One by one, the residents of the inescapable, but peaceful Start Screen Valley randomly appeared. Each arrived with abilities, skills, and equipment implying a previous life as an adventurer, but each individual had only a single memory, unique to them.
As events unfold, a group of residents will be thrust into situations beyond their understanding. Who were they before appearing in the valley? Where did they come from? What lies beyond the valley? And what is the village wizard hiding? To survive long enough to find answers, they will need to confront their demons and learn to work together.
Ennóna rubbed the sleep from her eyes as she pushed open the door to the Magnificent Moustache. All eyes turned to her, and she realized she was the last to arrive. She had grown accustomed to the lazy pace of life here in the Start Screen Valley, and didn’t get out of bed this early in the morning without good reason. This wasn’t a good reason, but Welcome Wagon duty wasn’t something she could shirk. She knew. She’d tried all three times her name had previously been drawn.
Ennóna looked over to Deek, the proprietor of the tavern – the reason for its name – and croaked out the word “coffee.”
Scanning the room to see with whom she’d be working, her eyes first fell on Mayor Silas Paxton quietly talking with the Wizard Aldore. They ran the Village, but neither would be on the team, so she ignored them.
Daavis Merrigold sat on the edge of the stage he performed on nightly, plucking at his lyre. He nodded at her with a smile. She responded with a scowl. He wasn’t a bad sort – she just wasn’t interested in cheerful this early in the morning.
Drake Dragonrite and Grunt were arm wrestling at one of the tables near the stage. The two were always competing with each other, though Drake usually won outright strength competitions. Drake was supposedly only a human, but his strength was verging on supernatural - which was good, because the man was as thick in the skull as he was in the arm. Grunt, a Lizardfolk with bright red scales, barely said two words together, but there seemed to be an intellect behind those reptilian eyes.
The final member of the team, seated at the table next to the arm wrestling duo, was someone Ennóna didn’t recognize. The woman was either new to the valley, or one of those idiots that preferred prancing around in the forest rather than living in civilization – even one as limited as the Village. Her clothes, all greens and well-worn leathers, seemed to indicate the latter, and her features suggested a partial Elven heritage. Ennóna didn’t like stereotyping races – her own wings and horns were often maligned as demonic – but those with Elven blood sure did try hard to live up to their tree-hugging stereotype.
Mayor Paxton cleared his throat. “Is this everyone? Good. I’m sure you’re all very familiar with being on the Welcome Wagon—”
The new girl raised her hand. “Excuse me?”
The Mayor raised an eyebrow. “Yes, um…”
“Jhanwyn Syltumal,” Aldore supplied.
“Apologies for the interruption, but I’ve never been on the Welcome Wagon before.”
The Mayor’s eyebrows shot up at this. “Oh! You’ve been here for what… a year? I keep forgetting how many people are in the valley these days. Means more time in between welcome duty assignments – which I think most people appreciate.”
“Not me!” Drake bellowed out with a smile.
“Yes, and we appreciate that you volunteer so often. Now, Ms. Jhanwyn, as you know everyone arrives in the Start Screen Valley with no knowledge of how they got there, or where they were before.”
“Except for the memory,” Daavis interjected, earning an approving nod from Aldore.
The Mayor glared at him. “Yes, except for the one memory that is unique to each of us. Now, as I was saying: confused, many newcomers lash out – as we all seem to arrive outfitted for combat – and the Welcome Wagon’s duty is to reach out and talk them down—”
“Or knock them out,” added Drake.
The Mayor sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Or knock them out – but only so you can speak to them after they’ve calmed down. So—”
Ennóna spoke up, her coffee now drained. “Right, but if they die, that wasn’t our intent. I mean, accidents happen.”
The Mayor ground his teeth. “Accidents do happen, but would you like it if such an accident had happened when you were being welcomed? As I recall, you were especially troublesome to your Welcome Wagon.”
Ennóna shrugged. She had taken to the skies and flown from one end of the valley to the other – even tried flying over the cliffs that surrounded the valley on all sides. She never seemed to gain altitude above a certain height. Those on the Welcome Wagon raced after her for several days before finally catching up with her.
