Chapter 1: Meet Tom, Again

Hello, everyone. Chapter 1 makes its grand return. Now, it is a bit longer than the original, but I think it is better written. The downside is that, while the original article had a link attached, this one is just part of the blog post, so it doesn’t have pages or anything that might make it easier to read.  A couple of minor story changes were made, but nothing that will disrupt the flow of the story. In fact, ideally the opposite will be true.

Chronicles of Koeleth: the River’s Tale
Chapter 1
An Old Man’s Tale

“What’ll it be?” the barman asked his customer.

“Just a bit of ale for me, thanks,” the farmer replied. “Any new stories from the travelers?”

“Nothing worth retelling. Just the usual chatter about trade routes and business dealings. Not even a steamy affair for the town gossips to gab on about.”

“What about that guy?” the farmer inquired, pointing to an elderly gentleman in a quiet corner of the bar.

The man looked to be in his seventies, had a mess of straw-like grey hair atop his head, a significantly fuller beard of the same ashen color, and a set of deep blue eyes, one of them an artfully constructed stone marble, hidden underneath his thick eyebrows. A few scars acquired from an adventurous youth adorned his face and neck, partially hidden by folds of skin formed by old age. He sat hunched over a warm cup of tea, a loose, tattered cloak covering his broad shoulders. The cloak looked almost as ancient as its owner, weathered and faded. Where it was once a new and vivid shade of black, it was now a dull, dark hue of brownish grey. The man slowly lifted the cup of tea to his lips, took a small sip, and set it down again. It was clear to the barman and the farmer that he was deep in thought.

“That man,” the barman began, “always comes by on Mondays. Says he likes the quiet, lets him think. He’s never told me his name, but he claims to be a good friend of my grandmother, the owner of this bar. She hasn’t denied it. Anyways, he sits there for hours, never saying a word, staring into whatever drink he ordered. He’s one of those educated and well read folks, though. Knows all sorts of legends and myths. Could tell you all about history and such. Even has a few stories about some famous people in their youth, as if he knew them personally. If you want a good story, though, he’ll spin you a tale almost beyond belief. Just have to ask politely.”

“Alright, I have the time today. Got my sons holding down the farm for me today. Hey, old man!” the farmer shouted as he walked over to the table.

The elderly gentleman lifted his head to look at his caller, his one real eye just as sharp and clear as any 20-year-old.

“I’ve been told you have some interesting stories. Would you be willing to share one with me?”

“Of course,” the old man smiled warmly. “What would you like to hear?”

“How about a story from your youth?” the farmer suggested as he sat down at the old man’s booth.

“Well, I can offer you something good. You know him by his legend now, but back when I was just starting out, he was still called Thomas Riversedge, and he had yet to go on his many great adventures. Perhaps, however, the tale I will tell you was his most important. Do you know the story of Eirmoda’s creation? Well, let me retell it anyways,” the aged storyteller recounted, clearing his throat.

“Long before mortals walked the land, in the days when the mighty beasts of legend, the leviathan and the behemoth, stilled ruled over the sea and land, a divine being sat upon his throne and observed the nubile world of Eirmoda. This being was the Progenitor, the creator of our world and the father of humanity. The Progenitor, in his vast and infinite wisdom, shaped Eirmoda into a beautiful, wild, and untamed paradise where regal beasts, majestic birds and powerful fish dominated their respective realms, living testaments to the brilliant, artistic mind that brought them into existence. For countless centuries, the Progenitor enjoyed the primal pulchritude of his creation, but there came a time when he desired more. He realized that the simpleminded creatures could not truly appreciate the artistry of his work. To that end, he decided to create a being altogether different from the animals. An unusual creature his new creation was. It had soft flesh, weak muscles, and gangly limbs, but it had a unique quality that none of the others had: a mind modeled after the Progenitor. This new creature, which the Progenitor called ‘human,’ could imagine and create things in much the same way as the Progenitor. Where other creatures had bodies built for self-preservation, the human had a mind meant for innovation and advancement. Humanity did not just survive, it thrived. Humans could understand and appreciate the Progenitor’s creation, and together they enjoyed many centuries of peace and prosperity with nature. Humanity, however, grew weary of their creator and abandoned him in favor of more carnal, earthly pleasures. Over time, they completely forgot about the Progenitor, and the forsaken god once more felt the need to create anew. This time, he split off shards of his own mind into a myriad of lesser immortals that perfectly understood and knew him. He used these beings to reestablish his bond with man, appointing these divine entities as guardians over humanity. However, they too drew away from the Progenitor in their quest to guide humanity. With each passing decade, the Progenitor grew into a hollow husk of a once great god, until there was nothing left for him in this world. Quietly, without warning, he abandoned his creation, leaving for worlds unknown. Without his guiding presence, humanity and their Guardians fell to pieces and warring factions formed. Nations rose up, only to fall once more and be forgotten. Eventually, the Guardians elected champions to wield their power and to lead mankind. These champions became paragons, hero kings, who would defend their people with immense magical power granted by the guardians. After countless wars, three great nations emerged: the United Tribes of the Nagyb Desert, the Empire of Ariluo, and, finally, our own great nation, the Kingdom of Koeleth. For centuries, these three great nations have stood strong and embodied the will of the Guardians. They say that the Progenitor still observes our world from time to time, watching for the day when his creation turns its gaze back to him.

