By: Adam Vachon

Editor's Note: I've been meaning to post this for a little while now. HUGE thank you to Adam Vachon who wrote this amazing follow up story to his previous piece. If you haven't read his first installment, you can find it here. Don't forget that you can submit your short stories, and you may see them show up just like this one.

It was the first snowfall of the year, but the hearth in the tavern was well stoked to keep out the cold. Mulled wine and brandy made the folks in the common room merry, and Jaques easily collected coins here and there simply by plucking his mandolin to provide some cheery tunes. He didn’t need the gold; he was far more content to see the folks in this tavern simply smile and laugh for a change.

Jaques Slysong had been in Perrinith for weeks monitoring the situation in what used to be Heartholme. It was a true tragedy what had happened there; Jaques had been inside the cave complex at the time. One of his contacts inside Adventure Inc. let on about the mysterious machine, and Jaques believed it had some connection to all of the many strange events happening around the continent.

He escaped more out of pure luck than anything else; when the gnolls and lizardfolk arrived, he had surveyed much of the cave already, and was on his way out to find a place to stay in town. The sounds of fighting and screams made him cautious, and sure enough, Heartholme was under attack. The villagers were rounded up, whether to be kept as slaves or for food he did not know, and as much as Jaques was disgusted by the idea of people in captivity, he was not stupid either. This was not merely a random inter-species raiding party; this was an army, and the neighboring towns likely had no idea of the threat. Based on the chaos within the small town, this attack came by surprise, and if Jaques did not get out of Heartholme, no one would even know the town was occupied by a monstrous army.

He had to use a potion of invisibility to get through without being caught, but eventually he cleared the danger, and made it to a nearby hill where he surveyed the scene. It wasn’t good. The army was there to stay, and in fact, despite only having arrived in the last few hours, construction of what was sure to be a fortress had already begun. Jaques suspected that it was not simply gnolls and lizard folk behind this; this was planned by someone with a long term objective, someone rather upset that the Many Pennies had intervened and cleared out the complex previously.

So Jaques had set himself up in the neighboring village of Greenfield, telling stories and singing songs in the tavern in the evenings, and observing Heartholme during the daytime when the Gnolls were less active.

The door to the tavern swung open and a one legged man, hopping more than relying on his crutch, entered with a very large smile. He sat down at a table next to Jaques and boisterously asked the nearest tavern maid for a cup of wine. He was obviously not from the region, but it was plain to see that this man had been here before; he called the tavern maid by name, and while she put on her best airs and graces while she spoke to him, her body language suggested that she knew the man and was not entirely pleased to see him. Put upon seemed like the right descriptor to Jaques, as if the man was that one annoying regular who had never really done anything wrong, per se, but that you dread seeing them come into the shop. So Jaques started paying attention. The man looked familiar for some reason.

Soon enough, Jaques learned that the man’s name was Evan and that he was a carriage driver for Adventure Incorporated, and he was biding his time until his masters returned from their mission. It was also quite obvious to see that the man drank like a fish, and in reality, was a very sad man. He loved to tell stories of his former days as an adventurer, and truthfully Jaques was impressed by his abilities to tell a tale; Evan could easily have trained as a bard and done quite well for himself!

Jaques needed information, though, and he believed Evan might be the key. Finishing his song up, he plopped down next to Evan and waved the tavern maid over, “My dear beautiful cherie, a round of mulled wine for myself and dis fine gentleman here.”

Evan eyed him with a bit of surprise but grinned widely, “Ah, thank you my good man! How kind of you, but have we met before? I must say, your accent is terribly peculiar, and yet familiar, but I don’t remember your face… Well, never look a gift horse in the mouth, I say! My name is Evan, with whom do I have the pleasure of sharing a drink with tonight?”

“Jaques,” Jaques responded with a bow, “a humble bard simply looking to pass on some good cheer on ze first snowy evening of ze year. You have come a long way, no? Did I not overhear zat you came from Mughamara, driving a carriage for a troupe of adventurers from ze legendary Adventure Incorporated?”

“Ah, you, sir have spectacular hearing!” Evan replied. The tavern maid returned with their wine. “A toast,” said Evan, “To fine companionship on this first true night of winter!” he drained his cup, and proceeded to order another. Jaques simply took a sip of his own. There was a tickle in the back of Jaques mind. Something familiar, but very distant. Something he should remember.

