Your Selected Campaign: (chronologically)

 Episode 1 of The Winter Guard - 2012-10-01 -  
 Prologue 
The following is the only legible detail found a piece of parchment found at a local inn.

It looks like it's from a personal journal of a kind.

It would soon be recognized by those who knew the man, to be written in the unique hand of local resident; Solomon Van Buren.
Reconnaissance nearly complete
After last night's conversation with Lady Ally, I'm now sure the item is in the house exactly as thought
One last pass tonight to make sure the staff keeps to their schedules
Target still tomorrow night before Solomon returns from trip. Still not sure how many people know he's been gone, but my sources are unquestionable
Back balcony is best; easy access and no lighting
Remember tear-away camo clothes just in case
Confirm horse packed and ready before going​
That same night, you find his journal open. So odd, you think to yourself, he's so protective of this. Not able to contain your curiosity, you cautiously position yourself so the waning firelight illuminates the page. In the flickering light you note the elegant handwriting, and the words spring forth:

"... and so I will make this page my confessor, as no one else now seems fit. Even those around me still steal cautious glances and are careful not to touch me; as though I'm contagious. So be it. This is to be my curse, it seems.

I think back on that night now, so recent and yet so far away. So much has changed it seems like this has happened to someone else, that which even my heritage cannot hope to hide. So trivial did my pursuit seem; another treasure for the pile, just one more trinket to add to the coffers, and one more story to hopefully hear echoed for a time. Ego; nothing more.

... but she changed all that.

I thought it prudent to take his form; I had planned and practiced a number of times for just such a reason. But when she saw me, I could tell that something was different. Her venom was palpable in the hall of that huge house. I didn't recognize her words, I didn't smell the components, I didn't even feel the magic until it was too late.

Actually, I remember feeling nothing at all when I awoke, the flames and smoke bearing down on me. I should have been incapacitated; unable to breathe from the billowing clouds of smoke rolling through the house, but they merely confused me. The flames were real enough however, and I remember the thought that I would burst into flame right there, laying on the ground.

If only then I knew that my escape was due to my new nature; I might have perished instead. The horror I have now come to accept might have given me enough pause to consider welcoming the flames; to end it. But no sooner did I have the instinctual thought to flee, I found myself standing on the grass outside below the balcony I had used to gain entry; the darkness held back by the inferno which had almost engulfled me.

Then I heard the screams. I still hear them now; horrible and agonizing. I knew immediately it wasn't her screams, but those of Solomon's wife and child. I knew they were going to be home that night; the plan was to be in and out without a whisper. But how things had gone awry...

My mind felt like it was breaking. Maybe it was the magic still poisoning me, maybe I was still a man at the time.

My kind was never meant to be a vessel for this evil!

Whatever the cause; I remember nothing more of that night. My next memory was the awful truth searing my flesh as if in the heart of a fire, and these men finding me, all of them covered in soot head to toe in their frantic search for survivors. I've already penned those first days so I will not recount them again here.

What continues to surprise me is that despite my curse, despite my true nature, these three remain steadfast. Truly, I will take this as a sign that this evil has not rightfully been brought upon me, and I will be rid of this. Had they not found me disoriented, reeling and half-mad with confusion, I surely might have perished on that first day.

I care not whether these men were initially motivated by the guilt of not warning Solomon of depth the witch's madness. A spurned lover can say many things, but this one's power and poison were both dreadful. Perhaps it is the horrorible memory of the innocents who perished that night that spurs them to act? Or instead it is simply that they pity me; a wretch in the wrong place at the wrong time, and in the wrong guise!

So much has come to light now, I am no longer certain of their real motivations. Even I, in my preparations for that night, did not know any of what we have since learned. It seems Solomon has many secrets, and the hunt for him now serves the four of us.

Who is Solomon truly?

Where was he the night the witch came looking for him?
Why has he not returned to bury the wife and child he supposedly loved?

At our last stop, we picked up his trail again and it leads now to Winterhaven; a town rife with rumour and legend.

We will arrive tomorrow, and if it our fortune to find this man; there will be much to answer for. If I thought prayer useful, I would pray for Solomon this night.

He will need it tomorrow...

A log in the fire cracks and breaks, waking you from your focus on the book. Startled, you gaze down. He sleeps still. Backing slowly away to the other side of the fire, you settle yourself for the few hours before you take your turn at the watch.

He's right. Solomon will need it.
 Episode 10 of The Winter Guard - 2012-10-30 -  
 The Vampire Mind 
Kane sighed again, glancing down both ends of the hallway. The inn had an eerie sense of calm to it now that the drunkards had been kicked out or dragged home by more than one furious spouse on this night. Kane chuckled to himself

Never find me tied down like that... many more interesting distractions out there...

From the hallways, Kane could see the remaining regulars milling about, most at the end of their last mug and Kane could see through the dark hallway into the lantern-lit common area that even the dwarf smith Coal's eyes were at half-mast. Kane could hear snippets of conversation drift in over ale-tainted wafts of warm air and it did nothing for his stomach this night. Kane held the small, intricately carved box in his hands, and he both admired and resented it; this trinket, now like the other was a reminder that his life had forever changed. Wrongly, none could argue but changed nonetheless. A bitter taste rose at the back of his throat but he swallowed hard and put it out of his mind. With his companions resting deservedly in the rooms he watched over, Kane could not help but feel a sense of guilt as he thought back on the day's events.

These men help others for no other reason other than they think it's right. I'm a good guy 'n everything, but it seems like they're almost looking for trouble; I've spent my life avoiding it... part of the job. Heh; good one Kane; look where that's gotten you. Still; it felt pretty great to help with those kobolds; maybe I could get used to this...



Kane examined again the small, intricately carved box in his hands. Kane's had appraised many things in his day; and he was certain this was of exceptional craftsmanship. It was dark like mahogany but with a rich grain through it, almost black. The latches and hinges were steel for certain; and the carving allowed them inset in the edge itself; allowing for a seamless fit. Not much larger than a tinderbox; it fit snugly in one of Kane's inside pockets, but Kane opened it now with a sombre gaze. Staring blankly at its new contents, Kane's brow furrowed and he snapped it closed and secured it away in the folds of his clothes.

With a heavy sigh, Kane turned his attention again to this bits of conversation trailing in from the common room. Most people were leaving now he could tell, and he saw the elven maiden Delfina helping and older woman her garments. "There you go," she said in her melodic voice, ".. it's getting cold out there." Turning now so that her face could be seen from the waning firelight, Delphina threw a thick shawl around her own shoulders, set to leave herself.

Turning towards Kane and seeing him perched on the stool in the hallway, she called out, "Good night, tenna' ento lye omenta."

Kane smiled and called back to her, "Good night to you, we'll return shortly, I'm sure."

Delphina smiled broadly at Kane from the common room. With a very slight bow, she responded again, "Amin of many talents to be sure, mellonamin."

Kane stood now, flattered by her term of endearment and responded quickly, "Saesa omentien lle, rest well." Forgetting himself for a moment, Kane cocked his head to one side, staring wide-eyed at nothing at all.

What the hell?! He thought to himself.

From the common room, Kane heard Thair the smithy trudge over to grab his cloak from the wall. Addressing Delphina, he grumbled, "Aye lassie let old this 'ole feller lend you a sturdy shoulder to lead you home; 'tis not a night to be walkin' by one's lonesome."

"How kind of you, Thair." Delphina responded, placing her hand gently on his outstretched elbow. "I was just having a very pleasant exchange with my new friend here. You know not many people speak elven around here as you might think." Disappearing around the corner with her escort, Kane was still scrambling to put the pieces together.

Hearing the tavern door open, Kane heard Coalstriker's last comment in an ale-soaked voice just as the door swung closed behind them, "Vorum dwarkar geddum ech mosgrim."

Your ancestors probably would mind if I spoke dwarven... Kane understood! He understood Delphina, he understood Thair. He even spoke back to Delphina. Feeling a grief welling up inside of him, Kane slumped down against the wall on the stool again. He was not who he once was. Never again, perhaps. Touching again the small box within his jacket, Kane slipped one step further into acceptance. Minutes passed. Long, silent, awful minutes. No sounds, just the whirlwind of thoughts racing through Kane's head.

Curse this vampire mind! What's next!?

Another moment passed.

On the other hand... this does open up some interesting possibilities...

... Kane smiled in the darkness.
 Episode 16 of The Winter Guard - 2012-11-10 -  
 This Humbled Servant 
They emerged from the depths of the keep after having closed the portal to the Shadowfell...

The first thing Garrick noticed was the sun, it shined so bright...much more so than any of the days preceding...

The air was sweeter, fresher and Garrick breathed it in...the land seemed alive... And so am I thought Garrick.

As they marched towards Winterhaven, they did not speak much... they walked slightly apart from each other and they all seemed lost in their own thoughts...

Thanks to my friends, Isak and Odus, and to Kane as well...who despite his dark nature seems to be good at heart. They were able to finish off the battle and close the shadowfell... they are the true heroes, not I. Their kinds words do mean a lot and are very much appreciated... it makes me feel like I belong.

My father would never have been so kind if I had failed him, Garrick thought sadly.

I have to do better, for them... for those we strive to defend! For the Eladrin Guardians who trained me... and for Holy Bahamut, who saw fit to return me to life.

I have worshipped Kord since I was very young... but it has never felt right. It was more my parents doing... they fit his his mantra very well... strength, battle prowess...

The mark I was born with was not his... with that thought, Garrick pulled at the collar of his shirt and peered at the tattoo outlined birthmark in the shape of a shield that adorned his right chest. It had taken on a metallic sheen since his 'ressurection'.

Perhaps I was born to Bahamut... god of justice, protection, honor... The eladrin told me I had a guardians heart, that I was born to protect those who could not protect themselves... it was the reason they accepted to train me as a swordmage.

Garrick laughed at himself... look at me thinking myself greater than I am.

But still... I have always felt a presence guiding me, I had always assumed it to be Kord. Yet worshipping him all these years... felt... empty...

Has that presence always been Bahamut? It seems to be so... I have never felt so comforted by a god since now. The prayers I uttered within his temple and those prior to the fight with Kalarel seemed right. Could it be that I have found a new path? Garrick already new the answer.

It seems I have two prayers to give:

"Holy Kord... I thank you for all the goodness you have brought me in my life. I thank you for taking care of my family and I hope you will continue to do so. I hope you will see it in your heart to forgive me but I can no longer be your servant. You have probably known this for quite some time. It is maybe you who have helped me come to this realization. Thank you Kord, Lord of Strength and Battle!"

It's not an easy thing to do, he thought to himself but it is the right thing to do... I truly believe that.

Garrick prepared to himself for another prayer. Holding his hand over his chest, above the tattoo outlined birthmark, with new found resolve he began: "Holy Bahamut, Lord of justice, protection and honor, I hope you will accept this humbled servant into your heart. I thank you for deeming me worthy to return to the land of the living.

I have felt your presence guiding me in a way no other has. Your mark is part of me and I bear it proudly!

I am sorry to not have come to this realization sooner but...

From this day forth, I pledge my service to you. To hold honor and justice above all else, to oppose evil in all it's forms so long as I draw breath and to protect those who cannot protect themselves!"

Garrick smiled. It was the first time he felt he had a purpose.

He looked up and the gates of Winterhaven were off in the distance... more adventures surely await, he thought to himself. He looked and his friends, and smiled again... and no better company to have then those that surround me now, perhaps I truly do belong.

I must do better... I WILL do better.
 Episode 19 of The Winter Guard - 2012-11-24 -  
 Where Ones Life Leads 
The Winter Guard had returned to the path leading to Thunderspire Mountain after having ended the threat of the Orcs. The merchant family's bodies remained strewn along the side of the road - unfortunate victims of a bigger plot. Odus and Kane were busy preparing a funeral pyre for the bodies while Isak and Garrick gathered the bodies and prepared them.

"You can't save everyone." The thought echoed in Garrick's mind as he stared at the battered and bloodied bodies of the man, woman and their child.

Suddenly, his mind flashed and he was somewhere else.

He was tired, disoriented... injured. He looked around quickly to determine his surroundings... he was in a forest... on a path... dead bodies were all around him and there was fighting going on. He was standing next to a wagon, part of a caravan. The horses pulling the wagons were long since gone... the driver sat in the seat, riddled with arrows.

Then came a thought... the family! His eyes darted around searching for the carriage... he spotted it not too far away. He ran towards it, the door was already open... he peered inside. Tears welled in his eyes as he saw the family of elves... father, mother and their daughter... all dead... their throats slit. But where was the little girl... she couldn't have been more than ten... where was she? He scanned the area... THERE! He saw her laying by the side of a tree, an arrow piercing her left shoulder.

As he moved toward her, one of the attackers moved to block his path, "Still alive, eh? Not for too much longer!" The human raised his blade and rushed to attack Garrick. He instinctively spun around the attacker dodging the clumsy swipe and drawing his blade in one fluid motion. He then impaled his enemy with a backhand thrust of his sword.

He continued to the young girl. He kneeled beside her, "good, she's still breathing..." he muttered to himself. She had already lost a lot of blood, she was barely conscious. I need to get her out of here.

Two men came running up to him. He recognized them, they were mercenaries like he was although they had been doing this MUCH longer than him. He met both Verdan and Graydon a few days ago when he joined up with Toran's group of mercenaries. "We're all that's left! We need to get moving!" Graydon shouted.

"Where's Toran?" Garrick questioned.

"Dead... he bought us some time to get the cargo out of here... we need to move!" Verdan answered.

"What about the girl? We can't leave her, the family is already dead!" Garrick asked.

"Leave her! She's almost dead. Besides, keeping her alive wasn't part of the deal. We're getting paid to make sure this cargo makes it to its destination! We don't have much time" Graydon shouted back.

The response angered Garrick, "NO! I will not leave her while she still breathes." he retorted.

They both looked at him in disgust and ran off towards the wagon carrying the cargo and began preparing it to leave. Garrick turned his attention back to the young girl. He gently shook her attempting to rouse her and keep her from falling unconscious. "Please, wake up. You need to stay up. Jenneleth!" her eyes opened at the sound of her name, "Please young one, you need to stay up" She stared up at him quizzically, then pain shot through her and she began to grimace. She started mumbling in elven. Garrick swore under his breath...she doesn't understand me!

The sound of metal on metal rang out again. Garrick turned and saw that Verdan and Graydon had been descended upon by at least a dozen men. They were defending the cargo and the enemy was concentrating on them. Garrick knew they had precious little time to make their escape. It was obvious the young girl could not walk. He tried to pick her up gently but as he lifted her, she screamed out in pain drawing attention to them.

"Get those two! Kill them, we're not to leave anyone alive!" the leader shouted as he ran Verdan through with his blade. Graydon was still up but it was only a matter of time before he too would fall.

Garrick ran off through the woods with the young girl in his arms. He could hear the men following them. They could not escape, the attackers were gaining on them. He would need to stop and fight. Garrick spotted a clearing off in the distance and made his way towards it... that should give me enough room to manoeuvre and at least have a chance.

He entered the clearing and lay Jenneleth behind a fallen tree trunk on the far side, hiding her from those pursuing them. "I know you don't understand me but don't worry, they will not touch you, I will keep you safe. Please, just stay awake" Garrick smiled at her, holding her hand. She stared back up at him and squeezed his hand in response. He heard them approach, he stood up, drew his blade and cleared his mind...preparing for the battle to come.

His mind was in a state of perfect calm, he could hear everything around him... the insects buzzing... the wind whistling throught the leaves... the oncoming footsteps as the men approached. His blade felt light and well balanced in his hand, more like an extension of his arm than a mere weapon. He closed his eyes and took in a deep breath as his mind raced through the many swordforms he had mastered. He positioned himslef in his favorite stance... The Kingfisher Watches the Sky... blade held reverse-grip horizontally across his chest. He exhaled and opened his eyes to see four of the attackers enter the clearing. They began to charge at him. Garrick moved forward to meet oncoming charge...he was calm, emotionless... let it begin...and the swordforms sprang to life...

The Lightning Strikes the Oak... he met the blade of the first enemy in a horizontal parry... steel rang out as the blades met with such force they almost felt as if they were bound... Garrick used the oncoming momentum to quickly step-around the attacker, spinning them around their locked blades and extending his leg to trip his adversary. It ended with a forceful downward stab through the chest as the enemy lay on his back. Garrick quickly pulled his blade loose a strided forward to meet the next...

The River Undercuts the Bank...Garrick dropped to one knee narrowly ducking under the slash meant to take off his head. He retaliated with a decisive horizontal slash of his own, disemboweling his attacker. He stood and continued forward as the next two approached...

The Leopard's Caress... he met the next strike in a parry, knocking the blade aside followed by a quick and sudden slash to his opponent's thigh sending him stumbling back. Garrick quickly turned...

Arc of the Moon... a quick, diagonal slash upwards sliced open the next attackers throat. Garrick spun back around extending his blade in a long arcing horizontal sweep decapitating the enemy he was previously wounded.

A sharp pain temporarily broke Garrick's concentration. He felt a blade slice across his back and out of his upper right arm. He felt warm blood running down his back and arm. His shirt was ripped open and soaked in blood. More of a hindrance, he thought and ripped it off as he turned to meet his new foe.

"Those were some of my best men and you cut them down like they were nothing... impressive" the leader commented. The leader carefully circled Garrick, examining him... sizing him up. His gaze became focused on the tattoos on Garrick's swordarm running from shoulder to wrist. His eyes widened in shock and a hint of fear but he quickly composed himself. "A blademaster... and so young... very impressive! It's too bad you'll be dead soon!" he sneered. With that, the leader began his onslaught.

All Garrick could do was parry and dodge. The leader's initial cut was deeper than he realized, he was losing blood fast. It must have also hit a nerve as he felt the strength in his swordarm waning. He could see the darkness at the edges of his vision...he knew he wouldn't last much longer.

"Have to end this now" he thought to himself. The final swordform came into his mind, he knew what had to be done.

Sacrifice - Sheathing the Sword... Garrick raised his blade high into the air feigning an overhand strike leaving his midsection open... baiting his opponent. The leader saw the opening and thrust his blade into Garrick... it pierced through left side. Garrick immediately grabbed the leader's swordhand and forced the sword deeper into him brining him closer to his target. The leader eyes widened in horror as he realized that he had trapped himself. He tried to pull free but Garrick held him firm.

Garrick brought his blade down to the the villain's throat and with a quick jerk of his arm, sliced it open. He saw the life quickly fade from the leader's eyes as they both dropped to their knees...

Everything was a blur of shadows... he scanned the area... he saw shadows of men coming out of the forest...

More... get up! You have to get up! he told himself. With that he slowly pulled the sword out from his side and stood up on shaky legs, clutching the gushing wound at his side. He could barely stand let alone hold the blade in front of him. One of the shadowy figures moved in closer and Garrick feebly swung at it but the figure moved out of the way with inhuman grace and caught his hand. The sword fell from Garrick's grasp as the last of his strength left him... he fell only to be caught and craddled to ground by the figure. The Darkness was almost complete.

"Be at ease. We are here to help. You and the girl are now safe and in our protection. Rest Guardian for you are among friends" the Eladrin's voice was soothing. Garrick felt comforted as all light left his vision.

"Garrick! Garrick!" Odus' voice snapped Garrick back to reality. He stared out in front of him at the burning funeral pyre. He could feel the heat and tears on his face.

"Sorry. Yes Odus, what is it?" Garrick responded morosely.

"Would you like to say a few words before we leave? Rao has already blessed them" Odus answered.

Garrick smiled at his friend and said quick prayer to Bahamut to bless the souls of the family and safely guide them on their journey to the heavens. "Let us be off to Thunderspire." he said.

As they mounted their horses and continued along the path, the thought echoed in his mind once again, "You can't save everyone"

"No, I can't save everyone... but I will never stop trying!" he answered his thoughts.
 Episode 21 of The Winter Guard - 2012-12-07 -  
 MUSIC: Our Travels Thus Far 


So here we go again, with my friends, it begins.
We're off to rescue delphina, and old man ilian.
To the seven pillar hall, a place we've never been.
As expected, on the way, we encounter suffering and sin.

Innocent blood spilled, so we go and avenge.
Innocent blood spilled, so we go and avenge.
My warm heart turns cold, to complete this mission.
For the murdered family, i bring death, the orc's life i do end.

Justice for those who are unable to defend.
We freed from the slavers, our new halfing friend.
As repayment, he say, come to the halfmoon inn.
So we did, got some brews, and a new safe haven.

To add to our blessings, we found solomon.
He informs our crew, he's on a path of vengeance.
He says he wants help, to bring the witch to an end.
He say there's a job, and asks for a hand to lend him.

We say, all isn't right, we need time to think, to clear our suspicions.
He agrees, and informs us, in three days, we'll see then.
Therefore, back to the plan, we must go do our thing.
That is, save our two friends, from their enslavement.

We gathered up equipment, and info we need within the inn.
We even made some friends, just ask smiley wink wink.
His new friend must've had visions felating, while masterbating, to bring his elation, later that evening.
But enough about that, smiley's my boy. boy, you know i'm just kidding.

Off with our guide, to the chamber of eyes, who's been worth every cent.
I must say, he saved our lives, on many occassions.
I gotta say it again, the man's worth every cent.
Without him, this journey would have been our end.

We're here now, without unfortunate events.
I thank you oh rao, i feel your presence.
Through actions, and blessings, that can only be sent,
From you, i know you watch from above, and all good are godsends, to help us achieve, in freeing our friends.

Looooooooord have mercy!
 Episode 37 of The Winter Guard - 2013-02-07 -  
 MUSIC: Soaring 


Sometimes we have to go thru things to understand what love is
about

And to see how strong our faith is, we need to be tested

Verse 1
I thought i had it all, but what did i know?
My world fell apart, where do i go?
I lost my job, good friends i did hurt
I lost my wife, my soul it felt burnt
I hit rock bottom, but i stayed the course
The Lord picked me up, and i mourned my loss
My wounds still hurt, the pain it ran deep
I had to trust in He to keep me on my feet
The Lord was by my side all nite and day
To help me back to see the way.
Patience He say, and all will be ok
When your heart is right, you will see the day
I hear your call, and God knows my needs
When the time comes, He will proceed
To answer my prayers, grant me much blessings
But only when i can handle them and learn my life lessons
Trying to find my way back home
In God i trust, and the path was shone
I had to open my eyes and walk thru the door
And open my heart for Christ to restore
Jesus is the way to life
Trust in He to make it right

Chorus
Here's a song i wrote, It ain't meant to be dope
I dont know about you, But to me it be the truth
Let go of what you know, and follow His lead
Your soul will be set free, trust in He and you'll see

Verse 2
So today i look back on my life
I see the pain, i see the strife
The way it was, what came to light
Things i took for granted,
And things i did right
All good that i do, is your glory not mine
I'll shine with your light until the end of my time
Lord thank you for your healing love
You gave new life, my spirit reborn

Chorus
Here's a song i wrote, It ain't meant to be dope
I dont know about you, But to me it be the truth
Let go of what you know, and follow His lead
Your soul will be set free, trust in He and you'll see

Verse 3
I move thru life with wisdom bestowed
I'll stumble at times but this i know
U'll always be there to help me up
And each day you bring is full of your love.
My love of my life will be my wife
To my families unity, and true friendships for life
I'm your soldier, i know you make all things right.
I'm your soldier, i know you make all things right.
 Episode 41 of The Winter Guard - 2013-02-12 -  
 Blinding Crimson 
Kane leaned heavily against the rock wall clutching his stomach in pain. It felt like a hole had been carved right through the middle of him. The keen sensation of the cold stone wall was sharper through his wet shirt; reminding him he was drenched head to foot...

... in blood.

Closing his eyes hard, Kane tried to think of something else than the thick, almost welcoming sensation of sinking into the vast pools behind him. He could hear his friends behind him shaking the gore from their clothes but he felt frozen; locked in place, fearful that if he moved, he would see again the sea of red.

Even with closed eyes, Kane's mind's eye would not turn away from the shimmering, slowly moving pool behind him.

Not what I thought, not at all...

Part of him had dreaded this moment; the opportunity to devolve into the cliche his curse promised; a ravenous, drooling, mindless fiend bent on satisfying its bloodthirst. Thankfully the cold, almost sour taste was not at all appealing... it sickened him. He as he feared it would be different. That it would waken something in him. The stitch in his side grew stronger as his thoughts remembered the bitter taste in his mouth.

Hearing Isak's voice behind him, Kane returned to the real world. Reaching down, he picked up his pack and started looking for his change of clothes. Good thing this stayed dry. Quickly ridding himself of the soiled clothes, Kane stuffed them within his pack, as if the deeper they sank the further from his memory they'd fade.

Noticing that the pain in his side was slowly easing up, Kane turned to his companions in the cold, dark hallway, "The bell... we must find the bell. Delphina and Eilian are depending on us."

Turning, Kane started back down the hallway into the darkness, his supernatural vision leading the way.
 Episode 43 of The Winter Guard - 2013-02-15 -  
 A Storm on the Horizon 
As the winter guard rested within the well of demons, Odus takes the opportunity to meditate and pray to Rao. "Lord, you bring my heart peace and calm within this place of chaos. Its been quite the journey since we've left home, and quite the path you have set before me. But I trust in you that this is your will and I will fulfill this in your name. There will be no reasoning with these demon lovers; only elimination in order to restore calm, peace and balance. May you continue to keep Delphina and Eilian safe. Many thanks oh mighty lord; steady our hearts for the next tasks to come."

Odus then thinks to himself, "the calm before the storm... I pity our foes for the storm we're about to bring... My boots are nasty... fuck! I cant wait to get some new ones... "

And again, Odus' thoughts turn to lyrics...

