Monday, September 8, 2014

Keepers of the List, Chapter 11



Mel awoke with a pounding headache. She couldn’t see anything; she didn’t know if she was in the dark or if she was blinded by the searing light she saw right before she passed out.

She was aware she was lying on a cold, hard surface. The pain in her back reminded her of the days in her childhood, living on the streets, getting whipped for stealing food. She reached back and felt burn holes straight through her armor; the exposed skin was smooth and raw from the heat. Parts of her dirty blonde hair were singed as well- she would need to cut most of it off after this was all over if she wanted to look remotely attractive.  But for the moment, at least, she was alive.

As she started to stir, she heard a voice nearby. It sounded familiar, but it took her a moment to place it. She was relieved to know that she was not deafened by the blast as well.

“Here, relax,” it said. “Drink this.”

She felt a waterskin being put to her lips, and she drank from it like a dying man in the desert. Almost immediately, however, she coughed, sputtering the liquid as it burned her throat and her nose.

“What the-“ she began, coughing. “That… that’s pure alcohol.”

“What did you expect? That’s what I keep in there.”

She recognized the voice: Alastor.

Mel rubbed her eyes, turning her head to and fro for anything she could see. After a moment, she heard Alastor mutter something under his breath, and a small ball of flame- the same one he always conjured- appeared in the darkness, illuminating his weary face like a skeletal mask. When the day began, she did not expect herself to ever be relieved to see him perform that stale trick, but here she was.

Satisfied that she still had her vision, she sat up, her back and muscles burning, and let her eyes adjust to the light. Just a few paces away, she could see Cadmus’ body lying on the stone floor, his chest rising and falling rhythmically. She looked down at her throwing hand- it was wrapped tightly with a blood-saturated field dressing. It felt like it had stopped bleeding, and she could move it, but she was afraid to uncover it just yet. At least it felt usable.

“I owe you an apology,” she said quietly, not making eye contact with the mage.

“Mmm?”

“I said I owe you an apology,” she repeated, her tone hinging on annoyed. Of course he heard it the first time, but if she truly meant it she was willing to say it twice. “I didn’t think you could actually use magic. I thought you had been lying to us this whole time. You know, all that stuff I said to you when I thought we were about to die.”

Alastor shrugged. “I wouldn’t call you completely wrong. I’m not… exactly as I presented myself at first. I’m not a wizard.”

She looked at him in disbelief. “But… you cast magic. Don’t tell me you’re a priest.”

He shook his head. “No. I’m a Sangcaster.”

She snorted derisively. “Yeah, and I’m the Queen of Eodon.”

He simply stared, saying nothing else.

“No,” Mel said, her tone serious again. “You can’t be. Those aren’t real.”

Alastor shrugged, once again saying nothing.

“Show me one documented case of a Sangcaster that wasn’t a fraud trying to hustle a king out of his kingdom.”

Still the so-called Sangcaster simply sat, unblinking. “Believe what you want,” he said simply.

“Fine,” Mel said, growing irritated. “I’ll admit you’re a spellcaster, like I just did. And a powerful one at that. But pardon me if I’m not willing to believe a claim like that at first glance.”

Nearby, Cadmus began to stir, his voice grunting as he gradually woke. Mel walked over to him, taking an arm and helping him to a sitting position. His red skin looked abnormally pale, his sword hand was swollen and purple, and he had dried blood crusted at the base of the horns on his head, but he was awake and aware of his surroundings.

“What… what happened?”

Mel gestured towards Alastor. “The mage here finally put his magic to good use.”

Cadmus squinted, tilting his head to make sure he was looking at the right person. He leaned over to Mel, whispering, “I thought you said he-“

“I was wrong,” she replied matter-of-factly.

“Well, whatever you did, Alastor,” said Cadmus, “it must have worked. Last thing I remember was a dragon… and I pushed my way through more goblins than I could count… and… I think I fell into a hole or something?”

“I used… a bit more of my power than I meant to,” Alastor said, clearing his throat. “As far as I can tell, I caused a bit of a cave-in. When I woke up, we were all here- I think the floor broke under our feet and we fell to wherever this is.”

Mel got up and walked around, stretching and feeling the burns on her back. She felt around for her gear, but either it was destroyed in the blast or it got lost somewhere in the fall. She asked Cadmus for a torch and a flint, and in a few moments had a light source of her own. Walking the length of the space in which they had awoken, Mel eventually found a large part of the cave wall that was loose. Calling the others near, she and Cadmus managed to drag it out of its place, exposing a fissure in the wall wide enough for them to climb through. Most importantly, however, her torch began to dance and waver when brought near the opening.

