June 28 2022

The Stone Dragon Series – Book 2, Chapter 7

Read by Asclepius

Chapter Seven. The Dirty Scoundrel.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Alley Oop looked up and smiled right at me.

“Hi Alley.” I shyly offered.

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

“Course I did.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Zyrina shook her head and waved her off.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Captain Violet Green is your sister?”

 

“Sure is. You know Violet too?”

 

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

 

“Yup, that’s Violet,” I nodded.

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Morning,” I mumbled heading for the teapot.

 

“MMmhmm,” was all that Lucy managed.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“You won?”

 

“Yup.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Finn Beanna!”

 

I picked up the letter:

 

Nestor,

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

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

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

             Finn

 

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

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

Nestor,

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

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

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

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

Order shall prevail,

S

 

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

 

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

 

Zyrina shrugged “No idea.”

 

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

 

I shrugged perplexed, “I have no idea.”

 

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

 

            2 – 1 – 1

            R-2

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Where is it?” I asked.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And we went.

Echoes From the Caverns

Echoes From the Caverns

June 9 2022

The Stone Dragon Series – Book 2, Chapter 6

Chapter Six. At Jade Island – All Aboard!

 Read by Asclepius         

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

*

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

*

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Lucy chuckled at that comment.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Oh, yeah that’s right” I nodded.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Row, row, row your boat…”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

“Etceter?”

“Kitty?”

“What?”

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

 

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

 

“Was Kitty with Aslinne?”

 

“Etceter?”

 

“Then where?”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Here Lucy and I both perked up to listen again.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

‘Take what?” I inquired innocently.

“Why Salty John?” Lucy added.

 

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

 

I exchanged meaningful looks with Zyrina.

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

“Sneaky?”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Dear Vi,

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

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

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

 

                                    Don’t be late,

Love, Lil

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thanks for doing business,

 Finn Beanna

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

 

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

 

“Oh?” Lucy nodded looking more interested.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Echoes From the Caverns

Echoes From the Caverns

May 26 2022

The Stone Dragon Series – Book 2, Chapter 5

 

Read by Asclepius

Chapter Five. Missed Meetings.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

*

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Yes, Cap’n?”

 

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

 

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

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

*

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

 

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

 

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

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

*

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Humpf,” Violet sniffed into her teacup.

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

Echoes From the Caverns

Echoes From the Caverns

April 28 2022

The Stone Dragon Series – Book 2, Chapter 4

 

Read by Chatull Aventari

Chapter Four. How Much for That Information?

Thick mist in the early dawn made the still water of the lake reflect only the muted grey of the world around; even the birds were silent. It was quiet and mesmerizing to watch the nothing. After a long while of watching birds hunt low over the water, and rippling rings of movement in the water where fish pecked at bugs on the surface of the smooth deep blue, I went back in the inn and woke the other two women.

 

We then all made our way downstairs from where we had fallen asleep on the second floor of the pavilion. After breaking our fast with leftover bread from our bags, we had a bit of a hike up the mountain to where the wagon collected us to start us on our journey to Ironhall.

 

The jaunt out of Jade Mountains and over to the island’s shore had revitalized our bodies and minds and even our spirits lifted when, by midmorning, the mist had burned off enough to see the light flicker through and warm the chill out of the day. There were massive thunderheads and the sky remained in a darkened battle with itself high above the sea as we journeyed that day.

 

I would have liked to have sung a song of joy and beauty, but I dared not. I was sure that sore vocal cords, the aches in my muscles, and the headache I still suffered were all worth the revelry around the firepit the night before, but this suffering wasn’t something I wanted to repeat anytime soon. From the looks of the other two, it appeared like Zyrina and Lucy would agree with me.

 

Zyrina became horribly sick after her first meal on the ship and we teased her a little about her travel stomach, thinking the motion of the ship had set her off but Lucy went snooping and found a problem in the filthy kitchen. The ship’s cook had died of some mysterious stomach ailment just before we had boarded.

 

Lucy first convinced whatever sailor had unfortunately pulled kitchen duty for this voyage that she was indeed a good cook and wanted to cook a meal, that she was bored as a passenger and would prefer to help in the kitchen. Lucy started by cleaning up the galley kitchen with hot water and soap, then she taught a few of the sailors a simple recipe for fish that they could do on their own. The captain humored her and then cheerfully let her cook the rest of the meals on the voyage after tasting his first helping of her fish stew and biscuits. He had three helpings. The rest of the crew were won over by the very same meal. Zyrina spent most of the voyage either sick or recovering from being sick. It looked like the sea did not agree with her, after all.

 

 

I spent the days practicing a new sea shanty that I heard some of the crew singing one day while they scrubbed the deck. Most of the time I could be found wandering around humming the tune.

 

When we arrived at Ironhall the sounds and sights near the docks kept our senses occupied while we searched for Violet’s ship and also for the young man called Finn Beanna. Although Fiona had been explicit about how to get to Ironhall, she was vague on the location of Finn’s working area or his schedule or pretty much anything other than he would know where all the ships that arrived at the local port were heading, or where they had been. Asking for him didn’t help. The locals stared at us as if we were asking why the sky wasn’t a lemon meringue pie and then they clammed up or wandered off. There was no help for it: we would have to search to find Laketown and then search Laketown from one end to the other.

 

We split up and started looking. Zyrina eventually found him and called us over. He was sitting behind the Broken Docks Inn and looking for all the world as if he were avoiding being found. He didn’t seem especially friendly, either. We decided on a friendly approach anyway, with a gift of rum from my backpack and bread from Lucy’s. 

 

What man can withstand three beautiful women bearing rum and bread? I tell you that Finn almost did. We got so little information from him after several minutes of talk that we began to wonder at Fiona’s glowing endorsement.

 

Finally, Lucy had had enough of the vagueness. “Fiona said he would know where the ship had gone.” Lucy complained in a half-whisper to me. Finn suddenly perked up.

 

“Fiona, you say? You traveled from Jade Mountains. Is it Fiona Thatcher that you mention?”

 

I looked him in the eyes, which he had finally dragged off of the map and scrap paper that he had been pretending to read the entire time. “Fiona. Yes, she gave you an encouraging testimonial but I’m skeptical at this point. You don’t seem to know much of what is outside your map.” At this I nodded toward the paper that Finn was rolling back up.

 

Finn narrowed his eyes. “Can’t be too careful these days, ladies. There are far too many forces afoot to be glib about casually passing information.”  Then he added casually, “How is Fiona? Her brother Oscar tells me nothing of her when he and I work at the docks, and he rarely works at the docks anymore.”

 

I smiled to myself as I recognized Finn’s feigned casual interest in Fiona’s wellbeing. “Fiona was healthy and full of vigor when she left us to go cook stew for Oscar.”

 

“What do you mean by ‘forces afoot’?” Zyrina interjected, curious.

 

Meanwhile I was sizing up the young man and his surroundings. There were no clues that he would know the whereabouts of any of the ships that came and went in the harbour, let alone anything else in Ironhall. Lucy and I gave each other quizzical looks and shrugged our shoulders. Maybe Fiona was wrong about Finn.

 

“Well, let’s see,” Finn narrowed his eyes and took a darting look around the area before speaking further. “Take that tattooed mage that waited nearly a week for the ship he arrived on to leave again. He had come from Spindleskog and arrived on a passenger ship that had scheduled to be here for a week. He was not pleased and tried to bribe the captain to leave again on his schedule, but the captain refused. The trouble-making mage asked probing questions about everything and everybody in the whole of Laketown and gave little away about himself.” Here Zyrina looked over at me.

