Alaiya awoke to the sound of children running around downstairs. Most had been out of the Orphanage partaking in their daily studies, training, or apprenticing. Now, they were returning home for dinner and to tend to the duties about the Orphanage. A few of the younger ones had seen her return with Stoyan and the others as they sought a place to rest. Their questions about when she’d return stung her. “A month hasn’t even passed, and they’ve lost their Mother and now me.” Alaiya could feel the guilt rising up from her gut.
As she made her way downstairs, she asked Ruthe, one of the helpers, to wake the others. Before Ruthe could leave, however, there was a rapt at the door. Ruthe, confused about what she should do, turned to Alaiya for guidance.
“Let them sleep a bit longer.”
Ruthe nodded and answered the door. A man wearing a brown tunic over chainmail greeted her with a slight bow. The yellow scales of Fareen were stitched into the right breast of his tunic, signifying his association with the city guard.
“Pardon the intrusion ma’am,” the man’s voice was gruff, belying his young appearance, “I trust Stoyan Mihaylov is here? Captain Jae would like to speak with him.”
A startled Ruthe looked rather dumbfounded by the question. Luckily, Alaiya came to her rescue, pulling her away and motioning her upstairs. Alaiya returned to the young man and motioned him inside.
“It is better that I don’t, ma’am. As of now, the horses are my charge.” That’s when Alaiya noticed the four steeds off to the side of the Orphanage. Another man, adorning similar clothing to the one before her, held the reigns of the animals, standing perfectly still, patient and calm, uncannily disciplined. She saw Captain Jae, who nodded.
Suddenly, Alaiya felt a tug at the back of her robes. Turning around she saw young Palia, a girl who had come to Fareen with her father, who had fallen ill and died four months ago. Alaiya was one of the few people Palia would talk to.
“Are you going again?” Palia’s red hair was tousled and unkempt, nearly covering her eyes. A few freckles danced across her nose as she spoke. “Why are you leaving again? You just got back. Don’t go. I won’t have…I won’t have anyone to talk to.”
The memories came flooding back to Alaiya of her own sadness as a child and her own feeling of abandonment when Cyrxx left. Though he always had returned, he was never the same as he was before the first time. And now, it was too difficult to think about. Alaiya pushed the thought from her mind and forced the tears to stay in her eyes. She would be strong for the children. But she must be honest with them first. No secrets, no illusions, no wondering.
“Yes, Palia, I am leaving again.” Alaiya bent down to look at the young girl in the face. “I must try to save a friend. My friends and I must try very hard to help him, and these men are going to help me do that.”
Palia sniffled a bit and wiped away a small run of snot seeping from her nose. “When will you be back?”
This was an answer that Alaiya could not say with certainty, so she went for truth. “I’m not sure; a few weeks, possibly longer. I don’t know how long it will take to help my friend.” She looked up as Stoyan and the others shuffled down the stairs. Alaiya gave a nod of her head to Stoyan, directing him outside. Turning back to Palia, Alaiya continued. “But, I need you to do something for me, ok? I need you to help Ruthe out and be strong. She needs a good helper. Can you do that for me, Palia? Can you be good and strong for me while I’m gone?”
Palia nodded and buried her head in Alaiya’s chest, wrapping her little arms as far as she could around the Sorceress. The hug cut Alaiya deep, but she treasured it; it was something she wished she could have given Cyrxx, just once. She gratefully returned the embrace before sending Palia over to Ruthe, who stood nearby.
“Remember, be strong.” With those final words, Alaiya stood and walked outside to her awaiting mount.
The journey to Gimlora was quick with the horses Jae supplied. They covered nearly twice as much distance each day than they had been able to on foot. However, Stoyan had an uneasy feeling as they hurried south to Berathion, a feeling that he hoped was compounded by their speedy travels. Unlike their initial journey, they ran into only a few sparse travelers and even fewer merchants on the roads. The lack of travelers would not normally have bothered Stoyan, but he knew merchants would be setting up in Fareen for the Spring Celebration. It did not help matters that de Geffriel kept mentioning how few people were in the land and how much busier she kept expecting everything to be on a main thoroughfare. This feeling gnawed at Stoyan all the way to Gimlora.
Just after midday, as the shadows were starting to extend on the eighth day of the fifth month, they neared the checkpoint spanning the Elyse. Gimlorian Paladins bustled about, a greater sense of urgency falling over the river crossing that before. On the other side of the checkpoint, Stoyan could see scores of merchants and travelers lined up waiting to cross through the checkpoint. A group of five or six Paladins were busy inspecting their belongings and questioning each person. As Stoyan watched, he noticed that even children were not exempt from this. Additionally, as they approached the bridge, he noticed numerous patrols entering and leaving the encampment, far greater amounts of activity than they had witnessed last time when they saw just one patrol return. The looks on the Paladin’s faces were stern and agitated, as though they were troubled by something. A knot formed in Stoyan’s stomach as they approached.
With Stoyan taking point, they began to cross the wooden structure when a young, brown-headed, eager looking Paladin of Pelor stepped out before them. His plate armor shone with polished attention and his cape with well pressed. If not for the mud on his boots, one might have suspected he was a castle guard, so immaculate was his gear. With no more than a hand, he stopped the advancing group, drawing some ire from the malcontent Stoyan. Biting back a snide remark, Stoyan attempted the more pleasant, difficult, diplomatic approach.
