Alana struggled against the crude rope binding her wrists and feet together, cursing herself yet again for allowing these giants to have captured her. One guarded the cave entrance where she was being held, while the other two tended to a large fire outside over which they no doubt intended to roast her.
Some champion of justice I turned out to be, she thought to herself. Dinner for a bunch of one-eyed dimwits.
With the guard’s back turned to her, she agonized over the fact that her sword and shield were just of reach, merely a few arm’s lengths away.
“Need some help?”
Alana whipped her head around—and came face to face with a young boy who had seemingly appeared out of nowhere. At least, he looked like a boy, with one important distinction: he was floating. It was all she could do to stop from crying out in surprise and alerting her captors.
“Who...what are you?” she whispered. “How did you get here?”
His large eyes blinked several times. “The name’s Serif. I was sent down to give you a hand.” He set to work untying her bonds. “Looks like I’m just in time, too. You’re the one they call Stormforged, right?”
Alana grunted. “Not my finest hour, is it?”
“Hey, it happens to the best of us,” Serif replied cheerfully. “Why, just yesterday I got in huge trouble for jumping on my friend Cyril’s back and trying to ride him like a horse!”
“Sounds...unfortunate,” she stammered, still thoroughly confused. “And where did you say you came from, exactly?”
“Aura Kingdom, silly!” he exclaimed as he finished loosening the ropes. “Where all Eidolons come from, of course!”
Exasperated by the conversation, Alana held off on asking any further questions as she retrieved her gear.
“Well, Serif, I’m very grateful to you for the help.” She turned toward the giant guarding the cave, still ignorant of the unusual scene unfolding behind him. “But you might want to lay low for a bit, ‘cause this next part’s going to be rough...hey, wait!”
The giant finally turned around upon hearing her startled cry, just in time to see Serif flying toward his face in a blue and yellow blur. He whirled and swatted ineffectually at the fast-moving sprite as Serif flew circles around him, peppering him with punches from his tiny fists.
Alana reached the scene just as the other two giants did—and they all simply watched, slack-jawed, unsure of what to do.
Before long, the besieged giant staggered and fell to the ground—not from the force of Serif’s blows so much as the dizziness from spinning around while trying to keep up with him. For one brief, awkward moment, the human, Eidolon, and two remaining giants looked back and forth between one another.
Then all four charged at once. Serif resumed his previous strategy, but with less success; his new foe learned from his companion’s failure and stood his ground, absorbing Serif’s quick punches handily. Meanwhile, Alana squared off with the other giant, nicking him with sword slashes as he mercilessly rained blows down upon her shield.
Hey, I have an idea! Alana almost dropped her guard when she heard Serif’s voice. He hadn’t spoken, but was somehow communicating his thoughts to her. Yep, we’re bonded now. Better get used to it.
He quickly detailed what he wanted to do. Taking a few steps back, she glanced over at Serif and caught his eye. With a quick nod, she raised her shield and launched herself directly at her enemy. At the same time, Serif reached his hand up and charged it with a bolt of lightning, flinging himself with all his might at the other giant from the opposite direction.
Both human and Eidolon collided with their targets with explosive force, sending the two giants crashing into each other and knocking them both out cold. Panting, Serif dashed over to hover gently next to Alana’s side.
“Wow, I can’t believe that worked!” he said, beaming with pride.
Alana turned and gave him a smile. “Well buddy, I’m still not sure exactly what you are—but I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Our world is home to a nearly infinite variety of creatures, some vastly different from us and some more similar than one may think. There is one very old folk tale, in fact, about the origins of the Dwarves and Giants, which implies both races to be closely related to our own.
As the story goes, Humans were once the only people in all of Terra. Millennia ago—long before any documented history—scattered tribes of Humans dwelled in steep mountain cliffs, making their homes in caves along the cliff walls. They lived very simply, gathering fruits and berries and hunting small animals when the chance arose.
One day, while searching for food, a group of three friends noticed a faint glow coming from a peak that they had never seen before. Their natural curiosity drove them to the top of the peak, where they found an apple tree, a plum tree, and a pear tree.
They felt a friendly presence, and a wave of calmness settled over them. Though they had no language, each one of the three could feel the essence of Gaia flood their minds as the Goddess spoke to them directly. She told them that each one of the fruits offered a different gift, but they could only choose one.
The plum would bestow a keen intellect to its eater, while the pear would grant them great physical strength. The apple would impart a small measure of both. The three friends, each desiring a different boon, walked up to each tree and picked a different fruit. Taking a deep breath, they all bit down at once.
The one who had taken the plum gasped as his mind expanded. At the same time, however, his body shrunk to nearly half its original size. Ashamed, he tore off a strip of leather from his now oversized clothing and wrapped it around his face, which he would never again show to another living soul.
