September 19 2022

The Stone Dragon Series – Book 2, Chapter 9

Read by Addy

Chapter 9. Tempers and Explosions.

Before the Lodge…

Finally in Darkshire Hills, and after greeting Sergeant John Benton, Aslinne Gradh and Jenny Hawkins, with the mage in tow, had arrived near the third town boundary at the forked road and took a moment to talk before they went on.

 

“We go left here, but if you want to carry on to the village you would take the right fork.” Jenny pointed the two paths out as she spoke, not really looking at the mage while she did.

 

“We might as well go to the Bent Bow Inn and stay the night. It’s still a distance to the Hunting and Fishing Lodge and the day is not fresh.” Aslinne spoke with authority. “The undead we encountered on the road on the way here may also still be near, too. Travelling in the dark isn’t wise.”

 

The mage looked down both paths for a moment before nodding his head and indicating he agreed with Aslinne’s decision.

 

Meanwhile, Jenny had been catching up with the sergeant stationed at the fork; he was a local too, someone she knew from childhood, apparently, from the whisps of the conversation that Aslinne overheard. 

 

“OOO the TREES!!” Jenny excitedly exclaimed, as she had for the last hour or so of the journey, about the local fauna and flora. “John, I forgot how majestic they are, and how fragrant the forest. Do you remember that time that little Jimmy got stuck up in one and you helped me get him out before Ma and Pa found him up there? He still owes me for that one!”

 

The sergeant laughed a lout guffaw before remembering his respected position.

“We don’t want any trouble here.” Standing to attention, Sergeant John Benton sounded quite stern.

 

Jenny giggled and told him to stop being so hard-hearted. “I’ll meet you later at the Bent Bow for a cold one?”

 

He nodded and smiled before going back to his gruff guard at work attitude and waved them along, “Take my advice friend; don’t make me angry.”

 

Aslinne smiled behind her hand. The ease between Jenny and Sergeant Benton was obvious.

 

“Don’t be daft!” Jenny called out behind her as she walked away from him, “See you at the Bow after your shift.” Then she boldly winked at the sergeant who was now a scarlet shade and trying to hide his smile from someone who might have been his captain who was walking toward the sergeant from the guard tower that overlooked the sergeant’s position at the crossroads.

 

There were mushrooms of several varieties in the forest all around. Jenny begged until Aslinne relented and agreed that, early in the morning, they would go gather some before Aslinne continued on her journey. Jenny assured her that she hadn’t had anything like them.

 

“Look! FLOWERS!!! OOO I love those red ones!! They are what I remember most from home.” Jenny took a large sniff with her nose right in the flower.

 

“I think you may be right. I definitely haven’t seen one just like this one before.” Aslinne winked picking a random bright red flower and holding it out to the girl.

 

Jenny giggled, grabbed the flower, and went skipping on ahead, singing to herself as she went.

 

Aslinne followed with the mage walking companionably by her side. None of them this day had seen the snowy lynx that had followed them off the Sea Byrd, and which had trailed them for several days up until now. They all assumed she had finally gone on her way to wherever it was she was headed, but they missed the big cat’s silent presence none the less. By the time they passed Captain Mike Yates just inside the borders of Darkshire, Jenny was starting to recognize and point out places she had known while growing up and telling funny tales about her adventures in each one.

 

“And this is where I got that scar on my knee that you asked about, Aslinne.” Jenny pointed to a big rock along the path. “I tripped on it while trying to watch a shooting star instead of watching the path in the dark and didn’t see that rock.”

 

“OOO there are some of the mushrooms I was telling you about!! Look at the size of them!” Jenny’s excited voice rang out. “We have to go picking in the morning though. See how the colour is all dark? We want em before that happens.”

 

Aslinne was used enough to the energetic girl that she could completely tune out what she was blathering on about usually, but now the subject was local mushrooms. That had piqued her interest alright and she was paying close attention to this particular chatter. She was also scanning the nearby forest from the road as they strolled but had not yet on her own spotted these wonders of culinary arts that Jenny was so excited about. She did see a few poisons she would be interested in collecting and putting into her satchel to replenish her stock.

 

 Aslinne hoped these mushrooms of Jenny’s were actually something different because the brown mushrooms that she found just about anywhere were tasteless and dull. She was always on the search for flavorful ingredients. Aslinne preferred a bit of zing to her food and after a particularly spicy dish the captain had responded well. Afterward she had been given far more leeway in the ordering of ship’s supplies.

 

Oh, my supplies! Aslinne remembered that she had left Old Salty John Sliver in charge against her better judgement; she did not trust him one bit, but he was the only sailor available who applied for the position when Captain Green had ordered Aslinne to accompany Jenny to her home. Aslinne hoped again that her kitchen would not be in shambles when she returned to her post. She still had a long journey ahead of her before then and it was best not to brood on it, as she could change nothing about the decisions already made. So, she kicked a rock in the road along in front of her and occasionally chatted with the mage at her side while scanning both sides of the road for mushrooms and herbs as she walked along. Jenny’s voice floated back to them in waves and didn’t seem to require any participation to encourage the flow of words…or as was the case now, song.

 

“Shrooms!” Jenny’s shriek could be heard far and wide as she dashed to the side of the road and scooped up a small batch of dainty purple mushrooms. “Ba, these are too old too, see?” She held them out for Aslinne to inspect. “They have gone too dark in colour.”

*

Just over the rise, Coralee Hawkins straightened up from her work and cocked her head to the side. “Jenny?” Then spotting her daughter in the distance, she jumped up and down several times, “Jim! Jim, Jenny’s back! Jim! Come quick!”

Down by the river and just barely in shouting distance, Jim Hawkins and his young twin sons looked up from where they had been inspecting the fishing nets already strung out on the tall poles to dry. “Jenny?” “Our Jenny?” Shielding his eyes with his stiff leathery lined hand, he could see Jenny start to run toward his wife.  He didn’t recognize the other woman who slowed to a stroll behind Jenny, nor the figure in the flowing black robes who faded into the background and didn’t have time to look because after Jenny hugged her Ma she had turned, sprinted down the bank to the river and leaped into his outstretched arms.

“Oh Jenny, it’s good to see you, lass”. There were tears streaming down his face and Jim Hawkins could see his wife wiping her own face as Jenny turned to gather her brothers in the hug.

“Jenny, Jenny, is it really you?” Little Jimmy had grown a whole head taller and his leap into her arms nearly knocked the slight girl over.

“Hi, Jenny” Jeremy’s theatric whisper was lost in the hullabaloo, but Jenny heard him because she smiled right at him and gave him a big hug too.  Then the boys raced up from the river’s edge where they’d been unloading fish from the boat to stand near the stone bridge and stare at the newcomers who had arrived with Jenny.

After they had all touched each other and reassured themselves that the moment was real, Ma Hawkins turned around and formally introduced herself to the shadowy mage and the pretty woman who patiently were looking out over the river and seemed to be oblivious to the family reunion and to the two small boys standing and staring at them. They weren’t of course, but it looked that way.

 

Smiling at the strangers Ma Hawkins nodded stiffly. “Thank you for bringing our Jenny home.”

*

“Oh, Ma, don’t be so formal,” Jenny pulled Aslinne into the family group and introduced her, “This is Aslinne Gradh. Best ship’s cook this side of Spindrift Bay and these are Ma and Pa Hawkins.”

 

Coralee shook the hand of Aslinne Gradh and welcomed her “We really are grateful for you bringing her home, miss.”

 

Jenny looked a little unsure then added, “This fella is… well I don’t actually know who he is, but he has walked with us from the ship and he’s a friend of Aslinne’s.” She nodded in the direction of the figure in black who stood woodenly to the side shrouded in shadow and said nothing but nodded his head formally.

 

“Pleased to meet you,” Coralee first greeted the mage cheerfully. “Welcome to our home. Call me Coralee. James and I are always glad to meet friends of Jenny’s.”

 

The mage nodded and turned to look at the river.

 

Jenny nodded toward the inn. “Ma, they are going to stay the night and go over to the Hunting and Fishing Lodge after some mushroom picking in the morning. Aslinne was kind enough to bring me all the way home so I’m gunna show her the little mushrooms that we like to eat.”

 

She gestured to her brothers, “And those are Jimmy and Jeremy,” she added introducing her young twin brothers, who were both shyly eying up the strangers. “Good luck telling them apart. They lie about it, too.”

 

One of the twins stuck out his tongue at Jenny and the other blew a raspberry. “Not everyone is as blind as you are,” they taunted in unison.

 

This was an old taunt. Aslinne grinned because she could see that Jenny was laughing and started chasing them toward the bridge.

 

“Don’t go far,” Coralee shouted. “We just got her back and it’s teatime.”

 

Turning back to the guests Coralee could see that both the mage and the slightly bashful Aslinne looked uncomfortable with this intro but they were eventually drawn into the obviously joyful family reunion that afternoon.

 

Aslinne won the twins over nearly immediately with her stone-skipping knowledge as they dawdled along the bank of the river behind Jenny and her parents. She led them a small distance away but stayed in sight of their family so Jenny could catch her parents up with the news of the world. The mage followed Aslinne. Jenny noticed the kindness as did her parents who nodded in approval at Jenny’s travel companion. 

 

“Tis good to see your face, daughter,” Coralee began. “Do you think you’ll be staying for just one night too?” She asked anxiously.

 

“Ma! I’m home, I’m not going anywhere except my own bed, if it’s still there?” Jenny linked arms with her mother.

 

“It’s always going to be there,” Jim Hawkins gruffly broke in. “Welcome home, Jen.” And he put his arm around Jenny and patted Coralee on the shoulder for comfort. 

 

The mage didn’t really speak to anyone, just followed Aslinne down the riverbank, but he looked longingly to the road south. The little family moved on up into the Bent Bow Inn to get the tea water boiling and the lowered tones of their voices could be heard murmuring in the distance as Little Jimmy and Jeremy had a thorough lesson on choosing the exact right round and flat shape and the proper grip for skipping stones and Aslinne had her hands full answering their many questions. Some of them were even about skipping stones.

 

By the time the lads had thrown their fill of stones, they had remembered that Jenny promised them gifts upon her return, so they abandoned their newfound friend and dashed in the front door of the inn. Having thrown one last stone into the stream, Aslinne brushed her hands off before she picked up her pack. She could hear the boys’ high-pitched voices begging for their gifts. Aslinne grinned over at the mage who sat on the bank muttering to himself and studying the small book he carried everywhere, then took one last look at the peacefully meandering stream.

 

She decided. “Let’s settle in for the night. Tomorrow I’ll go pick mushrooms with Jenny, and then we can head over to the fishing lodge.”

 

He nodded slowly in reply and took one more glance in the direction of the fishing lodge, not quite visible downstream.

 

Before long she turned to climb the incline to the Inn and see about a cup of tea. Aslinne had a good look downstream toward the bridge in the south. It was still a little way longer to find the Darkshire Hills Hunting and Fishing Lodge, farther south of Jenny’s family Inn that is. She planned on enjoying this furlough from the ship and had her favorite fishing pole carefully stowed in her bags.

“Coming?” Her question wasn’t answered but the mage turned and followed her.

Of course, they had a warm and plentiful supper with Jenny’s family and found themselves tucked up for the night in comfortable beds. It didn’t take long before they each were fast asleep.

*

After waking slowly in comfort, Aslinne quietly woke her friend Jenny and they both snuck out of the Bent Bow before dawn.

 

“See? They’re always far easier to spot in the dawn’s light, aren’t they?” Jenny twittered on about the mushrooms as she skipped through the wooded area. Aslinne collected as many as she could carry and several other plants too.

 

It didn’t take long before they were both laden. After packing up, a quick breakfast at the inn, settling the bill, and bidding Coralee a friendly good day, Aslinne picked up her pack and strode out ready to leave. The mage had been sitting by the river watching the Hawkins boys clean their fish, and James mend nets when Aslinne found him. Again, she repeated her goodbyes the rest of the Hawkins family. They watched the sun fully rise while organizing their packs along the riverbank outside of the inn.

 

A little later, realizing she had fallen behind, Aslinne hurried her step to keep up. It was the first time since leaving the ship that the man she considered her friend, who now walked just ahead of her, had showed some sense of urgency and anticipation.

 

“Have you been to the lodge before?” A little breathless from walking too fast, Aslinne was curious to find out why all of a sudden, the mage had changed demeanor and speed of travel, but she also wasn’t willing to make a direct question of it.

 

He turned his head toward her and the gleam of his dark eyes showed his excitement, but he didn’t speak. She could see the grimace that was his smile though, and he nodded his head under the black hooded cloak that he wore everywhere. His pace didn’t slow down and although he was not much bigger than she was, she struggled to keep up.

 

Then Aslinne deliberately slowed her pace and stopped along the bank just before the bridge they would have to cross before finding themselves at the lodge.

 

“You go ahead; I’m going to stop here at this river crossing to test out my newly repaired rod; the morning is just too perfect to hurry through.” Shrugging out of her heavy backpack, she rummaged through to find her hooks. “I’ll catch you up at the lodge. Just let them know I’ll arrive later, okay?” She trailed off as she looked up then. He was already across the bridge and a couple hundred paces past.

 

 “Well, that’s that then.”

 

She felt ruffled and grumpy that he didn’t even pause to see why she had stopped. It’s not as if we had an appointment that we couldn’t miss. What’s his problem? She thought to herself as she forcefully dug near the riverbank with her trusty travel trowel, muttering under her breath. At last, after collecting a little writhing ball of worms she chose a fat wriggling one. Popping it onto her hook and casting into the clear running water helped dispel her mood and she let the stream take her worries away with it.

*

Still on the path from the Bent Bow Inn, striding purposefully, the mage had not even heard what Aslinne had said when she stopped by the river’s edge. He could wait no longer to get to his destination and was obviously under some sort of emotional strain. When he finally did notice she was no longer walking with him, he looked back. She was still by the stone bridge and had begun to dig into the riverbank with a small shovel. He simply continued on his way, certain she would be at the Lodge before the day was finished. He had some private matters to attend before she arrived.

 

As he walked, he mused. The outcome to the magic he was practicing was not getting any easier, no matter how close he came to the shard fall. It should be getting easier the closer he got. This book was different. These spells didn’t fizzle when they should and fizzled when they should not. The runes were hard to understand. They were written in an old script that had all sorts of additional swirls and loops attached to it. The runes would not adapt to the present and they resisted any change that might lead to a less effective spell.

 

He found himself hearing Aslinne in his mind: “You know I’m not a witch. There isn’t a bit of me with any magical power that I can find, but I have ancestors with the sight, and what I know about magic is this: What you put in you get back, threefold. But only if done with virtuous intent. And: NEVER spell cast for oneself, only in the service of others.”

 

Maybe there was something to this theory of Aslinne’s that he could not get out of his head. What if virtues really did affect his ability to cast these old forms of magic? And the equally interesting thought: do some kinds of virtues and some kinds of vices affect the strength of different schools of magic? He had never considered that the very land might have its own magic; or that each caster’s intent and virtue had a consequence when combined with powerful spells, before his discussions with Aslinne.

 

She believed that not all the magic in the world needed a touch of that cold shard that burned at the very essence of his being every time he cast a spell.  She believed that magic and virtue strengthened each other, not magic and shard essence. What if she is right? He shook his head again.

 

“This is crazy talk,” he mumbled aloud as he hurried along, trying to convince himself that he knew what he was doing.

 

No need to go looking for strange magic when the splinter of the shard he carried gave him a boost of magic already. What need did he have of other ways or another knowledge? That woman got under his skin.

 

He shrugged then gave a grimacing grin and spoke softly to himself a spell of clarity.  Her logic was profound and her cooking worth the wait; she was an interesting travelling companion, and he had enjoyed their voyage and travels together. Regardless of how sick he was, she had made sure he had food. So, when she had crazy ideas about order and virtues, he felt some sense of responsibility to think about what she told him before he gave her his opinion.

 

If he could just get this spell to work, it would speed things up so much further along when it was time to prove to her that his magic worked, and that he didn’t need to believe in the laws of magic that she seemed to follow.

*

The sun was beginning to dip lower in the sky and Aslinne sighed, not wanting to break out of the peace she had found for herself on the riverbank that day. After she had caught a good string of five fat fish, all now gutted and gleaming on the fish-string, Aslinne buried the entrails, scattered the remaining worms, and packed up her kit. It was now early evening, and she was feeling the sharp pinch of hunger. Mrs. Hawkins’s sausage and biscuit breakfast at dawn had been too many hours ago. It was time to continue to the lodge. Her pack now seemed heavier after the respite, but she didn’t flinch, she just swung it up and onto her back with a flick of her arms. Her tiny stature no longer stopped her from doing the things she needed to do, and it brought her a sense of satisfaction. She may be compact, but after living in Novia for a number of years, she was now all sinew and muscle. There were no noodle arms left in her world. The old insult from when she first arrived in Novia as an Outlander, unprepared to care for herself, still stung. Her old life of empty leisure in the Outlands was not a temptation for Aslinne, for she remembered vividly how unhappy she had been with no purpose to guide her. 

 

Well, now there was plenty of purpose, and at the moment that purpose was getting to the lodge, settling her accommodation, and finding out if the cook, Cordon Ramey, still remembered her recipe for pan fried fish.  He was one of the cooks she had met as she travelled around the world selling her fish, and trading with other cooks of Novia for recipes and produce. Cordon was a good cook, smart and funny, but he had a sharp temper and though she enjoyed his cooking and visiting with him, she was always relieved when it was over.

 

At the Lodge…

The Lodge’s manager, Goldie, had spent the morning fussing over every detail in the gathering room; it had been months since she had had news from anyone in the syndicate but two weeks ago everything changed. She now had had her fill of “contact” and just now only wished it all to be over and done. She was uneasy finding items for people she didn’t know personally. There was such a risk to herself and her team that she was very picky about who she would procure things for. But. Nestor sent word that he expected her to comply with this odd request from this unknown mage, and report back to him as soon as the mage arrived. Nestor did not allow refusals to his requests. She had been in a state of waiting for days now. Impatiently waiting and fingering the letter she had received; she didn’t need to reread it as she had already memorized its contents.

