People gathered in huddled masses filling the streets and homes, waiting, holding their breath. The animals felt it too: they migrated to the woods, oceans and out into the country, away from all major areas where people settled. The ocean of rats flowing away from cities, leaving a sinking ship (so to speak), it was a clear sign that we were screwed. The news reported these events all over the world; rivers turning to blood, acres of cattle lay dead, birds falling from the sky. No one panicked, it was strange, and the world went on in a daze knowing we were all next. A state of emergency went up all over the world but the extra security wasn't needed. Crime plummeted, wars ended and people crammed into temples, churches etc. We all knew that it was truly the end and all the petty problems we had faded as light does into twilight; the human race held its breath waiting for the dawn.
That's when I met her. I was walking down the street aimlessly beneath the twilight: waiting for my mp3's to sync up with the mood, for one perfect moment, my dark side of the moon. It was a scene lived a thousand times over in movies and books. People shuffling around like zombies on streets waiting for the one sign of life and then we would strike. When she saw me, she smiled; we had met before, our lives never seeming to sync up until the end of course; damn ironic.
Grabbing her hand we smiled at each other and walked miles to a hillside where the whole city was visible. We sat there and I learned of her life: hopes and dreams and how years ago at our meeting I had been her first kiss; I blushed. Leaning forward she made me her last, a perfect embrace; sex would only cheapen this moment. We sat, watching till dawn and as it broke over the city, pillars of fire shot out all around the skyline. We stood watching in awe as the ash filled the sky, turning it into an artificial night. Standing up we held hands as the city buildings became candles; their flames licking the sky: it was beautiful. We walked down the hill towards the lights like moths; from all over people flocked. At the center of the city where the main pillar had erupted-after the flames died down, a man emerged. He was beautiful and perfect in every sense of the word. I looked toward a nearby display window as on the televisions he was shown all over the world at once. He stood there naked with dark brown skin and dark hair, eyes and beard.
"Do not fear me," he said. "A war is here and my army will be here soon, to challenge him," said the man with his finger pointing to the sky. "There are pleasures, love and happiness in this world that he won't let you have. Join me, my army is as countless as the stars, all these things can be yours. I will not force you to pick sides unlike him," he uttered towards the sky in a dialect unheard by man yet we all knew it was a curse.
All over the world points of light shown from every place of prayer and even from among the crowd, as people ascended to the sky. The rest of the world saw this in their minds and knew that they were forgotten. I looked to my right and she was still there. I was scared but happy because I wasn't alone; I had her. The man from the pit's armies grew by millions in seconds, in minutes billions. Almost every other person that left joined his army for being spited by God. Some were people of faith, hurt, because they thought they would be counted among the saved and others knew that they were screwed from birth so it wasn't a hard choice. Each person being transformed, as swords appeared in their hands, they began to mutilate themselves. Faces and limbs slashed, bodies twisted and eyes burned out, like dying embers. They screamed toward the heavens cursing God for forsaking them, a billion voices filling with ash, blood, and pleading for the human race; a symphony playing a backdrop for what was to come. Bodies as strings and swords as bows, it broke hearts and hopes, it was the perfect soundtrack.
The rest who did not join the man just walked away in silence, hiding in nearby buildings waiting for the battle to begin; this had all been the quiet before the storm. Our refuge was a mall, and once we made it to the department with beds we made love. As we lit my cigarettes we cried as we held each other, a bed sheet hiding our naked bodies. It wasn't lust but love; it was true or at least it was the best that either of us could hope for. Afterwards as if scripted we walked the steps to the roof and waited holding our breaths; the army below had stopped singing.
Then the mutilated army howled a challenge toward the sky while from the fire pillar pits; creatures poured from the center of the earth, some were just a jumble of teeth and tentacles. Others were figures having been dismantled and reassembled in grotesque ways. Mangled people-a horrific marriage of flesh and metal with eyes cut from their heads, lower jaws removed with tongues scarred and forked. Misshapen with growths and boils, some crying pitifully as they moved and other moving comfortably as flesh and fluids leaked from their bodies as if it was as common as breathing.
Standing between the army from hell and the newly mutilated humans was the dark skinned man from the pit. With a nod towards the army, we watched as they rushed the mutilated and began attacking them. The screams we tried to block out by covering our ears but soon we realized that it was hopeless, we were meant to see and hear this. Tucking her head in my chest she averted her eyes while I watched like a masochist's wet dream, viewing truly what hell was like as the army reaped the benefits of their flesh. Relishing every moment as man, women and child alike were attacked. A green puss-like liquid mimicking snowflakes spewed over the mutilated, destroying every ounce of humanity out of the people. As quickly as it had started it ended but the mutilated were unrecognizable now from the damned army. Everything looked worn and older as if aged by years and fire, the smell of rotting flesh consumed the air. Filling our nostrils and lungs infecting us with the pain and hate so much we could taste it, feel it in our bones. A thunder roared from the sky and everyone from the army on the ground, to the people on rooftops, they stared heads tilted back, waited for the heaven's response.
A thousand angels appeared with trumpets and started playing. A lone figured appeared between heaven and earth and waited as another figure ascended from earth. Melting into each other they stood as one man. A strange peace swept over the all of us. I've never been happier. Bowing he floated away toward a skyscraper and clapped once.
On cue a billion streaks of light appeared and rained down upon the earth. With a scream they descended, each person perfect and shimmering with sword a blaze, trailing fire in the wake of the celestial army, rewriting the stars and sky in God's image. Tears had filled my eyes, blurring and burning them as if I was staring at the sun. Looking down I saw the same in her face as she gripped my body tighter. Screams rang out as parts of buildings crumbled and fell; glass in every window shattered at the impact of the two armies. (Colliding like a charging cavalry into a line of foot soldiers holding position.) Wave after wave hit Hell's army; beams of light poured down as fire shot toward the sky; angels fell like shooting stars as the demons burned like effigies. People began to throw themselves off buildings into the fray; the chaos was deafening. I was among them about to jump, hopeless, but she pulled me back from the edge.
"We have to get to the man in the middle. It's the only way this will end," she said as she pulled me to the stairwell. Running through the building we realized the war had gone guerilla as we passed angels and demons alike fighting on every floor, bleeding and dying. Diving behind clothing racks I saw four demons subdue and kill an angel; it's like watching beauty itself dying; you feel it in your heart and soul. We covered our mouths to hold back our crying, for fear of being discovered. Making our way out of the mall we ran through back alleys, stepping over bodies, feathers and avoiding some streets because the blood was so thick it burned through our shoes like acid.
We ran toward the man on the skyscraper, a mini sun hovering above, a beacon calling us home. Turning a corner we dove behind a dumpster to watch one demon throw a limp baby to the ground and then crush its head like a grape with his foot. The baby's mother screamed louder as her toddler was ripped from her hands by two other demons holding her to the pavement as another desecrated her body. With a "whoosh" a gang of angels slaughtered the demons and put a sword to the mother and her child; they were turning into demons before their eyes. One angel actually cried. We barely shuddered, sadly, after seeing what we had.
We lay there behind the dumpster, until the fighting died down to a distant shout. My stomach growled, I was starving, and I knew she had to be too. We darted to the nearest convenient store in sight and grabbed some food and water. Eating in silence we choked back tears as a voice rang out.
"Is anyone there?" It reeked of loneliness and despair. We found him a couple of isles down under a hole in the roof. His wings where charred and he had burns all over his body. A deep gash was water falling from his side onto his blackened sword with the name Michael engraved, which held no flame at all. His hair was slowly dimming from the golden shimmer that the other angels carried; he was dying. A deep red stained toga with medals dictating a sort of rank.
"Hello," he sputtered, "I'm Michael, just like the sword says," he laughed. I started to speak but he assured me he knew who we were. "I never thought that the forsaken would be the ones to save me. I can see why you wouldn't ascend, your sins run deep," he spoke staring at me. "But why you didn't baffles me," he choked out of the blood as he turned his head to her.
She turned to me with eyes full of tears and spoke. "When I had the choice he squeezed my hand a second before I went and I chose to stay. He needed me...," and with the pause she stated, "He makes me smile."
I stood there dumbfounded like a tool and said nothing. That moment will spiral off into eternity as my greatest mistake.
Michael told us of Gabriel, the general of angels, and how he could heal him. So as she took up the sword I swung Michael over my shoulder and off we headed toward the beacon, the headquarters of the angels.
"I owe you one," he said as blood left his lips and landed on my shirt.
"You promise," I asked. All Michael did though was nod and that was good enough for me. A block away from the beacon we heard the roar. Hell's army had broken the line and was making their way toward the beacon, and we were directly in their path.
Years of smoking had made my lungs nearly useless as I saw her running far ahead of me and turning my head back only to see a couple of demons racing to catch up with me. Then a swarm of angels appeared in front of her and yelled, "Get down!" with bows drawn back. As I hit the ground a hail of arrows flew over Michael and me and into the demons; their screams assured me of safety. As I got up with Michael I saw her running toward me, with a sword drawn. Wielding the blade she felled the first demon to get by the arrows.
"Get Michael to Gabriel!" she yelled as more demons reached us. I ran pulling strength from depths I never knew to make it to the angel archers. Laying Michael down I ran back to her, demon arrows cutting me with near misses as I tried to reach her. Ten steps away I saw her go down, a pile of dead around her, with a blade in her side. I had no weapon, but without her I was screwed anyway, and right before I charged into the melee I heard another cry.
Hitting the asphalt I watched as the demons lay down against the barrage of angel arrows. Pulling the sword from her side I saw the wound had already blackened from the blade. I ran with her in my arms blocking her from the demon's retaliation of arrows. Crossing the angels' barrier I knew I had gotten her there safely, but I wasn't; I had felt at least two arrows in my back and after that I had felt nothing. I held her in my arms, the light leaving her browns eyes causing them to dim to black. I begged and pleaded with Gabriel to save her.
All he could say was, "I don't help the forsaken."
As I looked at her she lipped, "Goodbye." We kissed until her body went limp.
I looked toward Michael and saw Gabriel healing him with a glowing light from his hands. The demons had been beaten back by the angels. Laying her body carefully next to me I prepared for death. I felt my life slowly being drained from me as I my eyes closed. Then I jerked awake to find Michael standing above me, looking fully healed and Gabriel walking away. I watched the demons retreat down the street before I spoke.
"What, why..." I asked standing up, feeling stronger than ever.
"You gave your life to save an angel" stated Michael "Your one of us now, you're saved!"
A sword lay next to me with my name engraved on it. As I picked it up it burned like a newly lit match. A noise by my ears made me aware of the wings I had. They shimmered reflecting back every color I knew and introduced me to new ones beyond the gambit of anything I had ever imagined. My body chiseled out of marble, a Greek god would blush at my stature.
Shoving past Michael I threw Gabriel into a nearby wall. "Why didn't you save her?" I demanded as I bashed his head into the wall. Michael and other angels pulled me off of Gabriel as he brushed off the debris from his body.
"She turned her back on God to be with you; hardly worth his forgiveness don't you agree. Now get with the third cavalry, to the south-they need back up."
Facing Gabriel with hate coursing through my veins I lifted my sword which now burned with a bright blue flame. Slowly with tears streaming down my face I severed my wings from my body. I could feel immortality slipping away; blooded sprayed from my wings limbs like a broken hydrant. Standing there covered in my own blood, my wings mangled on the ground, I fell to my knees as every angel but Michael turned their backs to me. Standing up I still felt strong, only my immortality was gone not my strength. I called to Gabriel.
"You know what your sin is Gabriel? You only made me an angel because you saw how I was stronger then you, how she was stronger then you. You're jealous! You couldn't accept the fact that I saved Michael. That I went back for the girl. Anyone of you could have flown in and saved her. You're just pathetic."
Gabriel turned and charged, like I knew he would; he hadn't realized that I had been moving closer to him with every word. I pierced his chest in an instant of him turning. As he fell to his knees I retrieved the sword from his chest. I walked behind him whispering in his ear.
"You and God have the same jealousy, you're jealous we have lives. We have significance. You only have this war, we may only have a short time but we get the most out of life." With the flash of my blade I slit his throat. His blood covered me from face to chest; it burned like acid as I licked his blood off my face. Picking up Gabriel's trumpet I laughed as I watched his body twitching on the ground.
Just as Gabriel's body hit the ground a light shown on Michael, his face filled with joy, his toga changed, he was now the general. Then all the angels turned singing a song of praise to Michael as they slowly raised their arrows towards me.
"Michael, it's now time for you to fulfill your promise." With a tearful nod Michael ordered the angels to lower their bows. Michael lifted Gabriel's body and we all stood in awe as it was lifted into the sky.
"I never would have made that promise if I knew" his voice trailed off into the distance as Michael slowly turned towards me.
