The Tale of Elluria

Chapter 1


Out of Lost Lake


“Get up.” Elluria groggily opened her eyes to her leg shaking. “Get up, we’ve got to go.” Her brother Switch was the source of the shaking, sitting at the foot of her bed rousing her up. “We’ve got to get out of here.” Elluria rubbed her eyes and began to sit up. “Come on hurry.” 


Switch stood up and moved over to Talissa who was sleeping on the floor next to Elluria’s bed. “Switch, what’s going on? Why are you here?” Elluria asked.


“Hurry, they’ll be coming for us soon,” Switch said as he shook Talissa to rouse her as well. 


“Who’ll be coming for us, Switch?” Elluria asked as she threw her comforter aside. Talissa began coming awake as well, wiping the sleep from her eyes. Elluria noticed her friend looking less annoyed than she felt. 


“Look.” Switch pointed to the western window. Squinting, Elluria could make out the orange-red flickering of a fire. “Someone has set the Elden Tree aflame. The Stalts are already blaming it on me. They’ll be coming any minute to arrest the lot of us. Get your stuff we’ve got to go.”


“Go where?” Talissa asked as she sat up. She and Elluria shared a look that confirmed the burning tree would be no good for them. “We might hide a spell at the Butres’, but I don’t know—“ 


“No no, we need to leave Lost Lake.” Switch cut her off. “We need to leave and let this whole thing cool off. Pack what you need to get to Minah. We’ll head there first.” 


Elluria blinked at the thought of this. None of them had left Lost Lake since their attunements. She looked at the frantic Switch, “How will we know when it’s safe to return?”


“I don’t know.” Switch looked down at the ground, more sullen than usual. “We may never know.”


Elluria looked back at Talissa who gave a pained look. “I suppose even that’s a better alternative to what the Stalts may have in store for us.” Talissa nods and then looks back at Switch. 


“Did you do it?” Elluria thought it a fair question, not that it mattered much. Either way they had to get out of Lost Lake. “Did you burn the Elden Tree?”


“What do you think?” Switch frowned sternly at Elluria. “Of course I didn’t do it. Why on Earth would I do a thing like that?”


Elluria shrugged. “You’ve been known to do your fair share of trouble-making Switch. I wouldn’t put it past you.”


“We can talk about how you’re wrong there later. Just get your things so we can go.” 


Switch looked around the room for items to help Elluria with. Talissa grabbed the overnight pack that she had brought over. Elluria grabbed a few items and stowed them away. After packing what essentials she needed she grabbed her thyrsus and carefully placed it hung on the inside of her trouser’s waist, the mirrored Sent stone that powered it feeling cool against her thigh. Might as well lay down for the wolves if one forgot their thyrsus. 


Satisfied they have what they need Switch led them to the kitchen where they grabbed what food they could for the upcoming journey. While they stood there, voices and shouts began to get louder and clearer. Whatever mob had formed after the burning of the Elden Tree was now headed their way in a hurry. “I think our time’s up. Let’s go.” Switch said as he led the other two out of the home in the opposite direction of the oncoming voices. 


The three walked in silence as they made their way through the village of Lost Lake. They were farther from the Elden Tree now and away from the mob. Still some villagers were outside trying to get a glimpse of what was going on. Elluria marveled at how fast news travelled through their sleepy village. The band did their best to keep their heads down and hidden in their cloaks as they passed. Their precautions worked and the lookers ignored their passing. 


Nearing the edge of the village, Switch navigated them off the main road. “There’s never much traffic at night, but better safe than sorry,” he said. The group left to the northwest, half a mile or so from the Northern Road Elluria reckoned. They walked through the dark forest which surrounded Lost Lake. 


Almost as soon as they entered the forest they found themselves unsure of their heading. To help them, Switch brings out his navigational thyrsus. A dark nearly-black disk about a hand across. Elluria always thought it looked simple for a thyrsus. Speaking low, Switch said its word of activation boreas. Elluria and Talissa watched as the thing came to life with a green light which swept across the face of the thyrsus before settling in and pointing due north. With it Switch turned the part on a course parallel to the road to Minah.


As they gained some distance between them and the village (and that mob!) they were able to talk once more. “What happened back there?” Elluria asked. 


“I don’t know the whole of it,” Switch began, “but it seems sometime near midnight the Elden Tree suddenly burst into flames. As you know there’re always people at the Elden Tree, so how someone could have done so much damage without anyone noticing is a mystery to me. What I do know is that soon after it happened the Stalts were talking about how it was ol’ Switch who’d done it. Lousy Stalts. They’ve been looking for something to pin on me for years now.”


“But why would someone burn the Elden Tree? Everyone in the village depends on that tree for the rains and protection.” Talissa asked. 


“Yet another reason to leave if you ask me. Whoever it was that had it in for that tree could not be a friend of the village either. Who knows what sort of trouble they were starting. Better we put some distance between us and them.” Switch nodded after reassuring himself that he’d made the right decision. “And someone who could do that much damage without being seen is no one you want to stick around for.”


The trio walked on in silence to about ten miles outside of Lost Lake before Switch started navigating them back towards the Northern Road. About halfway back to the road the sun peeked up over the eastern ridge. Barely visible through the trees it nonetheless added a reddish hue to the forest they walked through. With the sun coming up, Switch stowed away his thyrsus back in his pack. 


Before too long the three exiles came upon the North road. There they took a moment to eat some breakfast and rest their feet. They eat in silence as weariness had set in both from travel and from having been woken up in the middle of the night. Talissa and Elluria think about what Switch has said and both wonder as to what kind of person, or people, could stealthily burn down the Elden Tree. Both are just fine never finding out the answer to that.


“Who could have burned the Elden Tree, and done so without anyone seeing?” Talissa asked.


“I don’t know.” Switch shook his head. “Whoever it was had some skill beyond what I’ve seen from Lost Lake.” 


“I don’t think I want to know who did it.” Elluria said eyeing her breakfast. “Whoever could do a thing like that isn’t someone I want to have to deal with.” The other two nodded in agreement and continued with their breakfast.