The Mayor narrowed his eyes and looked to Grunt. “Everyone else has interrupted me. Are you going to do so next?”
Grunt stared at him for several moments before saying, “no.”
Mayor Paxton looked back around the room at everyone. “Anyone else plan to take another turn?”
When Ennóna started to raise her hand, he pointed a finger at her and said, “not you.”
Ennóna smiled sweetly, but clenched her fists under the table. The Mayor may run the whole damn valley with Aldore, but he didn’t run her life, and she wanted him to know it. Gods, she had to get out of this valley. She’d tried everything – checking the maps of the salt mines near the Village, examining every inch of the cliff walls from the Village to the Forest and back again – all to no avail.
The Mayor continued, satisfied there would be no more interruptions. “Good. Now—”
Aldore cleared his throat, and the Mayor spun on him, but stopped short when he saw Aldore holding up the Map. A red dot glowed at the edge of the forest - Ennóna estimated it would take two days ride by normal conveyance, whereas in the Welcome Wagon, it would take minutes. The number “1358” showed above the dot, and Ennóna wondered again if there was any hidden significance to it. Each new arrival had a different, random number, but they didn’t seem to mean anything.
The Mayor turned back to the team and clapped his hands. “Looks like we don’t have time for the briefing, people! I was going to have Jhanwyn handle the map, given her status as a tracker, but there’s no time to fill her in on everything she’s going to need to know. Grunt, can you handle it?”
Grunt gave a characteristic grunt and nodded once. Aldore handed Grunt the Map, and Mayor Paxton turned to Daavis. “I believe you know how to operate the wagon itself, yes?”
Daavis was already gathering up his pack and heading for the door. Without turning, he called over his shoulder. “I do; I’m on it!”
“Good! Go to it, people! And remember: NO. ACCIDENTS.”
Outside, they piled into the wagon. Daavis and Grunt sat up front. Drake jumped over the side into the back of the wagon, while Jhanwyn and Ennóna climbed in via the tailgate – Jhanwyn’s ascent far more graceful than Ennóna’s own. While Ennóna and Jhanwyn were still closing the tailgate, Drake hit the back of Daavis’ seat and said, “we’re in!”
The wagon lurched into movement, and Ennóna almost fell off before she finished securing her side of the tailgate. She glared at Drake, who was too busy watching the blur of the landscape to see her scowl. Giving up, she turned to see Jhanwyn staring at Benji, Ennóna’s construct companion, who Ennóna had put in the wagon before going into the tavern.
Jhanwyn snapped her fingers and pointed at Ennóna. “You’re that Artificer I keep hearing about, aren’t you! What’s your name? Eenona Damecky?”
“Ennóna Damaechi, but call me Nona.” It’s not as easy to butcher, she didn’t add.
Okay – and please, call me Jhan. So…” Jhan pointed at the construct. “This is one of your creations?”
“Yeah, this is Benji – my best creation to date, honestly.” Nona patted him on the back.
Jhan inspected every inch of the construct, making Nona uncomfortable. “He looks like a miniature, clockwork dragon, but without wings. Very coo—”
“Hey! Functioning wings are hard for a construct his size! And he’s bigger than you and I put together!” Nona knew Jhan hadn’t meant anything by her comments, but she was feeling defensive. Her one memory from before the valley included mechanical dragons that were as big as adult dragons, and flew on working wings. If she’d made them before, why couldn’t she now?
Jhan’s voice was barely audible when she spoke. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. I think it looks amazing. Truly.”
Nona sighed. She’d put her foot in the known trap again, as the saying went. She was spared figuring out what to say when the wagon came to an abrupt halt.
Grunt turned around. “We’re here.”
They piled out of the wagon, and looked around. Not even a blade of grass moved. “Hate to break it to you, Drake, but I don’t think we’re at the right place.”
Drake cocked his head to the side. “Why are you asking me?”
