Thursday, August 21, 2014

Keepers of the List, Chapter 10

“Esprit! ESPRIT!

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.”

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Keepers of the List, Chapter 9

The three adventurers continued through the trees, with Mel in the lead, traveling down the mountainside as fast as Cadmus’ pained gait would allow. The goblin was long gone, but in its haste had left an easy trail for the bard to track.

Alastor plodded along behind the other two, a sour look on his face. The Trystborn had commandeered his tree branch, and was using it as a crutch as the group followed the diminutive humanoid footprints along the soft soil. The mage could feel his forehead sweating; the day was getting late but it would still be some time before the night air cooled down. Alastor wanted to get this job over with, of course, but he didn’t want to die either. He wasn’t quite sure what he wanted right now.

After what felt like a lifetime, they came through a wall of brush and the bard held out an arm to stop them abruptly. Peering over her shoulder, Alastor saw the terrain take a sudden sharp decline, and the area ahead of them spread out uncovered, like a giant grave carved out of the earth.

“It looks like an old quarry,” whispered Mel, and Alastor felt like she was saying it to Cadmus and not to him. He glared at the back of her head in response. “He jumped down here, and ran that way,” she continued, pointing towards an opening in the rock wall down ahead, its aged wooden supports looming silently over a weathered forgotten metal track leading into the darkness. “That must be where they lair.”

Cadmus glanced down the steep decline, and handed the walking stick back to Alastor, who took it almost suspiciously. “Then I suppose that’s where we’re headed,” said the Trystborn, massaging his knee gently.

Mel looked at him, a concerned look on her face. “Are you sure you can do this? We can always come back tomorrow.”

But Cadmus shook his head stoically. “No. I’m fine. I’ve been in worse situations before. Besides, if they’re ready for us now, tomorrow won’t be any better.”

Alastor rolled his eyes. He had to fight the urge to push both of them down into the quarry, but soon enough Cadmus put one hand over his shoulder to grip his sword, rested the other hand on the crumbling edge, and let himself drop into a controlled slide down the steep decline. Mel followed suit, and Alastor, not seeing anything more convenient, attempted the same. After hitting his face hard on the gravel below, he quickly stood up, dusted himself off, and ignored the bard’s disapproving glance. Cadmus tried offering a hand, but Alastor brushed it away.

From where they stood in the quarry, the sun was no longer visible over the hillside; the mage suddenly felt cold, alone. He knew for sure that he did not want to be here- but what were his options? He could try and convince the others to turn back, but he already felt that they didn’t trust him and wouldn’t listen. He could always slip away and run back, maybe tell Esprit and that other guy that they had gotten killed and he was the only one strong enough to escape… but assuming he could make it back to that crumbling ruin of a home safely, he would still likely end up on his own again after this was all over. No, no, he needed them alive. And besides, these were just goblins! Who ever died fighting goblins, anyway?

Putting on a brave face, Alastor, muttering to himself, whisked his hand forward with a flourish, creating a warm ball of flame between his fingers. The three of them had neared the entrance to what must have once been a mine, years ago, its mouth held open by some old rotting timbers just waiting to relax their aging arms. In the moments since they first saw it, Alastor felt like the environment had grown darker, deeper, and colder. Mel and Cadmus paused at the gaping maw before them, drawing weapons and mentally preparing themselves. Alastor held his flame high, using his free hand to dramatically usher them in, making it clear without words that he was not going first. Mel rolled her eyes, nocked an arrow in her shortbow, and began to creep forward. Cadmus held his broadsword in both hands, resting the pommel on his good knee, following behind. Glancing once more out into the shadowy quarry behind, Alastor hurried behind them, fighting off the fear that they were being followed.
They entered the mine, creeping along through the tunnel, Mel keeping vigilant watch for anything moving ahead of them, Cadmus with his weapon at the ready. Somewhere off in the distance, Alastor could hear noise; but he couldn’t tell whether it was goblins, monsters, or simply the sound of the blood pounding in his ears.

Before long they came to a larger room with three more tunnels branching off in other directions. An unused mine cart sat, battered and filled with old refuse, giving the room a pungent smell. Wooden rafters supported the walls and ceiling in this room, and the ground certainly looked well-traveled.

