All that can be seen is darkness. The smell of mildew and stone permeates the nostrils of the band of adventurers. As their eyes adjust to the lack of light, they soon realize the they are inside an empty crypt.
“Hey, Criollo,” Valse says, “remember last time with crypts?”
“Ech.” Criollo says, shuddering. “Don’t remind me. Bad memories.” He thinks back to the shared dream they had. They were attempting to dislodge a slab of stone sealing up a crypt in the mansion’s basement—when his fingers slipped, causing it to collapse onto him. His back hurts just thinking about it…
James flips to the second page of the book. The text begins to glow a faint gold, dimly illuminating the crypt. The text reads: “Leave the Crypt.”
“You heard the book,” Rognalad says, pushing against the stone slab covering the crypt entrance. “Time to leave.”
The party pushes the slab aside and crawls out of the crypt. Stepping out, they find themselves on a hillside near a rushing river, at the base of a snow-capped mountain. The cold sunlight of an autumn daybreak beams down from above. A forest can be seen in the distance to the left.
Ben takes a deep breath of the fresh oxygen. “Heh. Not bad.”
Looking around, the party spots a strange man leaning against a tree about fifty feet away. He’s dressed in drab garments, with a wide-brimmed hat upon his head and messy collar-length brown hair. On his back is strapped a lute. Norixus, Criollo, and Valse seem to recognize him…
“Wait…” Norixus says, eyes widening. “Is that… Willington?!”
“Who?” Ben says, cracking his knuckles. “Is it someone I can beat the shit out of?!”
Norixus blinks, turning to Ben. “An ally of ours, my friends. Please do not.”
“Ah. That’s lame.”
“Willington!” Criollo shouts, running up to the man, “How did you end up here?!”
Willington squints, pondering for a moment. “Good question.”
“Do you remember anything?” Norixus strides up to the two.
Willington glances around. “Not a single clue. Only remember waking up from a nightmare about a flying broom… eugh…”
“Ech,” Criollo responds, “so basically our situation then.”
The book begins to glow with heat, shaking back and forth in James’s arms. “Let’s just fucking see what the book says,” James grumbles, as he opens it to the third page. It reads: “Find Willington and add him to your party.”—though as James begins to read it, the text crosses out.
Willington peers over James’s shoulder. “Funny book you got there.”
The scritches of a pen on paper reverberates from the book. James flips the page, reading the newly scrawled words. “Travel to the city of Ambstalt.”
“I’ve… never heard of that city,” Criollo says, scratching his head. “Moreover, which way do we even go to get there?”
“You’ve never heard of Ambstalt?” Valse raises an eyebrow at Criollo. “Ambstalt is one of the most famous cities in the world! It’s the ancient stronghold of the humans!”
Criollo shrugs. “Being stuck on an island your whole life really shuts you off to a lot of things.”
“Really? A real big city?” Norixus comments. “Hmm, might be a nice change from the church I was stuck in…”
“Huh, I remember stopping there once or twice,” Willington says.
James looks over at Ben. “Do you know this city at all?”
Ben yawns, chuckling. “Yep, and the city is real nice… the slums are a massive shithole too. That’s where I came from. I’m surprised I’m heading back so soon. Who knows? Maybe I’ll find someone I used to beat on there.”
Norixus gives Ben a judgmental stare. “…you seem to have a bit of a violent streak.”
Ben shrugs. “It was either that, or starve. In the slums, you had to fight for everything if you wanted to survive.” He gives Norixus the side eye. “If you’ve got a problem, we could settle it.”
Norixus steps back. “Hey, hey, I was just asking. No ill intent.”
Valse reaches into her explorer’s pack and retrieves a compass. Holding it still in her palm for a moment, she squints at her surroundings. “This river runs west, and the forests in the south seem to be Yomi pines.” Pulling out a protractor, she gazes up towards the sun. “Based on the angle, it seems we’re very far north. Yeah, this would be the Amber river—we must be near its head. If we follow the river, we should make it to Ambstalt, near its mouth.”
“So,” Valse turns to the party, “shall we head out, then?”
“Yeah,” Willington states, “I’ve already wandered the forest long enough.”
The party follows the river westward, making merry banter all the while. It was a nice change of pace, compared to the eerie darkness of the manor dream, and the dungeon they all awoke in. It was late in the afternoon when they found a strange kobold in a big hat tied up to a stake on the side of the road. Surrounding him are various gashes and markings of a struggle, as well as stains of blood.
“Hm?” Norixus says, looking up at the kobold, “Are you alright up there?”
Rognalad lets out a hearty laugh. “Look at that rat thing.”
“Hey!” the kobold shouts, “Give me a hand!”
