Tales of Adventure: The Star-Crossed Swords

Hey everyone! Not gonna lie, I'm a huge Dungeons & Dragons geek, and this contest gave me the opportunity to explore a bit of what life might be like in a world that operated under that sort of rules. It's possible that I may revisit this band of misfits in the future, but for now, pull up a chair by the fire, grab a tankard of your favorite beverage, and enjoy!

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The Goblin’s Head wasn’t the dive-iest pub in the city, but it was close. It was stuffed into a dark, low-ceilinged basement, and though it hadn’t been deliberately built to dwarven proportions, several low, heavy ceiling beams posed a hazard to any half-ork, elf, or dragon-folk who entered. The eponymous goblin’s head was a small, shriveled thing tacked to the wall over the fireplace by a well-placed dagger through the forehead. A thin haze of smoke lingered in the air, stinging the eyes. A bar ran along the south wall, with a few stools occupied by various denizens of the city, a cross-section of all the varied races of its population, all more intent on their drinks than on their surroundings. Several small tables held more patrons, singly or in pairs, and a few larger tables in the back hosted slightly larger groups. The mood was not desperation, despair, or wantonness, but rather the sullen air of those who have reached the bottom and know they are unlikely to ever rise again.

The only person who took heed of the lone half-elf coming down the stairs was the bartender, an old dwarf with his grey beard in tangled, matted braids, who huffed at him then grabbed a dirty rag and pointedly moved to the far end of the bar, deliberately ignoring him as he scrubbed at an imaginary stain. Falen did his best to keep a grimace off his face; he knew he stood well out from the crowd present. He was fairly tall, but slender, with pale, freckled skin and short, red hair. His clothes were well-made, though plain, as though a noble were trying to “dress down”.

Ignoring the bartender’s slight, he surveyed the bar, then looked towards the tables in the back. There, at a table pulled close to the low, fitful fire, was his quarry… he hoped. He shifted his pack on his back, then picked his way through the tables to the group of women he’d spied there. One of them spotted him as he made his way over and motioned to her companions, causing their conversation to die as they all turned to watch his progress.

“Whaddya want, kid?” she said, as he approached within speaking distance. She was short, even for a halfling, but plump and curvy, with a ruddy complexion and messy, blonde hair twisted up into bun. She wore well-worn, but well-kept, leather armor with a casual ease, and she had at least three knives sheathed in easy-to-draw locations.

Falen nodded to her and the others in something of a minimally-polite bow. “I am in search of the Star-Crossed Swords, and I was told I could find them here. Are you them, or have I been misled?”

A look passed around the table, then another one of the women spoke -- a tall half-ork, her gray-green skin adorned with tattoos, and numerous bone beads threaded into her jet-black locks. “You have found us,” she said, with the thick accent common to members of the orkish tribes that roamed the northern steppes. “What is your business?”

“I wish to join you,” Falen said, nervously. His declaration was met with a brief moment of silence, followed shortly by uproarious laughter from the women. The rest of the pub’s patrons looked over at them with a mixture of confusion and annoyance, then turned and began ignoring them again.

Another of the women, a tall, pale-skinned elf with midnight-blue hair worn short and spikey, rose and grabbed an empty stool from a nearby table and pulled it up to their own. Her robes were red and gold, patterned after those of the Royal Academy mages, but lacked the tassels and badge that signified the Royal patronage, marking her as an independent mage. “Sit, child, sit. If you’re serious about that, and I have a terrible suspicion that you might be, we need to have a talk. Thrakkin!” she called towards the bar. “An ale for our guest here and for the rest of us as well, and wipe the mugs first!” There was another huff from the bar, but not long after Falen had settled himself on the stool and nestled his bag between his feet, the bartender had brought over the requested round of ale for the table. He reached for his purse, but the elf waved her hand. “This one’s on us.”

Once the bartender had shuffled off and everyone had had a chance to take their first sips of ale (it was dark and sour, but not unpleasantly so), the fourth and final woman at the table turned towards him. She was tall and broad-shouldered, with chocolate brown skin and dark brown hair woven closely into dozens of small braids. Her half-plate armor was a patchwork of different pieces, no three from the same set of armor, but they melded into a very functional whole. “So, you want to join us. First question: how old are you?”

“This is my twenty-fifth spring, m’lady,” he said, nervously. He knew he looked younger, though, both due to being a half-elf and due to… other factors.

That drew a snort from her, and a snicker from the others. “I’m a woman, aye, but I’m no one’s lady, thank you very much. My name’s Ayanda, but ‘ma’am’ works fine for now.”

“Err, yes ma’am. Sorry ma’am.”

“Better. So, twenty-five. That’s young for you half-elves, right?”

The elven woman spoke up before he could answer. “Maybe sixteen or seventeen for a human or halfling, or fourteen for a half-ork. Old enough to be considered an adult in most human kingdoms, at least, but elven communities usually wait for thirty or thirty-five.”

Ayanda nodded. “Thought so. You have a name?”

“Falen, ma’am.”

“Faaaay-len,” Ayanda said, drawling it out, causing her companions to smirk. “Now, Falen, why do you want to join a washed up pack of bitches like us? I know the Whitespears are always recruiting, and the Children of the Glade have an open invite for any elves or half-elves that want to try out. You’d have a good, comfortable life with either of those companies. Well, as comfortable as any sell-sword’s life is.”

“Well, ahh, I, umm… I heard…” his voice faltered, and he blushed.

“Have they been telling tales about us again?” Ayanda pressed.

“They said you…” he trailed off, looking away and taking another pull of his ale.

“Ahhh…” the elven woman said, quietly, with a tone of understanding. “Is ‘Falen’ the name we should really be calling you? Maybe Faylinne? Something else?”

Falen still had a mouthful of ale, forcing him to do his best to keep from spraying it all over the others. He wound up snorting it instead. After a moment of coughing and choking, punctuated by Ayanda whapping him on the back almost hard enough to knock him off his stool, he turned back to the women, nervously. “My parents named me Feylyea when I was born…” he muttered.

