An off-beat thumping ripped Alisandra’s consciousness from the senseless void, gripping her essence and urging her from its numb comfort.
The noise pounded in the half-drow’s ears, forcing reality over her, and the hard ground beneath made her bones ache.
What is that sound? Am I on the floor?
Alisandra opened her eyes. Stone walls rose around her, which obscured the dark blanket of night struggling against the sunset’s glow. Confused, she gazed into the sky trying to remember where she was. After a dozen heartbeats, the clatter of footsteps and shouting came into focus.
The ground shuddered and bits of debris rained from the walls, causing Alisandra to bolt upright. Little in the vicinity revealed where she was, just stacks of unmarked barrels, weapons, and military supplies occupied the short and wide alley.
Where on Valeron am I? Think, Alisandra, what’s the last thing you remember?
Three males lay on the ground nearby. One of them, an earthy goliath with pale gray-blue skin and greasy hair, faced her displaying his orcish heritage—two small tusks.
What in the abyss am I doing near a half-orc? Anything involving those brutes always means violence.
Alisandra drew a dagger from her knee-high boot, got to her feet, and hurried toward the supplies at the end of the alley. Her corseted jerkin creaked as she sprinted over to the barrels, the strips of her leather skirt flapping against her gray linen pants, and she ducked behind a stout cask. Brushing a strand of dirty-blonde hair from her face, the half-drow tucked it behind her tapered ear.
Little else nearby provided clues to where she was: a pile of red cloth heaped against a wall near the alley entrance, and a shallow gutter collecting condensation from the surrounding walls. A troop of soldiers carrying bows ran by, causing her to duck farther behind the barrels.
Alisandra put her head in her hands and closed her eyes, searching for any kind of memory. Aside from a small headache, nothing felt strange. Then again, she couldn’t pinpoint how she normally felt. The half-drow remembered her name, her clothes were familiar, and she instinctually knew where the hidden dagger lay sheathed in her boot—but every image from her life was gone.
Did someone drug me?
Taking a small, lustrous feather from her leather bracer lined with pockets, Alisandra held up the plume and raised her empty hand. While tutting quick, intricate gestures with her unoccupied fingers, she whispered, “Calithu-shar-melix,” and the feather transformed into a hummingbird. The bird hovered in front of her, its buzzing wings barely audible over the din from beyond the alley.
So I remember magic, but nothing about the past? What in the abyss is going on? Maybe someone altered my memory… No, that’s impossible. Spells like that can’t obliterate an entire life.
More footsteps echoed towards her. Alisandra made another finger tutt, and the hummingbird blinked out of existence just as a man rounded the corner.
“Stars and stone, they are here!” he said.
Long pointed ears stuck out of his disheveled brown hair and blackened helm. The elf wore threadbare leather-armor with metal rings woven across the jerkin, and a crossed hammer-and-bow emblem decorated the right pauldron.
Galina’s mercy, more soldiers?
The mere thought of soldiers made her queasy, and as he got closer, a knot formed in the pit of her stomach. He had been handsome at one point, but four long scars ran down his face, marring his nose, lips, eyebrows, and cutting through his sharp jawline. Behind the elf, a young brown bear shuffled out of the shadows, grunting and sniffing.
Wait, I’ll bet he’s a ranger!
Something inside told her rangers could foster wild animals to be their devoted companions, but seldom did they visit cities. With his armor, weapons, and unusual pet, he couldn’t be anything other than one of the reclusive woodsmen, and the knot in her stomach subsided.
How do I know what a ranger is but can’t remember yesterday?
The elf stepped toward the men on the ground, and sprang out of the way when the half-orc swiped at his legs. The brute leaped to his feet and turned on the elf, holding out a wicked club made of bones and teeth.
“Vhere are ve? Who are you?” demanded the half-orc in a deep, throaty voice. “You vill tell Vadik.”
His strange accent came bold and heavy, rolling the R’s, and his pale blue eyes accented his wild look with an unsettling vibe.
The elf and half-orc glanced toward the noise and back at each other, the elf putting up his hands and backing away from the half-orc. “I’m Tyriel, and you’re in the city of Caastigen. I’ll tell you more, but we’re in danger—the Free Tribes are trying to break through the gate.”
Free Tribes? Why would orcs, goblins, fey creatures, and the wild races band together to lay siege to a city?
The half-orc stepped within striking distance of the elf, his club poised to attack. “Vadik goes novhere, unless you give answer!”
