Read by Chatull Aventari
Chapter Seven. Of Nine.
Near the tunnel that led to Kobold Quarters and the Mining Office was a crate of soaked torches. Zyrina lit one by striking her flint with steel, then passed it to Phlebus and lit another for Lucy to carry. She notched her bow and saw Torgin unlatch his war axe and take it in hand. From this point Phlebus led into the darkness of the shaft before them. Torgin followed Phlebus with his axe at the ready and Zyrina covered the back of the group, following Lucy.
After some time Phlebus whispered, “The Kobold quarters should be somewhere along here and to the left at the first fork we find, if the bulletin board is to be believed.”
He sounded unsure as he peered into the dark past the flickering of Phlebus’s torch.
“Why are you whispering?” Lucy whispered.
Torgin shushed her, “Shh. No talking.”
Lucy shrugged her shoulders and peered past the flickering light of her own torch and into the glow of light that Phlebus’s torch threw onto the walls of the passage ahead. Whatever the torches had been dipped in before the wax wafted by now and then, and it was not pleasant but preferable to the stench of kobolds. It was hard to miss. It took her much of her willpower not to wretch from the smell of them.
To distract herself, she began to search the tunnel for something interesting. It had been dug tall enough to walk upright; even Torgin ahead of her didn’t have to crouch and there was plenty of room above her head. She was relieved not to have to worry about hitting her head. She saw Torgin duck a few times but not as many times as she would expect in a tunnel dug by kobolds.
Lucy asked herself why the kobold had dug such tall tunnels for themselves then remembered not to ask anyone out loud just in time. Kobolds are not much different size than humans. There must be a reason the tunnels were tall and even thought she could not work out why they were, Lucy was thankful that she didn’t have to watch for things to bump into her head.
There were small rocks loose underfoot, too, and she stumbled once or twice on them before getting her footing.
“You alright?” Zryina whispered into Lucy’s ear while touching her arm.
Lucy nodded her head and gave a grateful smile over her shoulder. It was a matte black in the tunnel and she was thankful for her new friend’s presence here in the dark, guarding the rear. Feeling her touch made Lucy feel less alone in the dark. Even so, her torch lit the way well enough for her to make out spiders on the walls and ceiling who silently scurried out of sight. The tunnel was free from webbing and even though the sight of spiders did alarm Lucy, she knew they were far from being the biggest danger. The thought of liches wandering in the tunnels turned Lucy’s blood cold and she shivered. She could feel bumps forming on her arms and her hair stiffen on the back of her neck.
Those ancestors of the Dougan family who had risen in the form of liches were not to be taken lightly. They had already killed. As Phlebus had told them all earlier at the inn after he read aloud from one of the books borrowed from the Hall of Enquiry “The original Dougan in that family became a Dread Lord from the earliest records of the family line.” Dread Lords who decided to become liches were more powerful than anything Lucy ever wanted to face. They were the monsters in tales for children to frighten them out of dangerous places. “Beware the lich” was a common warning from mothers to their children where Lucy grew up. She shuddered a little as she walked on in silence.
After an eternity walking into the dark, they halted just outside of what looked like an entrance to a room, a round one. The dirt tunnel connected to a small rectangular doorway into the room, and it looked like the circular chamber inside was considerably older than the tunnel that led to it. It must have been built before The Fall in order for it to have been buried so deep underground. The marble room was empty except for four thrones at the opposite side, set facing the doorway.
“This is the kobold quarters,” Phlebus sounded relieved. “We should find some answers here.”
And with that he strode into the room confident the answers were just ahead. Farther back in the line Lucy heard muffled shouts as she waited her turn to get through the door after Torgin. The attack began without warning.
“Look out Lucy!” Torgin’s shouted warning came in the nick of time too.
Lucy didn’t see the several kobolds in the room until she ducked through the door. Upon hearing Torgin’s warning she quickly sidestepped behind one of the pillars that made a circle around the room and pressed herself against the smooth carved stone. There was a circle of pillars just inside the room supporting an open gallery circling the room. Kobolds were everywhere. These were not miners who attacked, at least not miners that Lucy had ever encountered before. One of the kobolds cast a spell that attempted to drain her reserves of focus. She could feel the tug on her energy reserves straining to leave her breast, but before the kobold spell found its mark, she countered with a shield of air thrown haphazardly around herself in a bright bubble. At the same time arrows started raining down from the gallery above.
The archers could not reach her behind the pillar and all the warriors were concerned with Torgin’s swinging axe. With a few moments to herself she began casting a spell that would help heal her friends using the moisture she could gather from the room. Soon a small shower blew through the room and fresh healing rain fell on each of their heads as they defended themselves from the kobold’s onslaught. As soon as that was established, she began gathering her focus again and to chant slowly. She started with Torgin and sent him a healing grace that would continue to heal him for almost half a minute then began recasting it to target each of her friends with the boost.
Torgin didn’t hesitate and within the blink of an eye had swung his axe around in a circle knocking down the nearest of the kobold warriors. The kobolds all turned to attack this massive whirling slicing danger. They began circling Torgin and concentrating their attack on him. Or what soon became their defence from him. Their superior numbers may have been more effective on a less experienced warrior but this time Torgin beat them back one by one, pounding the ground around him with his foot to send a ripple of force that damaged all the enemies around him. He could feel his sister’s healing spells strengthening him even as he dodged the blows from his attackers. Behind him lay a swath of mangled bodies as he moved around the room swinging, stomping, and shouting. A few escaped to the tunnels before anyone realized they were fleeing but most of the attackers were cut down by the fury of Torgin’s attack.
Moving silently and gracefully following Torgin around the room, Zyrina had concentrated on picking off the archers above whose arrows pestered Torgin as he fought. She shot with precise strikes as she darted out from behind the pillars to release her arrows then just as quick, she would dash back to safety behind the marble columns as she circled the room. Her aim was exact and soon the gallery above no longer sent arrows down toward Torgin. Phlebus caught a glimpse of Zyrina as she sprinted up the staircase with her bow at the ready. He assumed she was going to check for lurkers above.
Phlebus still stood just inside the entry behind another of the pillars near Lucy. He continued mouthing the words of power for various spells using the air around him to both weaken the attackers and strike them down, even when the ground trembled from Torgin’s pounding.
Though he was within range, Phlebus only swayed a little with the wave of energy that passed through him. He was not stunned nor frozen. His lightning could be seen, smelled, and heard as it rippled between attackers chaining them together for a blast of damage over and over. Electricity’s familiar sweet, pungent aroma wafted by, but did not unsettle him. He concentrated on attacking and disrupting the mages who were healing and protecting the others, and his spells did just that. With Torgin and Zyrina’s physical attacks and Phlebus’s psychic attacks the entire fight took barely a quarter of an hour.
Catching his breath once the skirmish finished, Torgin took a moment to look around the room as he came out of his battle trance. Roaring loudly with his head thrown back, he stood in the center of the room surrounded by dead Kobolds. Lucy and Phlebus were near the entry looking as if they had both been drained of some of their life force. Meanwhile Zyrina was still silently creeping around the gallery to see if any kobolds were hidden and after a thorough search, she flushed out just one other archer, who she dispatched without delay.
“What the Titans was that about?” Torgin wiped his face and spat out then began to clean some of the blood from his axe by wiping in on the clothing of one of the fallen. “What kind of miners are these anyway?”
“Is everyone alright?” Lucy interrupted Torgin to ask anxiously as soon as the fighting stopped.
There were nods all around the group. She could see a few cuts and scrapes, but no one had an arrow to remove or any gashes that required her immediate attention. Breathing a sigh of relief, she took a closer look at the fallen.
“What was that?” Phlebus wanted to know, too. “Did they think we were liches?”
“I don’t think so,” Lucy answered him as she inspected the bodies closest to her. “These aren’t miners. Look at their clothing, their weapons. These are warriors, mages, archers. This isn’t just a few, what are they doing here?”
Zyrina stood at the top of the staircase, “Better come up here, I found the mining office.” She called down to the others.
There were two sets of stairs that each circled the outside wall on opposite sides of the room and led up to the gallery. Up the stairs and inside the Dougan Family Silver Mining Office, which had a small arched entrance, everyone followed Zyrina in. She went to the farthest end of the room and began going through the cupboard. Phlebus went straight for the large wooden desk. In among the papers and debris there he spotted a note that had meaning. It had been left with other papers and things in the mess on the desktop.
“Listen,” he called out then read out loud to the others;
Dis note is for yer eyes only Jon.
We found something. Was deep down under. We tunnel deep. Deeper than before.
You go see. You find out. Go left and left to get to the place. Go down. You see.
Others know I been passing info to you. I do not think we meet again, Jon.
They coming to kill us all. They come from below. In deep tunnel. Go left, you will see.
[Here there is a large splatter of fresh blood and the rest of the note is illegible.]
You been good friend,
While Phlebus had been searching the desk, Torgin had been looking around the office. There were large samples of different kinds of stone blocks in one part; some of them were stones he had never seen before. It almost seemed like the stone was aware of him. It spooked him enough to move away to another area. He found the supply depot in another corner, and looked instead at supplies for mining; shovels, axes, and pails. But the most chilling thing in the room was a stone statue of a kobold with an expression of terror on its face. Torgin could not ignore it for long and found himself facing the statue for a long time before he spoke.
“Looks like he didn’t make it out.” Torgin patted the shoulder of the statue. “No wonder they attacked us without warning. They were already under attack from something else, all right.”
“Where’s Jon?” Lucy asked looking around.
“Not here,” Phlebus confirmed. “I wonder if he made it to his meeting before these kobolds were attacked or if he even saw this message.”
“Do you think Jon might have gone to find the something the kobolds found?”
“Yes, I do.” Phlebus spoke quietly. “And even if he didn’t, we are going to go find it ourselves. There is something down there that we need to see. We better be ready, there are probably more kobolds around, I saw several run out of the room while we were fighting.”
“And whatever attacked them is probably still around as well.” Zyrina added.
“Oh, great.” Lucy was packing up her herbs after having tended the last of the injuries while the others searched the room. “What now?”
Phlebus looked up again from the note he was rereading.
Zyrina grinned, “I think we go see what the kobolds found and dug up. Let’s see what spooked them so bad that they attacked us on sight.”
Phlebus nodded. “Yes. Exactly.”
Now rested, they each gathered their packs and bags which they had dropped at the entrance to the mining office. They filed out of the office and down the staircases, through the rotunda stepping over and around the bodies there. Zyrina bent and collected as many of her arrows as she could gather as they moved through the bodies and into the tunnel once again.
Lucy gathered the torches that had been flung when the fighting started and relit them from a torch on the wall. She handed Plebus one and kept one. Phlebus once again led the way with Torgin close behind. Lucy followed and Zyrina again guarded the rear as they moved quietly through the long passage. They found themselves far more alert than they had been while traipsing into the kobold quarter.
This time the slow walk through the dark tunnel felt even longer than the last eternity. When they found the juncture where a tunnel on the left went down, there was also an opening on the opposite side of the tunnel into a large cavern. Lucy had a peek inside.
“Um. You better come in here,” she called out to the others.
Inside the large cavern among the effects of miners who had abandoned their gear, axes, picks, pails, and a wagon to haul out the large stones that lay cut and ready to haul, Lucy had spied a corpse. He was quite old and wrinkled. She knew it hadn’t been long since he died because his lantern was still lit and the ink by the tipped over inkpot beside him was not dried out.
“Do you think this is Jon?” she asked, pointing to the corpse.
“Dunno yet, Lucy.” Zyrina knelt down to see if there was anything to identify the dead man. She found a scrap of paper tucked under his arm. “He’s still warm.”
“Not dead long then.” Phlebus clarified.
“Yes, it is him,” she smoothed the paper and brought it closer to Lucy’s torch to read out loud to the others who gathered around the fallen man, “I think this is his writing, listen.”
Last statement of Me, Jon The Caretaker
It was a trap!!
The Mining Foreman told me they dug deep an’ found some kinda treasure but it was a lie!! What they found were TROLLS!!…there was something else down there too. A little room I din’t have time to explore in when I was running from them trolls.
I ‘scaped back to this ol’ hotspring but a small pack of kobolds came running at me an’ injured me something fierce. They have went on full revolt now.
I leave anything I gots to Owain Byrd, my ol’ drinkin’ buddy.
they are coming….. I am too beaten and broken to continue…
“Well, I suspect he hasn’t been here all that long. It looks like he was just ahead of us.” Phlebus’s voice sounded sad and disappointed. “I wish we had gotten here in time to help him. I sure would have liked to know what he knew.”
“Phlebus, that’s callous.” Lucy scolded him.
“Ah, my apology Lucy. I wasn’t thinking of his family or friends, only my need. You are right.”
Torgin knelt a moment then spoke, “We are going down the tunnel, aren’t we?”
Phlebus nodded in the gloom but they all knew the answer.
“I wonder what’s in that room that Jon didn’t get to explore. Maybe that’s where the treasure is?” Zyrina speculated.
“I don’t know if it is treasure, Rina. It might be something else completely. The kobolds didn’t seem to know.”
Zyrina nodded and turned to leave.
“Hang on a minute,” Phlebus called out. He got himself ready to face yet another battle. “Trolls take some time to prepare for, don’t you think?”
Zyrina grinned, “Na, we have faced worse than a troll or two,” and she laughed. “Torgin’s digestion, for one.”
Laughing, Lucy clapped Torgin on the back, “There have been a few surprises already, like that sketchy meal at that inn just south of Midland. Remember? But trolls aren’t the worst thing in the world, especially with Torgin along.”
Torgin and Zyrina joined in the laughter and Phlebus broke down and joined in as well. It felt good to release some of the tension of the last few hours.
Lucy of course, had spread out a blanket and had a picnic set upon it by the time they finished laughing. “We aren’t going to battle trolls on an empty stomach.” She was firm and directed them all to the small wash basin she had set up for them, as well.
“How do you do that Lucy?” Zyrina wanted to know, choosing a sandwich.
“Practice.” Was all Lucy would say about that. “Eat. Eat! Eat!!”
Lucy was right, of course. They had no idea how much time had passed, and their hunger had built up. The sandwiches and fruit were a welcome break. It didn’t take long. Within moments of the last bit of remains of their picnic cleaned up and the basin packed again, Phlebus and the others were ready to carry on down the tunnel that they now knew ended in a battle with trolls, and possibly more kobolds if any had survived.
Chapter Six. Dear Jon.
Read by Asclepius
Early in the morning after packing their bags for the day, three of the companions sat around dainty maple tables in their inn sipping hot beverages and enjoying their breakfasts. Crisp blue skies in the early autumn light bolstered Lucy, Zyrina, and Phlebus who had spent much the night tossing and turning. Torgin slept like a log. The cook had outdone himself this morning. Phlebus was nowhere to be seen.
The chef delivered yet another platter (this time cut fruit) to the table, smiling at Zyrina as he did so.
“He’s sweet on ya,” Lucy mumbled between mouthfuls of the most delicious egg dish she had ever tasted.
“I think you exaggerate, Lucy.” Zyrina sipped at her mug of hot spiced tea and nibbled the fresh morning roll she had slathered with local honey.
“Would splain the personal delivery of our meals by the chef.” Torgin reasoned as he chewed his third round of sausage with fried sweet onions. He winked at Zyrina.
“Perhaps it’s Torgin who the cook prefers.” Zyrina argued.
Torgin’s booming laugh nearly drowned out Plebus who had heard the last bit of banter and he walked in the front door of the inn.
“Leave Rina alone, you both know he’s a happily married man. Don’t start rumours.” Phlebus was not smiling. “We’ve got to think about repercussions to the chef.”
“What’s got your goat, Phle?” Torgin wanted to know, not in the least circumspect.
“I met with Jon earlier this morning down by the dock where he was booking the transport into one of the ships of several stone statues that had been removed from the mine. The statues are being sent to the schools of learning around New Brittania to try and find an antidote to the magic used.”
Phlebus stopped to thank the server and take a sip of the tea he had just been given. “Jon is just as elusive as Ivan has been, but he has agreed to talk with all of us this afternoon at the Raven the Dragon and the Stewpot about what he knows and saw that night.”
He added, “After he went back to work, I wanted to get some more information about the history of the valley. I just came from the Hall of Enquiry and Learning. The librarian didn’t have many records. Her collection methods are sporadic and not very well organized but what she has was helpful. She’s an Outlander too. Her memory is long but has gaps and she only has things that she has collected in her own travels. Certainly not a full history of the valley, even. She has no recollection of when that dragon was slain as it was before she came to the valley, but she had a record of most of the keepers of the dragon bones, back over a hundred years. Jenny was listed as the very last one.”
“Why did they stop having a keeper of the bones?” Lucy asked perplexed then added, “Why did they have a keeper of the bones?”
Phlebus set his empty teacup down and helped himself to a plate with a large colourful omelet and some toasted bread. He tucked into the plate with gusto while Torgin filled his teacup from the pot.
Between bites he explained “Let’s see, at first it was to make sure no one took the dragon bones. People being people, they wanted souvenirs of the battle. After the dragon meat was divvied up between the people of Jade Valley, the keeper kept the bones from being taken from where they fell. That way, everyone could come see the size of it and remember how much damage it did before it was finally killed. The dragon skeleton was mentioned in one of the first records as a trophy from one of the many valiant deeds of Calan Caitlin. He slew the dragon all by himself a hundred years ago or so. Dragons have been seen flying over the valley ever since. Sometimes they attack, and that is why the valley has lookout towers surrounding it. I’m sure you’ve noticed them.”
Zyrina acknowledged, “I had wondered when I saw the towers.”
Lucy and Torgin nodded in respect for the warrior who killed the dragon.
Then, Lucy asked, “Do you think the stone dragon in the middle of the markets has anything to do with what is happening here?”
“I don’t think so, Lucy.” Phlebus shook his head then considered it for a moment before going on, “I don’t know. Maybe, but we have no information on that statue, it could be just a statue. Next time I’m at the Hall of Learning I will ask about it, too.”
“Sometimes a statue is just a statue.” Torgin added but he too started thinking about the massive stone dragon in the middle of the markets.
“And sometimes a stone is a dragon.” Lucy was not willing to give up so easily and stuck her tongue out at her brother.
Before the pair broke into a more serious argument Phlebus went on, “The keeper of the bones was tasked with preserving the skeleton so that everyone could see it, and also so thieves didn’t run off with bits of it. Shortly after it was killed rumours about it coming alive in the dark started circulating. So, the keeper was tasked with watching the bones for any strange behaviour. By the time Ivan’s granny Jenny was keeper, hardly no one remembered the story of the dragon fight and several bones had been dragged away over the decades.”