“Oh, child…” the elven woman said softly. “You’re going the other way, then…”

“Errr, yes, ma’am,” Falen said into his ale, as he fidgeted with the mug. “So, it’s true, then? That you all--”

The half-ork set her mug down with a thump, cutting off the half-elven lad and causing him to jump half an inch from his stool. “Not here. Come, we go to Mama’s. Fewer ears in walls there. There we tell stories and make decisions.” The women nodded and began gathering belongings and finishing their drinks, causing Falen to follow suit. Ayanda walked over to the bar, money changed hands, and soon the five of them were making their way out into the cool, crisp night.

As they walked, Falen couldn’t help but notice that all of them carried weapons. The halfling had her knives, plus a pair of long daggers strapped over either shoulder; the elf carried a stout oaken staff carved with runes and with a faintly glowing crystal on one end; the half-ork had a long, wickedly curved blade tucked through her sash; and Ayanda had a round shield slung over one shoulder and a soldier’s arming sword on her hip.

“If you don’t mind my asking, where is this ‘Mama’s’ that we’re heading?”

“Not too far,” the halfling woman said. “She runs the Red Tree over on the edge of town. It’s an inn, but the common room is open to everyone, and there are some back rooms where you can have a proper conversation. The beer’s more expensive, so it’s not as good for your everyday drinking, but the food’s pretty good.”

“I see. Also, I hope I don’t sound ungracious, but only Ayanda introduced herself. I didn’t get the rest of your names?”

The plump halfling woman turned to face him, and gave a graceful, flourishing bow, all while walking backwards on the cobblestoned streets. “Call me Rose. A pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

The elven woman spoke up next from behind him. “I am Nimlye, child.” The way she said it, it rolled almost musically into three light syllables, ‘Nim-li-eh’.

“Durga,” the half-ork said, next. It took Falen a moment to realize that that was the entirety of her introduction.

Before he could reply, though, Ayanda spoke up from the front of the group. “We’re here.”

The common room of the Red Tree was larger than the Goblin’s Head, but also cozier somehow. Several tapestries had been hung on the walls, and a pair of fireplaces on either end of the room were bright and well-tended, warming the room and giving it a cheery glow. Instead of the bar and scattered tables, a pair of long tables ran almost the length of the room, with patrons perched on stools along them, chattering and eating. A small stage was raised at one end, and a pair of troubadours sat there, with one singing an elven drinking song while the other accompanied him on her mandolin.

A large human woman bustled over to them as they entered. Her dark hair was shot through with steel grey, but her arms looked thicker and stronger than Falen’s legs, and the calloused hands she wiped on her apron spoke of decades of honest work. Her eyes narrowed in a glare as she looked them over.

“I thought I told you lot what I’d do the next time I saw you,” she growled. Falen’s companions all looked at one another, uncertainty on their faces. Before any of them could react, she burst out laughing, grabbed Ayanda, and pulled her into a bone-creaking hug. After a moment, she released her and reached for Durga, who simply sighed as the innkeeper all but lifted her off the ground. Rose did get lifted, and then Nimlye received a somewhat more sedate hug, as if the woman was wary of crushing the slender elf. “Thank you all again for sorting those boors out last week. Your first round’s on me tonight. What’ll it be? And who’s your friend?”

This was clearly not the reception the Swords were expecting, and it took Nimlye a moment before she responded. “The young one is Falen, Mama. Is one of the back rooms free? We need to have a conversation with him.”

“The damn fool wants to join up!” Rose piped up.

Mama cast an appraising eye over Falen, who was doing his best to hide behind Ayanda. “Hmm… I see. The small room is free. You’ll be wanting drinks, I assume? Ale?”

Rose piped up, “Wine, since you’re buying! And whatever you’re serving for supper if the pot’s still on.”

“Cheeky. I’ll have the girl bring it back to you.”

“Thanks, Mama!” said Ayanda, leading them across the room and through a doorway at the back. The room they entered was maybe ten feet on a side, mostly filled by a large table and half a dozen mismatched chairs. An oil lamp on the table provided ample light, while a small brazier in the corner provided some warmth. They settled themselves around the table, with weapons and bags getting heaped on the spare chair. As Durga poked up the coals, a tow-headed girl of maybe fourteen came in. In one hand, she held an earthenware jug, while the other balanced a tray with several glasses on it.

“Good evening, Bera, and thanks!” Ayanda said loudly to the girl, leaning back so that she could set down the wine and glasses. The girl bobbed a curtsey, then made a series of rapid gestures at Ayanda. “Oh, no, you’re more than welcome,” Ayanda said, making her own series of gestures as she spoke. “Let us know if anyone else is giving you trouble like that and we’ll sort them right out.” The girl replied with a smile and another short series of gestures. “We already asked your mother about some dinner, but a pitcher of water would be great with it.” The girl bobbed another curtsey and ducked back out of the room.

“Uhh…” Falen said, watching the girl leave.

“She’s mostly deaf and doesn’t speak, but she can read lips if you’re clear, and knows sign-speak as well. You’ll pick it up if you spend enough time around here,” Nimlye said. Rose, meanwhile, began pouring the wine, a rich, dark red, and everyone soon had a glass.

“So,” Ayanda said, “what brings a half-elven girl-turned-boy to our table at a quarter to drunk at night?”

Falen sighed, took a swig from his wine, then sighed again, trying to collect his words. “My parents refuse to see me as anything but their darling younger daughter. I expressed an interest in adventuring, and my mother threw a fit. ‘No way in the Nine Hells is my little girl going to live that kind of life!’ You mentioned the Whitespears and the Children of the Grove. My dad wrote letters to the commanders of both of those companies, threatening suits against them if they accepted the application of ‘his daughter’. The other public companies got word from them. I tried applying to the Black Eagles as myself, and got laughed out of the room. Well, I finally reached my majority last month, so my parents can’t bring suit, at least, but I’m still blacklisted from all of the big companies, and my parents cut me off as long as I stand by my ‘foolish delusion’.”

