Friday, June 20, 2014

Keepers of the List, Chapter 8

The adventurers stood at the edge of the bubbling brook, refilling canteens and taking the moment to rest. Alastor sat on a stone, his eyes closed, his long white hair blowing in the wind. A good distance away, Mel crouched close to the ground, one hand shielding the sun from her eyes as she peered through the trees and across a valley. Taking off a glove, she glanced down at marks in the dirt, running her bare hand across the ground’s surface gently.

Cadmus, his broadsword unsheathed, slowly swinging the blade through the air, slow enough to maintain perfect control, yet fast enough to allow his ears to feel the quiet whine of the sharp edge cutting through the still air. Keeping more than a safe distance from the others, he casually practiced changes in his stance, slashing and stabbing and parrying imaginary foes. By the time he stopped, there was a small veneer of sweat forming around the base of his horns, half from the day’s exertion and half from the bright sun.

“They went this way,” said Mel after thoroughly studying the ground. “A group of them, maybe five or six, and they were dragging something. Some time today.”

Cadmus halted, completed a practiced flourish with the wide-bladed weapon, and raised it above his head, gently lowering it into the sheath on his back. Taking a long swig of cold water, he walked towards the bard, flexing his neck left and right. Alastor, however, stayed put, his eyes still closed, one hand on the thick book at his side.

“I believe you,” said the mage, nothing moving but his mouth. “Just like I believed you last time. And the time before that. And the time before that…”

Mel threw her glove down angrily. “Just what, exactly, are you implying, ‘Alastor the great’?”

The old man’s eyes opened ever-so-slightly, peered in her direction, then closed once more. “Nothing,” he said casually. “Merely making an observation.”

Cadmus noticed Mel’s face was beginning to flush. “Well, my apologies, ‘master of the arcane’” she began, her voice coming out in a stage whisper, “but by all means, if you would see it fit to grace us with some assistance from your ‘vast collection of arcane knowledge,’ then perhaps we could get this job finished a little bit faster .”

The Trystborn stepped between them, holding a hand up towards each of his companions. “Now, now, you two, let’s just focus on the job here.”

Alastor muttered something under his breath, but all Cadmus could make out were the words, “not worth the effort.”

Mel gritted her teeth and balled up her fists, grabbing her glove angrily from the dirt. Without another word, she began walking through the trees, shoving saplings and stray branches out of her way. Cadmus began to follow, and, seeing that Alastor was making little effort to keep up the group, gestured to the old man to hurry, and continued on after the bard.

When he caught up to her, she glanced back, and whispered to the Trystborn as he neared.

“I’m telling you, Cadmus,” she began, keeping her pace swift, “he’s done next to nothing to contribute. All he’s done all day is criticize my tracking skills. And you know what I think?”

Cadmus didn’t know what she thought, but at the moment was more worried about the mission than her complaints about her teammate. But she continued before he could answer either way.

“I don’t even think he can use magic. He hasn’t done anything yet that I couldn’t do with a bit of sleight of hand. Yet he keeps going on and on about how powerful and wondrous of a spellcaster he is.”

Cadmus stopped in his tracks for a moment, but then continued when he saw she wasn’t slowing down. He cocked his head, staring at her strangely as she walked.

“Wait, what? I don’t understand,” he said once he was close enough to whisper.

And, unexpectedly, she stopped abruptly, causing Cadmus to almost run into her.

“I’ve been paying attention every time he says he’s casting a spell. He’s just speaking gibberish. Twice he’s claimed to be casting a protection spell, yet he said completely different nonsense each time. The only thing I’ve actually seen him done is that little fireball in his hand, but I’d be willing to bet I could do the same thing with a flint, some oil, and a day of practice.”

Cadmus shook his head and opened his mouth, but before he could speak, he heard Alastor’s footsteps through the trees behind them.

“Are you two mad,” the mage hissed, “leaving me behind like that?”

Mel glowered at him. “What’s the matter,” she began, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “Afraid goblins might stumble upon you? I figured some puny goblins would bow down and worship an almighty spellcaster like yourself.”

“We shall see, shan’t we,” responded Alastor, advancing towards the bard, a flourish creating another ball of flame in his hand.

Cadmus pushed his two teammates apart, gesturing for them to silence. He snapped his head to the side, listening intently. Nearby, he heard a high-pitched murmuring noise- something he recognized: goblin speech.

“I know I heard it that time,” said a voice in its native language. “You two, head into those bushes and scare it out.”

Cadmus locked eyes with Mel, who, judging by her appearance, had understood everything. The two immediately ducked down, pulling Alastor with them as he stared, oblivious. The Trystborn began slowly pulling his sword back out of its sheath, taking care to make as little noise as possible. As he saw Mel pull out a pair of throwing daggers, he heard the goblins speak once more- a different voice this time.

“Me? You go scare it out. I scared out the last one.”

The goblins began bickering amongst themselves, and in the arguing Cadmus couldn’t tell how many he was hearing; he considered poking his head through the brush to see, but it was too risky. Mel got his attention, and with one dagger, she started scratching a small battle plan into the dirt. From the looks of it, she wanted to separate and flank them, hoping to catch them unaware and subdue them before they could react.

Their planning was cut short, however, by a loud cracking sound. Alastor had grabbed hold of a loose tree branch and snapped it off of the tree, holding it like a club (the flame in his hand having vanished). The bard and the Trystborn could only stare at him in horror as they heard the goblins’ bickering come to a halt. From the sounds of their voices, they were splitting up and separating to surround the source of the noise.

“You… IDIOT,” Cadmus heard Mel mutter through clenched teeth as the first goblin came into view, its olive-green skin glistening with sweat, a crudely-made axe in one hand. It opened its mouth full of broken teeth to announce the presence of enemies, but its call was silenced by a dagger suddenly landing square in its chest. As it fell to the ground, its expression frozen, Cadmus sprang from the other side of the brush, his sword swiftly cutting through the air, its wide blade cleanly separating a goblin’s torso from its legs. Its momentum carried through and caused the sword to bury itself in the side of another goblin, who then fell to its knees as blood poured across the weapon’s surface.

Just as the Trystborn was beginning to think that this battle would be over as soon as it began, two more goblins came around the foliage, leaving behind the broken body of a slain elk that the group had been dragging. Before Cadmus could remove his sword from the dying goblin he had just sliced into, the two newcomers charged at him, leaping and grabbing onto him like he was a living ladder. The first, wielding a crude bludgeon, started striking the weapon repeatedly against the Trystborn’s face, not hitting with much force, but with enough speed to fill his vision with stars. Without being able to see, he suddenly felt something sharp stab at his midsection, but thankfully it got caught in the links of his chainmail.

“Cadmus,” he heard in Mel’s voice. “Watch out!”

Unable to see, he couldn’t exactly heed her warning, but there was the sound of an object flying through the air at high speed, and he heard the goblin stabbing him groan and fall to the ground. He released the grip of his sword and grabbed the goblin hitting him in the face, throwing the humanoid to the ground as hard as he could while it struggled. Fumbling for his sword while his vision slowly returned, he felt a sudden shooting pain in his knee as the goblin loudly struck him in the leg with its bludgeon, causing him to drop to one knee, his tail thrusting itself instinctively against the ground for balance.

His vision finally back, he saw the goblin wind up for another powerful swing, but his gauntleted fist collided with the goblin’s tiny jaw before it had a chance to strike. It soared backwards through the air, landing on the ground with a thud. Pulling his sword from the goblin body before him, Cadmus started to walk forward to finish off the one he had punched, but found himself almost doubling over in pain coming from his knee. He glanced towards Mel and Alastor, and saw the mage standing over the body of a lone goblin, his tree branch wet with the small humanoid’s blood. Mel, her arm and side bleeding, was pulling her rapier from the neck of a goblin, and scattered through the trees were the bodies of two more.

As he counted up the dead goblins, however, he heard a rustle. The one he had punched suddenly sprang to its feet, dropped its club, and began running as fast as its feed would take it away from the scene of battle. Cadmus tried to give chase, but the pain in his leg made him stop after only a few steps. He grabbed one of his shiny new throwing axes from his bandolier, and took aim. His head still ached, and his vision was still a bit blurry, but he took a deep breath, and threw the axe with all of his might.

The axe sailed through the air, spinning over and over itself, as the goblin ran in a straight line through the woods. The blade got closer, and closer, and closer, and then…

…It buried itself into the trunk of a tree, just narrowly missing the goblin. The creature kept running, soon out of Cadmus’ vision. Mel came running up from the other side of the brush, Alastor in tow.

“What happened,” she asked, panting. “Did you get the last one?”

Cadmus gritted his teeth, shaking his head.

“Great job, team,” said Alastor sarcastically.

Mel’s eyes opened wide with fury, turning towards the mage, looking ready to tear his head off. “Do you realize what you’ve done?

The mage stared at her incredulously. “Me? What did I do?”

“Where shall I begin,” she said, obviously not trying to keep her voice low. “You haven’t done anything to help us all day. You insisted on stopping for breaks often, yet criticized me whenever I stopped to gather my bearings. You insulted my tracking skills. And most importantly, you practically announced our location to those goblins, and because of that, we were surrounded. If we could have surprised them like I wanted to, one of them wouldn’t have gotten away.”

Alastor shrugged. “So what? We’ll have one more to kill later. What does it matter if one got away?”

Cadmus shook his head, feeling like he would be laughing if his leg wasn’t in so much pain. “You really don’t know much about goblins, do you?”

The mage said nothing.

“Well, let me give you a short lesson,” he continued. “Goblins are masters at setting traps. Where there’s one, there’s a dozen. And the worst thing you can do is give a goblin time to prepare.”

Alastor continued to stare blankly, his white beard and mustache twitching slightly.

Mel continued Cadmus’ thought. “So by letting that one escape, we’ve guaranteed that whenever we find their lair, it’s going to be full of traps, and on high alert. Good job.”