Phlebus looked over at Lucy to add, “Maybe the missing bones affect the spell and that might be why it didn’t finish forming last night. Anyway, the council decided that when Jenny died, they would not reassign the Keeper of the Bones. So, she was the last official with that title. However, her family kept up the tradition informally, and Ivan is the current Keeper of the Bones. They stop thieves. Mostly the rumours of attacks at night do the job for them and no bones have gone missing from the skeleton for at least a couple decades.”
Seeing Zyrina’s eyebrows go up, Phlebus turned to her and addressed the question he was sure she was going to ask. “She had no record of when bones went missing.” Plebus stated, “None of the Keepers have tried dispelling those rumours; they help to keep thieves at bay.”
Zyrina grunted acknowledgement to the answer for her unspoken question.
“Did you find anything out about whether or not dragon bones have come alive before?” Lucy asked.
Nodding, Phlebus answered “Lily Byrd said there were rumours, but no one would admit to going to the graveyard after dark and that’s supposed to be the only time it has occurred. Though some folks talk if they think no one will know who they are so she had a list of some of those dates when people were rumoured to have turned to stone in the past. It’s in her draft notes for a book she’s compiling called the folk tales of the valley series. Compelling work. She has noticed the stone statues have been appearing in the area for nearly 3 decades. This is not new here, but it has never been this frequent in the past, that anyone can remember.”
Zyrina raised her eyebrows, “The librarian is a fount of information, I see. I’ll have to take time to chat with her again myself before we leave Jade Valley.”
“First, it’s time to go find Jon again and hear what he has to say on the subject.” Torgin grunted, then he argued, “If those dragon bones have something to do with turning people to stone and it’s getting more frequent, we are going to have to find the cause.”
“Right. Meet back here in an hour and we will head over, alright?” Phlebus made the decision they were all waiting for.
Zyrina hurried over to the vendors to fetch the few things Lucy asked her to find, and a few things she wanted for her own pack. Jade Valley market was bustling that morning and the cries of dock workers, vendors, seabirds, and children playing gave a sense of contentment and safety to the morning that none of the companions shared. Looking around, Zyrina was heartened to see the signs of humanity carrying on even with such a burden of sadness and loss in the community. She had noted this morning that more stone statues had been found and were moved to the side of the docks, for future transport after the bustle of the markets slowed. Zyrina had watched the process the morning before as well. The sounds of commerce and village life lay like a thin protection for the peace of mind of these villagers. She knew that like her, they could smell the fires still dotted the countryside and could just faintly catch a whiff of the carcasses burning in pits just outside the town itself. She stopped to ask at the guild house for directions to the Raven the Dragon and the Stewpot before returning to the River Rider Inn.
“Follow the road north, then round the bend, you’ll come to it soon ‘nuff.” Jeeves confirmed, pointed past the inn where she was staying. “Frojenta Lane.”
“Thank you, Jeeves.” Zyrina left for her inn to meet the others.
After gathering outside their accommodation to organize their bags, the companions shouldered their packs and headed north along the road. It was only a short walk after all and as the fresh sea air picked up speed it soon blew away the burning smells from the morning pits. Then at midday, as they rounded a bend in the dirt path, something delicious spiced the air. They followed the scent all the way to the Raven the Dragon and the Stewpot at the next corner. The restaurant was on the main floor of what looked like a four-story wooden inn with a lovely front porch just meant for resting on.
“Hallo!! Anybody here?” Torgin’s voice boomed out in the silence inside the Stewpot.
There was a piano in one corner and what looked to be a pipe organ along another wall. The bar looked sort of clean, mostly well-stocked, and there was a distinct odor of dragon stew simmering somewhere in a kitchen that made their mouths water. There were tables and long benches for travellers to use scattered throughout the room as well as a few small wood round tables with chairs, and stools at the bar.
“I smell the dragon and the stewpot, but I don’t see a raven,” Torgin spoke tongue in cheek.
Lucy giggled at her brothers attempt at a joke. “Tis too early for that, brother. Ravens don’t show themselves to strangers.”
Finally, the back door opened, and a lovely young woman came through carrying a keg over her shoulder as if it were a feather pillow. In her other hand she held a pamphlet called the Sticky Beak Flyer and was engrossed in her reading as she walked. She didn’t look strong enough to pick up a heavy cloak let alone a keg but there she was doing it right in front of them, one armed with a full keg. After setting it nonchalantly on the counter she continued to read, her nose nearly touching the page.
“Is your name Raven?” Torgin asked while dodging the elbow to his ribs from his giggling sister.
The sound of Torgins’s voice cut through her reading and gave the barmaid a start. She dropped her pamphlet, then became flustered.
“I did not see you zere,” she stammered. “H H Hello zere an’ welcome to ze Raven ze Dragon and ze Stewpot. I am called Liz, Henry’s daughter.” She indicated over her shoulder at the figure sweeping the back door stoop, “What can I bring you?”
“Ale, stew and bread, with thanks.” Torgin took a step toward her as she started pulling the ale they requested from a spout on the open keg behind the counter into a large pewter jug and asked, “Is Ivan’s Uncle Jon around somewhere?”
“Jon? Old Jon?” She asked while keeping a careful eye on the stream of ale. “Zee caretaker down ze mine?”
“Yes.” Torgin nodded. “He was going to meet us.”
“Well, ee’s usually around the Stewpot every day ‘bout this time, but I’ve not seen ‘im since early zis mornin’ talking with your frien’ zere.” She indicated Phlebus with a nod of her head. “I bet trouble down the mine, has caused thees delay. Zis is usually ze delay zat keeps ‘im from comin’ for ‘is soup.” She bustled around them setting down two jugs of ale and a basket of sliced bread. “If you ask me zere’s somezing amiss zere. Ee told me zee kobolds were on zee verge of rioting over somezing zey dug up. Ee had a meetin’ with zee minin’ boss zis mornin’.”
“What do you think it is?” Lucy asked while setting her pile of bags on the floor near the table. When she finished, she started filling mugs from the fresh pitcher of ale Liz had set on the table.
As she walked to their chosen table with the large pitcher of ale and several mugs she shrugged, “I dunno. Eet has been a long while since zee tours shut down so I doubt it’s more killing or disappearing. An’ zen Merrik Dougan went missing a couple months ago, too. Zere ’as been search crews looking for ‘im in ze tunnels.”
“Who is Merrik Dougan?” Zyrina asked after thanking Lucy for her mugful.
“That would be Elaine’s son. I believe she has daughters too. Jenny’s friend married into the Dougan family of Frojenta Lane.” Phlebus answered the question before the barmaid could.
“That’s right.” Liz nodded. “Ee’s usually around the place causing trouble with ‘is friends and making stew with ‘is sister.” She went on sadly, “Today we had to do it without ‘im again. ‘ee is not zee same since returning to us.”
Phlebus grinned at her and turned to ask, “If Old Jon is down in the mine how do we find him?”
“Well, you may go into zee mine and find ‘im yourself. Zere’s only one way into ze mine after ze fire and cave in.” The barmaid indicated the small door at the back of the Inn, “Through zat way around ze back, an’ you will see a crypt for Charlotte tucked in by ze greenhouses there. Remember to watch your step in ze dark. We don’t want anyone else dying down zere. It’s too sad.”
“What fire?” Zyrina asked quickly.
“Is that Charlotte the spider?” Lucy asked before Liz could answer Zyrina’s question.
“Else?” Torgin inquired at the same time as Zyrina.
Liz stood with her hands on her hips at the side of the table and tried to answer all their questions, “Well, yes Jon can tell you all zis, but after ze cave in, there was a passageway that opened up between the crypt and the mine. The miners ‘ave been using zis entrance in ze crypt ever since zen. I don’t know when eet might be fixed.” She looked around conspiratorially, “I ‘eard zere are family spirits ‘ere in ze mines and zey have been attacking anyone zey come across. You aren’t goin’ to see me goin’ down ze crypt, no way, even eef Jon has sworn some sections are completely free of danger, like zee fishing grottos.”
“Fishing grottos in a family tomb?” Torgin was more and more confused but willing to believe almost anything about the area at this point. He chuckled.
“Well yes, ze mine has mostly dried up some time ago, an’ ze Dougans started givin’ mine tours and fishing tours in some of ze back damp caves where zeey didn’t find ore to mine. It kept the business going when zere was no more silver. Zat’s when zey built ze food court.” She started wiped the table next to them with a rag while continuing, “It was after all zat when ze cave in happened, it opened a passage to ze family crypt an’ some of ze ghosts killed many tourists.”
Liz stopped speaking when Lucy gasped, then nodded her head emphatically, she continued to explain, “Yes zis is true. That’s when ze family hired ze Kobolds to dig a new entrance to ze mine further away, and to fill in ze gap zat opens zee family crypt to ze mine itself. Zey are not finished yet.” She stopped scrubbing at the table to say, “Zat old mine entrance iz covered over by ee green’ouses now. You would never know zere had been a mine here if you didn’t ask me.” She paused before adding, “Zis hardly seems right, ze spirits wandering around a mine like zat.” Liz shuddered then shook her head and sighed with real loss. She added, “Inside, to find your way around, zere is an information booth just inside ze entrance wiz map on ze bulletin board to ze left. Eet will give you some guidance to find zee Food Court and the other areas of ze mine. Stay out of the ones marked danger and you will be fine.” She smiled unconvincingly, “Zat is where Jon usually does ‘is business, I believe, at ze food court counter.”
Both Zyrina and Lucy followed Liz into the kitchen and asked more questions about the history of the mine and the barmaid answered as she dished up their bowls of dragon stew. Torgin was sitting at the bar with the bowl that Liz had handed him before filling the rest of the bowls. Kitty was at his feet eating a bowl of dragon kibble that Liz had placed on the ground for her. Torgin and Kitty were both shovelling food as fast as they could and weren’t paying any attention to the talk around them.
Still at the long table, Phlebus took out a parchment and ink from one of his packs. With quill in hand, he swiftly scrawled a couple of letters:
Damieth Nara, Lycaeum Center of Learning, Brittany, Novia
Sir, stopping whoever is controlling the dragon bones from continuing with their plan to use magic of the ancient Obsidians in this manner is moving forward. I believe we have a solid lead to follow here finally.
You have my full report sent earlier today.
We have not discovered the source of the magic yet but have decided to question a witness of one of the times that this magic was used.
We go to interview him today inside a mine that people have been disappearing from regularly and also getting killed in as well. I know we are getting close to finding an answer, I can feel the magic afterglow strongly here. I will write again when I have some more concrete knowledge and not just rumours.
This dragon, whether or not under the control of mages using Obsidian magic, will destroy the whole valley (not just the farm animals) if we can’t stop it from fully forming. I have not yet found the shard that you suspect is involved.
With respect, Phlebus
And one other:
Trida Moonwalker, Lycaeum Center of Learning, Brittany, Novia
Ma’am, my group have discovered that there may be some Obsidian shard magic in use here in Jade Valley. I spoke privately with the caretaker of a local mine who is quite concerned with the Kobold miners who are skittish at best working near humans but seem to be holding some secret back from him, also with unprovoked attacks by liches, and with the disappearance of residents and the subsequent reappearance as stone statues of themselves.
The governor was correct, there is some malign of spirit here. I can’t place the source yet, but we are getting closer. You have my report from last night. The dragon bones turning were not the first attempt at this magic. Turning Novians to stone with magic is not something I’ve heard about before. I don’t know the reason for that yet either. I am having several of the stones shipped to you. Please see if the magic that binds the is reversable. Are they truly lost?
I had a restless sleep and I’m sure the others did too. I left them at the inn early today to go search out more history at the Hall of Enquiry and Learning.
Now we are meeting Jon and I will learn more about what he suspects, then report back. I don’t think Jon is as forthright as he could be about what he knows, but he does know something, and I’ll find out what. We are going to go ahead into the Dougan Family Crypt and Silver Mine where he is the caretaker.
This magic uses shards. It smells different and feels different in the middle of my body somewhere. Greasy oily, and somehow warped in some way. I have informed Damieth Nara.
See if anyone at the library has heard of old magic being revived anywhere else in Novia using shards, and send what they find to me here, please, care of the inn.
With respect, Phlebus
PS you were right, travelling is harder than I remember from my youth.
“Will you take these to the mail for me?” Phlebus held out the sealed parchments and a few coins to Liz when she brought his stew over to him.
“Yes certainly, sir.” She placed the bowl of stew in front of him, then tucked the money into her apron pocket and took the empty pitchers off the table. “I’ll get zose papers after I’ve had a wash. No need to get gravy on your letters. Would you like more ale?”
“Yes, please.” Phlebus nodded.
Later after they’d eaten, she still seemed adamant about not going into the mine but did take the time to lead them over to the very strange entrance to a mine, the crypt.
Liz kissed each of them once on each cheek before sending them off, “Give Jon an ‘ello from me, an’ tell him ‘is seat is kept warm for ‘im when ee’s back topside.”
This stone tomb which served as the entrance to the Dougan family Silver Mine on the south side of the Raven the Dragon and the Stewpot Inn was sandwiched between the inn and the inn’s full greenhouses. There were no indications that it was anything other than the resting place of Charlotte the Spider.
“Why on earth would they build a mine near a family crypt.” Torgin was still confused. “The ancestors would be disturbed by this activity, wouldn’t they?”
He was truly perplexed and barely understood the concept of keeping dead bodies in the first place, as the customs he was familiar with involved a pyre and flame for the dead, to help them on their way to the other side. But he was ready. His axe was out. The opening was a tight fit for him, but he wiggled through the lid after Zyrina followed Phlebus inside. Kitty leapt into to the crypt right behind him.
“Maybe they had no choice, maybe the ancestors wanted this.” Zyrina shrugged while she reasoned while she studied the map on the bulletin board, “and that’s why the silver was discovered.” She had become accustomed to the various ways someone in Novia could fall into an entrance to some other location, and not all of them friendly or safe. Her first experience was looking too deeply into a beautiful old mirror that led to a night of battle she would not ever forget. By now this should seem normal, but it never did.
“Dead ancestors guiding the living to find silver?” Phlebus joined in. “That hardly seems likely. I thought she said digging the tunnels for that spider led to the discovery. That seems far more probable.”
“Where’s Lucy?” Zyrina asked Torgin.
“She was fixing something in her bag, she’ll find us soon enough.” Torgin indicated back over his shoulder to the exit. “Let’s get over to the food court and find Jon the Caretaker.”
Still outside the inn, Lucy had accidently dropped several packages of herbs out of a hole that spilled from one of her bulging small bags. She had been scooping up the small packets and then stuffing them back into a different bag, all the while enjoying peering through the windows of the full greenhouses nearby. When she finally looked up from her perusal of the plants there, she found her friends had gone into the crypt without her.
Fifteen minutes later Lucy was the last to catch up to the group. After a quick glance at the bulletin board to get her bearings, she jogged over to the food court and found the others arranged in comfortable positions around a wooden small table in the middle of a large room. She was a little out of breath when she scooted in.
She lifted a chair from a neighboring table, set it down and plopped into it. Then she looked around the mining cafeteria where they sat, as each of her companions stared quietly into their unknown futures while they waited. There was a story telling corner that had colourful cushions to sit on while listening to stories the miners told. Further along she could see a shop set up with mining souvenirs and clothing for sale, and a long wooden counter dividing the kitchen from the eating areas with many small table and chairs combinations where they sat now.
“Where’s Jon?” She asked looking around the empty room.
Phlebus gave Lucy a moment to compose herself before he began to speak. “He wasn’t here when we arrived, but there was part of a letter left on the bar.”
It began mid-sentence:
‘…the dead got up and started killing the tourists. Ain’t seen nothin like it afore that, Owain. The spirits of the Dougin Family got up outta their caskets and followed some kind of lich or sumptin inta the mines. They killed a bunch o’ people who were down for a tour too. Was carnage and took a long time to clean up and find em all without runnin’ inta one o’ them liches while doin’ it, too.
They ain’t came back to their restin’ spots yet neither and that’s why the family crypt is still empty. Gotta round em up somehows and get em back into that family crypt. The family decided to close the mine to the public. That’s when Merrik disappeared again, you’ll remember him. Gone for months, he was. That Kobold miner Or’tuk found him wandering round an old unused tunnel deeper than kobolds usually dig. He was gone for so long that the family was just thinkin’ on settin’ up a memorial.
They were all relieved ta ha’ Merrik back, though he’s not said much about wha’ happened to him and don’t seem to have memory of any part of his life before making his way out of the depths of the mine where he’d bin. He ain’t the same neither. He bin changed by them tunnels doing who knows what to stay alive. We’d give up on seein him agin and then he popped right out of the mine like he were jus’ gone down this mornin’. Stinky though, smelled like an old dragon fart.’
The page ended and there was no more writing on the back either. She looked up, confused.
“We think he was partway through writing that” Phlebus explained holding up lemons found near the writings then he shrugged, “or possibly it’s disappearing ink. Can’t tell. Maybe both.” He held up 2 other blank pages that had been found with the partial letter to Owain.
“There was this., too.” Zyrina handed Lucy the other paper they had found. “Look.”
Dis note for you only.
I gotta talk in your ear.
Come on over to the mining office in the Kobold Quarters.
Captain, Kobold Mining Company
After reading she handed the letters back to Phlebus. Then Lucy took a moment to think about what she had read and finally asked, “What now? Still find Jon? Think he’s still over at the Kobold quarters mining office?”
“Yes,” Phlebus nodded several times, “whatever is going on down here we need to find Jon. There is far too much coincidence in the lich attacks here on the innocent right when stone statues and dead animals started becoming more common, let alone dragon skeletons coming alive.”
Phlebus found himself searching deeply into the faces of those dear to him around the table. He sought a connection with each of them. After he had their full attention, he smiled. It was time to give a rousing talk to inspire the group. Trida Moonwalker had warned him of this moment in any group’s adventure. They looked ragged and anxious.
He began, “We need to find a way to stop whoever is trying to form a dragon from those bones. You know this. We all know the dangers of a full-grown dragon attack upon a small village like this. Not one of us looked away when the mist dragon formed in the graveyard last night. You were all ready to battle and not one of you tried to flee.”
Wryly grinning he continued, “And I know you are each just as dedicated to finding answers as I am. Thank you, my friends, for that support.”
“I know the townspeople are all preparing as best they can for whatever is facing them, but they have no way to fight something as overwhelming as magic that makes dragon bones fly or something that can turn villagers to stone.” Phlebus paused for a moment before going on.
