Monday, December 1, 2014

Keepers of the List, Chapter 12

The sun had already risen as the manor came into view. Cadmus, his sword hand wrapped tightly in his cloak, breathed deeply in the frosty morning haze; the night had been a cold one up here in the mountains, but he’d been through worse. Behind him, Mel and Alastor followed- after the stunt the mage pulled with that list, Cadmus wasn’t sure how long the two of them would be fighting.

Although, he remarked to himself, it was likely it wouldn’t matter. The quest was over, as far as he knew- they had spent the dark hours of the morning scouring the valley for any signs of further goblin activity. Following Mel’s lead, the three adventurers found plenty of tracks, but none recent enough. Despite what they had been through, Cadmus was hesitant to assume the job was finished; but after almost being killed more than once, he was open to the possibility.

A loud voice greeted them warmly as they entered the shadow of the crumbling mansion. Cadmus waved with his uninjured hand, his face partially numb from the cold as he forced a smile. Leclerc came to meet them, welcoming them back and ushering them inside. As the companions removed their gear in what was once the kitchen, Leclerc brought them each a bowl of hot morning stew and debriefed them on their quest. Shuffling his large scabbard from his back, Cadmus flexed his shoulders, accepting the meal eagerly.

“As far as we can tell,” began Mel, removing Cadmus’ cloak from her burnt back, “the goblins are all gone. They had been holing up in an abandoned mine north of here, and they had been acting as servants- or slaves- to a young dragon. Thanks to Alastor, here, they shouldn’t be a credible threat any longer.”

Cadmus noticed an expression of respect mixed with disdain as she said the mage’s name. Rather than acknowledge or even modestly take credit for the claim, however, Alastor made no reaction to her praise. Instead, he just ate his stew and stared at the mountains through the nearby window.

Leclerc beamed. “Well, Esprit will be very happy to hear that. I have to say, I am relieved to have you three back- after that earthquake two days ago, we had begun to fear the worst.”

Cadmus and Mel both glanced at the mage, who once again made no reaction.

“…Right,” said the bard, turning back to Leclerc. “As I said, we believe the quest has been completed. If I recall, the agreement was one hundred gold each?”

Leclerc nodded, clearing his throat. “Yes, you are correct. Once Esprit is awake, you will all receive your payment. If you don’t mind me asking, did you find anything else of value during your quest?”

Cadmus swallowed a mouthful of stew and began reaching into his pack to show him the list of names, but before he had a chance, Mel shook her head, and shot him a quick look.

“Afraid not,” she said, a bit louder than was necessary. “The goblins just had makeshift equipment, and nothing worth salvaging.”

Cadmus met her glance, and returned his hand casually. The trystborn noticed that Alastor was giving him a look as well, but Cadmus was unable to discern its meaning.

Leclerc noticed something between them, and fixed his eyes on Cadmus.

“Ah,” he began. “I see your arm appears to be injured. No need to worry- I’ll be right back.”

Cadmus’ arm was still tucked into his cloak- he had gotten used to ignoring the pain and had momentarily forgotten about it. When Leclerc left the room, Cadmus leaned towards Mel. “I’m guessing,” he whispered, “we’re not telling them about the list?”

Mel shook her head in response. “Not yet. Just in case.”

Before Cadmus could ask what she meant, Leclerc returned, a neat bundle of cloths in his arms. He set them down on a clean section of ruined countertop, unfolding them carefully. After a moment he had a set of acolyte’s vestments in hand, which he donned, the golden symbols of Deluz brightly visible against the white linen. The three adventurers exchanged glances as Leclerc gestured for Cadmus to present his hand.

His left hand had gone numb, and the familiar ache returned the moment he pulled it from his cloak. The appendage had swollen to twice its usual size, and was a dark purple color, contrasted only slightly by the dried blood held in the creases of his skin. He extended his arm towards Leclerc, wincing as he straightened his fingers.

Leclerc placed a hand on either side of Cadmus’, and began chanting something quietly under his breath. In the otherwise silent room, the trystborn could make out something along the lines of “sun father, grant your servant your blessing” along with a string of honorifics here and there.

