Classic Fantasy The Fourth Charm
#1
Star 
Calhampton Keep must have been beautiful back in the day, but nowadays the scars of a dark past marr the walls. The surrounding overgrown forest attempts to conceal it, but a little shrubbery isn’t enough to stop an accountant on a mission. A mission to recover the wondrous whip the history books call Oathkeeper. Very original, I might add.


Despite their ever-demanding position at Proudfist Industries, Taok spends a lot of their time outdoors and the wilderness of the Mehlens is no stranger to them. Beating through the brush with an impressive 12, the heavy, dark-skinned figure makes their way over to a quaint stone archway signalling the entrance to the keep. It’s lovingly crafted and appears to be missing a jewel inlay. Vines and tufts of grass sprout out from elegant carvings and at the top of the arch, obscured by the foliage, resides a large, ominous eye. 

“Oh...my...” Taok exclaims in reverence, stumbling over their words. 


As they stand before the entrance to the keep - which appears nearly small in comparison - with their dirty-blonde hair stretching to their waist, hand out to caress the imagery...they are suddenly assaulted by a barrage of javelins, arrows and random sharp sticks and objects. 


Taok screams out in pain and drops to the ground, head swiveling frantically to locate the incoming threat. Their vision begins to blacken and they struggle to fight off the strange pulsing coming from the central javelin wound in their back. Here comes combat, glad they survived - that was a lot worse than expected. 


As Taok’s grey eyes focus on the bloodthirsty goblin band rushing at them from their hiding places, they see a slim and athletic woman jump out from the boughs of a tree and leap into combat. The dark-skinned woman lands, her screams mixing with those of the goblins and proceeds to slash through at least three of them with a rapier and dagger. Her short and frizzy, ginger hair seems to bounce as she runs another goblin through. The disconcerting delight on her face indicates that she might be enjoying this. 


With their numbers limited, the group turns on the young ranger but, aside for a few shallow cuts, she remains unharmed. Her laughter cuts through the clearing and, in it, Taok finally finds the strength to pull themselves to their feet. Gritting their teeth and knowing that they are in seriously bad shape, Taok reaches out for the archway once more. With great pain and concentration, they scour the stone for the whip and, after what seems like way too long, their eyes land on a carved depiction of a spiral. As they touch it, the whip sparks and glows before drifting out into Taok’s hands, leaving a spiral-shaped hole behind it. 


The handle of the whip is a burnished, hard wood with indents for grip, but the whip itself is a wiry and pale string. It’s inordinately thin and hangs limply in Taok’s grasp. If a whip could look sickly, this is what it would be like. 


More gruesome noises draw Taok’s attention back to the battle raging behind them. The woman has successfully defeated a few more goblins, but at a slower pace than before. Now, there are only two left - the chief and his right-hand man. Both are advancing on the ginger slowly. 


As the two converge, the woman crouches low and Taok loses track of her movements for a second, as if cool martial arts is hard to describe, before she appears high up on a tree branch, waving at Taok.


“U-Um! You -You didn’t…” Taok gestures wildy at the two fuming goblins who are unable to reach her on the branch. The goblins turn at their voice, and begin to charge towards them at which Taok - the tall, wide but weak broadbean - yelps and sprints away. 


“Oh, alright…” The woman groans, peeling the goblins of Taok’s back, kicking and screaming as Taok, in turn, kicks and screams. “Thought you’d be a little better at this being out here.” 


Up close, Taok can see her in detail. Of average height and dark skin, the woman is slim and shapely, with light grey eyes and frizzy ginger hair. Her face is angular and exotic and she wears light, leather armor. The type of armor one should really wear out in these woods. 


As she disposes of the two pests, Taok gets up shakily, checking to make sure the whip hadn’t been harmed when they fell.   

“What ya got there?” The woman inquires, leaning over to inspect the curious item.


“U-uh, it’s a...whip? It’s why I’m here, I’d heard about it.” Taok stammers, slumping heavily backwards against a tree, bleeding profusely. 


The woman cocks her head, “And what d’ya hear? Anything impressive?” She leans closer, “Anything that might repay me for my humble services…?” 


Taok chokes a little on blood and saliva, “I -! I-It’s for my research!” A pause. “Thank you!”


She leans back. “Ah, well, let’s make sure you don’t bleed out, then. Know how to take care of yourself or shall I guide you through it?”


Taok shakes their head, flushed, “I can do it.” 


Taok shuffles subconsciously behind a tree before peeling the bloody remains of their shirt from their body. They then proceed to rib nearly all the fabric from their breeches and root around for some leaves and hopefully herbs on the ground. Unfortunately, no herbs, but there are some wide, flat leaves that they use to pad some of the shallower wounds to hopefully keep the fabric from soaking through. The main javelin in their back is there to stay for the time being for when they’re in a less critical state, so they wrap the fabric around their flat chest awkwardly, holding the leaves in place and avoiding the javelin. 


Finishing up, they look down at themselves and realise that they are essentially topless, with a full metal javelin in their back, wearing booty shorts. In intense pain too of course, but embarrassment can be a real form of death.


Spending a little too long behind the tree, mustering up their courage, Taok turns around to find the woman suddenly gone. Feeling a sudden spike of panic at being left severely wounded in the middle of the Mehlens, they call out, “Hello? W-Where d’you go?”


No response. 


Their heart drops, but they swallow the anxious lump in their throat and bend down slowly to retrieve the whip. They take a moment to compose themselves and, shivering from the sudden cold that’s probably not so sudden, trudge back off into the woods. Home isn’t too far. Right?
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#2
Taok wakes slowly. It’s warm, wherever they are, familiar. Their hands clench and they recognise the feeling of their own thin sheets between their fists. That makes sense - they relax.


No. Something’s wrong. I’m lying down.


At that, Taok’s eyes shoot open and they twist around to see their back. Where’d the javelin go? 


Taok’s room is small. There’s the bed, the storage box, the cobbled-together set of drawers, some candles. It’s by no means impressive. But it's theirs. And it’s safe. Or it was. How did I get here? 


Taok swings their legs around and realises they feel a lot better. I must have been out longer than I thought. But, then again, I didn’t really think. Where’s the whip?! As the thought hits them, they struggle out of bed in a flurry of sheets, but somehow they don’t make a great deal of sound.


They steel themselves for the walk to the door as feeling, but predominantly blood, rushes back into their legs. They put a hand to the door they crafted with their own hands...by finding it from one of the abandoned Mehlan buildings, and it creaks open slowly.


...Revealing two very fit, charismatic-looking women seated far too comfortably on Taok’s two small-ish crates in the middle of Taok’s ‘main room’. Essentially, at this point, an excessive hallway with three crates. They weren’t much of a designer. Neither did they really get paid a whole lot. They tried.


One of the figures was clearly the ginger woman who’d fought off all the goblins the...something before, but the other was new. She had thick, curly brown hair and brown eyes and was clearly quite short, even sitting down - at least in comparison to Taok. She was smiling brightly and sincerely and looked about the same age of Taok. There was something...off, though. Something at the back of their mind...The woman was also dark-skinned, as is common with the Mehlen people, and she wore a fabric headband with tiny pictures on it. Squinting, Taok could see depictions of all sorts of monsters, but at the forefront of them all stood a dragon.


That was it! This was Nihen Waterspear, the magical healer of the adventuring party that killed the dragon Eivrudi, the Jealous One. Who was now sitting on Taok’s crate. In the middle of absolutely nowhere. Was she with the rangers now? Oh...The woman that saved me is a ranger….Honestly, how could they have missed that before? Maybe blood loss…


“Glad to see your up!” Nihen said, still beaming. She stood and guided a slightly starstruck Taok over to the crate she’d been sitting on before Taok entered. 


“How are you doing? I’d make you some herbal tea but…” Nihen gestures around, “I don’t quite have the supplies.”

“I...sorry.” Taok flushes, shifting under the gaze of the silent, ginger ranger smirking across the table. 

“Oh no, don’t worry, dear!” Taok swore Nihen was about their age. “Just habit.”


“Where’s my whip?” Taok sat up straight again, remembering it for the second time in under three minutes.


Nihen’s smile freezes and she glances at the other woman, “His...whip?”

“Don’t look at me like that, I did my job! There was nothin’ else on him when I found him. But you were going on about a whip before weren’t you?” The unnamed ranger retorted, leaning further across the crate-table.


“Y-Yes! It’s why I was there - it’s important! Historically! Magically! Are - are you sure it wasn’t with me?!” Voice raising in panic, Taok rises from their seat.


“We have to go back and get it!” They conclude.


“Honey, you weren’t supposed to be out that far into the Mehlens in the first place.” Nihen speaks disapprovingly, trying to usher Taok back to their seat.

“No, you don’t understand what it is!” Taok cries, letting themselves be pushed to sit down.


“I don’t mind goin’ out to get it if you let me have it afterwards.” The ginger-haired woman says, singing the last few words and flipping their dagger nonchalantly into the air. They look as though they’re barely paying attention.


“I-” Taok looks between Nihen and the ranger, at a loss. “I-I suppose...Can I...examine it? When you have it?” 