He finished carefully, “We can only hope their preparations will keep them safe. Whomever is behind this must be stopped before they manage to succeed. I know none of us are looking for a battle, and I will do my best to avoid any further confrontation, let alone whatever else it is we are getting ourselves into here in this underground lair while we search for Jon the illusive Caretaker. There won’t be reinforcements. Let’s go.”
No one moved.
Zyrina snorted “that was the WORST pep talk I’ve ever heard. We are alone. We might die. And we might fail. No one is coming to help us. Come on, say something a little more encouraging, won’t you?”
Phlebus looked at Torgin, who looked at Lucy. Phlebus turned to Lucy and raised his eyebrows as if to say, ‘your turn’. Lucy shifted, uncomfortable all of a sudden.
After clearing her throat, the quiet woman gathered her thoughts and then spoke clearly and with passion, “I see before me the smartest, strongest, most caring people that I know. With our combined skills we can manage anything we find. I am absolutely certain of it. There isn’t much reason to wait is there? I mean, we know why we do what we do, we are the best at what we do, and it’s time to go do it! We stand together. We do not flinch. We find the truth of the matter.” She finished with a grimace, “Let’s go stomp these liches!!”
Gracefully she rose from her chair to turn and point her sturdy arm out of the food court and across the mine’s entrance to where she had seen the Kobold Miner’s Quarters on the map earlier, before striding boldly out of the cafeteria.
Torgin muttered, “Get ‘em sis,” as he petted Kitty behind her ear.
“Oh!” Looking up into the silence after Lucy’s speech, Phlebus hastily collected his bags and stepped into the mining entrance behind Lucy. Then quickly out of the way of an empty mining cart that came barreling by on its track. The mining cart was a relic from the Public Tours the Silver Mine. It had been used to give to the locals and occasional outlander tours of the area before ghosts and liches started attacking everyone.
“See? Now, THAT is a pep talk” Zyrina nodded finding herself raring to go tear into the unknown. She finished by saying to Torgin, “Sometimes action is the best pep talk of all. Let’s go find some answers,” and with that strode out behind Lucy and Phlebus.
Torgin bringing up the rear, hesitated only a short time. “Kitty stay here,” he quietly ordered before gathering his supplies back up and stepping out behind his group of friends. Kitty didn’t hesitate and made her way to the cushions on the floor of the reading corner. Circling once or twice, she had herself curled up in a comfortable napping spot within seconds. Torgin could hear her purring as he walked out of the room.
Directly across from where he stood was an entrance to the Kobold Quarter and mining office located somewhere down a dark tunnel behind a large wooden statue of a Kobold. It had a barrier that said keep out blocking the passage, but Lucy and the others had moved some of it out of the way by the time he caught up.
Chapter Five. The Bones.
Read by Celith Wraine
Down the slope a little from the farming area, just behind the tall white wooden clock tower in among the swaying trees stood a maze of an old graveyard. On closer inspection the graveyard was a series of graveyards, some of them crumbling with headstones that no longer were readable. The old headstones and pockmarked sarcophaguses lay scattered seemingly randomly in a maze of half destroyed stone fences and decaying stone buildings covered in moss and vines. Large trees now grew in and among the markers, sometimes thrusting up through the displaced stones of the destroyed buildings themselves. Passing the area earlier on their way to the windmill, none of the group had paid more than a passing glance at the old graveyard because they were all focused on the windmill and the large sky ship anchored above the town’s gardens.
Looking up at the clock Lucy exclaimed, “Four in the afternoon! We’re missing tea!” She grumbled a little, “I hate missing tea. It usually means I’m doing something that I don’t want to do, like going to a graveyard to look for a half-drunk storyteller to hear the end to a very frightening story that he heard decades ago and none of the story might have anything to do with our mission in the first place.”
Hot tea currently unavailable, she continued grumbling under her breath even as she rummaged through her bags and eventually pulled slightly squishy packages of leftover cheese and mostly fresh bread from her seemingly bottomless pack and a stoppered flask of cold tea.
“I was hoping to be back at the inn, but these will have to tide us over for now,” and she offered the food and drink to everyone.
The group sat under the shade of the clocktower to eat their food and everyone had a moment to have a good look at the graveyard where they were to find Ivan.
“I didn’t realize Jade Valley had been here quite long enough to have so many old graves.” Zyrina noted thoughtfully while she chewed the last of her bread slowly. “Some of these are hundreds of years old.”
Brushing the crumbs away she waited until everyone had finished eating to suggest, “Well let’s get started. He’s got to be here somewhere.”
Phlebus started walking toward the nearest section to look for signs of Ivan or a gate with a skull but was easily distracted by reading the graves he passed. Zyrina followed him. Lucy was already distracted and excitedly digging up a plant that she found near one of the crumbled walls and Torgin left to start looking at the other end of the graveyard area.
Torgin was the first to spot the old graveyard with the skull on its gate. “Over here.” He stood near the road, waving.
As the others found their way over, Lucy stared at an old set of bones close to where Torgin waited. It looked like a massive dragon had died here some ages past. Torgin was beckoning the others to take a path that snaked from the road past the dragon bones.
“I remember passing these,” Lucy mumbled. “D’you think these are the bones that Jenny was the keeper of? Some are missing.” As she inspected the skeleton of the dragon she took stock of several missing rib bones.
She ran her hands along the massive row of ribs sticking out of the ground as she caught up with her brother. They felt warm to her touch. The sun must have warmed them, she thought to herself and nervously laughed a little.
“This way.” Torgin indicated a small overgrown stone path that led behind the dragon bones, right to a small, fenced graveyard. The metal skull gate was obvious, and the yard was surrounded by a rusting spiked metal fence and some kind of prickly hedge that appeared to be dead.
“I wonder why this part is fenced.” Lucy mused.
Phlebus peered around at the many graves that were not enclosed.
“Maybe these ones aren’t as old, Lucy.” He suggested, “it doesn’t look as decrepit as the rest of them.”
Zyrina had walked a little way away to get a closer look at a human sized stone shape nearby.
“Is that another of those stone statues, Rina?”
“Yes, it looks like it.” Zyrina shuddered a little.
The statues were so lifelike that Zyrina had a difficult time looking into their eyes. She wondered how long this one had stood in this spot, as some of its hat and edges of its cloak lay in bits and pieces at its feet.
“This one is older than the others, Phle.” Zyrina reported. “It’s beginning to crumble.”
Meanwhile, Torgin pushed the skull door open and led the way into the graveyard. Fading afternoon light cast long shadows on spiderwebs all around them. He prudently kept his dagger to hand in case the weaver of the web appeared. Lucy took a moment before following the others. Before she entered, she pulled a torch out of her pack and lit it with her flint and steel. The light cast was enough to keep from tripping on the grave markers or get caught in the strong spider webbing that could be seen throughout the area.
Just when they were sure they had missed Ivan, he coughed near the large spider covered fountain made of skulls carved into marble that filled the middle of the little graveyard and startled Lucy enough that she squeaked and jumped back causing a chain reaction of her companions wielding their weapons to protect her from whatever danger she had discovered.
“Spooked a little are ye Miss?” Ivan cackled delightedly at his joke but soon became somber again as he led them further into the shadowy maze. As they followed him, winding their way among the headstones, Ivan continued his story.
“Granny crept after her friends into this part of the graveyard that night though she was full o’ fear o’ tha’ ol’ story she had heard whispered in the dark, and dread o’ tha’ terrifyin’ spider they was seeking for Elaine. Granny didn’t wanna be there because she had heard tales from her elders ‘bout th’ dragon bones comin’ live after dark and turnin’ livin’ humans to dead stone.
She pleaded as they edged closer and closer, ‘Stop. Please. Let’s come back in the daytime. Strange things happen here after the sun sets. Those dragon bones might come alive. It hunts the valley after midnight for the gullible and mesmerizes you before it seals your fate in a covering of stone. There is no cure, no antidote.’ She pleaded, repeating the story her family had told her from when she were a young’un, but it didn’t have the effect she was hoping for.
‘That’s a tale to keep babies from wandering away from their homes. There ain’t anything scary ‘bout this place.’ Jon declared.
Even her little brother Jon wasn’t ‘fraid an’ his bravado made the others bold enough to scoff at Jenny’s story an’ her fears.
Granny said the oldest of the group, Tristan, paused for a split second, looking slightly concerned but then caught Elaine watching him and he stuck out his chest and swore that he HAD to see the dragon bones that night. He, who was obviously showing off for Granny’s pretty friend, insisted they have a look at the old dragon bones after collecting the spider for Elaine and before they disperse for the night. He promised to leave with them after they all peeked.
Granny’s friend, Elaine, finagled Granny Jenny to stay to find tha’ spider and then she promised she would leave with Granny, and so would the others. There was no way Granny would leave her little brother or Elaine in the middle of the night in a graveyard and so she bravely decided to stay, too. Tristan turned to go find the spider before exploring the dragon bones and hesitant as they were, the rest were not about to be left behind.
The kids looked for spiders among the old graves, finally finding just the one Elaine was searching for, a Ferocious Red Arachnid. She was elated, and after putting a collar on the fuzzy pet, named her spider Charlotte.
‘Good, let’s skedaddle.’ Granny Jenny sighed with relief.”
The story came to a sudden halt. By this point Ivan had led the group to the part of the graveyard with his Granny Jenny’s grave. Ivan stopped talking and laid a yellow flower at the base of his Granny’s headstone and then each of the companions had knelt and given a moment of silence and respect for Ivan’s Granny, too. Then Ivan led them back to the skull gate and continued his tale as he walked toward the dragon bones.
“Somewhere along the way my Uncle Jon had picked up a stick and when all four had arrived at the head of the dragon skeleton, he heroically thrust his stick into the eye socket of the dragon’s skull proclaiming his victory over his foe. Then things changed and not in the way any of them would forget.”
Ivan indicated an area near the fence. “Granny stood in this very spot when the Dragon woke up and looked her straight in the eye with its glowing red eyes. She could feel the breeze as the dragon started to breath in and then the heat as it expelled hot billows of soot and ash from great glowing nostrils formed of shadow and mist. In the instant they were hidden from sight of those penetrating eyes, Granny instinctively reached out and took hold of Elaine and her brother on either side of her. Both had frozen in fear and she pulled them into tha’ small stone crypt over there just as the dragon drew another breath and spewed boiling foul gray smoke all around itself.” Here Ivan pointed to a still intact stone crypt nearby.
“The oldest boy did not jump out of the way. Tristan felt the mist before he saw it, and when the dragon’s eyes started glowing, he let go the hand of the pretty girl Elaine. He took a very deep breath, drew his sword, then sprang directly at the dragon, shouting as loud as he ever had and distracted it from his companions. He disappeared into the magnificent swirl just as Granny closed the crypt door behind herself.
Granny, Uncle Jon, and Elaine with Charlotte tucked up in her cloak didn’t move till well into the next day when the light was strong and the normal sounds of birds calling out in the woods soothed their nerves. They emerged to find the dragon had reverted to dust and bones. In the defined horror of bright light, they could see that their brave friend had been turned to stone, caught in a pose as he attacked the dragon to save their lives, just like Granny’s elders’ story had predicted.
No one ever admitted what happened to the boy when officers of the realm came asking about his condition. Their questions eventually faded after years of looking for reasons with no answers. Jenny, Jon, and Elaine didn’t talk about it much, only enough to tell their families what had happened. They din’t want ta forget why no one was to go in th’ graveyard after dark.
The spider Elaine found in the dark that night grew to a most unusual size and was so aggressive, tha’ it had to be taken down into the tunnels o’ the family crypt an’ kept away from regular folk. Elaine continued to love Charlotte until that spider passed years ago. Built a special sarcophagus for her an’ ever’thin’. Most o’ the family credits digging that spider’s grave with the discovery of silver all around their family crypt. Became quite famous for awhiles. Mining it all went on for many years.”
Ivan stopped there for another drink from his flask, and a quick nervous squint up at the darkened sky.
Then he went on, “My Granny Jenny an’ her best friend, Elaine, and my Uncle Jon all made it through that night. They had some kinda pact to not talk ‘bout the dragon and tha’s why I only heard tha’ story tha’ one time. It stuck wit me though, and that’s the truth.”
He thought a moment before adding, “Though, I bet my Great Uncle Jon could tell you more about that night now’s everyone else has died off, iff’n yer interested.” Raising his eyebrow he addressed Phlebus directly this time.
Phlebus nodded and Ivan went on again, “You’se can find him drinkin’ down at The Raven, The Dragon, an’ The Stew Pot down in the Valley. It’s over on Frojenta Lane north o’ th’ Jade Markets, near the Dougan family Silver Mine and Family crypt tha’ I was tellin’ you’se ‘bout. Ask anyone.”
Ivan takes another quick scan of the darkened sky and nervously adds, “I NEVER go ta the graveyard after dark an’ it’s getting’ dark. Anyhoo that’s the endin’. How Ivan’s granny saved the day and lost a friend.” And that was indeed the ending of Ivan’s’ tale. With a quick wave of his bottle he disappeared before anyone even blinked.
Then, in the quiet of the early evening, our companions all heard a distinctive fiery snort and then felt more than saw the cold billowing mist begin to rise from the pile of bones right in front of them. It formed the outline of a dragon around the bones, solidifying as it gathered.
Phlebus and Zyrina exchanged a look, and the other two did as well. Each quietly loosened the fastenings on their weapons and readied their various potions and lotions in preparation for whatever might be behind this new development. Even as a dark mist started seeping toward them, they moved into a protective formation around Lucy who was still fumbling with the bandages she had prepared earlier. They then moved as a single organism into the mist toward the moving dragon bones.
Ahead, the pile of bones writhed slowly in the dark, forming itself into its full beauty and glory but the dragon was not yet breathing fire. It exhaled a thick black ash, cold and unnerving. The mist slowly became skin and muscle that covered the dragon bones as the form coiled around itself. Its slick orange scales glistened, and its eyes, its eyes GLOWED.
Arrows notched, swords brandished, spells cast, and the companions were as ready as they could be to battle this shadowy menace. Then just as they were ready to strike, the dragon just as suddenly as it had begun twisting, it abruptly stopped moving. The mist slowly dissipated, and the now re-exposed bones lay innocently along the roadway. The dragon’s eye sockets were as empty as the rest of the skeleton.
“What the Titans was that!!” Torgin was shaken more than he wanted to admit. He dropped his axe to his side but did not put it back in its holster. He searched the area for another attack.
“I don’t know, brother but it’s gone now. Time to leave before it comes back.” Lucy was firm. She turned to the little stone path and led the way back to the main roadway.
As they moved slowly away from the bones, not one of them turned their back on them until they were partly around the bend and down the hill and completely out of sight, even then each of them glanced back nervously from time to time.
“I’ve never seen a dragon do that before.” Zyrina kept her bow notched. She was unnerved and shaking.
Phlebus looked like he wanted to say something but just didn’t know how to start. “I I I’ve never even heard of a magic that could form a dragon from old bones.” He stammered. “I don’t want to say this because you are going to think I’m crazy but,” he took a breath before going on. “That seems like Obsidian magic from the age when they created Elves, Trolls, and Kobolds.”
“Come on, Phlebus,” Zyrina scoffed. “That magic’s been gone since before I arrived here; for centuries before.”
Lucy spoke up, “Phlebus I don’t think you are crazy. But what happened? Why didn’t it attack us? Where did it go?”
“Maybe something went wrong partway through spellcasting?” he offered.
It was the only thing he could think of. The sudden disappearance of the mist and the receding of the form reminded him of when he was learning and a spell would collapse half way through if he lost his concentration or if something moved in his sphere of awareness.
“What spellcasting? Did you see any spellcasters?” Torgin looked around as if he would spot one in the darkness as they walked down the hill toward town.
“Nope I didn’t see anyone else, except that dragon. Did you?”
Phlebus looked around the group but no one spoke up.
“They can’t have been very far away though, spells like that have a range, or so I’ve read. I’ve never seen one performed before. Unless…” Phlebus drifted off into thought.
“Will that dragon be back tonight?” Lucy nervously asked as she pulled yet another torch from her pack and lit it with the one that was dying. She swung it in a wide circle around the group as if protecting them with its light.
Shrugging Torgin looked to Phlebus for an answer, as did Lucy.
“I doubt it.” He shrugged.
It didn’t seem like making anyone more scared was the answer but Phlebus knew he had no idea if the dragon would return. It was puzzling indeed. He wanted to find more information about the dragon in the graveyard, and about the boy who had been turned to stone.
“Unless what?” Zyrina was watching Phlebus who had been thinking.
He looked up, “What?”
“Unless what?” She repeated.
“Oh, nevermind, it’s not important.” Phlebus shrugged, appearing nonchalant. “Just a passing thought.” He smiled reassuringly.
Zyrina was not reassured, she knew that look. Phlebus had an idea but wasn’t ready to share it yet. She just hoped he would be ready before it was too late. She suspected he wanted to look something up in a book before spitting it out.
“I think I need to talk with Ivan’s Uncle Jon at The Raven, The Dragon, and The Stew Pot after a cup of hot tea, supper, and a good night’s rest tonight. There’s nothing we can do now except try to find out more information from the locals. Maybe somebody has seen this before or noticed mages around, or strangers.” Phlebus decided when the group reached the sanctuary of their inn a little while later. “There is shard magic being used here, and I need to find the source of it before there is more destruction and death.”
“Moonshard?” Lucy looked concerned. “Did moonshards fall around Jade Valley too? I thought they fell farther north?”
“Not that I have heard, Luce, but some shards are small enough to transport without too much trouble. I’m going to speak with that librarian again in the morning. She might know some of the history of the dragon bones and whether there are any shards in the valley.”
“So, the plan is to gossip with the locals, and see who knows something they want to share? I can do that.” Torgin was the first to offer with a grin as the prospect of supper and storytelling began to form in his mind.
“I’ll help.” Lucy offered as well.
Zyrina just nodded.
Phlebus pushed open the door and led the way to the crowded restaurant inside. The server suggested they go up to the roof and he would bring their supper up when it was ready. The rooftop pub was also full of people. Apparently, they were not the only ones who wanted to gossip about what the group had found on their first day of the inquiry. Torgin found an appreciative audience for his tale of their experiences in the graveyard. Many ales were foisted on the explorers to aid their storytelling. The gasps and cries of surprize let Phlebus know that the dragon hadn’t formed like this in anyone’s recent history. He burned to find out what was causing the magic and what the dragon would be used for.
