Asgeirr led the way down the road to Lasthaven. As they passed the site of the broken blockade, Aelar looked curiously at the fresh remnants of a battle. Teerin tried out a poem he’d composed to mark the party’s first battle, but it just seemed to confuse Aelar more. He decided to scrap it and work on “Ode to yon Tavernmaster’s Daughter.” To the audience give that they want, thought he.
Sunrise caught them about halfway to Lasthaven and with the look of a clear day ahead. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this road,” said Asgeirr. He turned to the group. “If the priest told the truth, we’re heading toward strangers who shan’t be well-met. I’ve travelled this road before. We can make fine time keeping to the fields behind the hedges and fences.” They moved out of sight of the road and continued on their way. Where Teerin couldn’t scale a wall or hedge, he was easily tossed.
Asgeirr’s suspicions were confirmed anon. As the party spied from behind a knoll, the Erathian Inquisitor rode past, followed by his attendants and a pack of trained elemental-hunting beasts. Asgeirr shuddered, while Senirab eyed the Inquisitor’s rich vestment and harness wistfully. When the searchers had passed, the party continued toward the city.
With Lasthaven almost in sight, the party came upon a lonely roadside bivouac. A blind doomsayer and her servant had stopped their wagon for a noonday meal. The party approached warily, but the travelers both ignored them until they spoke.
“Hail,” said Aelar tentatively. He recognized the trappings of true travellers, but not these particular folk.
“Come forth,” said the doomsayer warmly, “and share our broth, kin.” She turned and seemed to be looking at Aelar. “Your comrades are welcome, too.” Aelar moved no closer, but Teerin continued passed the kettle and behind the seer, moving around and investigating. The seer’s empty gaze followed him. “I believe in rewarding curiousity,” she laughed. “Shall I read your fortune?”
Teerin smirked, but Lurath spoke up. “No one needs your twisted visions, madwoman.” She ignored the insult.
“Five silver is a pittance to pay for a chance to know one’s fate,” she said. The dwarf was moving around and tending to the horse. He looked ready to break camp.
“Thou art right,” said Teerin. “Shall we venture a look?. What be my fate, doomsayer?” He tossed coins at the feet of the old woman.
“Your fate is dark indeed if you go around cheating the blind,” said the dwarf. “Fivesilver, she said, and she’ll keep the rest as gratuity.” Teerin scowled and tossed five more coins at the dwarf.
The doomsayer poured herself a draft of steaming broth from the kettle. The cup steamed even in the warm air of midday, but she drank it down in a single gulp. Lurath had retreated from the immediate camp, and Aelar now backed away. Teerin stood his ground despite the cold sweat that broke out on his neck, as he watched the old lady begin to sway and convulse. He thought she was about to vomit, when she leaned forward and then belched. She sat up and then began to laugh. Teerin gritted his teeth, then looked at the dwarf.
“I am in awe,” he said. “I thought that I was a performer, but much have I to learn from the world’s charlatans. My future in a belch.”
The dwarf handed Teerin back his silver. “No charge for…”
“No!” shouted Lurath. He grabbed the coins back from Teerin and threw them back toward the doomsayer. “Speak the truth.” Aelar looked suspiciously at Lurath. He thought, Those who see know that words are only slivers of truth. Before he could finish the thought, the old woman began to recite a verse
Heaven fades and stonework falls
Farewell, burned and buried, farewell
The dead ignore the Raven’s calls
Farewell, burned and buried, farewell
Blade and claw and fire and song
Walk on, forlorn travelers, walk on
King’s and hero’s roads are long
Walk on, forlorn travelers, walk on.
“Hahaha!” Teerin laughed and slapped the dwarf on the back. “A bargain at twice the price! Hearest thou that, Lurath? Our destiny be to sing children’s rhymes! Hahaha! How likest thou that, Lurath? Lurath!” He called out, as Lurath had wandered away.
The doomsayer chuckled along. “Quite a destiny for the four of you, children’s rhyme or no.”
“Five, doomsayer,” said Aelar. “There are five of us about.” The doomsayer continued her chuckling, burped again, and Teerin broke into a renewed fit of laughter. “Lurath!” Aelar called, but Lurath was heading back down the road and didn’t respond. Senirab and Asgeirr followed. Aelar started to say more, then changed his mind and set off after the party.
“Walk on, forlorn travelers, walk on!” Teerin yelled through tears of laughter. “Not forget you to walk on!” He began to compose himself and follow the party, but every few minutes he’d start to laugh again. Before long the walls of Lasthaven appeared. Too late, Teerin sighed, “I wish we’d gotten the doomsayer’s name. A song be in..”