Cadmus grunted- not out of pain, but out of momentary surprise. His hand, previously numb, suddenly felt warm, and a burning sensation shot through each finger. And not just his hand- his entire body began to tingle, and he could feel the short night’s fatigue leaving him. When Leclerc had finished, Cadmus felt his muscles energized, and all of the smaller nicks and scrapes he had taken during his miraculous escape from the goblin congregation had healed.

“Now,” Leclerc said, rubbing his hands together and smiling, “I’ll go wake Esprit. She has some business to talk with you.”
The three adventurers had pulled up some makeshift stools in what was once the drawing room of the manor. While they waited, Cadmus paced around the room, flexing his hand. It had been a long time since he had felt magical healing- he had forgotten the sensation. While he was pacing, he couldn’t help but notice a sour look on Mel’s face- she didn’t seem like the kind of person to ask a priest of Deluz for healing, but apparently she could still be jealous of it.

After a short while, Esprit entered the drawing room, her hair neatly done and her simple brown dress clean. Cadmus noticed bags under her eyes, as if she hadn’t gotten much rest- but after seeing what had happened to the leaning tower in front of the building, he wasn’t surprised. But as she entered, she smiled as warmly as she could, and Leclerc followed closed behind with a wooden box under one arm.

Cadmus sat down on his stool, patiently waiting as Leclerc set down the box and unfastened its locks. When it was open, the small amount of sunlight that shone through the tattered curtains caused yellow lights to dance across the man’s face as he sorted the contents. Cadmus could almost taste the excitement as he watched Leclerc fill three bags with coins, the quiet room filling with the welcome clinking sound of gold tapping against gold. Once he was finished, one bag was handed to each adventurer- Cadmus put his into his inside pocket immediately, as did Mel- Alastor, however, opened his up and loudly began sifting through it with one hand.

“One hundred gold each, as was our agreement,” said Leclerc, raising an eyebrow at the aged spellcaster who seemed intent on counting his money. “And, if you three are interested, we have another quest for you as well.”

The sound of gold clinking together immediately ceased as Alastor’s attention was caught. Cadmus nodded, waiting for the details. Esprit stepped forward.

“While you were out on the grounds,” she began, “Leclerc discovered some documents in one of the towers. They’re all incredibly vague, but I believe I have found a letter that was addressed to my parents. It came from a man named Lauril Highthorn, and it was sent from a town called Bliton. According to our maps, Bliton is located about a week’s ride along the King’s Road to the west. If you are willing, we would like to send the three of you there simply to see if Lauril Highthorn still lives there- if not, your job is done, and all you will need to do to receive payment is to return here. If, however, he is still in Bliton, then I would like for you to try and persuade him to return with you, that I may speak with him. If necessary, I will make it well worth his time.”

Mel spoke before Cadmus had a chance to ask it himself. “How much does this pay?”

Esprit turned to Leclerc, who furrowed his brow. She then turned back to Mel. “I’ll offer you each… two hundred gold, plus any travel expenses incurred once you have returned.”

Without missing a beat, the bard said, “Three hundred.”

Leclerc began to interject, but Esprit gently raised a hand in his direction. “I am afraid I must be firm,” she said, shaking her head. “I trust you will agree that two hundred gold is a considerable amount of money for a quest that does not involve combat.”

Mel pursed her lips, and Cadmus could see one hand caress her pocket where her newly-stashed gold was hidden. After a moment, she shrugged. “Very well. I’m in.”

Cadmus nodded, smiling. “Me too.”

Everyone looked at the mage, who was still sifting through his bag of gold, though less loudly now. He looked up, surprised. “Oh. Uh… Bliton, you say? I guess I’m in as well.”

Cadmus could hear an almost-imperceptible groan from Mel’s direction. The trystborn, feeling his heavy purse against his side, and flexing his feet against the hard floor, glanced up to their benefactors with an eyebrow raised.

“One question,” he began, getting their attention. “You mentioned travel expenses. What did you recommend?”