Cadmus massaged his aching knee. “So,” he added, “who’s ready to march to our death?”

Keepers of the List, Chapter 7

Leclerc wiped a sheen of sweat from his forehead as he dumped a piled of rotted planks into the pile. He looked up at the sky; from the courtyard, he could see the sun, no longer at its highest, begin to disappear behind the leaning tower on the front side of the manor. That pile of planks was the last of the shelves in what was once the larder- it would be some time before the mansion was truly inhabitable, but they needed somewhere to keep their foot in the meantime.

It had been several hours since Cadmus, Mel, and Alastor had left. As Leclerc walked through the shadowy and musty halls of the abandoned home, he found himself glancing out of every window, looking for a sign of the adventurers’ return. He knew they wouldn’t be back for some time- in fact, if they returned too soon he had half a mind to refuse payment. They had been hired to exterminate the goblins in the surrounding hills. If they strolled back in before the sun had begun to set, then clearly they wouldn’t have been very thorough.

Not that he didn’t trust them… He did, didn’t he? One doesn’t travel to a remote location and put your life in the hands of someone you don’t trust. Of course he trusted Cadmus. Of all of the people that passed them by on that day in Archdale, not to mention during their troubles on the road for days before, Cadmus was the only one who offered to help. Leclerc had always heard bad things about Trystborn- everyone had heard the stories- but like his mother and father taught him as a child, and as the church of Deluz held as its highest tenet, one must respect and care for all men, regardless of race, upbringing, or creed, as all are given the blessing of the Sun Father, whether they choose to use it or not.

And Mel, though shrewd, certainly hadn’t given him any reason to suspect anything worthy of distrust. Leclerc certainly wondered what kind of “business partners” she had back in Serasham- having spent half of his life there serving the church, he knew what kind of shady business was conducted in the back alleys- but he had to give her the benefit of a doubt. After all, the same logic could be applied to him, or to Esprit.

Then… there was Alastor. Leclerc certainly felt more suspicious of him, since he wasn’t given the chance to size him up before they departed on this quest. His behavior since then had been strange, to say the least. Earlier that morning, when it was time to wake everyone up after their first night in the manor, Leclerc approached the corner where the spellcaster had set up his bedroll. Not only did it seem needlessly far from the rest of the group, but Alastor had positioned bookshelves and debris around his bedroll so that Leclerc had to noisily climb over and move the obstacles before he could even see where the wizard slept. And by the time Leclerc got to him, Alastor was already awake, sitting up, looking more composed and alert than ever. Had he been awake all night? Was he trying to hide something from the rest of the group?

Leclerc sighed, making his way one more time through the halls. Whatever the case, Esprit had closed on the deal and now it was just time to wait until the adventurers returned. There honestly wasn’t much to do in the meantime- the group had searched the manor for signs of any goblins or wild animals living in the vacant building, and having found none, the next step would be to go back to town and hire laborers to fix up what could be fixed, and build anew what was ruined. After that, Esprit planned on hiring furnishers to come in and design custom furniture for each of the rooms- her hope was to eventually restore the manor and surrounding grounds to its former glory, as it was in the time of her parents or grandparents or whoever lived in it last. She had told Leclerc that he was welcome to live with her, as long as he wished, as thanks for taking care of her for so long and helping her sort out her affairs.

And so, for the time being, there wasn’t anything urgent to attend to. They couldn’t travel back to town yet, in case the adventurers returned. And since they had no idea in what state the home would be, they only brought food and supplies for a short while, so as not to encumber themselves or their wagon needlessly. Esprit had taken the opportunity to finally rest easily for once, laying out her bedroll on the remains of what used to be a four-poster canopied bed in the room she had chosen to be her master suite, laying upon it and trying to relax. Leclerc had no issue with her decision to do so, but he just couldn’t bring himself to do the same; he couldn’t do much on his own, but he had never been one to relax when there was work to be done. So he spent the morning, and now the afternoon, gathering up broken and rotting remains of furniture and artwork and throwing them into a pile on the overgrown grass of one of the two courtyards. Eventually, once the adventurers returned perhaps, they could set the pile ablaze, and then he could relax. But for the time being, he just went from room to room, grabbed what he could, and added it to the pile.

It truly was a shame. It seemed that literally everything of value had been removed or destroyed. He wondered just who did it all- was it a group of brigands passing through during the years the property was abandoned? Or was it whoever lived in the home last, taking what they could when they bid the building farewell?

Much of the building’s past was shrouded in mystery. Leclerc knew very little- as did Esprit, unless she purposely hid details from him- about Esprit’s parents, or their death, or their home. He had assumed that they lived here, at Stalvan Manor, as had she before their death, but when they finally found someone who knew the area well, Leclerc and Esprit were informed that the building looked to have endured decades of disrepair. And, here they were, in a building that looked like nobody had set foot in it for over a lifetime.

They had, of course, hoped to find something in the home- documents, paintings, anything- to suggest its ownership or anything about Esprit or her family. But, as Leclerc learned through his walks around the property, anything that could identify the owner, or even the architects or artists that built this building, were damaged beyond recognition. This, coupled with the fact that every detail of the building’s craftsmanship looked like so many different styles combined, made it difficult to piece together. Leclerc had searched every room he could find- from the cellar, filled almost to the brim with broken pieces of the floor above, to the tops of each tower- except for the leaning one, which looked ready to collapse at the slightest breeze, and so far had found nothing noteworthy. Esprit would finally have a home, but Leclerc could feel that she was still yearning for something.

As the sun reached further across the sky, Leclerc, satisfied with how much he had cleared out so far, carried the casks of grain and fresh water they had brought into the empty larder. He walked to the room he had designated as his own and grabbed a loaf of bread and some cheese from his pack, which sat next to his polished breastplate and hammer, and knocked on the door to Esprit’s room.

“Come in,” she called from inside, with little emotion in her voice.

He opened the wooden door, which was bowed slightly inward, and stepped into the room, his boots tapping on the strong floor. Esprit was laying on her bedroll, her head hanging off the far side of the broken bed, staring upside-down out the broken window.

“I was taking a break to have something to eat,” he began. “I thought you might wish to join me. If I’m not… disturbing you, that is.”

She pulled herself to a sitting position rather quickly, and for a moment her face was slightly red from being held upside down. She blinked, then gave her head a shake.

“Absolutely,” she said, snapping out of a daze. “Any word from the others?”

Leclerc walked over, pulling up a chair that was missing all but the metal frame of the seat. He sat down on it uncomfortably, feeling the metal strain under his weight.

“Not yet. I trust they won’t have much trouble- they certainly seemed to be experienced.” He tore off a piece of bread and put it in his mouth, holding it against one cheek as he broke off some cheese. Chewing them together, he handed the bread and cheese to Esprit, who began to do the same.

“I’ve looked around the building pretty thoroughly,” he spoke, after a few moments of silence. “I’m afraid I didn’t find anything… recognizable. No books, no documents.”

Esprit, her mouth full, took a deep breath, sighing through her nose. She nodded, not saying anything in return.

“It’s possible…” said the paladin, sensing a barely-noticeable sadness from her expression. “I mean… there could always be a… hidden room, or secret passage, that might hold something that was missed by whoever ransacked the building. Of course it’s nothing to count on, but who knows- some day you might stumble across something you never expected.”

She swallowed glumly, and began to tear off another piece of bread. “I suppose so. I don’t know what I expected, but… I thought coming here would make me happy. I felt like once we got here, I would never be lonely again.”

Leclerc reached over and caressed her shoulder, brushing her long red hair out of her sad face. “And I intend to help make that as true as I can. Once we get workmen to come in and get rid of all of the rubble, and this place starts feeling like a true home, you’ll be wishing you had some peace and quiet,” he said with a smile. “Trust me.”

She mustered a smile, and shoved some bread in her mouth. Leclerc could see her brush away the faintest of tears as she did so. “I guess you’re right,” she said with her mouth full. “I just hope that someday I can find someone who knew my parents. It would be nice to know if I have any other family or friends out there, you know?”

Leclerc nodded. He felt guilty- although he didn’t have a large family, he corresponded with his mother, father, and sister quite often, and he knew how much Esprit envied him for that. But he knew that the Sun Father Deluz had a plan for all of them, and some day it would all make sense.

“So,” he said, swallowing some more bread and cheese. “I put all of the broken boards in a big pile in the courtyard. I was thinking once the others returned, we could have a big bonfire to celebrate.”

Esprit smiled, and it looked like a real, happy smile. “I think I’d really like that,” she said.

Once they had finished eating, Leclerc stood up- glad to no longer be depending on that chair frame- and gathered the remaining food. As he began to walk towards the door, Esprit called his name.

“Leclerc,” she said. “I think I’m going to talk a walk around the building. Stretch my legs. Maybe check on the horses.”

He nodded back towards her. “That sounds like a good idea. Give them some sugar for me. I’m going to see if there are any rooms I missed- maybe start clearing out the basement, if I can.”

She smiled, and Leclerc returned to cleaning.
It was nearing sunset, and Leclerc wasn’t having much luck moving the rubble in the basement. There was so much debris, he couldn’t even quite tell how large the basement was going to be, or whether there was anything beyond the wreckage. He had worked up quite a sweat trying to move what he could, but so much of it was wedged against other pieces that it was hard to find purchase. Having decided to take a break, he made his way back towards Esprit’s room.

He passed a window, and once again he felt the urge to look out, looking for signs of the adventurers. He paused and stared outside for a moment; just as he began to turn to continue down the hall, there was a great rumble, and the ground under his feet lurched to one side. He felt the entire building shake for a moment, and the rumble, far off in the mountains, subsided. A moment passed, and he felt his heart racing, wondering what that was, when he heard another noise, much closer: a cracking noise, coming from the front of the building.

