Book II The Bard Chapter One By Lady Faelyn Rose The wind rustling in the trees and the distant roar of a black bear were the only sounds in the forest. Shafts of morning sunlight filtered through a dense ceiling of colorful foliage. It scattered patches of gold across a carpet of crisp brown leaves. A young woman emerged from the woodland shadows. She was dressed in green leather armor and a green cape. A leather pack and a crossbow were slung over her shoulder. One long braid of flame red hair swung across the woman’s back as she ran between the trees. As nimble as a deer, the young woman darted through the woods until she came to a fallen tree. Gracefully she vaulted over the log and landed on the other side with a crunch of dried leaves. Her breath misted the cool air as she turned to look back along the path which she had just traveled. The woman’s steady gaze searched the horizon. And then she saw them. Barely visible in the half light of the forest, the menacing shapes of two huge creatures came into view. The dull thud of their foot steps quickly turn into an earth shaking vibration which the woman could feel though the soles of her boots. Their voices became a deep hollow drone. The words they chanted were from a language of evil. They breathed out foul flames of energy, leaving blackened tree bark and small piles of burning leaves in their wake. As the monsters drew near there could be no doubt as to their origins. They walked upright on cloven hooves. Demoniac horns adorned their heads and giant wings beat the air at their backs. Their skin glowed silver grey, not the dull red color of their lesser cousins. These were daemons of the abyss, creatures known by many names. Balrons…Slayers….Collectors of Souls. And they were searching the woods for the woman hiding near the fallen tree. But the young woman did not flee. She stood calmly watching. Her green eyes narrowed. A smile curved her lips. Instead of terror, a look of anticipation settled upon her lovely face. “Perfect” she breathed the word. Keeping her eyes trained on the monsters as they approached, the woman reached into her pack and pulled forth a lute. Her hand shook slightly as she considered the consequences of failing at this task. But as the young bard held the instrument close to her body and let her fingers dance over the strings she felt her confidence return. She would succeed. The sound of her music was soft at first. It drifted on the morning air, barely noticeable above the loud chanting of the daemons. But the melody grew stronger and soon it filled the forest with magic. The song conjured an ancient spell of provocation. It penetrated the minds of the creatures like a drug. Forgetting about the woman, the monsters were driven to attack one another. The balrons threatened each other with roars of warning. Their huge claws lashed out piercing the scales of their thick hides and drawing blood. They were trapped in a dance of death. Tearing, clawing and casting powerful spells, the battling balrons slowly murdered each other. The woman returned the lute to her pack and drew her crossbow from its resting place. She loaded a bolt and fired at one of the balrons, doing little damage. The woman began to circle the fighting monsters, firing bolts at them while keeping a safe distance away from their dangerous claws. She was so totally engrossed in her sport that she did not notice the tall man in dark clothing approaching her. “SHANA ROSE!!” The sound of her name being shouted into her ear startled the young woman. Shana pivoted around to discover her brother-in-law, Seamus, standing at her side. He was dressed in a pure black robe and wore a golden helmet on his head. His bright red hair and red mustache were a sharp contrast to his clothes. “Kindly leave some guardians for the rest of us, lass!” Seamus said gruffly. But a smile showed beneath his mustache “You are going to render Og obsolete!” At the sound of his name the huge white wyrm, who followed Seamus, roared loudly. Shana Rose laughed. “I beg your pardon, Seamus. I could not resist the opportunity to test my skills” Seamus had invited Shana to join his hunting party for a level six treasure map. As the chest had been dug up, two balrons, a blood elemental and a titan appeared as the guardians. Shana had fired her crossbow at each of the balron, drawing their attention and luring them away from the chest. Although she could have easily been killed, the chance to provoke such high level prey was worth the risk. To succeed at provocation with them was a sure test of her education. Shana had passed the test. She smiled with pride as she watched the fight. “Let us speed things up a bit.” Seamus said as he move closer to the balrons. “OG ATTACK!!” he sent his pet to kill one of the battling monsters. “My lady?” Seamus turned to his wife, Amanda Rose, who was making her way along the blackened path that the balrons had left. Dressed in a royal blue hunting gown and matching hat, Amanda Rose looked as if she were accompanying her husband on a ride to the markets of Luna instead of a perilous adventure. Her silver blonde hair was caught up in a ribbon of the same rich hue as her dress. Amanda’s white wyrm, Mist, trailed along behind her. “A little help