Leclerc stepped up next to Esprit. “As you may have noticed, our wagon- stored inside the stable- was crushed when the tower fell. That leaves us with two horses, and five people. When we were in Archdale, I made arrangements with a foreman in town to bring workers here upon the securing of the grounds. The best course of action, right now, is for you three to ride the horses back to town, pass on to the foreman a letter of my instructions, and while there you can pick up a third horse or a wagon or whatever you require. Once you return from Bliton, you will be reimbursed for costs of horses, meals, lodging, and any supplies vital to the quest.”

Cadmus nodded, along with Mel and Alastor. “That sounds perfect to me.”

Esprit wrote up a contract for the new quest, and without any further delay the adventurers gathered their things and prepared for travel. Anticipating their refusal to travel on the same horse, Cadmus allowed Mel to take her own while inviting Alastor to ride with him. When everyone was ready, Leclerc and Esprit bid them farewell, and as they rode out of the valley, Cadmus had a feeling it would be a long time before they saw the manor once again.
Riding without the burden of a wagon, the two horses were able to reach Archdale by nightfall. Mel and Alastor opted to find separate lodging for the night, so they rented a space for the horses at the stables near the east gate, and made plans to meet up there again the next morning.

Cadmus walked the dark streets of the city, first through the wealthy upper ward- where the King’s Road brought many traders from across the country- then down the zig-zagging path carved from the steep rock shelf that divided the wards, and finally through the dirty and shadowy alleys of the lower ward. He passed a burned-out shop where rats scrounged through the ashes for scraps, and off in the distance he saw a prostitute and a street hustler scatter at the sound of one of the rare street patrols. Cadmus idly wondered who was on guard duty tonight- not that it mattered.

He made his way into his tiny living space- what amounted to little more than a closet above a cheap warehouse near the river. In the weeks leading up to Quest Day, buildings like this were usually converted into makeshift taverns to accommodate the influx of adventurers- this one was spared the trouble this year, not that Cadmus would have used it. Enough unsavory folks frequented the lower ward even when Quest Day was far off- and he had always heard good things about the types of questgivers that registered with the Drunken Dragon.

Pulling his pack off and tossing it next to his guard’s uniform, the trystborn laid down on his bed. It had only been a few days, but his body felt like it had been through enough already. Within moments, he was asleep, oblivious to the familiar sounds of the city.

When he awoke in the morning, he gathered his things up once more, making sure to pack extra clothes and supplies for the journey. He had never been on a quest that took him more than a few days- and now he was going to be traveling for over a week, each direction. The city had special protocol for workers who wanted to partake in quests- because of the variety of quests that were likely to be offered, any worker interested in being active on Quest Day was required to notify their employer several weeks in advance, and starting on the evening of Quest Day, they were officially no longer employed. Once their quest was over, they were free to reapply with their previous employer as they wished- but it was not uncommon for jobs to be filled even before the night of Quest Day had ended. Luckily for Cadmus, however, he’d have over a year’s salary once they returned from Bliton, assuming everything went without issue. Being an adventurer was risky business- nearly dying at the hands of the goblins two days earlier was proof of that- but compared to ordinary work, it was often worth the risk.

After stashing most of his gold in the compartment under his bed, Cadmus grabbed all of his things- including the strange rolled-up list they had found- then stopped for a loaf of bread from the bakery down the street, and went to meet the others at the eastern stables. Mel was there, already striking up a deal with the owner for a third horse. She greeted Cadmus with a warm smile, and as the two of them waited for the mage, it was clear she was hoping that Alastor wouldn’t show. But finally he did, a brand-new set of crimson robes over his wiry frame, his heavy spellbook hanging at his side.

“I already dropped off Leclerc’s letter at the foreman’s office,” said Mel, slipping a boot into her steed’s stirrups and climbing atop its back. “Unless you two have anything else you need to do, we’re off to Bliton.”