The ranger lights up, beaming, and turns to lean across the crate-table again. She holds her hand out, spitting in it, “Deal.” 


Taok uncomfortably takes her hand and speaks, quieter now, “What’s your name?”

“You first.” The ranger leans back before realising they’re on a crate and there isn’t much of a back.

“T-Taok. Nhu-Taok.”


The woman frowns, “Taok or Nhu-Taok?” 


Taok flushes, “Taok for short.” 


“Weird fuckin’ name.” The ranger says, quirking an eyebrow before jumping out of her seat. “I’m Ris.”


Taok stands up after her. “Hello.” 


Ris gives them a weird look. “Sure, c’mon.” 


Nihen turns to pick up her things. “I’m going to go back to the station, then. Looks like you two’ve got this all sorted. Now, usually I’d recommend bed rest but I feel I’d have a hard time stopping you. Without using force, of course, I could totally take you…” Mumbling the last part, Nihen turns around.


The room is empty.


Nihen sighs.
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#3
It’s strange, to be in a public area of the Mehlens. Usually they’re so unruly and dangerous that everyone prefers to stay in their little bubble of a city, Zlas. Everyone except the rangers. They’re the brave ones, Taok ruminates, flinching as another shrivelled vine grazes their arm.

Here, so close to the main East-side ranger station, there are actual paths. Or, trodden grass anyway, and some of the dense greenery has been pulled away. Taok thinks they can even hear voices in the blackness ahead of them, courtesy of the jumbled canopy. Without writer here telling you it’s a temperate forest, you’d think it was a rainforest. Well, it used to be, Taok thinks wryly. They can only imagine how horrific it must have been to die here, in the darkness, to be grown and trampled over in the forest rush. Taok shivers again. Why did I choose to live here? It never gets any better… 

“So, why d’you want this whip so badly anyway?” The ranger - Ris - inquires from beside them.

“Oh! Uh, sorry you - I jumped, um. It - I’ve been reading -”

“Oh no.” Ris groans, interrupting them.

“W-What?” Taok retorts, a little affronted. 

“You’re not one of them, are you?” Ris makes a face.

“The - who?”

Sightseers. Seriously, I’m not a fuckin’ tour guide. Like, everybody lives here, the Mehlens aren’t new.”

“I - I know that! I - if I can finish, I was reading about…well, the past and -”

“Oh no.” Ris groans again.

“What!?”

“I’m just joking.” Ris grins, nudging Taok. 

Taok stumbles over a root. “OW - do you wanna know or what?” 

“You look angrier than I’ve ever seen you and I’ve seen you in a goblin pile-on. Though I suppose that’d be fear…”

“I was READING - “ 

A beat.

Taok continues. 

“- about the UCC and what anyone knows about the Mehlens before there were...the Mehlens -”

“Actually sounds pretty interesting.”

Please.” 

“Nah, I lost interest.” Ris grins again, “Just tell me what the whip does. I’m excited to get my hands on it, or I will be if you do your job right.”

“My...job?”

“Of telling me. Now I’m annoyed, hurry up.” 

“A-Alright.” Taok flushes and takes a deep breath. “Well, the whip kind of works like a lightning rod. Uh...I mean it...does lightning. It is - the whip part turns lightning-ey. It can electrocute things.”

“Coool.” Ris says approvingly.

“It also...This bit was a little unclear but...Because the Undead Crown Clan were, well, undead - that’s what I was trying to say, the whip is theirs - it can, like, raise the dead? But only animals. Like Mehlen creatures, if you kill them with the whip they, like, become your...servant, I suppose.”

“Fuck, really cool now. Yeah, good job. Anything else I should know?” 

“It has an...attunement to the Mehlens. I’m not really sure what that means, I - I don’t have a lot of books but it’s...attached to them. It might help with your job…?”

“Sure. We’re here though.”

Taok looks up. 

The clearing up ahead is...a tangled mess. Taok has been here before of course, it’s the closest major ranger station to their house, but it’s still...imposing.

A mangled, reinforced boat rides the broadest, sturdiest vines Taok has even seen like waves in the center of the clearing. The water a few feet below is a deep, sharp blue that appears pitch black in the darkness. It’s eerily still. Beautiful but terrifying. The kind of still that lets you know nothing is living in those waters. 

The boat itself is speared and trapped within the vines, like one of those pyramid net things at a playground, and there are gaping holes in its hull. Still, it looks patched up - renovated - and there are clear divots sliced into the vines to provide a foothold. There are even people up top.

Two from what Taok can see - a young, lithe woman and a man behind her - standing up on top of the fairly large boat, peering over at them.

“Who is it?” The woman calls.

Ris raises her hand. “Ris!”

There’s an awkward silence. 

Ris scoffs and mutters to Taok, “They know really.”, but Taok can see her shift unhappily before she responds, “Ranger 84! Just come from the bubble!” 

The woman up top quickly converses with her partner. Taok leans over, their wide frame struggling to maneuver around the suddenly reappearing overgrowth. 

“No we haven’t, we came from mine.”

“Shut up, it’s the code.” Ris whispers back, still gazing up at the woman. “Also, be cool. When we’re there.”

“Why?”

“Cause she’s pretty cool. And ‘cause you want something. Always be cool if you want something.” 

The woman’s clear voice cuts through their conversation, “Authorised! Please approach.” 

Ris leads Taok over to one of the more prominent vine staircases and the two begin making their way to the boat. Looking down at the threatening shine of the water below, Taok feels their stomach roil and they close their eyes briefly before their foot finds another hold. 

“Don’t be sick.” Ris mutters, not looking back. 

This specific vine pierces through the ship’s hull and some of the planks around the vine have been torn out to allow for more space but the pair still find themselves having to go prone to squeeze through the gap. Taok rolls badly and gets an impressive splinter going through. They swallow a complaint and tuck their bloody hand into...um, behind their back. Maybe clasped. They wave their hand around their body, unsure where to put it. 

For all the ship’s size was somewhat indistinguishable from below, being inside the hull Taok notices that it is definitely not that big. There’s a rack of outfits to their right - gloves, belts, random clothing kind of like a lost and found box. The gloves are the only items of clothing that look the same - organised. They’re clumpy things, some green, some black and although they come across very ugly, Taok supposed they’re probably useful against the Mehlen overgrowth. Glancing to their side, they notice Ris has the same gloves on and is flexing her hands uncomfortably as if just having been reminded of their appearance. 

There are lights in the hull making it not as dark as outside, but all the candles seem...subdued, dimmer than they should be. Having a house in the Mehlens, Taok knows that’s what happens to light here. It dies, and has to be relit constantly. In addition to the candles and the rack, there are a few scattered surfaces and a worn-down, kind of mouldy sofa but, most noticeably, there is a large figurine of a boar finely crafted out of red beryl gem. Unfortunately, Taok has zero idea what it means, rolling three - I kid you not - three ones on their history with advantage check. Jesus Christ. That’s after heroism too. So, I’m annoyed cause it’s a cool fact, but oh well then. The gem looks polished and well cared for, standing in a place of significance in the room with pride - the floor by the sofa. The best you’re gonna get, really. 

Taok frowns at the boar and opens their mouth to ask Ris but hears light footsteps coming down from the deck and decides against it. (seems only fair with a crit. fail) The wooden door in the corner of the room swings open and Taok sees two slim and muscular figures enter the room. Lot of describing going on here, wow. 

The first is obviously the woman who had called down to them but in the dim light Taok can see that she’s a lot younger than they’d thought. Probably around nineteen. They’re tall, with piercing dark green eyes and very long brown hair tied in about the messiest braid Taok’s ever seen. They’re not even sure you could call it a braid anymore. They have a heavy fringe and a solemn but mannered demeanour. They also have some kind of a..hat on, like a cap...but backwards...It’s strange. 

The other - the man - looks older, but still young - early twenties maybe? - and is even taller than the woman, about the same height as Taok really. They’re both dark-skinned but the woman looks more worn, despite her age, and the man has shoulder-length brown hair paired with glossy brown eyes. 

There’s a brief pause as everyone silently decides on who’s going to speak first. 

“Hi.” The man in the back says, smiling and chewing on what seems to be mint leaves. His next sentence comes out kind of sloppy as he chews, leaving out most consonants (just imagine).

“Ranger 84, right? What’re your names? Mine’s Chi-Chi. Well…” He glances fondly at the solemn woman in front of him, “Tha’s what she calls me.” 

The woman looks embarrassed and slaps his chest lightly, “What do you require, Ranger 84? Who have you brought with you?” 

Ris nudges Taok, too busy chewing on a mint leaf she seems to have pulled out from nowhere. 

“Uh!” Taok exclaims, caught off guard and embarrassingly winded. 

Ris rolls her eyes and spits out the leaf, “We were wonderin’ if we could have a look at the records o’the past couple days, lookin’ for a whip.” 

Ris sticks her hands in her pockets as she speaks and raises her head. Taok thinks she looks slightly unnatural. 

“Of course.” “‘Ourse.” 