“There’s a way out through here,” she said. “Mind if I go first?”

Cadmus, still looking weak, gestured her through. She saw Alastor hand his waterskin to the Trystborn as she passed through the rock wall. The space was narrow, and she had to contort her body a few odd ways, but after a short while she had managed to slip through, and the cave quickly began to widen. She set her torch down and helped the mage climb through the crevice, but Cadmus had difficulty. They first had him take off his armor- made more difficult with only one usable hand- passing it and his gear through ahead of him, and only then was he thin enough to fit through the rocky passage.

Shortly after the cave began to widen, they could hear the sound of running water- a good sign. Mel was relieved to find a small waterfall trickling down from somewhere above, emptying into a shallow pool of fresh water at their feet. They took some time to drink and wash wounds, and continued on from there. Mel occasionally winced at the feeling of a cool breeze taunting the burns on her back- Cadmus generously offered her his traveling cloak from his pack, which she used to cover up the burn holes in her armor. She unwrapped her hand, a grimace crossing her lips. After rinsing off her makeshift bandage, she wrapped it up tightly once more.

The three adventurers walked and crawled and climbed through the pitch-black caves, relying on Alastor’s magic light and their steadily dwindling supply of torches for what felt like the better part of a day, and Mel began to fear that they were trapped. She was following an air source, but she had no way of knowing whether it was near, or far, or even accessible for them with their limited supplies. And eventually, they would run out of food or water. That wouldn’t happen today, or the next day, or even the day after that, but it was hanging at the back of her mind.

Perhaps it was this preoccupation that made her walk straight past a landmark that should have caught her eye.

“Mel, what are you doing?”

Cadmus, who had grown less pale but still walked with a pronounced limp, had stopped walking. Alastor stood beside him, staring at something on the wall.

“What do you mean,” she began, confused. “I’m walking through-“

She followed their gaze with their own, and realized she had just walked past a massive flat stone wall with a symbol of an ornate eye carved into it.

“My gods,” she said, staring up at the eye that seemed to stare back.

Cadmus walked up, his good hand reaching forward to touch it, only to hesitate and apparently change his mind. “What do you suppose this is? A door of some sort? Or just a piece of art someone hid in the middle of a cave out here in nowhere?”

Mel studied the wall, noticing details that would be invisible to the untrained eye: tiny seams, indicating that parts of the wall are not connected to others, and nigh-invisible runes inked along the seams, meaning that magic is involved- either as a trigger to open the door, or as a trap to keep it closed.

“Alastor, tell me,” she began, glad for an opportunity to showcase her little-known knowledge. “You may not be a member of a college of Wizardry, but do you know what this symbol represents?”

The mage exhaled loudly. “Of course. That’s the symbol of Caelaes, god of magic.”

Mel grinned, nodding. “Good, good. Half credit to you. The symbol of Caelaes is an eye, much like this one. But, unless I’m mistaken, the Church of the Archmage uses this symbol, but with a circle of runes around it denoting the different schools of magic.”

Alastor shrugged. “So?”

“So,” she continued, “this isn’t quite the symbol of Caelaes. Legend has it Caelaes was himself once mortal, like a few of the minor gods. He ascended to godhood when he became one with magic itself, or something like that.”

Cadmus, who had sat down from fatigue, pointed at the symbol, dumbfounded. “I don’t get it. Then what does this mean?”

She shook her head, sighing. “The point I’m trying to make is that I’ve heard it said that the eye symbol that the Church of the Archmage uses was already a symbol representing magic before his followers adopted it as their own.”

No response from the other two. Apparently she had to spell it out.

“I’m trying to say this door might be older than the church itself. As in, really, really old. And possibly really powerful.”

Alastor walked up close to it, studying it himself. Mel watched him- it was interesting, now that she saw him in a different light. He clearly had magical power, but he obviously didn’t get that magic power through years of rigorous studying of musty tomes. She didn’t believe for a moment he was a Sangcaster, one of the legendary beings of power beyond measure whose only weakness was that they had little to no control over it- but he was definitely interesting. Watching him study this door, it was like watching a person rediscover who they are after losing their memory. She was lost in this train of thought when he reached a hand forward, touching one of the seams on the door.

“Uh, Alastor, I wouldn’t do that-“ she managed to blurt out the moment he touched it. There was a spark, a small flash of blue light, and the mage jerked his hand back as if he had just touched a red-hot coal. “Yeah,” she continued, “I meant to say… this door is probably trapped…”

“It’s not trapped,” said Alastor, rubbing his fingers, his eyes still transfixed on the symbol. “It’s just locked. It needs magic in order to open.”

