As dawn broke over the village of Crimson Girth, Mana rained down from the heavens.
The dew gatherers woke before everyone else, venturing into the grey and pink twilight to hang gleaming canopies from the roofs of their cottages. They waited for hours, huddling under their metal-studded cloaks, as glowing purple beads of light drifted from the sky like snowflakes and collected in the cloth traps. When the Mana fall ceased, the dew gatherers carefully drained their gleaming harvest into thick clay pots, sealed them up, and hauled them away to their storehouses.
Soon, smoke started to rise from the village chimneys. Artisans and traders emerged from their homes and set out their wares on fur blankets in the market square. The village chiefs opened their doors of their longhouses, ready to welcome the prosperous, money laden travelers that passed through their land.
Before the villagers could finish their preparations, a battered and scorched caravan rolled into town.
Everyone looked up from their work and gaped as the wagons rolled by, each one charred or heavily stained with the blood and guts of spiders and mayflies. The mules drawing the carts wearily chewed the feed in their bags, and the caravan passengers swayed on their seats, bags under many of their eyes.
Chief Vincol, master of the Leather-cap Longhouse, tore his eyes away from the caravan. “So.” He muttered. “The wild animals went after them too.” He took up his broom and swept the dead insects, birds and desiccated field shrews off the doorstep of his inn. “It’s bandits riling the critters up, I’m sure of it!” He said to himself. “Or maybe demons…or demon-summoning bandits!”
The drivers pulled their wagons together in the town’s promenade, and the passengers disembarked, stretching and yawning. Most of the travelers were peasant and traders in brown-homespun cloaks, but a few stood apart. A few were clad in sturdy leather or mail coats, bore swords and staves, and all had green kerchiefs tied to their necks.
“Pilgrims…” Vincol hissed under his breath. “But are they good ones, or thugs playing holy?”
The travelers dispersed, some going to the local Tailor for fresh clothes, some kneeling before the carved rock shrine to the Hidden Gods in prayer, and most filing through the double doors of the Wailing Saber Long House, the main–and upscale– rival to the Leather Cap.
“C’mon….” Vincol grumbled, fingering a good-luck charm made of bundled herbs. “C’mon. C’mon, C’mon…” One of the travelers, clad from head to toe in a black cloak, turned and strode towards the Leather Cap. Vincol pumped his fist in the air. “A guest! Yes!” He cleared his throat. “Welcome, weary traveler–”
The cloaked figure extended a black gloved hand, finger pointing at the innkeeper. “I shall play a little game in your Hall.” He rasped, voice filled with the gloom of a graveyard. “Refuse me, and you shall regret it…”
Vincol backed a step away. “Okay?” He said. “Just so long as it’s nothing sinister…”
Wooden doors slammed open. With a whiff of ozone, a silver-haired Nobble with a thick handlebar mustache strolled into the Wailing Saber Longhouse.
“Howdy, y’all!” The tiny humanoid proclaimed. He waved his hand, fingers crooking into a mudra. An invisible trumpet echoed through the air and played a welcoming march for him. “They call me Uuco the Witness, and I’m searching for adventure!” He spread his arms wide. “Now come! Give me some quests!”
The house’s guests looked up, eyes widening a bit as they took in the elderly Nobble. The Nobble had a red hat perched jauntily on his head, a glyph-etched clay tablet strapped to his back with a bandolier, and a green Pilgrim’s kerchief around his neck. A few of the guests from the caravan groaned and went back to their drinks.
“So…” The Nobble muttered, scratching his ear with a finger. “Any good rumors or tales around these parts?” He asked. Silence greeted him. “Nothing?” He moaned. “C’mon, the world’s not that dull! There’s got to be a creepy ghost in this village that needs banishing! Or a Yobling in the woods that needs a good lightning bolt up the backside!” Uuco raised his fingers and a blue spark flew between them. “No Yobling?” He glanced around. “C’mon y’all!” He moaned. “Show me some mercy!”
The Chieftain of the house, a human woman with curled chestnut hair, full lips, and a small scar on her jawline, lowered the bowl of wine she sipped and learned forward in her fur-lined chair. “I know plenty of rumors, little Pilgrim!” She called out. “And if it’s a quest you want, I have one that’ll chill your very bones!”
“Well I’ll be tucked in lint!” Uuco exclaimed, wandering over to the bar and standing on his tip-toes. He grinned up at the Chieftain, and with a snap of his fingers his tooth literally twinkled with light. “Could you pinch me, Chief? Because every time I look at you, I keep thinking I’m in a dream!”
