This is a love story with a twist…
The Birth of a Necrophobic Necrophiliac
by Randy Fasig
“Oh yes they have very good timing.” The crystal staff was held at arms length. “ The day will come when you find me not listening to you either.” The shoulders shrugged. “Oh well we have the time now for Laurant. Shall we destroy the town or just the port?”
The spell was cast and Hroth disappeared from the hills northeast of Westport. The stones he had placed on the ground before claiming the pass had not been disturbed. He landed right beside the x tipped arrow he had arranged using the small gray stones.
The town could be seen from here and he could be there in about an hour. “Walking is just so
unmaji like. Why do I do it?” Nothing answered.
There was no wall or gate so he entered unchallenged. Holding the staff in front of him he began to speak. The locals watched. “So have you decided yet? Where should I start, here or over at the docks?” Giving the staff a violent shake a few laughs came from the towns folk.
Hroth’s minds were decided. He walked toward the sea.
“So, it is a town dependent on the water. Shall we destroy them with water?” He stared at the staff. “Fire? Lightning? No of course, that’s it! All of them.” A smile broke through the unkempt beard. He reached across with his left hand and pulled up the right sleeve exposing a crystal bracer that matched the skull cap and staff. The staff moved to his left hand so he could repeat the operation on the other arm. Both sleeves were tucked behind the upper end of the bracers. “Now you can all see that I am the true master of death in this realm. Watch as I claim this hovel as my own.” The staff went back to his right hand with a flick of the wrist. To the onlookers, it almost seemed to jump from one hand to the other.
The guard had heard of the man who was touched by the gods and a squad came to see that he caused no trouble. They resented having to watch a crazy old man. Hroth stood by a dock with both arms raised while he shouted at the ocean.
The sea erupted, as a huge wave eighty feet long and forty feet high formed at the docks edge. A face formed near the center where Hroth stood. “Why am I here?” It sounded similar to a stream running shallow over rocks, but the words were clear.
“This pouch full of oils is yours. Bring others to share if you wish, but to earn it, you must destroy this place and all within your reach.”
“You promise me leather?”
“With seven different oils inside.”
“Let me see.”
As Hroth opened the pouch the wave sent a stream of water forward knocking the guards, now running toward Hroth’s back, off their feet.
“Look well, seven vials each a different fragrance but for you they contain a new flavor and texture in each.”
“I will not share. Your tiny places shall be destroyed.”
“Excellent!” Hroth tossed the pouch into the wave. “I will take care of the rest.” He turned and walked back towards the center of town as the wave crashed into the first buildings, then reformed and began again.
Along the way, palm fire graced the thatch roofs of building after building, setting them ablaze. As more of the guard arrived, lightning was loosed from the staff’s end killing three of the eight men. “That was a good idea! Do it again, but this time the town is the target not the people. Well, not yet.”
Hroth began to float upwards. Suddenly a trench ten feet wide cut the town in half, knocking down buildings as it went beneath them. He turned to see the fire was now burning well and had become large enough for his purposes. The arms were again raised and he shouted at the flames.
A thirty foot tall humanoid form rose from the conflagration. “Who has summoned me?”
“I have. This town from the trench to its end is yours. Do with it what you will.”
“And for this service what do I receive?”
“The mahogany, oak, pine, thatch and anything else you can find within the area. If you wish for more than I am providing, then perhaps I can include the orchards that are beyond the town.”
“I shall burn it all.”
“Enjoy yourself while I go to the other side.” The earlier smile became a smirk as he flew past the trench. Bolts from crossbows passed him as he again floated in place. Pointing at the offending group, a globe of blackness went forth from his hand and exploded. Several of the men were knocked from their feet, others just limply collapsed where they were. The arms rose again as Hroth began to shout at the ground itself.
A column of earth rose before him, slowly taking form. arms grew from the sides, the lower portion split into legs and the top rounded into a head. The eyes opened, and a voice boomed, shaking walls as it traveled through the city. “Who hath brought me to this place?”
“I did.” Hroth floated there without fear, he knew this being well.
“You again! Your last experiment failed. Why should I help you?”
“This is no experiment. There is nothing for you to do except smash the puny things and their constructs.”
“What is it to me if they construct things?”
“Nothing. They are in my way so I ask the favor. I would of course repay at your convenience, or we could once again bargain for the service.”
“Favor it will be, and you will pay now.”
“In what form would you like payment?”
“All of the moving things that are smashed must move again. I want to experiment.” The grin spoke of other things.
“It shall be done this night, Vuder Aarde.”
The destruction began.
I then went to some local farms and hired those who wished to work. That evening they met me at the spot where the road entered the now ruined city. “I have a golden emperor for each of you.” That got their attention away from the destruction. “All you need to do is go into the city and bring me the bodies. I only want the ones that are whole, if it has pieces missing, just leave it.”
“What happened to the city?”One of the farmers asked.
“I destroyed it. You will be safe, the destructive magic is over. It will however return if the bodies are not removed and piled out here. That would of course endanger your homes.”
The locals went into the rubble. Their fear showed, the greed from earlier had all but evaporated.
When the first pair came out with a body they walked toward the archmaji who began to back away from them.
“No! Not here by me, over there, near the old wall.”
It took most of the night, but the city was left devoid of the dead. I paid them and gave some bonus advice. “The remaining valuables in there are yours, take them after you rest, for at dawn the destroyer will return for those.” I aimed the staff at the pile of bodies, some bloated from the sea or charred and blistered by the intense heat.
The farmers ran. I began the rite to fulfill my bargain with the lord of the earth.
* * *
I returned home as always after major battles. I did not require the place so much as the company it provided. My apprentices were off still fighting the war. They were not the company I sought. My wife as always, was waiting in her chair, placed in my room just for that purpose.
She was staring at the corner when I appeared, rising to greet me. The cracking of joints could be heard across the room. There was no grimace, no change of the loving expression at all.
“We must again fix those noises, and perhaps insure that you are properly preserved before I leave again in the morning.”
Without a word she moved toward me, my hand rose to caress her pale gray face. The chill of death was there, had been for many years now. Placing a kiss upon her lips while leaving the staff in the corner I led her to the bed.
Her skin was smooth as she dropped the robe and laid down, I admired the gray pallor that had become her normal tone. Removing the skullcap, bracers and my own robe, I joined her. With a few simple effects, she was both warmed and moistened in the areas required.
Her death, 25 years ago, had left me feeling alone and I wanted her back. I was a wizard, almost a mage and knew much of death. My father’s public execution, when I was but a child, left me in fear of it and all things dead.
The magic of death was not a familiar one for me, so I investigated. The fear did not leave me in much of a position for personal discoveries. I did learn that I could preserve the body, in the same way militant war wizards preserved food for the long journeys their troops made.
After confessing this to a necromancer, and closing off the room so I would not have to come near her again, things changed. I knew that I still wanted her in ways that seemed unnatural, I asked the necromancer to bring her back for me.
It was at this point that I was accepted as an apprentice of necromancy. I was about to become specialized.
According to the necromancer it lasted for years, but unsure of my own talent in the area and even less certain of how it would work or last on her, I renewed the preserving technique weekly, well it was better to be safe.
I paid two local women to come in bathe her and change the garments that had been soiled by her death. That was when rumors began to run through the town.
The man who feared death and anything dead was keeping his dead wife! He would not even go near a piece of raw meat. What could he possibly want with her? That question produced other talk.
What bothered me was that the talk was right. As her husband, I wanted her, yet could not bring myself to go near her.
At first, I could not even look in. I did still talk to her from the doorway. It was easy. Open the door and talk, tell her about what was happening in town and with our friends. I just stayed in the hall while doing it. The women from town had laid her out on the bed. It was as if she was only sleeping, or perhaps ill.
The experimentation began. I took steps at a time into the room until I realized I was unable to touch her. I could at best get to within a single step but, could not bring myself to get closer.
Once I learned the art of reanimating, I used it on her. The method, with its intricate formulas and motions, had taken two years to learn, but for her sake I mastered it. From there, it did not take long for me to reason out that if she moves she is not really dead. If she is not dead, then I need have no fear. She was ill to the point of an infirmity, certainly not dead. The dead do not move.
I taught her to rise when I entered. She began to excite me again and I did touch her, just a simple caress of the cheek at first. I taught her to move about the room. Then I realized I had to do something about her joints, they cracked with every motion. This was not normal so I needed to heal her. I learned to do what the healers said could not be done, it took months, but her joints no longer made noises. Little by little I learned about her infirmity. Her skin is still fresh and smooth, it is only her color that makes her seem unlike herself. Well, that and her silence. It was nearly a year later that she became my wife again.
She is never mentioned. Others do not understand my undying love for her, so she stays in my room, in her favorite chair, waiting until I return.
Bollofaro strode into the sitting room. A stone fireplace dominated the west wall, the rest of the room was plastered and whitewashed. The deep green of the upholstery blended with the dark wood flooring. Light came in through the north facing window, bathing the entire room in the soft orange morning light.
He moved across the room with purpose, and dropped onto the unused end of the sofa facing the only other occupants. “You two spend more time with them than I do. What are they up to now?”
Shooter gave a questioning glance to Jaffar who simply shrugged with that don’t ask me look. “All right, I’ll ask. Who are them and they?”
“Them would be Julie and Donna, and they would be the ones who follow them around.”
“Now I know who you’re talking about. Would you care to explain what your talking about?”
The cowled head spun, a hand came up and bared the round face. He was clean shaven from crown to chin, the green eyes flashing a fiery intensity. They bore directly into Jaffar.
“Don’t look at me, I didn’t ask.” His held back laughter barely concealed.
The wizard threw his hands up. “Are either of you aware that both groups have been exercising horses?”
“I take it you mean more than required for equestrian training.” Shooter seemed genuinely unsure.
“Just wait, I’ll get Cori in here.” His eyes closed, the intensity drained from his face, leaving an almost blank expression. The wizard mumbled a few inaudible words, then sat calmly for a few moments. The others clearly heard him whisper, “Come to the sitting room.” With a sudden jolt he snapped back to normal. “He will be here soon.”
Shooter got up to leave, receiving a scowl from Bollofaro. He felt the need to explain, “I’ll be right back.” When the look didn’t change he raised his hands. “Honest, I’ll be right back.”
Jaffar chuckled, drawing the scowl away from the master archer.
Minutes later Shooter returned with three mugs and a pitcher of wine. Pouring one for the wizard he asked. “Should I get more or will the little guy get here in time.
“He’ll be here, but I’m not sure where he was.”
Nearly an hour later, whistling a tune none of them recognized, in walked Cori wearing dark tights and tunic, a black coif filled his left hand and the orange-red covering on his head that passed for hair. “All right, I’m here.”
“Good. “Tell them about what is going on now.”
“Sure, one of us is about to go fill this pitcher. I’ve only got half a mug.”
“That’s not what I meant!”
“I’m sure, but then again, I’m not sure.”
Before Jaffar laughed uncontrollably he grabbed the pitcher and walked out.
As the irate wizard glared at Cori, he re-worded his comment. “What is it you want to know?”
“Tell them what Julie and Donna are planning.”
They waited less than patiently for Jaffar’s return. “I brought two,” He hefted them up to head level, “I know this is going to be a long story.”
Once the mugs had been refilled, and everyone seated, Cori began. “Now that I know what I’m talking about the first thing I should say is, I don’t know what their plans are.”
“I didn’t say I was unaware of what they are doing.” He stared back at Bollofaro who relaxed a little. “They have been doing things since about a month after their punishment began, that makes me think they are working toward a common goal. Lately that goal seems to be outside the confines of the ranch.”
“We were just told that they have been working horses. Is there anything else to say they might travel?”
“Yes.” Turning to Shooter, “They are keeping pieces of canvas well oiled and have gathered poles, also it has come to my attention that someone is stocking up on jerky.”
Shooter fingered the rim of his mug, “You think it’s them?”
“I think it could be.”
A frustrated Jaffar gave up, his I’m sorry look in the wizard’s direction. “So what is going on out there that would lead Julie to recruit Donna?”
“It might be the other way around. Donna was over in the barge area several times with Sara, sometimes with Theo. They were asking about the needs of the town being planned upriver.”
Shooter shook his head looking right at Jaffar. “I find it hard to believe they would go that way without taking the whole ranch along. What about you?”
Julie and Victor know we are planning to go back. No, you’re right, they would not go that way without more force. They are thinking something else.”
“Not unless they plan to go with the caravan.” Cori winked at Shooter, who smiled and looked at the ceiling.
“They would not work for the competition! Neither Suzanne or Jennifer would betray me like that.” Bollofaro was still upset.
“Relax, none of them would but …” Looking past the wizard at the priest, Cori realized something had occurred to Jaffar. “What?”
“We don’t need to worry. They are going, but it won’t be up river.”
“They can’t get horses to the island, so what are you thinking?” The archer raised a single eyebrow.
“South. Something caught their attention, and you know how persuasive Julie can be.” Shooter nodded. “All right, she finds out what Donna is planning and talks her out of it.” Cori didn’t object, “Then persuades her to go with them to do whatever they have in mind.”
Bollofaro got back into the conversation. “So you want to let them go?”
“I want to wait. Cori can keep up with their preparations and let us know when everything is ready. Then if nothing has been said to us, we can interfere.”
“You want to test their integrity?” Cori jumped the question in.
“No, I want to see if they ask advice this time.”
“That’s the same as letting them go.”
“Only if we determine that it is not more than they can handle. If it is, we can adjust the plan, or one of us can go with them.”
With a course of action decided upon, they went back to their own doings. When they had all left the room, Essira stood and gathered her mending. As she left she was smiling, enjoying her moment of invisibility. This occurred more and more often now, she was a part of the ranch so they talked freely with her about, as if she was not there. It gave her the insights that let her run the ranch more effectively. The Magus even asked her once if she had ever practiced the seers art. This time she could warn Suzanne, maybe when she stopped by tomorrow. They were planning to have sweet breads and tea with Talmae, like they had the day she arrived.
Nine days later the advice given to Suzanne, and passed on to Jen, became reality. Crystal went into the sacristy to see Jaffar, Philip climbed up to Shooter’s loft, Sara and Theo walked into Gormi’s forge, Donna climbed through a window at Cori’s mill house, and Jennifer strode to the desk, interrupting the reading Bollofaro was doing. They all had one objective, to ask for their mentors advice.
Hours later they gathered in the team house. Crystal filled mugs, while everyone settled in. Jennifer came from her room with plates of sweet breads to go with the ales. As they settled into eating, their eyes fell onto Donna, one by one, until everyone was quiet.
“Well, since we all seem to be in a good mood, I will assume that none of you was refused.” There was nothing but satisfied grins as she scanned the room. “IN FIVE DAYS WE RIDE!”
“WE RIDE!” the shouts could be heard around most of the ranch.
Donna, by nature, was curious, “So what advice did everyone get?”
Philip answered first. “Don’t miss and don’t lose the bow.”
Sara giggled and added, “From Gormi, it was kill well.”
“… and return.” Theo added the thought when Sara seemed to be finished.
Crystal shook her head. “Jaffar talked a lot, but what he meant was, don’t let anyone die.”
“I was told to be sure of my timing.” Jennifer sounded unsure.
Donna would have to talk with Jen later, for now, she quickly finished the list. “I am not to stick my head in any dark holes.”
* * *
As was the norm, Cori was the last of the mentors to come strolling in. Jaffar had taken his usual chair, while Gormi and Shooter chatted on one of the sofas. Tromacillis sat on the window sill looking out, to Cori, her mind seemed to be somewhere else. The wizard leaned on the unlit fireplace watching, or at least he seemed to be, you never could tell with that magically darkened cowl hiding his face.
Cori chose a seat on the other sofa, with his back to the elf in the window.
Jaffar began the group discussion. “Are there any objections to letting them go?”
“Of course there are!” Bollofaro nearly popped to full height.
“I knew you would have one. Why?”
“It is too far away, we could not get there to help them if they got into trouble and…”
“Gettin into trouble is why they are goin, let the young uns kill a few things.”
“And how many will not come back?” Bollofaro turned on Gormi.
“As many as failed to learn what we taught them.”
“And what if that is one of your students?”
“They will fight well.”
Jaffar looked to Shooter when Bollofaro threw his hands up in frustration. “What about you?”
“No reservations. I find his bow to be true.”
Cori just tossed his opinion out, unprompted. “They will be fine, after all it is not populated by anyone. Is that not why we call them ruins?”
“Well, Crystal has the ability to keep them whole, so I see no reason to deny them.”
Tromacillis rose from her perch. A look was exchanged between elf and dwarf, its meaning lost on the others in the room. Gormi nodded, and their demeanor changed from one of pleasant company, to that of the bearer of serious news. Tromacillis walked to the fireplace and faced the group. “All who are younger than I, sit and listen.”
All save Bollofaro were sitting. “What is this?”
“A telling of lore, wizard. By the customs of such tellings, the eldest gives the lore that it may be remembered by younger generations as it happened. It is then by this custom, that unless you have seen more than six hundred turns of the seasons, listening would be wise.”
“Now that all are paying attention, the dwarf and I have compared our lore, finding that it differs little. You shall hear it, as I heard it.
For many generations, Humans, Elves, Dwarves, and others, coexisted through these lands in peace and even friendship.
There were humans who worshiped an animalistic goddess, Uytha. As the worship grew, and more became involved, those who were its leaders were granted special powers by the deity.
It took another two generations, but the religion spread to the Elves. In less than a generation, the special powers were among the Elvin communities as well as the Dwarves, and others that were native to the land.
When it was discovered how the powers were spreading, not only among the faithful but beyond, it began to be known more as a curse.
The practice was banned from all native lands. The humans had become so involved that they refused to ban its practice. The response to this was severe. Contact with the humans was banned and punishable by banishment, according to my …. the kings decree.
All races purged their own kind of the accursed members of society. During this purge, it was discovered that six different types of the religion existed. Each of these were destroyed; temples, churches, chapels and shrines were dismantled, with the pieces and lands reconsecrated and returned to nature.
During the following generation, the cursed forms of the humans began to enter our lands and inflict the curse upon the people. At first, we purged the infection, then as the invasion continued … our response was to repel it.
Elves spoke to Dwarves, between our two peoples, the other races were contacted. The infected humans were invading every land of every race.
The leaders came together. Each king came to the meeting with seven guards, one for each king. The meeting lasted for weeks, with only arguments resulting. Four kings; the Elf, Dwarf, Gnome and the Maia, wanted to keep any further incursions from happening. Two kings, the Cath Balug and the Cetus, respected the new animal nature of the changeling humans, and wanted nothing to do with any campaign against them. The last ruler, the king of the Alicanto, chose not to participate because the humans were not threatening his people, and it was believed among his people, that they could not.
One night the winged folk left for their cliffs, few have seen them since.
It was the following day that the wars really began. The kings who respected the new religion, told each of the others that they would support the humans in any war.
The Dwarves,” she nodded toward Gormi, “the Maia,” she indicated Cori, the Gnomish and the Elves, were all that remained. It was agreed amongst them, that regardless of the other races, all infectious invasions had to stop.
After agreeing that the Maia would assemble in the Elvin kingdom and the Gnomes with the Dwarves, they left to assemble their armies.
The following spring, the combined armies set out for the infected lands and the killing began. At first the attacks on them went quickly, settlement after settlement was purged of life and destroyed. The Elves have not the taste for war that exists among the Dwarves. The Maia were also less enthusiastic. The war was carried on by the Dwarves and their cousins in earnest.
Over the next hundred years the fighting continued till the infected tribes were destroyed. They had begun fighting between themselves by then, so they were weakened. The feline fought with the canine and the rodent, the boarish peoples tried to survive wars with both canine and feline. We found that settlements of those who resembled the bears were nearly deserted when we arrived. The one that worshiped a great lizard was completely empty. The people were gone, though all of their belongings had been left behind.
No peace has existed since between Elves and the animal races.” Tromacillis looked around the room, all faces were focused on her with rapt attention. “That is the lore of how the Elves came to the eternal war with the animal races. It also explains why the humans were gone when you arrived.”
The room became silent. They just stared at her, it seemed to last forever.
“Why are you telling us this now?” Jaffar used his stoic face and tone.
It was Shooter who responded. “Because that is where this group is going.” He turned back to the elf. “Am I right?”
“Aye, tis.” The gruff dwarvin voice answered for her. There was a flurry of motion as all heads turned to its source, Gormi.
“What do you think they will find?”
“Not much.” Gormi glanced across the room and got a nod. “It was the site of the final battle between the Dwarves and the animal clans. The lore masters say it lasted for two days.”
“Is it safe for them?”
Gormi faced Shooter, “All I can say, is that none were alive when the Dwarves left.”
“Is it possible that recent events are connected to those wars?” The Magus was beginning his logical search.
Tromacillis and Gormi stared across the room, each hoping the other would answer.
Bollofaro’s head moved back and forth, as if he were watching a ball bounce between them. “Do either of you have an opinion? I’m not asking you to cut one down and count the rings in its bones, a good guess will do.”
The musical intonations of Elvin speech either didn’t carry her emotions, or Tromacillis herself just wasn’t displaying them. “The nests that you uncovered in the local town are most certainly recent, however, the creature killed by the young souls those few moons ago, may have been a direct descendant of the old clans.” She locked stares with Jaffar without flinching. “We have none such as you who can spot them in their other forms. There may have been survivors who were hidden among the animal races.”
“How many clans did you say there were?”
“Six, and they found it hard to get along.”
“What were the clans?”
“The Elves and Maia fought the jaguar and boar clans almost exclusively, we shared the burden of the wolves and crocodile with the Dwarves, who shouldered the bear and rat clans.”
Before Jaffar could say anything, Gormi held up a hand. “The wolf and bear clans tolerated the rats, maybe because they cleaned up the scraps, or just because the jaguars didn’t. Like the lady said, they lost the ability to work together. Twas a good thing too, it made them easier to beat. That war could have lasted another hundred years if they had stayed together.”
Bollofaro took a deep breath blowing it out slowly. “This does change the situation.” After he had their attention, he continued. “We have to bring them in and explain to them why they cannot go.”
“No, I think not.” When Jaffar spoke the wizard spun to face him.
“Why not?” It was more of a demand than a question. The room became silent as the two powerful friends faced off.
“I am surprised you do not see it. All we have are a few isolated incidents here in town, and a single creature on an island. These may have no connection at all. The …”
“You want to let students wonder into what may be a den full of those things?”
The face on Jaffar became a granite bust. “You are Magus, and I accept your advice most of the time, but I always hear you out. Now, I will finish, and talk over any interruption you decide to make. The only way for us to know if there is a larger problem is to investigate the ruins. The best way for us to do that, is to send what amounts to scouts with orders to return without engaging the enemy, should it be there.”
“I am not so sure, but if everyone agrees, I will allow Jennifer to go with the rest of them.”
Two days had passed since the gathering of the mentors, and yet nothing had been said to those who were going.
The morning air was fresh and clear as the six gathered outside the stables. The excitement was contagious; horses stomped, nosing each other and snorting, all of them anxious to be going.
Riding south along the coast, they let the horses run to relieve the built up energy, later they began changing their pace at various intervals to keep their mounts interested. The group continued like this till about midday.
Crystal a took Philip aside during the rest. “We need to start watching for game.”
“Didn’t we bring food?”
“Yes, but it will last longer, and fresh meat is better than jerky.” She shook a piece at him.
“You’re right,and it will make the ride more interesting.”
Theo enjoyed exploring. This whole area is great! The little stream makes just enough noise to be relaxing and there are signs all over that say the game is plentiful.
Philip is sitting against a tree carving something and everyone else was still sleeping.
Plenty of moon light filtered down. The overhanging branches did not seem to be as thick here. The tinkling of the stream was background music for what sounded like thousands of insects singing their songs. I can hear three or four kinds along with the tree frogs.
One of them in particular stared back at me. Its color almost matched the tree bark, with light greenish-yellow spots on its back. I might not have seen it until it moved.
Crystal warned me to be careful tonight. Why would she worry about such things? I have been bitten by several insects, but nothing serious has happened.
By morning, I am sure that Philips carving will have a shape that is known to us all.
Guess I’ll walk around again, since he is focused on his wood.
