Friday, March 7, 2014
A sweet sound played across his ears, and as he looked up, Mel had her lute in her hands, strumming softly. He saw her lips move gently with each chord, and one of her feet was bobbing back and forth in beat with the music. Hoping not to interrupt the music too much, he spoke with a smile.
“Does this song have words?”
She looked up, the music coming to a halt. The melody now absent, Cadmus regretted interrupting her.
“None I’m happy with,” she replied with a shrug.
“Well, by all means, keep playing,” he continued quickly. “I was quite enjoying it.”
With a nod and a smile, she began again, this time a bit louder, more confident. She continued to mouth words, and Cadmus wished he could hear the words she was thinking about even if it wasn’t finished. It felt like perfect traveling music to him- it made him think of riding a horse across the countryside, crossing green fields and resting beside crystal-clear waters. Occasionally he’d hear Mel begin to sing a wordless string of notes in harmony with the lute, but just as suddenly she’d stop.
“You’re quite good at that,” said the trystborn, once again hesitant to interrupt.
To his pleasure, she continued to strum with her hands as she replied.
“Thank you,” she said with a smile. “I’d love to say it comes naturally, but as with any trade there’s a great deal of work that goes into it as well.”
Cadmus nodded in agreement. “Have you been playing all your life?”
She still brushed her fingers against the strings, but the tone seemed to change- it was less relaxing and more serious.
“Most of my life, I guess. Ever since I was a child. A man came to my village and played the lute one day, and it was just… it made me want to be able to do the same. I don’t only play the lute- I’ve tried lots of different instruments- but I always come back to it.”
Cadmus perked up a bit. “Oh? Where are you from?”
He noticed another change in the tone- it was almost sad now.
“I’m sure you’ve never heard of it,” she said. “I doubt it even exists now. How about you? Are you from Archdale?”
He shook his head, and the music was returning to its original relaxing cadence. “No, although I’ve lived there for a while. I was born in the Grey City, up North. My mother still lives there, as do my cousins.”
Mel’s eyebrows raised, and she grinned, still playing. “Oh! We’ve got a big city boy here. What was it like moving out here to the wilderness? I’ll bet more people live in the Grey City than the entire Southern Vale combined.”
Cadmus chuckled, shrugging. “I don’t know. I kind of ran away from home when I was just a kid, and I’ve lived out here ever since. Every time I go home to visit I feel like I don’t even recognize the city any more. I haven’t even been since my father died a few years ago.”
Mel continued playing, and neither of them spoke for a while. Cadmus glanced over at Alastor, who had been leaning back against the wagon covering with his eyes closed since they left town.
Reaching over, Cadmus tapped the spellcaster on the shoulder, rousing him. “Hey, friend,” he said. “Come, visit with us for a while. We’re going to be working together for a couple days. We might as well get to know you.”
Alastor blinked a few times, stretching his skinny arms and yawning before responding.
“My apologies,” he said, his voice sounding dry and weary. “Simply going over the vast collection of arcane knowledge in my head. I sometimes get lost in the process.”
Cadmus grinned. Sure, he thought. Act like you weren’t sleeping.
“So, tell us a bit about yourself,” began Cadmus, turning in his seat slightly so he would be facing both of his new companions. “How long have you been a spellcaster?”
Alastor thought about his answer for a moment. “In a way, it has been my calling since before I was born. In others, I will never truly grasp its intricacies.”
Cadmus cocked his head a bit. He wasn’t quite sure what that answer was supposed to mean, or if Alastor even answered the question at all. “Did you train formally? Or did you just learn it on your own?”
“I spent years training under the tutelage of the most learned archmages the world has to offer, young man,” he said, hefting the thick, heavy tome chained to his waist. “This book houses the secrets of thousands of years of arcane development, honed by the most powerful minds from ten different worlds, all at my fingertips.”
The trystborn’s eyebrows raised. He hadn’t dealt with many spellcasters before- he wasn’t sure if he believed any of what Alastor was saying.
“So, just out of curiosity,” said Cadmus, staring at the dusty, leather-bound book, “if I were to read that book, could I practice magic as well?”
The mage let out an audible laugh. “If you somehow survived the plethora of magical traps built into every page of this libram, the text on its pages would likely drive you insane merely by their complexity.”
