Chapter 2 | A Fork In The Road

The Petruador Plains.  Plains. 

“There couldn’t be a more appropriate name” said Khalia as the caravan pushed forward.

“Couldn’t be a more appropriate name for what, Khalia?” asked Dack, who was walking just a few steps in front of the 7-foot tall cat-woman.

Had she said that out loud?  It had been an incredibly boring two days since the encounter with the Kobold hunters.  The road looked as if it had been well-traveled, given the deep, wide wagon wheel marks wrought into the road they were on.  Trees were all the same and tall grasses hardly paid any attention to the occasional gentle breeze.  There was little to eat, and practically nothing to look at in this barren wasteland. 

“This place.  The Plains.  They are SOOOO PLAIN!” she whined.

Khalia had traveled these lands with the nomads before ending up in the City of Hay.  Thinking back on it, Hay was not really all that appealing, but given the lack of anything remotely exciting happening now, she would not mind being curled up on the bench in front of that library about now. At least the expressions of the passersby were entertaining.  The food always smelled so good in that market.  While she was usually more inclined to purchase a piece of raw Bullfango and dig right in, the sweet aroma of the same meat, seasoned, roasting over an open fire reminded her of home.  Meal preparation was something of a nightly tradition for Tabaxi.  Dinner would often take hours with many hands helping to create the feast.  The memory was so clear she could practically smell it.

“Everyone, stop” Dack said, raising his left hand up signaling the group.

Vander pulled back on the reins, slowing the horse-drawn wagon he and Zuri had been riding to a halt.  The cart had been hanging back about twenty-five feet from Dack’s position and now stopped overlooking a camp site.  Three of the lizard-dragon-like Kobolds stood around a small campfire, with a make-shift lean-to twenty feet beyond.  The creatures were armed with shoddy bone and stone weapons, clicking, and chirping at one another, clearly excited to partake in this modest feast.

“Looks like more of your friends, Khalia” Dack continued “let’s give them a wide berth and avoid any confrontation like last time.”

Khalia snapped back to reality, but not before her nose picked up the scent of the sweet meat she had just been recalling.  Not more than fifty feet ahead a small group of Kobolds stood around a fire, with a sizable Bullfango roasting over an open flame.  Her eyes grew wide, staring down the tusked pig as the short lizard creatures began slicing off pieces of is seared flesh.  As the one nearest raised a healthy cut of meat to his mouth, a lone spear sailed through the air from across the Kobolds encampment and plunged into its chest.

The Kobold screamed out in agony, though muffled by the blood already filling its lungs.  Khalia watched the small creature drop to its knees, losing the grip on its blade, looking down at the shaft protruding from its chest.  The impaled Kobolds attention quickly turned from the length of the spear to the growly roar from the small collection of trees across from the lean-to.  The quaint structure flew apart beneath the weight of a giant club wielded by the hands of a hulking ten-foot ogre. 

“FOOOOOOOOD” called the white-pinkish hued giant now staring down the roasting Bullfango.

“Dack?” questioned Vander, wondering what they should do next.

“We help them” Dack stated, pulling his glaive from his back, and charged towards the new foe.

“Zuri, take the reins and get us close!” Vander exclaimed, pulling back his sleeves.

With a snap of the leather straps, the horse sprung to life, jerking the wagon into motion, quickly passing Khalia. 

Both remaining Kobolds each took up positions alongside the giant threatening not only their dinner, but their lives.  The first Kobold, hissed at the monster in front of him and drew up his make-shift spear of bone and stone and jabbed unsuccessfully at the ogre.  His still-standing companion, looking up at the giant swung with a rusted rapier, again to no avail.  The ogre, seeing these small creatures flailing laughed out loud as he raised his giant club.

Zuri managed to get the wagon within 30 feet of the attacking ogre, and slowed just enough for Vander to leap down and face the direction of the overwhelmingly one-sided battle.  Vander removed a small bit of butter from his component bag, rubbing it between his fingers.