“At least I think that’s how the legend goes,” a young man said, concluding his rendition of the creation story. He scratched his head as he smiled clumsily.

“That’s boring!” a young boy whined.

“Yeah! Tell a better story!” a little girl shouted in disappointment.

A chorus of children rose up in agreement. These were orphans, and the man telling them the story was a travelling adventurer.

“Alright, alright,” the man said, stroking the well-groomed goatee and moustache that encircled his mouth. It stood in stark contrast to his messy black hair. “I don’t have any more stories today, but I’ll tell you what; next time, I’ll bring some more interesting stories with me. For now, I have to go.”

The horde of children voiced there protest but to no avail. The man had already started heading for the door.

“Um…Mr. Tom,” a little blonde girl muttered, her blue eyes perfectly capturing the essence of a puppy dog. “You will come back, won’t you?”

“Of course I will, Anna!” the adventurer warmly replied, wrapping the girl in a bear hug. “Don’t you worry.”

Anna, in response, returned his hug and ran off to go play with the other children, whose attention was already lost to toys and games. Tom turned his attention to the door once more and walked to a satchel and some gear sitting near it. As he was gearing up to leave a woman, who had been off to the side watching, approached him.

“They really love you, don’t they?” she asked rhetorically.

“They aren’t the only ones, Angela” he retorted as he removed his shirt, revealing a thin layer of padding.

“Tom, we’ve talked about this,” the woman responded with an annoyed chuckle. “If I could keep this up, I would, but I just can’t handle having a boyfriend who travels around the country doing Guardians know what, constantly making me worry about whether or not he’ll make it home to me alive and in one piece.”

“I know, I know,” Tom replied, as he adjusted his breastplate. “You can’t blame me for trying, though. It’s rare to find a beautiful woman with a heart to match. For a time there, I was a very, very fortunate man. By the way, could you get that strap there? I could do it myself, but it’s so much better with help.”

“Yeah, sure,” Angela Sunfire answered, as she tightened one of the leather belts that held the breastplate together. “You know, no one flatters me quite like you do. I’ll miss it. I’ll miss those big blue eyes of yours, too. I’m a sucker for those.”

“And I’ll miss flattering you. But such is life, I suppose. It’s not the worst breakup I’ve ever had. Probably the best, actually.”

Tom put his baggy long sleeve shirt back on over his armor, and then donned an equally oversized travelling robe that hung open in the front. Both the shirt and robe were faded black and tattered, showing signs of daily use.

“Same, though it stings a little bit more than the others,” Angela echoed.

“True. Very true.”

“So,” Angela began in a more serious tone, “you’re going to keep your promise to the kids, right? They really look up to you, and it would mean so much to them if you came back every once in a while. Especially Anna. You’re the closest thing she’s ever had to a father. And I certainly wouldn’t complain about the company.”

“Of course I will. It just might be harder, and I might not be able to come as often, now that my mission in Stonewall is over. After all, it was my job that brought me to this town in the first place. But I will come back. I promise you that.”

As he said this, he swung his satchel over his shoulder.

“Thank you, Tom. It means so much to them…and to me. Stay safe.”

