Long ago and far away, ten wildly different people came together for one little adventure. Four hundred years later, the adventuring group they started is still going, and has become the single largest mercenary group in any plane of existence, encompassing the Library of Tammar, The Guild of the Winged Flame, the Inner Eye guild, and the Adventurer's Guild as well as the core group, the group of half breeds, misfits and freaks called Nature's Fury.

Disclaimer: If you recognize it, it belongs to somebody else. If you don't, it's a player created thing used in the D&D/D20 game world of Grame Manifesto and everything is covered under the Open Gaming licence, we hope. If it isn't... I didn't do it.

Started: 01NOV2007, 00:03:15, as part of the National Novel Writing Month challenge for 2007.

Legends of Grame Manifesto

Book Two

Nature's Fury

Chapter One

Surviving the Adventurer's Academy

Deirda Wingfoot stared at the scrying pool with a touch of interest. She'd been giving the initial briefing to potential students at the Academy for ten years and this was the most bizarre group she'd ever seen.

Oh, there were the typical farm kids, most of whom would quickly decide that a live of pain and scars was not for them and run on home to grow crops. A few more town types, who would be appalled by the thought of living in dirt, and just hunkering up under a bush in the woods during hard times.

Out of one hundred people that she gave the first talk to, half wouldn't stay past the chat she had with them. Of the ones that did enter the Academy, most would quit, be run off or die. The Academy had a reputation as the hardest school anywhere in the world, and it showed in the quality of the few that did graduate.

She looked again at the group of people waiting for her. Besides the normal humans, elves, dwarves and a scattering of other common races, were nearly a dozen people that defied instant classification. Two winged beings, one with feathers of blood red and the other with feathers that were black. No sables or midnight hues there, those feathers would never be described as anything but black. There was some sort of huge plant being and that one there had fur and wicked looking claws. There was a short woman, with the far too innocent air of someone that played a lot of jokes on other people, a man, maybe, who seemed to be blurred around the edges, as if he was a reflection in a poorly made mirror.

Those people stood together, ignoring the looks and whispers of the rest of the people in the hall. Apparently, they'd all come together. Deirda could understand that. Some races and people took the abnormal in stride, counting a being's deeds and manner more important than their looks or ancestry.

Some. Most people were stiff-necked bigots, who automatically assumed that if it didn't grow up in their village, hamlet, town or whatever, and it didn't look like they did, it was something to be destroyed or run off. She raised one crooked eyebrow as the huge being stood and his head brushed the ceiling. That ceiling was fifteen feet high. Judging by what she could see, the muscle packed on that frame would match and possibly exceed that impressive height. She was distracted from those thoughts as one of the winged beings stretched its wings. Beautiful black feathers there, on a wing span of ten to twelve feet. Her eyes narrowed. She'd heard about wings like that somewhere, but she couldn't place it right now. She stood up and ended the scrying with a word.

It was time for the show. She thought about it. "Thirty four average people and that group, forty four in all. That group will enter, and about nineteen of the others."

She went into the Entry Hall, where the students that decided to enter the Academy would be brought. She smiled at Roland One-eye, her friend and sometime lover. "Of the forty four, we'll get twenty nine of them." She thought about it. "I also think this class may have a higher success rate than normal."

Roland looked at her. "If you say so. You want your regular bets?"

Deirda nodded. "You might want to tell the supply people to send a mage over this time. We've got some Exotics in this group. Ten or more of them." She smirked. "Including at least two with wings."

Roland rolled his eyes. "Tisara's tits," he swore. "I'll be listening to them complain about the extra work for a week."

She patted his shoulder. "You shouldn't have accepted the job then, wouldn't you say?" Roland was the head of the Academy's basic phase, the four month course everyone took in the beginning of their schooling. It was designed to get rid of the ones that didn't have the drive or the ability to complete the harder courses of the school. It also insured that everyone spoke at least one language in common and knew the rules of the school. "I have to go give the briefing. I'll see you after you've tucked the kids away for the night."


Nightsinger looked around, examining the people and beings around her. Some of them she knew, having met them along the journey to the Academy but most were strangers to her. She looked for danger in them automatically. She was different, which made some people hate her instantly, and her ancestors didn't help a bit. That she was obviously of the Drow, a race hated by almost every surface race was bad enough, but that she had wings only made that hate worse, as most people saw her as a freak, an abomination. No one looked like they would be attacking her soon, so she relaxed and stretched her wings again.

She tucked them in tight as a flash of light announced the arrival of a new being. Nightsinger drew in a startled breath at the appearance of the woman on the small dais in the front of the room. She was human, or maybe half elven, but it was nearly impossible to tell for certain. Her head was a mass of scars, caused by some sort of intense heat. One eye was gone entirely and her ears were mere nubs on the side of her head. The vest that was all she wore on her torso did nothing to hide the continuing scarring or the missing arm. Here, the burn scars were joined by scars from swords and other edged weapons, and some of those scars were too neat and organized to be from battle. At some point in her life, the woman had been tortured.

The lower half of her body continued the tale of a life that had been harder than most people could imagine even in their nightmares. Her left leg was bent and twisted, with a huge chunk missing from her thigh where something had taken a large bite out of her. She wore a pair of shorts for modesty, but since the scars went down into the top of those shorts and came out the bottom, Nightsinger had no reason to believe they stopped anywhere on the woman's body. Overall, the woman was a figure to give children nightmares and make adults avert their eyes.

Deirda smirked crookedly at the gasps and mutters that accompanied her appearance. "Good morning. My name is Deirda Wingfoot and I will be giving you the introductory briefing to the Academy."

She surveyed the crowd. "Take a good look at me, people. If you come to the Academy and continue with the life of an adventurer, you might be one of the ones that ends up being able to give this briefing."

She smirked at the looks she got. "I know what you're thinking. 'That won't be me, I'm better than that', or something along those lines. I know because forty years ago, I stood where you are and had the same thoughts. I was wrong, and some of you are as well."

She eased herself to the edge of the dais and sat down. "Let me give you some facts. The Academy has been in operation for one hundred and ninety-seven years. We average just forty-seven graduates a year. That is nine thousand and sixty-two total graduates in nearly two hundred years."

She looked at them. "We only give this briefing to classes of forty or more. Of the people in this room, some of you will decide that the call of adventure or fame isn't worth it, and you'll go home. The rest of you, the ones that stay and begin the Academy, let's say, thirty of you, will be driven harder than you can believe now. We're going to drive you into the ground, pick you up, and drive you some more. Some of you won't be able to handle that, and you'll quit. Others will be let go, because the instructors don't think you have the skills, drive or brains to finish the school. By the time your first year is over, ten of that thirty will be gone, and then the hard part begins."

The people were watching her avidly and there were a lot of startled looks when she said that the hard part would begin only after the first year was up.

"For the first year, we'll be giving you classes, under controlled conditions. In your second year, a group of students and one instructor will begin doing field training and we all know that when you go into the wilderness, sometimes you don't come back."

She gestured at the wall and murmured an incantation. The illusion fell, showing a series of names. There were maybe six hundred names on the wall. "Before you decide to enter the Academy, take a look at that wall. Those are the people that died in training here, who left no mark on the world but that memorial. Others have completed the Academy only to end up looking like me, or dying young."

She looked at the group. "We believe in a hands on approach here at the school, and the only way to truly train a fighter, is to let him fight. A wizard has to cast spells and a bard has to perform in front of an audience. Sometimes, those things go wrong, so wrong that all we can do is record your name on that wall."

She stretched her aching leg and caught someone staring at her leg. "Yes, there are potions that heal damage as if it had never happened, and clerics to pray over you, spells and herbs and all sorts of things to prevent the kind of damage you see on me. Let me clue you in on something. They're not always there when you need them." She tapped the huge gouge in her leg. "The demon that bit me had just eaten our cleric and after we finally killed the damn thing, we were lucky to live long enough to stagger into the next town, a week away. Once a wound gets to a certain point of healing, it can't be fixed."

She ran her hand over her skull. "Other things, like dragon acids and some sorts of fires make healing nearly impossible, even if it is right there and administered quickly. My body looks like it does because a black dragon caught me full on with her breath weapon attack."

One of the people stiffened. "I know of you. You were the fighter that distracted Nerlilonous the Greedy when she attacked Haven. You held her attention for nearly an hour, until help could arrive."

Deirda nodded. "Yes, that was me, and this is the result. I was one of the best then, but sometimes, if you choose this life, you'll run into a position where the choices are between death or something worse." She looked at each of them. "I made that choice, and it was only by the grace of the gods that I survived, although there were times in the early days when I questioned that grace.

She stood up. "Allow me to lay it out for you. The red door will take you to the Academy. The blue door will take you back to town. Think about what I have said, and be aware that we're going to drive you hard, and the only rules or laws in the Academy are ours. No one will help you if an instructor smacks the shit out of you for being stupid or careless. You will work a sixteen hour day, every day until you quit, die or graduate. We don't slack off here, we never stop driving you."

She looked at them again, her one eye evaluating them. "We'll put you through hell, people, we'll make you cry and sweat and bleed, and never worry about any of it." She touched the vest she wore. "But when you earn this vest, you'll know that you can hold your head up in any crowd and that you can handle anything the world can throw at you, because you, by the gods, survived the Adventurer's Academy."

