Read by Asclepius
Chapter 11. The Cathedral and the Cat.
Kitty was not outside the portal. When we re-emerged in the attic at Elnoth’s Storage and Cartage she was nowhere to be seen. Lucy’s disappointment was profound. She called and called but Kitty did not come out.
“Are you kidding me?” Lucy asked no one.
Sometime later, Lucy finally gave up looking and followed the rest of us as we made our way over to the docks. She looked dejected and disheartened; she had been crying too. I did not know what to do to make her feel better, but I wanted to try at least.
“We’ll find her again,” I tried to reassure Lucy but saying that just made her cry more.
Lucy and Zyrina started searching the neighbourhood for tracks, but these cobbled streets were giving no clues. I wasn’t usually this bad at comforting my friends and I was worried about Kitty myself. Where did she go? Questions rolled around my head as we gloomily walked over to the docks. Why couldn’t we find Phlebus, for that matter? He was ALWAYS at the library, but not now. He had not been seen for weeks.
During the search for Kitty, while we were so close, I swung by my family boarding house, where Torgin and Phlebus usually stayed in Central Brittany. It was a spit and a jump away from Elnoth’s Cartage and Storage. After a quick update on the state of the boarding house accounts, Gwen Trelawny let me know neither of my friends had been there for weeks, and she was a little concerned too.
“Sorry Gwen, I don’t know where they are either. Have you seen a snowy white lynx wandering around the street by any chance?” I asked.
She laughed long and hard, then answered, “Nope, but if I did, I would lay off the special reserve from your Uncle Owain. Have you hit your head?” Then she chortled again and waved before going back to her work.
Imagine, the Southern Red Syndicate was nested right in my own neighbourhood in Central Britanny, and I’d never heard a whiff about them before this adventure! What is worse, is the knowledge that the moon towers in Central Britanny were not actually protecting the citizens of Central Britanny from the infiltration of Obsidian magic. Something was wrong. Something very big was very wrong.
At the busy docks, we did find the town crier that Lucy knew would be there. After they exchanged a warm and familiar greeting, she asked him to keep an eye out for Torgin’s large snowy lynx and he agreed. Then, we were introduced all around. After flirting shamelessly and outrageously with each of us (one after the other) and in no way finding each rebuff to be personal, he cheerfully pointed the way to Kal’s Unfortunate Apothecary over in the west of the city. I am glad for the crier’s detailed directions because even with them we had a few false starts. Finally, after several hours of wandering up and down the knoll where the castle is built, we arrived at the correct location.
“There it is.” Zyrina pointed.
I paused to catch my breath after climbing up the steep path to the little magic shop. It’s tucked in near one of the moon towers and attached to a much larger building of the same grey somber square stone and spiky metal style; I had assumed it was part of the bigger building.
“It almost disappears if you don’t know exactly where to look for it,” Lucy said.
“Yup.” I nodded.
I had been on this street several times before but had not noticed the Unfortunate Apothecary, let alone heard any rumours about a secret meeting place in it.
Aslinne then started wondering out loud the thoughts I was wrestling with. “Does the queen of the city know about this? It is Arabella’s city, and it’s supposed to be safe from the influence of the Obsidians. Finding them this close, and underneath the city is disquieting.”
“When this adventure is over, I vow I will write her and let her know what we had discovered right in Central Britanny but right now let’s go see what we can find inside,” I said as lightly as I could manage, while still catching my breath.
This city was large, the largest in the land, and it therefore easy not to know everything about it. It was so big, that after a Novian century of visiting and doing business here, I had not yet seen even half of it. I was quite sure I wasn’t going to do any sightseeing on this trip either, but I did take a moment to enjoy the view from up on this knoll. It was spectacular. The mass of people and movement below was engaging to watch, and I had a hard time tearing my eyes away from the activities of the city dwellers until I reminded myself what the pressing search was about.
“Let’s go.” Zyrina gathered us and we all turned as one toward the building.
Looking through the window, we could see the inside of shop was dark and gloomy. There were vials (full and empty), and small glass tubes with stoppers, and scrolls with recipes for poisons displayed on the wooden counter. Dust covered every surface.
“Helloooo,” I called out as I opened the thick door, but no one answered.
Lucy pointed out the ’Be back in one-hour’ sign that hung on the outside wall near the entrance.
“Well, that makes it easier.” I was a bit bolder since there was no shop keeper nearby to stop me. “I wonder if they meant to leave the door unlocked?”
“Haaallloooo!” I called again into the dim interior before we all boldly made our way inside. There was no answer.
Lucy peeked into the cupboards and drawers.
“Where’s that entrance to the portal that the faun was talking about? Up the stairs maybe?” Zyrina ventured.
I could see this store had no other exits and nothing that called out as a magic entrance anywhere on the main floor. This time Aslinne led the way up the stairs. I was betting that few people had been invited up there. On the top floor we found several bookshelves with books about potion poisons from all over Novia. There was nothing out of the ordinary about most of the bookcases or the books on them, except their topic, poison. It was immediately obvious that the magic portal was in the far corner. It was another hefty tome on a lectern. We could all see the blue glow of magic emanating from its pulsing pages. Zyrina pointed out the ink spilled from a nearby study area and big lynx footprint near the portal entrance, as well as one large print that could definitely possibly be Torgin’s. It was not often that anyone had feet as large as he did, and beside it a lighter print from a smaller shoe. Maybe Phlebus? Were they all together? Were they even still down there if they were together? I sure was burning to find out. Not one of us spoke a word about it, but each of us was absolutely certain that it was Kitty’s print. Lucy visibly came to attention. Hope was lighting her face again.
