First, the forest. A green, creeping thing, sending angry feelers and roots into the road that winds through it. Occasionally, the forest spreads its fingers, allowing glimpses of sawgrass clearings and herds of bison and small troupes of elephants. Every so often, ambitious and perhaps overconfident homesteaders have decided to wage war with the forest, hacking a space for a few squat farm buildings into the green underbelly.
Second, the sky. A brilliant blue, untouched by clouds. The sun hangs ripe in the west. A belt of skyrocks take their time swooning through the air, dipping low over the forest before drifting back out to the sky. In the distance, airships glide northward, catching the light on their sails.
The farmer makes his way down the road under the shade of the trees, admiring the ships and the stones gently hurtling through the sky, when he sees them. Before he sees them, though, he hears them. The sound of a cello echoes down the road. The tune is meandering and lackadaisical. In front of him, the road bends around a copse of old trees and sweeps past a grassy hill. And from this bend emerges the wagon.
It looks like a military transport vehicle, and it’s pulled by two large aurochs, heavy beasts, their horns swaying in time with one another. This is a back road, and it’s not paved – roots and potholes crack the trail. But the aurochs pay no mind to the uneven path; they pull the wagon with a relentless and lazy energy. The wagon is clean, but the canvas covering it is torn, shredded at parts. Several arrows are stuck in the side, the fletches quivering with each trudging step of the aurochs.
But the farmer has seen wagons in worse shape before. What he hasn’t seen, though, is a group as strange as this. Atop the wagon, a dragonborn lounges between the ridges of the canvas canopy. The creature looks around in wonder at the forest around him, and when he yawns, sparks leap out of his mouth. He plays a cello, an old looking thing.
The dragonborn’s tail loops down from the roof, and with each bump in the road, it swings into the face of the tiefling driving the wagon. She has a look of concentration on her face, and grips the reins in both hands. With each hit from the tail, she looks up at the dragonborn, her frustration visibly rising.
The farmer has only seen a few tieflings before. She wears a cloak with a hood up, even in the bright weather, and the farmer thinks her exotic and a little frightening. Her skin is purple, he sees now, and her eyes a shiny gold. Were the stories true? Beside her, though, sits a human, a large man with an imposing axe balanced across his lap. He carries with him an old book, a strange looking book, and it’s laid out atop the axe. His clothes are worn, the clothes of a traveler, and he looks out at the road ahead.
Despite the odd traveling companions, the human looks calm. Serene, even. The farmer has never seen such an odd group assembled. As the wagon approaches the farmer, the tiefling tugs on the reins and the aurochs come to a halt.
The dragonborn leaps off the wagon and lands awkwardly, stumbling into underbrush near the road. The tiefling and the human exchange looks. Exasperated looks. Then they turn to the farmer. The three of them look at each other expectantly, while the dragonborn curses and bounds out of the undergrowth.
“Hello,” says the Tiefling. For all the mystique surrounding her, the farmer thinks she sounds like anyone else. “What’s the fastest route to Old Kazolin?”
“We’re adventurers on a quest!” says the Dragonborn. His scales are blue. The farmer has never seen anything so strange. A blue dragonborn? Wet leaves and twigs from the dragonborn’s tumble in the underbrush stick to his arms and legs.
The Tiefling narrows her eyes. “We’re not on a quest. This isn’t a quest. This is important.”
“Actually,” says the human, a hand wiping sweat off his weathered brow, “We’re not ‘not’ on a quest. I think this qualifies as a quest. Also, quests can be pretty important.”
From beside the farmer, as if out of the earth itself, a shape appears. A human-shaped shape. The farmer steps back and gawks in amazement. A tall figure stands where, moments before, there was nothing.
If the farmer had to guess, he would place the figure as a half-elf. He’s fit, with a thick beard. Armed with a short bow, and clothed in hunter’s garb, he ignores the farmer completely. Pouches hang heavy from his belt, and pockets dot the half-elf’s appearance.
“The elephants,” says the half-elf. “They say that if we cut through a field of floatfruit to the right up ahead, we’ll hit a path that will lead us to a supply road from the Kobald Mines. From there we get back on the main thoroughfare. Cuts about 4 hours off our time.”
The others nod approvingly, except for the human, who simply regards the half-elf with a steely reserve. The farmer thinks he hears the human mutter something about ‘dark magic.’
The half-elf continues. “Also, I don’t think it’s a quest.”
From inside the wagon, the farmer hears a new voice. “That’s great! But I think it is a quest. We have an objective that we’ve got to do. Seems pretty quest-like to me.”
“What’s great?” asks the dragonborn. “The quest or the directions?”
The Tiefling pipes up. “A quest is a search! It’s when you’re trying to find something. We’re not searching for anything.”
“I think you’re interpreting the word too literally,” says the human. “We’re not searching for something, but we’re in search of a good outcome. We’re expending a lot of effort to try to do something.”
The half-elf moves to the front of the wagon and hoists himself up. “A mission, then,” he says. “Can we all agree that we’re on a mission?” The human slides away from the half-elf.
“What do you think?” asks the dragonborn. Each of these strange people turn to regard the farmer. He stands there, sweating as the strange assortment of characters look at him.
“Tell him I’m looking at him through the canvas,” says the voice from the wagon.
“Um,” says the farmer.
“He’s looking at you through the canvas,” says the dragonborn.
A long silence.
The Tiefling woman speaks. “A mission is given to you by someone. No one gave us this mission. It sounds too official.”
“Dekan gave us this mission with his dying breath!” says the human.
“Could it be a mission to complete a quest?” asks the voice from the wagon.
“That’s too tautological,” says the half-elf. “Let’s go, we’re wasting time.” He disappears into the wagon.
The Tiefling cracks the reins and the aurochs begin to lumber forward. “Thanks for your help!” she yells to the farmer.
“Well, he didn’t really help us at all, did he?” says the human. “So, I guess, just… goodbye.” he waves a dismissive hand to the farmer.
The dragonborn sprints forward and leaps onto the wagon. He shimmies up the canopy again, his scaled blue tail glinting in the sunlight. “Tautological,” he mutters. “Hell does that mean.”
The farmer stands there, mouth agape, as the wagon trundles past him. The cello begins to play again. As the wagon passes him, he peers into the canvas-covered interior. Out of the shadows, a thin figure appears. The farmer is rooted with fear. It’s a drow. The farmer’s fear melts into confusion. Atop the drow’s blonde, silver hair, he wears a bright red fez with a gold tassel. The word “ALONSO” is embroidered across the front in gold thread.
The drow raises his hand to cover his eyes. He shrinks back from the sunlight. He stares at the farmer and the farmer stares back. Then, inexplicably, the drow smiles, raises his hand, and waves. The farmer hesitates before raising his own hand and waving back.
“Have a good day!” the drow yells. The wagon continues down the road. The cello plays on.