"We making it rain, we bringing the storm
Ur getting slain, it wont be humane
U better run, u done did it, Here we come.
We bringing the pain, u wish u never born
R u insane? We shit on ur remains
It ain't safe for u, ur thru, ur done, here we come

U taking our peeps, we making u weep
Ur gonna wish u didn't do what u did
Before we're done with u u'll be on your knees
Begging us oh please But it's too late for this

We're gonna crush u, i can't deny
Take it like a man don't u cry
U've been doing wrong for a long time
We're gonna make sure u take no more lives

U thinking ur slick, but u ain't the shit
U'll find out soon who really it is
We're looking forward to using are steal
To put an end to this horrible ordeal

For ur sake they better be safe
Spare ur lives? U gotta go, no debate
Nothing u can say to change our minds
Ur marked for death, we won't be denied

We'll attack swift with accuracy and precision
Multiple lacerations, fractures, insanguinations
We're sending u, to the after life
Say good bye, lights out nitey nite

Karma's a bitch, u'll soon find out
We'll be victorious, without a doubt
We've been sent to make things right
Ur all wrong ur not gonna survive

U coming with us, dead or alive
Jus kidding, ur dead, sorry i lied
Its gonna be sweet, ur face in defeat
Put u in the ground, rest in peace, r, i, p

We making it rain, we bringing the storm
Ur getting slain, it wont be humane
U better run, u done did it, Here we come.
We bringing the pain, u wish u never born
R u insane? We shit on ur remains
It ain't safe for u, ur thru, ur done, here we come

There's a storm on the horizon... And it's us"

As Odus sits calmly and quietly in meditation; a warm smile comes to his face... Here we come."
 Episode 44 of The Winter Guard - 2013-02-16 -  
 Decisions & Doubts 
As the imp vanished from sight leaving behind a threatening message to the Winter Guard, Garrick relaxed his muscles and stepped out of his battle stance. Aecris was in his hand, dirty with the blood of demons and the other filth that occupied this unholy temple..."I don't even remember drawing you from your sheath", Garrick thought to himself.

As things calmed, as calm as things can be in a temple dedicated to a demon lord, Garrick moved to the back of the room and slumped against the wall. He reached into his pack and pulled out an honing stone and some rags. Garrick began the process of cleaning off Aecris. His eyes looked up from time to time, looking around, accounting for his friends... making sure they were all ok. They were busy... with their equipment, their clothes... lost in their own thoughts Garrick supposed. Odus looked amused and was smiling to himself... probably composing an epic song, Garrick chuckled. Isak looked... impatient, his fingers dancing on the hilt of his blade, anxious to cleave into more foul demons... soon my friend. Kane still looked somewhat uncomfortable. Since their encounter in the demonic blood pools, Kane seemed uneasy... this place was having a very negative impact on him, we need to get him out of here... fast!

With that, Garrick's thoughts drifted to Elian and Delphina. "Have I doomed them?", he thought saddened.

I made the decision for us to rest knowing that time is limited. Perhaps Kane and Odus were right. Perhaps we should have continued to ensure the lives of those we swore to protect and return safely to Winterhaven. He once again eyed his companions, they were all worse for wear. Odus was battered, more so than Garrick had remembered ever seeing him. Kane, despite his bravado, wasn't fairing much better. Isak was probably in the best shape, a testament to his military training. No... Garrick scolded himself, I made the right decision. We would not have survived another grand battle, let alone multiple encounters... who knows what lies ahead. If we die because we are not prepared then the lives of those we seek to save are also forfeit. However, they could be in the next room, just beyond this next challenge... if they are sacrificed, if they die as a result of this delay... it's my fault. More blood on my hands. Doubt filled Garrick's mind.

Garrick whispered a prayer to Bahamut, "Lord, please grant Eilian and Delphina your protection. Keep them alive until we can get to them. Do not let me fail them. Please, Holy Bahamut, hear my prayers".

Am I truly fit to be the one who leads them... to be the one to make these decisions? Surely the others are more fit. Odus already speaks for us, his skills at diplomacy and with people far exceed my own. Isak's military and tactical training surely make him a better choice. They are both more confident than I am. Kane may be a bit too emotional, but even he... Garricks thought trailed off... am I truly worthy?

Garrick stared at his reflection in the now polished, gleaming blade of Aecris. His eyes were drawn to the hilt of the sword, formed into the head of a noble platinum dragon... Bahamut. As he stared into the eyes of the dragon... Garrick felt a comforting presence wash over him. A voice began... emanating from within the blade, echoing into Garrick's very being...

Your heart is pure...



YOU were chosen!

You ARE worthy!

Garrick was startled by a hand shaking his shoulder. He shook his head and looked up at Odus, smiling down at him. " You ok Garrick? You've been staring at your blade for hours... yes, it's spectacualrly clean and will cut just fine" Odus joked. Odus offered his hand to Garrick and pulled him to his feet with a friendly smile... just like he did when they played as children.

"Sorry, yes... I'm good. Just lost in thought and worried about Eilian and Delphina" Garrick answered.

"We all are" Odus assured him, "and now we're well rested and prepared to take this fight to their captors!"

Garrick sheathed his blade and grabbed his pack. "Are we all ready?" Garrick asked. He looked from Odus, to Isak, to Kane... they all nodded with a sense of purpose. Garrick smiled.

"Then let's end this!" Garrick stated with renewed confidence.
 Episode 47 of The Winter Guard - 2013-02-23 -  
 MUSIC: Failure 


To be so near, so close but yet so far...
We defeated the guardian at the end of the trials.
The task complete, the portcullis had been opened.
Lets go rescue delphina and elian of winter haven.

Maldrick must be with them
too, the heroes all figured.
No time to waste, lets move, their hearts filled with vigor.
Our friends possibly waiting beyond this hall and three doors.
With haste, and caution, we proceeded to see what was in store.

We were right, Maldrick, and our two friends, thank God they're
still alive.
He was in the midst of a dark ritual, and will use them to sacrifice.
He was not alone, he was well protected by his minions.
They out numbered us, but could not deter our hearts emotions.

We moved forth with the rescue, our friends in plain sight.
Knowing this is it. We must do this or die.
At first it was working, or at least that's how it seemed.
The tides turned against us however, as if a bad dream.

What did we know, it seemed like it was right, and we could not be
wronged.
It happened so fast, our powers wore thin, then isak went down.
I helped him back up, but he went down a second time.
Then Garrick soon followed, leaving
me and Kane next in line.

Out numbered by our foes, and our powers depleted, there was no
escape.
We were surrounded, but more importantly, the two from winter haven's
fate.
There would be no diplomacy here. Not with them.
And Delphina and Eilian's lives are
dependent,
On our success, nothing less. Lord, I did my best.

This is it oh lord, Kane and
myself had not much left.
I have but one regret, our failure to save the man and the elf.
I tried to make it to them as my final action,
as a symbol to show them they were never forgotten.

Then it happend, a blow I would never recover.
before all went black, before I was about to go under.
I felt ur presence my lord, giving reassurance and comfort.
As I lay on the ground, my eyes dimming quick, one final
thought...

I'm sorry maiden Delphina and good man Eilian, we failed u.
We were bested on the day we needed our best.
 Episode 52 of The Winter Guard - 2013-03-14 -  
 Idle Musings... 

Isak pulls out his knife to start whittling away.

I can't wait to leave this place. Thunderspire... never have I seen a place with so much corruption and so many profiting on the suffering of others. Well, that's not entirely true. Battlefields are strewn with the screams of the suffering for the profit of a lord.

And Solomon, how could he have done it? I knew he was reckless, always pushing the limits, but I thought it was greed. His family, how could he kill them? How could he kill her? I would have protected her from anything. I should have protected her from him... but could I have? Was it already too late then?


Gods I hate this place. What did we really accomplish here? Did we save Eilian and Delphina or are we returning two broken souls because we weren't good enough? And the witch, got to give credit to Solomon, did he ever play us for fools with that. I wonder how Kane will react ... he kept going thinking Solomon had the answer to the curse. Will he now give up searching for one?


How long is this going to take... it's just a big tooth!


One thing is for certain, it's good having Garrick and Odus here. I still don't know how Garrick did it ... chains just burst off my wrists; and how Odus can keep our spirits up in a demon-cursed cesspool with a few well-placed notes is uncanny.

But is it enough? Garrick's sword magic, Odus' bow and healing, Kane's cursed abilities, and my sword... is it enough? I mean Solomon is dealing with Vecna; will my sword be enough to avenge her?


Finally! Now where did I put that leather cord?

"What's taking Kane so long? We can't stay here forever", Isak asked no one in particular as he slipped the dragon tooth around his neck. I can't wait to leave this place, he thought not for the first time.
 Episode 53 of The Winter Guard - 2013-03-23 -  
 MUSIC: Orbital 


1st verse
I jus finished work and im feeling at ease
Its a hot summer day, but i can feel a breeze.
What to do now, since my time's now free?
Here's an idea, Imma hit me some trees.
Walking to the car i blaze up my spliff
Those i pass by can sniff up a whiff
Mmmm... The aromatics
If u don't like it, then get off my dick.
Pardon my french, vive le Quebec

Chorus
The chronic super sonic has me feeling bionic
Mental robotics, on the self perscriptive tip.
We're going for a ride inside our thoughts
You got none, its ok i got lots
Are u ready?
Lets go
Do u feel it yet? Me too, not yet.
Oh there it is... We're in orbit

2nd verse
Some people wanna do it to relieve the stress
Cuzz they haven't the time to handle their mess
Some people wanna do it cuzz they bored as fuck
So they get a dutch, get blunted and buzzed.
Some people wanna do it cuzz it makes things better
Like doing house chores, or movies at the theatre
Some people wanna do it cuzz it quiets their minds
They reflect on life, and helps them unwind
Some people wanna do it cuzz they chronic,
They been doing it so long they cant stop it.
Some people wanna do it cuzz it helps them let go
They can laugh, get creative, and relax, ya know
But most people do it cuzz its a communal thing
Pass it to the left, one love, naw mean
In the end, its fun, a good time to spend
Wether with a stranger, or with your best friends.

Chorus
The chronic super sonic has me feeling bionic
Mental robotics, on the self perscriptive tip.
We're going for a ride inside our thoughts
You got none, its ok i got lots
Are u ready?
Lets go
Do u feel it yet? Me too, not yet.
Oh there it is... We're in orbit

3rd verse
Get in the cockpit of my starship
Im gonna start up the ignition
Ready? We're about to get lifted
Here we go, we're headed into orbit.
Get in the cockpit of my starship
Im gonna start up the ignition
Ready? We're about to get lifted
Here we go, we're headed into orbit.
We're headed into orbit
Can u feel it? Ya me too
We're gonna ride this motherfucker out.
 Episode 56 of The Winter Guard - 2013-04-06 -  
 Tolerance 


"You must learn tolerance."

It was spoken softly, a tone that could barely be heard above the babble of the stream water as it poured over rocks. The rustle of the hares through the underbrush seemed like a scream compared to the volume with which Beckett spoke. Elderly, silent, and wise beyond anyone Mordekai had ever met. Which is why his words stung. It seemed cruel to have waited days to hear this answer.

"Nature is not tolerant." Mordekai, tried to counter. His mind spun. This was not at all what he expected. He assumed his place among The Verdant Brotherhood would be a sure thing. His heart was filled with anguish and pain.

"Does the wolf run in a pack or on it's own?" Beckett asked, again, his voice devoid of emotion and quiet. The old druid stared into the stream, his face expressionless. Mordekai wondered if he was avoiding eye contact.

"Does the bear?" Mordekai retorted.

"You are not a bear."

"Nor am I a wolf!"

"Are you sure?" Beckett spoke. Mordekai was trembling, but the druid before him remained calm. With a sigh, Beckett rose slowly to his feet. It can't end this way, the seeker thought to himself.

"What happens now?" Mordekai said, his voice shaking, willing this to be a mistake.

"Now you must leave," the old druid said, his face neither sad or angry. Was there regret in his eyes? Mordekai could not know. He felt as if the ground was falling away beneath him.

"Where?" he stammered, unable to think properly, "I don't know anyone out there. I... I've lived among the conclave, in the grove for most of my life!" This would mark the second time in his life he'd been abandoned.

"You will walk out of here thinking of yourself as a bear. Proud. Strong. Indomitable." Beckett spoke slowly, "When you realize you are not a bear, you will learn to be cunning like the wolf. But the wolf needs a pack. Go and find your pack. Run with them, and when you are ready, you will return to us, and perhaps be the greatest among us."

"I thought this was my pack!" Mordekai blurted, desperate, "I don't relate well with others. Please, I beg you, I can change. I can be what you need!" He didn't care anymore how desperate he sounded in that moment.

"You are what we need." Beckett said with a smile, "You just need to learn that for yourself." And with that, the old druid, who had been a father figure to Mordekai for the last twenty years, left him.

Tolerance. The word festered in Mordekai's mind, as he glanced back. It was looking at him again, the one the called Annis some times, and Kane other times. He tried not to shudder. Is this what they meant? Was this the tolerance he was supposed to acquire? He couldn't think of it as human. It's unnatural. It feasted on the life force of its companions. It's an abomination.

The sound of ripping drew the seeker's eyes up. Above him, his faithful hawk Kayle was perched on a branch, tearing at a mouse it had caught, it's beak red with gore.

Is this so different? It almost sounded like Beckett's voice in his head.

"It is different." Mordekai said, to no one, "The mouse does not submit to the hawk. It is the natural order of their relationship that brings them together, and the hawk must hunt the mouse to survive. Vampires are born of darkness."

Would you watch Kayle die if he could not feed himself, or would you feed him? Mordekai had no answer for that. Would I feed him my own flesh? The hawk screeched, and flew off suddenly. Mordekai realized that his new companions had closed on him.

He could hear the vampire approaching. I can't do this, Mordekai thought to himself. I just want to go home, came the thought he couldn't get out of his head, I don't belong here.
 Episode 58 of The Winter Guard - 2013-04-11 -  
 MUSIC: Here We Come 


We making it rain, we bringing the storm
Ur getting slain, it wont be humane
U better run, u done did it, Here we come.
We bringing the pain, u wish u never born
R u insane? We shit on ur remains
It ain't safe for u, ur thru, ur done, here we come

U taking our peeps, we making u weep
Ur gonna wish u didn't do what u did
Before we're done with u u'll be on your knees
Begging us oh please But it's too late for this

We're gonna crush u, i can't deny
Take it like a man don't u cry
U've been doing wrong for a long time
We're gonna make sure u take no more lives

U thinking ur slick, but u ain't the shit
U'll find out soon who really it is
We're looking forward to using are steal
To put an end to this horrible ordeal

For ur sake they better be safe
Spare ur lives? U gotta go, no debate
Nothing u can say to change our minds
Ur marked for death, we won't be denied

We'll attack swift with accuracy and precision
Multiple lacerations, fractures, insanguinations
We're sending u, to the after life
Say good bye, lights out nitey nite

Karma's a bitch, u'll soon find out
We'll be victorious, without a doubt
We've been sent to make things right
Ur all wrong ur not gonna survive

U coming with us, dead or alive
Jus kidding, ur dead, sorry i lied
Its gonna be sweet, ur face in defeat
Put u in the ground, rest in peace, r, i, p

We making it rain, we bringing the storm
Ur getting slain, it wont be humane
U better run, u done did it, Here we come.
We bringing the pain, u wish u never born
R u insane? We shit on ur remains
It ain't safe for u, ur thru, ur done, here we come

There's a storm on the horizon... And it's us
 Episode 72 of The Winter Guard - 2013-05-29 -  
 Platinum Revelation 
Garrick led the way as they returned to the temple of Bahamut to recuperate from the day's events. The battle with Maldrick Scarmaker was particularly heated and nearly cost them their lives. Finding the demonic gnoll here, within the ruins of Gardmore Abbey was surprising to say the least. The Winterguard had grown in power and confidence since their failure and managed to defeat the gnoll forces and drive off Maldrick Scarmaker... albeit just.

Garrick realized that his decision making was compromised during that fight. Anger shot through Garrick at the sight of the villain who had so easily defeated them not too long ago and he was eager at this second chance at putting an end to the evil of Maldrick Scarmaker. Not only to repay him for their embarrassing defeat but also for the torture and suffering he imposed upon the innocent Eilian and Delphina. But he realized his mistake. He was so blinded by thoughts of revenge that he neglected to properly survey the situation. Especially when Maldrick called in his reinforcements and the gnolls began to overwhelm the Winterguard... instead of calling for a tactical retreat... he pressed them forward.

Thankfully, Bahamut is watching over us... guiding us, protecting us!Garrick thought to himself. With His help... we managed to turn the tide. I thank you, my Lord... for protecting me and especially for protecting those at my side. By your will and grace, I continue to learn and grow. I have learned the lesson set before me. No longer will my duty to you and my duty to those around me be blinded by something so petty as revenge. I remain forever your humble servant. Garrick prayed as they entered Bahamut's temple.

Still, Garrick could not help but feel disappointed that Maldrick Scarmaker had managed to escape justice yet again. Frustration flashed across his face. Just then, he felt a comforting hand on his shoulder, "I know, my friend. We'll get him. He won't escape us for long but we have more important things at hand." Odus smiled at his friend, knowing his thoughts.

Garrick returned the smile, "Thanks Odus. I know. You always seem to know what we're thinking."

"You, anyway" Odus laughed, "I've known you practically my whole life, you aren't that complicated. Him on the other hand..." Odus directed his glance over towards the corner where Isak slumped himself up against the wall quietly lost in thought. With that, Odus shrugged his shoulder and walked off towards the altar to Rao.

Sir Oakley walked over to where Garrick was standing, in front of the main altar. �Before I head off for some much needed rest, I just wanted to thank you again for taking me along on the last outing. It was... exhilarating! Too long has it been since I stretched out my sword arm like that! A bit rusty but not too bad for an old man.� Oakley laughed.

Garrick could not help but smile back, �Nonsense, it was an honor to fight alongside a true knight of Bahamut. You fought well... allowed me to learn from you.�

�Ha, ha, ha... enough with the lies!� Sir Oakley chuckled back, �I know how I looked out there but thank you again for your kind words... you lift an old man�s spirits. Now, off I go to rest these aching bones.� With that, Oakley made his way to his room.

The sun was starting to set and darkness was beginning to take over the temple. Garrick made his way around the temple strategically lighting a few of the braziers to provide them with some light while not giving away their position to the orcs and other enemies throughout the abbey. After he had finished, Garrick began to realize just how tired he was. I could use a full night�s sleep he thought to himself a bit guiltily but first I need to see to the night�s watch.

As if acknowledging the need, Mordekai stepped out of the shadows and strode towards Garrick. �I can take first watch if you like. Kayle is out hunting anyway, so I�ll be up. Besides, it looks like you could use the rest...� he said.

�No need, I will take the night watch.� Isak interrupted.

�Are you sure?� both Garrick and Mordekai asked in unison. �I mean I don�t mind. Both you and Garrick haven�t rested all that much since we got here.� Mordekai continued.

�I am sure. I�m not tired. The watch is mine.� Isak stated forcefully.

Seeing the look on Isak�s face, Mordekai did not argue further. He simply shrugged his shoulders and returned to whatever it is he was doing. With that, Isak nodded at Garrick, turned and began to walk off.

Garrick was worried about Isak. With his domination at the hands of Havarr and Kane�s... �death�, he wasn�t sure what his friend was thinking. He slowly reached out and put a gentle hand on Isak�s shoulder, stopping him momentarily.

�Are you ok?� Garrick asked, concern touching his voice.

�I... I�ll be fine.� Isak responded. He turned his head back to face Garrick and gave him a knowing look. Garrick knew his friend well, he knew that look... it meant;just give me some time, some space and I will be good. Garrick nodded back at his friend and Isak forced a tiny smile before he continued to walk off.

Garrick made his way to the room they used for resting. He walked in quietly and saw that Oakley and Odus were already fast asleep. He made his way to one of the empty beds... took off his armor, lay down and closed his eyes. It wasn�t long before he drifted off to sleep.

Garrick could feel the warmth of the sun on his skin and the light piercing his eyelids. Ughhh, not morning already, he whined to himself. He opened his eyes reluctantly to stare up at a canopy of leaves, the rays of sunshine streaming though to illuminate the area. Garrick sat up and stared around with wide eyes... he was no longer in the temple.

Where am I? He wondered to himself. Garrick picked himself off the ground and continued to look around. He was surrounded by trees and thick brush. What am I doing in the middle of a forest? He asked as began to walk forward, feeling drawn in a northerly direction. As he began making his way through the forest, everything seemed strangely familiar. I know this place. I�ve been here before. He thought to himself. As he made his way further into lush, green forest, it finally came to him. He recognized it. This is where I trained with the Eladrin to become a swordmage!

Somewhat comforted by the fact that he knew where he was, he pressed on... moving faster. He kept moving, fondly remembering the days... months... years he spent running these woods, conditioning his body, training with blade and magic within its depths. He kept moving until he caught sight of a small clearing up ahead. As he approached, he saw someone sitting on a rock in the middle of the clearing, wearing robes of the richest blue. Small yellow birds were flying about, circling, diving and then soaring back up towards the sky. Strangely, they never strayed too far from the robed figure.

As Garrick got closer, he slowed his pace and became more cautious. It donned on him how quiet everything was, how still. The only noise that could be heard were the chirping of those yellow birds. Though he could feel a cool, refreshing breeze against his skin, nothing moved. One of the birds approached and as it did, he recognized it as a yellow canary. Strange, canaries aren�t typically seen in these woods, he thought to himself. The canary flew in front of his face chirping at him, seemingly questioning him. It then began to circle him a few times, studying him. Satisfied, the canary flew back towards the clearing to land on the hooded figure�s shoulder. The figure nodded in acknowledgement.

This has got to be a dream.

�Yes... and no� the man in the clearing called out, reading his thoughts. Startled, Garrick stopped in his tracks. �Please, come closer. You are very much safe here. Don�t force an old man to keep shouting at you!�

Garrick started walking again, approaching as requested. The man was old, maybe in his sixties or seventies. He had silvery white hair and a long beard which seemed to shine like metal in the sunlight. His rich robes were lined with silver and were adorned with sigils which also gleamed in the sun. The man had a kind, fatherly quality to his face. His eyes were of crystal blue that again reflected a metallic nature and held knowledge and wisdom of one much older. His steely gaze seemed to pierce through to Garrick�s very soul. Their eyes locked for a moment and Garrick realized he had seen the man before although not so regal as the appeared now.

�Ahhh good, you do recognize me.� The man said through a warm smile.

�Yes... yes, I do.� Garrick remembered, �I met you here, in these very woods, many years ago. An old man separated from his caravan, lost in the woods looking for the path. I helped...�

�Yes, you helped me back to the path and escorted me through the woods.� The old man interrupted. �You even waited with me until the caravan came back looking for me and made sure I was safely on my way before returning to your Eladrin friends.�

�Wait, how did you know about the Eladrin?� Garrick questioned.

The old man smiled, �My son, I have been watching you for quite a long time now. Guided your actions. Protected you. I have even breathed new life into you so that you may continue along your destined path.� He stood up and was taller than Garrick. His posture was straighter, his body stronger than a man of his age should be. �Look again, not only with your eyes but with your heart and mind. You will know my true name.�

Garrick stared back in disbelief. The man was practically glowing as the sun was upon him. The metallic shine emanating for the man�s hair, beard and clothing were not silver at all... no, it was platinum! Garrick then noticed the man�s shadow. It grew from the man�s feet into something surreal, bigger than logically possible. Where the shadow of man should have been cast, was the form of a dragon! Tears welled in Garrick�s eyes as he dropped to one knee.

�My Lord Bahamut!� Garrick said humbly, head bowed in reverence.

�I have and will always be with you but I thought it time we finally met... more formally.� The God of Justice, Protection and Honor answered.

Garrick slowly rose up to face his god, �You honor me with your presence, My Lord. I am, not yet worthy of such a visit.� He stated.

�Nonsense!� Bahamut retorted, �You have been worthy for quite some time. You have accomplished so much in so short a time that even I am impressed. You have done more good in my name than anyone in recent years! And your current actions in Gardmore Abbey and the aid you provide to my servant, Sir Oakley, continue to honor me. The path you walk is still dangerous and there is still much to be done. But I am confident in your success. After all, you are one of my chosen.� Bahamut looked down at Garrick and smiled.

�Kneel and accept my blessing� the god commanded.

Garrick immediately kneeled. The canaries, seven of them by his count, landed on the ground forming a circle around the two. They began to chirp in unison signing what appeared to be a hymn. Bahamut placed a hand on top of Garrick�s head and began to speak in a language Garrick did not understand.

Garrick felt a powerful energy course through his body. It felt like Bahamut�s very essence entered Garrick�s body... it strengthened him. Fortified his courage and resolve. Then it was over.

�Rise Garrick! Rise as a Platinum Dragon Knight of Bahamut!� the god ordered proudly.

Garrick shot up in bed and quickly looked around. He was back in the room of the temple. Sir Oakley sat on the bed across from him, staring at him knowingly. �I had a dream...� Garrick began but was quickly cut short by the older knight.

�Not a dream but a vision, brother.� Oakley stated. �And from what I can tell, one more powerful than I�ve ever experienced.�

With that, Oakley stood up and made his way to the door. He turned and smiled at Garrick, �Now get up, we still have much to do!�

Garrick got out of bed and put on his armor. He felt different, he felt Bahamut�s energy coursing through him still. A newfound power to use against my enemies and oppose the evil in this world.

Garrick smiled.
 Episode 75 of The Winter Guard - 2013-06-05 -  
 The Bard and the Seeker 
Well away from the others, Mordekai sits among the rich smells of the grove, his crossbow in his hands before him as he observes the weapon, and remains motionless. Taking deep breaths, his eyes pour over the weapon, covered in tempered steel and complicated dials.

"Not the kind of weapon I would expect you to wield," Odus says softly from behind the Seeker. Mordekai doesn't turn, but continues to stare gloomily at the weapon. He hadn't heard the Bard approaching, but then again, he hadn't been listening for it either.