“Hmm…” Ayanda began, but further reply was interrupted by a knock on the door, followed by Bera’s return. This time she bore a larger tray, laden with steaming bowls of stew, fresh bread, a large wedge of cheese, and a pitcher and extra cups. Ayanda and Durga quickly rose and helped her unload the meal, then Bera curtsied again and left. “So, you said ‘screw it’ anyway, and decided to leave the safety and comfort of home for the life of a sell-sword instead.”

“If it means I can be myself, yes. I refuse to be married off to some damn merchant’s brat to secure a stupid business contract. And with my parents cutting me off, I can either sell my sword or myself, and frankly, the latter’s not for sale.” That drew a round of nods. “So, as I was getting laughed out of the Eagles, one of them made some crack that only the Star-Crossed Swords would take a ‘freak’ like me,” she spat the word, “and I figured, ‘why the Hells not’, and decided to seek you out. I, umm, was kind of hoping to find you in a better setting than the Goblin’s Head, but I suppose this place isn’t too bad.”

“Yeah, the Head’s a dump,” Rose said between bites of stew, “but the lot over there know us and don’t give two shits about us. Plus the ale is way better than it should be for what Thrakkin charges for it, so it’s our usual watering hole. But Mama’s here is the place to get a proper meal. Pass the loaf?”

Durga spoke up. “What do you do?” she asked, then pointed to Ayanda. “She fights,” Rose: “She sneaks,” Nimlye: “She conjures,” then herself, “And I ask spirits for aid. What do you do?”

“Well, I’m more than a fair shot with a bow. Not that I have a bow. Father took mine when I started talking about leaving, even though my brother gave it to me for my naming-day. But I’m pretty good with them. I can do a bit of magic, but mostly household stuff like mending and minor healing. And I’ve fenced a bit, umm, not that I have a rapier.”

Ayanda shook her head, causing her many braids to ripple. “Of course not. What do you have on you, kid?”

Falen looked down at the table. “A couple changes of clothing, forty-odd silver, and my knife.” He gestured to the short knife on his belt, more useful for eating than for fighting.

“Huh. Well, I have a spare bow, though it’s nothing fancy, and I’ll bet Mama has a rapier stashed away somewhere that we can borrow in the morning. I suppose we can give you a tryout then. Do you use a buckler off-hand or a dagger?”

Falen looked up, hope in his eyes for the first time that night. “Either, ma’am, although I’m better with the buckler. But, really? You’ll give me a tryout?”

Ayanda looked around the table, and the others all nodded. “Just a tryout, mind you. No promises. We do some dangerous stuff, and we can’t afford to bring someone with us who can’t keep up. In our work, ‘dead weight’ quickly just becomes ‘dead’.”

“Thank you! I understand. That’s all I can ask, I guess.”

“Now, I’m sure you have questions for us, I can tell.”

Nimlye chuckled. “‘Question’, you mean. He's already tried asking it once.”

Ayanda grinned, then nodded. “Go ahead, ask it.”

Falen swallowed his mouthful of bread, washed it down with a quick sip of water, then asked, nervously. “I… Ah… Someone said that you were all actually men.”

“Look around, boy, do we look like a bunch of men to you?” Rose asked, waving around the table. “Not a swinging cod among us!”

“But, umm…”

Ayanda patted him on the shoulder, gently. “Don’t worry, we know what you mean. And the answer is yes. All four of us were born male.”

“But, how? How did you change yourselves?” Falen asked, hopefully. “I did some research, when mother thought I was with my tutor. Change potions cost thousands of gold and only last for a few hours at most. There isn’t even anyone in the kingdom that could make one! And any spell that could do it would have to be at least seventh circle! I’d practically have to get an Archmagus or the High Cleric herself to cast it for me!”

“Well, for the most part it wasn’t by choice, and I doubt that anything that happened to us could be replicated for you, at least in any safe fashion.”

Falen’s face fell. He nodded, and took a slow sip of wine. “I understand. But I’d still like to hear how it happened. To each of you, I mean. If that’s okay.”

Ayanda looked around the table, a slow smile forming on her face. “Now there’s an old bunch of tales, but I suppose it’s reasonable request. We certainly haven’t dusted them off in a while. Who goes first?”

“Not it!” called Rose, who was busily mopping up her bowl with a hunk of bread.

“Pass!” said Nimlye, holding a finger alongside her nose and smiling.

“You are both cowards. I will tell first,” Durga said, then rose and stirred up the brazier again. Remaining on her feet, she turned to face the table.

“Many winters ago, I rode with the Strong Lion clan of my mother’s people. My father was a pink-skin slave, captured by her as war-prize from the Swift Antelope clan many years before. She named me her true-son when I was born, and I was welcomed into the clan. I became a war-rider, a head-taker. Many times I fought, and many times I felled my foe. Human, dwarf, ork, goblin. Manticore, dread-wolf, dead-that-walk, griffon. All fell before me. I made my name in their blood.

“My kin would have named me war-leader of all the clans, but our war-leader was the chief’s brother, and he was a coward. He would not face me in trial of arms, as was my right, but demanded that I make a trial of strength instead. The chief commanded that I bring back a feather of the great-eagle, the roc, that roosts in the mountains to the north, but that takes the buffalo and elephant as its prey from the steppes below. He said if I returned with the feather, that it meant the spirits had favored me, a half-human, and wanted me to be war-leader instead of his brother, who was pure-blooded.