Before he left, Tom and Angela shared a hug. When he was finally ready to go, Tom grabbed a halberd that was leaning on the wall of the orphanage and headed towards Stonewall’s eastern gate. His next mission was going to bring him east to the city of Ramsthrone. After only a few minutes of walking past the dismal stone structures that served as homes and shops for the townsfolk, he reached the edge of the town. A stone wall, for which the town was named, and a large gate loomed before him. Approaching the guardhouse, he presented a license to the guard on duty. The guard recognized it as a standard adventurer’s license, issued by government offices and major guilds to those with the coin and qualifications to obtain them. On top of giving access to most cities and towns in the kingdom, it allowed for the carrying of weapons, armor and magical artifacts on one’s person within city limits. It was the third most common license in Koeleth, after the merchant’s and traveler’s license. There were other licenses, but these three were the most practical and economical for most travelers. It was not uncommon for cities and towns to have their own laws concerning merchants and adventurers, but all cities and towns had to acknowledge the rights of anyone bearing a government issued license.

The guard looked at Tom and asked him, “What do you need, sir? Surely you are aware that you need not present me with your license to leave the city, only to enter.”

“Yes, I am aware of that, but I actually had a question for you.”

“Oh? I’d be happy to help if I can.”

“Great. Have you seen another man come through this gate recently?”

“You mean that other mercenary? The greasy haired one?”

“Yeah, the guy in all black and carrying a couple of spears.”

“Hmm. Yes, I do recall him coming this way. You a friend of his?”

“You could say that. Do you know where he went?”

“Yes, actually. I believe he continued down the eastern road. I was concerned about him, because he seemed woefully ill-equipped for a traveler. He only had his weapons and nothing else. A bit odd, if you ask me. Normally travelers are better equipped, like yourself. Though, if you don’t mind me saying, you could do to refresh your attire.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Tom said as he examined his worn out shirt, holes showing small patches of dull, rusty metal from his breastplate.

“Regardless, your friend is probably a couple miles away by now. You might want to run to catch up to him.”

“Alright, thanks.”

“Not a problem.”

Tom jogged down the road at a considerable pace, despite his heavy gear. Before long, the small, scarce farms that surrounded the town disappeared into a barren, dusty waste, typical of the rest of Darwin’s Expanse. After a few more minutes, Tom came to a stop near a lone tree. Beneath its shade, a tall, thin man was sleeping. His slicked back, orange hair and pitch black cloak instantly gave his identity away.

“Hey, Aaron!” Tom shouted, attempting to rouse the rogue from his rest.

The commotion caused by the guard for hire succeeded in its purpose. Without opening his eyes, Aaron replied.

“Thomas Riversedge,” the blackguard responded dryly.

“You left in such a hurry I had to ask the guard for help. He thought you were a mercenary, can you believe that?”

“Yes. That’s what I told him so I could get into town in the first place. I don’t have a travelling license and they care about such things here. So I lied and said I lost it.”

“I see…Anyways, where are you headed next?”

“Somewhere,” Aaron replied nonchalantly.

“Well, if you’re not busy, do you want to travel with me for a while?”

“I see. So since we worked together so well for this one mission, you think we should just always work together?”

“Well, if you want to put it that way…yes!” Tom declared. “What do you say?”

“I say I don’t need your help and you seem quite cozy staying here.”

The professional thief was now standing, the difference in height between Tom and himself tangible. Tom was remarkably average, standing at 5’9”, but Aaron was notably taller, standing at 6’2”. Aaron scratched at the stubble on his chin, the same ginger color as his hair.

“What are you implying?” Tom inquired cautiously.

“The way I see it is this: you had a beautiful young woman pining after your heart, and her feelings were obviously reciprocated, so you should have settled down here. I’d say you’ve got it made. Especially given the way you talked before. Not that I care.” True to his statement, his words fell out like rocks from the side of a cliff, cold and passionless.

“Heh,” Tom half-heartedly laughed. “Well, that’s not a viable option anymore.”

“So she dumped you? Good call.”

“You don’t have to be so heartless about it, but, yes, she dumped me. She wanted me to stay here and live with her, but I just couldn’t do that. I must fulfill my duties. I can’t go back on my decision now.”

“Sure you can,” Aaron flatly replied. “She’ll take you back.”

“No, no. I’ve made my decision.”

“Disciplina’s little paragon now? Always playing by the rules?”

“Ha. Funny,” Tom replied, his comment oozing sarcasm. “No, I am still a follower of Lady Sorowa, the Guardian of Tears, thank you very much.”

“You’re doing a fabulous job, by the way. You’re breaking girls’ hearts left and right. Aren’t you supposed to be the sad one, though?”

“Hey, Angela made her choice just as much as I made mine! It’s not my fault alone! Nor was it my fault that Jennifer didn’t tell me anything!”

