Chapter 13:

"As you exit, you can feel the oppressiveness from the wights' presence begin to lift. It'll take a while, but the area will recover. Your journey back to town is uneventful. Vrianna and Alegeria meet you at the edge of town. A border guard alerted them of your approach. Just by looking they can tell you were successful. Alergeria takes the bones of the other child, quietly thanks you, hands over the map piece and leaves. Vrianna offer the use of a small home on the of tskirts of town to rest and heal. Everyone in the town is truly grateful,but you know the sooner you leave the more easy the town will rest.

"The next morning, both Simond and Myla are able to heal everyone of their injuries, though the psychological effects of the energy drain lasts a few days longer. Even early risers find the need for extra sleep."

"We'll leave as soon as everyone is capable of it." Everyone agreed with Simon.

"This is a good spot to stop for lunch. What do you say?" Jim looked over at Daryl.

"I could eat," the DM flashed a grin. "What are our choices?"

"We could hit the deli down the street. No offense, but I don't think I could handle any more pizza," Jol commented. "I'm not as young as I used to be."

"There's a menu around here somewhere. We can call the order in, then have someone go pick it up when it's ready." Jim rose from his seat and rummaged through one of the kitchen drawers. "Here we go." He handed it over to Daryl, who shifted over so that some others could look over his shoulder.

Once everyone figured out what they wanted, Blair called the order in. "Thanks, Marta." He hung up. "Order should be ready in about twenty minutes. Who's coming with me to bring it back?"

"I will," Henri announced.

"Me, too." Rafe added. "It'll give me a chance to stretch my legs." Rafe followed Joel and Simon out onto the balcony for a smoke while Jim pulled plates from the kitchen.

"This has been an awful lot of fun, Daryl. Is the adventure from a modual?" Megan reached for the bag of chips, opening the bag and pouring them into a bowl to set on the table.

A faint blush appeared on the teen's face. "No. I wrote it myself."

"So, we're the play-testers?" Rhonda asked with a grin, setting out fresh glasses and napkins.

"Well, I hadn't intended to have it published."

"I don't see why not. It's an interesting concept. The level of difficulty can be easily adjusted based on the numbers and levels of the characters." Blair pulled loose dice from where they'd fallen beneath the couch. "The story line makes sense and, most importantly, it's fun."

"We'll see how it ends. I'll think about it, though. Could be fun to see it in print."

"Cool." Blair glanced at the clock. "Let me go grab our food so we can find out what happens next. H! Rafe! Ready?"

"Yup." Henri snagged his partner's arm and the two followed Blair out.

Jim leaned against the back of the couch. "What would you need to get it published?"

"I'd have to submit a game concept to the company. Then, if they're interested, write this up so that it follows the proper format. They'd rather most of the bugs get ironed out before it's sent to them. That means having it play-tested a few times beforehand, sometimes with more then one group. If they like it, they'll buy it off me and publish it. So far, I've only had a few bits and pieces done with other groups. I've never combined some of this together before." He shrugged. "If it ends well, then I'll consider submitting it."

By the time the food arrived, the table had been cleared of dice and character sheets.

"So, where does the puzzle box send us next?" Joel asked, biting into the pickle wedge that came with his sandwich.

"Looks like it's along the western coast. No one in the group has been this far north and any maps you have are woefully out of date. None of the ones Alergeria has focus on that portion of the world – it's a separate kingdom and he's not been there, nor dealt with anyone from there. You'll have to make due with the one on the puzzle box.

"After a week of travel, you come across a well-maintained road leading in the correct direction. There are a few travelers along the road as well."

"Travelers? Are they adventurers? Merchants? Gypsies?" Blair ate his own pickle, then grinned when Rafe handed him his.

"Merchant. Looks like a rug seller."

Jim glanced at his character sheet. "I have 'gather information' and 'travel lore' so I'll ask him which town or villages are nearby, as well as about the place we're headed."

"The merchant appears uneasy at first, but when he notices your crest he relaxes, becoming more friendly. He allows you to copy his map and goes over the small settlements that the road connects – all leading to their port city of Terengard. Cascadus does some trading with them, but not often as taxes are high."

"Why is he uneasy? Are there bandits that plague the road?" Jim finished the first half of his sandwich, setting the plate to one side for now.

"Roll perception." After Jim did so, Daryl continued. "You noticed the merchant does not speak directly to any of the non-humans in the group. He is not rude or disrespectful, but you get the sense that non-humans make him uncomfortable."

"How long will it take to get to Terengard?" Joel asked, taking a napkin to wipe his mouth.

"Four more days. And you'll pass by at least three smaller villages and towns."

"I thank the man and we'll travel on our own. No reason to make someone unnecessarily nervous."

888

Rianna frowned at yet another disdainful look sent her way. The group had arrived in Telengard earlier in the day and from the very beginning things had felt off. Their first choice for lodging had inexplicably had no rooms available when they tried to check in; though she knew she heard the innkeeper welcome travelers who arrived after they vacated the premises. They ended up in a second rate inn along the outskirts of town. Small, worn, and meals had to be found elsewhere, but at least the rooms were clean and baths available for an additional price. Simond had made arrangement for the room, and the innkeeper seemed genuinely happy to have custom; but when he spotted the rest of the party she thought she remembered him frown in concern before his wife interrupted to have him take care of an issue that had come up.

The group decided to take care of some necessities and to scout the city. According to the puzzle box, the last piece lay somewhere in the center of the port town. Deep in the middle of civilization, the last piece might be harder to retrieve than the others. Simond and Myla went to find the local church for tithing, prayers, and hopefully information. Hawk went to see if he could contact the local Thieves Guild; if they even had one. Heron spotted a Warrior's Hall – a place for training and hiring – and had gone to see what information he could find. Jaxon had chosen to see about exchanging one of the horses. The poor creature would not make a return journey, though for short distances the animal was still sound. Balen stayed at the inn, claiming fatigue; but Rianna felt the Druid just wasn't up for dealing with so many people after so long traveling with just the seven of them. Joryn had chosen to accompany her while she got fresh supplies for supper. The marketplace, somewhere she usually enjoyed, felt stiff and formal. No one was outright rude, but there was an icy politeness from those she dealt with, and though she could hear brisk banter going on around her, none would haggle in their prices with her. Though not exorbitant, she frowned knowing that normally she could get merchants to lower their prices for her. But the merchants here were firm. One price. Take it or leave it. It made no matter to the merchants.

Placing the last package within her pack she mumbled her thanks to the merchant and turned to find Joryn. The Dwarf had stopped at the blacksmith's hoping to effect repairs on a few weapons and purchase some iron. Joryn met her on the street, took her by the elbow, and gently steered her toward their lodging. "Any luck?"

