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Familiar Territory (Part 1)

A Tale of L aelig;rnon by Suzanne Campbell, copyright 2000

Chapter 1 - The Companions

The Snowbound Inn was crowded, as usual. Being one of the few mixed-race inns in Smashtown, a primarily Troll-inhabited town nestled within the Northern mountains called The Wall, it attracted an eclectic mix of patrons. Here, Elf, Troll, Kobalt, Orc, and Human could intermingle without too much comment. The air was redolent with the smells of spicy stew and fresh bread as well as the yeasty tang of ale. The serving girls bustled about the full tables, slightly harried yet most with good cheer. There was a constant hum of conversation, most in Mountain Tongue, but occasionally one could hear the musical sounds of Elven, the harsh and guttural sounds of Troll, or the cultured and refined sounds of Kordarian. The happy clanking of mugs and platters, with the occasional burst of laughter from one table or another lent the inn a genial ambiance, re-affirming it's reputation as an outstanding place to meet and converse.

Seager Avalanche, the troll proprietor, looked on from his place behind the bar, large hands constantly busy but eyes sharp as he scanned the crowd. His eyes returned to a group huddled around a table tucked in the corner of the dining hall. The amount of weaponry carried by the group was rather formidable, but Seager trusted himself to be a good judge of character, and he did not expect any trouble from them. He watched them out of simple curiosity and a long-time habit of keeping track of everything that went on at the Snowbound.

One of the humans seemed to be a native from these parts of the Wall. She was short and stocky, with long, thick, unruly blue-black hair in an untidy braid down her back, steely gray eyes and a fierce grin. She was rather shabbily dressed, and seemed oblivious to the fact that she had dripped stew onto her shirt-front, or that her sleeve was soaking up a puddle of spilled ale. Seager noted she possessed a valent, a Kordarian polearm with a built-in crossbow. He had not seen too many of those here in the Wall. He wondered if she was any good with it.

The other human was dressed in riding leathers, and had the slightly bowed legs of one born in the saddle. Seager would hazard that he was probably a nomad from the southern country of Megsuria. He was armed, as all those Megsurian barbarians tended to be, bearing a war staff and a short bow. He did not seem to carry either of them with much ease, however, which was puzzling. He was tall, of average build, with wild, shoulder length blond hair and piercing blue eyes. Seager recalled feeling slightly unsettled when those eyes had regarded him earlier while he filled a pitcher of ale for their table.

The third member at the table was a female elf who looked to be recently come from the Kordarian Empire to the far south. She was the tallest of the trio, easily towering above the other woman. Her long black hair lay in several glossy and sleek braids, and her eyes were green. "...the color of spring leaves dappled with warm sunshine..." mused the troll, then wryly shook his head at his eloquent turn of phrase. Despite her silvered elven armor, her lithe form and graceful movements spoke of incredible strength and quickness. She carried an assortment of weapons about her person, including several knives of varying sizes and a longbow. From the way her fingers caressed the pommel of her broadsword, however, one could tell it was her favorite. She wore her armor and weaponry with the easy assurance of a natural-born fighter.

There was a fourth chair at the table, and Seager recalled the other elven woman who had entered with the nomad. This elf had the look of one accustomed to life on the road, a traveler. The way she had eyed the other patrons and even the other people at her table made the troll think she was being protective of the nomad. She had stayed only for a quick bite of supper and then had left again by the door to the stables. The trio remaining were deep in quiet conversation, the remnants of their supper ignored on the table, except for the attentions of a rather large lizzard who made forays from the female elf's shoulder down her arm to snare abandoned crusts of bread. As Seager watched, he noted smiles breaking out as well as much firm clasping of hands. He wondered to himself what agreement they had all apparently reached

* * * *

The newly-formed group clasped hands to seal the agreement: to hereby join forces and seek out adventure, fame and fortune. They looked around the table at each other: Raven Stark, a native from the mountains of The Wall; Amman Taleweaver, a nomad from the plains of Megsuria; and Aielle'Sagra Sere'e'Lescerr, an elf transplanted to the Kordarian Empire from the Olde Forest. Raven had met Amman several years ago while they were both apprenticed to the same goldsmith. Then her burgeoning talent for the craft necessitated her transfer to a more skilled master and she lost contact with him. She caught up with Amman years later at a service in the local temple to Longstrider, and found out his path had led him into the priesthood. He was accompanied by his elven companion Cahli, who was also an ardent follower of Longstrider. Raven and Amman had met up with the Kordarian elf only a few days ago at a different inn; she had only just arrived from Kordar and had seemed eager to make new friends. When Raven had stumbled over the syllables of her name, she hastened to tell her to just call her "Rel", an excerpt from her last name. Raven distinctly got the impression she was running from someone or something...

Rel's emerald eyes now flicked between the companions and the rest of the room, and she drummed her fingers impatiently on the table. She was the first to break the silence, "So, what do we do now?"

There was no immediate response, and once more, silence descended upon the small group. Each hoped the others would have a good idea, as none were experienced adventurers and were not sure of the normal proceedings in such matters. Finally Amman cleared his throat, and spoke up, "Well, we could look around town for some work, see if anyone is hiring." Noting Rel's grimace and Raven's frown, he quickly added, "Or we could leave these stone tents behind and see where the wind takes us...We do need some time to get used to working as a team."

"True," said Raven, "and whatever we do I'd like it to be far away from Smashtown..." Her expression grim she added, "There are some things here I would rather not deal with right now. Besides, as followers of Longstrider, should we not be travelling?"

At this, Rel rolled her eyes and interjected, "As you two are followers, not me!"

Amman was quick to agree with Raven. "I wish to leave this town; I do not sleep well at night without the stars above and the wind around me. Cahli, too, feels the pull of Longstrider, although she would not go on without me." Cahli had been with Amman ever since he saved her life a couple of years ago while he was serving as a runner for the Church. As far as anyone knew, she stayed with him out of loyalty and friendship. But Raven had to wonder if there were perhaps other reasons she chose to stay; certainly any life-debt had been paid off by this point, as Amman had been in serious scrapes while on his travels that only Cahli's skill with her bow had extricated him from. As a priest of Longstrider, Amman had no vows of chastity to impede him should he wish to become more than friends with Cahli; she certainly was beautiful enough...

"So," Raven began, shaking off her previous train of thought, "we need something easy, that both gets us out of this town and also increases our firepower...I might just have the answer we need."

The other two members of the group leaned forward in interest. Raven continued, "I have heard stories of certain creatures said to inhabit the mountains to the north of us, small dragons, really, with...interesting powers. Do you think we could capture one for your familiar, Amman?"

