Read by Asclepius
Chapter 11. The Cathedral and the Cat.
Kitty was not outside the portal. When we re-emerged in the attic at Elnoth’s Storage and Cartage she was nowhere to be seen. Lucy’s disappointment was profound. She called and called but Kitty did not come out.
“Are you kidding me?” Lucy asked no one.
Sometime later, Lucy finally gave up looking and followed the rest of us as we made our way over to the docks. She looked dejected and disheartened; she had been crying too. I did not know what to do to make her feel better, but I wanted to try at least.
“We’ll find her again,” I tried to reassure Lucy but saying that just made her cry more.
Lucy and Zyrina started searching the neighbourhood for tracks, but these cobbled streets were giving no clues. I wasn’t usually this bad at comforting my friends and I was worried about Kitty myself. Where did she go? Questions rolled around my head as we gloomily walked over to the docks. Why couldn’t we find Phlebus, for that matter? He was ALWAYS at the library, but not now. He had not been seen for weeks.
During the search for Kitty, while we were so close, I swung by my family boarding house, where Torgin and Phlebus usually stayed in Central Brittany. It was a spit and a jump away from Elnoth’s Cartage and Storage. After a quick update on the state of the boarding house accounts, Gwen Trelawny let me know neither of my friends had been there for weeks, and she was a little concerned too.
“Sorry Gwen, I don’t know where they are either. Have you seen a snowy white lynx wandering around the street by any chance?” I asked.
She laughed long and hard, then answered, “Nope, but if I did, I would lay off the special reserve from your Uncle Owain. Have you hit your head?” Then she chortled again and waved before going back to her work.
Imagine, the Southern Red Syndicate was nested right in my own neighbourhood in Central Britanny, and I’d never heard a whiff about them before this adventure! What is worse, is the knowledge that the moon towers in Central Britanny were not actually protecting the citizens of Central Britanny from the infiltration of Obsidian magic. Something was wrong. Something very big was very wrong.
At the busy docks, we did find the town crier that Lucy knew would be there. After they exchanged a warm and familiar greeting, she asked him to keep an eye out for Torgin’s large snowy lynx and he agreed. Then, we were introduced all around. After flirting shamelessly and outrageously with each of us (one after the other) and in no way finding each rebuff to be personal, he cheerfully pointed the way to Kal’s Unfortunate Apothecary over in the west of the city. I am glad for the crier’s detailed directions because even with them we had a few false starts. Finally, after several hours of wandering up and down the knoll where the castle is built, we arrived at the correct location.
“There it is.” Zyrina pointed.
I paused to catch my breath after climbing up the steep path to the little magic shop. It’s tucked in near one of the moon towers and attached to a much larger building of the same grey somber square stone and spiky metal style; I had assumed it was part of the bigger building.
“It almost disappears if you don’t know exactly where to look for it,” Lucy said.
“Yup.” I nodded.
I had been on this street several times before but had not noticed the Unfortunate Apothecary, let alone heard any rumours about a secret meeting place in it.
Aslinne then started wondering out loud the thoughts I was wrestling with. “Does the queen of the city know about this? It is Arabella’s city, and it’s supposed to be safe from the influence of the Obsidians. Finding them this close, and underneath the city is disquieting.”
“When this adventure is over, I vow I will write her and let her know what we had discovered right in Central Britanny but right now let’s go see what we can find inside,” I said as lightly as I could manage, while still catching my breath.
This city was large, the largest in the land, and it therefore easy not to know everything about it. It was so big, that after a Novian century of visiting and doing business here, I had not yet seen even half of it. I was quite sure I wasn’t going to do any sightseeing on this trip either, but I did take a moment to enjoy the view from up on this knoll. It was spectacular. The mass of people and movement below was engaging to watch, and I had a hard time tearing my eyes away from the activities of the city dwellers until I reminded myself what the pressing search was about.
“Let’s go.” Zyrina gathered us and we all turned as one toward the building.
Looking through the window, we could see the inside of shop was dark and gloomy. There were vials (full and empty), and small glass tubes with stoppers, and scrolls with recipes for poisons displayed on the wooden counter. Dust covered every surface.
“Helloooo,” I called out as I opened the thick door, but no one answered.
Lucy pointed out the ’Be back in one-hour’ sign that hung on the outside wall near the entrance.
“Well, that makes it easier.” I was a bit bolder since there was no shop keeper nearby to stop me. “I wonder if they meant to leave the door unlocked?”
“Haaallloooo!” I called again into the dim interior before we all boldly made our way inside. There was no answer.
Lucy peeked into the cupboards and drawers.
“Where’s that entrance to the portal that the faun was talking about? Up the stairs maybe?” Zyrina ventured.
I could see this store had no other exits and nothing that called out as a magic entrance anywhere on the main floor. This time Aslinne led the way up the stairs. I was betting that few people had been invited up there. On the top floor we found several bookshelves with books about potion poisons from all over Novia. There was nothing out of the ordinary about most of the bookcases or the books on them, except their topic, poison. It was immediately obvious that the magic portal was in the far corner. It was another hefty tome on a lectern. We could all see the blue glow of magic emanating from its pulsing pages. Zyrina pointed out the ink spilled from a nearby study area and big lynx footprint near the portal entrance, as well as one large print that could definitely possibly be Torgin’s. It was not often that anyone had feet as large as he did, and beside it a lighter print from a smaller shoe. Maybe Phlebus? Were they all together? Were they even still down there if they were together? I sure was burning to find out. Not one of us spoke a word about it, but each of us was absolutely certain that it was Kitty’s print. Lucy visibly came to attention. Hope was lighting her face again.
“Here we go for a second time today,” Lucy gazed at the black pawprint in the drying ink as she carefully prepared her hammer and her potions. “Ready?” Her relief was palatable.
Zyrina of course was already equipped and ready to go by the time I fumbled my arrows into a more useful position and got my bow free from the tangle of my cloak. Aslinne had had her knives drawn and was waiting beside the entrance looking into it with horror. ‘I do not think she has a love of magic.’ That was the last thought I had as I was sucked into the magic portal with the others.
We were deposited in a grand ancient stone foyer with a remarkably high ceiling. There were shadows in all the corners, and it felt drafty and a bit damp, but in an old and solid sort of way. It looked like a gathering room of sorts. There was a high throne set on a platform, with benches lined up facing it, and a round raised podium in the middle. After getting my bearings, I noticed the three hallways leading out of the gathering room, one in each of the other cardinal directions. As well as taking note of the Obsidian obelisks that marked the North where we had entered, I saw only the empty room; there were no people here. There were no other signs to tell where the hallways led, either. It confused me. As I was trying to sort it out, Lucy spoke up.
“Where do we start?” Lucy sighed, looking as baffled as I felt.
“Here.” Zyrina took charge this time and the rest of us followed.
She went through one of the iron gates set in a low stone wall that surrounded the central podium, and we found ourselves going down a solid set of stone stairs. At the first landing, to our left was a staircase leading down and to what appeared to be a small library, and to the right was a blocked entrance we could not see beyond. There was another descending staircase straight ahead and of course that’s where Rina led us. Down. Down. Down to a stunningly beautiful room with brightly lit stained-glass windows. It was empty of anything but a statue of an aether dragon near the far end, and a few practise targets. There was nothing here that gave any clue where the mage had gone with his book and his box, or whether anyone had been here recently.
“There’s no one here,” Aslinne’s lyrical voice boomed in the quiet room and startled me a little. “Only dust.”
“Let’s check that library we passed,” Lucy said over her shoulder as she headed back up the stairs.
The library took longer to search, mostly because one or the other of us kept getting distracted by the rare books lining the shelves. Just as we were about to give up and investigate another room, we heard an explosion somewhere above us. It rocked the room a little. A few books tumbled off shelves, and there was a cloud of dust, and rock chips from the ceiling that rained down upon us. Luckily, none of the bits that fell were large enough to do any of us any real damage.
“Time to check those two other hallways. They are down here somewhere,” Aslinne decided. I headed up the final staircase, back to the foyer right behind Zyrina, who had sprinted over to the stairs with her arrow notched as soon as the explosion sounded.
Several floors above our explorers…
Once more the dust settled after yet another loud explosion. When the hazy blue light of magic had dimmed enough, Hu Nam could see that the dark crystal shard, a slice of the moon that landed on Novia nearly six hundred years previously, was still anchored firmly in the center of the glowing room. But another six of the young acolytes were completely striped of their worldly flesh, and lay now as burning skeletons in the very spots where they had been casting the spell, which had rebounded when it hit the orange shell of the dragon’s egg. It lay on its side where it had been for the entire day, unscathed by any of the attempts to speed its hatching. The other two still living acolytes looked shaken beyond their ability, and only slightly damaged. They were bleeding from their eyes and ears, but were in possession of their own skin and flesh, unlike their unlucky colleagues.
After sending them off to find some medical attention, Hu turned to see Nestor, who had picked himself up from the rubble, unscathed. Hu could see that brute strength in magic was useless here. But Nestor could not perceive a different way. The old magic from this ancient magic book was not responding in the normal way to the magic practices that these mages experienced and understood. The attempts today had taken lives. Many lives. They had been at it since early hours. Wagons full of the dead had been wheeled from the magic room over and over. Mistakes here were more dangerous, and for more reasons, than the mage had had to deal with while he was far from the shard itself. Here, right in front of it, he could feel its pull, and was sorely tempted to just take that lingering power and use it for his own ends. But he controlled his desire and restrained himself. Well did he know the cost of such foolishness.
Nestor was his superior and Hu Nam was generally a steadfast man. Born into the cabal, Hu had been doing the bidding of his masters the whole of his life. But now, Hu could only see the crooked smile and freckled face of Aslinne Gradh swimming in front of him. ‘Do what you can do to help those who have nothing.’ The sound of her soothing voice running through his head like a river of calm made Hu aware that his priorities were now changed by that woman far more than he had realized. He could see that these young acolytes had nothing, and had no worth to Nestor, who took their lives casually and even now called for more to replace the injured and dead.
“Fix your own mess,” he muttered to himself under his breath.
Those were the words Aslinne had shouted at him. The last time they had parted she had been shouting in anger but, that was not the expression Hu saw in his mind’s eye, among his cherished memories. Hu wanted to be a better person because of her influence. Aslinne would have understood his hesitation. She would have listened to his concerns; Hu was sure of it. Aslinne had more deference for magic’s power than anyone he had ever met, and he knew she would have refused to be any part of this ceremony.
He could clearly hear her repeating, ‘whatever energy a person puts out into the world, be it positive or negative, will be returned to that person three times.’ He was beginning to identify what she meant by those words, too. Hu was feeling much the same, but could see no way out of the room without losing his own life. But he could not – would not – leave that book in the hands of Nestor. It was not safe there. No one was safe under Nestor’s influence. Hu had been wrong. He could no longer trust the things he had been told about magic by the Southern Red Branch. He could no longer trust his master. The damage Nestor had inflicted with this one ceremony was horrendous. There were dead mages and acolytes everywhere. There was still hope, though. Hu could see how fixated Nestor was become on success, at any cost. Unnoticed, Hu took one slow sliding step forward.
“Well?” Nestor’s gruff voice rang out in the silence. He turned to stare with that piercing gaze straight at Hu. Moving to the middle of the room, Hu shakily put his hands on the large egg. Its shell was pebbled and smooth at the same time, and warm to his touch. He could feel it pulse with life but it was no closer to hatching than when they had begun that morning. The dragon egg was still undamaged from what he could tell, but it was also unchanged too. The loss of life was piling up. These six dead, added to those from three earlier attempts, tallied twenty dead just today alone. Hu did not think there were any more acolytes left.
Hu shook his head. “No change.”
Nestor’s complete disregard for the lives of those who served him was making Hu feel queasy. He slipped back to his spot to one side on the raised platform, but was now noticeably closer to Nestor than he had been at the beginning of the ceremony.
“Again!” Nestor was not going to stop or give up. Nestor noticed the change in Hu’s location but assumed it was due to the mage’s excitement at being included in the ceremony. Nodding to the guard at the door, eight more young mages were escorted into the room. They blanched when passing the two wounded acolytes being led to the infirmary, and the stench from the burnt ones who lay fallen in the room, but quickly recovered their composure and walked to their accustomed positions around the shard. They had supported Nestor in the past and now believed they had no choice but to do so again
Following on the heels of these new recruits were a couple of young fauns, both pushing a cumbersome wagon and dressed in the same red colour as the eight acolytes now making a circle around the shiny shard in the center of the room.
“Are you afraid?” Nestor leered at one of the fauns, who had whimpered softly in reply. The little faun blanched and shook her head in answer, trembling in her simple robe as she lifted the last of the bodies and dumped it in the cart. Then she and her companion pulled their full cart as quickly as they cautiously could. Nestor watched intently them leave, and when they were out of his sight he turned to the ceremony. “Begin!”
The mages newly entered to the room stood silent as the bodies of their acolyte classmates were carted from the room. Expressing nothing, they knew better than to show fear when in the room with Nestor. Nestor did not tolerate those who expressed any personal emotion in his presence. As one, the mages began.
Nestor fumed inwardly, silently. This magic book somehow eluded his understanding. And fundamentally this spell was a kind of nonsense to him. Hu had been useful in procuring the lost book, and so was rewarded by being offered the chance to attend Nestor at this ceremony, but the quiet young mage was not capable of being much help now. Hu stood stiffly off to one side, servilely near Nestor, but not close enough to imply that there would be any personal interaction between them. Even though Hu had almost literally outlived his usefulness to him, Nestor was amazed and amused that Hu Nam had survived through so many misfired magical explosions. Though the young mage was badly tattered, and was beginning to look very pale – Nestor could see that blood had pooled around his feet – he stood quietly by, in no way interfering. Obviously bleeding from somewhere, but that he was still standing, while remaining quiet and attentive, was a testament to the lifelong Obsidian conditioning the boy had endured. Nestor smiled. Soon faithful Hu would get what was coming to him. Nestor did not expect that Hu Nam would survive this next spellcasting.
“Repeat! Again!” Nestor shouted with enthusiasm, focusing his relentless gaze in turn upon the young red-robed student mages standing at the cardinal points around the shard and the egg. They hummed softly, at first in unison. Then, in their shared trance, their voices modulated and blended, creating a single musical chord that filled the room and resonated, suspended, shared in equal balance amongst them. It took many minds to share the burden of powering the spell; this was so that no lone person would have the full force of the dark moon shard flowing through them. Madness lay down that lonely path. The shard had taken control of the minds of the eight, and Nestor felt their strength flowing into him, returning him to full and vigorous health.
He took up the magic tome and opened it to the one remaining spell available in full text. Sadly, the book had been through far too many hands before reaching him. Searching for it had taken much of the time and money he had at his disposal. He had paid in the lives of his servants. There had been nothing left to give, and just when he fully believed he had failed – this tattered mage had shown up basically on his doorstep, offering the most sought-after ancient artifact in the whole of Novia. Well maybe not ‘offering’ exactly, but after being pursued across the entire continent, Hu had returned with the book. But the book was damaged beyond repair. Most of it had been torn, or shredded, with entire sentences missing. Several pages were gone entirely. Hu Nam had prostrated himself, and swore Obsidian oaths that the book had been in that condition when he claimed it. Nestor knew better. But he did not know how much of the book Hu had committed to memory. Nor how much had been sold, or lost through neglect. Hu Nam possibly had bits of it hoarded and hidden for safekeeping, and that slim possibility was why he had not killed him the young vagabond already.
Nestor narrowed his eyes and tried to stare through Hu. Hu did not even blink. He seemed in his own world most of the time, but was instantly attentive to Nestor. No matter. Nestor would convince Hu to reveal those missing pages and the missing bits of the shredded pages, too. If Hu had them; if Hu lived through the task at hand. Yay or nay, Nestor would learn either one. Nestor knew how to extract information, that was certain. Shaking his head to clear his mind of Hu Nam, Nestor started the insidious chant one more time.
If successful, this spell would speed time, aging the subject in its power. They had successfully hatched chicken eggs earlier. The first attempts had fully exposed the vitality of the tempo and dynamics of the spell words, and the room still smelled of fried eggs and cooked chicken. But now, with learned knowledge that the tone of his voice had as much to do with the success of this spell as the words themselves, he was certain her could succeed with the dragon’s egg.
Closing his eyes, Nestor hummed. “MMMMMmmmmmMMMMMmmmmm.” He heard the eight enslaved mages join his chant, and felt the thrumm of power from the dark shard that now pulsed with the flow of magic energy around it.
Hu Nam took yet another nonchalant and silent step toward Nestor while Nestor’s attention was fixed on the mages. Now Hu was nearly close enough. As Nestor closed his eyes and filled his lungs with air before beginning the new phrase of empowerment, Hu lunged and grasped the book with tightly both hands, tugging on it as hard as he could. Nestor’s eyes blazed open with fury, and his own iron grip on the book tightened. The spell broke immediately as the musical phrase died on Nestor’s lips. As the phrase died, so did two of the eight red-robed mages, the skin and flesh melting from their burning bones even as they fell. The other six were all stunned, blasted back from the shard, but still locked as spirit thralls to the will of Nestor.
Hu could feel dire events manifesting themselves all around, but he blocked his senses to everything but his tug-of-war with Nestor. Hu once again had the precious artifact in his grasp. His hands were talons. For his life, he would not let go. Neither would Nestor, who growled spittle and trembled with rage, so ferocious was he to keep hold on the power literally in his very hands.
Into this swirling, smoking bloody mayhem stepped Torgin Featherbright and Phlebus the Mage, at last out of Phlebus’s cloaking spell. They had spent the day hidden in invisible silence behind the platform, and all day had watched the attempts to change the form of the dragon’s egg, while trying to inch close enough to take the book from Nestor. The invisibility spell broken, they quickly joined the fray. Each of them flew into action as if they had planned this all along.
“Kitty!” Torgin shouted, seeing his beloved pet leap into the room.
Kitty, who had just finished sneaking through a room full of liches, dashed into the chamber and ran directly at Nestor and Hu, the two who were wresting for control of the artifact. She did not go for Hu, nor even Nestor. Instead, she swiped at the book itself, and more shredded pages ripped out, falling to the stone floor to be trampled by Nestor and Hu as they whirled each other around in circles like dancers in a snapping, crackling ball of arklight, cursing each other as they fought to ward off Kitty and continued their singular struggle.
“KITTY, to me!!” Torgin’s voice cut through the din, accompanied by the sound of his axe striking his shield.
The liches from the guard room were howling with frustration. Just realizing that Kitty had snuck past them, they were now kept from joining the fray on behalf of their master. An invisible force barrier blocked them from entering the chamber of magic rite. Phlebus stood in the corner of the room near an exit, his wand raised before him. His bright brown eyes flashed with emotional intensity; sweat ran in rivulets down his red face, and his lips moved ceaselessly. His dark hair unkempt, his brow furrowed, circular breathing allowed him to mouth spell after uninterrupted spell, creating and holding the magic barrier that kept the enraged liches from battering their way into the room.
Downstairs with our explorers…
After running up the stairs, then over to the long dark hall on the east side of the gathering hall, we turned a corner and came upon a small office of sorts. The boom of the explosion had long faded and we did not know whether to go on down the long hall, or inspect the room. We peeked in.
I could not tell if it had been ransacked or if it was just actually that messy. There was a small desk plate that read: Kal, Scribe. This must be Kal’s desk then? I was not certain, but with all the duplicate accounting books on Obsidian potions, records of The Southern Red Syndicate Branch, and the lists of gambling debts from various patrons at a gambling hall called The Gamblers Den in Noreach on his desk, it sure seemed to me as if Kal was involved in more nefarious things than running a simple poisons shop.
In the mess on the desk, Zyrina also found several letters to Kal from Nestor, and yet another one from Finn Beanna. Lucy found gambling records from several different people scattered on the floor. Few of the names was recognizable to me except one stood out: Froji.
Froji lived back home in Jade Valley, and had not been seen there much in the last several months. No wonder he seemed to always be working away from home. He wasn’t fishing like we all thought he was; he had gambling debts to the Gambler’s Den to pay off.
After I took a quick glance at the accounts book it was obvious that Finn Beanna had been deep in the pockets of Kal, too. Finn also owed large gambling debts to The Gambler’s Den.
Apparently, Beanna was paying his debts by passing along info about people who travelled through The Broken Dock Inn. It was sad, really; so often in our adventures, we found that people who were pawns of evil, did so out of concern for their own survival; or fear for the lives of those they personally know and care about with. Beyond their own little circle, they have no thought or care of others. Finn Beanna was one of those, as happy to use a person, as a toothpick.
I could feel for Finn and still not forgive him for betraying all the people that he reported upon to the Southern Red Branch; we were not the only ones he spied upon. I wondered if my new friend Fiona or her brother Oscar knew of Finn’s involvement with the Southern Red Branch. I sure hoped not; but I was going to make sure they would. I smiled as Lucy took the entire pile of I-O-U notes from as many different people as she could gather and then cast a quick spell to light them on fire. Poof. They vanished.
