Ann was sleeping next to me and I leaned over to kiss her. Her hand shot up and stopped my face that was inches from her lips. She turned towards me with a “You’re really an idiot” look on her face. Then I remembered. A kiss of a succubus is signing your own death certificate. I smiled at her.
“Good morning. Nice bed we have here.”
“Indeed. I decided to move us closer to our destination while you slept.” She then let go of my face and got out of bed.
“How much closer are we?”
“We’re in Harnsdale of East Cragmor.”
“Harnsdale? That’s only a mile south of Saydens’ tower. I thought we would still have a full day’s ride left.”
“So I changed my mind. I figured we would come all the way to Harnsdale and save us the trouble of further travel.”
“Why didn’t you just zap us here when we first met?”
“First of all, I don’t zap. Secondly, no one is to witness the secret powers of the succubi. Third, you are on a time schedule to get the princess back are you not?”
“Well…yes.” I stammered as I fumbled out of bed.
“Then what’s the problem?” She asked. Her question led to only one conclusion. I scanned the entire room. Besides the bed and usual inn room items, there was armor, a sword, a helmet, a backpack filled with provisions, and a bag of gold pieces.
“You killed the inhabitant of this room,” I stated bluntly.
“So? He owed me money and I knew he was trying to avoid me.”
“Where are the remains?” I asked, and then wished I hadn’t.
“Let’s just say, you’ll be having breakfast without me this morning.” She smiled sweetly, picking at her teeth, and I almost vomited on the spot.
I managed to eat a decent breakfast and then we set off on foot towards the tower of the black wizard. Ann suggested we would be less conspicuous without the “clip-clop” of horse hooves. She had changed her attire to black trousers and a tunic for easier movement. She also had her hair pulled back and tied. She never looked lovelier.
We arrived at the edge of the woods and I could see the tower in the clearing. Not only was it unguarded but also looked abandoned. Ann turned to me.
“Are you armed?” she asked.
“Yes. My right arm and my left arm,” I replied.
“Haven’t you gotten tired of that joke?”
“It’s an oldie, I’ll admit, but I still find it amusing.”
“The first thing we need to do is cancel any spells that might be protecting the castle.”
“Right!” I agreed and then asked, “How?”
“Leave that to me,” Ann replied and ran up to the tower door. I quickly followed and found Ann removing a piece of chalk and a small pouch, which contained a brilliant blue sapphire gem. She made several drawings on the door, chanted in her native tongue, and then crushed the gem allowing the dust to sprinkle on the door handle.
“How much was that gem worth?” I asked astonished.
“Let’s just say that even Roam would knife you in the back for it.”
“That much, huh?”
“Can we cut the talk?” She demanded. I nodded in response as she grabbed the handle. In the blink of an eye, Ann was hurtled backward one hundred feet. All I could see was a spark as she let go of the door. I rushed to her side as she up. She looked furious.
“Did you do it wrong?” I asked.
“NO! I DIDN’T DO IT WRONG!” Her succubus voice was so vocal that I almost wet my pants.
“I’m sorry, Darryl. This tower is protected by a magic ward to prevent succubi from entering.”
“Great! Now what do we do?”
“I could summon the horde and have at least fifty succubi here who would lay down their existence to enter this tower.”
“Isn’t that a bit extreme?” I asked. “Besides, I think fifty would make a little too much noise and attract attention from the town.”
“You’re right.” Ann stood a moment and thought. “It’s too bad the Hooded Heroes aren’t here. They’d be able to storm this tower with no problem. Even Schreevan could do this by himself.
Suddenly I got an inspiration. “That’s it! We’ll get the Hooded Heroes.”
“How?” Ann asked. “Ravenkeep is running her brothel in southern Carnthia, Roam might come but I doubt Adrian would let him, Brother Trueheart has given up adventuring and Tiano the mage hasn’t been seen in the last five years.”
“We don’t need them, we can be them,” I declared.
“Roam told me that every time The Hooded Heroes came through the area, Saydens would always lie low or vacate the premise. If we convince the town that the Heroes are back for one final quest, we might put the black wizard on the run!”
“And how do you propose we do this?” Ann asked skeptically.
“Simple. I’ll compose a story and sing it throughout the town spreading the message of the Hooded Heroes return. I’ll even hire two other bards to travel to a couple of neighboring towns to make it seem real. Then with your shape-shifting abilities, you can disguise yourself as various member of the Hooded Heroes and make public appearances in taverns, rent a few rooms in the inn and generally be seen throughout Harnsdale.”
“Let’s have another child,” Ann sighed.
“Sorry. You just got on such a roll with your plan, that I suddenly fell in love with you all over again.”
“Love? You? Again!” I sputtered.
“Not now. Your plan sounds great, let’s carry it out!” We started back towards town and yet all I could think of was Ann in love with me.”
“There is one drawback to your plan,” she said.
“I’ll need to make a sacrifice to the horde for additional power.”
“You’re talking about the horse aren’t you?” I asked. She nodded in reply.
“It’s not even mine. I borrowed it from Roam…err…Janbar.”
“I’m sure he won’t mind since it’s going towards a worthy cause.” She smiled ever so sweetly.
“B-But, but.” I then sighed, “Okay.”
