Writing by: Ryan Pietz

Pitch 14: The Underlands

A finely crafted carriage strolled through the city gates and across the long, cobblestone bridge.  A cloaked figure rode upon a black stallion alongside the vehicle as the morning sun rose over the castle walls, encouraging the travelers with gifts of warmth and splendor.  The horses strutted happily as onlookers waved to the well-lit group.  Children petted the neighing horses and offered excited words of encouragement to the heroes.  For this party, it was a good day for an adventure.

-

“What is that!?” screamed Elsa, scrambling up a bank of rubble far beneath Gawain castle.

“Dire rat, ma’am,” answered Flamey, fending off the oversized rodent with his blazing hand.  “The underlands are full of ‘em.”

The underlands stretched beneath and across the map, networking in an amalgam of natural caverns and ancient architecture.  Brave adventurers occasionally utilized the subterranean network for less public transport.  Not consider herself brave and still coming to terms with being an adventurer, Elsa bit her lip, and slid back down the bank.

“Still have the scent?” asked Vargas of Flint.

Hood pulled back, the gnoll’s nostrils surveyed the cavern and peered into the cramped corridor from which the rodent escaped.  Pinpointing the scent of his quarry, the tracker directed, “Hererr.”

Torch on hand, Flamey followed Flint into the passageway.  Bundling up her already soiled white robes, Elsa tiptoed through the filthy burrow with Vargas defending the rear.  The passage opened into large aqueduct with streams trickling down the slope into the darkness below.  Flint drew in the foul stench of the area, and cautioned, “We head up, but something reeks from berow.”

“Private,” Vargas addressed Flamey.

“I’m ready, sir,” saluted the young soldier attentively, eager to do his job, even if that required wrangling giant rats.  Vargas and Flamey stood guard facing downward while Flint watched the upward route for an ambush.

Elsa eeped as a normal sized rat squeaked past her feet.  She took solace in the fact that the lone rodent was not as terrifying as what she had imagined, but then, she heard the cries.  Countless glowing red eyes reflected in the torchlight as a torrent of rats squealed and scurried out of the depths followed by a firelight.  With a mighty roar and flaming limbs, Vargas and Flamey repelled the vermin away into diverging burrows hidden along the passageway.  But as the last of the throng changed its course, the pursuing light continued forward, unabated by Vargas’s cry or Flamey’s fire.

Previously aflame and emitting its own high-pitch caterwaul, the monster shrieked past Vargas, blazed over Flamey, and charged the aghast cleric.  Caught in the headlight of the creature, Elsa stumbled backwards, closed her eyes, and screamed, “Float,” as she fell prone.  The blazing monstrosity singed the hem of the healer’s robes but quickly ascended to the ceiling.  Unhindered by the spell, the creature inverted itself and continued on course.

Vargas helped Flamey to his feet as Flint did likewise for the trembling girl.  Elsa stuttered, “W-what w-was that?”

“Doesn’t matter.  We’re following it,” directed Vargas.

Now that Vargas had ceased his war cry, Elsa heard the cacophony of screeches and squeals echoing from the depths of the aqueduct.  “Unless you want to face what it was running from,” Vargas proposed somewhat hopefully.  Elsa shook her head in disagreement and disbelief and quickly followed Flint in a hasty retreat.

“I’m ready, sir,” announced Flamey.  Vargas gazed down the tunnel longingly; he truly wanted to face the mysterious monster but was burdened with companions whose bodies were still attached and vincible.  The dragon slayer put his hand on the soldier’s shoulder and said regretfully, “Another time.”  The two warriors retreated to regroup with their party.

Unhindered by darkness, Flint led the way with Elsa close behind, her staff providing magical light in Flamey’s stead.  The sounds of rushing water echoed through the tunnel as did the clamor of claws against stone.  Vargas and Flamey caught up as the dank passage ended in a large iron floodgate, but a stairway conveniently carved out of the adjacent wall afforded further progress.

From atop the stairs, Elsa’s shining staff lit the area.  The group stood upon a wide walkway that overlooked an aquatic hub.   Water flowed through several conduits converging into a cistern as floodgates siphoned the water into two tunnels identical to the one from which they had just exited.  Along the wall three wheels and an iron door were built into the stone.  Examining the trio of wheels under Elsa’s illuminating staff, Vargas called to Flamey, “Private, how’s our lead?”

The soldier shot a bolt of flame down the tunnel, providing a momentary glimpse of their pursuer prior to being extinguished upon impact.  Hundreds of eyes and teeth glared and gnashed as the wisp smoldered upon its flesh.  It bellowed a horrific yowl and its claws scarred the stone as it hastened its ascent.  “I think I made it angry,” warned Flamey, hurrying up the stairs.

