Chapter 1: The Beginning

By Michelle Michel

Sorren slammed the heavy oak door behind him, for once not caring if the Head Mistress of the Mage Guild disapproved. It was just like her in any case, meeting his attempts at raising his status with near impossible tasks to prove his worth - sending him after the Staff of Mourning simply one of her more recent tortures.

The Staff of Mourning, a magical staff said to lie far to the east of Bitan on a small island known only as the Larinth. While it was a coveted item by many a wizard, none had been "worthy" enough to find it - and the few that had been foolish enough to go had yet to return. And now Sorren was being asked to accomplish what no one else had: bring the staff to Mistress Faysan as proof of his worth.

He snarled to himself, tugging the hood of his cloak over his long white hair to protect his eyes from the sun as he finally started off down the street. True to his Drow nature, Sorren still preferred the shadows and pale light of night to the frank brightness of the day, even with his many years living in the noticeably human city of Bitan. The blinding sunlight was something he knew his eyes would never adjust to even if he wanted them to.

Arms stiff alongside his black robe, Sorren stomped angrily away from the building, cool blue eyes glaring at anyone that happened to get in his way. He ignored the annoyed and surprised looks from those he passed, sparing each of them a long enough glance to send them scrambling in the other direction. What should he care about them, anyway? It was his life that would be over soon enough, if he did choose to go after the staff. Then again, if he didn't go he'd have to resign himself to never rising in power - and never gaining Head Mistress Nichole Faysan's respect. Sorren grimaced. While usually he would not bother himself, he knew that Mistress Faysan's respect was needed to rise in power in the Guild.

He strode purposefully down the cobblestone side street, letting the passers-by dodge around him rather than make way himself. He was not in the mood. Sticking to the shadows cast by the buildings on his left, absently following the familiar path. He veered aside only to avoid the odd tree along the side of the road, or barrel, or crate that had somehow managed to find residence along the side of the large wooden and stone buildings.

Rounding the corner of a particularly ordinate building, complete with large, airy windows high up the walls, well out of reach, Sorren was forced to stop as he nearly ran into the back of the jail. Dull grey stone, spectacular in its plainness, crafted the unsurprisingly thick walls, hiding the cells for the riff-raff of Bitan within. Sorren glared at the building that dare get in his way, and at the passing people who took their time to even glance his direction. Still grumbling, he moved to the right and around the corner, almost tripping over more crates and nearly running into yet another inconvenient passer-by.

"Watch where you're going!" the girl exclaimed, brushing off her dull red dress and straightening her blond hair before sending a glare Sorren's way. He returned the glare full force, and the girl bit her lip before hurrying off back the way she had been headed. Sorren sighed, shaking his head before quickening his stride to make up for lost time. Sometimes the citizens could be so self-absorbed. Sorren shook his head again, blinking as he stepped past the jail and onto the main street and the sunlight no longer blocked by conveniently placed buildings.

He glanced down at his shadow, using its length and position to quickly judge the time of day. It did not take long to find that morning was not yet done with - and thus it was still far too early for him to even consider going for a tankard of ale at the Flaming Huntsman. It was the best tavern in all of Bitan, especially by Sorren's standards of drinking. Still, with the news just given to him, he felt a quick tankard was completely understandable.

Glaring once more back toward the Mage Guild and hoping fervently that Head Mistress Faysan could feel it, the Drow headed right between the woodworker and sage's buildings, nodding quickly but respectfully toward the elderly man garbed in a brown robe that exited the sage's home. The man nodded in reply, but Sorren was already past him, his destination in sight.

The Flaming Huntsman had been built in two parts: an inn and a bar. The front part of the long wooden building constituted the bar, the back, much larger portion the actual inn. Hanging above the door leading into the bar was a sign displayeing the tavern's name for all to see. People, both citizens of Bitan and visitors, came and went from the building, though at this point in the day the bar would be quite empty.