Cadmus took the opportunity to rest against one of the wooden rafters, massaging his leg gently. “Mel,” he said quietly, “any idea which way to go?”

The bard was studying the ground, looking at each of the corridors. “I don’t know,” she said, not looking up. “The traffic seems pretty even all around. I suppose we could just pick a direction and head there.” She took something out of her pack, and scratched it against the wall by where they entered, the chalk leaving a large white cross on the stone. “Just so we know how to get out of here,” she added.

Cadmus stood up and began to make a decision when something hard struck against the stone wall by his face, creating a loud crack and making a tiny spark. He immediately raised his sword to attention, his eyes darting around for the source. Mel responded by rolling to one side and firing her bow upwards into the rafters, apparently missing her target. Alastor looked up and saw two goblins, hiding in a tiny bolt hole in the stone wall near the ceiling. One of them was climbing out onto the rafters for a better shot, and the other was loading a rock into a sling and preparing to throw it.

“Up there,” said Alastor, pointing at the hole in the wall. He picked up a rock and threw it confidently, only to have it miss completely.

Well, that’s enough heroics for one day, he thought to himself, scurrying behind the offal-filled cart to hide.

Cadmus dropped his sword, pulling his bow off his back and grabbing an arrow. Mel readied her shortbow as well, and the two of them fired simultaneously, each one piercing into the chest of the goblin climbing on the rafters, who let out a cry and fell to the ground with a sickening thud. The other let fly his sling bullet, which hit Mel in the stomach, but Alastor didn’t see her react. Cadmus shot an arrow into the bolt hole just as the goblin scurried out of view, but Mel quickly stowed her weapon and picked up Cadmus’ sword for him, whispering to him urgently.

“Did you hit it?”

He shook his head slowly. “I don’t know. I might have, but it might have gotten away.”

“Then we can’t stay here,” she replied, looking at their options. “Let’s go… that way,” she said, pointing to the right.

“Are you coming, Alastor the Scared?” She feigned embarrassment. “My mistake. Alastor the Great.”

The mage climbed out from behind the cart, dusting himself off. “I’m coming,” he said, ignoring the insult.

The three of them hurried down the corridor as quickly as they could, and somewhere far off they heard a noise like a metal drum or a bell being struck. Alastor knew that this didn’t bode well. They came to another fork in the road, and Mel reflexively chose to take the left fork, but almost instantly came to a sliding halt, pushing Cadmus and Alastor back to the right fork instead. The mage could hear the sound of metal jingling and small feet pounding against the ground; as it neared, Mel picked up a rock and threw it back towards the entrance, where it made a loud clatter against the wall.

At the noise, the footfalls stopped, and a moment later a voice, sounding ugly and goblin, came from the left fork, calling out something Alastor couldn’t understand. Mel and Cadmus looked at each other, both with worried looks on their faces, but Mel cleared her throat, placed one hand in front of her mouth to muffle her voice, and called out a response in the goblin tongue. The three of them waited, bodies pressed flat against the wall, until another response came back; Cadmus’ expression became one of mortal fear, but moments later, the sounds of footsteps hurried off from whence they came.

When they began moving along the tunnel once more, Alastor asked Cadmus, “What did she say to them?”

“She told them we went the other way. And that we were dangerous.”

“Then… what’s the problem?”

Cadmus shook his head. “Because they said they were going to round up the warriors. All of them.”

Mel hissed back at the two of them to be quiet as they navigated the winding mine tunnels, eventually coming to the edge of another room where the unused metal cart tracks intersected. She stopped abruptly, and peering around the corner, Alastor saw a lone goblin, wearing ill-fitting piecemeal armor, relieving himself into a pit in the corner of the room. After looking around for any others, the bard took out a blade and crept up behind him as he squatted, completely unaware. With a quick flourish she pierced the goblin’s neck, at which point it let out a gurgle and slumped to the ground, tipping over and falling into the pit.

Cadmus and Alastor crept to join her as she began to quickly clean off her weapon. However, they all jerked around as they heard another goblin voice, calling out to his companion whom he must have expected to be there. Seeing three adventurers, however, the goblin let out a yell, only to be cut short by one of Cadmus’ throwing axes.

