Saturday, January 3, 2015

Keepers of the List, Chapter 13

The sound of screams rang through the air. Smoke filled the little girl’s lungs, stung her eyes. She had been hiding under the fallen steeple for some time, hoping that the terror would pass. She watched, paralyzed, as a man collapsed onto the ground just a breath’s distance in front of her. Before he could get up, the girl watched something giant, something unstoppable, grab him and tear him away into the darkness. Unable to control herself, the girl began sobbing, her warm tears pouring down her dirty face.

But then, something changed. The girl heard the beating of a drum; the screams, as well as her own sobs, ceased with the first beat. She felt the drum reverberating through her chest, in her skull, and tingling down to the tips of her fingers. Before she could realize what she was doing, she was climbing out of her hiding place, taking a deep breath of the smoky cloud surrounding the square. Through the haze, she saw two figures standing atop a pile of wreckage, mere silhouettes in the darkness.

The drum was met by the sound of strings, each pluck perfect and clear. Around the square, nobody else had emerged but the girl. She stood, along, surrounded by carnage, listening to music that spoke to her very soul.

As the two instruments met in a sudden crescendo, they went silent. In their place, two voices- one male, one female- rang out as one, echoing through the darkness, folding over on itself again and again. The girl fell to her knees, the weight of the music pressing against her shoulders. She saw, faintly through the smoke, a massive looming shape larger than the village it had just destroyed. She saw it open its maw to emit a bone-shattering roar, but all she heard was the single combined voice singing in the night. A moment later, the shape began to retreat, and then it was gone. The two silhouettes faded away. The carnage disappeared. There was nothing left.

“Mel,” she heard.

“Mel,” the voice repeated. The bard awoke with a start, raising a hand to rub her eyes- only to realize her hands were still bandaged from the night before. Blinking, Mel saw Cadmus, his face bruised and weary, sitting next to her, nudging her awake. The sun had just risen, and the trystborn and the aged spellcaster were gathering their things.

Sitting up, Mel noticed the bodies were all gone. She vaguely remembered Cadmus and Alastor dragging them out into the woods before she fell asleep. Next to the blackened remains of the campfire laid that… strange man, the one who had stumbled upon their camp last night and turning everything upside-down. She needed some answers from him, but she didn’t know what to ask.

She flexed her hands, trying to gauge the damage as Cadmus attempted to wake the stranger. Her fingers felt sore, but she remembered how they had started bleeding when she had begun to play. She still didn’t know why she did it in the first place. She was about to die, and then this interloper had drunkenly commanded her to play. In any other case she would have told him where to shove his head, but at that moment… something had taken over. She didn’t know how, she didn’t know why. But she knew it was right.

Cadmus had finally succeeded in rousing the man, who sat up, pressed his palms against his forehead, and let out a groan of pain. When he was finished, he looked around the clearing, squinting.

“I’m sure it’ll come back to me soon,” he began, “but can someone tell me who you are and how I got here?”

Mel exchanged glances with Cadmus and Alastor, then back to the man. Cadmus sat next to him, raising an eyebrow.

“We were hoping you could tell us first,” said Cadmus.

The man pulled off his straw hat, freeing a long, unkempt tail of dark brown hair. He looked like he was going to be sick, but he contained himself.

“My name is… Emeren? It’s been a long time since anyone has called me that. Emeren.” He held out a hand to Cadmus, who shook it with only a little hesitation.

“Cadmus,” the trystborn replied. “That’s Alastor, and this is Mel.”

Mel was staring at him intently. She wasn’t sure what exactly she was looking for.

“Pleasure to meet you all,” he said, rubbing his eyes with one hand while fumbling in his robes for something with the other. After a moment, he retrieved a flask, which he deftly unscrewed with two fingers and raised to his lips for a quick sip. “How far are we from the tavern?”

“At least a day’s travel on horseback,” said Mel, confused. “How did you get here?”

