I sat with my back against a fallen tree in the small, secluded glade at the Falls of Serenity. My eyes were closed as I tried to still my mind as I waited for my patron to make her presence known to me. It was not long before I felt the familiar icy chill on my skin. I heard her cold yet seductive voice a few feet from me. “Hello there, my sweet child.” Did she call me a child just to annoy me? I am an adult of twenty years, after all. And I’ve certainly grown up a lot since I foolishly bound myself to her four years ago. Being forced to work for an arch-fey goddess who wants to plunge the world into cold and darkness tends to have that effect on you.
I kept my eyes closed for a few more moments before saying, “Greetings my mistress.” I reluctantly opened my eyes and looked upon her lithe, elegant, and almost featureless form. She was wearing her usual armor, made of some strange metal that I do not recognize. All I know is that it seems more rare than even mythril and exudes power. Everything about Auril exudes power.
“I have a task for you,” she said.
I sighed. “Am I going to have to kill someone?” So far, she has spared me from doing so, though she has made it clear in the past that I cannot expect that to remain true if I am going to continue to serve her and benefit from her blessings. I pray that I find my freedom from her before that days comes. I’m not sure my relationship with Uri would survive if I turn murderer for this ice queen.
“Not this time. You may have to kill things. Nothing you’d likely consider a person, though. Will you do as I ask?”
“Like I have a choice,” I muttered quietly, momentarily forgetting about Auril’s keen hearing.
“You can walk away any time you want, young one. You can simply break your contract whenever you’re willing to give up the power I have granted you.”
Therein lies the trap, I groaned inwardly. “No, Mistress. I am yours to command,” I said, trying to sound subservient.
“That’s more like it,” she replied. “My sister has started to gain a foothold in this region. I can sense where her followers have erected her statues in the mine in the mountains northwest of the capital region.”
“And you want me to travel to the mine and destroy Titania’s statues, breaking her foothold.”
“You understand me clearly. Fortunately, Titania’s followers just recently finished their construction, so their power is rather weak. The guardians that shield and protect them should still be relatively easy for you to overcome. Enter the spatial rifts that contains each statue and defeat the guardians you find there.”
I frowned. “Spatial rifts. Aren’t those usually deadly for mere mortals to pass through?”
Auril smiled as she held out a frost amulet in her hand. The amulet floated out of her hand and moved to hover near me. “This will enable you and anyone physically touching to pass through these rifts unharmed.” I reached out and took hold of the amulet. I felt a jolt of energy, as cold as anything that comes from Auril. I brought the chain holding the amulet around my neck and, after a moment’s hesitation, engaged the clasp. As the amulet now hung from my neck, I could feel the boost of power it gave me, both chilling and delighting me. Auril smiled her dark approval, then continued, “You may take anyone you wish with you to complete this task. Even that annoying sister of yours.” She sneered as she mentioned Uri. Those two have hated each other since the day Auril came into my life. Not that I blame Uri. This woman wants to turn our world into a ball of ice shrouded in darkness. Any Druid would take issue with that, though Uri’s dislike of Auril seems to be a bit more personal than that, if you ask me.
“Not like you could stop her from coming along anyway,” I said. Don’t poke the polar bear too much, I mentally warned myself. You don’t to end up a ball of ice yourself. But I was right and Auril knew it. Uri and I were inseparable and the only way the frosty goddess could change that was if she actually killed my sister. And I think she knows I’d likely abandon her for sure if she did that.
“Just one more thing,” she said. “Before you head to the mine, you should return to Albion City and pay a visit to my servant there. He should have something you might find useful.”
“Thank you Mistress, I will. I bid you farewell.”
“Be careful, my young servant. Return to me when you can.”
“Yes Mistress,” I said as I turned to leave our meeting spot.
It only took a few minutes to reach the tree where Uri was waiting for me. She sat cross-legged with her back against it, her eyes closed and her sickles resting on her knees. I suspected she had been listening in on my meeting through our telepathic bond. She confirmed it as she said, “Taking on Titania’s forces, huh?”
“You make it sound like we’re going up against a grand army, Sis,” I said, slightly exasperated.
“I don’t trust that frosty wench,” she snapped. “For all we know, that’s exactly what she’s sending you up against.”
I rolled my eyes. “She knows that would be a death sentence to me. She doesn’t want me dead, Uri. She wants me to succeed.”
“That in itself should make you worry, you know.”