Before they could breathe a sigh of relief, Alastor realized it was too late. They heard a goblin battle cry, and heard feet pounding from one of the halls. They darted down another, only to run into a wall of goblins with spears and crossbows. Turning around saw the same. Goblins to the left of them, goblins to the right.

They were surrounded.
The goblins led them, at spear-point, through the mine until they reached a massive set of crude double-doors. One of them barked an order at another, who opened the doors outward into a huge torch-lit cavern. The sharp pain of a spearhead jabbed into the mage’s back, ushering him and the other adventurers into the giant chamber, where dozens- scores, even- of goblin warriors, armed and armored, stood in a semi-circle facing the far wall, where a ledge overlooked the cavern. Atop the ledge, a crude pedestal had been carved out of a stalagmite, and scattered around it were piles of debris- debris which, Alastor realized, was made out of scraps of metal, broken and crumbling furniture, and the bones of forest animals. High above, a man-sized hole in the ceiling allowed a small amount of dusk sunlight to shine into the room. The entire chamber had an acrid odor; Alastor thought it smelled like a tannery filled with vomit.

Once the goblins and their sharp sticks had escorted the three adventurers towards the raised ledge, all of the brutes fell silent. Alastor saw the swaths of goblins part, and the tallest, ugliest, and dumbest-looking of them all walked forward, its head adorned with what had to have been a terrible artist’s representation of a lizard’s face. The wearer held in one hand a stick taller than himself, and hanging from the end were an assortment of bones, all looking burnt and, for lack of a better term, melted.

When the tall goblin reached the front of the room, standing below the ledge, he chanted something with surprising lung power; all of the others repeated the chant with a cacophony of gibberish. Alastor began to whisper to the others to ask what the goblin had said, but Mel subtly elbowed him in the ribs before he could get more than a word out.

The tall goblin repeated the chant, followed by the chorus of voices once again. They did this another four times, each time louder than the one before. After the final time, the tall goblin pointed at the adventurers, and gave a command, once again sounding like gibberish.

“The chieftain wants us to drop our weapons,” whispered Cadmus, while making no motion to release the sword from his grip. Mel spit on the ground, sneering at the chieftain. Suddenly, the flat end of a spear swatted itself against the Trystborn’s head, almost knocking him to the ground. Mel whipped a throwing dagger out of her bandolier, but one of the goblins near the chieftain swiftly raised a shortbow, and before Alastor could blink, he saw an arrow suddenly pierce straight through the bard’s hand. She let out a cry and dropped the dagger, and in response Cadmus shouted something short in the goblin language, raising one hand and dropping his sword to the ground, tossing his belt of axes and his bow along with it. He immediately tended to Mel, who, after the initial shock had cleared, snapped the arrow shaft in half, pulling it from her hand, and tore her bandolier off, throwing it to the ground as well. All the while, Alastor simply held up his empty hands, offering no resistance.

Mel glared at the mage, her good hand pressed firmly against her bleeding hand. “Alastor,” she whispered angrily, “why don’t you put some of that amazing magic of yours to use? If you truly have any skill at all, you could try to scare them or mesmerize them or put them to sleep or… or anything!

But the mage, just shook his head, trying not to make eye contact, his lips pursed. He heard the bard swear at him. The goblins around began their chanting, once again increasing with volume each time. Alastor had no idea what it was they were chanting for, or why they thought it would have some result, but he did notice that the sour smell in the room was getting stronger.

And then, the chanting became cheering from the goblins in the back. The rest followed suit, and before long the sound in the cavern was deafening. In an instant, every single goblin dropped to their knees, bowing before whatever they were looking at. Just as he was getting the idea to convince the others to take the chance to escape, Alastor craned his neck to look up at the ledge, and he realized what they had been chanting for.

A dragon had entered the assembly.

Its scales were bright emerald green, and it walked on all fours, two huge wings folded across its back. Its snout was puffing out clouds of a noxious green fog, which began to spill over the ledge before dissipating into the air, and its mouth, though closed, showed multiple jagged teeth longer than a man’s finger sticking out from its closed lips. It casually meandered towards the makeshift pedestal, climbing atop it and lounging lazily.