The one who ate the pear, conversely, increased in size. But his mind also grew foggy, and he could not form thoughts as well as before. It mattered little to him, though, as he was content to devour the rest of his chosen fruit to satiate the strong hunger that had taken hold of him.
As for the one who bit into the apple, well—his change was not so dramatic. In fact, he thought at first that he had been cheated. But true to the goddess’ promise, over time he developed a deeper understanding of the world. He found himself tougher and more agile than before. And above all, he gained boundless curiosity.
The three friends parted ways and did not see each other again. The smallest of the group ran off to the forest, where the Dwarves would eventually make their homes. The largest stayed in the mountains and spawned the race of Giants. And the Humans came down from their cave dwellings to settle in the plains, eventually spreading to become the most prosperous people in all of Terra.
Not long after the great capital of Navea was founded, the world saw its first significant conflict since the First War. Several outlying factions were opposed to the establishment of the city, afraid of losing valuable trade. And since the Church as we know it today was still in its infancy, the army that banded together to tear down Navea could not be met with equal numbers.
It was in this trying time that Janson the Sharp-eye found himself high up on the city walls, looking out upon the hundreds, if not thousands, gathered outside. The defense consisted of him, a modest squad of archers, and a handful of turrets that he had hastily constructed that morning. Not exactly a promising start.
But they did have one important advantage on their side: the Grenadier’s cannon, ready to see its first real action. The weapon was only a recent invention, and many had never heard of such a thing before, much less seen what it could do. As an Envoy of Gaia, Janson had already imbued some ammunition with elemental properties for extra punch.
At midday the siege began in earnest. The raiders rushed the gates while arrows flew back and forth from both the ground and the walls. Janson chose not to tip his hand too soon, letting his turrets engage in the initial battle for him. It was going well, all things considered, but soon enough the enemy’s superior numbers began to win out.
When they began to prop ladders up against the walls, it was time to spring into action. Janson leapt up to the edge and fired his first blast into the heart of the attacking forces. The attack certainly had its intended surprise effect, scattering all the nearby troops who at first had no idea what had just happened.
Janson turned his attention to a ladder nearby, loading up his cannon with some of his special ammunition. Pointing it straight down at the base of the wall, Janson let loose a mighty shot that lifted him several feet up into the air, and he came crashing down with a painful thud. But it was worth it, for the blast erupted into flame when it hit the ground, causing the ladder to catch fire and rendering it useless.
And so the fight went on for a short while. The Grenadier proved to be the secret weapon that Navea needed, disrupting the enemy’s ranks and keeping them from getting close to the gate. Eventually the troops on the ground retreated, or so it seemed. As they backed away from the walls, a cheer resounded from the city defenders.
Janson, however, was not so quick to celebrate. Scanning the scene below, he noticed something large and metallic moving steadily toward them. Pointing at the strange object, he shouted at the defenders to get back to their posts. The attackers fell in behind it, using the behemoth as a shield to slowly advance. The vehicle was covered in solid iron plates and steam rose from its rear. The engineer within Janson was fascinated and wanted to observe how it worked, but he knew his responsibility as an Envoy was to destroy it.
The rain of arrows that the defenders launched, of course, did nothing. They merely bounced harmlessly off the metal plating. Janson launched shot after shot as well, and though his cannon fire dented the armor in places, it seemed to have no effect on the vehicle’s progress.
They were almost at the gate when Janson remembered the remaining ammunition that he hadn’t yet used, because it was relatively less effective against infantry. He loaded up his cannon with the ammo, which crackled and glowed purple. Holding his breath, he aimed at the large target and fired. The projectile hit square in the front and instantly sent electricity coursing through the entire thing. Whatever powered it didn’t seem to agree with the electrical energy from his shot, and it began to slow and sputter. Janson fired once, then twice more, causing the monstrosity to finally grind to a halt.
When smoke began to billow up from its unmoving husk, confusion spread through the ranks once more, and they began to flee—this time for good. Wiping sweat from his bow, Janson sat down on the edge of the wall and observed his fallen foe while the victory cheers began again. As intermittent patches of flames began to burst forth from its metallic corpse, he felt a pang of regret knowing that he would never be able study that magnificent curiosity.
Lucina leapt lightly from rooftop to rooftop among the thatched huts of the Centaur encampment in the dead of night. Fortunately for the Gunslinger, the moon was full tonight and shone brightly enough that she could at least see a few steps in front of her.
Stealth definitely wasn’t Lucina’s style; she had always had a flair for the dramatic. But this assignment was of the utmost importance, and she knew full well that the less attention she drew to herself the better.