His eyes opened wide. He knew what was about to happen the instant before it did- he let out a yell, and barreled down the hall towards the manor’s entrance.

Before he could get very far, however, he was knocked to his feet by a thunderous crash outside. He scrambled up again, running as fast as his feet would take him, until he smashed his way through the set of double doors in front of Stalvan Manor.

As he took in what was lying before him, he felt himself scream for his friend.

“ESPRIT,” he shouted, “ESPRIT!

The crooked tower, leaning so precariously upon their arrival, had fallen and crashed onto the stable house.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Behind the Words 5/7/2014

Hello, reader!

So, Keepers of the List is underway. Not as quickly as I would have hoped, but I'm not going to beat myself up about it. I'm still trying to iron out a lot of the details of the world, and make sure that I can make this story as good as I can.

I've heard it said, "Writers are not people for whom writing is easy. Rather, writers are people for whom writing is incredibly difficult." True words, seriously. Writing isn't easy. At least, not for me. Sometimes I'll sit and stare at a paragraph, a sentence, a word, re-writing it a dozen times (or just sitting paralyzed) because it just doesn't feel right. Whenever I write a sentence, I have to ask several questions:

1. Does this sentence add to the story?
2. Does this sentence make sense within the paragraph?
3. If this sentence involves characters and/or dialogue, is it 100% consistent with the characters involved (at least based on what I have decided regarding the character, possibly involving factors not yet revealed to the reader)?

Another question, "Is this sentence necessary?" passes through my mind, but it's difficult to quantify "necessary". Sure, a sentence might be unnecessary in the sense that the story can be told without it, but does the paragraph still have the same feeling without it? Not always. In any case, typically if a sentence fits the first three criteria, then in my opinion it is necessary.

Anyway, that's just a bit of insight into my process.

Oh- one more thing. In January, I took Last of the King's Men off of this blog for reasons I'd still rather not get into. That being said, I have decided to (eventually) add it back, as well as continue writing it. I don't know when, and certain details will be changed, but it will return.

Happy Reading!

Keepers of the List, Chapter 6

The sun was beginning to set as they reached the foothills of the Arcala mountain range. They stretched to the East through their own climbing shadows, and West the sun cast its orange and pink rays across their silhouette. The wagon ascended the steep, winding path through the crags, through the cold dark spaces between cliffs, with stony walls craning for the skies on each side. After what seemed like a cold black eternity climbing through the hills, Mel felt the wagon come to a level stop.

She stood up and poked her head through the flap behind the driver’s bench. Leclerc was walking from the wagon towards a set of black wrought-iron gates, both looking ready to fall off their hinges. A chill wind blew the valley, and with it the bard could have sworn she heard far-off cries of fear.

Mel watched Leclerc, one hand visibly itching for the weapon hanging from his belt, take an old rusted key from his pocket, unlocking a feeble-looking chain hanging silently from the gates. He then pulled one gate open, then the other, watching as if he expected them to turn into a monster and attack. Once he was satisfied with their entrance, he returned to the wagon, urging the horses once again to movement.

By now, Cadmus and Alastor had joined Mel, and the three of them peered over their benefactors’ shoulders as the vehicle rode through the gates. They followed the overgrown lane as it wound through sagging trees, some dead, some growing in the middle of the road. The sky overhead grew steadily darker, until they finally came to their destination. As the trees cleared, Mel suppressed a gasp; the mansion came into view, covered in vines threatening to crush the very stonework. Its windows, cracked and broken in places, peered out into the dusk like a sad, once-majestic creature pleading for release from its torment. The front of the building was flat, and wide, with its tall walls stretching to either side, with over a dozen small spires standing against the blackening sky. One tall tower, sagging slightly, stood proudly on the front side; through the coming darkness, Mel could barely make out the shapes of more towers further back.

The horses pulled the wagon carefully around some large round object, covered in withered overgrowth, its shape and purpose indiscernible at the moment- but as they passed, Mel noted to herself that the age-old grooves in the path went around it on either side, indicating that it was likely man-made rather than a fallen boulder or an unintentional artifact of the manor’s disrepair.

The wagon came to rest in front of the large set of doors before them. Mel, grabbed her packs and climbed out the back of the vehicle, her boots loudly thudding against the packed dirt ground. Aside from the wind, the manor’s grounds seemed oddly silent; but maybe it was just her imagination.

As the rest of the group gathered in front of the building, Mel looked up, the imposing structure appearing to lean down towards her in the darkness.

“Leclerc,” she said, getting the man’s attention. “Should we be expecting any… unwelcome guests inside?”

He responded after strapping a large, heavy-looking crossbow to his back, as well as a sturdy-looking quiver of bolts.

“Your guess is as good as mine. But it couldn’t hurt to be prepared.”
Leclerc tied the horses to a post near the door, and they gathered near the entrance. A large set of double-doors, slightly ajar and warped from years of fighting the elements, stood beside a smaller, single door- most likely leading to a guards’ lookout in the leaning tower, Mel figured. The architecture itself looked… strange, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on why.

“Our main goal right now,” said the man, his voice commanding despite his attempts to keep it quiet, “is to find an easily-defensible room on the first floor where we can spend the night. It’s too risky to explore the whole building in the dark- we’ll do that first thing tomorrow morning. Once we find a suitable room, Cadmus- you and I will come out, secure the horses, and return with the rest of our supplies, while the rest of you set up camp. Agreed?”

Mel looked to Cadmus, who nodded stoically. Leclerc lit a lantern and handed it to Esprit, who kept close behind him as he opened the creaky door. Cadmus and Alastor filed in behind them, leaving Mel to bring up the back. She took a long, piercing glance out into the woods surrounding the manor, bow in hand, as she stepped carefully backwards into the dark building.

Inside the manor, the architecture struck Mel as even more odd than the outside. She couldn’t quite place what kind of person designed it- the walls and archways were thick and sturdy, common in Dwarven structures, but the molding and designs of the woodwork were curvy and ornate, like Elven sculpture. It was as if the owners picked and chose their favorite styles and somehow blended them all together.

The entrance hall was large, and filled with rubble. Part of the ceiling had caved in, tearing apart an intricate painting angels flying across the sky, and any furniture that had adorned the room was either broken, or rotten, or missing entirely. The far end of the room held another large double-door, similar to the one they had just passed through, but it had fallen off its hinges entirely, exposing that side of the room to the rain and winds from the courtyard beyond. On the left and right sides, closed doors led to either end of the building.

Leclerc walked to the doors on the right side of the room, and, hammer in one hand, pulled on the door handle with the other. The wooden door bent slightly as he pulled, but ultimately didn’t budge.

“Stuck,” said Cadmus, “or locked?”

“Stuck,” replied Leclerc. “Probably warped from years of rain. But that’s a good sign- it means nobody has been through here in a long time.”

Mel nudged the door on the other side of the room, noticing that it shifted slightly. “This one looks usable,” she said, stepping aside.

Leclerc walked back, and gave the door a firm pull. It scraped against the doorframe, but it came loose nonetheless. Esprit shined the lantern through the doorway, where a larger room stood in silence. The group quietly made their way in, and Mel saw that this room was mostly open-air- it was basically a long hall with a tall ceiling, with two courtyards on either side, and the walls on either side were comprised of pillars, allowing ease of passage to either courtyard. Some of the pillars had broken and fallen, however, so she whispered to everyone to keep clear of them.

The five walked down the hall, weapons at the ready, glances darting back and forth to each side. Mel could hardly imagine having the money to live in a place like this- even in its current state, crumbling and overgrown with weeds, this place had to be worth a fortune. It had to have been passed down for generations- judging by the state of disrepair it was in, it probably hadn’t seen a live-in owner in a century or two.

Mel wondered if that was why the architecture looked so strange- maybe it was just older than she had been expecting. It was just so strange- she saw numerous carvings and sculptures that should have helped her identify their maker, or at least give her some information about the previous owners, but all of them were damaged beyond recognition. She just couldn’t shake the feeling like something was wrong here, like the manor itself just didn’t… “fit”.

They passed through another door, and this time they entered a room that may have been a gallery of some sort- many torn and broken picture frames hung from the walls, as well as several spots where the walls had faded, leaving an outline of where a picture once hung. The rest of the furniture, following the trend so far, was either gone or had fallen apart with age.

Leclerc moved to the far side of the room, however, where a door was wedged shut by a piece of fallen ceiling. With Cadmus’ help, they managed to get it open, and beyond, they seemed to find what they were looking for- a medium-sized room, walls lined with empty bookcases, a large fireplace dominating one end, and tattered curtains blowing in a breeze from a single broken window. Mel could tell why they were looking for this kind of a room- if they could cover up the window, there was only one way in or out. It would provide enough security for them to rest until daylight.

“Alastor,” Mel called, directing the sorcerer. “Why don’t you do that trick of yours and light us a fire.”

The old man muttered something to himself and knelt down at the fireplace. Before long, there was a warm fire crackling merrily, giving them a bit more light. Cadmus and Leclerc took two of the bookcases, used one to cover the window, and used the other to hold the first in place. Esprit took out a worn blanket and began using it to sweep the bits of broken glass off to one side of the room.

Before long, they had gotten the room set up like a typical camp, with their bedrolls set up in a half-circle around the fireplace. It was unusual, camping indoors, but Mel had experienced much worse.

“We should head back to the wagon,” began Leclerc, putting his hand on Cadmus’ shoulder. “We still don’t know for sure whether there may be anything lurking here. The rest of you keep alert- we’ll grab what we need and be back as quick as possible.”

Everyone nodded. The two of them readied their weapons, and disappeared through the doorway.

Esprit was tending the fire, and Mel watched as it looked like Alastor, mumbling to himself, was trying to position a large broken piece of a bookcase between his bedroll and the rest of the room, as if he was trying to wall himself off. Puzzled, but not curious as to the mage’s idiosyncrasies, she cleared her throat before interrupting him.