“What do you expect me to do, Uri? Walk away? You and I both know that’s probably a death sentence. Yeah, she says she’d merely strip me of my powers and let me walk away. But, as you just pointed out, she’s not exactly one to be trusted.”
“I know. But I wonder if you’d actually give up those powers even if she really would leave you otherwise unharmed.”
I clenched my fists for a moment, then forced myself to relax. The truth is, I’m not sure she’s wrong to wonder. “Can we not have this argument again right now?” I said, my eyes pleading.
Uri sighed as she stood up, “Okay. You know I just worry about you because I love you.”
“I know. So shall we make our way to Albion City?” I said, hoping to change the subject.
“Oh right. First I have to deal with Auril’s crap and now I get to spend time in that oppressively crowded city. Could my day get any better?” I tried hard not to laugh at Uri, who would much rather spend her day running with the creatures in the forest than put up with the hustle and bustle — not to mention schemes — of civilization. I made a mental note to do something extra sweet for her in the future.
We made good time hiking to the city. I looked over at Uri as we wound through the streets toward Twinkletoes’s Bazaar. Every muscle in her body must have been tensed as she constantly scanned our surroundings. Neither of her hands were ever more than five inches from her weapons. By the looks of her, one would have assumed that a band of assassins would descend on her at any second.
Unfortunately, her hyper-alert state meant that she didn’t miss it when I checked out a couple of traveling merchants we passed by. She glared at me and I shrugged. It had been a while since I had enjoyed the company of another man. It only seemed natural to look around and consider the possibilities.
When we got to his shop, I saw the gnome, Oswald Twinkletoes, deep in conversation with a human wearing the uniform of the city night watch. He looked to be a decade or two older than my sister and I. I’m not normally into the daddy type, but I have to admit that I found something about his rugged good looks appealing.
“You will most likely want to hire someone who can guide you through the mountains,” Oswald said to the man just before he glanced our way. “Like a pair of half-elves who’ve spent many years wandering around these parts. Hello there Graenas, Urizenya.”
Sis nodded curtly to Oswald, “Master gnome. How’s business?”
“Profitable,” the gnome smiled. “Is there something I can help you two with?”
I nodded. “I’m on an assignment from my benefactor. She mentioned that you might have something for me.”
The gnome’s eyes twinkled. “Indeed I do! Excuse me, Danny. I need to take care of this matter.”
“Indeed. Thank you for your help, Master Twinkletoes,” the human said, then turned to nod politely to Uri and me.
“Please hold up,” I said to the man. “I hear you’re headed to the mountains. As it happens, we are headed in that direction as well and would like to discuss the possibility of a mutually beneficial arrangement.”
The man paused. “Indeed. Conclude your business with our merchant friend here and then we can talk.”
“Thank you,” I said before turning my attention back to Oswald. “Okay, what do you have for me?”
Oswald pulled out one of his most secure trunks and began to work at the complicated locking mechanism. I suspect that it’s of magical construction, but can never tell. Finally, the gnome opened the trunk and retrieved a small bag from the inside and presented it to me. “This pouch has no limit to how much it can hold, nor does it ever gain any weight. If you can fit something through the opening at the top, the bag will hold it without expanding.”
Uri muttered. “How unusual, the icy wench actually gave us something useful.”
Oswald grinned. “Actually, this gift was my idea. I figure it will help you keep all the wonderful treasures you are likely to find on your journeys. And hopefully sell some of them to me. I’m always looking for new merchandise, you know.”
“I suspect that will be a relationship that will be beneficial to both of us, Oswald,” I said as I took the bag from the gnome. I no more than grasped the bag when I felt a sudden jolt of power. The bag was gone.
“And that would be your benefector’s contribution to your gift,” Oswald said as he reached out and tapped the bag, which had reappeared hanging from my belt. “It’s now bound to you.”
“And there’s the catch,” Uri said, grimacing with disgust. She then turned to address the fighter. “So tell me, stranger, what takes you into the mountains?”
“First, allow me to cease being a stranger,” the man said. “My name is Danny Thorsson. I have reasonably reliable intelligence indicating that members of the orc clan that destroyed my village have been spotted in that area. I’m hoping to find them and find out more about their clan so I can repay them for the atrocities they committed against my people.”
“A personal vendetta, then,” Uri said, nodding. “I can certainly appreciate it. Though if you’re going up against orcs, I hope you know how to use those weapons at your side.”
“Are you looking to find out first-hand?” Danny said as he narrowed his eyes.