“I haven’t traveled since my attunement. Is the road to Minah still in tact as it once was?” Talissa asked, changing the subject. 


“Yes it is,” Switch began. “Minah, as you know, is the main trading hub in southeastern Denmica. Most of what comes to Lost Lake makes it there by way of Minah. So the road is well-traveled. If we follow it northward, we should get there in a day or so.”  


After eating the group began heading northward towards Minah once more. After a time the three crested a hill on the Northern Road and came upon a fork. To the left was a less trodden road though not overgrown as an abandoned road would be. Straight ahead was the road that led to Minah. Looking down the road to the left, the group spied a man walking their way. “Come let’s move on before this traveler gets close.” Switch said with some urgency. 


“This road isn’t a place for people to travel alone.” Talissa looked at Switch then over to the traveler. “I think we should hail him and see where he’s traveling. At the very least we should warn him to stay away from Lost Lake.” Switch began to protest, but the looks from Talissa and Elluria made him think otherwise. 


The traveler approached the weary group. As he came closer they heard him singing a song. “I don’t like this.” Switch brooded. 


“Hail traveler!” Talissa greeted the wanderer with a hearty wave. “My name is Talissa, and we come from Lost Lake. We’re on our way to Minah. Where does the road take you?”


The traveler laughed, a crystalline laugh like one that had been honed over years. “Well met Talissa. My name is Drake. I come from that way.” The traveler pointed toward the less-trodden road. “And I head that way.” Drake pointed up the road towards Minah. “Where from and where to have little meaning to me, but meeting folks on the journey is what makes my heart sing.”


Drake stood before them tall and straight. His garb was nicer than that of the trio, but not so nice as to be of a lord. To his side hung a longsword, its hilt glinting in the morning sun. On his back was slung some sort of instrument. It looked like the neck of a lute, but different somehow. His hair was black and he had a short goatee. 


“We too are headed that way. Towards Minah.” Talissa smiled at the coincidence. “Why don’t you come with us?” 


“Talissa I don’t think that’s a good idea. We have no idea who this guy is!” Switch whispered to her in rapid fire while scowling. 


“Oh come on, I’m sure it’ll be fine.” Elluria said as she took a step forward offering her hand in greeting. “I am Elluria of Lost Lake as well. If you’re indeed headed our way we’d welcome the company.” Drake took her hand and shook it in greeting. 


“I welcome the company,” started Drake, “but I also share your friend’s misgivings. Before we set off we should see that we’ll be well off together. Do any of you play?”


At this Talissa and Elluria perked up. “I—we do.” Elluria said while gesturing to Talissa and herself. “We don’t often get asked that.” Switch frowned and took a step back from the group. 


“Fantastic!” In one smooth motion Drake pulled the instrument from off his back. It looked a bit like a mandolin, but its body was longer and wider, and its neck was thicker at the bottom. It also had six strings instead of the mandolin’s four. Drake strummed on its strings. “Let’s play!”


“What is that?” Talissa asked as she pulled her mandolin from her pack. “I’ve never seen an instrument like that before.”


“The Sents called it a ‘gitar’. Few of them still exist, I’m not surprised you haven’t seen one.” Drake strummed another chord. “This one happens to be my thyrsus as well. Though now I’m just using it to play music.”


Elluria pulled her flute from her pack and got ready to join in. “Your gitar is very beautiful Drake. And it sounds great too. I’m ready when you are!” 


Drake counted them in and the three started playing feverishly in the morning light. Talented though Talissa and Elluria were they were outshone by Drake’s gitar playing. Drake set the tempo and the key, and the women followed. After a minute or two, the newcomer went off book providing a shower of arpeggios to accompany the other instruments’ harmonies. Even Switch tapped his foot through some of it. 


After a few minutes Drake signaled to bring the melodies to a close. The three players stood there catching their breath and congratulating each other on a song well done. They reminisced about their various solos then put their instruments away. “Now that is a good way to meet people.” Drake said as he wiped some sweat from his brow. “I feel much better about traveling with you all now.”


Switch pulled Elluria over. “I like this even less now. He said that gitar thing was his thyrsus. What if he put a spell on you while he was playing? Who knows what that thing can do.”


Talissa wandered over and caught the tail end of that exchange. “Don’t you think we would have noticed such a thing. Thyrsi are usually pretty obvious with their magic. That was just some new friends caught up in song.”


“I agree with Tal.” Elluria said while turning back towards Drake. “Besides if there is a spell, there’s no use trying to break it now. Best to travel with Drake a ways and then figure it out.”


Switch scowled and kicked the dirt, but relented. Turning back to the traveler he impolitely asked “Is your musicality also your attunement?” 


Drake smiled broadly at the question. “Indeed it is sir. I am a bard trained at Owza. I’d guess scowling is your attunement, though that would be a new one for me.” Elluria stifled a chuckle at the jibe.


“I am a hunter, bard. Treat everyone here right and I may never have to show you my skills.” Elluria placed a hand on her overreacting brother. Switch turns toward her and then turns back calmer. “Now if you all are done with your foolishness we really should be on our way.”


And so the party set off along the Northern Road towards Minah. Now that the day had begun, the road was somewhat busier than before. There were still long stretches where they were alone, but now and then carts and riders and wanderers came across them. Some would hail them, but most were happy to go along their way never interacting with the travelers. Periodically Switch looked back behind them for some sign of anyone searching for them from Lost Lake. All he saw however were the slowly disappearing groups that had passed them from ahead. If Lost Lake sought after them on the Northern Road they were thankfully taking their time. 



Chapter 2


The Road to Minah



As the sun crossed midday into the hotter afternoon the group came upon a crossing. A signpost marked the crossing with a sign pointing north that said “Minah”. Two more signs pointed east and west marked “Hanfir” and “Boread” respectively. Switch started to the north intent on reaching Minah as soon as possible. Elluria stopped him, “Wait a minute. Minah is still a day’s walk from here, and I’ve heard Hanfir is close to the Northern Road. Do you think we should head there and spend the night? We have no camping gear, and we definitely cannot walk another night.”