Amman and Rel were silent for a moment, considering. Rel's hand rose to stroke Lizzie's back, a rather large lizzard which, having scavenged several scraps from the table, now dozed contentedly on her shoulder. Neither Raven nor Amman had ever seen it do much other than sleep, although Rel swore it was clever and much more than just a pet. "The idea has possibilities," Rel admitted.

Amman spoke up, excitement animating his voice, "Yes, it's true I delayed in taking a familiar. With my spell held within Raven's Bladerunes, it might be possible for us all to acquire one!"

The three began to discuss what they would need to undertake just such an adventure. While Raven had grown up on the Wall and was an experienced climber, she did not know the exact area rumored to be hiding the elusive dragonettes. She thought it would be practical to acquire a guide. Perhaps the Church of Longstrider would be a good place to inquire about finding one...Raven began to painfully calculate how many bladerunes she could cast on her new companions weapons within the next couple of days, then gave it up as too complicated. She would do whatever she could (a few spells, really, as she was not very strong in arcane magic) and not fret about the inevitable blank areas on their weapons and armor. Over supper and as the evening wore on, they became convinced it would be a simple matter to acquire these mysterious dragonettes. Excited and happy to have chosen a path, they departed to their rooms for the night. Truth be told, their quest would prove to be much more complicated and dangerous than they ever imagined...

Chapter 2 - Pitfalls

The group was strung out along the mountain trail. The troll guide they had hired from the Church of Longstrider was in the lead, followed closely by Raven, nimble and surefooted on the rocky and convoluted path. Her eyes gleamed with pleasure at being once more upon familiar ground. Amman came next, mounted upon Thunder, his riding lizzard, which was loaded down with saddlebags stuffed with the supplies purchased for the expedition. Lizzie was perched upon these bags, apparently able to slumber even while being lurched about. Cahli strode briskly along beside the riding lizzard. Rel came last, surprisingly tentative and unsure upon the rocky terrain, her face a study of concentration, except for some vehemently muttered profanity when her foot slipped on loose shale.

The troll returned along the path at the same time Cahli's keen eyes noticed something odd further up the mountain side. They conferred for a moment before pointing out to the companions what they had seen: through a clearing in the trees, about half an hour's walk further up the path, something metallic or reflective was glinting in the sunshine. They speculated on what it could be: perhaps weapons and armor, or a signaling mirror. Raven wanted to go see what it was immediately. Rel was not pleased at the prospect of leaving the path, but neither did she want to continue up the trail alone.

Curiosity finally won out over the urgency of their mission. They all agreed that caution was in order. The best plan seemed to entail circling the strange glinting and approaching it carefully from higher ground. After an hour's detour, everyone had finally made it to a spot looking down the mountain. They could see that the glinting had come from the remains of glazed windows in a building that seemed to be built into the side of the mountain. The group crept closer, yet were careful to remain out of earshot of any possible guards down below; until they had a better idea of the situation they did not want to attract any undue attention.

Once again, Cahli's sharp eyesight proved to be invaluable as she spotted movement in the clearing in front of the strange building. It was difficult to make out specifics, but it seemed to be some sort of guard. After some whispered arguments about whether to go check it out or to just continue up the mountain, curiosity finally won out. Raven, chosen for her ability to move silently and stealthily, was the dubious winner sent to investigate...The rest, afraid of giving themselves away, would stay behind and reinforce, if necessary.

"Well, aren't you going then?" Rel asked as Raven made no move to head towards the building.

"Um...yes. I'll go in just a minute, but I need to do something first...I don't mind going down there by myself, I am better at this than all of you by far, but I'd prefer to do it my own way. There's something I haven't told you yet... I'm a Werewolf. I feel more comfortable sneaking around in my Were form. I thought it was only fair to give you some warning before I Change." With that said, to the open astonishment of the others, and wary suspicion of some, Raven ducked behind some scrub. Her disembodied voice could be heard from behind the screen, "Normally I don't care if people see me Change, but it can be pretty gross the first time you see it, and now is not the time to weird everybody out...". As she talked the party could hear mysterious popping and crackling sounds, as well as her voice roughening and deepening somewhat. When she stepped out from behind the bush, they were heartened to see it was still Raven, albeit a much more fanged and furry version. She indicated the scrub, "I left my clothes behind there. Remember, don't follow me for a full two minutes, then try to be quiet!" Raven began her decent down the mountain side towards the hidden building, and to the watchers above it was as if she had melted away.

They did not spot her again till she materialized in the clearing around the building. They saw her creep down to the ridge of what would normally be the roof, stop, and then scrabble around in the dirt. As she moved to check the location of the guard they had spotted further below, the group could see what she had been doing; she had uncovered a trap-door that had been hidden under inches of soil. Raven returned to the trap-door, and began to examine the lock mechanism.

"What is she doing?" hissed Rel, "She was only supposed to go investigate!"

Below, Raven had opened the trap-door a barest sliver, and was flat on her belly, peering into the building. She appeared to listen for a full minute, then smoothly raised the door and jumped down into the darkness below.

Raven landed silently, and looked around the room. Despite the murky light from the trapdoor, most of the room remained cloaked in shadow. Dust was thick on the floor, and old, dilapidated furniture appeared to have been tossed to one side of the room. She listened intently for a few seconds, then bent to examine the ground for signs of recent passage. She wrinkled her nose at the musty smell of the dust, then frowned when she picked up another faint scent, indescribable other than the scent of death. Her hackles beginning to rise, Raven slowly drew her valent and once more scanned the room. She could faintly make out what appeared to be openings on either side of the dark room. She began to move stealthily towards one when she heard a sound from above, by the trapdoor. Abruptly the door slammed shut, plunging Raven into absolute darkness!

Raven swore under her breath, cursing the fact she had been too eager to explore to cast her light spell, and began to prepare her valent to prod the trapdoor open. She froze, was that a sound coming from behind her? Her sensitive ears strained to catch the sound again, to pinpoint it...she heard the shuffling of several feet and an odd rustling at the same time that she caught the smell of death. Her heart leaped into her throat, and she had to quell the panic that threatened to overtake her. She wasn't one to run from a fight, but in this darkness she did not have a chance.