Emeren rubbed his forehead some more, taking another sip from his flask. “I’m going to be honest,” he said. “I… am a bit of a drinker.” Even Alastor rolled his eyes. “Sometimes I lose little details like that. Last thing I remember was ordering a round for everyone at the bar… or maybe someone else ordered it, and I went back for seconds…”

“However you got here,” interrupted Cadmus, “you saved our lives last night. We’re all incredibly grateful.”

The man smiled. “I’m glad I could be of service. Where are you going? Maybe we could travel together.”

The three adventurers exchanged glances again. Mel was apprehensive of traveling with someone they had just met, but he had saved their lives the night before. And, the more she thought about it, the less different it seemed from the night the three of them had met.

“We only have three horses,” said Alastor, his brow furrowed. Mel was relieved to hear that the horses were still alive- she had almost forgotten about them in light of what happened.

“No worries,” said Emeren, pulling himself to his feet. “I can double-up with someone else.”
Mel rode next to Alastor, the two of them keeping an eye on Emeren, who rode with Cadmus. For all his inebriation, this stranger seemed to perk up immensely once they were on the road. He broke up the monotony of the ride by sharing adventuring stories- usually involving dragons and demons and trolls, including one about how he got eaten by a shark and climbed his way out. By the time they had stopped to rest later in the day, Alastor was obviously sick of listening to these tall tales. Cadmus seemed to be tolerating them well. Mel, on the other hand, spent years of her life listening to and re-telling stories on the road- but as intently as she was listening, she was waiting for something specific, and it never came.

Later in the day they stopped for a short break, and while the horses were feeding Mel sidled up to the stranger, pretending to be casually checking Cadmus’ saddle.

“Tell me,” she said as Emeren pulled out a long white pipe and began packing it with some leaves. “That story about the vampire that pulled you inside its coffin… your description of the area sounded familiar. Have you ever been to a village called Proll?”

“Proll,” he responded, lighting the leaves and taking a deep drag on the pipe. “Can’t say I’ve ever heard of it. Is it near here?”

Mel narrowed her eyes. “No. It’s far away, across the sea. You’ve never been there?”

He blew a puff of smoke in the shape of a ring, and rather than take the pipe out of his mouth, he simply moved it to one side. “Not that I know of. Is it a nice place? Any good taverns? If so, I’ve probably been there.”

The bard clenched a bandaged fist. She couldn’t tell if he was joking with her or if he was just clueless.

“No,” she said with gritted teeth. “I don’t say there are any nice taverns there… anymore.”

He shrugged, pulling out a clay tankard and putting it to his lips, gulping its contents down, smoke still puffing from the pipe. She had seen some unsavory drunks before, but this man… she shook her head.

“Why did you tell me to play music last night?”

He stopped drinking abruptly, spilling strong-smelling spirits down his front. He rolled the pipe to the other side of his mouth.

“Did I?”

It took all Mel had not to yell at him. “Yes. Yes you did. We were all about to die, and you threw me my lute and told me to play.” She held up her hands, wrapped in dirty bandages. “Why did you do that?”

He took the pipe out of his mouth and turned his head towards her.

“You’re a bard, aren’t you?”

She stared at him. “Yes, but why would you ask me to play music in the middle of a battle? I could have died.”

“But you still did it,” he replied, his eyes peering into hers, his tone strangely level. “So maybe you knew it would work.”

Her mouth hung slightly open, taken aback by his tone. “I… what would-“

“Anyway,” he said, paying more attention to his pipe, his tone light again, “sorry about that. I must have thought I was still in the tavern, back in… town… I sometimes get confused. Hopefully next time it won’t be a life-or-death situation. Ah, Cadmus! Let’s get back on the road, shall we? I’ve got some more great stories to tell!”
When the forest had gone too dark to continue, they stopped for the night at one of the poorly-maintained shelters along the King’s Road. Having run into Regias thugs in the wild, Cadmus had suggested they try one of the shelters after all- but with their luck, Mel half expected a bear to show up wanting to use the shelter as its new home. That would be fitting.

