Saturday, January 3, 2015
But then, something changed. The girl heard the beating of a drum; the screams, as well as her own sobs, ceased with the first beat. She felt the drum reverberating through her chest, in her skull, and tingling down to the tips of her fingers. Before she could realize what she was doing, she was climbing out of her hiding place, taking a deep breath of the smoky cloud surrounding the square. Through the haze, she saw two figures standing atop a pile of wreckage, mere silhouettes in the darkness.
The drum was met by the sound of strings, each pluck perfect and clear. Around the square, nobody else had emerged but the girl. She stood, along, surrounded by carnage, listening to music that spoke to her very soul.
As the two instruments met in a sudden crescendo, they went silent. In their place, two voices- one male, one female- rang out as one, echoing through the darkness, folding over on itself again and again. The girl fell to her knees, the weight of the music pressing against her shoulders. She saw, faintly through the smoke, a massive looming shape larger than the village it had just destroyed. She saw it open its maw to emit a bone-shattering roar, but all she heard was the single combined voice singing in the night. A moment later, the shape began to retreat, and then it was gone. The two silhouettes faded away. The carnage disappeared. There was nothing left.
“Mel,” she heard.
“Mel,” the voice repeated. The bard awoke with a start, raising a hand to rub her eyes- only to realize her hands were still bandaged from the night before. Blinking, Mel saw Cadmus, his face bruised and weary, sitting next to her, nudging her awake. The sun had just risen, and the trystborn and the aged spellcaster were gathering their things.
Sitting up, Mel noticed the bodies were all gone. She vaguely remembered Cadmus and Alastor dragging them out into the woods before she fell asleep. Next to the blackened remains of the campfire laid that… strange man, the one who had stumbled upon their camp last night and turning everything upside-down. She needed some answers from him, but she didn’t know what to ask.
She flexed her hands, trying to gauge the damage as Cadmus attempted to wake the stranger. Her fingers felt sore, but she remembered how they had started bleeding when she had begun to play. She still didn’t know why she did it in the first place. She was about to die, and then this interloper had drunkenly commanded her to play. In any other case she would have told him where to shove his head, but at that moment… something had taken over. She didn’t know how, she didn’t know why. But she knew it was right.
Cadmus had finally succeeded in rousing the man, who sat up, pressed his palms against his forehead, and let out a groan of pain. When he was finished, he looked around the clearing, squinting.
“I’m sure it’ll come back to me soon,” he began, “but can someone tell me who you are and how I got here?”
Mel exchanged glances with Cadmus and Alastor, then back to the man. Cadmus sat next to him, raising an eyebrow.
“We were hoping you could tell us first,” said Cadmus.
The man pulled off his straw hat, freeing a long, unkempt tail of dark brown hair. He looked like he was going to be sick, but he contained himself.
“My name is… Emeren? It’s been a long time since anyone has called me that. Emeren.” He held out a hand to Cadmus, who shook it with only a little hesitation.
“Cadmus,” the trystborn replied. “That’s Alastor, and this is Mel.”
Mel was staring at him intently. She wasn’t sure what exactly she was looking for.
“Pleasure to meet you all,” he said, rubbing his eyes with one hand while fumbling in his robes for something with the other. After a moment, he retrieved a flask, which he deftly unscrewed with two fingers and raised to his lips for a quick sip. “How far are we from the tavern?”
“At least a day’s travel on horseback,” said Mel, confused. “How did you get here?”
Emeren rubbed his forehead some more, taking another sip from his flask. “I’m going to be honest,” he said. “I… am a bit of a drinker.” Even Alastor rolled his eyes. “Sometimes I lose little details like that. Last thing I remember was ordering a round for everyone at the bar… or maybe someone else ordered it, and I went back for seconds…”
“However you got here,” interrupted Cadmus, “you saved our lives last night. We’re all incredibly grateful.”
The man smiled. “I’m glad I could be of service. Where are you going? Maybe we could travel together.”
The three adventurers exchanged glances again. Mel was apprehensive of traveling with someone they had just met, but he had saved their lives the night before. And, the more she thought about it, the less different it seemed from the night the three of them had met.
“We only have three horses,” said Alastor, his brow furrowed. Mel was relieved to hear that the horses were still alive- she had almost forgotten about them in light of what happened.
“No worries,” said Emeren, pulling himself to his feet. “I can double-up with someone else.”
Mel rode next to Alastor, the two of them keeping an eye on Emeren, who rode with Cadmus. For all his inebriation, this stranger seemed to perk up immensely once they were on the road. He broke up the monotony of the ride by sharing adventuring stories- usually involving dragons and demons and trolls, including one about how he got eaten by a shark and climbed his way out. By the time they had stopped to rest later in the day, Alastor was obviously sick of listening to these tall tales. Cadmus seemed to be tolerating them well. Mel, on the other hand, spent years of her life listening to and re-telling stories on the road- but as intently as she was listening, she was waiting for something specific, and it never came.
Later in the day they stopped for a short break, and while the horses were feeding Mel sidled up to the stranger, pretending to be casually checking Cadmus’ saddle.
“Tell me,” she said as Emeren pulled out a long white pipe and began packing it with some leaves. “That story about the vampire that pulled you inside its coffin… your description of the area sounded familiar. Have you ever been to a village called Proll?”
“Proll,” he responded, lighting the leaves and taking a deep drag on the pipe. “Can’t say I’ve ever heard of it. Is it near here?”
Mel narrowed her eyes. “No. It’s far away, across the sea. You’ve never been there?”
He blew a puff of smoke in the shape of a ring, and rather than take the pipe out of his mouth, he simply moved it to one side. “Not that I know of. Is it a nice place? Any good taverns? If so, I’ve probably been there.”
The bard clenched a bandaged fist. She couldn’t tell if he was joking with her or if he was just clueless.
“No,” she said with gritted teeth. “I don’t say there are any nice taverns there… anymore.”
He shrugged, pulling out a clay tankard and putting it to his lips, gulping its contents down, smoke still puffing from the pipe. She had seen some unsavory drunks before, but this man… she shook her head.
“Why did you tell me to play music last night?”
He stopped drinking abruptly, spilling strong-smelling spirits down his front. He rolled the pipe to the other side of his mouth.
It took all Mel had not to yell at him. “Yes. Yes you did. We were all about to die, and you threw me my lute and told me to play.” She held up her hands, wrapped in dirty bandages. “Why did you do that?”
He took the pipe out of his mouth and turned his head towards her.
“You’re a bard, aren’t you?”
She stared at him. “Yes, but why would you ask me to play music in the middle of a battle? I could have died.”
“But you still did it,” he replied, his eyes peering into hers, his tone strangely level. “So maybe you knew it would work.”
Her mouth hung slightly open, taken aback by his tone. “I… what would-“
“Anyway,” he said, paying more attention to his pipe, his tone light again, “sorry about that. I must have thought I was still in the tavern, back in… town… I sometimes get confused. Hopefully next time it won’t be a life-or-death situation. Ah, Cadmus! Let’s get back on the road, shall we? I’ve got some more great stories to tell!”
When the forest had gone too dark to continue, they stopped for the night at one of the poorly-maintained shelters along the King’s Road. Having run into Regias thugs in the wild, Cadmus had suggested they try one of the shelters after all- but with their luck, Mel half expected a bear to show up wanting to use the shelter as its new home. That would be fitting.
They made a fire in an ash-stained firepit dug into the ground, and rested their packs and weapons on the old sagging shelves that lined the three walls of the open structure. It was just as dark inside as it was outside, but at least this way any attackers would have to come from one direction. Mel didn’t think anybody felt truly safe, but after the previous night everyone was willing to take the chance.
As Emeren knelt stoking the fire, Cadmus helped Mel get the bandages off her hands. When she finally had full movement of her hands again, she flexed them gently, expecting pain- but to her surprise, there was none. In fact, she couldn’t even see any scabs or cuts where she had been bleeding. Her hands were… just fine. Her lute, on the other hand, was disgusting, as she hadn’t had an opportunity to clean the blood from it- she wouldn’t admit it even to herself, but the thought of playing it again terrified her. She had somehow used her music to guide her comrades- on some level, she felt she had controlled the battle itself through music alone. She had witnessed power like that, once before, and as much as she felt driven to find it again, the memories of the previous night made her feel like maybe she had spent most of her life chasing an untamable beast that stood poised to tear her in two.
She shook the thoughts out of her head, pouring some water from her canteen to wash the dark red stains from her hands. She grabbed some trail rations from her pack, and leaned against one of the supports for the shelter, staring into the dancing flames.
Alastor sat on top of his bedroll, flipping through his “spellbook”- Mel still didn’t believe for a moment that he was a Sangcaster, but she knew he wasn’t a normal wizard. All of the wizards she’d met over the years pored over their spellbooks every spare moment of the day, but Alastor only glanced in his when he looked truly bored. She hadn’t really tried to look over his shoulder and see its contents, but she had a feeling it held no more magic spells than the last sandwich she’d eaten.
Cadmus and Emeren were talking by the fire, and as she ate Mel listened in. Emeren was spouting off random collections of words, but after listening for a moment or two she began to make sense of it all.
“The… Bandit Slayers,” said the drunk, with a hopeful look on his face. Cadmus, amused, shook his head. “The Shelter Dwellers,” he continued, to another decline. “The Red, the Old, and the Beautiful.” Cadmus laughed out loud at that one, but shook his head.