"No," he sighs, in response. Odus moves around to stand before Mordekai. Keeping his eyes on the Seeker's face, he pats him sympathetically on the shoulder. When Mordekai finally does look up, Odus smiles widely at him, his hand squeezing the Seeker's shoulder softly.
"Are you alright?" the bard asks.

"No," replies Mordekai, and he drops his eyes again. There is a long moment of silence, and Odus, unwilling to leave, struggles to think of something to say. Suddenly, Kayle silently plunges from the sky, landing softly on Odus' shoulder. With it's wings spread wide, the hawk's talons scrape along the bard's armor, before the bird finally settles and stares off into the grove, remaining still on it's perch.

Both men look at each other startled, and Odus can't help but smile, as he slowly settles to the ground in front of Mordekai, his eyes watching the hawk intently. From the corner of his eye, he can see Mordekai smiling slightly.

"He must like you," the Seeker says, "I've never seen him trust another before."

"He's lighter than I expected him to be!" Odus says in wonder, but as thrilled as he is to be so close to the hawk, he pushes his advantage quickly, prompting the Seeker to speak, "Tell me about the crossbow."

"I was trained in bows, much like the fine specimen you use. For a long time, I used them exclusively, not wanting to taint myself with a weapon so far from it's natural components. But this... this was taken from a fallen enemy," Mordekai says, distracted now, not understanding what it is about Odus that makes it easy to talk to him, "In my youth, I thought that using this kind of technology against the enemies of nature would be an ironic twist."

"Isn't it?" Odus asks, his eyes still on Kayle. Mordekai finally chuckles.

"Not really," the Seeker smiles, "Think on it. I highly doubt they have time to realize the irony of the situation as the bolts from the crossbow steal their life away." Mordekai shakes his head, "The stupidity of youth. Still, I suppose I could announce the weapon before every fight to make the point, but that seems presumptuous."

"I am Mordekai, look at the weapon I use to destroy my enemies!" Odus mimes the Seeker's voice. The two men laugh openly at the joke. When the laughter dies off, they burst out into snorts again just looking at each other. Kayle, annoyed that his perch won't sit still, finally leaves them.

"Their deaths were not your fault." Odus says, getting to the heart of the matter. Mordekai's smile falters slightly, as he looks once again at the crossbow in his lap. Finally, the Seeker returns it to the strap on his back, and smiles back at Odus.

"I know that now," Mordekai says, "It's just that I have all these ideals in my head that I've held for so long, but now that I'm out here, away from the grove I grew up in... They seem so naive, almost arrogant in a way."

"How did you come to be with us, friend?" Odus asks. Mordekai stands finally and extends his hand to Odus. The bard pulls himself up, and they clasp hands warmly.

"That tale is for another night," the Seeker says, patting Odus on the back. "And... Thank you."

"I'll hold you to that promise," Odus says seriously, "After all, I like a good story."
 Episode 89 of The Winter Guard - 2013-08-21 -  
 The Rebuilding Begins: Part 1 
Isak pounded the last wooden beam into place, straightened up and wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand and wondered not for the first time how he had ended up here.

'Here' in this case was the ruins of Gardmore Village. Perhaps 'ruins' was too strong a word; it had been several months since the Winterguard had forced the orcs from Gardmore Abbey and during that time a concerted effort at rebuilding the place had manifested with many live-able homes already erected and in use. The damage done to Gardmore by orcs and time was immense, however, and the full restoration of the place was still far off.

Isak sat down and took a swig from his waterskin, the autumn sunlight reflecting off his sweat-covered tanned skin. He reflected for the hundredth time that swinging his falchion was far preferable to swinging the sledgehammer he had been conscripted into doing, but there was still a shortage of manpower, and it would be unreasonable for someone with Isak's physical gifts to not do most of the heavy lifting, as it were. Still, Isak wouldn't complain, not when he considered the work Odus had to do, what with all the political maneuvering the bard was engaged in these days.

Isak looked around at his fellow labourers, only a few of them native Nyrondese. That had been Odus' idea. The major northern city of Nyrond was Midmeadow, and Odus had made that city a priority stop on his sojourn. Midmeadow could charitably be described as a powderkeg one match away from exploding.

Midmeadow was once a beautiful city. Built largely of Gamboge and Phostwood woods, elven architects had a major hand in its design and even many commoners' houses were pleasant to the eye. Richer residences are often works of art, with cross gabbling, complex roof thatching and even leaded arched windows. The richest mansion houses, with stone great halls and oriel blocks of intricate workmanship, were a delight to behold.

Since the Greyhawk Wars, however, times have changed in Midmeadow. The 12,000 people who live there are close to anarchy. The local administrator, Sir Sermend Mastersein, is a cowering and feeble man. Midmeadow's old ruler was slain by Stonefist men in the grueling Phostwood campaigns, and Sermend was a disastrous choice by King Archbold as a successor. The man hides when hard decisions have to be made. When the townspeople riot he orders his 600 militia to secure important public buildings, including his home and the homes of his cronies, while the streets are abandoned to the rioters.

And the people of Midmeadow have much to riot about. While they go hungry, local produce, and even Gamboge produce sold on at a profit, is shipped north to the Theocracy of Pale for badly needed revenues. The wagon trains are defended by heavy militia escorts, but that hasn't stopped them being raided by large gangs of peasants. Midmeadow itself suffered a plague of arson attacks early in the year, culminating in the looting and sack of a major part of the richer merchants' homes on the north side of town. Worse, the rioters are learning that Sermend simply doesn't use force against them, so they are gaining the taste for riot and mayhem. To add to the city's woes, there was an outbreak of plague earlier in the year.

Many decent folk, even those who are poor, are appalled at rioters who may have a genuine grievance but who have begun to sack and pillage for more than they need. Hence, the Valorous League of Blindness has begun to gain adherents in Midmeadow and the lands around. This has resulted in some interesting, and sometimes bizarre, events. Phalanxes of Pholtus-revering flagellants stand along the border with the Pale, delivering their solemn renditions of "O Blinding Light" to all Nyrondese who approach. Processions of Pholtus's pilgrims trek through the streets of Midmeadow, demanding extreme penalties for rioters. They offer their help to the militias, who regard them as yet another problem they'd rather avoid, so the men of Pholtus stand watch over many buildings by night as vigilantes.

A pitched battle between these people and the unruly elements in Midmeadow is only a matter of time and Grishken, leader of the League in Midmeadow, is urging his followers to prepare for a day of reckoning against the "fiend worshipers", as he labels all who don't see eye to eye with him. Just to make matters still worse, some northern Nyrondese have even taken to the placation of evil deities, notably Incabulos, since outbreaks of disease are not rare among underfed folk. The Valorous League of Blindness recently uncovered a shrine to the foul god of disease and death, and as noted earlier have used this as an excuse for a frenzy of "fiend hunting". Add to this some 2,000 half-starving and wretched souls in shanty camps around the city walls, and it became obvious that having another outpost between Midmeadow and the Pale, Gardmore Abbey, would help deflate the situation.

But who would help build it?

Odus had spent the intervening months travelling about Northern Nyrond, trying to get a feel how a revitalized Gardmore Abbey would help the northern lands of Nyrond. This territory contains the great Gamboge Forest, the highly dangerous northwest frontier with Iuz across the Artonsamay and the remnants of the Fists in the Nutherwood, and the two major cities of Woodwych and Borneven.

What Odus saw was that these are terribly troubled lands. They contain bandits, goblinoids, rebellious zealots, and worse. In these lands, ordinary people are close to riot and open rebellion in many places.

Odus spent as much time amongst the common people as he did amongst the rulers of the various cities and villages. What he noticed was Northern folk in Nyrond are tougher than most, more stubborn and independent, and many speak the Old Oeridian tongue still. They trust their families and close friends, and few other people. Many have been robbed by bandits, and to have tax-gathering militias coming round on top of that is simply too much for them. As such, Odus discovered there have been tax riots in the northern lands, especially around Midmeadow, and peasant vigilante gangs with primitive polearms, clubs and knives seemed likely to turn out to greet any stranger until they are certain of their intentions.

As a visitor to northern villages and hamlets, Odus was treated with suspicion, though he didn't take it personally. In several places, it was demanded of him that he lay down arms to a sergeant-at-arms if he stayed for even a night. When he managed to find a hostel willing to accommodate him, he often found himself locked in for the night. His coins didn't mean very much in the countryside; much of the trade in these lands, outside of the cities, is on a barter basis only.

Living among the people here in these lands are 10,000 or so Tenhas who fled to northern Nyrond during the wars. They mostly live in the cities, increasing the burdens on the rulers there. Most Nyrondese are hostile to the Tenhas, who they perceive as lazy, indolent, feckless people with an unpleasantly arrogant nature. The Tenhas, save for those with real skills, have been unable to find work since Nyrondese discriminate against them, and any northern community of significant size has an enclave of these wretched people. The Tenhas have little choice but to beg, steal, forage and scavenge. Many turn to debauchery, drink, or prostitution to try to stay alive. Some have become wild zealots of the Valorous League of Blindness; others have turned, in their bitterness, to furtive, secret worship of evil and nameless things. In addition to all the other troubles of these lands, Nyrondese and Tenha mobs have been known to fight pitched battles, and Tenha bandits have raided northern farmsteads.

Therefore, when Odus first proposed his plan to accelerate the reconstruction of the Abbey by having the workforce made up mostly of Tenha refugees, the rest of the Winterguard were hesitant to say the least. Odus was adamant, however, and managed to convince his fellows even without the use of magic.

"It accomplishes so many things at once. It puts an end to the conflict between native Nyrondese and the refugees; it provides a home for refugees that is not encroaching on existing settlements, since Gardmore has been inactive in that capacity for almost 200 years, it gives the refugees something to do other than get into trouble and if some Nyrond folk decide to join in, even better. Nothing brings people together than building something together."

Garrick furrowed his brow. "Do they not expect to get paid for their labour? We have no money for that." The swordmage himself had already donated the vast majority of his own wealth to the Abbey's restoration, and while there were still some treasures being unearthed from what the orcs left behind, he didn't really think it would be enough.

Odus smiled. "Eventually, yes, they need to get paid in coin. Initially, they get paid in barter...they get to build their own homes here, raw materials provided. No taxes on the homes for a full year, what's more. We'll call it the First Citizen's Decree; anyone, Tenha war refugee, Nyrondese tax refugee, war-displaced gnomes from the Flinty Hills, anyone who decides to make their home in Gardmore Village doesn't pay taxes on the home for a year."

Garrick mulled over the idea. "That's a lot of tax monies the throne is not getting, if your idea catches on. In fact, the more popular your idea, the less popular we become to the powers-that-be. How do you plan to deal with that? Charm?"

"You say that as though I couldn't," responded Odus, feigning insult.

Garrick waited with his arms crossed.

"It's not so much of a loss; the tax can only be levied on a completed home, and most homes in the village won't be done in a year. We will cover the rest."

"We will?"

"Certainly. We have the Rakers to the north, the Bone March to the east, the former Bandit Kingdoms to the west... every day we are not out adventuring and liberating gold from some evil villain is a day with money left on the table. It's incredibly wasteful, really."

"I think it's a great plan," volunteered Isak.

"Of course you do," remarked Garrick sarcastically. "Still, it might work... and I suppose we are going a little stir crazy around here, action-wise. Hmmm...."

"See? I knew you'd come around!" exclaimed Odus, putting an end to the debate.

"Wait! Wait, just a second. We can't just accept anybody... no, no Odus, don't interrupt, we just can't. You said yourself there were fiend worshippers amongst many of the Tenhas. We just cleansed the Abbey of a stain of evil; I don't want to undo the work Sir Oakley died accomplishing."

"They're not dye-in-the wool worshippers of dark things, Garrick," began Odus. "They started appeasing dark powers because they were without hope... we give them hope, and you don't have to worry about any fiend-worshipping, I promise you."

"I have a question regarding Odus' plan," said Mordekai quietly.

"Yes?" the other three responded, all in unison.

"When you say the raw materials will be provided free of charge, how did you plan to accomplish that?"

Odus grinned. "Funny you should ask, friend Mordekai... funny you should ask."

TO BE CONTINUED
 Episode 90 of The Winter Guard - 2013-08-27 -  
 The Rebuilding Begins, Part 2 
Kayle had nothing to report. Or so Mordekai assumed, since his bird had not returned for some time.

The seeker walked over to a pond of crystal clear water and again studied his reflection in it. It didn't matter how many times he did: he felt silly.

Mordekai smoothed his tabard out and tried not to roll his eyes. Odus had assured him it was important to dress this way, but Mordekai suspected that if an alliance failed because of fashion choices, it probably wasn't going to be a very strong alliance to begin with.
" 'Official Nyrondese representative of the new barony of Winterhaven,' " he repeated to himself (while fully rolling his eyes this time). Mordekai was not familiar with politics and issues of boundaries and territories (everyone to whom such things mattered would be dead before the lands themselves took notice, he thought), but from what little he knew, 'barony' seemed like too grand a word for the territory now being 'ruled' by Lord Ernest Padraig.

Mordekai detected several inaccuracies with this particular view of things. For one, it seemed to him that for one to be considered to be 'ruling' one would have to be actually seen, even if only infrequently. This was not the case with Padraig, who remained sequestered in his manor and issued all edicts through writing. If it wasn't for the fact that Garrick and Odus would sometimes gain audience with him, Mordekai would seriously doubt if it was even really him. Fortunately, the word from his companions was enough for him... even if they sometimes (often!) missed things the seeker himself didn't.

He still hadn't quite sorted out his own feelings about the new 'baron' either. On the one hand, Mordekai felt sorry for the man. He had seen Shadow Circle druids perform something similar, making a person their puppet for many months through their dark herbal magic... people were never the same afterwards, often withdrawing into themselves as Padraig seemed to have done. On the other hand, Mordekai had to admit he was frustrated that he had risked so much for a man who did not seem to remember who he was. While Garrick and Odus had filled him in on Mordekai's importance in the restoration of Gardmore Abbey, the seeker was still feeling... underappreciated, as it were.

Which is silly, he thought, but not as silly as this costume I am wearing! The tabard was white (how wonderful in the forests!) and bore the Nyrond coat of arms on it, but with all aspects on it adorned with a fine covering of snow: the heraldry of the new barony of Winterhaven. Mordekai wondered what Odus was up to, choosing him for this mission; the seeker had made it clear that he did not consider himself loyal to the crown, no matter where he happened to be making his home. Odus had assured him this perspective would actually be an advantage for this mission, but could he please just wear this for initial contact with the woodsmen of the Gamboge, as it would be important for them to see someone like Mordekai visibly in support of what they were trying to accomplish in the new barony.

"Pretend, then," deadpanned Mordekai.

Odus smiled.

And so now Mordekai was waiting for his contact to come meet him. To tell the truth, Mordekai wasn't pretending, not really; he did in fact like what they were trying to accomplish in Gardmore Abbey, especially if Odus' plan were to work out and some displaced peoples bordering the Bone March were given a new chance, and if the woodsmen were treated more equitably, and if the elves of the Gamboge could form a resource network with the eladrin of Gardmore's feygrove...

A lot of 'ifs' he had to admit to himself. To be fair, Odus knew Mordekai had some ties with the peoples of the Gamboge, so perhaps seeing 'one of their own' in this official capacity would smooth things over, rather than sending the more metropolis-oriented bard.

Or maybe Odus was enjoying the seeker's obvious discomfort. Each was equally likely, and in fact, both were true.

"I'm not interrupting anything, am I?" lilted a voice from the trees. In one motion Mordekai spun and aimed his newly gifted crossbow in the direction of the noise, ready to send a bolt of lightning through whatever menace presented itself. No such menace existed, however... just the beautiful foliage of the outer woods of the Gamboge. Mordekai furrowed his brow in concentration, attuning himself to the forest... and spun around again to the faint noise he heard near his pack. Sitting there, casually, was an elf woman, eating one of his red apples. "These are good; where are they from?" She was dressed in forest greens and browns (sensibly!), with a mighty bow on the ground next to her. Her auburn hair had several braids in it but otherwise hung loosely about her shoulders. She looked at him with wide eyes, glancing from the crossbow bolt to his face and back again.
Sensing no danger, Mordekai lowered his weapon. "How did you sneak up on me?"
"Is that what you think I did?"

"Well, my scout should have told me of your coming..."

"You mean this little sweetie?" said the elf as she put out her arm. Kayle alighted on her bracer, perched quite comfortably.

"Traitor," swore Mordekai under his breath as he called Kayle over. Ever the obedient companion, Kayle flew to his Master's side.

"So, was I interrupting? Are you done admiring yourself in the water there?" asked the elf, with a hint of a grin on her mouth.

"I wasn't admiring myself," grumbled Mordekai. "In fact, I think I look rather silly in this."

"Why are you wearing it then?"

"Because Odus thinks that,... oh, never mind why I'm wearing it! I assume you're the contact I am waiting for?"

"Are you Mordekai?"

"Yes."

"I'm Chaedi, of the Brothers of the Bronze. Although it should be 'Brothers and Sisters' don't you think?"

Mordekai had some working knowledge of the organization. To the best of his knowledge, the Brothers are a fellowship of woodsmen, rangers, druids, and a few other priests, mages, and warriors who seek to maintain communication between the threatened woodlands of Nyrond, the Celadon and Gamboge forests. They also seek to ally with the good-aligned folk of the Adri Forest. Their goals are to stop Nyrondese pillaging of the Celadon, and to open a land corridor between eastern Nyrond and the westernmost reaches of the Adri.

Most members of this group are not exactly Nyrondese patriots. They simply believe that the fate of the great woodlands is best assured within the domain of a strong Nyrond. Brothers are not included among the council advising Archbold, although there are persistent rumors that they have the ear of the crown prince. They are angry with Archbold for his stupidity in the Celadon. They take their name from the small piece of bronzewood which they always wear somewhere about their person.

Mordekai had considered membership in the group, but felt he needed more experience at the time. That search for experience eventually led him to Winterhaven and his membership in the Winterguard. After joining them, he got all the experience he needed... and then some.

"Well met," he responded tersely. "I take it we are to meet with your brothers to outline the Gardmore Proposal?"

Chaedi chuckled. "Doesn't that sound like someone's getting married? If one lives in Gardmore, is that how one asks for another's hand in marriage?"

Mordekai frowned again, not least because he also thought the name was stupid and didn't want to be mocked for it. "If this isn't a serious enough matter for you, then..."

Chaedi leapt to her feet and grabbed her greatbow in one motion. She smiled at Mordekai and beckoned him to follow. "Are you always this grumpy?"

Only when I'm forced to dress like this, thought Mordekai as he began following the elf.
 

Almost a week had passed, and Mordekai found himself back where he started, at the edge of the Gamboge, waiting to return back to the Feygrove within Gardmore Abbey. It was, in fact, his stay within the Gamboge that had solidified his decision, and not just due to his personal preference for the woods.

"Do you think being the liaison for the Brothers of the Bronze is going to be stressful?" queried Chaedi. Mordekai had noticed, with no small irritation, that the elf ranger never made statements; he wondered if she even could. No, instead, everything was a question.

He took a breath. "It will present some challenges, I am sure."

"I wonder how the rest of this is going to work, though," came the light voice again. "Do you know?"
Through gritted teeth, Mordekai had to admit he didn't.

"Is it weird that you promised a lot of things you don't know you can honour?"

Mordekai rolled his eyes in frustration again, but admitted (to himself only!) that that was indeed a pertinent question. He went over the events of the last few days in his head again.

They had been welcomed warmly enough; Chaedi was apparently a popular member of the group though for the life of him Mordekai couldn't see why. Nevertheless, the Brothers had made him feel quite at home. After a day or so of pleasantries, they got down to business.

The first thing Mordekai was made to understand was there is bitterness in the hearts of many woodsmen against the distant and seemingly uncaring rulers of the land in Rel Mord. Some 1,000 Gamboge men fought in Nyrond's cause during the wars, and many supported the gnomes of the Flinty Hills when the Bone March humanoids came pouring from the east. From the gnomes, the woodsmen have had gifts of silver, gems and ore in return for their help. From the king of Nyrond, nothing. And now, still, these men support Nyrond with the fruits of the forest, and little thanks comes their way yet. There is no love of the king here. Understandably, then, they found the idea of an official Nyrondese emissary to be suspicious.

Mordekai had enthusiastically replied that he was authentically in full agreement with everything that had been said (making Odus' choice of emissary brilliant), and wanted to assure everyone that, while he represented Nyrond after a fashion, he did not really represent the king.

The stern and confused Brothers waited for him to go on.

Mordekai caught his breath and tried to remember word-for-word what Odus had instructed him to say (damn politics!), but they came out jumbled and the seeker found himself tripped up by his own tongue more than once. Losing his patience, he gave up trying to recite the bard's words and instead spoke freely.

"Look, you are taken for granted and basically forgotten unless something is needed from you; what you need to understand is most of Northern Nyrond is in the same situation..."

He was interrupted in order to be reminded that the people of the Gamboge did not claim to by Nyrondese, nor were they to anytime soon.

"Of course not, why would you?" continued Mordekai sympathetically. "But world continues to spin, so the spirits say, and conflict is not over for this region yet. And I am not speaking about isolated skirmishes with ogres and hobgoblins; I am talking about madmen wielding powerful artifacts capable of summoning fiends from the Abyss! There is peace now, yes, but only the peace of the bowstring being drawn back... one day soon, the arrow of war will fly again and this time it will be the war to end all wars. The spirits as much as told me this through my visions."

He was bade continue, so he did.

"When that time comes, we must be allied. We must. Yet I understand that such an alliance is slow in the grooming, like a sapling becoming a tree. As such, I would very much like to plant those seeds today, in the common soil we have, forgotten peoples, both of us."

There was what seemed to be an eternity of silence before he was told to outline his plan.

The woodsmen of the Gamboge would provide the raw materials Gardmore Abbey so desperately needed, virtually free of charge, for one year, after which standard economic negotiations would resume. In exchange, the new baron, Lord Padraig would sign the Treaty of Independence Perpetual, granting forevermore autonomy to the peoples of the Gamboge, effectively making them a Free State. This was necessary for the second part of the exchange, which included regular Nyrond military patrols within the Gamboge to root out organized humanoid troop movement and any threat of an extraplanar nature. As such, the Gamboge would have military might necessary to deal with some of the larger problems it was having difficulty with without fear of being taken over by the resource-poor Nyrond. Finally, a network would be created between the elves of the Gamboge and the Brothers of the Bronze and the eladrin of the Feygrove, complete with two teleportation circles being inscribed at no cost to the forest people.

Mordekai had no idea if Padraig had the authority to sign such a treaty, nor did he know where the Nyrond troops were going to come from that could be spared to patrol the Gamboge for organized humanoid movements and fiends. He didn't even know who had agreed to the teleportation circles. With all this in mind, he finally responded to Chaedi. "Yes, it is weird. But since my spirit guides were pushing me on, I somehow feel this will work out in the end."

"Spirits, right? That's because you're a seeker, correct?"

Sigh. "Yes."

"I've known a few seekers in my time, but never ones that use crossbows; is that a human thing, what with the gears and such?"

"No, it's not a 'human thing.' It's more symbolic, I suppose..."

"A symbol of what?"

"Well, it's... you see, it's like..."

"Yes?"

Sigh. "Never mind. Shouldn't you be getting back, anyway? I'm good to make the rest of the trip on my own."

Chaedi's large eyes widened. "You mean they didn't tell you?"

Again with the questions! "Tell me what?" replied the seeker, not patiently.

"So they didn't tell you about us being partners? I'm going to be the Brothers' representative and you'll be the one from Gardmore, and together we make sure each side is honouring the agreement and working together as liaisons between the groups for maximum cooperation. Isn't it great?"

Mordekai figured that there was probably more than one forest spirit whispering to him to accept this new companion with open arms but he couldn't actually be certain because he was really not listening; he was too busy being stunned by the revelation the elf maiden had just made.

"Yes, great..." he managed to whisper.

"I think we'll be great friends, don't you?" exclaimed Chaedi with renewed enthusiasm. "Should we headquarter together? Or maybe have separate lairs with some sort of signal system? Or maybe..."

"Enough!" pleaded Mordekai. "Please, enough questions!" The elf positively exhausted him. He sighed heavily, pinched the bridge of his nose with one hand while he held the other up to silence his exuberant companion. He waited a full minute in that pose, with only the muted sounds of the forest to be heard during that time. For her part, Chaedi waited patiently, with a grave look on her youthful face.

Finally, Mordekai made a query of his own. "Chaedi... why must you ask so many questions?"

A huge smile broke out over the elf's face as she trotted by the beleaguered seeker and clapped him on the shoulder.

"How else am I going to get to know you, partner?"

SIGH.

As if on cue, Kayle flew and alighted on Chaedi's outstretched bracer again, as the elf headed off towards Gardmore.

"Traitorous bird..." muttered Mordekai and he set off after his new companion.

TO BE CONTINUED IN PART 3
 Episode 92 of The Winter Guard - 2013-09-06 -  
 The Rebuilding Begins, Part 3 
Garrick, Isak and Odus had been sitting in silence for quite some time when the swordmage broke it by asking a question he had already asked several times.

"So...how is this going to work, again?"

Although Odus had responded each time with due patience, it never seemed to fully satisy his two friends who were seated at the table with him, waiting for their guests to arrive. Their very. Important. Guests.

"Don't worry, Garrick. Just follow my lead."

Garrick and Isak exchanged worried glances. "That's just it," responded Isak. "What lead are we following exactly? It just seems to me you've invited trouble here."

'Here' was the backroom at Wrafton's Inn. Garrick had hoped to have the manor house at Gardmore rebuilt in time to accommodate his guests but Odus had informed him quite suddenly that other arrangements would have to be made since the originally envisioned timetable was being sped up.