 

To: The Hunting and Fishing Lodge, Darkshire Hills

 

Dear Goldie,

 

Good day to you. Nestor recommends you highly as the best procurement officer he knows. He insists you will find me what I need. I have been scribing for the Southern Red Branch Syndicate of Elysium Island. We are now exposed but had been working in secret in Jade Valley for a generation or more. Nestor is my contact.

 

I am now one of the only survivors left from the disaster that befell our syndicate at River’s Cross near Jade Valley when our reckless dragon reshaping wasn’t contained, nor the dragon controlled. I am certain you are aware of our failure and the loss of the majority of the Southern Red Branch Syndicate.

 

Seeing the disaster unfold and by luck alone, I escaped notice and capture by using an invisibility spell I had learned, and I fled.

 

The Southern Red Branch Syndicate has nearly been wiped out. Since I am now without a cabal, I will soon meet with Nestor. He wants to know about the research we had been undertaking into reanimating dragons, before reassigning me.

 

 After my short stay at the Hunting and Fishing Lodge I go to meet with him in Ordanis Mortis at Los Gardeñias Restaurant to discuss my future.

 

I need your help to find a dragon egg. My syndicate were close to a breakthrough. We had found and translated more spells that will increase our casting strength if we can intone the spells correctly. This proves to be far more delicate of a task then we originally thought. When we succeed, we will be able to reshape creatures once again to our use, as the Obsidian Cabalists were capable of doing hundreds of years ago. Alone, I am the only one left who is trained in the words of the spells of the Southern Red Branch Syndicate.

 

Nestor has given me permission to ask for your assistance in a test of my ability here before I meet with him. I beseech you; heed my words. What I need for this test is a dragon egg. I have seen an egg myself. I know it’s there but could not take it on my own.

 

It is on a small trading ship named the Sea Byrd. She flies a pirate flag, but I have seen no piracy among that crew. I did find a hidden room with a treasure in it. As well as the trove of gold, there are a few dragon eggs. I need two of those eggs. Just two. The live ones; the others are petrified and worthless to me. You need to send a small group there to discretely gather them without being detected. Then keep them secreted at Darkshire Hills until my arrival.

 

The ship is a small full sail galleon that travels the Novian Oceans trading and carrying passengers. She has only a few stops before reaching her destination. It is vital that you send someone to collect the eggs before it leaves the port at Ardoris, without being detected. It’s the last port they stop at before I must visit with Nestor, and before my arrival at your lodge. The eggs are hidden in a secret room in the crew quarters. I have included the ship’s schedule. Take the eggs to your lodge; I will meet you there within three weeks’ time. I trust you will have managed this task before my arrival. I have been practicing a spell I found that will speed up the hatching. Do not fail, Goldie. Nestor is counting on this success. I need those eggs. Keep this secret.

 

With Respect,

  1. N.

 

PS: I travel with a human woman, Aslinne Gradh, who gives me the perfect reason for visiting Darkshire Hills and collecting the eggs. She is not of the Syndicate. Do not involve her.

                                                        H.

 

*

Upon arriving the mage strode into the Darkshire Hunting and Fishing Lodge. There was no time to waste.

 

“You there!” he pointed at the first person he saw. “Find me the manager at once!”

*

The trembling youngster working at the front desk had never seen a ranked Obsidian mage before and was obviously shaken by the blue and green tattooed face. After delivering the message to Sister Golden Hair, who had been hanging about all morning with the new guest from Central Britanny that had arrived the day before, he scampered off and didn’t report back to work again until the next day, when he was whipped for his lackadaisical attitude.

*

Sister Golden Hair introduced herself as Goldie and calmly led the mage she had been expecting up a set of stairs inside the building. There, another man in black looked up from the fire he had been staring into while sunk into a comfortable chair by the lit fireplace. She then introduced Mister S who pointed at the wooden box he was resting his feet on.

 

And then Goldie looked squarely back at the mage. It was obvious H. N. was not here to fish; he stuck out like a lighted lantern in a dark room. He was obviously a mage of rank and should be introduced with all the rites, but all Goldie knew him by was the H. N. that he signed at the bottom of the letter; she could not introduce him to S because she did not know his name, either. After staring for a short intense period, the mage went straight to the topic.

 

“You received my letter?” The mage enquired of Goldie as he settled himself into a seat by the window.

 

She nodded and patted the pocket she kept it in.

 

His eyes flicked to Mister S. “My Eggs?” the mage inquired.

 

S nodded too. It was he who had successfully spirited the requested eggs from the belly of the ship. The mage looked them both over with his unnerving stare.

 

“Send one to this address” The mage held out a slip of a paper. “The other I need here.”

 

S again nodded assent, but tersely replied, “It was not accomplished without considerable difficulty. That ship was well guarded.”

 

Before he said any more, he asked, “Do you have my payment?”

 

“Yes. All in good time. First, I need to set up an area to cast this spell. Is there a gathering spot?” The mage looked out the window and saw Aslinne dawdling along the path. “Quickly, my companion approaches.”

 

“Well, not a temple. But we do have a casting place, at one of the local potions shops,” Goldie wrote the address down for the mage in front of her. She knew enough about Nestor to realize she would do whatever this mage needed in order to stay in Nestor’s favor. She continued as she handed him the address, “Where we can set you up to cast this spell.”

 

“No.” The mage shook his head.

 

“Why not?”

 

He looked at her with a sneer, “Because it is a DRAGON egg. Perhaps the out of doors? Or away from public view would be more suitable to the subject?”

 

She looked a little sheepish. “Oh, right. I didn’t think of that.” Joining him at the window and watching Aslinne’s compact wiry form approach she added, “How about out back of the Lodge in the forest away from the other guests? Is that private enough?”

 

“It will take a few days to set up.” Goldie decided. “The day after tomorrow.”

 

 The group of three exchanged additional terse remarks as they made their way out the back door of the Lodge with the large box between them. It didn’t look heavy as much as it looked awkward to carry. Five acolytes trained by Goldie followed them solemnly, pleased they had been invited to participate and trying not to trip on their brand-new robes.

 

The Explosion…

 

Coming around the final bend in the path, Aslinne smiled. The lodge laid out in front of her was welcoming and rustic. Settling in was simple. There were only a few rooms, not many guests, and it was a fairly private location. By the end of the day, it was easy to forget the speed of the world while fishing off the small dock in front of the lodge, or watching her friend Cordon cook the just-caught fish with fine herbs and beautiful vegetables. It was a true pleasure to be pampered and fussed over and a rare treat. That night she tucked into her meal with gusto.

 

Aslinne didn’t see the mage around the lodge that day or the next, as she rose early to fish and he was gone from his room by the time she returned, but she knew he was still there from the gossip of the staff. He did stand out from the others. A little different is the way most put it. She smiled. He was different. And his heart and mind were far different from any she had met in this land thus far. He was far more innocent than his demeanor would suggest. It was a challenge to be friends with him alright because he seemed to have no regard for anyone but his own self. Ignoring her like this really wasn’t something she liked very much but there was little she could do unless he decided to be social. So. Resting. Fishing. Eating. Resting. Fishing. Eating. Though she wanted to find out what his flurry of activity was all about, it could wait until she had had her fill of fishing for, and eating, pan-fried wonders.

 

 On her second full day at the lodge, as she was enjoying a late lunch and sopping up the leftover butter on her empty plate with crusty bread, a loud explosion rocked the foundations of The Hunting and Fishing Lodge of Darkshire Hills. Smoke and fire billowed from the area just to the west, somewhere out in the woods. Aslinne and Cordon raced to see what had happened. Aslinne had her knives out and she felt ready for whatever they might find. They found smoke and fire and a large hole in the ground. Cordon went immediately to the slightly blackened figure of Goldie who was trying to get up from the smouldering turf. The mage lay several paces from the crater. And there were charred figures of the five acolytes who didn’t escape the explosion. The mage coughed and moaned when Aslinne knelt down to see if he lived. He lived.

 

“What the Titans are you doing?” She did not shy from her anger and concern. “Do you want to be killed?” She helped him sit up slowly. He did not speak, he just breathed deeply several times and then took a look around, blinking in the smoke and dust. He still had his little book clutched tightly in his hands and he stroked it then tucked it into the pocket of his vestment before doing anything else.

 

“Nothing,” he whispered hoarsely. “No, not at all.”

*

He didn’t say anything else in reply; he just simply stared into the blast center with what looked like dismay. Running his eyes over the dead bodies he looked around frantically. “Where is he?” he muttered to himself. When it became obvious to him that S was gone, he pounded his fist on the ground in frustration.  Not only was S gone, but the dragon egg was also gone. The grim expression he could not hide pulled his face into what looked very much like a bare skeleton.

*

“Again?” The red in Aslinne’s hair seemed to ignite with her flash of anger. “This is IT. I’ve had it. I have been putting up with your complete disregard for life for long enough. You are going to blow yourself to smithereens. Not to mention that there are five dead people here right now.”

 

“You think I don’t see what you are doing? You think I don’t know you have secrets?” Aslinne was still warming up in her angry tirade. “All these weeks and you still don’t understand what the virtues of courage, truth, and compassion have to do with success? You still think that you can force whatever you are trying to do? What in Novia are you trying to do?” She nearly shook him until she remembered he was recovering from the blast.

 

“You know nothing.” He said it dispassionately, but she could see that her words had rattled him. She didn’t think he had experience with many of the virtues.

 

“Nothing? Don’t be daft,” she returned bitterly, turning her back on him. “I’ve brought you back from the brink of death. I know all I need to know about who you are.”

 

“If something doesn’t go your way then you simply walk away, don’t you?”

 

His cutting words rang true but Aslinne was far too angry to admit her own shortcomings. He said nothing but muttered under his breath in a language Aslinne did not recognize as he rose unsteadily from the ground and brushed off some of the leaves and dirt clinging to him.

 

“You know nothing about me. Nothing.” She didn’t shout but spoke with disdain. “And you are the one who walks away. Like the other day, leaving me behind without a word. If you want to have a friendship with me, this isn’t the way to go about it.”

 

“I don’t need you.”

 

His words hit Aslinne like a rock.

 

“No, I suppose you don’t,” she shouted. “But that’s not what friendship is built upon. It’s not just about your own needs; it’s also having compassion for another person that sustains friendships. You don’t seem to care one whit about anyone but your own self.” Then gesturing to the dead bodies of the acolytes laying discarded nearby she sneered, “You think the lives of these people who have died here have no worth other than for misuse by you?”

 

Aslinne shook her head sadly. “I’m not going to chase after you anymore. If you want to be friends with me, then be brave enough to learn to live truthfully, and with compassion. I don’t want to see you again until you learn what that means.” Then she hung her head in painful resignation. “I’m going to my room. You can clean up your own mess.”

 

And with that she got to her feet and spun away from the stunned mage. She strode away with tears in her eyes, but she was not willing to show him her hurt. He had taken up enough of her time with his complete lack of common decency. She knew she loved him but she also had her limits and he crashed into those today.

*

The mage followed her movements with his eyes, but he didn’t stir from his resting spot. Considering her angry words was a slow process. He didn’t know what he had done to deserve her wrath, but she certainly seemed to think he deserved a good lashing. However, the thought didn’t linger.

 

He was still looking around for the egg but it was blown to smithereens. The spell to hurry the hatching did not go as planned, obviously. His grim expression still hadn’t changed when Cordon returned with the needed cleanup crew and they began gathering the dead and carrying them away in a wheelbarrow. He watched the bodies as they were loaded. Goldie was not among them; neither was S. Aslinne’s words rolled around in his head but he could not make sense out of them. No one approached the mage. No one dared.

 

He had the book, but the egg was gone. Now he recalled, during the casting of the spell S had sidled up to him and tried to touch the book in his hands. It made him lose his focus and he misspoke during the casting. The resulting explosion was obvious. His eyes narrowed and his lips thinned out as he pursed his lips in annoyance. Goldie had been one of his few syndicate contacts, and he now realized that someone had gotten to her.  Probably Nestor. Well blast, if S knew enough to try and take the book then he was no longer safe here, either. And he wanted the rest of his spider’s eggs back, too. They were in storage with the other dragon egg.

 

He took Elnoth’s Cartage and Storage Central Brittany calling card out of one of his many pockets and stared at it for a few minutes. He didn’t even go back into the Lodge. He pulled a travel scroll from a different robe pocket and muttered the incantation quickly before he changed his mind. Aslinne was not going to like this. He didn’t need her anyway, right? Right. There was a twinge of pain when he thought about her and her kind green eyes and bright red hair floated into his mind. With these images swirling in his head, he could feel himself start to fade; it would not be long until he arrived at his location.

 

Just as he vanished, the calling card fluttered to the forest floor.

*

After several hours, Aslinne’s temper subsided and she felt the need to go and check up on the mage, as she had left him sitting in the forest surrounded by destruction. She felt sheepish now that she had lost her temper. Perhaps he was still there, injured. She left her room and walked back to the site of the explosion. There was no mage there. There were no longer other dead bodies there either, but there was a large snowy lynx sitting patiently in the forest right where she had left the mage.

 

“Kitty!” she exclaimed, “what are you doing here?” Walking over to the feline, Aslinne gave Kitty a scratch under the chin. “You are a good girl, aren’t you? Did you follow us all the way here from the ship?” As she petted the cat, Aslinne glanced down and saw a small calling card stuck on one of Kitty’s claws. Kitty seemed to be offering the card to Aslinne. “Is that where he went?” She looked into Kitty’s eyes. Kitty simply rubbed up against Aslinne’s leg and purred.

 

And with that answer, Aslinne pocketed the card. “Well, we’ll see if I feel like looking him up again,” she sniffed. With this decision made, her heart a little sore, and her spirit slightly bruised, she decided to return to the lodge. And good riddance to the mage! Who needed a stupid old mage for a friend anyway? She asked herself that many times as she and Kitty picked their way through the rubble and headed back through the forest to the Lodge.

 

The Day Before the Explosion…

 

Lucy Featherbright, Zyrina, and I finally arrived at Darkshire Hills after our hectic journey from Ordanis Mortis. Just inside Darkshire Hills, at the base of the peaks, we came upon a local bulletin board. Zyrina and I scanned it for information while Lucy looked at some interesting mushrooms that were nearby. We were in luck: The Bent Bow Inn had a poster up on the board and gave clear directions for travelers. There was a signpost just ahead and we knew from the posted flier that we needed to take the road to Town Boundary Three, and then fork left to get to the Bent bow Inn. This should be easy…but of course, somehow, we managed to arrive at the wrong location, and by the time we found our way back and took the correct fork, it was late at night again. Instead of setting up camp, Zyrina wanted to press on to the Inn and the rest of us agreed. We had slept rough for enough nights since leaving Stinging Tree Hollow that the thought of hot water, hot meals, and a warm bed were all very enticing. We picked up our bags for one last push and arrive we did; in a thick fog, late at night, and raining to boot. It was a wonder the Innkeeper opened his door at all. He did.

 

“Mr. Hawkins? My name is Lily Byrd and I’m the sister of the Captain that your daughter Jenny worked for on the Sea Byrd. Hello.” Here I stuck out my arm in a salute of truth. “We are searching for the woman who travelled with your daughter. Is Aslinne Gradh still here?”

 

He returned my salute with the salute of compassion, “First, come in and warm up. My name is James. This is my wife Coralee. Welcome to the Bent Bow.” The innkeeper stepped out of the way and let us sopping wet travelers into the inn before barring the door once more.

 

“Can never been too safe,” he mumbled while he patted the thick wooden door.

 

“Now what can I do for you? Looking for Jenny’s friends you say?” He paused looking them over again before nodding and answering in his slow measured way, “They aren’t far off. We can sort all that out in the morning.” Our looks of relief must have been palatable.

 

He pointed us drenched travelers to a room and sent up warm water to wash with and a hot stew with bread and ale. It was luxurious. I decided we all needed a little pampering, so I gave a little extra gold and arranged baths for myself and each of my companions. It was not entirely altruistic as the combined scent of me and my friends was beginning to make even my eyes water. We took turns in the large bathtub and afterward fell into our still-warm meal with relish. There was no time for anything more, as we were worn to the bone. Sleep took us swiftly.

*

Zyrina was the first awake in the late morning. She dressed silently and tiptoed out of the room while Lucy and I snored gently under our comforters. Downstairs she found the Innkeepers sweeping up and doing dishes as they quietly talked to each other and occasionally laughed. It made her smile to see an old couple still enjoying each other’s company after many years together.

 

“Mornin’ sleepy head!” Mrs. Hawkins put away her broom and came over to Zyrina with a steaming pot of dark black tea, thickly steeped. She poured the steaming hot beverage as she spoke, “How’d you sleep?” Giving Zyrina a once-over, she clearly took in the stains on her well-worn garments as well as the bags under her eyes.

 

Zyrina grimaced, “Better than I have for days, thank you Ma’am.”

 

“Call me Coralee, dear. Is there anything else I can get you?”

 

Shaking her head once, she hesitated a little before going on, “We are trying to catch up with a traveler who we have been following for almost a month. I believe she escorted your daughter Jenny home from the Sea Byrd where they both worked. Do you know where Aslinne Gradh is staying? Or her traveling companion? And I believe there was a snowy lynx with them as well, but you may not have seen the cat.” Here Zyrina paused to take a breath and blow on her cooling tea.