Nona forcefully pointed at the driver’s seat of the wagon. “Because you drove us here?”
Drake just blinked at her. “No, I didn’t… did I?”
Jhan spoke up. “Guys…”
Nona ignored her. “Listen, Jhan and I were in the back talking, and Grunt had the Map up with someone who was driving. If that wasn’t you, then who was it?”
Jhan tried again. “Um, guys…”
Drake nodded slowly. “Yeah, okay. I… just don’t remember driving here. Weird.”
“Well, no wonder we’re in the wrong place! You were asleep at the reins!”
Jhan spoke louder. “GUYS!”
Nona turned to her. “What?”
Jhan pointed up, and Nona looked in that direction. At first, she thought she was looking at a bird, but then she realized it was a humanoid with feathered wings: an Avian.
Nona rolled her eyes. “Oh great. Looks like I’m up, since none of you have wings.”
The Avian circled above them, and Grunt put a hand on her shoulder. “Listen.”
The Avian was making some kind of odd sound. “I hear it – some kind of a bird song? Too bad the birdman can’t sing worth a damn.”
Drake slowly shook his head. “No. I’ve heard that sound before…”
Suddenly, Nona understood. It wasn’t a bird song. The sound jumped from a static to metal scraping on metal to a warbling sound, and back again. It sounded like one of her failed constructs dying. “Pshhkkrrkakingkakingkakingtshchchchchchchch*ding*ding*ding*”
Drake drew his flamberge. “That’s a Crazy.”
As if hearing him, the Avian dove toward them.
Jhan drew her bow and fired three arrows into the Crazy. She frowned, as she saw the wounds didn’t bleed, but discharged cubes that grew smaller the further they moved from the Avian’s body. What the hell?
Nona shouted at her, as if Jhan wasn’t standing right beside her. “That’s not going to work! Crazies die on their own! The trick is to keep them from attacking anyone else!”
From the corner of her eye, Jhan saw Nona pull out a contraption that looked like a catapult merged with a crossbow. She loaded it with… a torch? Grunt drew the axes Jhan admired – when she’d hunted with him, she’d seen the totems intricately carved into the hafts of each axe. Drake had been the first to draw his weapon – a massive two-handed sword with a wavy blade.
Everyone seemed ready except Jhan - even Benji was chasing after the Avian. Her bow seemed as useless as the rapier at her side; a fencing weapon designed to pierce would be as ineffective as her arrows. She focused on evading the Crazy.
Grunt hissed in what can only be described as ‘angry lizard noises’ and Drake bellowed in rage. Drawn by the noise, the Avian zeroed in on them. It raked them with its talons – ripping a chunk out of Grunt’s shoulder and leaving a shallow gash along Drake’s chest.
It pointed its beak skyward, but before it could fly away, the two warriors retaliated. Drake’s large sword cut deep into the Avian’s arm just below the shoulder. Grunt struck the wound with each axe in turn. The arm fell at their feet, bleeding cubes, much like the arrow wounds in its torso. Nona took aim and catapulted the torch at the retreating Crazy. It hit true, and clipped the wing. The Crazy spun out of control for a few moments in the air before righting itself. Benji leapt, but was too far below it to connect.
Nona cursed. “Damn. I hoped that would knock it from the sky.”
Grunt jumped back and shouted toward Jhan. “Pin it.”
Jhan was confused until she saw the arm on the ground start to move. Loosing an arrow, she lodged it between the wrist bones, skewering it to the ground.
“It’s coming back!” Drake shouted.
“Try to remove a wing this time,” Nona suggested.
“Try to knock it down BEFORE it hits us!” Drake retorted.
Drake and Nona glared at the Avian, as if at each other. Jhan rolled her eyes. At least she had a purpose in the fight now: pin down any severed body parts. It wasn’t much, but she could do it.
Nona fired another torch at the Avian as it dove at them. The enemy spun in a circle, avoiding her shot. “See? That’s why I shoot at it on the retreat! It can’t see to avoid my shot!”