She disappeared with a pop and another flash of light. The people in the room looked at each other and broke apart to think about it. Some of them had already made up their minds and headed for one or the other of the doors.

Nightsinger looked at her companions. "Interesting talk. I assume it would discourage the weak of spirit."

Grandel snorted, a deep rumbling sound well matched to the huge being. "Almost all of us have come from far away to get this training, and all of us have no real choice. If we want to be the best, we need the training and no one wants to teach a freak, except the Academy."

Nightsinger looked around, seeing agreement in every face but one. She sighed and tapped the being they had named Wildchild on the shoulder. He looked at her and shrugged. "Me not care," he growled around the fangs. "Bird girl save me. I go where bird girl goes."

Nightsinger rubbed her eyes. "Drop the act, my friend. We're the only ones that can hear us."

The furry face of her companion darted a look around. "I thought I smelled you casting a spell, but I wasn't sure," he said in a smooth voice, totally unlike the growling roughness he used in front of other people. Wildchild was close to eight feet tall, and in any group that didn't include Grandel, he'd be taken for an impressively muscled and clawed fighter of some sort.

The truth was, he was a Wizard, or wanted to be one, finding the simplicity of fighting and weapons to be far too boring for his quick and agile mind. He lived for books and research, despite the keen senses and ample evidence that he would not be the first to die if they were stranded out in the woods anywhere.

Nightsinger smiled and looked at the group. They'd all made the journey here, finding each other on the way and banding together for mutual support and protection. They were all different enough that by themselves, they had problems of various sorts while travelling, and sticking together was simple logic.

Alara stood up, drawing the eyes of many of the people that remained. She looked elven, but something about her drew the eye. Nightsinger and the rest of the group knew that despite her elven looks, she was the daughter of a Nymph and a Dryad, two races known for their physical beauty and Alara had inherited the other-worldly grace and beauty of both of her parents.

She'd had a hard time with slavers and pretty much every male and no few females that saw her when she was travelling alone, simply because she raised lust in anyone that found beauty in the female form and no few of those people had attempted to take her, one way or another. She'd been fortunate enough to run into Grandel early on and they had collected the rest of them.

Nightsinger wasn't sure how she'd ended up in charge of the motley bunch, but somehow, they'd all started looking to her when situations arose and she had managed to get them all here intact, so she must be doing something right.

Her thoughts were interrupted as Alara spoke, in that voice that automatically drew the ear, and that Nightsinger so envied. "We're going to do this, we know that. You don't need to ask us, Nightsinger."

Nightsinger smiled. "Then let's go be tortured."

Rowan moved from the wall where he'd stood since they arrived. "I don't think they're going to torture us, Lady," he said in his quiet voice. "They are just a school, after all is said and done."

The group started toward the red door. "Are you certain, my friend? That briefing didn't sound like this would be fun and those names on the wall tell me it's not going to be easy."


Rowan entered the room that the group had been assigned and moved to his sleeping place against the wall. Since he couldn't lay down, his 'bed' was a pile of dirt in a box, where he could sink his roots at night. Rowan was another of the strange mixes, the son of a Treant and a polymorphed Druid.

He was a vaguely human shaped being, but only if that human had been fused with a tree. He had thick bark like skin and his feet resembled the roots of some large tree, uprooted and mobile.

Nightsinger suppressed her shudder. Some of her companions had been created by magic, but most were the result of 'normal' sexual relations between races never meant to mix. Normally, a Treant and an Elf were not compatible and how Rowan's mother had managed to carry a child across the polymorph barriers that usually prevented anything like this was a mystery.

Rowan settled into his place and looked at Nightsinger. "Do you remember my saying they wouldn't torture us?"

Nightsinger blinked and then remembered that conversation, two weeks ago, just before they passed through the red door that had ended up with them here. "Yes, why?"

"I was wrong, Lady. They are good enough to make Marcus envious."

Nightsinger heard the note of pain in his voice. "What were you doing?"

Rowan leaned against the wall. "Instructor Marshall Pintern wanted to explore the limits of my flexibility, as it is my single largest restriction, according to him."

Nightsinger winced. She'd had her own session with the Instructor Marshall, who was tasked with teaching them the weapons to defend themselves. Each person had an individual weapons plan, tailored to take advantage of their strengths and reduce their weaknesses.

Nightsinger was a flyer. She naturally thought of taking to air for any trip more than a few feet unless she was indoors or otherwise unable to fly. The Instructor Marshall had wanted to know how far she could go without flight, and he taken her on a short 'walk'. She'd lasted nearly four miles before falling back from his pace, and completed nine miles on sheer will. Will, however, doesn't help when the skin on the bottom of your feet is peeling off in strips. Nightsinger hadn't walked that far in her life, and she was almost certain she never would again if she could help it.

The Instructor Marshall had different plans. Nightsinger was walking ten miles once a week and was barred from flying any time she was with anyone that couldn't fly. Since there were only four other people in the school that could fly, she was walking. A lot.

They both looked up as Grandel and Alara walked in. Rather, Grandel walked in, carefully carrying a sleeping Alara. He laid her down on her bed and turned to see the other two smiling at him. "What?"

"Grandel, you're fifteen feet tall, and thicker than some trees."

Rowan looked at her. "Hey, I resemble that remark."

Nightsinger hushed him. "The point is, you look like the biggest, toughest monster on the block, but inside, you're softer than my feathers."

Grandel frowned at her and finally sighed as she just smiled. "Someone has to take care of her."

Alara was nice. She was sweet, innocent and so totally unaware of what she did to other people that it bordered on scary. If it wasn't for the supernatural abilities that didn't show, she'd have been in someone's harem or dead by now. Only a lot of luck and those innate gifts had saved her before Grandel had taken her under his wing, so to speak, and he was as fiercely protective as any mother hen.

Grandel looked at Nightsinger. The winged Drow had startled them all when she dropped out of the sky in the middle of a fight with some bandits, but she'd been trained in her remote home, and she was an asset to any group. She was also a natural leader, taking charge without even realizing it. "What are you working on?" he asked, seeing rolls of parchment scattered around her.

She looked around, and waved a hand at the door, causing a blue flare around it. "The Instructors, in an effort to train us to the fullest, want a private report on our respective abilities. I'm trying to figure out how much to tell them."

Grandel frowned. "There are a few things they should not know."

"No kidding," Nightsinger said sarcastically. "I hadn't really planned on telling them that Unthev can suck their brains right our of their skulls."

Rowan had come closer. "I think, lady, that hiding Mara's fire is far more pressing."

Nightsinger looked at him. "I know, and I am so glad that we can hide it. I don't even want to know what would happen if anyone ever figured out that we have a Spellfire wielder with us."

Nightsinger opened her mouth but paused as she looked toward the simple ward on the door.

The rest of their group came staggering, limping or, in one case, floating through the door. Everyone found places and Nightsinger resealed the wards that warned her if anyone approached the door. Since Nightsinger had mounted the Krydas Crystal in the room, no scrying or otherworldly spying that she knew of would work in this room, leaving the door as the only way to eavesdrop on the group. When she was finished, she looked at her friends.

Unthev saw the ward go up and gratefully removed his mask, exposing a face that gave away his Mind Flayer heritage plainly. No one else had four tentacles surrounding their mouths, tentacles that could exact the brain from a skull with as much ease as an axe, but for a far worse use. Unthev could 'eat' the brain and learn things from it. Combine that with the black skin of his Drow parent, and Unthev had good reason to go masked. Mind Flayers were one of the most hated and feared races in the underworld, and the Drow were at the top of that list.

Miranda was a half second behind him, stripping her clothes off and tossing them on her bed. Miranda was an impossibility in more ways than one. Daughter of a Succubus, her other parent had been an Erinyes. Since both Erinyes and Succubi were female, that was impossible. Both races were from negatively aligned planes, insuring that every being born there was evil, but Miranda wasn't evil, not even neutral, but good in a bizarre way. The Devil and Demon had combined to create the friendliest, most cheerful person in any world. She smiled at everyone she met, unless they were openly trying to kill her, a situation that happened fairly often.

Miranda was beautiful, born of a mother that lived by draining humans during acts of lust and designed by nature to incite that lust. Her Erinyes parent was also attractive and something of their combined nature had been passed to Miranda, as she considered clothing to be a nuisance, one she put up with when needed, but to be dumped at the earliest opportunity.

Since Wildchild, with his coat of fur, Rowan, with his bark-like skin, and Nightsinger, who came from a race that mated on the wing were all from races that hardly ever wore clothes of any type, most of the group barely noticed her undressing these days. Alara also had no modesty taboos, as few of the Fey understood clothes and neither Nymphs nor Dryads were among that number. The end result was that half or more of the group was commonly nude.

Nightsinger grinned as she remembered a pair of humans that had stumbled on the girls bathing during their journey. Miranda might have wings with the blood red feathers of her Erinyes ancestor, but she had their beauty as well. A red headed woman, she had a full, lush figure with exotic slanted eyes, designed by her Succubus parent to make men do her bidding.

Alara was simply beautiful in an otherworldly ethereal fashion. Her hair tended to change with the seasons and right now, was beginning to turn to the golden and red hues of fall. Alara's every move was graceful in that manner that shouted Fey louder than words. Add the look of Innocence that she perpetually wore, and she was well assured of looks and offers.