The woman leads them to a side room which looks like it used to be...Taok isn’t sure, a closet? There’s a desk opposite the door but it’s tactically placed so that people can actually move around it. Next to it is a set of drawers that looks to be very old and was probably on the ship when it was still afloat. It’s looks about ready to fall apart. There are a couple candles on the desk but there’s barely any wax left and shadows dance across the walls. In addition to the candles, there are a pair of ranger gloves on the desk, an open record book filled with scribblings, a strange wooden cube with joints and painted beasts and a pitcher of wine. There’s also a battle-axe resting against it.

“‘’Ups. Tha’s mine.” Chi-Chi says, pushing past the cluster of people to swing his axe up on his shoulder before settling at the desk. The woman leaves just as Taok recalls her name - Zadi Hernhill. Another of the adventuring party that defeated Eivrudi. Taok feels a thrill at knowing they were in her presence. 

Chi-Chi finally spits out the leaves and clumps them into a ball at the side of the desk, next to a jar of mint leaves. He clears his throat. 

“Right, let’s get you guys sorted out, huh? What’d you want again?” 

“Record of the last couple days. Anything about a whip. Or just strange.” Ris leans against the wall in the cramped space, looking tired. 

Alright.” Chi-Chi flips through the book and his ability to read it makes Taok suspect he managed the books. Because literally nobody else could read that, not even Taok. 

Taok lingers uncomfortably in the small room, clustered against the wall as Chi-Chi hums to himself.

Ris sighs and fiddles with the Mehlen puzzle box on his desk.

“Mmm...There was somethin’ yesterday…’Round dusk, heavily-armoured fellah attacked a Vui Volrock with a whip, nearly killed ‘er, lucky to have survived. That sounds like your guy.”

Ris jumps up, “Yes, perfect, I never get this lucky.”

Chi-Chi gives her a look, “Girl almost died. S’no joke.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Ris retorts, “Know where it happened?”

“Not exactly, but he’s leavin’ a trail, that’s for sure. Not but four, five hours later - bit before the turning of the moon - group o’teens campin’ out were attacked by a similar lookin’ dude. Fuckin’ kids, we always tell them not to do that…” Chi-Chi mutters at the end but Taok can tell he feels worse about it than he’s letting on.

“Any clue where he’s gone now?” Ris inquires, leaning over to look at the records. 

“Hey, mine, hands off.”

Ris scoffs, “Couldn’t read them anyway.”

Chi-Chi glares at her, annoyed, before turning pointedly to Taok, “Nah, but you could start with askin’ the folks if there were any landmarks or somethin’ ‘round where they were, borrow one o’ our maps, sure Ris’ll lend you one-”

“I knew you knew my name!” Ris exclaims, thwacking his arm with maybe too much force.

Chi-Chi can’t help but grin, “I did, she didn’t. So hands off.”

Ris slinks back into the shadows, sulking. 

“Yeah, but like map a course of somethin’. I’ll help you if she won’t. Or you could just wait ‘round a day, sure something’ll turn up. He don’t appear to be one for subtlety.”

Taok finally speaks up, “Why was Vui Volrock in the Mehlens at dusk?”

“Y’know, I thought that too. Felt way too sketchy, wrote it down actually…” He turns to his notes, “‘Hey, look! Wasn’t just me, neither! Usually it is...But Jannie wrote in down too! He shouldn’t be writin’ in my book...Gotta mention that.”  Chi-Chi swivels his body around in the chair again, “Janrur Nyevoda, ranger number..fuck, um...39, I knew that. Good man, on shift yesterday too. Seems to me like you’ve got plenty of leads now, huh?” 

Taok finds themselves smiling, “Yeah. Thank you.”  

“Nah, no problem, mate. S’ma job, isn’t it?” Chi-Chi grins and hops out of his chair. “Now, if you’re done skulkin’ around in those shadows, missus, we’ll be off to close things up with that girlfriend o’ mine. Feel free to grab some supplies while you’re ‘ere if you need ‘em, I…” He trails off, looking at the ground for a second.

“...Chi-Chi?” Taok tries.

“Um, yeah, that was real weird, felt a bit...dizzy there a second...Think I’m alright now…”

But before he can fully regain his wits and clear the strange dizzy spell from his head, the silence of the Mehlens is broken by a piercing, bloodcurdling scream.
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#4
The entire station springs into action at once.

Ris hurdles out the door and through the hull, expertly sliding under the jagged planks to grip onto the vine and half-climb, half-slide down. Everything is moving so fast - mainly her - and the sapphire water from below calls to her as her fingers slip. There’s a moment where she thinks she’s going down and her heat leaps, before she hits the vine further down bringing tears up in her eyes. 

Still not at the bottom, she swings her head around for the danger but sees nothing but dark forest. Zadi is up ahead of her, already sprinting towards the treeline where the scream presumably originated. The breath stutters in her lungs as she readjusts herself but before she can gain any ground, the vine beneath her begins to shift.

In utter shock, Ris wonders if the short fall rattled her mind as well as her body but as she focuses on it, she’s certain. The forest has begun to move.

Sheer terror flashes through her being as she recalls every history lesson she’d ever sat in. This has happened before. No, please no.

The sound of strained, groaning wood startles her again and she looks up to yet another horrific realisation: the boat is beginning to fall.

Up in the hull, Taok peers anxiously around Chi-Chi’s lithe body as he crouches in the gap.

“Go on, go, go, go!” Taok panics, voice squeaking at the end.

“I’m tryin’! It’s all squirmin’ about!” He calls back and then wriggles out further, “All right. Ok” He readies himself.

The boat slants harshly and Taok is nearly thrown against the wall.

“AAHOK! FOLLOW ME!” Chi-Chi yells as he jumps off the boat for the water.

“Chi-!” Taok cries and rushes over to see him fall through and around the twisting vines and miraculously hit the water. With the help of a heroism reroll and Chi-Chi having the luck skill, thankfully. 

“Alright!” Taok squeaks and tentatively jumps off the boat after him.

The sight of both a roiling tangle of thick vines and sharp, deep water makes Taok almost lose their stomach, but they also miraculously reach the water without getting whacked by a vine. (i.e with the use of Luck/heroism. Trust the lucky folks to get given a daunting task.)

From their place under the water rising up, Taok registers the muffled but disturbing sound of screaming.

Ris reaches solid ground in a majestical display of dominance over her vine with a full on critical success, just in time to see Zadi fling two daggers at a woman flitting between the trees. The hunched woman takes both in the back and screams, adding to the choir created by the innocent family who had just walked in on a disaster and are now frantically sprinting home. 

Ris clocks her enough to see the vines and leaves growing out of her ribcage and the flesh sloughing from her arms. It’s obvious she is the cause of the madness, and so Ris sets after her.
The woman rounds a tree, still hunching - either out of pain or some kind of difficulty with her undead state - only to find Ris standing tall in front of her. 

She rears back at the sight of Ris’ rapier rasping in a broken voice, “No, please don’t. I’m only-”

But she’s cut off by Ris’ blade.

Her already-dead face with her short, curly black hair and glossy grey eyes becomes seared in Ris’ mind.

But the vines stop moving, the forest grows still.

“It was just her.” Ris breathes, looking at the crumpled body on the green, forest floor. As she watches, the vines in the woman’s body seem to flex and extend to join with the forest and she soon becomes one with the undergrowth.

A firm hand lands on her shoulder and Ris jumps. 

Zadi’s stern but young face watches the woman cautiously before turning to Ris, “It was just her. Still a cause for concern but at least we don’t have the entire Mehlens bearing down upon us. You did good, ranger 84. Maybe now they’ll agree to give us more funding.”

Chi-Chi and Taok burst through the treeline, soaked.

“S’everythin’ okay?! Wha’s goin’ on?!”
“The - The boat -”

“Everything’s fine.” Zadi replies, holding a hand out. “At least for the moment. You’re both alright?”

“Yeah, fine…” Chi-Chi responds, catching his breath. Taok nods.

“Chi-Chi, come here. I know you’re interested in this kind of thing. The woman who was...a...vessel for the Mehlens power, she’s undead.”

Chi-Chi’s eyes widen, “Fuck, I’ve been readin’ ‘bout this.” He hurries over to inspect the rapidly decaying body.

Ris stands still before sitting shakily and cleaning off her blade. Taok stumbles over to her.

“Hey are you...Are you okay?” Taok inquires, sitting on the rock next to her.

“Fine.” Ris says shortly, looking a little dazed. “I’m fine, go talk to them you’re...learned.” 

“A-Alright…” 

Taok awkwardly retreats and wanders over to Zadi and Chi-Chi, glancing over at Ris every few seconds.

“Look at this.” Chi-Chi says, threading a pair of earrings out of the woman’s ears and grimacing. 

He holds them up to the...dark which isn’t much help but Taok still gets a good look at them. For earrings, they’re nothing fancy and are actually quite small but, leaning closer, Taok can see there appears to be a...person carved out of bone...on fire? Taking them into their hands, Taok can see it actually appears to be a kind of ragdoll and that the joints are all movable. It’s definitely carved out of bone and the fire surrounding the figure looks to be very thin, painted wood. 