“Those people won’t be held hostage because of their debts if the debts don’t exist. Maybe they won’t want to continue to spy if they aren’t being forced to do so.” Lucy looked slightly guilty as she said this out loud, but I nodded encouragement, completely understanding. Even Zyrina gave a short snort of agreement and she usually did not like to see interference in other people’s lives if it could be avoided. Then another loud boom reverberated and this time we heard screaming. It sounded closer.
“Let’s keep going,” Aslinne sounded understandably anxious. She was worried for Hu, and a little scared for herself, too. “There is nothing here that helps us find them.”
She was right, but I wanted to come back and have a good look at all the correspondence here if I got a chance. There was much to still learn. And, to be truthful, I was frightened also. I didn’t know if I wanted to know what we were shortly about to face, but I followed Zyrina as she sprinted down the hallway, towards distant with peril beyond view.
“Come on, Lucy!” I shouted over my shoulder as I did. Lucy was still deeply engrossed in the ledgers and would’ve been there until the screaming started if Aslinne hadn’t dragged her away.
Down the straight stretch of dark hallway we went, with our torchlight flickering off the dull stone bricks of the floor and walls. Time seemed to drag slowly by, and the hallway seemed to go on forever, with no alcoves, or rooms anywhere along the way. Also, no guards, or anyone, this entire time. Where were they? What exploded? These same simple questions kept spinning in my head as we travelled the hall of shadows.
The end was abruptly upon us, as our torches revealed a stonewall terminating the hall a short distance ahead, with a faint blue light hinting at a passage to the right. In the play of light and shadow, two small fauns in red livery revealed themselves. They bleated wordlessly as they shot past us, and ran full pelt as hard as they could back the way we had just come. Abandoned in their wake was their wagon full of corpses, and pieces of corpses, in various stages of decomposition. Zyrina held up her hand for silence. We gagged silently as they skirted past and we followed our battle leader toward the arching vault of an open stone doorway.
Glowing blue warned of magic ahead. And although we dashed around the archway and burst into the room as one, this time we did not go bursting whilst unprepared. Good thing, too. Evidently, we were in some repository of the dead, as there were liches guarding the room. Liches that did not ask why we were there, or if we’d like a cup of tea and some cheese biscuits. Howling, angry liches, that viciously attacked us the instant they set undead eyes upon us.
“Liches!” Lucy shouted, in her boldest Captain-Obvious voice.
“GO! GO! GO!” I shouted, too.
With a mighty roar, tiny Aslinne raced in behind and past the lumbering liches, and attacked the backs of their knees with her quickly slashing blades. I knew her plan was the same as the last time we fought liches, and so I began casting a slowing spell. Aslinne managed to get all the enraged liches to them chase her around the room, while Rina and I pelted them with arrows. I took the time to say a few spells to slow the liches between shots, as I could see Lucy was busy keeping Aslinne alive during her dancing race with the liches. The ice I conjured did help a little and gave Aslinne some breathing room to get ahead of her pursuers. The slippery ice slowed the liches enough that Zyrina and I could aim our bows true and we keep raining arrows at the opaque shapes until one by one they fell to the ground and stayed there.
Finally, when there were no more liches to overcome, I could take a better look around. After seeing the chapel down the stairs, and the library, it did not surprise me that there were tombs in this place as well. I looked around trying to see who was buried here but there were no markers that I could discern.
“What or who are those liches protecting?” Aslinne asked finally after catching her breath.
“I don’t know, but there is another room back here, and I still hear the sounds of battle.” Lucy had found a small plain exit between two large statues on the farthest wall of the room we were moving through. “Let’s go, just in case those liches come back, okay?”
She did not look like she was interested in repeating that fight. As we had just squeaked through with our lives intact, I was quick to agree. I hurried to catch up with Zyrina, who was going be the first through this new doorway.
We charged through into the room beyond. The chamber was filled with blue light that filtered through from a beautiful stained-glass window set high in the stone at the far end of the room. The walls were covered in beautiful swirling flower patterns. Below, the room was far from serene. Two figures in black on a dais under the window wrestled for possession of a little leather-bound book. There was a piece of dark moon shard, floating, chained with great steel links to the floor in the middle of the room. The moon shard was mostly encircled by six living red-robed mages, as well as two smouldering skeletons on the floor. All this enclosed by four large pillars. In one corner was what looked to be an alchemical laboratory.
And there…was Torgin. And there…was Kitty. They were fighting furiously against three of the mages in red. Torgin’s long hair flew behind him as he swung his mighty axe to help Kitty in her slashing attacks on the mages’ power shields. The remaining mages continued to chant around the reverberating black shard that was chained like a slave in the center of the ritual chamber.
Even dark-haired scholarly Phlebus, who I had never seen join in a battle, seemed to be spellcasting from a safe distance in the corner near the exit. I could not tell what spell he was working, but he looked like he was in pain and there were massive rings of fire covering much of the room. There was no time left to think, for any of us. Our entrance into the room had broken someone’s concentration, for three mages not fighting but chanting, were no longer doing either. They were blasted by the shard where they stood, skin and flesh hissing and melting, bones popping as they burned to the floor, disintegrated before any of us could make a strike. Automatically, Zyrina and I began shooting arrows at the mages left, who impressively kept up their chanting while Torgin and Kitty rained blows upon them. But all good things to ends must come. The last three red-robed mages went down.
On the dais under the grand window, two figures in black were absorbed in a roiling tussle with a book of power. Younger, taller, and tattered versus older, shorter and stolid. We were likely searching for the younger, but who was the older?
As the younger tattooed mage at last wrenched the artifact free of the other’s clutches, he held the book aloft in both bloody hands as he shrieked at the ashen old man who had slumped to the floor, “Die, Nestor! Die!”
Any other doubts were dispelled by Aslinne’s impassioned cry – “Hu!”
Nefarious Nestor! The old mage in black might have been on the floor, but he was certainly not groveling. In fact, shock seemed to galvanize him as he realized we intruders were in his sanctum. With incredible swiftness a travel scroll appeared in his hands as he mouthed the words to teleport, and vanished.
That left Aslinne’s Hu Nam: on the high dais, under the stained-glass window of opulent light, with the ancient book of magic spells. I saw him recognize her in the midst of all the turmoil. They made full eye contact. I was sure he was going to say something. The expression on his face was a mixture of shock, and other emotions that I didn’t really have time to read, because with a flourish of his hand, Hu Nam vanished, as gone as Nestor was a moment before.
“Nooooo!” The wail of despair was from Phlebus. I heard him moan, and saw him fall to his knees, grasping at thin air. Torgin dropped his axe, shook his head with a mighty roar and checked on Kitty. Kitty sat beside Torgin patiently as Torgin felt all over her fur and paws to check for damage. The rest of us gathered ourselves up from across the room.
We made our way over to where Phlebus had dropped to the ground. That was when Phlebus and Torgin finally become aware that they were not alone in the fight. Torgin grinned sheepishly and Phlebus gave a little wave. Kitty, finally satisfied that we were all safely reunited, turned away and ignored us while she searched through the rubble for something unseen.
“You’re alive!” Lucy’s voice was not quite angry and not quite relieved, but she glared at her twin.
She gave Kitty a big hug before throwing herself at her brother. She was obviously relieved to see he had reappeared in one piece. Phlebus was shakily helped to his feet by Zyrina, who was careful to stay by his side in case he should stumble again. He gave her a grateful hug and she squeezed his arm for comfort. Their communication did not need words.
During these personal exchanges I found myself staring around the incredibly beautiful room filled with blue light and dead bodies and I wondered how such evil could come from places with this fullness of grace and beauty. Then I was drawn to the shard of moon that was tethered in the middle of all the light; its dark form absorbing all brightness and grace.
“Lily?” Torgin’s hesitant voice sounded concerned.
I was caught up staring at the still glowing and pulsing shard before I heard Phlebus command firmly, “Lily, look away. NOW.”
His insistent words did get through. I blinked and I was swept back from the abyss only a little drained from my infinite millisecond of contact with the powerful shard. Or so I thought until the lights just simply faded. Zyrina caught me as I fainted. When I swam back into consciousness, I was aware of the powerful healing grace that Lucy had cast on me; I could feel its restorative power flow through me and fill all the dark places that the stone had shaken in my psyche. I shivered and sat up, only a little dizzy from my experience.
“Is that-is that…?” I stammered, afraid to look toward the center of the room again. Its power and the lure of it was still tugging, trying to bend my mind to its influence. It was seductive.
“That is a shard, splintered from the moon that fell, hundreds of years ago. How it got here, under this poison shop in Central Brittany is not something I can simply explain but…” Phlebus went on to patiently tell some of the history of the moon shard, but I stopped listening as soon as I knew that it was not going to jump out at me anytime soon, unless I reconnected my mind to it. It was still relatively challenging to concentrate on anything except the shard.
I was finally conscious enough to remember that we had been looking for Kitty, Phlebus and Torgin.
“Hey, where have you been?” I smiled directly at Torgin, “We’ve been looking everywhere for you!”
Torgin blushed and ducked his head a little. He mumbled something that sounded like an apology, but Lucy’s voice drowned him out.
“I was afraid you had been killed. Why didn’t you come and get me, too?” Lucy punched him in the arm and scowled.
“Sorry, Sis. I couldn’t wait for you, or we would have lost the trail.” Torgin looked genuinely sorry.
“And where did you all come from?” Phlebus spoke up, “did anyone see where the book went? I think that mage with the tattoos had it in the end.”
Zyrina and I nodded in agreement.
“His name is Hu Nam,” Aslinne informed him.
“I think we lost it again; there’s no way to track those teleport spells.” Lucy lamented.
“Hu disappeared with it like Nestor tried to do, too.” Torgin reported. “Did you see the look on Nestor’s face?”
He laughed a bitter laugh. “At least Nestor was foiled.”
“How did you know to come here?” Aslinne asked.
“Well,” Phlebus began, “That’s a long story.”
Torgin interrupted, “We followed Nestor from Stinging Tree Hollow. An old acquaintance, Dingo Dan, let us know he had been there and was heading to a meeting with someone in Ordanis Mortis.”
“How did you know to follow Nestor? Did you know about the Southern Red Branch Syndicate?” Lucy asked.
“The what?” Phlebus broke in, ever the scholar. “Maybe tell us what that is before we go on.”
While Lucy and Zyrina started recounting some of our tale, I sat up a little and drank the potion that Lucy offered me. Aslinne slowly backed away from the huddle of people and began picking her way through the rubble looking for something. I knew Hu had seen her and saw his expression of relief and welcome before he disappeared with the book clutched tightly to his breast. It had thawed her anger and left her lonely for his company. Her face was easy to read, she hid nothing. I didn’t know what she could be looking for in the rubble, though. Hu was gone, just like Nestor.
Hu Nam had not used a travel scroll, for he had a powerful invisibility spell at the ready. The book held high, he looked down at Nestor who was slumped in defeat, shock and dismay clearly etched on his face. Hu could not help it; the deepest secret wish of heart burst into voice as he shrieked at the man at his feet, “Die, Nestor! Die!.” Not a killing burst of power, nor a blow from a weapon, but emotions long held in check, finally spoken aloud. That gave the old mage the time he needed to scroll out. Just as Nestor disappeared, Hu could see that the emotions on his face – bitter, bitter hatred, and the lust for vengeance. Hu was alone on the dais. They were all looking at him. She was here. They could see each other, soul to soul. He wanted to say something, but what could he? He would need a lifetime with her to explain himself. The warriors in the room meant it was time for him to go. Hu worked his spellcraft, shielded, and cast himself invisible. The wail of despair from the mage at the far end of the room told Hu that someone else also understood the value of the book in his hands.
Hu was now certain that giving the book to Nestor was not what he wanted to do. He blanched at the mass loss of life that Nestor had demanded from his followers let alone the slaves and minions at his command, not only today but all the days that Hu had known him. The realization that Hu had been part of all that killing nearly overwhelmed him, but he heard Aslinne’s voice clearly and nearby. It shook him out of his reverie. He listened as the intruders gathered to talk about the battle. But he couldn’t take his eyes off Aslinne, as she gracefully and patiently sifted through the rubble with Kitty, who was nosing around the whole room, her tail swishing angrily.
Hu had lost a lot of blood. Although the flow was staunched, he was weak, and leaned against a pillar for support. He clutched the book tightly to his chest. When Aslinne’s search brought her close to his hiding spot, and she nearly brushed his arm, he almost spoke up before he remembered he was invisible and in hiding. The joy he felt in his heart when he saw her alive and safe made his entire body gravitate toward her.
He had never before cared whether anyone else lived or died. And now that he did, he wasn’t sure how he felt about this new development. He did know that when she moved closer and he smelled her scent that he found himself struggling to stay hidden.
“Aslinne will know what to do,” Hu whispered to himself in the glowing blue light.
Aslinne listened to the storytelling of her friends while she poked around the room looking at everything. The large orange dragon egg was warm but there was no motion within. That was a relief. Having to deal with a baby dragon as well as everything else was more than she wanted to consider. Then, she got a whiff of some familiar smell. It warmed her heart and she breathed deeply, cherishing the scent. After a while, an awareness of who’s scent it was seeped into her consciousness; it was the mage’s smell. And her mage now had a name. Hu Nam.
Hu had been here, and she could still smell him. She smiled and kept her thoughts to herself. However, when she moved across the entrance and over to an area where magic potions were prepared, the scent followed her. Then the very air seemed to breath and she felt someone press his mouth to her ear and an invisible hand covered her mouth. She stiffened and reached for her knives.
“Shhhhh! Don’t say a word. It’s me! You’re safe.” Hu was quiet, so quiet that it was just the barest of whispers. His hands melted away from her body. She had frozen near one of the pillars and took a quick glance where he was hidden. Sure enough, there he was with his finger to his lips, out of view of the others. He winked then he disappeared again. Aslinne moved closer to the pillar, where she had seen him last. He whispered right into her ear again.
“I need your help. Will you give it? It’s important.”
Aslinne breathed lightly and nodded once, slowly.
“I’m in danger. They all want something I have.”
“The book,” Aslinne barely breathed the words. This time Hu nodded in reply. She could feel the motion beside her ear as his head moved up and down.
“The book…and the egg. I need you to get the egg and bring it with you. Do you have a travel scroll?”
Aslinne shook her head and he pressed one into her hand.
“Do you know how to use it?”
“I need you to hold the egg to your chest and use the scroll. Meet me in Northwood.” He slid a piece of paper with the address on it into her hand. I don’t trust anyone else. I know you won’t let me down.”
She nodded but looked hesitant.
“I will not harm your friends,” he assured her.
Now she relaxed. She trusted him. She didn’t know why but she trusted her own instinct, and her instinct told her she could trust him. He needed help. She loved him. It was really that simple.
I glanced up as Aslinne finished inspecting the room and walk calmly over to her backpack. She gracefully sat, dug some paper and ink out of her bag and started scribbling furiously in the notebook she carried with her. Torgin and Phlebus had nearly finished talking about following Nestor through the portal and down into the Cathedral. They arrived here only a day ahead of us.
“I can’t believe you waited in this place for a whole day. How did you manage your invisibility spells?” Lucy wanted to know. “Was the egg here the entire time?”
Nodding, Phlebus answered, “Yes, kind of. Someone called Scroda came and reported that the dragon’s egg that he tried to retrieve from Darkshire Hills had been exploded during a practice attempt to hatch it, when a mage he didn’t name made a mistake trying to perform the spell alone.” He went on, “Nestor seemed furious that Scroda had not brought the book with him too, but they were interrupted by a small boy who was brought here to them. The boy managed to stammer out his message, and his message was that Hu was on his way with an egg that he had collected from the storage area, last night.”
Torgin added, “Once Hu arrived, they started pretty early in the morning trying to make the egg hatch.” Torgin looked grim. “There were several dozens of acolytes carried out in wagons or taken for medical care. Nestor didn’t seem to even notice the carnage, but Hu did look bothered.”
Phlebus took over again, adding “We were trying to sneak closer to where Nestor stood with the book, when Hu Nam was inching closer too. We were trying to get close enough to Nestor, to snatch the book.”
Torgin shook his hair out of his eyes and shrugged, “Hu made a lunge for the book before we did and that’s when it all went sideways.”
In the silence after they finished, just as I was about to ask him if he knew where Hu Nam might have gone, that very same mage appeared out of thin air. Poof!
Playing a recorder, of all things.
“Wha-?” gasped Lucy.
All our eyes were on him. Hu Nam cast a mesmerizing spell upon the entire room and played a haunting tune on the recorder seemingly to sustain the spell he had cast. There was no explosion; this slowing spell worked perfectly. Hu looked a little surprised at his success, but he did not lose his focus, playing on with abandon. Upon hearing the song, I immediately felt a sense of wellbeing that overwhelmed me with indescribable joy. It was amazing and heady. I watched in contentment as Aslinne dropped the page she had been writing upon and then delicately skipped over to the egg with a big smile on her face. She waved over to us, then put her arms around the egg in a big hug, and disappeared with it. I had no desire to stop her. Neither did anyone else. We all watched the whole thing as if in slow motion.
Hu Nam dropped the recorder. The slowing spell broke as he vanished again.
Pandemonium broke out.
Kitty had leapt from her spot and just missed catching the mage as he disappeared; she padded and sniffed in puzzlement, her widely swishing tail marking her agitation. Torgin’s slowed axe strike now followed through as normal, completing a swing that would have decapitated the mage had it struck. Both my arrows and Zyrina’s flew through nothing and clattered against the far wall.
“NO!!!” Lucy’s loud protest was too late to stop either Hu Nam nor Aslinne Gradh from departing. They were gone.
I picked up the paper that Aslinne had been writing on. I was reading it when Phlebus’s excited voice rang out.
“Hey, look at these,” he pointed where earlier Kitty had been going through the rubble. There were a series of pages lined up on the floor. They were tattered and shredded but were still partly understandable. Each one of them had one letter on them. Together they spelled out:
E R A M O C O R
“What does that mean?” I was perplexed.
Zyrina was not. Not at all. She dove over to where she had dropped her backpack at the beginning of the fight and dug through it furiously. There are times when her quick mind is quite annoying; indeed, I would like to give her a quick kick when she is being especially knowledgeable sometimes. But right then, I could have kissed her. She pulled our collected scraps of paper out of her bag and held them in the air.
“Got it,” she called out.
“Got what?” I still was not understanding.
She shook the pages we had been collecting. “Look! It’s the same writing!”
Then moving swiftly back to the pages that Kitty had lined up for us to see, she spread each of the collected pages below the corresponding letter.
“Look, the letters match up. I’m going to match these letters to the ones Kitty laid out.” And she did. It all seemed so natural.
“But we still don’t know what the numbers are for, do we?” I asked looking at the new order of numbers lined up under the letters.
“This one says ‘play me.’” Phlebus held up the one he had removed from Kitty’s claw. No one else had understood that the great snowy lynx, walking from person to person, was trying to tell us something, until she finally putting her paw on Phlebus’s arm, and he got it. I held the paper in my hand and looked at it.
And then it struck me. ‘Play me.’ I placed the last piece before the other letters and now they made sense to everyone.
“‘Play me,’” Torgin echoed, then translated ver-amo-cor out loud: “Truth. Love. Courage.”
I knew what to do. I bent down and picked up the recorder that Hu had dropped and started playing the number sequences as if they were notes. 1 was do, 2 was re, 3 was me, and so on. I could hear the same melody that Hu Nam had been playing and soon felt a sense of joy and contentment.
“It’s a spell. A musical spell.”
“No, it doesn’t feel like a spell, Lily,” Lucy said as she danced around in a slow circle blithely unaware of her movements. “It feels like joy.”
“Music can do that,” Phlebus added, smiling for the second time that day. “Even if it’s not a spell.”
“That is beautiful,” said Torgin; I could see the tears streaming down his cheeks as he listened.
I came to the end of the music and lowered the recorder.
“That was beautiful, and I feel uplifted.” Even Phlebus was affected by the song.
“Oh, yeah…I found this too.” I fished the page Aslinne had dropped before she vanished. “Aslinne wrote it just before she left. I think it might be important.”
The others gathered around, and I read aloud:
Do not lose heart. I trust Hu Nam. He is not who you suspect him to be. I have gone to find out what I can. And to help him. Please do not follow us, it’s not safe for any of us if you do. I will contact you when I can. Be well,
“Oh, for pity’s sake, not again!” Lucy slumped in resignation. I know how she felt. Zyrina and Phlebus started laughing. Torgin looked thoughtful.
I squared my shoulders and shrugged because I knew I was not about to let a little set back like having no idea where to look next set us back. We had been searching for this book for years.
