Chapter II

So, what I want you to evaluate on this chapter is whether or not it captures your interest. That’s all. Just whether it captures your interest. Grammar and spelling help is still appreciated, of course. This chapter’s shorter, so it shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Anyway, happy reading.

recap from last week: Captain Drogo Corentin arrives in Below.  Goes to find a friend of his, who sends him off to Sentinel Watch to find a dwarf who knows wtf is going on.

II

Corentin, of course, wanted to leave immediately. The issue with this was the fact that his entire crew was busy getting drunk and going home with women of dubious morality. As this rather impeded Corentin’s ability to leave, he decided to float around Below for a few days; or, at least until his crew could be rounded up.

It was this decision that led him to the Hanging House.

Universally considered the trashiest tavern in Below, the Hanging House was named aptly, hanging suspended by several badly made chains from several streets in the darkest parts of the Ramshackle. Though most of Below was lit by an odd series of lamps, created by a combination of magic, chemical reactions, wind power, and wishing really hard, the area around the Hanging House was dark. Most of the lamps had long ago been either broken by vandals or stolen and sold. The dinginess served the area well, however, as no one really wanted to see it in a good light.

The only method to access the Hanging House, apart from flying or jumping, was a decrepit staircase, more akin to a rope bridge than a real staircase, covered in grime and in the habit of swinging back and forth whenever it was descended. It was this staircase that Corentin gingerly stepped down, hoping to all the gods who might be listening that the ropes would hold.

Carefully, he lifted his foot and placed it on another stair. The plank produced an ominous creaking. The ropes holding it together squelched blatantly, as if to taunt Corentin with the fact that ropes really should not squelch.

You know, self, reflected Corentin, compared to this, it was probably a better idea to just jump. It was only about ten feet, after all. And they had a bale of hay set out to land on. Very hospitable of them, really.

Well, yeah, he replied, but the hay was green. And slimy. And we’ve no idea what was living in it. Anyway, we’ve got to continue now, if only because one of the stairs fell out behind us and we really don’t feel like leaping.

Corentin ceased his mental conversation. Arguing with himself could come when he wasn’t suspended over nothingness on a bit of rotting wood and soggy rope. He took another step, onto a plank thankfully less decayed. It appeared that the steps further down were less decrepit than those above, though Corentin could think of no logical reason for this. He tested his theory with a few more steps, and, finding himself correct, scampered quickly across the remaining stairs to the platform upon which the tavern sat. He paused to catch his breath.

The tavern itself was in a state similar to that of its staircase. A few wooden structures served as walls, with a canvas roof, propped up in a vaguely triangle formation to repel rainwater. The walls had what could be termed windows, but were probably more accurately referred to as gaping accidental holes.

Corentin walked slowly through the door-hole, allowing his eyes to get accustomed to the light. The interior of the Hanging House was slightly lighter than the surrounding gloom, if only because of a dimly lit fireplace, blatantly against Below regulations. It was filled with tables and figures in various states of shabbiness, drinking and gambling and swearing.

Walking up to the bar, Corentin caught the attention of the barkeeper. “Your staircase is missing a step,” he informed the man. The barkeep grunted in response. He was a large man, grotesquely fat and unbearably hairy. He occupied himself by washing a dirty glass with a dirtier cloth.

Corentin sat down, and looked around. There didn’t appear to be much of interest in the tavern, although in the corner several men were playing some form of card game. Corentin could probably beat them, though they might stab him for the slight. They didn’t look like particularly pleasant people.

“Hey, puny, yeh gonna order?” grunted the barkeep.

“Oh. Uh… one ale, please,” Corentin muttered distractedly. He slid several coins across the counter. The barkeep bit one, determined it was real, and went to fetch the captain his drink. Corentin continued watching the group in the corner.

After several minutes of slowly sipping a bad ale, the captain reached a decision, and wandered across to see what the men were playing.

Taking up a position behind one of the players, he watched for several hands. It was a game he knew well, Auj. A relatively simple partnered trick-taking game, the entire point was the take the deuce and the trey of as many suits as possible. The issue with this was that the deuce and trey were the two lowest cards, so most of the strategy was relegated to playing a point card on your partner’s high cards. Corentin could see they were playing a southern variation, in which the kings suit was trump. Though they were playing with six players, any even-numbered combination was possible.

As he watched, the leading player threw out an eight of dwarves, his last card. Two of his opponents followed suit, playing a trey and five of dwarves. His partner threw a deuce of winds. Another opponent had no dwarves, but could only play his final card, a deuce of lords. The game came around to the last player, who grinned through a grimy beard and played a trey of kings, winning the trick.

“That gives me four points, friends. Looks like we win…” said the player in question, pulling the formidable pile of coins at the center of the table toward him. The rest of the players glowered at him, excepting his partner, who was flipping a coin up and down and watching it with rapt attention. The dealer reached across the table slowly, grabbing the four extra cards left undealed.

“Hey, you’re not supposed to do that!” said the winning player, leaning forward in his chair.

“Watch me…” muttered his opponent. Corentin had by this time maneuvered himself behind the dealer, and saw the extra cards. They were a four of knights, a deuce of dwarves, a five of men, and a six of winds.

The dealer looked up, glaring at his hairy opponent through vaguely bloodshot eyes. “I dealt you this five of men… friend. You switched cards on us.”

The winner was now slightly panicked, and stuttering. “You… you can’t have known that! You cheated too!”

The dealer stood, and moved his arm calculatedly. The light of the fireplace glinted briefly off metal, and a dagger pinned the bearded man’s hand to the table.

In another flash of movement, the dealer’s partner produced another dagger and held it to the throat of the stricken man’s partner. “You have anything to do with this, schmuck?” he grunted roughly.

It struck Corentin now that the former winner’s partner was rather out of place. While the entire population of the tavern existed in the dubious space between shabby and composting, the man now held at dagger-point wore a clean leather tunic, with a short sword buckled at his side. His beard was neatly trimmed, and his brown hair was close-cropped. Around his neck was a pendant of obvious value, an intricately crafted silver object with all manner of mind-boggling spirals. The fact that it had not yet been stolen was a testament to the fact that the surrounding ruffians were rather uncomfortable with anyone clean.

The well-groomed man, who had thus far been paying no attention whatsoever, now gave his situation some small bit of notice. “Oh, no, I had nothing to do with it. Just met the man today… slightly before we sat down to play, to be honest.”

His would-be attacker grunted dubiously, but sat down. Two bouncers, a large man and a massive minotaur, ran over to remove the wounded man. The other five sat down, and began their game again.

“’ey, you,” said the apparent leader of the gang – the man who had stabbed his opponent. Corentin realized with a start he was talking to him. “We’re short a player. Ever played Auj?”

Corentin nodded, and sat.

They played for several hours. Corentin was an experienced Auj player, and he could see that his opponents were very good at the game; although they seemed to be better at circumventing the rules. The captain had to pleasantly remind the dealer several times that he had, for example, accidentally dealt from the bottom of the deck, or that he appeared to have dropped some cards in his sleeve.

What was odd, however, is that Corentin’s partner appeared to be a perfect player. He constantly led the exact right things, to the ire of his opponents. Even when dealt a hand full of fours and fives, and devoid of kings, he managed to gain several points. Though he and Corentin were by no means winning, most likely due to the efforts of the dealer, they were losing much less than could be expected.

