Editor’s Note: we are stoked once again to welcome guest author Geoff Bottone, a founding member of SlugFest Games and one of The Red Dragon Inn’s original designers!
Even though it was still early morning, the sun’s bright rays had already cooked the dew off of the grass. There was not much in the way of cover out in the mountains, and Eve suspected that it would be roasting well before noon. She was glad that she wasn’t able to feel the heat.
She continued up the winding road, along steep cliffs and past mountain fields pockmarked with craters. She rounded a bend in the road and found the way forward blocked by the ruin of a horse cart, shattered beneath the weight of a massive boulder.
After checking the immediate area to make sure that no one was looking, she stepped past the wreckage and continued onward. Had anyone been observing her, she would have gone to much greater lengths to make getting over or around the cart look convincingly difficult—there was no need to reveal her full capabilities to any potential enemies, after all—but she was also a firm believer in not wasting time when she didn’t have to.
She reached the gates, or what was left of them, of the small mountain town a short time later. Large cracks zigzagged across the town’s defensive walls, and wreckage from the shattered battlements littered the ground outside.
A wary guard, dressed in livery of brown and sky blue, peered down at Eve from atop a gatehouse that had been hastily repaired with ropes and rough-cut timbers.
With a quick, nearly invisible gesture of her hand, Eve cast a minor glamour that increased both the volume and resonance of her voice. “The one who’s going to solve your little problem.”
The guard rested his hands on the parapet and leaned over. “There have been many before you who have made such a boast. The ones that are still alive are recovering in our infirmary.”
Eve shrugged. “I could just go home, if you like.”
She watched the guard drum his mailed fingertips on the wood and stones. His shoulders sagged. “If you think you can help us then, by all means, you are welcome here. Be warned that the Beast is more formidable than you think.”
“We’ll see,” said Eve.
“You can find the infirmary off of the main square. The adventurers there will have the most current information on the Beast and its whereabouts.” Then the guard called down to someone stationed below. “Open the gate.”
One of the doors creaked open on twisted hinges. Eve was careful not to brush up against its splintered body as she stepped inside.
It only made sense for Eve to find out what she was really up against. The Greyport heralds, from whom she heard of the Beast originally, hadn’t been too clear on all of the particulars. She waited patiently outside the infirmary until a busy alchemist, carrying a satchel filled to bursting with herbs, came walking out. Eve deftly stepped around the alchemist and slipped through the door as it closed.
The main room was filled with beds, and those beds were filled with adventurers. A few of them rested quietly, playing games or reading. Others lay swaddled in bandages, lost in sleep brought by herbs or powerful soporific magics. One or two, who were not quite as sedated as the rest, groaned quietly in their sleep.
One of the groaners was an elderly man, his grey beard poking out of a thick wrapping of bandages that encircled his head. A small, white rabbit lay sleeping on his chest. From the neatly folded robes and assortment of jewelry stacked on the table beside the bed, Eve guessed that the man was some kind of wizard. A quick, Truesight-enhanced glance at the rabbit revealed to Eve that it was the wizard’s familiar, and also that she desperately needed to turn her Truesight off.
She was glad that no one could see her shivering.
“You look awful healthy,” said a grumbling voice. “You must be new.”
The voice belonged to a dwarf. His right arm was in a sling and he limped about the floor with the help of a thick cane.
“I am,” said Eve. “I’m here to solve the Beast problem.”
“What?” said the dwarf, eyeing her up and down. “You? Alone?”
Eve clicked her tongue. “Yes.”
“If I may say, lass,” said the dwarf, “ya don’t look at all properly outfitted to go tanglin’ with the likes of the Beast.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”
“What d’ya think it means? There’s a savage beasty out ravaging the countryside and you look like you’re dressed up for the spring harvest dance.”
“What I’m wearing should be of absolutely no concern to you. Besides, I’m a wizard. I’m carrying everything that I’m going to need to fight your Beast,” Eve tapped a gloved finger to her temple, “Right. In. Here.”
The dwarf hobbled over to an empty cot and sat down heavily on the corner. “Maybe, lass, but I gotta warn ya that whatever magic you’ve got up there may not be enough.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.”
“I don’t know that yer in any position to judge,” said the dwarf. “You’ve got no idea what’s been happenin’ here. This beasty is the worst thing I’ve ever encountered. A dozen of us went out to fight it, only to have it knock us around like ninepins. It shattered steel plate and enchanted weapons with its teeth. I saw it hurl boulders as easily as if it were a child skippin’ stones.”
The dwarf gestured at the old man and his rabbit. “Ya say you got magic? Well so did we. That’s Zot. He’s a wizard from the Collegium, and his spells didn’t do a thing to the Beast. All they did was bounce right off its stony hide, and…”
Zot stirred, roused by the rising volume of the dwarf’s voice. He cracked open one blackened eye and fixed Eve with a bleary stare.
“Dimli,” said Zot, his voice a croak. “Who are you talking to?”
“This nice young lass.” Dimli pointed at Eve with his cane. Eve took a half-step back, ensuring that she was well out of range of the tip. “I didn’t catch her name.”
“I didn’t throw it,” she said. “I’m Eve.”
