The jovial din of the tavern set a stark contrast to the cold winter night outside. The wind howled and leaves were blown up in tiny eddies for a moment as Alexander opened the heavy wooden door and pulled off his hood, revealing a heavy mat of wet, blond hair. Will motioned to him from a corner table where he was playing cards with a short gnome; Alexander began wading through the throng of merry patrons to reach him. A single musician played a sprightly tune on a curious stringed instrument with two necks. On the way to the corner table, he motioned to Joseph, the barkeep, who nodded his acknowledgement: it would be the usual. He clunked down onto the bench near Will and pulled out a meager sack of coins with which to pay Joseph.

The heavy man moved comically to avoid the carousing patrons while trying to keep from spilling one of the eight mugs he had clasped in his large hands. Reaching Alexander, he set one down, saying, "Hot cider, three pence, yeh know the deal." Although brusque at first acquaintance, Joseph was a cheerful fellow and had quite a capacity for Ale.

"How was yer trip to that badlands?" Joseph asked, fumbling to pick the three coins from the table.

"Not bad, a little cold," smiled Alex in return. "I found myself a nice little bag of coins as well," he chuckled. Alex undid the clasp holding his heavy cloak on, and pulled out a fat sack of coins, a motion that revealed the hilt of his heavy iron sword and rusted chain mail as well. At the sight of the bag Joseph's eyes widened. "Where'd ya get that?"

"Found it on a bandit that was trying to raid the caravan I was on. I might get myself some new equipment."

"Hah!" smirked Will. "You could live off that for a couple of months!"

"Perhaps, but you know I need a new vest of chain mail. And besides, by buying the armor, perhaps I'll turn the eyes of some of the richer merchants, those who need protecting of better wares, and are willing to pay a little more."

"He's got an investor's mind, that one!" Joseph chuckled. "Well, I'm off, got some ale an' hot ciders ta deliver!"

As Joseph waddled off through the tables, Alexander spotted Ashe and Doran lumbering through the tavern door. William tucked a shaggy lock of brown hair behind one ear and motioned the two over to their table. Dodging a wild drinking game, Doran and Ashe made their way to the table. Doran wore a gray-green cloak much like Alexander's, and swept it off to show two pointed ears veiled by long blond hair, the signature of an elf.

"I see you are back from the badlands," Doran said.

"You've been gone for ages! How was it?" Ashe asked as she sat down next to Alexander.

"I found myself a small treasure," replied Alexander, opening the sack of coins.

Ashe and Doran gave their complements on his find. Ashe began levitating a coin, making it dance about. "Ashe! None of your tricks now; its not allowed," Alexander said, pointing to a sign above the door that read 'No magic.' The coin clattered to the table. "So, how have you two been?" he continued.

"I've been tending the animals," replied Doran. "Hunting hasn't been going so well lately, the barbarian raids on Dunherst have scared all the animals into hiding."

"And I've been copying scrolls for the library lately, earning a couple of pence here and there," Ashe said, then, turning to Will, she asked him, "And how have you been?"

"Fine, fine." Will was a locksmith. Because of his knowledge of the inner workings of locks he was able to pick them as well. To him it was a hobby; each lock was a unique puzzle, a challenge. Will was also an amateur inventor, he made doorbells and small contraptions, but his chief income was lock smithing. Whenever a new building was built a new lock was required, but because few new buildings were built, the offers were few and far between.

Will's father, the former sheriff, had disappeared several years ago when Will was very young. He had lived off thievery for a couple of years before a kindly old Dwarf by the name of Richter, a former friend of Will's father, took Will under his wing. Alexander's own parents had been killed by a team of assassins, for what, he did not know. Alexander had barely escaped with his life, thanks to the mercy of an assassin, who let him run away with only the clothes on his back and a fistful of coins. Will and Alexander met when Richter saved Alexander from a life of begging; Alexander went to live with Richter as well. Through their combined income, and some of Richter's old friends calling in favors for him, they managed to live a fairly good life. At the age of eleven, Alexander had gathered his savings and bought the large iron sword that was still at his side.

Alexander's reverie was broken by an unruly goblin wheezing a drunken song. Alexander didn't speak goblin, but Will understood the words and didn't seem amused. "Let's go," he said, leaving a penny on the table and gathering his cards. Alexander followed and Ashe and Doran departed in his wake. After dropping a few coins for the lyrist and a quick farewell to Joseph, Alexander shuffled through the door.

Outside, on the windswept dirt street lit faintly by torches and chilled by winter's icy breath, Alexander saw a dark figure hustle up to the door of the tavern. Pulling a hammer and a nail from his belt, the figure nailed a sheet of paper to the door. Alexander turned to examine it more closely.

