Written By: Lady Faelyn Rose of Chesapeake
The moongate glowed in the predawn haze. For a moment it hummed with magic and then the shape of a man on horseback appeared within it’s center. The rider urged his mount forward a few steps into the clearing which surrounded the sphere of light. He wore a cloak of rich forest green. A hood hid his face in shadow. Black leather gloves and sturdy black boots kept the chill of the early morning air at bay. A large bow carved with ancient runic symbols hung across his back. He sat quietly atop a huge black Nightmare
Bronson let his eyes adjust to the half light as he surveyed the city for the first time.
It lay before him like a cemetery. Cold and silent. Not like any city he had ever seen before. A community born of dark magic and death.
With a tap of his heels Bronson guided his mare onto the road. The steed was ready for a fight. She tossed her head and danced a few steps to the side. He held fast to the reins, controlling the energy of the monster.
“Soon, mistress Nox” he promised her.
The sound of the mare’s hooves upon the pavement echoed off the jet black stone buildings. The stones which formed this city were said to have been mined in the bowels of the dungeon Doom.
A dense mist snaked along the surface of the road and into the distance. It crawled between the leafless black trees, giant mushrooms and stacks of bleached human skulls.
Burning gas escaped from pyramids of stone along the sides of the road, lighting the way. Somewhere in the distance he could hear the sound of whispered chanting, many voices calling out as one. “Anh Mi Sah Ko.” Voices trying to summon the dead.
Bronson had read of this place in his studies long ago. It was the center of Necromancy. A haven for those who practiced the magic of the dead.
The shops looked deserted at first. Then a flutter of movement caught his attention. A man, pale and bloodless as a corpse, was standing in the doorway of a provisioner’s store. He held a broom as if preparing to sweep the steps of his business. But the shopkeeper looked back at the traveler through black hollow holes instead of eyes.
A familiar warning sounded in the warrior’s mind as he continued down the road. Only in the deepest gloom of a dungeon had he felt like this. Never in a city.
Quietly Bronson pulled his bow from its resting place, glad he had chosen the undead slayer as his companion this day.
From out of the fog another human came towards him, hurrying up the road on foot. As Bronson rode closer he could see that this person wore the dress of a Necromancer in training. A white skull helmet covered his head. Dark leather armor and a dark cloth wrapped around his waist completed the uniform of a novice. He carried a large green book close to his body as if protecting it.
Bronson drew his mount to a halt.
“Good morrow.” he called out in a clear voice.
The young Necromancer stopped and looked up through the eye slits of his skull helmet. The bared teeth of the skeletal face made him appear to be wearing a frozen ghoulish smile.
“Do not linger in this city if you value your life.” The student’s voice was muffled in his mask. “Only the undead and those with the knowledge and power to control them can remain here.” he said boldly.
The mare snorted, misting the air between them, tossing her head with a jingle of bridle. Her red eye fixed upon the young man with angry intent. The youth’s gaze fell for a moment to the three long faded scars marring the shoulder of the black beast’s coat. The vivid image of a giant claw slashing across flesh flashed before his mind’s eye. A battle between the mare and a daemon from the depths of hell played out inside his brain as he stood transfixed.
The lad shook his head suddenly realizing that this event was being shown to him by the monster the traveler rode.
“Telepathic powers!” the Novice gasped. He looked again into the magical red eye of the mare.
Instinctively the student took a step backwards holding his spell book closer and higher against his body, like a shield. “I say this with all due respect, my lord.” he stammered.
“I thank you for your warning, I shall heed it well.” His deep voice held a touch of humor. “If you would point the way to the west gate I will leave this place with all haste.”
The lad pointed in the direction which Bronson was already traveling. “Keep to this road and you shall find it, Sire.”
Bronson inclined his head in thanks. “Good luck to you, young one.” He said.
Lightly tapping his heels to the mare’s ribs, Bronson set them in motion once again. The novice continued in the opposite direction, his breathless chant joining the other distant voices. “Anh Mi Sah Ko.”
The road wound around the buildings of Umbra until it came to a stone gate leading out of the city to the west. Through the gate a bridge carried the warrior across a black abyss littered with tiny lights. The abyss of dark energy surrounded the city like a moat, protecting it. Bronson peered into the bottomless river sparkling with stars and thought of the night sky of his home near Minoc. What tales he would tell when he returned from this journey.
A wide dirt avenue stretched out from the gate of Umbra into the wilderness beyond. Shops and houses of every conceivable size and design crowded together along its length. Colorful banners and signs beckoned the passing travelers to stop and inspect the wares of hopeful vendors. Adventurers and tradesman dressed in bright clothes moved along the road.
After the darkness of the city it was like walking from a cave into a field of flowers.
A lovely young woman in a pale pink dress called out to him from her shop. “Here, my lord, try my tasty meat pies. I just put them out. They are still warm.”
Before he could respond another voice hailed him from the vendor shop across the road. An old man riding a giant blue beetle cried. “Young Warrior, look upon my wares. Wondrous artifacts brought up from the Dungeon Doom. Rarities, oddities, things your mind can little comprehend!! Weapons to make you powerful in battle! Come see for yourself, come.”
Bronson shook his head. “Perhaps another day.” he replied as he rode past, still heading west.
“About half a days ride west from the Umbra gate.” His brother had written to him. “Along the road to the Tree Fellow Pub.” The letter had said.
A pub!! His brother was a pub owner?
He had worshipped his older brother Seamus like a hero since childhood. Seamus was fearless. Any venture Seamus decided to take on he completed, mastered and excelled in. Seamus was now a shop keeper? He tried to picture his wild adventuring brother meekly serving ale to passing strangers. He could not imagine Seamus fat and lazy, idling the hours away by the fire with a book.
“Marriage must have addled his wits.” Bronson said out loud.
The mare’s ears twitched back at the sound of her master’s voice, listening for the few words she knew. Attack. Kill. Guard. And stay. Bronson chuckled at the thought. Stay!! That command rarely worked with his pet. She was still half wild.
The buildings became fewer and farther apart once away from Umbra. Soon dark thick woods bordered the road on both sides. Deep in the woods creatures stirred. Bronson recognized their voices. A bear roaring. A llama chortling. But one sound was new to his ears. A short sharp cry came from beyond the trees. It drew closer and was soon joined by more cries. A chorus of ear piercing shrieks.
With a swoosh of leathery wings a group of enormous vampire bats came sailing out of the trees one hundred yards in front of him. Their sharp claws and fangs showing plainly even at a distance. They increased in speed as they drew closer, excited by the smell of the man and his pet.
“God’s teeth!!” Bronson swore. In one fluid motion he dismounted, drew and loaded his bow. He fired at the closest vampire bat. It took the arrow full in the chest but only slowed for a fraction of a second. With wings beating rapidly it dived towards the warrior. The bat’s claws latched onto his arm, tearing his cloak. The fangs of the beast buried into the thick leather gorget at his neck.
“Nox kill!!” he shouted. But the mare was already charging headlong towards the flock of blood drinkers. Her battle roar was deafening as she lashed out at the largest attacker with her hooves. She breathed her flaming fury over the next two bats, sending them crashing to the road.
Bronson drew his hunting knife and drove it into the bat dragging at his arm. Again and again he plunged the knife into the creature until it released him and dropped to the ground at his feet.
Large black hooves beat upon the fallen bat until it was little more than jelly with broken wings attached.
Nox stood proudly beside the carnage she had created roaring and stomping her foot. Like a spoiled child she wanted her reward.
Bronson used the toe of his boot to search through the bat corpses for one which was not totally pulverized by the mare’s frenzied attack. With his hunting knife he quickly dissected a carcass and pulled out the heart with the knife point. He held the bloody prize out to the mare like a lollipop on a stick. She carefully lipped it into her mouth and devoured it in one gulp.
With a grin Bronson repeated the process on another bat but when he turned to offer his gruesome treat, Nox was gone.
He caught a glimpse of black hooves and a flying tail disappearing into the forest to the north. He shouted her name but knew it was pointless. He could hear her battle roar half a mile away in the forest.
“Evil beast.” he grunted, heaving the meat to the dusty road.
Bronson gathered up his pack and slung his bow over his back. With a sigh of exasperation he set out at a trot into the forest trailing his pet.
He had not run far when he heard the roar of two Nightmares locked in mortal combat. Bronson increased his pace towards the sound.
In a clearing ahead he could see Nox and a wild mare fighting. Flames and explosions, blood and black hair whirled around the two monsters as they tried to kill each other.
The warrior drew his bow and fired at the wild mare. The arrow flew straight into the neck of the enraged creature. Bronson kept his distance sure of his mare’s victory with his aid. He continued to fire off arrow after arrow hitting the wild mare in the chest and neck.
But as the battle raged on he heard the shrieks of vampire bats approaching from the east. The bats, drawn by the scent of blood, burst into the clearing. They began swarming around the fighting mares, tearing at their exposed flesh.
Bronson moved closer and cast a magic healing spell over his pet.
“ In Vas Mani “
He reached her side and attempted to staunch the flow of blood with bandages.
The bats were concentrating their attack on Nox. They tore at her with fangs and claws from behind. The wild mare attacked her head on. She was badly hurt but still fighting for her life.
He cast greater heal again and fired an arrow at a passing bat, missing.
From the forest to the west a crossbow bolt came flying towards the battling mares. It hit one of the bats and knocked it to the ground. The bat floundered unable to continue its assault. Another bolt hissed above Bronson’s head hitting a bat and tearing its wing completely off. He looked towards the trees and saw a hunter dressed in blue aiming a heavy crossbow at the circling bats.
The bandages were working and Nox began to take the advantage in the fight. The wild mare was tiring quickly now. Crossbow bolts from the hunter in the woods hit with deadly accuracy around them, wounding and killing the bats one by one. Finally Bronson stood back, took aim and fired an arrow into the wild mare’s chest. She crumbled to the ground and lay motionless in her own blood.
Bronson stood up and scanned the woods. There in the trees on the west side of the clearing was a young woman dressed in a blue riding gown and feathered hat. She lowered her crossbow and look steadily at him.
He gave her a salute and a courtly bow.
She smiled and nodded her head in reply.
As Bronson was about to call out to her, he was hit from behind with tremendous force. He stumbled to one side, nearly falling.
He turned to see Nox standing beside the fallen mare’s body, stomping her foot and roaring for her reward.
The sound of female laughter floated across the clearing. When Bronson looked again he saw his lady fair disappearing into the trees.
“You will grow fat on this journey, I fear.” Bronson grinned at Nox as he held out a piece of bloody nightmare meat.
He wrapped the mare’s reins around his wrist to prevent another escape. Taking bandages from his pack he prepared to use his veterinary skills on her deep wounds.
The mare nudged him again with her nose. Being nudged by a Nightmare is very much akin to being hit by a troll with a club, Bronson thought.
He flexed his abused shoulder and set about the task of healing his mare. As he knelt beside her, applying the bandages, he began to see telepathic images from the mare’s mind.
He envisioned the woman in blue riding across the clearing persuaded by the wild nightmare. Her ethereal steed was no match for the galloping monster. The deadly mare gained on her as it expelled balls of magical flame. She was losing ground and her strength was nearly spent when Nox came charging out of the woods. His pet’s attack had allowed the woman to escape into the trees.
Bronson blinked his eyes as the vision ended.
“So you had good reason to leave me standing in the road.” he said applying another bandage.
“And the lady came back to help us with her crossbow.”
Nox roared and stomped her foot.
Bronson threw the mare another chunk of raw meat and continued healing her.
Before long they were heading back through the forest towards the road. Bronson scanned the trees many times for signs of menacing bats or mysterious ladies in blue.
Neither one appeared.
The skies opened up and rain poured down turning the Malaas highway to mud. The rain seemed to invigorate Nox and she splashed through the puddles like a frisky colt. Despite the weather they reached his brother’s pub in the mid afternoon.
The Tree Fellow Pub stood before him. The new stone building and its nearby stable looked clean and well cared for from the outside. It was a three story building made of thick grey stone and iron fencing. It was placed close to the road.
A stable boy came running from a smaller building next door. Bronson dismounted and handed the boy the reins and a gold coin. As the mare was led away Bronson walk up the stone steps and opened the heavy gate. He walked through a small courtyard to the front door.
Inside a large fireplace dominated the rear wall of the room. A grey stone table with comfortable chairs had been placed before the fire.
In one of the chairs a red haired women sat sewing leather armor. She peered over her glasses at the water logged, muddy traveler with his torn, bloody cloak.
“Welcome, sire” she said as if his state of disrepair were an everyday
occurrence. “The common room is up the stairs.”
She went back to her sewing.
Seamus had written that their widowed cousin, Kayla, had come to oversee the running of the pub. She was a grandmaster tailor and smith making her an asset to his arms enhancing business, as well.
Bronson pushed the hood back from his head revealing his face. He ran a hand over his wet red hair. “Is that how you greet your favorite cousin, Kayla?”
The woman looked at him again. She took in the red hair and mustache. His features so like Seamus’. She looked startled for a moment and then her eyebrows shot up in surprise.
“Bronson?” she asked rising from her chair. “Cousin Bronson?”
“Aye, it’s me, Kayla lass” he answered, smiling at her.
She came forward taking his hands and looking him over like a prized steer.
“You have grown so much! I hardly knew you!! I was expecting a beardless youth! You are as tall as your brother now.” she said, kissing his cheek.
He squeezed her hands and laughed. “Beardless youth! Has it been so long since our paths have crossed, cousin?”
Kayla surveyed the torn and dirty cloak. She took note of the blood on his face and arm.
“You had a pleasant journey from Umbra I see.” she said suppressing a grin.
“The usual morning ride down a country road.” he removed his cloak and gloves.
“Seamus told me you refused a recall rune to this house. You prefer to ride for miles and fight monsters along the way?” she asked picking up his soiled glove between two fingers as if it were a dead mouse.
“Aye, It’s the best way to explore a new place.” He answered, smiling. “I have never been to Malaas before.
“Where is the proprietor of this fine establishment?” Bronson asked, pulling off his muddy boots.
“Seamus should be returning soon. He could not wait any longer to start his hunt.”
“He’s not here? Not here serving ale to his patrons?” he asked with a mischievous grin.
It was Kayla’s turn to laugh. “The day will never come when Seamus waits tables in a pub. You will find your brother much as he has always been. But you will see for yourself soon enough.”
“Go upstairs and get something to eat while I mend this for you.” She picked up his cloak and gave him a gentle push towards the stairs. “Go on now.”
He took the stairs two at a time.
