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.”

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