“But without it you’re powerless,” chimed in Mel, her fingers still dancing along the strings in a jaunty tune. “Isn’t that right?”
Alastor’s mouth was slightly agape, and he eyed her suspiciously. “Well, I… I don’t… You can’t exactly say… powerless isn’t quite…”
She grinned. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to take it from you. Magic isn’t exactly my thing. But I’ve heard many a tale about a wizard whose book was taken or lost or blown up by a stray firepot, and without it, you’re… next to powerless. Until you can spend a great deal of time and money fashioning a new one.”
The old man narrowed his eyes. “Yes, that is true… to an extent. A wizard, such as myself, arranges his magical energy every day using the incantations in this book. Without the incantations, a typical spellcaster can only prepare a very small selection of personal spells. But an especially learned one, such as myself, has much more up his sleeve than you might think…”
As he spoke, he slowly pulled his sleeve back from his wrist, at which point his arm and hand burst into blue flame. Cadmus jumped slightly at the sudden flash and heat, but Mel seemed unimpressed. Alastor casually pulled his sleeve back to his wrist, and the flame disappeared in a small puff of smoke.
“Don’t worry,” said Cadmus as the mage brushed off his hand. “If you take away my sword, I’m next to powerless. I mean, I guess I could pick up just about any other weapon… and, you know, I’m pretty good bareknuckle, too… So I guess this isn’t a very good comparison.”
Mel finally finished strumming her lute, and set it down with the rest of her things. “What’s your specialty, Alastor?”
Alastor raised an eyebrow. “Pardon me?”
“Your specialty,” she repeated. “I’ve heard that most spellcasters choose one type of magic, and focus on that type over all others. Do you have one?”
“Ah,” said Alastor, a look of recognition on his face. “No, I do not. When specializing in one sphere of magic, you must give up access to another. I would rather have access to all magic equally. You never know what you may need in the future.”
Mel shrugged, satisfied with the answer. After a short while of silence, Cadmus saw her lean over slightly, peering through to the front of the wagon. She then whispered in his direction. “So, what do you two think of our employers?”
The trystborn turned to the mage, who said nothing. Looking back to the bard, Cadmus shrugged slightly. “I don’t know, they seem honest enough to me,” he whispered back. “To be honest, I kind of despised them at first- unfairly, of course. I thought they were going to be competition. It was their fault I was late to Quest Day, but I suppose it turned out right in the end.”
Mel nodded. “Between you and me, if I had known Leclerc was a Paladin of Deluz, I wouldn’t have taken this job. I guess it’s too late now, though.”
Cadmus cocked his head. “He is? How do you know? He hasn’t said…”
“His armor,” she began quietly. “Didn’t you see that symbol on his chest? He’s obviously a follower. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a Paladin- but I’d be willing to bet that he is.”
Cadmus scratched his head. “I don’t get it. What’s the problem with him being a follower of Deluz?”
Mel sighed. “I guess nothing,” she said, leaning back. “He can believe in some invisible floating bearded guy sitting on a cloud all he wants- it’s no skin off my neck. But the last thing I want is some goody-two-shoes blind follower of the god of goodness and light telling me how I’m going to doomed to spend eternity in the prisons of Carceri.”
Cadmus could tell she had had some ugly encounters with followers of Deluz in the past. “All I know,” he began, “is I try not to judge people before I get to know them. ‘Try’ being the operative word. I have the feeling, by the time we’re done, you’ll be glad you gave him a chance.”
Suddenly, the three teammates felt the wagon lurch, and then heard Leclerc call from up front.
“Watch out, everyone,” he said, his voice hushed. “Keep your weapons at the ready. Something’s wrong.”
Cadmus grabbed the hilt of his sword and freed it from the sack to which it was tied as everyone snapped to the alert. Mel slung her quiver over one shoulder and took hold of the bow. Alastor put his hands together, mumbling something under his breath.
The wagon came to a stop, and they could feel the axle relax slightly from the absence of Leclerc’s weight. Mel moved to the back opening of the cover, her eyes darting back and forth for signs of danger. Cadmus stood up, and opening the front of the cover, helped a frightened Esprit from the driver’s bench. Peering through the opening, the trystborn could see another wagon, charred and bloodstained, blocking the road ahead.
“It’s work of the Regias Brotherhood,” he said, gritting his teeth.
