from impact,” Elric answered.

Altanus nodded. “That should be very helpful. Anything on Terra’s side?”

“Some interesting ideas, but nothing we can build a strategy around,” Elric answered.

“Then we’ll have to stick with using the guard to bolster our forces,” Altanus decided.

Adria groaned. “Fine, but if one of those assholes gets in my way out there …”

“I’ll make sure they know to stay away from the angry cat lady,” Altanus promised.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter 09 - Day 06

A strong wind swept over the grasslands as the group of riders made their way through the series of hills. It was slow going, a necessity to keep the noise down, so that it did not echo through the ravines to their quarry. The path was also rather roundabout, but one that Adria was certain would be hidden from the bandit’s lookouts.

The feelan was currently at the front of the group with Altanus riding beside her. Behind them were ten guards, half the town’s compliment of professional soldiers. Back in the middle of those guards rode Terra and Elric, the latter of which was guiding a pair of pack horses loaded with carefully stored alchemical concoctions.

In the front, Altanus held up a fist to stop the group before turning around to address them. “This is as far as we go for now. You two are helping our alchemist. You three have the escape tunnel. The rest of you are with me.”

Even as Altanus gave orders, Adria dismounted and started back through the crowd of horses to Elric. “Alright, where are these smoke bombs I’m throwing?”

“One sec,” Elric replied, holding up a finger to get Adria to wait. Quickly, he hopped off his own horse and hurried back to one of the pack horses. There, he pulled out a pair of clay jars to hand to his wife. “There ya go. Make sure you toss them in as far as you can.”

“Got it,” Adria assured him, adding a nod for good measure. She started to turn to go, but quickly turned back to her husband. Leaning forward, she gave Elric a quick peck on the cheek. “For luck.” With that, she padded off to get into position for the coming battle.

Almost as soon as Adria was gone, Altanus rode up with two guards behind him. “Now I want to make this very clear. The kredger is in charge of you two. You do what he says, no questions asked. If he tells me after the battle that you ignored an order or if he or the elf die, I will have you executed as traitors. Am I clear on this?”

“Yes, m’lord,” the two guards mumbled, clearly unhappy with their assignments.

“Good,” Altanus stated. Then, with a quick nod to Elric and Terra, he rode off to get the rest of the guards into position for the battle ahead.

Returning to his horse, Elric mounted again and pointed toward a nearby hill. “Alright, our job is to get to the top of that. You two will be helping me with our bombardment. Make sure you handle the jars with care. If you break one, we all go up in flames.”

The two guards’ only answer was a cold stare and a slight nod of their heads. It was a far cry from the respect that they’d showed Altanus, but Elric figured that it was as good as he was going to get out of them. As long as they actually did what they were told, the rest didn’t matter, so he just started off up the hill.

Riding up beside Elric, Terra leaned over to whisper to him. “He really fits the part of a lord doesn’t he? Kinda makes you wanna fight harder.”

Looking over, Elric saw Terra pointing off toward Altanus who was busy asserting his authority with regal precision. “Well, he’s got a lot of practice from putting up with the three of us all these years, but yeah … it does seem to suit him. I’ve got plenty of reason to fight hard, though, with Adria down there in the trenches.”

“Well don’t worry. I’ll keep an eye on her, y’know, since I’m not doing anything in particular this time,” Terra assured him.

Taking a moment to blink, Elric shook his head. “Great, now I’m even more worried about her.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

“Stupid bandits,” Adria mocked to herself as she slipped under the overhang that hid the cave without so much as a hint that the lookouts had spotted her approach. “Too damn lax.”

Corralling her amusement, Adria slowed her pace, inching toward the entrance. Unlike during the scouting mission, this time, she was allowed to go inside. In fact, the mission required her to do exactly that. Just chucking the smoke bombs at the front door wouldn’t be enough to fill the interior with smoke. She had to get them much deeper into the cave than that.

