The quiet of a bright, summer noon day was interrupted by the crystal clear ringing of steel on steel. To anyone listening the sound would have belied a sense of urgency, a desire to fight or fly, but to the two warriors engaged in practice the sound was as music to their ears. They danced an intricate dance, one as beautiful as it was deadly. Their movements were slow but deliberate, almost gentle in a way, but their strikes were sharp and precise. The whistling of their blades cutting through the air filled the ears of all those watching, amplified by the soft humming of a wordless tune sung in perfect unison by the dueling warriors. The performance was almost perfect until Cassiel stepped backwards to avoid a blow only to have her foot slip in the mud. She tumbled over herself, wings flapping ineffectively trying to regain her balance only to fail and fall face first in the mud. Her twin scimitars slipped from her grasp and fell to the earth beside her.
Alleria Swiftwind sighed heavily, sheathed her sword and ran a hand through her thick, copper hair pushing it back away from her eyes. She watched Cassiel fumble around in the mud but made no effort to help her. "How often do I have to say it, Cass? Always be aware of your surroundings. I spent the last fifteen minutes maneuvering you into that mud."
Cassiel had managed to pull herself up onto her knees but the poor Avariel's lower half and much of her leather shirt were covered in mud. She tried in vain to wipe the dirt off her face but only succeeded in spreading it around.
"Give the lass a break, Elf, she's come a long way from the wee balm we found a month ago," the Dwarf, Elwood, had said as he stood from the log he'd been sitting on and dusted himself off. The stouthearted Dwarf was near half the size of the Elf but carried with him a commanding presence. Elwood was part of the Ironblade Clan, a clan of craftsmen and tinkerers, Dwarves who liked to work with their hands. Elwood had always said he was happiest at a blacksmith's forge. Why the fiery haired dwarf opted to pick up axe and shield and serve in the Lord's Alliance was anyone's guess. "I'ma go check on the horses," he continued, "It's time we were off."
Alleria glared at the Dwarf as he wandered off towards the back of the camp. The relationship between those two had always been rocky at best, neither put much effort into hiding their contempt of the other, but that was no surprise. These days Elves and Dwarves rarely saw eye to eye except perhaps on their mutual hatred of Orcs. Yet in spite of that Elwood did seem rather fond of Cassiel who was technically an Elf herself, though a rare breed of elf. One that was almost never seen in the Realms due to their near extinction centuries ago at the hands of chromatic dragons. The Avariel were a forgotten race, lost but not gone, not entirely. They existed in small groups now, hidden societies scattered throughout Faerun and rarely did they venture far from their homes. Chromatic dragons were no longer the dominating force they had once been but in the intervening years human poachers had sought to finish what the dragons had started.
Cassiel stood and shook the mud off her arms, flinging it all over her pearly wings and sandy blond hair. No matter what she did she only seemed to make it worse until finally she gave up. "I don't suppose I have time for a bath," she asked of no one in particular.
"The rain will wash it off, child," Raemar Brightwood replied. Raemar was a Human druid from a circle just outside the walls of Waterdeep, though truth be told his shaved head and simple robes were more reminiscent of monks found amongst the temples to the East. His staff had metal loops on one side that held metallic rings that jingled as he walked and currently he was waving that staff in a circle above his head while also quietly muttering to himself.
As soon as he had spoke the young Gnome Bard groaned loudly, "Rain? Again? You sure about that? There's nary a cloud in the sky."
Dirk Haverfell, was perhaps the cleanest and the brashest of the group. His dark hair was slick, his doublet pressed and his thin mustache neatly styled and trimmed. The gnome practically exuded confidence whenever he entered the room and on many occasions over the past month he had made it very clear he had no fondness for the weather. The little gnome squinted up into the sky with one hand raised over his eyes to shield them from the sun's rays. Cassiel had glanced up as well and found herself agreeing with the gnome. The skies were practically clear, though admittedly they were deep in the forest.
"The spirits never lie, Mr. Haverfell. The rain will come before long and we'll be well on the road by then."
That elicited another moan from Dirk and the Gnome went back to packing his things all the while grumbling to himself. Alleria rolled her eyes at the gnome then took one look around the camp and realized someone was missing. "Has anyone seen our wizard," she asked with a sigh, the old man was always wandering off on his own and in this particular region of the world that was very dangerous.
The others all looked around then shrugged, obviously no one had seen him leave. "Useless," Alleria muttered under her breath as she wandered over to Graham's tent. A single glance was all it took for her to find a set of tracks in the mud leading away from the tent and into the woods. With a gesture she motioned for Cassiel to follow her. "Cass, you're with me. The rest of you strike camp and be ready to move."