If standing, it couldn’t have been larger than a tall man; but its presence brought so much more than sheer size. Alastor had never seen a dragon in person before, and suddenly he felt like he couldn’t run or even look away without the terrible beast swooping down and separating his torso from his abdomen. It relaxed on its seat, one talon picking at something between its teeth, possibly intentionally showing off its great number of razor-sharp incisors. The mage could feel his body frozen with fear, and it came as an immense relief when the chieftain stood up, addressing the beast in a kind of speech that sounded different from the goblins’ normal language.

The dragon did not acknowledge the chieftain, and simply kept picking at its teeth, apparently finding something interesting between its front and back fangs. Without losing momentum, the chieftain turned to the congregation, barking something towards the back- shortly thereafter, a pair of goblin warriors approached dragging a slain doe, setting its body on the ground. They stabbed two spears into the carcass, and with practiced care they hefted the animal up as high as they could, barely making it within arms’ reach of the dragon.

The dragon, however, simply sat and stared off arrogantly, ignoring the offering before it. Still unable to move, Alastor stared unblinking as the goblins held the deer aloft, their balance and strength waning, looking as if they were afraid that the dragon would eat them if they dropped the carcass. In a moment of lucidity, the mage realized that was probably true.

When it looked like the goblin warriors couldn’t bear to hold the deer up any longer, in one swift motion the animal carcass was gone, and the dragon sat atop the pedestal, tearing through the flesh like a hot knife through butter.

Though the spectacle was still terrifying, Alastor began to feel like, with the dragon’s attention occupied, he was no longer locked in a supernatural stupor. Moving, however, still felt like a terrible idea.

“Mel, Alastor,” came Cadmus’ voice in a strange whisper. He was speaking softly while barely moving his lips- his gaze was fixed on the chieftain and the dragon before them. Alastor looked at him from the corner of his eye, and saw the warrior’s foot ever-so-slowly creeping towards his sword which lay on the ground just a pace away.

“On my mark,” came the red-skinned man’s whisper again, “run.”

All Alastor was able to manage was, “Mmmm!?”

“I am going to attack,” he responded. “Run. I will follow.”

Mel, wordless, gave a faint nod, her eyes trembling as they gazed at the dragon, who was still feasting on the meal before it.

“One,” said Cadmus.

“No, no,” protested Alastor.




The Trystborn rolled towards the chieftain, grunting in pain as the ground slammed against his still-wounded leg. He grabbed his sword from the pile of weapons, and in one swift motion, swung it in a wide arc, slicing the heavy blade straight through the chieftain’s body. His legs and abdomen fell forwards with the motion of the sword, and his torso simply fell straight down with a sickening thus.

The moment Cadmus began his roll, Alastor felt a sudden jerk to the side as Mel, not wasting a moment, grabbed him and bull rushed her way through the throngs of goblins standing in the cavern. The chieftain’s body had hit the ground before any of them reacted- Alastor ran along, praying to whatever gods would listen to please keep his feet from stumbling as they ran towards the chamber’s entrance.

He stole a glance backwards, but all he could see was a sea of goblins converging on the point in front of the assembly. The red-skinned warrior was nowhere to be seen. The dragon, now alert, stood ready to pounce on its seat, noxious green smoke huffing and puffing from its nostrils as it looked around frantically for what would have been its main course.

As they reached the chamber’s entrance, Mel let out a loud curse- the doors had been closed, and the guards on either side of them just finished scrambling to crudely bar the entrance shut. One of them charged at her, but with the speed of lightning she dropped into a slide, kicking the guard’s feet out from under him. He flew at Alastor, whose feet finally stumbled, dropping him flat on his face just as the guard soared overhead.

“Come on!” Mel leapt back to her feet, and Alastor followed suit, his feet pounding along behind her as she ran along the outer wall of the cavern. Her head swiveled back and forth, looking for something- with a cry, she grabbed the mage, ducked into a tiny natural fissure in the wall, and pulled him in behind her.

It was a dead end. They may have been safe for the moment, but they were ultimately trapped.

