The old soldier wound his way through the streets of the town, his sinuous, Eastern dragon familiar following in his footsteps. Everywhere were the signs of a long, hard winter; sodden paths, waterlogged houses and still-white snowdrifts. Here and there, patches of grass, flowers and other growing things struggled to reclaim their world from the grasp of the cold season. The adventurer sniffed. He loved the cold, for some unknown reason it sustained him, and the signs of a coming spring always turned his mood sour.

The grizzled man entered the inn he’d been living in for, he hoped, the last time.

“Did you pass the word out?” he said, with no sign of his fruitless anger at the passing seasons on show

The innkeeper turned, in his own slow, steady way, to look at the man before him. The solider was greying, his hair gradually receding, and he bore the many scars of a mercenary lifestyle. His gear, though spotlessly maintained, was in a similar state; one could see the repairs, spots where an arrow had pierced his scaled cuirass, an axe bitten into his light vambraces. None of these things in any way diminished his aura of command; the fighter was as charismatic now, if not more so, than he would have been twenty years ago, experience merely adding wisdom, not diminishing any perceived willpower. He also still looked like he could best most men in a fight, though the weapons hanging from his belt had never been used in the town’s boundaries, not did it seem like his familiar ever spoke. What was his name again? Winter, that was it. Horatio Winter. Come in at the end of autumn, and worked as hard as any to get the harvest into storage.

“Yeah. Y’got a bit of a followin’, a few of ‘em seemed vaguely interested. We’ll see if anyone shows up though.”

“Ay, that we will…” Winter’s face clouded over, as if he were in the middle of some dream.

“So where were y’hopin’ of goin’ to?” The innkeep asked, interrupting the big man’s reverie.

“Up a mountain some way east of here. There’s s’posed to be some sort of shrine at its peak.”

“Filled with gold?”

“Among other things.” The soldier grinned.

“What mercenary’s interested in anything else?”

The grizzled one’s grin only broadened. He knew several. The landlord, however, didn’t need to know that.

“You told them where I was going to meet them?” he asked instead. The innkeeper nodded, and with that, Horatio Winter strode out the door, his seemingly ever-silent dragon only a step behind.

The old man got to the clearing, just outside the foothill town, early. He wanted to watch the people arrive, to see if the way they moved matched the way they spoke. A cautious man, he reasoned, is better than one who died because he took on board the wrong people. Backstabbers, fools, people glutted on their own bravado; He’d met them all.

“So now we wait, Kai. Let Time become our ally…”

The Ryu nodded strangely, looking sharply at its master, then out into the wilds into which they were to travel. The powerfully-built warrior sat on a rocky outcrop, raised above the clearing somewhat, to wait for those who, he hoped, would follow him into the Azure Mountains

He had seen how the day would pan out. After all his years, he felt confident in calling how the droves would come. First would come the young and eager. They would pledge their assistance early to show their commitment. An earnest heart does not make up for their inexperience. As the day would pass, there would be the casual passerby, both unsure if the spoken adventure was real or if they were ready for it. So too would come the greedy souls thinking of only sharing in the bounty. Part of them hoped for a larger crowd to blend in with and not pull their weight, but their selfish nature also desired a larger portion. As the time would draw thin, those who believed themselves valuable, but not necessarily were, would come by. They would measure themselves with what they saw and decide if it cause and company was worthy of their assistance.

Winter had hope for the best, but his calloused heart only expected the worst. Those with the mind set on the task who would also contribute to the goal were not the stock that made men. Noble souls like those were rare gems among a bed of rock. They were out there but took searching for, and little chance stood of them coming to you.

"And it begins," sighed the veteran. Kai rose up and pointed out the approaching man, but its master was already well aware. A stout youth trudged through the brush, neither nimble nor silent. His frame was thick, thick from being kept from hard work rather than doing it. His body was wrapped in warm cloths to harshly fend off the now paling chill. "Great, it's him," spat the warrior.

