One Night in Two-Horse

Jared glanced down the narrow alley as they passed its mouth. His companions wouldn’t be able to see it, but Mrs. Wiggums‘ cat was stalking a rat in the weeds by the palisade. Her name wasn’t Wiggums, of course, but she was married to Mr. Wiggums, and that had been his name ever since Jared had observed him on a windy day some years ago.

Silver started to whistle, then cut it off as Jared glanced angrily at him. What was the point of listening for trouble before it found you if your comrades made so much noise? Ogre, to Jared’s right, couldn’t help how loudly he breathed, and didn’t see the point in preparation for a fight, anyway. Ogre‘s attitude was, once the fight started, he finished it.

“That’s my attitude, too, of course”, he thought as he glanced up towards the fingernail-thin sliver of Luna in the sky. “I just don’t see any point in getting more hurt in a fight than need be.” He didn’t put words to it, but he felt again the iron hate for the thin elven bones his parent had bequeathed him. He would never have Ogre‘s bulk, or his ability to be reckless in a fight.

Silver understood. He was fully human, but he was also more agile than strong. Jared could hear Silver‘s thumbnail flick the edge of one of his throwing knives, a restless fidget that didn’t mean anything, but that irritated the edges of Jared’s senses.

Jared hated night patrol. He hated most things, but night patrol brought out everything in him that he wished was different. He could see the heated forms of Flaccus the bum and his latest prostitute through the thin wall of his tent. He could hear the scrape and flutter as the bats and rats went about their nightly errands. He was aware of an entire world that his comrades were entirely unaware of, and he hated the mark of difference that it put on him.

“At least Celene won’t be up to any tricks,” he thought, glancing up at Luna. The big moon caused trouble in her own way, of course, as she pulled on Jared’s blood the way she pulled on the waters of the harbor, but Celene — the small moon led a dance that culminated on Godsday of every festival week, and She made Jared … dance.

Jared wasn’t terribly literate, but to the degree he thought in such terms, Celene was definitely capitalized, even in Her pronouns. She lit fire in his veins that peaked four times a year, and sometimes at the new moon and quarters, depending upon the year and how tired Jared was. On those nights, Jared used whatever excuses he could — once he had even abandoned his patrol-mates, and gotten a beating from Mic — in order to find a quiet, private place to dance. Celene was also one entity to whom Jared didn’t dare assign a nickname.

But, no, Celene was waxing towards the first quarter tonight, and wouldn’t cause him any embarrassment. Jared ducked under the low-hanging sign-board of the Grumpy Troll Tavern — it had been abandoned since the owner had disappeared three years ago, and the sign was going to fall into the street one of these days, but it was a kind of local entertainment when passers-by got smacked in the face by it.

Emerging at the next intersection, the lights of the Temple bloomed across their faces, spoiling Jared’s night vision. It was a Godsday, he realized, as he heard the light plucking of Charity’s harp. “It must be a processional,” he thought, since there was no one singing along to the music. He listened for the chime of the thurifer as it swung on its chain, but Silver nudged him in the ribs and they turned into the next street, the Temple fading into the darkness behind them as a whiff of salt water and rotten fish met their nostrils.

Jared had fallen a step or two behind, “Not because I want to hear more of the music,” he thought, when Ogre cried out and fell heavily on his face in the mud of the street. Pausing another moment for his eyes to adjust to the renewed darkness, Jared could now see the seed bag on the ground. “It must be soaked with mud,” he thought, for it lay in a trickle of water that always led from the well to the harbor, and he and Silver shushed Ogre like mothers as they helped him up off the ground.

“I’d send you back to Mic right now,” Silver was saying, “if it wasn’t so dark that no one will notice that you’re covered in mud. But I’ll do it if you don’t stop that cursing! It’s not professional.”

Jared grimaced in the darkness. While it was true that the merchant they were going to escort was one who cared about appearances, he always had trouble calling what the gang did “professional.” Ogre finally calmed down enough that they thought they could continue, but Jared could hear the big man’s heart racing, and the occasional cracking of his knuckles as he flexed his fists. This would be a bad night for trouble, and he fished in his pouch for a copper to throw across Norebo’s threshold when the passed the shrine a couple of streets down.

The merchant’s house was well lit, and a lamp-boy stood by the door waiting for them. When the trio emerged from the shadows in the middle of the street, the boy rapped sharply on the door, and the merchant emerged rather quickly, as though he had been waiting for them.

“Our apologies, Master Oaklock”, Silver smarmed, bowing to the wealthy man Jared thought of as Whiteface, for the powder he put on his cheeks to hide the blush of his heavy drinking.

Oaklock looked them up and down with a critical eye and sighed, resigning himself to the escort. “Thank you, Matt,” he huffed. “Perhaps Lester can wait outside?” Ogre huffed a little at this, but kept his mouth shut, and Silver continued verbally smoothing the feathers of their client as they continued towards the docks.

Jared inwardly rolled his eyes at the lamp-boy, even though he knew that the obstacle Ogre had tripped over wasn’t the only one between here and the docks, and the others couldn’t see in the dark the way he could. Still, he silently slid away from Silver and Whiteface, letting the darkness hide him, and becoming more aware of the other shapes that were concealed in the darkness.

The sound of the surf against the breakwater was loud in his ears as they came up to the Pentapus, the arcane shellfish splaying its five legs across the weather-beaten sign above the door. There was a big longshoreman leaning in at one of the tavern’s windows, so Jared silently steered Ogre to the other one. That way, he reasoned, he’d be in on any action, but wouldn’t upset Master Whiteface with his muddy clothes. Besides, he didn’t like to think of the exit being barred by that longshoreman.

Silver held the door for the merchant and the lamp-boy trimmed his lamp to wait for them to emerge. After Silver and Whiteface had disappeared inside, Jared counted three and followed them.

At least Silver was along this time, he thought. Mic seemed to have an idea that Jared was persuasive, and kept trying to cast him as the face-man. Silver could talk the scales off a flounder, as the saying went, and then charge it for the privilege. Jared thought of himself as muscle — less blunt and unimaginative than Ogre, but pointed and piercing. His eyes were two of his weapons. He leaned against the wall next to the bar and started counting.

Four longshoremen, that was certain, he thought. One man, a half-orc?, might be a sailor off the ship in the harbor, called the Ghoul. The merchant from the ship, Whiteface’s counterpart, was a fat and greasy man with deep folds on his face and stains all over his rich robes. There was half a goose in pieces on a trencher in front of him, and he scarcely looked up at Whiteface as the local merchant sat down across from him, loudly greeting him and proclaiming how good it was to see him.

Swine?” Jared thought. No, Swine might be a better name for the half-orc, whose greenish snout was very piglike, and whose little eyes glittered as he looked around the room. Jared could see that Swine was the reason that Oil-tub (that name worked) was so nonchalant about the open bag of coins on the table next to him. The extra bulk to his tunic might be the orcish muscles Jared had heard about, but it might be armor. Jared glanced at the board and flipped a two-copper piece on the bar as he ordered a short beer, loosening a dagger beneath his cloak with his other hand as he did so.

Oil-tub wiped his greasy fingers on Swine’s cloak, and Jared was unhappy that he couldn’t read the half-breed’s expression well enough to see if he cared. One of the longshoremen had gotten up and was moving behind Silver, seeming to be looking at the dart-board on the wall behind him. The one at the window leaned out and glanced towards where Ogre slouched, impassively, at the other window. Jared ordered another beer, commenting, “For my friend,” with a gesture to Silver, when the barman looked quizzically at him. He sipped from the first beer, glad that they served in bottles down here at the docks, and feeling the heft of the glass, the balance of the bottle as he drank it down. When the balance changed, he swapped for the other bottle, getting another look from the barman.

Whiteface was starting to lose his composure. There were sheaves of parchment on the table now, and he was reading from one of them, his mouth moving as he followed the letters. Oil-tub was watching him more carefully now, although he affected nonchalance, and Jared saw that his right hand disappeared into the folds of his robe time and again. Jared exhaled and took a sip of beer every time the hand emerged empty, but he could tell things were not going well.

Silver, meanwhile, had shifted his position so that the longshoreman was no longer right behind him, and he was making facial expressions and whispering to Swine both to distract him, and to size him up. The big Half-orc didn’t react in any way, and Jared found himself wondering if the creature was just too stupid to follow a conversation. Although his head was on a swivel, and the little pig-eyes kept taking in the whole of the room, he didn’t move in any other way, and Jared had not yet seen a weapon on him.

Dismayed, Jared realized that he had become distracted. Without his noticing, the greasy merchant now held a dagger just below the table, and he had begun to lean forward. Silver was glancing back at the longshoreman behind him and Ogre seemed disengaged — perhaps he was thinking of coming in for a beer, despite orders.

Suddenly, Oil-tub lashed out with his left hand, grabbing Whiteface by the wrist of the hand that held the parchment. As the dagger began coming back and prepared to rise above the table, Jared threw the bottle of beer he had been nursing. It stung the fat merchant on the elbow and shattered, the pain causing the man to drop the knife into the folds of his robe. However, Jared’s movement had not gone unnoticed.

Swine swung a heavy club — a thick stick with a band of iron around the end — and almost caught Silver in the face as he glanced back from the longshoreman. Silver dived forward and grabbed Whiteface, pulling him under the table while he called for Lester to help.

Things moved very quickly after that. Someone threw a knife at Jared that caught him in the left shoulder. The Half-orc now had an axe in one of his hands, and Silver’s back was unprotected, sticking out from beneath the table. Jared threw his dagger, intending to hit the Half-orc in the shoulder joint, gasping as the half-man lurched into the path of the blade and took it in the throat.

The longshoreman at the window was in the tavern now, having been thrown head-first through the window by Ogre, who entered the room by the door laughing wildly. Silver was on his back, kicking at a couple of longshoremen who were trying to pull him up and away by his legs, while Whiteface hid wretchedly under the table.

Jared threw the other beer bottle, and grabbed a wine bottle before the barman could put it out of reach behind the bar. Smashing the end off the bottle to make a satisfyingly jagged edge, he leapt forward from the bar to the side of the obese merchant.

“Call off the dogs,” he snarled, nicking the man slightly with the sharp glass. While he held the bottle mostly steady, he found the fallen knife in the man’s robes and retrieved it. He didn’t hear Oil-tub give the stand-down order.

He didn’t see Ogre fly into two of the longshoremen, bearing them bodily to the ground. He didn’t see Silver get to his feet, and then punch one of the longshoremen who renewed the attack when they saw that Ogre hadn’t stopped.

He seemed to hear a heartbeat, though it was not with his ears. The little pig-eyes of the half-breed locked onto his, and Swine reached up, pulled on Jared’s dagger, and died. Jared didn’t know what it was, but he seemed to feel it as the Half-orc’s spirit rushed out of his body and into the darkness.

He came to himself when one of the longshoremen tackled him, and he wrestled himself free, smashing the man’s face into the floor. Silver had somehow gotten Oaklock to the door, so Jared retrieved his dagger from the fallen Half-orc and picked up the latter’s club to help Ogre pacify the remaining longshoremen. He took a moment to knock the greasy merchant unconscious during the melee, aware that he might have things more dangerous than daggers hidden in his robes.

When the last of the longshoremen was moaning on the floor and Ogre looked around to find no more foes, he jerked his head towards the door and the two of them followed Silver and Whiteface into the darkness, Jared stopping only long enough to pick up the bag of coins from the table on the way.

As he glanced through the window as they began their way back, he saw the stiff, ungainly corpse of the Half-orc. What affinity had passed between them as that man died, he wondered. Was it simply that they were alike, the ugly and the handsome, both cast-offs of monsters who had left them to find their own way in the world of humans?

No Longer a Slave of the Horned Society

Dew dripped heavily from the twigs of the surrounding trees as the warlocks chanted. The clerics burned bits of incense that stank like the fourth circle as they wove the spell together. It was a ceremony, and would take nearly an hour for the first candidate to be ready.

As the ritual neared the first milestone, the temperature in the glade dropped, and as the hierarch raised the ornate dagger and plunged it into the chest of the candidate, the dripping stopped altogether, the dewdrops frozen with the blast of cold that emanated from the weathered stone slab.

Bloodsip shivered inside his woolen robes, and focused on the chant. He wasn’t sure it was required — certainly he felt no power flowing through him. At least, it felt nothing like the power he channeled when he unleashed an eldritch blast, but he was not going to be responsible for the failure of this ritual.

Snerdbane Edgeslice opened his eyes, vaguely aware that the blood dripping from the dagger above his face was his own. An aching pain in his chest made him think he knew where he had been stabbed, and he tried to lash out at the masked figure above him. However, it wasn’t the ropes that bound him to the stone slab that prevented him. Other chains, resting on his soul rather than his limbs, bound him.

As the ropes fell free from his body, he rose from the slab and knelt before the Dread Hierarch. He hated the man with every fiber of his being, but he could only obey. The hierarch extended a sword to him, the surface of which writhed with runes that glowed in Snerdbane’s vision. He reached out and took the sword, and his body was wracked with pains as the blade became his soul. Or possessed his soul. Or — he wasn’t sure exactly what had happened. However, strength now flowed into his body from the blade, and he stood, aware that the Hierarch had granted him permission.

Hate and rage flowed through his mind, and the smug look on the face of a nearby hobgoblin drove him into a frenzy. Hardly knowing what he was doing — had he been a fighter, once? — he clove the humanoid practically in two, swinging the runeblade with a heavy two-handed arc that took the creature completely by surprise.

A sharp cry of surprise — dismay? — broke from one of the surrounding, cloaked figures. Snerdbane smiled with what was more like a sneer and turned to the Dread Hierarch.

“You have done well,” that man said, his voice echoing hollowly in the mask he wore. “You have survived the transformation, and you have killed. Did you feel strength flow into you from the hobgoblin?”

Snerdbane thought a moment, then nodded. Something had flowed up the blade from the creature when he struck it. Glancing down, he saw that the wound over his sternum had closed.

“Good. You have become a Death Knight, and death is your master. When you serve him well, he will reward you with renewed health and vigor. Take the armor that the guard was wearing. It is yours, now, and you will need it shortly.”

Puzzled, the new Death Knight pulled the armor off of the hobgoblin. It fit him passably well, but was damaged from the blow he had given it. No one told me that this would be the way for me to get equipment he grumbled inwardly.

He had hardly finished fastening the final working straps of the leather armor when there was a cry from the stone behind him. Turning, he saw the Hierarch’s knife rising from the chest of another man.

This man, too, rose from the stone and knelt to the Hierarch, but when he took the sword from the hiearch’s hands, he cried out aloud and the blade shattered, leaving him nothing but a shard — hardly a dagger or short sword.

“Gutterspawn!” the Hierarch shouted in fury and disdain. “Worthless wretch! You are unable to hold the gift you have been given!” He turned to Snerdbane, but the Death Knight needed no order. He strode forward quickly and slashed at the gutterspawn, surprised when the wretch blocked with his feeble blade.