 

I stuck my tongue out at her and grinned knowing how inquisitive I seemed.

 

“Why would some traveler button it?” Finn sounded truly perplexed even as he continued to look down while fiddling with the rolled parchment in his clenched hands.

 

“What mage is this?” It was Lucy’s turn to perk up.

 

“The quiet one?” Finn returned with a question.

 

Finn found himself facing three pair of iron-tinged inquiring eyes. He decided that more information-sharing might be in his best interest. After finally putting down the now-wrinkled scroll and scrap of paper, he accepted the bread, then the rum.

 

Then he added, “Did Fiona say if she was coming here to meet you?” He looked over their shoulders hopefully.

 

“No. She is staying in Jade Mountains and not travelling with us. She did say she expected you for dinner on your return to Jade Mountain.” Smiling, I let him down gently and though he appeared to lose interest in us, he did perk up again when I repeated, “She did say she expected you for dinner.” He looked engrossed again following the promise of a meal in the future with Fiona, so I prompted, “Tattooed mage?”

 

“Tattooed. mage. Tattooed mage,” he mimicked. Zyrina went completely still except her left hand which gripped her bow and her right hand which went automatically to the fletching on her arrows. Finn looked up in the silence after his sarcastic comment. The glaring didn’t cease, and those arrows in the sullen one’s hands looked sharp and deadly; so, he continued with a false bravado and an indifferent shrug to start telling what he knew of the mage.

“Small, blue and green tattoos on his face, walked nonstop during the day. Didn’t sit much. Dressed in obsidian robes, I think. He carried a big blue bag and a little leather-bound book that he seemed particularly fond of. He spent far too much time reading to himself under his breath from the book while he waited for the ship’s repair.”

 

Lucy shifted her weight and her armor squeaked loudly. “Do you know where he was going?” she asked quietly.

 

He looked up for a flicker of a moment, “Nope, but he came here to go to the Caverns of Skrekk. Nope, I don’t know what he was doing there either,” he forestalled after seeing the question rising in my eyes. Then he added as an afterthought, “He wasn’t an especially skilled mage. He often got sidetracked during spellcasting if even something as harmless as a stray cat walked by. Every now and then he would try some magic, but it never seemed to go the way he wanted it to go. As well, the ship he arrived on needed repair from his onboard failures. There were several fires and one small explosion here in Laketown that I helped put out.” He puffed out proudly. “Not one building burnt down.”

 

We stood motionless listening to him. He seemed to warm up to his story. He continued after a pause for a nip of rum straight from the bottle and a chunk of bread, which he tucked back into his robes without sharing. “That mage stomped around the village every single day rain or shine; walking, walking, always walking and muttering to himself, too. I tried to get him to go to the pub to share a pint and a story or two, but he’d just stare through me until I had to give up. It was that unnerving.” He shuddered a little. “We was all relieved to see him get back on the ship when she was ready to sail again.”

 

At this, we all reacted with raised eyebrows. He took in our reactions and went on, “None thought we’d see the end of him, he was that picky about everything. As if there were something to pick from. The Sea Byrd remained the only ship that anchored in port at Ironhall for the entire week so in the end he went back on board but only after he offered the captain 3 times the normal passenger fee to take him back.”

 

“The SEA BYRD? That’s my sister’s ship!”

 

“When did it leave?”

 

“Where did it go?”

 

“Did you see a snowy lynx on the ship?”

 

Finn laughed heartily at the successive questions and answered openly, “Yes. She left this morning, just as your ship arrived. Jade Valley is their next destination.”

 

Here I gasped, “That’s my home.”

 

Finn ignored me and continued, “The crew was muttering about the captain sending their best cook on an errand and having to drop her off along the way, but I didn’t hear where to. Something about a cook, a fish stew, and an escort mission.” He forestalled the next question shaking his head and wringing his hands in front of him, “No, I don’t know where after Jade Valley, but I know they are going to end up in Jade Island at Green’s Inch where Captain Violet likes to spend the winters.” He didn’t nearly look as ready to bolt in any direction at any minute anymore and I could see Rina had released the tension on her bow so she must be having the same thoughts as me.

 

Zyrina gave me a curt nod after moving slowly around behind Finn again.

 

I was relieved and thanked him by going on, “I really didn’t think it would be that easy to get this information we needed from you Finn, and here you just blurted some out.”

 

Then Zyrina narrowed her eyes, jutted out her chin and asked him very directly, “What is it you want in return for this information?”

 

Finn looked at her and shrugged. He had warmed up to us when he finally realized we were not searching for HIM particularly, and he was not the real target of our very pointy-looking arrows and blades. “Nothing,” he shrugged again. “You are friends of Fiona’s. If you had told me that at the beginning, we might have had an easier start.” He stared hard right back at Zyrina. “If you are looking for the Sea Byrd, the shipping schedules are usually posted on the public bulletin board near the arrival area, if it’s a town the Sea Byrd regularly docks in, that is. It’s the same for all the places that she travels.” Zyrina again strode behind Finn to take a leisurely look at the lake beyond.

 

She gave me a quick wink and I nodded once, knowing.

 

He looked at me, “Do you know where else your sister is sailing to?”

 

I shook my head, frowning slightly. And to keep his attention on me I asked, “How long till she comes back?”

 

“Could be weeks or months. Some of the locals have a betting pool on for odds of their returning date. Wanna place a bet?” At this, his eyes darted from side to side and he looked at Lucy and I, furtively.

 

I shook my head no, as did Lucy. He turned to Zyrina who also declined to place a bet.

 

“Fair enough.”

 

“Good day, we will take our leave. Thank you for your assistance.” Lucy nodded her head to him. And with that curt farewell, we picked up our bags and walked out of town.

 

The minute we were out of sight and earshot I asked Zyrina, “Did you get it?”

 

“Yep.” She pulled the stolen papers out of her boot that Finn had been so intent upon when we first arrived. They had suffered quite a few wrinkles in the process but were completely readable still. The Southern Red Branch” was scrawled across the top of a detailed map of Elysium Island with several towns circled in red. Jade Valley was one of those.

 

And another scrap paper tucked inside the map simply said:

3-2-2

M

 

“Now what the Titans does that mean?” Lucy was as perplexed as I was.

 

“Same writing as that other paper with numbers, from Riverside, and from Scroda’s too,” she pulled them from her pack. “See?”

 

Zyrina was right. Although the papers’ torn edges didn’t match, we could see that the numbers were drawn by the same hand. Still without understanding, Zyrina added the new set of numbers to the pile and tucked them all away in her backpack.

 

“Have any of you heard of the Southern Red Branch before? Do you think they are part of the Red Sashes?” I asked the others as I ran my fingers over the raised embossed heading on the map. The only answers were head shakes or shrugs. No one spoke up.

 

“Come on, let’s go home.” I decided.

Echoes From the Caverns

Echoes From the Caverns

March 31 2022

The Stone Dragon Series – Book 2, Chapter 2

Read by Chatull Aventari

Chapter Two. Where Are You?