Her concentration was temporarily broken as she landed a tad too heavily on the edge of one roof, and her foot burst through the delicate straw and wood. Freezing momentarily, she glanced through the hole her foot had made and witnessed half a dozen Centaurs below, dozing away on their feet in that strange method of sleep. The small cluster of debris from her misstep clattered to the ground and caused the nearest one to grunt at the noise, but he remained asleep.
Letting out the breath that she didn’t realize she was holding, Lucina carefully withdrew her foot from the hole she had created and continued on. Finally, she reached the edge of the row of huts and dropped quietly to the ground. Peering back the way she came, she saw the handful of guards on night watch milling about on the road that she had just bypassed. The hard part, she thought, was over.
Sprinting up the hill in the back of the camp, she found a larger hut surrounded by the dense tree line of the nearby forest and ducked inside. Several cages with crude locks sat around the perimeter. And in a dimly lit corner, she found what she had been looking for: the nearby village chief’s kidnapped son, curled up and asleep in a cage. Not wanting to take any chances, Lucina grabbed a trap from her pouch and gingerly placed it at the hut’s entrance, covering it with a few handfuls of dirt.
Creeping up to the boy’s prison, she pondered how to open the lock without causing a commotion. As she fumbled with it, the boy stirred and his eyes opened. Lucina held a finger up to her lips, praying to Gaia that he would stay silent. Unfortunately, he was no more than five or six years old, and like most children that age, discretion was not his strong suit.
The boy squealed with delight at his rescuer, despite her frantic attempts to shush him. The nearest patrollers pacing around outside were sure to hear, and sure enough, by the time she finally got him to quiet down, she turned around to see a pair of centaurs emerging into the hut. For a moment, both parties stared at each other in surprise, processing the scene in front of them.
The centaurs moved first, bellowing and charging at Lucina with axes drawn. One of them luckily stepped on top of her trap, and let out a yelp as his feet were suddenly encased in a layer of ice that spread quickly up his body. In a matter of seconds, he was completely out of commission as the trap froze him solid.
Not even noticing his companion, the remaining centaur continued the assault and swatted at Lucina, who ducked and somersaulted away. Normally she would have fired a few salvos of bullets already, but the last thing she wanted to do was make even more noise and bring the entire camp down upon them.
But as she continued to duck and weave away from the centaur’s attacks, she knew it was a losing battle in these close quarters. Lucina made up her mind to fire one shot, and hoped it would count. Fishing around in her pouch while ducking another axe swing, she found the bullet she was looking for and loaded it up.
She rolled away and fired into her enemy’s flank. The angry centaur immediately stumbled and slowed down as the neurotoxin worked its magic in his bloodstream. With his eyes glazed over, he came to a stop and stared at Lucina in a stupor.
“Break that lock,” she commanded. “Quickly!”
The centaur obediently lifted up the butt of his axe and brought it down on the lock, smashing it to pieces. Lucina rushed in and grabbed the wide-eyed boy, tucking him under her arm as she made her way back outside. She could already hear shouts from down the hill from those who had heard her shot. Behind, the ice from the frost trap was already thawing and her victim began to twitch. The quick-acting neurotoxin was also beginning to wear off on the other.
“Think you can keep it down this time?” she asked the boy. He quickly nodded his agreement.
She grabbed him by the hand just as reinforcements began to lumber up the hill. Dashing into the thick woods, the two of them disappeared into the night, leaving a very perplexed congregation of centaurs in their wake.
In a small village south of Helonia Coast —so small, in fact, that it was little more than a trading hub for the nearby farming communities to exchange goods—a small woman with long flowing hair sat by a fountain strumming serene melodies for the passersby on her harp.
She introduced herself as Sunny to those who asked (not very many, as she had only arrived two days prior), but unbeknownst to them, she went by many names. A small plate meant for donations lay by her feet as she played. It had very few coins in it, but this was to be expected considering the relative wealth of her audience.
They found it strange that Sunny would pick this place to ply her trade, but they rather enjoyed the dulcet tones so they welcomed her company. Some of the more concerned inhabitants, however, warned her of recent troubles they had been having with a thieving ruffian who come through to bully and steal from the hapless farmers. It was no place for a poor young bard, they said.
Little did they know that tales of the thief were, in fact, precisely what brought her to the village in the first place. Disappointment had even started to set in as Sunny had seen no trace of the man yet. But finally, late in the afternoon of her third day, a commotion stirred just down the street from her and she saw him: armed with a short sword and haphazardly clad in pieces of dirty iron armor, he grabbed a terrified old fruit vendor by the collar and demanded all his coin.
The townspeople that remained in the area scattered, some running by Sunny and telling her to pack up and leave while she still could. Instead, she left her collection plate and sauntered straight up to her quarry just as he threw the old man unceremoniously to the ground.
