She couldn’t remember the last time she had heard music, let alone a tune with such an ethereal quality. The melody struck her as carrying a bit of a chill within its piercing notes and breathy pauses. Its arctic echoes evoked memories of days when the forest exchanged leaves for snow and mornings spent admiring the dancing rainbows birthed by glistening cascades of diamond icicles. She could not help but close her eyes, allowing the music to flow into her fondest of memories and carry her back home, to where it would begin snowing soon.
“He’s quite the looker, wouldn’t you say?”
The question startled her out of her daydream of exploring deer trails and seeing her breath hang in the air on a chilled winter morning. So enraptured in the vision was she, that though the question registered, she had not actually heard it.
“Amin hiraetha, mani ume lle quena?” she replied to the one who had addressed her.
The puzzled look on the face of the young, human, lady clued Ryelle in on the fact that she had just responded in Elvish. It had become obvious to her the amount of time spent alone in her forest had corroded her interpersonal skills. Speaking to actual people, for instance, was something she was out of practice with.
Ryelle cleared her throat. “Excuse me. What was that you just said?”
Her voice was as neutral as the colors she wore in an effort to be as least offensive as possible. Humans were incredibly emotional creatures, especially when wine was involved.
“I asked you what your opinion of our minstrel was.” The brunette replied with a smile. “Quite handsome, no?” She gestured at the man playing the exotic looking viol.
By human standards Ryelle had to suppose that he was at least somewhat attractive. Tall, with broad shoulders and soot black hair. Were humans as fond of beards as dwarves were? She couldn’t recall. Did the brightness of his teal colored jerkin matter?
“He is rather talented.” she said.
This ushered a laugh from the woman she was speaking to.
“Come now, there is no need for diplomatic speech. This is a celebration and your cousin did me a great service so it is altogether impossible to offend me.”
Ryelle’s brow furrowed briefly.
“My cousin, Caithe?”
“Yes. The Lady Stormbow was part of the company of adventurers who saved my life.”
The elf’s mind rocked back on its heels, struggling with the realization of this woman’s identity. This was easily a new mark for her, it would be next to impossible to live this down with her kin if any one of them ever found out. For she had been so caught up in thought and daydreams, she had been speaking to the Queen of Rose-vale, and had been completely oblivious to the fact. Her father had always warned against upsetting the kingdoms of men. Though an elf was liable to see the rise and fall of empires in their lifetime, humans could be troublesome adversaries, and there was no faster way to make enemies than to upset a human with a crown. A cursory look at the woman in front of her served to twist the proverbial knife of her chagrin. Everything from the shimmering silk ruffles of the strawberry colored dress, to the elven style jewels adorning the neck and wrist spoke of human royalty. The openly obvious stares of many of the guests should also have been a hint, she chastised herself.
“Where is the Lady Stormbow, tonight?” Queen Erin asked.
“…Her Warder, had received news of trouble up north near the coast. Lady Storm-chaser is perhaps more apt.” Ryelle smiled. “She sent for me to be here in her stead, just as precaution.”
The queen nodded attentively before cupping Ryelle’s hands in her own.
“Well, I am glad you could be here, tonight.”
She took a small step forward, and her gaze took up all of Ryelle’s vision. Wasn’t this closer than what humans normally tolerated?
“The other guests are waiting, but I hope to get you alone again soon.”
The queen smiled before letting go of Ryelle’s hands and softly walked past her. The scent of jasmine briefly filled the air as the queen passed, and Ryelle was left with the desire to try whatever wine was available. She briskly walked to the table of food, where an enchanted fountain was flowing with wine, and filled a wooden goblet.
Were she of the vain sort, she might have felt out of place in the crowd of well dressed socialites. Her practical attire was all she owned, and all she needed to be at home in the woods, but left something to be desired in terms of celebratory clothing. Her clothes were of elven design and ran the gamut of grays, greens, tans, and browns depending on the viewer’s vantage point. She would have been hard to spot amongst a backdrop of trees, but in this sea of bright cloth and glittering formal wear, it was impossible not to notice her mud colored outfit and she was well aware of this.
Her lack of camouflage is what she attributed her uneasiness to. Being out of her natural habitat and being unable to blend in with her environment. That’s what it had to be. Why else would she feel like there was a knot in her entrails? Her Ranger’s instincts were telling her that something was wrong, but her eyes and ears said otherwise. All she saw was a crowd of happy faces and full stomachs. The entrances were well guarded. All weapons had been stored away in the armory. Nothing looked out of place, nothing sounded wrong. Except… She looked up at the minstrel on the musician’s platform, his bow darting back and forth on the teal colored viol, not unlike a duelist flourishing his blade. The oddly shaped instrument, as well as its bizarrely stained wood, could easily be attributed to its obviously exotic origin, but how was it possible for her to hear the music on the far side of the room as clearly as when she was close to the stage? She sipped from the goblet, and had just decided that it was equally as bad as elven wine when she felt the cold metallic sting of a sharpened edge on her throat.
A side long look revealed the knife belonged to one of the servants, and the various gasps throughout the hall told her he was not alone. A flicker of surprise crossed her face when she realized the guards were also accosting the guests. The man with a knife at her throat looked young, even by human standards, with his smooth white skin and straw colored hair, but what he lacked in age he made up for in viciousness. She learned this when he slammed the butt of the knife’s handle into her forehead. Her head snapped back and the world became blurry as Ryelle tried to regain her bearings and promptly stumbled to the floor. At knife point and then at spear point, she and a pair of other non-nobles were lined up against the wall, while the rest of the guests were promptly surrounded. There were at least thirty of assailants by her count, twelve of them with spears, and all with knives. But if these guards were in on the scheme, it stood to reason the rest of them, were as well. Which could easily mean well over two hundred adversaries.
“Compensating for something with that spear?”
Ryelle recognized it as the voice of the white haired gnome in red and white monk robes standing next to her. The overweight guard pretended not to have heard the remark however. This could prove a useful distraction, she thought. After a centering breath, she began focusing on the air around her right palm.
“ You know, I can speak with small animals, but I don’t need a little birdie to tell me you are almost certainly compensating for something.”
“Shut it gnome.” the guard snapped.
“Whoa, just trying to make some conversation.” The gnome said, raising his hands in a placating gesture. “How much you getting paid for this?”
Ryelle’s spell was almost ready, just a few more seconds and she’d be able to cast it. She hoped the guard would keep his attention on the source of ire next to her.
“Eh? What’s your cut, tubby? ‘Cuz I’m telling you right now, if you’re gonna pay someone a fortune to…uh, ALTER, your little friend there, it doesn’t always stick. You’re better off just paying for company.”
The guard snarled at his diminutive prisoner and pressed the point of his spear into the gnome’s chest.
“Keep talking and I will end you, worm.” he said, biting off every word.
“It’s bad luck to kill a gnome, you know? ‘Course, it sounds like your lot is already pretty bad given what I know about you.”
A sound like thunder erupted from the other side of the room just as a dazzling flare of light blinded a number of the assailants. The split moment it took for their captor to look over at the commotion was all the opening Ryelle had needed. She felt the rush of blood in her ears as her body became a channel for the raw power of nature. Thrusting her hand out, she directed the brunt of her spell at the overweight guard, hurling a slew of razor-bush thorns at his face. He would have screamed if so many of the thorns hadn’t pierced his throat, lodging themselves firmly in his larynx.
Ryelle looked on as the bloody mess collapsed to his knees and then glanced at the gnome and the pale skinned woman wearing a red and blue, off the shoulder, dress next to him. The gnome was nowhere to be found however. Seconds later, the guard toppled over, and the three foot tall figure behind him pulled a knife out of his back.
“What took you so long?” the gnome asked the woman next to Ryelle.
The woman raised a brow “That explosion wasn’t m-CHAIR!”
Sawdust and splinters hit the air as the oaken seat crashed into the stone wall behind them. The hall was in utter chaos now, with several fights having broken out after the mysterious explosion had gone off and the trio now stood back to back in an attempt to cover their blind spots. Ryelle had grabbed a piece of the broken furniture and was now using it as a cudgel against their attackers.
“Nihi, what’s the plan?” the raven haired woman asked the gnome.
The diminutive monk tumbled between the legs of a guard before kicking the man’s knees in and delivering a fatal blow to his neck with an open palmed strike.
“Hard to say.” he said. “The exits are covered, we’re outnumbered, and my art form is best for one on one. What about you, she-elf, you can handle yourself. Got any ideas on how to get out?”
After breaking her makeshift club over the head of another servant, Ryelle looked at the gnome and conjured a whip out of the air in response. It was fashioned of supple black vine, and promptly sprouted a series of dark purple thorns so that only the handle was safe to hold. This was a weapon designed for tearing flesh and glowed a dark red in her hands, casting an ominous light on its wielder.
“Sometimes, the best way out, is through.” Ryelle said.
“Great, another suicidal maniac.” The black haired woman muttered. A corner of her lips turned up into a smile as a ball of flame manifested in her hands. “Those thorns are a neat trick, but here’s a little bit of REAL magic.”
