It was about 9 o’clock in the morning when Zuri made her way into the market square to setup in her usual spot. The street was already bustling with activity as the morning sun warmed her soft fair skin. Music filled the streets and mother’s called after children to stay close-by as they shopped. Zuri continued towards the center of the city. The meat vendor already had a half dozen fresh cuts hanging from his cart’s old wooden overhang as she made her way by.
“I could definitely go without that smell first thing in the morning” she muttered under her breath as she dug her quarterstaff firmly into the ground and picked up her pace.
Zuri noticed mostly familiar faces walking around today as she made her way through the busy dusty street and took a space beside her favorite fruit vendors. She set down her pack and pulled back her long brown hair from her face, scanning the crowd. It had been six months since she left her home in the mountains, and she was beginning to lose hope. She had planned on making some money along the way as she traveled and to find some information about her heritage; in particular, her father Tomás’ whereabouts. He was going to have some hard questions to answer once she found him, that much was certain.
“Good morning, Zuri!” called the man behind the fruit. “That’s a beautiful dress you have on this morning.”
Zuri looked down at the flowing red dress which was broken up by patches of yellow and white. She had sewn it together the night before using some fabric purchased in the market a week before. The colors matched the grip on her quarterstaff, which gave her a certain sense of peace.
“Thank you, Samuel” she said walking over to his cart. “Have you got any of those pears I like today?”
He smiled and took out a yellow pear from a stash behind the cart.
“In fact, I do, young one!”
Ordinarily, Zuri would have taken offense to being referred to as young one had it been anyone else. Having witnessed her own father kill her mother in cold blood, escaping to the mountains and spending the better part of her teenage years training with a Drow in caves had left her feeling like she had already lived a lifetime and had no desire to be patronized simply because she was not yet 20 years old. Samuel, however, was simply a kind soul who took an interest in people. He was genuine and she was happy to have had that in her life these past few months.
“Samuel, you are fantastic. Thank you” Zuri said as she reached over to collect the fruit and hand him a piece of copper.
“Keep your money, this one is on me” he stated warmly. “And I told you, you can call me Sam!”
Zuri allowed herself a short smile “Thank you, Sam.”
Zuri turned and walked back to her pack, taking a bite out of the fresh fruit. It was slightly tart and had a crisp bite to it. Just what she needed to get moving.
“Well let’s see what today brings” she said to herself, pulling her money bag out and setting it in front of her space. She leaned down to pick up her quarterstaff and took another bite of the pear. Street performers were treated well here, which is probably why she had stuck around this long. For the onlookers, her performance was a series of quick twists, turns and spins allowing her clothes to float around in a flurry of colors. These observers would throw copper pieces into her bag as she would spin and swing her quarterstaff with deliberate intent, clapping at her prowess. For Zuri, of course, it was a day spent practicing her technique, and each simulated strike was meant to connect with the man she vowed to take revenge upon. If that was entertainment for some, so be it.
As Zuri turned to face the street and took another bite from her pear, she was pulled from her thoughts by a most peculiar sight. Across the street was a small cluster of buildings, including the City of Hay Library. Zuri had been there once or twice to look up family histories but hadn’t really ever noticed the wooden posts that supported an outdoor bench. She was quite aware of them now, however, as she looked on to see a large humanoid cat brushing its face against the post.
Zuri, along with half the street looked on as the black with brown-stripes cat-person seemingly shrunk into a huddled position, eyes closed in the warm sun. Zuri realized suddenly that she had been staring and frowned. She of all people should know better than to gawk at an unusual appearance. Zuri took one last bite of her pear, picked up her money bag and made her way across to the curious cat person.
“Liverworts, Brown Moss, Basil Root and of course don’t forget Poly Pods. Mr. Drangleic, are you listening?”