"Minimal," came the gruff reply. "The blacksmith is a no nonsense sort. He charges fairly and has a keen eye for detail. He seemed happy to speak with me." He shot her a look. "He also mentioned what a shame it was that all the Dwarven craftsmen up and left five years ago." He sighed in disgust. "Now the town is predominately human. Non-humans aren't really welcome here. They don't own any businesses in town. Most found it easier to move on rather than stay."

"What caused the shift?"

"He didn't say, but he did try to warn me to be careful."

"I think I'll feel better once everyone's together again." The two hurried their steps.

Passing an alley, neither were prepared as their limbs weighed down with lassitude. The sleep spell sent them sprawling. Moments later, the street appeared empty once again.

8

Hawk leaned up against a wall across from the local Thieves Guild; there were too many ragged looking people, many carrying crutches or wearing eye patches, moving in and out for it to be anything else. Something about the situation niggled, but he couldn't quite put his finger on what bothered him. He didn't like it. About to fade back and reconsider his approach, he stiffened slightly, keeping very still, as the cool edge of a blade pressed lightly along the side of this throat.

"Now, why would ye be hangin' aboot, Elf?" The term hurled like an epitaph. "Don't ye be known' it ain't healthy fer yer kind 'round these parts?"

"Just checking in with the local talent." Hawk made the signal signifying he was a member.

The blade pressed more firmly, nicking the skin and sending a trickle of blood to soak into his collar. "Ain't none of yern one o' us, Elf," came the snarl. Before he could defend himself, Hawk felt the sharp prick of a needle. The drug worked quick. As consciousness spun down into darkness he heard the voice spit, "Didn't I tell ye it ain't healthy fer yer kind 'round these parts?"

8

Balen paced around the room, wondering if it would have been better to have gone with one of the others. He hadn't seen the innkeeper since they'd checked in – he has seemed a decent man - but the man's wife and the stable hand were another matter entirely. The glares they sent his way as he'd organized his friends' belongings made his hackles rise.

Feeling stifled, he left the room to check on the horses. Brushing one of the beasts soothed his uneasiness and he'd almost convinced himself that he was being paranoid when a large hand clamped painfully on his shoulder, pulling him out of the stall to crash onto the straw-strewn ground. "We don't take kindly to your sort."

Balen pushed himself up onto his feet in a low crouch, hands still on the ground for balance. "What sort would that be?"

The burly man wore a dark blue tunic with a gold sun on the right shoulder, the rays extending to encompass the entire shoulder. He moved closer, a sneer upon his face. "Half breeds are an abomination and should never have been born." He aimed a kick at the half-elf, the sneer shifting to a scowl as Balen easily evaded the blow. "I'll not allow you to sully our town with your filth." He made a motion and four other men, similarly dressed, descended upon the Druid. A lucky blow to the head rendered him unconscious.

888

"Well, that can't be good." Megan blinked. "So what do the rest of us find out?"

888

Heron sat at the bar, nursing a beer; the frown on his face deepening as he listened to the conversation around him:

"Yah. Got hired on to eliminate that community of daisy eaters last spring. Good money and with the clerics on our side it was a pretty simple job."

"... after the fire, that Dwarf couldn't get the money to rebuild. He left town and my cousin bought the land for a song."

"...Didn't know he wasn't fully human. When the baby was born, the abnormality was obvious. Her father had them killed for dishonoring the family in such a way. It nearly killed him to do it, but better than allowing the blood to be diluted."

Alarmed by the trend, Heron left the Warrior's Hall in search of his friends.

8

Trading the horse didn't take as long as he thought it would, but Jaxon found himself distracted as he returned to the inn. He'd noticed the lack of non-humans in the city. He'd also noticed the number of people wearing blue tunics with gold suns on the shoulder. It wasn't far-fetched to assume that the two were related. The sooner they found the last puzzle piece and left this city behind, the better.

Nearing the inn, he spotted a full squad of men in said tunics turning the corner ahead of him, heading back to town. A ripple of uneasiness ran down his spine. Scowl on his face, he hurried toward the inn.

Quickly stabling the new horse, experienced eyes noted the signs of a struggle in the straw. Praying he was wrong, Jaxon headed up the stairs. "Balen?" The Druid wasn't in any of the rooms assigned to them, nor in the bathing chamber, main room, or family kitchen of the tiny inn. The door opened and the innkeeper stepped inside, arms full of wood for the stove. "Have you seen my friend? He stayed to rest while the rest of us went to town."

The older man shook his head. "I've been out running errands myself since you've checked in." He shifted his stance, his manner uneasy. "I'm not one to poke my nose in someone else's business, but your friend, he's non-human, am I correct?"

"Half the party is non-human. Why?"

"This town isn't too friendly to those not of pure human descent. Most limit themselves to just being coldly polite, refusing to barter in the market, perhaps denying services. Mild discrimination. But the Clerics of the Flame have a nasty habit of harassing folk who aren't pure."

"Harass? How?"

"Physically bully them. Some of the accidents that have caused several of our non-human neighbors to leave town weren't accidents. If the City Council can get a non-human on a crime, they'll fine them and banish them from the city; take their land and businesses, too. If the Clerics of the Flame get hold of a non-human..." he trailed off, brow furrowed. "That's when things get more brutal. They came into town nearly a decade ago. Started out small, but got progressively more vocal and powerful. They started pontificating – claiming that non-humans were bad, but half breeds were worse. Got to the point that I feared for my family's life. See, my brother married a beautiful elven lass. Wonderful woman, Lia is. But their two children were having the devil of a time. I feared something would happened and convinced them to sell me their half of the inn and move to a safer spot. Last I heard, they were doing well in a small town several fortnights south of here." He tapped on the counter, eyes focused out the window at the stables. His stable hand crossed the yard, a smirk upon his face. The innkeeper's frown deepened. "Let me speak with my wife, I have a feeling she knows something about what has occurred." He strode off before Jaxon could protest.

The Ranger couldn't make out what was said, but he could hear their tones. The innkeeper spoke quietly, but with a deliberate cadence. His wife gave a waspish reply. The man's response was cold and clipped, eliciting a gasp from the wife. The stable hand's voice was high and reedy, a whining tone that ended in a slamming of the door as the young man made a hasty retreat away from the inn.