She could now very faintly see the outline of the trapdoor above. Raven whispered a prayer to Longstrider, took a few powerful strides, planted the butt of her valent on the floor and vaulted up to the trapdoor. Both feet lashed out over her head. It worked! The door flew open with her kick, and she almost made it out. She had some difficulty maneuvering with the long pole arm, however, and in her haste to be quit of the hole she dropped it into the darkness below. There was no time to consider going back down for it, however, as she was faced with a very large, and apparently murderous, zombie. The very one, it seems, who had slammed shut the trapdoor once, and was about to do so again. Raven nimbly cleared the hole and jumped to her feet, not a second to spare before the door thudded shut again. She whirled to face the undead warrior, her fangs bared and claws at the ready. This was not the first time she'd had to rely on her natural attacks, but she certainly did not relish the thought of biting too deeply into the desiccated flesh.

From higher up on the mountain, Raven could hear the sounds of her comrades coming to her aid, pounding down the trail as fast as safety would allow. Rel, her broadsword in one hand and longknife in the other seemed almost gleeful for a fight. Amman still rode Thunder, and he had an arrow at the ready in his bow, as did Cahli, her long strides easily keeping up with the riding lizzard. The troll loped easily down the trail, hefting his speltch, his trollish two-handed club-- more of a tree trunk, really-- and ran past Raven to intercept more of the zombies that were coming from around the building and up the side of the mountain towards her.

It was a quick fight. Raven took her opponent out by ripping open its leg muscles with her fangs and then, while it was attempting to remain on its feet, clawed open its stomach to reveal dried-up entrails and organs. Rel attacked with both her broadsword and longknife, the bladerunes Raven had enchanted the steel with glimmering as she swung with deadly, precise cuts. Amman positioned Thunder for optimal line of sight on one of the undead, namely its back! He let fly his arrow and hit the target, but unfortunately did not take it down. Cahli was able to drop it with her own shot. The troll, meanwhile, had happily crushed two of the zombies, and was looking around for more.

Once all immediate threats had been dispatched, and it was apparent that no further opponents would be emerging from the strange building, the group gathered and began the odious task of piling and burning the various pieces of zombie flesh. Already they were beginning to piece themselves together. Amman said a few prayers over the pyre which had been liberally sprinkled with oil from Rel's lantern.

Raven paced a good distance from the fire; to her sensitive Were nose, the stench was unbearable. She was arguing with Rel about how foolish it had been to go in alone. Rel was all for leaving this place and continuing on their quest for the dragonettes. Raven was vehement, "...I don't care that there's probably a nest of them down there, I'm not leaving my valent behind!"

The troll finished his circuit around the building, and approached Amman with his findings, "It looks like this was once a separate building that somehow became mostly buried, maybe a landslide. Must have been a long time ago, judging by the growth that has since covered the area."

Amman nodded, and approached the two girls. After arguments back and forth, he and Raven were able to convince Rel that they should not leave this potential threat behind them to continue their quest. He also pointed out that Raven would be much more effective if she had her primary weapon (not to mention that they both knew Raven would go down there by herself if she had to). The troll was decidedly uncomfortable about descending into the building, as he knew it was outside his contract. He volunteered to stay behind to guard Thunder and Lizzie, and to keep watch in case any zombies strayed above ground. At Amman's suggestion, Cahli stayed with the troll, her bow at the ready. Amman, uncomfortable with his lack of martial skills, volunteered to stay behind Raven and Rel, ready to reinforce with his bow if necessary. And so agreed, they all gathered about the front windows, hoping a different entry point would buy them a few precious seconds.

Chapter 3 - Sinister Findings

The glass within the weathered window frames was mostly broken and dirt streaked. One pane had miraculously survived intact, and it was probably this one that had caused the mysterious glimmering that had lured the travelers from their trail. Carefully clearing the remaining shards from the widest opening, Raven stepped in, her bare and clawed toes nimbly avoiding more glass strewn about the floor. She opened her hand to allow the light springing from her palm to illuminate the room. Doing a full sweep she discovered nothing other than a room weathered and dirtied by exposure to the elements, jumbled furniture of a strangely old make, and a few small animal tracks. She quietly moved towards the only door in the room and listened intently. Rel came through the window next, broadsword and bronze lantern in hand, and turned to help Amman in case he should slide on the broken glass at his feet. He readied his bow, then nodded to his companions.

Once all were in position, Raven smoothly and quietly opened the door, despite the old and corroded hinges waiting for an excuse to squeal. She and Rel slipped into the next room, and were promptly set upon by two more zombies akin to the ones fought above ground. They efficiently dispatched them; the zombies seemed uncoordinated, and were no match for Raven's claws and Rel's broadsword. Exchanging a troubled glance over their seemingly newly-formed appearance, the girls continued their sweep of the room. Raven gave a silent cry of delight at spotting her valent that had been kicked to one end of the room, and looking up, could faintly make out the outlines of the trapdoor above. Carefully they went through the remainder of the rooms, expecting more zombies but finding none. The rooms were empty except for more of the antique pieces of furniture, grime, and a miasma of dread. The only feature of interest was a staircase heading down.

This time the whispered discussion between the three friends was short. All wanted to press downwards; having recovered the valent, Raven was much more confident of her ability to bring down the filthy undead creatures, especially if they were easy marks as they had proven to be so far. As a priest of Longstrider, Amman wished to clear up this nest to make for easier and unhindered travel into the less-known areas of the mountains. Rel only protested once; although she wished to continue in their quest as soon as possible, she also enjoyed exercising her weapon skills. Raven tapped the butt of her valent on the trapdoor to signal Cahli. She briefly whispered up their intentions to keep exploring. Cahli nodded her head in agreement and whispered back that she would let the troll know, then closed the trapdoor once more. The three companions then approached the staircase.

Raven glided down the stair like a shadow. Rel followed close, then set the lantern down to illuminate most of the hallway. Amman covered the stairway with his bow in the event something should decide to wander up from further down below. Raven and Rel did a sweep of the rooms on this level. Although expecting a fight at any moment, the girls encountered no opposition. They did have a few nasty surprises, however, that did give them pause.

In one room they found a cleared area on the floor, swept clean of any dust, with a pentagram carved into the wooden floor. They saw strange symbols and runes scratched around and inside the pentagram, which they could make no sense of, other than to assume they might be magical in nature and therefore dangerous. More words and symbols had been painted upon the wall with what looked to be dried blood. Raven sniffed one of the partially melted black candles carefully grouped around the room, and whispered that it was fairly fresh; it had been lit within the last day or two. With unspoken agreement, Raven and Rel exited the room, careful not to disturb anything within.