* * *
Morning came as they all do. Philip was dozing against his tree. Jen was the first to wake as usual and thanked me for banking a fire. She set about brewing her usual klaa. That would wake everyone else, it always did.
Donna and Sara woke heading toward the fire for Jen’s brew. I met them there.
“Oh no! What does it mean? How can it be?” Crystal’s clear voice, a near soprano, created silence. It quieted the birds and the monkeys, being suspicious, I followed suit listening for the imagined danger.
The surrounding sounds slowly began again as Donna went to her. “What is it Crys?”
She held Philip’s carving in an open palm. “Explain this.”
The trinket, about three inches in length, was obviously a crocodile, and from tail to neck it was flawless. Nobody would expect less from one of Philip’s whittles, he just seemed to bring a new life to the wood he used. However, popping out of the shoulder area was clearly a hairless human head!
“I have no explanation for this.” With a quick glance over her shoulder, “Jen, look at this would you.”
We all walked over. I took klaa for Philip who had been wakened by Crystal’s screech. From what I could see, the mouth was pulled back into a toothy sneer with crocodile teeth rather than human. The detail of his carvings was always beyond compare. I wondered why he took up the bow instead of following his father as a carver. “So why are we discussing his carving?”
“His last carving was of a man being peeled off of a rat, like he was just skin covering a fruit.” Crystal watched Philip as she described it. “The next day the rat creatures were found in town. You should remember how that worked out.” She walked away her head hanging.
I took a step to follow.
“Leave her to think.” Donna knew her better than I, so I did as she asked.
“So do you think we are going to be attacked by crocodiles?”
“No, but she does.”
We continued our southward journey, reaching a wide river at just about the time to set camp. There was a delta that looked solid enough from shore. A few trees and lots of brush covered it.
Philip, who was also our archer, had been lucky today. There would be four rabbits and a large bird for meat this evening. Jen used some sort of magic to clean the kills while I set the fire.
Crystal paced the river bank feverishly pointing things out to Donna. I was not close enough to hear them, but crocodiles was my guess.
I hoped that Crystal was not as superstitious about healing as she was with carvings. If she was something was going to kill me.
Philip was relaxed whittling a new arrow, Jennifer was roasting dinner and Sara, the only other true sword in the group, was honing the edge of her blade. Donna and Crystal were the guard tonight. I pitied Donna. I ate and went to sleep. If I dreamed of crocodiles, I would not tell Crystal in the morning.
The sun arrived with a cup of Jen’s brew. I always suspected that magic had something to do with the flavor, but was not going to insult her by asking. It was Philip who handed it to me. “I am going up this hill to find out if I can see the island from here.”
“Does it matter?” I asked as I took a sip.
“Yes. If I can see it, then this is the area we are looking for, if not, we move up river. You want to come along?”
The hill didn’t seem to be much. The slope was fairly steep in places but was easily manageable for the horses.
We made the top and found a somewhat clear place to look from. Philip almost immediately proclaimed, “This is the spot.”
I looked out in the same direction. I only saw ocean and told him so.
“Look right there.” He reached across my mount so I could sight down his finger. “See the patch of trees, or at least green there?”
“I think so.” It was just a dot on the horizon, but, if he said it was trees, I was willing to go along with him.
Back at camp that is exactly what he told the others. They all believed this was the spot where we would find the ruins. I didn’t see anything that resembled a building.
A few of the taller hills seemed to be of interest while the smaller ones were being dismissed. I left the discussion to the brains of the group, I was here for my sword.
Donna chose what seemed to be the largest hill and we rode up. At the top, there it was, a small stone structure about fifteen feet square. It rose only about eight feet or so out of the hill top, and though it was nearly buried in old leaves and other debris, you could glimpse something on top of it. The sides were made of a dark stone, and each appeared to be of a single piece that seemed to be perfectly fitted together. No door or window was visible.
“There has to be a way in. Nobody builds something that they can’t get into.” Donna sounded sure of herself.
Sara pulled two shovels from her pack horse and tossed one to me. “Guess we are looking for the door.” She didn’t say much, but she was good with that sword of hers.
Jen came to me about an hour later. “Instead of digging a long ditch along the wall, try going down to find the street, or whatever is at the bottom and I can help from there.”
Magic is not something I understand, so I didn’t argue. I just dug into the ground looking for a street and wondering why Sara had brought shovels. Sara reached it first.
Donna called to us from atop the structure. “Come up, Jen can take it from here.” We found a rope on the west side and climbed up. Sara went first.
On top, I saw what could only be glimpsed from below. It was a dark gray stone, somewhat darker than those that the structure had been built from, and unlike the fitted slabs that formed the building, it looked to be a single solid piece. About eight feet in length and four wide, it had an oblong indentation in the top, which was about two feet wide and six in length and was centered. The sides were decorated with what looked to me like dancing skeletons. Crystal’s interest was apparent, since she wasn’t paying attention to much else.
Jen had already started her magic, and it did not take long before I could see dirt flying. It started where she stood, and traveled around the building as if directed by her. I was impressed, she cleared all four sides faster than we had dug our holes.
From the edge, I could see that hers was about five feet wide and went nearly to the bottom that Sara had found. Only loose dirt remained, and as of yet, no point of entry could be seen.
“Best I can do till you find another starting point.”
Sara and I went back down and cleared the loose soil. It went to a solid stone surface, not the cobbled road we expected. Jen took over and widened it to about ten feet.
While clearing the loose debris, I found the back of a statue, butted up against the outer edge of the stone walkway. Sara had also found one about ten feet away from me. Statues mean this was a building of some importance, and that Donna is right, there has to be a way in. The space between them was centered on the small building we were camping on top of. We found two more statues on each side, which we could wait till tomorrow to uncover.
Gathering up top again, we found Philip cleaning another rabbit on the center stone. With that and the meat left from last night, we would eat well again.
The statues seemed to make Crystal even more nervous. Wish we hadn’t found them. With Jen’s help we found a set of steps between them, and discovered that they were both of a tall thin woman.
We took a break for dinner, the steps could wait till morning. I guessed that there were also steps between the other statues, which meant a lot of digging tomorrow.
Sara and Jen had guard tonight, so after the meal I found a spot by the big stone and laid down. Donna was on the other side, with Crystal and Philip at the ends.
The night was full on when Jen woke us with, “There might be a problem.”
There was indeed a commotion. I could hear a type of chant – “chaaar-da”- from many voices which were not very far away. When I stood, I could see where the noise was coming from. There were torches near the bottom of the hill, with figures dancing in and out of the light. Others were gathered around, and it seemed that they were doing the chanting.
Crystal pointed out that they were on the north side, same as the two uncovered statues. She and Jen began conversing about if that had any significance or not. I went to join Philip and Donna.
“I will not have enough arrows if they come up.”
“I do not think they intend to scale the hill.”
“Hey, Theo, hope your up for some sword work.” Philip knew how to greet people well.
“Sure, Sara and I can handle it if they stick to the step area, but if they spread out, we are in trouble.” Sara checked her sword to be sure it was in the right place for an easy draw.
Then Philip asked the wrong question. “Do they look completely human to you?”
I could not see them well, but there was only one answer with their hunched over postures and what looked like ivory protruding from beneath their jaws. “No.”
“You guys stay with Jen, I’m going to take a closer look.” Donna headed for the rope.
Sara suggested, “Philip go to the statue and make sure she does not get into trouble.” I decided that it was better than being up top so Sara and I went with him. Jen was now paying attention to the new arrivals, while Crystal was watching us.
“She is almost there. Should be able to see them from where she is.” I have no idea how Philip could see her, all I saw was darkness, and the dancers.
Crystal joined us just as Philip announced, “She is on the way back.”
Her arrival surprised all except Philip. “They are not human.” Her announcement caught them a bit off guard.
“Then what are they?” I felt the need to know.
“They look like boars on two feet. Well, sort of boar-ish at least. They have fur, it is thin bristly and looks brown, and their tusks look dangerous, if they get close to you.”
“Are they armed?” Sara, it seemed, was also in need of knowing.
“None were that I saw.”
Jen called down from her perch. “You might as well come up and go back to sleep. If they are unarmed ,I don’t think they will bother us.”
We did just that, though getting to sleep was hard with all the noise. The boar like beings were gone when I woke.
The day was spent with Jen extending our digs down the sets of steps, as Sara and I dug down beside them to look for some sort of door. What we found was another landing, like the one we had just come from, only broken into four parts by the steps. The wall I dug out was covered in glyph-like writing, so was the one on Sara’s side.
After Sara, Jen and I cleared the tier, we went up to find Philip plucking two large game birds on the center stone. Jen stayed behind to try and read the walls. Donna had gathered wood and was tending to a small fire on the other end of the stone. She had found holes on the corners and used the two at that end for a spit. Crystal had also been busy; she collected four long branches and narrowed an end to fit into the holes she found at each corner of the large platform that we were camping on. The tops were wrapped in dry grass to create torches.
“I soaked the grass in oil, so they should burn through the night. Theo, you and Philip are up tonight right?”
“Let me know in the morning how long they last, so if we need more, I can make them tomorrow so we are not in the dark all night when on guard.”
“I will. I guess that means we are going to keep looking for a door.”
Donna chimed in. “Unless someone has another idea.”
“Then wee keep looking for a way in.”
“I think we should uncover one whole set of steps tomorrow. Something about these first couple of levels, makes me think the hill is the building.” Leave it to Crystal to make the idea seem mountainous.
“I am not sure if moving the entire hill is within my abilities, but I agree we should uncover one full set.” Jen had joined us. “I think the walls on the side tell a story, but I only have a piece of it, so it does not make sense yet.”
“That is a lot of digging!” Sara must be as sore as I am.
“Should we try to find one that is not buried?”
“I have moved around looking for game and have not seen any buildings. So either they are all buried, or this area has a lot of small hills and this was built in the middle of them.”
“So, do we go back and tell the mentors about the boar people and let them decide what to do next?” I guess Donna had to ask.
“No!” Everyone turned to Philip shocked that he would be so definite. “A group that large should have left signs of passage. I could not find any. I do not know where they came from, or where they went to.”
“Are you saying they are ghosts?” Crystal was suddenly interested.
“Whatever they are, they leave no marks on the soft ground, no bent grass or snapped twigs in the brush. There is not even a trampled fern where they danced!”
“Donna will you let me go down with you tonight?”
“If they are real and you make noise, we will be in a lot of trouble down there.”
“But, if they are ghosts, it is my responsibility to lay them to rest.”
“So we are going to fight a hoard of ghosts?”
“No Theo, I hope to find another way.”
While we wondered what other way Crystal would, or even could find, she finished cooking the birds.
After we ate, Donna took her down so they could be there before sunset. Crystal seemed sure the dancers would return and Donna wanted to avoid her making noise on at least half the trip. The rest of us hoped the creatures would not be back tonight.
As darkness began, the dancers began to emerge. From the forest, the vague shapes began to close in on the same area. Jen and Sara were trying to sleep as the chanting began again, chaaar-da. I was thinking that it sounded louder than before ,when Philip tapped me on the shoulder.
“You should see this.” He went to the east side of the platform, I followed.
“Where did they come from?”
“Same as the others, I think.”
These looked to be taller than the boar-ish ones, and did not produce the white flashes from tusks. We decided they were different, but would leave the investigative work to Donna.
The girls returned, and Donna quickly left to look at our new visitors. Crystal sat with her back against the center stone looking perplexed.
“So are they ghosts?” I just wanted to know what I would be fighting when the time came, and I knew it would come.
“I don’t know for sure, they are undead but … I am just not sure what kind.”
“Not solid though are they?”
She turned her head toward Philip. “No, they are not.”
Crystal obviously wanted to be alone with her thoughts. We left her alone and watched for Donna’s return. She was asleep when Donna did return.
“These look like the bear creature that Julie and the others told us about from the island.”
“How many do you think?”
“About the same as the boars. Why?”
“Nothing special, just keeping track of how many things we will have to fight to get out of here.”
“I think Crystal has it under control.”
I was glad Donna went to sleep after that. This new group made me nervous. That thing on the island had dropped Gretta with one swing, and she is better with her sword than I am, there are a lot more than one of them. Did we trap ourselves on this hill, or building, or whatever it is? I am tired, maybe a bit of sleep will help. “Hey Philip”
“If you let me sleep the first half of the night, I’ll let you sleep the second half.”
“Agreed. It is going to be quiet anyway, except for that chant of theirs. Wonder what it means.”
“Ask Jen, she can translate remember.”
“I remember ,but I get nervous talking to her.”
“I’ll ask, come with me.”
I took my nap and let Philip get his. He was right, nothing except the chaaar-da chant all night.
Jen was brewing klaa when I motioned for Philip to follow me over.
“Jen, do you know what that chant means?”
“Sure do, why?
“Just curious after listening to it all night.”
“Let me change, is the way I understand it.”
“I think they are spirits of changelings. This area must have been some kind of focal point for their town, that is the only reason I can think of for them to gather here.”
“That makes sense. I was thinking last night that a door is most likely to be near the steps, right?”
“So you want to do the steps, and then just go down both sides without digging out the whole landing?”
“I’ll talk to Donna and see if I can get her to agree. It would save a lot of work.”
“Yes, and Sara and I could do with less shoveling, especially if we have to fight our way out.”
“Good point. You know Crystal will not leave until we do something about them. She would stay behind if she had to.”
“Jaffar told us not to leave people alone, if we do, the masters would have our uniforms, if not our heads.” Philip had finally found the courage to speak.
“We will not leave her, don’t worry.” Jen smiled a bit.
It might have been the light from the flames, but, I think Philip blushed. Now I knew why she made him nervous.,
Jen was true to her word and we cleared about a hundred feet of each stair without going to the sides. She told us the sides could wait till tomorrow.
Philip was skinning a boar when we got up top. I have seen him miss, just not often.
Crystal was worried about the boar insulting the boar-ish spirit dancers. I don’t know much about such things, but her argument made sense.
We were all hungry so we ate it anyway, even Crystal.
That night the south side of the hill gained its own dancers. We were now surrounded on three sides!
Donna did her normal recon. “These are half human-half rat, like the ones in town were. They are not trampling the grass either.”
“Oh no, more spirits.” Crystal sounded concerned. I hope it was not because they were semisolid and hostile.
“Can you deal with all of them?” It was Donna’s turn to get worried.
“I don’t know. If we can find out why they are here, maybe I can. If not then … well, I just don’t know.”
“Then we will find a way inside to get the information.” Now Donna sounded certain. How did she do that? Go from nervous to sure in a few breaths.
“We will not leave you, anything you need, just let us know.” Jen tried to reassure her, though Crystal didn’t seem any more sure of the situation than she had been.
“Thank you.” The priestess’ head was hanging but we would stay.
The chant seemed much louder with three groups involved, even the horses were getting skittish. Then, I began to wonder; how would we get the horses out of here? With the wall of dirt we had created, there was no sure or easy way. I decided to talk to Jen about it in the morning. Maybe I could involve Philip again, since the horses needed a good run to work off their nervous energy.
When morning came, Philip helped with the digging and clearing to get the horses out. We had enough meat left from the boar so he didn’t need to hunt today.
Sara was helping Donna look for an entrance, as Jen strode back and forth between both places. Philip and I were on the west side where no ghostly dancers had appeared. Our theory was, that it would spook the horses less. Jen smiled at that, she knew our real reason: we just wanted to be able to get out without having to fight our way through a horde of creatures.
Crystal was going from step to step, and then from one set to another, looking at the carvings on the low wall that was on either side of the stairs.
We were eating what remained of the boar that night, when Jen asked Crystal about her satisfied look. “Did you learn anything today?”
“I think I understand why they are where they are, and who will be next.” With a grin larger than her face, and a glance at Philip, she proclaimed her triumph. “I do still need to figure out why they have not gone to Malphas though.”
“All right, so why are they where they are?” Donna wanted the information from the obvious omission.
“I want to know what is next.” Philip’s tone was flat, this usually only happened when he got nervous.
“Well first, the boar men are on the north side and all the carvings over there are of boars. It is the same with the bears to the east, and the rats to the south. The parts that you uncovered even show the dance they do.” Turning toward Philip she continued, “The next group will come from the wetlands over to the west. They will be the crocodile men that you carved.”
“Relax Theo, I think they will be spirits just like the others. But to answer you, I think tonight. They all came one night after the other, so it makes sense.”
They sat on the edge of the structure to watch the new group arrive. All except Sara who motioned me toward the rope. We went down and to the top of the steps on the opposite side.
“Theo we need a plan.”
“Crystal said …”
“Do you think we are getting out of here, after being surrounded, without a fight?”
“During the day we could.”
“If we survive the night.”
I looked at the wide steps and the landing that we stood on. It would take eight to defend it, and this was just one side. “I see what you mean.”
Sara told me her idea. “If we stay up on the platform, you and I can each take one side. We put Donna and Philip each on a side, with Crystal running around for healing and whatever else she can do. Jen will support with her magic.” She looked at me, and when I didn’t respond, the frustrated sounding question came. “So! What do you think?”
“Well I have questions.”
“First, do you realize that we would be sacrificing the horses? Second, if they are spirits, will our swords stop them?”
“I don’t know, I didn’t think of that.” Pulling her sword she looked down at the gathering bears. “I had never thought that I would not be able to trust my sword.” When she turned back to me she looked nothing short of worried. The idea disturbed her more than I had thought it would. “Gormi said nothing of creatures that could not be hurt by our weapons.”
“Perhaps we should talk this over with Crystal. Jaffar would have taught her how to defeat them.” It was the best suggestion I could come up with to restore her confidence.
We watched, in silence, as the bear people began their dance, and chanting I noticed her glancing at her sword several times. All I could do was hope that her trust in the blade would return. It felt good to fight beside her, and she is better with a sword than I am. In the midst of my reverie, I heard her.
“You’re right. Her eyes brightened even in the dim light from our fire. “There is no reason not to trust my sword. Let’s go ask Crystal what she thinks.”
I couldn’t help but smile. “Good.”
When we had made it back to the others, Donna and Philip had laid down, while Jen and Crystal were deeply engaged in discussion about why the new guests had failed to show up as expected.
Laying a hand on Sara’s shoulder I gave my next suggestion. “We should wait till morning when she is not so distracted with trying to figure this out.”
“Yes, I think you are right. Thank you, Theo.”
“Giving me my faith back.” She patted her sword.
“That is what friends do.” My smile was surely noticeable, because she returned it. I watched as she went to lay down. Once she had, it was my turn and I quickly discovered that my thoughts were not of fighting or safety, but of her. Maybe she would like to get away from the ranch for a meal when we got back, Soldier’s Pub would be good. I thought about that until I fell asleep.
We spoke to Crystal in the morning while we were digging a new place for Jen.
“Oh yes, it will have some effect but not nearly as much as something without an edge.”
It was Sara who asked, “Why?”
“A sword will disturb less of the material that makes them. It slices through instead of pushing through. That is what makes it good for living enemies, but not as good for those who are already dead.”
“So if we turn the sword sideways it would be better?”
“I think so. Can you do that?”
Sara grinned, I could hear it in her voice as I tossed another shovel of the loose dirt. “Yes, we use it to knock someone out so that we can talk to them later.”
“Good, then I would do that if we have to. It is good to know that there will be effective help, however, I don’t think we will need it once we find the way in.”
Crystal went back to studying the engravings on the outside of the walls while we kept digging.
Jen helped as needed, so by the time Philip had returned with a small doe, the trench beside each set of steps was finished. These went from the top, down to where they had been cleared on both sides of the steps. It was just a guess, but I figured that there were two more step-like layers that we had not dug down to, or cleared the steps for.
Sara thought we were not going to the bottom to keep the creatures from using the steps. I did not tell her that I didn’t think a spirit needed steps, and besides we had gotten to the top without them.
After eating, Donna, the daughter of a leatherer, was cleaning and preparing the hide for tanning, as she did with all the hides Philip brought back. The raw meat and fat that stuck to the hide was scraped off and tossed into the fire, then it was stretched tight over it to dry as much as possible. This night the rabbit hides were to one side vertically, the boar hide to the other, while the doe was made taut above.
Jen was sitting, leaning back against a tall torch with a far off look in her eyes. She was talking as if responding to a voice none of us could hear. Either it was magic, or she had gone soft from all the sun. Philip was carving a new arrow, while Crystal watched the east ,waiting for the expected spirits.
Sara and I watched the original boar spirits while sitting on the top step, discussing our plan for defense and escape, should it become necessary. We were talking over the usefulness of the parapet wall on either side of the steps, when Crystal yelled.
“They are here! I knew it, they came.”
We went to look. Donna was on her way down for a closer look with Jen, while Crystal watched them begin the dance we were all familiar with.
Philip looked down from his perch on the raised campsite. “They look different.”
“Of course, they are not the same sort of creature.”
“No Crystal, I mean not only them but the others as well. I think I should go down to Donna.”
I had to ask, “What do you mean by different?”
“The only way I can describe it is, um … thicker.”
“Thicker?” Sara seldom spoke during these conversations, so when she did, we listened.
“Yes, thicker. More whole maybe?” Philip’s eyes went to Crystal as he climbed down.
“Are you saying they are becoming solid?”
“I am going down to look.”
As the archer followed the path Donna had taken, I turned to Crystal. “Is it possible for a spirit to become solid?”
“Not that Jaffar has said, but we have not gone into some of the more powerful undead or happenings yet.”
“If they are solid, will they still leave in the morning?”
“I don’t know.” The priestess locked eyes with Sara.
“So you may have just trapped us up here in the middle of an army of whatever they are.”
“I … I … I just don’t know. I hope not.”
Sara drew her sword, I followed her lead. We left Crystal on the platform and went to the stairs below near where Donna and Philip had gone. All we could do is wait for a yell, or someone returning. Neither of us could follow their trail reliably.
The moon had risen when we first saw the three of them moving our way. Donna with sword in hand, Philip with arrow notched and ready. Both were nervously glancing back over their shoulders, as Jen stepped a bit faster when she saw us waiting.
The wizardess went straight to the priestess. Philip and Donna stopped by us and faced the new dancers.
“They are crocodiles.” Donna was a little short of breath. I guessed they had done some running.
Philip took over for her. “Yes, and now they are disturbing the plants, but not leaving impressions on the ground.” With a glance at Donna he continued. “All the others are, too. I ran around to look. Boars, rats and bears are all moving the grass, no tracks though. The grass is not permanently creased either, it just moves a bit as they go through it. I am not totally sure, but I think they are becoming solid.”
Sara and I traded looks of concern.
Philip noticed and just said “Yes.”
“Jen said she knows how to talk to Bollofaro.” We all turned to her. “She wants Crystal there so that maybe Jaffar and she can trade information.”
“What about us?”
“She thinks any of the masters could pass instructions through Bollofaro, but she is not sure.”
Sara gave the order provoking a questioning look at her back. “Lets go.” As she moved to join the wizardess.
* * *
Debbi was on her way out when the cowled instructor called to her. “Hold on!”
Looking back, he seemed to be staring at her. She turned and waited.
“ I’m sorry, please go get Jaffar and as many others that you can find, using your team if necessary, and tell them I need them now.”
“Yes sir.” She nearly ran from the room.
“Now Jennifer, tell me about these spirits.” Pushing his cowl back to reveal the bald head and face so Jaffar could recognize what was happening.
“They sound like trapped souls; easy enough to destroy with magic, weapons will be less effective, if at all.”
Debbi returned with Spencer and Jaffar. “Sir the others are …”
With a hand on her shoulder, Jaffar stopped her.” He is listening to someone right now. Might not even know we are here. Wait for him to finish. I would allow you to stay, but it will be his decision. Understand?”
Bollofaro’s voice sounded hollow.” The idea of them becoming solid disturbs me. Others have arrived. Let me tell them what you have said, and I will relay messages as needed until you are tired.” After a short pause, “Who is here?”
“I am, with both of our apprentices.”
“Sir, the others have been sent for, I used the the team so it would be faster.”
“Good. Thank you Debbi. We will be speaking to Jennifer and Crystal from Donna’s team.”
Jaffar blurted it. “Lycanthropes.”
“It would seem they are some variety of trapped souls of that type.” He continued with the story provided by Jen.