The clock on the mantel ticked and the rain pattered gently against the glass window panes. Bronson’s chin rested on his chest and a soft snore passed his lips as he napped in a chair by the fire. Kayla sat across from him sewing and drinking tea from a delicate china cup. She had cleaned and repair all his clothing and gear. Then she had placed them near the door while he slept. “What could be keeping Seamus?” she thought.
Suddenly there was a thundering roar that shook the glass in the windows and set the tea cup to rattling in its saucer. Bronson jumped to his feet reaching for a weapon that was not at his side. He stood blinking and trying to remember where he was.
The door burst open and the wind blew wildly around the room as Seamus entered. The large sleeves of his pure black robe flew out around him like daemon wings as he strode across the room to a line of chest against the wall.
He wore a golden helmet on his head. His red hair hung around his shoulders like a cape. The hem of his robe was soaked with blood and mud. Bits of leaves and twigs fell on the floor as he moved. A large dragon scale was hanging precariously from the front of his robe.
“Three Bloods and a Poison!” he announced as he threw open the first chest and rifled through it. He stopped and looked over at Kayla, his eyes were unreadable under his helmet. “And the lock picks would be…?” he questioned with a smile showing beneath his red mustache.
“In the chest on the right” she said quietly, returning his smile.
He crashed the lid against the wall as he opened the next chest. Quickly he grabbed the picks and whirled back towards the door. The dragon scale on his robe came loose with the motion and sailed across the room hitting the table.
He stopped at the door and turned looking back at Bronson. “You’re late!” his voice boomed. “ALL FOLLOW ME!!” he commanded. The roar of a wyrm sounded from outside the building rattling the windows and tea cup once more. Without another word he disappeared out the door.
“You must hurry” Kayla said herding Bronson towards the door with one hand, shoving his pack and equipment into his arms with the other.
Bronson was all but running when he hit the courtyard, shrugging into his cloak as he went. Outside the house a blue moongate stood in the road. Seamus and his white wyrm were gone. The stable gates flew open and Nox trotted out, the young stable boy dragging beside her by the reins. As Bronson ran to mount the mare Kayla stood calmly on the steps.
“I put a rune for this house in your pack just in case.” She called out to him.
Bronson jumped up on the mare's back and catching the reins steered her towards the moongate. He was within a hare’s breath of the gate when it closed leaving the road in darkness. The mare whirled, prancing in a circle for a moment and then came to halt.
Bronson took a deep breath and let it out. “Daemon dung!” he swore.
“Just wait a moment.” Kayla said in a soft voice from the steps. She pulled her shawl closer around her shoulders against the evening chill.
With a hum of magic energy a moongate opened in the road. Seamus stepped out of the moongate, looked at Bronson and boomed “I SAID ALL FOLLOW ME!!”
Then he disappeared once more into the gate.
Bronson threw his head back and laughed before following his brother into the magic portal.
Bronson emerged from the moongate only to come face to snout with a huge battle scarred White Wyrm. The creature’s nostrils vacuumed over man and mare for a few seconds before Nox snorted out a small fireball of warning.
The wyrm snaked his head away and resumed crunching a half eaten mongbat. It rock slowly back and forth making a satisfied rumbling purr as it chewed the fuzzy snack.
Bronson looked around, finding himself in the middle of a jungle. It appeared to be mid day. He guessed they were somewhere in the southern hemisphere of Trammel.
The air was heavy and humid. Ferns and palm trees surrounded the clearing he stood in. The shrill voices of many tropical birds filtered through the forest. A gorilla grunted as it wandered nearby in the underbrush.
The mangled bodies of giant serpents and alligators littered the ground in every direction. Several feet away Seamus was bending over a newly unearth metal chest, cleaning the mud off of the rusty lock with the cuff of his sleeve.
As Bronson dismounted he stepped into a red oozing pile of slime which had recently been a Blood Elemental. He surveyed the area again. This time he counted the remains of two more Blood Elementals and a green glowing glob which was most likely a Poison Elemental corpse.
“Three Bloods and a Poison.” Bronson said to himself. The strange words his brother had spoken at the pub became clear to him now. These monsters had been the guardian spawn of a Level Five treasure chest.
He heard the rattle and click as Seamus successfully picked the treasure chest’s lock.
“Are you doing this treasure map alone?” Bronson asked. He reached down into the Blood Elemental corpse and carefully pulled a parchment scroll out of the remains.
“I’m not alone, lad.” Seamus said as he walk twenty paces away from the chest. “Og is with me!”
At the sound of his name the Wyrm roared and started to lumber after his master.
“ALL STAY!!” Seamus bellowed.
The wyrm stopped and began to rock back and forth again. His black beady reptilian eyes watched Seamus’ every move.
“Amanda Rose was hunting with me all afternoon.” Seamus said referring to his wife. “Her pets and my wyrm made short work of the first round of spawn. But my lady has returned to Mountain View. Something about potted plants.”
“Mountain View?” Bronson asked
“Aye, our new house near Luna.” He answered, swatting at a mosquito.
Seamus stood a safe distance from the treasure chest and cast the spell of Telekinesis on it. The spell would destroy any deadly traps which might protect the treasure.
“Ort Por Ylem”
A mighty explosion erupted from beneath the lid of the treasure chest. The trap would have easily killed Seamus had he been standing any closer.
“I am sure you had a very good reason for being so late.” He said striding back to the chest.
The memory of a lovely face smiling across a clearing came to Bronson’s mind.
“Aye, the best possible reason.” he answered. “A lady in distress.”
Bronson heard Seamus chuckle as he opened the still smoldering lid of the chest. He began to carefully examine the treasure inside.
“ALL HIDE NOW!!” Seamus suddenly commanded. He quickly cast the spell of Invisibility upon himself.
“An Lor Xen.”
Bronson bristled at the barked order. “I fear you are spending too much time in the company of wyrms. Your manner of speaking is…”
Bronson never finished. With a blinding blast of energy a Poison Elemental materialize and moved with lightning speed towards him. The green glowing tornado shrieked with rage as it moved. He scarcely had time to react when the monster struck him hard, sending immobilizing pain through his body.
Bronson could hear his Nightmare and the Wyrm attacking the Poison Elemental as his lungs stopped working and he started to black out.
From somewhere far away he heard his brother’s voice casting a spell to cure the poison coursing through his body.
Like a drowning victim breaking the surface of the water, the dying warrior could suddenly breathe. He gulped in air as his vision cleared.
“In Vas Mani” Seamus’ voice sounded nearby.
Bronson felt the warm comforting tingle of a Greater Heal spell being cast upon him. It felt like floating in warm water.
He became fully aware of the fact that he was sitting in the mud beside a very large fern. Seamus was standing over him. He reached down and grabbed Bronson’s forearm and pulled him to his feet. A small round bottle full of orange liquid was pressed into his hand.
“Never go on a hunt without a good supply of Cure potions!!” Seamus ordered.
He pulled Bronson’s hood back up over his head and strode away towards the chest.
Bronson stood there like a chastised school boy. He felt foolish for letting himself be caught off guard. He always carried cure potions with him. Only a novice would make such a mistake.
“I found another map!” he said lamely holding up the parchment he had retrieved from the Blood Elemental corpse.
“Oh?” Seamus turned and marched back. He took the map out of Bronson’s hand and unrolled it immediately.
“HAH!! It’s right on this island!!” he exclaimed with a grin. “We will dig it up as soon as we finish this one!”
Seamus made his way back to the treasure chest tucking the new map into his oversized sleeve. He started to pull loot out of the chest. He tossed the items he deemed useless onto the ground. The quality items he sorted and placed in two leather bags.
“ALL HIDE NOW!!” Seamus commanded again.
“An Lor Xen!!” was Bronson’s reply this time.
The Lich Lord gave a demented laugh as it cast a flaming spell over Nox. She resisted the magical energy, taking little damage. Her hooves lashed out hitting the Lich and causing him to double over in pain. An arrow from Bronson’s undead slayer pierced the Lich’s chest as he started to straighten up. The White Wyrm grabbed the decaying Lich Lord’s arm between his teeth and tore it off.
The Lich made one last attempt to fight with his remaining arm before being crushed under the gigantic foot of the wyrm.
An Elder Gazer appeared a second later. It hissed a warning before sending a bolt of lightning crashing into Nox. The mare staggered for a second. Then she roared with rage.
“OG KILL!!” Seamus commanded.
The White Wyrm breathed intense flame over the attacking foe. But the Elder Gazer was focused on Nox. It floated lazily above the ground, tentacles waving. Again it cast a powerful spell at the nightmare. The flames did more damage to her as she charged forward kicking and breathing fire balls in return.
Bronson stayed beside the mare, healing her wounds as she fought.
With a powerful swipe of his claw, Og knocked the weaken gazer into the mud. Both mare and wyrm then proceeded to stomp the life out of the monster.
For a moment the jungle clearing was silent as a tomb.
Then Nox began to roar for her well earned reward.
Bronson tossed a cut of raw meat to his mare and applied another bandage.
The bodies of dead monsters were piled around the treasure chest. The top of Seamus’ golden helmet could be seen moving behind the twisted remains of a daemon.
Seamus grunted as he pushed the limp wing of the dead daemon out of his way.
“Well lad, that’s the last of it.” he said dragging his heavy bags of loot a few feet away from the chest. “Here’s a little something for you.”
He tossed a fat bag of gold which landed in the mud at Bronson’s feet.
Bronson picked up the bag, feeling its weight.
“A little something? Feels like a king’s ransom to me!” he laughed.
He wiped the sweat and mud from his forehead. Every muscle in his body ached and he was tired enough to sleep standing up. But he could not remember having had a more exciting day. Not to mention a more profitable one.
Seamus pulled a timepiece out of his sleeve and checked it. “It’s two in the morning, Malas time. My lady awaits me.”
“Vas Rel Por”
Seamus cast a moongate.
“ALL FOLLOW ME!!” he bellowed. The wyrm roared as it ambled after him through the blue sphere.
Seamus had opened a moongate to the Luna stables. They emerged on the grassy court yard between the stable and the main building of the town.
Towering sandstone walls glowed in the torchlight and the air was filled with the aroma of food cooking. Even at this late hour tradesmen hurried past.
The brothers saw that their pets were stabled for the night before walking up the wide sandstone steps to the bank. They deposited their treasure loot into their bank boxes.
Bronson noticed that Seamus left one of the loot bags filled with weapons and armor on the floor in the center of the bank. At his questioning look, Seamus replied. “I leave a few things for those just starting out. Many have need of them but not the gold to spend.”
“It’s nothing to fuss about.” He said gruffly at his brother’s teasing smile.
Bronson laughed “I won’t tell a soul that you have a soft heart.”
“I would appreciate it.” Seamus grinned. “I have a reputation to maintain after all!”
They laughed together for a moment longer and then Seamus said. “Well I’m off to a warm bed. You’re welcome to stay the night a Mountain View or return to the pub, whatever you wish.”
Bronson looked around at the bank of Luna and the surrounding shops. “Perhaps tomorrow night, Seamus. I think I shall stay the night here at the Inn and explore the city in the morning.”
“Suit yourself, lad. Come out to the house when you’ve had your fill of vendors and pretty maids.” Seamus grinned. “Mountain View is but a short walk to the north and Amanda is planning a meal to welcome you.” He clapped Bronson on the back. “Good to have you here, brother.”
Seamus cast a moongate and vanished into it. Bronson patted his very full money pouch and went in search of the Inn Keeper.
Bronson woke to the smell of fresh baked bread. He lay with his eyes closed relaxing in the softest bed he had ever slept in.
Last night he had found the Inn keeper and the Inn on the second floor of the Luna bank building. He had rented himself the finest room available.
Bronson had ordered a bath and a late supper to be brought up to his newly acquired room. Then he had given his clothes to a giggling chamber maid to be cleaned and mended.
His new found wealth from yesterday’s treasure hunt made him feel like Lord Blackthorn himself!
“This is turning out to be a very good journey.” he thought, smiling.
Opening one eye Bronson looked at the clock on the wall.
He rolled out of bed with a thud.
He had never slept so late before. The day was wasting away while he lay in bed!
Bronson quickly dressed and packed up his belonging. As he was leaving the Inn he stopped to look upon the Shrine of Wisdom.
He knew this was the shrine where young Paladins took their vows.
It was a place filled with light and peace. Just as Umbra was fill with darkeness, death and despair.
He walked along the wide balcony on the top floor looking out over the beautiful city. The sandstone buildings gleamed in the sunlight. A gentle breeze blew the white banners which proclaimed this to be the Holy City of Paladins. Scholars and men of Healing dressed in pure white robes were exchanging ideas in the shade of ancient pillars.
Emerald green grass sloped down to meet the golden cobble stones which formed a roadway. Deer and skittering hoppers grazed on the lush lawn.
This seemed to Bronson like paradise. He had the sudden desire to stay and make a new life as his older brother had done. Seamus had married Amanda Rose here. He had settled into a happy prosperous life in the beautiful land of Luna.
Again a memory of his mysterious lady in blue came to mind.
Bronson mentally shook himself. This place was too enticing. Perhaps he should have gone back to the pub last night, after all.
He wandered down the narrow stairs to the main hall. The Provisoner, Blacksmith, Tailor, Bakery, Carpenter and Mage shops were all housed in this structure at the center of town. Beyond the inner gates there were dozens of houses and privately owned vendors shops lining the cobblestone streets.
Bronson stopped at the bakery and bought a loaf of bread to break his fast. As he chewed the warm buttery crust he walked down the main steps eager to explore the city of Luna.
The young woman peered into the empty flour barrel and sighed.
“How much food are you planning to make?” she asked her cousin, Amanda Rose. Every flat surface in the huge kitchen was covered with bowls and platters of food.
“Enough to feed my hungry brother-in-law. I want to make him feel at home.” Amanda answered as she let another blob of cookie dough drop onto the pan.
She wiped her hands on her apron and turned to take her fourth batch of cookies out of the oven. “It is always better to make too much food than too little I have found.”
The two women looked very much alike. Both were fair of face with hair the color of sunshine. Amanda Rose was a few years older than her cousin, Jeanne Rose. But the two were as close as sisters.
“Bronson.” Amanda corrected.
“Aye, this Bronson must be as big as an Ogre Lord to require so much food!” Jeanne Rose said as she picked up a cookie and nibbled on it.
“Please don’t eat those!” Amanda pleaded. She tried to shoo Jeanne away with a wave of her hand. “They are for tonight!”