"I don't really give a..." I started to say but I trailed off as I headed towards her body. I was turning into a demon. I could feel all remorse leaving me as soon as I had stabbed Gabriel. I kneeled down to her body and lightly kissed her lips for the last time. I would never be better than that moment. I left her there as I walked toward the stair case, vowing revenge.
"You assume a lot to think God owes you answers?" called out Michael. I turned around slowly; I was starring through him as I answered. "God presumes a lot to think I won't ask." Turning I raised my middle finger to the group of angels as I ascended the stair case.
Stepping out onto the deck the world changed. I was in a coliseum with every angel, demon and forsaken human watching me. It rose past any preconceived idea I had but I could still see every face and they could all see me. Covered in an angel's blood and my body slowly shifting from a Greek god to a hideous creature-and yet there I stood with the beacon and a force manifested in fire-God I presumed. The naked tan man from the pit was behind me and spoke first.
"So as you can see creator, I have won, the evil of man has defeated your holy army." He lifted his hands in triumph. He stood there taunting and thanking me, his eyes full of pride, he was a real prick.
With a blur of my now extinguished sword his head lost the battle with gravity as it rolled toward the eternal flame. Lifting Lucifer's head in my left hand and my sword in my right I told God to face me, not as an object but a person. Then I spat at the ground and threw Lucifer's head into the fire; Gabriel's trumpet soon followed as I stood waiting.
"They were your greatest, and they are dead, killed by a mortal's hand. Where are you now, as you stand off to the side watching this carnage? Who are you to judge? You disappoint me; you send your son down and prophets for what? We're nothing to you or your angels. Starting a war and screwing everyone in between for your own petty pride. You never asked us! Maybe we want to choose our own fate? Maybe we didn't want some people deciding how the story ends. Do you even give a shit? You let Gabriel make me an angel and let her die? Screw you, and screw all that you supposedly stand for!"
Then a figure emerged from the flames, neither male nor female. It walked toward me with a sense of confidence unknown to this world.
The coliseum was silent. God even looked surprised as it walked toward me. I could feel hate being pumped from my heart, I was seething with anger. Raising my sword toward God I taunted him, while I pointed with my other hand to my clipped wings.
"Like what I think of your angels and immortality and my free pass to heaven? Take your sword, I don't need it" I said as I buried the tip in the ground as I turned to walk away.
"What did you learn my son?" I paused at his question, at God's arrogance. "Was it love is the most important or was it standing up for what is right? You killed two angels for this moment, clipped your wings and gave up your chance for heaven by dishonoring me, so choose wisely.
"Both," I said to God with a strange sense of clarity. "She fought for love and what was right. What happens in this world we can't control, but how we handle it is what matters."
With a smile, the beacon spoke. "Well finally someone has got the idea, I guess some of my words got through after all" and when the beacon hugged me, all the evil in me died down, I was serenity. The world turned crisp and clear; all that I said or did was played back in my head. The guilt came flooding in then and the whole coliseum felt my sorrow.
Turning to God I walked in silence, pulling my sword from the ground and I fell before its feet and handing it the sword.
"I'm a fool," I said as I slowly lowered my head waiting for God to strike.
"Yeah, you are," said God as it played with the sword over and over in its hands. "You're so lucky I'm a forgiving God." And with a smile the world swirled and blurred together. A voice called out to me before the world went black.
"It's up to you; write your ending."
I woke up in my bed, in a cold sweat, and walked to the bathroom. Throwing cold water on my face it hit me. Everything all at once came rushing back; angels, demons, the beacon, God and her. Grabbing the remote I saw the television slowly hum to life and I waited to see what the world was like now that we only decided our fate.
"War in the Middle East, cancer, and child molestation in a congregation rock the headlines on the coat tails of political corruption. News at eight," said the anchor women with a smile.
"I may have made a mistake," I said, and dropping the remote I walked away to find her.
A note from the author:
By the title you will noticed that this story has been heavily edited for publication. In light of this I will leave you with a quote.
exist to prevent anyone from challenging current conceptions and existing
institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and
executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently, the first
condition of progress is the removal of all censorships. There is the whole
case against censorships in a nutshell."
- George Bernard Shaw
In the royal port city of Calmein in the Kingdom of Talarund, there was a little tavern in the lower end of town frequented by all sorts- knights, rogues, peasants, lords, merchants, sailors, Dwarves, Men, Goblins, Gnomes, and- well, you get my drift I suppose. It was a particularly blustery evening with a sharp, biting wind rolling off the Sea. Well after nine o'clock, all the night constabulary had long ago retired to the afore-mentioned tavern, the Soggy Gull, for a night of well-earned comfort and merriment. But, on this particular night, a stranger appeared. Strangers were not so unusual as to warrant any raised eyebrows, but this fellow was truly strange. Wetter than a mad hen, he slid gracefully into the tavern and made his way expediently toward the fire. As he wove his way between the tavern's cabaret of performers, barmaids, and customers, the smell of brine and salt that emanated from him wrinkled fair ladies' delicately powdered noses and helped carve a path for him through the otherwise recalcitrant crowd. Finding no chairs available, he plopped down wordlessly (but perhaps breathlessly would be a better term, the lad being rather winded), to sit cross-legged on the floor before the hearthstones, water pooling around him, as if he were a water spirit just sprang from the Sea.
He quickly doffed his tall boots and stood them near the fire, and his socks soon joined them. Since warmth and briny socks tend to be rather...malodorous, he soon had quite a berth open to him. He wore a wide-brim hat over a dark scarf, and he almost reverently placed the hat on the warm stones along with his boots and socks. But, his dark scarf he kept tight to his noggin, brown-red hair trailing from the back of his scalp down his neck as he unwrapped a long grey scarf from around his throat and it soon joined the boots and hat. As for his face, his pale chin and lips quivered fiercely with the cold, and some soft-hearted old crone draped her shawl across his lithe shoulders. Indeed, he was tiny, both of stature and of build, a scant 5'5" and no more than a hundred and twenty-some pounds, but he was solid and his motions were faultlessly graceful.
He nodded wordless thanks to the old woman, but did not look up to acknowledge her. Instead, he flipped his pack onto his lap, and dumped his things unceremoniously into a pile before him. By now, everyone was supremely interested in the Strange little fellow, craning their necks to watch as he rifled through his belongings, seemingly oblivious to their scrutiny. Soon enough, he had his things lined curiously by his boots and hat, turning them to dry them evenly, everyone watching intently.
Suddenly, without turning or halting in his motions, he said clearly "It's not polite to stare." and his voice was pure and sweet to be heard, entirely without malice. Surprisingly, it was a boy's voice, and was neither intimidating nor rude, which was all too often the case with Strangers. Many nodded and went back to their drinks, while the soft-hearted old crone, a curious gleam in her gentle grey eyes, again went maternally to his aid as she watched him shiver.
"Young man." she implored, offering him a hand to help him to his feet, which he did gracefully of his own accord, startling the elderly woman. But, as she watched him, it was his face and especially the glance he gave her that truly stunned her. For while his chin and lips remained bare, from under the scarf wrapped jauntily across his brow, protruded an oddly painted mask that reached from the tip of his nose to his forehead. White as snow, it was, with red circles under the eyes, a yellow nose, and green feather-designs painted onto it, reminding her strongly of the chickens she'd fed on the farm as a child. But, as I noted, it was his eyes that truly caught her attention, the previous details she picked up after her initial shock. The eyes were as green as emeralds, but with an inner fire, or maybe a laughter, barely contained within.
"I like you," he said abruptly and without preamble, sounding both simple and child-like. He smiled all the wider. "Who are you?" he asked, his head cocked like a curious puppy
Smiling at the lad's innocence and boldness, she nodded. "My name is Ilga, little man. Would you care for a cup of tea to warm you on this chilly day?" she asked casually, rubbing her old, cracked hands together. "The cold often causes my joints to ache, but tea normally helps put my mind at ease." She smiled again.
Slowly, he nodded. "Yes please."
If she hadn't known better, she'd have taken him for a simpleton, but the sharp gaze of the little Stranger belied that, as she saw both wit and intelligence stored behind those eyes. Abruptly, it dawned on her that he was much smarter and close-mouthed than he let on to. At his knowing smile, she nodded briskly. "I will get you your tea, young man, if you would be so kind as to acquire us some seats where we may converse." She then hurried off through the noisome crowd towards the bar, wondering what sort of tale followed this strange young fellow. When she returned several minutes later with the two teacups in her hands (commenting vociferously of the raucous crowd), she found he had managed to acquire the two chairs closest the fire, probably so as to keep a close eye on his things. It was probably done easily enough, due to his aromatic socks, which she did not mind much. She sat across from him, her grey eyes searching his, and he smiled once more -a most natural reflex for the young Stranger- and she sipped thoughtfully at her tea. Several moments of silence ensued, backlit by the hubbub of the Gull.
Sitting cross-legged in the big, plush chair, his bare toes a-wiggling, the masked fellow stared into the fire, his tea in his lap. He inhaled deeply. "What an adventure!" he said breathlessly with a wistful look in his eye.
Ilga raised an eyebrow and stared at the motionless, almost comical young man enwrapped in a purple shawl. "What kind of adventure?" she prompted softly.
Snorting, he replied, "A long one," his eyes widening to emphasize his point. "Probably a year or more, out away from home."
"Why, how old are you to have been on such an adventure?" she asked, confounded, struggling to believe him. Adventures were scarce things, and "adventurer" was hardly the word that popped into her head at the sight of the young man before her.
"To the best of my reckoning..." he chewed his lip thoughtfully, mulling it over. "Mayhap seventeen?" he smiled.
She gasped. She knew he was young, but seventeen? He was still a baby, in her eyes. "What circumstances brought a child into such a tale?"
He sat, silent, for several moments, then turned his clever gaze to the wrinkled crone. "Would you like me to tell you of my adventure?" he asked softly, his voice so low only she could have possibly heard it, his eyes glittering conspiratorially from out of the mask.
Ilga could feel she stood on a precipice; to be associated with such an odd young Stranger would surely damn her social life for good, though she was not overly well-liked to begin with. Or, she could miss out on what was promising to be a truly intriguing tale, and perhaps never again get an opportunity to dig herself out of the rut of normalcy that had been consuming her life for the past thirty years. She knew him not from Adam, and she could have left it that way, returning to her own hearth and home, with no soaked socks roasting there. Smiling, she nodded, her mind made up. "Yes. I would."
The Stranger giggled and clapped with delight like an excited child. "Ah yes, I'd hoped you would! Sit back, dear Ilga, and ready yourself; for you are to be the only one in this world, save myself, to know the whole of Rooster's Adventure."
Part # 1
I vividly recall the day we arrived at Castle Fortuna. It was overcast and ugly, much like it is tonight, with storm clouds pressing heavily behind us. Dark clouds behind and a dark, forbidding castle ahead, I was more than a little anxious and ready to leave by the swiftest route. Backlit by great hulking mounds of sheer, jagged rock, the Fangwall Mountains, the castle loomed blackly before us. My graceful fingers, a gift from my mother, so I'm told, plucked distractedly at my lute (a fine instrument, made of Silverwood and strung with onyx. Such a pity it was lost, but we'll come to that later) to ease my fears. It was abnormally loud in the silence of the shadows below the Mountains, and a large, quick brown hand shot out and reached for my wrist. I dodged the grasping hand and looked up at the owner, a brawny, square-shouldered, solid woman in bright and shining mail. On her beautiful face, strange in one so war-like, she wore a scowl darker than the clouds that pressed us from behind as she sat astride her massive warhorse, several hands taller than my own light courser.
"Quiet, Bard," she said in a low voice, speaking distastefully of my title. "We're on a mission of urgency and secrecy, remember, and the very last thing we need is to call attention to ourselves." I nodded as I caught the glance of Itha, the Priest whose mission we were on. He did not like me much anyways, and he shot his unfriendly scowl my way as the others of the party, two mysterious, cloaked and hooded Rangers from the South and a rather surly Dwarf there was also, looked at me with marked disinterest.
We reined in before the great castle, and a small stable to our right was the only other building in the great courtyard. Then, it seemed as if a blanket of weariness fell across us all, and I swayed in my saddle from the suddenness of it. Instantly I was on guard, as we all tried to fight it. Four days travel on mayhap a dozen collective hours of sleep was taking its toll on even the hardy Dwarf, who valiantly tried to brush it off as a trifle. One of the Rangers, Holdan his name was, dismounted and moved silently to our right to investigate the stables, while I scoured the castle intently, my fingers motionless on the strings. No light from within on any of the several floors and no movement. The windows were all tightly shuttered and heavy purple drapes were drawn. All in all, it was a most forbidding place, and I was less than thrilled to contemplate what we might encounter inside. Images of ghosts and ghouls and all sorts of nightmarish happenings came to mind. Shuddering, I was relieved that Holdan's return broke into my musings. He reported that it was clean and in amazingly good repair.