By the time Torgin and Lucy were drunk and singing loudly around the piano with the bar maids, and Phlebus was engrossed in a conversation about wheat and barley with one of the locals, Zyrina slipped away to her bed. She had had enough excitement for now and needed some time alone to think about what she had seen. The locals in the pub laughed and called them babies from the city when Torgin told their tale and scoffed at the story telling as ‘tall tales’ but she could tell not one of them doubted what had happened for a minute.
Chapter Four. The story.
Read by Alleine Dragonfyre
The winding dirt path up to the windmill and the community garden was indeed just behind Elnoth’s home and the companions soon found themselves climbing a steep slope, past Frojenta Lane.
“So how long has it been since you’ve seen Phle?” Lucy asked Zyrina as they fell in step on the climb. Phlebus and Torgin forged ahead and continued their argument about whether covered wagons or air balloons were faster travel. “Where’d you meet?”
Zyrina took a moment to answer. She half wanted to join the conversation on balloons or wagons and not talk about her friendship with Phle. Her opinion was firmly on the wagon as the most efficient form of land travel. Yet, reminiscing didn’t feel dangerous today, as they strolled in the afternoon sun. She had to really think about how long it had been since the last time she saw him in person.
“Let me think.” She stalled.
Lucy’s question had brought up long forgotten memories of herself as a young woman barely in her twenties who had been through an unexpected portal and transported to Novia from the Outlands. She was reminded of the intense fear she felt when she landed near Solace Bridge so many years ago. By Novian reckoning it had been almost a century ago.
Trust had been hard for her, especially here in a completely different world than the one she came from. She didn’t take to strangers very well and spent most of the time alone in Novia. When she first arrived, someone called Edvard needed help for the survivors at the battle of Solace Bridge, and then he had sent her to on to Soltown and from there she made her way to Ardoris. She had never been able to protect herself but along the way she began to learn.
“Let’s see, I met him in Ardoris. At that time the city of love had been reeling because of the continued separation between Priestess Khasi and Shogun Suranto. There is still much unrest even in its once serene streets.”
“Love,” Zyrina snorted and though to herself. She had spent a long period trying to sort out the cause of the friction between the Shogun and the Priestess and had concluded that love was more complicated than she could imagine.
After a pause to catch her breath Zyrina went on, “I was down at the Traveller’s Docks to meet someone and while I waited, I had been gossiping with one of the barmaids, Emma, just outside The Tavern of the Wind.
In all the bustle of the dock a call of “Thief, Thief!” rang out and then someone came careening out of one of the alleys chased closely by a displeased merchant who caught up with them at the dock. Shouting at the young man all the while about respect and honour, I gathered that food had been stolen from the merchant. Eventually the merchant finished yelling and shaking the thief and tossed him into the canal just outside the tavern. Turning and continuing his loud tirade against thieves he left huffing and shouting at everyone he met.
It was obvious the thief couldn’t swim, and I couldn’t leave him to die so I fished the miscreant out of the canal. It was Phlebus. That was about fifteen years ago.”
“Phlebus stealing?” Lucy looked shocked then slapped her thigh and laughed. “That explains so much.”
“Hmm, well that day we sat together in a small park while he dried. Then he was kind enough to offer to share his food and shelter. He had stolen a bun earlier and then some cheese just before I found him drowning. The cheese survived the dunking in the water. We ate that in a cozy spot under a bush just outside of Ardoris. Then we slept there. It wasn’t much. But it was enough.”
Phlebus and Zyrina had become inseparable from that moment on. He taught her how to pickpocket on the streets of Ardoris and she taught him how to read and how to swim. Over the six years they spent together in Novia before Phlebus went to school, they escaped many close calls with various city guards and various dubious encounters on the roads between cities. He had been her greatest and dearest friend through it all.
Zyrina continued, “It helps to have a travelling companion.” Nodding toward Torgin ahead on the path, Zyrina noted, “you know how it is. You’ve always had one. This world constantly surprises me. It is similar but not like the Outlands at all.”
“A companion? Torgin?” Lucy snorted, “my brother can be accused of many things, but he is not a man of much conversation and his value as a companion is limited.” Lucy may have understated the value she placed on her brother’s companionship, but she understood Zyrina’s point.
“Still, he was someone you shared your time with and who watched your back for you.” Zyrina argued her point.
Zyrina smiled, Phlebus had had her back in every fight they’d been in. She recalled one especially close call with an extremely obnoxious mountain troll. They had been tasked with taking one of his toenails to someone who would pay dearly for it. Phlebus and Zyrina found out why they were being paid so much when they discovered the mound of human skeleton bones the troll had piled beside his cave. They fought back-to-back in that one. It had taken all their skills combined to survive. She smiled wryly remembering the exhilaration of jumping off that high bridge into a waterfall during the dramatic escape and Phle right beside her on the way down. ‘I got it!’ he had shouted, holding up a filthy gnarled toenail when they both found themselves alive on the bank of the river far downstream from the trolls and their bridge.
“So, why’d you part ways?” Lucy probed partly stirring Zyrina out of her memories.
The sale of that toenail paid for Phlebus to attend the academy in Central Brittany. And he excelled. Once he got into the school there were scholarships and awards, too. Through the years, Zyrina proudly kept his messages to her describing the goings on at the castle library. There were not many letters, but she cherished each one, they were now tucked in a waxed cloth in the safety of her pack. She had missed his company and his inquisitive mind.
“Becoming a scholar was what Phlebus was meant for, certainly he needed to be near books in a way that I don’t.” Zyrina confessed after careful thought.
While Phlebus attended school, Zyrina found steady work with her bow. It kept her fed, and it kept her employed. There were many people in this land who needed help and would pay a bit of gold for the service she provided. Zyrina became a tracker, a guide, and in the end a bodyguard. It was a life she found satisfying. The last four months in the mines of Elysium was as settled as she had ever been in Novia.
“Hmmm. I think it’s about nine years.”
Lucy stopped walking suddenly, “The entire time he’s been in school?” Lucy was incredulous.
“Mmhmm. I didn’t realize so much time had passed until he wrote to me about this mission. All he said was that he needed my bow, and that the pay was going to be low. He didn’t tell me the nature of this mystery.”
Lucy snorted. After a few more steps she asked, “Why now? I mean after all this time, why did you decide now was the time to join him? He has asked for your company before this, I know he has.”
Zyrina looked over at Lucy’s kind face. She appeared to be extraordinarily protective of her friend Phlebus.
Zyrina admired the quality of loyalty and said gently, “Time passes differently for me and more time passed than I was aware of, and then it just became easier not to go visit because I’d been away for so long. He was the first Novian I became friends with, and I believe he knew I would come if he actually needed me, not Oh this is too hard, and I need you to come rescue me from here. I can’t live on my own.” Here she paused before adding as an afterthought, “I thought all Novians would be like him, but it turns out he is special. When he wrote asking for my support, I came as soon as I could.” She shrugged.
Lucy nodded enthusiastically. “He’s not as helpless as he appears though, is he?”
Zyrina laughed, “No. He’s very rarely helpless, but he wouldn’t survive on his own outside of a city anymore. He’s out of practise.”
“Phlebus talked about you occasionally in the first year. He admired you greatly, but less after you didn’t rescue him from himself. I half expected you to turn up in the city and claim him when he nearly bombed his first year at the academy, you know?”
Shrugging Zyrina confided, “I almost did but somebody wiser than me stopped me from going. They told me a tale just before I started out to collect him that made me see that Phlebus and I didn’t have the same path in life. If I had claimed him then, he would never have become who he is now.”
“It nearly broke him, you know?”
“Yeah, it nearly broke me too.”
Lucy stared with compassion. “It was awful. He was sure you would come.”
Zyrina walked in silence for a little while.
“So, I hear you are a healer. Do you use magic, too?” Zyrina changed the subject.
“Yes, sometimes, but I like to rely most often on the potions and lotions that support life. I find each of us reacts a little differently to magic and to potions, but with proper life supports we all heal at a greater rate. So, unless the injuries are acute, I use herbal skills and cooking to mend.”
“Where did your interest in plants start?”
“Where did your interest in tracking and archery start?” Lucy countered.
“Who says I’m interested in tracking and archery?” Zyrina tried to look innocent and pretended to trip over a root on the path.
They both laughed then.
Going first Lucy began, “I suppose it was my grandmother who got me interested in plants. We used to go picking herbs in the forest together and she would talk about how she would preserve each herb and what kinds of things the plants would help us with if we let them. She had a real affinity with life. I spent much of my youth helping her to care for the plants in her garden and spent a lot of time learning how to find rare ones in the other areas of the world from her. Then I learned to preserve her medicines. When I got a little older, I used to go with her to help people who needed her. She spent her life restoring her neighbours and community with her plants and healing touch until her death. I still miss her, especially when I’m sick. I went to Central Brittany to learn more about plants and on the way learned some healing magic spells as well. It was quite a surprise to find out I could heal people with magic as well as and sometimes better than with the plants alone.”
Lucy had not meant to be quite so personal with her response to the question but Zyrina made it easy to trust her and just be honest about what she thought and believed. It was refreshing. She didn’t demand answers but waited until Lucy was ready to open up a little.
“Your grandmother must have been very proud of you.”
“Now you.” Lucy said looking over at Zyrina who was still mulling over what Lucy had said about having a grandmother healer.
“Well, I didn’t learn how to track or how to shoot a bow until I arrived in Novia.”
“That was what, a hundred years ago?” Lucy teased.
Zyrina snorted, “By Novian calendars, more or less.”
“Sure. Well, Phlebus and I had been living on the streets of Ardoris until the guards made us move along. I think we might have been in a community up around Desolis, by the time that I shot my first short bow. Up till then I had been learning to use a pair of knives that Phlebus and I took off a Red Sash Bandit. Anyway, I picked up an elven bow off one of the creeps that Phle and I had to fight off one night when the creep tried to steal my blanket, and more if he could’ve gotten it.” Zyrina stopped talking for a moment.
She looked over at Lucy, “When I first arrived, I did pick up a bow, and I used it at close range on a few undead and skeletons but hadn’t really stuck with it and my aim was really bad. I sold it for food. I didn’t need it in the city, and I needed food to live. But in Desolis, it felt good to have another one in my hands.”
The deserts had been a fine learning arena, lots of space and few citizens to get in the way. The cacti and the small rabbits and birds of the desert became the first moving targets.
“Too much time on your hands?” Lucy wanted to know.
Zyrina shook her head to clear it a bit from the memory, “Yeah, absolutely. After picking up that bow, I spent my free time shooting at targets and then small desert animals that I could aim for. I lost most of my arrows back then.”
In their early days together, she and Phlebus spent much of their time searching for spent arrows in the sand near Desolace. After all this time she was still very frugal with arrows and didn’t waste an arrow if she could recover it.
Grinning she went on, “We ate much better after I learned to hit them. Squirrel and rabbits, birds, and then later fish. Yes, even fish. I didn’t like to miss because it usually meant we didn’t eat if I missed.” She looked somber as she recalled those hungry days.
“Tracking was something I learned as a child.” Then she suddenly stopped talking and started walking a little faster.
It was fast enough that speech was no longer possible for either of them.
“Where are you living these days?” Zyrina changed the subject again, after catching her breath again at the top, knowing only that after her first assignment that Lucy had left the city, same as Torgin.
“Do you know the Mistrendur at all?” Lucy inquired.
“A little, enough to know of the three main islands, and the serpent shape but I don’t know the history of the Mistrendur.”
Nodding Lucy declared, “not many do.” She went on, “I live on the West Island, Slangeholle, where the tail of the serpent would be, up in the Grenfol mountain range in a cabin in the woods near a hamlet called Jade Mountain.”
“Huh? The Jade Empire stretches from Jade Valley all the way to the Mistrendur?” Zyrina seemed surprised. “I knew of an island in the Hidden Vale controlled by the Jade Empire, but I didn’t know about the Mistrendur. There are Jade Dragons everywhere it would seem.”
“There are two Jade communities up in the Mistrendur. Jade Garden is the other, on the middle island, the belly, Slangemagge. If you like Jade Valley, you would LOVE it there. Seriously, after this inquiry why don’t you come with me and I’ll show you around both Jade Empire towns. There is a balloon that takes us all the way there from Jade Valley.”
“I’ll think about that. I sure would like to see what could be prettier than this town right here right now.” Zyrina’s gaze swept back down to the crescent shaped harbour and busy markets below.
“Yes, this harbour is stunning. The Jade Dragons seem to have a fair share of talented gardeners in their midst. I think the leader of that guild is even a Royal Gardener. We met him at the meeting, Governor Hari. They have four towns in their empire. I haven’t been to the one up in the Hidden Vale, Jade Island, but I still think Jade Valley is the prettiest.’
“Why live in Jade Mountain if you think Jade Valley is the prettiest?”
“I live in Jade Mountain because it feels like home to me.” Lucy added, “There are a few young people there that I like to keep an eye on, as well. Years ago, I promised another of the Outlanders that I would care for the orphans, they were children then. I am fond of them both.”
Nodding while looking down at the seaside valley below, Zyrina spoke “This is stunning and quaint. I don’t think I’ll forget this town.”
“There it is,” Torgin called out from the road ahead, pointing toward a large sky balloon.
“That’s not a windmill, brother.” Lucy shouted back.
“The windmill is near that balloon, remember?” Phlebus soothed with his map and papers pulled out and open before the twins started fighting about this, too.
“It sure is windy enough up here for one.” Lucy found her breath stolen from the force of the gusts but managed to squeak out her comment regardless.
And it was indeed windy where the windmill was found, among the barns, the gardens, and the sky ship moored above all. Ivan was outside of the windmill fiddling with a piece of machinery when we arrived.
“Hello.” Zyrina called out. As she got closer she could still smell alcohol on him and now as well, the black greasy mess that he was currently spreading all over the bit of metal he held.
“Are you drunk, Ivan?” She asked him straight out.
“There youse all are!” He didn’t even look shocked at the question as he shook his head, “Not so much as I can’t fix this here gear here.” Ivan started laughing at his own joke.
“Will you tell us the story, then?” Phlebus wanted to know without so much as a how do you do. “I can give you a hand with that,” he added rolling up his sleeves and picking up a wrench.
“No, I’ve got it, thank’ee mightily.” Sighing and setting down the gear, Ivan picked up an old rag and began to clean his hands. “Well, surely I’ll tell it to you’se. Since you’ve come all this way n’ all.”
He took a swig from a brown jug, he then offered it to the companions. They declined. Even Torgin.
Without another pause Ivan began as he continued to grease the metal piece he had picked up again, “When I was a youngun’ an’ my granny was still the gravedigger and keeper of the dragon bones here in the valley, a Bard from far away came to the village. It was worth granny’s wrath to stay up late tha’ night, hidden o’ course, to hear the stories and songs. When that old Bard…can’t recall his name anymore, Ningo? Jingo? Oh! Mingo, that’s it. He’s a Outlander, like you.”
He turned to look directly at Zyrina for the first time.
“What’s a keeper of the Dragon Bones?” Lucy wanted to know as Phlebus shushed her.
Ivan just stared at her for a moment, and then went on with his story without answering her question.
“Well anyways, tha’ Bard stopped in for a bowl o’ granny’s pumpkin soup just after the leaves fell that autumn.”
“Just soz ya know, Bards were and still are the best source of news for young’uns and growups about gossip and battle and wars for a wide swath of the neighborin’ towns and villages on the island. Anyways, tha’ night after that there bard tol’ tha’ story bout the glory’us Calan Caitin fighting all alone against two massive trolls and a bunch o’ mages at the Battle of Upper Tears. Afterward when the growups had all settled down agin an’ granny had her whistle whetted, I heard the scariest tale you ever did hear.”
He paused here to take another drink from his jug and this time Torgin joined him.
“Mingo spoke up then, after accepting a large frothing mug and letting the crowd quiet down. ‘I’d like a moment to think of another, does anyone else have a tale to share to warm this dark night whilst I quench my thirst? Surely, Jenny will tell one? How bout that ol’ graveyard story, Jen?’
Granny grunted as she sat back down by the fire after addin’ another log and took a long pull from her pint of ale before beginnin’. Tha’ Bard nodded and smiled a little, to encourage her, like. He strummed his harp low and quiet so’s we could hear granny talk. It looked to me like he was settlin’ to listen. Or maybe he was anticipatin’ the fresh ale my Da’ was pouring for him.”
Ivan paused for another swig before going on. This time each of the companions had a swig from the jug in turn while Ivan continued.
“…well anyway…so Granny she starts talkin’ low and quiet and tells o’ the black fog. The dark dank fog that rolled in the afternoon of her sixteenth birthday. After the cake and the singin’, an’ during a game o’ truth or dare. The one friend o’ hers, Elaine Dougan, had it in her to try an’ catch a big ol’ graveyard spider for a pet and so she dragged the 3 of ‘em along on the dare ta go ta the graveyard after dark with their school friend Tristan, Granny Jenny’s younger brother, my Uncle Jon and Granny Jenny. There were four of em, just like you four, huh. Interestin’. Anyway. Even if they looked scared, they were also mostly curious to see the graveyard after dark, too. Or maybe they just wanted to do something slightly dangerous to show off to their friends later. Anyhoo’, Granny and her pals went sneaking into the old ruins. Hmmm.” He giggled gleefully, “I gots an idee in my noggin’: Heya know what? Let’s go on down to the ruins and I’ll finish tellin’ yoz’ all the tale in the very spot my Granny said she…well…let’s not get tellin’ the tale out of order.”
He directed, “Meet me in the Skull Gate Graveyard yonder to th’ clock tower. Yeah, you prob’ly passed it on the way here. An’ meet me at my granny’s grave in the back corner when you is done yer restin’.”
Ivan took a last swig off his pint and tucked it back under his arm then pointed west, toward the old graveyards. They turned as one to follow the line of his pointed finger.
By the time they turned back he was gone. This time he disappeared quicker than any of the companions would have dreamed he could. They looked at each other and grinned.
“My my, what has granny gotten herself into?” Torgin mocked. He was now intrigued to find out what Ivan’s ol’ Granny Jenny had done but didn’t want to be the only one, so he ridiculed. “Graveyard? Bring it on!”
Lucy chortled and joined in, “What big ears you have grandmother.”
Torgin joined Lucy and the pair of them became incoherent with laughter. Recognizing the sarcasm and the nervousness of the unknown, Zyrina found herself grinning a little. She could see a little more of what drove Torgin, bravado and brains. In her experience those often were a lethal combination especially in group settings. Her eyes narrowed as she judged whether Torgin would be a liability during this adventure or an asset. She decided in the end that his quiet demeanor and skill with his axe offset any false bravado he might possess.