I let out a big sigh, “Well I’m pretty tired, I need a bath, some food and drink, and I could use some time to go through that office again. Aslinne will not let us down. I trust she will write one of us when it is safe to do so.”
“I think you might be correct, Lily. And for now, there is no way to follow either of them, regardless.” Nodded Phlebus.
“At least that nasty fellow, Nestor, does not have the egg or the book.” Zyrina looked grimly at the spot he had disappeared from earlier. “I’m going to see what I else can find out about him. She looked over at Phlebus.
“Want to help me?”
“Yes, of course.” He nodded, equally grimly.
“He won’t give up you know,” Lucy sounded sullen as she nodded in agreement.
“I know.” Phlebus nodded and sighed, “At least we have a possibility of finding it this time. I just hope we find it, and them, before Nestor does.”
“But first,” Torgin picked up all the papers and the recorder and placed them all back in the bag, “Let’s go have a cup of tea. I know a place over in the middle of Central Britanny, and I will tell you the whole story of what we were up to,” Torgin spoke with a quick glance over at me, “It has fresh lemon buns every day.”
Lucy started laughing now too, “Well those are magic words, Torgin. Lily is addicted to them.”
I may have blushed, then. But I could not stop smiling either.
Read by Chatull Aventari
Chapter Ten. Where’s the Egg?
Central Brittany is the biggest city of them all. As we traveled north through the region of Midmaer, all roads led to Lady Arabella’s city of Central Brittany, right in the middle of Novia. Lady Arabella kept her castle well. All trade and commerce in the land flowed through its mighty stone walls, and one could become lost in the great city’s countless varied and twisting lanes and alleyways of shops and dwellings. Arabella took great care to educate and care for the teeming population in her city, and it showed in popularity as a destination. The road we followed crawled with farmers bringing their goods to the markets, travelers out for pleasure, and many who obviously travelled alone for other business. Whisking by at a quick pace, these strangers did not pause to exchange pleasantries. So, we put our backs into it, and joined the throng.
The journey to Central Britanny was a blur of grueling motion, unsettled sleep, quick bites of bread and cheese, and more walking than any of us liked. Kitty didn’t seem bothered by the pace nor the distance. She was tireless and focused. When the imposing heavy wooden Southwest Door of the city came in view, I breathed a sigh of relief. I didn’t enjoy walking this far and was fairly grumpy about it. A boat or a balloon would have been far easier on all of us except Zyrina. Since I had made a promise, we walked, because it was the only choice left.
So, we walked. And I kept my grumbling to myself. My feet hurt, and my pack didn’t seem to fit right anymore or get any lighter, but seeing the city getting closer and closer gave me a good boost of energy, and the last bit of the trip to the city flew by. We slid inside the door just as it was closing at the end of day, and didn’t even have to declare our business.
The darkness of the countryside was almost entirely missing from the brightly lit city and it was fairly easy to make our way over to the Byrd Boardinghouse. After settling into our rooms at the boardinghouse we met in the street outside the front door.
“Ready to go find Elnoth’s Cartage and Storage?” I asked pointing down the lane.
Elnoth’s was close to my family boardinghouse, just as I said it was.
“What’s that?” Zyrina’s keen hearing alerted us to the booming sound.
“I don’t know,” Lucy cocked her head. “Sounded like an explosion to me.”
Aslinne nodded in tense agreement. We headed toward what we’d heard.
As we drew nearer, we could hear other sounds of alarm. When we were almost to Elnoth’s, we saw a small group of guards coming out of the building and we heard them grumbling about miscreants and firecrackers. The last of them stomped away not looking pleased. They shouted at us to stay out of trouble and went on their way.
I looked up at the tall sturdy building and wondered what we would find here. Then I grinned because I had no idea what would happen next. Searching for this elusive magic book had become one of those illusive challenges of my life, and had consumed decades in Novia in the blink of an eye. As much as I longed for home, this adventure was exactly where I wanted to be.
“Come on,” I encouraged my wary friends.
Earlier that same evening…
Bellis the acolyte raked his thick greasy hair out of his eyes and looked up from his reading. He had been drawn reluctantly from the book he clutched protectively in his lap while he lay curled in his small, rumpled bed, tucked up with hot rocks in the bottom and a steaming blue mug of tea beside him. A pounding at the front door of the Cartage and Storage where Bellis was the night watch cut through the page of adventure that he did not want to stop reading. He knew he would have to answer it, but he did not hurry to the task.
There were some strange comings and goings from the secure storage area, and Bellis was not sure Elnoth knew that he was sheltering a small group of Obsidian sympathizers from the Southern Red Branch, who used the third floor of the building as their secret meeting place. No one else was allowed up there. That’s where the magic portal to the secure storage area was located, too.
Bellis may have overheard snatches of conversation from the Southern Red Branch, but he didn’t think it was his job to inform anybody, and the Branch gave him treats now and then to deliver messages or small packages over to another location in the city.
They called him an acolyte. It sounded important but wasn’t. Bellis liked the arrangement just fine. As much as he wanted to ignore the knocking until it went away, the pounding did not taper off and just would not end. He sighed heavily. Bellis, the only one there, finally got out of his bed, unhurriedly found his slippers and old cloak, then took the flickering lantern with him down the narrow stairs to open the barred wooden door.
Bellis didn’t recognize the mage who had knocked, but he would not soon forget him. The robed, tattooed stranger barged in and immediately demanded “What took you so long?” Without waiting for an answer, the mage headed straight for the third floor as he commanded, “Bring me candles, salt, and wine!” When Bellis gathered these things and brought them to him on the third floor, he was muttering to himself in runic as he poured over a tattered leather book of magic that looked ancient.
Bellis may have been an acolyte, but he was not a very ambitious one. After providing what was called for, the youngster was asked to hold the chalice while the mage ground yet another herb. Uneasily, Bellis shifted from foot to foot and impatiently held the full silver goblet as his arms ached from the weight of it while thinking about his warm bed and good book. Now he was certain that he would not get back to his reading tonight at all and he was feeling grumbly about it, too. He could hear the mage muttering as he ground the fragrant herbs. Bellis didn’t actually care for magic and had no patience for the slow creation and meticulous bindings necessary for the powerful forms of the art. He was more interested in the porridge that he was given at the end of the day, and the books that he was allowed to read when he wasn’t sweeping or wiping or mending or fetching. But tonight, he was the only one here, and he could not fade into the background and be ignored in the way he tended to do.
Even Bellis could see that this mage had no idea what he was doing. He had to reference the book he carried for every word of power he spoke. He spoke the magic words in a shaking voice; he was doing it anyway, but not very well either. The secure storage was not easy to get into and the spell took time to mature. Accessing the hidden entrance to the secure storage – via a large book that was not a book – was not for beginners. The storage was so far below the building in the dark of the earth that magic could not be detected, not even Obsidian magic. Bellis had overheard the others talking about how they would never be detected, and had the protection of “a dark shard of the moon.”
Opening portals to other places was not an easy spell to begin with. Then Bellis found himself in the sort of predicament that the Southern Red Branch had warned him about. With the portal only part way open, a translucent ghostly lich slipped out of the blue of the forming, shimmering portal. The lich caught the attention of the mage, who lost his train of thought partway through the last word of the spell he was incanting. The lich receded, disappearing back into the shimmering part opening in the large book-that-was-not-a-book-but-a-portal just as the misspoken magic word ignited an explosion. The building rocked. Bellis was thrown against the wall, the wind knocked out of him. The billowing smoke didn’t make that easy to get back, and his eyes streamed with tears. He could see the strange high-ranking mage had escaped the worst of the blast, and was hurriedly gathering all his belongings into his bag. Bellis had a headache, and the ringing in his ears had him fearful of deafness. He saw the mage had managed to conjure a newly opened magical entrance to the secure storage area. It wasn’t pretty – there were jagged bits of blue light glowing around the edges – but before he could call out, the mage jumped in, and was gone. The portal remained, and the tome behind the Chairman’s place in the secret meeting room now glowed blue with the light of magic. Happily, Bellis was not deaf; unhappily, he knew this because he could hear the city alarms. Barely over the shock of the explosion, his heart jolted again – here he was all alone, left to clean up the mess this strange mage had made – and where there were city alarms, there would soon be the city guards.
Bellis knew he couldn’t make it out the door before the city guards would stream into the building, armed, and looking for troublemakers. He flew downstairs and scurried into the clutter of boxes and barrels on the main level, looking for a good place to hide. He froze motionless as the guard came trooping in through the door that he had left unbarred after the strange mage’s entrance. He shifted his position from shadow to shadow as the city guard did a cursory search of the building from top to bottom. Bellis could taste terror; was sure it would have been easy for anyone to see the wildness in his eyes. Would he be caught? Could he lie his way clear? Should he go to the other location and tell the someone? Bellis was forlorn, and utterly certain of only one thing: no matter what or who, he would be blamed. Silent, in the shadows, the city guard missed him when they did their last search of the main floor on their way out. Having found nothing amiss, they began filing out of the building, grumbling about firecrackers, and griping about the miscreant youths that they assumed had played a joke on them. The last guard out the door left it wide open behind them.
Luckily for Bellis, the owner of the business, Elnoth, was out of town. There would be no further inquiry that night. The city guard was gone, and very unlikely to return. The street outside was quiet; folk generally gave the guard lots of elbow room to do their duty. What of the Southern Red Branch? Would they return? They had given him a manual that included When a Spell Backfires. Bellis could see the chapter heading in gold written in runes in his memory as clear as day but he had no recollection of what that chapter had contained. Fear knocked it clear out of him. Fear stalked him tonight. His eyes twitched, his fingers itched, and his nose ran. He kept trying to catch a breath that would not stay with him. He was cold, and felt faint, but he was ready to run. He shivered and pulled his scanty scratchy woolen cape closer around his thin shoulders. But run where? His heated impulse to run to the Southern Red Branch’s other location in the city began cooling as he brought to mind the rumors about Nestor, who headed the Southern Red Branch. Bellis was young, but he knew how the world worked: it was not the boss who paid for mistakes. He didn’t want to pay for the mage’s mistake with his own life! He knew enough about Nestor to know that someone would have to pay for the explosion in the secret meeting room, and Bellis staunched his rising tide of panic by grimly deciding it wasn’t going to be him. He would run alright. But no longer to. Bellis was now running away. Bitterly regretting ever letting that soaking wet mage with those high-ranking marks on his forehead into the building, he leapt up and dashed for the open door.
In through the out door…
Unimpressed by the loutish city guards and the way they’d left Elnoth’s wide open, Lucy Featherbright stepped up to the open doorway just as a youth came running out, straight into her large unyielding form. The lad bounced back into the building and landed on his bottom with a loud groan. Lucy went in and picked the dazed fellow up off of the dusty floorboards.
“Well, hello there,” Lucy said, as she looked the lad over to see if he was damaged. But her words as she bent over him seemed to sting, and he flinched.
He did not look well treated. He said nothing in reply, just looked at the size of Lucy, saw the rest of us fill the doorway, and set his mouth.
“Seems to me, that right about now, you’d want to find a way to explain yourself,” Zyrina softly said, moving up closer to him.
“I don’t know nothing ‘bout nothin’.” He stubbornly set his jaw. Silence. Zyrina raised one quizzical eyebrow. He stammered, “T-the Cartage and S-Storage is closed for the evening! P-Please come back in the m-morning.” Then the silent jaw clamp.
“Getting anything else out of him,” said Zyrina, giving the fellow a deadly glare, “would take time. And I don’t think this little rabbit is worth the effort.” She put her knife back in her boot and dismissed him with, “Run, rabbit, run!” So we ignored him and moved on to search the premise. Because that explosion we had heard definitely came from Elnoth’s Cartage and Storage. The rabbit glanced sidelong at the open door and out into the street, but trailed after us, nonetheless.
“Perhaps he’s a sheep,” Lucy observed.
“Bellis,” he complained. “My name is Bellis.”
The mage we tracked had a habit of leaving explosions and fire in his wake, and the chance that somehow this address exploded just before we arrived didn’t seem all that much like a coincidence. We were rewarded with the capture of yet another scrap of paper, left at the top of the staircase where an old ladder leaned against the wall. It appeared to be a repeat of numbers we already had in our possession. This one was also shredded, as if ripped with sharp blades, but we could still read:
3 – 3 – 4 – 5
This was familiar. The old elaborate script was beautiful. It looked like it was something, or part of something, but what? Had we found something with meaning? Or is this some insane number game that has nothing to do with anything? Where on Novia could we find information about these number sequences? Was the Southern Red Branch part of something bigger? Something even more sinister? I wracked my brains and could come up with nothing. Phlebus might know, but since we hadn’t yet found him either, then the puzzle would have to remain. And where the heck were Torgin and Phlebus? My thoughts were turning and turning and there was no clear path to an answer. In the past I have found it useful to put a problem away and ignore it when I can’t immediately find a solution; often the answer just needs time to meet the question in the muddle of my mind. So, finally, with thoughtful confusion, I set the paper aside.
“Ah, another of those number sequences.” Zyrina placed it carefully it with the rest of the scraps we had found.
“Yes, we have seen that sequence before. This is getting tiresome. Until we find the key code those are useless to us.” Obviously, I was frustrated.
“Any more of these and we will be able to make a papier-mache dragon with them before the winter festivals at this rate.” Lucy quietly added.
Down on the main floor again, I looked toward the boy who had become slightly agitated and gave darting glances at the staircase. Perhaps there was something up there. So again, up I went. Storage. Not surprisingly at Elnoth’s Cartage and Storage. I smiled wryly. The boy’s little warren of sleeping pallet and squirrelled away food and books were tucked in behind the storage room. We’d been through that thoroughly. Then, in the shadows near the window at the top of the stairs I discovered the rickety ladder that I though had been leaning up against the wall for storage was not leaning; it was firmly attached, and there was a hatch in the ceiling. It led somewhere. There was a slight flicker of light from the ceiling and I realized there was an entrance to yet another floor in the building.
“Zyrina, Aslinne, Lucy,” I called. “I found something!”
The boy cried out, “Oh! Don’t go up there! They won’t like it!”
That sealed it. Up we went, one by one, Zyrina first and Lucy last. The dimly lit room had a somber appearance, tiled in black with a single black obsidian throne at the far end. Behind the throne we could all see the blue light of the tome that lay open on a pillar placed just behind the chair. It glowed. There were scorch marks all around it, but the entrance to somewhere else had been opened, and we were staring at the shimmering wonder of it.
“It’s a magical portal that looks like a book,” I concluded, looking around at the others. Lucy and Zyrina both understood, but Aslinne looked pale under the freckles that now stood out stark against the whiteness.
“Magic entrance?” She looked very nervous. “To where?”
I nodded, then shrugged. Nothing I could say would sooth the fear in her eyes.
“Well, are we going to look closer or not?” Zyrina glared over at Aslinne.
Aslinne gulped. Then she took a deep breath and slowly nodded once as she drew her knives from their holsters where they were attached to the sturdy leather belt around her waist.
“Are we ready for this? There might be resistance to our presence.” I was not going to rush into anything I wasn’t prepared for, but Kitty shook off Lucy’s restraining hand and leapt into the opening.
Lucy nearly followed but little Aslinne grabbed her by the arm and shouted, “Not without preparing, Lucy! Don’t be daft, that cat can protect itself far better than we can, if you go off halfcocked.”
That sobered Lucy enough that she stopped struggling against Aslinne’s grasp.
“She’s right. We don’t know what’s through there.” Zyrina said, swiftly and carefully preparing her poison arrows. “But that’s where we’re going.”
I didn’t know what awaited us either, and I wasn’t really interested in walking into a trap. “Do you think they know we are coming?” I asked as I checked the shaft of one of my arrows for bent feathers.
Rina shrugged. Lucy shook her head. Aslinne looked suspiciously at the entrance. I could see Lucy getting her potions and bandages all sorted out. Aslinne ran her fingers on the edge of her knives but she already looked ready to go. I didn’t need to check with Zyrina; I knew she would be prepared. It was good to have Zyrina by my side when there might be trouble. I always felt far more secure than any other time. I confirmed “Ready” when everyone looked like they were finished with their snacks and preparations.
Zyrina looked over to Bellis. “Coming?”
At last, the rabbit ran. Bellis bolted to the trapdoor as quick as he could manage. “I’m not going like a lamb to slaughter with you crazy people,” he called back as he scrambled down the ladder, disappearing as the hatch door closed over his head behind him. The rabbit into the hat.
Lucy heaved with laughter.
After that, on the count of three, we entered the swirling blue glow of the magic tome.
Through the swirl of time and space…
I smelled burnt flesh before we found ourselves in a sizable dark square stone room, empty of anything except packed boxes and barrels. It was solid stone and plain. There was no indication of where we were now located, but I had the sensation of being far, far underground. There were no charred bodies anywhere in sight but that didn’t make me relax; that smell came from somewhere. Though we each visibly relaxed a little, and Zyrina released her drawn bow as we looked around in the flickering glow of the torch Aslinne carried, none of us put our weapons away again.
“Now what?” Lucy looked defeated. “I smell burnt bodies, but I don’t see any here.”
Aslinne muttered something about smashing boxes, and I think she was serious. Crates were stacked haphazardly amongst barrels and towering piles of boxes and she quickly was out of sight as she wandered around to see if there was anybody else in the room. Before she was gone long enough for us to worry about her, she called out, “Hey! Over here!”
We picked our way through the precariously stacked maze, keeping to the narrow path open, winding our way to the sound of Aslinne playing a sea shanty on her recorder while she waited for us to arrive; obviously she was in no pressing danger. We finally found the path between boxes that led to her position. “Look what I found,” she said. A tall black banner trimmed in pulsing deep red had been pulled back to reveal a small exit from the storage area. It connected to a rough passageway hollowed out of the bedrock. None of us could see past the glow of Aslinne’s torch fading into the unlighted tunnel, except that there appeared to be a bend not far along. No sounds came out of the dark. It was quiet on the threshold of this new strange entrance. From what I could make out, it looked like someone had tunneled from the secret secure storage room of Elnoth’s to somewhere even deeper below the city of New Brittany. I wondered if Elnoth knew about what was going on in his storage business. I doubted it. I could see I would have to tell him though. This wasn’t the sort of thing that Elnoth would approve of, and of that I was certain. The smell of charring had not dissipated; indeed, it was now far stronger here at the entrance to the tunnel. I was a racing turmoil of equal parts curiosity and revulsion.
“Well,” I blurted too loudly into the quiet, “I guess we go in the tunnel?” Then I made things worse by loudly whispering into the echo, “Bellis said, ‘they’ wouldn’t like us. And I don’t think he was talking about barrels and crates. ‘They’ would have to have gone somewhere.” I nodded at the dark opening in the stone.
I was a little annoyed at being shushed by Zyrina, and also by how much Aslinne seemed to enjoy my being shushed, but I was also deliciously scared with all this cloak and dagger business, so I immediately forgave them. Or at least Zyrina. This was the excitement I had said I craved when I was at home in my little cottage only a few weeks hence. I had to keep saying that over and over to myself. I wasn’t going to let this fear of the unknown stop me from learning more about the Southern Red Branch and what they have been up to. And I wanted to find that book. And figure out what all the coded numbers and sigils meant.
That’s when we felt and heard another explosion.
“What was that?” Lucy looked around, startled.
“Aslinne’s exploding boyfriend?” Zyrina cocked her head to listen intently. “I hear nothing further.”
Aslinne’s torch lead the way into the tunnel at a rapid pace.
Lucy and Zyrina picked up their stride, and I found myself scrambling to stay within the circle of light that the torch threw in the dark hallway. It had lit our way through the storage room maze, and now down the dark tunnel. I didn’t want to be too far from the safety of the women who walked together confidently into the unknown.
Of course, as I kept watch to the rear, I didn’t see the trip line ahead of me, I accidentally activated a device that nearly burnt me to a crisp. I gave Lucy a dirty look as I tamped out the last of the fire on my cloak. “You could have warned me!”
Lucy ignored me. She was collecting some sort of fungus growing on the wall of the tunnel as she waited patiently for me to extinguish myself. “Hmmm?” she eventually turned around while stuffing some plant into her bag.
“Never mind,” I wasn’t very annoyed at her because I was busy being mad at myself. I sure would be more careful about where I stepped from now on though.
“So, someone else unfamiliar with the tunnel has been down this way, and they have caught themselves on fire, too. That’s what that smell is, the same as Lily smells like now. There will be someone ahead. Be wary.” Zyrina softly spoke.
She caught on the quickest of all of us, making the connection between the charred smell we had been smelling, and the burning surprise I accidently triggered.
Kitty hadn’t followed us into the rough-hewn tunnel. As Aslinne dashed ahead, the great snowy lynx had sniffed the air down the passage, wiggled her whiskers, and with one quick turn-around, Kitty bounced into the dark cluttered maze of the storage hall and disappeared from sight. I assumed she’d wait for us outside, as she had done when we went into various places in the city on the way to this building but of course I was wrong, which I would find out later.