“No, but she wasn’t exactly discreet.”

“Evangeline broke up with me. Carol cheated on me,” Tom ranted, ignoring his irksome companion. “And Cleo is like a sister to me! That just seems…wrong.”

“You keep digging that hole of yours, Tom.”

“Guardians, I hate you. Now, what do you say about my proposal? Better hurry up before I change my mind…”

“After all that, you still want to travel with me?” Aaron asked apathetically. “And after you just broke up with your girlfriend, too. I don’t know, Tommy, I’m not sure I’m ready. Don’t you think we’re rushing this relationship?”

“Ha. Ha. Ha. Very humorous. My poor word choice aside, why not team up?”

“My next mission is an assassination. I know how much you love those.”

“If that loathsome task is on your to-do list, then I may pass on this idea,” Tom responded with disgust.

“I’m kidding. You have very entertaining reactions. Alright, I’ll travel with you, if only to be less bored. Where are we headed?”

“I can tell this journey is going to be so much fun,” Tom rolled his eyes. “My next destination is the capital of the duchy of Ramsrest, Ramsthrone. Lord Ramsrest is waiting for an important package from the Nagyb Desert, and he’s not too keen on anyone knowing about it.”

“So he sent a mercenary to get it?”

“Armed escort,” Tom corrected, as he and Aaron began walking. “And a trustworthy one at that. I came recommended by Lady Heronslake.”

“She’s got a lovely castle with all sorts of valuable things in it. How did you get a recommendation from her?” Aaron disinterestedly inquired.

“It’s an interesting story, actually. I was hired, along with three others, to escort her to the capitol of Despar’s Respite. I believe it was Celeste Firemouth, Yuuta Seeker, and Michael Stubbornfoot. I’m sure you’ve already heard of Firemouth and her notorious temper. Seeker and Stubbornfoot are C-rank members of the Valiant Blades.”

“Valiant Blades, huh? They’re the famous mercenary guild that serves the Guardian Valro, right?”

“Those are the ones.”

“Why did Lady Heronslake hire escorts in the first place? Doesn’t she have a guard?”

“I guess she wanted some magic on her side. After all, we were traveling the Blacknight Road. It’s the fastest path between Great Heron City in Great Heron Lake and Despar’s Throne, but it’s also the most dangerous. Bandits practically sprout up like weeds.”

“That does bear a certain degree of wisdom. Magic is certainly convenient.”

“Indeed! And quite the setup we had, too. I was at the front of the party, ready to defend. With my Hardened Tear,” Tom said as he lifted up his rather plain looking halberd, “I had the best defensive magic on the team. Magical walls of water are pretty good at deflecting just about anything that needs to be deflected. Disciplined and skilled, the Valiants made for excellent guards to the Lady Heronslake herself, so they walked alongside the carriage. Meanwhile, we put Celeste and her fire-spouting axe, the Malevolent Tongue, where they could do the least damage, in the back of the company.”

“A flaming axe? Sounds like the standard weapon of a follower of the guardian Angern. Maybe not the most ideal magic to have in a forest,” Aaron said, looking around at the bright green forest he and Tom had entered. “What about the Valiants? They had magic, too?”

“Yeah, Yuuta has a nodachi with some type of earth magic attached to it, from the Guardian Will-O in Ariluo, and Michael had a broadsword blessed with some basic earth magic from Disciplina. I couldn’t tell you much more than that. You know, for someone who follows Apathos, you seem to be awfully interested in this.”

“Not at all. Just keeping the conversation going because it throws off suspicion.”

“A more wholesome career path would not require you to be worried about such things. No one’s on the road besides us anyways.”

“Anyways, why was Lady Heronslake headed to Despar’s Throne?”

“Political issues. I didn’t ask, and she didn’t tell. Lord Alexander Desparian mentioned something about trade when we arrived, though. I don’t know why she didn’t hire all Valiant Blades for this, but it’s certainly a good thing she didn’t. Not too long after we got into the Blacknight Forest, a courier came with a message from their guild master calling them back. Valor’s Hall must have been under attack. That’s the only thing that would pull a couple Blades away from such an important mission.”

“Must have been during the Inquisitors and Valiant Blades’ guild war. It was pretty heated and never truly ended, as I recall.”