Ivan could not be more annoying, disappearing all the time just to tease them with more information. Zyrina wanted to know why Ivan was leading them to a graveyard instead of just meeting them there in the first place.
She was ready to go after Ivan until she realized that Lucy had wandered off and was petting one of the sheep in the nearby pens. While Torgin and Zyrina gathered Lucy back to the group, Phlebus had vanished into the windmill to have a look at the system of gears that turned the wind turbine. He was found halfway up the inside, sketching the design of cogs for further study. Finally, the companions were all ready to backtrack to the graveyard, and to find Ivan for a third time.
Chapter Three. Stew and a Brew.
Phlebus woke early, as did Zyrina but the twins would not be roused. They slept the morning away.
After breaking her fast, Zyrina wandered the markets, talking with the locals, occasionally making a small purchase here and there. She saw Phlebus wander over and into the Hall of Learning again but did not follow him. She found a bench in the markets and took a seat to take in the warmth of the morning sun.
Finally, one of the old women of the village sat near her to rest a moment in the market before continuing.
“Morning to you.” Zyrina offered companionably.
“Mmmhmmm.” The wrinkled old woman leaned on her cane and peered over at Zyrina. “You are one of those strangers that’s here to find out what is happening to the valley, are you? What’s your name?”
“I am Zyrina, and yes I am an Outlander here with my friends to help.”
“That’s fine, I’ve met Outlanders before, some of them live here in this valley. Zyrina? Are you alone in this world?” she squinted over at Zyrina who was squirming a little at the thought of her personal life.
“No, ma’am. My family are in the lands I left.”
“Why are you here? What’s in it for you?” She didn’t hardly wait for Zyrina to take a breath between questions.
“Well, I’m helping a friend who needs help. Have you heard any of the old stories of the valley? When did this happen before?” Zyrina boldly asked back.
“Hummphffttt. Stories.” She looked over at some children running around their mother as she shopped in the early morning. “Stories are for children. You aren’t a child.”
For a moment Zyrina thought that was all she was going to say. She remained still for the longest time before going on, “Yes, I’ve heard the stories. You better speak with Matt when your friends wake up. He will tell it right.” She paused before adding, “Ask about Charlotte. He’ll know what that means.” She nodded to Zyrina and left with the young mother and her children as they moved further along the markets. Calmer now she walked with one child on each arm helping the old one to walk and both of them chattering away about everything in sight.
Zyrina mouthed Charlotte? Who’s Charlotte?
It was nearing the midday and Zyrina could wait patiently no longer. She headed back to the River Rider Inn on the north side of the markets. It was time to rouse the sleeping giants but, in the end, when she arrived, they were both up, washed, fed, and were having a little sparring match in front of the Inn, much to the delight of the smattering of youngsters watching them. After declining to join the fun, she watched Phlebus as he hurried back from the library with several scrolls tucked under his arm.
“Couldn’t resist finding more to read?” she teased him with a smile as he came into earshot.
“I’ll just be a minute while I put these away.” He said as he disappeared down the stairs to the hotel below the inn.
It was easy to find Elnoth’s. As their server had pointed out, it really was kitty-corner to the inn where they were staying. A short time later, after knocking on Elnoth’s large solid wooden door, the companions were admitted by a booming voice.
Once inside they could tell the voice was coming from up the staircase to the right of the large stone building. It was a beautifully kept home. The owner had good taste in his furnishings and even had a piano in one of the rooms.
“Please, come in. I’m sorry I’m not at the door to greet you. May I announce you?”
Phlebus shouted up the stairs, “Elnoth the Viking Elf has invited us here, to his home so we may speak with Matt, his butler. My name is Phlebus of Midgard and I speak for my party.”
“Ah yes, I’ve been expecting you all morning.”
“Interesting means of communication from a butler.” Torgin whispered to Lucy.
Zyrina shushed the twins. Torgin grinned back.
“I am Matt. Please come up the stairs and straight ahead. I’m presently in the kitchen.”
It was odd behavior for a butler, but Phlebus shrugged his shoulders and started climbing the stairs with the companions trailing him. In the kitchen they found Matt, who seemed to be frazzled and short of patience.
“My apologies for the rude greetings to you all, I am afraid I could not in all good consciousness leave the kitchen to the darting eyes and quick hands of Ivan here.” He nodded over at the hunched figure sitting at the long kitchen table. “I’m sorry that I won’t be able to take the time to explain what I told Elnoth, sirs and madams, but I found old Ivan wandering in the markets earlier and he is the one about who I was telling Sir Elnoth.” He seemed quite relieved that the group had arrived and offered them stew and ale. “Ivan told me the story in the first place, so I’ll leave you to his storytelling.”
“Sure, that sounds lovely,” Lucy nodded to Matt.
“Didn’t you just finish breakfast?” Zyrina whispered to Torgin, who nodded and licked his lips hungrily.
“Can’t you smell that stew?” Torgin countered.
“It’s Ivan’s Gran who remembers seeing the things. Most of the rest of us don’t remember that long ago but Ivan is willing to tell you the story for a pint of ale and a warm meal. I have served him his meal and ale here in the kitchen and here is stew and ale for you all to enjoy. I must get back to my duties and can speak no more with you on this topic. Please don’t leave Ivan alone in the house. Master Elnoth would be horrified.”
Shaking Ivan’s shoulder a little to rouse him from the little nap he was apparently taking, Matt shouted, “Ivan, here are the group who wish to hear your old tale.” And with that flourish, Elnoth’s butler Matt made his way into other parts of the house to whatever important duties called him.
The companions turned to Ivan who was slouched over the table with an empty mug in front of him staring curiously back at them. Ivan nodded his greetings to them as they each introduced themselves one by one and shook his hand. Ivan then picked up his ale and took a last swig of the dregs before beginning to speak in a creaky voice.
“Good Day to ya folks, I gots to get up ta the Jade Farm windmill ta fix a cog before it spews. I bin awaitin on you’s all morning an’ ain’t got time to wait any mores.” His speech was slurred but understandable. “Meet me up top o’ the mountain west of here when you’re finished your meals. Find me at the Windmill near the Jade Farm airship.”
And poof. The bent, wrinkled, and slightly gray tinged caretaker who the butler had introduced as Ivan and who seemed to be unable to even sit up straight just simply disappeared.
“Where’s the windmill?” Zyrina wanted to know.
“Didn’t he say up by the airship? That’s to the west of here up the mountain a bit.” Phlebus was studying one of the diagrams that he pulled out of his bag.
“Did you get that from the librarian this morning?” Zyrina asked him.
“Yes. There were a few scrolls that she let me take out for the day.”
The kitchen smelled like Ivan had been drinking with Matt for quite a long stretch of time and the stench of his person lingered, too. He was spry and quick, that’s for sure. None of them expected it. Lucy smiled. She liked the unexpected.
“Eat up we have a hike after our lunch.”
Torgin was already half through his stew and eyeing up Phlebus’s bowl.
“Back off, that’s MINE.” Phlebus snatched it away from Torgin’s reach.
“Oh, so you did notice the food.” Torgin’s hearty laugh rang out alongside his sister’s. “See he’s not a zombie,” he nodded to Zyrina who picked up her own bowl and bared her teeth to Torgin.
“There’s more on the stove, you fool.” Lucy said between spoonfuls from her own bowl. “Even good stew is no reason to steal from others.”
“Do you think he really knows something useful?” Torgin asked thoughtfully as he refilled his bowl and then gobbled that one too, in record time.
Phlebus nodded. “Yeah, I think he does.”
“I don’t know why everyone is so reluctant to talk about it. I tried to learn something in the market this morning. Tightlipped citizens here in this valley.” Zyrina added, “I learned nothing.”
“Let’s find the windmill.” Lucy decided, having finished her second bowl of stew and wiped all the dregs up with her last bit of bread.
“Thank you, Matt” Torgin politely bellowed, “We’ll let ourselves out.”
And now we have the first part of a great story from Arkah EMPStrike, entitled Arkah’s Doings
Background music by Smartsound
Arkah set his last trunk down on the floor in his house. That made 5 large trunks, 4 backpacks, 2 sacks, 3 barrels and 3 crates. “Phew” he wiped his forehead as he stepped outside his door to tie up his horse, Trots McHorsington. “Sorry about all the work buddy!” he apologized and fed McHorsington a carrot.
“His name is awful!” said Xalia, who made herself very unhelpful in an armchair by the fireplace.
“Well,” Arkah scoffed, “it’s not Your name.” He said this while tossing stuff out of a trunk placed on his bed. “You don’t have to introduce him at parties. Besides, we’re so far out in the boonies that noone’s gonna care.”
Ever since the gas incident in Caelestis Canton, Arkah felt it better to move his research even further away than Malas. To the edge of the world in fact: a little known backwater village called Goti on the far shore of Norgard, about as remote as a man can get.
After packing everything away and thoroughly scattering his notes about, a knock came at the door, which was still open. “Greetings, Arkah.” A black hooded figure poked his head inside. Arkah stood up, from his paper-scattering, “Do i know you? Because you know me, Arkah, and that makes me suspicious so forgive me, would you like some tea?” Arkah offered the man a cup of demon tea he had been drinking and the man briefly declined and moved on to his purpose for being there.
“I need to discuss your recent research with you. The research that prompted you to move so far away from civilization.”
Arkah took on a more serious tone, “Go on” Xalia was quietly writing on a piece of paper by the fireplace, barely listening.
“I saw what transpired in Blood Bay, and though it was not your intent, I believe you may have stumbled upon something that could both kill people and cause certain others to want to kill you and your partner Professor Teekington.” the hooded man said pointedly.
“Oh.” Arkah was rubbing his beard in thought. “Well I don’t know who would want to hurt me but I can definitely see what you’re on about the…..curse or gas or whatever it is being dangerous.” Arkah thought back to a rather large flesh-eating plant he had to dispose of before moving. “I contained what I could and relocated here.”
“Indeed.” the hooded man replied, “But I am afraid you left unintended, and not surprisingly undetected lingering effects behind, and Grunvald may be in danger.”
“Well….dammit.” Arkah said, almost nonchalantly. “I had hoped any traces of what was left would be so dilute that it would be benign.”
The hooded man shook his head, “It grows, almost as if alive, and seeks out hosts. If you have done what I think you have done, Nature could turn against Caelestis Canton, and possibly a larger swath of northern grunvald.”
Arkah stopped rubbing his beard for a moment and narrowed his eyes. “Deez?”
The hooded man nodded.
Arkah’s jaw dropped and he began yelling, “You caused ALOT of trouble around Ordinis mister! I spent DAYS looking for Deez and Johnny Mark, and you just disappear and never even…wait you didn’t actually kill anyone. Then, who did we find in the river and behind the inn? Why were you-“
The hooded man interrupted, “Come, let us travel to Grunvald. Give me asylum in Ordinis Mortis so that I may conceal my location while we work, and in exchange I will explain the happenings of the past.”
Arkah and the hooded man rode Trots McHorsington up the hill in Ordinis to the Guild hall. “I posted a bulletin letting folks know not to attack you. Some of them might still remember you.”
The hooded man, who had been adorned in cultist garbs felt his appearance was more of a concern but felt honesty would avail him better than deception with these people. “I thank you Arkah. I will begin my concealment ritual and remain hidden here while we begin our investigation.”
Arkah helped the hooded man down off Trots and turned about. “Well, I’m off to Caelestis to see what’s up! Join me as soon as you feel it is safe to do so.”
The Hooded man nodded and waved as Arkah rode away on Trots, and then began setting up the stones for his concealment spell.
Several days later: (This event has already happened)https://www.shroudoftheavatar.com/f…ent-defectors-and-curses.166127/#post-1305833
Arkah returned to Ordinis at full gallop and almost vaulted off Trots as he approached the hooded man, clearly in a panic. “You ahhhh…..working a concealment spell are ya? Keeping yourself hidden, hmm?”
The hooded man’s tone betrayed confusion, “Yes? why?”
“There are a lot of cultists gathering just up the road.” Arkah said wide eyed and nodding. “So, why are there cultists outside the city? Why do they feel like camping out there?” Arkah had a nervous hand on his dagger.
The hooded man sighed. “I… honestly don’t know. They couldn’t have possibly detected me and I haven’t spoken to-” Arkah interrupted, “spoken to anyone, yea, except there’s a bunch of guys dressed like you amassing outside. Why?”
“They are after me.” Said the hooded man.
“After you?” Arkah replied sharply and in the exact same tone, “Why?”
“I am a ‘traitor’ to the cultists.” The man spoke without hesitation. “They want to see that I face Their justice. But they couldn’t possibly be so sure that I am here as to be amassing a force outside the city. I am at a loss, I do not know how they know.” he said more quietly as if in deep thought.
Suddenly a voice boomed over the plains. “We know the traitor is here, and we will take him. You will give him to us so that he may face our judgment, for true Justice.” It was echoey and loud yet calm-toned. Suddenly screams rang out from he Docks down the hill.
“WHO ARE YOU? HELP AAAAHHGGG” Someone had just been killed. “Arkah ran out of town to try and find help and returned with a small band of powerful fighters
“This is the place. The traitor is to be captured alive. Advance on the town until he is found.” The Ebon Dawn commander’s voice echoed everywhere at once from an unknown location. A vicious battle ensued as cultist soldiers poured into the city, at best being slowed down by the small band of fighters.
“Hold them off until i can prepare a sufficiently powerful Cleansing Rain spell to wipe them out!” The hooded man projected his voice to the fighters the same way he had communicated with Teeka so long ago. And they fought on.
One cultist spotted a magic stone pillar hidden in an alley behind the markets in Ordinis. “”I see…an illusory field, very clever.” The Ebon Commander’s voice boomed, “Once it is destroyed, you will face justice in disgrace like the coward you are…”. The Defenders became more determined, and even the most elite of the cultists could not push through them. “If you fall…you will do it again. ASEN-IGNIS-CORP-OBIX”. A smouldering red fog began materializing near the injured cultist soldiers that remained, and they began writhing and screaming as their forms were twisted and flesh melted from their bones, leaving only charred flaming skeletons that immediately began spewing and tossing fire at all of the brave fighters defending the city.
‘Oh gods my magic does not work on them!’ One of the defending wizards said to herself, as the burning undead chased them through the streets. Just then the hooded man’s voice rang in their minds, “”It is ready!”. His incantation quickly echoed over the plains. “”Desen-Wast-Umbra-Obix-Vatu”
Clouds began to gather and rain burst forth from the sky in a fierce thunderstorm. “What…what is this?!” The ebon commander screeched as the screeching became more 3 dimensional allowing the fighters to find his location from the sounds. The remaining skeletons were quickly extinguished. The first fighter on the field was the last, as she approached the screams only to find a spirit remained, which she quickly banished.
The Battle was won!
“Thank you, strangers.” The hooded man’s voice rang in their minds one last time as the skies began to clear.
Arkah approached the hooded man, who seemed exhausted. “So uh,” Arkah put his hands behind his head, “that was…a lot.”
The hooded man sat on the ground, “Yes, I think I should probably get to Caelestis Canton as soon as possible. I don’t know how they knew me or that I was here, but if they knew then others may know and come looking.” He shook his head at the thought and looked at Arkah, though his eyes weren’t visible beneath his hood, “They may already know why we’re here and be waiting for us.”
Arkah was rubbing his nose fervently, stopping to respond, “Yeah. Maybe.” He rubbed his sleeve on his face once before letting his arms fall to his side, swinging. “But we can send someone ahead that shouldn’t draw any attention to make sure it’s safe.”
The hooded man uttered something and began to fade into shadow, but failed, and instead stood up again, “Very well, I’ll wait for your word to move. When you are ready, I will remove the stones holding the illusory field and proceed to Caelestis.”
Deez threw a hand of cards down on a table in front of Dem “Hah!” He shouted, just as Dem threw down his hand. Deez now looked angry.
“Hahaha! That’s right my friend, Royal Flush.” Dem reached out and seized a small pile of coin that lay in the center of the table as Deez grumbled, “No one’s THAT lucky.”
“Hey, you won last week.” Dem said trolling Deez. There was a knock at the door.
“We play every day you bastard.” Deez scoffed playfully as he stood to answer the door.
“How’s it going Arkah.” Deez greeted Arkah with his back turned as he made his way back to his seat. “Oh, you know” Arkah chortled unconvincingly. “Wanna make some money?”
Deez propped his feet up on the coffee table where they had been playing cards. “I’m listening.”
Arkah put a map down on the table at Deez’s feet and dramatically pinned it with a dagger on a small island off the coast of Paxlair. Deez sat up and studied the location. “I need someone to go here and guard a statue at the site of my old lab.” Arkah handed Deez some coordinates and a small pouch of gold. “Keep an eye out for cultists specifically.”
“What about me?” Dem said, counting his newly won gold.
“You’ve already been paid,” Deez said, motioning tward Dem’s gold with a grimace. “Besides, Malus only has two guards at the moment.”
Dem mouthed Deez’s words back at him sarcastically then happily took his gold into a back room.
Arkah threw up a directionless wave as he walked out the door, then poked his head back in briefly, “Oh and try not to breath the gas.”
Deez didn’t question it. He readied his things and headed to Caelestis Canton.
Arkah helped the hooded man onto his horse, “Deez says the coast is clear, literally.” He snickered at his own joke. “…Nothing? Anyways…” They began riding the road to the east toward Paxlair. After reaching the town they quietly made their way to the docks, where the ferryman to Caelestis Canton waited.
After arriving in Caelestis and meeting up with Deez at the contamination site, they were briefly attacked by confused blackbirds. “Agh I forgot about these.” Arkah announced sharply as he swatted with both hands.
“I want to show you something Arkah.” The hooded man knelt near one of the blue spruce surrounding the site, and he pointed out one of the roots breaking ground a bit of the way out from the base of the trunk.
“Roots.” Arkah said proudly, as if guessing correctly.
The hooded man walked a little further north and knelt again dusting a few leaves aside and pointed.
“More roots.” Arkah said again, not yet seeing where he was going with this.
The man walked even further north, much further than the roots of such small trees should extend, and pointed at the ground again.
Arkah scratched his head, “Are you sure these are the same roots?” As if on cue, the exposed root seemed to bury itself in the dirt as if it was aware it were being watched. “Whoa!” Arkah leaped back and grabbed the man quickly letting go and composing himself, standing akimbo, then pointing frantically at the ground, “Did you see that – what was that??” He asked frantically.
