Authors: Jonathan Casif,Sneer Rosenfeld
Open the gate
!" ordered a slithering voice to the guards. "The giant bats are ready for departure, my lord," Hubris, a thin-lipped grey elf, whose face was entirely scarred and his eyes pale to a horrid shade, stood in front of the earless great dragon. "Our people are scattered all throughout Idrinian Forest, ready to trap and kill each party that crosses their path."
"Excellent," a low voice as hell roared and echoed, bringing along with it tang smoke and sparks.
A frightened bat pack scattered away, chirping fearfully, until they retreated to the back of the cave.
"I will command this operation until Narook returns from Zadandon camp," Hubris bellowed his chest. "He will join them there."
"I see that your nephew is rising high in the chain of command," Klaxes voice echoed. "If he continues to perform as adequately as before, we will appoint him as a ruler in one of our conquered kingdoms," a horrible sound was heard as he brushed his scaled stomach with his long, sharp claws.
"I see a glorious future for him," Hubris whispered to himself and smiled evilly.
"What?" Klaxes turned his only ear toward Hubris and puffed smoke from his nostrils.
"Our forces leave tonight," announced Hubris, his stern visage returns to his face.
"Excellent," replied Klaxes, "remind them that none of them is allowed to destroy any of the Mirror Castle creatures!"
"Yes, sir," answered Hubris.
"And the stupid denizens of Nature – they may slaughter them without remorse," continued Klaxes, "but they must complete the mission successfully."
"Yes, his darkness," a devilish smile rose again on Hubris's face. "The re-alignment horn!" and his pale eyes reflected the fire that rose from Klaxes's open maw.
Close the gates
!" shouted Achtisanor, running in the crowd toward Alystus.
"All groups into place!" Alystus voice was heard above the din.
"No!" shouted Achtisanor, pushing himself forward. "There is a traitor in the competitors!" His sound was lost amidst the applause and the excited shouts. "Stop! Traitors…" he continued, stumbled and fell on his stomach.
"Gate number one – pass!" commanded Alystus.
The first circle of fire rose to the sky as if it was an inferno tower around Magic's Might and disappeared at once.
"Whew, have you seen that?" commented one of the spectators near sprawled Achtisanor.
Achtisanor lifted his head and saw De-Stik, Krunch, and Logan, equipped with backpacks and weapons, standing excitedly in the centre of their portal. He turned his head towards gate number two and looked for Van-Sniff.
"Gate number two – pass!" called Alystus and the fire column rose and teleported the members of Dragon's Breath.
Achtisanor rose to his feet, pushed back the crowd and ran towards Tigertief.
"Gate number three – pass!" called Alystus. Achtisanor removed his black hood and continued running.
"Gate number four – pass!" continued Alystus, not paying attention to the calls of the crowd, sighting the running knight. "Gate number five – pass!"
"Look," pointed Krunch towards Achtisanor, running towards them, his backpack bouncing on his back and his hand holding the sword hilt.
"Gate number six," called Alystus just as Achtisanor leaped on his three friends, "Pass!"
Special Issue – Second Part
Tigertief Double Surprise!!! In the last minute, Sir Claude Achtisanor joined his comrades
Even when the portals opened, it was not clear if Sir Claude Achtisanor, the founder of Achtisanor, was going to join his former comrades.
Achtisanor, who did not appear with his friends in the clock courtyard during the mission calling, surprised the crowd as he leapt and ran towards his friends a moment before the portal opened and teleported them away.
The rumours say that at first Sir Achtisanor refused to participate in the competition, but as apparently seen, have reconsidered. Some say that this was a brilliant tactical move of the adventuring party that was meant to fool all the other parties.
A new member in Tigertief: the daughter of Patrick Marsh
The unknown elven maiden viewed this morning with the rest of Tigertief members in the "Three Dimensions" bar is no less than Logan Marsh, the daughter of the late ranger, Patrick Marsh.
Her brother, Kiril Marsh, was a member of the Scorpion's Sting, which was reported missing in action during a mission to Kolchis Castle.
Sir Claude Achtisanor, a young apprentice of Patrick Marsh, founded Tigertief a few days after his master's murder.
The renowned Tigertief has returned with additional members, and it is one of the most promising and interesting teams in the competition.
Dunlop Roiter and Serdamus Piperazzi, Broncolina
"Aii… Ouch… Oof…" Krunch’s reedy voice screeched from beneath the heavy bodies of Achtisanor and De-Stik.
"Oh…" moaned Achtisanor and rose up to his feet. "Sorry about that."
"Sorry?!" De-Stik shouted as he rose and fiercely hugged Achtisanor. "You're sorry?! You are one sassy lad! I've never thought that when someone crushes my bones I'll be glad!"
"Are you okay, Choop?" Logan grabbed Krunch's hand and pulled him to his feet.
"If I'm okay?" screamed Krunch and stood, frowning all over the place. He tucked his shirt into his pants, his little belly bulging above his belt, "what can be wrong when two big men with backpacks and suites of armour land on you?" his frown was directed towards De-Stik and Achtisanor, who smiled back at him.