“Alastor,” she began. “Do you have any magic spells that could protect our camp? Maybe alert us if something came nearby?”

The aged sorcerer jumped slightly as she called his name, and barely hid a look of annoyance on his face as she made her request. After she had finished speaking, he let out a sigh, and nodded. He reached into a pouch at his side, took out a handful of what looked like dust, and began walking around the room, sprinkling the dust and speaking in a language Mel didn’t understand. She had heard her share of magic spells being cast, but it never made any sense. For all she knew, he could be speaking gibberish and she would have no way of knowing.

As Alastor continued walking around the room casting his spells, Mel turned to Esprit, who now sat warming her hands. The bard couldn’t help but notice how sad Esprit looked.

“So,” she said, trying to lighten the mood. “This is all yours, huh? How does that make your feel?”

Esprit nodded without facing away from the fire. “Oh… lots of emotions, I suppose. It’s all really intimidating, you know? A few months ago, I had nothing. And now, I have all of this, and more. I don’t even know where to begin.”

“I can see that,” responded Mel. “How exactly did you come to inherit this home, anyway?”

“Technically, it’s been mine since I was a baby,” she replied. “My parents died when I was very young. I stayed in an orphanage in Serasham until I turned seventeen two months ago.”

Seventeen? Mel was shocked at how young this girl was. She certainly seemed much more mature than that.

“On the morning of my birthday, the headmistress came to me with this letter,” she continued. “The letter explained that my parents were very wealthy, and left behind the rest of their estate- which included this property- to be mine to me once I had turned seventeen years old.”

Mel nodded. Then she paused. “Who wrote you the letter? Not your parents, obviously.”

Esprit turned to face her. “That’s one thing I’m hoping to learn by coming here. I don’t know if my parents lived here, or if they just owned it… but I’m hoping I can learn who they were, and whether I have any other family out there. My whole life, it’s just been me. Me in an orphanage with nothing that was really mine, and no friends except for Leclerc-”

“Yeah, about that,” said Mel, interrupting. “How do you know him? He seems a little… old to be your boyfriend.” She stopped herself before asking whether her parents warned her against such dangers.

Esprit blushed and turned away for a moment. “No, no,” she said. “It’s nothing like that. Leclerc is like a brother to me. When he was training to be a priest of Deluz, he volunteered to help out at the orphanage. I think he could tell how lonely I was, and the two of us became close friends. He’s as close to family as I’ll probably ever have.”

As if on cue, there was a knock on the door, followed by Leclerc’s hammer poking through the doorway, in case anyone was readying an attack against anything that entered the room. A moment later, the door opened the rest of the way, and the paladin and the Trystborn returned, carrying barrels strapped to their backs.

“Success,” said Leclerc, smiling. “The stable to the side of the manor was undisturbed. We tied up the horses and retrieved supplies- and I fastened loud bells around their necks so that if anything surprises them, the noise will alert whoever is on watch.”

“Speaking of watch,” spoke Alastor, who appeared to have finished casting his protection magic, “who’s keeping watch? Unfortunately, I will have to abstain, so as to recharge my arcane powers.”

As much as she felt he was telling the truth, Mel couldn’t help feel annoyed at that fact.

“I’ll take first,” said Cadmus, setting down his barrel.

“I will take second,” said Esprit.

Leclerc shook his head. “No, Esprit, I must insist. I will take second. You will surely have enough on your mind that you need your rest.”

Mel didn’t hear her protest, and soon everyone except Cadmus was turning in for the night. The bard wrapped herself up in her bedroll, and although she meant to keep the Trystborn company for a while, before she knew it, she was fast asleep.
“Are you the one I am looking for?”

The man stood on the top of a mountain, facing away from Mel. He wore black, and was silhouetted by the red sun.

Mel opened her mouth to say something, but no sound came out. She tried to scream, but it only pulled her further from him.

“No… you are not the one I am looking for.”

He began to walk away, and as he walked away, he sank down into the mountain. Mel tried desperately to scream at him, to get him to return, when she realized she could no longer breathe.
She was awoken with a start by Leclerc, and after sitting up and gathering herself, she realized she heard something she wasn’t expecting- birds. She could hear them through the broken window, where a sliver of sunlight peeked through and hit the wall of the room.

The group got up, gathered their things, and set out to secure the manor and make sure it wasn’t inhabited. Upon leaving their camp, however, Mel was struck by how different everything seemed- it wasn’t simply a matter of being able to see their surroundings better… the entire environment, even places they had seen at night, no longer felt like they were as dangerous. Nobody had any problem splitting up into two smaller groups to cover more ground, and before long, they have covered what seemed like the entire building. They found no signs of any recent intruders, and nothing that looked suspicious.

Satisfied that the manor was safe, Mel, Cadmus, and Alastor readied themselves to begin their quest to search the grounds for goblins, and Esprit and Leclerc stayed in the manor to survey the damage and determine their next course of action. Bidding the questgivers farewell, the three adventurers set off, Mel wondering what sort of adventure the day had in store.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Keepers of the List, Chapter 5

Cadmus sorted through his gifted haversack as the wagon bounced along the bumpy road. He had already brought most of what their benefactors had given them anyway, but it never hurt to have extra. He looped the strap of the bag on the sheath of his greatsword, setting all of his things down in one corner of the wagon beside a pile of wooden crates.

A sweet sound played across his ears, and as he looked up, Mel had her lute in her hands, strumming softly. He saw her lips move gently with each chord, and one of her feet was bobbing back and forth in beat with the music. Hoping not to interrupt the music too much, he spoke with a smile.

“Does this song have words?”

She looked up, the music coming to a halt. The melody now absent, Cadmus regretted interrupting her.

“None I’m happy with,” she replied with a shrug.

“Well, by all means, keep playing,” he continued quickly. “I was quite enjoying it.”

With a nod and a smile, she began again, this time a bit louder, more confident. She continued to mouth words, and Cadmus wished he could hear the words she was thinking about even if it wasn’t finished. It felt like perfect traveling music to him- it made him think of riding a horse across the countryside, crossing green fields and resting beside crystal-clear waters. Occasionally he’d hear Mel begin to sing a wordless string of notes in harmony with the lute, but just as suddenly she’d stop.

“You’re quite good at that,” said the Trystborn, once again hesitant to interrupt.

To his pleasure, she continued to strum with her hands as she replied.

“Thank you,” she said with a smile. “I’d love to say it comes naturally, but as with any trade there’s a great deal of work that goes into it as well.”

Cadmus nodded in agreement. “Have you been playing all your life?”

She still brushed her fingers against the strings, but the tone seemed to change- it was less relaxing and more serious.

“Most of my life, I guess. Ever since I was a child. A man came to my village and played the lute one day, and it was just… it made me want to be able to do the same. I don’t only play the lute- I’ve tried lots of different instruments- but I always come back to it.”

Cadmus perked up a bit. “Oh? Where are you from?”

He noticed another change in the tone- it was almost sad now.

“I’m sure you’ve never heard of it,” she said. “I doubt it even exists now. How about you? Are you from Archdale?”

He shook his head, and the music was returning to its original relaxing cadence. “No, although I’ve lived there for a while. I was born in the Grey City, up North. My mother still lives there, as do my cousins.”

Mel’s eyebrows raised, and she grinned, still playing. “Oh! We’ve got a big city boy here. What was it like moving out here to the wilderness? I’ll bet more people live in the Grey City than the entire Southern Vale combined.”

Cadmus chuckled, shrugging. “I don’t know. I kind of ran away from home when I was just a kid, and I’ve lived out here ever since. Every time I go home to visit I feel like I don’t even recognize the city any more. I haven’t even been since my father died a few years ago.”

Mel continued playing, and neither of them spoke for a while. Cadmus glanced over at Alastor, who had been leaning back against the wagon covering with his eyes closed since they left town.

Reaching over, Cadmus tapped the spellcaster on the shoulder, rousing him. “Hey, friend,” he said. “Come, visit with us for a while. We’re going to be working together for a couple days. We might as well get to know you.”

Alastor blinked a few times, stretching his skinny arms and yawning before responding.

“My apologies,” he said, his voice sounding dry and weary. “Simply going over the vast collection of arcane knowledge in my head. I sometimes get lost in the process.”

Cadmus grinned. Sure, he thought. Act like you weren’t sleeping.

“So, tell us a bit about yourself,” began Cadmus, turning in his seat slightly so he would be facing both of his new companions. “How long have you been a spellcaster?”

Alastor thought about his answer for a moment. “In a way, it has been my calling since before I was born. In others, I will never truly grasp its intricacies.”

Cadmus cocked his head a bit. He wasn’t quite sure what that answer was supposed to mean, or if Alastor even answered the question at all. “Did you train formally? Or did you just learn it on your own?”

“I spent years training under the tutelage of the most learned archmages the world has to offer, young man,” he said, hefting the thick, heavy tome chained to his waist. “This book houses the secrets of thousands of years of arcane development, honed by the most powerful minds from ten different worlds, all at my fingertips.”

The Trystborn’s eyebrows raised. He hadn’t dealt with many spellcasters before- he wasn’t sure if he believed any of what Alastor was saying.

“So, just out of curiosity,” said Cadmus, staring at the dusty, leather-bound book, “if I were to read that book, could I practice magic as well?”

The mage let out an audible laugh. “If you somehow survived the plethora of magical traps built into every page of this libram, the text on its pages would likely drive you insane merely by their complexity.”

“But without it you’re powerless,” chimed in Mel, her fingers still dancing along the strings in a jaunty tune. “Isn’t that right?”

Alastor’s mouth was slightly agape, and he eyed her suspiciously. “Well, I… I don’t… You can’t exactly say… powerless isn’t quite…”

She grinned. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to take it from you. Magic isn’t exactly my thing. But I’ve heard many a tale about a wizard whose book was taken or lost or blown up by a stray firepot, and without it, you’re… next to powerless. Until you can spend a great deal of time and money fashioning a new one.”