The raven haired sorceress meant to hurl the fireball, raising her hands over her head before throwing them out in front of her. This was as powerful a fire spell as she could cast, and she would clear their path to freedom with it. Pouring as much power as she could muster into the flame, she cried out as she unleashed a mote of fire in front of her. When the flame immediately fizzled into smoke, her chagrin was apparent, as was the fact that her skin was now green.
“Merka templa?!” Ryelle said.
“Ugh, we don’t have time for this Aurora!” Nihi shouted.
He was drowned out, however, by the sound of heavy boots storming the halls of the castle and beginning to flood the room. They would be overwhelmed in a matter of seconds. The last of the reinforcements had just made it through the doors when yet another flash of light went off, this time followed by a bang that was louder than the first. From where Ryelle stood, it had looked like a fireball spell, but unlike normal fire, the center glowed white. Regardless, the sudden flare and cacophony served to disorient her as well as the guards pouring into the room. She could have sworn one of the walls had careened into her and barely heard someone tell her to follow, as they grabbed her hand and started pulling her away from the battle. She felt the world moving around her, but could only see blurred streaks of color and bizarre shapes, until at last she let herself get eased into a sitting position while leaning up against something cold and sturdy. She could hear what sounded like words but could only make out a few of them at a time. Just disoriented. Too close. Blast. Any closer. Blown. Ear drums. But gradually, her vision and hearing started coming back.
“She should be coming around any minute now.” said a new voice.
“Ruddy useful in a fight, that one.” Nihi said
“Are we safe in here?” Aurora asked.
“Not for long.” the voice relented. “As soon as she can walk, we should head out. We have to assume that if I know about this passage, then so does whoever ordered this attack. Our absence will be noticed.”
By this time, Ryelle’s eyes had readjusted and the pounding in her head had stopped. They were in a dimly lit hallway that appeared to have been carved into the stone of the mesa the castle rested upon. The light was coming from a small flame Aurora had conjured, its glow revealing that the young sorceress was no longer green. Ryelle looked up at the source of the new voice and was mildly surprised by who it belonged to. The minstrel seemed taller up close. Had he been wearing armor underneath his clothes? He was clearly wearing a well crafted suit of it now, possibly fashioned out of the hide of a bear. The bearded man took notice of Ryelle’s attention and crouched down, so that they were face to face now. The sepia of his gaze met the mahogany of hers. Though she immediately saw the concern expressed in his eyes, she also noticed how old they seemed. She had heard talk of humans with purportedly “olde souls” but this man looked as if he’d seen at least a hundred winters. Could he have been of elven descent?
“Are you well?” he asked.
She nodded reflexively. Still puzzling out the riddle that was this musician.
“Good. I did not mean to harm you. The more power I put into that spell, however, the harder it is to control the area of effect.”
He stood and extended his hand to help her to her feet. She took his help cautiously, before finally asking what was on her mind.
“Who are you?”
The musician made as if to answer, but stammered before clearing his throat. His gaze had shifted away for a moment when she had asked the question, but he looked at each of them now.
“Amicus… that is what you may call me.”
“Amicus?” Ryelle asked.
“Yes. It means “friend”, in the language of my ancestors. But we are pressed for time. Come, the exit is this way.”
He conjured a small orb of light and turned toward the darkness behind them, his faded gray cloak whirling with the motion. Amicus made a quick pace down the cavern and though the others soon followed, they kept themselves slightly away from earshot of their would be rescuer.
“I don’t trust ‘im.” Nihi flat out said.
“Something about him seems off to me. Not to mention awfully convenient.” Aurora agreed.
“Yea, he shows up out of nowhere, staves off a small army and then leads us into this secret escape tunnel? Something stinks.” Nihi continued. “And did you notice how he stumbled over his own name? Pfft. “You may call me friend”, is code for “I’m luring you into a trap.””
“What do you think, Ryelle?” Aurora asked. “It sounds like you’ve talked to him more than us.”
“Weren’t we already in a trap to begin with?” the elf replied. “If he had wanted us dead, he could have just left us there. And how do you know my name? I don’t remember giving it to you.”
“Actually, the musician told us. Said you’re Caithe’s cousin.” Nihi said, the irony failing to dawn on him. “We’re good friends of hers. The two of us, Caithe, her Warder, and a buddy of mine were the group that rescued Erin from the Caves of Chaos.”
Ryelle’s brow furrowed. How did Amicus know who she was?
“My instincts say to trust him. Fake name or not. I feel like he really wants to help us.” she concluded
The other two glanced at each other and simultaneously shook their heads. They collectively walked in silence for a time before Amicus finally spoke up, addressing them over his shoulder.
“Now that we have gained some distance, it would not hurt our chances for the three of you to know what it is we are up against.” He said. “You see, I have been tracking the movements of a dark cult for some time now. They orchestrated the kidnapping of Queen Erin with the hobgoblins who took her captive. In exchange for able bodies and “liquid pain”, the hobgoblins were free to ransom the Queen back. It was only by coincidence that Tugog the Skinner discovered that shrine to Elemental Chaos and converted his ilk.”
“If you knew the Queen was going to be kidnapped, why didn’t you stop it from happening? Or help us rescue her?” Nihi asked, a hint of anger in his voice.
“My bigger concern was the cult. I knew by the time I rescued the Queen her father would have sent a group of adventurers after her and by then, I would have lost the trail.”
“So you played at being a hero while we did the actual work.” Nihi sneered. “We almost died in those caves.”
“You would have died tonight, had I not kept tabs on the cultists and discovered their plot to capture the aristocracy.” Amicus said.
The musician’s tone was matter of fact. Ryelle was under the impression he was used
to dealing with strong personalities.
“Regardless, I knew they would make their move tonight, but I did not know the entire palace guard would be under their sway. I miscalculated, and we are short on time because of it.”
“Why capture the wealthy?” Ryelle asked.
“The nobility runs this land. The cult’s goal is to convert the nobles they can, and remove the ones they cannot so as to unofficially control the region. Can you imagine a kingdom with resources like Rose-vale, under the dominion of Baphomet?”
“Baphomet?!” the trio said in unison.
“All apologies. Did I not mention that? Yes, we are facing the Cult of the Azure Demon.”
There was an exchange of glances between the three. The existence of that cult was often thrown off as myth or people carrying tales. But real or not, the stories of what the followers of Baphomet did to innocents were far from pleasant.
The stone passage gave way to a rectangular room with a series of footholds carved into the far wall. The orb of light Amicus had been holding, presently grew brighter and floated up to the ceiling, illuminating what appeared to be a metal hatch.
“Here.” He said. “Up this ladder., through that hatch, and we should be just outside of town. Stay close to me. The guards will be looking for us, but I am popular with the villagers, they will not risk an open confrontation.” He stopped short and looked back down the hallway they came from, his brow furrowed. “Hurry! They are coming.”
“How do you know?” Aurora asked
“I charmed the entrance to alert me when it was opened again. Please, just start climbing.”
Nihi went first, lithely scaling the stone rungs and gingerly opening the steel door at the top. Aurora followed, but nearly slipped, and had to have Nihi pull her through the opening. Ryelle meant to climb up last, but relented on the musician’s insistence. Her woodelf reflexes made scaling the ladder easy, and she leapt up the stone rungs three at a time, jumping through the hatchway and landing on the grass outside with barely a sound. She turned round just in time to see Amicus fly through the hatch and also land gingerly. He lifted the hatch door, and placed his palm on it.
“Avert your eyes.”
Ryelle had just managed to turn away when she felt the hair on her neck prick up. She faced Amicus again upon hearing him shut the door.
“What was that?”
“I branded it with a symbol of agony. The mere act of looking at it will cause the person to experience intense pain. I doubt they will be able to follow us any time soon.”
The musician seemed to brush dust off his shoulder, and the armor he was wearing faded away in a puff of smoke, replaced by the bright teal jerkin and white gambeson he had been wearing during the feast. Then, reaching into the small coin purse strapped to his waist, he produced a wooden carrying case which was undoubtedly for his instrument.
“Shall we?” he asked, already making his way toward the town walls. “I have a friend in town who can help us.”
“We could leave now.” Nihi whispered. “We’re out of the castle. There’s nothing stopping us from just getting out of here.”
“But what if he’s right about the cult?” Aurora asked.
“Then this is above my pay grade.”
“Ryelle, do you still think we can trust him?”
“I don’t know yet. But what choice do we really have? Trust him and risk facing the cult now, or flee and risk facing all of Rose-vale, or worse, later.”
She shook her head, and then began catching up to Amicus. The cool night air bit at a her cheeks as she ran, a welcomed change from the stale dankness that had been their escape route. She estimated they would reach the town walls within the hour, which meant she had time to puzzle out the musician and her current predicament. The two walked across the plains in silence for a short time before he finally spoke.
“You have questions.” he said in monotone.
“And I need answers.” she replied.
Amicus gave her a sidelong glance and then smiled.
“Very well. Let us play a game of quid pro quo.”
“A game of what?”
“It means, something for something. You ask, I answer, then I ask and you answer.”
They made eye contact. His gaze radiated sincerity but she was wary of his candor.
“Agreed.” she finally said with a nod. “How did you know who I was?”
“The short answer is that when people speak, I listen. The longer answer is that I make it a point to listen to the right people.” he said nonchalantly. “Anyone listed as the Queen’s special guest is bound to catch my attention. How long have you been a Ranger?”