The chieftain stared at Uuco. Then she chuckled. “Well, aren’t you sweet!” She poured wine from a jug into a fresh bowl, then placed it on a table near her with a tall stool. “They call me Chief Valera, Pilgrim. Come on up, take a sip. And let’s see what we can do for each other!”
“Yes ma’am!” Uuco blurted out. He rushed over to the stool and tried to pull himself up. “Eh…Oof!” His thin old arms trembled. “Argh!”
Valera leaned over. “Uh…do you need help?” She asked.
“I’m fine!” Uuco insisted. “Just…need to…there!” He got onto the stool and wheezed for a moment. “Whew!” He muttered, wiping his brow with his tiny, gold-skinned hand. “Now for that drink!” He grabbed the bowler and slurped the wine down like a hummingbird. “And now…I think you mentioned a quest?” He asked, wiping his mustache clean.
Valera looked left and right, then leaned an elbow on her chair and lowered her head. “You’ve just came on from the countryside,” she whispered. “So I reckon you’ve noticed that the birds and beasts have been acting strange, right?”
“You don’t say!” Uuco replied, whispering in the same tone. “We couldn’t sleep a wink on the road without getting attacked by critters and swarmed with bugs!”
Valera nodded. “It’s been going on for weeks,” she said. “Wild animals acting oddly. Flocking in swarms. Killing each other. Sometimes even attacking people.” She leaned closer to Uuco. “And there’ve been rumors of armed strangers dressed in weird garb roaming the countryside, performing strange rites and riling animals up. Some say they’re bandits, but how could bandits do all this?”
Her knuckles popped against the her chair’s arm, and Uuco heard anger in her voice.“War Chief Rook refuses to lead a war party to investigate,” she said, eyes blazing. “I can’t blame him: there’s a lot of wilderness outside the town to cover, and he’s few followers to risk. But something’s got to be done.” She glanced down at Uuco and the green kerchief he wore. “You Pilgrims are supposed to help people during your travels, right? If you figure out what’s going on, I’ll pay you. Stop it, and I’ll pay you handsomely.”
Uuco frowned in thought, fingers drumming against the bar counter. Then he nodded, removed his pointy hat and placed it over his heart. “I swear to you, ma’am,” he said soberly, “I’ll find out what’s going on and stop it, payment or no.” He grinned. “I couldn’t refuse a quest from such a pretty gal anyway!”
Valera stared at Uuco. And then she smiled. “Well, aren’t you a gentleman!” She refilled Uuco’s bowl in silence. Uuco took another sip. “I’d start by checking out Giant’s Peak.” Valera said at last. “It’s a big rock a few miles north of the town. Sasha, the tailor’s daughter, tried playing there a week ago and was scared off by a wild-eyed Stout in rags who told her the area was overrun with Death Mushrooms.” She snorted. “Death Mushrooms don’t grow in this climate.”
“Sounds fishy,” Uuco agreed. He put his hat on his head, then stood on the stool and faced the seated guests of the Wailing Saber Longhouse. “I’m going to Giant’s Peak to solve the mystery of the crazy animals!” He hollered. “Someone ought to come with me so I won’t do so much work!”
After a moment, a kerchief-wearing Stout clad in scale armor stood up, a long-handled hammer and a sickle-like slashing sword strapped to his belt.
“I shall assist you in this quest, Comrade Nobble!” He proclaimed in a resonant baritone, stroking his beard’s braids. “I, Corax, swear you shall come to no harm!”
After a moment, a stern-looking human woman clad in traveling leathers and a green surcoat rose to her feet and picked up her harp case. “The Lady Ira shall accompany you on this expedition as well!” The Harper declared solemnly. “She shall shall not stand by when a town’s prosperity is threatened!”
Sitting at a long table by the fire pit, a figure clad in a brown shepherd’s cloak raised her hand hesitantly. “Um,” she said. “I really want to stop what’s going on, so the birds will calm down and stop hurting themselves….so I’d like to come too, if that’s alright?”
“That’s marvelous!” Uuco replied.
“Good,” the cloaked figure replied. “That’s good!” She got up, retrieved her recurved bow and quiver, and walked over to Uuco. She lowered her hood, revealing a shy smile and a scalp covered with thick, white downy feathers instead of hair.
One of the local farmers spat his drink all over his table. “That’s V’vendy Rocbeak!” He hissed, pointing at the feather-haired archer.
“She’s V’vendy the Deathweaver?” His friend choked. “Merciful Gods, the streets will run red tonight!”
Uuco nodded, smoothing his mustache with his fingers. “Not bad,” he said to himself. “Yes, you’ll all do!” He hopped off the bar stool. “Fear not, sweet Valera!” He shouted. “We Pilgrims will figure this mystery out right quick!” He rushed out the door.