“Kind of...tribal.” Taok mutters, “I...Oh! These are...relics or...this is the kind of style the Undead Crown Clan used.”

Zadi looks between them, “What does that mean?”

“Well, the UCC were the tribe that lived where we live now before the Mehlens...came into being. The Audathan Empire waged war against them and they were mostly massacred for their land but then...something happened and-”

“I know, historically,” Zadi interrupts. “I mean, what does this mean for us? The Undead Crown Clan aren’t here anymore. They were never found and, anyways, that was ages ago, they wouldn’t still be alive.”

“It’s almost like…” Chi-Chi comments, “This person has the spirit an’ ideals of one o’ the UCC but she can’t actually be a tribesperson. Tha’s weird. S’gotta be somethin’...spirit-y, or somethin’. Maybe the earrings are cursed?”

“Possible.” Zadi remarks, taking them from Taok and inspecting them. “We have already touched them, though, and none of us have powers so it might be wearing them that does it. Wait...There’s something on them. A new marking. TP.” Zadi looks up at them, “Sounds like a jeweller’s inscribing to me.”

“TP?” Taok says, “There’s...There’s a jeweller’s in the Mugyard called...the Tempting Passion, that might...that might be what you’re looking for.”

Zadi quirks an eyebrow but says nothing, “Am I to understand you won’t be joining us then?”

“Oh...uh…”

“We’d be glad t’have you along.” Chi-Chi cuts in.

“W-Well, I was looking for-for that whip. It’s also...of the UCC, it has similar powers to what that woman was doing.”

“You intend to head that far into the Mehlens?” Zadi asks.

“Um, well I’d be with...Ris.” Taok jerks their head towards Ris, sitting quietly on a rock.

Zadi furrows her brow, “Perhaps it would be better if we kept an eye on that situation for you, I’m sure Chi-Chi will fill me in. Why don’t you and Ris go investigate the jewellers. Or, actually, Chi-Chi could go with you instead of Ris. He knows more about that kind of stuff.”

“M’up for anythin’.” Chi-Chi shrugs.

Ris suddenly jumps up from behind them, “I’ll - I’ll go with Zadi for the whip, s’for me anyway. You two go...look at jewellery or whatever.”

“Are you OK with that?” Zadi asks Taok.

“Y-Yeah, sure. Um...my name’s Taok by the way, I don’t think I said.”

“Thank you for letting me know, it was negligent of me not to ask.” Zadi smiles, “Well then, I suppose we’re going our separate ways.”
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#5
I'm going to preface this with a horror warning, because this is the most brutal combat that's come up so far and although I wrote it, I still find myself cringing. I promise even if I make the bad times worse, I'll make the good times better as well! I just wanted to highlight the awfulness of combat sometimes 'cause it's not always just goblins, but I swear if they find themselves in a chippy somewhere having a nice conversation, I'll make it as wholesome and joyful as I can. 

I like to roll random weapons for the monsters, and random opposition which I did for this one and I got a couple ranged weapons - they were in close quarters - and brawling, which I stylised kind of like an awful catfight. Also, I'm aware I haven't been including stats or dice rolls and, if neccesary, I can change that I just wasn't sure how much I'd stick with the story. So far I've been using a lot of the glyph-pictures for stuff like motives and intricate questions and my own tables for hopefully colourful character creation. I've been using Adventurers! rules and some of the description features from here as well. I also use RPG Solo to set up a scene which is why some seem a little disjointed but I like it for the reason that it once supplied me with 'abandoned ship' for a setting and, though it seemed odd, it has become my favourite location so far. I don't know if any of this is interesting to people but I realised I haven't said much about what this actually is so I thought I'd share.

But anyway! I've taken up enough if your time so I hope you enjoy cause I think this story might actually stick with me for once, yay! (Taok's my favourite) Enjoy.

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Not but an hour later, Ris and Zadi found themselves crouched in a low bush circling like vultures around the infamous Calmapton Keep. The two experienced rangers have discovered tracks not far from the area and followed them straight here. Usually, the energy of the place would ward off creatures and the only ones brave or stupid enough to tread foot in the place were just that - brave or stupid.

The pair split up and scout around the outside of the quiet building looking for subtle entrances or signs of life and then meet up in a pile of brambles.

“...Ranger 84?” 

Ris peeks her head out from behind a tree, “What’s the problem, couldn’t find me?”

Zadi looks embarrassed, “No, you’re good at this. Come closer.” Zadi turns towards Calhampton Keep and beckons to her. “I didn’t notice anything particularly useful on my way around the building except for two doors and I don’t think we want to be that obvious. Are you alright, ranger 84? You seem flushed.”

“...It’s hot.” Ris clears her throat, “Well, there are some windows over there, one’s one the bottom floor, no debris or anythin’. Sounds pretty good.”

“Well, then, I’ll let you take the lead.”

Ris sneaks around, keeping low to the ground in the shrubbery towards the window she had spotted before. It was a fairly large window bereft of shutters or anything to keep the wilderness out and the sides were smooth and rounded. A perfect entrance.

The walls on this side of the keep were tall but scorched with fire and riddled with cuts and battle scars. As Ris creeps towards it, she can see old, rusted arrowheads with the wood long rotted away lying around the window. Calhampton Keep had never been a very battle ready construct and it had paid for that decision in the past, apparently.

Ris silently vaults the window - for style points, of course - and drops to the ground, scanning the room. 

There is an altar standing tall in the middle of an empty, small pool next to where Ris dropped in and a thick, dark rug on the floor - presumably for insulation. A haphazard collection of weapons in a box is shoved next to the window and a pair of prayer shoes lie next to the pool. Most prominently, there is a large tapestry on the opposite wall depicting a rainforest opening up for a group of people to walk through. Looking closer, Ris can make out the images of undead tribespeople in the trees, seemingly protecting the folks below, who are notably whiter-skinned. A rotten, wooden door off its hinges sits in the opposite corner of the door. 

“Clear?” Zadi inquires in a hushed voice from the other side of the window. 

“Pretty much.”

There’s a pause before Zadi slinks into the room, “Next time, just say yes.”

“Whatever.”

Zadi approaches the door and goes to peer around it before stopping at the sound of clinking metal. She turns around to see Ris holding out a slightly worse for wear crossbow and spear.

“You want this? I’ve got one already and spears ain’t quite my style.”

Zadi eyes her sternly, “Be quiet.”

Ris shrugs.

There’s a beat of silence.

“But yes, I would appreciate a crossbow.”

Ris chucks it at her.

Be quiet.” Zadi turns back to the door. 

It creaks slowly open only to reveal a dyed purple rug hung over the door frame. Ris turns to Zadi, confused, before she pulls back the rug enough to peer inside. 

The centerpiece of the room is most definitely the large dining room table upon which a majestic and freshly heated meal is set out, complete with wine. There’s a desk or worktop tucked away in a corner with a variety of items resting on it and a large dyed blue rug hangs opposite over what Ris imagines to be another doorway. A series of tall candles in elegant candlesticks make a line down the table creating the most light Ris has seen in the Mehlens so far, aside from a ranger station or two. A set of armor stands at one end of the table where a seat would be, stripped for all but its helm and outfitted with a light blue, frilly dress. There are even two crossbow bolts shoved into its visor.

But that’s not what catches Ris’ eye, because at the other end of the impressive table sits a man. Head down, labouring over a set of blacksmith tools and a piece of metal, he seems oblivious to their presence. He’s young, muscular but slim, with shoulder-length, dark blue...snakes. 

Snakes. 

Curling around his neck, their dark green eyes gleaming in the candlelight, they raise their scaly heads as if alerted by some noise. Her noise.

Ris tries to duck back behind the rug, heart pounding but those beady little evil eyes lock onto her and soon she’s ducking for a whole other reason: Ris has never been a fan of stone.
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I mean it’s a strange thing not to be a fan of but whatever, it’s cool alright? Also, hi, this is next day me. Felt too short and too uneventful to put up and I didn’t want to roll to see who I’d follow next in case it wasn’t these guys, so combat! I’m scared Ris will turn to stone! Pray to the narrative gods for me!
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Breath coming fast, crouched behind the rug, Ris waits in a tense silence for any sound of movement, and sure enough after a moment of straining her ears, she can hear soft footsteps approaching. 

She checks her crossbow’s loaded, takes a step back and waits as a long hand peels back the rug - THUNK, Zadi and Ris release their bolts at him simultaneously and the gorgon screams in pain before it comes barreling right for Ris - who’s bolt hit.  

Ris quickly flings her head away in another direction - with the use of heroism - but it diverts her attention and soon the man is on her, scratching gouges into her face with abnormally long and sharp fingernails, screaming bloody murder. It’s terrifying. Her eyes are squeezed shut as she grapples with the monster, as it rips hair out of her skull and clocks her in the jaw. Snakes hiss, enraged, in her ear as they try to gain purchase and the demented noise feels like the last straw as Ris screams out in frustration.