“Come on,” said Emeren. “Your party needs a good name. All the best parties have one.”
Mel watched Cadmus shrug. “I don’t know,” he said. “We’ve only known each other a few days. Besides, I’ll be honest, but your suggestions sound like you’re just looking around and naming what you see.”
Emeren nodded. “That’s fair. But trust me, when you find the right name it’ll just feel perfect. Is there anything else you three have in common? Maybe a possession you all have or care about? You could be the… the ‘Company of the Shining Coin.’” He finished that proclamation with a flashy dance of his fingers through the air. “Maybe in town you could pay a spellcaster to enchant a few coins so they’re always shiny or something.”
Cadmus shook his head, glancing back to his pack, where Mel could see a rolled-up parchment was visible through the open flap. He did a quick double-take, then turned back towards Emeren, staring off into the distance.
“Well, we have this… list… we could be the… ‘Keepers of the-’”
“A list?” The look on his face was one of disappointment. “That doesn’t sound exciting at all. How about… ‘Billion Swords of Justice.’ Yeah, that sounds good! It couldn’t hurt to pick up a few more swords when you’ve got some extra coin, but what you have will do for now. How does that sound?”
Mel decided to interrupt what was clearly a very important conversation.
“Speaking of swords,” she began, “what happened to yours, Emeren? You’ve got an empty scabbard and nothing in it. Do you even carry a weapon?”
Slightly startled by the interruption, his right hand jerked towards his scabbard as if to grab his sword, though he must have realized what he was doing. The drunk glanced down, then back up towards the bard.
“It’s a bit of a long story,” he said, causing Mel to wonder why that never stopped him from sharing before. “Have you ever heard the expression, ‘if you love it, set it free’?”
Mel furrowed her brow, answering with a flat, “No.”
But Emeren nodded his head. “Well, that’s what happened.”
The bard, rather than argue, shook her head and decided to turn in for the night.
The next two days passed uneventfully. On more than one occasion, the group passed caravans with several armed guards each driving through the Endless Forest towards Archdale, with their occupants looking just as wary as Mel, Cadmus, Alastor, and Emeren. The group stayed on their guard during the day, and even more so when they rested- one night they stayed at another shelter, but the other night the shelter already had a group of unsavory-looking travelers, so they rode on for a good distance before making a fireless camp in the cold darkness. The wilderness always loomed around them, but the clicks and chitters and roars off in the distance never seemed to come close.
Finally, they began to reach the western edge of the Endless Forest. The treeline broke so suddenly, the adventurers had to cover their eyes from the brightness of the sunlight, and even the horses slowed their pace for a moment. Emerging from the forest lifted everyone’s spirits, and for the first time in days they could see the horizon, curvy and clear across endless plains of grass.
After some time they rode over a small stone bridge that spanned a narrow river, and Mel took one of the maps out of her scroll case. She slowed her horse to a trot as she traced a finger across the dry vellum, squinting at the tiny markings. She rolled up the map once more, but kept it in her grip as they rode, her eyes looking ahead.
Eventually she called for everyone to stop. Once they had, she took the map out again, looking around in every direction. Comparing her surroundings to the map, she shook her head.
“There should have been a fork in the road after that stream. I think we’ve gone too far.”
“A fork,” said Alastor, giving her a disapproving look. “I think we would have noticed that. Maybe we haven’t gone far enough.”
Cadmus spoke up. “If Mel thinks we’ve gone too far, we can head back a bit. The stream wasn’t that far away, was it?”
Mel gestured back towards the east. “Not that far. If this map is at all accurate, we’ll reach Bliton before dark.”
Alastor opened his mouth to protest, but Mel ignored him and turned her horse around. The mage followed after, and Cadmus and Emeren came close behind.
They reached the stream soon enough, but once again Mel felt like she had missed something. The map she was holding made it seem like the road split immediately after the stream- yet another map had no split at all, and an even older map didn’t even have the stream on it. She had already been afraid that this entire quest was going to turn out to be a wild goose chase in the end, and now she was thinking that this town either never existed, or hadn’t existed in decades.
Alastor, frustrated, hopped off his horse and walked towards the stream. While he was refilling a canteen, Cadmus and Emeren did the same, if only to stretch and relax for the moment. Mel’s face was growing red, and she felt embarrassed for following inaccurate directions. Part of her wondered if their contract would still be fulfilled if they went back and told Esprit that Bliton was nothing more than a paper town.
Just as she was trying to deal with her feelings of guilt, Alastor strutted up towards her, likely to give her a piece of his mind. Thankfully, before he got the chance, he tripped over something and fell flat on his face, kicking up a cloud of dust. Mel felt no shame in laughing at his expense, though she managed to get rid of her grin by the time he stood back up, his robes covered in dirt.
He pointed a finger and opened his mouth to sling some accusation at the bard, but he was interrupted by Cadmus, who put a hand on Alastor’s shoulder and gestured towards the ground. The mage, irritated, stepped out of the way, and the trystborn picked up an old wooden sign that had fallen in the tall grass. Mel hopped down from her horse to see it, and when it was brushed off, the faded writing indicated two destinations: Duval to the left, and Bliton to the right. Mel pushed her way through the grass, and after only a moment, found a spotty path following the stream that was easily hidden by the overgrowth.
“Alright, everyone, we’ve found our path. See what I told you? We’ll be there before dark.”
Alastor threw her a dirty look, but got back on his horse all the same.
Emeren, however, stayed back. “I think this is where we part ways,” he said.
Cadmus looked surprised. “What do you mean?”
The drunk shrugged. “It’s been great travelling with you, but I think my journey is down this way.” He gestured down the King’s Road toward the west. He pointed at Cadmus with a grin. “You still owe me a drink, so don’t forget about that.”
Cadmus nodded, and Mel gave him a wave of farewell. She couldn’t help but feeling like she had unfinished business with this stranger, but she didn’t know how or what.
The stranger began walking off down the road, and the three adventurers set off toward Bliton, the sun high above them.
Monday, December 1, 2014
Although, he remarked to himself, it was likely it wouldn’t matter. The quest was over, as far as he knew- they had spent the dark hours of the morning scouring the valley for any signs of further goblin activity. Following Mel’s lead, the three adventurers found plenty of tracks, but none recent enough. Despite what they had been through, Cadmus was hesitant to assume the job was finished; but after almost being killed more than once, he was open to the possibility.
A loud voice greeted them warmly as they entered the shadow of the crumbling mansion. Cadmus waved with his uninjured hand, his face partially numb from the cold as he forced a smile. Leclerc came to meet them, welcoming them back and ushering them inside. As the companions removed their gear in what was once the kitchen, Leclerc brought them each a bowl of hot morning stew and debriefed them on their quest. Shuffling his large scabbard from his back, Cadmus flexed his shoulders, accepting the meal eagerly.
“As far as we can tell,” began Mel, removing Cadmus’ cloak from her burnt back, “the goblins are all gone. They had been holing up in an abandoned mine north of here, and they had been acting as servants- or slaves- to a young dragon. Thanks to Alastor, here, they shouldn’t be a credible threat any longer.”
Cadmus noticed an expression of respect mixed with disdain as she said the mage’s name. Rather than acknowledge or even modestly take credit for the claim, however, Alastor made no reaction to her praise. Instead, he just ate his stew and stared at the mountains through the nearby window.
Leclerc beamed. “Well, Esprit will be very happy to hear that. I have to say, I am relieved to have you three back- after that earthquake two days ago, we had begun to fear the worst.”
Cadmus and Mel both glanced at the mage, who once again made no reaction.
“…Right,” said the bard, turning back to Leclerc. “As I said, we believe the quest has been completed. If I recall, the agreement was one hundred gold each?”
Leclerc nodded, clearing his throat. “Yes, you are correct. Once Esprit is awake, you will all receive your payment. If you don’t mind me asking, did you find anything else of value during your quest?”
Cadmus swallowed a mouthful of stew and began reaching into his pack to show him the list of names, but before he had a chance, Mel shook her head, and shot him a quick look.
“Afraid not,” she said, a bit louder than was necessary. “The goblins just had makeshift equipment, and nothing worth salvaging.”
Cadmus met her glance, and returned his hand casually. The trystborn noticed that Alastor was giving him a look as well, but Cadmus was unable to discern its meaning.
Leclerc noticed something between them, and fixed his eyes on Cadmus.
“Ah,” he began. “I see your arm appears to be injured. No need to worry- I’ll be right back.”
Cadmus’ arm was still tucked into his cloak- he had gotten used to ignoring the pain and had momentarily forgotten about it. When Leclerc left the room, Cadmus leaned towards Mel. “I’m guessing,” he whispered, “we’re not telling them about the list?”
Mel shook her head in response. “Not yet. Just in case.”
Before Cadmus could ask what she meant, Leclerc returned, a neat bundle of cloths in his arms. He set them down on a clean section of ruined countertop, unfolding them carefully. After a moment he had a set of acolyte’s vestments in hand, which he donned, the golden symbols of Deluz brightly visible against the white linen. The three adventurers exchanged glances as Leclerc gestured for Cadmus to present his hand.
His left hand had gone numb, and the familiar ache returned the moment he pulled it from his cloak. The appendage had swollen to twice its usual size, and was a dark purple color, contrasted only slightly by the dried blood held in the creases of his skin. He extended his arm towards Leclerc, wincing as he straightened his fingers.