Esprit repeated, confused. “The Regias Brotherhood?”
“Stay in here,” he answered, holding firmly to the grip of his greatsword and climbing out of the wagon.
Coming around to the front of the vehicle, weapon at the ready, Cadmus joined Leclerc, who held a massive warhammer in both hands, inching towards the broken wagon.
“I know who’s responsible for this,” said the trystborn, glancing around in every direction. “I think it’s best if we just shove it off the road if we can, and go around it.”
“But what about survivors,” said the man, tapping his hammer against the wooden vehicle. “They may not be far, and they may be in danger.”
Cadmus put a hand on Leclerc’s armored shoulder. “Trust me. The Regias Brotherhood doesn’t take survivors.”
He could see a look of concern on Leclerc’s face. Whether the man knew who the Regias Brotherhood was or not, it was clear he knew that there was likely very little they could do. After a short thought, Leclerc nodded, and Cadmus watched him kneel briefly and mutter a prayer. Once he was finished, the two of them pushed the remains of the wagon as far to one side as they could, and returned to the rest of the group.
Leclerc spurred the horses onward, and before long, the wreckage was far, far behind them.
A while later, once they were definitely a safe distance away, the wagon came to a stop a short distance off the road near a small lake. They had exited the woods some time ago, and far ahead, across the vast fields in front of them, was the Arcala Mountain range.
Cadmus helped Leclerc free the horses from their harnesses so that they could rest and drink from the lake, and everyone else got out to stretch and relieve themselves. As the horses drank their fill, Esprit came to the trystborn with a look of concern.
“Cadmus,” she began, “who are the Regias Brotherhood?”
He took a deep breath. “They’re a gang of thieves in the Southern Vale. There have been tales of them around Archdale for years- as long as I’ve lived there, I think. They’re said to be brutal, deadly, and efficient. Every now and then you hear about them when a shipment doesn’t reach its destination- more often than not, the wreckage is found, just like what we saw, shortly thereafter. There’s never any survivors. We’re lucky this time there weren’t any body parts strewn about.”
“That’s terrible,” said Esprit, a sickened look on her face.
Cadmus nodded. “You’re telling me. I’ve known plenty of townsfolk whose family members have joined caravans, only to wind up dead to the Regias. But it’s a risk that has to be taken- Archdale is one of the biggest centers of commerce in the country. You can’t exactly stop sending caravans through it.”
Leclerc spat on the ground. “And I’ll bet the town council has done little to fix anything.”
Cadmus shrugged. “Supposedly they’ve tried. But as you can see it hasn’t done much.”
Leclerc balled up his fists, then released them. “That’s no excuse,” Cadmus heard him mutter to himself. “They should do more.” Without another word, he began gathering up the horses to resume their travel.
The shopkeeper’s exasperated voice brought him back to the here and now, and Alastor snapped out of his trance in an instant. He took the briefest of moments to reorient himself, and shifted the small sack of dates in his left hand, using their weight as an anchor holding him in the present.
“Like I said,” continued the shopkeep, his tone frustrated, likely because of the growing line of customers gathering behind Alastor, “can I help you, or are you going to just stand there?”
The sorcerer cleared his throat, blinking a few times. “Sorry,” he began, “I don’t know what came over me.”
The shopkeep stood there, still waiting impatiently. Alastor set the sack of dates down on the counter, shaking his head once more to cast off his daydream. He directed his eyes behind the counter, taking in the symbol on the wall one last time.
“I’m going to need some supplies. Rope, wooden stakes, a bull’s-eye lantern, some oil…”
The portly shopkeep cut him off. “Whoa, whoa, slow down, sir. Rope and stakes can be found along the wall over there,” he pointed towards the far end of the shop, his fingers fat and hairy. “If you want to gather those while I help the other customers, we can tend to the rest of your order after that.”
Alastor, stopped mid-sentence, stared at the man blankly. Without a change in his expression, he spoke again, his tone level.
“Have you ever heard of a man named Alton Gallows?”
The shopkeeper was looking beyond the sorcerer, trying to gesture an apology to the rest of the waiting customers. Upon hearing Alastor’s question, however, he paused, a look of utmost confusion on his face.
“No,” he said, his expression one of thinly-veiled disgust. “No, I’ve never heard of him.”
Alastor cocked his head, squinting. He felt a repressed rage growing behind his eyes.