“Eve,” said Dimli. “Anyways, I’m trying to talk her out of goin’ to fight the beasty.”
Zot squinted, and Eve felt the weight of his gaze upon her. She noted the subtle probe of a sub-vocalized spell and allowed it, meeting Zot’s eyes. The rabbit poked up its head and wiggled one ear, as if in acknowledgement. It seemed to smile, which was very unnerving.
“Well,” said Zot, resting his head back on his pillow, “I think that she will have a unique approach to the problem of the Beast.”
Dimli made a small sputtering noise. “Ya know full well that magic cannot touch the Beast.”
“My magic can’t,” said Zot. The apple in his throat bobbed as he swallowed. “How’s your leg, Dimli?”
“Hurts a bit, but I can get around if I need to.”
“Good. Do you think you’d be able to take Eve up to the place where we last fought the Beast?”
The dwarf’s thick, bristly brows knitted together. He shot her a very suspicious glance out of the corner of his eye. “Aye,” he said.
“Excellent,” said Zot, his voice already tinged with sleep. “Do so as soon as you are able. I think you will find Eve to be simply filled to the brim with surprises.”
He began to snore. Eve regarded Dimli for a long moment. If his gaze was any flintier, she could have struck sparks.
“You heard the man,” said Eve at last.
Dimli snorted. “Fine, fine. I just gotta grab my boots.”
Eve tried to be patient as she followed Dimli along the ridge of the mountains. She kept telling herself that she had no idea where to start looking for the Beast, and that she couldn’t very well waste her energies searching the area in the hopes that she would stumble upon it randomly. Doing that would just leave her exhausted and defenseless when the time came for her to fight it.
That said, Dimli moved with an almost agonizing slowness. She almost screamed when he called yet another halt atop the latest of the identical, lichen-covered peaks. Eve came up beside him and the sight of Dimli sweating profusely and breathing hard made her feel terrible about being so impatient. Not everyone could move as effortlessly across the mountains as she could.
“How are you doing?” she asked.
“Not great,” said the dwarf, mopping his face with a handkerchief. “Even without my armor, hoofin’ it along these hills on a bad leg is pretty tiresome. I don’t suppose ye’d have a bit of magic that might help me out?”
She lowered her head. “I’m not that kind of wizard.”
Dimli tucked the soggy handkerchief back into his soggy tunic. “What sort of wizard are you, anyway?”
“The kind of wizard that can make you feel so good that you’re liable to start running at full speed and not stop until your leg is permanently injured or your heart explodes.”
Dimli shifted his weight on his cane and frowned up at her. “What the hell kinda wizard is that?”
“I’m an illusionist.”
“Oh.” Dimli blew out a long breath that caused the hairs of his moustache to flutter. “I suppose it’s why ya don’t look nearly as tired as ya should.”
“Thank you,” said Eve, “and I do have more than just the one at my disposal. I suppose we’ll see how useful they are once we find the Beast.”
“Aye. Anyway, the last place we tried to fight the Beast was in a high valley right near…”
A low, sustained roar shuddered across the mountaintops.
“There!” said Dimli, limping off in the direction of the sound.
Eve took a quick mental inventory of her spells and followed after him.
The Beast was larger than Eve was expecting—a four-legged monstrosity that seemed to be made up of the living stone of the mountains itself. Moss and lichen clung to its rocky hide. Its joints drizzled powdery dust as it dug into the rock with claws that gleamed like diamonds. It foraged in a hollow between two peaks a short distance away from a sheer drop. The area around the Beast was littered with broken bodies and the remnants of clothing, armor strapping, and leather packs.
As Eve watched, it dug up a jagged stone bright with filaments of ore and popped it into its mouth. The grinding of its powerful jaws dwarfed all other sounds.
“That’s…impressive,” said Eve, her voice low.
“Yeah.” Dimli leaned on his cane. “Now ya can see why we’re having so much trouble fighting the thing.”
“I can,” she said.
The Beast swallowed noisily and resumed digging, its claws tearing deep grooves in the stone.
“Well, all right,” said Dimli. “It’s your show now.”
“It is.” She nodded, flexing her fingers. “Let’s try the basics.”
She made a few brisk mystical gestures in the air in front of her, weaving an aura of illusion around both herself and Dimli. When that was done, she extended her right hand and pointed. A sharp, snapping sound echoed off the valley walls.
The Beast reared back and swung its massive head around, scanning the mountainside with two sets of brightly glowing eyes. Dimli limped in front of Eve as the creature searched for them, brandishing his cane. Eve was very glad that the dwarf didn’t brush up against her or try to grab onto her.
“You can relax,” she said. “I veiled us first. It cannot see or hear us.”
“Oh, good,” said Dimli, though he did not lower his cane.
The Beast lifted its head and sniffed. The sound the air made as it vanished into its cavernous nostrils was like the first angry gust of a summer storm. It fixed its four eyes roughly in Eve and Dimli’s direction and began to stalk purposefully toward them, hoisting it’s hindquarters up in the air as if it were a big cat.
“Get back,” said Dimli. “It smells us, lass.”