Switch pondered it for a moment as Talissa added, “Hanfir is a hunting town Switch. You’ll fit right in, and we can get provisions before heading on.” 


Switch looked at Talissa and Elluria. They could see him wavering in his decision. Switch opened his mouth to speak when Drake’s hand fell on his shoulder. “Come Sketch, hardworking towns have hard-drinking pubs. Hanfir sounds like a good time.” Drake said in a jovial manner. 


“My name is Switch,” the hunter said angrily to Drake’s back as it walked the path to Hanfir flanked by Talissa and Elluria. Switch hurried after them.


It was mid afternoon when the party came around a bend that let them see Hanfir. It was an outpost of sorts, similar in size to Lost Lake, but more wild. As they approached they could see that the homes, huts really, were stout and laid upon with leather and canvas. The village had no walls, being made up of hunters seemed to be all the defense it needed. 


The road they were traveling on led right through to the middle of the village. In that middle was a dusty circle ringed with stalls sporting meat and fur and the common fare that kept a village running. 


Off to the right of this main circle stood one of the few buildings made of wood in the style the Lost Lakers were more familiar with. A large building with two floors, it loomed large above the rest of Hanfir like the central peak of an otherwise unremarkable mountain range. A sign swayed in the wind atop the door marking it as the Ruby Hare. 


“Here we go. An inn.” Drake proclaimed as the party ventured through the circle eyeing the market’s wares. “And right next to a marketplace too. I daresay we can procure all the sundries we need and get a pint all in one block.” 


The four of them moved slowly through the market towards the inn as merchants shouted at them to buy their latest goods. The din of the place is an unwelcome change from the quiet of the road, and the lot picked up pace as it became clear the inn would provide respite from the chaos of the circle. Drake opened the door and ushered the other three inside. 


The interior of the Ruby Hare looked to be as old as Hanfir itself. Wood, well-worn with use and oiled multiple times, clad the room in a creased brown shell. They were in a large room with lanterns hung on the edges providing light. Small rugged tables were strewn haphazardly throughout. The tables were about half occupied with an unassuming lot of Hanfireans. Towards the back was a large staircase which led up to what one would presume are the rooms for rent. A bar towards the back acted as the place for both host and barkeep, behind which was a stout woman in her fifties with greying hair and mottled clothes that had seen better days. 


On the left side of the room was an empty table with four seats. Drake navigated the group over to it with an almost giddiness. “I’ll get us some drinks and a couple of rooms. Boys and girls sounds right don’t you think.” Switch grimaced at the thought of sharing a room with their new companion. 


“Two rooms sounds like an extravagance,” Elluria began. “We didn’t bring much money. And we’ll need it for Minah and beyond.” 


Drake smiled, “Oh don’t worry about that. This first night’s on me to thank you for being so gracious.” With that Drake wheeled around and sauntered up to the bar. 


As Drake got out of earshot Switch leaned in to the table, “I don’t trust him at all. What kind of person pays for three strangers he just met? It doesn’t add up. And that thyrsus of his? A ‘gitar’? What the Astar is a ‘gitar’?”


Talissa tried to talk him down, “He’s a bard. You know how they approach life on the road. He probably just raked in a good portion at his last stop and is feeling rich. I don’t think there’s much to gain by questioning his motives now.” 


Switch moved to object, but Drake returned with drinks in hand for the group. He set them down on the table casually not minding the drops that sprayed as the mugs clank down. Talissa and Elluria thanked him as Switch muttered a thanks that was more a warning. Drake brushed it off as he opened up the conversation.


He asked the group how they came to be on the road to Minah. Elluria shared with Drake how the Stalts had ruled their village of Lost Lake with an iron fist and had it out for her and her brother. How last night the Elden Tree mysteriously caught fire. She ignored the withering look from Switch as she finished by telling him about waking up in the middle of the night to flee before getting accused by the Stalts. Drake listened intently, bemused by the story from his compatriots. 


After Elluria finished, Drake asked with genuine curiosity, “Your Elden Tree… I’ve heard of them, but I’m not sure I have a good sense of what they are. What did your tree do?”


Talissa perked up at the question. She began drawing from her learnings as an animist, “You’ve learned about thyrsi in your barding education I’m sure.” Talissa waited for a nod then continued, “The Sents who made the thyrsi apparently made it possible for that magic to be imbued in living creatures. Elden Trees are one particular manifestation of this capability. They grow within communities and shelter them from the vagories of weather and disease.”


“They also bring about good fortune,” Elluria chimed in remembering the warmth and safety she had felt from the magical tree.


“Very true.” Talissa continued, “The Elden Trees seem to weave some sort of spell on the community members which provides them a modicum of luck in their endeavors. It is said that each Elden Tree is different and offers a different sort of protection. In Lost Lake our tree keeps out the drought that plagues the Southern reaches of Denmica. In Felton, where I did my attunement, the Elden Tree keeps the rains from saturating their crops. No one knows how many Elden Trees there are, they’re scattered throughout the whole of Tremon. Communities tended to build themselves around these trees so there are plenty that are known, but who knows how many the Sents made. There could be thousands still waiting to be found.”


Drake smiled at this last part, “I’m sure a good living could be made finding Elden Trees around, but where do they come from? Are they just another manifestation of the Sents’ genius? Has anyone ever madean Elden Tree?”


“You can’t make a thyrsus.” Switch scoffed dismissing Drake’s intrigue. “There are only so many thyrsi in the world, and no more can be made. The Sents’ secrets died with them.” Switch recited the learnings that he knew the table all knew amused at getting to correct the eager bard. 


Drake gives Switch a knowing nod. “Still, I’ve heard legends that there are some who can make thyrsi. It’s a talent not afforded to the rank and file amongst us, but certain sages and sorceresses gained the power through some deeply hidden ritual of the Sents. The legends all speak of this power as though it had long passed from this world, but I thought maybe with the Elden Trees… I mean trees don’t live forever, and the Sents were so long ago.”


“Nonsense!” Switch took a sip of his ale as he dismissed Drake’s pondering. “If Elden Trees are being made it must be some machination of the Sents. Even if the power to make thyrsi existed, it’s long since disappeared. Your legends are just that, and we don’t need to keep going on about legends.”