 

“Oh, them.” Mrs. Hawkins gave a toss of her head toward the south, “They moved on down to The Hunting and Fishing Lodge of Darkshire Hills the day after they arrived. It’s south of here following the river and a little further south of the next crossing. Our Jenny is not yet home either. She’s gone out mushroom hunting early this morning, again. She has planned on being out in the woods all day picking. Aslinne taught Jenny a new recipe. Some kind of soup.” Here Mrs. Hawkins licked her lips. “I think she’s making some for our supper tonight too.” Then she added, “Are you going to be staying another night?”

 

Zyrina shook her head again and sipped her tea.

 

James Hawkins finished up the sink of dishes, leaving them to airdry on the sideboard. “That Aslinne is a wonder. I never ‘spected to see our Jenny back home after she left so determined to go to sea like I had when I was young, and yet here she is glad to be home and willing to help. Aslinne taught Jenny some patience that I didn’t see in her before she left. I’m glad Jenny took to that cook.” He shook his head with a puzzled grin on his face. “But that other fella. He’s different, alright. Mumbles to himself and doesn’t talk much. Don’t make much sense either talking about eggs and books and secret meetings.”

 

Zyrina took another long sip of tea. “Oh?” She didn’t bat an eye.

 

He went on, “Not much more I can say. Before they moved on to the lodge, he came up the river and watched the lads and I pull in the day’s catch but didn’t offer so much as a finger to help. Isn’t that right, lads?” Here he nodded to his sons who were knitting socks by the fireplace. “Just sat there listening to us work and him reading out of that little book and muttering to himself.” He seemed quite grumpy about that. “Spent a lot of time watchin’ people but not actually having anything to do with people, y’know what I mean?” Mr. Hawkins seemed disturbed by this. “It isn’t just that, neither. It’s the way he stares. It’s as if he knows nothing about anything and is taking it all in, good and bad, only…well, only it almost feels like he doesn’t know which part’s virtues, and which part’s vice, and he don’t care to know, neither.”

 

“Oh, James, you do prattle on! You don’t want to be bothering the little miss with your insights about strangers,” Coralee admonished her husband with a light touch on his arm. “She’ll meet him soon enough I suppose, if she’s going down to the Lodge.” She looked over at Zyrina again, “Are you wanting to wait for the others before you go?”

 

Zyrina nodded and took another gulp of coffee. “Yes, Ma’am. And thank you for the information.” Here she nodded toward James Hawkins, “Do you know how long they are staying at the Hunting Lodge?” The Hawkins looked at each other in that way that old married couples do, talking without words.

 

“I don’t reckon we do know that. Neither of ‘em said much when they were here,” Jim Hawkins told Zyrina.

 

Mrs. Hawkins added, “Well, at least I think Aslinne is still there. Are you going over today?”

 

“Yes, ma’am we are.” My voice carried over to them and Zyrina turned to see both Lucy and me clomping down the stairs refreshed, dressed, and ready for the day. Even if that day was nearly half finished.

 

“Suit yourselves. I’ve got something prepared to break your fast.” Coralee Hawkins spoke even as she moved to serve the rest of us morning tea and then serve a meal. Lucy especially seemed interested in the big eggs she spied in a bowl on the counter. Mrs. Hawkins stirred up massive cheese omelets, took warm pancakes out of a steamer, and fruit salad from the cold room in a blink of an eye. Then she wrapped banana bread and cheese in some soft cloth and left it for us to take on our travels while we ate our morning meal. And ate. And ATE. Waddling out of the Bent Bow Inn an hour or so later, we three looking rested and satiated. Waving to the innkeepers as we took to the road just in front of the inn, past Mr. Hawkins’s fishing boat and nets, and after spending a few minutes admiring the brand-new masterful rock skipping skills of Jenny’s little brothers, it felt good to be walking again. The rest and the meal had worked their wonders. It was not long before we spied the stone bridge that Coralee and James had described to us. We knew the Lodge was just on the other side and down the bank of the river around a bend by a small dock. Each of us unconsciously squared our shoulders and hurried our paces in unison as we stepped onto the bridge. We were closer to our goal than we had been in a month. I looked around carefully, hoping to see Kitty sitting in the shade watching us. I didn’t, but I saw Lucy making the same sweeping search through all the bushes as I had done.


*

Aslinne had been sitting on the soft turf of the forest floor with Kitty, who was watching Aslinne carefully. They both stared into the forest for a long while. Aslinne found herself stiff when she rose. Stretching, she looked over at Kitty, “Well Kitty, let’s go get some tea and figure out what to do next, okay?”

 

The feline gave her a quizzical look, stretched, and started down the path to the hunting lodge. Coming closer to the building Aslinne could hear several voices and laughter. There must be new guests staying at the lodge. She was not sure she was in the mood to visit with other guests, but she had to go past them to get up to her room. However, upon opening the back door, Aslinne found familiar well-armed and well-provisioned women playing a joyful version of checkers that included three people. They were currently laughing their heads off at something and turned as one to see who had come in. Only one of them was unfamiliar to her.

 

*

Lucy was the first to speak, “Aslinne?”

 

“Who’s asking?”  she winked at Lucy. Then she spied me and Aslinne continued, “it’s me, Aslinne. Lily, don’t you recognize me?”

 

I took note of her tear-stained cheeks and sooty clothing and nodded. “Of course, I do.” I could see she was in a state of anguish. “What’s happened?”

 

That’s when she broke down and started talking too fast, crying, and wringing her hands. We heard the whole story. How she’d met someone on the ship who completely intrigued her while they were travelling in the far north and how after several adventurous months at sea, travelling on wagons, and finally walking, they had arrived here at the lodge to have a short fishing trip and time to enjoy some peace and quiet. Then she told us about the explosion. And the argument. Zyrina swore. Lucy whistled, and I just sat stunned.

 

Lucy asked anxiously, “have you seen Kitty? She’s been following you.”

 

“Yes, she’s just outside finishing off the fish I couldn’t eat for lunch.”

 

“YES!” Lucy’s booming voice reverberated through the whole lodge and she leaped to her feet and ran out the back door in search of her brother’s cat.

 

“Do you know what the mage was trying to do out in the forest?” I asked thoughtfully.

“Nope. It’s not the first time he’s started a fire when casting, but this time there was an actual hole in the ground afterward.”

 

She was going to elaborate but Zyrina cut her off. “Is he still here?” she urgently asked as she started for the backdoor.

 

With her eyebrows raised and just about ready to give the strange woman a blast, Aslinne was restrained by my touch on her shoulder.

 

“That’s Zyrina, my friend. She is rather blunt but one of the best people I know.”

 

Aslinne shook her head no to answer the question then nodded to me and relaxed a little but she still didn’t look pleased with Zyrina’s brusque tone.

 

We had wandered out the side of the lodge while I explained what we knew so far, and why we were so interested in her boyfriend. At a long table under a lovely, shaded canopy while we watched Lucy check Kitty over for injury, Aslinne asked a few questions herself. Cordon overheard our conversation, said nothing, and with a flourish placed some lavish plates of fantastic smelling fish in front of us. He joined in the conversation about Aslinne’s mage after Aslinne introduced him around as the most talented chef she knew.

 

“That mage was nothing but trouble,” he said with tightly pursed lips. “First there was all that business about getting a dragon egg, and then all he managed to do with it was to blow everyone up.” Cordon was obviously still disturbed from having just finished digging graves and burying the charred bodies. “That’s no way to run a restaurant, or a fishing lodge, or anything, anyhow, anywhere.”

 

“Dragon egg?” I looked up at Cordon standing near the rotating spit while he enthusiastically basted the meat there with a brush full of fat and flavor. “Did you say dragon egg?” I repeated this a little louder.

 

He ducked his head, “S returned with them.”

 

“S, yes, we’ve seen that name before.” Zyrina nodded.

 

“I don’t know where they got the egg, but they seemed pleased when it got here. Then that mage showed up and BOOM. Now the egg is gone too.” Cordon had finished the basting and set the pan of sauce down near the roast before wandering back into the lodge muttering under his breath about the kitchen staff and salt.

 

“Is he trying to hatch or control another dragon?” Lucy spoke sharply, having leaned in to hear the conversation.

 

“Maybe,” Zyrina noted as she strode back into the room. “He’s gone. I checked his room.”

 

“Gone?” Aslinne looked stunned. “What do you mean gone? We just had a fight. Where did he go?” She got up and looked frantically all around her, as if she would see the mage pop out of the woods. “I’m not done arguing with him.”

 

“Oh, for pity sakes! We have found Kitty and you, Aslinne.” Zyrina looked frustrated. “Now we intend to find the mage. I think he’s got an artifact that we have been looking for and I think he doesn’t know what to do with it.”

 

“What artifact?” Aslinne asked.

 

First there was silence. Then I launched into a long-winded explanation, and by the time we were done eating our supper, Aslinne knew most of the story. She sat quietly just staring into the forest.

 

Lucy wailed, “How does he keep getting away? Does he know we are following him?”

 

“Let’s go find him.” Aslinne said with quiet firmness. She looked both sad and determined. “There’s hope yet.”

 

Lucy, Zyrina, Aslinne, and I all stared at each other thinking that Aslinne was delusional then slowly one by one we nodded. Kitty yawned loudly and arched her back. Our company had grown by one human and one feline.

 

I sighed. “Fine. But how are we going to find him if he’s disappeared?”

 

Aslinne’s eyes twinkled brightly, which I was beginning to understand meant that she had an idea. She pulled Elnoth’s card from her pocket and handed it over.

 

“I think he’s going there.”

 

I looked at the address, “Elnoth? The Viking elf? How in the world does your mage know Elnoth?”

 

The receipt attached to the back of the card was for new storage at Elnoth’s Cartage and Storage in Central Britanny. For one large box marked fragile.

 

“OH!” I exclaimed, “I know Elnoth! He lives in Jade Valley, too. His cartage is only down a bit from my family’s boardinghouse in the South West of the city.” I looked somber for a moment, “Elnoth isn’t the kind of man who would be an Obsidian sympathizer.”

“Whatever is going on at the storage place, I’m almost certain Elnoth isn’t involved; but we might find out something if we can find this storage item.” Zyrina looked thoughtful, too.

“There are far more cabalist activities in New Britannia, and they are far closer than I had imagined. I wonder if Lord British is aware of how close it is to home, or Lady Arabella for that matter; it is her city.” Lucy also had thought about this very subject most of the way from Darkshire Hills.

 

Zyrina didn’t add a comment but apparently could make out what I was thinking, “You think the egg is at this storage facility?”

 

I nodded.

 

“We just passed through Central Britanny…” Lucy trailed off. She was already repacking her bag. She knew we would be leaving soon to find the mage. “We should get that book from him before he blows up something even bigger.”

 

Zyrina nodded grimly. “We leave in the morning. Are you coming Aslinne?”

 

Aslinne thought for a few moments. “Yes, I believe I will. I’m travelling north regardless. We parted in anger, and I’d like to have a chance to apologize to him for my outburst.”

I stared at her. She could not be more obviously in love, but I don’t think she herself knew that she was in the throes. That mage had been responsible for much destruction wherever he traveled and I for one was not convinced of his good intentions, nor his virtue. I could not see how he was lovable but apparently Aslinne saw something that no one else seemed to. It gave me pause to think, because Aslinne had a good sensible approach to life. She was not easily taken advantage of, and her steadfast attitude toward the mage made me reconsider. Maybe there was something I wasn’t seeing.

 

“We need to get that book from him before he does any more damage,” I stated.

 

The others nodded. Well, Aslinne didn’t, but she looked very thoughtful.

 

Then we got to work, planning our trip to Central Britanny, catching Aslinne up with the whole story, and listening to Cordon who had overheard many of the conversations around the lodge. No one usually noticed a waiter in a dining room unless they want something for the table, but now we were all ears. As he repeated some of the gossips, he moved around efficiently and eventually started serving the meal he had spent the day preparing.

 

We listened to his stories, stuffed ourselves on the fabulous second supper, talked and planned late into the evening, and when it seemed that there was nothing left to add, we each found a bed.

Echoes From the Caverns

Echoes From the Caverns

August 18 2022

Louisiana Myths & Folklore, Volume 5

Read by Alleine Dragonfyre

Louisiana Myths & Folklore 

Volume 5 – “City of Darkness”

 

“So tell me about the vampires,” I said, in a casual manner, having bumped into Jacque once again, this time in the Ordinis Mortis marketplace. 

The man truly was everywhere, these days.

“Vampires?” he said.  “Fiction, pure fiction.”  He made a dismissive gesture and pretended to be immersed in examining the merchandise on the stall in front of him.

“You’ve told me of the loup-garou, of the marsh fires, of the voodoo witch.  You’ve told me of ghosts and hauntings and the eerie above-ground cemeteries where any of the above may be lurking, it seems. But vampires are fiction?”

“There are legends of course,” he began, leaning casually against a nearby stone facade.  “There were murders.  Bodies found drained of blood.  That sort of thing. “

He paused then, gauging my reaction.  I kept my expression neutral.  He continued:

“John and Wayne Carter, brothers you understand.  Worked normal labor jobs, lived in the French Quarter.  Seemed nice enough folks, at least, until the police found those bodies at their place, drained of blood.  Found over a dozen of them.”

“What happened to these brothers?” I asked, feeling a bit nauseous.

“They were executed.  Took 8 men to subdue them, they were so strong.  Locals said they drank the blood of their victims…that’s how the nonsense started.”

Jacque’s stiff posture and reticence in elaborating on this story made it clear to me that he did not think this was nonsense. I gave no response, and waited for him to continue.  Eventually, he did:

“Folks say their bodies went missing from their tombs.  And that one of the victims that survived, went on to also kill people and drain their blood.  Then you have the usual folk who claim to still see the brothers roaming the French Quarter at night, looking for victims.”

I recalled our first meeting in Aerie, hearing his footsteps behind me on the dark, empty streets.  I felt a chill.

Jacque straightened himself and began walking past the market stalls. Vendors were packing their wares away and hurrying indoors.

He looked at me carefully, as if making up his mind about something.  Then he walked over to the devotional fountain. 

Removing a glove from his hand, he let his fingertips gently brush the surface of the waters. 

Steam billowed from the fountain, accompanied by a resounding hiss.  He touched the side of my face then, with that same ungloved hand. 

I felt the beads of the fountain’s water trace burning paths down my neck. 

I reached out to push him away, laying my palm flat against his chest.   No heartbeat….?

I took a step back.

“Oh come my dear, you were never in any danger.  I know you are an Avatar.”  And then he was off again, walking across the grass over to the river.

“I call this the Ordinissippi.  Has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?”

And there, further up the docks, I saw the drydocked ship, being loaded with assorted barrels and crates.  Colored banners flew, glowing with their own luminescence under the starless sky.

“What is it that you want from me?  Why have you been following me?”  I asked, as I followed him toward the ship.

“Why, to tell the story, of course!” he said, laughing, as he climbed up onto the docks.

He hopped down off the platform and gestured over at a brightly lit cafe down the street, still open and bustling at this time of night.

“We all have much to learn of this world, but we must never forget where it is we came from.   Here is where we have gathered, to rebuild our city as it once was…or as close as we can, in this place.”  

He gestured at the avenue in front of us.  Look there, Madame’s House of Voodoo…and there..we’re calling that the New Absinthe.” 

“And there, the musical legends park…statues still with the sculptor. “It is apparently extraordinarily difficult to get quality granite on this world!”

I looked up and down the avenue, recognition dawning as Jacque led me from place to place. 

We stopped for beignets at Cafe du Monde Noveaux.   We sampled seafood at Pier 425.  We danced under glowing lights at New Bourbon Street Balcony.

Slowly, slowly the sun started to rise.

As it did, the entire street seemed to …shimmer in the growing light.  Fading out, until I was standing there like a fool in an empty field.

Had it all been a dream?

I looked down, and there in my hand was a handful of brightly colored metal coins, stamped with various faces and symbols.

I stuffed them in my pocket, and started walking back toward town.

It seemed Ordinis Mortis now had its own ghosts.

——————————The End

Echoes From the Caverns

Echoes From the Caverns

[-][/c]

August 18 2022

Louisiana Myths and Folklore, Volume 4

 

Read by Alleine Dragonfyre

 

Louisiana Myths & Folklore

Volume 4 – “The Voodoo Queen”

 

 It was early evening and I had just come through the pass, and I could see the lights of Brittany ahead in the distance.

Rather than head straight for the city, it was often my habit to pass through Midmaer to gather reagents that only bloomed in the moonlight. 

And of course, that’s where I ran into him again.  Jacque, in his fine coat, stood at the forest’s edge almost as if expecting me. 

He didn’t seem to have any particular agenda, and trailed alongside me as I walked the path through North Midmaer way, gathering nightshade and mandrake root as I went.  He made small talk mostly, but seemed on edge as we passed under the shadows of the trees.

I left the path then, heading into a grove of trees I knew had bountiful roots and herbs.  The grove was well lit by a shimmering will-o-wisp. 

I headed toward it, watching my step to not trip over brambles and branches.  

Suddenly Jacque’s hands grabbed my shoulders, halting my forward movement.

Fifolet!” he whispered harshly, then gestured I should turn around.  I looked around, trying to figure out what he was so worried about.   

“Its just a will-o-wisp,” I said, gesturing at the hovering purple floating creature. There are many of them in Novia.”

He looked at it dubiously.  

“It is quite harmless,” I added.  

Jacque did not look convinced.  He continued to look at the will-o-wisp, then at me, then back at the wisp, frowning. 

I laughed, and gathered my focus, calling upon the powers of moon magic to summon a will-o-wisp right there in front of us. It appeared with a whooshing sound, then sat placidly, glowing softly. 

“Feu Follet” he said, more slowly.  It still sounded like ‘feefolay’ to me.  “Devil spirits.  They lure you out into the woods, often to your death!”

Well, this one’s not leading anyone anywhere, look…” I said, running in a circle and the wisp followed me obediently.

Jacque still did not look convinced. “You have this as a pet?  In my homeland, these fairy spirits lure people to their doom – you’ll follow it right into a lake and drown!”