“Estenyi,” said Aelar, who wa almost as surprised at his answer as Teerin was. “She was called Estenyi.”
A wave of familiarity washed over Asgeirr as Lasthaven came into view. It was only midsummer when he’d left to seek greater fortune in Nahlon Woods. Not yet autumn and here he was returning – a fugitive no less. In Asgeeir’s home city, Lurath was soon leading the way through the gate and into the midst of the tavern district. He led them into an inn called the Last Hollow Horn and ordered meals for all. For the first time in almost two days, the adventurers began to relax. Asgeirr wandered back to the kitchen to say hello to an old acquaintance. Senirab strolled to the bar and took a seat next to a fat minstrel who looked like he might need an introduction to recognize the road. Senirab tossed in a silver and ordered the minstrel a new drink.
“Who provides the cantos tonight, friend?” asked Senirab.
“Why, I thought everyone knew to come to the ‘Horn early on Lastin for the enchanting ballads of Malidor of Meshthamar.” Senirab smiled politely. “Possibly word hasn’t reached your far burg,” added Malidor, wrinkling his nose as he examined Senirab, “whence you’ve obviously been dragged behind a choleric ox – of Malidor and his magic flute. No matter, prepare to be dazzled. What’s your pleasure, good lord?” smiled the minstrel. “‘Half the Wives in the Moor?’ ‘Wise King Gumgrass?’”
“Many thanks, but no,” replied Senirab. He pointed at his left ear. “An old injury keeps me from enjoying fine arts like yours. I’m more interested in what you could tell me than what you could sing to me. Have you ever heard of an old vet goes by the name of Lurath?”
The minstrel gave a genuine smile. “No such name rings in these hollows,” he said, giving a light thump to his temple. “Should I know him?”
“Perchance not,” answered Senirab. He pressed on, deftly flicking another silver into to the cap. “What about a gentleman named [Kethkin]? Is that name known to you?”
Malidor’s voice lowered. “There is such a name, though whether there is such a man is less certain.” Senirab raised an eyebrow. “Men suppose favors and knowledge unobtainable elsewhere might be found behind that name. ‘Tis true I cannot say.” He sipped his drink and shrugged, seeming genuinely sorry he had no more to offer.
He tossed another silver into the minstrel’s upturned cap. “What about that fellow over there? Seen him around much?”
“Can’t say that I have,” said the minstrel, with a practiced sideways glance. “I have a bit of a regular engagement hereabouts. If your friend is from Lasthaven, he doesn’t spend much time in the taverns.” Senirab nodded to himself and smiled gratefully at the minstrel. Then he blinked and scowled, turning quickly toward Lurath. The legionnaire was leaning close to Aelar in quiet conversation. He looked solid…normal…not at all like he had just shimmered and blinked momentarily, such that Senirab could see right through him to the wall beyond. Senirab looked back at the minstrel, who winked.
“Are you sure you don’t want a tune?” he asked. “You’ve certainly lubricated the old pipes. Maybe an abridged “Vale of the Sodden Heart?”
“Next time,” said Senirab. He walked back to the party’s table. Lurath was explaining to Aelar the work of the Legion.
“I don’t understand why you need to seek guardians,” said Aelar. “If the land needs to be protected, then every man and woman are its guardians. Everyone in this tavern, all those in the streets, the priests at Nahlon Woods, should be standing forth to guard the lands.”
“This isn’t the Feywild,” explained Lurath. “The land isn’t just a battleground. It’s the weapons, and it’s the casualties. The Erathians think that by sealing off a corner of the land, they have secured their future. They don’t understand the connection between the Protected Lands and the outside. And they don’t understand the resolve of chaos.” He saw the doubt in Aelar’s face and conjured up a smile. “I’ll wager this fellow can explain it better.” He stood and flipped a silver Malidor, who caught it on the toe of his boot. “Sir, could a drink entice you to play “Honor the Legions?”
“No, my lord,” said the minstrel gravely. Then he smiled, “But a round for the house might…” Lurath laughed and tossed a gold piece to the barkeep. The minstrel whistled a quick scale, then began,
O’ Wild outer regions we honor your legions
Strong as a bear and bold in attack<bq> Good father, please watch your back.
O’ Wild outer regions, we honor your legions
Masters of blade and skilled at the slaughter
Good mother, have you seen your daughter?