The innkeeper returned, his face set in grim lines, eyes flashing in his ire. "My wife, being such a 'concerned citizen,' took it upon herself to contact the Clerics of the Flame to let them know that we harbored non-humans. My guess, your friend was taken to their Temple." He pulled a sheet of parchment out and a quill and ink. "It's the only temple in town, near the center. They won't bar you entry since you're human, but once they realize your intentions you could be in some trouble. I've been a few times. This is the layout as I remember it. There's a side door just past the main room of worship which should let you bypass some of the clerics and novitiates." He gazed seriously at the Ranger. "I can't help but stress once again. The Clerics of the Flame hate non-humans but believe half breeds are an abhorrence and against the natural laws of their god. I've heard rumor that not all non-humans were banished, but instead used in sacrificial rites. You'll want to get him out of there as soon as possible. Take what you think you'll need for a rescue – I can gather the rest of your belongings and forward them to the 'Wayward Wanderer'. It's a way station three candlemarks South of here. It'll be safe there. I can also let any of the rest of your party know what is going on if they show up here.'

Jaxon studied the man for a long moment, before nodded, clasping hands with the innkeeper. "Thank you."

"Good luck."

888

"Oh, this is just getting better and better," Blair mock-groused.

"Sorry, Blair." Daryl rolled a die between the palms of his hands, a wry expression on his face.

"No, you're not." But the smile took the sting out of the words.

"What next?" Rafe asked.

"As Jaxon heads for town, he meets up with Heron. The two exchange what they learned."

"I agree that we should head to the Temple immediately to see if Balen is there, keeping an eye out for any of the others." Henri nodded at Jim.

"Good. As you walk, no one bothers the two of you." Daryl shifts in his seat looking at his father. "Now we'll see what Simond and Myla have been up to."

888

After asking around, both Simond and Myla were surprised to discover that only the Temple of the Clerics of the Flame was open to the public. They'd become so powerful over the past decade, other religions had practically gone underground, only maintaining small, private places of worship that did not welcome strangers.

Arriving at the Temple, Simond and Myla were welcomed by one of the higher clerics. The man wore a deep sapphire blue robe with a god sun emblazed upon the chest; face serene, but eyes calculating. "Welcome, travelers. Welcome to the Temple of the Clerics of the Flame. How may we serve you?"

"We came to pray, to tithe, and to gather information," Simond began.

"I notice that you wear the symbol of the god of Healing," the cleric interjected, addressing Myla.

"Yes. But there does not appear to be a temple dedicated to Him."

The cleric nodded, "We entered the city almost a decade ago, preaching the Good News. In that time, many have converted to our ways which left many of the other religions to struggle along for a few years. Most of their temples closed due to lack of worshipers. Not wanting to exclude anyone, we have a special room set aside so others may worship other religions." He gestured to a hallway to the left of the main room. "We only ask that you be open to speak with one of our numbers. Perhaps, you too shall found our teaching to suit you more then that of the god you currently serve."

"Thank you." Myla smiled but Simond knew her well enough to know the edge that smile carried. She was not one to suffer condensation lightly. He followed her down the right hand corridor, not missing the slight frown on the cleric's face as he did so.

Myla nudged him as the door to the smaller place of worship closed behind them, her manner easing. "He's probably wondering why you're going to the 'alternative religion' room."

"What?"

"Your holy symbol looks similar to theirs, Simond. If they haven't been out of the kingdom, they might not realize that it represents the Goddess of the Sun."

Simond looked startled for a moment, his hand unconsciously coming up to cover the pendant he wore. "That didn't occur to me." Pensive, he moved to one of the pews to kneel. "Wonder if that will cause problems later."

Myla joined him, observing the numerous candles that ringed the room, tier upon tier, of varying hues and sizes – each representing a different god or goddess that no longer had its own sanctuary. Sticks of incense burned, scenting the air, almost overwhelming in their multitude. The room held a simple altar covered in white cloth, a dozen or so pews, and the candles. She and Simond had the place to themselves at the moment. She'd just begun a prayer to her god when she unexpectedly felt herself relax and a warm general sense of lassitude spread throughout her limbs, a feeling she didn't normally achieve except in a full communion with her god. Brow furrowed in thought, she carefully inhaled through her mouth, tasting the scents in the air. A flash of alarm crossed her face. She grasped Simond's arm and murmured, "Try not to breath too deeply. Follow me." Without another word, she lead him through a second doorway, into a narrow corridor, sighing to find the air clearer.

Swiftly checking the hall, she deftly tucked her pendant into her tunic, eyes wide and slightly glazed as she looked up at him. "Tell me more about the Clerics of the Flame?" Simond opened his mouth to question her; she squeezed his elbow in warning. A young novitiate in a light blue robe drifted down the corridor toward them. The young man studied the two, eyes focusing on Simond's pendant. The cleric bowed with a serene smile upon his face as he passed the two. Myla wasted no time in leading Simond farther down the hallway, the fumes clearing from her head the further they moved away from the sanctuary.

"What is going on?" Simond tucked her arm into his, for all the world looking like he was escorting her.

"The incense. It was drugged, possibly bespelled as well. Designed to lower your resistance to suggestion."

Simond didn't argue, he'd noticed how relaxed the room made him feel – not sure of his surroundings, he would not normally lower his guard like that. "To what end?"

"Easy conversion? Let the person think the Clerics are okay with them worshiping other gods in their temple, use a drug to lower their resistance, then have someone talk up their religion?" The two exchanged glances. "I don't know, exactly, but I don't like it. It would explain why they're the only open temple in town."

She walked quietly for a moment, the two taking turns at random. "Did you notice anything odd when we walked by the main sanctuary?"

"You mean like there were no non-humans to be seen? Yes." Simond's expression was grim. "Is there anything we can do?"

"At the moment? Pray. It's all we can do until we get more information. In the meantime, we should return to the inn and warn the others to steer clear of the place."

They tried to retrace their steps, but found themselves turned around. The hallways here were less ornate, almost severe; the doors heavier, many of them barred. Passing a tapestry, both nearly jumped out of their skin as a hand reached out from behind and clasped Simond's shoulder.

Jaxon and Heron joined them in the narrow corridor. "What are the two of you doing here?"

"Looking for Balen." Jaxon's expression was grim. "Seems non-humans are frowned upon doing business in town, and half-breeds are especially unwelcome. The innkeeper said that he was taken by a group of Clerics of the Flame and was probably brought here." He filled the two in on what they'd learned.

"Have you seen the others?" Myla asked, her voice tight.

"No. The innkeeper offered to warn them if he spotted them. But if he's right, it wouldn't surprise me if they're here somewhere, too."

888

"Who has the puzzle box?" Daryl asked, suddenly.

"Um … I forget," Jim admitted. "Who had it last"

"Either Simond or Myla. We were dealing with the wrights and the Ogre village." Rafe spun a six-sided die on one of its corners like a top, scooping it up when it stopped on three. "Would someone else be carrying it at the moment?"