I decided that this would not be a good time to demonstrate that I had taught my pet wisp to dance.  I dismissed it with a wave of my hand.  Jacque relaxed noticeably. 

In the sudden darkness, the lights of a nearby house became visible in the distance.  Without a word, Jacque started toward it.  We passed under the eerie branches of trees; trees that seemed to watch us as we moved.  It was an unsettling feeling.  I had never strayed this far from the path, before. 

Jacque walked to the side of the house, which itself seemed to be carved of a giant tree, and peered in one of the windows.  He then mumbled to himself at some length in that same creole patois he’d spoken the night we first met, then walked back to where I stood, hidden in the forest.

“It is her,” he said simply, and started back toward the road.  “We should leave this place.” 

“You mean the supposed “witch” of Midmaer?” I asked.  “She’s known to live in these parts.  She does herbal remedies and such for folk.  Similar to my line of work, really.” 

He shot me a glare.   

“I’d recognize her anywhere.  Your Midmaer witch is Marie Laveau, the voodoo queen.   I knew the rumors of her death were false.  Look, there in the window! She lives still!” 

I raised an eyebrow.  And then Jacque told me her story: 

Marie Laveau, The Voodoo Queen did indeed provide herbal remedies, and was a well known and influential member of society in her day, which was all the more impressive for being a woman of colour during that time in South Louisiana.   But it was also said that she communed with the dead, and crafted spells on behalf of clients for good or ill, and engaged in rites with demons.

“She knew things, that woman.  She’d give advice to all the prominent people in town, and somehow she always knew the outcomes.”  From his demeanour, Jacque spoke of her as if she were someone he regularly passed on the street.  He talked then of her funeral, which was attended by  people from all social circles.   

While it was said that she died peacefully of old age in her home, many people reported seeing her after her alleged death.  While her daughters took over her shop, mystery and legend always surrounded what became of her.  Whether her magic was real, or whether she was merely a gifted reader of people, her legacy has echoed through the years and become a part of New Orleans history.

Even a century later, people still mark an X on her grave (where some claim she is not actually buried) and leave offerings in exchange for magical favors. 

“And at last now, the mystery is solved.” He said, as if it were blindingly obvious. 

“She’s come here, just as you have.  Just as I have.”

 “But what need have we of Voodoo, here in Novia? The land itself teems with magic.” To emphasize my point, I summoned the will-o-wisp again. 

Jacque raised his arms and exclaimed something I did not understand, but needed no translation, and headed down the road out of the forest. 

He called out behind him, “If you see one of those fifolets, one that doesn’t live in your pocket, don’t follow it!”

And he was gone.  The forest seemed to ..unclench a little.  There was a light breeze, like the trees let out a collective sigh.

I looked back at the witch’s house, and saw a face at a window staring back at me.   

She nodded her head once, slowly. Then drew the curtains. 

Shimizu 560

Echoes From the Caverns

Echoes From the Caverns

August 18 2022

Louisiana Myths and Folklore, Volume 3

 

Read by Alleine Dragonfyre

Louisiana Myths and Folklore

Volume 3 – “ The Haunted Mansion”

 

So I was making a delivery to a regular customer of mine up north in Harvest. As usual, the place was busy with many people going about their business, even though it was late evening and the sun had already set.

I heard a commotion down in the square, and saw a man in a  familiar looking, fashionable yet out of style, overcoat being led by the hand by a group of young children who are chattering and gesturing wildly.

Of course, it was Jaque, who seemed to be turning up everywhere these days.  Or at least everywhere that I was. That thought nagged me a bit, but I let it lie for the time being, and went to see what all the fuss was about.

Jaque smiled as I approached and said “These children have been telling me that the house up on the hill here is haunted. What do you know of this?”

I briefly explained that yes, strange things had been known to occur in that house after midnight, but that many adventurers had come through and investigated the matter. It wasn’t something I was particularly worried about, just local legends.

Jaque seemed to be considering something, and then finally he crouched down on one knee right there on the street and said “Children, do you want to hear of a haunted house from my homeland?”

I expect that some of the children probably did want to hear this tale, but the fresh lemon buns that Jaque was handing out to his would-be audience were likely the more deciding factor.

I loitered nearby, out of curiosity more than anything to hear the storyteller spin his tale.

Jaque sat down on a bench, and the children clustered around eagerly. He glanced up at the house on the hill, and then back at his audience, and began.

There was a house very similar to that one where I am from. Yes, a beautiful mansion and the home of Doctor LaLaurie and his wife Delphine….

Jaque went on a several minutes long tangent about the fabulous parties thrown at the LaLaurie house of which he had of course attended many though the nuances of wine and dancing, and the general behaviour of New Orleans socialites was probably lost on his current audience, who nibbled on their lemon buns and started to look bored.

“So their mansion was haunted?”  I asked, trying to steer him back on track.

 He grinned his famous grin at me, and carried on. “This house was, you understand, just a few houses down from my own home on Royal Street, and I can personally bear witness to some of the …activities… that went on under that roof.

By this point, some of the other residents of Harvest had gathered round to hear the tale. As Jaque began to describe the events that took place, it became evident both to myself and the surrounding parents, that such a tale was certainly not fit for children’s ears.

 Suffice it to say that the mistress of the house, Madame Delphine La Laurie, was exceedingly cruel to the people in her employ, treating them as property and punishing them horribly for the smallest slight.

I could see that Jaque was trying to explain the origin of the haunting without going into what I later learned was gruesome detail. “She did bad things, very bad.” was about the best he could come up with. Parents were trying  to usher their children away from the crazy man in the antique clothes – It was far past their bedtime.

Jacque did not seem perturbed by the loss of his audience. He continued talking, half to himself, half to me, while brushing the lemon bun crumbs off of his jacket.

“Anyway!” he said after a while, snapping back to the present. “The people, they found out what was going on. They gathered around in the streets demanding justice. And there was a terrible fire……”

So the story went, one of the cooks, tired of the cruelty of the mistress, set fire to the kitchen, which spread to much of the house. Madam Delphine was never seen again after that day, having vanished from the city.

For years later, he went on to say, later owners of the house reported hearing screams of agony, or the sounds of sobbing, coming from seemingly within the walls.    For many years the house stood empty and fell into a state of decay.  For the next hundred years, he said, everyone who owned the house ended up in shame.  Scandals, even murders, and rumors of lost riches surrounded the house, though very few dared to go and search for them.

He said 150 years after Madame’s disappearance people discovered the skeletal remains of her servants, buried beneath the floorboards.

He finished his monologue and looked up at the House on the Hill, then looked at me.

I shrugged.

Then a thought occurred to me.

´Jacque,” I asked, meeting his gaze.  “How is it that you say you knew Dr LaLaurie and his wife, and attended their parties, and know of events that happened a hundred years after their deaths?”

To his credit, he didn’t even look surprised by the question.

“Ah, cherie, pretty AND smart” he said. “You’ll figure it out.”  He did a flourishing bow and strolled off toward the house on the hill.

I heard the clock tower in town chime midnight as I turned and headed on the road leading out of the city. 

When I reached the mountain pass, I turned and looked back.  It may have just been a trick of the light, but I could have sworn that the mansion was ablaze. 

I wrapped my cloak around my shoulders more tightly and travelled the rest of the way home.

Shimizu

560 PC

Echoes From the Caverns

Echoes From the Caverns

August 17 2022

Louisiana Myths and Folklore, Volume 2

Read by Alleine Dragonfyre

Louisiana Myths and Folklore

Volume 2 – “Beware the Loup – Garou”

 

It was some days after my chance meeting with Jaque at the Tavern in Aerie, when I was going about my usual business. I am an alchemist by trade, and often visit local swamps for rare herbs and mushrooms.

I’m more than capable of dealing with most of the swamp’s hazards, but it was unusual for me to encounter other people when I made my collection trips.

Even more unusual for me to be taken by surprise.

This is why I jumped a little, startled, when I heard a voice behind me suddenly utter in a raspy voice “Don’t move.”

Instinctively, my hand began to tangle with the channelling of Earth magic, and I turned to face the threat. Who was it but none other than Jaque, the strange man from New Orleans.

 He backed away a step, and smiled what I would come to recognise as his famous disarming smile, and said “Mademoiselle Shimizu. I did not mean to startle you.”

 I let the earth magics recede.

Satisfied I was no longer on the offensive, Jacque took my hand and led me back through the thick reeds aways, ducking behind one of the old Cypress trees. He pressed one finger to his lips. “Sssh” and with the other hand pointed out into the fog and gloom.

“What is it?” I whispered, seeing nothing but the usual foetid swamp waters, and hearing nothing but the usual cacophony of insects, buzzing from every direction.

I opened my mouth to ask him again, but he quieted me with a gesture. “Listen,” he whispered.

I listened to the sound of the water’s surface disturbed by fish. I listened to the sounds of creatures rustling through the underbrush.

Nothing out of the ordinary for South Fetid swamp.

After an indeterminate amount of time listening to nothing out of the ordinary, Jacque sat down on a fallen log and said “Well, that’s a relief.”

He sat there for a moment, straightening the cuffs of his shirt and carefully removing bits of leaves from his hair.

I had spent enough time with the man by this point to realise that an explanation would be forthcoming, but that he had to tell these things in his own way. Storytelling being, according to him, one of his most passionate entertainments, as I had learned during our meeting in Aerie.

Finally, satisfied that he had removed as much of the swamp muck as was possible while still sitting in the middle of the swamp, he turned and asked me, “Have you ever heard of the Loup-Garou?”

I, of course, shook my head that I had not. And so he told me the story.

 In his homeland, Jacque explained, there were stories of a strange creature that inhabited the swamplands. the Loup-Garou, or what the locals sometimes called the Rougarou, was said to inhabit the swamps around New Orleans and Acadania.

He looked at me with his still empty eyes and said “It’s a werewolf of course. That’s what the word means.”

I smiled. Of course it was a werewolf. It seemed silly to believe in such things, and yet we did cross a rift into Novia, and I had surely with my own eyes seen and even fought stranger things than werewolves.

 This loup-garou, Jaque explained, carried with it a curse – If it were to bite you, then you must tell no-one of it for 101 days, lest you also turn into a loup-garou.

“At least that is what the old wives used to say. In this world – who knows?”

We sat in silence for a time, listening to the chirp of crickets. “So,” I asked him, “It’s just a large wolf?”

“The head of a wolf, the body of a man, so the stories say. Or perhaps It was the other way around. I never saw it.”

“Hmm.” I said, not sure what else to say.

We sat a while longer, but it was getting late. Not that you could see sun or stars in  fog this thick. I picked up my bag of herbs and stood up, preparing to bid Jaque good evening.

A soul-chilling howl suddenly echoed across the swamp.

Jaque jumped to his feet, and for a moment it seemed his eyes glowed red.

“Has the beast also come to Novia?” he exclaimed, and took up a fighting stance, though I noted, he drew no weapon. I was going to ask him what he planned to fight it with, when another sound pierced the darkness.

And this sounded like a woman’s scream.

In an instant, Jaque was gone into the mists. He was swift, but I had travelled these swamps many times, and I caught up with him in a clearing, alongside a terrified young woman.

He had his hand clasped tightly over her mouth, and kept saying “You mustn’t  speak of it, you mustn’t breath a word of it!”

Without so much as another glance in my direction, he wrapped his cloak around the woman’s shoulders and began walking her back in the direction of town.

 It had started raining again. I stood some time there in the darkness, listening, before turning to follow in the direction Jaque and the woman had gone.

And for some reason, the next night I found myself staying in range of the city street lights when I went out to forage.

 By Shimizu in the year 560 PC.

Echoes From the Caverns

Echoes From the Caverns

August 17 2022

Louisiana Myths and Folklore, Volume 1

Read by Alleine Dragonfyre

Louisiana Myths and Folklore

Volume 1  – “Meeting with a stranger”

People have come to Novia from so many places it was inevitable that some, at least, would hail from Louisiana. And while they have seen some strange things indeed in their time in this world, perhaps things are not so strange  considering the tales they tell of their homeland.

One such traveller, I met  one late evening on the streets of Aerie. He was going nowhere in particular, it seemed. It almost felt like he was waiting for me or at least for someone. He watched me walk aways, following at a respectful but unsettling distance.

A light drizzle began to fall, and I quickened my pace. My pursuer matched my strides. Finally, I stopped, turned, and stood beneath a guttering streetlight to face him. The night breeze pushed aside my cloak, revealing me to be harmed.

After sizing me up for a few moments, he laughed and mumbled something I couldn’t understand in a French patois, then gestured at the tavern across the street and offered to buy me a drink.

Since prior to running into the stranger the tavern had been my destination, I saw no harm in this – besides, the rain was picking up, and it would be best to go indoors until it relented.

As we walked through the doorway, his eyes took in the entire room, meeting the gaze of the few assembled therein – a tired barmaid, and a few late revellers in the corner. He seemed to relax, and it wasn’t until I saw this change in his demeanour that I realised how tense he had been before.

Then, as if we not just met by chance in the rainy street, he patted me on the shoulder and called the barmaid over to bring me a drink. Now that the light was better, I could see that he was quite handsome. He was young – not much older than I, certainly – but his eyes seemed ageless and ancient. I did not stare at them long.

It was there as I sipped some wine from some local vineyard, that he said quietly, “Pleased to meet you. My name is Jacque.”

I introduced myself in turn, and it seemed once this verbal barrier had been breached, there was no stopping the flow of words from him. He began with stories of Europe from an earlier time, and stories of Africa from the age of explorers. The level of detail in his recountings was remarkable.

As he spoke, I reflected that he seemed someone more accustomed to be around people. His clothes, cut from an older style, were ornate and clearly belonged to a man of wealth.

Finally, I asked of all the exotic places he had described which of these was his home before coming to this world?

“Ah,” he said, leaning closer to me, his voice dropping to a whisper.

His expression suddenly looks sad, his eyes misty.

He then proceeded to tell me about his home on Royal Street in New Orleans. The dinners, the parties, the food, the women!

He talked and talked and talked until the first glimmers of dawn began to flicker in the windowsill.

Then, quite suddenly, he was on his feet, donning his hat and cloak and bidding  me farewell. In a quite antiquated gesture, he bowed and kissed the top of my hand and slipped a shiny bauble in my hand. He said it had been quite a while since there had been someone he could talk to so openly. Then, with a flourish, he was gone, disappeared into the pouring rain.

 It wasn’t until after he left that I realised, he had never touched his own drink.

 It was some days later that I asked a local jeweller familiar with otherworldly artefacts about the shiny bauble. He wasn’t able to discern much, says it looks by style to have been from the 18th or 19th century France, but he couldn’t tell for sure.

He was able to translate the old text for me; it read simply. “House of Saint Germaine”. Neither of us really understood the significance of this. What a strange fellow he had been! And the stories! Some too outrageous to believe!

 I have written down all that I remember here for your delight, so that we may celebrate our journey to Novia while paying homage to our past, our roots, and the legends that have shaped us. By Shimizu in the year 560.

Echoes From the Caverns

Echoes From the Caverns

August 15 2022

The Stone Dragon series – Book 2, Chapter 8

Read by Addy

Chapter 8. Capes and Secrets.

Just across a river or two from the city, Zyrina stopped along the side of the bridge and looked at the sign directing us to a midsize town just ahead. The sign said Ordanis Mortis.

 

“Here it is,” Zyrina trailed off. “Restaurant coming up.”

 

“Real food.” Lucy nearly drooled.

 

Without hesitation I spoke up, “Absolutely, we’ve travelled hard and hungry. Let’s go find out what we can. Same tactic as last time: look for people who know more than they should know…and get them drunk if you have to.”

 

“Is it far?” Lucy asked, her stomach rumbling along with her question.

 

“Nope. And the town crier is usually near the docks just as we enter town, and he will give us better directions than I can remember off the top of my head. I just remember the menu…” I noticed Zyrina wiped her mouth which was salivating in anticipation.

 

“Come on,” I called out as I headed for the community of Ordanis Mortis. I had more than food on my mind.

 

“List Rostov hires the best chefs in the land, as far as I’m concerned,” Zyrina proclaimed boldly as she crossed the bridge. “She has never failed to fill my stomach with a good meal and sometimes a good song too. List dabbles in music too, you know?”

 

I nodded my head, “Yes, I’ve played music with Ms. Rostov at various pubs around Novia. And I’ve eaten with you at this restaurant years ago.” Zyrina looked thoughtful for a minute before remembering, then nodded, and Lucy just looked confused and hungry.

 

Here Zyrina stopped gossiping and hailed the town crier, “Good sir, where might I find Los Gardeñias Restaurant owned by List Rostov?”

 

The crier pointed to the path across the field away from the river and through the beautiful cherry tree garden nearby. We did find it, mostly by following our noses.

 

We seated ourselves in the outdoor area behind the main building, on a long bench and a long table covered with a checkered pattern. Then staff arrived at our table with heaping platters of succulent meats and dishes from around the land as well as a sweet wine that all of us drank far too much of. The Phoénix Picante was AMAZING. Lucy had two helpings.

 

Zyrina had wandered off part way through the meal and, as Lucy and I were just beginning to wonder where she had gone, she returned. She held a few scraps of torn paper in her hand and placed them in a clear spot on the table.

 

“I saw someone I knew,” she said simply. “The mage has been here in Ordanis Mortis, too.”

 

That drew the immediate attention of Lucy too. We all leaned in further.

 

“What? Where?”

“When?”

 

“Juanita Joanna Maria Pajero, a waitress here at Los Gardeñias, is an old friend of mine. I asked her if she had seen Aslinne come through town. She hasn’t.” Zyrina saw me open my mouth to ask.

 

“We were talking about magic in Novia and she got a strange look on her face. I asked what she was thinking about. She hesitated a little before mentioning a weird fellow, a tattooed mage in black with a little book under his arm and a big blue bag that had been here for a meal with an equally striking older man also dressed in black,” she told us.

