The Lodestone

Tales from the Shadows

A Dream Partnership

Amaro in whom the old blood has quickened have a lifespan far exceeding that of their unawakened kin. Yet even these long-lived specimens are not spared the ravages of time. Eyes become clouded, wings grow feeble and frail... And in the case of the hulking Seto, leader of the Wolekdorf amaro, old age has brought with it an ever-growing desire to doze, as if the combined weight of more than a hundred winters were bearing down upon his eyelids. This day is no different. The venerable creature surrenders to the siren call of sleep as the sweet scent of flowers fills his nostrils, his mind’s eye soon flickering with visions of a warmly remembered past.

A young amaro, emaciated and exhausted, stretched himself flat in a sunbaked corner of the city of Nabaath Areng. One glance at the pitiful creature told a story of protracted abuse, of a body beaten and deprived of anything beyond the bare essentials required for survival. No man nor beast would willingly choose those searing flagstones for a bed, but the bulky wagon to which the amaro was harnessed afforded him little choice in the matter. So here he would lie, conserving his strength until his owner returned to rouse him.

Ah. The master has returned.

A corpulent Hume emerged from a nearby stone-built shopfront and strode purposefully towards the wagon, a cruel-looking whip gripped tightly in his sausage-like fingers. Crafted from the elastic sinews of a lizard, the lash delivered a terrible sting which the amaro knew only too well. Even if fatigued to the point of collapse, when the whip spoke, he somehow found the will to answer.

It comes...

Would it be the neck or the shoulder? The back or the rump? The amaro hoped it would miss his snout, scrunching his eyes shut in anticipation of that agonizing snap which preceded every journey. But it never came.

Confused, the amaro opened his eyes to see a young man standing directly between him and the scourge of his days. The stranger seemed scarcely out of boyhood, yet he balanced an oversized greataxe upon one shoulder with apparent ease.

“Surrender yourself, Lamunth! The ‘Jade Fox’ has been unmasked.”

Thus did the amaro first meet Ardbert, the man who would later name him "Seto." It was an encounter which would, in the fullness of time, blossom into a true and lasting friendship.

The seed for this roadside confrontation had, in fact, been sown several moons earlier, with the discovery of fake gemstones in the markets of Nabaath Areng. Of such cunning artifice were the jewels that even the most practiced appraisers had been taken in by their seeming perfection. Pride stung and reputation in tatters, the members of the Jeweler’s Guild had offered a bounty of staggering riches for the capture of the “Jade Fox,” as the mystery counterfeiter had come to be known.

Word soon spread, and would-be bounty hunters from across the land had converged upon the city in a mad scramble to claim the reward. Yet despite their best efforts to sniff out the Fox, they succeeded only in uncovering still more of the counterfeiter’s fabrications.

It was a pair of novice adventurers─Ardbert and Lamitt─who finally brought the Jade Fox to justice. They had enlisted the aid of Branden, once a knight of Voeburt, and with his help pierced the intricate veil of illusory magick placed upon the forgeries. Thus laid bare, the baubles’ origins could begin to be deduced, the evidence leading them at last to a man by the name of Lamunth.

Upon collecting the bounty from the grateful jewelers, the three agreed to split the lavish purse equally. Yet recalling Branden’s not inconsiderable thirst for revelry, the other two had expressed reservations about awarding him his share all at once. They knew as well as he did that the whole lot might be drunk in the space of a night. And so he had grudgingly accepted Lamitt’s proposal to spread the spoils over a period of moons, even if it did mean joining them on the road for a while...

Ardbert, for his part, had his own plans for this newfound fortune. Learning that the authorities had taken possession of Lamunth’s maltreated amaro, he wasted no time in negotiating a price for the creature.

The amaro meekly tottered along behind his liberator until they reached the party’s lodgings, whereupon he immediately collapsed into a listless heap.

“What were you thinking, boy?” Branden quipped. “The beast’s all skin and bones. I doubt he could survive a turn around the city, let alone a trip across the desert. Why, there’s not enough meat on him for a bowlful of stew!”

The amaro snorted loudly, as if taking umbrage at the insult.

“Don’t listen to that lout, Seto,” Ardbert said warmly, scratching the underside of the amaro’s jaw. “I’d sooner see him in the pot than you. And we’ll show him your true value soon enough!”

In fairness to the knight, the city officials had shared Branden’s low opinion of “Seto.” They deemed the weakened creature a worthless investment, and would, Ardbert knew, have soon put him out of his misery. Unable to bear the thought, the young man had been moved to act. It was simple compassion which drove him, yet there was also curiosity─for in the piteous creature’s demeanor, he swore he had glimpsed a spark of something more.

Born on a small isle in the seas of Kholusia, Ardbert had spent his childhood amongst the birds and the beasts, there being no others of his age to play with in the mountain village he called home. It was there that his grandfather, the boy’s only living relative, had instructed him in the care of all manner of livestock. This education included the habits of the noble amaro, and thus Seto’s unusual behavior had instantly piqued Ardbert’s interest. He had watched the poor creature bide his time, waiting until his cruel master had departed before sinking down to rest, in what appeared to be a deliberate bid to escape further punishment. And such rare intelligence was a thing to be nurtured.

“Time to earn your keep, Seto!”

At a whistle from Ardbert, the amaro trotted further out into the Fields of Amber and flopped heavily to the ground. Ardbert, meanwhile, quickly ducked behind a boulder, taking his place alongside the crouching figures of Branden and Lamitt. Local merchants had hired them to slay a vicious pack of coyotes that threatened the caravan route, and a bewildered Seto was playing the role of bait.

“Still not much of a meal, is he?” Branden muttered, his bulky frame folded double in an awkward effort to remain unseen. “I hope those beasts are hungry...”