"You must be- You must be Winter," stated the hopeful recruit still some way off. He deepened his voice to sound more aged, but the sliver of face showing between the shaggy head of hair and pulled scarf showed his innocence. The child pulled himself up the low slope with aid of a wooden sword as he worked up to the stone perch. "I am Adrian, the innkeeper's son." He wheezed as if he had climbed a mountain. "I've come to-"

"I know who you are," the fighter cut in. The boy was puzzled.

"I didn't think we ever-"

"We haven't, no," the older confirmed. "I didn't even know the innkeeper had a son. That doesn't matter. I've seen you throughout the years and across many lands, always with a different face yet always the same story. You're every young man tempted by the thrill of an adventure. You've lived your life in this small town and want just a taste of something more, am I right?" He peeked at the audience of one, stilled by the words.

"Right. You hear there's an opportunity to get out of this place, to explore this world, and you want it. I knew you would come, and more like you will. The young and eager are always first, like you're trying to prove something. Well, an earnest heart does not make up for shortcomings.

"Listen, son, I've seen farm boys with more years under their belt sail off to war just to die. Only those who survived pass the tales of glory that you hear in your papa's bar. You want this more than anything, but you don't know what you're doing." A glance to the young man found him sitting still, consumed in thought, no doubt.

"I can't risk your or other men's lives on a child's play." Still no response came from him. "Harsh words, but if you were half the man you thought you were-"

"No, he's no man." Winter flinched at the head hovering over his shoulder. Hanging, actually, upside-down at that. The body attached to the face was suspended from an outstretched branch. The slender, stripe-clad legs released as she elegantly caught herself in a handstand. "It's a stick holding up some cloths and straw. I slipped out of it a while ago. Surprised you were able to talk to it for so long without noticing." Her spry legs arched to the ground as she righted herself.

"You... you were... him?" Horatio finally managed to speak after the initial dumbfounding. The body he had been speaking to was limp and sunken in, changes he hadn't even noticed without forcing himself to see them. The trickster arose next to the decoy, having disappeared from his side. She ran an open hand across her round face and left a contorted guise behind, seemingly a new persona, familiar one.

"Mm, I am a battle scarred and wizened soldier. I've fought across the world but dressed hay can fool me." Despite the voice being a perfect match, Winter did not care for the mockery.

"Is this a joke to you?" fumed the elder.

"No, it's proof," retorted the girl returned to her youthful, regular self. "I know how you'd feel about an 'inexperienced youth' offering their service." She tossed a weapon into his lap, his own. "Rather, I'm just showing you what I can do."

"When did you-" A motion for silence paused him, and a bulge swelled up her sleeve until a crimson rat emerged in her palm. It carried in its bloody clutches a trinket on a chain. It was a small, personal item Winter wore next to his skin. He was less impressed than annoyed, even upon its return. "You're only showing yourself to be a liar and a thief. That's not the kind I want watching my back."

"It hasn't all been lies," she corrected, suddenly appearing at his other side. "The innkeeper is my father. Well, by anyone's guess. Mama's a gypsy. The caravan rolled through one year and dropped me off at the tavern another. There was truth to your words, too. I am eager to leave this town, see what's out there.

"But naive? Foolhardy?" She arose with a fiery stare. "No. While you've traveled the world, I've had the world come to me right here. All kinds pass through that tavern, leaving tales and trades. That's where I've been watching you from. Since harvest I know all about you -- how you think, what you've done, where you've been." She pulled out his armaments from behind her back. "A second time really isn't good.

"And, we have met before, although you wouldn't know it." The girl shifted through an array of personalities, nearly becoming them before the man's eyes by changing just her presence. "The foreigner in the market who tried to sell you an urn last week, the old waitress who served you the wrong drink, a very persistent yak. Do these sound familiar? This wasn't a recent choice. Since first snow, I was going to follow you out. This just gave me the chance to introduce myself." She handed back Horatio's weapons while delivering a short curtsy with her tunic. "Drina."

Slowly, Winter cracked a smile. He wasn't happy, but it was hard to argue her point. With a nod to her, she smiled back and took a seat right next to the dummy.

"Can't... can't you put that away?" wondered the soldier.

