Virtue’s Forge – ch 7 & 8 – by Ulf Berht – narrated by Asclepius
Hello everyone, this is Asclepius, with another instalment of this wonderful story from Ulf Berht, entitled
Background music by Smartsound
Chapter 7, “Fire”
When Merlin heard the shouting, he threw on his robe and boots and ran out into the pre-dawn twilight. Around the corner and up the street he could see the red and orange flames leaping high into the sky, showering sparks down upon the village. He ran to help and soon realized that Ulf’s forge was engulfed in flames. A bucket brigade had formed but clearly there was already no possibility of extinguishing the blaze. The fire fighters were now concentrating on putting out fires started by flying embers. Ulf was nowhere to be seen and no one could recall seeing him.
By noon, only smoking ruin was left. With no sign of Ulf, Merlin and others began poking through the blackened timbers. “Here! Over here! A body I think,” called out one of the searchers. “It must be the blacksmith.”
Merlin watched as guardsmen arrived and collected the body in a canvas sheet and took it to the mortuary. A few tattered scraps of cloth were stuck in the burnt and blackened flesh. There was nothing recognizable as Ulf’s, but the height and weight were a match. A sword lay by the body on the scorched floor. Other weapons and household item had also been scattered by the firefighting.
The Captain of the Guards approached Merlin.”You were acquainted with this man?” he asked.
“I am indeed. Ulf Berht is a particular friend of mine. I am not yet convinced that those remains are his.”
“Are you not, sir? Then whose might they be? I have not been informed of any other not being accounted for. Where were you prior to the blaze?”
“In my lodgings at the inn. I am sure the innkeeper can attest that I was there until wakened by the alarm. As to who this is, I have no idea.”
“I will, of course, verify your whereabouts with the innkeeper. I the meantime, I must ask you to remain in town.”
“Of course, Captain. May I search the site for things recoverable? I know much of what he owned.”
“You may, but one of my men will accompany you and catalogue what you find.”
“Good day to you then. We must be about our tasks,” said Merlin.
The Captain made no reply as he left to give some orders to his men. “Keep an eye on him,” Merlin overheard the officer say.
The possibility that Ulf was gone increased with no sign yet of any resurrection. Merlin’s mood turned dark. “It is not my way to become attached to anyone,” he thought, as the warm water of the tub soothed his tired body. It had taken two tubs of water to be rid of the throat catching, nose stinging fumes of wet burned wood. Merlin’s searching had located Ulf’s tools, swords, and armor–all things a blacksmith would have taken with him had some business called him away. Most troubling was that the iron ingot containing the jewel could not be found.
Merlin’s dozing reverie was disturbed by a knock on his door. “More hot water sire. Can I bring it in?” a female voice asked.
“Certainly. But weren’t you just here?” The door opened and the maid stepped in with a large jug of steaming water.
“Not I sire. Mistress told me to bring more. Do you not want it?”
“Just pour it into the tub, girl, before it too gets cold.”
Merlin examined the girl as she emptied the jug. He noticed her attractiveness and was somewhat embarrassed by his nakedness. Darker skinned than any he had seen around Port Graff, small breasted, with her hair cut short. Lithe, and certainly strong, judging by the way she handled the large jug of hot water.
“I have not seen you before,” said Merlin. “Do you have a name?”
“Kaia, to you sir,” she said. In an instant she was behind Merlin with a dagger against his throat. “Assassin to others. But fear not. I am not here to kill you, unless you cry out.”
“That cold steel at my throat ensures my silence. If it is not my death you want, then what? You can have my manhood without the need of a blade.”
“I have found that a little steel in the bedchamber keeps a man more compliant to my will. Now listen, I know nothing about your friend’s fate nor was I party to the fire or any such mischief. I can tell you that the Sun Stone that was in his possession is on the move. In whose pocket I honestly know not. The guardsmen will soon be seeking me, as my enquires about you and him are well known. So I must be off. I must follow the stone which, I believe is destined for Desolis. If your friend is alive, he goes there too. Join me if you wish, but I must sail tonight. What is your answer?”
Merlin thought for a moment. “We will then seek out those who have the stone, determine Ulf’s fate, and exact the appropriate revenge?”
“Excellent. Be at the dock at midnight, attract no attention, and all will go well. If necessary, I will cast off and sail to a small bay at the north of Graff Island and wait for you no more than one day. Failing that, make your own way to Desolis and seek out Anya. She will know where I am.”
Merlin had barely enough time to nod before she was out the window and onto nearby rooftop.
No moon lit the way as Merlin walked as silently as possible towards the docks. The few people about were easy to evade by slipping into darker shadows. “The Captain will not be pleased with me,” he thought. “I will probably be branded as a murderer.”
As if on cue with the thought, the Captain of the Guard stepped out of the shadows, sword drawn. “Out for an evening stroll are we?”
Before the Captain could summon other waiting guards, a darker shadow behind him pulled out a leather sap, easily laying the Captain out with a rap to his head. A lithe female form in head to toe black stepped out. “Quick! The boat’s on the beach. Get in and row for all your life’s worth. My crew is watching and will pick us up.”