Alastor said nothing, and Cadmus nodded. Mel spurred her horse on, and the three of them rode through the streets of Archdale, following the King’s Road.
They rode for most of the day, passing merchants and the occasional guard patrol. Cadmus remembered learning about the King’s Road when he was a child living in the Grey City- it was completed in year 22 of the New Reign, and it revolutionized trade throughout the country. They took a haphazard collection of roads and re-built them, and regular repairs and patrols for the last five hundred years had allowed trade to prosper all the way from the west coast of the continent to the east. It was such a significant danger, then, when attacks from the Regias Brotherhood began targeting traders on and around the King’s Road. Patrols helped keep things safe, of course, but there were always spots that received less attention. And the Regias seemed to know the best spots to target.

By sundown on the first night of travel, the adventurers reached the town of Woodsedge, located at the point where the King’s Road pierced the giant forest- dubbed the “Endless Forest” by travelers long before the Road made fast travel possible. They left their horses with the stables near the town’s tavern, the Fallen Oak, and made arrangements for rooms for the night. Cadmus couldn’t help but notice that Mel was taking full advantage of their employers’ offer, booking one of the inn’s best rooms for each of them.

When Cadmus returned downstairs the next morning following one of the best nights of sleep he’d ever had, he found an irritated Mel sitting at a table with a scatter of aged papers in front of her. Up at the bar, Alastor was holding a bottle of wine and arguing with the bartender, a small stack of gold coins balanced on the counter.

“This quest isn’t going to be as easy as we thought,” said the bard to the trystborn, not even looking up as he sat down. “Nobody here has even heard of Bliton before. It doesn’t even show up on most of these maps.”

Cadmus cocked his head, wondering why that might be. He pulled up a few of the maps she had acquired, and scanned it for familiar landmarks. All of the maps were slightly different- made by cartographers of varying skill levels, obviously- but all showed the King’s Road winding across the Southern Vale, passing through Gunnton in the Arcala mountains to the east, crossing the Terathon River at Archdale, then entering the Endless Forest at Woodsedge and continuing on west. After the forest there were a few towns here and there along the road, but none named Bliton.

“Is it possible,” began Cadmus, “that it was renamed? It could be any of these.”

Mel looked up, shaking her head. “That’s what I thought too. But then, I found one map- the oldest one- right here.” She passed it towards him, the dry vellum cracked and rough against the worn wooden table. She pointed to a spot on the map that clearly showed a tiny dot labeled Bliton, not far outside the other side of the Endless Forest. But when Cadmus compared it to a newer map, not only did he not see the town, but the King’s Road itself was a different shape, passing southwest instead of northwest.

“So what does this mean?”
Mel made a shrugging motion, pulling the maps into one pile. “I’m not sure. It could be that the town’s been gone for a long time. It could be that it never existed- sometimes mapmakers will place a false destination on a map in order to weed out illegal copies. Whatever the case, I have a feeling this isn’t going to be as simple as riding in, talking to someone, and riding out.”

Without so much as a greeting, Alastor loudly bumped into the table, slapping his newly-acquired bottle of spirits down onto the pile of maps. Mel glared at him, but the aged spellcaster took no heed. “Can you imagine,” he began, his words slurring this early in the day, “how much that barkeep wanted to charge me for this bottle? Highway robbery, it is. Stealing from the rich.” He shook his half-full coin purse at the bartender before stashing it once more in his cloak. “Now, what’s the plan?”

Mel pushed the bottle aside and began rolling up the maps. She placed them into a scroll case, which she pulled over her shoulder, standing up. “Our plan is to leave,” she said, speaking more to the air beside Alastor than to the mage himself. “Right now.” Cadmus grabbed his things, stood up, and followed her out the door, leaving their bewildered companion to catch up.

Retrieving their horses, they rode out the western gate, and before long they had entered the Endless Forest, past signs warning travelers of wolves and bears and other monstrous beasts that lurk in the wood. Once they passed the signs, it was as if someone had switched off the sun- the thick canopy above blocked out so much light, Cadmus considered lighting a lantern to illuminate the road. After even a short while riding through the trees, it was easy to feel like this forest might indeed be endless.