“Maybe you shouldn’t antagonize someone who could have us thrown in prison, Uri,” I said, exasperation creeping into my voice. Normally, she’s worried about me getting us into trouble when we come to the city. “My apologies, Danny. My sister here spends too much time among her beloved animals to get much practice in her manners. Her name is Urizenya, by the way. And I am Graenas.”
“A pleasure to meet you,” Danny responded. I smirked at the word “pleasure.”
“At any rate, I have a benefactor who has asked me to pay a visit to the same mountainous region you are headed to. I need to…destroy some statues and whatever nuisances near them.” I ignored Uri’s snort. Surely she thought I should be a bit more forthright about what we were doing and why. I didn’t want to scare the guy off right away, though. “Perhaps we can travel together and help each other out.”
Danny rubbed his chin for a few seconds as if he was considering the offer. I began to suspect he would refuse my proposal when he finally spoke. “I could certainly use the help. I accept your proposal. I just need to return to the guard barracks, return my uniform, and collect my personal equipment and belongings.
Uri spoke, “Very well. When you are done, you can meet us outside the northern city gate. I’ve endured this place as long as I can stand it for one day.”
I pouted. “Dammit. I was hoping to swing by one of the taverns for a couple pints of ale.”
Uri scowled. “Absolutely not. We have miles to travel and no time for you to have a couple drinks. And we certainly don’t have time for what you usually get up to after you’ve had a couple of drinks. The stable hands will simply have to survive without your carnal talents today.” I stuck out my tongue at her. I knew she was right, but a guy has needs, dammit.
We had been waiting beyond the city walls for only twenty minutes when Danny approached. Uri was looking much more relaxed. She was still on constant alert, but her muscles did not appear to be as taut. I stood there, casually stroking my new amulet and enjoying the feel of the strange metal against my fingertips. Uri straightened her studded leather armor as our new companion reached us. “Shall we get going, then? It’s a long hike to the mountains, and further still to the mine. Don’t worry, human, we’ll keep an eye out for your quarry. While I do not share your desire for revenge, I have no love for most orcs either.”
“Yes, let’s go,” Danny said as he checked that his equipment was secured. I straightened my own posture and fell in line. The walk to the mountain was rather uneventful. I spent most of the time running through the incantations that I had learned. I wanted to make sure i didn’t forget a single syllable at a critical moment, so I practiced frequently. Uri occasionally stopped to check out some sort track or marking. At least I assume that’s what her interest in broken branches and — gross — piles of scat were about. Occasionally, she would make some comment about nearby wildlife that she gleaned from these investigations. Personally, I found her revelations rather boring.
Danny was fairly silent. Like Uri, he seemed to be constantly alert, looking around. Occasionally, he’d ask about some landmark. Uri or I would fill in what we had learned from growing up in this region. Our companion clearly was not from here originally.
When we made it to the mountains, traveling got slightly more difficult, though not insurmountable. We took our time, trying not to dislodge a shower of stones to fall on the others. Uri guided us around some of the more treacherous areas and found places where the climb would be easier. Still, I worked up more of a sweat than I would have preferred. I hoped one of those stable hands might help me find a nice bath when we returned to the city.
After several hours of climbing, we came to the entrance of the mine. As we approached, we noticed what looked like the remnants of a campfire near the entrance. Uri approached it and began poking at it. “I can’t tell what kind of creatures were here or how long ago, but it’s clear that they were sentient. For all we know, they could still be in the area.”
“Right,” said Danny. “Don’t let our guard down. I’m right there with you. I have no desire to fall into an ambush unprepared.”
“Well, since no one’s attacking us out here right this minute, shall we go inside?” I said. “Those statues aren’t going to destroy themselves and I’d really like to get this over with.”
Uri nodded. “Danny, I suggest that you and I take the lead together. Graenas can bring up the rear.”
“Works for me.” With that, we crept into the mine. The entrance was a single long tunnel which we followed for several hundred feet. I placed my hand on one of the timbers that held up the roof. It was old and the surface was splintered in places, but it still seemed to be secure.
Eventually, we came to a small chamber with what looked like entrances to five different tunnels. However, each tunnel was blocked by a boulder with a glowing symbol on it. As I moved closer I realized that the symbols were runes of fey power. The one on the boulder to the far right seemed particularly familiar, so I moved to get a closer look. I realized it was extremely similar to Auril’s own sigil, a rune of ice. I reached out my hand and moved my palms so it was much a couple of inches from the symbol. I felt its power, which manifested primarily as heat. I figured it must be Titania’s personal symbol — or one of them. That would makes sense, since she’s the complete opposite of her sister.