"No. That's fine." Daryl jotted down a reminder for himself on his note pad.

888

Hawk seethed in anger as he paced the confines of the small cell he found himself in. Other than his tunic and trews, he'd been stripped of all his belongings, including the small piece of wire he kept sewn in the hem of his shirt. He rubbed his neck absently, the nick received had scabbed and would heal without a scar, but his anger at his treatment by a fellow thief, as well as at himself for letting someone get the drop on him, nearly overwhelmed his good sense.

He took a deep breath, centering himself, and evaluated the room. The door's hinges were on the other side of the room, so no help there. No loose stones in the floor or ceiling. Featureless walls save for a screen covering a narrow ventilation hole. He grinned.

888

Joryn glowered at the door, mentally ordering it to open. His weapons had been taken, as well as his money pouch and jewelry. He had no idea where he was, where Rianna was, how he got here, or why. No one had come to see him, either – either to explain or gloat. He waited impatiently, hoping he could express his displeasure at his current circumstances upon his captors. When the door did open, he couldn't hide his surprise. "Hawk?"

The Elf quirked a grin. "Fancy meeting you here."

Joryn growled softly as he joined him out into the hallway. "Funny. Real funny. Any ideas where we are?"

"Temple of the Clerics of the Flame. Holding cells for non-humans." At the look, he explained. "I was in the ventilation shafts and overheard. Anyway, Rianna is two cells down from you."

Joryn waited until the Mage had been freed before continuing. "Why would we be in the temple?"

"Guess this is how they get rid of undesirables," Rianna scowled. "Come on. Let's go this way." She pointed down to the left.

"Why that way?"

"I've got a tell on some of my belongings. It says it's over that way. If we're lucky, all our stolen items are in the same place."

Hawk unlocked a door with a bit of wire he'd found in the ventilation shaft. Sure enough, they found their belongings laid out upon a table where it appeared someone had been cataloging them. After securing their own things, they looked at what remained. A simple hand-carved pendant of a holly leaf on a leather cord, a pouch of herbs, a dagger, and a small hand sickle. "Balen?"

Jalen indicated the clothing sitting on the other side of the table. "Yeah. Balen's around here somewhere."

Rianna carefully gathered the items.

"I didn't see him in any of the cells I passed. The only ones in use were the ones we were in. There could be other holding cells in another wing or even another level." Hawk's lips pressed in a thin line.

"Then we should keep looking."

8

"Which way?" Simond frowned, fingering the hilt of his sword in agitation. The hallway continued to the left and right with a small stairwell that led both up and down. They'd passed two novitiates in their wandering who merely smiled and bowed. Simond's holy symbol seemed to give them a free pass, but there was no telling how long that would last.

A whisper of sound from above had the four humans on guard. The softest hum could be heard – a simple four note run. Relaxing a fraction, Heron hummed three notes back. Hawk, Rianna, and Joryn soon joined them on the landing. "How'd you know?" Heron asked.

"I didn't. Had a hunch. Glad it worked." Hawk grinned, then drew serious. "Guess it's too much to ask that you've already found Balen?"

Jaxon shook his head. "Innkeeper said he was taken by the Clerics of the Flame. How did you get here?"

Hawk looked disgusted. "Got ambushed outside the Thieves' Guild. They seriously don't like non-humans here."

"Someone cast a sleep spell on us as we left the marketplace," Rianna admitted, her expression dark.

"Well, he's not upstairs," Joryn stated. "And I'll wager he's not on this level. So, downstairs?"

Simond knew their free pass was at an end. His holy symbol wouldn't counter having three non-humans with him. He quietly warned the others and they cautiously descended the stairs.

888

"Okay, Blair. Your turn. You wake up in a cell."

888

Chapter 14:

Balen blinked awake, his eyesight a bit blurred from the earlier blow to his head. He kept still, listening to his surroundings, hoping not to alert anyone that he was aware. Hearing nothing save the crackle of a torch, he took a chance and rolled over, his ribs protesting and his left arm dangling uselessly from a dislocated shoulder; his head ached, but that seemed to be the worst of it, the rest just bruising and minor abrasions from the fight in the stables. The fact that his clothing had been replaced with an undyed linen shift sent a shiver up his spine.

The room was featureless, no widows or furniture, just cold stone. Iron bars had replaced the door. Any light came from a torch outside of the room, out of reach of anyone who might be within the cell. Grimacing, he rose to his feet, riding out the dizziness and nausea. Walking over to the bars he gazed outside, no one appeared nearby. Lips pressed together in a tight line, the Druid braced himself and rammed his shoulder into the doorway, popping the joint back into place. He gritted his teeth to keep a scream from escaping as white light flashed in his vision. Breathing deeply, he had to take a few minutes to re-center himself.

When he recovered, he leaned against the doorjamb and took a closer look at the area beyond him. The room stood twenty by twenty with a high ceiling. A line of windows lined the wall near the ceiling, impossible to escape through unless you were a bird. Opposite him stood a large altar covered in blue and gold cloth. Upon the altar lay a gold sacrificial dagger, a silver chalice, and a plate that looked made of crystal. The walls above the altar was done in a giant mosaic of a large Golden Sun; the rays made from various small objects that radiated enough magic he could feel it from across the room. A brazier hung from the ceiling, the incense making him sneeze. Alone the far left stood a set of double doors and on the right was a staircase that led upwards. But what chilled his blood was the ritual circle done in colored tile upon the floor in the center of the room before the altar and mosaic.

Exhaustion tugged at him and the Wolf paced within his soul. 'I don't like this.'

The double doors opened and two clerics entered the room. Balen shifted away from the bars, the movement catching their attention. The younger of the two glanced over, eyes widening in surprise. "It's awake."

Balen bristled but held his tongue.

The elder looked over, an expression of mild interest plastered upon his face. "Really? How odd. The wards should have kept it incapacitated for much longer. We'll let Tepis know when we're done."

"You're not concerned it will escape?"

The cleric scoffed. "Those bars are pick-proof and exude a null-magic zone. It's not going anywhere." The cleric leered at the half-elf. "And in less than a candlemark we won't have to worry about this one doing much of anything. Will we?"

The other nodded his understanding and proceeded to ignore the captive as they tidied the altar, placing fresh cut herbs upon the platter and filling the chalice with a clear liquid. They lowered the brazier's chain and added something to the container, a sickly sweet scent wafting through the room, before raising it once more and left the room, the door closing solidly behind them.

