Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Keepers of the List, Chapter 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Keepers of the List, Chapter 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you here for Quest Day too?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He simply grunted in response, taking a drink himself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And now, look over there.”

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

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

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

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

Cadmus nodded, recognizing these people from previous Quest Days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello, friend!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Monday, January 6, 2014

Keepers of the List, Chapter 1

The three adventurers breathed a sigh of relief as Cadmus pulled his sword from the necromancer’s chest. The dark priest’s body slumped to the floor, and for a moment all of the torches in the huge subterranean chamber dimmed, as if dancing in a sudden breeze. The three survivors jerked their heads towards the giant stone archway before them, where the shimmering portal- hanging magically in the air like a billowing curtain- gave a shudder. Something beyond roared, and with one final lurch of the mystical surface, the portal began to fade, leaving only a blank stone wall behind the archway.

Mel extended a hand to help Alastor to his feet, and they stood beside Cadmus, looking down at the body before him. Blood was beginning to pool under the necromancer’s body. As the three of them stood, catching their breath, they knew they had won.

Kalrast the Dark was dead.

Cadmus stepped away, and immediately knelt down and began cleaning the blood from his sword. He wiped the sweat from his forehead, his red skin glistening in the torchlight. He kept twitching, constantly glancing back at the lifeless body, expecting it to get back up and take its revenge. His gaze darted around the room at the scattered piles of bones, dismembered parts of dry-skinned animated corpses, and once-living henchmen that had all taken part in the vicious battle. Cadmus let out a deep sigh of relief, returning his sword to its sheath. They had all taken a beating, each with broken bones and more cuts and scrapes to count, but it was finished. The fight was over.

Alastor, keeping his injured right arm close to his side, kicked the dead priest’s body for good measure. He opened his left hand, producing a ball of flame, but thought better of it and closed his fist with a wisp of smoke.

“Kalrast the Dark,” he said aloud, a smirk on his aged face. “More like Kalrast the Dead.”

Mel wasted no time in gingerly crouching next to the necromancer’s body, her bruised hands finding their way into every pocket and purse in his robes. “I’ll check him for valuables,” she began. “You two check everyone and everything else. Make sure they’re all dead. I’m sure none of us want any of these things jumping up and stabbing us in the back.”

Alastor muttered something under his breath, but followed her suggestion anyway. He kept an eye on her from a distance, however, in case she tried to keep any valuables without sharing. If anyone was going to do that, he mused, it better be me.

Cadmus used the  end of his sword to sift through piles of bone and dead flesh, immediately stabbing and stomping on anything that looked like it was beginning to move. His tail flicked around nervously as he counted each kill, making sure every enemy was dead and accounted for. He joined Alastor in searching the bodies of Kalrast’s henchmen, and it appeared the grey-bearded sorcerer had already gathered a handful of coins, which he was sorting into three piles on the floor beside him, one larger than the others.

“Let’s see…“ began the robed spellcaster just loud enough for Cadmus to hear him. “I killed these three while you two were twiddling your thumbs, so these coins go to me… and I guess you had a hand in finishing this one off, so I suppose you deserve a copper or two…”

Cadmus raised an eyebrow and shook his head. “We’ll divide the spoils evenly when we reach town, Alastor.”

The sorcerer feigned surprise and shrugged, tossing all of the coins into his pack. Cadmus called out to Mel while sorting through everything.

“How’s it coming over there? Anything interesting?”

A brief pause, and her response came distracted, as if she was studying something. “A few,” she called out. “He had some rings, a scepter that is probably magical, and some scrolls. I don’t know what they are, but thank the gods he didn’t have a chance to use them all.”

Satisfied with her search of the necromancer’s body, she stood up and turned to join the others.

“I’m sure someone back in town can-“

Her words stopped abruptly. Cadmus turned to look at what had happened, and watched as she suddenly grabbed the last throwing dagger from her belt, her gaze fixed on the opposite end of the chamber. He jerked his head to follow her gaze, and he leapt to his feet, drawing his sword. Alastor immediately conjured another ball of flame in his left hand, bracing one foot against the floor to be ready to jump out of the way if necessary.

A man stood at one end of the huge chamber. It was difficult to tell if he had been there long- he was far enough from any of the room’s torches to be hidden in a shadow, and he stood as still as a statue. He could have been there the entire time, for all any of them knew, and they might not have even noticed him. The only entrance in or out of this room, that they knew of, was the noisy metal chain-pulley platform in the middle of the room. If he had come in the same way that they had, it would have been hard to miss.