They made a fire in an ash-stained firepit dug into the ground, and rested their packs and weapons on the old sagging shelves that lined the three walls of the open structure. It was just as dark inside as it was outside, but at least this way any attackers would have to come from one direction. Mel didn’t think anybody felt truly safe, but after the previous night everyone was willing to take the chance.

As Emeren knelt stoking the fire, Cadmus helped Mel get the bandages off her hands. When she finally had full movement of her hands again, she flexed them gently, expecting pain- but to her surprise, there was none. In fact, she couldn’t even see any scabs or cuts where she had been bleeding. Her hands were… just fine. Her lute, on the other hand, was disgusting, as she hadn’t had an opportunity to clean the blood from it- she wouldn’t admit it even to herself, but the thought of playing it again terrified her. She had somehow used her music to guide her comrades- on some level, she felt she had controlled the battle itself through music alone. She had witnessed power like that, once before, and as much as she felt driven to find it again, the memories of the previous night made her feel like maybe she had spent most of her life chasing an untamable beast that stood poised to tear her in two.

She shook the thoughts out of her head, pouring some water from her canteen to wash the dark red stains from her hands. She grabbed some trail rations from her pack, and leaned against one of the supports for the shelter, staring into the dancing flames.

Alastor sat on top of his bedroll, flipping through his “spellbook”- Mel still didn’t believe for a moment that he was a Sangcaster, but she knew he wasn’t a normal wizard. All of the wizards she’d met over the years pored over their spellbooks every spare moment of the day, but Alastor only glanced in his when he looked truly bored. She hadn’t really tried to look over his shoulder and see its contents, but she had a feeling it held no more magic spells than the last sandwich she’d eaten.

Cadmus and Emeren were talking by the fire, and as she ate Mel listened in. Emeren was spouting off random collections of words, but after listening for a moment or two she began to make sense of it all.

“The… Bandit Slayers,” said the drunk, with a hopeful look on his face. Cadmus, amused, shook his head. “The Shelter Dwellers,” he continued, to another decline. “The Red, the Old, and the Beautiful.” Cadmus laughed out loud at that one, but shook his head.

“Come on,” said Emeren. “Your party needs a good name. All the best parties have one.”

Mel watched Cadmus shrug. “I don’t know,” he said. “We’ve only known each other a few days. Besides, I’ll be honest, but your suggestions sound like you’re just looking around and naming what you see.”

Emeren nodded. “That’s fair. But trust me, when you find the right name it’ll just feel perfect. Is there anything else you three have in common? Maybe a possession you all have or care about? You could be the… the ‘Company of the Shining Coin.’” He finished that proclamation with a flashy dance of his fingers through the air. “Maybe in town you could pay a spellcaster to enchant a few coins so they’re always shiny or something.”

Cadmus shook his head, glancing back to his pack, where Mel could see a rolled-up parchment was visible through the open flap. He did a quick double-take, then turned back towards Emeren, staring off into the distance.

“Well, we have this… list… we could be the… ‘Keepers of the-’”

“A list?” The look on his face was one of disappointment. “That doesn’t sound exciting at all. How about… ‘Billion Swords of Justice.’ Yeah, that sounds good! It couldn’t hurt to pick up a few more swords when you’ve got some extra coin, but what you have will do for now. How does that sound?”

Mel decided to interrupt what was clearly a very important conversation.

“Speaking of swords,” she began, “what happened to yours, Emeren? You’ve got an empty scabbard and nothing in it. Do you even carry a weapon?”

Slightly startled by the interruption, his right hand jerked towards his scabbard as if to grab his sword, though he must have realized what he was doing. The drunk glanced down, then back up towards the bard.

“It’s a bit of a long story,” he said, causing Mel to wonder why that never stopped him from sharing before. “Have you ever heard the expression, ‘if you love it, set it free’?”

Mel furrowed her brow, answering with a flat, “No.”

But Emeren nodded his head. “Well, that’s what happened.”