“You know,” said Evan, clearly already intoxicated, “this weather reminds me of the time that I…” and proceeded to tell Jaques an elaborate tale of when Evan had been an adventurer and had been stranded in Perrinith during the winter season, finding shelter in a cave occupied by cave bears. By Evan’s telling he had challenged one of the bear to a wrestling match, beat it, become friends, and ended up cuddling with the bear for two weeks until the weather turned warm enough for him to return back to Adventure Incorporated. Evan was a wonderful storyteller. Some of the story may even have been true. He consumed two more cups of wine in the process. Jaques was only halfway through his first, while part of his mind tried to tease out what was so familiar about Evan.

“A wonderful tale,” said Jaques, “you know, you could have been a very talented bard with ze right training.”

“Oh, I applied to the Colleges!” Evan slurred, “I even had a scholarship all lined up to help pay my tuition, but sadly the very week before I was to start my training was when I lost my leg. I was young, I was stupid, I was in love…” and for a brief moment, Jaques saw it as plain as day on Evan’s face: the man was deeply in pain. Not physical pain from the leg or an illness, no; Evan was drinking and smiling to forget or rather to try and relive his glory days.

“Ah, love,” Jaques mused, “now zat iz something I know a great deal about my friend. I was trained in a brothel you know! In Varina! Ze finest brothel in ze city, ze -“

“The Silver Maiden! That is what you were about to say right?? Ah my FAVORITE place in all of Varina! Why my cousin, Elsa, is the owner! Though I suppose things have been a bit strained since…”

For the first time in a very long time Jaques was speechless. He remembered this man. It had been a very, very long time since he had seen the man, almost since he had first arrived on New Meritta and taken in by his adoptive mothers. “Uncle Evan? It iz me. Jackie.”

Evan blinked, squinted, and stared skeptically. “Jackie boy? Jaques the Cat? My little Kitten?? But… you look… how? What-”

“Uncle quiet!” Jaques said, trying to keep Evan from revealing too much. “Please, we are in public. I look zis way because of ze hat; a gift from Elsa and Gisele before I left the Maiden. Powerful Illusion magic. It is very useful. But Uncle Evan, your leg?”

“Ah, yes… It is a long story. But not one to share right now! Look at you! All grown up! And an incredible Bard no less! And no stranger to trouble; did I not see that you are a wanted man in Varina? And quite the bounty too according the the posters! I dare say you have followed in your old Uncle Evans footsteps!” Evan said quite pleased, as he wobbled drunkenly and miraculously kept his balance on his stool. “Tell me, tell me all about what you have been up to my dear boy! Why I haven’t seen you since… erm… well...”

“Since I was 11. If I remember, dear Uncle, Elsa threw you out because in one of your drunken stupors you stumbled in on one of ze clients and lost your stomach all over ze bed while Catalina was attending to him…”

“Ah. Yes. That. Elsa was not happy. But That is not why I left the city dear boy! No no, I was driven off by a common enemy of ours. One Lord Silverstorm? HIs wife is a firebrand in the bedroom is she not?” Evan asked, and Jaques nearly choked on the wine he had been sipping. “Oh yes M’boy, you do take after your Uncle, and Lord Silverstorm certainly has a long memory! Why, that is one of the reasons I joined Adventure Incorporated!”

“Yes, Uncle about zat, you work for ze Many Pennies--” Jaques began, but was cut off by an insistent tapping at the window they were sitting next to. Jaques peered out and saw a woodpecker staring back at him. He concentrated. Magic; the woodpecker itself was natural, but it’s presence here was not. Jaques opened the window and the bird flew in, and landed on Evan’s shoulder, tittering loudly. To Jaques the birdsong was unintelligible, but he felt the magic behind it. This was a messenger.

Evan was just as surprised, but listened intently to the message. His face went pale as the woodpecker finished it’s obligation, and flew back out the window into the night. “Uncle, what iz it? What was did ze bird say?”

“We… They… Army. There is an army of gnolls and lizardfolk headed this way!” he said quietly, stunned by the news. Alarm bells went off in Jaques head. There had been no indication this morning that the army would march. Something had changed.

“Uncle, we need to go. We need to get ze villagers out of here! Uncle? Evan?!” Evan had passed out on the bar. Jaques heaved a sigh and poured a pitcher of ice water on Evan’s head, who spluttered back to consciousness. Jaques took off his hat.