“I had no choice. I could not say no, or they would think me weak, and weakness was death. I took my blade and my horse, and I rode north to the mountains. Many days I rode, towards the high peaks where the great-eagles roost. Several times I saw them high overhead, flying out on the hunt or bringing their prey home to feast. I heard their hunting-cries, and their triumph-cries, and they spurred me onward. After a moon’s turn, I left my horse, for the ground was rocky and steep, and began climbing. I found the den of a bear, brown and fat, who attacked me in his hunger. I slew him, took his claws as trophies, and feasted on his flesh to draw his strength into my own, as the spirits command. I climbed further, and found the home of a hill-giant, who tried to crush me with his great club. I slew him, took his gold rings as bracelets, and sacrificed his heart to the spirits as an offering for their guidance.

“Finally, after a week of climbing, I found the nests of the great-eagles. I found the heaps of bones, of elephants and buffalo, horse and lion, that they had feasted on. I heard their mother-cries and their young-cries, and I gave thanks to the spirits, for I had reached my goal. But there were many, many, far too many for even a warrior such as me to battle. But then I saw the nests, where they had pulled from their own feathers to line them for their young, and I saw the course I must take. That night, I crept towards a nest, and made to pull a feather free, but the mother-roc heard me and attacked, thinking me an egg-taker.

“I drew my sword and stood my ground, as a warrior should, but though I drew her blood, the she-roc was too great even for me, and she clawed me with her talons and tore at me with her great beak, and cast me from the peak where their nests lay. And down I fell, among the broken rocks and trees below. I lay there for hours, until the warmth of dawn was on my face, and with my dying breath, I called out to the Great Mother Sun, who guides us and protects us from the darkness. I felt my blood, my strength, water the earth beneath me, and I called out to Great Father Stone, whose back we tread upon and who supports us in all things. And then I died.

“But Mother Sun and Father Stone heard my cry, and knew that a true warrior had called to them with the last of his strength, in the act of a mighty deed made in their honor, and they sent one of their spirits to me. The stone-spirit, mountain-born, came to me, and laid her hand upon my broken body. ‘Be at peace, warrior,’ she said. ‘I will join with you, and your mighty strength will be mine, and mine yours. But your form is broken, and not even our strengths combined can make it whole as it was. The joining will change it, and I cannot say how. Do you accept my strength, knowing the cost?’ I accepted. My spirit joined with hers, and I awoke as you see me. And in my joy and triumph, in my hand was a shining, golden feather, torn from the flank of the she-beast that had slain me as she carried me from her nest.

“In triumph I returned, though the journey was long, and I showed the feather I had taken. But the chief and his brother laughed, and said they would never make a woman their war-leader, and cast me out. I would have slain them both on the spot, but my ordeal and my change had left me weaker than I once was, and I could see in the eyes of my kinsmen that they did not know me any more, and would have slain me in turn. So I left.

“I rode south, and soon reached your lands. I tried to buy food and drink, but the peasants threw stones, and shouted, and called for soldiers. I rode farther south, then the soldiers found me. I would have slain them, but these women arrived before blood could be spilled and prevented a grave mistake. They named me battle-sister, and I have ridden with them since.”

She finished by lifting her wine-glass, and the others all lifted theirs in turn, and they drank together. Falen lifted his own glass and drank with them--it seemed rude not to.

The toast complete, Ayanda leaned back in her chair, then pushed it back and stood, stretching. “Alright, I don’t think I can top that, and I’d rather not follow it, but I doubt either of those two are going to step up.” Nimlye and Rose both held fingers alongside their nose, exchanged a look, then burst into giggles. “Right, then. Top me up?”

Nimlye grabbed the jug, then frowned. “Hmm, looks like we’ll need a refill. More wine, or should we switch to ale since Mama’s not paying for it?”

“Ale!” was the chorus from the other three women, and Rose was sent out to procure it. A few minutes later, Bera returned with her tray, bringing a round of full mugs and a pitcher with more, and cleared the finished dinner plates.

Ayanda shut the door behind Bera, then took a pull from her mug and wiped the froth from her lips. “Ahh, much better than the sour piss Thrakkin pours. Now then, my story. I was born to far to the south, in some little flea-speck of a village that isn’t worth mentioning. One of those places where your options in life are farm or leave. I grew up on a farm, and I hated it. And since I was the fourth son, I stood to inherit absolutely nothing once my father and mother died, so I didn’t even have that going for me.

“So since farming was out, I took the other option as soon as I could. Just after my fourteenth birthday, I hightailed it to the the nearest city, down on the southern coast. I wasn’t smart, and I wasn’t clever, but I was strong as an ox and just as stubborn, so I went to the City Guard station and asked to sign up. The corporal on duty booted me out on my ass, twice. Said I was too young. Now, growing up with three older brothers teaches you a few things about getting your way, so I went back a third time, tossed the corporal to the ground, twisted his arm ‘round, and said that if he tried to toss me out again, I’d break it in half.

“The sergeant on duty that day was a dragon-folk, a huge blue-scaled bastard with a temper to boot, and he grabbed me by the back of the shirt and pulled me off the corporal one-clawed. He said to my face--since he was holding me at his eye-level, mind you--that the Guard had zero use for pipsqueaks that attacked officers, but that if I proved I could follow orders and stay out of trouble, maybe they had a place for me. Since I didn’t have the money to buy an apprenticeship, my only other option was to try my luck on the streets, so I said yes.

“For two years, I was their errand-boy. I slept in the hay-loft above the Guard’s stables -- which I was in charge of mucking out, since I had so much experience with that, of course. I polished armor and weapons, I ran messages, I helped the quartermaster unload supplies, I helped the cook in the kitchen, I kept the barracks clean. All the stupid scutwork. I hated it. But on my sixteenth birthday, that blue bastard of a sergeant stood me before him and swore me into the guard. I learned to wear armor, to fight with a sword, a spear, and a bow. I learned how to ride in a fight. I learned how to read a crowd, how to spot a thief on the streets, how to break up a fight or prevent one from starting. I made friends. I met a few girls, and even took a few to bed.”

She gave a wistful smile, then frowned and pulled at her ale. “And then the pirates came.” She refilled her mug from the pitcher, took another swig, and continued.