Creeping carefully through the starlit dark, I could finally make out the little brown and green elven cottage isolated out by itself in the woods. The door sounded solid when I knocked upon it. Its wood was decorated with small sigils all around it, but I couldn’t make them out in the starlight. Zyrina didn’t answer her door but she also didn’t lock it. It was open. She was obviously expecting me to go right in, right? Well, I hoped so anyway, because that’s exactly what I did. The first thing I saw was her sofa, and since it was exactly the right softness, I decided to rest my eyes for a minute and promptly fell asleep waiting for her to return.

 

Not enough hours later, upon waking with the dawn, I winced at the crick in my neck from sleeping crumpled up on this sofa. Where the heck was I? When I rubbed my still-tired eyes, I remembered the mad dash to get here and the emptiness on my arrival. …and now felt the emptiness of my stomach, too. I became aware of gnawing hunger and rumbling bits. In her kitchen, I found some bread and cheese and a little jug of ale left on the table. I also found a note from Zyrina. Munching thoughtfully on the still-soft bread and the sharp cheddar, I picked up the note in my free hand and started reading.

 

            Dear Lily,

            Yes, I know I’m not there. I meant to be there. Really, I did.  I have not lured you away from your library on a whim and I’m sorry I’ve gone. I left food and drink and left the lights on for you too. The bed has fresh bedding if you arrive needing to sleep.

I would be there except Lucy Featherbright sent me an urgent message. She has been looking after Torgin’s lynx while he and I left to find Phlebus to find out more about that artifact.  Anyway, Kitty is missing. …or Kitty left to find Torgin, Lucy was quite unclear on that point. There was honey on her letter and some of the writing was a bit smeared, too. What I know is Lucy needs to hear what Torgin’s been up to too, so that’s why I’m heading to Jade Mountains to find Lucy. There’s no telling where she will wander looking for Kitty and we both know she will get lost the minute she hits the edge of Jade Mountains. She’s worse with directions than you are. I’m pretty sure that she lives up the mountain overlooking the Hamlet of Jade Mountains. I know it’s a lot to ask you to follow me there, but I promise you will want to hear what I’ve learned. Then you can help Lucy and me look for Kitty. Torgin will not be happy if Kitty is actually missing.

Lily, that little leatherbound artifact book it’s… well, it’s just not something we can ignore. Please come soon,

                                Zyrina

            P.S. Remember there is a balloon by the stone bridge; it will take you to Jade Mountains faster than travelling by foot. However, if you insist on travelling by foot (yes, I remember your aversion to all things taller than two stories, but speed is important) you need to make your way to the far western Island of the Mistrendur and when you land at the port go straight to the top of the nearest mountain range to find Jade Mountains. When you arrive in the hamlet, stand in front of the Oracle Confirmatory facing away from its door. From that spot, Lucy’s place is up the mountain exactly at the southeast mark on your compass. If you really can’t find it then go to the Central location of Jade Mountains to talk to the Town Crier; they will direct you too.

                                     Z

 

 

Boy, I wish I had read that part about the bed before falling asleep on the sofa. I rubbed my neck again and shrugged my shoulders trying to loosen the aching muscles there. Sigh.

Well, I could go back home and wait to hear what they have learned the next time Lucy or Zyrina make their way through Jade Valley, or I could go on to Jade Mountains and find out firsthand. Of course, this really wasn’t a choice, I knew I was going to Jade Mountains. My bag was still by the door.

 

I took another chunk of cheese off the wheel and wrapped it in a small piece of cloth I took from Rina’s scrap bag, before tucking the rest back in the cool of its urn and setting the urn in the cool corner of Rina’s kitchen. Then I tucked the rest of the bread carefully in my favorite clean handkerchief before sliding it into the top of my backpack with the cheese set carefully in beside it. Provisions secured, I tidied up before securing the door.

 

Since I had just arrived by balloon, I knew exactly where it left Jade Gardens, sort of. I felt determined to get to Jade Mountains before anything else happened. Hopefully, I would arrive there alive. Hopefully, I wouldn’t scream so very often during flight this time. These contraptions were not for the faint-hearted!

 

Kitty disappearing was disturbing. Torgin was bound to that lynx and would not accept her loss lightly. So, I was absolutely willing to offer effort and time to help my friend, of course keeping in mind to only offer help that does no damage to my own life because that kind of thing isn’t helpful and creates even more trouble ahead and I’m not a martyr. Even so, I still had a crush on Torgin and could feel my heart swell a little and my face flush just thinking of him. Of course, I was going to help.

 

That little artifact book was more and more becoming the carrot at the end of a string that I didn’t know I was seeking, and I was beginning to believe it was far more important than we even guessed when I first came across it years ago. I took one last look around Zyrina’s place after tidying up. Lucy’s letter to Zyrina was still on the writing desk upstairs and of course I snooped… I wasn’t ashamed of it either.

 

            Zyrina,

            I know we all just got back home, but I need your help Rina, ‘cause Kitty’s gone missing and Torgin will KILL me if he finds out I’ve lost him.

            Please come as soon as you can,

                        Lucy Featherbright

 

That settled it, I was heading to Jade Mountains. I picked up my pack from beside the door and walked decisively out, pulling it shut behind me.

Echoes From the Caverns

Echoes From the Caverns

 

March 15 2022

The stone Dragon Series – Book 2, Chapter 1

 

The Quiet Mage

Part Two of

The Stone Dragon Series

By Lily Byrd

ByrdPress

NBBN 00115-003

Read by Asclepius

 

There is Virtue in sacrifice for the greater good. There is no Virtue in sacrifice without purpose.’ Tsuneo, Shogun of Ardoris.

 

Chapter One. A Letter Arrives.

Late in the afternoon at the end of summer, I arrived at the bottom of this sheer pebbled cliff path a little dusty and a little thirsty after skipping down from the ancestral home of the Byrd family. Perched above the lush coastal town of Jade Valley here on Elysium Island in the southwest of Novia, the Moon Tower Keep may be slightly crumbly and possibly still full of mice (even with cats in residence), but it has stood the test of many generations and would sturdily stand for many more generations. It had been there when the Jade Valley Moon Tower was completed on Moon Mountain centuries ago. I recall the sudden appearance of Aunt Morgana, Owain’s sister, and the building of her keep up beside the tower. Her insistence that the Byrd family would be caretakers of the tower would not be quelled and so we all became caretakers and still are to this very day. Even Aunt Morgana, long lived as she was, eventually succumbed to an untimely demise. Novia was not safe from incursion and my aunt fell to one such event centuries before.

 

“Hmpfh.” I grunted.

 

I had just realized that as I departed from the keep that morning and waved goodbye to Daisy, that I had returned the same wave from the parapet each time I left the keep over the generations all the way back to her grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother and after all this time I only just now looked old enough to be a grandmother for the fifth-generation adult granddaughter of the woman who first took me in.

 

Taking a moment to stare out to sea from the bottom of the mountain, my stride slowed. I had been here in Novia a long time, a very long time. Straightening up to stretch my spine, I ran my fingers through my tangled blunt cut silver hair and reminisced. I had arrived as a grown woman from an Outlands that I barely remember. There is only a vague recollection of who I was before being swirled into a rip of space and time that deposited me here on the shores of Novia. There was no way to find out where I had come from nor how to return to that unknown place. I was a stranger in this land with nothing and no one to guide and protect me as I learned where I was and that I could not return. Those were dark years.

