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Prologue - Cassandria

It’s a funny thing, legacy. People talk about it like some grand story spanning across time, a point of pride, a torch being carried from father to son, mother to daughter. And it absolutely can be—eventually—but more often than not it begins as nothing but a hindrance to the bearer. Sometimes it’s a heavy weight passed down from the previous generation, a dark shadow that never leaves your side. Other times it’s a crutch, a cushion too comfortable to leave, halting progress towards achieving one’s true potential.

In both cases, measuring up to the past—or more aptly, a failure to do so—is the constant judge of one’s worth. The court of expectation is filled with a cruel jury.

That failure, however, can also become quite the motivator. Either to stand up to the seemingly impossible expectations or to blaze a trail of your own. And sometimes just the act of trying can result in unforeseen side effects that amount to something greater and more substantial than any shallow goal originally sought after.

Such was the story of Rotwater.

The goal had been nothing more than notoriety, but as fate would have it, Rotwater had become a safe haven for thousands of refugees throughout the empire.

Without the aid Rotwater had provided—aid neither The Howl nor Rah’qet were either willing or able to give—people from all across the empire would have surely perished. During a time of such chaos and desperation, the importance and influence of such an altruistic contribution hadn’t gone unnoticed. Rotwater had been able to provide in a time of need when neither of the empire’s remaining cities did, even if it was still not considered a legitimate city itself. But a tavern-owner’s son, the great-great-grandson of an intrepid fur trader, had plans to change that.

His legacy began when Rotwater was founded so many generations past. Now, that legacy was reduced to a tavern in the heart of an affluent barren rich with trade. The Hawk’s Roost was no simple run-of-the-mill tavern, of course, but with more and more entrepreneurs and savvy businessmen finding success within the muddy streets, the hold that the Hawk’s Roost once had was starting to loosen. Holding a seat of power and respect amongst such enterprising individuals was proving more and more difficult.

But ambition was in Gavin Rhames’ blood. Seizing opportunity was instinct.

Continuing his legacy and elevating Rotwater to the level of city had long been a goal of his. And if he were to truly become the Lord Chancellor of a city, none could challenge his authority.

Opportunity came calling with a monstrous cacophony.

With the appearance of the strange beasts throughout the empire, hunting them down proved to be extremely profitable. And The Hawk’s Roost was perched to capitalize on just such a development. They flourished. The hunters of the lodge were quick to answer the call, collecting bounties across the empire and gaining fame for their kills. It was shallow, but Gavin saw beyond all that.

He was never the most proficient or effective hunter, something he always felt was an insult to his family’s legacy. He was a decent enough tracker, a less-than-impressive shot, but he always had an eye for animal behavior. Their habits, how they acted when they thought they were alone, how their behavior changed once a hunters’ presence was known: he found it all so fascinating, giving insight into the animals’ tendencies. He liked to think it gave him insight into people’s behaviors as well.

One hunt had his group tracking down what he could best describe as a boar. Every strange, new beast clearly resembled some other ordinary animal, just changed, mutated into something new. This boar was slightly larger than most, but in addition to an extra set of tusks, antlers like that of a deer sprouted from its head. The twisting hedge of bone made any head-on attack futile and even more dangerous than before. What interested Gavin even more, however, was how the beast acted. While each of his group was failing to hit the beast, running for their lives, or being maimed or gored by the rampaging killer, Gavin was comparing its behavior to that of a normal boar.

Boars could be aggressive, sure, but this thing seemed to become a focused killing machine. The animal showed no fear, only a desire to fight and the will to do so. The animal was eventually taken down, but not until three of Gavin’s group had fallen to the untamed beast themselves. And not until Gavin had formed a hypothesis that he would doggedly pursue from that point on.

After the recruitment of several of Rah’qet’s rejected would-be sages some time earlier, the Hawk’s Roost began to produce drugs as a means to gain influence amongst the populace. Addiction could be a powerful motivator, he came to learn. Control the drugs, control the people.