Leclerc placed a hand on either side of Cadmus’, and began chanting something quietly under his breath. In the otherwise silent room, the trystborn could make out something along the lines of “sun father, grant your servant your blessing” along with a string of honorifics here and there.
Cadmus grunted- not out of pain, but out of momentary surprise. His hand, previously numb, suddenly felt warm, and a burning sensation shot through each finger. And not just his hand- his entire body began to tingle, and he could feel the short night’s fatigue leaving him. When Leclerc had finished, Cadmus felt his muscles energized, and all of the smaller nicks and scrapes he had taken during his miraculous escape from the goblin congregation had healed.
“Now,” Leclerc said, rubbing his hands together and smiling, “I’ll go wake Esprit. She has some business to talk with you.”
The three adventurers had pulled up some makeshift stools in what was once the drawing room of the manor. While they waited, Cadmus paced around the room, flexing his hand. It had been a long time since he had felt magical healing- he had forgotten the sensation. While he was pacing, he couldn’t help but notice a sour look on Mel’s face- she didn’t seem like the kind of person to ask a priest of Deluz for healing, but apparently she could still be jealous of it.
After a short while, Esprit entered the drawing room, her hair neatly done and her simple brown dress clean. Cadmus noticed bags under her eyes, as if she hadn’t gotten much rest- but after seeing what had happened to the leaning tower in front of the building, he wasn’t surprised. But as she entered, she smiled as warmly as she could, and Leclerc followed closed behind with a wooden box under one arm.
Cadmus sat down on his stool, patiently waiting as Leclerc set down the box and unfastened its locks. When it was open, the small amount of sunlight that shone through the tattered curtains caused yellow lights to dance across the man’s face as he sorted the contents. Cadmus could almost taste the excitement as he watched Leclerc fill three bags with coins, the quiet room filling with the welcome clinking sound of gold tapping against gold. Once he was finished, one bag was handed to each adventurer- Cadmus put his into his inside pocket immediately, as did Mel- Alastor, however, opened his up and loudly began sifting through it with one hand.
“One hundred gold each, as was our agreement,” said Leclerc, raising an eyebrow at the aged spellcaster who seemed intent on counting his money. “And, if you three are interested, we have another quest for you as well.”
The sound of gold clinking together immediately ceased as Alastor’s attention was caught. Cadmus nodded, waiting for the details. Esprit stepped forward.
“While you were out on the grounds,” she began, “Leclerc discovered some documents in one of the towers. They’re all incredibly vague, but I believe I have found a letter that was addressed to my parents. It came from a man named Lauril Highthorn, and it was sent from a town called Bliton. According to our maps, Bliton is located about a week’s ride along the King’s Road to the west. If you are willing, we would like to send the three of you there simply to see if Lauril Highthorn still lives there- if not, your job is done, and all you will need to do to receive payment is to return here. If, however, he is still in Bliton, then I would like for you to try and persuade him to return with you, that I may speak with him. If necessary, I will make it well worth his time.”
Mel spoke before Cadmus had a chance to ask it himself. “How much does this pay?”
Esprit turned to Leclerc, who furrowed his brow. She then turned back to Mel. “I’ll offer you each… two hundred gold, plus any travel expenses incurred once you have returned.”
Without missing a beat, the bard said, “Three hundred.”
Leclerc began to interject, but Esprit gently raised a hand in his direction. “I am afraid I must be firm,” she said, shaking her head. “I trust you will agree that two hundred gold is a considerable amount of money for a quest that does not involve combat.”
Mel pursed her lips, and Cadmus could see one hand caress her pocket where her newly-stashed gold was hidden. After a moment, she shrugged. “Very well. I’m in.”
Cadmus nodded, smiling. “Me too.”
Everyone looked at the mage, who was still sifting through his bag of gold, though less loudly now. He looked up, surprised. “Oh. Uh… Bliton, you say? I guess I’m in as well.”
Cadmus could hear an almost-imperceptible groan from Mel’s direction. The trystborn, feeling his heavy purse against his side, and flexing his feet against the hard floor, glanced up to their benefactors with an eyebrow raised.
“One question,” he began, getting their attention. “You mentioned travel expenses. What did you recommend?”
Leclerc stepped up next to Esprit. “As you may have noticed, our wagon- stored inside the stable- was crushed when the tower fell. That leaves us with two horses, and five people. When we were in Archdale, I made arrangements with a foreman in town to bring workers here upon the securing of the grounds. The best course of action, right now, is for you three to ride the horses back to town, pass on to the foreman a letter of my instructions, and while there you can pick up a third horse or a wagon or whatever you require. Once you return from Bliton, you will be reimbursed for costs of horses, meals, lodging, and any supplies vital to the quest.”
Cadmus nodded, along with Mel and Alastor. “That sounds perfect to me.”
Esprit wrote up a contract for the new quest, and without any further delay the adventurers gathered their things and prepared for travel. Anticipating their refusal to travel on the same horse, Cadmus allowed Mel to take her own while inviting Alastor to ride with him. When everyone was ready, Leclerc and Esprit bid them farewell, and as they rode out of the valley, Cadmus had a feeling it would be a long time before they saw the manor once again.
Riding without the burden of a wagon, the two horses were able to reach Archdale by nightfall. Mel and Alastor opted to find separate lodging for the night, so they rented a space for the horses at the stables near the east gate, and made plans to meet up there again the next morning.
Cadmus walked the dark streets of the city, first through the wealthy upper ward- where the King’s Road brought many traders from across the country- then down the zig-zagging path carved from the steep rock shelf that divided the wards, and finally through the dirty and shadowy alleys of the lower ward. He passed a burned-out shop where rats scrounged through the ashes for scraps, and off in the distance he saw a prostitute and a street hustler scatter at the sound of one of the rare street patrols. Cadmus idly wondered who was on guard duty tonight- not that it mattered.
He made his way into his tiny living space- what amounted to little more than a closet above a cheap warehouse near the river. In the weeks leading up to Quest Day, buildings like this were usually converted into makeshift taverns to accommodate the influx of adventurers- this one was spared the trouble this year, not that Cadmus would have used it. Enough unsavory folks frequented the lower ward even when Quest Day was far off- and he had always heard good things about the types of questgivers that registered with the Drunken Dragon.
Pulling his pack off and tossing it next to his guard’s uniform, the trystborn laid down on his bed. It had only been a few days, but his body felt like it had been through enough already. Within moments, he was asleep, oblivious to the familiar sounds of the city.
When he awoke in the morning, he gathered his things up once more, making sure to pack extra clothes and supplies for the journey. He had never been on a quest that took him more than a few days- and now he was going to be traveling for over a week, each direction. The city had special protocol for workers who wanted to partake in quests- because of the variety of quests that were likely to be offered, any worker interested in being active on Quest Day was required to notify their employer several weeks in advance, and starting on the evening of Quest Day, they were officially no longer employed. Once their quest was over, they were free to reapply with their previous employer as they wished- but it was not uncommon for jobs to be filled even before the night of Quest Day had ended. Luckily for Cadmus, however, he’d have over a year’s salary once they returned from Bliton, assuming everything went without issue. Being an adventurer was risky business- nearly dying at the hands of the goblins two days earlier was proof of that- but compared to ordinary work, it was often worth the risk.
After stashing most of his gold in the compartment under his bed, Cadmus grabbed all of his things- including the strange rolled-up list they had found- then stopped for a loaf of bread from the bakery down the street, and went to meet the others at the eastern stables. Mel was there, already striking up a deal with the owner for a third horse. She greeted Cadmus with a warm smile, and as the two of them waited for the mage, it was clear she was hoping that Alastor wouldn’t show. But finally he did, a brand-new set of crimson robes over his wiry frame, his heavy spellbook hanging at his side.
“I already dropped off Leclerc’s letter at the foreman’s office,” said Mel, slipping a boot into her steed’s stirrups and climbing atop its back. “Unless you two have anything else you need to do, we’re off to Bliton.”
Alastor said nothing, and Cadmus nodded. Mel spurred her horse on, and the three of them rode through the streets of Archdale, following the King’s Road.
They rode for most of the day, passing merchants and the occasional guard patrol. Cadmus remembered learning about the King’s Road when he was a child living in the Grey City- it was completed in year 22 of the New Reign, and it revolutionized trade throughout the country. They took a haphazard collection of roads and re-built them, and regular repairs and patrols for the last five hundred years had allowed trade to prosper all the way from the west coast of the continent to the east. It was such a significant danger, then, when attacks from the Regias Brotherhood began targeting traders on and around the King’s Road. Patrols helped keep things safe, of course, but there were always spots that received less attention. And the Regias seemed to know the best spots to target.
By sundown on the first night of travel, the adventurers reached the town of Woodsedge, located at the point where the King’s Road pierced the giant forest- dubbed the “Endless Forest” by travelers long before the Road made fast travel possible. They left their horses with the stables near the town’s tavern, the Fallen Oak, and made arrangements for rooms for the night. Cadmus couldn’t help but notice that Mel was taking full advantage of their employers’ offer, booking one of the inn’s best rooms for each of them.
When Cadmus returned downstairs the next morning following one of the best nights of sleep he’d ever had, he found an irritated Mel sitting at a table with a scatter of aged papers in front of her. Up at the bar, Alastor was holding a bottle of wine and arguing with the bartender, a small stack of gold coins balanced on the counter.