Within an hour I had completed my story and shared it with two other bards. I paid them each 100 gold pieces to recite the tale in a neighboring town of their choice. I then made my way to the Harnsdale town square to weave the tale: The Return of the Hooded Heroes. The people of Harnsdale began to gather around as I told my story. The look of worry was obvious on their faces for they knew without the Hooded Heroes, Saydens the Black Wizard would eventually rise to power unchallenged. As they listened in they started to feel more at ease and began to drop coins in my overturned hat. Applause rang out as I concluded and took my bow. The crowd was starting to disperse when a dark-robed figure on horseback came into the square. His skin was whiter than snow and his smoke gray eyes almost disappeared into his face.
“It’s Tiano the Mage!” Someone shouted.
“The Hooded Heroes are in town!” Someone else added. The rider approached me and I could then tell that it was Ann. She nodded at me and then turned to the crowd. Her voice was that of Tiano’s as she spoke.
“Let everyone know that the Hooded Heroes have returned and that Saydens should beware. Especially beware of me The Living Ghost, Tiano.” Ann then reared the horse and charged out of the Town Square. The people were talking quite animatedly as they returned to their homes. I gathered up my coins and moved over to the tavern called The Broken Lance. The atmosphere was very lively and I could see why. Seated at a table were two more of the famed Hooded Heroes, Roam and the female warrior, Ravenkeep. They were engaged in an arm wrestling match to the delight of the onlookers.
“Give it up Roam. I have the strength of a dragon,” declared Ravenkeep.
“You talk tough for a female,” replied Roam and then had his arm slammed through the tabletop. The female warrior smiled at him.
“That’s a round of drinks you owe the entire tavern.” Roam checked his coin pouch as he rubbed his arm.
“The next round is on me!” Roam announced and the crowd roared with happiness. Roam dropped a handful of platinum coins at the bar and made his way out of the tavern. Ravenkeep looked around for the next challenger but everyone suddenly seemed busy elsewhere. She smiled satisfactorily and left. I grabbed a mug of the house ale and went back out into the street. A crowd had gathered at the local temple and seemed very enraptured by the speaker. As I drew closer, one of the townspeople turned to me.
“It’s Brother Trueheart of the Hooded Heroes. He’s preaching about the Young Gods of Krystallis.” I nodded in response and made my way closer. Sure enough Brother Trueheart was standing before the crowd preaching about Erica, Damosues and Krystania.
As his sermon drew to a close, a column of fire descended from the sky right in front of the priest. When it dissipated Brother Trueheart was gone. The crowd dispersed in complete awe. A strange movement caught my attention and as I turned I saw a young robed man leaving Harnsdale, rather hurriedly, in the direction of Saydens’ tower. It was then that Ann appeared in her own human form. She looked extremely tired but managed a smile.
“Excellent job!” I commented. “Saydens will be informed in about five minutes.”
“How do you know?’
“I spied one of his apprentice wizards leaving Trueheart’s sermon in a big hurry. We should be able to enter the tower now.”
“Great. Give me a few minutes to catch my breath and then we can go.”
“Okay. How long does that spell you cast on the door last?”
“It should still be working. Why?”
“I was thinking, if that magic ward against succubi is still in affect you wouldn’t be able to open the door.”
“Right. I’ll get zapped again,” said Ann.
“But if I open the door, chances are it won’t affect me since I’m not a succubus.”
Ann looked at me and smiled. “Ever consider adventuring solo on a more regular basis?”
“Because you have the talent to do so. You shouldn’t be a sidekick to a knight.”
“But I’m just a bard. I have neither fighting nor thieving skills. Talking my way out of situations will go only so far before someone skewers me on a long sword.”
“Well it’s something to think about. I’m ready. Let’s go rescue the princess.”
Once again we found ourselves at the door of the tower. It was still unguarded and still looked uninhabited. The symbols were untouched and the gem dust remained on the door handle.
“Apparently the wizards enter and exit the tower by another means. Nothing has been tampered with on the front door. You’d think they would investigate it now and then.” I took hold of the door handle and turned it. There wasn’t any shock and the door opened easily and silently. As soon as we entered, Ann was overcome with an unusual sensation. Her wings tore right through her tunic and then she turned to me.
“Get everyone out of the tower. Now!”
I stood there dumbfounded a moment. “What? Why?”
“Don’t question me! Just do as I say!” She then launched herself into the air and vanished through the ceiling.
“You could’ve left me a weapon,” I called after her. A short sword appeared in my hand. “Now why did I have to go and open my mouth?” I ascended the stairs and found a dining hall five floors up. There were six wizards seated around a table, each studying a book. I steeled my courage, gripped the sword and entered the room.
“I need for all of you to leave the tower right now.” My sentence had more confidence than I felt. Their response was to each form a fireball to throw at me. Apparently they’re not as novice as I thought. One of the six wizards stood.
“You have a lot of nerve entering the tower of the black wizard unannounced. We could easily kill you on the spot.”
“True. But my advice is to leave now because there is something within these walls that’s more powerful than Saydens.”
“And what would that be?” the apprentice asked. I was about to respond when the south wall shattered and in flew not one but two succubi. I recognized Ann but not the other. She seemed almost as beautiful as Ann did. She turned to the wizards at the table who were perplexed as to what just happened.
“DON’T JUST SIT THERE,” She snarled. “I ORDER YOU TO KILL THAT MORTAL!” She pointed at me. The wizards just turned to look at me.