"Sorren?" a voice called from behind him, halting Sorren's single-minded march. He groaned to himself and turned, not bothering to smile.

Thalec Dalegon, resident mercenary, stood beside the cobblestone street, smiling welcomingly as he waved away a slightly older man. Both sported short, light brown hair and the same large nose and blue eyes, but the elder of the pair, Thalec's brother Merin, was slightly taller. Merin eyed Sorren with barely contained disgust before continuing on his way down the street, not once looking back.

"Long time no see," Thalec greeted, stepping up to clasp hands with Sorren. His smile faltered and he let his head tilt in question. "What happened? You look as if someone died."

Sorren grunted. "Close," he admitted. "He just hasn't died yet." He looked over Thalec, taking in the younger man's clean white tunic and jerkin, his angled face with a nose slightly bigger than was necessary, and mussed brown hair. It had been quite some time since he had seen his young friend.

Thalec laughed heartily, clapping Sorren on the shoulder. "And who might 'he' be?" he asked, steering Sorren away from the tavern. Sorren allowed himself a slight smile before shrugging off his hand and backing up to where he had been. Thalec knew him well.

"Mistress Faysan has decided on my task," he said, shrugging slightly at his friend, reaching up absently to straighten his hood for more protection from the sun. "I am to travel to the Larinth and procure the Staff of Mourning that resides there. Thus, my friend, I shall be the one to die."

Once more, Thalec's smile faltered. "The Staff of Mourning?" he repeated incredulously. "But, anyone who has gone after that has -"

"Never been seen or heard from again," Sorren interrupted, annoyed, waving a hand to dismiss his words. He sneered, "Yes, yes, Thalec, I know the stories - why else do you think I am oh so looking forward to this venture?"

Thalec grimaced, reaching up with a gloved hand to run it through his hair. "No need to be sarcastic, Sorren," he admonished, only half joking. He shook his head. "What have you done to her now?"

"I haven't done a thing!" Sorren exclaimed. He glowered at Thalec. "And don't try to turn this around on me. She's the one sending me on a suicide mission. I had no choice in the matter."

"You could not go," Thalec suggested weakly with a shrug, knowing as he did so what Sorren's answer would be. His position in the Mage Guild was too important to him.

Sorren spared Thalec a glare before turning away, once more heading for the tavern door. "If I do not, I will never rise in the Guild," he snapped. He paused at the door, one hand touching the rough wood, ready to push the door open and proceed to drink his sorrows away. "I have no choice, Thalec," he repeated, dejected.

"Mistress Faysan is not a killer, Sorren," Thalec called, reaching out to take his friend's shoulder. He thought furiously, trying to find what Mistress Faysan had known before giving Sorren the seemingly hopeless task. His thoughts turned to Merin, and he shook Sorren, an idea forming. "Did she say you had to go on your own? Couldn't you hire someone to help?"

Sorren opened his mouth, undoubtedly to reply in the negative, before he caught himself. Thoughtful, he drifted away from the tavern door, his attention once more in the direction of the Mage Guild two streets away. He paid no attention to the man shoving past him to get into the bar, grumbling under his breath.

"I'll take that as a maybe," Thalec said, smiling apologetically at the man before grinning. Sorren glanced back at him, a grin of his own spreading on his face.

"There was no such talk about hiring a party," Sorren admitted distractedly. "I had simply assumed." He shook his head before laughing. "Perhaps I will not die, my friend!" he announced, and Thalec clapped him on the shoulder once more. "Perhaps I will not." His smile faded into a frown. "But. who would I hire? And with what money?"

Thalec thought for a moment, before shrugging and patting Sorren's shoulder again. "I'm sure there are some travelers that will be willing to go, Sorren."

The Drow nodded in agreement, staring up at the sky thoughtfully, expertly keeping the sun out of his gaze. He glanced at Thalec, smiling slyly. "It would be an honor, my friend, if you would join me," he said slowly.