“Oh no!” Jeanne teased. She snatched up another cookie and danced out of Amanda’s reach. “I have taken two cookies and that only leaves 4998 cookies for the enormous brother to eat!”
Amanda started to laugh at the absurd conversation. She shook her head and went back to preparing the cookie dough for baking.
“I have not seen Bronson since he was little more than a child.” Amanda said. “Seamus says he has grown...”
“And grown and grown and grown, apparently!” Jeanne finished with an impish grin. She took off her apron and started to wash her hands in the water basin.
Amanda laughed again. “Be serious for a moment. Do you really think that I am making too much food?”
“Not at all.” Jeanne reassured her. “In fact I believe that I will go out and slay a Swamp Dragon just to be sure the poor starving man is properly fed!”
Amanda smiled as she watched Jeanne leave the kitchen. Her cousin continued to walk through the dining room and down the stairs leading to the first floor of the large house.
“Where are you going?!” Amanda called after her.
“To slay a Swamp Dragon!” Jeanne answered from the bottom of the stairs. “Or perhaps a Drake, the meat has more flavor.”
Amanda hurried out of the kitchen and down the stairs into the entrance hall. “Jeanne Rose! Wait!”
Jeanne stood at the front door in her favorite blue riding gown. She put on her blue feathered hat and with dramatic flair checked the tautness of the string on her heavy crossbow. She laughed at the worried look on Amanda’s face and said. “I’m just going into Luna to get more flour. I shall be right back.”
It took nearly two hours for Bronson to make his way around the city of Luna. The road formed a huge rectangle around the main city hall. He had stopped and inspected the wares of most of the vendors and bought a few items as gifts for his family.
The road eventually brought him back to where he had started, the entrance closest to the Luna stable.
Bronson decided to check on Nox before heading out to his brother’s house. But as he rounded the corner inside the gate he saw Seamus standing near the stable talking to a group of tamers.
The men he spoke to were heavily armored and most were riding nightmares. A line of dragons and wyrms stood close by and Bronson assumed the tamers were on their way to a hunt.
As he approached the stable one of the tamers cast a moongate. It glowed with a sinister red color, signaling that it would take them to somewhere in Felucca.
The tamers and Seamus all laughed loudly together before one by one they called to their pets to follow them through the red moongate.
Seamus stood with his back to Bronson until the moongate closed. Then he turned and started to walk in his brother’s direction. Lost in thought, Seamus did not see Bronson at first.
As Bronson observed his brother he saw a look of fevered excitement in Seamus’ eyes that he knew all too well. Sure as there were bulls in Delucia this day would end with him running through some dark, dank and dangerous place wearing only a grey robe to protect him. Bronson grinned.
Seamus saw Bronson then and quicken his stride. He called out loudly. “HAIL BROTHER!!” and put his arm around Bronson’s shoulders pulling him a few steps towards the wall of the stable. Away from the prying eyes and ears of those passing by.
He looked once over his shoulder and then said in a low voice. “Your timing couldn’t be better, lad. My spies tell me that there is a very foul, menacing and profitable evil brewing in the depths of the dungeon of Fire! FELUCCA! Lad, Felucca no less.”
Bronson started to take a mental inventory of everything he carried. Sorting his belongings in his mind, deciding what items he could afford to lose without regret. Suddenly he remembered that Amanda was expecting them.
“What about the visit with your wife?” he asked.
He could tell by the way the excitement in Seamus’s eyes dim for a second that his brother had forgotten about any prior commitments.
“Hmmm.” He said. Bronson could see the wheels turning inside his brother’s head.
“Well, I suppose since you are the honored guest it should be your decision how we spend the rest of the day.” Seamus finally answered.
“I will have to abide by that decision, of course, out of courtesy for you.” He continued with sly smile. “As my guest.”
“Now, here are your choices, brother. One. We go to the house and spend the day drinking tea, eating cookies and helping the ladies decide the exact placement of numerous potted plants. OR! Two. We ride out with our brothers in arms to defend this land from the dark forces of evil and make a tidy profit if we succeed!”
“So what’s it to be?” Seamus asked. “Tea and potted plants?” He made a face as if he had just bitten into an over ripe lemon. “Or fame, glory and GOLD!!” He flashed his brother a smile and wiggled his eyebrows up and down.
“Just let me get a less valuable bow.” Bronson said with a grin.
Bronson felt the flames from the lich’s spell scorching the back of his grey robe as he ran across the stone bridge. Newly resurrected, he was making his way back to his belongings deep in the belly of the Fire Dungeon. In hind sight, he thought, tea and potted plants may have been a better choice.
The molten lava flowing below gave off a much needed red glow enabling him to see his surroundings for a few moments. As he rounded a corner and turned to the west he was plunged into semi-darkness once again.
He paused in the gloom of the dungeon tunnel to catch his breath and get his bearings. He could hear the battle echoing off the walls somewhere ahead in the distance… The shouts of men and the roars of their pets mingled with the clang of weapons.
As he cautiously continued, his bare foot brushed against the cold still body of some unfortunate warrior. The dead man was probably overwhelmed by a wave of creatures guarding the altar of the Semidar Champion. Or worse, he could have been a victim of the human evil that lurked in the shadows.
The tunnels of this Felucca dungeon were crawling with those without honor. In the murky pathways they waited for the chance to murder and loot the unwary adventurer who wandered too far from the group.
As if conjured up by the thought Bronson heard the whispers of men just ahead. He inched forward, pressed against the damp stone wall of the tunnel. The murderers laughed quietly at some shared jest before they moved off.
Bronson began to advance with renewed wariness. He had not traveled but a few yards further when a strong arm grabbed him around the throat. He threw his weight against his attacker in an attempt to break the murderous hold. But the man was larger than Bronson and soon they were on the ground struggling. The assailant forced him onto his back as they wrestled. And then Bronson saw the flash of steel in the man’s hand. He felt a sharp blade penetrate the flesh of his shoulder. At the same time his fist slammed into the murderer’s face. Bronson heard the satisfying sound of a nose being broken and a muffled grunt of pain. But before he or his opponent could deliver another blow, a voice nearby shouted. “Hold!”
The murderer was removed from Bronson chest with a violent kick. His attacker hit the wall and lay on his side groaning.
Clutching his wounded shoulder, Bronson rolled away and instantly came to his feet. He staggered for a second in a slightly crouched position, ready to defend his life.
From beyond his range of vision a voice which was at once familiar said. “Well, well. A fledgling from the forests of Minoc has been snared in our net.”
Bronson squinted into the pitch black of the tunnel. “Jack?”
The man cast a spell of night sight upon Bronson.
Immediately Bronson could see as if the sun had risen. There before him stood his older brother Jack. He was dressed in black clothing and boots. His head was shaved except for a shock of red hair at the crown of his skull. A top knot. The style favored by scoundrels through out the land of Felucca.
Jack was the black sheep of the family. The middle child who’s malicious and dangerous nature had caused him to be an outcast even as a boy.
He saluted Bronson. “At your service, brother.”
They looked at each other for a moment before Bronson smiled and clasped his sibling’s hand. He had not seen Jack in two years. His wayward brother had left Minoc one morning and none had heard from him since.
“You are still in constant need of aid I see.” Jack said as he shook Bronson’s hand.
Bronson looked at his attacker on the floor and then at Jack.
“And you are still in constant need of reprimanding.” Bronson said, no longer smiling.
Jack’s soft laughter echoed off the walls. “Well met, brother, well met.”
Bronson’s hand returned to the bloody wound in his shoulder. The reality of his brother’s presence in this place overshadowed the momentary joy of their reunion.
“Found your calling, have you?” Bronson asked.
“Aye.” Jack said with a smile. “There is no greater thrill than that of hunting the most dangerous creature of all.” His eyes narrowed with an evil glint. “Man.”
The groaning assailant started to sit up. But Jack casually strolled over to the man and placed his booted foot upon the criminal’s chest. With little effort he knocked him back down onto the slimy floor.
“There is a fair amount of gold to be made.” he continued as he pulled the blade from the murderer’s hand. “But the hunting of men… That is what keeps me coming back for more.” Jack wiped the blade clean on the man’s shirt and tucked the knife into his own belt.
“It is a dishonorable profession.” Bronson said in a somber voice.
“But it is the life which I have chosen and intend to continue, brother.” Jack answered, walking away from the now disarmed attacker.
“Do not waste your breath preaching salvation to one who does not wish to be saved.” Jack smiled again. His expression reminded Bronson of a snake.
Bronson shook his head sadly. “The family would like to see you…” he began.
But voices echoed in the cavern ahead. A band of warriors were approaching from the west. Jack’s smile faded as he grabbed his injured comrade’s arm hauling him up off the floor. He pushed the groaning wretch into a small side tunnel and started to follow him through. But for a second he looked back at Bronson. Jack held his index finger against his lips, cautioning him to silence. Then with another wicked grin his brother escaped.
The spell of night sight wore off quickly and once again Bronson found himself in the dark. He continued his trek through the maze of passageways, but in some areas he could see nothing at all. He felt his way along the wall following the voices of warriors and gargoyles in combat.
He was saddened when he thought of Jack’s choice. But he could not afford to be distracted by emotion now. He must concentrate on finding Seamus and his gear. The echoes from the battle were quite loud now.
Bronson was weakened by the loss of blood from his wound. Without regents or yellow potions he was unable to heal himself.
Suddenly he saw something in the pitch black which made him crouch down close to the wall. Evil red eyes appeared accompanied by harsh and heavy breathing. A creature from the pits of hell was coming directly at him in the darkness. Without a weapon he was at the mercy of whatever monster had cornered him. He was too weak to run.
Bronson felt around on the ground for a rock. His hand touched on a piece of sharp stone and he picked it up, gripping it tightly, ready to fight.
He raised his arm above his head prepared to crush the skull of the monster. But instead he was knocked onto his back by a heavy blow to his chest.
Before he could recover, his face was lipped and snorted upon by the thing standing above him. A thunderous roar erupted from the creature and a hoof slammed against the floor beside his leg.
“NOX!!” Bronson laughed. “Mistress Nox!”
He grabbed hold of the nightmare’s neck and tried to pull himself up. His legs were unsteady from loss of blood.
Bronson got to his feet and leaned against Nox for support.
“You came looking for me, for a change.” he said with a shaky laugh. “I may yet survive this journey, my evil beast.”
Nox tossed her head and snorted.
Bronson gathered the dangling reins. He was about to drag himself up onto the mare’s back, when the squeaking bark of an imp came from only a few feet away.
“Nox kill!” he commanded. The nightmare attacked the imp with the full force of her anger. But the imp darted past Nox and hit Bronson with a poisonous spell before succumbing to the deadly hooves. He felt the toxic magic pulsing through his body, paralyzing his lungs.
He slid down the wall as he started to suffocate.
“Daemon dung” Bronson wheezed with his last breath.
“An Nox! In Vas Mani” Seamus’ voice penetrated his foggy brain.
Again Bronson floated away from the edge of death and found his brother standing near him.
Bronson could see the moldy walls of the tunnel. He could see Og swaying back and forth not ten feet away. Just behind Og was his own dragon, Bront, crushing a harpy in his jaws. A small army had come to his rescue.
“This is getting to be a habit with you, lad.” Seamus said dropping a bottle of cure potion into his lap. “Up on your feet, now. The battle is near over and here you sit resting.”
“Hardly resting.” Bronson grumbled.
His pack and gear landed beside him on the floor.
“How did you know where to find me?” Bronson asked, feeling his shoulder. His wound was totally healed.
“Your mare told me.” Seamus answered as he dragged Bronson to his feet.
Seamus chuckled at his brother’s surprised look.
“ALL FOLLOW ME!!” he commanded and strode back towards the chamber of the Champion. All of the pets including Nox roared and followed after Seamus, leaving Bronson with a confused look upon his face. He quickly put on his armor and ran to catch up with his rescuers.
The scene around the altar was like a vision from hell. Daemons and Succubi lay dead in piles alongside the bodies of the brave warriors and their pets. Those who survived the final wave of monsters were clustered together in small groups. Tamers using bandages on their pets were battling the army of monsters. Warriors who fought with sword and shield huddled close together, healing each other. Their shields formed a steel wall around them.
Seamus and Bronson had taken control of a small area south of the altar. They used bandages, healing wands and magic to keep the pets alive. At the same time they tried to stay away from the sharp claws and deadly spells of the attacking monsters.
A Succubus targeted Bronson, casting a flame that took most of his life force away.
“An Lor Xen!”
Seamus made his brother invisible to the creature long enough for her to focus on Og. Quickly Bronson drank a heal potion and cast greater heal on himself as he continued to bandage Bront. His dragon was fighting two daemons and a stone gargoyle while Nox exterminated the Succubus.
As a daemon or succubus would fall to the ground another would spring up from the altar to take its place.
Three more Succubi began to attack Nox. Bronson tried to help her with a healing wand while using his veterinary skills on Bront. But it was not enough. Nox crumbled to the ground. Her spirit stood calmly beside Bronson waiting to be resurrected. But he could not take time to restore her without losing his dragon. So the mare was left in limbo. All around the altar the ghosts of brave dragons, wyrms and mares stood motionless. Some were resurrected only to be killed again immediately in their weakened state. The hordes of deadly monsters descended upon them tearing their bodies to shreds.
Suddenly a cry went up among the warriors.
There was a surge of movement towards the altar. A shower of arrows flew at the Champion from every direction. The mages cast their most powerful spells in hopes of killing it and gaining the highest rewards. The Champion began to move through the crowd of fighters and dragons, cutting them down like blades of grass.
But still the mages and archers continued their assault. Seamus and Bronson charged forward with the rest of the tamers. The bodies were piled so high that Bronson could not tell where the Semidar was standing. Bront fell with a crash forcing him to leap out of the way.
And then mounds of gold appeared on the ground covering the entire area in which the altar stood. A black moongate opened in the middle of the altar. The Champion was destroyed!
Chaos erupted. All thoughts of the remaining Daemons and Succubi were lost as the warriors scrambled to claim their share of the gold.
Seamus and Bronson scooped up as much as they could carry in their leather packs, healing the surviving wyrm at the same time. Og finished off a pair of daemons and none appeared from the altar to replace them.
The gold disappeared quickly. Immediately there was a mad rush towards the black moongate and safety.
A red moongate opened near the Luna stables. Seamus and Bronson emerged from it with their pets now fully restored to health.
It was early evening and the city was still active. They stabled their pets and headed for the bank nearby.
“I saw Jack.” Bronson stated as they climbed the sandstone steps.
“Aye.” Seamus said quietly. “It would not surprise me if he were skulking about in that Felucca dungeon. So now you know the truth of our missing brother Jack.”