“The trees you planted have kept the air clear and safe, but in doing so has funnelled all the contaminate into the ground. The entire island is affected.” The man said walking back to the site.
“Well…well shoot man I didn’t know.” Arkah defended himself, “I’m not sure how to fix this.”
“Me either, but i have not come without ideas.” The hooded man produced a small sack. “I’ll need a lot of garlic and mandrake root. Luckily I have plenty of sulfur left over as it was not needed in the illusory field.” The man walked to the edge of the nearby ruin and placed a sack on the ground. “I will also collect any materials i can from passers-by.”
“Right.” Arkah said snapping and pointing in no particular direction while looking around. “And I’ll go see what else I can find that may help.”
The next event actually occurred in game – The ‘failed Experiment’. The adventure is detailed in a Twitch video which is unfortunately not now available. Suffice it to say that our heroes were victorious.
Arkah, crouching in a bush in a small grove of trees next to a clearing, guzzled a green potion and wrapped the empty flask several times in a thick cloth. He cradled it to his chest and quietly smashed it, as is customary.
A blue pit dragon that had been preying on a stag in the field looked up for a moment and let out a concerned growl. Arkah remained perfectly still. The dragon’s concern faded, and it returned to its meal. Arkah pulled a darker green flask from his pouch and began coating a dagger with its contents. Before he could finish, he heard a roar from above loud enough to make him stumble backwards onto his butt.
The dragon in the clearing looked up and returned the loud roar before taking wing. Arkah poked his head from under the canopy just enough to see a hoard of blue pit dragons flying out toward Spindrift Bay. “They don’t normally hunt in packs.” He said, rubbing his chin. “They aren’t known to migrate either” he said to himself. “I wonder if this has anything to do with that thunder.”
Earlier, Arkah remembered, there was a thunderous noise that came from the east coast, but not a cloud in the sky. It was a little odd but, he thought, it may have just been a couple of dragons fighting over territory.
Arkah picked up his pack and began following the dragon hoard towards Spindrift Bay.
Arkah could see smoke rising from the coast as his ferry approached the west end of Spindrift Bay. The Ferryman looked nervous as they began to approach Northwood.
“I’ll have to take you up the coast a ways. Word is dragons have been attacking.” The Ferryman said while changing course northward.
“Understandable!” Arkah said with a bit of a nervous giggle. He surveyed the skies as they sailed but found nothing. Suddenly a desperate roar echoed from a distant mountain, crushing the gentle sound of the waves against the boat. The ferryman looked startled.
“Maybe this isnt-“the ferryman was interrupted – “Head south!” Arkah shouted, confusingly pointing northwest. It was a tiny speck of a dragon taking wing from the distant mountain. “I need to cross the sea, take me south Brittany please!”
“My meter is still running.” The ferryman said trying not to let his voice tremble.
The Galleon pulled into port on the south end of the main island of Mystrendur. Arkah and his horse, Trots, went ashore. ‘I still have all my supplies from Drachvald, no need to stock up!’ He happily thought as he mounted Trots. “Let’s find their feeding grounds!” He said to Trots as they galloped northward through the mountain passes. After some time travelling, he spotted a large heard of deer. He looked around and saw sulfur deposits on nearby stones. Trots McHorsington was hidden in a small grove of trees and left to graze. Arkah crouched in the shrubs and waited.
After a while Arkah started to doze off. His eyes began to struggle to stay open, until something kicked him so hard in the back, it sent him flying into the herd of deer in the field, landing flat on his face and scaring the animals off into the nearby mountains. McHorsington had run off with them.
Arkah was in a daze and smouldering a bit. He managed to turn his head enough to see a small dragon charging at him. “The hell?”
The dragon stopped. Near him, its fangs bared. Arkah’s vision was a bit blurry now, but he could clearly see the dragons eyes glaring, it wasn’t feeding. “Do. Not. Follow.” The dragon growled. It sent chills through Arkah. He just noticed the wet streaks beneath its savagely angry looking eyes as its pupils narrowed and it turned to fly swiftly into the mountains.
Dragons did not speak to humans. Why did this one? Trots returned cautiously, and Arkah called him over. He mustered enough energy to pull himself onto his back before passing out completely.
A horse carries an unconscious man on the path in front of the White Raven in and stops for a moment, lowering its head to find a spot to graze. The man, clearly Arkah at this point, moans and rolls off the horse. The back of his neck seems blistered, and his clothes were singed.
“Uhnn…Mchorsntonyawait here” he muttered, almost incoherently as he rolled over on his back on the ground. McHorsington wandered off with his head to the ground looking for lush grass. Arkah kept his eyes closed and yelled “Imaneeda poshn! Red poshn ugn.” He was out of breath and reached into the pack that had fallen with him, felt around for a flask and passed out.
Arkah awoke in the same spot he had fainted in. Trots was grazing nearby. He finished retrieving the imbued regeneration potion from his pack, chugged it painfully, and smashed the bottle on the ground next to him as is custom. The burns on his neck and back began rapidly mending, but his clothing remained charred.
He looked around the intersection and saw a few concerned villagers.
“Excuse me!” Arkah raised his head pointing at a man beneath a nearby cherry tree.
“Welcome to the bank, good sir.” the man said in greeting.
Arkah looked behind the man at the wagon sitting out in the open. “Hmm..”
“I am Jason. If you need to make a deposit or withdrawl, we will take care of you.” the man nodded twards the cart.
“No thanks!” Arkah said, dismissing his mild security concerns. “I’m actually lost, where is this?”
“Meridian.” Jason replied, “A ways east and south of Tanglemire.”
Arkah thought for a moment. “Tanglemire?”
Jason crossed his arms, “Yessir.”
Arkah looked at Trots with narrow eyes. Trots looked back at Arkah blankly chewing grass. “Who brought me here?” Arkah asked
“I saw only you and your horse arrive, sir.” Jason replied with a slight yawn.
Arkah looked back at Trots. Trots continued to return the look blankly. “And we are….south of the main island. Correct? One would….have to have hired a ferryman to get here?”
Jason was ignoring Arkah at this point and already well into a thorough flirting with the magic merchant across the street. Arkah shrugged and climbed atop Trots, heading along the road in some direction.
Jason stands on the balcony of Cafe Istanbul, leaning heavily on the rails, and watching Jason and a stranger and a horse have an awkward conversation. He squints malevolently at the banker.
I hope you enjoyed the snow, my nemesis. I hope that horse kicks you! And that minstrel spreads a hilarious limerick about it!
Jason spits angrily and mumbles:
Imposter….shaved-head-having bank-storage-loving…. Jason Statham wanttobe…
He turns suddenly and returns indoors to resume his fate as this stories over-qualified dishwasher.
(somewhere in the past, before the blizzard)–“Where is everyone?” Arkah asked the NPC banker named after Jason, proprietor of Cafe Istanbul.
–“They are in the future,” answered the NPC, somewhat to Arkah’s surprise. “Winter has come, but you are too early.”
–“How do I get to them….in the future?” Arkah inquired.
(Picking up where we left off….on a clear morning after a heavy snowfall)–TimeLord had given up on Mingo. The old bard sat before the fireplace vacantly staring into the flames, holding his pipe which had long gone out. With a sigh TimeLord loaded a few more logs onto the fire and went out the front door, there to meet Arkah.
–“We don’t’ see many horses in these parts stranger,” TimeLord said by way of greeting. “however there is a stable just around the corner, past Frida’s small farm.”
–“Thankee kindly,” Arkah said with a nod.
–“When you are done at the stable,” TimeLord said, gesturing across the way, “join us over at Cafe Istanbul.”
–“Is Mingo TheBard there?”
–“in a while I think he will show up.”
–Arkah urged his horse through the snow to the aforementioned stable. TimeLord made his way back to Cafe Istanbul. Frida noted the absence of Mingo. “Mingo iz not with you?” she asked.
–“Alas,” TimeLord replied, “I fear he is entranced by some dream of RL.”
–“I hope it is a good dream,” FireAngel commented.
–“I think not,” TimeLord said with a shake of his head. “I think it is a nightmare.”
This chapter is read by Addy
Chapter two. At the Tavern
Phlebus had a finely tuned sense of when Torgin was willing to listen, when he wanted to drink, and when he was ready to brawl. Since it had been a long week of rough travel from Central Brittany, complete with a tour of local rotting corpses (including complimentary aromatic country air) and because Zyrina had claimed he would buy the first round, he held out a tray full of too many ales for five people.
“Well, this is exactly as promised. Well done Phle.” Torgin rubbed his hands together.
The twins exchanged looks with each other and grinned. He was not smiling at Zyrina on purpose.
Lucy took a wooden tankard of ale in each fist as did Torgin, then lifting the pints aloft they waited impatiently for Elnoth, Zyrina, and Phlebus to join them.
Phlebus handed Zyrina one of the three remaining mugs, offered one to Elnoth, and took the last one for himself.
Then he set the tray aside, raised his ale alongside his friends, and Phlebus and the twins all spoke in solemn unison, “To the chase” before the three downed them in nearly one gulp.
“Is that a ritual or something?” Zyrina asked.
“Yes, a ritual.” Phlebus began to explain as he picked up the tray and headed to the bar again.
“When we each go on our first mission outside of the school this is the toast we make,” added Torgin.
“Every time we drink until the mission is over,” Lucy finished.
“Well, cheers.” Elnoth added his own toast.
Zyrina matched it with “for Honour,” then tapped mugs with Elnoth.
By the time she finished her first swig and wiped her mouth, Phlebus had returned and set four more of the same ale down in front of the twins and took their empties to be filled before sitting down to enjoy his second pint while Zyrina and Elnoth still sipped their first.
“So THAT’S why you didn’t want to get the first round,” Zyrina clapped Phlebus on the shoulder and gave a hearty laugh.
“They are on their own now,” he grumbled. “Torgin is large,” he added with a wry shrug, “and he likes a wee ale upon occasion.”
Zyrina nearly choked she laughed so hard. It was about as big of understatement as Phlebus was ever to make. Torgin made even Lucy look tiny and she ducked when going through doorways. He scowled at the world even in his sleep. He fought with everything in his path and everyone knew it except him. Zyrina had also observed that he also had no understanding of ‘quit’ and he had a heart worth knowing.
“Where did you get the snowy lynx, Torgin?” Zyrina asked.
She hadn’t said anything earlier about the large feline that had been following Torgin silently from the shadows since they met up in Xenos. The cat lay curled at Torgin’s feet now, resting but not asleep. Her ears twitched occasionally.
“Lucy gave Kitty to me for my birthday, isn’t she perfect?” Torgin looked lovingly at the cat curled at his feet.
“Oh, Torgin, it’s not like you were pleased.” Lucy interjected, “You protested and swore at me and told me you didn’t need any ball of fur before that kitten wrapped you around her finger.”
She leaned closer to Zyrina and added, “On the very first day, that fluff ball just ignored all his loud grumbling, yawned, and curled up on his shoe to sleep.” Lucy was enjoyed telling this story of her big scary brother being at the beck and call of a tiny ball of fuzz. “He sat there for an hour until the kitten woke up and he’s been devoted ever since.”
“And Kitty is the name you chose?” Zyrina wondered aloud.
“Kitty doesn’t have a name. I call her Kitty because I don’t know her name.” Torgin replied stiffly.
“I think Torgin believes Kitty will talk to him and tell him her name.” Lucy guffawed.
Zyrina raised her eyebrow and looked at Torgin again. He was blushing now. Zyrina hid her grin.
“You don’t know everything sister,” was all Torgin would say on the subject.
The twins started reminiscing and soon they were lost in their own world and began speaking words that Zyrina hadn’t heard before.
Zyrina leaned over to Phlebus and whispered, “What language are they speaking now?”
“I don’t know, though it’s possible it’s one they made up. I have been trying to learn it with no success,” Phlebus whispered back.
After the animated discussion with Torgin about the origins of Kitty, Lucy was again shy. Preferring to exist in the vagueness of the background she sunk into her chair and nursed her drink for a time. The rest of the companions were scattered around the table listening to Elnoth’s description of the Snow Walkers of the high mountains that famously travelled to Jade Valley each winter and had just left as the weather warmed up. Torgin took a final deep guzzle to the dregs of his ale, wiped his mouth with his sleeve, signalled for another round to the server, then settled back to listen.
“So, what’s this tidbit that we are all waiting to learn?” Phlebus leaned to the right and asked Elnoth.
Elnoth, set his drink down and began, “Well, it’s been entertaining to have a tipple with you. Thank you.”
He pulled out a small bottle of ink, a quill, and a parchment from his pack.
“These mutilations and the stone statues aren’t the first time this has happened here.”
“What? Why was this not brought to the attention of the council earlier?” Phlebus wanted to know.
“Not sure,” Elnoth shrugged, “but I think old-fashioned rumours don’t belong in council, do you? My butler, Matt, has been muttering for weeks about the old stories coming true but he wasn’t willing to talk in front of the whole council. He is hoping you will come over and talk with him directly. He knows what the old folks from hereabouts told him, and he thinks you should know it too.”
“What old stories?” Torgin asked.
Elnoth took a drink before going on, “I didn’t ask him but there have been rumours about this happening here in the ancient past.”
“How long ago?” Phlebus looked concerned.
“Well, let’s see Matt knows somebody who knew somebody who knew something, but that’s all I know.” Elnoth took one of the fresh ales the server brought over.
“When may we talk with Matt?” Zyrina wanted to know even before Phlebus could form the same question.
“Sure, how about tomorrow?” Elnoth completed his scribbling and put the lid back on the ink bottle. “I’ve written a letter of reference, so Matt knows I’ve sent you over, in case I’m not there when you arrive. My home is on the north side of the guild hall, you should be able to see it from your Inn.” He looked up, “you are staying at the River Rider Inn, aren’t you?”
“How’d you know that?” Phlebus wanted to know. “We didn’t even register yet.”
“Because it’s a small town, Phle,” Zyrina nodded and took a sip.
Phlebus looked horrified. “What else do you know about us?”
Elnoth took a deep breath and revealed, “Well you and those human giants over there met in the city when you were all studying magic. They hail from the far north and they are a few years older than the rest of you.” He nodded at each twin and went on, “Torgin’s good with an axe and Lucy is a renowned healer. Let’s see,” he said looking at Zyrina, “you’ve got a reputation around Novia as an Outlander with a fine shot with that bow of yours and a chip on your shoulder regarding Novians.”
Zyrina shot him an intense look of suspicion.
“And you are an Ardoris orphan with a brilliant mind and a great deal of skill with magic.” He added looking Phlebus up and down not quite believing what he had heard.
Taking in the look that Zyrina shot him Elnoth went on, “Ah, don’t be like that, you know word spreads in a village faster than a wildfire. The governor shared Phlebus’s correspondence with the rest of the council before the meeting today, is all. No need to get all hot under the hat.”
“Well how about you even the score and tell us who you are?” Zyrina demanded.
“Fair enough.” He puffed out his chest a little, “I’m one of the finest Master Crafters of weapons, amulets, armor and also a Master Enchanter here in Jade Valley. I have a few varied businesses and rental properties scattered in a few towns around Novia. Here’s my card.” He handed Zyrina a small rectangle of hardened paper.
“All right then.” Zyrina took another sip, read the card, and relaxed a little. So, a gossip and a businessman is what she thought to herself with a grin.
Elnoth the Viking Elf, at your service
For fine weaponry, armor, and enchants
Jade Valley, Elysium
Torgin and Lucy’s argument about who had actually spotted the mandrake near the bridge got louder and louder and finally could not be ignored. First there was a great deal of loud shouting and fist pounding. A few threats of violence and some tipped beers, then they hugged each other and vowed their eternal love for each other. Eventually they started to sing and dance to the great delight of the locals in the tavern that night. Kitty ignored it all with a flick of her right ear, as if it was normal to hear such fighting.
Neither of them had listened to Elnoth’s gossip, though they made sure he always had a fresh ale. Phlebus took a swig, then as Lucy and Torgin finished their song, he began singing and swaying to an old folk song:
‘Long ago ran the sun on a folk who had a dream
And the heart and the will and the power:
They moved earth; they carved stone; moulded hill and channeled stream
That we might stand on the wide plains of Wiltshire.
Now men asked who they were, how they built and wonder why
That they wrought standing stones of such size.
What was done ‘neath our shade? What was pray’ed ‘neath our skies
As we stood on the wyrd plains of Wiltshire.
Oh what secrets we could tell if you’d listen and be still.
Rid the stink and the noise from our skirts.
But you haven’t got the clue and perhaps you never will.
Mute we stand on the cold plains of Wiltshire.
Still we loom in the mists as the ages roll away
And we say of our folk, “they are here!”
That they built us and they died and you’ll not be knowing why
Save we stand on the bare plains of Wiltshire.’
Lucy and Torgin couldn’t resist joining in, and the townsfolk at the pub also began singing along. The old songs broke down barriers between strangers faster than any reassurances of good will and Phlebus was intent on hearing the gossip from each of the patrons of the pub that evening before they left. After the song, Zyrina gathered up the letter of reference Elnoth had set on the table, and she sat in a corner nursing her ale until the others were ready to leave. It was a long wait.
Of course, by that time Elnoth had wandered back home. When Phlebus noticed his absence, he insisted that in the morning they go to hear what Elnoth’s butler has to offer.
“But It’s just old stories, Phle. Why do you want to hear more of those?” Torgin wanted to know.
“Because many truths live in old stories, and I am looking for something ancient. Maybe the answer is in the past.”
“Whoa, now that’s some fine reckoning.” Lucy seemed to agree with Phlebus.
“Fine, but I’m not getting up at the crack of dawn again.” Torgin insisted. “We sleep till we are done sleeping. Agreed?”
“Agreed.” Phlebus approved. “As long as we are all up before midday.”
“Sure.” Lucy nodded.
“Sounds good.” Zyrina finished up
Scribbling into his book for a minute he wrote time to meet someone who knew somebody who knew somebody who knows something and see what knowledge they can add. He needed more information to confirm what Phlebus suspected was happening to disturb the valley.
This chapter is read by Amber Raine and Asclepius
The Stone Dragon Series
The Treasure of Mystery Island (coming soon)
The Stone Dragon
The Quiet Mage
The Magic Book (coming next)
By Lily Byrd
First of all, I am thankful to the creators of the Ultima Series and The Shroud of the Avatar. Without their vision I would not have seen the story I wanted to tell.
I dedicate this story to those who play through my quests in Shroud of the Avatar. Thank you to the many players and developers of Shroud of the Avatar who have given me ideas, items, use of properties, and time to develop this story and the quests thus far.