“How did you-” she sighed, and then continued. “Since my fifth winter. That was when I started training. What else do you know about me? About us?”
“Not much about them.” he nodded back at the others now several paces away. “Nihi has a quick pair of hands and an even quicker tongue. His old teachers would argue that though he has mastered the techniques of his art, the spirit still eludes him. But that is to be expected. Gnomes are somewhat chaotic by nature, and the path of a Monk demands order.”
“She is young, and prone to fits of boredom. Her magic has been a defining aspect of her life since she was a child so she has always been difficult to entertain. She cares about things only as far as they keep her interested. Both of them have ulterior motives for staying.”
“And me?” Ryelle asked, her eyes narrowing slightly.
“You? You have spent the last score of years alone in your forest, purging orcs and nurturing growth. Unlike most of your elven kin, you’re stubborn, prefer solitude, and advocate “a live and let live attitude”. You would rather the world solve its own problems, but recent events have shown you that there is evil in this world that has to be stopped, and that people like yourself are the ones that have to stop it. Your mind often becomes lost in thought, and when that happens you become oblivious to your surroundings, sometimes even to what is right in front of you.”
“Oblivious?” she snapped. “How dare you? I’m never oblivious to what’s in front of me.”
“Ryelle, you have yet to notice our entire conversation has been in Elvish.”
She stopped walking but he continued on, his grin grew wider with every bit of distance he put between them. Moments later, when she had recomposed herself and bridged the gap between them again, she asked the obvious, and made sure it was in Common.
“You speak Elvish?”
Her voice could not hide that she was impressed.
“I have never met a human who bothered learning any other language but Common. When? How? Er- why?”
“I believe it is my turn.” he smirked.
“So it is.” she relented.
“Why conjure thorns to use as weapons?”
“They’re nature’s own blades.” she said. “When my ancestors discovered that the forests had become the lairs of orcs and other evil races, they took it upon themselves to cleanse the wilds. Our spells are proof that nature herself is on our side, that she is lending us her own arsenal to keep the wilds pure.”
Amicus looked thoughtful at the response.
“Very well. You wanted to know about the Elvish?”
“Forget the Elvish.Why haven’t you told us your real name?”
His brow furrowed.
“Force of habit.” was all he said.
Ryelle could see that she would not get more from him, so she let the topic go, gesturing for him to take his turn. At some length he asked:
“If you found yourself as a general during a war, and intercepted a message informing you your enemy was planning an attack on a major city in five days, but would be incredibly vulnerable in eight, would you evacuate the city or let the attack happen? Bearing in mind, protecting the city would alert your enemy to their intercepted message.”
Ryelle gave the question a moment of thought before answering.
“I would secretly add more protection to the city and then attack when they were vulnerable.”
“I see. Your turn.”
“How are you casting your spells?”
“What do you mean?” he asked warily.
“You’re not channeling a divinity or the powers of nature because I would have felt it. The power isn’t coming from within you either or I would feel a kind of heat coming off you like I do with Aurora. I would call you a Warlock but they make me feel uneasy, and you… “ she paused, making eye contact with him again. “You don’t.”
Amicus sighed, his shoulders slumping a bit. Ryelle was not sure if he was uneasy revealing the source of his power or if he regretted thinking about it altogether.
“I’ve heard that some minstrels obtain the status of Bard after discovering a handful of words of power.” she continued. “It’s the power of the words which allow them to alter reality the same way spells do, but I have yet to hear you utter a single sound when you cast. So what is it? How can you do what you do?”
He was silent for a time, and she could see he was carefully choosing his words.
“My brothers all dabbled in the magical arts,” he said. “Each of them was devoted to a different craft. As the youngest, I did my best to learn what I could from all of them. My eldest brother, in particular, was quite the spellcaster. He was a true Wizard, well known and respected. I learned the most about magic from him.”
Ryelle raised a brow, her face twisting into a look of doubt.
“My uncle is a Wizard.” she said. “I know all about their esoteric inscriptions and the complexities of their spells. You don’t use any of that. What you did to that steel hatch in ten seconds would have taken him ten minutes and cost him a jar of opal powder to boot. I’ve seen him do it before. It’s not simple, and you made it look, well, effortless.”
“And, that means you’re lying to me. Or at least not telling me the whole truth.”
“Ryelle, the truth is a lot harder to understand than you would think.”
The musician looked at her, his eyes measuring. He sighed, shook his head and then shrugged.
“To understand it, to really understand it, I need you to think of a human crafted sword.”
His voice had taken on the matter of fact quality to it again.
“Okay. I’m thinking of it.”
“Now place it next to a sword made by mountain dwarves.”
“Finally, place both blades next to one forged by your cousins the high elves. If you can see the connection between the three swords, then you can see how my magic works.”
“I don’t understand.” she said after a long pause.
“Think, Ryelle. What is the connection between the three swords?”
They kept walking while she pondered the riddle before at long last, she shook her head in frustration.
“That they’re all swords?” she asked in confusion.
“Precisely.” he exclaimed. “The three swords could not be more different, yet they are the same. Even the process by which they are made is different but still result in the same type of weapon. A human forge is different from a Dwarven forge is different from an Elven one. But all forges serve the same function.”
“Are you trying to tell me your magic is like weapon smithing?”
“I am trying to tell you that all magic, like all swords and all smithing, has commonalities. Spellcasters wield their powers in very different ways, but the truth that very few have been able to grasp is that all magic taps the same source, even divine magic. I know what the source is, so I can manipulate magical energy in its fundamental state. As such, I can duplicate the works of a Wizard without knowing her complex formulas, I can lay on hands without the blessing of a deity, or hurl fireballs even though the power does not well within me. Granted, I am not as powerful as someone who has devoted their life to their particular brand of magic, but my expansive knowledge of all crafts means I always have an edge when I need it.”
He was smiling now. A child explaining how his favorite toy worked. A friend sharing a piece of gossip. An artist, putting himself on display.
“So you know the source of all magic?” she asked, her voice dripping with skepticism. “What is it then?”
“If I told you, not only would you not believe me, you would think I had gone insane.”
He smiled as he said it, but she could tell he was serious.
“So is that how you produced that explosion, earlier?” she asked.
“Yes.” Amicus said, visibly perking up at the mention of the spell. “I came up with the idea for that while on Ear-”
He paused, having cut himself off mid sentence, his face falling. The musician briefly looked away from the elf before facing forward and refusing to meet Ryelle’s gaze altogether.
“-while I was on errands for a guild I worked with.” he finally said, his voice devoid of the excitement she had heard in it just moments ago. “Their… alchemists… had created little capsules that gave off bright light and a loud sound when thrown at a hard surface. Anyway, they called them “flashbangs” so that is what I call my spell.”
“So you invented it?” she asked, searching for that spark she’d just glimpsed.
“More or less.” he replied, still not meeting her gaze. “I had tried combining a sunburst spell with a thunderwave spell at first, but it was beyond my abilities to cast them simultaneously. The rules would not allow me to pull it off. So, I changed the rules. The spell is effective, to say the least.”
“When did you first learn you could-”
“The town is up ahead.” he cut in. “We should continue this some other time.”
That tone again, she thought, why does it feel like I’ve encountered it before? Ryelle nodded and they walked in silence the remainder of the way. With Amicus taking the lead, and fortune smiling on them, the group was able to weave through the back streets of the town unnoticed until they reached a dead end in one of the alleyways.
“Oy, minstrel. You sure you know where you’re going?” Nihi asked
“Without a doubt.”
Amicus continued walking down the alley.
“That’s a wall, you idiot.” Nihi said.
“No, it just looks like one, Nihi.” Amicus called back over his shoulder.
He pressed on and the others saw him phase through the gray bricks, disappearing from their sight. A moment later his head peered back through the wall.
“Coming?” he asked, before disappearing again.
The trio stared at each other.
“Who is this guy?” Nihi exclaimed as he made to follow.
Expecting to find another alley on the other side of the illusion, Ryelle was surprised to be standing inside what looked like an empty tavern. The furnishings were simple, but sturdy, and the space well lit but it was unclear by what. Amicus was already speaking to the man behind the bar when the trio caught up to him.
“This is Ezra. A friend.” Amicus said, introducing the shaggy brown haired man.
“Welcome to the Red Dragon Inn.” Ezra said.
‘What is this place?” Aurora asked.
“The gist of it, is that’s a haven to those who need it. Anyway, you’re welcomed to stay here tonight, free of charge, and seeing as how I owe Amicus a fistful of favors you can help yourself to the pantry,which is that way.” He pointed to a door across the room “Drinks however, are on the musician’s tab so be sure to order lots of them.”
His voice reminded Ryelle of an accent she once heard further south. There was a slight twang to the way he spoke, and his mouth tended to curl into a one sided smirk in between talking. Introductions were quickly made and Ezra explained the rooms were upstairs and that he would gladly give them a tour of the building after he and Amicus settled some affairs.
“In the meantime,” Ezra said, “enjoy this concoction of mine I like to call Midas Ale ’cause of the color. And remember, it’ll taste better if you remember that Amicus is paying for it.” he said with a smile.