"Me?" Thalec repeated, raising an eyebrow. He shook his head. "Really, Sorren, I'm not -"

"You're a mercenary, aren't you?" Sorren demanded, all friendliness gone from his voice. "If I must, I shall pay you, but," he paused, shaking his head, "I am asking as a favor. Friend to friend." He smiled cruelly. "After all I have done for you in the past."

Thalec rolled his eyes, shaking his head. "Enough, Sorren." He sighed, unable to stop a smile from forming. "I want an equal share in anything we find," he said finally. "I have to eat, you know. And Merin's been complaining about how little jobs I've had lately."

Sorren chuckled. "Agreed. Thank you, Thalec."

The younger man shrugged. "What are friends for, if not to help when the other is in need?" He shook his head again, suddenly feeling the need to enforce their deal. "Remember, Sorren, an equal share. That includes your staff."

Sorren nodded fervently, waving him away, his earlier annoyance dispersing, replaced by excitement. Perhaps he would find that staff after all. Then Mistress Faysan would have to respect him, and then his rise in the Guild would only be a matter of time.

Thalec watched Sorren thoughtfully. "A fighter and a wizard are not going to do much in getting us there, Sorren," he called pointedly. "Get us a proper party first. Then we can go after your staff."

Sorren sighed. "Just be ready to leave when I come for you," he snapped, waving him away once more. Thalec smiled and waved, disappearing around the corner of a nearby building, leaving the same way Merin had several minutes ago.

"Now what am I going to do?" Sorren asked himself, shaking his head, bringing one dark hand to his chin. He glanced up at the Flaming Huntsman and winced. "I suppose I shall have to stop in again some other time, old friend," he said in farewell, turning back the way he had come to begin his search.

********

Valaya smiled brightly as Bitan came into clear view ahead of the Halfling and her Half-Orc companion. They had been traveling for several days on foot to reach the walled city (they had lost their horses, Valaya was embarrassed to admit, to a horse thief one night), and she was enthused they had finally arrived.

She and her companion, Grunt, paused as Bitan came into view, taking their own time to admire the beautiful city. It was the only walled city on the frontier, and along one of the major routes to Arnon, the capital. It was also one of the bigger cities around, and as it was near the center of the continent, full of a vast variety of races, from Humans and Elves to Dwarves and Orcs. Valaya wriggled with excitement, barely able to hold still.

"There, see, Grunt?" she said, looking up at her traveling companion, grinning with pride. "I told you we'd get here sooner or later." Turning, she wagged her finger at him. "Don't go doubting me next time, hear me?"

"Uhn," the Half-Orc replied, glancing down at Valaya. He clapped his large hand to his chest, shaking his head. "Uhn."

Valaya smiled with satisfaction. "Good," she praised, patting his stomach, as that was the highest she could reach. She shook her head, enjoying the feel of her long, tied back hair tickling the back of her neck, before starting off for the city. Grunt, though easily twice her size, followed her with practiced ease, not allowing himself to outpace the tiny Halfling.

As they walked, Valaya looked up at her friend out of the corner of her eye. It was hard to believe she had been partners in crime with the large, green Half-Orc for over three years. The pair, she knew, could not be more different. Where she was short, thin, and graceful, Grunt was tall, burly, and lumbering. Their long black hair was the closest they had in common, though Valaya's was straight and often tied back while Grunts was ratty and unkempt.

She had come across Grunt during one of her first attempts at thievery, when she had saved him (accidentally) from the human camp where Grunt had been cruelly tortured for fun. When she had found him he had already lost his tongue, and was unable to speak. Three years later, Valaya found she did not care that she still did not know his real name.

"What do you want to do once we get to the city?" she asked after several minutes of walking, trying to strike up a conversation. As usual, she had had enough of their prolonged silence.

"Uhn ung uh," Grunt answered absently, letting his bright yellow eyes scan the area around them once more. "Uhg."