"Does not look to have been used for many years, at least," he said curiously in his deep baritone. We quickly dismounted and led our mounts into the stable, for the wind was picking up, rolling in from the Sea and nipping at our hands, ears, and noses. Already the clouds loomed blackly above us, and the first sporadic raindrops fell, dampening our clothing and our spirits.
Sontha, the woman in the armor, growled and cursed about having to de-rust her armor and weapons later. She shouldered past me and stood in the doorway, peering into the rain which was swiftly gathering momentum. She and the others then, after a quick one-sided debate about who would see to the horses, dashed off into the rain towards the castle. Sighing, I set about resolutely to my task. It took me over half an hour to feed, water, and groom all six of the beasts, and I was just finishing with my own, Swiftfoot, when she snorted nervously, looking over my shoulder. I sensed nothing behind me, but I whirled swiftly anyways and was rattled to find a noble-looking fellow standing not three feet from me. I skipped to the side of Swiftfoot as I groped for one of the knives on my belt, half-drawing it. The stranger didn't move. He just stared at me with his curious black eyes. I was almost captivated by them, but kept my wits about me. His appearance was what one might consider lordly, fine cloth sewn into a formal suit on his tall, lean frame. He was surprisingly pale, in a sharp contrast with his dark hair and maroon vest and cape, and he looked silently down his long, noble nose at me. After a moment, he smiled. It was not a pleasant gesture.
"Greetings," he said finally, after a long pause, his voice both deep and resonant. It had an almost soothing quality to it, and I was instantly on my guard. Already I did not like him. "Welcome to my home, Castle Fortuna. I am Lord Fortuna, as you might have guessed, as you look to be a clever lad." He smiled again, but the smile never reached his dark eyes, and I was even more certain that I did not like him. He reminded me of a serpent eyeing a small bird. "Tell me, young fellow, I believe you to be one of my guests this evening, correct?" he asked, though he seemed already certain of my answer.
I nodded slowly, released my knives, and regained my composure. I bowed low with my most charming smile. "Forgive me my rudeness, my lord, but you startled me. Rooster is my name, and I am indeed to be one of your guests this evening." Silently, I mused at how this mystery deepened around me. "First, I am sent by my mentor, Master Jokla, an accomplished minstrel, to accompany Priest Itha on his mission of whatever it was and to remember it; then, this seemingly grand noble appears in the stables to greet me, the lowliest member of the company. I would have to be cautious. Things may not be as they seemed. Like Lord Fortuna...." I grinned wryly, taking a leap of faith. "I do beg your pardon, lord, but what is a fine sir such as yourself doing out in the stables on such a rotten, blustery evening?" Indeed, at my words, the rain and wind seemed to get even louder, but the horses munched contentedly around me, unfazed. I gave him a not-entirely perplexed look, and smiled.
"That is quite a curious mask you have there, Rooster!" he remarked smartly, cleverly steering our conversation to where he desired it to be, severing and dismissing my question.
I nodded. "Thank you, my lord," I said with perhaps an overly-pleased smile. Might as well play the dullard everyone believed me to be, I thought.
"It suits you well. Bright and colorful," he smiled. "Now, what say we head up to the castle?" he said, his tone leaving very little room for an argument. He artfully changed the subject once again. "A nice, warm cup of tea sounds inviting, does it not?" I nodded my agreement and he smiled again, giving me chills. "Go on up to the castle and gather your friends, then go to the Dining Room, East of the Main Hall. I will meet you there," he ordered me curtly.
"Oh, I will!" I nodded, smiling in return, then dashed out into the rain towards the massive castle. I ran as quickly as I could and did my best to dodge the raindrops, so naturally I was soaked by the time I reached the door to the castle. It opened silently and easily to my hand and I hurried in and shut it. Though it was much warmer inside than out, it still felt chilly to me, and I hugged myself as I looked around me. Wringing out my scarf as I strode forward, I saw outdated suits of armor, banners, weapons, and shields lining the walls of the narrow hallway I was in, leading out into the Main Hall, I supposed. I moved silently down the short hall, my boots muffled by the thick carpet, towards the door at the end that stood slightly ajar. Voices and light came through, and I slowed and listened intently. My companions were talking, and they were talking about me!
"-why he's even here! He has no skills with a weapon, nor as a Bard, and he's only been a burden that helps itself to our food!" Sontha said accusingly. "Why we even let him come I'll never know. He will probably just get us all killed with his itchy fingers!"
Just as I was feeling rather sorry for myself -cold, tired, wet, and more alone than I'd ever cared to be- someone spoke up on my behalf. "Now, that's a bit unfair and you know it, Woman. He's eaten nothing save what I've given to him from my own rations; and he's a cheerful young lad, and his music is both light-hearted and lively...something we could use more of in such a gloomy place. If that clashes with your dour tone, no need to take it out on him. Personally, I'm glad for a little bit of cheer in this dreary, forsaken land. Three and a half days of desert-travel, and you're upset because he's being young?" the voice of Berrial, the stern, quiet Ranger, reached me and I almost smiled. Perhaps I was not so despised as I believed! Wrapping my scarf about my neck once more, tossing the long end over my shoulder, I straightened my hat and entered. Acting as if I'd just come in, which was credible enough, water still dripping profusely off of me, I entered loudly, closing the door behind me, breathing heavy and making a show of shaking myself dry.
"The horses are stabled," I said breathlessly, running a sleeve across my nose. "A Lord Fortuna greeted me after I was finished and asked me to gather you all to the Dining Room to the East of here."
Sontha looked darkly at me, while I saw Holdan quirk a smile, his hood down now, and nod to me. Berrial still kept his hood up and looked about silently. "Lord Fortuna, you say?" Itha demanded of me suddenly, his dark eyes narrowed at me. At my nod, he laughed snidely. "That is quite impossible, boy. Lord Fortuna was found dead several years ago, his throat torn out. He died in a hunting accident. Some variety of panther, I believe it was," he scoffed, lording my ignorance over me. He at least would have no problem believing me to be a witless buffoon. I lowered my head and nodded. But, my thoughts were elsewhere. Who was this 'Lord Fortuna', anyways? Probably just some ambitious servant dominant enough to bend the others to his will. I ignored or forgot the fact that he had quite literally appeared behind me, with no sign of life, no sound, no heavy breathing, nothing! It was like the man had just appeared out of thin air! Someone had met me out in those stables...but who? Sighing, I acknowledged the Priest's victory. "Yes sir, of course. I'd forgotten the stories the folks in town had told me. It must have been my imagination. I am awfully weary. Shall we try and find someone in this forsaken castle to put us up for the night?" I inquired.
Just then, a horrific crash came from where 'Lord Fortuna' had told me where the Dining Room should be. Sharing a glance, the two Rangers moved silently off towards it, down a short, curving corridor and beyond my sight, followed swiftly by Ogthon the Dwarf, the lady Paladin and the Priest, who cast a wary, suspicious glance my way before hurrying down the corridor after them. Sighing, I went to follow when a hand touched my shoulder and I nearly jumped out of my skin. Turning, I thought 'Of course!', "Lord Fortuna," I smiled simply. "You startled me!" I said, trying with difficulty to appear at ease while I was felt taut as a bowstring.
He smiled, and my blood chilled once more. "I'm so glad you're unhurt, Rooster! What on earth was that terrible noise?" he looked about almost mechanically, "Your friends are unhurt, I hope," he said passively.
"Of course I'm alright, my lord. Why would I not be? What has happened?" I cocked my head curiously, daring to change the subject.
Smiling, he shook his head. "That truly is a most intriguing mask, Rooster." He looked beyond me. "You should go collect your friends before anything...unfortunate befalls them," he tactfully denied me.
I felt an odd...push to his suggestion, and I was on edge. Inhaling, I took a dare. "Of course. I'll go check on them." I smiled. "Would you care to join me, my lord?" I asked pleasantly.
He shook his head. "Oh no, Rooster. You should go. I'll try to meet you in the Sitting Room shortly, after I attend to some business of my own. You should probably get out of those wet clothes soon, or you'll catch cold." At this I nodded, and suddenly I gave a mental start. It was still raining torrentially outside, and here he stood, exactly as I'd left him, dry as a bone. I nodded slowly as I eyed him.
"Who are you?" I asked quietly. "Lord Fortuna was killed in a hunting accident years ago, his throat torn out." I stepped back a pace as the smile faded from his lips, and his dark eyes gleamed maliciously.
"You are wiser than you appear, young Rooster. You would do well to get out of here while you still may. Dark, terrible things happen in this castle. Dark things indeed." Without taking a single step towards me, he loomed above me, glaring darkly down his long nose. My blood froze in my veins and my scream halted in my throat. "There is older, more terrible magic at work here than you would ever comprehend," he said in a low voice, and with that, he disappeared. Vanished. Right before my eyes.
I stared, awestruck, for several seconds, and then, quite abruptly, my legs caught one of the frenzied, scrambled signals my brain was throwing everywhere and I bolted like a terrified little rabbit down the slightly curved corridor and burst into the Dining Room, where everyone was gathered. An odd sight met my terrified brain. The table in the center of the room as well as the half-dozen chairs around it, lay crushed under a massive chandelier. The Rangers were closely inspecting the mess when I arrived and they both looked up sharply at me. The others, who'd been looking about curiously, jumped at my abrupt arrival. "We have to get out of here!" I gasped loudly, my heart beating a tattoo against my Adam's apple as it strove to escape my throat. Holdan stood slowly from where he'd been investigating the chandelier.
"What's wrong, Rooster?" he inquired in a low voice. "What has happened?"
"Lord Fortuna!" I blurted out, struggling to arrange my panicking, scattered thoughts. "Vanished! Spoke to me! He was dry, and his eyes flashed, and he was gone! Dark things!" I gasped, staring wild-eyed at the perplexed Ranger.
"Son," he said calmingly, stepping closer and putting his hands gently but firmly on my shoulders. "Lord Fortuna is dead, we already cleared this." He looked deep into my eyes, his weathered brow furrowed. "And yet, there is no lie to you." He muttered softly. He released my shoulders as he looked over his shoulder at Berrial. They shared a long, quiet look, then nodded. He looked at Itha and put his hand once more on my shoulder in a comforting manner. "Master Itha, Berrial and I will look further into this once everyone is settled. Poor Rooster has had a bad scare and he should probably get some rest." With that, I thankfully allowed myself to be led back through the Main Hall and through a doorway into the Sitting Room. The kind Ranger sat me gently in a chair near the fireplace as Ogthon skillfully lit a fire, being of the crafty race. I found I was shaking like a leaf. Besides the chair I occupied, there was one other right next to it near the fire, a small card table with a few chairs, and a red, worn-looking sofa. As everyone scattered about the room, desiring their own thoughts, Holdan knelt by my chair and caught my gaze.
"I am curious to know what you saw," he said bluntly. "Would you care to accompany me while I search the Castle? Do you feel well enough?"
Slowly, I nodded. Having been basically alone for the past several days, I craved some socializing. I wanted- needed to talk to someone. Cautiously, I stood, my nerves calmed considerably. As we moved towards the door, Ogthon stood and approached. "Hoy, Lads!" he said loudly, lifting his heavy hammer onto his broad shoulder. "If you don't mind, I'll accompany you."
Holdan nodded thoughtfully, a small smile tugging at his lips. He clapped the Dwarf on his square shoulder then with a laugh. "Of course, short one! Of course you may!"
Ogthon nodded (a little begrudgingly at being called 'short one'), though he was only about four feet tall at the most and fell into step behind us. Tall and rangy, Holdan set a quick pace for us to match, his long legs carrying him swiftly out of the Sitting Room. My own nimble feet carried me along swiftly enough, but Ogthon, stout and squat, simply was not built for speed, and he soon growled grumpily from the rear. "Will you hold your horses, Ranger? We are not all so swift on foot as yourself."
Holdan laughed, a merry sound that was most welcome in this dreary castle, and halted, allowing the Dwarf to catch up. "I am sorry, my friends. I am unused to traveling with such slo-" he halted at Ogthon's dark glare, "short-legged folk," he amended tactfully. Ogthon nodded grudgingly, so he missed the look I espied in the Man's eyes. He was afraid! A facade! He would have made a fabulous play-actor. But, his keen eyes caught mine and he winked conspiratorially. So, I knew his secret, and he trusted me with it. It was an odd feeling, to be trusted, as a friend almost. I winked in return with a quick grin, and we continued on our way. We soon passed through the Main Hall, where I noted several other corridors leading out, and a large, carpeted staircase leading up to the second floor and beyond. Holdan must have caught my worried gaze up the stairs, for he announced that we would not be exploring far or long tonight. "For I am weary," he admitted, and indeed he looked drawn and his eyes were not so quick as even a few moments before. "And I need to be focused to be a decent inspector. But we can give this floor a quick glance-over while everything is still fresh." With that, he led us cautiously into the Dining Room.