“Deturpant!” he exclaimed making a tossing gesture towards the ogre.

As the word left his lips a slick puddle of grease appeared beneath the hulking masses feet.  Dack now fully sprinting past Vander weapon outreached called out to the ogre to draw his attention away from the Kobolds. 

“YAAAAAAAA!!!” hollered Dack, as he locked eyes with his opponent.

The ogre, whose attention was now on Dack shifted its balance in the greasy mess beneath its feet, only to slip and fall heavily on its back.  Dack, now within striking distance leapt into the air spinning a full 360 degrees and coming down on the beast’s muscular left thigh, slicing deeply.  The ogre called out in pain, though Dack’s attack continued spinning the ten-foot-long glaive around and striking the ogre’s face with the butt of his weapon, knocking loose a tooth.

Enraged, the ogre climbed back to his feet, still in the greasy puddle, eyes wide, its club once again raised above its head.  With brute strength it brought the club down upon the rapier-holding Kobold with bone-shattering force.  Dack winced hearing the poor creatures’ insides fall victim to the blunt-force trauma just inflicted.  The small humanoid crumpled to the ground, dropping his weapon, lying motionless.  Watching the infuriated giant throw all his weight into the swing, Dack took the opportunity to swing the blunt side of his glaive beneath the ogre’s feet, once again up ending the beast onto his back, and giving the remaining Kobold room to back away.  As Dack watched the beast fall, he followed through with another spin of his body and glaive, striking once again, slicing into the creature’s belly.

Vander, seeing an opportunity moved in closer to the fallen ogre.

“Tactum!” his hand outstretched.

A ghostly translucent hand appeared and grasped around the ogre’s neck as Vander clenched his own fist.  On contact, the ogre’s white-pinkish-hued flesh greyed and withered as if it’s very lifeforce was being drained by the spectral fingers.

Khalia, initially having followed Dack’s approach had slowed as she approached the fire where Bullfangos were roasting.  The sweet smell of cooked meat again taking her away from the fight at hand, bringing her back the honored traditions of her village.  The bone-spear-wielding Kobold, noticing her approach now distanced from ogre, weapon still at the ready, kept his attention between his fallen comrades and the 7’ cat.

“Thurirl?” it hissed in Draconic.

“Yes.  Thurirl.  Friend.  We are friends.  Thurirl.” She responded, her eyes moving between the small dragon-like creature and the roasting bullfango.

“FFF-REEEND.  FFFFFFREENNDDD.” he responded back in a growly hiss.

Khalia, rapier in hand swiftly cut a chunk of the bullfango from the spit and tossed it to her newfound friend, followed by a cut for herself.  The small creature looked back one last time at the scene of his fallen brethren, then back to Khalia.

“THURIRL!  FFFFFREEENDDD” he hissed again, before turning and taking off into the wooded area beyond the lean-to. 

“Um, bye I guess?” replied Khalia, chomping into the bullfango flesh she had just cut.

“RRRRAAAAAAAAAHHHH!” screamed the exasperated ogre, once again climbing back to its feet, the grey patch beneath the ghostly hand expanding like vines beneath his skin.

The ogres club connected with Dack’s right shoulder, sending a shockwave of searing pain both up Dack’s neck and down through his right arm.  Clenching his teeth, Dack gripped his weapon tightly, bringing its massive blade down across the ogre’s chest, opening a large 12” gash, followed by a strike beneath the creature jaw using the blunt end.  Bewildered and looking uncertain on its feet, Dack wasted no time spinning his glaive back around and plunging it deep into the fiend’s chest.  With one final move, Dack ripped the mighty blade back out of the ogre’s ruined body.  A gasp of blood, and the beast fell to the ground beside the fallen Kobolds.

“Dack, are you alright?!” Vander shouted as he made his way over to his friend.

“Yes.  It’s over Vander.  I’m only sorry we couldn’t save these creatures.”

