The Intrepid Six intrepidly pressed forward. Almost instantly, the cave system gave way to a large, open room that seemed, perplexingly, far too large to fit underground at the level by which they had descended. Yet, exist it did indeed, for they were standing very firmly within it.
Nevertheless, the more perplexing part of that large, open room was that which was contained by that large, open room. Torches lined the stone walls and dotted the floor, illuminating the area as if daylight were pouring in from somewhere unseen. Great stalagmites and stalactites reached up and down, as if vainly trying to reach each other. Past these pillars was a deep, wide chasm, cutting a swath in the room from side to side, creating a barrier to the huge, ginormous, and otherwise very, very big creature shackled to the far wall.
It was a humanoid, in that it had two arms, two legs, and an upright posture. Alas, the general rotting grossness of undeath had robbed the creature of having two full arms and two full legs, as large patches of flesh were entirely, grossly, absent. Since it was, as previously stated, really, really huge, it’s partially exposed, decrepit cranium was mere inches away from the cavern ceiling. At its feet, encircling the being, was a ring of perplexingly glowing symbols. Around its wrists, ankles, waist, and head were huge iron bands, also inscribed with perplexingly glowing symbols. And from various parts of its body came pipes and tubing, leading to various other parts of the cave, snaking through walls, floor, and ceiling, disappearing perplexingly into places unknown.
Along with being humanoid, bound, undead, on tap, and very, very large, the creature was also very, very angry. While it spoke no intelligible words that could be discerned, it screamed and raged vehemently against its bindings. It screamed and raged with such force that the cave itself shuddered, sending dust and small debris showering down upon the Intrepid Six and a multitude of battle-ready foes.
Realizing that there were face to face with a multitude of battle-ready foes, the Intrepid Six burst into action with the incredible lentor that one would expect when surprised by something totally unexpected, such as a gargantuan and very angry undead being on tap.
At first, the battle was promising; each of the Intrepid Six continued their tried and true battle tactics with great success. Yet it seemed that for every creature felled, two more rushed in to take its place. It wasn’t until Jane outwardly voiced her exhaustion that the group faltered, pulling their sights away from the enemies before them to look about the cavern once more.
And what they saw may or may not have caused soiling of pants.
More deformed, ungodly creatures began to literally crawl out from the walls, manifesting that universal, instinctual nightmare of being overrun by generally unpleasant beings. Waves of undead clawed up from the chasm in impossible numbers, and monstrosities too hideous to describe poured out from the crevices around them and advanced with unnatural speed. The Intrepid Six gathered closer and closer to each other, instinctively inching their way back toward the entrance. As another wave of grotesque, reanimated corpses lunged at them, a brilliant flash of light streaked out before them, rendering the creatures into a fine, soft powder, which was admittedly a much more desirable state.
All heads turned to see where the arch of miraculous light had originated, and from a shadow-cloaked corner emerged none other than the long sought after Lost Queen Tishra.
Even had she not been the Lost Queen Tishra (which she wasn’t, as she was now Found Queen Tishra), the Intrepid Six did not need to be told twice. With a seventh in their rank, they ran with the fervor of a herd of cats in a particularly wet rainstorm. They scrambled wordlessly back through the cave tunnels, to the entrance, and back into the open (yet only slightly fresher) air, where the bard immediately began to squeak at the top of her lungs.
“OPEN THE GATES! OPEN THE GATES!”
Found Queen Tishra began to fumble with a leather bracer upon her arm, which lit with a magical brilliance. Light poured out, not wholly unsimilar to the light they’d witnessed before, which she waved for the Plague Guard to see. The guards pacing the wall sprang to life and set to opening the gates. Without missing a single step, the Intrepid Six (Plus One) bounded over the broken bodies of the previous inhabitants, collectively doubling over into deep breaths on the other side. The portcullis slammed down behind them, after which the Plague Guard quickly gathered around then and collectively saluted.