here, if you please, my dear.” Seamus motioned towards the balrons. “With pleasure, my lord” Amanda replied with a smile “Mist Kill!!” she commanded, and her wyrm obeyed. Seamus and Amanda moved beside their pets, healing them with bandages as they fought. The battle raged on for several minutes until finally the monsters lay dead. Once again silence fell over the forest. The rustle of the leaves and the rumbling purr of the wyrms were the only sounds now. After looting the kills, Seamus bellowed “ALL FOLLOW ME!!” and led the party back through the woods. The trio and their pets returned to the dig site. Seamus took his place near the treasure chest and after picking the lock and untrapping the lid, commanded “ALL HIDE NOW!!” Amanda and Shana quickly cast the spell of invisibility upon themselves. Seamus began to loot the treasure chest. Almost immediately an ancient wyrm appeared. It attacked Mist, killing her with ease. Then the ancient wyrm turned its attention on Og. Shana used her lute to calm the ancient wyrm until the rest of the party could position themselves for the attack. Seamus rushed forward to heal Og as the white wyrm charged the guardian. Amanda summoned her nightmare, Noir, to help with the battle. But the ancient wyrm was very powerful and it took the constant use of bandages on Og by both Seamus and Amanda to finally defeat the creature. Amanda resurrected Mist and restored her to complete health. Another balron was the next guardian. Both wyrms and the nightmare attacked while Amanda and Seamus used their veterinary skills to keep the pets alive. Shana fired bolt after bolt into the monster. It too perished. Seamus pulled a light green leather bag from the chest. Inside the bag there were several large bars of gold. Seamus chuckled with glee at his good fortune and place the gold bars in his loot bag beside the chest. Two poison elementals appeared, one after the other. Shana Rose wove her magic provocation spell around the monsters, causing them to fight. Then the pets were ordered to finish the task of turning the poison elementals into piles of glowing slime. “You are doing a good job, lass” Seamus said to Shana as he looted the corpses “Having a bard in the family is going to be very useful.” “Aye, we are both proud of you, Shana” Amanda beamed at her younger sister. Shana had trained for years to learn the ways of a bard, practicing music for hours each day. She was attending classes at Lord British’s Conservatory of Music in Britain. But her training at school was nearly finished and she needed to learn how to apply that knowledge. Shana smiled and bowed to Amanda and Seamus. “I am at your service whenever you need my skills.” “Well now, it just so happens that Bronson, Patrick and I are going to hunt the Champion in Felucca tomorrow” Seamus said as he made his way back to the chest “Perhaps our young bard would like to join us?” “I would love to go on a Felucca hunt for the Champion!” Shana said with genuine excitement. “Champion in Felucca!” Amanda exclaimed “Oh my! That is the dirtiest of all dungeon crawls, Shana. I completely ruined my gown the last time I attended one of those hunts.” She wrinkled her nose “And the smell! Nothing in the world is as foul as the odor from a Felucca dungeon” “I don’t mind…” Shana began, her eyes were bright with interest. “Not to mention the danger with all those murderers lurking about.” Amanda continued with a frown of concern “No dear, I think that you should stay in Trammel until you have gained a little more experience.” Seamus looked over at his wife’s worried face and said “Well, perhaps Amanda is right, lass…” “I care not a wit about pretty gowns or murderers, Amanda.” Shana protested “But the chance to use my skills against a Champion’s minions is far too tempting an offer for me to pass up.” She reached over and tugged on the ribbon in Amanda’s perfectly arranged hair until it came loose “Besides, I am not a child anymore, you know.” Amanda sighed as she retied the bow “Alright. Do as you please then. What is the worse that can happen?” “She will be fine” Seamus assured his wife. “I will be fine” Shana agreed with a smile. *********************************************************** The next morning Shana Rose was awake at dawn. Keeping Amanda’s warning in mind, she quickly dressed in her oldest leather leggings and tunic. She decided to leave her cape behind and brave the weather rather than ruin it. She worked her hair into one long braid, tying the end with a green ribbon. Shana was too excited to eat breakfast so she paced in her room until she heard the rest of the household moving about in the rooms below. Shana carried her leather pack down the stairs of the Journey’s End Inn. The Inn was her home now. It belonged to Seamus’ youngest brother, Bronson, and his wife, Shana’s cousin, Jeanne Rose. They had bought the building and its adjoining stable shortly before their marriage six years ago. Although the original plan had been to use the building as an Inn, it wasn’t long before most of the rooms were occupied by members of the couple’s family. Shana’s sister Katie Rose, her husband Patrick and their infant daughter, Molly Rose, were also residents of Journey’s End. Shana enjoyed being surrounded