Friday, June 20, 2014

Keepers of the List, Chapter 8

The adventurers stood at the edge of the bubbling brook, refilling canteens and taking the moment to rest. Alastor sat on a stone, his eyes closed, his long white hair blowing in the wind. A good distance away, Mel crouched close to the ground, one hand shielding the sun from her eyes as she peered through the trees and across a valley. Taking off a glove, she glanced down at marks in the dirt, running her bare hand across the ground’s surface gently.

Cadmus, his broadsword unsheathed, slowly swinging the blade through the air, slow enough to maintain perfect control, yet fast enough to allow his ears to feel the quiet whine of the sharp edge cutting through the still air. Keeping more than a safe distance from the others, he casually practiced changes in his stance, slashing and stabbing and parrying imaginary foes. By the time he stopped, there was a small veneer of sweat forming around the base of his horns, half from the day’s exertion and half from the bright sun.

“They went this way,” said Mel after thoroughly studying the ground. “A group of them, maybe five or six, and they were dragging something. Some time today.”

Cadmus halted, completed a practiced flourish with the wide-bladed weapon, and raised it above his head, gently lowering it into the sheath on his back. Taking a long swig of cold water, he walked towards the bard, flexing his neck left and right. Alastor, however, stayed put, his eyes still closed, one hand on the thick book at his side.

“I believe you,” said the mage, nothing moving but his mouth. “Just like I believed you last time. And the time before that. And the time before that…”

Mel threw her glove down angrily. “Just what, exactly, are you implying, ‘Alastor the great’?”

The old man’s eyes opened ever-so-slightly, peered in her direction, then closed once more. “Nothing,” he said casually. “Merely making an observation.”

Cadmus noticed Mel’s face was beginning to flush. “Well, my apologies, ‘master of the arcane’” she began, her voice coming out in a stage whisper, “but by all means, if you would see it fit to grace us with some assistance from your ‘vast collection of arcane knowledge,’ then perhaps we could get this job finished a little bit faster .”

The trystborn stepped between them, holding a hand up towards each of his companions. “Now, now, you two, let’s just focus on the job here.”

Alastor muttered something under his breath, but all Cadmus could make out were the words, “not worth the effort.”

Mel gritted her teeth and balled up her fists, grabbing her glove angrily from the dirt. Without another word, she began walking through the trees, shoving saplings and stray branches out of her way. Cadmus began to follow, and, seeing that Alastor was making little effort to keep up the group, gestured to the old man to hurry, and continued on after the bard.

When he caught up to her, she glanced back, and whispered to the trystborn as he neared.

“I’m telling you, Cadmus,” she began, keeping her pace swift, “he’s done next to nothing to contribute. All he’s done all day is criticize my tracking skills. And you know what I think?”

Cadmus didn’t know what she thought, but at the moment was more worried about the mission than her complaints about her teammate. But she continued before he could answer either way.

“I don’t even think he can use magic. He hasn’t done anything yet that I couldn’t do with a bit of sleight of hand. Yet he keeps going on and on about how powerful and wondrous of a spellcaster he is.”

Cadmus stopped in his tracks for a moment, but then continued when he saw she wasn’t slowing down. He cocked his head, staring at her strangely as she walked.

“Wait, what? I don’t understand,” he said once he was close enough to whisper.

And, unexpectedly, she stopped abruptly, causing Cadmus to almost run into her.

“I’ve been paying attention every time he says he’s casting a spell. He’s just speaking gibberish. Twice he’s claimed to be casting a protection spell, yet he said completely different nonsense each time. The only thing I’ve actually seen him done is that little fireball in his hand, but I’d be willing to bet I could do the same thing with a flint, some oil, and a day of practice.”

Cadmus shook his head and opened his mouth, but before he could speak, he heard Alastor’s footsteps through the trees behind them.

“Are you two mad,” the mage hissed, “leaving me behind like that?”

Mel glowered at him. “What’s the matter,” she began, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “Afraid goblins might stumble upon you? I figured some puny goblins would bow down and worship an almighty spellcaster like yourself.”