At this time the inn began to fill up as the huntsmen returned, dirty and stained from the day’s activities. The tables were near full and a few hunters were standing near the party’s table talking about their hunts. “I suppose not.” Drake responded languidly, as someone used to having his legends dismissed. “Perhaps instead we should figure out what we want to do with our time here in Hanfir. I’m happy to keep drinking, but maybe we can find some action from some of these brothers.” Drake gestured around to the growing throng of people. 


“We need supplies.” Elluria pointed to the meager packs of the group. “Like I said we didn’t bring much money, just what we had on us. Maybe we can find a job to do here in Hanfir and avail ourselves of that market we saw.”


Talissa jumped at the opportunity, “We could perform!” Smiling widely she reached for her mandolin. 


Elluria and Switch adorn opposite reactions, “That’s an excellent idea.” said Elluria. 


“That’s a horrible idea.” said Switch. 


Overruling Switch again, Elluria led the others through the crowd to an open space next to the bar. She peered back through the crowd, but could only catch glimpses of her scowling brother seated back at their table. It was loud, but not loud enough that they would be drowned out. Elluria gave a ready nod to her band mates. 


The three musicians brought up their instruments and agreed on a rousing standard to play seeing as the hunters did not seem like they would care much for more esoteric fare. Drake counted them in and the three were on their way. The hunters nearest them glanced over briefly before returning to their ales and conversations. As they played the opening to their first song, Talissa readied her voice to sing to the assemblage. Elluria shot her friend, who had never sung before a group this large, a look of concern. The singer returned the look with an excited smile.  


Talissa started the stanzas of the first verse, her voice trembling a little with nerves and probably more vibrato than was necessary. As her confidence grew she crescendoed into a lilting soprano which endeavored to capture both the energy and the spirit of the number. Elluria smiled to herself as her friend led the group. Drake’s gitar lent a foreign but pleasant sound to the ensemble, and was garnering some hushed musings from a few in the crowd. 


As they rounded out their first song a handful of hunters lay some coins in the pouch that Drake had opened up before them. It was a meager sum, but a start. The trio discussed their next song and picked one they were sure the denizens of Hanfir would know. This one was a duet which Drake and Talissa handed off to each other clumsily, but effectively. As they head in to the first chorus one of the hunters pushed his way through the inn towards the stage. It was early, but he was clearly a few drinks into the night. The hunter turned around to face the crowd with the trio and after a deep breath belted out the chorus right in time with the players. This caused more members of the crowd face where they were playing, grinning and pointing at their comrade. 


The rest of the set went off without a hitch after that. The coins, while not flying in, came steadily throughout the next songs. After about thirty minutes of playing, Drake called them to a stop. He thanked the crowd profusely and gathered up the pouch and their sought after coin. The three players returned to the table that Switch had been protecting throughout the concert. As they return Switch shook his head. “This is dangerous. Who knows where the Stalts may have spies and ne’er-do-wells.”


“We’re just passing through.” Elluria began a little short on patience with her brother’s constant grumbling. “Being a wandering band of musicians is a lot more believable than whatever other lie we could come up with. Besides how else do you suggest we get the money for supplies?” 


“Money?” It was their singing partner from their second song. He had sidled up next to Drake and overheard the last half of Elluria’s question. “I was just coming over to say how good that was of you all.” He began in slurred yet excited speech. “We haven’t had good music like that in quite the spell. If it’s money you’re after though, you should come hunting with us tomorrow and capture the ar-bear. There’s a big reward.” Before they could ask him more he turned on his heel, swaying all the while, and disappeared back into the throng. 


“Did he say ar-bear?” Elluria puzzled at the prefix. “I like the sound of a big reward… I don’t like the sound of an ar-bear. What do you suppose he meant by that?”


Talissa eagerly jumped in, “The ‘ar’ prefix means that something has been reanimated by a thyrsus. We learned about them in attunement. Undead? I think the word is for them. So an ar-bear is an undead bear like a ghoul would be an ar-human.” Talissa’s excitement turned to a frown. “You know saying it out loud sounds a lot worse now. I’m not sure we need to go looking for this ar-bear.”


Switch put his hand on Talissa’s shoulder, “That’s exactly what we need to do! This village doesn’t know us from Prida, but if we capture this ar-bear for them they’ll have to give us protection from Lost Lake and the Stalts. We’d probably be able to book passage from here to Minah, and with a nice reward we’ll be well set up to do what we need to do.” 


“Ha! I love it!” Drake chortled across the table from Switch. “Rag tag band of adventurers tracks and captures some thyrsus-revived death animal for coin. Just my kind of trouble to get into.”


“Well that’s not reassuring.” Switch eyed Drake for a few moments trying to surmise if he is genuine, and what that might mean if he is. “What about you two? I don’t see how we could accomplish the task without you both.”


Talissa looked at Switch and clasped her spear which was leaning against the table, “I’ve always wanted to use my skills, not much opportunity in Lost Lake where I had nothing but chores. I’m in.”


Elluria looked slowly at her companions around the table, sizing up their hidden motivations. Never one to shy away from a fight she tapped the sword hung at her side. “I can’t very well let you all go without me. Ar-bear capturing it is.”


With the agreement the party quickly threw together a plan for using their skills and talents to track and capture the ar-bear. Drake entreated the innkeeper for the hows and whens of capturing the creature. Intelligence in hand they packed up their belongings and headed to the rooms generously provided for by Drake. 




Chapter 3


An Ar-duous Task


Elluria had been up since before dawn, waking from a fitful sleep after an unpleasant yet forgettable dream. She let Talissa continue to sleep, but then with the sun rising she gently nudged her friend awake. Talissa lazily opened her eyes and stretched to get the blood flowing to her extremities. The two gathered up their things, cinched their packs, and slung them over their shoulders as they walked out of the room. 


