The wind blew with a biting chill as the trio marched wrapped tightly in their cloaks, through eastern hills of Marrokville Province. Bahl had reported they were still four days gallop from the City Proper, but that they would avoid the city, while, instead, travelling some miles North beyond the reaches of Marrokian patrols.
Bahl, Falina and Axym avoided the main roads, choosing the less travelled paths despite the, sometimes, difficult terrain these ways presented. There was naught to see but thick forestry, or high banking stone walls, and if they were lucky, a babbling brook from which the horses could drink. They travelled primarily during the dusky stretches in the day, and over night.
Falina had not see the sunlight in ... she could not count how long. And with every day that passed, as she awoke, and bathed in flowing rivers by dusk-light, her reflection seemed to become more and more pale.
Travelling by the light of the moons was all well and fine for the dwarf and tiefling comrades; they had the gift of night-sight. She, on the other hand, did not. More times than she could count, she had stubbed a toe or two, when forced to guide the horse through the nearly impossible, and almost claustrophobic forestry underbrush.
"Are you sure we're even going in the right direction," she would quip.
Bahl's silence was forever her companion, and the dwarf? The dwarf would only chuckle, pulling upon a wine-skin with, only Pondera knew what, in it.
On the fourth, harrowing, night of travel, the smells of lily-pads and the splash of lake surf could be heard in the near distance. Loons and canards cooed, cranes hunted, and toads croaked at the stars.
Axym smiled, "Amarys Lake," he said.
"Yes," Bahl agreed, as the three of them rounded a bend overlooking a gentle, but magnificant, lake.
"It is beautiful!" gasped Falina, reining in her mount, "Woah there, Lystra!" she bade, having finally named her only friendly companion on this journey. Axym stopped along side, "Have ye ever seen the like, lassy?"
"I can't say as I have. Golden Lake is as big a body as I've seen save the Ocean .. and never have I see such tranquility,"
Amarys Lake stretch as far as the horizon with specs of light dotting its shores as fires and hearth-light lit the coast. In the coolness of the night, a thin fog hovered just over the surface of the serene waters, as the Silvery moon of Fasdeus, and the blood-red moon of Pondera shun a dull crimson swath in reflection.
"We will stop at the lakes edge for the remainder of the night?" Bahl announced.
"So early?" Falina peered at the sky, noting the moons' position high in the western sky .. "We are hours from daybreak."
"Aye," Bahl agreed following her gaze, "But we will rest and travel the rest of the way by daylight."
"Thank the gods!" Falina found herself sigh with relief, "I don't mind telling you, this has been a lonely trek by night,"
"I know," Bahl almost sounded sympathetic, "But those that we have come to see are invisible even by daylight,"
"Who ARE we here to see, Bahl?" Falina said edging Lystra forward.
"The Shadow Hand Guild. We've been summoned," Bahl said, "It is what I've been waiting for this past year,"
"What do they want?" Falina tried.
"Who knows," Axym jumped in, "Ye never know what The Hand has in store for ye. Mind, it'll probably have somethin' to do with ye'u!"
"Me? What would they want with me?" Falina completely forgot herself.
"What would they want with ye'u? Why ye'ur th'eh very reason we're here, lass!" Axym reminded her, "The Shadow-Hand has sworn to protect the interests of Devensheer and His allies,"
"There is a dark force blanketing the North," Bahl said, "and for a reason that is yet to be made clear to us - those who serve its cause want you... "
"The letter?" Axym querried simply.
"Aye - It was mentioned in the missive from the Druids.. " Bahl nodded.
Falina turned towards the lake again, marvelling at its serenity, "Forgive me for saying so, but this does not seem like a place for a Guild serving Devensheer ... it's a little out of the way, if you catch my meaning."
"The guild is never in one place at any, one, given time. They are nomadic; travelling the realm in search of information to sell. It just happens that they are here. For how long? WE will never know!"
"Heads up, lad," Axym's tone was hushed, and Bahl's shoulders lowered slowly, his hand closing over the hilt of his sword.
"What? What is it," Falina gripped her staff, eyes searching the tree-lines.
"We're bein' followed," Axym said.
Bahl led them off the beaten path, and into a ditch, and beyond into the cover of the trees. As Falina arrived, the tiefling had already dismounted from Midnight and had taken to the shadows.
"This way lassy," Axym led the way upon his smaller horse, dismounting himself, and letting the equine graze. Falina was quick to follow suit.
Taking only her staff, she stayed close to the dwarf, and backtracked along the road-side, as every so often Axym would peak out into moonlight and back.
