March 28, 2004
"Hey, are you sure about this?" the boy asked.
"Of course I am," the old miner replied.
"I mean, you're sure this place is deserted, right?"
"Yes! I've said it a thousand-fold already - this place is as deserted as anywhere else! There's just us and the crows."
The old miner tied his aurellium pendant in front of his helm. He had discovered what looked like an abandoned mine shaft about a full moon ago. Dragging his eldest son along had seemed to be the best plan - he would need someone to help him carry what riches he believes he'd find.
The old miner stood in front of the mine shaft, staring into the darkness. "I think I see something," he mumbled, and began climbing into the shadows.
"Wait," cried the boy, and quickly followed his father in. He couldn't see anything in the gloom. Mumbling curses to himself, he cautiously plodded through the cramped mine. Feeling the walls, he found them unnaturally smooth, almost polished. He lit a torch and held it close to the wall. Etched on the walls were strange symbols that he thought he recognized from his grammar school lessons.
Craning his neck closer, he nearly burnt his nose, and let out yet another prodigious stream of curses. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he had seen movement.
"Father?" The boy called. Nothing. He saw a glint, but nothing more. He ran over, his little glowing pendant bobbing on his neck. The boy pulled off his necklace and held it up. He gasped. There lay a brilliant, red ruby, half-buried in the dirt. The boy grabbed it, and polished it with his tunic.
A shrill scream sounded. Panic overcame the boy. His mind froze. He ran, clutching the jewel with him, tears streaming down his face.
The City of Medievia is too crowded. People are always pushing to get to where they need to go. You can always hear someone hawking their wares, and in the distance, the auctioneer’s gavel pounds. The air is always hot and stuffy, and whatever liquid flowing from the fountain is perpetually tepid.
That day was no different from any other day. The air was hot, and the streets were crowded. I was on an errand to pick up extra potions when I spotted a commoner with a worried look on his face. Now, I'm no saint - never was, never have been - but I always expected help when I really needed it, and so I offered help to anyone who asked for it. Plus, I may end up coming off with a profit.
I asked the troubled man what was wrong.
"I'm supposed to deliver some swords I found to Detritius, he lent me quite a bit in advance to cover costs for my cottage. But I was waylaid by bandits, and now I've lost the swords! I need someone to help me get the swords back." It seemed like an easy job. I agreed. I was young. I was stupid.
Pushing and shoving my way to the Warrior's Quarter, I finally found some open space and strolled with a leisurely gait to the indicated premises.
Detritius apparently owned large weapon shop, and despite his humble occupation, was exceedingly wealthy. The shop smelled of cold steel and well-oiled sheaths, but the distinct scent of gold coins emanated from the back room. The dingy little shop had more to it than met the eye; every closet was actually a small gateway to the astral plane. Detritius only needed to buy your sword and throw it into one of his closets. From there, astral imps would package, sort, and inventory the weapon. He spent most of his day playing poker with Rocky.
"What is it?" He grumbled. His immense wealth had allowed him to treat customers however he liked.
"Sir, a commoner told me you asked for him to attain some Vark swords," I began.
"Well, sir, he was unable to complete this task." This brought about some grumbling. "--But sir, I can complete it for him," I finished.
"Very well," he took out a piece of paper, and scribbled something. Handing me the paper, he said, "Bring these swords back to me. The Varks have perfected the art of creating light swords, being birdmen and all."
"How will I find the swords?" I asked.
"Carefully," he muttered, and turned back to his game of poker.
I sighed, and left the shop. Taking the note, I looked at it:
Needed: 1 Vark longsword, 1 Huge bastard sword
Making my way through the City, I reached the square again and went up into Castle Medievia. After several flights of stairs, I entered Medievia's great war room. Surrounded by desks and serious looking men, I felt out of place. I muttered excuses as I consulted the map. Fortunately enough, I found that my own clan's town was located near where I was heading; the Vark outpost.
I entered a portal and heard a voice echo through my head: "Today is a good day to die."
I blinked, but smiled. "Xeratal!" I replied. "How are you?"
"Same old, same old," he replied in the silent corners of my mind.
"Still sticking your head in dragons' mouths?" I asked, watching the silent clouds roll across the astral plane.
"Of course," he replied, his thought tinged with laughter. "It's the only way to live. Life can only be felt on the edge. You don't appreciate it unless you risk losing it. You know that."