“Here we go for a second time today,” Lucy gazed at the black pawprint in the drying ink as she carefully prepared her hammer and her potions. “Ready?” Her relief was palatable.
Zyrina of course was already equipped and ready to go by the time I fumbled my arrows into a more useful position and got my bow free from the tangle of my cloak. Aslinne had had her knives drawn and was waiting beside the entrance looking into it with horror. ‘I do not think she has a love of magic.’ That was the last thought I had as I was sucked into the magic portal with the others.
We were deposited in a grand ancient stone foyer with a remarkably high ceiling. There were shadows in all the corners, and it felt drafty and a bit damp, but in an old and solid sort of way. It looked like a gathering room of sorts. There was a high throne set on a platform, with benches lined up facing it, and a round raised podium in the middle. After getting my bearings, I noticed the three hallways leading out of the gathering room, one in each of the other cardinal directions. As well as taking note of the Obsidian obelisks that marked the North where we had entered, I saw only the empty room; there were no people here. There were no other signs to tell where the hallways led, either. It confused me. As I was trying to sort it out, Lucy spoke up.
“Where do we start?” Lucy sighed, looking as baffled as I felt.
“Here.” Zyrina took charge this time and the rest of us followed.
She went through one of the iron gates set in a low stone wall that surrounded the central podium, and we found ourselves going down a solid set of stone stairs. At the first landing, to our left was a staircase leading down and to what appeared to be a small library, and to the right was a blocked entrance we could not see beyond. There was another descending staircase straight ahead and of course that’s where Rina led us. Down. Down. Down to a stunningly beautiful room with brightly lit stained-glass windows. It was empty of anything but a statue of an aether dragon near the far end, and a few practise targets. There was nothing here that gave any clue where the mage had gone with his book and his box, or whether anyone had been here recently.
“There’s no one here,” Aslinne’s lyrical voice boomed in the quiet room and startled me a little. “Only dust.”
“Let’s check that library we passed,” Lucy said over her shoulder as she headed back up the stairs.
The library took longer to search, mostly because one or the other of us kept getting distracted by the rare books lining the shelves. Just as we were about to give up and investigate another room, we heard an explosion somewhere above us. It rocked the room a little. A few books tumbled off shelves, and there was a cloud of dust, and rock chips from the ceiling that rained down upon us. Luckily, none of the bits that fell were large enough to do any of us any real damage.
“Time to check those two other hallways. They are down here somewhere,” Aslinne decided. I headed up the final staircase, back to the foyer right behind Zyrina, who had sprinted over to the stairs with her arrow notched as soon as the explosion sounded.
Several floors above our explorers…
Once more the dust settled after yet another loud explosion. When the hazy blue light of magic had dimmed enough, Hu Nam could see that the dark crystal shard, a slice of the moon that landed on Novia nearly six hundred years previously, was still anchored firmly in the center of the glowing room. But another six of the young acolytes were completely striped of their worldly flesh, and lay now as burning skeletons in the very spots where they had been casting the spell, which had rebounded when it hit the orange shell of the dragon’s egg. It lay on its side where it had been for the entire day, unscathed by any of the attempts to speed its hatching. The other two still living acolytes looked shaken beyond their ability, and only slightly damaged. They were bleeding from their eyes and ears, but were in possession of their own skin and flesh, unlike their unlucky colleagues.
After sending them off to find some medical attention, Hu turned to see Nestor, who had picked himself up from the rubble, unscathed. Hu could see that brute strength in magic was useless here. But Nestor could not perceive a different way. The old magic from this ancient magic book was not responding in the normal way to the magic practices that these mages experienced and understood. The attempts today had taken lives. Many lives. They had been at it since early hours. Wagons full of the dead had been wheeled from the magic room over and over. Mistakes here were more dangerous, and for more reasons, than the mage had had to deal with while he was far from the shard itself. Here, right in front of it, he could feel its pull, and was sorely tempted to just take that lingering power and use it for his own ends. But he controlled his desire and restrained himself. Well did he know the cost of such foolishness.
Nestor was his superior and Hu Nam was generally a steadfast man. Born into the cabal, Hu had been doing the bidding of his masters the whole of his life. But now, Hu could only see the crooked smile and freckled face of Aslinne Gradh swimming in front of him. ‘Do what you can do to help those who have nothing.’ The sound of her soothing voice running through his head like a river of calm made Hu aware that his priorities were now changed by that woman far more than he had realized. He could see that these young acolytes had nothing, and had no worth to Nestor, who took their lives casually and even now called for more to replace the injured and dead.
“Fix your own mess,” he muttered to himself under his breath.
Those were the words Aslinne had shouted at him. The last time they had parted she had been shouting in anger but, that was not the expression Hu saw in his mind’s eye, among his cherished memories. Hu wanted to be a better person because of her influence. Aslinne would have understood his hesitation. She would have listened to his concerns; Hu was sure of it. Aslinne had more deference for magic’s power than anyone he had ever met, and he knew she would have refused to be any part of this ceremony.
He could clearly hear her repeating, ‘whatever energy a person puts out into the world, be it positive or negative, will be returned to that person three times.’ He was beginning to identify what she meant by those words, too. Hu was feeling much the same, but could see no way out of the room without losing his own life. But he could not – would not – leave that book in the hands of Nestor. It was not safe there. No one was safe under Nestor’s influence. Hu had been wrong. He could no longer trust the things he had been told about magic by the Southern Red Branch. He could no longer trust his master. The damage Nestor had inflicted with this one ceremony was horrendous. There were dead mages and acolytes everywhere. There was still hope, though. Hu could see how fixated Nestor was become on success, at any cost. Unnoticed, Hu took one slow sliding step forward.
