It was late, and Marent and Amnestria had gone to sleep. Oskar had the first watch, but the bard appeared to be too excited with his new prize to sleep. He sat on his side of the fire, one hand on the strings, eyes closed. He said that he needed to get to know the instrument better, to learn more about it’s abilities.
The thing did glow slightly, Oskar was sure of it. He’d only seen it in the glow from a torch, sunlight, and the fire’s flicker, but he was certain that it gave off a faint golden aura that wasn’t entirely due to reflection.
The collapse wasn’t actually that bad. A few large chunks of the cave’s ceiling had fallen, and a shower of dirt rained down on top of the large chunks of stone. They had managed to gather most of the loose gems and coin, and none of them considered it worth the effort to excavate the cave for the small amount left inside.
They had filled their bags to near bursting by the time Marent called a halt to their gathering, and they pulled out of the cave. All in all, they’d made out like bandits. Oskar’s magically reinforced bag allowed him to carry much more than should logically fit into the available space, without being burdened with the extra weight. He’d filled that bag with coins, gemstones, and small golden or silver figures. He’d even found a few books in the cave, and though most of them had suffered extensive water damage, a few had made it out just fine.
Oskar sat close to the fire and attempted to make out the script from an elaborately illuminated gnomish tome, though the tiny lettering was done so ornately that he eventually closed the book with a sigh. He’d need a brighter setting – or complete darkness – to make any sense of it.
Rando had opened his eyes, and though he still held the lyre, he wasn’t fondling it anymore. He shifted and fidgeted on his side of the fire. He looked like he wanted to ask something, but refrained. Perhaps he was still unsure around Oskar? Well, Oskar thought to himself. I owe the man. Might as well get it over with.
Oskar pulled out a flask as he replaced the book in his pack, and moved around to Rando’s side. He settled down facing away, putting the fire at his back. Opening the flask, Oskar took a long drink before passing it over.
Rando looked surprised, but accepted, taking a small drink. He coughed, then took another sip before passing it back. They sat in silence for awhile, sharing the whiskey, before Rando gained enough confidence to speak.
“So… I, well.” He cleared his throat. “I know you don’t like me. I’ve tried to make the best of it, pretend I don’t notice, but it’s obvious. Things seemed to change this afternoon though, so maybe you won’t mind my questions so much. Marent and Amnestria thought I’d better not ask though, so-”
“Yer rambling,” Oskar interjected mildly. “Aye, I didna care for the way ye’ve been bothering Ness, but it seems like ye’ve learned yer lesson after breakfast?”
Rando looked away. “Yes. I-yes. I’m sorry. I should apologize to her tomorrow. I’d consider giving her some of the gems I gathered on the way out of the cave but that would probably imply something I didn’t really mean. Better to go with a simple apology, right?”
“Gi’ the lass a stick,” Oskar advised. He tilted his head back, draining the last of the liquor from the flask before capping it and putting it away. He looked at their pile of firewood, and nudged a lengthy specimen with his boot. “That one’ll do.”
“A stick. Okay.” Rando nodded, though his face expressed his confusion as he bent forward and picked up the selected branch. He held it up, eyeing it in the firelight. “What’s the purpose of the stick?”
“Tell her she has yer permission to break it over yer head if you forget yerself again.” Oskar stood, moving away from the fire as Rando laughed ruefully. “Back in a moment.”
Oskar moved through the trees, checking their perimeter. He knew the questions the man was going to ask, and felt slightly uneasy. He’d always regretted never knowing his birth parents, and he wasn’t looking forward to sharing intimate details of his history with a man he barely knew.
Oskar looked around carefully before opening his pants and relieving himself. He watched an owl fly silently through the forest, diving for some small animal before arcing back into the trees. The forest was quiet otherwise.
He put his clothes back in order, and continued around the campsite. The leaves covering the forest floor made silence impossible, but Oskar attempted to move quietly anyway. Tramping around too loudly would wake Ness, who slept extremely lightly, and she’d be annoyed with him. All quiet. No point in putting it off any longer. He passed behind the tents, and moved back in towards the center of camp. He walked back to the fire and nodded to Rando as he sat again.
“Aye then. Ye’ve questions. Ask.”
Rando took a deep breath, looking at Oskar before glancing away. He stared into the fire, gathering his thoughts.
Ruinin’ his night eyes, Oskar thought as he gazed at the dark treeline. He’ll be useless if we’re attacked.
“Alright. Well, I must admit that I’m fascinated by you. Your magical and martial abilities mesh in a way I’ve never seen before. I have read about something like this before though. Have you ever heard of the Bloodragers of old?”
“Aye, I had a teacher. He taught me how t’ control the rages, keep em in check. When I first went t’ him, I couldna remember what went on while I was... mad. Couldna control myself at all. More likely to hurt my friends than do any good in battle.” Oskar leaned back, looking at the stars. “Dorin mentioned the Bloodragers. Didna tell me much about em though. Just that I must be descended from some dragon or somethin’ t’ be able t’ rage and cast spells at the same time.”