"Princess Helen kidnapped, reward of 5,000 silvrons, see Sheriff," Will murmured, reading the large sheet from where he stood. Bathed in eerie torchlight, the paper held a meaning far more profound than the simple words written on it. They would start an adventure the likes of which the world hadn't seen since the days of Corelan the Brave and the Chronicle Wars. Just above it a hanging sign identifying Joseph's tavern as 'The Lions Den' moaned ominously in the wind.

Princess Helen of Angorden withdrew herself to one of the many twisting passages of the Loldor Manor to take a break from the festivities going on in the main chambers. She took a sip of the sweet wine she was holding, which caused her to feel drowsy. The reception for the handsome young nobleman, Escalus, would go on late into the night, and Helen thought it best to retire soon while she still had the chance. She eluded the dining chamber through a passage she had learned as a child; she followed the chambermaids' passages behind the kitchen and up the stairway to the second floor where it emptied into a wide, dark corridor. Although it was too dark to see Helen knew her way through the castle and she guided herself to the main stairway where she ascended several more flights and past several guards to her bedchamber in a tower, seven stories up.

She picked a lamp from the main tower before she ascended the spiraling staircase to her room. It was vacant, of which she was glad; she did not want any chambermaids or servants rustling about and waking her up. Her bedclothes were laid gingerly on her bed, with the curtains drawn back. She quickly undressed and slipped into her bedclothes.

After putting them on, she heard a low voice murmur, and then she felt the strangest sensation. Tiredness overcame her, and her muscles went limp. She felt her feet leave the floor, but she did not fall, her body was gently cushioned by the air. A sense of euphoria welled up inside her, and she became complacent and docile, unable to move even if she wanted to. While lightly floating, she saw a dark shape approach her and it lifted her as though she were as light as a feather. She was curious as to what was going on, and as she was being carried towards the window, her captor's face was revealed for a brief moment by the light of the lamp on her bedside table. The light green skin was complemented by a sharp, hooked nose and beady black eyes. Barely a wisp of hair was left on the creature's scalp, and its bony finger's gripped her bodice like iron vices. The creature was a goblin, no doubt, but that was of little consequence, since goblins and men lived freely side by side in Loldor. What she had to fear was that she was unable to scream for help, or resist the creature's will. It threw her out of the window.

Instead of falling like a rock, she slowly sank through the air and landed quietly on a bush in the castle gardens. She was followed quickly by the very goblin that captured her, and several of its companions emerged from the shrubbery to aid in her imprisonment. They whisked her over the castle wall and out into one of the dark alleys of the city. They twisted and turned through the city's mazelike allies and streets. After a half-hour of confusing paths, the troupe led her—still unable to resist—past a beggar and into a graveyard. The Library was barely visible to her, shimmering in incandescent moonlight above the rooftops barely two alleys away. Hurrying through the graveyard, they entered a tunnel of sorts, concealed by a grate. The grate slammed shut, and in the darkness she heard a magical word of command, then remembered no more.

Alexander awoke late in the morning, to the sound of Richter clattering around in the kitchen below. Will was already starting his platter of eggs when Alexander arrived in the dining room.

"So, big news: I heard that the princess got kidnapped," Richter rumbled from his seat in the kitchen. "Yeh going to save her?"

"I'm not sure," Alexander yawned.

"Aw, come on," Will chided. "For 5,000 silvrons?"

"Are riches worth risking my life for? I don't think so. I'd be up against whoever stole her, someone who, I might add, would be quite powerful, judging from how he managed to get past all the manor's security and kidnap the Princess without so much as a shout being heard. Besides, we don't know where she is, and even if we did, the place would be guarded so well that we wouldn't be able to get in."

"I can handle the locks, Doran can help you with the guards, and Ashe can find the place for us."

"That's the spirit, my boy," cheered Richter from the kitchen. "Alexander, when I was boy I'd have jumped at such an opportunity. It's a chance for adventure! But now that I'm old I haven't the energy. Give it a try, I'm sure the four of you will get knocked around a bit, but you're a fine swordsman, I've seen you with my own eyes; I doubt the four of you will find something you can't handle. Besides, if you save the princess, everyone will want the famed slayer of bandit's and kidnappers to protect their caravans."

Richter's eyes twinkled for a moment and Alexander gave in. "Fine, I'll go. But I'm not doing any of the work. Will, you have to go get Ashe and Doran, and once everything is set up, I'll come along."

Will grinned broadly, shoveled down the last of his eggs in one go, and barely had time to say "Great!" before he disappeared out the door. Alexander was reluctant to pursue such silly goals when the town militia could do just as well. He saw no point in risking his life for riches; even though guarding caravans was a risk, it was a calculated one, one in which he suffered little chance in being killed. He knew a thief's mentality. Most thieves had little skill in fighting, but preyed on weak, unguarded caravans, and extorted their fee through intimidation of the driver. For the few bandits who were daring or crazy enough, Alexander always had several skilled mercenaries to back him up. In short, Alexander hated to gamble, he only took calculated risks.