 

“Enough of that,” I scowled. Then with a shake of my head to clear it of the despair that still lingered. “Just LOOK at that sky!” and I spun in a circle laughing joyfully at the sight of the crescent bay spread out before me.

 

Thankfully, no one was near to see or hear me have this conversation with myself, as many of the local Novians were already suspicious of the woman who didn’t die. When I had appeared in Novia, the good people who took me in gave me a sense of belonging that has lasted through several generations. An outlander, some called me, but the Byrd family has always made me feel welcome and loved here in this sometimes-brutal land. Just walking a wooded trail could be a life-and-death adventure in these territories, as I had learned early on after arriving in Novia unequipped and uneducated, during a surprise encounter with a large mountain troll. It was vital to have a clan of people who would help each other. That’s what the Byrds were like. We helped each other, daily.

 

Early on, I learned what a powerful symbol the Ankh could be and that, as an Avatar in Novia, I was destined to feel the piercing of death without the permanence of death over and over here in this world, brought back by the grace of the life-giving Ankh. There was something special about being from away that gave the effect of immortality to those of us who were thrust into this place from another realm. Though I aged, it was slowly. Decades would fly by for the Novians while I barely changed at all. It was unnerving but something I had come to accept here as normal for me.

 

Centuries of Novian time have passed since I first arrived and there has been much to learn, even as a not very enthusiastic learner, training in family history and customs, accounting, law, geometry, cooking, medicines, potions, archery, self-defense, geography, music and so much more. I trained animals to be my companions and sewed armor for myself over and over, making stronger armor as I learned from experience just how to make a seam last, how to cobble a shoe, mend a stocking, how to aim a bow, and how to fletch an arrow properly. I learned magic and potions, spells too, and heal many who ask for a healer in this world. And still, with all this knowledge and after all these years, the most pressing thing I have to do today is to pick up supplies in town for the annual brewing of hops and grains.

 

 “It’s good to be ALIVE!” I shouted into the wind. I grinned, then laughed out loud again.

 

I could no longer see the family crest that I had helped to stitch nor the crest of the guild that my family was part of, both flapping in the breeze from the ramparts of the stone keep but I knew later that I would still be able to see at least the tower’s tops from town. It was still a long walk from where I was all the way over the stone bridge and into the town proper. The banners would not be visible again until I returned up Moon Mountain, but I would be able to see a smoke signal and if there was danger there would be a signal with lamps. That meant return immediately. Three long, three short, and three long blips of light would alert me to a pirate attack, or a dragon, or anything exciting at all. There had not been a signal in the last several decades since that business with the stone dragon, but my family had firmly instilled a sense of responsibility that meant I would still check over every now and then through the day to see if there were any smoke or lights flashing from the towers. I could always enjoy the hope that something exciting would occur. It rarely did.

 

This year, for several phases of the planets, I had been working with our caretakers and gardeners, digging in the dirt, tending to a heap of neglected accounting and correspondence for the Byrd family businesses, and generally poking my nose in all of the family affairs. Today, it felt exhilarating to be out of the stuffy old rooms and into the clear afternoon light, free from paperwork and ink.

 

I stopped to catch my breath in the shade under one of the large swaying trees along the path by the edge of the bay. From here, I could see all the way across to the fishing shack beyond the pier. One ship was in mooring which meant the markets might have the ingredients I needed to find. This mostly-peacefully valley at the edge of the sea was warm and fair, but the bit of bite of air in the mornings told of changes up in the high mountains of Elysium that would soon flood the valley with colder winds, even if today the air was still warm and windy.

 

No matter, I was now away from my desk in the tower and my work was caught up (sort of), though I did stuff the last few letters in the drawer and pretend to myself that they were complete. I’d be back soon enough and could feel guilty then. It was my own fault really; I had put it all off for far too long.

 

Earlier in the week, when I could not sit still any longer and simply could not look at one more piece of paper, I had escaped out into the gardens to help a little with the preparation for harvest of the brewing grains that we grew in raised beds on the wide tops of the walls of the old keep. My wildly eccentric Aunt Morgana had always said that if we were under siege at least we had dirt to grow food in… and dirt to put out fires from flaming arrows… and dirt to bury the dead in if it came to it. Now I was glad that she had them installed; the view while I gardened was stunning.

 

Although leaving the harvest work to my Uncle Owain’s cousin’s daughter’s family was probably something they all wished I would do, I did a little anyway because I nearly always felt a great deal better after working with the living plants than I ever did after balancing the bookkeeping. I hadn’t recently killed even one of the precious hops and Uncle Owain grudgingly admitted my gardening skills had matured since I had first arrived in Jade Valley, though he was drunk at the time and didn’t remember saying anything nice at all when I reminded him of it.

 

No matter, I had heard the words and taken them to heart. It didn’t matter whether I got praise from him for learning, so it didn’t really matter to me whether he remembered saying anything. He was right, I had improved. That’s the part that mattered; I had improved. I could see the plants and they were healthy. That was praise enough. This year so many of the Jade Valley farmers were still recovering from the devastating events of the destruction of River’s Crossing that none could spare help for our harvest this year. We were on our own after all, so even my hands were welcome when we are this shorthanded.

 

The harvest is imminent and, with a distinct shortage (due to rodent activity) discovered at the last minute before dumping the sacks of sugar into the vat for brewing (yes, vermin are still an issue up here in our kitchen storage even with the addition of my many beloved cats), someone needed to be sent to town for sugar. Errands need running and since I am still the least experienced farmer among the whole keep, I was sent to procure the things on a list placed carefully in my apron pocket by our cook and brewer and cautioned to return right away. NO DAWDLING!! Several warnings of time management that I could have done without followed, but this reputation is the result of years of forgetting to do assigned tasks. I can’t escape my past.

 

I sighed. “At least I’m out from behind that desk.” I murmured to no one.

 

It may also be that this was the family’s way of getting me out of the way and out of their fields, but I didn’t mind; I needed to walk some of the energy out of my mind after sorting numbers, and anyway, it was time to check on the Hall of Enquiry and Learning.

 

There were always books to sort and shelve when I had a free moment and, truly, as the town’s only librarian I felt responsible for the state of the bookshelves. I wasn’t a very good one, and quite slow at cataloguing anything at all, but I was fairly enthusiastic about reading the books in the library at least and could recommend a good book or direct patrons to the section they wanted to browse.

 

Finally, I made my way over the Stone Bridge of Happy Arrival after meandering past Doc Tud’s hospital and the Jade Valley Lighthouse. On the town side of the bridge, I didn’t go into the busy marketplace; I first waved to Becky, one of the Town Criers, then I turned south and walked past the Graewitch Gardens’ Vegs and Regs Market, the Jade Rose Tea Room, and the Byrd’s Nest Inn, where I saw the new barmaid sweeping the stone steps before the afternoon crowd starts trickling in.

 

“Hello, Lily!” Her friendly greeting rang out as I passed by.

 

Gathering up my skirts, I hurried my step past the Hall of Enquiry and Learning, mostly so I wasn’t tempted to go inside before I gathered the needed supplies. I waved at my neighbor as he hurried by on his own business across the street. Then, like a sweet breeze through a cherry tree’s blossoms, the sight of my little cobble cottage near the river greeted me.