“The truth is difficult to accept. He is lost to the land of Felucca.” Bronson said sadly.
“Cheer up, lad.” Seamus told him. “Jack leaves the dirty work to others. He’s far too clever to soil his hands. At least not to the point where he cannot move freely throughout Trammel and Malas. You will see him. We will both see him, no doubt, soon enough.”
“You have spoken to him?” Bronson asked.
“Of course! He owns the stable next door to my pub.” Seamus relied. “Didn’t you know that?"
“I fear there is much I do not know about this family.”
The two men entered the bank to deposit the spoils of the dungeon battle.
“Well, brother, what do you say we head over to the Tree Fellow Pub for an ale or two.” Seamus said. “Just to wash the taste of dungeon dust out of our mouths.”
Bronson looked down at his nearly destroyed cloak and armor. Half of his belongings were missing. And his feet inside his boots were covered in slime from his marathon run through the tunnels.
“I think more than my mouth needs washing.” He answered with a good natured grin. “And aren’t you forgetting about our most dangerous adventure, yet to come?"
“And what might that be?” Seamus laughed.
“Tea and potted plants, brother. And the lady who waits at Mountain View.”
“Amanda Rose will understand.” Seamus said without much conviction in his voice.
Bronson laughed. “Let us hope so. For both our sakes, brother. She is, after all, a grandmaster mage. And I have been scorched enough for one day.”
Seamus and Bronson approached Amanda’s house a few minutes later. It was a large three story sandstone which rose up against a backdrop of Mountains.
Graceful arched windows spilled golden light onto the green lawns and manicured potted shrubs which surround the house. Two tall lamp posts flanked the wide steps and walkway leading to the massive front doors. The sound of harp music drifted out into the darkness of a cool evening.
“Well, this is it.” Seamus said as he pulled open one side of the double door. “Sounds like the dinner party is already started without us.”
Bronson followed him into a wide hallway. A male servant met them just inside the door, taking their filthy cloaks. “Good evening, milord.” He greeted Seamus.
“Evening, Owen.Are the dinner guests already seated?” He asked in a low voice. The clink of tableware and the polite laughter of ladies could be heard from somewhere above them.
“Aye, milord.” Owen’s eyes traveled over the two extremely foul smelling men. “You will be wanting a bath brought up to the guest room as well, sir?”
“As soon as possible, man!” Seamus ordered as he hurried into a small alcove off the main entrance. “Tell my lady we will join them as soon as we are presentable.”
“Very good, sir.” Owen said, with a nod. The servant went in the direction of the main staircase.
Bronson followed Seamus into the alcove. “We will use the gardener’s teleport to the roof.” Seamus whispered. “No need to disturb the guests.”
“Or your wife.” Bronson whispered back with a grin.
“Aye, that too.” Seamus answered pulling his brother behind him.
Bronson caught a glimpse of a large room with heavy furniture that was lit by candles and a huge fireplace. But before he could see more he was teleported up to the roof of the house.
Seamus was already hurrying away from the teleporter to the stairs leading down into the house when Bronson appeared. The rooftop garden was bathed in the golden glow of lamp light and he could see a small pool of water in the center of the roof. The pool was surrounded by green grass and flowering shrubs. Rows of potted plants lined the wall which bordered the stairs leading down.
Seamus disappeared into the stairwell. “Make haste, lad.” He called back from the floor below.
Bronson did just that. He trotted across the garden.
For a moment he was reminded of the many times in his childhood when he and his two older brothers had returned to the family tower through the roof entrance. The trio would sneak out and have amazing adventures all night. Seamus would leave a rope hanging over the side of the building and before the light of dawn the boys would scale the wall. Seamus would lead them down the stairs and safely back to their rooms, undetected. They would be snug in their beds when Mother came to wake them in the morning. Seamus had not changed at all over the years.
Bronson laughed at the memory as he entered the elegant sandstone stairwell at full stride. He made his way past arched windows and potted plants. The stairs led down to a landing on the next floor. Just off the landing was the entrance to a large room. Seamus’ voice came from somewhere deep in the room. “This way brother!”
Bronson saw that these were the family quarters. The quarters consisted of a cavernous living room with a cheery fireplace and comfortable furniture. The family room was decorated with polar bear rugs, more arched windows and more potted plants.
A row of doors on the far side of the family room marked the bedrooms. The sound of Seamus rummaging through chests came from one of the bedrooms.
Bronson followed the noises and found his brother throwing clothes out of an armoire onto a large bed.
“Something here will fit you, lad.” He said. He pulled his head out of the armoire and looked at Bronson. “Don’t just stand there!!” He barked and went back to his search.
Bronson smiled. He had never seen Seamus look so concerned before. Not even three bloods and a poison could rattle his brother like this. The wrath of his wife must be a force to be reckoned with.
The rustle of silk announced the arrival of Amanda Rose. She hurried across the family room. A angry frown marred her pretty face.
“Seamus!” She said in a harsh whisper. “Where have you been?!”
She stopped and drew a lace handkerchief from somewhere in the folds of her yellow dress. She held it to her nose. The lingering stench was familiar. “A dungeon crawl!!” She answered her own question.
Seamus stopped his frantic search and smiled sweetly at his wife.
“You look lovely tonight my dear.” He told her.
“Hmmmphf.” She answered, waving the handkerchief in front of her nose.
“Hello, Bronson.” She smiled and made a move towards him, the start of a hug. Amanda stopped halfway and drew back, the handkerchief covering her nose once more. “So good to see you again.” She blinked her eyes as they started to tear up from the odor.
Amanda took a couple of steps backwards before continuing. “Well, at least you are both here now. I will have Owen see to the bath water.” She smiled at Bronson again. “Join us downstairs at your leisure.”
With another rustle of silk Amanda Rose withdrew. She opened a window on the far side of the family room and fled to the fresh air on the next floor.
“There now, brother.” Seamus said looking quite relieved. “That wasn’t so bad after all.”
Bronson lay back in the warm water, a wash cloth draped across his face. His arm dangled over the side of the bathtub holding the remains of a mug of ale. He heard the chorus of greetings from the floor below as Seamus made his appearance at Amanda’s dinner party. But he never wanted to leave the spot he was in now. Two days with Seamus and he was ready for a long rest.
“Oh well,” he said out loud as he dragged himself out of the tub. “It is just a simple dinner. And then a good night’s rest.” He couldn’t wait to lay down in the large bed of his brother’s guest room.
Bronson walked down the stairs to the dinning room. He was dressed in Seamus’ white shirt and black pants. He was cleaned and groomed from his day of adventure.
He could hear Seamus’ voice booming. “There was nothing I could do. The lad insisted we go to the Fire Dungeon. I couldn’t let him go alone. I’m his older brother and must protect him.”
The dinner guests laughed. Apparently everyone here knew Seamus well enough not to believe that tall tale.
Bronson chuckled as he entered the dinning room. Amanda rushed over to him, taking his arm and leading forward.
“Our guest of honor is here at last.” She announced to a table full of guests. “Bronson, I think you know just about everyone here.” She said as she steered him towards his seat.
Bronson looked around the room nodding to his cousin Kayla and Katie Rose, Amanda’s sister.
But his gaze settled upon the man sitting at the far end of the table facing him. His brother Jack looked at him with that same wicked grin Bronson remembered from their encounter in the dungeon.
Bronson’s smile froze on his face. He stopped moving, pulling Amanda to a halt. Sitting right next to Jack was a woman he never thought to see here. She dimpled and blushed as she smiled at him.
It was the mysterious lady in blue.
Twas the early hour of the evening just after dark. A fire burning in the hearth painted the sandstone dining room walls with a warm golden glow. Two female servants brought in a large roast pig from the kitchen and placed it on the sideboard for carving. The platter of meat was complimented with bowls of potatoes, peas and corn. Another sideboard offered fresh baked breads, cookies, and even doughnuts to the hungry dinner guests.
Seamus was seated at his customary place at the head of the table. The setting on his right was reserved for Amanda Rose, the Lady of the House and to his left the guest of honor, Bronson. Already seated at the opposite end of the table were his brother Jack and Amanda’s cousin, Jeanne Rose. In the middle were seated Amanda’s younger sister Katie Rose and her husband, Patrick. Opposite them were cousin Kayla and Amanda’s youngest sister, Shana Rose.
As she led Bronson to the far end of the table Amanda introduced the woman who seemed to have already captured his attention. “Bronson, I would like you to meet my cousin, Jeanne Rose.”
“A pleasure to meet you at last,” The young woman said as she extended her hand. Bronson curved her delicate fingers over his and brushed his lips against them.
“The pleasure is mine, my lady,” He said, smiling into her eyes. She blushed. “Haven’t we met before?”
“I think not, sir,” Jeanne answered pleasantly, “for I would surely recall the occasion if we had.”
Bronson’s mind was reeling. Here was the lady he had been thinking of so often since their chance encounter yesterday but she didn’t remember him at all! He could see it in her eyes. She thought no more of him than a total stranger.
“And what of me?” Jack laughed as he leaned closer to Amanda’s pretty cousin. “Is it not pleasing to see your older brother again?” Jack extended his hand in greeting forcing Bronson to release his hold on Jeanne.
Yet another shock to his senses! Here was his murderous brother Jack dining with these innocent ladies as if he were an honorable knight of the realm. Bronson stifled the urge to scowl at his serpent of a brother. How could Jack be so devious?
Bronson shook his brother’s hand and said. “Aye, it is a pleasure but don’t expect me to fawn over you. You are simply not as attractive as other members of this family.” He winked at Jeanne, bringing another dimpled smile to her face.
Everyone laughed. Everyone except Bronson. This whole situation was not what he expected for dinner at the end of a very long day.
He took his seat between Seamus and Kayla at the other end of the table.
“Now that we are all here,” Amanda said returning to her seat at the head of the table next to her husband “I wish to welcome our guest of honor, Bronson.”
Seamus raised his glass of wine. “A toast! To my youngest brother. May the road rise up to meet him and may the wind be always at his back.”
“To Bronson!” the guests chimed in unison as they raised their glasses.
“I thank you Seamus,” Bronson replied, raising his glass “and many thanks also to your lovely bride for preparing this fine feast for us tonight.” he nodded his head to Amanda and then sipped his wine.
“Aye,” Seamus said “you have quite out done yourself, my dear. So let us not waste another minute. Let the feast begin!” The servants quickly rushed forward and began serving large portions of each delicacy to every dinner guest.
“Bronson,” Katie Rose asked from across the table “have you met my husband, Patrick?”
“No I haven’t but I’ve heard many a tale from Seamus about their dangerous exploits in the dungeon Doom.” Bronson answered. “It is nice to meet you, Patrick.”
“Hail and well met.” Patrick smiled. “I understand you were among the challengers of the Champion in the Fire Dungeon today. It is little wonder that you were late arriving to this fine dinner in your honor.”
“Aye, it is true. And I do apologize to Amanda for persuading Seamus to accompany me in the fight. But as it turned out he saved my life more than once. I hope you will forgive me My Lady.”
Amanda rolled her eyes. “I’m sure you needed wild horses to drag Seamus to Felucca.”
Everyone at the table, including Seamus, hooted with laughter.
“So what are your plans for tomorrow?” Patrick asked.
“Seamus is my guide,” Bronson replied as he passed a bowl of potatoes to Kayla.
Seamus looked up from his plate. “I was thinking that we might battle our way through the Gauntlet of Doom,”
He helped himself to another slice of meat. “If that suits you, lad.”
“Doom!” Bronson exclaimed. “That is one dungeon I have yet to master.”
“No single warrior masters Doom my boy. It will take all the friends we have and some we will meet in the Gauntlet to be victorious. If the Doom Gods are smiling we might get lucky and coax an artifact from one of the Doom Bosses. Does that interest you, boy?
“Indeed it does brother. When do we depart?”
“Right after breakfast,” Seamus said, smiling at his brother’s enthusiasm.
“It sounds perfect. I will meet you at the stables,” Bronson grinned. “Nox will be up for the challenge.” He vigorously finished his first platter of food then reached for a second helping of pork.
“May I come along?” Amanda asked. “I have not been to Doom in ages.”
“Of course, my dear,” Seamus answered, “In fact, you are all invited to join us. A large group is most welcome in challenging the Doom Bosses of the Gauntlet.”
“I wish that we could join you, Seamus,” Patrick said “but Katie and I are going into Britain to sell some of the weapons we harvested on our last hunt.” He smiled and took his wife’s hand. “My lady wants to do a bit of shopping, as well.”
“I am sorry to hear you won’t be joining us,” Seamus said, “We will miss your finely honed skill as an elder archer in our quest to defeat the Dark Fathers. But when a woman has set her mind on shopping there is little a man can do to change it.”
At this remark the men laughed.
“It would be wise for a husband to remember that.” Kayla added, giving the ladies cause to smile and nod.
“I have never been to the Doom Gauntlet,” Jeanne Rose said. “Shall I meet you all at the Luna stables tomorrow morning? What resources should I bring?”
Seamus laughed. “As many bolts, arrows and bandages as you can carry,” he looked directly at Bronson “and plenty of greater cure potions.”
“Jack? What about you?” Amanda smiled at her brother-in-law “Will you be joining us?”
Bronson listened intently for Jack’s answer. Would his murdering brother join in on a dungeon crawl where the warriors could not be assassinated and dry looted?
“Sorry Amanda but I must beg to be excused,” Jack said. “I made plans to hunt another dungeon tomorrow. Perhaps next time.”
Jack returned his attention to Jeanne, amusing her with more stories of Ilshenar adventures, keeping accounts of his Felucca crimes to himself for obvious reasons. Bronson kept a wary eye on his brother Jack who flirted with the young woman for the rest of the night.
“Shall I play my harp for our guests?” Amanda’s youngest sister, Shana Rose offered. “I could use some practice. I am studying to be a bard and must play music several hours everyday.”
“That would be wonderful!” Amanda replied.
So the guests were serenaded with songs from the cities of Vesper, Ocllo and Trinsic. Shana Rose concluded her impromptu concert with the very popular theme from the City of Minoc.
The Minoc melody brought back happy memories of Bronson’s youth. He had been raised among the indomitable miners and lumberjacks who carved their livings from the forests and mountains surrounding the busy little hamlet. He noticed Seamus smiling too, and knew he was reminiscing about their childhood home as well.
Everyone applauded the youngster when she finished and Shana responded with a curtsy before rejoining them at the table for dessert.