“Is there something I can help you with, brother of Pelor? We are rather pressed for time.”
The Paladin gave the four companions a look over, paying particularly close attention to Stoyan’s blade and Alaiya’s robes. “No doubt you are, brother of…,” the Paladin searched Stoyan with his eyes before finally finding the black and white stallion symbol indicating his allegiance. “Tempus? Don’t see too many of you guys. Anyway, papers?”
“Papers?” replied Stoyan, “Papers for what?” The knot in Stoyan’s stomach started to tighten.
“Papers to cross. Need them to get in and out of Gimlora. Official business, things like that. So, can I have your papers?” The young man held out a gloved hand, expecting to be given the documents he sought.
“Well, that’s news to me. When did you start needing papers? We passed through here not more than two weeks ago and you requested no such thing.”
The man returned a nod. “Yeah, but two weeks ago, things weren’t as interesting. We got orders two days ago from Berathion. No one comes or goes without papers. Said it was going to cause problems for those on the road already, but until word gets around, that’s how it is.”
“How do you expect us to cross then? You want us to go back to Fareen and talk to the Magistrate to get papers?”
“No, of course not. That’s stupid. If you don’t have them,” and he looked hopefully up at Stoyan, “then you can wait for the inspection. Shouldn’t be more than a few hours.” He looked back over the bridge and took note of all the people waiting. “Maybe longer.”
Stoyan’s patience was wearing thin. “Look, we have an important meeting with Orcen Valingard, the Assistant to the High Priest of Pelor. You’ve heard the name, right?” The man nodded, rolling his eyes. “And you wouldn’t want to hold us back from meeting him, right? I bet Orcen would be willing to look the other way for just this once.” The anger was starting to rise in Stoyan’s words, but the man did not seem to hear.
“Actually,” he began, “I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t want us bending the laws and showing favoritism. That’s the kind of man Orcen is.” The man rolled his eyes again. “I can’t believe you started name-dropping.”
Stoyan tightened his grip on the reigns, causing the horse to shake its head. “Fine, no names. How many people do you see trying to cross into Gimlora?”
The man looked around him with an unimpressed look on his face. “Really?” Stoyan nodded. “Well, there’s four. Not too hard to see if you turned your neck. I’m pretty sure you know each other too, since you came in together.”
If Stoyan was sure he could escape jail, he might have leapt off the horse and throttled the young Paladin right then. “Good, now don’t you think it’d go faster if you did us first?” Elias swore he could hear Stoyan’s teeth grinding.
“Yeah, you’d be done faster, but the inspection team will get around to you. All those other people were here first, and, like I said before, showing favoritism isn’t something we want to do.”
de Geffriel moved up on her steed quickly and laid a hand on Stoyan’s shoulder. The touch caught the Paladin off-guard, but her words were sincere. “Stoyan, maybe if you took him to the side, away from his brothers, you’d have an easier time convincing him.” She dropped her arm before quickly adding, “Oh, and try the truth.”
Grumbling under his breath, Stoyan dismounted and strode over to the Paladin. “Ok, listen here. First, what’s you name.”
“Name’s Bolvi Clearlake.”
Stoyan nodded. “Alright, Bolvi, we’re really pressed for time here. We’re trying to get to our friend in Berathion. Came through a few days ago from Fareen. He’s really sick and we have some medicine that we hope will cure his illness.” Bolvi rolled his eyes again as he prepared for another sob story, but Stoyan paid him no attention. “He was being moved from Fareen,” Stoyan continued, “transported in a non-descript merchant cart. He was traveling with four guards, four of Fareen’s best as selected by Captain Jae Kalvier. If we don’t reach Berathion in time-”
Bolvi stopped him right there. “Four guards, you say? From Fareen? And they were traveling in a merchant cart?” Stoyan nodded, confused by the sudden pique of interest from the border guard. “Quick, follow me. You may not be heading to Berathion.”
Bolvi lead Stoyan over to a medical tent near the southeast part of the encampment. He pulled back the tent flap and motioned Stoyan inside. The tent smelled of healing herbs and various oils. There were a few empty cots and a desk to the right with a stack of papers sitting on top. Beyond the cots, behind a partially drawn drape, was a heavily bandaged man, propped in an inclined position. From where he stood, Stoyan immediately recognized the man as Richard Beleavy, one of Jae’s personal friends and most well-regarded guards. Stoyan stepped in front of the man, the knot continuing to tighten in his stomach.
“Richard? What are you doing here? And what happened to you?”
Richard peered up through one good eye. Bandages covered half his face, and his left leg was fastened in a splint. The lower part of his right arm had been cut off, whether on purpose or not he could not tell. “By Pelor, Stoyan, how did you make it here from Berathion? There’s no way you would’ve heard about this already!”
“What’s that mean? We came from Fareen. Jae sent us to catch up to Veth’s caravan.” Richard looked down at his missing arm, and the knot grew in Stoyan’s stomach. “Please, please don’t tell me you were one of the guards. Please tell me this is a sick coincidence.”
“’fraid not, Stoyan. I was there and I’m the only one they found. Well, most of me they found.” He waved the stump of an arm around.
“What happened? Who did this to you?”
