“So, Seville, are you looking forward to the big centennial tonight?” asked the patron, sitting half-on and half-off the pitiful stool struggling under the man's incredible weight. Seville, short but beautifully handsome, made a careless flick of his dark hair and set his drink glass down behind his plate of food.
“I've asked ya before, Parsons, could ya please stop calling it that?” responded Seville slightly emphatically, a hint of playful annoyance under his breath. He took a healthy bite out of his hamburger.
“Boy-o, I was certainly drunk at the time, so perhaps you could…”
“Because it's not really a centennial! The castle and township were built over a thousand years ago and we've just been doing the centennial celebration for three hundred years now. It's stupid!” Seville said, truly emphatic this time. He was too young to be in the tavern really, but the proprietor, another hefty man, named Dunnings, had special arrangements.
“By god would you listen to this one right here,” said another patron sitting next to Parsons.
“The whole deal behind this celebration goes back to Queen Tchai. Three hundred years ago Corneria was at war with the elves and losing bad; reason we've got the stupid trade levies even today. Despite having the stronger shipping industry here in Corneria, the elves have always had better technology. Remember, this was the war when cannons were first introduced…by them!” Seville was surprised to find that the two men were actually listening intently; it was too early for them to be drunk.
“Anyways, so to gather morale, the Queen talked the King into holding this big celebration commemorating the many great years of the Cornerian Empire, all to shadow our land's going down the crapper. When the King asked what they would call it, the Queen, being smarter than him of course, said 'Centennial'. People, including the King, are too stupid to do the math.”
The two patrons, Parsons and the other, sat with a distant confusion in their eyes for the moment. Seville could even feel the other patrons, earlier talking and discussing their own blasphemies, settle into a quiet murmur. But that could just be coincidence.
“I'm saying it's a sham, Parsons!” exasperated Seville, again flipping his hair, which floated down in mushy locks, dramatically back. “It's like Mother's Day! It's not a bad thing, it's just not factually grounded, and people learning these kinds of things is the first step to bettering our global impression. Might even get us some respect; improve diplomatic ties with the elves even.”
Seville allowed a smile to creep on his thin, bright face. He was winning! Suddenly even his hamburger tasted like victory. However, the patron sitting next to Parsons then spoke up with an old-timer's zeal.
“This is because of that new Political Science class at the quad isn't it? What's that professor's name? Sylum?”
“Dr. Sylum is the only intellectual blood we've got pumping in this berg.”
“Yeah, well this Mr. Sylum…”
“Doctor Sylum!” Seville had flown onto the defensive.
“Hmmm…This Doctor Sylum should maybe worry about putting ideas into the young people's heads. Queen Tchai's not around anymore, and King Eliv runs a tight ship. If you're really so concerned about the state of the nation then you won't go 'round promoting disunion and neither will this doctor of yours,” said the man setting next to Parsons eloquently, without a single fumble of voice.
Seville suddenly disliked him very much. His fries tasted bitter and cold. Of course, Seville was not so vain as to disregard that this man had at least thirty years on him, Seville being just nineteen, and that perhaps the man did know a side of politics that only comes with age's wisdom. But he would not hear the talk against professor Sylum, his personal hero, as he himself was of above average intelligence. And then an idea came to his head, but that intelligence could not make him let it go. The brash kid in him took over. He said:
“If King Eliv runs such a tight ship then how did his daughter get kidnapped?”
A man along the far wall of the tavern hacked an esophageal choke and then spit his bourbon out all over the man across from him. As he let out another two mighty coughs to clear his throat the tavern suddenly swelled with laughter, some of the men literally barreling over onto their tables, punching their palms into the wooden surfaces.
The man next to Parsons flushed red with anger and embarrassment, and he found himself at a loss for words. That bright smile returned to Seville's narrow face and he took a grand swig of his milkshake. It tasted delicious, like certain victory! He now beamed through the comfortable blanket of laughs that rang for him, or at least for the man who got bourbon spit on him, and that was partially Seville's fault. Seville even stood and repeated the line a couple more times, each time garnering another wave of laughter from the potential drunks. He reveled in it until…
“Seville! Please!” asserted the bartender Dunnings in a stern but fatherly voice. “Quiet it down, now!”
Seville flashed Dunnings a warm grin and then nodded his head obediently and sat down in his chair, admiring what was left of his food, which wasn't much. The man next to Parsons had turned back to the bar where he sat and clearly established that he would take no part in talking to this ingrate of a teenager. Parsons himself, still chuckling, his bulgy fat slopping up and down in waves, continued to peer at Seville.
Seville was thin throughout but did a have a good bit of muscle for his size. He was a star track runner for the athletics club; his favorite events were sprinting and hurtling. The dark clumps of hair hung down to just above his shoulders and, when not attended to, framed in around his face and sometimes covered his eyes. He dressed simply in a black t-shirt and equally dark slacks. Although young, and having the vigorous voice of one his age, his face did not suggest such an age. He looked at least twenty-three and could get a heavy dose of alcohol from any bartender but Dunnings, who knew better. Seville didn't really care much for spiritual beverages anyways, but he enjoyed the fact that he could get them if he wanted. In fact, Seville found that his true talent in life was getting away with things. As you might have already noticed, he had quite the mouth on him, but he knew how to use it properly, a rare gift among men in this town. Although not really desiring a questionable reputation (and perhaps Parsons' friend had hit too close with disunion), these qualities of his had put him in trouble's way. Though he had usually evaded it either with speed of foot or tongue. Seville knew he was too intelligent to stoop to crime, but he also new that crime was a vocation much in need of intelligent professionals. Only Dunnings and a few others knew of his extracurricular activities, and hopefully it would stay that way. Hopefully he would be out of that kind of thing as soon as possible. If Corneria weren't so dependant on traditions his intelligence would have got him somewhere much earlier.
Parsons then spoke, breaking for the others that brief moment of rest, that giddy downtime where your saying anything would just start it up again.
“So, wait a minute, Seville.” Parsons voice was edge-line confusion, “What's gonna happen at the centennial?”
Seville stared blankly for a beat and then responded along with a slow, sarcastic shake of his head, “You just weren't listening to any of it, were you?”
“Well, I listened to Jackie over there spit bourbon all over Simms,” he said energetically but lowly. Still, an infectious giggle came from the men who had not gone back to their own conversations.
“Just don't call it a centennial, alright? I'm begging you!” Seville thought he saw Parson's friend, the defeated, mouthing something to himself but decided to let it pass, for Dunnings's sake.
“Alright, alright, young one. Now then, ya got any plans for the…ahem…shin-dig?” Seville couldn't argue with that word choice. A grin came to his face.
“I might have a couple things up my sleeves, yeah,” Seville said suggestively, suddenly realizing how quickly he brightened at the prospect of attention.
“Ooooo, what'cha gonna do?” asked Parsons eagerly. Parsons also was about thirty years older than Seville, which made the direction of the interest in this conversation seem backwards from afar.
“Now, now, it wouldn't be right to tell. That might ruin the surprise, and…”
“Seville?” Dunnings broke in firmly; again with a disciplinary look upon his face, “I certainly hope you're not planning anything that might get one into trouble. The last thing I need is the only mind worth a nickel in my bar spending time in the dungeons.”
“Of course not!” said Seville, trying his best to sound serious as a thanks for the compliment. Praise from Dunnings always came at those angles.
“Well, I can't wait for it, boy-o” said Parsons just before he took a large drink. It was late afternoon; about the time the men usually started drinking real drinks. Since the collapse of the farming trade and the drying up of two strong gold veins, a lot of the men killed the time in Dunnings's tavern, which was called Lux Aeterna after an old legend. Something about warriors and orbs and destiny. Who cared, really? Seville could always ask professor Sylum if he really needed to know.
There was suddenly a loud snap and the cross bar along the tavern door flew out and skimmed by a patron's head. The wooden flat spun around quickly on its hinges and collided into the wall and then bounced back shakily, a dull sprung sounding. The patrons turned their heads with a jerk and regarded the great presence that was silhouetted by the entering sun. His steps were heavy and deliberate as he walked in, each beat on the ground low and metallic.
It was a guard captain, distinguished by the brazen coating rubbed into the grand armor. He was gigantic as men went around those parts, at least six and a half feet tall, possibly more. His chest ran so wide and his shoulders so thick and high that it was a wonder the man could fit into the standard issue armor. His muscles pressed tightly against the plating. His face was hidden behind a beautiful spiked helmet.
Soon after he entered follow three additional soldiers, these just base ranking guards, as distinguished by the original silver tint of their armor, which was also less impressive as a good deal of the joints were left unadorned where the head guard had chain mail. They fanned out broadly, covering as much of the tavern floor, which was large as it was the oldest in town, as possible. Although saying nothing right off, their thick helmets gave them the eternal impression of growling. Scare tactics, thought Seville, suddenly nervous and trying not to flush.
The other patrons sat still in their chairs, most of them putting their eyes downcast, as if shamed. A few of the braver did look the soldiers in the eyes as best they could through the thin helmet visors, but still said nothing and made no reproach. Dunnings, not only stern with Seville, threw his rag down on the bar and centered himself behind it quickly, saying, “Just what's going…”
“Silence!” yelled out the guard captain, his voice was like an ogre's. “Yesterday there was a break-in at the manor-house, the lord says a good amount of his materials have been taken, including books and alchemical paraphernalia.”
The room was filled with a deathly stillness broken only by the implied vibrations of the captain's booming voice. Behind his bronze visor he viewed the nervous patrons, all of them now assuming a downcast glance, including the fat bartender who he had swiftly humbled. He allowed himself a cheerful grin that was just as abruptly suppressed so he could remove his helmet. His face was so firm and flat that you'd wonder whether the helmet was gone. His chin was the size of an orange almost.
“We're operating on reliable word that the miscreant frequents this very tavern, and nobody is going anywhere until each of you is questioned thoroughly. You might want to manage another round of drinks for everyone, barkeep.”
“Now, you wait just a minute here,” called Dunnings frantically. Within him seemed to burn with a very real concern, like a parent defending a child. “You can't just walk into my bar and start throwing around orders! It's not decent, you know!”
“No, Mr. Dunnings, it's not decent but it is the will of the King which I must see through.” Dunnings felt his heart jump when he heard his own name mentioned. How would this guard captain know that? Dunnings had never seen this giant before.
Seville however was thinking about how weakly the guard captain had lied. Truly it must be the will of the King, but this man had no concern about the King's will. He would enjoy every moment of this. The captain continued:
“So, nobody is leaving until we have completed the interrogation, is that understood?”
“And if we refuse?” The sudden shout came from the man named Jackie, who was in the back corner across from the bar. He had stood very quickly and called forth his defiance with vehement strength. The guards, at first startled, ran over to him with militant zeal and pried down on him. The captain, looking almost gleeful at the willing resistance followed shortly.
“Well then it's to the dungeons! We'll start with you!”
Jackie made a few more defiant comments, creating the true spectacle of himself. The guard captain and his men seemed to find the action so intriguing that their minds wandered from the others in the bar, which was almost not a problem, as the good deal of them were near petrified. But Seville had stood with a graceful silence and proceeded towards the bar as quickly as possible. Dunnings, also ignoring Jackie and proceeding to his own business, hunched over his wide belly and lifted up a door from the floor behind the bar. The hinges were well greased and it was noiseless. Still moving lightly on his feet, Seville made a quick glance to see that the soldiers were centered on Jackie, and then he descended below the bar, followed by Dunnings.
Below was the living quarters, small and sparsely furnished with only a bed, table and chair, and hardly stocked bookshelf. The two men remained silent until they had moved fully into the room, and then still whispered, though emphatically.
“Listen here, Seville. I don't know what part you played, but I know you had something to do with this. If Jackie hadn't done what he did!”
“Mr. Dunnings, I…”
“No excuses! Not anymore! How could you get back into this so soon? It was that professor wasn't it?” Dunnings shook with a controlled fury, looking almost that he might strike.
“Please, just leave him out of…”
quietly for the moment as if at a loss for words. The air around them was thick with sweat, the aggression between them, and the menacing weight of the silence from above. Eventually Dunnings's face slacked into a distant form of sorrow, but it could not equal the look of Seville's face, broken and shamed.
“Look, Mr. Dunnings, I should…”
“You know the drill,” Dunnings interrupted, and then he moved over to the bookcase and grabbed one of the shabbier looking volumes, pulling it towards him from the top of the spine. After setting the book back into its slot the entire case slid sideways, eerily quiet, until all that remained before them was a fashioned door, wooden and ornate.
Before Seville could move into the doorway, Dunnings pulled another book off the case, this time surprising Seville, and within its pages, which were actually fake, lay a small brass key, heavy for its size. Dunnings, now shaking as if frightened, handed it briskly to Seville and then returned the book.
“Take it and use it. Now go!” he said firmly, trying to quell the tremble in his voice.
Seville, now looking more childish, at least more his age, moved slowly into the doorway but turned around. He could not stop the tremble in his voice.
“Mr. Dunnings, I…” but he could not finish. He meekly glanced up and down Dunnings's large figure, as if trying to get a measure of the situation. Inside he writhed with a hot emotional pain. But Dunnings shed another layer of anger for a layer of sadness, and the folds along his face scrunched heavily as he spoke once more.
“I'm disappointed in you, Seville. You know it didn't have to be this way. Now go!”
Taking the cue, though pulsing sickly all over, Seville nodded pathetically and then turned and walked through the doorway, closing the door softly behind him.
Chapter 2 ~ The Miscreant Pt. 2
The catacombs were almost as old as Corneria itself, finished over many times by many people. Supposedly built by the very first proprietor of the tavern, Lux Aeterna, they then, and this is all lore these days, were used as a storage place for alcohol. Indeed, in the first years of the tavern, Corneria had been under strict prohibition legislation, and so the tavern was more a speakeasy. The proprietor, conveniently named Lux, which proved a bit of his pompousness in choosing such a name for the tavern, was a famously odd man at the time. Besides taking the incredible risk of running the establishment, he dabbled in several powerful magical arts, was an arcane treasure hunter before settling down, and suffered from random swells of dementia, which at the time before modern curative magic was blamed on dark spirits. Then again, everything was blamed on dark spirits at one time or another.
Dunnings, who along with Seville was the only man who knew of the catacombs these days, used them for moderate storage. But with so little to hide, they had most often served as an escape route for Seville.
Given their diminished uses, the catacombs were impressively vast, expanding almost the dimensions of the whole township. The hallways were especially dense under the market place and temple, though not a one above knew of them. The walls were well kept as Dunnings often took free time to polish them, in pieces of course, and Seville had traversed their passages many times. There existed only one other entrance, or exit in this case, and it was a goodly walk to it. The air was dank and still, like within a coffin.
Seville lifted a small wooden rod from out a box nailed to the wall just to his right. It was narrow, like a wooden dowel, and the top few inches were separated by a circumscribing groove. He made a hasty twist of this small segment, and from the end of the rod suddenly shown a brilliant beam of light. Illegal trade had brought these magnificent devices from the distant Elfhein; they called them flashlights.
But this first action was simply of habit, something you had to do if you wanted to see. Seville couldn't seem to follow it with anything. He held the flashlight down by his thigh and flicked it blankly with his hand, his eyes studying the horizon of the yellow glow. It was hot as usual, but the sweat dampening his brow was not from the heat. It was everything else. Looking towards the dark tunnel before him, the path disappearing into black, he felt weak and helpless. He felt terrible all over. If he didn't have the will power to fight it he might have started shaking violently, a purging of vehement guilt. With the greatest efforts he pressed his heavy feet forward and proceeded deeper into the catacombs.
It was an unusual step, the guard captain leading an interrogation in the tavern. Seville could respect that times had been getting tougher economically in the last year, but King Eliv wasn't the kind to enact displays of martial law. It was no doubt a bout of paranoia, which had become the King's trademark since the abduction of his daughter, the Princess Moira, three weeks back. The news had first brought the large city to an uproar and then to a confused stupor, with countless farmers and miners feeling aimless and yet not knowing why. In truth, the kidnapping of the Princess had had no effect on the town but to cause its leader to act rashly at times. This time it just happened to come around to him, Seville was thinking to himself, not his fault really.
But this was a lie. There was a quick burn of enhanced guilt within him and then it faded away, along with the moment, as he moved slowly through the catacombs, almost enjoying the pleasant downtime. Under the city like this it was possible to truly relax and truly know quiet. He had spent many hours just admiring the wonderful solitude of this place. Even when a single hall would stretch hundreds of feet in each direction you could simply aim the flashlight upwards and exist wholly within the small room of light around you. The immense darkness in either direction would not only appear but honestly feel that it had walled you in. Seville loved that feeling but felt wrong in dwelling on it at this moment. Another wave of guilt, but he suppressed it.
Before leaving he had a few things to accomplish, the first of which was raiding the primary storage room, which wasn't really set off with a door or anything, but was wider than the tunnels and stacked with old crates, mainly containing old wine bottles, still aging to perfection. But in the center of the room stood a tall armor stand, currently wearing a well finished leather plate and leg guards. Seville fitted them on quickly and then moved over to a long flat case set upon one of the worn down boxes. The case was ornate and well kept, not lined with dust like everything else. Seville made a ceremonious stroke along the outer surface and then opened it wide, and the contents shined beautifully up at him. They were twin daggers, diligently crafted in silver, brought all the way from the Elven lands. With a graceful spin between his fingers he took them by the handle and sheathed them. With a certain sentimentality, Seville had had inscribed on the two handles respectively Lux and Aeterna.
He was remarkably skilled with the blades, as with his tongue. Since his fifteenth birthday, when Dunnings had gifted him the daggers, he had trained diligently and found mastery in them. They were manageable and swift, just the two qualities one of his talents held in highest regard. Sometimes he was chilled with his own confidence that he could kill any of the elite guards within seconds. He'd never used them except in self-defense however and did not intend other uses. And so his training was more a tool of appeasement. Seville greatly admired the quality of being skilled.
Again taking the flashlight in hand, Seville reentered the long paths of the catacombs, feeling more confident now that he was armed and armored, but also because the raging guilt had subsided and he felt more himself. Seville did not care for heightening emotions, as it made it more difficult to act with a cool head. Remembering the brass key in his pocket, Seville gulped, streamlining the wall cracks as he passed in silence.
