"Any news yet of Taeeren?" Rorin asked.
"No, none yet", replied Dragons. "It's been far too long since we've had any word of him".
"How long has it been since he left? It seems like months almost", said Rorin.
"And indeed it has been months. Two to be exact. I still regret that we sent him alone on that dangerous mission." Dragons sighed.
Two months previous, there had been strange reports of bandits roaming the far eastern lands. Small villages were being ransacked and pillaged, and the people were being driven out. But worse, there were rumors of strange men from across the sea. Some of the small elven villages next to the Eastern Sea had seen strange ships far out at sea, and some of the fishing boats had been mysteriously disappearing. This was troubling the locals, but it did not have an effect on The Syndicate, as far inland as their base of operations was located. However, the fact that the rumors were more and more widespread, and the fact that they were all the same, had begun to trouble Dragons.
A council had been held, and it was decided that The Syndicate could no longer take this as a mere rumor. Taeeren had volunteered to travel west in search of more information. Kelador, Gazzaz, and Rorin had volunteered to go with him, but Taeeren had declined. He could move much faster and quieter if he were to travel alone. Thus, on a moonlit night exactly 2 months ago, Taeeren set off. With a small farewell, Dragons and the rest of the council wished him well, and reluctantly let him leave alone on this potentially dangerous mission.
Taeeren had been training with the wizard's familiars, which were literally miniature dragons. Taeeren had chosen one in particular to take with him, which belonged to the wizard Ranco. At Dragon's orders, Ranco let his familiar go, and released it into the care of Taeeren. Taeeren had stored it, or, "put it to sleep", for ease of travel. He would summon it only if required to deliver an important message.
One month following Taeeren's departure, word of Taeeren was finally received. Ranco's familiar had shown up in the middle of the night, exhausted from the long flight it had just taken. Attached one of its legs was a letter written to Dragons. It read:
"Dragons...I fear that the rumors are true. I have traveled in a southeasterly direction to the village of Dargatash. Here I found refugees from Tareken, most of which are injured, or dying with no hope for life. What I wouldn't give for some of Kailea's or Surrina's healing right now, these people could really use it. I plan to head north to Tareken to see what remains of the village, and search for any clues as to who is doing this. Enclosed is a leaf from outside the village. You can use as a reagent, should you decide to give these people aid. I fear you may not hear from me for some time...................-Taeeren"
Dragons immediately held an emergency council, and almost every member was present. Throughout the night there was much debate on what actions should be taken. It was decided that they would hold out looking for Taeeren, and that they would try and help the village of Dargatash.
Merlota, Ranco, and Kadinea immediately got busy working on a portal spell that would allow them instant travel to the faraway village of Dargatash. They would have to use the letter from Taeeren as one of the reagents, so they could get close to the village yet not spook the locals. Auranara, Kailea, Surrina and the rest of the clerics gathered medical supplies to aid them. Ulkaur, Gazzaz, Rorin, Trelisha and Kelador prepared a small stash of weapons should they be needed.
Morning came, and everything was ready. A small party would make the journey. At Dragons' command, Ranco opened up the portal.
Kelador, Trelisha, Rorin, Gazzaz, and Ulkaur went in first. Then Kailea, Auranara, Merlota, Ranco, and finally Kadinea. The party would be able to port back home when they had accomplished their mission.
"What in the..." Kelador’s voice drifted off..
The party stood in awe as they realized what they were looking at. Dargatash, or what was left of it, had been burnt to the ground. The inns. The bars. The small houses scattered through the small village. It was all destroyed. There wasn't any movement, and the eerie silence was frightening. They knew that any search for survivors would fail. Not even the livestock remained.
"Who.... who could have done this?" pleaded Kailea.
"Probably the same people from those 'rumors' that we've been hearing about," replied Rorin. "I hope Taeeren is safe". Deep down, Rorin was sure Taeeren was safe. Taeeren had gotten himself out of many bad situations before, and was perfect at traveling undetected.
"What do we do now?" inquired Trelisha. Trelisha, who was normally a strong person, never to show any emotion, had to hold back tears at the horror of what lie before her eyes.
"We should deal properly with the bodies first", said Auranara. "Let's at least bury them properly".