When night fell, even the light from their campfire felt like it didn’t reach as far as it should. They three adventurers had passed a shelter not long before- each placed about a day’s travel apart, the shelters were originally supposed to provide a safe place for travelers to rest without fear of the dangers of the wild. But over the years, they had fallen into disrepair, and had garnered more of a reputation for being easy targets by bandits and murderers than a safe haven- the ultimate irony, Cadmus thought, that a safe haven from the horrors of the wild ended up becoming a stage for the horrors of mankind. So, passing up on the nearest shelter, the group instead chose to make camp further down the way, a good distance into the trees- far enough for their campfire to be invisible from the road.

They made themselves a small meal on the fire, and over the sound of Alastor’s snoring Cadmus was discussing with Mel arrangements for keeping watch when the two of them heard the sound of snapping branches nearby. Cadmus got to his feet quickly, creeping towards his broadsword resting against a fallen log. Before he could pull it from the scabbard, however, he felt something sharp press gently against his back.

“That’ll do, devil,” said a scratchy male voice, muffled slightly. In his peripheral vision Cadmus could see several figures in dark clothing enter the clearing, weapons drawn and crossbows trained. Judging by her stillness, Cadmus assumed Mel was as caught as he was.

“You can stand, but keep your hands where I can see them,” continued the voice, pressing his weapon’s point a bit more forcefully. Cadmus stood straight up, raising his hands to shoulder-level. Now able to look around, he recognized the bandits’ by the dark bandanas they used to cover their faces. In the firelight, the dark purple fabric looked almost blood red.

“Regias,” spoke Cadmus through gritted teeth, his voice coming out in little more than a hiss.

A few of the masked bandits nodded, and one of them kicked Alastor in the side. Startled, the waking mage let out a cry, scrambling to one knee. In his hand he conjured a ball of fire, but a rapier pressed against his throat caused him to halt. “Right you are,” spoke the voice.

Mel, her hands also raised, forced a sneer. “The Regias Brotherhood? I’m glad you found us, then. The rest of our band will be joining us any minute and we’d been talking about how nice that bounty was going to be.”

Another bandit let out a chuckle. “Nice try, pretty girl. We’ve been following you since before sundown. Nobody is coming for you. I recommend you hand over your gold and your supplies, and we’ll take your horses and go.”

“And leave us to die,” spat Alastor, his eyes weary. His hands looked like they were itching to conjure something up. Cadmus could see Mel’s eyes locked on her pack, in which she was likely to have enough weapons to kill twice as many assailants. The trystborn himself considered making a mad grab for his sword, like he did in the goblin cave- but then, he had the advantage of surprise. There was no dragon here for the bandits to revere- going for his weapon would at least mean his own death, let alone his companions.

The Regias member holding a crossbow at Mel’s back leaned his face close to the bard’s hair, making an audible sniff through his mask. “Not all of you would have to die,” he began, his voice high-pitched and cold. “I’m sure we could find use for… this one.”

Cadmus’ felt his fists clench, and his heart was pounding. He was mentally preparing himself for his next move; he had to do it. He had to try and stop them. He began digging the ball of his foot into the dirt, making tiny adjustments in his posture to allow himself to dive for his sword. In his mind, he considered grabbing his sword and a throwing axe in the same movement, and he was running through a mental drill of his necessary motions- preparing his shoulder for the impact against the ground, measuring the angle he would have to swing his arm to both grab the axe and release it at the bandit closest to him, guessing at which of them would come at him first, and what parts of his body would end up having to take a crossbow bolt or two.

But just as he was readying his stance, another noise caused everyone’s attention to shift. Momentarily forgetting his plan, Cadmus’ head jerked towards the darkness beyond the trees. Two of the Regias turned and pointed their crossbows at what they couldn’t see.

“Whoever you are, show yourself,” shouted one of them. “Come quietly and you don’t need to be harmed.”

