Juniper, Tak, Riffen, Sigthyme, and Grace all traveled on Vern Road for a few days after their encounter with the blue-skinned, Air Genasi and his group of bandits. Through long rests and some healing magic, all of them regained their health and healed their wounds. Luckily they were able to avoid any other encounters with bandits on the road.
One night while Riffen was on watch, he did see some torchlights in the forests, but they did not approach. He wasn’t sure if they were adventurers like them or bandits, but either way they stayed clear and the group didn’t have to worry about another violent encounter.
At first Riffen was having fun bragging to Tak how we was the one who killed the Troll and two bandits while Tak had only killed one. This made Tak grumble in frustration. However the feeling was weighing on him more and more. He had never taken another human life before. The Troll was easy to kill. It was a monster attacking a village. It had to be slayed. But these were people. Yes they were threatening his life. They were going to attack Grace. She was just a child. Well she was a teenager. That’s something that Grace would be quick to point out. Still. These people were going to hurt her. Kill her even. Riffen did what he had to do.
He just wanted to find Lillian, explain everything, and bring her home. He wondered how she was doing. Of course she could take care of herself. She was a better fighter than Riffen. But he still wondered. Maybe she was thinking of him.
“Why do you have a dumb look on your face?” Grace whispered to him.
He almost jumped.
“Don’t scare me like that,” Riffen said. “You almost gave me a heart attack.”
“Sorry, didn’t mean to. I’m just quiet. That’s all,” Grace said.
It was odd because Grace was both the loudest and quietest person Riffen knew. When they were traveling, she was always arguing back and forth with Sigthyme over the dumbest things. So much yelling that she scared away the birds. But when she wanted to, Grace was completely silent. She would just focus and make herself noiseless. A duality of sorts.
“Yeah I guess you are,” Riffen said with a small chuckle.
“So what’s with the face?” Grace asked again.
“It’s nothing. I swear,” Riffen said.
“Alright don’t tell me then,” Grace said.
They were quiet for a bit.
“Don’t you want to go back to sleep?” Riffen asked.
“Not really tired,” She said.
“Well, I guess you can help me finish off my watch then. I still have a few hours before the sun rises and I get to wake everyone up. I could use the company. Plus I saw a few torchlight out in the woods.”
“I’m not sure. They were too far away. But they didn’t come near, so I guess we’re safe.”
Grace pulled her knife from its leather sheath and laid it across her lap.
“Just in case,” She said and Riffen nodded.
They again spent some time in silence until they both grew bored. Grace started drawing crude drawings in the dirt with her knife and Riffen would guess what they were. Then they would switch and Riffen would draw while Grace would guess. Neither of them were good artists, but they had fun anyway.
Later when that fun came to the end, Grace spoke up.
“Thank you again for killing those two guys and protecting me,” Grace said.
“No problem,” Riffen said. “I’m sure you could have handled them.”
Grace shook her head.
“One on one, maybe, or if I had the element of surprise. But when the two of them jumped out of the treeline like that, I knew I was in trouble,” Grace said.
“What about the two that Juniper saved you from? Did they sneak up on you and capture you too?” Riffen asked.
“They ambushed a whole caravan of people in the middle of the night. They killed all the people I was with, but I guess they knew I was special. They came at me and drugged me with some kind of poison. When I woke up I was in chains. They threatened to kill me if I screamed or tried to run away.”
“That sounds horrible.”
“It was,” Grace said. “I’m just glad that Juniper found me when she did.”
“Me too,” Riffen said with a smile.
Once again there was another moment of silence.
“Riffen, was that the first person you’ve ever killed? Like a real person?”
Riffen’s expression saddened.
“They were bad people, Riffen.”
“I know that. I know they were bad. They wanted to kill you. Kill us,” Riffen said. “That should make it easier to justify.”
“But it doesn’t,” Grace said.
“Exactly,” Riffen nodded. “Have you ever – ?”
“Killed someone? Yeah I have,” Grace said. “This world isn’t made for good people. Often times people are forced to do the unthinkable. But that doesn’t make them bad. Just less good. You know? We like to think that the world is full of black and white, but in reality, there’s a lot of gray in between. I just try to stay more good than bad.”