"In a while," she answered. "Don't want someone to think it's just us two."

[For the Mythologically Challenged: Or, I guess, an explanation, the red rat is Lolmischo, a Romani Gypsy demon associated with inflicting disease, mostly of the skin

Some time passed. At last, another figure was seen making their way through the brush. Cloaked and seemingly dressed for travel, a small, somewhat androgynous woman rode atop a gleaming white, winged steed.

"I was wondering how long it'd take for someone else to show," Drina commented.

"We wait as long as we must." the old soldier replied with a sigh.

"So what have we got here? I mean, sure, she has a pretty pony, but that doesn't say much about her abilities." the trickster strained her eyes, trying to catch a glimpse of anything at all unusual about the figure advancing on them.

Winter had also been peering through the forest. "It's difficult to tell. She doesn't ride like a fighter..." the veteran broke off, watching with interest as the woman made her way closer and closer to their clearing.

"...But why isn't she flying?" Drina finished, much to the old man's annoyance. The question she raised was a good one, and one he'd been trying to work out in his head for some time now. It just didn't make sense. Why would someone riding a pegasus be walking along the ground?

With a slight thump, the cloaked woman dismounted her horse, waking the two from their reverie. Bowing to both Drina and her straw decoy, she walked to the base of Winter's rock.

"Horatio Winter, I presume," a muffled voice wafted from behind the hood. At the mercenary's nod, she quickly pulled back the obfusticating veil. "I'd like to join your expedition, if I may," the girl stated.

Even Drina was a little surprised to see the head of such a young female sticking out of all those wads of clothing. "And what does a girl such as yourself want with a journey up a mountain?" she recovered.

"...Especially a priestess." The veteran interjected.

"How did you know?" The young cleric squealed after some silence.

"...You are aware that you're wearing your Order's holy seal around your neck, don't you? Outside all those layers of travelling clothes." the stripe-clad woman snickered. "I was a little surprised they'd make someone your age a priestess".

The girl looked down, smacked her forehead with her palm and grabbed the seal as if trying to hide it. "Oops."

Looking up, both the soldier and the trickster were looking at her expectantly. She could see no difference in the other one, indeed, it seemed like he'd hardly moved since she'd arrived. Looking across at him briefly, she shot him a nervous grin, then turned back to the mercenary.

"Alright..." she paused, taking a breath, seemingly working out her story in her head, "I'm a priestess, just as you guessed. The Order of the Broken Blade caught wind of your plan. The elders were worried you might break, steal or simply desecrate any holy relics which may be in this shrine you wish to find, so they sent me to keep an eye on you."

"Why would they send such an inexperienced safeguard?" Winter mused.

"Because my clerical abilities are beyond most people thrice my age." the priestess boasted.

Winter thought for a moment. "Well, someone able to cast clerical magic could come in handy, I guess. Also, I assume that if I turn you down, you'll just follow us anyway."

The girl smiled wickedly.

"I guess we'll have to take you along then."

The tumbler smiled to herself, then cartwheeled over to the girl and extended her hand. "Drina."

"Iona." As the cleric shook the proffered hand, the crimson rat streaked up her sleeve and back to its master.

"Nothing worth taking, huh? They really didn't send you very well-prepared, did they?"

Iona frowned, her face flushed red. "So you're a thief, are you? Figures that'd be the type to come on a quest like this..." looking at the thief's decoy, she asked, "And who are you?".

Laughing, Drina exhibited the hay-and stick nature of the slumped figure. The cleric blushed. "And I thought he was so cute, too..."

Shaking his head, winter dropped to the ground to examine the cleric's familiar. "So why, if you have such a magnificent steed, did you walk up here along the ground?" he asked, rubbing the great horse's side.

After a few moments of Iona's face becoming progressively more red, it was the pegasus himself who broke the silence:

"She's afraid of heights."

[I probably should have mentioned this in post one, but this is probably going to be quite a short, not-too-serious BD Quest. Personally, I don't intend for there to be a great deal of fighting; I'd like to add other obstacles as well. How well this works will be anyone's guess...

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