Despite the conversation, or maybe in spite of it, Balen tried a spell that would wilt the herbs. A simple spell, it should have easily reached the distance and turned the herbs into a brown sodden mess. Instead, the result had the bars glowing a dull red and Balen felt the iron absorb the spell's energy. "Okay, so magic won't go outside the bars. How about inside the cell?" He pulled a strand of hair from his head and tried a simple color cantrip. Again, the bars glowed red and the spell was absorbed leaving the hair unaffected.

Eyes narrowed, Balen reached a hand out and gingerly pressed a finger against one of the iron bars. Nothing. It felt like a normal, solid iron bar. They were set too close together for him to slip through as an Elf, but he might be able to squeeze through as a Wolf. 'And that's 'if' my shape change doesn't register as a spell.' He needed to hurry though. Whatever the clerics had added to the brazier had begun to make his head spin. Concentrating, he tried to Shift. The bars glowed, but barely. Balen could feel the Change, but it was a struggle; not his usual smooth nearly instantaneous transformation. The bones shifted and grated against one another and his muscles protested; a mental shove finally completed the shift. He lay there, panting, gathering his strength. If he could slip through the bars, he'd head up the stairs and hopefully out of wherever he was being held. Approaching the bars, he stuck his head through, only to feel like he'd been struck by lightning. His entire body stiffened as pain lanced through him, the bars trying to leech his energy from him. Only years of discipline and an iron will kept him from howling and alerting the clerics. He wrenched himself away from the bars, collapsing upon the flagstones as his body shuddered and shook from the magical jolt. 'Oh, damn that hurt!' He gasped for breath, becoming dizzier both from the shock and from the incense. 'Can't let them find out I can Shift. Even if it doesn't help me now, maybe I can use it once they release me from this cell.' It took the last of his energy to Shift back to True From before darkness welled up to claim him.

888

"Well, I'm tapped out," Blair tossed his hands in the air. "I sure hope you guys are close by. I don't relish a close encounter with that ritual circle."

"You don't think it was too much, do you?" Daryl looked a bit anxious, he wanted everyone to have fun, but Blair's character had been taking some major beatings.

"Evil, Daryl. Pure evil to do that to Sandy's poor character." Megan couldn't hold the solemn expression and her face lit up in a grin. "Love it."

Blair rose to his knees, making eye contact. "Oh, no. This is good, Daryl. It makes sense. I mean, how else are you going to hold onto a person who may or may not have magical abilities? Whoever designed the cell certainly wasn't leaving anything to chance."

"It also helps explain what happened earlier in the game," Joel added. At Simon's questioning glance, he elaborated. "With the wight. Remember? Only silver or magical weapons could hurt a wight, but Balen managed to tear a chunk out of one's calf and then kill it while in Wolf Form. That means that as a Wolf, he counted as a magical creature, right?"

"Unless Balen had his teeth capped," Rafe joked, pulling his feet away to avoid the swipe.

"I don't think that would be very comfortable." Blair reclaimed his original position, crossing his legs and leaning up against the couch. "So, what did they put in the brazier?"

Daryl shrugged. "A few herbs that are tweaked against non-humans to knock you out. Normally, you wouldn't have awakened until they dragged you out of the cell for the ritual, but your Wolf heritage held most of that at bay. Time-line wise, the others should be down the stairs around the same time as the clerics arrive for the rite."

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Rianna stumbled as she stepped over the threshold into the lower level of the Temple. The blaze of magic on the wall nearly blinded her, the bars on the cells that lined the left hand wall lit up in her sight, too, but it was the ritual circle that snared her attention. Death magics practically crawled all over it in a dark miasma of evil. From the corner of her eye, she saw both Simond and Myla react to varying degrees. If possible, the circle had to be destroyed. A whiff of incense had her reeling for completely different reasons. The befouled air made her head spin, weakening her. She stepped back onto the landing, taking in deep breath of untainted air. "Careful. The incense is dangerous."

The humans seemed unaffected. Exchanging glances, Jaxon studied the room a moment, then let an arrow fly at one of the windows, breaking glass and giving the scented air a way to escape the room. Simond lowered the chain and once it was within reach, Heron unhooked the thing and with a swing hurled the pot up and out through the window. Myla frowned, "Rianna? Have anything to get rid of this incense?"

The Mage blinked, then nodded, casting 'Gust of Wind'. The hazy air eddied and whirled as the wind blew through the room, carrying the incense outside. However, not a breath stirred within the confines of the cells and the bars glowed red as the unnatural wind touched them. "Null zone," she growled.

Joryn crossed into the room, finding the Druid in the center cell. He knelt, wincing at the bruised figure. "Balen?" He wrinkled his nose at the incense, feeling a headache and general lassitude form. He guessed the smoke was to keep any prisoners unconscious and manageable. So he was a bit surprised when the half-elf opened his eyes and raised his head a bit to look at him.

"Hey." Balen's voice was thready and his face drawn with exhaustion, but his eyes clear and alert.

Finding the release mechanism off to one side of the cells, well out of reach or sight of the prisoners, Joryn quickly had the cell open, the incense escaping the enclosure. He returned to Balen, hunkering down beside his friend "Can you move?"

The Druid thought a moment, the fresher air already having a positive affect, then nodded. Pushing himself up, he leaned wearily against the wall, panting for breath and looking like he'd fall if not for the stone behind him and Joryn's hand upon his shoulder. Rianna passed him his clothing and Balen gratefully, though slowly, donned them; dropping the linen shift distastefully upon the ground. Jaxon growled as he spotted the bruises that adorned his partner's body from his encounter with the Temple's guards. Balen just gave a jaundiced look. "Is there any wonder I prefer the solitude of the woods to 'civilization'?" The Dwarf offered himself as a crutch, and leaning heavily upon his friend's shoulder, Balen exited the cell into the main room, avoiding the bars. "Can we go now?"

Hawk had been admiring the mosaic; most of the pieces upon the wall had been painted or gilded either gold or bronze, but several of the items were made of genuine precious metals with several large gemstones added here and there for an overall gorgeous effect. He blinked, then blinked again as he spotted something. He leaned nearer, making sure not to touch anything, and drew everyone's attention to the emblem upon the wall. "Is that what I think it is?" The magic users in the group winced at the amount of raw magic just stuck to the wall, not quite sure what exactly Hawk referred to. The thief pointed at one of the rays. Near its tip lay the last puzzle piece.

"Well, I'll be damned," Heron whistled.