 

 Zyrina went on, “that description of the mage caught my attention right away. Juanita knew nothing else, but she showed me the cloak that the mage left behind after an argument between him and the other fellow.” Here she held up her hand to deflect my question. “The fight was about a dragon egg. It was short and vicious. She didn’t hear anything more specific. He didn’t even storm out, didn’t even finish his meal, he uttered a short incantation and rudely disappeared right in front of everyone.” She added, “Obviously used a magic travel scroll.”

 

I nodded agreement, “Go on.”

 

Zyrina continued by answering Lucy’s question, “They were here recently enough that Los Gardeñias has not yet discarded his forgotten cloak.”

 

Lucy looked ready to speak but Rina continued, “Yes, I went through the pockets,” She added seeing our hope, “I only found three things. These were in one of the pockets. Another one that looks like it was torn out of something.”

 

The first note was wrinkled from being in the bottom of a pocket and shredded to bits, but still readable. The series of numbers were different from the first ones we had discovered, but no less confusing. And the paper didn’t seem to match up to the edges of the other piece of parchment anywhere. The papers seemed to be related though. Four numbers in a row.

 

                            1-1-2-3

                           O-2

 

“What in the world can this be? A really long lock combination?” Lucy stared at the numbers as if they were going to speak to her. They didn’t. She smoothed the paper and tucked it in the satchel with the other numbers we had encountered.  None of theses made any sense to any of us as of yet.

 

The second note made more sense. We were on our way to Darkshire Hills and this might have been the mage that was there with Aslinne and Kitty, after all. I nodded my head and pursed my lips to read it aloud.

 

At the headwaters of the Eylo River you will find the peace of mind you have been searching for all these years:

 

The Bent Bow Inn

 

When you arrive in Darkshire Hills choose Town Boundary #3 and take the left fork on the road. You will find us near the bridge. 

Our inn is clean and tidy.

 

Our food is delicious and nourishing.

 

Our ale is unique and thirst quenching.

 

Especially after a long day of fishing along the headwaters.

 

Especially when you weren’t as lucky as you hoped you be today, but there is always tomorrow.

 

Come, eat, relax, and try again in the morning for that special fish that you know is there in the Eylo.

 

Yes, THAT big fish that you will tell all your friends about back home!

 

The Bent Bow Inn is managed by the Hawkins Family on behalf of the Byrd Family Holdings.

 

“See? We know where to look in Darkshire Hills now at least. The Bent Bow Inn.” Lucy seemed satisfied at least. I handed it to her.

 

“My family has properties I didn’t even know existed.” I shook my head sadly realizing that I really need to pay attention to that paperwork back at the Moontower Keep one day. Definitely one day soon.

 

Thirdly, there was a flyer for the local pub here in Ordanis Mortis, The Filthy Stag.

 

The Filthy Stag

 

Come on down to the oldest pub in all of Novia located along the mighty Eylo River in Ordanis Mortis.

 

You will want to come here and soak up the ambiance. Or at least soak up some of the suds. Don’t dress up. Trust us*

 

There is plenty to drink and all sorts of folks willing to play a friendly game of chance or share a secret or two.

 

We will never tell.

 

Find us straight north of the Town Crier. Or ask the Town Crier. He will know where we are.  Bards are always welcome and will be given a meal.

 

*Wear boots as the floor may be sticky. *Leave your valuables somewhere safe.

 

Of course, we went to explore.

 

“Well, drat there isn’t anything here.” After sitting in the pub and playing song after song as well as a story or two, I had watched the entire room and there were no obvious Obsidians in the entire pub; we found little. Few would talk with us on such a personal topic of who they saw while they drank in the Filthy Stag, except one of the old locals remembered seeing a ranked mage with blue and green tattoos who was here one night muttering to himself for a few hours. The mage’s odd behavior spooked the locals. The Oldster didn’t know where that mage went when he rose up while “talking to the midair” and disappeared. Since there were no more drinks forthcoming from any of us he then left our table, grumbling under his breath.

 

“Weren’t right in the head, s’far as I could make out.” The old fella murmured into the dregs of his drink then went back to ignoring us all as best he could.

 

“We did find out how to catch a boat over by the docks to take us upriver to Darkshire Hills.” Zyrina said thoughtfully.

 

“Yeah, okay sure. One thing here was useful,” I conceded. “Information is always valuable.”

 

Though this interlude spurred us back to our mission, it shone no light on any of the things we understood. We now refocused on getting to Darkshire Hills as soon as possible. After paying for our meal and gathering up our belongings, we thanked the staff for the food and promised to be back next time any of us were anywhere near Ordanis Mortis.

 

From then on, we kept to ourselves on the road, stopping only to eat from our lavish meal leftovers that had been wrapped in freshly waxed cotton and placed in a woven basket along with another bottle of that sweet wine, Sangria. We rested occasionally and ate when we were hungry. The foliage changed as we trod the well-worn path through the North Majestic Forest, skirting the edge of the Grunvald Barrens and the Savrenoc Timberland as we kept traveling south along the winding trail that followed the Eylo River until Zyrina pointed out the Spectral Mountain chain.

 

There was a sturdy stone bridge to cross over a wide and deep crevasse with a fast-running river that gave us a great deal of trouble. This is where we turned and headed west into the Spectral Mountain range. We were expecting to have to tangle with bandits on this journey but, of course, the undead didn’t care about our expectations and attacked us on the bridge. Zyrina and I kept a storm of arrows flying as we all sprinted across and as far along the path as we could run while Lucy followed closely and kept a stream of heals pouring into each of us. Eventually the skeletons stopped running after us and went back to guarding their bridge just before we collapsed with exhaustion. Now THIS was adventurous and terrifying too; it sure got my blood pumping.

 

The exhilaration of battle took some time to dissipate. We worked well as an impromptu team and it took a few moments to relive the running battle while we rested and patched up our broken and jostled gear. We knew we would not have survived a pitched fight with the skeletons and were all especially relieved to have outrun them. The guard at the gates of Central Britanny had warned us of bandits on the road. I hadn’t thought they meant the undead but, from then on, we were far more wary of our surroundings. We slept rough and took turns on watch through the night. There was only one wandering skeleton that we easily outran and, within two days walk from Central Britanny, we had reached the southern edges of the Savrenoc Timberland. It smelled so fresh and vibrant high up in the foothills and the view of the fading peaks in the distance was breathtaking. I could always enjoy the scenery, even under the direst of dashes across the land. And Darkshire Hills was not far away from this fantastic resting spot.

Echoes From the Caverns

Echoes From the Caverns

 

June 28 2022

The Stone Dragon Series – Book 2, Chapter 7

Read by Asclepius

Chapter Seven. The Dirty Scoundrel.

 

Arriving near town after a short walk through a lovely bucolic meadow and past some impressive ruins, we could hear the babbling river and soon enough came upon an old, curved stone bridge covered with lichen.  I paused and had a good gawk all around from the bridge then followed the others under the arch of a tall stone clock tower. Stepping off the bridge, all I could smell was fresh bread baking. As a group, we paused to get oriented at the local bulletin board near the clock tower and Zyrina spotted another ad for Ye Olde Pickled Spinster. We were on the right trail for a bed and possibly a bath. And definitely some supper. I knew exactly where to go.

 

“I recognize this smell. I know that bakery.” I began to broadly smile. “She’s baked my favorite sweet.” My mouth was watering. I could smell the lemons now. This was heartening and irresistible. Lucy was also visibly buoyed by the prospect of some food and even started whistling her wandering song again. We naturally followed our noses to the southwest and soon came upon the source of the delightful scents: Bread and Roses.

 

Lucy was first through the door to the small bakery but Zyrina slipped through right after and I did too, once I’d taken a minute to admire the many roses still in full bloom. Oh, the sights, the smells. The memories of travels past. The sugar and yeast bread combination were doubly heady pleasures after my diet of dried nuts and fruits, soda-bread, and cheese while in flight across Novia for nearly three weeks at this point. Cheese and nuts don’t have a chance compared to a freshly baked sticky lemon bun. Especially one of Alley’s pastries.

 

Alley Oop looked up and smiled right at me.

“Hi Alley.” I shyly offered.

“By the Titans! What brings you this far north, Lily?” She asked on her way over to give me a quick hug.

“Following our noses to your bakery.” I said this with a grin. We were not the only customers in the place and Alley was pressed back into service.

 

When I had a chance after the crowd had thinned, I asked “Do you have any lemon buns left?” I didn’t see any in the display though I could smell the lemon.

 

Alley pulled a dozen fresh ones out from a hiding spot under her counter and winked at me. Now I was truly grinning.

 

“Thanks, you remembered.” I smiled again pleased that my friend was thoughtful enough to put a bag of lemon buns aside when she saw me in her shop.

“Course I did.”

 

After introducing the baker to Lucy and to Zyrina, Lucy and Alley struck up a conversation and I tucked into the first of my buns as I could wait no longer. Then nothing else existed for a few moments.

 

“Your word?” I could hear Lucy ask Alley. Alley nodded emphatically and grinned, handing a large bag of sticky sweet cinnamon breads to Lucy.

 

“Yes, I absolutely know Aslinne Gradh. She comes through trading her lemons and offering good fresh news at least once a year, sometimes twice. She’s friends with the cook at the Dirty Scoundrel.” She nodded out the door across the green.

 

Alley then waved hello to Zyrina and said pleasantly, “Good to meet you Zyrina, welcome to Stinging Tree Hollow. What can I get for you?”

 

Zyrina shook her head and waved her off.

 

“Nothing? Suit yourself.” She handed Zyrina a cheese bun and surprisingly Rina took it, sniffed it, and took a big bite of it.

 

“I take it none of you strayed from the path on the way into town. or you would all be in some proper discomfort by now. This town is aptly named, of course.” She looked at our limbs searchingly but seemed satisfied with our health in the end.

 

“Yeah, we’d been warned.” I nodded in the direction of Zyrina who had cautioned Lucy earlier when she tried to leave the path to explore a mushroom nearby that she didn’t recognize. Stinging Trees, grown all throughout the area are excruciatingly painful to encounter and, though Lucy carried healing salve (as did I), after hearing Zyrina’s recollection of the pain of the sting I wasn’t willing to chance the contact. Though I had been in this town several times I had not once thought that the woods nearby might hold such dangers, but I didn’t often wander off the trail either.

 

Alley continued, “However, now that your stomachs have been tempered let me take you next door for a proper welcome.” She took off her apron and gestured out the door to the building nearly next to the bakery, “At Ye Olde Pickled Spinster.” She turned to put up her closed sign and I exchanged a little glance with Zyrina. She raised her eyebrows in question, and I shrugged in reply. Then we followed Alley out of the bakery and into the Inn.

 

This was truly a small land in that, even this far across the continent, we had run into yet another person who is friends with Aslinne Gradh.

 

Once inside the inn and seated at a long wooden table after our drinks were served and we had slaked our parched mouths, Alley Oop explained.

 

“She trades all up and down the seaboard. How can I not know her? Plus, her fish stew is about the best I’ve ever tasted, though I’ve tried to duplicate it. She trades fairly. Always has a fair bit of news to share, too. How do you not know her?” She turned to me.

 

“She is the cook on my sister’s ship.”

 

“Captain Violet Green is your sister?”

 

“Sure is. You know Violet too?”

 

“Yup, she’s been through a few times. She’s fond of sugar cookies.”

 

“Yup, that’s Violet,” I nodded.

 

This new connection startled me a little, but I recovered quickly and ordered another round of ale. “We are actually trying to find her right now,” I pointed out. “Have you seen her recently?”

 

Alley shook her head and took a deep satisfying swig of her tankard.

I was beginning to remember why I liked drinking with her. She frolicked as fiercely as she fought. Maybe that’s why her bread rose to such heights. I’m sure she could beat it to submission and not even bat an eye. Tough as nails. Smart as a whip and kind, too. I soon found the piano and we screeched and wailed late into the afternoon, entertaining ourselves as surely as we annoyed those around us who did not share our exuberance. Our group spent the next few hours enjoying a good round of drinking and eating.

 

 

“Any mages about the place?” I mumbled, licking my sticky fingers.

 

Lucy giggled, busy with her second pot pie. Zyrina grunted at my humor and looked around at the now completely empty reception room where we had commandeered the long table and chairs for our meal. Alley took a sip of her ale and shrugged.

 

“Maybe there is another place that is more suitable to illicit dealings? This looks… comfortable? Cozy? Certainly, it doesn’t look like any Obsidian sympathizers are booked into rooms here.” I remarked, looking around the room we were in. There were comfortable chairs and a sofa near the fireplace, a game of chess to play and these long tables where we sat eating and talking.

 

“That’s a good point Lily, this doesn’t look like somewhere mages dressed in black with a bent for starting fires would be comfortable at all.” Lucy was emphatically nodding and there were bits of flaky crust falling all around her as she did. She had opened her backpack and was sorting through her herbs one by one, while she finished eating her last sticky bun.

 

“You could try the Dirty Scoundrel,” suggested Alley pointing out the door and nodding across the square before returning to her conversation with Lucy, who had found the little herb they were discussing. They both were examining the leaves and engrossed in the topic.

 

Zyrina was standing looking out the front door, “Perhaps. Wait here for me. I will have a better chance of finding something out without any of you along.”

 

I must admit it stung a little to be thought of as superfluous, but I could see her point. A bunch of us were a bit noticeable and not likely to overhear much if we were together. I gave a searching look straight into Zyrina’s clear eyes. They were calm and calculating but not frightened. It was quite reassuring.

 

“Alright, be careful,” I gave a little nod in agreement. “Lu? Agreed?”

 

Lucy laughed at something Alley said about the plant in her hand and nodded distractedly. As we had found an inn with yet another cook friend of Aslinne’s, she was deep in conversation and waved us off without even really paying attention. Now they began discussing some sort of salmon dish with potatoes in a hand pie that I didn’t really pay attention to as I watched Zyrina quietly make her way across the square and disappear into a rundown building closer to the water.

 

Having exhausted all my best stories about Zyrina and her adventures while entertaining Lucy and Alley, Zyrina reappeared, ruffled and staggering a lot but otherwise unharmed.


“You won’t believe what I found out.” Her slurred speech was difficult to follow. “Dan shez…” She trailed off then she simply keeled over, passed out.

 

“Oh, for pity sake. Who’s Dan?” I was a little annoyed but helped Lucy carry her up the stairs to our room and set her carefully on the bed.

 

“She’ll come around and tell us, stop pacing.”

 

As usual, Lucy’s common sense did sink in and I realized I, too, was staggering a little, so I joined Zyrina on the bed and, far too soon, felt the warming rays of dawn upon my face.

 

I shook myself awake alone in the room, quickly washed up and headed downstairs. I definitely wanted breakfast and dawdling would not procure food.

 

Zyrina was up and had changed her clothes. She had some papers spread out in front of her on the table intermixed with her breakfast dishes. Her head was cradled in her arms on the table. Lucy was slurping a strong-looking tea and munching on sticky buns from the heaping plate on the long table. Alley Oop was thoughtfully sipping her tea and reading some sort of manual making changes with a quill dipped in fresh black ink as she read.

 

“Morning,” I mumbled heading for the teapot.

 

“MMmhmm,” was all that Lucy managed.

 

Zyrina raised her head “Morning. Sorry I failed to stay awake last night.” She grimaced at hearing her own voice loud and raw.

 

“Rina, you didn’t fail. I am betting you were in a drinking contest, weren’t you?”

 

She flashed me a quick smile, winced, and ducked her head, “Yup.”

 

“You won?”

 

“Yup.”

 

“What did you learn?” I was fully awake now. Zyrina didn’t drink like that regularly. She would have done only for a particularly vital reason.

 

“There WAS a guy who knew too much, called Dingo Danny. The owner doesn’t care who drinks there as long as they pay in labor, gold, or COTOS and Dingo Danny helps the cook in exchange for a pint or two every couple days or so.”

 

At this comment, Alley grunted and nodded agreement, “Pete says anyone is welcome if they want to work for their drinks.”

 

Zyrina continued, “The proprietor introduced him, but he didn’t vouch for Dan,” is all she said about it. She quietly started to lay out the papers in front of her so I could see them.

 

“This is what I heard. So, a couple of weeks ago there were three strangers in town, dressed in Obsidian robes. They sat and talked in the Dirty Scoundrel for several hours. Dingo Dan kept these bits and pieces one of their drunk assistants left behind because he hoped they’d come back and claim them, and then Dan would get a tip.” Here she looked disgusted. “He was a vile pig but easily led.”

 

Then Zyrina added, “I got interested when Dan told me that the men were bothered that they couldn’t find one simple tattooed mage traveling alone. Eventually he…offered…me the papers in exchange for continuing to breath.”

 

My raised eyebrows and then narrowed my eyes a little. They were the only comments I made about how Rina’s collected papers were acquired. Nodding, I had a good look through some of the pages: It was a meandering speech by someone called Nestor about adhering to the rules, discipline, and punishment…and ordering a manhunt for a mage from Elysium that had disappeared with a rare and special artifact. That sounded like the mage we also sought.

 

Lucy brushed off the crumbs and leaned in to read for herself, “’…bring the book, the mage is expendable…’?”

 

“And Lily, there was this too.” She handed me a letter with handwriting I already recognized.

 

“Finn Beanna!”

 

I picked up the letter:

 

Nestor,

I’ve seen that mage you asked me to keep an eye out for.

Yup, he came from Spindleskog. Don’t know where he went. He was traveling alone. Yup, he had a small leather-bound book with him.

Three fellas in black came by just afterward. I don’t take kindly to being roughed up. No, I do NOT know anything about a dragon egg. I thought we had an established arrangement. Since this is how you value my information sharing, our arrangement is over. My debt is paid.