Mara was a simple human next to the others, unable to match their inhuman beauty, but then, a man didn't have to worry about drooling on himself around her and she was toned and fit, with no excess fat or obvious deformities. She did have a deep distrust of people and wouldn't be with the group now, except that she'd been unconscious when they found her, victim of a brutal gang rape that had left her for dead. She'd been three weeks healing, and by then, she was as much a part of their group as anyone with outward differences.

Nightsinger, with her black wings, was obviously not normal either, but she was a Drow, and evil or winged, Drow are still elves and few people have seen an ugly elf.

She was shorter and slimmer than the rest of them, with the slight build of an elf, except through the shoulders where most of the extra muscles she needed to fly were. She wore her white hair in a single long braid, which she coiled around her waist when she wanted to keep it out of the way. She was also lighter than they, having hollow bones like any other bird. Nightsinger's one advantage over Miranda, who could be six foot tall, heavily muscled, carrying a load and yet still fly, was that Miranda's flight depended on a magical talent she was born with. In any type of area where magic didn't work, Miranda couldn't fly. Nightsinger, on the other hand, was born to fly under her own power, no magic involved and could fly anywhere she could find the room.

Dralia was apparently elven, at least until she changed into a humanoid shaped mass of shimmering light, courtesy of her Ghaele parent. Like the others, she was inhumanly beautiful, because of her father's extra planar Eladrin nature.

Shadow was almost prosaic next to this bunch, as well as being the shortest of the group. She was the daughter of a Halfling father who dallied with a Pixie. Of all the cross-breeds in the group, Shadow was the most normal, except for the wings that allowed her to fly. She was only three feet tall, but she was a part Fey, and that meant she was as charismatic as anyone else in the group.

The two humans that had come across the bunch of them swimming and bathing in a sun heated pool in the forest had thought so, judging by their stunned gazes. Nightsinger snickered as she remembered Alara's innocent invitation to join them. One human had to be pulled from the pool, as he'd jumped in wearing his breastplate and mail. The other had simply stood there, staring dumbly at them until they dressed and left the two of them there. Nightsinger had sometimes wished she could have heard the story they told about that event.

"What's so funny?" Miranda was smiling, which didn't surprise anyone here. She always smiled, right up until you angered her. Then the demonic/devil heritage came out and she usually attempted to remove you from the ranks of the living in small bloody pieces. Miranda was a happy go lucky girl, convinced the world was a nice place, and anyone that disturbed her view of the world, by doing something bad to her or her friends rarely lived to regret his actions.

Nightsinger smiled wider. "I was remembering those humans at the pool."

Miranda snickered. "That poor wizard. I could have taken everything he owned and he would have just stared at me."

Dralia frowned at them "Just remember, our looks have gotten us all into more trouble than we want to remember. I, for one, would rather not have to kill every third male on the planet just to live in peace."

Miranda nodded. "I agree. I want to be known for something besides a great set of tits."

Mara snarled. "Go ahead and kill them. It's not like it would be a big loss." Mara was the most violent of the group, and since they hadn't known her before she was attacked, they didn't know if this was a result of the rape, or it was simply her nature. They did know that they never allowed Mara out in public without someone to control her. She was just angry enough at the world to use the Spellfire she'd being trying to hide since it manifested, and that would open a can of worms none of them wanted to touch.

Everyone knew the story of Shandril, from the Faerun continent, and none of them felt like fighting all the forces that would want the ability to warp, change or utterly destroy most magic, simply by being around. If Mara didn't keep tight control of her ability, it would absorb every trace of magic within thirty feet of her.

Add the ability to return the absorbed magic as blue fire and the inability of most shields and wards to stop the fire and you had one of the deadliest weapons in the world. Mages would come from everywhere to study this power, as it manifested so rarely that most people believed that there could only be one living Spellfire wielder at a time.

Rowan sighed as he brushed Mara's arm with his hand. "Not all men are like that, Mara. Take reasonable precautions, but do not judge all people by the actions of a few."

Mara frowned, but subsided. The group discussed what talents they were going to make publicly known to the instructors and which ones they would keep secret while they cleaned and maintained the gear they had been given on the first day.

There was a lot of gear, as the Academy had created the gear list from hundreds of years of practical experience. Everyone's gear list was slightly different, tailored toward the path they were taking. There were a few things that were common to every list, like rope and rations, a few common alchemical potions and a couple of magical potions, but other things, like the bard's instruments or the thief's tools that were job specific.

The gear all had to be maintained by the owner though and the instructors were exceedingly harsh with anyone whose gear wasn't in perfect condition every morning.

So far, the classes they had were fairly simple. Customs and traditions covered the common ways of life of the dominant races of Grame Manifesto, Humans, Elves, Dwarves, and more. This class also covered the laws of the five biggest empires of the planet and the ways of life on each of the various continents.

Weapon training was actually two different classes. Everyone, regardless of their actual paths, worked out daily with the two most common weapons of Grame Manifesto, the long sword and long bow. In addition, everyone had a favoured weapon and they had classes in that weapon. They also had lessons with every weapon common to most places, enough so that they wouldn't hurt themselves with them if they had to pick them up at some point.

Some people, like Nightsinger, had favoured weapons because of their racial heritage and others, like Wildchild, had natural weapons and those weapons were trained in the individual lessons.

Language classes were easy for most people, as the Academy taught the basic trade language, referred to as Common. Very few people came to the Academy without knowing at least the basics of Common, and the classes merely expanded on that knowledge.

The Academy also taught everyone Draconic, as it was the most common language used in all forms of magical writing and bad things tended to happen to adventurers that couldn't recognize it.

Some of the students would have more lessons in languages when the individual lessons started in earnest. Nightsinger, as a Bard, would be expected to learn at least enough of the major languages to get by, the druids would be taught the Druidical language, the mages of all types would delve deeper into Draconic and the rogues would learn the Thief's Cant.

That was still three months away though. Right now, they were being taught about every piece of their gear and waiting for those pieces of gear that had to be custom made. Nightsinger could hardly wait to get her bow.

The Academy made a special bow for every student. Custom made for each person, the Academy bow was the end result of centuries of bow making. For the one person it was tailored for, it was a work of art. Other people could use it, but unless that other person was as nearly identical as a twin, it would not give them the same results.

Nightsinger stopped wool-gathering as she looked at the list they would be giving the instructors. Some of their talents were impossible to hide.

Shadow, in order to fly, actually shrank, from three feet high to just under four inches high. That required special clothes, which would shrink with her, so that talent was on the list.

Dralia's otherworldly shape needed no special clothes, but it was impossible to hide a rainbow coloured mass of light, so it was one the list.

Nightsinger, Shadow and Miranda all had wings, and that meant custom clothes as well. It also required special armour, that wouldn't interfere with flight, while still protecting them as much as possible.

Drake Leatherhand, the Armourer that dealt with the people that didn't want or couldn't use metal armour had taken the entire group as a personal challenge. Of the entire group, only Dralia and Grandel would be using metal armour.

Nightsinger grinned as she recalled the scene with the Armourers. Grandel stood fifteen feet high and was nearly that wide, a mass of muscle that looked as if he lacked only a lever to move the entire planet. The smiths had looked at him and swore. Making armour on that scale would be a pain, and since armour often got dented or bashed up in training, they'd have to make at least two sets of it.

Drake had looked at the winged people, the walking tree and the furred creature and sighed. It was going to be one of those days.

Of them all, only Mara and Wildchild would have no armour. Arcane casters had a hard time casting in armour, and the two of them chose to forgo the specialized training that would allow them to use light armours.

Nightsinger blinked and shook her head as she realized she'd drifted away from her list again. She must be even more exhausted than she thought, to be so undisciplined.

Alara's charming abilities, which were mostly unconscious, were on the list, as were Nightsinger's innate abilities.

Nightsinger's race, the Kal'Droth, had certain abilities that helped them hunt from the air, and since they were known, although not widely yet, she added them to the list.

Rowan's ability to talk to plants, Shadow's ability to talk to any Fey blooded creature, those were common knowledge, so they went on the list.

Nearly half the group had some sort of extra sight, from darkvision to Dralia's True Sight, the gift of her Ghaele father. All of them went on the list, since training in them would teach all of them to get the most from them.

Wildchild had remarkably acute senses, and could track people by scent.

Grandel had some innate magic from his Eldritch giant parent and some from his elven heritage and they were on the list.

Unthev had certain psionic abilities, some of which went on the list. He also had a couple of abilities from his Drow parent, which also went on the list.

Nightsinger finished the list and thought about the things the group had not chosen to make public, the talents deemed too useful, if they weren't known about, or simply too dangerous to make public.

Mara's Spellfire and Unthev's brain sucking were two of that last group. Unthev could also read minds, and while the instructors knew that he would be able to do that with training, they had decided that his innate ability to do so would be a hole card they kept hidden.

Miranda's demonic nature and her devil ancestry both came with 'gifts' that they decided would disturb most folks, and they 'forgot' to mention her ability to incite and absorb lust in most people. They also 'forgot' her ability from her Erinyes half to incite unreasoning anger and fury.

Nightsinger had not yet told even the group that she had a rare talent, even among the Kal'Droth. Like most of her kin, Nightsinger had both perfect pitch and an ear for music. The Kal'Droth had been singing as a passion and as their only real form of entertainment for longer than humans had been on Grame Manifesto, and had the best voices of any race. Everyone that knew about them knew that.