The room had been home for practically half of Vander’s life. It was littered with parchment, books about the world, creatures, and of course, spells and scrolls. While most other educational facilities in Don Mov were designed to be brightly lit and taking advantage of the warm sea breeze, this one was kept mysteriously dark. The professor, while an educated and logical man, had romantic notions of dark cellars where wizards and warlocks of years past would scribe their spells into books and onto scrolls, endlessly toiling in ancient texts and lore with not but a candle. The professor would insist his students appreciate and learn to adapt and create by candlelight, should they ever find themselves in a dark dungeon far beneath a perilous ancient Keep. Silly notions of an old man, many would say, but there was something enticing about a thrilling adventure that kept Vander working diligently, often throughout the night. Vander suddenly realized he had drifted off instead of taking notes.
“Sorry professor, I’m listening.”
“You are still troubled by some of the unusual outcomes of your spellcasting.”
Vander looked up from his parchment where he had just finished scribbling down his professors list of supplies. He had been lost in thought over his last attempt at the Mage Hand cantrip, which, like every other time did exactly what it should have, with the exception that instead of a soft translucent fleshy hand, was instead, a skeleton hand.
“I wouldn’t mind it so much except it’s a bit unnerving for those around me” Vander said glumly “particularly my parents. I feel like I have let you down professor Green.”
“Vander, you have been a most excellent pupil. You have studied and practiced harder than anyone else in your class. Therefore, I know I can trust you to know the difference between Funariidae moss and Brown Moss, and why you are the one entrusted to make the trip to Hay for them.”
“I realize that professor. Your faith in me is appreciated.”
“I have taught you everything I can. You have learned all that you can learn here in Don Mov. To truly grow in the arcane arts, you must experience the world outside of traditional schooling. Taking what you have learned here, continuing your studies, and applying them will take you further than you can imagine today.”
Professor Green offers Vander a money pouch and places a hand on his shoulder.
“My boy, I have several students as you know. A few of them have been able to execute their craft with precision and exactness even before they became my students. While this is admirable, I know when I look at you, that you are destined for greatness.”
Vander smiled at his professor’s kind words. Professor Green had always been something of a second father to Vander. Given Vander’s own father’s constant disappointment, it made the patience and encouragement of the professor that much more meaningful.
“I will be sure it’s Brown Moss, professor Green.”
The professor gives Vander’s shoulder a small squeeze and his eyes look past at a tall figure standing in the doorway to the classroom.
“And I trust you will be keeping this one company along the journey to the City of Hay, Mr. Fayden.”
Vander turned from the professor to face the blue-eyed, blond-haired figure.
“Dack! We’re headed for spell supplies in Hay, not for battle” Vander continued in a joking tone.
Dack looked down at his chain-link shirt and steel bracers, then back up at Vander and professor Green.
“Oh, is it this?” Dack said slyly pointing to the glaive strapped to his back.
Vander had known Dack for nearly their entire lives, and both admired and pitied his friend. Dack had been alongside Vander in his adolescent years attempting to learn the arcane arts. Dack’s entire lineage was that of spellcasters, including both of his parents and his sisters. He spent every waking moment trying to learn and study with Vander, but without much success. It became apparent that despite his desire to follow the family path, his brute strength, size, and skill with a blade were ultimately his first, best destiny. The man he had become was kind, thoughtful and chivalrous, but he still lacked certain social graces, for example, carrying a long-bladed weapon into a classroom. Vander smiled at the absurdity of the scene.
“I was just getting the list of supplies from professor Green and was planning on heading out to Hay this morning. Are you still planning on accompanying me on the trip?”
“As a former pupil of mine” stated the professor “I do expect you to look after him and trust you do in fact know how to wield that piece of steel you have there.”
Dack’s grin is replaced with the sternness of a military general and his body stiffened.
“Vander will have my blade, should the need ever arise, Professor.”
The professor smiled looking on at the two men he had known since their childhood. While he was unable to guide Dack as a spellcaster, he still felt a sense of pride in the man.
“That will be all, then.” Professor Green said kindly as he turned to Vander. “My boy, this will be your final trip to Hay for supplies. I will be away upon your return here and ask that you please restock our cabinets when you return. The cart, however, you may keep.”
Vander’s eyes opened widely and before he could protest the professor continued.