“Not a dragon,” Rando interjected. Oskar looked back at the bard. “I...well, I know a bit. If it was a dragon, you’d have wings instead of chains, and breathe fire or ice. I have no idea what type of entity is associated with chains. That’s why I wanted to ask you about yourself. You must be the first Bloodrager in living memory; I’d be remiss in my duties as head of the Bardic College if I didn’t--”
“Wait, yer in charge of the college?” Oskar was surprised. The man was so young. Then again, he did seem extremely competent, if a bit fool-headed. “I thought yer grandfather was the leader?”
“Well, yes. My grandfather mentored me from a young age, always expecting me to grow up and take over for him. When he died, I had to finish my training elsewhere, but I always viewed the college as sort of a... birthright.” Rando was moving his hands gently over the strings of the lyre. He wasn’t strumming, but the instrument still gave off a faint, barely audible thrumming sound as he caressed it. “I joined as soon as they’d have me, and never stopped studying and practicing until I was the best. This lyre is called the Storuum. It means fable, in some ancient languages. It could also be derived from--”
Oskar waved a hand. “I dinna need the etymology. Suffice it to say it’s powerful?”
“Oh yes,” Rando gazed lovingly down again. “They reproduced it, of course. A cheap replica only partially enchanted. I couldn’t settle for that. The Storuum was the only instrument worthy to represent the entire Bardic College. It’s more a symbol of the College than I could ever hope to be.”
Rando adjusted on his seat. “I’m getting off track. Yes, I’m aware of some few writings that document Bloodragers, but there isn’t much material available. I’d like to change that. I’ll keep your name out of it if you wish, but to be able to add new information to the archives...”
Oskar considered. It couldn’t hurt. He didn’t know much himself, but he would share what he could.
“What do you know already, about me specifically?” Oskar asked, glancing back out at the trees. “I know ye’ve been asking the others, I’m not angry about it. I just don’t want to waste time repeatin’ things you already know.”
“Well, Amnestria told me you started raging a few decades ago,” Rando seemed hesitant. “And that you were just a plain sorcerer before that. You didn’t wield your hammer under after---”
Rando stopped, looking chagrined, and Oskar sighed. “She told you about the cave-in?”
“Well, no, just that you were injured.” Rando was quick to jump to Amnestria’s defense. “She didn’t give me any personal details, don’t think--”
“I trust Amnestria. If she told you anything, she did so after considering what I’d prefer not t’ be spread around, I have no doubt about it. So what did Marent say?”
Rando shifted again, still uncomfortable. “At first I wanted to know your family history, so I could try to track your ancestry and try to determine your bloodline’s influence. I thought that if I can ferret that out, I could perhaps help you unlock more power, more special abilities. Marent told me that you were adopted and don’t remember anything, so I guess that’s a dead end?”
“Aye, my parents were never able t’ determine where I’d come from. There weren’t even any tracks leading away from where they’d found me on the road.” Oskar sighed. “I’m not sure if there really were no tracks, or if the scouts were just drunk that day.”
“Well, if tracking your history is fruitless, I’d settle for knowing more about you. How about that time you were injured? That was the first time you raged? Maybe I could piece together what sparked that first instance of anger pure enough to--”
“Aye,” Oskar stood, and Rando fell silent. Moving over to his pack again, Oskar pulled out another flask, and returned to his seat. He drank deeply before passing the whiskey to Rando. “Gi’ me a moment t’ collect my thoughts. That was about twenty-five, no, twenty-seven years ago, in ‘65. I was twenty-two years old. Havena thought about it in awhile.”
Rando nodded, and lifted the flask. “Well, take your time, I’m not going anywhere.
Oskar leaned back again, gazing up at the stars. He saw the Lover, and the Dancer. The Dancer was almost gone, in a week or so she'd no longer be visible in the sky. He'd have to make sure to show Marent.
"We'd found a family, dead by the roadside." Oskar began in a rush, almost before he knew he was speaking. "They'd been murdered, and Amnestria found tracks leading away. She set the two of us by the trail to watch, and scouted ahead..."
Late Autumn, Year 565
Oskar and Marent crouched in the bushes. Amnestria had left them almost twenty minutes ago to scout ahead, and Oskar was getting restless. He shifted, causing leaves to crackle as his weight settled. He froze in place, leg twitching, glancing at Marent’s still form. The dwarf’s much more athletic build allowed him to crouch in place without any problems. Oskar’s legs, however, were burning with the effort. He wasn’t used to it. Marent looked over at Oskar, raising a brow.
Oskar shook his head, trying out one of the new hand signs Amnestria had begun to teach them. Everything fine, proceed.
