Land of the Ley-Lines - Lessons from a Sellsword

The smell of burning hickory and meat clashed with the clean moisture of the river. An army of invisible crickets and frogs sang an unending quiet song as Marcus sat on a rocky outcropping near a river. A simple looking wooden bow slung behind him resting on stone.

Rustling of leaves betrayed the movement of a rather large man trying desperately to push through the brush. Cursing under his breath, he finally broke through the line of pines and ruffage that lay a handful of meters from the river's edge.

“Bloody fine place you picked to relax. Food's ready ya emo bastard.”

Marcus turned only his head towards Carney. The slow whisper of water flowing made it easier to deal with looking at an enemy who became a friend within a matter of hours.

“Not sure if I'm hungry.”

Carney brushed his hand over his bald head and gave a disapproving snort. Stepping down with ease from the wooded outcropping, he found it hard to get a proper foothold on the loose rocks being nearly eight feet tall. The fact that he was wearing a simple sleeveless tunic and shorts didn't help his trek through the woods, and his sandals are betraying him on uneven ground. Not the sharpest sword in the barracks, but not someone you want to underestimate either.

“Don't give me that crap boyo. Ye haven't eaten since the border skirmish. That was three days ago.”

Carney managed to slowly make his way over to wobble on a stone just behind Marcus.

“Carney, I've got bigger things on my mind. I'm not worried about nourishment. I'm worried about leaving a border completely unde-”

Carney shouted with such force it caused the crickets and frogs to still in fear. Marcus was more shocked at the interruption.

“Aye, I get it. This whole self-pity argument. Ye damn city kids are just too soft in the head ye know that? Ye may have a tough outer shell and yer wits sharper than any I've seen, but ye're daft to spend time moping about it. Ye wanna know a secret there pup? I've killed a lot of men in my day. Many didn't deserve it. Even on the battlefield I always wonder if the men I'm layin' low really had hate for me in their heart. Were they really out to kill me? Or were they fightin' the people I worked for? Doesn't change the fact I've killed a lot of people. Right or wrong boy, it's reality. Ain't a damn thing you can do about it now. Now get yer arse off those rocks and come eat before I pick ye up and smack yer head on a few branches on the way back.”

Carney put a massive hand on Marcus' shoulder and squeezed lightly. Marcus sighed and gave up hope on having time to think about what had happened. It seemed Carney believed that was a bad thing. Maybe he was right.

"You're a pain in my arse sometimes, you know that?"

Carney took his massive hand off Marcus' shoulder, content with the outcome.

"At least we're not starin' down each others' blade mate. I'm quite thankful I don't have ye as an opponent. Not sure I'd win that fight to be honest."

Marcus looked back at Carney, puzzled. Carney was a formidable foe. Chainmail hung from his hardened muscular torso like an old favorite shirt. His axe was as tall as Marcus, and probably just as heavy. Thankfully he left that back at the camp. A light breeze touched the trees just enough to cause them to rustle.

Carney began awkwardly walking back over the rocks towards the tree line, while Marcus began to stand up. His bow clattered on the rocks, while he grabbed the quiver of arrows next to him. Slinging the quiver over his shoulder, he felt comfortable again. He always felt uneasy in unfamiliar territory, but having a weapon always at the ready made it easier.

"Hey Carney."

Carney was stepping up to the small hill towards the trees as he stopped and turned back.

"Aye, Marcus?"

Marcus turned towards him and scanned the tree line. An owl hooted in a tree just above where Carney stood. It was a strange occurrence considering owls had natural predators all around the forests. In fact, it made Marcus uneasy.

"Do you see owls around here often?"

Pointing just above him, Carney looked up at the owl in the tree just above him. His eyes grew wide, and Marcus nimbly made his way over the rocks. With a whistle, the owl spread it's wings and started to take to the air. Retrieving his bow, Marcus pulled it from behind him and released the latch on the sling.

The owl fiercely started flapping as Marcus started to knock the bow. It was clearly no ordinary owl. The breeze picked up, and it gained altitude quickly. Marcus knocked the arrow, drew and aimed directly in the Owl's line of flight. Releasing as quickly as he could, he imbued it with air energy to ensure unfettered flight.

The bow made a comfortable twang as the blade tipped arrow released and flew with intense speed at the Owl. It managed to dodge out of the way, as the arrow flew past it. Marcus wanted to draw another arrow, but knew by then the owl would be out of range.

"Carney, that bird is a familiar and I have a feeling it's not friendly. We need to get-"

With barely a sound, a massive form burst forth from behind him and snatched the owl before it could get much farther. A blast of air swept up over the riverside and the trees shook violently. An elegant and terrifying screech escaped the massive predator as it flew away without a second glance back.

Marcus felt a light touch on his shoulder, and the overwhelming sweet smell of birch filled his nostrils. He knew that the flying monster was no accident.

"Well, that's a bit o' luck ain't it? A familiar ye say? Who's could it have been?"

Marcus didn't like the answer to that question.

"Luck's got nothin' to do with it Carney. We're safe for now, but we'd best be movin' elsewhere by morning. I don't like the sniff of this."

Carney looked at Marcus bewildered. A hearty laugh escaped the massive man which prompted Marcus to cock an eyebrow.

"Oh boy, what 'ave I gotten myself tangled into? Let's get back to camp and eat, then we'll pack up and get movin'."

Another breeze blew gently over the river, and the touch on Marcus' shoulder tightened lightly. A whisper came into his ear, and he knew exactly the voice he heard. One he hadn't heard since he was young. A girl's voice so sweet there was no mistaking it as she whispered one word into his ear.

Emperor

Land of the Ley-Lines - Kim's Corruption

Kim sat in the oak chair he had relished so many nights reading in front of a fire. A small layer of sand spilled through beneath the rustic wooden door, as candle light flickered beneath the ornate obsidian interior. It had been days since the torrent of sand had stranded everyone in the city in their homes.

Holding a bottle of gin he had been saving for a special occasion, he scratched at the armrest in deep thought. Mumbled words burst forth as his eyes darted back and forth. A book sat in his lap, brown with golden binding. There was no name to the strange scripture he had stumbled on in his library.

For years Kim had been a book collector, spending his time crossing the expanse of the Tyrianian Empire for the rarest volumes he could find. This one he had stumbled upon from a traveling adventurer who sought to pawn it after finding it in a lost tomb.

“How could it be? Just from reading it? That's... no... Not really. Can't believe that at all.”

Mumbling continued as Kim's mind raced with strange visions of distant past lives. An eery silence had fallen over his humble abode. All he could think about was the words he had read out of boredom. It didn't take long for him to finish the entire volume. At first he didn't know really what it was talking about. There were diagrams and charts.

Pictures of human anatomy, brain structure, and even speculation on how the nervous system interacts with Ley-Line energy. There were ideas Kim had never thought of before. Musings on life and death, and how you can't have one without the other. Much of the book was incredibly intriguing philosophically. Yet there was one detail that bothered him.

Something Kim couldn't shake about the last page. He had word of power within words, but nothing like this. Opening the book again, he slowly opened it to the last page.

Tuus iam non est vita tua, necesse est permanere ad exolvuntur

That was when it started. Visions. Voices. The maelstrom that buried his beloved city in grains of hell.

Uncharted Territory - Rigging The Ship

Cup of coffee in hand, I managed to tap out a few command lines while I took a sip. Over the last forty-eight hours I've slept maybe two. Dokk left me on this ship. Told me to get it running. We're both lucky I'm smart because this whole job has been a bitch. It took me long enough just to open up the commerce grid in the ship.

 

[Command Line=/subroutine.ai.rig.exe//]

 

It seems too simple. After all my hours of work, this was the magic line that made everything work. Apparently the ship's on board AI, Rig, had a base subroutine that could be manipulated to maintain the ship in cases of emergency. Why it wasn't already in play in the ship's command functions, I can't really say.

“Functions to all Ley-Reactors have been rerouted to my crystal matrix. All further functions will be calculated and reinforced by the current subroutine. Are there any questions before implementing this protocol, Rey?”

I had to think about that for a moment. Sure there were questions. Would any of them help? Probably not.

“No, I guess not Rig. Please execute.”

Taking another sip of my coffee, I pulled my left leg up onto my right and leaned back in the swivel chair. I had found the engineering bay, where there were more cubicles than complicated chambers. Automation of ships have come a long way.