That some few, maybe one in ten thousand Kal'Droth could weave magic into their voices, and speak or sing a spell, that talent was not public knowledge and Nightsinger saw no reason to change that. She had enough problems looking like a Drow without people fearing that she could bespell them with a simple conversation.

She sighed and checked her wards again. Satisfied that they were as safe as she could make them, she went to bed, knowing that they would be up before the sun again.


The Instructors looked at each other. They had all lived the life they trained the students for, and all of them had graduated the Academy. The Instructor's course, the training that every instructor had to pass in order to teach here was harder than the courses the students went through, and it taught them a good many things that the students wouldn't learn here, if at all.

One of those things was that many of their students, especially the exotic ones, had talents and abilities they didn't want to tell anyone about.

To prevent that, and to make sure they were not unleashing another Markus on an unsuspecting world, they routinely spied on all the students.

The group of exotics led by the Kal'Droth Nightsinger had caught their eye instantly, and for a dozen reasons. First, this was the single most mixed group of exotics ever to come to the Academy. That they had come together, and were training as a group, and living together was another curious thing.

The different types of beings, most of whom should be enemies, was also a matter of no small discussion. One Celestial, teamed with a Demon devil mix, two Drow types working hand in hand with Fey, a Treant and the Bugbear Dire wolf. Most of these people should be natural enemies, and yet they stood together against everyone else.

Added to that, Nightsinger had a Krydas Crystal that she routinely used to prevent spying. Such a thing was generally used by people with a great deal of money and a high need for secrecy. Why she had it, they didn't know, but it was just another curious thing about the group.

"Amazing range of talents," commented the Instructor Marshall. "I couldn't build a better combat group if I tried."

The Instructor Marshall was a human in his mid forties, with greying hair and ice blue eyes that could catch an error with a weapon at one hundred paces. He also had the voice to let the offender know about the mistake, as well as anyone else within a hundred paces.

The Instructor Mage, who oversaw all the arcane training shook her head. "That's not just a combat group, Pintern. The magical abilities they have, and the raw power of the sorceress would make any guild sit up and take notice, and that's before you mention the Spellfire." She was an elven woman, calm and graceful, with the wisdom of ages in her eyes. Since she had been an adventurer for nearly four thousand years and had been alive for more than ten thousand years, she had earned that look.

"Pelor has claimed Miranda for his own. She has his favour right now." Everyone looked disturbed at that. The Gods were good or bad, according to their nature, but they all had one thing in common. When a God or Goddess took a personal interest in your life, that life tended to be very exciting, full of magic and wonder, with adventures around every corner.

Those lives also tended to be very short. The Instructor Cleric, who had told the group about Pelor's interest, was a gnome, short even for his race and with an aura of power around him that made some people nervous. Few people even became as powerful as he was, and fewer of them spent much time around other people.

Pintern looked around. "More than their talents, how is this group even together? The Ghaele girl, Dralia wants to be a paladin and she should be at odds with Miranda, simply because of their heritages."

The arcane master sniffed. "Have you met Miranda, Pintern? I see both the creatures that were her parents in her, and I hate those groups with a passion that worries me sometimes, but I could no more dislike that girl than I could stop the sun from rising tomorrow."

The cleric nodded. "She is possibly the friendliest person I've ever even heard of, and yet, it is simply her nature, not a spell or ability. She truly believes that everyone that is not trying to kill her is a friend that she hasn't met yet."

Pintern winced. "That will get her killed," he predicted.

"Maybe, but then again, she has a lot of gifts, from both sides of her heritages, powerful friends and she's watched by the Gods. I think it will be safe to say that we will be hearing from her and her friends for a long time to come." The cleric sighed. "Right now, we need to teach them how to fully utilize theirs gifts and talents, even the ones they chose not to tell us about. How do we do that without letting them know we have a way to disrupt their crystal?"

"More important, how do we train a Spellfire wielder, without the world finding out what she is?" asked Pintern. "The Academy has great defences and we can call on powerful allies, but even so, I doubt we could hold off all the groups that would want to examine her, own her, control her or just deny her to others."

The arcane master frowned. "There is a way, but it's nearly as dangerous as letting everyone know what she is. There is a form of magecraft that teaches a mage to cast all their spells with similar visible signatures. You've both seen it before, remember that woman who always cast her spells as small green hands?"

The other two nodded. "If Mara was to learn that skill, and choose to cast her spells as blue fire, anyone watching her would soon figure out that she was using a signature spell effect and think no more of it, as long as he didn't actually see her using the Spellfire."

The cleric was frowning thoughtfully. "Before we could suggest that, we would have to know about her talent. Since they're not going to tell us, how do you plan on finding out?"

The elf woman smiled. "That is Pintern's job. Mara has a session with you next week, first thing in the morning. I would appreciate it if you would wear her out, as close to passing out as you can get her."

Pintern nodded. "Easy enough to do, but why?"

"Because she has a class with me directly afterwards, and I'm simply going to assign her a candle watching meditation."

Pintern snickered. "She'll be asleep in a few seconds."

The arcane master smiled. "I know. I also know that she'll loosen that iron control of hers, and start absorbing the ambient magic in the room. At that point, I'll wake her, and we'll have a nice little conversation, which I will promise to keep secret, if she follows a few suggestions about keeping her talent hidden. I am no more eager to have her exposed as a Spellfire Wielder while she's here than she is."

"Magical talents aside, how much is that Kal'Droth hiding?" The weapons master looked at the other two as they frowned. "She's well trained in a good many areas. I have to push her hard, any time I allow her to use hers wings in the Salle. From the air, she's bloody dangerous. She's less well trained for ground combat, but I'm working on that. I would have said that using a bastard sword from the air is foolish, but her people must have been doing it for centuries, because her whole fighting style is built around that sword and her whip." He paused, thinking about the reports of the other trainers that reported to him. "Her woods skills are quite good, again, if she's allowed to fly. She can ghost through the woods on her wings quite well, and she has a few innate talents that help her out."

The cleric sighed. "The Kal'Droth are sworn to follow Eilistraee, the only one of the Drow gods that didn't follow Lloth during the Sundering. That is why they use that weapon, as it is Eilistraee's favourite weapon."

He hesitated. "I know no more about her, except that her goddess has marked her. I think she is a fledgling cleric of the Drow goddess."

"She can sense life, within a certain area when she wants to. She can outline those people she finds that way with a form of faerie fire and she has a couple of other gifts I do not know yet."

"She has the potential to be a Spellsinger," said the arcane master quietly. "I think she knows it, and that is a secret she has not mentioned at all. Since it has never come up about the other Kal'Droth, I have to wonder if she keeps it hidden, or if she even knows about it?"

Pintern frowned. "What is a Spellsinger?"

"A Spellsinger can cast a spell by singing, humming or in the strongest of them, simply by talking. I can hear it in her voice, and feel the magic in her words. I would not have recognized it, except I once spent a hundred years or so adventuring with a Spellsinger."

Pintern frowned. "Do you mean that she could learn to cast a spell on someone with a chat?"

The elf nodded slowly. "I have not heard any evil of her people, but this is a dangerous power, both to others and to her, should it become common knowledge. Mages need strange words, gestures and small bits of this and that to cast spells, and still the common people fear them. What would they do, did they know she needs not those things, that her slightest word might carry a charm or spell?"

The three instructors talked about the new people in their care for a couple of hours. The solutions they came up with were stop gap measures at best, but they were the best they could do.

Hopefully, they would be enough.


Nightsinger arced up, casting a spell at Grandel as she did so. Grandel disappeared, confusing the small band of orcs that had thought to ambush the group.

It is, however, a lot easier to think about ambushing someone than it is to do it, when the people you're trying to ambush have among them, two people who can talk to animals and those same two can talk to the very trees you hide behind.

The orcs numbered about twenty five, and with surprise on their side, they would have been dangerous to the eleven person party out on their third and final training mission with the Academy. Without that surprise and with the hastily conceived plan the adventurers had come up with, the orcs were having a very bad day.

One of their enemies had become a scintillating mass of light and was throwing beams of light that burned worse than the hottest fire.

The huge being in armour had disappeared, only to reappear in their very midst, swinging a sword longer than most of the orcs were tall.

Worse yet, three of the group had taken to the air. The smallest of the bunch was staying back, peppering the orcs with tiny bolts that made the orcs sleepy.

The two with the red and black wings were worse. They looped and spun, a dizzying aerial display that turned deadly every time they came within reach of the orcs. The black winged one was snapping a whip around an orc's neck or other extremity, and wrenching the whip sharply. Must of the time, the bones of the orcs were not strong enough to haul the orc into the air and they broke.

Since the orcs with stronger frames could only watch helplessly as the flyer whip cracked them into the trunks of tree at speeds faster than any normal creature could run, their heavier bones were not a good thing.

The red winged one would simply choose her target and dive on the unfortunate being, slamming into that orc with the heavy mace in her left hand and the lighter one in her right hand. The entire time, she was loudly praying for victory and glory.

It didn't help the orc band's morale when she started glowing with a pale light.

Two of them were spell casters, standing side by side and sending bolts of energy into the orc mass, sending the more cowardly of the bunch fleeing less than a minute after the first arrow was fired.

An older human male stood to the side, watching the entire thing and sending an occasional arrow into the orc ranks.