"That's just a sign of how successful we've been!" Odus had assured him, but Garrick wasn't so sure. Neither was Isak. Of course, it was easy to see how far they had come, the various alliances they had cemented and so forth. The problem was, the more successful they were, the louder the rumours and the quicker information was going to get back to the throne. At that point, the legitimacy of the entire affair (Isak was pretty sure the legitimacy level was low, if existent) would be called into question and the whole project would come tumbling down around them. Garrick had himself expressed concerns that perhaps they weren't doing enough to remain beneath the crown's notice.

"Nonsense," Odus had replied. "There's no avoiding it. Besides, we need more of a Nyrondese military presence up here. Not that we need more actual military troops, though that wouldn't hurt; we need more official sanction to be seen. Most people in the northern lands here feel forgotten. Padraig is going to change that, with our help of course, but it needs to be seen as having official consent from the throne."

"But that's just it: I don't think it will get official consent from the throne!" answered Garrick.

"I'm not sure it will either," confessed Odus with a smile. "But neither do I believe it will come to that. So listen again, before they get here."

The guests they were expecting, and who had, in fact, just passed through the town gates, were General Myariken and his military entourage. During his travels about northern Nyrond, the general was the person Odus had tried to learn the most about. Odus had been quick to share what he had gleaned about the general: "Myariken is 44, tough and muscular, with iron grey hair and a thick black beard greying in places; I actually spied him myself at one point as he was passing through Midmeadow. Standing 6' 6", his height only adds to the intimidating stare of his dark brown eyes; I got that first-hand from the soldier he was dressing down. Why he was dressing down the soldier, I'll get to in a little bit. Anyway, he has a broad swathe of scar tissue along the right side of his jaw, where most of his teeth are missing and his beard is scrawny, apparently from the rending of a massive two-headed troll encountered in the Rakers some years ago. He's no behind-the-lines kind of leader, that's for sure."

Isak nodded his head in approval.

"Myariken commands the northern front and makes no bones about his contempt for his king. From what I can tell, if he had his way, he would root out the Valorous League, close the borders with the Pale and keep the scarce food of the north for its own people. Because Myariken is a reverer of Pholtus in his less dogmatic aspect, he truly loathes the League and the Pale, and some say he has even instructed some of his most trusted henchmen to raid the Pale from the Phostwood, to bring food back to the north... and they'd be right. It is also true that Myariken is one outburst away from losing his command, and that he makes no secret of his desire to see Crown Prince Lynwerd made king."

The three sat in silence for a moment. Each, without sharing with the others, had wondered if indeed Archbold should step aside for the more dynamic and less stubborn Lynwerd.

"He's still a loyal military man, though, through-and-through. My hope is we can secure his goodwill and a blind eye to some of the more liberal ways we've interpreted things here and get him to focus on what is actually being achieved," explained Odus.

"And if we can't?" queried Isak.

Odus sighed. "Then I'll have to resort to some of the plans I made while touring about the lands... but I really hope I won't have to."

Garrick stood up. "We're about to find out. Here they are."

Myariken walked in flanked by two of his lieutenants, all in plate mail with Nyrond coat of arms and embroidery. No herald, though, which Odus took to mean they were not taking this meeting seriously. That was fine; he had expected as much.
Up close, Myariken was every bit as impressive as his reputation. He could not be considered a handsome man, not with the wicked scar taking up much of his face, but the man had real presence and was definitely the type who could get things done. Odus had heard he was impatient and had little tolerance for foolishness, and Myariken confirmed it right away with his first words.

"Where is Lord Padraig? I have no intention of being kept waiting," he brusquely began, while effortlessly pulling a chair out and falling into it with a controlled collapse.

"Good afternoon, general," began Odus. "I apologize, but Lord Padraig will not be able to join us this afternoon."

" 'Us?' Who are you supposed to be? If Padraig is ill, who called this meeting? I am here to deal with Lord Ernest Padraig, not his herald and two militia boys."

Garrick laid a calming hand on Isak while Odus did the same for Garrick. The bard then smiled and began his reply. "Thank you for mistaking us for part of Baron Padraig's..."

" 'Baron?' Heh. No, I don't think so," interrupted Myariken. "Unless someone has traveled through the areas I am responsible for to Rel Mord and back without me knowing? I hope he didn't make the king sick."

"Really? Is that what you hope, my good general?" asked Odus, whose mouth was smiling but whose eyes were not.

Myariken's gaze narrowed. He's taking this more seriously now thought Isak. All the general did was gesture for Odus to continue, however.

"As I was saying, we are not actually an official part of Baron Padraig's growing forces though we are fortunate enough to be allied with him." He couldn't resist. "Have you perchance heard of the Winterguard?"

"Sure," exclaimed one of the general's adjoints. "You're the group that sealed off the old Oeridian portal to the Shadowfell!"

Myariken stared so hard at the man that Garrick wondered if the poor soldier would ever speak again, while Isak was impressed no puddle was forming beneath him.

"Right. That's you people," said Myariken, finally. "Good job on that. I'm sure you were well-paid for it," he said with something of a sneer.

"I don't know about 'well-paid,'" interrupted Isak. "But it was certainly more money than we got for rescuing two of Winterhaven's citizens from the Bloodreavers in Thunderspire Mountain. That we did for free, so don't make the mistake of confusing us for greedy opportunists, general."

Myariken's look softened for the first time since the meeting began. "Put an end to the Bloodreavers, huh? Hmm. They had been a thorn for over a year now. You have the gratitude of the throne, then."

Odus smiled. It was almost like a script being rehearsed. "The general speaks for the throne, then?"

Myariken frowned again, and was about to shout a retort when Odus sleekly cut him off. "... because we'd much rather have your gratitude, general. With absolutely no offense meant to His Majesty, I do believe the general's gratitude will be manifested more practically and the people he feels gratitude towards will actually be remembered for their actions. Am I correct or have I mis-read the situation?"

Myariken did not look pleased. He waited several long moments before replying. "Let's assume you read it just fine. What are you looking for here?"

"Your support in what we are trying to accomplish. Nothing more."

The heroes felt Myariken's eyebrow would have arched at their response, but since he had no eyebrow only scar tissue that would remain a theory.

"From what I've seen, what you are trying to accomplish is elaborate tax evasion, which I don't mind saying is particularly reprehensible during these trying times visited upon the average Nyrondian. Fake claims to baryonic titles, adventuring loot claimed from within Nyrond's borders with no tithing, reconstruction of the Abbey with absolutely no official permission given nor fees associated with it paid... Tell me, have I read that situation well enough?"

"Your understanding of the facts are just fine, general," replied Garrick, only slightly gritting his teeth. "Whether or not this is a good thing will depend on your perspective."

Myariken almost sneered again, but his curiosity was starting to get the better of him. "And what perspective would that be?"

The heroes then set about explaining all they had been up to in the last few months: the discovery and subsequent alliance with the eladrin of the Feygrove (Myariken couldn't believe a thriving community of eladrin were within the abbey); the network of alliances with the peoples of the Gamboge through the Brothers of the Bronze and their new representatives, Mordekai and Chaedi; the furnishing of raw materials to the abbey and the resolution of much of the immigrant problem in Midmeadow (though certainly not all of it), all under the banner of Nyrond's newest baron, Lord Ernest Padraig.

Myariken's reaction throughout the telling alternated between surprised, incredulous, gratefulness, suspicion and cynicism. When all was said and done, however, he let loose a heavy sigh and stood up, his hand falling casually near the pommel of his sword. When he spoke, it was with a mixture of admiration and resignation.

"I confess, on a certain level, I admire your creativity. And to be sure, I no longer have any doubts that your intentions are in the right place. And finally, if I put my pride aside, I can admit I am happy to see you've accomplished some things I've not been able to do, hampered by my position. But it's all very illegal; as much as I may disagree with my king... he is still my king. And yours, too, if you intend to stay here. The moneys you are using, even to accomplish the great works you're doing... they're not yours to do it with. Not totally, anyway; you can keep whatever is left after the taxation rate has been applied. I... I know it won't be much, but... it's the way things have to be. I took an oath, after all, and I honour it, even when it's difficult. Especially when it's difficult."

Isak also stood up, but wisely kept his hands on the table. "General, you didn't swear an oath as a tax collector, you swore an oath to protect the Nyrondian people. This is what we are doing here, you need to see that!"

"I do. But there are procedures to follow and edicts from the crown must be obeyed. Maybe your lives as mercenaries gave you the luxury of deciding which orders to follow and which to ignore, but I can't do that, especially not when you are housing Tenhas and actual Nyrondians are starving! There are other people that need help, not just the ones in the area you happen to have settled in!"

Damn it, thought Odus. "Very well, general Myariken. I was hoping it wouldn't come to this, but I can see you are beyond being convinced. You're a good and lawful man, with an impeccable sense of duty, and it was perhaps silly of us to think you would go along with our machinations. We'll be glad to pay what is owed in taxes. It is not here, however, we need to go retrieve it."

"We'll be coming along, of course," said the second adjoint. The first was still observing his newly sworn vow of silence.

"Of course, of course," responded Odus genially. It shouldn't take more than a week or so... it's in Midmeadow."

The adjoints and Myariken all looked to each other, slightly confused, until the general addressed the bard. "Not the safest place for anyone's gold, Odus..."

"Oh, it's safe. We have excellent and highly dedicated guards."

"Really?"

"Oh, yes. Who is more dedicated than the Valorous League of Blindness?"

Myariken's eyes went wide with rage.

Odus continued, seemingly unaware. "Unswerving, really. Of course, I had to initially make mention that I was considering building a manor house within the city and made several comments about how it was a shame the temple to Pholtus was so small, and wouldn't it be nice to make it more grand, and so on, but after that they were very agreeable."

"You... you... you've made an alliance with heretics!" sputterd Myariken.

"Nonsense, they're just slightly more... orthodox in their practices. Besides, they did uncover the cult to Incabulosa> that was growing right beneath everyone's noses there in the city, so they couldn't be all bad, could they? Ah, but what does it matter? Let's go get you that gold, general. I have even prepared a song for along the way, and special lyrics for when we leave Midmedow, trunks filled with coins."

Myariken's face was red from rage but he was trapped and he knew it. If he entered Midmeadow with an armed force only to be seen confronting the members of the League and be seen 'stealing' gold from within a city already on the brink of absolute chaos...

"You... you will go get it yourselves, and bring it here to me."

"How trusting of you, general! All right, we'll leave at first light. I just need to send a letter on its way first, then it's off to Midmeadow!"

Garrick and Isak were stunned both at the turn of events and at Odus' supernatural cheeriness in the face of their plan crashing and burning. "What... what letter?" asked Garrick, finally.

"Oh, just a correspondence with my new friend, Alaned Mesfajin."

Myariken's eyes grew wide, and Odus looked almost apologetically at the hulk of a man.

"You. You. Out," commanded Myariken, with his adjoints instantly obeying.

Once the general was alone with the heroes he looked cynically at Odus. "So. That's how it's going to be?"

"I honestly wish and pray to Rao that it needn't come to this, general, truly I do," responded Odus with great authenticity.

"Why are you fighting us on this, General Myariken?" asked Isak, almost with desperation. "All we are doing is making the area you are responsible for safer and easier to govern. Your biggest hardship here has not been the Fists of Stonehold, the humanoids of the Bone March or even the forces Of Iuz to the east... it has been that King Archbold has virtually forgotten about the people here except for what they can provide in taxes. Their sufferings go completely ignored and we know that is why you find yourself in the position you are in."

Myariken slouched down in the chair and sighed.

"You're from around here, aren't you?" asked Garrick quietly.

Myariken nodded his head sadly. "The town of Greenplane. I grew up there as a child until I joined the military at fifteen."

"Things... things aren't good there are they?"

"No, though honestly, better than most, I suppose... it's funny, I did hear of you before coming here: from gnomes. Apparently, the Flinty Hills gnome community is all abuzz about a 'restructuring' of their relationship with Nyrond. All based on your tall tales of course, but... it was still nice to hear."

Garrick leaned forward. "All we are asking for is your help to do what you have sworn to do anyway: protect the people of Nyrond. Right now, what needs protecting the most is their collective sense of hope, which is in sorry shape indeed."

The general smirked. "Based on your lies and un-keepable promises?" he responded in a defeated tone.

Odus smiled. "Under normal circumstances, Padraig would probably have been made a baron for being responsible for shutting down the Keep on the Shadowfell, no? Of course he would! And subsequently, he would most certainly have taken us on as official retainers, diplomats and what-have-you so that we would have had proper authority to negotiate with all the people we already have, no? Of course he would!"

Myariken seemed to perk up. "That's... that's true, I suppose."

"Of course it's true!" answered Odus excitedly. "And listen, once the success of our plan, and by 'our' I now include you, my dear general, once its success becomes well-known, we will make all haste in officializing all that needs to be made official, as it were."

Myariken looked at each of them in turn. "I can't believe I'm agreeing to this..."

Odus clapped him on the back. "One meal made by Salvanna Wrafton and you won't believe anything so good a cook she is!" He leaned close and whispered "Your secret is safe with me, general. I promise you."

Myariken looked at him, nodded curtly with pursed lips and left without another word.

Garrick and Isak couldn't believe what had happened either, while Odus stood there like the cat who had swallowed the proverbial canary.

Finally, Garrick arched an eyebrow and broke the silence. "Odus?"

"Yes?"

"Is our money really being guarded by the Valorous League of Blindness in Midmeadow?"

"Goodness, no. Far too dangerous. Besides, what money? We've spent almost all of it."

Garrick nodded. "I figured."

"And who is your new friend, Alaned Mesfajin, I think it was?" queried Isak.

Odus looked at his feet. "He's a squire for one of the knights under Myariken's command who raided the Phostwood in the Theocracy of the Pale."

Isak nodded grimly. "So he knows about the raid? Participated in it, maybe?"

"Oh, no, not at all. Couldn't provide me with a lick of proof, even though he was there. Fell asleep after battling the spirits, as it were, and woke up only as they were returning; he couldn't even tell where they were returning from."

"But if he knows nothing..."

"Oh, they don't know he was asleep. And when you were a squire, Isak, did you volunteer when you were derelict in your duties?"

It was Isak's turn to smirk.

Odus looked up. "So, my friends? What do you think?"

"I think you're the most powerful member of our party."

"Silly. I mean about our plan here."

Garrick looked at his two oldest friends and allowed himself a smile of hope.

"I think we have a chance, here. I think we have a really good chance."
 Episode 93 of The Winter Guard - 2013-09-07 -  
 Epilogue 
Garrick looked over at where the workers were erecting a wall for a new building and smiled at what he saw. A combination of Tenha refugees, Nyrondian 'tax evaders' and Flinty Hills gnomes were putting the final touches on what he assumed was a load-bearing wall. It would never look that way to any other human, he mused, but gnomes had odd ideas regarding architecture; they built things that shouldn't work, but often did. They were small in number and stature, but nice to have around.

The village was being rebuilt with quality materials, that was for sure. The community that was forming was also high quality it seemed; villagers whose homes were already built still worked as tirelessly as ever to make sure the homes of their neigbours got built too. Some merchants had come sniffing around looking for areas to erect their stores, and a small bidding war for a prime spot was not rare. It seemed word was spreading, with more people heading to Gardmore to start over as it were. The population was heavily mixed, to be sure, but Garrick rather liked the idea of Gardmore being a place where a second chance was waiting for you, no matter who you were.

His mind traveled back to last night for a prime example. He had been woken out of bed by one of the soldiers Myariken had place at Gardmore, saying there was a disturbance in the Vaults. Garrick had wondered how long it would be before something from the Underdark eventually crawled its way to the Vaults, now that the dragon was gone. However, what was waiting for him was not at all what he had been expecting.

Isak was already there, with his falchion drawn, as was Odus with his bow, though his arrow was not aimed at her. Two militia members were unconscious and two more were nervously aiming their crossbows at their target. Said target was a drow woman (or girl? They never showed their age on their face!), barely clearing five feet in height. She was dressed all in black leather, with her hands behind her head, presumably having been told to put them there.

Garrick walked up to Isak. "Advance scout?"

"Maybe. It's pure luck we found her; these two were coming for their shift when they found her standing over the bodies of those other two, dagger drawn. Figure they stopped her from executing them and moving on with her plan."

A snort of derision escaped the drow.

"You have something to say?" demanded Isak.

She rolled her eyes. " 'My plan' was to be seen; that's the only way they ever would have seen me. You don't exactly have eagle-eyed sentries here. I came in peace, though I guess you won't believe me since I'm a dark elf and all dark elves are evil, right? Figures."
She speaks common well, thought Odus. It's not actually predominant amongst drow.
"If you came in peace, why did you knock the guards unconscious then?"

She shot Isak a look of incredulity. "That IS how you know I came in peace! If I had intended any different, they'd be dead before they knew what hit them...jeez."

Good point, actually.

"I suppose talking to them was out of the question?" asked Garrick.

"I did try to speak with them," she replied defensively. "They tried to negotiate with their weapons, so I defended myself."

"You come from the Underdark, then?" asked Odus.

"You must be the smart one."

The bard smiled. "I apologize; where in the Underdark?"

"Everywhere and nowhere... I don't exactly have a home you can mail letters to."

"So, assuming we believe you have good intentions, why are you here?" asked Garrick.
She bit her lip, trembled a bit, but seemed reluctant to speak.

"Well...?"

She looked down, her face a perfect cocktail of anger, frustration and shame but she still couldn't bring herself to speak.

When she still didn't answer, Isak stepped forward. "All right, spy, why don't we head to the new barracks we're making and you can tell us all about who sent you."

She smacked his hand away with great speed and force then leapt away from him, her eyes flashing dangerously, her dagger somehow now in her hand. "Don't touch me!"

Isak had his blade up in defensive position, but didn't advance. Odus looked to Garrick, who had his hand on the hilt of Moonbane but didn't draw it. Instead, he called out to her. "Wait! Stop it, no one wants blood shed here. Just...just...why don't you tell me your name?"

"You know what? Forget it! This was all a stupid mistake, I should never have come here! Just let me back out the way I came and we can forget we ever did this, all right? Here, take this," and she threw a small drawstring bag to the ground. "That should even us up for the bumps these poor little darlings to to their heads. Ok? All right?"

Garrick didn't make a move. Odus and Isak shared concerned glances, but neither too a step towards the volatile drow.

"Thank you, but that won't be necessary; no one wants your money."

"Whatever, keep it. This was all so stupid, anyway; last time I listen to Gendar..."

In unison, all three of the Guard exclaimed "What?!"

She recoiled from them, a look of annoyance on her face. "Gendar. My cousin. Or 'kinsman' might be a better term, I don't know how you humans would describe it."

"Did Gendar send you here?"

"... yeah. He said you lot were a decent bunch, had some good interactions with you in the Seven-Pillared Hall. I actually saw you all from afar once, though there were four of you at the time."
"Why did he send you to us?" asked Isak.

The drow stammered and looked uncomfortable, like she was struggling to admit an inconvenient truth. Finally, she said "He said you would be sympathetic to cases like mine. That if I was tired of being a wanderer, I might find purpose with you lot. Obviously, he was wrong, big surprise to no one."

Odus was smirking at Isak like he always did when the subject of Gendar came up. Garrick, meanwhile, assessed the situation in front of him. He wished Mordekai had been here; the man had a better sense of character, but the swordmage decided to believe the drow anyway. He held out his hand.

"Why don't we walk to the surface now and get something to eat? Then you can tell us what "a case like yours' sounds like."

She didn't take his hand, but she did sheath her dagger. "Fine," she said in a small voice.

"Good," replied Garrick. "My name is Garrick, this is Odus and that's Isak."

She looked the slayer up and down. "So you're Isak, eh? Hmph."

"What is that supposed to mean?"

"It means my cousin's penchant for exaggeration when he's in love is still as strong as ever."

Isak turned away, flustered, while Odus could barely keep from laughing.

Garrick smiled. I like having her around already he thought. Out loud he asked "So, if we're going to be spending time together, could you tell us your name?"

She hesitated again. "Bhintel. My name is Bhintel."

Bhintel's case had been a hard one, that was for sure. She talked about it casually, but there was still a lot of hurt in her voice as she told her tale. Garrick reflected that while he had heard tales of drow before, having one sit across from you and describe in detail what the culture was like was enough to make one's blood run cold. At the end, Bhintel was offered a chance to stay on as a professional treasure-hunter and Underdark-consultant (Odus had thought that last one up, obviously). She managed to swallow her pride long enough to accept.

But Bhintel wasn't even the strangest of the new recruits to Gardmore, if Garrick was going to be honest...

She had walked right up to the gate and demanded an audience with the Winterguard. Not in any sort of imperious way, but just with a forthrightness that dispensed with social pleasantries. In fact, when the militia at the gate seemed insulted , she appeared confused by their reaction... but then quickly shrugged and awaited for that which she had asked for.

Mordekai had been nearest, so he came to the gate. That people should show up requesting access to Gardmore Abbey was becoming more common, but none seemed as strange as this visitor, Mordekai noted... and he was a man who had seen some strange things, it must be noted.

She stood about six feet in height, with a lithe, athletic build. She was a warrior of some sort, clearly, by the size of the enormous blade strapped to her back, a sword that nearly matched her in length. She wore no visible armour, though, only brownish-gray silken robes; there were slits for her legs and her muscled arms were likewise uncovered, though there were a pair of bracers adorning them. She had auburn hair but it was barely visible beneath her elaborate veil. It seemed a fusion of practicality and some sort of cultural expression, thought Mordekai, for when he stared at the fabric of her robes, it seemed to move...

"The robes are there for a reason," she announced. "While it is my understanding that it is normal to try to get a glimpse of the power of my form, the robes are there to distract you from that. I appreciate the stare as befitting the dedication I have put into the temple that is my body, but I fear you will suffer from concentration issues."

Mordekai smirked. "That may be true, but it's not because I'm...I mean, I am, but...sigh. Never mind. What are your robes made of, may I ask?"

She stood proudly. "Githweave."

Mordekai arched an eyebrow. "Does that mean you are...?"

"Hello and well met," called out Odus as he, Garrick and Isak joined Mordekai.

"Greetings," the tall woman said. "I am here to join the Winterguard."
The heroes all exchanged confused looks with each other. "We... we aren't exactly holding tryouts," stammered Garrick.

"Of course not, why would you? I'm sure I'd meet any test you could administer."
"Right. What he meant was, we weren't looking to add to our numbers," said Isak, gently pushing Garrick back and standing between the swordmage and the newcomer.

The woman's eyes narrowed behind her veil. "I apologize for your confusion. I am not here by invitation, or any decision you have made; I am here because my mistress demands it of me."

"All right, enough! Who are you, where are you from and why are you here?"

She removed her veil to reveal tanned yellow skin, fierce black eyes, and angular features though hardly any nose. I was right thought Mordekai. Githzerai... she looks like an alien elf.

She spoke "I am Izera of the Vault, bride of St. Cuthbert of the Cudgel, god of practical wisdom, dedication, zeal and retribution. I am here because my mistress has heard word of Gardmore Abbey's restoration; in the past, St. Cuthbert was one of the many gods of good whose worshippers found a home here. With the presence of the faith of Pholtus, I was commanded to come here to make sure the Cudgel's spiritual presence is felt as well."

"You don't look like any priest I have ever met," said Odus, grinning.

"I am no priest," Izera responded, without a trace of a sense of humour. "I am the Cudgel's dark bride, his loving angel of death, the tool for which his retribution is felt. All brides of the Vault serve this function for their celestial husbands. I focus my zeal and dedication to a chosen enemy, then my faith does the rest, guiding my blade in all things."

"When it comes to wielding a blade, I prefer muscle and skill to faith," responded Isak.

She looked him up and down, appraising him. "You look to be a fine warrior, but imagine what more you could do, fueled by faith? I shall enjoy fighting alongside you, strong one. I shall convert you slowly, with every swing of my sword, you shall see!"

No one knew what to say.

"I like her," said Odus out of the blue.

Garrick rolled his eyes, but had to admit allies were in short supply, especially since Erevas had informed them he would remain in the Feygrove. "Well then, welcome to Gardmore. One thing though: what, exactly, is 'The Vault?'"

Izera began replacing her veil as she answered. "It is a clandestine organization, devoted to secretly seeking out enemies of the faiths of good and removing them from play. We are the hidden blade that strikes down the evil ruler in his sleep; that cuts the hierophant's throat before he performs his human sacrifice; stabs the humanoid chieftan in the back before it can order its troops to assault the village. All with the power the faith in our gods provides."

Well, sounds like she'll have her uses, at least, thought Isak. Is her sword bigger than mine....?
"I couldn't help but notice you called yourself a bride of the Cudgel," said Odus.
"Yes," replied Izera seriously. "Each of us is devoted to one deity and each deity has one servant in the organization. It provides solemnity of purpose, a proper devotion... to be a chosen bride of the deity is to have one's priorities made clear at all times. And, if one of us falls in battle, naturally a new bride is chosen; a deity can never be without a bride."

"Interesting concept," mused Odus. "At any rate, I am Odus, son of Ty. This is Garrick..."

"Arcanists," said Izera almost under her breath, nodding.

"... um, yes. This is Mordekai, Speaker with Spirits."

"A seeker? Truly I have found myself in an odd place... but it is the will of Vault."

Odus shared a confused look with Mordekai, shrugged his shoulders and finished "And this is Isak."
Izera appraised the young warrior again; Isak was sure she was smirking beneath her veil. However, she merely nodded and said "Pleased to be counted amongst your number. May we continue this later? I need to find lodging and prepare myself for evening prayers."

"Sure," said Garrick. "Someone will show you to somewhere that should suffice until a more permanent solution can be found... tell me, though: Why is your organization called 'The Vault?' "

She stopped walking and turned to look at the men. "Because whatever is put in our care is made safe." She began walking away and called out "You need no longer worry, stewards of Gardmore: the Abbey has been placed in the Vault."