“No clue. I was on watch that night. Must’ve been, what, five nights ago? Someone grabbed me from behind ‘round the throat. Turned me around so I couldn’t see what was happening. Managed a dagger from my belt and got him with it,” he made a backward thrusting motion with his left arm, “before I was tackled to the ground by another one. By then I heard the commotion coming from the cart. Tried to help them, but the two guys got me again. Got the sword out, and got one guy really good, but the other, well…” He waved his half-arm in the air. “Let’s just say they paid me back. Blacked out after that. Next thing I know I woke up here, bandaged, being questioned by the border guard.”
“Did you get a look at who attacked? See anything about them? Did they get Veth? Where did they go?”
“Whoa, hold on there!” Stoyan’s rapid-fire questions brought a slight smile to Richard. “As I said, attacked from behind. And it was night. We weren’t trying to draw attention to ourselves, so we didn’t even have a fire going. Couldn’t tell you heads or tails of the whole thing.”
“What did you tell the border guards? Have they found anything yet?”
Richard scoffed at the notion. “You’re kidding, right? This place is supposed to be one of the safest in Delagraad, constant patrols and all that shit, and this happens, inside their supposedly protected borders? Yeah, I ain’t telling them shit.”
Stoyan contemplated on this a moment before searching the tent for some parchment and ink. He scribbled a quick note and sealed it with wax before returning to Richard. “I assume Jae doesn’t know, right?” Richard nodded, a grim look appearing on his face. “Ok, I’ll send word to him then. He’ll send some men down to take you back to Fareen. You can give him your report there.”
As Stoyan headed out of the tent, Richard stopped him. “Hey, you going to look for those guys?” Stoyan, a look of determination in his eyes, coolly nodded in reply. “Good. When you find them,” and he held up his right arm, “make sure you pay them back. Double would be nice.” Stoyan smiled as he exited the tent, the prospect of a fight making his blood boil.
Bolvi stood watch outside, obviously trying to eavesdrop on the conversation. As Stoyan emerged, he quickly approached the Paladin, the eager look in his eyes growing wilder. “Did he talk to you? What did he say?”
Stoyan simply looked at the young Paladin, Richard’s words lingering in the back of his mind. “This place is supposed to be one of the safest…and this happens?” Stoyan walked briskly away from the tent, guiding Bolvi into a small private area between some tents. “Where did you find the man?”
Bolvi nearly exploded with the information. “South of here, about a half-days travel. The caravan was on the side of the road, but he,” and he gestured back to the medical tent, “was the only one there. We have patrols scouting the area, but they haven’t found anything. They’ve been out for a few days now. It just seems like they disappeared.”
Stoyan mulled over the information before handing over the letter. “I’m trusting you with this, Bolvi Clearlake. This needs to be sent to Jae Kalvier, Captain of the City Guard in Fareen. It’s very important. Can you do this?”
Bolvi took the letter with a sense of reverence. He cautiously slipped it into his gauntlet, trying his hardest not to bend it. “It’ll be sent out with the evening riders.” A tone of awe and privilege had coated his voice.
“Excellent. Now, how could four people get across this river here?” Stoyan had picked up on Bolvi’s eagerness and was hoping to bypass the checkpoint with his aid.
The young Paladin, who was still admiring the letter in his gauntlet, mindlessly pointed to the bridge spanning the Elyse. “The bridge, sir. That’s the only way across. And you need papers to get across.”
Bolvi never once looked up from his arm, which was a blessing since Stoyan might have punched him in the face. Taking a few deep breathes, he calmed himself before proceeding. “Something tells me it would greatly please Orcen that his Paladins had the foresight to aid in apprehending those that have caused such chaos. It would be necessary to get to the ambush site as soon as possible to begin. And it would hurt if we were delayed here until nightfall.” Stoyan paused, letting what he said sink in. “It would be great if a dutiful Paladin offered an escort across.”
Bolvi leapt at the chance. “I can do that. Wait, shhhh!” Lowering his voice to a whisper, it began echoing out in high-pitched squeaks. “I can lead you across. That’d be helping, right?” Stoyan nodded, hiding to his delight to himself. “And you’d tell Orcen, right? You’d tell him that I helped, right?” Stoyan nodded again, and Bolvi nearly jumped out of his boots. “You be sure to tell him. And don’t forget my name, either. It’s Bolvi, ok? Got it? Bolvi. B-O-L-V-I. Bolvi Clearlake. You be sure to tell him.”
“Got it. Bolvi. Great.” Now it was Stoyan’s turn to roll his eyes, but he did so subconsciously, still needing the young man’s assistance. “Now, if you can get us across, I’ll be sure to tell Orcen the next time I see him.”
Bolvi nodded eagerly and took him back to the bridge. Dismissing the two guards who sat watch, the young man motioned for everyone to follow him across the bridge. Stoyan noticed both a slight skip in the man’s step and a massive grin trying to be suppressed. Behind the Paladin, he let his eyes roll freely.
“Only a few more hours, Veth. I’m coming. I’ll be sure to save you.”
Night had already fallen when the group reached the caravan. To the north, they could hear numerous Paladins thrashing through the woods. The transport itself was abandoned on the side of the road, two of the wheels broken, making it utterly unusable. Countless footprints could be seen surrounding the cart, and according to Stoyan’s keen eye, he estimated roughly seven or eight people were involved in the ambush. One of the cart’s doors hung delicately on its hinges, the other having been broken off in the ambush. Smatterings of blood decorated the ground, a dark crimson stain obvious near the front of the cart. Stoyan calmly reminded himself of Richard’s sacrifice.