Jaffar commented when he finished. “I agree, they are most likely trapped or tortured souls. There is a way of bringing them back, but, it would require burning flesh or an active altar. That is the only way I know of to give them substance.”
“Jennifer have you found an altar in the area?” Bollofaro shook his head in the negative.
Shooter and Gormi came in with two more apprentices, Anita and Nicholas. While Jaffar asked a question. “Is there a building in the area that might be a temple or have an altar?”
Bollofaro repeated this for Jen. “She says that the buildings are buried, they have only found the one they are camped on top of.”
Gormi grunted his question. “Is it the huge one with the steps going to the top?”
“That is the temple if I understood my father’s description correctly. He said the building was one huge alter with a sacrifice area near the top.”
“Jennifer have you burnt any flesh on the stone you told me about?” He repeated her reply. “Donna threw remnants from hides into the fire and Philip did the same with shavings from his carving.”
“Stop that now!” Jaffar was both worried and excited going by the sound of his voice.
Gormi’s grip on his ax tightened, while Shooter just commented. “That boy can carve.”
Cori came bouncing in with Tamma, they were followed by Aadam, who was alone.
At Jaffar’s questioning look ,the boy answered the unspoken question. “I cannot find the Lady Tromocillis anywhere.” The mysterious elf had once again vanished.
All were now here, save the elf. Bollofaro began to probe deeper into the problem. “How solid are they?” Jaffar paced as the answer was repeated. “Do you think assistance is necessary?”
That had everyone still and listening.
“Jennifer, I am going to use two more spells. You may feel a tingling or something similar. Remember the feeling so you will know when someone is spying on you. Will it disturb your concentration on this?” A moments pause and a grin appeared. “Good, you are doing very well. When I do this, everyone will be able to see you and a small area around you. After that, I will choose another of your group, so that I will be able to see through their eyes. Who do you think would be best?”
Debbi ran from the room dragging Tamma with her.
“Excellent, then Donna shall be the recipient.”
Gormi and Shooter sent their three students on an errand. The only apprentice remaining was John, and he stayed close to Jaffar.
There was a long pause during which Jaffar assumed that Jennifer was explaining to Donna what was about to happen.
Debbi rushed into the room with Tamma, going directly to the table beside Bollofaro’s chair. Tamma place a large silver bowl on it, while Debbi laid a vial of dark liquid, and a leather pouch that made a clicking sound, instantly drawing Cori’s attention. Tamma held a pitcher, while the table was drug in front of the Magus. Jaffar did not complain about the scuffs it made in the floor. After sliding the bowl near her master, Debbi instructed her friend to fill it from the pitcher. Once filled, she poured the contents of the vial into it, making the water tar black in color. Taking her instructors wrists, she moved them to either side of the bowl.
Standing upright, she issued instructions to everyone else in the room. “Those of you who would see into the area, gather close so you can see the surface of the liquid.”
“Thank you Debbi, I can see you have been paying attention.”
The pleasure of his praise could be heard in her reply. “Yes, Magus. The pouch is here as well, I did not know the recipient, so I brought the whole collection. Which do you need?”
“It will be Donna, so I should think the opal would be best.”
“I will have it ready for you.”
Jaffar, for some reason, looked pleased.
Essira came into the room with a tray of crispy roots and cheese. Talmae and Suzanne followed with two trays of cups, having enough for the entire group. Finally, Sylvia carried a tray with four pitchers of wine, and served the impromptu assembly.
When the Magus completed his mumblings the liquid misted over, and as it cleared, the scene carried the depth and life of looking down from a roof top, onto Jennifer, leaning against a torch pole. Donna and Crystal stood between her and the center stone. The two warriors were one to each side with swords drawn, and the archer near Sara was watchful. Upon the center stone could be seen the stretched hides with smoke billowing from inside them.
Jaffar instantly issued an order. “Remove those hides from the fire.”
Bollofaro relayed the command and both Donna and the priestess moved to obey.
Debbi idly commented on the scene. “It seems strange to see them move and not hear them.”
“You will get used to it in time.” Her mentor then further informed her. “When they are done, we will do the other casting.”
“Yes sir, I will place the opal in your hand when you are ready.”
She performed as promised, and just as the opal crumbled to dust, the others students returned, armed and armored. They brought with them similar equipment for their friends.
Bollofaro’s voice broke into the clatter of the armor. “Have her look at each of the creatures.”
We could see Donna move slowly toward the edge to Jennifer’s left. Crystal guided her by holding her arm. They moved out of sight to the right, and eventually back in, as they completed the circuit.
“Jennifer we can end this now, and I will contact you with what we figure out. I do not want you to become tired, if there is a problem.” He sat forward, his eyes cleared and the voice returned to normal. With a blinking glance around the room he asked. “Thoughts?”
“If they become solid, that group is in trouble. We fought for two days to rid that city of everything living, and they do not number the five thousand that we did.” Gormi finally released his grip on the ax.
“I agree.” Shooter added through a mouth full of cheese. When he swallowed, he added, “Gormi and myself would like to send this group to reinforce them.”
“It took them days to reach that area, so neither this anxious band, nor us, could get there in time to be of any use.” Cori was not thinking like a wizard.
Bollofaro smiled. “Do you remember the last time you said that?”
Jaffar laughed, as Cori groaned.
“There is an area, I saw it through Donna. They can be sent.”
Tamma squeaked, “Sent?”
“Magic.”Cori made it clear that he did not like the idea.
“You mean the way you disappeared before?”
“Yes Tamma, like that. This time you would go with your friends though.” Bollofaro tried to ease her fears.
Debbi helped. “Tamma, I will go along, so will the rest of us. Remember, they came back and were alright, we will be too.”
“Ok.” Not enthusiastic, but at least agreeable.
“So, do we send them?” Bollofaro looked to each mentor in turn getting a nod of agreement, that is, until he got to Jaffar.
“In the morning, if the creatures do not disappear.”
Debbi voiced her enthusiasm. “We will be at the morning meal, ready to leave.”
* * *
Nervous anxiety kept most of us awake well into the night. The only exception was Sara, who slept with the hilt of her sword in hand as it laid on top of her, shield propped beside with the straps out, so it would be easy to grab. I think the idea of a coming fight relaxed her.
I woke early. The glow of the sun was just edging over the trees, giving the horizon an eerie green tint just below the orange. The dancing continued around us. I told Donna to take a nap, I would stay up. She agreed.
Taking my shield along, I went down to feed the horses, figuring we might need them in a hurry.
Sara came down as I was finishing. “The others are up too, should we saddle them?”
“After they eat. Are we leaving?”
“I’m not sure ,but if we do, going through them might be work.”
“Yes, I thought they would go away as the sun came up. They didn’t”
“I see that.” She smiled at me. “Ready for the war?”
“As ready as Gormi made us.”I couldn’t help but to smile. “Shall we go see what Donna has decided?”
“I think Jen is making the decision. She was getting ready for a talk with the Magus again.”
“So he is telling her, and we are following instructions of someone who is not here?”
“He saw through Donna remember? He could be looking now for all we know.” She was looking down at the dancing boars. The smile faded and her brow began to crease. “I sometimes wonder if these things would have happened if they had not come to Portsend.”
“If they did, would we have been ready for them?”
The answer to both questions came from above.
“Yes.” Jen’s voice.
“No.” Crystal’s answer.
Both of them sounded certain. Sara and I looked up. It was she who asked, “How can you be so sure?”
Jen answered with a question. “Were you there the day their boat came?”
“No.” Sara spoke, I just nodded my yes.
Crystal took over the explanation. “They were traveling at the whim of Malphas, that means he sent them to defeat his enemies. Those enemies were here, we just did not know about them. The reason I came to the ranch and agreed to train with him, was because he spoke with such passion about the god, not about things that were of only human concern.” I again nodded my agreement.
“So are we just game pieces for gods?”
“No! We are tools that they use, sometimes unwillingly, but we are in the process of choosing to be his tools. We began that when we agreed to train with, and serve those, who had already become his servants.” It seemed Crystal too had some passion for the god.
“Gormi did not choose to be a tool of Malphas. He is a master of combat, not of death.” I think Sara argues well, and she is pretty when angry.
“Combat and war are tools of death. He serves it in his earnest for the fight, as well as his alliance with the masters of the ranch.”
I looked to Sara for a response. It appeared that she either agreed with Crystal’s logic, or was saving her anger for the things down below.
We were about to turn the corner for the climb up, when the sound of horses on stone sounded, they were close and coming from the wrong direction. Ours were behind us, these were in the area we were headed toward. Our reactions were both instant, and identical, with swords in hand, we turned.
A mounted person appeared. “Look out! Don’t go that way, more are coming.” The voice was female and familiar, though I did not remember the name she wore a uniform like ours. “Where can we keep our horses?”
“Anywhere along here. Ours are on the next two sides.”
“Thank you. Where is Jennifer?”
“Up top …”
“I’m up here Debbi, so is Donna.”
“The girl turned in the saddle to see Jen. “I will be right up.”
She was right, the area was crowded. With the chanting, and more than a dozen horses clomping about on the stone, not to mention the chatter from the new people about the things all around us, it was hard to hear anything.
Philip phrased it differently. “Those things could march up and start killing horses before we knew they were coming.”
The girl beside him just started talking. “Shooter had me bring an extra dozen full quivers. We should be able to hold them for a while.”
Sara corrected her. “I was not aware we were going to wait for them to attack. Not only that, but with just the two of you on one side, Jen and your wizard on another, and a sword at the top of each stair, it leaves the two healers running around trying to keep us alive, and only Donna and her partner from your team to help wherever they can.”
“I’m sorry, who are you?”
“I am Sara, this is Theo. Perhaps you should count the things down there, because unless you have five score in each quiver and never miss, you will run out of arrows before you run out of enemies.”
Nicholas and Aadam came over interrupting Sara’s description of our situation. “Theo! Glad to see you and Sara in one piece.”
“Aadam good to see the two of you, as well. We haven’t had to fight yet.” I gave the new girl a quick look. “Until now I did not think we were going to, if we are, I am glad to have you and Nick here.”
“I thought we came to help you get out of here. If they are not fighting, then this should be easy.”
Sara had calmed a bit and joined the new conversation. “We are not sure if they will fight yet, this is the first time they have stayed past sunrise.” She stared at the new girl.
“I guess we have to wait and see what Debbi and … um …”
“Donna.” I refreshed his memory.
“Yes Donna. What they decide we will do, until then, we just fight or wait for a fight.”
“Maybe you missed it, but here we dig too.” It seemed that Sara had a sense of humor to match her rosy cheeks when irked.
I placed my hand on Sara’s forearm hoping they would not notice. “Yes, we dug out the portions of this building from the dirt line,” I pointed at the line on the raised platform, “down to where you see the dirt palisade.” I gave them a sweeping motion with my arm to show them the magnitude of the work.
“You mean you dug all that! That is a lot of dirt.”
I decided to let him wonder for a bit, so I pointed to the shovels. “With those.” Sara grinned and hit me in the ribs with her elbow.
Philip came to the edge calling down to us. “We are having a meeting on the rope side steps.”
“Rope side?” Aadam had a bewildered stare and Nick just sort of peeked around the corner.
“Do you see the holes near the top of the wall?”
“Yes, what do they have to do with a rope?”
“Sara double knotted the rope so it would fit tight in a hole. I wedged stones in around it so that it would keep from pulling loose. There are knots along the length of it too, big ones, thanks to Sara. We use it to climb up.”
Nick chuckled, “How do you keep the horses from chewing on it?”
We hurried to see a horse gnawing on one of Sara’s knots. After tossing the rope up onto the landing above, we continued to the meeting.
Both groups were gathered on the steps, like at one of the amphitheaters my grandfather told me about from the old country. We were sitting in small groups according to our training. It seemed as if we all drew comfort from being with those of a like mind. The exception were the three standing on the lower step facing up at us. Donna, the girl I now knew as Debbi, and Crystal were all there with Jen, and a guy from the other group was off to the side by the short parapet wall on the step above.
Donna and Crystal told the story of what had happened up till now. Crystal put emphasis on Philips carving, and the ultimate arrival of the crocodile people.
Debbi took over at this point and Crystal sort of sat on the wall. “We are here to help. What Donna and I would like to hear from you is your thoughts on what kind of help it should be. Are we packing up and getting away, or do we stay until we have to leave or fight this entire army?”
“Digging.” I thought Jen chuckled a bit at Sara’s suggestion.
Nick asked what Sara and I had started to get into the other day. “Can we kill these things before they get solid?”
Crystal answered from her seat on the wall. “Yes, but if we start a fight with one, neither the Magus, or his Eminence is sure that the others will not join in. That would leave us outnumbered about four or five score to one.”
Debbi responded quickly. “We came to help get them out IF there is a problem, not to create the problem, or make it worse.”
Aadam nodded and sighed.
Donna took charge. “The Magus relayed what Sir Gormi said about this building being a giant alter, he was not sure if there was a way in, though Jaffar seems to think there is. It would be for storage of their sacrifices, and possibly their tools. We have talked a bit, and I am in favor of finding that door.” She glanced at everyone meeting their eyes as she spoke. “Any ideas?”
Anita, the archer with Debbi’s group, spoke up. “Are there any other options? And what good is finding their storage going to do?”
“Good question. The other options are to go back, or start to find out what is in the other buildings. The explanation for the storage I’ll leave to Crystal or Spencer.”
Spencer stood and faced everyone. “If their tools are inside, we would learn a lot about how this place was used, and have useful information about their religion, when we have to fight their kind in the future. More importantly, we could deconsecrate them, and perhaps the building as well, if it truly is a gigantic alter. Crystal, anything to add?”
“Yes. Deconsecrating their tools and then the alter as a whole, might release these spirits. It is, or at least I think it is, safer than trying to fight all of them.”
“We have most of the day left, shall we dig?”
It seemed both leaders agreed. I groaned as I stood.
The four of us went to get the two shovels. “Hey Sara.”
“Why did we bring shovels if nobody knew what was here?”
“Ummm … I don’t know. It was Jen who put them on the pack horse. Ask her.”
“Ask me what?” Jen had come up behind us.
“Oh ah … sorry I did not know you had come over.”
“It is all right, Sara. Theo, what did you want to know?”
I repeated my question. Jen explained that our teacher for reading and writing, Ingratiid, had been an architect. “It was he who suggested it, with some kind of explanation about leaves piling up and having to move them to open doors or get into places.”
“Oh, thank you.”
“I’m glad it was an easy question.” She smiled. “Now, it has been suggested by Cori that the door is hidden by the carvings on the stone, or so Tamma has told us. That means we are going down the sides of the steps today without uncovering the steps unless we have to. Do you four want to work as two teams one on either side, or have each team do two sets of steps?”
“Both sides sounds faster.” we all nodded our agreement with Nick, he and Aadam took one side while Sara and I took the other.
Philip and Anita passed us on their way to hunt. “Glad I took up the bow.” He jested on his way past.
I threw a shovel full of dirt at him. It missed and he laughed.
A while later I yelled “Ready.”
Aadam looked across. “Ready for what?”
I grinned. “This is the part where someone else does all the work.”
Jen and Debbi stood just above us on the landing. “Good enough Jen?”
“You know it is, just get out of the hole.”
As I climbed out with a hand up from Sara, Debbi glanced across to see what Aadam and Nick had done.
“Come out you two and go look at theirs, and I will try to make this work.” She glanced at me and Sara. We knew, that Debbi knew, we had not told them how to do it.
Both of the wizardess’ seemed to compete, not in the speed of their casting, but rather in the quality of the results. Before they walked away, Debbi asked if they knew what she needed for next time.
At the end of the day, we had cleared the outside of all four sets of steps down three tiers. Anita and Philip were cleaning their prizes, or our dinner, depending on how you looked at it.
Crystal and Spencer had a fire going on a step two tiers below the horses. They would be roasting the birds.
We had left both Debbi and Jen by the north set of steps so they could read the walls. Jen still believed that the pictures were writing and was going to show Debbi.
Donna and Tamma were nowhere to be found, or at least seen. There was a semi-rhythmic tapping on the stone from the south side, we believed it to be them.
Philip nodded his agreement when Sara mentioned it, so they must be safe.
That night the chant was louder than before. I rose to see why. Both of the wizardess’ and the priests were already up. The only people still asleep, that I saw, were Sara, Aadam, Nicholas and Anita. So when I was close enough, I guessed. “Donna and Tamma went down with Philip.”
Jen jumped. “I didn’t hear you.”
“I’m sorry, but with all that noise I am surprised you heard me speak.”
“It is loud tonight. Yes, they all went down. Philip would not let them go alone.”
“Smart man.” I gave a nod towards the dancing crocodiles. “They look thicker too.”
“That is what Philip said.”
It seemed like hours had passed when Sara joined us, and hours more until the three of them came back. Even before we could ask how things had gone, Donna turned on Philip.
“Are you going soft! Why did you shoot it?”
“It heard her, turned toward her and I thought it was going to attack. So I shot it.”
“What happened?” Crystal jumped in.
“He shot …”
“I know that.” She waved Donna off facing Philip. “I mean when you shot it, what happened?”
“The arrow went straight through. It turned and looked at me, and I could swear the thing grinned.”
“I was close. I think the arrow slowed down when it went through him.”
Indeed, if what Philip just said was right, then Tamma was the closest one to it.
“What do you mean it slowed down?” Crystal turned on Tamma.
“I mean … well just for an instant I didn’t think it would go all the way through.” She was looking to Philip for an explanation. “I don’t know if it means anything, but until it came out, I didn’t see it.”
“Tamma.” Crystal waited for the girl to face her. “I need you to be clear. Are you telling us that these things are so solid that you can’t see through them anymore?”
“Yes.” Donna and Philip nodded their agreement.
Jen grabbed Debbi and pulled her toward the horses, probably to talk about things I wouldn’t understand anyway.
Crystal was in a hushed conversation with Spencer.
It was Tamma who voiced what we had all noticed and wondered. “Why are they nervous about this? They expected it, right? Are we in trouble?”
“We will know all those answers soon. Right now it is best for you to try and relax.”
I just watched as Debbi’s expression changed to one of concerned resolve, and Spencer looked more like he was ready to run. Sara must have noticed it too, she called while down with the horses. “Theo, here take these!” She passed up shields for Nicholas, Aadam and me.
It was good to know she expected it. Now everyone did. If the creatures worked together, this was going to hurt us. I had hoped that we could divide this into four individual combats, but somehow I knew it was impossible. I could only hope, right?
Spencer watched Crystal head for the rope as I followed her. Sara saw us heading for the two wizardess’ and joined us there.
Sara and I looked like body guards when the conversation began. One of us was on either side of the trio with shields ready, hands on our weapons, while we watched the enemy dance.
“Jen we have an idea.”
“Is it going to get us out of here.”
“I think so.”
“Then lets hear it.”
“We bring them back to their solid form. Crocodiles feed on creatures near the water, like rats and boars. They just might fight each other.”
“You left out the bears and what happens if you are wrong.” Debbi was not convinced.
“The bears we may have to fight if they do not leave on their own. If I am wrong, maybe they will all leave.”
“Do you really believe they will just wonder away?” It seemed Debbi knew sarcasm.
“Well … no… not wander away, but go about whatever task that kept them here.”
Jen interrupted. “I think there is something that you are not mentioning.”
“Yes there is. They could also all attack us.”
She had my attention now.
“What makes you think they would just go off and do something else?” Jen kept at the priestess.
“The task they left unfinished is important enough to them, that they chose to remain here all these years as specters until something changed. We began that change. When it is complete, I think they will follow the drive that caused them to evade death.”
“What did Donna say?”
“I haven’t told her yet. I wanted to see what you two thought first.”
What she didn’t say was that if both wizardess’ supported her idea, then Donna was more likely to agree. I glanced over at Sara. She just shook her head. We both expected bloodshed.
Debbi gave her a chance to back away from this plan. “Go ask Donna to bring everyone together for a meeting like we had last night. It is the best way for you to bring the idea up to everyone.”
Crystal went back, we stayed with Jen.
Once the others were awake, it was near dawn anyway, they all gathered on the steps near us. Debbi, with a quick glance in Crystal’s direction to be sure she wanted to continue, got things started. “I know some of you are just getting up. There is an idea on how we should proceed. You all need to hear it before Donna and I decide our course of action. Crystal will explain.”
Crystal stepped up and went through the details of the new plan
Tamma raised the first question. “Didn’t his Eminence say not to do that?”
It was Jen who answered. “Yes he did, but, we are here, and he is not. We should decide how it is best to continue.”
“Are you saying that the Masters teachings are not to be followed?” Spencer evidently did not agree with Crystal.
“No she is not.” Debbi added her voice to the discussion. “What we are saying is: they taught us and gave us advice. We are the ones who need to decide how to use it.”
The conversation was heated at points, but in the end, their course of action was agreed upon.
Horses were being saddled and it seemed they were anxious for the exercise. We were not expecting it to be a quiet peaceful ride.
Philip and Anita went first to get a good scout of our route out. We would not move until they returned, or called for help.
Thankfully, they both came back looking pleased with themselves. “We found a good path.”
Since there were two pack horses, Donna and Tamma each took one. Philip suggested that those who were trained swords have a hand free and their shield in the other. This did not sound like a “good” path to me.
The last of that deer was kicked over into the fire, with most of us chewing on a generous piece while we mounted. The order for riding was quickly determined. Sara and I would be at the front behind Philip, followed by Donna and her pack horse, and Crystal with Jennifer. Then would be Debbi’s team in a somewhat reversed order; John and Debbi, followed by Tamma with the other pack horse, then Aadam and Nick and Anita at the end. In my opinion, this was a long line where something could go wrong anywhere along it. Sara and I hoped for the best.
Philip started in the lead. We stayed as close as we could. They chose a path going between the crocodiles and the boars. It would get us to the edge of the wetlands, then to the beach where the two archers thought we might be safe.
We wound our way around trees and thick brush, sometimes getting closer to these creatures than I was comfortable with. They saw us. A couple of times they even turned to watch us pass. Not once did either type of creature move toward us. Several of the crocodiles looked like they were smiling.
Both Sara and I were relieved when the beach came into view. I stopped and waited for the others at the edge of the tree line. Sara went on with Philip partway down the beach.
* * *
Twelve humans walked up the steps heading for the platform, three from each side. Each group had one thing in common, a silver circlet about the head of one member, a copper circlet and bone circlet graced their heads. The person with the silver upon their head was always in the center, the copper to their right and the bone on the left.
When they reached the apex, the member of each party with the bone circlet, raised the trio up so they could step forward onto the center area where the indented stone still had sticks protruding from its holes.
“We have been given the chance for our long awaited revenge.” The man wearing silver spoke. He and his companions had come up from the side where the bears had danced.
“When do we leave?” The woman on the boars side asked.
“We should all hunt first. I know that I hunger, and am sure that each of you do as well.” Nods of agreement came from all sides of the stone.
The man who had ascended the side from which the rats had gathered added his opinion. “There are others who would join us I am sure. We should look for them.”
Again there was agreement from each party. The man who was as big as a bear gave up an idea. “We fatten ourselves, then look for others. In one cycle of the moon we go. The short bearded ones will pay for what they did to us.”
“Prepare yourselves and your clans. We will leave when all of us are ready.”
The book has just been released!
I hope you all enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
The ride was rough, but Cynthia brought the boat and all aboard back to their beach dock safely.
They were sore, filthy and tired. Their spirits were high and they sang during the long walk to the ranch.
Not a were’ in sight
Neither far nor near
In lands high or low
Undead too we’ll fight
Cheatin Death then fear
For everywhere we’ll go
On land or sea
No safety for your kind
You cannot hide
‘Cause there we’ll be
You’re not hard to find
We’ll be sure your fried
Their song carried through the quiet night and everyone on the ranch knew “The Team” had returned long before they could be seen.
It was a bit unexpected but they had a welcoming committee. The six mentors stood at the paths end, none looked happy.
Jaffar at an even six feet stood stoic and regal as always. His two hundred forty pound frame was impressive and in this mood dangerous. His scimitars hilt exposed over the right shoulder was always within reach. The loose flowing caftan he wore snapped in the breeze, the black silk nearly invisible. Julie had never seen him like this before.
