“By the gods. Go away,” Alisandra mumbled, half asleep. “Come back later. I’m not hungry.”
The noise pounded in the half-elf’s ears as reality spread over her, and the hard ground beneath made every bone ache.
What is that sound, and why am I lying on the floor? She thought.
Alisandra opened her eyes. Stone walls rose around her, obscuring the dark blanket of night as it struggled against the orange glow of sunset. Confused, she gazed into the sky above, when the clatter of footsteps and shouting came into focus.
The ground shuddered at the sound, and bits of dirt and debris rained down from the walls. Alisandra sat up and glanced around the short and wide alley. Little in the vicinity helped her figure out where she found herself, just unmarked stacks of barrels, weapons, and military supplies.
Where the hell am I? Think Alisandra, what’s the last thing you remember?
Three males lay on the ground nearby. One of them, a very large, muscular, and earthy looking half-orc was dressed in furs and patchwork leather armor, which covered most of his pale gray-blue skin. His greasy, black hair laid haphazardly pulled to the back of his head and two small tusks protruded from his mouth, displaying his orcish heritage. At least he didn’t bear the wide nose and wiry mane of an orc, instead his nose bent in the middle like a beak.
What in the abyss am I doing near a half-orc? Anything involving those brutes always means violence.
Alisandra got to her feet, drew a small dagger hidden in her knee-high boot, and then moved towards the stockpile at the end of the alley. The leather of her corseted jerkin creaked with the movement, and she froze for a heartbeat, fearing the sound might rouse one of the men. But if the constant loud crashing didn’t wake them, then she could do little to rival the noise. So she sprinted over to the barrels, while the layered, knee-length strips of leather from her skirt, flapped against her gray linen pants, and she ducked behind a stout cask that smelled like salted pork.
The half-elf brushed a strand of dirty blond hair from her face and tucked it behind her tapered ear. Nothing else nearby provided clues to where she was: a pile of red cloth sat heaped against a wall near the entrance to the alley, and a small gutter collecting condensation from the surrounding walls. A troop of soldiers carrying bows ran by, heading towards the thudding, and the half-orc grumbled something as he rolled onto his side.
On the far side of the half-orc, lay a human in pristine plate armor. His size was nothing remarkable, and the gleaming armor encasing him masked whatever strength he possessed. Cropped wavy-brown hair lay combed to the side, and Alisandra would have guessed him to be in his later thirties, even though deep lines of sadness and anger etched his clean-shaven face, making him appear older — like shadows of a painful life — which gave him a menacing visage.
To the left, a stocky dwarf wearing chain mail sat slumped against the wall. Though the dwarf’s hair grew strikingly white, his face appeared young, probably in his early fifties, which made him a little more than a young adult by dwarven standards. While the rest of him was dirty and tarnished, his beard was meticulously cared for — not a single hair lay out of place and the silver bands clasping the braids of his beard sparkled from a fresh polish.
Aside from a small headache, she didn’t feel strange. Then again, she couldn’t quite pinpoint how she normally felt. She put her head in her hands and closed her eyes to focus, searching for any kind of memory. The half-elf knew her name, her clothes felt familiar, and she instinctually knew where the hidden dagger lay sheathed in her boot, but every event from her life was gone.
Did someone drug me? I can’t remember anything.
Taking a small pinch of ground firefly from one of her leather bracers lined with pockets, she held up the powder and raised her empty hand. While tutting several quick, yet intricate gestures with her unoccupied fingers, she whispered, “Calithu-shar-melix,” and a small floating light blinked into existence, consuming the powder. The white light illuminated the alley and held off the soft reddish-orange glow coming from over the walls.
So I remember magic, but I can’t recall anything about the past, or how I got here? What’s going on? Could I be under the effects of some kind of memory modification spell? No, those only affect short periods of time, not obliterating an entire lifetime of memories. And I can’t think of a single tangible event prior to now.
More approaching footsteps echoed from around the corner, and Alisandra immediately snuffed out the light with another short finger tutt, just before someone rounded the corner and entered the alley.
“Stars and stone, they’re here!” the man said.
Long pointed ears stuck out of his disheveled black hair and brown leather helm. The elf wore heavily used, leather armor with metal rings woven across the jerkin, and an emblem of a crossed hammer and bow decorated the right pauldron.
Galina’s mercy, more soldiers?
The mere thought of soldiers made her queasy, and as he got closer, a knot formed in the pit of her stomach. He had been handsome at one point, but three long scars ran across his face and marred his nose, lips, eyebrows, and even cut through his sharp jawline. His cold, green eyes surveyed the three men on the ground when a breathy grunt and sniffing shifted her attention. The noises came from what looked like a large shambling dog, but as the beast left the shadow of the walls, a young brown bear shuffled up next to the elf.