“Wise words from someone so young,” Riffen said.
“Oh shut up,” Grace said giving him a playful shove. “You’re barely older than me.”
They finished the rest of the watch in silence.
The next day they were back on the road and on their way south towards Xylon. It had been almost a weeks worth of travel before they neared the edge of the Ollick Forest on it’s South-Western side.
“It’s not too much farther until we’re out of Ollick Forest,” Sigthyme said while reading the map they had purchased in Bishop. “It looks like we should be crossing the Ling River in a couple of hours and then we should be in Augendale.”
“Augendale, I thought we were going to Xylon,” Grace said.
“Augendale is just a town along the way to Xylon,” Sigthyme explained. “Should be a day’s stop to resupply and then another day or two to Xylon. We’re in the home stretch.”
“Home stretch? That’s a new one,” Riffen said.
“It’s a Dwarvish expression. It’s the final stretch you would do before finishing off the last bit of blacksmithing you had to do before your shift finished and you were able to go home. It’s also used to express when you’re close to achieving your goal,” Sigthyme said.
“Anyway, that means we’re getting closer and closer to Xylon,” Juniper said.
“Can’t wait,” Tak said. “Horse ride boring.”
“Don’t worry Tak. I’m sure there will be a tavern in Augendale. You can refill there,” Sigthyme said.
“That makes me happy,” Tak smiled a toothy grin.
“I’m just looking forward to a nice bed,” Riffen said.
“Tak doesn’t know what you’re talking about,” Sigthyme comented.
“What do you mean?” Riffen asked.
“Tak has never slept in a real bed,” Sigthyme said.
“What, never?” Riffen, Juniper, and Grace all looked towards Tak.
“Didn’t we meet you two in a tavern?” Grace asked.
“Tak slept in the doorway outside of his room,” Sigthyme laughed.
“Good sleep,” Tak laughed and everyone started to laugh.
Not long after that the group found themselves at an opening in the forest. In front of them was a stone bridge crossing the river. There on the bridge was a bearded man with a fishing rod.
“Hello sir,” Sigthyme waved.
“Hello,” The man said adjusting his spectacles on the end of his nose. He studied the entire group. “Quite a crew you have with you.”
“Yeah we’re a wild bunch,” Sigthyme said with a small laugh. “I was wondering if this is the way towards Augendale.”
“Well before I can tell you that, you must pay the bridge’s toll,” He said.
“Oh I didn’t realize -”
The man laughed.
“I’m just kidding, son,” He said with a smile. “I’m just a simple fisherman. Not a toll taker. The name is Brav Decker.”
Brav reached out his hand.
Sigthyme hoped out of the kart and shook his hand.
“Another short one like me,” Brav said. “Except I have the beard.”
“You’re a Dwarf right?” Riffen asked.
“Riffen! You can’t just ask people about their race,” Sigthyme gave him a glance.
“Oh it’s fine, son,” Brav said. “Yes I’m a Dwarf. And yes this is the way to Augendale. You’ve made it to the Ling River. Augendale is just twenty minutes South of here. You can’t miss it.”
“Thank you so much, Sir,” Juniper gave him a wave.
“No problem, miss,” Brav returned the wave. “May I ask you while you’re traveling to Augendale?”
“It’s kind of personal,” Sigthyme said looking back at the group. “But we’re on our way to Xylon.”
“You’re not enlisting in the Mardrecian Military are you? Or mercenaries?”
“No, nothing like that,” Sigthyme said. “Just some adventurers with their own journeys ahead of them.”
“Very well,” Brav nodded. “Well just know that there is a large military regiment staying in Augendale for the next week. You might want to check in at The Silver Oyster. It’s the local watering hole and inn. Most of their rooms are probably filled, but they might have some left over.”
“Thank you, Brav. You’ve been too kind,” Sigthyme said before jumping back into the cart.
“The pleasure has been all mine,” Brav gave a small bow before returning to his fishing pole.