Jack continued to monopolize Jeanne. Although Bronson could not help himself from glancing at her more times than he would care to admit, only once did she look his way. When their eyes met Jeanne smiled. He thought she was about to say something but Jack launched into another story about some recent hunting adventure which recaptured her full attention. Bronson noticed that Jack neglected to mention his favorite prey. Humans!
As the evening ended and the guests began to depart, Jack offered to escort Shana, Kayla and Jeanne Rose home. The offer was accepted with much giggling from young Shana and many thanks from big sister Amanda.
Bronson could not help but feel that perhaps the fox was being sent to guard the chickens; but he kept his thoughts to himself. He mustered a smile and bid a fond farewell to the ladies as they made their way to the front door.
Bronson lingered over Jeanne's hand as he bid her good night. Jack was suddenly there behind her putting her cloak around her shoulders in a very possessive manner.
“Until we meet again,” Jack said to Bronson as they shook hands. But the evil gleam in Jack’s eyes told Bronson that there would be no mercy the next time they confronted each other in a Felucca dungeon. Bronson returned Jack’s evil grin with a glare. He would be ready as well.
Seamus and Bronson took their brandy to the rooftop garden. The sky was clear and full of stars. The brothers sat across from each other at a small table to enjoy the night air.
Bronson’s somber question broke the silence of the night. “Why haven’t you told Amanda about Jack’s occupation?”
“What would be the point?” Seamus asked, leaning back in his chair. “Do you think this family is in danger from our brother?”
Bronson said nothing. Perhaps Seamus was right. Jack did not murder him when he had the chance. Yet he was still troubled by Seamus’ passive acceptance of the situation.
“Lad, you must understand,” Seamus said “our brother is not out murdering children in their beds. He is taking his chances against the seasoned warriors who inhabit the wilds of Felucca.” He took another sip of brandy. “I am not saying that I approve of his behavior, but he has made his choice and I have accepted it...for better or worse.”
Bronson took a deep breath and let it out, “I think I know what you are trying to say, Seamus. Yet there is something about the way he looks at me…looks at all of us in fact, that leaves me feeling like his prey…ill at ease in his presence.” he sloshed his brandy around in the glass. “The ladies should not be exposed to him.”
Seamus chuckled, “The ladies…or one lady in particular?” he grinned at Bronson. “Did I detect a bit of rivalry at the table tonight?” he leaned forward with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes “Have both of you set your sights on Jeanne Rose?”
“I hardly know the woman,” Bronson scoffed. “You are out of line, brother.”
“Well, perhaps I am,” Seamus got up and stretched. “But I will tell you that I decided Amanda would be my wife on the day that we met.” He patted Bronson on the shoulder as he started towards the stairs. “When something is right, you just know it.”
“Good night, Seamus,” Bronson said quietly “And thank you.”
“Good night, lad,” Seamus yawned “Get some rest; you will need it tomorrow.”
Nox was bursting with energy as the stable boy tried to lead her out of the stall. She roared and reared up, pulling the poor lad off the ground. Then Nox lunged forward dragging the boy right to where Bronson stood in the doorway of the Luna stable.
“Patience, Mistress Nox.” Bronson cajoled her as he caught the bridle in a firm hold. “I promise you many kills this day.” He waited until Nox quieted down and then swung himself up onto her back. As soon as he was seated the mare charged out of the stable and into the courtyard. Bronson bridled Nox to a spinning halt. He laughed at her antics for a moment before he realized that someone was watching him.
Several feet away Jeanne Rose sat upon her ethereal steed. She was staring at him with a look of surprise on her face. Bronson saluted her and Jeanne urged her mount forward until she was beside him. She still looked startled.
“It’s you!!” she exclaimed.
“Aye it is me.” Bronson laughed. “Are you ready for the Doom Gauntlet, my lady?” He took Jeanne’s hand and kissed it but she clung to him when he would have released her. She continued to look slightly bewildered.
“You are the warrior who rescued me from the wild nightmare,” she exclaimed. “I recognize the Balron’s mark upon your mare.” Jeanne pointed to the faded scars across Nox’s shoulder. “And you were wearing that green hooded cloak.”
“Aye,” Bronson grinned. “So you do remember meeting me?”
“Of course I do!” Jeanne told him “You saved my life! But you were wearing that hooded robe so I could not see your face.”
She smiled and shyly let go of his hand. “Thank you, Bronson, for your help.”
“It was nothing, Jeanne. Really.” He spoke the truth. Nox had attacked the wild nightmare of her own accord. Jeanne’s rescue was not his pet’s goal. Nox simply wanted to fight the other nightmare.
“I am only glad that you were unharmed.” Bronson gave her his most charming smile. “Your skill with the crossbow is remarkable.” He nodded towards the weapon in her hand. “Indeed, in the end you may have been the one who rescued me.”
Jeanne beamed at the compliment. “You are most welcome, sir.” She gazed at him with a new found respect in her eyes. Bronson smiled back at her noticing the way her lovely face….
“ALL FOLLOW ME!”
Seamus’ thunderous command broke the spell of Jeanne’s smile. Bronson looked up to see Seamus and Amanda Rose entering a blue moongate which had been cast in the middle of the courtyard. Their White Wyrms trundled behind them.
“After you, Jeanne.” Bronson bowed his head.
He followed the Illustrious Lady Jeanne into the magic portal.
The entrance to Doom was marked by two demon skulls. The walkway leading into the dungeon was paved with the same black stones which formed the city of Umbra. The White Wyrms glowed like torches in the darkness as the party made its way down the ancient steps and through a long hallway. Amanda wore a white dress for the same reason. If she needed help she wanted her husband to be able to find her in the confusion of a dungeon fight.
As they moved forward Seamus and Og plowed through small groups of monsters, leaving a trail of corpses for the rest of the party to follow. A pit at the end of the hall dumped them onto a wooden platform with stairs descending to a dirt floor. Down the steps and through a maze of narrow passageways Seamus led them, his wyrm mangling everything that threatened his group.
“The Gauntlet is but a small area of the dungeon Doom” Seamus said over his shoulder.
“The fighting here is best described as organized chaos.” His voice echoed off the dank stone walls.
“The Gauntlet is a large room surrounded by five smaller rooms. We must enter each of the smaller rooms in sequential order, killing all the monsters in that room before we move on to the next one. We will use a teleporter to enter each room but once we are inside a room there are only two ways to leave. Either we defeat all of the creatures within the room, in which case the doors will open upon the death of the last creature…or we die and leave as ghosts. But if we are lucky and defeat all of the monsters in each of the five rooms, the Dark Fathers will then appear in the main Chamber. That is where the real fight begins.”
Bronson stayed close behind Jeanne Rose as they rode through the tunnel. She turned and smiled nervously back at him. They both had their bows in hand but didn’t fire at the monsters the group encountered, letting the wyrms crush them instead. The archers were saving their bolts and arrows for the battle ahead.
The tunnel led to an enormous cavern. There they came upon an underground lake where a large grey ferry was anchored. Suddenly strange robed spirits sprang up from the ground around the lake. The wyrms began attacking the spirits two and three at a time.
“Hurry! We must pay the ferryman, Chyloth, before we can board his ferry and cross the lake to the Gauntlet,” Seamus shouted. He rang a bell hanging from a stone arch standing near the dock. A mysterious figure wearing a hooded red robe appeared. Seamus quickly pulled a golden skull from his sleeve and handed it to the ferryman. Seamus then summoned his party to follow him aboard the ghostly looking vessel.
From the bow of the ferry Bronson could see a huge battle taking place on the beach ahead. Corpses of undead creatures and warriors littered the golden sand. Further down the beach he could make out what appeared to be a small strip of land with a fixed moongate at the end of it. Here, trapped against the moongate was a huge monster with a long beak-like face surrounded by dozens of warriors and their pets. As they sailed closer and it became apparent that the gigantic monster could slaughter both dragon and mare with little effort as it moved through the crowd of attackers. The monster seemed to be an invincible opponent.
“What manner of creature is that?” Jeanne gasped.
“That is one of the Dark Fathers,” Seamus’ voice came from behind her. “We are witnessing the end of a Gauntlet hunt.”
Bronson took Jeanne’s hand as they stood together in the bow of the ship.
“Fear not, my lady.” Bronson spoke softly to her. “You are in good company.”
She looked back at him with a brave smile. “Aye…the very best of company.”
The ship came to a smooth stop near the shoreline. Seamus and his party made their way down the gangplank and up the beach.
“Stay together.” Seamus ordered. “Wait til the Dark Fathers target the wyrms.” He put on his gold helmet as he led the way. “ALL FOLLOW ME!!” Seamus shouted as he advanced towards the fight. Og roared and hastened after his master. The others followed in his wake.
But by the time they were close enough to enter the struggle the last Dark Father was defeated. The earth beneath their feet shook as the dead weight of the creature hit the dungeon floor. The surviving warriors scrambled to reorganize and resurrect their pets so that they could begin the Gauntlet cycle once more.
Seamus gathered his small group near the entrance to the first Gauntlet chamber. He put his arm around Amanda, gave her a kiss on the cheek and said with a grin, “That is for luck, my dear.” As he released Amanda, she smiled back at Seamus like a new bride.
Seamus turned just before he stepped onto the teleporter to the first chamber and bellowed a final directive to his warriors. “REMEMBER TO HEAL THE PETS!!”
The strange creature towered above Bronson, its many arms waving with anger as it approached. He used his knees to guide Nox into a turn as he fired arrows at the Creeper. He led the monster back to where Seamus and Amanda waited at the center of the room. The Creeper followed him towards the two wyrms. Bronson circled behind the wryms and then cast invisibility upon himself.
“OG KILL!!” Seamus commanded and the wyrm obeyed. Soon the Creeper was being attacked by the two wyrms, Nox and the archers all at once. It fought desperately before succumbing to the onslaught of pets and warriors.
Immediately Bronson swung up onto Nox’s back and went to lure another Creeper into the trap. The process repeated itself and under Seamus’ direction the family managed to stay alive in the first chamber of the Gauntlet.
As another group of warriors finished off the last Creeper the exit doors burst open allowing everyone to rush to the teleporter and into the second room of Doom Bosses.
Seamus gathered his party together in the hallway before entering room two.
“This next room is guarded by Flesh Renenderers. These monsters are very fast and very powerful. If you are targeted by one you must hide immediately.”
“ALL FOLLOW ME!!” Seamus commanded and they were off again.
Just outside the second chamber Bronson drew his mare to a halt. Jeanne, who was following close behind, pulled up right beside him.
“My lady,” Bronson said quietly “have you any skill in magery? Can you cast the spell of invisibility upon yourself if necessary?”
Jeanne shook her head. “No, my lord, I know little of the ways of magic. My path has followed the ways of warriors and archers.”
Bronson reached into his pack and brought forth a folded green cloth. He handed it to Jeanne. “Use this cloak of invisibility, my lady, should the need arise.”
“A cloak of invisibility!” Jeanne tried to give it back to him. “I could not take such a rare gift, Bronson! The value of this item is beyond my means.”
Bronson firmly pressed the cloak into her hands. “I will hear no argument on this matter. My mind is set that you will have this.” He added gently, “Indeed, I cannot bear to see you slain by the creatures of this place. Please humor me, Jeanne Rose.”
“It seems that you are as stubborn as your older brother,” Jeanne said with a sigh. “I will take this gift, but will use it only if I am in dire straits.” She leaned over and kissed his cheek. “Thank you Bronson, you seem to be forever rescuing me.”
“Remember to stay close to the wyrms and use the cloak, my lady.” Bronson said in a way which reminded her very much of Seamus.
“Aye, my lord” Jeanne replied with a smile and a touch of amusement in her voice.
Inside the second chamber of the Gauntlet Bronson quickly herded Jeanne to a spot beneath Og’s wing and positioned himself between the lady and the open area surrounding them. No sooner had he done this when a giant, beetle like Flesh Renderer charged towards them. Bronson slid from Nox’s back and commanded the mare to attack. He stayed beside Nox firing his bow at the monster and attempting to heal his pet at the same time.
“Mist kill!!” Amanda ordered her wyrm to attack the large insect that was winning the battle against Nox. The wyrm immediately began to bite and claw the monster as Amanda cast a flaming spell upon it.
“OG ATTACK!!” Seamus and his pet joined the fight.
Soon they had defeated one of the Flesh Renderers but another one was racing forward to take its place. Og, Mist and Nox surrounded the monster and with the help of the two archers it fell to the ground as well.
All around Bronson frightened warriors were running to avoid the powerful jaws of the huge flesh eating creatures. These monsters were so deadly that most warriors could not stand up to them with sword and shield. Many had not been quick enough to avoid death; their bodies were strewn across the floor of the room. Ghosts stood beside their corpses waiting for help. Jeanne Rose tucked her feathered hat into her pack and replaced it with a sturdy helmet. Then arming herself with sword and shield Jeanne left the safety of Og’s wing to help with her bandages. She made her way to the ghosts in need of her grandmaster healing skills. Before long she had resurrected several fallen warriors, allowing them to collect their belongings and return to the battle.
“Lady Jeanne!” Bronson called to her just as she finished healing another newly resurrected warrior “I would have you stay near the wyrm!” he commanded, motioning to the spot where he wanted her to stand. Jeanne pushed back the face plate of her helmet and cast a questioning glance at her cousin Amanda. Her cousin smiled and nodded in agreement with Bronson’s order.
Jeanne started to urge her mount forward when suddenly she heard Amanda shout her name.
“NOX KILL!!” Bronson commanded as he started to run towards Jeanne Rose.
Before Jeanne could react she was struck from behind by the razor sharp jaws of a Flesh Renderer. Blood began to gush from her wound and her vision grew dim. A second blow came so quickly she never felt it. The next thing Jeanne Rose knew, she was a ghost. Her body lay on the floor in a pool of blood and as she watched through the haze of death, Bronson commanded his mare to attack the monster that had murdered her. Amanda and Seamus also set their pets upon the creature and soon it was destroyed.
“Come, Jeanne Rose,” Bronson’s voice seemed distant and muffled but Jeanne obeyed him.
He cast the spell of Resurrection upon her and she felt the radiating heat of magic as her life force returned.
Jeanne’s family formed a circle around her with their pets while she recovered her strength and her belongings. Bronson used a wand of greater heal to speed up the process. When she was once again ready for battle she positioned herself near Og and smiled gratefully at Bronson. He tried to look stern as he nodded his approval, but a good natured grin spread across his face and he winked at her before turning his attention back to the fight.