Yet another of them stood still and merely looked at one of the orcs. After a few seconds, the orc nodded agreeably and cut his own throat.

The bravest of the orcs was trying to make a battle of it until a tree came to life and smashed one of them flat.

The orc morale went straight to the Abyss at that point and they started to flee, only to find arrows coming from nowhere and two large wolves snapping at their heels and throats.

Late that night, the last two survivors would limp into their caves and tell the story. They would not be believed, but the scepticism of the other orcs can be excused. Instructor Darry Leafspringer, the elven ranger assigned to guide them on this trip had been an instructor at the Academy for seventy years and an adventurer for nearly seven thousand years before that and he'd never heard of any group with the range of talents and abilities this one had.

If they managed to stay together, not get killed and had a decent bit of luck, they'd be another of those groups that Bards sang about.

After the surviving orcs fled, pursued for a short distance by Alara and Rowan, who firmly disliked the things orcs tended to do to the balance of nature, Darry watched as Shadow went over the corpses, searching them deftly and with the speed that comes from hours of practice and training.

"Not much on this bunch, Nightsinger," she reported. "Twenty-eight gold in assorted coin and the leader was carrying this." She handed Nightsinger a smaller dagger, which glowed with a faint blue light.

Nightsinger examined the dagger briefly and handed it to Miranda. "Anything wrong with it, Miranda?"

Miranda took the dagger and examined it with one of her gifts. Miranda could detect the presence of good or evil in objects and people with a bit of concentration and she focussed on the dagger now. "Nothing," she said after a moment. "It doesn't seem like a very strong magic, either."

Nightsinger nodded and looked around. "Anyone mind if Shadow carries it?"

Everyone shrugged. Grandel smiled. "I need a toothpick," he said.

Shadow rolled her eyes. "Just because you're bigger than some buildings," she started to say, when Alara and Rowan returned.

"There's something over here you should see," Alara said quietly.

Nightsinger looked up. Alara and Rowan had nearly matching looks of disgust on their faces. "Let's go people. Shadow, you're up top this time. Rowan, lead us to your find."

Shadow shrank, shifting into her smaller form, the only form she could fly in, even though she had wings in both forms. She took off, staying well out of reach of normal creatures and fifty to sixty feet in front of the group, close enough to note course changes, but far enough out front to give warning of most hazards.

Alara and Rowan sent their animal companions, a mated pair of grey wolves on scout around the group.

Darry watched the group, not saying much of anything. By the third trip, most of the Academy students were fairly good at the simple job of moving from point a to b, and very rarely needed reminding about anything.

Darry kept one eye open for trouble as he followed the group. Every group in the Academy had an advisor, a senior instructor who was still capable of adventuring and who went on the field training with the group.

Usually, the group were those students that were all learning the same trade, and their instructor was a master of that craft. Sometimes, like now, a group would come to the Academy presorted and wanting to stay together.

Few of them were as large at this group, but Darry understood why the group of exotics banded together. Alara needed the protection of beings that could interact with her and not feel desire, and several of the others needed people around them that could remind them that they were not just 'damn Drow freaks' or 'demon blooded' or any one of a hundred other insults that had been thrown at the group on the first two trips out of the Academy.

Darry grinned. One or two of the comments had come from people in the Academy as well, but the Instructors, who had seen first hand that evil comes in every form imaginable, were quick to deal with those idiots.

Nightsinger, who had been trained in her hidden valley home to deal with just that sort of stupidity, had found a far more interesting way to deal with those people. Where she'd found a spell to make people blurt out everything they were thinking, Darry didn't know, but the results were amusing.

He still smiled at the thought of the time she'd hit one of the students with that spell in the middle of his session with Instructor Marshall Pintern. The things he'd been accusing the Instructor of in his mind where not possible without stronger magic than most gods had and the look on his face as he realized that he'd just said those things out loud was beautiful.

Pintern had merely stared at the shivering student. "I would never do that with an ogre mage. They're much too fragile for that," was his comment. The smile he bestowed on the student then brought a small whimper from him. "You, on the other hand, should be much stronger. Let's find out, shall we? Go get your gear, all of it. I'm adding fifteen miles to this trip for every minute it takes you to get back."

Instructor Marshall Pintern had not gotten the position of head weapons instructor at the Academy by luck. He was the best with any weapon he knew, and he'd forgotten more about weapons than most people ever knew. He could also use them well, as nearly sixty years of adventuring had shown.

The Bards still sing of his defence in the Dragon's Teeth Gap. The Gap was a small pass through the Crystal Wall mountains, narrowing down to just eight feet wide at one point and it was there that Pintern made his stand.

He was scouting for an adventuring party when they found the garrison dead, apparently killed by some sort of poison. The rest of the group did the sensible thing and went after the garrison in Forestwall, nine hours away. Pintern stayed behind. They'd been gone about ten hours when the orcs came. One human fighter held the gap, holding the combined forces of seven orc tribes at bay for over eight hours, until the army could get a troop up there. The mass of bodies stacked like cord wood around his position told anyone that saw the scene everything they needed to know.

Eight-four heads were recovered from the pile. There might have been more dead, but most of the bodies were dismembered in assorted pieces, so no accurate count could ever be made.

The Marshall and the student, a human studying the ways of a warrior, walked out of the Academy five minutes later. What they did on that seventy-eight mile trip remains between the two of them, but the two of them were out of potions, the student's healing gear was almost gone and he was still in need of the Infirmary for two days.

He had learned to change his mind about the exotics, or at least to hold his tongue about them.

Darry came back to the present as they stopped. He watched as Alara led Nightsinger to a shallow ditch. He frowned as Nightsinger mantled her wings. To anyone that spent very much time with the Kal'Droth race, those wings spoke volumes about their emotions. Nightsinger was angry at something.

She turned then and motioned to him. Darry walked up and looked into the pit. "We're going to put the Academy mission on hold," she said abruptly, and Darry could hear the loathing in her voice. He stared at the bodies in the pit and swore silently.

At least three of those bodies had died of vampire bites, and this group would never allow such an abomination to stand. Darry made a quick count. Nightsinger hated the undead, Miranda was a Cleric of a deity that hated the undead, the two druids hated the disruption of nature that was the walking dead, and oh yes, just to put the icing on the cake, they had a freaking paladin with them.

He frowned. Of the group, Nightsinger, Dralia, Miranda, Alara and Rowan would go after the undead from a sense of duty or as a religious obligation. That meant Grandel would go, since he followed Alara even more than he did Nightsinger.

"Blood sucking freaks," came a thought in all of their heads. "I despise the vermin. I vote we hunt them down." Unthev's mental tone was laced with hate and a touch of fear.

Darry sighed. He hadn't known that Unthev had such a hatred of undead. That was seven of the ten, and it had been decided, they were going to hunt vampires.

Nightsinger looked at the group. "Wildchild, would you and Grandel help Miranda bury the dead, please? Make sure they can't rise again while you're at it. Rowan, Alara, would you find us four or five stakes each? Shadow, Mara, stand to the guard would you? Dralia, Unthev, you two can go over undead legends and lore. When everyone is back, you'll be refreshing all of us on that topic."

She turned to Darry. "This is outside of your job, Instructor. We would not think less of you, should you choose to return to the Academy."

Darry smiled slightly. "I would think less of me, and the other Instructors would laugh at me if I lost an adventuring group. What do you want me to do?"

Nightsinger nodded and turned away. "Nothing for now. I'm sure you will come in handy later though."

Darry shook his head. Nightsinger was a nice, polite young lady, but she had far more faith in her group, or almost any exotic than she did 'normal' beings. Given a choice between a human and almost any exotic being, she'd choose the exotic. Of the exotics, she preferred the flyers. Darry understood that somewhat, having watched her for nearly three years now.

Nightsinger thought in three dimensions as naturally as people without wings thought in two. People without wings or other means of flight rarely thought of defending from air attacks or using the air for offence, other than siege engines. Nightsinger, like all natural flyers, always thought in three dimensions, which gave her an advantage in some things.

That bias toward exotics though, could be a liability. Not all of the magical fusions and half breeds were good in nature. Nightsinger's automatic preference could end up landing her in hot water. Darry made a mental note to discuss that with her.

An hour later, they were outfitted as well as they could be, under the circumstances. Everyone had six stakes and at least two vials of holy water.

Dralia and Miranda, as a paladin and a cleric, had six vials each, part of the packing list for those of a religious nature. They both had holy symbols as well, as did Nightsinger and Mara. The rest of the group followed nature herself, like Alara and Rowan, or they had not bothered to get holy symbols of their faith and Darry smiled as he heard Wildchild muttering about getting one.

Anything that gave you an advantage was not to be scorned or disregarded, even if vampires were rare. That was what these training missions were all about, finding out the little lessons that would mean the difference between life and death later, when an instructor wasn't there with healing potions and wands, and in the event of a dire emergency, a magical gate that would take them all back to the Academy in the blink of an eye.

Darry sighed as he listened to the vampire information being hashed out among the group. Recommended ways to confront and kill them, weaknesses, abilities, everything they'd been taught in the academy classes was retold and discussed. Darry interjected a comment or two, based on his encounters with vampires over the years.

When they were ready, Shadow shrunk down to her smaller size, a humanoid shape just four inches tall and started out, flying slowly and staying in sight. Shadow was leading for two reasons. First, she was the smallest, and the hardest to hit if she was seen and she had the pixie's innate ability to turn invisible.