             Finn

 

“Well, blast that little weasel. He sure has his hooks in every pie in town.” I could not believe the audacity.

“There’s more,” Zyrina handed me yet another paper.

Nestor,

Before you meet him at Los Gardeñias in Ordanis Mortis, I want to assure you I have managed to find out that the mage still has the book.

 He wrote, to tell me he has something important to think about. And he says he has an important decision to make. He is still traveling and was last reported on a ship called the Sea Byrd.

It left from the Mistrendur Islands last autumn. I haven’t heard from any of the others from his cabal yet. Are we sure any others are alive? I have planned to meet with him in the usual spot and try to talk some sense into the lad.

Regardless, I will take the book back with or without his cooperation. We will have it in time for the great gathering of the Red Sashes and the Southern Red Branch. I’m certain of it.

Order shall prevail,

S

 

 “I wonder where this usual spot is?” I pondered as I lay the paper back down with the others. “Seems to me that that mage is running from everyone, known or unknown to him. I wonder if he has abandoned his beliefs. What’s a ‘great gathering’?”

 

S?” I asked. “Who the Titans is that?”

 

Zyrina shrugged “No idea.”

 

“Is Kitty still traveling with Aslinne?” Lucy joined in the questioning.

 

I shrugged perplexed, “I have no idea.”

 

“And lastly, there was this,” she held up the smallest piece of paper.

 

            2 – 1 – 1

            R-2

 

I nodded, not even trying to figure out what they mean this time, and just simply added the numbers to the rest. I would need some more time to figure out what they were all about.

 

“So, we still don’t know where Aslinne is, nor Kitty, nor the mage with the book either.” I sighed.

 

“We need to continue to backtrack Aslinne to Darkshire, and I want to stop at this restaurant where Nestor had a meeting with the mage.” Zyrina was examining the letter from S. “We might learn something.”

 

“Aslinne was going there too, remember? Do you think she is one of the mages?” Lucy pondered out loud.

 

“Where is it?” I asked.

 

“It’s the one we’ve been talking about. That famous place in Ordanis Mortis. It’s on the way to Darkshire, just downstream as a matter of fact.” Lucy had some very precise memory skills when it came to the location of good food and good drink. She spoke while reading over Zyrina’s shoulder. “Los Gardeñias.”

 

“It’s run by a woman called List Rostov.” I added. “She is a musician and bard who I admire. And her restaurant is fantastic.”

 

“There is a boat at the docks that will get us there. I saw it earlier on our way in,” Lucy added brightly. Lucy continued to keep us heading the right direction regardless of my despair at once again not finding who we searched for.

 

“Phoenix Bites here I come!” I squared my shoulders and shouldered my backpack then nodded, “Let’s go.”

 

And we went.

Echoes From the Caverns

Echoes From the Caverns

June 9 2022

The Stone Dragon Series – Book 2, Chapter 6

Chapter Six. At Jade Island – All Aboard!

 Read by Asclepius         

Yesterday morning, back in Jade Valley while focusing on the driving need to catch up with Violet’s ship, Zyrina had eventually convinced herself to get on board this airship – she had persuaded herself that she could get in the air again. Even if it brought her to a cold sweat at the mere idea of leaving the safety of the earth, she was determined to overcome her dread. Airships didn’t crash every time, and when Lucy looked her in the eye and bet her farm that this one would not crash, Zyrina took a deep breath and accepted her ticket. She knew she would do whatever she needed to do to see this search to the end. She was counting on Lucy’s opinion of this bloody contraption and her love of her farm. She was still not sure it was a sound choice but there was also her promise to help her friend find Kitty. And then there was the book.  She had not forgotten.

 

Finding Kitty, and then Torgin and Phlebus, was all absolutely essential because of the book they all sought. It had caused far too much damage in the world already and Zyrina would do far more to see it recovered than simply lose her breakfast over the edge of an airship. Her hope that Phlebus would find a way to safely keep or destroy it kept her steady. She knew he would not give up and she would not either. She knew what she had to do, and she was determined to do it.

 

It would be nice if it didn’t involve quite so much nausea though.  Zyrina closed her eyes trying to stop the inner swells from swamping her. Glancing up from the rail, the big oval balloon billowing above did not dispense the same sense of comfort to her as most of the others felt. In fact, its undulating form was now a catalyst to the rippling inside her stomach. Zyrina leaned over the rail of the airship again.

 

Hanging on to the thick rope rigging with all her strength, she emptied the contents of her gut yet another time. Relief was immediate. Complete emptiness and freedom for a few precious minutes, until the waves of nausea would once again entirely swamp her existence; this short reprieve was all that kept her from flinging herself over the side too.

 

A fresh breeze on her face rejuvenated her failing spirit and she pulled herself from the brink. Back in their shared sleeping cabin, she carefully rinsed her mouth and washed her face before climbing into her cot after a large swig of the cool peppermint tea that Lucy had left in a pewter jug beside her bed. Zyrina suspected that Lucy was responsible for the hot water and clean towel, as well.

 

She smiled a little, thankful for her friend’s compassion. Lucy continued to bring her sense of serenity and comfort with her no matter where they wandered or how rough the accommodation and Zyrina was keenly aware of all the ways that Lucy smoothed the path for everyone in their small troupe.

 

Watching people was a specialty of Zyrina’s. She noticed things that other people were not aware of, like the way that Lily seemed to go completely still every time that Torgin’s name came up in conversation. Or the things that Lucy left behind her like a breadcrumb trail back to the beginning. Zyrina shifted in her bunk, pulling the rough blanket up under her chin.

*

Days into our journey I leaned far over the side and shouted gleefully into the wind: “WheeeeeeEEEEEeeee!” My hair whipped back from my face and the warm sun soaked right through my closed eyelids to shine bright orange patterns where they danced in my mind. I was having a moment of complete abandon. There was little I could accomplish while we travelled so as well as writing copious notes, I spent time exploring the ship.

 

The ride up to the large airship in the small air balloon from Jade Valley was the smoothest transfer I had experienced; at least I hadn’t screamed the entire time this time.  After the air balloon docked and we climbed into the airship, the First Officer arranged for payment and transferred our belongings over to the ship too. This was all becoming familiar to me. However, the beauty of the long-range airship had not struck me before today. I think fear had made me blind to the splendor around me. I looked around deck at the graceful lines of polished wood and thick rope. This bigger air vessel gave me a strange sense of stability, and permanence.

 

These days Zyrina mostly stayed in her bunk; Lucy had made friends with the crew and was leading some sort of group on first-aid-on-a-sailing-vessel, and I apparently was not allowed very many places on board. The crew moved around me almost invisibly when they didn’t want my attention. If they did want my attention, they were very clear too, generally it was “Get off that” or “Miss you aren’t allowed up here” and my favorite “How did you manage to do that?”

 

However, I did make friends with someone. The engineer who was bemused by my interest and horror enjoyed some company none the less. Passengers didn’t often pay attention to the mechanics of the flight and he had a chance to talk about the machines he loved and the land we were traversing.

 

That was rare for him, though he was quite knowledgeable. He was a quick- witted fellow and didn’t mind talking about his work and especially about this airship which I think he never left. At all. He gave a few good lectures while we travelled north. I learned more about the geography of Novia and about the planets in the sky than I had in decades back home. Central Britanny was a glowing jewel in the night as we floated above it.

 

Novia was simply stunning from the sky. Even Zyrina had to admit the views were amazing (between puking sessions that is). I think both of us benefited from the discussion on safety measures in case something went wrong with the air heating device. The balloons that we used to get up to the air ships carried passengers back to the ground as well. I learned that the large airships rarely land but traverse the entirety of the world in the air above and were truly a sight to behold. If I could get over this dratted fear of heights this experience would be a far more pleasant one but even so, not letting in to fear was a useful thing to learn how to do and I was determined to overcome this one. It did give me a great deal of comfort when I found out there were air balloons that would be deployed if something went wrong. Though it wasn’t till after I was able to inspect one and know how to deploy It myself that I truly felt like I was flying and not just waiting to die.

*

Almost two weeks later we three weary travelers jumped down from the small air balloon that delivered us to the ground from the airship. After our luggage was heaved over the side and my feet landed on ground my knees buckled and I nearly fell over. I looked over at Lucy, who had been the first of us to stand and then manage to gather up her belongings. She was steady on her feet and already examining one of the weeds growing from the edge of the stone platform we landed on. As soon as I could stand without tilting from side to side, I gave a thank-you wave to the balloon pilot, who took off again almost immediately to catch back up with the ship as there were no passengers waiting to get onboard.

 

I was unsteady but assured myself that I just needed to regain my land legs. It had been an exceedingly long air trip from Jade Valley to Jade Island. It was one that Lucy and I both found exhilarating, though this was not so for all the members of our traveling party. I gave a sympathetic glance toward Zyrina who had fallen to her knees when we landed, and not yet risen. After covertly checking on my still-green friend, I gathered up my belongings and started looking around the dock a little.

 

Ahead of me and now staring into the harbour, Lucy wondered aloud, “Is that the Sea Byrd?”

 

I looked out into the bay, “Nope, that looks like a passenger ship.” I squinted into the sun to see the outline of the ship that Lucy was pointing out and said, “Violet’s ship is smaller, a galleon, and has a pirate flag.” I turned to look straight at Lucy, “Weren’t you just on board recently?”

 

Lucy nodded. “Maybe my eyes are worse than yours.” She shrugged. “I didn’t pay attention really, and I didn’t notice the flag colours.” She mused without thinking, “Do you think that her sea ship is faster than the air ship we took?  Do you think they are docked here already?”

 

“Snails and anthills are faster travel than air ships,” mumbled Zyrina as she stared hard at a patch of dirt just in front of her. “That is the last time I fly!” she swore with vehemence.

Zyrina did NOT prefer air travel nor sea travel. She preferred walking or wagon or riding horses. She had been airsick or seasick almost the entire journey and was the most grateful person in Novia the moment her boots touched the soil again. She didn’t kneel down and thank the Titans out loud, but she definitely did that in her head while on her knees.

 

I sighed and confessed, “Rina, I won’t make you do it again. Promise. We’ll travel by land if we can from now on. Promise. Pinky Promise.”

 

Zyrina nodded once, mollified. It was all she could manage without nausea swelling up again. There was extraordinarily little that would make Zyrina continue to do something she didn’t want to do. It said a great deal about her feelings for us that she had even got into the air machine in the first place. It also indicated how serious the mission for recovering the book we sought. I thought to myself ‘this could get a lot worse than it’s been.’

 

I was scanning the horizon looking for my sister’s ship but, of course, I could not find it among the motley group of ships and tubs in the vicinity. Jade Island’s proximity to the large Kingsport harbour on the Hidden Vale made it an attractive spot to anchor the variety of not-quite-respectable ships that shared the shipping lanes with the bigger passenger ships, so there were quite a few to search.

 

Violet loved Jade Island and often came here to enjoy the company of the local craftsman at his beachside resort. She called him OZ and he was a fine craftsman of weapons and garments and, especially, of musical instruments. Years ago, he had crafted me a lovely harp that had the deep rich tone that I still preferred over all others. Over the years, I had gotten to know him as well. If he were entertained, you could hear his laugh from across the bay. He kept his shop near the beach. Violet traded with him regularly but that’s not where I was heading now. I looked carefully through the ships again, to be sure I hadn’t missed seeing my sister’s ship.

 

“Well, that’s it, we are going to have to find the Harbour Master”, I sounded tired but undefeated. “Because I can’t see her ship here anywhere. Maybe it’s moored farther away. She doesn’t generally put down an anchor at the main dock. Something about secrecy, privacy, or piracy, or something like that…”

 

Lucy chuckled at that comment.

 

I brightened up, “There are also a few surrounding smaller islands.” I looked around again. “She may be anchored at one of those. I don’t remember the last time I traveled here on her ship or where it was that we dropped the anchor. It was YEARS ago,” I added seeing the looks on my friends’ faces.

 

“I just hope the Sea Byrd is still here.” Lucy was munching on a piece of bread and cheese and mumbled her comment under her breath, hoping that no one heard her.

 

“We need to find Green’s Inch” Lucy reminded me.

 

“Oh, yeah that’s right” I nodded.

 

Zyrina gestured with a nod of her head behind them. There was a town crier standing chatting with someone on the pier nearby. She pulled herself to a standing position from her knees, brushed herself off, and didn’t lose her stomach contents. This was improvement. Picking up her backpack with a graceful arching move, she spoke over her shoulder, “If anyone knows, that town crier will be the one who does.” Her voice trailed behind her as she strode toward the crier.

 

We scrambled to gather our things and follow her over to our only real hope of finding Violet’s ship in this maze of islands and secret coves.

 

“Hello there, good sir,” she interrupted the pair on the pier, “can you tell us if a Captain Violet Green has registered a ship at the harbour here?” Lucy and I heard the tail end of Zyrina’s polite request as we stopped nearby.

 

“Um…let me see. Could it be registered under another name by any chance?” He made a pointed glance to his empty palm held surreptitiously by his side. Zyrina looked at me and raised her eyebrow. I fished in my purse and covertly offered him a few gold coins. He felt their weight then continued, “It could be listed under any of the crew members depending on who paid the docking fee.”

 

Stepping forward, I spoke up, “Try searching for Jenny Hawkins, or Aslinne Gradh, or Purser Scallywag, or Mr. Flint, or…” here I trailed off as the town crier had started nodding his head.

 

“Ah, here it is.” He shifted his weight from one leg to the other and turned to look toward the water, “Let’s see, if you go to the end of that pier, beside the Viking longboat you will find a small rowboat,” he pointed at the pier on the right as we faced the sea. “You can take that ferry out to Green’s Inch where Captain Violet likes to dock-”

 

“Aha!” Lucy clapped her hands together and startled the town crier.

 

He looked the three travel-worn women up and down, “-as long as you bring it back. Row out to the small island, just past the spit of land you see there.” He nodded out past the docks, past the resort on the beach, to a rocky jut of a peninsula with a few palm trees sprouting out of it like hair.” With this, he pocketed the gold that Lily had given and turned away from the travelers back to his companion on the dock.

 

“Now we are getting somewhere,” I spoke as I started moving toward the small rowboat. It looked a little unsteady, but we climbed in anyway and tucked our gear under the oilskin at our feet before we headed out to sea. Lucy took up the oars and began singing.

 

“Row, row, row your boat…”

 

There were several groans but, in the end, even Zyrina chimed in with her rich contralto. It helped pass the time too, and we soon spotted the outline of a ship in the distance.

 

“Yes!! It’s the Sea Byrd!” My excitement nearly overturned the boat as I jumped to my feet.

 

“Sit DOWN, you fool!” Lucy didn’t mince her words as she kept pulling on the oars and her strong, even strokes drew us closer and closer. I gave her an annoyed look but sat back down all the same. The ship did not look like it was planning on going anywhere, the anchor was down and there were no crew members immediately visible as they got close enough to make out the name of the ship on its bow spelled out in runes.

 

“Ahoy there, permission to come aboard?” I called out in a clear voice as we approached the private dock. Violet’s ship looked deserted to me, but I could see someone reading a book on the dock. It looked like Violet’s Purser, Scallywag.

 

Scallywag looked up from her well used dog-eared novel and scoffed. “Like you need permission to come on board your sister’s ship? Welcome, Lily. Who are your friends?” She looked the other two up and down then set her book down on the crate near the chair she had brought from the ship to sit on. It was hot and tiring when supplies were being loaded and boring when they weren’t, but the sturdy chair made the entire process of being purser far more pleasant for her old bones.

 

“Harriet Scallywag, meet Zyrina, and you have met Lucy Featherbright before.” I nodded to each woman as I introduced them, and they each ducked their heads in greeting.

 

“Hmm. Well, there is room now if you want passage. Earlier on this voyage, there was a full passenger list out of Mistrendur, but they have all found their ports. There was even a lynx on board and a mage who hired the private room, but he left the ship at…” she trailed off seeing all three of them go still and quiet.

“Etceter?”

“Kitty?”

“What?”

Bursting out all at once rendered us incomprehensible and loud but Harriet was used to drunken sailors talking and this was similar.

 

“That’s enough now. One by one. You first.” She pointed squarely at me. Having grasped that we were looking for the lynx. She nodded, “Yup, that big cat got off at the same place that Aslinne the cook debarked.”

 

“Was Kitty with Aslinne?”

 

“Etceter?”

 

“Then where?”

 

The next round of questions was harder for old Scallywag to ungarble. She glared at me. In the end the other women calmed down and let me do the talking, but I could feel their impatience.

 

“Harriet, do you know why the lynx left the ship?”

 

Harriet seemed relieved to only have one woman asking questions, “Yup, it jumped ship after Aslinne, and Jenny left, along with that mage. Can’t recall his name. In Etceter. That lynx looked like it was following them.” She added, “But none of them was going to Etceter. Leastwise I don’t think so.” Here she looked a little unsure.

 

“Do you know where they were going?” I pushed.

 

“Well, let’s see now,” Harriet scratched her forehead and tossed her grey hair out of her face. She was just warming up to her subject, “Cap’n Violet sent Aslinne to accompany Jenny to her parents’ Inn in Darkshire, the Bent Bow Inn I think it’s called.” She shook her head sadly, “Jenny has quit the sailing life and is going back to being a landlubber. I’ll miss that quick laugh of hers, but she had a heap of trouble on her first voyage and I think it made her skittish.” Harriet mused, then added with more gusto, “Then Aslinne is going fishing at some fancy fishing place before travelling north and stopping in at a restaurant in Ordanis Mortis, rumored to have the best phoenix bites anywhere. I think she’s trying to get the recipe. Then off to Stinging Tree Hollow to visit a friend of hers, some cook or another, there is some sort of fish recipe they are working on together. The cap’n is going to go meet Aslinne in Stinging Tree Hollow before coming here to meet up with us. Then we sail back to the Mistrendur. That mage was on his way somewhere in the desert beyond. He’s accompanying Aslinne and Jenny to Darkshire on his way wherever he is goin.” She then confided to Lily in a half-whisper “Our Aslinne is sweet on the mage but I never did catch his name. He was an odd fella alright. Not right in the head, I don’t think. Muttered to himself all the time but nary a word to another living soul ‘cept our Aslinne.” Here she nodded agreement with herself. “Din’t talk much, but at least he decided to travel with Aslinne and Jenny. There’s safety in numbers travelin’ through Novia by foot,” She nodded to herself. Harriet had heard tales of travel on land. She avoided touching land herself if she could manage it. “Never felt safe there, and that’s the truth.” She stared suspiciously toward the shore.