Shooter though two inches taller carried thirty pounds less, the deep green of his tunic filtered down to his tan breeches, his bow and a nearly full quiver ever present across his back. Until now Cynthia had never seen him anything less than jovial.
Gormi, strong as two bulls and built like one, his four foot five height was deceptive, the dwarf’s demeanor was either dour or ready to break into one of his dwarvin songs it was always hard to tell. This was a rare moment Gretta was sure that nobody had ever seen him without his axe or the normal heavy armor that usually encased him. Instead this night he was bare-chested but for the dark leather apron that covered even the familiar waist length beard worn in two braids.
Cori honored by Gormi as a beardless brother looked small beside the dwarf. At only three feet eleven he was clearly the shortest among the mentors but in some ways the most feared. He had a knack for knowing everything that happened no matter where it took place, this had been the reason for leaving Suzanne home on the first leg of their journey – you just never knew where he was or where he might turn up. Aanna almost cringed when he met her eyes only the confidence from the island kept her standing tall.
The team stood before them smiling. It was not helping their case. After a long silence Jaffar issued an order. “Get into the dining hall, Essira is heating a meal.”
Bollofaro had gone unnoticed by all but Suzanne until now. His five foot eight frame seemed slight but she knew the power it contained. “While eating I hope you will entertain us with the tale that has created such high spirits.”
“It better be a good one.” Cori was looking at the scar on Aanna’s cheek.
They headed for Essira and their first real meal in three days.
“Did you see the condition their in?” The question came more from concern than anything else.
Gormi took a hard look at Jaffar, “If you’ve never been in such a state you’re not the man I thought you were.”
“He’s been in worse.” Bollofaro answered for him. “I believe we all have been, it still doesn’t make seeing them any easier.”
“Nae it does not.” Gormi shook his head as he agreed.
“Did you smell them?” Tromacillis wrinkled her nose she was unused to such odors.
Gormi jumped, “Girl let a person hear you when you sneak up on them will you?” He looked up into her face, “Aye they found a nightwing cave alright.”
The wizard put a hand on Cori’s head. “Dwarvin for bats.”
“Shall we get on with this?” Shooter seemed anxious. “I for one would like to hear where they were and what they were up to.”
“True despite the odor, I would like to know where such a song as they sang came from.”
“Smells of a good fight, sorry I missed it.” As Gormi walked away he added, “Leave it to an elf to worry about the song.”
They entered from the kitchen door and received and immediate reaction from Essira. “Oh no you six get out to the well and run some water over yourselves. You’ll not sit in here dragging all that filth with you.”
“Yes ma’am.” Julie turned her team around.
Out at the well they took turns pouring buckets over each other. Conversation hovered on one topic; what are they going to do with us? Opinions varied but in general they all expected some kind of punishment.
Back in the kitchen the soggy six sat around a single table nearest the fire and listened to Essira’s commentary. “You know that disappearing like that was not very smart.” She looked them over quickly. “I expected better from you. Of all the teams you are the one that others look to as an example. You were the first, you six need to do better at setting one!”
Talmae muttered something that only Suzanne caught, “Ndengin uuvanimo carin vasa.” Suzanne’s response got a wide eyed stare from the elvin master cook and no further commentary.
Essira called them to the fireplace “I’m not going to serve you. Bad enough Talmae and I had to cook another meal. You get yourselves over here and get it.”
About the time they were finishing Essira and Talmae left. The house matron, Essira, gave a parting comment on her way up the stairs. “I don’t want to see those dirty bowls when I come down in the morning.”
“No Ma’am. We’ll clean up, it will be the way you would leave it.” Suzanne gave her word.
That was evidently good enough for her, she nodded and went up to retire.
Aanna and Suzanne had both helped in the kitchen before so they knew what was expected.
Suzanne used some effect to clean the bowls and utensils while Gretta swept the floor and Cynthia mopped as Julie cleaned the ashes from the fireplace and Victor set the wood for the morning fire, Aanna made sure everything was put away to Essira’s standards.
Jaffar entered with the others behind him. Suzanne tapped Julie, “The tribunal is in.”
“Doesn’t look good.” Her response barely above a whisper.
“Sit.” Bollofaro’s command was instantly obeyed.
“Whose idea was this little trip?”
Julie stood, “Mine your Eminence.”
Julie looked at Cynthia who quickly sat back. The effect was not lost on Jaffar.
“I detect some dissension in your ranks girl.”
“No sir Gormi. Nothing of the kind, it is loyalty sir.” She glanced at Cynthia, “Others would save me if I allowed it.”
“So you planned the whole thing with no help from your team?”
She looked at her newest questioner. “They helped Sir Cori, the responsibility is still mine.”
“So they worked entirely on your orders?”
“Yes sir…” she was trying to remember his proper name, “Shooter.” She couldn’t remember him being called anything else.
He laughed then noticed the look of surprise. “Want to wager?”
Their eyes met and she knew …. “No sir.”
“And I thought you would finally lose one.”
“Enough of this. It seems we will get nowhere until the story is told.” Bollofaro looked right at Julie, she could feel his eyes even from beneath the cowl. “Start with Eoa.”
“That is the day before we left Magus.”
Cori smiled, “But it is the day your escapade began.”
Julie hung her head for a second, they knew … looking directly into the dark space where Bollofaro’s face should be, she began. “Three of us went to town …”
Hours later the story was told and questions answered by her and each member of the team they seemed satisfied. “That is the story.” She sat down.
The elfin voice broke the silence speaking for the first time. “What did you learn?”
Julie stood again. “Never to go anywhere half prepared, and to use more caution.”
“Good.” Tromacillis looked at Suzanne, “And you?”
Julie sat as Suzanne stood. “To do better research and never shove a staff into somethings mouth.”
“Very well.” Her gaze fell on Gretta, “You?”
“To hit harder, duck faster and never underestimate an opponent.”
The elfin eyes fell on Gormi. “The poor girl thinks like a dwarf.”
“I like that, it is the first time you ever complimented me.”
“Was not meant as one.” She turned to Cynthia, “I believe it is your turn.”
“Yes my Lady. I need to pay more attention to where I lay my sword and move more often to get clear shots.”
“Interesting.” Her eyebrows rose with a quick glance at Shooter as she turned to Aanna. “And you?”
“Not to stick my head into places where I cannot see and that attacking from behind is not always safe.”
“Excellent.” She turned to Victor, “You?”
“Many things were learned my Lady. First to be quicker with the healing. Also that not all healing should be done immediately, sometimes a person needs to learn from their pain. Once they have the healing has more meaning not only for them but it also serves the divine purpose. The most important thing though is not to interrupt a warriors momentum during combat. Had I not done so some healing may not have been required.”
“Good.” She turned to Jaffar, “You have chosen this one well.”
“Thank you Tromacillis.” Jaffar bowed to her then turned back to the errant apprentices. “You six get some rest Tomorrow after training we will meet again.”
They rose to leave, Julie stopped and turned to Jaffar. “As I said Your Eminence the responsibility is mine not theirs. Please maintain that thought as you decide what to do.”
“Young lady there is enough responsibility to go around. You led them and brought them all back. That was your responsibility and you lived up to it, this time. Each of your teammates must also take responsibility for their own actions. This is one sword you cannot fall on.”
“As you wish sir.” Julie left with the others.
They walked back to their house in silence, each reflecting on what they believed had just happened.
When they were in the common room Julie broke into their thoughts. “Lets have one victory drink, I fear it may be our last for a while.”
Gretta and Aanna poured them, Victor passed them out. Suzanne sat staring at the ceiling until everyone had theirs.
“To our success!” It seemed that Julie had also learned to take one for itself without looking for more.
“And to many more!” Suzanne added it for her.
“Success!” Came the answering chorus.
“What do you think they will do?” Victor it seemed had caught Aanna’s curiosity.
Gretta responded first, “Extra work probably.”
“They could make us stay on the ranch for awhile.” Cynthia sounded concerned.
Victor tried to reassure her, “I think they will be more creative than that. You will still be able to see your family.”
“They might make us pay for the boat.” Suzanne had her own worries.
“Not likely, but there is a sort of fee that may need to be paid because of it. In case anyone forgot we never picked up the silver.” Aanna never looked up as she spoke.
“I agree with all of you. We should expect all of those things and more.” Julie laid a hand on Aanna’s shoulder. “We didn’t tell them where the boat is.”
Aanna looked up staring at her for what seemed like forever then it hit her. “You mean go back?!”
“Tonight before we are under close watch tomorrow. We just get the silver and come back. We can use Boar Cove this time.”
“Jules are you serious?” Suzanne sounded more shocked than curious.
The ear to ear grin told them all she was.
“Let me take a look around first.” Aanna was halfway out the door before she finished.
“Suz, if we contribute to the church and pay the fee Aanna mentioned , well, maybe things won’t be so bad.”
What if they check on us?” It was Victor who was worried now.
“Ok, I’m asking, who wants to stay here?”
Suzanne and Victor looked at each other but neither spoke up.
“Good then it’s settled. We go.”
The door closed and everyone looked at Aanna. Suzanne hoping she had found a reason not to go. “Nobody around. I guess they figured we wouldn’t leave again so soon.”
Suzanne’s heart skipped a beat when she heard Aanna. Looking at Victor her eyes pleaded for a reason to stay.
He turned away from her. He would follow Julie regardless of the consequences.
“We go and come right back. No exploring, no hunting, not tonight.”
They took the well known path to the beach and turned south for the boat. Making it this far seemed easy. The sail was quick to what they were now calling Boar Cove. From there the trip to the tower went quickly over the now familiar territory. Getting in had them muddier than before. The rain had stopped and the mud was thickening, clinging to everything. The air inside the tower was thick with the odor of guano. While passing the bat floor flies, gnats and mosquitoes buzzed around them. None of it mattered, they were focused on their goal.
When they reached the roof Aanna set to scoring and breaking the silver into squares. Gretta and Julie joined her after she showed them how. With the three of them working on the metal while Victor and Suzanne put it into their packs things went quickly. Cynthia fed her bird friend some jerky as she watched for anything out of the ordinary. There were thirty two squares by the time they had finished.
Their return to the house went without incident. Julie froze in place when she opened the front door. Aanna strained to see around her.
Aanna recognized that voice, her shoulders slumped.
“Are you coming in?”
They filed in joining Cori.
“Sit, we should talk.”
Julie nodded to Aanna then took a seat between Victor and Suzanne. Cynthia and Gretta flanked Cori. Aanna stayed standing, this was her mentor she knew best how to handle him.
“Sir I know that you are here for …”
“For what the boat incident? In part yes, I expected to talk with you about that. I am also interested in what was left out of the story.”
“I understand.” She shed her pack, “Let us take care of them in order.” Fishing out four of the eight plates in her pack she presented them to Cori. “That should take care of the obligation for the vessel and leave you something for … your inconvenience.”
He hefted one in his hand while looking it over. “I will assume there are more of these and that it was not possible to transport it intact.” He looked up, “This was not part of your story. Why not?”
“Because we had to retrieve it. Not having it with us would have made the rest of the events less believable, or worse made us seem foolish or forgetful.”
“Are you telling me that neither is true?”
“I am.” They locked gazes, “With three of us wounded in the combat, health was our primary concern. His Eminence is the only one who can detect the infection so soon after such a wound and he is also the only one capable of curing it.”
“So the extra hour or two was unacceptable?”
“Not the time sir. The work required was. If the infection works like a poison,, you taught me that such exertion would speed the effect.”
“Ok, I will accept that, but,” He turned his gaze to Julie and Victor, “will Jaffar?”
Victor chose to answer. “He will. His last lesson on the topic left us to answer the question is it a curse or a disease?”
“And you believe a disease works like a poison?”
“No sir.” Julie took over, “Lack of cleanliness, rest and proper meals does however promote disease.” Here she followed Aanna’s lead. “The additional work in this situation would have delayed our access to all three, a risk that was unacceptable.”
Cori’s chuckle surprised all but Aanna. “You have certainly learned to cover yourselves. An excellent job of transferring the primary speaker then following her lead in what seems a convincing story.” He turned back to Aanna. “I will leave you to teach them how to make the transition a bit smoother.”
Cori stood and walked to the door, before opening it he turned. “I should thank all of you for repaying me.” He hefted the silver plates. “The bill was paid yesterday. Next time something like that is going to happen a little warning would be nice.” He smiled and left never telling them if tonight would be kept a secret or not.
“It is getting light out.” The tired voice was Cynthia’s. “Do you think we could get the morning off for some real sleep?”
“Suz, if you’ll do the honors I’ll find out.”
“Ok, but after I do someone else gets to sweep it out.” She moved closer to the door. “You’re up Jules.” A variation of the effect used to clean the bowls was used on Julie’s robe and boots. The mud and other clinging materials flaked off onto the floor. “I’m going to leave the holes so they think we need time for repairs too.”
“Good thinking Suz. I’ll be right back.”
Suzanne continued the process on herself and the rest of the team. Victor caught her as she collapsed, exhausted.
“Gretta put her to bed please. We’ll take care of everything out here.”
The warrior lifted Suzanne with ease, cradling her as if she were both precious and fragile.
Aanna gathered and cleaned the mugs, Cynthia grabbed the broom. Victor looked around, “Hey I said we not you.”
“When Gretta has her decent you make sure nothing serious is wrong.” Cynthia said it like an order.
“I’m sure she just wore herself out. None of us has really rested since seeing the lights yesterday at about this time.” He capped off the speech with a yawn.
Aanna added her own opinion, “After you see to her put yourself to bed. With all the healing you’ve been doing we might be picking you up next.”
With a flourishing bow,” Yes my ladies.”
Aanna threw the cloth she was using, hitting him in the face. “Give me my cloth and get out of here.”
Gretta returned and Victor went to check on his patient.
The three grabbed seats putting their heads back and waited for Julie to return with news.
When Julie walked in she thought they had all gone to sleep.
“Welcome back. What’s the news?” Victor startled her she had not seen him standing in the hall entrance.
“We have the day off.” She swept her arm around at the three sleeping in the chairs, “I guess we really needed it. Where is Suz?”
“She passed out, totally exhausted. Gretta put her to bed I just came out. She will be fine no need to worry. She overdid it just like on the river.”
“Well I’ll get these three to bed, you get yourself some rest before you end up like Suz.”
“My pleasure oh fearless leader. You sure you don’t need any help with them?”
“I’m sure, go.”
“As you command my lady.” And Victor was gone.
Julie woke the girls up sending them to bed, then went herself.
It was time for the evening meal. Cynthia had been busy with needle and thread, Victor inspected and did what he could to mend belts, packs and boots. They were on one side of the room with Gretta and Julie on the other.
The pair of warriors had oiled and sharpened every weapon. With the exception of Suzanne’s staff nothing had sustained any significant damage.
Aanna took the items from Victor and helped Suzanne polish them. They wanted to look their best tonight.
The last of the seven teams to arrive for the evening meal by their own design. They strode in confidently with heads held high. There was pride in their walk, they looked like nothing had happened. Apart from the scars and Julie’s bruised face they might have been here the whole time.
They could feel the entire room watching them, apprentices, ranch heads and the masters, one hundred and six eyes all focused on one thing … them.
Donna the leader of team two leaned closer to Jennifer whispering. “I’m going to talk to Julie first chance I get.”
“Wait till we see what happens to them first.” Jen turned to her friend, “If it’s worth it we can go.”
Donna nodded her agreement and went back to eating.
After the meal they went to the sitting room with the mentors. Jaffar his normal stern look in attendance got right to the point. “Each of you will report to one of the ranch heads first thing in the morning. Ingratiid does not require any assistance right now and Essira can only use one of you. That means cattle,cows, fields or stables for everyone else.” Jaffar gave a nod to Gormi and sat.
After breaking your fast with the others attend training as usual.”
Shooter didn’t even stand. “After mid-day meal team practice will be on the beach with me.”
“After team practice all of you will get to the cows for the afternoon work.” Cori’s grin told them it would not be pleasant.
They turned to Bollofaro as he rose. “After evening meal be back in here for the next days requirements or to learn whatever else we may have decided. He turned the cowl on Julie, “You will see Tromacillis immediately after this.” The grin on his face could be felt throughout the room. “Goodnight, stay out of trouble. Next time we have to do this it will last much longer than two months and may end in the turning in of uniforms.”
The disciplinary meeting broke up leaving only Tromacillis and Julie in the room.
Julie curtsied, “My Lady you required to see me.”
“Get up girl this is no formal court.” She seemed used to such treatment and though she was of smaller stature she looked to be sizing Julie up as if she were a foe. “You will report to me for weapons training in the mornings.”
The apprentice was clearly shocked. “What of Jaffar and Gormi?”
“You will find time to take Jaffar’s lessons. That will help keep you out of trouble.” A smile crossed the normally emotionless face. “Gormi knows. If he complains overmuch I can always trim his beard.” There was enjoyment in that thought, Julie saw the sparkle in her eyes.
“I will see you after morning meal then.” She again curtsied and turned to leave.
“Before you go, I’ve noticed you do not carry a shield. What is the ability of your off hand?”
“I’m not sure I get your meaning My Lady.”
“You will.” She waved Julie off.
At the end of the house Donna stepped from the shadows, falling into the pace beside Julie. She was about six inches shorter and had to quick step to keep up.
“I take it you want to know what happened.”
“Already do. I have other ideas.”
Julie stopped and looked down at Donna. “If you know what happened then you know I shouldn’t be taking any chances.”
“We both know that yo will take those chances, maybe not for a few months but you will take them again.” She saw her target getting interested, “I’m not asking you to take any risks, right now.”
“Then what are you asking?”
“First, I am offering you some assistance.” There it is a spark in her eye, she is looking for a way, time for me to give it to her. “My team is willing to do things for you that you will need and you will not have the time or opportunity to do them.”
“Well for starters we can supply your ale since none of you will be in town. We can also help you hide the boat that you never told them how to find.”
Julie knew that Donna was hinting at something. “I’ll get message to you through Aanna. I appreciate the assistance, so will the others.” Time to find out what she really wants. “What is second?”
“We are hoping for some possibilities.”
Uhoh. “When are the possibilities?”
“The river run you made before has opened up a need for someone to scout a town site. We just need advice on what to take and any thing else you can tell us.”
“The mentors are not likely to approve and you’ve done it.” Donna didn’t want to tell it all tonight not out here anyway but there was something about Julie that just left you willing to talk. “Help us make it happen for us. We don’t want to make mistakes that have already been made. Just help us.”
“Donna are you sure?” The pleading look and nod was signal enough to continue. “We almost lost Aanna and Gretta, Suzanne passed out from the exhaustion and you can see this bruise, believe me it was much worse before Victor took care of me.”
“That is why we want to talk to you.”
“Ok, tomorrow nite we’ll come to your house. Hearing it from them might help your people be better prepared.”
“Thank you Julie.”
“Just be careful please. They will not be pleased if something goes wrong. They almost asked for our uniforms, if we had lost someone it would have been our last day on the ranch.”
“We will see you tomorrow nite. Just bring your mugs.” Donna walked away happy.
Julie had explained just everything to her team. “I just don’t understand why I’m being moved.”
Gretta attempted to ease her mind. “Tromacillis is very good with her swords, maybe you could teach me what she shows you.”
“She’s right Jules. Have you ever seen Gormi knock an arrow away with his axe?” The Elfin warrior had made an impression on Cynthia.
“That move probably save my life, she did it with a spear too.”
So Suzanne liked her too. Maybe this was going to be good for her. “Ok guys I’m convinced.”
“Good. So what is Donna really looking for?”
Aanna’s question is one she had thought about all the way back. “I don’t know. Her story doesn’t make sense, but I don’t know.”
“So you don’t believe she’s planning a ride up river?”
“NO!” Aanna and Julie answered at the same time, creating a bit of giggling.
“We really need to stop doing things like that.” Cynthia half smiled. “I know that I agreed our thinking alike helps us work better as a team. Some of the others think we are connected somehow.”
“I heard two guys from team seven call us spooky.” Aanna always seemed to hear things she wasn’t supposed to.
“Well you four have a nice conversation. Victor and I need to go to the church and see Jaffar before he thinks we aren’t going to pay the teams tithe.” Julie looked at Victor who practically jumped out of his seat. “I guess you’re ready.”
That brought a round of laughter that helped them all forget the idea of the long hours that were to come for the next few months.
Jaffar was in the sacristy preparing for his first public service in Portsend. He seemed glad to be interrupted. “What can I do for you two?” He smiled as he glanced back and forth between them.
“Not what your thinking.” Julie quickly corrected.
He produced a light chuckle. “Not yet.” giving a wink to Victor who smiled in return.
“We are here on business though.”
Jaffar turned his gaze on her. “Now I’m curious if not that then what sort of business would bring you two here tonight?”
At a nod from Julie both of them removed their packs and produced two of the silver sheets from each pack. They went to one knee with the silver extended before them on upraised palms.
“The team presents the church with its tithe …” Julie began.
Victor finished. “… being one tenth part of that which we brought back.”
“I was unaware the trip produced anything of value.” The masters tone was more curious than chastising.
“We were aware that the conversation would be listened to by others.” Julie watched Jaffar raise his eyebrows.
“Therefore we left that part out so that what we did would not be mimicked.” Victor concluded the thought.
“This is appreciated. You both know of course that this is the first donation that we have received.”
Victor glanced at Julie as she spoke. “We as a team are proud to present it, and we hope to present more.”
“Not for a few months I hope.” The tone of Jaffar’s caution was playful.”Get up there really is no need to be formal.” Once they were on their feet again, “You know this cannot change anything. I wish it would but if nothing happens to you the others would follow the example. I am glad this was not part of the story you told, it might have started a rush of attempts and deaths.”
“That was not our intent.”
“”What was your intent as you put it.”
Julie usually had a good answer, “To see what was there.”
The laughter surprised both students. “Only you would be that honest. Any other team leader would have given me a story, here you are calling it curiosity. If you continue to amuse me like that I’ll never be able to dismiss you or to relax when you go out on your own.”
“Do you mean we will be able to solo?” Julie sounded hopeful.
“Yes you will. Just try and let me or at least one of us know when you go.”
“Yes Sir.” Julie snapped.
“Get out of here and get some rest, you’ll need it for tomorrow.”
Victor turned to leave, with his hand on the door latch he realized Julie had not followed. Looking back he knew she hadn’t moved.
Julie watched until Victor met her eyes, she nodded and he left. “There is one more thing sir.”
“So I gather. Go ahead.”
Julie produced another sheet of silver and handed it to Jaffar. “My personal tithe sir.”
“Are you sure? You need repairs as do the others.”
“It is not my intention to enrich myself I do these things for the church.”
“Then I will accept this. If you find that something is needed you’ve only to ask and I will do all in my power to see that you receive it.”
“Thank you sir. You’ve been more than generous.”
“Goodnight Your Eminence.”
Before first light they were on the move again. Aanna went to Essira and brought in firewood and coals for the cooking, everyone else milked cows and cleaned up after them.
They were all well worked before morning meal. After morning meal each went to their specific mentor. All was normal, except for Julie.
Tromacillis started the moment she arrived. “You wear a dagger though its placement says you never use it. Why do you carry something you do not use?”
“I was told it was a backup weapon.”
“It will not work from its sheath. Draw it.”
Julie reached to the small of her back with her right hand and drew the dagger.
“Draw your sword.”
She sheathed the dagger and drew the scimitar. Tromacillis was shaking her head. “Is something wrong?”
“Of course its wrong you were taught by a dwarf.”
“No buts, I’ll demonstrate.” She moved with a speed that Julie had seen only once before, Julie narrowly parried the swing only to be smacked with the flat of the second sword.
“Why couldn’t you parry that?”
“I’ve no shield.”
“Yes you do, it is behind you. Put the dagger into your left hand and try again.”
After five more smacks Julie was getting the hang of it, so she got smacked somewhere else.
“Adapt or die. This is practice, you were lucky out there. A trained opponent would carve you to pieces. Lets do it again.”
By the mid-day meal Julie’s arms, legs and back were sore and bruised. She quickly discovered that the entire team was pushed to the limit, and just as sore.
The beach felt good, the sun was high in a cloudless sky, waves lapped at the sand, it was soothing almost relaxing. Shooter was nowhere to be seen.