 

This view never seemed to disappoint and, of course, the scent of roses carried me the rest of the way home.  I stepped up to the little white archway covered in small, flowered vines and a picket fence bordered with more flowers. Looking back north toward the market, I took a deep breath, enjoying the sensation of the clean fresh breeze off the bay mixed with the cooking smells at the food vendors nearby and the sounds of commerce winding down for the day. Sometimes living near this center of commerce and trade was too much for my senses but today I grinned as the haggling and hammering sounds wafted toward me.

 

Glancing at the ancient solid stone structure of the Hall of Enquiry and Learning next to my little cottage reminded me that there were errands to do here in town before I could make a cup of tea and put my feet up with a good book. Tending to books is the passion that keeps me sane while I listen to and write stories of adventures: those that locals tell me from their travels in the lands and, sometimes, adventures I’ve lived through. I collect and catalog the books written by other Avatars as well and spend many enjoyable hours reading those tales in the comfortable seating at the Hall library.

 

Books that I’ve written are far rarer, as I really am not as brave as many of the more experienced Avatars whose stories of courage, truth, and love I never tire of hearing. Wandering adventurers also leave their stories for me to keep in the library or I collect them during my own travels. That little library collection has become my rock while I grapple with grief of losing those close to me. I had grown to love and respect my adopted family and always enjoy watching them grow from sweet babies to old grumps, but each time their deaths are still profound.

 

Setting up and running the library was the only interest I found I still had any stomach for after most of my adopted family died in the raids on Port Phoenix long years past. Sorting and cataloguing books kept me alive while I grieved the loss of people whom I cared for deeply. Many of those days are lost to the swirls of my mind but the result was that the bookcases had been built and the Hall of Enquiry and Learning had been set up. My sister Violet and I had escaped our family’s fate only through a personal act of rebellion. The punishment for our rebellion was living while they had died. Though grief and guilt are a painful journey and one that each of us learns to cope with on our own, I had come to terms with the loss over time. The pain has dulled with time but didn’t disappear. I tried not to dwell on it today.

 

It was when the entire Byrd family holdings were given over to the care of my sister Captain Violet and I that I, Lily Byrd, started to learn the history of the world I had been thrust into and that I now found myself loath to leave. I felt I had let my family down with a variety of youthful indiscretions, so I now intended to learn to perform my family duties to the best of my ability even if it was too little and too late. Only, I missed the adventures and indiscretions. I missed my parents and Aunt Morgana. Those thoughts led me to other friends who had gone missing: Dragosani, Calan, Joe, and all those others lost to the swirl of the Outlands. I missed people here in Novia too, Lucy and Torgin Featherbright and Phlebus. Lastly, most of all I missed the quiet and thoughtful archer, Zyrina. She and I had become close friends while she tried to cope with some Obsidian magic that had plagued our valley and the menace of an old mysterious book of magic. People tend to bond when facing large enemies of immeasurable strength with unknown odds of survival. I smiled then, remembering the stories of fighting for her life alongside her friends.

 

Even though it had been years since we lost the trail of the mysterious magic book. Although I had not heard from any of my fellow adventurers for far too long, I still longed for something new and exciting. A large sigh escaped me then, and I crossed my arms in front of me. I knew telling stories of brewing, gardening, mushroom-finding, or fruit-growing didn’t have the same appeal to the folk who might stop by to hear a local story or two at the library either; story-time had become just me sitting among the books reading bits from my favorites to myself.

 

Living here in a farming and trade village really wasn’t much of an adventure, but this was a good village to settle into if you want to watch the world go by. Most of the local library patrons enjoy enough of a thrill from reading about the world or hearing the stories I tell them about the goings-on in Novia, gleaned from travelling and listening. They were the farmers and fishers who found no sense in leaving their valley to travel anywhere. I respected their caution regarding travel but did not share it to the same degree. I may not seek out spider-filled caverns on my own, but I travelled as often as I could, and I carried a bow and several poisoned arrows with me at all times, even here in Jade Valley.

 

 

Looking down after my musing, I realized I had halted while beginning to open the squeaky door of my little wooden post box. I winced and promised myself to remember to oil it before the day was over…for sure this time. Truly, it’s not an overly exciting event, opening a squeaky and mostly empty post box. Generally, if anything were in it at all, it would be flyers for various sales and events, but today among the sales fliers there was a letter. I smiled and plucked it from the fliers now destined for the outhouse paper stack. I could recognize Zyrina’s writing anywhere. Having just been recalling past adventures that we shared, I really wanted to savor this moment, pour a cup of tea, sit in a comfortable chair, and enjoy opening the missive but my impatience once again got the better of me and I didn’t even make it inside the gate before I haphazardly tore the envelope open in my haste to get to the paper inside:

 

Dear Lily,   

I’ve just arrived home. Come quickly. There is too much to tell since we parted. Here’s a quick summary: Torgin found another lead regarding that little artifact that you found (yes, Emrys confirmed that the artifact that you dug up when Arabella was kidnapped during the Mystery of Treasure Island Adventure was indeed a little leather-bound book).

 

Then the artifact vanished again only to reappear when we all joined forces in Jade Valley during The Stone Dragon Mystery. Merrik Dragon’s suffering was profound during that adventure and was absolutely linked to a specific spell from that particular little leather-bound book. Torgin and I found out it resurfaced at River’s Cross when mages misused a spell from its pages while drunk. Phlebus helped us find the thread of the story but I won’t divulge more details here as they are many and hair-raising; it was not simply a dragon burning down a village as we thought it was, that’s for sure.

 

This is the first time Phlebus, Torgin, or I have heard whisper of this book in many years. It is far too dangerous to leave to the continued misuse of the uneducated with ill intent. Torgin had much to say on the topic which I would like to tell you in person.

 

Come soon. When you arrive in Jade Gardens, you can find the little elven cottage I rent from your sister Violet Green and her friend Aslinne Gradh. Remember there is a hot air balloon that will bring you here from Jade Valley; it’s faster than ship or wagon. Please hurry. I’m going to need your help, Lily, at the very least to help get Torgin out of whatever it is he’s getting us into this time. Bring your herbs and potions; we will probably need them.

 …and your bow. We will definitely need it.

 

Please help,

Zyrina

 

Well. Now THAT was a letter. I absentmindedly stuffed it into my little skirt pocket and patted it smooth. This was going to take a little planning and a lot of effort. And I definitely was not going to help with the harvest nor finish my bookkeeping. Now I was really smiling. First, I needed to get the provisions sent up the mountain, then I needed to arrange for help at the library while I was gone. Of course, I rushed madly off in all directions.

 

And of course, the letter worked its way out of my pocket during my preparations and I didn’t have a clue how to find the cottage when I finally arrived in Jade Gardens days later and exhausted after dark. Wandering into the hamlet after the hot air balloon dislodged its passengers, I found myself lost for several hours traipsing among magnificent gardens, one after another heady with fragrance and flowery night blooms. Eventually, hearing him call out the hour, I came across the town crier near the docks. He directed me to the little elven cottage that Zyrina rented from Violet Green and Aslinne Gradh (Sequanna knows how they got into property ownership together… I assume it was the spoils from a gambling wager of some sort). So, I set out in the correct direction this time, and made my way by starlight to Zyrina’s home.

Echoes From the Caverns

Echoes From the Caverns

February 23 2022

The Stone Dragon Series – Interlude – Old Pete

 

Interlude:  Old Pete

Read by Asclepius

Nearly a decade later at the Dragon’s Breath Inn in River’s Cross close to but across the river from Jade Valley.