The fight was soon over, even with this unexpected resistance. With the creature’s demise, Snerdbane felt even stronger than before, and he seethed when the Hierarch told him to stand aside while others were processed. Some of the clerics were beginning to sound hoarse from chanting so long, although most of them were accustomed to this sort of duty.

After a half-dozen men had been transformed into either Death Knights or gutterspawn, and the latter had been dispatched by the former, one of the newer Death Knights noticed that Snerdbane was wearing armor, and immediately attacked him.

The first Knight was surprised at this action, and suffered a wound before bringing his own runeblade into play, parrying and riposting, slashing at his enemy’s unprotected flesh. It wasn’t long before he had defeated the newcomer, but although he felt more powerful from this victory, he noticed that the wound had not been healed.

Snerdbane approached a cleric that was observing rather than participating in the ritual and demanded that the priest explain what was happening.

“Only the living are able to heal you when you strike them with your runeblade,” the priest said with a cruel smile. Seeming to divine Snerdbane’s next thought, he said, “You are forbidden to harm one of our order.” Indeed, the invisible bonds on Snerdbane’s soul? prevented him from as much as slapping the man.

Furious, he stormed away from the ceremony until he found a small group of humanoids clustered around a smoky fire. He struck one of them down, and was immediately healed of the wound he had received from the other Death Knight. However, he had been careless again, and the armor of this victim was in even worse shape than that he was wearing.

Undeterred, he set upon the entire group, who had attacked him with the death of their comrade, and when he had slain all of them, he was able to piece together a more complete set of armor.

He was puzzled by only one thing. Although the blows he rained on the hobgoblins seemed to heal him, he didn’t feel the increased strength he had felt from killing gutterspawn or Death Knights.

Hardly had fitted the new armor to his body than he was set upon by another Death Knight. This one moved more swiftly than the last, and Snerdbane was soon fighting desperately, growing weary as he fended off the furious attacks of the other.

Finally, the attacker paused and said, “Bow before Delphus Shadowblade, and you shall live.” Snerdbane bowed reluctantly, and Shadowblade inhaled sharply, as though a surge of pleasure had moved him.

Turning from Snerdbane, Shadowblade searched for a new adversary, and the former gripped his sword, ready to run the previous victor through from behind. However, he soon realized that he was completely incapable of striking the one to whom he had bowed. Instead, he followed the victor and joined him in attacking some of the other wandering Death Knights, some of whom had, themselves, joined into small groups.

Luna was still high when Delphus Shadowblade took his place on one of the standing stones to the right of the Dread Hierarch. He had been given a suit of armor after defeating many of the other Knights, and was now called Master of Sorrow. Gutterborn and the lesser Death Knights still fought in the shadows beyond the fire pots, and there were no humanoids left within the circle that was permitted to the undead warriors. Generally, those Death Knights who had made the transition first were able to defeat the newer recruits, having collected gear from the unfortunate humanoid soldiers and guards who had surrounded the ritual circle. Others, like the unfortunate Snerdbane, were eventually cut down by warriors with finer mettle, and some of these waited with Shadowblade for the last of the victims to be processed.

In between the fighters and knights who were slaughtered to change them into Death Knights (or gutterborn, for the less fortunate) the clerics slaughtered sacrifices to the dread powers that were granting these transformations. As the Hierarch oversaw the last of these sacrifices — a young girl taken from the lands of the Bandit Kings — the sounds of combat from beyond the grove changed in tone.

While there had been a more-or-less constant clash of arms in the surrounding darkness, there were now the sound of thundering hooves and the shouts of living voices. Light bloomed in the darkness here and there as light spells were cast into the melee, and other lights cast black shadows from tree or standing stone as they emanated from unsheathed blade or uncovered shield.

Before Shadowblade could completely reckon what was happening, a great warhorse charged into the very circle, a tiny elf-maiden clad in shining armor on its back. In her right hand was a heavy lance and on her left arm a shield bearing the emblem of a rose encircled by thorns. She swept past the lesser Death Knights, ignoring even Shadowblade, to charge right up to the Dread Hierarch and strike him with her lance.

The blow would have killed a normal man, but the Dread Hierarch of the Horned Society was no normal man. Possessed of arcane powers and filled with the strength of the Hells, he flew a few feet through the air and landed on his feet.

His disciples immediately sprang into action to defend their master, while Shanks ran up behind the horse to attack the knight from the ground. However, before he could even swing his sword, several other horses charged in to the glade.

Each warhorse carried a warrior, and each warrior was hedged about with a power that made the Master of Sorrow tremble. A good-looking man in impeccable armor charged at Shadowblade, but the Master avoided the wicked-looking lance with ease. In return, he swung his massive hand-and-a-half sword over his head and brought it down upon the Cavalier. Although the runeblade guided his hand in the most effective blow possible, the opposing horseman seemed relatively unfazed by the attack.

Arrius Boldblade slid from his steed, simultaneously drawing his gleaming sword from its sheath as he did so. If the brooding Knight he faced wanted swordplay, he was more than up to the challenge.

To his left, Alianna Glimmersky leaped from her steed’s back as well, calling to the beast to retreat for the time-being. There was an aura of fear around these foes that made the horse restive, and she needed to concentrate on stopping this ritual.

Behind the two of them, Theobaldus the Observant, Guderwinda Everbright, and Clatriel Redmain repeated the maneuver, one they had rehearsed in training until it was as straightforward as breathing.

Calling forth a power he had never used, the Master of Sorrow mentally commanded the foes to despair. Although the elf and another of the warriors blanched for a moment, they pushed their assault on the Death Knights in the glade.

One of the other Knights unleashed a freezing blast of cold. While one of his comrades was inconvenienced by this, the Cavaliers were severely injured, the frost only slowly melting from the polished surfaces of their armor.

Shadowblade considered the cocky horseman before him. The man’s gleaming armor was clearly bound with arcane power that was proof against all but the mightiest swordsman, but he would see if it was protected against elemental forces. Like the lesser Knight had done, Shadowblade focused his power into a blast of cold that staggered his foe, though the man showed great courage on his face.

Across the glade two of the other Death Knights copied this action, blasting the cavaliers just as their joints were beginning to unfreeze from the earlier blast. Another of the Death Knights — Shadowblade couldn’t remember his name — was caught in these cones of cold as well, but if he wasn’t strong enough to shrug the bitter frost off, he wasn’t fit for the title.

The Dread Hierophant called upon his minions to deal with the intruders and vanished, while one of the Warlocks flew up into the sky, pointing his finger at the Elven Paladin to no apparent effect. The Death Knight behind the elf had been swinging his sword at her to no effect, and having lost her primary target, she turned her attention on him. With two mighty blows, she cut viciously through the Knight’s armor, her sword blazing redly as though enjoying the carnage.

The three interlopers across the glade were also hacking away at their foes, seemingly undeterred by the ferocious cold that had sapped them again and again. While Shadowblade glanced around to see what had become of the other Warlock, the one in the air cast a fireball at the elf.

At another time, the Master of Sorrow would have been entertained and impressed at the way the flames broke around the elf without harming her, bringing the Death Knight she faced to his knees as they scorched his cold undead flesh. Now, he was only angry, and unleashed a second blast of cold at the infuriating Cavalier who dared face him. The man staggered and blanched, and the Death Knight took comfort in knowing that his bravery now was mostly bravado. Still, the human warrior’s sword was beginning to take its toll of the Master’s health, and he seemed to be protected from the runeblade’s life-leaching ability.

A lightning bolt tore through the glade, removing the elf’s opponent from the fight, but Shadowblade couldn’t tell if the Paladin had been badly hurt or not. His senses told him not only that she was alive, but that she bore life within her, and he burned with a hate, and a desire to end her.

Keeping his final blast of cold for the elf, he swung at the Cavalier again, but the man deftly caught the blade on his shield and countered with a wounding thrust below Shadowblade’s guard.

Two of the other Death Knights were down, now, though he thought he had seen one of the female Paladins — of Pholtus, by the look of her — go down to a blast of cold. He looked to his right and saw the Elf approaching at the top of her speed, the glowing red sword held in a way that made his insides ache with anticipation.

While planes of shifting colored lights suddenly appeared throughout the glade — no one ever learned what had caused them or what purpose they were intended to serve — the Master of Sorrow focused his rage on the elf and called out, “Die!”

To his surprise, although the frost blasted her fiercely, instead of attacking him, she stretched out her hand to the Cavalier he had been fighting and said, “Courage, my friend,” the touch seeming to revive him.

As the last two of the lesser Death Knights went down before the Paladins, Alianna Glimmersky tested her blade against the skill and armor of the Master of Sorrows. Soon, Theobaldus and Clatriel had joined her, and with the combined attacks of the group, the Master soon lay lifeless, the mockery of undeath ended.

The flying Warlock had headed off around this time, and the other Warlock, on foot, was beginning to run away. Whistling for her steed, Alianna charged her followers to take care of Guderwinda’s body, then swung into the saddle to pursue the fleeing warlock. It wasn’t long before she returned, his senseless, bound body draped across the rear of her horse.

Arrius and the others were guarding a small group of “prisoners”. Alianna’s infravision told her that they were not alive, but undead of the sort she had lately been fighting. Clatriel told her that they had been herded this way by the rest of the force, and that they did not have the same spirit as the Death Knights they had been fighting.

“They don’t have any armor, to speak of, and no swords — look.” She pointed with her glowing longsword at the dagger-like shard one of the fiends was clutching to his chest.

Alianna’s look suddenly changed, as though she were listening to someone else speak, who was not present for the rest of the party, and she smiled.

Spurring forward, she leveled Fedifensor at one of the groveling prisoners, noting the way he avoided looking at the glowing red blade.

“You, there,” she said, accepting the sidelong glance he gave her. “If you wish to be freed of this corruption, and to be avenged on the Horned Society, seek out Pholtus.”

Several of the other gutterspawn murmured that they would also seek out Pholtus, but Alianna stopped a few of them. “No,” she said, commandingly, “you four are to seek out Pelor.” They crept away, seemingly accepting this word.

When the Paladin was about to turn her horse away from the wretches, one of them stood boldly up. Hate filled his face, but there was something else there, too. Perhaps a thirst for vengeance? He was broader than the others, and didn’t seem to fit with them in a number of ways.

“Where would you have me go, mistress?” he asked.

Something like a smile broke on the elf’s face as she saw his boldness. He didn’t cower like the others, although he cradled the broken scrap of a sword against his chest like the rest.

“Heironeous,” she said, emotion touching her voice. With a nod, the gutterspawn turned and strode through the midst of his fellows as though he had a mind to find Heironeous that very night.

Alianna turned her steed and saw that her companions were looking at her with amazement. “Come,” she said, “this one,” she nodded to the shape across her horse’s rump, “has information that the mages can reach, and Goodie needs a cleric to help her rejoin the fight.

“I also need to ask her forgiveness for leading her to a death. The next time we face these monsters, we must be prepared for their cold attacks.”

“What of the ones you released?” asked Theobaldus.

“I don’t know,” she laughed. “My God has a use for them, but what it is is beyond me. Perhaps my husband will be able to tell me when we see him again. In any case, I almost wish I could be there when the undead present themselves at a temple of Pholtus.” She laughed again at the thought, and taking the reins of Guderwinda’s horse in her left hand, she started the way back to the rest of the force, where she hoped to find a cleric who could return her herald to life. Failing that, they would need to return to the fortress before Goodie would be able to ride the horse again, instead of being carried like a sack.

NaNoWriMo 2019: The Aftermath

It’s pretty clear that, under the proper circumstances, I don’t need anything like 30 days to write 30 words. Having an idea that pleases me makes a big difference, and having a story outline has been shown to make a difference in the past. In any case, I wrote for far fewer than 30 days this month, and even finished a day early.

That’s just as well, since I leave the country tomorrow. I have completed NaNoWriMo in South Africa before, but in this case I’ll be in the air the bulk of the day, and arrive in Johannesburg too late.

The story that really took off was Homer’s epic, and while it really needs some cleanup, I think it has a certain charm, and puts a new twist on a lot of D&D tropes. I suspect my daughter will not be entirely satisfied with the ending, but as we say, that’s what January is for.

It was fun to write a bit in Jack’s Jentusi universe. I don’t remember if it was he or Kimia who commented that I’ve now written two pieces of “fan fiction” from an antagonist’s point of view. (The other is Brown and Red, which you can also find in this blog.) It was also fun to write a “gangland” scene for the White Mesa universe — I did do some editing (shhh, don’t tell anyone) for the blog since both kids were confused about the names because of the creative spelling. If you read it earlier, Syn is now Sign, and Nyf is now Knife.

One fun part of writing from an alien viewpoint, or from a post-apocalyptic viewpoint, is to examine how many assumptions go into each imagined scene. And then to describe something that would be familiar to the readers but not to the characters — well that’s a real challenge.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the verbal vomit of this year’s NaNo. If you really liked it, you are encouraged to buy and review a copy of my book, Eris: A Tale of the Nether. It was actually edited, and should be better than these scribblings.

NaNoWriMo 2019 — Firsts: Part 4 (Sign Post – White Mesa)

This is another story set in the world of White Mesa.

Sign looked down from the roof of the building as morning began to light the street below. There were a few spots in shadow from the trees, but he wasn’t concerned about them. Ferals would be in the open, straining their nearly-blind eyes in the early light, listening for movement and other sounds. They didn’t have the cunning to hide until a victim was close.

Plate looked at him anxiously. He looked like he hadn’t slept well, and Sign couldn’t blame him. Sign felt that he wouldn’t really sleep until they got back to the gang in Sissrow. Out here, it was only the two of them, and there were many dangers. Plus, the medicine woman was back with the gang, and Plate needed her to sing over his cuts on his shoulder.

Sign glanced down again, and nodded. “I think we’re okay,” he said, carefully making his way back to the tent. The roof surface crumbled and sagged in a number of places, and they had struggled to find a place where they could pitch the tent and be certain of a floor beneath them as they slept. Sign helped Plate pack the tent up, carefully separating the tent poles and wrapping them to protect them from bending. He had had to borrow one of the poles from Knife before they left home, since one of his had finally given way, and you couldn’t use a stick or other prop when you had to travel. No, when moving from place to place, you really wanted to be able to pack all of the poles together with your other gear, and only the legacy poles, made of bright white metal, came apart and went together like that.

They soon had finished their packing, and Sign dragged the pack across the roof to the edge, where the fyrescape was. He wasn’t about to carry it, when the extra weight could push his feet through the roof and plunge him — he shuddered as he thought of how far he might fall in the dark interior of the building. Plate pushed the pack over the short wall to him, and he was glad that the fyrescape didn’t creak any worse than it had the afternoon before, when they had climbed up this way. Sometimes these metal stairways collapsed, or separated from the building unexpectedly, and Sign remembered how his brother had screamed that day it had happened to him. Street had survived the fall, but had lain sick for a long time afterward and had never been able to hunt again. Now, he just made baskets or helped the women to clean hides that the hunters brought back to the camp.