Rowan and Alara went next, using their animal friends and their abilities as nature Fey and druids to talk to everything they passed. Animals, plants, it didn't matter to them, they asked them about recent travellers.

The plants were not very good at that, as transient things didn't often register with them, but the animals of the forest were more likely to notice something moving around and the blood suckers were easily followed.

Animals could smell or sense the wrongness in the undead and they were quick to tell the druids all they could remember, according to their nature.

After a few hours, the group found a path in the woods. It led to a small shrine in one direction, an alter in a glade in the woods. Alara smiled when she saw the shrine. "It's a shrine to Elhonna. There should be a small village somewhere nearby."

Nightsinger frowned, looking at her people. "Dralia, take Mara and find the village. Warn them about the vampires and tell them to stay close to the village. Tell them that you and some companions are going after them and that you will be back after they are gone."

Dralia nodded. "We will be back soon."

Mara and Dralia left, following the path in the other direction. Nightsinger set a guard and the group made camp at the edge of the glade.

Darry, as a ranger, happened to follow Elhonna, and he paid his respects at the shrine, surprised to note Nightsinger doing the same. When he was done, he waited for her. She saw his look and shrugged. "I follow Eilistraee, but paying your respects to the local deities is only common courtesy."

"Not so common, but a good thing to do." Darry sighed, looking at Nightsinger, choosing his words with care. "I have noticed a thing in you that could be a problem, for you and your group. I would talk with you about it, without offence or anger."

Nightsinger looked at him, and the skills and abilities of her training as a bard came to the fore. "Whatever it is, you think it is serious enough to mention in the middle of a mission, and knowing you, it is something that I have done, several times, I would judge. I will not make a promise to withhold anger, but I will hear you out."

"I can ask for no more." Darry frowned, seeking a softer way to say what he had to say. Finally he sighed and just said it. "Nightsinger, you're a racist. You trust the Exotics more than anyone, and lay that trust without knowing them. Your group is made up of good people, but not all of the exotics are as good as your people."

Nightsinger smiled. She looked around and cast a small ward, that would warn her if anyone came near. "I understand why you think that, but it is not as it seems, Instructor. I would ask for your oath, to keep our secrets. If you give it, I will explain why I seem to trust them more."

Darry shrugged. "I have already given such an oath, when I accepted the posting as your field trainer. The Head Instructors required it, since you had some rather special gifts."

Nightsinger nodded. "I base my acceptance of people on several talents in our group. Unthev can read minds, Dralia can sense the presence of evil or good, and a couple of the others can read the past of a being. All of them use their gifts quite freely and I base my decisions on their informations and my feelings about the individual. Most times, I use a low level bardic ability to keep people away that do not meet our standards. The reason it seems that I trust the Exotics more than normal people is just as simple. Other Exotics have an easier time accepting us than normals."

Darry thought about it. "I see. I didn't realize that you used your respective talents to judge everyone you met."

Nightsinger shrugged. "All of us, even Mara, have had encounters with racists of various types or people who would use us badly. While it may be wrong to do, we are less concerned with morals and more concerned with our survival."

Darry snorted. "Morals are great, but you cannot make a moral decision if you're dead. I see nothing wrong with knowing about the people you meet and interact with." He frowned as he thought about what she'd said. "I have to assume that you have used those skills on me at some point as well."

Nightsinger nodded. "Three times, actually, at the beginning of each training mission."

Darry was about to say something when Dralia and Mara returned. Dralia came straight to Nightsinger. "We have a problem. The Vampires have raided the town twice. From the descriptions, the people from the first raid were the ones we found in the pit. The last group was taken the night before last. One of the townsmen overheard a vampire say that their cattle would last a week."

Nightsinger frowned and motioned everyone in. Dralia gave the group a briefing on what they'd found in the town and descriptions of the eight people still missing. Nightsinger looked at the sky. The day was almost gone. "Dralia, Wildchild, take first watch. We'll be packed up before the dawn. We cannot track the vampires in the dark and running blindly into their lair at night is a good way to get killed."

Nightsinger made sure that the mages would get enough rest to renew their spells and settled in a tree. Kal'Droth had a hard time sleeping prone and tonight she wanted to be rested. Tomorrow was going to be a long day.

Unthev woke everyone the next morning and started making a quick meal while the various mages reviewed their spells for the day, making sure that they had spells that would work on undead creatures.

After the group ate, they set out as the sun crested the horizon. Shadow led after Unthev used a psionic ability to create a mind link between the two of them. Shadow would be able to report back to him without alerting anything around with hearing and he could use hand signs to tell the rest of the group.

Dralia had gotten directions from the townspeople and it didn't take long to find the trail of fourteen or fifteen people going through the woods. They followed the trail, Shadow leading, with Wildchild using his senses to find the trail when simple tracks were not enough.

Darry watched the group and had to smile. A psion, a wizard, a paladin, a cleric, a bard, a rogue, a sorceress, a pair of druids and a fighter, all with more abilities than many other people had after years of adventuring. This kiss of vampires wasn't going to know what hit them before they were all staked and dust.

Shadow called a halt at about seven and the group stopped, setting a watch while pulling in tight enough to protect each other. Shadow rejoined them a few minutes later. "The trail goes into a cave ahead. There are two guards standing outside the cave and talking. I listened to them for a minute but they were only discussing sex."

Shadow took a sip from her waterskin. "They're human males. I think, given the topic and the way they were complaining about the lack of women out here, that we could lure them into a trap with a bit of assistance from Miranda."

Nightsinger nodded. "I know just how we'll do it. Listen up everyone."

Harold hated guard duty. That wasn't surprising, as Harold hated everything except getting laid, getting drunk and filling his pockets with gold. Had he known that the group he signed on to work with was going to be the flunkies of a bunch of blood suckers, he'd have found another job or at least asked for more money. Most of the people a free lance mercenary worked for didn't think of you as a potential dinner. He was saying as much to Tom Slicks when a women came out of the woods.

They stared at her dumbfounded. She was nude, with a greenish tint to her skin and hair that matched the falling leaves. "Please help me," she cried as she got closer. "A woodsman is chopping my tree down. Stop him and I will give you anything you want."

Tom and Harold looked at each other and then at the women. The same thought crossed their mind and they smiled. Alara pretended not to notice the way they looked at her. "Please hurry. If my tree dies, so do I."

"No problem. Show us this fool and we'll take good care of him and you." They started off and had barely gone a hundred feet when the sound of chopping came to them. Tom and Harold drew their swords and rushed forward. They entered a small clearing and followed the sound of the axe, which seemed to be coming from the other side of the clearing.

Halfway across the clearing, everything went south on them. The sounds they had been following stopped and things rose up from hidden places all around the clearing. They were trapped in the middle of the clearing and surrounded by monsters or all sorts.

There, a tree walked and pointing a huge longbow at them. A woman with blood red wings pointed another bow at them and a bloody Drow stood beside her. Two wolves stood next to the woman they had followed into this trap and her nudity fell away, revealing more weapons. She smirked at them. "You have two choices right now. You can live or you can die. Make your choice now."

Harold dropped his sword. He didn't know what was going on, but there were monsters and drow, winged beings and animals, walking trees and a giant facing them He was not going to throw his life away fighting these freaks of nature. The armoured giant took a step that covered a third of the clearing and pointed an sword at Tom, who hadn't dropped his weapon yet. "Drop the sword. I will not ask again, I will attack."

Tom Slicks looked at the giant and set his sword down. Another of the group, a slim man with a mask on came closer and looked into Tom's eyes. Tom was suddenly paralysed, unable to do anything but breath as the thing stared at him for several minutes. He felt the thing, which was not a man after all, rifling in his mind, looking at all his actions since they had come to this area to work for the vampires.

Unthev finished his examination of the two men and turned to the group. "I've got good news and bad news. I have the locations of all the physical traps between us and the lair and a complete map of the caves, except the room the vampires sleep in. I also have a count of what we're going to face in there."

Nightsinger nodded. "Now tell us the bad news."

"They have a human necromancer in there and there is a ward that you need an amulet to pass. Without that amulet, the mage is alerted and he has a lot of undead things in there." Unthev frowned as he thought about the information he'd pulled out of the two mercenaries' heads. "On the bright side, Grandel will be able to go with us into most places, but we only have about four hours before they were supposed to be relieved."

Nightsinger thought about it for a few minutes. "We really don't have a choice, do we? We have to go in while the vampires are in their coffins, I don't think any of us really want to wait another day and we're going to have to do something about the necromancer anyway." Nightsinger and Unthev laid out the plan. Unthev gave them the details of the area they were going into and Nightsinger detailed what she wanted everyone to do.

An hour later, the group was in the cave. Unthev had used one of his psionic abilities to create a temporary mind link between the group. They could talk to each without saying anything aloud. "The trap is disarmed. There's one more trap before we hit the ward line."

"Good job, Shadow. Don't get careless." Shadow rolled her eyes. Nightsinger was a good leader but sometimes she was such a mother hen. Shadow slipped from one dark area to another. There wasn't supposed to be anyone out here, but she'd gotten cut on their first mission because someone was in an area he wasn't supposed to in. She went down and stopped just short of the area where the ward was supposed to be.

A few seconds later, the rest of the group was there. "Alright. Is everyone ready to knock on the door?" Nightsinger was about to say something else when Darry interrupted her.