The bend turned out to not be one. It was a steep path that led deeper and deeper underground. Down and around twisty bends in the rough tunneled hallway, we found an entrance to another stone room. I had no idea what part of the city we were under now and was considering trying to figure it out when we got back out of here. If we got back out of here.
It bothered me that Kitty had not come into the tunnel with us. What did she sense before she turned to leave? We had walked a long way to get to this spot. I was hungry and thirsty and didn’t much care for dirty tunnels that were probably full of spiders and other creatures of the night. Of course, we wandered through the door to a hall blithely having become accustomed to being alone in the dark. That was a mistake. A bad one.
Too many liches appeared out of nowhere in two fierce attack waves. They struck with fervor. Hollering, Aslinne ran heedlessly in the middle of them, slashing then dancing away, taunting them to follow. And they followed. They chased her with a singlemindedness that made it easier for Zyrina and I to get our weapons out and start picking them off one by one. Aslinne led them in a circle around the room. I was caught with my bow tucked away and struggled to even get a few shots into the nearest lich. Since Zyrina was peltering them with arrows I decided that some of that magic I’d been practicing and studying would come in handy and started saying the words for a spell that would slow the liches movements, using the water all around us in the damp cold room. It gave us precious time to arm ourselves properly. Eventually the strength of Aslinne’s flying knives and the arrows that Zyrina and I shot into the skirmish overtook the liches and we fought until the last ones stopped arriving. With Lucy there sending healing spells into each of us we had managed to stay alive, but just barely. I had sunk to my knees panting. I needed several moments to recover. There were minor injuries to my arms, but overall, I didn’t have any gashing wounds, and that seemed like a success. Zyrina had a small nasty tear in her shoulder, and Aslinne had a few cuts and bruises as well. Lucy plied us with potions and lotions until we begged her to stop. There was no going back now. I know I was curious before this fight, but now I was determined, and curious. I needed to find out what was going on. What are liches doing this close to Central Brittany?
“Well, that was exhilarating,” Zyrina wryly stated. “I wonder what else is in store for us.”
Lucy meanwhile was searching the entire area meticulously. “No egg here, Lily. No mage, either.”
Her report didn’t surprise me. I didn’t see anything but liches in that battle either. “I didn’t see the mage either, so maybe he is through that exit over there?” I gestured up the stairs to my left.
“What are liches doing under a cartage and storage anyway,” mused Aslinne, grumpily gulping one of the health potions that Lucy was handing out to each of us as she continued to treat our lacerations. “What are they protecting? There isn’t anything in here except some rubble. It just doesn’t make sense. What was this building before it was a cartage and storage?”
I shrugged. “This looks older than Central Brittany even, I bet it’s part of an older Obsidian city. I wonder how many old Obsidian rooms are down here?”
It wasn’t something any of us knew. I chugged the small potion that Lucy handed me without even looking at what it was then grimaced, “What in the name of anything was that?”
Lucy shushed me. “It’s going to keep your insides healthy. Don’t be a baby.”
Aslinne chortled, having just drunk her potion and gotten the same response from Lucy.
Zyrina ruminated, “The Obsidians had buildings and businesses everywhere in the realm for hundreds of years before they fell. It could have been anything. Phlebus would know, but that will have to wait until we find him. I want to know who made that tunnel from the cartage and storage to this room, and what else is down here.”
I got up and nodded over to one of the other exits. “Well let’s find out, shall we?” I didn’t feel as brave as I sounded but the others didn’t seem to notice; they each quietly readied their weapons and followed me into the dark passage. None of us needed to say anything at all. We knew the stakes were high.
But of course, the passage we tried lead nowhere. Dead end. When Zyrina discovered another passage out of the room up the other set of stairs we were still a little more than cautious about entering. It was a tiled hallway this time and not simply tunneled from the very earth and stone like the other ones that led to this spot. I assumed it would be another dead end, but followed with our remaining torch. It wasn’t a dead end, but it didn’t lead anywhere interesting either, only a small clerk’s office.
Zyrina thought the office we stood in must be a junior clerk’s because of the stacks and boxes of correspondence and files, and old half-eaten food items we found inside. Lucy started giggling then and had a hard time stopping.
“Whoever it is, they sure like to eat,” Lucy remarked when she had control of herself again. She looked with fascination at the remains of an apple smeared with peanut butter that was molding right on the middle of the desk near a stack of papers.
“What’s the smell?” asked Aslinne, her cook’s nose wrinkling as she sniffed the air suspiciously.
“We’re not alone,” said Zyrina. Weapons in hand, she reached out with her foot and flipped a short stack of boxes away from the wall shadow, exposing the eavesdropper hiding there. It was a faun. A trembling little faun, with a broom and dustpan.
With our drawn weapons and battle-ready faces, we were more than a match for the cleaning staff. The poor faun squeaked and dropped to its knees, the broom clattering to the ground.
“Don’t kill me,” it begged. “I’m just a slave! I’ll tell you anything you want to know!”
“Where is your satyr?” I asked, looking around the room, and into the hall in case we had missed a concealed satyr. The satyrs were generally far more dangerous and intolerant of humans than their fauns were. They were most often found in pairs: satyr Master and faun Slave. Only this Faun seemed alone. I tried not to, but I still found myself staring. I had not often encountered one of these creatures in Novia, but I had read about their creation by the Obsidians over 300 years before even I had appeared in Novia.
Lucy walked over to the trembling creature and gave her a helping hand to rise again from her now prone position at our feet. Groveling was something that fauns did very well. Lucy also checked for weapons, of course. Only when she was sure there were no weapons, and nodded all clear, did Zyrina then lower her bow. I noticed, however, that she kept her arrow notched and her hunting knife unlatched.
We had found the housekeeper. Or at least that’s what I thought when I first saw the broom and dustpan.
“Hello.” Lucy smiled at the frightened faun. “Who are you?”
“Who are you?” the faun echoed, before blurting, “what’s going on here?”
Lucy questions seemed to only puzzle the faun, who then puzzled Lucy with more simple questions in return. It looked like that game might go on for a bit. Aslinne and Zyrina walked around and looked at everything in the room, while I searched the contents of the desk. So far, we had found nothing interesting. I decided to try a turn to get some answers from this faun in we had found. Direct questions didn’t seem to work, so I’d try another tactic.
Using my talking-calmly-to-scared-creatures voice, I told the faun, “We lost our friends. We are looking for our friends. We followed them here. We don’t know where we are, or what this place is. We don’t know who you are. That’s Zyrina, and Lucy, and Aslinne. I’m Lily.” Then I quietly waited.
The faun did not answer right away. I could see her calculating which course of action would or would not most likely get her killed, or not killed. I did not cajole, but also, I did not threaten. It’s possible that is what caused the most confusion in her face.
Mazi the faun needed to stall for time. She needed time to think before speaking with these strangers who had barged into the room. Never before had the housekeeping routine been interrupted not just once, but twice in the same day! A deep breath in and hold it for a few counts. It was something learned from watching the mages work in the cathedral. Breath evenly. Take time to think before speaking. This bunch was heavily armed, but these newcomers didn’t look very dangerous compared to her satyr. The last intruder was far angrier, especially when he discovered that his egg had been moved to the Cathedral. However, none of this lot flinched, like Mazi did, when more rocks fell from the roof.
Probably they were more dangerous than they looked then. Reevaluation of safety didn’t bring any clarity. The little faun didn’t know if these intruders were ready to kill to get answers. She also didn’t know how long her master would be away. She would have to do her best.
The one asking questions looked the least likely to be dangerous, but that one with the sleek grey pine bow and the narrowed eyes looked like she was positively lethal. The big one moved with a dangerous grace that made her seem like a caged animal, and the littlest one with the red hair and the two knives was obviously trained to kill too. Mazi took another gulp of air.
“Mazi,” the faun quickly, then repeated, “Mazi. Mazi is me.”
There were no protocols for this sort of intrusion, and Mazi was not certain what she was allowed to divulge to these intruders without some show of paperwork; but these didn’t seem the waiting-for-the-offical-paperwork sort of people.
“Can I help? Can I help you?” That seemed a prudent stall. Offer them assistance; perhaps they might be reasonable.
“Mazi! Hello, Mazi! So nice to meet you. Yes, Mazi. Yes please, maybe you can help us,” I answered cordially. I could see the play of conflicting emotions wrestling with themselves flicker across the faun’s features. “Mazi, what caused the explosion – the loud bang – that we heard?”
Mazi feigned shock. “Splosion?” she innocently asked as she started raising her arm.
This was no helpless slave! I quickly spoke the spell for an air shield, in the nick of time too. The wand and scroll were whipped out from an undetected hiding spot in her coat of fur. If Lucy hadn’t knocked the travel scroll out of Mazi’s hands just then, we might have lost track of the faun, too. As Lucy bent over to pick up the scroll, Aslinne already had the faun one tied up with her leather thong, and seated on one of the two chairs in the room. She placed the other chair facing it.
“Try that again and it will be your life,” Zyrina sneered right into the faun’s frightened face.
This time I leaned in close, too. “Explosion?” I asked again.
Mazi seemed to slump into herself and faded into a pasty white colour that matched the small pearl horns just above her ears.
“Oh, that explosion.” The feeble smile through blackened and missing teeth was truly rank, both to see and to smell. “Maybe it was a traveler? Who exploded a shipment of fireworks when he lit his pipe too close to a crate?”
This was not the truth! I was in shock. Everyone knew that fauns could not tell a lie. That explosion had had the rank odor of Obsidian magic, not market firecrackers. Zyrina gave our prisoner the stink eye then, and because I really didn’t want to strike a faun I quietly and clearly spoke again:
“That is a lie. I’ll give you that one chance, but if you lie again, I’ll let Aslinne strike you.” The faun looked over at Aslinne who struck a menacing pose with her knives out and added a leering grin before waggling her eyebrows aggressively. Mazi looked alarmed.
“Okay, okay, okay, okay!” Mazi certainly didn’t want to help us, or tell us anything useful, but her life obviously had value to her, because she finally stammered out, “Hu Nam tried to use a spell in the storage area where his box was, and his skill was not good enough. My master would not have failed. But that pale human failed. He also blew a hole into the tome, and now the secret portal won’t close or lock.”
“Is he still here?” I wanted to know.
“No,” said Mazi, sounding resigned. “He used magic to travel somewhere else.”
Then she added, “His incompetence roused the liches, and they wouldn’t let anyone through the storage room, friend or foe. I got stuck in here and was waiting for someone to rescue me. I didn’t think it would be intruders.”
The final sulky answer shone light on why there were liches down here. To protect valuable packages. In a twisted way it made sense.
“Who is Hu Nam?” Lucy asked.
“He’s a mage from The Southern Red Branch on Elysium Island,” Mazi mumbled.
I could hear Aslinne gasp, “THAT’S his name!”
“What was he doing here?” I asked.
“Something in storage.”
Mazi shrugged. “He didn’t open the box here, just collected it and used magic to leave. Well, after he nearly blew himself up in the lich storage room, that is. He left a big mess, too. My master is going to be angry when he sees the mess.” Mazi looked terrified at the prospect.
“How is it that a faun has been taught to use magic, and possesses a wand?” Zyrina’s question was one I wanted answered also.
“My master taught me some basic spells to entertain himself and to see if fauns could be taught to use magic to protect themselves and their master’s belongings.” Mazi almost glared when she added proudly, “I am one of the only ones who can say a travel spell and not die.”
“Oh great, fauns with wands.” Zyrina did not look impressed, rather she looked sick to her stomach. “What next?”
“I clean up the mess, I suppose?” The faun sounded confused by Zyrina’s musing.
“Hey, I found something.” It was the first time Aslinne had spoken in a while and I had almost forgotten others were in the room. She had been going through the bookcase behind the desk and came over to where we were standing around Mazi bound in the chair. The papers in her hands looked like letters. She handed me the pile.
“Are you kidding me?” I looked up and brandished one of the sheets. “Finn Beanna AGAIN.”
It was a letter from Finn to someone called Krato. I scanned it and growled, “So, it looks as if Finn is the one who sent the mage to Sister Golden Hair in the first place! That Beanna fella has his fingers in far too many pies.” I handed Finn’s letter over to Zyrina to read aloud.
I sent that mage you told me to look out for over to Darkshire Hills. I passed the message to him that Nestor wants to meet with him at Ordanis Mortis too. Let Nestor know that the eggs are secure and have been sent where the mage requested, one in Darkshire Hills and one to secure storage in Central Brittany.
That mage is unstable if you ask me. If he weren’t the only one left who knows how to say the spells from that book, I’d say leave him out of all this.
“Mazi, describe Hu Nam to me,” Zyrina demanded.
Mazi stared into space for a bit then hesitantly started, “Wears black robes. Has blue and green tattoos. He’s quiet. Carries a little book everywhere.” Here Aslinne gasped.
“That’s HIM,” Aslinne breathed.
“SHHH,” Lucy shushed Aslinne, who gave her a dirty look.
“Doesn’t talk much, but mutters to himself all the time.” Mazi added as an afterthought, “Absentminded. Answers back to his superiors.” Said that in an awed tone as if that was unthinkable. “He was hopping mad at Nestor for having to move his box.”
Zyrina was quick to ask the question all of us wanted the answer to. “Was it a box with an egg in it?”
It was the faun’s turn to gasp. “How did you know that?”
“Where did he have to move it to?” I asked while starting to peruse the second letter.
Mazi shrugged, “Over to the poison shop, I think. That’s where the ceremony is tonight.”
The rapid-fire questions made Mazi blink several times in rapid succession. Then, she answered, “The Cathedral’s under Kal’s magic shop here in Central Britanny, The Unfortunate Apothecary owned by Kal. It’s a ceremony to quicken a dragon egg. I’ve never even heard of that kind of magic before. Hu Nam thought this up from something he read in that book of his. Have you heard of that spell before?” The faun seemed nervous. Then Mazi realized that she had told us about a secret location and ceremony and started weeping and shaking with fear.
“So that’s who Kal is,” Lucy nodded.
“I should not have told you that. I definitely should not have told you that.” she kept muttering to herself while bashing her head into her hands repeatedly. “My master is not going to like this at all.”
“What ceremony?” I asked, curious. The faun looked startled, “Only the biggest experiment ever attempted in Central Britanny. Haven’t you heard? Nestor is arranging everything.” Then Mazi blanched while muttering to herself over and over and rocking back and forth in pain, “Oh no, I did it again! I should not have told you that either.”
After that she just sort of started babbling and we could not stop the flow.
The amount of gossip that faun had stored in its brain was truly astonishing. Although Mazi had become talkative about the things she knew from her work here at the storage and cartage, she would not budge on telling us anything more about the secret meeting spot, or where to find it, which we sorely needed to.
This mage we have been following is called Hu Nam. Somewhere tonight, or tomorrow, was going to be ‘the biggest experiment ever attempted.’ This was definitely something we wanted to attend, and obviously stop if we could. Whatever the experiment was going to be, I was certain Central Britanny was not ready for Hu Nam to unleash a dragon upon its citizens, whether it was a newly hatched baby or not.
I turned the second paper over to see both sides. “This one is about that meeting in Ordanis Mortis at the place where we found that cloak. Nothing new here either.”
“I know how to find this secret meeting,” Lucy spoke up. “We know it’s at Kal’s poison shop, thanks to Mazi here. There is a town crier down at the docks that I know. I bet he will be able to tell us where Kal has his Unfortunate Apothecary, or at least direct us to another town crier who might know.”
I could have kissed her. “Of course, why didn’t I think of that!!”
“What about the faun?” Aslinne asked as we were all gathering up our belongings and got ready to head over to the docks.
“Oh. Yeah. I forgot about that.” I looked at the pitiful creature, not knowing what to do.
Zyrina took that decision out of my hands when she knocked Mazi out with the hilt of her hunting knife before tucking the knife back into her boot. She grunted something about dreaming of dancing fauns into her ear as she gently lay her out flat on the rug. “Let’s go!” said Zyrina, and we did.
Read by Addy
Chapter 9. Tempers and Explosions.
Before the Lodge…
Finally in Darkshire Hills, and after greeting Sergeant John Benton, Aslinne Gradh and Jenny Hawkins, with the mage in tow, had arrived near the third town boundary at the forked road and took a moment to talk before they went on.
“We go left here, but if you want to carry on to the village you would take the right fork.” Jenny pointed the two paths out as she spoke, not really looking at the mage while she did.
“We might as well go to the Bent Bow Inn and stay the night. It’s still a distance to the Hunting and Fishing Lodge and the day is not fresh.” Aslinne spoke with authority. “The undead we encountered on the road on the way here may also still be near, too. Travelling in the dark isn’t wise.”
The mage looked down both paths for a moment before nodding his head and indicating he agreed with Aslinne’s decision.
Meanwhile, Jenny had been catching up with the sergeant stationed at the fork; he was a local too, someone she knew from childhood, apparently, from the whisps of the conversation that Aslinne overheard.
“OOO the TREES!!” Jenny excitedly exclaimed, as she had for the last hour or so of the journey, about the local fauna and flora. “John, I forgot how majestic they are, and how fragrant the forest. Do you remember that time that little Jimmy got stuck up in one and you helped me get him out before Ma and Pa found him up there? He still owes me for that one!”
The sergeant laughed a lout guffaw before remembering his respected position.
“We don’t want any trouble here.” Standing to attention, Sergeant John Benton sounded quite stern.
Jenny giggled and told him to stop being so hard-hearted. “I’ll meet you later at the Bent Bow for a cold one?”
He nodded and smiled before going back to his gruff guard at work attitude and waved them along, “Take my advice friend; don’t make me angry.”
Aslinne smiled behind her hand. The ease between Jenny and Sergeant Benton was obvious.
“Don’t be daft!” Jenny called out behind her as she walked away from him, “See you at the Bow after your shift.” Then she boldly winked at the sergeant who was now a scarlet shade and trying to hide his smile from someone who might have been his captain who was walking toward the sergeant from the guard tower that overlooked the sergeant’s position at the crossroads.
There were mushrooms of several varieties in the forest all around. Jenny begged until Aslinne relented and agreed that, early in the morning, they would go gather some before Aslinne continued on her journey. Jenny assured her that she hadn’t had anything like them.
“Look! FLOWERS!!! OOO I love those red ones!! They are what I remember most from home.” Jenny took a large sniff with her nose right in the flower.
“I think you may be right. I definitely haven’t seen one just like this one before.” Aslinne winked picking a random bright red flower and holding it out to the girl.
Jenny giggled, grabbed the flower, and went skipping on ahead, singing to herself as she went.
Aslinne followed with the mage walking companionably by her side. None of them this day had seen the snowy lynx that had followed them off the Sea Byrd, and which had trailed them for several days up until now. They all assumed she had finally gone on her way to wherever it was she was headed, but they missed the big cat’s silent presence none the less. By the time they passed Captain Mike Yates just inside the borders of Darkshire, Jenny was starting to recognize and point out places she had known while growing up and telling funny tales about her adventures in each one.
“And this is where I got that scar on my knee that you asked about, Aslinne.” Jenny pointed to a big rock along the path. “I tripped on it while trying to watch a shooting star instead of watching the path in the dark and didn’t see that rock.”
“OOO there are some of the mushrooms I was telling you about!! Look at the size of them!” Jenny’s excited voice rang out. “We have to go picking in the morning though. See how the colour is all dark? We want em before that happens.”
Aslinne was used enough to the energetic girl that she could completely tune out what she was blathering on about usually, but now the subject was local mushrooms. That had piqued her interest alright and she was paying close attention to this particular chatter. She was also scanning the nearby forest from the road as they strolled but had not yet on her own spotted these wonders of culinary arts that Jenny was so excited about. She did see a few poisons she would be interested in collecting and putting into her satchel to replenish her stock.
Aslinne hoped these mushrooms of Jenny’s were actually something different because the brown mushrooms that she found just about anywhere were tasteless and dull. She was always on the search for flavorful ingredients. Aslinne preferred a bit of zing to her food and after a particularly spicy dish the captain had responded well. Afterward she had been given far more leeway in the ordering of ship’s supplies.
Oh, my supplies! Aslinne remembered that she had left Old Salty John Sliver in charge against her better judgement; she did not trust him one bit, but he was the only sailor available who applied for the position when Captain Green had ordered Aslinne to accompany Jenny to her home. Aslinne hoped again that her kitchen would not be in shambles when she returned to her post. She still had a long journey ahead of her before then and it was best not to brood on it, as she could change nothing about the decisions already made. So, she kicked a rock in the road along in front of her and occasionally chatted with the mage at her side while scanning both sides of the road for mushrooms and herbs as she walked along. Jenny’s voice floated back to them in waves and didn’t seem to require any participation to encourage the flow of words…or as was the case now, song.