 

I looked toward my friends with a definite slump in my shoulders, “They aren’t here.” I was resigned.

 

“But Lily, we know where Aslinne is going to be. Kitty is bound to be near, or she will know where Kitty stopped following her at the very least. We just need to travel to the places she hasn’t reached yet,” Zyrina reminded me. “Stinging Tree Hollow, then to Ordanis Mortis, and Darkshire Hills. We will find her if we work our way south. We are bound to come across her either on the road along the way or at one of the locations that Scallywag just gave us. It sounds like Aslinne must be aware of Kitty following her and knows something about Kitty, too, or at least Kitty is following her. Stinging Tree Hollow is not far from where we are now.” Zyrina turned back to Scallywag, “Can you tell us any more about the mage?”

 

Here Lucy and I both perked up to listen again.

 

“Well, let’s see.” Harriet seemed to ponder thoughtfully for a short time, “He weren’t a talker. That’s for sure. He was on board since Mistrendur an’ I think t’only person he even spoke wit was our Aslinne. She nursed him back to health during the voyage y’know? Dat can bond a pair sure as the surf. He’s a landlubber. No sea legs on him even after all that time on the ocean.” She shook her head, “More came outta him than went in, I never seen the beat of it afore.”

 

I looked over to Zyrina who shuddered in sympathy, having intimate knowledge of the process of that Scallywag described.

 

She went on, “Then dere was dat big white cat, Kitty you call it? Well, Kitty kept a close watch on dat mage on da ship for the whole voyage, then it leaped off the deck at Etceter with the others. Most of us gave both of them a wide berth. Kitty kept the rat population down on the ship, though, and Aslinne surely was thankful for that. I think she gave it extra rations when no one was looking. Not sure why the cat was so fascinated by dat mage. He weren’t good at the magic, that’s certain.” Here she rolled up here sleeve to show a healing spell he put on a wound that Scallywag had gotten while climbing in the rigging a week past. It was slowly healing but her skin was discoloured and bent the wrong way somehow, and it looked a little swollen around the edges.

 

Lucy gasped, then stepped forward and quickly took Harriet’s arm in her two strong hands and with a swiftly-spoken healing spell, “Asen-Reno,” she soon mended Harriet’s botched wound. The relief in Harriet’s face was immediate. Lucy did such a good job that Harriet could not now even tell she had ever been damaged.

 

“Why, thank you Miss Lucy. You have some mighty powerful magic there. Dat there is a gift from the Titans. Mark my words.” Then she went on but appeared almost lost in memories, “I wish that mage was as competent. He messed up most of the spells he tried and one night we even had to put out a fire in his room. Then there was the main sail fire. Gadzooks, that was a night alright,” she grimaced a little and nervously laughed. “Fire on a ship is ‘bout the worse mistake you can make out on the ocean and not somethin’ sailors get over. Fool mage. Tried some magic spell out of that little book he carried. There was some nasty screeching sounds and it felt like the world was being ripped apart.” She shrugged, “but what’er it was it din’t take and sparks flew every which way. Jenny said that there was spider silk all over the mages room when she went in to swab it and change his bedding the next day. It was a mess to clean up, sticky and strong webbing too. That’s about all I know. You can try asking Old John Sliver, the cook’s assistant we picked up somewhere in the Mistrendur. He took over cookin’ while our Aslinne is on shore leave. All I can say about that is I sure feel the loss of Miss Aslinne’s cookin’ and I look forward to her coming back and makin’ fish stew again.” With this she trailed off while staring into the water below the dock.

 

Zyrina sighed. “Thank you kindly for all the information. Where is Old John Sliver?”

 

“He’s on board somewhere. Try the galley?” She waved them away and went back to reading the novel in her lap. I thanked Scallywag and we headed to the ladder on the dock.

 

Lucy led the way up the Jacob’s Ladder and jumped lightly into the ship. There was no one about. Rina and I were close behind her and we fanned out, searching for the cook. Lucy found him in the belly of the ship swabbing the floor and called out to Zyrina and me to come down.

 

I jumped down the ladder and was met by the enormous solid form of a giant man. “A-Ahoy,” I stammered, looking at the massive girth of the cook. “I’m Lily Byrd, Captain Violet Green’s sister.”

 

Old John Sliver looked furtively around and saw no escape. “I didn’t take em.” He blurted then added, “I’m called Salty John around here.”

‘Take what?” I inquired innocently.

“Why Salty John?” Lucy added.

 

“Oh, well. Never mind then.” The cook looked relieved then nodded toward Lucy, “It’s on account of the accident I had with a block of salt and the fish soup on the first day I took over cook’s spot, Miss.”

 

I exchanged meaningful looks with Zyrina.

 

I went on, “My friends and I are looking for a snowy lynx, the one that was onboard until Etceter, and any information you have about the mage who booked the guest cabin. Can you help us?”

“Mage, huh?” The cook tried to look nonchalant. “There was a mage on board?”

 

“You better start at the beginning.” Zyrina encouraged, stepping forward with her bow notched, and steel in her liquid brown eyes. “What didn’t you take?”

 

Instinctively backing up a step, the cook didn’t waste a minute and in his extensive rambling we found out some interesting bits tucked into the myriad of ship’s gossip. We learned there were several dragon eggs onboard in a secret room. They belonged to the captain. Two went missing in Ardoris and the cook was worried that someone would think he had taken them.

 

He swore he didn’t, “I was just dusting them when I noticed some missing”.  Or so he claimed.

 

I narrowed my eyes and said in a quiet voice “How did you know some were missing if you hadn’t found them before you were ‘dusting’?”

 

“There were two missing.” His big brown eyes blinked quickly but he could not look less innocent as he went on, “I looked all around the ship. They’re nowhere.” He sounded guilty, “You can tell Cap’n Violet it wasn’t me.” Here he narrowed his eyes, “I bet it was that mage.”

 

“Why do you say that?” I wanted to know, already half sure the cook had the dragon egg hidden somewhere.

 

“Well, he was a sneaky fella, that scurvy dog. Poking his nose every which way. Always with that book o’ his. Never managed a proper spell the whole time he was here and set fire to his room to boot.” Stroking his chin, he went on, “He had plenty of time to steal em and hide em in his baggage before he left the ship.”

“Sneaky?”

 

“Yup, I spied him looking through the captain’s desk, and another thing: he just didn’t seem to be much like anyone else. He didn’t mix with anyone on the ship except the cook who hired me on, Aslinne Gradh. Somehow, he got in her good books and they spent a lot of time on the aft deck whispering to each other. Aslinne was sunk, spent all her time sighing and staring into space. When she and Jenny left the ship, the mage tagged along with them. It didn’t seem right somehow but who am I to know?” He shrugged. “Just as long as you all know it weren’t me what stole those eggs, savvy?”

 

Missing dragon’s eggs and a mage with a magic book? It didn’t take a genius to put two and two together. This had become instantly far more interesting to Zyrina. And Lucy. And me.

 

“Thank you, John. When did you notice the eggs were gone?” I asked politely.

 

Cookie John shifted his eyes from side to side as he answered, “Oh, that would be some time after we docked at Ardoris because when we docked here at Green’s Inch is when I discovered it gone. After the Cap’n went off to find them black oysters that is. I didn’t mean to find the secret storage room but since Jenny were talking about it, and what might be inside, I decided that I’d look for it when I was swabbing the sleeping quarters.” He looked furtively toward the rear end of the crew quarters.

 

I knew where the secret room was located but didn’t want to go snooping in my sister’s private treasures just then. Besides, I didn’t know what was supposed to be in there, but I would tell Scallywag before we left about Salty John’s tale.

 

I asked, “Do you know where the mage is now?”

He shrugged, “Nope. He hopped ashore at Etceter with Aslinne and Jenny and good riddance. He was never healthy and caught the ship on fire more than once.”

 

He grunted, “They were planning on taking the road up to Darkshire Hills as far as I know. Aslinne took Jenny home, then she was ordered to take some shore leave and said she’d go to Stinging Tree Hollow on her way back. We are here in dock until she makes her way up here before we head back on our route. No one expects her to arrive for a fortnight. Did you see her anywhere in your travels?”

 

“No. but we are looking for a snowy lynx named Kitty.” Lucy was not going to give anything much away to this greasy bear of a man. He didn’t seem all that trustworthy to her. She stood directly in front of him and crossed her arms in front of her chest while she asked, “Do you know where the snowy lynx is?”

Old Salty John took a step back, then gave a quizzical look, almost whispering while he answered Lucy, “That was another strange thing. That cat rarely took its eyes off of that mage. That cat sneaked off the ship just after Aslinne, Jenny, and the mage debarked at Etceter. I think it’s tracking the mage from what I can tell.” He seemed relieved.

 

I nodded to the other two and we all thanked the cook politely and left him leaning on his mop beside a pail while we climbed the ladder back to the galley. In the kitchen at the captain’s table, we huddled together to drink the tea and try the cakes that Salty John put there for tea. They did not look fresh. It was time to make a new plan. But first the food. Lucy dug right in and soon had a heaping platter of cakes and cookies and pies in front of her and I wasn’t far behind. There were lemon buns. Irresistible ones. Rina took a cup of tea but avoided the sweets. I didn’t notice really because she rarely ate dessert.

 

Lucy summed up as her hand hovered over the tray of squares again, “So this fellow keeps showing up in all the places we are interested in, it looks like Kitty is intent on following him, and Aslinne is googly eyed over him. Right? I’m getting more and more interested in him and in his little book. ‘Rina, do you think it’s THAT book?” She turned to see Zyrina’s neutral expression. “And what about these missing dragon eggs? You don’t think he’s going to try to control another dragon?”

 

Zyrina paled and then frowned before answering, “Phlebus would know for sure but it’s sure starting to look like it might be. I wonder what clue Torgin has followed. Right now, I think we need to go take a look and see if we can find Aslinne. We need to learn more about this mage.” Zyrina seemed sure.

 

I agreed. Lucy simply gathered up their snack and put it all away in her picnic basket, ready to travel again. Her smile told the world that all was right again since her belly was full. Nothing seemed to interfere with her good mood even though we had travelled the length of the land and still hadn’t found Kitty.

 

“I’m just going to take a quick look around the room that mage was using before we leave,” I shouted over the sound of the wind, “I’ll catch up in a minute. Meet you at the rowboat?” ‘Rina nodded as she climbed down to the dock after Lucy.

 

First, I climbed the ladder to my sister’s private rooms. I left my quickly scribbled paper on her desk where she would find it. Scallywag had told me she was out looking for oysters along the shore somewhere, but I didn’t really have time to go try to find her.

Dear Vi,

I can’t stay and wait for you, but I wanted to let you know I had been here. I finally caught up with your ship after a very long airship ride all the way north through Novia with Zyrina and Lucy. Remember them? It was magnificent!

We are searching for Lucy’s cat, and have gotten the message that Kitty left your ship at Etceter. We are heading out to try to find Aslinne. Maybe she knows where Kitty has gone.

Scallywag says you are off looking for pearls somewhere nearby, but I don’t have time to try to find you. I’ll catch you up with this latest adventure when you come back through Jade Valley. I know you will be back for the annual family gathering up at the keep; I’ll be sure to keep the light on for you.

 

                                    Don’t be late,

Love, Lil

PS The Sea Byrd looks amazing! That new varnish is the perfect shade, just like you thought it would be.

PPS John Sliver snuck in your treasury; he knows two dragon’s eggs are missing. I don’t trust him.

 

With that done, I headed back down the ladder and over to the fancy guest room. This was the room I usually got to use when I sailed with my sister and I knew it well. It was left in a semi-tidy condition, but I wouldn’t trust that the bedding was fresh. I always brought my own when I sailed on the Sea Byrd. I gave it a quick sniff to confirm. Yes, I was correct. I shook my head to clear it and started rifling through the small desk in the room. There was a little mess left in the cabin and no one else had booked the room after the mage (I checked with Scallywag on that) but he had left not a lot behind. No one had bothered to clean it up yet because there wasn’t a booking. Why clean an empty room? Although I could see some logic in that I was mostly only glad no one had touched anything in there. Spider webbing was still evident in the room and there were several papers beside the bed. Also, some kind of strangely coloured charcoal in the bottom of the waste bin in the corner of the room with charred papers. So, here I was going through the garbage on my sister’s ship, again. I did also look under the mattress and under the bed and all the usual hiding places. Nothing there. I had to giggle a little: nerves, I think, but at last I did find some interesting bits of crumpled paper in the small desk in his room.

 

One of them was an advertisement for the Pickled Spinster Bed and Breakfast in Stinging Tree Hollow. Someone had underlined the name several times and put stars in the margins around it. Now why would the mage be going to Stinging Tree Hollow? If Aslinne was going there, and the mage then obviously that was absolutely our next stop. Rina had guessed right.

I had a friend with a bakery in that town, maybe she would have heard something about these mages and miscreants who moved far too secretly around Novia. There was also one for a restaurant in a town called Ordanis Mortis and it had the same underlining and little stars all around it: Los Gardeñias Restaurant and the name Nestor doodled a few times in the margin. The last advertisement had Darkshire scrawled across the top in big square runes. Hawkins, Bent Bow Inn written on it in the same runic language. And at the bottom with a question mark after it in everyday Novian: Southern Red Branch: Nestor. Just a name. Well, most of this wasn’t news since I already knew that Aslinne had been heading for Darkshire. Though Nestor had no meaning for me, I did wonder who that was. Was it the mage’s name? Then I found a piece of paper that had been torn into pieces. It took me a few seconds to discover that there were six pieces of paper and that I could piece them back together. I carefully laid out the pieces in order and read:

To the nameless Mage H of the Southern Red Branch that I met in Laketown at the dock;

Soon after you left, there was a few men in black asking after you. Three of them. I heard them talking about meeting with Nestor and Nestor not happy that they had not found you yet. I didn’t tell ‘em where you was going though. They seemed none too friendly.

There were three women who sounded interested in you too, but they was looking for a cat.  That about covers the gold you paid me to keep you informed. We is even now, and my debt paid in full, too.

 

Thanks for doing business,

 Finn Beanna

“That conniving scamp!” I exclaimed. How Finn managed to get a letter to the mage before he left the ship at Etceter boggled my mind. It certainly arrived before we did. Then I realized why Finn had been so nervous around us and unwilling to be found in the first place; he’d been questioned before we arrived in Ironhall. I had to tell the others. No wonder Lucy didn’t trust him. He was double-dealing. I guess business is business, but I sure could not stomach the idea of Finn passing along information about any of my friends or me. Gathering up these pamphlets and scraps of paper, I took another look around the room and, as nothing else had any special markings that I could see, I didn’t bother taking anything more.

 

Showing Zyrina and Lucy when I joined them, Zyrina narrowed her eyes and nodded somberly, “Stinging Hollow’s not even a day’s ride from Kingsport. We can stop there for a rest and a look around.” She pointed at the pamphlet for the Pickled Spinster laid on my lap. After thinking for a minute, she added, “I think Ordanis Mortis is further south in Novia, south of Central Britanny. We will go there after Stinging Tree Hollow if we don’t find Aslinne tomorrow. That’s the restaurant that Lily was telling you about yesterday, Lucy.”

 

“Oh?” Lucy nodded looking more interested.

 

“And I know a pretty amazing baker who lives in Stinging Tree Hollow, too.” I threw in, hoping to entice Lucy to want to carry on past Kingsport today. “She is one of the best fighters I’ve had the pleasure to go adventuring with, but …” I paused looking at my friends, “…maybe those are stories for a different afternoon.”

 

“Oh, good, a baker and an adventurer?” Lucy joined in after coming closer. “I’m hungry.” She gracefully stepped her large form into the rowboat and had herself settled without even causing a ripple in the water.

 

I watched her pick up the oars and place them in the locks with such ease and familiarity that I wondered where and when she had learned to be so comfortable on the water in such a small vessel but could see from the look on her face that she was not interested in my questions even a little bit. “Come on, I don’t want to wait till we get all the way to Ordanis Mortis before we eat, either. Let’s go. Singing Hollow, you say?”

 

I stuck all the papers into my belongings and gently began to nudge my way into the rowboat, “No, STINGING TREE Hollow.”

 

“It’s because of the kind of nettles around that town. They have barbs and once they puncture your skin, they release something that burns to the very core of your body. We DON’T want to get stung there.” Zyrina rubbed her shins in memory as she spoke.

 

After Lucy’s harsh words last time I rocked the boat, I wasn’t about to do it again. And almost succeeded. We didn’t tip over, at least. With that, we left the Sea Byrd, rowed back to Jade Island’s main dock in the rickety rowboat (this time loudly singing dirty sea shanties all the way back) then took the ferry from Jade Island to the dock in Kingsport. In the end it was too late in the day to continue to Stinging Tree Hollow and we found lodgings for the night in the port city.

 

 Early the next morning from the old city, we made our way on the south route staying east of the Ravenswood Forests; none of us wanted to tangle with the Shadow Wood. By the time we had reached Stinging Tree Hollow, all three of us were ready to collapse.

 

I pointed to the sign ahead. Stinging Tree Hollow, it said. Ye Olde Pickled Spinster, it said.