“Well?” Nestor’s gruff voice rang out in the silence. He turned to stare with that piercing gaze straight at Hu. Moving to the middle of the room, Hu shakily put his hands on the large egg. Its shell was pebbled and smooth at the same time, and warm to his touch. He could feel it pulse with life but it was no closer to hatching than when they had begun that morning. The dragon egg was still undamaged from what he could tell, but it was also unchanged too. The loss of life was piling up. These six dead, added to those from three earlier attempts, tallied twenty dead just today alone. Hu did not think there were any more acolytes left.
Hu shook his head. “No change.”
Nestor’s complete disregard for the lives of those who served him was making Hu feel queasy. He slipped back to his spot to one side on the raised platform, but was now noticeably closer to Nestor than he had been at the beginning of the ceremony.
“Again!” Nestor was not going to stop or give up. Nestor noticed the change in Hu’s location but assumed it was due to the mage’s excitement at being included in the ceremony. Nodding to the guard at the door, eight more young mages were escorted into the room. They blanched when passing the two wounded acolytes being led to the infirmary, and the stench from the burnt ones who lay fallen in the room, but quickly recovered their composure and walked to their accustomed positions around the shard. They had supported Nestor in the past and now believed they had no choice but to do so again
Following on the heels of these new recruits were a couple of young fauns, both pushing a cumbersome wagon and dressed in the same red colour as the eight acolytes now making a circle around the shiny shard in the center of the room.
“Are you afraid?” Nestor leered at one of the fauns, who had whimpered softly in reply. The little faun blanched and shook her head in answer, trembling in her simple robe as she lifted the last of the bodies and dumped it in the cart. Then she and her companion pulled their full cart as quickly as they cautiously could. Nestor watched intently them leave, and when they were out of his sight he turned to the ceremony. “Begin!”
The mages newly entered to the room stood silent as the bodies of their acolyte classmates were carted from the room. Expressing nothing, they knew better than to show fear when in the room with Nestor. Nestor did not tolerate those who expressed any personal emotion in his presence. As one, the mages began.
Nestor fumed inwardly, silently. This magic book somehow eluded his understanding. And fundamentally this spell was a kind of nonsense to him. Hu had been useful in procuring the lost book, and so was rewarded by being offered the chance to attend Nestor at this ceremony, but the quiet young mage was not capable of being much help now. Hu stood stiffly off to one side, servilely near Nestor, but not close enough to imply that there would be any personal interaction between them. Even though Hu had almost literally outlived his usefulness to him, Nestor was amazed and amused that Hu Nam had survived through so many misfired magical explosions. Though the young mage was badly tattered, and was beginning to look very pale – Nestor could see that blood had pooled around his feet – he stood quietly by, in no way interfering. Obviously bleeding from somewhere, but that he was still standing, while remaining quiet and attentive, was a testament to the lifelong Obsidian conditioning the boy had endured. Nestor smiled. Soon faithful Hu would get what was coming to him. Nestor did not expect that Hu Nam would survive this next spellcasting.
“Repeat! Again!” Nestor shouted with enthusiasm, focusing his relentless gaze in turn upon the young red-robed student mages standing at the cardinal points around the shard and the egg. They hummed softly, at first in unison. Then, in their shared trance, their voices modulated and blended, creating a single musical chord that filled the room and resonated, suspended, shared in equal balance amongst them. It took many minds to share the burden of powering the spell; this was so that no lone person would have the full force of the dark moon shard flowing through them. Madness lay down that lonely path. The shard had taken control of the minds of the eight, and Nestor felt their strength flowing into him, returning him to full and vigorous health.
He took up the magic tome and opened it to the one remaining spell available in full text. Sadly, the book had been through far too many hands before reaching him. Searching for it had taken much of the time and money he had at his disposal. He had paid in the lives of his servants. There had been nothing left to give, and just when he fully believed he had failed – this tattered mage had shown up basically on his doorstep, offering the most sought-after ancient artifact in the whole of Novia. Well maybe not ‘offering’ exactly, but after being pursued across the entire continent, Hu had returned with the book. But the book was damaged beyond repair. Most of it had been torn, or shredded, with entire sentences missing. Several pages were gone entirely. Hu Nam had prostrated himself, and swore Obsidian oaths that the book had been in that condition when he claimed it. Nestor knew better. But he did not know how much of the book Hu had committed to memory. Nor how much had been sold, or lost through neglect. Hu Nam possibly had bits of it hoarded and hidden for safekeeping, and that slim possibility was why he had not killed him the young vagabond already.
Nestor narrowed his eyes and tried to stare through Hu. Hu did not even blink. He seemed in his own world most of the time, but was instantly attentive to Nestor. No matter. Nestor would convince Hu to reveal those missing pages and the missing bits of the shredded pages, too. If Hu had them; if Hu lived through the task at hand. Yay or nay, Nestor would learn either one. Nestor knew how to extract information, that was certain. Shaking his head to clear his mind of Hu Nam, Nestor started the insidious chant one more time.
If successful, this spell would speed time, aging the subject in its power. They had successfully hatched chicken eggs earlier. The first attempts had fully exposed the vitality of the tempo and dynamics of the spell words, and the room still smelled of fried eggs and cooked chicken. But now, with learned knowledge that the tone of his voice had as much to do with the success of this spell as the words themselves, he was certain her could succeed with the dragon’s egg.