 

Sitting in the old Dragon’s Breath Inn several years after his adventures in the area, Phlebus was enjoying the peace of the quiet afternoon after his leisurely walk down to the valley. He took another sip from the half full pint in front of him on the table. His ship had docked in Port Phoenix nearby and he had walked to the valley from there. It was time. He had been waiting for the right moment to ask the brewer about a rumour he had heard in his travels.

 

When Phlebus finally asked the question, Old Pete was thrilled to tell the story to another passerby. It wasn’t often that anyone asked him for a story anymore. It wasn’t often that anyone travelled this way into the valley anymore either.

 

“River’s Cross was a quiet little hamlet once. Before those strange elves usin’ magic showed up out of nowhere. They became the darlin’s of the village. There was even dances out in the square once in a while and me ol’ Uncle Clarence used to play his accordion for them. That was before. Before the residents all started disappearing like, one by one. No one really noticed till there was only me left tending the bar. I don’t mind, really. But it gets kinda lonely all by meself.”

 

“I gets travelers now and then. People like yourself travellin’ into or out of Jade Valley sometimes stop here to catch their breath before the long hike out of the valley. There’s not much to see now, but River’s Cross was once a right gem of a hamlet.” Old Pete took another sip from his whiskey.

 

“Seems you are interested in hearing more about my little pub. It’s called the Dragon’s Breath Inn ‘cause o’ what happened the night the elves left town. Well, I’ll tell ya, but I warn ya now…. it’s not a pretty story. And it doesn’t end well.”

 

He stopped to sip again from his drink then went on, “It all started about a decade ago when those elves showed up. They sauntered into town like they knew where they were going and had the money to pay for it, ya know what I mean?  It was the stink of magic that gave em away, an’ I don’t hold truck with no magic. I din’t pay em no mind long as they paid for their drink in gold and din’t get too uppity. Soon they had some of the other residents building a sort of temple for em. Somewhere they did their whispering and magicking. It used to be over down the lane, but it ain’t there now a days. Least ways I ain’t seen no one around there for a while now. Not since that night they all got drinking that special ale they had been promising that they were making for everyone in the Hamlet.” Old Pete tipped his glass to Phlebus again before swallowing. “They built themselves a brewery an set up doin little magic spells for folks to speed healing, or add a pox to an enemy, you know, regular stuff like that. Well then, after awhiles they were in here one night whispering. Always whispering. But that night they was purty excitable. Giddy almost, for that lot.”

 

“They was discussin’ the finished product they had made. An Ale. And not just any ale. Somethin’ special that never been thunk up befores. Ale of Essence they bin callin’ it. Ale of Essence? Now them is some fancy words for that swill. There was no reason for them to be so dang excitable about it. It didn’t taste right to me at all an’ I spit it right out, but them mages told me that it would give me everlastin’ life if I drank some. I don’t see no difference. Though I rightly am still alive so it must be workin’, eh?” He stopped to cackle a bit to himself over his joke before going on.

 

“Anyhoo’ it was a mostly dark and stormy night. We was all huddled around the bar and tryin’ to stay warm. You know the kind o night I’s talkin’ bout? An after a few pulls from their special cask, them elves started arguin’ who was the better magic user. You can imagine that it ain’t my place to get in the middle of angry drunk mages so’s I just stayed back here and sorta hid behind the hutch over there. They was castin’ spells and drawin’ funny shapes in the air with their wands, and soon enough they got serious. That’s when I got scared. Real scared. They wasn’t foolin’ round anymore.  One o ‘em decided to try to do a spell big and the others were shouting at the caster to stop cause an I quote “we didn’t get it right even with the whole group of mages in the temple”. It didn’t convince the mage to stop, and they just kept chanting an’ tossed some ol bone on the ground out front of the inn. T’other one, that one that was with all them elves but was human but still a magic user ya know? The quiet one. Well, he started a different chant, and I could feel the hairs on my arms rise up and let me know there was trouble. Big trouble. The quiet one’s chant put a shimmer around the pub. I ain’t never seen nuthin’ like it afore. Then the shrieking started. And the fires and the roaring and the fires. Them fires was sumthin’ alright.” He paused again lost in thought. He sipped awhile at the cup he nursed in the crook of his arm while he spoke.

 

“I looked outta that window over there and saw the shadow of the creature fly over us. It was huge, scaly, orange and spewin’ fire outta its maw every which way. Somebody tol’ me it was a dragon, I ain’t never seen one o those before. Don’t wanna see another one either. That shimmer from the quiet mage protected the pub from the dragon’s breath that night. We was the only building left standin’ the next day. Them mages mostly perished tryin’ to control that dragon thing in the night and lucky for them when the warriors from Jade Valley saw the dragon flyin’ round the valley they came and battled it to death. I don’t know what finally happened, but it got kilt some which way. You can see the bones scattered over there behind the inn in the woods still. The few mages that were still living the next day wandered off quick as a wink muttering something about everyone would know where they were now, and they needed to find some mage who had run off with their special book. It’s been pretty quiet these days, but you can sometimes see the smoke and feel the shadow of that dragon flyin overhead.  I reckin that shadow thin’ is looking for them mages even still. Now iffin you want some o’ that Ale of Essence you is gonna hafta go find one o’ ‘em what makes it. I ain’t going alookin’. More Ale?” He finished with a flourish.

 

“Do you know where they went?” Phlebus asked quickly, covering his pint with his hand.

 

“Nope, but I heard tell that someone called Nestor was the leader even iffin he weren’t herebouts. Maybe you’s can ask ‘im. Come back on in for a visit sometime won’tcha?” Old Pete waved as Phlebus downed the rest of his drink and rose to leave.

Echoes From the Caverns

Echoes From the Caverns

February 23 2022

The Stone Dragon Series – Interlude – The Mages of the Red Branch

 

InterludeThe Mages of the Red Branch

Read by Alleine Dragonfyre

 

The evening of celebration had quickly soured in the small hamlet of River’s Cross near the second entrance to the valley past the old, covered bridge that led to Jade Valley town. The quiet mage completed the shimmery air spell that would continue to shield the pub for the rest of the night at least. He had been enjoying his drink before all the trouble broke out and old Pete didn’t deserve what was going to happen to his establishment. The buffer would at least protect the inn, and the innkeeper if he was smart enough to stay inside it.

 

 When several of the others started arguing about why the dragon summoning spell had not worked when they were at the old location in Jade Valley itself, why it would certainly work now, and they started calling on each other to make another attempt, then the mage knew they no longer deserved to be in charge of that magic book.

 

 It had been a subject he had been contemplating for months now. After discovering that the room of casting they built in Jade Valley was made from blocks made from stone bodies of people, he found himself questioning everything he knew about the Southern Red Branch. And when they built the brewery in River’s Cross using the stone bodies of villagers who weren’t sweet enough to become part of their Ale of Essence, he knew they had not learned anything at all from their experiences.

 

There was something missing in the teachings he had grown up with and no one was willing to answer his questions about virtue and vice anymore. The elf mages who raised him didn’t have much time for his questions before, but now they had become surly about even considering his questions at all.

 

He wanted to know where the book came from and how they happened to have it. He wanted to know the face of the person who created this magic. From what he experienced, this book had brought only pain and suffering to everyone who they encountered, and their own group was splintered and decimated. This was no way to build a new society of order and calm.