The other two people, a dwarf wearing tarnished chain-mail and a kytesi in immaculate plate-armor, awoke and jumped to their feet. The kytesi drew a long, two-handed greatsword from a scabbard on his back, while his keen, iridescent eyes darted between the other men.
Cropped wavy-brown hair exposed the kytesi’s brilliantly colored ears, and his maroon barbs flexed with each breath. Since he appeared young, and the race of magicless pixies lived longer than humans, Alisandra guessed he was around fifty years old. Yet deep lines of sadness and anger etched his clean-shaven face—like the shadows of a painful life presenting a menacing visage. To complete his striking appearance, the kytesi’s elaborate armor boasted gold-filigree trim across each sparkling plate.
Common soldiers can’t afford armor like that… he must be a knight.
“How did I arrive here?” the kytesi said, enunciating every word with the air of a highborn. “I do not recall anything before this moment. Do you have a hand in this sorcery?”
The thumping changed, no longer shaking the ground or echoing sharply off the walls, and Tyriel backed up to the wall. “I don’t know how you got here. I was only told help would arrive, and that I should look here. I will tell you everything I know, but that sound you keep hearing—” he pointed out past the alley, “—is a battering ram. If we don’t stop them from getting in, we’re all going to die, and your answers will be useless.”
So that’s what that sound is. This is insane! There’s no way I’m going to defend a gate with a bunch of strangers. I’ll wait it out and sneak away after they leave.
The dwarf picked up an odd-looking, two-handed ax, testing its balance in one hand and playing with a silver-clasped braid from his beard with the other. “By Balthor’s beard, I’m inclined to kill you myself, dagger-ears, if you don’t answer the man’s questions.”
Though the dwarf’s hair grew strikingly white, his face was young, probably in his early sixties, little more than a teenager by dwarven standards. Dirty and smeared with soot, he likely smelled as terrible as he looked, but his beard was meticulously cared for—not a single hair lay out of place, and the silver bands clasping each braid sparkled with a fresh polish.
The knight glanced over at the dwarf. “It’s dishonorable to slay a man who said agreed to enlighten us with what he knows. I am Sir Calvorn of the…” He paused quizzically. “Of the…”
Calvorn squinted. After mouthing something, he looked back at Tyriel.
“The second and fifth tenants of the code of honor are ‘courage’ and ‘defend the helpless.’ I will help you hold this gate.” He pointed the tip of his great sword at the elf’s neck. “But I expect you to—” BOOM! “—keep your word. You will tell us all you know.”
A loud groan came from the bundle of fabric near the entrance to the alley, and the four men turned to watch as it shifted.
“Uggg. Too much ale… again,” the pile grunted, its voice echoing and hollow.
A long, obsidian beak protruded from the cloth as the figure rose, and a mass of glossy-black feathers stretched languidly before curling up under the fabric. With its back severely hunched, the creature stood at most three-feet tall, and the rags draping across its body moved only at the lowest dangling portions, making its body round and bulky. Hobbling from leg to leg as if it couldn’t bend its knees, the creature turned around, then squawked at the sight of the four men, still frozen in confusion.
Dredged from whatever knowledge left in the vacuum of her memories, she knew tengu to be one of the less common races. Even rarer was to see a tengu in their crow form since they possessed the ability to shape-shift.
Aesa’s wisdom, how do I know about obscure races but not a single day of my life?
The mass of cloth surrounding the tengu swirled, morphing the wizened creature into a lithe, human woman. Her pitch-black hair rested above her porcelain shoulders, and two unsettling copper-eyes batted at the men.
“Four of you huh?” she said with a sensual voice, a stark contrast to the caricature of speech that came from her beak moments before. “Must’ve been a wild night, too bad I don’t remember.”
The dwarf snarled in disgust. “What in the abyss?”
She walked over to the half-orc, ogling every inch of him. The red cloth draped haphazardly across her body in strips, and with each movement, Alisandra could see more of her curvaceous form than she wanted.
Putting her hands on Vadik’s chest and exposed bicep, the tengu made exploratory squeezes, letting out a satisfactory moan. “Mmmm, definitely ‘too bad.’ Maybe you can make remind me?”
The tengu’s sultry demeanor repulsed Alisandra. Plenty of women used their charm and bodies to get what they wanted, but behaving like that left a sickening feeling in the half-drow’s gut.
No one chooses prostitution. Don’t make a mockery of yourself and those who have no choice.