Cassiel nodded, retrieved her discarded sabers then walked over to the fire to pick up her robe. She tossed the fabric over her shoulders and wings before pulling the hood up over her head then she followed the Elven ranger into the woods to search for their friend. Meanwhile, the others around the camp were diligently taking down their tents and repacking their supplies. They had a long day's travel ahead of them and a late start. They would have to push hard if they were to make it to Baldur's Gate before nightfall. Of course it didn't help that Malark Graham had wandered off on his own again. Cassiel had a vague idea that the Zhentarim was not to be trusted but she wasn't sure why.
"Stay close to me, Cass, and keep quiet," Alleria whispered over her shoulder. She seemed uncharacteristically careful today like she was expecting something to happen. Perhaps an ambush from trolls, the namesake of these woods. Rumor had it there were plenty of them around amongst the trees and the hills to the south. Not many caravans traveled south along this road these days for fear of running afoul of a troll. Cassiel hoped they wouldn't run into one themselves, neither her nor Alleria were equipped to handle a troll.
The footprints they followed led some distance into the trees. At certain points along the path it appeared as though Malark had stopped several times, probably checking to see if someone was following him. Judging by the depression of the prints in the mud, however, his passage had happened some time ago, meaning he had left during the night. Question was why, what was he planning?
There was a voice ahead and Alleria motioned for Cassiel to get low. The two elves crouched in the mud and slowly approached the sound ahead. In a small clearing by a stream they found Malark huddled over the corpse of a doe. He was muttering to himself and drawing strange symbols on a piece of parchment using the doe's blood as ink. Cassiel nearly stepped out to greet him but was pulled back by Alleria who had been watching the wizard intently. When Cassiel tried to object the other Elf simply held a finger to her lips and gestured for her to watch.
Malark continued unaware, muttering arcane words and drawing magical runes. After awhile a glow emanated from the parchment and a soft ringing could be heard for only a moment before the glow had faded and the spell was cast. At last Malark stood and rolled up the piece of parchment, slipping it into a pocket inside his robe. Then he bent over to retrieve his things, stopping momentarily as though he heard something.
"I know you're there," he called out into the trees, "You've set off my alarm."
Alleria swore under her breath then stepped out into the open, urging Cassiel along behind her. "What are you doing out here, Malark," Alleria demanded of him.
"Nothing to worry your pretty little head over, Elf. My efforts here will not harm you nor your companions."
The wizard finished retrieving his bag and threw it over his shoulder. Meanwhile Cassiel had wandered over to the doe, staring at it with a pained look in her eyes. "Why did you kill it," she asked, there was a sadness in her voice.
"A means to an end," Malark replied and when he saw that response wasn't good enough for her he sighed and rolled his eyes, "I needed its blood for my research."
"And what research would that be, exactly," Alleria asked, she still hadn't taken her eyes off him and her hand had strayed to her sword hilt.
Malark saw the gesture and scoffed. "You needn't be so dramatic, my dear. I assure you I'm not so foolish as to betray a group of armed adventurers miles from any town. I am merely continuing work that was interrupted by our little excursion here. This adventure has put me months behind schedule, a sacrifice I am making just to be here. I would hope you'd appreciate that."
Alleria relaxed a bit and let her hand fall to her side. She wasn't totally convinced but she wasn't about to confront him out in the middle of the woods. "Fine, then let's get back to camp. We've wasted much of the day as it is."
The Zhentarim smiled then gestured with his hand. "Then after you."
Alleria scowled at the hand and briefly considered cutting it off. She was about to tell the wizard to go first when Cassiel suddenly shushed her. All three of them stopped and listened, but Alleria could hear nothing that would cause alarm. When she was certain there was nothing to fear she let her muscles relax and was taken by surprise when a large, lumbering troll nearly uprooted a nearby tree as it came charging out of the brush behind them. Alleria barely had any time to draw her sword before the troll had swatted her aside.
Malark fumbled with his bag and pulled out his spellbook, chanting loudly at the troll even before he had turned to the right page. The troll heard the chant and turned on the wizard, stalking towards him like an enormous bear in pursuit of a tiny hare. The monster raised its hands up to crush the old man but before the blow could be dealt Cassiel struck from behind, her sword biting deeply into the troll's thick hide. The lumbering beast roared in pain then backhanded the Avariel with one mighty stroke. Cassiel was thrown completely off her feet and into the trunk of a nearby tree. She hit her head hard before falling into a heap on the ground. Her vision swam and her head throbbed and in moments she blacked out. The sounds of the troll and the ensuing battle drifting far and away...
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