“I was nineteen when they came. The city had a small navy, mostly to make sure the traders coming into port paid the taxes that were due, but they were no match for a raid like this. A score of captains with half a hundred ships had banded together under the same black flag to pluck the juiciest fruit within two hundred miles. They swept our navy aside like dinghies before a hurricane, then fell on the traders. We sounded the alarm and manned the catapults and ballistae on the harbor, but they had hired mages, and they quickly blasted our defenses from their mountings. Raiders came ashore by the boatload. Scores of them swarmed the docks and seawall, slaughtering anyone who tried to resist.

“My sergeant, that scaly son of a lizard, was feathered with arrows as soon as he reached the water’s edge. The corporal whom I’d wrestled to the ground five years before, a sergeant now himself, was cut to ribbons before me. I panicked. I fled. I was not the only one. I stopped just long enough to dump my Guard tabard in a gutter, then joined the masses heading for the landward gates.

“They hauled off everything that wasn’t nailed down, pried up a few things that were, then burned the rest to the ground. There was nothing left to go back to but rubble-filled foundations and a set of walls. I went north. On the road, I did things to survive that I regret to this day. I hurt people and stole from them -- common banditry. I was headed rapidly towards a violent death or the noose.

“Then one day I made the fortunate mistake of trying to rob a proper adventuring company. It was a small one, only five people, and I had just ‘acquired’ a crossbow and was feeling cocky. Well, they put me on the ground in short order. The leader was a brute of a man but a kind one, and once I came to my senses, he offered me a better life. Said he saw ‘true steel’ in me. I thought he was crazy, but I said ‘yes’ and joined up.

“I travelled with them for three years. We ranged all over; the dwarfholm in the south, the elven woods, the warring kings in the far east. One day we heard a rumor of a lost treasure, buried centuries ago. One of my companions thought the rumor sounded like something she’d heard before, and after a bit of research, we thought we had a pretty good idea of where it could be found.

“Well, we found where the treasure had been buried, all right -- in the tomb of some long-forgotten king. It was a nasty trip in, and several times we almost paid for that treasure with our lives. But we made it in the end. There was whole chamber filled with gold, jewels, and everything else, and half a dozen enchanted items as well.

“Turns out we’d missed an important part of the tale: the curse. Almost as soon as we started divvying the loot, the gold melted into dust before our eyes. The gems turned to stone, and the fine silks to tattered rags. Our leader had drawn an enchanted blade, and it drove itself into his heart, killing him on the spot. My companions met similar fates from the enchanted weapons they had chosen. I had donned a belt which I had been told would enhance my strength. Instead, it changed me into a woman.” Ayanda gestured to the finely-woven belt tied around her waist. “Of course, once the change was complete, all magic faded from it. At this point it’s just a keepsake. I recovered what I could from the bodies of my fallen companions, but I had to leave their remains where they laid; there were too many dangers between the cursed tomb and the surface for me to try and bring them out alone. So I laid them out as best I could, said the few prayers I could remember, and left.

“I sent the forget-me-not letters they had written, sold the belongings I had taken from them, then used that money to drink myself into a stupor. Two months later Nimlye here showed up, pulled my sorry ass out of the gutter, and said that she was founding a company and needed a thug to hide behind, that she knew my sob story and didn’t care, and that since I was so determined to die anyway, I might as well do so profitably. That was twenty-one years ago, and I’m not dead yet!”

Ayanda raised her mug, then drained it in one long swig. The others did the same. Falen tried joining in, but almost choked, and set his mug down, sputtering. “Don’t worry, kid, you’ll learn,” Ayanda said, laughing, and thwacked him on the back again. “Okay, you two, who’s next?”

Rose smirked at Nimlye. “Flip you for it?”

Nimlye grinned. “Sure, but Ayanda does the flip.”

Rose pouted. “Deal. But you keep both hands flat on the table. No magic!”

It was Nimlye’s turn to pout. “Damn. Fine. I get to call it, though.” Rose stuck her tongue out, but nodded, so Nimlye spread both hands on the table, then said, “Okay, flip it.”

Ayanda just rolled her eyes and dug a copper out of her pouch. “Okay, here goes.”

The coin arced up, then Ayanda caught it and slapped it down on the back of her hand, keeping it covered. She looked over at Nimlye, who smiled and said “Crest!”

Ayanda brought her hands over to Falen then lifted the top one. The king’s miniature profile shone up at them. “Crown! Looks like it’s your turn, Nim!” Ayanda laughed, and Nimlye gracefully rose from the table.

“Bah! Alright. But you’re not getting my whole life story. We’d be here all night and next morning as well. I’m older than all of you plus Mama and little Bera put together. Besides, you ladies know most of it already. So, where to begin?” She pondered for a moment, and Falen took the opportunity to ask something he’d been wondering.

“If it’s a good starting point, I noticed your robes…”

“Oh, hmm… I suppose that’s as good a place as any. You know that we elves age slower than the rest of you, yes? Well, I grew up in the elven enclave in the capital, and came of age at the spring equinox, in my one hundred and fifty second year. As my magical talent was stronger than most, I applied to the Royal Academy upon my majority, and was accepted there almost immediately. I began my course of study that autumn.

“Adjusting to human magical teaching was… difficult, but once I was properly settled, I progressed rapidly. In ten years, I graduated from the Academy with high honors. I had my choice of positions waiting for me. A teacher of whom I was fond was a minor member of a noble family, and the head of her family was in need of arcane advisement, so with her introduction, I entered service with their family and served in that capacity for fifteen years.

“Then war broke out. This was in the reign of our current king’s grandfather, almost eighty years ago. As a graduate of the Royal Academy, I was sworn ‘to protect the kingdom and its crown against those that would do it harm’, and thus I was duly summoned. The count that I served also received summons, as the crown was rallying its armies, and we journeyed together at the head of his levy of footmen and archers. I presented myself formally and was ordered to accompany the count and his forces and provide whatever aid I could in support of their efforts.

