Dreekt walked off the boat. His sister glared at him. He wasn’t going to continue down the river to the ocean with his family, and they heard him talk about it all the way down through the Dulz Thicket. He clicked his short curved beak as he walked towards the village of dwarves that lived by the forest. His ebony feathers moved in a wave as he felt his sister continue glaring at his back. He pulled his cloak’s neck up and tried to ignore the feeling, careful not to catch his talon-like nails on the edge. Off to his left he noticed a human conversing loudly with a dwarf. The human glanced in his direction, bid farewell to the annoyed dwarf, and started walking towards him.
Dreekt sighed silently. Most humans still had a hatred for skravyn like him, even though the wars had ended hundreds of years ago. The human surprised him by placing a hand on his shoulder. It wasn’t a weighty hand that forced him to the ground like the last time a human had touched him. Rather, it felt reassuring.
“What is your name, dear skravyn?”
Dreekt realized that the voice was younger than the body seemed. “My name is Dreekt, my dear varin. What’s yours?” Many pre-pubescent variin were mistakenly taken as short humans, but to a skravyn’s acute hearing the voice was a tell.
The varin smiled. “It’s Ralo,” the varin said, “and you are sharp of hearing, Dreekt. Let me buy a round of drinks at the tavern over there, I have a friend who would like to meet you.
“That is,” he added, “if you aren’t on an errand at the moment.”
“I’m not doing anything right now, so I’ll take you up on that offer.” Dreekt followed behind the young varin who had started away before the response.
A light dusting of snow covering the cobblestone street crunched under their feet. The dwarven village, Traven, was small and they arrived at the tavern shortly. In common dwarven fashion the tavern was the largest building in the village. As they passed through the door the dwarven taverner glared at Ralo.
“Don’t give him any of your drink, skravyn,” warned the dwarf, “he’s a child, not a man.”
“Oh, I know,” responded Dreekt. “He’s a varin, not a human. Did he try some dwarven ale?”
“Tried some dwarven vodka.” The dwarf had a hard time keeping a smile from his face. “He probably won’t drink again, but I warn everyone he brings in here. It was the best night of my life.”
“And the worst morning of mine,” whined Ralo. “You can be sure I won’t try to drink anything but water here. I swear he spikes the juice.” The dwarf burst into laughter at that, and turned to wipe down a mug.
Dreekt glanced through the room and saw a cloaked figure in one corner enjoying a drink, and another in the back corner whose eyes glowed a strange orange. “Ahh, a wick. I assume that’s your friend? What’s his name?”
“She goes by Burner, but I know that isn’t the name she was born with. Let’s introduce you.”
The two of them walked forward to speak to the wick while, in the other corner, The Jester watched. After they met up with Burner he payed for his drink, tipped the barkeep, and left.
“So, why did you bring me this skravyn, Ralo? Do you think he can help with my quest?” Burner was staring at Dreekt’s face as she said this. The orange glow from her eyes accented the dark maroon of her hooded cloak. “I can sense power within him, an untapped potential perhaps.”
“He seemed unsure of what to do after he departed the ship that brought him, and he knew I was a varin,” Ralo explained as he set down the two drinks he had grabbed for them. He himself had no drink.
“Well, I’m a skravyn, I could hear that you were younger than you seemed, you are at adult height for a human, and have the skin tone of elves or dwarves. It wasn’t that hard to guess.” Dreekt conjured a leaf in his hand and rolled it into a straw to drink from. “As for that power you feel coming from me I am a young conjuror, though I never told anyone but my sister.” He took a sip through the straw and then clicked his beak. “I like this drink, what is it?”
“It’s an Irish Coffee. I have no clue why it’s called that, but I’m told it warms you up from the inside out.” Ralo answered as he turned to go back to the bar to grab a clay cup of water.
Burner smiled to herself. No one could see the smile of a wick in a dark room because of how their eyes glowed, but if one looked closely at the shape of the glow one could guess with certainty that a wick was smiling. “I like you Dreekt. I think I’ll take you along on my journey, if you’ll join me.”
Dreekt smiled, his eyes were the best indication of this as he was a skravyn. “I have nothing better to do, so I may as well join you.”