“We did everything we could, Dack.”

“Oh my you guys.  You have GOT to try this meat.” Called out Khalia, still snacking on the bullfango meat beside the fire.  “I’m also pretty sure I made a friend.”

Dack and Vander looked at one another with a combination of surprise and disbelief of this indecorous member of their band. 

“Is she serious?” Dack asked Vander, rubbing his throbbing shoulder.

“I think it’s her way.  Maybe it’s a Tabaxi thing?  She seems to have trouble with focusing.  I’m only glad you’re okay.”

“We should keep moving.” Said Dack, wiping the blood from his blade.

.

“There’s a sign up ahead” Dack called back to Zuri and Vander in the wagon.

A six-foot-tall weather-beaten post stood just off the road, which split into three directions.  The top wooden chiseled sign read Port City of Caister 50mi, appeared to lead on their current path.  The second sign, pointed to the first fork, Tynemouth 100mi NW.  The third sign, changing direction significantly North from their current path read City of Bury 200mi.  The bottom most sign read The Water & Pigkeeper Inn 10mi, also in the direction of Tynemouth.

Dack looked around at the landscape.  Trees had become a bit sparser than earlier in the day, and finding a secluded, and more importantly, defendable camp site was likely going to be a challenge here.  It was also getting late in the day.  He had his heart set on journeying directly North to Bury.  If that was where he could prove his strength and skill, that was where he was going to go.  He looked at Khalia about ten feet to his right.  She would likely go anywhere at this point if there was something to eat and something to do.  He looked back at the wagon where Zuri and Vander sat looking at the sign.  Vander was his responsibility, and while he was ready for a fight, he was going to make sure his friend was safe.  As far as Zuri was concerned, he was not really sure what her story was.  She kept mostly to herself and seemed standoffish most of the time.  Vander seemed to think highly of her, so Dack would trust his friend’s judgement.

“What do you think?” he said.

“It looks like we don’t have a lot of daylight left.  We have been traveling for several days now, and while I think we could make it to Bury, it might be best to get some indoor rest and re-stock supplies in Tynemouth” Vander responded from his seat in the wagon. 

“I know I wouldn’t mind a night in an actual bed” Zuri chimed in.

“The Water and Pig Kepper Inn?  They MUST have something great to eat in a place like that!” exclaimed Khalia.

“We stop at the Inn and head to Tynemouth” stated Dack, trying to contain his disappointment.

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A few hours later, the sun setting, a black horse with saddle bags is tied up outside a small wooden building with a short porch and painted sign declaring The Water & Pig Keeper Inn.  Smoke billows out of a stone chimney off the side of the inn, and a warm glow shines through two small windows on either side of the front door.

“Well, this certainly looks inviting” stated Vander, clearly excited and leading the way inside.

A brightly glowing fire burned warmly to the far right of the interior.  A black and brown bear skin rug sits underneath a large candle lit chandelier.  Tables decorate the interior, and a small service bar sits at the left side of the room.  A set of stairs located at the back of the building lead up to a second floor.  A short, stalky, big-nosed patron seated enjoying an ale in a simple wooden stein.  His hair disheveled and looked lost in thought, not paying attention to the incoming group.    Another man sitting behind the bar sat reading a brown leather-bound book. The fifty-something year old man, in good shape with slightly thinning hair and kind eyes looked up at the party as they made their way inside. 

“Good evening, friends!  My name is Everlen.  Everlen Roric” stated the man kindly, looking wide-eyed at Khalia.  “Can I interest you in a drink?  Are you looking for accommodations for the night?”

“We would like both, actually” replied Vander.

“and something to eat!” called Khalia.

“Well then, make yourselves comfortable and I will bring a round of ales, and something to eat” stated the inn keeper, still eyeing the 7’ cat-woman.

“Thank you, kindly” responded Vander, putting his noble upbringing pleasantries to work as the group settled around one of the larger tables.