Valaya shook her head, reaching up to tug on her hair. "No, we did that in the last city. I was thinking -"

"Uhn," Grunt interrupted more insistently. Valaya sighed, holding up her hands in defeat.

"All right, all right, you win," she said, waving her hands to emphasize her words. "Fine. We'll go get a room at the inn and then we'll go get more meat. I hear you." She sighed heavily, letting her shoulders slouch in exaggerated disappointment. "You really can be boring sometimes, you know that? No? Well, you can be.

"I think I'm going to. hone my skills a bit, once we get there," she continued, grinning mischievously. "You can come with me if you want, or you can just go laze around, eating everything in sight again."

Grunt snorted. "Uhg uhn uhn. Uhn."

Valaya laughed and clapped her hands happily, squealing, "I knew you would!"

********

Riquith bit back a sigh of annoyance as her half-sister, Lyrrin, stopped for the fifth time since entering the city of Bitan. Normally she had nothing but respect and love for her younger sibling, and her feelings of duty as a cleric of the great Goddess Feena. But really, did she have to stop to speak with every cleric she passed?

While she waited, Riquith brushed a loose lock of her raven black hair out of her face, tucking it behind her pointed, elfin ear. She sighed, reaching down to run her gloved hand along the bow she held, ignoring her tied hair as, yet again, it fell over her shoulder as she looked toward the ground. Heaving a quiet sigh, she looked up and scanned the bustling crowd yet again, her hazel eyes searching the rich mix of Humans, Elves, Half-Elves, Dwarves, Halflings, and even the less common Orcs and Half-Orcs. Each of varying ages, they all had one thing in common. They hurried about their business, in and out of her keen eyesight, none caring to spare the frequently stopping Elf and Half-Elf pair a second glance.

She turned back to her sister, the Half-Elf that caused her more ill than aid, or so it seemed recently. A cleric of Feena, Goddess of Healing and Mercy, Lyrrin wore her long, dark brown hair down, a silver thread tied around her head like a band. On her mix of white and sky blue robes, though Riquith could not see it from her position, was Feena's symbol, a pair of hands clasped in prayer. Lyrrin grasped a quarterstaff in her right hand, leaning on it slightly as she viewed whatever item the next cleric of Feena to stop them was showing off.

Lyrrin glanced back over her shoulder, meeting Riquith's hazel eyes with her own green ones and offered an apologetic smile. Riquith bit back another sigh, nodded absently at her, and turned her attention back to the crowd once more.

Perhaps it was sheer luck that she turned in the right direction, or perhaps instinct told her something was to happen. Either way, as Riquith turned back to her sister, she caught sight of a young female Halfling, black hair tied high on her head, hands on Lyrrin's money pouch, almost ready to disappear into the crowd again.

Without missing a step, Riquith drew her bow and readied an arrow at the Halfling, shouting, "Stop or I will kill you!"

Screams erupted from the closer passers-by, and the Halfling froze, looking up at Riquith with a mix of disbelief and fear in her eyes. She let go of the pouch as Lyrrin spun, eyes wide, to see who Riquith was shouting at.

"Riquith, no!" she shouted, darting toward her sister, snatching protectively at her money pouch as she went.

"Stay there, Lyrrin," Riquith commanded, not once removing her eyes from the thief in case she decided to disappear into the now frightened crowd. "What have you to say before I loose this arrow into your head?"

The Halfling blinked, straightening her back and reaching up to smooth her hair. "The lady cleric dropped that pouch," she said, her eyes scanning the crowd cautiously, dismay shining for an instant as she noticed the people now giving the small group a wide berth as they perched in a circle, watching. "I stopped to pick it up for her."

 

Riquith growled, "Liar," and prepared to loose the arrow, only to jump at a loud roar from among the crowd. To her right the crowd scattered, some screaming, some crying, as a very large, and green, Half-Orc charged her, great axe held high, ready to strike. His yellow eyes flared angrily as Riquith jumped out of the way of his first swing, putting herself between him and her sister as she dropped her bow in favor of a sword instead.