“Let me tell you exactly what I want to look into before you accept.” Burner looked at him more intently, noticeable only by the brightening of her eyes. “Do you know of the Fractured Mountains?”
“Yes I do. I was born and raised in the city outside of The Cave, Rentaz.”
“Ah, you know more of it first hand than I do then. There is a mountain called Frozen Pinnacle within the range, southeast of the cave. Do you know of that mountain?”
“That’s the tallest mountain in the Fractured Mountains, isn’t it? I’ve never seen it myself, but I’ve heard that it is the most jagged of the peaks.”
“That it is, and it seems that a powerful force mage now lives on its peak. If I didn’t know he was a force mage I would have wondered how he was able to build upon that mountain. Many rumors of how he has caused avalanches and rocks to fall on the village at the foot of the mountain have come to my attention. I don’t know how true they may be, but I’ve had a strange feeling that I need to go there to find my purpose.”
“The purpose of a wick is always known to be a heroic one. Even if this force mage isn’t what is drawing you that way I know that you will be needed there. I’ll join you. Not only because you are a wick, but also because I have heard some of these rumors myself.”
“You need to enter into an agreement with me. Can you read?”
“I can speak common, dwarvish, skravyn, and even some halfling if the need arises. Since all of those are written with the same runes I can read them just about as well as I can speak them. Let’s see this contract.”
Dreekt agreed readily with the terms of the contract and signed it. He now had a purpose to fulfill, but he had a thought in the back of his mind that there was something else going on in the Fractured Mountains, he just couldn’t quite think what it was. Maybe it had something to do with the uncomfortable warmth that the irish coffee had imparted to him.
– – –
Three others joined them the next morning, which is when Dreekt realized that Ralo wasn’t going with them. Two of the newcomers were humans, and one of them was a zarx. The humans were named Julian and Carla. The zarx was named Gaemacirch, but he told them to call him Gaem.
Burner didn’t introduce them to Dreekt, and started leading them north and slightly east along the forest trail. The humans introduced themselves and told Dreekt what the zarx was named. Julian was a light green color with blond hair, and Carla was a bright orange with brunette hair. Gaem had red and white blaze markings, and looked like a large ferret. He also had three horns, and spines along his back.
“So,” Julian asked, turning to Dreekt, “how did Burner find you?”
“Actually, Ralo found me and brought me to Burner. We hit it off quickly enough and I agreed to join her.” Dreekt kept glancing over at Gaem. “What race are you? I’ve never seen a ferret as big as you, and you seem to be more than a mere animal.”
“You do well to assume that Gaem is not a beast of burden,” commented Carla. “He’s a zarx, but he doesn’t talk to me much. I made the mistake of seeing him as an animal when I met him. That ruffles his feathers.” She caught herself at the end when she remembered she was talking to a skravyn. “No offence intended of course.”
“None taken. I grew up in The Cave, many humans meant what they said, but I could tell you were just using an expression.” Dreekt turned back to Gaem. “So, why did you join with Burner?”
Gaem’s head turned towards him, and he could see all three of the curved horns that grew from Gaem’s head quite clearly. “We are investigating the rumors of a powerful force mage that lives in the mountains. Fractured Mountains to be specific. On Frozen Pinnacle to be more specific. I agreed to travel with her because I agree with the quest. Not to mention she was the first person in a while to recognise what I was.” Although Gaem looked like a beast he was able to form his words as clearly as any human, and maybe even better than some of the ones that Dreekt had known from The Cave.
“Wow, he actually responded to you,” Carla said, surprised.
“That’s because he didn’t assume that Gaem was an animal like we did,” Julian commented. “Besides, if he did answer us it would probably tend to be angry remarks and never an answer to the questions we ask.”
“How wise they think they are,” said Gaem to Dreekt, “assuming they know how I would act when they don’t know me at all.”
“I’ve read a little about zarxii,” commented Dreekt,” and I was wondering if it’s true that you can switch between biped and quadruped.”
Gaem stared into Dreekt’s eyes then responded, “maybe one day you’ll find out for yourself.” He looked forward again and talked to Burner. “Your friend Ralo seems to have chosen an open minded young skravyn for us. No wonder you like the boy.”