“I built this place a long time ago off the main trade routes to accommodate travelers” continued Everlen while pouring ales from a large wooden cask set back behind the bar.  “In fact, there were two headed North to Tynemouth that left earlier today.”

Everlen paused for a moment, then frowned.

“They didn’t look too good actually.  Skin tone was all wrong.  They insisted they were just weary from travel.  Speaking of which, where are you folks headed, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“Well, we’re headed North in general.  As unhinged as it might sound, we are all looking for some excitement… perhaps come into some adventure”  replied Vander as the inn keeper set down ales in front of each of his guests.

“Adventure…” trailed Everlen, seemingly suddenly distracted.  “My son Ryan.  He helped me run this inn for years but began to grow bored as he grew into a man.  He had no interest in serving strangers and listening to their tails anymore.  He wanted to live his own.”

“Where is your son now?” questioned Dack.

“He headed North to Tynemouth and planned to make his way as far as Bury.”

“PIRATES UP IN THOSE PARTS!” shouted out the big-nosed patron from the bar.

“Nonsense, Eric. They are fierce and cunning, yes, but you must be in those elements.  Not pirates.  My boy Ryan was a strong man, but he hasn’t returned in nearly a year.  I am afraid I fear the worst.”

“This will be my third time making this trek from Caister to Bury as currier, Everlyn.  They’re rough and they’re rowdy, and quite honestly, I don’t think I care to make the trip again.  They can find someone else who is better built for thugs.  It is not worth the gold.  It’s definitely not worth the cold.  If I had my druthers, I’d make my way to one of the Isles of Esnela and live the good life.  Wine and warm weather.”

Everlen sighed and turned his attention back to the party.

“Since you folks are planning on making the trip, you should definitely stop in Tynemouth.  As Eric over there mentioned, it does get extremely cold in those parts” Everlen continued, lowering his voice and becoming quite serious “Could I ask a favor of you?  If you do encounter my boy Ryan, would you please let him know I miss him, and would love to see him again?”

“You can be sure of it” replied Vander honestly.

Everlen’s concerned look returned to a smile.

“Now, let me get you something to eat!” he said, making his way behind the bar and into the kitchen.

“You young kids listen to good advice.  You should stay clear of that wasteland.  Adventure is a fool’s errand” stated Eric from his seat at the bar, clearly beginning to feel the effects of his beverages.

Vander leaned into the table and encouraged the rest of the group to follow his lead as he whispered.

“What do you think about offering to deliver this man’s mail for him?  We are headed to Tynemouth anyway, and we have decided that we will continue to Bury.  It sounds like we’re going to need some additional money once we get there.”

“So, we offer to carry out the rest of his work?” asked Zuri.

“We make friends, and maybe make some connections in Tynemouth as a result” replied Vander.

“I agree” commented Dack.

“WHERE is this guy with our dinner?” blurted Khalia.

“Do your people just eat constantly, Khalia?” asked Vander.

“Well, I eat constantly.”

Vander turned his attention back to the bar patron.

“Excuse me, sir” he started “Eric, was it?  I wonder if we might be of service.  While I can appreciate your candor, it is likely my friends and I will be headed to Tynemouth and then to Bury.  I wonder if we might work out an arrangement with you and your mail?”

The sloppily dressed bar patron made his way across the room to the table, with a few extra steps in between.

“What are you talking about, boy?” he slurred.

“My friends and I would be happy to deliver your mail to both Tynemouth and Bury, for perhaps, 20 gold pieces?”

The smell of several ales lingered around the man’s face as he leaned down close to Vander’s.  Eric reached into his pocket and pulled out a bag of coins and dropped it on the table. 

“The bagsss are on my horse.  Thisss ssshould be enough.  Talk to the girlll at the Eager Crier.  She’lll know what to do.”

“Thank you, sir, we will be sure your mail is delivered” responded Vander, doing his best to tolerate the overwhelming smell of stale breath.

