The End of a Dire Strait
Instead of a welcoming forest environment, the trio found themselves in a flat scrub where the surrounding vegetation consisted of brushwood, shrubs, and cacti. “This is hideous,” Llorva commented. The landscape was barren and featured no distinct color, the surrounding soil was a brownish-gray, and the dead or water deprived plants were shriveled and dry. “Where are we?” The heat there was so dry that Llorva had to drink from her waterskin to tame her parched mouth.
“I’m not sure where we are but I’m sure we can figure it out looking around this settlement here,” Riker suggested. To call this area a settlement would be a generous claim considering that it was made up of pike barricades and clay huts made with wood fragment roofs. Llorva put her waterskin away and the trio approached the first building near the river. It had a sign nailed to it but neither of them could read it because it was written in orcish.
“This must be some kind of information booth,” Riker considered.
“By all means investigate,” Llorva replied and gestured for him to go ahead.
Riker approached the window where an orc sat with his arms crossed on the counter and his chin buried in the grooves of his arms. “Excuse me. Could you tell me where we are?” Riker asked.
The orc snorted. “Outskirt of the Zion Province,” he replied in a rough voice.
Riker thanked him and returned to Llorva and Vylasgarden. “We landed in the Zion Province, not the Province of Civil Kingdoms.”
“This is good news, right?” Vylasgarden asked. “We are trying to get to the capital.”
“Yes, but a safer route to the city would have been on a merchants’ road. From here we will have walk through the wild,” Riker replied.
“Let’s find an inn, tavern, or something so that we can rest for a few hours,” Llorva suggested and Riker and Vylasgarden agreed. They looked around and found a water well surrounded by a small horde of goblins at the center of the settlement. Each of the goblins were no more than a meter tall⏤about the same size of a halfling. As the trio approached they observed the goblins’ aggressiveness toward each other. A few bullied and harassed the runt of the horde seemingly for no other reason than it being smaller than the rest. They all made meaningless bickering noises that would annoy the most patient person. Once the goblins noticed the three larger creatures coming near them they all scattered like rats.
Riker approached the well to fill his waterskin. “You aren’t seriously about to drink from there are you?” Llorva asked.
Riker arched a brow and said, “Look around. Where else are we going to get water?”
“I will die before drinking from a goblin well,” Llorva replied.
Riker stared at her and a smirk peaked from his face. “Have it your way,” he said before taking a drink. “It tastes fine to me.”
Vylasgarden came from behind filled her waterskin as well and Llorva reluctantly filled hers. Llorva muttered to herself as the water filled her container, “I never thought I would see the day…” Much of the community congregated around several bonfires at the edge of the settlement. Several groups there were made up of orcs or halfblood orcs leading a small horde of goblins; other groups were made up of humans or a mix of humans and halfbloods. Riker suggested that they join a small group made up of halfblood orcs and humans.
“Are you sure we should be engaging with these people?” Llorva whispered.
“What’s the matter? Have you never been in the presence of orcs before?” Riker asked.
“Of course I have!” Llorva protested. “Just not outside the Civil Kingdoms.”
“Well we cannot make friends if we don’t meet anybody,” Riker replied and approached the lounging group. “Good evening gents! My name is Baron Von Riker and these are my companions Vylasgarden and Llorva,” he said with a bardic hello.
Llorva nervously watched the other party stare at them and exchanged looks with one another. Eventually one of them spoke up. He was a hulking halfblood orc with scars across his body and face. “G’day,” he said. “My name is Jared and these are my warbound brothers.”
By the looks of it, Jared seemed to be the leader of this warbound. Llorva noticed that none of the others chose to speak for themselves as Jared continued by naming his companions: Lemuel, Ezekiel, and Perry were young human men no older than twenty-five and Bomur and Durbal were halfblood orc men. They too seemed just as young.