Kicking the door, Flint muttered, “It’s rocked.”

“Private, pick the lock,” commanded Vargas as he spun the wheel.  Using his finger as a torch, the private picked the lock into oblivion.

The gate slowly sank into the water, reverberating a raucous creak throughout the room.  As the water crested the barrier, so did the creature.  A slew of claws, eyes, and teeth cascaded over the descending dam and scaled the stairway in what appeared to be a deluge of dire rats moving in eerie unison.  The rats scrambled up the stairs and fell into the rushing channel, yet the horde remained strangely connected and pressed forward.  The gate now fully absent, Vargas routed the giant rats into the water, but countless more appeared and overtook him.

Flamey unleashed a stream of fire upon the menace, which encouraged numerous rats to dive into the water, but an equal number scampered onto the walkway.  Elsa aided in the attack by levitating the new wave to the ceiling.  Though they did not stray far, the reason for the throng’s synchronicity was revealed.  The vermin’s tails intertwined in enormous knot connecting the creatures into a single rodent abomination.  From under the mass, Vargas lifted the knot and yelled over the squeaking and scratching, “Let’s see what you can do, boy.”

Flamey aimed his finger firing a ray of flame that surgically severed the conjoined tales, freeing the drove from their unfortunate attachment.  The swarm poured into the water and swam their separate ways.

“Are you ok?” asked Elsa, approaching Vargas, but the pungency of smoldering dire rat tails kept her at bay.  Even for one who has bathed in dragon’s blood, this was disgusting.

-

After a short respite for cleaning Vargas, the band resumed their journey, pursuing the lingering scent through forgotten catacombs, hidden passages, and secret stairways until they found themselves upon a raised stage in an underground amphitheater. stone seats spread out from the stage in ascending tiers.  At the center of the domed ceiling, the midday sun shone through a skylight, illuminating the front of the stage.

Flint muttered, “Gobrrin,” as he leapt from the stage to examine the area.  The other three moved to the edge of the stage and peered down.  A goblin’s bloodied body lie basking the sunbeams.  The goblin moaned, and Elsa stifled an eep.

Flamey remarked, “He’s alive.”

“Or undead,” cautioned Vargas.

In either circumstance he was Elsa’s responsibility.  She gathered up her courage and rebuked, “In the name of the Holy One I command thee, depart.”

Flamey remarked, “He’s alive.”

“Or immobile,” cautioned Vargas

Elsa glowered at Vargas’s pessimistic wisdom and climbed down from the stage.  Her previous responsibilities as a cleric, were far more clerical: cataloging encyclopedias, spells, remedies, and potions.  The few patients she did have were typically children.  In this regard Elsa found relief, reassuring herself aloud, “A goblin is like a child.”

“A murderous child,” added Vargas, becoming the personification and voice of Elsa’s paranoia.

After a few investigatory prods with her staff, Elsa knelt down beside the goblin and diagnosed, “His breathing is shallow.  The little guy has lacerations all over his hands, arms, and face.  He’s covered in dirt, blood,” she paused, “and sweets?”

“Sweets?” reiterated Flamey and Vargas.

“Cake crumbs, chocolate, and caramel,” explained Elsa.  She prayed for water and withdrew a flask from her travel pack.  As Elsa cleaned off the last of the butterscotch, she discovered that the goblin had not sustained any serious injuries, only a collection of cuts and contusions.

“Unicorn!” shouted the goblin, sitting upright.

Vargas and Flamey gawked in astonishment — Elsa didn’t eep.

“I like unicorns,” answered Elsa, replying to their eyeing.

“Are you with them?” asked the panicked goblin, springing to his feet, and then to his knees as he implored, “I didn’t mean any harm.  Please make them stop!”

“Who?” inquired Flamey, sitting on the edge of the stage.

“The unicorns,” uttered the goblin in an ominous whisper.  “Tell them I’m sorry for everything.”

“What did you do?” asked Vargas.

“I don’t know, but I’m sorry for it,” pleaded the pathetic goblin.

“There are no unicorns here,” assured Flamey.

“I hope we get to meet one on our journey,” wished the now hopeful Elsa.

Seizing an opportunity to improve his chance of survival, the defenseless goblin petitioned with puppy-dog eyes, “Can I come with you?”

Instantly moved by the woebegone goblin, Elsa redirected the emotional onslaught upon Vargas and pleaded, “Can he?”

Unmoved by the spectacle, Vargas approached the goblin, looked him in the eye, and asked, “What’s your name?”