They all agreed. It wasn't an easy task, or a pretty one. By mid-day they had finished, and had buried the bodies in an unmarked grave next to the church. They held a short ceremony for the dead, and then looked for clues as to what happened. It was nearing nightfall, and they had found nothing.
"I think we should head back. There's nothing left for us to do here," said Merlota. Even if Taeeren had left this place, there is no way in hell any of us could track him." Merlota was usually blunt, and this time was no different.
"Yeah, you're right. Taeeren had been teaching me some of his tracking skills, but I'm not that good. I don't even think Finnaula or Michaelson would be able to track him, if they were here," replied Kadinea.
It was soon decided that the party would depart. Using Kadinea's and Ranco's magic teleportation spells, they were all soon back at The Syndicate's base. Dragons immediately came out of the meeting hall, obviously surprised to see them back here already.
"Back so soon?" Dragons asked.
Rorin replied, "Let us pray for Taeeren. Something terrible has happened......."
Shadoll and Rorin agreed. While they knew Taeeren was a capable ranger, there were just too many mysteries left. Another party had returned to Dargatash the day after the first had returned, led by Dragons himself, to search for clues. None of the rangers could find any trace of Taeeren. Sasa, Finnaula, and Michaelson had tried their hardest to look for anything that would help them find their teacher. They had never been trained for that.
"How is everybody holding up?" asked Dragons.
"I think they are doing fine. That, or, Taeeren taught them really well how to hide it," replied Shadoll. Taeeren had always been eager to teach the other rangers some of his skills. They had almost surpassed him in some aspects.
Rorin laughed. "You’re probably right, Shad."
"Damn dorfs, they laugh so weird" teased Shadoll
Suddenly, a shout came from across the way. Dragons looked at one of the lookout towers to see Michaelson pointing towards the East. Dragons hurried over to see what was wrong.
"Look there!" says Michaelson, pointing to a hill almost 3 miles away. "See her?"
"Her?" Dragons had a puzzled look on his face. "I don't even see what you are looking at, and you're telling me it's a 'her'?"
"Bah, your eyes aren't trained as well as mine are. Just below that group of trees, to the left of the rock outcropping." Michaelson pointed Dragons hand towards it.
"Oh that! What is it?"
"Looks like an elfish woman to me, seems to be struggling too. Might be injured."
"Send out a party to meet her, if it is in fact a her." Dragons ordered. Rorin, Shadoll, Auranara, and Hainnon are quickly summoned.
The party left, accompanied by Michaelson, and they set out to meet the woman. When they reach her, she collapsed, unconscious, into Shadoll's arms.
"Get us back, quick!" yells Auranara. "She's in bad shape, and I can't help her here."
Hainnon quickly summoned them back to the courtyard, and they ran quickly to the medical clinic.
"Move!" yelled Rorin. A path is quickly made to the closest empty bed, where Shadoll gently laid her down.
"T.... Ta..... Taeeren" gasped the woman. "Wh...where is......Taeeren?"
"I'm afraid that he is not here now milady," stated Rorin. "In fact, we haven't heard from him in over a month."
"I......I must speak with.... Dragons." said the woman. "Alone...."
"Like hell you are" said Auranara. "Your in terrible shape, somebody has to stay here with you."
While Rorin ran off to find Dragons, the rest of the party dispersed. Dragons arrived, and immediately seemed to recognize the woman.
"Leave at once, everybody," ordered Dragons. "I must speak with this woman in private. Auranara, you can stay to watch over her, but ONLY IF you promise now that everything you hear will be kept secret until further notice."
"As long as you let me tend to her as needed, then yes, I'll swear it to secrecy" promised Auranara.
"Fine, let it be so."
Auranara yelled for Kailea. "GET IN HERE NOW!!!"
Kailea rushed in to find Auranara trying her best to revive the woman. Kailea aided her, but even with the help of Dragons, they could not succeed. The woman was dead, and they were all amazed that she had even lived as long as she had.
"Secrecy" reminded Dragons. "Don't tell a soul, you either Kailea. All you know is that I came in to aid you, she became unconscious, then died."
Kailea and Auranara both promised. Although, neither one would fully understand the story until later….