They watched her walk off with her escort, and when they thought she was out of hearing Isak's sarcasm could not be held back. "Well, good, because we were going gray with worry, right frie... wait, she just turned around...there's no way she heard me...do you think she heard me? How could she have heard me?"

Mordekai simply shook his head and chuckled as he headed back to his space within the Feygrove while Garrick and Odus shared a good laugh at their friend's expense.

The next few weeks cemented the challenges that would be facing the Winterguard. In keeping with Sir Oakley's vision, the Abbey would be a home to shrines of good-aligned deities, and people of any of those faiths would find a home here, though a special place would be reserved for the Platinum Dragon, in honour of the Abbey's history. That meant including the faith of Pholtus (much to the consternation of Izera and the satisfaction of Myariken) and therefore accepting a certain amount of presence from the League of Valourous Blindness (to the consternation of both). Since all were technically servants of the gods of good, trouble really should be minimal, but when religion was involved one never knew.

Money was another problem. Odus' plans notwithstanding, gold would be needed to get things done here, and doing it through even more taxation was not an option. Other revenues would have to be discovered, even if those revenues came from the caves of defeated dragons. Maybe especially then.
Politically, Gardmore would have to stay under the radar as much as possible or the house of cards risked tumbling down. Pardoxically, the more successful they were, the harder this would be.
The Winterguard hadn't forgotten their enemies either. While they may have dealt with Maldrick Scarmaker, the Blackfang gnolls still had a presence in the area. The passage from the Vaults lead to the Underdark, they now knew for certain thanks to Bhintel, and that made it potentially very dangerous. They knew that Fatale would still be hunting for them and now that they were higher profile it would be harder to evade her sight. Finally, Solomon had shown an interest in them, even here in Winterhaven, having made a play for the Deck of Many Things. Would he give up on such an artifact? It seemed unlikely... and they wanted to deal with him for their own reasons at any rate.
No, this new era would bring many more challenges than they would have considered possible when they left in pursuit of a negligent merchant all that time ago... but they were also certain they could meet them.



And so it begins again.
 
 Episode 7 of The Iron Guard - 2013-11-08 -  
 Part I: The Red Star 
With a bone rattling explosion of light, the very fabric of night is ripped asunder. A whirlwind of arcane force whips the once quiet glade of Gamboge into a miniature cyclone of chaotic flashes, with the very air screeching as though the universe itself were protesting this sudden event.

And with an abruptness as jarring as how it started, the madness ends, and the rending sounds of reality tearing open, are replaced with a long drawn out scream of terror and pain, as two figures wink into existence, the ground steaming and burnt beneath them.

The figure screaming, his arms spread wide as his face faces into the sky, rolls over and collapses, the scream lasting as long as the breath within his lungs can maintain it. Grey-skinned, his eyes orbs of complete blackness, Legion pants and gasps as though he's just run a thousand leagues to reach this point.

Beside him, Morpheus has remained on his feet. His pale skin is marked by tattoos and piercings, the hallmark of the shadar-kai. He peers around, taking in the forest surroundings, his face confused and bewildered. As his eyes fall upon the collapsed form of Legion, his face twists into carnal rage. In the blink of an eye, Morpheus' dagger is in his fist, as he flips Legion over onto his back and grasps the front of his tunic. The dagger hangs over Legion, the blade quivering as though it takes all of Morpheus strength and will to hold it at bay.

An end, finally; is all Legion can think. It was folly to think his tale would end any other way than this, but still, even those without hope can dream sometimes, no? With no resistance, the mage closes his eyes, and waits for the blade to fall.

"Do it..." he moans, "End it... finally..."

Morpheus' hand pulls back even further, but before he can ram the dagger home, he bellows an almost animal howl of pain and rage, and drops the dagger. Throwing Legion roughly to the ground again, with much disdain and disgust, he stands and glares at his nemesis.

"Where is she?!?!" Morpheus shouts, his fists clenching and unclenching, his eyes darting around the clearing, "What trickery is this?!?! You promised me Shareen!"

Legion has no answer, as he remains on the ground staring into the night sky. He shakes his head, as if to clear his vision, and stares again. Morpheus' rage begins to subside, as he catches the confused looks Legion directs towards the night sky. He too, turns to look up, not seeing anything until a moment later, when he spies a bright red streak racing across the sky.

"What is that?" Morpheus asks the wizard, his anger forgotten.

"What... is what?" Legion replies, his voice weak.

"That." The monk replies, as he points to the streaking red star. But Legion's eyes never leave the quadrant of the sky he is staring at, in fact, his eyes widen in shock. To see Legion, normally an emotionless and inexpressive creature, showing such a depth of confusion, suddenly concerns Morpheus.

The wizard finally looks to the red star, but he continues to turn his head, as though it is of no consequence. Morpheus looks about again, trying to shake off his unease at the way Legion is acting.

"Is this Cloak Wood? The Dales...?" the monk asks, as he glances around. When no reply comes, he looks back to Legion, only to find the wizard has not moved at all. He just continues to stare into the sky. Angrier than he should be, Morpheus stalks over to Legion, grasping his cloak roughly by the shoulder, he shakes him to get his attention.

"Where are we, damn you?!?"

Legion's head turns slowly, and Morpheus can't be sure, but he senses an element of fear in the shades normally expressionless face.

"I... don't know." Legion replies weakly.
 Episode 8 of The Iron Guard - 2013-11-09 -  
 Part II: Revelations 
It's a few moments later when Legion rises slowly to his feet. Morpheus reaches out to help him, but the mage pushes his hands away roughly. "Don't be a fool, you can barely walk," the shadar-kai says as he reaches out to help Legion again. Again, his companion pulls away.

"We don't need your help." Legion hisses, his voice venomous.

Morpheus takes several deep breaths to calm himself. Inside his emotions spiral in turmoil, but his training as a monk takes over, and he's able to maintain calm. For several minutes, he watches Legion test his legs and move about the glade. The mage checks the ground, then the sky again, then the ground.

"How long were we unconscious for?" Legion asks.

"Weeks." Morpheus replies after a long sigh, "I lost count. I started to think you were lost to us."

"Oh, how sad that must have been for you," smirks Legion, as he continues to examine their surroundings.

"Do not mock me." Morpheus spits, his voice dangerous. The two remain in silence for several long minutes, before the monk attempts to engage Legion again.

"How can you not know where we are? You brought us here!"

"It's not that simple," the mage replies, but adds no further information. Morpheus sighs again, when it becomes apparent that Legion will volunteer no more information. The shadar-kai begins his own investigation, if only to distract him from the anger he feels.

"There is no summoning circle here..." Legion mumbles out loud.

"What does that mean?" Morpheus asks. His own investigations had already uncovered a trail leading out of the grove.

"We can't go back." Legion says.

"Well," Morpheus says half-heartedly, "We can. Surely, it will just take much longer to travel back to Baldur's Gate."

"No," Legion says, his head shaking, "There is no Baldur's Gate, here. This isn't Faerûn. This isn't even Toril." Morpheus, unwilling to admit he doesn't understand, just stares at Legion. When the mage finally realizes that the monk has no idea of the impact of his statement, he speaks again.

"This is another world."
 Episode 9 of The Iron Guard - 2013-11-10 -  
 Part III: Clearing the Air 
Dawn finds the pair walking on a well-travelled road. It takes them a few hours to find their way out of the forest, travelling in sullen silence the entire time. As the sun begins its climb skyward, Legion breaks the silence.

"We never promised you'd find Shareen after we transported, only that we could find the phylactery. At least, that's what we thought would happen."

"Why are you telling me this?" Morpheus replies, as he continues his stoic march beside the mage. Legion remains silent for a long time before speaking again.

"Blackcross, an old affiliate of ours, had the phylactery. We'll need it back if you want to recover Shareen."

"You said as much when you woke, it's how you lured me here. But you also said Blackcross was dead!" Morpheus exclaims.

"Perhaps..." Legion says, his voice trailing off, "Or perhaps not..."

"I have no patience for this," Morpheus blurts, his control slipping, as his hand drops to his dagger, "and I no longer trust you."

"We're not trying to sound aloof!" Legion states, angrily, the show of emotion throwing Morpheus off. "We don't know! We were not expecting to appear here. We were expecting to appear wherever Blackcross was destroyed, but now we're not sure. We focused on the phylactery, so there must be a connection here somewhere. And let's not bandy words under false pretense - you never trusted us."

"How can you have the power to bring us to another world?" Morpheus asks as they continue their trek down the road.

"It wasn't entirely me." Legion answers, "And there will be a cost we'll have to pay." His words bringing a chill to Morpheus's spine.
 Episode 10 of The Iron Guard - 2013-11-11 -  
 Part IV: Fates Path 
Morpheus can tell by their stance that the guards at the gates have limited martial experience, and he can also tell that they're uncomfortable with his appearance. He thanks the gods that he was smart enough to have Legion pull up his hood to conceal his features as much as possible, and that the growing twilight helps to conceal him where the cloak fails.

What if I don't understand them? There is a momentary panic, but the monk realizes it's too late to walk away now, as to do so would cause too much suspicion. No, it would be best to leap and see where you land at this point.

"Welcome to Winterhaven," The first guard says, his long spear gleaming in the sunlight. His companion, a much older and more experienced looking man, nods as he looks them over.

"Pleased if you could be telling us your business here," the second guard states. Their accents are different, alien in fact, but Morpheus still understands them fine. Relief floods into him, which causes him to smile widely. The guards visibly relax at what they take to be a sign of friendliness.

"I am Morpheus," the monk says as he bows to them, "My companion and I have travelled very far in search of your scholar. We've many questions to ask and much information to share." It was a gamble, for sure, but Morpheus spied the wizardly looking tower rising above the walls, and it seemed the best way to make a contact. Surely any scholar from this word would be fascinated to speak with explorers from another world.

Both guards smile at this, as they pull the gates open for them.

"You'll be looking for Valthrun then," says the first as he gestures towards the tower inside, "Good luck getting his nose out of those books long enough to talk to you."

"And if you're looking for work," adds the second, "Lord Padraig is hoping to gather more fighting men at Gardmore, which Valthrun can bring you up to speed on."

The monk nods as he passes the two men. He hesitates on the threshold of the quaint town, feasting in the smells and sights of an alien world. Taking his first step into Winterhaven, Morpheus feels a shifting of fates, as if a path has opened up before him.

I'm coming Shareen, he thinks to himself, and nothing will stop me.
 Episode 11 of The Iron Guard - 2013-11-12 -  
 Part V: Otherworldly Signs 
Valthrun peered worriedly into his spyglass. Normally, spending an evening staring at the constellations was a source of much joy for the young sage, but not tonight. There was talk everywhere about the Red Tear. At least that was what the citizens of Winterhaven were calling it. It was a red star - streaking across the night sky - that had been there for days. With Padraig laid low under mysterious circumstances, and the ominous star, it was enough to bring out the worst superstitions in the town's populace. Valthrun knew that Padraig was recuperating from the mental invasions of a cursed necklace of Vecna, but that news was wisely not spread among the common people.

Valthrun, sighed and began paging through his tomes again. What he'd discovered worried him. No, that wasn't exactly right. It terrified him. He was still cross checking his facts, but the signs could not be denied. He'd need to get to Gardmore. He'd need to speak to the Winterguard. Vathrun was a man who enjoyed the sanctity of his tower and the comfort and safety of his home. The thought of making the journey to Gardmore did not sit well with Valthrun's hermit-like tendencies. But this was no time to be cowardly.

A sudden knock on his front door startles the books out of Valthrun's lap, causing an avalanche of scrolls and tomes to fall onto the floor. He's not expecting anyone. The sage is debating ignoring the knock and returning to the stars, when it comes again, this time longer. Curiosity gets the better of him, and he hurries down the steps to the front door. The visitors are in the middle of knocking a third time by the time he slides his view window open and stares out at them.

The forward figure is a robed humanoid, his features pale and tattooed, and his complexion covered in various piercings. A shadar-kai, native of the shadowfel, on his very doorstep! Valthrun's excitement ebbs, when he begins to wonder if there is a connection with his discovery, and these visitors. He doesn't see the second figure beyond the first, but when he does, there is almost nothing to see but a shadowy form in a deep hooded cloak. Valthrun blinks for a second when he thinks he spies glowing eyes deep in the hood. Nothing about either figure makes him feel at ease, especially not after having discovered what he has about the red star.

"Yes? Can I help you?" Valthrun stammers, hating the obvious fear that he can't keep from his voice.

"My name is Morpheus." The monk says, as he holds out his empty hands, trying his best to look disarming, "This is my companion, Legion." There is a pause before the word companion, but Valthrun fails to notice. The shadar-kai continues, "We've come seeking your aid in a quest that will seem impossible to believe, and highly improbable, but I assure you that it is truth."

"What do you need from me?" Valthrun asks, his voice less stressed.

"Knowledge." Morpheus says, "There is no easy way to explain us, then to say, we're not from around here."

"Well," the sage interrupts, "I know you're from the shadowfel, that much is evident, but I fail to se--"

"No," interrupts Morpheus, "Not the shadowfel. You are correct in that I was born there, but for years I have adventured and journeyed outside that dark realm. Until recently, I worked with the group that liberated Baldur's Gate." Valthrun's brow furrows in confusion.

"I consider myself a learned scholar, sir, and I know of no place that is called such." the sage states, somewhat defiantly.

"Nor would I expect you to know it." The shadar-kai continues, "It is ruled over by Grand Duke Portyr, and is known the world over as the greatest city on the Sword Coast, though Waterdeep and Athkatla would greatly debate this point." Morpheus shrugs when he sees Valthrun's look of bewilderment.

"Are you mad?" the sage says.

"No," Morpheus replies, his brow furrowing, "but this next part you may prefer to sit down for, as it will take a while to explain and may shock you. You see, we are from another world, entirely."
 Episode 12 of The Iron Guard - 2013-11-15 -  
 Part VI: Friend or Foe? 
"Amazing!" Valthrun exclaims as he leads Legion and Morpheus up the stairs of his tower. This is of course, not the first time he has uttered the phrase to them. "Did you come across the Astral Plane? Do you have an astral ship? What about the githzerai? Did you travel with them? I... I don't know where to start!"

"No," Morpheus, begins to answer, "no ship." He goes to say more but suddenly his leg gives out beneath him and he stumbles on the stairs, only to be caught by Legion behind him. The shadar-kai, shakes his head to clear the sudden fog that almost caused him to faint. Valthrun notices nothing, and continues to lead them into his study. He spends a large amount of time clearing off two seats before he moves around behind his desk, cluttered with open books and scrolls.

Morpheus sits heavily, suddenly looking exhausted, and Legion drops his hood and turns to the sage. Valthrun, having lowered himself into his seat, finally looks up, but when he gazes upon Legion, he immediately leaps back from his chair and stumbles into a heap behind his desk.

"Gods!" Valthrun exclaims, as he struggles to rise again. Legion cocks an eyebrow at Morpheus who rises slowly, and steadies himself on the edge of the desk.

"Please!" Morpheus says, "He won't hurt you. It's not what you think."

"How can it not be?!?" The sage cries out, "You've brought a shade into my tower!"

"Yes," Morpheus sighs heavily, sinking into the chair once again, when it becomes plain that Valthrun won't run. The sage for his part gains his feet and stays with his back against the far wall, staring at the shade. Legion remains motionless.

"Legion is a shade," the monk continues, as Legion takes more interest in the books around them, then he does of the conversation about him, "But he will not harm you. He and I are working together." Morpheus struggles with the word together but again, Valthrun fails to notice.

"Please," the monk explains, "we are strangers here and lost. You may be our only hope. We've traveled across worlds to achieve one simple thing."

"Something evil, no doubt!" Valthrun spits.

"No!" Morpheus says, "Nothing of the sort. We are here to save my sister."
 Episode 13 of The Iron Guard - 2013-11-16 -  
 Part VII: The Toll 
They spoke at length for a long time. Over the course of hours, Valthrun finally settled back into his chair. Legion remained reserved and quiet throughout, speaking only when prompted or to correct Morpheus. The tale was fascinating to the sage, so much so, that he barely interrupted. Dawn was breaking over Winterhaven before they'd exhausted everything they needed to tell him.

"Now, this phylactery you seek, I've never heard of anything resembling it around here." Valthrun tells them.

"No," Legion states, his voice quiet, "the item is more than likely shattered, it's pieces spread across various realms and domains. But the fact that the portal brought us here would suggest that there is a connection here, somewhere."

Suddenly, Valthrun is startled by very insistent knocking upon his front door.

"Valthrun!" Someone cries from beyond the tower, "Come quick! It's Lord Padraig!" The urgency in the voice drives the sage from his chair. He rushes across the room, knocking over pages of vast knowledge in the process. At the door to the stairs, he pauses to look at his guests.

"Please, wait here!" the sage states, "I think it best if you remain out of sight for now. Make yourselves at home, and I will be back as soon as I can!" With that, Valthrun scurries down the stairs, leaving Legion and Morpheus alone.

"Well, that went well." Morpheus says, his words oddly slurring. Legion glances over at him, his eye brow raised. Morpheus rises from the chair, takes one step, and then collapses in a heap upon the floor. Legion is out of his chair in a flash, hovering over the shadar-kai as he checks his companion's well-being.

"You!" Morpheus hisses, "You did this to me!" The monk attempts to rise, but finds himself too weak to manage it. Legion nods his head.

"Yes," the shade agrees, "In a fashion. The power to move through worlds comes at a cost. A cost someone like me is not equipped to pay."

"My life...?" Morpheus whispers.

"No..." Legion whispered softly, "Nothing so drastic. We simply needed some of your life essence for lack of a better term. You should be able to recover from this. In fact, we thought that since you were still standing upon arrival that you were not going to be affected."

"Why didn't you warn me?!?" Morpheus demands.

"Would it have changed your decision to come?" Legion asks.

"No." Morpheus states. "How long will I be this frail?"

"Hard to say," Legion shrugs, "however long it takes your body to recuperate."

"I can't recover the phylactery like this!" Morpheus cries in anguish.

"Not yet," the shade replies, "But I am not hampered. Until you recover, you will just have to trust me to do it."
 Episode 14 of The Iron Guard - 2013-11-17 -  
 Part VIII: A Chance Encounter 
"Why has Lord Padraig been taking audience in the main hall? I thought he'd been told to stay abed?" Valthrun badgers the guard as the two hastily move through the streets of Winterhaven. Most of the town is already busy going about their day, and the two men rushing through the streets drew far more attention than the young sage wanted. He tries to remember to lower his voice.

"He insisted," the worried guard answers, "for the last few days, he's been taking audience with various groups and adventurers who came calling. Word is spreading that he's looking for able bodied men willing to aid in the rise of Gardmore."

"Days!" Vathrun exclaims, before realizing he's raising his voice again. The two men push through the manor house until they reach the main hall. The scene is frightening for Valthrun. The guards have cleared the room of everyone except one figure that the sage barely notices. Two guards hover over the prone form of Padraig, clearly unsure what to do.

Valthrun drops to his knees and begins to check Lord Padraig in all the ways he knows, wishing that he had Odus or Sister Lenora there to help. Though he has some knowledge of the human body, it's strictly in a scholarly sense, and he has no idea what to do to help Padraig.

"May I be of assistance?" a voice says from behind. Valthrun turns and finds the forgotten guest that the guards had not ushered out. Having moved up quietly, the man has taken a knee behind Vathrun, his eyes on Padraig. Behind him, the sage can see a spear leaning against the wall, and the tabard the man wears is patched and grimy, bearing the leering mask of the Laughing Rogue. With the strangers sleeves rolled up, Valthrun can see clearly the plethora of tattoos across his hand and forearms. The back of his right hand bears a set of dice rolled to ones, where the forearm is a storm of black clouds, demons, and monstrosities. On the back of the left hand is another pair of dice, these bearing a roll of seven total, and the forearm is a portrait of clouds, sunlight, and angels. Valthrun pauses, unsure what to make of the man. Clad in chain, the man's skin betrays a familiarity with combat in the many scars and marks on his body, and his close cropped hair gives the sage the impression that he's a soldier, not a healer.

"Uh," Valthrun looks him over again, taking in his martial nature, "I don't mean to offend you, but you don't look like you can help." The stranger smiles patiently.

"It's clear you are out of your depth here, friend," he says smiling as he inches closer, "Why not chance my help?"

"Our regular healer, Sister Lenora, is not here, as luck would have it. Are you a healer?"

"As a matter of fact, I am." The stranger reaches out and places his palms on Padraig, and Valthrun can feel power flowing through the man and into Padraig. "Ironic the twist of chance, isn't it?"

"How so?" Valthrun says as he leans back, relieved to see colour return to Lord Padraig, and his breathing begin to even out from its previous laboured state.

"Fortune puts me here when your healer is not."

FYNN

"Well, friend, some might say that Lenora being absent is ill luck." Valthrun states skeptically. The stranger merely smiles in return, as Padraig's eyes flutter open and the men help him to a sitting position.

"Bad or good," the stranger says, "it's still luck." He extends his hand out to Valthrun, "My name is Phenton Luckmaker, a cleric of Olidammara, but please call me Fynn". The two men shake hands as Lord Padraig shakes the fog from his head.

Padraig finally becomes more aware of his surroundings, and the group of men help him to his chair.

"What happened?" the Lord of Winterhaven asks, confusion in his voice.

"You had a fainting episode, my Lord." Fynn says, glancing at Valthrun, "But I would suggest you retire for the day, and get your strength back." Valthrun nods his head in agreement, as he hovers close to his liege.

"My lord," the young sage says, "I must make haste to Gardmore in order to speak with the Winterguard but I need to bring you up to speed on some readings I've uncovered, perhaps I can help you to your quarters, and we can discuss matters there?"

"Nonsense," Padraig states gruffly, "I've spent enough time lying around! There is too much to be done, and enough time has been wasted. I will accompany you to Gardmore and we can discuss matters along the way."

"Respectfully, I would not recommend this course of action, my lord." Fynn adds, "You could encounter another fainting episode. I don't mean to pry, but it's evident to me that you've undergone some sort of psychic trauma recently, and you don't want to be alone on the road without the benefit of a healer if another seizure happens."

Anchor"Who is this man?" Padraig demands of Valthrun, his tone impatient.

"Um, Phenton, a cleric." The sage stammers.

"Good." Padraig states with finality, "Then he'll travel with us."

"Well, uh," Valthrun says unsure, "It's just that I'm not sure why he's here, my lord." The cleric of Olidammara smiles at the sage.

"As luck would have it," Fynn says, "I was here to ask lord Padraig's permission to go to Gardmore."
 Episode 15 of The Iron Guard - 2013-11-18 -  
 Part IX: The Road to Gardmore 
The moment of silence drags on for longer than pleasant company would normally allow it to. The jingle of the coach, the gentle sounds of Morpheus slumbering next to Legion, the continuous trot of the draft horses, and the soft babble of the groups of men accompanying the caravan are like a tidal wave of welcome noise for Fynn, who sat across from Legion and Morpheus.

It's like being in the army again, thinks Fynn, only the ride's more comfortable. He continues to stare at the shade, his eyes refusing to waver. Legion, for his part, stares back with no expression. They are in the second such coach, the first being for Padraig and Valthrun, along with other carts and supplies being taken to Gardmore. And there are numerous men. Mercenaries, and a few adventurers as well that Padraig has acquired in hopes of bolstering the strength of his now famous "Winterguard".

Fynn wonders to himself if this means that he himself was now part of the renowned group. The cleric's goal was to set up a gambling den in Gardmore, a place of worship for those faithful to Olidammara, and a great source of gold for any smart hustler. Fynn had hoped to leave the blood and guts behind him, his dreams already plagued by the fields of dead young men that littered the grounds after every large battle. But by the gods did he miss it already. Perhaps working with a smaller group would be better.

The shade stares back, his gaze unwavering. Does it even, blink? Is he going to be part of them too, Fynn wonders? He's never met a darker pair than these two. It makes sense to be wary, but still. Fynn sighs, finally breaking the staring contest to fish his lucky coin from his tunic. Heads, he thinks to himself, heads puts me back in the game.

The cleric stared at the battered old coin, running his fingers over the edges. Guide me, he silently prays to himself, help me choose you tricky old rogue. In one fluid motion, he flicks the gold coin spinning into the air. As the coin flips end over end in the jostling cart, Fynn risks a glance back at the shade. Legion has moved off to stare out the window, but the cleric can see it staring back out of the corner of its eye with one eyebrow cocked in curiosity. Fynn snatches the coin from the air, and slaps it onto the back of his hand. The left hand. The shield hand. The hand he's adorned with angel tattoos and sunbursts. Slowly, he uncovers the coin, very much aware that Legion too is watching the result.

Heads.

Fynn chuckles to himself. He puts the coin back into his pocket, and smiles widely at Legion, extending his hand in friendship.

"Phenton Luckmaker" the cleric says by way of introduction, waiting for his curious companion to accept the handshake. Legion stares at the offered hand, in a long stretched out manner that makes Fynn begin to think he won't accept it. But slowly the shade reaches across the gap and takes his hand. The gesture is awkward, almost as though it's been years since Legion has shaken anyone's hand.

"Coin tosses seem like an unusual way to start friendships," the shade says matter of factly.

"Aye," Fynn replies, "But I'm a cleric of Olidammara, so perhaps it's not that odd at all. And who says this is a friendship? Maybe it's just a partnership." Legion tilts his head, but says nothing for a few long moments.

"Luckmaker?" this time the shade actually smirks at Fynn.

"Not a real family name, obviously." Fynn replies, "Just a name I picked up a number of years ago. It seems people think I can bend luck in my favor. My friend's call me Fynn." Legion sits back, nodding his head at the cleric for a few moments before speaking again, in his slow deliberate manner.

