“By the gods. Go away,” Alisandra mumbled groggily. “Come back later. I’m not hungry.”
The sound now pounded in her ears, less muffled from sleep. As her head cleared and reality spread over her, she felt the hard ground beneath her.
What is that sound, and why am I lying on a cold, stone floor? She thought.
The young half-elf opened her eyes as another crash shook the ground. An expanse of faint stars spread across the sky, the view partially obscured by stone walls rising up around her, while the orange glow of sunset held back the dark blanket of night. As she gazed up into the sky above, the clatter of footsteps and shouting suddenly rose up from beyond her alcove and a nearby explosion showered her with bits of dirt and debris.
Alisandra sat up quickly and glanced around; she found herself at the end of a short, wide alley filled with weapons and military supplies. Three males lay on the ground nearby, one of them a very large, earthy looking half-orc with pale gray-blue skin, and dressed in furs and patchwork leather armor. His greasy, long black hair laid haphazardly pulled into a knot at the back of his head and she saw two small tusks protruding from his mouth, displaying his orcish heritage. At least he didn’t bear the wide nose and beady little eyes of an orc, instead his nose bent in the middle like a beak and his eyes were more human-sized.
What in the abyss am I doing near a half-orc? Anything involving those brutes always means violence.
On the far side of the half-orc, 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. Since most dwarves lived for a couple hundred years, he would be considered little more than a young adult. While the rest of him was dirty and tarnished with soot, she could tell he meticulously cared for his beard, as not a single hair lay out of place and the silver bands clasping the braids of his beard sparkled from a fresh polish.
To her left lay a human in pristine plate armor. His build was nothing remarkable, but the gleaming armor encasing him masked whatever strength he possessed. The deep lines etched into his face seemed out of place to her, since he also didn’t look old, yet the shadows of a painful life made their mark—one way, or another. She couldn’t see much else of him without getting closer though.
Alisandra shook the cloudiness from her mind. After pulling herself to her feet, she drew a small dagger hidden in her knee-high boot and backed away from the men, moving towards the barrels at the back of the alley. The leather of her corseted jerkin creaked with the movement and she froze, fearing the sound would wake one of the men on the ground. After several heartbeats of no one stirring, she stood up and moved as quietly as possible behind a barrel; the layered, knee-length strips of leather that made up her skirt, flapped gently against her grey linen pants.
Brushing a strand of dirty blond hair from her face, Alisandra scanned the alley. Very little in the vicinity 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, were the only features of this nondescript alcove. Twenty or so soldiers carrying bows ran by the alley entrance, heading in the direction of the thudding sound.
Where the hell am I? Think Alisandra, what’s the last thing you remember? Did someone drug me?
The half-orc grumbled something inaudible and rolled onto his side. Taking in her surroundings, Alisandra squatted down next to a barrel. 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 struggled to focus, searching for any kind of memory. She knew her name, her clothes felt familiar, and she instinctually knew where the hidden dagger lay sheathed in her boot. 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. Tutting several small, yet intricate gestures with her fingers, she then whispered, “Calithu-shar-melix.” A small floating light blinked into existence before her, the 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 is 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.
Another crash came from out past the alley. She heard more footsteps approaching and immediately snuffed out the light with another short finger tutt, just before someone rounded the corner and entered the alley.
“Stars and stone, they are here!” the man said.
Long pointed ears stuck out of his disheveled black hair and brown leather helm. He seemed like a soldier, but he didn’t look like those who had run by. The thought of soldiers made her queasy and as he got closer, a knot formed in the pit of her stomach. The elf wore heavily used, leather armor with metal rings woven across the chest and back. An emblem of a crossed hammer and bow decorated the right pauldron. 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. As the beast got closer though, she realized it was a young brown bear.
Something inside told her rangers could cultivate close companions from the forests they hunted in, but they rarely visited cities. She felt like she had never seen one before and always wanted to; with his armor, weapons, and unusual pet, Alisandra couldn’t imagine him to be anything else. Oddly enough, the knot in her stomach subsided as the bear shambled forward.