A chime came through the speaker in the small sterile looking office. A picture frame sat next to the computer, with a dog standing in front of a tree. Someone used to work in this office. I wonder why they kept it so barren?

Lights flickered on and off, and the terminal I was working on reset. Thankfully it wasn't tied to my augmented reality. It was of minimal use anyway until I could integrate it with some of the ship's systems. This took priority.

Dokk told me about what the Pangean military would do if they found the vessel after it had been quarantined to sub orbit above this hell hole. It didn't sound fun.

Bartholomew Meets Sir Jerome

Bartholomew knew it best to trust his instincts. Perhaps his good friend Sir Thomas had known the contact he had given Bartholomew would be a perturbing experience. Regardless of his fellow's trust in those which cannot be trusted is misguided. Perhaps it is not. Something about his instincts bothered him.

Twitching his whiskers and fidgeting with the hilt of his sword, he tried to appear nonchalant to his new companion. Though deep down in his gut, he knew he could never truly trust a mouse. Sir Jerome stood not four inches tall on his hind legs. Dressed in traditional rapier and feathered cap, he truly was a strange sight for a cat to behold.

“Sir Thomas has spoken highly of you, good Sir. I trust he has filled you in on our dealings here?”

It was all Bartholomew could do to keep from lashing out. It felt wrong to even address a mouse. Sitting at a simple wood table, Jerome stood on the table across from Bartholomew. The smell of cheese and fish lingered in the air among the musty stench of dust and mold. A light warm breeze tickled their whiskers as it escorted the scent of food.

“In fact, good Sir he has not.”

Sir Jerome gave Bartholomew a neutral glance as he spoke. It would appear he also did not want to seem disturbed. Bartholomew thought a moment. Placing his paw face down on the table, he looked at Sir Thomas intently.

“It appears we are both in a... strange position? Might I make a personal inquiry good Sir Jerome?”

Jerome gave a troubled glance at Bartholomew's paw. It was nearly bigger than the mouse himself. After a moment of searching for intent, Jerome gave a simple sigh and a nod.

“You may indeed.”

A twinkle formed in Bartholomew's eye. His gut felt better. His instincts subsided and he was able to think clearly even if for a moment. It was always best to take advantage of such clarity of mind.

“Thank you. You do not trust cats, do you?”

Jerome looked oddly surprised and instantly looked down at the table.

“It's ok, Sir Jerome. I do not trust mice either. However, it does not mean we cannot trust each other. Sir Thomas is a dear friend. I trust his judgment. If he believes you are worthy of a cat's trust, then I will trust you. Will you trust me?”

Bartholomew gingerly turned his palm face up.

The Junto - Darcy Jones

Sitting on a lawn chair, Darcy ran her hands through her long black hair. A blue bikini top and a pair of daisy dukes hugged her slender body like an old friend. Serge stood in the doorway to to the Jones' backyard. Glancing over at Darcy was all he could do whenever he visited them. Digging in his black cargo pants, he pulled out a small card and handed it to Darcy's mother, Tracy.

“We've begun operations in this area now Tracy. I want to make sure you have my personal line if anything happens.”

A warm smile shined through his stubble and unkempt brown hair. Serge wasn't one to worry about appearances. Staring back at Serge through sunglasses, Tracy cracked a tiny awkward smile. She was wearing a thin, dirty tan blouse and shorts. Something felt off entirely about the interaction. He didn't feel welcome.

“Thank you Serge. I'm not sure why you think anything bad would happen here... But I appreciate the offer.”

She looked at him like she didn't know what more to say. Serge sighed and relaxed a bit.

“I'm sorry for the formalities. I'm so used to this crap by now I've just gotten used to treating everyone like this. The truth is, I'm not really here for that.”

He glanced over at Darcy who had begun pruning weeds near the garden. Although he wasn't here for any romantic reasons, Darcy certainly was nice to have around.

“What do you want with Darcy? She's still in college. And boy if you're thinking about getting anywhere near her-”

Shaking his head quickly, he chuckled a little for effect.

“No, that's not it at all. I mentioned to her a little bit about the Junto, but I wanted to come talk to her in person about it. We could really use some translators, and we have a lot to offer in return for her help.”

Tracy threw the card to the side and frowned.

“Really? So you are here on business then. What, do you think I'll just let her join your little thug group?”

Serge had to take a moment to realize what was going on. Serge had known Tracy's family since he was a kid. His father Greg was in the same Spec Ops team as her husband Jared. He used to come over and play with Darcy. They had barbeques and parties together, he had known her his whole life actually in one way or another.

“Tracy... I'm not here to offer her to be a mercenary. I'm here to offer her the ability to help people on an every day basis. We need signers involved in the community!”

She frowned even more, leaving Serge confused.

“You can sign, can't you? Why don't you do it?” Her voice grew loud and harsh. She was pissed.

“Be safe, Tracy.” He needed to end the conversation. It wasn't going anywhere from here.

Forming A System - Blessing of Frau Holle

What in the hell is going on? Grabbing my head, I couldn't help but feel like it wanted me to suffer. A terrible migraine formed from something, but I couldn't quite tell what. Did I go drinking last night? "Rey, are you awake?" Rig's voice rang like it was screamed directly into my ear. Something awful must have happened while I was asleep. "Yeah. Why is it so... hurty in here?" A chime came through the intercom, followed by the sound of a med drone being constructed at a nearby crystal.

"I'm sending a med bot to you now. Are you ok? How are you feeling?" Good god it's so loud! Can we... make this stop now? The medical drone rolled to me on it's weird creepy gyro and human torso. Designed flawlessly, don't get me wrong. In terms of functionality they're great. Doesn't mean they're not creepy looking and it's not fun watching one speed towards you in the docking bay. Wait, the docking bay? What am I doing here?

"We need to get you to the triage so we can scan you. I know there's a lot to take in but I'll explain everything on the way. Can you walk?" Standing up, I could barely balance properly. An image flashed in my mind of a forest filled with massive redwood trees. All around me was nothing but snow and pine needles. Air moved slowly between the trees as if the forest itself was breathing. "Rey! There you went again! What's going on?" My eyes had to adjust to the light. It's almost like I had actually been out in the forest.

A chill swept over me, sending shivers down my spine. Somehow the reverie made my migraine feel better. "I... don't know at all. There's-" Snow blasted my face so hard I could barely breathe. Covering my arms was all I could do to keep warm in my sweats and a tank top. I really wish I knew what was happening. Standing in the cold shivering, this reverie lasted much longer.

It felt like ages standing there in the cold. Looking around proved worthless, considering I couldn't even see a few feet in front of me. Through the sound of blaring wind, I heard footsteps. They obviously weren't mine, because my body was so cold it locked up and wouldn't move. My hair felt like it was going to freeze off. "Rey! There you are! What do you see?"  I would respond, but I'm so cold I'm still locked up.

Just as quickly as it returned, reality left me. This time, to a much more pleasant light snowfall. On the trees glistened small bugs that shone red with bio luminescence. "Tis a wonderful sight, is it not?" A woman's voice? It feels so calming and warm. To my right a woman approached covered in brown bear furs. She must have been a whole foot taller than me, and strong considering how bulky her body seemed to be.

"Uh, I guess. Maybe I'd appreciate it more if I hadn't been forced here at random moments without having any idea what's going on." The girl giggled spryly, and gave a smile. Pulling her hood down, I could see her fiery red hair braided behind her neck. "Welcome, sister. I do apologize for my method of bringing you here. I know it's a lot to take in, but I would suggest starting with the conduit flies. Though it is best to look, and not touch." 

My god she's pretty. Something about her was so comforting. Although now that I look at them, those bugs do have an alluring charm to them. I'll have to try not to touch one. For some reason I really want to, but I'll listen. I hope. "Yeah, they're... charming. As for you, I'm curious as to what it is you want with me." She looked at me with a smile, which melted my heart by the way. I can't explain why. It still did. This is weird. 

"It's not what I want with you, so much as what I want for you. I bring you here, to impart upon you a gift. It is a guide of sorts. A way to help you learn and appreciate what it is that you are. I'm here to give you direction, and provide for you a purpose with which to chase. Whether or not you choose to is entirely up to you. However, I can promise you this path will unlock for you a level of freedom that not many in existence see."