Listening at the door to another room, Raven could hear a curious drumming sound coming from within. Upon entering, ready for a fight, she saw something which made her stomach turn. Stretched out on the floor of a dusty bedroom was a zombie. It was female, and her hands and legs, spread-eagled, had been fastened to the floor with large iron pegs driven through wrists and feet. The drumming sound had come from her spasmodically jerking against her bonds. Her eyes were open and staring at the ceiling, her mouth open in a rictus of terror. There was a closed jar of some green viscous fluid beside her; some of the same green stuff had been slathered between her legs. It was dry and crusty now, but obviously there had been many previous applications. Raven choked back bile when she worked through the implications. She wanted to destroy the crucified zombie to end its misery, but Rel counseled caution, "Lets finish clearing this cursed place, then we can come back here and decide what to do about her; she's not going anywhere."

Behind a locked door, which presented only a minor inconvenience to Raven, they found the shabby remains of what was once a grand bedroom. It was not quite as dusty, and it showed signs of recent usage. On the walls hung faded tapestries and paintings in gilt frames. Once it was determined that no opposition lay waiting, Rel switched places with Amman so he could come examine the room. He whistled in appreciation of the paintings, "These are very old, and quite valuable, as far as I can tell." While examining one of the paintings, Amman found a safe hidden behind it. Raven quickly determined it was trapped, but the exact mechanism eluded her. Determined to penetrate the safe Raven pressed on. Thanks to skill and no small measure of luck, she managed to open it still in one piece, although she couldn't say the same for the far wall, judging from how deeply the sprung dart had embedded itself into it. Inside were several small bags of what felt like coins and two crystal vials, one empty and one full of a clear liquid. Beneath some floorboards Raven found three letters; she passed them on to Amman without bothering to look at them. Not wanting to tarry overlong here, they moved on.

The rest of the rooms on this level were empty and without interest...shabby remains of furniture and clutter. The three companions hurriedly discussed their findings. Amman was deeply troubled by the pentagram room, but he, too, was unsure if meddling with it might cause a worse problem. They were agreed that they needed to press on to find whoever, or whatever, was making these zombies.

"Yes," growled Raven, "and when I find the person responsible for that poor girl in there, I will tear him apart!" There was no mistaking the deadly threat in her raspy voice, nor the way her hands clenched so tightly around her valent that they left claw marks on the wooden haft. Amman did not try to moderate his friend's emotional outburst; he, too, had felt intense pity for the girl pinned to the floor.

And so, picking up the lantern once more, Amman took up his position at the rear of the party, while Raven and Rel continued down the staircase, into the darkness below.

Chapter 4- Bugs and Bones

Almost immediately upon descending to the next level, Raven could tell an attack was imminent; she could hear a strange rustling, squirming sound coming towards her, as well as the shuffling that probably indicated another zombie. She shone her palm-light briefly into the darkness ahead, but couldn't pinpoint the source. She readied her valent, her eyes darting in the darkness searching for a target. As the light from the lantern slowly bobbed down the stairwell, Raven saw a sight she would never be able to banish from her mind. There, crossing the floor towards her, was an undead, but not like anything she had ever seen before. Most of its flesh was gone, consumed by the millions of maggots that crawled and squirmed inside it. How it kept its shape was a mystery as with each slow step the undead horror took, hundreds of maggots were shaken loose, yet they quickly wriggled their way across the floor to meld once more with the rest. Its face was a shifting, seething mass, its open mouth no more than a deep indent, as were its eyes.

Raven couldn't suppress the moan of terror at the sight, and her hackles rose up swiftly. She was almost taken by surprise by the zombie coming at her from her flank, but at Rel's shouted warning, she ripped her eyes away from the maggot thing and raised her valent just in time to avert a swipe from long, filthy nails. Almost thankful for a familiar opponent, Raven turned to face the zombie, and saw another just emerging from a dark doorway beyond.

Behind Raven, Rel jumped down the last few steps, causing the lantern light to cast crazed shadows upon the walls, and ran to engage the maggot undead, her breath coming in gasps of barely-restrained horror. These quickly turned to dismay when she discovered that her broadsword was proving to be ineffectual against the undead. Despite her considerable skill, the blade passed through it with minimal damage.

"What's happening? Why can't I hurt it?" she shrieked.

Behind her and with a tightly controlled voice, Amman told her to withdraw from combat. He had his only silvered arrow nocked and ready, "Lets see if it likes the taste of silver!" He let it fly and it struck home, but unfortunately not a fatal blow. The undead roared in pain, and the area around the shaft began to seethe as maggots sought to repair the damage taken.

Rel quickly set the lantern down, and as the light steadied, she felt her confidence returning. She kept her broadsword ready to parry, and moved back into melee. She could not hurt it with her blade, but as the spiked and razored edges on her paz'vlu were silvered, she was not without an effective weapon!

"Raven, hurry with those zombies, would you? I might need a little help over here!"

"I'm doing the best I can!" growled Raven, as she thrust and parried with her valent; these zombies seemed to be tougher than the ones upstairs had been. Wisely, Amman had stayed to the fringes of the combat with a new arrow drawn in his bow. He kept watch in case more should emerge from darkened doorways, or up from below. With a decisive chop towards an undefended neck, Raven finished off the second zombie. She had taken a few scratches, but nothing her werewolf regenerative healing couldn't handle.

As she moved to assist Rel, she saw that her friend was not doing so well. Apparently the monster was "healing" the damage from the silvered elven armor as fast as Rel could give it. Fortunately Rel was quick enough to avoid the heavy swings from its fists. Baring her fangs, Raven circled behind the disgusting thing and joined in the fray. Just as she suspected, the bladerunes enchanting her weapon were sufficiently magical to allow her valent to affect the undead. Slowly the two girls whittled it down; the rents in its foul "skin" took longer to close up, the seething activity of the maggots slowed as they had more and more areas to attend to. Finally, with a sobbing gasp, Raven struck the undead a fatal blow. It collapsed into a scattered pile of maggots, which wriggled in an ordinary manner now that the magic binding them was gone.

The girls briefly embraced each other for comfort, and kept watch as Amman set fire to the abhorrent pile using some of the oil from the lantern. It might not have been the wisest of actions, but all felt the need for cleansing fire, and no word of restraint was spoken. The bugs burned greasily, with little pops and sputters, and they covered their noses and mouths in disgust at the smell.