“Next time you’d better be carrying more, or I might take a finger or two instead,” the thief guffawed. He turned and nearly bumped into Sunny, only just noticing the unassuming harpist standing in his way.
“What are you doing, girl? Lookin’ to part with your money too?”
Though she only came up to his shoulders, Sunny smirked at the rogue with all the confidence of a trained gladiator.
“I just wanted to play you a song.” Holding up her harp, she plucked several notes just inches from his face. Unlike the music she played throughout the day, this tune was harsh and unnerving.
He lurched backward as if in pain, then let out a growl as he swiped at the instrument. Sunny lightly stepped backward and continued to play the strange song as it increased in tempo. She twirled around him as he covered an ear with one hand and swiped ineffectually with his sword with the other. Passing by the fruit vendor, she took a moment to play a few softer notes which seemed to instantly soothe his aches and pains.
The thief was on his knees now, crying out for it to stop. But the song swelled as it reached a crescendo, and it overwhelmed his senses more than any physical attack ever could. As she reached the coda, he simply couldn't take any more and passed out in the middle of the street.
With some strands of rope that she carried hidden in her dress, she quickly and efficiently bound his hands and feet and brought around the small cart that she had rode in on.
“Is anyone going to help me lift this idiot?” she asked, addressing the crowd of slack-jawed gawkers watching the scene. “I can’t really get him to the proper authorities if I can’t get him in the cart, now can I?”
Several of the men rushed over to pick up their fallen tormentor for the diminutive Bard, and one offered to pull the cart for her on the way to Helonia Town. Scooping up the collection plate, Sunny hopped in and rode off down the coast, already thinking about where she would find her next audience.
The length of his latest journey had been so great that Merek’s modest home felt oddly unfamiliar. Placing his grimoire on the nightstand, the veteran Sorcerer leaned back onto the bed and closed his eyes to meditate. Lately it seemed as though ill-intentioned people and monsters were cropping up faster than they could be dealt with; his days were full of more and more fighting and less time to rest and recuperate.
More worrisome to Merek, however, was the effect it was having on his own state of mind. He wielded his dark magic with a righteous purpose in the name of Gaia, but it nevertheless was taxing on one’s soul. All students of magic heard from an early age the whispered stories of those unfortunate few who lacked the constitution to keep the darkness in check...the ones who let it consume them. There were times that Merek wished he was more proficient with the blade or gun rather than spell-weaving.
While he was lost in thought, he slowly became aware of a low voice at the edge of his consciousness. It spoke in a whisper too quiet to understand, and at first he dismissed it as coming from his imagination and lack of sleep. But it persisted, and he finally got up to investigate.
The whispers seemed to emanate from outside his window, so he grabbed his grimoire and cautiously opened the door. The whispers grew louder with each step Merek took into the crisp night air.
“Who’s there?” he inquired, a handful of spells already on the tip of his tongue if necessary.
Nobody...only you... He heard the words pierce through the veil of whispers, but he couldn’t tell if they were audible or only in his head.
Merek spun around, searching for a sign of anyone nearby. But there was only darkness all around him—even the house had seemed to disappear into the void that now swallowed him up.
“Stop it!” he shouted, dropping the grimoire and covering his ears. “Whoever you are, you’re not welcome here!”
The whispers ceased, and Merek began to make out the faint outline of a figure standing before him. Its face remained shrouded, but Merek didn’t need to see it to know who it was.
I don’t need to be welcome. I will always be here, as long as you are.
He heard the words in his own voice, taunting him. The figure reached forward with its hand, and a blast of shadow magic slammed into Merek’s chest. He fell to the ground, gasping for air. The apparition attacked again and again, each volley weakening Merek’s resolve. He grasped for his grimoire, the only weapon he had ever known.
Useless. The pages of that book, like your life, are steeped only in darkness.
Merek furrowed his brow at that. He thought back to the proudest moment in his life, and it had nothing to do with his magical skill or victory in battle. It was the day he was chosen to be an Envoy. He remembered the light of Gaia fill his mind and soul, soothing him and giving purpose to a young man who had been lost and aimless.
“You’re wrong,” Merek stated, getting back to his feet. “There is balance in me, just as there is in all things.”
An intense light burst forth as he opened the grimoire. Channeling his life force, Merek sent the energy coursing through the phantom before him. It writhed and twisted, glowing brighter, and evaporated with a mournful wail as the light engulfed everything around them—
Merek’s eyes fluttered open and he bolted up in his bed. His grimoire still sat by him on the nightstand, and the only sound from outside was the faint hum of crickets. Everything was normal—so wonderfully normal—and Merek slowly lowered himself back down to his pillow.
