Banner art by Artmetica.
You can find the whole cover art here- the art is gorgeous!
There's also a mix/soundtrack that goes with this story- you can find that here.
(Prologue and Part 2)
The new pawn- sorry, chosen, of the gods/dice/whatnot was a slightly older, half-elven priest named Raff. Assuming by now that he was safely a minor character in his own story, and thus immune to the random encounter generator or the flailing Epic Plot, he was surprised when a hooded figure appeared from behind a tree brandishing a short sword and demanding that he hand over the message he was carrying. Raff raised an eyebrow as the man scowled at him; he was aware that sometimes Messengers were ambushed for the important correspondences they carried, but he also knew that since he'd been sent on this errand alone he was carrying something harmless, so why was this person going after him? Besides, no matter the value, no Messenger would voluntarily hand over what they carried without a fight... Huh, he must be aware of that, Raff thought to himself as the would-be thief, not waiting for a reply, leapt at him to attack.
Bringing his quarterstaff up to block, Raff was able to push the attacker back a few steps, making him stumble slightly. A retaliated downward swing with his staff was barely blocked by the sword as the man regained his balance, and the cleric realized that, once again, he'd been underestimated. Anger burned in Raff's green eyes; this irked him, as it always did. This certainly wasn't the first time someone had taken "slight, elven-looking priest" to mean "weak, easy target". Spitting out an Elvish curse (and wishing he knew Dwarvish because that language was so much better for that purpose), Raff swung again.
All seemed to be going well for a while, despite the man recovering from his shock and having begun attacking in earnest, until fortune decided to favor the bandit. The half-elf was just barely able to bring his staff up in time to block a well-timed attack, and the power behind the swing snapped the wood in half. Raff stared at the pieces in his hands, momentarily distracted; that was my quarterstaff! How dare he break part of a priest's holy symbol! He placed the pieces gently on the ground, not wanting to just carelessly drop the winged fox icon atop the piece in his right hand, and said a quick, silent prayer.
This was a pious, but not very bright, move and could have been the end of the priest had he been truly alone; before the man could hit Raff while he was distracted, a bird gave an angry chirp and a streak of red flew at his face, giving Raff time to get to his feet and draw his mace. Rare is a Messenger without an animal sidekick and the cardinal was expected, but the bird's shriek was followed by a growl sounding behind the attacker, who froze in place. Having only a mouse and a bird currently trained, this surprised Raff almost as much as it did his enemy, but since the ... dog? Wolf? Raff couldn't really tell since it was staying behind the other man, seemed to be focused only on his opponent, the canine was a welcome surprise. With the attacker obviously distracted, it finally occurred to Raff to try what he should have done in the first place. Rather than attacking, he said in a calm, but forceful voice "Your bootlaces are untied. You should put your sword down so you can fix that before you trip over them and land near the teeth of that large wolf behind you."
Coming from almost anyone else, this would have resulted in the intended target either being amused and attacking or just plain attacking, but here it worked as the fate-seesaw tipped slightly in Hermes' favor. The man dropped his sword and fell to his feet, hastily trying to retie laces that weren't actually there in the first place. Raff kicked the sword out of the way, where the dog (definitely a dog, Raff saw; some sort of shaggy, medium-sized mutt) picked it up by the hilt and dragged it off, fetching instinct apparently taking over. Checking out of the corner of his eye to make sure that the dog had dropped the sword out of sight, Raff turned up the not-so-charming Charm to keep the man occupied while he tried to think of something. "Goodness, you're fumbling. You're all thumbs, aren't you?"
Flustered and now fumbling even more at his shoes, the man replied, "I don't know what's wrong with me today."
"Perhaps your boots are on the wrong foot and that's why you're fumbling?" Raff grinned as the man promptly began tugging at his shoes, still unable to do much about them. I love being a Messenger, the half-elf thought to himself.
As the victim of his mischief unsuccessfully tried putting the left boot on the right foot while muttering “Which is left again?”, the dog returned to Raff's side and began whining. Raff made shushing noises and was silenced by a voice in his head that said, "Man under the tree. Can smell him".
Still trying to keep his glamour going, the cleric told the man "Yes, you've definitely mixed right up with left again. Left is the other one" before reacting to the voice. Most people would have balked at a strange voice in their head, but Raff was well aware that it had the tone of an animal, and since it wasn't his mouse or bird, he figured it must then be the dog, unless someone was playing an extra cruel trick on him. Trying to appear nonchalant, he whispered to the dog, "I don't see anyone."
"Use your snout."
"I don't have a snout-" Raff shook his head. Why am I arguing with a dog? Must be the stress. "Forget it. Guard this man, okay?" At the dog's assent, he made another dumb mistake, not being at his error quota for the day. Rather than doing something bright to sneak up on that invisible person, he took a few steps towards the lone tree by the side of the path and called "Hey! You! Show yourself!" It didn't take the dog's immediate observation of "Man is gone" for him to realize that he'd forgotten to cast the Charm first. He muttered another Elvish curse.
The dog growled and he exclaimed a stronger one when he saw that with his concentration lost, the kneeling man was shaking off the mind-control. This is not my day. Reacting rather than thinking, Raff snatched up a piece of his discarded quarterstaff and brought it down over the man's head, being careful not to strike too hard; killing in cold blood obviously not being acceptable for Good.
"That man not a threat now. Good. Get help. I'll guard," the dog advised as the man slumped unconscious to the ground. After the day that Raff had been having, taking advice from a dog seemed perfectly reasonable. With a shrug, he dragged the prone man off the road and behind the tree, then picked up the rest of his quarterstaff to began the trek back to Rinos. So much for this message getting to Westwatch on time, he grumbled to himself, And I'd love to know what's so great about it to cause all this mess.
It wasn't until he was halfway back to the city that the thought that had been poking at the back of his mind for a few miles finally got him to listen. I never cast a spell to speak with animals... how did that mutt reach me? He absentmindedly reached over to his shoulder to pet the brown mouse that was currently nibbling on one of his long brown braids. Even my pets can't speak without a spell, and when they do talk, they're not nearly as articulate. "And would you quit that, Rhy? Do ye see me chewing on your tail?" The mouse chittered at him in response, then went back to its task, ignoring Raff's laughter. Maybe I should train a dog- they seem to be slightly less bossy than mice.