The actual entrance was the most treacherous part of the mission. From the outside, Adria couldn’t actually see very far into the cave. Unfortunately, she would also be outlined against the light when she tried to enter, along with being virtually blind as her eyes adjusted. There would be that one terrifying moment where any guards or bandits waiting there could skewer her with anything they could shoot or throw and she wouldn’t be able to do a thing about it.

Coming up against the edge of the entrance, Adria ground to a stop to listen carefully. It was hard to hear well over the sound of her own breathing, rapid with both apprehension and exhilaration. All she had to do was take one more step to set everything into motion.

With a sudden burst of speed, Adria cut around the corner, ducking into the nearest shadowy recess that she could find. No arrows leapt out to pierce here, nor were there any cries of alarm. It would seem that the first step had gone well.

Slowly, Adria’s eyes adjusted, giving her a view of a tunnel that led deeper into the hill. No longer afraid, she started down it, padding softly along the rocky path. Within just a few feet, she rounded a slight bend, and a new light appeared at the other end of the tunnel. This light was the orange of flame, implying torches or lanterns that lit what seemed to be a larger opening up ahead. Adria just kept right on going.

The source of the light proved to be several lanterns and fires scattered around a large oval cavern. Along with the light, there were makeshift beds, tables, and chairs, most of which were occupied by one bandit or another. The whole place gave off a musty smell that crinkled Adria’s nose, a mix of unwashed man, wet dirt, and stale air.

“This should help with that,” Adria muttered, a grin spreading across her face as she pulled one of the smoke bombs from a satchel at her hip, shifting her spear to her off hand in the process. Holding back, she took just a moment to carefully gauge her throw before leaning around the corner and whipping the jar through the air.

The flung container sailed majestically out over the cavern for a couple beautiful moments before it met the ground. There, it shattered loudly, spewing its contents around the area. Those contents quickly began to smoke, at first wisps then great clouds, clouds that soon started to fill up the cavern.

Not stopping to watch the show, Adria grabbed the second bomb and launched it out as well. Once it shattered, she spun, darting back the way she’d come as fast as she could. She didn’t want to be slow when the next part of the plan was enacted.

The moment she broke into the sunlight again, Adria cut to the side, racing along the base off the hill until she cleared the overhang. After that, she cut again, this time toward the hill itself. There, she slowed, staying low in the brush as she started up the hill toward the lookout post above.

As she moved, Adria listened carefully for sounds of panic, either from above or below. At first, there was nothing, thanks to the earth smothering the sound, but soon faint sounds could be heard echoing from the cave. That made Adria pick up her pace, trying to close as much distance as she could between her and the top of the hill. There were only a couple of dozen feet between her and the lookouts when a loud yell from the valley below rang out.

Instantly, Adria abandoned stealth as the two lookouts turned toward the yell and consequently toward her. She also broke into a full out run, switching the grip on her spear as she began to move. One step later, she had it up in throwing position. Another step after that, and she had launched it toward her enemies.

The two lookouts were so stunned they didn’t even try to dodge. That failure earned one a spear in the chest, planting him on his back in the process. The other finally snapped out of his stupor at the sight of that, at least enough to start fumbling for both his bow and his sword at the same time. He had neither ready when the feelan’s axe’s descended upon him.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

“Way to go, Adria,” Altanus breathed in relief as he saw the feelan exit the cave entrance followed closely by the smoke that she’d delivered. Even so, he waited, staying low in the brush that he was using for cover for his spying. He didn’t even draw his sword.

For several moments, nothing seemed to happen. Only the trickle of smoke from the cave entrance changed, thickening and darkening. Then finally, the first man, yelling in panic, burst forth, followed on his heels by several more.

“Alright, Elric. Your turn,” Altanus mumbled, turning from the entrance to look up at the hill above him.

Sure enough, a stout figure appeared at the top of the hill right on cue. As soon as he was visible, he started to spin, whipping around a large leather sling. When he came around, he let loose, launching a head-sized projectile through the air. Aided by both the sling and the height of the hill, the jar soared out quite a ways before it finally crashed down.