"I know," I told him, "nut then I see Eleny. If I died when out adventuring..."
"I know, I know," Xeratal said. "She'd send you to bed without supper. I'm surprised she lets you get out of bed in a morning."
He wasn't right, and he knew it, but that was him all over. "Wrestled any baenlyr's recently?"
"Done that. It got a bit boring after I got my first scars," he sniffed - at least as much as you can sniff in telepathy. "My folks spanked me so hard I couldn't sit down for a week."
"Mine too, but I never earned the nickname Xeratal the Standing One," I replied. His mood was infectious, and I couldn't help but grin. Other travelers passed me like ghosts in the astral plane. Could they see my expression? I honestly didn't care.
"I've been quite successful on a recent trade with the Dark Army. Apparently some great disease struck them," I told Xeratal.
"Still burning the midnight oil, eh? Saving up for that gorgeous piece of property right next to the reef?"
"Yep!" I grinned and found myself back in my old home.
I looked around my clan town, and took in the atmosphere. The air was so crisp and fresh in the mountains, such a welcome change from the intolerable humidity of the City of Medievia. As I strolled the cobblestone paths, I checked out Gretto's Garbs for a nice dress I could pick up for Eleny. Spotting a few daring ones, I stuffed them in my sack and tossed the clerk some coins. As I began the remainder of my journey to the Vark outpost, I began to reminisce over the childhood shared by Xeratal and I.
As a boy, Xeratal always loved to take risks. He climbed the Great Tree when he was only six, and as he reached the top, he promptly fell. Fortunately, he only cracked a rib or two and had an awesome scar to show to the ladies. We loved to swap stories, especially of what poor critter we had recently slain. One day, I double-dog-dared him to wrestle a baenlyr. He did, and nearly got killed. Although his parents were quite upset with me, they were more dismayed that their boy had that little common sense.
"Are you still with that girl?" Despite the telepathy, I could feel him giggle.
I only shook my head and laughed. "Yes I am", I replied, "and how's the missus?" Between Xeratal and I, the "missus" was not his wife, who had died giving birth, but his daughter, whose spunky personality reminded us more of a belligerent wife than a teenage girl.
"Fine, though she's still getting in trouble all the time, being rude to her instructors and such".
I laughed. "She'd make a fine warrior, with all that fire", I telepathed. I felt him smile. Nothing more was needed to be said.
I approached a very tall, very narrow cliff. Spying a snaking path up into the cliff, I tried not to let my imagination overcome me. Fortifying myself with a magenta potion, I put one foot in front of another and marched myself up the cliff's pass. Crows were everywhere, watching me with beady red eyes, their hooked beaks menacingly pointed in my direction. I shivered as I imagined what those beaks could do to an unprepared traveler. The crows, however, didn't seem to be too much of a problem. The wind kept them down, and I had to hunch down to avoid being knocked over by the winds. As I approached the top of the cliff, I began to feel frantic.
The sky began to darken, only to be interrupted by flashes of lightning. The lightning cut across the sky, briefly illuminating the land.
Where were the Varks? I could not see anything around that was man-made, or otherwise. I trotted up and down cliff, finding nothing. Lightning landed just a few feet away from me. Everything went white, then black. I couldn't see! My vision returned slowly, but my eyes were very sore. I struggled to keep my balance as the wind kept blowing harder. Finally, I could hold on no longer. The wind dashed me against the rocks and picked me up, throwing me where it willed. My head was bashed against the ground as I was hurled into the cliff. Everything faded into darkness...
Eleny gently applied salves to my wounds. I tried to speak.
"Shh--you're very lucky."
"I--,"she pressed two fingers to my lips, and quieted me. Her face grew hard.
"--You can be so stubborn sometimes. The town crier warned us of an upcoming storm, but you didn't listen! You even knew you had bad luck with hurric--"
"--I'm sorry," I managed.
Her face softened. "You shouldn't worry about having to provide enough coin," she began. "I know you're used to being relied upon, but believe me, a thief such as myself can easily find coin from an unwary pocket." She grinned. "Plus, the Karlisnan House provides enough coi--"
"I don't give a damn about the Karlisnans," I growled. "They can keep their filthy gold--I only agreed to help them because I had to, not for their coin."
Eleny looked shocked, but she already knew how I felt about them. She was Karlisnan by blood, but not by soul.