The group carried on further over the bridge through the last remaining trees of The Ollick Forest.
“Bearded man was nice,” Tak said.
“Yeah a lot better than bandits in the woods,” Grace said.
“Look,” Riffen pointed forward.
There in front of them was a large stone wall that seemed to be worn down and sections were covered in ivy. There was a small clearing between the forest and the wall, but the area was full of saplings and tall grass. Looking up the group could see people wearing military uniforms standing on the wall carrying heavy crossbows. A couple of foot soldiers stood on guard at the gate.
“I thought Brav was joking about the toll takers,” Sigthyme said.
“This isn’t Bishop. Augendale is well protected it seams,” Riffen said.
“But not well maintained,” Juniper noted.
Two people approached the party’s wagon. One was a slender Half-Elven woman and the other was a burly man, bald with a thick beard. They both wore similar armor which matched the guards up top.
“Hault,” The bearded man reached out his arm. “What is your business?”
“Hello,” Sigthyme popped up from the back of the wagon. “We’re just travelers heading to Xylon.”
“Xylon, you say?” The man asked as the Half-Elf began looking around the cart and studying the people.
“And do you have any goods you need to declare?” The man asked.
“No, no we’re not merchants. We’re just a group of adventurers heading to Xylon,” Sigthyme said.
“We have personal business to attend to,” Riffen chimed in.
“Personal business, huh?” The man looked Riffen up and down.
“What’s with this one?” The Half Elf pointed towards Tak.
“Oh that’s just Tak. He’s harmless, I promise,” Sigthyme flashed a smile.
Both the guards looked at each other for a moment and then the bearded man nodded.
“Well it looks like you’re all in the clear. You don’t match the description of any the bandits in these parts. But if you are up to trouble, we will know about it,” He said. “This place is crawling with Mardrecian Army Personnel. We have eyes everywhere.”
“Thanks for the warning,” Sigthyme said with an awkward laugh.
The guards waved them through and they entered the gates. However the warm welcome ended there.
All around them were run down, abandoned buildings. Dozens of them on both sides of the road. Old buildings with broken windows, holes in walls and roofs, and rotten wood. Some had vines growing on the walls.
“What are all of these?” Juniper asked.
“I’m not sure,” Riffen said. “But keep an eye out just in case.”
“There could be people or animals hiding out in the buildings,” Sigthyme said.
“Smash!” Tak raised his hammer.
“Let’s get out of here. It’s giving me the creeps,” Grace said.
“Me too,” Juniper said.
They traveled further in past all the abandoned buildings and saw signs of life. The center of the city was more lively with people moving to and fro. There were many people wearing armor and military outfits. Others looked more like townsfolk.
“Is there some kind of war going on?” Juniper asked. “What’s with all the military people in uniform?”
“Are you afraid of these army members too, Riffen?” Sigthyme asked.
“From the look of this, these look like members of the Mardrec Army. The ones we dealt with in Bishop was members of the Soulan Army,” Riffen said.
“What’s the difference?” Grace asked.
“To summarize a lot of history very quickly, Fendrellion is the name for the entire country we are living in. It is a confederacy made up of three fairly independent regions. To the North-West is the region of Soulan with Frost Haven as its capital. To the North-East is the region of Ohn’serine with Perralyth as its capital. Finally the entire Southern part of Fendrellion is the large region of Mardrec. Xylon acts as its capital as well as the capital of the entire confederacy. We just left Soulan and entered Mardrec,” Riffen explained.
“So you only have problems with the Soulan Army?” Sigthyme asked.
“It’s a long story, but I needed to get out of Soulan until I could retrieve Lillian and bring her back home. That’s why we couldn’t stay in Bishop for long,” Riffen said.
“Well thanks for being up front with us a week later,” Juniper said.
“Can we just find a tavern or something?” Riffen asked.
“Brav did mention that Silver Oyster place. They might have rooms. Let’s check it out first,” Sigthyme said.
The group agreed and made their way down the main street. There on the corner was a large brick building and a sign hanging out front that read “The Silver Oyster.”
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