Something inside told her rangers could cultivate close companions from the forests they hunted in, but they rarely visited cities. With his armor, weapons, and unusual pet, Alisandra couldn’t imagine him to be anything other than one of the reclusive woodsmen, and oddly enough, the knot in her stomach subsided.
How do I know what a ranger is but can’t remember yesterday?
The elf stepped over the half-orc on the ground, and then deftly hopped out of the way, as the half-orc went to grab his leg. The half-orc sprang to his feet and turned on the elf, holding out a wicked club made of bones and teeth.
“Vhere is Vadik? Hoo are you?” demanded the half-orc in a deep, throaty voice.
His strange accent came out bold and heavy, slightly rolling the R’s, and his pale blue eyes gave his already wild look an unsettling vibe as he stared down the elf.
The noise caused the elf and half-orc to turn briefly towards its source, and after a short pause, the elf turned back to the half-orc. “I am Tyriel, and you are in the city of Caastigen. I’ll tell you more, but right now, I need your help. The Free Tribes could break through the western gate at any moment, and we need to give the Gray Mages time to seal the gate.”
Wasn’t the term “Free Tribes” used to refer to all of the wild races that didn’t live in the cities? Why would orcs, goblins, fey, and even underground creatures, band together to attack a city?
The half-orc stepped within striking distance of the elf, his club raised and readied to attack. “Vadik goes novhere, unless you give answers!”
The dwarf and human opened their eyes and quickly stood. Seeing the half-orc threatening the elf, the human drew a long, two-handed greatsword from a scabbard on his back, while his keen, brown eyes darted between the other men in the alley. Now in full view, the human’s elaborate armor boasted gold-filigree trimming with an ornamental griffon across his breastplate.
No common soldier could afford such armor…he must be some sort of knight.
The four men exchanged confused glances for a brief moment, before the human turned back to Tyriel. “How did I arrive here? I do not recall anything before now. Do you have something to do with this?” he said, enunciating every word with the air of a highborn.
The crashing changed, no longer shaking the ground or echoing sharply off the walls, and Tyriel put his hands up, backing away. “I’m not sure how you got here. I was only told that help would arrive, and that I should look here when I needed it. I will tell you everything I know, but that sound you keep hearing”—he pointed out past the alley—“is a battering ram. If we don’t stop them from getting in, we’re all going to die, and you will never get the answers you want.”
So that’s what that sound is. This is insane! There’s no way I’m going to help defend a gate with a handful of strangers. I better wait it out then sneak away after they leave.
The dwarf reached for an odd-looking, two-handed axe, testing its balance in one hand and stroking his beard with the other. “I’m inclined to kill you myself, dagger-ears, if you don’t answer the man’s questions.”
The knight glanced over at the dwarf. “It’s dishonorable to kill a man who said he will tell us what we want to know. I am Sir Calvorn of the…” He paused quizzically. “Of the…”
Calvorn squinted, thinking. After mumbling something Alisandra couldn’t quite make out, he looked back at Tyriel.
“I will help you hold this gate.” Then he pointed the tip of his great sword at the elf’s neck. “But I hold you to your word, you will tell us all you know.”
A loud groan came from the bundle of cloth near the entrance to the alley, and the four men quickly turned to watch as it began to shift.
“Uggg. Too much ale…again,” grunted the pile of cloth.
The voice echoed slightly, almost hollow. A long, obsidian beak protruded out of the cloth as the figure stood up, and a mass of glossy-black feathers flexed then curled up under the fabric. At full height, the creature stood at most, three-feet tall, with its back severely hunched. The rags draping across its body barely moved, except at the lowest dangling portions, making its body appear round and bulky. Shambling from leg to leg as if it couldn’t bend its knees, the creature turned around, then squawked at the sight of the four men still frozen in confusion.
From whatever knowledge that came to her from the vacuum of her memories, she knew tengu to be one of the less common races. Many unusual races kept to themselves: catfolk, tengu, quaglings, drow, merfolk, and more, but Tengu lived in high places where flight was the only way in or out, so most people never encountered one. Even rarer was to see a tengu in their crow form, since they possessed the ability to shape-shift into other races.
Aesa’s wisdom, how do I know all of that but not a single day of my life?
As Alisandra pondered, the mass of cloth surrounding the tengu began to swirl, and quickly morphed the wizened creature into a lithe, human woman; her jet-black hair rested just above her porcelain shoulders, and two unsettling copper eyes batted at the men.
“Four of you huh?” she said with a soft and sensual voice, a stark contrast to the caricature of speech that came from her beak moments before. “Must’ve been a wild night, too bad I don’t remember.”
The dwarf snarled in disgust. “What in the abyss?”
She walked over to the half-orc, ogling every inch of his body. The red cloth draped haphazardly in strips across her body, and with each movement, Alisandra could see more of her curvaceous body than she wanted.