“We shall see, shan’t we,” responded Alastor, advancing towards the bard, a flourish creating another ball of flame in his hand.

Cadmus pushed his two teammates apart, gesturing for them to silence. He snapped his head to the side, listening intently. Nearby, he heard a high-pitched murmuring noise- something he recognized: goblin speech.

“I know I heard it that time,” said a voice in its native language. “Probably another meal. You two, head into those bushes and scare it out.”

Cadmus locked eyes with Mel, who, judging by her appearance, had understood everything. The two immediately ducked down, pulling Alastor with them as he stared, oblivious. The trystborn began slowly pulling his sword back out of its sheath, taking care to make as little noise as possible. As he saw Mel pull out a pair of throwing daggers, he heard the goblins speak once more- a different voice this time.

“Me? You go scare it out. I scared out the last one.”

The goblins began bickering amongst themselves, and in the arguing Cadmus couldn’t tell how many he was hearing; he considered poking his head through the brush to see, but it was too risky. Mel got his attention, and with one dagger, she started scratching a small battle plan into the dirt. From the looks of it, she wanted to separate and flank them, hoping to catch them unaware and subdue them before they could react.

Their planning was cut short, however, by a loud cracking sound. Alastor had grabbed hold of a loose tree branch and snapped it off of the tree, holding it like a club (the flame in his hand having vanished). The bard and the trystborn could only stare at him in horror as they heard the goblins’ bickering come to a halt. From the sounds of their voices, they were splitting up and separating to surround the source of the noise.

“You… IDIOT,” Cadmus heard Mel mutter through clenched teeth as the first goblin came into view, its olive-green skin glistening with sweat, a crudely-made axe in one hand. It opened its mouth full of broken teeth to announce the presence of enemies, but its call was silenced by a dagger suddenly landing square in its chest. As it fell to the ground, its expression frozen, Cadmus sprang from the other side of the brush, his sword swiftly cutting through the air, its wide blade cleanly separating a goblin’s torso from its legs. Its momentum carried through and caused the sword to bury itself in the side of another goblin, who then fell to its knees as blood poured across the weapon’s surface.

Just as the trystborn was beginning to think that this battle would be over as soon as it began, two more goblins came around the foliage, leaving behind the broken body of a slain elk that the group had been dragging. Before Cadmus could remove his sword from the dying goblin he had just sliced into, the two newcomers charged at him, leaping and grabbing onto him like he was a living ladder. The first, wielding a crude bludgeon, started striking the weapon repeatedly against his face, not hitting with much force, but with enough speed to fill his vision with stars. Without being able to see, he suddenly felt something sharp stab at his midsection, but thankfully it got caught in the links of his chainmail.

“Cadmus,” he heard in Mel’s voice. “Watch out!”

Unable to see, he couldn’t exactly heed her warning, but there was the sound of an object flying through the air at high speed, and he heard the goblin stabbing him groan and fall to the ground. He released the grip of his sword and grabbed the goblin hitting him in the face, throwing the humanoid to the ground as hard as he could while it struggled. Fumbling for his sword while his vision slowly returned, he felt a sudden shooting pain in his knee as the goblin loudly struck him in the leg with its bludgeon, causing him to drop to one knee, his tail thrusting itself instinctively against the ground for balance.

His vision finally back, he saw the goblin wind up for another powerful swing, but his gauntleted fist collided with the goblin’s tiny jaw before it had a chance to strike. It soared backwards through the air, landing on the ground with a thud. Pulling his sword from the goblin body before him, Cadmus started to walk forward to finish off the one he had punched, but found himself almost doubling over in pain coming from his knee. He glanced towards Mel and Alastor, and saw the mage standing over the body of a lone goblin, his tree branch wet with the small humanoid’s blood. Mel, her arm and side bleeding, was pulling her rapier from the neck of a goblin, and scattered through the trees were the bodies of two more.

As he counted up the dead goblins, however, he heard a rustle. The one he had punched suddenly sprang to its feet, dropped its club, and began running as fast as its feed would take it away from the scene of battle. Cadmus tried to give chase, but the pain in his leg made him stop after only a few steps. He grabbed one of his shiny new throwing axes from his belt, and took aim. His head still ached, and his vision was still a bit blurry, but he took a deep breath, and threw the axe with all of his might.