The old man narrowed his eyes. “Yes, that is true… to an extent. A wizard, such as myself, arranges his magical energy every day using the incantations in this book. Without the incantations, a typical spellcaster can only prepare a very small selection of personal spells. But an especially learned one, such as myself, has much more up his sleeve than you might think…”

As he spoke, he slowly pulled his sleeve back from his wrist, at which point his arm and hand burst into blue flame. Cadmus jumped slightly at the sudden flash and heat, but Mel seemed unimpressed. Alastor casually pulled his sleeve back to his wrist, and the flame disappeared in a small puff of smoke.

“Don’t worry,” said Cadmus as the mage brushed off his hand. “If you take away my sword, I’m next to powerless. I mean, I guess I could pick up just about any other weapon… and, you know, I’m pretty good bareknuckle, too… So I guess this isn’t a very good comparison.”

Mel finally finished strumming her lute, and set it down with the rest of her things. “What’s your specialty, Alastor?”

Alastor raised an eyebrow. “Pardon me?”

“Your specialty,” she repeated. “I’ve heard that most spellcasters choose one type of magic, and focus on that type over all others. Do you have one?”

“Ah,” said Alastor, a look of recognition on his face. “No, I do not. When specializing in one sphere of magic, you must give up access to another. I would rather have access to all magic equally. You never know what you may need in the future.”

Mel shrugged, satisfied with the answer. After a short while of silence, Cadmus saw her lean over slightly, peering through to the front of the wagon. She then whispered in his direction. “So, what do you two think of our employers?”

The Trystborn turned to the mage, who said nothing. Looking back to the bard, Cadmus shrugged slightly. “I don’t know, they seem honest enough to me,” he whispered back. “To be honest, I kind of despised them at first- unfairly, of course. I thought they were going to be competition. It was their fault I was late to Quest Day, but I suppose it turned out right in the end.”

Mel nodded. “Between you and me, if I had known Leclerc was a Paladin of Deluz, I wouldn’t have taken this job. I guess it’s too late now, though.”

Cadmus cocked his head. “He is? How do you know? He hasn’t said…”

“His armor,” she began quietly. “Didn’t you see that symbol on his chest? He’s obviously a follower. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a Paladin- but I’d be willing to bet that he is.”

Cadmus scratched his head. “I don’t get it. What’s the problem with him being a follower of Deluz?”

Mel sighed. “I guess nothing,” she said, leaning back. “He can believe in some invisible floating bearded guy sitting on a cloud all he wants- it’s no skin off my neck. But the last thing I want is some goody-two-shoes blind follower of the god of goodness and light telling me how I’m going to doomed to spend eternity in the prisons of Carceri.”

Cadmus could tell she had had some ugly encounters with followers of Deluz in the past. “All I know,” he began, “is I try not to judge people before I get to know them. ‘Try’ being the operative word. I have the feeling, by the time we’re done, you’ll be glad you gave him a chance.”

Suddenly, the three teammates felt the wagon lurch, and then heard Leclerc call from up front.

“Watch out, everyone,” he said, his voice hushed. “Keep your weapons at the ready. Something’s wrong.”

Cadmus grabbed the hilt of his sword and freed it from the sack to which it was tied as everyone snapped to the alert. Mel slung her quiver over one shoulder and took hold of the bow. Alastor put his hands together, mumbling something under his breath.

The wagon came to a stop, and they could feel the axle relax slightly from the absence of Leclerc’s weight. Mel moved to the back opening of the cover, her eyes darting back and forth for signs of danger. Cadmus stood up, and opening the front of the cover, helped a frightened Esprit from the driver’s bench. Peering through the opening, the Trystborn could see another wagon, charred and bloodstained, blocking the road ahead.

“It’s work of the Regias Brotherhood,” he said, gritting his teeth.

Esprit repeated, confused. “The Regias Brotherhood?”

“Stay in here,” he answered, holding firmly to the grip of his greatsword and climbing out of the wagon.

Coming around to the front of the vehicle, weapon at the ready, Cadmus joined Leclerc, who held a massive warhammer in both hands, inching towards the broken wagon.

“I know who’s responsible for this,” said the Trystborn, glancing around in every direction. “I think it’s best if we just shove it off the road if we can, and go around it.”

“But what about survivors,” said the man, tapping his hammer against the wooden vehicle. “They may not be far, and they may be in danger.”

Cadmus put a hand on Leclerc’s armored shoulder. “Trust me. The Regias Brotherhood doesn’t take survivors.”

He could see a look of concern on Leclerc’s face. Whether the man knew who the Regias Brotherhood was or not, it was clear he knew that there was likely very little they could do. After a short thought, Leclerc nodded, and Cadmus watched him kneel briefly and mutter a prayer. Once he was finished, the two of them pushed the remains of the wagon as far to one side as they could, and returned to the rest of the group.

Leclerc spurred the horses onward, and before long, the wreckage was far, far behind them.
A while later, once they were definitely a safe distance away, the wagon came to a stop a short distance off the road near a small lake. They had exited the woods some time ago, and far ahead, across the vast fields in front of them, was the Arcala Mountain range.

Cadmus helped Leclerc free the horses from their harnesses so that they could rest and drink from the lake, and everyone else got out to stretch and relieve themselves. As the horses drank their fill, Esprit came to the Trystborn with a look of concern.

“Cadmus,” she began, “who are the Regias Brotherhood?”

He took a deep breath. “They’re a gang of thieves in the Southern Vale. There have been tales of them around Archdale for years- as long as I’ve lived there, I think. They’re said to be brutal, deadly, and efficient. Every now and then you hear about them when a shipment doesn’t reach its destination- more often than not, the wreckage is found, just like what we saw, shortly thereafter. There’s never any survivors. We’re lucky this time there weren’t any body parts strewn about.”

“That’s terrible,” said Esprit, a sickened look on her face.

Cadmus nodded. “You’re telling me. I’ve known plenty of townsfolk whose family members have joined caravans, only to wind up dead to the Regias. But it’s a risk that has to be taken- Archdale is one of the biggest centers of commerce in the country. You can’t exactly stop sending caravans through it.”

Leclerc spat on the ground. “And I’ll bet the town council has done little to fix anything.”

Cadmus shrugged. “Supposedly they’ve tried. But as you can see it hasn’t done much.”

Leclerc balled up his fists, then released them. “That’s no excuse,” Cadmus heard him mutter to himself. “They should do more.” Without another word, he began gathering up the horses to resume their travel.

Keepers of the List, Chapter 4

The sorcerer stood, as if in a trance, focusing on the symbol before him. His eyes slowly trailed along the edges of its square shape, with a thick black border surrounding the field of gold displaying two interlocking rings of silver. He heard nothing, lost in another world, knowing only the symbol. He floated along, carried by memory, feeling every emotion flow through him, his teeth clenching to hold back the flashes of fear, anger, sorrow, and confusion that were barraging his mind.

“Hello? Sir?”

The shopkeeper’s exasperated voice brought him back to the here and now, and Alastor snapped out of his trance in an instant. He took the briefest of moments to reorient himself, and shifted the small sack of dates in his left hand, using their weight as an anchor holding him in the present.

“Like I said,” continued the shopkeep, his tone frustrated, likely because of the growing line of customers gathering behind Alastor, “can I help you, or are you going to just stand there?”

The sorcerer cleared his throat, blinking a few times. “Sorry,” he began, “I don’t know what came over me.”

The shopkeep stood there, still waiting impatiently. Alastor set the sack of dates down on the counter, shaking his head once more to cast off his daydream. He directed his eyes behind the counter, taking in the symbol on the wall one last time.

“I’m going to need some supplies. Rope, wooden stakes, a bull’s-eye lantern, some oil…”

The portly shopkeep cut him off. “Whoa, whoa, slow down, sir. Rope and stakes can be found along the wall over there,” he pointed towards the far end of the shop, his fingers fat and hairy. “If you want to gather those while I help the other customers, we can tend to the rest of your order after that.”

Alastor, stopped mid-sentence, stared at the man blankly. Without a change in his expression, he spoke again, his tone level.

“Have you ever heard of a man named Alton Gallows?”

The shopkeeper was looking beyond the sorcerer, trying to gesture an apology to the rest of the waiting customers. Upon hearing Alastor’s question, however, he paused, a look of utmost confusion on his face.

“No,” he said, his expression one of thinly-veiled disgust. “No, I’ve never heard of him.”

Alastor cocked his head, squinting. He felt a repressed rage growing behind his eyes.

“You’re a member of the Merchant Alliance, and you don’t know of Alton Gallows?”

The man’s bewildered expression scrunched up, and his face began to darken with frustration. “Like I said, no. Now could you stop wasting my time and let some of my real customers by?”

Alastor felt a firm hand push him out of the way as one of the waiting patrons forced their way to the counter. The sorcerer gritted his teeth, narrowed his eyes, and without another word, turned and walked out of the store. He could hear his heart beginning to pound in his ears, and smell the faint odor of smoke somewhere in the distance; later on he didn’t even recall pushing the door open as he left.
Having cleared his head of what transpired at the general store, Alastor padded through the early morning streets of Archdale, his long white beard blowing in the crisp air. He had to check his hand-drawn map frequently, repeatedly finding himself on familiar-looking streets and passing what seemed like the same beggars and panhandlers multiple times. The flophouse in which he reluctantly chose to spend the night was located in what had to have been the dingiest part of the Lower Ward, and at times he wondered how close he had come to being robbed or worse.