Colonel Lionel, roused from his tent by the commotion, was the first to approach Found Queen Tishra. A few words passed between them in the twilight, and then the Intrepid Six were ordered to join him in his tent. No sooner had the tent flap fallen when fervent, excited chatter filled it to the brim. The queen and colonel immediately took to reporting on the state of the kingdom, revealing that the queen had sent the order to find the heroes. Five of the Intrepid Six immediately took to debating amongst each other about the meaning of the creature in the cave, and Mal immediately took to drinking. The debate grew more and more heated and more and more enigmatic, as each person’s contribution of knowledge and speculation proved only to reveal more questions and absolutely no answers.
While the creature was obviously of some order of immortal, its specific identity was unknown; while the creature appeared to have been held captive there for eons, the metal tubing was rather new; while the queen insisted that she would have been told immediately of such a thing below the lake, it would be impossible to complete such an endeavor in complete secrecy.
“Well,” the bard spoke to her five comrades, “we do have a Special Friend with knowledge of things… above us.”
“If you are speaking of Mr. Les,” the colonel responded, despite the fact that Dan was specifically not speaking to him, “I think that would be an excellent idea.”
“I agree,” suddenly added the Mal, “we should press on. I am sufficiently buzzed, I must say. What is this beverage I’ve been drinking?”
There was a collective pause.
“Actually, Drow,” the colonel said “you’ve been drinking from the spittoon.”
“Ah,” he responded, “I see.”
With the calculated, practiced calm that can only be achieved from a lifetime spent in a realm of murder, torture, and giant spiders, Mal fumbled for his water canteen.
Despite the fact that it was past sunset, the Intrepid Six, the queen, the colonel, and a regiment of Plague Guard stepped out toward Mayim, intent on reaching Mr. Les as soon as was possible.
“Your Majesty,” Dan tapped the queen’s hand as they prepared to set out, “How do you know Mr. Les?”
The queen motioned for Lionel and his guard to give her a moment of privacy. “Not many people know this, but Amopholes is a heavenly being.”
“Oh,” Dan replied, “I know.”
“Oh. Well,” replied the queen, “I think it best if the Plague Guard not know.” Dan nodded earnestly.
“He also has an evil twin,” Mal added, “who would make a great task master for mindless beings.”
“Well,” the queen said thoughtfully, “I would imagine that if there are heavenly beings, there would also be…opposites.”
“We met one of those ‘opposites’ in your absence, and he was not nice. At all.” the bard said gravely, “that is why I was reluctant to take orders from a mysterious somebody. Which might have possibly somewhat sort of caused a stand-offishness with your Plague Guard.”
The queen nodded, “It’s alright Halfling, I understand.”
“Oh, and you’re also part of a prophecy,” Dan replied candidly.
“Yes, well— what?” the queen asked.
“Yeah! You’re number eight, that’s why Amopholes sent us to look for you in the first place.”
“I’m number eight?”
“Yeah!” the bard counted aloud as she pointed to each of the Intrepid Six, “then there’s Rhys—you haven’t meat him yet—and you! We are… the Magnificent Eight!” The queen was unsure whether she should feel amused or speechless. Dan continued despite her confusion. “And there’s this tablet! It’s awesome and shiny! It’s great and—well, you’ll see.”
“But we’re going to have to fetch it,” Sprinkles corrected.
“And possibly cross that Jorreth guy again,” Mal added.
“Okay?” the queen asked more than stated.
“You don’t understand, Your Majesty,” Dan said with gravity, “He makes the mage seem pleasant.”
Quickly stifling what might have been laughter, or perhaps a sneeze, the queen matched the bard’s weighty expression, “That sounds horrible, Halfling. Although, I would advise you not to upset the mage.”
“I could have you flame broiled, you know,” Sprinkles hissed intently.
“I’ve not been flame broiled before,” Dan replied pluckily, “so why not?”
The mage held up a hand, and a small fireball flashing into existence above his palm. It was quickly extinguished, however, as the queen stepped in.