The current hand was going badly – Corentin’s team had three points, compared to both of his opponents, who had five each. Each player had a single card left, and the dealer had led an ace of kings, essentially guaranteeing victory for his team. The cards were played: an eight of dwarves, a deuce of kings, a deuce of swords, and a six of kings. It was Corentin’s partner’s turn to play.

He smirked slightly, and threw out a deuce of winds, which, by an obscure rule, was the only card capable of taking down the ace of kings. This won the game for him and Corentin, as well as a substantial amount of money.

The card table immediately exploded with outrage.

“There’s no way in the seven hells you could’ve had that!” shouted the dealer angrily. In the blink of an eye, weapons were drawn all around. The table had, in the commotion, been overturned, spilling a large pile of coins all over the floor. This was immediately set upon by the scum of the surrounding tables, and the scene quickly degraded into complete anarchy. Several of the bouncers began toward the group, intending to intervene.

“Run!” shouted Corentin to his former partner. The two ran together through the mass of writhing bodies, reaching the door just as one of the bouncers, a minotaur, struck down a card player who had been threatening him. A fight broke out between the card players and the bouncers, with the card players obviously losing.

Corentin and his friend escaped quickly, running over the decrepit staircase. It fell behind them, the stress of bearing so much weight too much to handle. They caught their breath on the street above the Hanging House, watching the chaos from a safe distance. A small Underfoot was defenestrated as they watched, falling for several feet before the wind caught on his clothes and he drifted to safety.

Turning to his newfound friend, Corentin extended his hand. “I’m Captain Corentin, of the Lucinda, by the way. Who are you?”

“Padrig Gensemerse Saruch of… well, not really anywhere. Call me Padrig.”

“Lovely. I’m going back to my ship to get some damn sleep. You can come, if you like.”

“I think I will.”

The two set off toward the Lucinda.

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Chapter I

So, here’s the first chapter. (Esty, if you’re reading this, I still want comments on the prologue). My main concern here is whether or not I described Below decently, it’s a bit of a mindfuck, so I want to be sure I paint an accurate mental picture. It’s a bit long, but it’s double-spaced so reading it shouldn’t be too much of a problem.  Opinions are mandatory. You shall be assimilated.

I

Far away, another ship, a different ship, pulled into the docks of Below, the city beneath the world. Here, the rain was lighter, more of a depressing drizzle than an obliterating downpour.

The crew of the Lucinda scurried about, making ready for landing. They were making port for the first time in months, and all were excited. Some had wives and children on land that they were eager to see, but most simply looked forward to ale and wenches, probably in that order. The only crew member not in a frenzy was, oddly enough, their captain. He stood, solitary and drenched in rain, at the bow of the ship, looking toward the city, thinking. The crew knew their captain, and knew that if he was thinking it was probably about something important. This was because he rarely bothered with thinking, preferring prompt action and sorting out the mess later.

He stood, staring at the the city of Below with his pleasant blue eyes, though not entirely seeing it. He looked about thirty, perhaps either ending his third decade or beginning his fourth. His left hand engaged in a constant struggle with his long, black hair, which was attempting unsportingly to blow into his face and obstruct his view. His right, in contrast, was deep in this pouch, gripping something unseen.

He wore the standard clothes for a sailor of the Cloudsea: baggy, beige colored pants that had probably once been red, tight at the waist but loose at the bottom, so that if he fell overboard the rising thermals would catch his clothes and arrest his fall. His shirt, though white, adhered to the same principles of design as his pants, with many seemingly extraneous folds designed to catch the wind while not catching the rain. He wore a small leather pouch, for personal effects, in which he currently had his right hand. The only way he differed in dress from any of his crew was the bright red, silk sash tied loosely around his waist, like an afterthought, proclaiming his rank of captain.

One of the crew approached him, a man of medium height with a long scar on the right side of his face, though otherwise unremarkable. “Captain Corentin,” he said in respectful tones, “We’re ready to dock.”

The captain stood still for a moment, likely finishing his thought. He spoke without looking at the sailor, keeping his eyes on the city. “Pull in on one of the upper docks.”

“Cap’n, that’ll cost a bunch! Th’ docking fees are bloody crazy up there.”

“I know; I’m in a hurry. Give the order.” The sailor ran off, shouting at the rest of the crew to get to work.

The docks of Below were rather oddly situated. The problem with Below was that, as it was an entire city placed on a sheer cliff face on the underside of the world, it had rather more vertical space than it did horizontal. Thus, the docks were on the underside of the rest of the city, so that the city did not have to deal with them taking up space. The uppermost docks, usually reserved for visiting nobility, were a few seconds walk away from the Main, the area where most of the work went on in the city. The lowermost, on the other hand, were both rather poorly constructed and cut off from everything else, the only access available a series of bizarre mechanized lifts whose maker had probably been several cards short of a full deck.

All this, Captain Corentin thought of as his crew prepared to dock in the ritzy upper levels. They pulled in alongside a richly decorated transport ship, its triple sails and freshly painted red sides cutting a stark contrast to the Lucinda’s shabbiness. Aboard it, some pompously dressed fop looked at the Lucinda with disdain. His look was greeted with rude gestures from several of the sailors.

Corentin leaped off the bow as soon as it neared the dock, leaving his men to tend to the ship and setting off at a brisk pace.

“Cap’n!” called a voice after him. He turned; it was the scar-faced sailor from earlier. “Shouldn’t one of us go wit’ you, sir?”

“I think I know my way around Below, Arak,” replied Corentin. He turned back to the city.

Despite his hurry, he took a moment to breath in the sights. Below was, truly, an amazing place. The city had been founded, as a mere outpost, a century and a half previously. The idea was that the bountiful wind-power of the Cloudsea should be put to some good use. Of course, the group of crazy dwarves who had the idea thought it was too simple to merely build a city on the coast. There are lots of cities built on the coast, where’s the fun in that? So, they gathered up their equipment, and made it, somehow, down the side of the world and to a cliff face that would soon become Below.

The original outpost was constructed on a kind of ledge, an outcrop of rock that, while near the underside of the continent, was probably still technically the side of it. A cave behind said ledge provided shelter and the main living space for the scientists, while on the ledge itself they performed their experiments. Then, they discovered that the underside of the world was actually incredibly strong and could support any number of things hung from it. Thus, Below grew into a city partially on a ledge above itself, but mostly hanging down in the form of all manner of docks and hastily thrown-together buildings.

Most of the scientific work in Below occurred in the Main, the most sturdy area. A grid-like system of ramps and wooden streets ran everywhere, cutting the Main into neat little squares. In each square was a building, or several buildings, dedicated to the pursuit of wind science. Underneath the streets hung bizarre instruments, doing everything from measuring wind-speed to powering transportation to just sitting there, blinking with seemingly incongruous lights.

Further back in the gloom underneath the world lay the living area for most of the workforce of Below. It hung like a badly-constructed model, streets going random places, sometimes stopping, sometimes having large pieces missing, and saturated with a myriad of badly constructed houses, if they could be called that. The house-like objects mainly took the form of large communal living areas, low and squat, with canvas sheets as roofs, as that was the most conservative way to construct them and wood was expensive. The thinking of the scientists was that their living quarters should not be particularly comfortable, as the most important aspect of the city was the technology. Thus, they hadn’t put much effort into their living quarters, earning it both the ire of everyone living in it and the nickname the Ramshackle.