“Almost every graduate of the Royal Academy from the past twenty years, plus the better portion of the top three classes still matriculating, received similar notices and assignments. Adding in the various spell-swords, hedge-wizards, and mages-for-hire that had signed on, over three hundred arcanists marched west with our army, plus a similar number of clerics and holy warriors from the churches in the kingdom. A thousand mounted knights, ten thousand men-at-arms… A mightier host has not been seen since. Sadly, our foes had similar strength, drawing upon their dark arts and the wretched gods they served, conjuring spirits of the dead and damned, and lead by the dread red wyrm, Edorax.”

Nimlye took a sip from her ale, then stared down at it for a moment, before setting it down and looking at Falen. “You’ve heard of the Spellwastes, yes? The blasted wastelands far to the west, where wild magic warps the face of the world and spells themselves take form and move on their own?” Falen nodded, wide-eyed. “This was the war that created them. All manner of magic was used in that war, and at the highest circles of power. Rituals and evocations, summonings, vast conjurations. The world had never seen its like, and I pray it never will again. My own part was small, but I cast my share of spells, and I am as culpable as the rest.”

She sighed. “In the end, we were victorious, but what a wretched victory. Edorax was slain at the height of the war, in a battle that broke the foe's resolve and tore the fundament of the world itself. The king demanded a trophy of the fallen wyrm, but so mighty were the magics used to bring down the beast that none could approach his corpse without their form becoming warped beyond recognition. It lies there still today, rotting where it fell.

“We journeyed home victoriously, but not triumphantly. Not one in five returned with us. My count and his son had both fallen in the last, tremendous battle, along with many of their retainers and soldiers. And though it was simple luck that I had been spared the same fate, I was summarily dismissed from my position with the house, and no other families would accept my service.

“Fortunately, despite the black mark on my name among the nobility, the Academy itself saw no fault with me, and with so many acclaimed mages slain during the war, they happily accepted my petition to join the faculty there. But teaching held little appeal for me, and I grew melancholy, retreating into research and study. I grew obsessed with the damage we had wrought upon magic itself, and was determined to discover how we might reverse it.

“For more than a score of years, I sequestered myself in the libraries of the Academy. Finally, I petitioned the Academy's magisters for permission to lead an expedition back to the Spellwastes, to test my theories and study them first-hand. After much deliberation, my petition was accepted.

“Six full mages, myself included, a dozen of my best students, and an assortment of guards and porters made the journey west. As much as I desired to delve straight to the heart of the Wastes, we were required to stay on the edges and see what information we could gather from there. We learned much, but at the cost the lives of five guards and one of my students. I brought word to his family myself.

“With the information gained during the expedition, I returned to my research and studies. After another ten years, I found what I believed to be the key to restoring the Spellwastes. I petitioned again to lead another expedition, but this time to the very heart, the remains of Edorax himself. It was summarily dismissed, and I was warned that they would not accept any further such petitions. I resigned on the spot and vowed to make the journey myself.

“The stipend granted by the Royal Academy to its researchers is small, but over the course of almost two-score years I had spent little of it, and I used those savings to hire porters and guards myself. They all deserted me, however, once we reached the edge of the Spellwastes. But I was a man possessed, and ventured on alone. After decades of research, I thought I could avoid the worst of the hazards. I was wrong.

“Doom struck me on the morning of the fifth day. I was surprised by a walking corpse, a remnant of the war. Its wild lurching startled me, and in my haste and surprise, I blasted it with the simplest of cantrips. This was a critical mistake. I was deep within the blasted lands, and immediately, I felt the energy of my simple spell rippling out like a beacon. I fled from that place immediately, but my minor act of magic had alerted all of the wild, animate spells, and they mindlessly began to converge upon me.

“I drove onward. I was obsessed with righting the wrong I had helped propagate, and no longer held even my own safety above this goal. I merely wished to survive long enough to restore the world to its proper order. I soon reached the massive corrupted zone around the fallen wyrm and plunged into it headlong, hesitating only to cast a careful abjuration designed to protect me from the worst of the effects.

“It mostly worked. I could feel my form changing as I approached the body, but pressed onwards heedlessly. I began my preparations, but Fate was against me that day. One of the animated spells was powerful enough to penetrate the magical tempest that surrounded me, and it set upon me. My ward was not built for that sort of attack and did little to slow it. Terribly, it was a spell of Feeblemind, and as it struck I could feel all of my decades of research wiped away. I destroyed it with the few spells its blow had left me, then frantically cast the half-remembered incantation that I had once thought would restore the world. It had absolutely no effect, and I no longer knew why. The Feeblemind had struck the most critical part of my memory, erasing everything in the blink of an eye.

“I took the only option left to me: retreat. I fled the hazards of the wyrm’s corpse, then read a scroll of recalling. It should have deposited me safely in the rooms I had taken in the capital after resigning from the Academy. Unfortunately, the spell misfired. It flung me across the world, scattering my possessions and my remaining notes to the four winds. I was left, all but naked, in an unceremonious heap in a pig-sty outside the capital -- a final insult to my venture into the Spellwastes.

“As I began cleaning pig shit off of myself, I discovered that I had been transformed into a female. To be honest, this was something of a relief -- the form I had been left in was whole and perfectly bearable. I was not monstrous or deformed, I retained all of my faculties -- save those lost horribly to the Feeblemind -- and from what I could see of my reflection in the trough where I was cleansing myself, I was not unattractive, either, though that was only a small concern. Given how tragically the rest of my venture had gone, I found my new status entirely acceptable.

“Still, it was a rather ignominious return to the city. I had lost my tools, my notes, the better part of my clothing, my very face and form, and, worst of all by far, I'd lost the hard years of study that had driven me for so long. I stumbled back to my quarters, ignoring the jeers and crude comments of the populace around me. The following morning, I sent a most contrite letter to the Academy, offering my most sincere apologies and asking whether they might consider my reinstatement. The answer was a polite but exceedingly firm ‘no’. I had burned my last bridge there, and they were glad to be rid of me. They even saw fit to bar my access to their libraries, such that I could not even study on my own support.