Existence? That's a bit of a strong word. I guess I must be cosmically important because all this random cosmically important garbage keeps happening. Rubbing my face, I grunted in frustration. "Like... really? Ok, well it can't be any weirder than the whole thing with Dokk." She cocked her head a moment, looking puzzled. "Dokk?" I can't quite understand what she's puzzled about. She doesn't seem to be uncomfortable with that name.

"Yeah, he's this... thing that basically ruined my life. Killed everyone important to me then told me to have a nice life. Oh, and I know about as much about him as I do potato salad. And by that I mean that it exists and I don't like it very much." She giggled as I brushed off the snow from me. Somehow I wasn't cold anymore. Maybe she turned off the cold in whatever ridiculous magical sideshow this is.

"Well, I'll try to make it easier on you then. I'm here to give you a gift. Here." Waving her hand by her leg, she manifested something from her inventory modifier. A small red orb hovered in her hand as she extended it towards me. "Go ahead, take it." Extending my hand, I tried to grab the orb but it passed right through. Figures. "Oh goody, just what I wanted for Christmas." She chuckled and reached to grab my hand.

"Close enough. Although I generally tend to leave my gift giving to my sisters. That is why I'm here actually!" As she grabbed my hand, the orb sank into it. Something felt strange in my head, and a tingling sensation ran through my whole body. Suddenly, a small red crystal appeared in my vision. I hadn't noticed, but my augmented reality interface hadn't been on. Looks like it is now. Where's the vomiting though? "Uh, ok? This doesn't look like my UI."

It really doesn't. Mainly because there's nothing to it. A message icon popped up, and immediately opened. I watched as it automatically pulled up a file named [UI(Old)] and opened it. It loaded a pack and everything cleared in my vision quickly, then reloaded to my comfortable green DOS feel. I loved it old school. "So, you're in my AR now? Impressive. What exactly is this gift then?" 

She let go of my hand and I felt a little disappointed for a moment. This chick has gotta be using some kind of spell here. "It's the gift of knowledge. Of direction. While you may not understand your path now, there is beauty in the road you walk. Your life is entirely up to you. There is no one to tell you no. To influence your decisions in any way. There are many who would die to live this kind of life. I just wanted to make sure you were well equipped to live that life without fear. Entirely by choice."

Yeah, no matter what in life there's always outside influences. "Choice? Oh, just what I needed. More choices of what to do when I honestly didn't have any idea what direction to go in the first place. So thanks, I guess, for whatever it is you did." She didn't like my tone very much, or what I said apparently. "I understand you struggle with this, but allow me to offer some perspective."

Waving her hand, we were now inside of one of the simulation decks. Pulling her fur hood back up, she waved her hand again and a simulation ran again. "In front of you lies three doors. You do not know where each door leads, but you have a choice. One door is made of gold." A door digitally constructed through the simulation, made entirely of polished gold. "One is made of Wood." Another door appeared, crafted from gnarled wood and iron. 

"And the last is made of steel." The final door constructed, though it was two stories tall and looked like the door was made to seal in something massive. "If you were given the choice of one door, and one door alone, which would it be?" She walked around the doors slowly with her hood covering her face. I'm not really sure. I guess I don't really care. Man this kinda existential crap pisses me off. "Do I have to go in one of them? What if I don't care enough to?" The woman stopped for a moment, and looked up at me.

She looked like she was confused, but part of me felt like she knew that would be my answer. Using my AR, I pulled up the UI for the simulation and linked with it by just thinking about it. I told it to construct a lazy boy recliner right behind me, and I heard it digitally construct. Looking back at it, I plopped down with my full weight on it. Kicking the recliner up, I crossed my arms behind my head. "What if I want to sit and wait for one of them to open?" This thinky stuff agitates me so much.

As I finished the thought, the steel door opened by itself. On the other side, I could hear explosions and gunfire. The smell of smoke and burnt flesh stung my nostrils. I don't like this, so I'll shut it again. It did with a lot of force. "What if I don't want it to open?" A moment passed and the girl walked next to the wooden door, opening it herself.

On the other side lay a forest, the scent of birch and flowers blowing through the opening. Birds sang and frogs chirped. I willed the door shut and it slammed so hard it splintered the wood. She began walking over to the golden door, but before she did I willed it gone. "Oh, honey. Money don't mean jack to me. That one isn't even worth opening." 

In my mind I pulled up another door, a plain wooden bedroom door. She looked at it, and then at me. I knew what was on the other side of it. I just didn't know that was what was important to me. Opening it, she peeked in curiously. The sound of people laughing, smells of food that had excited me since I was a kid. A bright rainbow of light found it's way around her head. It didn't take long for her to look into and pull back out. "I'm... sorry." 

Yeah. Me too. I always have to ruin these things. Guess I have a hard time accepting what few outside influences there are in my life. "No, I'm sorry. You came here with a purpose and I... made fun of it and brushed it aside. I guess I'm just tired of this life of no direction. I just always thought life would take me wherever and I wouldn't have to think about it too much. Now, all I have is time to think. I know you came here with a gift, but just know that the only thing I want in life, I can't have. And that's my old life back."

My eyes started welling up a bit. I'm not good with emotions. "Knowing that my family was just a two day shuttle away. It may take a while to get there, but at least they existed and were within reach. You come here on one of the hardest days of the year because it used to be a celebration of family. Whatever gifts that could possibly be given to me could never replace the people that I lost. That's all I want. Is time with them again. Can you give me that?" 

She looked saddened, and her own eyes were glossed over. Obviously she understood my pain. Giving me a smile, tears started falling down her face slowly. She walked over to me and hugged me tightly, and I couldn't help but hug her back. It felt like family. Even if that was just my brain's way of getting it when I couldn't have it, I'll take that feeling even if for a moment. "You have family. You just haven't met them yet. I promise."

Her furs felt strange against my bare arms, and she smelled like pine. Backing away, she lifted out her hand again, and a small red orb appeared. This time it shifted and took the shape of a small memory card. "Here. Plant this seed, and you will regain that which is lost to you. There may be one yet in your family whom you can save." I reached for the card, and felt it up link to my AR. Nothing happened.

"What do I do with it?" She smiled at me and pulled her hood back over her head. "You do nothing. It is not for you directly. All you need to know is that it will help you recollect one that is close to you." I felt the tug of reality changing. She was gearing up to leave. "Before you go. Who are you?"

A rift as black as empty space opened behind her. "I've lived the lives of many, and seen them all through the Ley-Lines. It was nice to meet you Rey. I hope to see you again soon." She disappeared inside the rift, and I felt her presence leave. I went to take a step, and my foot bumped into something. A gift wrapped elegantly in Christmas colors sat on the floor in front of me. Picking it up, I inspected it.

Not too terribly heavy. There's a card on it. It reads:

Rey - You are not alone. While there are many gifts to be given, it seems like the biggest gift I could give you is the gift of direction. Inside this package lies a reminder. A reminder to continue to seek knowledge. To seek a life for yourself. Whatever you choose it to be.

- Frau Holle

Frau Holle? Whatever, I'll look it up later. Opening the gift, I tore it apart. Who cares about the wrapping? As the wrapping fell and a box remained, I tried to ignore all the possibilities of what could be inside going through my head. Yet as I opened it, I realized it wasn't anything I had expected. It was a picture frame, with a photo in it.

It was simply a picture of Lionel and I, smiling at the COM station and talking over coffee. 

Edward and the Raven

Lilac. That's the smell that always brought Ed out to this nature trail. Dirt whispered beneath his feet as a soft breeze tickled the leaves of the oak trees. A small lilac bush grew wild amid the trail, surrounded by various other plants of all kinds. Trekking through the thinly beaten path of dirt and grass led him exactly where he wanted to go.

He trudged this path wearing a new pair of brown cargo pants, a thin t-shirt with the logo of his favorite beer "Shweitzer", and some basic sneakers. The week had been crazy working behind the bar. Being a bartender downtown meant an inordinate amount of people every night. It was a good living for sure. But hardly an ideal one for an introvert.

Wind blew and reminded him again of the smell of lilacs. This time it was accompanied by a smell he was entirely unfamiliar with. Musty. Earthy. Moldy. Mixing with the lilac creating a strange bitter-sweetness in his mind. Pulling out his phone, he checked the map he kept pulled up for long hikes.