After vanquishing his own inner demons, he knew that he could handle any challenge that came his way. For the first time in recent memory, Merek was comfortable enough to allow himself some well-deserved and restful sleep.
Another heavy gust of wind pitched the ship forward through chopping waves, and Catlin had to lean on her staff and take a long, deep breath. The young woman thought again to herself, for perhaps the hundredth time in the past few days, about how silly it was that she could control the very elements of Terra itself and still manage to get sick from the rocking of a boat.
The strong winds that had followed them on the voyage certainly didn’t help. Catlin swore to herself that once they reached port she would never again leave solid ground. She had never been a “sea person,” but she grudgingly agreed to protect the ship on its way to the newly established Port Skandia at the behest of her longtime friend, who had just recently been elected as the burgeoning town’s first mayor.
Several ships bearing supplies and construction materials had gone missing recently while en route to the destination. Rumors went around claiming it was the work of an angry sea monster or a rogue demon. Whatever the cause, Catlin certainly felt in no shape to be doing battle with even a Tanuki, much less some supernatural beast.
And as if on cue, an alarmed shout came down from the crow’s nest as she finished that thought. The crewmen all rushed to starboard at once, chattering loudly and forcing Catlin to hold back another gag as the ship leaned with the sudden shift in weight. After catching her breath, she looked up to see the source of the commotion and beheld the answer to the mysteriously disappearing ships: pirates.
The scoundrels had never ventured into these waters before, but they must have been emboldened by the success of their previous raids. With black-striped flags unfurled, the enemy ship emerged from behind the cover of some nearby rocks and flew straight towards Catlin’s vessel. The pirates would be upon them in minutes, but they surely were not expecting a very powerful (and very nauseous) Wizard to be on board.
Forcing herself to focus, Catlin took the initiative. Stumbling to the side of the ship, she pointed her staff directly at the attackers and let loose a single fireball to act as a warning shot. The flaming projectile streaked past the pirate ship and hissed as it plunged into the water nearby, but they made no move to break off their attack.
Realizing this would take more effort, Catlin began to twirl her staff in a circle above her head, hoping that a small localized windstorm in her own ship’s sails would put some much-needed distance between them. While this did indeed propel the ship faster, she also instantly regretted it as the sudden movement once again made her stomach turn.
It also wasn’t enough, as the pirates had now come within range to fire some shots of their own. With flaming cannonballs peppering the sea and her own handiwork spinning and shaking the ship even faster, Catlin knew she had to put an end to this or she would very soon be out of commission. Seeing the pirates very close to them now, she stood up as tall as she could and lifted her staff straight up to the sky.
First one solitary bolt of lightning came down and split their main mast. Then another struck, and another, lighting the pirate ship aflame and sending the panicked buccaneers scurrying to put it out. Some decided to forgo that and ran straight for the life boats.
Meanwhile, Catlin’s ship sailed away from the ambush and got safely back on course—until someone spotted smoke billowing up from the bow. Hearing the cries of the distressed sailors, Catlin managed to inch her way to the scene and spotted a small patch of fire in the hull where one of the pirates’ shots had hit their mark. With an exasperated sigh, she held out her palm and launched a small bolt of ice to extinguish it.
The sailors erupted in loud cheers at their savior, which only served to amplify her nausea. Exhausted and unable to stay on her feet any longer, Catlin fell backward and passed out right in the middle of the deck, where she would sleep fitfully the rest of the way to Port Skandia.
A small, compact figure crashed through the underbrush at breakneck speed. Shouts and spears followed in his wake, but Darrik hadn’t earned a reputation as the world’s fastest Duelist for nothing. He outpaced his angered pursuers handily, his prize tucked safely under his arm.
Darrik wasn’t sure what the artifact was exactly—some kind of jeweled and ornately carved urn, perhaps?—but he knew the grubby thieves he was sent to recover it from didn’t have any right to it. He had been driven by a strong moral code ever since he was chosen as an Envoy, but he had no qualms about stealing from thieves.
With the sounds of his pursuers already out of earshot, he burst out of the foliage and faced his last obstacle before freedom. The yawning chasm and rickety rope bridge above it didn’t faze a compulsive thrill-seeker like Darrik in the slightest; the hulking brute guarding it, however, posed a slight problem.
“Hand it over, and I may let you crawl out of here with only a broken leg or two,” taunted the muscle-bound guard.
Darrik lightly placed the relic on the ground beside him and drew his daggers.
“It belongs in a museum!” he shouted, receiving an awkward stare in return. “...in Navea!” he added for good measure.
The guard wasted no time lunging at Darrik, but the smaller man sidestepped and dodged the attack handily. Darrik knew he had to be careful; despite his opponent having no weapon, if the oaf caught him with those huge mitts, a broken leg would be the least of his problems. Again the enemy charged wildly, and again Darrik tumbled out of the way.