“Shrooms!” Jenny’s shriek could be heard far and wide as she dashed to the side of the road and scooped up a small batch of dainty purple mushrooms. “Ba, these are too old too, see?” She held them out for Aslinne to inspect. “They have gone too dark in colour.”
Just over the rise, Coralee Hawkins straightened up from her work and cocked her head to the side. “Jenny?” Then spotting her daughter in the distance, she jumped up and down several times, “Jim! Jim, Jenny’s back! Jim! Come quick!”
Down by the river and just barely in shouting distance, Jim Hawkins and his young twin sons looked up from where they had been inspecting the fishing nets already strung out on the tall poles to dry. “Jenny?” “Our Jenny?” Shielding his eyes with his stiff leathery lined hand, he could see Jenny start to run toward his wife. He didn’t recognize the other woman who slowed to a stroll behind Jenny, nor the figure in the flowing black robes who faded into the background and didn’t have time to look because after Jenny hugged her Ma she had turned, sprinted down the bank to the river and leaped into his outstretched arms.
“Oh Jenny, it’s good to see you, lass”. There were tears streaming down his face and Jim Hawkins could see his wife wiping her own face as Jenny turned to gather her brothers in the hug.
“Jenny, Jenny, is it really you?” Little Jimmy had grown a whole head taller and his leap into her arms nearly knocked the slight girl over.
“Hi, Jenny” Jeremy’s theatric whisper was lost in the hullabaloo, but Jenny heard him because she smiled right at him and gave him a big hug too. Then the boys raced up from the river’s edge where they’d been unloading fish from the boat to stand near the stone bridge and stare at the newcomers who had arrived with Jenny.
After they had all touched each other and reassured themselves that the moment was real, Ma Hawkins turned around and formally introduced herself to the shadowy mage and the pretty woman who patiently were looking out over the river and seemed to be oblivious to the family reunion and to the two small boys standing and staring at them. They weren’t of course, but it looked that way.
Smiling at the strangers Ma Hawkins nodded stiffly. “Thank you for bringing our Jenny home.”
“Oh, Ma, don’t be so formal,” Jenny pulled Aslinne into the family group and introduced her, “This is Aslinne Gradh. Best ship’s cook this side of Spindrift Bay and these are Ma and Pa Hawkins.”
Coralee shook the hand of Aslinne Gradh and welcomed her “We really are grateful for you bringing her home, miss.”
Jenny looked a little unsure then added, “This fella is… well I don’t actually know who he is, but he has walked with us from the ship and he’s a friend of Aslinne’s.” She nodded in the direction of the figure in black who stood woodenly to the side shrouded in shadow and said nothing but nodded his head formally.
“Pleased to meet you,” Coralee first greeted the mage cheerfully. “Welcome to our home. Call me Coralee. James and I are always glad to meet friends of Jenny’s.”
The mage nodded and turned to look at the river.
Jenny nodded toward the inn. “Ma, they are going to stay the night and go over to the Hunting and Fishing Lodge after some mushroom picking in the morning. Aslinne was kind enough to bring me all the way home so I’m gunna show her the little mushrooms that we like to eat.”
She gestured to her brothers, “And those are Jimmy and Jeremy,” she added introducing her young twin brothers, who were both shyly eying up the strangers. “Good luck telling them apart. They lie about it, too.”
One of the twins stuck out his tongue at Jenny and the other blew a raspberry. “Not everyone is as blind as you are,” they taunted in unison.
This was an old taunt. Aslinne grinned because she could see that Jenny was laughing and started chasing them toward the bridge.
“Don’t go far,” Coralee shouted. “We just got her back and it’s teatime.”
Turning back to the guests Coralee could see that both the mage and the slightly bashful Aslinne looked uncomfortable with this intro but they were eventually drawn into the obviously joyful family reunion that afternoon.
Aslinne won the twins over nearly immediately with her stone-skipping knowledge as they dawdled along the bank of the river behind Jenny and her parents. She led them a small distance away but stayed in sight of their family so Jenny could catch her parents up with the news of the world. The mage followed Aslinne. Jenny noticed the kindness as did her parents who nodded in approval at Jenny’s travel companion.
“Tis good to see your face, daughter,” Coralee began. “Do you think you’ll be staying for just one night too?” She asked anxiously.
“Ma! I’m home, I’m not going anywhere except my own bed, if it’s still there?” Jenny linked arms with her mother.
“It’s always going to be there,” Jim Hawkins gruffly broke in. “Welcome home, Jen.” And he put his arm around Jenny and patted Coralee on the shoulder for comfort.
The mage didn’t really speak to anyone, just followed Aslinne down the riverbank, but he looked longingly to the road south. The little family moved on up into the Bent Bow Inn to get the tea water boiling and the lowered tones of their voices could be heard murmuring in the distance as Little Jimmy and Jeremy had a thorough lesson on choosing the exact right round and flat shape and the proper grip for skipping stones and Aslinne had her hands full answering their many questions. Some of them were even about skipping stones.
By the time the lads had thrown their fill of stones, they had remembered that Jenny promised them gifts upon her return, so they abandoned their newfound friend and dashed in the front door of the inn. Having thrown one last stone into the stream, Aslinne brushed her hands off before she picked up her pack. She could hear the boys’ high-pitched voices begging for their gifts. Aslinne grinned over at the mage who sat on the bank muttering to himself and studying the small book he carried everywhere, then took one last look at the peacefully meandering stream.
She decided. “Let’s settle in for the night. Tomorrow I’ll go pick mushrooms with Jenny, and then we can head over to the fishing lodge.”
He nodded slowly in reply and took one more glance in the direction of the fishing lodge, not quite visible downstream.
Before long she turned to climb the incline to the Inn and see about a cup of tea. Aslinne had a good look downstream toward the bridge in the south. It was still a little way longer to find the Darkshire Hills Hunting and Fishing Lodge, farther south of Jenny’s family Inn that is. She planned on enjoying this furlough from the ship and had her favorite fishing pole carefully stowed in her bags.
“Coming?” Her question wasn’t answered but the mage turned and followed her.
Of course, they had a warm and plentiful supper with Jenny’s family and found themselves tucked up for the night in comfortable beds. It didn’t take long before they each were fast asleep.
After waking slowly in comfort, Aslinne quietly woke her friend Jenny and they both snuck out of the Bent Bow before dawn.
“See? They’re always far easier to spot in the dawn’s light, aren’t they?” Jenny twittered on about the mushrooms as she skipped through the wooded area. Aslinne collected as many as she could carry and several other plants too.
It didn’t take long before they were both laden. After packing up, a quick breakfast at the inn, settling the bill, and bidding Coralee a friendly good day, Aslinne picked up her pack and strode out ready to leave. The mage had been sitting by the river watching the Hawkins boys clean their fish, and James mend nets when Aslinne found him. Again, she repeated her goodbyes the rest of the Hawkins family. They watched the sun fully rise while organizing their packs along the riverbank outside of the inn.
A little later, realizing she had fallen behind, Aslinne hurried her step to keep up. It was the first time since leaving the ship that the man she considered her friend, who now walked just ahead of her, had showed some sense of urgency and anticipation.
“Have you been to the lodge before?” A little breathless from walking too fast, Aslinne was curious to find out why all of a sudden, the mage had changed demeanor and speed of travel, but she also wasn’t willing to make a direct question of it.
He turned his head toward her and the gleam of his dark eyes showed his excitement, but he didn’t speak. She could see the grimace that was his smile though, and he nodded his head under the black hooded cloak that he wore everywhere. His pace didn’t slow down and although he was not much bigger than she was, she struggled to keep up.
Then Aslinne deliberately slowed her pace and stopped along the bank just before the bridge they would have to cross before finding themselves at the lodge.
“You go ahead; I’m going to stop here at this river crossing to test out my newly repaired rod; the morning is just too perfect to hurry through.” Shrugging out of her heavy backpack, she rummaged through to find her hooks. “I’ll catch you up at the lodge. Just let them know I’ll arrive later, okay?” She trailed off as she looked up then. He was already across the bridge and a couple hundred paces past.
“Well, that’s that then.”
She felt ruffled and grumpy that he didn’t even pause to see why she had stopped. It’s not as if we had an appointment that we couldn’t miss. What’s his problem? She thought to herself as she forcefully dug near the riverbank with her trusty travel trowel, muttering under her breath. At last, after collecting a little writhing ball of worms she chose a fat wriggling one. Popping it onto her hook and casting into the clear running water helped dispel her mood and she let the stream take her worries away with it.
Still on the path from the Bent Bow Inn, striding purposefully, the mage had not even heard what Aslinne had said when she stopped by the river’s edge. He could wait no longer to get to his destination and was obviously under some sort of emotional strain. When he finally did notice she was no longer walking with him, he looked back. She was still by the stone bridge and had begun to dig into the riverbank with a small shovel. He simply continued on his way, certain she would be at the Lodge before the day was finished. He had some private matters to attend before she arrived.
As he walked, he mused. The outcome to the magic he was practicing was not getting any easier, no matter how close he came to the shard fall. It should be getting easier the closer he got. This book was different. These spells didn’t fizzle when they should and fizzled when they should not. The runes were hard to understand. They were written in an old script that had all sorts of additional swirls and loops attached to it. The runes would not adapt to the present and they resisted any change that might lead to a less effective spell.
He found himself hearing Aslinne in his mind: “You know I’m not a witch. There isn’t a bit of me with any magical power that I can find, but I have ancestors with the sight, and what I know about magic is this: What you put in you get back, threefold. But only if done with virtuous intent. And: NEVER spell cast for oneself, only in the service of others.”
Maybe there was something to this theory of Aslinne’s that he could not get out of his head. What if virtues really did affect his ability to cast these old forms of magic? And the equally interesting thought: do some kinds of virtues and some kinds of vices affect the strength of different schools of magic? He had never considered that the very land might have its own magic; or that each caster’s intent and virtue had a consequence when combined with powerful spells, before his discussions with Aslinne.
She believed that not all the magic in the world needed a touch of that cold shard that burned at the very essence of his being every time he cast a spell. She believed that magic and virtue strengthened each other, not magic and shard essence. What if she is right? He shook his head again.
“This is crazy talk,” he mumbled aloud as he hurried along, trying to convince himself that he knew what he was doing.
No need to go looking for strange magic when the splinter of the shard he carried gave him a boost of magic already. What need did he have of other ways or another knowledge? That woman got under his skin.
He shrugged then gave a grimacing grin and spoke softly to himself a spell of clarity. Her logic was profound and her cooking worth the wait; she was an interesting travelling companion, and he had enjoyed their voyage and travels together. Regardless of how sick he was, she had made sure he had food. So, when she had crazy ideas about order and virtues, he felt some sense of responsibility to think about what she told him before he gave her his opinion.
If he could just get this spell to work, it would speed things up so much further along when it was time to prove to her that his magic worked, and that he didn’t need to believe in the laws of magic that she seemed to follow.
The sun was beginning to dip lower in the sky and Aslinne sighed, not wanting to break out of the peace she had found for herself on the riverbank that day. After she had caught a good string of five fat fish, all now gutted and gleaming on the fish-string, Aslinne buried the entrails, scattered the remaining worms, and packed up her kit. It was now early evening, and she was feeling the sharp pinch of hunger. Mrs. Hawkins’s sausage and biscuit breakfast at dawn had been too many hours ago. It was time to continue to the lodge. Her pack now seemed heavier after the respite, but she didn’t flinch, she just swung it up and onto her back with a flick of her arms. Her tiny stature no longer stopped her from doing the things she needed to do, and it brought her a sense of satisfaction. She may be compact, but after living in Novia for a number of years, she was now all sinew and muscle. There were no noodle arms left in her world. The old insult from when she first arrived in Novia as an Outlander, unprepared to care for herself, still stung. Her old life of empty leisure in the Outlands was not a temptation for Aslinne, for she remembered vividly how unhappy she had been with no purpose to guide her.
Well, now there was plenty of purpose, and at the moment that purpose was getting to the lodge, settling her accommodation, and finding out if the cook, Cordon Ramey, still remembered her recipe for pan fried fish. He was one of the cooks she had met as she travelled around the world selling her fish, and trading with other cooks of Novia for recipes and produce. Cordon was a good cook, smart and funny, but he had a sharp temper and though she enjoyed his cooking and visiting with him, she was always relieved when it was over.
At the Lodge…
The Lodge’s manager, Goldie, had spent the morning fussing over every detail in the gathering room; it had been months since she had had news from anyone in the syndicate but two weeks ago everything changed. She now had had her fill of “contact” and just now only wished it all to be over and done. She was uneasy finding items for people she didn’t know personally. There was such a risk to herself and her team that she was very picky about who she would procure things for. But. Nestor sent word that he expected her to comply with this odd request from this unknown mage, and report back to him as soon as the mage arrived. Nestor did not allow refusals to his requests. She had been in a state of waiting for days now. Impatiently waiting and fingering the letter she had received; she didn’t need to reread it as she had already memorized its contents.
To: The Hunting and Fishing Lodge, Darkshire Hills
Good day to you. Nestor recommends you highly as the best procurement officer he knows. He insists you will find me what I need. I have been scribing for the Southern Red Branch Syndicate of Elysium Island. We are now exposed but had been working in secret in Jade Valley for a generation or more. Nestor is my contact.
I am now one of the only survivors left from the disaster that befell our syndicate at River’s Cross near Jade Valley when our reckless dragon reshaping wasn’t contained, nor the dragon controlled. I am certain you are aware of our failure and the loss of the majority of the Southern Red Branch Syndicate.
Seeing the disaster unfold and by luck alone, I escaped notice and capture by using an invisibility spell I had learned, and I fled.
The Southern Red Branch Syndicate has nearly been wiped out. Since I am now without a cabal, I will soon meet with Nestor. He wants to know about the research we had been undertaking into reanimating dragons, before reassigning me.
After my short stay at the Hunting and Fishing Lodge I go to meet with him in Ordanis Mortis at Los Gardeñias Restaurant to discuss my future.
I need your help to find a dragon egg. My syndicate were close to a breakthrough. We had found and translated more spells that will increase our casting strength if we can intone the spells correctly. This proves to be far more delicate of a task then we originally thought. When we succeed, we will be able to reshape creatures once again to our use, as the Obsidian Cabalists were capable of doing hundreds of years ago. Alone, I am the only one left who is trained in the words of the spells of the Southern Red Branch Syndicate.
Nestor has given me permission to ask for your assistance in a test of my ability here before I meet with him. I beseech you; heed my words. What I need for this test is a dragon egg. I have seen an egg myself. I know it’s there but could not take it on my own.
It is on a small trading ship named the Sea Byrd. She flies a pirate flag, but I have seen no piracy among that crew. I did find a hidden room with a treasure in it. As well as the trove of gold, there are a few dragon eggs. I need two of those eggs. Just two. The live ones; the others are petrified and worthless to me. You need to send a small group there to discretely gather them without being detected. Then keep them secreted at Darkshire Hills until my arrival.
The ship is a small full sail galleon that travels the Novian Oceans trading and carrying passengers. She has only a few stops before reaching her destination. It is vital that you send someone to collect the eggs before it leaves the port at Ardoris, without being detected. It’s the last port they stop at before I must visit with Nestor, and before my arrival at your lodge. The eggs are hidden in a secret room in the crew quarters. I have included the ship’s schedule. Take the eggs to your lodge; I will meet you there within three weeks’ time. I trust you will have managed this task before my arrival. I have been practicing a spell I found that will speed up the hatching. Do not fail, Goldie. Nestor is counting on this success. I need those eggs. Keep this secret.
PS: I travel with a human woman, Aslinne Gradh, who gives me the perfect reason for visiting Darkshire Hills and collecting the eggs. She is not of the Syndicate. Do not involve her.
Upon arriving the mage strode into the Darkshire Hunting and Fishing Lodge. There was no time to waste.
“You there!” he pointed at the first person he saw. “Find me the manager at once!”
The trembling youngster working at the front desk had never seen a ranked Obsidian mage before and was obviously shaken by the blue and green tattooed face. After delivering the message to Sister Golden Hair, who had been hanging about all morning with the new guest from Central Britanny that had arrived the day before, he scampered off and didn’t report back to work again until the next day, when he was whipped for his lackadaisical attitude.
Sister Golden Hair introduced herself as Goldie and calmly led the mage she had been expecting up a set of stairs inside the building. There, another man in black looked up from the fire he had been staring into while sunk into a comfortable chair by the lit fireplace. She then introduced Mister S who pointed at the wooden box he was resting his feet on.
And then Goldie looked squarely back at the mage. It was obvious H. N. was not here to fish; he stuck out like a lighted lantern in a dark room. He was obviously a mage of rank and should be introduced with all the rites, but all Goldie knew him by was the H. N. that he signed at the bottom of the letter; she could not introduce him to S because she did not know his name, either. After staring for a short intense period, the mage went straight to the topic.
“You received my letter?” The mage enquired of Goldie as he settled himself into a seat by the window.
She nodded and patted the pocket she kept it in.
His eyes flicked to Mister S. “My Eggs?” the mage inquired.
S nodded too. It was he who had successfully spirited the requested eggs from the belly of the ship. The mage looked them both over with his unnerving stare.
“Send one to this address” The mage held out a slip of a paper. “The other I need here.”
S again nodded assent, but tersely replied, “It was not accomplished without considerable difficulty. That ship was well guarded.”
Before he said any more, he asked, “Do you have my payment?”
“Yes. All in good time. First, I need to set up an area to cast this spell. Is there a gathering spot?” The mage looked out the window and saw Aslinne dawdling along the path. “Quickly, my companion approaches.”
“Well, not a temple. But we do have a casting place, at one of the local potions shops,” Goldie wrote the address down for the mage in front of her. She knew enough about Nestor to realize she would do whatever this mage needed in order to stay in Nestor’s favor. She continued as she handed him the address, “Where we can set you up to cast this spell.”
“No.” The mage shook his head.
He looked at her with a sneer, “Because it is a DRAGON egg. Perhaps the out of doors? Or away from public view would be more suitable to the subject?”
She looked a little sheepish. “Oh, right. I didn’t think of that.” Joining him at the window and watching Aslinne’s compact wiry form approach she added, “How about out back of the Lodge in the forest away from the other guests? Is that private enough?”
“It will take a few days to set up.” Goldie decided. “The day after tomorrow.”
The group of three exchanged additional terse remarks as they made their way out the back door of the Lodge with the large box between them. It didn’t look heavy as much as it looked awkward to carry. Five acolytes trained by Goldie followed them solemnly, pleased they had been invited to participate and trying not to trip on their brand-new robes.
Coming around the final bend in the path, Aslinne smiled. The lodge laid out in front of her was welcoming and rustic. Settling in was simple. There were only a few rooms, not many guests, and it was a fairly private location. By the end of the day, it was easy to forget the speed of the world while fishing off the small dock in front of the lodge, or watching her friend Cordon cook the just-caught fish with fine herbs and beautiful vegetables. It was a true pleasure to be pampered and fussed over and a rare treat. That night she tucked into her meal with gusto.
Aslinne didn’t see the mage around the lodge that day or the next, as she rose early to fish and he was gone from his room by the time she returned, but she knew he was still there from the gossip of the staff. He did stand out from the others. A little different is the way most put it. She smiled. He was different. And his heart and mind were far different from any she had met in this land thus far. He was far more innocent than his demeanor would suggest. It was a challenge to be friends with him alright because he seemed to have no regard for anyone but his own self. Ignoring her like this really wasn’t something she liked very much but there was little she could do unless he decided to be social. So. Resting. Fishing. Eating. Resting. Fishing. Eating. Though she wanted to find out what his flurry of activity was all about, it could wait until she had had her fill of fishing for, and eating, pan-fried wonders.
On her second full day at the lodge, as she was enjoying a late lunch and sopping up the leftover butter on her empty plate with crusty bread, a loud explosion rocked the foundations of The Hunting and Fishing Lodge of Darkshire Hills. Smoke and fire billowed from the area just to the west, somewhere out in the woods. Aslinne and Cordon raced to see what had happened. Aslinne had her knives out and she felt ready for whatever they might find. They found smoke and fire and a large hole in the ground. Cordon went immediately to the slightly blackened figure of Goldie who was trying to get up from the smouldering turf. The mage lay several paces from the crater. And there were charred figures of the five acolytes who didn’t escape the explosion. The mage coughed and moaned when Aslinne knelt down to see if he lived. He lived.
“What the Titans are you doing?” She did not shy from her anger and concern. “Do you want to be killed?” She helped him sit up slowly. He did not speak, he just breathed deeply several times and then took a look around, blinking in the smoke and dust. He still had his little book clutched tightly in his hands and he stroked it then tucked it into the pocket of his vestment before doing anything else.
“Nothing,” he whispered hoarsely. “No, not at all.”