This park had miles of trails. All of them were mapped, mind you. So even if he had no idea where he really was, he could check at any time. GPS was faltering, and couldn't pinpoint his location. No matter. It's not like he'd never been around this trail before. Rustling of a bush caught his attention, and he looked quickly to his right to see a deer prancing out of view.

Strange. He had never seen a trail branch off to the side. The tree line grew thick, and unfamiliar. Though he'd seen this trail before, this looked new. A small, incredibly worn down wood sign had a crude steel square on it, marked in sharpie with the words "Trail Closed". That's all Ed needed to see. Any time there's a trail closed sign he was sure to follow it down all the way to the end.

More often than not, it led to another trail that led to the main circuit. Sometimes it led to a dead end, and he simply followed it back. Not much to lose really. The grass grew taller and scattered between the gnarled oak branches. Something felt strange about them. Ed had never seen Oak trees grow with their branches entwined like that.

This trail must be something terribly special. The smell of tall grass and lilac faded, as a neutral smell of bark and mold permeated from the trail. Ahead of him the trail continued on a beaten path while oak branches gnarled even tighter and began to limit the light getting through.

It bent and curved for what felt like a good mile. Filled with the same plants, same trees. The only difference in scenery was the smell. Things started to smell cleaner. Fresher. More open. With a hint of musty mildew. Not long after noticing the smell, a cave appeared on the trail ahead. As he approached, the rustling of leaves startled him.

A raven flew out from the trees and landed on the path in front of him. It looked right at him. Stopping dead in his tracks, Ed felt a strange tinge of anxiety creep into his mind. Something didn't feel right. Yet it felt like if he didn't investigate, it would feel even worse. Cawing once, the raven picked at the ground. It picked up a small stone, round and neatly polished.

It looked back at Ed, and lifted it's wings to take off. Gracefully it flew up and back around into the cave behind it.

"Well then..." Ed muttered to himself.

It only felt proper to follow after it. Sure it was kinda scary, but that's part of the allure. What could be on the other side? Knowing this world, probably just a dead end. Or a bear. That's a possibility too. Feeling unsure of himself, Ed began to take that first shaky step. In the war against curiosity, Ed frequently lost.

The earth beneath his feet started to feel heavier. More real. It gave way like it was moist and fertile. Until he came to the cave. The smell of mold filled his nostrils, and he had to take his phone out to use as a light. Thankfully he had a flashlight app. Flashing it from wall to wall, it was difficult to really get a good picture of what the cave looked like.

He decided instead of trying to get a full picture, he'd just make sure he had firm footing ahead of him. Pointing the flashlight in front of him, he walked slowly but surely ahead. The steady hum of air moving through the stagnant cave made it difficult to concentrate. Still, he moved forward.

The sound of moving water made his heart jump. There was a river in this cave somehow. There weren't any rivers nearby. Hell, there weren't even any lakes nearby. He was really unsure of himself now, considering that was a sure fire sign that he'd stumbled on something no one else had before. Someone would have noticed a cave with an underground river in a heavy traffic state park by now, right?

He pushed forward, checking the battery on his phone. It was getting low, but it was enough to get him through and back. Hopefully. The sound of a rock skipping on the hard floor startled him. A caw echoed much louder than he'd care for, and the raven stood in front of him again. It bounced and cocked it's head, hopping towards him curiously. 

Ed stared at it quizzically. It made it's way to his feet and looked up at him. Cawing again, he reached for his ear with his free hand.

"That's a bit loud, don't you think?"

It let loose a quiet squawk, and pecked at his feet a moment. Hopping around back over to it's pebble, picking it up and taking off into the air again. Shining the flashlight on it, Ed watched to try and see where it went. It flew forward a few feet, then dove downward. A caw echoed again after a few seconds. As if to beckon Ed forward.

His heart began to beat quickly, and he walked carefully forward. A few feet ahead he came to the ledge of a steep decline. It looked dangerous to try and walk down, but he could slide down slowly without any harm. Kneeling down on the ground, he sat near where the decline started and began to slowly put his leg over to start the descent.

Another caw echoed through the cave, reminding him to push forward. Slowly he descended down the rocky hill, trying to not rip his pants. The smell of water overwhelmed his nose, leading him to believe that there was an underground pool nearby. Something strange hinted in the air too. The smell of lilacs, but different in a way.

It smelled like lilacs, but it must be another type of flower he'd never seen before. The decline started to get slippery, and he began to slide involuntarily down. His phone gripped tightly in his hand, he pointed it downward a bit more to see where he was going. Directly towards a cliff. The rush of water started to fill the cave, and slowly he realized he could be descending towards an underwater ravine.

That did not bode well. He tried to no avail to grip the rock face he now slid awkwardly down at a much more alarming rate. His heart beat intensely, and fear began to grip him. This could end very poorly. A caw echoed through the cave, and calm entered him again. It was like the raven was telling him everything will end well. 

He tried to dig his foot into the rock regardless. His sense started to overcome his curiosity. Unfortunately, as his sense beckoned him to turn back, he was now too far into his adventure. The rock face grew slippery from the moisture, and even his clothes started to dampen. At this point, he knew that he would continue downward whether he liked it or not.

Placing his phone back into his cargo pocket as quickly as he could, he hugged the rock face. He was only feet away from the cliff face now. It was right there. A caw came again, and he took a deep breath. Closing his eyes, he loosened his grip on the rock face and let himself slide.

Fear quickly overcame him as he slid quickly down and over the side. Vertigo kicked in as he tried to tell his body to straighten out for the water. Thankfully the fall wasn't that far. Although if it had, he probably wouldn't have slammed his leg on the water's surface. The current was strong, and pulled him along at an alarming rate. Rushing back to the surface, all he could hear was water rushing by.

A caw echoed through as strong as the water, and he was pulled under again by the current. For a moment, he wondered how his curiosity could have possibly gotten him into this much trouble. Then he realized he didn't have time to think about what happened. He had to think of what is happening now.

He fought as hard as he could to stay above water. It was difficult, and the current pulled him under one more time. Water pulled him along like a rag doll until finally he felt himself free of the water again. Free of water, and of solid ground beneath him. Light filled his eyes, and it took a moment for them to adjust. He felt like he was falling, and a caw came to his side again.

A heavy breeze blew past him, causing his wet clothes to give him chills. His eyes adjusted quickly. What he saw, he couldn't even begin to comprehend. A massive red crystal illuminated in the distance. Towering above the trees with massive stone structures floating around it. Looking down, he realized he was slowly falling through the air. Not like normal. Safely falling.

A raven flew by with it's wings outstretched and it circled around towards him again. There was no sound from it, only the pebble in its mouth. What had to have been hundreds of feet below him was a structure like he'd never seen before. It was a shrine built around the basin of a waterfall. The one he had just been thrown out of.

The raven circled around him, and he felt his body tug slightly forward. As it flew back in front of him, this time he followed. An exhilarating feeling overwhelmed him as he glided on the air towards the ground. It led him swiftly away from the waterfall towards the woods below. Trees colored with greens of all colors, and even some reds.

The raven flew towards the ground, and the trees creaked and moved to greet them. A small evenly grassed clearing below rushed up to him, as he floated slowly down towards it. Falling awkwardly on his side as it let him down, he looked up to see the raven hopping up to him on the ground. A giggle came from behind him, as it placed the pebble in front of him.

This cannot possibly be happening. Ravens cawed from all around him. Swarms of them were circling above. 

"Welcome Ed." The voice of a sultry woman was behind him. It was accompanied by the strange smell similar to lilac.

Bartholomew and the Bulldog

Adjusting his tabard, Bartholomew pulled his short sword from it's scabbard. It gleaned in the sunlight like a beacon of hope in these trying times. A breeze brushed his face, carrying with it the sweet scent of dandelions and honeysuckle. An eery quiet fell over the valley as he stood there among the soft grass swaying in the wind.

Before him stood a formidable bulldog, his arms crossed and staring intently at Bartholomew. His brown and white splotched fur blended well with his black cabby hat. Behind the guard was a door Bartholomew must get into. It was a dire situation that called for dire actions, and now was the time for action.

“I say good sir, I must enter the door behind you to save my dear friend Ricky! Might you find it in your heart to allow a kind soul entry in his time of need?”

The dog grunted and pointed at Bartholomew with ferocity.

“Ain't lettin' a pup like you in 'ere. Dunno 'oo dis Ricky is but I ain't ever 'eard of 'im. Dun matter to me wut 'appens. Just doin' my job here, you understand.”