Inside, the cart was much worse. Bloodstains coated the interior and the walls were chipped and shredded with bladed weapons. A long bed was attached to the opposite side, and the thought of Veth lying helplessly enraged Stoyan. He checked for clues, any sort of sign left behind, but found nothing. Frustrated, he emerged, the cool night air cooling his rising temper.
“Nothing inside of use. Anything you guys find out here?”
Alaiya stood up from the brush to the south and motioned for everyone to follow. Elias was the first to reach her and also the first to notice the faint remains of footprint heading away from the site.
“Seems like someone doesn’t want to be followed, at least, not this direction. The ones across the road heading north are meant to be seen. Seems like we might have found their true intention.”
Alaiya nodded and looked at Stoyan. It was obvious he was weighing the options – “Follow the obvious path, where I know I’ll find someone, or take the unmarked trail and hope for the best. With the Paladins obviously sending their patrols north, we might be too late if we go there. South is our best bet if we are to find someone that I can question…”
“I say we follow the southern trail. The Paladins are sure to find whoever went north.” He surveyed the ambush site once again, taking note of as many details as he could find – the number of different footprints, the weapon markings in the cart, the lack of goods inside, the absence of drag marks. “Whoever was here carried the bodies off. They may still be alive. For their sake, they better be.” Stoyan pounded his fist into his palm, as a stern scowl etched itself into his face. Renewed by the thrill of the chase and his growing impatience for Veth’s deteriorating health, he set off south through the woods, the others close on his heels.
On the morning of the tenth day of the month, the group stumbled out of the confines of the forest and into a sparsely populated clearing. The midmorning sun warmed their bodies, relaxing the tension from their aching muscles. It had been a steady day’s march south through the forests of Gimlora, and the companions were unsure of where they were. A strong wind rose up out of the south to greet them and with it the drastic change in locale became suddenly obvious. The lack of the fresh forest air was offset by the mild hint of the ocean. Though they could not see or hear the waters, there was a faint saltiness to the area. This, along with the lack of people, had given Stoyan an unpleasant feeling that they had ventured too far from the safe confines of Gimlora.
“Hey Stoyan, why haven’t we seen anyone else in these parts?” inquired Elias. The Gnome had become increasingly talkative since this journey had began, an unnatural excitement present in his voice. “You sure we’re on the right path and all? Yeah, sure, we ran into those “slavers” or whatever, but, it’s been over a day and we haven’t seen anyone or anything since. And I ain’t sure about them being slavers either. I mean, before that last one died from your subtle wounds, he said something about ‘fishing’.”
Stoyan stopped in his tracks, though he did not turn around to address the Gnome. His thoughts went, instead, to the four men they found that night. Both groups had entered the patch of logged land simultaneously, but the men reacted first. They had broken into a run upon seeing Stoyan and the others, a move that had been interpreted as an initial assault. In hindsight, however, Elias’s words tormented Stoyan. The men had been beaten up pretty badly when they encountered each other and their initial adrenaline rush to Stoyan’s first attack proved a more deadly opponent than the skill of the men themselves. It was not until after, when one of the dying men lay coughing up blood, that Stoyan realized he might have slaughtered innocents.
Stoyan’s intuition had told him they were mercenaries for hire, or slavers scouring the forest for lost travelers. However, the men bore no tattoos, nor did they wear similar armor to that of the Dark Light. And as Stoyan angrily and forcefully jerked the dying man around, demanding answers about things he may or may not know, the only two things he managed to tell the Paladin was he came from the ‘south’ and he was ‘fi…shing’. No, Elias’s doubts had begun to eat away at Stoyan and it was a feeling he did not approve of at all.
As they continued forward, Elias still yapping away, Stoyan laid eyes on a rather large building looming before them. Made of a dark grey stone, it possessed no windows, no doors, and a singular barred gateway. A thatched, wooden roof covered its top, a slight crest peaking in the center of the building and grading out shallowly to the edges of the structure. No chimney protruded from the roof, leaving the initial impression that it was more of a storehouse than anything. Outside the building, sitting on wooden stool much too small for his size and girth, was a massive behemoth of a man, calmly, delicately, tenderly sharpening a gladius. They could hear the ringing of the grind – shiiik, shiiik, shiiik. If the man had heard them emerge from the forest, he gave no indication as he continued about his monotonous routine.
Almost immediately de Geffriel took to a lone oak standing before them, scrambling up the trunk with ease. It appeared that as she climbed she slung a shortbow off her shoulder and soon had it notched and aimed at the lone man before them. Still, he sharpened his blade – shiiik, shiiik, shiiik.
“What do you think you’re doing?!” demanded Stoyan, struck back by the decisiveness of the woman’s actions. “What if he notices you and now thinks you’re a threat?”
Calmly, de Geffriel responded in hushed tones. “Never take chances, Paladin, you don’t know who to trust. Now, go and talk to him. I’ve got you covered.” She notched an arrow into her shortbow and peered through the leaves of the tree. Her feet planted firmly on knots of the trunk, she waited, ready at a moment’s notice to loose her arrow.
Stoyan sheathed his blade and slung his shield over his shoulder, trying, as honestly as he could, to don the appearance of being lost. He sheepishly approached the man, tossing his arm behind his head and laughed nervously.