Later that day, after firing countless arrows and bolts in what seemed like endless fighting, the exit doors from the last room were opened. Seamus led his family out into the large main room where the Dark Fathers had already begun the final fight. Bronson counted three of the hideous creatures within his range of vision.
“We will lead them onto the beach one at a time,” Seamus instructed as rode his ethereal steed in front of the group. Bronson stayed far enough behind Jeanne and Amanda to prevent any attack by the army of undead which had appeared to defend the Dark Fathers.
The Dark Father was led to the strip of land leading to the moongate on the beach, just as Bronson witnessed from the bow of the ferry upon their arrival. A dozen dragons and wyrms were ordered to kill the monster. The archers let loose waves of arrows to weaken it. But the Dark Father was the most powerful creature in Doom and many warriors and their pets fell before it was destroyed.
Jeanne Rose stayed on the outskirts of the battle, arming herself with sword and shield. She and other melee fighters kept the undead creatures from attacking the tamers from behind as they were busy healing their pets. One of the benefits from Jeanne’s training as a melee fighter at the Ratman Fort in the Ice Dungeon was high resistance to magic, so the spells of ghouls and liches did not affect her very much.
Bronson, Amanda and Seamus stayed close to the pets, healing the one which was taking the most damage. From time to time Bronson would look back across the beach to reassure himself the Jeanne was alive and well. He saw that she was holding her own while managing to heal and resurrect others. She did not seem to be in immediate danger.
When most of the undead were crushed by the group of melee warriors on the beach, Jeanne took out her heavy crossbow and moved closer to the fighting near the moongate. She took aim and fired at the Dark Father. Arrows and bolts from the archers rained down upon the creature as it roared with rage.
Finally, the Dark Father fell to the ground with a crash. Seamus mounted his ethereal steed and ventured back into the Gauntlet Chamber to lure another Doom Boss to the beach.
In the short lull that followed, Bronson made his way to Jeanne’s side and smiled up at her as she sat upon her ethereal steed.
“You are a mighty warrior, my lady,” he told her, “Who was your teacher?”
“My father, Lord Angus,” she answered, lifting her helmet from her head. Two braids of golden hair fell around her shoulders “He wished for a son, but alas I was his only offspring. So my father taught me to defend myself and my family if need be.”
“He trained you well, my lady, but I am glad that Angus did not get his wish. I prefer you as a lass, not a lad,” Bronson said, taking the end of one shiny braid between his fingers and tugging playfully.
Bronson grinned at Jeanne with a twinkle in his eyes. She grinned back and pulled her braid away from his fingers with mock indignation. “You are very bold, sir knight,” she laughed.
“I only speak the truth. Would you have me lie, Jeanne?” he asked.
“Nay, Bronson” She smiled, “the truth is always best.”
Her smile faded as she noticed a smear of blood on Bronson’s cheek
“You are wounded!” She wiped the blood away with the finger tip of her glove. But his flesh beneath the blood was unscathed. The blood was not his. She smiled once more. “Well, it appears that something was wounded, but fortunately it was not you, my lord.”
Bronson took note of her expression of concern when she thought he had been wounded in battle. This pleased him very much and his grin widened.
At that moment Seamus emerged from the Gauntlet Chambers and broke through the crowd, leading the next Dark Father and his horde of undead followers out onto the beach.
“Nox kill!!” Bronson commanded.
He smiled once more at Jeanne before following his mare into fray.
“Take care, my lord!” she called after Bronson. But the din from the battle was deafening and he did not hear her. Jeanne pulled her helmet back over her head, lifted her shield and with sword in hand returned to the fight.
In the distance, a warrior dressed in a hooded black robe stood in the shadows of a boulder on the beach. His face was concealed in the folds of his hood. He sat atop an ethereal steed.
The hooded rider had come ashore with a recent boatload of fighters bound for the Gauntlet. But while the other passengers hurried off to enter the battle, the hooded rider had stayed back in the shadows. His eyes scanned the army of adventurers until they settled upon a lovely female warrior dressed in blue.
The rider’s eyes narrowed when he saw a handsome red haired man clad in a dark green cloak stride through the crowd to her side. The woman removed her helmet and her bright hair glowed like gold in the torch light.
The couple exchanged words which the hooded rider could not hear. But the expressions on their faces and the way in which the man touched the woman’s hair spoke volumes. The rider watched intently as the woman reached down to touch the young man’s cheek. The scene was painful for the rider to watch.
His grip on the reins tightened as the couple smiled at each other…his knuckles turned white. He snorted through flared nostrils as he gritted his teeth.
The encounter between the couple was interrupted by the arrival of the next Dark Father. The deadly monster was led onto the beach and was immediately attacked by dozens of fighters and their pets. The hooded rider waited until the attention of every warrior was focused on the gigantic creature. Then he put his heels to his mount and galloped into the passageway leading to the Gauntlet chambers.
Bronson applied another bandage to a red dragon near him. The dragon was taking heavy damage and every warrior with vet skills was working feverishly to keep it alive. Few pets had survived but the Dark Father showed no signs of weakening.
Bronson glanced over his shoulder to see Jeanne Rose just finishing off a lich. She was doing a fine job keeping the undead creatures from attacking the tamers. He felt a sense of pride watching her helping others with her healing skills. Reassured that the lady was safe, Bronson turned his attention back to destroying the Doom Boss.
Suddenly the sound of Jeanne shouting his name made him look around again. A rider dressed in a black hooded robe was racing towards him from the entrance to the Gauntlet chambers. Directly behind the hooded rider was another Dark Father in pursuit. Bronson recognized that the warriors on the beach would be slaughtered by two Dark Fathers at once!
The rider in the black hooded robe galloped his steed to within inches of Bronson and then suddenly disappeared!! Bronson froze, looking up into the black eyes of a towering Dark Father. Only a few feet of sand separated him from the most powerful beast in the dungeon. He could feel the foul breath of the monster on his face. The Dark Father stood frustrated, sniffing the air over Bronson’s head searching for the now invisible hooded rider.
Bronson drew an arrow from his quiver and aimed in the blink of an eye. He made a split second decision to attack the monster and drag it back into the chamber. He must lead it away from the warriors, away from his family…away from Jeanne Rose.
But as he pulled back the bowstring to fire his arrow, a crossbow bolt slammed into the back of the Dark Father’s shoulder. He heard a rumble of surprise rise from the huge monster’s throat. Bronson shot his arrow but he knew it was too late. The Dark Father was turning around towards the warrior who had hit him first.
As the creature slowly pivoted Bronson saw to his horror that it was Jeanne Rose attacking the Dark Father from behind. Jeanne whirled her mount around and galloped back towards the entrance to the Gauntlet chambers, leading the creature away. The gigantic monster roared with rage as it chased her into the tunnel.
“God’s teeth!!” Bronson swore as he raced after Jeanne Rose and the Dark Father.
Bronson charged across the sandy beach as the Dark Father disappeared into the tunnel leading to the Gauntlet chambers. He heard the monster’s roar echoing off the walls as he passed through the entrance.
Ahead he could see the back of the gigantic creature as it chased Jeanne Rose. Bronson ran close to the uneven walls of the passageway in an attempt to see past the Dark Father. He caught a glimpse of Jeanne’s light blue dress before she traveled out of sight again. He dodged two ghouls and a lich… literally shoving the lich aside in his frenzied attempt to catch up with Jeanne before the Dark Father crushed her. The lich hit Bronson with a bolt of lightning, but it did not slow him down.
Bronson knew that once Jeanne reached the open room which connected the Gauntlet chambers she would be trapped with no place to run. His mind raced as he tried to formulate a plan to draw the Doom Boss’ attention away from her. He was only a few feet behind the Dark Father when Jeanne came into view again. For an instant he saw a flash of green cloth floating around her shoulders. As the green material of a cape settled upon her body, Jeanne Rose disappeared before his eyes.
The cloak of invisibility! She had used it! Bronson stopped in his tracks. He watched as the Dark Father continued running beyond the spot where Jeanne was hiding and into the main hall of the Gauntlet Chambers. A heart beat after the huge monster had past her, Jeanne Rose reappeared.
The green cape flew like a banner from her arm as she whirled her mount in the direction of the tunnel entrance. Jeanne’s ethereal steed took off like an arrow heading directly towards Bronson.
A smile spread across his face “Well met, my lady!” he cheered as she galloped around him.
“Make Haste!!” she commanded “Flee before it comes back!!”
Bronson began to run after Jeanne, back to the relative safety of the beach. He watched her swing her sword at the undead creatures which were blocking their hasty retreat. She cut a path for Bronson to follow as she hacked and slashed at the ghouls and the lich.
“Blood thirsty wench!” Bronson laughed as the tunnel entrance came into view. He made his way out onto the beach and stopped to catch his breath. Bronson watched as Jeanne chopped at a skeletal knight until it fell into a pile of bones. Then she guided her mount back to where Bronson was standing. He saw that her hands were shaking and he could hear her labored breathing under the helmet that she wore.
“Are you alright?” he asked, taking the sword from her hand.
“Aye,” She panted “The cloak of invisibility is an amazing weapon,” she pulled her helmet off and gulped in fresh air. Her face was flushed and her eyes were bright with the excitement of their adventure. “That was fun!” she giggled.
Bronson gave a short bark of laughter upon hearing this unexpected remark. Jeanne giggled once more and then began to laugh in earnest.
Bronson laughed along with her until Seamus’ booming voice interrupted their merriment.
“I hope you two youngsters are quite finished taunting that Dark Father,” he said as he made his way towards them across the beach. “You are giving my poor wife a seizure.” But the grin Seamus was wearing belied the gruffness of his voice.
Amanda Rose was hurrying along behind her husband. The look of worry upon her face told Bronson that both she and Seamus had witnessed the near disaster which Jeanne had diverted. Bronson saw that the pets, Og, Mist and Nox, were trailing Seamus as well. It appeared to Bronson that Seamus was coming to their rescue when he and Jeanne had emerged from the tunnel. Amanda went to Jeanne and took her hand, concern written plainly on her face.
“Jeanne, are you hurt?” Her cousin asked.
“I am fine, Amanda,” Jeanne told her “Thanks to this brave knight and his priceless gift,” she smiled at Bronson and carefully folded the green cloak of invisibility.
“Thank you Bronson,” Amanda said “Thank you for watching over her.”
“We are watching over each other, it seems,” Bronson stated with a smile.
“Aye.” Jeanne agreed, “We are indeed.”
Just then a cheer rose from the crowd and the ground shook as the second Dark Father was destroyed. The warriors began regrouping and resurrecting their pets all along the beach.
There was no sign of the hooded rider who had led the last Dark Father to Bronson and then used either magic or an invisibility item to hide. Bronson assumed that the cowardly warrior who had played such an evil trick had left the area. He was a knight without honor….a murderer. His actions had been clearly intentional. Had Bronson been his intended victim?
Before Bronson could ponder the matter any further his mare came over to him and gave him a nudge, nearly knocking him into the sand. He laughed and reached into his pack for the raw meat which Nox was expecting as her reward.
Patrick pounded out a barely recognizable rendition of a tavern tune on the piano in the common room of the Tree Fellow Pub. Seamus had brought his party, including some fellow warriors from the Doom battle, back to his pub after their second Gauntlet hunt was completed. Patrick and his wife Katie Rose were visiting with Kayla when they arrived and had joined the celebration.
As Patrick stuck another sour note Seamus heckled him from a table near the hearth. “Someone needs to cast paralyze on the piano player!! He is too ham fisted for that instrument!!” Everyone, including Patrick, roared with laughter.
“Aye” shouted another patron “Give him a drum instead!”
Undaunted by the ribbing, Patrick took another swig of ale and continued to play his off key concert.
Bronson laughed before taking a drink from his tankard. He and Seamus shared a table by the crackling fire. The ladies had gone up to the third floor of the pub, which served as Kayla’s private living quarters. They wanted to freshen up after the dungeon crawl and see the treasures which Katie Rose had brought back from her shopping trip in Britain.
Bronson could hear the sound of the ladies soft voices drifting down the stairs every so often. He could not help glancing in that direction.
“Smitten are you?” Seamus chuckled at Bronson, drawing his attention away from the stairway leading up to the third floor. He flashed Bronson a teasing grin.
“Me?” Bronson asked. He scowled and opened his mouth to voice a vigorous denial. But he changed his mind.
Bronson stared down into his mug and said quite simply “Aye.”
Seamus laughed and clapped Bronson on the back, bringing a smile to the younger man’s face. Then Seamus settled into his chair and wisely changed the subject.
“So lad, you seem none the worse for wear after two rounds of the Doom Gauntlet. What will you do with your half of the gold?”
“What gold?” Bronson asked.
“Why the gold we will get from the sale of the artifact I brought back!” Seamus told him. “We’ve won ourselves the very rare Armor of Fortune, lad! Once I sell it for a sizable sum you will get half as my partner in the dungeon crawl.”
“Well in that case,” Bronson said, grinning ear to ear “the next round is on me!” He motion to the bar maid to bring more ale.
“I have been thinking, Seamus, that perhaps I should buy a house in Malas,” Bronson said as the bar maid poured their ale “My adventures with you have left me with an excess of gold.”
“A house!” Seamus chuckled “I will let Amanda know. She is the queen of shopping, lad. My lady will have you domesticated in no time.”
Bronson laughed and drank deeply from his tankard.
Soon Patrick gave up his seat at the piano to a real musician and joined the brothers at their table. The bar maid brought another round and they drank a toast to the Doom Gods for their generous contribution to Seamus’ coffers.
As Bronson lifted his tankard of ale in salute, a man coming up the stairs to the common room of the pub caught his eye. It was his brother Jack. Bronson watched as Jack scanned the room until he spotted Seamus. Jack made his way over to them and took a seat beside Patrick. Catching the attention of the bar maid, Jack signaled for a drink.
“How went the Gauntlet battle?” Jack asked “I trust you were successful against the Doom Bosses.”
“Aye,” Seamus answered “Very successful indeed,” he winked at Bronson “In fact, so successful that our young brother has decided to purchase a home in Malas!”
Jack looked surprised for a moment. “The fledgling wants to build a nest, does he?”
Patrick gave Bronson a hardy punch in the shoulder. The force of the blow lifted two legs of Bronson’s chair off the floor. Bronson recovered his balance with a laugh.
“Huzzah and well met!” Patrick cheered and then emptied his mug.
“And how was your dungeon crawl, Jack?” Seamus asked.
“Interesting, very interesting,” Jack replied, vaguely, as the bar maid placed his tankard of ale on the table. He took a gulp of ale and wiped the foam from his mustache with the back of his hand. “I have a proposition for you Seamus.”
