Have you ever been to Meadowfen, my friend? It’s one of the strangest, quaintest little towns you’d ever see. Though, I suppose, that’s not always the case. Meadowfen is typically quiet unless it is taken by cries for help and the smell of incoming smoke.
The villagers of Meadowfen ran out of their homes to see the commotion. What was happening this time, and would it interrupt meals? In the town square was a short strig woman with slightly burned feathers and a look of exhaustion in her eyes. She was looking for someone, anyone really, who would listen to her and help her. The villagers were simple farmers, though, as most folks in the west are. They kept their distance, unsure of what to do. Things were changing in Meadowfen, they said, ever since the smoke from the west came rolling in a few days ago. Something was burning. It would be bringing ash soon. Today, it was bringing people.
Four people in the square approached, though two of them kept their distance. The first to come to the strig woman was Meadowfen’s Elder (another term for Mayor or Leader), a tall gallus named Ardwyn. Ardwyn tried to comfort the woman but to no avail. She was terrified and bothered. Ardwyn learned that the strig’s name was Cara and she was from Ashbarrow. Ashbarrow, Cara explained while violently coughing in the smoky air, was burning. What’s worse was that bandits were on the roads again, probably capitalizing on the situation and robbing those that would evacuate Ashbarrow for safer and less smoky havens.
The second to approach was Qress, a tall raptor mercenary. He and his friend, Gaius, had been living in Meadowfen for a few years now, finding work here and there, offering assistance in return for coin. Qress offered to heal the poor Cara with his divine magic, but by the time he reached her and Ardwyn, Cara had fainted. Ardwyn said she’d take care of Cara, but asked Qress if he could find anyone to go with him and scout along the roads to Ashbarrow. Bandits were a nuisance back then just as they are today, but Qress and his friend Gaius were particularly talented at routing them.
The third was a short strig boy who was drawn by the noises of Cara but then immediately distracted by the shininess of the curved sword strapped to Qress’s back. He introduced himself as Blinky, a magician from the east who was looking for work. Qress explained the situation and that he and Gaius would be probably fighting bandits today. Qress was surprised to see that Blinky took no issue with this. Blinky joined the group.
The fourth was Gaius, the mapach fighter. Gaius usually preferred to listen from afar instead of jumping into things as Qress was wont to do. He liked to sneak and wait, hiding in the shadows. A rogue, if you catch my drift. While the conversation with Ardwyn and Blinky was taking place, Gaius was gambling with small children for their candy. Gaius, you see, had a sweet tooth and often placed as much value in candy as he did in coin. But he used his gambling as a ruse, intent on listening and gleaning insight from Cara and Blinky before claiming his victory butterscotches and joining Qress.
The three of them ventured out of Meadowfen and headed west, towards Ashbarrow and the fires.
You know when the smoke outside is so thick, you cannot see the sun? You still know it’s there, to be sure, but you barely cast a shadow on the ground as you walk. So it was with Qress, Gaius, and Blinky as they traveled along the roads. Gaius led the group, staying occasionally on the road and occasionally in the thicket as he knew that bandits, should they be out here today, would probably try to find cover just within the treeline. But the roads were mostly clear so far. They met a few travelers heading towards Meadowfen. Possibly people evacuating Ashbarrow? It was hard to say. There were no bandits here, so the three mercenaries kept to themselves and continued on their way.
It was likely midday when they heard noise just off the path. Blinky went to investigate, scouting ahead between the branches of trees. He saw four bandits standing over an injured figure on the ground, with a traveling cart tipped onto its side, spilling trinkets and oddities all over the place. Blinky reported this to the others. Qress and Gaius sighed. There was probably no way out of this, they thought.
When they stepped into the clearing to confront the ne’er do wells, Gaius immediately recognized their leader. Frey, a vulpin, was standing over the hunched figure on the ground, cackling to herself. She smirked when she saw them and told them to be on their way. The mercenaries refused, drawing their weapons. Perhaps Frey knew the reputation of Qress and Gaius as mercenaries. Or perhaps she recognized Gaius just as he recognized her, and knew his reputation singularly. Regardless, she drew back. She offered them a deal: each of them could pay her ten gold coins and she’d leave the prone figure alone. Gaius responded by throwing a knife.