“Yeah. At any rate, it was just myself and Celeste from that point forward, which became quite a problem when we got deeper into the forest. The caravan was attacked several times, but we came out mostly unscathed. One poor fellow, however, didn’t make it. A young man, no older than myself, Alfred Olson, triggered an arrow trap. The kid’s unfortunate sacrifice gave me enough of a warning to erect a water wall around the caravan.”

“Around the entire caravan? Your magic’s that powerful?” Aaron said, slightly shocked.

“I’ve had several years to learn how to use one spell. The bandits rained down on us, but between the baroness’ guard and Celeste’s flaming axe, I had enough time to get Lady Heronslake out of the ambush. Shortly thereafter, realizing they had lost their prey, the bandits dispersed and Celeste and the guard caught up to us. Despite knowing the risks when she signed up, Celeste complained about how we ‘abandoned’ her. Lady Heronslake tried to reason with her, but Celeste only calmed down when she was promised double pay. The baroness might have offered more, but, in her words, ‘the funds in my treasury must first ensure the continuation of the government of Great Heron Lake and must then ensure the wellbeing of its people. My personal safety is of secondary importance, and therefore I cannot offer you more.’ I really admire that kind of leader. Anyways, Celeste was perturbed but resolved to finish the mission. Fortunately, for both the caravan and my wallet, the rest of the journey went smoothly. When we arrived at our destination, we received our payment—I also received double pay, but Celeste was not informed of this—and the city guard took over. Before departing for her meeting with Lord Desparian, the baroness requested I escort her on the return journey as well. Naturally, I agreed.”

“Sounds like you caught her fancy. Quite the lady-killer.”

“Hardly. If anything, on the return journey she kept trying to hook me up with her granddaughter. No, I got the return mission because truly reliable mercenaries are hard to come by.”

“Granddaughter? So Lady Heronslake is old, then?”

“Venerable and wise from many years on this earth.”

“More like wizened.”

“Hey, man. Show some respect. At any rate, apparently the younger Lady Heronslake is notoriously picky about her men. Her fickle heart has yet to be swooned.”

“Fickle indeed. Mercs are an odd choice for the husband of a noble. You must be dreadfully righteous.”

“I try to be a good guy, that’s all. Nobles are a strange breed, though.”

They had been walking for quite some time now, and the vacant road had become a noisy, bustling highway, full of merchants and travelers. A distinct sound rose above the commotion of the streets. A man was shoving his way through the crowds, with guards in hot pursuit.

“Stop him! Stop that thief!” one guard shouted.

“You! Mercenary! Do something!” another said, clearly meaning Tom.

Tom immediately began to weave his way through the crowd, so as not to cause more harm than good. Aaron, meanwhile, had disappeared, blending in with the crowd. The thief continued to force his way through, and he eventually broke into a small gap in the throngs of people. Tom managed to come out right behind him, and he immediately put his magic to use. The armed escort conjured a wall of water in front of the thief. Though shocked by this development, the thief held his course, attempting to break through the barrier. Instead, he met with what felt like a brick wall, dashing any hopes of escape.

“Nailed him,” Tom said, pumping his arm.

The guards quickly caught up to and apprehended the thief. While Tom watched, they searched the man for the money he stole,

“Alright, you blackguard! Where is the coin purse?” one guard growled.

“I—I don’t know!” the thief stuttered, genuinely bewildered. “I kept it in my pockets, but if you ain’t found it, I don’t know!”

“I have it,” Aaron said, seemingly appearing out of nowhere. “I, uh, ‘liberated’ it from his pocket when he passed by me.”

“Oh. Thank you,” the guard said, confused, as he took the coin purse. “Well, you both have our gratitude and the gratitude of the merchant whom this belongs to. Thank you for your service. Is there anyway way we can repay you?”

“No, we’re just glad to be of service,” Aaron said flatly.

The guards reiterated their appreciation and left with the criminal and the stolen coin. Tom and Aaron resumed their own journey.

“So,” Tom began, a wry smile on his face, “I have trouble picturing you as the heroic sort.”

“Don’t worry, I’m not. I just think, if you’re going to be a thief, you should at least be good at it. Besides, I stole all his money; his ill-gotten gain is my ill-gotten gain now. All except for one man’s coin purse.”

“Good thing I’m not a thief, then. I’d lose all my money to you.”

“I’d come back with a snarky remark, but I just don’t care enough.”

The two continued to converse for a little while until they came to a fork in the road, at which point they veered off the highway and onto a smaller avenue. Tom knew this area fairly well, despite not being a native, and he knew that, while this was a slightly longer route to his destination, it was a substantially shorter route to an inn. After some time, they took a brief break near a small but impressive set of waterfalls.