Merlin needed no more encouragement than that to sprint alongside the dark form to the shoreline, find the boat, and ready the oars. As she removed her black facemask, Merlin could now confirm that his ally was Kaia. Without any further conversation, they bent to the oars and rowed off into the night.
Chapter 8 – “Kaia”
“Well, Mr. Wizard, your life is once again in my hands,” said Kaia. She had one hand on a ratline and one foot theatrically up on the gunwale. Her supple black leather armor hid none of her femininity. “If this wind holds, we will be at the mouth of the Brisach River late tomorrow, with perhaps enough light to make Lochbrier before dark. To get any further inland, we must switch to a vessel with less draft. From there it’s overland to Desolis.”
A hue and cry had arisen from Graff Harbor and several torches had illuminated the docks, but no pursuit had arisen. Once onboard the larger boat, Kaia issued a single command and her crew flew into motion, setting sail and getting underway.
Merlin looked hard at Kaia, unsure of when or even if he could charm her and access her motives. Light from the shattered moon lit her features well enough, but he would have to wait to find out if she possessed any resources that could counter his attempts to beguile her. “I am ever wary of fortunate happenstances,” he said. “That you happen to be at the dock with the appropriate weapon in hand, at exactly the right spot to allow you to render unconscious a conveniently alone Captain of the Guard, seems to be too fortunate.”
“It seems to me, Mr. Wizard, that if it were not for just such fortunate happenstances, you would be laying in your own piss in a dark and cold clink, waiting for the hangman to get sober enough to stretch your wizardly neck. I admit to spying upon you and the blacksmith. I also admit to seeing pale-skinned satyrs out at night engaged in similar pursuits. I also know that gold would aid said Captain in making quick and convenient decisions. If you continue to suspect my motives, you are free to disembark anytime. I may, however, forget to tie the boat to a wharf first.”
“Please, Kaia, do not misunderstand me. I am very grateful for your help in keeping me out of that draughty cell. Perhaps were you to use our names instead of references to wizards and blacksmiths, and if you were not so eager to draw your knife, we might yet be comrades. But for now I am eager for more information.”
“Very soon, Mr. Wi…Merlin. Have patience while I lay out a course for my crew.”
Ahoy, Mr. Talbot. Take our guest here below and find him a bunk. Ask Cook to conjure up a meal for us in my cabin.”
Merlin, I trust that once settled you will join me in my cabin and we will share a good meal and perhaps become comrades.”
Merlin nodded and turned to follow Talbot. The bunk was in a tiny cabin, barely large enough to turn around in. There was a small wash basin, dutifully filled with warm water. By the time he was summoned to the Captain’s cabin, the cooking aromas that filled the air had Merlin more than ready to eat. A mere foot or two separated his cabin from hers, yet a small neatly clad cabin boy was somehow required to conduct him in.
Elegant silverware embellished a carved wooden table large enough to seat six. A writing table, two trunks, and a draped four poster bed filled most of the room. Through the stern window, pale moonlight reflected off a foamy wake.
“Have a seat, Merlin. Brent will be along shortly with some grub. Wine? Port?”
“I am exceedingly hungry. Some wine would be most welcome,” said Merlin, taking the offered seat and wine.
“Let me get straight to the point,” said Kaia. “I am not an Outlander like you, but neither am I from Novia. For now that is all I am prepared to say. The events now taking place in Novia are causing a lot of concern throughout this unfortunate globe, and I need your help. I need help in preventing your friend, Ulf, from being turned into a monster and being used as a weapon.”
A single rap on the cabin door interrupted. “Enter,” she said. A smartly dressed young man came in carrying several serving dishes, elegantly balanced in his arms.
“Thank you, Brent. Just put them on the table. Give my compliments to Cook and you may call it a day.”
Conversation between Merlin and Kaia ceased as both attacked the meal: white meat, rice, and vegetables covered in a spicy, buttery sauce, served with some flat-bread.
“My compliments to the cook as well,” said Merlin. “Crab, or perhaps Lobster?” he asked.
Kaia laughed. “Corpion. Cook is from Grunveld, the very same area we must make our way through. Somewhat of a delicacy of that region, I am told. A deadly poison, unless properly prepared.”
“He must know his trade, for we are still breathing. Delicious, nonetheless. Have you a map of our journey so that I may become more oriented? I fear my lack of knowledge may interfere with the proper digestion of this so expertly prepared meal.”
“I do indeed,” said Kaia. “Several, in fact.” The meal finished, they made their way to her writing table. “The first is of Drachvald, from the northern tip of the peninsula south to the head of the Brisarch River and Vauban Pass. Port Graff is here,” she indicated, “and our current position here. Exile Island is off to starboard, here. The satyrs I watched in Port Graff were of the underdweller type, normally found only in The Epitaph at Desolis.”
Kaia unrolled a second map. “Here is Grunvald, south to Eastreach Gap. Desolis is almost dead center of the barrens. The Epitaph in Desolis is where your friend Ulf is destined to meet his fate, unless we intervene.”
“I have heard of The Epitaph, a 200 year old ruin from the Obsidian Wars. Why would Ulf’s abductors go there?”