"Excuse me. I might have a better idea. Mara might be able to disable this ward." Darry moved up from the back of the group. "Her special power absorbs magic. The necromancer only has a few ways to power this spell. If it's powered by himself, he'll know as soon as she tries to do this, but if he tied it to an object, we might be able to get a little closer before we're caught."

Nightsinger looked at Mara. "Are you willing to try?"

Mara nodded. She took a deep breath and concentrated on the gift/curse she'd been born with. Her eyes changed, with small blue flames flickering in them. Her vision changed as the physical forms of her friends wavered and their auras sprang into being for her. Every being had an aura and the more powerful those beings were, the stronger that aura was. She ignored the flickering auras of her friends to look for the magic of the ward. She found the circle of power and moved closer to it. Mara reached out and held her hand just short of the circle.

Mara relaxed the control she maintained over her gift and felt the first flicker of magic being absorbed. As the power grew, it absorbed the magic in the ward faster. She watched the ward with that other sight granted by her curse and knew when the ward fell, lacking the power to work any more. She forced the power down before it started looking for more magic to absorb and turned around. "The ward is down. Any sign we've been found yet?"

Nightsinger looked at Unthev and Wildchild. After they gave her negative responses she shook her head. "Mara, you might want to use some of your power. Your eyes are glowing again."

Mara frowned, concentrating on her power, trying to force it down. She looked at the others after she had damped it as much as she could. The look on Nightsinger's face told her that she hadn't been entirely successful. "I'll have to get rid of some energy before I can stop the glow. I'll go last so it doesn't give us away."

"There's no need for that. Here comes someone, and from the noise, there are a lot of them. Go ahead and let go. Nobody down here is going to survive this day anyway." Nightsinger looked up at Shadow's words.

"I hope you don't mean the humans that were taken from the town," she said mildly. "We are supposed to be rescuing them."

Shadow shrugged. "According to Unthev's information, they're all in a cage further in. Nobody that is going to be alive tomorrow is close enough to see her fireworks, and I would rather not have her gather too much power again."

Nightsinger winced at the memory of watching helplessly as Mara exploded into a fireball of blue flames the one time she'd misjudged the amount of power she could absorb. It had taken all of their healing potions and spells to keep her alive and none of them were eager to have her explode like that in an enclosed area like this. "Mara, go ahead and use it. We'll cover you."

Mara smiled. She had to maintain constant control over her gift and sometimes she hated it. It was a rare occasion that she could unleash the Spellfire without worrying about the consequences. She put her wand in the special pouch that kept her from draining its magic and relaxed her control.

Mara's eyes flared with blue flame and flickers of flame ran up and down her limbs as she stood in the middle of the cave and waited for the things they could hear coming. They weren't long in appearing, and as they saw her they started toward her.

The group of undead were skeletons, bare bones with bits of flesh hanging from them and Mara smiled. Skeletons burned well, and she took a deep breath as they stopped appearing around the bend. There were twenty-five skeletons when the first one reached the point where Mara had decided to use her power.

As the first one was only ten feet away, Mara spread her hands and pushed. A gout of flame erupted from her hands, a sheet that filled the corridor and washed over the skeletons. The cone of fire continued for almost three seconds and then stopped as suddenly as it had come.

The group looked down the corridor. Skeletal remains were scattered over nearly sixty feet and none of the smouldering bones were moving at all. "Beautiful work, Mara. Are you OK?"

Mara smiled at Miranda. "I'm fine." Miranda looked at Mara, who had the look of a person intoxicated by drink. Mara shrugged sheepishly. "It just feels so good to let it go."

Nightsinger shook her head. That was a dangerous power. She put that thought aside for later and looked at the group. She thought about what they knew about the next bit and was about to assign positions when Miranda spoke again. "We're going to have to hurry now. I think the person that created those things will have known when they died and he'll be nervous about what could kill that many undead at one time."

Nightsinger frowned. She hadn't thought of that, or she'd have had Mara take them out a few at a time. "Grandel, take point. I want Miranda behind you and Unthev next. Unthev, have your stakes handy. The rest of you, follow them."

Grandel took the point and started down the corridor, stepping on the bony remains of the undead. Bone splintered under his feet and he held his great sword, eight feet of tempered steel, at the ready.

Thirty meters down the hall, the hallway ended in a T intersection. The party knew that the left side ended in the cave that was used for trash and other things the vampires threw away but they stopped while Shadow and Dralia went down there to check for any stragglers that might be there. They came back in just a few minutes. "A few rats down there, but that's all."

Nightsinger nodded and motioned to Grandel to continue on. He started down the right side of the intersection. Twenty feet up the way he closed the visor on his armour and and hunched his shoulders as he walked through the arrow trap they knew was there. The arrows struck his armour and broke, except for one that hit a joint. He barely paused as he pulled it out.

Dralia looked at the arrow but didn't see any poison or blood on it and continued following him down the hallway.

Ten minutes and six traps later, Shadow was unlocking the door to the chamber where the mage stayed, according to their informants. She looked up when she was done and nodded. She stepped to the side, pushing the door open at the same time and Grandel charged through the door bellowing a war cry. He was met with a lightning bolt that staggered him and shot down the hallway. The rest of the group was to the sides of the hall though and didn't get hit.

Grandel roared in pain and charged the mage that had struck him. Behind him, the group came pouring in the room, led by Dralia and Miranda. They spread out as they entered, each person covering an area of the room. Nightsinger had started singing as soon as the door opened and everyone was heartened by the martial song she sang as she looked for the area of most danger.

Across the room the mage stared, stunned by the huge figure bearing down on him. His creatures ignored the rest to converge on Grandel who ignored them, intent only on getting close to the mage.

Miranda held up her Holy sunburst of Pelor and prayed. Her prayer was answered as two ghouls turned and started shambling away and four skeletons crumpled to the floor.

Dralia came to a stop in front of two more humans dressed in scale mail and swung at the one on the left. She missed as he jumped to the side. The one on the right side swung at her but his short sword bounced off her shield.

Wildchild cast a quick missile spell that struck a skeleton about to hit Grandel in the back, staggering it and throwing off his swing. An instant later Unthev's mace crushed the skull of the monster and it went down.

Shadow had used her innate ability to turn invisible and shrunk to her small form. She was flying out of reach, near the ceiling as she tried to get behind the mage without getting in Grandel's way.

Mara ended up near two more skeletons and held her hands out, thumbs touching. A murmured spell later, a sheet of blue flames incinerated the skeletons in a much smaller version of her earlier attack.

Alara stepped into the room and to the right of the door, her bow out and an arrow nocked. Alara used the barbed war arrows of the wild tribes from her homeland and an instant after she stopped, she fired one at the rogue that had swung at Dralia. The arrow buried itself in his thigh and he went down as his leg crumpled under the flesh ripping wound.

Rowan stepped to the left of the door and looked around. There was a ghoul lurching toward Grandel in an attempt to protect its master and he brought his weapon down on its head. When twenty pounds of large well cured oak club meet the bones of a skull, there is only one result and this was no different. The ghoul crumpled to the ground, its head now located somewhere south of its shoulders.

Darry listened to the sounds of battle inside the room, stealing a quick look inside when he could, but mostly watching behind them as he stood just outside the door. This was the hardest part of escorting the academy trainees around, letting them do their own fighting, even if it meant they got hurt. He looked inside in time to see Shadow reappear behind the mage. Grandel saw her and altered his swing, to cut at the mage diagonally, shearing the mage from left shoulder to his right hip. At the same time, Shadow was sticking her short sword into the mage's neck on the right side, slicing easily through the arteries and nearly through his neck.

Either blow would have been fatal, but in combination, the necromancer was in the afterlife before he could do anything else.

Nightsinger stopped singing the bardic tune. "Dralia, Miranda, go get the townspeople. Unthev, Grandel, guard the vampire door. Mara, Alara, Rowan, check the other rooms for any more undead or human servants."

"Wildchild, watch over Shadow. Shadow, check the room and the mage."

The group went off on their tasks, and Darry looked in the room. Shadow was searching the room carefully, both in her trap searching and her looting. Grandel and Unthev were standing in front of the barred and locked door that should lead to the vampire's lair.

He looked at Nightsinger. "Why did you send Miranda after the people? Mara would scare them less."

Nightsinger was humming a tune as she checked Grandel's burns from the lightning bolt. She finished that and Grandel sighed. "Thank you, Nightsinger. That burn was right under the armour and it was beginning to chafe."

Nightsinger began helping Shadow search the room as she answered Darry. "She might frighten them at first, but she's also our only cleric and the best healer we have." She smiled at a thought. "Besides, no one not completely evil can talk to her for two minutes and be scared of her, unless he's attacked her."

Dralia and Miranda game back in then, guiding some townspeople. "Don't worry about their looks, little one. Pelor knows their hearts, and they are good people. No one still in here will hurt you." Miranda was carrying a small girl, about eight. The girl had her arms around Miranda's neck.

Besides the girl, six more people came out of the prison. Dralia was helping another one, a young woman of about twenty years. She had a would in her leg.

Nightsinger looked at Dralia. Dralia read the look. "Miranda spent all her healing for the day. They were in bad shape. Do you want us to use a potion?"

Nightsinger hesitated, looking at the wound. It was deep and starting to turn red around the edges. "Do it. Get her ready to go."