Mel caught Cadmus’ eye, and he gently shifted his gaze towards her. She was using her eyes to gesture towards her pack, resting against her lute near the fire. Cadmus tried to nod slowly, ready to take this opportunity to attack. But before he could, a man stumbled into the firelight with a loud clatter. He pulled himself clumsily to his feet, and Cadmus saw the man was wearing tattered red robes, a wide cone-shaped reed hat that mostly covered his face, and had several tankards and flasks hanging from his belt. At his side was an empty curved scabbard. When it looked like he had regained his footing, the man held out an empty tin cup, his balance wavering as he did so.

“Pardon me, friends,” he said, his words slurring and coming out much louder than one would expect. “Could I burden you for a coin, or perhaps a sip of grain?”

The Regias members met each other’s glance, but kept their weapons trained. When he received no response, the man used the brim of the cup to push the edge of his hat from his eyeline. Cadmus could see the man’s face, several days of stubble on his chin and a wild look in his eyes. The man peered around the clearing, blinked a few times, and lowered his hat once more.

“Er, nevermind,” he began. “It seems I’ve gotten lost again. Continue… whatever it was you were doing.”

He spun clumsily on one foot, turning to walk back away from the fire. But he came to a stop as a crossbow bolt shot through the wide brim of his hat, burying itself in the bark of a nearby tree.

“Not so fast,” spoke the crossbow’s owner. “Get back here and empty your pockets.”

The stranger waited, eventually letting out a nervous chuckle. “Please, gentlemen,” he said, still facing the darkness. “There seems to be a misunderstanding. There must be some way we can… sort this out!”

With the last statement, he spun once more in a wide arc, his free hand balled into a fist. The fist flew through the air, missing the nearest bandit’s face by a wide margin. His momentum carried him through, and with a clumsy spin he fell to the ground. The Regias members broke into laughter, some of them even doubling over and resting their weapons.

Cadmus knew this was his chance. He leaned to one side, bringing his elbow back and upwards into the chin of the bandit behind him. Without checking to see whether the bandit still stood, the trystborn rolled towards his sword, grabbing the grip with one hand and a throwing axe with the other. Before he had a chance to throw the axe or pull the sword from its scabbard, however, one of the Regias- Cadmus wasn’t sure which one- set a foot on his chest, a crossbow aimed directly at his face. He felt the axe fall from his hand, paralyzed.

As the trystborn felt his life pass before his eyes, he was brought back to reality as a tin cup smashed into the face of his assailant, knocking him backward. The crossbow, knocked away from its target by the impact, fired blindly, its bolt striking one of the Regias members standing on the periphery. Cadmus jumped to his feet, and watched Mel and Alastor both wrestling with the bandits around them. The trystborn had his sword, but he couldn’t use it in such close combat without endangering his companions. He glanced back towards the mysterious stranger, who had gotten to his own feet- unsteadily, of course- and was holding up his fists, weaving and bobbing effortlessly between the slashes and jabs aimed at him. This man was either very skilled, Cadmus thought, or very drunk.

Cadmus couldn’t watch for long, because a moment later one of the Regias charged at him with a pair of daggers. The trystborn raised the hilt of his broadsword, keeping the point low to the ground, deflecting the first couple flourishes with practiced dexterity. Once his attacker left an opening, Cadmus hopped backward, spinning around and carrying the sword’s weight behind him. By the time the blade came around, the bandit had raised his daggers in a cross pattern to parry, but the sword had too much momentum- not only did Cadmus knock the daggers from the assailant’s hands, but the tip of the blade sliced a deep gash in his chest. The man let out a cry and fell to the ground, clutching at his bleeding wound.

Not enough time, Cadmus thought. Forget that one, finish him off later.

Stepping over the wounded bandit, Cadmus saw two of the Regias wrestling with each other, their masks pulled over their eyes. Nearby, the stranger was catching his breath against a tree just a few paces from Alastor, who was being beat into the ground by a bandit wielding a club. Cadmus started towards him, but the stranger stepped out, holding one of the tankards from his belt in one hand. Cadmus expected him to swing the heavy vessel as a weapon, but instead, after barking a challenge at the bandit, he took a long, deep swig of whatever spirit was held within. The club-wielding bandit turned towards the stranger, readying his weapon to attack- the stranger, however, looked like he was about to speak, but with a mouthful of drink he accidentally spit the liquid all over the man in front of him. Alastor, pulling himself to his knees, once again summoned his signature flame, which caught the spirits, lighting the bandit aflame. With a scream, the masked thief collapsed onto the ground.