Once Sign was half-way down, he gave a low hoot, and felt the stairs shudder as Plate climbed on to the fyrescape. It would be safer to wait until he was all the way down, unless there were enemies or vicious animals waiting down there. He glanced back and forth and assured himself that there were no ferals, at least.

Unburdened by the pack, Plate descended the stairs quickly, and Sign felt the metal shake and twist under the unaccustomed activity. Red flakes dropped on him from the upper parts of the fyrescape, and he tried to increase his speed, to be closer to the ground should the thing collapse.

Finally, he was on the firm ground, and Plate was soon next to him, rubbing his shoulder where the big cat had struck him.

“I told you, don’t rub that out here,” Sign grumbled at him. “You’ll get fected. Then, the medicine woman won’t be able to help you!”

“It hurts,” Plate grumbled back, but he brought his hand back down.

The two set off down the alley, angling for the broader street where the sun shone down more clearly, and where they could stick to the shadows of the trees and buildings while still seeing any ferals that might be basking in the sun. In the shadowy alley, they might come upon a feral unexpectedly, and that wouldn’t do at all.

Sign thought they would get home today. They had escorted Cymbal all the way to Burrwin and seen her joined to the gang leader there. He had given them a real mashetty, from the before time, and and some cloth that didn’t look too rotten. Burrwin had an old mall, and they could get stuff like that. Sign shifted the heavy pack on his back and smiled. Knife would be pleased at the gifts, and the cat skin belonged to Sign himself, since he and Plate had killed it on their own, separate from the mission.

“It’s a good thing that cat didn’t attack us before we dropped Cymbal off,” he commented to Plate, looking from side to side for danger.

“Yeah, we had a hard enough time killing it without a girl in the way,” the other replied, hefting his mashetty experimentally. This wasn’t a real one, like they had been given to take to Knife, but had been made from a sign that had been on a street corner. You could still see a little bit of the word that used to be there, white on green, but neither of the boys could read, even if the whole word had been there. Plate’s mashetty was sharpened along the side, the same as the “real” one, but he had also sharpened the point, like a knife, and had used that to pierce the cat’s chest and stop its attack while Sign hacked at its neck with his own mashetty. Maybe Plate would show him how he had done that, since the cat’s thick skin and muscles had prevented him from killing it quickly just hacking from behind.

There was a clatter in an alleyway that gave out onto the street, and they froze, Sign preparing to drop the pack if necessary. A skinny, rangy dog, ribs showing through its sparse coat, came out into the sunlight, nosing around under an old car, and they relaxed. The dog paused, leg half-raised by the back end of the car, and then decided that they were no threat, either, and finished its business before trotting off.

Soon, Sign could recognize some of the buildings, places he had scouted, or used as a hiding place. There was a tree where he had lain in wait for one of the Mortons, who had been separated from the rest of his warband. When he saw the Hunt building looming above the trees, he let out a whoop, both a password and a notice that a band was returning.

It turned out to be more than that, as a snarl erupted from the left side of the road, and a feral charged out from where it had been chewing on the corner of an old building. Without turning to see Plate’s reaction, Sign bolted forward, increasing to the fastest speed he could muster. He knew that a feral could be faster than a man, over a short distance, but he also knew that a feral needed to be locked on to its target for that to happen. He intended to get a good lead while it looked for them, although he knew that the light was now strong enough to make spotting them easy even for a feral.

He let out another whoop, this one a warning, and he heard several replies from several points ahead. The outliers were ready, and if he could get close enough, they would protect him from the feral. Plate huffed past him, whimpering slightly as blood began streaming down from the claw marks, the scabs re-opened by his exertion. There was another snarl behind him, and Sign knew the feral had sighted him and begun the pursuit.

The backpack jounced heavily across his shoulders as he ran, and he thought about what it would take for him to drop it. Not only did it contain the presents for Knife, and the irreplaceable tent, but it also held the cat skin, that would not only be useful, but would increase his status in the gang. Sign put his head down and ran harder, making his legs pump faster and faster until he began to catch up with Plate.

“Kai-yee!” a shout burst out just ahead, and Sign dove on to his face, dropping the pack and throwing his arms forward to catch himself on the the ground. There was a buzz above his head, and a strangled cry burst out from behind him. Rolling so as to look back, Sign saw the feral clutching and tugging at a crossbow bolt that transfixed its neck. It had been a woman, he saw, though it had been changed long enough that there was little enough left to attract him, naked as it was. It pulled and struggled with the bolt until suddenly it dropped to the ground, blood gushing from the great wound it had made with the bolt. Sign wasn’t surprised to see Hand-son coming forward, crossbow already cocked again and sliding a new bolt into the slot. Hand-son was one of their best shots, and while most would have shot for the creature’s chest, he knew that a neck hit would cause it to damage itself in this way.

Sign climbed to his feet, and picked up the pack, Hand-son pulling him by the shoulder supportively.

“That was a close one,” he grinned, glancing over to where Plate was getting to his feet as well. “Say, what happened to your shoulder, Plate? That thing didn’t get you, did it?” Hand-son shuddered appreciatively, for they all knew there was only one prescription for someone who had been clawed by a feral.

Sign shook his head. “We ran into a big cat,” he said, a trifle boastfully. “I’ll show you at the campfire.”

Hand-son whistled appreciatively. “Did you get Cymbal settled all right?”

“Yes, and the gang leader looks like a good guy. She’ll do great. He only has two others, right now, so she’ll have a lot of influence in how the gang is run.”

Hand-son smiled. “That’s nice. Knife will be glad to hear that.” He gave the low hoot that signaled the all-clear, and they turned away from the mangled corpse of the feral, walking slowly together towards the camp.

Many voices called greeting, and many hands were raised, as Sign and Plate walked into camp, Hand-son having returned to his place on the outskirts. When they got to Sign’s hut, Plate shook his hand and continued on to the medicine woman’s hut. He was looking a trifle pale, but Sign wasn’t sure if that was from the blood loss, or the fear at being chased by a feral. He unloaded the pack in the light outside of his hut, watching out of the corner of his eyes as people saw the mashetty, and saw him lay it to one side. Then came the cloth, and he smiled as he heard a couple of the women start to talk to each other in low tones. He couldn’t tell if they were Knife’s women, but even the other women might hope that their men could buy it from Knife, or that the gang leader would give it as a gift.

Finally, he pulled out the tawny, bloody cat skin. It was wrapped so that the head was inmost, the precious teeth protected from breaking, or from cutting anything else in the pack, the claws folded in, still dangling from the ends of the legs. Sign was proud of his skill at skinning, but this was a masterpiece, for they hadn’t seen a cat like this in all the time the tribe had lived in Sissrow. He slowly spread it out for everyone to see, noting the muttered comments from some of the hunters as they saw the cuts around the back of the thing’s neck, and mused about the difficulty of killing a thing like that.

A shadow fell across the skin, and he looked up. Knife stood there, taking in every detail. “Welcome back, brother,” the gang leader said, reaching out his hand to take Sign’s hand in a grip that lifted him to his feet.

“Thank you, Knife,” Sign replied. “Kreg, the leader in Burrwin, sends you this mashetty, and all of this cloth!” Knife smiled as he saw the loot.

“Did he send this skin, too?”

“No, Plate and I killed this cat after we had left Cymbal with Kreg. I will give you the right paw claws, if you want them.”

Knife smiled again. “That’s a nice gift, Sign,” he said. “Where’s Plate?”

“He was cut by the cat, so he’s with the medicine woman,” Sign sat back down to see to the skin, and to plan the next stage of curing the hide.

Knife nodded. “That was good work, Sign,” he said. “Hand told me that he’s tired of running the outskirts, and he’s going to work in the garden next season. Would you and Plate like to run with Hand-son in his place?”

Pride welled up in Sign as he nodded. He found he couldn’t think of what to say.

“You know,” Knife added, as he walked away, “Maraca will be lonely now that Cymbal is gone. Come to my hut when you’ve eaten and cleaned yourself, and you can talk with her.”

Brown and Red

This is fan-fiction. I love Kimia Wood’s White Mesa stories, and I decided to write one for her. She has given me permission to reproduce it here (although she’s hinted that she might decide it’s canon someday, and make it available through her website).

Sylvester Brown regarded the unfortunate man who sat slumped in the chair on the other side of his large, metal desk. The young man’s ridiculous hair had been damaged in his tussle with Security, and several of the long, red strands hung down over the right side of his face. Beneath the shadow cast by the hair, a bruise darkened the skin, shifting darker just in the time since the Security Men had brought him in.

Brown liked to smile. Casually, comfortingly, patronizingly — Brown usually smiled through these interviews with the savages brought in for questioning. He learned a great deal, and occasionally found a “diamond in the rough,” as the Old Republicans would have said — someone who could contribute to the progress and development of the New Republic.

Mr. Brown found himself unable to smile. He looked at the device on the desk before him, and absently straightened it with two fingers. It was outlandish, as all of the old weapons were: angular, cumbersome to swing or throw. He looked at the kill switch, the empty void below for the clamazine to go with the charges.

“Where did you get it?” he asked, again, calmly, as Brown always spoke calmly with the savages from outside the boundary.

“I told you,” the other slurred. He hunched his head to try to rub his swollen face on his shoulder. His hands were tied behind his back, unfortunately, because he had tried to harm Brown when the Security had first left him in the room. These interviews went better when the prisoner felt more free.

“You told me that you took it from someone. I want to know who that person is.” They had covered this ground many times, but each time, the answers made no sense.
“He didn’t tell me a name.” The prisoner glared past the dangling threads of hair. They had been glued together with something — probably animal fat — and then stained red with rust.

“How many times do you meet someone new, out there?” Brown asked. “Someone that you’ve never seen before?”

“I never met your security before,” the other sulked, but that wasn’t quite true, either. His gang had been moving into the Grasshopper territory because they had met the Security, and didn’t like it.

“Where did this man come from? What is his territory? What is the name of his gang?”

“I don’t know!” The prisoner tried to surge to his feet, but his hands were also tied to the back of his chair, and he caught himself before he fell to the floor. Brown glanced at the large, gleaming mirror on the wall. From the Old Republic, that was. Security sat in the dark, behind it, watching for danger. The small grill below it was new. The Old Republicans may have had ways to listen from behind a solid wall, but in the New Republic a hole in the wall was necessary.

“How did you meet him?” Brown adjusted the pad of paper and glanced at the notes he had taken so far. The pad had belonged to someone named Max, back when printers could put your name on anything. The box it had come from was more than half empty, but for now, Brown exulted in the smooth texture of the yellow paper, and the smooth, straight blue lines.

“I told you, he’s a trucker,” the gangster mumbled. “They come, sometimes, out there.” He waved with his head. “We been watching, and we saw that they went to the same places a lot. Some of those places was in the Grasshoppers’ terr’tory. So, we figured, the Grasshoppers is weak, and we could go in there and take the trucks.”

“And, did you take the trucks?”

“We got one of them!” A proud gleam showed in the gangster’s eye. “It was broke, though, so we let the truckers have it back.”

“I have never heard of the Mohawks giving anything, even something broken, for free.”
“It weren’t for free! I got that clock there!” He pointed with his chin at the object on the table.

“Did they call it a clock?”

“No, they just said it was their things.”

“Did they give it to you so that you would give them the truck?”

“No. I took it from the one we caught. We beat on him and took his things. The governor got his hat and I got his clock.”

“So, what did the … truckers … give you for the truck?”

The gangster looked down at the floor. “They killed Jimmy, and Pike, and the feral they had got three of our guys in the building. I just wanted them to go before we lost anyone else.

“The truck was broke, anyway! We tried it, and it didn’t go! Carl talked to it the way he has, even. But, the trucker got in and it just … went!”

“And so they got into the truck and left?”

“Well, they went by on the little truck, with a few of them, and some of the guys chased them, even though it was stupid. The little truck is way faster than the big one. And then, when their mayor got in the truck, and it started, one of the guys tried to knife him but they killed him … they had one of those clocks, too, and they just killed him from where they were standing.”

“Which way did they go?”

“How do I know which way? We had dead boys, and feral-bit, and some new stuff! They went off towards the sundown, I think, but they turn a lot. Maybe they’re from Harvey? I thought they might be from here.”

That part, at least, promised to be true. The Red Mohawks had attacked one of the southern border posts. Fortunately for the security, the tomahawks and arrows of the gang had been more effective than the strange weapon on the desk. Simple to use, it was never the less difficult to aim, and the charges it had fired had smashed loudly into the walls rather than into the men. Like the rifles carried by the security, but not so old. Not old, at all. The metal was clean, for the most part, without a trace of rust, and the design was new. Somewhere, out there, someone — someone not the New Republic — was making these weapons. Making new ones. And driving … trucks.

NaNoWriMo 2019 — Firsts: Part 3 (The Jentusi)

This is a piece set in Jack’s universe of the Jentusi invasion of the human-colonized worlds. Since I haven’t read all of his stuff, and since I like to explore the outskirts of an IP, it is set far from human space and relates an encounter with a non-canonical alien race.

The Phlankton ship crept slowly closer to the alien craft. Their sensors were incredibly sophisticated, and they scanned the ship over and over again.
“No life signs,” the ScanTec said firmly, turning to face her commander. “Sir.”
“What do you detect?” the captain asked, leaning on one arm of her command chair. The alien ship was not a derelict, for it hummed with power, and it was cruising through local space, engines blasting.
“Normal electro-mechanical signs,” the tech replied, looking back at her instruments. “It looks like a full complement of robotic crewmembers, to access parts of the ship for maintenance and repair. There is, however, no atmosphere inside the ship, and it is, in fact, not air tight. It was not designed to be crewed by a living crew.”
The captain mulled these facts over, then gave the order to bring her ship alongside the other. There was a reasonable access port along the port side, and she could safely send a suited crew over to reconnoiter. The big question on her mind remained that of “Who?”. If this was a drone, who had sent it, and who was scouting their system? How was another question, for the Phlankton did not have the technology to pass quickly between stars. As far as the captain knew, the big alien craft had to have come through space, some 80 light years, from the nearest star, plotting the craft’s course backward. That was a lot of fuel, since the ship seemed to not be drifting.

The commander of the other vessel evaluated sense data on the Phlankton craft. He dispatched a team of warbots to the port corridors, seeing that the other ship was maneuvering to board there. He calculated trajectories several times and was satisfied that the team would arrive in place at the most efficient moment to deal with the aliens.
They were fleshly — that much he knew. Their infrared signature was typical of most of the fleshly enemies he had encountered. A few, like the Andromedans, were endothermic, and he accessed records of that encounter — how the Jentusi craft had been surprised to find fleshly beings aboard the ship. The outcome had not been particularly different. Even now, the Jentusi fleet were engaged in locating and subjugating or eliminating all of the Andromedan colony worlds. Fleshly lack of coordination and slow reaction speed was always defeated by the superior speed and coordination of the Jentusi.
The commander reviewed several interlocking scans and filtered each using established criteria. There was no sign of Skaar technology, but he was always cautious at first contact. Jentusi ships had been lost, from time to time. He was determined that it wouldn’t happen to this one. As the Phlankton craft pulled alongside and extended grapples, the commander activated powerful electromagnets mounted beneath the skin of the ship.