In between lay the area of the merchants, where the hardworking men and women who had nothing to do with science were yet intimately connected with it, as all their customers were either scientists or grunts working for said scientists. It was a combination of the styles of the Main and the Ramshackle, slightly less organized than the scientific district but not as decrepit as the living quarters, as that just wouldn’t do for the merchants. Here, one could find butchers and bakers aplenty, though candlestick makers were a rarity, as open flame endangered the mostly wooden city. The merchant area had no name, as such, though some called it the Mainshackle and thought themselves incredibly witty.

Corentin took all this in within the space of a second, seeing everything going on in the busy city. He continued along his path, though looking all around him as he did, for Below still amazed him, despite the many times he had visited. Around him swirled daily life in Below, a confusing, busy thing. The main population of the city were the Wind Dwarves, dwarves who had forsaken their native mountains and come to further the pursuits of science, their close-cut hair and shaven faces a blatant contrast to their mountainous cousins.

Nearly as numerous were humans, who came in every size and shape but were mostly relegated to grunt roles in the technological city. A sizable minority were the Underfoot, a race of mischievous beings roughly the same size as human children, who scampered about doing all sorts of odd jobs. Though these three were the clear majority, nearly every other race could be found in Below: elves, attempting to remain aloof and distant in the bustle of the city; the winged Rhokari of the northern forests; horned minotaurs, bull-men from the islands to Below’s south and east; a few of the Njorlghar, rat-like beings who subsisted in filth and squalor. Corentin even thought he caught a glimpse of purple-furred Satyr, deep in conversation with a dwarven overseer. Though all were different, all shared the same style of dress: loose clothes with safety folds in the case of a fall – a very real danger in Below.

Watching all this, Corentin was pleasantly surprised when his feet took him directly to where he wanted to be: the Below headquarters of the Explorer’s Society, a squat building made of a patchwork of stone and wood, bearing the symbol of the society, a boat imposed upon the rising sun.

He entered, and found everything aflutter. The welcome room, though small, was large for the standards of Below. Dozens of people ran about it, giving papers to each other and checking various bags, occasionally scurrying into a back room, and all talking in very loud voices.

Corentin, after blinking slightly in the face of the bustle, grabbed one of the hurrying men by the arm. “Excuse me, do you know where I could find Shorac?” he asked the man, who motioned toward one of the back rooms and sped off. Corentin shoved through the multitude and opened the door gingerly, fearing another scene like the one he had left.

He was greeted, however, by a scene of quiet and calm, a small study warmly lit by a glowing lamp. A desk on the far side of the room was covered in all manner of papers, books, and assorted hodgepodge. At it sat a slight, balding man, who had not noticed Corentin’s entrance. His nose was nearly touching the book he was reading, and the tip of his quill was tracing the lines as he read them, occasionally underlining something of apparent importance.

Corentin watched him work for a bit, smiling slightly. He then grew bored, and contemplated the best way to interrupt the scholar. After thinking a bit, he said “Boo!” in a loud whisper. The man jumped, and looked up. He was obviously annoyed at being interrupted, but the scowl on his face quickly turned to a warm smile.

“Drogo Corentin!” he said, rising from his desk.

“Thale Shorac!” replied Drogo, and the two embraced. “Though,” began the captain after the greeting, “You should know as well as anyone that I despise my given name.”

“Don’t see why, perfectly pleasant name,” replied Shorac, grinning. “Name of a saint, y’know. Saint Drogo. Healed the emperor of a deadly sickness, a few centuries back.”

“You’ve mentioned before,” said Corentin, prodding Shorac in the ribs playfully. “You also mentioned that the emperor died of the same sickness a few months later.”

“A trifle!” exclaimed the scholar, and the two fell about laughing at the same conversation relived for the thousandth time.

“Drogo Corentin, where in the seven hells have you been?” asked Thale after the levity was finished.

“Oh, you know, here and there.”

“Here and there!” said Thale in mock rage. “You bastard, I haven’t seen you in three years!”

“Three?” said Corentin, genuinely surprised. “I was last in Below six months ago, didn’t I visit you then?”

“Six months? Six months? No, last I saw of you, you were headed off to the outer islands in search of the fountain of youth!”

“Ah, that.” Corentin’s face glazed over in a smile of hazy remembrance. “Good times. I guess I could probably be forgiven for forgetting to visit you last time, I was being chased by minotaur assassins. Bit preoccupied, y’know.”

“I shouldn’t ask, should I?”
“Probably not.”

“I guessed. How’d the fountain of youth go, though?”

“Oh, we never found it. Turns out the map was forged. We did find the fountain of death, though. Bit of an awkward conversation with that sailor’s parents when we got back to port…” Corentin’s brow furrowed, and he stared at the wall for a short while. “Anyway,” he began again, “what’s going on with you? Officially registered Scholar of the Explorer’s Society, you must be very proud! Last time I was here, you were an assistant!”

“Yes, I got the promotion last year. Only a conciliatory gesture, I’m afraid. The Below chapter wanted someone with a bit more prestige to do their research, and headquarters agreed. Still, the pay raise is nice.”
“What’s all the ruckus in the other room, anyway?”

“Oh, there’s an expedition starting… well, about two hours ago, by now. The sixteenth expedition to the center of the continent. They’re convinced they’ll find it this time.”

“Will they?”

“All things are possible!”

The two friends chuckled quietly together for several moments more, then silence fell. After several moments, Thale began speaking again, this time in a more serious tone. “Corentin, what exactly is it you want with this visit?” he inquired, attempting to be polite.

“Couldn’t imagine what you mean,” replied Corentin uncomfortably.

“Oh, come on. You only ever show up when my knowledge could be of use to you. Back in Wyrmspire, you and your delinquent followers came by only when you wanted advice on how to beat the neighboring street’s gang!”

“Hey! You were more my friend than any of those sheep!” exclaimed Corentin, offended.

“That may have been, but you only remembered it when you wanted something. Hells, last time you were here it was only to ask my opinion on that map you won!” The two stood in awkward silence for several moments.

Corentin started again, stumblingly. “I may have something I wish to ask your… opinion on.”

“Ah, here we go,” smiled Thale. “What is it? Another map? Perhaps an ancient artifact you ‘acquired’ and wish to have examined?”

“Closer to the latter…” mumbled Corentin as he fished in his pouch. He pulled out several things, some identifiable and some not, before he got to what he was looking for. “Ah!” he exclaimed, and pulled it out.

It appeared to be a shard of pottery. It was small enough to fit comfortably in Corentin’s hand, but large enough so that he could not entirely close his fist around it. Though obviously broken, it was decorated on both sides as well as on the edges. The decorations were dizzying, all manner of colors and designs, swirls and paintings. Dominating them, however, were several large swirls of silver, shining even in the dim light of the study. They danced intricately, confusing the eyes and confounding the mind.

Both men were silent for several seconds, studying it. Thale broke the silence first. “May I hold it?” he asked. Corentin handed the shard to him, and the silence continued. The scholar turned it over and over in his hands, examining every part of it, every bit of paint.

“I’ve no idea what it is,” he finally pronounced, handing it back to Corentin. The captain looked downhearted, but listened as Thale continued. “It’s… an oddity, certainly. The silver shouldn’t shine like that, but it does. And it’s obviously very old, as the other paint is worn and faded, but none of it’s chipped away. The color has faded, but evenly, which is almost unheard of in artifacts of this age.”

“What should I do with it?” asked Corentin, speaking for the first time in several minutes.