O’ Wild outer regions, we honor your legions
Remembered in song and deserving of verse
Good citizen, please check your purse
Senirab, Asgeirr, and Teerin stood to go before the song was finished.
It was almost dusk when Senirab returned with a lighter pouch and heart. When he’d fled Geht months ago, he hadn’t been able to say goodbye to his mother, and he’d sent no word since. The earnings from yesterday’s adventure was as much as he’d made in two years working for the guild, and a merchant he’d met had arranged to send a quarter of it back to his mother. Another stop at a half-orc blacksmith’s let him replace the thieves’ tools he’d left behind. The ‘smith let on no sense of any fugitives being sought from Nahlon Woods – or from Geht. All in all, he liked the way this trip was going. Minus those silly bolts from the gnome, from which he still felt slightly woozy. As he turned toward the the inn, he saw Asgeirr and Teerin heading up the street towards him.
“Did you find out anything?” Senirab asked.
“Nothing useful,” Asgeirr replied. “One ‘sage’ figured out that it was old.” He fidgeted with the amulet in his pocket. “I’d feel a lot better carrying contraband that those monsters went through such trouble for if I knew what it meant.” Before they could enter the tavern they met Lurath and Aelar coming out.
“Time to go,” said Lurath. “We have a date with Bootspit.”
“Verily we do,” said Teerin. “Maketh perfect sense.”
Asgeirr realized as they made their way north that they were entering the most exclusive district of Lasthaven. The further they went, the more out of place they felt and the wider circles pedestrians took to avoid them. Just past a solid, massive mansion, they turned into a carriageway and were met by a small halfling woman. She nodded to Lurath as they stopped. The adventurers grew uncomfortable under her measured gaze. Finally she spoke.
“If you say so, Lurath. The season makes the taste, of course. Come in.” She led them behind the house to the servants’ entrance, and then down into a laundry where several chairs and stools were arranged. She sat and motioned for the party to do the same. “I’m Bootspit,” she said, “as I’m sure Lurath would have mentioned. It’s my job to decide if [Kethkin] should sponsor your admission to the Legion.”
“Are you joking?” asked Asgeirr. “Pardon my question, but I don’t see a crowd of heroes clamoring to escape the protection of the Barrier. I’m surprised Lurath didn’t drag along Blind Taimory, too. I heard it was elementalists who maimed him.” He winked and nudged Teerin.
“Aye, it’s the Legion that needs selling, not ourselves,” said Senirab.
“It’s noble work,” Lurath said in answer to Asgeirr. “It’s the only honorable work for someone of your talents. The work of the Erathian Church has deprived the world of good people with the skills to protect it. You’re right, we do need you. But I know enough to know that you need the Legion just as much.”
Senirab was growing tired of Lurath’s righteousness. He suddenly reminded him of the carousing young nobles who would run his mother ragged at the tavern then stiff her on the bill over a pretend slight. He stood. “I think it’s time to tell us all of what you know,” said Senirab. He stared at Lurath but continued to watch Bootspit from the corner of his eye. She smirked toward Lurath. “We’re fools to venture forth with someone hiding beneath his own skin. Are all Legionnaires deceitful charlatans?”
“No!” spat Lurath. He shook his head slowly. “But we lack open havens inside the barrier. Sometimes it is necessary to hide.” As he spoke, Senirab saw the shimmer again. The adventurers gasped – Aelar seemed to yelp – as he faded from view. Before they could draw breath, a figure appeared in his place – Lurath, but gentler, and older, in a gray cloak. Aelar put out his hand to touch him, but he was solid. “I’m not really free to travel the Protected Lands. And the need for vigilance is great. This aspect can carry on my business without leaving our post shorthanded.” He met Senirab’s gaze. “You’re correct. Your decisions should be made freely and wholly as your own, with trust as your guide.” He turned to Bootspit. “Tell [Kethkin] that Lurath has brought heroes to serve the Legion.”
Bootspit stood. She spoke with gravity now, “Do you heed the Legion’s call?”
The room grew quiet. Barely two days ago, Asgeirr, Teerin, Aelar, and Senirab had been strangers without home or prospect. Now a path lay before them that brought their daydreams to reality. But as reality often does, it also made concrete the danger and darkness that stand between the dreamer and his dream. Teerin spoke first.
“Aye,” added Asgeirr. “Asgeirr the Legionnaire has a nice ring to it.”
“Aye,” said Senirab. He masked his own surprise at hearing himself answer.
