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 5, Part 7)
Seated on the ground with his back against a tree, Raff spoke quietly with the mouse in front of him. Like most Messengers in their downtime, he was attempting some mischief out of boredom; in this case, trying to get Rhy to understand the concept of thievery and how to work a button on a backpack. The half-elf had a feeling that some of the stolen deliveries were in the bag Jonathan carried, but he had no desire to get close enough to the strange young man to rummage through it to find out. Still, he very much wanted to know if the letters he was expecting were in there... "No, no, no. You don't eat the button, you move it so you can get inside."
"But looks like cracker. Like crackers!" The mouse looked up at Raff expectantly. "Snack for Rhy?"
"You are crackers." When the mouse sent back a mental "?", he sighed, wishing he had a pet who understood jokes. "Look, it's simple. Slide the button like so, climb inside, grab paper with orange string... wait, can you see color?"
"See grass, see big elf, see tall leafy things. Not see this color." The mouse's nose twitched as it looked around, trying to scent the unfamiliar word.
The cleric covered his face with his hands, exasperated but slightly amused- was the mouse purposely being obtuse? Feeling this would be a lost cause, he wondered idly if he'd be able to find a cat or a weasel or some smarter animal nearby to train for this task. Before Raff could try explaining once again, he was interrupted by the sound of footsteps crackling through the underbrush at his back. Placing the mouse on his shoulder, Raff stood. When he saw that it was the person he was plotting against, he hoped the mouse would sit quietly and not get confused.
"Are you Raff Goldenstrings?" the once-Messenger inquired tersely, not looking at Raff.
The half-elf's hope was short-lived; when the mouse heard the name, it asked "String? That string? Orange? Where string?"
"Forget the string. Just stay quiet," Raff whispered to his pet. He narrowed his eyes, wondering what the recently-possessed boy wanted. When not openly glaring, Jonathan had spent most of the trip avoiding the half-elf and hadn't yet spoken to him directly. "Why do you want to know?"
Jonathan shifted his feet and kept his head down. "I've heard them calling you Raff. I need to know if that's you" he mumbled.
Raff rolled his eyes. "Fine, yes, that's me. Now why do you need to know that?"
"I wasn't going to give these back, but Edward says I'm going to need to eventually deliver everything and you're right here so it might be good to start." Drawing a selection of rolled up parchments out of the bag slung over his shoulder, Jonathan hesitated for a moment before tossing them over. He clearly did not want to get any closer to the older cleric, which didn't surprise Raff, although it still irked him to be so shunned. It wasn't as though he wanted that blasted map, contrary to what this boy believed.
Raff caught them, noticed the color of the strings tying them shut- three with orange, one with a green ribbon- and frowned. When he caught sight of the open wax seals, his anger changed to indignation. "You read them, too? What the hell's wrong with you!"
Holding his arms out in front of him to try to belay Raff's anger, Jonathan tried to play innocent. "It wasn't my fault! And if it makes you feel any better, I didn't just read yours."
"Oh, now that really validates your actions!" Taking a deep breath, Raff tried counting to ten. Then tried it again in another language when that didn't help. He tried to work through a third, but when he could only remember up to the number six, he gave up. Oh, forget this. I have reason to be angry! "Important messages are entrusted to us, you stupid boy! Possessed or not, it never occurred to you that people depend on letters making it to their intended destinations?" Raff paused to take another deep breath, clenching and unclenching the hand not holding the arrangement of scrolls, before continuing, "You never realized that people would be worried sick when they didn't hear from someone they were expecting news from? That sometimes letters are the only way of reaching those ye care about?"
The youth muttered something, which Raff missed in his tirade. Ceasing his verbal reproach, he asked "What was that?"
"I said you didn't have to worry. He befriended a dragon, he wasn't eaten by one."
Raff stared then shook his head in bewilderment. Was this lad still lacking sanity? "Huh? What does a dragon have t'do with anything?"
Now Jonathan looked up, but only to glance guiltily at the items in Raff's hand before returning his attention to his boot laces. The half-elf wished he had something heavier to throw at the young man than just a handful of paper, and had to settle on taking a step forward, all but seething. "And you recall the information of your thefts? You should be the one forced to encounter a dragon; maybe being faced with large amounts of acid or flame would set ye straight." Realizing what he had just said, Raff reviewed that statement. "Meeting with dragon-flame or acid... that's it! Ratfink though you may be, you've given me an idea!"
The boy had begun to back away, but now finally looked up at Raff's face, his turn to be confused. "What idea?"
"I think I've found a way to speed up your atonement and eliminate the m- that item. We just need t'find you a dragon."
"Just? A dragon?" the young man squeaked, sounding even younger and nothing like the attacker they'd foiled so recently.
While still peeved, that cooled Raff's anger into something more resembling pity. Quick to anger though he was, he was never one to hold a grudge- unless the boy had lied and the letters in his hand were bad news. Then all bets would be off. "You want to be normal again, right?"
Jonathan nodded dumbly, so shaken that he didn't cringe away when the older Messenger grabbed his arm to drag him back to where the rest of their party was setting up camp in a forest clearing.