He joined the growing masses of people making their way up the zig-zagging path that connected the lower part of town to the upper, and once he reached the top of the steep climb he noticed an important landmark from his map- an old worn statue of a well-dressed man, a book or tablet held in one hand with the other outstretched. The founder of the town, Alastor guessed, or at least an idealistic likeness of him. The sorcerer found an odd amusement that the figure’s hand stretched out towards the poor side of town, the side that had suffered the most irreparable damage after whatever calamity befell it.

The Upper Ward was like a completely different city. Guards patrolled the clean streets, business owners were outside displaying their wares and spreading new coats of paint on their fa├žades. He had seen it briefly the previous night, but he was in such a hurry to go from tavern to tavern, and he hadn’t yet seen the comparative squalor of the Lower Ward, that he hadn’t had a chance to appreciate it.

Glancing once again at his map, he followed the main thoroughfare- populated mostly by merchants and travelers passing through town, and as such it wasn’t as clean as the rest of the ward- until he passed City Hall, a tall whitewashed building with a carefully-landscaped lawn. As he approached the tall structure, he hopped onto the back of a passing cart as it turned down one of the narrow cobblestone streets, riding it until it turned once again. Back on his feet, he looked back and forth between the map and the nearby landmarks until he reached his destination.

It was an inn, small and quaint, with an attached stable where a livery boy stood brushing and feeding two horses while a taller man in a plain tunic was fitting them with harnesses. Alastor walked up to the inn, his nose dancing as the smell of a hearth-cooked breakfast wafted from the chimney. Taking a last glance at the map to make sure he was where he needed to be, he rapped his knuckles across the wooden front door.

A young pretty red-haired woman- beautiful, even, thought Alastor, though perhaps a bit young for his tastes- answered the door, her outfit plain and travel-ready. She gave a meek smile as she opened the door, her red lips curling ever-so-slightly.

“You must be Alastor,” she said, her voice soft.

“At your service, young maiden,” he replied, doubling over in a slightly exaggerated bow, taking great relief in the fact that this wasn't simply a prank meant to cast him off the trail of an actual quest.

She responded with a relatively formal curtsy, and stepped out of the way to bid him passage.

“My name is Esprit,” she said as he entered, “and as you already know, this is Cadmus and Mel. Please, help yourself.”

Standing at a table with a royal buffet laid out were the bard and Trystborn he had met the night before, who both gave a half-salute as they resumed shoving food down their throats and packing what they could into whatever pockets they could find.

Alastor, his stomach rumbling mightily, stepped casually towards the table, his eyes locked on a platter of roast ham, glistening in its juices. Beside it was a bowl of boiled eggs, a cluster of grapes each as big as his thumb, a wheel of cheese with several wedges already taken from it, and a basket of loaves of fresh bread threatening to carry him away with their aromas.

He attempted to make it seem like he was trying to carry on a conversation, while stacking meat and cheese and bread and whatever else he could find in one hand while making room in his satchel with the other. Esprit stepped through the door to another room, and he filled his mouth with his grapes before she had cross the threshold.

“Pleased to see you two again,” said the sorcerer, forcing the food into his stomach before he had a chance to chew it.

“And the same to you,” said Cadmus, smiling. The Trystborn was wearing a suit of chainmail under a sturdy wool cloak, a set of small polished axes hanging from his belt, and a large two-handed sword rested against the wall along with a rucksack filled with gear. Mel nodded, taking no break from eating to speak. She wore a loose traveling outfit, but Alastor could tell that beneath it she had on a tight suit of leather armor. She had a bow and quiver slung across her back even as she stood eating, and her own pack, which was filled almost to the bursting point, had several bladed weapons strapped to it. Compared to the two of them, Alastor couldn’t help but feel under-prepared. For a moment, in his mind he recalled the incident at the general store, but he was brought back to the present by a bitter piece of burnt meat in his mouth. He gagged momentarily, then forced himself to swallow it.

After the three of them had filled their stomachs and their pockets, Esprit returned to the room, followed closely behind by a brick wall of a man- tall, broad-shouldered, apparently made of solid muscle, with a strong jawline and salt-and-pepper colored hair and goatee. He wore a suit of polished full plate mail, experienced enough with its use to walk through the narrow doorway without much trouble, and emblazoned on his breastplate was a painting of a bright, shining sun.

Alastor, upon seeing the symbol, couldn’t help but sigh and roll his eyes.

“Alastor,” spoke the fair Esprit, gesturing between the sorcerer and the armored Human wall. “This is Leclerc, my companion.”

Before Alastor could say or do anything, a meaty fist the size of his head was barreling through the air towards him, opening only for a moment to grasp his right hand (which thankfully was no longer holding any grapes) in a vice grip, shaking it enthusiastically. Alastor’s father had always taught him to match the strength of a handshake when presented- but it took all of his manual strength to simply keep his bones in place.

“Greetings, my good man,” said the sun-adorned bear in front of him, smiling from ear to ear, his grey eyes somehow piercing through to the wall directly behind Alastor. “It seems the whole group has arrived. Please, eat your fill, all of you- for we depart as soon as you’re ready.”

Cadmus and Mel began pulling on their packs, and, just for good measure, Alastor grabbed another handful of fruit and bread before following Esprit and Leclerc outside. The two horses that had been tended were ready, tethered to a covered wagon, and Leclerc took a short moment to scratch each horse behind the ears and give them a handful of sugar before climbing onto the driver’s bench. Esprit joined him, and Cadmus, Mel, and Alastor climbed into the back.

Alastor noticed three haversacks resting on top of the wagon’s built-in safebox. Feeling the wagon beginning to move as they sat down, he picked up a bag and began rifling through its contents. Inside he found a coil of high-quality rope, a full waterskin, several rolled pouches each containing a day’s worth of dried meats and nuts, flint and steel for starting a fire, three torches, and a flask of lamp oil. He was relieved to no longer feel so ill-prepared.

Glancing out the back of the wagon, Alastor watched as they left the town proper heading North. The road gained altitude slightly, meaning he could see the entire town stretched out before him- the Upper Ward, with its clean buildings and friendly streets, and off in the distance, the Lower Ward covered in a layer of grime and black smoke rising somewhere downtown. For a moment the sorcerer stretched out his hand over the view, imagining himself as the founder’s statue.

The moment of fantasy gone, he sat back and closed his eyes, feeling the road beneath the wagon as they left Archdale behind. Alastor absentmindedly took out his pouch of dates and popped one in his mouth, ready for the quest ahead.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Keepers of the List, Chapter 3

Mel stood at the bar, tapping one of her worn leather boots on the floor while contemplating another drink. She had been traveling for weeks, living off of whatever menial work she could find- she thought for sure Quest Day was going to support her for at least the next few months. It was difficult, constantly on the move- at times the thought crossed her mind of whether she should just settle down, find steady honest work, and give up her search. But she knew at her core she couldn’t stop. What she sought was out there, somewhere. No matter how long she stopped looking, she would always feel it, lingering in the back of her mind, pulling her inexorably in a direction she wouldn’t know until she started walking.

The room had certainly thinned out since the night began. A few groups and some lone individuals sat scattered around the Drunken Dragon, but most had already left in search of gold and glory. A boy, barely more than a child, sat looking crestfallen, idly brushing his fingers through the flame of a candle while staring hungrily at a patron dining on an aromatic plate of food, and Mel knew the feeling- though her own hunger was for adventure, not meat.

Adjusting the fabric of her brown traveling clothes, she pulled the lute from her back and began thumbing the strings a bit. She felt another song, all of the pieces already in her mind waiting to be put together. When it was finished, it would itself be but another piece of the grand puzzle that is her life- some day she would be able to look back and see what it all meant. She strummed a few times, adjusting the pitch and humming in harmony with her instrument. She absentmindedly blew a bit of her dirty-blonde hair out of her eyes between notes, mouthing some possible words to the song as she went.

She was interrupted by a voice calling her name, and looking up, she saw Cadmus, the Trystborn she had just met, standing near the bar with two Humans, a man and a woman, both looking travel weary.

“Welcome back,” she began. “I see you’ve met some friends in the moment you were gone. Are they looking for work as well?”

To her surprise, he shook his head. “They’re questgivers, actually. Still interested?”

Before she could speak, her lute was on her back once more, the song fragments catalogued in her mind for a later time. She gestured to a newly-cleared table, and the four of them sat down.

“Please, please,” Mel said, a smile plastered on her face. “Make yourselves comfortable. I’ll have the barkeep bring us some drinks and we can talk details.”

The man, tall, dark and broad-shouldered, held out a hand. “No, thank you. I abstain from spirits, myself. Esprit?”

The red-haired woman shook her head modestly. “I would rather finish up business and retire for the night as soon as possible,” she said in a soft voice.

“Very well,” responded the man. “My name is Leclerc, and this is Esprit. We’ve been traveling far, and we met Cadmus here earlier this evening, who was kind enough to help us out of a tight spot.”

Mel noticed the red of Cadmus’ face grow more pronounced for a moment.

“It’s unfortunate,” she said, grinning at the Trystborn’s obvious social discomfort, “but in these parts, kind-hearted people willing to go out of their way to help a stranger are less common than you’d think.” Leclerc nodded in agreement, and Mel continued. “Might I ask where you’re coming from?”

“Serasham,” he said, his tone dripping with the fatigue of the journey.

“You don’t say,” said Mel, raising her eyebrows. “I have some old… business partners… back in Serasham myself. You certainly did come a long way.”

“Oh?” Leclerc seemed interested. “What kind of business?”

Mel felt some of the color draining from her face, and opened her mouth quickly to try and change the subject. She was saved the trouble, however, from a clumsy bar wench tripping over a chair and nearly spilling a tray of half-empty flagons on their meeting. As the server spread her apologies amongst the ground, Mel cleared her throat. “Speaking of business, you have a quest for us?”

“Ah, yes,” continued Leclerc, gathering his thoughts. “Esprit and I are in need of a few adventurers. It’s nothing major- no dragons to slay or anything like that- rather, we have a bit of a pest problem that needs dealing with.”