At his deliberate pace it was a full fifteen minutes, each minute passing as dully as the one before it, to the other exit, which had brought him a good distance across the town. Before him stood a narrow wooden staircase leading up to a hatch doorway. But he could not go yet. He could almost feel that heavy brass key pulse, as if it called to him. Seville knew what must be done with it and shuddered inside at the thought. Turning to his left revealed a dark path, grown over impossibly with tendril-like vegetation from the ceiling. Standing solace at the tunnel entrance, one to each side, were fantastic statues fashioned into mighty dragons, their muzzles stretched wide to let forth a fiery breath. They ran almost to the ceiling, about eight feet high, and their thick tails hugged the walls along the path for all of five feet. The statues were solid but for their eyes, where in place were fitted brilliant rubies, the size of clenched fists. The flashlight's beam did not extend far enough, as if it were stifled by the hanging vines, and the tunnel's end, if it ended at all, could not be discerned. Countless times Seville had passed this junction on way up the stairs, each time with a pitiful shudder. Never had he passed by the two dragon gods, learned what lay beyond their gate. It was unthinkable at every moment before this one; to look upon them was to know fear. But Seville suddenly knew he had to pass them and brave whatever demonic terror existed beyond. As he passed, the gleam in the dragons' ruby eyes seemed to shift as if following him, but Seville did his best to blame this on the light's reflection.
The first steps were the most difficult, moving cautiously as if his heart might explode from the terrible beating. Just as he had moved deep enough into the passageway that the tendrils from above could scratch against his head, a shocking sense of cold came over him. Before him his breath shown in wavering jets from his mouth, and the sweat upon his skin chilled over, sending shivers down his whole body. The thickness of the dark almost completely choked away the beam of the wooden dowel, and Seville began to squint, still trying to confidently push one leg before the other.
The path must have gone on forever; it felt like hours were gushing by when only minutes had passed. But the scenery did not change or become any the more daunting. Seville adapted to the cold and felt surer of himself with every step. Dunnings had told him at a young age, not long after the death of his father in fact, to never enter this place, but he would not give a reason to the rule and did not need to. Just looking upon those dragon guardians, it struck against one's very soul to enter such a place. It stunk of desecration. But now was the time. Something in his godfather's frantic voice not even an hour ago told him that the time had come to face the guardians' keep. Whatever the risk. Then, just feet before him it seemed, a small sliver of light flashed back at him.
Now filled with mounting excitement, he quickened to a brisk pace, almost a jog. Much to his surprise, the reflective surface was more than a minute's jog away and he was overcome with frenetic fascination as he beheld the magnificent sight before him. A broad chest, of the largest build he had ever seen, lined with gold and silver plates etched with dragon friezes, centering around an incredible metal lock, thickest he'd known, and it glowed with a wavy, auburn haze. The lock was not quite silver, but not iron or bronze. Could it be steel or even Elven mythril?
He ducked down and aimed the flashlight into the keyhole, and again his eyes widened at a revelation. The inner-workings were vast, an incredible configuration of gears and levers, connected with wires.
“Not with an entire day's work and the best tools could I undo this lock!” said Seville, much impressed. He was mesmerized by the swirling, summery aura, but knew not what it meant. Magic, of course, but should it function as a warning or a blessing? The key in his pocket felt its heaviest as he lifted it out and aimed it at the keyhole. He felt a sudden need to check over his shoulder and he did so, somehow not pleased when he found that nothing was stalking him.
An odd thought came to him then, so brilliantly that it seemed out of one of the great poems: I can never go back…
Then with an eagerness even the resistance of his heart could not quell he thrust the key into the lock and twisted harshly, thereafter it snapped open and swayed sideways, falling to the floor. Breathing harder than if he had sprinted for miles, he swung wide the massive lid and peered within, fully ready to die for his knowledge, but at first he saw nothing there. Was it empty?
He shifted the flashlight in his grasp, annoyance overshadowing his fascination. This could not all be for nothing, he thought angrily. But then he saw, small and meager in the further corner of the chest, a spherical object no bigger than a child's palm. It lay covered with a thick dust coating, almost invisible but for the impression it made upon the particulate blanket. Despite an intuitive gesture from his brain to just stand and start running that very instant, Seville took the sphere between his trembling fingers and raised it to the light.
How simple an object it was! It felt made of glass, and in wiping off the dust, had no marks but a single molded diagram, a jagged line. Beyond that it was perfectly shaped and surfaced, the interior taking on a dark hue, though it could have just been the murky atmosphere. It was not particularly heavy for its size but just right. It was for lack of a better description a crystal ball, not the first that Seville had ever seen, either. Seville exercised great strain to discern what it meant, hunched right there next to the treasure chest, but did not have but a moment to do so.
Behind him he began to hear a faint, high-pitched gush of air, like a cat sustaining its hiss. The sound had grown considerably before he truly noticed it over the beats from his chest. Taking a moment to fully hear it, he suddenly felt cold all over once more, and he turned with an abrupt spin, finding himself facing a monstrous visage.
Seville recoiled back and fell over the chest, landing bottom first into its wide cavity. He struggled a few vain moments but could not press himself upwards. Floating before him, airy cloak wisping to and fro on nothingness, was a hideous creature, with a human face long and distorted, stuck in the final gaze of delightful terror, eyes startlingly red. From its incorporeal maw it bellowed a piercing screech, like a banshee's, and flew into Seville, passing right through and leaving all of Seville's body frozen. Struggling once more, only harder, Seville managed to push himself up, and made to run before something struck his mind harshly and he turned around. A frantic glance all around and then he spied the orb, clawed it from the dust with a single swish of his arm, and then ran down the dark hallway, the beam of his flashlight bouncing from ceiling to floor in wavy repetitions.
His vision was a confusing mesh of vines slapping against his face. He attempted to duck but found them down there as well, as if they had grown in the last moments and would imprison him with the demon. Indeed, as the vines caught on the folds and snaps of his clothing, it felt as if they were grabbing at him with small, vegetative hands made to subdue. Beating desperately against their thickness he lost his balance and flew hard to the floor, knocking the wind of out his lungs. As he hacked violently another cold chill set over him, the demon was rising from behind.
Seville jumped to his feet and with assured calculation unsheathed a dagger and made a long diagonal thrust across the creature. The strike would have killed a man where he stood. But here it served only to jettison black ribbons of nothing, leaving a transparent slash across the monster that quickly filled in. Seville, now shaken with fear, could only manage weak steps backwards. The creature then seemed to reach into itself with its long fingers, grasping at where its heart might be. Seville found the strength to turn and run once more as the demon pulled forth a long, flowing scythe.
Perhaps because it chose to, the creature created loud currents of wind as it rushed after Seville. He could hear the flapping drapes of its intangible cloak beat against themselves in vibrant thuds. They got louder, and Seville knew the creature was upon him again. Instinctively he ducked his head low and felt the breeze of the murderous scythe as it slashed above him in a long swoop. He pushed as hard as his legs would allow, and then even more, but the monster could not be outdone. Blood thumping hotly in his temples, he strafed from side to side, trying his best to avoid the airy blade.
And then he saw a dim glow of red off in the distance, sparkling like the ruby eyes of the dragons. As he neared their cross he squinted hard at the coming of another horrible screech from the banshee, so loud his eyes rattled. But his legs were growing stronger, he was in sight of the crossing, and he would make it; he would escape this demon forever if he could only…
Seville let out a bitter yelp of pain as the cold scythe thrust through his right arm, just through without a single surface abrasion. And yet pain suddenly coursed throughout his body, running along his veins and arteries like blood. With his left arm he attempted to strangle the life out of his right, as if he would block a poison from reaching his heart, all the while running forward to the dragon gods. His pitiful dash became staggered and weak, each step more like a heavy stomp before the next. The banshee screamed again and moved in for another strike.
But then Seville crossed by the dragon statues with a final jolt of adrenaline and hurtled up the stairway, grasping his throbbing arm as he went out into the daylight. As the demon collided with the gaze of the dragons it instantly dissipated into a jumble of cries and smoke; and then nothingness. Seville, however, did not see this.
“Open! Open!” a terrified Seville called, pounding his good arm flat against the wide door while his other arm cringed up next to his body, jagged and hurt. “Open, I say! Eddie, please, open!”
Seville pounded a moment more but could not continue. The incredible pain in his arm had almost brought him to tears, and coupled with the chase down in the catacombs, his wholeness was flushed with disorientation. Head bobbing to pitiful sobs he collapsed to the ground, sitting and holding his injured limb in close. Looking upon his arm, which seemed small the way it was clenched tight, Seville wept. The scythe scar was internal, from elbow joint to palm the underside of his right arm was bruised deep blacks and purples, and his fingers were scrunched inwards like an eagle's claws, petrified. Any attempt to move them hurt terribly. It throbbed so strongly that it should have vibrated like a spider's egg sac, each pulse a crippling blow to his constitution, occurring at the intervals of his heart beat. He wanted to die and felt sure that he would very soon. It hurt so much!
Tears rolling down his sweat laden face, he gathered the strength to strike at the wooden door a few more times, though weakly in comparison. He had found his way to the back of the temple, the clergy entrance, and thanked heavens at that moment that no one was around at the time. But he had not come to pray.
“Eddie, open up,” he said under his voice, a meager attempt, but just then, the door did open, and a bright but concerned face peered through the opening.
“What in the…Seville, what do you think you're doing?!” said the man, clearly agitated. But his voice and demeanor shifted quickly as he saw on the footstep of his cathedral entrance a broken man, a teenager at that. But he could not see what was wrong, as Seville was still caressing his arm tightly, but simply being near the man gave off an aura of sickness. There was something terrible here.
“Eddie,” said Seville, with tired, dry gasps, “You gotta help me.”
And here Seville held out his arm, his gaze a helpless mire of desperation. It even hurt to hold it up.
“Praise be!” said the man, and his eyes widened in fear. “You must come in, now!”
The man opened the door and grabbed Seville by his good shoulder, lifting him gently. Seville showed a grimace of swelling pain as he lifted, and the two entered the back rooms of the temple.
Edrick Valance was an apprentice clergyman. He dressed in white robes ornamented only with a few burgundy threads along the cuffs of the sleeves and leggings. Apprentices always kept their hoods down, so his silky blonde hair, hanging short and down to each side like a bowl, shown brightly in the light from the sunroof. Only a few years older than Seville, he still had boyish freckles across his nose and cheeks and had beautiful blue eyes. He was called Edrick by everyone but Seville; Seville insisted on calling him Eddie. He was a classically nervous fellow, afraid to make mistakes in the face of the harsh church law.
They found a table, and Seville lay with his back upon it, looking up to Edrick with a distorted countenance of pain. His thick hair had wrapped into rakish clumps along his forehead, sticking down over his eyes.
“Can you move it?” asked Edrick, examining the arm with a doctoral curiosity but wary to touch it.
“No,” said Seville, “Hurts … too much.”
“What happened here?”
“Man, Eddie…” said the injured man with a cough, “Just … can you heal it?”
Edrick quickly suppressed his offended look and knelt in closer to the arm. Seville's veins seemed to glow against the skin now, but very lightly, so that you had to look to see. Even since he had entered the temple the injury had darkened, no longer bruise black, but true black. The pressure was building in Edrick's temples; this was out of his league.
“I…” he stuttered, “I can't heal this wound, Seville. I don't even know what it is?”
“Eddie!” shouted Seville angrily, but also with a tone of hope.
“Alright, alright!” responded Edrick with a jump, and he ran his fingers up through his fine hair. “Just, uh, you're gonna have to lie it flat!”
Edrick felt like he was sinking into darkness. Never confident with his magic and a good friend of his cringing at his waist, his eyes darted randomly, his mind racing to think of a spell.
“Flat, Seville, lie it flat!” he said, killing more time.
“Would you hurry up?!”
“Alright! Uhhhh, uhhhhh, okay, just, don't move now!” And Edrick laid one of his hands palm-flat upon the top of the other and aimed them at the wound that Seville struggled to keep extended from his body. Amidst the cries of the man on the table he closed his eyes and concentrated hard. He murmured incantations under his breath, fumbled, and then began again. He closed his eyes so tightly that it wrinkled his young skin clear to his temples. And he completed the spell.
White air slowly filled in between his hands and the injured arm, quickly accompanied by tiny bubbles flowing from surface to surface. The spell shone brightly, and Edrick whispered energetically throughout. The entire effect lasted only seconds, and when Edrick slackened his tired arms he quickly opened his eyes and stared down with what he knew was false hope. Seville screamed out!
Seville's eyes widened and he shook all over his body, looking up at nothing as if overcome with the most powerful sense of disbelief. The dark abrasions along his arm began to spread, crawling up to his finger tops and wrapping around his upper arm. Over the pain he could no longer scream, but only let out bitter hacks, as if choking on his own air.
“Oh, it's not working!” Edrick called with exasperation. “There's nothing I can do for this, Seville. And the minister is away!”
Seville only shook his head weakly, giving up to the hot thumps of pain.
“Wait a minute!” yelled Edrick and then he hurtled a table bench and ran into another room.
Seville's moment alone was the longest of his life. Seething with pain, with sickness, he came to know the true meaning of hopelessness. Adapting to the pulses, he no longer held his arm or moved at all. He could only lie still and be consumed by it. There was no growth to his thoughts. They had been singled out. He lingered towards a coma. Death was upon him.
But a frantic Edrick rushed back into the room, almost tripping over the scattered objects along the ground. In his hands he held a glass vial filled with a clear liquid. As he hunched over Seville's body he had to pry the lips open with his fingers, and he poured the potion in, trying to not spill a single drop. There was a moment where the silence itself seemed to scream at Edrick. His eyes were wide and frightened. This was so far out of his league.
With a violent bout of coughs, Seville awoke, startled and aware. His head spun swiftly, overcome with disorientation. He breathed hard, in thick thankful gulps. Forgetting the least where he was, he didn't notice that he was opening and closing his right hand in brisk repetitions. Edrick didn't seem to know what was happening either. He hadn't known what reaction to expect. Suddenly grasping the near past, Seville brought his right arm around front and admired its mobility. The dark bruises still blackened his skin and his veins still glowed faintly, but he couldn't feel it. The pain was gone. Risking a smile he looked to Edrick, who he suddenly viewed like a saint, and noticed the empty vial in Edrick's hand.
“A cure potion!” said Seville, the strength in his voice apparent.
But Edrick shook his head sideways, “Morphine. Don't try to stand up.”
Seville looked confused for a moment, but Edrick continued.
“I can't cure it, Seville. I don't know if it can be cured. But I can stop the pain, at least temporarily. You'll be out of it though. When the minister returns I'll request his presence for this.”
The brief upset of hope did not anger Seville. He closed his eyes in a warm self-embrace and then let his head rest back down against the table, still weak and floating on a euphoric release. He felt dizzy.
“It was death, Eddie. I felt it!” said Seville, but Edrick was still shaking nervously. He didn't seem to want to hear about that.
“Seville, I need to know how it happened. I could do some research when I find time, after the centennial maybe.”
The word 'centennial' chimed in Seville's brain but he hadn't the strength to argue the point.
“I was attacked. I don't know what.” He said lowly. “I was looking for something.”
“What were you looking for?” asked Edrick, suddenly feeling more jittery.
Seville had forgotten the orb in his pocket completely. Pain will make you do that. With his good arm, still afraid to use the injured one, he pulled forth the small orb and handed it over to Edrick.
“Found it in a treasure chest. Looks like a crystal ball to me.”
Looking at it clearly in the sunlight from the roof above, it was indeed opaque in its center, a dark gray gas, like storm clouds, puffed within. The gas seemed both to swirl and remain stationary, perhaps just an effect of the reflection.
“Huh! I think you're right. Defective now, however,” said Edrick, eyeing the orb closely, twisting it with his fingers, “When they are active they are clear. You know, the church has something like this.”
“It does?” asked Seville, perking up intently.
“Yeah, somewhere in the storage room, I think. I know I've at least seen it before. Oh, except the groove here is different. Shaped like a flame on ours.”
“Well go get it, Eddie.”
“Eh, come on, Seville. Don't act delirious. It's just a broken crystal ball. You should try to sell it at the fair tonight.”
”Fine, I'll get it, sheesh!” And Edrick stood, returned the orb, and headed back towards the same room he had found the potion. He shut the door behind him.
Again alone, Seville reveled in his rest, like sitting after three day's jog. He admired the speckled dots of light reflecting out from the orb as he twisted it with his good hand. He found himself following individual dots as they traced the ceiling. They felt close to him. But then he blinked hard and set the orb down, it was mesmerizing him. Seville detested the feeling of dizziness or tiredness. A man of his talents held alertness sovereign. But he couldn't fight it now. The liquid that Edrick had given him; he could feel it within him. The world was becoming hazy again; his mind was floating.
Why did Dunnings send me to get that stupid orb? I bet he didn't know that creature was down there. Well, I'm gonna tell'em if I can just get off this table.
Seville fell to the floor.
Whoa! I'm sick!
I'll tell Dunnings that I'm sick, then he can't get mad anymore.
What, Eddie? Did you know that it's not really a centennial? You see…
“Seville! What has happened to you?”
I thought we'd already …Professor!
“Professor Sylum?” said Seville distantly, breaking out of his trance.
“Now, now! This won't do, old chap!” said a warm voice, deep and precise. “Got ourselves into a bad one this time, haven't we?”
“Professor … I … monster …” said Seville, still searching for orientation. Finally his eyes found the good doctor, but he was little more than murk in his vision.
Dr. Darrin Sylum was tall, with vibrant brown eyes, a sharp nose, and wire glasses that hung low. His light brown hair was academically pressed downwards, but he covered this with a tri-corner steepled hat, dark maroon in color. He wore fine dress clothing, centered on a beautiful maroon cloak that hung to his feet. He smiled, intent but calm. For a scholar he was built strongly, and even at this moment wore a short sword to his side. All this finally came clearly to Seville's vision.
“Are we here now?” said Sylum. “I'd like to know what has happened. I figured you'd be here after the soldiers ran over the Lux.”
The voice still seemed to echo faintly in Seville's ears but with will power he pressed the sensation away. He did not want to drop off like that again.
“Dr. Sylum! I'm happy to see you!” said Seville weakly but clearly. “Have you ever seen anything like this?”
And Seville held his arm out, after which the doctor became very studious, eyes crawling up and down the wound.
“My word!” Sylum whispered. He pressed his glasses up and reached his hands forward but decided not to touch it.
“Pain?” he asked.
“Lots! But Eddie gave me something like Morphus, or Morpheus, or…”
“Morphine. It's a pain killer, extracted from opium. Strong stuff. I wouldn't try to stand up just yet.”
“Yeah, he said the same thing.”
“Well, it's a good thing Edrick knows something. You don't mind that I'm mildly surprised? He couldn't cure you?”
“Eddie can't cure a paper cut. No, actually the spell … backfired,” said Seville. He looked a moment as if he might pass out again but then regained.
“Okay, well, this is really something here. I've never seen anything like it. Still, I'll check my manuals. You know this isn't my field.”
A door in the back opened and Edrick emerged, proudly carrying a small crystal ball, but he soon dropped his smirk and became sullen, nervous.
“Oh, I didn't realize you had come, Professor Sylum,” said Edrick, suddenly feeling as if he was losing control of the situation again. Seville was his patient, no matter how useless he was.
“I didn't mean to startle you. Come, Edrick, what do you think of this?” said Sylum, also aware of Edrick's spastic tendencies.