“You have a journey ahead of you. Consider it a thank-you for the dedication you have had as my student. I would encourage you to seek out new opportunities and continue to practice what you have learned these past 10 years. Your future is bright, “continued Professor Green, looking back at Dack “and judging by the company you keep, looks full of adventure.”
“Thank you, Professor Green.”
Vander turned back to a more at-ease Dack “If you’re ready, I’m ready. I sent Viola and my parents a letter letting them know you would be accompanying me to Hay for supplies and that we would send message to them once we determined what is next for us.”
“I will follow your lead, Vander.” Said Dack kindly, opening the door for Vander’s exit.
Vander nods to the professor one last time before turning to pick up his spell book and heading to the doorway. “Be well, professor. And thank you.”
“I am so bored. Can we at least change spots?”
Zuri looked at the black and brown striped Khalia with a sense of both frustration and amusement. They had become friends since their first encounter a few weeks before outside the City of Hay Library, though an unlikely pair. Zuri’s desire for order, simplicity and love of fresh fruit was a stark contrast to Khalia’s chaotic nature, random interests and perhaps most disturbing, love of fresh raw meat. Still, Zuri thought watching Khalia swat at her own tail, she has been by far the most interesting being she has encountered to date.
Khalia had been traveling for some time with the Nomads of Trent; a patchwork of humans, elves, and apparently this lone Tabaxi, as her race was called. This Catfolk race lived somewhere in the forests North of Q’Thad, and according to Khalia, she was told by her mentor, Omega, she had the gift of curiosity. These were a few of the details Zuri had been able to learn in the past few weeks. At some point the ‘gift’ apparently lead her away from the nomadic group to the streets of Hay, where she continues to be a spectacle for most who have never encountered a nearly 7’ cat-person.
“What are you looking at?” said Zuri, narrowing her eyes at a passing marketgoer as they turned their stare away from the cat woman and her twitching tail.
Staring and pointing was common whenever newcomers would get a view of Khalia for the first time. Given Zuri’s own background, she felt a certain sense of obligation to stand up for her nonchalant companion. Of course, seeing the rapier and short sword hanging from Khalia’s waist likely meant she would be simply fine in a fight if it came to that. If anything, Zuri was more concerned a fight might break out simply because of a misunderstood expression from her feline friend. After all, a cat, even a humanoid cat cannot really express a smile. To say a cat-person showing its teeth, smiling or not, was a little unsettling was an understatement. Since that first day, however, Zuri had managed to look and listen for the subtleties of Khalia’s tail movements, purring and the occasional hissing. Watching her swat at her own tail right now did mean only one thing. She is SO bored.
The sound of two pieces hitting the inside of her coin bag brought Zuri back to the present. Looking down in the bag she saw two gold pieces: something unheard of even in this fine market.
“What’s a guy need to do to get some entertainment in this market?”
Zuri’s eyes lifted to meet the gaze of two purple eyes, half-covered by brown locks of hair. His attire was, what Zuri would consider a nobleman making his best effort to be a humble commoner. Double-breasted buttoned vest with a double-stitched brown leather knee-length jacket, holding a leatherbound book in his left hand, which of course was decorated by a shiny ring.
“Vander! You’ve returned!” exclaimed Zuri as she embraced him in a hug.
As Zuri released Vander from her affection, behind him stood a broad-shouldered stern-looking man, looking somewhat out of place with his chain-mail shirt and steel bracers. Further, she realized like many, he could not take his eyes off of Khalia. Zuri’s eyes narrowed.
“She’s Tabaxi. They’re cat-people from the forests North of the mountains.”
Before Zuri managed to finish this brief description of her new friend, Khalia had managed to stealthily make her way on all fours beside Vander and put a paw-hand out pointing at the ring on his finger.
“What is THAT?!” she exclaimed.
Taking a half-step back, Vander responded “It’s a ring.”
“What does it DO?!”
“Well, for the most part it looks nice, but it also plays a roll in my spell casting on occasion.”