“Hey, uh, excuse me. I was wondering if you can help us? See, we, uh, got kinda lost following a gaming trail, and are just looking for a way back to the road. Thought we were heading back, but I guess our sense of direction ain’t that good.”
The big man never looked up, opting to stay on his stool and continued sharpening his gladius. Shiiik, shiiik, shiiik.
Moving closer, Stoyan prodded a bit more. “So, yeah, we’re looking some help. Can you or whoever lives here point us in the right direction? Don’t want to intrude, but we could really use it.”
Shiiik, shiiik, shiiik.
Growing irritated with the man, Stoyan began losing his focus. “Hey, we were looking for some friends. Think they went down this trail off the main road. You know anything about that?”
Shiiik, shiiik, shiiik.
Turning back to the others, Stoyan shrugged, obviously out of ideas. They motioned for him to continue. With a heavy sigh, Stoyan caved. “Alright, big, tall, and dumb, a caravan of ours was ambushed. We followed the trail here. Now, you can tell us what you know or if you saw anyone come this way. Now.”
This time the man cocked his head to the side and spit on the ground, a small puddle forming where the excrement landed. Shiiik, shiiik, shiiik.
Giving up, Stoyan left. On his way back he noticed fresh drag marks on the ground in the direction of the building. Returning to the others, Stoyan vented his frustration. “The guy’s not saying anything. Doesn’t even look like he understands Common. He a big, fat, pile of useless. But I did see some drag marks. Can’t tell if they were coming or going, though.”
“I’ll give ya big, but he’s far from fat.” Elias’s comment was accompanied by a series of nods from Alaiya.
“I think we should check out the building,” offered the little Sorceress. “Maybe there is another way in, like a door or a window.” The two men nodded in agreement. “But we should stay in the trees, just in case there is trouble. There might be more guards.”
Once de Geffriel had returned from her roost, they set off through the woods, circling the building. They circled to the west first, finding nothing but solid wall on all sides. They could still see the man sitting on the stool, his whetstone continuously gliding over his blade. They could still hear the rough sound of the stone greeting metal – shiiik, shiiik, shiiik.
As they kept their eyes on him, no one noticed de Geffriel break for the wall in a full sprint. In full stride, she leapt to the wall, planted one foot then the other on the wall, and appeared to float up the stone surface. Reaching for the roof at the last moment before her forward momentum ceased, she hoisted herself up and stood, striking a gloating pose to the others. They stood in stunned silence and marveled. Before they could say anything, she slung her pack off, pulled out a rope, found a loose thatch, fastened the rope to one end, and tossed the other off the side of the building. Then, reappearing, she smiled and offered a simple inquiry, “You coming up?”
The rest of the group looked apprehensively at the rope, more unsure than unwilling. Stoyan, though, ever the proud, would not be outdone by the snarkiness of the fleet-footed woman. He knew the underlying tones of mockery in her voice – it was a tactic Veth employed often when trying to get his young pupil to dig deep and push himself. Though, now, the tone failed to inspire; instead, it fueled competitiveness. Stoyan grabbed the rope and hoisted himself up, one hand after the other, his feet braced against the wall to stabilize himself. Fortunately, whatever de Geffriel had fastened the rope to held his weight. Pulling himself over the lip of the roof’s edge, he stood, defiant in a victory that such a task would seem too difficult for one such as him. Elias followed behind as Alaiya insisted she be last – a woman is entitled to her modesties.
“Never leave a man to do a woman’s job,” de Geffriel said, while giving Stoyan a sly look. “Most just leave you disappointed and unsatisfied.” A look of wanting brushed across her face before she turned to Alaiya, assuming an air of casualness. “I’m not even sure why we keep them around. Don’t seem of much use to me.” Alaiya could not stop herself from blushing.
With everyone securely on the roof, and her flirtatious jabs spoken, de Geffriel immediately began combing the area, searching for loose shingles, weathered sections, or any type of opening she could pry open or squeeze herself through. Walking delicately, she eventually happened upon a section the bowed under her weight, indicating a weakness in the structure. She quickly took a knee and went to work. Removing a crowbar from her pack, she thrust it between one of the shingles that gave the most give, lodging the tool at a modest depth. As she yanked and pulled on the bar, her face began to perspire and after a few unsuccessful attempts she gave up.
“Maybe you need a man after all.”
Stoyan strode over and took a look at the propped crowbar sticking out of the roof. “And you just happen to be carrying a crowbar with you? What kind of scouting did you say you did?” He eyed her coolly, a minor test of his. He was not totally bought in to trusting her yet, and the fact that she seemed ready and eager to break into a house stirred that mistrust.
de Geffriel simply brushed the question off. “Never know when anything could come in handy.” She tapped an accumulation of weapons sticking out of her pack. “Besides, it pays for a woman to be prepared. Now, you big strong, manly man, prove to me why I would need someone like you around…for more than warmth on a cold, winter night.” She spoke the last words slowly and Stoyan was not unsure he saw her tongue flick across her lips as she did.
Stoyan batted the thought away and returned to the task at hand. He would never let a moment pass where he could show off; nor would he miss a chance to rub someone’s face in. But to have an opportunity to do both at the same time? Stoyan was going to enjoy himself. Grabbing the crowbar confidently in one hand, he yanked down, fully expecting a simple, powerful jerk would loosen the shingle. It did not budge, though de Geffriel found herself amused.