Aelar looked at Lurath, who wouldn’t return his gaze. He looked into the eyes of the other party members, but saw no answer or encouragement. He closed his eyes and sat still. Finally, “I will join these men.”
The party headed out of Lasthaven’s western gate the next morning. The auspicious traveling weather tried to lift their spirits, but it wasn’t until Teerin called forth a series of bawdy, gnome-mocking ballads that the adventurers were able to turn from their inward thoughts and smile. For two days they traveled southwest through pastureland and scattered farms, and for two nights they camped by the road. On the third day, the land began to rise and the farms disappeared. The remaining travelers were mining trucks headed in both directions, working these iron-rich hills. They stopped early the third day in order to spend the night in [town]. Lurath said that it was the last they’d see for some time.
That evening they watched the sun set behind the now clearly visible barrier. It looked like the shimmering heat of the summer desert visible on a pleasant autumn evening. The horizon was a line of ridges, nondescript but somehow faded when compared to the tended lands they were accustomed to. Well, thought Senirab, we’ll know soon enough. In the inn he found a game and ended up losing all but his rainy-day fund. He debated taking a rider – what could they do if he didn’t pay? – but decided against it. Teerin made a few coppers playing bawdy jigs for a band of bored teenagers. The night ended early, and all were ready to go at dawn.
The road continued southwest until the barrier rose almost directly over their head, then turned due south. The hills grew and the road became sinuous, needing to minimize the grade for the ore carts that occasionally still shambled by. Progress was slow, and they were still a few leagues short of the barrier passage when the sun set. They made camp in a depression above the road, ate, and set a double watch. Senirab and Teerin took first watch. The night sounds of the hills assured them they’d left civilization behind, but nothing approached the camp. Meanwhile they watched with fascination as Aelar sat motionless, drawing vigor seemingly from the air for just a few hours, then opened his eyes refreshed. Glad they were as each crawled beneath blankets, waking Asgeirr to join Aelar. Asgeirr’s nervousness kept him on edge. He too sat in awe of Aelar’s placid composure. He’s in his element, thought Asgeirr. The wilds are home to him. The hum of insects was their only company. Then the sound of a falling rock sparked his attention.
“Did you hear that?” he whispered to Aelar. He homed in on the source of the sound and saw a silhouette moving on the ridge overhead. When Aelar didn’t answer he looked at his face in the firelight and realized the elf was asleep. The humming had been the elf’s snoring. He kicked Aelar in the leg as he jumped to his feet and called to the sleeping party members. Aelar stood as he woke and began to move away from the fire toward the forward ridge. Just as he did, the assailants broke into run at the edge of the firelight and silently charged. The sleepers woke to see several goblinoids converging on Aelar, while Asgeirr dashed to a flanking position. Senirab leaped away from the campfire into the shadows of a shrub, hoping he hadn’t been seen. Lurath jumped and charged to assist Aelar. Teerin only had time to stand and ready his [instrument]. The silence was broken by a monstrous roar of fury from Aelar, and both sides were shocked to see what appeared to be a bear where Aelar had just stood.
The goblins smashed into Lurath and the bear that had been Aelar and landed several blows, including a bolt from an archer still on the ridge. Asgeirr danced around one goblin while trying to distract the mob surrounding the bear and Lurath. The melee was fast and brutal, and all parties were soon bloodied. Teerin tried to support the bear as he and the goblins viciously tore into each other. When able, Teerin used his shouts and commands to strike fear into the raiders. Senirab struggled with his aim in the dim light, his churiks spinning into the darkness. He was hit several times before he found his feet and eliminated two foes in quick succession. By this time the bear had fallen from another goblin bolt, but Teerin was able to call forth a song of health to revive him. Asgeirr smote a large goblin, but not before Lurath fell underneath the goblin’s axe. Teerin blasted the last goblin, and Senirab finished him off with a churik, but not before a final bolt again hit the bear. The party rushed to assist their fallen comrades. Lurath was quickly revived. Together they attended to the bear, but they couldn’t staunch the blood flowing from the gaping wounds left by the goblins. The bear growled something in elvish, and then breathed no more.
Senirab, Teerin, and Asgeirr stood stunned by the waning campfire. Lurath lay still, breathing steadily but shallow. They looked at the small pack and cloak that had been all of Aelar’s possessions, and they looked at the still form of the bear. Maybe a trick of the light, but it seemed like Aelar’s form was starting to show through the ursine corpse. Finally Senirab stepped away and collected and cleaned his churiks. Asgeirr helped him drag the goblin corpses out of the firelight, then they stood again watching the slow breathing of Lurath beside the still form of the slowly reverting Aelar. Finally Asgeirr spoke.