“Please,” she said with the force and intent of warrior royalty, “do not wear on my patience.”
An awkward silence swooped down and began to feast upon the group, but mercifully, Mayim could be seen in the distance. The queen raised the hood of her cloak, instructing the group to refer to her as “Len” when near people who were not already privy to her identity. It was near midnight when they reached the house of Amopholes, and were met at the threshold by a relieved but still nervous Rhys.
“I’m so glad to see everyone back!” he said, “Mr. Les has been looking forward to speaking with you.”
The queen turned to Lionel and his Plague Guard, and directed them to wait outside and keep watch over the house and property. With a salute he and his guard fell into practiced watch formations, fanning out with a directed purpose that spoke of their extensive training. The rest entered at Rhys’s beckoning, and were greeted by a pleased Amopholes. The queen stopped short when she saw him, her face momentarily draining of color, at which point she said, “I am so sorry.”
Amopholes, understanding her intent, waved and hand a replied, “I did what I still believe was right.” Refusing to let it become a topic of discussion, he pressed on, “With the Halfling in the group, I’m sure you’ve been told a bit about your destiny?”
“Yes,” she replied, “the Halfling has said…enough words.” Either ignoring or not hearing the bard’s sudden solemnness, followed by a mumbling of “My name is Dan,” the queen continued her conversation with the angel.
“Why me?” she asked.
“Why any of us?” he replied, “These are forces beyond my understanding.”
Realizing the futility of her question, the queen moved on, and began to describe the undead monstrosity discovered in the lakeside caves. Questions and answers went back and forth, as Amopholes tried to understand very specifically what had been witnessed.
“It was bound in shackles bearing the same language as the tablets,” the mage explained, “there was also a long and convoluted array of tubing draining the…if it were human, I would say blood, but I am unsure what one would call the essence of that…thing.”
“God goo,” stated Jane.
The mage gave and irritated sigh and massaged his temples. “Yes, well, whatever you want to call it—”
“God goo,” corrected Jane.
The mage massaged his temples a little harder.
“Say it,” encouraged Jane. “God…goo…” she said slowly, for the benefit of his understanding.
“…” another sigh, “…God goo,” the mage surrendered.
While generally not of the schadenfreude sort, Dan was unsuccessful in stifling the delightful giggle bubbling up from her throat. Jane’s look of satisfied accomplishment endeared her even further in the bard’s heart.
“Anyway,” Sprinkles said with some determination, “with all my knowledge, I’ve never seen anything draining the humors—”
“God goo!” interrupted Jane.
“—of a godly being,” the mage finished.
“And its flesh was rotting, sloughing from its body. And the eyes…” Kryss spoke with an almost reverence, “I saw the deepness of infinity.”
“Like the cosmos?” asked Dan, “Or the Void?”
“Yes,” she replied.
“Nothing immediately comes to mind, but for something of that power to be chained…” Amopholes spoke aloud as the thought, “Tell me, how was it bound?”
Excited chatter arose once more as everyone scrambled to describe its bindings further. Dan did her best impression of A Very Large Thing, the mage insisted that the bindings were celestial, Jane, Sora, and Kryss peppered the conversation with remembered details, and Mal whittled a piece of wood. It wasn’t until Amopholes specifically asked for a description of the runes that the Drow entered the conversation. With a piece of charcoal he began to replicate the runes he could remember upon the floor, while the Eladrin began sketching in his spellbook.
Amopholes stared intently, nodding now and again as his attention toggled between the two elves. Then his eye went wide. “STOP!” he shouted, frantically kicking and smudging the charcoaled runes on the floor and scrambling to take the pen from the mage. All eyes were upon him, questioning his uncharacteristic outburst. He took a moment to collect himself, and then explained, “That is one of the most ancient summoning rings of which I know. Even writing it down is dangerous.” The adventurers all exchanged glances. “Someone has incredible control to bring something of this power from another plane and bind it in place. We need the tablets; we must know more about this.”