They did not have long to wait, for soon after the flames were lit, there was movement on the stairway; something was coming up, fast. Rel and Raven barely had time to move into position before they saw a helmeted and armored figure striding quickly up the stairs. Barely visible through the openings in the steel helm was bone and withered flesh, the undead's chain shirt was dull with neglect and rusty in places, as was the battle-axe it wielded. No one had any doubts about its potential for harm, however, regardless of its appearance. It advanced quickly, brushing aside an arrow sent its way by Amman, and closed in on the girls. It swung its axe with deadly precision, and the two friends engaged it cautiously, wanting to avoid contact with that blade at all costs. This close up, they noticed he had what looked like trophies dangling from his weapons belt, and to their horror they realized they were children's shoes! Grimly determined, Rel managed to deal a hard blow to its side with her broadsword while it was occupied with Raven. Off balance, it turned to face Rel, giving Raven the opportunity to get in another blow with her valent.

They were slowly gaining ground, but not fast enough, and Amman called warning that he saw something else coming up the stairs. From the corner of her eye, Raven saw Amman pawing through Rel's backpack to pull out one of her spare flasks of lantern oil...he backed away from the stairway with a look of horror on his face. She knew without having to look that another of the maggot undead was approaching.

"Can you take him, Rel?" she asked.

Rel just nodded in reply, keeping her eyes on the undead evil paladin, her sword arm never faltering in its relentless attack.

Raven carefully withdrew from the melee, and intercepted the maggot undead just as it was about to close on Amman. She swung her valent at it to catch its attention, then tossed the weapon behind her; it was useless against this opponent as there were no more bladerunes. Raven carried no silver, being a Were, but she hoped her innate magic would be enough to affect the gruesome thing. She bared her fangs and moved in to attack. The fight was swift and furious, Raven darting under the undead's arms to rip and rend with teeth and claws, a furious light in her eyes. Raven gave a yelp once when the undead managed to make contact, a bashing blow that staggered her for a moment, but she soon rallied, and the tempo of her attack increased.

Unnoticed behind Raven, Rel gave the evil-paladin a final blow that toppled him once and for all. Rel was not taking any chances, with a mighty chop she severed the head from the rest of the corpse, and kicked it into the fire that was still burning in the corner.

Raven made one last lunge into the undead, her muzzle sinking in deep as her claws rent huge gaping holes in its putrid flesh, and the thing finally collapsed into a scattered pile. Raven stood over it, chest heaving, the wild light in her eyes slowly subsiding. She wiped her muzzle with her furry hands as realization struck. "Gods, I think I ate some...", then she turned and heaved the contents of her stomach onto the floor in a vile stream.

Rel came to steady Raven, while Amman moved in with the oil. This pile, too, was lit, and the companions were quiet till the flames dwindled and naught was left but charred bits and cinders.

Raven cleaned off the bladed end of her valent on a long-ago discarded table runner, wrinkling her muzzle at the noisome smears. She was troubled that there were no more bladerunes left on its long haft; she shrugged her furry shoulders, there was nothing she could do about it now. The process of casting her painfully-learned bladerunes was slow, and not something she cared to rush.

She smiled bitterly at the memory of crouching at her mother's side as she cast onto her blade, desperate to learn each gesture and spoken word of the spell, hoping that this time she would get it right and earn a word, or even a look, of approval. She shook her head at the memory; the teaching of a few paltry spells was the only time her mother had ever given her any attention. Yes, it's true she had gifted her with a book upon Raven's leaving home, but as she had never bothered to teach her to read, what use was it? Still, the book was carefully wrapped and hidden deep in Raven's backpack; one day she would find out what language it was written in and learn to read it, no matter how difficult.

Rel interrupted Raven's musings with a touch upon her shoulder, and a nod towards the stairway. The darkness below seemed menacing, as if something was waiting; the scent of death was unmistakable. Raven hefted her valent, shook her head to clear the phantom squirming sound from her mind, and began her decent.

Chapter 5 - Justice is served

The darkness retreated reluctantly before the lantern light. Raven felt an oppressive sense of dread, and she was doubly careful not to make a sound as she progressed down the hallway. There was nothing to distinguish this hallway from the others, until she saw the door that had been nailed shut with large iron spikes. The door looked slightly bowed, as if something inside had attempted to get out...There were some sort of runes written around the door frame. Raven carefully backed away, whatever was in that room she did not want to meet.

She continued down the hallway and stopped abruptly at yet another door. There was nothing remarkable about the door, other than the feeling of unspeakable horror beyond...

While waiting for her companions to catch up, Raven checked the door to see if it was locked or trapped in any way; there was nothing that she could tell would impede her entrance. Motioning her intent and signaling combat readiness, Raven got into position. Moving as one, Raven silently opened the door as Rel nimbly slipped in, then followed at her heels.

It was a large room, apparently empty at first glance. When Amman entered with the lantern, they were able to see that it was indeed empty, except for what looked like a pulpit on a raised dais at one end, and some sort of winch contraption suspended over a pit at the other end. The girls split up, Raven to head over to the dais, Rel to examine the pit. Amman, standing close to where the lantern had been carefully put down at the midpoint of the room, readied his bow to stand watch.

Rel approached the pit carefully, her blades at the ready. Closer up, she could see the contraption seemed to be some sort of mechanism for lowering something into the pit. There was a cot, of sorts, suspended from the ropes, except it had metal bands that would keep whatever was in there from falling out. Coming cautiously closer to the lip of the pit, Rel could hear a strange rustling, squirming sound coming from within it. Knowing what she would see yet unable to prevent herself from looking, Rel peered over the edge. The light from the lantern did not reach all the way into the pit, yet Rel could still make out the seething, writhing motion of millions of maggots contained within. She pulled away, hand over her mouth..."Don't come over here, Raven, Amman," she croaked, ruthlessly suppressing the urge to retch, "You don't need to see this."

Raven shivered at the look on her friend's face, and continued poking around the dais and pulpit. She shone her palm-light into every cranny, yet could find nothing of any interest. The floorboards of the dais resounded hollowly under her bare feet, except for a spot under the pulpit. With a dreadful feeling, Raven pried the face of the dais away so she could shine her light underneath the floorboards. "Hang on, guys," she whispered, "I think I found something..."

She got down on her knees to peer into the dark space, and used her valent to fish out what looked like a parcel of rags. "What's this...?" She pulled away some of the rags, and almost dropped the tiny bundle when she realized she was holding the mummified remains of a baby in her hands.

"Oh Gods!" Raven couldn't speak for the sudden knot of sorrow in her breast, she gently cradled the remains, and her eyes flooded with tears. Amman and Raven came to see what had caused Raven's outburst, and stood horrified when Raven held the bundle out for them to see, "It's a baby, just a baby...The son-of-a-bitch got to a baby," she rasped. Amman gently took the bundle from her arms, and softly whispered, "The blessing of Longstrider be upon you, little one, may your soul find peace." He began to whisper a prayer while Raven took another look under the dais.