The bard, rather than argue, shook her head and decided to turn in for the night.
The next two days passed uneventfully. On more than one occasion, the group passed caravans with several armed guards each driving through the Endless Forest towards Archdale, with their occupants looking just as wary as Mel, Cadmus, Alastor, and Emeren. The group stayed on their guard during the day, and even more so when they rested- one night they stayed at another shelter, but the other night the shelter already had a group of unsavory-looking travelers, so they rode on for a good distance before making a fireless camp in the cold darkness. The wilderness always loomed around them, but the clicks and chitters and roars off in the distance never seemed to come close.

Finally, they began to reach the western edge of the Endless Forest. The treeline broke so suddenly, the adventurers had to cover their eyes from the brightness of the sunlight, and even the horses slowed their pace for a moment. Emerging from the forest lifted everyone’s spirits, and for the first time in days they could see the horizon, curvy and clear across endless plains of grass.

After some time they rode over a small stone bridge that spanned a narrow river, and Mel took one of the maps out of her scroll case. She slowed her horse to a trot as she traced a finger across the dry vellum, squinting at the tiny markings. She rolled up the map once more, but kept it in her grip as they rode, her eyes looking ahead.

Eventually she called for everyone to stop. Once they had, she took the map out again, looking around in every direction. Comparing her surroundings to the map, she shook her head.

“There should have been a fork in the road after that stream. I think we’ve gone too far.”

“A fork,” said Alastor, giving her a disapproving look. “I think we would have noticed that. Maybe we haven’t gone far enough.”

Cadmus spoke up. “If Mel thinks we’ve gone too far, we can head back a bit. The stream wasn’t that far away, was it?”

Mel gestured back towards the east. “Not that far. If this map is at all accurate, we’ll reach Bliton before dark.”

Alastor opened his mouth to protest, but Mel ignored him and turned her horse around. The mage followed after, and Cadmus and Emeren came close behind.

They reached the stream soon enough, but once again Mel felt like she had missed something. The map she was holding made it seem like the road split immediately after the stream- yet another map had no split at all, and an even older map didn’t even have the stream on it. She had already been afraid that this entire quest was going to turn out to be a wild goose chase in the end, and now she was thinking that this town either never existed, or hadn’t existed in decades.

Alastor, frustrated, hopped off his horse and walked towards the stream. While he was refilling a canteen, Cadmus and Emeren did the same, if only to stretch and relax for the moment. Mel’s face was growing red, and she felt embarrassed for following inaccurate directions. Part of her wondered if their contract would still be fulfilled if they went back and told Esprit that Bliton was nothing more than a paper town.

Just as she was trying to deal with her feelings of guilt, Alastor strutted up towards her, likely to give her a piece of his mind. Thankfully, before he got the chance, he tripped over something and fell flat on his face, kicking up a cloud of dust. Mel felt no shame in laughing at his expense, though she managed to get rid of her grin by the time he stood back up, his robes covered in dirt.

He pointed a finger and opened his mouth to sling some accusation at the bard, but he was interrupted by Cadmus, who put a hand on Alastor’s shoulder and gestured towards the ground. The mage, irritated, stepped out of the way, and the trystborn picked up an old wooden sign that had fallen in the tall grass. Mel hopped down from her horse to see it, and when it was brushed off, the faded writing indicated two destinations: Duval to the left, and Bliton to the right. Mel pushed her way through the grass, and after only a moment, found a spotty path following the stream that was easily hidden by the overgrowth.

“Alright, everyone, we’ve found our path. See what I told you? We’ll be there before dark.”

Alastor threw her a dirty look, but got back on his horse all the same.

Emeren, however, stayed back. “I think this is where we part ways,” he said.

Cadmus looked surprised. “What do you mean?”

The drunk shrugged. “It’s been great travelling with you, but I think my journey is down this way.” He gestured down the King’s Road toward the west. He pointed at Cadmus with a grin. “You still owe me a drink, so don’t forget about that.”

Cadmus nodded, and Mel gave him a wave of farewell. She couldn’t help but feeling like she had unfinished business with this stranger, but she didn’t know how or what.

The stranger began walking off down the road, and the three adventurers set off toward Bliton, the sun high above them.