The half-orc swiped her hands away awkwardly. “Back avay, harlot. Who are you… vhat are you?”
The woman feigned indignation. “Why, how could you say that? I’m just looking to have some fun,” she replied and winked at Calvorn. “My name is Cerari, and since you saw my true form, you should know ‘vhat’ I am. But I hope dat von’t stop you from holding yourself against me.”
“Are you touched in the head, woman? There’s an army trying to break into the city, so do you plan on seducing them into surrender?” the dwarf scoffed.
Cerari peeked at Vadik’s backside. “I heard you all talking, and I can handle myself just fine. How about you, little dwarf, do you plan on helping? Or are you going let them break in and chase you down on those stubby legs?”
The dwarf’s face turned bright red. “I’m no coward, and this ax will cut down anyone stupid enough to get close, but I’m won’t put my life at risk for a city I don’t even know how I wound up in.”
“Good luck then. But if that gate falls… Well, let me just say that I’ve never heard of orcs leaving survivors,” the tengu said with a scoff.
Should I do something? No, they’ll figure it out and I’ll find somewhere better to hide… Galina’s mercy, Cerari is right. If the gate breaks open before they get a clue, I won’t have any chance of getting away… Maybe if I get them to work together, they can defend the gate while I use my spells from a safe distance.
Anger and confusion clearly spread across the men’s faces and the situation hadn’t improved. With no suitable alternative, and time running out with every crash of the battering ram, Alisandra sighed, stood up, and walked casually between them.
The half-drow put a gentle hand on the knight’s arm and smiled. “Now boys. As fun as it would be to watch your awkward stalemate continue, that gate doesn’t sound like it’s going to hold much longer.”
“Ah, as if on cue.” Alisandra nodded her head and a chime rang out from a tiny silver bell attached to one of her many earrings. “Since that pounding isn’t shaking the walls anymore, I imagine the gate is weakening. So, why don’t we just put this on hold until after we survive?”
Without waiting for a reply, she walked straight past each of them and headed out of the alley, half skipping, then stopped to glance back at the others. When she wanted, each note produced from her bell could add a subtle, magical coercion to anything she said, or even alter someone’s emotions. She could also muffle the bell from sounding, and with barely an afterthought, the half-drow made an unseen tutt and the bell went silent. Their bewildered stares gazed at her while the allure of her words sank in. Sir Calvorn moved first, picking up his helm as he rushed after her.
“My lady. Perhaps I should lead the way.” Calvorn placed a firm hand on her shoulder and stepped in front of her. “You do not appear to be adequately prepared to contend with a skirmish. The first tenant of the code of honor is martial prowess, therefore, let me safeguard you.”
That was too easy. I probably didn’t need to use the bell.
“Why thank you, kind sir, at least someone seems to have manners.” She gave a wry smile to the others. “Apparently this knight and frail girl are the only two brave enough to fight.”
“Ha! Dey don’t call me Vadik de Violent for nothing.” The half-orc followed after them. “If city crumble to de vilderness, it make no difference to Vadik. But Vadik von’t let innocent life to be taken—” BOOM! “—if he can stop it. Vadik defend your gate, den Vadik vill get answers.”
The half-orc gave Tyriel a sharp look as he passed by, then Tyriel eyed the dwarf and tengu, opened his mouth as if to say something, and walked off without a word.
Cerari scanned the dwarf, gave a short, disapproving snuff, and then started after the others. “I’ll help too if the big one’ll help me afterward.”
Alisandra turned and walked out of the alley as the dwarf shouted after them, “If you all want to die so bad, I’m not going to stop you!”
With her acute half-drow senses, Alisandra could hear better than most, and the dwarf muttering to himself caught her ear over the ambient commotion, “Dammit, that tree-monkey elf is going to die before he says anything useful.” After a short pause, the dwarf yelled as he trundled after them, “But I’ll be there to say I told you so!”
“The Caastigen Guard and Gray Mages should be covering the walls, but the whole Sindaran army is clustered at the other two entrances to the city.” Tyriel said as he began to jog. “We really should pick up the pace to make sure nothing—” BOOM! “—gets through. We’re probably the only ones near enough to help.”
Alisandra smirked back at him. “Well, then it’s a good thing we’re here.”
“Yes.” The half-orc chortled. “Vadik sure dat sight of little girl vill frighten whole army to early grave.”
More jovial chiming came from her bell as they jogged. “My name is Alisandra, and this ‘little girl’ doesn’t need to frighten the whole army. She can lend a hand though.”