“Well, first, you should tell me where you got it.” Though he loved his friend, Thale was no fool, and new that anything Corentin brought him was probably earned illegitimately. The scholar was fully prepared to scold his friend for theft, gambling, or whatever he had done to earn this object.

“Well…” began Corentin, sitting down at his friend’s desk and putting his feet up, “You know who Dracart Kavarus is, right?”

“Of course, most do. Currently the most dangerous member of the Twelve, ambitious as all hell, pledged unswervingly to Anator. Not a nice person.”

“That guy. Well, d’ya know that he has a daughter?” This proclamation from Corentin was greeted with a glare from Thale, who knew where this was going. “Deadly beautiful,” continued the captain, “and just as evil as her father. But naïve. Doesn’t know when someone’s trying to… coerce her.”

Thale glared at Corentin for several seconds more. The captain continued, speaking a bit faster. “Anyway, she and I had an… encounter… and while the guards were chasing me out of the fortress I found myself in a trophy room. Nice place, with a bunch of obviously valuable things.”
“Well, what possessed you to grab this bit of pottery, then? Surely there was more of value there.”

“Oh, sure. But it was big. There was a statue that I could’ve sworn was solid gold, and a battleaxe made of mithril and etched with all kinds of things, but the guards were getting close and they had some unpleasantly pointy objects and orders from her father to kill, so I grabbed this and legged it out the window.” Corentin paused for a moment, contemplating. “Fortunately, the castle was on the coast, and I fell into the Cloudsea, where my crew rescued me. It was a bit high up, I doubt I would’ve made the fall if not for that…” He lapsed into silence, having finished his story.

Thale sat for a moment, obviously decided something, and spoke. “Well, I can help you.”

“You can?” Corentin almost jumped out of his seat.

“Of course,” said the scholar, smiling smugly. “I’ve a fellow scholar, a dwarf, who specializes in this manner of thing. Artifacts, and the like.”

Corentin was sitting on the edge of his seat with excitement. “Thale, I love you! You’ve no idea how curious I am about this thing!”

Thale began to say something, then blinked and switched to another. “Why?”

“Huh?”

“Why are you so curious? I’ve never known you to care about something that isn’t directly on the path to your fortune.”

“That’s just the thing, I’ve no idea! It shouldn’t interest me at all, but it does, and that makes it all the more interesting! It’s driving me crazy! Now, where the hell is this dwarf you’ve spoken of?”

Thale paused for a moment, then continued. “…well, that’s the thing, he’s a bit of a long way off.”

“Where?”

“Sentinel Watch.”

“Where in the name of Zaran is that?”

“It’s a newly constructed outpost. On an island to the west… here, I can give you a map…” Thale began rummaging around in one of his piles. Corentin leaned in to look, and gave up after several minutes of not being able recognize anything that flashed under his friend’s hands.

After a seeming eternity, Thale found what he was looking for. “Aha!” he exclaimed, holding a shabby piece of parchment high. He pressed it into the captain’s hands, pointing toward a recent addition to the map, added in relatively newer ink.

“Sentinel Watch…” read Corentin. “By the gods, that’s further to the west than I’ve ever been! What’s the purpose of an outpost there?”

“You’ll find out. You’ll find the dwarf there, his name is Galeun.”

“I suppose I shall…”

Exchanging several more pleasantries, Corentin departed. The room through which he had entered was just as busy as it had been previously, but he paid it no heed. He knew where he was going next, and that’s all an adventurer needs.

Prologue

Oh god, I’m trying my hand at writing again. What has gotten into me. This is only the prologue, which doesn’t have any of the actual characters in it, ’cause prologues can be crazy like that. I already have the first chapter too, but I need to streamline that a bit more before I post it. It takes place in Alara, because I’m a whore and enjoy literary masturbation. Comments are mandatory. Don’t comment and I will ball you. That’s where I take off your balls. I’ll figure it out for the females among you.

Prologue

Rain. Cold, depressing rain, pouring down through the blackness of night like the anger of the heavens. Thrashing everything it touches, driving even the hardiest to find shelter. All across the Civilized Lands, it rains.

And far offshore, deep in the morass of the Cloudsea, a ship. The storm is worse here; gusts of wind whirl unpredictably, making it practically impossible to sail. The black clouds above descend to the horizon to merge with the equally colorless clouds below; the ship appearing to float on a backdrop of midnight. Solitary and unseen by any observers, the ship is tossed like a toy by the powerful winds, a plaything in the hands of the gods.

On board, figures scurry busily about. They cannot be seen clearly, as in the gloom, they are only silhouettes subject to the occasional flash of lightning. None of the figures is exactly the same, some tall, some uncannily short, and some with horns. All run frantically, shouting commands to each other and desperately attempting to save their ship from the damnation offered by a plunge into the Cloudsea.

In the center of the bustle, somehow commanding all attention without being unique in any way compared to the myriad around them, are three figures. They struggle with a series of ropes, trying to confound the storm.

“By all that is holy, brother, how can you find this relaxing?” shouts the figure on the left, a woman. The center figure, a good two heads higher than his two companions, and obviously the only one truly comfortable with the current predicament, merely goes stoically about his work. “I maintain that we should have met on my terms…” grunts the same figure again.

The figure on the right lets out a short bark of laughter, all the breath he is willing to expend. “Sister, how is a smoke-filled room full of mysteries and secrets any better than a piece of wood teetering on the brink of destruction?” he shouts.

“I can think of a few ways!” replies the woman. The two fall silent for several moments, concentrating on the task at hand. The storm continues unceasingly, and the sailors match its fury blow for blow.

After several minutes of toil, the woman speaks again. “I suppose we should get to business, then,” she shouts over the roar of the storm.

“The sooner we start, the sooner we finish,” replies the man.

“To the point, then: we all know what is coming. The only thing we don’t know is how many of the others know.”

“I think you can be assured our brother will discover soon enough.”

“Of course. All we can do is try to delay that discovery as long as possible.

The center figure, silent and looming, now speaks for the first time. “We can do more than that.” The other two turn to him, questioning glances implied, if not seen in the gloom.

“What have you in mind?

“Yes, what, brother?”

The massive figure straightens, taking pause from his work. “We could swear not to interfere,” he says.

The other two explode immediately. “Preposterous!” shouts one, the woman. “We should have a hand in this, the same as any of the others!”

“Such oaths are not to be taken lightly, brother!” shouts the man.

“It begins on your turf! Would you be a hypocrite?”

“Are we to be helpless in this?”

The center figure raises his hands in a gesture of pacification. “Siblings, hear my reasons! What is to come will come. The presence of our hands will only attract the attention of the others. Far better to leave our influence to be spent towards the end, and allow the beginning to unfold unobstructed!”

The others, now also having ceased in their work, stand in stony silence, contemplating their brother’s words. The figure on the right, the man, is the first to acquiesce. “Brother, you are wise, though how you come by it is a mystery to me. I swear, by my siblings and my children, not to interfere in the events to come.”

The woman folds her arms, glaring bitterly at her two brothers. Finally, she agrees. “As do I,” she says softly. The three stand together a moment longer, silent in their thoughts.

An outside influence breaks the mutual reverie, coming in the form of one of the sailors. “Captain!” shouts the horned figure gruffly, “The storm worsens! What are your orders?”

The figure in the center appears to grin, though his face is invisible in the black rain. “Back to work, my brethren!” he shouts in glee, and takes up a rope.