“Captain, there are some round service robots clustered about the access port,” 1st Team Commander radioed back to the command deck. “They are about waist-high, and look like they are designed to not mar the inner surfaces of the passageways if there is an accidental collision.”
“They remind me of the robot vacuums back home,” 1st Team Support Specialist commented. 1st Team Commander rubbed her speaking bud petals together in frustration at this use of the official channel, but the captain replied.
“Thanks for that observation, Specialist,” she said. “Remember that there is interference on the video feed, and we are depending upon your verbal observations to decide quickly what we are dealing with here.”
It was typical. The captain tended to take the Specialist’s side in things, just because they were from the same rootstock. One day, 1st Team Commander was determined she would lead her own —

As the command was given, the warbots extended their bladed weapons and advanced on the boarding party, slowly at first, to gauge their reaction time and to identify the leader. Leaders tended to be the most valuable hostages when negotiating the surrender of a species.

The captain fumed as static filled the communications channel with the away team. Ever since the Chancellor’s pod mate had been given the supply contract for the communications devices, it seemed that quality had decreased. It sounded as though the team were continuing to report on the situation aboard the alien craft, but the Captain could hear nothing above the hum and bursts of static that filled the channel. She switched over to the secondary and tertiary channels a time or two, in case the team tried them for a clearer signal, but there were subordinate ComTechs who were responsible for monitoring those channels, and they had not indicated any problem. She sighed as the static suddenly cleared, and the Team Commander’s voice broke through.
“— total loss. I am the sole survivor. I don’t know why they haven’t killed me, but they are keeping me from leaving the ship. They moved so quickly! We didn’t stand a chance.”
“What?” The captain practically shouted the word into the receiver, heedless of the distortion this would cause before it was down-sampled to protect the tender auditory buds in the Team Commander’s suit.
“I repeat, the Team is a total loss. I am the sole survivor. 1st Team MedTech was the only one who was able to shoot before the rest of them were reduced to shreds on the decking. I have been disarmed…” There was a bitterness in the Team Commander’s voice that made the captain think this was a literal description of what had happened.
The static began on the channel again, and the Captain slammed her grasping vine on the console in frustration. Then, she stared in amazement as the static began to change, forming more and more discrete sounds until —
“You have been conquered by the Jentusi,” the static said in her headset. “We are holding your leader 1st Team Commander — these words were said in the commander’s own voice — as a hostage until our demands have been met. If you do not have the authority to negotiate with the Jentusi, you will relay our demands to those who do. If you can not relay our demands and you have no authority, you will be eliminated.”
The voice in the static was emotionless, and the pronunciation of some of the words was not completely correct, but the threat expressed was crystal clear.

The Jentusi commander did not settle into his command chair as he received the message of capitulation from the Phlankton ship captain. He did not sit, nor did he have muscles to grow tired or tense. Still, there was a sense in which there was a release. Thought patterns that had been devoted to the encounter were now free to perform other tasks, such as analyzing the spectrum of the nearest star to calculate what materials would likely be available in this system. Additional analysis of the technology expressed in the captured ship was performed, as warbots moved through the access and onto the vessel, scanning and evaluating every surface they encountered. It was not altogether surprising when a large heat buildup was detected in the Phlankton ship’s reactor, as power was increased and exhaust was closed. This was a tactic that had been seen many times, and had even been used by Jentusi commanders from time to time. When it became apparent that the warbots would not succeed in disabling the reactor before a damaging explosion resulted, an electro-magnetic pulse was generated that destroyed all of the warbots serving on the port side, but also propelled the Phlankton ship far enough away that the Jentusi cruiser’s main guns could engage it. As coherent energy sliced through the Phlankton hull and disrupted the reactor’s shielding, a much weaker explosion, largely pointed away from the Jentusi ship, resulted.
The commander edited a number of status reports and submitted a recommendation of genocide for the Phlankton population. Fleshlings who resorted to suicide so quickly tended to consume inefficient numbers of resources for containment, and the technology level was low enough that he was confident they would not lose in terms of technological advancement. It was no surprise when the response from Pride of the Jentusi returned by ansible: Extermination of alien species is approved. Do not pursue at expense of resource collection.
Sleek in-system fighter craft broke free of the cruiser and spread out across the system, seeking other ships, and clear in their orders to destroy and mark for salvage. The cruiser occupied itself with scanning for habitable planets — meaning, of course, planets habitable by the bioforms of the alien creatures. The sampling of their atmosphere from their ship simplified the search, as their home world would certainly have an atmospheric makeup that matched it closely.
Within the period of time of one planetary rotation on the homeworld of the Jentusi, the fighter craft had returned to the cruiser, and salvage craft were dispatched to collect the broken remnants of the space craft that had been found. In addition to a few warships, like the first one encountered, the fighters had found large orbital vessels that were undoubtedly space habitats, orbiting several of the planets near the Phlankton homeworld. These had also been destroyed, so that the salvage craft would not be endangered by suicidal aliens. The local reactors were sufficiently inefficient that it was not worthwhile to try to capture any of them intact, and there would doubtless be opportunity to do so on the homeworld, since a detonation there would not particularly endanger the Jentusi, nor would it benefit the non-combatant population.
The cruiser inched its way in to the system, still scanning for danger, for the warbots were limited in their processing power, especially when separated from command by such a distance, and they might have missed static defenses or mine fields, or such. There also were signs in the scanner logs that a LAMP ship might have been present in the system when the Jentusi arrived. As it slowly moved towards the Phlankton worlds the cruiser broadcast a message of consolation to the creatures who would soon be dead. This is, after all, the way of things. Some creatures live, and others die, and it does no good to fret about who the winners and losers are. The broadcast became clearer and clearer, and the Jentusi sent it on more and more frequencies, as analysis revealed which radio frequencies were considered quantized by the local inhabitants, and as analysis of the Phlankton radio chatter improved the Jentusi translation algorithms. While knowledge of Phlankton language would be of no use once that people were extinct, the improvements to the translation algorithms would bear fruit in a thousand other systems as the Jentusi spread through the galaxy, and perhaps beyond.
Several national leaders were broadcasting, powerfully projecting their voices directly at the Jentusi cruiser, pleading for negotiations or threatening retaliation. The commander muted these channels as a waste of bandwidth, and focused his attention on evaluating the planet for mineral exploitation. The planet was reasonably rich, even with the use of resources that had built the space habitats, and he regretted, for a moment, the emotional instability that made these creatures unsuited to being slaves. It would take time and energy to build an exploitation network, and to ferry the mining bots to the surface for their work, and to launch the materials back into orbit for retrieval. Slave populations could generally do most of that work themselves, with only a military garrison being needed to keep them focused on Jentusi needs, rather than their own. Some of the slave populations had even benefited from the Jentusi occupation, since Jentusi technology was so superior to their own. The exploitation of resources was greatly enhanced in these circumstances, and the bulk of Jentusi material and energy could be reserved for the fleet, for exploration and conquest.

NaNoWriMo 2019 — Firsts: Part 2 (Homer’s Epic)

This is a tribute to old-school AD&D. The kids and I (and some friends) have started up a campaign, and we’re having a lot of fun. Kimia blogs about our nearly weekly adventures over at This is not, strictly, AD&D. In the pursuit of making the Magic-User and Cleric more mysterious to those who don’t follow those professions, as well as answering the “why on earth would you take a thief along” question, the abilities and so on probably don’t correspond to any version of the rules.

Edit: Since this story seems to have legs, I’ll be updating it throughout the month.
5 November
6 November
9 November
10 November
14 November
16 November
19 November
20 November
21 November
22 November
23 November
24 November
25 November
26 November
27 November
28 November
29 November

5 November

Homer ran the whetstone down the length of the sword blade. zzip He paused as the ship shuffled and shuddered under him, and struggled to keep the bile from rising in his throat. His “comrades” were all abovedecks, puking into the storm, and he preferred not to join them.

He had a pretty nice slice on his right thumb where he had slipped, because of the ship’s movement, and he waited for the motion to steady before beginning his movement again.

zzip The edge of the steel gleamed in the light of the lantern, swinging on the chain above his head. It glittered, even, casting the shifting light in its own shifting pattern as it sparkled beneath the stone.

Homer didn’t understand ships, and he didn’t understand his companions. They were recent acquaintances, after all, and only desperation had joined him to them in the first place. The steel, however, he knew. The sword was a good one, purchased with more gold than he had had to spend, but he had spent more time than gold looking it over, and he knew steel. The muscles that bunched in his arm as he slowly moved the whetstone down the blade had been forged in the smithy, every bit as much as he had forged the plow shares and fire irons over the years of his apprenticeship.

He smiled grimly. One day, perhaps, he would be grateful for that apprenticeship, and the hard teaching of the smith, but today he only wished for something to cut with this length of steel. He paused, his hand hovering above the blade, whetstone gripped by his fingers and bandaged thumb. The motion of the ship had changed.

He looked around and realized that the sounds had changed, as well. The moaning of the wind through the ropes of the ship had faded to background over the last few days, but there was a shriek that was new, and he realized that it was the voices of people, screaming. Sliding the blade firmly into his sheath, he stood and immediately grabbed for a hand-hold to keep from falling over. Somehow, his stomach was more unsettled when he was on his feet, and it seemed to lurch in a direction opposed to the direction his body was moving.

By the time he reached the ladder to the hatch, there were new sounds added to the screaming. Bellows and shouts (he was sure he heard the voice of the Captain) were variously shouting orders or calling information, with a repeated insistence that the people should calm down and go below. Homer began to climb, and the wind that hit him as his head emerged into the open was cold enough to clear the turmoil in his stomach.

He was only half-way through the hatch when the ship shuddered and lurched, and a noise like the felling of a large tree came from below. At the same time, a wave washed over the deck, and he was blinded by the salt water for a moment. It receded, and he pulled himself, spluttering and coughing and blinking his stinging eyes, fully onto the deck.

The red-head was holding on to the rail near the steersman. She was shouting something to him, but what she was saying was lost in the wind before it reached Homer, and all he heard was the high pitch of her voice.

He glanced around, trying to get to his feet as the sounds of grinding and splintering came from below, and a smaller wave washed around his knees and hands. The fat oaf had his arms wrapped around the mast, his face a green that resembled the color the waves had had back before the storm. His black robe was streaked with his sickness, and he struggled to pull himself fully upright against the stout pole. Homer thought he would wrap his legs around it, next.

Thog was sprawled at the rail across from the mast. He clearly didn’t care at all what was happening to the ship, but was concentrating on emptying his stomach of all the wineskin contents he had consumed earlier. The hair on his rough garments was completely soaked, and he looked enough like a drowned cur that Homer smirked, in spite of himself.

He staggered forward, to brace himself against the part of the ship that went up. They called it a ‘castle’, or some such thing. He gripped the ladder that went up and looked around for the priest. He hadn’t been belowdecks, so he must be somewhere about, but in the murky light Homer couldn’t see him. The ship pitched wildly enough that he stopped looking around and focused on keeping his grip on the ladder. He couldn’t tell if it was night or day, but he suspected it was day, or he wouldn’t have been able to see at all. Then again, he had lost track of time, and had no idea what phase the moon was in.
With a sickening crunch, he felt the ladder tear free of the wooden wall of the ship just as a mighty wave washed over him. His feet were no longer touching the deck, and he braced himself for the blow he would feel when he was dropped by the water on to the ship.

The blow came, harder than he expected, though not as hard as some that had been administered by the smith. It caught him below the ribs — almost a kidney punch — and he flipped heels over head, the water seeming to push him down.

He was desperate for air when he finally burst up, out of the water, not standing on the deck, but struggling in the waves. All he could see around him were great waves — hills of water that made him sick as they lurched around the way hills wouldn’t. A moment, he was on the top of one of the hills, but he couldn’t see far in the murky light, and saw neither ship nor crew.

A moment later, pain shot through his left leg as he came down on something hard, and it seemed to stab up into his thigh. The wave rose again, and the stabbing was replaced with the sting of the salt water, and the ache of the bruised muscle. He braced himself for another impact as he slid down the wave surface, but this time there was nothing, his feet swirling impotently in the water.

Just before he reached the top of the next wave he sensed an incoming blow and moved his arms to deflect it just in time to be hit by a tree trunk like a battering ram. It hurt worse than anything the smith had ever done to him, but the tree was floating high in the water, and he managed to grab hold of the slimy trunk as it tried to run on.

Some time, in the darkness, he realized that the wind was catching in the leafy branches of the tree, and that was why it charged on through the storm, plowing through the tops of waves and sometimes flying clear of the water, if only for a moment.

As the light failed, he could not see even the bark before his eyes, and he struggled to haul himself up onto the trunk, although the bitter wind was colder than the water. He felt his strength ebbing, and knew that if he lost the tree, he would be lost indeed.

Homer woke, aching in every limb, but throbbing with anguish on his right side and left thigh. His eyes stung, and he wondered, for a moment, what had happened to him.

Then, he remembered the ship, and the storm, and the wave that had lifted him clear of the deck and plunged him into the wild waters. He sat up gingerly and rubbed his eyes to try to clear the salt sting.

His thigh was caked with blood, but it was clotted, so he knew the wound was not too serious. What had felt like being impaled had actually been a slice that had opened his leather trousers and cut his skin, but hadn’t penetrated to the deeper tissues.

His side ached, and he realized that it must have been the deck rail that had hit him as he tumbled free. He might limp more from that than from the leg injury. Only time would tell.

Climbing raggedly to his feet, he stopped short. Even in his wounded state, struggling to stand against the pain, he realized that he was missing something. Looking down, his eyes confirmed what his hands had learned, and what his sense of balance had rumored — his sheath was empty.

A howl escaped his lips, and he kicked at the sand that surrounded him, gasping with pain as his weight lurched against his wounded leg. In reflex, he reached down and to the right, finding that his belt knife was still in its place.

6 November

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He breathed easier. He at least had one tool he could use. For the first time, he looked around at his surroundings. There was the tree to which he had clung, just a few paces away from him. There was all sorts of other flotsam and jetsam all over the beach, and he could see that the surf was gently smoothing the sand a dozen yards to his left. How he had gotten so far up the beach, he couldn’t imagine, nor how the tree had got there, but he supposed it must have been the storm.

Limping slightly, he began to look the tree over, to see if he could use it further. He thought he might strip some bark off to use to bind his thigh. It still ached terribly, and it would be nice to make sure it didn’t start bleeding again. Plus, the flapping of the trouser leg was distracting. As he loosened the knife in preparation for cutting the tree bark, he noticed some movement.

Trotting gently up the beach, towards him, was a band of skinny dogs. They were nosing about in the sand, investigating bunches of seaweed and half-buried crates, probably looking for crabs or other morsels. They were still some distance away when one of the dogs saw him. It stopped short for only a moment, then the whole pack rushed at him. Homer had only a moment to get the tree between the dogs and himself, but it was hardly a barrier to the active animals. Two of them raced around to his side of the trunk, while the others investigated the tree to see if there was a way through it. As the first dog lunged at him, barking and snapping its teeth, Homer brought the knife up in a slash that nicked the side of its neck. A yelp of surprise and a jump told him as much as the smear of red on the blade, and the other dog waited for the rest of the pack to arrive before attempting its own attack.