“Wha.. who? You rogue! Why I’ll see that you-“

“Uncle Evan! Wake up! Ze Gnolls? You are needed! I cannot evacuate zis village by myself. ‘Az anyone ever told you you drink too much dear Uncle?? Monsieur Brightfire?” Jaques called out the the Tavern Master, who gave Jaques a look somewhere between awe and fear in his natural form; A man, mostly, but with pointed cat ears, slitted animal eyes, a light patchwork black and orange hair covering his skin, his tail floofed and twitching. “Where iz ze Mayor??” Jaques growled, “Zis village is in danger!”

It was going to be long, long night.

 

***

 

The army descended on the village of Greenfield in the predawn hours, the quiet peace of the village suiting their purposes perfectly: Catch not kill. With surprising stealth for a force so large they infiltrated, groups of two or three at each door, ready to burst in at the appointed signal.

A flaming arrow shot up into the sky.

Unlocked doors swung open; gnolls and lizardfolk burst into homes only to find them empty. The villagers were gone. Bowls from evening meals still sat at the tables, and a few embers still burned in fireplaces. Candles had burned down completely. The villagers had vanished. A search followed. There was no evidence of where they had gone. Scouts were dispatched, but turned up nothing. Somehow, the townsfolk had escaped, and Gorm would not be pleased.

 

***

 

It had taken considerable effort, but the citizens of Greenfield now slept in their makeshift shelters in a large grove of trees a few miles down the road. Between Jaques’ Bardic magic and the help of the town’s hunters they had covered their tracks extremely well; the near foot of snowfall during the night helped considerably. As long as the army didn’t do a massive and very widespread search in the next few hours, they would escape seamlessly.

It had been a long night. Fortunately, Evan’s cart had been large enough to carry the elderly, the sick, children, and others who could not move swiftly enough on their own. Evan himself had been the hero of the day, telling stories to the children, and providing comfort to those overwhelmed with fear; while Jaques was normally one to seize attention for himself and preferred the role of hero, he was quite pleased with how his adoptive uncle had stepped up to the task. The town of Greenfield viewed Evan as their Savior, and Jaques believed that Evan needed what that title bestowed: confidence and the realization that his adventuring days were not over, despite having only one leg.

They had decided to take the townsfolk in the direction of High Grove; enroute they would find a suitably sized village or city for them to take refuge. Jaques had already magically sent word of the invading army to his contacts in both High Grove and Mare Glade in Bradmont. As for Jaques and Evan, once they had made sure the former residents of Greenfield were safe and cared for they would go back and wait for the Many Pennies.

 

***

 

It had been nearly a month since the Many Pennies had disappeared. The days had grown colder and darker, but Jaques, Evan, and the horses still waited despite dwindling supplies. Jaques scouted for the Many Pennies by day, carefully avoiding the Gnoll and Lizardfolk armies, while Evan cared for the horses and made sure their encampment was not discovered. At night in their time together at camp the two talked of many things, and Jaques grew to respect and admire his uncle. He was a quick study for one; Jaques had begun to teach Evan the fundamentals of Bardic magic to help while away the long dark nights, and as Jaques had predicted Evan was a natural.

“Uncle,” Jaques said one night, as the two sat near their fire after teaching Evan a song that was meant to fortify the morale of your companions, “There iz something I have wanted to ask you. It iz, I imagine for you, a bit… personal.”

“Ah,” replied Evan, a resigned smile on his face, a slight nod, “You wish to know about what happened to my leg?”

“Actually, I wanted to know what iz weighing down your heart. If I had to guess yes by ze way you talk about your leg zey are connected, but am I correct in assuming it iz not ze primary reason for why you are so sad? Zere iz more to it zan zat I think. And if I truly had to guess, it iz about a woman, no?”

Evan smiled widely, this time in admiration, “I can see why you took the surname Slysong, my dear boy… you are very perceptive! Very well. Yes, they are connected, and yes it is about a woman. Actually, you may very well even know her! Are you acquainted with Belinda Darkheart?” Evan finished his question if a wry grin. Jaques blinked.

“Ze Lady of… You refer to ze Lady of Knives by her given name?! Which could only mean… Uncle, you never cease to amaze! You were lovers I take it zen?”

“Of course, and I’ll have you know that I am the only individual who has been able to call her ‘Belinda’ to her face in front of an audience and live to tell the tale! Ah we were a pair: I had the charm, she had the cunning; Why, we almost became royalty in Emberfall you know! Perhaps we could have even ruled the province in time.”

“So I take it you lost ze leg and she left you? Zat seems a bit extreme for a pair so in love.”