Bartholomew's heart sank. Now he must fight to save his dearest of raven friends!

“Very well sir, have at you then!”

Charging with all his orange fluffy might, Bartholomew swung at the bulldog with a quickness only a cat could muster. Slash after slash, the dog stood there looking at the wiry cat like he was insane. None of these attacks were even getting close to hurting the dog, as the blade never even so much as blew a breeze in his direction.

“Ha ho! What say you now dog? You only get one warning!”

The dog crossed his arms again, and began to pick his nose slightly with his nail. Without missing a beat, Bartholomew began swinging wildly again. Again the blade danced in a fearsome display. Fearsome if the blade had actually ever met it's mark. Bartholomew began to pick up his showmanship of swordplay. Jumping more, and slashing faster, the dog stopped picking his nose and let out a big yawn.

“See, yer still a pup. Can't even go frough with 'urtin' yer enemy. Ain't nottin' 'ere fer the likes of you kitten.”

With a swift backhand, the dog stuck Bartholomew and sent him flying a few feet. His sword flew out of his hands, and flew upwards. It spun in the air until coming down and skewering the ground right next to Bartholomew. With a shake of his head, Bartholomew stood up and clutched his sword. Putting his sword back in it's scabbard, he walked up to the dog with a very unhappy look on his face.

“'Atcha gonna do pup? Scratch me?”

The bulldog laughed heartily, staring down at the poor cat in front of him. Cocking an eyebrow, Bartholomew jumped up and slammed his paw into the dog's nose as hard as he could. As the dog reeled in pain, Bartholomew opened the door and slipped inside.

 

Castle Bragi - Rän's Judgement

Castle Bragi houses many dangers. It's servants are wights, fooling the untrained eye with their demonic magics. Commoners are people living in fear of Lord Loki. Living in fear that even if they escaped all that awaited them was a vast unforgiving lake filled with terrors that even the great Loki built walls to defend against. Each brick of the wall was laid with specific purpose, each enchanted with spells to ward off unwanted attention.

Beneath the foundations lay a realm beyond nightmares. Hel, daughter of Loki, resided in wicked slumber beneath the castle. Some say Loki had banished her to craggy hellfire caverns beneath when she refused to restore life to his now long gone love. Worst of all, she was Hel's mother. To speak the name of the lady of the lake within the confines of those bricks was a death sentence. Loki cared not for the every day corruption of his people or servants, though he monitored them closely to assure his power over them never wanes.

His agents lie in every shadow. Beings none have seen but can swear they are there. Stalkers, we call them. We know they exist only in the pulling in the backs of our minds as we speak of politics. Flashes of movement out of the corner of our eyes. A feeling that your life could depend on the things you say, or do. Death is a common happening, making the deaths by stalker that much more terrifying.

Each time a man is found disemboweled and his blood drained from him. Cuts across his body so sharp one would believe the blade was not made by mortal men. Every time a woman was found mutilated and her body shamed. Things no person would wish upon even their worst enemy. That was when Lord Loki would address his people. While he has never admitted the existence of these beings, he sets a very cold tone in his speeches.

Smooth of tongue and quick of wit, we live in fear of uncertainty of his moods. Tales of his long life among the world tell of his prowess and greed. He contended and bested with even the strongest of deities. Rän despised him most, creating a champion that would eventually be more feared by her than Loki himself. He was simply known as the Blademaster, and he was the reason Loki locked himself behind solitary bunker that soon became his own prison.

Rän sought to strike Loki while he was down, and created a storm so fierce and brimming with the fury of the seas that it created a sink-hole around the mighty fortress. That fateful day, she brought with her Brick, the legendary Golem of the great mountain. They struck a deal, and he moved the earth around the castle. At the raise of a hand, he created a hole fathoms deep and and farther than the eye could see.

Standing in his study atop the highest spire, he watched through the window as dirt and rock began to crumble away with surprising speed. Before he knew it, he couldn't see past the vast dark that now engulfed his new home. Lightning and thunder rumbled with ferocity he had never seen before, and rain fell from the sky like it was being pumped right out of the ocean.

Days passed like moments as Loki watched as his solitary refuge became a barren wasteland of water.

Land of the Ley-Lines - Tyr's Sanctum

Looking down, all Marcus could do to keep himself from getting dizzy was pretend that what he was looking at was actually an illusion. Somehow he had ended up among the clouds, joined only by birds and light chills from the southern winds. It's howling was barely a whisper among the vast reaches of open sky. Beneath his feet was marbled greenish stone, which was lightly camouflaged as the distant land below him was lush with greenery.

“Right then. I, uh, suppose this is a thing.”

The moss covered door lay behind, with no real outlet off of the small ledge which he now stood. A blur of a bird swept up behind him with amazing speed, blasting him with a fierce wind as it flew past and disappeared. Losing his balance due to vertigo, he tripped and fell forward. Bracing himself for a long fall, he watched as a gust of air appeared quickly beneath him to stop his fall. The wind whistled and hissed as it increased in intensity rapidly, creating a strange smoothness that resembled hard ground.

Running his hand over it, he was awestruck.

“Wow... That's a new one.”

A screech resounded in the distance, and Marcus realized the bird was on it's way back. Before he could react, the bird had appeared and stopped with a massive burst of air that threw Marcus back at the temple door.

“I am not your enemy sharpened one. You may stay your blade.”

Brown feathers refracted light, as if the sun itself would stay it's power for the great beast. His beak moved as if he were chirping, yet he still spoke in as plain of a tongue as any man.

A voice familiar, yet distant filled Marcus' ears. Uncertainty was replaced with a feeling of confusion. Before him was the bird he had known many years ago, as a child. Mordecai was a great roc of the eastern provinces. Many days Marcus had spent riding the great hawk around the Freyan valley searching for hunting prey. He had never heard him speak before now, but perhaps there was no need to before.

“Long time no see Mordy. I take it life is treating you well?”

The bird laughed, as Marcus postured himself to appear less frazzled.

“Is life treating any creature well these days? Perhaps you, bladed one, would be most equipped to deal with the hardship our lands now face. That is why you are here, is it not?”

Flapping his wings, the wind below him swirled with barely visible tendrils of light bending. Marcus felt the mark that was now engrained on his back. It tinged with a slight burn, yet it also felt good. A reminder that for the time being, he was in control.

“I suppose I would be foolish to think I could put anything past you. Indeed, that is why I'm here.”

With a screech and a blast of wind from his wings, the air around him swirled with small tendrils, revealing a grid like structure around the whole sky.

“Welcome, old friend. You now stand before Tyr's Sanctum. Watch your step!”

Bartholomew and the Tower of the Squid Lord

It's not every day that a cat got to see underneath the ocean. Bartholomew greatly appreciated his raven friends' technology. Somehow, they had come up with the most clever ways among animals to build structures that could move them to extreme places in search of treasure. This day, Bartholomew held his hand over his sword scabbard with pride on his face. For outside the submarine window, was a coral reef that his kind had never seen before.

Supposedly the oceans were vast, terrifying places. Fish of all sizes occupied them and gave them life. Plant life even grew under water, simply under different rules. Scratching his chin with other hand and flicking his whiskers, Bartholomew pondered what it was the ravens might be after underneath the water. Besides shiny stones that is.

His tail swung back and forth behind him, flicking every once in a while as a reminder he had a tail. Ricky, his dapper raven friend had approached him from behind without his notice.

“Well my friend, what do you think of the deep blue sea? Is it not a wonderful sight to behold? Such vastness of life in many forms! Will we ever truly know everything about such a diverse ecosystem?”

Pulling from a hickory pipe, Ricky hopped up behind Bartholomew with clicking of claws on the steel floor. While Bartholomew was a formidable orange tabby, Ricky was still greater in size as he was in intellect.

“It's amazing Ricky! You ravens will go great lengths to obtain your stones won't you? What exactly are we looking for today old bean?”

Adjusting his raven lord's tabard, Bartholomew looked around at all of the bells and whistles of the machine he rode inside that kept him safe among the waves. Gears turned, steam vented, valves turned on their own. Ravens perched atop copper pipes with the all too familiar black coating that no doubt kept their feet safe from the immensely hot steam traveling through the pipes.

“Today we are looking for the Tower of the Squid Lord sir Bartholomew. Lord Cool Thool will be pleased to meet a new species from the surface. Much as I am sure you would be pleased to meet the ruler of the entire Blahdee Ocean. Are you ready for this?”

