“I’m going to miss this place. What about the rest of you?” Nimby cheerfully asks as he joins the others at the front gate. The sky is filled with rainclouds that give the day a slightly depressing appearance. “I can’t be the only one who has so many fond memories of this academy. Like the time I stole all the apples from Betty or that time Fritz launched himself at the girls’ dormitory.”
“That would have been a great accident for me,” Fritz declares with a joyful gleam in his eye. He casually pulls out an oily comb and straightens his short, graying beard. “If only I had landed in the girls’ dorm instead of passing through the dorm, across the courtyard, and into Duggan. That dwarf sure was mad about that. You are right, my friend. It is a memory that I will cherish. I probably speak for myself, but a few months away from here and I might be ecstatic to return. It might be hard to part with you boys when the time comes, but that is a bridge that has not been designed yet. Onward to adventure, knowledge, women, danger, women, and most importantly women! Fritz Warrenberg is on his merry way!” He pats Bessaria on the rump as he finishes putting the rest of his gear on the grumpy sheep.
“Speaking of women, how did things go with Kira?” Nimby asks curiously.
“Forget that. How did things go with the elf women, Aedyn?” Fritz inquires.
Both half-elves grumble as they stretch their legs and pretend that the questions never existed. Aedyn yawns as wide as his mouth allows, which causes Luke to copy the action without meaning to. They look back at the empty courtyard. There is no grand send-off since the student body is busy doing the morning run under the watchful eye of Theresa. With the student body doing the morning run under Theresa Marley’s watchful eye, there is no grand send-off for the small group of adventurers. Only Selenia and Kevin watch the small group from atop the wall as they begin to leave.
“You four take care of yourselves! It’s a dangerous world out there if you go looking for trouble,” Selenia bellows, watching them cross the treeless killing field. “I expect news of your victories, Callindor. The reputation of this academy is tied to your own now. Don’t disappoint me.”
“Remember what I told you, boy! Find something to fight for instead of your own fame and legend!” hollers Kevin, who is squinting due to a pounding headache. “And remind that gnome that he owes me ten bottles of elven mead. Tell him every day, so he doesn’t forget. I don’t want to have to chase after his greasy hide to collect my winnings.” Fritz turns to bow in Kevin’s direction before making a few quick hand gestures.
A small bird appears in front of Kevin and begins talking in a high-pitched voice. “My master wishes to say that you insult his honor and integrity. He will send you your winnings straight from Gaia before he leaves for places beyond your reach. He also says that you wouldn’t last two minutes if you were drinking gnomish spikers. That is the drink of a real man. Er, male gender of any species since he is a gnome and not a human.”
The bird vanishes as Kevin erupts in gut-wrenching laughter that can be heard even as the four friends enter Visindor Forest. They immediately notice how much life has returned to the forest. Areas that were devoid of birds a few weeks ago are now filled with bird song while squirrels leap after each other in the canopy. The influence of the Lich is a faded memory to the animals of the forest. It is the hero that saved them that they remember fondly. Luke can still see all types of beasts stopping to look in his direction with nothing more than a thank you in their eyes. It is a subtle look that only a forest tracker would notice.
“You never answered Nimby’s question. Are you going to be of a healthy mind for this trip?” Aedyn asks, trailing behind the speedy forest tracker.
“We didn’t have any other choice. I refuse to take her into danger and I refuse to give her up. We are taking a break for as long as it takes for me to finish this. We even gave each other permission to see other people until we are ready to settle down with each other,” Luke half-heartedly explains. “Don’t ask, Nimby. Don’t applaud, Fritz. My reason for this is simple. The Lich could continue being a problem for us even after we escort Kellia back home. Kira would be in harm’s way if she came along.”
“You two will be together again. It just comes down to when, which nobody can predict. Have an apple,” Nimby says, tossing the polished fruit to his friend. The apple lands on Luke’s shoulder and effortlessly rolls down his arm into his open hand.
“Excuse me, but I have a big question to ask that requires immediate answering. What happened with Aedyn and the elf women?” Fritz asks with a hint of desperation in his voice. Nimby and Luke try hard to stay calm only to fail within seconds and break out into laughter.
Aedyn clears his throat and turns to Fritz with a solemn look on his face. “It was a pleasant night.”
“That’s it?” the gnome inquires suspiciously.
“Both maidens were true ladies and I will not shame them,” Aedyn defiantly replies.