“And what might that be?” Seamus leaned forward, “Something profitable, no doubt.”
“Aye, profitable and dangerous! Your favorite kind of activity.” Jack told him with a sly smile.
“I have a couple of level five treasure maps I need you to do for me.” Jack continued. “Felucca maps, Seamus. Are you up for the challenge?”
“Does a Daemon have wings? Of course I am!” Seamus answered without hesitation “Is tomorrow soon enough?”
“Aye tomorrow is fine, brother,” Jack relied. “Meet me near the west Britain bank in Felucca at first light,”
He looked at Bronson and a wicked smile crossed his face. “You are welcome to join us, lad.” He said smoothly “If you are brave enough to venture into the wilds of Felucca, again.”
“I will be there,” Bronson told him “you can count on it.”
“Excellent.” Jack replied.
Bronson approached the west bank of Britain in Felucca the next morning. The sky was cloudy and a grey mist floated above the worn cobble stones around the ancient structure. The voices of guards could be heard in the nearby guardhouse. But none of those civil servants ventured out into the damp morning gloom to patrol the city. The once bustling streets surrounding the bank were now empty.
Bronson knew that his grandfather, Amergin, had once lived and worked in this city. Since childhood he had heard stories of how pickpockets would fleece the masses of humanity who, long ago, made Britain in Felucca the center of commerce. Amergin had chopped wood in the royal forests of Lord Blackthorn and sold his crude wooden shields to the blacksmith for a hand full of gold. His grandfather had saved enough money to buy a small house in the forests of Minoc.
Bronson smiled, thinking of how far his family had come from such humble beginnings. And it had all started here.
Bronson circled the bank, looking for any sign of his brothers or Patrick. There was not a soul in sight. Nox was full of energy and pranced along, snorting. Just when Bronson thought that perhaps he was in the wrong place he heard the unmistakable sound of Og’s roar shattering the quiet of city. Bronson found Seamus and Patrick standing in the grassy area on the south side of the bank. They were laughing loudly. Seamus was dressed in his pure black robe. Patrick wore his studded leather armor and carried a large heavy crossbow in his hand. Og stood close by, swaying in his usual way.
“Good morrow!” Bronson called out.
“Aah! So there is life in the this place!” Patrick greeted him “Tis like a tomb here, is it not?”
“Aye, Patrick, a sad place indeed.” Bronson answered.
“But we will make a bit of noise today, to be sure,” Seamus told them “ Felucca treasure maps are always an adventure unlike any other.”
Bronson laughed. “Nox and I are ready for an adventure.”
“I am glad to hear it,” a voice from behind them responded. As Bronson turned he saw Jack materialize from the mist. Jack was dressed in a black hooded cloak and he was riding an ethereal steed. As Jack approached, Bronson felt a sudden crawling recognition course through his body.
The murderous rider from the Doom Gauntlet!!
As soon as the thought came to Bronson he dismissed the idea as impossible. Surely thousands of men wore hooded black robes and rode ethereal steeds. How could he think that his own brother had tried to kill him yesterday?
Jack approached Seamus and held out a weathered parchment map. “You are right on time, brother,” Jack said as he pushed the hood back from his head. He nodded to Patrick and Bronson. “Only gentlemen for our hunt today?”
“The ladies have gone to hunt up a house for Bronson,” Seamus grinned “That is a woman’s favorite kind of hunting I have discovered.”
Patrick and Bronson chuckled.
The entire gaggle of Rose sisters and cousins had gathered this morning for breakfast at Amanda and Seamus’ home, Mountain View. The house hunting party, led by Amanda Rose, planned to search the area around Luna for the perfect Malas home for Bronson to buy. Bronson would be taken to inspect the homes which the ladies deemed acceptable for his needs. He had agreed to this arrangement gratefully since he knew nothing about house shopping. It also gave him a good excuse to spend time in the company of Jeanne Rose. That thought alone made him smile.
“How very fortunate you are, Bronson, to have such lovely and willing assistants in your search,” Jack told him. “But let us proceed with our hunt so that you can return to the pleasures of Malas.”
Seamus took the treasure map from Jack and unrolled it. Immediately his eyes narrowed and a frown creased his brow. For several moments there was a chilling silence. The only sound was the rumbling purr of the white wyrm as he rocked back and forth nearby.
“This map has already been read by another, Jack,” Seamus said raising an eyebrow in his brother’s direction.
“Aye, Seamus,” Jack quickly replied “It belonged to a friend who has the skill to decode it, but lacks the courage and strength to dig it up.” he continued with a reassuring smile. “This one is on Eiffel Isle. Do you know the place?” Jack asked, obviously trying to draw Seamus’ attention back to the map.
Bronson saw a look of concern pass between Seamus and Patrick.
“I have a rune for the Eiffel Island in my book,” Seamus answered as he drew a worn leather runebook from his pack. “It is just off the coast of Britain,” he flipped through the pages studying the coordinates carefully “here it is.”
Seamus began to rummage in the oversized sleeve of his black robe as if searching for something.
“Patrick, would you be so kind as to recall back to Mountain View and fetch my lucky lock picks?” Seamus asked.
“Your lucky picks?” Patrick questioned. He glanced towards Jack as he spoke.
“Aye, Paddy me boy, my lucky picks. Amanda will help you find them,” Seamus replied. He mounted his ethereal steed.
“And how many lucky picks will you be needing, Seamus?” Patrick asked as he hung his bow across his back and drew a runebook out of his pack.
“I’d say about thirty… Aye, thirty lucky picks and bring them to Eiffel Isle in Felucca, if you please.” Seamus instructed him.
“I will see you there, my friend,” Patrick said and recalled away.
“Thirty picks for one treasure chest?” Jack inquired suspiciously.
“Aye, Jack, never go on a hunt without a good supply of lock picks,” Seamus told him gruffly.
“And cure potions!” Bronson grinned, trying to lighten the suddenly serious mood of his two older brothers.
Seamus looked over at Bronson with a half smile “Aye, that too, lad.”
The smile left Seamus’ face as he turned his attention back to Jack “You never know what to expect on a Felucca treasure hunt….brother.” he growled and put his golden helmet onto his head with unusual force.
Seamus cast a red moongate and bellowed “ALL FOLLOW ME!!” before disappearing into it. Og roared and trundled along behind his master.
“After you, fledgling,” Jack said with a nod to Bronson.
Bronson felt a tingle of warning run up his spine as he guided Nox through the red moongate.
Patrick appeared on the lawn of the large sandstone house known as “Mountain View” and hurried up the front steps. Without knocking he yanked open one of the massive double doors to the entrance hall. He was met by the manservant Owen.
“Owen, quick fetch me a box of lucky lock picks!” Patrick commanded. “Lord Seamus has need of them!”
“I am sorry sir, but I don’t know what you mean.” Owen replied. “My Lord keeps his lock picks in a chest in his study but ‘lucky lock picks?’…that is an odd request. Perhaps I should consult Lady Amanda.”
“Aye, consult her if you must but do it quickly! Lord Seamus awaits my hasty return!!”
Patrick burst into Seamus’ study and began to rifle through chests as Owen watched with curiosity. “I said quickly, man!!” Patrick barked, sending Owen running towards the stairs. A mighty growl of frustration escaped Patrick as Owen scurried up the staircase.
In the dining room on the second floor Amanda was seated at the head of the table surrounded by her female relatives. Breakfast was over and the list of potential homes for Bronson was being finalized.
Amanda addressed the group as she reviewed her notes. “Now ladies, let us keep in mind that Bronson lives alone. He won’t need a large home so we can rule out many of these properties, sight unseen.”
“He may be living alone now” Kayla said with a twinkle in her eyes, “but things have a way of changing.” She looked over her spectacles at Jeanne Rose. Jeanne’s cheeks turned a bright shade of red and young Shana Rose began to giggle.
“Aye, Bronson is going to need a much larger house than you think, Amanda.” Katie Rose said with a teasing smile. “A certain lass has captured his eye.”
“And his heart too!” Shana Rose added. “It is sooo romantic. And Bronson is very handsome, don’t you think?”
A murmured agreement followed as everyone beamed at Jeanne Rose. Jeanne helplessly blushed and fidgeted in her chair.
“I think you are all getting a little ahead of yourselves...” Jeanne began defensively, but at that moment Owen came trotting up the stairs and went directly to the head of the table. The servant leaned close to Amanda and whispered something into her ear. Immediately the smile left Amanda’s face and she gave a soft gasp.
“You must excuse me. I am needed downstairs.” Amanda announced and hurried away.
Jeanne Rose and Kayla looked at each other across the table. “Something’s amiss.” Kayla said as she stood. She wasted no time in following Amanda down to the first floor. The remaining women sat for a moment in silence. Then they rose up in unison and dashed towards the stairs to catch up with Kayla and Amanda.
The ladies became wedged together in the stairwell, a tangle of pastel colored dresses, unable to move for a second. Then the human log jam broke up and one by one they made their way to stand outside the doorway to Seamus’ study. Quietly they listened.
Inside the study Patrick paced back and forth. His voice was rough with the urgency of his mission.
“A nasty business, there is no doubt. His own brother! I can not believe it, m’lady, his own brother.” Patrick stopped pacing and shook his head.
Amanda was seated in a chair by Seamus’ desk, her hands folded in her lap.
“Please tell me exactly what message my husband sends, Patrick,” she said calmly “word for word.”
“Seamus said that he had need of thirty lucky lock picks. They were to be brought to the Eiffel Isle in Felucca. ‘Tell Amanda I need thirty lucky lock picks’ Seamus said, that was all.” Patrick told her “But where would I find these lucky picks?”
“There are no lucky picks, Patrick. It is a code that Seamus uses when he is in danger and wants my help” Amanda replied “The number of picks he asks for represents the amount of time I am to wait before coming to his aid.”.
She was silent for a few seconds, as she digested the information.
“You will bring my husband some lock picks to avoid arousing the suspicions of Jack.” Amanda said thoughtfully
“And you must be sure to play along until the trap is sprung.”
“Aye, that Jack is a clever one, milady. But we’ll not fall prey to his deadly plans.” Patrick growled.
Amanda’s eyes narrowed. Her hands clenched in her lap. “So you both knew that Jack was a murderer all this time and did not tell me?” she questioned quietly.
An audible gasp was heard from the doorway and the women inched closer.
“Aye, tis true” Patrick answered, looking down at his leather gloves. “Seamus did not wish to alarm you. Jack is his brother, after all.” He shook his head again “Who could have guess it would come to this?”
“Indeed.” Amanda’s voice was touched with sadness. She closed her eyes and flexed her clenched fingers. Then she opened her eyes and stood up.
“Ladies!” Amanda said turning to those gathered in the doorway. The entire group of women fell back a step.
“There has been a change of plans” she glanced at the clock “and we haven’t a minute to waste.”
The wall of pastel dresses parted as Amanda swept out of the room and back towards the staircase leading up to the second floor. The women trailed behind her whispering among themselves. Patrick was left standing in the study with only the ticking of the clock to keep him company. He stood listening to the sound of the women speaking in low voices in the room above him for a few moments. Then with another growl of frustration he made his way up the stairs to join them.
Bronson guided Nox through the red moongate and into a forest of leafless trees. He circled the spot where Seamus was preparing to dig, looking for the best terrain from which to attack the guardians of the treasure chest. He chose a small clearing several paces north of the chest and took a position next to a gnarled oak tree.
Jack followed him, bringing his ethereal mount to a halt nearby. Bronson dismounted and began to arrange his pack for battle, placing bandages to vet his mare where he could easily find them in the heat and confusion of the fight.
Suddenly, Nox reared up striking Jack with her deadly hooves. Bronson grabbed the reins attempting to control the nightmare. He managed to pull her away from his brother but not before the monster had spit out a fireball, causing Jack’s sleeve to burst into flames. Jack batted franticly at his robe until it was only a smoldering shred of charred cloth. He backed further away, cursing under his breath.
“I am sorry, Jack.” Bronson called to his brother “Nox has never done that before.”
“Keep that foul beast away from me.” Jack hissed.
A chuckle came from Seamus. “The mare is a good judge of character, I’ll wager.” he said as he pulled out his shovel.
Bronson tried to calm his pet. He was confused by her behavior. Temperamental as she was, the mare had never attacked a human who wasn’t a criminal.
Bronson leaned close to his nightmare. “Show me Mistress Nox” he whispered to her “Show me what you have seen.” He looked into her magical red eyes and began to meditate.
Instantly her telepathic reply appeared. In a dream like vision Bronson saw the beach near the Gauntlet in the dungeon of Doom. He saw it through the eyes of his mare. Bronson saw the Doom Boss being led by the rider in a black hooded robe out of the tunnel and directly towards himself. He saw the monster approaching his blind side; he heard Jeanne calling out to warn him. Bronson saw himself turning around just in time to see the Dark Father…the hooded rider slipping a magic ring on his finger and vanishing. Bronson relived the moment of panic as he chased after Jeanne Rose while she lured the Doom Boss back into the tunnel. But the vision continued. There on the spot where the murderous hooded rider had disappeared, a man dressed in black leather armor reappeared. The hooded rider had removed his robe and dismounted while still invisible so that when he reappeared he would blend into a crowd of warriors fighting on the beach. The man turned towards Nox and his identity was revealed.
“Jack!!” Bronson exclaimed “It was Jack!!”
“What is it fledgling?” Jack asked, thinking that Bronson was calling him “Is that beast sinking her teeth into your flesh? Shall I save you from your own pet?” he sneered.
Bronson was irate. He said nothing as he walked over to where Seamus was digging for the treasure chest. He hid his angry contorted face from Jack.
“Seamus,” he said in a low voice, “it was Jack who tried to murder me in the dungeon Doom!” He glanced over his shoulder before continuing, “My mare has shown me what really happened. It was our dear brother who led the Doom Boss out onto the beach to kill me, then disappeared.”
Seamus continued to dig as he answered “I believe you lad. And the worst is yet to come, I fear. This island is crawling with Jack’s minions. We have been led into an ambush.”
“What are you planning to do?” Bronson whispered.
Seamus stopped digging and wiped his brow with the cuff of his sleeve. “I have dealt with the likes of Jack before, lad. Just keep your eyes open and be ready to fight for your life.”
Before Bronson could ask any more questions, Patrick appeared a few yards away from Seamus’ dig.
“You are just in time.” Seamus called out, greeting his returning friend. “Did you find the lucky lock picks my boy?”
