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, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 6)
Raff eyed the seemingly empty road- seemingly empty because all he could see was Mina, a short, slight blond woman in red robes that looked to be about two sizes too large for her. Fate (or something resembling it) had smiled on the Messengers- she'd returned to the Rinos mosque for a new assignment just as Kendric had handed over his letter, acting the part of pretentious noble as best he could while loudly demanding that someone carry it as soon as possible because it was vitally important that it reach one of Countess Berkeley's knights. The head priest hadn't missed that golden opportunity walking into his field of vision (dwarfed by the tall officer though she was) and had quickly handed the message over to Mina before Kendric had even marched out of the building.
The young woman had been slightly confused at first to be in such the right place at the right time to apparently have a delivery waiting for her, but after Raff had taken her aside to clue her into the plan- or at least a condensed version of it in case their target had a way of knowing if she knew this was a ploy- she quickly agreed to be the bait, consenting with a wicked smile.
With the bait thus selected, in less than a day they'd finalized the plan, created two fake deliveries to send off with obviously stronger and less tempting targets, called in a favor with one of Apollo's priests, found a wizard to help, and were now on their way. Raff was amazed at what could get done when an opportunity to trick someone loomed in the near future.
A soft thud and some muffled cursing sounded from a few feet away. Sounds like the others haven't figured out how to keep from tripping over each other, he thought, grinning to himself- and only himself. That was the reason for the "seemingly empty" road and the hired mage; Raff and the four others were invisible, trailing Mina as she headed southeast. The half-elf was doing pretty well at judging where his colleagues were located but the others weren't so lucky and kept tripping over themselves. Mina appeared to be ignoring the bumbling behind her, but Raff had caught her stifling a giggle a few times by pretending she was talking to the small dog strolling at her feet. Raff's bird wasn't happy about the terrier being nearby, but stayed quiet on Raff's shoulder. At least, he assumed the weight on his shoulder was the cardinal- like most of this troupe of plotters, Neru was invisible. Every once in a while he heard the bird give a cheerful chirp, so maybe it was enjoying itself. The mouse, however, wasn't handling this so well; Rhy had hidden itself in Raff's pocket and refused to come out.
The half-elf was beginning to wonder when they'd stop for the night and if he'd ever be able to lure the mouse from its hiding place when out of nowhere there was a young man standing off to the side of the road, leaning indolently against a tree as if he'd always been there. If it wasn't for the dog's sharp bark, Raff would almost have believed that. The others must have noticed this stranger, as well, because the sounds of stumbling and bumbling ceased as Mina crossed the gap to greet the stranger with a cheerful smile.
Raff was too far from the pair to hear what the man was saying in a low voice, but he caught Mina's change in demeanor. No longer smiling, she was grasping her quarterstaff tightly and her head was down, as if she could no longer meet the man's eyes. Her dog was standing close against her leg, growling up at the sandy-haired man, who was clearly trying to ignore it. Raff was starting to wish he could hear what was being said when the man switched from talk to action, shoving the girl and causing her to land heavily and awkwardly on the ground.
Raff brought both hands to the attack position on the simple wood staff he'd been given temporarily, getting angry that someone would knock around someone so innocuous, even if that had been their plan. When the man drew his sword and took a step towards the girl, the half-elf could hold back no longer. Forgetting that leaving the circle around his invisible companions would render him visible, he charged at the pair, calling out "Hey! Don't touch her!" His bird, also now in plain sight and sensing Raff's anger, sensibly flew up into the tree to get itself out of the way.
That shout got the young man's attention. With a scowl, he took a few steps away from Mina to brandish the sword in the other Messenger's direction. Raff was able to get a good look at him as he circled around, trying to put himself between the strange man and the prone woman. The man couldn't have been more than twenty and wasn't much taller than the half-elf, which was surprising, but an air of barely-contained anger seemed to make him appear more powerful. When Raff met his eyes, he quickly amended that assumption to "insane barely-contained anger" as he thought this guy's completely off his nut; Raff would be the first to admit that he wasn't exactly the most level-headed person on the planet, but the amount of crazy he was sensing from this individual would make him look positively normal in comparison.
While he was sizing up the would-be attacker, trying to decide if he'd have enough time to set off a spell, and if so, if he could do it unnoticed, he felt something touch his leg. Glancing down, he saw Mina pull her hand away to cork a vial of water as she chanted something under her breath. Mina, you idiot! he mentally cursed as he caught a few words of the spell she'd just cast- Protection From Evil. Why didn't you cast that on yourself?
The young man seemed oblivious of this, lost in his own angry world though he was, but had enough wits to ask- no, demand- of Raff "Who are you to care what I do?" Narrowing his eyes, he asked, "And how did you get here?"
There was no way Raff could resist that voice; he had the truth on the tip of his tongue, ready to tell this rogue exactly what he shouldn't, when a terse voice sounded in his head, "Do not tell. Remember, bard." That pulled him out of whatever glamour he'd fallen under- jolted him out of it, in fact. He blinked, looked down momentarily to remind himself that, yes, he was in fact garbed as a bard, and slid into that persona, grateful that Edward, the head priest, had suggested that he wear this disguise.