"Well then, Fynn, it seems we are friends after all."

With a heavy sigh, Erenst Padraig sinks back into his seat, his spirits plummeting. Valthrun feels terrible having had to tell his liege all the frightening facts of his discovery, especially given Lord Padraig's raised spirits at his own news he wanted to tell the sage.

"It's just like Kalarel all over again," the noble says shaking his head in dismay, "When does it end?" Valthrun is delighted that Padraig makes the connection, and in his excitement he practically jumps out of his seat.

"You are precisely correct, my lord!" the young sage pushes his spectacles back into place and begins to talk animatedly with his hands, "Kalarel was attempting to open a portal to the Shadowfel in order to bring into our world forces in line with Orcus. This star, the last time it was seen, was when Orcus named a new exarch, and that exarch did the same thing!"

Padraig stares at Valthrun's smiling face and shakes his head in disbelief.

Anchor"Wouldn't the star mean that whoever that person is this time, they succeeded in opening the portal?" the noble says in a sobering tone. Valthrun's smile drops. He has not thought about that possibility. Now he sees why his liege has become so melancholy. The young sage reaches across, and in an uncharacteristic gesture, he pats Padraig's knee.

"We have the Winterguard, my liege; they will succeed where others would fail."

"Let us hope," Padraig says as he hands Valthrun a message scroll. The sage pours over the note, and a smile breaks across his face.

"Well, this is good news!" Valthrun exclaims, "A potential trade agreement with the Seven Pillared Hall! It says they're sending an envoy to Gardmore to discuss it."

"Yes," Padraig says skeptically, "and it also says they require a favor to finalize the agreement."

"But still..." Valthrun replies, "there is potential for good news!"

"Depends on the favor." Padraig replies, glumly.
 Episode 17 of The Iron Guard - 2013-11-19 -  
 Part X: The Invoker 
When the entourage breaks for the evening, Fynn uses the distraction as a chance to leave the coach. Part of him thinks perhaps he should seek out Padraig, and work his way into the man's good graces, but the smell and noise of the camp forming around him reminds him too much of his times among soldiers. The cleric chooses instead to wander into the encampment.

Around a lone campfire, but cooking no food sits a rather tall striking figure. His facial expression is very neutral and his dark hair neither long nor short, and there is somewhat of a stern and serious look to him. The man sits with legs stretched out to the fire, reading from a dusty book titled 'The Laws of the Gods', a staff across his legs. Like Fynn, the man is clad in chainmail. Curious, the cleric wanders closer.

"May I?" Fynn asks, gesturing to the fire. The stranger arches an eyebrow at Fynn, and then nods his head in affirmative. But there is no friendly smile, or overt welcoming gesture. The cleric settles himself down on the ground, pulling his cooking utensils from his pack as well as a hare he bought from a squire who was a keen eye with a sling. Fynn squeezes water into the pot from his waterskin, and then throws in a few herbs. In a few minutes he's got the rabbit skinned and boiling. The other man has neither moved nor spoken then entire time.

"Have you eaten?" Fynn asks as he stirs the broth.

"No." replies the stranger without taking his nose from the book.

"You're welcome to share." The cleric offers as he pulls out a worn deck of cards.

"That's rather kind of you."

"But," Fynn says, as he shuffles the cards from one hand to the next deftly, "You'll have to play me for it. Whatever you want to ante in to play for dinner is fine with me."

This finally gets a reaction from the stranger, who puts the book away and slowly turns to face Fynn across the fire. Again he arches his eyebrow at the cleric.

"Are you seriously expecting me to gamble my wealth for dinner?"

"Why not? I'm not that good." Fynn lies. The stranger's mouth slides into a half smile.

"Let's be clear," the man says, "you are asking me to bet against you for food," Fynn nods in as friendly a manner as he can manage. "Against a cleric of Olidammara?" the stranger finishes. Fynn's smile drops.

"Okay, you can share the food at no cost," the cleric says in disappointment, he extends his hand out to the stranger, "My name is Fletcher Hamstead, second cousin to Lord Padraig himself."

"Ah, well I'm honored to meet you my lord," the other man bows his head at Flynn, "My name is Bahl. I'm a scholar hoping to settle myself in Gardmore and start what could one day be a great library. The Library of Gardmore!" The handshake is firm and confident.

"At least that explains why you get to ride in the coach," Bahl continues looking over his shoulder, "But your companions don't seem like a friendly sort."

"Well," Fynn replies, "They're ambassadors from the Shadowfel and my cous--" Bahl's snort of suppressed laughter stops Fynn short. He narrows his eyes at Bahl.

"Please," Bahl says, throwing up his hands, "Drop the charade. Padraig has no cousins. I appreciate your ability to lie, but you're not nobility." Fynn smiles back at Bahl.

"Whatever," the cleric retorts, "you're no scholar. You're not planning on making any grand library of Gardmore" The last bit Fynn does in a mocking reflection of Bahl's voice. The cleric pours the cards from one hand to the other again, his eyes carrying a clear challenge to Bahl.

"Alright," Bahl says, nodding mischievously, "Truth is the stakes. What's the game?"

"Blackrat." Fynn says as he begins to deal. A few moments later, the cleric throws the first hand, giving Bahl the win.

"Your real name?" Bahl asks.

"Phenton Luckmaker, but everyone calls me Fynn." The next hand goes to Fynn, without the cleric having to intervene.

"Not a scholar." Phenton talks to himself aloud, "But no mage either, the chain makes that evident." He scratches his head perplexed, "What exactly are you?"

"Invoker." Bahl responds. Fynn's eyes light up.

"No kidding? Pelora>. Am I right?"

"How did you know?" the invoker says startled.

"Lucky guess, actually." The rounds pass quickly, and Fynn cheats himself into more than enough wins to ask a lot of questions, though he respectfully never pries into why Bahl is heading for Gardmore. Finally, with the stew ready, the cards are put away and the two men settle down to eat.

"Not bad" Bahl says, sipping gingerly.

"Thanks."

Anchor"Are you taking the coach again tomorrow?" the invoker asks.

"Nah," Fynn replies, "Makes my legs stiff, and the ride is not that comfortable. Mind if I tuck in next to your fire?"

"Be my guest." Bahl says as he goes back to reading. Fynn lays out his sleeping pack and settles himself in for the evening, staring up at the skies and the lone red streaking star. Good omen, or ill?

"Fynn?" Bahl asks.

"Yeah?"

"I knew the cards were marked by the third hand."
 Episode 18 of The Iron Guard - 2013-11-20 -  
 Part XI: The Warlord 
Michael woke up naked and disoriented, with his head groggy from too much drink. Next to him, the naked form of a woman stirred under the covers. Her voice sighed as she stretched and then settled back to sleep. He smiled to himself as he remembered that it wasn't just too much drink he indulged in last night. But then he recalled why he awoke so suddenly. There were footsteps on the inn stairs, attempting to sneak up to his floor.

Whoever was creeping up wasn't very good at stealth, Mike thought to himself. He quickly glanced around the room for his weapons. Nothing. In fact, he couldn't even see his clothes anywhere either. Damn, he thought to himself, did I strip off in the common room again?

Determined to meet his assailant at the door, Michael slid from the bed as quietly as possible, naked as the day he was born. Tall and imposing, his figure was packed with muscle, and he carried himself with the confidence he took with him to every battle. He was, after all, a warlord, albeit a naked one at that moment.

The clumsy steps stopped just outside his door. Michael took a deep breath, and pulled the door open as he reached out to grapple his attacker. Expecting a dagger wielding assassin, Mike was surprised to find he'd grabbed a grubby unarmed man whom he didn't recognize. The man's eyes were wide in terror, and as Mike pulled him into the room, the stranger dropped a letter he carried to the floor. Seeing himself being accosted by a naked man, the stranger quickly broke himself free and pushed Mike away from him.

"Shove off, mate!" the accosted man hissed at him, "I don't go that way!" The stranger glared at Mike as he fixed his clothes that the warlord had pulled askew. As he shook his head in annoyance, the stranger kicked the letter toward Michael.

"Odus, son of Ty asked me to deliver that to you."

"Odus?" Michael responded, as his eyes lit up in excitement, "He's here, in Arantide?" The warlord pushed past the delivery man and scanned the hallway. It was empty, save for several discarded pieces of his clothes. That solves that mystery, Mike thought to himself.

"No," the stranger replied as he left the room, looking Mike up and down, "He was in town several days ago looking for you. Did you miss that whole debacle at the reading of Hallomak Stromm's will?" Mike had no knowledge of it. He may have been over-indulging again; in fact, he wasn't even sure of what day it actually was at the time.

"Wait!" Michael called after the man as he descended the stairs, "Why didn't you deliver it sooner?"

"I was drunk." The stranger replied as he shrugged and wandered out of the inn. Mike stared down at the common room, and realized that the rest of his clothes were scattered about down there. Shit, he thought to himself, I did get naked in public again. He headed back into the room and closed the door before he picked up the letter. There was a sharp intake of breath behind him when he bent over to grab it off the floor.

Anchor

"Yummy." The woman behind him murmured seductively. Mike turned as he read the note, and at the same time he struggled to remember her name. Jezzabel? Jewel? He was pretty sure it started with a 'J'. The note was brief and to the point, written in Odus' hand: 'Head to Gardmore, as soon as possible. I could use your help.'

"Are you coming back to bed?" the woman asked playfully, as Mike thought about Odus. Friends since childhood, they may as well have been brothers. He'd heard the bard's name being spoken in powerful circles lately, and he'd been meaning to catch up with his old friend, and now Odus was asking for him. Mike smiled and glanced at the light leaking through the shutters. He figured it was very early in the morning. I should probably get going, the warlord thought, Odus has already been waiting too long if this letter is late.

"If you make me wait much longer," the woman whispered behind him, "I'll have to start without you."

"No need," Michael laughed as he sank bank into the bed, "I love a good morning romp, after all." Odus could wait a few more hours.
 Episode 19 of The Iron Guard - 2013-11-21 -  
 Part XII: Tunnel Rats 
Darkness is Bhintel's home. Well, maybe not anymore, but it certainly is the place she finds the most comfort. Deep below Gardmore, alone, is where she struggles within herself. Gendar had told her it would be hard to adjust, but she didn't anticipate how hard. She still feels alone. It is no one's fault but hers though, she understands that. The drow rogue feels alone with all these surface dwellers around her. It is hard for Bhintel to fit in, especially when she doesn't even try. She is smart enough to stay away from the fey grove and the eladrin, but lately, she is avoiding everyone else too.

Part of her just wants to run back to the Underdark, to what she knows. Maybe that's why Bhintel volunteered to guard the tunnel entrance beneath Gardmore. Maybe she wants to leave that option open. No. There will be no going back. That's not an option anymore, Bhintel thinks to herself. I need to make this work.

The noise is subtle and barely there. The drow rogue has been waiting hours in the dark tunnels for this moment. She knew they'd come. For the last few days, she's run into orcs in the tunnels. Guarding the tunnel entrance seemed too bland a task, and it didn't take long for Bhintel to decide she'd patrol the tunnel instead. When that got tedious, she decided to move further down into the tunnels. And then further still. When Bhintel started to encounter orcs below Gardmore, she figured they were remnant bands of refuges from when the Winterguard won Gardmore back from them.

Dispatching wandering orcs moving in small packs was an easy task for the drow rogue. She almost feels sorry for them. She lost track of how many days she's been down here playing cat and mouse with them. More like panther and rats, she chuckles silently to herself. I'm no cat, and they are not mice.

The noise comes again. Faint. Bhintel noticed a shift yesterday in the orcs. The ones she's been encountering are no longer the pushovers she expects. These ones seem better trained. Almost like drow. But that thought is crazy, Bhintel thinks, maybe I've been down here too long? Wasn't it just yesterday she heard the faint sound of someone calling her name?

The drow rogue is still as a statue as the orcs round the corner, moving patiently slow and silent. Orcs don't tend to be so disciplined. This is uncharacteristic of them, for sure. They spy the body of the dead orc Bhintel left barely hidden in a subtle picture of a poor attempt to hide her latest victim. Still, they approach cautiously, drawing their blades.

Bhintel catches the scent of something very familiar. She almost shakes her head in defiance of what she senses, but manages holds still so as not to give away her position. It can't be what she thinks. She must be going mad, but there is no time to waste thoughts on that anymore, for when the orcs turn their backs to Bhintel, she makes her move.

Unlike the drow, the orcs still require some meager light, which is why Bhintel placed the bait corpse by the faint glow of underground fungus. In a blink, the dim light around them suddenly becomes absolute darkness, and as this fact dawns on the first orc, his companion is already dead with Bhintel's dagger deep in his back. The remaining orc barely registers the death rattle of his partner when Bhintel plunges her danger into his throat.

The dead orc slumps to the tunnel floor, but before it can settle, Bhintel snatches up the his blade and examines it closer. She's not crazy. It's poisoned. And not just any run of the mill poison, either: drow poison! The rogue crouches down, as she wonders to herself where a bunch of savages would get their hands on drow poison. She flips her victim over, gazing into its face, and freezes as her blood runs cold.

The orc's face is covered in a giant tattoo. A stylized spider ringed in purple fire.

Damn, Bhintel thinks to herself. This is not good. All too suddenly she realizes she has lingered here too long. Drow in the tunnels? Damn! Bhintel explodes into motion, sprinting up the tunnels towards the surface, her dagger still dripping orc blood.

I've got to tell The Winter Guard!
 Episode 20 of The Iron Guard - 2013-11-22 -  
 Part XIII: The Arrival of Eranah 
The last wagon pulled through the gates leading to Gardmore Abbey, with a fresh-faced militia man quickly shutting them behind. He couldn't have been more than fourteen years of age; he barely filled out the piecemeal armour he wore and the he fumbled the halberd in his hands.

Here is a lad who has been forced to grow up too quickly, thought Eranah as she gracefully climbed down off the wagon and onto the loose cobblestone road, her plate armour making a faint echo. She unconsciously smoothed out her tabard and adjusted her shield. There was a slight rain falling, lending a glistening effect to her angel-motifed armour. She had removed her helmet, so her white and silver hair flew loosely in the breeze away from her face, revealing high cheekbones, deep-set eyes of sapphire and smooth lilac skin, whose only flaw could be the creases around her cheeks that come from smiling too easily.

Eranah had one such smile now. She knew the young guard at the gate was staring at her. It did not bother her; the deva had become quite used to it over her many lifetimes. She knew humans rarely saw devas and knew also when she was being admired and when she was being looked at as an object of lust; the latter very rarely happened and it wasn't happening now. The poor boy, she thought. If I offered to kiss him he'd probably faint dead away.

Instead of causing a scene that way (she admitted privately to herself that she most definitely would have in one of her other lives), she took on a more serious tone and approached the young man. "Excuse me, sir...?"

The boy flushed red and stammered "Oh, I ain't no,.. I mean! I mean, I isn't no... I mean!... I am no 'sir.' "

Eranah politely feigned surprise. "You have yet to be knighted?"

The boy shook his head, staring at the ground.

"Well then I am sure it will happen soon. Let us practice for that day, when we will address each other as fellow knights... and it begins with looking one another in the eye, with respect." With that, she gently placed her index finger beneath his chin and slowly forced his gaze to meet hers. He was trembling, but to his credit maintained eye contact with her once it was established. She was easily the most beautiful thing he had ever seen in his young life. Eranah knew she had that effect on people but always tried to use it as an opportunity to bring out something beautiful in whomever she was dealing with. As now, when she leaned in and whispered to the young man "Here is a secret I will share with you: It is not titles or knighthoods that give one worth, but deeds and the manner in which we carry them out." Leaning back (to stop him from trembling) she asked, "What is your name."

"Matthew, miss."

"Well, Matthew, I want you to know that I noticed the manner in which you inspected the wagons as they arrived; you did so thoroughly yet without insulting the honour of the people you were verifying. Moreover, I noticed your constant glancing to the outside, to prevent anyone coming in whilst the inspection took place. You are clearly a man who takes his duties seriously and performs them with honour. I shall sleep comfortably tonight, knowing that you, Matthew, are the guardian at the gate."

Matthew uttered an incoherent reply, lowered his gaze again slightly, then stood straight and saluted the deva paladin. She bowed slightly to him in return, then set off to find the houses of healing; while she was scheduled to meet with Lord Padraig, she had arrived early and wanted to see if her healing skills could be put to good use in the meantime.

She walked amidst the people, giving smiles of greetings and friendly waves wherever she went. Again, she was used to the attention she drew and always tried to make people feel as comfortable as possible around her. The holy symbol of Rao, a heart-shaped mask with a calm expression, covered her shield and breastplate, and gave assurance to the people; while the worship of Rao was less common this far east in the Flanaess, he was a recognized god of good, peace and wisdom and Eranah enjoyed the calming effect that could manifest simply by letting her faith be known in an indirect way.

Two children, a boy and a girl, no older than eight, suddenly ran up to the paladin, expressions of both awe and worry across their little faces as they called out "Miss! Miss, could you please help us?"

Eranah got down to one knee and looked to them. "What is it, little ones? How can I help you?"

"Our brother is hurt! Real bad! They say he's going to lose his leg!" they cried. "No one can fix him...can you?"

Eranah looked about and quickly saw the elderly woman who had certainly directed the children her way. She stood with two other villagers, one a human and the other a gnome, waiting anxiously to see what the deva would do.

She smiled gently at the children. "Take me to your brother, and I will see what I can do for him." Her words had immediate effect, with both children suddenly expressing hope and excitedly grabbing her hand to lead her to where their brother lay. Eranah could see the elderly woman step forward to scold the children for daring to grab the deva's hand but Eranah put her free hand up in gentle rebuke of whom she now surmised was the children's grandmother. Eranah knew people often felt ill-at-ease to interact with her in casual fashion and so loved children and their ignorance of such formalities. In all her lives, one of the things that remained constant was Eranah's love for children.

The young ones escorted Eranah about two blocks to the house of healing. There was much work to be done here, the deva could see that. She had hoped the spiritual renewal of the Abbey would attract more healers and diplomats, though she was sure everyone was doing the best they could. It was now her turn: the children had brought her to the bedside of another young man, only a few years older than Matthew, Guardian of the Gate. He was badly injured in the leg; the children had been right on that score. In the countless battles Eranah had been in, she had seen many such injuries, often resulting in gangrene infestation leading to death. But in this life, she served Rao, and one of the blessings involved included a gift of healing.

She got down to one knee again and put a hand on the outer shoulder of each of her escorts as they huddled close together, waiting for a diagnosis. "You were right to get me, young ones: He is grievously injured indeed..." Their faces fell. ".. but not beyond my ability to heal him," she finished with a smile and a wink that brought those faces back up with hope. "When he is chasing you around again after your next prank on him, remind him that he can only do so because of your own efforts, for you have saved him this day." The children looked at each other and shared squeals of joy. Eranah reflected that adults would have waited to see the healing before they rejoiced; another reason she loved children.

She leaned forward over her patient. "Hello. My name is Eranah. Your brother and sister have brought me here to restore your leg."

The young man grunted in pain. "No one can do that. They told me it's lost and they'll have to cut it to prevent disease from spreading."

Eranah nodded seriously at the diagnosis. "No doubt that would have been the path of wisdom had your siblings not happened to bring me here. But now a new path is set before you... what is your name?"

"Alric," grunted the young soldier.

"Well, Alric, I shall expect you to be fighting by my side; the Abbey needs all the brave people it can get." She smiled and winked. "After your period of recovery of course, which, by the looks of you shouldn't take too long."

Before Alric could respond, Eranah lay both her hands upon his injured leg and uttered a prayer to Rao. She never ceased to marvel at the miracle the god allowed her to perform, transitioning some of her life energy into another. In mere moments, the injury was healed, to the gasps of amazement from those gathered.

The children hugged the paladin with irreverence and affection while their older brother could only stare in amazement, first at his now healed leg and then at the deva who healed him. With eyes welling up with tears of gratitude, he stammered, "Are...are you an angel?"

Eranah tousled the hair of the children still clinging to her and looked back at Alric with a comforting smile that beamed equally from her eyes as from her mouth... her response of "Of course not," did nothing to convince Alric that she wasn't.

"Little ones, perhaps you should inform your grandmother that your older brother is now fit to carry her bags again?" she whispered conspiratorially with the children. They laughed to each other and ran off, while the paladin laid a comforting hand upon Alric's brow, pushing some his hair aside and saying softly "They love you very much. As such, they are a blessing. Remember them when next you ride into battle and you shall certainly prove victorious." Alric nodded his head, but said nothing, fearing his voice would break. Eranah left him with another gentle smile and looked about to see where else she could be useful.

In a corner, shrouded in gloom was a single cot with a man in it. No one was near him and no one seemed to be attending to him either. The deva's face experienced a very rare frown as she considered what she saw before her. Deciding that no one should be left alone in a place such as this, she walked towards him. She felt the glances her actions earned, and knew people thought she was both brave for doing what she was as well as concerned for her safety. While she appreciated their concern, she wished some of it was directed towards the patient she was approaching.

He was in dark robes and seemed completely exhausted. She noticed his skin was gray and he had many tattoos and piercings. Shadar-kai she thought. How amazing, perhaps the Raven Queen will have a representative here as well...as it should be. She walked forward and made a symbol of greeting known to those who venerate the Raven Queen. " 'In the end, the Queen,' " she said by way of introduction.

The figure was silent. Eranah knew he was not sleeping however, and she was not known for giving up. "Do you require healing?" she asked gently.

"You cannot heal my affliction," whispered the figure in response.

Eranah smiled. If she got them talking, the battle was half won. "Perhaps you underestimate me, my friend."

"I have no friends."

Eranah pulled up a stool and sat down beside him. "It is a terrible life, to go through it without friends." Many lifetimes had gifted the deva with the ability to express pity without an iota of condescension, as she did now.

The figure let out a sigh. "That has hardly been the worst part," he whispered harshly.

"Then tell me your story, dark one," answered Eranah, who was now beginning to suspect the injury to the shadar-kai was more spiritual than physical. No matter: the paladin had healed many of those types of injuries as well.

Looking up and against his better judgment, the figure began. "My name is Morpheus..."
 Episode 21 of The Iron Guard - 2013-11-23 -  
 Part XIV: The Story of Morpheus 
He saw her from a distance, tending to the soldier who was in danger of losing his leg. He didn't need his keen eyes to see the faint glow that emanated from her when she healed him; everyone saw it and reacted predictably.

Morpheus had never had much use for clerics, except for those of the Raven Queen, and even then... the spirituality in his own lineage was that of witchery, something altogether apart from the priesthood. The gift of 'The Sight' was a rare blessing amongst the shadar-kai, and for those who lived with it, they described it as a curse in equal parts. Certainly, Morpheus felt cursed...

Suddenly, the monk was alert, though his body remained motionless. She is headed towards me...I wonder why. Some taint left on me by Legion's magic? Does she detect evil that way? I'm in no shape to defend myself...

The figure was clad in gleaming armor with an angelic motif. Her skin was lilac in colour with white facial adornments, not dissimilar to Morpheus' own numerous tattoos. There was a... serenity about her, like the training he had taken to calm the rage in his soul only... different. Less harsh, somehow...

It made him uncomfortable.

She approached and made a sign he was familiar with, along with a standard shadar-kai greeting "In the end, the Queen." It was an expression of the truth that all beings die, even gods, so that all paid tribute to the Raven Queen in the end. He was surprised she knew it. He remained silent, however.

"Do you require healing?" she asked gently.

"You cannot heal my affliction," whispered Morpheus in response.

The beauty that Morpheus now recognized as a deva smiled. "Perhaps you underestimate me, my friend."

"I have no friends," Morpheus replied. It was an uncomfortable truth he had long known but this was the first time he admitted it aloud. Why did I say that? he wondered. Why am I speaking to her at all?

The deva pulled up a stool and sat down beside him. "It is a terrible life, to go through it without friends."

Morpheus let out a sigh. "That has hardly been the worst part," he whispered harshly. Again, the ghostwalker could not believe how vulnerable he was being with her... Is this weakness a result of Legion's ritual? What has he done to me?!

"Then tell me your story, dark one," answered the paladin, who looked him over with curious sapphire eyes as she pulled up a chair to sit at his bedside. Ever distrustful, Morpheus looked for signs of condescension or some other nefarious motive... but could detect nothing.

Looking up and against his better judgment, before he even knew what was happening, he began. "My name is Morpheus..."

"Well met, Morpheus. I am Eranah."

Morpheus looked her up and down. "You are a deva. How old are you?"

Eranah smiled an easy smile. "Ancient, I suppose, in some ways... but each life passes on, so the Queen always receives her due," she added with a wink.

"I did not mean to offend..." began Morpheus with a whisper, though he could not understand why he was being so defensive or why he should worry about giving offense for that matter.

"None taken, I assure you," she responded with another easy smile. Whereas Morpheus could be virtually unhittable in combat, he found the deva was easily piercing his emotional barriers.

Frustrated, the monk let out an exasperated whisper "I don't even know where to start..."

Eranah poured him a cup of warm wine from the jug that was at the table next to his cot. "The beginning, perhaps?"

The monk sat up in his bed and sipped the wine. It was awful but he appreciated the warmth. "I arrived here not too long ago, in the company of another."

"I thought you said you had no friends?"

"He is no friend," hissed Morpheus through gritted teeth. Gathering himself, he spoke again. "His name is Legion. Tell me, holy deva, do you know what a shade is?"

Eranah nodded her head sagely. "One who has infused oneself with the essence of the Shadowfell."

"Correct. My own people are born the true scions of the Shadowfell, but all who are shades have become so through dark rituals, and Legion is no exception.”
“Did you know him before he became a shade?” queried Eranah.

“No. Legion is old... how old I am not exactly certain. But perhaps even older than you, in all your lifetimes.”

"How did you come to know him then?"

“I am an exile, and he is the cause of it.”