There was weight in his words. Something just felt wonderful in my heart of hearts about meeting such a distinguished ruler. Supposedly he had fountains, temples, and even scratching posts made of gold. Perhaps that last part was just wishful thinking.

The submarine shifted and jutted, coming to a stop. Bartholomew had to hold on to a nearby pipe to keep from falling over. A chime came through the loudspeaker and ravens began cawing in approval.

“Well my friend, would you like to meet Lord Cool Thool? He is waiting for us on the other side of this magical breathing barrier.”

Bartholomew flicked a whisker, got a twinkle in his eye and took a deep breath. The hatch opened, and water floated just outside of it. On the other side of that barrier was Lord Cool Thool.

Bartholomew and the Raven's Undying Search

Bartholomew had never ridden a raven airship before. His feathered Raven friends were gracious enough to show him technology and magic. The design was flawless, with shiny stones and feathers attached to scaffolding and lift engines alike. Surely there had never been a finer piece of engineering yet known to Raven kind.

“You see my fine furry friend, we Ravens value one thing over everything else. That is why these airships were built using our magic.”

Walking him through the copper planks and steam valves through the airship's engine room, Ravens were perched on pipes that had protective coatings to keep the temperature of the steam from burning their feet. Wearing everything from top hats, bow ties, and even monocles, the ravens talked amongst themselves.

“This way leads to our observation deck. Won't you join me?”

Pointing with his massive black wing, he summoned Bartholomew through a collection of pipes that led into a room. Bowing as politely as he could, Bartholomew ruffled his whiskers and flicked his tail in pleasure.

“I would be delighted dear friend!”

Ricky had been his friend for many moons, but it was not until this day that he decided Bartholomew was worthy of sharing the secrets of the Ravens. Today was a red letter day! Not even most ravens have seen what Bartholomew was about to. A technology so secret and powerful, it has been hidden from all but the select few of Raven inner society.

Turning and walking through the pipes, Bartholomew's little heart fluttered and pulsed sharply. Excitement gripped him as the light from the room evened out to reveal in plain sight what had been hidden for so long. A room full of computers hooked up to telescopes outside of the airship. Hundreds of them all scanning and calculating every inch of the ground.

“By golly chap! This is incredible! What exactly is it doing?”

Walking over to one of the big screens in the middle, Ricky pointed his wing at the display. Pebbles large and small appeared on it's screen. In a matter of seconds, several were revealed and detailed. Small numbers shown near each and every rock, though many were the same.

“It is doing the work that Ravens have been doing for a near infinite number of moons. Searching for shiny pebbles! It is what we Ravens do! It's quite brilliant really! See it sends the co-ordinates to a central database so that we can send teams-”

Ricky droned on for hours, while Bartholomew was left to ponder what exactly this meant. This meant that this big secret power that Ravens had been toting over every other species was a supercomputer designed to find polished stones.

The Valhalla Protocol - Labyrinth of Daetheria

A crystal explosion had broken the silence within the massive mossy stone halls of the ruins of Daetheria. It was the home of a notorious Minotaur that resided below his home of the Valhalla Rise. Jericho had grown up there, unknowing of the vast world that lay beyond the endless seas that raged hundreds of feet below the edge of the Rise's bluffs. There was only one way in, or out. A tunnel that had been sealed ages ago to protect us from the world's dangers.

A cough came out of nowhere, as he felt his lungs were filling with blood. He never thought he would even be beyond that tunnel, let alone running for his life from a Minotaur. Feeling his side for the shard, he concentrated on the point that felt worst, and imagined it healing all the way through. A green light emanated from his well worn leather gloves. He wasn't much of a fighter, but he knew a trick or two to stay alive. Tremors pounded like thunder and assaulted the very ruins with the Minotaur's rage.

“Your people's gall never ceases to amaze me. First, you tell me that you require aid. Then, you tell me you are of Valhallan descent. I've had interactions with humans many times in my day young one, but my axe has had many, many more!”

Looking back, Jericho picked up the pace as his wound healed. The beast was five times his size, and he wasn't exactly scrawny. The roar of a massive stone axe dragging through the labyrinth made his ears begin to lose the ability to hear anything but. It was grinding away at his very core. Nervously, he tried his best to come up with something to diffuse the situation.

“I'm terribly sorry if I disturbed you! I assure you I meant no harm! If you are unwilling to render aid, I will gladly leave!”

The noise of the beast's laughter nearly knocked him over. A tribal cloth was all that covered the furred beast. His horns had rings pierced through them, many with skulls attached. A necklace adorned with what must have been dragon teeth and a large uncut ruby left Jericho wondering if it was functional. Hoof after hoof battered the stone beneath, growing ever closer to it's prey. Looking around, All he could see were lines of separate tunnels in front of him.

He had a feeling the beast wouldn't allow him to make it that far. All he had left were his wits, and he wasn't sure what good those would do. Still, something must be done. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a small vial of glittering white dust. Popping the lid off, he poured the entirety of it into his hands and let it fall loose. Readying his legs, he grasped the hand full of dust and turned to face the Minotaur.

Throwing it as hard as he could, each grain exploded into a blinding burst of light. The beast began to run forward and covered his eyes, believing it to be a simple illusion. Unfortunately for him, Jericho had picked up a trick or two during his experimenting with magic.

The dust covered the Minotaur and as it made contact, each little grain exploded with a burst of air and threw him forcefully onto his back. Jericho wondered how long that would keep him down.

Make the Mose of it

My name is Mose. I'm a zombie, technically. See, the metropolis I lived in was cursed and buried under like, a whole crap load of sand for a hand full of centuries. Although I didn't know him before all this happened, a pretty stand up guy named Kim rose me from the dead. Now, I know what you're thinking:

“Black magic?! Exile him! He is a necromancer!”

Sure, he may be meddling in powers beyond his understanding, but he's actually doing it to be nice! Did you know that he managed to tweak his spell to make us not feel negative emotions? It's certainly splendid if I do say so myself! I lost my eyeball last week and well, it all seems pretty funny the longer time goes on.

I'm sure it'll turn up one of these days! Anyway, Kim is a stand up guy I tell ya and all he wants in the whole wide world is to be accepted into the Mage's Academy in Freya. The town and I really love the guy and we will miss him dearly, but we want to help him move forward in life. So we all thought we would write letters to the academy directors and tell you why he deserves to develop his skills there!

There was this one time, when Deloris lost her left thumb, he actually grew one from the side of a pig and re-attached it to her! Golly gee she was sure happy to be able to play racket ball with us again. We had gone every Tuesday for weeks and one week she passed out at a party and woke up without it! Gotta lay off that cactus juice sometimes you know?

Well, I'm rambling, so I suppose I'll just close with reminding you Kim really is a great guy. Give him a chance, and you'll make more than just him happy! Thank you sir and/or madame!

 

Sincerely,

Mose

Story Excerpt - Land of the Ley-Lines: Kim's Glamour

The hustle and bustle of a bigger city never really was Kim's thing. Even when he was a kid he stuck out like a sore thumb. Albino, born with a host of problems that somehow worked themselves out, awkward demeanor and the like. Wearing a plain navy blue robe, he looked more like a monk than a necromancer. The only thing that might give him away would be if you could see past a glamour that made him look like a spry old man.

In reality, Kim wasn't very impressive. Shorter than most, skinnier than most, and definitely more awkward than most. Tied around his waste was a golden silk rope that held his grimoire book at his side. It was ornately designed, with ancient symbols of life and death, long forgotten in the cultures he now sought to understand. Sitting on a stone bench near the Freyan Castle courtyard, he studied people as they walked by.

Guards eyed him through polished steel as they walked by, suspicious of his presence. A pair of young lads adorned in chain mail and crystal bands around their arms approached him confidently. The smiles on their faces as they bantered at each other from across the courtyard near the tavern told a tale of unkindness approaching Kim. “Ey, old man, where's yer gatekeeper?!” Kim laughed along with the boy's friend at the young man's drunken rambling.

They both wore crystal integration bands, something reserved for wizards and nobility. While they may not look like much more than a piece of cloth with a ruby embedded in it, it could tell a person whether they should be in for the fight of their life, or a brawl that could end them up in jail. Neither are desirable outcomes, but one is definitely more desirable than the other. “Oh, he's just takin' a leak out behind the castle proper for old times sake. Used to run mead from the emirate before the war he did.”