Closing his eyes, Nestor hummed. “MMMMMmmmmmMMMMMmmmmm.” He heard the eight enslaved mages join his chant, and felt the thrumm of power from the dark shard that now pulsed with the flow of magic energy around it.
Hu Nam took yet another nonchalant and silent step toward Nestor while Nestor’s attention was fixed on the mages. Now Hu was nearly close enough. As Nestor closed his eyes and filled his lungs with air before beginning the new phrase of empowerment, Hu lunged and grasped the book with tightly both hands, tugging on it as hard as he could. Nestor’s eyes blazed open with fury, and his own iron grip on the book tightened. The spell broke immediately as the musical phrase died on Nestor’s lips. As the phrase died, so did two of the eight red-robed mages, the skin and flesh melting from their burning bones even as they fell. The other six were all stunned, blasted back from the shard, but still locked as spirit thralls to the will of Nestor.
Hu could feel dire events manifesting themselves all around, but he blocked his senses to everything but his tug-of-war with Nestor. Hu once again had the precious artifact in his grasp. His hands were talons. For his life, he would not let go. Neither would Nestor, who growled spittle and trembled with rage, so ferocious was he to keep hold on the power literally in his very hands.
Into this swirling, smoking bloody mayhem stepped Torgin Featherbright and Phlebus the Mage, at last out of Phlebus’s cloaking spell. They had spent the day hidden in invisible silence behind the platform, and all day had watched the attempts to change the form of the dragon’s egg, while trying to inch close enough to take the book from Nestor. The invisibility spell broken, they quickly joined the fray. Each of them flew into action as if they had planned this all along.
“Kitty!” Torgin shouted, seeing his beloved pet leap into the room.
Kitty, who had just finished sneaking through a room full of liches, dashed into the chamber and ran directly at Nestor and Hu, the two who were wresting for control of the artifact. She did not go for Hu, nor even Nestor. Instead, she swiped at the book itself, and more shredded pages ripped out, falling to the stone floor to be trampled by Nestor and Hu as they whirled each other around in circles like dancers in a snapping, crackling ball of arklight, cursing each other as they fought to ward off Kitty and continued their singular struggle.
“KITTY, to me!!” Torgin’s voice cut through the din, accompanied by the sound of his axe striking his shield.
The liches from the guard room were howling with frustration. Just realizing that Kitty had snuck past them, they were now kept from joining the fray on behalf of their master. An invisible force barrier blocked them from entering the chamber of magic rite. Phlebus stood in the corner of the room near an exit, his wand raised before him. His bright brown eyes flashed with emotional intensity; sweat ran in rivulets down his red face, and his lips moved ceaselessly. His dark hair unkempt, his brow furrowed, circular breathing allowed him to mouth spell after uninterrupted spell, creating and holding the magic barrier that kept the enraged liches from battering their way into the room.
Downstairs with our explorers…
After running up the stairs, then over to the long dark hall on the east side of the gathering hall, we turned a corner and came upon a small office of sorts. The boom of the explosion had long faded and we did not know whether to go on down the long hall, or inspect the room. We peeked in.
I could not tell if it had been ransacked or if it was just actually that messy. There was a small desk plate that read: Kal, Scribe. This must be Kal’s desk then? I was not certain, but with all the duplicate accounting books on Obsidian potions, records of The Southern Red Syndicate Branch, and the lists of gambling debts from various patrons at a gambling hall called The Gamblers Den in Noreach on his desk, it sure seemed to me as if Kal was involved in more nefarious things than running a simple poisons shop.
In the mess on the desk, Zyrina also found several letters to Kal from Nestor, and yet another one from Finn Beanna. Lucy found gambling records from several different people scattered on the floor. Few of the names was recognizable to me except one stood out: Froji.
Froji lived back home in Jade Valley, and had not been seen there much in the last several months. No wonder he seemed to always be working away from home. He wasn’t fishing like we all thought he was; he had gambling debts to the Gambler’s Den to pay off.
After I took a quick glance at the accounts book it was obvious that Finn Beanna had been deep in the pockets of Kal, too. Finn also owed large gambling debts to The Gambler’s Den.
Apparently, Beanna was paying his debts by passing along info about people who travelled through The Broken Dock Inn. It was sad, really; so often in our adventures, we found that people who were pawns of evil, did so out of concern for their own survival; or fear for the lives of those they personally know and care about with. Beyond their own little circle, they have no thought or care of others. Finn Beanna was one of those, as happy to use a person, as a toothpick.
I could feel for Finn and still not forgive him for betraying all the people that he reported upon to the Southern Red Branch; we were not the only ones he spied upon. I wondered if my new friend Fiona or her brother Oscar knew of Finn’s involvement with the Southern Red Branch. I sure hoped not; but I was going to make sure they would. I smiled as Lucy took the entire pile of I-O-U notes from as many different people as she could gather and then cast a quick spell to light them on fire. Poof. They vanished.
“Those people won’t be held hostage because of their debts if the debts don’t exist. Maybe they won’t want to continue to spy if they aren’t being forced to do so.” Lucy looked slightly guilty as she said this out loud, but I nodded encouragement, completely understanding. Even Zyrina gave a short snort of agreement and she usually did not like to see interference in other people’s lives if it could be avoided. Then another loud boom reverberated and this time we heard screaming. It sounded closer.