Patrick approached Seamus carrying a large leather sack over his shoulder. “Aye, your fair wife helped me find them.” He dropped the bag near Seamus’ feet with a wink. “She sends you her love and says to tell you that the winds of fortune will be in your favor this day.”
Seamus chuckled “Aye, a fine and resourceful wife she is, Patrick.” He turned and shouted to Jack “Are you ready, brother?”
“Ready and waiting” Jack answered loudly. He glanced over towards the heavy brush bordering the clearing they were in.
“ALL HIDE NOW!!” Seamus bellowed.
Bronson and Patrick moved a safe distance from the nearly uncovered chest and cast the spell of invisibility on themselves. Seamus excavated three more mounds of dirt and quickly hid as the first four chest guardians appeared.
A lich lord, two daemons and a poison elemental materialized around the chest.
“OG ATTACK!!” Seamus commanded, pointing to the daemon named Beelezabubba.
“OG ATTACK!!” He pointed to the second daemon and moved beside his wyrm to heal the pet as it fought.
“NOX KILL!!” Bronson sent his mare towards the poison elemental as he and Patrick took aim at the lich lord with their bows.
The poison elemental was quickly reduced to a slimy green puddle of spent energy. Nox began to charge towards the lich lord when Bronson’s vision was blurred by a noxious green cloud. A powerful poison choked off his wind pipe. Before he could turn to see what was killing him, a flame strike brought him to his knees.
“WE ARE BEING ATTACKED!!” Patrick shouted. He immediately turned his heavy crossbow on the group of murderers emerging from the trees. His aim was true as he hit a mage that was casting another spell on Bronson. Patrick’s bolt broke the mage’s concentration and knocked him backwards into a tree. A cutlass wielding brigand on horseback charged Patrick. Patrick let fly another bolt knocking the rider from his mount as he side stepped the deadly poisoned blade. Og teleported onto the dismounted brigand clawing him to death instantly.
Seamus rubbed the pet summoning ball in his pack and when his mare appeared he yelled “ALL GUARD ME!!” Then he chanted “An Nox” and targeted his dying brother Bronson before ducking under his mare.
Bronson was lying on the ground gasping for air when Seamus’ cure spell took effect. As soon as he was able to breathe again, he quickly rummaged through his pack for a greater heal potion. He pulled the cork out with his teeth and gulped the yellow liquid down. Immediately Bronson regained his strength.
“NOX KILL!!” He motioned towards another rider who was bearing down on Patrick with a deadly poisoned cutlass. Nox hurled a fireball scorching both the horse and rider. The rider quickly changed direction, heading back into the safety of the trees.
By now the red mage was back on his feet and shouting “In Nox Grav”. He cast a poisonous fog to cover the retreat of his comrades. An archer fired a bolt that exploded as it hit Patrick square in the chest. Patrick glanced down and saw the ragged edges of his leather tunic and the red sheen of his blood on the steel tip of the bolt as he yanked it from his gear. Quickly looking back towards the tree line to defend against the next volley, he caught a glimpse of the archer as he retreated into the brush with his comrades. Patrick dropped to his knees wounded and exhausted. Bronson rushed to his aid.
There was a lull in the fighting. Seamus assessed the damage. A quick scan of the battlefield revealed the chest guardians’ dead bodies strewn around the chest. Only one was still laden with loot. Apparently the marauders looted the monsters before retreating back into the underbrush. One attacker lay dead on the ground under Og’s right claw. Bronson and Patrick were stunned but appeared to be regrouping for the next attack. Og was slightly wounded but alert. The wyrm and the mares were on guard for the scent of the bandits. But Jack was nowhere to be found.
“Get ready men…they’ll be taking another run at us. Has anyone seen Jack?? “ Seamus wondered aloud.
“Not me.” “ Nor I.” the other’s shot back.
“Did he turn tail and run for his life?” Patrick asked with obvious disgust.
“I doubt it.” Seamus said, as he began to apply a bandage to Og. “I’ll wager the loot in this chest that he is the brains behind this gank squad.”
Patrick glanced over at Bronson for his reaction to Seamus’ remark only to see Bronson nodding his head in agreement.
“I expect that they are licking their wounds and reinforcing their numbers for their next assault.” Seamus told them as he finished healing the wyrm “That should take them a few moments. Let’s quickly open the chest and hide the $5000 in gold in the bushes south of here.”
Clickety-click...the lock popped open.
“Ort Por Ylem”
KABOOM!! The chest was untrapped and Seamus was hauling the gold to the south. Bronson had heard of Seamus’ prowess as a treasure hunter but never had he witnessed such efficient looting of a level 5 chest. Seamus disappeared into the underbrush for a few moments. When he returned he pulled his watch from his sleeve, looked at it and smiled.
“I think it’s time for the winds of fortune to start blowing our way, lads.” Seamus chuckled.
“Amanda and the girls?” Patrick raised his eyebrows in anticipation.
Bronson looked from Seamus to Patrick “What are you saying?”
“The words ‘lucky lock picks’ are a secret code between Seamus and Amanda which means ‘bring help’.” Patrick grinned as he reloaded his crossbow “Let us hope those fair ladies arrive soon.”
“Aye, but brace yourselves for the next assault…it won’t be long now.” Seamus told them as he adjusted his golden helmet and picked up his shield.
Suddenly the tree line to the north erupted with attackers. Cries and unearthly howls made the air vibrate. Seamus spotted the red mage that had led the first attack. The murderous mage was conjuring up a poison cloud to envelop Patrick and Bronson as the screaming horde of red riders closed in on them.
“OG KILLl!” Seamus gestured towards the red mage. Long ago he had learned that your chances of survival are greatly increased if you take the leader out first.
“JAI ATTACK!” Seamus ordered his mare to attack the archer who was protecting the red mage.
From behind, Seamus felt the sting of a blade penetrating his flesh through the studded leather tunic. He pivoted around to parry the repeated blows of a brigand with his valorite shield. But the lightning fast speed of the attacker’s kryss began to overcome him. Seamus went down on one knee fighting for his life. The murderers knew the first order of engagement…take out the tamer to neutralize the pets.
Patrick and Bronson were several yards away, surrounded by blade wielding swordsmen. Their armor was runic but it was beginning to fail. Bronson’s mare was fighting off a conjured Energy Vortex but was losing the battle. The situation looked bleak.
All of a sudden there was a thunderous explosion followed by the howling sound of a tornado. One of Bronson’s attackers went down…knocked out by the combination of explosion and energy bolt. Like a banshee’s wail, the sound of a woman’s cry was heard above the din of the raging battle. “ALL FOLLOW ME!!”
The attackers and the defenders all paused and looked to the south. A host of heavily armored women emerged from the trees.
“MIST KILL!” Amanda trained her dragon on Seamus’ attacker. As the attacker fled towards the trees Katie Rose pulled bolos from her pack and knocked the fleeing rider from his mount. It was a swift end for the ‘would be’ looter under Mist’s powerful claws.
At the same time Jeanne Rose drew her sword and galloped into the fray. She charged the group attacking Bronson and Patrick. Shana Rose equipped her poisonous heavy crossbow and loaded a bolt. She took aim and struck a mounted attacker, knocking him from his horse. He halted his attack to heal the poison wound and recover his mount. But before he could resume the fight Katie Rose cast “An Ex Por” to paralyze the brigand. She dismounted her mare and watched it stomp the wounded attacker into oblivion.
As Jeanne reached the tangle of horses and men she took down the first attacker she met with a deadly blow from her Holy Sword. She halted her mount beside Bronson and quickly killed two more attackers with the magic weapon.
Kayla circled the perimeter with a wand of greater healing for her family and a bag of greater explosion potions for the bandits. The tide of battle began to turn. Contrary to the popular cliché there is no honor among thieves. As more bandits fell, their surviving comrades began to flee in all directions.
Seamus called his pets to guard him while he recovered his strength. Amanda took up a position next to her husband. The red mage leader managed to survive Og’s attack by running and hiding. But his body guard, the archer, was not so fortunate. Seamus caught a glimpse of the red mage as he ran off to the west.
The ladies held their ground but did not give chase to the fleeing band of criminals. They surrounded Bronson and Patrick to protect them and helped heal their wounds.
As the group looked around for stragglers there was a collective sigh of relief. The battle was over. The family survived.
“WHERE IS THAT SCOUNDREL JACK!!” Seamus shouted.
Jack sprinted out of the trees and into a clearing in which a ram shackled wooden cottage stood. The cottage belonged to one of his men. He made his way towards the house, determined to escape the loosing battle his cohorts were fighting nearby. He could hear the roar of his brothers’ pets and the death cries of his men as he rounded the corner of the cottage.
But Jack’s retreat came to an abrupt halt when he found himself face to face with a lovely young girl. She was standing in front of the cottage steps. For a moment Jack thought he was looking upon a fairy grown to human size. Her perfect face, framed by short braids of flame red hair, startled him. Her large green eyes looked up at him and a single tear slowly traced the shape of her cheek. Suddenly Jack realized that he knew this girl.
“Aye, my lord Jack” she answered softly.
For a moment Jack forgot about the battle in the clearing to the east.
“Why do you weep?” he caught her tear on the finger tip of his glove and wiped it away.
“I weep for you, Jack, and what you have done.” Shana took a step backwards. “You have ruined everything” she turned away from him then. “Seamus will ban you from the house and I will never be able to see you again.”
Jack frowned. “And this makes you weep?”
“Aye” she sniffed.
A grin spread across Jack’s face. That this innocent girl would miss him touched something long hidden in Jack’s cold and ruthless heart. He chuckled to himself.
“You laugh at me?” Shana Rose whirled to face him “You find my sorrow amusing, Jack?” With clenched fists she confronted the murderer.
“Nay, lass, I find it much to my liking” Jack admitted. He surprised himself with such an uncharacteristic display honesty. Why was he telling her this? As he looked upon her young face Jack saw the promise of the woman Shana Rose would one day be. He began to realize that his blind jealousy over Bronson and Jeanne had caused him to burn his bridges with Seamus and his family. Jack would never see this lovely ‘Rose’ come to full bloom. The thought of missing out on the rest of Shana’s life made Jack feel an emotion he had never felt before…..regret.
But it was too late…the damage was done. Escape was his only option now.
“Should you ever need me, Shana,” Jack heard himself telling her “make your way to the heart shaped clearing south of Yew in Felucca. I have a tower there.” He seemed to have lost control of his tongue. He had never told anyone about his tower before “Do you know the place?”
“I am not sure….” She started to answer.
But the sound of something very large crashing though the woods caused them both to look to the east.
Jack turned once more to Shana Rose. He caught her hands and gave them a squeeze “I must be off, lass. But remember what I told you.” Then Jack moved around her to enter the cottage. He went inside and closed the door, leaving Shana standing alone.
Seamus burst into the clearing. “ALL FOLLOW ME!!” he commanded and Og responded to his command with a mighty roar.
Upon seeing Shana, Seamus called out “Which way did Jack go?”
Shana stood as if frozen for a moment and then her eyes glanced at the cottage door of their own accord.
“Inside hiding is he?” Seamus spat out as he hurried to the door. “COME OUT YOU COWARD!!” He opened the door and started to go inside. Shana covered her face with her hands. This would be the day she saw Jack die.
But Seamus stopped just inside the door and made a deep growling sound in the back of his throat. Shana peered around Seamus into the interior of the tiny house. It was empty except for a chest and an old worn out chair. She suppressed the urge to smile.
Jack was gone.
Bronson and Jeanne Rose rode side by side up a gentle slope of grass towards the large grey stone building which had once been an Inn. They drew their mounts to a halt near the stable attached to the Inn and dismounted.
“This appears to be the property Amanda wanted me to look at” Bronson said as he opened the stable gate and led Nox to a stall. He closed the stall, commanded “All Stay!” and hope that his adventurous pet would still be here when he returned for her.
Bronson took Jeanne’s hand and together they entered the large double doors. The entry hall was wide and led to a cozy dining room in the back of the house. Off the dining room was a kitchen with a stone oven.
“I don’t think a man living alone needs a kitchen this big.” Bronson said. He raised an eyebrow to Jeanne “Do you my lady?”
Jeanne looked around the kitchen and smiled “Nay, my lord. This kitchen is far too big for a man living alone. You would need to hire a cook and a house keeper to manage.”
Bronson cleared his throat “Ah hum…he would indeed…unless…”
“Let us look at the rest of the house!” Jeanne interrupted and taking his arm she propelled him to the stairs. Her child like excitement at exploring each house on Amanda’s list made Bronson grin.
The second floor was the area of the Inn where guests could gather. There was a large room with a fireplace, a piano and a door which led to a balcony which ran along the entire front of the building. Jeanne made her way out onto the balcony. Bronson followed.
“This is wonderful!” Jeanne exclaimed as she stood by the balcony railing and looked out over the country side to the south “Oh, Bronson, what a lovely view!!”
Bronson came to stand beside her. He leaned his hip against the rail and looking down at Jeanne said “I couldn’t agree more, my lady, the view is quite lovely from where I am standing.”
Jeanne smiled and blushed.
“So what do you think, Jeanne? Shall I buy this Inn? Shall I become an Inn Keeper?” Bronson teased her.
“You could no more be an Inn Keeper than your older brother could be a waiter at the Tree Fellow Pub!” she laughed.
Bronson chuckled “You wound me, lady. Do you think me incapable of settling down?”
“I think, sir, that you love to travel across the land looking for adventure just as much as Seamus does.”
“Ahh, but Seamus has a home….and a wife. Could I not have the same life as he and still enjoy the thrill of the hunt?” Bronson asked taking her hand again.
“Aye, you could manage that, I am quite sure, milord.” She answered softly, looking suddenly shy.
They stood silently together on the wide porch, looking into each other’s eyes. Bronson took a deep breath and said “Someone very wise once told me that when something is right, you just know it.” He drew Jeanne into his embrace “I think that I have found something very right, my lady.” He placed a gentle kiss upon her lips “Could you find it in your heart to be my wife?”
Jeanne smiled up at Bronson and with tears shining in her eyes answered “Aye Bronson. I would be honored.”
Bronson and Jeanne Rose were married in the roof top garden of Mountain View. The ceremony was followed by a feast the likes of which none in Luna had ever seen before.
The couple moved into the large stone building and, after several months of remodeling, opened their new business with another family celebration.
To the cheers of all the Rose ladies, Seamus, Patrick and Kayla they put up a freshly painted sign naming the Inn on the top of the green hill. The wooden plaque swayed in the morning breeze, welcoming all to the home of Bronson and his lovely bride.
The sign read “Journey’s End.”