“I will ask the minister when he returns. There is nothing I can do. It's rare, for certain.”
“What's that you have there?” asked the doctor.
“Huh? Oh!” Overly concerned about Sylum's sudden presence, Edrick had forgotten about the orb he'd gone to get. Remembering it, he grasped it firmly, as if to confirm its reality, and then he showed it forward. “Oh, something that Seville asked me to get. He found something like this … well, somewhere.”
“Hand it here,” said Sylum, extremely curious.
“Hey, I was the one who asked for it?” complained Seville, but the doctor just flashed him a blank glance and took the orb in hand. He studied it carefully, looking so deeply into it that he went cross-eyed for a moment. This orb also was filled with a dark stationary gas that seemed to spin in the light. The groove along the side however was wide and shaped like a solitary flame.
“And you say that you have one of these?” Sylum said to the man lying on his back. The doctor seemed to place a lot of importance in his question.
“Yeah, here,” said Seville. He liked the doctor very much and would always respect his wishes diligently. He knew that he lacked the average amount of respect for most people, but he made it up in his admiration of Dr. Sylum. The doctor took the second orb in hand and studied it with equal fervor.
“Do you know what they are?” asked the apprentice clergyman, feeling on the brink of revelation. And not wanting it.
A funny look came over Sylum's face as he acknowledged the question. His lips raised, and his whole body did the same. The two other men could feel the coming of a miracle, a rapid gush of stunning information. Sylum suddenly looked on the verge of pouring his soul out into the church. But all he said was:
“No. Nothing. Just defective crystal balls, most likely.” He slackened, but continued to look at the two orbs. His listeners slacked as well, granting each other a disappointed glance. It really felt like something was there. The moment had settled quietly when Sylum said:
“But you know, I have something a lot like this in my office at the quad.”
The other two men perked up brightly, “You do?”
“Yes. Oh, except the marker is different. It's a water droplet on mine.” Sylum looked at them unbelievingly. This was too weird.
“Can I see it?” asked Seville, very intent on doing just that whether the doctor liked it or not. In just those last moments he felt charged with a quest, and these little orbs had something to do with it. He was certain. Seville did not like to go without answers, and neither, in fact, did Dr. Sylum.
“Of course! Do you feel okay to stand?”
“Yeah, yeah!” said Seville, trying to be strong, though he felt very weak on his feet once he had reached them. Edrick was ecstatic to seem them go. Equilibrium returned at last. He slumped down in a chair, folding his white robes over so as to not rumple them, and breathed comfortably. Then his eyes shot wide. Somebody has to pay for that morphine! The minister is gonna kill me!
But Seville, with support from the doctor, was already out of the cathedral and making progress around the side of the building. Then, just as he cleared the corner he saw a glimmering flash of bronze, his teeth clicked, and all was black.
Chapter 3 ~ Shindig!
Herrik Gipson halted his feet and let out a warm gasp of air. It was marvelous, as amazing as he'd heard. He wanted to stand there for an eternity and enjoy the moment. Few times in his long life had he known such beauty.
Up from several red and blue striped tents shot swift rockets that sought the heavens until wafting down in gravity's grasp. And then they burst, brilliant sparkles of color jetting the perimeter of the town, like a newly formed blanket of stars. Gipson's cragged face reflected them. Greens, yellows, and reds glimmered against his irises, changing them at their will. The puttering thumps of the rockets exploding pleased the air, like a diligent snare cadence. It was celebration, and it was wonderful!
Gipson looked back to his entourage, a content smile on his face. This was the best part of the job, truly. He took a full-chested breath of the glowing atmosphere and admired the sight before him a moment longer.
Over six feet tall and broad like a troll, Gipson would frighten all who gave him notice if he hadn't so perfected his smile. It was friendly, flavored with the wrinkles of a wise man, and most importantly, adjustable. Gipson had a smile for all seasons. He would flex his muscles strongly and raise those peaks when he received praise, beam it out with the utmost humility. But he could also turn it slight and shallow, the glint of a coming joke, and the audience would be ready for it. Then would come a heckler and he would throw it into overdrive, a smile so bright the heckler went blind. And, his personal favorite, he could turn it sad, a salute to times lost with hope still strong. Herrik Gipson could change the world with a simple twitch of his lips. He wasn't attractive, but that smile. Wow!
But time was already running late. He would make a late entrance, of course. It would give him a chance to practice his forgiveness smile, still under construction. He turned his head and nodded to the men behind him.
“Well, fellas? Let's rock and roll!” and Gipson, followed by a modest crew, entered the grounds.
The Corneria Centennial celebration is such a fantastic event that the four previous Kings of the empire considered changing its name just so that they might host one during their own reign. By the second centennial, all connections with wartime propaganda had been excised, and the true meaning became commerce. Covering the entire grounds between the township and Corneria Castle, the fair was a nine-day extravaganza of food, drink, shows, business, invention, and the highest of pomp. Each of the King's family visited, a practical impossibility away from the splendorous event. If nothing else, King Eliv, a popular but antisocial king, sure knew how to throw a party.
No veil had been cast over the many tents and buildings. No dark grief suppressing the gaiety. The abduction of the Princess, the severe economic downturn, the new meagerness of life did not matter now. Women and their husbands, young poets with their girlfriends, and the little children yanking panting dogs behind them, each of them basked in wonderment. Even those dogs were filled with an uncommon zeal, chasing each other playfully. The primary generation to experience the centennial was known as “God's generation”. And, indeed, it seemed that the deity was smiling upon them.
At every corner were magnificent food stands, bringing delicacies from Elven and Dwarven lands. The arts and crafts were of the highest quality, some artisans preparing a single work for the whole of their lives in preparation for the fair. The contest started early that evening and went until the final day, considering thousands of submissions. The fair was famous for bringing new oddities to Corneria: household appliances, new foods, games for the children, games for the adults, a new life!
But the greatest wonderment of all was the shows. Jousting displays, wrestling, monster battles, cantrip displays. Perhaps the only problem was that it was too much to see. This first night was always the greatest. The townsfolk, rural Cornerians, and tourists all helped spread the terrific rumors. King Eliv was not a man that would not let them down. He would have a true spectacle on this first night.
At the far end of fairgrounds, right up at the castle, was a gigantic paddock, a cage larger than had ever been constructed, and just for this very night. The event was to take place there. People were already saving their seats.
Gipson's booth was far, far away, all the way up to the castle, and this he loved. What better excuse to admire the attractions?
He had to work his smile just right in this instance, enough to seem warm but not recognizable. He didn't like to be swarmed when wearing his dress attire. Herrik Gipson's face didn't really show his age much; he'd kept it healthy with more exercise than five normal men. On top of that, his hair, brilliantly red and combed into various spikes, gave him that youthful energy that he felt. Each time he passed a mirror he had to admit it. He looked good. He looked happy. To confirm this he stopped by a booth with a chubby but humorously spoken man wagering to guess the weight, height, or age of any passerby. He was right most all the time, but in case he was wrong you got a plush doll shaped like a forest imp. Pretty good quality, too. With all that Gipson was wearing weight was out of the question, but Gipson didn't want to hear that anyway. He jubilantly dared the chubby man to guess his age.
“Forty-five!” exclaimed the booth attendant, his face red as if sunburned. Though the man was clearly well-practiced, Gipson, hawk-like towards observational detail, noticed the man's hopeful stare after the pronouncement. He was good, but afraid to make mistakes. Gipson chuckled lightly.
“Not even close, friend,” he said, and then paid the man anyways. It wouldn't do to reveal his age. The chubby man was perplexed a moment but then he smiled back; it wouldn't do to ruin his reputation, either. Still, he was glad to see the failure go.
Gipson always wore his best armor and full arsenal in such situations, a definite part of the persona. Over the mythril armor, which was painted a brilliant red, the color of his hair, he carried one great sword, two long swords, three short swords, five daggers, seven different vials, a long bow and quiver, the arrows silver tipped, and oddly enough, a small book tied to a beaded chain around his potion belt. It didn't even weigh him down. He felt lifted by them, stronger by them. God did Herrik Gipson love weapons.
“Here it is folks, the sensation brought all the way from the Onrac Festival of the Waterfall. It tastes great, it's lighter than air, and the kids love it!”
Gipson, waving his entourage to the side, walked happily over to the booth, which was quite crowded. The man on the stand wore a striped suit, complete with peppermint hat and cane. His voice was clear and powerful.
“That's right, folks. I have met the creator of this wonderful treat myself, and he looked me right in the eyes and said, 'All I want is to make the children happy'. Now, have a taste of that, young one, and tell the crowd what you think!”
The man lifted for all to see a white paper stick covered with a pink feathery mesh, puffing into a bulb like cotton. The young boy, just happy to be picked out of the group, reached forward and tore a chunk away, the small piece looking even more feather-like. He placed it in his mouth and instantly began to hop.
“Wow!” said the little boy, careening towards explosion.
“That's all I would need to here, folks! Now, who else wants to get a part of the miracle?”
The crowd swelled into an uproar and shouted at the cheery entertainer, raising their gold bags high over their head. Gipson respected the showmanship. That money just kept on rolling in. And so with an honorary nod and wave of the hand that the showman never saw, Gipson walked on. As he walked away, he heard the man begin another pitch.
“How you folks doin'? Have you heard about Lucky Joe's Cotton Candy? Well, let me tell you about it. We make it…”
Edrick Valance lifted his hand, stuffed his fingers into the groove of the other hand, and then repeated the process with different grooves. Simultaneously he tapped his two feet in a sloppy drum roll and clicked his teeth together, rhythmically separate from his feet. He kept his gaze at the mobile fingers, never looking up at those around him, not wanting to catch their eyes. Just study the floor and it'll be over soon. Why would they choose me for this?
He still wore the white robes lined with burgundy; it was a requirement for an apprentice to do so. He had long forgotten his meeting with Seville and Dr. Sylum only hours before, more pressing matters had presented themselves. That sinking feeling, the proverbial butterflies in his stomach, kept him uneasy. It wasn't long before he was rocking back and forth. Why, why, why? Fingers danced!
“All the preparations are made for tonight, of course?” said the powerfully jovial voice, not a statement but a question. Edrick silently whimpered before looking up to the glorious man.
“Uh, yes, sir.” He said with a stutter. “Of course, sir. All is ready, sir.”
The man let out a cruel laughter, strong enough to let his thin belly flop, and shook his head as he came down from it.
“You needn't be so nervous, Edrick. This man is a professional; the best! I promise you that you will not have a worry. Understood?”
“Uh, yes, sir.” Crumbling, crumbling, crumbling…
“Speak louder! This could be a big night for you. Something to tell the minister. I wouldn't allow my eyes to focus on my hands during the event, if I were you,” the man said, peering on keenly. Edrick pulled his hands apart so quickly that he almost lost his balance, and his right hand slapped hard into the wall. He thought to grasp it for a moment but then decided to pretend it didn't hurt. He'd completely forgotten he was doing that.
“Of course not, sir!” said Edrick, trying to deepen his young voice. Crumbling, crumbling…
“Good. And you realize the responsibility I am granting you?”
“Of course, sir.”
“Good. Then don't forget that you are the most important. If something were to happen to the champion during the contest, if that were the story that got around, the King of Corneria, me, made into a global laughing stock,” the man, seething with intensity, brought his face up next to Edrick's, “Well, then, I just don't know what I'd do. Understood?”
Edrick let escape him a foolish terror laugh, but he choked it short.
“Uh, yes, sir.”
What was that color? Were his eyes playing tricks on him? No, with the lids shut so tight it must be his brain. The synapses had filled with liquid and had altered the ocular transmission, resulting in hue shifts. Not really that uncommon in the grand design of things. That's what Professor Sylum would say.
Ah, but what was that noise? Like cannons off in the distance, the report of a death machine. Could his ears be enacting a devious deception? Perhaps attempting to quicken his pulse and lead him to a startlingly grotesque battle, fueled by the slaughter of hundreds. The cannons of a frontal charge?
But what is all this now? The reds and blues and greens and the reports of the cannons. Why can he not escape it? How did he become bound to them? It feels important. It feels like destiny.
Listen there, the cannons have grown close. Another report and…
Seville awoke, a thick filmy veil upon his eyes so that all before him was dark gray. But as he rubbed his eyes he saw that gray distance adapt brighter hues with sudden intensity, only to fade just as quickly. As he struggled for vision he inventoried whatever he could, another of his practiced skills.
He recognized first that he was damp and cold, then ground beneath him being made of wide block stone. The only noise he could detect was his own foot scratching against the floor and the mild thumps from the distance. His vision finally cleared and he looked about. Before him the wall was indeed gray stone, smooth and finished. A cot rested to his side, a small metal pan lying at its end. The room was small, consisting of two identical walls, another wall with a small window in it, and a fourth side lined vertically with rod iron bars. He had little room to move around, so he pushed himself up on the cot and rested for the moment. Waking up was such tiring work.
It was his first time in prison, not bad for three years of active crime. And his charges would be light, no doubt. All of the stolen materials could be replaced rather easily, just a few errands to run on the matter, and perhaps just some community service. They were always looking to force the younger generations into farming, an idea that made Seville shudder just a tad.
A flash of red…….thump.
His armor and daggers had been removed, of course, along with that weird orb. Due to the lack of noise, he imagined he was occupying the dungeons alone, at least for the time being. Looking out the bars as best he could he saw no guards. That was strange.
A flash of green……thump.
It wasn't the best capacity but he still felt that soothing comfortableness come over him. The walls, like the force of the darkness from the catacombs, wrapped him into a blanket. Seville was sitting silently, admiring his situation without giving it thought. Just drifting with time's river. He shook his head hard suddenly. You're losing it, Seville!
A flash of blue…….thump.
“What is that?” Seville asked the walls. But when he stood to investigate the window he had to sit immediately, the spidery chills now crawling his body over. His arm hurt again, he could feel it growing. It would come again very soon.
I need to get out of here!
The vocal applause of the crowd was a low boom, growing like a coming stampede. They quickly shot into a loud rally of cheers as the announcer stepped up onto the high stand and pointed his arms out to the crowd, pacing from side to side quickly and feeling the waves of sound. His dressed formally enough and moved with a certain confidence. The crowd was momentarily his, but he had his notions of humility. When he spoke his voice was forcefully pleasant and excited. The crowd tried its best to settle.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, the…” but then a loud ripple of combusting fireworks popped overhead and it drowned his voice away behind a shield of fanfare and color. Before continuing he shook his head with a smile and over exaggerated his laugh, all for the stage of course. Feeling the crowd, he lifted his arms, palms up, to each side and twisted. With a majestic thrust of each hand he regarded all that surrounded them. He brought his head back around slightly low, giving the impression of bowing, and the audience rose again, hollering proudly and stamping their feet. They were great, weren't they?
“Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls!” said the announcer, letting the resonant echoes of his voice ricochet through the crowd until they quieted. “The time has come!”
More energetic applause followed, but the announcer would not be delayed again. He had found the groove.
“The man you've been waiting to see!” The chatters of the audience were infectious, rising and falling like a bouncing ball. To the announcer's left and right were massive tables lined with stacks of books, each topped with another book facing out to the crowd, the leather covers shining brightly the reflections of the flares in the sky.
“The man who has traveled the entire world in his lifetime, searching for exotic species and mystical lands.” The announcer quickly found stage left and made a broad arc with his finger atop a waving hand. “Knight of the Coast, Lieutenant First Class!”
The left side of the crowd screamed out, many of them jumping up and down, but the announcer couldn't let it stand for long. With long, hurried, but precisely timed, steps he moved to the other side of the stage and made another arc with his finger, a mirror image.
“Editor and columnist of Dragon Magazine!” And that side of the crowd began to hoot loud whooping calls to the man up stage. The excitement was as palpable as a tornado. The announcer shifted smoothly and centered himself with a grin, forming dual arcs with his fingers. “Author of the award winning Dragon Compendium!” And the entire crowd was caught up in the whirlwind, but he would not give it to them yet. He made a brief concessionary pause, forgiven by his visible chuckle, and continued, wagging his finger to his side now, point by point.
“He's here now to promote his new book. The definitive guide on monster lore and classification. The Knights of the Coast Monsters Manual!” The crowd slapped their hands together and called out hurrahs, but they were not here for the book. They were here for the man. Knowing they very well might lynch him soon, the announcer decided it was time. Alright, you all can have it!
“I give you…” one final stall, just for the effect, “Monster hunter extraordinaire! Herrik Gipson!”
The wall of voices pushed the announcer back, but he hadn't seen anything yet. He spun his arm to regard the stairs.
Behind the stage, Herrik Gipson put the finishing touches on his smile and perked up his vibrant hair. Looking to either side to his helpers he said, “Showtime!” and then walked up on the stage.
The crowd exploded!
He wasn't a remarkable king; not famous for good woks of any kind, but people typically liked him, and the centennial would be very much to his favor. King Eliv didn't have the most regal of looks, with a sharp nose that pointed downwards and a flat forehead and weak chin. Whenever he thought too hard his forehead would wrinkle in several small folds, almost the look of a dunce. Add to that the fact that he needed glasses, had little meat on him, and had an overall insignificant stature, and King Eliv was little of a king to behold. And so he learned to carry himself as majestically as possible. The first rule of ruling is that it doesn't matter whether or not you know what you're doing; you just have to look like you do. His wife had died of consumption a few years past, so he couldn't count on a beautiful mistress to heighten his appeal. It was all him, baby!
He was standing at his throne, a temporary model that had been placed at the front of the castle where the holding cage for the event was built. He'd found that being a king gave him little time to feel secure about anything, and since the disappearance of his daughter, a mind-boggling stupor had plagued him. It was only now that he could look upon something proudly. This festival, the entire order of which had been seen to personally, was so far an uproarious success. Something that could only go wrong in one way.
He surveyed the holding cage. It was fifty feet on each side, forming a square with one side against the castle wall, which there was lined an incredible door that would be pulled open by over forty men. And behind that door was the event. As if he had known it would happen, he stared deeply into the door, looking beyond it, and suddenly came a strong, foundation-upsetting thump against it from within. King Eliv felt it right to stifle his laugh at the poor man beside him for jumping at the sound.
“Come now, Edrick.” Said the king. It would be time to head out soon and initiate the event. He wanted to start as soon as possible but knew that waiting would be the more effective. Some people had already established their seats in the grass field, but he had to wait for more. And so he stood there, waiting for the right time, gazing out over the grounds, admiring the greatness. He spoke but did not turn to Edrick, or even seem to care whether the nervous priest heard at all.
“They will remember me for this!” he said, an odd mixture of hope and obligation. “I will not be forgotten!”
And the king stood solemnly.
“Hello?” called Seville from within his lonely cell, but the only returning sounds were echoes. When his mind had the chance he finally remembered that it was the night of the centennial, so he figured the guards would be light, but they wouldn't leave him unguarded. Would they?