Cadmus couldn’t believe his eyes. Who or what was this man? How did he just single-handedly turn the tide of this battle?

Mel, it seemed, was not having such luck. Her nose and side were both bleeding, and although she was still on her feet, she looked exhausted from simply dodging attacks. Cadmus could see her pack, with weapons poking out of every pocket, but before he could get it to her, another bandit came from behind him, trying to wrest his sword from his hand. He thrust his head backward, feeling his attacker’s skull striking his own with each thrust, but the enemy’s grip held strong. He couldn’t help but notice, though, that the stranger was reaching for Mel’s pack- there might be hope after all!

But, to Cadmus’ horror, the stranger grabbed not her pack or her weapons, but her lute. In a clumsy move, he threw the instrument through the air, falling flat on his face in the process.

The lute missed the bandit accosting Mel, but she managed to catch it before it sailed into the dark. Cursing loudly, she grabbed the neck of the instrument, swinging it like a club at her attacker, who easily dodged each strike.

“A weapon would have been nice,” she managed to call out between swings. Her attacker, clearly pulling his punches, slapped her with the flat of his blade against her head, knocking her down to one knee.

The stranger, his face hidden behind his splintered hat, took another swig from his tankard, apparently oblivious to the battle raging around him. “Barkeep, one more round. Bard, play me something exciting, will you?”

Cadmus struggled against his grappler, his head and his hands aching from repeated blows. He was exhausted, but he could tell Mel was ready to collapse. The stranger’s command seemed to incense her, however, but whether she was fighting to survive or fighting so she could punch the stranger in the face, Cadmus knew she needed all of the energy she could muster. But it wasn’t enough- she took another blow to the face, and she fell down to the ground. Cadmus knew it was over for her, but he couldn’t get away to help. She was going to die, and then he was going to die, and it would all be for nothing.

But then, Cadmus heard music play.

At first it was just a few notes; nothing coherent. Then, Cadmus could heard more- a melody, a jaunty tune that sounded familiar. His grappler was holding him against the ground, beating a meaty fist against him from behind. He was losing the strength to fight back. But when the music entered his ears, he felt powerful- like someone was guiding him, giving him a rhythm to follow. With the beat of the chorus, he pushed against the ground, throwing himself over on top of his attacker. As the melody began a new verse, he pulled free and got to his feet. He felt himself stepping in rhythm with the song, slashing with each line, his body being carried by the music wafting around him.

He spun around as the chorus began again, and saw the stranger standing over Mel, kicking her attacker to the ground. Alastor chanted arcane gibberish along with the tune, conjuring a bolt of lightning that rippled through the clearing, ending the song with a loud crack. At the same moment, Cadmus pierced his broadsword through the chest of the grappler before him, and the stranger smashed his tankard on the last bandit’s head.

Once the fight and the music had stopped, Cadmus rushed to Mel’s side. Her fingers were bleeding all over the strings of her lute, and her body was covered in wounds and bruises. But she sat, staring in disbelief at the stranger, who was lying on the ground near the fire, his chest rising and falling slowly. If Cadmus didn’t know any better, he’d think the man was asleep.

But Mel continued to stare at the man, even as Cadmus bandaged her hands and tended to her deeper wounds. Alastor crept around the clearing, making sure none of the bandits remained alive. Satisfied that the three of them were safe, the trystborn nudged the stranger with his foot.

“I don’t know who you are,” began Cadmus, his red tail swaying slightly. “But thank you. You saved our lives.”

The man pulled his hat away from his eyes, glancing up at the trystborn. “Did I? Well… let’s just say you owe me a drink and we’ll call it even.” And with that, he pulled the hat back over his eyes, and Cadmus could hear him snoring.

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