She scrambles for a weapon and her fingers find her dagger - the rapier being too unwieldy in close quarters. Her arms fly out trying to locate the creature as it writhes around on top of her, grabbing at her face and trying to force her eyes open. She gets a hold of its back and thrusts the blade forward. Being so close, she hears the fleshy noise of its impact and nearly gags as the man shrieks in pain and fury. 

Suddenly there’s an extra weight on top of her and the man is forced down with a slightly comical “oof”. There’s a grunt, a yell, and then finally blessed silence. Ris lies still, eyes pressed shut and breath shaky. She thinks she might be crying but doesn’t want to move to check.

The extra weight is removed and she feels like she can breathe easier. “I...I should maybe have questioned it.”

Ris doesn’t respond, but tries to wriggle out from under the creature - eyes still shut.

There’s a cough, “...Are you alright…? I’m sorry, I perhaps should have pulled it off you, I -”

“Yeah.” Her voice tense and strained. She’s not crying, she realises, but she can feel the horror and emotion well up in her chest until it’s choking her. 

“I just...Is it dead?” She’s gasping, she needs a drink. 

"It's dead."

Ris feels her way over to the pool only to find it empty. “Do you...do you have a drink?” Her voice is scratchy and hoarse.

A canteen of water is pressed into her hands and she presses her back against the cold, stone wall.

“I’ll be alright, I just need a moment.”

“...Do you need me to stay? Sometimes, with Chi-Chi - “

I, “ Ris cuts her off, “I don’t wanna hear about that. Go scope the place out, see if there’s anything else lurkin’ about. See if you can find that fucking whip.” She takes a breath. “I’ll be alright here.”

Ris hears gentle footsteps walk around her to the door, walking on eggshells. She puts her hands over her face and tries to breathe normally, but recoils in pain as she becomes aware of the tracks in her skin. 

She leans against the wall and tends to her wounds. Zadi doesn’t come back for a while, presumably stealthing around the building.

It takes her a full half hour until she feels OK enough again to open her eyes.
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#6
Taok never felt more competent than when they had a book in their hand. Words didn’t judge, words didn’t talk, they only told you things - taught you - like the kindest teacher. 

Here, by the foothills of The Dangerous Hillside - a little unfair if you ask Taok, they’d never ran into any danger - with the Mehlens closing in around the clearing, the air felt clear. Their head was clear. The birds sung, the bees worked, the deer grazed. It was truly beautiful. At least at the Hillside - the Mehlens were always ominous.

Their sword was flung out in front of them on the grass, and books were strewn everywhere. Not to mention the stray leaves of paper disturbing Taok’s peace - they kept having to chase after them as the breeze stole them away.

But today wasn’t a normal reading session. The small time Taok had away from their work as an accountant was precious and so things always had a little urgency but today, in particular, they had a purpose. They had stumbled upon something big - a whip by the name of Oathkeeper said to be a relic of the Undead Crown Clan. What’s more, it was said to be possibly located in the Mehlens. There was a lot to be done.

Taok sits back and eye their collection suspiciously. One of them must hold the secrets to locating this artifact. They pick one up - Thieves of Dread by Shetv Truthsnow - and flip it open. That was strange...they didn’t remember owning a book called Thieves of Dread...WHOOSH, the book slams open to the middle and the clearing grows dark.

“W-What…!?” Taok stutters, scrambling to their feet and retrieving their slightly blunt sword. “What’s going on!?”

The world becomes shimmery and a general haze lies over the area like a filter. Out of it appears a large, middle-aged woman with dark skin, medium-length wavy blonde hair and glossy green eyes. She’s quite short but still looks muscular and strong. Disturbingly, a spear has been stabbed through her armoured chest. A killing blow. The heavy armour caved beneath the force. 

I’m going on.” She smirks creepily.

Taok falls back to the ground, speechless.

“Oh, boring, I was expecting a little more oomf. Well, settle down. It’s time for our story.

The figure vanishes as quickly as it appeared, the woman’s eyes being the last thing to vanish. 

“Um.” Taok squeaks.

From each corner of this hazy circle an element appears: fire, water, earth, air. They all spiral and come together to whelm Taok who flinches before the scene around them shifts and the elements vanish. 

They now stand on a battlefield on the verge of a rainforest and Taok sees the woman again, leading a charge on the rainforest with armoured soldiers dashing behind her. The woman lets out a roar as a battle cry and the unit streaks into battle to meet a group of unarmoured, tribal warriors wielding spears and bows. 

Another figure apparates in front of the picture. A man this time approaching his fifties with short grey hair. He is also muscular but less built than the woman and he has intense dark green eyes. His head has been caved in by what might be a hammer blow. 

“My name is Muenchw Whol, I was the commander of some of the UCC forces in the...battle.” He glares at the other reappearing figure. “You have opened our story.”

“A-Alright...What does - Will you show me?”

“Yes, we will show you.” Muenchw says softly but there is something displeasing in his voice. It’s a cold voice. 

The scene fades in again, this time with the two figures standing at either side of the battlefield, one sad, the other fuming. 
“I can’t believe I fucking died to you clan scum.” The woman spits.

“We are telling a story, we are both dead now anyway. It does not matter anymore.” The man replies. “You will begin.”

“Why do I - !”

“The author told it so. I believe they favoured your side.”

“As they should have.” The woman spits at his feet. 

The battle rages on behind them and it’s clear who is winning. All of the tribespeople have been defeated except for those in the trees. Further back on the battlefield, more and more people are rushing out to fight.

“Alright, let’s start at the beginning.” The woman begins, “The Audathan Empire aren’t savages, as many people believe. We don’t - or didn’t - live for blood and war and we didn’t start this war for land. We had plenty of land! I still can’t believe people bought that, politics isn’t my thing. But I was pretty high up back in the day, I was let in on stuff like this. I can barely even remember now…

“I was in the meeting room one day, just like every fucking day, and this puny little messenger comes in, whispers some information to high-up people, whatever. And it turns out that these tribespeople calling themselves the ‘Undead Crown Clan’ - doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue - kidnapped a load of Empire expeditioners and hauled them off to a Keep somewhere. Fucking ridiculous! But we thought - or they did - that we could sort it out quietly, all hush hush you know, don’t wanna seem weak or start a war! 

“So they set up a meeting at this mountain somewhere to hand over the prisoners, exchange some stuff - goods or something - and they signed a peace treaty. All was fine and dandy, whatever, but on the way back down the mountain these expeditioners just started dropping! And before we can see what’s going on with them, we’re ambushed! Even with the scouts we sent out to avoid it! So you see, we’re not the ones who started this nonsense - they are!”

“Well.” The grey-haired man says, “I’m glad you had your time. But now it is my turn, and I will tell my side of the story.”

The woman scoffs.

Muenchw continues, “Some months before this unrest began, some of my people came across a gnome in the rainforest. They did tarot readings and the group was entranced by this small creature. They asked the gnome to join their clan and continue to read for them - they thought the gnome was a vessel for Ozmatar, our God. It returned with us but it did not have good intentions.

“Through us, it was free to wander the Raingarden as it pleased. It used that freedom to steal our ancient relics from where they grew and sell them to an Empire jeweler, after which they were bought and recklessly gambled away. After the artifacts were discovered missing, we thought it to be the fault of the Empire and so any travellers that ventured into our territory were apprehended.

“The Empire contacted us for a peace treaty and we agreed, thinking our relics would be returned to us in trade, but when we opened the bags of goods we found only coin and grain. Useful, but not priceless. We were angry. We took out the scouts first - we are very used to sneaking around, more so than Empire scouts - and set upon the group of retreating ambassadors.”

“I’m not an...ambassador.” The woman huffs. 

“You interrupt. In premise, that is it. We did not mean for a war - especially not one we would lose - but those artifacts are precious to us. They are from Ozmatar and they belong in the Raingarden. I do not know what has happened to them. The gnome quit us soon after and regretfully escaped. 

“Please, if you know of these relics in your time, retrieve them for us. There is a whip, a ring and a bowl; Oathkeeper, for honor, Bravemark, for courage, and Nightblood, for sacrifice. If brought together, Ozmatar will be at peace for the first time in hundreds of years - since our demise. I can feel it, even in death,"


Taok watches as the two figures' copies die behind them and their eyes grow dead. The battle is over in the background and the earth has begun to shake. There's barely any still alive on the battlefield but those who are look around in fear. 

"They are angry."

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Hello! Me again, I've been very busy today obviously. This was the first 'Lore with Taok' as I like to call it but it got a little more lifelike than I imagined it would be. Perhaps I should have mentioned this at the beginning, but for the most part none of this is essential knowledge and you can skip them if you like. It's just some background on what's going on and me explaining a lot of my notes without lore dumping in the main story. I use a lot of pictures for these and it filled in a lot of gaps for me. I learned just as you did! Of course, I do have some more general notes but I never plan anything really, apart from scenes. I rely on the story telling me as we go through but this kind of thing helps me so I don't misstep and something doesn't make sense later on. Plus, there was just some disturbing combat and 'lore with taok' is a lot more wholesome for me, at least. 