“Let’s keep going,” Aslinne sounded understandably anxious. She was worried for Hu, and a little scared for herself, too. “There is nothing here that helps us find them.”
She was right, but I wanted to come back and have a good look at all the correspondence here if I got a chance. There was much to still learn. And, to be truthful, I was frightened also. I didn’t know if I wanted to know what we were shortly about to face, but I followed Zyrina as she sprinted down the hallway, towards distant with peril beyond view.
“Come on, Lucy!” I shouted over my shoulder as I did. Lucy was still deeply engrossed in the ledgers and would’ve been there until the screaming started if Aslinne hadn’t dragged her away.
Down the straight stretch of dark hallway we went, with our torchlight flickering off the dull stone bricks of the floor and walls. Time seemed to drag slowly by, and the hallway seemed to go on forever, with no alcoves, or rooms anywhere along the way. Also, no guards, or anyone, this entire time. Where were they? What exploded? These same simple questions kept spinning in my head as we travelled the hall of shadows.
The end was abruptly upon us, as our torches revealed a stonewall terminating the hall a short distance ahead, with a faint blue light hinting at a passage to the right. In the play of light and shadow, two small fauns in red livery revealed themselves. They bleated wordlessly as they shot past us, and ran full pelt as hard as they could back the way we had just come. Abandoned in their wake was their wagon full of corpses, and pieces of corpses, in various stages of decomposition. Zyrina held up her hand for silence. We gagged silently as they skirted past and we followed our battle leader toward the arching vault of an open stone doorway.
Glowing blue warned of magic ahead. And although we dashed around the archway and burst into the room as one, this time we did not go bursting whilst unprepared. Good thing, too. Evidently, we were in some repository of the dead, as there were liches guarding the room. Liches that did not ask why we were there, or if we’d like a cup of tea and some cheese biscuits. Howling, angry liches, that viciously attacked us the instant they set undead eyes upon us.
“Liches!” Lucy shouted, in her boldest Captain-Obvious voice.
“GO! GO! GO!” I shouted, too.
With a mighty roar, tiny Aslinne raced in behind and past the lumbering liches, and attacked the backs of their knees with her quickly slashing blades. I knew her plan was the same as the last time we fought liches, and so I began casting a slowing spell. Aslinne managed to get all the enraged liches to them chase her around the room, while Rina and I pelted them with arrows. I took the time to say a few spells to slow the liches between shots, as I could see Lucy was busy keeping Aslinne alive during her dancing race with the liches. The ice I conjured did help a little and gave Aslinne some breathing room to get ahead of her pursuers. The slippery ice slowed the liches enough that Zyrina and I could aim our bows true and we keep raining arrows at the opaque shapes until one by one they fell to the ground and stayed there.
Finally, when there were no more liches to overcome, I could take a better look around. After seeing the chapel down the stairs, and the library, it did not surprise me that there were tombs in this place as well. I looked around trying to see who was buried here but there were no markers that I could discern.
“What or who are those liches protecting?” Aslinne asked finally after catching her breath.
“I don’t know, but there is another room back here, and I still hear the sounds of battle.” Lucy had found a small plain exit between two large statues on the farthest wall of the room we were moving through. “Let’s go, just in case those liches come back, okay?”
She did not look like she was interested in repeating that fight. As we had just squeaked through with our lives intact, I was quick to agree. I hurried to catch up with Zyrina, who was going be the first through this new doorway.
We charged through into the room beyond. The chamber was filled with blue light that filtered through from a beautiful stained-glass window set high in the stone at the far end of the room. The walls were covered in beautiful swirling flower patterns. Below, the room was far from serene. Two figures in black on a dais under the window wrestled for possession of a little leather-bound book. There was a piece of dark moon shard, floating, chained with great steel links to the floor in the middle of the room. The moon shard was mostly encircled by six living red-robed mages, as well as two smouldering skeletons on the floor. All this enclosed by four large pillars. In one corner was what looked to be an alchemical laboratory.
And there…was Torgin. And there…was Kitty. They were fighting furiously against three of the mages in red. Torgin’s long hair flew behind him as he swung his mighty axe to help Kitty in her slashing attacks on the mages’ power shields. The remaining mages continued to chant around the reverberating black shard that was chained like a slave in the center of the ritual chamber.
Even dark-haired scholarly Phlebus, who I had never seen join in a battle, seemed to be spellcasting from a safe distance in the corner near the exit. I could not tell what spell he was working, but he looked like he was in pain and there were massive rings of fire covering much of the room. There was no time left to think, for any of us. Our entrance into the room had broken someone’s concentration, for three mages not fighting but chanting, were no longer doing either. They were blasted by the shard where they stood, skin and flesh hissing and melting, bones popping as they burned to the floor, disintegrated before any of us could make a strike. Automatically, Zyrina and I began shooting arrows at the mages left, who impressively kept up their chanting while Torgin and Kitty rained blows upon them. But all good things to ends must come. The last three red-robed mages went down.
On the dais under the grand window, two figures in black were absorbed in a roiling tussle with a book of power. Younger, taller, and tattered versus older, shorter and stolid. We were likely searching for the younger, but who was the older?
As the younger tattooed mage at last wrenched the artifact free of the other’s clutches, he held the book aloft in both bloody hands as he shrieked at the ashen old man who had slumped to the floor, “Die, Nestor! Die!”
Any other doubts were dispelled by Aslinne’s impassioned cry – “Hu!”