Homer hopped up onto the half-buried tree, thinking to perhaps climb a branch and get some vertical distance between him and the dogs. A smaller branch snapped in his grip, and he threw it, smacking one of the dogs squarely in the face. The barking increased to a frenzy, and the teeth were in full display, but although the dogs kept advancing, they kept retreating, too, and Homer snapped off another branch to discourage them from coming too close. He fancied that they would lose interest in time, since they were clearly hungry, and the crabs and landed fish would be easier prey than he.

He was beginning to wonder about this strategy when the dogs did begin to back farther away. The barking quieted, and finally the whole pack wandered off, looking over their shoulders at him and barking occasionally as though to make sure he knew he had been beaten. He chuckled and tossed the stick to the sand while he used his perch to survey the landscape.

The beach was wide, and it was at least as far to the beginning of grasses and shrubs as it was to the bubbling waves. Off to the right, from whence the dogs had come, were some trees — possibly a small forest — while in the other direction he could see only sand, water, and waving sea grass. Nearby were crates and barrels and bits of planking, whether from his ship or some other, he couldn’t tell. He climbed gingerly down from the tree trunk and began to see what he could find among the wreckage.

Adventure books had not been part of Homer’s childhood, and he had never thought about life on the sea, much less about being castaway, but he knew that he would need food — his stomach was already beginning to speak to him about that — and he would want shelter before the night. The thought of the dogs came to him, and he considered that there might be more dangerous creatures abroad after dark.

The crates mostly contained dry goods — not so dry, as it happened — but he helped himself to a bolt of material, considering that it could be used for fire starter as well as shelter, if necessary. He was surprised to find a leather satchel half-buried in the sand, and he pulled it free. It was rather the worse for wear, but when he opened it he couldn’t figure out what the use of it was. Some of the contents had obviously come from the sea, as the sand and some sea weed showed, but there were strange bottles of thick glass filled with what looked like powders of various colors, and strange, oily liquids. The bottles had labels stuck to them, for the most part, but whether the ink had run from the sea water, or whether the writing was in some strange language that he didn’t know, they helped him not at all in determining what use they might be.

Still the satchel might be helpful for carrying his finds, so he dumped the bottles onto the sand and hung the bolt of fabric through the satchel strap, which he hoisted to his shoulder. It was a sturdy piece of leather work, and he continued down the beach in his search for resources. There was no real target for him to attain, although he thought the woods would offer more shelter from the night air, and perhaps even the chance to sleep off of the ground, so his course tended in that direction.

About twenty yards farther down the beach, he stopped. There was a human form in the surf, water washing over it in repeated waves. Homer wasn’t particularly sentimental, and had never been particularly religious, but having escaped the sea he felt an obligation to deal properly with someone who hadn’t. Limping over to the shape, he realized that it was Thog. The other man’s skin was pale, and his eyes were closed as he lay limply, washed by the breakers. He was large, so Homer knew he would have a hard time carrying him and the bolt of fabric, so he glanced around to see how far away the woods were. Fortunately, they were much closer, now, and he limped off to find a place to put his things while he came back for Thog’s body.

Homer had nearly reached the woods when he realized that there was a shallow stream of water running down a rocky channel to the sea. Although it was shallow, the current was fast enough to clear sand that would otherwise have soon clogged its course. Keeping to the right bank, he followed the stream up into the woods. There, just inside the shelter of the trees, was a large, deep pool. The rocky lip of the pool made a little waterfall where the stream spilled over into its course.

Dropping the bolt of fabric and satchel beside the pool, Homer unlaced his trousers and slipped into the cool, fresh water. His leg had started bleeding again, the scab broken by the working of his muscles as he avoided the dogs, and during his walk across the shifting sands. A cloud of red bloomed in the pool, then dispersed as the swift current pushed it over the waterfall and down to the sea. Carefully, he rubbed his arms and legs, feeling the tingle as the salt and grit of the beach were washed away. He would have stayed longer, but he knew there was work to do, and the sun had climbed almost to noon.

Homer rinsed his leather trousers in the water, and was beginning to put them back on when he heard a woman’s voice say, “I didn’t know the boat tickets came with a show!”

9 November

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He spun around and saw the redhead leaning against one of the trees on the inland side of the pool. Holding his trousers protectively, he turned away from her and put them on, wincing every time he had to put his weight on his left leg, or had to flex the thigh too much.

When he had finished lacing the trousers on, he took his knife and cut a strip from the fabric. Winding it around his thigh, he knotted it firmly, then nodded at the feel of the additional pressure. He turned to face the redhead. “You don’t look too beat up,” he said. She was filthy, her hair matted with the salt and her face begrimed with sand and dirt, probably much like he had looked before his bath. However, her clothes were intact, and she didn’t seem to be injured.

“Considering I was shipwrecked and washed up in a desolate place, I suppose not,” she said, taking a few steps further into the glade.

“I found Thog’s body washed up on the beach. I’m going to get it. You should have time to freshen up,” he said, curtly.

“His name isn’t Thog, you know,” she said with irritation in her voice.

“Doesn’t matter now, does it?” he sighed, and turned back toward the beach, leaving the satchel and fabric on the grassy bank of the pool.

It didn’t take long to get back to where Thog lay, his body twitching slightly as the waves washed back and forth. It seemed to Homer that the water was higher than it had been. He scanned the sky, but saw no sign of a storm. The sun continued to beat down, and the wind was only fresh, not bitter cold. Grabbing the body below the arm, he hoisted it to his back, grunting with the strain as the heavy thing forced him to use both his legs for support. The body seemed to twitch, although it was now out of the waves, and he lost his grip and it slipped and fell onto the sand.

“Ow,” the thing groaned, and Homer took a step back, startled.

Thog slowly sat up, rubbing his back. “What happened?”

“You startled me when you moved, and I dropped you.” Thog seemed to consider this.

“Why were you holding me?”

“I thought you were dead. Can you walk?”

Thog struggled to his feet. “For a while,” he said. “Whatever happened to me, it took a lot out of me.”

“Well, you were drunk, and then you were sick, and then we were shipwrecked,” Homer remarked.

“That would do it,” Thog agreed, and the two began to walk up the beach towards the woods. When they arrived, the saw that the priest had come during Homer’s absence. The big man fidgeted at the edge of the glade, looking down across the sand at them as they approached.

“Give her another moment,” he said, reaching out with both arms to block their way. “The woman has no shame, but we should do better.” Homer grinned, but Thog looked confused for a moment. Then, understanding lit his face and he tried to push past the priest, but he was in no shape to do so, and Homer restrained him, as well.

“Oh, let him have some fun,” the girl’s voice came from behind the cleric, and when the men looked, the redhead stood there, dressed, but squeezing excess moisture from her ponytail. Thog look disappointed, and then resentful, but there was nothing for him to do, so he pushed into the glade, the priest no longer restraining him, and saw the pool. Immediately, he plunged in, clothed as he was, and only began to strip off his hairy garments after he had drunk deeply of the fouled water.

“Can’t you tell a live man from a dead one?” the redhead teased Homer, dropping her chin flirtatiously.

“Can you?” he retorted, not knowing what else to say. She was so casual about the way she disarmed men that he distrusted her instinctively, but she had not yet shown any inclination to cause trouble amongst them.

The priest patted Homer on the shoulder, and walked with him into the glade, ducking as Thog threw his soaking trousers into a bush.

“I thought you were lost,” the cleric said to Homer as they found a place to settle on the far side of the glade. “Indeed, I thought the same for all our crew. Now that the three of you have appeared, more or less healthy,” and his nod noted Homer’s bandaged leg, “I have more hope for Galbath’s survival.”

Galbath, the one Homer thought of as the fat oaf. He had been aloof, as Thog had been aggressively interested in drinking and the redhead; as the priest had been interested in all of their lives and burdens. He also had the constitution of a wet bunch of flax. Homer remembered the last he had seen him, covered with vomit and holding on to the mast.
“How did you survive?” he asked the priest, whose name he couldn’t remember. “I was hit by a tree in the water, but I managed to grab it and ride it to this land.”

“Through prayer, of course,” the priest responded, mildly. “I walked downwind, thinking that I was most likely to find the rest of you in this direction. My faith faltered just before I reached this land, and …” he paused for a moment. “I lost the symbol in the waters.” He sounded as dejected as Homer had ever heard him, and he felt, awkwardly, that he ought to do something to comfort the man.

“I lost my blade somewhere in the storm,” he said. For him, it was the same sort of loss.
Thog snorted, and Homer realized he was laughing. “You could not hold on to your precious sword in the storm?” he asked, derisively, and louder than necessary. Homer had no reply, and he slumped against a tree, watching the sun angle across the sky into afternoon.

The priest collected bits of wood — there were dead branches and leaves in the woods, and bleached driftwood on the beach — and began to prepare a fire.

“Do you have a tinder box?” the redhead asked. He shook his head, silently, and kept stacking the wood.

“Moke, do you have a tinder box?” Moke — that was Thog’s real name. Homer didn’t know why the redhead was insulted when he called the man “Thog”, when “Moke” was as strange and outlandish a name.

Moke grunted. “My gear was on the boat, like yours,” he said.

Homer glanced at him. The warrior had climbed out of the pool, and was standing naked in the sunlight from the beach. He was wringing his clothes out, and then putting them on, shaking them, first, for good measure to rid the hairs of the water.

“I don’t have mine, either,” Homer volunteered, so she wouldn’t ask him. Moke had a tendency to mock him, and it usually involved the girl, somehow.

“I could help, but I have lost my satchel,” a quiet voice said. Homer looked sharply at the part of the glade the farthest inland, and there stood Galbath, his black robe still streaked with remnants of his own vomit, even as it was now also streaked with salt and sand and other marks of the sea.

“Is that it, over by Homer?” the redhead asked, innocently.

The man’s eyes lit up greedily, and he rushed over to where Homer sprawled on the grass. “My satchel!” he exclaimed, but even before he lifted it, disappointment replaced the greedy look.

“It’s empty! It’s empty!” he shrieked, and he shook the empty piece of leather viciously.
Homer looked at him quizzically. “What was in it?” he asked.

“What?” Galbath turned to him suspiciously. “What was in it? Only a collection of materials that took me years to gather. Only a priceless selection of things that even now are beyond your ability to comprehend! What was in it? Everything!”

“There were some jars. I left them on the beach.” Homer said, simply.

“You dumped them on the beach! You fool! You miserable —” Homer stood, painfully, and loomed over the fat little man.

“I’ll show you where,” he said, and limped past him to the place where the glade gave way to beach.

Homer didn’t look to see whether the fat man followed, he simply retraced his steps from earlier in the day to where he had found the satchel. As he stopped, looking down at the strange bottles, the fat man hurried up. He had brought the satchel, and now he quickly lifted the jars, examining each one before putting it into the leather bag.

“There should be more…” he muttered, going back and forth over the stretch of sand.

“The water’s higher than it was,” Homer offered. Indeed, the waves were washing the place where the satchel had been. In a spirit of helpfulness, he waded into the water a short way, looking as best he could through the swirling sand to see if there were any more bottles or jars. He found nothing, and the foaming salt water began to make his wound sting again. Walking past the other man, he began his way back to the wood, unconcerned whether the black-clad man would offer a word of thanks.

10 November

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Galbath returned quickly after Homer, and he began to look through the bottles and jars that had been recovered. He was clearly in anguish about some that had not been recovered, but he found one jar, filled with a red powder — redder than rust. Sprinking a bit of the powder on the stacked wood, he said some words in a language unknown to Homer, though it had cadences like some of what the smith had said, sometimes, when working the steel.

The sprinkled powder began to shine, like sparks, and soon, the wood was ablaze, Galbath stepping back with satisfaction.

“Now, if you’ll allow me some privacy, I’d like to wash,” the fat man said. The redhead raised an eyebrow salaciously, but Homer thought the man had earned something of respect from the rest of them. After all, he had no way to make fire from powder.
Grabbing up the bolt of fabric, Homer tied a corner to one of the saplings near the spring, then quickly fashioned a small barrier. The fire, and the glade, were on one side, and the pool and the beach were on the far side. The redhead sighed, and settled to the ground, warming herself by the fire, for the breeze was cool here under the trees, and the sun was starting to decline. She looked inquisitively at Homer.

“You don’t say much,” she offered, “but you’re quick to act.”

He didn’t look at her, so he couldn’t tell if she was putting on one of her “looks”, but he accepted the first part of her comment as a compliment.

The priest came to sit with them. “We are blessed to have a man of Galbath’s talents with us, and that Homer found his satchel,” he said, conversationally.

“Do you know where we are?” Homer asked, suddenly.

The priest shook his head, and was about to speak when they were surprised to hear the girl’s voice. “We must be somewhere in the Lendore Isles,” she said. Then, “What?” as they both looked inquisitively at her.

“How do you know?” Homer asked.

“I don’t know why you thought I went to the captain’s quarters every night, but I was looking at his charts, and noting the marks he made as we traveled. With the facing of the beach, I’ve a good guess at which direction the wind was blowing. With the wind blowing in that direction during the storm, and with our approximate position on the charts, I think we must be in the Lendore Isles. The only other possibility is that we were blown clear past them, and are in Hepmonaland.” Homer suppressed a shudder at that name, but the girl continued. “I don’t think we were blown by the wind that much, unless the captain was way off in his estimates after the storm started, so I think it must be the Isles.”

“I didn’t know you could read,” Homer said, bemusedly. He grinned as she flushed angrily at him.

“I don’t know what you think of me, and I don’t care,” she said heatedly, showing that she cared very much, indeed.

“That was good thinking, Lorissa,” the priest said, calmly. “I’m afraid I didn’t look at the charts, being confident that the captain would bring us safely to our destination. It would appear that my faith was misplaced.”

Homer looked up sharply, wondering if the priest were blaming his god for what had happened, but the man’s features were calm and serene, and he showed none of the inner turmoil that would reasonably accompany such a realization.

The fat oaf, Galbath, finally emerged from behind the screen, his black robe cleaner than it had been, but dripping wet. He collapsed, wetly, next to the fire.

“Does anyone have anything to eat?” he inquired. This question drew Moke in, from where he had been lurking on the edge of the glade.

Homer shook his head. He thought of the crabs pursued by the dogs, but he didn’t have the first idea of how to catch a crab, nor how to cook or eat it once it was caught. He looked up into the trees to see if there were any fruits he recognized, but he saw nothing that looked like a fruit at all.

The rest of them all looked morosely at one another. Galbath, apparently, had no “food dust” among his bottles — perhaps that was one that had been lost. The girl, Lorissa, seemed to have lost everything but her sharp tongue and saucy wit. She had even lost her temper, not that long ago. Moke was strong, and claimed to be a fighter of some skill, but fighting was only useful for food if there was someone willing to pay for it, or if there was something edible to be fought. Homer, himself, was all but useless, for while he could have found something to eat in a city, in this wilderness he didn’t know how to go about it, and he didn’t even have his sword, to help. Homer looked at the priest. The big man sat, not far from the fire, lost in his own thoughts. Or, perhaps, he was praying. Homer didn’t know much about that.