“This quest isn’t going to be as easy as we thought,” said the bard to the trystborn, not even looking up as he sat down. “Nobody here has even heard of Bliton before. It doesn’t even show up on most of these maps.”
Cadmus cocked his head, wondering why that might be. He pulled up a few of the maps she had acquired, and scanned it for familiar landmarks. All of the maps were slightly different- made by cartographers of varying skill levels, obviously- but all showed the King’s Road winding across the Southern Vale, passing through Gunnton in the Arcala mountains to the east, crossing the Terathon River at Archdale, then entering the Endless Forest at Woodsedge and continuing on west. After the forest there were a few towns here and there along the road, but none named Bliton.
“Is it possible,” began Cadmus, “that it was renamed? It could be any of these.”
Mel looked up, shaking her head. “That’s what I thought too. But then, I found one map- the oldest one- right here.” She passed it towards him, the dry vellum cracked and rough against the worn wooden table. She pointed to a spot on the map that clearly showed a tiny dot labeled Bliton, not far outside the other side of the Endless Forest. But when Cadmus compared it to a newer map, not only did he not see the town, but the King’s Road itself was a different shape, passing southwest instead of northwest.
“So what does this mean?”
Mel made a shrugging motion, pulling the maps into one pile. “I’m not sure. It could be that the town’s been gone for a long time. It could be that it never existed- sometimes mapmakers will place a false destination on a map in order to weed out illegal copies. Whatever the case, I have a feeling this isn’t going to be as simple as riding in, talking to someone, and riding out.”
Without so much as a greeting, Alastor loudly bumped into the table, slapping his newly-acquired bottle of spirits down onto the pile of maps. Mel glared at him, but the aged spellcaster took no heed. “Can you imagine,” he began, his words slurring this early in the day, “how much that barkeep wanted to charge me for this bottle? Highway robbery, it is. Stealing from the rich.” He shook his half-full coin purse at the bartender before stashing it once more in his cloak. “Now, what’s the plan?”
Mel pushed the bottle aside and began rolling up the maps. She placed them into a scroll case, which she pulled over her shoulder, standing up. “Our plan is to leave,” she said, speaking more to the air beside Alastor than to the mage himself. “Right now.” Cadmus grabbed his things, stood up, and followed her out the door, leaving their bewildered companion to catch up.
Retrieving their horses, they rode out the western gate, and before long they had entered the Endless Forest, past signs warning travelers of wolves and bears and other monstrous beasts that lurk in the wood. Once they passed the signs, it was as if someone had switched off the sun- the thick canopy above blocked out so much light, Cadmus considered lighting a lantern to illuminate the road. After even a short while riding through the trees, it was easy to feel like this forest might indeed be endless.
When night fell, even the light from their campfire felt like it didn’t reach as far as it should. They three adventurers had passed a shelter not long before- each placed about a day’s travel apart, the shelters were originally supposed to provide a safe place for travelers to rest without fear of the dangers of the wild. But over the years, they had fallen into disrepair, and had garnered more of a reputation for being easy targets by bandits and murderers than a safe haven- the ultimate irony, Cadmus thought, that a safe haven from the horrors of the wild ended up becoming a stage for the horrors of mankind. So, passing up on the nearest shelter, the group instead chose to make camp further down the way, a good distance into the trees- far enough for their campfire to be invisible from the road.
They made themselves a small meal on the fire, and over the sound of Alastor’s snoring Cadmus was discussing with Mel arrangements for keeping watch when the two of them heard the sound of snapping branches nearby. Cadmus got to his feet quickly, creeping towards his broadsword resting against a fallen log. Before he could pull it from the scabbard, however, he felt something sharp press gently against his back.
“That’ll do, devil,” said a scratchy male voice, muffled slightly. In his peripheral vision Cadmus could see several figures in dark clothing enter the clearing, weapons drawn and crossbows trained. Judging by her stillness, Cadmus assumed Mel was as caught as he was.
“You can stand, but keep your hands where I can see them,” continued the voice, pressing his weapon’s point a bit more forcefully. Cadmus stood straight up, raising his hands to shoulder-level. Now able to look around, he recognized the bandits’ by the dark bandanas they used to cover their faces. In the firelight, the dark purple fabric looked almost blood red.
“Regias,” spoke Cadmus through gritted teeth, his voice coming out in little more than a hiss.
A few of the masked bandits nodded, and one of them kicked Alastor in the side. Startled, the waking mage let out a cry, scrambling to one knee. In his hand he conjured a ball of fire, but a rapier pressed against his throat caused him to halt. “Right you are,” spoke the voice.
Mel, her hands also raised, forced a sneer. “The Regias Brotherhood? I’m glad you found us, then. The rest of our band will be joining us any minute and we’d been talking about how nice that bounty was going to be.”
Another bandit let out a chuckle. “Nice try, pretty girl. We’ve been following you since before sundown. Nobody is coming for you. I recommend you hand over your gold and your supplies, and we’ll take your horses and go.”
“And leave us to die,” spat Alastor, his eyes weary. His hands looked like they were itching to conjure something up. Cadmus could see Mel’s eyes locked on her pack, in which she was likely to have enough weapons to kill twice as many assailants. The trystborn himself considered making a mad grab for his sword, like he did in the goblin cave- but then, he had the advantage of surprise. There was no dragon here for the bandits to revere- going for his weapon would at least mean his own death, let alone his companions.
The Regias member holding a crossbow at Mel’s back leaned his face close to the bard’s hair, making an audible sniff through his mask. “Not all of you would have to die,” he began, his voice high-pitched and cold. “I’m sure we could find use for… this one.”
Cadmus’ felt his fists clench, and his heart was pounding. He was mentally preparing himself for his next move; he had to do it. He had to try and stop them. He began digging the ball of his foot into the dirt, making tiny adjustments in his posture to allow himself to dive for his sword. In his mind, he considered grabbing his sword and a throwing axe in the same movement, and he was running through a mental drill of his necessary motions- preparing his shoulder for the impact against the ground, measuring the angle he would have to swing his arm to both grab the axe and release it at the bandit closest to him, guessing at which of them would come at him first, and what parts of his body would end up having to take a crossbow bolt or two.
But just as he was readying his stance, another noise caused everyone’s attention to shift. Momentarily forgetting his plan, Cadmus’ head jerked towards the darkness beyond the trees. Two of the Regias turned and pointed their crossbows at what they couldn’t see.
“Whoever you are, show yourself,” shouted one of them. “Come quietly and you don’t need to be harmed.”
Mel caught Cadmus’ eye, and he gently shifted his gaze towards her. She was using her eyes to gesture towards her pack, resting against her lute near the fire. Cadmus tried to nod slowly, ready to take this opportunity to attack. But before he could, a man stumbled into the firelight with a loud clatter. He pulled himself clumsily to his feet, and Cadmus saw the man was wearing tattered red robes, a wide cone-shaped reed hat that mostly covered his face, and had several tankards and flasks hanging from his belt. At his side was an empty curved scabbard. When it looked like he had regained his footing, the man held out an empty tin cup, his balance wavering as he did so.
“Pardon me, friends,” he said, his words slurring and coming out much louder than one would expect. “Could I burden you for a coin, or perhaps a sip of grain?”
The Regias members met each other’s glance, but kept their weapons trained. When he received no response, the man used the brim of the cup to push the edge of his hat from his eyeline. Cadmus could see the man’s face, several days of stubble on his chin and a wild look in his eyes. The man peered around the clearing, blinked a few times, and lowered his hat once more.
“Er, nevermind,” he began. “It seems I’ve gotten lost again. Continue… whatever it was you were doing.”
He spun clumsily on one foot, turning to walk back away from the fire. But he came to a stop as a crossbow bolt shot through the wide brim of his hat, burying itself in the bark of a nearby tree.
“Not so fast,” spoke the crossbow’s owner. “Get back here and empty your pockets.”
The stranger waited, eventually letting out a nervous chuckle. “Please, gentlemen,” he said, still facing the darkness. “There seems to be a misunderstanding. There must be some way we can… sort this out!”
With the last statement, he spun once more in a wide arc, his free hand balled into a fist. The fist flew through the air, missing the nearest bandit’s face by a wide margin. His momentum carried him through, and with a clumsy spin he fell to the ground. The Regias members broke into laughter, some of them even doubling over and resting their weapons.
Cadmus knew this was his chance. He leaned to one side, bringing his elbow back and upwards into the chin of the bandit behind him. Without checking to see whether the bandit still stood, the trystborn rolled towards his sword, grabbing the grip with one hand and a throwing axe with the other. Before he had a chance to throw the axe or pull the sword from its scabbard, however, one of the Regias- Cadmus wasn’t sure which one- set a foot on his chest, a crossbow aimed directly at his face. He felt the axe fall from his hand, paralyzed.
As the trystborn felt his life pass before his eyes, he was brought back to reality as a tin cup smashed into the face of his assailant, knocking him backward. The crossbow, knocked away from its target by the impact, fired blindly, its bolt striking one of the Regias members standing on the periphery. Cadmus jumped to his feet, and watched Mel and Alastor both wrestling with the bandits around them. The trystborn had his sword, but he couldn’t use it in such close combat without endangering his companions. He glanced back towards the mysterious stranger, who had gotten to his own feet- unsteadily, of course- and was holding up his fists, weaving and bobbing effortlessly between the slashes and jabs aimed at him. This man was either very skilled, Cadmus thought, or very drunk.