"There seem to be more in here" she reported woodenly, "We should pry up the floorboards to get them out."

"I think that's a good idea," agreed Amman. "We should take them out of this cursed place and perform proper rites for them. I don't think we will cause further harm by doing so."

The floorboards around the pulpit complained noisily while being pulled up, and Rel gripped her broadsword and longknife while waiting in ambush position by the door, expecting someone, or something, to come rushing in at any second. As Raven removed each tiny corpse, she passed it over to Amman, who whispered the same blessing over it before laying it gently on the ground. Still Raven continued to find more. When she was finally done with her grisly exhumation, they silently counted the shrouded bodies and stood dumbfounded when the total came to twenty-three.

"I think we had better drop any further exploration until these poor things are taken out of here," said Amman, and Rel and Raven silently nodded their agreement. With Rel standing guard in the stairway, Amman and Raven carried as many of the fragile bundles as they could up the stairs and into the light. It took them three trips until they were all safely above ground. They put off Cahli and the troll's questions till later, only asking them to guard the little bundles till they came back.

They were beginning their descent back into the darkness below, to finish the job they started, when Raven's sensitive ears picked up the sound of footsteps coming up. She did not detect any hint it might be more of the maggot-undead, although the footsteps did seem rather heavy. Quickly stopping the others before they could round the corner, Raven took up position at the top of the stairs just out of sight of whoever, or whatever, was coming up. She lifted her valent, and although her fangs were bared in what might have been a smile, her eyes burned cold.

The footsteps came nearer, and finally Raven's hearing told her that her unknown opponent had reached the top, and was apparently taking a moment to catch its breath... That didn't sound like an undead! Like a shadow she glided to within striking range; she glimpsed an obscenely corpulent figure dressed in a tattered robe, a spiked mace clutched in fleshy fingers. She brought her valent down upon his unprotected head in a vicious swing. Her aim was true; the top of his head sheared away with a splatter of brains and gore, and he collapsed where he stood, instantly dead. Raven stood above him, valent ready for another swing should he rise up again, but he was motionless, except for the steadily growing pool of blood about his head, blood which began to slowly trickle down the stairs.

The others came rushing up from around the corner, and stopped abruptly at the sight of the fallen man. Rel whistled her admiration for Raven's mighty blow, looking all the while for any more foes. Amman took the lantern from Rel and knelt beside the man, grimacing in distaste. Even to his human nose the stench rising from the tattered robes was unbearable; a combination of unwashed flesh, old blood, pungent burnt odors, and something unidentifiable but equally vile. There was some sort of amulet about his neck, but the symbols looked ominous and he dared not touch it. Nor did he want to foul himself by touching the rings about his fingers; he did not know if he could get them off at any rate, the fingers were so swollen about the bands. They saw what looked to be faded, tattered strips of cloth tied in his ratty, filthy beard. Looking closer, they discovered they were once colorful ribbons and bows. "By Longstrider!" Amman exclaimed, "I think these must be taken from the babies! He took trophies!" With a grunt of disgust, he quickly moved away from the grotesque form.

He looked back just in time to see Raven giving him a powerful kick which propelled him partially down the stairs. "You maggot-ridden filthy bastard!" she shrieked as she located the top of his head which had flown across the room to ricochet against the far wall of the hallway; she kicked it, too, down the stairs to follow its former owner. She continued to hurl furious obscenities at the oblivious corpse and she would have followed the gory remains down the stairs if Rel and Amman both hadn't restrained her.

"Listen!" said Rel urgently.

Raven paused in her stream of invective, gasped for breath, and cocked an ear. She could hear and feel something, a faint rumbling from far below.

"I don't like the sounds of that," said Amman. "Perhaps we should leave now; the necromancer is dead, not much left to do here."

Raven shook herself free from the arms holding her back, "I'm alright, I'm fine...let's just get out of here!"

They began to head up the stairs. Deep within the bowels of the building the rumbling sound increased in volume, they could feel a faint vibration under their feet, growing stronger with every passing second. They began to run up the stairs two at a time, anxious to be out of the cursed place.

As they were dashing up the stairs they caught a wail coming from one of the rooms. "The zombie girl!" they all said in unison.

"Whatever we do, let's do it fast," said Amman, "I think this building is going to collapse any minute!" And indeed, the vibrations were growing steadily, cracks were forming along the walls as the building seemed to shift underneath. From below they could hear agonized creaking, and the rumbling had become a roar.

They dashed to the room where they had left the zombie girl still bound, and were shocked to see that she had reverted to her human form. Her pinioned limbs were straining to be free, she was wailing incoherently. Her wide-open eyes were vacant; there was nothing resembling sanity behind them.

"Quick! Wrench the nails out!" shouted Amman. He set to work immediately with his dagger, using the blade to attempt to pry up the nail driven into her palm. Rel and Raven each took a leg. With a quick wrench Rel popped hers out right away, then moved to deal with the last hand. Raven swore under her breath, and with one last fierce tug on the nail she was able to loosen it enough to wiggle it free of the floorboard. Rel, meanwhile, had already removed the nail in the other palm, and had moved to help Amman, who was struggling and trying desperately not to hurt the poor girl any further.

"Go!" shouted Rel, "Go on, I'll bring her!"

Raven and Amman began to run to the stairway, staggered as the building gave a deep shudder. Below them they could hear crashes, the stairs were giving way and chunks of plaster were falling from the walls and ceiling.

Raven pushed Amman ahead of her in the stairwell, and turned to see if Rel was coming. The elf was just making her way out of the room and had the girl slung over her shoulder. If the girl had lain quiescent Rel would have been fine, she certainly was strong enough to carry her burden with ease, but as it was she had a hard time managing the shaking floorboards, dodging plaster, and keeping the girl's flailing arms and limbs from connecting. Raven turned back, and together they managed to hoist the insensate girl up the stairs with something resembling speed. None too soon, as behind them came crashes and resounding booms of the building collapsing in upon itself.

Amman was waiting at the windows ready to help pull the girl through. Raven dove through an empty window frame, agilely avoiding the shards of broken glass around the edge, rolling, and leaping to her feet in one smooth movement. Rel simply stepped through, raising an eyebrow at Raven's theatrics.