“You’re a member of the Merchant Alliance, and you don’t know of Alton Gallows?”
The man’s bewildered expression scrunched up, and his face began to darken with frustration. “Like I said, no. Now could you stop wasting my time and let some of my real customers by?”
Alastor felt a firm hand push him out of the way as one of the waiting patrons forced their way to the counter. The sorcerer gritted his teeth, narrowed his eyes, and without another word, turned and walked out of the store. He could hear his heart beginning to pound in his ears, and smell the faint odor of smoke somewhere in the distance; later on he didn’t even recall pushing the door open as he left.
Having cleared his head of what transpired at the general store, Alastor padded through the early morning streets of Archdale, his long white beard blowing in the crisp air. He had to check his hand-drawn map frequently, repeatedly finding himself on familiar-looking streets and passing what seemed like the same beggars and panhandlers multiple times. The flophouse in which he reluctantly chose to spend the night was located in what had to have been the dingiest part of the Lower Ward, and at times he wondered how close he had come to being robbed or worse.
He joined the growing masses of people making their way up the zig-zagging path that connected the lower part of town to the upper, and once he reached the top of the steep climb he noticed an important landmark from his map- an old worn statue of a well-dressed man, a book or tablet held in one hand with the other outstretched. The founder of the town, Alastor guessed, or at least an idealistic likeness of him. The sorcerer found an odd amusement that the figure’s hand stretched out towards the poor side of town, the side that had suffered the most irreparable damage after whatever calamity befell it.
The Upper Ward was like a completely different city. Guards patrolled the clean streets, business owners were outside displaying their wares and spreading new coats of paint on their façades. He had seen it briefly the previous night, but he was in such a hurry to go from tavern to tavern, and he hadn’t yet seen the comparative squalor of the Lower Ward, that he hadn’t had a chance to appreciate it.
Glancing once again at his map, he followed the main thoroughfare- populated mostly by merchants and travelers passing through town, and as such it wasn’t as clean as the rest of the ward- until he passed City Hall, a tall whitewashed building with a carefully-landscaped lawn. As he approached the tall structure, he hopped onto the back of a passing cart as it turned down one of the narrow cobblestone streets, riding it until it turned once again. Back on his feet, he looked back and forth between the map and the nearby landmarks until he reached his destination.
It was an inn, small and quaint, with an attached stable where a livery boy stood brushing and feeding two horses while a taller man in a plain tunic was fitting them with harnesses. Alastor walked up to the inn, his nose dancing as the smell of a hearth-cooked breakfast wafted from the chimney. Taking a last glance at the map to make sure he was where he needed to be, he rapped his knuckles across the wooden front door.
A young pretty red-haired woman- beautiful, even, thought Alastor, though perhaps a bit young for his tastes- answered the door, her outfit plain and travel-ready. She gave a meek smile as she opened the door, her red lips curling ever-so-slightly.
“You must be Alastor,” she said, her voice soft.
“At your service, young maiden,” he replied, doubling over in a slightly exaggerated bow, taking great relief in the fact that this wasn't simply a prank meant to cast him off the trail of an actual quest.
She responded with a relatively formal curtsy, and stepped out of the way to bid him passage.
“My name is Esprit,” she said as he entered, “and as you already know, this is Cadmus and Mel. Please, help yourself.”
Standing at a table with a royal buffet laid out were the bard and trystborn he had met the night before, who both gave a half-salute as they resumed shoving food down their throats and packing what they could into whatever pockets they could find.
Alastor, his stomach rumbling mightily, stepped casually towards the table, his eyes locked on a platter of roast ham, glistening in its juices. Beside it was a bowl of boiled eggs, a cluster of grapes each as big as his thumb, a wheel of cheese with several wedges already taken from it, and a basket of loaves of fresh bread threatening to carry him away with their aromas.
He attempted to make it seem like he was trying to carry on a conversation, while stacking meat and cheese and bread and whatever else he could find in one hand while making room in his satchel with the other. Esprit stepped through the door to another room, and he filled his mouth with his grapes before she had cross the threshold.
“Pleased to see you two again,” said the sorcerer, forcing the food into his stomach before he had a chance to chew it.