After pouring them each a sizable mug he left with Amicus, the two of them disappearing into a nearby room behind a purple curtain.
“Can you hear what they’re saying Nihi?” Aurora asked.
“No. I think that curtain’s enchanted to block out nosy buggers like myself.”
Ryelle sipped the amber colored drink, and was surprised by how good it tasted, but the gurgling noise her stomach made reminded her it had been over nine hours since she had really eaten. Aurora laughed just before taking a long swig of her mug.
“I’m hungry too.” she said. “You want to see what’s in the pantry?”
“I will race you to it.” Ryelle said.
The elf was across the room in moments and opened the pantry door to find a veritable mound of assorted cheeses, cured meats and a large selection of cakes beautifully arranged on a small table. As far as free meals went, this one was getting better every moment.
“So what did you learn about him?” the sorceress finally asked, shoveling a sesame cake into her mouth.
“About Amicus?” Ryelle was presently nibbling on a piece of shortbread.
“No about that fly that buzzed by us on the way here.” Nihi jeered. “The only reason we kept our distance was so you could learn something about him. That is what you were doing wasn’t it?”
The elf took another sip of ale, for once enjoying the beverage. It tasted of honey, wheat, and saffron.
“He’s a Harper.” she said. “Or at least used to be.”
“You’re kidding.” Nihi said. “What makes you think that?”
“He said something about people with power being responsible for stopping evil. Ever hear someone say that who wasn’t a Harper?”
“Fair point.” the gnome relented. “What else?”
“Harper or not, he’s well connected. Even if you ignore this place, that armor he was wearing would have been expensive. He’s possibly of royal lineage judging by how he speaks.” she took another bite of shortbread and then continued. “He’s resourceful, making full use of the environment to delay possible pursuers, and he’s educated. It’s rare for humans to know Elvish, and the viol is an instrument from the upper classes.” She shook her head. “Moves like a duelist, talks like a paladin, knows more about magic than any wizard I have ever met, and-” she sighed.
“And what?” Aurora asked.
“And, I think he’s lonely.” Ryelle said.
“Lonely?” Nihi echoed, his brow raised in disbelief and confusion.
“It’s more a feeling that I get than anything. Like he’s stranded on an island or wandering an empty road by himself…” she trailed off and then shrugged.
Nihi shook his head. “Did you get his real name?”
“No. I don’t need his name to trust him, I think.” Ryelle said. “And I do trust him.”
“I can probably get his name.” Aurora chimed in.
“How?” Nihi asked.
“A scrying spell.” the sorceress explained. “Here, just a moment.”
She finished eating her sesame cake and then stretched. She stood, took a look around and then grabbed a silver platter from inside the pantry. She poured a small amount of water onto the platter, enough to cover its surface, before taking a deep breath.
“What’s the water for?” Nihi asked
“It’s what helps open the portal.” was all the response Aurora gave him.
After setting the platter on a nearby table she began a series of hand movements over its surface. Ryelle noticed the water looked a bit cloudier than when Aurora had first poured it. Aurora’s eyes stared intently into the water now, gradually taking on a blue glow. The air around the sorceress began crackling with sparks of arcane energy, but her eyes remained fixed on the smoky images now dancing across the water’s surface. No reflection was cast in the platter anymore, just a pool of liquid smoke sitting on the polished metal.
“I Aurora of the Starbright Flame, call upon the aethers to reveal the name of the man calling himself Amicus.”
No sooner had she finished speaking did the water become clear again and her eyes return to normal.
“Well that was anti-climactic. Did you get it?” Nihi asked.
“It was warded.” she said, her voice betraying the wear her body had suffered. “My spell couldn’t pierce whatever it is he used to keep his name secret.”
Ryelle and Nihi looked puzzled and seconds later every strand of hair on Aurora’s head promptly fell out and cascaded to the floor, leaving the sorceress completely bald. The gnome and the elf did their best not to panic at the sight. Aurora herself looked at the pile of hair with eyes wide and unblinking. Was it retaliation for attempting to scry for his name?Her shock and embarrassment was short lived, however as her hair immediately grew back. After running her hands through it, to make sure it was firmly attached, Aurora could not help but notice that it felt silkier.
“Merka templa.” Ryelle said, relief evident in her tone.
“What?” Aurora demanded.
“It means, “wild magic”.”came the voice of Amicus. “It is the name given to all magic that has been touched by chaos.”
It only took a cursory glance to know the musician was barely able to stand. Slumped shoulders, bags under the eyes, it looked like he hadn’t slept in a trio of days. He shuffled over to a nearby seat, before practically falling into it.
“As long as you keep over reaching with your magic, you will keep causing unintentional magical effects Aurora.” He sighed. “We head out tomorrow morning. They will be moving the nobles to a location nearby. If we are smart about it, rescuing the hostages should not prove difficult. ”
It was apparent to them that even speaking was straining him.
“What happened to you?” Ryelle asked.
“He called in a favor.” Ezra said, having somehow appeared behind the bar again. “Used an artifact that allowed him to glimpse the future. It took a lot out of him, but he got what he needed out of it too, and he definitely earned this.” He produced a red and gold piece of cloth, and flung it at the musician. “For every twelve hours you looked ahead you shaved a day off your lifespan, kiddo.”
Amicus took the sash and folded it into a small square before depositing it into his coin purse.
“I would not have done it, if the need was not present. I am in your debt, Ezra.” he half mumbled.
“Nonsense. After this, I’d say we’re about square. Under one condition, of course.”
“Name…it,” Amicus sighed.
“Buy another round.” Ezra laughed.
“Are we really sure about this?” Nihi asked
“There is nothing holding you two here. But I intend to help him.” Ryelle said.
“It’s just too convenient.” Nihi said.
The discussion had been going on for the better part of an hour after Amicus and Ezra had turned in.
“He made it clear, you’re free to leave in the morning Nihi.”
“I’m not one to skip out on comrades. I just want to make sure we’re not setting ourselves up for trouble.”
“Of course we are, we’re going up against a demonic cult.”
“Yes, we are. I just want to be sure that he is too.”
“Yes, he’s hiding something, and I want to know what, but I can sense that his intentions are good. In the span of three hours, he’s saved our lives, lead us to safety, and bought us dinner for the wild’s sake. All the while informing us of what the real threat is. He is on our side you stubborn lout.”
“Then why go to such great lengths to hide his identity? Warding his name? Not even Harper Agents go that far. And what about this place? Why hide us in an invisible inn that no one but his bartender friend knows about?”
“Why is it so hard for you to trust him?” Ryelle asked, her voice rising.
“Why is it so easy for you?” Nihi said, his own voice escalating.
“I don’t know.” Ryelle admitted, perhaps louder than she had intended. “I don’t know why I feel like I’m supposed to follow him. I don’t know why I feel like I’m facing my destiny by helping rescue everyone. And I don’t know why I feel like I’m meant to help him do something important. I just know that I have to trust these feelings because…because ignoring them…ignoring him…would be worse than whatever pain might come from trusting him.”
They heard laughter behind them, and all three turned to see Ezra leaning against the doorway to his room.
“He tends to have that effect on people.” he gave his lopsided grin and then held his hands up. “Sorry. I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation, and then I remembered I never got around to giving you lot the tour I promised.”
“The rooms are upstairs. We know.” Nihi said, his voice flat.
“But there’s quite the lost and found. C’mon, let me show you. You’re welcomed to anything there, of course. Amicus is footing the bill on that too.”
“Ezra,” Aurora said. “why do you trust him?”
The shaggy haired innkeeper looked amused by the question.
“Someone like Amicus really doesn’t need someone like me to defend him. He’s the kind of man that let’s his actions do all the talking.” He paused. “Unless he’s had a few too many Snake Bites. Then it’s damn near impossible to get the idiot to shut up.”
He motioned for them to follow him as he walked up to the pantry door. Upon opening it, however, they were surprised to see the pantry was no longer there. They now looked down an impossibly long hallway lined with brightly painted doorways.
“How many rooms does this place have?” Nihi asked, his voice suspicious.
Ezra laughed. “As many as I need.”
He lead them down the hallway, past several dozen doors before stopping in front of one painted an eggshell color.
“Here we go. Let’s see what’s behind door number one.”
The door opened of its own accord, revealing a small armory inside.
“Ah. I thought as much.” Ezra said. “Well kids, feel free to take whatever you need or want from here.”
Ryelle peered into the room, her eyes immediately being drawn to the reflection of light off a piece of bronze. She was in the room and examining the object that had caught her attention before she realized her feet had moved. A sigh of awe escaped her as she ran her hand over the fine leather and intricate chain. There was no mistaking the forest motif of Elven Battle Armor. That she should find a complete set in a place like this was nothing short of miraculous, but she didn’t believe in miracles, only fate. The armor bore the mark of the Golden Harvest Sun on its chest. It was the crest of one of the original houses of elves which began the Ranger tradition, the House of Oreth, her family.
“How?” she asked no one in particular.
“Oh, you’d be surprised what ends up in these rooms over time. I’m pretty sure I had a mirror that lead to the Semi Elemental Plane of Ranch Dressing.” he joked.
They all laughed at that.