When Charity noticed the two of them in close proximity, she raised an eyebrow; this action reminded Raff of who he was dragging along. Dropping the boy's arm like it burned, Raff absentmindedly wiped his hand on his robe. "Guys, we need to find a dragon."
That brought Mina and Tomas over. "A dragon? Why?" Tomas sounded intrigued, which the half-elf took to be a good sign.
Jonathan tried to pout and glare at the same time and ended up just making faces. "Raff wants to get rid of me by dragon-fire."
"I said no such thing." Seeing the young man about to deny this, Raff rolled his eyes again and went on, "I'm miffed, not evil. My idea is to destroy the artifact with dragon-breath, not annihilate you with it."
From the look on Jonathan's face, Raff got the feeling that this would be much the same thing. Still, it was the best (in that it was the only) idea they'd had so far.
"There's a slight problem with that, though, Raff," Charity chimed in, always the voice of reason. "None of us happen to be carrying a convenient small dragon in our packs, you know."
"Technicality. There's bound to be one around here somewhere. I mean, Edward wouldn't have sent us south if there wasn't a good reason for it." The others gazed at him skeptically. "What? I can't possibly be the only one who trusts his judgment."
A collection of shrugs greeted this statement. "Besides, I know for a fact that there's a dragon... um... let me find it..." Raff began riffling through the messages Jonathan had so recently given him.
"Don't bother. That dragon is far to the northeast, halfway across the country and nowhere near the direction we were sent." Apparently as well as recalling the dragon, Jonathan still had the contents of the stolen letters memorized. Expecting Raff to be angry at this breach in secrecy, the youth was surprised to see him just shrug. Hey, it saved me time trying to skim through that tiny handwriting for the exact passage, the half elf thought to himself, maybe after this we could start using the kid as a scribe. He still wasn't happy about all this, but holding a grudge wouldn't get them anywhere on this quest.
"So we'd have to find another dragon. Who do we know who would know the location of one nearby?" Mina pondered.
"Rangers?" Tomas supplied.
Raff snorted. "Good luck finding one of them. The whole point of being a ranger is to keep from being tracked. Druids perhaps?"
"Possibly a bit easier to locate but not likely to help," Charity refuted.
"Come now, those would be even less likely to help than the druids and even more difficult to find," Raff commented. When the other four stared at him in confused surprise (well, confusion on the part of three of them; irritated bemusement on the part of Jonathan), Raff returned the gaze. "Okay, someone said 'wood elves'. I am not hearing things."
Once again, the group looked skeptical. Fortunately, before Raff could begin doubting his sanity any more than usual, a brown shaggy dog sauntered into the group and plopped itself down at his feet. "You again! What a fine mess ye got me into earlier, by the way," the half-elf upbraided, not caring what the others thought about a one-sided conversation.
"Sorry. Had to leave and man got away."
"Obviously, which was the start of said mess." Raff crossed his arms over his chest, staring down at the mutt. If a dog could look chastened, this one did; dipping its head low it whined. Raff sighed and reached down to scratch it on the head. "It's fine. Forget it. Now what's this about elves?"
Either the words or the scratches cheered it up. Looking up with a doggie grin it sent mentally, "Smell wood elves nearby. Can take you to them."
Before Raff could agree, Charity interrupted, "Care to let the rest of us in on this conversation?" Taking his attention away from the dog, Raff saw that she had her hands on her hips and was tapping her foot. Never a good sign. Tomas and Mina both looked like they were going to laugh, while Jonathan was still trying to ignore him; both of these things were preferable to an affronted Charity.
Blushing, the half-elf explained, "That's the dog I met at the start of all this. He says he can take us to wood elves."
Charity nodded, which relieved Raff, and said, "And if there's a dragon anywhere near their forest, they'd know. But how would we get them to tell us once we located them?"
"Can't we just disguise ourselves as something they'd trust?" Tomas supplied. When the rest of the group turned to look at him in amazement, he shuffled his feet nervously. "We're all Messengers, right?"
When he caught Jonathan's scowl, he hastily corrected, "We all know how to use disguises, I mean. Can we make ourselves look like elves or rangers or something? Then it won't be as suspicious as a bunch of priests- sorry, Jon- looking for a dragon."
"That just might be crazy enough to work," Charity agreed. "Oh, stop moping. Maybe this will take your mind off of things," she then said sharply to the only non-Messenger of the group, choosing to ignore the glower he shot in her direction. She turned to the two shortest members of the party for their reactions to this idea.
Mina shrugged. "It's worth a try. The worst they can do is send us away."
Aye, at arrow-point, Raff thought but refrained from saying it aloud. Instead he also shrugged. "Hey, at least this time it's a disguise where I don't have to change my appearance much. Works for me."
"Good, then it's settled." Talking directly to the dog, either assuming it understood her or figuring Raff would translate, she told it, "As soon as we're ready, I'd like you to lead us to those elves."
"She said-" Raff started to interpret.
"Tell her yes." Okay, then, Raff thought, either this is a really smart dog or there is some really powerful magic going on here. Even if he had cast the Speak with Animals spell, which he had already used up on the mouse, it shouldn't have been able to understand two humans (or close enough) at once.
Oh well, it wasn't worth worrying about. "He says he will."
Charity nodded. "Good. Now let's go see what kind of charade we can pull together."