“And the same to you,” said Cadmus, smiling. The trystborn was wearing a suit of chainmail under a sturdy wool cloak, a set of small polished axes hanging from his belt, and a large two-handed sword rested against the wall along with a rucksack filled with gear. Mel nodded, taking no break from eating to speak. She wore a loose traveling outfit, but Alastor could tell that beneath it she had on a tight suit of leather armor. She had a bow and quiver slung across her back even as she stood eating, and her own pack, which was filled almost to the bursting point, had several bladed weapons strapped to it. Compared to the two of them, Alastor couldn’t help but feel under-prepared. For a moment, in his mind he recalled the incident at the general store, but he was brought back to the present by a bitter piece of burnt meat in his mouth. He gagged momentarily, then forced himself to swallow it.
After the three of them had filled their stomachs and their pockets, Esprit returned to the room, followed closely behind by a brick wall of a man- tall, broad-shouldered, apparently made of solid muscle, with a strong jawline and salt-and-pepper colored hair and goatee. He wore a suit of polished full plate mail, experienced enough with its use to walk through the narrow doorway without much trouble, and emblazoned on his breastplate was a painting of a bright, shining sun.
Alastor, upon seeing the symbol, couldn’t help but sigh and roll his eyes.
“Alastor,” spoke the fair Esprit, gesturing between the sorcerer and the armored Human wall. “This is Leclerc, my companion.”
Before Alastor could say or do anything, a meaty fist the size of his head was barreling through the air towards him, opening only for a moment to grasp his right hand (which thankfully was no longer holding any grapes) in a vice grip, shaking it enthusiastically. Alastor’s father had always taught him to match the strength of a handshake when presented- but it took all of his manual strength to simply keep his bones in place.
“Greetings, my good man,” said the sun-adorned bear in front of him, smiling from ear to ear, his grey eyes somehow piercing through to the wall directly behind Alastor. “It seems the whole group has arrived. Please, eat your fill, all of you- all you have left to do is sign the Quest contracts, and then we depart as soon as you’re ready.”
Esprit took out a roll of dry parchment and laid it out on a nearby desk. The bard and the trystborn wiped their hands off and took a quill, placing their signature at the bottom of the contract. Alastor approached, taking the quill in his hand, his eyes quickly perusing the document.
It detailed the basics of the quest- killing goblins at the Stalvan estate in the Arcala mountains, courtesy of questgivers Esprit Stalvan and Leclerc Jainwright- taking an estimated three days’ worth of adventuring, and paying 100 gold pieces to each adventurer, “plus supplies”. It stated that any monetary or trade goods found on the bodies of goblins or in the goblins’ lair was property of the adventurers, and that final say on the completion of the quest was at the discretion of the questgivers. Alastor certainly felt that Esprit and Leclerc had covered their own ends if the deal went sour. At the bottom of the document were three lines, and the names Cadmus Berylgon and Mel Theramin had already been scrawled. Below them, Alastor’s bony hand quickly drew a large X with the quill.
Cadmus and Mel began pulling on their packs, and, just for good measure, Alastor grabbed another handful of fruit and bread before following Esprit and Leclerc outside. The two horses that had been tended were ready, tethered to a covered wagon, and Leclerc took a short moment to scratch each horse behind the ears and give them a handful of sugar before climbing onto the driver’s bench. Esprit joined him, and Cadmus, Mel, and Alastor climbed into the back.
Alastor noticed three haversacks resting on top of the wagon’s built-in safebox. Feeling the wagon beginning to move as they sat down, he picked up a bag and began rifling through its contents. Inside he found a coil of high-quality rope, a full waterskin, several rolled pouches each containing a day’s worth of dried meats and nuts, flint and steel for starting a fire, three torches, and a flask of lamp oil. He was relieved to no longer feel so ill-prepared.
Glancing out the back of the wagon, Alastor watched as they left the town proper heading North. The road gained altitude slightly, meaning he could see the entire town stretched out before him- the Upper Ward, with its clean buildings and friendly streets, and off in the distance, the Lower Ward covered in a layer of grime and black smoke rising somewhere downtown. For a moment the sorcerer stretched out his hand over the view, imagining himself as the founder’s statue.
The moment of fantasy gone, he sat back and closed his eyes, feeling the road beneath the wagon as they left Archdale behind. Alastor absentmindedly took out his pouch of dates and popped one in his mouth, ready for the quest ahead.