Friday, March 7, 2014

Keepers of the List, Chapter 5

Cadmus sorted through his gifted haversack as the wagon bounced along the bumpy road. He had already brought most of what their benefactors had given them anyway, but it never hurt to have extra. He looped the strap of the bag on the sheath of his greatsword, setting all of his things down in one corner of the wagon beside a pile of wooden crates.

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.

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