Slowly, the others settled to the ground, sharing a word or two, but even Lorissa was quiet. Homer walked out between the trees. He had not seen the other side of the grove, and he thought there might be something worth seeing. It was not large, but it was large enough that they would have wood for quite a while, both for fuel and for making things. He looked down at his belt knife. Lashed to a stout stick, it would be a spear, and in a pinch he could even cut down a tree with it. However, he lamented the loss of his sword, and that they had no other tools, other than whatever the fat — Galbath could do with his powders.

The sun began to go down, sinking into the dunes that rose up behind the grove, into the sea. He turned and walked back to the others. He didn’t care much for them, but they were better than the night breezes, and the dogs, or whatever else might come by in the dark.

14 November

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The others were still sitting quietly around the fire when he returned.

“There were wild dogs on the beach this morning,” Homer said without prelude. “They attacked me shortly after I awoke. I think we should sleep high.”

Lorissa looked up, sauce in her eyes, but she couldn’t bring herself to tease. “How do you expect us to do that? It’s late to build a tree house.”

“I have this fabric,” Homer gestured towards the cloth on the grass. “We can make hammocks, and hang them high.”

“There isn’t enough fabric there for all of us,” Galbath protested.

“If you can get started, I’ll go get more,” Homer replied, walking down to the beach to look for the box where he had gotten the bolt.

The waves were now washing close to the trees, and in the twilight Homer could hardly make out the tree he had ridden to the shore. As he waded towards it, the water got deeper and deeper, until he realized that he wouldn’t be able to find the crate again. The sky was still clear, but there was some magic in the water, and with a shudder he returned to the glade.

Homer shrugged when he saw the question in Lorissa’s eyes. He had nothing to say, and she lacked the spirit to question him in words, seeing his discouragement. He was cold, from the wetting in the ocean and the night breeze, so he stood close to the fire and thought.

Thog, or Moke, had rigged a hammock up between two of the trees. It was a climb to get to, but it looked like it would be above the reach of most animals, and even many humans. Tossing the rest of the bolt to the ground, Moke climbed precariously into the hammock and lay down. Homer walked over to where he had discarded the fabric and picked it up. Moke had ripped the end of the bolt, which was a good thing in terms of letting others use the remnant, but Homer would have preferred to cut it with his knife. He brought it to Lorissa.

“You can go next,” he said.

She smiled. “I knew you liked me,” she said. Gripping the bolt of fabric, she scurried up another tree, and soon had a sling rigged up for herself.

“Toss me the knife,” she commanded, and he threw it so that it stuck in the trunk a few inches from her leg. He was impressed that she didn’t flinch, but pulled the knife free and used it to trim the fabric, letting the excess fall to the ground. Then, she threw the knife back, and Homer had to duck to avoid catching it with his head. Chuckling a little, he pulled it out of the ground, and looked around. Three of them were left, and the priest was a tall, broad-shouldered man, while Galbath was very fat. Homer considered the remaining fabric.

“I don’t think we have enough for more than one more,” he said. “One of you can have it. I’ll make a spear, and keep watch.” He turned to the woods without waiting for an answer, ready to find a straight sapling and strip some green bark for the lashing.

“I’m too fat to sleep in one of those spiderwebs,” Galbath said, somewhat petulantly.

“What do you suggest?” asked the priest. Homer could hear them over his shoulder as he began slicing the base of a likely sapling.

“When the fighter has returned, I will set wards around us,” the man in black replied. “They won’t protect from all the possible dangers of the night, but they will at least give us warning before we are set upon.”

Homer didn’t know what wards were, but he was impressed that Galbath had a possible solution. He reminded himself that first impressions were not always accurate, and that Galbath may not have been particularly interested in impressing Homer when they met at the dockside inn, back on the mainland. He had consented to Homer joining the party because they had lost a warrior — a Dwarf from the Kron Hills, if Homer recalled the story correctly. Twisting the sapling free, Homer returned to the fireside. He wondered if he was improving the other man’s impression of himself, as the other was rising in his estimation. Still, it was not something about which to obsess. Either he would earn his place among these strangers, or he would not. He had lived and traveled on his own before, and he had not been killed by any of the dangers he had faced. He was worthy of his own estimation, at least.

While Homer peeled the sapling with his knife, Galbath took another bottle from his satchel, and sprinkled the dust outward, into the darkened woods. While the fat man worked, he mumbled and chanted, and almost seemed to dance, exhibiting a grace that Homer hadn’t anticipated. Finally, he dropped a pinch of the powder into the fire, and there was a bright white flash that soundlessly lit up the glade brighter than day. When Homer’s eyes had cleared, he seemed to see a glimmering curtain out among the trees — an after effect of the flash, he thought at first. However, as he continued to fashion his spear, he realized that the gleaming curtain remained, possibly shifting slightly in response to the movement of the air, but a force beyond the force of light.

It would probably keep the dogs at bay, he thought. Animals tended to stay away from unfamiliar things, and a gleaming curtain of light was a stranger mark than the fire that burned lower, now. Homer took the strips of supple, green bark, and bound the knife handle tightly to the end of the pole. When he had done what he could to secure it, he dipped it in the pool, then placed it near enough to the fire to be warmed and dried by the flames and coals.

The priest smiled. “You are both men of skill,” he said, nodding his head. “You work in different domains, but your skills are evident, even to those who know nothing of your crafts. I thank you for your efforts. I, too, am too large to use the remaining fabric as a hammock, so I will stay with you on the ground. Friend Homer, you may feel free to use the remaining hammock.”

Homer frowned. He owed them nothing, yet, but it galled him to think of climbing to safety while they slept on the ground. Besides, Galbath had said that the warding wouldn’t keep out all of the possible dangers. They would need a defense.

“I would lend you my spear for the night,” he said, holding it out towards the priest.

“No, friend,” the man replied evenly. “I am not made for weapons such as that. My calling is to preserve, not take life. If I were to become a shedder of blood, I would deserve to have lost my symbol in the deep waters.” Homer looked carefully at the man. Something about the way he moved made the fighter think that the priest had not always been a stranger to spears, but he respected his commitment and resolve.

“Galbath?” he offered, holding the spear towards the fat man.

“I wouldn’t know which end to hold,” the other retorted shortly. “A knife is straightforward, though it exposes one to unnecessary risks. A staff is uncomplicated, and useful for keeping danger at bay. Put them together, and you get something that complicates both of them.” He seemed to consider. “Thank you for your offer, but I will let you keep your weapon.” He almost sounded conciliatory, and Homer smiled at him.

“A spear is of limited use in a tree,” he replied, “so I may as well stay with you two here on the ground.”

“In that case,” the priest said, “I can think of another use for that fabric.” Using the sharp end of Homer’s spear, he parted the cloth into three pieces, then wrapped one of them around dead leaves and grass. Homer followed his lead, adding the remains of the strips of bark from his spear, and they soon settled down with serviceable pillows. Homer didn’t see what Galbath used, but the fat man lay down by the fire, his stomach groaning and gurgling with distress at his day-long fast.

Homer had thought to stay awake for a time, in case of trouble, but he realized that either Galbath’s wards would work, or they wouldn’t, and he couldn’t expect to watch all night after being up all day. Although his thigh stiffened, as did his back, he soon slept, as he had all the nights in a similar state in the smithy. The camp fire even warmed in a way similar to the forge fire, and his dreams took him back to the apprenticeship, somehow coloring the old memories with gold.

Homer woke with a start, wondering what had wakened him. It was quite dark, although there was a glow through the trees that might be dawn. The fire had died down to coals, and cast almost no light at all, while the moon was gleaming faintly down through the trees.

A musical chord sounded, and Homer realized that it was that sound that had wakened him at first. He sat stiffly up and looked around, realizing that the white gleam among the trees was not dawn, but the wards emplaced by Galbath. He found his spear nearby and leaned on it as he stood, and the chord sounded again, coming from the direction of the beach.

Homer walked around the pool towards the sound, looking and listening for a clue as to the cause. He thought he saw movement on the far side of the gleaming curtain, but was just about to call it nothing more than the movement of water when the chord rang out, and the curtain right in front of him flashed bright white. In the moments after the flash, he could see a figure standing in the water. It looked like a man wearing some ornate form of armor. In his right hand he held a spear of some kind, and he looked as though he had been staggered by the gleaming curtain. When he saw Homer, he raised his spear and flung it forcefully. Homer instinctively moved his own spear (and himself) to deflect the incoming missile and dodge it at the same time, and he almost dropped his weapon when he felt the shock of the whole weight of the other weapon on his shaft. Now he saw that the other weapon was a trident, and he had caught it with his own spear between the tines.

The trident fell with a thump to the ground, and Homer saw that his spear shaft had been cracked by the impact, so he quickly reached up and began to loosen the knife that formed the point of his spear. All the while, he kept an eye on the other figure, who splashed back and forth in the water, seeming to look for a way past the barrier. Its trident had passed easily, but when the warrior sought to follow, the ward chimed musically, and he was cast backward.

Homer now had his knife free, and he slipped it into its belt sheath, picking up the trident. It was a heavy weapon, seeming to be made of worked bronze. The shaft was textured in a way that made it easy to hold firmly, even though it was wet, yet not in such a way as to make it difficult to throw. Still, Homer thought he would not have the strength of arm to throw it the way it had been thrown at him.

If the enemy was saying anything, even shouting curses, it didn’t come to Homer through the ward, though he could hear the washing of the waves. The other warrior suddenly turned and dived into the water, taking Homer completely by surprise. He hesitated, thinking almost that he should pursue, to save the armored man from drowning, but he didn’t know if he would be able to pass back through the ward, even supposing he could pass out of it. Turning, he stopped short.

Galbath stood there, an expression of fear and determination on his face. Seeing Homer turn, he changed his view to Homer’s face, and looked a little relieved.

“Are they gone?” he asked.

“There was only one that I saw, and I think he’s gone for good,” Homer replied. “He tried to swim in armor, and I think we’ll see no more of him.”

Galbath looked apprehensively at the trident in Homer’s hand. “You think it was a man?” he asked.

“I couldn’t see him well, but he had two arms and two legs, and he seemed to be wearing armor,” Homer replied.

Galbath didn’t answer, but turned and walked back to the fire, where he settled miserably on his pillow. Homer followed his example, putting the trident within arm’s reach, and putting a few more dry sticks on the fire. It had gotten cool, but even without the fire it wouldn’t have been cold. The breeze seemed warmer than it had been during the day.

16 November

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Homer wasn’t sure how much later it was, he awoke again to the sound of the ward chiming. He rolled to his feet, picking up the trident as he did so, and looked to see if he could tell where the intrusion was. Again, it was towards the sea, but this time there were flashes of light across the whole stretch of beach. Gripping the shaft of the trident firmly, he walked over to where he could see the beach.

The water had receded considerably, and now was only halfway up the beach, the surf gleaming whitely under the stars. Nearer to him, at the fringes of the ward, were many, many human shapes. Unlike the previous one, these were not armored, and didn’t seem to have weapons, for the most part. They shambled and twitched, shuffling back and forth across the sand. As he watched, one of them turned towards the glade, blundered into the ward, and reacted as the curtain flared white. It didn’t seem exactly like a pain reaction, but it was definitely unpleasant for the man, or whatever he was.

A muttered curse behind him made Homer turn. The priest stood there, clutching the front of his brown habit, muttering into his beard.

“What is it?” Homer asked.

“The undead,” the other replied. “This place is accursed. Had I not lost the symbol, I would be able to send these abominations away, but as it is, I can only watch them, helplessly.”

Homer shifted his grip on the trident. “Thanks to an earlier visitor, I can do more than watch,” he said, grimly. The priest looked at the weapon in surprised interest, and evident satisfaction.

Several of the creatures blundered into the ward a short distance to the right, and one of them was pushed through by the others. Homer had difficulty telling, because of the rapidly flaring and fading light, but it seemed to have suffered grievously during its passage of the magical barrier, losing part of an arm in the process. It didn’t seem particularly discomfited, however, and immediately began to stagger towards the pair as they stood atop the rise at the edge of the grass.

Lowering the fork of the trident, Homer waited, then thrust forward and twisted down. The creature collapsed in the sand below him, and he quickly dismembered it, thrusting and withdrawing the fork until the task was completed. The smell of the thing was horrific: a mix of dead fish and rotten bowel, but when it had been sufficiently damaged, it stopped moving. Homer was glad to see that the unclean magic that animated it did not extend so far as to animate the individual parts of it.

He dipped the end of the fork in the water fall to rinse it clean, and then stood watch, to see if any other of the undead managed to cross the magical ward. As sunrise began to gild the skies in the east, the disorganized mass turned as one towards the sea, and shambled into the waves, now as far distant from the glade as they had been when Homer awakened the previous morning. He sighed and turned to join the others by the camp fire. There was nothing more to eat now than there had been the night before, and he was not particularly encouraged by the night’s activities.

The others listened with interest as the priest, and then Galbath, related their perspective of the night’s events. The priest informed them that the shambling corpses were the work of evil clerics, working with the obscene powers of darkness to deny rest to the bodies of the departed. Galbath then related that he believed the thrower of the trident to be a sea devil, of a race of powerful, malignant devil worshipers from beneath the waves. The combination of factors made it seem clear that those forces had attempted to disturb them during the night, but they had been protected by Galbath’s magical ward.

This protection had dissipated with the dawn, as Galbath had known it would, but it had lasted long enough for their needs. Now, they needed to find food, and perhaps a more defensible position.

Lorissa quickly dropped the makeshift hammocks to the ground, more quickly than Moke could have done, and Moke took up the remains of Homer’s spear from the night before. Now it was more similar to a cracked club, but it was better than empty hands if they were to encounter additional dangers.

Galbath insisted that Homer take him back to the location of the satchel’s recovery again. “Now that the tide has gone out, we have a chance of perhaps finding one of my missing bottles,” he said.

On the way, they passed the remains of the animated corpse that Homer had dispatched with the trident. In the morning light, Lorissa quickly pointed out that the garb matched that of the sailors on the ship they had been on. “I thought it was unlucky that I had been washed overboard in the storm,” she said, “but it looks like my luck may have been good that time.” She shuddered appreciatively at the horrible fate suffered by the poor sailor, that she had so narrowly escaped.

Moke and the priest investigated some of the barrels and crates that were still strewing the shore, although many had obviously been washed back out to sea by the high water the night before. Moke found some good beer, and they all had a good drink, although Homer feared that on an empty stomach their heads would soon be spinning. The priest found some more cloth, and they made a bundle of several bolts, to be carried by the big hair-clad man, as they had found many uses for the smaller amount Homer had salvaged the day before. Galbath found a few more bottles or jars from his satchel, and appropriately expressed his satisfaction, but Homer was distracted when Lorissa cried out and collapsed in the sand.