Commonly used drugs were already capable of changing people’s moods, giving them more energy, helping them in the bedroom and even inducing euphoria. Poisons existed that were capable of forcing people to tell the truth. After Gavin’s revelation about the beasts’ behavior, he tasked his sages with experimenting with the slain beasts to see if whatever had physically altered the beasts was also responsible for their killing focus. And if so, could that somehow be extracted and refined. Luckily for them, they were in no short supply of slain beasts to experiment with thanks to the lodge.

Unhindered by the ethical oversight the rejected sages were accustomed to in the Spires, soon enough they had their first successful batch, a light blue powder they dubbed Teqen. Total lack of fear, increased awareness, greater strength and energy. Subjects even seemed more susceptible to suggestion, an unintended but welcomed side effect.

While the money they earned from sale of the drugs was impressive, money wasn’t the only path to power in Rotwater. Free enterprise still played a powerful role in a barren ruled by trade, but even more important were the people that fueled that trade: hunters. And the miracle drug that made them exponentially more effective at hunting just so happened to feel really good. It also just so happened to be really addictive.

Control the drugs, control the people.

But like any other commodity, it was exploitable. And as profitable and desired as Teqen was, not all who dealt in the product did so with Gavin’s blessing. And they tended to be the type of people who dealt in the shadows and kept daggers hidden and at the ready.

So Cassandria figured she’d dress for the part.

“There a reason we’re meeting this guy at a compost yard?” Sabra asked, irritated. “We couldn’t find a dark alley or just meet in a tavern like normal people?”

“You’re carrying a satchel full of drugs,” Cassandria reminded her. “I figured privacy might be a good idea.”

Cassandria didn’t always dress like a hooded thief, but she found she fit the role surprisingly well. A thin frame, short stature, naturally light on her feet. She wasn’t strong enough to wield a massive sword—not that she could even afford such a weapon—so a dagger was her only option. Fitting.

Sabra was the opposite. Cassandria had brought her along for more than just her size, but muscle seemed like a necessity for her first ever drug deal. And Sabra had plenty of muscle to spare. The woman was much taller than Cassandria, with arms as thick as her head. She kept her hair cut short like many of the Everguard once had, though she was never a member of their ranks. She just liked the style.

“Privacy comes in handy when you’re looking to murder someone, too.”

“We’re not getting murdered.”

“Right. Because you know the guy.” She still wasn’t convinced. “And why is he willing to deal with you?”

“He’s... uh... in love with me?”

“In love with you?” Sabra asked, pausing for a moment before realizing what Cassandria was implying, hoping it wasn’t true. “Cass? Who are we meeting with?”

Cassandria sighed, already regretting the decision. “Cal.”

“Are you kidding me? Him?”

“Hey! We’re desperate!”

“Nobody’s that desperate.”

“We are. Where else are we gonna offload this much stuff without raising some eyebrows or putting ourselves in real danger?”

“We already are in danger! The Hawk’s Roost is probably looking for their stolen goods as we speak. Hell, I half expect fucking Blackhands to show up and treat us like the criminals we are.”

“We’re not criminals. This is a one time thing. And sure, we’re already in a bit of danger, but dealing with Cal means we don’t have to worry about any more danger. Just probably a lot of awkwardness.”

“Yeah, okay, whatever. You’re right I guess, but you should have told me it was Cal. I didn’t even know he was a drug dealer.”

“I wanted to tell you, I did, but I figured you’d hate the idea too much to agree.”

“I’d hate it less if it hadn’t been sprung on me.”

“Well, we’re here now!” Cassandria said, hardly trying to feign enthusiasm.

“You’re lucky I love you,” Sabra said, somehow making her affection a threat. “Fuck me, I can’t believe I’m trying to sell drugs with my girlfriend to her ex-fiance. All of the sudden, murder doesn’t sound like all that bad of an alternative.”

Cassandria was just glad Sabra hadn’t outright refused and walked away on the spot. She couldn’t handle the situation on her own

“And take the hood off,” Sabra added. “You’re not trying to hide your identity or anything. More likely gonna just scare the man off.”

“Cassie!” a man’s enthusiastic voice shouted much too loudly from across the yard.

“Or not,” Cassandria said, a complete lack of enthusiasm in her voice.

“Yeah, I take that back,” Sabra conceded. “I guess nothing could scare him off knowing you’re here.”