“Ah, the Wanderlust Falls. Aren’t they beautiful,” Tom extolled. “Such majesty and grace infused with the raw power of nature. Isn’t it exhilarating?”

“Slow down, Romeo,” Aaron replied. “Keep this up and I might believe you’re a crooked arrow after all.”

“How crude,” Tom retorted, half jokingly and half appalled. “There is nothing effeminate about admiring the fact that nature could destroy you at any moment. And besides, as both a follower of Sorowa and a Man of the River, I have a unique affinity for bodies of water and watery things. And at this exact moment, so does my bladder. If you’ll excuse me.”

Tom ran off into the nearby woods to relieve himself away from prying eyes, leaving Aaron to his own thoughts. He could not deny that the waterfall had an almost hypnotic appeal, no doubt in part because he was a follower of Apathos, who, just like Sorowa, favored water magic. He reflected on how he had come to be in this situation. The foaming river mesmerized him, taking him to rarely seen parts of his mind. In his conscious recollection, nothing had fazed him. Tragedy had not crushed him and victory had not excited him. Neither pride nor shame haunted him. The only thing he ever felt was the pressing sense of ennui. His only goal in life was to escape that tedium, that monotony, to find something exciting, but such an escape had never come. Even the mild entertainment that travelling with this Thomas Riversedge fellow offered did not alleviate the lethargy. He could not recall a single event that might have caused this lackluster view of the world, and, for a moment, that bothered him. The feeling soon passed, however, and his mind refocused on current issues, like which job he might do next. His thoughts were brought to an abrupt end when a bellow akin to the sound of an enraged bull rose up behind him.

“You! Deepscar!” shouted a large man, the source of the guttural growl. “Remember me!? You should! I got a score to settle with you!”

The man got up into Aaron’s face, his great height exceeding Aaron’s own tall figure. The man’s minotaur-like stature would make even a trained soldier shrink in fear, but Aaron felt nothing.

“Damien Bailey, right?” Aaron casually answered. “How’s your sister?”

“You know damn well how she’s doing! You broke her heart, and now I’m going to break your spine!” the behemoth roared, his nostrils flaring out, further emphasizing his minotaur image.

“Ah, Kelly. Such a sweet girl. Too bad she had to get in the way of my job,” Aaron reminisced, dismissing Damien.

“I’m going to tear that pompous skull off your shoulder!” Damien barked as he charged at Aaron.

“Ooh, ‘pompous,’ a big word for you. It does have a brain cell.”

The behemoth of a man lifted Aaron into the air. Before he could do anything, a sharp pain stopped him in his tracks. Somehow, Aaron had loosened one the two spears he carried on his back and dropped the butt of the spear squarely on Damien’s foot. The thief took advantage of the temporary distraction to kick his assaulter in the chest, launching himself a sufficient distant away. Aaron quickly grabbed his pilum, a blessed weapon called False Mask, and shoved the spear point into the chest of his opponent, unleashing a blast of water in the process. Damien was relatively unharmed, however, as he was wearing a shirt of mail that the pilum’s head couldn’t quite pierce. While he was getting back to his feet, Aaron switched over to his hasta, another blessed weapon called Empty Eyes. Rather than poising his spear to pierce his opponent, however, as soon as Damien was close enough, Aaron tapped his spear on the ground, unleashing a wave of oceanic magic that pulsed outward in all directions, throwing the minotaur off balance. Damien, having recovered from his stagger, reinitiated his charge. Aaron readied his spear to pierce his foe. At the moment of impact, instead of pierced mail and a scream of pain, there was only the sound of a heavy object being dropped and the sight of water coursing from the ground. A familiar spell had rebuffed Damien’s assault and deflected Aaron’s spear.

“Children, no roughhousing,” Tom mocked.

“Yes, Mom. Sorry, Mom,” Aaron snapped back.

“He’s blessed, too!?” Damien blubbered in bewilderment.

“Yessir,” Tom affirmed. “Now, what’s going on here?”

Rising to his feet once more, Damien explained, “He defiled my sister, used her, and left her behind! He has to pay!”

“Aaron?” Tom asked in a very parental manner.