Anyways, for anyone who doesn't want to read that block of text: THIS ISN'T NECESSARY. You don't have to read if you don't want to - but that also kind of applies for everything, I suppose.
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#7
Just a little baby half-scene! Cause combat will take me forever
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Thunder rumbles in the sky ahead, muffled by the Keep’s walls. Ris stands in a dark room, waiting for Zadi to return. It’s bordering on too long since she’s been gone.

The gorgon’s body lays, head against the stone, in a pool of creeping blood, limbs splayed haphazardly across the floor. Ris tries not to look down. 

She can see the sky from where she stands, with the window to her left. The sky is dark, darker than it should be for early evening, and choked with storm clouds. That doesn’t bode well. Weather, drama n’all that. Kinda missed the punchline...Ris glances down. This is fuckin’ embarrassing. I can’t believe I freaked out n’front o’ Zadi like that. Bet fuckin’ Chi-Chi never does that...It was a weird, childish kind of thought that didn’t really make sense all the way through. It didn’t matter. 

She closes her eyes and listens for sound. With startling clarity, she pinpoints Zadi’s moments around the Keep - if only because she’s in the room next door - and tries for a moment of levity, despite her exhaustion. She positions herself by the purple rug, crouching down.

Zadi’s hand curls around the dyed wool and Ris immediately bails, jumping back - waits as a long hand peels back the rug - trying to look innocuous.

Zadi enters and spots her, “Um.” There’s a moment, which Ris uses to try and process the fact that Zadi just stuttered

Zadi quickly recovers, “There’s a basement, downstairs. Obviously. I found a...ritual circle down there, faded but recent. This creature isn’t from the Mehlens, it was summoned. Perhaps by our knight friend. Unfortunately, there was no trace of the whip.”

Ris thinks that Zadi appears a little off-balance when she begins to talk. I really messed this up, didn’ I? 

“...Ranger 84?” 

Oh. 

Ris opens her mouth to finally respond but can’t find the words. Instead, she settles on, “My name’s Ris.” Her shoulder’s slump. She wants to go home now.

“Of course.” Zadi smiles too brightly. 

“Let’s...go.” 

“Shall we return again to scour the area for the whip?” There’s a brief silence as Ris tries to sort through her thoughts. “It’s your decision.”

“I’ll think later.”

“Fair enough.”

Lightning cracks outside and, as if on cue, rain cascades down, streaking through the empty window. 

“Great.” Ris says dryly. 

The uncomfortable pair clamber out of the window and, standing in the rain, Ris let’s her thoughts turn foggy and her brain relax, as much as it can.

It’s just quiet for a second. Thumping rain. Breathing.

Zadi must be feeling pretty awkward right now.

Grmrmmm. Graoommm. 

Um.

What?

A harsh clacking noise next.

And then the wind picks up, the skies growl and yawn and an all-encompassing white light flashes. 

There are figures in the treeline.

Why does this seem so familiar again?
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#8
Bug 
Limbs pumping, heart pounding, blood rushing in her ears - Ris can’t remember the last time she ran this fast. They’re everywhere.

Mangled arms reaching out from behind trees, skeletal faces emerging from sheets of rain - the Mehlens is infested with the dead.

Zadi runs beside her, the deadly silence of whipping branches and breath ripped from their throats is broken only by the storm. Guess it didn’t miss the punchline after all.

This is so insane! Ris could laugh, she really could. But then she couldn’t be sure not to cry as well. She figures here would be the time for a pessimistic or witty remark but survival is paramount and her focus is essential.

She tears through the undergrowth as a stone sails overhead. What - Focus is essential. But just in that moment, a hand connects and a rotten limb grabs a hold of her armour. If the creature was smart, it would grapple her but instead it tries to bury its fingers into the leather.

Ris’ breath catches in her throat at the horror of it all before ripping the hand from its grip - there’s an awful crack that she doesn’t want to think about - and then she’s sprinting after Zadi again.

Except Zadi isn’t there anymore.

Ris is falling behind.

There are more hands now, more faces. 

This has been the worst fucking day of my life, Ris laments, with good reason.

They claw at her and the forest seems to grumble now - to groan. Everything’s so angry.

She runs through the leaves and the rain and the horror of it all and rounds a tree - only to be grabbed by the neck by a rotting corpse. It squeezes, and its fingernails dig in but she’s still running, she has to keep going. How is it still holding on?! She doesn’t have the time to look.

There’s a scream up ahead. 

“ZADI?!” Ris yells, voice cutting out a little at the end from the dismembered hand. She finally manages to rip it off and flings it into the rain, taking 1 END.

She needs to get to Zadi but she can barely see. Rainwater is dripping down her face, down her nose - “WHERE ARE YOU?!” She cries, but there’s no response. She doesn’t know what direction she’s running in anymore. It’s just trees and rain and more trees. What if I die here? 

Once again, a zombie leaps out from cover and attacks her, trying to swing her to the ground under its weight. She shouts in alarm but stumbles onwards and sees a brief glimmer of light in the distance - tiny, mellow, a pinprick. Who gives a fuck, it’s light

Adrenaline surges through her at the hope of a possible escape, but it leaves her distracted and she’s cracked in the head by a sharp rock. Her hearing is distorted and she’s not even sure if she cried out. She can feel blood trickle down the back of her skull. 

Everything in her being is focused on the light but it never seems to get any closer. She weaves her way around tall forest trees and then skids down a grassy slope. If I die here - “ARGH!” 

Ris collides with a body as she tumbles down the small hill, and they both go crashing to the bottom. Optimistic, she pushes herself up on shaking arms only to be met with a sneering, undead face. Fuck.

With a critical hit it surges forward and its festering teeth find purchase along her skin. She knows she’s screaming now. (Her armor’s the only reason she’s not dead, pretty scary.)

Her vision is blurred and she doesn’t even register what’s happening anymore. Her hand is pressed to her wound but her fingers are shaking. Did she kill it? Is she running right now? 

What happened to the light? She despairs. 

Stones and arrows fly over her head as she ducks to avoid them. She knows what she’s doing now - she’s running, she -

“FUCK!” 

The zombie from before leaps onto her back and digs its claws into her. She grabs at the hands and now she’s essentially giving a zombie a very clumsy piggyback before it bites deep into her scalp. 

Ris looks forward, into the torrent of rain, the angry growling of the sky, the fury of the elements. 

Everything’s so angry.

She runs towards the light
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#9
Taok likes Chi-Chi. 

The tall, cowboy-esque man has a certain air of comfort and charisma that puts people at ease, and it’s not hard to see why: he’s open-minded, slow to judge, casual, laid-back, charming. That’s it, he’s charming. 

Of course, as ever, he’s too good to be true and, whilst manoeuvring through the bustling streets of Zlas with Chi-Chi by your side sounds good on paper, his penchant for chewing on mint leaves serves to sour the experience. 

It is the most disgusting, detailed, incessant noise Taok has ever heard. They might be going a little insane.

“S’how’d you know this jewellery shop anyway, Taok? Gotta say I weren’t expectin’ it to be so high up n’the city. Kinda sounds more like a brothel than anythin’.” Chi-Chi says conversationally as he cuts his way through the crowds.

Taok can just see his head at the other end of the street and quickly consoles a squalling child they had barrelled into before rushing to catch up.

“W-What sorry?” Taok pants, swerving to avoid a cart.

Chi-Chi continues placidly, spitting out a clump of leaves from the side of his mouth, “How’d’you know ‘bout this Temptin’ Passion place?”

“Uh.” Taok flushes out of his eye-line, taking a little longer to rejoin the conversation.


“Tae, you really need to learn how to make a crowd part for ya. C’mon.” Chi-Chi repositions Taok so they’re standing next to him, “Broaden your shoulders, we’re both real tall, you gotta learn how to use it.” 

Taok looks uncomfortable but tries to look more imposing. “What did you call me?” 

“Think it was Tae, d’you not like it?”

“I don’t mind.”

“No one ever called you Tae before?”

“They used to. I like Taok better now.”

“If you get uncomfortable wi’ me callin’ you anythin’, you just say an’ I’ll stop, alright?”

“Alright. You can call me Tae if you want.”

Chi-Chi smiles and palms another ball of leaves into his mouth. Taok cringes. 

“What’s your real name?” Taok inquires.

“What’d you mean?”

“I mean...did you always go by Chi-Chi?” 

“Actually, yeah kinda. Ma ol’ ma called me ‘Chiburth’ when I was born - don’ know what she was thinkin’ - and everyone’s called me Chi-Chi since, even fam’ly.”

Taok stifles a laugh. 

“I can see you smilin’ over there! I have to live with this. Chi-Chi’s not even a good nickname! What’d your mother call you?”

“I think it was my dad that named me actually. Nhu-Taok - it's from one of the stories he used to tell. He always said he’d tell me one day.”

“A storyteller, huh?”

“Yeah, I suppose. He sings, tells jokes - a bard, I suppose. He’s always off chasing rainbows but we keep in touch.”

“Tha’s nice.” He spits out some more leaves.

“You...go through them fast.”