“Mmmm, definitely ‘too bad,’ ” the tengu said.
Putting her hands on Vadik’s chest and exposed bicep, she made exploratory squeezes, letting out a little satisfactory moan at his firm chest.
With a bat of her eyes, she continued to flirt, “Ooooh, maybe we can make another go of it?”
The tengu’s sultry attitude disgusted Alisandra. Plenty of women used their charm and bodies to get what they wanted, but behaving like that left a sickening feeling in the half-elf’s gut.
Prostitution is rarely chosen outside of survival. Don’t make a mockery of yourself and those who have no other choice.
The half-orc swiped her hands away awkwardly. “Back avay, harlot. Hoo are you…vhat are you?”
The woman feigned indignation and glanced at the others. “Why, how could you say that? I’m just looking to have some fun,” she replied and winked at Calvorn. “My name is Cerari, and since you saw my true form, you should know ‘vhat’ I am. But I hope dat von’t stop you from holding yourself against me.”
Anger and confusion clearly spread across the men’s faces. The new addition shifted their attention from the original standoff, but the situation hadn’t improved at all.
Should I do something? No, they’ll figure it out and go defend the gate, while I find somewhere better to hide… Dragon’s dung, what if the gate breaks open before they get a clue? I won’t have any chance of getting away… Maybe if I get them to work together, they can defend the gate while I use my spells from a safe distance.
With no suitable alternative, and time running out with every crash of the battering ram, she sighed, stood up, and walked casually between them. They all turned to the half-elf; with woman after woman appearing, none of the men seemed to be able to make sense of the situation, and each stood frozen in place, waiting to see what Alisandra did.
Putting a gentle hand on the knight’s arm, Alisandra smiled. “Now boys. As fun as it would be to watch your awkward stalemate continue, that gate doesn’t sound like it’s going to hold much longer.”
“Ah, as if on cue.” Alisandra nodded her head, and a little chime rang out from a small silver bell attached to one of her many earrings. “Since that pounding isn’t shaking the walls anymore, I imagine that means the gate is weakening and they will break through soon. So, why don’t we all just put this on hold until we all survive?”
Without waiting for a reply, she walked straight past each of them and headed out of the alley, almost skipping. When she wanted, each note produced from her bell could add a subtle, magical coercion to anything she said, or even alter someone’s emotions. It also rang out only when she wanted it to, and with barely an afterthought, the half-elf made an unseen tutt to keep it from sounding further. Their bewildered stares burrowed into the back of her head, while the allure of her words sank in. Sir Calvorn moved first, picking up his helm as he hurried after her.
“My lady. Perhaps I should lead the way.” Calvorn placed a firm hand on her shoulder and stepped in front of her. “You do not appear to be adequately armed to contend with such a skirmish. Let me safeguard you.”
That was just too easy. I probably don’t even need to use the bell.
“Why thank you, kind sir, at least someone seems to have manners.” She gave a backward glance to the others. “Apparently this frail girl and a knight are the only two brave enough to fight.”
“Ha! Dey don’t call me Vadik de Violent for nothing.” The half-orc immediately headed after them. “If dis city fall, it make no difference to Vadik. But Vadik von’t allow innocent life to be taken — if he can prevent it. Vadik hold dis vall, den Vadik vill get answers.”
The half-orc gave the Tyriel a sharp look as he passed by and caught up quickly. The elf eyed the dwarf and tengu, opened his mouth as if to say something, and then walked off without a word.
Cerari scanned the dwarf quickly, gave a short, disapproving snuff, and then started after the others. “I’ll help too if the big one will help me afterwards.”
Alisandra turned and walked out of the alley as the dwarf shouted after them, “If you all want to die so bad, I’m not going to stop you!”
With her acute half-elf senses, Alisandra could hear better than most, and the dwarf muttering to himself just registered over the ambient noise, “Dammit, that tree-monkey elf is going to die before he says anything helpful.” After a short pause, the dwarf yelled as he trundled after them, “But I will be there, just to say I told you so!”
As the odd group left the alley, Tyriel tried to match stride with Vadik’s long gait. “The Caastigen Guard and Gray Mages should be covering the walls, but the whole Sindaran army is clustered at the other two entrances to the city.” The elf kept falling behind, and he began to jog. “We really should pick up the pace to make sure nothing gets through — we are probably the only ones near enough to help.”
More cheerful chiming came from Alisandra’s bell as they all picked up their pace. “Well, then it’s a good thing we’re here.”
“Yes,” The half-orc let out a chortle. “Vadik sure dat sight of little girl vill frighten whole army to early grave.”
She just smirked back at him. “My name is Alisandra, and this ‘little girl’ doesn’t need to frighten the whole army. She can lend a hand though.”