The Lady Ira glanced at Corax, then V’vendy. “If we’re to be working together,” she said, clasping her hands together primly, “let’s all try to get along, shall we?”
Corax scowled. “I make no promises to feudal oppressors from the aristocratic ruling caste, destined to execution at the hands of a people’s revolution!” he proclaimed, stroking his beard.
“Hello!” V’vendy chirped, waving her hand and smiling. “My favorite bird is the condor! What’s yours?”
Ira squeezed her eyes shut and groaned.
Uuco emerged from the Wailing Saber Longhouse. He paused, looked around, and then rubbed his fingers until they crackled with purple sparks. He waved his hand over his cheek, and a red lipstick mark appeared on it.
“Ha-hah!” He chuckled, strolling north down the town road. “Ah, that Valera!” He said loudly to anyone that might be hearing. “What a woman! Yessiree, what a woman–” His ears pricked up as he heard shouting and pounding noises coming from the Leather Cap Long House. “Ooh!” He shouted. “Brawl!” He pushed open the doors and rushed in. “Brawl…!”
There was, in fact, no brawl going on in the smokey, dimly-lit hall. Dozens of townsfolk, were gathered around a thick oak table, pounding it with fists and mugs as they cheered one of their own on. A young man in a homespun tunic, face turning purple, gripped the hand of the black-cloaked figure that sat across the table from him and tried to force it down. The figure resisted, his thick arm quivering, then suddenly slammed the carpenter’s hand down on the table surface with a thud.
“Damnation!” The young man howled, rubbing at his knuckles and slapping a gold-plated sea shell down on a pile by the cloaked man. “I’ve been beat! By the Hidden Gods, you’re strong!”
The black-cloaked figure learned back in his chair. “Come,” He rumbled with catlike satisfaction, “is there no one else with the spirit to challenge me?”
“I will!” Uuco shouted, raising his tiny hands and hopping up and down. “I challenge you!” Everyone turned to look at him. Most of the townsfolk’s eyes widened, and a few of them whispered frantically to each other and set cowrie shell currency down on their tables.
“Interesting…” The cloaked figure said, and gestured to the now-empty stool across from him. It took a few minutes for the Nobble to climb up onto the stool. Then he leaned over the table and extended his hand. “Come now!” Uuco proclaimed boldly. “I haven’t got all day! I’m on a quest, you know!”
The black-cloaked figure took Uuco’s hand, his large gloved fingers completely enclosing it. Then he tensed and pushed. Uuco grunted, sweat running down his skin, body quivering: he barely managed to hold the cloaked man’s arm back.
“What kind of quest?” The cloaked man asked, eyes boring into Uuco’s from behind the folds of his cloak.
“Oh…” Uuco wheezed. “A noble one!” His mind raced. “We’re gonna investigate a strange stone to the north of here which may or may not be overrun with Death Mushrooms, and make the place safe for children–!”
The cloaked man froze. “Children?” He muttered. “You are on a quest to save children?”
Uuco hesitated. “Yup!” He lied.
The cloaked man turned his head away, lost in thought. Uuco took the opportunity to push the man’s arm down with both his hands. Finally, the cloaked man spoke. “…we did not talk much on the trip up here, strange Nobble. But you have spirit! You see straight to my heart!”
The cloaked man cast off his garment. His upper face was concealed by a copper mask smelted in the image of a roaring dragon, and he wore a yellow linen vest and kilt over a body packed with thick, well-oiled muscle. “For I am Dragon Face, champion wrestler of the Southlands!” He cried, slamming Uuco’s hand down on the table. “And I never turn away from a cause that helps children!”
“Ahhh!” Uuco cried out, clutching at his pinned arm. “Ahhh! Ahhh!”
“Oh dear!” Dragon Face frowned, hastily releasing Uuco. “Did I–?”
Uuco spread his hands and grinned. “Eeeeeeyyyy!” He patted Dragon Face’s beefy arm. “That’s some strength you’ve got, son!”
Dragon Face grinned back. “Ho-Ho! I see you are a man who knows his muscles!”
Uuco chuckled. “Dragon Face the Masked Wrestler, is it? I’ve…never heard of you before.”
Dragon Face frowned.
“But I’d love to learn about you!” Uuco amended, pointing at the book strapped to his back. “I’d love to record your deeds in this tome of mine!”
“Uuco?” Lady Ira called out, walking into the Leather Cap Inn’s dining hall, Corax and V’vendy following behind her. “We should get going soon–” She caught a glimpse of the oiled Dragon Face. “–by the Hidden Gods, who is that?” Her eyes flicked toward the mark on Uuco’s cheek. “And did he just kiss you? This is no time for romance, Uuco!”
***To Be Continued***