“aaand another thing.  Thisss never happened” snorted Eric as he pushed himself up from the table and stumbled across the room to the stairs.

“Is this the adventure and excitement you were looking for?” asked Zuri between Vander and Dack.  “Delivering a drunk man’s mail?”

“I think somewhere between fighting an ogre and delivering mail” Vander said happily.

“I will retrieve his mail bag” commented Dack, getting up from the table.

Moments later Everlen returned with platters of assorted cooked meats and a smattering of vegetables.

“I trust Eric made his way to his room and won’t be bothering you the rest of the evening?”

“He did.  We would definitely like a couple of rooms for the night” responded Vander.

“Excellent.  Please let me know if there is anything else I can do for you tonight.  No charge for the rooms, or for dinner.  Consider them an act of faith and gratefulness for seeing my son’s way home to me.”

“We will do our best, Everlen.  Thank you for your hospitality” said Vander as Dack returned with Eric’s mail satchel.

As Everlen moved back behind the bar to begin cleaning up for the night, Vander turned to Dack, now seated at the table once again.

“Well, my friend, it looks like we have an adventure ahead of us.”

.

Zuri could not remember the last time she had enjoyed fresh fruit.  Between Khalia’s incessant need for meat, raw or otherwise, and the lack of fruit and vegetables during their journey, she was becoming irritable.  The meager pickings at last night’s dinner were better than nothing, but it was not enough.  Vander had invited her to play Dragon Chess after dinner and talk.  Zuri recalled that the game lasted about fifteen minutes.  Either the sound of Vander’s voice had been grating or the fact that she could not concentrate to make a decent move caused her to flip the board and just go to bed.  This had made for an awkward start to the day, and she had decided to walk ahead with Dack instead of sitting beside Vander in the horse-drawn wagon.

“Looks like we have company” said Dack, pulling Zuri from her thoughts.

Up ahead two horses slowly trudged up the well-worn dirt road, pulling a weighed-down cart.  The cart itself contained three large wooden wine casks, with an assortment of traveling supplies, pans and tenting materials strapped to the sides.  The wagon looked to be in good condition, undamaged, but oddly slow.

“There may be trouble.  It looks like the driver is slumped in his seat” Zuri replied.  “Khalia and I will scout ahead and take a look.”

Dack quietly removed his glaive from his back and stiffened up his posture as the two women quietly drew closer to the mysterious traveler.  Zuri gestured to Khalia to make her way up on the right of the wagon while she crept up on the left.  As Zuri approached the driver’s side of the wagon, it became obvious the driver was likely no longer alive.  It was a human male, approximately in his mid-30’s, with a grey-ish dis-colored splotches beneath his skin.  A dagger and short sword hung at his side, but there did not appear to be any physical damage to the man.  Beside him sat a passenger, around the same age, also with similar decaying splotches beneath his skin.  The passenger held an empty tin cup in his right hand, laced with a bit of dried blood, and a parchment reading cargo manifest in his left.  A rolled-up map sat between the two bodies, tied with twine.  Beneath the seat rested a small chest bolted to the wagon itself, with a small keyhole.  To Zuri’s surprise, Khalia jumped into the wagon’s front seat and began rummaging through the clothes of the dead passenger.

“Khalia!  What are you doing?!”

“I’m checking for wounds.  They’re obviously dead, and probably won’t mind!”

Zuri grabbed the reins of the meandering horses and pulled back to bring them to a stop.  Looking back, she gestured to Dack to stop and stay put.  Following Khalia’s lead, Zuri patted down the deceased driver.  Some assorted copper, silver and gold pieces in his left pocket, and a small iron key around his neck.  Behind the driver sat a short-bow and quiver of arrows, seemingly untouched.  The cargo of wine barrels and traveling supplies also appeared to be intact.  Each of the wine barrel headers was imprinted with Esnela Red, presumably indicating their contents.

“This doesn’t make any sense.  No struggle.  They just look like they died” commented Khalia.