He didn’t say anything else in reply; he just simply stared into the blast center with what looked like dismay. Running his eyes over the dead bodies he looked around frantically. “Where is he?” he muttered to himself. When it became obvious to him that S was gone, he pounded his fist on the ground in frustration. Not only was S gone, but the dragon egg was also gone. The grim expression he could not hide pulled his face into what looked very much like a bare skeleton.
“Again?” The red in Aslinne’s hair seemed to ignite with her flash of anger. “This is IT. I’ve had it. I have been putting up with your complete disregard for life for long enough. You are going to blow yourself to smithereens. Not to mention that there are five dead people here right now.”
“You think I don’t see what you are doing? You think I don’t know you have secrets?” Aslinne was still warming up in her angry tirade. “All these weeks and you still don’t understand what the virtues of courage, truth, and compassion have to do with success? You still think that you can force whatever you are trying to do? What in Novia are you trying to do?” She nearly shook him until she remembered he was recovering from the blast.
“You know nothing.” He said it dispassionately, but she could see that her words had rattled him. She didn’t think he had experience with many of the virtues.
“Nothing? Don’t be daft,” she returned bitterly, turning her back on him. “I’ve brought you back from the brink of death. I know all I need to know about who you are.”
“If something doesn’t go your way then you simply walk away, don’t you?”
His cutting words rang true but Aslinne was far too angry to admit her own shortcomings. He said nothing but muttered under his breath in a language Aslinne did not recognize as he rose unsteadily from the ground and brushed off some of the leaves and dirt clinging to him.
“You know nothing about me. Nothing.” She didn’t shout but spoke with disdain. “And you are the one who walks away. Like the other day, leaving me behind without a word. If you want to have a friendship with me, this isn’t the way to go about it.”
“I don’t need you.”
His words hit Aslinne like a rock.
“No, I suppose you don’t,” she shouted. “But that’s not what friendship is built upon. It’s not just about your own needs; it’s also having compassion for another person that sustains friendships. You don’t seem to care one whit about anyone but your own self.” Then gesturing to the dead bodies of the acolytes laying discarded nearby she sneered, “You think the lives of these people who have died here have no worth other than for misuse by you?”
Aslinne shook her head sadly. “I’m not going to chase after you anymore. If you want to be friends with me, then be brave enough to learn to live truthfully, and with compassion. I don’t want to see you again until you learn what that means.” Then she hung her head in painful resignation. “I’m going to my room. You can clean up your own mess.”
And with that she got to her feet and spun away from the stunned mage. She strode away with tears in her eyes, but she was not willing to show him her hurt. He had taken up enough of her time with his complete lack of common decency. She knew she loved him but she also had her limits and he crashed into those today.
The mage followed her movements with his eyes, but he didn’t stir from his resting spot. Considering her angry words was a slow process. He didn’t know what he had done to deserve her wrath, but she certainly seemed to think he deserved a good lashing. However, the thought didn’t linger.
He was still looking around for the egg but it was blown to smithereens. The spell to hurry the hatching did not go as planned, obviously. His grim expression still hadn’t changed when Cordon returned with the needed cleanup crew and they began gathering the dead and carrying them away in a wheelbarrow. He watched the bodies as they were loaded. Goldie was not among them; neither was S. Aslinne’s words rolled around in his head but he could not make sense out of them. No one approached the mage. No one dared.
He had the book, but the egg was gone. Now he recalled, during the casting of the spell S had sidled up to him and tried to touch the book in his hands. It made him lose his focus and he misspoke during the casting. The resulting explosion was obvious. His eyes narrowed and his lips thinned out as he pursed his lips in annoyance. Goldie had been one of his few syndicate contacts, and he now realized that someone had gotten to her. Probably Nestor. Well blast, if S knew enough to try and take the book then he was no longer safe here, either. And he wanted the rest of his spider’s eggs back, too. They were in storage with the other dragon egg.
He took Elnoth’s Cartage and Storage Central Brittany calling card out of one of his many pockets and stared at it for a few minutes. He didn’t even go back into the Lodge. He pulled a travel scroll from a different robe pocket and muttered the incantation quickly before he changed his mind. Aslinne was not going to like this. He didn’t need her anyway, right? Right. There was a twinge of pain when he thought about her and her kind green eyes and bright red hair floated into his mind. With these images swirling in his head, he could feel himself start to fade; it would not be long until he arrived at his location.
Just as he vanished, the calling card fluttered to the forest floor.
After several hours, Aslinne’s temper subsided and she felt the need to go and check up on the mage, as she had left him sitting in the forest surrounded by destruction. She felt sheepish now that she had lost her temper. Perhaps he was still there, injured. She left her room and walked back to the site of the explosion. There was no mage there. There were no longer other dead bodies there either, but there was a large snowy lynx sitting patiently in the forest right where she had left the mage.
“Kitty!” she exclaimed, “what are you doing here?” Walking over to the feline, Aslinne gave Kitty a scratch under the chin. “You are a good girl, aren’t you? Did you follow us all the way here from the ship?” As she petted the cat, Aslinne glanced down and saw a small calling card stuck on one of Kitty’s claws. Kitty seemed to be offering the card to Aslinne. “Is that where he went?” She looked into Kitty’s eyes. Kitty simply rubbed up against Aslinne’s leg and purred.
And with that answer, Aslinne pocketed the card. “Well, we’ll see if I feel like looking him up again,” she sniffed. With this decision made, her heart a little sore, and her spirit slightly bruised, she decided to return to the lodge. And good riddance to the mage! Who needed a stupid old mage for a friend anyway? She asked herself that many times as she and Kitty picked their way through the rubble and headed back through the forest to the Lodge.
The Day Before the Explosion…
Lucy Featherbright, Zyrina, and I finally arrived at Darkshire Hills after our hectic journey from Ordanis Mortis. Just inside Darkshire Hills, at the base of the peaks, we came upon a local bulletin board. Zyrina and I scanned it for information while Lucy looked at some interesting mushrooms that were nearby. We were in luck: The Bent Bow Inn had a poster up on the board and gave clear directions for travelers. There was a signpost just ahead and we knew from the posted flier that we needed to take the road to Town Boundary Three, and then fork left to get to the Bent bow Inn. This should be easy…but of course, somehow, we managed to arrive at the wrong location, and by the time we found our way back and took the correct fork, it was late at night again. Instead of setting up camp, Zyrina wanted to press on to the Inn and the rest of us agreed. We had slept rough for enough nights since leaving Stinging Tree Hollow that the thought of hot water, hot meals, and a warm bed were all very enticing. We picked up our bags for one last push and arrive we did; in a thick fog, late at night, and raining to boot. It was a wonder the Innkeeper opened his door at all. He did.
“Mr. Hawkins? My name is Lily Byrd and I’m the sister of the Captain that your daughter Jenny worked for on the Sea Byrd. Hello.” Here I stuck out my arm in a salute of truth. “We are searching for the woman who travelled with your daughter. Is Aslinne Gradh still here?”
He returned my salute with the salute of compassion, “First, come in and warm up. My name is James. This is my wife Coralee. Welcome to the Bent Bow.” The innkeeper stepped out of the way and let us sopping wet travelers into the inn before barring the door once more.
“Can never been too safe,” he mumbled while he patted the thick wooden door.
“Now what can I do for you? Looking for Jenny’s friends you say?” He paused looking them over again before nodding and answering in his slow measured way, “They aren’t far off. We can sort all that out in the morning.” Our looks of relief must have been palatable.
He pointed us drenched travelers to a room and sent up warm water to wash with and a hot stew with bread and ale. It was luxurious. I decided we all needed a little pampering, so I gave a little extra gold and arranged baths for myself and each of my companions. It was not entirely altruistic as the combined scent of me and my friends was beginning to make even my eyes water. We took turns in the large bathtub and afterward fell into our still-warm meal with relish. There was no time for anything more, as we were worn to the bone. Sleep took us swiftly.
Zyrina was the first awake in the late morning. She dressed silently and tiptoed out of the room while Lucy and I snored gently under our comforters. Downstairs she found the Innkeepers sweeping up and doing dishes as they quietly talked to each other and occasionally laughed. It made her smile to see an old couple still enjoying each other’s company after many years together.
“Mornin’ sleepy head!” Mrs. Hawkins put away her broom and came over to Zyrina with a steaming pot of dark black tea, thickly steeped. She poured the steaming hot beverage as she spoke, “How’d you sleep?” Giving Zyrina a once-over, she clearly took in the stains on her well-worn garments as well as the bags under her eyes.
Zyrina grimaced, “Better than I have for days, thank you Ma’am.”
“Call me Coralee, dear. Is there anything else I can get you?”
Shaking her head once, she hesitated a little before going on, “We are trying to catch up with a traveler who we have been following for almost a month. I believe she escorted your daughter Jenny home from the Sea Byrd where they both worked. Do you know where Aslinne Gradh is staying? Or her traveling companion? And I believe there was a snowy lynx with them as well, but you may not have seen the cat.” Here Zyrina paused to take a breath and blow on her cooling tea.
“Oh, them.” Mrs. Hawkins gave a toss of her head toward the south, “They moved on down to The Hunting and Fishing Lodge of Darkshire Hills the day after they arrived. It’s south of here following the river and a little further south of the next crossing. Our Jenny is not yet home either. She’s gone out mushroom hunting early this morning, again. She has planned on being out in the woods all day picking. Aslinne taught Jenny a new recipe. Some kind of soup.” Here Mrs. Hawkins licked her lips. “I think she’s making some for our supper tonight too.” Then she added, “Are you going to be staying another night?”
Zyrina shook her head again and sipped her tea.
James Hawkins finished up the sink of dishes, leaving them to airdry on the sideboard. “That Aslinne is a wonder. I never ‘spected to see our Jenny back home after she left so determined to go to sea like I had when I was young, and yet here she is glad to be home and willing to help. Aslinne taught Jenny some patience that I didn’t see in her before she left. I’m glad Jenny took to that cook.” He shook his head with a puzzled grin on his face. “But that other fella. He’s different, alright. Mumbles to himself and doesn’t talk much. Don’t make much sense either talking about eggs and books and secret meetings.”
Zyrina took another long sip of tea. “Oh?” She didn’t bat an eye.
He went on, “Not much more I can say. Before they moved on to the lodge, he came up the river and watched the lads and I pull in the day’s catch but didn’t offer so much as a finger to help. Isn’t that right, lads?” Here he nodded to his sons who were knitting socks by the fireplace. “Just sat there listening to us work and him reading out of that little book and muttering to himself.” He seemed quite grumpy about that. “Spent a lot of time watchin’ people but not actually having anything to do with people, y’know what I mean?” Mr. Hawkins seemed disturbed by this. “It isn’t just that, neither. It’s the way he stares. It’s as if he knows nothing about anything and is taking it all in, good and bad, only…well, only it almost feels like he doesn’t know which part’s virtues, and which part’s vice, and he don’t care to know, neither.”
“Oh, James, you do prattle on! You don’t want to be bothering the little miss with your insights about strangers,” Coralee admonished her husband with a light touch on his arm. “She’ll meet him soon enough I suppose, if she’s going down to the Lodge.” She looked over at Zyrina again, “Are you wanting to wait for the others before you go?”
Zyrina nodded and took another gulp of coffee. “Yes, Ma’am. And thank you for the information.” Here she nodded toward James Hawkins, “Do you know how long they are staying at the Hunting Lodge?” The Hawkins looked at each other in that way that old married couples do, talking without words.
“I don’t reckon we do know that. Neither of ‘em said much when they were here,” Jim Hawkins told Zyrina.
Mrs. Hawkins added, “Well, at least I think Aslinne is still there. Are you going over today?”
“Yes, ma’am we are.” My voice carried over to them and Zyrina turned to see both Lucy and me clomping down the stairs refreshed, dressed, and ready for the day. Even if that day was nearly half finished.
“Suit yourselves. I’ve got something prepared to break your fast.” Coralee Hawkins spoke even as she moved to serve the rest of us morning tea and then serve a meal. Lucy especially seemed interested in the big eggs she spied in a bowl on the counter. Mrs. Hawkins stirred up massive cheese omelets, took warm pancakes out of a steamer, and fruit salad from the cold room in a blink of an eye. Then she wrapped banana bread and cheese in some soft cloth and left it for us to take on our travels while we ate our morning meal. And ate. And ATE. Waddling out of the Bent Bow Inn an hour or so later, we three looking rested and satiated. Waving to the innkeepers as we took to the road just in front of the inn, past Mr. Hawkins’s fishing boat and nets, and after spending a few minutes admiring the brand-new masterful rock skipping skills of Jenny’s little brothers, it felt good to be walking again. The rest and the meal had worked their wonders. It was not long before we spied the stone bridge that Coralee and James had described to us. We knew the Lodge was just on the other side and down the bank of the river around a bend by a small dock. Each of us unconsciously squared our shoulders and hurried our paces in unison as we stepped onto the bridge. We were closer to our goal than we had been in a month. I looked around carefully, hoping to see Kitty sitting in the shade watching us. I didn’t, but I saw Lucy making the same sweeping search through all the bushes as I had done.
Aslinne had been sitting on the soft turf of the forest floor with Kitty, who was watching Aslinne carefully. They both stared into the forest for a long while. Aslinne found herself stiff when she rose. Stretching, she looked over at Kitty, “Well Kitty, let’s go get some tea and figure out what to do next, okay?”
The feline gave her a quizzical look, stretched, and started down the path to the hunting lodge. Coming closer to the building Aslinne could hear several voices and laughter. There must be new guests staying at the lodge. She was not sure she was in the mood to visit with other guests, but she had to go past them to get up to her room. However, upon opening the back door, Aslinne found familiar well-armed and well-provisioned women playing a joyful version of checkers that included three people. They were currently laughing their heads off at something and turned as one to see who had come in. Only one of them was unfamiliar to her.
Lucy was the first to speak, “Aslinne?”
“Who’s asking?” she winked at Lucy. Then she spied me and Aslinne continued, “it’s me, Aslinne. Lily, don’t you recognize me?”
I took note of her tear-stained cheeks and sooty clothing and nodded. “Of course, I do.” I could see she was in a state of anguish. “What’s happened?”
That’s when she broke down and started talking too fast, crying, and wringing her hands. We heard the whole story. How she’d met someone on the ship who completely intrigued her while they were travelling in the far north and how after several adventurous months at sea, travelling on wagons, and finally walking, they had arrived here at the lodge to have a short fishing trip and time to enjoy some peace and quiet. Then she told us about the explosion. And the argument. Zyrina swore. Lucy whistled, and I just sat stunned.
Lucy asked anxiously, “have you seen Kitty? She’s been following you.”
“Yes, she’s just outside finishing off the fish I couldn’t eat for lunch.”
“YES!” Lucy’s booming voice reverberated through the whole lodge and she leaped to her feet and ran out the back door in search of her brother’s cat.
“Do you know what the mage was trying to do out in the forest?” I asked thoughtfully.
“Nope. It’s not the first time he’s started a fire when casting, but this time there was an actual hole in the ground afterward.”
She was going to elaborate but Zyrina cut her off. “Is he still here?” she urgently asked as she started for the backdoor.
With her eyebrows raised and just about ready to give the strange woman a blast, Aslinne was restrained by my touch on her shoulder.
“That’s Zyrina, my friend. She is rather blunt but one of the best people I know.”
Aslinne shook her head no to answer the question then nodded to me and relaxed a little but she still didn’t look pleased with Zyrina’s brusque tone.
We had wandered out the side of the lodge while I explained what we knew so far, and why we were so interested in her boyfriend. At a long table under a lovely, shaded canopy while we watched Lucy check Kitty over for injury, Aslinne asked a few questions herself. Cordon overheard our conversation, said nothing, and with a flourish placed some lavish plates of fantastic smelling fish in front of us. He joined in the conversation about Aslinne’s mage after Aslinne introduced him around as the most talented chef she knew.
“That mage was nothing but trouble,” he said with tightly pursed lips. “First there was all that business about getting a dragon egg, and then all he managed to do with it was to blow everyone up.” Cordon was obviously still disturbed from having just finished digging graves and burying the charred bodies. “That’s no way to run a restaurant, or a fishing lodge, or anything, anyhow, anywhere.”
“Dragon egg?” I looked up at Cordon standing near the rotating spit while he enthusiastically basted the meat there with a brush full of fat and flavor. “Did you say dragon egg?” I repeated this a little louder.
He ducked his head, “S returned with them.”
“S, yes, we’ve seen that name before.” Zyrina nodded.
“I don’t know where they got the egg, but they seemed pleased when it got here. Then that mage showed up and BOOM. Now the egg is gone too.” Cordon had finished the basting and set the pan of sauce down near the roast before wandering back into the lodge muttering under his breath about the kitchen staff and salt.
“Is he trying to hatch or control another dragon?” Lucy spoke sharply, having leaned in to hear the conversation.
“Maybe,” Zyrina noted as she strode back into the room. “He’s gone. I checked his room.”
“Gone?” Aslinne looked stunned. “What do you mean gone? We just had a fight. Where did he go?” She got up and looked frantically all around her, as if she would see the mage pop out of the woods. “I’m not done arguing with him.”
“Oh, for pity sakes! We have found Kitty and you, Aslinne.” Zyrina looked frustrated. “Now we intend to find the mage. I think he’s got an artifact that we have been looking for and I think he doesn’t know what to do with it.”
“What artifact?” Aslinne asked.
First there was silence. Then I launched into a long-winded explanation, and by the time we were done eating our supper, Aslinne knew most of the story. She sat quietly just staring into the forest.
Lucy wailed, “How does he keep getting away? Does he know we are following him?”
“Let’s go find him.” Aslinne said with quiet firmness. She looked both sad and determined. “There’s hope yet.”
Lucy, Zyrina, Aslinne, and I all stared at each other thinking that Aslinne was delusional then slowly one by one we nodded. Kitty yawned loudly and arched her back. Our company had grown by one human and one feline.
I sighed. “Fine. But how are we going to find him if he’s disappeared?”
Aslinne’s eyes twinkled brightly, which I was beginning to understand meant that she had an idea. She pulled Elnoth’s card from her pocket and handed it over.
“I think he’s going there.”
I looked at the address, “Elnoth? The Viking elf? How in the world does your mage know Elnoth?”
The receipt attached to the back of the card was for new storage at Elnoth’s Cartage and Storage in Central Britanny. For one large box marked fragile.
“OH!” I exclaimed, “I know Elnoth! He lives in Jade Valley, too. His cartage is only down a bit from my family’s boardinghouse in the South West of the city.” I looked somber for a moment, “Elnoth isn’t the kind of man who would be an Obsidian sympathizer.”
“Whatever is going on at the storage place, I’m almost certain Elnoth isn’t involved; but we might find out something if we can find this storage item.” Zyrina looked thoughtful, too.
“There are far more cabalist activities in New Britannia, and they are far closer than I had imagined. I wonder if Lord British is aware of how close it is to home, or Lady Arabella for that matter; it is her city.” Lucy also had thought about this very subject most of the way from Darkshire Hills.
Zyrina didn’t add a comment but apparently could make out what I was thinking, “You think the egg is at this storage facility?”
“We just passed through Central Britanny…” Lucy trailed off. She was already repacking her bag. She knew we would be leaving soon to find the mage. “We should get that book from him before he blows up something even bigger.”
Zyrina nodded grimly. “We leave in the morning. Are you coming Aslinne?”
Aslinne thought for a few moments. “Yes, I believe I will. I’m travelling north regardless. We parted in anger, and I’d like to have a chance to apologize to him for my outburst.”
I stared at her. She could not be more obviously in love, but I don’t think she herself knew that she was in the throes. That mage had been responsible for much destruction wherever he traveled and I for one was not convinced of his good intentions, nor his virtue. I could not see how he was lovable but apparently Aslinne saw something that no one else seemed to. It gave me pause to think, because Aslinne had a good sensible approach to life. She was not easily taken advantage of, and her steadfast attitude toward the mage made me reconsider. Maybe there was something I wasn’t seeing.
“We need to get that book from him before he does any more damage,” I stated.
The others nodded. Well, Aslinne didn’t, but she looked very thoughtful.
Then we got to work, planning our trip to Central Britanny, catching Aslinne up with the whole story, and listening to Cordon who had overheard many of the conversations around the lodge. No one usually noticed a waiter in a dining room unless they want something for the table, but now we were all ears. As he repeated some of the gossips, he moved around efficiently and eventually started serving the meal he had spent the day preparing.
We listened to his stories, stuffed ourselves on the fabulous second supper, talked and planned late into the evening, and when it seemed that there was nothing left to add, we each found a bed.
Read by Alleine Dragonfyre
Louisiana Myths & Folklore
Volume 5 – “City of Darkness”
“So tell me about the vampires,” I said, in a casual manner, having bumped into Jacque once again, this time in the Ordinis Mortis marketplace.
The man truly was everywhere, these days.
“Vampires?” he said. “Fiction, pure fiction.” He made a dismissive gesture and pretended to be immersed in examining the merchandise on the stall in front of him.