I am especially thankful for the help of Mal Hari and the rest of the Jade Dragons. Their support and help has made everything better.
To those who offer their spaces for me to invade, Dragosani Valynshar, Mal Hari, Calan Caitin, Rinaldi, One Zero, Elnoth, Merrik Dragon, Whereit, List Rostov, Thoryk, PeteWe TheDisoriented, Scroda, and Minerva: thank you. They have each hosted in-game properties and/or the use of their game characters in my story. Without these players there would not be quests nor stories to tell.
I particularly want to mention the people who have helped me with editing. Alley Oop, E.P. Buck, John Braga, and Zoe Agashi you are the rocks on which my imagination grows, thank you for your efforts and your time.
Lastly, I am supported by a few long time players from the Ultima series who also play Shroud of the Avatar. Merrik Dragon, Alley Oop, and Ravalox have spent hours and hours talking with me about the games, the lore, the traditions and the details. They have encouraged me to keep telling the story and their help and encouragement has made this project possible.
All remaining mistakes are mine alone. None of this story or the characters in it are representations of anyone or anything on Earth. May love courage and truth guide your day and keep you safe.
With respect, Lily Byrd
First Edition: June 20, 2021
ByrdPress NBBN 00115-002
Prologue: Novia just north of the Cascade River along the North Midmaer Way in the foggy rain of autumn.
The soaking wet wool hood hid the tall man’s face. Emyrs stood, shaking underneath an equally drenched grey cloak. Bent over a slender staff and clutching it for stability, he did not think he would survive this encounter.
“Who is he?” The woman’s voice was melodic and cutting.
“Some washed up mage from a corner of Elysium in a small port community called Jade Valley.” Answered another, deeper but equally melodic voice.
Emyrs could hear his captors’ discussion. None of them made any move to hide their words but he had not yet seen them clearly. Elves? He had been so very certain he had been undetected leaving with the book. He was mistaken.
“Is he alone?”
As soon as he touched it, Emyrs knew it was something that needed to be kept from harm, perhaps examined by Lord British or one of his mages; at the very least kept in a safe place until it could be studied. Magic books were rare, and old ones nearly unique. This one book’s recovery became his quest from the moment he saw it. No one questioned him, not even Lily Byrd. She knew he wouldn’t have hidden it if it weren’t for their safety.
“Did he have it?”
“Indeed. This.” The voice was smug and satisfied. There was no softness or joy in the acquisition.
Emyrs expelled his lungful of air and his shoulders slumped even further. They had already found his small bag with the book tucked into the pocket of his saddlebag. That meant he had no worth to them anymore. The magic book was lost, again.
“I’m going to take this back to the Southern Red Branch. Belthyr, I don’t want to meet this mage again.”
Emyrs felt the first blow, and each blow with varying amounts of pain and suffering as his consciousness fled and returned to the continuing horror over and over.
“He’s dead now.”
“Yup looks like it to me.”
“Let’s go get some of that stew.”
The thud of a last kick mercifully took his awareness one more time.
“A darkness fell with no hope of dawn; a noise with no hope of music…perhaps we brought the fall upon ourselves.” Sequanna, Titan of Novia.
Part One. The Stone Dragon
Chapter one. In the woods.
Jade Valley was finally in sight. Zyrina (zi-REE-na) and Phlebus (FLEE-bus) turned back to look for their two trailing companions. Eventually, the exceptionally tall and sturdy forms of a man and a woman carrying large packs on their backs meandered out of the covered wooden bridge. A large snowy lynx followed them, also at a leisurely pace.
Zyrina called out, “Meet us in town, laggards!! We’ll be waiting. Phlebus promises to spot you a drink when you manage to catch up.” She continued down the path toward the small harbour village about fifteen furlongs ahead.
Phlebus looked at her sharply, “Thanks a lot.”
“Don’t mention it. I’m sure you would’ve done the same.” She teased, knowing full well he would NEVER have offered something like that on her behalf.
She grinned at Phlebus’s dirty look then turned back to see Lucy (LOO-see) wave and Torgin (TORE-gun) Featherbright simply nod. The lynx appeared to ignore all of them as she focused on something in the distance. Zyrina squinted a little to see clearer and realized the twins with their long white hair were now bent over and engrossed in a water plant they were inspecting near the bank of the river. Those two friends that Phlebus met in the city while he was at school didn’t seem to be in a hurry to arrive anywhere, ever. As Lucy had informed Zyrina earlier, ‘I don’t hurry,’ and she was not lying. Zyrina had joined the twins and Phlebus just two days before. They all travelled together from Xenos where their ships had both docked on Elysium Island within hours of each other. The journey from Xenos at the North of Elysium Island to Jade Valley in the South of the island gave Zyrina plenty of time to get to know both Torgin and Lucy. She felt she understood why they were friends with Phlebus. Turning slowly and sighing a little she sprinted, and it didn’t take Zyrina long to catch up with Phlebus.
His quick even stride, still as familiar as his lanky frame, carried him faster than she normally walked, and it had been easy to fall behind on this journey into the little port valley. The desire to slow down, breathe, and just wander down the dirt road through the shady forest had been a heady experience after the darkness of the mines where she had been working for months.
Protecting miners who searched for silver had been a lucrative endeavor for Zyrina. It taught her how to be aware of her surroundings using all her senses, not just sight. It also taught her to stand up for her own needs and wants, and how to push for what she expected in a crowd of men who might otherwise overlook the slight brown-haired woman with the quiet voice. She had enjoyed keeping the miners safe from the various dangers in the mines in exchange for some of the silver ore. She had wanted a new pair of boots, and it cost dearly to have a pair made by a talented master-worker with all the precision and skill that she demanded. Working in the mines was the best way she knew of for getting some quick funds, and she now had a good bit of silver stashed in the only bank she trusted in the whole land, a new pair of boots on her feet, and had learned several colourful phrases with which she annoyed her friends. Zyrina grinned as she remembered Phlebus’ incredulous look the first time he heard her speak freely. Torgin and Lucy simply roared with laughter. Today, in the sunlight she found herself drawn to the warmth and brightness which rejuvenated her natural glow inside and out.
After taking a deep breath she coughed and choked a little. She had been expecting the fresh crisp spring air that they had been enjoying the entire walk from Xenos, but here on this side of the river, the atmosphere was filled with a disgusting stench that wafted everywhere. Something was up in this unusually quiet community, and it was decidedly rotten.
“What is that smell, Phle?” she covered her nose with her arm and wretched a little. “It’s disgusting. It didn’t smell like that at River’s Cross back where we entered the valley on the other side of the bridge.”
Phlebus heard the footstep of his oldest friend fall in beside him, but he did not turn, he simply pointed. There was a cart sized lump of something just off the side of the path. He was focused on the decay, and on the magic residue left there. This was old magic, He recognized it, but he had never seen any old magic in person before. He didn’t want to miss any part of what he was experiencing.
Earlier this morning as they descended into the valley, the woods had seemed peaceful, to him. The river had flowed lazily, and the air was sweet with a hint of chill late in the spring. But here nearer to the village, something malevolent and dark had steeped the land. Governor Hari had written about the darkness in his plea. It was harming humans, animals, and birds of all sizes. Phlebus’s body hair stood fully at attention as it had done since they crossed the covered wooden bridge. He was wholly focused on all his senses. Phlebus shook his head to clear his mind. His training had taught him to respect the knowledge of his body. His body could sense something his mind couldn’t. He was bothered that he could not pinpoint the location of the disturbance This magic came from something he could sense and not pinpoint.
“This is the reason we are here, Rina.” Phlebus had so far put off telling her what he had learned from the Governor in their private correspondence, and now he was more than ever determined to meet with Governor Hari before dark.
“Farmers and woods people are definitely spooked.” He said, neutrally. “Those people we tried to speak with as we came into the valley certainly had something on their mind. I know hill folk are generally not forthcoming or welcoming but them backing away from us and hiding was more than just usual suspicion of those ‘from away’.”
Zyrina thought back to earlier in the morning just inside the boundary of Jade Valley when the foursome had finally gotten one of the woodsmen to talk with them instead of skittering away into the shadows of the woods like the others did.
“I can see why they would be nervous.” Zyrina didn’t know how to keep the smell from engulfing her and took shallow breaths through her mouth, hoping to lessen the overwhelming stench. This was far worse than even the dankest of mines.
“Remember what that woodsman told us after we first got to the valley?”
“Name’s Bob, good day to ye?” Zyrina’s eyes twinkled as she mimicked Bob’s words.
“Yes, Bob.” Phlebus smiled even in his seriousness. She could always get him to grin.
Bob had stopped after loading his cart with the wood he that he had stacked to wipe his brow with the sleeve of his tunic. He didn’t balk or run. He simply nodded his head and then stared until they introduced themselves.
First, Bob removed his hat and placed it on a nearby stump then placed his axe up on his cart. They discussed the weather and the health of his family and theirs. As he drank cool water pulled from the waterskin he wore laced around his neck, he listened to their travel story politely, but it was obvious that Bob didn’t care one smidgeon about anything outside his own valley.
“Have you heard any local rumours?” Torgin eventually wanted to know.
At this invitation Bob nodded his head, he didn’t falter to voice his concern; even if these folks who stopped to pass the time of day were from away.
“Ain’t nothin’ right about them carcasses, nor them statues.” He spat on the ground.
“What carcasses?” Lucy asked.
“What statues?” Torgin wanted to know.
Bob stared at Lucy a moment before going on, “T’ain’t right, somebody should do something ‘bout that, yup.”
He shook his head and wiped his brow before donning his straw hat again and picking up his pack to move on, “You’ll see soon ‘nuff if’n you are headin into Jade Valley, that’s for sure.” He donned his pack and started pushing his half full cart of wood before him. “Stay back from the corpses you come across. They explode after a while. You let the council know what I said. Good day to y’all, may the titans keep you.”
With that he nodded and turned back to his cart and the companions moved on, thoughtfully. Bob wasn’t what Zyrina would call ‘a talker’. Zyrina recalled the look in his eyes, of fear and suspicion. She had mistaken it for suspicion of strangers but now she understood that it was something more local.
“These are the carcasses Bob was talking about?”
“Yes. More and more rotting carcasses of various sized animals have been appearing near Jade Valley in the last few months; each of them bearing the afterglow of magic. The loss of livestock has been causing havoc in the community.”
“Well, that’s just disgusting.” Zyrina repeated over and over, hardly comprehending the appalling mess that had completely spoiled her simple walk through the woods with an old friend.
They passed bloated reeking corpses of what might have been cows. Phlebus had seen nothing like this in all his training. He was nothing if not thorough and since this was his first assignment outside of the libraries and classrooms where he had spent most of his adult life, he was nervous about getting it right. The one they had managed to get close enough to inspect before it exploded like the others was fetid, charred, and had the telltale blue afterglow of magic clinging to its remains. These were not natural or accidental deaths. There was absolutely magic involved. He made a thorough inspection of the rotting form while Zyrina sat a distance away digging through her various pockets and bags.
“I won’t be long. Somebody has been using magic.” Was all he said before going back to his inspection.
“Think it’s Obsidian magic?” Zyrina wanted to know.
Of course, he had read about deformed creatures created hundreds of years in the past when the Obsidians had experimented by creating races of elves, Kobolds, and other creatures. Sometimes the creations did not survive their creation. But there were no more Obsidians. The Obsidians were four hundred years in the past. Or so it was said.
This magic was not old and dusty, fading on the shelves at the castle libraries. It was real and present and vile and right in front of him. Whatever caused this, it was not something that he had experience with and that was the point of his first assignment. This carcass was twisted and tortured looking, and it was deformed. He was now fully interested in finding out who had done this. And why.
“Not sure yet, Rina.” Was all he would commit to saying.
After the long and arduous journey with Lucy and Torgin, by covered wagon, boat, and foot all the way from his rooms in Novia’s largest city of Central Brittany, in Midmaer, to the southeast of Novia on the island of Elysium at the end of nowhere, he was ready to collapse. He found he missed the peaceful quiet and the more neutral odors of his city home. He had not imagined he had come all this way to inspect rotting corpses, but here he was, sketching away in his book. He plotted on getting back to his home and his comforts as soon as he could. He dreamed of a hot bath while he worked on drawing the rotting lump. Finally, he finished and retreated when the body began hissing and just in time to avoid the ensuing explosion.
“Whoever did this had no business having animals in their care.” Zyrina looked revolted.
“Yes, I agree. And now we’ve got to find out what’s causing this. Or who.”
Zyrina just looked him straight in the eyes assessing what she’d got herself into, and after awhile nodded her head slowly. “Okay,” was all she said before covering her mouth and nose with the clean handkerchief she had dug out of her bag. She handed him one too.
“You sure that’s clean?” He deadpanned and she burst out laughing.
“Does it matter at this point? It still would smell better than these corpses.” She went on, “there is something creepy going on here, that’s certain Phle. I’ve never seen anything like this in all these years travelling around Novia.”
Phlebus nodded but did not share his suspicions with Zyrina. Until he was sure he wasn’t going to say a thing. That’s how he had always been, but he did take time to add her remarks to his notes about the corpse. Earlier, Zyrina had been teasing him that he was full of “book learning but not real learning.” It annoyed him that she might be right, but he wasn’t going to show any indecision to his oldest friend, and he was not going to chance being wrong without knowing more about what had happened. She had gathered some useful practical skills while she travelled, and he knew she would not stop teasing him till he proved to her that he too had gained useful skills, he had indeed been studying with mages at the castle libraries (it was useful knowledge), and he hadn’t spent the entire nine years drinking with his friends, the Featherbright twins in Central Brittany. The handkerchief helped a little though, and he was thankful that she had thought of it.
While he was tying the kerchief, Phlebus looked back and could see the distant figures of Torgin, and Lucy had finally left the riverbank. They looked small from this distance. He sorted and picked up the rest of his belongings to move on. He was glad of the company of his friends for his first assignment, even if some of them dawdled. They had made him feel secure and protected in the wilds. The twins had been advised by the mages in Central Brittany before they had left the city and he hadn’t had to talk with them about the mission. They already knew.
He hadn’t seen the twins since they had graduated a few years earlier than he had. After their first assignments they had each moved out of the boarding-house and out of the city. So, this was a joyous reunion for them all. He was pleased to meet up with his oldest friend, Zyrina, even if he became slightly tongue tied in her company.
After passing a few farms at the edge of town, where the buildings started to be built closer together the smell faded into the breeze off the nearby bay. Zyrina took off her mask and took another deep breath.
“I’ve always loved the smell of the sea,” she admitted.
“We met by the sea. Remember?” Phlebus was smiling lost in his own memories now.
She laughed, “Yes. Pulling you out of the water in Ardoris was the best thing that ever happened to me, even if you looked like a drowned rat.”
“I did not!” Phlebus was indignant and took a breath to go on in his own defence but something caught his eye.
Zyrina turned to look too, “What the titans are those?”
There were two statues near what was obviously the Center of Justice; one of a man who had his hands up as if to shield his face, and the other a boy who looked as if he were in the act of turning and running.
“I don’t know, Rina.” The statues disturbed Phlebus in a way he could not explain. These were life-sized stone statues of what looked like normal folk going about their daily business, but frozen mid action. Phlebus became more thoughtful and even quieter.
It was beginning to be clear why the governor had called for help. Those statues really bothered him. Before he speculated about them, he needed to find out more information. To snap out of his disturbed state, he asked Zyrina an unrelated question.
“How long has it been Rina? You’ve hardly changed at all.”
“I think about five years now, isn’t it?”
“At least,” He nodded in agreement. “Probably longer.”
It had been far longer, almost a decade by his reckoning. She had hardly changed, though. Her gleaming dark hair and intense green eyes had not altered one bit and her caramel-coloured skin showed no signs of aging even if her cheeks had lost their baby fat. It was like she had been frozen in time. She had always had a small sparse frame and she still vibrated with pent up energy but had gained a steady hand and eagle eye when her arrows were notched. No matter her age, he was glad for her company and her bow.
It didn’t shock him really, as he knew she was an Outlander, but it was startling to realize how much he had aged in their time apart. She seemed ageless to him; not much older than when they had parted. He hadn’t thought much about her being ‘from away’ and had forgotten until seeing her in person again and confronting the stark difference in their age now. He knew Outlanders aged differently than Novians did, but now the question of how much difference would have to wait until he was back at his libraries with his teachers.
He saw Zyrina glace back at the twins in the distance and could tell she wanted to know more about them, but he would wait for her questions. They were sure to come. He felt like she was still a little wary of the friends he had arrived with from the big city.
“Think they will catch up before dark?” she asked.
Nodding his head, and grunting companionably, Phlebus thought about the last few days of travel; even if there were still some awkward silences in the group as they all got familiar with each other’s routines and movements, they had found their groove. It didn’t take long with true friends to regain the ease of companionship even after a long absence. Also, now he knew how ill equipped he had become; his survival skills were rusty from nearly a decade of study. ‘You just need to think faster than in your libraries, Phle.’ Lucy had informed him yesterday after killing the snake that had curled up in his sleeping bag when he froze. ‘Don’t hesitate. Just decide.’
“Where’d you meet those two?” Zyrina finally ventured, indicating back along the trail with a toss of her head.
It was as if she had read his mind, and he looked at her out of the corner of his eyes. “At the Byrd Boarding-house in Central Brittany. They graduated a few years before me, but we were room mates for a good long while before they left.”
He reminisced as he strode. “When I arrived at the academy in Central Brittany, after getting registered and finding a room in the boarding-house, I met the other boarders who were Lucy and Torgin. They invited me to the markets that first day and I gladly joined them. I soon found out that they went everywhere together. Twins.”
He went on, “I was so young, I was barely able to keep my jaw shut as I spun in circles wandered around the square staring at towering buildings.” He explained, “I had spent most of my life on the streets of Ardoris, as you know, but this city was more. More of everything. That first day I felt like a complete country bumpkin. I forgot even the basics of walking in a strange city. When I stopped to listen to a bard play a lively tune, before I knew what had happened, there was a quick scuffle beside me. Torgin emerged from the swirl of fabric, holding a youth by the scruff of the neck and demanded the kid return my purse. He did. I hadn’t even noticed the kid near me, let alone the light fingers on my purse. I begged Torgin to release the child because I remembered being a young’un looking for something to eat, and we watched him scamper off and then snatch another unwary shopper’s purse before dashing away again. The twins had laughed heartily and clapped me on the back, nearly knocking me down. Luckily, they took a shine to me. We three spent many years studying and partying together before they left the city three years ago after their first assignments.” He smirked a little remembering.
