Friday, March 7, 2014

Keepers of the List, Chapter 4

The sorcerer stood, as if in a trance, focusing on the symbol before him. His eyes slowly trailed along the edges of its square shape, with a thick black border surrounding the field of gold displaying two interlocking rings of silver. He heard nothing, lost in another world, knowing only the symbol. He floated along, carried by memory, feeling every emotion flow through him, his teeth clenching to hold back the flashes of fear, anger, sorrow, and confusion that were barraging his mind.

“Hello? Sir?”

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 fa├žades. 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.

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