Dimly aware of the larger man’s grumbling, Seto mused over his recent change in circumstance. Unlike his old master, Ardbert never struck or beat him. And he always made certain Seto had plenty to eat and drink. He had even brushed the filth from his feathers. Ardbert’s touch was kind, and when he scratched that spot beneath Seto’s jaw, the amaro almost felt like purring. It was an unfamiliar feeling.

Then there were the “tricks.” Seto was mystified as to their purpose, but not wanting to anger his new owner and risk everything he’d gained, he did his best to perform as Ardbert directed. And now it seemed he was to be sacrificed.

I should have known. Men are all the same.

As he lay there despondent, resigned to his fate, Seto spotted the pack of coyotes approaching at an easy lope, and realized why he had been fed so well.

“Seto─to me!”

Greataxe raised, Ardbert came charging in his direction. Seto tilted his head in momentary confusion, then sprang to his feet. Concluding that he had not been left to die after all, he set off towards his new master as fast as his legs would carry him. And though he was unable to take flight, his body having yet to recover from years of malnourishment, he flapped his wings with frantic strength all the same.

The predators duly took up the chase, and the sight of the earthbound amaro scrambling along in a blind panic had Branden in tears of laughter.

“Hah! The scrawny rascal can move when it suits him!”

Bridling at the knight’s mocking tone, Seto changed course. A dozen yalms short of his onrushing master, the amaro hopped high into the air and glided straight over Branden’s head. Moments later, the coyotes which had been snapping at the amaro’s tail were now snarling in the big man’s face.

“Wha─? Argh!” Branden yelped, his smirk evaporating as he brought his shield up just in time.

Thus did the adventurers draw in their quarry, and put them to the sword. They would go on to complete many such tasks, with the mark’s nature dictating how Seto would play his part: a feeble cry for the ravenous; a mighty roar for the territorial.

The true range of the amaro’s acting skills would only become apparent much later, however, during the hunt for the “Amber Terror”─a predatory bird of nightmarish size known to haunt the Hills of Amber. Even Ardbert was astonished to hear Seto mimic the mating call of a female phorusrhacos, his near-perfect cries serving to lure out their otherwise elusive prey.

Wounded in the initial exchange, the Terror chose to flee, and the adventurers were compelled to give chase, eventually cornering the monster in its nest and bringing it down amidst a frenzy of scything talons.

“Would you look at that!” exclaimed a panting Lamitt, who, even in the fierce heat of the fields, refused to doff her dwarven helm. “It had its very own treasure trove.”

True enough, atop the bed of dried grass sat a haphazard pile of glinting trinkets.

“Well, well, well! I’d heard these birds had a fondness for shiny things!”

Branden’s eyes sparkled as he reached down and plucked a saucer-sized medallion from the heap. He held it aloft, and the heavy disc flashed like a second sun at midday.

“Now this is a find,” he crowed. “Nabaath royalty would award such tokens to victorious generals. It must be over two hundred years old...which means the Terror must have taken it from a descendant. Or dug up a grave.” The knight grinned hugely. “Either way, it will fetch a handsome price from the right collector.”

As he moved to tuck the prize into his pouch, Ardbert shot out a hand and snatched the medallion away.

“No so fast,” the younger man snapped, with a grin of his own. “This medal should go to the one who earned it.”

“Is that so?” Branden replied, unabashed. “Then you’d best give it back. Who shielded you all from that axe of a beak? Who delivered the killing blow to that monster’s neck?”

“Why you, old friend─and fine deeds they were. But you wouldn’t have had the chance to do either had Seto not lured the Terror out of hiding in the first place.”

Ardbert rummaged through his pack for a moment, then produced a narrow leather strap. This he threaded through the medallion’s eye before hanging the trophy around Seto’s neck.

“For a comrade, brave and true!”

The amaro snorted loudly and held his head high.

“You’ll hear no argument from me,” chuckled Lamitt. “I’d rather see Seto get his due than watch Branden drink another tavern dry.”

“Bah, have it your way!” Branden exclaimed, throwing his hands up in surrender. “Three cheers for Seto! The wiliest amaro that ever lived!”

Light-hearted though it was, Ardbert’s gesture that day served to recognize Seto as an equal─a full partner in the band’s growing list of accomplishments.

Such was their success, in fact, that they were approached soon after by one Renda-Rae; a seasoned hunter who wished to join the party renowned throughout Amh Araeng as the bane of beasts.

Later, in Lakeland, they would enlist the sword of the silver-haired Cylva, while delving into the mystery of a missing daughter of noble lineage. And back in Amh Araeng, their ranks would swell once more with the addition of the redoubtable mage Nyelbert, who had until then been their rival.

Together they traveled. Together they fought. Together they suffered. Plentiful were their hardships, yet for Seto, the joys of their journey far outweighed the sorrows.

Awakening from his nap, the elderly amaro breathes a small, contented sigh at the weight of the medallion around his neck. It had been lost to him, once. He had been defending the settlement from stray sin eaters when the leather strap, stretched taut by a neck grown twice as broad, suddenly snapped, sending the golden disc tumbling into the black depths of the lake. How kind of the traveler to retrieve it for him.

It was at his request that the pixies of Lydha Lran had crafted the strap from which the medallion now swings─imbuing it with a dreamer’s charm in so doing, if he is any judge. How else could one account for the remarkable clarity and frequency of these slumbering sojourns to the sun-dappled past?

Suddenly, he is seized by the urge to travel. To soar. Perhaps he cannot compass the realm as once he did─not with these aging bones─but a jaunt to the far shore of the lake should not be beyond him.

He would visit the one they call the Weaver, and thank them for this gift; for these blessed dreams.

The amaro stands and unfurls his wings, stretching them out to catch the breeze. Old though he may be, he would remember how it feels to fly again.