Willington moves towards the kobold, “Sure—”
“Wait!” Valse grasps Willington. “Hold on. This might be a trap—look at all the blood and markings near him. Somebody put him here—No… a bunch of people did.”
“I’m not!” the kobold shouts at Valse. “Look at me! How can you fake this?!”
James strides up to the stake. Whether he heard Valse’s warning or simply didn’t care, he strikes the stake with his dull greatsword. The stake snaps.
“OH GOD!” Norixus shouts, “SOMEONE CATCH HIM!”
Rognalad shrugs. “He’ll catch himself.”
“I got ‘im, I got ‘im!” Willington shouts as he dives towards the falling kobold—though gravity was far faster. With a loud splat, the kobold lands face-first into the dirt.
“HAHAHAHA!” Ben doubles over in laughter. “Man, this is waaay better than being stuck in that shitty mansion.”
The kobold groans, his face covered in dirt. “God, can’t you be a little more prepared?!” He stands up and brushes the grime off his face and clothes. “Anyway, you did save me. Who are you people?”
Ben taps the kobold’s face with his boot lightly. “Nah, you tell us who you are first.”
“What’s your problem, you tripe?!” the kobold pushes Ben’s boot away.
“Answer the question if you don’t wanna swallow your teeth, rat.”
“I am not a rat! I am a kobold!”
“Hey,” Willington says, blocking Ben’s way. “Knock it off, blue eyes. We just met the guy.”
“Yea yea,” Ben pushes Willington aside. “Why don’t you make me? This dude was obviously crucified for a reason.”
The book jitters again, glowing softly. The gold trim on its cover seems to grow, spreading further along its binding. James opens it to the fourth page; on it is a crossed out line reading: “Add Big Hat to your party.”
“God fucking damnit…” James whispers. “Well, guys…” he presents the fourth page to the others.
Ben turns and looks at the book, and begins to laugh again. “Your name is ‘Big Hat’?! Jeez, you’re pathetic.”
“Ohoho, perhaps I am! Who knows!”
“He’s the only one with a hat, dude,” James says, glancing at Ben. “Yes, he’s Big Hat.”
Ben takes his boot off the kobold’s face and picks him up roughly, setting him on his feet.
Big Hat wriggles desperately. “W-What are you doing?! Release me at once!”
“Yea, yea, just shut up.” Ben lets go of Big Hat and smirks, backing away.
“Well,” Norixus begins, “it seems you need protection from whomever put you up there. Care to join us for a while?”
“Oh!” Big Hat jumps excitedly. “I will be a valuable asset to you all! I do owe you after all…”
“People, please quiet down,” Valse says, turning to the party. “The sun’s about to set. We should get moving and find a place to set up camp.”
“Okay,” James says, “let’s just continue to… Ambalths? Ampalths?”
Willington scratches his head. “Hey, how far are we from the Ampalths place?”
Valse rolls her eyes. “It’s Ambstalt, by the way. We’re about a week’s travel on foot.”
“Aw hell,” Ben groans. “Can’t we steal horses or something?”
Rognalad eyes Ben. “Where do you see horses?”
“Let’s just keep moving,” Valse continues walking. “It’s a river, there’s bound to be some villages on the way.”
“Hah!” Big Hat shouts, “there was a village with some horses all right!”
Ben suddenly whips around to Big Hat, practically breathing on him. “Where?”
Big Hat jolts from fear. “C-Can you stop?!”
“HAHAHAHA! You make it too damn easy.”
“A village?” Willington comments, “you don’t sound fond of it though…”
“Oh, they are not fond of me, actually.”
“Fellas!” Valse shouts at the party. “Please! Let’s just hurry up and move. I don’t like the thought of hanging around this spot where he was tied up for too long.”
Ben gives Big Hat a hard slap on the back, still chuckling. “I’m messing with you—you look too weak to fight anyways. The high I’d get would be practically nothing.”
“Okay,” Big Hat says, backing away from Ben. “I’ve had enough of you!”
“Yea, yea, save it for later. Let’s get a move on.”
Big Hat sits down in a huff, throwing a tantrum and screaming inaudible sentences.
Ben turns to the kobold, his face filled with pure disgust. “Someone grab him. Before I kick him.” His words only cause Big Hat to lay flat down on his back and cry.
Valse’s eye twitches, her arms clenching as she stomps over to Big Hat. She gives him a death glare and picks him up by the neck as Ben’s laughter rings out once more. “Now. Where is the village?”
“W-Woah woah woah, hey!” Big Hat struggles in her grip, grabbing her wrist. “Just let me go!”
“Down the river, mayhaps?” Criollo suggests.
Valse drops Big Hat to the ground unceremoniously. “Let’s. Move.”