She was the sole heir of the Karlisnan chair, but her half-brother had usurped the position, and threw her into a dungeon. A faithful maidservant was the only reason she had escaped death. Just as quickly as her half-brother had gained his throne, his wife had murdered him, appointing herself as queen of Karlisna. Fortunately for Eleny, the queen was fond of her and provided a generous allowance. Of course, the "allowance" was coinage taken out of the pockets of unwary travelers.
Eleny and I had met in the cold graveyard of the City of Medievia. Or, maybe I should say Eleny found me in a graveyard, and we met in the local hospital. I was vomiting blood and nursing a rather painful wound. When I finally passed out, she found me, took me to the hospital, and nursed me back to health. This was now the second time she saved my life. She was of the Karlisnan House, but only by blood. She lacked the haughty, noble attitude of most royalty. Instead, she dressed plainly and spoke plainly. She did not, however, look the least bit plain. With enough curves to make a river jealous, she could make you think indecent thoughts, and she would smile when you did.
She and I met every other Day of Justice for "dates." First, I took her to the traveling circus, but the ringmaster wouldn't let me in because I was waving around my Anarchist a little too happily. She wasn't too happy about that, but it worked out pretty well - I bought her a stuffed dragon at a toy store, and a little red wagon to go with it.
On our next date, we went to Harash's House of Hurt. After putting everything we had in our lockers save our skivvies and a purse of gold, we ran to Harash's House of Hurt and bought out some of his weapons and pretended we were big, brave heroes and dragon hunters. It got fun until some real dragon hunters passed by and frowned at us.
Our best date, was, however, up to Mt. Vryce. After finding a secret path up the mountain, we enjoyed a gorgeous view of the landscape before us.
Fast-forward a few months, and here I am, a plucky, audacious adventurer who got a little too greedy a little too often. My self-confidence certainly wasn't damaged when I single-handedly defeated a Tramix Daemon, and my ego ballooned when I eradicated an entire goblin faction, so what was a little wind and rain going to do to me?
Eleny placed a hand on my cheek. "You're only 23," she said, "we've so many more winters together. I can't afford for you to die on me." I raised my eyebrows. "First of all, we need to pay off this mortgage together. You're the one who wanted beachfront property near the Seanstrean Reef. Second of all, I love you." I chewed my lip wistfully, and considered the order of her priorities. We needed the money badly, I was falling in heavy debt after some *unfortunate* dicing.
She continued. "You're so stubborn, though. I know I can't keep you from hoarding all the gold in Medievia, so I asked some of your clan members to help you on your quest."
"Wha... Wha...?" I stuttered. She gave me the Look of Death. I backed down.
Familiar faces appeared before me. Xeratal, honored Warrior of the Crystal Rose. Drage, a disciple of the Blood of Ancients. Upon seeing Prince Rennus, another mage of the Crystal Rose, I rose quickly and bowed. I smiled at them.
"We came as soon as we heard," Xeratal said, his face full of worry.
"You should've told us earlier, we'd have been happy to help," Prince Rennus added.
"Some girl you got there," Xeratal said. "She half-dragged us to your house. This really isn't by choice," he said with a laugh.
I took out a large purse of gold and raised it to the sky. Immediately, a tiny reptilian beast popped in front of me and rudely snatched it away. I always wondered if these beasts were draconian gold collectors, born and bred to collect gold, or very young dragons working for their parents.
I heard the magnificent sound of wing beats, and I saw an immense gold wyrm land beside me. Impatiently, he stamped his feet, motioning to me to climb aboard. Jumping onto the dragon's back as nimbly as I could, I clutched his reins tightly as we flew off. The size of an ogre from thousands of feet in the air never ceases to amaze me. Passing goblins, ogres, and gnolls, I felt safe on the dragon's back. I knew he could help me fight my battles - for a price.
We reached the Vark outpost quickly enough, and I thanked the dragon in as best Draconian as I could manage. I might have entirely mispronounced the syllables and cursed my lineage instead, but the dragon got the point.
"Uy Thnk," Drage replied to his own dragon, with what was considered perfect accent (for a puny human). I glared at him.
"You shouldn't have been staring at Eleny when you were taking Draconian 101, maybe then you would've learned something!" Drage said, unable to contain his laughter. The others chuckled as my cheeks flushed red.