“Shall we sit and wait?” Suzanne was already on her way down. Then, “Ouch!”
Weapons came to the ready. They looked for…
“Its a bulb arrow. Shooter’s here.” Cynthia blocked any second shot at the wizard.
Julie and Gretta got into a crouch and moved toward the berms slowly
Victor moved to Suzanne and shoved his shield into the sand behind her. “You ok?”
Aanna was nowhere to be seen she had melted into the berms and high shore grass.
Cynthia moved toward the grass to the left, hoping the others would drive him to her.
Julie and Gretta turned behind the firs berm. Gretta stayed close Julie moved an additional four paces then drew her dagger and waved. They began their advance.
Victor left his shield for Suzanne to hide behind as he moved toward the berms. He wanted to be close if somebody needed him.
Aanna cried out. Shooter had gotten her.
Cynthia moved up a berm trying to get a better view.
Julie froze in place, watching and listening. Gretta continued to move. Victor moved along the berm.
Suzanne called, “Victor use this!” She slid his shield across the sand as he looked back.
Julie heard rustling then a thunk. Gretta called out, “Where?” Shooter got her too. Julie at least knew the right direction now. Hoping Cynthia could see she raisedher hand and pointed with her scimitar. Holding it as long ass she dared, she brought it down.
Victor grabbed his shield and followed Suzanne up the berm.
Suzanne saw Julie point so she watched.
Cynthia had seen both Julie point and the top of Shooter’s bow, she was ready to fire.
Julie moved slowly, as quietly as she could, creeping forward.
Both bows fired at the same time. Julie heard the string snap and dove to her left, the bulb hit her hip. Cynthia’s arrow narrowly missed Shooter as a globe of light appeared above his head.
Shooter stood. “Everyone on the beach.”
The mood was not a good one as the six gathered in front of Shooter. He looked them over. “Two dead, two wounded and the healer out of position to help the first casualty. Who would have been saveable? Without her,” he pointed to Cynthia with his bow, “I might have gotten all of you.”
“No excuses! You knew this was a team training exercise. When you are part of any operation in the field death is only a heart beat away. Do not relax. We are not the only creatures using bows.” He turned to Julie, “What have you learned?”
“Don’t trust open spaces.”
“Ok, anyone else?”
“Thank you Cynthia. Plan your assault or have responses so well rehearsed that you know what everyone is going to do and where they are.” He looked right at Victor. “Did you have any idea where to find Aanna?”
Victor looked at his teammate instead of Shooter. “No sir. I’m sorry.”
“It’s ok …” Aanna began.
“No! It is not OK! We are going to work on planning those responses until you understand that it is not OK and why it is not OK.” His emphasis got the point across, they were paying attention now.
The entire afternoon was a continuous repeat of the plan. He quickly hit anyone who made a mistake with a bulb arrow. They left for the dairy barn knowing they would get it right, eventually.
After another two hours of milking cows and shoveling out stalls they trudged the eighty feet or so for their evening meal. They were tired and sore. On the way back to the house Suzanne commented, “Two months of this will either kill us or make us invincible.” She sounded as tired as she felt.
At the house, Suzanne cleaned everything as she had the night before and Victor healed them so they could relax and would not be sore in the morning. The meeting with team two was the furthest thing from their minds. Julie was in the corner with Victor trying to catchup on Jaffar’s teachings. The others were either lost in their own thoughts or working on their own equipment.
Ready for bed and almost asleep in the chairs, the unexpected knock brought them all back as they jumped and reached for weapons. There was an exchange of questioning looks until the knock was repeated. Victor was closest so he answered it.
Jennifer stood there, tall and shapely her hair shorter than most of the girls but no less attractive. “Are you coming?”
The team houses are all identical so nothing seemed overly strange except for the unsplit stumps for extra seating. Seeing the condition of Julie and her team the regular chairs were immediately surrendered.
Once all of them were sitting and Philip had filled their mugs, Donna began. “I’m sure Julie told all of you that we are looking for advice.” She scanned the group, determined they were still awake and continued. “The thought occurred to us that the scouting job for a location of a new settlement on the river would not be to ambitious for us. Since you are the only team that has been upriver and out on your own we figured that any pointers from you would be important. The kind of information that the mentors haven’t given out yet.”
Julie began, “First if you really plan to do this then make sure you are prepared for anything. There are some big enemies along the river using spears and,” she looked at Yvonne, “bows.”
Philip, his dark hair short, carried a lithe strength and moved with an inner grace. He was the second best archer among the apprentices. He turned his attention to Cynthia. “How would you suggest I equip?”
“Carry three quivers on you and take enough arrows to refill them every few days.” Cynthia looked around, “You will be gone about three weeks so for refills I suggest about four of hunting, five of armor piercing and three of silver tipped.”
“Do you really think we will have that much trouble out there?” Sara was one of this teams primary combatants, and she sounded concerned. Her gear was the same as Gretta’s but she could not match her in strength or size. Sara was one of the few on the ranch with the light brown hair, she kept it to shoulder length. Her face was the common oval and despite all the combat training it was still soft and feminine.
It was Gretta who responded. “Yes.” Looking back and forth between Sara and Theo she drove the point home. “From the problems that Cyn and Shooter had before not to mention the size of those things, I’d say carry a spare weapon as well. If yours breaks out there the next attack will just provide them with a meal.”
Theodosis, Theo to his friends, was larger than Gretta and just as strong but a bit less skillful. “Were they armed and armored that well?”
“All but one was.” Suzanne gave her attention to Jennifer. “That one was using magic, so keep your thoughts on defense. On our way back it was Tromacillis who saved me and Carson who dealt with that threat.”
Looks of doubt and concern were spreading through the room. Their thoughts were obvious to the experienced in attendance; are we capable? Or will I be the one to die?
Philip and Jennifer were looking for Donna’s reaction wanting her to ease their concerns. Theo, Sara and Donna herself were looking toward Crystal, the team’s healer.
Crystal her height was about average and weighing only a hundred and fifty at most she seemed thin. Her dedication and ability to channel divine power made her the focus for the moment.
It was Victor who broke the silence. “Be prepared for all kinds of injuries not just open wounds, especially poisons.” He took a quick glance at Aanna who was also watching him, the deep brown eyes saying thank you better than words could have. “Carry antidotes and keep paying attention to everyone so they don’t get carried away and put themselves in extra danger.” A look in Gretta’s direction confirmed that she understood.
“Are you suggesting that this might be a bad idea?”
“Donna I really think a trip of that length is more than you or we are ready for right now. You heard the stories of the Deadlands, please don’t go that far.” Nods of agreement from the rest of her team left an impression.
“Will you still help us until we make our decision?”
“The entire room watched Julie and waited for the answer. “We will.” She stood and met every set of eyes from Donna’s team one at a time. “I want all of you to come back. Anything we can do to make that happen, I couldn’t refuse.”
Conversation turned to current training as the two teams split into smaller groups discussing the mentors and the general goings on around the ranch and Portsend. After a second ale goodnights were said and rest for the following day became the common goal.
One day blended into the next, they turned into a week which turned into two, the weeks turned into a month. Time passed quickly with the two teams in contact often. Plans were made and changed. When their extra chores were done and Julie’s team had finished their probation period, Julie and Donna began to prepare.
THE HAUNTED ISLE
The moon was three days from being full. Its shimmering light glistened off the water as it lapped at the sands. Even so there were few shadows on the beach and even fewer creatures. The three girls were heading towards Portsend, careful to stay in the moist sand, allowing the incoming tide to wipe away their tracks.
As the city’s wall came into view they each bent at the waist, Aanna broke off and ran the thirty feet to the hip high grass on their right. Aanna had the point position and was the first to drop to one knee in the thick grass. Her five and a half foot frame disappeared almost as soon as she exited the sand. Weighing in at about a hundred and ten soaking wet, her tracks were barely visible the graceful movements deceptively simple. She raised her arm and waved.
Cynthia ran across the beach, about three or four inches taller with another sixty pounds she left deeper impressions in the sand but, it would take a professional tracker to know that two had crossed. Cynthia, known as Cyn to her teammates, was careful to tread as closely as possible in Aanna’s tracks. She took a knee a couple of feet from her and raised her bow in the air.
Julie, the team’s leader, broke into her run, carrying about another forty pounds with a good two inches on Cyn she tried less than successfully to follow in her foot steps. Her entry into the grass was a bit less than graceful.
“Keep your eyes on the tower there might be someone on it.” Aanna’s voice barely more than a whisper carried to her companions. It had been timed perfectly to coincide with the outflow of the last wave. A cool breeze came in and rustled the grass as both girls silently nodded. They headed for the city wall careful to keep their heads near the level of the grass.
Cynthia nearly ran into Aanna when she stopped short, “What’s wrong?”
Aanna pointed toward the tower, “See him there in the corner?” After both girls spotted the guard she explained, “Their real job is to watch the streets not outside. They do look out once in a while though. Just to break up the scenery, I guess. We’ll go when he moves back to the inside wall.”
“Why don’t they look outside?”
“Cyn, you ever heard of the city being attacked?” Julie answered before Aanna had the chance.
“He’s moving. Let’s go.” Aanna was all business. She moved silently even in the grass.
They reached the wall and turned left stopping near the waters edge quickly placing their backs against the palisade. The others followed the direction of Aanna’s gaze and noticed the parapet at the corner of the tower was unoccupied.
The next wave came in encasing Aanna’s feet and ankles then just skimming over Cynthia’s toes. Aanna broke into a run as the wave receded, following it toward the end of the wall.
Aanna took a deep breath and jammed her hand between two logs of the palisade as the incoming wave smashed into her face. Only the walls aid kept her from losing her balance as she pushed forward. They needed to get around the wall and she was responsible for getting them inside the city unseen and then to the boat wrights. She refused to fail.
They rounded the end of the wall and the tide helped them back to the beach. Aanna knew this was the hard part, she stayed against the wall. The others mimicked her moves. She looked back, “Cyn get behind that first building quickly.” She paused looking up at the tower, “Go!” Her voice was still barely above a whisper. Cynthia ran until the building was between her and the tower then she knelt next to it. The ground was still sandy but a little more solid here. She looked back and saw Julie begin her dash. Aanna was watching the tower like a falcon eying a slow rabbit.
Julie knelt two steps past Cynthia and looked back at her remaining teammate. Aanna was about to take a step, then pushed herself back against the inside of the wall, her black cloak blending her into the darkness. For Julie every heartbeat seemed like an eternity. The last thing they wanted was to tangle with the guard. The moment Aanna began her run, Julie exhaled unaware she had been holding her breath.
Aanna stopped between them, “So far so good.”
They progressed from building to building all the way to the river. Here Aanna told them “Catch your breath. This is where the hard part begins.”
The trio took a few moments leaning against the back of the fishmonger’s place, the only stone building facing the stretch of beach they just covered. The boat wrights could be seen from here. Three sheds for the lumber and a building that held other materials and doubled as a residence sat between them and two docks. The near dock was their objective this night. A boat, just finished today, was in the water and tied to the dock. The rivers steady current continuously pushed the boat toward the sea and the tide pushed it against the dock. It was a steady rhythm, a slosh as the tide backed away and the current took over then a soft clunk as it pushed the boat back against the dock.
Aanna declared the break over and the path clear simply and with few words, “They crossed the bridge. We can go now.” She turned back toward them. “Cyn you come last. Keep that bow ready just in case.”
Cynthia pulled and knocked an arrow testing her string lightly. “If it shows I’ll hit it.” Julie loosened her scimitar making sure no muck from their brief foray into the water would slow her draw.
Their fear was not the guard, not now. The guard had passed and wouldn’t be back around for at least an hour. Fear, and the caution it bred tonight came from their knowledge of a loose lycanthrope, an evil that on other nights they had hunted, and would hunt again in the future. Tonight they were not prepared for an encounter with the creature. Half their number was absent, Gretta and Victor were waiting for them where they would eventually take the boat. Suzanne was back at the team house “studying” in the common room so she could distract anyone checking on them and insuring the rest of the team would be safe. Their foray into the city undiscovered, at least for tonight.
Aanna ran quickly pausing at the first shed. Taking a glance around, for safety, she continued to the boat. Julie started her run the moment Aanna stepped on the boat. She made no stop at the shed, going directly to her target. Aanna watched from her position at the bow as Cynthia ran. She marveled as Cyn replaced the arrow in its quiver and switched hands with her bow on the run.
Cynthia hopped onto the boat near the bow, took two steps and ducked under the cross member, heading for the stern and the tiller. She could feel the boat begin to swing around and knew Aanna had tossed off the bow line. Her job was aft line and piloting them to the sea ultimately regrouping with the others.
The line came free with little effort. She heard the sail snap as it caught the breeze, Julie had done her job. The boat jerked into motion and she almost fell into her position against the sturdy wooden arm that gave her control of the rudder. The air pushed it forward; the tide pushed it toward the dock. It was up to her now. Moving slowly at first, fighting the waves, they moved out toward the sea.
When the city could no longer be seen, she turned the craft south toward Barrier Island. When she nearly reached the long narrow isle, she would turn east toward the coast and their friends.
Victor was the first to see it. Just a sail, a light speck reflecting the moons light against the dark night sky. “There! That has to be them.” He pointed in a north westerly direction.
Gretta followed the line of his finger and smiled. He had to be right. They would be the only people out this night. Together they watched as it continued to get closer. Both hoping that nothing had gone wrong and most importantly that Victor’s talent as the team’s healer would not be needed.
With the sail down, Cynthia guided the craft into its new “inland dock.” Really nothing more than a six foot deep trench, just barely wide enough and not quite long enough for the boat. Gretta tossed a new bow line to Aanna who quickly tied it fast. The aft line manned by Victor would be useless, not long enough to reach out to the exposed stern. Cynthia and Julie tied the sail down. Aanna, now more relaxed, smiled as she jumped onto the beach.
Gretta caught her, “Nothing went wrong I see.” Her six foot one frame and the shear bulk of her body dwarfed Aanna. The truth was simple. Her strength and bulk outpaced not only her teammates but all the apprentices on the ranch and beyond that all but two of the masters as well. “Nothing at all. It was almost too easy.” Aanna admitted sheepishly.
They were joined by the others. Julie pointed out, “Aanna’s a genius. The whole thing without a problem. She ducked to avoid a tower guard. I knew where she was and I still couldn’t see her! She’s amazing.”
“Our very own ghost, silent and invisible.” Cynthia piled more praise on.
“Well then congratulations are in order and a quick ale when we get back.” The smile could be heard in Gretta’s voice.
“Let’s not celebrate yet.” Victor was still serious. “We’re not back home yet and we don’t know how Suzanne made out.” Standing beside Julie he almost looked small. His height was comparable to Cynthia’s and he pushed one hundred seventy-five pounds. He might be a healer/Priest, but he was capable of fighting his way to a patient if the situation called for it.
Julie clapped him on the shoulder. “Relax a little. That is a problem we can easily deal with, if it occurs. For now just be happy, we are the proud new owners of a boat and in the morning we’ll be the first to explore Barrier Isle.”
They all got quiet. Looking out toward the isle, unexplored so far and yet so close to the city. Rumors of it being haunted, ghostly lights had been seen during twilight hours and there was even a story about something laughing at a group of fisherman as they were about to land. They all knew the stories. A mixture of excitement and fear flowed through them. Could they really do it?
Julie broke the silence. “Let’s go, we’ll see it up close after first light.” She sounded confident, always seeming sure of success. That was why they all followed her and respected her. That and she simply didn’t seem to fail. They would follow her onto that haunted isle tomorrow and they were sure she would bring them back. No matter what they found or got into.
Julie began the two mile walk back to the ranch, home for all of them. The others fell in behind her, Gretta between the girls, listening to the story of the night’s adventure. Victor was behind them listening in, but as usual his eyes and his mind were on Julie. They were nearly back, the ranch in sight, when movement to the right of the footpath caused them all to stop, hands on their weapons.
A raccoon ran out onto the path. They all shared a nervous giggle and doubled their speed for home.
Suzanne was looking through the shutters, the window closest to the door so she could hear someone approach. Her current view was of the trail to the beach. It came in at an angle to the stables so she could see where it crested the berm about a half mile from the house. This night she had taken great care in preparing for her role as distraction. Her sculpted angular beauty was framed by her long dark hair, two strands coming forward drawing the eye to her ample femininity only partially encased in a red dress that hugged her body to the waist where it flared out and hung loosely to mid-calf. Though no one was there to see it, her deep brown eyes sparkled when the team crested the berm. From this distanced it was impossible to tell who was in the lead but she knew it had to be Julie. She counted them as each appeared to rise out of the earth itself and breathed a sigh of relief as the fifth came into view. She surrendered her position at the window, preparing for their return. She poured out six ales and returned her notes on magical defenses (which she hadn’t read all night) to her room.
Julie was indeed the first through the door as Suzanne re-entered the common room. They all came in none of them answering her questioning look. Gretta was the last to enter, closing the door behind as she did.
Suzanne could stand it no longer, “Well, how did it go?”
“We got it.” Julie’s tone was flat, giving the indication that something was not well.
“We need to dig out another eight or ten feet to pull it all the way in.” Cynthia left no doubt there was a lot of work to do.
“But we’re set for the morning right?” Suzanne’s anxiety was hard to banish when she wasn’t part of the action.
“Yes, so I hope you studied hard.” Aanna believed that magic, especially when well timed, was the guarantee of their victory.
Gretta walked up behind Victor and slapped the back of his head, producing a muffled crack. “Stop looking like that! She was not dressed to distract you!”
Victor and Suzanne blushed as the others giggled. “Sorry” was all Victor could mumble, his eyes suddenly glued to the floor.
They removed the dark coifs that were meant to blend their head into the darkness as the black cloak did for their bodies. Each raised their mug to celebrate the success of the night’s mission. “For tonight and with this success, tomorrow’s is all the more likely.” Julie always tied one to another, never able to take a success for what it was. “Success” came the chorused reply. Each took a deep pull and found a well deserved seat. Conversation was light till they emptied their mugs and retired. Rest was almost a requirement for tomorrow’s activity. Barrier Isle awaited them. The isle would not be able to deter them. They would be the first to set foot on it, let alone to actually explore it.
* * *
Essira reached the top of the steps and wondered why there was so much activity downstairs. She was usually the first sometimes the second person in the kitchen. Either she was late or Talmae had more company than usual. At the foot of the steps she froze. Why was the team here so early? She knew from the state of Talmae’s preparations that her being late was not the issue. Starting her way toward the fireplace she decided nonchalant curiosity was probably the best approach. “So what has you six here so early?” Uncharacteristically it was Suzanne who responded. “Trying to get some extra time for the day’s work.” Their eyes met and Suzanne knew she needed more to satisfy Essira. “We had a few things come up on the last team outing. A little extra work should make it right.”
Essira had trusted Suzanne from the day she arrived. She knew there was more to the story and that she would not get the information out of any of them, not while they were together anyway.
They finished eating and left before anyone else came in. Aanna had slipped loaves of bread into Suzanne’s pack as well as her own; the cheese wheel was split between Gretta and Victor.
Cynthia was carrying three quivers. One over each shoulder and the third between them tied to those on either side. She set the bundle beside her position at the helm as everyone took their posts for the voyage. This was the least practiced of everything this team was capable of. Except for Cynthia they had been sailing only once, up the river. That was a trip they would never forget. Aanna grabbed a sail line, Victor the second. Gretta pulled the bow line off and began to push the boat out of its new home. Julie yelled for Gretta to jump in as they reached the end of the sand. She followed instructions, tripping over the side and sprawling on the bottom. Julie quickly followed suit, leaving out the trip. She helped Gretta up as the boat turned bow southward and Cynthia called her instructions for the sail. Everyone relaxed as the boat answered their adjustments, gliding over the water southward. Their plan was to sail to the southern end of the island and pick their landing point, then land on the return trip.
They watched the coast of the island and saw only plants. There were some signs of animal passage but no sign of anything except gulls. They chose a small cove for the landing. Like the rest of the island it was lined with palms, a few oaks could be seen further in. Ferns covered most of the ground along with a few flowering plants. The only surprise so far was that the other end of the isle marked the exit of a river from the mainland. It was as if the isle was there to shelter the land from the sea winds nearly river to river.
Cynthia guided the boat right up to the beach. The moment it stopped, Gretta and Julie both jumped from the bow, Gretta carried a coil of rope that was tied to the bow. The sail was being tied down by Aanna and Victor. Julie grabbed the rope as Gretta uncoiled rope as she ran so she could tie it off to a tree. Both girls pulled and the boat came about another two feet onto the sand. Gretta tied her line off as the others climbed onto the narrow strip of beach. Their dark uniforms provided a contrast to the bright greens of the ferns in the morning light.
“Ok, shall we take the south end first?” Julie often framed her suggestions as questions.
“Sure Jules. It is the shortest distance.” Cynthia’s opinions came as she shrugged the quivers onto her back.
“Cyn’s right, it’s also the least seen so we should be ready for surprises.” Gretta’s sword sang as it cleared the scabbard. She strode toward the boat to retrieve her shield.
“Settled then, south it is.” Testing the weight of her scimitar, Julie started for the tree line.
They fell into a single file line. Aanna and Cynthia behind Julie then Suzanne, Victor and Gretta. Only Suzanne had no weapon in hand. Foliage thickened as they moved away from the water. The shadows deepened just as quickly. Several birds took to the air in response to their passage. A lizard almost a foot long nose to tail scurried up a tree trunk. They crossed what appeared to be a game trail. It’s significance not registering on the novice explorers.
They continued southward till they reached the southern tip of the island. Standing about fifty feet above the water on a raised section of earth not quite large enough to be a hill. They found a squared section of the earth about two feet deep with the open end facing inward.
“What do you think Aanna?” Gretta was poking around the eastern side with her sword.
“I think it was dug out.”
“So we’re not the first ones here?”
“If it was dug, it was a long time ago Cyn.” Suzanne was kneeling at the north eastern corner.
“Yea well, if it was a little deeper it would be a good position for archers. Maybe another foot or so.”
“You might be onto something Cyn. Jules look at this.”
Everyone followed Julie to where Gretta had squatted.
“What did you find?”
“A stone wall, I think.” Gretta looked up at her teammates. “You look but I think it’s a wall, buried, but a wall.”
Julie and Aanna both agreed, there was a wall buried here.
“Does that look like a merlon to you?” Suzanne was standing atop the southern side facing inward, her arm pointing upward between two trees.
“I don’t see anything Suz.”
“Come over here. I didn’t notice it till I climbed up.”
Cynthia joined her on what they thought was a parapet wall. Following the line of Suzanne’s finger. “Wow! If it’s not I’ll give up my bow.” She turned to face Julie. “We are definitely not the first ones here. That is about fifty or sixty feet above us.”
“Why are there no stories or anything but rumors of this place being haunted if this was built since our parents settled here.” Aanna looked from one blank face to another.
Then Julie burst out, “Unless of course….”
“It was here before they came…..” Suzanne continued.
“And nobody else knows about it!” Aanna was bubbling over with excitement.
“So we are the first!” Cynthia chimed in loud enough to scare birds from their perches.
Laughter broke the moment and the four turned to see Victor and Gretta sitting on the west wall nearly doubled over.
“What’s so funny?”
Gretta looked up, “Sorry Cyn, but this is the first time you’ve finished each others sentences.”
“It looked funny as each of you got the idea and then just blurted it out.” Victor chuckled more than spoke.
Julie shook her head. “I’m glad this team is so close that we can do it.”
“Me too.” Cynthia quickly agreed. “If we think similar enough we know what the next person is doing.”
“Which means Cyn won’t shoot you and I’ll help you with just the right magic…”
“At the right time and nobody will attack me by mistake when I’m behind or coming in from the side.”
They all shared a moment of laughter as it became apparent that Victor was right, it looked and sounded funny.
“So Jules are we going to that building?” Gretta was smiling ear to ear, she knew the answer.
“Let’s go.” And Julie set off; the others falling in line again.
Going deeper inland proved slower than skirting the shoreline. The foliage was thicker, mosses and vines hung from branches obscuring the light and keeping their visibility to no more than twenty or twenty five feet.
“Careful Jules!” Aanna pulled Julie to the right.