Alara: Homostin’s Passage

Well, I’m done with the Wastes. So I figured I’d do something of a slightly different feel today. I’m going to expand a bit more on the world of Alara. This time, I’m going to do it in the form of a passage of a great scholar of Alara: Homostin of Wyrmspire, Formerly of Asernaiar. Today’s entry will also be a little shorter than normal, but that’s okay because there’s going to be a lot of information in it.

After this, I think I’m going to flush out Wyrmspire a bit more. It’s the most important city of the setting, after all. Maybe I’ll make a map of it. I already have several ideas for some interesting characters.

Well, let’s get going, eh?

This is to be the introductory passage of the Second Edition of the Chronicles of Alara. I write that this is the second edition because the first was recently lost. My home city, Asernaiar, was set upon by the Amen-Kathar, vicious beasts from the unmapped marshes beyond our city. In the attack, the great Library at Asernaiar was taken. My apprentices and I barely escaped with our lives, much less any volumes of the great Chronicles I had thus far penned.

So I begin anew. I start this second edition with a far greater knowledge of Alara than that I possessed four centuries ago, when I began my first edition. I hope that this knowledge will improve this second edition greatly. I also hope that somebody recovers the first edition soon, because not even elves are immortal and I was only halfway through that one. Also, my apprentices are all nincompoops.

Alara is a massive world. Our knowledge of it is incomplete, at best. The best known continent, the one upon which the Civilized Lands rest, is known as Aulind. Other known continents include Norgenar, Luinthras, Gúlind, Azshana, and Aul. Very little is known about many of these, so it is entirely possible that some of them could be the same continent, or not exist at all.

Aulind is quite large. Civilization on Aulind is concentrated in the Civilized Lands, a small portion in the southeast. Uncivilized areas of Aulind are far larger, and everpresent. To the west of the Civilized Lands lies the forest of Requiem. To the north of the Civilized Lands lies the Wastes, dark and barren homeland of undead horrors. Beyond the Wastes lie the Ebenian Plains and the Omarra Desert. Of the lands beyond that, very little is known. A place called Swelterholm lies somewhere, far to the north, but has only been visited by several explorers.

Norgenar is the continent, other than Aulind, about which most is known. It is the only one of the other continents that I have seen with my own eyes. It lies south of Aulind, and is taken up almost entirely by ice and snow. Wandering this tundra are savage men, ice dwarves, and tusked, hairy beastmen with odd elongated noses. The Alliance has one outpost on Norgenar, known as Arrath. From there, we trade with the ice dwarves, who are at least semi-friendly. The men of the tundra, however, are entirely bestial. Any attempt at communication with them is entirely useless.

Luinthras is a continent of which very little is known. Eight-hundred and twenty-three years ago, ships came from across the cloudsea. They claimed they came from Luinthras, a continent of advanced civilization and high standards. The influence of these foreigners is the reason the Civilized Lands are so far ahead of the rest of Aulind in terms of society. Even our language was entirely changed; modern-day common is made up of far more Luinthran than it is Old Common. Then, one day, roughly a century after the first ships arrived, they ceased coming. We lost contact with Luinthras, and it has not been reestablished since. No one knows if it even still exists.

Gúlind is a mysterious continent. The only records we have of it are those taken by the famous explorer, Hendrick Alantra, over a century ago. From what he said, Gúlind was a sweltering land, full of great, dragon-like beasts. There were no humans or elves in this land, but men resembling lizards, who rode the great beasts previously mentioned. The landscape was dotted with mountains of fire and steaming springs. Unfortunately, when Hendrick attempted to return to Gúlind, his entire exploratory fleet was lost, and all that was recovered was a spar from his flagship, the Discovery. No one has found Gúlind since.

Azshana is even more mysterious than the rest of the unknown continents. It is regularly found by ships sailing to or from the outer islands of Aulind, but never stays in the same place. Its inhabitants are said to be giant tortoises, who for some reason possess both the ability to speak and considerable magical prowess. It is possible that it is entirely mythical, and the sailors that corroborate the story (which was originally, in all likelihood, created by some drunk) are merely searching for attention. I know that I have never seen it myself. Of course, this would give need to some other explanation for the various magical artifacts brought back by said sailors. It is a mystery.

Aul is a purely theoretical continent, created by the Astrological Society to serve as a hypothetical center point for the rotations of the sun and moon. I have my doubts about both its existence and the mental stability of most of the members of the Astrological Society.

~Homostin, Chronicler of Wyrmspire, Fourth Day of the Waxing Hunter’s Moon, 823 A.F.

Attempts At High Fantasy: Chapter II

Yeah, so I wrote chapter two of that last thing I did… you might want to read that before you read this. You know… so you know what’s going on.

As before, comments are both welcome and expected. This chapter has a lot of dialogue, as well as a long internal monologue, so I fully expect it to be several degrees more horrible than the last one I posted. I would appreciate help with anything you consider awkwardly worded, or just plain wrong-sounding.

I still don’t have a title, so here we go:

II

 

That tavern in Gilean’s Crossing, thought Azar as he was marched toward the dungeons. That’s where my troubles began.

This time, he amended himself. That’s where my troubles began this time. Well, not really. I still have all those overarching troubles to deal with. It’s just that right now I have to deal with more immediate troubles. And those troubles began at that gods-damned tavern.

What happened there, anyway? I remember ale… quite a lot of ale, in fact. And there was that barmaid… she certainly was attractive… although, in retrospect, that may have just been the ale.

So, why in the seven hells did I wake up the next morning gagged, bound, and surrounded by soldiers? I guess I may have been a bit loose with my tongue… I vaguely remember bragging to that barmaid that I was the leader of the rebellion… of course, I also remember bragging that I had invented the longsword, so that shouldn’t have done it at all.

Was that it, though? Did she call some soldiers based on the fact that I might have been the leader of the rebellion? I suppose she could have; I can’t even remember how much gold they’re offering for my head at this point. After all, why not take the chance? If I was lying, it didn’t particularly matter; if I was telling the truth, she gets rich. A wonderful catch on her part…

Well, if the barmaid is why I got caught, I guess this entire incident is my fault. But damn it, I deserved some celebration! We’d just won a major victory, we blew up… damn, I can’t even remember what we blew up. It was something to do with those damn wizards… the renegades, or the black serpent or whatever in the hells they’re calling themselves now…

What’s with wizards, anyway? Why are they always so… eccentric? I mean, I heard the reason the renegade order exists is because some damn wizard set fire to some other damn wizard’s cat… of course, I heard that from a drek, so in all likelihood it’s total rubbish. But who’s to know? It could happen. Anything can happen, with wizards. Like all those experiments with reality the renegades were doing… in that strange tower… with all the rods and things coming out of the roof… gods, how far away do they have to put the damn dungeons? Can’t they just throw me in some cell already?

What were those things on the roof for, anyway? I heard something about them being used to channel the body heat given off by moths into usable energy… who did I hear that from? Damn, I think it was another drek… I really need to stop talking to those guys. Or just stop remembering. Anyway, some of those experiments were really unethical. I heard they were using dwarfs as test subjects… and I’m pretty sure I heard that from a human, so it’s at least halfway credible. Someone really should destroy that tower… oh, yeah. That’s what we blew up. That’s why we were celebrating. Of course, the smart ones in the group advised against going to some tavern to celebrate. Too dangerous, they said.

But how could anything have gone wrong? I was surrounded by loyal rebels. All drinking and having fun… ah. That’s what went wrong. Maybe next time there should be someone who doesn’t get drunk… that’s a good idea. I’ll take along one of those young ones next time, someone who still has some idealism left.