Khalia’s eyes dart from Vander’s ring up to Dack, who stands motionless observing her. Khalia stands up and tries to stand as tall as Dack, her eyes wide and tail twitching wildly.
“and who is THIS GUY?!”
Dack, noticing the rapier and short sword hanging from her waistline straightens up even further, not knowing what might come next.
“Dack Trevor Fayden, ma’am” he responded matter-of-factly.
Khalia draws closer to Dack, her whiskers and ears twitching. Khalia begins to purr softly before suddenly showing off her shiny pointy teeth inches before Dack’s face. If not for everyone’s attention on Dack, his minute movement back from the Tabaxi would have gone unnoticed.
Khalia’s big cat eyes blinked as she leaned in and whispered “Made you flinch!”
Zuri turned back to Vander, amused by her friend’s playfulness “Vander, are you back for supplies again? So soon?”
“Yes, actually. The professor is taking on a new set of students in a couple of weeks and wanted to be sure he had enough to carry them through the semester. I am no longer going to be under his tutelage, and he asked me to take one final trip before someone else assumes the responsibilities.”
“Oh, I see! You’re an official wizard of Don Mov fame now, then?”
esponded Zuri, trying to keep her focus on Vander as Khalia continues to examine the tall man and his armor.
“Who’s your friend here?”
“This is Dack, one of my oldest friends. I have spoken of him on occasion before. He has been attending Don Mov and has become quite the strategist and from what I know, rather good in a fight. I was hoping to see you here on this last visit to Hay. On our journey here, we talked about what we’re going to do once we’ve returned to Don Mov with supplies.”
“Expecting a fight in Hay?” Zuri said with a smile, looking over Vander’s shoulder at Khalia, still pawing over Dack.
“The truth is, we are done with schooling, and neither of us feels ready to return home just yet. I know I have told you about how my parents feel about my abilities, and well, Dack has a similar situation. We’re both looking to roll up our sleeves and make a name for ourselves.”
Zuri, even more amused “The Noble is going to roll up his sleeves and get dirty?”
“I can appreciate that sentiment” Vander continued “I guess we both need to figure out who we are. Get some answers.”
Zuri’s smile faded at Vander’s words. After over six months here in the City of Hay, she had come no closer to her own answers. Perhaps it was time to make a change. Her mentor always encouraged her to look for opportunities, and when they presented themselves, strike. While Zuri knew this was about fighting technique, it was also meant as a life lesson. She had met Vander when she first arrived and had gotten to know him over his subsequent visits. He was a good man, albeit naïve at times. This was an opportunity.
“Is there any chance I might join you?” Zuri asked a bit more loudly than she intended.
“You want to leave Hay with us?”
“There’s nothing for me here, and I’m no closer to answers than it sounds like you or your friend Dack are.”
Vander turned to see Dack still fending off Khalia’s questions and paws as best he could.
“What do you think Dack? Zuri has become a good friend here.”
Dack, thrilled at the opportunity to break from his current situation stepped closer to Vander.
“Strength in numbers. We have plenty of room.”
“FINALLY, we’re DOING something!” calls out Khalia moving back beside Zuri.
Zuri turned to Vander with a grimace and a half-shrug.
“Well, it looks like we have quite the band of misfits here” said Vander with a wary smile. “We’ll gather some additional supplies and head back to Don Mov.”
“WHAT THEN?!” exclaimed Khalia, tail twitching wildly.
“I suppose then, we head North.”
He had waited for this moment for his entire life. The thrill of the unknown, the excitement of the encounter. The sky was a crisp clear blue. The grass smelled sweet. Even the dirt was rich as he dug his fingers in, inching forward. Dack lay still on the ground observing the scene up ahead. Something wasn’t right. They had been traveling for two days out of Don Mov after unloading Vander’s supplies in Professor Green’s classroom. The group consensus was to head Northwest, still yet to decide whether they would make their way to Caister, a port city trading heavily with the Isles of Esnela, or venture towards Tynemouth, a fairly secluded city, far outside the realm of where any of their party has traveled. Either way, Dack was farther from home than he had ever been. It was exhilarating.