With his nose in the air and a hand on his hip, he kept his face expressionless and answered, "Mithlir Blackwind," with a slight nod of his head. Moving his long, currently still black hair out of the way, he adjusted the gittern case strapped to his back to draw attention to it and continued, "As you can guess, I am a minstrel; as such, I will not give away trade secrets that grant my clandestine comings and goings. Allowances must be made for a bard's... eccentricities." Hey, maybe if he played up his faux-craziness, he could get on the madman's good side. "As for why I care, I cannot stand idly by when a helpless girl is attacked; what kind of story would that make for myself?"
He looked over at Mina and caught the strange expression on her face before she covered it up by dropping her head to hide behind her hair. Please don't put us in jeopardy by laughing, he silently willed in her direction.
Fortunately, lost in whatever world most of his brain was inhabiting, the young man still failed to notice Mina and kept his eyes on Raff, who was developing the urge to fidget under that mad stare- he pretended to smooth down a crease in his black tunic to cover his discomfort. Raff was determined to keep up the disguise to keep the thief distracted, however, if just for the girl's safety; were the man to attack, Raff would much prefer the target to be himself- and if the man were evil as well as crazy, the half-elf would now be far safer than Mina.
The rogue slowly switched his sword back and forth between hands a few times, his lips moving as he silently said something to himself, possibly not knowing what to make of Raff. This, though, was something the half-elf was accustomed to, and he jumped on the man's distraction, pulling out his Charm magic again. "What say you leave this young woman alone; surely she has nothing of any interest to a traveler such as yourself." Whatever that type is, Raff thought scornfully, mentally taking in the state of the man's heavily disheveled appearance, greasy hair, and battered (but unfortunately still sharp) broadsword. If this was a Messenger, he's really let himself go. Although if that were the case, after seeing this individual Raff now could see why the older priests constantly badgered him about his travel-worn robes. It really didn't make you look particularly trustworthy, competent, or in this case, sane, to be so slovenly, although Raff generally lacked the eye twitching and glazed expression of which this man was in possession.
Raff thought his statement had worked as the young man began to lower the arm holding the sword, but that didn't last; he shook it off- actually shaking his head, and despite the gravity of the situation, Raff was almost surprised to not hear a loose marble or two rolling around in there. Taking another step away from Mina, he pointed the sword at Raff again. Blast! Why didn't that work? The Charm always works! Raff had time to think before having to quickly sidle out of the way as the blade swung past where his shoulder had been a moment before. The man's agility shocked him; surely someone with so few wits shouldn't be able to move like that! Feeling déjà vu, and once again being annoyed by the fact that he lacked a decent weapon, Raff brought his quarterstaff up into the defensive position.
The man didn't lunge again, but instead growled loudly, "Oh, but she does have something I desire." He didn't lower his sword, however, and was looking back at Mina, who was now trying unsuccessfully to get to her feet. Raff had a feeling she'd twisted at least one ankle as she fell.
That could have been taken to mean many things, but to Raff, it validated what he hadn't been completely sure of; this was the man they were looking for. The others heard this, too, and Raff caught mutterings behind him. Trying to keep the crazy man distracted and unable to hear what the half-elf hoped to be the chants of spells, he began talking to cover the noises of those still unseen. "I doubt you have ever seen her before. How can you know that she is in possession of something you covet? Perhaps this is just a case of mistaken identity. You could be wrong, yes?"
That last part returned the young man's attention to Raff. "Wrong? I am never wrong about something like this, silly bard!" he exclaimed, one eye twitching.
Who are you calling "silly," kettle? "Perhaps. How would I know such as what goes on in your head or even what you are looking for? I do know that whatever it may be, she has it not, so leave her alone."
"And you'd stop me?" Once again, Raff found the sword pointed in his direction.
"If I must." Okay, any time you guys get those spells going, that would be great. I only have this stupid staff to defend myself with, you know.
The man had his sword in an offensive stance, having brought it around to poke at Raff's chest (or, rather, the leather armor hidden under his tunic), when he was hit with the full force of several spells. As the crazed man went rigid, the tree behind the three suddenly joined the side of the Messengers as it began to wrap its roots around the man's legs, dragging him to the ground and causing the weapon to fall out of his hand. Knowing what would come next, Raff hurriedly began dragging Mina away as the rest of the vegetation in the area had a growth spurt, shooting out tendrils and roots to try to grab them.
Just out of range of the rampant greenery, Raff helped Mina to her feet as the others broke out of the invisibility sphere to encircle the grasping plants. The half-elf noticed Tomas poking at the edge of the brambles with his quarterstaff and made the obvious assumption about who had cast that particular spell, "A bit overkill, I think." At Tomas' look of chagrin, he shrugged, "Hey, don't worry about it. We got out fine."