Foregoing his usual morning repast, Alexander clutched the bag of coins he had gotten in the badlands and set off for the blacksmith's.

Will bolted out the door and loped happily down the lane. The key to his plan had been getting Alexander to agree to come, because he was hopeless with any weapon other than a stone. Ashe was quick, intelligent, and best of all, magical, but she couldn't fight off a group of angry goblins. Doran also was quite something with the longbow, and could hold his own with a pair of short swords, but wasn't good enough to fight off several of the ferocious greenskins that would inhabit the lair, wherever it was.

Will took a turn towards the richer side of town, where Ashe lived. Her skills as a sorceress were in high demand when a severe cut could be healed in a minute for a small fee, or where superstitious miners wanted good luck charms. Loldor was a dual city, with humans living on the surface and Dwarves living below it, both of whom engaged in a lively trade of stones and ore for wheat and grains.

Will reached the rich man's bazaar, the main trading area in the richer portion of town. Ashe and her father ran a small store selling tiny magical toys and tools, charms and tokens. Will stepped inside and let the warmth of the magical fire warm his fingers and toes. Will walked over to the back of the shop, where Ashe was busy copying scrolls for the library.

"Yes," said Ashe, even before Will had a chance to say anything. Will looked bewildered, but then spotted a flat stone bowl filled with water. "You'll be wanting to get to Doran's house, come on, let's take Jasmine."

The bowl filled with water was no drinking cup, but instead the focus of a magical spell that Ashe had surely cast to see that Will would soon come to the shop and ask her whether or not she wanted to join in the expedition to save Helen. Jasmine was Ashe's horse, whom she had tied to a post outside. After untying the lead rope from the post and putting Jasmine's blanket into one of the saddle bags, Ashe got on the horse and Will followed right after her.

She trotted out of town, then whispered a word in the horse's ear, and they took off, galloping all the way to Doran's doorstep. Ashe dismounted, splashing slushy snow and mud as she leapt to the ground. "Good girl," she said to Jasmine, and pulled a small treat out of one the belt pouches beneath her tan cloak. Will knocked on Doran's door.

Doran's house was a small but well built farm house, but instead of the conventional straight walls and sharp corners, it was built with curves and a gentle flow, for elves generally dislike the rigid shapes of human buildings, and prefer the contours of curves.

A short, old elf woman answered the door. "Hello, good sir. Aren't you Will?"

Will nodded. Then the elf continued, "I guess you'll want Doran, he's out in the lower pasture right now, and you can get him if you want."

Will thanked her and jumped over the low fence that separated the upper pasture from the road and loped down the hill to where Doran was laying down hay for his horses and scattering grain for the chickens. "Doran!" Will called. Doran dropped the hay he was carrying in a stall and hurried over.

"Do you want to go into town and rescue that girl?" asked Will.

"Um, sure, my farm chores are just about done. I just have to finish getting hay for the horses, though, then I can come," the elf replied.

"Why don't you come right now?" Ashe said, and with a flick of her hand caused the hay to carry itself from the hayloft into the eating bins arrayed in the individual stalls.

"Gee, thanks!" Doran said, and whistled one of his horses over. He mounted the creature bareback. "You two can ride Jasmine, I'll ride Windfoot."

"Meet you back at my house," Will said.

Doran cantered up towards the house, from which he emerged shortly with a bow and some wide headed hunting arrows. They walked the horses slowly back into town, where they found Alexander waiting outside, with a new suit of chain mail on. "I see you bought that suit of chain mail after all," Will said from atop Jasmine.

"I was just getting ready for whatever horrors we may face rescuing the princess. I figured it was a good chance to break in this new chain mail, too."

"Well, it's good that you're ready. I know some people who might be able to help us find the stolen princess," Will said.

"And reap the reward money!" Doran grinned.

It was late in the day when Alexander once again found himself pushing open the door to the Lion's Den after trudging through the slushy city streets. The poster was still on the door from the day before. Alexander recognized the musician who had been playing the previous day sitting at the corner table playing cards with a goblin, who shouted "Another hand goes to the undefeatable Shaki!" just as the two revealed their hands. The bar seemed deserted without the uproarious patrons often found here at night. Will walked over and sat down next to the man.

"Hello, Rafael," Will greeted him. The man had a dark complexion and a fine moustache with dark brown eyes. His large hands had calloused fingers from the metal strings on his instrument. When he spoke, he had a slight accent.

"How may I help you, signor?" he replied.

"You know where the princess is."

"A friend of a friend… but the information will come at a price."

"Name it," said the smug locksmith.

"Ten silvrons." A week's pay, even for Ashe, the best off among the group.