Nefarious Nestor! The old mage in black might have been on the floor, but he was certainly not groveling. In fact, shock seemed to galvanize him as he realized we intruders were in his sanctum. With incredible swiftness a travel scroll appeared in his hands as he mouthed the words to teleport, and vanished.
That left Aslinne’s Hu Nam: on the high dais, under the stained-glass window of opulent light, with the ancient book of magic spells. I saw him recognize her in the midst of all the turmoil. They made full eye contact. I was sure he was going to say something. The expression on his face was a mixture of shock, and other emotions that I didn’t really have time to read, because with a flourish of his hand, Hu Nam vanished, as gone as Nestor was a moment before.
“Nooooo!” The wail of despair was from Phlebus. I heard him moan, and saw him fall to his knees, grasping at thin air. Torgin dropped his axe, shook his head with a mighty roar and checked on Kitty. Kitty sat beside Torgin patiently as Torgin felt all over her fur and paws to check for damage. The rest of us gathered ourselves up from across the room.
We made our way over to where Phlebus had dropped to the ground. That was when Phlebus and Torgin finally become aware that they were not alone in the fight. Torgin grinned sheepishly and Phlebus gave a little wave. Kitty, finally satisfied that we were all safely reunited, turned away and ignored us while she searched through the rubble for something unseen.
“You’re alive!” Lucy’s voice was not quite angry and not quite relieved, but she glared at her twin.
She gave Kitty a big hug before throwing herself at her brother. She was obviously relieved to see he had reappeared in one piece. Phlebus was shakily helped to his feet by Zyrina, who was careful to stay by his side in case he should stumble again. He gave her a grateful hug and she squeezed his arm for comfort. Their communication did not need words.
During these personal exchanges I found myself staring around the incredibly beautiful room filled with blue light and dead bodies and I wondered how such evil could come from places with this fullness of grace and beauty. Then I was drawn to the shard of moon that was tethered in the middle of all the light; its dark form absorbing all brightness and grace.
“Lily?” Torgin’s hesitant voice sounded concerned.
I was caught up staring at the still glowing and pulsing shard before I heard Phlebus command firmly, “Lily, look away. NOW.”
His insistent words did get through. I blinked and I was swept back from the abyss only a little drained from my infinite millisecond of contact with the powerful shard. Or so I thought until the lights just simply faded. Zyrina caught me as I fainted. When I swam back into consciousness, I was aware of the powerful healing grace that Lucy had cast on me; I could feel its restorative power flow through me and fill all the dark places that the stone had shaken in my psyche. I shivered and sat up, only a little dizzy from my experience.
“Is that-is that…?” I stammered, afraid to look toward the center of the room again. Its power and the lure of it was still tugging, trying to bend my mind to its influence. It was seductive.
“That is a shard, splintered from the moon that fell, hundreds of years ago. How it got here, under this poison shop in Central Brittany is not something I can simply explain but…” Phlebus went on to patiently tell some of the history of the moon shard, but I stopped listening as soon as I knew that it was not going to jump out at me anytime soon, unless I reconnected my mind to it. It was still relatively challenging to concentrate on anything except the shard.
I was finally conscious enough to remember that we had been looking for Kitty, Phlebus and Torgin.
“Hey, where have you been?” I smiled directly at Torgin, “We’ve been looking everywhere for you!”
Torgin blushed and ducked his head a little. He mumbled something that sounded like an apology, but Lucy’s voice drowned him out.
“I was afraid you had been killed. Why didn’t you come and get me, too?” Lucy punched him in the arm and scowled.
“Sorry, Sis. I couldn’t wait for you, or we would have lost the trail.” Torgin looked genuinely sorry.
“And where did you all come from?” Phlebus spoke up, “did anyone see where the book went? I think that mage with the tattoos had it in the end.”
Zyrina and I nodded in agreement.
“His name is Hu Nam,” Aslinne informed him.
“I think we lost it again; there’s no way to track those teleport spells.” Lucy lamented.
“Hu disappeared with it like Nestor tried to do, too.” Torgin reported. “Did you see the look on Nestor’s face?”
He laughed a bitter laugh. “At least Nestor was foiled.”
“How did you know to come here?” Aslinne asked.
“Well,” Phlebus began, “That’s a long story.”
Torgin interrupted, “We followed Nestor from Stinging Tree Hollow. An old acquaintance, Dingo Dan, let us know he had been there and was heading to a meeting with someone in Ordanis Mortis.”
“How did you know to follow Nestor? Did you know about the Southern Red Branch Syndicate?” Lucy asked.
“The what?” Phlebus broke in, ever the scholar. “Maybe tell us what that is before we go on.”
While Lucy and Zyrina started recounting some of our tale, I sat up a little and drank the potion that Lucy offered me. Aslinne slowly backed away from the huddle of people and began picking her way through the rubble looking for something. I knew Hu had seen her and saw his expression of relief and welcome before he disappeared with the book clutched tightly to his breast. It had thawed her anger and left her lonely for his company. Her face was easy to read, she hid nothing. I didn’t know what she could be looking for in the rubble, though. Hu was gone, just like Nestor.