"What are you doing?" Falina's whisper was hoarse.
"Takin' a look is all, girl - mind ye'ur tongue, eh!" he replied.
Axym bolted back out of the treeline, into moonlight, and darted back again, just as a silvery flash reflected from Fasdeus' moon, and came to an abrupt stop at the dwarf's beard.
"You are getting old, dwarf!" said the figure - his voice musical, young and vital.
"Hey, remove your.." Falina swung her staff at the stranger, taking him clear in the side of the head, and for a split second, the figure's legs buckled, but amazingly the man regained his footing, and brought his sword, instinctively to bear ... with a swift twist of his wrist, he parried her next blow, and threw his shoulder into the side of her jaw, and she crumpled down like a sack of beets. She groaned, and sat up, rubbing her neck, and saw a shadow move beyond her assailant.
"ah ah ah... Peace dwarf - you wouldn't want your beard cut!" the figure warned.
"Ach.. stuff it up ye'ur breeches, elf,"
"Of anyone, i never thought that you'd be so easily caught."
With a dark blur, the elf's sword flew from his hand, and he found himself upon the ground, with Bahl sitting upon his chest, cowl down, horns shining in the moonlight, mouth set in a ricous and a dagger pointed at the elf's eye.
"No so easy as ye might think, Danoa, ha!" Axym patted the elf's blonde head, and for the first time, Falina got the true measure of the Elf's good looks.
She had never seen an elf. She'd only heard of their like in stories and fairy-tales. There was a time when she thought they were as much legend as dragons or sea-elves. But now that she looked on one and spied his pointed ears, she was now a pure believer that the elves were a TRUE people.
The Elf's face was perfectly perportioned - in every way, with every angle of his cheeks to the sharp draw of his chin, to the graceful slant of his almond shaped, altogether captivating blue eyes. Falina stood up, and fixed her traveling tunic, flushed into a sweat. Something in the pit of her stomach stirred.
"A friend .." she gulped, "I presume, then, yes?" she smiled sheepishly, nodding hopefully.
"aye!" Bahl smiled mischieviously, "Danoa Jaxa," Bahl took his arm and aided him, "This is Falina El'Cairn,"
"Well then," the elf's voice oozed charm, as he bowed low, "I am honored, and," he waved an absent finger at her face, "Sorry about that... Here let me.." he picked up her staff .. "You are fine with your staff .. quick to say the least,"
"And ye, tell me I'm gittin' old, eh, elf! Bah.. there was a day ye'd no' be trumped by a waif .."
"On that, you have me, clearly, Axym Gath'Thundrum.... you have me, well!" He sheathed his sword, and turned to Bahl, "You are as swift and clever as ever Bahl Shadowfinger."
"That should come as no surprise," the tiefling winked, "What brings you out here in the middle of the night!"
"Why, you, of course,"
"You've been sent to collect us!"
"What word?" Axym asked as the trio gathered around the elf - he smelled of cranberry and dandelion.
"It is bleak i'm afraid. We've word that Pondera's coven in Dirkshire has all but fallen, and joined the ranks of The White Tear!"
"Who are The Tear?" Bahl said, walking towards Midnight.
"Wizards, clerics .. Vampires mostly," the elf's nose wrinkled. The undead went against his very nature .. "Tavenlore has all but fallen into darkness. Black smoke rises over its spires, as the lands around it is scored with fire. It is all but a dead city; vampires and lycans feeding upon those that could not leave in time - refugees hunted and held prisoner as sacrifices to Orcus!"
"Orcus!?!" Bahl almost shouted the name.
"I thought Orcus was a god of legend long past."
"It seems he's raised against his sister .. " the elf reported.
"What of the followers of the Dark God, Pravusdeus," Axym questioned.
"They await in the wings, to endorse a clear victor, no doubt. They'll not get blooded when they can simply watch the followers of Orcus either slaughtering Pravusdeus' opposition, or to watch them be slaughtered themselves in the trying,"
"IT is a twisted afair," Falina put in.
"Indeed it is - as it always has been when dealing with forces of darkness, milady,"
She melted at his words.
Danoa Jaxa extended an arm to her, and she took it. An un-natural heat come from the elf - and at his touch, the chill that had once brough goose-flesh to her damp skin simply went away. Axym rolled his eyes and tugged at her pants,
"Don't get sucked in by his elvish charms girl - he belongs to no woman!" he smiled and chuckled depsite himself, if only because of the deep red twinge in Falina's otherwise pale palour!
"Who heads the Guild?" Bahl asked.
"A friend," Danoa nodded, "I will bring you to Kanan himself!"