Chi-Chi looks at the cluster he’s just pulled out from some pocket in his armour. “S’ppose I do, don’t I? Ma used to give me them for my eyes as a kid when she’d sing me to sleep. Said it’d help. Don’t know if it actually helped, m’still squintin’ but s’habit now. Is there a party goin’ on?”
Down the street from where they stand, a large number of people mill around what seems to be a park, taking part in various activities: archery, rounders with swords, drinking games, cards. The usual, really. Rounders is popular in Zlas, especially in crowded areas.

There’s a large animal turning on a spit near the centre and, right at the back, the Tempting Passion, supposedly hosting the event.

The shop itself is...intense. All dark, violent colours, velvet and silks. It’d look more like a fortune teller’s tent or a coven’s hideout where it not for the tactfully positioned jewellery cases that can be seen through the open archway; shiniest in front to catch the dying sunlight, more intricate to the sides for the captured customers. Billowing curtains balloon from the gothic windows, propelled by some unseen wind, almost concealing the shop’s name carved into a dark hardwood board across the top of the small building.

Tae feels an old thrill at the sight of it. 

“Hope they’re not sellin’ jewellery as prizes for some of these events…” Chi-Chi speculates, concerned. 

“Oh.” Taok returns. They didn’t even consider that possibility. “They never have in the past - this kind of event isn’t uncommon. Prizes are usually just entertainment, gambled money and alcohol. They might be offering up the animal too though. Or the leftovers, rather.”

There are plates and cups being circulated around the gatherers but whatever creature is roasting on the spit is no small beast. It might even be some kind of dire animal.

Chi-Chi gives them a side-eye, smiling Chi-Chi’s version of a smirk, “Seem quite familiar with the place, Taok. Didn’ take you as one for jewellery.”

Taok flushes and shifts uncomfortably, “Well, I...I don’t mind it. I-I’ve got some at home, I just-”

“S’ok, Tae, you don’ hafta tell me. I don’ want to make ya feel awkward. Thought we’d gotten rid o’that stutter.” 
“Just - let’s go.” Taok replies.

“Oh, okay, where’re we goin’?” 

Taok strides off with Chi-Chi trailing behind them towards the shop. It’s been a while since they’ve been here, almost a year, but they can still pick out some of the old regulars playing cards at a bench. Tiza by the spit, Tuderk doing archery, Fimas getting drunk - Taok was never sure if they were their real names - they’d missed the community, but still...they were a bit old for all that now. 

Were they? They were only twenty-seven and it wasn’t like they had met anyone...No, they were here for...work? It wasn’t the time to think about this anyway. 

Stepping inside the Tempting Passion is an interesting experience in and of itself. The light brightens and all the colours seem to meld into one another. It’s suddenly a lot more elegant and pleasant - breezy, despite the colour palette. The wooden counter stands to the left of the archway, out of sight from the outside, and working behind it is a familiar figure: Damven. 

His most distinguishing feature is probably his hair, piled up in a careful spiral that fades from dark to light brown as it travels. It’s more artful than anything Taok has ever seen, they have no idea how he does it. His eyes are strangely similar to Taok, light grey but glossier where Taok’s are intense. He’s dark-skinned, as most people are, and of a similar build to Taok, though shorter. The second most distinguishing feature though is his age; Taok knows him to be no more than fifteen. 

“Damven!” Taok greets him as his lidded eyes fix on them.

A small smile creeps across their generally expressionless face. “Been a while, Tae.”

Chi-Chi sidles up behind them with a plate of steaming food. His mouth is full as he speaks, “Hey, who’s this? Name’s Chi-Chi, nice t’meet ya.”

Damven eyes shutter as Chi-Chi speaks and he turns to face his new customer with a cool but polite demeanor, “Welcome. My name is Damven Kukwhirl. What is your business here?” 

“Er, we’re ‘ere to look at some jewellery...Kinda relic-y stuff. I’m pretty interested in that kinda thing and I’ve met a couple people have some old clan stuff. I like your headband.”

Damven raises a hand to touch one of the bands of leather across his forehead that keeps his hair in place. There are tiny, jewelled scarab beetles woven throughout his hair. He offers another small smile, “Thank you. Yes, my mother brings stuff back from the Mehlens on occasion. My aunt...not so much, but there should be a case in the corner over there.”

“Thanks, Damven.” Taok says.

“It’s nice to see you back, Tae.”

Chi-Chi saunters over to the case Damven pointed out and says, once Damven has retreated to a back room, “OK, I’m real curious now. You sure ya don’ wanna tell me how you two know each other? D’you really visit a jewellery shop that much?”

“Well...He...There’s a...back room, where people drink and gamble and stuff - I don’t -! I mean. I’m not really one for...that, but there’s...a nice community here and -” Taok is getting progressively redder, “I-I heard about and sometimes there’s like, there’s kind of a signal that and uh this I um -”

“Ok, don’ have a heart attack ‘bout it now, m’jus’ curious. S’not just for the jewellery then, I get it.”

The UCC case is bland, simple. It’s obviously not a customer favourite and it seems Damven has discovered a way to make it stand out in the sea of gaudy and stylised displays by not decorating it - aside from a single stray scarab beetle. On first count, there are eight relics in the case, each featuring, or at least including, an eye.

“I didn’ notice an…” Chi-Chi pulls out the earrings the undead woman was wearing. “Oh, you know, sure enough. There’s an eye on this’un too.”

“Is it a...religious thing? Like how you bury important people with specific things or...does it have a use?” 

There’s a brief silence as the pair contemplate the meaning of the eyes when it hits them.

They don’t need to spell it out to one another, they know what it means.

“But there’s no...backing to this right?” Taok says fearfully. “Tribes have gods, people have gods, it’s…”

“I think,” Chi-Chi begins seriously, “that undead don’ pop up outta nowhere. There’s a reason for it, same with the Mehlens all that time ago. I don’ know if they were right but...This shouldn’t be taken lightly.”

“...Chi-Chi?” Taok says, voice growing tighter by the second, “The...woman who...Ris killed her.”

They look at each other. There’s a rumble and a crack in the far distance - a storm’s coming. 

“I think…” Chi-Chi takes a deep breath. It’s the closest Taok has ever seen him to solemn, “I think we had better buy all this jewellery, wrap it up and go find those two. We’ll scour the city for people wi’ relics later, I don’ know if the Mehlens is a great place to be right now.”

Another crack, another rumble.

“We should talk ‘bout this, but I wan’ everyone safe first. I’ll see what we can do ‘bout keepin’ people outta the woods, but your ranger friend comes first. If she’s killed one o’ Ozmatar’s follower’s and she’s out there - “

“SOMETHING’S GOING ON AT THE GATES!”
“WHAT?!”
“WE’RE BEING ATTACKED!”
“HOW?!”

In all their years, Taok has never heard Zlas’ alarm bells go off, they’ve never needed to. After all, they have been completely sectioned off from any other civilisation. There’s only the Mehlens.

“THE CITY IS UNDER ATTACK!”
“THERE ARE CREATURES AT THE GATES!”
“WHO’S ATTACKING US?!”

But for the first time in over five hundred years, the rusty bells of Zlas jump to their posts better than any befuddled soldier and the clear warning sparks panic over the city. This has never happened before, not even as a drill.

Taok turns to Chi-Chi to confirm they’re not insane only to see that his face has gone as white as a sheet and his hands are trembling. “F-Fuck.” He stutters out, “T-The girls, they’re -"

A jagged arc of lightning streaks across the sky and hits a bell tower; the thunder rumbles in contentment as all hell breaks loose below. 
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#10
Khalia Nelttu is an interesting man; known for his intricate secret passageways and rumoured relations with other men, he stands out as a bit of an oddball among the nobles of Zlas. His beliefs border on pro-Mehlens, feeling that nature is a force to be worshipped and protected. Strangely, through his practices, he has acquired red beryl tattoos and veins claiming that nature works through him. He can never quite explain the choice of gems though, especially with the relationship red beryl has with the Audathan Empire. In short, Chi-Chi suspects he is estranged enough of a noble to grant them an escort through the battle. Or even access to one of his tunnels, if they’re lucky.

Now, Khalia sits on a bench in one of the communal great halls, nursing a tankard of mead. He’s the only one present; as far away from the walls as they are - in the bubble-bubble - Taok can still hear the yelling of soldiers. 

Their footsteps echo through the large room, announcing the pair’s arrival.

The man turns around, fixing his dark blue eyes on Chi-Chi, who’s standing at the front. “Why hello. What would you two be doing here? Offering me some company?” He smiles, and gestures to the space next to him.

Chi-Chi sits down and waves his hands in the air slightly, mouth open, trying to figure out where to begin.

Khalia doesn’t seem bothered, finishing off his drink. “Anything to say? I’m going to start to suspect your enemy forces in a minute.” He chuckles. 

“W-We’d like access out of the city.” Taok interjects.

The older man sighs and leans forward towards Taok, who sits at the opposite end of the table, “Access how?”

“T-The passageways.” Taok squirms, uncomfortable.

“I’m sorry, there’s going to have to be a very good reason for that. Not just ‘I’m chasing after some friends!’ or ‘I’m running away!’ in a million fancy words.”

“I...We - “ Chi-Chi tries. He appears really shaken up.