“Did you find anything on him?” Zuri asked Khalia, as she gestured towards the passenger.

“Some gold and silver, a pouch of these little round pellets…and this paperwork.”

Zuri took the paperwork and began to look it over.  An acquisition form and bill of sale for Derrek Milea provisions.

“We should let Vander and Dack know what we found” said Zuri as she stepped down off the cart.

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“I just want to apologize for last night, Vander.  I didn’t mean to take it out on you.”

Zuri was sitting beside Vander again, riding behind the cart that Khalia and Dack were in.  After a bit of deliberation, the group decided it would be good to see that the cart at the very least be delivered to Tynemouth, which was the second stop on the manifest, followed by Bury.  Apparently, the late cargo carriers were meant to deliver some of the wine to Tynemouth, pick up 20 yards of wool at Shorn and Sheared Co., 20 yards of wolven hide at Dern Lyer Supplies before heading to pick up and deliver items in the City of Bury.  If it were not for the two dead men they found, Zuri would find this amusing.  The group of adventurers setting out to find excitement end up delivering parcels and packages around the world.  Terrific.

“I’m not worried about it as much as I am worried about you.  I know you aren’t entirely comfortable with everything going on, and I know it’s been tough without your usual diet” Vander replied “but I do want you to know I was going to have you in check within two moves.”

Zuri rolled her eyes but managed a quick smile at Vander.  Smart enough to win all the time, but not smart enough to keep quiet about it.  He could be insufferable, but he had a charm that helped keep things grounded during their travels.  Vander was a stark contrast to his friend Dack, who seemed a little too eager to run into a fight and had few things to say.  Zuri smiled at the idea of Dack and Khalia riding together in the newly acquired cart, Khalia chatting his ear off.

“So Dack, how do you know if a sword is a really good sword or just an ordinary one?” questioned Khalia.

Dack took a deep breath and tried to collect his thoughts to respond.  The group had decided to see this cart to its destination and decided he and Khalia should sit together.  She had been asking questions and making observations since he took the reins.  While he appreciated her inquisitive nature and enjoyed being indulged about his knowledge of weaponry, combat, and armor, even he had his limits.  They were about to find a spot to camp for the night, which also meant they would be burying the two former owners of the cart. 

“There are four key components to look for Khalia.  A sword’s hardness, its ability to retain its shape under resistance.  It’s strength, which is sometimes confused with hardness, refers to the sword’s structural integrity under stress.  Next, you have the sword’s flexibility, which…”

“Oh wow, that looks like a great camp site!” interrupted Khalia, pointing at a spot just off the road.

Finally, thought Dack, pulling off the road and heading towards the clearing.  The tree coverage and open space to the road would make for a great camp site.  Defendable, with the ability to get back on the road quickly if necessary.  It had been an exceptionally long day, and it wasn’t over.

“Khalia, once we stop will you help me bury these poor souls?” Dack asked.

“Oh, I thought I’d help break out rations and then…”

“Great!  Perfect.  I can handle it myself.” Dack interrupted, relieved.

Vander directed their wagon to follow Dack’s lead.  After securing the horses, everyone went about their business unloading, setting up camp and preparing for the evening.  Firelight began to dance across the wagons just as Dack finished burying the two bodies they had encountered in the cart earlier in the day.  He made his way over to the fire and took a seat alongside Vander, who had been looking uneasy since they stopped.

“Are you alright my friend?” he asked.

“Yes.  Yes, I am fine.  Thanks for asking Dack.  I’ve felt a little uneasiness all day.”

“Well, that’s expected, given what we came across today.”

“I wish I could say that’s what it is.  Something has been bothering me all day and I can’t seem to put my finger on it.  I’ve been thinking about leaving home, and wondering if we made the right choice.”

We’ve known each other since we were kids, Vander, and we both know the lives we would live if we had stayed behind” said Dack.  “I don’t know what I was expecting, but I know I am seeing the world, alongside a good friend.  For the first time in my life, I am genuinely excited for the future.  That said, I know we could all use a bit of rest.”