Despite the giant goon’s lack of grace, he clearly had a lot of fighting experience. He didn’t leave any vital areas exposed, and Darrik was unable to do more than occasionally scratch the man with his daggers. The longer this went on, the more likely the Duelist was to make a mistake. In need of a new strategy, he flipped backward to make some space between them.
Instead of immediately following, the bridge guard took the chance to grab his prize off the ground—exactly what Darrik was hoping for. He used the precious few seconds to open a pouch on his belt and lightly dip one of his daggers into it.
Roaring in triumph, the guard held the artifact behind his back and steadied himself as Darrik charged him head-on. Instead of a direct attack, however, Darrik twisted out of the way at the last second and barely grazed a dagger above his enemy’s knee. The guard cried out in shock and crumpled to the ground clutching his leg, just as Darrik kicked the artifact out of his hand and grabbed it in mid-air.
“You might want to see a doctor soon,” Darrik said with a smirk. “That numbing poison can put a limb out of commission for days if it isn’t treated. But hey, at least it’s not broken!”
And with that, Darrik was home free, sprinting down the bridge while his fallen adversary bellowed in anger about not fighting fair.
Incidentally, the artifact in question turned out to be a very unnecessarily lavish chamber pot from the House of Galdir the Sly, and is still on display here in Navea...if you have an interest in such things.
Perched atop the moving carriage, great axe balanced carefully across his lap, Linus had lots of time to think in peace. He was not a big fan of that. While not an especially violent person by nature (despite his reputation as one of the world’s most skilled Ravagers), he found prolonged periods of inaction quite uncomfortable.
Still, protecting the carriage and its cargo was the job he had accepted, and he made no complaints. It had been decades since a serious threat had befallen the realm, and Envoys of Gaia these days were used to relatively minor tasks. Linus had no desire to see his home in danger, but he also could not help hoping for a chance to one day make a real difference.
A cry from below snapped him out of his reverie. He quickly scanned the area—a tree had been felled in the middle of the road to block the carriage’s path, and a pack of five Makar had emerged from the brush off to the side. They hadn’t noticed him yet, and Linus stayed low as they approached to keep that advantage for as long as possible. He heard the sound of a child crying from below.
The attackers snarled, shaking their shaggy manes and brandishing gnarled clubs. One of them reached into the carriage and hurled a frightened man to the ground. Makar usually went straight for the supplies and didn’t harm anyone unless they got in the way, but these seemed to be a particularly nasty bunch. As they converged on the helpless man and the child’s wailing grew louder, Linus sprang into action.
Landing just behind the nearest attacker, Linus brought up the butt of his axe and swatted him aside with a powerful swipe. The others whipped around with startled growls as their companion crashed to the ground. Linus leapt backward, drawing them away from the man and into open ground—ideal terrain for a Ravager to do what he does best.
Holding his ground, he waited for the beast-men to make the next move. They slowly encircled him, believing they now held the upper hand. Several tense heartbeats passed as Linus eyed each of his enemies. Finally, one of them charged forward and all at once they recklessly swung their clubs at him. They only caught empty air, however, as Linus deftly launched upward and hefted his axe over his head, crashing down upon them with the force of an earthquake.
The next few moments were a whirlwind of glinting steel, splintered wood, and tufts of fur as Linus spun and twirled his axe as if it were an extension of himself. In that brief time his mind was clear and his focus pure, unburdened by any thoughts other than the battle at hand. Then the deadly dance ended as suddenly as it had begun, and its performer stood alone amongst his motionless opponents.
The first beast-man dizzily got to his feet and took stock of the scene before him; one glance at his fallen companions was enough to send him bolting back to the trees. With the survivor sure to spread the word of the encounter, Linus felt satisfied that the route would be safe—for a few weeks, at least.
The other man had already recovered and rushed back to the carriage, embracing a very relieved little girl. As Linus lifted himself back up to the top of the carriage, his eyes briefly met the child’s. Though it was still wet with tears, he could see the elation clearly in her face. With a quick nod and the slightest of smiles, he resumed his vigil above.
But this time he was at peace, for although it had only been a minor battle, at least for today he felt like he had made all the difference in the world.
As she walked through the streets approaching her father’s stronghold, Alana barely noticed the slowly gathering crowd of townsfolk and their awed whispers following her. She had not been gone long enough for them to forget her face, despite the armor and determined stare that she now wore.
The skies roiled especially fiercely on this day, but her attention was more on her own thoughts than her surroundings. The young woman still held out hope that somewhere in his embittered heart, a part of her father might be willing to listen to her, to right the wrongs that he had so callously inflicted.