“He’s right,” the rogue conceded without a hint of remorse. “In order to complete a job, I had to use unconventional methods. A certain family had a rare gem that my employer wanted. However, they were so well guarded that I couldn’t just sneak in and steal it. So, instead, I endeared myself to the locals, caught the affections of a young lady who was friends of the family. I played my cards in such a way that I bedded her. After that, I used her to get into the family home and acquire the gem. Without a word I left the city, which crushed Kelly’s heart.”

“Now you have to die!” Damien bellowed.

“Whoa, there, big fella,” Tom stepped in. “I can see that you’re angry and I can understand why, but I can’t stand by and watch you murder a man. A broken heart’s not a crime, regardless of how terrible it is—trust me, I know—but homicide is. Maybe we can work out a deal. Here, take this,” Tom said as he handed a small gem to Damien. “Tell your sister that this is from Aaron, and while he can never undo the damage, he deeply regrets the pain he has caused.”

“But I don’t, though,” Aaron said.

“Shut up, I’m saving your sorry butt.”


After mulling it over, Damien Bailey gave an answer. “Fine. I’ll accept this. But if I ever see you again, gutter grime, you’re dead!”

“No worries, you won’t.”

“And you, beardy, stay out of my way. You seem reasonable, so I’ll cut you some slack.”

“Thank you for your kindness,” Tom replied.

“I’m out of here,” the barbarian announced, making his departure.

“You really ought to try making more friends,” Tom suggested when the hulking mass had finally left the scene.

“Geez, Mom, we were just playing around. Why’d you have to ruin the fun?” Aaron sarcastically replied.

“You’re hopeless. You just don’t care, do you?”

“It can learn.”

“Let’s get going. Ramsthrone is a long way away yet.”

“By the way, was that a Geisterblut ruby? How does one so obviously not wealthy so easily part with such wealth?”

“I have more. I am not without wealth, I just don’t flaunt it.”

“How many more?” Aaron inquired, utterly dumbfounded.

“Two. And I also have four Despar diamonds, which, as you know, are far more valuable. The rubies were given to me by Lady Heronslake, but I’ve been hanging on to them in case I need to make a major purchase. The diamonds were half of the payment for Lord Ramsrest’s delivery given to me upfront.”

“This all seems very shady.”

“That’s a curious statement, coming from a thief. Regardless, I know what I’m carrying, and I assure you it’s all perfectly legal. Speaking of wealth and shady business dealings, how come a professional thief of your caliber isn’t living a bit higher on the hog?”

“I just don’t care enough about anything to spend my money. My cloak is in working order, my spears need virtually no repairs, and my boots are in fine condition. Other than the daily expenses associated with the condition of living, I have no need to spend money.”

“Figures. Let’s pick up the pace a little. I’d like to get at least to the border of Ramsrest before we stop.”

They hastened on their way, allowing their conversation to die. After a couple silent hours of travel, they reached the farmlands that marked the end of Darwin’s Expanse and the beginning of Ramsrest.

“See that tiny little village on the horizon? That’s Pasture’s Edge,” Tom explicated. “It’s the westernmost village in Ramsrest. Normally, we could make it all the way to Cronehall, but between that pickpocket, your friend, and that brief detour we had to make near Goldsun, we’ve been on the road for nearly eight hours. Not to mention we didn’t leave until late in the morning.”

“That was your fault,” Aaron admonished.

“Indeed. This will work out in our favor, though. The Drunk Skunk, Pasture’s Edge’s local tavern, belongs to Erwin Horsekeep. He almost always gives me a discount. It’s not a lavish city inn, but it has its charm, and it’s inexpensive.”

“Says the man carrying around a fortune in rare gems.”

“Hey, man, you never know when you’ll need that money.”

After roughly half an hour they came into the town proper. It wasn’t much to look at, a few drab buildings representing the various shops in town, a handful of houses belonging to the non-farmers in the village, and a rustic old tavern that looked like it could use more than a little repair work.

“That’s it, the Drunk Skunk,” Tom sighed with relief. “Let’s go secure ourselves a room.”

Aaron followed Tom in and was shocked to find that the exterior was quite misleading. The interior of the building, though humble, was warm and inviting, almost enchanting to weary traveler. Rather than the greasy, noxious atmosphere of most small town bars, this inn was clean and wholesome.

“Hey, Erwin!” Tom shouted to the middle-aged bartender, who was working rather efficiently, despite his rotund features.

“Ah, Mistah Riversedge,” the portly man acknowledged, his country drawl shining through. “Good to see ya again! Cleo’s been missin’ ya, too! Give me a moment, and I’ll have ya set up with a room.”