That is… if there is a next time. Damn, why did I have to think that? That really didn’t help. I have to keep an optimistic-

Azar’s train of thought was interrupted when he was thrown headfirst into a cell. Behind him, the cell door slammed shut.

Azar picked himself up slowly and looked around. The cell was roughly five paces wide by five paces long. Grime and filth covered the walls. Two objects barely qualifying as beds moldered in the darkness, one along each wall. A torch on the wall of the corridor outside the cell barely illuminated the front half of the cell. Shadows cloaked the back half. Sitting in the darkest corner was a person. The shadows obscured the person’s age, race, and gender.

“Another one?” said the person. Its voice revealed it to be female.

“Another what?” asked Azar in reply.

“Another prisoner thrown in here to be interrogated later. I guess this means Finley finally gave in. Such a pity, I was starting to like him…”

“Why do they put prisoners they want to interrogate in here?” asked Azar warily.

“Oh, back when they first threw me in here, some of the guards were looking at me in a way I didn’t like at all. So I pretended to be crazy to turn them off. It’s worked out great – of course, now they put all the people they want to crack in here. I think they think you guys will cave sooner if you’re in a cell with a crazy girl, but that really doesn’t work very well, what with me not being crazy and all.”

“Pretended to be – look, may I see the person I’m speaking to, please?” asked Azar politely, if rather impatiently.

“What? Oh, sure… I keep forgetting about these damn shadows, always being so… shadowy.” The girl emerged from the shadowed corner.

She was young. Azar guessed she had most likely seen eighteen years. She wore rags that had probably once been finery, but were now dirty and torn. She was slightly too skinny to be healthy, but still very attractive, with raven hair and pleasant brown eyes.

“Hmm. Anyway, how did you pretend to be crazy?” asked Azar curiously.

“Oh, it was easier than you’d think,” replied the girl. “These guards are so gullible it’s almost criminal.” She then pulled her hair in front of her face, and spoke in a voice growing steadily more raspy, and wavering more with every word, “Blood for the faceless priest! Souls for the nameless god!” Returning her hair to its place behind her ears, she giggled slightly.

“Very impressive…” muttered Azar. He began to wander the cell, pawing the filthy walls and knocking in certain places.

“What are you looking for?” asked the girl.

“A way out,” said Azar, still wandering around the cell.

“Why would there be one?”

“This dungeon was built by aristocrats. They’d have left themselves some way out, should the people rise against them.”

“That’s silly. No one would do that, it’s too much work.”

“How do you know? It’s aristocrats, they’re like wizards, everything we consider odd, they consider normal.”

“Hey! That’s not true!”

“Again, how do you know?” asked Azar, turning toward the girl. She seemed reluctant to speak.

“My… my father was an aristocrat. It’s why I’m in here, they consider me untrustworthy. The only reason they didn’t execute me as soon as they took over was that my mother was a peasant woman,” said the girl, speaking fast.

Azar took in this information, and then turned to the wall and continued to search. After a while, the girl spoke again.

“Your ears… are you a half-elf?” she asked hesitantly.

“Quarter. My grandmother on my father’s side,” said Azar, still looking over the wall. “I don’t envy her, so far she’s outlived her son and three grandchildren…” he muttered under his breath.

There was silence for a while more. Azar walked all around the cell, putting his ear to the wall and rapping it with his knuckles. The girl stood around, looking vaguely bored, watching Azar move around. After a few minutes, her eyes narrowed and she looked at Azar interestedly.

“Hey… I think I’ve seen you before…” she muttered. After staring at his face for several seconds, she snapped her fingers and smiled. “I know! You were on a wanted poster in town. Something about arson.”

Azar paused in his inspection of the walls and looked at the girl quizzically. “When did you see that? They’ve only been putting up posters about me for a year or so… how long have you been in here?”

“Only a few months. Before that, my father and I were in hiding.”

The quarter-elf looked as though he were about to say something, but turned and went back to examining the wall. The girl stood around looking bored for several more seconds before speaking again.

“So, is that what they put you in here for? Arson?” she asked.

“At this point, they’ve stopped caring about individual offenses,” said Azar, chuckling. “I’ve committed so many crimes, I doubt they can even keep track of them all…”

The girl looked at him interestedly for several seconds, and then opened her mouth, as if to ask a question. She appeared to change her mind halfway through, and closed it again.

“What kind of crimes did you commit?” she asked warily after several seconds.

“Oh, quite a few… to be honest, I can’t even keep track of them anymore,” said Azar absentmindedly. “Arson a few times, assault at least once, quite a lot of theft… maybe a bit of graverobbing? I can’t exactly recall…”

“What are you?” the girl asked, slightly frightened. “Some kind of bandit?”

“In a way. Tell me,” he said, looking up from his work, “how much do you hear of the outside world?”

“Some. Every time a new prisoner is thrown in here, I find something out. They’re usually quite talkative.”

“What do you know of what is currently happening in this glorious kingdom of Esyrea?” asked Azar, speaking the last phrase with massive amounts of sarcasm.

“People are unhappy with the way things are going… there’s a rebellion against Lord Sheth… ooh!” she said excitedly, “Are you a rebel?”

“Technically, I’m the leader of the rebellion,” said Azar, going back to his examining of the wall. “That’s why I’m in here… any other rebel, they probably would have just executed.”

“The leader?” said the girl, a questioning look on her face. “The wanted poster didn’t say anything about that…”

“They don’t particularly like people to tell people that they know who the leader of the rebellion is, but are completely incapable of catching him,” said Azar. A perturbed look crossed his face, and he corrected himself. “Were completely incapable of catching him…”

The girl looked at him for a moment. “What’s your name?” she asked.

“Azar.”

“Azar?” The girl frowned slightly. “That’s an odd name… it’s not elven, I know that much…” she muttered to herself.

“My mother came from… strange lands. Far to the southeast. She missed her native land greatly, and gave me a traditional name from there…” muttered Azar, still searching the wall.

“Oh…” said the girl. “It’s a nice name, anyway. I’m Katalyn. It’s nice to meet you.” Katalyn waited for several seconds, but he did not return her friendly greeting. “What are you doing, anyway?” she asked, slightly upset at the lack of friendliness.

“I’m searching the wall for hollow places. It’s unlikely I’ll find an actual passage, but a hollow sound could mean a hidden alcove, possibly containing a switch or lever of some sort…” As he said this, he hit an area of wall that produced a decidedly different tone than the rest. Working his fingernails into a nearby crack, he dislodged a thin sheet of stone about as large as a man’s hand from the wall.

Reaching inside the uncovered hole, Azar withdrew a small sheet of parchment, brittle and yellow with age. He looked at it rather disappointedly.

“Parchment. That’s not very useful at all… even worse, it’s written in dwarfish… entirely useless,” he said, tossing it aside.

“Hey! I might be able to read that…” said Katalyn, grabbing the parchment before it fell to the ground. “My tutor was a dwarf, so he took special care to teach me to read and write dwarfish. I can’t speak it though, it’s far too guttural… my throat starts hurting after about the fourth word.” She fell silent, mouthing the words to herself as she read the paper.

After several seconds, she too threw aside the note. “It’s a letter from a dwarf to his wife,” she said. “Boring. And entirely useless. Are you sure there isn’t a switch or something in there?”

“It’s a pretty shallow hole. As far as I can tell, there’s nothing else.”