“The armor is yours, Ryelle. You’ll need it for this mission and every day after, I imagine. The scimitars are yours to keep as well.”
“What scimi-” she suddenly noticed a pair of the blades sitting next to the armor stand.
“Like I said, the bill is on Amicus, so take what he’s already paid for.” Ezra said.
The trio set to stocking up on whatever supplies they would need. Aside from traveling gear, Nihi found a throwing knife that always came back, and a pair of clubs linked by a chain which he claimed was a weapon the monks had taught him to use. Aurora laid claim to an accurate spell focus made of blue lace agate and silver after Ezra insured her that the grounding nature of the stone would help to minimize the effects of her Wild Magic. After they were satisfied with what they had acquired, the trio followed Ezra back down the hall and into the tavern.
“I still don’t understand. Amicus paid for you to make all of this for us?” Ryelle asked.
“No. He paid me to let you take what you needed.” Ezra said with a shrug.
“But the armor looks like it will fit me perfectly. It even bears my family crest.”
“That’s because it’s what you needed.” Ezra said, as if speaking to a toddler. “He also paid me to make sure you know that you’re still free to walk away from him tomorrow morning. You don’t owe him or me anything, so you can take the gear and be on your way come sunrise. Just don’t expect a warm welcome should you ever decide to come back.” He yawned. “You lot should get some sleep.”
He shuffled off behind the purple curtain and the three were left alone again. With a final look at each other, they took to the stairs and found their rooms. They would see each other in the morning.
Her footsteps inaudible, Ryelle crept through the underbrush, closing in on the location of the sound she had just heard. She recognized his voice now, but couldn’t make out what he was saying. Pushing down a branch, she peered through the yellowing leaves and saw Amicus sitting on a large boulder in a small clearing. He seemed distracted, his gaze preoccupied by something in his hand.
It was then she noticed he was holding what appeared to be an ordinary gold locket. Except her intuition told her it couldn’t have been ordinary if it belonged to Amicus. She would have to get a better vantage point if she wanted to get a good look at the thing. Making her way around the clearing to a large tree nearby, she muttered a short incantation to herself. Reaching the base of the birch she meant to climb, she finished chanting and allowed the energy of the forest to pour into her. Funneling the raw power into her muscles, she gathered her strength and made one giant leap, nearly clearing the tree. Despite overshooting her target branch, she was able to latch onto another one that provided the same view point. From there she was able to see what, or rather who, the musician had been speaking to.
The locket was producing the misty image of a young woman. Her bronze complexion, hard eyes and baggy brown clothing marked her as being a native of the desert, though it was unclear which one. Ryelle had never heard of a people who wore that particular style of clothing, especially with a black veil. The woman looked formidable, especially with the ornate spear she was carrying, but it seemed impossible to pinpoint her age. The elf guessed her to be only a score years old, but there were obvious strands of silver in her dark brown mane.
Aurora came crashing through the bushes then, crunching leaves and twigs alike under her boots. Even with her elven eyes fixated on his movements, Ryelle barely saw Amicus shut and pocket the small piece of gold and admired his ability to maintain such a remarkable amount of composure around a belligerent sorceress.
“Where have you been? What were you doing? We’ve been stuck at the campsite wondering if you’d ditched us.”
“I apologize.” he said. “I had to sit a moment to ponder our strategy.”
“Strategy for what?”
“For getting past the band of orcs guarding the entrance.”
Ryelle’s brow furrowed. Orcs rarely partnered or worked for organizations, no matter how seedy. It went against the grain for them to kill with any other purpose than to sate their bloodlust. Was he lying?
“Get the others.” he said. “The cave is nearby, and we’ll need all four of us to accomplish what I have in mind.”
The sorceress nodded and made her way back through the brush. Ryelle would have to conveniently stumble into them to cover her tracks, but in the meantime she watched the musician produce the locket again, and continue staring at the magical image it created.
“ Tu es le tristitia in oculis meis. Autem, nos erit simul iterum. Ego promissum.” he whispered.
She had never heard the language he was speaking but the tone implied a sense of intimacy that was hard to miss. After a small time she heard Nihi and Aurora approaching, and climbed down the tree, timing her entrance with that of the others.
“There she is.” Nihi said.
“Sorry, I stopped to help some of the trees. There’s an invasive fungus in these woods.”
A half truth, but it did the job.
“So where is this place?” Nihi asked.
“Just on the other side of that hill.” Amicus said, pointing to the nearby landmass. “It plateaus near the pinnacle, and connects to part of the cliff-side. The lair is a series of natural tunnels that have formed inside the stone. Should take us a little under an hour to get there.”
The group set off, with gear and wariness in tow.
“You know, when I agreed to come along, I didn’t realize “a location nearby” meant three days and an hour’s hike away.” Nihi groaned, yanking his boot out of a muddy patch of dirt.
“It would only have taken us a day if we had marched straight through like I suggested.” Amicus said.
“Speaking of which,” Aurora said, “I can’t imagine the kind of chaos the kingdom is in right now. It’s been three days since the coronation and everyone with authority in the land has been missing for that long. There’s no telling how much damage this damned cult has actually inflicted.”
“Not as much as you would think. Coronation feasts last about a full week on the low end.” Ryelle explained.
Ryelle nodded. “As far as the rest of the world is concerned, there’s nothing unusual about there being no word from the castle. It’s assumed everyone is too busy celebrating…among other things.”
“Were we expected to stay the entire duration?” Aurora asked Nihi, who shrugged in response.
“Oh yes.” Amicus replied. “In fact, leaving early is considered a grave insult to the newly crowned, as it implies they could not adequately feed or entertain you.”
A look of shock overtook Aurora’s face as a sound of realization escaped her lips.
“That’s why Caithe suddenly had other business to attend to.” she half exclaimed. “Clever bitch.”
The ranger chuckled at the sorceress before agreeing. It had been a personal favor to her cousin to spend the week mingling with the humans in her stead. The thought made her ponder over the nature of free will. A favor granted on a whim and followed through half-heartedly, carried her to this moment; lead by an unknowable man on a mission against a demonic cult sworn to bathe the world in blood. She knew this was where she was meant to be, but couldn’t help wonder: “What if I had said no?”
After a time, Amicus held up his hand to signal a stop, his head tilted slightly as his trained ears heard something the rest could not. Ryelle did not have to hear the mongrels to know they were near by however. Years spent hunting orcs had honed her senses to detect them, and the air stank of the foul creatures.
“The guard is changing.” He said. “We’ll split up and spread out but stay within the tree line. Their eyes are not accustomed to harsh daylight, which we will use to our advantage. When I give the signal, join the fray, but do not underestimate them. There is something different about this lot. Ryelle, with me.”
With a thought his armor appeared on him, and he looked at Ryelle, who promptly summoned her own armor. She wasn’t quite used to the sudden appearance of extra weight on her just yet, but she was thankful Amicus had inscribed the summoning runes. It saved her a lot of trouble.
From the safety of tree cover, they studied the ugly brutes. Four of them were positioned by the entrance, armed with short swords and crossbows.
“If we could create a diversion, we might be able to separate them and pick them off one by one.” Ryelle whispered to Amicus. “What do you think?”
She turned to face him only to realize he was no longer with her. A gush of doubt splashed across the framework of her mind then. Was this a setup after all? She made her way to the others, informing them of the musician’s disappearance.
“Damn it, I told you.” Nihi hissed.
“Well we’re here. The least we could do is kill these orcs and take a look around.” Ryelle said.
“Hold on.” Aurora cut in. “Do you hear that?”
Distantly, Ryelle could just make out the high pitched sound, recognizing the scale progression of the Acsenamor song form, blended with another melody. It was a captivating tune, and evidently a pair of the orcs guarding the cave believed so too, because they began walking toward the sound with a glazed look in their eyes.
“I think that was the signal.” Nihi said
Twelve seconds later, the three of them stood at the cave entrance over the smoldering bodies of two orcs.
“Did you mean for his teeth to explode like that? Nihi asked Aurora.
“No, added bonus.”
Amicus stepped out of the trees then. His eyes widened at something and before they realized what was happening, a pulsating sound had thrown them all to the ground just as a crackling burst of fire shot over their heads.
Still feeling the heat in the air, Ryelle rolled to her side and jumped to her feet to see the source of the fireball that had been cast at them. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Nihi patting out flames on Aurora’s back. Steeling herself, and focusing on the fight at hand, she drew her twin scimitars to face off against their attacker. He stood well over six feet tall, a tower of bulky muscle. The orc carried a large war axe, and there was a piece of cloth covering his right eye, marking him as a priest of the orc god. What did they call themselves? Eyes of Gruumsh?
“Ranger.” he said, a glint of excitement touching his eye.
His palm stretched open as he walked towards her, mouth spreading into a savage grin. She could see the air around his hand begin to shimmer before finally manifesting into an ethereal spear glowing faintly red. It remained suspended in the air, twirling end over end. A spiritual weapon? That was advanced spellwork for the types of orcs she was used to dealing with.