Bemoaned, Stoyan gave one more one-handed jerk before accepting that this might require his full strength. Grabbing the crowbar in both hands and bracing his feet against the roof, he pulled with one heavy jerk with his full weight. The shingle budged beneath the weight, but not enough to pry it loose from its fastenings. de Geffriel, now thoroughly enjoying the spectacle, snickered, which clearly frustrated and adequately embarrassed Stoyan. Intent now on not only prying the shingle loose but utterly destroying the wood and all of its relatives, Stoyan gripped the crowbar once more and heaved. He closed his eyes, gritted his teeth, and as his muscles began to strain he could begin to feel the shingle lift. As Stoyan pulled with every fiber of his being, he felt the give continue until, all at once, the resistance ended. He stumbled back, nothing able to counter his momentum, and his eyes fluttered open, trying to gain some sense of orientation. His legs still trying to get underneath him unsuccessfully, he noticed the crowbar, mockingly, still lodged between the shingles of the roof. Confused, he looked at his hands and noticed a thin layer of sweat coating the inside. The concept of his grip slipping off the crowbar dawned on him just as his foot stepped onto thin air.
When Stoyan reopened his eyes after the impact, he saw de Geffriel’s face peering over the edge of the roof, a look of pain and concern in her eyes.
“Are you okay?” she inquired, obviously trying to not hurt his pride. She had enjoyed the show of manliness, regardless of how it turned out, and found herself wondering if there was something Stoyan might be willing to let her do to help him…feel better.
Grunting, Stoyan sat up and shook his head. Rising, he dismissively waved a hand at de Geffriel. “I’m fine,” he muttered, trying to sound less embarrassed than he should. “I’ll be right up.”
Stoyan took note that the back of the structure was as bare and inaccessible as the front and sides, leaving the gate behind the man as the only foreseeable way in. Reaching the west side of the building, he grabbed the rope and began to hoist himself up. de Geffriel popped her head over as moral support, and, if Stoyan needed a hand, to lend it. As Stoyan slowly rose off the ground, he felt his forearms shake and quiver beneath the strain of the physical exertion. It did not take long for his hands to refuse to hold the rope, and after another brief moment of free-fall, the Paladin found himself on the ground again.
de Geffriel had seen enough and could no longer resist the temptation to take a jab at Stoyan’s pride. As graceful as a bird soaring through the sky, de Geffriel leapt from the roof, flipping once in the air to add a touch of panache. Landing beside the prone Paladin with the grace of a feline, she stepped over him and sat on her haunches. Leaning close to Stoyan’s face, she purposely lay on his chest, close enough to feel his body heat. Excited, she let it slip into her voice as she whispered seductively into his ear.
“And why,” she began, her breath warming the side of Stoyan’s cheek to the point of flushing, “would I need a man who can’t even…” She paused, letting her breath spill over the man. “…keep himself up?”
She snapped at his ear before thrusting herself up. Turning quickly on her heel, she rapidly ascended the rope with ease and disappeared over the edge of the roof, leaving Stoyan to his thoughts. Riled in more ways than one, the Paladin collected himself and forced his hands to cooperate as he joined the others above.
“There doesn’t seem to be a way in from up here. We heard voices, faint, but audible. Somewhere over to the right.” Elias pointed to the east end of the building as he spoke and found himself staring at the woods around them. The trees, sturdy oaks, broad and thick, became a singular mass as they moved further from the building, creating a green sea of flowing leaves far to the north. To the south, just before the horizon, he was able to make out a sliver of crystalline blue – the Elien Sea. He sighed deeply, yearning to explore the world outside of the constraints of the land. The urge to explore hit him deeply at that moment, and it took him a second to finish his initial line of thinking. “Doesn’t seem to be anywhere to go but inside, either. And, uh, he doesn’t look to welcoming.”
Alaiya nudged Stoyan, grabbing his attention. He bent down, enabling the small woman to speak just above a whisper. “Can you jump on him? From up here, I mean. Would that be a good trick?”
Stoyan shrugged his shoulders in reply. “Hell, I’ve already done it twice. Third time’s the charm, right?”
Alaiya beamed up at him, happy and excited that her idea was useful. Stoyan then back away from the northern edge of the roof and pulled everyone together. “Alright, we need to beat that guy up, right? Only way it looks like we’re getting in. Now, I’ve got a plan that might work for all of us. Now, I’m going to try to surprise the guard by jumping from the roof. de Geffriel, you still got that bow, right? You stay up here, perched like you were in that tree, and try not to hit me.” She smiled and nodded in understanding, a smile that worried Stoyan. He was unsure if she was getting excited at the prospect of a fight, or the joy of watching him purposely leap from the building. Regardless, he continued. “Elias, you take Alaiya and head down to the ground. Attack from the west, where we circled around. You should have some clear shots while I’ve got his attention.”
“Aren’t you going to warn them about hitting you,” inquired a hurt de Geffriel.
“Nope, I trust them.”
Their roles established, they headed off to their positions. Stoyan inched as close to the edge as he could, while maintaining some semblance of surprise, as de Geffriel moved to the crest of the building, making sure the man’s head was all she could see. When Elias and Alaiya had disappeared, Stoyan readied himself. The guard still sat on his stool, calmly sharpening his gladius. Shiiik, shiiik, shiiik.