"Are you okay, Logan?" asked Achtisanor.
"Yes. Fortunately, Krunch and De-Stik blocked your dramatic entrance," Logan tied her quiver to her shoulder. "I knew that you'll join us, Claude!" She went over to him and kissed his cheek.
"Tigertief," whispered Krunch to himself, looking at his three friends.
"Tigertief," said Achtisanor and looked back at him.
De-Stik looked around at the thick bark trees, long moss hanging from the high branches. The sky above them was completely obscured by the green and dense canopy. Occasionally, a single sunbeam managed to penetrate the screen and painted the forest in a lighter shade.
"Idrinian," smiled Logan.
"Come on! We have some work to do!" surprised them Achtisanor in an authoritative manner. The four of them opened their packs and emptied their content on the ground.
"De-Stik, you're first," said Achtisanor.
"Well, I have brought some loaves of bread, a waterskin, and some peanut butter. One flask of oil, tinder stones, a blanket, and some work tools. I have a dagger, a crossed hook, and a quarterstaff to defend and heads to crack, and didn't forget my small harp in the pack." De-Stik moved his fingers lightly on the harp.
"Logan?" continued Achtisanor.
"I have some fruits, two healing potions, a torch, a long rope, a sword, a bow, and arrows," Logan pointed on the quiver on her shoulder, containing the green-leafed arrows, "a metal mirror and a black wool blanket for the cold nights."
"Krunch," Achtisanor looked toward the Lutin, who stood amongst dozens of strange vials.
"I have a dagger, a boomerang, two metal mirrors, two invisibility potions, two healing potions and an enlargement one. Some herbs, eagle claws, some porcupine spurs, bat ears, slugs' mucus…"
"I think we've got the point," interrupted him Achtisanor, smiling.
"Two waterskins, two flasks of oil, some vegetables and my spells and potions book."
"Good," said Achtisanor, "I have a half waterskin full of wine, some dried dates, a metal mirror, a waterskin full of oil, a bow, some arrows, and my sword."
"Everybody has some coins?" asked Logan.
"Let's hope it will be enough," said Achtisanor.
"We'll manage," said Logan.
"Yes, we'll manage, let's go forth," said De-Stik. "If only we knew in which direction lies the north!"
"Don’t worry," Logan looked above towards the treetops. "In this direction," she looked back. "That means that we need to go over there," she pointed to their right.
"Whew, how do you know that, Logan?" asked Krunch.
"The treetops in forest are usually tilted to the southwest, where the sun hangs most of the day," explained Achtisanor.
"And how do you know that?" the surprised Krunch asked Achtisanor.
"I had a good teacher, remember?" Achtisanor smiled to Logan.
"Then to the west we march," called De-Stik while the others packed their belongings. "Logan and Claude shall take the lead, while at the rear, myself and Krunch."
Moist soil and fresh leaves scent drifted in the air, tweets and whistles sounded above them.
"I think that this is a good opportunity to explain some things, Logan," said Krunch after a short silent march.
"Yes, after all a promise must be kept," said De-Stik, "How all three of us did you manage to locate?"
"Well," answered Logan and the three listened intently, "it was not so simple, and Catch and some other friends have helped me."
"Catch?" asked Krunch, "Your father's hawk?"
"Catch?" asked Achtisanor. "Is it still alive?"
"Old but still lives," answered Logan, "at least I hope so. I freed it before I left for Broncolina. It served my family for most of his years; it is time for it to rest.
"Three months ago, the Academy announced that Kiril is missing. I have decided to quit my studies and rescue him. When I've packed, I discovered the letters that my mother sent me before her death. Then I've found the letter that you, Achtisanor, sent her when you were young.
"I have sent Catch to find you. After all, it was the only animal that you've let yourself get close to. After a month he returned with this in his claws," Logan presented them with an azure ribbon marked with the knight's symbol.
"My knighthood ribbon!" called Achtisanor excitedly, "and I blamed Rood, my horse, for eating it."
"Then you owe it an apology," smiled Logan, "and I also owe you an apology." The tied the ribbon around Achtisanor's right arm.
"Apology accepted," Achtisanor smiled and straightened the ribbon on his arm.
"This is how I located Claude," continued Logan, "I mean, I knew Catch will eventually lead me to him."
"Well, this explanation is sound fast," said De-Stik, "but I still don't know how your letter to me was sent."
"Here my good friends came into play," said Logan. "I wrote a letter to Frecklie and Shampir Stoltz, both of them sell instruments in Nivron Junction. My brother introduced them to me. I asked them to notify me whenever the wandering minstrel De-Stik visits them."
"Stoltz?" asked De-Stik, "those damn bistons asked me without inclination, badgering me always about my destination."
"That's right," answered Logan.
"One part of the riddle is answered, but you must reply," asked De-Stik, "how did the letter fall right from the sky?"
"I think it is quite obvious," answered Krunch.