“True ladies? Shame them? You got both, you young dog?” Fritz sputters in shock. “I am truly impressed. I bow to your superior womanizing skills.” The grinning gnome bows to Aedyn who is becoming very frustrated with the gnome.
“Stop that!” Aedyn yells. “You are making too big a ruckus about this.”
Fritz grins wickedly and points at the priest. “What about those red marks on your neck?”
“Stop talking about it, Fritz,” demands Aedyn, whose face has turned bright red. “What I do behind closed doors is not your business. I am a nineteen-year-old male and am free to make such choices. You have no business knowing about what I do in private.”
“Got it. Not my business what you do behind closed doors,” Fritz replies with a grin and turning away from the priest. “Even if other people can hear it.”
“Exactly. . . . I would curse you for the entire journey if my god wouldn’t punish me for such actions!” Aedyn shouts. By this time, Luke and Nimby have collapsed on the ground in fits of crying laughter. The priest casts a silence spell on them to get some peace of mind. He removes it immediately since watching his friends laugh with no noise turns out to feel much worse. Luke finally composes himself enough to drag himself to his feet and wipes the tears from his eyes.
“I needed that,” Luke mentions, helping Nimby to his feet. “I have to admit that you two have gotten closer over the last few months. It’s like you two are best friends like Nimby and me.”
Aedyn grimaces as Fritz continues talking. “I will freely admit that Aedyn is a good friend . . . for a stiff.”
“And I will admit that Fritz is a good friend too,” the priest concedes. “For a womanizing annoyance who takes pleasure in my humiliation.”
“I can tell this adventure will be a lot of fun since I’m with you three,” Luke says with a satisfying smile. He is about to start walking, but stops in mid-step. “That’s strange. I feel like something is missing. You guys know what I mean?”
“Come to think of it, I think we’re forgetting something,” Nimby agrees, scratching his head. “I can’t put my finger on it, though. Did we have a message to take with us?”
Fritz shakes his head and looks around the forest. “Not that I know of. Selenia would have handed it to us this morning if there was one.”
“I cannot think of anything,” Aedyn claims.
“Fizzle no know too. Maybe more apples?” asks a high-pitched voice from on top of Aedyn’s staff. Everybody jumps at the sudden noise while the adorable, purple-skinned drite materializes. He flutters over to each of his friends to give a happy nuzzle and shakes their hands with his tail.
“I’m sorry, Fizzle. We forgot to say good-bye to you,” Nimby says, reaching out to hug the little creature. A puff of smoke hits him in the face and the halfling topples over mumbling about flying pastries trying to buy his feet.
“This no bye. Fizzle go too. Luke need Fizzle. Nimby need Fizzle. Aedyn need Fizzle,” he squeaks while flying circles around his friends. “Fritz real need Fizzle.”
“I get no respect. Even from magical creatures of great power,” Fritz mutters under his breath.
Luke tries to hide how happy he is to have Fizzle join him, but a thought crosses his mind that he is almost too nervous to ask. “What about Visindor Forest? You protect this forest. You told me that the trees can feel your pain if you’re hurt and that you have been living here for centuries. We can’t let you leave this place unprotected because you want to travel with us. This is a simple bodyguard job and it isn’t worth you putting your home in danger.”
The drite lands on Luke’s shoulder, his claws gingerly gripping his shirt. “Fizzle know. Selenia watch dark place. Fizzle cousin watch home. It what Fizzle want. Luke not know. Fizzle know. Trouble big. Fizzle sense it. Darkness find friends. Fizzle protect. Darkness go poof.”
“What kind of darkness?” Aedyn asks.
“I just wonder what his cousin’s name is,” Fritz whispers as he helps Nimby get to his feet.
“Plimp is cousin. Darkness an . . . anch . . . old. Very old. All Fizzle tell. Please take Fizzle,” the drite whimpers.
“I can’t argue with that face,” Luke states, moving to lead his friends through Visindor Forest. “Besides, if you know something bad is about to happen then having you with us would be the best idea. Guess this means we all get to stick together. Let’s get moving to Gaia.”
“Where Luke mate? Pretty girl no come? Fizzle like pretty girl. Luke not with pretty girl? Luke lose pretty girl?” Fizzle rapidly asks. The questions strike Luke like a volley of arrows to his chest, causing his pace to turn into a stiff crawl.
“Great. Fizzle broke our leader,” Fritz quips.