Cadmus couldn’t watch for long, because a moment later one of the Regias charged at him with a pair of daggers. The trystborn raised the hilt of his broadsword, keeping the point low to the ground, deflecting the first couple flourishes with practiced dexterity. Once his attacker left an opening, Cadmus hopped backward, spinning around and carrying the sword’s weight behind him. By the time the blade came around, the bandit had raised his daggers in a cross pattern to parry, but the sword had too much momentum- not only did Cadmus knock the daggers from the assailant’s hands, but the tip of the blade sliced a deep gash in his chest. The man let out a cry and fell to the ground, clutching at his bleeding wound.
Not enough time, Cadmus thought. Forget that one, finish him off later.
Stepping over the wounded bandit, Cadmus saw two of the Regias wrestling with each other, their masks pulled over their eyes. Nearby, the stranger was catching his breath against a tree just a few paces from Alastor, who was being beat into the ground by a bandit wielding a club. Cadmus started towards him, but the stranger stepped out, holding one of the tankards from his belt in one hand. Cadmus expected him to swing the heavy vessel as a weapon, but instead, after barking a challenge at the bandit, he took a long, deep swig of whatever spirit was held within. The club-wielding bandit turned towards the stranger, readying his weapon to attack- the stranger, however, looked like he was about to speak, but with a mouthful of drink he accidentally spit the liquid all over the man in front of him. Alastor, pulling himself to his knees, once again summoned his signature flame, which caught the spirits, lighting the bandit aflame. With a scream, the masked thief collapsed onto the ground.
Cadmus couldn’t believe his eyes. Who or what was this man? How did he just single-handedly turn the tide of this battle?
Mel, it seemed, was not having such luck. Her nose and side were both bleeding, and although she was still on her feet, she looked exhausted from simply dodging attacks. Cadmus could see her pack, with weapons poking out of every pocket, but before he could get it to her, another bandit came from behind him, trying to wrest his sword from his hand. He thrust his head backward, feeling his attacker’s skull striking his own with each thrust, but the enemy’s grip held strong. He couldn’t help but notice, though, that the stranger was reaching for Mel’s pack- there might be hope after all!
But, to Cadmus’ horror, the stranger grabbed not her pack or her weapons, but her lute. In a clumsy move, he threw the instrument through the air, falling flat on his face in the process.
The lute missed the bandit accosting Mel, but she managed to catch it before it sailed into the dark. Cursing loudly, she grabbed the neck of the instrument, swinging it like a club at her attacker, who easily dodged each strike.
“A weapon would have been nice,” she managed to call out between swings. Her attacker, clearly pulling his punches, slapped her with the flat of his blade against her head, knocking her down to one knee.
The stranger, his face hidden behind his splintered hat, took another swig from his tankard, apparently oblivious to the battle raging around him. “Barkeep, one more round. Bard, play me something exciting, will you?”
Cadmus struggled against his grappler, his head and his hands aching from repeated blows. He was exhausted, but he could tell Mel was ready to collapse. The stranger’s command seemed to incense her, however, but whether she was fighting to survive or fighting so she could punch the stranger in the face, Cadmus knew she needed all of the energy she could muster. But it wasn’t enough- she took another blow to the face, and she fell down to the ground. Cadmus knew it was over for her, but he couldn’t get away to help. She was going to die, and then he was going to die, and it would all be for nothing.
But then, Cadmus heard music play.
At first it was just a few notes; nothing coherent. Then, Cadmus could heard more- a melody, a jaunty tune that sounded familiar. His grappler was holding him against the ground, beating a meaty fist against him from behind. He was losing the strength to fight back. But when the music entered his ears, he felt powerful- like someone was guiding him, giving him a rhythm to follow. With the beat of the chorus, he pushed against the ground, throwing himself over on top of his attacker. As the melody began a new verse, he pulled free and got to his feet. He felt himself stepping in rhythm with the song, slashing with each line, his body being carried by the music wafting around him.
He spun around as the chorus began again, and saw the stranger standing over Mel, kicking her attacker to the ground. Alastor chanted arcane gibberish along with the tune, conjuring a bolt of lightning that rippled through the clearing, ending the song with a loud crack. At the same moment, Cadmus pierced his broadsword through the chest of the grappler before him, and the stranger smashed his tankard on the last bandit’s head.
Once the fight and the music had stopped, Cadmus rushed to Mel’s side. Her fingers were bleeding all over the strings of her lute, and her body was covered in wounds and bruises. But she sat, staring in disbelief at the stranger, who was lying on the ground near the fire, his chest rising and falling slowly. If Cadmus didn’t know any better, he’d think the man was asleep.
But Mel continued to stare at the man, even as Cadmus bandaged her hands and tended to her deeper wounds. Alastor crept around the clearing, making sure none of the bandits remained alive. Satisfied that the three of them were safe, the trystborn nudged the stranger with his foot.
“I don’t know who you are,” began Cadmus, his red tail swaying slightly. “But thank you. You saved our lives.”
The man pulled his hat away from his eyes, glancing up at the trystborn. “Did I? Well… let’s just say you owe me a drink and we’ll call it even.” And with that, he pulled the hat back over his eyes, and Cadmus could hear him snoring.
Monday, September 8, 2014
Mel awoke with a pounding headache. She couldn’t see anything; she didn’t know if she was in the dark or if she was blinded by the searing light she saw right before she passed out.
She was aware she was lying on a cold, hard surface. The pain in her back reminded her of the days in her childhood, living on the streets, getting whipped for stealing food. She reached back and felt burn holes straight through her armor; the exposed skin was smooth and raw from the heat. Parts of her dirty blonde hair were singed as well- she would need to cut most of it off after this was all over if she wanted to look remotely attractive. But for the moment, at least, she was alive.
As she started to stir, she heard a voice nearby. It sounded familiar, but it took her a moment to place it. She was relieved to know that she was not deafened by the blast as well.
“Here, relax,” it said. “Drink this.”
She felt a waterskin being put to her lips, and she drank from it like a dying man in the desert. Almost immediately, however, she coughed, sputtering the liquid as it burned her throat and her nose.
“What the-“ she began, coughing. “That… that’s pure alcohol.”
“What did you expect? That’s what I keep in there.”
She recognized the voice: Alastor.
Mel rubbed her eyes, turning her head to and fro for anything she could see. After a moment, she heard Alastor mutter something under his breath, and a small ball of flame- the same one he always conjured- appeared in the darkness, illuminating his weary face like a skeletal mask. When the day began, she did not expect herself to ever be relieved to see him perform that stale trick, but here she was.
Satisfied that she still had her vision, she sat up, her back and muscles burning, and let her eyes adjust to the light. Just a few paces away, she could see Cadmus’ body lying on the stone floor, his chest rising and falling rhythmically. She looked down at her throwing hand- it was wrapped tightly with a blood-saturated field dressing. It felt like it had stopped bleeding, and she could move it, but she was afraid to uncover it just yet. At least it felt usable.
“I owe you an apology,” she said quietly, not making eye contact with the mage.
“I said I owe you an apology,” she repeated, her tone hinging on annoyed. Of course he heard it the first time, but if she truly meant it she was willing to say it twice. “I didn’t think you could actually use magic. I thought you had been lying to us this whole time. You know, all that stuff I said to you when I thought we were about to die.”
Alastor shrugged. “I wouldn’t call you completely wrong. I’m not… exactly as I presented myself at first. I’m not a wizard.”
She looked at him in disbelief. “But… you cast magic. Don’t tell me you’re a priest.”
He shook his head. “No. I’m a Sangcaster.”
She snorted derisively. “Yeah, and I’m the Queen of Eodon.”
He simply stared, saying nothing else.
“No,” Mel said, her tone serious again. “You can’t be. Those aren’t real.”
Alastor shrugged, once again saying nothing.
“Show me one documented case of a Sangcaster that wasn’t a fraud trying to hustle a king out of his kingdom.”
Still the so-called Sangcaster simply sat, unblinking. “Believe what you want,” he said simply.
“Fine,” Mel said, growing irritated. “I’ll admit you’re a spellcaster, like I just did. And a powerful one at that. But pardon me if I’m not willing to believe a claim like that at first glance.”
Nearby, Cadmus began to stir, his voice grunting as he gradually woke. Mel walked over to him, taking an arm and helping him to a sitting position. His red skin looked abnormally pale, his sword hand was swollen and purple, and he had dried blood crusted at the base of the horns on his head, but he was awake and aware of his surroundings.
“What… what happened?”
Mel gestured towards Alastor. “The mage here finally put his magic to good use.”
Cadmus squinted, tilting his head to make sure he was looking at the right person. He leaned over to Mel, whispering, “I thought you said he-“
“I was wrong,” she replied matter-of-factly.
“Well, whatever you did, Alastor,” said Cadmus, “it must have worked. Last thing I remember was a dragon… and I pushed my way through more goblins than I could count… and… I think I fell into a hole or something?”
“I used… a bit more of my power than I meant to,” Alastor said, clearing his throat. “As far as I can tell, I caused a bit of a cave-in. When I woke up, we were all here- I think the floor broke under our feet and we fell to wherever this is.”