"Yes, I supposed it was the old hawk, but I wander far and wide," said De-Stik, "how did he recognize me in the crowd?"
"He didn't recognize you," laughed Logan and turned to him, "but he recognized this – yes!" She reached her hand to De-Stik's backpack and pulled out the big copper medallion, which on were engraved the letters LM.
"The stoltzs gave me this medallion as a gift between friends," wondered De-Stik. "It is a talisman, a sign of the Legendary Minstrels."
"Right, it could be the symbol of the 'Legendary Minstrels'," smiled Logan. "But it is actually my symbol: LM are the initials of my name," Logan laughed.
"Errr," muttered De-Stik and ripped the symbol from his pack, "I am so naïve, the order of the 'Legendary Minstrels' never lived." He looked again at the letters engraved on the medallion.
"You are not naïve," Krunch laughed a roaring laughter, "you are just a little… ah… just a little…"
De-Stik appraised Krunch from head to foot and waited for him to finish his sentence. Frown lines covered the gap between his eyebrows.
"A little… vain…?" said Krunch, after he couldn't find a kinder word. Logan and Achtisanor laughed heartily.
"Laugh you all on the wandering minstrel!" called De-Stik. "Just wait, Logan, only time will tell…"
"So you need to finish your studies at the academy, right?" Achtisanor asked Logan. "You are supposed to be… thirty-one years old?"
"Yes," answered Logan, "and I'll return there after I find Kiril."
They continued on their way, ascending and descending hills and mounds. De-Stik surprised them by imitating the birds' tweeting above on the canopy. Sometimes colourful feathers leaped hurriedly from branch to branch.
"Here is a good place to rest," called Achtisanor when they have reached the top of a small mound, which contained several flat boulders.
The four sat on the ground, pulled waterskins from their packs and drank. De-Stik cradled his harp on his knees and gently strummed the strings, singing along:
An abundance of good is there up above,
Between the green treetops of old.
A woodpecker sending his song of love,
Of colours so bright and so bold.
Oak branches seem as old man's hair,
Its trunk so firm and sturdy.
They do not sway in the cold air,
The wind cannot move wood so hardy.
And in the air a longing for a better day,
But tries to stop the time as if it could.
The time goes ticking, can never here stay,
When good is evil and evil is good.
"Bravo!" Logan and Krunch clapped while De-Stik bowed, "great rhyming, quite marvellous."
"Listen, Claude," De-Stik turned to Achtisanor after a short while, "I wanted to ask you what made you join us after all?"
"Not now," said Achtisanor, "we'll continue to march before the sun sets. I'll tell you tomorrow."
After an hour, the shadow of the forest grew around them. When the sun set, the four camped between the trees. Logan climbed on one of the trees to pass the night in the wood elves manner; she could see every approaching enemy from there. Achtisanor, De-Stik, and Krunch prepared to sleep on the forest floor and split the night's watch between them.
De-Stik hid some improvised traps all around them to warn them against wild animals, but the night passed quietly. Except for some porcupines, the party was not in any danger. When the dawn appeared, the four packed their equipment and headed west, towards the shore of the Asador Sea.
Only when they stopped for lunch, Achtisanor told them on the meeting of Van-Sniff and the lutin in the royal abode stables.
"Oh boy," murmured Krunch.
"I knew he was up to no good the minute he disappeared from the courtyard this morn," De-Stik said, "and now the bully plans, no less, to steal the horn."
"Achtisanor, are you sure they have talked about the horn?" asked Logan.
"This is the first thing that came into my mind when I heard of the mission objective," said Achtisanor. "It sounded like the lutin demanded from Van-Sniff to get the horn by any means necessary. He mentioned you. It sounded like he plans to harm Tigertief. And more, he also mentioned Hubris. I could not sit idly and do nothing."
"But the word 'horn' was not explicitly mentioned in the conversation," ventured Logan.
"No," said Achtisanor, "the word 'horn' was not mentioned. But from my brief and very unpleasant acquaintance with Van-Sniff, we should consider it."
"We should not accuse him of foul play," said Logan, "but we'll keep an eye on him."
"Yes," De-Stik said from behind, "we'll keep an eye very close. We'll find him even before we see his nose."
"Another thing," remembered Achtisanor after they have begun marching, "here is another thing that will amaze you more than me."
Achtisanor inserted his hand to his pack and removed the parchment he found in the stables. The three looked at it curiously.
"It looks familiar," Krunch tried to remember. Achtisanor unfolded the parchment while striding.
"By the gods of the universe, above and all," De-Stik ran and snatched the parchment, "from where did he get the Ashman scroll?"
"This is the parchment that was found at the murder site, Achtisanor," said Krunch as if he solved a riddle.
"What?" asked Logan, not understanding its significance.
"Yes," said Achtisanor, "I gave the parchment to Domarwink when I have quitted. Someone stole it from the royal abode and handed it to Van-Sniff."
"What is in this parchment?" asked Logan. When the question went unanswered, she approached De-Stik and looked at the parchment in his hands.
"Something is rotten…" said Krunch, looking sternly around.