But security didn't matter. Seville was very sick. An unnatural sweat already forming over his body once more, he'd had to lie down and cuddle his arm firmly against him. It had started low as before but accelerated much more quickly this time. Already his arm throbbed at each of the fast beats of his heart, sending sore shockwaves through him. With his eyes closed, he could even see his pain, the pulses of the sickness leaving vein-shaped scars on his eyes lids. He tried the best alertness exercises he knew, but to no avail. Absorbing damp air through his nostrils and then putting it back out past his teeth, he still could not calm his building anxiety. Tears of pain began slowly.
“I'm sorry, Mr. Dunnings” he said.
If help did not come he would be dead, very soon.
The commotion took over five minutes to settle, but eventually Gipson could get control of the crowd, warding them down with the raise of his two big hands. The whole occasion had been lit by glowing orbs placed atop hundreds of tall poles, and his hair shone brightly in that lighting. Through his red armor and hair it looked like a massive flame pacing upon the stage bravely.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” he said with a precise voice, “I give you the Monsters Manual. Over three hundred and fifty monsters, each of them I've defeated personally, and here provide you with vivid descriptions, along with habitat information and useful combat techniques should you come across them. No traveler should be without this invaluable source of monster information.” And Gipson lifted the small book chained to his belt up high for all to see. “I never go anywhere without it!”
“How much?!?!” yelled out a man closer to the back, jumping up and down to get the best view possible. The crowd gave an excited laugh to this and started to reach for the gold pouches. Should it really be this easy? Gipson lowered his smile a tad to qualify the situation but then put it back on full, a cautionary wave of his finger.
“We're selling them at a special price here at the fair, only thirty gold pieces for the entire manual, with limited edition leather bound cover. Plus, just because I've looked forward to this night so long, I have signed each one personally, and will add personal messages if you return to the booth tomorrow.”
So the book only cost about two gold pieces to produce, but the audience still seemed to like the price. They pressed hard against each other, trying their sternest to filter in towards the stage.
“But first, Ladies and Gentlemen, would no one like to hear a passage from the manual? Come now, shout a monster out to me, I assure you it's here.”
“Forest Imp!” came a loud heckler's voice from the back, met with surging guffaws. Gipson took an effective double take and then, not about to be bested, picked up the book nearest him and turned to the page.
“Forest Imp. A small goblinoid creature found in the forests and plains near the land of Corneria, distinguished by their communal structure, tattered clothing, and ambush like attack patterns. Though they consider themselves ferocious opponents, a forest imp is rarely a concern for the common adventurer. They attack with one to two knives and occasionally a short sword, but are never skilled with these weapons. Their parties will typically desist after few shortcomings.” And then Gipson turned the book face out with a finger upon the page. “And you will see here that the Forest Imp, along with every other monster in this manual, has a color illustration, maybe even some done by yours truly!”
Another rumble of impressed murmurs.
“Have you included the were-dragon?” asked a brave voice from the crowd, and this question seemed to have an immediate stifling effect on the crowd, which then leaned its ear in intently.
“Indeed, I have slain the were-dragon. They are a monstrous beast!”
“But, how could you defeat it? The creature is invincible,” called the same man, now making his location known. Gipson let the question get across the crowd and then chuckled.
“Nay, friend, the were-dragon is not invincible, though to an unprepared adventurer it may seem that way.” And then Gipson dramatically unsheathed one of his short swords and brandished it for all to see, its polished surface luminous in the night's bubbly light.
“Silver?” asked another member of the crowd. The crowd had quieted down significantly, each of them direly curious to hear of the fabled were-dragon.
“A keen eye, sir. Indeed, silver was in the mix. But many travelers have discovered that a silver weapon is not enough to slay such a creature. It regenerates with too startling a speed. No, this is five times more powerful than silver.” And then the crowd fell dead silent, nervous glances every which way. Those with any knowledge burdened their minds, but still could not find a response. And then an old man somewhere in the middle spoke up, his voice soft with the utmost reverence.
“Werebane…” he said. And the crowd exploded again. Around Corneria, magical arms and armor were best left to fairy tales, as nobody had ever seen the real thing. This was wonderful! And Gipson did not need to speak again, but rather let the man enjoy his small celebrity. He gave another wave of the weapon and then sheathed it. And then the selling began. Questions floated to Gipson and he always answered them in perfect form. His knowledge of monsters truly was unrivaled. Yes, this had to be Gipson's favorite part.
After a little time there was a loud blast on trumpets, quickly followed by, “Make way for the King! Hail his majesty!” and much to the simple townsfolk's surprise, King Eliv was riding right into the fair, up to Gipson's very booth. He reined his horse and shot his head up with royal fervor, trying to keep his chest broad and spoke down to Gipson.
“Master Gipson. I cannot express the pleasure of having a man of your incredible stature at our festival. You honor us with you presence.”
“Nay, you majesty, I am merely humbled to be given so good a land as I received. I must thank you,” said Gipson sincerely. He had to deal with this type all the time.
“Of course! Now, Master Gipson, I have arranged a special event to celebrate the first night of this incredible centennial. A monster battle needing of the highest skill. Would you mind a demonstration of your renowned technique for this first night of the centennial?” And the king stared in at him pleasantly, but aggressively. This was not a time to trifle. Not that Gipson would.
“Why, I would be honored, your majesty!” and then he turned to the crowd, “Couldn't hurt my sales!”
The crowd bust out in joyous laughter again as Gipson, fully armed, mounted a horse the king had brought and rode off towards the paddock.
Darrin Sylum did not share the festive behavior of everyone else, even though he had been looking forward to this night for years. Standing at the far end of the seating grounds where the event would occur, his head was turned down, deeply in thought.
These three orbs had come together so quickly and were identical but for a small grooved pattern. There was an obvious answer in his mind, but he made himself set it to the side. That was old lore and nothing more than that. His scholarly life had produced more abstract answers as well, but those felt insignificant in comparison. This was so much more powerful than coincidence would allow. All he needed was a starting line, a wave of the flag, and then his mind would take off. But something resisted him. But what?
The coming of the crown and ruby warrior had been met with standing ovation by the gargantuan audience, the excited conversation oozing over them, and now the warrior had made his way into the paddock, swinging his greatsword in mighty arcs for the crowd. Introductions for the grand knight, along with a brief introduction for the medical staff, a short blonde man in white robes that clearly butchered all his cues before sitting at the far end of the paddock, were made, and then all was ready for battle. However, before the king would allow the battle to begin, he gleefully announced that a reward was in order for the brave combatant should he survive the night. An ancient family treasure the king called it, a Cornerian symbol of prosperity, and then he lifted it high. In the king's small hand was a crystal orb about the size of a child's palm
“Huh!” said Sylum, a startled laugh. And then as smoothly as could be he started moving. The flag had been dropped.
Displays of combat were Herrik Gipson's second favorite part of the job. For him they were the qualifier. He knew that a lot of what he did was for show. In order to make the sales you have to find the right persona. But these displays were proof that behind the act was the skill. He truly practiced what he preached.
There came a harsh, aggravated strike at the huge stone door before him, and this excited him, made his adrenaline start to fill his arteries. He never feared combat; it was sloppy to do so. Especially in the instance of having an audience, each of his movements would have to be calculated and precise, always giving off a demeanor of control, no matter the villain. And by the sounds, this was a good one.
Twenty men on either side of the door, up on the castle bridgeways, began to pull on thick ropes centered on the door. It slowly pried apart and then picked up steam and split open swiftly. Gipson widened the gap of his feet and set them at a sturdy angle, squeezing the handle of his sword tightly. He barely breathed as he watched his opponent step out into the ring, the creature the size of two houses.
It was a dragon with a sharp noble snout ridged with spikes and beauteous wings that hugged in against it. Its armor-like scales were frosty white, lined all the way down to his incredible tail, and were also ridged with rows of spikes. It stood high on its four incredible legs, perhaps itself a showman, and displayed the immense size. And then it let out an earth-shattering roar that set the crowd into a shocked quiet.
Frost dragon, easy, thought Gipson, and then he said, “Rock and Roll!” and the fight was on.
Seville instantly awoke from his trance and placed his good hand upon his face, coughing in the suddenness. But this action immediately lost all meaning. The pain of his arm set in with staggering quickness.
“Here, drink this,” said a voice and Seville obeyed without thought, how could he think of anything with this kind of hurt? If nothing else the tart liquid was refreshing against his parched throat and when all the liquid was gone he slumped sadly. For a moment there was no effect but a swirling coldness in his stomach, and then the tragedy in his arm began to fade, eventually to nothing. The pain disappeared so completely it was hard to believe.
“It is working?” said the imperative voice.
“Yes, the pain has….Professor Sylum!” said Seville with sudden energy. “How did you…”
“Not a lot of guards on centennial night. They're all out there.” And Dr. Sylum pointed to the window, out of which you could hear shouts and a roaring monster.
“Yeah, but, but why would you…”
“Consider it an apology. You got caught for doing something I asked you to do. The least I can do is help out.”
“But now they'll just throw us both back in the dungeons when we're caught.” Seville was utterly baffled that this man he so looked up to had come to save him.
“I don't think so,” said the doctor, clearly with much behind it.
“What do you…”
“Look, Seville, we don't have time for this now. This is a weaker form of morphine you should be able to walk just fine, now hurry up. We've got to get out of here.”
And as simply as that, though drowning in mystery and confusion, Seville broke out of the Cornerian dungeon.
After attempting two swift slashes with its spiked tail, which Gipson gracefully dodged, the dragon desisted and began to circle the paddock, searching for that right moment. Herrik Gipson, fully confident, chose the interlude to preach out to the crowd, all that could hear.
“The Frost Dragon can be quite the foe, and I pity any traveler who comes across one unprepared. In order to defeat it, you must know the weakness.”
The dragon took all of this as Gipson's weakness, and it suddenly vaulted forward, a full dash. Gipson turned instantly at the noise and evaluated the movement, ducked his head just right, and strafed to safety as the dragon bit down. Gipson ran along the edge of the cage to align himself opposite the beast and then readied himself for another strike, but the dragon returned to patient pacing.
“Of course, the Frost Dragon is sorely weak against fire, along with several other cold weather monsters, which is why it is vital for any adventurer moving through cold habitats to have some of these,” and Gipson lifted from his belt an orange long neck potion bottle filled with a clear liquid that seemed to light up into short flames as he shook it.
“A simple fire potion will devastate your average Frost class monster and is the perfect intro into the offensive against the more powerful ones. As you will now see.”
Gipson moved in closer to the dragon, which parried around the cage as a response. But eventually the warrior drew close enough, and with his mighty arm he chucked the potion forward. It sailed brilliantly, an orange beacon coursing the sky, and collided with the back of the dragon, flailing liquid flames over the hide of the beast. Gipson flexed his strong thighs and began a frontal charge, but he pulled it short and shifted sideways just as quickly. The fire upon the monster's back hardened into small fragments of orange ice and then fell to the earth, the dragon seemingly unaffected. But it was definitely offended. Gipson knew what was coming and he took large steps backwards, bracing for the blast.
The dragon reared its head and then aimed, and along with its roar came both a strong jet of ice and one of fire. Gipson jerked his waist and scrunched in between the two currents, one side of him chilling and the other singeing. The crowd marveled it, frightened to the core.
A half-breed, thought Gipson, this is trouble!
“We're lost aren't we?” asked Seville as him and Sylum rounded a corner and faced yet another long passageway made of stone bricks and lined with ornamental suits of armor and high-hung torches. Sylum stuttered a moment, but it was no use lying to Seville. A flag would go up every time.
“Yes. It would seem so.”
“Well, that's fantastic.”
“Hey, don't criticize the man who's both getting you out of jail and keeping you in medicine. Here, let's go this way.”
“We've been that way.”
“No, we haven't, now come on!”
They had been sprinting to begin with but now could barely jog, Sylum slowing down much faster than Seville. They had clearly taken a wrong turn somewhere, and were discovering with every hallway that the castle dungeons were quite vast. This new hallway gave several more paths to choose from, and always Sylum moved into one confidently without a moment's thought.
“Do you have any idea what you're doing?” asked Seville as they chose the left route of a T-junction.
“Do you think I know what I'm doing?” Sylum asked back ironically with a humorous glance at Seville.
“Call it wishful thinking.”
“Well, hate to let you down, Seville.” And then Seville proceeded to run at his mouth about the uselessness of this entire effort. How could a political scholar not find his way out of a prison?
“Hey, now, you're the rogue among us, Seville!” but Seville didn't have this and continued on with every breath. Deciding to allow it, Sylum had been listening to the sounds of distant voices that came occasionally in strong pulses. All his turns were headed towards them. Where there are voices, there are people, and the people are outside. And now they were growing rapidly, just a little bit down the hall maybe. And then he saw an open door down the side of one passageway and they ran towards it, but by now Seville was so emphatic with his ranting that he was paying minimal attention. Just as they were upon the door they heard tumultuous cheers and clapping, followed by a terrible roar. Sylum and Seville rounded the corner, Seville still going at it.
“Sixthly, it should hardly be regarded as…”
“Seville!” and then another loud roar.
“High expectations that a public teacher posses certain…”
“What?” and Seville heard the four thick clomps of a creature's feet colliding into the soft earth very near by. He looked up:
“Oh…” and the dragon smiled at him, “Shit!”
“Fools! Get out of there!” yelled Herrik Gipson, rushing in to the dragon and trying to attract its attention. The dragon had acted quickly and thrust itself before the doorway so that the newcomers could not retreat. It made a few hasty snaps at them before they ran off to the opposite side of the fence, yelling at each other the entire way. The dragon reared up and prepared to chase, but Gipson intercepted and swung his long sword at its legs. It growled angrily.
Gipson unsheathed a short sword to use in his off-hand and made for another advance but the dragon jumped with its back legs and then caught itself in the air with mighty flaps of the wings. With what space it had it flew in circles over the top of the cage, still eyeing the two new morsels that reeked of fear.
“Watch out for it!” called Gipson, knowing what was coming and he charged off towards the two men. But the dragon was swifter, and it dived in at them, filled its lungs, and sent the two jets to tear up the ground. Seville quickly somersaulted off towards the center but Sylum was sliced across his left side with shattering slivers of ice and sent hurtling into the fence.
“Professor!” screamed Seville and made to return to him, but then a hand grasped his shoulder firmly and it pushed him back.
“Are you crazy, boy?” said Gipson as he rushed past, now holding his long bow and firing at the dragon. His quiver was running low. Seville rose to his feet and charged after this red-armored man with a single movement, and then overtook him with his speed and grabbed Dr. Sylum by his arm. The dragon, seizing the moment, trotted in and made to bite them through but then yanked back as an arrow stabbed into its broad tongue. Gipson was upon the beast again, and he pulled another of his long swords, this one glowing with a green haze about it, and he moved in and slashed at the underbelly. The dragon cried and lifted up from the ground once more, soon to prepare another breath.
“That was some quick work, gents, but the both of you need to get out of here. Are you alright?” he asked the doctor. Sylum adjusted his glasses which had miraculously stayed on and said that he would be fine. Now all three of them were at their feet and they turned to find the dragon, still flying about. The whooshes of air from each flap could almost knock from your feet.
“Disperse,” commanded Gipson.
“He won't land until we do, now move it, try to get to the other side. He'll use his breath weapon first so be ready for it.” And Gipson galloped away from the two men, who could not move at first. The dragon chose that bait and dove in at him, readying its breath. It landed just before the armored man and shot the weapon but Gipson had briskly ran under the monster again and made quick slashes at the thick scales. The dragon hopped sideways and swung his tail into the man, who went coursing through the air for twenty feet and collapsed near a far wall. The strike had also knocked the sword from his hand, and once standing he unsheathed his last remaining short sword. The dragon was already pounding its feet towards the other two men, who had split up and were trailing opposite directions along the fence.
The dragon came upon Seville who rolled forward and jumped over a low slash of the tail. The grand creature headed Seville off, and so he ducked under one of its stomping feet and ran out from under it, but the creature took little time to realize this and it turned and bounded upon the running man again. Seville could barely push his legs over the powerful thumping of the blood running through them, but he did enough, and soon the dragon was struck hard on the head by a potion, which quickly became wreathed in blue flame that then turned to ice. The dragon roared, but the roar was weaker. Some of Gipson's strikes to its underside had penetrated and the blood loss was becoming great.
It slapped its tail into the earth and Seville lost his footing under the tremble and toppled to the dirt. Before he could push himself up the dragon was upon him and it kicked its front paw into the ground in an inescapable pin. Sylum had already been running towards the monster, brandishing his own short sword, but the dragon jetted a breath at him and Sylum was again sent back. The dragon tried another roar out to the cage and then faced down at the man in its paw, its toothy maw wrenched apart.
Gipson knew he couldn't make it. The dragon had his victim halfway across the paddock, and there was no time remaining. And so Gipson began his charge and held the short sword back behind him. But then he pulled the blade forward quickly and released it, pitched it into the air. The light from the glowing orbs caught the magnificent blade as it shuttled across the cage, making the silver glimmer like bright stars. Gipson shouted as loud as he could, and for the briefest moment the dragon looked up at him, and that was when the flying sword struck, a perfect penetration to the throat.
The shock made the dragon heap upwards and then fly confusedly for only seconds before it fell to the earth, letting out pitiful gasps. In a fury it aimed at Gipson but when it tried to breathe only the jet of ice came out and it ended shortly. The dragon milled its hands into the soft dirt, like a cat pawing at a scratching board, and tried its best to move forward, but tripped again. The creature let loose a couple horrible groans and then all was silent. The dragon half-breed, slain at last.
And the grounds were stunned. The hundreds of people stayed in their positions at an absolute loss for expression. It had all been so dramatic that they now surged with cathartic heat, a single vibe that connected each person to every other. Over a thousand statues dotted the fair grounds, their cold eyes bulging out of wide lids, around them a silence that pervaded the mind. And then a single chipper snap of two palms against one another rang out, vibrating from statue to statue. The echoes settled, wafted down and absorbed into the soil. But then the snap came again, so loud that it shook the stony foundations of the others. So then another crisp beat of skin followed more quickly, and then more and more. And by now several hands working against each other, developing into a veritable drum roll. And then the hollers began, confident from the first and building. Soon each man and woman was sending overwhelming ovation up from the ground and into the wondrous sky. And still they were one. One consciousness, washing wave after wave of happiness forward to the paddock, smiling bright as the sun.
Feeling the windstorm of voices upon his back, Edrick Valance ran into the paddock and over to Sylum, who was now kneeling down weakly.
“Just a moment, Doctor Sylum, lie down and I will cure you.”
“God help me!” said Sylum, but he still obediently lay down on his back. Edrick performed the cure spell successfully this time and the doctor got to his feet, a thankful look of amazement on his face.