"Riquith, please stop!" Lyrrin cried, trying once more to get between Riquith and her target, her voice raised to be heard over the rapidly growing crowd. The Halfling seemed to have similar ideas.

"Grunt, enough!"

Both Riquith and Grunt froze, his axe ready for another swing, her sword ready to block and her left hand on the hilt of a dagger. Without taking her eyes off Grunt, she snapped, "What, Lyrrin?!"

Lyrrin shook her head, trying again to push her way between the two. The Halfling followed her lead, and Grunt lowered his axe. Riquith shook her head and pushed her sister back, raising her sword to strike.

"Riquith?!"

"They're thieves, Lyrrin, don't try to defend them."

"But -"

"I caught her trying to steel your money pouch, Lyrrin," Riquith snapped, fighting to keep from rolling her eyes at her. "There is no excuse for that."

"Riquith -"

An unfamiliar sound caught Riquith's attention and caused Lyrrin to halt her protest. Riquith spun, her eyes scanning the crowd. Pushing his way through, a Drow emerged, laughing softly to himself, and clapping. The people shoved aside quickly filed back into place, filling the gap the Drow had created in his eagerness to reach the group. Riquith bristled at the sight of him.

"What do you want, Drow?" she demanded angrily, narrowing her eyes.

He shook his head. "So abrupt, Elf?" he asked, still laughing. "I believe introductions are in order." He bowed deeply, rising as he said, "My name is Sorren of the Mage Guild here in Bitan."

Everyone was silent, save for a few in the crowd as it slowly began to disperse now that the action was done. Then, the Halfling jumped forward. "I'm Valaya, and this here is my companion, Grunt," she said, smiling brightly and indicating the Half-Orc behind her. Grunt snorted in Sorren's direction, loosing interest quickly, turning instead to glare disapprovingly at Valaya, who shifted meekly under his glare.

"Sorry, Grunt," she muttered, scuffing the toe of her boot on the ground, her eyes downcast. She waved toward Lyrrin and the troublesome pouch, biting her lip. "For this." Grunt snorted, his face softening as he reached out and patted her head comfortingly.

"Uhn," he declared, smiling down at her. Valaya grinned.

"Pleasure," Sorren said dryly, turning to the remaining two.

 

Riquith grabbed Lyrrin's arm and pulled. "We do not have time for this. Come on, Lyrrin, we're leaving."

 

Lyrrin, however, disagreed. She jerked her arm out of Riquith's grasp, glared at her until she was thoroughly confused, and turned, smiling hesitantly, to Sorren. Lyrrin eyed him momentarily, and Riquith watched with silent pleasure as Sorren wriggled slightly under her gaze. Then, however, Lyrrin's smile grew and she returned his earlier bow.

"I am Lyrrin, cleric of Feena," she said, leaving Riquith to curse silently to herself. "And this one here is my older sister, Riquith," she finished, indicating the Elf with a wave of her hand, who sighed heavily, shaking her head.

Sorren nodded to Lyrrin, choosing to ignore Riquith's antics. "Thank you, milady," he said formally.

"Let's go, Lyrrin," Riquith growled warningly.

The Drow shook his head. "If you will wait one moment, I have a proposition for you."

 

Riquith glared at him. "I could care less, Drow," she snarled, turning once more to leave.

 

"What is it?" Lyrrin asked, causing her sister to stop and stare. Sorren chuckled.

 

"You see," he said, speaking slowly and evenly, no longer caring if the bustling crowd heard him or not He had already been searching for a party of willing companions for well over two hours and long since given up on keeping his search for the staff a secret. "I have a. task I must complete, and I need people to help me complete it. And judging from your performances just now," he waved his hand to indicate the group, "you four are just the people I need."