 

“I don’t know much about Ye Olde Pickled Spinster, though I’ve stayed there a few times on my way through this part of the Hidden Vale in the past,” and I showed them the pamphlet again. “Let’s keep our wits about us while we go in. Ask if they have seen any mages around town.”

 

“Yeah, that sounds like something we can do. Walk into a strange Inn and demand to know if there are mages of questionable virtue about the place? That doesn’t sound sane.” Zyrina had another idea. “Let’s just stick to some general sort of questions, nothing too specific. See if anyone knows more than they should.”

 

“How will we know if they know what they shouldn’t know?” Lucy was in earnest, but tension had gotten the best of me. I admit I started giggling then and couldn’t stop.

 

“Yup, it’s time for a break,” Zyrina agreed, rolling her eyes, and laughing.

 

Lucy just nodded her tired head and turned to go down the trail toward town without a further word; she too was done for and didn’t much like being laughed at just then. I followed her down the trail, still giggling over the silliness.

Echoes From the Caverns

Echoes From the Caverns

May 26 2022

The Stone Dragon Series – Book 2, Chapter 5

 

Read by Asclepius

Chapter Five. Missed Meetings.

“EEEEEEEEeeeeeEEEEE” With a squeal of delight Jenny Hawkins’s emerald eyes gleamed out the tiniest slits of her freckled eyelids. She squinted through the early-morning sunshine toward the dock below.

 

Earlier, with a whoop of delight, she had leapt from her small roughly-hewn bunk in the belly of the Sea Byrd and now stood steady beside the worn wood rail of the ship, her grip tight on the ropes above her. The ship had arrived in Jade Valley only a couple days ago. Without leaning over too far, Jenny could see how much of the cargo and baggage remained before they set sail. It looked as if they would be leaving today! Finally! She was getting off the ship at Etcetera, the next port of call, and going back home. It had been years since she left, and she now ached for the familiarity of her family home.

 

Catching a glint of sun off the shine of gold from the dock, Jenny observed their passenger dressed in dark flowing robes give a coin to a lad that immediately skipped off toward the village with a small envelope. The mage stood in the shadow of the ship. He seemed pale and unsteady on his feet even on the dock but not as sick as he was when he arrived.

 

Jenny knew he was staying in the fancy berth on the main deck. She had been trying to get a glimpse at him all the way from Laketown, where he stumbled back onto the wharf and tossed a hefty pouch of coins to the captain. Jenny knew the captain needed the gold and that’s why he was allowed back on board after the damage he did on the way there from the Mistrendur. She knew how badly the ship had been battered just trying to get to Ironhall let alone the damage on the way here from there and, sure enough, he was given continued passage after the repairs; even if it was his terrible mistake during a magic spell that caught the main sail on fire in the first place.

 

She hadn’t seen him out of his berth since Ironhall, but it didn’t take long for him to look straight up at her now, his gaze piercing and searching.  She stepped back from the rail and out of sight just as she could feel the swell of the tide lift the ship a little. Even moored, the ship reacted to the constant movement of the ocean below and so creaked and groaned as it rolled with the incoming tide. And after years of practice, Jenny instinctively moved naturally and gracefully without thought back into the shadows, hidden…and breathed. He was INTENSE. Maybe it was alright that she hadn’t seen him before this after all.

 

She’d seen mages during her travels but this one did not seem kind or friendly like the others had been. She had learned intricate beautiful music from the elven mages she had encountered in her travels. The music was moving and haunting, too. The human one she had met had shown her some small magic tricks to entertain her friends…but this mage gave her a creepy feeling all up her spine and she was pretty sure he didn’t play any music at all or know any party tricks either.

 

She didn’t understand why her friend Aslinne, the ship’s cook, looked all glassy-eyed when he was mentioned in their whispers at the end of the day. In the evenings when the young women sat together at the rough-hewn table below deck and discussed life aboard the ship, he was one of the subjects that Aslinne would not talk about. Aslinne was the repository of the gossip on the ship and Jenny was the only one that Aslinne would tell anything about her own feelings and experiences but she never ever would talk about either the mage or what any of the others told her. Jenny wished she would.

 

There were gossips to be had in the kitchen if one were a fly on the wall. That little galley heard many a whispered secret between sailor and cook. She made it a point of honor to know all the comings and goings of her shipmates and Jenny was constantly trying to get Aslinne to share what she’d learned. Aslinne rarely did…which is probably why the ship’s crew continued to go to her with their woes. Even with all her moon eyes over the mage, Aslinne had not even revealed that mage was tattooed. Now Jenny wondered why not.

*

In another shadowy corner of the main deck, Kitty rested undisturbed by any onboard the Sea Byrd. From her seat at the captain’s table, Captain Violet Green eyeballed Kitty asleep while she herself sipped a hot drink of tea and nibbled the scone and cheese that was her breakfast. Kitty lay curled inside a coil of rope with the sun dappled golden on her snowy fur. It rippled occasionally, dislodging some unseen flying pest. Still, no one would dare approach. (Perhaps that’s why the rope was unused.) The feline had been watching the doors to the passenger berth across the main deck. Kitty flicked her ears when Jenny came bounding by but then yawned and seemingly ignored the little human. Kitty stared at the berth door for a time more before adjusting her fur, curling around herself, and again closing her eyes. Violet was glad she had thought to send a note up to Jade Mountain where Lucy took her wagon after disembarking. Next time she was up that way, Kitty would be taken back to Lucy.

 

Its presence on her ship surprised Violet a little but she had no reason to try to change Kitty’s mind about anything. Violet wasn’t sure why Kitty was now travelling solo but felt sure that Lucy and Torgin would have a tale about it the next time she ran into either of them in one of the pubs along her travels. There was no need to interfere in matters that didn’t concern her, and this was no different. She sipped her hot tea.

 

There was plenty of fish for Kitty to eat and she’d kept the vermin population under control on the ship since her arrival and that was going to be all the compensation that Captain Green would receive from the feline. It made her smile, thinking about delivering an invoice to Torgin for Kitty’s passage. Violet was fond of Kitty from previous adventures she had shared with Torgin and Lucy. Now she grinned into her teacup and blushed. Torgin was someone that even Captain Violet had a liking for and that wasn’t common for her at all. However, Lily had that faraway look in her eye anytime that Torgin’s name came up in conversation and Violet would rather die than interfere with the crush her sister had on him. She stayed well away.

Captain Violet had laughed when her cabin-girl, Jenny Hawkins, burst up from below and scurried out the galley onto the deck to peer over the port side of the ship. Jenny reminded Violet of her younger, exuberant self before the woes that sealed her life to this ship had taken the lightness from her step. Before organizing her crew for the morning, Violet went back to the task at hand and buttered another of Aslinne Gradh’s fine scones. She piled her plate full and, with one hand, headed for the ladder to her office. 

 

She had barely bitten into the delightful pastry when again she heard Jenny skip back through the kitchen and bounced back down the crew ladder, her short red curls quivering as she moved.

 

“Jenny, a moment.” Violet’s voice wasn’t loud, but Jenny heard her and stopped short.

 

“Yes, Cap’n?”

 

“When we call through the Etceter we’ll not be docking at port. You and the others will be rowed ashore in the skiff. I want you to take time now and well prepare your belongings for leaving our crew. Don’t forget anything! I went you ready, and in the skiff first, when we row ashore. Let’s not hold up the paying passengers! When you are done packing, go to the poop deck and clean up the mess you left there from trimming the lemon trees. Understood?” Violet tried to look stern.

 

With a flash of a grin Jenny answered with gusto, “Yes, Cap’n right away ma’am!” With that she turned and continued to bounce her way to the lower deck.

 Shouts and thumps could be heard on the dock from the open portholes and several seabirds squawked too. Seabirds usually were around when there were barrels of fish to load. It didn’t help that several of the crew would toss the birds a fish now and then and laugh at the scrum as birds competed for the salty treats. The argument was escalating and with a sigh, she rose took one last bite and headed for the sound of shouting on the dock. This would need some sorting…

*

Below deck, dock sounds were easily ignored by the slight red-headed girl perched on her bunk as she once again repacked her belongings. She intended to be ready to disembark the moment they went ashore for the land journey to Darkshire Hills and the Benbow Inn. She was glad to have the company of Aslinne for the last bit of journey overland to her home in the mountains.

 

Returning to the task at hand she looked over her loot. The most important of her belongings were gifts for her parents and brothers back home. She ran her fingers over the small wooden toy in her lap. Little Jimmy, barely ten years old, was going to go mad for this little working catapult she had found in the markets of Central Brittany near the Wharf and his flamboyant twin Jeremy would get the pirate hat with an exotic-coloured feather sticking out of it that had been given to Jenny to wear during her time at sea.

 

Frowning a little, she gazed at the hat beside her on the bed and dramatically reaffirmed under her breath that she never wanted to wear it again or set foot on another ship once she got back home. Jenny had had plenty of adventure and now her budding musical talents might just earn her a living without going back to sea. The seed of hope was something to hold on to and cherish while this last part of her journey home unfolded. Inside the silky little bag was the silky embroidered cloth that Elves visiting from Vertas had traded her when she had been on a fishing excursion in Jaanaford for the fine rare fishes she had caught that day. Jenny smoothed its wine-red silken texture before setting it back inside the smaller bag. It was for her mother. Her favorite gift was for her father though. She turned to the chest at the end of her bunk. Inside was an old tapestry rolled around a carefully preserved telescope, one that Captain Violet herself had given to Jenny for her quick thinking in the hair-raising adventures Jenny had lived through.

This passion for the sky was something her dad and she had had in common: of the sky and of the sea. Jenny was letting go of her vision of being a sailor in favor of going home and taking up the lute and storytelling, but she still found herself drawn to the stars, even if the sea had defeated her dreams there. She now dreamed they would have many fine evenings staring at stars and planets but, for now, after carefully shutting the lid to the chest and replacing the backpack under her bunk, she grinned happily and plunked the black tricorn hat firmly back on her head.  She bent to pick up a pail and grasped the worn wooden handle of a mop and skipped out to clean up the mess she made earlier.

*

“La laa, la laa, la laa, la laa, la-la la-la laaaa, lee la!”

 

Back on board after sorting out the sailors on the docks, Captain Violet could hear the young cabin-girl humming an old earth ode about joy as she enthusiastically mopped the poop deck at the back of the ship. Looking up and through her window, Violet could see Jenny dancing with the mop across the ships deck. Violet smiled absently and went back to plotting the ship’s course through the Twins and into the Bay of Storms to Etceter.

 

“Get out of my way!” She heard the mage order one of her crew to move the heavy crate that had just been raised over the side.

 

Their passenger, picked up unexpectedly way up in the north, also wanted to be let off at the dock in Etceter before Violet’s ship carried on to the Hidden Vale. Captain Violet believed he would be traveling by wagon from there. Some ruins or something. She could not remember the name. He paid in gold and didn’t give out any other details of his travels. Violet shivered, glad that he kept to himself and relieved he was disembarking soon.

 

He wasn’t pleasant to spend time with. He was seasick most of the time and when not sick, generally causing trouble with failed magic, including that fire. He did not converse easily or at all, actually. She would be glad to be rid of him but his fare, paid in a pile of Crowns of the Obsidians, was needed for refurbishing and repairs on the Sea Byrd and she had no qualms about taking on unsavory passengers as long as they followed her rules on board her ship. And paid their bills. There was always the plank if they didn’t.

 

At the same time, Violet had also persuaded Aslinne Gradh (with the promise of a fishing holiday included) to escort Jenny Hawkins back to her parents in Darkshire and so they would be travelling east from Etceter at the same time as the mage. She would miss Aslinne, but she could not spare anyone else: Aslinne was due some leave already, and it was time for Jenny to return home. She grimaced a little; good cooks were scarce, and she would welcome Aslinne’s return to the ship in the future. Although she was a little concerned about the young Jenny travelling through the land, Violet had seen the training that Aslinne did with knives late at night when she thought no one was watching. She was graceful. Silent. Deadly. Even though Aslinne had arranged to travel with that unsettling mage to Darkshire Hills, Violet smiled, knowing that Aslinne would make sure they arrived safely, and that Jenny would soon be back with her family. For a cook, Aslinne had some mighty peculiar talents all right. Useful ones, at that.

 

“Jenny!!! Stop dawdling!” Aslinne Gradh could scream like a fishwife when she wanted to be heard above the cacophony of the ship loading. “Get down to the kitchen when you finish those trees, I need help with the dishes and the potatoes aren’t peeling themselves now are they?”

 

Violet’s crew were well-trained and willing to follow her right into a storm at sea. Most of them had been with her since she limped the Sea Byrd to port, the lone survivor of a brutal attack at sea on her wedding day. She hired them right off the dock the same day. They took years to train to her ways and she had made sailors out of the unlikeliest of people. Even with all this experience in training sailors, Violet was absolutely certain that Jenny was not suited to ship life.

 

“Yes Ma’am, I’ll be right there.” Floated back on the wind from the far end of the ship.

 

Jenny was a hard worker and sweet-tempered, but she was also a voracious gossip and knew where EVERYONE on board kept their treasures, what their secrets were, where they were from, and where they were going, and she didn’t have much sense about when to talk and when to keep quiet about what she knew. Loose lips sink ships, and Jenny’s indiscretions were an example of the damage that gossip can do on a small community. It had caused several fistfights onboard already this season and Violet was of two minds; pleasant as it was to have a cabin-girly who wanted to work hard, and enjoyable as it was to relive her own youthful exuberance through the girl’s eyes, the order on her ship was far more important than a little comfort.

 

“Humpf,” Violet sniffed into her teacup.

 

Jenny sang too much for another thing; it made the other sailors nervous. Somehow, Aslinne playing her recorder or humming to herself in the galley didn’t have the same effect and Violet herself had joined the crew in the evenings to hear the songs Aslinne would make up about the adventures they all shared aboard the Sea Byrd.

 

Aslinne Gradh was worth her weight in gold as far as Violet was concerned; she was a talented, friendly cook who put people at ease right away. Even their grumpy passenger seemed to warm to her, and they spent quite a bit of time onboard in his suite playing games when the mage wasn’t tossing his cookies overboard.

She had also observed them whispering away for hours at a time in the kitchen. That reminded her to check the references of John Sliver, the cook’s apprentice, newly hired on to fill in while Aslinne was away on her journey with Jenny. That name was somewhat familiar, but she couldn’t place it for the life of her.

 

“Sliver, John Sliver…why is that so familiar…,” she muttered to herself while she put her quill into its holder. Violet rose from her desk to stretch her stiff back and tired neck before heading into the village to get the last-minute supplies she wanted, and to say goodbye to her sister Lily if she was in town. Lily would be glad to hear that Jenny was on her way home finally. It was a promise that Violet had made to Lily last year sometime before Jenny convinced Violet to let her stay on for a season’s voyage around Novia.

 

Captain Violet watched as the mage eventually climbed back up the ladder. Kitty watched too.

 

Once again back inside his quarters on the main deck, the mage still felt even the tiniest sway in the constant movement around him. His lips curled awkwardly in a grimace of a grin, as if they were as unused to the movement as his body was unused to the movement of seawater. Over the arm of his chair, he heaved into the stinking bucket yet again then reached out and patted the roomy and bulging bag beside him. Its presence comforted him.

 

“Soon I’ll be off this wretched boat and I can properly cast a spell.” Through the rich blue fabric of the bag, he fingered the solid edge of the little magic tome inside. It thrummed warmly and he itched to take it out and look through the ancient spells again.

 

“Soon.” He whispered to his book. “Soon.” Patience was not this mage’s name and he was having difficulty holding his curiosity in check. The grim smile on his face didn’t match the crazed look in his eye and a casual observer might even believe he wasn’t quite as benign as he wanted to appear.

 

He was soon done this last cursed sea voyage. A slash of a smile broke across his pale sweating face again. Etceter was the next stop: the one he was waiting for. After his business in Owls Nest, Spindleskog, at Skrekk, and then this trip from Mistrendur through Ironhall, then Jade Valley, and now over to Etceter, was more sea travel than he ever wanted to do again. He wanted, he wanted…well, he couldn’t think about that right now. Bile rose and he turned to heave again. This voyage had not been easy on his body and the dry bread, fresh water, and ale that Aslinne the cook had left for him on the little table was still untouched and unwanted.

 

Everyone heard the watchman call out, “One hour till departure.”

 

Then the loud voice from the crew master: “Passengers, please stay in your cabins until further notice. Tides up! Get a move on, ladies. We’ve got a ship to launch!”

 

This was welcome news to the mage, and he moved to his bunk and soon laid his head back down.

 

Lucy, Zyrina, and I could see the sails of the Sea Byrd leaving port just as we landed in Jade Valley. We ran to the edge of the bridge and shouted to the crew on the deck, but no one heard our words, and our wildly gesticulating movements were not understood onboard. Several of the crew returned a friendly wave to us before turning back to their tasks at hand.

 

“Well, drat.” I looked glumly after the ship disappearing into the blue of sea and sky. “Now what?”

 

“Remember what Finn said about the shipping schedules on the bulletin board? Plus, we know where she is heading in the end: Jade Island.” Lucy started walking toward the bulletin board closest to the Stone Bridge of Happy Arrival where the balloon had landed nearby.

Sure enough. Lucy spotted the shipping schedule right away. “We are in luck. It’s due next in Etceter, then Ardoris along the Perennial Coast, and then to Jade Island off the Hidden Vale.” She looked at her friends. “Since they are going around Novia, we are going to go straight north. If we don’t catch up at Etceter then we should get to Jade Island at about the same time. IF we travel by airship.”

 

“Oh, no,” Zyrina shook her head, “not again…”

 

“Yooo-hooo, balloon pilot!!! We need your services,” I called out to the balloonist. “Take us to the air ship that travels to Jade Island and don’t hold back on the speed!”

Echoes From the Caverns

Echoes From the Caverns