Mel got up and walked around, stretching and feeling the burns on her back. She felt around for her gear, but either it was destroyed in the blast or it got lost somewhere in the fall. She asked Cadmus for a torch and a flint, and in a few moments had a light source of her own. Walking the length of the space in which they had awoken, Mel eventually found a large part of the cave wall that was loose. Calling the others near, she and Cadmus managed to drag it out of its place, exposing a fissure in the wall wide enough for them to climb through. Most importantly, however, her torch began to dance and waver when brought near the opening.
“There’s a way out through here,” she said. “Mind if I go first?”
Cadmus, still looking weak, gestured her through. She saw Alastor hand his waterskin to the trystborn as she passed through the rock wall. The space was narrow, and she had to contort her body a few odd ways, but after a short while she had managed to slip through, and the cave quickly began to widen. She set her torch down and helped the mage climb through the crevice, but Cadmus had difficulty. They first had him take off his armor- made more difficult with only one usable hand- passing it and his gear through ahead of him, and only then was he thin enough to fit through the rocky passage.
Shortly after the cave began to widen, they could hear the sound of running water- a good sign. Mel was relieved to find a small waterfall trickling down from somewhere above, emptying into a shallow pool of fresh water at their feet. They took some time to drink and wash wounds, and continued on from there. Mel occasionally winced at the feeling of a cool breeze taunting the burns on her back- Cadmus generously offered her his traveling cloak from his pack, which she used to cover up the burn holes in her armor. She unwrapped her hand, a grimace crossing her lips. After rinsing off her makeshift bandage, she wrapped it up tightly once more.
The three adventurers walked and crawled and climbed through the pitch-black caves, relying on Alastor’s magic light and their steadily dwindling supply of torches for what felt like the better part of a day, and Mel began to fear that they were trapped. She was following an air source, but she had no way of knowing whether it was near, or far, or even accessible for them with their limited supplies. And eventually, they would run out of food or water. That wouldn’t happen today, or the next day, or even the day after that, but it was hanging at the back of her mind.
Perhaps it was this preoccupation that made her walk straight past a landmark that should have caught her eye.
“Mel, what are you doing?”
Cadmus, who had grown less pale but still walked with a pronounced limp, had stopped walking. Alastor stood beside him, staring at something on the wall.
“What do you mean,” she began, confused. “I’m walking through-“
She followed their gaze with their own, and realized she had just walked past a massive flat stone wall with a symbol of an ornate eye carved into it.
“My gods,” she said, staring up at the eye that seemed to stare back.
Cadmus walked up, his good hand reaching forward to touch it, only to hesitate and apparently change his mind. “What do you suppose this is? A door of some sort? Or just a piece of art someone hid in the middle of a cave out here in nowhere?”
Mel studied the wall, noticing details that would be invisible to the untrained eye: tiny seams, indicating that parts of the wall are not connected to others, and nigh-invisible runes inked along the seams, meaning that magic is involved- either as a trigger to open the door, or as a trap to keep it closed.
“Alastor, tell me,” she began, glad for an opportunity to showcase her little-known knowledge. “You may not be a member of a college of Wizardry, but do you know what this symbol represents?”
The mage exhaled loudly. “Of course. That’s the symbol of Caelaes, god of magic.”
Mel grinned, nodding. “Good, good. Half credit to you. The symbol of Caelaes is an eye, much like this one. But, unless I’m mistaken, the Church of the Archmage uses this symbol, but with a circle of runes around it denoting the different schools of magic.”
Alastor shrugged. “So?”
“So,” she continued, “this isn’t quite the symbol of Caelaes. Legend has it Caelaes was himself once mortal, like a few of the minor gods. He ascended to godhood when he became one with magic itself, or something like that.”
Cadmus, who had sat down from fatigue, pointed at the symbol, dumbfounded. “I don’t get it. Then what does this mean?”
She shook her head, sighing. “The point I’m trying to make is that I’ve heard it said that the eye symbol that the Church of the Archmage uses was already a symbol representing magic before his followers adopted it as their own.”
No response from the other two. Apparently she had to spell it out.
“I’m trying to say this door might be older than the church itself. As in, really, really old. And possibly really powerful.”
Alastor walked up close to it, studying it himself. Mel watched him- it was interesting, now that she saw him in a different light. He clearly had magical power, but he obviously didn’t get that magic power through years of rigorous studying of musty tomes. She didn’t believe for a moment he was a Sangcaster, one of the legendary beings of power beyond measure whose only weakness was that they had little to no control over it- but he was definitely interesting. Watching him study this door, it was like watching a person rediscover who they are after losing their memory. She was lost in this train of thought when he reached a hand forward, touching one of the seams on the door.
“Uh, Alastor, I wouldn’t do that-“ she managed to blurt out the moment he touched it. There was a spark, a small flash of blue light, and the mage jerked his hand back as if he had just touched a red-hot coal. “Yeah,” she continued, “I meant to say… this door is probably trapped…”
“It’s not trapped,” said Alastor, rubbing his fingers, his eyes still transfixed on the symbol. “It’s just locked. It needs magic in order to open.”
Mel made eye contact with Cadmus, and the two of them looked back to Alastor. If she had her tools, she was confident she could open almost any normal lock- but she wouldn’t even know where to start with a magical one. In any case, her gear- what hadn’t been tossed at the feet of the goblins- was destroyed by Alastor’s magic. She left her lute back at Esprit’s mansion, but even that wouldn’t be of much help.
Cadmus spoke up. “Then… can’t you cast a spell at it? Would that open the door?”
The mage shook his head. He placed his head against the door, and Mel had to resist the urge to pull him away. But the door offered no offense this time. His eyes were closed, his cheek and ear against the surface. It was like he was putting his ear to the ground, hoping to hear for a coming stampede.
“It needs… permanent magic,” he said, stepping away from the door. “Do either of you have any magic items?”
Mel and Cadmus made eye contact again, and though the trystborn froze awkwardly, Mel nodded. “My armor. I don’t know how much magic it still has left- it got damaged pretty badly during that blast…” She felt the urge to glare at Alastor, but she reminded himself that she would likely be dead if he hadn’t done what he did. “…But it is- or at the very least, was- magical when I got it. It’s protected me from plenty a battle.”
Alastor came close to her, pushing her borrowed cloak aside and leaning his face a hair’s breadth from the singed leather plates wrapped around her body. It made her uncomfortable, but it was only for a moment.
He turned back to the door, speaking to her as he did so. “Do you know how magic items are given their enchantment?”
Mel thought about it, then shook her head. “I don’t think I do, no.”
“Then let me give you a small lesson,” he continued. “Magic is neither created nor destroyed. It just kind of… is.” He began pacing around the area in front of the door as he spoke. “When you make permanent magic, you’re taking a piece of the magic in the air around you and bringing it into physical form. Unlike casting a spell, it doesn’t ever rejoin the magic in the air. It stays physical, in some form or another, forever.”
He walked around Cadmus, then around Mel, talking the whole time. Mel, for one, was quite interested in what he had to say- it was the first time he had talked about magic in the days since they met.
“It is possible to remove the magic from one item and put it into another. It’s not easy- not everyone can do it- but it can be done, and it can save on the costly materials needed to make a magic item from scratch. But when you do this, you’re really taking the essence from one item and putting it into another. In some cases, this brings about new magic items with the abilities of the old, even if that wasn’t what the crafter intended.”
Mel nodded. “You know, you’re right. I remember hearing a tale a long time ago about a woman who owned a magic pair of shears that, for some reason, could magically rotate objects. You’re saying maybe, in that case, the shears were made using the magic of another magic item that could do that?”
Alastor nodded as well. “Right. But what I’m trying to say is that when a magic item gets destroyed, the magic in it doesn’t just disappear. It has to go somewhere- it has to become something.”
Mel followed along. Cadmus looked lost.
“And what it becomes…” Mel heard the soft whisper of a blade being drawn, but before she could react, she felt a scrap of her armor being cut off where the edges were frayed from being burnt.
Alastor stopped her objection, stowing a dagger somewhere beneath his robes with one hand and holding up the scrap of leather in the other. He muttered something quietly, and the ball of flame erupted in his hand, turning the leather into a tiny burnt pile of ash. He blew gently on the ash, and as it cascaded away, Mel saw in his hand a miniscule amount of glittery, silver dust.
“What it becomes is Concordum, the physical essence of permanent magic.”
Mel stared at the tiny flecks of dust in his hand, mesmerized by its appearance. She almost couldn’t look away.
The mage, carefully closing his hand, walked back up to the door. Opening his fingers once more, he gently, yet quickly pressed his palm, along with the Concordum, against the door. The giant eye symbol began to glow momentarily, and when it subsided, the wall- everything inside the seams Mel had noticed earlier- was gone, leaving an open entryway to the chamber beyond.
She stared, eyes open wide in amazement, and took the opportunity to start a slow clap for the mage. She of course realized how it likely sounded insincere, but she did it anyway. “Well, well, color me surprised,” she began. “Since you solved the puzzle, Alastor, by all means, feel free to be the first to enter the chamber beyond.”
Alastor snapped his attention back to her, an eyebrow raised. “Not a chance. You were the one who said this might be trapped.”
The two of them turned their eyes to Cadmus, who opened his mouth to protest, but thought better of it. Drawing his broadsword with his uninjured offhand, he slowly stepped into the ancient sealed room.