“Stay still. They haven’t seen us yet.”
The land they had been traveling on was mostly flat, with pockets of oak and maple trees. Large stones along the road boar the stains of campfires, presumably lit by weary travelers setting up base for the night. Up ahead between the trees, scaley creatures crouched looking in the opposite direction. The creatures resembled what Dack expected a dragon to look like, though much smaller; maybe 3-4 feet tall and standing upright on two legs. They had varying scale tones from deep blue to green-ish. They were muscular, fashioning weapons, that at Dack’s estimate, were crudely fashioned from sticks, rocks and possibly pieces of bones from other prey. A few of these unsavory creatures were furnishing equally as shabby bows with arrow heads most definitely made of teeth of creatures no larger than themselves.
“I count four. Two armed with bows and a short, bladed weapon crouched behind that set of oaks on the right about 50 feet from me. One with a longer blade and a net is nestled into that short thicket. The other has…”
Running into the open field, Khalia shouted “OH WOW! I’ve seen these before!”
Dack turned in surprise to Khalia’s sudden outburst to silence her, but it was too late. The creatures turned from their respective hiding spots, clearly as surprised as Dack at the 7-foot bipedal cat’s call. The nearest creature looked at Dack and cried out in a collection of growls and quick barking noises. Dack watched as the others responded in kind.
Out of the thicket a thick, 2 foot long, four-legged animal with tusks exploded whining as it shot across the dirt road and began to charge in Dack’s direction. As he began scrambling to his feet one of the bow-wielding creatures shot an arrow in Dack’s direction, landing sharply at his feet. Immediately his training took over and in one swift move unsheathed and let loose one of the spears from his back. The spear sailed through the air deliberately, though just missing it is intended mark and stabbing into the tree beside the dragon-like creature armed with a bow.
“Damn” Dack muttered as he prepared to unsheathe another spear.
Zuri stood beside Vander watching from 50 feet away. It would be no trouble for her to race into this situation, but Dack was right. This is not right. These creatures aren’t here waiting to ambush us, they’re in the middle of a hunt.
“DACK! Wait! They aren’t attacking, they’re hunting!”
Staring down the charging tusked pig, Dack made the connection that Zuri eluded to. Dack let his second spear fall to the ground and pulled out his glaive. With the pig nearly 5 feet from his location running full-boar, Dack dropped to his knees and rolled to the pigs right, bringing the glaive up under the pig’s jawline. The connection between blade and flesh was true, and the pig’s body hit the dirt. With one final wheeze it lay motionless on the ground.
Dack made his way back to his feet watching as the dragon-like creatures began running towards the direction of the fallen pig. Dack positioned himself defensively at the oncoming creatures.
“Dack, it’s okay! They don’t want you, they want the Bullfango!” called out Khalia innocently.
Dack shot her a look of frustration.
“The pig things. They’re called Bullfangos! They hunt and eat them.” She replied.
“Wait, you know these creatures?” Zuri asked.
“No, I don’t know them personally, but I understand them. We ran into Kobolds all the time when I was with the Nomads.”
Dack started moving away from the dead Bullfango as the Kobolds surrounded it and began field dressing the animal. The bow-weilding Kobold who had earlier shot an arrow in Dack’s direction called out in the same barking growl at him as he backed away.
“Why didn’t you tell us you could speak to these creatures?” he asked, trying to keep collected.
“Nobody asked! That meat sure does look good though!”
Dack looked back at the scene, met with more snarls and growls from the Kobold hunters.
“I don’t think these guys are going to share. Please tell them we’re happy we could help with their hunt. It’s probably best we make friends out here, not enemies.”
Khalia proceeds to bark and growl in the direction of the Kobolds, which goes mostly ignored as they lift the Bullfango onto a long branch and begin moving off the main road, headed East. Zuri and Vander exchange grinning glances as they listen to the absurdity of the cat-woman barking and growling, Dack clearly annoyed but also relieved.
“I think we should press forward. We still have plenty of daylight left.” Dack stated as he re-joined the party.
“Lead the way my friend” responded Vander.