 

He thought the book might be cursed or worse, have come from before the fall when magic worked differently. No one would answer any questions about The Fall either. Cataclysmic. Devastating. That’s the description he was given, and it was expected to do. They swore that he could not squeeze knowledge from them that they didn’t have.

 

 He knew something was wrong with their logic and their thinking, but he had no way of determining what it was and no one in his cabal would help him search for the answers. The elven mages wanted power but had no plan how to become powerful nor what to do with that power if they were able to attain it. He was sure there was more to success than simply attaining power to do what you wanted to do.

 

 He watched them get more and more angry as they huffed and puffed and chanted. The rest of his group was single minded in their pursuit of success. He waited until the other mages had looked up the spell again, put the book aside, and were focused on the summoning spell itself. Finally, he was ready to act.

 

Quickly slipping the magic book under his garment into a small pocket he had stitched there for this very use, he made his way to the Obsidian dias on the roof of the pub to get a better view of what the drunk remnants of the Southern Red Branch mages would summon. He kept a travel scroll in his hand, ready to leave with the book.

 

 The dragon they eventually summoned was not part human this time. It was massive and glowed a shimmery orange colour. It wanted nothing to do with any of them. It was bent on destroying those who summoned it and anyone else who came into its path. Its struggles against the drunk mages’ control did not waiver. It turned and attacked the hamlet time and time again. Fire rained down and the buildings in the hamlet soon smoked and flamed. The billowing smoke attracted attention as it became obvious that fire was spreading.

 

Within a short time, folks all the way from Jade Valley started arriving to fight the fire. Someone quickly dispatched back to Jade Valley to beg for assistance from the few outlanders and townsfolk who could battle a dragon, too. After the dust and fire and rain of the battle subsided, everyone left gathered to find out just what had happened.

 

Jade Valley townsfolk found the remnants of the mages’ brewery and potion shop. They learned that the essence in the ale the mages had been experimenting with in their basement brewery was made from the remains of the townsfolk who had disappeared from River’s Cross hamlet. Whether it actually gave eternal life was difficult to tell without testing. No one was going to test the brew. It was destroyed. They tore the brewery down and obliterated any trace of the evil the elven mages had done. The few elves who remained alive were shackled and taken to the Jade Valley Jail to await trial. The dead were buried, and the fires raked over until they were cold.

 

The mage watched all this while hidden in plain sight on the rooftop of the inn. He took another long pull from his now warm ale before muttering a spell to use his last travel scroll. He vanished with the magic book in his pocket and a keg of Ale’s Essence tucked under his arm.

Echoes From the Caverns

Echoes From the Caverns

February 10 2022

Black Rose Chronicles 15 – by Belladonna Rose – narrated by Asclepius

 

Black Rose Chronicles, chapter 15

Background music by Smartsound

 

After a lengthy talk with Astor she explained she wanted to go back out and try to help once again with this threat from the Undead. He agreed and said that things will be fine and for her to come home as often as she could. Although the lands seemed huge they were not. Many of the locations were within day or two for travels. And with the wagons and ships and even the Lunar Rifts it was easy to fast transport to anywhere in the realm. With that she donned her newly crafted armor and freshly honed weapons. Packed her backpack with a few necessities and she headed over the stone bridge towards the exit of town. She would hop the ship from Hidden Vale to Brittany and then take the ship from there to Ardoris. Might as well head back in that direction since she had already started some work there. She was not too thrilled about doing back there but she did what she had to do

After what seemed like months she walked into Knight’s Watch. Tired, dirty and hungry she trudged to her house by the river. When she walked up she notice that her quaint little house was no longer little. It had been built up to a sprawling stone building.
It was near dark and she did not enter the house. Maybe Astor thought her dead after so long away and let someone else build in her place. After a good night’s rest she would seek him out. So she headed to the tavern where she could get a quick meal and a cot upstairs.

When she made her way through the door the tavern was crowded. Many folk stood and sat around. Some gent named Omegaflux was at the piano banging out a lively tune while another named Ozzy Questor was trying in vain to keep up on his bagpipes. The laughter and talk were so loud even over the din of music. Bella saw Astor standing behind the bar and she approached. When the door slammed behind her the noise died down. Many of the faces she did not know or did not know that well, but she kept moving.
“Master Cerberus” she said once she found her voice.
“Did you give me up for dead?”
Smiling across the counter he shook his head in humor
“Nay, Milady. I know it would take more than some undead rabble to take you down.”
She looked at him for a moment and slapped her hand on the counter.
“Then perhaps over a pint you can explain why my house is missing.”
All the fellows in the tavern broke into laughter. Some shouting to Astor I told you so and such.
He too chuckled at her comment.
“Now now Bella. Don’t get your knickers in a twist. You were gone but a month when we all here
in town decided that you needed a much better house than you had built.”
Putting up his hand to stave off her retort he continued.

“Bella we all in appreciation for what you did to help the others build up their homes decided
to make you a grand house indeed. Furnishings and all. So when you come home you can sit back
and tell us your tales from your journey.”

The man named Ozzy came forward and peeked sideways at her.
“Tis a fine fireplace i built ya Miss. Hope it keeps ya warm on cold nights”

Others approached and told of the things they did to help as well.
Bella couldn’t help but blush, smile and even shed a tear for all the welcomes and the
help.
She looked back at Astor as he stood beaming behind the bar. She pointed a finger at him as if
saying…I will get you for this. Then immediately rounded the counter and started pouring more
pints for all.
“Drink up my friends and celebrate my return…..but i have you know I won’t be cleaning up the mess.”

As the revelry continued into the night Bella snuck up the back stairs and found an empty bed in the far corner. She cared not if anyone else came up there. All she wanted was sleep. As soon as her head hit the pillow she was out like a light.
The next morning she rose from the bed and quickly made use of the washstand. Washing the smell of pipe smoke and ale from her face and neck she quickly changed into some regular clothing. She would definitely have to brush out her leather armor later
in the day. Gathering up her things she hoisted her pack on her back and made her way down the stairs. Setting a chair upright she sat down for a moment. The fire had gone cold in the fireplace, so she gathered up some kindling and small logs and got a nice fire started. Going behind the bar she looked about for a kettle and a tin of tea leaves. Both were nicely stored underneath the counter. Checking the bucket of water next to the counter she deemed it quite fresh so poured it in the kettle and set it on the fire to boil. Searching around she found some food and quickly made a trencher of assorted items. Cheese, lemon bun, apple, grapes and a jar of butter. Plate of food in hand she placed it on the table. Then pulled the porcelain teapot from under the counter and a cup. This will be the first good tea she had had in a while. Those taverns elsewhere could not make a decent cup of tea for anything. As her tea steeped, she nibbled on the food in front of her. It was very peaceful and quiet inside. There was not much going on outdoors either except the chirping of the birds. This was one thing she did enjoy about Knight’s Watch. The quiet.