Mel nodded knowingly. “That must be some mighty ‘pest’ if you need adventurers to take care of it.” She felt her enthusiasm slipping- too many memories of dull, uninspired quests slaying giant rats or overgrown insects. Even if such jobs weren’t difficult, they never paid well.

He nodded as well. “Correct you are. You see, Esprit recently inherited an estate about a day’s travel from here, up in the Arcala mountains. It’s been in disuse for many years, and although neither of us have been there yet personally, we have learned that the area is infested with goblins. Unfortunately we don’t know exactly how many, or if any other creatures have taken up residence-“

Mel cut him off. “Right, right. But let’s get right down to it- how much are you paying?”

Leclerc opened his mouth to answer, but stopped when his female companion put her hand on his shoulder. “We are paying fifty gold pieces each,” she said. “Plus traveling supplies. It shouldn’t take more than a few days.”

Cadmus began to speak, but Mel cut him off too. “A hundred gold each, plus we get to keep anything of value we find.”

Leclerc was visibly annoyed, but he turned to Esprit before responding. She whispered something to him, and he sighed. “A hundred gold will be acceptable,” he began, “but at that rate, we can only afford to hire three adventurers.”

Cadmus turned to Mel, his own expression concerned. “Can we do this with only three people?”

Mel nodded, sticking her hand out to Leclerc. “That will be acceptable. Cadmus and I will find a third member.”

He shook her hand with his own, as did Esprit. Cadmus, still looking worried, shook their hands as well. Leclerc stood up, taking out a scrap of parchment and setting it down on the table.

“Here is the address of the inn we’ll be staying at for the night. Find another member, and meet us there at noon tomorrow. We will provide what we deem necessary- trail rations, adventuring kits- feel free to bring anything else you might need. Be ready for travel. You’ll receive payment once the job is done.”

Satisfied, Mel smiled and nodded. Cadmus stood and walked with them to the door, and Mel motioned for another drink from a passing wench. The Trystborn returned as she was downing her ale happily.

“So,” he began, “what were you doing asking for more money? Fifty gold is a respectable amount, especially for only a few days’ work. That’s more than most laborers make in a year.”

The bard wiped ale foam from her lips before responding. “It worked, didn’t it? To be honest, I had been hoping for more than we got. Laborers make a silver a day around here, I know. But laborers aren’t risking their lives every day. I guess we’ll just have to hope these goblins have a hidden cache of treasure… But we’ll split it fewer ways with only three of us.”

Cadmus raised an eyebrow. “Yeah, about that. Was that wise? We don’t even know what we’re up against- shouldn’t we try and get as many people as we can?”

Mel shrugged. “Not necessarily. A smaller group can cover more ground in less time, and stay hidden easier. We just need to make sure that we get someone that can round out our party, and not stab us in the back in the process. That’s why I made sure we could pick the third member- not to disparage the group-building skills of our employers, but I don’t know what their priorities are. I DO know what MY priorities are.”

“Very well,” he replied. “Then what kind of a party member are we looking for?”

Her brown eyes were already dancing around the room, looking at who was left over. “We want a spellcaster, first and foremost,” she began. “We want someone who knows their abilities and their limits, and whom we can count on.”

Her eyes landed on one gentleman, an Elf with a black goatee and mustache, sitting at a table by himself. A fat toad sat on his shoulder, and all sorts of pockets adorned his leather outfit. In one hand he held a ball of light, which he was casually bouncing back and forth between each finger, giving off a dazzling display of manual dexterity.

“What about him,” said Cadmus, noticing her gaze. “He looks interesting.”

Mel shook her head. “Exactly. He’s showing off- which probably means he isn’t as experienced as he wants us to think. Also, see that toad? That’d be his familiar. In my experience, familiars end up being more of a liability than anything else. I’m sure the creature is very dear to him- which means it will be a target for any intelligent creature with a bow and arrow.”

Cadmus stared blankly. Mel continued to look around the room- there were not many people left, and nobody struck her as the kind of person they were looking for. She finished her drink, and the two of them sat in silence for a short while.

Just when it seemed like she was going to have to settle for the flashy toad owner, she noticed someone entering the Drunken Dragon in long brown robes, walking up to the bar. He was Human, his frame thin and his head full of scraggly grey hair and a long white beard to match. He carried a worn walking stick with him, and a thick leather-and-metal-bound tome hung from his belt.

“Wait a moment,” she said to Cadmus, who she realized had been speaking to her. She watched the old man- his posture was straight despite his age, and as he waited at the bar he tapped his fingers patiently on the book at his side. After a short while the barkeep emerged from the kitchen with a plate of sizzling meat, which the old man politely paid him for. As he began to walk to an empty table, Mel whistled to get his attention and gestured for him to join the two of them.

“Come, have a seat, traveler,” she said, watching him.

“Thank you,” came the man’s voice, deep and dry-sounding. As he sat he took out a waterskin and took a swig before beginning to cut his food.

Cadmus spoke up. “Are you here for Quest Day as well?”

The man nodded, chewing his meal with his mouth closed. “Indeed I am. It would appear I have arrived too late, however. I stopped at two other taverns briefly before this one- but I have had no luck so far. It seems as though questgivers are only looking for someone more interested in flashy displays rather than knowledge and skill.”

Mel raised an eyebrow, hiding a smile. This one looked promising. And he was drinking water, not alcohol- that could be a sign of cautious awareness. “Well, it just so happens we were given a quest a short time ago and we need another member. It’s an extermination job- killing goblins up in the mountains- leaving tomorrow. It pays a hundred gold apiece, plus whatever we find on the way, supplies provided. We could use a caster like you.”

The man took a moment to finish the last few bites of his meal, and chased it with another swig from his waterskin. “Well, I didn’t travel all this way for my own enjoyment,” he said. “So count me in.”

“The name’s Mel,” she said with a grin. “This is Cadmus. And you are…?”

He wiped off his mouth and stood up slowly, casting his walking stick aside and opening his hand dramatically to create a ball of flame that danced before their eyes.

“I am called Alastor the great, master of the arcane.”

Mel’s grin slowly contorted into one of mild disgust. She casually whispered to Cadmus, “I think we should keep looking.”

Cadmus, stifling a laugh, shook his head. “Welcome to the group, Alastor.”

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Keepers of the List, Chapter 2

It was nearing sunset, and Cadmus was trying to mentally catalogue his belongings as he hurried along the busy streets. He had his sword. He was wearing his chainmail, as uncomfortable as it was, since it provided better protection than his simple chain-link shirt he wore for work. Normally they didn’t allow weapons and armor in the taverns, but on Quest Day, everyone was willing to make an exception. His pack, heavier than he would have liked, held rope, sticks for torches, chalk for making marks on stone, dried food for the road, and a generous waterskin that could be easily refilled. He had a bedroll, a spare set of clothes, and some flints for starting a fire. He thought he had everything he needed, but he still felt like he was forgetting something.

He had begun to work up a sweat as he climbed the steep zig-zagging road that allowed travel between the upper and lower wards. The town he had lived in for the past five years, Archdale, had been split in half by something- exactly what varied depending on who you asked- several decades earlier, and since then the local tradesmen had done their best to keep commerce moving. That meant cutting a series of paths into the wall of earth that now separated the higher level of the town from the lower, and someone had to design a sophisticated system for raising and lowering goods from the waterfall that now spilled the region’s main waterway down the split countryside. The zig-zagging road was steep, and difficult to traverse on foot, to say nothing of taking a wagon or cart up or down the path. Every day the already-clogged passage was blocked for hours at a time by someone who had misjudged a turn and broken something.

And that’s when Cadmus remembered what he had forgotten- a ranged weapon! He had neglected to bring a bow, or even the set of throwing axes he had specifically bought after last year’s Quest Day. They were sitting, perfectly sharp and unused in months, next to his bed in his cramped hut on the edge of the lower ward. There was simply no time to go back- not if he wanted any sort of choices when he got to the tavern. He would just have to rely on someone else to supply-

His large frame suddenly came into hard contact with another man’s as he rounded one of the last corners of the sharply-turning path. Cadmus was large, especially for a Trystborn, but this man- a Human- was even larger, with broad shoulders and arms that could probably have picked up an average person and thrown them. Suddenly thrown off balance, he fell to the packed ground, narrowly avoiding getting stepped on by passersby and momentarily fearing he was going to roll all the way back down to the bottom of the pass. He managed to keep himself from rolling away, but the setting sun was eclipsed by the silhouette of the man with which he had collided.

Cadmus prepared for an insult or a reprimand from the burly Human, and his mind nervously spent a moment searching for an appropriate comeback in case one was needed. But, instead, a strong hand reached down, offering to help the Trystborn back to his feet.

“I’m terribly sorry, my friend,” came the stranger’s voice, much to Cadmus’ surprise.

Friend? Cadmus wondered who this person was. Nobody addressed a stranger as “friend” around here, especially a Human to a Trystborn. Nevertheless, he took the offer with his own red-skinned hand and climbed to his feet.

“Uh… no, no, it was my mistake,” Cadmus responded. “I should have been paying more attention.”

The man looked young, perhaps thirty years at most, but his dark hair and goatee were going prematurely grey. His skin looked weathered and tanned, like he had either worked outside for a long time or had just finished a long journey. His eyes, steel-grey, had a certain intensity about them. Cadmus felt a little unnerved at first, and for more than one reason was eager to continue on his way.

He started to turn and hurry along with the rest of the people passing, but then he realized why this man was simply standing in the middle of the pass- a covered wagon, one axle broken, leaned against the earthen wall on the northern side of the road. A young woman, possibly his daughter, with long red hair and a simple peasant’s outfit, stood comforting the two horses that had been pulling the wagon, both growing restless from being stuck in the bustling crowd.