Just as Alastor was about to bring this up, he heard a roar in the goblins’ stupid-sounding language, and he knew that they were about to be upon him. A phalanx of the tiny brutes were about to swarm into this hole in the wall, and then it would all be over. If he was lucky, he’d die long before the dragon ate him.

Something burst into the alcove, but it wasn’t goblins. It was Cadmus, bruised and bleeding, one broken hand still feebly gripping his sword. He pulled himself into the crevice, let out a grunt, and collapsed to the ground. Mel got down, turned him onto his back, looked him over, and looked up at Alastor.

“He’s still alive, just unconscious,” she said. “He might live- if we do.”

“Yes, speaking of which,” interjected the mage, afraid to look out into the cavern, hearing the roar of goblins charging towards them. “Good job finding us this hiding spot. I hope you’re proud of yourself.”

She looked up at him, disbelief and anger in her eyes. “How dare you.”

He made a disgusted look at her. “What?”

This is all your fault,” hissed Mel, her chest heaving as sling bullets and arrows began to bounce off the edges of the alcove, clumsily wrapping a torn scrap of cloth around her bleeding hand. “We are about to die, Alastor, and I want you to die knowing that it was all your fault. Right from the beginning.”

Alastor glared at her, his hands shaking as he pressed himself against the cold hard stone walls. “My fault,” he balked. “Just how, exactly, is this my fault? It was you and the damned Trystborn who asked me to join you on this suicide mission. Or am I forgetting something?”

Mel gritted her teeth, shooting daggers at him with her gaze. “You know exactly what I mean, charlatan. You made us believe you were a spellcaster, when you couldn’t cast a single spell to save a life.”

Alastor heard the black-clothed man’s voice, grinning down at him, his hands still wet with blood. The blade glinted in his palm, he challenged him again-

“What did you say?”

The mage stared at Mel, suddenly oblivious to what was happening. No, it wasn’t a man with a blade who said it, it was the woman here in the goblin cave. There was no man. No man at all.

Without missing a beat, she repeated, “You couldn’t cast a spell to save your life,” came her voice in a scratchy hiss, fury in her eyes. “You aren’t a spellcaster at all. You’re just some liar, some thief, who thought he could make some easy money by tagging along. Well, ‘Alastor the Great’, your lies have gotten you and me and Cadmus killed.”

Alastor felt his fists and teeth clench. He saw flashes of visions in his eyes, his vision began to blur, and he felt his body shake. He opened his mouth to protest, to tell her she was wrong, to sling an insult right back at her-

But his mouth produced no words. His breath came out, in short sounds, unintelligible to her. He blinked, his mouth moving of its own accord, words of an ancient forgotten language pouring out of them as fast as his lips could move.

No, no, not again, he thought. Not now. Not here.

He shook his head, trying to stop it. He raised his hands, but to his horror, they were glowing, bright red, orange, yellow, white.

Mel was frozen, her mouth agape and eyes opened wide in disbelief, as Alastor’s hands and arms became enveloped in searing blue flame. He tried to explain what was happening, he tried to stop it, but it was beyond his control. It grew stronger. He dared not move lest he trigger it prematurely. Alastor felt the magic building inside him, reaching the breaking point, sure he was about to explode.

It was coming. His mind raced to come up with a solution. He couldn’t stop it. He might not even be able to aim it. With a scream, he turned away from Mel, facing the opening. He forced himself to visualize the power, form it. Just like he had spent so many terrified nights in trial and error. Attempting control over the power inside him, he formed it like imaginary clay between his fingers, feeling it grow, until it became too big to manipulate.

He had to let it go. He had to.

Squinting hard, he channeled it out of the alcove, a ball of flame and pure arcane power rocketing from his outstretched palms, leaving a trail of white smoke in its wake. It arced across the cavern, curved downwards, ricocheted upwards, and streaked towards the dragon’s makeshift pedestal.

In the instant it happened, all of the goblins paused and watched, in terror, in awe, in worship. The fireball struck the stone ledge, and with a cacophonous roar it exploded.

A blinding light filled the crevice, and the last thing Alastor remembered was Mel pulling him to the floor, and covering his body and Cadmus’ with her own.

Then, he only felt the sensation of falling before everything went dark.

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. “Probably another meal. 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 his 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 belt, 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.