I placed my palm directly on the rune and it seemed as if the whole boulder started vibrating. As I applied a bit more pressure, the vibrations intensified and it seemed as though the whole boulder might shatter. “Um, guys? You might want to hold on to me. I think we’re about to go somewhere and I’m your ride.”
Both of my companions came up to stand behind me. Uri placed her hand on my left shoulder and Danny followed suit, grasping my right shoulder with his well-calloused hand. I kept pushing. Eventually the vibrations became so great that the boulder shattered and the fragments disappeared as they fell. Behind it, the tunnel continued for just a few feet before it seemed to disappear in a shimmering field. I said, “keep holding on,” took a deep breath, and moved forward into the shimmering space.
True to Auril’s word, the rift did not harm me, but it was quite disorienting. As we moved forward, I felt as if reality twisted and swam around me. The sense of dizziness and vertigo built for several seconds before I pushed through. Suddenly, it felt as if reality had returned and I found myself in a room that appeared to be a roughly 25 foot cube. The floor, walls, and ceiling were all stone. I turned to verify that my companions were still with me. Uri stood there, rubbing her stomach with a grimace. Danny stood there stoically. He looked at me for a moment before saying, “Remind me to question you about just what I signed up for later.” I smiled apologetically and nodded.
There was some sort of mechanical contraption along the east wall — assuming my sense of direction in this place was accurate — and I walked over to investigate it. It looked almost gnomish in invention. There was a button in the center and a lever on each side. “Hey guys, would you help me operate this thing?” I asked. Uri and Danny came over.
Uri pulled the lever to my left. Danny pulled to one to my right. I pressed the button. The contraption let out a sound like a fog horn and we heard rumbling behind us. We all turned around to find six rats and three spiders approaching us. Uri drew her sickles and approached the rats in the southeast corner while Danny wielded his warhammer to deal with the rats in the southwest corner. I got back-to-back with Uri as I began to cast eldritch blasts to dispatch the spiders along the northern wall. My first shot completely missed the spider closest to me and exploded against the northern wall of the room. a few stone chips went flying, but nothing more.
Most of the rats converged on Danny, though most of them could not get through his chain mail. The two spiders had a little more luck though and Danny swore as they pierced his skin with their mandibles. The fighter was too tough to be stopped by a couple insect bites, no matter how severe.
The third spider jumped at me. I was able to dodge and it landed on the eastern wall. Spinning, I hit it square with an eldritch blast, turning it into little more than a smear on the wall. Meanwhile, Uri sliced up the rat that was closest to her and moved over to help Danny with the rest of our attackers, though many of the rats had already met their doom between the stone floor and the fighter’s warhammer. I kept picking off spiders and rats with bolts of power. Soon all the creatures had been destroyed and I searched for anything useful. I manged to find a handful of coins, a parchment with the number one written on one said, and a healing potion.
“Do you have a problem if I hold onto whatever we find for now?” I asked Danny.
“Not at all, since you have the means to carry a dragon’s hoard. Just don’t try to swindle me.”
“I promise,” I said.
Uri, who had taken the time to inspect the contraption further, spoke up. “Brother dearest? Did you notice this dial around the outside of the button?”
“Um, no.” I said sheepishly. Danny and I joined her. Sure enough, there was a dial with tick marks. As well as arrows pointing in each of the cardinal directions. The dial currently appeared to be set between two of these arrows. “There’s a shutter at the top of the dial,” I said. “Does it open if you press the button?” Uri pressed the button. Sure enough, the shutter opened showing a reading that seemed to be halfway between two numbers.
Uri turned the dial clockwise so the arrow pointing north was selected. The numbers behind the shutter spun briefly, then counted up from one to four. Uri turned the dial clockwise again and the numbers repeated their performance, this time stopping at three. She turned the dial again. The numbers stopped at two. Turning the dial to the final position gave us a reading of one. “Well, that’s the number on the parchment I found, so let’s give it a try,” I said as I reached up for the lever on the left and pulled. Danny was about to pull the other lever when we heard the same fog horn and rumbling sounds.
This time when we turned, we found ourselves facing much larger rats. Fortunately there were only three of them and no spiders. Again we sliced, smashed, and blasted them until they were dead. It only took a few seconds and we were able find a few more coins for our effort. But we still didn’t know what to do with the contraption. We would have to think and possibly experiment a bit more.