Climbing the path the led up the cliff, I felt the same sense of despair as I did the first time. There was no sign of an entrance into the Vark outpost. Prince Rennus was far more clever than I. He began feeling the cliff's walls for any irregularities, every so often yanking a rock out of the wall. We all smirked at him, until one yanked rock opened up a secret passageway.
"How do you know such things?" I asked Rennus.
"Oh, my geography teacher, Madam Floxa," replied Rennus. "You know her, right?" The others grinned, as if they knew what he was talking about.
"What? Was Eleny in your geography class too?" I asked.
The others roared with laughter.
I just stared into the darkness and swallowed hard.
We entered the dank stronghold with readied arms. Everyone was tense. We could barely see anything, the walls were unnaturally smooth, yet the entire stronghold resembled more of a mine than a fortress.
I nearly ran into a guard, but stopped just short of his line of sight. I crept behind a corner, and stole peeks. He didn't look too friendly, but his avian features hid all but the most obvious of emotions. His feathers seemed to be well trimmed, his beak horribly sharp. Interestingly, his wings were clipped, probably to help fit on his hodge-podge armor.
"What do you think he's doing?" I asked Xeratal.
"Probably waiting for us to stick a dagger through his ribs," replied Xeratal. I suppressed the urge to giggle.
The guard stared into space, not even bothering to turn around.
This was going to be almost too easy.
Using subtle hand gestures, I motioned to Xeratal to 'neutralize' the guard. Xeratal quietly crept behind him, raising his dagger high above the guard's head, and brought it down with incredible speed. Blood sprayed everywhere. It seemed to have shot out of the guard's back like a geyser. I felt queasy as Xeratal, drenched in blood, wrenched the dagger out of the guard's crimson back. The guard staggered and fell to his knees, clutching his wound, desperately trying to keep his life from ebbing away. He made a last desperate lunge at me, his sword impaling my shoulder blade. It took all my willpower not to cry out in pain. A final coup-de-grâce finished him off.
Tiptoeing around the corpse of the guard, I found a Vark longsword. Taking a moment to breathe, my comrades decided against shielding the room, as it might alert other guards. The mages placed their hands on my shoulders. A cold, blue sensation flooded my body. My open cuts slowly grew together, and my broken bones realigned and melded; the healing was brief, for their hands were still glowing as they left my body. I cleaned my sword with an old rag and readied myself for another fight. Xeratal led the way.
I heard what can only be described as long chirps and whistles. Drage's eyes widened.
"They've heard us!" He said. We dove behind a wall for cover. More chirruping.
"They're asking each other if they heard the same thing," Drage translated breathlessly.
I heard breathing, heavy, inhuman breathing. A patrol of guards were just around the corner, I could hear the nails of their feet click monotonously against the cold floor. I crouched behind the wall, and picked up a nearby pebble. Hurling it with all my force, it struck a wall a great distance away. A cry of alarm sounded, and the sound of nails clicking against the floor slowly faded into the distance.
We darted past where they once were, and stopped.
"Can you feel it in the air?" Xeratal asked.
"I can only feel the cold," I told him. I could smell the cold and realized my breath was starting to show as plumes of steam.
"I too have heard of this," Drage said. "Campfire legend tells of this place, though few have survived to see it."
"What? What are you talking about?" I asked, frowning.
Xeratal glanced around quickly, checking for wandering guards. "A few mages concentrate their studies around ice spells and nothing more," he explained. "They come to depend on the cold to live, just as we do the heat of the sun. They have to remain in chill conditions, usually magically created and maintained, and they cannot leave them."
He nodded at the others. "This will not be easy."
"If I wanted easy, I'd have signed up as a cook," Rennus said, sniffing derisively. "Or maybe as a groom," he added. "I always did like horses, but I'm a mage instead."
"Very well," Xeratal gritted. "The fastest way around him is to go through him. Are you ready?"
The mage was there, clad in a fine cyan robe adorned with jewels. He was not really Vark at all; that much was clear. The cheap feathers pasted on his skin were only for warmth. If stripped of these, his emaciated frame would show through piteously.
He did not notice us at first, but we managed to give ourselves away. I clutched my chest suddenly - the cold was too much. Wearing only armor, I felt every crack and crevice of my plate mail exposed. The worst part was that I never felt numb. I felt my blood freeze and my strength ebbing away from my body. I gasped, desperately trying to breathe in the unbearable cold. The ice mage spun around, and grinned at us. In my weakened condition, I was in no state to fight.