Mel made eye contact with Cadmus, and the two of them looked back to Alastor. If she had her tools, she was confident she could open almost any normal lock- but she wouldn’t even know where to start with a magical one. In any case, her gear- what hadn’t been tossed at the feet of the goblins- was destroyed by Alastor’s magic. She left her lute back at Esprit’s mansion, but even that wouldn’t be of much help.

Cadmus spoke up. “Then… can’t you cast a spell at it? Would that open the door?”

The mage shook his head. He placed his head against the door, and Mel had to resist the urge to pull him away. But the door offered no offense this time. His eyes were closed, his cheek and ear against the surface. It was like he was putting his ear to the ground, hoping to hear for a coming stampede.

“It needs… permanent magic,” he said, stepping away from the door. “Do either of you have any magic items?”

Mel and Cadmus made eye contact again, and though the Trystborn froze awkwardly, Mel nodded. “My armor. I don’t know how much magic it still has left- it got damaged pretty badly during that blast…” She felt the urge to glare at Alastor, but she reminded himself that she would likely be dead if he hadn’t done what he did. “…But it is- or at the very least, was- magical when I got it. It’s protected me from plenty a battle.”

Alastor came close to her, pushing her borrowed cloak aside and leaning his face a hair’s breadth from the singed leather plates wrapped around her body. It made her uncomfortable, but it was only for a moment.

He turned back to the door, speaking to her as he did so. “Do you know how magic items are given their enchantment?”

Mel thought about it, then shook her head. “I don’t think I do, no.”

“Then let me give you a small lesson,” he continued. “Magic is neither created nor destroyed. It just kind of… is.” He began pacing around the area in front of the door as he spoke. “When you make permanent magic, you’re taking a piece of the magic in the air around you and bringing it into physical form. Unlike casting a spell, it doesn’t ever rejoin the magic in the air. It stays physical, in some form or another, forever.”

He walked around Cadmus, then around Mel, talking the whole time. Mel, for one, was quite interested in what he had to say- it was the first time he had talked about magic in the days since they met.

“It is possible to remove the magic from one item and put it into another. It’s not easy- not everyone can do it- but it can be done, and it can save on the costly materials needed to make a magic item from scratch. But when you do this, you’re really taking the essence from one item and putting it into another. In some cases, this brings about new magic items with the abilities of the old, even if that wasn’t what the crafter intended.”

Mel nodded. “You know, you’re right. I remember hearing a tale a long time ago about a woman who owned a magic pair of shears that, for some reason, could magically rotate objects. You’re saying maybe, in that case, the shears were made using the magic of another magic item that could do that?”

Alastor nodded as well. “Right. But what I’m trying to say is that when a magic item gets destroyed, the magic in it doesn’t just disappear. It has to go somewhere- it has to become something.”

Mel followed along. Cadmus looked lost.

“And what it becomes…” Mel heard the soft whisper of a blade being drawn, but before she could react, she felt a scrap of her armor being cut off where the edges were frayed from being burnt.

“Hey!”

Alastor stopped her objection, stowing a dagger somewhere beneath his robes with one hand and holding up the scrap of leather in the other. He muttered something quietly, and the ball of flame erupted in his hand, turning the leather into a tiny burnt pile of ash. He blew gently on the ash, and as it cascaded away, Mel saw in his hand a miniscule amount of glittery, silver dust.

“What it becomes is Concordum, the physical essence of permanent magic.”

Mel stared at the tiny flecks of dust in his hand, mesmerized by its appearance. She almost couldn’t look away.

The mage, carefully closing his hand, walked back up to the door. Opening his fingers once more, he gently, yet quickly pressed his palm, along with the Concordum, against the door. The giant eye symbol began to glow momentarily, and when it subsided, the wall- everything inside the seams Mel had noticed earlier- was gone, leaving an open entryway to the chamber beyond.

She stared, eyes open wide in amazement, and took the opportunity to start a slow clap for the mage. She of course realized how it likely sounded insincere, but she did it anyway. “Well, well, color me surprised,” she began. “Since you solved the puzzle, Alastor, by all means, feel free to be the first to enter the chamber beyond.”

Alastor snapped his attention back to her, an eyebrow raised. “Not a chance. You were the one who said this might be trapped.”