"And well you shall be for desecrating this most Holy Place of our Benevolent God." The rich tones sounded behind them. Turning, the group saw a Cleric in royal blue robes of the finest silk, the sun design upon his chest picked out in actual gold and platinum thread, jeweled rings adorned his fingers, and a head piece mimicking the rising sun done in gold and amber glinted on his brow. His face round with overindulgence, slate blue eyes narrow in indolence, and he had a cruel twist to his mouth as he surveyed the group before him.

"Benevolent God," Myla scoffed. "What benevolent god accepts Death Magic in their worship?" She gestured to the sigils upon floor, growing more angry as she pointed out the ones that dealt with death, blood, and soul magics. "This Circle is used in the blackest of death magics. No 'benevolent' god or goddess would require or request such rites be done in their name. It's so corrupted, nothing of the Light could be cast within."

A few of the men lowered their weapons, looking unsure. A few grew mutinous looks, positive the woman was mocking their God. The rest showed no adverse reaction, already well aware of the accusation. The Head Cleric, Tepis, smiled thinly, "Those without faith are quick to cast aspirations against that which goes against their world-view. The heretics would do anything to make the devout doubt themselves. I assure you, our most Benevolent God smiles upon our doings, knowing that only through cleansing sacrifice can we save our own souls and our world."

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"Geez, Daryl. Where did you come up with this stuff?" Rafe asked. Simon also looked over at his son, one brow raised.

"Had to do a report on Religious Cults for Poly. Sci. I found some interviews and propaganda. It was kind of scary how alike they sounded, despite their very different goals and views. I figured this guy was a bit of a nut case, so I mis-mashed a bunch of what I found together and voila!"

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"You have trespassed and must therefore pay the penalty of such an offense."

"Wouldn't have needed to trespass if you hadn't kidnapped our friends." Heron snarled, grasping the handle of his battle ax.

The Cleric's face twisted in disgust and flicked out a hand in dismissal. "Non-humans and aberrations."

"I might actually feel offended if I believed for even a moment that you weren't anything other than a prejudiced, ignorant buffoon spewing officious sounding offal." Balen's voice cut through the air like a knife. The statement, combined with a bland, indifferent stare caused the Cleric to flush in rage.

8

Rianna had ignored the Cleric's pontificating, instead studying the mosaic in more detail; her own expression turning darker as she 'read' the magic. The magical artifacts, being in such close proximity to one another and the ritual circle, had warped somewhat and she stared, appalled at what they now stored. Sliding closer, she tugged on Hawk's sleeve, whispering, "There are souls trapped within. Whatever ritual he uses cuts loose the soul and the mosaic has become a large gathering device."

Hawk stared at her, horrified. "What can we do?"

"If we remove four artifacts, it will collapse upon itself, releasing the souls. However..."

"However?" Hawk prompted.

"I don't know how easy it will be to remove the artifacts, or even if the attempt is possible. And if we do remove them, there may be consequences we're not prepared to deal with."

"Which ones?" Jaxon murmured having drifted to their side during the confrontation, his face grim and determined.

She subtly pointed, one being the very puzzle piece they needed. "We're going to have to be quick about it. That Cleric won't be happy when he discovers what we're doing." They exchanged glances as Balen's biting comment caused the guards to step forward, weapons drawn. "No more time. Go. And good luck."

As their friends engaged the guards, Jaxon yanked what looked like a glass encased circle that had numbers around the inside edge. He felt a jolt race through his body, but the artifact itself came off with ease. He shoved it into a pouch and turned to help in the fight.

Hawk pried off the puzzle piece using his dagger. Like Jaxon, he felt a jolt though his body, his hair rising with static. He also pocketed the piece and whirled about, weapon ready.

Rianna took a deep breath, grasping what looked like a brass sextant with her left hand and a long narrow cylindrical device with her right. The cylinder was engraved with runes that gave off a blue flash as she came contact with it and lifted it from its fellow artifacts. She felt something settle deep within her chest and shuddered as energy raced through each limb.

The mosaic flared brightly, practically blinding everyone in the room. The fighting stopped as sparks flew from artifact to artifact. An oily, noxious smoke poured from the wall as artifacts fused together, others charred, or exploded sending shrapnel through the room and into the combatants. Balls of colored light streamed from the gemstones, congregating within the confines of the ritual circle, bobbing and darting in agitation. "Destroy the Circle!" Rianna screamed.

Joryn raised his war hammer and with a cry brought it sharply upon tiles that made up a section of the ritual circle. Tepis shouted in denial, but it was too late, one of the tiles shattered into a million pieces, obliterating a sigil. The Circle was broken and the balls of light exploded into motion, zig-zagging around the room in a dizzying display. Some seemed to try and protect the company by placing themselves between the group and the dangerous looking smoke. Some separated combatants, pushing Tepis and his personal guards closer to the holding cells and the company and those guards who had no knowledge of the circle's true intentions toward the stairs. Chain lightning cascaded from the ruined mosaic striking Tepis and his men.

Balen blinked as a violet sphere paused in front of him. He nodded, bowing, then turned to scream, "Everyone out! The whole place is going to explode! Move it!"

As one, enemy and ally alike raced for the stairs. Guards peeled off at the main level, some heading upstairs, some down side corridor, alerting anyone in the building to escape while they could. Echoes of alarm could be heard as spirits streamed up and out of the building.

The companions made it to the main doors, helping novitiates and worshipers escape the Temple that was slowly being sucked into the earth – the ritual circle at the center of the newly created sinkhole. A sullen flare encompassed the building and vanished, taking the entire Temple and anyone still inside with it. People stared uncomprehendingly at the empty expanse, able to see those who had escaped from the opposite side of the building staring back. Silent, no one moved for several long moments, not sure what had happened, or if the event was over.

Simond lay a hand on each of his friends' shoulder, quietly gaining their attention. They left the area without attracting notice, knowing it wouldn't take much for the shock and disbelief to give was to rage if given the right motivation. And non-humans around the scene could give the crowd the target they needed. Jaxon looped an arm around Balen's waist, helping the half-elf along. Balen was done in, but no one wanted to temp fate by spending any more time in this accursed city.

Heron led the way, taking the group out by way of the southern gate. Once they were out of sight of Telengard, Myla administered Heal potions to any who needed them, but as a group they agreed to press on until they found themselves at the 'Wayward Wanderer'. As promised, the innkeeper had forwarded their belongings and the company tumbled into their beds unable to deal with anything else for the day.

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Chapter 15:

"Wow!" Megan's eyes were alight as she grinned. "That was very cool!"

"So... we turned off the power to the containment grid?" Henri grinned at Daryl who snickered at the 'Ghost Busters' reference.

"Sounds about right."

"Looks like the souls of those trapped took their revenge," Rhonda said. "Who was the god the Clerics of the Flame worshiped? I don't remember any being so blatantly against half-breeds. But I could be wrong."