A severe hush fell over the household as everyone let the seriousness of the new information set in. It was then that the bard had another of her awesome, brilliant, epic, and totally stellar ideas.
“Hey Kryss,” she said, holding her outstretched instrument, “hold my lute.”
Confused but curious, Kryss reached out and took the wooden device. Dan looked at her. She looked at Dan. Dan looked at her even harder, and everyone looked at Dan. Her shoulders slumped, her brilliant idea apparently not producing the expected stellar outcome. “Okay,” she said to the rogue, “you can give it back now.”
Everyone now looked at Kryss. After a stern glare from the queen, she gave it back; but not before giving it a quick strum, producing a sound very similar to the mating call of a constipated mongoose. With a look of worry, Dan grabbed it from the rogue’s hands and strummed it again herself. The lovely, melodic sound of a well-loved lute hummed through the air. Dan breathed an audible sigh of relief.
“What…was that?” asked Jane, speaking for the group at large (except Mal, who never looked up from whittling).
“I just…wanted to see what would happen,” Dan replied with what might have, to the untrained eye, look like sheepishness, but was most assuredly not anything at all like sheepishness.
The queen now massaged her temples, and looked to Amopholes for sympathy. However, he appeared only to be completely and totally amused and enamored by the ways of these mortals. “We should really decide on a course of action,” she sighed, searching for something, anything, to bring the focus of the group back to the issue at hand. Everyone agreed that the Temple City should be sought in the morning, but that in the meantime, a good, hearty snorfest was much needed by all. Rhys would be rejoining the group along with the queen, but Amopholes would once again stay behind.
“But only if the Plague Guard stays with you!” Dan insisted.
“That is the queen’s decision,” Amopholes stated, “I’d be surprised if she wanted no other protection.”
“Then you’d be surprised,” the queen piped in, “While the Plague Guard is trained, this group is proven. I will go with them, and this regimen of guards will stay with you.”
The Intrepid Six, Jane in particular, was honored by her words of confidence. Placing his newly whittled creation into his pack, Mal spoke aloud, “What is this… fuzziness inside? It’s weird.”
“It’s exactly that,” explained Dan, “it’s the Warm Fuzzies.”
“What?” Mal was genuinely confused.
“It’s like getting drunk, but without the alcohol. Or spittoon.”
“Oh,” he said with what seemed like earnest understanding.
Since everyone seemed to be on a good and friendly note, Jane the Ever Inquisitive decided that this would be a great time to ask a question that had apparently been bouncing around the interior of her skull for some time.
“So, Kryss. What’s up with, you know…the weird reaction you’ve had to some of this?”
Kryss’ faint friendliness was abruptly returned to shadiness, “I will tell you my secrets when
you tell me yours.”
In what was likely not the rogue’s intention with said statement, Dan’s eyes brightened and a large smile spreading across her cheeks. “Yeah! Let’s do that!” she said with a clap and a hop, “I mean, we’re fighting and maybe even dying together, and I don’t even know any of your last names!”
“Or first names,” quipped Sora with a nod in Sprinkle’s direction, “in the case of the mage here.”
The queen now buried her face fully into her hands. “Oh gods,” she groaned, “this is going to be a long trip.”
Amopholes, laughing aloud, calmed himself and then spoke, “Before you go, I have some gifts for you.”
With a speed that was audible, the rogue and bard snapped their heads in his direction. Kryss leaned in, obviously intrigued, and Dan’s eyes threatened to fall out of her skull with delighted suspense.
“I have three rings,” he said, “If you are able to fully concentrate your mind for a period of time—” Dan’s shoulders fell with disappointment and murmured curse, “—you will be able to communicate with the bearers of the other rings.”
“Mof should keep one!” Dan said with a raised hand, as if giving vote.
“And I should keep one,” said Kryss.