Switch and Drake joined Elluria and Talissa in the hallway, Drake with a hearty good morning, and Switch with a brooding nod. The four travelers, less wary after a full night’s rest, headed down the stairs to the open fore room of the inn. There they ordered some breakfast in the knowledge that they had some time before joining the hunt. 


“What do you think this ar-bear is going to look like?” queried Drake. “I mean I’ve never seen a ghoul, but the stories make them sound downright ghastly. Do you think the ar-bear will be like they are, skin sloughing off and mange of some sort?”


Talissa pondered the question, “I suppose it could be like that. I’ve only read about the undead, and then only briefly. I believe it will be something like a rotting reanimated bear. But I’ve never seenone. The thyrsi that create them are supposed to be exceedingly rare, and even then they only reanimate under certain circumstances.”

 


“Can we not talk about this while we’re eating?” Elluria asked, grimacing over her food. “This food is hard enough to eat.” Talissa looked over and nodded. The four ate the rest of their meal hastily and quietly. A few other patrons arrived to get meals as well, all nondescript and local looking.


As they finished up Switch said, “Last night and tonight, everyone looks like they belong here. No sign of the Stalts.” He continued with his assessment mostly to himself, “I would have expected them to give chase. Maybe they haven’t thought to follow us here.”


“Maybe they didn’t blame the Elden Tree on us.” Talissa said. “The Stalts are a mercurial bunch as you know, maybe—” 


Switch cut her off, “You know they blame us for everything. They’ve been looking for a reason to take us out. Maybe they’re just happy we’ve left town. Doesn’t seem right though, I say we take care of this ar-bear and then work on putting more distance between us.”


The group left the inn, a collective feeling of excited nervousness amongst them. Between Talissa the animist and Switch the hunter, Elluria felt they would have the attunements they needed to track and capture any living creature. But an ar-bear wasn't quite living now was it? Would the animist’s thyrsus work on an undead bear? Elluria shrugged at the question. If they had to, she figured the four of them could take down a bear. Then again, could they take down an ar-bear?


The eastern entrance to the village lacked adornment. A meager wooden gate consisting of a bumpy log resting upon two posts was surrounded on each side by the low fence that ringed the village. Built mostly to keep out the local fauna, Elluria wondered as to what kind of protection it would afford should the ar-bear set its sights on Hanfir. 


A crowd a half size larger than the audience at the Ruby Hare last night gathered near the entrance. A short lithe barker stood atop a crate shouting into a bit of canvas which had been rolled up to amplify his voice. 


“Before we begin, we of course have a very important announcement from the emperor.” The short man stepped to the side and handed the amplifier to a medium height man dressed in the green and teal revelry of the ruling class. He stepped onto the crate and eyed the crowd. Some groans and grumbling were audible from the collected group. Elluria and Drake roll their eyes, Talissa frowns, Switch spits on the ground. 


It was a smout. So-called because they were “small shouts”. An official form of communique from the much maligned emperor Rugal. Smouts were Rugal’s primary means of communicating with the rank and file of Denmica, and he used them early and often to make small proclamations which most of the time seem to be based on whatever whimsical nonsense amused Rugal at the time. Even those who were in support of Rugal’s reign found it hard to justify his smouts, such were their flippant nature. 


“Rugal says,” began the smouter, “‘I would never call Enris oafish and koboldlike even though he called me fat. I try so hard to be his friend. Oh well.’” The smouter lowered the amplifier and nodded to himself, content in another job well done. The air was tense, as clearly something so asinine required some sort of retort, but heckling a smouter was a grave crime punishable by a multi-year exile to Astar. So the hunters held their tongues, though much would be jested about later. 


The barker stepped back onto the crate. “We’ve had reports from the early morning scouts that the ar-bear left tracks to the Northwest. They seem to be about a half a day old. We recommend that the squads head that way and then fan out in different directions. Sterul and Marjay will lead you all to where the tracks were found, it’s about a two hour walk from here.” He pointed at a man and a woman standing near the right post of the entranceway. “From there let us hope the ar-bear does not elude us again.” The barker stepped down from the crate and moved his way to the edge of the crowd. 


At the entranceway stood the woman Marjay with the mass of hunters crowding around her. She was saying something, but it was lost to the group as they were too far away to hear it. After a short while, her and Sterul turned and made their way from the entranceway to the land outside the village. The crowd followed them through the entranceway and began to expand into separate pods, which Elluria rightly ascertained to be the squads the barker spoke of. She led the party behind the crowd of hunters through the entranceway and on to their impending adventure. 


The group walked in silence for about an hour, content to let the clamor of the hunters ahead of them keep their minds occupied. Drake anxiously breaks the silence, “Elluria, I’ve learned of Talissa and Sketch’s attunement,” Switch bristled at the slight, but kept quiet, “but I have yet to learn of yours. I hope it’s not a secret.” Drake laughed at the thought of a secret attunement.


“Of course not,” Elluria offered, smiling at getting to share her uncommon attunement. “I’m a thyrser. I didn’t mention it last night at the inn in case someone overheard. Strangers can get a little weird around us thyrsers.” 


Drake clapped his hands together with visible delight, “Ha! A thyrser on the team? This adventure should be a cinch. I see now why you lot left Lost Lake, no doubt they would have blamed their resident thyrser for a thing like that tree catching on fire. Can you show me your thyrsus? I’m so curious now.”


Elluria shook her head, “Thyrser rules: malevolent thyrsi cannot be displayed unless there is a direct threat. It’s not that glamorous though, I can assure you. You might just see it if we ever find this ar-bear. I’d prefer that it not get to that point though.”


The questioning took Elluria back to her own attunement vision. Like everyone else in Denmica she had a vision on her tenth birthday of the Sents Bundi and Prida. She still remembered that feeling when the vision landed on her attunement showing the thyrser emblem in its glowing golden light. 


“I take it yours is the only malevolent thyrsi we have with us?” Drake’s question brought Elluria back from her reminiscing. 


“Indeed. As you know malevolent thyrsi which can be used by the other attunements are rare. A good thing too since people fear them and the thyrsers who use them so much.”


“I sometimes marvel at the rules the Sents set up with the thyrsi—making some of them usable by all and some usable by only certain attunements. It seems so odd that they would make these rules for us.”