“You there,” spoke Cadmus, his sword held firmly in both hands. “Show yourself. We may not be enemies. Our quarrel was with this necromancer, who now lies dead before us.”

The three adventurers stood in silence, each with a weapon at the ready. The only sound in the underground chamber was the sound of the man’s footsteps, each in perfect rhythm and tapping softly against the worked stone floor. As he came into the light, his garb looked like it would have been welcome in a museum- he wore an immaculate white coat decorated with all sorts of military insignia, though not from an army any of them recognized. His sleeves were colored that of the deepest blood red, and he kept his hands folded behind his back. At his side was an ornately-handled longsword whose pommel gleamed in the torchlight, and a shield could be seen strapped to his back. His face, as it came into view, was pale and clean-shaven, and perfect except for a jagged, ugly purple scar running down the left side, across his eye. His ebony-black hair was so neat it might have been carved from obsidian- everything about his appearance, in fact, was meticulous, unruffled. His face bore no expression whatsoever, but he stared ahead intently as he stepped rhythmically towards the three of them.

“Hey, Mr. Fancy Pants,” chimed Alastor, pulling himself to his feet, the flame in his hand flickering as his fingers danced impatiently beneath it. His right arm, possibly broken, remained tightly at his side, though he turned slightly to make it less obvious. “I recommend you turn around and go back where you came from. We’re kind of in the middle of something.”

“Alastor, shut up,” snapped Mel quickly, silently testing the weight of the dagger in her hand in case she needed to use it. Her eyes flicked back and forth between the stranger and the metal platform- if they needed to, would they be able to escape fast enough? If he turned hostile, would they be able to just leave this man down here?

The unidentified man continued to advance slowly, his eyes fixed on the group. Cadmus almost felt like the stranger’s gaze was piercing straight into his soul, as if he could put him into a trance with just a look. Then he realized the man wasn’t actually looking at them- he was looking at the empty stone archway.

“I have to warn you, sir” began Cadmus, trying hard to put the tiniest hint of a threat behind that last word, “that if your business is with this archway, we’re going to have to stop you. We came to put an end to it, and anyone who seeks to use it. I hope that doesn’t include you.”

The stranger, finally taking his gaze from the archway and directing it towards the three of them in turn, spoke at last, his clear voice carrying through the large chamber.

“Leave. Now. All of you.”

Mel took a sharp breath, her legs tensing up momentarily. Alastor, however, choked out a sarcastic laugh. “Maybe you didn’t hear my friend here,” he said defiantly. “And maybe you didn’t see what we did to the last guy who wanted to use this archway. But we’ve had a busy day, and unless you’re here to help us clean up, you can take your suggestions elsewhere.”

Cadmus and Mel began ever-so-slowly moving into a tighter formation around Alastor, Cadmus to his right and Mel to his left, attempting to look more threatening. Both of them knew that they couldn’t take another fight with a competent adversary, but after working so hard to stop Kalrast from opening the rift and unleashing unspeakable horrors on the world, there was no way they would simply hand it over to someone who showed up and demanded it.

The man spoke once more, barely moving a muscle except to speak.

“I will repeat myself once more. If you value anything, you will leave right now and say nothing else.”

His gaze caught each of their eyes, and Mel felt herself wanting nothing more than to give up whatever it was that they thought they had accomplished by resisting this stranger and simply flee with her life. Cadmus began to tremble visibly, and probably would have broken his composure if it weren’t for Alastor.

“Listen here, Scarface,” spoke up the sorcerer once more. “I don’t know who you are, or who put that stick up your-“

In an instant, the man was no longer there. Mel threw the dagger from her grip out of shock, and it sailed swiftly through the space where he had stood. A sudden clang of metal just steps away grabbed her attention- the red-sleeved man was between Alastor and Cadmus, his face a hair’s breadth from the aged spellcaster’s. Cadmus had swung his sword in a mighty downward arc at the stranger, but in the split-second of travel, the man had slipped his shield from his back and deflected the blow with its beautifully polished surface. Mel looked on in horror as she realized the stranger’s sword was no longer in its scabbard, and was instead buried in Alastor’s chest, piercing through the back of his robe, gleaming with fresh blood.

A stunned moment later, the sword slid gracefully from the sorcerer, and his body fell to the floor, gently. The man turned ever-so-slightly, pointing his still-dripping blade at Mel, his shield keeping Cadmus’ weapon at bay.

“You will leave. Now.”