“No offence, but no way in hell,” the angel spoke. “Her Majesty should take one, and I feel most comfortable giving the third to the cleric.” He placed a ring on his own hand, handed another to Found Queen Tishra, and the other to Sora. “Rest well at the inn tonight, and preparations for your travel will be made in the morning.”
Bidding adieu to the celestial, the group traversed the quick walk into town and into The Blue Lagoon. Inside, a fairly old and rotund Most Definitely a Barkeep perked up, unused to customers so late into the night—or in this case, so early into the morning. As his eyes fell from person to person, revealing a full party of eight individuals, the barkeep could not hide his greedy excitement at the financial prospects.
“Good evening! Come in, come in!” he said, signaling them closer to the counter. “How can I help you fine folks?”
Rhys stepped forward, procured from his pocket a small identification card, and slid it across the bar to him. The Most Definitely a Barkeep furrowed his brow, picked up the card, and let out a vocal groan of disappointment. “Alright,” he said with the enthusiasm of an admonished three-toed sloth, “no charge for persons on official state business.” He stood, preparing to show them to their rooms, when a small hand slapped three gold coins onto the counter. Hearing the sound of money, particularly gold-minted money, the barkeep stopped abruptly and turned around. A hat hovered just above the level of the counter, revealing two big eyes framed in curly auburn hair. He leaned over, and saw the bard smiling up at him. “I was hoping for some nicer rooms,” she said.
The Most Definitely a Barkeep smiled very wide, and moved with an excitement that seemed impossible for his age and girth. “Right this way! Right this way!” he said as he waved the group down a different hall and up a flight of stairs, “These are our finest rooms! The finest! Just right for important officials on important official business!” He opened two adjacent doors revealing two adjacent rooms.
The rooms were spacious, well kept, and inviting. There were six beds in each, with enough room for a seating area in the center. They were nothing compared to the palatial estates she’d slept in, but nor were they the dank, smelly hay lofts she’d also experienced. “What are the breakfast accommodations?” she asked.
“What would you like?” Most Definitely a Barkeep asked, trying hard to simulate customer service skills.
“Pancakes!” Dan declared with enthusiasm.
“I have no idea what those are,” he said, “but I will find someone who does and make them for you!” Too excited about his gold waiting downstairs to deal with the actual customers any longer, he asked (more stated) if the rooms were acceptable, then hobbled down the hall and down the stairs without waiting for reply.
Claiming the room on the right for the women of the group, and specifically the bed closest to the window as her own, Dan jumped onto it and sprawled out. The two elves made it known that they would be meditating in the common room downstairs, leaving Rhys with the entire room. As the rest of the group filed in and set about preparing for the night, Kryss slipped out and back into the hallway. She reached the stairs, her intent unspecified but not wholly unpredictable, and began to descend. (Un)Fortunately, at the fourth step down she crashed face first into a solid object. She stepped back, unsure what she had collided with, for there was nothing she could see that could possibly reasonably hinder her descent. She reached a hand out and felt it—an invisible barrier, as solid as any brick-and-mortar wall she’d ever encountered. Baffled, she stood for a few moments, trying to discern the meaning of it all. As she did so, a disheveled and obviously drunk man stumbled into the hall below, and began to ascend the steps in the predictably unpredictable manner of a stumbling drunk. While it took more time and effort than most, the drunken man made it successfully up the stairs, past the half-elf, and down the hall to his own room (minus a few copper, courtesy of Kryss’ special knack for monetary osmosis) without ever encountering any invisible walls. Deciding this was not a natural phenomenon, Kryss turned and re-entered the room.
Sora and Jane slept soundly, Found Queen Tishra sat staring out the window into the night sky, and Dan lay wide awake upon the mattress, doing her utmost to wait patiently for the Sand Man, which, to the untrained eye, looked a lot like a one-sided pillow fight. The two still-awake adventurers looked at Kryss, who then explained that, evidenced by a magical forcefield at the stairs preventing her from leaving, that they had all fallen into a devious trap.