Luckily, the chamber did not seem to be trapped. Mel followed close behind the warrior, keeping her eyes open for any signs of traps, physical or otherwise. The room was quite large- larger than she had been expecting- and though she held a torch high above her head, after the three of them had crossed the threshold of the antechamber, the walls themselves began to glow a soft white, filling the room with a hazy glow that eliminated any shadows. Knowing that fuel was becoming scarce, she quickly smothered the torch with a rag. Behind her, Alastor kept his ball of flame in his hand, though he held it near his side instead of ahead. As they crept, along with the hazy light, Mel felt like sounds themselves were quieter, muffled, like she had cotton in her ears.
The walls of the room were featureless save for four rows of fluted columns lining the edges, but in the center was a white marble altar. Mel grabbed Cadmus and stopped him from approaching, as the moment he got close she noticed a faint black circle drawn onto the floor around it. She was unsure if the circle was there when they entered or if it just made itself visible, but she knelt down to examine it.
“Hey, magic expert,” she called back to Alastor, beckoning him forward. “Do you recognize what type of magic circle this is?”
Almost too soon, he replied with a simple, “No.” She turned her head back to look at him- he didn’t even look like he glanced at it. She thought to question him, asking what happened to his intimate knowledge of magical objects, but instead she just assumed that his display out in the caves was some kind of rare savant moment for him. With a sigh, she leaned in close to the circle, making sure not to cross or touch it.
“Mel- did you just see that-“
Cadmus was pointing at the altar, several paces away, his eyes looking unfocused in the hazy light. Mel followed his gaze, but saw nothing. Maybe something flat was sitting on the altar, but from their distance she couldn’t tell and she didn’t want to get any closer.
“See what? Cadmus, hand me your sword if you don’t mind…”
She held out a hand and looked back down at the edge of the circle, thinking maybe she could scratch at it with a blade and see if it was a painted line or an indelible one. But when she felt no weapon in her hand, she looked up just in time to see Cadmus step over the line, walking slowly towards the altar.
“Cadmus- wait, don’t do that-“
He paused, blinked, then looked around himself for a moment. His expression looked confused, and he stowed his broadsword and rubbed his eyes, glancing around, and then back to Mel.
“Cadmus,” she said, alarmed. “What in the world are you doing? That line could have killed you, or sent you to the Shadowsands or turned you into a chicken. That was not a wise move.”
He scratched his head. “Didn’t you see them? There were… three women, it looked like. Three old women- or maybe they were young- standing around this altar. They were… They were writing something…”
Mel heard nothing but the muffled sound of the trystborn’s footsteps as he walked up to the altar. He reached for it, and she called out for him to stop but either not hearing her or not listening to her he picked up what looked like a piece of parchment laying on its smooth surface.
“It’s… a list, it looks like. A list of names or something.”
Alastor, who had silently placed himself directly beside the bard, stared in confusion. “A list of names? Bring it here.”
The two waited for Cadmus to exit the circle, neither one willing to cross over the line. When the warrior returned, he held out the parchment for them to see.
Alastor snatched it from the trystborn’s uninjured hand first, his elderly eyes glancing up and down at it. “I don’t get it. It’s a list of names. That’s it. We entered a chamber sealed by magic for hundreds, if not thousands of years, complete with an altar in the middle of a magic circle with apparently illusory guardians watching over it, and all it’s holding is a list of names? Is this some kind of a joke?”
Mel took the list, looking it over herself.
“I don’t get it either. What’s more, I recognize some of these names. The Regias Brotherhood? They’re that group of bandits that’s been terrorizing the Southern Vale. Anastasia Renald is a princess or queen or something of the country to the East. This one’s a villain from a children’s fairy tale. There’s no way these names were on here hundreds of years ago.”
Cadmus shook his head. “Unless this is some kind of a prophecy.”
Mel and Alastor spoke at the same time.
“Prophecies aren’t real,” Mel said.
“Divination magic doesn’t do that,” Alastor interjected.
Mel glanced at the mage quizzically, once again surprised by his knowledge of magic that didn’t seem to manifest itself until recently. The three of them crowded around the list, looking at it once more for any missed details. Mel recognized a few more names that sounded familiar from her travels, but nothing she could place easily.
Before they could deduce anything, however, she realized that the light in the room was beginning to dim, and the slight muffling of sounds was no longer apparent. She re-lit her torch, and the three of them hurried out of the chamber, lest some unexpected magical ward trigger if they tarried too long. Cadmus carefully rolled up the list with one hand and placed it in his pack, and the three continued on through the caves.
As they walked away, Mel glanced back, only to find that she didn’t see the doorway anywhere in the cave wall. In fact, the natural, rough stone walls looked completely undisturbed, as if the eye symbol and doorway had never existed at all.
Miraculously, a short while later, the cave floor began a steady incline, and Mel noticed her torch flame dancing more vigorously than it had been previous. The incline grew slightly more steep the further they came, and although Cadmus still had trouble due to his injured leg and hand, they eventually came to the top, where a narrow crack in the ceiling opened into the cool night air. Pulling themselves through with no small difficulty, the three of them immediately set up camp, eager to rest now that they were free from the dark and claustrophobic underground.
Once they had a steady fire roaring, Mel sat warming her feet by the flames as Cadmus unrolled the list and began looking over it once again. He held it up between himself and the fire, likely looking for hidden watermarks or other subtle details.
“Anything interesting,” Mel asked, “or just an ordinary list of ordinary names?”
Cadmus shook his head. “Nothing I can tell. I feel like I recognize a few of the names, but I don’t recall who they are. It just strikes me as odd. I would have expected some kind of magical treasure being kept in there, just like Alastor said.”
Alastor, who so far had been sitting up with his eyes closed- Mel had actually assumed the mage had fallen asleep- suddenly spoke up, startling her slightly. “A powerful- or at the very least valuable- magical artifact would have made this whole debacle worth it. Instead we risked our lives and limbs for basically nothing.”
Mel rolled her eyes. As much as he looked like an old man, Alastor certainly acted like a spoiled child at times. Though she would have preferred to find at least something valuable in the goblins’ hideout on top of the agreed payment for the quest, she felt lucky to have escaped with her life.
“Alastor,” she said, shifting her weight on the hard ground, “is there any way you can tell if the list is magical? I mean, I assumed it would be, even if it doesn’t seem to do anything.”
The mage shook his head. “I already tried when we found it. It’s just a normal piece of parchment with normal ink, valued at approximately zero gold coins. It’ll do us lots of good in our travels, I’m sure.”
Mel sighed, and Cadmus continued to study the list, squinting in the darkness.
“On second thought,” said the mage, holding his hand out, “can I see that list?”
Cadmus handed it over, and Alastor held it for a moment. Then, to Mel’s horror, he tossed the parchment into the fire angrily.
She jumped to her feet, screaming at the old man who sat with a look of triumph in his eyes. “What in Carceri is wrong with you!?”
But Cadmus hopped to his good leg and quickly reached into the fire, grabbed at the list and pulled it out, shaking it frantically to stop the flames, the fire licking harmlessly at his trystborn skin.
“That damned list is nothing but garbage,” Alastor said, staring at the burning parchment. “I did all of us a favor.”
Except the parchment wasn’t burning. When Cadmus finished shaking the flames off, the three adventurers stared at it in shock, but the list was whole and undamaged. It looked no different than when they first found it on the altar.
Alastor’s indignant expression changed to one of frustration. Mel glared at him pushing him away from the document, lest he try something else stupid.
“I don’t know what you were thinking,” she started, stepping between him and Cadmus. “If the names on this list have any value whatsoever, you would have destroyed it. Besides, I thought you said it was nonmagical.”
Alastor tried to speak, but the first few words just sputtered. “It isn’t. Or at least, it doesn’t detect as magical. If it is, it must be magically protected, including making the magic impossible to detect.”
Cadmus raised an eyebrow. “Is that possible?”
The mage nodded. “It’s difficult, but yes.”
Mel didn’t know if he was telling the truth or just trying to divert their attention from what he just did.
The trystborn turned the parchment over and over, looking at it intently again. “Who would go through the trouble of making something that was also magically resistant to damage, and then hide the fact that it’s magical, all for an ordinary list? Doesn’t that make you think it has to be valuable, if they went through all that trouble?”
“I agree,” said Mel, once again leering at the mage. “I recommend you hang onto it for now, Cadmus. Apparently some of us can’t be trusted with nice things.”
Alastor glared back. Without a word, he stepped out of the firelight and laid down on his bedroll. Mel couldn’t tell if he was asleep, but just in case she offered to keep watch while Cadmus slept.
She spent the rest of the night gazing at the stars.
Thursday, August 21, 2014
Leclerc ran along the rubble, grabbing the jagged mortar stones with his bare hands when he reached the remains of the stable house, calling out his companion’s name until his hands were raw and his voice was hoarse. Sweat pouring down his forehead, he looked at the immense pile of ruin in front of him, and sank to his knees, feeling tears well up in his closed eyes.
“Leclerc? Leclerc, is that you?”
His eyes shot open, looking around frantically for the voice he had just heard.
And then, he saw her- Esprit was standing, holding a horse’s reins in each hand, on the far side of the rubble. He jumped to his feet, climbed across the wreckage, and wrapped his arms tightly around her, feeling relief wash over him.
“Esprit, you had me so scared,” he said, releasing her. “Where were you?”
“I had taken the horses for a walk around the grounds,” she replied. “Not very far, but then the ground shook, and… that happened… and the horses got away from me. I didn’t know how safe the road was between here and town, so I didn’t want them to be lost and for us to be without a way to travel.”