Tom chuckled as he observed the jolly old man buzz about his business, all the while wondering where his daughter was. Normally, she would have gleefully greeted Tom by constricting his neck until air became a precious commodity. Not that he enjoyed asphyxiation. Finally, the barkeep approached them.

“Now, what can I do for y’all?” Erwin asked in a gravelly but kind voice.

“I was hoping you might have a room for me and my friend here,” Tom politely requested.

“Is that a joke, boy? Ya know we always have room for ya here! I do owe ya, after all.”

“Nonsense, Erwin. You’ve done so much for me. You don’t owe me a thing.”

“Nevahtheless, ya always have a place here, should ya be needin’ it. Now, about that room. Will ya be needin’ one or two?”

“One will be fine. We don’t want to take up too much space. Though, a room with two beds would preferable.”

“I think I can arrange that. I’ll get Cleo down here in a moment to settle y’all in. That’ll be three wilks.”

“It’s gone up a bit. Last time it was only one,” Tom remarked as he dropped three silver coins in the barman’s hands.

“Yeah, it’s been rough. Lawd Ram’s-Ass raised the taxes on businesses again. Not much, but still an inconvenience for us outah villages. I assure ya, yer still getting the same discount.”

“That’s really not necessary, Erwin. If you need the money, I’ll happily pay you full price. I can afford it.”

“I thank ya for the offah, but I can’t do that aftah what ya’ve done for me and Cleo. That’s not all that’s changed, neithah. I’m a bit busy at the moment, so we’ll have to catch up latah.” With that, the man hustled off to get his daughter.

Suddenly, two thin, pale arms wrapped themselves around Tom’s neck, sealing off his lungs and preventing him from breathing.

“Tom, ya came back! I missed ya so much! I thought I might die from loneliness!” a high pitched female voice punctured his ear drums.

“Easy, Cleo! Easy! I’ll die if you don’t let go!” Tom pleaded.

“Aw, I’m sorry, Tom. It’s just that I’m so excited to see ya. It’s been three whole months!”

The girl released her death grip and moved to her father’s side. The resemblance was palpable: both father and daughter shared a shock of short red hair, broad shoulders and a cheerful smile. If Tom had to say, though, the young woman was infinitely more attractive.

“Cleo, honey,” her father asked. “Show Thomas to his room, please.”

“Yes, Daddy,” she replied, before bounding off to the stairs, Tom following close behind.

“You know, for a twenty-one-year-old, you sure do act a lot like a teenager.”

“Oh, and yer so much more mature at twenty-four?”

“Actually, yes! You’d be amazed at what three years does for you Cleo!”

“Whatever. Yer so full of crap, ya might as well call yerself fertilizer.”

“Harsh! But you might be right! Haha!”

“Of course I’m right, Tom!” Cleo laughed mischievously. “Are ya stayin’ here alone tonight?”

“Unfortunately for you, no. A friend of mine, who seems to have disappeared, will be joining me later this evening. If you see him, do tell him to hurry up. Also, tell your dad to secure his valuables. Aaron is a fan of the five finger discount.”

“Can do, Tom. If ya need any company, though, please don’t hesitate to let me know.”

“I don’t feel like dying today, really. I must refuse your offer.”

“True. Not even you would see the light of day if Daddy got wind of it. Well, if ya ever change yer mind, ya know where to find me.”

“I already told you, I’m not interested. I see you as a little sister, so I couldn’t date you.”

“Too bad. Ya don’t know what yer missin’.”

“And I don’t want to. I’d rather be your friend, if I must be honest.”

“Well, at least, I can hold on to that, I suppose. Well, goodnight, Tom. If I see yer friend, I’ll be sure to let him know where ya are. What’s his name?”

“Aaron. Aaron Deepscar. He’s a redhead, but it’s a bit brighter than yours, more orange. He’s tall and carries two spears with him.”

“Right. Well, see ya tomorrow, lover boy.”

“Don’t call me that! Jeez, crazy woman.”

Cleo just laughed as she walked away, giving him a slight wave.

“How many times do I have to say it?” Tom wondered to himself. “So, I saved her life once. That’s not a big deal, really.”

Tom went into the room and settled himself down. After trying and failing to get to sleep, he mulled over the thoughts running through his head. He briefly wondered at what Aaron might be doing at the moment but decided he would rather not know. Eventually his thoughts turned into dreams and his eyelids shut, not to open again until the morning.