We all stared, for a stranger sight than the previous one had met us. The table and chairs that had been crushed under the massive chandelier looked untouched, as if nothing had happened at all. Not a scratch on any of them, and the chandelier hung back in its place on the ceiling. Holdan, his weathered brow furrowed deeply in thought, walked cautiously around the perimeter of the room, kneeling often and looking closely at the floor. I watched in intense silence, Ogthon shifting anxiously beside me. Finally, having come up on the other side of the table, Holdan stood and looked across at us. "I don't understand." He shook his head as he spoke. "This is the same room, correct?" At my nod, he stiffened. He sniffed sharply, then glanced about curiously, his bow in hand. Following his example, I sniffed the air and caught the scent of Death. My eyes widened and I cast about wildly for something-anything that would give off such an unwholesome odor. In my search I found-nothing. I looked back and Holdan was gone.
"Where did he go?" I asked of Ogthon, turning to acknowledge the Dwarf, who was also gone. "H-H-Holdan?" I whispered shakily, backing against the wall. "Holdan?" my throat tightened as a soft noise under the table immediately snagged my attention. I watched in frozen horror as a tall, cloaked figure stood and approached slowly, dark eyes glowering at me from within the hood. It towered silently over me, and I opened my mouth to scream my last, when a hand shot out from the cloak and silenced me. I stared, terrified, as Holdan threw back his hood and released me. Smiling, he chuckled.
"Sorry, Rooster," he apologized. "I could not resist." Before I could vent my anger at him, he held out a hand, still smiling. "But look what I found," he remarked triumphantly.
I gazed at what he held, thoroughly unimpressed. "What is it?" I inquired hotly, raising an eyebrow behind my mask.
Smiling, undaunted, he clapped me on the shoulder. "Sawdust!" he said, as if that should make perfect sense and make everything perfectly clear to me. It did not.
"And?" I baited him.
"Come now," he grinned, "as clever as you are, and you cannot figure it out?" As I shook my head, he sighed. "And -when the furniture was crushed, it should have left some residue." He held his hand under my nose. "Sawdust! From the impact of the chandelier and from the breaking of the table and chairs. Also, there are deep ruts in the floor where chair legs were forced from under them by the weight of the chandelier," he said, rather proud of his deduction.
I shook my head. "Of course! So, it was not an illusion?" I asked, catching on swiftly.
"No. Someone is toying with us." He smiled, as if it were some game. "Like a chessboard, only the stakes are much higher." Suddenly, his weathered brow furrowed once more. "Where's Ogthon?"
The Dwarf leapt suddenly back to my thoughts, and I shrugged. "I don't know. He was gone before you came from under the table."
Holdan the Ranger swore softly. "For as noisy as he was the entire way here, he moves pretty quietly when he so wishes." Nodding, I followed him as he moved quickly back into the Main Hall. "He is a difficult one to track on carpeted floors." he muttered quietly as he knelt, touching a bit of mud. "But he did pass this way. Only his heavy boot could have left such a wide print." Standing, he hurried back towards the Sitting Room. "Come, maybe he went back to join the others." I hurried off after him, but suddenly something caught my attention. Turning, I gasped and cried out for the Ranger.
Holdan wheeled suddenly as I muttered "I found him." and hurried towards the Dwarf. Ogthon laid flat on his back, staring incoherently at the ceiling, his hammer laying nearby. Holdan shook him gently and he blinked, struggling to focus on our faces.
"Ogthon," the Ranger said quietly, his hand on Ogthon's broad shoulder. "Are you alright?"
Slowly, the stunned Dwarf nodded, a hazy look in his dark eyes. "Help me up, please," he asked in a small, quiet voice.
Sharing a worried glance, we grasped his hands and helped him to his feet and escorted him back towards the Sitting Room. "It was all so strange," he muttered softly. Such quiet tenderness in his deep voice scared me far worse than Holdan had. What was going on here? We waited with baited breath for him to continue. "Such a lovely, terrible voice." We shared a glance.
"Voice?" Holdan prompted him after several silent moments. By now we had halted and, still supporting him, we listened intently.
"Oh, aye," the Dwarf's eyes gleamed as he whispered. He concentrated, as if to recall some long-forgotten dream. "She sang like an angel, but sadly, and in a tongue I did not understand. I followed it to see her beckoning me closer, the look in her eye saying that I alone could dispel her woe. My feet like lead, but my resolve wavering, for something felt wrong, I neared her. I reached her, and she embraced me; no Dwarf was she, but a Human she looked to be. Perfect, though only my height. She embraced me, and kissed my neck, and everything went white. Then, when I heard you two approaching, she vanished, and I toppled onto my back." He looked at me, his dark gaze distant. "Was it a hallucination?" he asked, his deep brow knitting in consternation.
I was aghast. I had no idea of what to say, a curious thing for one so vocal as myself. Fortunately, Holdan stepped in neatly. "You are exhausted, my stout friend. The eyes oft play cruel tricks on the wearied mind."
The Dwarf nodded slowly, seeming to shake himself from his stupor with that gesture. "I suppose you're right, Ranger," he said gruffly as he stepped away from us, no longer needing us to guide him. Stretching, he twisted and jerked, his back and shoulders popping sickeningly.
"That can't be healthy." I muttered to no one in particular.
Ogthon's dark eyes darted onto me. "Mayhap not in one so scrawny as you, chicken-legs. Why don't you eat something?" He gave me a gentle poke in the belly with a stubby finger, catching me off guard. "Put some meat on your bones."
"I eat plenty," I grumbled defensively, rubbing my belly. So what if I was not fat and bulky like a Dwarf should be. I'm no Dwarf, though I did not relay such thoughts to Ogthon. I muttered moodily as the Dwarf laughed loudly and gave me a friendly shove, almost landing me on my face. I forced myself not to comment on his own corpulence, for such a blunder would likely have ended in my swift demise. Never insult a Dwarf unless you plan on outliving him, and Ogthon looked relatively young and would likely be around for a few centuries more. So, I reined in my temper and bit my tongue. Holdan noted my struggle and nodded with an approving smile as we headed back towards the Sitting Room.
Soon enough, we arrived to find the others napping restlessly, except for Berrial, who emerged from the shadows to the left of the fireplace, obviously the one on watch. His hands resting on the hilts of the swords at his waist, he nodded silently and inquired quietly as we approached him. "What did you find? Anything?" Holdan swiftly reported our excursion, with Berrial laughing shortly and shaking his head at Holdan's recounting of my scare. He seemed particularly interested in the sawdust Holdan produced from a pouch from somewhere within his cloak.
"That I found under the table, which now stands, undamaged," he said quietly, looking in bemusement towards Sontha, who snored quietly as she lounged upon the sofa.
"So, we at least know it really happened," the other Ranger said contemplatively, a hand on his stubbly chin, the only part of his face I could really see, save his eyes, which shone like river-stones within his hood, polished by years of water rushing by. "But, who could have righted it so quickly? We left it not ten minutes before you three returned over there..." Suddenly, his deep grey eyes flicked to me, and stayed on mine. "Please, tell me again what you saw in the stables lad," he said, his deep voice a comfort in the cold...aloneness of the castle.
I recounted my tale swiftly to the Ranger, and he nodded thoughtfully. "And I saw him again, after we heard the crash. Just as Itha disappeared after everyone else, Lord Fortuna came to me," I reminded him. Both Men were silent for several moments and Ogthon, wearied more still by his recent venture with the unknown woman, went to a chair near the fire and dropped heavily into it. His deep snoring soon reached us. I stood, quietly feeling very neglected as the Rangers stood in silence. Neither seemed overly interested in me, so I went to go sit near Ogthon and try to rest myself. As I tried to move past him, Holdan's hand grasped me gently by the shoulder, and in that instant I thought I heard Berrial say "-get them out?", and then he looked at me momentarily.
Before I could gather anything from this, we all heard a noise from the Main Hall. After a shared glance, we went swiftly to the door, Holdan's bow in his hand, and looked out into the Hall and saw only darkness. But, as we watched, the darkness deepened, and moved steadily towards us from the Dining Room, like a curtain. Holdan stepped back warily, nocking an arrow I'd not seen him retrieve from the quiver on his back and he placed me behind him, nearest the fire. Berrial held one sword ready, hand on the other, and swiftly woke the others with a gentle shake. Ogthon jerked awake at a tap from Sontha, her huge axe in her hand. Darkness slowly crept into the room, silent as Death, and soon had us hemmed in closely to the fire. We all faced out, ready as we could be, in a semi-circle around the fire. I peered in wide-eyed terror over Berrial's shoulder, scared nearly out of my wits. Maybe seven feet away, the Darkness halted, neither retreating nor coming any closer. The fire dimmed, but still battled strongly against it. All sound died within the Darkness, and we stared out, weapons at the ready. A blue glow ran like cobalt fire down Berrial's sword and body on the right side as Itha prepared a spell, holding it back like a stone about to be thrown.
Two knives were in my grasp as I stared into the Dark, my eyes flitting to imagined movements. Or were they? My breathing quickened. I also had a notion of whispering voices, many of them, as of ghosts flitting by, unseen, just beyond the shadow. Of a sudden, I became aware of a sad, beautiful voice singing softly as if from some great depth. I listened intently, and noted that Ogthon's hammer lowered marginally. I shifted to stand between him and Berrial, my shoulders narrow enough to allow me such a stance. As I listened to the song, I became aware I had already taken three steps forward, and someone said my name harshly: "Rooster!" I jerked back to consciousness and skipped back a step, only to nearly jump out of my skin as something bumped into me. Ogthon, vacant-eyed, shouldered past me, his hammer on his broad back. "Ogthon?" I said tenuously. But, he did not respond, nor alter his course. He was disappearing into the Darkness. Suddenly, I leapt forward, taking him by the shoulders and heaving back, trying ineffectively to halt him. "Ogthon!" I shouted, but he did not respond. He dragged me nearly into the Dark, but Holdan reached out swiftly and snatched me back as Ogthon stumbled forward and disappeared from sight. "Ogthon!" I shouted again, but still no response did I get. Suddenly, the Dwarf shouted "Help!" sounding furious and helpless at the same time, but it seemed he spoke from a deep well. As Holdan ordered me to stay back and readied himself to spring to the Dwarf's aid, Lord Fortuna appeared at the edge of the Darkness, halting the Ranger where he stood.
His dark eyes flashed with an inner evil beyond my comprehension as he glanced over our group. "You would all do well to leave this place. As I have already told Rooster, terrible things are about to happen, and you had best flee while you may." He glanced momentarily at the clock behind us on the mantle, then nodded. "You have one hour to leave the premises, and I advise you use it. Danger besets you on every side, yet it is contained...for now. Resistance is a folly beyond stupidity, so do not try. Gather your mounts and leave."
"What of our Dwarf?" Holdan spoke boldly to the evil before us, even daring to step closer. "We shan't leave without him."
"Your Dwarf no longer exists," Fortuna said with a small mocking smile. As he did so, I noted he had rather long eyeteeth, but I jumped to no conclusions, rather I pushed that thought straight out of my head, staring intently. At that moment, Fortuna was joined by Ogthon, who stared staunchly ahead, trance-like, and a beautiful woman. I looked away as she stared at me, a teasing smile on her lips. Blood trickled down the side of Ogthon's neck, and I saw the fangs in her mouth as she licked her lips. Fortuna's poisoned tongue brought me back to reality before I ever realized I'd been dazed. "My Dwarf, however, is here to stay, so he promised my Lady." He indicated her, and she curtsied with almost mocking politeness. "Good evening, my friends." he said in his deep, soothing voice. He glanced behind us once more as the Darkness began receding. "You have one hour," he said sternly, and he, Ogthon, and the Lady were gone.
Part # 2
We all froze, rooted to the floor, staring as the Dark receded to the edges of the room and exited through the door. Holdan recovered first, of course, swiftly followed by Berrial and went to secure the room. There was no sign or evidence that any of the three of them had ever been there, I knew, before he knelt to inspect it. They went to the door then, to watch the Dark in the Hall. I slowly turned, mouth agape, and saw Itha, paler than usual, his eyes wide with shock. Sontha, her armor rattling, shook like a leaf, as did I. I felt as if I'd just run the entire distance from town to here in a day. My heart felt as if it would beat straight out of my chest and I was amazed they did not comment on the noise. Softly, in the voice of one who'd narrowly escaped death, which I quietly thought we had all just done, Itha spoke. "They said to check on a few disappearances. Not to fight some bloody dark lord who was supposed to be dead!" he said loudly at the end, frustration and disbelief evident in his tone. He turned to me and said quickly. "I'm sorry I doubted you, boy. There is no mistake. That-that-that...thing...was Lord Fortuna at one time. He is now nothing more than a perverse shade of the idea of Fortuna." He then turned swiftly to Sontha. "We must get out of here. Now," he said authoratively, and she was only too happy to agree.