The moment the clay pot hit the ground, it burst into flames which promptly scattered outward like water from a balloon. Everything the fire touched ignited as well, from the scrubby grass and bush, to the flesh and clothes of bandits. Panic quickly turned into full on terror as men screamed in agony while they ran around desperately trying to avoid or snuff out the flames. A second jar only made things worse.

Nodding at the plan’s smooth progression, Altanus finally abandoned his look out spot to hurry back around the bend of the hill. There, his horse as well as five mounted guardsmen waited for him. They were the final part of the plan.

“Draw swords!” Altanus ordered as he rushed over to hop onto his mount in one smooth movement. Immediately, he yanked his own sword out, kicked his horse into motion, and shouted, “Ride!” After that, all Altanus could hear was the sound of hoofs pounding on dirt as he and his men broke into a gallop. Rounding the hill they had used to hide their approach, they bore down upon the panicked mess of men and flames outside the cave.

Already, the fires were starting to die down as the flame consumed all of its alchemical fuel and was left with only some minor brush fires and the men that were still alight. Several bandits were already down, though, and the others were in complete disarray. They had no way to mount a real defense against the cavalry charge. A few tried to draw weapons, but most just broke and ran, scattering before the thunderous death that descended upon them.

Altanus guided his horse toward a trio of men that had all drawn weapons, a couple of swords and a dagger. Instinctively, the lord ducked low in his saddle and drove the horse to even greater speed. Sure enough, faced with the charging beast, the men in front of him tried to scattered rather than be trampled. They were not all fast enough, however, allowing Altanus to slash one across the back as he raced passed them. No counter attacks came his way.

Reining his horse in, Altanus got it turned around, preparing for another pass at the trio. By the time he did, however, there was nothing to attack. The remaining two men had broken with the rest of their comrades, and were even then being run down by some of the guardsmen whose blades were already red with blood. Every bandit that was caught was hacked down in what was rapidly turning into a merciless massacre.

For a moment, Altanus paused, unable to do anything but watch the battle. The screams of the dying filled the air as man after man was hacked down. All that was left behind was a field of blood, ash, and corpses.

Gritting his teeth, Altanus tugged his horse’s reins and got moving again. He couldn’t let himself get distracted here. There was still another part of the battle to worry about, possibly the most important part at that.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

“Oh my God …” Elric breathed in stunned disbelief as he watched men dance in the flames that he had created. While they burned, their screams echoing up from the valley below to reach Elric’s ears. He stood there stupefied as the cavalry started to move, descending on their hapless victims with merciless steel.

Suddenly a hand shook Elric’s shoulder, snapping him partially from his trance. He looked to the side in a daze, seeing Terra standing there. “You okay?”

“Yeah …” Elric murmured uncertainly as he looked at the elf. She seemed to look a little pale to him for some reason.

Terra nodded rapidly. “Okay … good … good … that means it’s time to move. You need to give the order.”

“Huh, oh right,” Elric mumbled before turning to two guards that had been assigned to help him. The plan called for him and Terra to meet up with Altanus at the escape tunnel. “Let’s move.”

The two guardsmen nodded, turning to go back and mount their horses. Terra turned as well, moving slowly back to her own horse and clambering up onto it. It took Elric a moment to follow suit, but once he did they set off.

Unfortunately, the hill that the escape tunnel exited at was on the far side of the hill from the one that had been used for the attack. That meant it was going to be quite the ride to get there, especially since Elric’s group was the farthest away to begin with. All he could do was hope that the others would be okay until they got there.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Yanking her spear free from the lookout’s chest, Adria wiped it callously on his corpse before turning to look down the hill. Behind her, the battle was just starting to be joined. It was looking like it would be over soon, though, as the guards were overrunning the panicked bandits with ease.

“Guess that means it’s time to go deal with the top dog,” Adria mused, turning to leave the one sided battle to its obvious conclusion.

With a twirl of her spear, Adria broke into a run, heading down the opposite side of the hill from the one that she’d climbed up. Below, she could just see the trio of guardsmen moving into position at the tunnel’s exit. They were the first line of defense against Mask, but Adria doubted that such incompetents would be enough to stop him.