“It smells you,” said Eve, raising her hands in a preparatory gesture. “Now, try not to distract me.”
She made the requisite signs and incantations, fixing the finished image of the illusion firmly in her mind. She felt the old, familiar rush of power as it came surging up from her abdomen. It tingled as it traveled down her arms to her fingertips before leaping out into the world.
A man in brilliantly gleaming armor appeared from thin air, dangerously close to the edge of the cliff. He whacked his shining sword against the polished surface of his shield. The gonging note resounded across the mountains, causing the Beast to wheel around.
“Come on, beasty!” the illusory man shouted with Dimli’s voice. “Come on and get me! I’m delicious and filling!”
“Take the bait,” said Eve under her breath.
But the Beast sniffed the air and retreated from her illusion.
“Why isn’t it going for it?” said Dimli. “That’s a feast of metal right there.”
Eve had already begun the gestures to modify her spell. “It sees the metal, but it can’t smell it. It knows something’s wrong.”
“Retreating’s starting to look better and better, lass. C’mon, we’ll tell the others what you’ve found out and figure out a new…”
“No,” said Eve. “I’ve still got a few tricks left. Here’s the next one.”
A stone paw tipped with diamond claws reached up from below to grasp the lip of the cliff. The illusory man turned around, threw down his shield and sword, and let out a shriek of terror as another Beast, identical to the first, pulled itself into view. The second Beast snapped at the illusory man with its powerful jaws, leaving behind only a pair of illusory boots and a shower of illusory blood.
The second Beast lifted itself all the way into the valley, swallowed, and squared off against the first Beast.
“Tell me that’s you,” said Dimli.
“It is,” said Eve. She raised both her hands and the second Beast reared up on its hind legs, letting out a savage bellow that shook the mountains.
The real Beast responded with an equally impressive roar. Acidic saliva dripped from its mouth to scar the stone beneath it. It pawed at the ground, getting ready to charge. Eve made the second Beast copy its movements precisely, which only seemed to agitate it further.
The first Beast sprang, mouth open, claws splayed. It struck the second Beast with all the force of its momentum and weight. The second Beast vanished upon impact, leaving behind only a few sparks drifting through the empty air. The first Beast continued its trajectory unchecked, flailing its massive paws as its roar of challenge quickly transitioning into a yelp of panic. It vanished over the side of the cliff, striking the rocks at the base with a thunderous crash.
“You think it’s dead?” said Dimli.
“Cliffs will kill pretty much anything,” said Eve.
They went to look, just in case. Eve wrinkled her nose at the sight that greeted her eyes.
“I don’t think it’s comin’ back from that, lass,” said Dimli, a note of admiration in his voice.
“No,” she said.
“I think you’ve more than earned the reward money,” said Dimli.
Dimli grinned. “Listen, I dunno how ye feel about workin’ in groups but…”
Eve raised her hand. “I’m sorry. Can you hold that thought for just a moment?”
The wench shifted the weight of the tray on her shoulder and knocked again. She was willing to be patient, especially since the room’s occupant had paid both well and in advance, but she had other customers and chores downstairs that she needed to attend to.
She was just about to holler that she was leaving the tray outside the door when the bolt slid back.
“Sorry,” said the woman on the other side. “I heard you, but I was in the middle of something.”
The woman was on the short side, freckle-faced, with piercing grey eyes and messy light brown hair. She wore a faded peasant dress and scuffed, flat shoes. The wench had overheard the barman referring to the woman as a sorcerer, or something like that, but to all appearances she looked like someone who worked at the Red Dragon Inn instead of someone who frequented it.
Then the wench saw the staff. It was a huge, ornate thing, topped with a glowing crystal and set up in some kind of holder so that it could stand upright. The woman had used chalk to draw a complicated circle around the staff on the floorboards. She waved the wench away from it, pointing to the table by the window.
“If you wouldn’t mind putting it over there, I’d appreciate it,” said the woman as she fumbled around in her apron.
The wench knew it was probably better not to ask, but she couldn’t help herself. “What is all this?”
“Unfortunately, I don’t have time to go into all the details right now,” said the woman. “The short version is that I am controlling an illusion I created of myself that I sent up into the mountains earlier today. One of the villages up there was having a problem with a Beast and…”
“Oh,” said the wench, as she arranged the trays of food and jug of wine on the table, “I heard the heralds singing about that yesterday.”
“Yes, exactly,” said the woman. “Anyway, I thought I’d go up there and take care of it.”
The wench tucked her empty tray under her arm. “And did you?”
The woman held out a small handful of coins, which the wench took with a grateful nod.
“Congratulations,” said the wench.
“Thank you.” The woman cast a sidelong glance at the freestanding staff. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I still have a few things that I need to finish up…”
“Oh, of course,” said the wench, showing herself out. “I hope you enjoy your lunch.”
“I’m sure I will.” The woman was no longer looking at her, instead gazing deeply into the glowing crystal atop the staff.
The wench paused, her hand on the door.
“I’m sorry,” she said, speaking quickly, “but I’m curious. Do you go on all of your adventures this way? Because it seems to me like that’s the smart way to do it.”
The woman snickered.
“No,” she said. “I only do this for the easy ones.”