Katalyn began pacing back and forth. “That’s so annoying! You find something that could get us out of here, and it turns out to be a bloody love letter… ouch!”

“Ouch?”

“I cut myself on that piece of stone you pried from the wall… gods, that hurt…”

Azar picked up the stone sheet that had previously been guarding the dwarf’s hiding place. Along the bottom edge, it was sharp enough to draw blood without much effort.

“Hmm…” he muttered, “We may have a chance to get out of here…”

“What? How?” asked Katalyn.

“How often do the guards make their rounds, and do they all carry cell keys?” asked Azar, ignoring Katalyn’s questions.

“They come here every half hour or so… I think they all carry keys,” she answered.

“Do they come near the cell bars?”

“I’ve heard them taunting some of the other prisoners, but they usually keep their distance from me.”

“That’s no good, then… when do they give us food?”

“Every morning, a few hours after sunrise.”

“Do they come all the way into the cell?”

“Usually, yes…” Realization dawned on Katalyn. “You’re going to kill one, aren’t you?” she asked, horrified.

“Only if necessary. I’d rather just tie them up and leave them here… maybe lock the cell behind me, just to annoy them.”

This didn’t seem to calm Katalyn very much, and she still looked rather disturbed. “How will we get out after that, anyway? They’re bound to ask questions if we just go wandering about the dungeons!”

“We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it. Now, I’ve had a long day, what with being marched for miles and thrown into a dungeon, so I’m going to go to sleep now. Wake me at dawn.” With that, Azar threw himself on one of the bed-like objects and closed his eyes.

“What? Aren’t we supposed to cross bridges, not burn them?” asked Katalyn, slightly confused. Azar, already asleep, did not respond.

 

And that’s that. Be nice.

Attempts At High Fantasy

So, first off, I apologize profusely for my lack of posting in these last three weeks or so. What with one thing or another, I’ve been busy.

Fortunately for you, I return with this offering: HIGH FANTASY LOL. This is the first chapter of a fantasy book I’m working on… of course, what with my incredible lack of dedication to any task, it might just end up being a series of posts on this blog, or it might just die. I promise nothing. Anyway, first chapter, right here. I warn you… this shit is long. I mean long as in LONGCAT IS LOOOOOOOONG long.

Comments are appreciated to the point of me coming after your family if you don’t comment. I fully realize that most of the guys reading this have a massive disdain for High Fantasy, but fuck that. I want to know if the actual writing is good or not… plotline, characters, etcetera.  Suggestions on grammar, phrasing, wording, spelling, and any other mundane muckdyguck are also welcome. This doesn’t have a title yet, so I’ll just kinda start.

 

I

It was a bleak winter. Though it was bitter cold, no snow fell. The naked trees stood, barren and lonely, casting forlorn shadows over the dead, brown grass. The sky was clouded, the sun not deeming this depressing scene worthy of an appearance. Biting winds tore through the forest, making the cold even colder.

Through the trees wound a little-traveled path. Fallen and decaying leaves covered it, in places obscuring it so badly that it was impossible to tell what was path and what was forest.

Along this path trudged a long line of armed and armored men, as bleak and desolate as the forest around them. They marched in silence, grim expressions on their faces. They were cold, hungry, and tired. Their armor was designed for protection from the blades of their enemies, and was useless against the relentless assault of the elements.

At the head of the column rode a solitary figure on horseback. Like the men at his back, he wore a grim expression, but his included a hint of smugness. He was accoutered in armor of purest ebony, shining like the depths of the blackest night. Behind him swirled a deep purple cloak. He seemed to exude a feeling of formality. He rode straight-backed, motionless, staring at the path ahead.

A figure marching slightly behind him and to the left coughed slightly. “Yes, Captain?” said the man on horseback, still staring straight ahead.

“Sir…” started the captain, “I believe we should stop for rest soon. The men are tired.”

“We will continue to march. I want to present our… prize… to Lord Sheth by tomorrow.”

The man on horseback turned around briefly, and let his eyes fall on the figure stumbling along behind the horse. He hands were manacled, and the manacles were attached to the back of the horse by means of a long rope. Outfitted in several layers of cloth and a leather tunic, he was probably warmer than anybody else in the column. His eyes were a piercing blue, and his slightly pointed ears and high cheekbones betrayed the hint of elven blood within his veins. His hair was down past his shoulders, and colored somewhere between brown and blond. A long scar ran down his right cheek.

The mounted man turned back to the path ahead. The captain who had raised the question continued to march in silence. It was not a good idea to argue.

As the column marched on, the sun began to set. Soon, it was obscured entirely by the horizon, plunging the forest into darkness. The wind whipped through the trees, sounding eerily like the breath of some otherworldly creature. The owls hooted and the crickets chirped, seemingly amplifying the silence.

Although this imagery had no effect on the man riding at the head of the column, the men of the column, hungry and tired, grew nervous. The moon had not yet risen; the clouds obscured the stars. In the shadows of deep night, imagination took its course.

A muttering emerged from the column, a frantic buzz of superstition and rumormongering that grew steadily in volume. Raising his left hand, the man at the head of the column shouted “Silence!” The muttering died; the column marched on.

A rustling in the bushes caught the attention of the captain who had earlier been silenced by the leader of the column. “Sir…” he started apprehensively.

“Yes?” said the man on horseback, again not bothering to look back.

“Sir… there are sounds coming from the bushes.”

“An animal, most likely a deer.”

“Sir, his archers could be hiding in there! You know they’d love to get a shot at you, and-” The riding man raised his left hand abruptly, cutting off the captain’s protests. After a moment, the captain began again. “Sir, don’t you think you should at least get down? You’re far too easy a target, up on that horse!”

“Captain Morrison, what kind of message do you think that would send to my men? That I am one to cower in the face of even hypothetical danger? No, I shall remain riding, and you shall be silent.”

Captain Morrison marched on in silence, not daring the wrath of his superior. After a time, his eyes widened. “Sir, get down!” shouted the captain, pulling the cloaked man off his horse forcefully. In the moment immediately after, an arrow pierced the air directly where the man’s neck had been, not a second prior.

Standing abruptly, the dismounted man pointed forcefully to an area of bushes to the left of the path, still looking straight ahead. Several of the braver men in the column immediately leaped off the path, into the dark of the forest.

Turning to the manacled man standing behind the now stationary horse, the cloaked man smiled and began to speak.

“Another attempt of yours foiled. How you’ve managed to cause this much trouble to Lord Sheth with such a meager and untalented group of followers, I really don’t know.”

When the prisoner said nothing, the man continued. “They really would love to have you back, wouldn’t they? Without you, their whole operation falls apart. Cut off the head, and the body dies. It’s why Lord Sheth has such an extensive bodyguard. Most would think you would have anticipated an attempt at your capture on our part. Apparently not. Who knows what goes through the minds of such deluded rabble-rousers as yourself?” The prisoner continued his stoic silence.

Grunting, the cloaked man turned away, walking toward the captain, who saluted stiffly. “Captain…” began the man, “you appear to have been right this time. However, excepting you saving my life, never lay hands upon me again.” This said, the man remounted his horse.

The men who had entered the forest returned, throwing an object at the feet of the mounted man. It rolled, coming to a stop in front of the prisoner. The man looked down, staring. He beheld clouded eyes and bloodied hair, adorning a recently decapitated head.

Muttering under his breath, the prisoner glared with hatred at the man on horseback.

The column marched on.