The two of them turned their eyes to Cadmus, who opened his mouth to protest, but thought better of it. Drawing his broadsword with his uninjured offhand, he slowly stepped into the ancient sealed room.
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Luckily, the chamber did not seem to be trapped. Mel followed close behind the warrior, keeping her eyes open for any signs of traps, physical or otherwise. The room was quite large- larger than she had been expecting- and though she held a torch high above her head, after the three of them had crossed the threshold of the antechamber, the walls themselves began to glow a soft white, filling the room with a hazy glow that eliminated any shadows. Knowing that fuel was becoming scarce, she quickly smothered the torch with a rag. Behind her, Alastor kept his ball of flame in his hand, though he held it near his side instead of ahead. As they crept, along with the hazy light, Mel felt like sounds themselves were quieter, muffled, like she had cotton in her ears.

The walls of the room were featureless save for four rows of fluted columns lining the edges, but in the center was a white marble altar. Mel grabbed Cadmus and stopped him from approaching, as the moment he got close she noticed a faint black circle drawn onto the floor around it. She was unsure if the circle was there when they entered or if it just made itself visible, but she knelt down to examine it.

“Hey, magic expert,” she called back to Alastor, beckoning him forward. “Do you recognize what type of magic circle this is?”

Almost too soon, he replied with a simple, “No.” She turned her head back to look at him- he didn’t even look like he glanced at it. She thought to question him, asking what happened to his intimate knowledge of magical objects, but instead she just assumed that his display out in the caves was some kind of rare savant moment for him. With a sigh, she leaned in close to the circle, making sure not to cross or touch it.

“Mel- did you just see that-“

Cadmus was pointing at the altar, several paces away, his eyes looking unfocused in the hazy light. Mel followed his gaze, but saw nothing. Maybe something flat was sitting on the altar, but from their distance she couldn’t tell and she didn’t want to get any closer.

“See what? Cadmus, hand me your sword if you don’t mind…”

She held out a hand and looked back down at the edge of the circle, thinking maybe she could scratch at it with a blade and see if it was a painted line or an indelible one. But when she felt no weapon in her hand, she looked up just in time to see Cadmus step over the line, walking slowly towards the altar.

“Cadmus- wait, don’t do that-“

He paused, blinked, then looked around himself for a moment. His expression looked confused, and he stowed his broadsword and rubbed his eyes, glancing around, and then back to Mel.

“Cadmus,” she said, alarmed. “What in the world are you doing? That line could have killed you, or sent you to the Shadowsands or turned you into a chicken. That was not a wise move.”

He scratched his head. “Didn’t you see them? There were… three women, it looked like. Three old women- or maybe they were young- standing around this altar. They were… They were writing something…”

Mel heard nothing but the muffled sound of the Trystborn’s footsteps as he walked up to the altar. He reached for it, and she called out for him to stop but either not hearing her or not listening to her he picked up what looked like a piece of parchment laying on its smooth surface.

“It’s… a list, it looks like. A list of names or something.”

Alastor, who had silently placed himself directly beside the bard, stared in confusion. “A list of names? Bring it here.”

The two waited for Cadmus to exit the circle, neither one willing to cross over the line. When the warrior returned, he held out the parchment for them to see.

Alastor snatched it from the Trystborn’s uninjured hand first, his elderly eyes glancing up and down at it. “I don’t get it. It’s a list of names. That’s it. We entered a chamber sealed by magic for hundreds, if not thousands of years, complete with an altar in the middle of a magic circle with apparently illusory guardians watching over it, and all it’s holding is a list of names? Is this some kind of a joke?”

Mel took the list, looking it over herself.

“I don’t get it either. What’s more, I recognize some of these names. The Regias Brotherhood? They’re that group of bandits that’s been terrorizing the Southern Vale. Anastasia Renald is a princess or queen or something of the country to the East. This one’s a villain from a children’s fairy tale. There’s no way these names were on here hundreds of years ago.”

Cadmus shook his head. “Unless this is some kind of a prophecy.”

Mel and Alastor spoke at the same time.

“Prophecies aren’t real,” Mel said.

“Divination magic doesn’t do that,” Alastor interjected.

Mel glanced at the mage quizzically, once again surprised by his knowledge of magic that didn’t seem to manifest itself until recently. The three of them crowded around the list, looking at it once more for any missed details. Mel recognized a few more names that sounded familiar from her travels, but nothing she could place easily.

Before they could deduce anything, however, she realized that the light in the room was beginning to dim, and the slight muffling of sounds was no longer apparent. She re-lit her torch, and the three of them hurried out of the chamber, lest some unexpected magical ward trigger if they tarried too long. Cadmus carefully rolled up the list with one hand and placed it in his pack, and the three continued on through the caves.