Both young men looked at him in shock, their smug outfits adorned in clan symbols, medals of honor, and house ranking badges. These boys were at the tavern on a mission. One flicked his longer brunette hair to the side and laughed. “Got a lotta nerve sayin' fings like that 'round here old man. But I like you. Didn't get the feelin' ya meant ill of yer words. Be careful out 'ere eh? May not be ye think people can see ya, but we do. Keep yer 'ead low eh?” Maybe these boys weren't just nobility after all.

Story Excerpt - Castle Bragi

There once was a castle, jutting high above a forest of redwood trees. It's simple stone peaks pierced the sky, while balconies littered it's highest spires for those who were well enough off to afford the luxury of a view. Vines grew rampant throughout the bricks. Crystals were embedded outside it's watchtowers. From every glance outside, one would think this abode belonged to a noble of the highest power.

Yet this castle held no true owner beyond itself. Many have lived here over generations, year after year, they forget it's makers and the purpose for which their ancient home was conceived. A society now inhabited the lavish walls of Castle Bragi. It's people have carried out countless acts of kindness and terror alike. For humans, even to gods, are creatures of mystery. Capable of great acts of good and evil alike, humans now live amongst unknown gods and powers beyond their control.

For it was not the makers of this mighty castle that named it. It was the humans who found it and restored it for their own purposes. To them, it's sleek, barren stone walls looked hospitable if given the proper care. Emptiness did not dissuade them from their ideal of making this vessel their own. A single keeper remains from the first who populated Bragi. One who has inexplicably been stripped of their place in time and remains alive yet to this day.

His name is Loki. Here he has built an empire within the walls that expand beyond the laws of space. Rooms appear and disappear, doors which have both been opened and yet still remain untouched. It's citizens are unaware of the dangers that lurk in the caverns below. Fires of an ancient war still rage, kept in check by Loki and the power of the keep. At least, until he bore a son, Vali.

This unexpected child threw Loki into a panic. His compassion bid him to let the child live. Seeing the mother, a noble, distraught at the thought of losing her child caused him to make a fatal mistake for castle Bragi. He brought the child to the lowest caste, fearing nobility may breed complacency in his heart.

Yet what the workers bred was contempt. Contempt for their lord, Loki, and contempt for Castle Bragi. All of this contempt meant nothing, as soon as the true purpose of the fortress was uncovered by Vali. This was no place of happiness. No place of peace. This was the capital of the Einherjar.

The Valhalla Protocol - Odin's Labyrinth

Caverns surrounded him and appeared to shift as he gazed around speechless. No one direction felt like the right way to go. Somehow he had found himself in this labyrinth filled with the stench of decay and blood. Checking his gear, he realized that he was somehow stripped of everything but his bow. Perhaps the enchantment that bound it to him allowed him to keep it even within his dreams.

Imbibing a strange bowl of liquid at an altar wasn't normally the way he found his way around. These however were some extreme circumstances. Wilhelm was honor bound to allow him time to complete the ritual, and that's all he could do to figure out a way out of this mess. A Minotaur wasn't exactly something he wanted to fight. So now he's here, trying to figure out which part of the cavern holds the prize he seeks. 

Stone was carved in places, while the natural openings within the rock a blurred white light through them. To his right was a dark cave that echoed with the sound of running water. In front of him was a tattered and moldy ruins entrance with a stairway leading down. Light crept through the stairway, hinting that he would at least be able to function normally there.

To his left appeared to be a small outcropping in the cave with a large pond. The face of the water was so still he could see there was another tunnel leading through under the water. He could also see something stirring at the bottom of the pool. As he noticed the movement, the sand shifted and began to part. Instinctively, he dodged backwards. Just as he tumbled backwards, a grotesque mass of mud snapped out through the water. A massive eye opened in the vaguely human figure.

"Who are you to disturb this hallowed ground?!"

Land of the Ley-Lines - Necromancer's Blade

Blackened sandstone was all that Marcus could see. He was lost inside of the massive metropolis that dwarfed even the renowned Rángard. Streets laced together with crystal lamps lining them to keep things bright and warm during the cold desert nights. To his left was a string of shops, some of them had glass windows that were still dusty from the sand. The signature blacksmith's anvil lay outside the front of one of them. 

On it was a small broadsword with a ruby fitted into the where the blade met the hilt. It didn't appear to be anything fancy. Aside from the ruby it was pretty plain. Still, he had lost his sword in the sands somewhere, so having one will have to do. Grabbing the sword he looked over it a little more closely. "Interesting blade eh? I haven't seen one like that before. Most swords around here are serrated on one side. Lots of bone cutting with those sand Wyrms ya know?"

Mose was still following Marcus, although it's unclear whether that's good or bad. "Aye. I'm not quite sure myself of what it could be, but doesn't look like anything special. Maybe there's a scabbard inside for it. Shall we?" Mose shrugged. "Sure. Why not? I mean, what's the worst that could happen?" Marcus looked at him awkwardly. "I'm not one for superstition, but that just sounds like a right awful thing to say at a time like this."

Mose chuckled and patted Marcus on the back. "What are you worried about? Even if I'm not the only abomination out there, people around here weren't ever the kind to just start swingin'. I mean, worst case scenario a shade devours you in the shadows. But there isn't one in there. I can tell you that for sure."

Picking up a stone, Marcus willed it to shine like a miniature lamp. He threw it inside of the shop anyway, and the movement triggered crystal lights inside. "Huh. I guess you're right." Walking into the small doorway led him into a much larger shop than he had realized. The way things were built made it hard to tell where one building ends and another begins.

"Oooh! I remember this! Hartford's Smithy! He umm... Made me a thing back in the day. I forget what it was. But he did a thing!" Marcus chuckled and browsed through the various swords and daggers. There were even some pretty fancy bows. "Did a thing? Looks like he did a lot of things. Tell me if you see where he hides the sheathes so I can get one." Mose lumbered over behind the counter and started digging.

"Hey! Look at that!" Marcus made his way to the counter, only to find Mose fiddling with the change drawer. "He's still got some money in here! Not much, only like fifteen rupees total in petty change. Looks like his last few days weren't too good. Poor guy." Marcus sighed, and stepped behind the counter and found the door to the back. "Oh. Hey. Ummm I feel like that's a bad idea. Not sure why, but something's telling me bad. Up to you though. Just be prepared for whatever I guess."

Marcus cocked an eyebrow at Mose. "What the hell is wrong with you? Part of your brain missin'?" Mose just laughed and shrugged. Readying the blade in his hand, he gripped the handle on the door and slowly opened. "You know guys, we should totally do this every week. Not like we don't have time." A dusty voice was talking, with a few others mixed in. It almost sounded like a party.

"Ey Boss, when're we gonna get back to the outside?" A few men were standing in the back of the plainly furnished room talking, with three men playing cards at a table near the wall and another door. "I dunno Milo. Not really up to any of us. We gotta wait until someone drains all the sand. That could be years from now." A woman came through the door on the other side, followed by another. They were talking about fashion and what some of the neighbors were up to.

One of them noticed Marcus opening the door, and wave at him goofily. "Hello there! Would you like to come in? We're not doing much right now, but you're welcome to join us!" Everyone in the room looked at Marcus and Mose. One of the men at the table was wearing a tattered robe, which stood out from the rest of them wearing plain clothes. "Moira? Is that you?" Mose grabbed onto Marcus' shoulder and tried to peek into the room.

"Mose?! You're back dear?! Does that mean the sand is gone?" One of the ladies came running over to the door. As Marcus got a closer look, she also was missing some flesh. More undead. "The sand is gone? Well I suppose that's a good thing... But I was hoping we could you know, hang out a bit more?" The man with the robe stood up and looked at the room. "Oh Kim, we've been hangin' out for sands know how long. We'll get more time soon enough. We want to go see the outside world again!"

Kim shrugged, and draped the hood of his robe over his head. "Alright. Fine. You guys go have fun. But I'll be getting in touch with you soon for another hang out night!" Marcus just let his arms fall in disbelief. The Tyrianan scourge was before him. Yet scourge didn't seem like the right label for what was happening. "Umm.. Excuse me, but I'd really love to know what's going on with the city. Can any of you shed light on this? Kim?" 