Callister sauntered toward the women, confident and proud, his wavy brown hair glistening in the sun. He did always have great hair, Cassandria remembered. Another man trailed close behind him, head shorn smooth, showing off the misshapen scar down the middle of his head like a pitiful mohawk. Callister was a smooth talker with a smile like a knife. His friend looked much more blunt.

“I see you brought some muscle along as well,” Callister said with a smile. “That’s my girl, always thinking about the big picture.”

Sabra was more emotional support than muscle, but she could handle herself in a scuffle. Though if she was forced to hold her own against the beefcake that Callister brought along, that would likely prove to be a bit more difficult. Cassandria hoped it wouldn’t come to that. The whole point of coming to Callister was to avoid such a confrontation.

“My dear, it has been far, far too long,” Callister said with open arms.

“Hey Cal,” Cassandria replied, giving the man an awkward closed-lipped smile and an even less enthusiastic hug.

“The two C’s, back together again. Did you miss me, or is there something old Cal can do for you?”

“Like I said before, we have some, uh... product we’re looking to sell. If you think that’s something you can handle.”

She knew he was more than capable of handling such a transaction, but she needed to ensure a deal was made. It was another reason she came to Callister. She knew him better than most. Not only would he never dream of backstabbing her, but she also knew that if she ever wanted the man to do anything for her, simply suggesting the mere possibility that he couldn’t was enough to push him in the right direction.

If Cassandria would have to endure Callister using the opportunity to try and win her back or sweep her off her feet or something, then she had no qualms about pulling the man’s strings to get what she wanted.

“Of course, of course. Must really be in a bind to do this then, huh? Don’t you worry your pretty little head. Cal will take care of everything. You’ve got nothing to worry about.” He might have been acting all chivalrous and caring, but Cassandria couldn’t forget what a massive piece of shit he was very capable of becoming. “So what exactly is it that you’re looking to sell?”

Cassandria gave a little nod to Sabra and the woman pulled a satchel out of the bag slung across her shoulder. She carefully undid the latch, revealing a blue powder within. And a sizable amount at that.

“Hoo hoo!” Callister exclaimed, slapping the beefcake against the chest. The hungry smile growing across his face was the first time the big man had shown any sort of emotion. “Would you look at that. You girls have any idea what you’ve got your hands on?”

“A means to an end,” Cassandria said.

“One that hopefully makes us as happy as whoever ends up snorting this junk,” Sabra added.

“Junk? This ain’t junk, lady. And it may be worth a lot, but I doubt any amount of gold will make you as happy as this stuff would. Now I know you never liked to know much about drugs, Cassie, but I’m sure you’re aware that there’s a powerful hallucinogen harvested from toads? Teqen is similar to it, but more of a stimulant than a hallucinogen and way more potent. Rocks your fucking balls off. Makes you feel godsdamned invincible.”

“What the fuck kind of frog produces that?”

“Not a frog, but a monster frog. At least that’s the story I heard. Some hunter found a whole bunch of ‘em apparently and bagged some up to take back to his camp, but he never made it. His friends found him blasted to hell wandering around in the swamp.”

The beefcake nudged Callister’s shoulder with the back of his hand. He was getting off track.

“Right, of course. As my associate reminds me, we need to ensure the purity of the product.”

“You a chemist, too, Cal?” Sabra asked, doubtful. “Cass never mentioned that about you. And something tells me your friend here isn’t.”

The big man took a powerful step forward and leaned down to meet Sabra’s eyes. “Actually, I’m a right expert in this case,” he said. His voice was deep, his tone mocking, and his speech as ineloquent as one might expect. “But I don’t need no beakers and shit.”

He grabbed the satchel from her hands and pinched a small amount of the powder out of the bag. He placed it on the back of his other hand and used his thick forefinger to spread it into a line, lifted it to his nose and inhaled.

“Hooo!!” the man shouted, throwing his whole body backwards. “Yeah! Yeah!! That’s what I’m talking about!” He spread his arms wide as he bellowed with laughter. “Wooo, that is some good shit right there, Cal. Tight.”

“Sounds like we’ve got ourselves a deal,” Callister said, smiling at Cassandria. She couldn’t help but smile back.

“You said it was worth a lot,” Sabra reminded him, getting right down to business. “Gold? How much we talking?”