They quickly moved away from the building to be clear of the shaking. As the last of the evil magic holding the place together disintegrated, the building fell in upon itself and the earth covering it began to sink. Everybody covered their ears when they heard an unearthly keening and sensed, rather than saw, many ghostly shades rise up from the depression in the earth. After a minute, the only evidence the building had ever been there was a deep depression in the ground, and a plume of dust rising up into the sky. All was quiet, even the girl had stopped thrashing and wailing; she now just stood limply, staring blankly ahead.

Chapter 6 - Cairns and Cleansing

"Well, that takes care of that," said Amman to no-one in particular, and brushed off his hands on his trousers. He walked over to the pathetic pile of ragged bundles and crouched down beside it. He stretched out his hand, but did not touch; it hovered over the tiny bodies for a few seconds before pulling back. He sighed, and stood back up, shoulder's slumped. Cahli joined him, and pulled him over to where the others stood, staring at the hole in the ground..

"Well?" rumbled the troll, "Is anyone going to fill us in on what happened in there? And who is that?" He nodded his head towards the girl. She sat where they had led her, covered in Rel's spare cloak, rocking and moving her lips, her eyes still vacant.

Silence greeted his words...then Amman spoke, "There was a necromancer down there...he was making zombies and...other things."

"Not any longer," interjected Raven. "He's dead. I took off his head." The latter was spoken with vicious satisfaction, the cold gleam in her eyes unsettling to behold.

"Yes, you certainly did..." Amman continued, "I, for one, am very glad he did not live to cast any spells upon us. He must have been luring unwary travelers and stealing children from this area for years, judging from the age of some of the...ah...ribbons tied into his beard. He had a room that looked to be for rituals, that's probably where he made most of his zombies." He looked over to the girl on the ground, apparently oblivious to every word; yet, not wanting her to hear he dropped his voice into a whisper. "We found the girl in a different room. She had been transformed into a zombie, staked down and...abused in a most vile manner. No wonder the poor girl seems to have gone insane..."

Rel picked up the story, "We encountered a type of undead I had never seen before, nor heard about." Rel had to pause, take a breath and wet her lips before continuing in a rush, "they were made from maggots. We couldn't affect them without silver or a magical weapon. We found a pit, later, with a contraption for lowering someone down into it. I...I looked and it was filled with maggots. That must be involved in how he made them..." her voice trailed off.

Raven took up the story, "I found the babies hidden under the floorboards of a raised dais, he must have done something to their internal organs, perhaps used in rituals, perhaps..." She paused as she recalled the necromancer's obese form, and shuddered, banishing the unformed thought. "Well, as soon as I killed the son-of-a-god-forsaken-bitch, the place just started falling apart on us. We got out of there as fast as we could. We had to stop and get the girl, she had returned to human form and we couldn't just leave her."

There arose next a discussion on what to do next. They had no idea which village the girl might have come from, or even if anyone would know her. Likewise, the babies could have been taken from any number of villages in the area. They couldn't take all the babies with them when they left, and they did not want to split up the group to leave someone behind to guard them.

Investigation of the items found within the building yielded no clues as to which path they should take, either. They quickly discovered that no-one could read the letters found, although Rel identified the language as Kordarian. She shrugged defensively at Cahli's surprised reaction, "What? So I never learned to read Kordarian all the time I lived there. I was busy doing...other things. It's not like I'm illiterate. Oops, sorry Raven, sorry Amman..."

Inside one of the crystal vials was a clear liquid that Amman sniffed suspiciously, "Maybe it's a herbal remedy, maybe not..."

In the pouches, they found a goodly amount of bronze coins, but they were all of an old Kordarian mintage. Rel did not recognize the face of the emperor imprinted on the coins. "Oh well," she shrugged before divvying it up among all the companions, "Bronze is bronze." The mystery of who the necromancer had been and where he had come from would have to wait...and truth be told, none of them cared to think much about it at the moment. They carefully packed the letters away in Amman's backpack for another day, and resumed their discussions on what to do about the babies and the girl.

In the end it was decided they would build a large cairn for the babies, both to serve as protection against any wildlife and as a marker for people to find the spot later. The girl they would take with them; she could ride with Amman upon Thunder. The troll would take them to the nearest village he knew of, and hopefully the folk there would know where the girl belonged. For once Rel made no comment about the delay in their quest for the dragonettes.

They worked silently for about an hour, gathering large enough stones to pile about the tiny corpses. Amman stayed beside the girl, offering her pieces of food and drink, which she ate mechanically; kept her covered with the cloak when it slipped unnoticed from her shoulder; and just made sure she didn't either hurt herself or run away in her dementia.

Raven stood back to observe the results of their labor, a medium-sized cairn which, while not the best of work, was enough to keep the animals out, and ran her dusty hands over her equally dusty and begrimed fur. She grimaced when she encountered a particularly sticky and noxious patch on her fur. "I need a bath," she announced brusquely, and strode off towards a slow stream they had found when hunting for rocks.

Rel brushed her hands off, grabbed her backpack, and followed Raven to the stream. "Do you mind if I join you?" she asked.

"No, suit yourself," said Raven. She was crouched in the stream, splashing water on her face and rinsing out her mouth. "I can't believe I bit that thing..." she mused. She submerged herself completely in the icy mountain water, rubbing at her fur to dislodge the most stubborn of the gobs, then stood and shook herself off vigorously. With a mischievous glint in her eyes, she casually waded over to where Rel was bent over washing her face, and without warning pulled her off-balance to fall back into the water with a loud splash. Rel popped up red-faced and sputtering curses...

"Raven! That wasn't funny!"

"I don't know about that," said Raven with a huge grin on her face, "It looks pretty damn funny from here! Besides, you needed a bath almost as much as I did.." She broke off with a shriek when Rel swept a spray of water towards her with her hand, drenching her all over again. She wiped her eyes, and mocked growled, " Well, you're in for it now, elf-girl!"

What followed was an interlude of much splashing, laughing and horse-play. When they finally crawled up the banks of the stream to dry off, they were panting and coughing from swallowing too much water. Both had genuine smiles on their faces, and they felt lighter in spirit. Neither made any reference to the horror they had just seen and experienced.

Rel rummaged through her backpack, and pulled out something that gleamed in the sunlight, she held it up for Raven to see; it was an ornate golden comb. Raven exclaimed in delight to see it, "Oh, it's beautiful! May I?" Holding the comb in her hands, Raven examined it with her goldsmith's eye, appreciating the ornate yet delicate details, the quality of the elven craftsmanship. This was obviously an expensive and treasured item. She reluctantly returned it to Rel. "Where did you get it?" she asked.