“They seem like they are good friends.” Zyrina noted.
“Yeah, they are.”
“I hope they have nose coverings too.”
“Me too,” he grimaced.
He looked Zyrina straight in the eyes. She looked worried. “We’ll find out what’s happening and put a stop to it.” he vowed. Zyrina nodded, too.
“Good.” It was all she said.
“Libraries don’t have these problems.” He sniffed through the mask.
Zyrina chuckled. She knew Phlebus’s time in libraries had not prepared him for the olfactory feast of the countryside let alone the brutality of decayed flesh. It had been a long time since he had slept under a bush with a stolen bun.
Mulling over the new sights and smells, Phlebus thought about the correspondence he had had with the Governor after his instructors told him this would be his first assignment. Governor Hari had originally asked Phlebus’s teachers for help and they had chosen Phlebus to step into the world outside the city and away from his scrolls. One day he was at his favored table in the castle library reading intently and the next he was ready to leave his home, his studies, and his teachers. He was made awkward by the suddenness of his re-entry into the world outside the boarding houses, libraries, and pubs he had become accustomed to frequenting.
At least his favorite teacher, Isolde the Elder had given Phlebus a clearheaded pep talk, taken him to be fitted for a proper weapon and mage armor, offered a few magic travelling scrolls for emergency use, and a small bag of dried herbs and reagents before sending him into the world. It was more than he had arrived at the school with nine years before and because of those kindnesses and more, Phlebus wanted to solve this mystery for Governor Hari, for his teachers, and for his own satisfaction, too.
Before his departure from the city, Phlebus had reread the correspondence from Jade Valley. Governor Hari had been concerned about this menace to his otherwise peaceful valley home. His letters had urgently begged for assistance from the high mages at the capitol city without giving much detail, but Governor Hari was certain that there was more to his problem than just local youth out playing pranks on the farmers in this valley. He wanted answers and knew this was more than his local law enforcement could deal with.
Strolling in silence alongside him, Zyrina realized she had taken to the twins right away. She and Phlebus had been writing each other irregularly but had not been in each other’s company for the entire nine years that Phlebus had been studying with the old mages and scholars at the libraries in the capitol city. There was much unknown between them now, like the twins in his life, but it was still a comfortable silence none the less. Neither had ever bothered to hide anything from each other and that had not changed. They would catch up, but it would take its own time.
She watched Phlebus deep in though as he walked beside her. Zyrina was thoughtful as well. Zyrina was not from Novia like Phlebus. She was one of those others; someone from away. She didn’t talk about the Outlands she had come from, though she always worded it as ‘escaped from’. She never talked about it. Not ever. The rift that had opened and swooped her in its magical blue light and deposited her here in this land of Novia had come just when she most desperately needed to escape, and she was willing enough at the time. Well, it was a permanent escape of sorts; or a prison she could not leave. She smiled, grimly. There was no way back either way.
Not that she wanted to go back, even all these years later she still worried that she may have been followed. Looking over her shoulder and trusting no one was second nature to her by the time she met Phlebus. He had been an orphaned sixteen-year-old, and she had barely been out of her teens. Now Phlebus had aged. She could see it in his face, and in his manners. He was grown to a fine-looking man and still had that gentle manner that she remembered fondly.
Being an outlander Zyrina did not age like Novians. Decades would go by for Novians and Zyrina would feel time passing as if it were not even a year. There were other differences too but aging and time was the starkest one. It alarmed many of the Novians she met, and so it was not something she made known to strangers, though many found out regardless. It meant she didn’t die either. Yes, she had been wounded, and had felt the piercing of death several times in battle but somehow each time she would find herself waking up again, wounds healed, with her weapon in her hand.
Phlebus may have gone straight to the libraries of Central Brittany upon reaching adulthood, but Zyrina could not be contained by the classroom and decided to travel the whole of Novia to learn about the place she had been deposited and to learn about how to survive here on her own. She moved with the experience she had acquired in her travels. No gesture was wasted, and she always knew exactly where she was in the world. She also had an uncanny prescience for danger approaching which Phlebus appreciated since apparently, he had none left from his experience as an orphan on the streets of Ardoris. He had been either oblivious or startled several times along the way by thieves, animals, and skeletons that haunted the roadways looking for unwary explorers.
Now, he hurried his pace for the last bit toward the center of town because he wanted to be done with this interview with the town council and booked into his lodgings before the late night was upon them. He grinned, knowing exactly how to speed things up a little.
“Come on Rina, I’ll race you the rest of the way there.” He readied his bags, then called to her “three, two, Go!”
They were off running full tilt. Their laugher and woops of delight in the footrace kept them occupied the rest of the way to the town center. After the gruesome finds earlier, it was superb to shrug off the seriousness of their journey and enjoy the race.
Jade Valley wasn’t large, but obviously was an important center for harbour trade and commerce for this area. The docks were active and bustling. There was a well-developed market filled with vendors arranged in three large squares in front of the harbour. Facing the market on its west side was a large wooden building that was the town’s guild hall. The Jade Dragon’s crest that hung just in front fluttered in the breeze off the bay, its black material stark in the sun and the bright green of a dragon with three daggers prominent. Phlebus remembered seeing it on the top of the scroll that the governor had sent to the Academy. After locating the guild hall and finding themselves with time to spare while they waited for the twins to catch up, Phlebus and Zyrina made their way over to the Hall of Enquiry and Learning to see what the historians in the valley could tell them.
I watched these strangers approach the Hall of Enquiry and Learning. Zyrina and Phlebus met me, Lily Byrd the Keeper of the histories of the Jade Dragons of the Jade Empire and the Librarian of the Hall. On my map of Jade Valley I showed them where to find the Town Crier down at the docks. Little did I know then that this was to become the beginning of a new friendship that would span their lifetimes and cause me to write about these adventures using the stories they divulged to me.
As a Keeper of the Histories here in the valley, I asked numerous questions of these interesting travellers from so far away. They were kind enough to indulge me and answered each question thoroughly. Zyrina was not loud or impatient and had a dry sense of humour that had me in fits of giggles more than once. I could tell we would be friends. Phlebus kept wandering off while we talked and picked up different scrolls and books as he did so. I appreciated that he put them back exactly where he took them from as few were inclined to do. It was obvious he knew his way around a library. Soon I felt as if I had known Zyrina for years and felt comfortable about letting Phlebus explore in the library without supervision.
After our conversation, Zyrina waited for her wayward companions to catch up, and I went back to cataloguing recently donated books.
“Phlebus look.” Zyrina called out.
I could see that she had come across some interesting local information about the history of this town.
“Can you believe the grit of these people? They are way out here at the edge of the world.”
I heard her telling Phlebus about her discoveries. Unsurprisingly, Phlebus wanted to return to the Hall before they leave the valley to learn more about the plucky Outlanders who settled in the area.
I then rejoined the conversation to talk about the travelling scholar study rooms available on the second floor. I offered him a place if he wanted to stay and learn more after he was done figuring out what was going on in Jade Valley.
Just then the largest man I’d ever seen dressed in clothing of the far north with long tangled white hair and beard and a massive axe slung across his back stood at the doorway. He was stunningly handsome. My voice trailed off as I stared.
“There’s no ale here Phlebus, you have tricked us!” The giant of a man squeezed through the open library door and his voice rang out in the empty Hall. He winked at me, and I blushed, completely captivated by the sheer magnificence of the man.
“We KNEW we would find you here.” An equally large and graceful woman in the same northern clothing, with striking eyes and stark white hair now paused in the door before she squeezed through right behind him. “This isn’t a pub, but I bet the librarian knows where one is located.”
She winked at me, too.
“These slowpokes are Lucy and Torgin Featherbright. Twins, as you can see.” Zyrina introduced them. “This is Lily Byrd, the librarian.”
I blushed again and stammered a little greeting before offering, “T T There is the Singing Bear Pub across the street, inside the Byrd’s Nest Inn. That’s my family’s business and you will be welcomed there. There is also the Jade Valley Outdoor Pub and Pavilion just down the way, on the west side of the markets, beside the Guild Hall and of course The River Rider Inn on the North side of the markets. Oh, and the Raven the Dragon and the Stew Pot further to the north over on Frojentia Lane.”
“Yes, we came across the outdoor pub on our way here.” Lucy nodded thoughtfully, “after the meeting we will go back there and collect that round that Phlebus has offered.”
“I think Zyrina will get the second round since she offered me up for the first!” Phlebus grinned at his friends.
“Hey!” Zyrina responded, “No fair, Phlebus is the one with the money bags.”
“And you aren’t?” Phlebus made a pantomime of opening a squeaky purse. Much to the delight of Lucy and Torgin.
“I’ll go with you over to the Guild Hall, I’m attending the meeting too and it’s about to begin,” I offered shyly, and then escorted the four to the company of Governor Hari up on the top floor of the guild hall, and other officers of the Jade Empire Council in the officer meeting room took over host duties.
When we entered, Rinaldi offered them seats and another officer of the guild, Elnoth, handed out a single ale to each of them with a grim look and then introduced them to the rest of the officers who were present while I found my seat.
“Well thank you, this will hit the spot.” Torgin did not stand on ceremony and downed the ale in one gulp, then picked another pint off the tray while wiping the foam from his upper lip.
The meeting of officers of the town and the newcomers started shortly after the last of the stragglers found seats around the large wooden table with the guild’s crest etched into its surface or standing near the back of the room where there were still spaces available. I sat with the other officers and waved at a few townsfolk who were standing near the back of the room observing.
After a short formal welcome and introduction, each officer soon revealed what knowledge we had acquired about the disturbing events of the past two months to the newcomers. The stories were more of the same sort of thing that Phlebus and the others had discovered on their walk into town. Animals dying and stone statues of townsfolk who were never seen again appearing willy nilly throughout the valley. It had been going on for months and none of us felt safe.
Scowling deeper after each speaker, with each passing moment Phlebus was becoming more and more withdrawn. This was not an easy thing to solve, nor was it a simple problem. The rest of the company listened attentively but kept their opinions to themselves.
After repeated stories of bloated and dead farm animals, and stone statues of people who had gone missing the room had all been spoken, Lucy reported what Bob had wanted the councillors to hear.
“Do you think this could be the pranks that local children would play?” Governor Hari thoughtfully asked. “There have been rumours going around town about a few youngsters starting fires and such. Or have we uncovered some evil from the past? Is it in other towns too?”
Then everyone became still and turned expectantly, waiting for the newcomers’ response. Now that it was his turn to speak, Phlebus stood and cleared his throat then thanked each of the previous speakers for their collective knowledge.
He then began, “Children don’t dabble in blood magic, nor turn anyone to stone.”
There were nods in the crowded room.
Phlebus went on, “These magics are old, and I haven’t seen this before. I don’t know if anyone living has seen this kind of magic. The only reference I could find before I left Central Brittany was to some obscure Obsidian tome from over four hundred years ago. I could not locate it before I left the city. When I return to Central Brittany, I will search that text out and see what it says. In the meantime, we will settle in for the night, and tomorrow have a good look around the valley to see what we can find out here. We will meet in a week to give you an update on our discoveries.”
The meeting ended in agreement. I stood and made my way over to the newcomers to say good night before making my way home. This was going to take several pages to write about in my journal and I wanted to get started right away.
“I’ll leave you all to your evening, and if you need any more information in the morning feel free to knock on the cottage door if I’m not at the Hall of Enquiry, alright?” I turned to Phlebus and saw him nod before turning to farewell the others.
“Meet me at the pavilion over by the outdoor pub,” Elnoth whispered to Phlebus as he was leaving the meeting room. “I know something that might help you in your search.”
Phlebus nodded once and continued to the staircase with his companions in tow. Even he was now ready for some food and drink and some time to talk with his friends regarding his suspicions that had been confirmed at the meeting. He waved to their new librarian friend before heading out in exactly the wrong direction. Without any assistance our wayward heroes eventually found the Jade Outdoor Tavern and the Pavilion right next door to the guild house. Everyone agreed to never listen to Lucy about direction ever again.
Here is another great story from PhoenixWolf, entitled
The Box with No Soul
Background music by Smartsound
Destiny tapped her pen mindlessly while she talked on the phone. One of the residents of the mental institution had run away just over a day ago, causing quite a stir. George, the escapee, wasn’t a difficult person. He took his medications without complaint, did everything he was asked to do, and never caused trouble with the other patients.
It was a shock to his orderlies and doctor when he managed to escape and got stopped by police over 100 miles away.
“Okay, I’m sending someone there to pick him up. He should be there in about two hours. Will that be okay?”
She continued to tap the pen, an anxious gesture. She wanted to spread the good news that they found George, and that he was coming home safely.
“Okay, thank you, sir. Please call me if anything comes up. Yep, you too. Goodbye.”
She pressed the receiver button to end the call, then immediately dialed George’s doctor.
“Dr. Steele, this is Destiny. I just got off with the police officer who has George.”
“He’s not hurt, though he’s a little out of it, and may be going through withdrawals from his meds. Otherwise, he’s not hurt and is being cared for until we can get him picked up.”
“Yep, I’ll call you when he gets here. You’re welcome, doctor.”
George sat on the shady bench, his hands wrapped around a tiny brown paper wrapped box and held close to his chest. He hadn’t said much to the police officer, Sgt. Lee. He was finishing a phone conversation with someone at the mental institution. He knew he would have to go back. The thought of that fact made him shudder.
“Hey, are you hungry?” Sgt. Lee said. “Some people are coming to get you, so we have some time.”
“Yes,” George said, looking cautiously at the officer’s equipment belt. “Are you going to put me in handcuffs?”
“That’s up to you. Are you going to run away or fight me?”
“No. Can I have a real hamburger?”
“Okay, we can do that,” the officer said, gesturing toward his car.
An hour later, George finished the last of his meal. The diner was nice, quiet, and cool. He still held the small box carefully. Sgt. Lee watched George stare intently at the box.
“That box must be really important to you,” Sgt. Lee said.
“What’s in it?”
“My soul.” George said, hesitation drawing the words out a little.
Sgt. Lee raised his eyebrows. “What’s it doing in a box?”
George looked him in the eye, “It’s there for safe keeping.”
The sergeant thoughtfully considered George before he spoke again.
“It’s wrapped like a gift. Were you wanting to give it to someone?”
“An angel,” George said, a little sadness showing in his eyes. “But I couldn’t find him.”
“Angels can look like anyone, how would you know who to look for?”
“This angel carries a sword and a shield.”
Sgt. Lee took a sip of his water and settled back into his bench. “There aren’t many people that walk around with swords and shields,” he said.
George looked back down at the small box. It felt heavy in his hands, but it was also very warm and comforting. He felt tired. His efforts to keep the package safe had been difficult, especially after leaving the institution. He had met plenty of people over the last 36 hours, none of which had looked right. Now, his time seemed to have run out.
He looked at Sgt. Lee, his badge looked a little like a shield, but it was so small, and he didn’t carry a sword. Did he miss something? Were his prayers in vain, causing his search to be fruitless? Doubt gnawed at him.
Sgt. Lee sniffed and wiped his hands on his napkin. “It looks like your ride is here.”
George suppressed another shudder, but still stood up from his bench and walked out of the diner as Sgt. Lee walked behind him. The orderly who came for him opened the car door for George. He got in without saying a word, his actions felt heavy and final as the door closed. The orderly exchanged information with the police officer for a few minutes, then got into the car and began driving toward the highway. George looked back toward the police officer, but he was already gone.
Destiny was still working at her desk when George walked through the doors, escorted by the orderly. He kept his eyes down, but made quick glances at the other residents who were in the foyer. He looked like he carried a heavy burden on his shoulders.
“It’s good to see you’re okay, George.”
He nodded, his eyes focused on a little scuff mark on the desk where Destiny tapped her pen.
“He does have something that needs to be checked in,” the orderly said.
George tensed visibly, but shook his head jerkily. “It’s just an empty little box,” he said with a sheepish expression.
“Well, we still have to inspect any packages that come through, even little ones,” she said apologetically. “It will only take a minute, then you can have it back.”
He shook his head again. “No, no. It’s okay, it’s empty! See?” He said, shaking the little box for her to see.
“I wish I could just let you keep it, but I have to follow the rules and make sure nothing is in there,” she said.
George took a step back and cupped the box in both hands. “No, I can’t let you open it. It’ll get away!”
The orderly spoke calmly as he closed a little space between George and him. “George, it will be alright. She just needs to make sure there isn’t anything that can hurt someone.”
George backed away a few more steps, the orderly followed him slowly.
“That’s all I need to do. It will be quick, and I promise to put it back together again,” Destiny said.
“No, you can’t, I’ll die!” George said.
George’s expression became more frightened when a second orderly approached him from behind and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Come on George, we’re here to help you. We’re not going to let you get hurt or die,” the second orderly said, his voice warm and relaxed.
“You can’t help me anymore.”
Without warning, George threw his shoulder against the second orderly, knocking him off balance. He turned to run back toward the entrance doors when the first orderly wrapped his arm around George’s waist, stopping his escape before it even began.
George’s screams of protest rang through the foyer and halls, echoed by the other residents. A male resident who was sitting in the foyer dropped to his knees, his face turned upward and babbling as if toward heaven. Two other residents began crying with their faces buried in their hands.
One of the orderlies wrestling George tossed the brown box, now slightly smashed on one side, onto Destiny’s desk. Relieved slightly by the distraction of the box, Destiny took it and began to untie the string holding it.
As more orderlies arrived to help, George continued to cry out and fight like his life depended on it.
“No! No! No! Don’t open it!” Destiny could hear George yell over the cacophony.
“I’m going to die! Don’t open it!” She heard him yell one last time before he was buried under the collective weight of the orderlies.
She could still hear George clearly when he was half dragged, half carried away from the foyer, but the noise from the other residents hadn’t abated. She tried to focus on just the box, unwrapping the brown paper to reveal a plain white gift box, something a ring case could fit in.
George’s screams became even more frantic as he was pulled down the hall, answered with equal intensity by the residents all around.
She pulled the dented lid from the box, and stared, perplexed at its empty contents. At nearly the same moment, the screaming stopped. The sudden silence felt deafening to the noise before it. Destiny looked down the hallway, the orderlies now standing around the still form of George. His face was twisted into a frozen, silent scream. His skin had turned ashen white and seemed to stretch across gaunt features that weren’t there moments before.
Her blood turned cold when she saw the other residents. Each one, whether in the halls behind the thresholds of their rooms, had their hands pressed together in front of bowed heads, as if in prayer. An eternity of stunned quiet filled the building, the only sound to be heard was the ticking clock on the wall.