Seville was happy to see him well and they stood together for the moment, coming down from the rush of the battle. Gipson was combing the arena and picking up the bulk of his lost weapons, wiping them free of blood, and sheathing them. Afterwards he joined Sylum and Seville, along with Edrick, in the center of the arena. They couldn't really hear each other over the screeching sound of the applause but perhaps words weren't necessary. They stood and admired the fallen dragon. Also because of the noise Sylum did not hear the coming of armed guards, and didn't notice them until they had grabbed him arm to arm and pulled him taught. They fell upon Seville as well.
“Wait a minute, you can't…” said Sylum, but it was futile for the moment. The crowd settled quickly when the king stood and cast an arm out. He motioned for the guards to pull Sylum and Seville back, to be dealt with later, as he would first reward the victor of his contest. This was not the time to ruin the incredible moment. Once the crowd found silence he spoke out, a sincere attempt at booming:
“Bravo, Master Gipson! What a wonderful display of courage under unique circumstances. You truly have proven your mastery. Take now, your reward.” And the king walked to Gipson and personally delivered the orb, a nod of approval. Gipson, still regaining his stately composure, bowed and gave his thanks. But he was concerned about these two men from within the castle. The king walked over to them and spoke.
“Doctor Sylum? An unexpected meeting this is. And who is this here?” but one of the guards broke in.
“He's a prisoner, your majesty. He must have escaped from the dungeons. He will be returned immediately and the guard at fault will be seen to.”
The king, currently willing to look past the interruption and the terrible service of his guard for sake of the situation said simply, “So be it then, leave the Doctor.”
The guards released Sylum, who brushed off his red robes quickly and then turned to Seville, watching the young man's head droop low. He figured something like this would happen, it was now or never.
“Wait! Your majesty, you cannot imprison this man!” he said loudly but with a fear in his voice. Where should it go from here?
The guards halted for a moment to hear the king's response, which came with a jovial laugh. The night obviously had put him in a very good mood.
“And why is that, doctor? Is my sparing you not enough good will on this night?” He asked with regal affirmation, and it made Sylum look small. The doctor glanced nervously about, a hand twitching in his cloak pocket.
“Because…” he said but his tongue was tied. The crowd was silently watching the scene.
The king smiled and motioned for the guards to continue. Seville gave Doctor Sylum a glance, one of longing appreciation, and then dropped his head once more. Voices began to travel from person to person in the crowd, everyone had finally placed their feet upon the ground and it was over. What a night! But Sylum reached inside and forced out the courage, and he called out as the guards neared the castle door.
“Your majesty, you cannot imprison this man because … because he is a light warrior!” he said firmly, trying hard to keep his face stern
“I'm a what?!?!” cried Seville flatly. No one knew quite what to do with this.
“A what?” asked the king, now slightly annoyed.
“A light warrior, sir! A mystical hero from the old legend. He is bound by destiny to do good, and so he must not be imprisoned.” The king stared at him for a moment, and then decided to bite.
“There are four light warriors, Sylum, and when they come they will carry the magical orbs. This is a criminal that will be dealt with as usual. Where is his orb, and where are his companions if he is a light warrior?”
“They are here, your majesty. They've come together just as the legend predicted.” And here Sylum pulled from his pocket three crystal orbs and showed them high to the king. “The light warriors of destiny are here.” And then Sylum tossed one of the orbs to Seville and one to Edrick, who fumbled and had to chase it across the ground.
“This man, named Seville, is the keeper of this magical orb, just as I have owned this one for many days. The apprentice clergyman, Edrick Valance, also is the keeper of an orb. I had brought the three together to study them and only now know what they are. And Master Gipson, you are the fourth of the light warriors, as you have now been gifted the final orb. We are the light warriors, your majesty, we just didn't know it until now.”
The king stared blankly at the doctor, who had begun to blush in the silence. So much was riding on this. And yet, the king for some reason wanted to believe it. Perhaps it was just the night's infectious euphoria.
“What proof do you have?” asked the king.
“No proof yet, majesty, but we will get the proof together.”
“And how is that?”
And Sylum stared just as intently back at the king, hoping not to deliver this badly. Since he had stepped into the cathedral what felt like years ago though it only be hours, Sylum had felt this coming. Felt this incredible sense of power over himself, lifted on the wings of greatness.
“I … We, shall rescue your daughter!”
The king flushed, and all was spoken.
Chapter 4 ~ Sword and Dagger, Tome and Prayer
“Okay, let's hear it then.”
Dunnings closed the tavern early so the four could be alone, even retreating himself to the underground living quarters. The size of it was noticeably immense when so unoccupied. They looked lonely at the single table near the bar, a few candle flames flickering uneven light upon them. Without even realizing it, Edrick and Seville, who sat opposite each other, had positioned their chairs closely to doctor Sylum, and the bulky Herrik Gipson was solitary, a distant face enwreathed in shadows. Those that wanted something to drink could have it, but that was only Sylum. Off on another table, Gipson had unloaded the stacks of equipment, but they were always within a moment's reach.
“You mean about the legend?”
But it was more than an empty tavern, a creeping darkness depressing the surroundings. It was the same within. They were alone now. No more words had been exchanged with the king, only a worried nod and the release of the captive. And they had not been met with cheers befitting legendary heroes, but fearsome glances like those of wild dog's, unsure of a coming master. The people were not silent, but they did not speak to the four, and their comments did not make it so far as them. Suddenly choking under a horrible weight, the warriors of light passed beyond the crowd and towards the town, not sure what to feel, an uneasy Seville leading them to the only place he knew. Only the doctor smiled, and there was fear in it, the worry of realization, the worry of mistake.
“Of course. If I'm going to go on a legendary quest it'd be nice to know the legend, I think,” said Gipson, bringing his head in closer to the light and trying to make the best humor of the situation. He found he still needed to put on the moves. He was an outsider. It was inescapable.
Three of them had done their best to make small talk, friendly enough, but they were stifled. Even Seville couldn't find anything relevant to say in those first moments. Edrick, however, had said nothing at all, or even looked at the others with any social relevance. His eyes read the cracks of the tavern walls, counted the chairs, reflected the candle wick, and studied his twitching hands. Seville was subdued, keeping his arms lazy to his side and saying what came to his mind, if anything. But his energy had not faded from exertion, or from one of the doctor's potions, but instead faded from a dizzy release. Not long ago he was but a single crush from death, a swift moment from feeling the toothy maw of a dragon. This warrior, Gipson, this Knight of the Coast really was magnificent in battle. A thought came to Seville's mind, forcing him to ceremoniously look between the three men and cast a secret smile. Each of them had saved his life today.
Seville and Edrick gave a concessionary glance to Sylum.
“Well,” said Sylum, trying to sound as humble as physically possible, “The Lux Aeterna is a very old legend, once widely accepted but now fallen to the wayside like a children's story.”
“Lux A...?” sounded Gipson, a confused and uplifted brow, Seville broke in.
“Lux Aeterna. Means 'Eternal Lights' in ancient.”
“Right,” said Sylum, “So anyways, the legend says that four warriors will appear holding four orbs of light, one each for earth, fire, water, and air.” Sylum pulled his own orb forward and held it above the candle, groove forward. “See here, a water droplet for water. Edrick's has a flame, Seville's a mountain range for earth, and if you check yours, Master Gipson, I believe you will find a progression of lines resembling a whirlwind. For air, obviously.”
Gipson removed his orb curiously from his pocket and surveyed it first himself.
“Quite right,” he said, and then placed the orb on the table. It was the identical size and make of the others, distinguished only by the swirling ridges and…
“Hey, it's clear!” Seville said, craning his neck in. The orb was not filled with that mysterious gray gas, but shone transparent from end to end. Through it the person across the table seemed to look back at you, only distorted and stretched.
“Huh,” said the doctor, lifting it close. “I suppose it is still active. A good sign if you ask me. So, according to the legend these four warriors will appear at times of global turmoil and will restore order to the world.”
A moment of silence.
“And that's supposed to be us?” asked Gipson, a severe note of doubt.
“Well the evidence stacks. We have four,” and Sylum gave a concerned glance at the distant Edrick, “Ahem…four warriors and four orbs, and while I can't speak for the state of the world, Corneria is in great turmoil. Fields of crops have failed, our primary mines have run dry, we're a diplomatic puppet nation, and topped on that, our leader's daughter has gone missing.”
“Why has the king not rescued this princess?”
Seville chimed in, cutting Sylum's prepared answer off, “Because the king is only interested in the festival. He's blessed to have it in his reign, and wasn't gonna let something like the abduction of his daughter ruin that. He's not a bad king but he's a popularity grubber.”
“Would not a triumphant search for his daughter improve his popularity?”
Seville and Sylum bounced a look between each other. As usual, they were on the same wavelength. Seville spoke:
“Why do you think the king is letting us do it?”
“Ahhhhhh!” mused Gipson.
“Think of it! The coming of the light warriors, whose first job becomes the rescuing of his daughter! Eliv will be the most documented king in history. He saw it and grabbed it!” said Sylum, building steam.
“Yeah, and less than a percent of the population will have the brains to notice that the coming of the light warriors actually speaks badly of a king.” Seville continued.
“I don't understand.” And then another glance between Sylum and Seville.
“Follow us, big guy. If the light warriors come at times of great turmoil, then it doesn't speak highly of a king that his reign was characterized by turmoil. The light warriors are the solution to crappy rulers.”
“Right, but nobody's going to catch that in the history books.”
“I guess only you boys will!” said Gipson jovially. Seville and Sylum usually didn't like it when somebody couldn't keep up with them, a haughtiness that edged on vice, but Gipson was different. They found that they liked him immediately. They both secretly noticed that he had an infectious smile.
“But even though it seems meager on his part, such a character trait actually works to our advantage in this situation. Saves us a lot of time at least.”
Gipson nodded acceptingly but then looked to the neglected side of the table, where a blonde young man in white robes was looking up, as if he were counting the planks along the ceiling. With an up-thrust of his eyebrows he regarded Edrick to the others, a questioning look on his face. It was difficult to be an intimate outsider. He longed for the invisible shield between an audience and the stage. Seville shook his head with a silent chuckle.
“Huh, what?” Edrick stumbled as he shot out of his trance and quickly surveyed the table to see what had changed. “What?”
“Are you with us? On board with us, Eddie?” Seville said carefully. He knew very well that Edrick would be difficult to convince. In fact, almost nobody would go along with the professor as quickly as he, Seville, would, but Edrick might not go along with even the minister on something like this. Seville suddenly flared with an anger at Edrick's peevishness, something he couldn't quell.
“We can't do it without you, Eddie. You're a part of this. You know that, right?” he said, and Edrick focused his attention on Seville. The three of them would be too much at once. Even when he spoke it was low and directional; Sylum and the worried Gipson had to lean forward.
“It's just that … well, I don't see four warriors.” Edrick said, sending Seville abruptly to the defensive, but the other two remained calm. “I see one warrior, keeping company with a thief, an accomplice too smart to be one, and a no-talent priest who's gonna be discharged when the minister learns that I helped you out, Seville.”
Seville did not envy Edrick's persistent rationality, even though they were among what Sylum called “the same peer group”. With such child-like mannerisms, the busyness of the fingers, the isolated attention, the neurotic sheepishness, Edrick could hardly be called a man, but Seville could also not call him a boy, no boy has the pension for caution like Eddie Valance. Still, you could admire how the freckles upon his pale skin, crawling up over the bridge of his nose and pooling over each cheek made him look like a boy, much more of one than Seville. This was how Seville always thought of it.
“No talent? Come on, Eddie, surely you're good at something. Not cure spells, obviously, but certainly something!” said Seville with a friendly grin.
“Seville.” Dr. Sylum cut in. “Now, Edrick, warriors are not always defined by combat prowess. I don't deny that Master Gipson is the most obvious warrior among us.”
“Well I guess that's good,” rang in Gipson with a full-bellied laugh. This white- robed boy concerned him, but past that concern was a comfortable vibe. This might not be so crazy after all.
“And I know you have seen Seville practice with his daggers. His swiftness is key to any battle.” And Seville pulled a dinner knife from a holder upon the bar and spun it quickly through his fingers, tossed it back and forth a bit, and then launched it upwards where it spun in perfect circles, came to an apex where it seemed to hang for an eternity, and then sliced downwards, landing with a dull thud back in the holder. Seville gave a confident smirk.
“And you, Edrick, your white magic, regardless of what this one has to say,” an authoritative jab at Seville, “…will be invaluable. Master Gipson, as a seasoned adventurer, tell young Edrick the importance of a healer to any traveling party.”
Gipson perked up, his head bobbing a few times and his shoulders becoming flat and centered, “Um, yes, well, since I put out books on classification, often the human side of the story is lost.” And then, for just the briefest moment, but there for someone as keen as Seville to see, Gipson traced his thoughts. He was treading carefully. “It would be bad for my career if I discussed how very many times I left a battle with but an inch of life left. I never adventure without a white mage of some kind. It's vital, really.”
“Exactly!” rooted Seville, “Don't you see, Eddie? You're the glue! You gotta be a part of it. You're a light warrior, you're kinda required to.”
Seville peered on with glimmering hope in his eyes, adding a brilliance to the reflected flame, but Edrick was still soft, nervous.
“And you?” Edrick said to Dr. Sylum. Sylum looked surprised at the question, but evaded a look of anger if it was there. Seville knew that the doctor was trying to avoid that topic.
“Me, well, I provide diplomatic support,” said Sylum, fastening on an unsure grin that Edrick wouldn't have. “And, um, I can hold my own in a fight! I've trained many hours.”
“Besides, he's bound to it, because if it turns out to be wrong, he's gonna pay for it!” chided Seville, and he laughed hard along with Gipson. They allowed themselves to enjoy it, because the tension had dropped to the side. It was obvious that Edrick was in their grasp now. The pressure had decreased. As Edrick slumped low in his chair, his characteristic sign of defeat, the rest of them fed smiles out to the bar. The tavern suddenly did not feel small or even feel to be there at all. They were alone, but they were whole, blanketed by a title: Light Warriors!
“But how are we gonna find the princess?” asked Edrick, still looking for an out, “People don't just disappear everyday, and they have a startling low recovery rate.”
“Oh, I don't think that should be a problem,” said Sylum matter-of-factly, but then pausing because he knew someone would ask.
“And why is that?” Edrick did the honors, but the other two were just as intent. Seville especially was eager to find what the doctor had up his sleeves. Sylum had his moments when everything just glowed.
“Because finding the princess isn't a principle concern given our situation.”
The three stared at him; something had taken a step backwards, and they were lost. Even Seville was confused for the moment.
“But we don't even know where she is?” cried Edrick, though emphatic speech from the young priest was more a whimper. Seville and Gipson turned their heads, admiring the tennis.
“We don't need to know! Edrick, you need to realize that you work for destiny now. Light warriors are infallible. Tomorrow we'll set out, north sounds good to me, and we'll find the princess, because destiny dictates that we must.”
“Wait a minute,” broke in Gipson with a forward push of his beefy palm, “You expect us to go out there without any kind of game plan? We could ask around first!”
“No need! It's tough to accept, but you'll have to understand that from now on, none of our choices are really our choices. There's only the illusion of choice here.”
“I don't understand how you're coming up with this, Doctor,” Gipson said, shaking his head and suddenly worried. Edrick had chosen to return to counting the ceiling; he'd decided to join, and shouldn't that be enough for now? Seville, however, was lapping this up. Sylum was putting out the goods tonight.
“Okay, just stick with me. Destiny, fate if you like, is basically the lack of choice. No matter how obscure or unbelievable it seems, everything we do is set. And it feels like you can escape it, but you can't. Even if I'm mortally wounded, and Edrick decides not to cure me, just to prove me wrong, it will just be what he was already meant to do, and since light warriors are immortal, something would have to happen to save me.”
“In a temporal sense, yes. We have a destiny that nothing can keep us from, no matter how difficult the road may seem. If the legend states that we are destined to bring order to the world, then we can't die until we do that, can we?”
“I guess …”
“It's paradoxical! If you could look into the future and know the moment you're going to die, then until that point, one could assume to be immortal. But that doesn't work. Just to prove it to his girlfriend some poor kid would jump off a cliff and kill himself.”
“But I thought you said…”
“I'm getting there! This is also a paradox, presumably the kid would find his time of death to be that time he jumped off the cliff, but then if he sees that, he's probably not going to go jumping off any cliffs. But it's different for us. We're not seeing the future, we're predicting it, and that's okay, because we have destiny on our side. We have something that gives us a hint!
“I just don't even…”
“But remember, because this is important. You can't act on this knowledge. Doing stupid stuff to prove fate wrong doesn't work, because the stupid things are a part of your fate. They have to be. Similarly, my blatant choice to set out unprepared on this mission is really the only choice I could make, and changing that choice wouldn't avoid destiny. You can't avoid it, only agree with it.” And Sylum allowed himself to stop and rest. The tavern was quiet a few moments, Gipson struggling, his face scrunching in and showing his wrinkles, which Seville noticed. Edrick, having paid little attention, looked down to regard the quiet but made no comment. Seville allowed a satiated smile, content.
“Zen adventuring!” he said with gleeful affirmation and Sylum nodded back to him appreciably.
“Exactly” said the doctor.
“Zen?” Gipson asked, not sure if he should continue trying.
“Discovery through enlightenment. How did you ever write a book?” joked Seville but he felt badly afterwards. Gipson took it with a flash of his eyes that was quickly submerged. And then the moment was allowed to settle further. Things were calm.
“You know,” spoke Seville, “There's nothing in the legend about saving a princess.”
“Seville, please! If we don't save the princess the king is not going to let us be light warriors. This is going to work.”
“I trust you, professor, I was just saying!”
“Well don't say it! You'll worry Edrick!”
“Huh?” Edrick dropped his head quickly and shot from side to side.
“Nothing, Eddie!” And Seville started laughing heartily. For all his spastic excess, at least you could have some fun with ol' Eddie. He and Seville had been friends for ten years. Their parents had known each other, so they didn't have much choice in the matter. But it was a strong friendship. Differences aside, there was something under the surface, an intangible certainty between them. It was trust, unbreakable trust. Seville felt it there, and knew it was real, or else Edrick would have seen him thrown in the dungeons long ago. Not often does a do-gooder, and a priest at that, go back on his principles. No, you had to be something special for that.
“Well, tomorrow then, gents,” said Gipson, looking out the window at the pitch darkness. A mix of glances swapped around and the motion was passed. Sylum and Edrick rose along with Gipson; Seville sat for a longer moment but then stood to see them away. Sylum drew up the four orbs and gave each to its owner, he seemed to place great weight in the doing so.
“Morning?” asked Edrick and Sylum answered.
“Of course! Don't be dense!” and then Edrick walked out the tavern and headed to wherever. As Sylum got to the door he turned and waved Seville closer, suddenly very serious.
“You will come to the quad?” he asked, deeply.