The axe sailed through the air, spinning over and over itself, as the goblin ran in a straight line through the woods. The blade got closer, and closer, and closer, and then…

…It buried itself into the trunk of a tree, just narrowly missing the goblin. The creature kept running, soon out of Cadmus’ vision. Mel came running up from the other side of the brush, Alastor in tow.

“What happened,” she asked, panting. “Did you get the last one?”

Cadmus gritted his teeth, shaking his head.

“Great job, team,” said Alastor sarcastically.

Mel’s eyes opened wide with fury, turning towards the mage, looking ready to tear his head off. “Do you realize what you’ve done?

The mage stared at her incredulously. “Me? What did I do?”

“Where shall I begin,” she said, obviously not trying to keep her voice low. “You haven’t done anything to help us all day. You insisted on stopping for breaks often, yet criticized me whenever I stopped to gather my bearings. You insulted my tracking skills. And most importantly, you practically announced our location to those goblins, and because of that, we were surrounded. If we could have surprised them like I wanted to, one of them wouldn’t have gotten away.”

Alastor shrugged. “So what? We’ll have one more to kill later. What does it matter if one got away?”

Cadmus shook his head, feeling like he would be laughing if his leg wasn’t in so much pain. “You really don’t know much about goblins, do you?”

The mage said nothing.

“Well, let me give you a short lesson,” he continued. “Goblins are masters at setting traps. Where there’s one, there’s a dozen. And the worst thing you can do is give a goblin time to prepare.”

Alastor continued to stare blankly, his white beard and mustache twitching slightly.

Mel continued Cadmus’ thought. “So by letting that one escape, we’ve guaranteed that whenever we find their lair, it’s going to be full of traps, and on high alert. Good job.”

Cadmus massaged his aching knee. “So,” he added, “who’s ready to march to our death?”

Keepers of the List, Chapter 7

Leclerc wiped a sheen of sweat from his forehead as he dumped a piled of rotted planks into the pile. He looked up at the sky; from the courtyard, he could see the sun, no longer at its highest, begin to disappear behind the leaning tower on the front side of the manor. That pile of planks was the last of the shelves in what was once the larder- it would be some time before the mansion was truly inhabitable, but they needed somewhere to keep their foot in the meantime.

It had been several hours since Cadmus, Mel, and Alastor had left. As Leclerc walked through the shadowy and musty halls of the abandoned home, he found himself glancing out of every window, looking for a sign of the adventurers’ return. He knew they wouldn’t be back for some time- in fact, if they returned too soon he had half a mind to refuse payment. They had been hired to exterminate the goblins in the surrounding hills. If they strolled back in before the sun had begun to set, then clearly they wouldn’t have been very thorough.

Not that he didn’t trust them… He did, didn’t he? One doesn’t travel to a remote location and put your life in the hands of someone you don’t trust. Of course he trusted Cadmus. Of all of the people that passed them by on that day in Archdale, not to mention during their troubles on the road for days before, Cadmus was the only one who offered to help. Leclerc had always heard bad things about trystborn- everyone had heard the stories- but like his mother and father taught him as a child, and as the church of Deluz held as its highest tenet, one must respect and care for all men, regardless of race, upbringing, or creed, as all are given the blessing of the Sun Father, whether they choose to use it or not.

And Mel, though shrewd, certainly hadn’t given him any reason to suspect anything worthy of distrust. Leclerc certainly wondered what kind of “business partners” she had back in Serasham- having spent half of his life there serving the church, he knew what kind of shady business was conducted in the back alleys- but he had to give her the benefit of a doubt. After all, the same logic could be applied to him, or to Esprit.

Then… there was Alastor. Leclerc certainly felt more suspicious of him, since he wasn’t given the chance to size him up before they departed on this quest. His behavior since then had been strange, to say the least. Earlier that morning, when it was time to wake everyone up after their first night in the manor, Leclerc approached the corner where the spellcaster had set up his bedroll. Not only did it seem needlessly far from the rest of the group, but Alastor had positioned bookshelves and debris around his bedroll so that Leclerc had to noisily climb over and move the obstacles before he could even see where the wizard slept. And by the time Leclerc got to him, Alastor was already awake, sitting up, looking more composed and alert than ever. Had he been awake all night? Was he trying to hide something from the rest of the group?