"No. There aren't any. At least, not in the main books. Tepis was a fake, he didn't actually worship any god, so his spells weren't divinely powered. He was actually an Illusionist and used those artifacts to do all his 'miracles'. If he's lucky, the gods and goddesses won't torment him during his afterlife for daring to impersonate a deity."

"Good encounter, Daryl" Jim relaxed against the cushions. "What next?"

Daryl glanced at his watch, wincing a bit. "It's almost six. I figure we can take a break for dinner. Then, if everyone is still interested, we can move on to the final segment of the adventure. You have all the puzzle pieces – you just have to figure out what to do next."

"Oh, yes. I vote for continuing. I've just got to find out how this all ends." Rhonda tilted her head as she looked at the others. "How about you guys?"

Everyone agreed that it would be a crime to leave the adventure unfinished. Deciding on fried chicken for dinner with all the fixings, the group relaxed for an hour commenting on what had already been discovered in the game as well as plans for the rest of the weekend.

8

"When you snapped in the last piece, the box glowed. The map upon its surface changes once more. This spot – you feel certain – is where you need to be in order to successfully open the box and retrieve that which it hides. It leads to a remote area about a three week journey to the East.

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'The Wayward Wanderer' was a god-send to the weary band. Everyone felt blessed that hot baths were available, the food plentiful, and the employees polite and discrete. Nervous about been so near Telengard, the company only spent the single night before continuing their travels, though that night and the following morning brought rumors that with the Temple destroyed, many of the new converts were trying to figure out just why they had changed their affiliations in the first place. Several of the smaller, private temples had sudden influx of past member, most being accepted again as coercion spells faded. A hunt was being held for Tepis and the other clerics high in the Temple's hierarchy, but so far no sign of had been found.

"I guess the spirits dealt with them," Myla offered.

"Good riddance," Rianna practically spat. "Anyone who would do such a thing deserves any punishment meted out." N o one argued with her, especially with Balen's chair conspicuously empty as the half-elf had retired after finding the rooftop garden and claiming it as his sleeping space away from any others and outside enclosing walls.

The following morning, still somewhat subdued, Balen joined them as they packed their gear on their horses in preparation to leave. No one pressed, but each took a moment to help re-center the half-elf; a touch on the arm, a gentle smile, a joke – reminding him that there were still people who valued him.

They trekked Eastward for three weeks; villages becoming further and further apart until the last place they could stop for provisions had been a tiny hamlet. It was there that they learned something about the area in which they headed.

The old man shook his head when he heard of their destination. "No one in living memory around these parts have ever known the area to be anything other than a wasteland. There's not an oasis or any water to be found for near on a week in any direction. Last three hundred years or so it's been the arid desert you see now. They say the Elves have some journals written by merchants that used to do business way back then. According to the documents, there was a city in what's now the center of the desert. Pretty prosperous. Then, one day, it up and vanished." He shrugged, chewing on a toothpick. "No ruins were found. But there were rumors of a fabulous treasure that could be found at the spot. Every now and then you get treasure hunters looking. If they don't succumb to the heat and dangerous terrain, or random roaming beasts, they usually leave disappointed."

"What do you think is out there?" Hawk asked eagerly.

Another shrug. "Maybe an artifact of some power. Maybe a tomb of the previous rulers of the city filled with their earthly belongings. Maybe nothing but sand and blood. I don't know. I'm content with what I have and have no desire looking for supposed riches."

8

"How much farther? Jaxon eyed the horses with concern; the terrain more treacherous than expected. Pockmarked with gopher holes and sharp edges of stone, one of the pack horses had bruised the frog of its foot and necessitated they camp earlier than planned in order to allow it to rest and recover. They had a limited amount of supplies, he figured they could travel two, maybe three more days before they'd be forced to return to the hamlet.

Hawk studied the map, having used prior stopping points to measure out the distance needed to travel. "Another day. We need to head further north, but should get there in six to eight hours at this pace. You spoke with the old man longer than any of us, any ideas what we might expect to find, Joryn?"

The Dwarf shook his head. "The last group of treasure hunters encountered nothing more dangerous than a nesting pair of fire salamanders. He didn't know of any other monsters that may have wandered into the area recently. Doesn't mean there aren't any, so we should keep a weather eye out. The fact that no water or oasis can be found is usually enough of a deterrent for anyone other than madmen or fools."

"So, what does that make us?" Rianna pushed strands of hair from her face, grimacing as it stuck to her neck and cheek in sweat-soaked locks. She readjusted her headscarf, keeping the sun from beating down on her face.

"Adventurers," Heron responded promptly. "We at least have a valid reason for braving the wasteland. More so than others, at least." He pointed at the box Hawk carried. A wind sprung up forcing the group to wrap lengths of cloth around their mouths and noses to keep the stinging sand at bay.

"Just another term for fools and madmen," Balen stated. "Why else would a person abandon hearth and home to wander the earth encountering unknown dangers and possible death in the slim hope of fame and fortune?"

Not able to honestly argue the point, the group rode on in silence. At each resting point, which occurred more frequently as the sun rose in the sky, Balen used his 'Create Water' spell to ensure neither man nor beast died from dehydration. The journey was miserable, but the possibilities once they reached their destination buoyed their spirits.

Hawk handed the box over to Myla and the Cleric moved closer to both Balen and Rianna to see if there were any clues on how to open the thing. "I know it will take spells from each of us. I'm just not sure if they're specific spells that are needed to open it or all it really requires is the type of spell. You know, does it matter which spell as long as it's cast by a Mage, Cleric, and Druid?"

"How will we figure that out?" Rianna had turned the box over, minutely examining each of the sides to see if there were any clues as to how it opened. Other than the map on the top, the rest was featureless.

"It might not matter which spells are cast," Jaxon offered from where he rode nearby. At their questioning glances he elaborated. "How often do you have the three different magic users willingly working together in anything? Honestly? Most Clerics, depending on the religion, are pretty friendly; but Mages tend to hold to themselves, being unwilling to combine their magic with even other Mages, let alone different magic styles. As for Druids, they're so secluded and secretive, rarely leaving their guardianships; it's nearly unheard of for one to combine their magic, especially for anything as mundane as treasure."

"Fair enough," Myla conceded. "When we get there, we'll see if the box lets us know anything else, then try some basic spells."