“You’re right.  I may see if Zuri would like to try her hand at a rematch tonight unless you’re interested in a game of Dragon Chess?”

“Good night my friend” said Dack with a grin.

“Good night, Dack.”

.

Dack’s eyes opened suddenly.  The night was damp, and there was a heavy fog lying low across the ground.  The fire had faded to a handful of red coals, and there was just enough moonlight to make out each of his companions.  Khalia was snoring (or perhaps purring) loudly, curled up near what was left of the embers.  Zuri seemed unmoving, though Dack suspected she might also be lying there awake like he was.  Dack turned his attention to Vander, who seemed extremely restless, tossing around.  It almost sounded like some kind of chant he had heard years back, when Dack thought maybe he would have the opportunity to learn the arcane arts.

“Wait, that’s” Dack began to say aloud, realizing what the chant was.

Suddenly a blast of green energy erupted from Vander’s resting spot, passing through everything around him.  Dack felt a sudden wave of hurt from the impact, like an unexpected punch to the midsection.  Watching the energy fade, it was apparent he was not alone as Zuri and Khalia both sprung to life, also doubled over by the sudden impact.  Vander was now upright, breathing heavily and speaking incoherently.  Dack focused on the task at hand.

“Vander, are you alright?  Zuri?  Khalia?  Did you all feel that?”

“It felt like a punch to the gut!” called out Zuri.

“What the heck WAS that?!” asked Khalia, tail twitching wildly.

Dack made his way to Vander quickly and took the stunned man by the shoulders, forcing him to look Dack in the eye.

“Vander?!  Are you alright?!”

“Yes.  I think so.  What happened?”

“You just shot some kind of energy wave out and it felt like we got sucker punched” Dack responded.

“Really?  I was just dreaming about my parents… and my cat, Chipper.  Well, former cat.  It was terrible, reliving that experience.”

“What experience, Vander?” asked Zuri, concerned.

“I had a wonderful pet that had been in the family for a number of years, even before I was born.  His name was Chipper, and he was the greatest cat.  He followed me everywhere as a child.  He passed away around my sixth birthday.  I missed that cat.”

“I’m sorry Vander” said Zuri.

“That actually wasn’t the worst of it.  About a year later, my parents had started my training in the arcane arts.  Dack, you remember?  We were in school together for a while.”

Dack nodded in confirmation. 

“I was thinking about that cat.  I was missing him and, well, somehow we were sitting at dinner and I summoned him back.”

“Oh wow.  You brought your cat back to life?” asked Khalia, tail twitching and intrigued.

“Not exactly.  He came back, but he was, well, just his skeleton.”

“Are you serious?  What happened?” asked Zuri, horrified.

“My parents were terribly upset.  It appeared on the dining room table and seemed to recognize me immediately.  At least, right before my father smashed the bones with an iron kitchen pan.  It crumpled and that was the end of it.  Needless to say, they were unimpressed with my training.  It was awful.  It’s been awful ever since.  Nothing seems to go exactly the way I want it to.”

“That grease spell came in pretty handy the other day” offered Dack.

A sudden noise of ruffling around came from Vander’s pack at the end of his sleeping bag.  It was obvious a small creature had managed to get inside and was rummaging around, knocking around Dragon Chess pieces and Vander’s drinking cup.  Dack slowly stood up and quickly grabbed one of his spears, preparing to jab at Vander’s pack.

“Vander, you open the pack, and I’ll be ready to get whatever is in there” whispered Dack.

Very slowly, Vander moved over to his pack, looking back at Dack to be sure he was ready.  As Dack nodded, Vander opened the top flap and a small bony creature leapt from inside into Vander’s arms.  Dack jumped back but tightened his grip on the spear. 

Vander’s eyes, wide with surprise focused down at the small creature in his lap.

“Chipper!” he exclaimed.

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