My companions didn't seem to be doing any better. I could see their robes were frozen to their bodies, and their sweat had solidified into tiny droplets of ice. The ice mage took his time. He quietly chanted a few magical words, intoning them softly and not exclaiming them like some proud mages. Drage made a muffled cough, dropping his staff. His muscles shriveled and he took on a sickly appearance. I did the first thing that came to my mind. Whipping off my cloak, I threw it over the vark mage's head. This unconventional tactic threw him off. Drage, frozen as he was, could not move at all. I ran into him, picking him up as my momentum carried me out of the room. The others had already fled. I made one last act of heroism. Unsheathing my dagger, I threw it at the mage, pinning him against the wall.
We escaped bruised and battered, but alive. After some rest, Xeratal had an idea.
"I'm going to try to blind the mage, then he won't be able to fight us as well!"
I told him he wasn't going to make it, but he only scoffed at my remarks.
I smacked him upside the head, reminding him of the time he nearly broke his neck climbing the Great Tree. He grinned, and readied his sword.
"Just sit back and relax," he said, fully confident of his own abilities.
Before he could march into the frost room, the ice mage gave a yell, and unleashed a massive shockwave. Xeratal never had a chance. I ducked my head as chunks of his body flew across the room.
"He's dead," Drage whispered, barely able to comprehend.
I said nothing.
"He's dead!" Drage screamed at me, "I do not see the point of this little adventure, if it will cost the life of a friend!
I felt a knot in my throat. I nodded, and motioned to Rennus to lead the way back to the City of Medievia. Whatever gold I might earn was not worth this.
Rennus pulled out a well-worn map and stared at it intently. As we read it, a shadow fell over the map. Looking up, I saw an immense blade coming down at my head.
Rolling aside, I realized how lucky I was to have survived with my body intact. Unsheathing Anarchist, I lunged toward the Vark, trying to pierce his vital spots. Lazily parrying my blows, the commander did not seem fazed at all. Attempting a disarm, I thrust my blade towards his hilt, trying to catch his sword and fling it to the ground. He made a gentle riposte that, had it been done at full speed, would have cut me in two. Instead, I fell face flat on the ground. I spun over just quickly enough to avoid being stabbed by his massive two-handed sword--and rolled right into a wall. My mind froze, and panic took over. I couldn't breathe. The Vark commander raised his blade, and melted. I was horrified as I watched the acid blast eat away his skull and eyes.
"Come on," I urged. I could not risk another brush with death. We exited the stronghold, leaving Xeratal's body unburied, unhonored. And for what?
Even as Detritius filled my sack with gold, I began to doubt myself. How could I have done this to him? I left Xeratal for dead. I had forsaken his corpse in a despicable grave, while I lusted after a few stupid coins. I could take it no longer.
We returned to the Vark Outpost later that day. We battled the mage, and left victorious. Our swords were still red with Vark blood as we carried Xeratal's body to the undertaker. They didn't ask, but I paid for the coffin. Detritius had been generous, but most of the wealth Xeratal had died for went to pay for the funeral.
I didn't go.
I watched from a distance as each member of the Crystal Rose laid a fresh rose on his coffin. In the distance, I heard a quiet sobbing. I spun around and saw a girl clutching Xeratal's tombstone. It was his daughter.
How could I have done this? I denied a girl her father. She would never again see her father, never again feel his warm smile, his tender love. I had denied her what every human being deserved.
And what did I get from this? From the death of my old friend? Dishonor to his body? Dishonor to my family? A few pieces of gold.
A bony old hand tapped my arm. My heart palpitated. I turned around slowly. A pitiful old woman pulled her cloak tight against her body. A beggar.
"A few coins, sir?"
I reached into my pocket, and removed the old ruby I had found in a deserted mine so long ago. When I had run away from my dying father, I had sworn I would not repeat my mistakes; not to abandon a soul in need. Reflecting back, I realized that I had yet to learn.
I gave the old woman the ruby. To me, it was nothing but a bad memory, while to her, it could ease her aching stomach. The old woman's eyes sparkled, and she hurried off.
I looked up, and I saw Eleny standing there, her face full of concern.
In gasps and sobs, I tried to tell her everything that had happened. She only patted my shoulder, and held me tight.
As we walked back home, I could hear nothing but the clink of the remaining gold coins. And I cursed it.
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