A moment later, Adria’s expectations were put to the test as the first bandit popped out from the escape tunnel. The guards descended upon him without remorse, driving blades at him from three different directions at once. He tried his best to parry and dodge, but he still ended up getting skewered. He was just the first, though.

Even as the guards took care of the initial bandit, another appeared. This one only popped his head and shoulders out, a head that was covered with a hood and mask. In each hand, he held a crossbow which he easily trained on his distracted foes. Even as the bandit used for bait fell, two of the guards did as well. Only then did the masked man surge outward, discarding his spent crossbows and drawing a sword and dagger along the way. Behind him followed another trio of bandits ready to make good on their escape.

“No you don’t!” Adria growled, shifting her grip on her spear before launching it toward the group.

Down the way, the masked man overwhelmed the remaining guard quickly with his two weapons, lodging the guard’s sword in the dirt before planting a dagger in his neck. That move left his back to Adria as the spear sailed in, but happenstance worked in Mask’s favor. One of his allies happened to step into the spears path, taking it in the throat and saving Mask from a similar fate in the process.

Even as their ally fell, Mask and his two friends spun orienting at the charging feelan. Unafraid of their numbers, Adria just rushed in, drawing her axes as she went. One of the bandits stepped forward to meet her as she came, but quickly regretted that decision. Her right axe cut across in front of her to sweep his weapon aside. Spinning even at a full run, she brought he left axe around to hack it deep into the man’s neck, swatting him out of her way as she continued on the offensive. Head barely clinging to his shoulders, the man flopped onto the ground in a pool of his own blood.

“Enough of this!” Mask hissed, shoving past his final remaining ally to meet Adria’s charge. Meet it he did, catching first one axe then the other on his weapons, grinding Adria’s advance to a halt.

Seeing her offense stopped, Adria could only grin as she locked one axe blade against Mask’s sword. “Ooo good, you’re better than your lackies.”

With only a grunt in response, Mask shoved Adria as hard as he could, forcing the clinch to break. Rather than fall back, Adria just spun out of the way, letting Mask overbalance forward as she slipped her axe free. Her other hand was what she brought around, though, preparing to strike at Mask’s exposed flank.

Movement from the corner of her eye made Adria realize her mistake. She tried to abort the attack and pull back, but she was too committed to get out of the way entirely. All she could manage was to twist a little, spoiling the aim of the other remaining bandit just enough to keep his sword from plunging deep into her side. Instead, it hit her leather armor which deflected it a bit, leaving it to shear through the material before tearing a bloody line along Adria’s stomach.

Off balance, Adria stumbled back, trying to get her feet back under her and her weapons up. As she did, the wound she’d sustained burned painfully. Blood leaked down from the gash, staining the front of her armor with little rivers of red.

Mask and his ally took no pity on the wounded feelan, lunging forward on the offensive immediately. Adria parried frantically, catching swords and daggers as she fell back under the onslaught. Mask was not content to let her just fall back, though. He barreled forward in a reckless charge, using the speed of the rush to force Adria to stand her ground and defend lest she be bowled over. Her left axe swept his dagger thrust out wide while she brought her right up to parry his follow up overhead slash with the sword. That locked their blades together, sword hooked beneath the head of Adria’s axe, even as the other man came in at her exposed right.

The incoming strike vanished as soon as it began. It was robbed from the bandit along with his head as Altanus charged past on his horse. A moment later, the man’s headless corpse flopped to the ground, no longer a threat to Adria.

Growling in frustration, Mask took advantage of the lock and his forward momentum to shove Adria. This time, he didn’t overcommit, preventing Adria from taking advantage of the maneuver with another spin. Not having the weight or position to overpower the effort, Adria just let it push her back, dancing lightly on her feet as she prepared for the follow up attack.

Rather than rush into the gap that he had created, Mask fell back, tossing his dagger aside. Seeing that, Adria could only furrow her brow in confusion until he reached behind his back. When the hand came back around, it held a jar of clay that it launched Adria’s way.