Eranah took on a sympathetic look but said nothing, waiting for Morpheus to continue. Once the monk knew he was not being pitied, he continued, his eyes took on a faraway look. “For my people, there is no greater gift from The Raven Queen than that of ‘The Sight.’ It is only the women who receive it, and so our witches are held in the highest esteem. My great aunt was one of the most powerful witches we Shadar-Kai have ever known. Upon her death, she now serves in the court of The Final Judge.”

In complete surprise to himself, Morpheus continued on, his voice rarely rising above a whisper.

“Since our witches do not bear progeny, their gifts are typically passed on to the eldest niece; in this case my mother. Or, rather, she expected it to be so. After waiting for her to achieve the age of majority, she was tested for the sight... it was inconclusive. For years, she thought she would eventually be gifted... but that time never came. When she realized as an adult she would never manifest the Sight, she married my father and bore his children. She never fully recovered, however, remaining melancholy all her days until eventually she killed herself.”

Eranah let out a slight gasp, but the ghostwalker did not notice.

“As for the shade, ‘Legion’ is not his real name... it is the name given to him by his master, whose identity I know not. We encountered each other when he came to our home, hoping to obtain an audience with my great aunt. We did not appreciate his presence in our home, as we Shadar-Kai bear much righteous anger towards shades. Nevertheless, my father was intrigued enough to ask why he should want such a meeting. He claimed that his divinations led him to us, that a witch of our family would know the ritual necessary to reverse the magic done to become a shade.”

“You think he means to return to being human?” Eranah asked.

“I cannot know that his origin is human, to be honest,” responded the monk. “But it seems likely.”

"So what happened, then?"

Morpheus’ eyes took on a hard look. “My father could arrange no such meeting; my great aunt was beyond us now... but Legion would not be denied. He believed my father was merely being difficult and needed... persuasion. He framed my father, making it look like he was in collaboration with a particularly vicious group of shades known as They Who Sit Above in Shadow. He threatened to reveal to all of our city, Gloomwrought, these false ties unless my father got him an audience with my great aunt...”

Morpheus swallowed hard. Without even realizing it, Eranah had taken his hand in hers. To his ultimate surprise, Morpheus did not pull it away.

“My father tried. When he appeared before the Raven Queen, I am sure he was not found wanting for his effort. But the task was simply beyond him. When he eventually returned, no further ahead then he was, the shade went berserk. He seemed equal parts rage, fear and desperation; his wrath was vicious. He cruelly made my father’s ties with Those Who Sit Above in Shadow public knowledge to all of Glomwrought then captured my younger sister’s soul in an artefact . He swore to never let her die and pass on to her destiny unless we get him the audience he needs. Then he vanished.”

Eranah squeezed his hand. Morpheus stared at it but still did not pull away.

“My father became a pariah,” the monk continued. “No one would speak with us, trade with us or have any contact. The strain of having lost his wife, his daughter and all know the framing... it was too much for him. I came home from the monastery one day to find my father hanging from the rafters. With no one to turn to, and all thinking I am in league with shades, I left the Shadowfell. I wandered for a while until I met a kindred spirit. We joined the same organization and have been on many adventures since,” he finished, his thoughts lost to the past and his partnership with an ally now long lost.

Coming back to his senses, he continued. "I eventually met up with a mercenary group and journeyed with them on several adventures. One of which led us to seek advice from a 'necrotic consultant'... who turned out to be Legion. I...
That night I snuck into his room, prepared to kill him for all the agony he has brought upon me and mine. But he is a cunning creature, I will give him that. And, I think, a desperate one. Each person’s ritual to become infused with shadow is different, so it is difficult to catalogue beyond mere generalizations. But I suspect there is something to Legion’s he was not aware of... I believe whatever it is, it is the cause for him wanting to break free from his former master’s influence.”

“How do you know this?” Eranah queried.
“He was expecting me. He remains as desperate as ever to meet the witch of our clan, and I believe it is for good reason, though naturally he would not share the details. He says his former master has the artefact holding my sister’s soul. He swears he will help retrieve it if I can arrange for him to meet my great aunt, that he might reverse his ritual...”

He seeks redemption thought Eranah. It was a cause that was close to her heart, not uncommon amongst many deva.

With restrained emotion, Morpheus continued. “You cannot understand... for my people, the only thing that matters is the proper passing on of the soul after mortal death. For my sister to be forever denied that... is an abomination. Legion knows this. He knows I must therefore do anything and everything to make his desire reality...”

Eranah truly felt sympathy for the shadar-kai, whose soul had clearly been twisted by all he had gone through.

“...I cannot allow this man to die. If he dies, my sister is forever lost in the most literal meaning possible. Either I somehow penetrate the Final Judge’s Citadel to achieve consultation with my great aunt, or retrieve the location of my sister’s soul. This creature is the key to my sister’s freedom. We arrived here tracking one of the soul fragments, but...”

Covering their joined hands with her free one, Eranah leaned forward and in a hushed voice said “We are here amongst good people, Morpheus. We will restore your sister, you have my word as a paladin of Rao.” And by doing so, I will see this shade cured of his self-inflicted affliction and his soul redeemed she thought to herself.

Morpheus looked directly at the deva and whispered “Only he knows how to track the fragments of the artefact. Please allow him to do so until such a time as I know enough to free my sister. Please keep him alive long enough for this to happen.”

“I promise.”

“There is one more thing,” Morpheus whispered, bowing his head. “Should I fall in battle, and my sister lost forever...”

“Yes?” asked Eranah, glad to have made his acquaintance and hopeful of her role to come.

When he raised himself up again, all emotion was gone, and he snatched his hand back from the embrace it was in. His voice was flat and deadly.

“... kill him immediately that I may pursue and hound him throughout the afterlife!”

Eranah did not wish to lie to the monk and so just lowered her head and prayed to Rao for the wisdom to heal all souls involved in this terrible tragedy.
 Episode 113 of The Winter Guard - 2014-01-24 -  
 Old Pains and New Friends 
He was not excited. He would not allow himself the luxury of being excited, not after all this time and all this pain.

Still...things seemed less dire than they were even just a day ago.

Morpheus reflected on that as he looked over his equipment yet again. The ghostwalker rarely needed much, but he hated being unprepared and there were so many unknowns looming before him: The Underdark and what awaited them; the capabilities of his new companions; and, as always, the shade, Legion.

By now, Morpheus was disciplined enough to only allow his hate for the shade to consume him for a few moments before he could concentrate on other things. He turned his thoughts to the men he would be traveling with; they seemed good and noble, qualities Morpheus didn't exactly possess himself. He grinned ruefully when he compared them to his previous adventuring company: the priest and the bard shared more than a few features and he saw other similarities between the dwarf and the swordmage besides their names. More importantly, both groups had accepted him without question.

Could I do the same? he wondered. Another rueful grin as he realized what the answer to that question was.

Another dizzy spell had him reach out to the chair to balance himself. He wondered not for the first time what Legion had done to him to get them to this world... and what would happen if one of these moments of weakness should assail him during combat. He would hate to have others (besides Legion) fall because of his own weakness; he knew the path of wisdom would indicate not going, getting some rest...

But then he thought of Shareen and knew there was really no option at all.

Perhaps it was the magical lethargy that had been placed upon him or perhaps it was the fact that he was lost in thought contemplating his sister, or (likely) both, but Morpheus only knew he wasn't alone in his room when another voice called to him from behind. "Getting ready to take off, I see."

Morpheus spun around, inwardly cursing himself for a fool for having let his guard down again. This time, however, it was not the shining beauty of the deva Eranah who faced him, but the smirking face of the dark elf female he had seen in the council room.

She was not brandishing any weapons, so Morpheus relaxed out of fighting position and took a moment to assess the person in front of him. Barely five feet in height, with snow-white hair pulled up into a high ponytail and eyes red as the Hells, she was dressed in tight drowmesh leather, maximizing protection and maneuverability. Two daggers were in sheaths at her hips for easy access but she made no move towards them. She had the fine delicate features of her race, with the telltale jet-black skin... she might have been beautiful, but...

Too angry. Too hurt, thought Morpheus. It's plain as day on her face and every move she makes. I wonder if it's as obvious on me...

As though reading his mind, she smiled and looked him up and down with an appraising look, nodding. "Nice reactions, Shadar-kai. Quick. Not quick enough though... I could have killed you before you knew it."

Morpheus gave her a steely gaze. "You would have struck first, I admit," he whispered. "But victory goes to the one who scores the final blow, and that is by no means guaranteed to be you."

"Perhaps not," smiled Bhintel. "But it's hard to gain the lead in a fight when you start out so far behind," she purred.

Morpheus considered the invaders Bhintel had supposedly slain all on her own, and nodded slightly. "It would be difficult, yes... but not impossible. And we shadar-kai love a challenge."

"So I've heard," replied Bhintel softly, moving towards the monk. "Is that why you're headed down to Phaervorul? The challenge?"

Morpheus looked away, hoping the drow hadn't seen the flash of pain in his eyes. "No. There's something down there... something I need."

"Is this that business with your sister you mentioned in the council room?" she asked, coming up close behind him.

"...yes. The key to her salvation is down there, somewhere."

"How do you know?" the dark elf asked softly, sliding her hands slowly up his chest. For someone who regularly dealt death with them, the shadar-kai found them surprisingly delicate.

"The shade," he whispered. "His magic brought us here, and he's had a vision..."

"And you trust this vision...?" she purred into his ear.

He took her hands from his chest, gently but firmly and faced her, his face grim. "I have to."

She stared at him.

He could not keep her gaze, so looked away while asking, more harshly than he intended. "Why are you here? What do you want from me?"

Bhintel smirked. "Nothing, really... I guess. It's just that, you're headed to the Underdark, to a drow settlement, and..."

"And what?" he challenged.

She paused, staring at him hard again. "I wanted to speak to you before you go. You... you seem like me."

Morpheus' eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?"

She walked closer to him again. "We, you and I, aren't living as we should. We are both people who had to abandon the life originally set out for us..."

"And why did 'we' do that?"

She leaned closer. "Pain... the pain of loss." When she saw Morpheus nod his head slightly at her words, she took his face in her hands. "Tell me about her... tell me about your loss."

Morpheus could not look away from the lithe drow's eyes now... they seemed to burn red when she spoke with passion and he felt locked in by them. "I... she is all I have left of my family... all the rest are dead because of the shade."

Bhintel was tracing out one of Morpheus' intricate face tattoos with a delicate finger. "Why is he alive then? Why haven't you avenged them?" she whispered.

Morpheus barely held back tears of rage; how had the first two women he encountered in this world managed to unnerve him emotionally so?! In totally different ways, no less... what had happened to him?

"He is my only hope to track down the shattered relic that was holding her soul," he said through gritted teeth. "If I do not find it, she will never know release into the realm of the Raven Queen. It is an unthinkable fate."

"You love her so much, it sounds like."

"...yes, but sometimes..."

She leaned in to bring her lips an inch away from his many-pierced ear and whispered "But sometimes it just feels like desperation. Sometimes that's all you feel... and you pursue your quest with the desperation of a madwoman, throwing all common sense, and anything else of value to the wind... ceaselessly chasing something because, in your darkest moments you have realized... that's all you know how to do now."

Morpheus took her shoulders in his hands and pushed her slightly away so that her face was now near his. "Yes. Yes, that's it, exactly."

She looked sad. "So you see? We are the same."

Morpheus brushed a rogue strand of cloud-white hair away from her high cheekbones. "Yes..." he whispered.

"And now you're headed down into the Underdark, to go venture amongst 'my' people," she said placing her hands on his chest again, looking down. "You have no idea how dangerous it is..."

Keeping his hands on her shoulders, Morpheus leaned down, bringing his cheek near hers. "It does not matter... I am going to be accompanied by brave men. Powerful companions. There is nothing there we cannot handle."

She guided his hands slowly from her shoulders to her waist; Morpheus reflexively pulled her closer. She undid the opening of his robe, exposing his pierced and tattooed chest. She began tracing the tattoos with her fingers again, while leaning her head against him. Morpheus had not experienced anything like this before...

"How can you be sure? You've never been..." She laid a soft kiss near his pierced nipple while she continued to caress his tattoed skin. Her hair felt like silk and smelled of lavender and earth.

"I have been through so much in my life... seen much... fought much..." His hands had brought her firmly against him, and now probed her hips.

"But never drow?" she said, barely audible, as she kissed his chest again.

"No, but..."

Suddenly, Morpheus was on his back, his head having slammed into the hard floor. Bhintel loomed above him, her face a mask of anger and danger, red eyes flashing. Her blade was at Morpheus' throat, had already started cutting him. "Then you know nothing! You know nothing, and you will die for your ignorance! Your sister, she will rot in whatever prison she's in because of your arrogance!" Morpheus stayed on his back, shocked at what had just happened.

Bhintel calmed down, and removed her dagger from his neck, but the anger never really left her face. Soon though, it was joined by condescension. "This is why I worry for your expedition, Morpheus... your expedition of men." When she saw he was still confused, she rolled her eyes, and, still straddling him, leaned close. "You think it's our hidden daggers and our poisons that make us dangerous? Or the magics we wield? The demons we summon?" She paused. "The Spider bitch we serve?" she spat.

Morpheus said nothing.

Bhintel leaned in again, her face soft, her look seductive once more. She kissed him full on the lips and guided his hands over her body. When the kiss broke, she pulled away, her face devoid of emotion. "It's this, don't you see? It is the females of our kind who rule in our society, who wield all the power, and every female, arcanist or not, has every tool needed to ensorcel any male we encounter." The condescension returned. "And so I fear for the success of your party of men, who are oh-so confident in their abilities and who won't even know they've already been defeated..." she brushed her cheek past his. "... until it's too late," she finished with a whisper.

Morpheus felt ashamed, and felt for sure it was showing on his face. Bhintel, though, reacted like she had seen it all before and gave him a reassuring pat on the cheek before she got off him. She offered him her hand to help him up.

Morpheus stared at it for a long moment, fully intending to get up on his own... until he looked in her eyes. There was an invitation there, not like before, not the seduction from earlier but a yearning...to be accepted, perhaps? She was about to withdraw the offer, but then extended her hand again, more forcefully this time, as though to say 'Please let me help! Take my hand because I don't have the words!' He realized she needed this. He took her hand.

Once they were both standing, he looked at her with a smirk. "I suppose I should thank you for the warning."

Bhintel shrugged. "It may save your life."

Morpheus gave her an unbelieving look. "My life, the life of a stranger, means so much to you?"

Bhintel looked down, clearly uncomfortable. "... like I said: we're a lot alike. I'd hate to lose the only person who's remotely like me around here, she mumbled.

Morpheus readjusted his robes. "You have not told me how I am like you. What is your story?"

"None of your business!" responded Bhintel with too much anger and too little hesitation.

It was Morpheus' turn to roll his eyes as he turned away from her and began packing his things. Bhintel bit her lip, frustrated that he had turned away from her and, as always, frustrated that her anger had interfered with her attempts at making a connection with another living being. She breathed out a huge sigh then said "At least, for now? Maybe... maybe when you come back... I might be able to share... then?"

Morpheus turned to her. He was silent for a few moments... she really was like him in more than a few ways. "All right, then," he answered. "When I get back."

"Well, if you get back... it really is very dangerous where you're going, you know. I don't see why you... we... can't just let the undead and drow slaughter each other. To get in the middle of that..."

"When I return," he interrupted. "Now that I've gotten such good tutelage as regards all things drow, after all."

Bhintel narrowed her eyes. "Are... are you making fun of me?"

Morpheus turned away, glad his now raised hood was hiding his smirk. "Of course not."

Bhintel pursed her lips and was about to retort but instead took on a rueful grin of her own. "Riiiiiight. Just be careful, Shadar-kai, and remember my blade at your throat and how it got there." She spun on her heel and walked out the door where, as she was walking, whispered, "and good luck."

She couldn't know that, now that Morpheus was fully alert, he could hear her. "Thank you," he whispered to the now long-gone drow.
 Episode 115 of The Winter Guard - 2014-03-05 -  
 Evolution 
Mordekai watched as yet another brick was mortared into the wall's fortifications. Beside him, the foreman, and expert in these things, continued to blather on about double walls, and how much sand would be between them, and how it will be impregnable. The disinterest on the Seeker's face was lost on the poor man.

Mordekai looked at the wall again and sighed as the foreman moved back to supervise the workers. They weren't outside. This wasn't the outer wall, but rather the vast chamber beneath Dragon's Roost where Mordekai and his companions had faced off against the dragon. The laborers were sealing the breach that the kobolds had left there that lead to the Underdark. Padraig and Valthrun thought it would be best to fortify it, with a solid gate to allow passage into the tunnels if required, but to also keep anything from easily gaining access to Gardmore.

Never before had Mordekai ever participated or watched the construction of anything. In fact, as a seeker, he was adamantly opposed to any unnatural changes to the environment. And yet, here he was, supervising men who were taking brick, and wood, and all the things he considered an abomination on the land, and making them into a wall.

Who am I now? Mordekai wondered morosely to himself. It was true, he was nowhere near the frightened and naïve purist he was when he left the grove in Gamboge, but he never expected to be where he was now: a voice of influence in Gardmore, and handed authority to lead by Garrick as they left for the Underdark. Cities were not his thing. Leadership was not his thing. The seeker was terrible at it, and terrified of it. This was why he was watching a wall being built. This was why he was hidden away beneath Dragon's Roost. Because facing a dragon was nothing compared to facing the many voices and people that relied on him in Gardmore. I am a coward, he thought to himself as he watched, joylessly, as the masons put another brick into the structure.

"What kind of man have I become?" Mordekai moaned aloud to himself.

"Who says you're a man at all?" came the unexpected reply behind him. Startled, the seeker turned to find Bhintel standing behind him. The drow was sporting a smirk on her face, one that Mordekai found both annoying and disturbing all at once. Beyond the rogue, he spied Izera following, her stride purposeful. The githzerai also made Mordekai nervous.

"I'm not sure I like your tone." The seeker said, trying to regain some measure of authority. The drow simply snorted and said, "I'm not sure I care." Mordekai's face reddened, and just as he felt his anger building, Izera was with them. She looked Mordekai over before finally speaking.

"Shouldn't you be in the council room?" the avenger asked with her usual direct tone. The anger drained from Mordekai, and his face reddened even more.

"I... I'm making sure that..." The seeker looked around, flustered. Then gesturing at the wall, he answered, "I'm supervising the construction." Izera's eyebrows rose in confusion, and Bhintel snorted her derision at him.

"I thought you were an outdoorsman." Izera stated her voice flat. "What could you possibly know about walls?"

"Oh give him a break," Bhintel said, her face smirking, "He misses his boyfriend, Odus."

"I miss them all!" Mordekai said louder than he intended. He was shocked at how desperate he sounded, but unable to stop himself from speaking. "I worry about them, and where they are." He said, his voice soft, almost a whisper. "I worry that they won't come back."

"They've not been gone long." Izera said with a hint of compassion in her voice as she placed her hand reassuringly on Mordekai's shoulder, "And they are capable men, all of them."

"If you were going to be so worried for them," Bhintel exclaimed impatiently, "why didn't you just go with them?"

Mordekai opened his mouth to answer, but froze. What could he say? Because he was afraid? Because being in the Underdark away from the sun for days on end with no familiar environment around him terrified him? No, he thought to himself, she'd mock me even more.

"Someone had to stay," Mordekai finally replied, defeated. "Why are you here? Am I needed in the council room?"

"We're here because he asked us to meet him here." Bhintel said, as she nodded over her shoulder just as Illyn the Red entered the chamber behind her. The Mage of Saruun crossed the chamber quickly to stand with the group. He nodded respectfully at Mordekai, a gesture that just made the seeker feel even more uncomfortable.

"Sir Mordekai of Gamboge," Illyn said formally, "I apologize for not speaking with you earlier about this, but I could not find you."

"Please," Mordekai said, as he raised his hand in protest, "just �Mordekai'. And I've been avoiding the council chamber, so it's not your fault." Illyn nodded his thanks, and then proceeded to fill in the group.

"There was something odd about the timing of everything that is going on in Phaervorul." The mage explained, "So I decided I would try some divinations to see if I could uncover anything useful. According to our original correspondence with Orontor, the attacks on the settlement would have begun a month ago. But if that were the case, would it not already be overrun? What is preventing it from being completely destroyed? This is where I began my divinations, and though I am no expert, I came upon a frightening discovery.

"There is a powerful presence behind the attacks; this much we suspected, possibly this presence is the exarch of Orcus. I felt around the edge of this presence, a frightening thing I might add, but what I discovered worried me: It's waiting for the Winterguard. It needs them. Its whole invasion is being held, waiting for them.

Whatever it is... it wants them in Phaervorul!"

"Are you saying it's a trap?!" Mordekai exclaimed.

"No," Illyn said, "no not quite, but the fact that it knows about them, can't be good."

"We need to warn them!" the seeker stated, "I need to warn them."

"No," Illyn replied, as he tried to calm Mordekai, "You cannot leave Gardmore now. This is why I have asked Izera and Bhintel here."

"But the Winterguard have too much of a head start," Izera said, confusion evident in her voice, "Without the journey stones to accelerate us, we'll never get there in time."

"Yes, about that..." the mage smiled, "The stones stay functional for quite a bit of time after activation. If one were to move quickly, they could use them to follow."

"I must gather my things." Izera said purposefully as she strode out of the room, Illyn quickly following her.

"As do I," Bhintel said, her eyes locked on Mordekai. The seeker became uncomfortable, unaware that the drow herself was also ill at ease. He looked away from her and back to the wall, his face red.

"Your bird..." the drow said awkwardly. Mordekai winced. He'd left Kayle above, and had forgotten about him, something he thought he'd never be capable of doing. "... it's waiting for you upstairs. I think it misses you." All too suddenly Mordekai felt ashamed of his selfishness. Bhintel could see his pain, plain as day, and sighed herself.

"I wasn't trying to be mean..." she started again, struggling to find the right words. ".. before. I was making a joke, and when you got angry, I just reacted badly. I'm not good at this sort of thing." The drow punctuated the words with vague gestures between her and Mordekai.

"I'm not good at it either," Mordekai confessed, a faint smile on his lips. "I'm terrible at it, actually." Bhintel laughed, and Mordekai shrugged.

"Friendships are always difficult for me." He said finally.

"Who says we're friends?" Bhintel smirked and punched him hard in the shoulder as she turned to leave. Mordekai quickly followed her, intent on reuniting with Kayle. "Bring them back," he said to Bhintel, his voice serious, "You know the drow, you can help. I'm awful at being in charge, and I need Garrick here. "

"Don't forget your boyfriend." She said mockingly. Mordekai sighed and rolled his eyes at her. Maybe friendships were meant to be hard.
 Episode 116 of The Winter Guard - 2014-03-20 -  
 New Faces 
The small quarters were cramped, damp and had an unpleasant odour. Nevertheless, the heroes felt they at least provided safety from anything else lurking in the catacombs beneath Radigast City.

They hoped.

Tyrion was taking his turn on guard. He kept his head slightly inclined against the secret door, but allowed his gaze to fall on his companions. An odd grouping, but no odder than the previous group he had been with, the ones who failed to solve the mystery of the Keep on the Shadowfell. He had wanted very much to deal with that evil up close and personal but a lucky (so he told himself) shot by Ninaran had crippled his leg...and with only Sister Lenore's helpful but non-magical treatments, it had taken Tyrion a great long time to heal. By the time he had, another group had dealt with the priest of Orcus, Kalarel... and killed Niniran in the process. How he had wanted revenge upon her... too late now.

Bahl was sleeping in a sitting position, back straight up against the wall. Perfect posture...even when he sleeps! thought the ranger. The invoker even maintained his classic stern expression; if it weren't for the rhythmic breathing, Tyrion would not be sure he was even sleeping. How much rest can one get when one is THAT intense? he wondered.

Fynn was curled up in the corner and did not seem to be sleeping comfortably either. In his case, it was because both hands were clutching his gold-purse, so he was awkwardly placed, to say the least. Tyrion thought the priest also had one eye open, but when he looked closer they were closed...until he looked away, then he could swear his peripheral vision caught the eye open again. He chuckled at the cleric's idiosyncrasies and instead looked over the remaining two companions.

Michael was propped up in the other corner with his arm draped protectively over Chaedi. The warlord had taken a real liking to the elf, an affection Tyrion had misread as lust at first; Michael's predilections were well-known in the mercenary circles both traveled in. It soon became obvious, however, that he had adopted a more brotherly type of affection for her, and she clearly felt it was safe to be in his arms like she was... or maybe it was just her wide-eyed innocence. Tyrion didn't buy that act for a second. He knew Chaedi was a ranger in the Brothers of the Bronze and heard she had more humanoid kills than most of her peers, numbering in the hundreds. That part, I believe he thought, remembering how she had rained death on anyone that caught her attention in the last fight before they rested. Does anyone become that good at killing and maintain the level of innocence Chaedi liked to show, what with her phrasing everything as a question and such? He doubted it. He would have entertained those doubts more, but he heard footsteps near the door. Armored footsteps. He pressed his ear to the door and when he was sure the footsteps had passed by, he stealthily opened the door to ambush the intruders from behind.

Damn Stromm and his machinations, he thought, not for the first time, as he silently slid the door open. Made all sorts of enemies for us; drow, duergar, githyanki and gods know what else! He was determined this time to get the drop on whichever of them had nearly discovered their hiding place.

A few paces ahead, he saw his quarry. A strong-looking woman in plate armor wielding shield and mace led her companion away from Tyrion's position. He could have sworn he saw tiny electrical sparks coming from her mace when it brushed against the stone wall. Her companion was an eladrin who sported a faraway look as though he were lost in thought. Tyrion spied the rod he held in his left hand; the ranger knew he was a spellcaster at that point, and therefore the first target to take out.