"It was given to me by my mother, but I don't know where she got it...probably in the Olde Forest, before she and father left for Kordar City," replied Rel. She quickly ran the comb through her wet hair, and re-braided it with deft movements of her fingers. She then drew Raven closer to sit at her feet while she next tackled the tangles and matted clumps in her fur. Raven closed her eyes and sighed her contentment with the attention.

"Raven, how long are you going to stay in Were form?" asked Rel. She hastily added, "Not that I mind you like this, I'm not a bigot or anything like that."

"I know, it's ok. I'm used to people acting differently around me once they know I'm a werewolf. It doesn't bother me much anymore. I generally like to travel in my were form, and I prefer my human form for more civilized areas. I'll Change when we get closer to the village the troll said he knows of...no sense asking for trouble."

"How...I mean, when did you become a Werewolf? Or were you born like this?" asked Rel, continuing to tug on Raven's dreadfully tangled hair.

"No," replied Raven with a smile, "I was not born like this. It was an accident, of sorts... I was about eleven years old when it happened. That night I had had yet another pointless fight with my mother; I ran out of the house (actually it was more of a hovel), and up into the hills. The middle moon was full. There had always been something about Destiny that drew me and this was not my first moonlit ramble. I climbed for several hours. It seemed as if Destiny was as bright as a sun, it did not seem dark outside to me and I did not hesitate or falter in my climb. I went to a secret place in the hills I often went to when I wanted to get away from my family. But that night, something was there, I stumbled into the path of a wolf, one of the largest wolves I've seen. It looked at me calmly. I don't know what possessed me to approach it, it just seemed right, I wasn't scared. It wasn't afraid either, it let me come right up to it and touch its fur." Raven's hand mimed slowly moving down a wolf's back. She carried on with her story as Rel continued with her ministrations. "It was beautiful, silver and black, hard as rock under a layer of softness. Then it bit me...sank his fangs into my hand, and ran away. It stopped and looked at me before slipping into the trees and disappearing. I was crying, more from heartbreak and disappointment than from the actual injury."

"When I got home in the early hours of the morning, I just crawled into my pallet, I was too exhausted to try to clean myself up. There wasn't even too much fuss in the morning when my mother saw the mess I had made of my sleeping blanket. I was shocked, myself, at the amount of blood, then discovered I had had my first moon-blood while I slept. After she checked my hand to see if the bite was serious or not, she told me to wash the blood out of my blankets and clothes myself, she wasn't going to clean up after me." Raven's lips twisted at the memory. "The bite healed surprisingly fast, although I still bear the scars." Raven held out her hand for Rel to see the white marks on her sun-browned hand. "They are, in fact, the last scars I ever got, once a Werewolf fully changes, they heal faster and cleaner than humans."

"I felt strange for weeks after the night encounter with the wolf; in fact I could still feel the touch of him coupled with the sharp pain of his bite. I would catch myself daydreaming at odd hours, and my dreams at night...well, lets just say I dreamt of wolf-things. It finally became obvious that something was wrong when the small moon, Mikolose, waxed full. My body tried to change for the first time; the pain was incredible. I didn't know what was happening to me and I fought it with all my power. I scared my sister and brothers witless with my howling and thrashing. My mother only had a grim look on her face, as if something she had expected had come to pass. She dragged me to the cellar, locked me in, and told me she would come for me in the morning. I don't remember much of that night other than the pain. I know her shelves and supplies were all in a shambles when morning came." Raven grinned, "I'm not so sure the mess was caused by my thrashing about in pain as much as the fact that I was pretty pissed at her for locking me in the cellar!"

The very next day, exhausted as I was, my mother took me to see the healer who lived on the outskirts of the village closest to us. He was an old man, and had seen just about everything in his lifetime, but he admitted he knew very little about lycanthropy--that's what he told my mother and I what I probably had--and couldn't cure me. He asked about my moon-blood cycle, my injury, the moons, and exactly what had happened last night. He calculated a complete Change would come upon me when Destiny waxed full again, although I would be somewhat affected by the phases of Mikolose and Laer as well. There was such pity in his eyes, but no fear or hate; he was a staunch believer in the Mammalian Proclamation, and he was very kind and gentle, something I was not accustomed to."

"He encouraged me to come visit him over the next few weeks, which I did, eager to have someone sympathetic to talk to. I imagine he was eager to study a young Were. Korrun was the first friend I ever had. He taught me what the Mammalian Proclamation meant, tolerance for all creatures of warm-blooded decent, be they Human, Elven, Werekind, Vampire, Troll,...united against the Scaled Kind, the Lizzards. Most importantly, he taught me to accept who I was, not to be ashamed of what I had become, although caution around strangers is often prudent."

Rel murmured her agreement, gave one final tug with the comb, and stood back to admire her handiwork. Rel smiled, for a change, Raven looked well-groomed and tidy, but it wouldn't last long. As if to prove Rel's prediction true, an errant curl defiantly sprang up from where Rel had smoothed it down, soon followed by several more as the black hair and fur dried in the sun. Rel laughed, and Raven grinned up at her, not certain of the cause of her new friend's good humor. Rel carefully packed away her golden comb and they slowly made their way towards the clearing.

As they walked, Raven finished her story, "So I learned, eventually, to control the Change, to embrace it. I would not go back to being merely human, now. Still, there are some things that seem strange about the whole thing. I will swear, even now, that the wolf was waiting for me upon that hilltop, and that it was Destiny that led me to him. Also, although I am painfully ignorant about Werekind, I do know enough that I am certain I am stronger and more powerful than those simply infected with lycanthropy should be...I never was able to convince my mother to talk about it, however. She muttered something about 'your father's fault' once, but then she pretended she hadn't said anything. I don't remember much about my father, he left when I was about five. Mother, of course, would not talk about it.

"At any rate, many years later, I find myself in the company of fine friends, performing brave and heroic deeds..."

At this last lofty statement, Rel poked her and said "don't forget 'idiotic'!"

Raven continued as if there had been no interruption, "... brave and heroic deeds, and this time I aim to discover the answers to my questions myself."

Rel linked her arm through Raven's, and hauled her along towards where Amman and Cahli were gathering their belongings, preparing to leave. "Come on, my 'brave and heroic' friend...it's time to return to the here-and-now. We have further to travel and grim news to bear before we can go in search of dragonettes, let alone any answers to your questions..."

So the small band of adventurers and the guide, together with the horror-shocked victim of an evil beyond imagining, turned aside in their travel plans, little knowing that the detour would place them directly on the path towards that which they sought...

Editor's Note

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