“Yeah, I'll, well … first I've got to talk to Mr. Dunnings.” Sylum looked hurt for a moment, as if disappointment had already taken him, but then he flattened his expression and nodded politely.
“Right,” he said, and walked out the door.
Herrik Gipson was still fitting on his many weapons, an act he did with quiet precision, as if the perfection in the act be important even at such a time as this. His hands were slow but dexterous; it looked almost like a ceremony, ordered and significant. He was silent, and Seville would not break this. He watched it with a blank gaze. The fluid motions of Gipson, his tall head erect and covered with noble features, a strong nose, pronounced chin, lengthy eyes, his broad figure, seeming to float over the table, and his hands, thick but refined. It came off of Gipson like heat. This was a great man, thought Seville. More than he could be. And the building admiration mesmerized him, almost soothed him.
At last Gipson turned and gave Seville a warm smile, one of his favorites.
“Sorry about that. Not easy being a walking tank,” and he chuckled comfortably. “Tomorrow then.”
Gipson made his way to the door before Seville returned with something.
“Master Gipson?” Why was he so meek all the sudden?
“Please, call me Sir.” Another chuckle.
“Have … have you ever seen anything like this?” Seville pulled the sleeve back on his shirt, revealing the sullen bruise covering most of his arm up to the elbow. Gipson's smile faded, even drooped to a frown. The skin squeezed in around his eyes, showing those wrinkles again, and he showed stern contemplation. With an assured hand he took the arm and brought it near, he studied the glowing veins and how the inky scar wrapped around Seville's fingers like dark flagella. The moment was murderous to Seville, horrible anticipation burning in his gut, and then Gipson released and let out a breathy sigh.
“It's called ghost rot, from a very powerful apparition by the looks of it. A shadow wraith, most likely,” Gipson said lowly. He seemed to be choosing his words with certain thought, “This is very bad.”
“What, I mean, do you know the cure?” Seville said with weak hope. Gipson didn't look like he had anything.
“No cure. Nor can you be cured. Ghost rot feeds off positive energy.”
“So,” a quiver growing in his voice that he fought as best he could, “what will happen?”
Gipson let out another heavy sigh, “Whether you feed it or not the rot will spread. Soon, whatever you're doing to fight it will stop working, the pain will be insurmountable. Ghost rot is … well, it's just tangible evil. Concentrated pain. And that pain will become so great it kills you. There's nothing wrong with your body, but the pain will be so immense that your mind would rather be dead. I've only heard of instances where people accept the whole disease. Every man in my experience to be inflicted has begged for death, and it was given to them as quickly as possible. A nicety.”
Seville felt as if each part of him was individually falling, each atom a drop in the waterfall. Chills scuttled south down his skin like the legs of centipedes, each hair taking its own moment to rise and sting.
“So, there's nothing?”
Gipson tried his sad smile but quickly took it off. It was the wrong cue. “Some people I've dealt with say that because the problem is not physical, if you truly believe that it will go away, it will. But nothing has ever been documented. This is bad, Seville.”
“What can I do? Anything?”
“You can only be careful. Constant vigilance. You will tell the doctor?” Seville looked up to Gipson's stern face, the liquids in his skull swirling.
“No. It would worry him, and he would begin to doubt.”
“But he will say it is your destiny. He will not worry.” Gipson said with a strong affirmation in his voice.
“It's … Professor Sylum is more complicated than he seems. If he knew about this he would not allow me to go, and I feel that I must. There's more to it than his destiny theory, he's knows it. I won't tell him.” Seville saw disapproval in Gipson's face, but it was with respect, the knight knew little of these men. Still, to smooth it over, Seville added, “Not yet, anyways.”
“You understand that it worries me as well? The rot is not something you go adventuring with.”
“Yes, I know that. But you will not tell them, right?”
“Of course, not. It is your business. But they should know. Honesty to the group, Seville. I'll take it over destiny any day. Try to get some rest.”
And Gipson tried to smile, but in the weakness it probably went unnoticed by the infected man. Gipson pushed open the door and took a breath of the night's crisp air. Seville watched him, a pall of shadow descending over the lands, up to the end of the street, and then he turned back into the bar.
Seville had studied his fearsome arm a few minutes more but decided to shroud it once again. That was a distant concern really, nothing at all. A thousand strikes from that creature's scythe he would gladly take before what was coming. He blew out two of the candles and then returned to his same seat. There he controlled his breath, intentionally long and deep, trying to calm that guilty flame within. He wrapped his arms together, eyes getting lost in the blue arcs and diagonals crossing over the tables. He wanted to stay that way. No adventure, no light warriors, no eccentric Sylum or skittery Edrick, no friendly Gipson, and especially no Dunnings. He felt drawn, as if he was insistently reaching for that serenity always slipping through his fingers.
Sudden thick steps to his side told him that Dunnings was coming from beneath. The large man rose above the counter and walked around. The single candle on the table cast light only up to his nose, and his eyes were left beyond the grim horizon. They gave only dull sparkles. His face was slumped. Seville saw his hands were full.
“Here, you're friend from the school brought these by after … well …” Dunnings placed a belt down on the table. Inserted into it were Seville's twin daggers. The belt lay limply, like a dead snake that Seville was afraid to touch should it spring to life and strike him. Seville did not even look at it, but still remained quiet. Friend from school? There was an encompassing tension in the air, but he wanted to let Dunnings move first.
“Quite a day,” said Dunnings, still keeping sentry above the table, casting a weighty glance down. “The centennial was impressive. I wish I'd had more time there. The first night is supposed to be the best, but I guess I'll have more time in the coming days.”
Seville let the words drift around; there was no landing for filler. “Yeah,” he said, “It was quite a day!”
It was awkward, each of them uncertain. Seville hated that bitter stare coming from Dunnings. He couldn't face it. Dunnings's eyes had arms and hands to grasp, choking fingers around Seville's neck that shut out the light. Why does getting your way always feel so bad? Minutes passed, but finally Dunnings spoke, a hidden condescension in his voice.
“A light warrior, huh?” That snapped it.
“Mr. Dunnings, I think…”
“Wait your turn!” Dunnings yelled. His voice had found a shout quickly, a fiery anger behind it. He centered himself and let out two firm breathes and then continued, slowly. “I've given a lot, Seville. I've given a lot to you. And I've tried hard, to do what is right but still let you be. I'm not your father, but…”
“Don't…” Seville tightened at the mention of his father, he could feel his heart slapping against his temples, the pulse making him shake.
“… But I like to think that I have made some of the right choices. Choices he might have made.” Seville hated how still Dunnings's voice was, so sure and angry.
“You don't know…” but Seville could not finish a thought. Glaring anger rose in him so quickly.
“But I'm at a handicap, you see. My choices are harder, because I will never get the respect from you that you gave to your father. It's something I've dealt with for a decade now.”
Seville wanted it to end, he was filling with an ugly hate, blacker than even ghost rot, but he did not want to let it out. He feared to let it out.
“I have always respected…”
“No, Seville!” Dunnings began to yell again, his thick voices piercing the halls. “Don't say something you can't support. Don't try to deny this burden upon me. I've tried, Seville, but still you get into the kinds of things you do. Thievery! Jail! And now you're going off on some holy quest! For what? A history teacher?”
“Don't … do that!” screamed Seville, rising to his feet, trying hopelessly to match his godfather's boom. “What is it you want? If you want me to stay, I'll stay! Just say it!”
“No, Seville, I don't want you to stay, I gave up on trying to control you.”
“What, then? Why?!”
Dunnings tried to calm a little but he flared instantly, “What I want is appreciation! Appreciation for everything I've been through, and everything I'm gonna go through. For as many mistakes I've made I can still ask that you show one ounce of appreciation, for all my hard work on you.” His voice softened a little. Seville was gripping the top of a chair, crunching it in his frigid hands, his teeth chattered as he talked.
“I … never tried to…”
“So am I selfish, Seville? Selfish for asking a return from the job I took? Well, if I'm selfish … then damn it! I deserve to be selfish!”
“Because how do I feel, Seville, when I remember your father entrusting you to me, and then watching you do the things you do? How does that make me feel? Heartbroken!”
“Stop it…” Seville was shaking all over.
“Because I'm going to die one day, Seville,” and then Dunnings voice seemed to break, high octaves of pitiful sadness, “And then I'm gonna have to tell him! Look him right in his eyes and tell him that I failed!”
Seville screamed out, slamming both his hands so hard into the table the legs gave way and then pointing an accusatory finger.
“Stop it!” his voice was high, screeching, and tears were forming in his eyes. “You will not use him against me!” And Dunnings was startled, a hurt flash of his eyes. “Nobody asked for this! I don't want it, and you don't want it, and he didn't want it! But I can't change that! And you will not use this pain I've felt against me. I won't apologize for my father's death!”
And the tears began to roll down Seville's pale cheeks, his voice trembling and weaker and his bottom lip rapidly bouncing back and forth. “Because, no matter how bad I may want it, I can't have him back. And sometimes that's all I want in the world. Mr. Dunnings, sometimes you try so hard, but still without him I feel like I've got nothing. Like I'm nothing!”
Dunnings could not respond, so Seville dropped his voice, wanting to take back so much of what little he'd said. He wanted everything to go away. “Mr. Dunnings, I know I make a lot of mistakes. I do stupid things, and maybe that means I'm stupid. I don't even know why I do them, but it's not your fault. It's my fault. Always.”
Dunnings slumped, let his bulk rest down on itself as the tension passed. The tears slid down Seville's face as he continued, “But, don't you see, this thing, the light warriors. I don't care about some legend. But stupid or not for the first time I'm doing something good, really good. And the professor, and Eddie, and even the knight. They like me! And that makes me like myself! So I just want to be with them.”
Seville paused to give Dunnings a chance if he wanted it, but he said nothing, only looked on with drooped eyes, soggy with moisture. He had brought them into the light so Seville could see, and for once Seville could look at them firmly, the anger passing, but still these two men were miles apart. An inky void between. Seville spoke slowly once more, assuredly.
“I'm sure, very sure, that my father wouldn't want me to be so alone.” And those words drifted in the air a bit, falling on the large man before Seville. “I will not go without your blessing, but I do want to go.”
And there was a moment there when all things were uncertain, when all things floated above and swirled around them. Seville was drained, empty but for a single hope that suffocated more with every breath. The dragging silence brought fresh tears that he fought back with sad gulps. But then Dunnings spoke, soft and morose, distant, defeated.
“Godspeed, Seville. I ask you return safe, and with that knight around I'm sure you will.” But Dunnings would not even look up; attain a final image of the boy for his mind. As Seville picked up his belt and walked out of the tavern, he thought terribly of how certain he was he was going to die on this journey, and that Dunnings would have no final memory of him. He had looked away. Perhaps it was a memory that Dunnings didn't want, Seville's final hour also his lowest.
Outside the shadowy pall had not lifted, the earth still covered in an infinite sadness.
Chapter 5 ~ Random Encounters
Dr. Darrin Sylum was as chipper as he'd ever been. He'd decked on his finest non-dress attire, a bright red cloak and skillfully crafted leather armor that he'd picked up early that morning at the fair. It was way too expensive, but that's hardly a concern for a light warrior. He had a shoe and hat cobbler put refurbishing touches on his tri-quarter steepled hat, and even found a white feather off the ground to put in the band. All his traveling equipment was fresh as well, a water-resistant nylon bedroll, a spacious backpack he'd filled with his books and potions and extra glasses, a non-stick cooking skillet (another of the fair's big attractions), and even a miniature coffee maker. All very expensive, all not a concern. But his finest possession, and that which he was most proud of, was his new short sword, finished by elvish artisans from Elfhein itself. It glowed an absorbent blue even in the morning's light, and the scabbard was so well crafted of druid's wood that it too could serve as a weapon and withstand many blades' strikes. This had broken the rest of his bank, and he was sure that his light warrior status had granted him a discount, but what did it matter? He was meant to have it, as a light warrior. Did you hear that? Light warrior. Boy that sounds good!
He hadn't been able to sleep that night from all the excitement. It almost made him dizzy-headed. Finally forfeiting the chance, Sylum had gotten up and entered the beautiful dawn and walked down to the fair grounds to find his provisions. To him everything suddenly looked brighter, every piece of the world suddenly filled with enormous purpose. They had greeted him pleasantly along the tents and booths, a confident smile on their faces. It had taken time to settle in the lesser mind of the average Cornerian, but now that it had sunk in, they realized they were saved. The light warriors had come and soon all their problems would wash away like a morning's tide. King Eliv had really delivered; the first night of the centennial had been quite the event.
Having stocked his equipment and readied it for journey, Sylum removed his new short sword and performed katas he had learned out of a manual. The steps were mainly wrong, but the Cornerians didn't know that, and Sylum sure looked good doing them, that brilliant sword sparkling back the pink and turquoise hues of dawn's horizon, sending crisp images of color into the eyes of the salesmen and early bird shoppers. A night of missed sleep would not depress the energy in him; he flushed with it, seeping with charisma. The day had come for Darrin Sylum.
There was a fountain in the center of town, built upon a natural hill, and this was the decided meeting place of the four. Sylum was the first to arrive, which was as he wanted it. The statue in center of the fountain was of King Ranier, husband to Queen Tchai and founder of the centennial celebration. An actual crown, built just for this occasion had been fashioned for the statue and Sylum spent his down time admiring the golden sparkles set against the distant horizon, the rubies and sapphires seeming to glow. It was a magnificent work, a staple piece for any artisan to admire, and something too good for the old statue to wear. Sylum noticed the statue's shoddy refinements, the folds along the skin weak, the nose small and downcast. This king had no backbone. Sylum mused over how his new sword looked better than the king's.
The second to arrive, much to the doctor's surprise, was Edrick Valance, equipped with minimal packing and still wearing his uniform of white robes lined at the cuffs with red stitches. He had not tended to his hair, which was mashed into spiraled clumps along one side but still smoothly bowl-like on the other. Edrick yawned as he approached the fountain, his eyes efficiently scanning the surroundings, searching for the others, a going away party, the minister, anything. Just scanning. Just in case.
“Happy to see you come!” chimed Sylum, his voice almost bouncing.
“Well I'm required to be a man of my word,” Edrick responded dully, still a tad sour perhaps.
“Ah, but you never actually gave us your word.”
“Are you suggesting I…”
“I'm suggesting that you've already gone beyond my expectations, and I look forward to being further impressed in the future.” Sylum smiled, a scholarly sense of acceptance, but Edrick didn't seem to care.
“Right…” he said, and then he lay down his pack are started twisting around awaiting the coming of the others. He wanted to see them coming, and already, in just these very few moments, a short apprehension had developed in him. Would the others not come? Had they abandoned him already? Worse, had they left him with … him?! Sylum was apparently dancing, jumping briskly from side to side and making not-so-graceful sweeps with his sword.
Edrick had also not slept. His night had been occupied by three mutually pointless endeavors: pacing, mumbling, and packing the wrong equipment. More than once he had stopped himself with a slap, tore away from a trance, and then studied the contents of his feverishly stuffed pack, only to sulk angrily and turn it up over, spilling the contents to the floor. Skittling across the stonework would be empty vials, stacks of holy symbols, a handful of signet rings, about ten drinking cups, several decks of cards, and so on and so on. What kind of stuff is that to be packing? Under his breath his mumbles were frantic, and yet repetitive, the same half-brained ideas trampled over again and again. They were excuses mainly, something to tell the minister, but also snuck in there were attempts to build himself up. Light warrior, huh? Stupid, but maybe.
Even then, next to the ivory fountain, orange in the early sun, Edrick rolled speech softly passed his lips, his glance affixed on a wandering nothing, and yet, so certain was this fixation that Edrick did not hear the metallic jangle of the coming man. Indeed, not until the tall giant of armor came upon him and slapped him on the back saying, “Wake up, Bucko!” did Edrick realize that the knight had arrived.
Herrik Gipson, though you wouldn't know it under any other circumstance, was quite possibly the most beautiful man on the planet. It was his custom to lead off each adventure in full battle dress, finished by his complete arsenal. His silver full plate shone an astonishing mixture of amber and gules, glossy like his hair. Each of his weapons was fitted into scabbards of the same make and tinting, poetic symbols etched down their lengths. His pack was swiftly thrown to the side, a pitiful detractor from the splendor of world famous Gipson. Across his equipment belt his potions had been restocked and then doubled in number, but still the single book hung from its chain. Logically enough, he'd left the helmet off so that his vibrant hair could jut off into its fancy spikes. Looking like this, his secret wrinkles had departed, and his face appeared smooth and young. Were the sun to his back, with his chest lifted so high and readied, he very well might have eclipsed the continent. And over his eyes were dark-set spectacles; sunglasses, he called them.
“But one of us to go, Gents,” said Gipson with a flashy bow. Immediately Sylum and he connected on an unspoken level. Excitement; it virtually percolated between them.
“Yes,” said doctor Sylum, “I worry that he will be a late show.”
“He was to have words with someone about this, correct?” asked Gipson, conversationally.
“Yes. His godfather, Mr. Dunnings who runs the tavern, you met him. He will not be keen on this, but he will accept it.” Sylum put some strength into that, feeling determined, but then he said, “Seville did not show at the quad last night where we were to meet, but I was not too surprised. He will come; I'm not worried about that.”
“Then I will not be worried. Since you are our … unspoken leader I'll say, I will trust your decisions.”
Sylum stood on his tip-toes briefly and beamed out a smile so pleasant that even Gipson was impressed. He couldn't deny that he liked this knight, and he found it no wonder that his popularity was so renowned.
“And what about you, Edrick?” asked Sylum, “Are you worried?”
“Huh? What?” Edrick had drifted away again, but Sylum only chuckled.
“Of course you are!” he said, and to this the large knight laughed heartily.
Gipson had slept deeply and calmly the entire night through. The next day was an excitement for him but one he would contain for the sake of well-being. He knew that the others would be bothered, whether eager or not, and that they would miss out on the much needed rest. Surely this was not the best adventuring group he could accompany, but the quick-starting camaraderie left him warm inside. It felt right with this group of four, from the headstrong doctor to the quivering priest. And when he awoke that very morning and sucked in those first few breaths of crisp morning's air, a strength surged through him like electricity. The air was different on the mornings of adventure, especially the first day. It was sharp and precise and aware and somehow fuller than ever, drenching him with life in every breath. He'd been looking forward to another eight days of acting, book signings and sales pitches, but now, oh, an adventure had called to him, something so sparse in the realm of celebrity that he'd forgotten the stalwart power of its voice. And he heeded it gratefully, a kind of Gipson worship.
“A remarkable day for such a thing,” said Sylum, eager to bask in Gipson's heraldic glow. Sylum knew that he was silently criticized by many people throughout the Cornerian township, new ideas were never on anybody's favorites list, but now he had so much more before him. And most of it all was celebrity, an undeniable importance to those around him, and his mouth salivated for it. His admiration of Gipson grew with every second he spent realizing that this knight before him was a master of celebrity, so attuned to its graces and yet not a sham, the battle with the dragon had been proof enough of that. Sylum could learn from him, and would.