Creeping as silently as he could, the ranger took both blades in his hands and when he was certain he could reach the eladrin, charged forward. His massive bastard sword scrapped the stone however, and the eladrin turned around, startled out of his reverie. Tyrion rushed him, bringing both heavy blades in a downward slice, knowing that even if the eladrin brought up the rod to block, he'd cut right through.

It was no rod that met the ranger's strike, however. All of a sudden, the eladrin was wielding a huge sword that seemed to be made of flickering starlight! He met the ranger's attack and then vanished, reappearing behind the woman who by now had rushed to meet them. While she was in a defensive stance and seemed ready to fight, she did not initiate any attack. Instead, she sternly asked "Who are you?"

Tyrion was about to resume his attack when he saw the Nyrond coat of arms on her shield. He paused; his mind considering the possibilities...an eladrin accompanying a soldier of Nyrond? Intrigued, he answered her. "I am Tyrion Brax. Now identify yourselves intruders, because believe me your lives depend upon your answers."

The woman dropped out of her stance and relaxed. Putting her mace at her belt, she extended her hand. "Well met. I am Sir Olivia, knight of Nyrond. My companion is Norraddin, arcanist of the Feygrove. We come on behalf of Lord Padraig of Winterhaven and Gardmore Abbey." The eladrin's blade had disappeared and he had his hands crossed in front of him as he bowed in greeting.

Tyrion did not relax. "How did you come to look for us here?"

Olivia smiled. "After a discussion with one Lorencin Krueger. We found that one thanks to the spirits my eladrin companion commands, along with some 'official' documentation provided by my father."

"And who is that?"

"General Myariken."

Tyrion hoped he had successfully hidden the surprise on his face at the knight's words but could tell from her smirk that he had failed to do so. He lowered his weapons, looked them over, had an internal struggle, then said in a low voice "Follow me."

The rest of the group were awake when Tyrion brought the strangers in. After some initial hesitancy, they all introduced themselves. Bahl, with another stern look on his face (How many variations does the man have? thought Tyrion), asked the obvious question: "Why are you here, exactly?"

Olivia nodded her head. "Excellent question. We're here because what is happening here now concerns Gardmore Abbey. That being the case, my father and Lord Padraig felt it might be important to have 'official' representation for Gardmore's interests: myself to represent the northern Nyrondese military under the command of my father and Norraddin to represent the eladrin within Gardmore. Had we known things were foing to work out this way, you all would have been knighted or something before leaving, but... I guess we'll take care of that later."

Bahl was not satisfied. "But how do you know what's going on here?" he asked, still with a stern expression.

Olivia hesitated, then shrugged her shoulders. "The ambassador for Nyrond here specializes in divination magic, like most ambassadors do. She also has a decent network of spies, though they are rarely used; this is the capital city of one of our country's only reliable allies. When the ruckus your group caused stirred things up, she began investigating and sending reports via magic back home... but not to Rel Mord. To her husband, who serves with my father. That's why we were able to do this without the king knowing. The less he interferes with us up north, the less likely a revolt happens. Sometimes I doubt the Throne knows just how close the northern lands are to full revolution."

"So you'll be journeying with us, then?" asked Chaedi, hopefully.

Olivia smiled. "Not exactly. Mordekai has asked me to tell you that the Brothers of the Bronze are holding an important meeting to which he may not be able to attend... and he wonders if you might go in his stead."

"Mordekai needs me?!" exclaimed Chaedi as she leapt up, grabbing her gear. "But...what about you guys?"

"We'll be fine, lass," reassured Fynn. "These two seem like they might be good in a pinch, even if we'll be missing your bow."

"You'll be missing my sword-arm as well," said Michael has he got up to go with Chaedi. "No offense to the ambassador's magical talents, but someone should give a first-hand account of what's transpired here...and begin fortification of the Abbey in case this mission fails."

Olivia nodded seriously. "I had hoped one of you was going to offer something like this. I totally agree...it's the path of caution."

"So we'll hit the road together, Michael?" asked Chaedi in typical Chaedi fashion.

"It seems so, little sister," he responded with a smile.

" 'Little sister?' " she asked. "What am I, about eighty years older than you?"

Everyone but Norraddin chuckled. "I suppose that's true," conceded Michael.

"May I suggest going back the way you came, waiting for nightfall, then setting out in due haste," said Olivia. "No need to let our enemies know our movements."

Behind her, Norraddin nodded seriously.

Michael nodded, then he and the elf said their goodbyes and headed down the corridor.

The rest of the group filled in their new colleagues about the goings-on, some of which they were familiar with.

"What we do know for sure... Stromm is somewhere in these tunnels," finished Fynn.

"What do you intend to do when we find him?" asked Norraddin.

Tyrion smiled. Bahl saw him do so and shrugged his shoulders. Fynn raised his shoulders, palms facing upwards as if to say "Whattya gonna do, amirite?"

Noraddin arched an eyebrow and turned to Olivia.

She sighed. "Ok, let's just play that one by ear, ok?"

They got ready to head back out into the catacombs... each wondering just what was waiting for them out there.

They had no idea...
 Episode 117 of The Winter Guard - 2014-03-30 -  
 The Tale of Jhaelant 
What follows is the information Jhaelant used to bargain for his life...

It was the evening they banished Zirithian that I felt the event. I doubt anyone else could have felt the same emanations as I did, but while the rest of the mewling drow had gathered to hear Urlvrain's decree of Zirithian's banishment, I remained home at my studies.

Very suddenly, a dark presence was felt by me. It winked into existence suddenly and streaked across the cavern sky like I imagine a falling star would on the surface world. It was strange... otherworldly almost, but gave of the aura of dark necromantic power. I could feel it falling into Phaervorul, and using my highly attuned mind, I maintained as much contact as I could with the eldritch item as it tumbled into the chasm that surrounds Phaervorul. It lay there... pulsing with energy like a heartbeat, and calling out in whispered mutterings I could not discern.

The streets were crowded with my hated brethren, and I had no desire to mingle with them, so I decided that the next morning, I would find my way down the chasm and find this relic that so intrigued me. That next morn, I departed, with all manner of arcane tools I could use, but as I approached the bridge that leads into Phaervorul, I paused.

Zirithian was there, walking slowly from the settlement. I lingered in the shadows, thinking I could wait for him to be gone before continuing, not wanting anything to disturb me. He stopped halfway across the bridge and stared down into the chasm. For a moment I feared perhaps he felt the same call I felt from this thing as well...

Neither of us noticed Maarth until he was upon the bridge, right up next to the unaware Zirithian. I tell you, it's unnatural how that vile killer can seemingly disappear. But Maarth moved so rapidly and silently, and Zirithian never knew the assassin was there. Zirithian, the poor fool, turned to look one last time upon Phaervorul, but instead he found himself staring into the eyes of Maarth. Perhaps he was going to say something, for his mouth opened, but nothing came out as Maarth plunged his daggers deep into Zirithian's chest.

Without a word, the assassin turned the rapidly weakening body of Zirithian and held it over the chasm. Silently, and with indifference, he slit Zirithian's throat, and cast the body into the chasm. I barely registered the sound of the impact. I remained hidden where I was, for I knew that if Maarth knew I had witnessed this murder, he'd have undoubtedly killed me as well... or at least tried. I had no desire to face Urlvrain's black panther.

I had no choice but to retreat and return later when Maarth was gone. But when I returned... the call was gone. I felt no presence... no aura... no emanations.

Whatever had been in the chasm was now gone.

I'd missed my chance, it seems. So I returned to my studies, instead. Perhaps one day, I will feel its presence again...
 Episode 118 of The Winter Guard - 2014-03-31 -  
 We Fall. We Rise 
With both trepidation and anxiety, Morpheus reached the chasm floor. Luckily there had been no sign of the vile spider-like creatures he had sent plummeting over the edge. He looked up as Legion was slowly making his way down the rope. It was just the two of them now, with the decision being made that they would seek out the shard while the Winterguard continued to deal with the drow and Phaervorul.

It did not sit well with Morpheus that he and Legion simply abandon the others. Even though Legion and he were strangers to them, he had begun to feel a kinship to Garrick, Odus, and Isak. It was the type of bond that can only be forged by men who have depended on each other in combat. But Shareen was why he was here, and she was the only reason he existed anymore, and no matter how loyal he may have felt to the Winterguard, that loyalty would never be able to outweigh the last and only duty he carried.

Legion finally reached the bottom, and Morpheus breathed deep and calm, using his monk training to remain patient. He wondered how the others had felt about the shade. Did they ever accept him? The last discussions they had, based on Jhaelant's revelations, had given them all pause. It was Legion who may have placed the last piece of the puzzle on the table.

"There is no doubt in my mind, that this Zirithian is the very drow that appeared in my vision." The shade had said to the group. It had drawn all their attention to him.

"Jhaelant said he was dead." Morpheus had said dismissively, "He made it quite clear that Maarth had murdered the drow." At that, Legion had looked around the necromancer's lab and smirked.

"There is no finality in death."

It frustrated Morpheus when Legion was so cryptic. The monk had looked to the others then and found them deep in thought. "Isak," Odus had been the next to speak, "You had a similar vision, did you not?" The warrior was stoic and quiet for a time. "It was a drow," was his gruff reply, "but I have no way to know if it was Zirithian. It was the sword I remember. Black and deadly." Isak had shrugged after that.

"The timing works," Garrick had added, "The star's appearance, Zirithian's banishment and death. It's too big a coincidence to ignore. Let's face it; he'd definitely carry a grudge against Urlvrain and Phaervorul if Jhaelant's tale is true."

Morpheus simply shook his head at that point perplexed, "But Jhaelant saw him die. If we accept that he somehow found a way to cheat death, then how? Was he randomly picked by Orcus?"

"The shard." Legion had finally said, "The shard did it." There was a long moment of silence.

"I thought the shard was just a piece of the container that imprisoned, well... you know." Odus asked reluctantly, his eyes on Morpheus whose fists clenched angrily while his face maintained its composure. The shade looked away and for a long moment it appeared as though he was contemplating what to say next.

"When I handed the full gem that contained Shareen's soul to Blackcross," Legion said, "I may have underestimated him. It was meant to be held for safekeeping, should anything or anyone come after me." The shade avoided looking at Morpheus.

"You'd barter her soul to save your own wretched life!" spat Morpheus, "As if the two were equal in value." Legion remained expressionless. The monk began to breathe more rapidly, his anger growing.

"As evil as I am," Legion continued, "or as evil as my actions have been, you must remember, that what Blackcross has done is worse. And I fear it will be on us to stop it."

"But you don't know what he's done!" Morpheus finally exploded, his face enraged, as he moved towards the shade. "You have no idea what these shards will be once they are re-united!"

"No." The shade replied quietly, as Odus stepped between the monk and Legion, "I don't know - which is why we need to get the shard back." Morpheus stopped his advance, his face melting from anger to anguish as he looked into Odus' eyes. The bard reached out, and put his hands on the monk's shoulders.

"You can't give up hope," Odus whispered to him, "You can't give up on her, or no one can help her. " The monk buried his face in his hands, and collapsed to his knees amidst the spilt blood of Jhaelant and his minions, and his face was no less defeated than that of the drow necromancer's had been.

"I'm tired of the manipulations," Morpheus muttered then, "The drow. The shade. The bonds I've placed upon myself. My decisions barely seem like my own anymore. I'm just an arrow in flight, streaking towards its target, but never finding it. The winds move me, but I have no control. What hope does Shareen have, when I can't even affect where I go next?"

Odus knelt beside the monk, squeezing his arm in reassurance. "I have seen what you can do," the bard said quietly, "and I know that there is no better person that can save her. If trusting the shade is the only option you have, then take it. Go with him, and find the shard. We will deal with the drow."

"What if he betrays me?" Morpheus said then, not caring that Legion could hear.

"He won't." Garrick responded his eyes locked on Legion, " And if he does, there will be no where he can hide from us. We will hunt him down, and he'll pay tenfold for whatever evil deeds he's done." Isak glanced at the shade, his face grim, and nodded his agreement with Garrick.

Legion had done his best to ignore them all.

"Now go," Odus said as he pulled Morpheus to his feet, "You have a sister to save." The monk looked at each member of the Winterguard, his eyes intense. "You may never know how much this has meant to me."

"May the calm breath of Rao forever be with you," Odus said, "and may he bring his peace to you and your sister." Morpheus shook hands with him, his grip firm and determined.

"I won't falter." The monk said with determination.

"I know you won't," Odus replied, "Now go!"

That was how Legion and Morpheus found themselves alone at the bottom of the chasm, the drow bridge high above them. When Morpheus looked on the shade, he felt less enraged then he had in the past. Odus was right, he had no choice, but he need not be the victim. The shade may indeed be using him and playing his own game, but Morpheus could use the shade too. The shadar-kai felt calm again and his core monk training took over, centering his thoughts and emotions.

I will not fail.

Legion had already begun to move off, with no word to Morpheus, and the monk let it happen. There was no need to demand answers and let his emotions erode his discipline. He followed Legion silently, and calmly.

They arrived at a small shallow crater, as if an impact had punched a cavity in to the chasm floor. Legion moved around rapidly, feeling the ground here, muttering to himself there, and all the while Morpheus watched. After several minutes, the monk began to investigate the surroundings himself.

"Here," he called out to Legion, "Tracks... and blood. A lot of blood. They move off this direction." Morpheus indicated an obvious blood trail that led off deeper into the chasm.

"It's not here!" Legion cried out in anguish. He stood at the center of the crater, where a large amount of blood was spread about.

"Zirithian had to have landed here," Morpheus said.

"As did the shard." Legion added. "He must have taken it. I feel the faint residue of its presence, so it was here, but nothing more do I sense."

"Then he took it," Morpheus stated, "or it took him. If he was dead, then obviously the shard changed him. How else could he have walked away?" The monk gestured to the trail of blood. He started to follow the signs, not caring whether Legion followed, which the shade of course did after a few moments.

At first there was a lot of blood, but then there was less. And the shambling shuffling tracks left behind gradually became the normal walk of a person with no grievous wounds. And then the blood stopped, and the steps became lighter and harder to follow. When Morpheus lost the trail, he was determined not to lose faith.

"Nothing." The monk said to Legion.

"No," Legion said, his attention distracted, "This way." He moved off towards the wall, and in a long forgotten cave that was hard to find, they found what they had been seeking: A pile of bones, ashes and dust. And the shard, lying cold and dead amongst the debris.

Legion picked it up, his hands trembling. Morpheus remained calm, looking around to distract himself.

"Nothing." Legion's voice was quiet and whispered as he stared into the shard, "I feel no essence within it." Morpheus kicked around at the bones and dust, his eyes fixating on the patterns in the ashes.

"So Zirithian sucked the life from it?" The monk said amazed at how detached he felt in his failure. "We are too late?" Morpheus stared hard at the signs in the ancient remains, his thoughts unable to focus. Whose remains were these then?

Suddenly the cave was a glow in purple light as the shard pulsed brightly with life. Morpheus turned rapidly, grabbing Legion to get a closer look. The shard pulsed again, stronger. Morpheus was just becoming aware of a low maniacal chuckle that emanated around the chamber when Legion gasped.

"Blackcro�" was all the shade managed to say, before the two of them disappeared suddenly. As the torrent of the planar crossing ripped at the two of them, Legion became aware of the nightmarish laughter of Blackcross in his head followed by the sinister whisper of his former mentor as though he were next to him:

"What darkness have your actions brought upon this place I wonder? Do you even know, the repercussions that you set in motion, the day you gave me that poor girl's soul? And now you see, the pebble you dropped, the ripples you caused. Here in Phaervorul they became waves, crashing with terrible destructive force.

What other worlds have you affected, I wonder?"

Morpheus had one last thought before he lost himself between worlds: A sword. There had been a sword lying there, perhaps hundreds of years, before Zirithian came to the cave. That's what the indent in the dust had been, plain as day. A greatsword.

And Zirithian had taken it.

The cave dust and ash whipped into a vortex as the two figured disappeared, bones and debris cracking against the walls of the chamber. Unearthed at the very center of the vortex, uncovered after hundreds of years, were the remains of Thrullzon the last great exarch of Orcus, and his decayed and eroded helm. Carved upon the helm and untouched by the punishing years of erosion, the twisted vile emblem of Orcus remained defiant.
 Episode 119 of The Winter Guard - 2014-12-01 -  
 What Lies Beneath... 
Bhintel crept along the dark passage, crossbow drawn, her senses alert for her prey. The dark elf was alone, as she often was, in the natural and manufactured tunnels beneath Gardmore Abbey. Since the tunnels at some point led to the Underdark, it was necessary for someone to be in charge of security here, and the rogue had been eager to volunteer.

Bhintel was best suited for this task because of her race, skill, and if she were being honest, her disposition. Her kinsman, Gendar, had encountered the adventurers who would become the Winterguard and eventually the Heroes of Gardmore when they had journeyed to the Seven-Pillared Hall beneath when investigating Thunderspire Labyrinth. He had taken a liking to them, especially the warrior Isak, and had proved helpful to them. When he saw Bhintel needed a place to go to, he suggested the Abbey. Under the Winterguard, it had become a sort of hub for displaced peoples in northern Nyrond, a part of the country largely forgotten by the crown, except for taxes. Moreover, isolated heroes now found there was a place they could meet with like-minded individuals, share resources, and adventure together.

She had met the shadar-kai monk, Morpheus after joining the Abbey. He had journeyed with several other heroes (and one decidedly non-hero she thought, though she didn't actually think of herself as a hero, either) to the drow outpost of Phaervorul. He and the shade necromancer, Legion, had disappeared while looking for the shards that contained his sister's soul. Though they eventually cleansed the drow outpost of the corruption of Orcus, she had searched all over for him and found nothing.

It's not that she didn't like the other heroes of Gardmore, per se: the paladin Eranah was inspiring to her (though she'd rather die than admit it); Mordekai was non-stop entertainment the way he struggled with himself here; Isak, Garrick and Odus were all men she trusted her life with; and the avenger Izera was a hoot, with her unique combination of wisdom and total lack of social skills...

...but Morpheus was so much like her. Loss defined them, shaped who they were, planted the darkness within...he was someone she knew actually understood what her suffering was like. He had lived through something very similar. Something terrible.

And now he was gone. She was sure he was dead. And his absence just made her interactions with the others, no matter how well meaning (Eranah! Ugh!), incredibly difficult. So, other than the odd meeting called here or there (by Eranah; Garrick, Isak, Michael, Norraddin and Mordekai had been gone for a long time...too long?), she enjoyed her solitude in the tunnels. Ever since the attack on Phaervorul, there had been a regular occurrence of refugees and raiders, and Bhintel was in charge of dealing with them.

Sometimes, she dealt with them using the skills she had developed on the run from Erelhei-Cinlu: the targets died without ever knowing she was there. Other times, she had to remember the mission statement of the Abbey, and would bring them to the entrance near the Vaults, where they would be interrogated, usually by Eranah (no one could lie to the Deva) or, more comedically, by Izera. Bhintel allowed herself a smile as she remembered how the githzerai would ask the most important questions in the most maladroit manner possible; the best was when she point-blank asked the two svirfneblin refugees how they worshipped Orcus. The faces the deep gnomes had made was worth the price of admission, as it were.

In the present moment, something had caught her eye on one of her patrols. It looked to be slithering about; after hearing about the yuan-ti cult that had laired beneath Gardmore Abbey, Bhintel was especially careful for anything that might have to do with the serpent-men fanatics of Zehir. Right now, she thought she had caught one.

Instead of killing it on the spot, Bhintel thought it might be more prudent to follow it to whatever others of its kind might be lurking about. She was supremely confident her quarry was unaware of her; on the surface, the rogue regularly surprised people she wasn't even intending to surprise. Whatever this thing was, it seemed far too intent on its destination to know it was being expertly followed. The drow was confident, but not cocky though; she made sure she kept an appropriate distance away to ensure she wasn't discovered, no matter how unlikely the idea.

She rounded the corner and pulled up short; her quarry had disappeared! Her eyes narrowed as she suspected an ambush, but none was forthcoming. That leaves either magic or secret passage...and since that faerie warlock isn't here...Bhintel began searching the walls for levers, keyholes, anything that was out of place. It wasn't her forte; she was more vigilante than trapsmith, but with enough persistence, she found the latch, twisted it, and she found herself staring at a very ancient set of stone doors.

Those stupid knights, she thought as she scanned them for any religious markings of Zehir. What in the Abyss did they build their precious Abbey over? Did they even bother to find out? Talk about asking for trouble... Her scan revealed nothing more about the identity of the doors' maker, nor its construction. Her jaw set, she placed her pointed ear to the door, trying to ascertain any movements or sounds from the other side. After staying like that, completely still for several minutes (no one could say she wasn't professional), she took out her lockpick set, ready to overcome the door and investigate what lay beyond.

Suddenly, she wondered why she was doing this. After all, it was her neck on the line, with no one else to back her up. Would they, if they were here, even? Actually risk their lives for hers? Like a deva would sacrifice for a drow! It was laughable! Why did she ever think she could belong with these stuck-up surface dwellers, with their sideways glances at her, their back-talking and lack of trust! She had half a mind to get up, leave this stupid door and whatever was behind it, walk right back into the Underdark and never come back, to the Hells with them! At that point, in a self-righteous huff, she packed her tools, and strode away from the door, her anger boiling over, fueling her steps...

...wait, what? What am I doing? She stopped all of a sudden. A cold sweat had broken over her, and she reclaimed control over herself, her anger subsiding. Where did that come from? she wondered. She didn't know what to think; in her darkest moments, she may have had a stray thought that somewhat resembled the litany of anger she just went through, but it wasn't what she actually believed...was it?

Shaking her head angrily, Bhintel dismissed the introspective thoughts and returned to the door, looking it over. Setting her mouth in a firm line, she knelt down to work on the lock with her tools once more.

Why? So I can die in the name of ‘good?' When has being good ever gotten anyone anything?! Why aren't I just looking out for myself? It served me well enough all those years! There's no family here! They banished me to the tunnels, can't bear the sight of me! It'd serve them right for me to walk out of here...who's to tell me otherwise? That deva bitc...

Suddenly, she drew herself away from the door with a gasp. She stared at it for several long moments, eyes wide in shock, and mouth agape. When she had calmed down, she frowned and considered the door from a safe distance.

It's the door, she realized. Whenever I get close and think about opening it, I start experiencing these feelings to discourage me from doing so. She smiled. Pretty ingenious, actually. Well. Let's see how strong you are when I know what's coming...

She knelt down to the lock for a third time. Almost immediately, she found her anger at her friends rising, the feelings of being used, of being ostracized. This time however, she was ready.

First, the exploratory pick, to find out where the tumblers are...

Do you think for a second they care about you at all?

Now, count the tumblers and memorize their positions...

All the deva does is remind you of how worthless you are!

Balance the first tumbler with pick one, insert pick two...

Accursed githzerai never knows when to shut up!

Flick the first inner lever...

Pretty boy bard does nothing to ease her time with them...thinks he's too good to help me!

Her mouth tightened. Keep the second pick in, use the third to jiggle the second lever...

Forest man cares for his animals way more than he ever did my friendship! I'm not even an animal to them!

Her eyes started to tear up...activate the second lever, move the first pick to the fourth position...

And that gods-cursed monk!! I HOPE YOU DIE LIKE YOUR SISTER!

CLICK!

She had beaten the lock, and more importantly, she hadn't let the door beat her. She crawled away on hands and knees, tears silently streaming down her ebony face. All her fears of loneliness, of not being accepted, of not being a person of worth...the magic of the door had used them all to assault her, reduce her, demean her...

Her mouth tightened, as did her grip on her crossbow. Oh, but someone's going to die!

She went back to the door and pushed it open before the magic could take hold. The room she entered was large and empty, save for what looked like a well. After taking several moments to ascertain her surroundings, she took a few stealthy steps forward.

It was faint at first. The room seemed to be growing, expanding...or was she shrinking? Things got darker, even to her enhanced darkvision. She suddenly felt alone...very alone, like a child abandoned to the caverns after a rival House has slaughtered her family. The feeling grew. She was alone in the drow city of Erelhei-Cinlu, wandering the streets, looking for anyone familiar, friend or foe. Then, she was alone in the whole of the Underdark, with nothing in the endless passages but her own thoughts, which were growing darker and darker...

...and somehow, more knowledgeable. It was as though her being alone had allowed her mind to go to secret places, dark places that knew terrible secrets of the universe. A voice was whispering in her head, unintelligible phrases that she knew she could make sense of if she tried...but if she did, she would learn something so horrible, so unearthly that she instinctively knew her mind would shatter.

She felt small, so very small. Small and cold, an insignificant life form adrift on an endless dark sea...waiting to piece together what the maddening whispers were telling her.

That's when she recognized the voice.

IT WAS HER OWN.

She ran out the door, and through the tunnels, blindly, hoping her instincts would take her back to safety. For over an hour she ran, trying to outrun her own mind. She collapsed upon the rock, her body covered in a cold sweat, her breathing shallow and rushed. She fell into darkness...

About two hours later, Bhintel was walking up to the doors leading to the Vaults. She knew what she had to do. She would tell the cleric, Fynn, about what had happened, and he would organize a party to go investigate. He would ask her to join; she'd refuse. She never planned on going there again.

She'd tell him what she realized.

She'd tell him to bring along help, but try to convince him not to bring people she knew. They had new arrivals: a half-orc who defected from the tribe the Winterguard had routed from when they took back Gardmore and another member from the order that Izera (and Eranah, in another life) belonged to. They'd do fine. Maybe some eladrin. No one she cared about too deeply. No one she'd hate herself for leading to that place.

She'd tell him what she realized.

That the last time she ever felt anything even remotely like this was when she had visited the catacombs beneath Dragon's Roost, the highest point in Gardmore Abbey.

Where the Winterguard had defeated the dark priest of Tharizdun.

And where lay the Voidharrow...