 

The men marched into the city. There were no cheering crowds to be seen. It was far too cold to be outside, and in any case, their coming had not been announced beforehand.

The city was filthy, covered in dirt and grime. Most of the houses the men passed as they marched were in bad states of disrepair, their roofs falling in and their windows broken. Those citizens that were outside shuffled along, looking at naught but their feet, intent on their destination and nothing else.

The only part of the city that looked cared for was a massive fortress, near the very back of the city. The fortress was situated at the edge of a sheer cliff. Beyond it, there was a seven-hundred foot drop into churning, rocky waters. Had one bothered to find a way down, they would have undoubtedly found the battered skeletons of many an ill-fated, ill-footed man.

The column of men paid no attention to the squalor surrounding them, marching instead directly toward the fortress. Upon arriving, the man at the head of the column motioned for his men to halt.

“Captain…” he began, “follow me. Bring the prisoner.” With this, he entered the fortress. The captain untied the prisoner from the horse, and followed the cloaked man, dragging the manacled man along unmercifully.

Inside was a large entry hall. Toward the back was a massive, closed, double door. In front of this door stood two guards wielding sizable halberds.

“Wait here,” murmured the man as he walked past the guards. Captain Morrison, prisoner in tow, stopped and stood at attention.

Throwing open the double doors, the man walked in, kneeling before a man sitting upon a throne. It was a rather plain throne, with no ornamentation whatsoever, made purely of stone.

The man upon it seemed to suit its cold silence. His face was angled, his nose resembling the beak of a hawk. His face was scarred. He had long black hair, black eyes, and armor to match. On his back he wore a cloak of equal hue.

The man on the throne looked up.

“Ah, Sir Hugo. Back from your manhunt, I see. It does not escape me that you arrive a month late.” said the man on the throne.

“I apologize, sire. He was… elusive,” replied Sir Hugo.

“Have you at least succeeded? Tardiness I can tolerate, but failure is entirely unacceptable, Commander.”

At this, the commander stood, and, his eyes remaining on the throned man, called “Bring him in.”

Captain Morrison entered, dragging the prisoner along behind him. On the throne, the man began to chuckle, a guttural, unpleasant sound. Reaching the area where Sir Hugo was standing, Captain Morrison threw the prisoner brutally to the floor.

“Wonderful… even late, this is quite a prize…” said the throned man greedily.

“Yes, sire,” began Sir Hugo, “I believe his capture will lead to the end of the rebellion, and a restoration of the peace.”

“Rebellion?” spoke the throned man sharply. “What rebellion? There is no rebellion, and to term it as such validates their pitiful cause.”

“Lord Sheth, I did not mean to offend!” said Sir Hugo quickly.

“Be that as it may, you need this lesson ground into you!” Lord Sheth rose angrily from his throne, and continued to speak, his words pointed, almost painful. “This meager resistance is no rebellion. It is simply the scurrying of ants, attempting to prevent themselves from being devoured by a mighty wolf!”

The manacled man coughed slightly. All present turned to him.

“Sire…” he began, speaking for the first time, “I feel inclined to point out that wolves do not actually eat ants.”

“Silence!” shouted Lord Sheth, his face now contorted with rage. “You have the insolence to stand there, manacled and in the keep of your enemies, and mock me? I should have you executed this very moment!”

“Sire, that is not a good idea,” interjected Sir Hugo quickly. “He should be interrogated. Thoroughly. He knows of many things. We may have here the key to the end of the… resistance. Simply executing him would be foolish if he knows what we think he knows.” Sir Hugo finished speaking quickly, as if to stave off any attempts to interrupt him.

Lord Sheth stared appraisingly at the commander for a moment, and then sat down again on his throne. All present waited for him to speak.

“You are, as ever, the voice of reason, Commander,” said Lord Sheth when he finally spoke. There was a barely audible release of held breath from the commander.

“What shall we do with him for now, sire?” said the obviously relieved Sir Hugo.

“Throw him in the dungeons. I will question him when I wish. Deprive him of food and water until then. Oh, and Commander… I wish to speak to you alone,” said Lord Sheth.

Turning to the captain, Sir Hugo nodded to the a door to the left of the throne. Captain Morrison exited through it, dragging the prisoner along behind him.

After he had left, Lord Sheth turned to the shadows behind his throne. With a barely perceptible gesture, he dismissed two guards stationed in the shadows. Had one not known where to look, they would have been entirely invisible, as their black leather armor and cloaks blended with the gloom. The guards exited silently, following Captain Morrison to the dungeons.

“Your bodyguard is as frightening as ever, I see,” said Sir Hugo, a slight smile touching his lips. He spoke with a more relaxed tone, one that hinted of familiarity.

“That’s just for show, as you well know, Hugo,” replied Lord Sheth, sharing Sir Hugo’s friendly tone. “If anyone in this pitiful city did not fear me, I would be dead before tomorrow. Thus, I hire only the most highly skilled fighters – the two you just saw are trained assassins, imported from eastern Erneth. I also have among my guard berserkers from the sands of the far south, fencers of the former aristocracy, and one dwarf so crazy that he believes anyone speaking to him is a herring.”

“If all these guards are so highly trained, why must you continue your… gruff facade among them?” asked Sir Hugo.

Lord Sheth grunted. “Highly trained they may be, but that doesn’t mean they can hold their tongues. I learned that after the rebellion nearly assassinated me… the third time, I think. They had chased down a half-elven swordsman – the most skilled guard among my retinue, I might add – and bought him ales until he couldn’t stand, much less withhold secrets. That night, there was a rebel under my bed…” Lord Sheth trailed off disjointedly. “Come to think of it, I’m still not sure which secret the half-elf gave away… how did that bastard get in, anyway?” The throned man stared off into the distance, deep in thought. A cough from Sir Hugo brought him back to reality.

“Enough of idle chitchat, Hugo. How did you fare in your… other… mission?” asked Lord Sheth.

In response, the commander withdrew a small object from a pouch around his waist. It was a book, roughly an inch thick and bound in black leather. On its front and back covers swirled silvery patterns that enthralled and confused the eye, not seeming to have any discernible beginning or end. The book had no title. It seemed incredibly old.

Lord Sheth inhaled sharply. “Bring it here!” he commanded roughly. Sir Hugo climbed the stone steps ascending toward the throne, and handed the book to the throned man. Lord Sheth grimaced slightly as he took the book, but he quickly concealed his reaction. Pocketing the book, he stood abruptly.

“I will need to study this. Take your men and report to the army garrison just outside of town. Wait there until I have further need of you,” spoke Lord Sheth decisively.

“Sire, if I may ask…” started Sir Hugo quickly, “What secret does the book contain? Why is it of such value to you?”

Lord Sheth, already hurrying toward a door in the shadowed back of the room, looked back at the commander and smiled grimly. “That is what I intend to discover. From what I know, the book is supposed to be the key to power unending. As to what that means…” Lord Sheth chuckled briefly, and departed to his personal chambers.

Sir Hugo stood silently. After several minutes, the captain returned from the dungeons, followed by the two silent guards. The commander jerked his head toward the door, indicating that they should leave. Sir Hugo left the room quickly, Captain Morrison jogging slightly to catch up.

“Sir, what did his lordship want?” inquired the captain.

“The gods only know…” muttered Sir Hugo. Captain Morrison stopped, perplexed.

“Sir… what does that mean?”

Sir Hugo did not reply.

 

And that’s that.  Don’t be too cruel with your comments – I want to maintain  some vestiges of self-esteem.