The cold Siberian wind whistled softly through the cliffside. It flicked off snowcaps and grey-bristled rocks, swirling tufts of snow around and around and around in lazy circles, before finally diving in a whoosh down the mountain. On its descent it lifted the blonde hairs of a traveler pushing her black boots forward against the snowdrifts. She was completely alone in the expanse of white. The wind paused around this figure, gently pushing against her thick snow jacket but finding every crevice tightly packed against the cold. The wind moved on. Nature does not often care one way or another about anything, and this was no exception. To the wind, the woman was just another speck against the snow. It flowed one last time by her cheek before disappearing into the winter. The woman shivered. Her breath collected out into wisps of steam in the freezing air as she trudged through the snow. In one gloved hand she clutched a curious black instrument with a circular face, which she would look down to glance at every so often. At her hip, a small radio sputtered and spit. She ignored it and casted her eyes forward in a determined stare. She had been trekking through the Siberian snow all day, but showed no sign of slowing now. "67, 94. 67, 94. 67, 94," she whispered, repeating the numbers over and over to herself. Miles away, two men on black ATV's split through the snow. The drone of their engines bounced off the mountains.
3 At dinner the tension between his parents was bad. In typical fashion, they ignored one another like children on a playground, or used him to relay messages despite their being only a foot away from one another. It was sadly predictable, so instead he tried his best to coax them into some kind of conversation. As much as he wanted to play the good son card, the reality was he was hoping to distract himself from the hand prints and closet door in his room. Only he gave up when they both told him to just shut up and eat. After a few bites and a few tense minutes he decided he didn't feel much like eating anymore. "May I be excused?"
2 The headache gone and the rest of the day free, his parents decided it was time to start unpacking the kitchen and slowly work their way out to other rooms. As with all family events, it didn't take long for the work to wither away into a volley of insults and threats. "Where do you want this picture?"
Chapter 2 1 That morning Shawn woke up to a splitting headache and the wind howling outside his bedroom window. He groaned and massaged his temples while praying it was early enough he could bury his head beneath the covers and sleep for a while longer. Unfortunately his father came knocking on his door a few minutes later.
Things changed after the war. Cassandra, like the rest of the inhabitants of this godforsaken country in the midst of the northern sea, assumed that the peace would be a good thing. Civil wars were hardly pretty, much less when families were torn, brothers and sisters fighting to the death over stupid issues, over bloodlines and property rights. The whole war was a stupid venture started by stupid people, and during every minute of those six blasted years, she wished that the arrows and the swords and all of the pointless shouting would just stop already. Some wish that was. With a sigh, Cassandra looks over the dreary tavern interior one more time, as if hoping something new has sprung up in the last five minutes. She's only been here an hour, but it feels like an eternity. This place had been so promising from the outside... When she had first peered into the dingy windows and tasted the air of hopelessness that pervaded every inch of the place, she'd thought that her year-long search was finally over. It should be perfect. There are unsavory characters, wandering drunks, furniture that threatens to break every time someone dares to move... Hell, she's fairly sure that there's an assassin having an in-depth discussion on the benefits of certain types of fungi based poisons with an apprentice in the corner. But it's all the same as the other places; tropes and clichés. She stares into her empty mug of mead, swirling around the last drops of the stuff as if it will reveal some great truth to her. It's such a shame that this isn't the place. This inn is the only establishment in this damned country that doesn't have booze that tastes of swill.
Prologue In the dark woods of Middlebrook, Ohio a young man walked along a soggy, gravel walkway with his eyes trained to the night sky. He could just barely make it out from among the canopy, the stars sparkling like tiny eyes peering down at him. Even in the woods he felt watched. Was that how they had felt these past ten years? Every step, every word, and every thought carefully processed and catalogued? Every room wired with cameras, and every relationship meticulously planned and manipulated for the sole purpose of morbid curiosity? After Mitchell and Ren died they'd debated calling the whole thing off. But Sarah, that pompous bitch dyke, refused.
Azarias realizes a moment too late that he has made a very grave mistake. As a man who has become an expert at dodging whatever consequences could come his way, this problem leaves him puzzled. His beloved angry at him for eyeing a stranger? A beguiling smile and an offering of sweet clover would ease her temper. That one time he accidentally angered a Minotaur at the past summer festival? Easily fixed with a round of beer. But this... His hooves clack nervously against the rough cellar floor as he considers the bottle before him. In his hand is his master's most prized possession: a bottle of Agiorgitiko. To the undiscerning eye, it doesn't seem to be anything special. But Azarias knows the labor behind it. The finest grapes under the warm Grecian sun were handpicked, stamped by the feet of only the prettiest maidens of the land, and fermented in a barrel of oak crafted from trees blessed by Demeter herself. Gods, Azarias remembers how it had tasted straight from the barrel, how the lush hints of blackberries and spices had enthralled his senses. He tends to wax poetic about any wine he tastes, but this elixir had filled him with such frenzied inspiration that as soon as his shift was finished, he had written sonnet after sonnet as if his pen was fueled by the muses themselves. How could he have resisted another taste?
Our party, now victorious, takes their time in decompressing after the vicious battles in the tunnels. Bo examines the blue potions that they retrieved from underground, but cannot make heads nor tails of it. Kefurgle elects to take a much more straightforward method: he downs one of the potions in one mighty swallow. Curiously enough, one of the rats that had taken up residence in the tavern approaches, and expectantly eyes the barbarian. To Kef's delight, the rat will obey his every order (to the best of the beast's ability, that is). The rat is named Mitch and brought along on the adventure. The party then questions their merchant friend Zorba about the mysterious red gold that was given to the innkeeper. After a moment of examination, he explains that the gold coins are merely members of a set- each one has a teleportation spell placed on it, linked to the other red coins in the collection. Unfortunately, the coins do not work both ways, and the party is unable to locate the others. Each member of the team spends their free time in different ways: Fletch pickpockets (and makes a pretty profit while he's at it) while Bo and Silana have a friendly mage hand wrestling match. Silana tells him of the neighboring towns to the north, of huge populous cities where he might be able to find his long lost master. Meanwhile, Kefurgle goes hunting with his new rat friend. A large bear is felled, then brought to the inn for the entire tavern to enjoy. After the feast, he meets with Silana once more with the intent of having a lesson in reading; instead, Silana warns him against trusting the good Lord Paddrick, stating that, "Things are not as they seem."