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 looking 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 crashing sound had slowed between beats, the noise making the elf and half-orc to turn briefly towards its source.
After a short pause, the elf turned back to the half-orc. “I am Tyriel, and you are in the city of Caastigen. But we don’t really have time to go into a lot of detail. The Free Tribes could break through the western gate at any time. I need your help keeping them at bay until the Gray Mages can hopefully take out their siege towers and 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, especially those people considered uncivilized? 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, roused by the talking directly over them, 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. Able to get a better look at the human, Alisandra noticed elaborate gold filigree and ornamentation of griffons adorning his gleaming armor and across many of the smaller plates. No common soldier would be able to afford such armor, so she assumed he must be some sort of knight. Cropped wavy-brown hair lay combed and greased to the side. His clean-shaven face held a deep sadness and anger to it, which accented his stoic expression and gave him a menacing visage. The four men exchanged glances for a brief moment before the human turned back to Tyriel.
“How did I get here? I do not recall anything before coming to just now. Do you have something to do with this?” he said, enunciating every word with the air of a highborn.
The crashing sound changed, no longer shaking the ground or echoing sharply off the walls.
Tyriel put his hands up, still backing away from the orc. “I’m not sure how you got here. I was only told that help would arrive and I should look here when I truly 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 the thudding 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 pulled out an axe, testing its balance in one hand and stroking his beard with the other. “Laddy, I’m inclined to kill you myself if you don’t answer the man’s questions.”
The knight looked 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, trying to think. 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, sounding 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 again. At full height, the creature barely stood three feet tall, 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. Most lived in societies, climates, or conditions making it impossible for other races to survive in, let alone visit. Tengu liked to live 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. Almost in concert with her thoughts, the mass of cloth surrounding the tengu began to swirl and morphed the wizened creature into a lithe human woman, her jet-black hair resting 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 it.”
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 actions disgusted Alisandra and she stifled a gag. If the tengu lived so far removed from larger societies, maybe it was normal for them to have overbearing and bizarre personalities; it was all too common in people who spent their lives away from interacting with others. Those who grew up in small villages regularly lacked social graces, courtesies, and tact—even more so in those who led solitary lives. However, Alisandra also knew that plenty of women used their charm and bodies to get what they wanted.
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,” she said in a mocking, yet playful tone, “but I hope dat von’t stop you from holding yourself against me.”
Alisandra looked at the men, anger and confusion clearly written on their 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.
She tried to think of an alternative, but time was running out with every crash of the battering ram. She sighed, stood up, and walked casually between them. They all turned to her; with woman after woman appearing, none of the men could make sense of the situation and each stood frozen, waiting to see what she 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 the pounding isn’t shaking the walls anymore, it means the gate is weakening and they will break through soon. So, why don’t we all just put this on hold until we survive whatever is going to come through?”
Without waiting for an answer, 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, she made an unseen tutt to keep it from sounding further. Alisandra felt their bewilderment grow, 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 see innocent life taken if he can prevent it. Vadik hold dis vall, den Vadik vill get answers.”
The half-orc gave the elf a sharp look as he passed by and caught up to the others quickly with his long stride. Tyriel eyed the dwarf and tengu, opened his mouth as if to say something, and then walked off after the others without a word.
Cerari scanned the dwarf quickly and gave a short, disapproving snuff.
The tengu started after the others, her skimpy clothing leaving little to the imagination. “I’ll help too if the big one will help me afterwards.”
“If you all want to die so bad, I’m not going to stop you!” the dwarf shouted.
With her acute half-elf ears, Alisandra heard the dwarf mutter to himself, “Dammit, that daft elf is going to die before he says anything.” 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 road turns up ahead, and leads into a barbican.” When the elf realized he kept falling behind, he began to jog. “We really should pick up the pace to make sure nothing gets through. 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, which the Free Tribes hit the hardest. So we are probably the only ones near enough to do anything. Whoever made the decision to divert all of the ground forces made a huge mistake, and it could cost the city everything.”
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.”