Without a second thought, Frey ran away! Cowardice? Self-preservation? Or sometimes the bad guys just know when they’re beat. Doesn’t matter, does it? Anyway, she was gone in an instant, leaving the other three bandits to fend for themselves. They shouted something as they drew their weapons. Qress, dodged their attacks. Blinky fired a magical bolt of white fire, killing one. Gaius spun with his sword, killing the other two. I wonder if Frey knew what happened to them? Likely not. She was long gone at this point, and Gaius suggested they leave her to her own devices.
The prone figure picked herself up. She was Eliza, a traveling cat-like merchant who had recently been in Ashbarrow. She met with a terrible fate there as Ashbarrow was now nothing but burning embers, ash (much to its namesake, I suppose), and thick black smoke. Most of the other villagers had already evacuated, heading east or anywhere else they could go. Eliza’s cart, though, was heavy as it was full of her wares, and this slowed her down. Frey and her cronies thought she’d be an easy target until the mercenaries showed up!
The mercenaries decided to take Eliza back to Meadowfen. What was the point in going on to Ashbarrow now? As they traveled, Blinky saw the strangest thing in the sky. Swirls were moving in the clouds. As the sky darkened when the sun was presumably setting, the swirls stayed lit. Eliza was scared to see this. She called the swirls ‘emberbats’ and suggested they were the creatures responsible for burning Ashbarrow.
Qress, Gaius, and Blinky looked at each other, suddenly very worried. Dealing with bandits was not terribly difficult. Dealing with something called an emberbat was something else entirely.
I’ll spare you the details on the report Qress, Gaius, and Blinky gave to Ardwyn when they returned to Meadowfen as the sun finally and noticeably set. She thanked them for their help and promised that they would receive payment in the morning. Qress suggested to Ardwyn that she consider evacuating Meadowfen as he saw the appearance of the emberbats to be a bad omen. Ardwyn would think about it and would make an announcement in the morning. Eliza asked if they’d be willing to keep going with her as she continued deeper into Humblewood, and the mercenaries would think about that and get back to her in the morning. Everything, it seemed, would be decided in the morning.
But morning would have to wait! Qress and Gaius were happy to have had Blinky’s assistance as his magic was instrumental to their success against the bandits! To celebrate, they took Blinky to Don’s Table, a small watering hole. By small, my friend, I mean small. It was a small room with two tables. One for guests and one for Don, the cerva proprietor who had apparently already started drinking his own moonshine. Don gave his alcohol freely as he had heard from others that “the mercenaries are out there protecting us from bandits again” and this put Don in a terribly good mood.
The trio discussed their work with each other. Qress and Gaius met years ago and started working together out of Meadowfen. The pay was terrible but it gave them something to do. Blinky was a traveler looking for adventure. Qress and Gaius officially welcomed Blinky into their little mercenary group, though they warned the young strig that their line of work was particularly dangerous. And, again, the pay was terrible.
The next morning, Qress heard a commotion outside again. Ardwyn made her announcement, ordering the evacuation of Meadowfen. Most people, it seemed, had already left yesterday while he, Gaius, and Blinky were on the roads. The few remaining villagers were to leave immediately for Winnowing Reach. Qress roused Gaius and Blinky – the latter of which had inexplicably decided to sleep outside in a tree instead of what Qress described as a “reasonably comfortable, grounded bed” – and explained the situation. Ardwyn then asked them to stay behind and leave last, protecting the villagers from the rear in case Frey found some new friends and was thinking about vengeance.
The town of Meadowfen was cleared out within a short while. Eliza, the cat merchant from yesterday, stayed behind with the mercenaries as she felt safer around them. The four of them packed up their belongings and started the march towards Winnowing Reach. Qress and Gaius glanced behind them back towards Meadowfen for one last look at the place that had been their modest home for years, only to see it mostly obscured by smoke.
Winnowing Reach is not far from Meadowfen, as I’m sure you already know. Blinky had actually just been through this way before coming to Meadowfen, so he knew the way fairly well. As they traveled, the four of them got along splendidly. They chatted about where they had come from and where they were going. Blinky liked to travel and was well-practiced in magic, having been enrolled in the Avium, a magical school of sorts to the far east. Gaius, once upon a time, was a bandit himself until he found a better (and, according to Qress, a more honorable) offer. Qress was the son of a jeweler in Alderheart, the capital of Humblewood, but had run away because of his fear of heights and the elevated nature of the perches there. And Eliza was looking to sell and trade in Humblewood, coming from a place in the far west that neither Blinky, Gaius, or Qress had ever heard of.