“You’ve told me of the loup-garou, of the marsh fires, of the voodoo witch. You’ve told me of ghosts and hauntings and the eerie above-ground cemeteries where any of the above may be lurking, it seems. But vampires are fiction?”
“There are legends of course,” he began, leaning casually against a nearby stone facade. “There were murders. Bodies found drained of blood. That sort of thing. “
He paused then, gauging my reaction. I kept my expression neutral. He continued:
“John and Wayne Carter, brothers you understand. Worked normal labor jobs, lived in the French Quarter. Seemed nice enough folks, at least, until the police found those bodies at their place, drained of blood. Found over a dozen of them.”
“What happened to these brothers?” I asked, feeling a bit nauseous.
“They were executed. Took 8 men to subdue them, they were so strong. Locals said they drank the blood of their victims…that’s how the nonsense started.”
Jacque’s stiff posture and reticence in elaborating on this story made it clear to me that he did not think this was nonsense. I gave no response, and waited for him to continue. Eventually, he did:
“Folks say their bodies went missing from their tombs. And that one of the victims that survived, went on to also kill people and drain their blood. Then you have the usual folk who claim to still see the brothers roaming the French Quarter at night, looking for victims.”
I recalled our first meeting in Aerie, hearing his footsteps behind me on the dark, empty streets. I felt a chill.
Jacque straightened himself and began walking past the market stalls. Vendors were packing their wares away and hurrying indoors.
He looked at me carefully, as if making up his mind about something. Then he walked over to the devotional fountain.
Removing a glove from his hand, he let his fingertips gently brush the surface of the waters.
Steam billowed from the fountain, accompanied by a resounding hiss. He touched the side of my face then, with that same ungloved hand.
I felt the beads of the fountain’s water trace burning paths down my neck.
I reached out to push him away, laying my palm flat against his chest. No heartbeat….?
I took a step back.
“Oh come my dear, you were never in any danger. I know you are an Avatar.” And then he was off again, walking across the grass over to the river.
“I call this the Ordinissippi. Has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?”
And there, further up the docks, I saw the drydocked ship, being loaded with assorted barrels and crates. Colored banners flew, glowing with their own luminescence under the starless sky.
“What is it that you want from me? Why have you been following me?” I asked, as I followed him toward the ship.
“Why, to tell the story, of course!” he said, laughing, as he climbed up onto the docks.
He hopped down off the platform and gestured over at a brightly lit cafe down the street, still open and bustling at this time of night.
“We all have much to learn of this world, but we must never forget where it is we came from. Here is where we have gathered, to rebuild our city as it once was…or as close as we can, in this place.”
He gestured at the avenue in front of us. Look there, Madame’s House of Voodoo…and there..we’re calling that the New Absinthe.”
“And there, the musical legends park…statues still with the sculptor. “It is apparently extraordinarily difficult to get quality granite on this world!”
I looked up and down the avenue, recognition dawning as Jacque led me from place to place.
We stopped for beignets at Cafe du Monde Noveaux. We sampled seafood at Pier 425. We danced under glowing lights at New Bourbon Street Balcony.
Slowly, slowly the sun started to rise.
As it did, the entire street seemed to …shimmer in the growing light. Fading out, until I was standing there like a fool in an empty field.
Had it all been a dream?
I looked down, and there in my hand was a handful of brightly colored metal coins, stamped with various faces and symbols.
I stuffed them in my pocket, and started walking back toward town.
It seemed Ordinis Mortis now had its own ghosts.
Read by Alleine Dragonfyre
Louisiana Myths & Folklore
Volume 4 – “The Voodoo Queen”
It was early evening and I had just come through the pass, and I could see the lights of Brittany ahead in the distance.
Rather than head straight for the city, it was often my habit to pass through Midmaer to gather reagents that only bloomed in the moonlight.
And of course, that’s where I ran into him again. Jacque, in his fine coat, stood at the forest’s edge almost as if expecting me.
He didn’t seem to have any particular agenda, and trailed alongside me as I walked the path through North Midmaer way, gathering nightshade and mandrake root as I went. He made small talk mostly, but seemed on edge as we passed under the shadows of the trees.
I left the path then, heading into a grove of trees I knew had bountiful roots and herbs. The grove was well lit by a shimmering will-o-wisp.
I headed toward it, watching my step to not trip over brambles and branches.
Suddenly Jacque’s hands grabbed my shoulders, halting my forward movement.
Fifolet!” he whispered harshly, then gestured I should turn around. I looked around, trying to figure out what he was so worried about.
“Its just a will-o-wisp,” I said, gesturing at the hovering purple floating creature. There are many of them in Novia.”
He looked at it dubiously.
“It is quite harmless,” I added.
Jacque did not look convinced. He continued to look at the will-o-wisp, then at me, then back at the wisp, frowning.
I laughed, and gathered my focus, calling upon the powers of moon magic to summon a will-o-wisp right there in front of us. It appeared with a whooshing sound, then sat placidly, glowing softly.
“Feu Follet” he said, more slowly. It still sounded like ‘feefolay’ to me. “Devil spirits. They lure you out into the woods, often to your death!”
Well, this one’s not leading anyone anywhere, look…” I said, running in a circle and the wisp followed me obediently.
Jacque still did not look convinced. “You have this as a pet? In my homeland, these fairy spirits lure people to their doom – you’ll follow it right into a lake and drown!”
I decided that this would not be a good time to demonstrate that I had taught my pet wisp to dance. I dismissed it with a wave of my hand. Jacque relaxed noticeably.
In the sudden darkness, the lights of a nearby house became visible in the distance. Without a word, Jacque started toward it. We passed under the eerie branches of trees; trees that seemed to watch us as we moved. It was an unsettling feeling. I had never strayed this far from the path, before.
Jacque walked to the side of the house, which itself seemed to be carved of a giant tree, and peered in one of the windows. He then mumbled to himself at some length in that same creole patois he’d spoken the night we first met, then walked back to where I stood, hidden in the forest.
“It is her,” he said simply, and started back toward the road. “We should leave this place.”
“You mean the supposed “witch” of Midmaer?” I asked. “She’s known to live in these parts. She does herbal remedies and such for folk. Similar to my line of work, really.”
He shot me a glare.
“I’d recognize her anywhere. Your Midmaer witch is Marie Laveau, the voodoo queen. I knew the rumors of her death were false. Look, there in the window! She lives still!”
I raised an eyebrow. And then Jacque told me her story:
Marie Laveau, The Voodoo Queen did indeed provide herbal remedies, and was a well known and influential member of society in her day, which was all the more impressive for being a woman of colour during that time in South Louisiana. But it was also said that she communed with the dead, and crafted spells on behalf of clients for good or ill, and engaged in rites with demons.
“She knew things, that woman. She’d give advice to all the prominent people in town, and somehow she always knew the outcomes.” From his demeanour, Jacque spoke of her as if she were someone he regularly passed on the street. He talked then of her funeral, which was attended by people from all social circles.
While it was said that she died peacefully of old age in her home, many people reported seeing her after her alleged death. While her daughters took over her shop, mystery and legend always surrounded what became of her. Whether her magic was real, or whether she was merely a gifted reader of people, her legacy has echoed through the years and become a part of New Orleans history.
Even a century later, people still mark an X on her grave (where some claim she is not actually buried) and leave offerings in exchange for magical favors.
“And at last now, the mystery is solved.” He said, as if it were blindingly obvious.
“She’s come here, just as you have. Just as I have.”
“But what need have we of Voodoo, here in Novia? The land itself teems with magic.” To emphasize my point, I summoned the will-o-wisp again.
Jacque raised his arms and exclaimed something I did not understand, but needed no translation, and headed down the road out of the forest.
He called out behind him, “If you see one of those fifolets, one that doesn’t live in your pocket, don’t follow it!”
And he was gone. The forest seemed to ..unclench a little. There was a light breeze, like the trees let out a collective sigh.
I looked back at the witch’s house, and saw a face at a window staring back at me.
She nodded her head once, slowly. Then drew the curtains.
Read by Alleine Dragonfyre
Louisiana Myths and Folklore
Volume 3 – “ The Haunted Mansion”
So I was making a delivery to a regular customer of mine up north in Harvest. As usual, the place was busy with many people going about their business, even though it was late evening and the sun had already set.
I heard a commotion down in the square, and saw a man in a familiar looking, fashionable yet out of style, overcoat being led by the hand by a group of young children who are chattering and gesturing wildly.
Of course, it was Jaque, who seemed to be turning up everywhere these days. Or at least everywhere that I was. That thought nagged me a bit, but I let it lie for the time being, and went to see what all the fuss was about.
Jaque smiled as I approached and said “These children have been telling me that the house up on the hill here is haunted. What do you know of this?”
I briefly explained that yes, strange things had been known to occur in that house after midnight, but that many adventurers had come through and investigated the matter. It wasn’t something I was particularly worried about, just local legends.
Jaque seemed to be considering something, and then finally he crouched down on one knee right there on the street and said “Children, do you want to hear of a haunted house from my homeland?”
I expect that some of the children probably did want to hear this tale, but the fresh lemon buns that Jaque was handing out to his would-be audience were likely the more deciding factor.
I loitered nearby, out of curiosity more than anything to hear the storyteller spin his tale.
Jaque sat down on a bench, and the children clustered around eagerly. He glanced up at the house on the hill, and then back at his audience, and began.
There was a house very similar to that one where I am from. Yes, a beautiful mansion and the home of Doctor LaLaurie and his wife Delphine….
Jaque went on a several minutes long tangent about the fabulous parties thrown at the LaLaurie house of which he had of course attended many though the nuances of wine and dancing, and the general behaviour of New Orleans socialites was probably lost on his current audience, who nibbled on their lemon buns and started to look bored.
“So their mansion was haunted?” I asked, trying to steer him back on track.
He grinned his famous grin at me, and carried on. “This house was, you understand, just a few houses down from my own home on Royal Street, and I can personally bear witness to some of the …activities… that went on under that roof.
By this point, some of the other residents of Harvest had gathered round to hear the tale. As Jaque began to describe the events that took place, it became evident both to myself and the surrounding parents, that such a tale was certainly not fit for children’s ears.
Suffice it to say that the mistress of the house, Madame Delphine La Laurie, was exceedingly cruel to the people in her employ, treating them as property and punishing them horribly for the smallest slight.
I could see that Jaque was trying to explain the origin of the haunting without going into what I later learned was gruesome detail. “She did bad things, very bad.” was about the best he could come up with. Parents were trying to usher their children away from the crazy man in the antique clothes – It was far past their bedtime.
Jacque did not seem perturbed by the loss of his audience. He continued talking, half to himself, half to me, while brushing the lemon bun crumbs off of his jacket.
“Anyway!” he said after a while, snapping back to the present. “The people, they found out what was going on. They gathered around in the streets demanding justice. And there was a terrible fire……”
So the story went, one of the cooks, tired of the cruelty of the mistress, set fire to the kitchen, which spread to much of the house. Madam Delphine was never seen again after that day, having vanished from the city.
For years later, he went on to say, later owners of the house reported hearing screams of agony, or the sounds of sobbing, coming from seemingly within the walls. For many years the house stood empty and fell into a state of decay. For the next hundred years, he said, everyone who owned the house ended up in shame. Scandals, even murders, and rumors of lost riches surrounded the house, though very few dared to go and search for them.
He said 150 years after Madame’s disappearance people discovered the skeletal remains of her servants, buried beneath the floorboards.
He finished his monologue and looked up at the House on the Hill, then looked at me.
Then a thought occurred to me.
´Jacque,” I asked, meeting his gaze. “How is it that you say you knew Dr LaLaurie and his wife, and attended their parties, and know of events that happened a hundred years after their deaths?”
To his credit, he didn’t even look surprised by the question.
“Ah, cherie, pretty AND smart” he said. “You’ll figure it out.” He did a flourishing bow and strolled off toward the house on the hill.
I heard the clock tower in town chime midnight as I turned and headed on the road leading out of the city.
When I reached the mountain pass, I turned and looked back. It may have just been a trick of the light, but I could have sworn that the mansion was ablaze.
I wrapped my cloak around my shoulders more tightly and travelled the rest of the way home.
Read by Alleine Dragonfyre
Louisiana Myths and Folklore
Volume 2 – “Beware the Loup – Garou”
It was some days after my chance meeting with Jaque at the Tavern in Aerie, when I was going about my usual business. I am an alchemist by trade, and often visit local swamps for rare herbs and mushrooms.
I’m more than capable of dealing with most of the swamp’s hazards, but it was unusual for me to encounter other people when I made my collection trips.
Even more unusual for me to be taken by surprise.
This is why I jumped a little, startled, when I heard a voice behind me suddenly utter in a raspy voice “Don’t move.”
Instinctively, my hand began to tangle with the channelling of Earth magic, and I turned to face the threat. Who was it but none other than Jaque, the strange man from New Orleans.
He backed away a step, and smiled what I would come to recognise as his famous disarming smile, and said “Mademoiselle Shimizu. I did not mean to startle you.”
I let the earth magics recede.
Satisfied I was no longer on the offensive, Jacque took my hand and led me back through the thick reeds aways, ducking behind one of the old Cypress trees. He pressed one finger to his lips. “Sssh” and with the other hand pointed out into the fog and gloom.
“What is it?” I whispered, seeing nothing but the usual foetid swamp waters, and hearing nothing but the usual cacophony of insects, buzzing from every direction.
I opened my mouth to ask him again, but he quieted me with a gesture. “Listen,” he whispered.
I listened to the sound of the water’s surface disturbed by fish. I listened to the sounds of creatures rustling through the underbrush.
Nothing out of the ordinary for South Fetid swamp.
After an indeterminate amount of time listening to nothing out of the ordinary, Jacque sat down on a fallen log and said “Well, that’s a relief.”
He sat there for a moment, straightening the cuffs of his shirt and carefully removing bits of leaves from his hair.
I had spent enough time with the man by this point to realise that an explanation would be forthcoming, but that he had to tell these things in his own way. Storytelling being, according to him, one of his most passionate entertainments, as I had learned during our meeting in Aerie.
Finally, satisfied that he had removed as much of the swamp muck as was possible while still sitting in the middle of the swamp, he turned and asked me, “Have you ever heard of the Loup-Garou?”
I, of course, shook my head that I had not. And so he told me the story.
In his homeland, Jacque explained, there were stories of a strange creature that inhabited the swamplands. the Loup-Garou, or what the locals sometimes called the Rougarou, was said to inhabit the swamps around New Orleans and Acadania.
He looked at me with his still empty eyes and said “It’s a werewolf of course. That’s what the word means.”
I smiled. Of course it was a werewolf. It seemed silly to believe in such things, and yet we did cross a rift into Novia, and I had surely with my own eyes seen and even fought stranger things than werewolves.
This loup-garou, Jaque explained, carried with it a curse – If it were to bite you, then you must tell no-one of it for 101 days, lest you also turn into a loup-garou.
“At least that is what the old wives used to say. In this world – who knows?”
We sat in silence for a time, listening to the chirp of crickets. “So,” I asked him, “It’s just a large wolf?”
“The head of a wolf, the body of a man, so the stories say. Or perhaps It was the other way around. I never saw it.”
“Hmm.” I said, not sure what else to say.
We sat a while longer, but it was getting late. Not that you could see sun or stars in fog this thick. I picked up my bag of herbs and stood up, preparing to bid Jaque good evening.
A soul-chilling howl suddenly echoed across the swamp.
Jaque jumped to his feet, and for a moment it seemed his eyes glowed red.
“Has the beast also come to Novia?” he exclaimed, and took up a fighting stance, though I noted, he drew no weapon. I was going to ask him what he planned to fight it with, when another sound pierced the darkness.
And this sounded like a woman’s scream.
In an instant, Jaque was gone into the mists. He was swift, but I had travelled these swamps many times, and I caught up with him in a clearing, alongside a terrified young woman.
He had his hand clasped tightly over her mouth, and kept saying “You mustn’t speak of it, you mustn’t breath a word of it!”
Without so much as another glance in my direction, he wrapped his cloak around the woman’s shoulders and began walking her back in the direction of town.
It had started raining again. I stood some time there in the darkness, listening, before turning to follow in the direction Jaque and the woman had gone.
And for some reason, the next night I found myself staying in range of the city street lights when I went out to forage.
By Shimizu in the year 560 PC.
Read by Alleine Dragonfyre
Louisiana Myths and Folklore
Volume 1 – “Meeting with a stranger”
People have come to Novia from so many places it was inevitable that some, at least, would hail from Louisiana. And while they have seen some strange things indeed in their time in this world, perhaps things are not so strange considering the tales they tell of their homeland.
One such traveller, I met one late evening on the streets of Aerie. He was going nowhere in particular, it seemed. It almost felt like he was waiting for me or at least for someone. He watched me walk aways, following at a respectful but unsettling distance.
A light drizzle began to fall, and I quickened my pace. My pursuer matched my strides. Finally, I stopped, turned, and stood beneath a guttering streetlight to face him. The night breeze pushed aside my cloak, revealing me to be harmed.
After sizing me up for a few moments, he laughed and mumbled something I couldn’t understand in a French patois, then gestured at the tavern across the street and offered to buy me a drink.
Since prior to running into the stranger the tavern had been my destination, I saw no harm in this – besides, the rain was picking up, and it would be best to go indoors until it relented.
As we walked through the doorway, his eyes took in the entire room, meeting the gaze of the few assembled therein – a tired barmaid, and a few late revellers in the corner. He seemed to relax, and it wasn’t until I saw this change in his demeanour that I realised how tense he had been before.
Then, as if we not just met by chance in the rainy street, he patted me on the shoulder and called the barmaid over to bring me a drink. Now that the light was better, I could see that he was quite handsome. He was young – not much older than I, certainly – but his eyes seemed ageless and ancient. I did not stare at them long.
It was there as I sipped some wine from some local vineyard, that he said quietly, “Pleased to meet you. My name is Jacque.”
I introduced myself in turn, and it seemed once this verbal barrier had been breached, there was no stopping the flow of words from him. He began with stories of Europe from an earlier time, and stories of Africa from the age of explorers. The level of detail in his recountings was remarkable.
As he spoke, I reflected that he seemed someone more accustomed to be around people. His clothes, cut from an older style, were ornate and clearly belonged to a man of wealth.
Finally, I asked of all the exotic places he had described which of these was his home before coming to this world?
“Ah,” he said, leaning closer to me, his voice dropping to a whisper.
His expression suddenly looks sad, his eyes misty.
He then proceeded to tell me about his home on Royal Street in New Orleans. The dinners, the parties, the food, the women!
He talked and talked and talked until the first glimmers of dawn began to flicker in the windowsill.
Then, quite suddenly, he was on his feet, donning his hat and cloak and bidding me farewell. In a quite antiquated gesture, he bowed and kissed the top of my hand and slipped a shiny bauble in my hand. He said it had been quite a while since there had been someone he could talk to so openly. Then, with a flourish, he was gone, disappeared into the pouring rain.
It wasn’t until after he left that I realised, he had never touched his own drink.
It was some days later that I asked a local jeweller familiar with otherworldly artefacts about the shiny bauble. He wasn’t able to discern much, says it looks by style to have been from the 18th or 19th century France, but he couldn’t tell for sure.
He was able to translate the old text for me; it read simply. “House of Saint Germaine”. Neither of us really understood the significance of this. What a strange fellow he had been! And the stories! Some too outrageous to believe!
I have written down all that I remember here for your delight, so that we may celebrate our journey to Novia while paying homage to our past, our roots, and the legends that have shaped us. By Shimizu in the year 560.
Read by Addy
Chapter 8. Capes and Secrets.
Just across a river or two from the city, Zyrina stopped along the side of the bridge and looked at the sign directing us to a midsize town just ahead. The sign said Ordanis Mortis.
“Here it is,” Zyrina trailed off. “Restaurant coming up.”
“Real food.” Lucy nearly drooled.
Without hesitation I spoke up, “Absolutely, we’ve travelled hard and hungry. Let’s go find out what we can. Same tactic as last time: look for people who know more than they should know…and get them drunk if you have to.”
“Is it far?” Lucy asked, her stomach rumbling along with her question.
“Nope. And the town crier is usually near the docks just as we enter town, and he will give us better directions than I can remember off the top of my head. I just remember the menu…” I noticed Zyrina wiped her mouth which was salivating in anticipation.
“Come on,” I called out as I headed for the community of Ordanis Mortis. I had more than food on my mind.
“List Rostov hires the best chefs in the land, as far as I’m concerned,” Zyrina proclaimed boldly as she crossed the bridge. “She has never failed to fill my stomach with a good meal and sometimes a good song too. List dabbles in music too, you know?”
I nodded my head, “Yes, I’ve played music with Ms. Rostov at various pubs around Novia. And I’ve eaten with you at this restaurant years ago.” Zyrina looked thoughtful for a minute before remembering, then nodded, and Lucy just looked confused and hungry.