As Cadmus paused to survey the wreck, the burly stranger spoke again, noticing his pause. “Sir, I was wondering if I might be able to trouble you,” he said, putting a large hand on the Trystborn’s shoulder. “As you can see, we’ve had a problem travelling and, well, it’s been exceedingly difficult getting someone to stop and help us.”

Cadmus let out a deep breath. He was already in a hurry- he didn’t have time to stop and help someone. He glanced back toward the lower ward- he was fairly certain he could see his home from where he was- and he thought if he was going to be late getting to the tavern, he would have rather run back home and grabbed his bow and arrows or some throwing axes or something, and that way he’d at least be more effective in combat- but then he looked back to this man and the girl with him. They both looked like they’d been through a lot- the girl especially, despite her youth, looked like she’d seen enough horrors to haunt her dreams every night. And this man, in his plain clothes, looked like he’d been working hard his entire life. Cadmus wondered, if he didn’t stop and help these two, would anybody?

The two of them stood, people pushing their way past them, crowds forming on either side of townsfolk and traders trying to get wherever they needed to be, for what felt to Cadmus like too long. With another deep breath, he nodded.

“Sure. I’m in a hurry, but tell me what you need me to do.”
The two of them quickly got down next to the earthen wall, with the man climbing underneath the precariously-leaning wagon and Cadmus kneeling next to him. Using their combined strength, they were able to lift the broken side, and, with Cadmus holding it in place temporarily, the man was able to remove the broken axle, and with the girl’s help, the two of them managed to quickly jury-rig a makeshift axle out of some wooden spokes and a length of rope. Once finished, the man climbed back underneath the wagon, got everything connected, and decided to try it out.

By the time they were finished, the sky was dark, and the crowds had thinned out. Cadmus, his hands and back aching after holding up the cart for so long, wiped a sheen of sweat from the red skin of his face, brushing his black hair back against the small horns that crested backwards from his forehead. He remarked to himself that it all would have gone so much smoother had he not been wearing his armor, but it would have taken too long to take it off and put it back on again.

The man thanked him warmly, and shook his hand, and might have even offered to give him something as thanks but by that point, Cadmus was just ready to finish up their meeting and hurry along on his way. At this point, he told himself, it was likely all of the best jobs were taken, if there were even any left, but he had made the decision to do a good deed for the day and now he had to live with it.

As he was trying to leave, the man caught his attention one last time.

“Are you here for Quest Day too?”

He stopped in his tracks. If he wasn’t frustrated at having to spend so much time helping this stranger out already, that certainly pushed him over the edge. So not only did this man probably ruin his chances of getting a good job, but he was competition, too? He balled up his fists for a moment, then released them. Even if this stranger was another adventurer, he’d have a hard time making it to any of the taverns in time to get work with a wagon in such bad shape.

“Yeah, I am,” he called out, not even turning back to face the man. “I’m heading up to the Drunken Dragon, here in the upper ward.”

“Well,” replied the man hopefully, “maybe we’ll see you there. Good luck!”

Cadmus continued walking, shaking his head, sure he was going to miss his chance.
He approached the tavern all disheveled, his pack uncomfortable and his breath heavy, his tail flitting around in the creeping chill. He glanced up at the familiar tavern sign swaying in the night, one side painted with a dragon pouring a mug of ale down its fiery throat with the words “Drunken Dragon” emblazoned proudly, and the other side showing a drunk man and the same dragon both walking down the road, each with drink in hand, with this side spelling, “Drunk & Dragon”. Cadmus grumbled to himself. Judging by the noise coming from inside, Quest Day was well underway.

He passed through the doorway to a raucous din of clinking glasses, arguments waiting to turn into brawls, and conversations being shouted over the rest of the noise. Cadmus walked over and stood by the bar- near several others outfitted similar to him- his dark eyes scanning the room, looking for any groups that still looked open. The Drunken Dragon was a large tavern by most standards, with most of the seating normally reserved for special events, with a stage on one end. At the moment, a Human woman sat on a stool, a lute in her hands, playing something fast and melodic, setting the tone for adventuring parties preparing to fight armies of Orcs or recover lost treasures from hidden tombs and deadly traps. Around the room, all of the larger tables were fully occupied by Humans, Dwarves, Elves, and even others, all with weapons and armor and packs full of adventuring gear. At each table, one person held the others’ attention as best as they could, laying out the groundwork for a quest that was going to force every participant to risk their lives, but with rewards befitting such a risk.

In accordance with tradition dating back nearly forty years, Quest Day was a huge event in Archdale. The town, typically an average center of commerce and the crossroads of two major trade routes, set aside one day every year where adventurers, thrill-seekers, and mercenaries gathered at all the town’s taverns, where anyone in need of help- the wealthy, the desperate, and occasionally even the supernatural- could gather a group to fight off evil creatures, retrieve stolen artifacts or simply escort someone of importance through dangerous locales. Quest Day attracted so much business for the town, even in its early years, that even the taverns in the upper ward allowed in the most unsavory of patrons through their doors.

But now Cadmus looked around the room, watching as group after group was given their quest and went off in search of treasure and glory. He wanted to arrive early, to ensure a good chance at getting work, but with the unexpected delay it looked like he had missed the main rush. There was always the chance other questgivers would show up as the room cleared out, but nothing was guaranteed. The music came to a close, and after some applause, the woman gathered up her tips, and stepped off stage.

Disappointed with the night’s prospects, Cadmus turned towards the bar. He recognized the barkeep from the previous year- a big, hairy man named Mitchifer, who stood wiping out a mug with a wet rag. After getting his attention, Cadmus ordered an ale and waited for it to arrive.

Someone came up and stood next to him, and Cadmus turned his head to see the bard from the stage slinging her lute onto her back, rapping on the countertop. Her face was flushed and sweaty from her performance, and she caught her breath as Mitchifer came back with two ales, one for Cadmus and one for her.

The woman took a long drink of her ale, and turned to Cadmus. “Nice turnout, wouldn’t you say?”

He simply grunted in response, taking a drink himself.

She raised her drink to her lips, raising an eyebrow. “I take it you didn’t find any work,” she continued between sips.

Cadmus shook his head. “No. I was late getting here, and… well, you can see the result.”

She nodded. “Don’t worry. There’s usually some stragglers at the end.”

He shrugged. Draining the rest of his mug, he set it down loudly on the bar, along with a silver coin. He couldn’t remember what an ale cost here, but certainly a silver would cover it.

“Hey,” the bard yelled as he turned to walk away. “If you find work, let me know. I’ll do the same if I see you.”

He raised an eyebrow. “You’re looking for a quest as well? Do you have much experience?”

She snorted out a laugh. “You’re asking if I have experience? Instead of answering that question, let me just give you a bit of my wisdom. Look around this room. See him over there?”

She directed his gaze to the dark figure sitting in the one shadowy corner of the room, his face hidden in darkness.

“And now, look over there.”

She pointed at an adjacent corner, slightly more well-lit but still dim, where another man stood, this one wearing black clothing and spinning a dagger around in his fingers, a long scar across one cheek and a scowl on his face.

“You don’t want either of those in your group, and I’ll tell you why. Whether they mean to be or not, both of them are loners. They won’t work well in a group and you, and more importantly they, know it.”

She then pointed at another fellow, this one near the door, wearing dirt-covered leather armor, with twin swords at either hip, a vicious dog sitting vigilantly at his side.

“Don’t expect many places to allow his dog indoors. Also, he has parent issues. I can tell.”

Cadmus nodded, recognizing these people from previous Quest Days.

“And of course,” she continued, pointing at a woman in the middle of the room, “you definitely don’t want HER in your group.” She was at a table with a large group that was currently being given a quest by a cloaked man wearing several rings on each hand. The woman was Elven, with something that vaguely resembled metal plate armor that somehow barely covered her ample bosom, and a sword wider than her waist was strapped to her back. The rest of her group, all men, were finding it difficult to focus on anything but her, including the questgiver.

“Trust me,” the bard continued, shaking her head. “You can bet she’s going to be committing lewd acts every chance she gets, with whomever or whatever is nearby. That may sound exciting for some, but in this line of work, it WILL get everyone killed. If you want a whore, go to a whorehouse, not a dungeon.”

The two of them looked around the room a little while longer. There were a few more people, drawing less attention to themselves, but Cadmus wasn’t sure what he wasn’t looking for.

“And I don’t see one,” she said after a pause, “but I’m sure there’s someone sneaking around from group to group, pickpocketing all of his prospective team mates while still expecting to be trusted once things get going. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you why you don’t want him anywhere near you.”

Cadmus stared at the remaining people in the Drunken Dragon, then turned to the bard. “You’ve been very helpful,” he said, extending a red hand to her. “I’ll be sure to let you know if I find work. I’m Cadmus.”

She shook his hand while taking a swig from another mug of ale. “Mel,” she said after a gulp. “Pleased to meet you, Cadmus.”

He turned and walked towards the door, wanting a breath of fresh air. As he got outside, he heard a familiar voice call out to him.

“Hello, friend!”

He turned towards the road, and saw the wagon, its axle still held together with spokes and rope. The weathered man and red-haired girl waved to him as they rode up, their faces barely illuminated by the moon and the light coming from the tavern.

Cadmus sighed as he saw them, waving back awkwardly. “I think we’re both out of luck,” he said once they were close. “It seems all of the questgivers have already found all they needed.”

The man jumped down from the wagon after the horses came to a halt.

“No, no, friend. You misunderstand me. It seems we’re both in luck, then.”

Cadmus raised an eyebrow, confused. “What do you…“ he began.

The man extended his rough hand to him again. “It seems I never got your name before.”

Cadmus shook the man’s hand, still not piecing it together.


“Cadmus, my name is Leclerc,” the man continued, “and this is my good friend, Esprit. We are in need of some adventurers. Seeing as how you helped us in our time of need, I would be honored if you would be willing to work for us.”