“Well my boy, as you know yourself, love is not so simple, and that was especially the case for us. You see, at the time there was a bit of a bid for power in Emberfall. Those with money and powerful artifacts, especially magic ones, controlled the crown. Belinda and I got word of a very magical and important book of enchantment that we believed would help us secure a spot in the Royal Court. We had decided on a two pronged approach: I would go retrieve the book, and she would play the femme fatale and distract said books owner, one Callien Garhand --”

“Ze King of Emberfall?!” Jaques interrupted Uncle are you insane? You tried to steal a book from ze King of Emberfall??”

“Oh, well he wasn’t the King at the time my dear boy! He was close with Markus, sure, but so was Belinda. She was not on the Royal Court, no, but we believed Callien was using the book to influence Markus, you see. We figured we could do something similar, although we had no intentions of being quite as direct as Callien was. Callien was always… impatient. I still think he murdered poor Markus, but there was never a way to prove it.”

“In anycase, Callien knew we were coming and had laid his traps well; all of the men I took with me died in the attempt, and I… I lost my leg to a very cunning combination spike pit/bladed pendulum trap; the pendulum was the second stage of the trap. Suffice it to say, I was rather surprised by it.”

“Wait, wait, uncle… Were you not already working for Adventure Incorporated by this point?” asked Jaques.

“Ah, my wickedly smart little kitty cat!” Evan positively beamed at his adoptive nephew, “Yes I was. At the time, I may or may not, have been playing a bit of a long con with the company. Maerifa knew of course; I discovered that much later on. She was the one who told me about the book you know! I think that she was playing an even longer game than I was. It is… well, too late to ask now, but in hindsight I believe Maerifa intended to have Belinda on the throne of Emberfall, and influence the country through me as her advisor. But I digress. Callien was waiting for me, you see, and made sure I did not bleed out in his trap room. He had taken Belinda captive as well. I was barely alive when he took me to her, but by that point… By that point he had used the book to erase her memories. Of our plan. Of our ambitions. My dear beloved Belinda has nor memories of me at all now. After he was certain that I knew what had happened he threw me out into the streets. He did not ban me from Emberfall per se, but he made it very clear to myself and all of my contacts that I was powerless; and being powerless in Emberfall is a very, very dangerous thing indeed. So, I did the only thing I could: I returned to Adventure Incorporated. I revealed my scheming to the masters, apologized profusely for my own transgressions towards the company and was quite surprised when they offered me a job driving coaches. I have been in their employment ever since.” Evan stared at the fire.

Neither man spoke for quite some time. Jaques, for the second time since he had been reunited with his uncle, was at a loss for words. Evan broke the silence first.

“It feels good, you know… Like a weight has been lifted off my chest. I’ve never told anyone about that night except for the former Masters of Adventure Incorporated, and they swore me to secrecy about the whole ordeal. But I think enough time has passed.”

A small alarm bell started to ring in Jaques head. Sworn to secrecy? Had not Maerifa been the one to tip Evan off to the book he had try to steal? Something was not as it seemed. Evan had almost certainly been used, that much was obvious; his uncle had a keen mind, and Jaques believed that Evan was correct in his assumptions that Maerifa had wanted the Lady of Knives leading Emberfall. Belinda, Jaques knew, was ruthless, but she took care of those loyal to her and would have extended her ideals to an entire Kingdom if she had become king… So who was Callien really? And how was it that Maerifa, by all accounts (both publicly and through more secretive channels) one of the most powerful wizards of their time, had plans like those foiled simply by a war hero. A war hero who had access to a powerful book of enchantments, and apparently knew how to use it. Something was not right with that picture.

“Uncle,” Jaques said slowly, rubbing his hands together for warmth, “I think tomorrow I must leave you… Az much az I so dearly want to meet your Many Pennies, I am finding zat I have business to attend to… elsewhere.”

Evan nodded, “To Emberfall, I take it? Know this my boy: Callien is not what he appears. I do not know his secrets, nor have I tried to learn. All I know is that he is extremely powerful. Be careful. Do not try to make amends for me; Callien no doubt still watches over Belinda, and I value her life far too much for you to risk your life and hers. But if you do discover anything worth knowing, return to Mughamara; the Many Pennies will know what to do. Myself, I will head back to Adventure Incorporated tomorrow myself; at this point I doubt they will re-appear here”

“If zey ever return, you mean.” said Jaques.

“Oh they will,” Evan said with a smile, “The Many Pennies always return sooner or later.”

Jaques nodded and began to prepare his belongings for the next day. It would be a long trip to Emberfall on foot.

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