"No," I said in disbelief as they moved to hurry past the Rangers, who were just turning back, confused looks on their faces (or so I guessed, as Berrial's hood was still up). "No!" I said, a little louder, but not quite a shout. "We cannot leave poor Ogthon behind!"
Brusquely, Sontha halted and whirled on me, glowering angrily at me. "We have no idea what that thing was, and you want us to start a bloody war against him for a Dwarf?!" she hissed venomously.
Drawing myself to my full, unimpressive height, I glared up at her, my teeth set, and gritted softly to the woman. "Yes. He came here in good faith, to aid you, and now you will abandon him to his certain doom?!" I barked accusingly.
Shocked, she staggered back a step. I believe that was the first time anyone, especially someone so small as myself, had ever stood up to her. The others stared, amazed at the change in me. These past eight days I'd remained quiet and took all the flak from her that she had offered, not daring once to step out of line, really. And now, here I was actually cowing her! It really was a rather brainless thing to do. She, obviously, could crush me like a bug, and I dared to try and intimidate her? She recovered swiftly and stepped forward, a look of rage in her eyes, when Itha spoke up, the least likely person to come to my aid. "Hold, Sontha...the boy's right," he said slowly. "The Dwarf came as an extra weapon to aid us if things got rough. Well, now he is in need, and we cannot leave him behind." She looked at him, stunned. It was no real secret the Priest disliked me, religiously, if you will, and he was standing up for me. But, he was not alone, I noted, as Holdan took a stance beside me, his hand on my shoulder, but his longbow was ready. If indeed lines were drawn, I felt better knowing he would be with me. He squeezed my shoulder comfortingly and stepped away.
"You're both right. But, we will have to stick together if we ever hope to escape this deathtrap of a castle," he said darkly. Suddenly, something the Priest had said clicked in his sharp mind, for he turned to Itha. "What do you mean, 'disappearances'?" he said evenly. "You said nothing of the nature of this mission from the start, and I left it alone. But now, you let something slip, and I wonder at the rest of it. Enlighten me, oh Priest," he said respectfully, if forcefully.
Itha, having shaken off Death's cold grip, was his pious self once more. He drew himself up and looked down his beak-like nose at Holdan. "Church business, Ranger," he snorted shortly, and he meant to leave it at that. Just as I was gathering myself to lunge at him and beat some sense into him, Berrial took two quick steps and grabbed him roughly by the front of his robes and hoisted him clean off the ground, glaring up into his eyes.
"You mind your foolish tongue, man," he growled softly, drawing the terrified Priest's face closer to his. "What disappearances?" he demanded loudly, giving Itha a rough shake for emphasis. Sontha looked ready to pulverize the Ranger, but he shot her a warning glance from within his hood. She halted and stayed where she was as Itha spilled his guts about what exactly he'd been sent to do. From the jumble of thoughts he sprayed out at us, I gathered that several villages had reported missing children for several months now, and a trail led to Castle Fortuna, oddly enough. He was then sent to investigate. But, it did not come out in that order, and it was rather comical to see him so bullied and helpless. I suppressed a smile as Holdan nodded, satisfied, and Berrial set him gently on the ground. "Thank you," the taciturn Ranger said slyly, and I could almost hear the smile in his words.
Everyone suffered through a long, nigh unbearable silence, but suddenly something snagged my attention. I heard a noise, coming from the Main Hall. A groan and a soft shuffling footstep. Someone was in the Main Hall! I silently glided over to the doorway and glanced out and saw yet another strange sight. A man, his clothing ragged and tattered and what skin showed was sallow and unhealthy-looking, staggered about, his back to me, cradling something in his arms. I believed him to be wounded, for small driblets of blood splattered at his unshod feet. Just as I prepared to call out, he stiffened, then wheeled sharply, and my cry clove to my tongue.
Wide, blood-red eyes locked onto me, the blood-smeared mouth quirked in a maniacal, rictus grin as he dropped the hunk of flesh he'd been gnawing. With a shriek so terrible I thought my heart had stopped, he hurried towards me in a shambling gait, as if the limbs did not quite work. Bits of dead flesh hung off of him, and his left arm ended in a jagged stump, the bone protruding like a broken spear-tip, and his other hand cracked as he grasped hungrily for me. He was no more than five feet away, close enough for his stench to make my eyes water, when a solid "thrum" startled me back to life. A long, black arrow sped over my shoulder and buried itself in his chest, sending him sprawling onto his back. I stared in horror as he struggled doggedly to his feet and came at me again, shrieking yet louder.
"Down!" Holdan shouted from somewhere behind, and I vaguely remember dropping to my knees as another arrow flew swiftly out and took him in the heart. Still he struggled to get up, and I was afraid he would, when suddenly in a rush of fury, Berrial leapt forward with a great shout and swung, hard, his sword ringing free and whistling sharply through the air. In one solid stroke, he lopped off the creature's grisly head, sending it flying to land several yards away. Finally, the body crumpled and lay still, after writhing silently for a moment in the loss of its head. Toeing it with his boot, Berrial dragged forth the two arrows and handed them back to Holdan, unaware the heads were gone and the shafts were smoking.
Holdan examined the arrows closely then cried out as Berrial knelt to examine the body with disgust. "Hold! That unholy creature melted my arrowheads clean away. Do not touch it." Reflexively, Berrial glanced at his sword, and noted it was now smoking in a thin line across the blade, the creature's blood melting away.
Sontha, the squabble forgotten, moved quickly past Holdan as he helped me to my feet and looked with disgust to match Berrial's at the corpse at their feet. "What was it?' she asked, kneeling to look closer at the head, which seemed to have caved in slightly upon hitting the floor, much like an over-ripe melon. I noted that the Rangers both halted in mid-motion and focused elsewhere for a moment. They nodded, satisfied, as Itha spoke up from behind me.
"I have seen this before, but never so...ravenous," he said curiously. He then looked up from the body at the rest of us as he elaborated. "It was a zombie. It was once a human being, turned by Dark Forces into an unholy, ruined form of life, though I use the term lightly. Basically, it was a person with his reason and humanity removed. A mindless, seemingly ravenous, eating machine." He swallowed hard, as if to dispel the idea of vomiting, which I fought hard not to do. "I was a young man when I first experienced it, no older than the Bard," he said softly. "An entire village, turned to mindless, bloodthirsty cannibals." I saw him shake his head, as if to dispel the memory, but we all knew well enough it would not.
The lady Paladin stood and hefted her axe in one hand, the other resting on her sword pommel. "I feared as much. Dark Magic...yes indeed. What then, shall we do? We cannot fight an entire army of such, as I've heard to be bitten is nearly fatal." She stood next to Berrial, and both looked to Itha, the silently elected leader of our party, though I still felt inclined to listen to Holdan's judgment. He was a Man both wise and charismatic, a born leader.
The Cleric, a Man of God, nodded as he sighed heavily. "We cannot leave the Dwarf. As the Bard reminded us so eloquently, he followed in good faith. We saw him into this mess, and we shall do our best to see him out. Loath as I am to stay, we must find him." He leveled his dark gaze at the Rangers. "I'm staying."
"As am I," Sontha added grimly, a cold look to her beautiful face.
The Men nodded simultaneously. "We're with you," Berrial said gravely, and they began making sure all their belongings were fastened securely to them. Then, they all turned and looked at-me. I feel no shame in admitting I was terrified and ready to look for the nearest exit. Then again, almost being eaten probably does that to people. Holdan the Attentive must have noted my plight. "You are not obligated to go, Rooster, and will suffer no shame if you leave now. We will offer you no scorn if you decide to go. It was no device of yours that brought you here," he said comfortingly. And, oddly enough, it was those words of comfort that bolstered my wavering, crumbling resolve. I shook my head, probably looking and sounding much braver than I felt. "I've come this far. I'll not turn back now."
A slow smile stretched across the Ranger's face. "Very well. Master Itha, I believe we are ready to go," he said, adroitly turning the matter over to the Cleric.
"As we search," the Priest said thoughtfully, "we must remember the children. They may very well be in this castle, hidden somewhere. If we find them, we must rescue them if we can. How many other floors are there?" he inquired suddenly. "I saw the stairs leading upward, but are there any ideas how many floors this castle has?"
Holdan glanced meaningfully at his partner, who hesitatingly spoke up. "As Master Itha stated, there is at least one floor above, though I believe, from the outward appearance of the building, there are maybe at least two more. While downward..." he looked at Holdan as he continued, "I cannot believe a place this large has no basement beneath," he finished, looking back to Itha.
Itha nodded thoughtfully, chewing his lip. "But we only have an hour. We cannot possibly search three floors up, then come back down to -possibly- find another floor below."
"Exactly," Berrial spoke up abruptly. "So our only alternative is to split up into two parties. One to search below and one to search above. Do we dare to split up?" he looked around, and I could feel the courage of the others waver.
Suddenly, as if of their own accord, my feet took me a step forward, and my mouth said boldly "I dare." I never quite understood that moment, and likely I never will. An absurd notion; Me, a little mask-wearing boy playing at hero, while surrounded by all these great warriors and a sorcerer. But, the effect I got from such a statement was truly unexpected.
Berrial smiled warmly, the first genuine gesture of respect he'd given me with no mask of politeness. "I'd hoped you would," he said, sounding almost relieved.
"As do I," Itha said looking at me in awe, and Sontha nodded her compliance from behind him.
"Excellent!" the Ranger said, the most cheerful I'd ever seen him. "As I am rather talented in finding hidden doors and secret catches, I volunteer to stay below and check for a basement." He then turned suddenly to me. "Would you care to join me, Rooster?" he asked, as casually as if we were going for a pleasant evening stroll.
"I-..." I halted, feeling oddly pressured by the glares of the Priest and Paladin, as if to remind me we did not have time for debate, while Holdan watched, impassive. "I will," I said finally, at a loss, and Berrial chuckled.
"Good..." he said shortly, then looked at the others. "We will meet back here in..." he halted momentarily. "Forty minutes." A short farewell, then we hurried off as the others quickly moved wordlessly to and up the stairs. We would have to be swift to find Ogthon and the children in less than an hour. But Berrial seemed determined to do or die, and I tried to match him. Suddenly, a thought struck me, though I was hesitant to put voice to it. As he was inspecting the wall, he glanced up. "You wear your thoughts too easily, lad. What's on your mind?" he asked kindly in his deep voice as he turned back to looking for a secret door.
Following him, I asked quietly and rather awkwardly. "Out of everyone in the party, why did you pick me to join you in your search?"
Halting, the dour Ranger looked up, his head cocked to the side. "Well, isn't it obvious?" he asked with a short chuckle.
I played it off as best I could. "The details are a little fuzzy," I said, hopefully convincingly, though in truth I had no idea.
"Well," he said as he flipped a hidden catch, looking at me as a door opened behind him, "simply put, you're the most tolerable of the group. I can't stand that wench with her tough-girl act, and that Priest..." he growled. "I'd as likely kill him as any enemies we crossed. Pencil-necked, disrespectful, brainless..." He grumbled, then looked intently at me. "Making sense yet?" he asked, sounding irritated, though that might have just been from his monologue about Itha.
"Yes..." I said cautiously. "But why not-."
"Why not Holdan?" he cut me off, almost sharply, but not impolitely. "His bow will be needed where it's at, lad. Just trust me. I have a feeling there's more to you than meets the eye. You're quiet and you can be brave when you choose. Look at how you stood up to Miss Impressive back there. That took guts, kid. I was impressed." He smiled then, something I'd rarely seen him do in the eight days or so I'd known him. That dispelled any thoughts I'd had about him hating me. "Come now, time will not halt for us to chat." Grim once more, the crafty Ranger acquired a torch from his pack and lit it from one on the wall nearby, which was swiftly burning low, and we entered the secret entry. There we found a staircase spiraling both up and down, and the air from below was positively rank. But, we'd said we'd investigate any basements we encountered, and I followed silently behind him as he made his way down the steps. The darkness seemed to deepen about us, and we went on for several minutes, when abruptly Berrial halted, causing me to almost run him over. Kneeling, he peered into the dark room before us with his keen grey eyes.
"I don't like this," he said flatly, just as I thought I heard something behind me. Standing he turned to look at me. "We've come a long way, and not seen a single-" his eyes widened and he grabbed me suddenly, flipping backwards into the room. "Monster!" he said loudly, loosing me as we hit the ground and simultaneously rolled to our feet. His sword rang free of its sheath and I stared at the dark....thing before us. It rocked back, recoiling after obviously having swung the heavy axe in its dark hand at my back. Silently, I thanked God for the quickness of the Rangers. If not for them, I'd likely be dead at least twice now. It was man-shape, vaguely, though I could not tell, as Berrial had dropped the torch and it had almost died when it struck the ground. But, as it stepped forward, I realized it was barely man-shape. Taller and broader than even Sontha, it was bipedal, with two arms and two legs. That was where the similarities ended. It was covered in shaggy black hair and had heavy, cloven hooves, and black, curved horns sprouted from above the beady eyes. Mythology stood angrily before us. A great, black, axe-wielding Minotaur! He took a threatening step forward, brandishing his axe, crushing and extinguishing the torch under his massive foot. I noticed a dim light came from my left and I dared a glance that way to see a door, a light peeking from under it.