Elluria shrugged. “Who are we to question the Sents. I’m just thankful they left us these magical items for our use. Can you imagine a world without thyrsi?” 


“No. That would not be a world I want to live in.” Drake shook his head and followed on. 


The crowd ahead started to slow upon reaching the clearing where the ar-bear’s tracks had been found. Ahead of them Sterul was shouting out directions, which they can not quite make out. “They’re likely to start heading off in different directions. What’s our strategy here?” Elluria asked. 


“The undead are more powerful at night,” began Talissa, “it’s possible this ar-bear is nocturnal and we should be looking for its den. Perhaps over there.” She pointed at a rocky scar jutting out from the earth a few miles away. “Bears have a pretty big range, and an ar-bear’s is likely larger. We’re hours behind it so we should hope that it’s sheltering along that ridge.”


“How do we get there before one of these squads?” asked Switch. “It won’t do us much good to get there after the ar-bear’s been captured.” 


“It does not look like there’s an animist amongst the squads.” Talissa answered quickly. “My thyrsus should give us the advantage we need over this lot. I just hope my hypothesis is correct. If the ar-bear is in another direction then we may as well head back to Hanfir.”


“Well it’s not like we have a better idea,” Elluria replied with a sense of urgency. “We need to get a move on, and your hunch is the best we have. Let’s get moving.” Elluria led the group on to skirt along the right side of the crowd, heading off in a northeasterly direction towards the sheltering rocks rising along the horizon. The three followers made haste as they tried to stay ahead of the squads. 


“Do you think any of those squads will follow us?” Elluria asked the group, while keeping a steady pace. 


“Doubtful,” Drake responded. “Those lot know us as a traveling band of musicians. They probably think we’re all bards and wouldn’t know an ar-bear from a bar chord. But it’s probably best that we keep our speed up.”


The terrain had been mostly grassland out of Hanfir, but now the group ventured into a sparse forested area. Thin trees populated the land ahead of them with less thin canopies filtering the sunlight above. The terrain was thankfully not as dense as the forest around Lost Lake had been, and numerous trails criss-crossed through the forest, most likely from years of hunting taking place there. It was harder to see the direction of the rocks through the forest so Switch took out his navigational thyrsus to help them keep their bearings. The familiar sounds of nature filled the air, a soothing reprieve to the harsh sounds of the hunter crowd’s talking from earlier that morning. 


Talissa brought out her tracking thyrsus. It was a black rectangular grip with a glass window in the center. It measured about half a forearm wide and a little more than a hand-width tall. She explained as she brought it out, “With this I should be able to see if the ar-bear has come through this area. It will see animals even if they leave no discernible tracks.” 


She raised the thyrsus to her face and began to look around the area, peering through the glass for some sign of the ar-bear. Elluria kept the group moving forward as Talissa watched the area, aware that another squad might beat them to their quarry if they stopped. Elluria kept glancing back as she walked to try and catch some indication that her friend had found the ar-bear.


“That’s it.” Talissa spoke in hushed punctuation. “I cannot see the ar-bear, but that must be it. It has been through here and it attacked a deer. We’ve got to be on the right track!”


“What do you mean you cannot see the ar-bear?” Drake questioned. 


“It must be that,” Talissa responded with some enthusiasm, “since the ar-bear isn’t living, my thyrsus can’t see it. But I know it’s there from what else I see. The deer couldn’t have been attacked by the wind. There’s too much damage being done.”


“Alright,” Elluria was eager to keep moving with this new information, “we should be through these woods in less than an hour and then the rocks should be just after. Good job Talissa!” Talissa beamed with pride at having used her thyrsus for their common good. 


The forest continued on, but in short order the trees began to thin and the light brightened as the canopy became more sparse. The rocks were now visible through the trees. From their closer vantage point they could see that they rose some fifty feet in the air nearly vertical. They were the muted gray stone that made up the majority of the geology of Denmica, totally unremarkable yet still somewhat beautiful in how they interrupted the verdant monotony of the surrounding grasslands and forest. 


Elluria led the sortie to the edge of the jutting rock scar, pausing briefly to assess the situation. “Now where to?” she asked.


Talissa had brought out her thyrsus again and began looking around the area. Meanwhile Switch peered at the edge of the nearest rock. His keen hunter eyes swept over the hard edges of the stone. Stooping low he noticed a drop of blood two feet from the ground on one of the rocks. He looked left and right, taking a few steps in either direction. To the right he found a second drop, almost obscured by a slight overhang above, but quite clear to the trained eye.


“Elluria I think I found a trail,” Switch offered. “Look here. There’s blood there, and again here. We should follow it to see where it begins or ends and then we’ll know which way our ar-bear has gone.”


Elluria made a quick study of the rock face. “I think you’re right.” She joined Switch near the last drop of blood. “Only one way to find out I suppose.” The two left to the right, closely investigating the rock face for the red markers. Before too long they had found two more.


“I think this is the right way.” Switch hailed Talissa and Drake to join them. “The ar-bear seems to have walked around the face of these short cliffs with that dead deer in his jaws.”


The four continued to the right around the start of the rocks and towards the other side of them. “Well this is probably good,” started Elluria, “the squads probably won’t follow us to this side of the rocks.” 


The blood drops seemed to have stopped, but the party continued on, leaving some space between them and the rock face lest they stumble over the den inadvertently. Above them the sun was headed towards midday, and the temperature began to rise. Now out of the forest, the sounds of nature had quieted somewhat as the activity of the wooded area was unmatched by the rocky scrubland around them.


Nearly halfway along the perimeter of the rocks, Elluria called a halt. “Look,” she said pointing to the rocks. “A cave.”



Chapter 4


The Party’s First Fight



“I’ll go check it out.” Switch said as he pulled out his other thyrsus, a green cylinder about a hand high. He said the word of activation krupto.The air around Switch began to waver and then became lined. One by one in some random order the lines began to fill in with the same color background of the scrubland behind Switch. It only took a few moments, but when it was done Switch blended into his surroundings so well that it was hard to remember where he stood.