“Quite beautiful indeed, Mr. Sylum. I don't know about lore as you do, but I'm certain that heaven's canvas shining down on an adventurer like that cannot be a bad thing.” An affirmative glance crossed between Sylum and Gipson, proud and intact.
Edrick's voice startled them so suddenly that it almost shot away their vibe, but they regained it and turned around to see Seville coming slowly up the brick path, his shoulders low and discontent. Still, he was dressed for adventuring, his studded leather armor fastened around simple clothing, his daggers sheathed and readied, and his pack filled heavily with equipment. From a quick glance at that distance he was skeletal. His pale white skin did not seem to reflect the gentle sunlight, and his eyes seemed sunken in, leaving sullen dark patches like nothing more than a skull. As he approached the dark pockets of shadow beneath his eyes became more apparent, and his brown irises were a closer hue to black. His dangly hair had been handled briefly, but now resembled bars around his head as if it were stuck in a cage. He did not offer a smile, and that depressed the chattiness of Sylum and Gipson.
“It did not go well?” asked Sylum, almost fatherly in tone, and Seville shook his head back, like a disciplined dog.
“What did he say?”
“Ya know, I don't really wanna talk about it, okay?” And with that he stopped approaching and gave a stand-offish stare, deep into the others.
“Of course, Seville. The time will come.” Sylum said and let it drop as easily as that. Gipson offered an upswing of his eyebrows but could think of nothing else and Edrick did nothing specific at all.
For that moment they stood, admiring the growing realization that the ultimate choice had finally come. All talk before had been for show, all deliberations merely something to pass the time. The real moment was now, and it seemed to set on them an unbearable weight. Only Gipson had felt this before, and he recognized it in the others with a longing remembrance. Ah, to be so young. So then he put on one of his smiles and got them started, turning northwards to the path out of town.
“Well, there it is, Gents. Just waiting for us to take it by the horns.” And the others filed next to him in a line, sharing his resplendent gaze to the distance, “It's probably a long road, shoot, I hope it is, but we've got something between us that I've never felt before in all my long years of doing this. We've got the real thing. For all the experienced soldiers and mages and priests I've pleasured myself in aiding, only now do I feel the power of the real deal. Dr. Sylum, I don't know what to think about this theory of yours, but I know that I want this either way. How else can I put it? I feel good!”
“And I, too!” added Sylum, trying to roll it along to Seville or Edrick but to no avail.
They let it rest in them a moment more, the absolute release of all bounds and the escape into a world of wonder. The point of no return was consecutively so terrible and so great, a push and pull of all things. And standing there, shoulder to shoulder, they impressed their visages upon the earth, each different and defined. Gipson smiled at the feelings of mixed comfort and mystery, a sudden adventure of overwhelming importance. Sylum smiled also, but at thoughts of the prize, at thoughts of simply being a light warrior. The eagerness thrilled him, and he felt like he should be hopping. Seville burned his eyes against the long path but felt the welcome melting away of so many things. His lips were turned down and hardened, his arms set firmly by his sides. There were so many things he had to find out about himself and finally the chance was before him. Behind his stony gaze were all emotions in the vast spectrum, from excitement to fear. And Edrick, poor Edrick, was gently shaking his head from left to right, his boyish cheeks brought up high, a subtle whimper in his throat. How did things go so wrong?
To everyone's surprise, Seville took the first step, and a journey began.
“Okay, how about a commemoration toast to our first day?” asked Sylum, boasting a cheerful smile to the others and digging down into his pack
Seville, sitting to Sylum's right, protecting that side of the fire, said, “You can't drink a toast with water, Professor.” Seville had livened up already, the three hours walk before camping for lunch having done him some good.
“Not a problem, my dear boy! I've got something better, picked it up at the festival this morning.” And Sylum finally had grasp of what he was seeking, and just before pulling it forth he glanced at the others. Seville was eager and dressed himself with a much needed smile. Gipson, sitting across the low fire, also smiled, still euphorically enjoying the bright sunny air and moderate exercise. Even Edrick had come around a little, comfortable in the assurance given by the fact that they were not already dead, nor had they even been attacked. He looked on, allowing a faint intrigue, as Sylum nodded and pulled out four small glass bottles, painted red with white stripes traversing from top to bottom in sinusoidal curves. Sylum started handing them around energetically.
“I don't think alcohol is such a good idea, Professor,” said Edrick, holding the frail bottle away from him as if it was diseased. “What if we were to come across a band of monsters, or…”
“Oh, come on, Edrick, a little taste never hurt anybody,” responded Sylum playfully before he started laughing at Edrick's stammering, insulted body language. The priest slapped the bottle down into the dirt, the brown particles shooting up and sticking to the condensation, and then he huffed and looked back to the fire. Sylum saw that Gipson and Seville both were careening towards bursting laughter, and so he broke it away.
“I'm messing with you, Edrick. You're going to have to relax if you want this adventure to be of much use to anyone. It doesn't have any alcohol in it. In fact, that's kind of the point.”
“What do you mean?” asked Seville, swirling the dark brown liquid in the bottle but still not removing the cap.
“Well, as the salesman put it, 'If you don't like your kids gettin' worked up on hard drinks but don't have time to go to the well, then, just give'em one of our soft drinks. Not a drop of alcohol but just as sweet, you'd think it was candy.' They had a big assortment, so I got a few, seemed like a good thing at the time.”
Seville squinted in at white writing along the grasp of the bottle, sounding out the syllables, “Co --- ca ---- cola?”
“Yeah, that's how he said it. Said it was their most popular flavor. Lots of weird names like that, though, we'll try a few more later. While supplies last as it were.”
As Sylum spoke, Herrik Gipson snapped open the top of his bottle with a powerful shake of his palm and held it high, a single ray of sun bounding off the curved neck, a downed half of it in one gulp. He followed this with a dramatic sigh, brushing the chilled air of the drink over his tongue, and then he brightened.
“Wow!” he said, “That's good!” And the others immediately went to work on their cokes as well. Sitting there, listening to the crackle of a daytime fire, watching the smoke lift in small puffs, and absorbing themselves with wilderness to each direction, they felt whole and unabashed. It was pleasant.
The trek so far had been uneventful, their process swift but not burdensome. On the contrary, it felt like the soles of their shoes were cushioned but millimeters above the earth, clean and buoyant air left between, and that they really floated onwards, their packs light and comfy. Seville most of all had felt the release of burden, as if his troubles were attached to Corneria by an unbreakable chain, and in leaving the town he also left them. Along the wide expanses of plain and forest he was confused and excited by the wonderful mixture he received of freedom and containment. He had escaped, but escaped with those he admired. It was suddenly so easy to not be a shepherd of gloom.
After making what Gipson considered a good distance, they settled in to lunch, frying up what little meat they could bring without spoilage in Sylum's nifty pan. It was light, but Gipson commented on this as well, saying that an adventurer must consume little, just in case a battle should come. Loving the vibe, no one spoke concern of moving onward after lunch. They silently agreed to enjoy the moment for what it was, each of them uncertain of what was to come.
“What's that book you carry, Master Gipson?” asked Edrick, maybe as a penance for being duped by Sylum, and at the question Gipson chuckled with pleasure.
“Monsters Manual Abridged, travel size. The first draft even, only one of its kind, but probably not for too long. The Knights plan to sell them, but we're still going through some format changes. No room for the pictures you see.” Gipson lifted it and spread, revealing endless, dense text. “I like to keep it on hand just in case.”
“Hey man,” chimed in Seville, sipping his drink slowly, “Read us something. Ya know, something exotic!”
“Well, I suppose if we've got the time I could…” And then Gipson spun his head quickly, darting a furtive glance into the far brush lying at the foot of the forest. The other three froze at his brisk action and sudden silence; they could just slowly crane their necks to follow Gipson's stare. The party sat in an open field a little over a hundred yards from the forest. The noises emerging were common and ordinary, birds and the scratching of branches against one another. But Gipson's ears seemed almost to stretch, as if to increase their horn and capture a distant rustling unheard by all others. All sounds around them seemed to magnify, as if each of them now had an unknown importance, but when Seville finally asked, “You hear somethin'?”, Gipson only returned a confused nod followed by:
“I thought so, but whatever it is it stopped.”
It was unsettling to say the least, and the feeling pervaded even when they returned to idle speech, Gipson detailing adventures where his keen hearing had played quite a part. According to him, he could hear a blade being unsheathed a mile away. But it suddenly felt like a mask, especially to Sylum who was surprised to find that sometime during the silent moment his hand had gripped his short sword and prepared to use it. Without thought it had happened. Sylum noted with a chill that doubtless a battle was coming one day. One day, he was going to have to fight.
Gipson had not been talking for much longer, Seville and Edrick leaning in with fascinated stares, when he shot around hard again, pressing his gaze even deeper into the brush. At once his eyes connected with a movement unseen by the others, a pattern of motion within the leaves just beyond the range of the wind. He followed it across and back, until the others had almost decided to call it quits on account of their knight going mad, but just then a creature emerged from the bushes and vaulted towards them, moving slowly on its little legs.
“…Forest Imp?” finished Edrick for the others. Gipson's eyes, equally keen, squinted and then widened back.
“It would appear so.”
The singular forest imp was beating its legs hard, swinging its two tiny arms on each side in quick jerky motions. Outstretched in its right hand, distinguished by a pale glimmer, was a dagger. It wore tattered green clothing, stripped around its body like long threads over a pincushion. Its skin was pale and rotten, with a spiked nose and miniscule eyes all black and sharp. But they couldn't tell all this yet. At this pacing and at this distance, it would take the imp over a minute to be upon them.
“Is he, uh, attacking us?” asked Sylum, a giggle just under his breath, and it was the same for Gipson.
“It would appear so.” By now they could hear the frantic panting of the little imp, high and squeaky, fast-paced in short gasps. Still a ways to go, the imp maintained its charge and wildly swinging limbs.
“Uh … alone?” asked Sylum, still confused, still amused. Gipson finally broke his gaze and looked over to the doctor.
“It would certainly appear so.”
“But I thought they didn't attack by themselves,” said Edrick, far too concerned for the likes of a single imp.
“Well, it looks like this one's going to, Edrick,” said Gipson, admiring the steadfast approach of the creature. By now they could hear the growls under its voice, like those from a tiny dog. Another thirty seconds maybe if it didn't desist. Somehow the party was at a lack of physical response. They sat and watched it come, a communal face of bewilderment thrown out around them.
“Okay, if this is to be our first encounter,” started Seville, “Then I propose we leave it to our dear white mage, Eddie Valance!”
“What?” screamed the priest, backing a few steps defensively.
“Oh, come on, Edrick, it's just a forest imp. Here, I brought something just for you.” Sylum said before digging into his pack and quickly removing a slick metal canister, cylindrical with a wedged top sporting a small hole on one side and a button on the apex. “Catch!”
As usual the priest dropped it but he clawed it up quickly, “What is it?” he said.
“It's a mace,” responded Sylum, eager as with all his festival finds. The imp held his charge; they could here the soft wheezing of the creature hacking for breath. Perhaps this imp had asthma.
“This is no mace!”
“Of course it is! Just aim it when the time comes, try not to hit yourself. One shot in the face should do the trick.”
“And with that we better make room, Gents,” said Gipson before standing, stretching quickly, and then walking around behind Edrick, clearly in the mood for this sport. Seville and Sylum followed, and before the three stood Edrick, shaking and holding a thick canister pathetically in his hands. Shaking, and all over a stupid forest imp.
The imp was finally upon them and, politely, it briskly hurtled around all of their materials and ran hard at Edrick. It growled quick, choppy goblinoid speech, and the spit flung freely from his maw as it did it. With a two-legged pounce it dove at Edrick who, summoning power he didn't know he had, quickly sidestepped and the imp fell into the dirt. Frenzied, it jumped to its feet and rounded towards Edrick, ready for another strike. After gaining some speed it performed a similar lunge that Edrick equally dodged, once again dirtying the face of the imp.
“Use the mace, Eddie!” cried out Seville, though it was good fun watching the priest do something right for a change. Edrick nodded and aimed the canister, assuring that the hole was faced out. His index finger rubbed the button until it was warmed with sweat while the imp prepared once more. Another lunge, another dodge.
“Now, Edrick!” commanded Gipson like a wise master, and the priest ran in to the creature and depressed the button. From the hole jetted a thick mist of sparkling droplets that blew into the imp's face. The imp immediately dropped his dagger and started crying out in terrible wails. It scuttled its bony hands over its face and bit up and down frantically. Edrick jolted back and watched the pathetic little goblin stumble stupidly as it gnashed it its own face. Its beady eyes scanned the party for a few moments and then the imp turned and ran back towards the forest, crying the entire way. Seville in those few moments realized that no more awful and sad noise could be known than that of an imp crying. Part of it broke his heart.
There was nothing to say. Nothing! They stood momentarily, absorbing the weirdness. Edrick especially was at a loss, the canister still jittering in his hands. Seville thought at first that Edrick might find some release in battle, but no, it wasn't to be. Edrick returned to his quiet and nervous self. Perhaps it was just the way it went down, thought Seville to himself, always wanting the best for Edrick. I wouldn't want to fight one imp either!
But eventually the milling ceased and they returned to their positions around the fire, a secret message interlocking between them, telling them it was time to go. The silence of packing was depressing for Seville. He'd been so content with the way it was going; he couldn't let that slip away.
“Well, I guess that explains what you were hearing in the forest,” he said distantly with a weak grin on his face.
“No, it doesn't.” responded Gipson, “I know what an imp sounds like, this was something else.”
The motion of the crew halted once again.
“Human,” said Gipson darkly. “We're being followed. Nothing to do but wait'em out. Keep packing, it's time to go.”
They couldn't speak for awhile after this. Glances were passed around, confused and worried, but nothing substantial. Once all were packed, Gipson pressed out the fire and they started marching again; the day was still young.
“Okay, so what do we know?” asked Seville, bringing a head to currently dawdling conversation.
“About what?” Sylum returned. They'd been on the road for another few hours, the afternoon sun now hanging heavy in the air and making them sweat. They'd drawn in closer to the trees where they could procure some shade, but by Gipson's suggestion they never traveled within the forests themselves, as most monsters made their homes there.
“About her. About anything that'll help us find the princess, destiny or no. I love ya, Professor, but I'd feel better if I knew where we were going.”
“I'll have to agree with the rogue on that one there,” said Gipson, who'd developed a habit of scanning the brush at regular intervals. Edrick however was still distant and had spent most of the trip picking oblong rocks up from the dirt and chucking them out into the grass fields, seeing if they'd skip. It works better over water, but it doesn't really matter in the face of endless walking. Edrick's face had reddened a good bit over the day; his pale skin wasn't used to such sun. He went on chucking his rocks.
“Well, we know she was kidnapped, because the kidnapper left a note. No name, obviously, and no apparent motive. In the two weeks since the abduction nothing new has come up, no ransom demands or anything like that. Nobody in the king's court has made leave lately, so it doesn't seem to be an inside job.”
“What we know, professor, not what we don't know.”
“Okay, we know that as the princess she's the most beautiful maiden in the land, so it's possible she was just abducted by a creep. We know that her and her father had a lot of political differences, which could have a part to play in his less than stellar attempts at rescuing her. And, assuming that she's still on the continent, there are only so many places she could be. If it'll make you all feel better we'll stop at the next town and ask some questions, perhaps our reputation might have already preceded us.”
“Perhaps the note was forged and she's just run away,” added Seville with a smirk.
“…Perhaps. But if the king got that impression I imagine he'd react differently. If we're right, and I think we are, he's always seen this whole ordeal as a publicity stunt, but if the princess is unrecoverable, then the publicity will be bad publicity, and that's not what King Eliv wants. No, somehow he is sure that the note is genuine, so we'll have to go off that.”
Seville and Gipson crowed around doctor Sylum as he spoke authoritatively. Edrick stayed to himself and his rock skipping game. Sylum continued:
“My conjecture is that some as yet unknown party is trying to put political pressure on the king. But it's too early to come out with anything solid. Eliv is slow and deliberative, so this third party will wait as long as it takes until the king loses his cool. Already Eliv has become increasingly rash, but the third party wants more, wants a potential collapse no doubt.”
“So who's the third party?” asked Gipson, taking Seville's place as the rogue went over to slap Edrick on the head and then dodge the retaliatory strike.
“Well, if we're lucky, the third party is somebody from Corneria, a farmer or miner who's fallen on bad times and feels like lashing out. At least there we can establish a motive. But what is more likely, I'm afraid, is that it's no one. Just some guy who's decided to do something crazy and seek political gain while he's at it. Corneria could be on its way to great change, good or bad.”
“Unless of course we stop it,” affirmed Gipson.
“Which we will,” said Sylum with an appreciative glance.
The brief moment of play had come and gone, and Edrick returned to skimming the rocks into the high grass. They already developed a habit of spacing their dialogue, not wanting to use it all up so soon, so they were quiet for now, most of them thinking about the dull burn on the soles of their feet, Gipson thinking about the brush at the rim of the forest. The rhythmic sounds of Edrick's stones thumping in the distance became a comfortable binder. There was no need to speak as long as something was happening. Still, it was quite welcome when a rogue stone lanced into the high grass and sent back a loud metallic thud.
Before the others had even interpreted the noise Gipson had pulled one of his long swords and dashed at the grass, impressively swift under such heavy capacity. With a lunge he entered the green stalks and disappeared behind their curtain, and then all the others could hear was his movement, armor jangling, the displacement of vegetation. Next came two violent swoops of his sword sending feathery blades of grass up into the air. And then finally shouting, indistinct and angry. When Gipson emerged he was holding a man firmly from the collar of his shirt, and when he was open enough, Gipson released the man with a shove to the ground.
“Why do you trail us?” Gipson shouted, towering over the man who pressed himself in random directions upon his forearms. Even without Gipson to compare with, this man on the ground would be small, his features thin and untrained.
“Now hold on a minute! Hold on a minute!” said the man as he tried to stand, but Gipson returned him to the floor with a shove of his boot.
“Answer first!” yelled Gipson, making sure the man could see the tip of his sword in his limited vision.
The man pressed himself back a little, trying to increase the gap, “Come on, now, I mean you no harm!” His voice was more deep than his frame suggested, punctuated with expressive sincerity.
“Then why do you trail us?” asked Gipson once more, circling around and giving a nod to the rest party that things were under control. “Speak and I'll let you be.”
“Because it's my job!” said the man before thrusting a defiant look into Gipson's solid face, and then he pushed himself up and brushed off his clothes. He wore a light blue t-shirt and black slacks that held a little too low on his ankles. To his belt were attached a few wooden dowels and what appeared to be graphite pencils. When standing he was not so short as he looked on the ground, his hair peppery though his face his young. He had a snooty upturned nose and his cheeks appeared to blush out wider than the rest of his head, they were rosy pink. In fact, all put together he was quite odd looking.