Suddenly, with a great shout, Berrial leapt towards it, both swords now in hand, and he twirled them dangerously in his expertise with blades. "Come on, you monster!" he taunted with a laugh, dancing in perilously close to slash at the beast's flanks. My thoughts had just turned to how utterly mad he must have been when abruptly, much quicker than I would have deemed possible in so slow and ponderous a creature, it whirled sharply and seized Berrial by his cloak where it cinched at his throat. The Ranger gasped in startled awe just before he was shaken like a doll, his blades flying harmlessly from his grasp. The brute then held the dizzied Man steady with one massive arm, the other raising the great axe above its head. As I watched in horror, my hands suddenly moved of their own accord. The two knives I had sheathed up my sleeves found my hands and they flew true, taking the beast in the armpit and low in the ribs.
Roaring loudly, loud enough to make my ears ring, the monster dropped both Ranger and axe and turned his fiery gaze onto me. With a heavy stomp, he lowered his head and charged me. I flung the two knives at my hips into his shoulders, which did absolutely nothing to him, then grabbed his horns and nimbly swung myself up and over him, rolling down his back to the floor. I glanced over to see Berrial staggering to his feet, his hood all disarrayed and half-off his face, revealing how lean and square his face was, and he cast about dizzily for his blades. "Hurry!" I hissed at him as the Minotaur staggered to a halt and spun ponderously towards me, lowing furiously as he stomped the ground with a heavy hoof, glaring at me. I whipped two more knives from my boot sheaths into his chest as he dragged the last ones free and threw them to the ground and crushed them beneath a mighty hoof. The blades seemed to do very little to him besides infuriate him, though there looked to be a lot of blood.
"Come on!" I shouted readily, hoping Berrial was hurrying. Then, a fit must have taken me, for I laughed, put a hand to the brim of my hat, and did a marvelous little jig. This seemed to drive him even deeper into a frenzy, more so than the knives had, for he charged like a mad thing at me. Taking a stance, I waited until the very last moment and then grabbed his horns once more, attempting to hurl myself over his shoulders. But, as I hopped over his head, he halted, jarring me backwards, and grabbed my feet. He dragged me off his head and I shouted for help just before he slammed me to the ground, jarring my teeth and knocking me silly. He reached down and grabbed me by my shirtfront, dragging me to my feet. He then grabbed me by my head and lifted me off the ground, his powerful arms bulging as he squeezed my head, trying to crush it like a grape, roaring loudly in my face.
Suddenly, a great shout heralded Berrial's coming, and two long blades protruded from the Minotaur's chest as his eyes blurred and blood dribbled from his mouth. He dropped me as he died, though I don't remember falling or hitting the floor. I just remember waking up to Berrial gently helping me sit up, and handing me what knives he found that had not been crushed. Two of them. He held out my scarf, which I gingerly re-wrapped around my head, figuring he now knew I was not quite what I'd seemed; then, he handed me a misshapen piece of cloth, which I gently reshaped into my hat, easily enough, since it was already shaped. Gently feeling the giant knot on the back of my skull, I thanked him dazedly, my head pounding. Then he held up something else, a solemn look on his face. My eyes saw it, but my mind could not place it. Suddenly, it dawned on me. It was my mask! He could see me! I hurriedly took it as I ducked my head and put it back. The Minotaur must have thrown me to the ground so hard my mask must have flown straight off of my face.
The Ranger had the good grace not to comment as I situated myself, seeing how it distressed me. "Thank you," I muttered quietly, staring at the floor.
He bowed his head. "I knew not that you were of the Elves, my young lord. Forgive me," he apologized hastily. I smiled sadly.
"Do not worry about all that, Ranger. I am a bastard, an orphan, with no idea who my parents were. I am only a half-blood anyways, not worthy of such deep respect." I patted his hand. "I am but a humble Bard, my friend. Treat me no differently, simply because you know I am not what I seem." With a wink, I silenced him, though he did not look happy about it. I placed my hat back onto my head and stood cautiously. I replaced my knives and dug some spares out of my backpack to replace those that had been destroyed, and was glad that Berrial changed the subject.
"Never have I seen such knife-work, Rooster," he praised me with a smile, a gesture I barely noted from the depths of his hood.
"Then you've not seen much knife-work, Ranger," I replied modestly as I smiled in return. It was odd, the respect (indeed, almost a reverence) the Rangers gave Elves. But, to each his own, I suppose. I turned to see him staring at the floor, as if something within the ground had caught his attention. On impulse, I grabbed his shoulder and heard Berrial's voice in my head "-more to him than we thought." It came to me as clearly as if he'd said it to me, which I knew he had not, and he suddenly grabbed my wrist as he glared at me.
"Tele-communication," I mused aloud, though quietly. "I need to learn that trick."
Then, slowly, Berrial's mouth split into a wide, heartfelt grin and he released me with a shake of his head. "No trick is it, Rooster." He chuckled, pulling back the bracer on his left wrist to reveal a plain silver bracelet. "Enchanted bracelets, through which Holdan and I can speak to one another. A handy tool when silence or secrecy is needed," he said as he replaced the bracer over the bracelet. No sign it was even there showed through the thick leather.
I laughed softly. "Very clever. If I ever survive this, I will have to acquire one for myself." Berrial nodded silently and we moved cautiously towards the illuminated door, the only exit we could see in the dark room. No sound did either of us hear from the other side, but still the tall Man held a sword ready as he reached for the handle. Slowly, silently, it opened forward, and torches burned brightly on the walls, high above the floor. For a moment, I thought it was an illusion, but, stepping inside, I knew it was not. In a room perhaps twice the size of the Sitting Room, dozens of square wire cages lined the walls, stacked three or four high, and inside each one, a child from ages three to mayhap ten slumbered restlessly. Berrial and I shared a horrified look as we stepped farther in and stared in disbelief at the children inside the cages, like animals. We'd found the missing children.
Berrial quickly scoured the room, as I moved towards a cage holding a dirty little girl who clung almost desperately to some small, stuffed animal. As if on some cue, she jerked awake and turned her big blue eyes, notably full of fear, to me. Her pretty little brow furrowed as she asked softly. "Are you here to help?"
My heart broke to see such poor little people in such a terrible predicament. Tears burning my eyes, I put my hand on the cage and nodded. "Yes, dear one, we're here to help," I replied softly.
Tears in her eyes, she hurried to me and hugged me desperately through the bars. "Oh, thank you so much. I was afraid I would be next."
"Next?" I asked quietly, looking down into her round blue eyes.
"The Mean Man," she whispered, horror in her voice. "He wants us kids, because of our blood."
I felt the hair on the back of my neck rise in horror. "What?"
"He wants to eat us!" she gasped, then began sobbing uncontrollably into my shoulder through the cage wires.
Berrial, at my side, gritted with barely suppressed rage at what we'd heard, "No one else in here. I think we killed their guard, and there does not seem to be any other exits, though I'm sure there are. This place is probably riddled with hidden passages." My heart lifted for a moment, before dropping lower than ever before. "There's no key. We cannot get them out."
"Have you told Holdan of this yet?" I asked quietly, the girl looking curiously between us, understanding dawning in her eyes.
"You're going to leave us....aren't you?" she asked, tears welling up once more.
I clutched her fiercely to me, defiant. "No!" I said firmly, startling her. Then, I sighed, and smiled. "No, dear heart. We're not going to leave you."
Berrial nodded. "They're on their way, and our time is running out. Only about another half an hour left, and we'll have to be gone, or ready for a fight."
Nodding, I inspected the lock. Definitely a key would be needed, for I doubted even Berrial could have muscled it open. "The Minotaur, did he-?" I asked, but Berrial was already shaking his head negatively. "Then where the devil could it be?!" I asked in exasperation. The Ranger shrugged and I bowed my head, defeated. But suddenly, my head snapped back up. I had an idea. I swiftly flung my pack from off my shoulders and began rooting through it for my kit. Finding it, my hands shook with excitement. "We may be home free yet!" I chuckled happily. Opening it, I selected a long, thin probe and fiddled with the girl's lock. Luckily enough, it was a fairly simple lock, and it clicked open almost immediately. Laughing, I swung the cage open and the girl leaped into my arms, tears rolling down her cheeks. "We stand a chance!" I smiled, footsteps drawing my attention towards the door. "We've found the-" the proclamation died on my lips. I gently set the girl down and moved in front of her.
It was not the rest of our party. It was Ogthon, and he did not look happy at all. "Ogthon?" I asked cautiously. He seemed well aware of me now, but he looked positively ferocious, his hammer ready. "Is it you?" I asked, not liking his silence. He'd never been overly talkative, but now he said not a word.
As a matter of fact, my only real answer was a dangerously close swipe with his massive hammer accompanied by a teeth-jarring roar from the little fellow. "Berrial!" I cried out as I skittered away from the mad Dwarf, as well as the girl. No need to get her mixed up in all this. A fire burned in his dark, seemingly fixed eyes as he advanced, his hammer leading the way. My hand found a knife-hilt, though I was reluctant to use it. He seemed...almost mindless, like the Zombie. I easily avoided his clumsy attacks, but I was swiftly running out of room to run. Ogthon, in a surprising maneuver, dropped his hammer and rushed me, catching me up in his massive arms, pinning one of my own to my side even as my hand closed on the hilt of a knife. Crying out in pain as he attempted to squeeze the life out of me, I punched him as hard as I could in his hard, fuzzy head, not fazing him at all. "Help!" I whispered weakly as my world began to go dark. Suddenly, I heard a solid, reverberating CRACK and the Dwarf stared at me. Then, curiously, his eyes crossed and his grip slackened as he fell. It would have been worlds better if he'd not, though; he landed on me! The air rushed from my lungs as I looked up to see Berrial holding the splintered remains of a torch, grinning wryly down at me.
I groaned as best I could, fighting for breath, as the Ranger rolled Ogthon from off of me. Just as he was helping me to my feet, my breath slowly returning in wheezing gasps, Holdan rushed in, swiftly followed by the others. "We've found the Dwarf," I gasped, but Holdan hardly acknowledged me.
"Lovely," he muttered breathlessly as he threw his shoulder against the door and slammed it to, searching in vain for a lock. "Sontha!" he cried out just as something hit the door -hard, and the door almost opened before Holdan threw himself against it once more.
"I'm with you, Ranger!" she said bravely, rushing up next to him and putting her own significant muscle to the door.
"What is it?" Berrial demanded, his dour self once more, his swords ready.
Itha drawled sarcastically as he turned to us. "I'd think it safe to deem our time is indeed up."
"But, it's not been an hour yet!" I declared at the unfairness of it all.
"Did you honestly expect that....monster to keep his word?" Sontha grunted as another heavy blow hit the door. I feared the ancient wood of the door would give before the strength of my brave friends -an odd notion, now that I think about it, but then there had hardly been time to dwell on it. Confirming my fears, the door splintered loudly, a hand reaching through and entangling itself in Sontha's long blonde hair. She roared in pain but did not give in. By now, almost all of the children were awake and wailing like baby Banshees or crying for help, shaking and rattling their cages. Moving rather stiffly, for I could already feel the bruises I would be sporting from my confrontations with Ogthon and the Minotaur, I set hurriedly about my work, kneeling painfully and unlocking cage after cage.
"Berrial!" I shouted breathlessly, and the Ranger hurried to my side, his grey eyes fixed on the door, where Sontha now sported a dead hand entwined in her hair where she'd torn the appendage straight off. The reek of rotting corpses reached me, and I felt little need to see what was on the other side of the door. "Is there another way out?" I demanded, and he shook his head -no. I swore, quietly, for there were children present, and an idea dawned on me. "Can you check for any hidden escape routes?" I stepped back as Itha cast a broad spell, cages springing open and children clambering out of them to join a terrified mass behind the Priest.
"I don't see any-." Berrial glanced at the door, to where the Ranger and Lady Paladin were holding strong, the Man slashing viciously at anything that came too near with a heavy knife in his hand, and he sheathed a sword. "Let me look, quickly now!" he cried, hopping past me to frantically search the far wall, dancing agilely through the throng of frightened children. He swiftly searched, and soon stood, smiling, as a door opened behind him. "Come on, children!" he shouted, as he and Itha led them down the revealed corridor to whatever harbor it offered, the Priest's hands glowing white above his head. Soon enough, Berrial returned, a broad smile on his face, his eyes sparkling within his hood. "Things are looking up, my friend!"