When Alana arrived at the gates, she was surprised to see her father there, waiting for her with hands clasped behind his back. The rumors of her return had clearly preceded her arrival. Ignoring the loathsome demons at his side, she strode up and knelt before him.
“It’s been a long time, father,” she began, her head bowed. “I’m glad...I was hoping you would be willing to speak to me—to hear where I’ve been.”
Galdir stood motionless for several moments; the only sound between them the intermittent thunder from the storm clouds above.
“To speak to you...” he muttered. “No, Alana, you have it wrong. I am only here to see if it was truly you. To see if those two-faced bandits failed to do the job that they were paid to do.”
Alana’s head rose, her eyes wide.
“You...no, you couldn’t have...” she sputtered.
“Believe it, my daughter,” he spat. “I could no longer stand your presence in my home, and seeing you here only reminds me of that all the more.”
Alana rose to her feet—first in anger, then in sadness as she faced her father. He removed his hands from behind his back, and revealed the soft glow of the Cube of Gaia in his grip.
“Now it is past time that I did this myself,” he sneered. “You’ve burdened me for far too long. I hate you.”
Alana, knowing the end was imminent, met Galdir’s smoldering gaze head-on.
“And I pity you,” she replied.
At that moment the Cube grew infinitely brighter, shining forth with the intensity of the sun itself. Galdir screamed and dropped it to the ground as it burned his hands. The demon guards around him howled and disappeared. Bewildered, Alana heard a faint voice in the recesses of her mind.
The world has been waiting for you, child. You, who stand in the face of darkness for something greater than yourself. You will shine as a beacon to them all—a true Guardian of the land. From this moment forward, you will be an Envoy of Gaia. You are the first. But you will not be the last.
As the voice faded, so too did the light from the Cube, until it returned to its usual cool glow. Galdir was now the one kneeling as the pain receded and his daughter picked up the Cube, towering over him. He looked up at her, waiting for her to strike him down with the same fury he had just possessed.
“Leave here,” she commanded him. “And never show your face in this land again.”
He opened his mouth to plead with her, but couldn’t utter a word as the combined guilt and shame of all his past deeds crashed over him in a single unbearable wave. Galdir shuffled past his daughter and silently plodded away from the seat of power that he held mere moments ago. Without the Cube of Gaia at his disposal, the former tyrant faded into obscurity and was never heard from again.
And the endless storms that had plagued the land for so many years receded with him. As a bright ray of sunshine pierced through the clouds at long last, Alana the Stormforged gazed out upon a world that was ready to grow into a brighter, happier, and more extraordinary place.
Galdir’s first and only child was his opposite in almost every way. Alana the Stormforged was athletic and soft-spoken, exuding a quiet calmness that soothed all in her company. Even her father, who had grown even more despotic after seizing power, attempted to behave more benevolently after Alana had been born.
Little is known about Alana’s mother, other than that she passed away due to a mysterious illness. It’s suspected that the illness was connected in some way to the demonic presence that Galdir had unleashed. Regardless, everything changed after she was gone. Alana grew more disturbed by the army of demons that her father had raised, despite his efforts to keep them out of sight within the fortress walls. And Galdir, who had always intended for a son to carry on his legacy, grew distant and resentful of his daughter.
When she was 17, Alana departed on a trip to the nearby villages. Rarely having spent any time outside the fortress, she was keen on learning more about the world—and she got her first lesson sooner than expected.
A group of bandits attacked and overwhelmed her caravan on the outskirts of the first village. In the confusion, Alana ran from the ambush and very nearly escaped, only to be cut off by a pair of brutes just a few paces from the village gates. Just when she thought all hope was lost, a large man in a grimy smock appeared from behind the gates and knocked the bandits senseless with the largest hammer Alana had ever seen.
Her rescuer, the resident blacksmith, took Alana in to get her cleaned up. Everyone in town greatly enjoyed her company (though she kept her true identity a secret), and she graciously accepted their offer to stay with them until her father sent a rescue party. Every morning she looked out her window to see if they had come...and every morning there was no one there.
Weeks passed, and Alana grew concerned. Perhaps the capital is under attack? That’s the only way father would be unable to send help, she reasoned. But there was no such news, and as the weeks turned into months she gradually accepted the truth: no one was coming because her father simply chose not to send anyone. And while she could have set out to return herself, she somehow felt more comfortable in these humble surroundings than she ever did at home.
To pass the days, she trained with the local guards to hone her skill with the sword and shield. She had already trained briefly under a master swordsman before leaving home, and she enjoyed the thrill of combat and camaraderie with her new friends. In a year’s time, her raw talent and tireless training made her the most capable fighter in the village.
And during that time, she saw the failings of her father’s empire: the people all around her lived in poverty without any means to pull themselves out of it. Collectors came every week to take food and goods from the village, barely leaving enough for them to survive. Able-bodied men were regularly taken away to fight on some distant front for more meaningless territory.