 


Switch lowered to a crouch and began to approach the cave opening. Elluria noted that if you knew exactly where to look you could notice the cloaking moving slightly as it seemed to take a moment for the cloaking thyrsus to restore the exact disguise needed for that place. The farther away Switch got, the harder it was to keep up with his movements, and the uncloaked trio had to be content to wait for his return from this recognizance mission. 


Switch did return in short order, shedding his “cloak” with another krupto. “Quite impressive.” Drake said in muted admiration of Switch’s cloaking. Switch darted a brief look at Drake before returning his eyes to the cave entrance.


“It’s in there.” Switch stated in a hurried quiet tone. “It has to be the ar-bear. It’s definitely a bear-like thing, but it looks off. It’s sleeping right now, the deer carcass is off to the side of its lair. What should we do? Should we stick to the plan?”


The plan was to have Talissa use her thyrsus to establish a connection with the animal, and in so doing capture it for the people of Hanfir. Elluria, Switch, and Drake were to surround the ar-bear in case anything went wrong. If something did go wrong, they were to all maintain distance and let Switch take the ar-bear down with his crossbow, engaging only if they had too. The reward was higher if the ar-bear was “alive” as some country scholar in Hanfir wanted to study it, but it was not much higher so if they needed to they were more than willing to take it down. 


“I’m ready to try, though I’m slightly less sure this will work as my thyrsus didn’t see the ar-bear.” Talissa spoke with a slight tremble in her voice, recalling a time she had tried to establish a connection and failed. 


“We have to give it a try,” Elluria stated with some resolve. “Capturing the ar-bear may be vitally important to the study of these undead things Talissa’s been telling us about. Plus the reward is better. Let’s give it a try, and if it doesn’t work out we’ll take out this creature before it can do anymore damage.”


Talissa nodded and took out her thyrsus. “It’s sleeping,” said Switch, “so you should be able to get close enough without it noticing.”


Talissa nodded again, taking a look at her three companions before turning towards the cave and lightly tiptoeing over to its entrance. Elluria looked at the other two and pointed out directions to them. Switch grabbed his crossbow, reentered his cloaked state, and moved slowly over to the right of the entrance. Drake unsheathed his longsword and headed to the left of the entrance. Elluria closed her fingers over the hilt of her katana slowly drawing it forth. Its blade gleaming in the noon sun. With her other hand she tapped on the glove tucked into her waistband out of sight and ready for use if things got really out of hand. 


Pausing near the entrance of the cave, Talissa could just make out the outline of a creature some fifteen feet or so in from the entrance. She looked back at Elluria who gave her a reassuring gesture, Talissa weakly smiled back in anxious response. She brought her animist thyrsus in front of her and took a deep breath. She spoke the word of activation zowonto it and the thyrsus came alive. Green and blue lights appeared on the front of it and a quiet whirring sound could be heard. Faint blue light slowly extended from the top of the thyrsus and Talissa waved it towards the sleeping ar-bear. The blue tendrils crept slowly through the air and latched themselves onto the ar-bear shining brighter for a moment.


Then there was a loud clicking sound from Talissa’s thyrsus. She looked down frowning to see the blue light fade slowly to red. It hung in the air briefly shining red before it fell to the ground and disappeared. From within the cave, the ar-bear began to stir. She began to slowly back away from the entrance as the ar-bear lifted itself upright. It caught sight of her and let out a low rumbling groan. 


Talissa watched as the ar-bear began its charge at her. “It’s coming!” She managed to shout as she clutched her spear tightly and braced herself for impact. The ar-bear came bounding out of the cave. In the sunlight it was easy to see what Switch was talking about it looking off. Elluria could see its back rows of teeth as part of its mouth on the left hand side had been shorn off. Its ribs showed on its right flank from some other wound that hadn’t healed. It was a sickly brownish-green color, not the rich brown of a living bear. And its eyes, even in the sun they glowed a bright yellow. This was no typical bear.


Within seconds it was on Talissa, rearing up on its hind legs and crashing downwards. Talissa, spun at the last moment swinging her spear ineffectively into the side of the beast. Switch yelled out and let loose a crossbow bolt which lodged itself in the ar-bear’s left shoulder. The ar-bear twisted looking at Switch whose cloak had been removed by his activity. Quickly it bounded over towards the hunter who, lacking the time needed to ready the crossbow again, pulled his dual hunting knives from their sheaths at his side. 


As the animal bounded for Switch, Elluria ran in an angle of pursuit towards it, looking to cut it off before it reached her brother. Talissa regained her composure and edged closer to where the action was headed, but choosing discretion over valor she recognized she wasn’t the fighter amongst the group. Drake who was furthest away began a run towards the ar-bear, calling to Talissa to enquire if she was ok. 


The ar-bear came barreling into Switch, its jaws chomping down at where Switch was standing. With some effort Switch bounded away from the catching jaws and jumped back a pace to take a more defensive stance and await an opening. As the beast recovered from that attack, Elluria came full-speed against it slicing at its back and opening a deep wound in between its shoulders and haunches. Black sick began to ooze from the wound, sludgy and filling the air with a foul odor. 


Wheeling on its back paws, the ar-bear swiped down at Elluria catching her right shoulder and dragging its claws to make a jagged looking laceration. Elluria responded by jumping back and watching to react to the bear’s next move. Switch seized the opening and plunged his two knives into the haunches of the bear looking to debilitate its movement. The bear let loose a screaming roar in pain and turned to face Switch once more. 


Drake arrived on the scene and thrust with his longsword into the bear’s back as it was facing Switch. The blow caught the ar-bear by surprise and it raised up into the air on its back paws, pausing for a moment as it pondered whether to crush Switch or its new attacker. The moment’s hesitation was all that Elluria needed to position herself for the killing blow. The ar-bear turned, deciding on attacking the new attacker, and as it came crashing down on Drake, Elluria met its chin with an upward thrust from her blade. Drake rolled to the side as the threat smashed onto the ground. It lay there spasming a few times before falling still.