“I'd spent most of my savings on the doomed expedition, and no respectable employment was available to a mage with my wretchedly sullied reputation. Even the better class of mercenary companies declined my applications. There was enough small demand for my services from private individuals that I was able to keep myself fed, clothed, and sheltered, but gone was any chance at a steady position that would keep me in the comfort I'd once known, or that would allow me access to the resources I’d once had.

“After a year of that marginal living, I resolved to form my own company. I posted notices that I was accepting applications in all the likeliest locations. I received none. Well, a few crude louts made half-literate attempts that were more come-on than inquiry, and I dismissed them out of hand. Everyone worth hiring was steering clear of me. One evening, though, a neighbor of mine mentioned Ayanda’s situation and that she might be a suitable fit. As it turns out, she was. Not long after, we found Rose and Durga, and we’ve been together since.”

She raised her mug, paused, filled it, then drained it, and the others drained theirs as well. Falen managed to drink his straight off this time, though a portion of it wound up on his shirt. Rose couldn’t help but notice, and burst into a fit of drunken giggles..

“It looks like our young friend here is just about done-in, and, wheeeeeee… I’m a bit pickled myself. How about we see if Mama can put us up for the night, and then I’ll tell my story tomorrow over breafka- brek.. break-fast. Heee...”

“I knew we should’ve made the halfling go first,” muttered Ayanda.

“Every time she does this,” Durga agreed. “Small mug for you next time.”

“Awwwww…” Rose pouted.

“The lightweight does has a point, though,” Nimlye said, stretching. “It’s well after midnight, and if we are going to give Falen a tryout in the morning, we had all better be properly rested.”

“Yeah, I suppose you’re right,” Ayanda said, as she began gathering the empty mugs. “Alright, Rose, you get a reprieve. But you’re the breakfast entertainment, and no escaping that!”

“Yes’m!” Rose said, grinning.

As it happened, Mama didn’t have any bedrooms free, but there were spaces enough for all of them in the common room by the fire. Bedrolls were procured, and the group was soon bedded down on the floor for the night.

Early the next morning, Durga, Ayanda, and Nimlye (Rose being impossible to rouse) dragged Falen out beyond the edge of town to put him through his paces. With the borrowed weapons, Falen shot at targets conjured by Nimlye, sparred with Ayanda and Durga, and did his best to resist Durga and Nimlye’s charms and spells. He didn’t exactly pass with flying colors -- Durga had him doing his best chicken impression at one point -- but the women were satisfied enough that they welcomed Falen as the newest member of the Star-Crossed Swords.

Two hours after they’d first risen, they were all -- Rose included -- back in the same back room as before, with Bera serving them eggs, toast, cheese, fruits, and griddled sausages, along with large pots of tea.

Ayanda swallowed a bite of egg, then turned to her halfling companion. “Alright, Rose, it’s your turn.”

Rose made a show of rubbing her temples and wincing. “Aww, do I have to? My head’s killing me!”

“Of course it is, you went drink for drink with Durga last night! We even let you sleep through the tryout! Now have some tea and get gabbing.”

“Fiiiiiiine. No sympathy…” Rose muttered, before downing the contents of her mug and re-filling from the pot. “It all started shortly after I took the throne as god-emperor of the--OW!”

“The real story, Rose, please?” asked Nimlye, who had just pinched her ear.

“Okay, fine, but my version’s better. I turn into a giant worm!”

I will turn you into a worm, if you do not begin,” Durga said around a mouthful of breakfast.

“Really? That could be neat!” Rose asked, hopefully.

“No. Talk.”

“Hmph. Fine. I just, y'know, don't really like talking much about my past. And my story’s pretty boring, too. No wars or giant monsters or curses. Well, kind of a curse, but not really. But I'll get to that."

"You'd better," muttered Ayanda.

Rose stuck her tongue out, then continued. "Okay, so, pretty much every city and town on a river has a bunch of halflings living along the banks and by the docks, right? We like to travel, and rivers are a great way of traveling easily. You might’ve noticed that most of the ships down at the docks have halfling captains and a lot of halflings on the crew? Same reason. It's in our nature.

"Well, family's big with us, since we travel so much. Not really in a 'living together' sort of way, but more of a 'cousin's uncle's wife's nephew' sort of way. When two halflings meet, if there isn't someone else there to make introductions, they'll spend a few minutes sorting out the family connection, and there's usually at least one. Except with me. I'm an orphan. Not only an orphan, but I was abandoned without so much as a name from my birth parents. So that kind of left me on the outside of things. I mean, there's, y'know, procedures, accepted courtesies, or whatever, for foundlings like me, but it's a mark against you right from go. 'Nice to meet you! Who's son are you?' 'Oh, umm, I'm a son of the river.' '...Ah...' You get my point. I tried making something up once, but that fell apart in no time. There's only so many of us, so liars and false-namers get found out real quick, and people don't like it when you try and hang your leaf on their branch.

"At the ripe old age of six, I scarpered from the orphanage where I'd been dumped. I just couldn't deal with the kids there any more. Yeah, they were orphans, too, but their parents at least had the decency to die on them, not just dump them and run. Luckily, I was small even for a halfling kid and didn't need much in the way of food or shelter, so I survived well enough by pilfering what I needed.

"When I was about eleven, I started moving around a bit. I'd sign on as a cabin boy on a river-boat or just stow away on a big-folk's boat, and head to the next town or city along. I spent a few years bouncing between different towns, occasionally taking the odd job here or there. But even that got… tiresome… after a while. So I signed aboard a boat heading downriver to the capital, and jumped ship there. I was fourteen.