Nightsinger looked over her people as she thought. "Dralia, take charge of Mara and Rowan. I want you and Darry to escort them back to town and stay there."

Dralia frowned and Nightsinger saw it. "I know you would rather stay and fight vampires, but if something goes bad on us, the town will need your special gifts to defend it tonight. If the bloodsuckers get away, you're the only one that can find them before they strike."

She hesitated, studying the door. "In fact, take Grandel and leave Mara behind. We don't know how big the room behind that door is, or if Grandel will fit."

Dralia sighed. "As you wish, but if you get killed without us here, I'm going to bury you in a bright frilly pink dress, like that girl in Lowtown was wearing."

Nightsinger looked ill. "That's just wrong." She smiled at Dralia. "But the warning is heard."

Shadow came over to Nightsinger. "I've piled everything worth taking over there for the mages to examine, except the money. We'll do pretty good on this stuff and I thought the money might could go to helping the townspeople. Dralia could see to it."

Nightsinger looked around. "Anyone disagree?" The group was silent. The amount of gold here was nothing, really, and with the Academy providing everything they needed while they were there, they didn't need a lot of gold. "Dralia, take the money and give to the ones that need it."

Dralia nodded, accepting the pouch of coins from Shadow. "I will do my best." The four that had been detailed to escort the townspeople back to town started off, headed back up the tunnel. The little girl let go of Miranda's hand. "You'll come see us later, won't you?"

Miranda smiled at her. "I will, and if your momma says that it's OK with her, I'll take you for a flight."

The girl smiled and hugged Miranda before running up to take Dralia's hand and babble happily about the 'nice angel'. Miranda turned to find Nightsinger smiling. "Not a word from you." Miranda said, blushing.

Nightsinger's smile became a grin. "I didn't say a word."

Darry had hung back. "I don't like leaving you like this."

Nightsinger sighed. "I didn't think you would, but if this goes bad, Dralia will need the help you can give her in town tonight. After the fight we'll give them, and the loss of their meals, the vampires will be looking for the nearest meal and that's the town. Without the rest of us, Dralia will need good help, and you're the most experienced of all of us."

Darry nodded slowly, understanding the logic but not liking it. "Good hunting, Nightsinger. I hope I have a boring night."

He went after the group walking down the hallway. Nightsinger looked at her people. Mara, physically weaker than everyone except Shadow, but with an inner core of anger that made her a bad enemy.

Shadow, who's luck had held so far, and who's quick reactions had saved half the party at one time or another.

Unthev, the one member of the party that Nightsinger didn't really understand, due in large part to her inability to understand Psionics. She could see magic, with the right spell, but that mind power thing he did was beyond her capabilities. He'd proven himself a staunch ally though, and Nightsinger was happy to have him.

Wildchild, nine feet of muscle and claw, but who's mental acuity dwarfed his physical skills.

Alara, innocent beauty and a connection to nature from her Fey ancestors that no one else could match.

Miranda. Nightsinger could not always believe that she was any kind of demon or devil, given her devotion to Pelor and her cheerful nature, until someone offended her. Then she turned into a force of pure destruction.

"Are you done thinking, O fearless leader?" Unthev was smiling under his mask.

Nightsinger brought her mind back to the here and now. "No, but I have the beginnings of a plan. Shadow, check the door and unlock it. Right now, I'm assuming that we're going to find four coffins in there. If so, we'll take them one at a time. If we find something else when we open the door, we'll make a new plan."

They gathered near the door that led to the vampire's daytime hiding place and watched as Shadow tried to unlock the door. She failed the first time and swore. "This is an impressive lock." She pulled a different set of picks from her tool kit.

It took her four attempts, but Shadow's efforts were finally rewarded with a click.

As the opened, Shadow was thrown off her feet as the door burst open. Two huge barbaric figure jumped out of the room and attacked. One of them was holding a huge double bladed axe and he swung it at Wildchild. Wildchild almost ducked but the axe caught him a glancing blow on the head and laid him out bleeding and still.

The other one was swinging a large two handed sword at Unthev as he rushed out of the room but his swing was disrupted as he tripped over Shadow, booting her hard in the ribs and sending her sliding across the floor. He staggered but kept from falling.

Nightsinger had been a bit further away and she reacted, drawing her bastard sword and swinging at the leg of the axe wielder. She cut him and blood spurted but he didn't even slow down as everyone erupted into action.

Miranda reached for her maces. Miranda was the only person in the group that dual wielded weapons, using a heavy mace in her left hand and a lighter one in the right hand. She pulled her wings back and struck at the sword wielder. Her first swing hit him in the arm, leaving a mark, but her second swing glanced off of the furs on his shoulders.

Alara stepped back, her bow coming up and she hesitated, holding her shot until Mara moved out of the way. She fired, sinking an arrow deep in the axe user's chest. He staggered, reaching up and grabbing the shaft of the arrow and ripping it out of his chest.

From her place across the room Shadow winced as the barbed head tore out of his chest bringing a spray of blood and flesh with it. "That's gotta hurt," she muttered. The axeman stared at the arrow for a second and toppled over. "Yep, that hurt." She stood up and disappeared, even as she drew her magic dagger.

Mara put her hand up and unleashed a blast of coloured lights in the swordsman's face. He blinked and staggered, swinging wildly at nothing. The blade missed Wildchild by an inch as he stood up, still groggy from the blow to the head.

Wildchild shook his head and turned to see the barbarian about to cut Alara in half. With no time to cast another spell, he did the only thing he could. He reached out and stabbed his claws into the man's back, ripping through skin and muscle with ease. One hand was tearing the muscles in the man's shoulder and the other hand was lower, using the barbarian's spine as a handle. Wildchild flexed harder and strained. The man left the floor, dropping his sword as pain overrode the berserk rage he was under. Wildchild lifted him, and swung him into the wall, battering the man, breaking his face and skull in several places.

Wildchild slammed him into the wall twice more and dropped the body. He sighed. 'I hate having to get physical."

Nightsinger looked at him briefly before turning her attention back to the open door. "Worry about it later. We've got a job to do."

Shadow appeared, fluttering to the floor. "I've got to use a potion," she said, hold her side. "I think that big oaf broke a rib or two."

Miranda was there in an instant. "Let me see." She touched Shadow's side and watched her as she winced. "Hold still, I don't want to hurt you." She reached into her pouch and took out a bandage. She wrapped Shadow's ribs tightly and gave her a potion. "Here."

A few minutes later, she rejoined Nightsinger. "She's got a couple of broken ribs and I've wrapped them. I gave her a potion but she should stay out of this fight if she can."

Nightsinger nodded. "Alara, you and I have point on this one. Shadow, you and Wildchild have the rear. Unthev, you're behind me. Miranda, watch Alara. Mara, you hang back with Wildchild." She grinned briefly. "Try to keep him from getting too physical."

Mara looked at Wildchild. He stood nine foot tall and was broad through the shoulders, weighing close to three hundred pounds. Mara was just over five feet high and barely broke a hundred pounds. "What am I supposed to do? Bite his ankles?"

Nightsinger led the way into the room behind the door. The room was about twelve feet high and forty feet long. It was wider than it was long, nearly sixty feet. The room had two piles of furs and a single coffin. Nightsinger stepped up close to the coffin and Unthev pulled a stake, stepping up next to her.

Nightsinger grabbed the lid, checking that Unthev was ready. He nodded and she heaved the lid back. Unthev raised the stake and stopped. "It's empty."

Nightsinger frowned. "Where are the vampires?"

Alara was looking at the ceiling. "Give me a minute." She stepped over to the side of the room and made a strangely high pitched sound. A few seconds after she started, a bat flew down from the ceiling. Alara fed it something from her pouch and stroked it for a minute. After a couple more tidbits and some more sounds, Alara let the bat go and looked at the others.

"The vampires don't sleep here. They come in and let the barbarians lock the door. After that, they turn into mist and go out the same crack he uses to go hunting. He says there's another cave system that was safe for small creatures, until the vampires came."

Nightsinger swore. "It's nearly three. We're not going to find their hideout tonight."

Miranda frowned. "They're going to be looking for a meal. They'll come here first and when the barbarians aren't in here, they'll know something is wrong."

Nightsinger started toward the door. "We've got to get to that town before they do."

The group started toward the door. Dralia and the others were going to be expecting their friends or battered vampires, not undamaged bloodsuckers that knew there were adventurers in the area.

They had to get to town and warn the people.

OoOoOoO The Author, Here and Now, 24MAR08. OoOoOoO

AN: Yes, I have a computer again, Yes, I am working on the next chapter of this, but I owe a lot of people that are waiting for SoG, BoB, MM&WS and PoE. We will see if they make it to town and what happens next in the next chapter.

Those of you that play D&D can find most of the half-breeds in this story in the D20 book "Bastards and Bloodlines", along with the rules for mixing the various races.

The Adventurer's Academy is a creation of Alex, who created it to be able to help beginning players out. A player that has gone through the Academy can get a bit of GM help when they run into problems. "You had a class about this (Monster, situation, Country, Race, ETC) Fill in the blank." Experienced players don't normally need it, but for newbies in their first few games, it's a good way to help them out without showing too much favouritism.

If you'd like to know how to build an Academy of your own, drop me an email or PM and I'll send you the stats for ours.