Cynthia pointed to where she had been about to step, a large snake on a low branch hung just in reach. “Doesn’t look friendly.”
“Wow, I can’t believe I missed that. Thanks Aanna, I owe you one.”
A grin lit up on Aanna’s round face. “I hope I never have to collect.”
Julie patted her shoulder, “So do I.”
They gave the snake a wide berth and continued onward.
Cynthia looked back at Suzanne, “Do you think it got that big eating small birds”?
“No. Something bigger around and likely moves on the ground.”
“On the ground?”
“That’s why it hung down, the prey is down here not up there.”
“Good thinking.” Cynthia knocked an arrow not willing to be caught off guard.
Nearly an hour after leaving the southern parapet they found the object of their search. A wall about twenty-five feet high nearly covered in vines rose from the ground. Looking upward a round tower like structure rose another thirty feet from the top of the lower structure. A bush or possibly a sapling tree sprouted from a window like opening about halfway up. This was definitely a stone structure. At various points, stones could be seen peeking through the vines and mosses that grew behind them on the lower half of the building. The top of the lower square section hosted trees and foliage of its own. Even without seeing it from its own level it obviously served as an alternative ground.
Walking around the square lower half of the tower Aanna found an iron bound heavy door on the eastern side. The door was covered from the front with soil; leaving about two feet of it sticking up out of the ground.
“What do you think?” Julie didn’t sound overly enthusiastic.
“I’d like to find a window opening before I try that.” Aanna didn’t like the door either.
“Ok, see what you can find.” Julie looked past Victor. “Gretta go with her, I don’t think any of us should be alone.”
When they rounded the corner, Suzanne faced Julie. “You got one of your feelings or is it something else?”
Victor answered for her. “I don’t think there are any living dead around but, something’s not right about this place.”
“Yea, not right is a good way to put it. I can’t figure out what it is…unless…”
Victor’s eyes got wide. “Oh no!” And he ran to catch the pair with Julie and the others no more than a step behind.
“Gretta think you can give me a hand up to that spot?” Aanna pointed.
“Sure, but why? It looks the same as the rest of the wall.”
“Ok.” Gretta squatted down by the wall putting her shield over her head. She stuck her sword into the ground beside her and grabbed the edge of the shield. “Climb on.”
“Sometimes I think you could wrestle the bull.”
“It lost the last two times. Say when.”
“Ok there.” Aanna parted the hanging moss and found her window. As she pulled her weight off the shield and leaned in she called back, “I was jesting, but I believe you did best it.”
“That was Gormi’s idea.” She stepped back and grabbed her sword. “What do you see?”
Aanna was sitting on a narrow window sill, her legs dangling outside. The rest of her inside the strange building. “Not much. Dark as a root cellar in here.”
“You want Suz?”
“Not till I’m sure this is a good way in.”
Gretta heard Aanna’s sword being drawn. “Can you hold my feet?”
“Sure.” Gretta leaned her shield against the wall. Aanna’s feet were about eye level, she grabbed the ankles.
Aanna’s weight pushed up on her ankles as she leaned back. Two soft clinks as her blade hit stone. Then a clunk and a clicking sound. Aanna screamed.
Gretta pulled hard yanking her from her perch as the others rounded the corner. Aanna slid down through her arms and staggered when her feet hit the ground. Steadied by Gretta’s firm grip Aanna managed not to fall. She followed Victor’s guidance as he laid her down and pulled off her coif, cushioning the underside of her head with it.
Aanna’s mind raced….Why are things blurry …Why do I still feel numb … Am I dying …What was that…
“Aanna just relax I’m going to clean this and heal it up. You’ll be fine.”
She heard Victor’s voice then realized she couldn’t answer … she couldn’t move! She tried to scream to tell them that something was very, very wrong, but nothing came out.
Julie knelt beside her head. “Relax you’ll be ok.” Remember Victor’s the best.” She watched a tear come from the motionless eyes and roll down toward the ear. Julie wiped it. “I promise you this will be ok.” She almost choked on the words, fear welling up inside … could Aanna die?
Victor looked up. The wound was cleansed and closed. He nodded at Julie pointing his head toward Aanna’s feet. He rose and walked about five feet from her still body.
Julie stood. “Cyn if anything moves in there, shoot it. Gretta stay with her.”
Gretta knelt where Victor had been. “We all will make sure you’re ok. It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have left you in there like that.” She wiped her eyes. “I’m sorry Aanna. Don’t worry I’ll avenge you.”
Suzanne went with Julie over to Victor. He was blunt. “I can’t do anything about her not moving. Both wounds are fine, she won’t bleed to death. But …..”
“Do you know why she isn’t moving?”
“Not for sure. No. I think it’s some kind of poison.” He meet Julie’s gaze. “I don’t know what it will do to her.”
“Relax Victor it’s not your fault.” She looked at Suzanne and snapped her gaze back to Victor. “Two wounds? I only saw one.”
“Yeah I know. Whatever bit her grazed across her cheek, almost hit her eye, laid it open down to the jaw. The second wound was on the back of her shoulder; more like a puncture. I think that is where the poison got in.” He brought his hands up hooking both index fingers above his fists which he put together. Then he twisted his hands till the tips of his fingers met. “Had to be something like this. What has a mouth or a bite like that?”
They looked at each other. Neither wanting to admit that they didn’t know. The reverie was broken by Cynthia’s voice. “No! Gretta don’t!”
They spun quickly. Cynthia was beside Aanna facing the building bow in hand, arrow drawn. Following her line of sight they found Gretta.
Gretta was half way through the window. Her size made a much tighter fit than it had been for her friend. She shoved the shield outward to the left. Hoping it would hit whatever had attacked Aanna. It didn’t. She was over extended and trying to draw her sword. The balance was past precarious. She tumbled backwards; her feet following through the window. Aanna was right. It was dark as a root cellar.
Julie grabbed for Gretta’s feet as they went up and in. She just wasn’t fast enough.
“Suz I want light in there now! Victor get over here and give me a hand up.”
Both moved to execute her orders without thinking of the consequences. Light appeared inside just before Julie’s body filled the window.
Julie wasted no time as she pulled herself through and sat on the sill. She could hear movement below. Glancing down to see Gretta kneeling with her shield in front of her and a four foot long spider trying to bite through it. A dark ooze came from its head and covered Gretta’s sword. There was a strange pattern on the upper portion of the creature, a bisected oval with what almost looked like rays extending from the center to the edges all drawn in a grey color on a light brown background. This oval seemed to be pointed at from behind by an arrowhead style shape, while the legs were a brownish grey close to the body fading into grey near the ends. She drew her own and pushed off.
Cynthia’s yell pierced the air, “No Jules!!!” Then another friend was gone and into the unknown. Turning to Victor she issued her own orders. “Give me something to stand on so I can help them.” He looked unsure. “A piece of log, anything. They need us now!
Victor moved to follow the orders and she turned on Suzanne. “Keep her safe.” It was clearly a command as she pointed to Aanna.
Victor returned dragging a log. Cynthia ran to help. They propped it against the wall, making sure it was sturdy enough to hold her. As she climbed up she looked back down at Victor. “Get that door open.”
He ran presumably for the door.
* * *
Julie twisted as she fell thrusting the tip of her scimitar out.
Gretta saw her coming and put her shoulder into the shield pushing the thing into the blades path, she hoped.
Julie landed on its back scimitar first near the center of the oval target on its back. Her left shoulder slammed into the shield and she rolled to her right losing the grip on her pommel.
The warrior stood, the spider was motionless. She looked at Julie in the dim light, she was still lying on the dirt floor. Kneeling beside a second friend within minutes she couldn’t find anything wrong. “Julie! Julie! Damn you girl answer me.”
Cynthia looked down and called to Gretta, “Victor’s going to the door. Open it for him if you can, I’ll shoot anything that moves.”
Looking up at the sound of the familiar voice Gretta allowed a grin to grace the otherwise hard face. “I see it. I’ll get it open or tear it down.” The large girl was off into the shadows.
Cynthia was sure that she could rip the door from its frame. A mumbling mutter escaped her lips, “I hope she never gets mad at me.” Then the sight of Julie laying beside the creature took root, another friend was hurt. She could see the scimitar protruding from what looked like a spider web drawn on a spider.
When she heard the door splinter relief flooded over her. She waited until both her friends were in view. “We’ll be right in.” She leaned back out of their sight before they could respond and jumped down from her perch.
“Julie’s down. We need to take her inside. If you carry my bow I think I can carry her.”
“No need, hold on.” Suzanne’s hands began to move in arcane gestures as she mumbled a few words. When she finished an oblong tray appeared beside her, about a foot wide and three times as long.
Cynthia just stared at her.
“Best I can do. You’ll have to lift her onto it though.”
“Where did you get it?”
She thrust her bow at the wizardess. “Hold this.” Once Aanna was on the magical stretcher as Cyn called it they headed for the door. Aanna’s feet were dragging along the ground but otherwise it worked, staying beside Suzanne.
Then Cynthia saw the door, “How are we going to get her through? It just isn’t wide enough for both of you.”
“I’m not sure it would follow me when I crawl either.”
Cynthia looked up from her kneeling position. “We have to slide in feet first, crawling won’t work.”
“Give Gretta a yell we can hand her down then slide in.”
They were thrilled to see Julie on her feet pulling the sticky blade from the creature. Their fears and attention were now focused on Aanna.
Julie saw them gathered around their fallen friend. “Ok, suggestions are welcome.”
They just looked at her silently at first until the tension began to fade as the team refocused on the familiar format for solving their problems.
“We need to get her back to Jaffar, I’ve done all I can for her.” Victor’s admission seemed to focus the others.
“Then we take her out the way we came in and head for the boat.”
“I’ll carry her, this was my fault.”
Julie snapped. “This was nobody’s fault! We all chose to come here and we all did everything we could.” She faced Gretta, “Would you prefer it was you laying there?”
Gretta found dirt on her boots to examine.
“Alright then no more of that. Everyone did their job and did it well, Aanna just had some bad luck.”
Suzanne was sitting on a tree root jutting out of wall, her head tilted back. “How many babies do you think it had?”
All eyes went to her then followed her gaze upward to see what had spawned the comment. Small webs were hanging from all over the ceiling.
“Ok security check. Suz we’ll need more light the other side is still dark, Cyn you’re with me too. You two make sure nothing else climbs down and tries to eat her.”
This was the first assessment of their new surroundings and under Julie’s guidance they moved carefully, hoping nothing else was lurking and waiting for them. The outer wall was about thirty five feet in length and at its center point only about ten feet from the inner circular wall. The inner wall seemed to be the base of the round tower that protruded from the top of the square lower portion of the building. No other walls were visible to Julie from their position near the northwest corner of the room.
The trio now on their guard walked first to the door. Suz noticed immediately that Jules was right it was dark here. The opening only allowed a little sunlight in. She provided light with a quick spell and nothing new emerged from the darkness. This was her first good look at the door broken and now lying on the floor. “Wow Gretta really destroyed that thing.”
“Yea she ripped it right out of the wall.” Julie looked carefully at where Cyn was pointing. The mortar was decaying, roots came from between the stones and made their way into the floor in other places they threatened to push stones from the wall creating a danger of collapse.
“Those arches don’t seem to be tall enough for the whole building you think there is a second floor?”
Suz followed her thoughts. “Has to be they are holding up what looks like a wooden floor and as rotten as it is it couldn’t hold the trees and bushes we saw up there.”
Julie urged them on. On the south side they found what Julie feared and Suzanne expected. It was Cynthia who commented first. “You think it would be easier going up than out?”
Julie looked at Suzanne who simply shook her head negatively. “I think we should wait to see what happens with Aanna and whatever we find around here.”
When they returned to the others after going full circle the first thing they saw was Aanna’s back. That realization created a foot race over the last twenty feet.
The joy at seeing her was uncontained. Julie almost knocked her over hugging her, Cynthia dropped her precious re-curve bow and Suzanne tripped over an exposed root trying to get to her.
Victor broke the celebration up. “We should break a loaf of that bread and the first half of the cheese wheel. She will need the strength when we start moving again.”
The light chose that moment to wink out. “Sorry.” Suzanne apologized as she created another glowing globe. “I lost track of time. I’ll try not to let it happen again.”
“Suz this is your first time outside of practice and have you ever used five at once before?” At her nod Julie continued, “Don’t be so hard on yourself. We all trust you and this is our first time out here on our own.” The ever positive Julie hadn’t lost the confidence they all loved.
With their makeshift meal finished Aanna stood. “Are we ready to go up?”
“Are you ready?” Victor was trying to protect her.
“Hey I admit I’m a little more nervous than I was when we started, but I need to get back into the work.” She looked across from her, “That looks like it hurts Jules. Are you ok?”
The bruise on the left side of her face looked painful, yet she shrugged it off. “It hurts a little and my shoulder is stiff but I’m ready if you are.” She failed to mention the headache that came along with everything else.
“Then lets look at the view from the top.”
When they got to the doorway leading to the inner tower Gretta stopped. “Hey Suz can you make that light thing you do move with us?”
“No, it doesn’t follow me.”
“It just stays where you put it?”
With a few steps Gretta brought her sword down on a section of root slicing it off the wall. “Can you put it on this?
“I think so.” She began the minor magic directing her attention to the root. When she finished the end began to glow.
Gretta waved it around smiling, finally thrusting it out toward Suzanne. “Your creation you do the honors.”
“Yea we invented the torch.” She giggled and the others joined her. It seemed to break the tension of going into the unknown after the last near disaster.
Julie led the procession into the inner tower; Aanna followed taking her first step carefully more than a bit nervous despite her claim.
Suzanne commented, “This seems more solid than the outer walls.”
“Yup, no trees digging into it, but it is kinda small.”
“Where do the steps go?” Aanna looked up. “Looks like something’s up there.”
The steps, wooden and about two feet wide, created a quarter circle around the room then disappeared into a web-like structure that nearly created a floor about ten feet above them.
“How do we get through that?”
“Not sure yet Cyn. I’m open to suggestions though.”
“I think we could cut it.” Gretta hefted her sword ready to demonstrate.
Not without exposing someone to getting bitten again.” Julie looked thoughtful and everyone watched her knowing she always had an idea tucked away somewhere. “Cyn can you shoot into that and still hit what comes out?”
The attention was focused on Cynthia as she drew her bow and fired through one of the gaps. “No problem Jules.”
“Ok, your idea you’re the cutter.”
Gretta started up the stairs, “Not sure this is what I had in mind.” Her sword arm was against the wall making it had to swing.
“I thought you out wrestled one of them already.” Aanna jested, “And the bull twice.”
“Like I said,” she sliced through one strand, “Gormi’s idea and I had to cushion Julie’s dive.”
“Didn’t go the way I planned it, but thank you for the soft landing.” She rubbed her face lightly.
“How was I supposed,” another strand cut, “to know it would rear up?”
The sharp twang of the bow got attention. “Back up!” Another arrow flew.
Two spiders were now tacked to the webbing, each about a foot long, another dropped to the floor just inches from Cynthia’s foot.
Gretta backed down a few steps scanning the area just above her.
Suzanne held the light over her head to give Cynthia a better view.
Julie stepped up beside Suzanne, she didn’t want another injured friend.
Victor backed up to Aanna giving her some protection.
Aanna threw a knife ending the spiders advance as its first leg touched Cynthia’s boot.
Every eye in the room was looking for more of the disgusting little things. The moment was tense until Suzanne’s voice cut through the silence. “I guess we found the babies.” She looked around at her friends staring at her. “How many more do you think?”
Aanna bent down retrieving her knife. “None I hope.”
“Not going to count on that.” Cynthia went back to her vigil constantly scanning the web.
Gretta stepped up and began slicing strands again. The sharp sound of the snapping strands did nothing to alleviate the tension. Their light hearted banter was lost in the rhythm of the banjo like twangs as she cut web strings.
Julie kept her eyes on Gretta instead of the web. She knew there was a light chain tunic beneath the dark robe but, would it be enough to stop one of their bites? Why had they chosen the soft cloth coifs instead of the helms they should be wearing? Never again she swore to herself would she allow them to leave unprepared, NEVER!
She was brought from her introspection by a voice … Gretta’s … “There’s another one above this. About three feet …” She stuck her head into the space,just enough to take a peak and Julie cringed. “I think I see your arrow over there in the web. Want it back Cyn?”
“No thanks it might stick to the others in the quiver or to the bow.”
Progress was slow. Julie and Gretta alternated cutting so neither would tire. The deeper they got the more shadows they created. Nearly an hour passed before a door to the second floor was uncovered and passable, it remained unopened.
Cynthia was now on the steps her head level with the first layer of webbing, Gretta sat on the lower three steps, the improvised torch laid on the stairs between Cynthia and Julie.
“Going in or continuing up?” Julie panted.
“Come on down we’ll figure it out.”
Glad for the suggestion Julie started down collecting the light on her way.
Cynthia jumped to the ground allowing Gretta to stay seated. Julie sat above her, “Thoughts?” was the only word she could manage.
“You and Gretta are wearing yourselves out. I’m getting tired myself; I’ve relit that torch six times.” She looked around, “First time I’ve used this much power in one day.”
“We could go outside and set a camp.” Aanna seemed determined to get to the top.
“We’re not exactly prepared for an over night trip.” Suzanne was picking up her mentor’s habit of pointing out the obvious.
Victor was not so enthusiastic. “If we go back the mentors will want to come over themselves.”
“Ok, we don’t go back but we camp down near the boat. I don’t want something to happen and us not be near it.” Julie glanced at Aanna, the others moved to go. Her decision was made and they didn’t question it.
With the packs gathered they crawled out into the open air. Nobody had realized the lateness of the hour. It was surely time for the evening meal and they could almost taste one of Talmae’s thick stews. Stomachs growled.
We could go back after dark and get what we need.” Aanna was the first to voice the growing sentiment, the wavering determination.
“That is not a bad idea. What do you think Jules?”
She looked back at Cynthia. They were nearing the boat, a decision had to be made, now. “Sounds like a good idea. We weren’t exactly prepared to go inside like that.”
A loud snort cut into the conversation as they crossed the game path.
Aanna dove to her right as Julie unsuccessfully tried to cut of the charging boar.
Cynthia quickly noched an arrow, belatedly realizing that she had failed to follow shooter’s advice. She cursed at herself for forgetting again.
Suzanne stepped back to give them some space as victor moved in front of her unwilling to leave her unprotected.
Gretta was near the back of the group and broke into a run hoping not to be late, this time
A tusk ripped into Aanna’s robe just above the ankle. The boar turned quickly the extra tug on its head causing it to tumble, as Cynthia fired only scratching the upturned belly.
Julie checked her swing not willing to chance hitting Aanna.
Gretta passed Cynthia still running … just two more steps …
The boar regained its feet and pushed toward Aanna as Julie straddled her bringing the scimitar down on its back.
Cynthia couldn’t fire with Gretta in her way.
Gretta drove her sword into the side of the chest.
Scimitar and sword met at the beast’s heart.
“Looks like we found our evening meal.” Victor’s levity was not entirely appreciated.
“That thing almost took my foot off!”
“We need to be more careful. This is the last time I want us taken off guard.” Julie was not pleased and her tone came as a surprise to everyone.
Gretta gutted the boar in silence and slung it over her shoulder unmindful of the blood seeping into her robe.
The procession moved in total silence back to where the boat was moored. Julie broke the silence. “Two people on firewood, nobody is alone.” She looked around the small group. “So who is with me on firewood?”
“Me.” Cynthia quickly volunteered. As the other four set up the camp they moved into the ferns. “You think you might have been a little hard back there?”
“I’m sorry Cyn. That was the second time today we almost lost Aanna.” Julie stopped walking. “Would Jaffar have been understanding?”
Cynthia just looked at her.
“Ok! You’re right he probably would have. Do you think I’ll ever live up to him?”
“You don’t need to be him, you need to be you. That is harder still. You don’t like to lose, he has told us stories and so have the others. People, no, friends have died around them. He told you to expect to lose friends, remember?
“That doesn’t make it easier.”
“Just be you, we all respect you for who you are not who he is. All of us would follow you into hell to save a single soul, all you need to do is lead.”
Julie looked away for a moment. “Thanks Cyn, you’re a good friend and an excellent archer. How do you just be yourself?”
“That’s easy, all I do is shoot. No responsibility. It kind of helps.”
“That responsibility is mine.”
“Just lead the rest is not your fault, its not anyone’s. We all agreed to serve the same people. One of them happens to run a church of which you are a big part. Let the god decide.”
“Guess I owe everyone an apology.”
“Just get us to the top, ok?”
They returned to a quiet camp and dropped the wood near the pit.. The boar, now skinned and skewered was being placed over it.
“Look I owe you all an apology. I got worried and started to feel like it was all my fault. Cyn straightened me out. I’m sorry. Tomorrow we go to the top,and I’ll let everyone be themselves. You’re all the best, I know that. I just forgot for a moment.” She hung her head and sat by a nearby tree, looking up as Aanna called.
“Jules I’m not the only one who got hurt today” She ran a finger over the still pink scar on her cheek. “We’re worried about you too.”
“She’s right, you got hurt, we almost lost you. We love you as much as you love us.”
Victor’s comment brought tears to her eyes, the left swollen nearly half shut.
Suzanne lightened the mood. “Besides losing a friend, Jaffar would kill us for letting something happen to his star protege.”
Julie finally began a mini smile. “The result would be the same no matter who we lost. You are all the best of each mentor’s students. I love you all, my friends.” She broke into tears.
* * *
After a meal of roasted boar Suzanne and Aanna both dozed in the evening breeze. Cynthia was not far away leaning against a tree her legs stretched out looking over them. How could I have forgotten such a basic thing as to keep an arrow at the ready while walking. Her mind continued to wander, even worse how did I miss that shot? I was right there and so close, why … what did I do wrong?
Victor watched and worried about Julie, he saw her wince when she moved. She
needed his help, she was just to stubborn for now.
Julie would have loved to nap like her friends were, she just couldn’t close her eyes because her face hurt and every time she moved pain shot through the injured shoulder. Besides that her mind wouldn’t let her rest. It was my fault I know it even if they won’t admit it. That thing was on my left and I can barely see out of that eye. Maybe I should ask Victor to heal me . I know he would but, do I really need it? Why not he healed me before. Where is he anyway? She began to look around. He can’t be far away he never is. She turned at the waist because moving to the left hurt to much. There he is.
“You ready now?”
“Yes, thank you for waiting.” A grin began then quickly turned into a wince. “How did you know?”
“A lucky guess.” He smiled as he leaned over her. “Now sit still.”
Gretta sat opposite the entire group, as usual she was focused on her sword. Cleaning and oiling it before she began to sharpen always helped her relax. She watched the group as the rhythm of her movements fell into place. Two sleeping, one lost in her own thoughts and Victor was finally healing Julie. It looked like she was falling asleep. Yup she sure did, good she needed it. He left the bruise, that was good too, it would remind her and she would wear it like some kind of token of honor. He just sat there staring at her, everyone knew that he was in love with her. She loved him too she was just too damn stubborn to admit it.
* * *
The moon had risen before Gretta walked over to wake Victor. With a soft touch on the shoulder, “I think it’s time.”
“Yeah probably.” He yawned as he stood. Gretta had walked toward the others leaving him to wake Julie.
* * *
Cynthia had guided the boat flawlessly, and their hike back to the ranch was about as eventful as watching corn grow. With their supplies gathered they were back at the boat and ready for the return trip.
“Grab those sail lines and hold them these clouds might mean a storm.”
“Are we ok in this in a storm?”
“Gretta we’re in the sound not the ocean and we won’t be long, relax.”
“Easy for you to say, your the best swimmer here. I just learned, remember.”
“Cyn, Where do you want me?”
“At the prow. You’ve got the best eyes in this dim light. I need to know if anything is in the way and where we need to turn in case it gets darker.” Cynthia turned to Suzanne. “Get that light ready we might need it before we beach.”
As they turned into the cove Aanna called. Suz come here a moment.”
Suzanne followed or at least tried to follow the girls line of sight as she approached. “What are you looking at?”
“See that? It looks like something moving.”
“Just a shadow. What do you think it is?”
“I don’t know.” She turned her head and yelled. “Cyn move along the beach if you can so I can get a better look.”