The spear stopped twirling, phantom point aimed in her direction. Seconds later, the Eye of Gruumsh barked an order in his coarse tongue and the weapon hurled straight at her. Ryelle sidestepped to avoid the attack but it was too fast for her to escape unscathed. She felt the hot sting of the spear point drag across her cheek and seconds later a warm streak of blood trailed down her face. Dropping her right scimitar into a reverse grip, she entered a crouching guard, focused on the matter of cutting the foul beast in two. Her head was now clear, and senses heightened with the rush of battle. So it was that the second attack, as the spear darted back at her, was easily avoided with a corkscrew spin in midair.
Ryelle went on the offensive now. Her footwork carried her into optimal range for her quick blades, allowing her to engage in close quarter combat and employ her cyclical style of swordplay. Her whirling movements made full use of the way she held her swords, allowing her to cut in a full circle around her. The orc swung his axe at her now, aiming too high. Diving under the attack she saw an opening, and moved to slice his belly open, only to pull back to avoid the spear again as it flashed past her. The skirmish continued this way. His broad strokes were no match for her dervish tactics, but the presence of the spear stymied her movements. I would have killed him six times by now if it weren’t for that thing, she thought.
She launched herself into the air, blades flashing. The aerial maneuver caught the orc off guard, as he clumsily raised the haft of his axe to block the veritable windmill she had become. Her scimitars cut clean through the hefty chunk of wood, just as she angled herself to avoid the ethereal spear. The weapon whizzed through her brown hair, harmlessly, before turning sharply and coming back for her again. Landing, she used the spinning momentum to deliver a solid kick the orc’s head. The blow knocked him into the spear’s trajectory, and it lodged itself firmly into the back of his skull. The orc priest collapsed on the floor, the weapon sticking out of his head for a time before fading away into mist.
“You should be more careful.” Amicus said, waving a glowing hand over the three of them.
Ryelle, though thankful for the healing, couldn’t help but feel a little miffed by his comment. She was about to say so when an arrow suddenly flew at her and stopped moments before hitting her head. The arrow fell, Amicus let out a long sigh and she heard a harsh sounding laughter coming from inside the cave.
“Clever bit of magic.” the voice growled. “Does it work against swords too?”
The owner of the voice came into full view now. He was an orc unlike any she had seen before, but she could guess at what his real nature was. Taller than the orcs they’d seen previously, more muscular as well, and clearly more insightful. He could only be an orog. An orc who won the genetic lottery and held a keen intellect as well as a larger body than his kin. Other lands called them uruk, but the reality was the same, a stronger and smarter orc.
“You must be the one in charge.” Amicus said. “Good. I have questions.”
Amicus motioned for them to back up.
“I hope you do not mind if my friends back away from us so that you and I have more room to…talk.”
“A duel?” the orog grunted. “So be it. I’ll kill you before I kill them. But rest assured, I’ll dine on your entrails tonight.”
“Please.” Amicus said, entreating the chieftain to take the first move. “Those knives of yours, that lovely quartet strapped around your chest, I’ll be using those to bring you down right now.”
Why hasn’t he drawn his weapon yet? Ryelle wondered.
The orog charged Amicus, meaning to gore him with his sword, only to completely miss his target and smash his blade into stone. The one assault quickly became a flurry of slashing attacks.
Was Amicus smiling? His movements were like nothing she had seen before. No matter how quickly the orog swung his blade, or the feints he employed, Amicus was always a half beat ahead of him. There were no parries, no blocks or much of any defensive stance, the musician was simply avoiding the cutting edge of his opponent’s weapon and had yet to draw his own blade.
The orog’s skill was remarkable, she was unsure how well her own agility would have fared against the brute’s speed. How was Amicus reading his movements so easily? Ryelle wondered. Her keen eyes then took notice of his hands with their fingers splayed out in the manner of someone casting. What spell could he possibly be using?
Amicus twisted to avoid a sword thrust, crossing into the orog’s range for a horizontal slash. His hands caught the chieftain’s arm mid swing just as his boot smashed into the back of the brute’s legs, knocking him to his knees. Slamming the orog’s arm into his knee, Amicus disarmed him of the blade before plucking the sword off the ground and running it through the chieftain’s calf, pinning him. The musician then reached onto the orog’s person, snatching the quartet of knives he was carrying and promptly stabbed them into their owner’s chest. Amicus snapped his fingers, magically binding the chieftain’s arms to his sides and then grabbed a fistful of the beast’s cord like hair.
“Now.” Amicus said. “ How many more of your men are inside?”
The orog chieftain wheezed, blood foaming at the mouth, but still managed a growl in response to the question.
“These wounds are not fatal. But they can be.” Amicus threatened, his hand beginning to twist the handle of one of the knives. “ You pride yourself on your intellect, so use it. Tell me what I want to know and live to pillage another day.”
“You’ll know soon enough, meat. By now, the maggots will have noticed I’ve been gone too long.”
The orog’s face contorted into a nasty, fang toothed, smile.
“Thank you.” was all Amicus said.
The musician, unfastened the viol bow from its place on his belt.
“I was hoping you would choose not to tell me.”
With his grip on the orog’s hair firmly in place, he tilted the brute’s head back and touched the edge of the bow’s ribbon to the grey skin of the creature’s neck. Ryelle, Nihi and Aurora looked on in confusion. What was the hair on the bow meant to do?
Amicus pushed the bow to the left, and the orog grunted in pain, his black blood beginning to flow out of the small incision the ribbon had somehow made.
“The thread on this bow is a rare type of silk that has been passed through mithril.”
Here he began pulling, making the incision longer on the other side.
“It will not break, bend, or wear.” He continued. “As such, it makes an excellent cutting implement.”
The orog’s eyes were wide now.
“Wait.” the orog growled. “Wait.”
“Actually, cutting is a bad choice of words. It does not cut so much as shave.” Amicus continued.
The musician’s hands began pushing the bow across again, this time with more pressure. The orog was screaming now, though out of fear or pain it was unclear.
“Wait.” he exclaimed. “Thirty. There were thirty of us.”
He was flailing, or at least trying to. The blade in his leg and the grip Amicus had on his hair insured he was not going anywhere. Ryelle watched the musician’s face as he continued his steady sawing motion. Watched it remain completely unmoved as it was splattered with the black blood of the helpless chieftain in front of him. Watched it barely acknowledge that the orog was already dead, even as he continued sawing through its neck, throat, larynx, and spine. Then, he let go of the orog’s hair and stared as the head fall away from the rest of the body, only to hang on by a thin piece of skin. His binding spell wore off, and the hulking orc crumpled to the ground.
Ryelle and Amicus made eye contact, and though his face was frighteningly calm, she could practically feel the blood rushing through him, the cloudy thoughts invoked by rage.
“I do not like orcs.” was all he said to the three of them. “But this explains why a band of orcs would be helping a cult. They were lead by an orc with a sense of cunning ambition.”
They could hear the clamor of bootsteps from within the cave, and they prepared themselves for a fight. Within moments the rest of the orcs were upon them, shouting cries for blood. Amicus and Ryelle were ready to charge the brutes, but watched in amazement as the orcs ran past them and into the woods.
“Whose spell was that?” Amicus asked.
“Mine. Just an illusion charm I picked up as kid.” Nihi said. “They honestly didn’t even see us. Just the fake tracks that ran back into the trees.”
“Well done, Nihi.” Amicus said. “Well done.”
They proceeded into the cave then, Aurora creating light with a ball of flame in her hands. The passageways sloped down, into the heart of the cliff-side, and gave way to intricate masonry after a time. The walls were no longer roughly formed, but carved and polished straight with detailed depictions of gruesome deaths etched into them.
“I thought you said these were natural tunnels.” Aurora said.
“They are. It would seem our cultish friends have spent some time down here.”
At length the tunnel split into a fork, both paths looking identical.
“Let’s stay right.” Ryelle said.
“Why?” Nihi asked.
“Ranger’s intuition.” was all she said before taking the lead down the right-side passage. Nihi looked at Amicus, who shrugged in response before following. They met a heavy wooden door at the end of the tunnel, reinforced with iron and locked. Amicus placed his hand against the stone of the tunnel, and shut his eyes. He exhaled sharply and then leaned against the wall, stroking his beard in thought.
Meanwhile, Nihi and Aurora were debating over the best method of opening the door. They lacked thieves tools and the door was flush against the stone, making leverage impossible.
“It’s wood, I’ll just set it on fire.” Aurora insisted.
“It’ll take ages before the wood burns away, and we’re stuck breathing in smoke in the meantime.”
“We could break it down.” Ryelle suggested.
“And let the whole place know we’re in here?” Aurora countered. “If I can create a hot enough flame, it’ll burn a hole clear through the door, then we’re free to reach through and unlock it.”
“Yea, if.” Nihi said. “You over reach with your magic and you might wind up burning more than just the door.”
At length Amicus snapped out of his reverie, saw the bickering, and then made a knocking motion at the door. A loud thudding noise emanated from the heavy wood just before it swung open.
“Did you just use Knock?” Aurora asked. “That sound could have been heard throughout the whole lair for all we know.”
“It was not.” Amicus replied.
“What if you’re wrong?”
“When it comes to sound, I am never wrong.” He smiled and marched into the room first.