"I'll make you a different offer. Not only will I give you three silvrons—that's thirty pence—but I will also save you an additional ten," said Will, glancing at the pack of chips on the table. "You gain three." Rafael looked quizzical for a moment, then agreed.

The goblin looked expectantly at Rafael, holding his own hand of cards, while Rafael's lay on the table. Will reached over and grabbed the Goblin by the collar and dragged him from his seat. Hidden beneath him was a set of cards, obviously used for cheating. "Return to this man his winnings."

Meekly, the goblin obeyed, pushing most of his own stack back toward Rafael, and putting the remaining few in his belt pouch. The moment Will let go of him the creature scrambled out the door, unwilling to stay and face Rafael's wrath. "That's about three," said Will, eyeing the stack, "and for the other ten I promised you: don't play with him anymore. He cheats."

Rafael looked astonished. "How…?"

"Doesn't matter. The location of the princess?"

"Very well, a deal's a deal. There's a beggar, I doubt you know him, but he saw the kidnapping. He usually begs on One and a Half Street and King's Avenue this time of day. If you catch him and chat him up, he might tell you what he saw, for a price, of course. It shouldn't cost more than the price of four or five beers, though."

Will thanked Rafael and hurried out. "I know the man," he said as the group trudged through the city's snowy boulevards. "He's called John; sometimes he comes and begs near my lock store. I know where we could find him, and if we want to beat the competition to Helen, we ought to get there quickly. Follow me."

Will led them quickly through Loldor's winding lanes. The sun was just clipping the peaks of the mountains in the west, smearing the sky with red clouds streaked with gold. Will found John where Rafael had suggested they meet, although the man had at first appeared as a bundle of rags. The peasant looked up expectantly.

"Hello, John," Will said.

"A few pence for the poor?" he inquired.

"A few words for us?" Will replied.

"For a few pence, yes. What is it that you want to know?" he asked.

"Perhaps it is better if we go to a pub. How does the Green Oak sound to you?"

"Fine, fine!" John said, grinning widely.

They led him into the nearby tavern and sat down at a corner table out of the way where they wouldn't be overheard. They called over the bartender and ordered a round of beers. A musician, a common part of most bars, was merrily playing a dancing song on the fiddle, and a motley assortment of races were dancing on the dancing floor or tapping along with their feet. John, however, wasn't quick to give up his information, but rather seemed more content to complain about the duke of Loldor and how the old man wasn't helping proletariats like himself. Two more rounds of beer went by, until John began to spill out his story.

"I was sitting in my usual spot, Solday's I always sit behind the Library near the cemetery after dark," he said in a drunken slur. "An' I was just sitting there minding my business when a group of gobbo's come creeping by, all silent like. But the strangest thing was, they was dragging summat along behind 'em. At first I didn't believe my eyes, 'cause it was floating. Yessir, it was floating, real quiet like, an' I saw it was a girl, just about twenty or summat years old. And she was sleepin', and they was carryin' her, and they passed me and I got curious, 'cause them can be nasty folks, goblins can. And so I followed them, and they went into the graveyard. Now I was real scared, mind you, but I crept along ta see what they was up to. And then, they was all gone! I didn't see 'em disappear ta anywhere! I just come up and they was gone!"

"It is possible that they could have teleported," Alexander said to Will.

"I doubt it," Ashe cut in, "It was probably a secret entrance. They may be leading their group from the crypts beneath the city, and that's where they are hiding. On the sheriff's door, it had some information about the case, and they found the ransom note down in the crypts of the Library."

"Seems pretty dumb to leave a ransom note on your doorstep," commented Alexander.

"Then again," Will chuckled, "goblins have never been that bright. How much was the ransom?"

"Six thousand Aurums."

"Sheesh!" exclaimed Doran. "No wonder the Duke doesn't want to pay. That would practically bankrupt the town!"

"Not really, Doran," Ashe said. "But it is a significant sum, and explains why they wanted people like us going after Helen."

"Where was the secret entrance?" asked Will.

"I… I don't remember," said John sheepishly.

"What, were you drunk?" Alexander exclaimed.

"Only a little!" he protested.

"It's a wonder he can remember as much as he did," Ashe said. "But his story matches up with my ideas. The goblins probably have a base somewhere in the crypts, with a secret entrance in the graveyard, so that they won't have to pass through the library when they want to go in or out."

"So, we should get to the graveyard, and start looking around for that secret entrance," said Doran.

"No, it's dark and would take quite a while. I'd say the best course of action is to go through the library. The crypts are rarely entered anyway, but they would have to have an entrance somewhere from the Library, because otherwise the base would never have been made in the first place," Ashe said.

"We should get moving as fast as possible—to beat the competition to that sack of gold, you know," Doran said.

Ashe tossed a couple of coins onto the table to pay for the several beers they had had, and left John there with a few empty glasses and a smile on his face.