Stoyan exhaled and tensed the muscles in his legs. “It’s a lot further down when you look at it.” He shook the negative thought from his head. “No, I need to focus. This man is in my way. For Veth. One, two…now!” This time, Stoyan leapt from the building with purpose.
In mid-flight, the guard turned, but his head barely reached his shoulder when Stoyan collided with him. Both rolled to the ground, Stoyan’s momentum taking him further away than he had hoped. Pulling out his sword and shield, he had clearly gotten the attention of the man. “C’mon, big, fat, and useless. Let’s have a go.”
The man stood up, reaching, for the first time, his full height. He dwarfed Stoyan considerably and suddenly the Paladin was left with an image of Veth before him. The guard, wearing only a leather tunic and greaves, tossed his weapon between his hands, finally deciding on his left. Then, through a crooked grin, he spat on the ground at Stoyan’s feet.
Out of the corner of his eye, Stoyan saw magick form and shoot from the side of the building toward the hulk of a man. He charged, timing it so he reached him as the shock from the strike washed over his opponent. Stoyan’s first strike found an opening to the guard’s chest, but his reflexes were fast, and he managed to deflect the blow to his arm. Stoyan’s overzealousness cost him as the man swung a leg up, delivering a kick to his groin and thoroughly knocking the wind out of him. As he keeled over in pain, a second blow came crashing down on the back of his head, knocking him squarely to the ground.
“That’s one way to get out of the way,” yelled de Geffriel from the roof, as she shot an arrow into the man’s shoulder. “Now, get up and be more careful! I might need that intact.”
Spitting dirt from his mouth, Stoyan heard the familiar shhzzz of magick connect, and he saw the man’s feet momentarily off balance. Taking the chance, he swung his arm across the ground, tripping the guard while simultaneously pushing himself away. Both stood up in unison, the guard, once more, spitting on the ground, a crooked smile still on his face.
They moved in quickly, blade clashing against blade, strikes being exchanged rapidly, as they fought. Stoyan kept his position, forcing the guard to keep his back to the building where he could not fend off either de Geffriel’s arrows or Alaiya’s magick. The man, however, maintained his temperament, focusing on the foe before him. As though a cat toying with a mouse, the guard suddenly shoved Stoyan off balance, creating an opening to strike. The Paladin shifted back, deflecting most of the blow and countered with a lunge. This time the man sidestepped him and delivered a knee to his abdomen, causing Stoyan to stagger away. As he was desperately trying to catch his breath as an arrow thudded into the ground by his feet.
“Get back in there!” demanded de Geffriel, and Stoyan instantly saw why. The guard had begun moving toward Elias and Alaiya.
“Shit!” Stoyan raced to intercept the man, but Elias had already jumped before the guard, intent on protecting Alaiya.
Elias pointed his metallic rod at the approaching guard, and the crystal atop the rod began shimmering with a blue-white light. A blast of magick shot out and struck the man squarely in the chest and his body involuntarily shook from the unnatural cold, but the man continued. He spit on the ground again, and swung his gladius at Elias, catching the in the side of the torso. The strength of the blow flung the small man out of the way, leaving Alaiya abandoned and alone.
The man spit once more, this time a fair amount of blood was mixed in, and took a single step toward Alaiya, before being rammed in the side by an enraged Stoyan. “We ain’t done, buddy. Let’s play some more.”
Stoyan quickly withdrew his blade out of the man’s side, blood spilling forth in the process, and readied himself. The guard, unfortunately, appeared unfazed by the wound. He turned back to Stoyan, and spit at the Paladin’s feet, his saliva completely mixed with blood. Two more blasts of magick struck the guard, but he brushed them off, determined to engage Stoyan. As he moved, he tossed his gladius from his left hand to his right, a move Stoyan regrettably followed with his eyes. The guard then leveled a kick into Stoyan’s ribs that sent him tumbling. He shot up, wincing in pain. “That all ya got? I thought this was supposed to be a fight?” Stoyan shifted his battered and bruised right side away from the guard, hoping to cover his weakness. “That’s at least two broken, maybe three.”
Two more blasts of magick exploded off the back of the guard, but he continued, relentlessly in his pursuit. When the man inexplicably swatted behind himself, Stoyan noticed that de Geffriel had joined the fray, attacking with both a rapier and a dagger. The guard still advanced, however, a circumstance Stoyan felt he could do without.
The guard spit once more as he raised his gladius high above Stoyan, who could barely maneuver his shield to absorb the blow. Bracing for impact, Stoyan readied himself to take the momentum and roll with it, hopefully lashing out with his sword and hamstringing the man. But the blow never came. When Stoyan looked out from behind the shield, he saw the guard on the ground, faint wisps of blue air fading off his back, Elias in the background, the crystal in his rod slowly dimming. Taking a second to comprehend the situation, Stoyan proceeded to bend down and unclasp the key ring from the man’s belt.
Turning to the others, a tired smile swept across his face. “Let’s get Veth.”
Torches lit the small passage way inside and they were able to see drag marks continue ahead. Following the trail lead them to a T-shaped intersection, with a passage heading left and right. The tracks appeared to end abruptly at the wall. de Geffriel knelt by the wall, feeling around the wall for some type of handhold or opening. Standing, she continued to search, hoping to find a lever or switch to open the wall.
“Well, that’s an oddity. What do we do now?” Elias stood, arms crossed, waiting for some direction. “Wall ain’t going to open itself. Maybe we should ask the…wait, no, he’s dead.”