It was large, rectangular, and empty with nothing save a pile of rubble in the corner to call furnishing and three potential exits. A message written in faded brown blood had been smeared onto the wall just above the rubble. It read: Here Lies Eobard III, petrified by a basilisk. Amicus approached the pile of stone and quietly paid respect to the dead while the trio examined the room for clues. Another wooden door was to the eastern side of the room, opposite of the last resting place of Eobard, and a pair of archways stood next to each other on the northern side, apparently leading into the same alcove. Nihi entered the alcove now, his curiosity guiding him.
“Hey there’s another door in here.” Nihi said. “Let me see if it’s locked.”
He reached out, grabbed the door knob, and found that it would not turn. He also found that his hand would not come free. No, he thought, no not this. The door seemed to expand in front of him, stretching up and out, and taking on a slimy sheen. A large pair of yellow eyes revealed themselves to him, and a gaping mouth opened up next to the door knob he was adhered to.
“IT’S A MIMIC.” he exclaimed.
The doorknob he was stuck to began creeping over his fingertips, spreading up his hand and pulling him in.
He cried out. “Someone do something!”
Aurora conjured a fireball and hurled it at the monstrosity. The flames splashed across its pulsating body, with stray embers licking Nihi’s cheek.
“Not that, not that!” Nihi yelled. He slammed his foot into the mimic now, propping his leg against it in an effort to pull free, but this only served to adhere his boot to the creature’s slimy body. He could feel himself getting sucked into the monster’s belly, his hand had already gone numb from its pseudopod’s crushing embrace.
Ryelle unslung her longbow, and fired an arrow into the mimic’s eye, only to have the creature consume the projectile. In response, Amicus pulled an arrow out of her quiver and ran two fingers across its point. It began visibly humming, and he handed it back to Ryelle.
“Here. As soon as we pull him free, use this.”
As soon as Ryelle had nocked it, Amicus and Aurora ran into the alcove and grabbed hold of the gnome in an effort to pry him from the mimic’s grasp. The ranger was somewhat surprised by the apparent power contained in the arrow. She could feel the vibrations of the weapon from end to end, its humming now a low rumble. Letting out a breath she took aim at the monstrosity, waiting for the opportune moment to release the string. Her keen eyes saw the subtle change in the creature’s positioning just as the gnome was pulled free, noticed the hammer like shape it was forming, and took the shot before the idea of taking the shot had registered.
The arrow cut through the air, flying in between Aurora and Amicus , before hitting its mark. There was an impossible silence to the world as the point buried itself into the mimic’s body, followed instantly by a sound unlike anything she had ever heard. A cacophonous echo that she felt in her rib cage ripped through the mimic’s polymorphic body, causing it to burst into a sticky splatter all over the walls of the alcove and the clothes of her three companions.
“You couldn’t have given her something a little less…sticky?” Nihi asked.
“Or something quiet?” Aurora added.
“You are welcome.” Amicus said, wiping slime off his face.
The musician clapped his hands together, and after a flash of teal light, the three of them were dry, their clothes cleaner than when they had first entered the cave.
“Now, for your information, that door,” he pointed, “ is real.”
Upon realizing the door was unlocked, they entered the next room wary of an ambush. This room was also empty, however, and significantly smaller than the previous one. It was completely unremarkable with the exception of a black, lead, door to one side and an elaborate mural on the other. Amicus examined the door whilst the others studied the mural.
It seemed to portray a ritual involving the savage sacrifice of thirteen specific individuals, in thirteen cruel deaths, as well as the mutilation and corruption of a young minotaur. The end result being the summoning of Baphomet himself. The image of the demon lord took up a large portion of the wall, its dark eyes menacing.
“This door will not open with the Knock spell.” Amicus said. “It is warded, and it might take a while before I can break through it.”
“Wait a minute.” Aurora said, her brow furrowed as she stared at the image. “Baphomet is also called “The Azure Eyed Demon”, right?”
“What of it?” Amicus asked.
“The rest of this mural is painted accurately and in color. So why are Baphomet’s eyes black?”
She reached out with her right hand, spacing her fingers apart so as to touch both eyes simultaneously. Her fingertips made contact with the wall, and after a forceful push, the stone irises retracted, revealing a glowing blue sunstone behind them. They could hear the sound of old gears cranking as well as stone grinding and moments later a section of the wall slid back. The hidden doorway lead to a narrow, well lit, passage.
“Very clever, Aurora.” Amicus said. “I might have overlooked that.”
The sorceress couldn’t help but smile, especially after receiving nods of approval from the elf and the gnome as well.
With Ryelle on point, the four of them descended even deeper into the cliff-side’s innards. The passage seemed to slope down at times, and turned sharply often. After several minutes of walking, they heard what sounded like distant chanting.
“Amicus, what do you think that is?” Ryelle asked.
Upon hearing no response from the musician, the trio turned to face him, only to find themselves alone.
Nihi swore. “Where the hell do you think he went?”
“Do you think he ditched us?” Aurora asked.
“Either that or he thought we could handle ourselves and went to take care of something else.” Ryelle suggested.
“Well, do we keep going? Find out what the chanting is?” Nihi asked.
“Yes, because I didn’t like the look of that mural.” Ryelle said.
“Well we’ve made it this far…” Aurora said.
The trio pressed onward, following the mysterious passage with the chanting getting louder with every step until at last they came to a door. It was obvious the chanting was originating behind the wooden entryway and it was obvious that there were a good number of voices contributing to the eerie sound.
“If they’re in the middle of something, we’ll be interrupting it.” Nihi said. “Which means now is not the time for stealth.”
The gnome took several steps back and then got a running start before propelling himself though the door in a perfect example of The Flying Dragon Technique. His kick plowed through the door’s timbers, sending splinters soaring.
Not a sound or motion was made by the thirteen chanters to acknowledge that their room had just been invaded by a three foot tall gnome catapulting through their door. The chant persisted for a short time while the trio stared in confusion at the ornately tiled room and the people ignoring their intrusion. They then noticed the body of a minotaur splayed out on a stone table, his chest having been cut open and his ribcage pried apart by vicious looking hooks.
The chanting ended, and all eyes were now on them.
“Too late.” a hooded figure said.
“Too late.” another agreed.
“He will rise, and his savagery will burn the landscapes until the oceans run red with the blood of his enemies and the clouds hang black with the ashes of the innocent.”
Ryelle let loose an arrow, hitting one of them squarely in the chest. Though it would have appeared that she had missed, given his reaction to the wound. The cultist remained standing, and didn’t bother tending to the arrow in his sternum.
“He will rise.” he said, blood gushing from his mouth.
“He will rise.” another said.
“He will rise.” came a third.
One by one the hooded figures took up the mantra, repeating it despite whatever harm the trio inflicted on each of them.
“What’s with these freaks?” Nihi shouted.
A subtle wind began blowing in the room.
“I don’t know, but I have a really bad feeling about what’s going to happen next.” Aurora replied.
The wind began picking up speed until the trio was pushed into the walls of the room, pinned down by the gale. Ryelle could feel a hollowness in the pit of her stomach, her ranger instincts screaming at her to escape the room and get as far away from the stone alter as possible. The alter was glowing a deep purple now, with the minotaur’s corpse being consumed by a blood red aura. They were in trouble. A veritable demon lord was about to rise from the depths of the nine lower planes, tearing a hole in the fabric of their world, and there was nothing they could do to stop it. The wind stopped, seeming to collapse in on itself in the center of the room, before a shockwave of arcane energies pulsed out, nearly blinding the three of them.
She could no longer hear the cultists chanting, and she couldn’t see any of them as her vision cleared, but Ryelle’s gaze was soon drawn to the hulking beast standing where the alter had once been. It stood twelve feet tall, a monstrous form of blackish purple fur radiating killer intent. Steam was rising off its hulking muscles, and its tail unwound itself from around its waist, revealing itself as a venomous looking serpent. She couldn’t look away from it. Couldn’t comprehend the overwhelming desire to tear and smash that it exuded. It’s moving, she thought, how do I stop it? Is it even possible? Finally, the beast let out a rumbling breath and opened its eyes.
The pale blue iris pierced her. Ryelle felt as if a blade had run her through and pinned her to the wall moments before something impossibly strong tore her limbs off. A scream registered in her ears before it occurred to her that she had been the one screaming. She had somehow glimpsed what the thing was planning to do to her. Had it wanted her to see that image? Her breath was ragged now, and she could feel the floor shake with every methodical step the beast took in her direction.
A knife bounced off its powerful chest, followed by a bolt of fire which didn’t seem to even singe its fur.
“Ryelle, snap out of it!” Aurora yelled.
“What are you doing? SHOOT!” the gnome bellowed.
Shaking herself, Ryelle nocked a pair of arrows, and fired.
“Get moving.” She told the other two. “We might be able to hold it off in a narrow space.”
So far, nothing had pierced the beast’s skin, but perhaps if they cornered it… She fired another pair of arrows as her comrades rushed past her and made for the cramped passageway. The demon conjured a sword as tall and as wide as a fully grown man, carrying the heavy blade with obvious ease. After a final shot, Ryelle began sprinting towards the only exit, daring to turn her back on the horned beast. There was a loud crashing sound which resulted in the ground shaking and all three of them lost their balance. The stone floor made miserable cushioning for the fall, but she barely felt the skin on her palms scrape off. Scrambling to make it to the hallway, she briefly turned to see how close the demon was and her eyes widened at what she saw.