“So, what are you?” Carla saw the look of confusion on Dreekt’s face and explained herself, “I mean what abilities do you have. I’m a ranger and Julian, though he won’t admit it, is a rogue. Gaem is a warrior of sorts, and Burner is a bard believe it or not.”
“Well, I can conjure things, so I guess I’m a conjuror.”
“But are you a channeler or a mage I wonder.”
“Are those the only options? All I know is that I can conjure things, and that my family cannot. I also don’t need to speak or sing to conjure, so we can assume that I’m not a bard. Right now I can only conjure small items like a small steak knife or a leaf.”
“A predisposition to magic is not required to make one magical,” Burner commented. “Though the child of two mages is more likely to be magical itself. I feel that this talk may be slowing us down, shall we keep it to a minimum?”
Burner didn’t slow or turn the when she commented. To Dreekt it seemed that she had sped up. Dreekt knew the lore of wicks as well as the next educated being. He also knew that if Burner had the feeling that she needed to go towards Fractured Mountains and investigate then she didn’t need much of an excuse. Time would have forced her forward even if no rumors had come.
Dreekt spoke up. “Part of the reason my family is moving to the ocean is they heard rumors of an exodus from Dark Under. There are stories of an increase of dark creatures attacking villages and even cities. More so than usual. I wanted to tell you last night, but it had slipped my mind.”
“That has nothing to do wi-” began Julian before Burner cut him off.
“That sounds important enough to look into, but first I want to see the force mage. He was what I heard about first, and I have a strange feeling about him.” She glared at Julian. “Don’t pretend to know what I find important. You agreed to travel under my direction, this is not a democracy.”
Just as Burner was finishing her comment a flurry began to make its way through the canopy of the forest.
“I think we need to camp beneath the trees tonight instead of a clearing. If the snow is falling under the thick canopy it’s probably pretty bad in a clearing,” Gaem observed. “Unless one of you is good at keeping a group warm while sleeping.”
“As long as we keep away from Mad Cedar we should be fine under the trees.” Carla looked around them. “I think we’re safe enough here, but anywhere further would probably be either a clearing or too close to the cedar.”
Mad Cedar was a tree that grew in the Dulz Thicket. At one point the forest must have been small, because it had definitely outgrown the definition of thicket. The tree that became Mad Cedar was rumored to be the tomb of a powerful plant mage. When the locals at that time, mostly humans, decided that they needed to cut down the whole thicket in order to build a city the plant mage made the cedar grow swiftly around herself and used the tree as an avatar. The mage was visible inside of a thin covering of bark and the tree uprooted itself and started to defend the thicket. One of the lumbermen threw the hatchet he had with him into the trunk of the cedar and it sunk into the mage’s chest, killing her. The cedar went berserk, and destroyed the entire village. After it finished the rampage it rooted in the center of town and slowly destroyed the cobble road over time. The path that now cuts through the Dulz Thicket skirts Mad Cedar widely, but travelers that sleep in the section of the path that gets closest to Mad Cedar will awaken under the tree. These travelers lose all sense of direction under the giant tree, and eventually die of starvation; or die by strangulation if they try to leave the area of the tree.
“Oh, I always thought Mad Cedar was a story told to hatchlings to keep them from wandering into forests alone. I didn’t know it was a real tree.” Dreekt was looking around like he would get a glimpse of the tree from his current location.
“If you really want to see it you can climb a tree,” Carla told him. “It’s the largest tree in Dulz Thicket so you won’t be able to miss it…if you’re looking northward from here that is.”
Dreekt looked for the closest tree he thought he could climb and started toward it.
“We won’t wait for you,” Burner told him. “You’ll have to catch up to us. Not that we’re going much further anyways, but you’ve been warned.”
Dreekt nodded at Burner, and dug his nails into the trunk of the tree to climb it. The trees in the forest were taller than he thought they were, and it took him almost half an hour to get above the canopy of trees. It also didn’t help that he had never actually climbed a tree before. When he looked northward to spot Mad Cedar he realized that the tree was only a few miles away, and that the path was only just starting to curve away from the tree. He climbed down the tree as fast as he could to go warn his new friends that they were in grave danger.