But, in that one terrible moment, several things happened at once. The door behind me crashed inward, unable to take any more stress, and both Ranger and lady Paladin were overwhelmed in a terrible surge of un-dead nightmares. The majority of them were simply walking corpses, Men and Goblins of the Mountain mostly, but a massive Mountain-Troll loomed behind. Poor Holdan was quickly engulfed, his knife little use against so many. They grabbed and tore at his cloak, trying to subdue him, while Sontha could barely move to defend herself, encumbered as she was by her armor. Holdan, fighting with a strength borne of desperation, lashed out with a bone-jarring right that wrenched a rotted head clean off of the decaying neck of a Zombie Man and, with the clearance he'd gained, his booted foot lanced out in a flash, taking a Goblinoid in the chest and collapsing it. He fought bravely, but soon was overwhelmed once more. Suddenly, the weary Ranger cried out and disappeared in the throng. Just as all seemed lost, though, with a shout that staggered us all, Berrial the brave launched a long sword through two of his partners' attackers, one of the feats I'd not have believed had I not seen it with my own two eyes. In a blind rage, the hooded Ranger charged forward, his other sword ringing free, roaring fiercely, fighting like one possessed as he screamed vile oaths and curses in an unremembered tongue. He wrenched Holdan free and whipped him behind himself, guarding his retreat against the entire horde.
Holdan, pale and stricken, staggered past me to stand at the far exit. He swiftly fetched an arrow from his quiver and painfully drew it to his ear. He suffered many terrible wounds, but still he fought on, trying to give us room to flee. Meanwhile, Sontha struggled wearily against three nimble little Goblins. Dancing forward, I drew a knife and cut one's throat from behind. It dropped, as did the next. After subduing the last one, crushing it in her bare hands, she moved wearily to help Berrial. But, I shoved her past Holdan. "Protect the children!" I cried, and was thankful she grabbed the Dwarf as she left. A terrible thought hit me then. What if we could not hold them? What would happen to the children? "No!" I shook my head fiercely, ripping free another knife and jumping to Berrial's aid. I would not allow such a thing to happen to any child. Standing by his side, I stabbed and sliced any who came too near while he parried and skewered several in quick succession. "As heroic as this stand of yours is..." I laughed to the Ranger, daring a glance his way, "I believe we should be going. That 'Troll is getting dangerously near."
He nodded grimly, and told me to run. I did, thinking he would follow. He did try, I'll give him that. He turned and dashed off after me, but just then, the massive Mountain-Troll smashed its way in, and slapped him silly, knocking him flat onto his face, shattering his sword. Just as I leaped back to Berrial's aid, Holdan gave a mighty shout and drew his long black yew bow to the full and beyond, the heavy *thrum* of the arrow leaving the string cracking the great weapon in two. I watched the long black shaft hiss harshly through the air and bury itself in the 'Troll's heart, killing him just as he raised a foot to crush the dizzy Ranger at his feet. With a dying roar, he fell back, completely blocking the entrance, successfully giving us time to regroup. I helped the staggered Berrial to his feet and he scooped up his remaining blade from one of the corpses near the 'Troll's. He turned and hurried to where Holdan leaned against the door jamb, smiling wanly at him.
"Good shot," Berrial muttered lightly. "Too bad about your bow though."
"Yes..." wheezed Holdan, sliding down the doorway to the floor. "Too bad." He knelt painfully near the door. "You must take care of the others, baby brother." he said sadly. Then, he looked down at his side, to where a deep puncture wound gaped redly. "Bloody stump for an arm, just like the first..." he cursed with a weak chuckle. "Don't worry. I've not been bitten. No fear of that." He saw the tears in my eyes, and scowled. "Here, now. None of that. I get the easy way out, whereas you must fight your way free. You should be jealous!" He laughed, his old self once more. "Take care, boys. Thank you Rooster, for getting Berrial to smile every now and then." He winked. "Off I go, into the Great Unknown!" And then, he was gone, a smile faint on his lips.
Part # 3
"No..."whispered Berrial, a hand on his brother's shoulder-until just now, I'd not known they were related. "No!" he roared painfully, as if the louder he said it, the more untrue it was. "Don't leave me brother!" he shouted at Holdan's body. He stood and roared unintelligibly at the sky, making my ears ring. He then dropped to his knees, shoulders heaving, hands upturned in his lap.
After several moments, I dared a word. "I'm sorry Berrial, I do not know what to say."
He ran a hand across his face, blinking his blood-shot eyes and shaking his tired head. His response was hollow and taciturn; "Nothing to be said, Rooster. We must press on. There will be a time for grief -later." He swiftly rose to his feet and sheathed his sword, then gently gathered his dead brother's body into his arms. Using his elbow, he closed the secret way behind us. My last glimpse of the troll corpse was of it lying across the doorway, twitching grotesquely as if alive with maggots. I felt nauseatingly sure its companions were now digging -or gnawing, I thought with sickened realization - through it after us. I followed the solemn Ranger down a short corridor hewn out of the living stone to a larger version of the Sitting Room above. Children, some so exhausted they could hardly stand, having been malnourished for these past weeks, were strewn about the room, but most clustered near the fire in terrified packs. Itha looked up from where he knelt beside the prone forms of Sontha and Ogthon, both stretched out on the floor, face upwards. He saw Holdan and stood, stepping forward, but I shook my head and he halted, a stunned look on his face. Then, resigned, he nodded. The Man was beyond his skill now. Berrial walked off to a dark corner with his brother while I spoke with the Priest.
"Do we have an escape plan yet?" I asked wearily, removing my hat and rubbing my head where it had bounced off the floor during my scuffle with the Minotaur. I was not overly surprised to find a large lump there.
Itha shrugged with a snort. He looked almost as weary as I felt. Rightly so, I supposed, for I'd heard magic can take a lot out of you, even one so practiced as the Priest. "As far as I know, we are below the Main Hall, and we need to find another escape route up. Then, we should be home free." He stretched with a groan. "What time is it anyways?" he asked, looking around for mayhap another clock like the one upstairs.
"A few hours until dawn," Berrial said grimly in his deep voice from beside me, startling me. I'd not even heard him approach, which is why he made such a fine Ranger. "I've found yet another secret door. As I speculated earlier, the place is riddled with such doors." He sighed. "We will only have to hope it leads up, as I've not yet opened it, lest we be hemmed in from both sides." His grey gaze moved to the others, resting on the floor, quickly surrounded by the children, whose terror was wearing off and they felt safe, safe enough to rest for a while anyways. "How are they?"
"Weary," the Cleric's dark eyes softened as he watched the gentle children slowly drifting off in huddled groups, especially around the fire, where it was warmest. The cold stone around us chilled me to my bones, but I hardly noticed. "But they are otherwise unharmed. Even Ogthon, fortunately enough." He narrowed his gaze at the other Man. "What about you? Are you going to be alright?" he asked, his worry masked by his stern tone.
Berrial watched the children for several moments, noting particularly two young boys, the youngest clinging almost desperately to the other, who comforted him with smiles and soft words. His eyes misted within his hood, I noted the gleam as I followed his gaze, then he spoke slowly. "It is a great loss for me, but I will be alright with time, I think," he said solemnly, speaking more to himself than to us. Taking a deep breath, he turned back to us. "I will be alright. You had best get some rest while you may. Tomorrow may be our most perilous day yet." With a nod, Itha walked slowly by him to rest in a rather large armchair near the fire, and one youngster saw this and without preamble hurried over and climbed into his lap, clinging to the grim Man. I thought I saw him smile just before they both drifted peacefully off to sleep. I smiled wearily and moved silently off to a bare spot on the floor and stretched out stiffly on the floor for the first time since we had arrived in the dreadful place. As I lay staring at the ceiling, my wounds then came back to me, and I felt every bump and bruise anew. I groaned as I tossed and turned uncomfortably. Several minutes later, I was no nearer sleep, so I sat up in frustration. Looking over, I saw Berrial sitting near his brother's body, a hand on the still breast, the other holding his pipe to his mouth, blue-grey smoke curling above his head, as if it were the memory of his brother hanging heavily about his mind.
I stood and went wearily to the fire. Kneeling, I unsheathed one blade and held it over the flame, watching the blood and gore from the un-dead monsters burning blackly and evaporating in a foul smoke above it. Abruptly, I felt a hand alight on my shoulder and I knew better than to jerk in surprise. I looked over as Berrial knelt next to me, then leaned back on one leg curled underneath him and threw his hood back. The silent Man stared into the fire, the light reflecting there within the depths of his eyes. He was a handsome Man, if rugged. His face, weathered and lined by the elements, was not unlike Holdan's. Heretofore, I'd had no idea the Rangers had been brothers. I'd figured them to be close friends, but that they were related had never crossed my mind. But now, looking at him, there could be no doubt. The pain was etched into every line on the Man's face. "He died a Hero's death," he said suddenly, so softly that at first I believed I may have imagined it. "No matter where we went, we went together. Whither he led, I would follow without question. Such lordliness was in him as to resemble the Elder Kings, whose blood runs in our veins. Now, he has gone where I cannot follow. He's entrusted this mission to me," his thoughts came out in a jumble, as though he did not realize he was speaking them. But, I understood. I touched his shoulder and forced him to look me in the eye. "Berrial, you are no less lordly than he. The blood runs in both of your veins, as you said. You have your own virtues, Ranger, but that makes you different, not less than he." The Man stared, taken aback. No tears fell, but he looked just as grim as before.
"I suppose you're right, lad," he said with a small sigh. "So, as you're the only one in this group I can even bear to talk to, I want you to hold onto something for me," he said, then rummaged in his pocket and held something out to me.
I looked down and saw it was a silver bracelet. "No." I shook my head. "I cannot take this."
Berrial forced the trinket gently into my hand. "Only for a little while. Now, if we must split into groups, you and I will have to lead. You may well need it anyways, for as often as trouble finds you," he quirked a wry grin. "Put it on," he said, after the argument left my eyes. Glaring, one eyebrow raised, I obeyed. "Now, to make it work," he continued, smiling at his victory, "you must concentrate on the one who holds the other bracelet -me, for example." He sighed. "Now, just focus on me, then think clearly and distinctly what it is you wish to convey. Mastery will take several weeks, but for now the rudiments will do."
Sighing, I stared off into the fire, focusing on Berrial at my side; focused until I forgot where we were, focused until the fire disappeared before me. Then -I drew a blank. I had no idea what to think. So, for lack of anything better, I sent out as hard and loud as I could, to make sure he'd get it "What do you want me to say?"
Berrial jerked and fell away from me as if I'd shouted into his ear. He almost laughed, staring at me in wonder. "Excellent! That was very well done for a beginner!" But, focusing so hard as you just did has its drawbacks. You lose focus on the outside world, and any enemy could just come upon you and slay you where you stood." He then held up my hat. "Or rob you blind, and you'd never even notice. It's a delicate balance," he said firmly as he handed me my hat. He then noted how weary I was, and smiled. "But that's enough for one night," he said. And he was right. The effort it had taken me to convey those seven words had all but drained me. "You really should go rest," he said, and I nodded and moved back to my spot on the floor. I had neither the strength nor the will to argue. My pains forgotten, I lay down, and swiftly fell into the welcome darkness of sleep.
Soon enough, much too soon for my liking, Berrial gently shook me awake. "What's the time?" I muttered, reaching for my hat. I was surprised by the numbness in my left arm and looked down to see the small blonde child from before asleep, my shoulder her pillow.
"The sun dawned mayhap half an hour ago. The earth will still be chill, and we had best be moving," he said softly, trying not to wake her.
"Have you rested?" I asked quietly, gripping him by the arm as he went to stand.
"Yes," he lied with a small smile. "Don't worry about me. I'll be alright. We must be strong, to save the children. Holdan will not have died in vain. I must take up where he left off and do my best to lead on."
He then went about waking the others. I wriggled from under the small girl and woke Sontha, who was nearest to me, and she grudgingly got to her feet and stretched the stiffness from her limbs. Sighing, she half-smiled at me and went to wake Itha. Ogthon, dazed and almost incoherent, got slowly to his feet and looked around. "Where the blazes are we?" he grumbled.
"You don't remember?" I asked, perplexed that he could not remember a thing. "We are somewhere beneath the Main Hall, I believe," I said in low tones. Just then, Berrial called for help waking the children, and Ogthon roughly began shaking them awake. Suddenly, I had a feeling, and went back to where we'd entered from. Pressing my ear to the stone wall, I listened, my eyes closed. Not a whisper came from the other side of the door. Either our pursuers had gotten bored and moved on or -I halted, a thought striking me. "Or they're getting smarter..." I muttered, then dashed like mad back to the room behind me. Just as I entered the wide expanse of the room, I called out loudly to Berrial as he stooped. "Wait! It might be a -." The Ranger stood and looked at me, perplexed, as a secret passage opened behind him. Suddenly, greenish arms reached out and seized him around the mid-section. "Trap!" I shouted, launching one of my last knives into the forehead of Berrial's attacker. More Zombies! "Sontha!" I shouted, the lady Paladin halting in mid-stride and looking at me, perplexed. "Get the children out! We will hold them here!" I dashed up to drag Berrial away from the door as he held a wound on his shoulder, ragged fingernails having torn into him.