Hu Nam had not used a travel scroll, for he had a powerful invisibility spell at the ready. The book held high, he looked down at Nestor who was slumped in defeat, shock and dismay clearly etched on his face. Hu could not help it; the deepest secret wish of heart burst into voice as he shrieked at the man at his feet, “Die, Nestor! Die!.” Not a killing burst of power, nor a blow from a weapon, but emotions long held in check, finally spoken aloud. That gave the old mage the time he needed to scroll out. Just as Nestor disappeared, Hu could see that the emotions on his face – bitter, bitter hatred, and the lust for vengeance. Hu was alone on the dais. They were all looking at him. She was here. They could see each other, soul to soul. He wanted to say something, but what could he? He would need a lifetime with her to explain himself. The warriors in the room meant it was time for him to go. Hu worked his spellcraft, shielded, and cast himself invisible. The wail of despair from the mage at the far end of the room told Hu that someone else also understood the value of the book in his hands.
Hu was now certain that giving the book to Nestor was not what he wanted to do. He blanched at the mass loss of life that Nestor had demanded from his followers let alone the slaves and minions at his command, not only today but all the days that Hu had known him. The realization that Hu had been part of all that killing nearly overwhelmed him, but he heard Aslinne’s voice clearly and nearby. It shook him out of his reverie. He listened as the intruders gathered to talk about the battle. But he couldn’t take his eyes off Aslinne, as she gracefully and patiently sifted through the rubble with Kitty, who was nosing around the whole room, her tail swishing angrily.
Hu had lost a lot of blood. Although the flow was staunched, he was weak, and leaned against a pillar for support. He clutched the book tightly to his chest. When Aslinne’s search brought her close to his hiding spot, and she nearly brushed his arm, he almost spoke up before he remembered he was invisible and in hiding. The joy he felt in his heart when he saw her alive and safe made his entire body gravitate toward her.
He had never before cared whether anyone else lived or died. And now that he did, he wasn’t sure how he felt about this new development. He did know that when she moved closer and he smelled her scent that he found himself struggling to stay hidden.
“Aslinne will know what to do,” Hu whispered to himself in the glowing blue light.
Aslinne listened to the storytelling of her friends while she poked around the room looking at everything. The large orange dragon egg was warm but there was no motion within. That was a relief. Having to deal with a baby dragon as well as everything else was more than she wanted to consider. Then, she got a whiff of some familiar smell. It warmed her heart and she breathed deeply, cherishing the scent. After a while, an awareness of who’s scent it was seeped into her consciousness; it was the mage’s smell. And her mage now had a name. Hu Nam.
Hu had been here, and she could still smell him. She smiled and kept her thoughts to herself. However, when she moved across the entrance and over to an area where magic potions were prepared, the scent followed her. Then the very air seemed to breath and she felt someone press his mouth to her ear and an invisible hand covered her mouth. She stiffened and reached for her knives.
“Shhhhh! Don’t say a word. It’s me! You’re safe.” Hu was quiet, so quiet that it was just the barest of whispers. His hands melted away from her body. She had frozen near one of the pillars and took a quick glance where he was hidden. Sure enough, there he was with his finger to his lips, out of view of the others. He winked then he disappeared again. Aslinne moved closer to the pillar, where she had seen him last. He whispered right into her ear again.
“I need your help. Will you give it? It’s important.”
Aslinne breathed lightly and nodded once, slowly.
“I’m in danger. They all want something I have.”
“The book,” Aslinne barely breathed the words. This time Hu nodded in reply. She could feel the motion beside her ear as his head moved up and down.
“The book…and the egg. I need you to get the egg and bring it with you. Do you have a travel scroll?”
Aslinne shook her head and he pressed one into her hand.
“Do you know how to use it?”
“I need you to hold the egg to your chest and use the scroll. Meet me in Northwood.” He slid a piece of paper with the address on it into her hand. I don’t trust anyone else. I know you won’t let me down.”
She nodded but looked hesitant.
“I will not harm your friends,” he assured her.
Now she relaxed. She trusted him. She didn’t know why but she trusted her own instinct, and her instinct told her she could trust him. He needed help. She loved him. It was really that simple.
I glanced up as Aslinne finished inspecting the room and walk calmly over to her backpack. She gracefully sat, dug some paper and ink out of her bag and started scribbling furiously in the notebook she carried with her. Torgin and Phlebus had nearly finished talking about following Nestor through the portal and down into the Cathedral. They arrived here only a day ahead of us.
“I can’t believe you waited in this place for a whole day. How did you manage your invisibility spells?” Lucy wanted to know. “Was the egg here the entire time?”
Nodding, Phlebus answered, “Yes, kind of. Someone called Scroda came and reported that the dragon’s egg that he tried to retrieve from Darkshire Hills had been exploded during a practice attempt to hatch it, when a mage he didn’t name made a mistake trying to perform the spell alone.” He went on, “Nestor seemed furious that Scroda had not brought the book with him too, but they were interrupted by a small boy who was brought here to them. The boy managed to stammer out his message, and his message was that Hu was on his way with an egg that he had collected from the storage area, last night.”
Torgin added, “Once Hu arrived, they started pretty early in the morning trying to make the egg hatch.” Torgin looked grim. “There were several dozens of acolytes carried out in wagons or taken for medical care. Nestor didn’t seem to even notice the carnage, but Hu did look bothered.”
Phlebus took over again, adding “We were trying to sneak closer to where Nestor stood with the book, when Hu Nam was inching closer too. We were trying to get close enough to Nestor, to snatch the book.”
Torgin shook his hair out of his eyes and shrugged, “Hu made a lunge for the book before we did and that’s when it all went sideways.”
In the silence after they finished, just as I was about to ask him if he knew where Hu Nam might have gone, that very same mage appeared out of thin air. Poof!
Playing a recorder, of all things.
“Wha-?” gasped Lucy.