Knowing full well that such jars were a lethal threat, Adria desperately tossed herself to the side. The jar flew past her, to shatter on the grass, spewing a hissing liquid onto the dirt and brush that ate into both with a hungry crackle. Adria had no time to notice that, though, as she turned her dive into a roll to try to get back to her feet. Mask was already snatching a second jar from his belt, raising it overhead to throw it at the still recovering feelan.

With a loud crack, the jar shattered before it could even leave Mask’s hand. Its contents, freed from their container, dumped right on top of his head and shoulder melting quickly through his mask and hood to eat at the flesh hiding below. Screaming in agony, Mask fell to the ground, clutching at his head as he rolled about in the grass.

Breathing heavily, Adria stared at the writhing man with disbelief. She kept right on staring as Altanus stepped toward the man. His blade flashed as he thrust it down, driving it into the man’s heart and putting an end to his agony.

“You alright?” Altanus asked as he turned to Adria.

Adria nodded dazedly. “Yeah … what ...”

Rather than answer, Altanus just pointed his free hand off to the side. Turning her gaze, Adria saw Elric and Terra on their horses a couple dozen yards away. The former was clutching a hand to his chest in an obvious sign of relief while the latter had a smug grin on her face.

“Behold the power of stone magic!” Terra shouted triumphantly.

“Yeah well I’d rather behold the power of some healing magic!” Adria shouted back. “Getting cut hurts!”

Hearing that, Terra slumped into a pout. “Fine! See if I save you next time!”

Chuckling, Adria turned to Altanus. “I guess that means we win?”

Smiling, Altanus nodded. “Yep. Quest complete.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter 10 - Day 06

“To victory!” the four friends cheered as they clinked their goblets together. Each then tossed back a hefty swallow of wine to celebrate the defeat of The Painted Hand.

“Ah … the Calidorn cellars are especially good tonight,” Adria purred in between finishing her first gulp and going for a second one.

From beside the feelan, Elric gave his wife a reproving glance. “Hey, take it easy. You lost quite a bit of blood, and alcohol isn't good for healing.”

“Bah! I’m fine!” Adria exclaimed dismissively, using her free hand to pull up her top enough to show off her fur covered and unmarred tummy. “See, perfectly healed,” she declared, leaning over to Elric to add suggestively. “I should thank you properly for that, by the way.”

Elric raised an eyebrow at that suggestion. “Oh really? Because, I could think of a fe–”

“Ahem!” Altanus coughed loudly to interrupt the flirting couple. “You two do remember you’re not alone right now, right?”

As if provoked by the interruption, Adria only grew more bold. Turning, she twisted Elric’s head around to face hers, so that she could plant a long passionate kiss on his lips. At the same time, she pressed herself up against the kredger in a most inappropriate manner.

Altanus rolled his eyes. “Or just ignore me.”

“I think my wife and I might need some alone time,” Elric announced when he finally came up from the kiss for a breath of fresh air.

“A lot of alone time,” Adria purred, looking like she was about to maul the hapless man in her claws.

“Yes, a lot of alone time. Excuse us,” Elric agreed, nodding enthusiastically. Setting his goblet aside, Elric squirmed out from under Adria, only to grab her wrist and pull her bodily to her feet.

The feelan yelped in surprise as she was yanked up to her feet. That surprise quickly turned to a suggestive look for her husband. “Mmm … I think we’re gonna need to put that strength of yours to work tonight.”

“Oh we ar-” Elric started to respond before remembering that he was still in front of his two friends. “-e going to go to the bedroom first,” he finished, before leading his wife quickly out of the sitting room and off to more interesting activities.

As the married couple left, Terra giggled in amusement. “They’re certainly having a good time tonight.”

“Well, we did finish our first quest today, so I’d say they’ve earned it,” Altanus responded, taking a demure sip of his wine.

“So, what did I earn then?” Terra inquired.

Furrowing his brow, Altanus gave Terra a confused look. “What?”

“Hey, I did good too, right? I took out the head honcho and saved Adria from a face full of acid in the process!” Terra boasted. “I should get some kind of reward for it.”

Altanus chuckled. “And what makes you think I would be the one to give it to you?”