Leclerc sighed, making his way one more time through the halls. Whatever the case, Esprit had closed on the deal and now it was just time to wait until the adventurers returned. There honestly wasn’t much to do in the meantime- the group had searched the manor for signs of any goblins or wild animals living in the vacant building, and having found none, the next step would be to go back to town and hire laborers to fix up what could be fixed, and build anew what was ruined. After that, Esprit planned on hiring furnishers to come in and design custom furniture for each of the rooms- her hope was to eventually restore the manor and surrounding grounds to its former glory, as it was in the time of her parents or grandparents or whoever lived in it last. She had told Leclerc that he was welcome to live with her, as long as he wished, as thanks for taking care of her for so long and helping her sort out her affairs.

And so, for the time being, there wasn’t anything urgent to attend to. They couldn’t travel back to town yet, in case the adventurers returned. And since they had no idea in what state the home would be, they only brought food and supplies for a short while, so as not to encumber themselves or their wagon needlessly. Esprit had taken the opportunity to finally rest easily for once, laying out her bedroll on the remains of what used to be a four-poster canopied bed in the room she had chosen to be her master suite, laying upon it and trying to relax. Leclerc had no issue with her decision to do so, but he just couldn’t bring himself to do the same; he couldn’t do much on his own, but he had never been one to relax when there was work to be done. So he spent the morning, and now the afternoon, gathering up broken and rotting remains of furniture and artwork and throwing them into a pile on the overgrown grass of one of the two courtyards. Eventually, once the adventurers returned perhaps, they could set the pile ablaze, and then he could relax. But for the time being, he just went from room to room, grabbed what he could, and added it to the pile.

It truly was a shame. It seemed that literally everything of value had been removed or destroyed. He wondered just who did it all- was it a group of brigands passing through during the years the property was abandoned? Or was it whoever lived in the home last, taking what they could when they bid the building farewell?

Much of the building’s past was shrouded in mystery. Leclerc knew very little- as did Esprit, unless she purposely hid details from him- about Esprit’s parents, or their death, or their home. He had assumed that they lived here, at Stalvan Manor, as had she before their death, but when they finally found someone who knew the area well, Leclerc and Esprit were informed that the building looked to have endured decades of disrepair. And, here they were, in a building that looked like nobody had set foot in it for over a lifetime.

They had, of course, hoped to find something in the home- documents, paintings, anything- to suggest its ownership or anything about Esprit or her family. But, as Leclerc learned through his walks around the property, anything that could identify the owner, or even the architects or artists that built this building, were damaged beyond recognition. This, coupled with the fact that every detail of the building’s craftsmanship looked like so many different styles combined, made it difficult to piece together. Leclerc had searched every room he could find- from the cellar, filled almost to the brim with broken pieces of the floor above, to the tops of each tower- except for the leaning one, which looked ready to collapse at the slightest breeze, and so far had found nothing noteworthy. Esprit would finally have a home, but Leclerc could feel that she was still yearning for something.

As the sun reached further across the sky, Leclerc, satisfied with how much he had cleared out so far, carried the casks of grain and fresh water they had brought into the empty larder. He walked to the room he had designated as his own and grabbed a loaf of bread and some cheese from his pack, which sat next to his polished breastplate and hammer, and knocked on the door to Esprit’s room.

“Come in,” she called from inside, with little emotion in her voice.

He opened the wooden door, which was bowed slightly inward, and stepped into the room, his boots tapping on the strong floor. Esprit was laying on her bedroll, her head hanging off the far side of the broken bed, staring upside-down out the broken window.

“I was taking a break to have something to eat,” he began. “I thought you might wish to join me. If I’m not… disturbing you, that is.”

She pulled herself to a sitting position rather quickly, and for a moment her face was slightly red from being held upside down. She blinked, then gave her head a shake.