"Thankfully." Edward commented, coming over and sizing up the new forest. "Thank you for your assistance, Tomas, but could you send those plants away, please? We need to be able to get him out."
"Out?" Mina asked, incredulous. She grimaced as she tried to stand straight. "Isn't it better to just leave him there for a while? Pardon me for saying it, but he deserves to stew in the pot he made".
"As tempting as that sounds, we cannot. Now please, Tomas."
Glancing back and forth between the angry and injured Mina and the calm but authoritative Head Messenger, Tomas threw his arms up in defeat. "Alright, alright." Concentrating on the mess of plants, he chanted a few syllables.
When the greenery began sinking back into the ground, Tomas came over to help Raff support the limping woman. "Why is nothing I do ever the right thing?" he mused to his companions.
"You did well," Mina reassured him, wrapping an arm around his waist so that Raff could let go. At least the half-elf assumed it was for that reason, but since he was eager to go help the others, he wasn't about to pry.
Raff made it to the other priests at the same time as the last of the tree roots vanished. He took a place in the circle they'd made around the now frozen-in-place thief; the man may not have been able to move or speak, but he could certainly glare and now that Raff was there, he was honored with the bulk of the silent anger.
Three of the priests- Edward, Charity- the conspiring woman he had met a few days before, and the middle-aged priest of Apollo who had been roped into this quest (Raff hadn't caught his name) were chanting. Charity came out of it first and remarked, "There's something magic in that scroll case on his belt... it's extremely magical, whatever it is."
"And radiating evil," the Head Messenger added as he, too, finished his chant. "As is the boy himself."
Raff started to reach down to grab whatever they were talking about, knowing it was a stupid move but not being able to resist its sudden attractiveness, when Charity smacked his hand away. "Do you want us to have to rescue two possessed evil Messengers, elf-boy? For the gods' sakes, you're as bad as Tomas." Raff was clearly confused, both by what had just happened and by how the heck Tomas fit into this, so she just grabbed his arm to pull him away before he could say or do something he'd regret.
"Raff, I know you're smarter than this," she said quietly so as to not disturb the others, "Snap out of it."
Raff blinked a few times, then seemed to come back into himself. "I … have no idea what just happened. Sorry about that."
Charity nodded. "Just as I thought; that item must be powerful if it can affect someone from a distance."
Worried, Raff asked, "But why me and not anyone else?"
"You're a few bricks short of a load?" She grinned impishly at his glare. "Sorry. Maybe it's because you're part elf, but I think it's likely because you've been around its influence for a bit longer than the rest of us have."
"Lucky me," Raff muttered, but was interrupted from saying more by a strange voice calling out for help. Charity tried to hold him back, but he brushed off her hand on his shoulder and walked back to the circle around the crazy young man.
Who was looking decidedly less crazy- or less angry-crazy, anyway. Someone must have dispelled whatever was holding him frozen because he was now sitting with his arms wrapped around his knees, looking pleadingly up at Edward. "It's magic. The map. It's making me do horrible things. Someone take it away before-" Noticing that Raff had come over, his expression hardened and he appeared to age a few years as a shadow fell over his face. "But not him. He can't have it!"
Okay, then... Raff thought, then moved behind the other clerics so he was out of sight again. As soon as he'd left the seated young man's field of vision, the boy reverted back to helplessness. "Please, sir, help," he pleaded to Edward.
Edward frowned, deep in thought. Finally he met the boy's eyes. "I think I have a plan. Would you be willing to hand over what you carry to us?"
The boy fought with himself, visibly torn about an answer. "Y... yes."
"And would you be willing to destroy it?"
That took even longer for a definite answer. Finally, so low that Raff could barely hear it from where he was standing, the boy whispered. "Yes. Please."
Edward nodded, seemingly satisfied.
"You can't mean that he's going by himself," Tomas replied, leading Mina over. Raff caught Charity rolling her eyes and had to suppress a laugh; it was obvious by now that the woman had been stuck working with Tomas on more occasions than this one.
"Of course not. You'll be going with him," the head priest explained, chuckling as the young man gaped at him. Looking around the circle, he added, "As will Raff, Charity, and Mina."
Raff and Charity both nodded, expecting that, although the half-elf was rather worried about having to spend more time around this strange once-priest and the item in his possession. Mina, on the other hand, glared at the boy, then turned (almost knocking Tomas off balance, small though she was) to look quizzically at Edward. "But... I'm injured, sir. I'm not going anywhere anytime soon."
Apollo's priest smiled roguishly and Raff couldn't miss the fact that he looked quite like Edward while wearing that particular expression on his face. "If you would stand up straight, I think you'll find that problem much improved."
Sure enough, Mina was able to now stand. Tomas let go rather reluctantly, which she either ignored or failed to notice. "Thank you, sir." Well, she said she was thankful, but the doubt in her voice was apparent; it was obvious that she didn't consider this much of a blessing.
I'm with you on that one, Raff agreed silently.