Terra shrugged. “You are the lord whose town I just saved, aren’t you?”

“Oh, now you saved the whole town, too?” Altanus questioned, smirking in amusement.

Terra nodded assertively. “Singlehandedly!”

That claim proved Altanus’s limit, causing him to burst into laughter. “Hahaha, well then I suppose you do deserve a reward. What would you ask of lowly lord like myself, o great and powerful sorc–”

“Don’t forget beautiful,” Terra cut in vainly.

“What would you ask of lowly lord like myself, o great, powerful, and beautiful, sorceress?” Altanus asked with false graciousness.

Terra grinned smugly at the praise. “I think that right there will do nicely.”

“Really?” Altanus inquired, surprised. “You just wanted a compliment?”

Terra nodded. “Yep. They’re pretty hard to get around here.”

Shaking his head in disbelief, Altanus smiled. “I guess that’s true …”

“I mean, seriously,” Terra agreed. “I saved Adria from not having a face and she didn’t even thank me! What’s a gu-er-girl gotta do to get a little gratitude, huh?!”

Altanus chuckled. “That was a pretty neat trick by the way.”

“Thanks,” Terra replied. “Elric and I came up with it after we realized that basically anybody could be carrying one of his crazy potions. Works on glass jars too. Not metal, though, unfortunately. It would’ve been awesome if I could go around shattering people’s swords with just a snap of my fingers.”

“You’d be quite the terror on the battlefield, if you could manage that,” Altanus remarked.

Terra shrugged. “I’m already a terror on the battlefield.”

“No arguments from me,” Altanus replied. “In fact, everyone has been quite impressive when it comes down to it.”

“Yeah, I think Elric was probably our MVP for this battle, though,” Terra commented. “He basically ousted the bandits from their lair and then routed them all by himself.”

Altanus nodded in agreement. “Probably, but Adria set that up and kept Mask from getting away, then you saved her from Mask.”

“Hey, don’t leave yourself out,” Terra reminded him. “I saw you save her before I did. Y’know that girl needs her butt saved a lot, actually.”

“Well, she has been the only one on the frontline in both of the fights that we’ve been in,” Altanus pointed out. “Relying on us to support her is sort of a requirement of doing her job.”

“You’re right,” Terra admitted. “I guess it just never felt like we were saving her butt back when we were sitting around a table rolling dice.”

Altanus chuckled. “Yeah, well a lot about this place doesn’t feel like it did back on the table top. I think we can both attest to that.”

“I’ll certainly have a whole different perspective on playing female characters after this.” Terra agreed, looking down at herself. “Not that I ever did much crossplaying.”

“How is it anyway … now that you’ve had some time to get used to it, I mean?” Altanus asked.

Looking down at herself, Terra shrugged. “I don’t know … better, I guess. At the very least, I feel like I can handle it for a couple months until we can get back to our real bodies. It’s weird, though, sometimes … I sorta feel myself … slipping into the role I guess is how I’d say it. It’s hard to describe.”

“I know the feeling,” Atlanus replied, looking at the beautiful elf girl as well and dealing with the feelings that doing so spawned within him. “Like you’re not quite yourself anymore.”

Terra nodded. “Do you think we’ll just keep slipping further and further?”

Altanus shrugged. “I don’t know, but I hope not.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

The night sky of Tannen was truly a thing of beauty. The air was so clear and the world so free of light that there was nothing to distract from the sea of stars up above. Adding to the majesty was the trio of moons that the world possessed. One was like earth’s moon, silver in color, but the other two were blue and red respectively. Each had its own phase as well with the blue one being barely a sliver at the moment, the red one being nearly full, and the silver one being somewhere in the middle.

Looking up at that sky, Altanus didn’t know what he was supposed to think. Was he supposed to be awed by it? Was he supposed to be worried by it? Was it supposed to make him long for home? Was it supposed to make him wish to stay in Tannen forever? It was, like so much of his world these days, full of uncertainties.

“Pretty sky,” Adria remarked softly.

Turning his head to the side, Altanus saw Adria standing only a few feet away. “You are scary quiet. You know that?”