"The capital was the biggest city I'd been in by far, and I got into some serious trouble almost immediately. In three days flat, I’d run afoul of the Guard, two gangs of street thugs, and a pack of thieves. I was lucky with the last one, though. Their leader saw something in me that she liked, and rather than string me up by the squishy bits, she took me in. They trained me properly, and I was very quickly their star second-story man. I could get into anywhere that wasn't outright magicked shut. I'm sure the Guard would've loved to get their mitts on me, but we were well-trained and disciplined, and they never came close to catching us.

"For eleven years I lived the high life. I was number two in the gang, and we were the best in the capital, and nobody besides us knew it. And we liked it that way. The papers started referring to us 'The Ghosts', because they figured nobody could’ve pulled off the our heists without using magic. I'd give more details, but some of the cases are still open, and I'd rather not spill those beans.

"Well, every mountain has its peak, and mine was the high-summer festival at the Grand Temple. Every year, all the nobles gather at the Temple, beg forbearance for their misdeeds, give thanks, pray for a bountiful harvest, and, most importantly, offer their annual tithes. And it’s not just the nobles, either -- merchants, guildsmen, and common-folk also bring offerings, everything from coin to goods to food. You'd see beggars offer their last copper in hopes that it'd bring them two the next year. And the clerics there would take all of this money, and they'd give some back out, sure, but then the rest would go down into the vault, to get sorted and counted and distributed once the festival was over. By the end of the festival, that vault was the juiciest fruit in the city short of the palace itself. So we plucked it. Well, we tried to, anyway.

"I'm not going to go into details -- trade secrets, y’know. Suffice to say, myself and a few hand-picked associates got in, and we did it without killing anyone. A few acolytes and guards were going to have nasty lumps the next day, but, hey, at least they had healing magics close at hand, right? And Oh. My. Gods, you cannot imagine the treasure that was in that vault. Gold, gems, furs, silks, jewelry, art, incense, delicacies… There was more loot there than we could carry off, and we'd all brought bags of holding! We packed up a kingdom’s ransom, then my associates headed for the exit while I made a last sweep, and that’s when I saw it. It was a statue, maybe eight inches tall at most, tucked in one of the back corners of the vault. It definitely wasn't one of the festival offerings, but a tempting green glint caught my attention anyway.

"So, being the opportunistic sort, I scuttle back and examine this treasure. And damned if it isn't a statue of a naked woman! Not, like, lewd or anything, mind you, but she was curvy, and pregnant, standing with her hands holding her belly. Y'know, your standard fertility totem sort of thing. But that’s not what drew my avaricious eye. No, this statue was carved from a single, massive emerald, and I mean good quality rock. I figured that even if we couldn't move the statue intact, we could certainly cut it and have quite the pile of untraceable emeralds to sell instead. So I grabbed it.

"Next thing I know, I'm floating in some vast, glowing space, naked as the day I was born, and there's this glowing woman standing in front of me, looking more than a little like the statue I had just picked up. Because, you see, I am an idiot, and didn't stop to think about the fact that some gods and goddesses might take offense at having their sacred relics hauled off to be carved up and sold by thieves and might take personal notice of something like that happening during one of the holiest festivals of the year. Whoops.

"Well, we talked for a bit. I can't say more about that; it was kind of between the two of us. She was actually really nice about the whole thing, though, and even answered a few questions of mine. The portion of our conversation relevant to the question at hand, though, was the matter of punishment.

“Now, she had me dead to rights, and I mean that literally. Entirely-justifiable divine wrath aside, I was a dead man for this botched job alone, as far as the law was concerned. And that's before anything else they could pin on me was tacked on. But, luckily for me, she was the forgiving type, and she offered me a second chance. In return, I had to repent my evil ways, perform assorted other acts of penance which I won't go into here, and then confess as much as I could to the pile of wardens and clerics that had gathered to apprehend me once we finished our divine pow-wow.

"And that was the sticking point. No one rats out and survives. That was a hard rule in our gang, and not even I could escape that. If I talked, I was a dead man, sooner or later, and the later it was, the more painful it would be. So she arranged for me to disappear and gave me a new form. This one. So I still lost a head for my crimes, just, y’know, the little one, not the big one.

“Anyway, we said our goodbyes, I spent the next dozen or so years fulfilling my other obligations, then I said goodbye to temple life and set out on my own. My previous line of employment was of course a no-go with her divine pregnantness keeping her eye on me, so I eventually fell in with these two. A few months later we disentangled Durga from her situation, and that was the four of us."

She lifted her mug, then frowned. “Wait, shit, we can’t toast with tea. That’s bad luck! One sec.’” Reaching into a pocket of her backpack, she produced a flask, which she quickly took a swig from. “Much better! Okay, pass it ‘round.” They did.

Falen coughed as the rough brandy burned its way down his throat. “So, Rose, do you think your goddess might be able to help me?”

“First, she’s nobody’s goddess but her own. And second, no. Sorry, kid, she’s very pro-fertile-women. It’s kinda her thing. I’m sure she’d be sympathetic, but she wouldn’t help you.”

“No, that’s fine, I understand. I just wish there was some way...” Before anyone could say anything else, a commotion in the common room interrupted them. By unspoken agreement, they went out to investigate.

A human man was standing by the door to the street, sobbing uncontrollably, and Mama was doing her best to console him. As soon as she saw them emerge from the back room, she waved them over.

“Here, these are the Star-Crossed Swords,” Mama said. “I’m sure they can help you with whatever happened, sir.” He only wailed and sobbed harder into Mama’s shirt. She looked up at the others and shrugged.

Ayanda stepped forward. “Sir, please, come have a seat and tell us what happened.”

“Stop calling me ‘sir’! I’m a woman! A witch transformed me, and now I’m stuck like this!”

Falen looked up, whispered a quick prayer of thanks, then gently took the transformed woman by the hand. “Apologies, miss, we didn’t know. Please come sit with us in the back and tell us what happened, and we’ll do everything we can to help you.”

Thus the tale of the Star-Crossed Swords ends, and thus it begins.

o=={{========> <========}}==o

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