“What job is that?” interrogated Gipson with controlled tempo, “Assassin?”
“Do I look like an assassin?” asked the man smartly, and as if going completely about his business, he reached into his pocket and removed a crumpled up loose-wicker hat that, with some fluffing, stood like a single tall steeple over his head. The brim was wide and put a shadow on his face. Gipson seemed to take this as a personal insult.
“You look enough like one to me!” and Gipson moved closer with his sword, raising it to threaten.
“Hold on a minute!” the man cried. Gipson ever approaching, the man jumped back with a single hop and made of precise motion with his arms, which instantly flung from them a small orb of fire that shot into the ground with a pop and sent dust clouds into the air. Gipson stopped moving.
“… Black mage,” the knight said, indicating the direction towards his partners with a quick glance. He still held his sword readied, but was now more cautious. If there's one thing a monster hunter hates to deal with, it's a black mage.
“Now just hold on a minute! I'm not here to kill anybody!” said the man, his two hands raised forward in a warding formation. Standing off to the side, a spectator to the showdown, what Seville was noticing was how this man had a particularly short way of connecting his words, like an auctioneer's voice.
“Then for what?” demanded Gipson, taking a few strong steps forward, to which the man turned to the others.
“Whoa, now! Are you all gonna pull this barbarian off me or what?”
“Master Gipson, give him a moment,” said Sylum, establishing his duty. The doctor came forward slightly as Gipson desisted. “Now, what job is it you speak of? And what's your name?”
The man pointed at the large knight as he made a little distance and hugged the perimeter, “That's abominable behavior for a light warrior!”
“Well, it seems you know who we are,” continued Sylum coolly, “Who are you? Answer or I'll let Master Gipson have his way.”
“Comminations from the diplomat as well! What an atrabilious fate I portend for the world!” The man started pacing uncomfortably, but Gipson kept a stern presence. “Yeah, two steps back, guy!”
“Atrabilious?” offered Seville, fumbling over the word.
“Look it up, kid. I've more onerous obligations than playing dictionary for…” But he was cut short by Sylum who pulled his sword strategically and held it just at the man's chest.
“Answer my questions. Now!”
The man ran his eyes from top to bottom of Sylum's body and then back to top, sizing him up. His misshapen faced showed a haughty sense of unconcern.
“Fine. The name's Chuck, Chuck Domino.” Seville wanted to laugh. “And I'm no assassin. I'm a journalist, a columnist like the curmudgeon over there,” said the man, pointing to Gipson who reared his head angrily. “I work the Corneria Chronicle out of Jrist, statistics show that at least one of you should have heard of me.”
“Journalist?” Gipson had become extraordinarily defensive, “What is it you want with us?”
“Don't be so obtuse! The scoop! I was working festival detail down in Corneria when you guys showed up and did your little frippery. Boss thought it'd be good stuff, so he moved some new guys to my beat and sent me after you. A bit of prodigality on his part, I'll admit, but job's a job.”
It made them uneasy, fearful. This little weasel of a man following them secretly and documenting everything. Sylum had heard of Chuck Domino before, and like most successful people in his field, he had a knack for skewed points of view and slander. The second they made a mistake it would be published and faith in them would drop. Sylum cringed at such thoughts, already knowing full well that his 'Zen adventuring' would not be a popular idea to the public. Why had he not expected this? It seemed so clear it would happen and preventive measures should have been taken. And yet, what if they didn't make any mistakes? What if all went gloriously well and journalistic documentation sang their praises through the lands? Think of the name it would give him. Sylum the great! But that was later, and this was now, and the others were not keen on it, you could tell from the scrunched anger in their eyes, the horrid gaze from trembling Edrick, or the downcast smirk of Seville. But why did Gipson, a master of such things, so fear another journalist? Sylum didn't have time to put it all through his mind.
“So you like words, huh?” asked Sylum, rhetorically. “How about this one? Reprobate.”
“I've done nothing wrong! If you'll remember it was ogre-boy over there that assaulted me!”
“When and how, friend? I'm just doing a job same as you.”
“How about, avarice!”
“Just so you know I don't get paid very much, a pittance compared to my meritorious distinction within my vocation.”
“Come on, now, that's a little asinine, don't ya think?”
“Hey, I've got one!” interrupted Seville, a bright smile curling onto his face. “Asshole!”
Chuck responded as foolhardy as ever, “Oh, now that's just not nice,” and then he threw a palm forward, aiming at Gipson, and shot a fireball into the knight, who went soaring back and landed with a grinding crunch. With amazing speed the man flicked his wrist by his belt and drew one of the wooded dowels and aimed again at Gipson. There was a brilliant flash and within the wand came a foreign buzzing sound and he slotted it just as quickly back on his belt. Seville had already torn free his daggers and was vaulting at the infuriating man, but Chuck simply shook his head with a rancorous grin, snapped his fingers, and was gone from sight.
A Cornerian dusk starts slow in the western sky with subtle rims of purple that curve indistinctly. The shifting hues are gradual, so gradual in fact that a watching eye might not notice them. The change would only register after a passage of time and rebooting of the brain. Once the wavy purple fades the entire sky is lit by orange, followed by smaller patches of pink and red that hug towards the horizon, a gentle but deep blue filling in around it until taking it over. And then the sky is calm, the turbulence passed. And such was the sky as the light warriors decided the day had been long enough and made camp a very short distance from the forest line, as per Gipson's instructions.
“It'll give us a place to hang the food, and the walk for firewood will be much shorter. Yes, yes, I know monsters are more plentiful here, don't worry about it. Gents, this is what I do,” the knight had said to assure the others facing their first night in the wilderness. From a weasely journalist to the most oddly behaved imp in all Corneria, it had been a weird day to start an adventure with. But the group vibe had been strengthening as the time passed. Their speech came naturally, without the slightest burden, and they shared laughs, even with Edrick. They decided to watch out for Chuck Domino wherever he may be, but also accepted that there was little they could do about him. He would be back, no doubt about that. The nervous white mage, with great effort, healed Gipson of his burns, to which the knight gave Edrick a hardy slap on the back and a “Thanks, Bucko!” Sylum then tried to present a case that Domino might not have been wholly bad, that a little publicity could be a good thing, but the others, and Gipson seemed to be speaking from experience, agreed that it was not. “Let's do this one first,” offered Seville, “Then we'll get some publicity.”
That comment had stifled conversation a slight while as it sunk in to each of them how long a task they had before them. Not just saving a princess, though they had hardly looked beyond that point, but saving a world. None of them had fully accepted that this was no one-night stand. Light warriors are light warriors for life, and it could take that to do the job. The Lux Aeterna could not be treated as a triviality. In truth, it still hadn't sunk, not as they sat around a fire and talked of the day's events with a sense of humor. What a day, what a day!
It was not completely nighttime yet, but the sun was below the horizon, and their skin reflected the powdery blue of shadows wherever it was not orange with flame. Prickles of stars had formed along the eastern ridge, the peak of twilight. Sylum decided another toast was in order and brought forth another of the soft drinks, this one called Mountain Dew. They generally liked it, but Edrick would not have a second sip so Seville finished his for him.
“And so what do your instincts tell you, Master Gipson, about the first day that is?” asked doctor Sylum. He'd removed his hat and cloak and lunged lazily on one of the logs they'd moved over, the flicker of fire dancing on the lenses of his glasses. “I figure you should be our chief adventure correspondent.”
“A good day, doctor. A very good day, I think. Of course, only our mage has seen any action, but if the road continues working as it always has in my long years, we can expect plenty of trial in the near future.” Gipson shrugged his voice a little, showing an age that he often hid, but the others didn't seem to notice.
“Long years, sir? Why, I wouldn't place you ten over my own,” responded Sylum. Darrin Sylum was thirty-five years old, not the least ready to give in to bad backs and ulcers. The way he pressed his thin brown hair down in a mesh gave both the impression of care and absent-mindedness. It was short and seemed to jut into thatch patterns halfway down his forehead, like he had tried to do something with it and failed miserably. If you liked glasses he wasn't too shabby to look at either, confined in the scholarly sense of naivety; so strong at some things and so weak at others. Perhaps it was just the young company he kept, students like Seville, but he wasn't one to act his age. He was fairly new to Corneria, and his workshops on political liberalism and ethics had almost made him feared. The old men called him a “hot shot”, but in the worst way possible.
“Wouldn't you now?” answered back Gipson vaguely. Ten years, Gipson thought to himself, that would put him at forty something. Ha!
“I would, I would. In fact, it is odd to me that the light warriors should span such an age difference. Then again, legends, they always make things more romantic than they should.”
“What's that, Dr. Sylum?” asked Edrick Valance, rubbing his eyes tiredly and realizing that Seville was doing the same.
“Oh, well, the legend states that four warriors will come bearing the orbs of light, each to one elemental force of nature. That's such a simplistic way of saying it when you think about it. By meaning, we didn't really come in riding white horses and bearing magical orbs. We stumbled into everything at the last minute, not even twenty-four hours ago yet. It felt like a big coincidence to me.”
“You're saying…” continued Edrick.
“Nothing really, just thoughts. Tired thoughts.”
“I know what you mean,” added Seville, stretching his arms up above his head and yawning, “I think it's been long enough for me. I didn't have a very good night last night in the first place.” Seville stood up and this time stretched his legs. He unclasped his vest and set it to the side and was just kicking out his bedroll when the quiet serenity of the four was startled by a resounding snap. Next came the crisp shhhink of Gipson's sword pulling from its sheath, and the knight turned briskly and raced his eyes along the nearest brush. His eyes pointed so quickly to different things it seemed almost to be connecting dots, and then Gipson turned to the other four.
“Ambush!” he said, and the creatures came barreling out of the woods.
Before Seville could distinguish the images he tucked his head back as an arrow grazed by and thudded into the dirt behind, sticking up like a spike.
“Down!” yelled Gipson and he pushed the rogue and priest over with his palms. Soaring arrows collided with the soft dirt all around, most of them snapping on impact and fumbling into slivery piles. Seville could hear the pouncing of swift feet on the ground, rapidly growing near. Dodging the high-pitched streams of another barrage, Seville scurried backwards on hands and knees, saw that Gipson was charging off, and stood to do the same. An arrow just then pierced into the fire and shot up a spit of ash of sparks, but Seville brushed this away from his eyes and found his daggers. When he saw the creatures he almost choked, overcome with astonishment and shock.
Over a score of forest imps, armed with daggers and short bows, had charged into the field, but not alone. The first of them had saddled large wolves and were galloping them skillfully, vicious gleams in their beady eyes. The wolf-riders had already circled a containment perimeter and the foot soldiers were rushing in just behind. Standing back were the archers, but they were not as skilled. Seville twisted the handles of his blades in his hands, a brief moment of confused repose, and then he began running towards the line, where Gipson was already slashing at the tiny creatures.
Sylum had taken longer to react but had finally found his short sword and was dancing from side to side, swinging the sword at what was usually nothing and taking over- exaggerated lengths to dodge the flailing arrows. Edrick pushed the firewood stack out of the way, as the rogue arrow had sent the fire scuttling along the path in a trickle, and then he found his mace and reared it around him, hoping the riders and footman would forget he was there. The rushing noises of feet and blades punched at him on all sides, and he spun until he was dizzy from it.
Then came two strong whaps, like a thick whip going off, and they all turned to find the noise. Even Gipson did not respond fast enough as the weighted net struck his chest and wrapped in around him. Sylum also was not prepared and was gunned down by the thick fiber net fitted on all sides with heavy grapes like a bolo. The spacing of the holes was wide and as the two captured men struggled they found themselves only further entwined. Sylum called:
“Quick, Seville, the netting!” but Seville was busy strafing from the rusty daggers of four imps. Actually Gipson had already sent several of the goblins sailing through the air, sometimes in half-parts, and had broken the archer line, but the monsters were tenacious, snarling their gruff language in spurts. Over the grumbles of the imps and growls of the circling wolves, Seville could hear the struggle of the two captured men and Edrick shouting something frantically and depressing the nozzle of his mace. One of the imps thrust forward, the curved front of his dagger pressed out, and Seville barely sided the beast and made a flick of his wrist and the imp fell to the ground and did not get up.
“Seville!” Sylum called again as two of the wolf-riders rode into him and the wolves were snapping their fierce jaws at the tendons in his ankles. He kicked at them like a dying man on his last fight, but they seemed unaffected. Seville had turned to respond to Sylum, but the imps took the opportunity and circled around to flank. They assaulted together and Seville again lucked out with a quick side jump and then a roll back around the fire. The rogue charged the two wolf-riders working over the doctor, punctuating it with a bestial cry. He pounced one of them with a fury and sent the rider smacking into the grass. When Seville pulled his hand close he could feel the warm blood of the wolf saturating it down to the wrist. The downed rider stood with an angry limp and hobbled forward with his dagger while the other wolf-rider rounded and snapped. Seville aimed one dagger at each of them, jousting them forward and back repetitively to keep the enemies at bay. The wolf readied on its haunches, and the standing imp shouted goblinoid obscenities at Seville, but they came out as squeaky titters. A sudden loud whap from behind caused Seville foolishly to turn, and he saw Edrick downed by a heavy net just before the wolf jumped and raked at his back.
A well-placed elbow pressed the wolf off and he expertly lifted a dagger from the dirt and brought it around with a wide slice. As he met the one-eighty mark the knife tore into the wolf's muzzle and it hopped backwards with a pained whimper, unseating the angry rider. The wolf turned and darted to the trees, and Seville managed to find his feet and survey the field. Gipson had finally reached one of his knives and was scraping at the rope, but the progress was infinitesimal. Sylum was doing his best to unlatch the odd twists and turns of the weights behind his back but could hardly reach them, and Edrick was content just to keep the single imp bothering him at bay with his mace. Ten imps remained, all brandishing daggers and standing on the ground. Each of the wolf-riders had either dismounted or been fought off.
“Come and get some!” yelled Seville and they turned to focus on him, closing forward in a menacing semi-circle. They spoke to each other in that horrid goblin language, plotting and preparing. The imps fanned out and tried to complete the circle, but Seville dashed to one side and took two preemptive stabs at the closest imp, who ducked and scuttled away, but at least the circle was not complete. It was a standstill, ten imps facing the single Seville, though he was twice their height. They closed in, maintaining this time their line, and Seville reciprocally backed away, holding the two daggers like traffic wands. Then suddenly an object came under his foot and he lifted before he crushed it. Looking down he saw one of the short bows, conveniently discarded along with a stocked quiver. He scooped both the bow and an arrow up precisely, aimed, and fired.
The imps screamed out in violent chatters when they turned inwards and saw one of the center imps, arrow sticking a foot out of his forehead fall back with a thump. As they wasted disorient time Seville pulled up another arrow, aimed, and fired. A swoop of wind and then it struck an imp in the chest and it went pelting back. Now the imps unified their anger and charged after Seville, who accidentally dropped the bow and then pulled out his daggers once more.
They were upon him, like an army of children that would hack at his shins, but he disengaged that imagery from his mind quickly and he deftly parried two jabs and sent those two imps back with bloody gashes along their chests. The imps moved swiftly and flanked on all sides then, six of them remaining, and they swung their daggers bravely at the man, but Seville felt the adrenaline him take him away from it, and place him in a zone where all was perfection. Operating differently against each monster he blocked strike after strike and kicked his way through the group, freeing his sides. Then Seville advanced and slashed one of the imps down, shielding his eyes from the blood spurt. The others stepped back as it happened and darted their small eyes fearfully. They tried to respond with their daggers but Seville had taken over, and he hopped over the blades smashed into two of them which flew back and when standing again ran off to the trees.
And then three remained, the distance between them and Seville no more than six feet, but the imps did not approach. They shared concerned glances between themselves, and Seville kept his daggers moving through the air in figure-eight swashes so as to keep them on edge. After the brief uncomfortable interlude, the three imps raised their daggers, dropped them, ran into the forest, and the battle was done.
Still surging with heat, Seville went to each of his partners with a sprint and cut them free of the nets. All around were the bodies of imps, so many in so short a time. Though quite dark now, the satin stains of blood on the ground shone menacingly in the frail light of the fire. Seville himself had a pain in his back, probably light bleeding, but since he couldn't be cured it wouldn't do to explain. There was a quick pulse of anger in him, bitterness that he had not been more careful in such a fragile condition, but it passed with a heartbeat. What time was this to get down on himself?
“Don't worry about it, you say?” scoffed Edrick to Gipson, exasperated. It was the first time he had raised his voice to anyone, but Gipson did not take it seriously.
“Oh, come on, there's no time for that now. The battle is ours, or more, his! Seville!”
“Yes?” responded Seville, still sick with adrenaline and feeling antsy, as if he should be doing something.
“Well, that was incredible. Why didn't you tell me you had such skill with the dagger? This is the kind of thing a warrior likes to know.”
“You never asked, big guy!” Seville answered with a laugh and an appreciative smile.
“I commend you as well, Seville.” Dr. Sylum added. “After a performance like that, one can hardly doubt the light warrior in you. Really, marvelous. Wonderful! Now, Edrick, a little help.”
Edrick reluctantly went to the professor and healed the wounds on his ankle. That's two for the day, Seville thought, not bad at all, Eddie.
“Wait now, before it's all good job and good night, what exactly happened to imps being the most pathetic creatures in the forest? Seemed pretty resourceful to me!” said Edrick, belatedly continuing his rant.
“They were a clever bunch, I'll give it to'em. We should probably move the camp a little father from the tree line so we don't get sniped in the night. Obviously we'll have to have watches now. I'll go first, followed by Dr. Sylum, and then you, Edrick. We'll let Seville rest. His last night was bad, no reason to continue the trend.”
Seville nodded happily at this but he knew that it was false. Gipson wanted Seville to sleep because of the ghost rot. Sylum had provided a perfectly mild solution of morphine to fight the pain without dementia, but he really knew nothing else. The rot would cause so many problems in the future, but he managed to press this out of his mind as well.
They shuttled the camp farther out into the field, cleaned down their equipment, and settled in to rest. Seville went to his bed first, having planned for that before the battle and especially now he felt sluggish, the adrenaline in him thinning and leaving him to feel as if he was floating. The thick gropes of fatigue overcame his strongly, and he collapsed into his bedroll and seemed to sink forever into the ground. The other three had decided to stay up and talk by the fire a moment longer, and because of this Seville fought sleep as long he could. After they thought he had gone, the three talked highly of Seville, his industriousness in battle and overall value to the team. It had only been a day but they seemed to feel that they were centering around him. Something about Seville made all this more important.
Seville's heart swelled so fully that it almost hurt, and for the first time in a very long time, he fell asleep happy.