Adria grinned mischievously at the compliment. “I know. It’s great. So what brings you out here in the middle of the night? Can’t sleep?”

“Yeah,” Altanus replied, turning back to the sky. “What about you? I thought you and your husband were … ‘celebrating’.”

“Oh, I wore him out a while ago,” Adria answered. “He’s got amazing stamina now, but he’s still a guy. Certain parts just don’t keep going after enough times.”

Altanus chuckled uncomfortably at the implication. “I’ll take your word on that.”

“You don't have to. You’ve got your own ‘certain part’ now, so you could see for yourself,” Adria remarked.

“Yeah … I’m not doing that,” Altanus replied, feeling a strange mix of disgust and intrigue at the prospect.

That response got a confused look from Adria. “Why not? That’s like one of the first things I’d want to try if I got turned into a guy, especially if Elric got swapped too. I’d love to just po–”

“Ahem!” Altanus coughed loudly and uncomfortably.

Adria chuckled. “Sorry. I’m still a little revved up at the moment.”

“I can tell,” Altanus told her.

“So, anyway …” Adria segued. “Why can’t you sleep?”

“Worried,” Altanus answered simply.

“About what?” Adria inquired.

Unsure how to answer, Altanus shrugged. “Everything?”

Adria laughed. “Well that’s your problem. You’ll never sleep again if you’re going to let absolutely everything bother you. You have to narrow it down a little.”

“Easy for you to say,” Altanus retorted. “You don’t worry about anything.”

“That’s not true,” Adria countered. “I worried today that I might get shot the moment I stepped foot in the cave. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to twist out of the way enough to keep myself from being eviscerated by an enemy’s sword. I worried that I was about to get coated in searing acid. What I didn’t do, was worry about things that were beyond my ability to even guess at.”

Altanus smirked. “You know, you’re pretty smart, when you’re not trying to hump your husband right in front of Terra and me, anyway.”

“You woulda loved the show and you know it,” Adria shot back confidently.

Altanus shrugged. “Maybe. It’s not every day I get a chance to see a cat and badger going at it.”

“Trust me, it’s even wilder than it sounds,” Adria assured him, giving Altanus a wink for good measure.

Rolling his eyes, Altanus let out an exasperated groan. “I did not need to know that.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Fire. That was all Elric could see, that and shapes within the flames. They were human shapes, too, dancing and spinning around wildly. No, they were skeletons, charred black and rattling around like puppets on strings. No, they were men clawing at themselves as their flesh was seared away. One thing was certain, though. No matter what shape they were, they were screaming.

Gasping, Elric bolted upright. Around him, the flames faded away, replaced by the dark of the bedroom that he shared with his wife. He couldn’t feel Adria’s warmth beside him, though, nor could he find her as his hand reached over in search of something real to anchor him.

Alone in the room, the darkness seemed to deepen around Elric. It was like a blanket, a cold, wet, black blanket that wanted to wrap itself around him. It felt like it wanted to suck the very breath from his lungs and the heat from his body, leaving nothing but a cold, empty husk behind.

Panic gripping him, Elric twisted around to reach for the nightstand. Fumbling about, he finally managed to find the lantern. With shaky hands, he somehow got the thing lit, driving away the darkness with the soft, warm glow of the flame.

Yanking his gaze from the fire, Elric buried his face in his hands. He took a few moments to just breath, steadying himself after the nightmarish dream. Once his breathing slowed, he gave his face a quick rub before finally looking up again.

The room around him was just as Elric remembered it. It wasn’t very extravagant, but it also wasn’t a fiery battlefield filled with the screams of men as they burned to death. No, this was a safe place, a place of rest and relaxation. It was a place where he could make love to his wife and sleep away his weariness.

“I should leave the flamethrowing to Terra,” Elric muttered to himself as he slipped out of bed.

Moving across the room, Elric swiped a bottle of wine from where he and Adria had left it before really getting into their fun. It hadn’t served much purpose back then, but he was glad for it now. The smooth rich liquid calmed his nerves and reminded him of the good things in life.