The robed man looked at him with a scowl. "Yeah, I can tell you. Are you gonna give me my sword back?" Marcus looked at the sword in his hand, and carefully grabbed the blade to hand the hilt to Kim. "If it ain't rightly mine, I won't take it. Here." Kim looked at him with surprise. Like he wasn't expecting Marcus to offer it so freely. "You aren't worried I'll try to kill you with it?" Marcus cocked an eyebrow and shook his head.

"If you're more worried about hang out time with your friends than you are a strange man walking in with a sword, then I'm not really worried about you being too hostile." Marcus's words must have hit Kim harder than he expected. Kim walked over and took the sword, set it on the table, and hugged Marcus. "That means a lot to me man. Really it does. I'm Kim, and I'm a Necromancer. Everyone always hated me because of it so... Thanks for not." Marcus awkwardly patted him on the back.

"Yeah, it's ok... Now, about what's going on with the city?"

Land of the Ley-Lines - Sleeping Treasure in the Sand

"You mean to tell me this is the Tyrianian Empire? No one informed me it was um... expired." Marcus shifted in his chain mail tunic, adjusting his scarf to cover his now sun bleached hair. Heat beat down on the desert lands like a massive boulder had been placed on your shoulders. In front of Marcus stood a man who had just recently been a corpse rotting in the sand. "Well, yes. Actually, this is mainly news to me but I suppose. Expired is the proper word for what is here now."

The short, balding man adjusted his quite broken glasses. His skin had obviously rotted slightly in the sand, but was replaced by the grains of sand that remained. Mose was his name. "Well then. I suppose I'm not going to find many answers here, then will I?" Mose shrugged, looking around. "Well, I can't say for sure. But may not hurt to look around. I can help with that. Not like I have relatives in town or anything." 

Marcus wanted to chuckle, but there was weight behind his words. Signaling forward, Marcus began walking through the sandy streets he found himself in. Taking a good look around, all he could notice was how every building was black and burnt. Yet there were what looked like Aquaduct pillars and grooves all around the street. "So, obviously it wasn't always this desolate. What was this place like?" 

Mose thought for a moment. His sluggish face contorted in deep thought. "Huh. I can't seem to remember." Marcus spotted a small altar with a crystal stand near the entrance to one of the buildings. He stopped for a moment and inspected it. "I've seen this before. Where though? It's a very fuzzy memory." Mose halted and looked back. "Yeah. Not sure. Oh man, looks like my memory is gone too. Ain't that something?"

Marcus looked at him awkwardly a moment. "Are you smiling? What's wrong with you?" Mose shrugged sluggishly. "Iono. I just feel like everything's ok. I feel safe around you. Maybe that's a clue in itself?" Nodding in agreement, Marcus eyed over Mose another time. "Do you know where we could find a library? Some place with information? Where might that be?" Mose thought for a moment.

"Yeah, I'm sorry I got nothing. It's like that whole part of my brain is gone or something. You know?" Marcus shook his head and began walking forward again. "Let's just get moving then. I'm sure I'll find something around here." Mose nodded and began to follow him down the sandy blackened streets.

Land of the Ley Lines - The Borderlands

Standing up, Marcus brushed the sand off his chest. The trek through the desert wasteland of Hoenir was a pandora's box of horrors. If it wasn't blazing heat, it was stinging sands. Roaming beasts lurked beneath your feet ready to strike any unawares travelers at any point. Yet Marcus tread confidently among the chaos and danger.

None dared attack him, and his survival training ensured he kept his body sharp. A conversion crystal came in handy when water was scarce. Yet even despite his known safety, something unnerved him. The landscape wasn't a threat. The local fauna aren't a threat. A dread wyrm had given away it's location within the sands, yet Marcus knew even it could tell exactly what he was. Who he had become.

Continuing his tread through the sands, he noticed something off about the landscape. The sand banks grew more deliberate. Something was forming around him. It's as if the desert itself was seeking to manifest. Marcus didn't like this one bit. Drawing his bow and pulling up his hood, he chanted a spell. Perhaps now was the time to hone his combat magic skills.

Just as he suspected, the mound of sand in front of him grew to nearly twenty times his size. Sand shifted beneath him, but he was ready for it. Jumping slightly, he sent a burst of sound energy straight below him and launched into the air. The dread wyrm emerged from the sand with massive jaws open. A bellowing roar came first from the wyrm, then from something under the sand that burst forth.

No time. Marcus drew an arrow, and while he nocked it he imbued it with wind energy. Releasing the arrow, he sent it flying. Right as the arrow reached it's target, the beasts jaw, it sent a burst of wind energy everywhere. It boomed with such force it slowed Marcus' inevitable descent back to the ground.

Out of nowhere, a large stone fist pommeled Marcus from the side. His barrier took most of the force, but it still sent him flying at a dangerous speed. Thankfully he managed to slam into a sand dune not one hundred meters away. Painfully. Looking up, he assessed his wounds and his target. His body was bruised, at best. Yeah it hurt like hell, but now isn't the time to let it overcome. 

"Wha?" A golem stood before him, slowly making it's way to destroy him. It made a strange noise that resonated with the sand. The sand itself shivered and displaced at the sound. He's trying to make it harder to walk. Marcus got up, and decided fighting on the ground will be difficult. Searching his mind he desperately tried to think of a way to get a good footing. "That's it!"

Nocking an arrow, he imbued it with a massive amount of fire energy. Aiming towards the ground right below the golem's feet, he released and sent a massive streak of fire just above the shifting sands. The heat started to melt the grains into a liquid, and it became a hot sticky mess quickly. Landing at it's target, the arrow exploded with a huge fireball. Leaving behind a small crater of molten glass, the golem was thrown off balance and fell in.

Drawing another arrow, Marcus imbued it with frost energy, and released immediately. The arrow flew true, hitting the molten mess with the golem half submerged. It exploded with frost, freezing everything around it. The golem struggled in the frozen glass, and cracks could be heard. The ground in front of him was still molten, so he decided to nock another arrow and cautiously walk around to the golem.

"What are you? Why do you attack me?" The golem made a strange noise, and stopped moving. The sand started to vibrate again, but this time he could sense something moving beneath it. Keeping his bow ready, he continued to approach the golem. Air swirled in strange ways, with dust devils appearing rapidly and disappearing. 

"Why... do you encroach...?" A voice boomed from the golem. What does it mean? "I did not know I was. Is there something sacred in these sands?" A calm befell the sand, and it ceased to vibrate. A figure emerged from a dune behind the golem. "We are the ones here first. Our lands sacred. Don't want you here. What purpose does it serve?" It looked like a smaller, more human looking figure. 

"I am looking for someone. Someone important. I have been told that the Tyriani-" The sand boomed awake again, and the figure floated the air swiftly approaching Marcus. "You not Tyriani?!"  Marcus readied himself to attack. "No, I am not. Is that good or bad?" The figure came within a few meters, and stopped. It seemed to be considering something. "Your name?" 

Marcus looked at it seriously. Something didn't feel right. "Marcus Wainwright." Sand trembled, and loosened beneath him. It was creating quicksand. Quickly he sent a burst of sound energy in front of him. It sent him flying backwards into the dune. But his feet weren't in the quick sand. Still, he had to act quickly.

Drawing an arrow, he imbued it with wind energy. "This is gonna hurt." Nocking and releasing, the moment the arrow left his hand it burst with energy and flew forward and lightning speed. It created a small sonic boom near Marcus' hand, causing his arm to jolt away quickly and de-socket. He shouted in pain, but the arrow flew true and shattered the floating rock being completely. The sand settled for a moment, then it seemed to feel lighter somehow. It loosened, and he felt himself begin to start falling slowly.

He tried to watch all around him as he managed to keep himself from drowning in sand. Pillars began to emerge from the sand, and after what felt like a good hour of just trying to stay above the sand, he finally hit something solid beneath his feet. The sand began to trickle away slowly around his body. After another half hour of waiting for the sand to keep going down, he noticed buildings were starting to appear around him.

Sand was draining to reveal a lost city made of onyx colored stone. Whatever he killed must have been it's guardian. All he could do was watch as the landscape slowly unfolded around him. Eventually it peeled away to reveal a retaining wall an impossible distance away. He could only see one side of it it would seem. "This must have been an entire civilization buried under the sand. Things like this don't just happen. I need to investigate. There could be information here that would be useful against the emperor."