Drake and Grunt tried to take out a wing, but though the wings were large, they were tucked in for the dive, and only unfurled as it flew past. They barely clipped the wing rather than severing it – and Drake suffered another wound for the effort. Blood poured down his face from a gash stretching from his ear to the corner of his mouth. The idiot was smiling, widening the wound.
“Is that all you’ve got?” The unnatural sounds coming from the Avian did not change, but Drake seemed to read something into their meaning. “That’s what I thought!”
Grunt’s eyes never left the Avian, but he gestured toward Drake. “Arm?”
“Yeah, much easier to hit.”
Jhan nodded as well, but realized no one could see her behind them. “I’m ready to pin the next arm down.”
She glanced at the arm she’d already pinned and was surprised to see it had shrunk. The upper arm was barely above the elbow now, and the hole her arrow had made was wider. It was trying to lift itself off the arrow. She put another arrow through the palm.
Nona stared at the new arrow sprouting from the arm for a moment before smiling appreciatively at Jhan. Jhan pointed up. “It’s coming at us again.”
This time, it came at Grunt, who sidestepped toward Drake. The Avian tried to follow. It missed, but left its arm open for Drake to lop it off mid-bicep in one downward swing. Jhan immediately put two arrows into the arm.
As it soared back into the sky, Nona fired. This time, it toppled to the ground about fifty feet away from them. “See? I TOLD you it was better to shoot it after!”
Benji pounced on its back and pinned it to the ground. This time, its mechanical shriek sounded angry even to Jhan.
Drake and Grunt were on it in an instant, each taking a side. They made short work of chopping it up into smaller and smaller pieces. Jhan continued pinning each piece to the ground until there was nothing left. The smallest cubes simply vanishing into nonexistence. The Crazy’s screech was the last thing to fade.
Jhan retrieved her arrows, checking which ones needed to be re-fletched. Nona pet her metallic construct, calling it “good boy,” over and over. And Daavis attended to Drake.
“That’s a nasty wound you’ve got.” He reached out a glowing hand, and sang a magical incantation. The wound in Drake’s face closed, though blood still caked his cheek.
Drake reached up and felt his face. “I’ve had worse, but thanks – makes up for how piss-poor you did in the fight.”
Daavis’s eyes scrunched up. “Yeah, sorry about that.”
Jhan completely understood. She felt like she’d barely contributed herself.
“Don’t worry about it! I’ve never fought a FLYING Crazy before! This’ll be something to brag about in the pub tonight! Wait… you saw the whole thing! Who better than a bard to tell the story!”
Daavis tried to heal Grunt’s shoulder next, but the Lizardman refused, saying, “minor.”
They all stood around for a few moments longer before Nona spoke up. “So… how about we get back to the tavern?”
“Food and booze? I’m in!” Drake wore a goofy grin.
“Careful, Drake – you’re drooling.”
Drake wiped at his chin, not realizing Nona was joking.
Once they were headed back to the Village, Jhan turned to Nona. “So that weapon you had… What kind of ammo did you use?”
Nona’s face turned a reddish hue, instead of her usual albino complexion. “Um… a torch.”
“I thought so! Why torches?”
“Well, I arrived in the valley with a standard adventurer’s kit, including torches, but I can see in the dark due to my… heritage. I can fire anything that weighs under a pound, but why make something when I could use up what I didn’t need in the first place, ya know?”
“I suppose.” Jhan was amused. Grunt looked back at them. He was curious about her choice of ammunition as well.
Jhan frowned. “Hey, Grunt. Could you look at the Map? Maybe it’s because I’m all the way back here, but…”
Grunt blinked once, then turned around, and nearly jumped out of his seat. He tapped Daavis on the shoulder and pointed at the Map. The wagon stopped abruptly. Everyone in the back was thrown forward.
“What? What’s going on?” Nona and Drake said at the same time.
Daavis held up the map so everyone could see. A massive amount of red dots – at least 20, though it was hard to tell – jumbled one on top of the other. They were located inside the salt mines near the Village.
“Looks like that’s where we’re heading next…”