The more Alana learned about the world under Galdir’s rule, the more she realized that it had to end. She needed to confront her father—not just over her abandonment, but the abandonment of everyone in his empire. And so one morning, two years after her arrival, the young woman slung a shield over her back and packed a meager amount of supplies. She set off down the road, leaving her new home to seek an unknown fate at her old one.
The Church’s earliest historical records date back to nearly 1,000 years ago when the Cube of Gaia was first discovered, though none can say how old the Cube is itself. The prevailing thought is that it came into being with the very creation of Azuria, and is tied to the existence of the three realms.
Early civilization, of course, cared little for theories. They only knew one very important thing: the Cube meant power, more power than any of them could fully comprehend. The First War began and ended only a few short months after the Cube was found, though casualties were quite high nevertheless.
The victor was, unsurprisingly, the same group that found the cube in the first place: a large nomadic tribe of warlike humans led by an imposing mountain of a man named Targus. With the Cube of Gaia in his hands, he had little trouble conquering the surrounding lands. Other races, even those that disliked each other in those days such as the Varan and the Makar, joined together against their common foe.
But the warlord Targus could not be stopped. Tales arose of his otherworldly powers on the field of battle with the Cube in his possession. Some stories say that he could freeze entire armies in their tracks, while others attest that lightning struck at his beck and call. One account even claims that he once slowed the flow of time...but whether such anecdotes are accurate or embellished no one can say.
Yet despite his triumphs, Targus ended up merely a footnote to the true winner of the First War—Galdir the Sly. Small and frail from birth, Galdir compensated for his physical weakness by befriending Targus at a young age and becoming his confidant and advisor. By most accounts, it was Galdir who orchestrated nearly every victory while Targus enjoyed the glory.
After the war’s conclusion, the tribe gave up their nomadic ways and established the First Empire. Fear of the Cube of Gaia kept the people in check, but it was not enough for Targus. He wanted love and adoration from them—the only things he could not take by force. Galdir recognized this, and convinced Targus to let him study the Cube in search of a way to bend a person’s thoughts.
At first the warlord kept a watchful eye over Galdir during his research, not trusting even his childhood friend with such a task. But time and desperation slowly eroded his caution, and he grew complacent. In the end, Galdir never learned how to control a mind, but he did discover something just as dangerous.
Early one morning beneath the cover of darkness, creatures from Pandemonium appeared in Targus’ stronghold. In his last moments, he called all able-bodied men to his defense and ran straight for the Cube’s chamber...only to find Galdir there with a cold sneer on his face, flanked by towering demons under his command. By the time the sun had risen, Galdir’s betrayal was complete, and the empire built by his former friend was under his control.
With his newfound army, Galdir’s grip on the land tightened even further. It’s said that the sky was cloaked by storm clouds that never once parted under his reign, which is why the era of the First Empire is also known as the Age of Storms. They would not clear until Galdir the Sly’s house was undone from within—but that is a story for another time.
Welcome friends! Please, pull up a chair, for I have much to share about this strange and wondrous world we call home.
Ah, forgive me—in my haste I have forgotten to make a proper introduction. My name is Silas Finian, and within the walls of Navea I have the good fortune to be considered to be one of the foremost scholars and historians by my peers. I was told that you came here seeking guidance, to learn the lessons of our forebears before embarking on your own adventure. While I myself do not have the constitution for clashing steel with the many creatures who roam this land, I appreciate your thirst for knowledge all the same.
When I was just a young boy, my family spent summers with my grandfather at his modest villa—not far from Port Skandia. My grandfather and I used to play games on the porch overlooking truly majestic plains that stretched out far to the horizon and well beyond.
One day, I noticed a young hunter in the distance stalking a wolf. A second wolf, however, lurked silently in the grass behind him. Alarmed, I shouted to my grandfather that the man was in danger—but he simply laid his hand on my shoulder and told me to watch. After several moments (in which I’m not entirely sure I remembered to breathe), the second wolf leapt at the hunter. But in a sudden flash, the wolf crumpled to the ground, while the first ran off in fear.
“You see,” my grandfather explained, “hunters on this prairie have learned that these wolves hunt in packs of two. They deceive their larger prey by having one of them out in the open, while the other moves in stealth and attacks. The hunters now use this tactic against them, baiting the second wolf out and using a trap to ensnare it.”
It was in that moment that I decided to become a scholar. We can only hope to thrive in this world by studying the past and learning from it. Please, continue to visit me in the coming weeks while I gather our greatest stories for you. When you are out there, exploring Terra, and the time comes for you to take decisive action—I hope that you will use these lessons to make the right choice for us all.