“Absolutely,” she said, snapping out of a daze. “Any word from the others?”

Leclerc walked over, pulling up a chair that was missing all but the metal frame of the seat. He sat down on it uncomfortably, feeling the metal strain under his weight.

“Not yet. I trust they won’t have much trouble- they certainly seemed to be experienced.” He tore off a piece of bread and put it in his mouth, holding it against one cheek as he broke off some cheese. Chewing them together, he handed the bread and cheese to Esprit, who began to do the same.

“I’ve looked around the building pretty thoroughly,” he spoke, after a few moments of silence. “I’m afraid I didn’t find anything… recognizable. No books, no documents.”

Esprit, her mouth full, took a deep breath, sighing through her nose. She nodded, not saying anything in return.

“It’s possible…” said the paladin, sensing a barely-noticeable sadness from her expression. “I mean… there could always be a… hidden room, or secret passage, that might hold something that was missed by whoever ransacked the building. Of course it’s nothing to count on, but who knows- some day you might stumble across something you never expected.”

She swallowed glumly, and began to tear off another piece of bread. “I suppose so. I don’t know what I expected, but… I thought coming here would make me happy. I felt like once we got here, I would never be lonely again.”

Leclerc reached over and caressed her shoulder, brushing her long red hair out of her sad face. “And I intend to help make that as true as I can. Once we get workmen to come in and get rid of all of the rubble, and this place starts feeling like a true home, you’ll be wishing you had some peace and quiet,” he said with a smile. “Trust me.”

She mustered a smile, and shoved some bread in her mouth. Leclerc could see her brush away the faintest of tears as she did so. “I guess you’re right,” she said with her mouth full. “I just hope that someday I can find someone who knew my parents. It would be nice to know if I have any other family or friends out there, you know?”

Leclerc nodded. He felt guilty- although he didn’t have a large family, he corresponded with his mother, father, and sister quite often, and he knew how much Esprit envied him for that. But he knew that the Sun Father Deluz had a plan for all of them, and some day it would all make sense.

“So,” he said, swallowing some more bread and cheese. “I put all of the broken boards in a big pile in the courtyard. I was thinking once the others returned, we could have a big bonfire to celebrate.”

Esprit smiled, and it looked like a real, happy smile. “I think I’d really like that,” she said.

Once they had finished eating, Leclerc stood up- glad to no longer be depending on that chair frame- and gathered the remaining food. As he began to walk towards the door, Esprit called his name.

“Leclerc,” she said. “I think I’m going to talk a walk around the building. Stretch my legs. Maybe check on the horses.”

He nodded back towards her. “That sounds like a good idea. Give them some sugar for me. I’m going to see if there are any rooms I missed- maybe start clearing out the basement, if I can.”

She smiled, and Leclerc returned to cleaning.
It was nearing sunset, and Leclerc wasn’t having much luck moving the rubble in the basement. There was so much debris, he couldn’t even quite tell how large the basement was going to be, or whether there was anything beyond the wreckage. He had worked up quite a sweat trying to move what he could, but so much of it was wedged against other pieces that it was hard to find purchase. Having decided to take a break, he made his way back towards Esprit’s room.

He passed a window, and once again he felt the urge to look out, looking for signs of the adventurers. He paused and stared outside for a moment; just as he began to turn to continue down the hall, there was a great rumble, and the ground under his feet lurched to one side. He felt the entire building shake for a moment, and the rumble, far off in the mountains, subsided. A moment passed, and he felt his heart racing, wondering what that was, when he heard another noise, much closer: a cracking noise, coming from the front of the building.

His eyes opened wide. He knew what was about to happen the instant before it did- he let out a yell, and barreled down the hall towards the manor’s entrance.

Before he could get very far, however, he was knocked to his feet by a thunderous crash outside. He scrambled up again, running as fast as his feet would take him, until he smashed his way through the set of double doors in front of Stalvan Manor.

As he took in what was lying before him, he felt himself scream for his friend.

“ESPRIT,” he shouted, “ESPRIT!

The crooked tower, leaning so precariously upon their arrival, had fallen and crashed onto the stable house.