As time moved on and the town grew, she was able to do more adventuring. Often the residents of Knights Watch gathered and went on hunting parties. This she enjoyed a lot. She felt more at ease and enjoyed the company of her town companions. Often as not they would get into some real messy hunts, but the revelry of the group made it enjoyable. She was feeling quite content with her life as it was going. Still at certain times of the day or night her thoughts drifted back to her crew from the Black Rose. And of her old world where her family was. But it wasn’t long till a lot of those memories were just that

Waking one morning early she slipped her feet into cozy kidskin shoes and grabbed her oversized robe. Funny she thought to herself the men in this town still have not gotten the right proportions in making clothing for her. Usually, they had to take in and stitch up once she put them on. But this robe she would not allow them to adjust it. She loved it just like this. Slowly walking down the staircase she ran her hands along the stone. “Tis a fine house we built ya lassy”. She could still hear them the night they told her about the house. Pffft. It wasnt a house at all but a small castle keep. Huge in her eyes and all hers. Often times she would have them over for pints and meals and often times she would find someone sleeping off the revelry by the fireplace. Indeed, she had a grand fireplace.
She loved it all the more because they worked so hard building it for her. Fine furnishings and the occasional knick knack decorations they thought a fine lady would like. Although she had been far from lady like they still regarded her none the less.
Reaching the ground floor her trusty dog Roofus greeted her. Twirling in circles the lunk of a dog followed her towards the back door where she opened it up to let him out. Then she made way to the kitchen. The men wanted very much to provide a fine kitchen for her, but she refused. She had no idea how to cook on such things as they called pot belly stoves. She liked cooking on a hearth. The jug of water sat on the table and she filled the kettle full. Stoking up the fire she put it on to boil.
Taking down her fancy tin of tea leaves that Astor had gotten her on one of his adventures she sniffed at the aromatic leaves. Smiling she took a pinch and put them in the teapot and waiting for the water to boil. Today was to be a busy day. Many chores waited for her and the first thing she planned on doing was going into Kingsport to purchase some seeds. She had asked a couple of the men to build her some planting boxes as she was determined to grow some fresh vegetables and she was going to start some fruit trees as well.
While out she planned on riding up to Owl’s Head to get some other things that she knew she couldn’t find in Kingsport. It was going to be a busy day indeed.

 

After many months of being idle in her mind. Bella decided to venture back out into the lands. She had become restless staying in the Hidden Vale. She felt the draw of the sea and the need to put some newer lands under her feet.
Sitting around the large table in the tavern of Knight’s Watch she chatted with the others on places they had been and things they had seen. Since there were all brought to this world much the same as her she knew they too had been
of the adventuring spirit. Whether from needing to do so or hired to do so they had covered the entire realm. Many of those places she had travelled with them and many she travelled alone. But she felt she needed to move. At least for a couple months.
The Fall season was approaching so it would be a good time to travel.
Packing up her travel pack and gathering up her weapons she looked it all over to make sure she was set for a journey. Food was carried light as she was able to hunt and forage for pretty much what she needed. And when near towns she was sure she could come up with a decent meal in those. After the talk a few nights back with her fellow townsmen she knew where she was heading. Now to just get on the road and start moving

Echoes From the Caverns

Echoes From the Caverns

February 10 2022

3D Portal Adventure 2

A new chapter in this enthralling video adventure! The link to the video is here:

Chapter 2

Having established her crew, reluctant as she was to have a crew, Lady Beth began to step through the dimensional gate she had opened.  Tiger_T and the Catdude stepped up to follow her.  As Tiger_T neared the horizon of the portal, he noticed a slight tingle in his fur, almost, but not quite unlike a static charge.  He moved his hand towards and away from the portal to see how it affected the tingling.

The Catdude: “Yeah, weird, isn’t it?  Is this your first time through one of these?”

Tiger_T: “Yeah”

He continued his testing.

Tiger_T: “Interesting.  The CTC doors are different, like normal doors.  I’m curious as to what it will be like to walk through it.  I guess I will know soon enough.”

<Render 6>

Meanwhile, Lady Beth had mostly stepped through the portal, save for the hand she was using it to hold the portal open.

Lady Beth: “Come along, gentlemen.”

Tiger_T: “Aha!  Here’s our marching order!”

He carefully walked forward.  As his nose contacted the horizon, he felt a prickling sensation that propagated through his body, peaking at the parts as they went through.  Coming out the other side, he shook off the effects.

Tiger_T: “BRRR!  Like being combed the wrong way!”

He began looking around.

The Catdude stepped right through the gateway.  He got wobbly on his feet as vertigo momentarily swept over him.  Initially, he reached for Beth’s hand to steady himself, but remembering that he had not obtained such permission to touch beforehand, he braced his hands on his knees instead.

The Catdude: “Just a moment, My Lady.  I always get a head rush when I step through these things.  Five more seconds…..and done!

He shook his head to clear it and recovered.

The Catdude:“The headache will last an hour more, but I will manage.”

He joined Tiger_T in looking around.

CD: “Hmm, I wonder where we are.”

Meanwhile, Tiger_T pushed down a few patches of fur on his tail.

Tiger_T:“I guess I came through OK.”

<Render 7>

## Feel free to add in based on your own impressions. ##

Tiger_T and the Catdude stared out in rapt fascination over their surroundings.  Tiger_t notice that the “clouds” were not moving.

T_T:  “Ahh, like unto Van Goh’s Starry Night.  Very impression as all I usually see is standard YeOldeEarth Sky. ”

CD:  “Indeed so.  Funny thing, when Lady Beth first mentioned great height, I thought we might be headed to either Nar Shadda or the Cliffs of Eos but we are at neither.  We are at someplace I have never been before and I am glad of it.  My lady, thank you for letting me come with you.”

T_T:  “Say, Lady Beth, where exactly is ‘here’ anyway?”

Lady Beth gave no answer and stood quietly at a jutting pier, as if awaiting something.  It did not take long for that something to come into sight.

<Render 8>

T_T: “I think I see something coming towards us.  A…blimp?

CD:  Ahh, an airship with sailing ship gondola.  A beautiful way to sail the skies, although, if the weather takes a certain turn, the voyage can become…interesting.

<Render 9>

As the vessel approached, Lady Beth addressed her companions.

Lady Beth: “This will be our transport during our time here.  I will renegotiate the contract and bill of lading.  How much do each of you and your equipment weigh?”

Tiger_T:  That’s our ride?  Cool!  My weight?   I do hope an estimate will be exact enough.  Umm, I should be around 82 kg, and my backpack should be around 20 kg.

The CatDude:  I weigh between 105-110kg, my gear is 40 kg, half of which is ammo.  I suppose the captain will have some demands regarding storage.

<Render 10>

As the vessel pulled up to dock, the ramp extended out to the board gate of the ship.  Lady Beth began to walk towards the ship but then she stopped and turned around to face her feline companions.

LB: “Gentleman…if you trust me then please wait for me there.  I’ll…be…back.”

T_T: “ Umm…okay”

CD: “yes, my lady, I will wait as you wish.”

Lady Beth proceeded to the ship and went aboard.  Tiger_T turn to the Catdude with puzzlement.

T_T:  “I don’t see why she would bring us here only to then change her mind.  That alone is reason to trust her.”

CD: “I learned to trust unicorns with my life.  The first lesson I learned about them is that they are honest to the expense of politeness.  It can be off-putting to humans the first time around, but you get used to it.  If nothing else, it explains unicorns generally make for ineffectual politicians.  This probably has something to do with the crew, seeing as we are not part of the original contract that she is now having to renegotiate.”

Tiger_T nodded his assent and understanding.  Presently, Lady Beth returned and they snapped to attention to receive her next instructions.

Echoes From the Caverns

Echoes From the Caverns