The rest of the day passed without incident. That is, until Finnaula sounded the alarm. It was her turn at the Eastern watch, and she had relieved Michaelson a few hours ago for some lunch.
"It's Taeeren! Coming from the East! And he's moving fast!"
Dragons quickly summoned Rorin, Gazzaz, Ulkaur, Warin, and Kailea. They mounted horses and, bringing an extra horse, rode out to meet Taeeren. They reached him just about where the first party had met the mysterious woman.
"Where is she?" pleaded Taeeren. "I must see her now!"
"Where is who?" inquired Ulkaur. Ulkaur had been sleeping that morning when the first event had occurred, so he had no idea what was going on.
"She is with Aortus," replied Dragons.
Taeeren screamed. "NO! I don't believe you!" Taeeren jumped onto the spare horse and sped back to base. He was a far better rider than any of them, and left them all in the dust.
Taeeren hopped off the horse, far before it had come to a stop. He ran to the building where he knew that the woman would be. Aortus had heard the commotion and was standing in the doorway, blocking passage into the building.
"Nobody's allowed in here! Dragon's orders" said Aortus. Aortus was a necromancer, and loved to delve in deathly things.
"Let me pass or you'll regret it!" yelled Taeeren. By this time, others had begun to show up wondering what was going on. Including Shadoll and Darvo. Taeeren drew his knife. "Let me through, NOW!" Taeeren moved towards Aortus.
Shadoll and Darvo, knowing what was about to take place, quickly rushed Taeeren and tackled him to the ground. They knocked the knife out of his hand, just as Dragons and the rest of the party arrived.
"Let him go in" ordered Dragons. Slowly, Shadoll and Darvo helped Taeeren to his feet, knowing that something must have driven him mad for him to draw a weapon on a close friend. Aortus moved out of his way, and Taeeren went inside the building. Dragons followed, and told Aortus to shut the door behind them. Aortus led Taeeren and Dragons to a room, where the body of an elfish woman was in the process of being prepared for burial. Taeeren walked to the body, looking down on the woman's face. Then he could hold back no more. Taeeren fell to his knees and began to weep. Dragons moved close to try and console his friend.
"Leave me be", uttered Taeeren behind choked tears. Dragons complied.
"We will all be waiting outside", replied Dragons. With that, Dragons and Aortus left the room, and shut the door.
"Who is that?" whispered Aortus to Dragons as they left.
"In time, you may know. But that is up to Taeeren." replied Dragons. "But for now, we must prepare a clean bed for Taeeren. He has been through a lot, and will most likely need a few days to recover in the clinic, if not more. Send word for Surrina to meet me here."
"As you wish, Dragons," replied Aortus. Aortus left to find Surrina. Dragons sat down on a bench, and put his head in his hands. Dragons sighed heavily, in deep thought
"Here as requested" said Surrina.
Dragons raised his head. There was Surrina, beautiful as always, ready to be put to work. Dragons smiled. "I have a special task for you. I need you to prepare a bed, in a private room, in the clinic. Make it one in the back, far away from the rest of the patients. It's for Taeeren. He is in that room right now, and when he comes out, I fear he will need a few days of rest. From the looks of it, I'd say he's been through a hell of a lot. I want you to be ready to watch over him."
"I'd be happy to," replied Surrina, as she hurried off. Surrina had always teased Taeeren about one thing or another. Some people might say it was almost flirtatious.
"Yes Dragons?" Surrina turned around to see what else Dragons needed.
"Taeeren is changed. He won't be the same as he used to be." Dragons had a serious look on his face, and Surrina knew this would not be one of those times to joke around.
"I understand," replied Surrina. And she left.
Hours pass by. It is almost nightfall when Taeeren finally opens the door. Dragons had summoned Rorin, Shadoll, and Ulkaur to stand by outside the room. Shadoll spoke up first.
"Are you alright Tae?" asked Shadoll.
Taeeren's face was pale, and he looked exhausted. He was struggling to even stand on his own two feet. As Taeeren collapsed to his knees, Shadoll and Ulkaur were there to catch him. All of Taeeren's strength seemed to leave his body, and as he lost consciousness, he looked up at Dragons and said, "I failed....."