Jared stood from his set and towered over Riker. His long black hair was pulled back into a pony tail. His features were mostly human except for his yellow orc eyes that glowed in contrast to the twilight, the lower canines that proturded from his mouth, and the gray tint of his skin. This creature was terrifying to look at according to Llorva and she was looking at him at a distance. “Please, sit and join us. We were just telling stories,” Jared said while gesturing for Riker and the women to sit among them on the logs placed around the fire.
“What kind of stories?” Riker asked.
“Bomur was just talking about how he once hunted and killed a wild boar with his own bare hands,” Jared replied and pointed to the halfblood member of his warbound who had a sloped forehead and a piercing in his right tusk.
“What of you dragonkin? What victory kills have you made in your time?” Bomur asked referring to Vylasgarden. Llorva assumed Bomur asked her because Vylasgarden looked the most visually impressive of the trio.
“I have never killed,” Vylasgarden answered.
Bomur expressed obvious disapproval.
“You are a disgrace to your race sarkany,” Ezekiel said glancing at Vylasgarden.
“Vylasgarden just so happen to be a former merchant of her clan, but her son was training to be a hunter,” Riker said in defense.
“Was?” Ezekiel asked and Llorva got the sense that Riker immediately regretted speaking for Vylasgarden.
“My family died five years ago,” Vylasgarden said coldly.
Silence fell around the fire but Jared was quick to break it. “Excuse my brothers. We do not often associate with people outside our culture,” Jared said.
“Clearly,” Llorva commented. She was sure to convey annoyance with her expression.
There was an awkward silence that followed and after a moment Riker decided to speak up. “Where are you headed?” he asked no one in particular.
“We are on our way to the Shining City,” Jared said. “The emperor of the Zion Province has spread word asking for adventurers to visit him.”
“Interesting. We are on our way there as well for the same reason,” Riker said.
Llorva spat the water she was drinking from her waterskin and looked at Riker sideways. What is he thinking? she thought.
“Is that so?” Jared asked.
“I found a notice all the way in Unum Island,” Riker mentioned. “What do you think this summoning is about?”
“We do not know,” Jared replied. “All we know is that it must be important if the emperor himself is calling for help.”
“I was thinking that whatever the request is, the reward must be worth the travel,” Riker said leaning in.
“Perhaps we can travel together,” Jared offered. “The emperor’s city is just a few days journey from here. We were going to head that way in the morn.”
“That is a great idea Jared but first allow me to speak with my friends in private,” Riker said as he got up with Llorva and Vylasgarden and walked some distance away out of listening range.
“What in this realm are you thinking!?” Llorva exclaimed. Her voice carried far throughout the camp.
“I know. It was in the moment. It had slipped from my sly tongue,” Riker replied smiling.
“You have a death wish Baron Von Riker and you dare drag us down with you,” Llorva said jabbing her index finger in Riker’s chest.
“I shall remind myself to tie your ‘sly tongue’ in a knot next time we approached strangers,” Llorva remarked.
“I will have to side with Llorva on this Riker,” Vylasgarden said with her arms crossed.
“You are right. Yes, but if you can just give me a moment to explain,” Riker continued.
“Wherefore would we do that?” Llorva said frustrated.
“Because nothing has changed except now we have a warbound of escorts. Nothing and no one will mess with us along the way,” Riker replied. Llorva and Vylasgarden looked at each other then back at Riker. “Think about it. Why would the emperor of the Zion Province invite the world to his city? It is so that he may audition adventurers and choose a select few for his quest. Whomever he chooses, he will make an offer no person can refuse.”
“How do we know that Jared is not lying to us?” Vylasgarden asked.
“Look around. All these people are here to show up at the emperor’s front door, and we are lucky enough to stumble amongst them,” Riker said gesturing out to the many groups of creatures on the campground.
“Why don’t we go alone?” Vylasgarden asked.
“Like I said, they can be our muscle and we don’t know the area. Jared mentioned that his group can get to the Shining City in just a few days. If we go with them it will increase our chances of getting there early.”