The men rushed to her, and found that she had cut her foot, right through her leather boot. A bright, sharp point of metal protruded from the sand. With a cry, Homer threw the trident down and began to dig with his hands, careful not to endanger them on the sharp metal as he slowly exposed a length of blade. Alas! It was only a cutlass, such as was used by the sailors aboard the vessel they had ridden. It was not the sword that Homer had treasured, though Moke was glad enough to hand the stick to the priest while he took up the cutlass and stuck it into a belt he quickly fashioned from the fabric. Even Homer was encouraged by this sight, for he wasn’t jealous of his role as the only armed man among them, and he would be happy for Moke to be armed if they encountered any of Galbath’s sea devils without the protection of a ward.

The group staggered back to the glade, the priest assisting Lorissa as she limped, despite a bandage they had fashioned with some of the fabric. Galbath was braiding some of the fabric into a rope, occupying his hands as he walked, while Moke bore the burden of the rest of the fabric and Homer scanned the area for threats, holding the trident ready for action. The beer had helped to assuage their hunger, some, but there was no question that he felt light-headed, and his hands buzzed slightly as they held the trident’s shaft.

Lorissa was bathing the wound in the fresh water of the spring when they heard hoofbeats in the sand, and soon thereafter they saw a group of riders canter into view. The horses were light, riding horses, and the men who bestrode them were clearly experienced riders. They were not armored, but did wear long, thin blades at their sides, and Homer refrained from hailing them, seeing as he knew nothing of the land to which they had come.

The riders saw them, however, and after briefly reining in, turned their steeds to cross the narrow stream and ride up to the edge of the glade. The leader looked them all over, but his eyes rested most on Lorissa.

“Well met, friends,” he said, in a pleasant voice. “I am sad to see that you have suffered harm in my lands. My name is Ralph, and I would extend to you the hospitality of my home.” Here, he bowed slightly, and Homer noticed an approving nod on the part of one of his companions.

The priest took it upon himself to speak for the small party. “I am Hender, of Pelor, and these are my companions. We were cast upon this shore when our ship was wrecked, and in truth, we know not where we are.” Here, Lorissa looked somewhat disapprovingly at Hender, for she had told them that they were in the Lendore Isles, although even Homer realized that this wasn’t a very specific location.

“We are grateful for your offer of assistance, for we have not eaten in two days, and our prospects of finding food in this place seem small.”

Homer thought this was a trifle wordy, but he was glad that the priest was happy to put himself forward. He looked at the riders, and was relieved that they all seemed to be at ease, though a couple of those in the rear were watching him and Moke carefully for aggressive action, since they were the two with weapons.

Ralph smiled broadly. “Brother Hender,” he said, “I am pleased to know you, and I would know all of you further,” here, he seemed to look particularly at Lorissa. “Since the lady is injured, she can ride in front of me on my horse. It is not far from here to my home.”

Hender seemed almost about to object, for placing Lorissa on the horse, when the rest of them were walking, would put her in danger of abduction. On the other hand, she had a talent for managing trouble, and he didn’t doubt that Ralph would find himself regretting any liberties taken with the “lady”. The priest helped Lorissa to her feet, and then helped the redhead up onto the horse, Ralph demonstrating a thorough command of the beast throughout this process. Then, collecting the small salvage they had gathered, the party trooped out onto the sand as the horsemen turned and began to walk their steeds back in the direction from whence they had come.

19 November

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In any case, it seemed there was no cause for concern about Ralph’s motives, as the mounted party moved at a slow pace easily matched by those afoot, even Homer, with his wounded leg. They soon came to an area where the land to their left, inland, was higher, mounting at times to small cliffs or bluffs overlooking the broad beach. The beach, too, began to narrow, as the inland border became rockier and more resistant to the constant wearing of the waves. Homer kept his eyes open, looking for signs of the sea devils or undead, wondering if they had visited this beach also, or if they had targeted the party’s small camp. He found no evidence, however, and there was plenty to observe as they rounded a point and found that the beach went no farther.

A large, stony hill emerged abruptly from the surf, and the waves crashed ceaselessly against its rocky base. Needles of rock protruded, at this low water level, but would be hidden by the waves were the sea level higher. Feeling a twinge in his thigh, Homer was grateful that his tree hadn’t brought him ashore here.

A path wound up from the beach, beginning clearly at that point where the sand gave way to rock, and provided with broad, shallow stone steps at those places where the going would otherwise have been steep, and perhaps treacherous when wet. Even the horses had no difficulty with the steps, and Homer thought perhaps they had been made with horses in mind. Sparks were struck from the flinty rocks as they ascended, and the former smith’s apprentice saw that the hooves were well-shod with iron — clearly they were accustomed to surfaces harder than the sands of the beach.

The wound in Homer’s thigh was beginning to ache when they finally emerged from a cliff-shadowed path onto a level space. Here, the path joined a broad road, paved with the same sort of stone as the stairway, and led to a bridge that leaped in a graceful arc over a chasm to a well-built castle. It was across this bridge that the riders led them, and soon Ralph was helping Lorissa down from the horse and the others were dismounting as pages and stable hands came forward to take charge of the animals.

Ralph took charge of Lorissa personally, holding on to her in such a way that she had to lean on his arm for support as she limped from the wound in her foot. She didn’t seem to mind, particularly, though Homer knew she was capable of changing expression in a moment, when she thought the situation called for it. The party were soon in a great hall, roofed with huge timbers supported by arching columns of stone and provided with numbers of trestles and table surfaces. Clearly, this was a place of importance, accustomed to entertaining large numbers of people.

Homer hardly heard the conversations that took place, but soon he was being tended by a young page, who led him up a winding stair to a long hallway filled with doors. One of these doors was opened, and Homer was led into an airy chamber with a large, arched window or doorway leading to a balcony. Curtains blew in the breeze from the ocean, and Homer could smell the smell of the sea, which had been covered over by scents of herbs and wood smoke and cold stone in the rest of the castle. The page informed him that there were bathing facilities to one side, and garments would be brought by the time the guest had properly cleaned himself.

Indeed, there was a large bath in the en suite chamber, and a number of bronze kettles with steaming water, as well as jars of cold water, so that he could mix a bath that suited his tastes and needs. Homer quickly stripped and slid into the soothing waters, delighted at the presence of soap, and even some sort of scrubbing implement that looked like it had grown, rather than being made, like a brush.

His thigh ached as he cleaned it, but the wound had healed closed, and it didn’t sting as it had the last two days. He scrubbed carefully around the scab, not wanting to set it bleeding again, but enjoying the sensation as a relief from the itching he had felt. He finally climbed out of the bath and dried himself on a towel before walking into the other room, where he found the page had been true to his word. Clothes had been laid ready for him on the bed, and he found that they fit as well as anything he had ever owned. (He had never had the money for a real tailor, and his garments had tended to functionality, rather than style.)

Lacking direction, he wandered out onto the balcony, and looked out over the sea, spreading in blues and greens away to the horizon. Off to his right he could see a stretch of beach, and he thought the welcome of the place must have been prepared by those who had seen Ralph returning with company, though he was impressed by how quickly they had gotten things ready. Leaving the balcony, he returned to the room and found the page standing patiently by the door.

“My lord says that you must be hungry,” he said without prelude, “and has bidden me to show you to the dining hall.”

Homer inclined his head appreciatively, but said nothing.

“How are you called, my lord?” the page asked, politely.

“My name is Homer, and I’m not a lord,” he replied.

“Thank you, Sir Homer,” the boy said. “If you are not displeased with me, I will be one of your primary attendants during your stay.”

Homer smiled. He had never been waited on in his life, with the exception of the wenches and pot boys in the taverns who sometimes interfered with his direct access to the barman. He decided that he liked Ralph, and would do what he could to prolong this visit, especially if the food was as good as the rest of the welcome.

Hender was in the dining hall, waiting, as Homer arrived. The priest was robed in white, as befit a cleric of Pelor, and he was fondling a silver symbol in his hands. He beamed brightly at Homer, and reached out his hand to touch the injured thigh as soon as the warrior was near. Heat spread through the limb as the pain dissipated, and the priest smiled even more broadly when he saw from Homer’s face that the pain was gone.

“The god has forgiven me,” he murmured, as he tucked the symbol away in a pocket. Before Homer could answer, Hender raised his glance to one of the other entrances to the hall.

(It should be mentioned, here, that this was not the great hall through which the party had entered, but a smaller one for more familiar, less formal dining.)

Moke strode into the room, water dripping from his hairy clothes. A flustered-looking page followed him with several towels, alternately patting at Moke and mopping up the wetness from the flagstones. The man was carrying a battle axe loosely in his right hand, and the cutlass was still stuck through his sash, and he smiled upon seeing Hender and Homer.

“Well met,” he bellowed. “If the food here is as good as the wine, we shall have a fine feast!”

Homer smirked, but covered it with his hand. He was uncouth and did not know his way in polite society, but Moke would make him look a gentleman. They were now missing only Galbath and the girl.

Galbath arrived first, clad in a sumptuous purple robe that was trimmed with something that glittered yellow like gold. The salt-stained satchel was hanging at his side, and detracted from the rest of the picture of cleanliness that he presented. Homer thought the man might have oiled his hair, for it didn’t fly in a haze above his head the way it normally did, but the rest of him was dry. The fat man nodded indulgently to the rest of the companions, then settled gratefully into a chair. He had suffered even more than Homer on the hike from the beach, for he was very fat, and unaccustomed to such exercise. Here, he was clearly more in his element, enjoying the refinement of their surroundings.

Homer took a seat, as well, as did Hender, while Moke wandered around the hall, looking at the tapestries and other appurtenances restlessly.

Finally, Ralph entered, dressed in sky-blue silks, with Lorissa on his arm. She was still limping, but had obviously bathed, and was dressed in a fine silk gown of forest green. It set off her red hair beautifully, and Homer thought he saw jewels twinkling from the braided tresses. There was certainly a bracelet on her arm that he had never seen before, but her mouth was not smiling the way it had when they had entered the castle. In fact, her lips were pressed in a rather severe line at the moment, although she turned to Ralph and laughed lightly at something that he had said.

Galbath, Hender, and Homer all rose as the couple entered, and Hender rushed to the girl’s side, kneeling and extracting his symbol from the pocket. Ralph looked vaguely unhappy about this interruption, but Lorissa gladly lifted her wounded foot to the cleric’s hands, and after a short prayer from the big man she happily settled her weight on the extremity and pulled her arm forcefully from Ralph’s.

“Thank you, Father Hender,” she said sweetly, swooping over to the table and rapidly settling down in the chair between Galbath and Homer before Ralph could say anything.

“My dear,” their host stammered, “I thought you would like to sit at the place of honor …” his voice trailed off as he saw that Moke occupied that place at the end of the table facing Ralph’s seat at the head. Lorrissa behaved as though she didn’t hear him, and before he could try again, several of the men who had been riding with him came into the hall, and they all sat down to eat.

20 November

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As they dined, Ralph introduced them to the rest of the group. Matthew was the man Homer had noticed at Ralph’s side on the beach. Dobinet was the senior of the two men who had viewed Homer and Moke with suspicion. As the meal progressed, Homer began to suspect that although Ralph talked the most, it was Matthew’s ideas that were presented.

Ralph spoke at considerable length about the size of his estate, and the sad situation it was in since the death of his mother. Indeed, although there were a considerable number of female servants who helped in various roles throughout the property, the feminine touch had been seriously lacking since Ralph’s tragic bereavement.

As he spoke this way, he kept looking at Lorissa, trying to catch her eye, or gauging her reaction to some anecdote or boast he had made. The redhead, for her part, looked everywhere except at Ralph. She flirted with Homer and teased Moke. She even made eyes at Matthew a time or two, which made this gentleman blush and twitch in his seat, for it was clear that Ralph had placed a claim on Lorissa’s affections, and Matthew was not going to intrude upon this. At one point, he even tried to pretend that it was Ralph, and not himself, that she was looking at.

Homer didn’t enjoy any of this. He was not accustomed to wealth, and he wasn’t in the habit of speaking to, or listening to, wealthy people. He wasn’t sure what he was supposed to say, or when he was supposed to say it, and he was fairly certain that Lorissa was not behaving herself appropriately.

He leaned over to Hender, sitting on his right hand. “Is the priest here a good man?” he inquired, conversationally.

The priest looked confused for a moment, then understanding lit his face. “There is no priest, currently,” he replied, quietly. “There is a chapel to Pelor in the castle, and it is fully furnished, including with garments and symbols appropriate to the veneration of Pelor, but the former priest died several years ago, and Ralph has not yet acquired a replacement.” It seemed to Homer that the big man was on the verge of saying something else, but then remained silent.

“Did he ask you if you were interested in becoming the chaplain here?” He wasn’t sure, himself, whether he was serious.

Hender smiled. “Not in so many words,” he said. “I fancy he would be more persistent if he thought I could influence Lorissa.” The last part of this sentence was almost completely hidden by a large bread roll, and Homer smiled at the other man’s discretion.

The awkward dinner party finally ended, and the adventurers were at least gratified in the tightness of their bellies. The food had not been limited in quantity, and nothing they had eaten had displeased them. Even Moke, who seemed to have a greater capacity on this occasion for food than for drink, was satisfied, and they all rose as the servants cleared away the empty dishes.

Moke was informed that the battle axe he had commandeered was ornamental, and he was requested to return it to a servant who would restore it to the display of armor and weapons from which it had been taken. He was a trifle chaotic, but he wasn’t an evil sort, and he returned their host’s property without much complaint.

They accompanied Ralph into the courtyard, where he showed them some of his horses and falcons. Homer noted the soldiers upon the battlements, and the fine condition of their gear. This was a strong place, but it seemed to him that it was a place that expected enemies. He wondered, a bit, that Ralph and his party had ventured upon the beach so lightly armed and armored.

Even so, as he eyed the chainmail hauberks and pole arms, he was convinced that their make was inferior to that of the sword he had once treasured. Oh, their lines were clean and the armorer had been competent, but something about the way the sun glinted from the sharp edges made him think that the steel was of a lesser grade than that of his own, lost, blade. He thought about asking Ralph if the harness was made here in the castle, or if it had been ordered from some other place, but decided to hold his tongue, as was his custom.

Lorissa made much of everything, but in such a way that Ralph could never quite take pleasure in her enthusiasm. Every time he tried to turn her notice to him, she would flit away across the yard to some new site, and he would be left to stumble after her. Matthew, on these occasions, made comments that seemed supportive of his lord in their wording, but somehow sounded contemptuous to Homer’s ears.

Moke seemed not to notice any of this. Whether he was still put out at having lost his battle axe, or if there was just nothing to interest him now that the meal was over, he fidgeted restlessly, uninterested in the finer points of horsemanship or falconry that Ralph wanted to explain to them.

Galbath had returned to his chambers, fatigued by the exertions of the past two days, and ready to sleep after the large meal they had been given. Only Hender stayed by Homer’s side as the party wandered through the courtyard. Homer thought the priest’s eye was at least as sharp as his own, and resolved to speak to the man privately at a later time about his observations.