Marent tilted his head in confusion, and Oskar wondered if he’d flubbed the motions or if Marent had misunderstood. He shook his head, looking back down to the path below, and shifting again.
Marent moved, settling down quietly into a sitting position, glancing at Oskar as he did so. Oskar looked around carefully before lowering himself as well, breathing a sigh of relief as his aching legs stretched out. He nodded in gratitude at Marent, knowing the dwarf had sat so that Oskar wouldn’t feel obliged to keep crouching.
Oskar wasn’t out of shape, per se, but he wasn’t nearly as fit as Marent. The dwarf had apparently been a soldier before Oskar had even been born, and had worked as a mercenary for years before he met Oskar. Oskar, on the other hand, had spent his life riding a wagon, studying spellcasting, reading books for fun, and serving drinks at a bar in Vorum. These activities didn’t exactly lead to a muscled body, and Oskar always felt as if his traveling hides and spellcaster’s coat swallowed his slender form.
The two peered down at the trail in silence. They’d been set to watch for any travelers while Amnestria followed the tracks they’d encountered after coming upon the dead family by the roadside. They had an appointment in three days time, but neither of them had protested when Amnestria had decided that they would track down the bandits responsible.
Oskar turned, glancing around the forest. He jumped, gasping a quick breath before settling. Marent jerked around, yanking his hammer off of his belt. Oskar glared. “Dammit lass, don’t do that!”
Amnestria looked between the two of them as she sat there, three feet behind them, looking irritated. “I can’t believe you didn’t hear me. I wasn’t even trying to be quiet! I stepped on sticks. I coughed. I damn near sang a dirty song coming up behind you. One of these days I’m going to come back to find you both with throats slit-”
“We were watchin’ the trail,” Marent protested. “Ye told us to watch the trail. you didna say anythin’ about listenin’ for twigs an’ coughs.”
“Always listen to the forest. The birds stopped singing before I got to within thirty feet of you. That itself should have put you on guard, and – never mind. Come on, I’ve found them.”
“Th’ bandits?” Oskar jumped up, face hardening at the thought of finding those bastards. That murdered woman had been pregnant. He relished the thought of dispensing justice. “How many? How well equipped? Do they have any prisoners, or can I just fireball the camp?”
Amnestria simply shook her head, and led them on through the woods, ignoring Oskar’s eager questions.
The three friends stood side by side, staring down. There were five bandits, three men, two women. Oskar saw signs of horses as well, but they were long gone. The fire had burned out, the pot of stew blackened and smelling strongly of burnt food.
“What happened t’ them?” Marent asked quietly, looking around. He started eyeing the treeline, apparently unnerved enough at the situation to watch for threats without even being told to first. Amnestria nodded in approval.
“Let’s see if you can figure it out, Oskar.” Amnestria spoke in a normal tone, though she also kept her eyes on their surroundings. She walked a few paces past the five corpses into the camp, drawing Oskar along with her. She crouched, gesturing and pulling Oskar’s attention to the ground.
“Alright. It’s a footprint.” Oskar looked at the depression in the dirt. “A big one. It’s… shaped strangely. That’s no a horse’s print, or a person’s?”
“No, look back at your own prints.” Amnestria pointed. “Long and relatively narrow. This one is rounded, but separated. See the two halves?”
Oskar looked back and forth, comparing. “A big deer?”
“No,” Amnestria sighed impatiently. “Deer prints are much smaller – never mind, there’s no time to walk you through it. It’s a minotaur.”
Marent cursed softly, drawing his hammer and studying the forest more intently. Oskar looked back and forth between the two older adventurers before speaking. “Alright, I’ve only read about them in books. Tell me what I don’t know.”
“Minotaurs like to set up their dens near well-traveled roads or small towns. They try to lure hunters or travelers to them, as opposed to hunting them down. Sometimes they’ll leave a few pieces of gold scattered in front of a cave, or even mimic the sound of a baby crying. It’s unnerving, they sound just like human babies, or even animal cubs if the minotaur has a taste for venison or whatever.
“Have you ever hunted one before?” Oskar looked around at the destroyed campsite and the mangled corpses. “Wait, so they do eat people? That’s not just elaboration for the books I’ve read? I always thought it was ridiculous – they’re half bull, are they no? Shouldn’t they eat grass?”
“Yes, they eat people – they’re magical monsters that have bull heads, not a cross between human and bull, so logic doesn’t apply. No, I haven’t hunted one, but I’ve spoken to hunters who have. They have terrible vision, so our best bet is to follow the tracks to the cave it’s living in, and take it in the dark.” Amnestria pointed to a dried bloodstain in the dirt. “There were six corpses when I left this camp earlier, and I could still see the grass unbending in that spot when we arrived just now. That means the beast came back for another body, and is probably still on it’s way home. If we hurry, we can take it in the dark when it’s not expecting anything.”