“Ah,” the queen said with a smirk, “Amopholes said that might come in handy.” Kryss gave a cold stare. “Tell me Kryss,” the queen continued, “have you ever heard the tale of The Scorpion and The Turtle?”
“Oh! I have!” Dan sat up quickly, raising and waving her hand as if to be called upon. “I’ve heard it!”
“You are a part of this group,” the queen continued, ignoring the bard, “but we all have a tendency to act in our nature. The mage is cantankerous, the Drow prefers the darkness. Dan,” she looked to the bard now, “you are very enthusiastic, and Kryss…” she paused for a moment, “you steal shit.”
A moment passed between the two women, Kryss’ cold stare never warming.
“You know why that wall is there, rogue,” she continued, “and I will advise you, that if I find your hands in my belongings, you will be missing those hands.”
Dan had begun rummaging through her pockets, and procured another gold coin. She held it out to the rogue with earnest sympathy, “Here you go!”
Kryss looked to her now, the coldness seeming less cold. “Not necessary, but thank you.” Kryss then turned, and once again exited the room. She returned to the stairs, sat on the floor, and prepared to hunker down for the night and prey upon other passing drunkards. But her plan was short lived, for not but fifteen minutes later, she found herself being lifted and carried by the queen. She carried her back into the room, placed the coldly stoic half-elf upon an empty bed, and then retrieved a length of rope from her pack.
“I don’t know what your intention is,” Kryss stated flatly, “but I’d be careful if I were you.”
Deciding that caution probably was the best course of action, the queen promptly coldcocked her on the side of her head, rendering her completely and thoroughly comatose. She then securely bound the rogue’s wrists and ankles, and returned to her perch at the window.
Morning finally dawned without further incident, and the queen was the first to wake. She approached the soundly sleeping rogue and shook her awake.
“On your best behavior, or we will find someone else to deal with the prophecy.”
With a scowl the rogue muttered, “I’d like to see you try.”
Refusing to validate the statement with a response, the queen simply untied the rogue and set about rousing the rest of the Magnificent Eight.
As they reconvened downstairs, they were greeted by a slightly younger, yet more rotund man, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Most Definitely a Barkeep from the night before. “Good morning,” he stated as he watched them file out from the corridor. “I have no idea what these are, but I was told these are for you,” he said as Dan passed by, handing her a plate stacked high (for a Halfling) with pancakes. “And here is this thing,” he continued, handing her a small glass jar of amber goo, “called ‘sai-ruhp’.”
Dan quickly sat and gleefully dumped the entirety of the syrup onto her pancakes. As she consumed them with the unabashed elation of a, well, Halfling, while eating, well, pancakes, the rest of the group ordered and were served their breakfasts and beverages. When their morning meal was complete, they gathered their belongings and trekked the short distance to the city gates. Awaiting them was Colonel Lionel and a handful of Plague Guard, as well as two small, covered wagons, each drawn by two horses with a driver.
“We have secured these for your travels,” he explained, “I hope they serve you well.” Rather than salute, the queen reached out, pulled the colonel forward and hugged him with a word of thanks.
“No hard feelings?” asked the rather sticky bard as she tossed her pack into the wagon.
“No hard feelings, Dan,” Colonel Lionel replied.
Deciding that all but the essentials should be carried in one wagon while they rode together in the other, the Magnificent Eight officially started their journey west, back toward the Temple City of Blesshu. According to the queen, they were at least four days’ travel from the city by wagon, well over a week by foot. As the heroes settled in and the wagons lurched forward, a sense of anticipation and purpose filled the atmosphere. A few hours passed in silence, the queen spending the majority of her time staring out the wagon’s rear and into the sky.
“We will be traveling together for quite a while,” the queen broke the silence, pulling her attentions back into the interior of the wagon. “I suppose proper introductions are in order. I am Queen Tishra. There was once a time in Rondalon when the barbarian tribes were amicable, and trade was frequent. That was when I met Rowan, and we fell in love. We married quickly and I have been the Queen since, and the rest of my story you know from there. Now, I would like to know you who are.” She looked around at the seven faces surrounding her.