Leclerc wiped off his face and his eyes, finally smiling. “Well… I’m happy you’re safe. I was so worried.”
She blushed ever-so-slightly. “I’m sorry to have worried you.” Her expression turned serious. “What was that, that made the ground shake? It sounded like a mountain had broken or something.”
Leclerc looked off into the distance. It was getting dark, but he felt like he could see smoke in the last rays of sunlight.
“I don’t know,” he answered. He turned back to look at the ruined stable house, the crashed tower, and the gaping tear exposed in the front of the manor where the tower once stood. “It’s a relief nobody was hurt, but… this is going to delay any repair work on the mansion.”
Esprit sighed, blowing a lock of her red hair out of her face. “I know. I suppose it was going to take a long time anyway. What’s another month or two?”
The two of them laughed, both feeling such relief after the scare. “Well,” said Leclerc, “Let’s find a safe place for the horses and get things ready for the night.”
They ended up getting the horses settled in in one of the bedrooms on the bottom floor. Leclerc brought in some ruined threadbare blankets he had found around the mansion, and piled them in a corner near some of the food and water they had brought in the night before.
Leclerc waited until night was well underway in the hopes of the adventurers returning, but since they hadn’t, he went ahead and started the bonfire he had talked about. He and Esprit sat near it, mostly in silence, a pot of beans simmering at the edge. Leclerc had hoped that the others would have returned, so the five of them could talk and laugh and enjoy each others’ presence. It was difficult, being out on the road away from his home- of course he enjoyed keeping company with Esprit, but even when he was working with the poor and destitute in Serasham he never felt lonely. He had also been hoping the others would have gotten rid of the goblins by now, and then he wouldn’t have to worry about shadows lurking beyond the walls.
Of course, though he wasn’t willing to admit it, the fact that they hadn’t returned worried him. He didn’t know if they were hurt, or lost, or captured, or worse- but he had to keep faith and trust that everything would turn out for the best. If nothing else, he had to be the strong one for Esprit, since she undoubtedly feared the same things.
Once their beans were finished cooking, the two of them ate under the stars, listening only to the crack and pop of the flames and the thoughts in their heads.
The next morning, Leclerc woke up at dawn, taking a moment to gaze out over the grounds, once again hoping to see the adventurers’ return. Seeing nothing but the majestic Arcala mountain range in the distance, he got up, got dressed, and went about doing as he had the day before- looking around the mansion for small jobs that needed to be done.
Though he tried to occupy himself elsewhere, he eventually found himself trying to clear away the rubble from the fallen tower. At first he was trying to find an opening large enough to get inside the stable house, but eventually he was picking up fallen bricks and laying them neatly in stacks next to the building. It was a huge job, and not one he could complete on his own in any reasonable length of time, but it was a job that needed to be done and he had nothing else to do.
He managed to clear away part of one wall of the stable house, but the wagon was completely ruined. Luckily he was able to retrieve the lockbox- after spending the majority of the morning trying to pry a massive section of roof off of it- and though it was battered, its contents were safe. He was relieved- the lockbox held the deed to the manor, the grounds, and a letter of credit from the King’s Bank in the Grey City for the majority of Esprit’s estate, as well as a considerable amount of gold coins and a pouch of coveted platinum. After making sure everything inside was undamaged and accounted for, Leclerc brought the dented lockbox into the manor, eventually stashing it under some of the rubble in the still-destroyed basement. Until they could procure a safe repository for Esprit’s wealth, simply hiding it would have to do.
When surveying the wreckage of the tower, Leclerc eventually noticed that although it had fallen from a great height, it looked like part of the spire- the uppermost section- had stayed mostly intact. Though it lay on its side, and on top of the remains of the stable house, he found that if he carefully climbed up to what was once the stable’s roof, there was a section that looked like it had an opening large enough for a person to climb into. Since, after all, that was the only room of the house he hadn’t at least glanced inside, he couldn’t help but keep his interest.
He spent until high noon tossing the idea around in his head. No, he shouldn’t, because it isn’t safe- it could collapse any moment. Yes, he should, because it clearly must be sturdy enough if it survived a fall from the highest point of the manor. No, he shouldn’t, because it’s probably empty like the rest of the mansion. Yes, he should, because it could hold a remnant of Esprit’s family history.
As the sun passed it highest point, he found himself staring at the fallen tower, knowing that he was going in whether he wanted to or not. Taking a moment to look around once more for the adventurers or anything else that needed his attention, Leclerc threw caution to the wind and climbed up onto the mountain of rubble between him and the tower.
The climb was difficult, and more than once he slipped and tore part of his pants or shirt or cut himself on a rotten timber or jagged piece of metal roofing. But, feeling a small personal victory, he soon reached the hole in the side of the fallen tower, and was relieved to find that it was big enough for him to slip inside. He once again felt like this was a bad idea, but he had come this far. He said a short prayer to Deluz before entering, and with a deep breath, he slipped between the cracked masonry.
Inside, he saw that he was in what was once the spiral staircase leading to the top. It was strange and disorienting climbing over the sideways staircase, and for a moment he laid himself down on the wall, resting his feet against one of the steps, and imagined that he was standing right-side up in a normal tower. Grinning as he shook off the thought, he continued his climb until he reached the top of the stairs, where a door stood, facing down at him from what was now the ceiling. He reached up, and found the handle immovable- the door was locked. It struck him as interesting, as so far all of the doors in the building- the ones that were still standing, anyway- had become so rusted and rotten that they came open quite easily. This one, despite being as old as all the others, was still locked, and strong enough that he couldn’t get it open. In fact, the handle even supported his weight when he grabbed it and lifted his feet off the ground. If it were standing upright, perhaps he could bash it open, but it was difficult while reaching above him.
Then, he remembered the set of keys that were given to Esprit along with the deed. Completely by chance, he had brought them with him- he had used them to open the gate to the property the day they arrived, and since then they had simply hung on his belt. Taking them in hand, he sorted through all of them, trying each one on the lock above him. It was tiring, since he had to keep his arms raised for so long, but eventually, he found the right key- an old iron one with an emblem that had been scratched off long ago. Finally, the door opened, and swung down and hit the wall beside him with a loud clang. Exhausted but unwilling to wait another moment, he hoisted himself up into the locked room.
Unsurprisingly, the tiny chamber was a mess. Shards of wooden furniture were strewn about, and there were scraps of parchment- heavily damaged from years of rain and wind blown through the tiny arrow-slit windows, it was a wonder there were even scraps left- plastered against every surface. But one thing caught Leclerc’s eye: an upturned desk, its legs broken and scattered, with its main compartment closed and locked.
Praise Deluz, he thought to himself.
Leclerc burst into the girl’s bedroom, panting from having climbed and run and dragged the remains of the desk with him all the way from the tower. She was just waking up, wrapped up in the bedroll on top of the ruined four-poster bed. It looked like she had been sleeping fitfully, and Leclerc figured it had taken her quite some time to fall asleep after the fright the previous evening.
“Esprit, I have good news,” he said, a big grin on his bearded face.
She rubbed her eyes intently, brushing her matted hair out of her face. “Is it word from the others? Were they successful?”
He opened his mouth, then closed it. His demeanor became less exuberant for a moment. “Erm, no. But I found something. Something important.”
She perked up, beginning to climb out of her bedroll, then deciding against it and hopping out of bed with the bedroll still wrapped around her. She waddled over, holding it around her, as he dragged the desk top into the room.
“I was trying to clean up, keeping myself busy,” he began, taking the keys out of his pocket. “I realized the tower- the one that fell- was the only room we hadn’t searched, since it didn’t look safe. I found a way inside, and behind a locked door, I found this desk.”
Her eyes were wide open, but she didn’t speak.
“It was locked too, and none of the keys on this keyring of yours would open it. I hope you don’t mind, but I decided to take some initiative, and… well…”
He directed her eyes to where the lock once was. Now, there was a suspiciously hammer-shaped hole in the wooden face.
“Anyway, look inside.”
He pulled the drawer open, and inside was a stash of memories: papers, letters, and curios. She seemed hesitant at first, as if perhaps she didn’t believe what she was seeing, but before long her slender hand had grabbed a sheet of parchment, and with a trembling grip her eyes slowly scanned across every word. Leclerc hadn’t read much himself- he simply glanced at the contents before rushing to present his findings to their rightful owner- but he had a feeling that what they had come looking for was hidden within these papers.
After Esprit had finished one sheet, she grabbed another, and another. Leclerc stood next to her patiently, holding the battered desk drawer steady for his companion. She read a handful of letters, studied a pair of sketches, and inspected a few small knick-knacks that rolled against the side of the drawer. Some time passed, and she placed it all back inside. Leclerc smiled at her, but his smile faltered when he realized that tears were rolling down her cheeks. He set the desk compartment on the floor, and hurried to put his hands on her shoulders.
“Esprit, talk to me,” he said softly. “What’s wrong? Was this just another dead end?”
She let out a sob, and turned to lock eyes with her friend. Through the tears, Leclerc could see that he was smiling.
“No, Leclerc,” she said, wiping her eyes with a sleeve. As she did so, he saw that she held another letter tightly in her hand.
“Then…” he began.
She held up the paper. “This letter… this letter was addressed to my parents.”
Leclerc’s worried expression morphed into a grin.
She continued. “I know what we have to do now. We’ve got another quest.”