“Obsidian Chards, rings of stone, secret rooms, elves, satyrs, and the undead, all in a bandit stronghold. A cornucopia of trouble. Without a doubt, a center for Obsidian Cabalists. Here they plot their re-conquest of Novia.”
“And their need for Ulf Berht is…?” asked Merlin.
“They hope the Sunstone that accompanied Ulf to Novia will allow them to resume the reshaping of living things to better suit their purposes. In particular, the creation of chimeric monsters, invisible to the Oracle—re-worked elves perhaps. You were to be a redundant victim should Ulf prove too delicate and expire.”
“Sunstone? The jewel I gave Ulf was a ruby.”
No it is not. It is a Sunstone masterfully disguised and exceedingly rare here since the Cataclysm. The Shardfalls, thought by many to be random strikes, were in fact carefully planned. The locations were specifically targeted so as to eliminate any local source of the gem. A source of sunstones would allow full control of all the Lunar Rifts in Novia and enable the return to the re-formation of living beings.”
“For someone not from Novia, you seem to be in possession of knowledge not known to others. Are you one of these Cabalists?” asked Merlin.
“In some ways I am, I must confess, but not of the current variety. Were I Novian, I would be called an Annaleman.
“Annaleman?” asked Merlin.
“Before the Cataclysm, many scholars studied the magic of Lunar Rifts—Moongates, they were known as then. Some of the scholars were investigating how to extend the range of the portals, even to the moons, Trammel and Felluca, themselves.
“These are the moons that collided?” asked Merlin.
“Yes. Following the collision, thousands of scholars and academics were rounded up and accused of causing this Cataclysm by dabbling in things belonging to the gods. Many were murdered or exiled. The Obsidian Cabalists offered some security, so many joined the cause, only to be aghast when Cabalists began re-forming the living into war machines. Any objection to this magic was met with a trip to the re-shapers’ laboratory.”
“A gruesome fate,” said Merlin.
“Indeed! That is why dissent went underground. A secret society formed, working against the Obsidians. They called themselves Annalemans. Some, like my ancestors, fled to other lands. Others remained and still maintain a network of informants who are keeping a close eye out for our interests.”
“How does all this result in Ulf being abducted and me being wanted for murder?” asked Merlin.
“Wait, Merlin. Let me continue.
“One way to re-shape creatures is to tune two Lunar Rifts so that they have the same destination, like a mirror reflecting itself. The simultaneous use of Rifts set this way can produce a chimera—a single creature with some combination of those transported. The result is usually a disgustingly messy blob of slimy wet flesh and bone that lives for but a moment.”
“Not a fate I would relish for Ulf, or anyone.”
Kaia continued. “Several texts have survived the centuries and explain how to tune the ring stones to reduce the risk of this happening. Viable creatures can be produced. However, it is more troubling that unfettered control of Lunar Rifts would allow for the production of multiple copies of such successful combinations.”
“A repeat of the Obsidian armies,” said Merlin.
“Just so, said Kaia. “Our information suggests that some Obsidian Cabalists have taken up residence in The Epitaph. They have their hands on the texts and are planning to produce warriors who are invisible to the Oracle. A resurgent Obsidian Empire would not be a good thing.”
“Do you have any evidence for all this?” asked Merlin. “My mind reels to think that Ulf and I are at the centre of such events. It defies reason.”
“Oh Merlin, your distrust wounds me yet again. You are well known for being at the centre of events. Having a wondrous sword crafted for a young king comes to mind.”
“Enough of this banter!” said Merlin. “I demand that you explain to me how you would come to know this. Do you have a magic that lays open a man’s mind?”
Unphased, Kaia slowly took a sip from her goblet. “Much as I wish I did, I do not. What I do have is access to some of the information that the Watchers gather. I will give you proof, as long as you acknowledge that any betrayal will mean your death, a permanent one. Do you agree to this?”
“If this is just another tactic to confuse things, you may have to kill me anyway,” said Merlin.
“Let me demonstrate.” Kaia walked over to one of the trunks in the cabin and opened it. She retrieved a dormant Watcher. “A Grand Master in water magic froze this flying Watcher so quickly that no one was alerted. He then replaced its sensing organ with one of our own design. This process creates a spy that we can use for our own purposes. Unfortunately, these substitute sensing organs do not preserve much of the information they gather. Nor can the organs send out the information they do retain. So each must be retrieved before we can access that information. Watch this.”
Kaia took out a small whistle that produced no audible sound when she blew into it. A semitransparent still image of Merlin and Ulf appeared in the air. They were sitting in chairs in front of a small house. She blew into the whistle again. The image animated and Merlin’s image spoke.
“Being unseen by your enemy is the essence of camouflage and stealth. Wars are won and lost by knowing things your adversary does not realize you know. Who then is this spy? An agent of the Oracle seeking to know us better, or a foe of the Oracle seeking some advantage over it?”
“I have resolved to delve deep into the mysteries of this land,” Merlin’s voice continued. “My hope is to find a way to return home. I must seek out Grand Masters and trainers in every school of magic and learn what I can.”
Kaia blew the whistle again. The mirage disappeared. “You do indeed seem to have the gift of prophecy,” she said.