"Come on!" Sontha shouted, leading the terrified and screaming children past me, her axe in hand. She bashed through the door behind me with a roar and the children followed as the rest of us fanned out to slow the enemy. Zombies unnumbered poured into the room to meet the Ranger's steel and Ogthon's mighty strokes. I used my knives sparingly, for I only had perhaps a half-dozen left. I threw all but my last blade into the enemy, over the shoulders of my companions to aid them as best I could, while Itha cast a blue globe over both of them, and miraculously Berrial's wounds were healed. He seemed to gain new vigor from the Priest's magic, for which I was grateful. We actually were doing very well, despite the fact that there were just so damned many of them, at least, 'til She came. Abruptly, after a terrible crush of Zombies and Skeletons, they all backed off, and made way for a tall, cloaked figure all in crimson to approach us. Throwing back her hood, she revealed herself as the Lady, before us. She strode past a stunned Berrial and Itha, who were nearest the door, and straight to Ogthon. I felt my arms like lead at my sides, barely able to think. Such power! I watched as Itha and Berrial staggered, threatening to fall. If that were to happen, then all would be truly lost.
"My Lady," Ogthon said in his deep voice, but trance-like once more. I then noted the wounds on his neck. He'd been bitten! "She embraced me, and kissed my neck, and everything went white," his words came back to me, and I willed my arms to move.
"Dear Ogthon," she said sweetly, caressing his ruddy cheek, "Have you forgotten your promise?" She smiled then, and her fangs glistened as she glanced up at me. I was just far away enough that her magic affected me little. But it was still very strong. "So, you are the one who has caused my Master so much trouble..." she chuckled. "Surprising in one so small." With a shout of defiance, I sent my last knife whirring across the room and into her forearm as she moved lightning-quick to block it. With a wail that would shatter glass, she fell back, and her hatred hit me like an iron fist, knocking me onto my back. But, I'd done what I'd hoped. She was distracted, and both Priest and Ranger shook themselves from their stupors. Ogthon fell back, as if I'd hit him, and then whirled on me, fire in his eyes. Itha shouted something arcane loudly and sent the Lady flying over my head, but she caught herself -in midair. Shrieking like a Banshee, she dove at him, but Berrial dove in the way, slashing at her head. Meanwhile, the doughty Dwarf snatched me off the ground and blasted me in the gut, knocking all wind from me.
He pounded and kicked me, furious at my audacity for attacking 'Her Ladyship'. He reminded me of my previous bruises and gave me some new ones. Just when I was thinking I would die at his hands, I heard a terrible shriek, and Ogthon turned back, horrified. The Lady was being held by Itha, his face streaked with the sweat of his effort to hold her. She was a being far beyond any of us, but together...I was vaguely aware of Berrial launching himself like a cat from the back of one of the broken down sofas and into the air. With an almost primal roar, he swung and lopped her head off with one heavy stroke. Her headless body fell to the ground and her un-dead troops quailed behind her and dashed back the way they'd come. Ogthon snapped from his daze and turned back, looking at me as he held me by my shirtfront, his other fist balled up and held threateningly above my head. I felt as if he'd very nearly beaten the life from me. "You..." he whispered, and I feared he would attack me again, but instead he scooped me up in a most crushing hug. "You've broken the Witch's Spell! I am free! Haha!"
Then, he set me down, and I could stand, miraculously enough, and together the four of us fled like mad back the way we'd come. Through the room lined with cage, past the dead Minotaur-guardian, and up the stairs to freedom. We reached the Main Hall and glorious, beautiful sunlight streamed in through the front door and the windows. But, we were not through yet. Berrial veered off and dashed into the Sitting Room as Itha hurried to Sontha who stood in the doorway, relief evident on her face. "Come on!" she urged as Berrial returned with three torches in hand. But, he would not be swayed.
"Torch it all," he grunted and handed Ogthon and I each a torch. He dashed into the Dining Room and soon emerged once more, smoke billowing from behind him. We hurriedly (or about as hurriedly as I could move, after being hugged by Ogthon) set about lighting anything that would burn. With everything being dry as old tinder, our work was hardly difficult. When all was blazing in the Main Hall, Ogthon and I hurled our torches up the stairs to the second floor, where they fairly exploded into two separate bonfires. Then, with a shout, Berrial the Ranger led us swiftly towards the exit.
Up until this point, I had actually allowed my own foolish dream of hope to persist. As I fell behind, limping badly, everything came crashing down in the form of a deep, dark curtain. All light was gone, even the sunlight which at first had poured in through the front door like -well, the sun. But it was the most glorious sunrise I'd ever witnessed, to be sure. And, as Lord Fortuna appeared before me and lifted me off the ground, I believed it may well be the last I ever witnessed. Cold, hard hands on my throat, his dark eyes blazed with a fire that was not entirely his inferno of a mansion. The heat and smoke all around me was omnipresent, but I hardly noticed it. I felt only stark terror as I stared into the face of Evil. With a growl of disgust, Lord Fortuna threw me across the room to hit the far wall, near the door to the Dining Room, the door to my left somewhere. I hit the wall, hard, and painfully slid down it to rest on the ground. Gasping, I looked up to see him holding a bundle of knives, my knives. I felt lucky that he'd not thrown me into the fire, but I soon lost track of that thought as he spoke.
"You meddlesome brat," he said coldly, examining one blade with a sneer. "You should have left when you had the chance. Now, you never will." Slowly, Zombies appeared around him, seemingly thousands. I wondered vaguely if the others had realized I was gone. Skeletons grinned sardonically at me as Fortuna held one blade by its point as if it were a foul thing, gripping it with his fingertips. "I do believe you lost these," he smiled wickedly and, faster than I could ever manage, he threw several whizzing towards me, most grazing my skin and drawing blood, all of them embedding themselves into the wall behind me. Standing, I dragged one from the wall, but he had a few left, and took me in the thigh with one. I cried out as I knelt. I dragged it free with a gasp of pain and sheathed both up my sleeves and stood.
"Come on then," I growled through my painfully gritted teeth. "Kill me."
"Oh. I will do even better than that, Rooster," Fortuna smiled mockingly. "You've cost me many valuable servants, so you will become one. And you will never die." His eyes narrowed. "Ever."
I swiftly drew one of the last knives I had left at my command and held it pointed at my heart. "Sorry, My Lord," I bowed, a mocking smile on my face. "But I choose death," I bargained, praying he'd take the bait. Fortunately enough, he did. In a flurry of movement, he threw one last knife at me, taking me in the arm with which I threatened to take my own life (of which I had absolutely no intention, as I have this strange aversion to death) while with the other hand I unsheathed my last knife and sent it faster and truer than I'd ever done. As I fell, I watched it take him in the throat, just below his chin. Gurgling, eyes wide in surprise, he fell to his knees and the Darkness around us lessened. Sunlight tore through it mercilessly and he turned to see, for the first time in many years, the sun. Mouth wide in a silent scream, he looked upon the sun, and shriveled to ash, his servants doing likewise. Smiling, I lay back, and struggled to focus my thoughts on Berrial. 'Holdan is avenged.'Then, my head growing heavy, darkness took me.
Cool water, drizzling down my throat, and the scent of smoke brought me back to my senses, a cool, gentle hand on my cheek. Was I dead? I surely believed so for several moments, 'til I could bear to open my eyes. What I saw surprised me more than anything else thus far. Itha knelt over me, smiling wanly, a weary yet satisfied light to his eyes. "Welcome back, Rooster," he said, still smiling. "We were afraid we'd lost you."
"So was I," I croaked, while behind him, Sontha stood weeping -weeping, smiling and laughing with joy. Ogthon chuckled heartily as he helped me to sit up and Itha gave me more water.
"You've some strength in you, my young friend." Berrial knelt, a genuine, relieved smile on his weary face. He put a hand on my shoulder. "I feared you were dead," he said gently to me.
"Not yet." I forced a smile as I winked.
Taking my hand, the Ranger laughed, "Well done, Rooster! You're a hero! It's done, all of it. Lord, Castle, and all the evil he possessed is now gone, thanks to you. All of it is now burned straight down to the ground." He nodded and stood, allowing Sontha to kneel and embrace me tenderly, if awkwardly. Something I never expected.
"Forgive me, Rooster," she said clumsily, looking at her hands in her lap. "Up 'til now, I've not treated you very fairly at all. You are a hero," she said with a nod, then stood and bowed to me. A most queer sensation, especially with who it was that bowed.
"You saved us all, more than once, simply by being there," Itha said quietly, looking down at me, a new respect in his eyes. "Thank you, for all your help," he nodded to me, a small smile on his lips.
Then, at the adventure's end, I burst into the happiest tears of my life. An orphan all of my life, nothing made me feel prouder than just then, to be loved, or at least wanted, by these people I had come to count as friends. For there is no greater gift than to feel needed. And so ends my first great adventure.
Rooster sat back quietly in his chair, a thoughtful smile on his lips, and Ilga stared, amazed. She was having great difficulty wrapping her mind around all she had just been told, most of which had to have been utterly, entirely fabricated. It had to have been! Nothing like that happened in real life....did it? She thought long and carefully before speaking, for she was not a wise woman, but practical. "What happened then? What happened from there?" She asked quietly. Rooster smiled and slipped from his chair, moved to the hearth, and gathered his belongings from before the fire, all of it quite dry now (the smell of wet socks greatly diminished). He donned his hat and boots, pondering his answer carefully, as if debating which lie would be the most credible, she thought. He packed away his trinkets, then looked up at her with a sad smile.
"Not long after the encounter you heard, a second party arrived from the City. Knights, Priests, horses...a whole bloody war party. If only we'd had that a few hours earlier, perhaps poor Holdan-." He halted, his brow furrowed behind his mask, an odd, clay-like thing. "The children and everyone but Berrial and myself were gathered up and taken promptly back to the City. The children would be returned to their villages within the month, I was assured several times by the Colonel, who had a very difficult time believing our tale, abbreviated as it was. The Ranger, kind and noble as he was, nursed me back to health as we traveled Southwest, always keeping the mountains to our right and slightly behind. Towards my next adventure, which I will recount in due time." He smiled. "Anything else?"
Ilga scowled. "What on earth makes you think that I will be fooled by such a fantastic tale? Shame on you for lying to an old woman!" she reprimanded him, but he did not flinch. Her eyes widened in wonder as he held up his left arm and pulled his sleeve back, revealing a thin pale wrist adorned with a plain silver bracelet. She stared, mouth agape, doubt fluttering within her. "Can you still communicate with the Ranger?" she asked eagerly, all her previous thoughts forgotten.
"If he were close enough I could." Rooster smiled, concealing it once more. "I'm afraid the energy necessary to reach him now may very well kill me. I venture out, now and again, but to no avail. He is beyond my reach now. As far as I'm concerned, it's now only a pretty little trinket."
The woman drew herself up short before she asked another question. She was thoroughly vexed by this young fellow. It could be the Ranger's bracelet, she reasoned, or it could be one big lie. It had entertained her, and he did not seem the type who would lie about such a thing with no thought of being paid, just for the sake of lying. She sighed; how could she allow herself to be drawn into such a far-out tale of wonderment and fantasy? She almost stood and left right then, to save what little reputation still remained to her. Had she known it, people were actually thinking of her a very lot at the moment. What was she talking with the Stranger about for so long? But, as she moved to stand, something compelled her to stay. Something told her to believe. The same feeling she'd had as a child, hunting for fairies in her father's orchard. Something that she just knew to be real, willed it to be real, and did not worry how or why. Sighing, she settled back in her seat.
Rooster, an odd look in his quick green eyes, nodded slowly, a strange smile creasing his youthful face. "You'll see. It gets better as we go. That was, after all, only the first step in my big adventure. Would you care to hear the next part, or are you getting weary of my 'lies'?" he said softly, hugging his knees.
Ilga, not knowing what charmed her so about this Stranger, set her small teacup, hardly touched, on the small table between them and smiled, shaking her wizened head. "Oh, I think I could stand another tale or two, young Rooster. It's not yet eleven. The night is young, my lad." She settled back comfortably, subconsciously drawing her feet up underneath her in a young lady-like motion, but Rooster noticed with a smile. She waved him on with a smile. "Continue."
Rooster, as delighted as ever, sat back and clapped joyfully as he grinned boyishly with a chuckle. He wrapped his scarf around his throat and leaned forward to place his own cup on the table. "Very well, very well indeed! But please, tell me first, dear Ilga. Do you believe in Dragons...?"