“Gobs,” replied the goblin, still maintaining his pitiful countenance.

“If you hold no fear of dragons, then come along,” proposed Vargas, wagering that there was little the goblin did not fear.

However, unlike unicorns, dragons did not actually exist, leading Gobs to declare confidently, “I’m not afraid of dragons.”

“The scent ends here; we need to go up,” reported Flint upon his return.  At the sight of the gnoll, Gobs eeped, further establishing his camaraderie with Elsa.  Vargas shook his head in dismay, and moved on, “Alright, let’s go.”

The group gathered at edge of the stage under the spotlight of sunbeams.  Flint flipped up his hood as Elsa spoke the word “float,” levitating the party out of the underlands.

Pitch 15: Bardic Knowledge

“Eww,” groaned Gobs as he climbed out of the stale stench of the underlands into the fresh fug of the overlands. “It smells like raw fish.”

Reclining upon a nearby stone, a merman eyed the surprise spelunkers.  Strapped to his back, the stranger carried a transparent bladder of water, which he used to produce whale song and as a conversation starter.  Unaware of his odd device or even his presence, Elsa remarked, “The smell is no worse than the sewer.”

“Apologies, friends,” greeted the stranger jovially as he jested, “I have not had the opportunity to bathe and have become a fish out of water.”

He hoped for a chortle, a giggle, or at least a snicker, but he received only an abashed apology from Elsa, who was too embarrassed to laugh or inquire about his watery back-pack, “Sorry.  I was glad to be outside; I don’t think you smell.”

“No harm done,” assured the deflated merman.  The lack of interest in his humor was disheartening, but he pressed on, “Are you an adventuring party?”

Vargas answered, “No,” but Elsa’s friendly reply of, “Yes, we’re on a quest to slay a dragon,” convinced the man otherwise.

“That’s great!” chimed the peppy fellow, hopping off his perch.  “I knew they couldn’t all be dead.”

Picking up the scent, Flint and Vargas continued on course without further hesitation, Gobs strode safely behind the armored leader, and Elsa and Flamey brought up the rear.  “No time to spare, I see,” remarked the stranger as he jogged beside the party, “I hear ya.  I’ll make the introductions quick; I am Ichthardo, globetrotter and bard extraordinaire.”

“Elsa,” curtsied the cleric.

“Gobs,” greeted the goblin.

“Private Flamé, but you can call me Flamey,” introduced the young soldier, following up with a question.  “What is a bard?”

Dumbfounded, Ichthardo steadied himself against a tree and lamented, “What is this world coming to?  Are you truly unaware of the noble profession?”

“No sir,” professed the boy.  Though the inexperienced squire had received a noble’s education, bard was not a common profession for those living in the castle.  Len rarely kept entertainers in his employ; he was far to busy worrying to watch anyone sing and frolic gaily.

The bard transformed his demeanor from one of melancholy to resolve; performing a grand jeté, he leapt onto a tree stump and broke into song:

A bard is a rogue,
A scholar of history.
A mystical minstrel,
A dabbler in sorcery.

A bard is a hero-

“Bards are just musical hobos who are too lazy to get real jobs,” interrupted Vargas, forced to either acknowledge Ichthardo’s presence or suffer his song.

Stepping down from stump and song, the hobo replied, “A bard is more than a mere musician.”

Intrigued by the potential spectacle, Elsa and Flamey inquired simultaneously, “What else can a bard do?”

“Make mountain’s out of no-hills,” quipped Gobs, quoting his best friend.  Doing so brought back several misplaced memories.  Gobs recalled Diana’s delicious mead, Glenn’s coercion, and unicorns.  The goblin muttered to himself, “Repeatedly.”

“It is true that bards are known for the weaving of superlative yarns but also for their vast knowledge of the esoteric,” the troubadour whispered mysteriously.

“They are?” asked Elsa, drawn in by the spiel.

“Say for example, you’re in a new land, and you require knowledge of its culture, customs, or history.  What would you do?”

Reminded of his previous misadventure, Gobs grumbled, “Leave.”

“Read a book,” Elsa suggested helpfully.
Earnestly hoping he had the right answer, Flamey proposed, “Go to the local embassy.”

“Or,” countered the bard, undeterred by the outpour of answers to his rhetorical question, “you could enlist the aid of a bard.”

Feeling a bit lost, Flamey clarified, “So they are like guides.”

“Yes, but they are much more than mere guides,” replied Ichthardo with a wave of his hand, inspiring awe and wonder.  “Lo, not only do bards play, dance, and sing, we do a little of everything.”

Vargas glared dissuasively at the bard’s burgeoning rhyme scheme.