“I do too!” Dan said eagerly, never one to miss out on story telling.
“Why don’t you go first then,” the queen responded, “we’ve heard a bit about you, Dan. Why are you here?”
Considering the level of anonymity she’d experienced since coming to Rondalon, Dan brightened tremendously at the queen’s words. “You’ve heard of me?!” she asked excitedly.
“We are not ignorant of bards,” she replied.
Standing up, removing her hat, and bowing in the courtly manner, she announced, “I am Dandelion Sandleford, Queen of Minstrels and Minstrel of Queens.” She replaced her hat upon her head.
“Queen of Minstrels?” the queen asked.
“Yes!” Dan said with a proud smile.
“Is that a figure of speech?”
“Yes,” Dan said with a drop of her shoulders, “but I have played for many a queen before!”
“I’m not sure the men at the brothel count,” the mage asserted.
Dan, visibly stunned and then visibly angry, was preparing the cleverest, wittiest, cuttingest retort, but was quickly redirected by the queen.
“But Dan, why are you here on Rondalon?”
Being a cultured and refined bard, Dan knew never to let a monarch’s question hang, so she turned back to the queen and responded, “Short story? There was a ship sailing here.”
“Well yes, I presumed that’s how you all are here,” the queen specified, “but who are you?”
Having never actually been asked that question before, Dan was slightly taken aback. “Well, I’m a Halfling born to a Halfling family. I didn’t feel at home anymore, so I took to the road. I had a knack for songs, so barding fell in my lap. Literally.”
“Eh?” uttered Jane the Ever Inquisitive.
“My lute literally fell in my lap. That’s how I found it.”
“You found it?” the queen asked.
“Yes,” Dan confirmed. “You know what? Sora,” she turned to the cleric, “does this mean anything to you?” She handed her lute to the Dragonborn.
Sora, somewhat startled by the question, took the lute from the diminutive bard’s hands and began to look it over. She saw a familiar symbol upon the back and detected a faint, whispering essence about it.
“There is something special about this lute,” she replied sagely as she handed it back, “you should treasure it and take great care of it.”
“I already do!” Dan said cheerfully.
“May I see it?” the queen asked. Without hesitation, Dan thrust her lute at her. The queen also turned it about, looked it over, gave a slight “hm,” and handed it back. “So you’ve been traveling ever since?”
“Spent more years on the road than not, Your Majesty.”
“So it is. And what of you, warrior? What brings you here?”
“Nothing nearly so interesting,” she said plainly, “I was chasing a bounty, but it got away.”
“So you are a mercenary?” asked the queen.
“No,” Jane corrected, slightly ruffled, “bounty hunter.”
“Big difference,” nodded the bard.
“Fair enough, I can respect that,” the queen replied.
“And as he eluded me,” Jane continued, “I sought something else to do, and these fine people caught my affections.”
“And Rhys,” the queen turned to him, “who are you?”
The farmer-turned-warrior startled slightly as his name, then nervously looked the queen in the eye. “I am actually from Grindalon. I was one of the refugees that fled with Kat, but decided to take up arms with this group. I’ve been with them since.”
“How unexpected,” said the queen, “this must be strange for you?”
He nodded humbly. “Yes, it is. I never would have thought I would be in the queen’s guard.”
“You certainly appear to have a knack for it,” Jane said. Rhys sat a little taller after that.
“And you Drow? What brought you to the surface?”
Mal looked at the queen, his discomfort audible in his voice. “I, uh, made the mistake of making friends with a Duergar, who is crazy as hell. He’s a rune caster who ended up trying to do favors for me, and it got me in some…trouble. He’s still down there, and if I ever go back, I’m in a lot of trouble.”