The demon had chosen to not follow them through the cramped passage, and had opted to end them all in one fell swoop. She could see its eyes glowing a bright blue now, and the refraction lines of heat around its bull like muzzle. It reared back, opening its massive jaws wide, making the perfect impression of a dragon and exposing the blue hot fire it was about to spew at them. They couldn’t outrun the blast, not at this range, not on all fours like they were. It unleashed an azure conflagration at them, waves of scorching blue flames rolling out of its maw and she believed she had lived her last day.
The fire stopped midway between them though,spreading out in a wide angle, seemingly held off by an invisible wall.
“All apologies for being late.” she heard someone say.
Ryelle looked back at the doorway and saw the musician standing there, his hands linked together in a bizarre formation with sweat forming on his brow.
“I have never been so happy to see another man in my life.” Nihi said.
“You should go.” Amicus said, his voice sounding strained. “That wall of sound will not hold for long.”
Ryelle sprung to her feet. She could just make out the sound of distant thunder emanating from the direction of the demon. The beast was pounding away at what she could see was a faint rippling in the air. Every swing of its sword pulled a grunt from Amicus, whose gaze was focused entirely on the creature he was barely able to contain.
“It should have broken through by now.” He grunted. “That is not the real Baphomet.”
“What?” the three demanded.
“It must be just an aspect of him. Not as big a threat as the physical manifestation of savagery, but a big threat nonetheless.”
The beast unleashed another breath of fire, followed by slamming its fist into the conjured wall.
Amicus was clearly breathing heavily now, his arms shaking, but his hands held their formation.
“Go.” He said. “Follow the path back and directly out of here, the nobles are waiting for you three outside. They need you to guide them back home.”
“You expect us to leave you?” Ryelle demanded.
The ground began trembling again. Though this time it was not caused by the Aspect of Baphomet.
“What was that?” Nihi asked.
“My contingency plan. Unless you want to be buried down here, start running.” He let out a growl, the strain of maintaining the wall wearing on him. “GO.” He barked. “This is the only way.”
The three exchanged glances, and started down the hall. They didn’t exchange a single word as they ran. By the time they reached the first bend in the passage they heard thunder echo behind them. Ryelle stopped, unable to ignore the sound, and looked back where they came from.
“It’s free.” she yelled. “We have to help him.”
“He doesn’t want our help.” Nihi shouted back, still running. “He wants us to help the kingdom.”
“But we can’t just leave him!”
Nihi stopped further up the hallway,turning to face her now.
“We’re not leaving him, we’re honoring his wishes. Think of the bigger picture Ryelle. Rose-vale needs its leaders.”
The cavern shook again, chunks of stone falling from the ceiling. She could see the demon approaching an exhausted Amicus, its massive sword slung over its shoulder. In a matter of moments, it would slam the blade on him, cleaving him in two. Distantly, she heard someone cry out her name, but the sound barely registered. The string was already taught and her legs were already carrying her because her soul was screaming that this was the only choice she had.
“Ryelle!” Nihi shouted as she disappeared back down the stone passage. He sighed, and then began running again. “Goodbye Ryelle.” he half muttered.
By the time her arrow was only half way to its mark she had already dropped her bow and drawn her scimitars. She was faster than most elves, a strength she capitalized on now as she closed the distance between herself and the currently kneeling Amicus. The arrow bounced off the demon’s head, distracting it long enough for her to push off the musician’s shoulder and launch herself into the air. Twisting, she windmilled her blades across the demon’s chest before landing and continuing her rotation to assault its bull like legs. The scimitars bit into the demon’s flesh, drawing blood for the first time.
She could hear a guttural sound come from its throat. Was it pain? Could such a thing even feel pain? She felt herself get jerked aside, knocking her off balance as she heard Amicus cry out. Turning, she realized he had saved her from the demon’s tail. The serpent had latched onto his shoulder, emptying its venom into his bloodstream. With a roar, Amicus reached for his sword, and had sliced the snake in half before Ryelle realized he had drawn it. His sword glowed a bright golden-yellow. A Sunblade?
The demon lord, in retaliation for losing its tail, swung its meaty fist at the musician. A flash of teal exploded as fist collided with human and Amicus was batted aside, arcing through the air before bouncing off the stone wall onto the floor. This left Ryelle open, and the Aspect free to crush her under his hoof. She tucked herself into a ball in an effort to roll out of the way, immediately feeling another force pull her out of danger. She found herself next to Amicus whose breath was shallow and quick. He covered his mouth as he coughed, but she could see the blood dripping through his fingers.
“I told you to leave.” He half wheezed. “You are not meant to die here.”
The Aspect made to charge at the two, but was blasted and pinned to the wall by a peal of teal colored lightning emanating from the point of the musician’s blade. The demon roared in a fit of rage, beginning to push against the force of the spell. The caverns shook again, dislodging large chunks of rock from the ceiling now.
“…about to collapse.” Amicus coughed. “… can no longer sustain the spell holding off the quake.”
“You were preventing an earthquake this whole time?!”
“Here.” he said, reaching into his coin pouch with his spare hand. His gaze never left the target of his lightning spell, all of his focus remained aimed at keeping the Aspect of Baphomet pinned to the wall. He withdrew a small, crystalline, bird and threw it out in front of him. The figurine grew into a falcon large enough to carry three people.
“Climb on. We might make it out of here yet.”
She jumped on the falcon’s back and its wings spread as it began to hover.
“Let’s go!” she shouted.
He looked at her, lowering his sword in the process and snapped his fingers. She felt the effects of the binding immediately. She was strapped to the bird by invisible chains. Chains she could not hope to break or slip through.
“Become a Ranger, like none before you Ryelle, and keep this world safe.”
Her eyes widened at what he was doing, and with a wave of his hand, the falcon sped off through the tunnel. Its wings sliced through the stone as if the walls were made of paper, and did nothing to slow the bird’s alacrity.
“Wait!” she cried out, twisting her neck to see him as her diamond mount zoomed down the passage.
He had just entered a martial form as the demon bore down on him, and a large chunk of stone fell, covering the entrance. The walls around her were rumbling, she could hear the very foundations of the cave shattering, but the falcon somehow accelerated, weaving through falling boulders. She could see daylight now, and was in the fresh forest air before her eyes could adjust to the brightness. Her exit was followed by a massive cave in and the utter collapse of the entrance. The binding spell dissipated, and she hopped off the crystalline falcon, which promptly shrunk back down to a figurine and floated into her open palm.
She turned to see the crowd of people standing around, specifically Queen Erin running up to her.
“You survived.” she exclaimed “Nihi said you had fallen.”
“No.” Ryelle said, shaking her head.
“Are you well?” Erin asked
“He saved me… He saved us all. He bought our lives with his own.” her gaze never lifted from the falcon in her palm.
“The musician. The one who called himself Amicus.”
The queen gave her a puzzled look.
“What’s that?” she asked the elf.
“He gave me this. But I’m not sure it’ll work anymore, now that he’s…”
She threw the figurine into the air, and watched it grow into its giant form again. It fluttered softly to the ground, its head occasionally moving from side to side before it began preening nonexistent feathers.
“It’s almost like a real bird.” Erin mused.
The falcon shimmered before an ethereal image appeared in front of it.
“If you are hearing this, I am most likely not around any more.”
It was Amicus.
“You are now in possession of a rare artifact. This is Tercius, the spirit of a noble falcon which saved my life. Tercius is easy to get along with and as long as you take care of him, he will take care of you. I trust that you can manage letting him spread his wings once or twice a day. If you forget, he will be sure to pay you back for it. Other than that, trust him, and in time you two will be able to understand one another. Keep in mind, he knows my real name, and as soon as you are ready to listen, he would be happy to tell you.”
Ryelle stared at the falcon. “I promise, I will take good care of you Tercius. For his sake, as well as mine.”
“One last thing.” Here the image of Amicus turned its head, and Ryelle was now making eye contact with it. “Thanks for coming back for me, Ryelle. You are every bit the hero I guessed you to be. Rose-vale, the wilds, this whole world is in good hands. So I leave the rest, to you.”
The image vanished.
“How did he…” Erin trailed off.
“He knew.” Ryelle said in disbelief. “He looked into the future, saw his own death, and came here anyway.”
“Why?” Erin asked
“For your sake.” Ryelle said.
At this, Erin seemed taken aback.
“And for mine.” Ryelle continued. “For Nihi, and Aurora. For all the other people he saved today. So that we could all look back on his actions and honestly call him: “Friend”.”
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Pronunciation of names is as follows:
Ryelle = Rye-elle
Nihi= Knee-high (he’s three feet tall…get it?)
I got my elvish from this site here, and the bit of Latin that Amicus says to the image of the woman in his locket translates to : “You are the sadness in my eyes. But we will be together again. I promise.”
Finally, yes, I referenced/paid homage to a great deal of nerd culture here. Everything from LOTR, The Wheel of Time, Order of the Stick, and D&D to Doctor Who, The Red Dragon Inn, Sword Art Online, Bruce Lee, V For Vendetta and Attack On Titan. It was awesome, and you loved it.