“Cook, cobble, sew or smith,” Ichthardo illustrated while pantomiming various occupations, “A bard is a jack of all trades.” Confident in the plethora of presented talents, he crossed his arms.

“Isn’t that inefficient?” objected Gobs.

“Of course not,” asserted the offended Ichthardo.  “It’s magnificent!”

“What about division of labor?” posited Flamey.

“There are unique opportunities for a person who has a particular collection of skills,” insisted the merman.  Not wanting his pitch to be missed, he chose a new course, “But, music, knowledge and a bevy of skills are but a few facets of the bard’s repertoire.  They can also cast – magic!”  A rainbow of light sprung from his fingertips.

Despite being an adept magic user, Elsa found the bard’s performance enchanting and applauded gleefully.

“Wow!” awed Flamey, “Do you know Sticks to Snakes?”

“No.” replied the pitchman flatly, “Priests and clerics do that.”

Elsa nodded in confirmation while Ichthardo continued his routine, “Bards cast arcane spells, like wizards.”

“Can you cast Meteo?” requested Flamey, eyes ablaze with hope.  “I’ve always wanted to see that.”

“No,” sighed the bard, “we are magic dabblers.  We cast spells like Yanak’s floating disk.”  A concave disk materialized a foot off the ground.  Ichthardo leapt onto the disk shouting, “And magic missile.”  Blue energy shot from his palm into the sky.

Flamey attempted to summarize the lesson. “So a bard is a singing, magical, tour-guide handyman, right?”

Unable to disagree with the base generalization of his profession, Ichthardo conceded, “Yes.”

“Ersa,” whispered Flint, “Stay near.”

Elsa hurried to the gnoll’s side, afraid of another onslaught of vermin.  Danger sense tingling, Gobs hid behind Vargas as a band of thieves armed with crossbows made their existence known.

“Travelers make such a ruckus these days,” chided an unseen voice.  Gracefully leaping from his hidden canopy perch, the still well-dressed and charismatic leader of the highwaymen introduced and instructed, “We are bandits, and we will be accepting your valuables.”

“Why?” confronted the bard as he shook his head with dismay.

“Are you daft?” retorted the bandit leader, believing their motivation to be readily apparent to even the simplest of dullards.  “What do you mean ‘why?’”

“Why become bandits?  It is not a fiscally viable career.  As bandits, people will fight you for free.  Some ‘throw your life away for justice’ type may leave you bruised and beaten, but if you get a paladin even remotely on your tail — it’s good by career.

One of the bandits lamented, “You never know when they will sack you.”

“Paladins smite hard,” moaned another.

“Is it really worth it?” asked the bard sympathetically.  He paused to observe his audience; the thieves looked down at their feet and scuffed the dirt.  Allowing sufficient time for the message to sink in, the bard resumed his oratory, “Your clothing is posh but hardly fashionable.”  The band nodded in unison, knowing all-to-well the shame of their out-dated attire.  The bard inquired, “How much are you making here?  Probably less than few gold pieces a day.  Am I right?”

“If that,” scoffed a third under his breath.  “This isn’t even a real crossbow.”

“I can make twice that in one performance in a metropolis, and I’m just a bard with a song in his heart.  I’m sure you fellows have plenty of stories to tell.  You just need to find your niche and follow your dreams.”

The leader grinned hopefully, imagining wealth through dance, but the remainder of the audience did not display an inclination for the arts.  Ichthardo adjusted his approach.  “Or maybe the blade is your forte.”  The remainder of his audience smiled sinisterly, and the bard played on, “But, it need not be a tool of villainy.  Take adventuring for example.  You could easily find a legal quest in a tavern, say ‘arrest a roaming bandit group,’ and go home heroes.”

“I always wanted to be a hero,” yelled one of the bandits.

“Then do it,” declared the motivational merman.  “But remember, don’t just take the first quest that comes along.   Take your time, and make sure it is right for you.  If you’re just starting out, don’t look down upon a quest either.  Beggars can be choosers, but they are still beggars and need to get a job.  Think about it.”

Seeing his words had struck home, the golden tongued bard slowly took his leave, allowing his audience to ponder his words.  The bandits finished contemplating and comprehended that Ichtrardo had admitted to being a wealthy musician with questionable combat ability, but the bard’s mastery of the slow exit had already succeeded and the party had made their escape.

“That’s it!” shouted the leader, throwing up his hands in defeat.  “He’s right; we need new careers.  I never wanted to be a bandit.  I wanted to be a lumberjack.”