As they walked away, Mel glanced back, only to find that she didn’t see the doorway anywhere in the cave wall. In fact, the natural, rough stone walls looked completely undisturbed, as if the eye symbol and doorway had never existed at all.

Miraculously, a short while later, the cave floor began a steady incline, and Mel noticed her torch flame dancing more vigorously than it had been previous. The incline grew slightly more steep the further they came, and although Cadmus still had trouble due to his injured leg and hand, they eventually came to the top, where a narrow crack in the ceiling opened into the cool night air. Pulling themselves through with no small difficulty, the three of them immediately set up camp, eager to rest now that they were free from the dark and claustrophobic underground.
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Once they had a steady fire roaring, Mel sat warming her feet by the flames as Cadmus unrolled the list and began looking over it once again. He held it up between himself and the fire, likely looking for hidden watermarks or other subtle details.

“Anything interesting,” Mel asked, “or just an ordinary list of ordinary names?”

Cadmus shook his head. “Nothing I can tell. I feel like I recognize a few of the names, but I don’t recall who they are. It just strikes me as odd. I would have expected some kind of magical treasure being kept in there, just like Alastor said.”

Alastor, who so far had been sitting up with his eyes closed- Mel had actually assumed the mage had fallen asleep- suddenly spoke up, startling her slightly. “A powerful- or at the very least valuable- magical artifact would have made this whole debacle worth it. Instead we risked our lives and limbs for basically nothing.”

Mel rolled her eyes. As much as he looked like an old man, Alastor certainly acted like a spoiled child at times. Though she would have preferred to find at least something valuable in the goblins’ hideout on top of the agreed payment for the quest, she felt lucky to have escaped with her life.

“Alastor,” she said, shifting her weight on the hard ground, “is there any way you can tell if the list is magical? I mean, I assumed it would be, even if it doesn’t seem to do anything.”

The mage shook his head. “I already tried when we found it. It’s just a normal piece of parchment with normal ink, valued at approximately zero gold coins. It’ll do us lots of good in our travels, I’m sure.”

Mel sighed, and Cadmus continued to study the list, squinting in the darkness.

“On second thought,” said the mage, holding his hand out, “can I see that list?”

Cadmus handed it over, and Alastor held it for a moment. Then, to Mel’s horror, he tossed the parchment into the fire angrily.

She jumped to her feet, screaming at the old man who sat with a look of triumph in his eyes. “What in Carceri is wrong with you!?”

But Cadmus hopped to his good leg and quickly reached into the fire, grabbed at the list and pulled it out, shaking it frantically to stop the flames, the fire licking harmlessly at his Trystborn skin.

“That damned list is nothing but garbage,” Alastor said, staring at the burning parchment. “I did all of us a favor.”

Except the parchment wasn’t burning. When Cadmus finished shaking the flames off, the three adventurers stared at it in shock, but the list was whole and undamaged. It looked no different than when they first found it on the altar.

Alastor’s indignant expression changed to one of frustration. Mel glared at him pushing him away from the document, lest he try something else stupid.

“I don’t know what you were thinking,” she started, stepping between him and Cadmus. “If the names on this list have any value whatsoever, you would have destroyed it. Besides, I thought you said it was nonmagical.”

Alastor tried to speak, but the first few words just sputtered. “It isn’t. Or at least, it doesn’t detect as magical. If it is, it must be magically protected, including making the magic impossible to detect.”

Cadmus raised an eyebrow. “Is that possible?”

The mage nodded. “It’s difficult, but yes.”

Mel didn’t know if he was telling the truth or just trying to divert their attention from what he just did.

The Trystborn turned the parchment over and over, looking at it intently again. “Who would go through the trouble of making something that was also magically resistant to damage, and then hide the fact that it’s magical, all for an ordinary list? Doesn’t that make you think it has to be valuable, if they went through all that trouble?”

“I agree,” said Mel, once again leering at the mage. “I recommend you hang onto it for now, Cadmus. Apparently some of us can’t be trusted with nice things.”

Alastor glared back. Without a word, he stepped out of the firelight and laid down on his bedroll. Mel couldn’t tell if he was asleep, but just in case she offered to keep watch while Cadmus slept.


She spent the rest of the night gazing at the stars, wondering just what she had gotten herself into.

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.

“Leclerc?”

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.”
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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.
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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.
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“Esprit!”

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.
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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.
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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.

“Two.”

“But-“

“THREE.”

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!