“I’ll light a lantern, it might help.”
Julie jumped to her feet dropping the sail line. “Stay away from the beach for now!” She yelled directly at Cynthia then turned toward Aanna. “How big is it?”
“Jules, what do you know?”
“Look at that!”
The creature had risen up at the sound of their voices. It stood about seven feet tall and was certainly bipedal. The moon chose that moment to peak out from behind the clouds giving them a glimpse of the animalistic features. Still not clear or long enough to identify it yet they knew that their unfinished boar had attracted it.
A roar split the night air. Cynthia loosed an arrow and Aanna ran for the tiller. The small craft meant for use on the river began to roll toward land with the lack of a controlling hand.
The creature dropped into a four legged gait and ran toward the water and its attackers. This vantage displayed a massive bulk.
Suzanne screamed, “Jules no!!”
Victor quickly grabbed the back of the robe and pulled her from the edge. “What are you thinking? All of us or none of us.”
“Quick turn in, hurry! We can’t lose it.”
Gretta was ready to follow Julie. It was Suzanne and Victor who waved Aanna away from the beach and back into the sound. Cynthia loosed another arrow getting another loud response.
When they had fully turned Victor released Julie.
She immediately spun on him. “Why did you stop me? You know what that was! I have to destroy it, I have to!”
“Jules we will when we are all on solid ground and can help.” Suzanne’s voice was calm.
Julie just glared at the pair of them. “I will find that thing and I will destroy it.”
“Jules, remember we don’t know what you are after here besides some large animal.” Cynthia broke in, “We could use a little help understanding the sudden passion.”
“That … that thing was no animal. That was just like the things we killed before. Jaffar named them Lycanthropes. Remember?”
The looks told her they all remembered that nite. The memories for each of them a little different but still horrid and clear.
It was Victor who finally spoke. “We will find another place to land and then during our stay on the island we can find it. For now remember even Jaffar didn’t just chase the one that escaped.”
Cynthia took over and guided the boat around the southern tip of the island and out to the seaward side. Once Julie was convinced not to run off after her prey, they found a suitable landing place. This beach was a little further away from their goal but provided a safe place for a good nights rest.
“We should post guards tonight in case that thing finds us or something else.” Cynthia nearly whispered to Suzanne, who simply nodded her agreement.
Aanna was a little startled at Cynthia’s approach. “Aan we’re setting guards tonight and I’m not telling Jules.”
The answer was wordless, just a single finger held up and then pointed at herself.
“Ok I’ll get the rest to follow me. I’m after you.” Cynthia didn’t wait for an answer, she knew Aanna understood. Between them nothing would approach without warning.
When the sun rose a less than well rested group anxiously set out for the tower after a meal of bread and cheese.
“I’m glad we thought to bring extra last nite, who knows when we’ll find another boar.”
“Hey Suz why so little trust in my bow?”
“Not your bow I don’t trust, it is the luck of finding another that seems unlikely.”
“Well if you don’t mind the young ones we left behind we could get one or both.”
“If you two don’t mind we could get to the tower and see if we need to hunt before we make that choice.”
“Ok Jules, I won’t shoot them unless we see them on the way.”
An hour later the tower looked just as they had left it. After a quick break they were back inside the inner tower.
“Hey Gretta hold on.”
“Suz what’s wrong?”
“Well I have an idea.” She turned to Julie, “What if we burned it away?”
“What do you mean? How?”
“Well Bollofaro taught me something that was meant to burn enemies that get too close. What if I use it on the web?”
“Try it.” Julie took command. “Gretta you go up with her I don’t want one of them getting her before we can do anything.”
“I have you from here too.” Cynthia smiled as she tested her bow.
Once they were up near the web Suzanne explained. “He calls it palm fire. It shoots out about a foot, so don’t get too close.” She looked at the warrior in front of her. When Gretta nodded she began the incantation. Then extended her arm as a jet of flame shot forth. Sweeping it around the web melted and and burned with a fuse like consistency for another two feet or so.
“Well, what do you think?”
“Can you do enough of it without tiring like you did yesterday?”
“I don’t really know but, what if I just do a few it will still go quicker.”
With a nod Julie gave her permission and the process was repeated. The web burned quickly and violently. Clearing away the layer above in a wider arc. The whole thing looked like a bonfire in a chimney.
Gretta backed away from the heat, forcing Suzanne to do the same.
Within moments Cynthia called a warning. “Watch out!” The walls were covered with foot long creatures resembling the huge thing Julie had dove on the day before.
Gretta began smashing the little baby spiders with the flat of her sword blade.
Aanna backed toward the door.
Julie mimicked Gretta’s squashing attacks with her scimitar the oval on their back providing a reminder of Aanna’s near loss.
Suzanne blasted a large section of the steps with palm fire keeping them from her protectors feet. “There are thousands of these things!”
Cynthia realizing that her bow was useless switched to her own blade.
“Come back down!”
Suzanne glanced over her shoulder then extended her staff and used it as a channel for the palm fire. The web instantly burnt like straw in a fireplace shooting upward through the tower so fast that the flash of light was almost instantaneous.
“Thanks for stopping the rain of spiders but get down so we can get out.”
“Coming.” Suzanne tugged on the back of Gretta’s robe. While Victor brushed one off Cynthia’s quivers squashing it with his foot when it hit the floor.
The lower steps and the floor were crunchy and slippery at the same time, Gretta backing off the last step her only guidance was Suzanne’s hand on her back. She nearly slid into the much smaller wizardess.
With both of them now on the floor Julie again took charge. “Lets get out into the other room. We can control the doorway better than this open area.
Suzanne cleared their path with another blast from the staff. Which seemed to create a new sound. “Where is that coming from?”
Aanna pointed knowing she was behind everyone and unseen. “Up in the tower and I think its getting closer.” Aanna was the first through the doorway with Victor standing just inside of it.
“Back out!” Julie yelled as she stepped up to help Suzanne keep the creatures away from the others.
Cynthia moved near the doorway and Pointed her bow upward.
Gretta’s voice filled the room. “Suz look out!” She took two quick steps pushing Suzanne out of the way as a spider larger than the first ran off the wall and collided with her.
Julie off balance from avoiding a collision with Suzanne tried to change the direction of her movement and was knocked back against the wall by the large warrior staggering under the sudden assault.
Suzanne was caught and kept from falling by Victor as she loosed another palm fire through her staff.
Cynthia quickly drew her bow, to her there was a bulls eye on those large multifaceted eyes.
A knife passed Victor’s right ear, narrowly missing Gretta’s left before striking a blistered body just above the left foreleg.
The spider immediately struck forward for the sources of the pain, it”s mandibled maw hitting Gretta’s shield hard enough to leave dents. The warrior already off balance was knocked prone falling beside Suzanne who was pushed behind Victor.
Julie thrust forward sliding the blade across the second leg on the right. Plunging its tip into the bulbus body, the arrow from Cynthia’s bow was driven to a depth of half the shaft just behind the eye.
Suzanne shoved her staff into the open mouth and released palm fire.
The monstrosity’s retreat ripped the shaft from her grasp. The scimitar responded to Julie’s reflexes as she twisted and grabbed hold with a second hand, ripping a gash along the forward quarter of the main body.
It turned and took a single movement to go up, from where it had come. Cynthia’s bow sang and the creature became still.
“Is everyone unhurt?” There was genuine concern in Victor’s voice.
It was Suzanne who noticed it, a wince, “Gretta are you ok.?”
Victor turned immediately, “Stay down.” He moved around her as Cynthia bent to support the warrior.
“Oh No!” Cynthia lifted her bloody sword from the floor. “She fell on this.”
Victor ripped open the sleeve of Gretta’s sword arm so he could see the wound.
“I’m sorry Gretta, I really am. It was … .”
“Cyn relax it wasn’t your fault.” A grimace and the tensing of Gretta’s entire body told everyone Victor was cleaning the wound. Air sucked in through clenched teeth created a hiss that could be heard through the room.
As the healing began, Gretta could feel the warmth flowing through her entire body. A look of euphoria followed as the warmth relaxed her. They all understood that healing warmth, the grace of the divine power that was channeled through Victor’s hands, it had been felt by each of them at least once.
Moments later, Gretta’s eyes opened and tears flowed down her cheeks leaving marks like rivulets in the dust that covered them.
Cynthia handed her a skein of water and Gretta drank deeply. “Thank you Cyn.”
“Yes.” She rotated at the hip looking at Victor nearly eye to eye, as he still knelt, “Thank you. Without you we would surely die.”
Victor’s voice was low and dreamy. “It is not I but the divine presence that heals. I merely ask his grace for those who need it. The sentiment is appreciated though.”
“You know what she means! Without you to channel that divine power we would all be in bad shape.” Julie scolded him for the effort at modesty.
Taking time to clean their weapons and prepare themselves for the ascent of the stairs that rose into the darkness above them, was as much to allow Gretta to regain her strength as it was for them to remuster the confidence they needed. Suzanne noticed her staff had about one foot bitten off, the missing piece somewhere inside the creature.
These things accomplished, Julie started upward pausing, at the wooden door leading to what they believed would be the upper level of he outer structure. “Aanna you think in here first, or keep going up?”
“I have a feeling some of the missing babies went through that hole in the corner.”
Julie followed the line of Aanna’s sword and saw for the first time a hole about eight inches high and six wide created by a break in the plank at the right side of the door. “I see what you mean. So I guess what I’m asking is should we go spider hunting or see what is up there?” Her scimitar pointed nearly straight up, the deep blued surface eerily refusing to reflect any light almost blended into the deep blackness.
“I wouldn’t be so eerie in here if we let in some light from up there.” The moment Suzanne finished the comment Gretta added one of her own.
“You know what Gormi says, never allow the enemy behind you.” She looked up at Julie and saw Victor and Cynthia’s nods of agreement.
Julie had to agree. “Jaffar calls it a blind area but it amounts to the same thing. She turned and lowered her shoulder into the door.
The upper portion of the door almost gave, leaving it hanging at an odd angle. Julie’s shoulder had been bruised in her dive the day before, the hit had been a bit tenuous. With confidence in her shoulder restored, she slammed into the door with her full strength and weight. Both went to the ground as the door gave way as the lower end pushed up and out sweeping the foot she had planted.
A wave of a mushy ground-like substance spread out as the door came down on it. The odor instantly hitting their nostrils was heavily tinged with ammonia and decay and was accompanied by a chorus of squeaking and squealing.
Aanna stepped onto the doors surface pushing it deeper into the mush that began to cover it from the edges.
Julie stood as Cynthia made it a trio on the door.
“It looks like the ceiling is alive!”
Their gaze followed the light from Aanna’s lantern. The ceiling was nearly covered with small winged creatures, the source of the noise, that pushed and fluttered for positions further away from the intruders.
By the time Gretta stepped in the door was covered to ankle depth with the guano and she stood beside the door nearly mid-calf deep in the muck. That muck seemed to crawl with a life of its own. As light moved over its surface centipede like creatures and beetles dug into sludgy muck, seemingly covering it, both above and below its surface.
The walls were no better. Beetles crawled looking for that bat dung, Centipede creatures hunted the young beetles and their eggs and a winged insect flittered from crevice to crevice making a meal of unwary centipedes. These winged insects in turn provided an occasional snack for the nocturnal bats. The spiders if in here were nowhere to be seen.
Julie stepped forward into the deeper muck. “Well only one way to see the rest of the place.” She waded, knee deep in the muck, away from the door.
Everyone followed her, they were less than enthusiastic, but it was understood that the stairs were the only way down, it would not do to have something block the path.
Roots hung from the ceiling some reaching to the floor. Vine-like roots were exposed on both walls. Light from what once had been a window was shadowy and the little that actually got through was tinged to a deep green by the vines and leaves covering it.
Julie waded further as rats scampered away from her. An old nest left behind by a bird could be seen on the sill. Turning the corner, the scenery was mostly unchanged.
“Jules this wall looks like it had been plastered.” In the light of Victor’s lantern, Suzanne was brushing off a section of the wall with her hands.
“Be careful I don’t want one of those things to bite you.” Victor watched her closely.
Gretta pushed the tip of her sword deep into the softness that covered the floor. “I think the floor is stone.”
“Well it’s certainly solid.” Cynthia bounced up and down. “It doesn’t move, and it is holding all this junk.”
“I think you’re right Suz. I’ve got something that looks like it was painted.” A piece of the plaster broke off into Aanna’s hand and indeed looked blue.
Julie kept looking around as if she was expecting something to round one of the corners or burst through a window. “Can you see what it looked like?”
Aanna and Victor stepped back within a foot of the outside wall and focused the lanterns toward the center of the painted inner wall. Suzanne stood between them, “Can one of you clear away the stuff blocking the window.”
Julie began to cut away the vines, allowing the light of day into the chamber for the first time in longer than they could imagine. Bats took wing retreating from the brightness causing Cynthia to duck. Gretta swatted one from the air, using the moment as an impromptu sword practice.
“It’s not clear enough to see what it is. Maybe the magus could restore it.” Suzanne’s belief in her mentor was unwavering.
“Let’s keep going, we can come back and work on that.” It was clear that Julie didn’t like standing around in guano.
“She’s right.” Gretta agreed, shaking the muck off a boot. “We can come back for a good look at the mural.”
Everyone agreed, moving on and rounding another corner. This side was much like the previous two. As Julie got about half way through the area, she looked back over her shoulder. “Suz could they have gotten that big just eating bats and rats?”
“No.” The tone was flat and confident.
That single word put caution in each step, tensed the muscles in every sword arm. Something else had to be around. Gretta remembered a bone on the floor. Downstairs it was about the length of her arm, elbow to wrist. Not from a rat with or without a wings.
Rounding the next corner was a tense moment. The expectation of large spider food was in each of their minds. Again, it looked much like the others, almost a disappointment. They moved continuing to expect something until they returned to the doorway.
Out on the staircase, everyone was kicking their boots against the stone or brushing the clinging four muck from breeches and lower portions of their robes.
“That was a disgusting little trip.”
“Yeah, so where is their food source?: Julie was looking up.
“I hope it’s not up there.” Suzanne looked up at her friend.
The question came from behind her, “Why?”
“I know you’re still hoping to use that sword of yours. But if their food source is up there, it has wings.”
“Then I’ll have something to shoot at.” All eyes turned to Cynthia.
“Ready to go up?” Julie started anyway.
On the way upwards, they found rat, bat and bird remains in portions of web that had survived. In some places it still covered the stairs and had to be cut away. About twenty feet beyond the doorway was the final web still mostly intact. Above it could be seen a wooden door in the ceiling. The door about two and a half feet square was bulging in the center. It’s planking being pulled from the edges exposing a layer of packed dirt above it.
“I can take that apart so you don’t have to push it up.”
Julie turned to see Aanna staring almost lustfully at the door. “It’s all yours.”
They traded places on the narrow stairs which was more difficult than they had imagined. The stair only about two and a half feet wide allowed little room for both girls with packs on their backs. They finally made it work when Julie faced the wall and Aanna ducked under her pack.
Aannna set to work with a flat bar, used for prying, slowly removing the door. The entire operation took about five minutes and exposed the root packed dirt above.
As Aanna worked Suzanne commented on her own observations, “That looks like a solid slab of stone.”
“How would you lift a stone that big this high.” Cynthia turned her eagle eyes on the ceiling, looking for any sign that it was not solid. She couldn’t find one.
“There it is.” Aanna placed the sod like square of soil on an upper step. The grass growing from it reached to the hole it had just vacated.
The brightness of the sun left them shielding their eyes, the breeze cleared their nostrils of the rancid odor lingering from the chamber below.
“You opened it, would you like to do the honors?
Aanna raised a hand to her face feeling the scar from the last time she had gone first. “No thanks Jules.”
As Julie got a grip on either side of the hole, she looked Aanna in the eyes. “It wasn’t your fault. That could have happened to any of us.” She lifted herself through the hole before Aanna could respond.
It was near mid-afternoon, the sun was warm and the breeze felt good. Except for the rustling grass it was quiet.
Julie leaned forward to pull a knee onto the flat surface. Kneeling on the cool ground she could see the upper portions of the merlons. Standing so she could get out of the way, she took a step before a falcon, with nearly a five foot wing span, threw itself at her. Talons going for her eyes, wings slapping her cheeks and loud screeching caws warning her to stay away. Julie’s hands came up weaponless, she tried to grab it or push the great bird away, her success was limited.
Aanna saw Julie’s problem as she rose through the hole and pushed herself into a roll to her left.
Julie stumbled backwards bumping into something solid. Aanna jumped to her feet, “Victor!” Cynthia had her upper body through the hole.
Julie stepped to her right, leaning back to get away from the bird. Aanna adjusted her grab, catching Julie’s robe instead of the raging falcon. Cynthia was pushed upward by the impatient Victor, as she fell forward. The scene scared her. A bird covering Julie’s face as she leaned backward between two uprights and Aanna was the only thing keeping her from falling.
Julie struggled to move backward. Aanna tripped her pulling her down away from the gray-brown assault. Cynthia gained her feet slipping her bow off the quiver with her left and grabbing an arrow with her right hand, all with only one thought … “I asked for it.” Victor was shoved, almost thrown, through the hole landing hard on his left hip.
The falcon, knowing when it was beaten, started to fly northward. Aanna pulled Julie away from the edge. Victor heard the familiar twang of the bow string as he stood. Suzanne was through to her waist.
Julie sat upright as Victor got there. “I’m going to roast that overgrown feather duster!”
“Shh, relax let Victor do what he does. The bird is gone.”
“I’ll find it! Essira can make a duster from it for the maids. I’ll get it.”
“Jules sit still please, so I don’t poke out an eye while I’m trying to clean this.” Victor was relieved she still had the big brown eyes he had fallen for.
“Calm down Jules I shot it, ok?” Meeting Aanna’s questioning look, Cynthia shook her head holding her thumb and forefinger about two inches apart.
“Now it makes sense.” The young wizardess was looking down as she stood near a merlon near their entrance,
“What makes sense?” Gretta demanded.
Suzanne pointed toward the base of a stone upright “Nest full of eggs. The reason it attacked something so much bigger.”
“Fried eggs for dinner. Let’s get even with that meal with wings.”
“Jules stay still please!”
Everyone turned toward Victor, it was the first time he had yelled at Julie. They expected fireworks.
Instead, she became calm as the actual healing began, even leaning back against the stone.
They began looking around again. Near a small tree peaking over the merlons Gretta found what appeared to be a barrel. It was old and had mostly fallen apart and rotted away but she was sure it had been a barrel. She reached down and picked up a fist sized chunk of black rock. “Is this the same rock that Gormi burns?”
Suzanne started toward Gretta and noticed that Aanna was digging at something a few feet from the now alert Julie. Cynthia was looking toward the south east standing by the battlements.
Suzanne took the rock from Gretta. “Sure looks like it.” She scanned the tower roof, “what is it doing up here?”
“Not sure but there is more of it.” She knocked a few more over exposing another layer beneath. “See.”
“Why would someone put a forge up here?”
“Hey.! Check this out.” Aanna was digging furiously. She had uncovered a section of polished silver about two feet by three feet that extended into the dirt.
“Is that a mirror?” Victor bent to help dig.
“I think it was.”
Gretta and Suzaane knelt across from them pulling away clumps of dirt and grass.
Julie saw Cynthia staring out into the nothingness that was the southern lands and walked over. “What has your attention?” She clapped her friend on the shoulder.
“Look over there.” Her arm extended toward the river mouth they had noticed the other night. “Just to the left of the copse of trees this side of the river.”
Julie strained her eyes, “I don’t see anything Cyn. What do you see?”
“I’m not sure. I want someone else to see it. If I’m right we are not the first just a very distant second.”
“Hold on.” She looked toward the digging frenzy, “Aanna, come here a minute, we need your eyes.”
Cynthia pointed the spot out again and got an immediate response. “Looks like a building, one there, and there too.”
“That’s what I thought.” Her gaze continued to search the trees and the plain around the river mouth, “Jules I think we just found a city.”
Julie looked back where they had indicated. This time she noticed the hair on her arms and the back of her neck standing up. It was the same feeling from the night almost a year ago … the wererats … could that be where she is hiding? No … one would not cause a reaction at this distance … that means …
“Hey we can look at the scenery later, this piece of silver is big!” It was Gretta’s first experience seeing so much silver in one place.
“Suz why would anyone polish a piece of silver this big?” Victor’s curiosity bubbled over.
“Not sure, everything around here says that the builders of this place were a little bigger than us.” She scanned her audience for a reaction, not getting one she continued. “Eight foot high doors, ten foot ceilings, windows at shoulder level not exactly built for people our size. Neither is it built for something that would need a mirror that large.”
Suzanne had stopped digging as the thought progressed. Aanna was also not digging and seemed lost in her own thoughts. Gretta and Victor continued to dig.
Julie turned back seeing Cynthia, leaning on the inner side of a merlon she asked. “How far is it?”
“Maybe two days ride.”
“From the ranch?”
“Yeah. Of course, we could take the boat.”
“No.” Cynthia turned around at the sharp answer. Julie’s face was set and serious. “They would cut it loose and we would be trapped.”
“The ones that are there.” She was staring toward the find.
“They’re ruins Jules, nobody lives there.”
“Don’t wager on it.”
Cynthia knew her friends’ uncanny ability to win wagers, so she believed something was there. She took Julie by the shoulders and squared them toward her. “Do you know what you’re saying Jules?”
“Yes. Think about what Suz just said about this place.” She paused a moment to let Cynthia recall it. “Her description would mean these … People if that’s what they were, would be about seven feet tall. Are you still with me?”
“Yeah but this place …”
“Should have been deserted. Remember the other night. That thing was tall when it stood up.”
“But it ran on four legs.”
“So did that wererat we lost in town, remember?
“You got the same feeling?”
A chill ran down Cynthia’s spine in defiance of the afternoon warmth. Here we go again, the thought was unbidden, but there, would someone die this time?
The others had uncovered the whole mirror. It easily measured eight feet by four feet and had at one time been attached to a wooden frame. Suzanne was puzzling over its purpose.
Gretta, however, had something else in mind. “What is it worth Aan?” This got Victor’s attention because the church would get its share.
“About four thousand, I’m just guessing though. We should be able to sell it for about three thousand.” Her audience of two seemed pleased. The others were deep into their own thoughts. She knew this little find would make the expedition profitable, even after paying for the repairs or replacements for their damaged equipment.
A loud roar broke their reveries. It was close, but not in the tower … yet.
“Ok let’s eat while we figure out how to get it down. We also need to know what we’re going to do about that creature.” Julie was back to business as usual.
They got as comfortable as they could and began a meal of jerky and cheese.
“Getting this down is easy. What do we really know about that creature?” Aanna sounded sure of herself, her confidence had returned.
“Ok then the creature.” Julie allowed Aanna to deal with the metal.
Cynthia sitting near the Falcon’s nest was feeding the bird pieces of jerky. “I convinced it to leave us alone the other night. Maybe it will work again.”
“You know something Jules. What is it?” Suzanne saw that familiar look in her friends’ eyes.
“Not really something I know but I have my suspicions.” They were all watching her, it seemed like they were willing her to say more. “Remember that nite in town last year?” Seeing the nods of agreement she kept talking. “The other nite it was on two legs when we first saw it, then something about it changed and it ran on all fours.” She searched for recognition in their faces. They were almost there. “ I have the same kind of feeling about this.”
“We have to be careful if you’re right.” Victor broke in, “Last time his eminence needed to cure Aadam. I do not have the ability to take care of curses of that magnitude.”
“We all trust you and we know what we are getting into.” A vote of confidence coming from Aana meant something to Victor. Remembering her paralysis and recovery allowed his confidence to remain intact.
“Can we avoid the fight?” Suzanne knew the answer before she finished the question.
“No.” Julie looked up, “What I mean is you can, I can’t.” She glanced in Victor’s direction, “It is a matter of my position with the church. I must try to find it and destroy it. Since it knows we’re here I see no way for me to avoid it.”
I’m coming with you Jules.” He saw the smile forming on her face. “We serve the same master. Even if we didn’t, I’d go with you.”
Cynthia tossed the last of her jerky to the falcon. “I’m with you Jules. Always will be.” She removed a block of rosin from her pouch and began coating her bowstring.