All our eyes were on him. Hu Nam cast a mesmerizing spell upon the entire room and played a haunting tune on the recorder seemingly to sustain the spell he had cast. There was no explosion; this slowing spell worked perfectly. Hu looked a little surprised at his success, but he did not lose his focus, playing on with abandon. Upon hearing the song, I immediately felt a sense of wellbeing that overwhelmed me with indescribable joy. It was amazing and heady. I watched in contentment as Aslinne dropped the page she had been writing upon and then delicately skipped over to the egg with a big smile on her face. She waved over to us, then put her arms around the egg in a big hug, and disappeared with it. I had no desire to stop her. Neither did anyone else. We all watched the whole thing as if in slow motion.
Hu Nam dropped the recorder. The slowing spell broke as he vanished again.
Pandemonium broke out.
Kitty had leapt from her spot and just missed catching the mage as he disappeared; she padded and sniffed in puzzlement, her widely swishing tail marking her agitation. Torgin’s slowed axe strike now followed through as normal, completing a swing that would have decapitated the mage had it struck. Both my arrows and Zyrina’s flew through nothing and clattered against the far wall.
“NO!!!” Lucy’s loud protest was too late to stop either Hu Nam nor Aslinne Gradh from departing. They were gone.
I picked up the paper that Aslinne had been writing on. I was reading it when Phlebus’s excited voice rang out.
“Hey, look at these,” he pointed where earlier Kitty had been going through the rubble. There were a series of pages lined up on the floor. They were tattered and shredded but were still partly understandable. Each one of them had one letter on them. Together they spelled out:
E R A M O C O R
“What does that mean?” I was perplexed.
Zyrina was not. Not at all. She dove over to where she had dropped her backpack at the beginning of the fight and dug through it furiously. There are times when her quick mind is quite annoying; indeed, I would like to give her a quick kick when she is being especially knowledgeable sometimes. But right then, I could have kissed her. She pulled our collected scraps of paper out of her bag and held them in the air.
“Got it,” she called out.
“Got what?” I still was not understanding.
She shook the pages we had been collecting. “Look! It’s the same writing!”
Then moving swiftly back to the pages that Kitty had lined up for us to see, she spread each of the collected pages below the corresponding letter.
“Look, the letters match up. I’m going to match these letters to the ones Kitty laid out.” And she did. It all seemed so natural.
“But we still don’t know what the numbers are for, do we?” I asked looking at the new order of numbers lined up under the letters.
“This one says ‘play me.’” Phlebus held up the one he had removed from Kitty’s claw. No one else had understood that the great snowy lynx, walking from person to person, was trying to tell us something, until she finally putting her paw on Phlebus’s arm, and he got it. I held the paper in my hand and looked at it.
And then it struck me. ‘Play me.’ I placed the last piece before the other letters and now they made sense to everyone.
“‘Play me,’” Torgin echoed, then translated ver-amo-cor out loud: “Truth. Love. Courage.”
I knew what to do. I bent down and picked up the recorder that Hu had dropped and started playing the number sequences as if they were notes. 1 was do, 2 was re, 3 was me, and so on. I could hear the same melody that Hu Nam had been playing and soon felt a sense of joy and contentment.
“It’s a spell. A musical spell.”
“No, it doesn’t feel like a spell, Lily,” Lucy said as she danced around in a slow circle blithely unaware of her movements. “It feels like joy.”
“Music can do that,” Phlebus added, smiling for the second time that day. “Even if it’s not a spell.”
“That is beautiful,” said Torgin; I could see the tears streaming down his cheeks as he listened.
I came to the end of the music and lowered the recorder.
“That was beautiful, and I feel uplifted.” Even Phlebus was affected by the song.
“Oh, yeah…I found this too.” I fished the page Aslinne had dropped before she vanished. “Aslinne wrote it just before she left. I think it might be important.”
The others gathered around, and I read aloud:
Do not lose heart. I trust Hu Nam. He is not who you suspect him to be. I have gone to find out what I can. And to help him. Please do not follow us, it’s not safe for any of us if you do. I will contact you when I can. Be well,
“Oh, for pity’s sake, not again!” Lucy slumped in resignation. I know how she felt. Zyrina and Phlebus started laughing. Torgin looked thoughtful.
I squared my shoulders and shrugged because I knew I was not about to let a little set back like having no idea where to look next set us back. We had been searching for this book for years.
I let out a big sigh, “Well I’m pretty tired, I need a bath, some food and drink, and I could use some time to go through that office again. Aslinne will not let us down. I trust she will write one of us when it is safe to do so.”
“I think you might be correct, Lily. And for now, there is no way to follow either of them, regardless.” Nodded Phlebus.
“At least that nasty fellow, Nestor, does not have the egg or the book.” Zyrina looked grimly at the spot he had disappeared from earlier. “I’m going to see what I else can find out about him. She looked over at Phlebus.
“Want to help me?”
“Yes, of course.” He nodded, equally grimly.
“He won’t give up you know,” Lucy sounded sullen as she nodded in agreement.
“I know.” Phlebus nodded and sighed, “At least we have a possibility of finding it this time. I just hope we find it, and them, before Nestor does.”
“But first,” Torgin picked up all the papers and the recorder and placed them all back in the bag, “Let’s go have a cup of tea. I know a place over in the middle of Central Britanny, and I will tell you the whole story of what we were up to,” Torgin spoke with a quick glance over at me, “It has fresh lemon buns every day.”
Lucy started laughing now too, “Well those are magic words, Torgin. Lily is addicted to them.”
I may have blushed, then. But I could not stop smiling either.