“I am impressed. I mean no offense, but in my limited experience with the Drow, they tend to be so stubborn they’d rather die than seek an alternative to their usual ways. You seem to be demonstrating a better judgment.”
“Well, I tried the stubborn bit for a while. Till he went on a quest for The Black Mushroom.”
“The Black Mushroom?” the entire group asked in unison.
“Yes, he believes there is a deity named The Black Mushroom that he must find. Unfortunately, this led him to a worse than usual part of the Underdark, which led to…as I said, trouble.”
“Would that have anything to do with the events here on the surface?” asked the queen.
“What? Oh no, he’s insane but not capable of anything like that. You’re lucky.”
The queen gave a cold stare, and an awkward silence once again began to prey upon the group. Confused of his misstep, the Drow threw glances to and fro to his companions. With a gasp he realized his transgression, and immediately launched into damage control.
“What? Wait, what, no! I didn’t mean it like that! I just—I, ARG! Surfacers! You’re communication is so bizarre! I just, I—” realizing there was no way to skim this over, he slumped his shoulders and said, “I am sincerely sorry for your loss, your Majesty.”
Hoping to help him recover from his social disgrace, Dan pointed to the necklace which she so often saw him fondling. “Is that what this is about?”
“Eh? Oh yeah. He’s kind of…in it.”
“There’s a deity in your necklace?” asked the queen.
“No, the Duergar. The one who seeks the God of All Mushrooms.”
“Sometimes. I try to ignore him.”
“What’s he doing in there?” asked Jane.
“I can’t pretend to understand him.” At this, Mal took a bit of wood from his pack once again and began to whittle.
“And Sora,” the queen now turned her attention to the cleric, “what of you?”
“Melora sent me here,” she began, “While I was raised by warriors, that was not the life I wanted. Obviously I had picked up some martial skills, but it was not my path. A wandering priest came through our town, and I liked what his path offered him,” she paused a moment, as if reflecting back on meaningful memories. “Then, one day,” she continued, “I stumbled upon a shrine of the goddess Melora, and it just…spoke to me.”
“Spoke to you?” asked the queen.
“In the metaphorical sense,” Sora specified. “So I sought out training in the ways of the cleric. I now feel that my goddess may have been worried about the life in this place, and directed me here.”
The queen nodded thoughtfully again, trying to read the strangely stoic yet empathetic Dragonborn.
“What of you…” the queen trailed off, “Sprinkles, I believe they call you? Please give me something to call you. I have a feeling that name didn’t come from you.”
“There is power in a name. Sprinkles will work fine,” the Eladrin spoke in his usual, haughty manner.
“If you insist.”
“I insist on nothing. You can call me whatever you choose.”
“He’s been like this the entire time,” Jane said to the queen, obviously annoyed.
“Yes, well, he’s not the first mage I’ve met,” she replied, then returned her gaze to the mage “Is there anything of you that you will share, so that I can begin to cultivate a trust in you?”
“No,” the mage said plainly. “If I tell you my story, you would trust me less.”
She raised an eyebrow, but left the matter to rest. She looked then at Kryss. “And how may I ask, did you end up here?”
The queen’s eyebrows both rose the time, “For whom?”
“For an unwarranted death,” she spoke bluntly, with an edge of aggression “for my father, by the hands of a demonic cult.”
“A demonic cult? Would that have anything to do with that…thing we saw?
“Doubtful,” she replied curtly.
“And the tattoos?”
“Brands. From when I was a part of that demonic cult.”
The queen, for a brief moment, seemed sympathetic toward the half-elf. “I see. I suppose I have a little more respect for you then.”
She then looked again at the seven faces around her, taking mental inventory of her newfound comrades-at-arms. With a nod of satisfaction, she addressed them as a whole, “As long as we are all friends now, we should simply focus on preparing for what lies ahead.” She turned around once more, returning her gaze out the back of the wagon and toward the sky, her hand unconsciously, longingly caressing a small, golden necklace.