by her family. “Good morrow, Bronson” Shana greeted the proprietor in the entry hall at the bottom of the stairs. Bronson was herding his five year old son, Angus, out of the dining room. The child was dressed in leather armor and carried a small wooden sword and shield. Upon seeing Shana, young Angus took up a fighting stance. “Halt!” the boy ordered her “in the name of Lord British!” “Oh please do not slay me sir knight” Shana playfully pleaded. “Fear not, my lady” Angus said. He tapped his miniature shield with his sword “My weapons are just pretend” he told her with a grin “Kayla made them for me.” Shana laughed and ruffled Angus’ soft red hair. “They are fearful looking weapons indeed.” “What are your orders, my lady?” the child asked as he stood at attention. “Patrol the yard for monsters” she commanded him “but stay close to the fortress, sir knight” “Aye, my lady. It shall be done” Angus saluted her and charged out the front door. Bronson had been watching the exchange between Shana and his son. “Good morrow to you, Shana.” he said as he opened door leading out to the stable, “I understand you will be joining us on our Felucca hunt today”. “Aye, Seamus was kind enough to invite me along” Shana told Bronson as she followed him out the door “I have never been to a Felucca dungeon. Nor have I been on a Champion hunt.” “We will help you. Stay close to the pets and you should do well” Bronson said as he led his nightmare, Nox, from her stall. The mare danced with energy and tossed her head. Bronson fed Nox a chunk of raw meat, in an attempt to calm his pet. “But if you are killed remember that your spirit will be transported to a healer by the Gods.” he continued “After you are resurrected you must find your way back to the dungeon. You may wish to look around for another warrior heading back to this Felucca dungeon and use his gate to return to the hunt.” “I will remember that.” Shana said thoughtfully. She had never considered that she might actually die today. “Don’t look so worried” Bronson laughed “A Champion hunt is dangerous but the rewards can be great. Besides, if you are going to hunt with Seamus you had best resign yourself to dying often.” “Oh dear!” Shana gasped. This was not what she wanted to hear. Bronson laughed as he took out a crystal ball of pet summoning and transported his dragon, Bront, into the front yard. He fed the enormous beast and commanded it to stay. “Today you will become a real warrior, Shana. Smile!” Bronson said. He opened his pack and started to arrange his belongings. Shana sat down on the stone steps of the stable while Bronson continued to prepare for the hunt. She felt the sudden urge to run back to the safety of her room. She looked out over the green expanse of grass where Angus was playing. She could not help laughing as she watched young Angus practicing his swordsmanship on a skittering hopper. He approached the harmless creature as if it were a dragon. Then the boy began to block imaginary attacks and thrust out with his sword, purposely missing the grazing hopper. The ‘would be monster’ ignored him completely. “Your son shows great promise as a warrior, Bronson” Shana said with a smile. “Aye, he is much like his mother” Bronson agreed as he swung himself up onto his nightmare “Jeanne Rose has already started his training.” At that moment there was a hum of magic and a blue moongate opened near the front steps of the Inn. Seamus emerged with Og following close behind. “ALL STAY!!” he commanded the white wyrm. Seamus guided his nightmare to the stable steps, where Shana and Bronson were waiting. “Are you ready, lass?” Seamus asked, placing his golden helmet on his head. “Aye, as ready as I will ever be” Shana replied with a weak smile. She stood up and slung her pack over her shoulder. Seamus pulled his watch out of his oversized sleeve and squinted at it. “Well then all we need is that rascal Patrick and we can be off to Felucca!” Seamus said looking up towards the second floor of the Inn. He waited a few seconds and then said in a much louder voice “I SAID ALL WE NEED NOW IS THAT SLAYER OF MONGBATS, PATRICK...” “I HEARD YOU THE FIRST TIME!!” came an equally booming voice from the front porch of the Inn. Seamus chuckled as Patrick came bounding down the steps with his crossbow in hand. He trotted over to the group by the stable. “Can’t expect a man to go off hunting Champions without a big breakfast” Patrick told them as he patted his stomach “never die hungry, I say.” The men laughed loudly, but once again Shana found herself feeling a moment of dread. Death was new to her. And certainly not something to joke about! “Now that everyone is ready and properly fed” Seamus said, pulling a worn leather rune book from his pack “we will proceed to the dungeon Despise in Felucca.” he flipped through the pages until he found the correct rune “May this day bring us all fame, glory and GOLD!!” he proclaimed with a grin. Seamus cast a red moongate and ordered “ALL FOLLOW ME!!” One by one the men and their pets disappeared into the moongate. Shana hesitated for a moment. Fear of the unknown seemed to paralyze her. “Have courage” she said softly to herself. But Shana Rose felt her knees shaking as she stepped into the glowing red portal.