Pitch 16: Advanced Training

Every evening since the plum demon’s disappearance, Zell returned to the coliseum and to the abyss.  Despite his efforts, the nightmarish plane was too vast, and each night the boy slumbered in despair.  While staying with Mr. Pfeffersack, Zell routinely awoke in the castle dungeon, where he made the best of the imposed solitude by meditating; on this occasion, however, he awoke on a bluff overlooking the labyrinthine edifice.

For the first time, Zell beheld the city-like citadel from the outside.  Mural towers poised upon high parapets enclosing expansive wards, stairs encircled spires that hid their peaks amongst the clouds, and flying buttresses connected everything in a spider web of stonework splayed out beyond the horizon.  Insignificant before the infinite fortress, Zell realized how monumental his endeavor to truly was.  Fortunately for the heroic youth, Deirdre and Lerril were just below his vantage point, shuffling along a castle wall.  Zell spotted his former foe and immediately scurried down the cliff-side.

“Deirdre, Lerril!” hailed Zell excitedly as he descended the bluff.  Not noticing Zell’s call, the plum demon continued along aimlessly.

Zell leapt from the cliff, landing upon the wall.  He hurried along the allure.  “Hey, wait.  It’s me, Zell,” huffed Zell as he grabbed Lerril’s hand.  Deirdre and Lerril calmly turned to face the clinging boy.

“I’m so glad you’re ok.  I was really worried,” said Zell in relief, looking up.  Deirdre and Lerril gazed down, their previously beaming bronze eyes now spheres of atrament.  Zell stumbled backwards as the demon stared blankly at the horrified boy.  The abyssal energies had devoured their minds leaving a shambling husk.

Zell choked upon dread as sorrow pooled in his eyes.  He had damned the innocent pair to roam the forsaken plane forever.

Hearing the sobs, Kane roused the sleeping boy.  “Zell, wake up.  What’s wrong?”

Zell sobbed, “Deirdre and Lerril.  They…”

“It was just a nightmare,” assured Kane.

Zell now realized that his terrible vision was not real, but the fear lingered and the sadness remained.

Day 1 Advanced Training 1: Touching the Infinite

Bleary eyed, Zell awoke for breakfast.  Hearing the boy in the kitchen, Kane called from his office, “Zell, your new sword is on the table.”  The boy picked up the thin bladed side-sword, which was more suited to his stature and style.  “Are you up for your advanced training today?” asked Kane, entering the room.

Still shaking off his slumber, Zell inquired, “Advanced training?”

“Shu saw your battle,” explained Kane waving a piece of paper, “He says you need to continue your training.”

-

As was routine, the pair met Shu in the courtyard.  Sensing the boy’s sorrow, Shu announced, “Zell, the time for mourning has passed!”  The commander crossed his arms and stomped his foot. “Now, we train.”

“Yes, sir,” replied Zell, mustering determination.

“Today,” Shu declared bluntly, “you will fight the Abyss.”

Exchanging roles, Kane grinned hopefully, and Zell disbelieved.  “But I can’t beat the Abyss,” objected Zell, doubt still strangling his heart.

“You will not beat the Abyss today — you will fight it,” clarified Shu, disregarding Zell’s apprehension.

“I don’t understand,” uttered the boy.

“You do not need to understand,” growled Shu, his scars glowing with energy as his ire intensified.  With absolute authority the veteran roared, “You are gonna DO IT!”

The man’s words were not spoken as Zell’s enthusiastic battle cry, or even a command to be followed, but as a statement of undeniable truth from on high.  Whether Zell believed in himself or not, it did not matter; he was “gonna DO IT!” because if he didn’t, he’d have to answer to Shu, who at the moment, was a greater threat than the Abyss.

“Are you ready?” asked the commander rhetorically, since the answer was yes.

“Yes,” stated Zell without consideration or hesitation.

“Zell, do you remember the fundamentals?”

“Yes.”

“Are you a warrior?”

“Yes.”

“Stand like one.”

Zell dug his feet into the earth, clenched his fists, and straightened his arms at his side.

“Do you have the warrior’s spirit?”

“Yes.”

“Channel it.”

Zell’s ramenesque spirit coursed through his veins.

“Can you feel the Abyss?”

“Yes.”

Zell’s fingertips sensed the void drawing upon his energy.  Undeterred, the boy maintained his stance and his focus.

“What was your first lesson?”

“Wrist control!” shouted Zell as he gripped the Abyss and hurled it to the ground.  Before the boy lie a pile of dirt.  He awed at the accomplishment, and uttered, “How did I do that?”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Shu confidently, “You have begun.”

Zell repeated this feat, over and over again.  With each handful of dirt, he cast away his fear.  His opponent was infinite, and though the boy didn’t know how, he was gonna DO IT!