“A fey who’s also a bear…he could have made quite a nice living behind a tavern I know in Lasthaven.”
“Pity he not remained a bear,” Teerin said. “He would have made a nice rug.”
“True,” said Senirab, “though a tad small. Maybe a blanket?”
“What getest thou when thou crossest a grizzly and a harp?” asked Teerin.
“What?” said Asgeirr.
“A bare-faced lyre. Hast thou ever tracked bear?”
“No,” said Asgeirr. “But I’ve hunted in my tights.”
Eventually the remaining adventurers exhausted the plane’s known bear puns and laid down and went to sleep. Asgeirr finished his watch and saw Lurath come around. Feeling stouter, Lurath took the final watch, but didn’t wake the party until well after dawn.
Aelar’s corpse was now that of a badly mangled elf. It was wrapped in blankets secured with rope. “The Legion’s mages can revive him,” Lurath said. “We just need to get his body back to the fort.” Under his breath he added, “We’re too close.”
They broke camp in silence as crows began to gather around the site of last night’s battle. Senirab hefted the young elf’s body over his pack, and the party continued south. The road continued to rise until there was little to hug except a sheer cliff above and below the road. Finally they reached a saddle. The road continued south on a plateau before disappearing behind a ridge in the distance. To the west was a smaller road – a track really. It sloped downward steeply, with only a few switchbacks as it headed around the mass of rock before them.
They followed the path down and around the cliff face to the lower pass. Here they could see the road continue through the barrier at a gate of some kind. But what caught their attention was the dwarven graveyard. Petrified dwarves stood on all sides, stretching as far as they could see down the valley to their north and back up the opposite ridge. It rose above them until the slope hid the top of the mountain from view. Alive, their number might have rivaled that of Lasthaven. Here though, they stood silent guard over an empty road and forlorn gate. What they might have said to the travelers was lost.
Within an hour the party reached the Barrier gate. Across the western valley beyond the Barrier, they could see the Rethbane Fortress, their new home. Lurath stopped them. He pulled out a package Bootspit had given him and opened it. From it he took grey robes. The adventurers recognized them as the style in which Lurath had appeared after transforming at Lasthaven. He gave a robe to each, leaving one unused that he restored to his pack. The adventurers donned the robes, and each immediately felt a sense of warmth in excess of the weight or weave of the cloth. Before they could speak, Lurath began.
“Now you must speak the Oath of the Legionnaires.
With my brothers and sisters I shall stand
To the hope of peace I lend my hand
In defense of life I don the guard
Against the dark I raise my sword
For my sons and daughters I shall stand
Each spoke the oath. Before them, between the stone columns of the gate, the outline of a portal appeared. They followed Lurath through the portal, Senirab still bearing the body of Aelar. They felt nothing, except warmer air on the far side. Behind them, the Barrier seemed to shimmer more excitedly. Then each realized that the ground itself had begun to tremble. The wind rose, and the tremors grew into wild quaking. The adventurers were thrown to the ground. Through the Barrier, the outline beyond wavered, and one of the gate columns fell and smashed against the portal shelf. Rocks tumbled from the hillside, cutting avenues through the dwarven graveyard and knocking the figures into each other in clouds of rubble and dust. With a final crash, slamming the adventurers to the ground, the earth came to rest. Before them the Barrier settled, then quickly began to rise from the earth. In a wink the Barrier had disappeared into the sky. From horizon to horizon, no shimmer, no nothing. Only open sky.
Asgeirr and Teerin stood and help Senirab up. Teerin started to ask Lurath what had happened, but he was gone. They looked up and down the road and to the valley on either side. Their guide had vanished. They were alone – three near-strangers and the corpse of a wild elf. In a flash they were seeing themselves from a hundred miles above – specks, invisible in the immensity of Erathis. It was one thing to leave the protection of the Barrier willingly. But a world without the Barrier wasn’t their world at all. The serenity of the open valley was as terrifying as a hurricane. They were at their first crossroads as adventurers, and their compass had just been crushed to dust.
The wind began to blow again, running down from the ridge, pushing them towards the track they’d descended. They bent under their new cloaks and measured each others’ gazes. Teerin looked up the road at the fort that had been their destination. “Ready your first impressions, fellows.” In the face of a gale they marched towards Rethbane Fort.