Here Zyrina stopped gossiping and hailed the town crier, “Good sir, where might I find Los Gardeñias Restaurant owned by List Rostov?”
The crier pointed to the path across the field away from the river and through the beautiful cherry tree garden nearby. We did find it, mostly by following our noses.
We seated ourselves in the outdoor area behind the main building, on a long bench and a long table covered with a checkered pattern. Then staff arrived at our table with heaping platters of succulent meats and dishes from around the land as well as a sweet wine that all of us drank far too much of. The Phoénix Picante was AMAZING. Lucy had two helpings.
Zyrina had wandered off part way through the meal and, as Lucy and I were just beginning to wonder where she had gone, she returned. She held a few scraps of torn paper in her hand and placed them in a clear spot on the table.
“I saw someone I knew,” she said simply. “The mage has been here in Ordanis Mortis, too.”
That drew the immediate attention of Lucy too. We all leaned in further.
“Juanita Joanna Maria Pajero, a waitress here at Los Gardeñias, is an old friend of mine. I asked her if she had seen Aslinne come through town. She hasn’t.” Zyrina saw me open my mouth to ask.
“We were talking about magic in Novia and she got a strange look on her face. I asked what she was thinking about. She hesitated a little before mentioning a weird fellow, a tattooed mage in black with a little book under his arm and a big blue bag that had been here for a meal with an equally striking older man also dressed in black,” she told us.
Zyrina went on, “that description of the mage caught my attention right away. Juanita knew nothing else, but she showed me the cloak that the mage left behind after an argument between him and the other fellow.” Here she held up her hand to deflect my question. “The fight was about a dragon egg. It was short and vicious. She didn’t hear anything more specific. He didn’t even storm out, didn’t even finish his meal, he uttered a short incantation and rudely disappeared right in front of everyone.” She added, “Obviously used a magic travel scroll.”
I nodded agreement, “Go on.”
Zyrina continued by answering Lucy’s question, “They were here recently enough that Los Gardeñias has not yet discarded his forgotten cloak.”
Lucy looked ready to speak but Rina continued, “Yes, I went through the pockets,” She added seeing our hope, “I only found three things. These were in one of the pockets. Another one that looks like it was torn out of something.”
The first note was wrinkled from being in the bottom of a pocket and shredded to bits, but still readable. The series of numbers were different from the first ones we had discovered, but no less confusing. And the paper didn’t seem to match up to the edges of the other piece of parchment anywhere. The papers seemed to be related though. Four numbers in a row.
“What in the world can this be? A really long lock combination?” Lucy stared at the numbers as if they were going to speak to her. They didn’t. She smoothed the paper and tucked it in the satchel with the other numbers we had encountered. None of theses made any sense to any of us as of yet.
The second note made more sense. We were on our way to Darkshire Hills and this might have been the mage that was there with Aslinne and Kitty, after all. I nodded my head and pursed my lips to read it aloud.
At the headwaters of the Eylo River you will find the peace of mind you have been searching for all these years:
The Bent Bow Inn
When you arrive in Darkshire Hills choose Town Boundary #3 and take the left fork on the road. You will find us near the bridge.
Our inn is clean and tidy.
Our food is delicious and nourishing.
Our ale is unique and thirst quenching.
Especially after a long day of fishing along the headwaters.
Especially when you weren’t as lucky as you hoped you be today, but there is always tomorrow.
Come, eat, relax, and try again in the morning for that special fish that you know is there in the Eylo.
Yes, THAT big fish that you will tell all your friends about back home!
The Bent Bow Inn is managed by the Hawkins Family on behalf of the Byrd Family Holdings.
“See? We know where to look in Darkshire Hills now at least. The Bent Bow Inn.” Lucy seemed satisfied at least. I handed it to her.
“My family has properties I didn’t even know existed.” I shook my head sadly realizing that I really need to pay attention to that paperwork back at the Moontower Keep one day. Definitely one day soon.
Thirdly, there was a flyer for the local pub here in Ordanis Mortis, The Filthy Stag.
The Filthy Stag
Come on down to the oldest pub in all of Novia located along the mighty Eylo River in Ordanis Mortis.
You will want to come here and soak up the ambiance. Or at least soak up some of the suds. Don’t dress up. Trust us*
There is plenty to drink and all sorts of folks willing to play a friendly game of chance or share a secret or two.
We will never tell.
Find us straight north of the Town Crier. Or ask the Town Crier. He will know where we are. Bards are always welcome and will be given a meal.
*Wear boots as the floor may be sticky. *Leave your valuables somewhere safe.
Of course, we went to explore.
“Well, drat there isn’t anything here.” After sitting in the pub and playing song after song as well as a story or two, I had watched the entire room and there were no obvious Obsidians in the entire pub; we found little. Few would talk with us on such a personal topic of who they saw while they drank in the Filthy Stag, except one of the old locals remembered seeing a ranked mage with blue and green tattoos who was here one night muttering to himself for a few hours. The mage’s odd behavior spooked the locals. The Oldster didn’t know where that mage went when he rose up while “talking to the midair” and disappeared. Since there were no more drinks forthcoming from any of us he then left our table, grumbling under his breath.
“Weren’t right in the head, s’far as I could make out.” The old fella murmured into the dregs of his drink then went back to ignoring us all as best he could.
“We did find out how to catch a boat over by the docks to take us upriver to Darkshire Hills.” Zyrina said thoughtfully.
“Yeah, okay sure. One thing here was useful,” I conceded. “Information is always valuable.”
Though this interlude spurred us back to our mission, it shone no light on any of the things we understood. We now refocused on getting to Darkshire Hills as soon as possible. After paying for our meal and gathering up our belongings, we thanked the staff for the food and promised to be back next time any of us were anywhere near Ordanis Mortis.
From then on, we kept to ourselves on the road, stopping only to eat from our lavish meal leftovers that had been wrapped in freshly waxed cotton and placed in a woven basket along with another bottle of that sweet wine, Sangria. We rested occasionally and ate when we were hungry. The foliage changed as we trod the well-worn path through the North Majestic Forest, skirting the edge of the Grunvald Barrens and the Savrenoc Timberland as we kept traveling south along the winding trail that followed the Eylo River until Zyrina pointed out the Spectral Mountain chain.
There was a sturdy stone bridge to cross over a wide and deep crevasse with a fast-running river that gave us a great deal of trouble. This is where we turned and headed west into the Spectral Mountain range. We were expecting to have to tangle with bandits on this journey but, of course, the undead didn’t care about our expectations and attacked us on the bridge. Zyrina and I kept a storm of arrows flying as we all sprinted across and as far along the path as we could run while Lucy followed closely and kept a stream of heals pouring into each of us. Eventually the skeletons stopped running after us and went back to guarding their bridge just before we collapsed with exhaustion. Now THIS was adventurous and terrifying too; it sure got my blood pumping.
The exhilaration of battle took some time to dissipate. We worked well as an impromptu team and it took a few moments to relive the running battle while we rested and patched up our broken and jostled gear. We knew we would not have survived a pitched fight with the skeletons and were all especially relieved to have outrun them. The guard at the gates of Central Britanny had warned us of bandits on the road. I hadn’t thought they meant the undead but, from then on, we were far more wary of our surroundings. We slept rough and took turns on watch through the night. There was only one wandering skeleton that we easily outran and, within two days walk from Central Britanny, we had reached the southern edges of the Savrenoc Timberland. It smelled so fresh and vibrant high up in the foothills and the view of the fading peaks in the distance was breathtaking. I could always enjoy the scenery, even under the direst of dashes across the land. And Darkshire Hills was not far away from this fantastic resting spot.
Read by Asclepius
Chapter Seven. The Dirty Scoundrel.
Arriving near town after a short walk through a lovely bucolic meadow and past some impressive ruins, we could hear the babbling river and soon enough came upon an old, curved stone bridge covered with lichen. I paused and had a good gawk all around from the bridge then followed the others under the arch of a tall stone clock tower. Stepping off the bridge, all I could smell was fresh bread baking. As a group, we paused to get oriented at the local bulletin board near the clock tower and Zyrina spotted another ad for Ye Olde Pickled Spinster. We were on the right trail for a bed and possibly a bath. And definitely some supper. I knew exactly where to go.
“I recognize this smell. I know that bakery.” I began to broadly smile. “She’s baked my favorite sweet.” My mouth was watering. I could smell the lemons now. This was heartening and irresistible. Lucy was also visibly buoyed by the prospect of some food and even started whistling her wandering song again. We naturally followed our noses to the southwest and soon came upon the source of the delightful scents: Bread and Roses.
Lucy was first through the door to the small bakery but Zyrina slipped through right after and I did too, once I’d taken a minute to admire the many roses still in full bloom. Oh, the sights, the smells. The memories of travels past. The sugar and yeast bread combination were doubly heady pleasures after my diet of dried nuts and fruits, soda-bread, and cheese while in flight across Novia for nearly three weeks at this point. Cheese and nuts don’t have a chance compared to a freshly baked sticky lemon bun. Especially one of Alley’s pastries.
Alley Oop looked up and smiled right at me.
“Hi Alley.” I shyly offered.
“By the Titans! What brings you this far north, Lily?” She asked on her way over to give me a quick hug.
“Following our noses to your bakery.” I said this with a grin. We were not the only customers in the place and Alley was pressed back into service.
When I had a chance after the crowd had thinned, I asked “Do you have any lemon buns left?” I didn’t see any in the display though I could smell the lemon.
Alley pulled a dozen fresh ones out from a hiding spot under her counter and winked at me. Now I was truly grinning.
“Thanks, you remembered.” I smiled again pleased that my friend was thoughtful enough to put a bag of lemon buns aside when she saw me in her shop.
“Course I did.”
After introducing the baker to Lucy and to Zyrina, Lucy and Alley struck up a conversation and I tucked into the first of my buns as I could wait no longer. Then nothing else existed for a few moments.
“Your word?” I could hear Lucy ask Alley. Alley nodded emphatically and grinned, handing a large bag of sticky sweet cinnamon breads to Lucy.
“Yes, I absolutely know Aslinne Gradh. She comes through trading her lemons and offering good fresh news at least once a year, sometimes twice. She’s friends with the cook at the Dirty Scoundrel.” She nodded out the door across the green.
Alley then waved hello to Zyrina and said pleasantly, “Good to meet you Zyrina, welcome to Stinging Tree Hollow. What can I get for you?”
Zyrina shook her head and waved her off.
“Nothing? Suit yourself.” She handed Zyrina a cheese bun and surprisingly Rina took it, sniffed it, and took a big bite of it.
“I take it none of you strayed from the path on the way into town. or you would all be in some proper discomfort by now. This town is aptly named, of course.” She looked at our limbs searchingly but seemed satisfied with our health in the end.
“Yeah, we’d been warned.” I nodded in the direction of Zyrina who had cautioned Lucy earlier when she tried to leave the path to explore a mushroom nearby that she didn’t recognize. Stinging Trees, grown all throughout the area are excruciatingly painful to encounter and, though Lucy carried healing salve (as did I), after hearing Zyrina’s recollection of the pain of the sting I wasn’t willing to chance the contact. Though I had been in this town several times I had not once thought that the woods nearby might hold such dangers, but I didn’t often wander off the trail either.
Alley continued, “However, now that your stomachs have been tempered let me take you next door for a proper welcome.” She took off her apron and gestured out the door to the building nearly next to the bakery, “At Ye Olde Pickled Spinster.” She turned to put up her closed sign and I exchanged a little glance with Zyrina. She raised her eyebrows in question, and I shrugged in reply. Then we followed Alley out of the bakery and into the Inn.
This was truly a small land in that, even this far across the continent, we had run into yet another person who is friends with Aslinne Gradh.
Once inside the inn and seated at a long wooden table after our drinks were served and we had slaked our parched mouths, Alley Oop explained.
“She trades all up and down the seaboard. How can I not know her? Plus, her fish stew is about the best I’ve ever tasted, though I’ve tried to duplicate it. She trades fairly. Always has a fair bit of news to share, too. How do you not know her?” She turned to me.
“She is the cook on my sister’s ship.”
“Captain Violet Green is your sister?”
“Sure is. You know Violet too?”
“Yup, she’s been through a few times. She’s fond of sugar cookies.”
“Yup, that’s Violet,” I nodded.
This new connection startled me a little, but I recovered quickly and ordered another round of ale. “We are actually trying to find her right now,” I pointed out. “Have you seen her recently?”
Alley shook her head and took a deep satisfying swig of her tankard.
I was beginning to remember why I liked drinking with her. She frolicked as fiercely as she fought. Maybe that’s why her bread rose to such heights. I’m sure she could beat it to submission and not even bat an eye. Tough as nails. Smart as a whip and kind, too. I soon found the piano and we screeched and wailed late into the afternoon, entertaining ourselves as surely as we annoyed those around us who did not share our exuberance. Our group spent the next few hours enjoying a good round of drinking and eating.
“Any mages about the place?” I mumbled, licking my sticky fingers.
Lucy giggled, busy with her second pot pie. Zyrina grunted at my humor and looked around at the now completely empty reception room where we had commandeered the long table and chairs for our meal. Alley took a sip of her ale and shrugged.
“Maybe there is another place that is more suitable to illicit dealings? This looks… comfortable? Cozy? Certainly, it doesn’t look like any Obsidian sympathizers are booked into rooms here.” I remarked, looking around the room we were in. There were comfortable chairs and a sofa near the fireplace, a game of chess to play and these long tables where we sat eating and talking.
“That’s a good point Lily, this doesn’t look like somewhere mages dressed in black with a bent for starting fires would be comfortable at all.” Lucy was emphatically nodding and there were bits of flaky crust falling all around her as she did. She had opened her backpack and was sorting through her herbs one by one, while she finished eating her last sticky bun.
“You could try the Dirty Scoundrel,” suggested Alley pointing out the door and nodding across the square before returning to her conversation with Lucy, who had found the little herb they were discussing. They both were examining the leaves and engrossed in the topic.
Zyrina was standing looking out the front door, “Perhaps. Wait here for me. I will have a better chance of finding something out without any of you along.”
I must admit it stung a little to be thought of as superfluous, but I could see her point. A bunch of us were a bit noticeable and not likely to overhear much if we were together. I gave a searching look straight into Zyrina’s clear eyes. They were calm and calculating but not frightened. It was quite reassuring.
“Alright, be careful,” I gave a little nod in agreement. “Lu? Agreed?”
Lucy laughed at something Alley said about the plant in her hand and nodded distractedly. As we had found an inn with yet another cook friend of Aslinne’s, she was deep in conversation and waved us off without even really paying attention. Now they began discussing some sort of salmon dish with potatoes in a hand pie that I didn’t really pay attention to as I watched Zyrina quietly make her way across the square and disappear into a rundown building closer to the water.
Having exhausted all my best stories about Zyrina and her adventures while entertaining Lucy and Alley, Zyrina reappeared, ruffled and staggering a lot but otherwise unharmed.
“You won’t believe what I found out.” Her slurred speech was difficult to follow. “Dan shez…” She trailed off then she simply keeled over, passed out.
“Oh, for pity sake. Who’s Dan?” I was a little annoyed but helped Lucy carry her up the stairs to our room and set her carefully on the bed.
“She’ll come around and tell us, stop pacing.”
As usual, Lucy’s common sense did sink in and I realized I, too, was staggering a little, so I joined Zyrina on the bed and, far too soon, felt the warming rays of dawn upon my face.
I shook myself awake alone in the room, quickly washed up and headed downstairs. I definitely wanted breakfast and dawdling would not procure food.
Zyrina was up and had changed her clothes. She had some papers spread out in front of her on the table intermixed with her breakfast dishes. Her head was cradled in her arms on the table. Lucy was slurping a strong-looking tea and munching on sticky buns from the heaping plate on the long table. Alley Oop was thoughtfully sipping her tea and reading some sort of manual making changes with a quill dipped in fresh black ink as she read.
“Morning,” I mumbled heading for the teapot.
“MMmhmm,” was all that Lucy managed.
Zyrina raised her head “Morning. Sorry I failed to stay awake last night.” She grimaced at hearing her own voice loud and raw.
“Rina, you didn’t fail. I am betting you were in a drinking contest, weren’t you?”
She flashed me a quick smile, winced, and ducked her head, “Yup.”
“What did you learn?” I was fully awake now. Zyrina didn’t drink like that regularly. She would have done only for a particularly vital reason.
“There WAS a guy who knew too much, called Dingo Danny. The owner doesn’t care who drinks there as long as they pay in labor, gold, or COTOS and Dingo Danny helps the cook in exchange for a pint or two every couple days or so.”
At this comment, Alley grunted and nodded agreement, “Pete says anyone is welcome if they want to work for their drinks.”
Zyrina continued, “The proprietor introduced him, but he didn’t vouch for Dan,” is all she said about it. She quietly started to lay out the papers in front of her so I could see them.
“This is what I heard. So, a couple of weeks ago there were three strangers in town, dressed in Obsidian robes. They sat and talked in the Dirty Scoundrel for several hours. Dingo Dan kept these bits and pieces one of their drunk assistants left behind because he hoped they’d come back and claim them, and then Dan would get a tip.” Here she looked disgusted. “He was a vile pig but easily led.”
Then Zyrina added, “I got interested when Dan told me that the men were bothered that they couldn’t find one simple tattooed mage traveling alone. Eventually he…offered…me the papers in exchange for continuing to breath.”
My raised eyebrows and then narrowed my eyes a little. They were the only comments I made about how Rina’s collected papers were acquired. Nodding, I had a good look through some of the pages: It was a meandering speech by someone called Nestor about adhering to the rules, discipline, and punishment…and ordering a manhunt for a mage from Elysium that had disappeared with a rare and special artifact. That sounded like the mage we also sought.
Lucy brushed off the crumbs and leaned in to read for herself, “’…bring the book, the mage is expendable…’?”
“And Lily, there was this too.” She handed me a letter with handwriting I already recognized.
I picked up the letter:
I’ve seen that mage you asked me to keep an eye out for.
Yup, he came from Spindleskog. Don’t know where he went. He was traveling alone. Yup, he had a small leather-bound book with him.
Three fellas in black came by just afterward. I don’t take kindly to being roughed up. No, I do NOT know anything about a dragon egg. I thought we had an established arrangement. Since this is how you value my information sharing, our arrangement is over. My debt is paid.
“Well, blast that little weasel. He sure has his hooks in every pie in town.” I could not believe the audacity.
“There’s more,” Zyrina handed me yet another paper.
Before you meet him at Los Gardeñias in Ordanis Mortis, I want to assure you I have managed to find out that the mage still has the book.
He wrote, to tell me he has something important to think about. And he says he has an important decision to make. He is still traveling and was last reported on a ship called the Sea Byrd.
It left from the Mistrendur Islands last autumn. I haven’t heard from any of the others from his cabal yet. Are we sure any others are alive? I have planned to meet with him in the usual spot and try to talk some sense into the lad.
Regardless, I will take the book back with or without his cooperation. We will have it in time for the great gathering of the Red Sashes and the Southern Red Branch. I’m certain of it.
Order shall prevail,
“I wonder where this usual spot is?” I pondered as I lay the paper back down with the others. “Seems to me that that mage is running from everyone, known or unknown to him. I wonder if he has abandoned his beliefs. What’s a ‘great gathering’?”
“S?” I asked. “Who the Titans is that?”
Zyrina shrugged “No idea.”
“Is Kitty still traveling with Aslinne?” Lucy joined in the questioning.
I shrugged perplexed, “I have no idea.”
“And lastly, there was this,” she held up the smallest piece of paper.
2 – 1 – 1
I nodded, not even trying to figure out what they mean this time, and just simply added the numbers to the rest. I would need some more time to figure out what they were all about.
“So, we still don’t know where Aslinne is, nor Kitty, nor the mage with the book either.” I sighed.
“We need to continue to backtrack Aslinne to Darkshire, and I want to stop at this restaurant where Nestor had a meeting with the mage.” Zyrina was examining the letter from S. “We might learn something.”
“Aslinne was going there too, remember? Do you think she is one of the mages?” Lucy pondered out loud.
“Where is it?” I asked.
“It’s the one we’ve been talking about. That famous place in Ordanis Mortis. It’s on the way to Darkshire, just downstream as a matter of fact.” Lucy had some very precise memory skills when it came to the location of good food and good drink. She spoke while reading over Zyrina’s shoulder. “Los Gardeñias.”
“It’s run by a woman called List Rostov.” I added. “She is a musician and bard who I admire. And her restaurant is fantastic.”
“There is a boat at the docks that will get us there. I saw it earlier on our way in,” Lucy added brightly. Lucy continued to keep us heading the right direction regardless of my despair at once again not finding who we searched for.
“Phoenix Bites here I come!” I squared my shoulders and shouldered my backpack then nodded, “Let’s go.”
And we went.