“I think we should go right,” said de Geffriel. “It seems the mechanism is triggered by a series of pulleys in that direction.”
Stoyan could sense the lie in the way she spoke. He was beginning to understand when she knew what she was talking about and when was had no idea. This was the latter. “I say we go left.”
“And why do you think it’s left? Are you that familiar with this place?” de Geffriel’s voice feigned hurt.
“The reason is simple. You, said right.”
With his infallible logic hanging in the air like the smell of a wet dog, Stoyan headed left, incidentally, in the same direction as they had heard voices from the roof. The passage turned sharply to the right and, after a bit, they noticed that it was a dead end. It was not a usual dead end, however, as, lodged in the facing wall, was a lever. Simple and wooden in nature, it rested within a metal covering fastened flawlessly to the stone. Curiosity got the better of Stoyan, and, despite the others apprehensions, he pulled it downward. The lever moved with ease as four soft clicks echoed through the wall. Releasing the lever, it slower returned to its original position, clicking four times on its way up.
“That event was rather…uneventful.” Elias could be seen grinning in the torchlight. “Seems the lady was right after all.”
de Geffriel gave a low, mocking bow. “Thank you for your future confidences. Let us see where passage number two will lead us.”
Backtracking, they took the right passage, which sharply turned to the left and greeted them to another dead end with a lever embedded as well.
“Ha!” gloated Stoyan. “I wasn’t wrong! And you weren’t right!”
de Geffriel sighed as she removed a spear latched onto her pack. Gesturing everyone down the passage, she stood back from the lever and reached out with the spearhead. “Never..take…chances, Paladin. It’s all…about…trust.” She snagged the lever with the tip of the spear and pulled down. “There!”
Four soft clicks echoed through the passage and, as the lever ascended, four more clicks greeted them. de Geffriel was obviously disappointed.
“Likely have to pull them at the same time. That can’t be a good thing.” Elias stood with his arms crossed once more, thinking through the situation as de Geffriel approached the lever. Taking out her dagger, she poked and pried, trying to pop the lever’s metal covering off, to no avail. Suddenly, she perked up.
“I’ve got an idea. Just need my…damn, left it outside. Hold on, I’ll be right back. Don’t pull the levers.” As she turned the corner, she called back. “That means you, Stoyan!”
She returned a few minutes later, her rope coiled in one hand and the leather tunic of the guard in the other. She quickly ran the rope through the armor and tied off a knot. Proudly lifting it up, and taking a second to admire her own work, she hung it from the lever. The lever descended, clicking four times, and stayed in the down position, the weight of the suspended tunic enough to hold it in place.
“Perfect! You can thank me later.”
The group then hurried around to the other passage and stood in front of the lever. “You ready?” asked Stoyan. The others nodded and he grabbed the lever and pulled. It moved a fraction of the way and stopped about where the first click would have sounded. Stoyan let go and the lever went back to its starting position. He pulled again and the lever stopped once more. Again and again he tried, but the lever never budged.
“Seems they need to be pulled at the same time.” Elias nodded as though agreeing with himself.
“Aren’t you one for the obvious, little Gnome.” de Geffriel was a bit sour that her bundle trick had been useless and it showed. “And how do you propose we coordinate that?”
Elias thought for a moment before pulling out a whistle. “When I blow the whistle, pull the levers. Simple as that.” He beamed at his own ingenuity.
“But who will go where?” asked Stoyan. “Who pulls the levers?”
“We could go two and two,” offered Elias. “Balance and such. Split Alaiya and I up, her with you, Stoyan, and I’ll head with de Geffriel.”
“Sounds good to me,” agreed Stoyan.
“Hold on, you meathead. You tend to get the crap kicked out of you. I don’t need the Artificer or his healing as much as you do.” There was a slight gasp from Alaiya as she said this. Stoyan knew the Sorceress did not feel completely at ease around the brash woman yet, and he could not blame her. “Don’t worry, you aren’t coming with me either. Stoyan, you should take both. It’ll be easier for me to avoid detection if I’m not trying to look after someone.” Turning to Elias, she said, “You better be on time with that whistle,” and took off down the passage.
The group waited, giving de Geffriel enough time to reach the other lever. Confident, Elias gave Stoyan and Alaiya a reassuring look and blew his whistle. Stoyan yanked down on the lever, which clicked four times. However, these clicks were louder than before and they suddenly felt the floor beneath them give way. It dropped to such a steep slope so quickly that they found themselves freefalling for a brief moment before their legs found the stone. Once properly on their backs, they slid into the dark confines of the building underbelly. Pretty soon, however, they floor ceased to exist and they, once more, found themselves falling through the unknown. Unable to brace for an unknown impact, Stoyan turned in what he figured was a face-up direction and waited. Landing on his back with an oomph, he was quickly greeted by small booted feet in his face. A high-pitched yelp followed as someone landed on his legs, causing one of his knees to bend awkwardly.
“That was fun,” Stoyan muttered as he gingerly pushed himself off the ground. “Alaiya, think you can give us some light?” A quiet hum responded, but no light appeared. “Alaiya, light please.”
“Ummm, Stoyan, I am providing light.” Alaiya’s voice came from somewhere in front of him. “But,…well, something’s blocking it. My light’s here, but it’s being shrouded in an even greater magick.” There was a brief pause before she continued. “This entire place…it’s magick!”