“Wow, you guys really aren’t talkers, huh? It’s refreshing really.” 

Taok steels themselves, “We have reason to believe that relics of Ozmatar, the Undead Crown Clan’s old deity, are somewhere in the Mehlens and that if we offer them up to the god, the fighting will cease."

Taok takes a breath. Chi-Chi looks at them in disbelief. 

Khalia appears interested now, “And why would the fighting stop?”

Taok makes pleading eyes at Chi-Chi. 

“Uh...Wait, the fightin’ would stop?” He says, confused.

The man leans back and sighs, “You’re lying to me. It’s friends, isn’t it?”

Taok flushes, “No! I mean, yes, but there actually are relics of Ozmatar in the Mehlens - our friends were out looking for them!”

With a mind-boggling 14 from Taok, Khalia looks surprised. “Alright...I’ll ask again: why would the fighting stop? And, actually, what’re your names? I feel like we really just jumped into negotiations there. I’m Khalia, but I’d imagine you already know that.”

“Ch-” Chi-Chi pauses, “Chiburth Vessan.” There’s a light flush to his cheeks now.

“It would - If we offered them up to Ozmatar, the Mehlens would be at peace! One of our friends...killed one of their followers and we think it upset them but the...books say that at least the UCC would be able to rest if we - Oh, sorry. I’m Taok. N-Nhu-Taok Pesemugloz.”

“No, I’m sorry, you were really getting into it there.” The man returns, “Alright! I’m convinced! Succesfull rolls all round.”

“What?” Chi-Chi questions. 

“I’ll see what I can do about supplies and I’ll show you two to one of my tunnels - er, perhaps I’m being a bit flippant here, I really should do a background check and...fill in some paperwork, I…”

Everyone looks at each other. There’s a pause.

“Ah, fuck it, whatever. I’ll get in trouble anyways for something I actually didn’t do. People always bloody pick on me…”

He continues to ramble as he exits the building, a surprised Taok and shaken Chi-Chi in tow.

---

There aren’t many libraries that aren’t in the Aurion, and those that exist in other areas of Zlas are often targeted by the more prestigious archives and end up going out of business. Khalia’s secret passageway is probably the only reason the ‘Holy Library’ is still standing. Taok isn’t sure whether the name refers to a religion - gods are looked down upon in Zlas - or the building’s decrepit state.

Still, the inside isn’t so bad. It’s light and strangely cheery - breezy would be more accurate - and the furniture is mostly intact. There are a number of civilians huddled in the back near the counter, presumably those who do not have homes to hide in. They all shy away when the group enters. 

Khalia leads them through the nicely stocked couple bookshelves into a side room used for storage. He moves to the back and takes down some boxes to reveal a small crack in the wall.

“We’re supposed to fit through there?” Chi-Chi remarks, a little more collected now. He’s asking more for Taok than for himself.

“Don’t worry, it’s not so bad. Er...If you would be so kind as to remain here for half an hour or so. I’ll fetch you some supplies.”

“...Alright.” Chi-Chi replies, though he appears dubious. “Don’ know how long our friends have out there though…”

“I’ll be quick.”

Sure enough, in naught but an impressive ten minutes, Khalia returns, laden with a set of chain-mail armour, a scimitar and a couple other odds and ends.

As he deposits them on the floor, Chi-Chi leans over suspiciously, “Wha’s the jewl’ry for? Don’ need jewl’ry goin’ into battle.”

Taok chimes in, “A...spyglass?”

“It’s - I don’t know, the people I usually use were busy, Ralzia must have thought it would be useful.”

“S’ppose I’ll take the glass then. You like jewellery, Tae, go ahead.”

Taok looks uncomfortable when Chi-Chi nudges them and slowly picks up the jewellery. “I was jus’ joking.” “Um.” “Don’ worry ‘bout it.

“Think we’re good on the sword, Khalia.” Chi-Chi says as Taok shuffles behind some boxes to change into the heavy armour. “But Tae here’s a lil clumsy so.” 

“That’s what you want to turn down? Not the jewellery, the weapon.” Khalia looks amused and raises his eyebrows, the red ring of thorns tattooed into his skin raising with them.

“Pretty much.” 

The small gap is a struggle, particularly for Taok who is not known for their agility or small size. The heavy armour doesn’t help either and Chi-Chi practically has to oil them up to get them through.

The entrance is concealed also with a suspicious cluster of vines that neither adventurer likes the look of. Then again Khalia is into nature stuff, just hopefully not the ‘Mehlen-nature’ stuff. 

Clambouring through the passage is no easy feat. At first, it slants down harshly and the pair have to slide bit by bit around the jutting rock - which Chi-Chi is considerably more equip for than Taok. It’s suffocating and dust clogs their throats; if it weren’t for the simmering panic for their friends and their home, Taok might have backed out.

Twenty minutes into the arduous journey, Taok hears a cry from beneath them. “Chi-Chi!?” They call out in alarm, slumping in relief when there’s an answer.

“M’alright! Sorry, jus’ got a shock. There’s water down ‘ere.”

“Give me a second.”

Taok clambours down to join him, crouched awkwardly on a rock while Chi-Chi rests against a floating wooden plank, shivering and bobbing in the water.
“Looks like this was boarded up to prevent this ‘appening.” Chi-Chi smiles wryly, “Could ‘ave done a better job of it, though. Help me up?”

Taok lends a hand. The passage seems to continue as normal below, except for the fact that it’s underwater. They can see the jagged stalactites and mites criss-crossing over one another and the sharp, rocky shelves they’d been using to break their fall as dark shapes in the clear water underneath them. 

“Khalia would’ve told us if we were s’pposed to go that way, right? Wouldn’ ‘ave thought the armour was a good idea?” 

Taok looks distracted, “I think this is...I think this is that layer of water people have been looking into...The one that separates us from mining and metals and stuff. I thought it’d be lower down…”

“Yeah, I ‘eard about that too. Don’ like water very much.” Chi-Chi gives a weak smile. 

Taok runs their hands against the sides of the walls and crouches in the small space to investigate. It doesn’t take long before their fingers hit a ridge in the wall unlike the others and they pick at it until a mound of coloured paper, or maybe some kind of plant-like material, peels off revealing a small, dark crevice.

There’s a pause.

“I don’ know if even I can get in there.” Chi-Chi says dubiously, chewing at his lip. 

Taok looks down at their new armour, “I...might have to strip.”

In the end, it’s too much effort to drag the heavy armour along with them and so they leave it for Khalia to recover when he supposedly comes down to replace the covering. 

This new tunnel is hell. The small lanterns that had accompanied them on their climb before have vanished and there’s no space even to crawl. Instead they lie on their stomachs, relying on their fingers to pull them along. The ground is jaggy and unforgiving but fortunately neither get stuck, at least not for very long. 

After approximately forty minutes, with the both of them panting heavily in the small space, Taok in front, they call back, “Chi-Chi, I’m starting to panic.”

“Don’ know ‘bout that, you managed that sentence very well.”

There’s a break in conversation as Taok focuses on their bloody hands, hauling themselves through the space. They’ve noticed as they’ve continued the appearance of vines and small lizards and creatures, and now a root gets tangled in their long hair. They’ve been at an incline for the majority of the journey.

“Try thinkin’ bout Khalia wormin’ his way through here. S’wha’s keepin’ me sane.” Chi-Chi speaks up again in the pained silence.

Taok lets out an involuntary chuckle, “That’s pretty good actually.”

The two stop to laugh for a moment, relieving some of the tension that’s been building since the bells rung.

They continue for another ten minutes.

“Know this is stupid, but...What d’you think the chances are that they’re alright? It’s pro’lly been good couple hours since the battle started.”

“At this rate, we could have just snuck out the gates. Well, they might not have let us...I suppose.” 

“Tae…?” His voice sounds tired and frail behind them.

“Yeah?” They huff.

“You didn’ answer me.”

There’s a long silence as they climb. 

“Not good - the chances. But if they’ve found the relic they might be OK! They are rangers.”

“Yeah…” Chi-Chi sounds almost defeated. “Hope they’re alright.” 

“I see...there’s light up ahead. Chi-Chi!” Taok lowers their voice to a hush, not knowing where the tunnel comes out.

Chi-Chi lets out a triumphant cackle, “Go faster then!”

There’s not much faster they can go but the tunnel overgrowth is more prominent here and they use roots and vines to haul themselves out of the tunnel.

They slump to the forest floor in an exhausted, bruised pile, blinking rapidly to adjust to the evening light. They’re in the Mehlens, that’s for sure. But they can hear...in the distance, the clashing of steel and screams. They’re not far from the walls, not at all. 

Chi-Chi clambours out after them, knees going weak as he collapses, laughing on top of them.

They lay there for some time, laughing inappropriately, waiting as the sun sets even though they can’t fully see it. The light changes, and Taok holds up their bloodied hand, fingernails torn and cracked. It was worth it, this crazy series of adventures they’ve found themselves in, even if they haven’t recovered a relic yet. They’ve made friends, they have a chance to save their home, they’ve learnt so much. There’s hope still. They’ll find them.

Dead or alive. 
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