The sun was about to set when they finally made it to the spot on the map. Camp was set up and the group agreed to sleep so that they would all be well rested for the attempt. If things went wrong, no one wanted to have to fight in the dark. A campfire kept the desert chill from their bones. A full moon allowed those on watch to have a good view, but the land appeared desolate; not even a coyote called. The following morning, after a fortifying breakfast, the magic users strode over to the spot indicated on the map. No other signs or instruction appeared on its surface. Shrugging, they nestled the box in the sand and stood around it in a loose circle, waited until everyone else nodded their readiness, then, in unison, cast their spells.

At first, nothing seemed to happen; the box lay innocently upon the sand while the sun crested the horizon. About to speak, Myla gasped in surprise as the top of the box sprung open A green light suffused the area, a trill of music filled the air, and each smelled the scent of lilacs in their nose. The world flickered around them. Off balance, they tried to keep their feet. Their horses whinnied unhappily, prancing in agitation as the sand beneath their hooves shifted back and forth from sand to cobblestones.

The world settled and the group stared in awe. Surrounding them was a city, the cobblestones done in a mosaic design of red and brown stones, the buildings made of white stone, gleaming and clean. Trees lined the fairway, alternating with ornate statues. Fountains with benches nestled within small courtyards, the sound of water soothing to the ear. Grass and flowers gave the areas a park-like look, combining functionality with beauty.

"Gorgeous," Rianna murmured getting assenting noises from the others as they stared, feeling somewhat out of place in their travel-stained attire.

"I wasn't expecting this." Hawk trailed his fingers through the water of a nearby fountain. "Not sure exactly what I was expecting, but it wasn't this."

"Something portable, expensive, and easily sold," Heron grinned to take any sting out of his words. Hawk merely nodded in agreement, a wry grin upon his face.

"I wonder what happened to all the people?" Myla studied the blank windows for motion.

"It's been at least three hundred years. If the people weren't displaced when the city disappeared, they probably died off when the food ran out." Joryn moved over to one of the buildings, perhaps the city's Main Hall; the heavy stone door opened smoothly at a touch -perfectly balanced.

"I have a hard time believing they remained here for any length of time," Jaxon gestured to the city's pristine conditions. "People in those situations tend to panic and become destructive, especially as despair grips them"

Simond agreed having witnessed such panic firsthand during the wars. "So, either they were not here, or were suspended along with the city." He joined Joyrn, entering the building. "Let's see if anyone's at home."

Scrolls, parchment, and quills covered the tables in what looked like a personal office. A half-filled plate and mug stood off to one side, as if the diner had simply stepped away for a moment. The parchment in front of the chair had ended mid-sentence, giving further weight to the theory that whatever occurred had happened without warning. From the documents, they discovered the city's name – Kapizon.

They spent the rest of the day exploring Kapizon. Everywhere were signs that the people had been completely unprepared for whatever happened. Tables with half-eaten meals, chores partially done, baths untaken. No bodies, though. If people had died, it hadn't been here.

They found libraries full of rare and exotic books; treasure troves of equipment and artifacts; laboratories organized and ready to work on both magical and mundane experiments. Literally wealth untold.

Simond eyed the small cottage along the outskirts of town, even to unmagical eyes the air seemed to glow from some powerful magical effect. He had a feeling this is where they'd find their answers. He motioned the others over and entered. Three skeletons lay upon small cots in one corner of the room, hands crossed peacefully upon their breasts, empty mugs on the floor beside them. On a small bookshelf stood several journals. He handed them out, "Hopefully one of them will tell us what happened."

"I think I know what happened," Rianna stated an hour later. "Most of the citizens of Kapizon were scholars or researchers either of the magical or mundane variety. So, a lot of what was created was done just for the sheer joy of creating it. No plans were made for mass production or practical applications. Most of it was benign, but a lot of it could be transformed into pretty horrible weapons. Well, seems a ruthless warlord heard about what was going on here and tried to take over the city. He hired mercenary soldiers and magic users to overwhelm the city's defenses in order to take the resources, magics, and technologies for himself. As he knew only the citizens could work any of the inventions, he planned to capture the city with as few fatalities as possible and use mind control in order to get what he wanted.

"Obviously not wanting that to happen, the rulers of the city had everyone research and develop ways to protect themselves. The plan they chose was created by Tieran Blaze, a Cleric of the Moon Goddess, Valorn Bilgepot, a Fourth Tier Mage of the Crimson sun, and Mica Glen, a Druid. They had a Dwarven craftsman, Sevrin Marstone, create the puzzle box that was the key to the entire spell. The spell was supposed to send the entire city out of phase save for Marstone who would be sent far away with the key – the pieces would scatter across the continent as an added protection in case the warlord found Marstone. Once the warlord was no longer a threat, Marstone was to gather a Cleric, Mage, and Druid to open the box and release the spell, returning the city to the proper time."

"Seems something went wrong with that idea," Heron's gesture encompassed the room.

"Yeah. The spell went awry – even after several years they couldn't figure out how. The city and the casters were sent out of phase, but like the puzzle pieces, all of the citizens were scattered across the continent. Safe, but with no knowledge of the city until the spell was released."

Simond frowned, "How did they know that?"

"Once they discovered the people gone, they scryed, finding Marstone and a few of the other citizens they knew. Marstone had no recollection as to what the box did or that there were pieces to be found. He lived out the rest of his life as a respected craftsman. The three here tried for years to reverse the spell, to no avail. When absolutely every last avenue had been exhausted, the three chose to end their lives. The herbs they added to their wine let them slip away in their sleep." She gently closed the journal, replacing it upon the bookshelf, her expression sad.

"What do we do now?" Hawk asked, a bit overwhelmed by the enormity of their find.

"That's a very good question," Simond responded.

888

"And that's an excellent place to end," Daryl said.

"That was terrific, Daryl." Blair rocked to his feet, a wide grin upon his face. "It's even set up for continuing adventures if you have a long-term group." He began stacking plates.

"Loved it, kiddo," Megan reached over and kissed the young man's cheek. The teen blushed, a wide smile stretching his mouth. The smile widened when Rhonda repeated the gesture.

"Best birthday party ever," he agreed, gathering his dice and papers.

"Thank you for inviting me. This was a lot of fun." Joel clapped Daryl upon the shoulder before reaching over to collect glasses and mugs. He followed Blair into the kitchen.

Both Rafe and Henri grabbed up the rest of the trash while Jim gathered the left over food to store in the refrigerator. "Excellent storytelling. It's definitely something that I'd play again if I had the chance."

Simon wrapped an arm around his son's shoulders, pride evident in his eyes. "Well done. You should really consider having it published. I'll help you out if you need it, too."

Everyone agreed that the weekend had been a success. After setting the living room back to rights, people said their goodbyes and headed home.

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Began May 2000 – finished February 2012.

Revised, edited, and 'finally' posted – February 2013