Vylasgarden looked over to Llorva. “He has a point,” she admitted.
“Remember the last time he made a decision without consulting us?” Llorva threw back.
“Okay, listen. From here on out just imagine how happy the emperor will be to accept our favors in exchange for his quest; especially since we now know what each of us are capable of,” Riker offered. He looked over to Llorva then to Vylasgarden. “So, what do you say? Are you with me?” The women looked to each other and hesitated. “Llorva you told us that you wanted adventure. Well here is the opportunity you have been waiting for. Don’t you want to look back on this moment and remember saying yes?” He then focused his attention to Vylasgarden. “Vylasgarden you told me that you trusted me. Trust me now because one thing is for sure, I cannot do this without the two of you.”
Vylasgarden and Llorva looked at each other again. One look into each other’s eyes told them what the other was going to say. “Okay,” Vylasgarden and Llorva said together.
“Fantastic! Now let us get to know our new traveling companions,” Riker replied then gestured back to the campfire. They returned to Jared and his warbound. “My friends and I will join your warbound in the journey to the Shinning City,” Riker said shaking Jared’s large hand.
“Ho! Ho! Perfect. What did I tell you boys? Not all elves are snobs,” Jared said with a toothy smile.
“But all orcs are boulderheads,” Llorva said under her breath. Vylasgarden being the only person whom heard her gave Llorva a smirk.
Baron Von Riker
Later that night while everyone slept Riker and Jared conversed by the fire; it was about what was motivating them to take on the emperor’s quest.
“I wish to gain a boat from the emperor for my brothers,” Jared told him.
“Why do you want a boat?” Riker asked.
“My brothers and I have never seen the ocean. I promised them, that we will sail the seas one day,” Jared answered.
Riker paused for a moment and thought of a following question. “What does it mean to be warbound?” he asked.
“We are from a small settlement called Mizcur. It was once a territory of human tribes till a clan of orcs attacked and pillaged it,” Jared’s joyful expression turned grim. “Months later the human mothers of Mizcur gave birth to halfblood children. They either killed the babies or abandoned us in the nearby forests hoping that we would die.”
“How did you survive?” Riker asked.
“I remember at some point being raised by a pack of dire wolves. Let me tell you, there is no creature of the forest that is as intelligent as the dire wolf. I remember that they killed any of the children they sought unworthy of their care. The rest of us lived and became members of the pack. For years I was an animal,” Jared said starring into the fire with hate in his eyes. “Sometime later we returned and took Mizcur for ourselves. We only killed those who resisted, he emphasized. We just wanted a home. We wanted what they denied us.” Jarred took a moment to breathe and Riker watched him intently. “When the orcs came back we defended Mizcur alongside the next generation of humans we shared blood with. Together we slaughtered every orc that came. The humans rejoiced and made us their champions despite their hatred for us. Ever since we have been warbound with our human brothers. Though as of late I led my own brothers out of Mizcur.”
“Why did you do that?” Riker asked.
“Because since the first invasion of the orcs, Mizcur had lost much of what made it special. No neighboring settlements wanted to trade with us after the attack and the orcs had over hunted there. Times were getting hard and it made it harder to stay in the area. So, it was time we found a place to call our own elsewhere.”
“That is quite a story Jared,” Riker commented. “I too have suffered the curse being halfblood.”
Jared squinted his eyes at Riker and said, “You and I are not the same. A halfblood elf reaps more benefits from the world than a halfblood orc.” Riker was about to protest but not before Jared began speaking again. “What do you want to get from the emperor?”
“I want his help to find someone,” Riker said.
“Love or vengeance?” Jared asked facing Riker.
“I would rather not say,” Riker said as he began to play a song on his lute. He was hoping that the music would distract Jared from pressing the question forward. Jared didn’t say anything, he just sat back and listened with closed eyes. Not long after they joined the rest of the party in slumber.