The four stood there catching their breath as the ar-bear slowly began to crack and crumble into dust. A faint blue glow appeared in the dusty pile and then faded and dissipated into the air where the undead bear had laid. 


“What was that?” Demanded Switch, unsure if he would get an answer. 


“I’ve never seen that before. Perhaps it has something to do with the undead?” Talissa offered. “This bear after all was definitely undead.”


“That blue glow looked like a thyrsus glow. Didn’t you say that there were thyrsi that reanimated the dead?” Drake turned to Talissa as he asked her the question. “I wonder if something from the thyrsus gets returned to it or something after the undead dies.”


“That sounds reasonable.” Talissa nodded at the logic of it. “Should we… should we try to find the thyrsus?”


“That sounds like a whole bunch of not our problem.” Switch stated matter of factly. “Let’s just head back and get this reward.”


The others looked at each other and nodded in tacit agreement. Switch did the gruesome business of claiming the ar-bear’s head as a trophy, which they tied to a rope to be dragged behind them to try to avoid the smell. Meanwhile Talissa and Drake attended to Elluria’s wound. Both of them drew forth their healing thyrsi. Not to be confused with the thyrsi issued to them during their attunement, healing thyrsi were commonplace in Denmica. Most attuements could make use of healing thyrsi and it was best practice to make sure one always had one around. 


Talissa took the first attempt, speaking a soft yugieiato her healing thyrsus. A gray mist sprayed forth from it settling onto Elluria’s wound. Her skin stitched itself closing the wound, leaving the blood behind as the only clue as to the damage done. Elluria took a deep breath stretching out her arm and shoulder as the pain resided. When she exhaled the gray mist came out and flew back towards Talissa’s thyrsus as though it was sucked back in. Once they and Switch were done, the group set off the way they came, heading back to the village of Hanfir to claim their reward and buy the supplies they needed for their next stop of Minah.

 


Scouts they encountered on their way back had run off to tell Hanfir of their success and so as they entered the eastern entrance they were greeted by a growing number of well-wishers and congratulators. The somber atmosphere of the village the day before was replaced by one of jubilation. The party was ushered quickly through the village to a large round tent on the other side of the market square. It was painted blue and bronze and was clearly a structure of some esteem.


Inside was an open space with tables set to the right side littered with food and cooking utensils. Down the center of the tent was a long banquet table, unoccupied save one well-groomed man reclining in the second seat from the end twirling his mustache. Behind the banquet table, raised on a creaking platform, were three chairs occupied from left to right by a middle-aged man, an elderly man, and a man in his twenties. The latter was waving the group over. 


Elluria lined the group up in front of the three men, a little intimidated at the formality of it all. Switch gave her a look of unease and she remembered how the Stalts of Lost Lake would line them up in front of them for questioning.


“You lot have done a great service to us by removing this threat,” the center man began as the middle-aged man waved a group from the side of the tent over to take custody of the ar-bear’s head. “It has only been a week since it arrived, but it has done grave damage to our ability to hunt. We lost seven good men to it.” He shook his head. “You, we do not recognize however. Tell us your names.”


The group complied each responding in turn. “Very good,” said the elderly man, “I am Nuren, and this is Yed and Sumner.” Nuren pointed right and left. “What brought you to our humble village here?”


Elluria looked at Switch unsure as to what to say. Drake stepped forward, “We’re a traveling band of musicians sir. We played a bit at your inn the Ruby Hare last night, and just so happened to hear about this problem with your ar-bear. You see our manager here,” Drake clapped Switch on the shoulder, “has a taste for rugats and so we’re never ones to miss out on an opportunity to get some.” Switch scowled at Drake, though he had to begrudgingly admit the lie was convincing. 


“Musicians eh? I can’t say I’ve heard of musicians that could take down a bear, let alone an ar-bear.” Yed chimed in staring at Drake to see if he’d give something up. “Especially not one who has killed so many of our hunters.”


“In our time traveling,” Drake began unshaken by the middle-aged man’s scrutiny, “we’ve had the opportunity for many adventures. Yes, most musicians would shy away from them, but we here have risen to those occasions. It’s made our wits sharp and our blades sharper. Tremon can be a dangerous place, and so we’ve had to hone our skills in battle as much as our skills in playing.”


Nuren laughed, “warrior bards it is then! How fortunate for us you came along. Now I suppose you’ll be wanting your reward.” Nuren gestured to Sumner who got up and walked a weighty pouch over to Switch. “There you should have one hundred rugats, the agreed upon sum for the dead ar-bear. Now is there anything else you need from the people of Hanfir, we are still in your debt.”


Switch relaxed somewhat feeling the heft of the coins in his hand. He looked down the line at his fellow travelers and guessed that the risk may be worth it, “Sir if we may. We were headed to Minah next, it would be great if we could book some carriage or wagon to take us there.”


Nuren nodded. “A reasonable request and one with a reasonable response. We trade often with Minah and I’m sure we can find you passage with a trade wagon this evening. They leave at sundown from the northern entrance, Sumner will meet you there and let you know who shall bring you to Minah.”


Switch thanked the elderly man who waved his hand indicating the congress was done. The group exited the tent and Switch called them over to an alcove in the side where they could talk. “This is fantastic! One hundred rugats?! This should be enough to buy us supplies for Minah. Here let’s split this up.” Switch dumped a few of the rugats into his hand eager to divvy them up amongst the crew. When he got to the last portion he looked at Drake. “Don’t think I trust you any more after today bard, but fair’s fair I guess.” He haphazardly dropped Drake’s share into the bard’s hand. 


The merchant circle was still going strong as they approached from the big tent. The sun still had three hands yet before setting, dinner time, but still early enough for shopping. They shopped for the essentials first: food, and clothing, and additional water containers. There was likely no use finding thyrsi in this size of market, maybe a healing thyrsus, but they were already well stocked with those. So they bought other things which may come in handy traveling the roads of Denmica: rope, bedrolls should they ever need to sleep outside, and better backpacks to replace their day packs which weren’t made for long journeys. Their portions spent, the band joined back together and headed to the inn for supper and then made their way to the northern exit to join the caravans on their way to Minah.