Suzanne looked at the broken end of her staff. “We’re all with you.”
“Good a fight, something I can really enjoy.” The decision had made Gretta’s day.
“Hey does anybody remember seeing a doorway to the outside without an intact door on the stairway coming up?”
When “Aanna got the nos that she expected, “I found one.” With that, she turned around and dropped over the side.
In a mild panic four ran for the section of wall where she had disappeared. Cynthia just waited, she had seen Aanna scale the silo back at the ranch.
Looking down, the door, or what was left of one was hanging ajar below and to the left of Aanna. The roof of the square structure was covered much as the round upper with more trees and shrubbery. In Julie’s mind there was no way of knowing what was hiding in all that brush.
“Cyn can you make sure nothing eats her?”
“Sure Jules.” She stood and made her way to the wall.
“I’m going down. The rest of you coming?”
There was a mad rush for the hole and stairway beyond.
Julie was the first to enter with Victor, Gretta, and Suzanne no more than steps behind her.
“They’re coming down Aan. Might even beat you.”
“Not going that way.” She was low enough now that the vines were holding some weight.
The falcon watched, it’s head cocked sideways. Cynthia found it odd but since it wasn’t a threat she ignored it.
Aanna was down. She grabbed a loose branch from the raised surface of the forest floor and placed it through the doorway. “You coming down?”
“When they come out.” With an arrow already nocked in her bow, she continued to search for anything that moved. She saw nothing, no birds, squirrels or anything else. It was as if every animal had gone into hiding. She glanced over at the falcon again. That’s when it came to her! It thought of them as a threat to both itself and its eggs, yet here it was waiting quietly. Something out there scared it more than this small group of humans. Doubling her effort, Cynthia looked at every bush and shadow, this was wrong.
Julie emerged from the doorway already on her guard. Followed closely by Victor and Gretta. There was no sign of the wizardess.
“Jules.” When she looked up Cyn continued. “Get Suz out where I can see her. Something is not right.”
“You feel it too?”
Suzanne heard the commentary and came out onto the roof from the doorway. She was fiddling with her broken staff, uneasy herself.
Aanna seeing everyone with weapons drawn and ready slid her own sword out of the scabbard.
Still nothing moved or made a sound. “The sun will be gone soon. Come on back up. It’s easier to defend from here.”
Julie thought it over a second, “Let’s go up. We can look this over in the morning.”
Back on the stairs, Suzanne had a lantern and stopped Aanna. This is a nice illusion covering the doorway. Don’t feel bad, I missed it on the way up too. See how there is no crumbling in the mortar and no dirt settling on the stones?”
“That’s how to tell it’s not real?”
“For this one it is. I need to go visit Carson to learn more about illusions.”
“What about Bollofaro?”
“The Magus doesn’t use illusions. I never asked why.”
“Can we go up now ladies? I’d really feel better if we were all together.” Julie seemed nervous. They went up together.
“Ok Cyn what do you think?
“Sorry Jules but the quiet around here has me spooked. It’s like the dead lands, remember?”
“I don’t think any of us will forget.”
“What do you say, we camp up here tonight?”
Aanna chimed in, “I could put the door back with the grass on top of it, should be noisy enough if something tries to get through.”
“Ok we’ll do it.” Julie fell into her decision making roll. “Aan fix the door, Cyn keep an eye out for now we’ll take shifts. Suz any suggestions for the walls?”
“No not much I can do about them. Good idea for the watch though, our eight legged friends might be around.”
“If anyone gets bit yell, I’ll do what I can.” Victor looked across at Aanna remembering how lucky they were the venom was not lethal.
Gretta volunteered, I’ll start cutting down some of these weeds. They should make half decent beds.”
Darkness came somewhat quicker than expected. The moon though larger than the previous nights was made less effective because of the clouds. On every watch, somebody jumped at a shadow, or spun around to look for the creator of a non-existent noise. Sleep was slow to come and when it did a restless tossing and turning prevailed. Tomorrow would be the full moon. They all hoped to be back within the safe confines of the ranch before then, all but one of them.
Dawn brought a grey misty fog that threatened to hang around. The sky was dark with rain. None of this was encouraging except maybe to Aanna who seemed to be unaffected by the dreariness.
Even she had to admit that the night was unproductive. The tension of what was to come, sleeping in unfamiliar surroundings, what had to be an entire plague of biting insects and the bats that hunted them had left them all tired and itching for a fight, something anything to take their frustration out on.
They readied themselves in silence, spending the last year and a half together gave everyone insight into how the other would react. The walk down to the camouflaged doorway was tense, all weapons were drawn, grips were tested, it was time for carnage. The crushing of a few spiders seeking shelter from the coming storm was insufficient.
Julie led them through the portal without hesitation, scimtar held ready. They flared out into a v-shape, a militant imitation of geese returning home in spring. Julie had the forward point with Gretta a step behind and left, Cynthia in a similar position on the right. Behind each of them maintaining the spacing was Victor and Aanna respectively, Suzanne between them.
They started to the right. Their crashing through the brush created a flurry of motion. Monkeys scattered to the safety of the trees, squirrels scampered for a place to hide, a small clutch of hares hopped away. The resident falcon collecting one for its own use. It seemed nothing was looking for a fight.
Reaching the first corner Julie began their turn as an ear splitting roar scared birds into flight, all flying from the north toward them. One more turn and they would make the northern face of the structure. Would it meet them there? There was hope throughout the group.
They were fifteen maybe twenty feet from the turn when they were greeted by a low rumbling growl. Julie refused to pause, ignoring the warning she led them forward.
Two steps and a jaguar jumped at one of the smaller trees, Julie was no more than a step away. The cat used it as a spring board, its grace creating the image of a gliding flight, a monkey still clenched in its jaws, landed on an over hanging branch. From a ground based tree and confidently strode toward the trunk, looking back only to let the intruders know it was not pleased with their interruption.
As they began the turn onto the north face Cynthia called out. “Look!” Pointing north westerly, they saw for themselves the morning ghost lights reported by so many fishermen, as they appeared to dance through the mist. The small group stood transfixed watching as the lights do-see-doed around a tree or lept with the grace of a ballerina over some figment of underbrush. Moving slowly almost purposely from east to west the lights continued their dance. Colorings varied as each moved from white or light blue to brilliant oranges or reds and every color in between. It was peaceful almost hypnotic. Then as suddenly as they appeared they were gone.
Coming to her senses in an instant, Julie realized she was but two short steps from the edge and a painful plummet to the ground. Looking over each shoulder in quick succession assured her the others had also stopped their mysterious advance. The realization that they had been about to walk off the building, momentarily unnerved them. The shadows, such as they were, indicated the passage of nearly half an hour. Where had the time gone? What had caused such a lapse of control?
Maintaining their silent demeanor, more out of fear of speaking about the incident than anything else, they turned the focus back to their mission. For now it was a mission, no longer a carefree adventure, this trip was deadly serious.
Beginning the march anew, Julie moved with speed denoting purpose not haste. Slicing through a thicket of briars, there befell a sudden silence. Not the buzz of an insect the chirp of a bird or the croak of a single frog pierced it.
A harsh gust of wind buffeted them, accompanied by a blinding flash of lightning and crash of thunder that shook the building. Energy seemed to fill the air for a few breathless moments. The sky opened up and rain fell in sheetlike waves fueled by a steady west wind.
Undaunted Julie plowed on. No one thought to complain. If nature wanted a fight it had picked the right people.
The North face of the building held more trees, though none were large enough to support a predator. Beneath them were more bushes than grass and because of the exposure to direct sun, almost no ferns.
Producing rustling noises and and occasional high pitched whistles the wind made it somewhat difficult to hear. Pattering and dripping rain added to the noise helping to disguise any sound their quarry might make.
They unconsciously spread out moving around bushes and avoiding the need to duck under tree limbs, leaving gaps in their protection of each other.
The turn onto the western side of the building did little to shelter them. The wind seemed to be the sole source of motion other than the six would be explorers nothing else appeared either brave or crazy enough to move about in this storm.
She looked over her right shoulder. “What have you got Cyn?”
“Just a thought. We should check on the boat, I don’t want to lose it in this wind.”
“It’s tied,” Gretta was shouting to insure the others would hear, “and I got it tight.”
“Not worried about the line, it’s the shore I’m worried about. A wave driving it into a tree could break it up and we’d be stranded.”
“Ok Cyn we go.”
The doorway was only a few feet away. Inside they filed down the stairs. The young spiders were back. The webs though no longer intact maintained sticky portions. It was here that a bird and a rat found themselves in the last moments of their lives. The young were enjoying this feast, for several it was their last.
The dirt floor of the inner tower held no surprises. Julie stared at the doorway leading to the outside. “I think we are going to get dirty.”
“Wow I forgot about having to crawl up that hole. Where is all that water coming from?”
Gretta stepped on a half eaten baby spider that had either drowned or fallen victim to the rats, its corpse sinking into the mud along with her boot. “Well we get muddy or stay here till it drys out.”
“I’m not waiting.” Julie moved for the door.
“I’ll hold the shield about half way, use it for a step.” Nobody doubted Gretta’s ability to hold their weight. Julie went first dropping her scimitar into its baldric, she thrust herself upward belly down into the water. Grabbing the outside of the wall she pulled herself through. “I’m up, Cyn you’re next.”
Cynthia handed her bow to Aanna it was to precious to drag through the mud.
Victor, Aanna and Suzanne followed in quick succession. Cynthia and Julie helped to pull Gretta out.
The six of them caked in mud and soaked to the skin set off, a little less enthusiastic. It soon became clear to them that mud was going to be the order of the day. Every square inch of ground was soaked and slick. It was hours later that the rain tapered off to a slow but steady inconvenience, and they had reached the boat.
“Oh no!” Cynthia broke into what passed for a run under these conditions. Her precious boat was washed fully up onto the sand listing heavily to starboard.
When the others caught up Cynthia called from behind the beached hull. “I don’t see any real damage. We should be able to get back.”
“Do you want to push it out into the water?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Why not Cyn?”
“Well if we float it then this could happen all over again.”
“I’m not sure I can anyway. The ground is too soft to get good footing for that kind of pushing.” A lack of confidence tinged Gretta’s voice.
“Morning when we are all fresh, I think. We can do it.” Cynthia didn’t have the ring of confidence in her voice either but the nods of agreement came anyway.
“Let’s eat, we can be comfortable while we figure things out.” Julie sat on a relatively dry log under a tree.
“What were those lights?” Aanna was curious by nature.
“I’m not sure. Bollofaro never mentioned anything like them.” Suzanne seemed interested. “What about you Jules?”
“They are nothing like anything Jaffar has mentioned to me.” She turned to Victor, “What about you?”
He quickly chewed and swallowed the last bite of cheese, shaking his head. “Never said anything to me about them either. I don’t think they are undead though.”
Cynthia’s head snapped up. “Are you saying that this island is not really haunted?”
“I’m saying that I don’t think they are undead, not that there are no undead on the island.”
“All the fishermen call them ghosts, they even avoid the island in the morning and evening hours just so they don’t see them.”
“I felt nothing like I did when we were near the deadlands.” He got a thoughtful look as he continued. “In fact I don’t remember feeling anything at all.”
“It was kind of like a dream.” Everyone was nodding agreement. “I didn’t want to wake up from it….” Gretta added her own experience.
Cynthia took over, “Kind of peaceful, comfortable …”
Aanna broke in. “Like I was floating in a warm cloud …” She was cut off by Victor.
“We all seem to have felt something similar. Those lights, whatever they are, almost killed us. I think we should avoid them unless we are on the ground.” A general murmur of agreement with Suzanne came from each of them.
“We could go over that way now.” The urge to pick a fight had not been satisfied by soggy bread and hard dry cheese, at least not for Julie.
Both Gretta and Aanna jumped to their feet. “Lets go!”
“I’d like to find out if I can shoot one of them.” Cynthia grinned at the challenge.
With a shrug, “Why not, we can’t fall off the end of the island.” Suzzane was looking for something to do too. It didn’t matter if it was investigating or fighting, just doing it would be good enough for her.
Only Victor remained silent his mind racing. Not so sure this is a good idea but talking them out of it is going to be imposable. I have to go with them just in case.
The rain tapered off to a light mist while they ate and the sky was showing signs of clearing. The six were not in a mood to care about the weather their focus was on the new and unknown ahead of them. Their chosen route took them back to the tower so they could be sure to head for the area where they had seen the lights. Turning in a northwesterly direction they left the familiar behind.
Not sure what they were looking for the search was more of a hopeful hike. After what they believed was about two hours the trees began turning to willows and as the ground got softer Cyprus.
Mosses hung from low branches brushing faces and shoulders as they passed. The ground became submerged at first ankle deep then rising to the knee. Ferns turned to thick clumps of grass then as the water deepened into tall sharp sprouts of grass that pulled at their sleeves and left welts on exposed flesh. With boots full of water it became harder to move and keep the boots on their feet. The mud was almost to mid-calf and the water rose to Julie’s waist with Aanna submerged to her breast when Julie turned them toward the nearest tree line.
“The lights danced around trees not in an open marsh. I think we came too far.”
“We must have Jules I can’t see the tower from here and our view was good so I figure we should be able to see it from where they were.”
“Lets circle back. Maybe it’s just the tops of the trees blocking the tower.” Aanna offered her perspective.
Julie made her decision. “Good idea they came east to west maybe they will return west to east and we can get in their path.”
Victor watched the sky half listening to the conversation. He seemed to be the only person who realized that night was coming and bringing a full moon with it.
Back in the relative ease of the sucking mud around the Cyprus they stopped to empty the water and mud from their boots taking a well deserved break. Sitting on exposed roots listening to frogs and chirping insects while swatting mosquitoes felt like being at a comfortable inn. They were wet, hungry and sore.
“We could try this again in the morni…”
The soft twang of Cynthia’s bow interrupted the moment. A thunk near Victor’s head caused him to jump momentarily forgetting his observation of the sky. Spinning he saw an arrow pinning a snake to the tree not six inches from his head. “You could’ve warned me Cyn!”
“I was afraid it would bite you if you moved.” Her grin was more from pride in the shot than startling Victor, or so he hoped. “Well we have fresh meat for a meal.”
“If we can find anything dry enough to burn.” The realism coming from Gretta sounded more like skepticism.
“You find the wood and I’ll make it burn.” Suzanne brought a note of confidence back to them.
Cynthia cleaned the snake while Aanna and Gretta went in search of wood. She watched Julie and Victor talking quietly by another tree as she allowed the full satisfaction of the shot to consume her.
Julie looked up and the realization of Victor’s words hit her. She had noticed his nervous preoccupation with the sky but now she understood why.
Gretta and Aanna returned with wood. Julie called to them. “Bundle it up we’re leaving, now.”
“But Jules …”
“No we need to move to firmer ground.”
They followed her not asking why. They knew she had a reason and likely a good one. The nervousness was catching though. Cynthia looked into every shadow with her bow ready, Aanna had her sword in one hand and fingered her knife with the other continuously looking for something to use it on. Gretta’s grip on the shield left her knuckles white, she didn’t even notice the weight of the sticks hanging from it, her sword never left the ready position. Suzanne jumped at every unexpected sound or motion, ready for the unknown something that she was sure was behind the next tree.
Thy had made it to the willows when the lights were spotted. Dusk was fading to night, the light of day near gone and the large disc of the full moon was just making itself known. They came from the west spiraling and playfully dancing their way directly toward those who had sought them out.
Cynthia was the first to react. The arrow flew straight passing through the blue-violet globe of light closest to them.
Swords were ready though Gretta stopped her advance now unsure if it would be effective.
“Close your eyes don’t look at them!” Aanna’s voice cut into the beginning of the now familiar dreamlike state.
Suzanne in mid-spell fired it off before obeying. She saw the dark grey globe fly from her fingers and strike the intended target.
The high pitched shrieking seemed to come from all directions at once cutting into their will. They knew now why the fishermen had refused to land.
Julie’s determination kept her feet planted firmly in place. Victor drew his strength from the faith that the god who he served still had use for him here. Cynthia’s feet were carrying her backwards away from the approaching lights. Aanna turned her back to them and made for the open ground. Gretta had no reaction at all, it was like being frozen in place. Suzanne realizing she had harmed it chanced the spell again not opening her eyes until the last moment so she could direct its energy. This time she struck an orange one moving toward her.
The shrieking laughter this time left only Julie and Victor in place. Time felt like a weight pulling them toward the water.
Their ordeal ended as abruptly as it started. “You can open your eyes now they’re gone.” Gretta’s voice called from somewhere behind them.
Both of them followed the suggestion. The globes were gone, the others were out of the wooded area about twenty feet away. Julie looked at Victor with a new respect, the strength to stand had come from Jaffar’s teachings. The divine presence he had demonstrated that he could channel told them all where he received his strength. She found it ironic in a way Death giving one the strength to face death, it was almost poetic. “Are you ok?”
“I’m fine Julie. Are you unharmed?”
“”Surprisingly yes. What do you think they were?”
“I don’t know but they were not ghosts.” Victor grasped for the words to explain how he knew and couldn’t find them.
“It’s ok Victor I understand. I agree with you, and I do not know what they were either, though they are definitely not changelings either.”
When they joined the others, attitudes had changed. There was a new respect for the pair and it showed in the looks they received.
“The sea can’t be that bad now that the wind has almost stopped. Can you sail now?”
Cynthia was thinking over Aanna’s suggestion.
Suzanne interrupted her thoughts. “We left the lanterns at the tower with Victor’s and Aanna’s packs.
“Thank you Suz.” Julie’s strong confident command voice felt good after the scene they just had. “We go back to the tower. After we collect everything and Cyn’s roasted us some serpent you might feel better. If you still feel like leaving we will go back to the boat and let Cyn decide if we sail or not.” The nods of agreement given Julie started to walk. Her pace faster than anyone believed possible in their condition.
With the tower in sight and only moments away the hairs on Julie’s arms stood on end. “Hold it.” Her command rang clear as she looked around, turning in every direction. They watched and waited tense knowing something was wrong.
When she faced the tower again the hairs on the back of her neck stood erect like soldiers on a battlefield. She hefted her scimitar, “We’re not going in yet, it’s coming.”
They shifted into their familiar wedge as Julie started towards the tower. Cynthia pulled a silver arrow from the center quiver and notched it.
There was no subtlety or attempt to ambush the attack just came. Over seven feet tall with a bear-like head and hind quarters, the humanoid body was Tufted with thick fur, its chest broad and strong with semi-human arms that could have uprooted a tree with little effort, ending in hands that resembled paws with three inch claws. The creature went straight for Julie.
Julie shifted to her left as Cynthia’s first shot whizzed by. Gretta simply stepped forward to meet it, the long awaited fight finally here. Victor Followed her still watching Julie as he moved. Aanna rolled through the mud to her right, getting out of the primary line of sight so she could make a flanking move less noticeable. Suzanne loosed another globe, the grey projectile of magical power almost invisible in the silvery shadows of the moons early light.
The arrow struck a leg not slowing it as the globe released its force in the center of the massive chest. As one of the great paws collided with Gretta’s shield, knocking her back a step into Victor. Julie took a slashing swing stepping into it. Fur flew, the darkness on the blade a sample of its blood. Cynthia was drawing back for her second shot as she noticed Aanna closing in from its left rear.
Gretta pushed her shield toward the paw stabbing for the midsection. Julie lowered her swing hoping to alter its balance by wounding the leg near the protruding arrow. Cynthia released her second shot as Suzanne directed another magical projectile.. Victor had stepped around Gretta’s right and his sword was coming up toward the creature’s arm-like appendage. Aanna fully confident in Cynthia’s ability closed at a full run, her sword extended and pointed at the beast’s lower back.
The entire chaotic scene came together in a single moment. Victor connected with the arm just above the elbow causing the creature’s swing to go high and hit the upper edge of Gretta’s shield. The shield twisted upward as her sword bit into its belly and a clawed paw sliding over the shield found her head, sending her sprawling to the ground just beneath the arrows path. The arrow buried itself deep into the chest as Suzanne’s power was released on the bear-like maw. The forgotten second paw caught Julie behind the left shoulder its claws digging into her flesh and pulling her toward teeth the size of a small throwing knife, adding the creature’s own power to the force of her blow above its knee. Aanna drove her sword to the quillons in its furry but vulnerable lower back.
The great beast spun to its left ripping the weapon from Aanna’s grasp and dropping Julie to the ground. Victor took the opportunity to drive his own sword into it near Aanna’s. Cynthia’s third arrow passed it thrown off by the spin. With her blade still hanging from the abdomen Gretta slashed the near leg with her shield. Aanna jumped back to avoid the paw a split second off in her timing and five claws ripped across her chest. Suzanne held back her palm fire for fear of hitting Victor.
Aanna was lying on the ground and could see the open mouth as it came down toward her head. Julie rising to one knee slid her lightning forged blade into the abdomen from the side, twisting Gretta’s blade as the two met inside the bloody cavity. Victor pulled and twisted his own blade as the pommel of Aanna’s hit his shield. Palm fire was released singeing the hairs on the back of Victor’s hand and blistering the creatures now hairless upper back. Cynthia’s projectile skimmed Suzanne’s robe and embedded itself in the nearly bare rump. A gurgling growl escaped the creature as Aanna’s knife found a new home in its muscular neck.
Tactics changed in a flash. The strange beast began to transform, the human-like qualities beginning to disappear. Julie, still on her knees, brought the scimitar down in a two-handed overhead arc. Aanna twisted and drug her knife over the changing sculpture of its throat. Victor pulled back hard trying to rip and tear flesh from its back to the rump. Suzanne roasted the same area with more fire. Gretta got her feet under her and quickly staggered falling back to the soft ground, her world was a spinning blur. Cynthia’s bow remained silent for lack of a clear shot.
The creature was beginning to resemble a large brown bear as Julie’s blade passed through the palm fire and sliced into the back, the bear’s hind quarters went limp. The knife fell to the ground as a paw came down on Aanna’s abdomen, the result of a short step to compensate for the sudden weight shift. Victor ripped to the hip and the sword slid out as the beast began to fall leftward.
The now helpless creature was transforming again becoming more human. With Aanna partially under the things body and Gretta down, Victor dropped his sword, helping them became his main focus, the trust in his companions built over the last year allowed him to turn his back on the foe knowing he would be safe. Another arrow embedded itself in the shrinking chest as Julie brought the sharpness of her blade down onto its head.
Victor cleaned the wounds on Gretta’s head. One long gash from the edge of her helm and claw marks going from where the helm stopped down to her neck. Suzanne went to Aanna’s side so she could clean her wounds preparing them for Victor.
Cynthia changed her position to insure nobody could get in front of her bow in case the beast, now a man, moved.
Julie poked him with the point of her blade testing for a ruse. She knew already it was unnecessary, the hairs had relaxed … this fight was over.
Gretta vomited as the healing began. “Sorry I know you need me to be still.”
“It’s ok. The spinning causing your stomach to roll will stop when I’m finished.”
She was thrilled … his word was golden.
He quickly moved to Aanna.
“If you get any ideas about those exposed breasts I’ll fry you.” Suzanne cautioned him remembering the other nite in their cottage.
“I just want to heal her.” He smiled up at the protective wizardess. “You did a good job cleaning these wounds.”
Then all business, he performed the healing.
Cynthia called his attention to Julie. The entire process was repeated for her.
Collecting their dropped belongings they sat against the outer wall of the building. Mud was clinging to the upper portions of their clothes from their exit this morning; mud, half decayed leaves and clumps of grass below that from the swamp and the most recent addition, blood from their foe mixed with their own covered their torn garments. All of this combined with the mud they were now sitting in not to mention the mosquitoes and gnats would have driven any normal person crazy. Yet you could not have found six more contented looking people.
After a short rest Julie roused them. “We should be going.”
They rose and went inside to collect their belongings. “I’m thinking of going back tonight, any objections?”
Nothing was said so they left heading for the boat.
Launching the boat proved to be an equally exhausting task. Once it was accomplished they were more then ready to head for home. Cynthia yelled making them all jump. “I lost my snake!”
Ten eyes were on her then everything clicked and all of them began laughing hysterically.
The wind caught the sail and they were on their way home.