“Yeah, how much was worth throwing your lives away?” a voice behind them asked.


The man stood atop a mound of rotting scraps, a bow trained in their direction. On either side of him was another man and two women, all with spears at the ready. All four wore polished metal badges depicting a screeching hawk’s head.

Cassandria turned to look Callister in the eyes. “This isn’t us.”

“You sure about that?” he asked her, turning to look at Sabra.

“She didn’t even know you were our contact. This isn’t us. I swear it.”

“Criminals that don’t trust each other,” the man said. “Imagine that. I don’t believe the contents of that bag belong to either of you. Why don’t you hand that ov—”

The man didn’t get a chance to finish before Callister’s bodyguard dropped the satchel on the ground and bolted directly for the uninvited visitors. Their leader let his arrow loose, hitting the bodyguard dead on. But like throwing a twig at a charging bull, it did nothing to deter the man. He pulled two long, curved blades from behind his back and let loose a terrifying warcry.

Instinctively, Cassandria pulled the dagger she had kept hidden, just in case, though it didn’t make her feel any safer.

With the bodyguard fighting the hunters with wild abandon, the scene quickly descended into chaos. Callister took the opportunity to snatch up the satchel full of powdered gold and began to run behind cover. Sabra caught him by the arm and ripped the satchel from his hands.

“Ah ah ah. Not until this is all settled.”

An arrow came streaking through the air, just barely missing where Callister would have been running. What it did connect with, however, was the satchel. The powder exploded from the bag in a cloud of translucent blue, glittering in the sunlight. Callister quickly leapt to Cassandria’s side and covered her mouth with the palm of his hand as he pulled her away.

Sabra wasn’t afforded the same kindness.

In an instant, the woman turned towards them, wide-eyed and anxious. She leapt to Cassandria’s defense, flung an arm around Callister’s neck and lifted him off his feet and slammed him to the ground. She raised a fist and drove it down into Callister’s face.

“Sabra stop!”

She immediately did, looking to Cassandria for further direction, a smile on her face. Cassandria met her eyes, but she didn’t recognize the woman who was looking back. It wasn’t Sabra. Something to worry about later.

“They’re the problem!” Cassandria said, directing Sabra towards the hunters.

Without another word, Sabra took off in a sprint to join the fight.

Callister had gotten the wind knocked out of him, still struggling to regain his breath as a cough sent blood bursting from his nose.

“Don’t worry, I got you,” Cassandria said, dropping to his side.

She despised the man, but wasn’t about to let him flounder in the open. She sheathed her dagger, grabbed him by the shoulders and dragged him behind a mound of rubbish.

“You do care...” he said, still wheezing. “I appreciate the kindness, even if it doesn’t seem like it was necessary.” He motioned towards the action as Sabra and his bodyguard took down the last remaining hunter. “I told you you’ve got nothing to worry about.”

It would seem he was right. Sabra and his bodyguard looked a fair bit worse for wear, but they had all survived. Though it would seem that wouldn’t last for long, as one of the hunters lifted the bow with shaky arms and let a wild arrow loose. The head burst from Sabra’s chest with a spray of blood. Unflinching, Sabra stared down with a look of confusion. She turned her gaze to Cassandria, looking for an explanation, before dropping to her knees and hitting the ground.

“Noo!!” Cassandria screamed, tears streaming down her face. Callister held her, averting her eyes and gently brushing her hair. He was an asshole, but it was the only comfort she had.

His bodyguard dashed towards the archer and swung both blades through the man in an arching uppercut, a windmill of steel painting the decomposing muck beyond in a spattering of red.

Callister leaned down beside her whispering something to her, trying to console her, but she couldn’t hear the words. She couldn’t hear anything over the sound of her world crumbling around her. She had come to this place desperate, but she at least had Sabra at her side. Now, she truly had nothing.

She still wasn’t hearing the man’s words, but Callister helped Cassandria to her feet, arm wrapped around her. He began to lead her away from the scene. To where, she didn’t know.

Somewhere else was all that mattered.


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the empire
The Howl
The Mazewilds
The Shelf
Shaded Seed
Wayfarer's Ridge
A Gentle Scar
Tiller's Hamlet