“Speaking of good things,” Elric mused as he looked around the room. “I wonder where my wife has run off to?”

Thinking of Adria brought back the memories of the night before the terror. Adria had been wild, insatiable in a way that Elric had never seen his wife. She’d worn him out completely, even as tough as he was now, and had still wanted more. It had definitely been something else.

“I should go find her and see if she still wants more,” Elric decided, taking the bottle of wine with him as he left his room in search of his wife. Even if she wasn’t in the mood anymore, she always did a great job of making him forget everything but her.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Candlelight flickered softly, dancing lightly over the pages of the pages of the book spread out on the desk. The page that it was open to read Kingdom of Mettelan in bold block letters at the top. Beneath the book, a map was also spread out, showing the kingdom in its entirety. It wasn’t some tiny fantasy kingdom with one small town and a king to lord over it. It was a real country, full of towns and cities and dozens of noble families.

Sitting in front of the desk, Terra absently brushed a lock of hair out of her face as she peered at the map. She wasn’t really looking at any one place, but at the thing as a whole, just taking it all in. There were just so many places out there, each with interesting aspects all their own.

The sound of the door opening pulled Terra from her thoughts. Twisting in her chair, she looked back to see Altanus enter. As he did, he smiled and remarked, “Surprised to see you still up.”

“Why’s that? You think you’ve got some monopoly on late night brooding?” Terra asked jokingly.

Chuckling, Altanus shook his head. “No, not at all. You just have a tendency to fall asleep early is all.”

“That’s not my fault!” Terra protested defensively. “Magic is hard work!”

“I’m aware,” Altanus informed the elf, not bothering to point out that she often wore herself out even when she wasn’t using much magic. “So, what were you brooding about, anyway?” Altanus segued as he walked over to the desk to see what lay there. “A map of the kingdom?”

Terra nodded. “I’m trying to figure out where we’ll end up going next.”

“What makes you think we’re going anywhere?” Altanus inquired. “We have everything we need right here in Lyr.”

“Not everything,” Terra countered. “We’re supposed to be sharpening our skills and gathering resources for the contest, remember? With the bandits dealt with, there is nothing else for us to do here.”

Altanus winced ever so slightly at Terra’s assessment of the situation. He knew she was right. He’d thought about their future a lot, but that didn’t mean that he liked it. Things were much easier in Lyr, not just because their base was in the town, but because he had authority there, authority that he could use to protect his friends. If they went elsewhere, they would be in other people’s domains at the mercy of the prejudices of the world. “There may be other things for us to do here.”

“If there were, I think we’d have heard about them by now,” Terra replied logically before pointing at the map. “Besides, look at the map here. Lyr sits far away from anything remotely hostile. It’s a perfect little starter town, but we’re not newbies anymore. If we aren’t challenged, we won’t get better.”

“You’re right,” Altanus agreed. “So where did you think we might go next?”

Terra shrugged. “I don’t know. There aren’t exactly little yellow exclamation points on this thing to let me know where the quests are.”

That remark got a laugh from Altanus. “There sure aren’t. I do have a few ideas of where we might go next. It’ll depend on what we want to work on, though.”

“What do you mean?” Terra questioned.

“Well, some places are good for politics, some for combat skills, and some for resources, “Altanus explained. “We’ll have to figure out what we think we should focus on next, and then go somewhere where we can work on that.”

Terra nodded in understanding. “You’ve already thought about this a lot, huh?”

“A bit,” Altanus replied modestly.

Nodding, Terra rose from her seat and stretched. “Mmm … good. That means that I can finally get some sleep.”

Watching Terra move, it took Altanus a moment for his mind to register what the elf girl had said. “Oh … okay. Sleep well, then.”

“You should get some sleep too,” Terra told him.

Altanus shook his head. “No, there are a couple of things I want to check before bed.”

“Suit yourself,” Terra replied with a shrug. “Try not to stay up too late, though. Tomorrow is a new adventure.”

The End

Sort of … if you’d like to read more about these character’s and their ongoing adventure check out my site to read on as continuations have already been posted.

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