It was dark. And raining. And cold. And Allison’s armor was beginning to chafe, despite its fine craftsmanship. As she sat shivering in the bushes outside a temple in one of the more reputable areas of town, she looked at her friends on either side, faintly satisfied that they all looked as miserable as she. Well, all of them but Jimmy. Like the others, he had pulled his cloak close, but not for warmth so much as to hide the glint of the mail vest he wore over a light leather jerkin. The last weeks had seen him not only grow in size but also take on more of the traits of his native northland people. Fifty degrees and raining was a warm summer day as far as he was concerned. The mail had come from the Bonecrushers – the Goblin tribe they had helped – and wasn’t exactly sized for his bulk. Nevertheless, he’d managed to squeeze into it anyway. It was a good thing he had, too. It had saved his life at least once in the meanwhile. Allison wondered, not for the first time, why she wasn’t at home in the cold as he. She was his best friend’s sister, or something like that, not that she remembered any of it.
Stu held his bow lightly, though close to his body to protect its string from the rain. It was the enchanted bow that Chuck had found in the Kobold compound in which they had all been imprisoned some weeks before, and intellectually Stu figured a little rain wasn’t going to hurt it. But years of practice and habit - at least it seemed like years to him now – weren’t so easy to dismiss. His other hand remained empty, waiting to draw an arrow, or perhaps the short sword at his side in case it came to melee. He preferred to plink away at enemies, but had long since gotten used to things not going as he preferred. He unconsciously rubbed the knot on his head where he’d been clubbed by Kobolds, and shifted his weight anxiously from foot to foot, both nervous tics that no longer even noticed. The young woodsman didn’t like cities and was eager to get back out to nature. A surprising state of affairs, Allison reflected, for the son of a couple doctors and younger brother of ballerinas.
Chuck huddled down in the shadows, cloak pulled tightly around him, hood up. He was completely still – she couldn’t even see him breathing. In fact, the only reason she could see him at all was because she knew he was there. In contrast to Stu, it was clear that the little rogue was in his element here in the city, alternating between a bravo’s swagger and a cutpurse’s inconspicuousness as the situation required. Although he had left the back alleys and criminal gangs in his past (not his real past, she had to remind herself), he hadn’t lost any of his skill or street awareness. She knew that beneath his cloak he had a dagger ready to throw, and had already scoped out at least two ways of escaping if things went bad. There was once a time she would have called that cowardice, but that was before he risked everything to save them from the ogre Crackrock’s lair. Now she just called it a knack for survival.
Of the four boys with whom Allison had begun her journey – five, she reminded herself, thinking briefly of their fallen friend Simon – it seemed that TJ had changed the most of them all. She turned her eyes toward him, only to find his own were staring back, as if he had been expecting her to look at just that moment. He gave her a nod and a reassuring wink, then turned back to watch. Rather than changing physically, like Jimmy (or to a certain extent Chuck), TJ had changed in what she could only describe as stature. Each day he seemed less the carefree teenager that began the adventure and more the wizened wielder of arcane might. Maybe it was his feeling the magic flowing through him, or maybe it was the accumulated knowledge of his magical studies crashing into his memories and blocking what had been there before. Whatever the cause, he seemed less her friend and more her companion.
Allison wondered whether the others saw the same sorts of changes in her. She didn’t really think she was any different than she used to be. She knew, however, it might look that way to her only because she was growing more into her character and remembered less of how she used to be. That was one of the things that pushed her to keep going and find a way back home. While her newly gained powers were impressive, and, she had to admit, sometimes fun, she liked being a teenager whom people weren’t trying to kill on a regular basis, and really wanted to play that character again.
So the five waited patiently in the dark, cold rain. Each thinking their own thoughts, each wondering what the future would bring.
A light flashed in the darkness, followed by the sound of footsteps beating a hasty retreat down the road. Chuck whispered, “That’s our sign.” As one, they dashed across the street and entered an alleyway piled high with boxes and refuse. A small path, wide enough for only a single person, had been cleared through the mess. In the dim light from the street lantern behind them the five could just make out the faint outline of a stairway leading into the sewer below. Each of the friends taking one last gulp of clean air, they steeled their resolve and descended into the unknown.