Do you remember the swirls and emberbats from yesterday? Well, it should come as no surprise that they appear in this story once more, considering they might actually be an omen of something bad that will come to pass. In this case, a swarm of emberbats descended upon the mercenaries and their cat merchant friend. Blinky and Gaius spotted the swarm above them, and they prepared themselves as much as they could.
Maybe nothing could prepare them for what an emberbat was, let alone what an emberbat could do. What was it, you ask? An emberbat is simply a bat with reddish wings and a small lick of flames coming from its little nose. It sounds cute until you hear what an emberbat can do. What can it do, you ask? It makes fire! Fire that comes out of its nose! Fire is hot! You understand, right?
The heat from around the emberbats was unbearable and their shrieks insufferable. They created wisps of smoke around them as they seemed to burn the very air through which they flew. But Gaius and Qress were quick with their swords, and Blinky quick with his radiant fire. The emberbat swarm was defeated and scattered.
Qress helped Eliza grab the cart and the four of them sped as fast as they could toward Winnowing Reach, eager to avoid any other emberbats that may or may not be incoming. The smoke around them lessened as they traveled further and further from Meadowfen.
Everyone has their own descriptions of places, I would presume. Blinky called Winnowing Reach a nice little town. Gaius said it seemed nice enough, but only after he spotted an apothecary that apparently also sold candies. Qress hated it immediately, seeing as all the houses, stores, shops, and otherwise were built into the treetops. Qress’s acrophobia was turned up but he suffered through it, happy to help Eliza settle in the center of town.
The group found Ardwyn again. She was with most of the villagers of Meadowfen already, making themselves a small camp in the center of town. Before they could approach her, they found themselves face to face with a large black corvun who positioned himself between them and their friend, the Elder. He introduced himself as Walden Crane, the magistrate of Winnowing Reach. He talked over them, interrupting at every chance, to explain he had a job for “fine mercenaries such as yourselves.” It seemed a scientist or researcher of some kind had gone missing and he wanted their assistance in dealing with what he described as an “unfortunate situation.” But before he would explain further, he turned on his heel and marched towards his office, instructing them to find him after they’ve spoken to the Elder. He promised the job would be worth their while.
Ardwyn apologized for Walden’s rude demeanor and explained. As they already know, and as you already know, Meadowfen was in a very awful situation. The town was abandoned now, left to either the fires or bandits. They needed assistance from the Council in Alderheart. Ardwyn had thought to ask the mercenaries to go to Alderheart in her stead as they could travel faster than her. But there was a problem: the Council would not grant an audience to anyone who did not have a writ of content from a local magistrate. Walden was such a magistrate, but he was using his power as leverage to have Ardwyn help him first.
What could they do? Meadowfen needed help, and Walden was refusing to give it until his task was given first priority! Ardwyn assured the mercenaries that the villagers of Meadowfen would be fine in Winnowing Reach for now, though. Thus, the mercenaries approached Walden in his office to hear about the job. He explained that a scientist named Kenna had been missing for four days now, far longer than was necessary for the job she was doing. She was in Mokkden Caverns and had been researching the slimes in the area, hopefully (according to Walden) finding a way to dispose of them. The job was to find and bring Kenna back – dead or alive, he said – before he would be willing to sign the paperwork for the Council. The mercenaries agreed, intent on setting out in the morning. Walden, somehow having anticipated their acceptance, had already booked them rooms at Wrangler’s Rest, the local tavern and inn.
The mercenaries were troubled by this. Walden’s demeanor showed no worry whatsoever about Kenna’s health. He even used the phrase “dead or alive” when talking about bringing her back! He seemed much more interested in the removal of the slimes in Mokkden Caverns rather than finding a lost scientist.
After some dealings with the apothecary (remember, they sell candies here), the mercenaries made their way to Wrangler’s Rest. That’s actually where the tale ends tonight, my friend. The mercenaries were well fed – except for Gaius, who was given some truly awful candy by a jerbeen child with no confectionary proficiency – and went off to sleep, each worried about the task at hand and the smoke that was no doubt still drifting east.
But stay sharp! There’s much, much more to this story.