Finally, Ralph exhausted himself in his efforts to attract Lorissa’s attention, and he excused himself and entered the main keep, leaving the four companions to their own devices as Matthew and Dobinet accompanied their lord.

“What do you think of their weapons?” Homer murmured to his companions as they strolled to a place where they could look out over the wall to the sea.

“The daggers aren’t very well balanced for throwing,” Lorissa commented in a low, conversational tone. “I suppose they are intended for off-hand fighting, or weapon of last resort.” Homer looked at her in surprise, for he had actually expected Moke or the priest to respond.

“They’re also a little heavier than I expected,” she continued, glancing sidelong at him. “I’ll need to tighten my garter when I get back to the room, and until then I’ll need to walk ‘like a lady’.” She giggled a little at this, and Homer looked in puzzlement at her. She shifted her position, and a tiny clink sounded from between her legs.

Hender coughed, slightly, and made a show of gazing out to see, as though he could not hear them, and indeed was not associated with them.

Moke seemed still not to understand what she was saying, nor was he interested. “I would be happy with one of their pole-arms,” he said, “although a sword would be more useful in close quarters, like in a dungeon.” He chewed his lip thoughtfully. “Do you suppose there are any monster dwellings near here, that need to be cleared out?”

“They’re guarding against something,” Homer offered, nodding slightly in the direction of the nearest soldier, half a bowshot away.

“I don’t sense any evil in this place,” Hender offered, finally. “It has its share of sorrow and foolishness, but it has not been overrun by evil.”

Homer found himself comforted by these words. “Do you think Ralph would give us equipment before we leave?” he asked.

“Seldom does anyone give anything for nothing,” the priest replied. “If Matthew suggested the idea to the young lord, he might oblige, but I suspect we have already been given as much as we can expect to receive, with the caveat that he will likely continue to feed and house us as long as we need to stay here.”

Homer thought carefully about this. They would need to leave, eventually, for they were not cut out for this kind of society, and any welcome wore out in time. In order to thrive, however, they would need to replace gear that had been lost in the shipwreck, and most of their ability to pay, meagre as it had been, had also been lost in the wreck.

“Lorissa,” he began, tentatively.

“I may not have any morals, as far as you’re concerned,” she retorted before he could say another word, “but I do only what I choose to do, and I don’t choose to sell myself to that stuffed shirt.” Her tone was final, and it was a reasonable response. Still, Homer wasn’t sure what other options they had, or what leverage they could find to keep from being cast out as monster bait when the time came.

“Have faith, my son,” Hender murmured to him gently. “Not all weapons are edged.”

Later that afternoon, Homer sat in a chair in his chambers. He was holding the trident, looking carefully at its shaft in the light from the window. He was drawing conclusions about its method of manufacture, and he was both puzzled and fascinated by what he saw. It had been cold-wrought, he was sure, and yet the techniques were beyond anything he had ever seen before. The sea devils would have much to teach a smith, he realized, if they could be persuaded to stick to the lesson.

He set the trident against the wall and walked out onto the balcony. The sun was starting to go down, and he thought of how nice it would be to sleep securely within these walls, protected from the shambling undead and the vicious sea devils. As he stared blankly out to see, he suddenly noticed a flashing light, glittering off in the sea haze.

On, off, on, off, the light blinked, and Homer began to realize that it was blinking in a pattern. Was it a signal, and if so, to whom was it being sent? To someone at the castle, or to someone at sea, or to someone on the shore near the castle? These were not questions he knew how to answer, and he went across the hall to where Galbath’s room was.

The fat man was still dozing, but he seemed interested in the situation when Homer had succeeded in rousing him enough to understand what he was saying. The two of them returned to Homer’s balcony, but the light was flashing no more, and though they waited some time in hopes that it would be repeated, they waited in vain.

The stars came out, gleaming over the vast stretches of ocean, and a light behind them announced the arrival of Homer’s attendant, bearing tapers to put in the various candle holders in the room. Once the lights had been placed, he announced that dinner was soon to be served, and would the gentlemen like to follow him?

Homer was not yet hungry, having eaten more than was his custom only a few hours previously, but Galbath greeted the offer with delight, and Homer agreed to accompany the two of them to the dining hall. Indeed, Galbath’s attendant was just finishing with the room across the hall, and joined them as they walked.

“What is your name?” Homer asked his page, as they walked.

“I am called Tristram, Sir Homer,” he replied politely.

“Do you live near here?” he inquired.

“I live in the castle, with the other servants,” the boy answered.

“But where is your home? Surely you weren’t born in the castle!”

“Lord Ralph acquired my services from my parents when I was but a small child, on the mainland. I have lived with him ever since,” he said, as though this were the most normal thing in the world.

“Do you like your work?”

“If you are pleased with my work, then I am also pleased with it,” he said. Homer was frustrated by this answer, but he didn’t probe any further.

21 November

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The meal was as elegant as the earlier one, and Homer found that he could eat but little. Moke suffered no similar limitation, and Lorissa was too busy talking to be worried about eating. Hender sipped slowly at his wine while Galbath, across the table, carefully dismantled a roasted pheasant. Ralph spoke mostly to Lorissa, but she ignored almost everything he said, acknowledging mostly his offers to pass this or that delicacy her way.

She was seated at the end of the table, down the length of which Ralph stared at her, trying to hold her eyes. Matthew encouraged his lord, suggesting one subject of conversation after another as the other man shoved the conversation like a carter pushing his cart through mud.

Suddenly, Homer looked up at Ralph, unsure that he had heard correctly. “Did you say that there are actually orcs in a cave nearby?” he asked.

Ralph seemed surprised. “Certainly,” he answered. “They’ve been there a frightfully long time, don’t you know? It’s why we raise most of our supplies right here in the castle, rather than shipping them in. Of course, my grandfather laid in most of this wine,” and he raised his glass appreciatively, “and my father brought in many of the other nice things we have, but the horses were bred here, as were the falcons, and the kitchen is supplied from the sea and the large garden, as well as the huntsmen and other servants.”

Homer rubbed his hand through his beard reflectively. “Would it be worth anything to you to get rid of those orcs?” he asked.

“It would be worth a great deal,” Ralph replied enthusiastically, “but who really cares about the islands?”

Homer stood to his feet. “Ralph,” he said, “if you will give us certain equipment, we will rid you of these orcs.” He saw Lorissa stop in the middle of a story she was telling to Dobinet with her mouth open. Moke was oblivious, being in the process of tearing ham off a large haunch that he held in his right hand, his left occupied with a wine glass. Galbath raised an eyebrow, but didn’t react in any other way. Hender was to Homer’s right, and was leaning back from the table, so Homer couldn’t see the satisfied smile on the priest’s face.

Later, they all gathered in the redhead’s room.

“You don’t seriously think you’re going to cut me out of the treasure?” Lorrisa was saying, pacing back and forth in the long green dress.

“We’ll give you a fair share,” Homer said, “but you’ll have to ask yourself what’s fair when you aren’t able to participate.”

“Why won’t Ralph let Lorissa come?” asked Moke, from where he stood on the balcony. He had drunk too much, and the cool evening air was helping to keep his stomach settled.

“He says I’m too dainty!” Lorissa snarled, adding a choice epithet that didn’t sound dainty at all. Hender hid a smirk in his hand, and then raised his head.

“I think Ralph has plans for our Lorissa,” he said, calmly. “I expect we’ll have time to dissuade him of them, but in the meantime, our host is refusing to return her gear, and is insisting that the door to her room will be locked until morning.”

“Perhaps we could wait until morning for our expedition?” suggested Galbath, from a seat by the small fireplace.

“In the morning, the whole group of orcs will be in the cave,” Homer pointed out. “At night, a number of them will be foraging, so we have a chance to deal with fewer of them at a time.”

“That also means we won’t know where the other orcs are,” Hender added, to help flesh out the picture of their peril.

Moke snorted from the balcony. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “We’ll find them all in time.”

After some more discussion, they left Lorissa with many assurances that they would work on Ralph to let her accompany them on the next expedition, and then left the chamber, an armed guard locking the door behind them once they were all in the hallway. It was only a matter of minutes before they were gathered in the courtyard, mounting horses that had been loaned by Ralph, along with the other equipment.

Homer was wearing a longsword, and had put a steel cap on his head. Galbath had put his black robes back on, or had found some in the castle that were just like them. Moke, of course, hadn’t changed at all, but had found a battle axe somewhere that looked less ornamental than the first one he had found, and a brace of daggers were strapped across his chest. Hender was still dressed in the white robes of Pelor, but he had added some chainmail and a helmet, as well as a heavy metal club. One of Dobinet’s underlings was mounted near the gate, and was waiting to lead them to the place where the orcish cave was said to be. He was carrying a torch, but Galbath tut-tutted at him.

“The orcs will see that flame a mile away,” he said, “and we won’t see them. Get rid of that thing.” The soldier looked uncertain, but after he had passed the brand to a nearby watchman, Galbath threw some powder into the air around the party, singing his magical song the while. As when he had placed the wards around the glade, Homer felt that things had suddenly become too bright, and he saw that the rest of the party were squinting, as well. However, they rode out of the gates, and as soon as they were well clear of the lights on the wall, they found that they could see normally in the darkness.

“It will only last for a few hours,” Galbath commented, “so we must be expeditious.” Homer didn’t know if that meant they should be careful, or quick, but he supposed it didn’t matter too much, one way or another.

22 November

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The companions worked their way through the darkness, Homer continuing in his amazement at seeing as though it were day. It wasn’t that it was as bright as day — no, it was rather that he could somehow see more. He resolved not to think about it any more, since it was clear that he would not really understand, although he was glad that Galbath seemed to.

Soon, the soldier from the keep motioned to them that the cave was ahead, and indicated that he wouldn’t go any further that way. They nodded and left him to return to the castle, proceeding as quietly as they could. Hender jingled in a way that Homer wished he wouldn’t, but there was really nothing to be done about it. He was also muttering to himself, but somehow that muttering made Homer feel stronger and braver, and he didn’t want it to stop.

A gutteral voice spoke out of the bushes ahead, sounding like a command. Homer drew a throwing knife from his belt, and threw it in one smooth motion, targeting the sound. There was a crack as the knife hit something hard, and then a heavy sound of something falling. Moving forward, they found an orc, with Homer’s knife in its head.

Reclaiming the knife, Homer led the way towards the yawning cave mouth behind where the orc had been on guard. It was darker, even, than the night in there, yet he still could see, at least enough to keep from stubbing his toes on the rough rocky outcroppings. He crept forward as silently as possible, aware of Moke behind and to his right, moving as quietly as an animal in the forest. A kind of glow ahead told Homer that there were more bodies, and soon he could see ghostly reddish forms in the blackness. They were slumped around a fire pit, which glowed more brightly than they, though Homer somehow knew that it wasn’t light he was seeing, but the heat of the coals.

Motioning to Moke, Homer moved to the left into the larger cavern, smiling to himself as Moke moved right. They made no more sound than the night wind, and when Homer made another signal with his hand, they fell upon the sleeping orcs.

Homer killed the first one silently, but Moke missed a killing stroke, and his target gave a cry. Instantly, the other orcs began to move, climbing to their feet. Those nearby swung at Homer and Moke with clawed fingers, while the couple that were farther off sought weapons. They all opened their mouths to shout a warning, but just as Homer braced himself for that shout, there was a slight jingle from the cave mouth, and then silence.

It was strange, in the glowing dark, to soundlessly fight with the desperate orcs. One of the monsters who had armed himself ran towards a passage leading farther into the hill, but was dropped when Moke flung his battle-axe, cleaving the creature. The fighter now was without his preferred weapon, but he drew the daggers from his baldrics and laid about himself so fiercely that the foes seemed to fall before him even before he struck them.

Homer had a desperate few moments, but soon had eliminated those on his side of the fire, and he was wiping his sword clean on one of the tattered bedrolls when Galbath and Hender walked into the room.

Even these two were completely silent, but were signing to each other in very expressive ways. Homer searched the cooling bodies, noting that their luminosity faded as the heat left them. There were a few coins — he couldn’t tell of what metal or origin — that he thrust into a belt pouch and moved on. The weapons lying by, whether for the use of the sleepers, or those that had been gathered up by the others, were not worth his time, and he left them where they lay on the stony floor, noting Moke’s similar judgement as the other man paused only to reclaim his silent battle-axe.

Homer gestured to Hender, indicating that he couldn’t hear anything, and the priest smiled and nodded, indicating his holy symbol as though it were the source of this strange phenomenon. Homer shrugged, and turned to survey the rest of the cave.

There were two passages that left the chamber they were in, one to the left, and the other farther to the right. It was towards this rightmost passage that the one orc had attempted to flee, and the fighters agreed silently to pursue this way, confident that it would lead them most directly to the rest of the pack who were currently in the cave.

They had not pursued the passage for long before they encountered a smell — woodsmoke mixed with another smell that was probably cooking, but didn’t augur for being edible by humans. Homer came to another opening, where the passage opened into a larger cave, and he paused on the left-hand side of the doorway, Moke taking a similar position on the right.

Within the chamber there was light from a large fire. It mostly illuminated the bottom of a large iron pot which seemed suspended above the fire by some means. A number of shapes moved about the fire, but Homer could hear nothing, whether they were not engaged in speech, or if the strange silence still followed them.

He turned, to see Hender and Galbath signing rapidly to each other, and then the priest retreated back the way they had come. He had disappeared around a corner of the passage when suddenly, as though with a pop, sound began to come to Homer through the air. The crackle of the fire, the orcish voices engaged in chatter, and the clank of something in the iron pot were now so clear that they almost seemed loud after the strange silence.

Another sound intruded — Galbath was muttering his strange words, and Homer looked to see the fat man moving his hands in a series of strange gestures. Homer was about to look away — to look back at the orcs — to see if Galbath had been heard by the enemy, when there was a brilliant streak of light from between the fat man’s hands followed by a soft whoosh and a blast of heat and light from the cavern.

Homer jerked his head back to view the chamber, and saw the orcs flailing and writhing in pain. They were screeching and crying out, and they were lit with fire, as were the bundles on the floor that might have been sleeping mats or other appurtenances. Spears that had been stacked against one wall of the cave were merrily burning, and a stack of rude wooden shields in another direction had also caught fire.

Homer rushed forward, to finish any orc who had survived the sudden fire, or to end the misery of any who needed it, while Moke followed his example on the other side of the room. Galbath followed more slowly, and they were soon joined by Hender, who was jingling away as before.

The priest said some words, and a light flared from the ceiling a few feet above them, illuminating the scene better than the flaring flames that persisted from whatever Galbath had done to the orcs. It showed a strong wooden door, rudely built, but constructed of heavy planks and thick iron nails. It was fastened by a large lock set into the door, and it appeared to be the only other way out of the chamber, apart from the way they had entered.

The rest of the space contained nothing of interest — only the charred bodies of the orcs, and the smoldering remnants of their rude belongings. Homer and Moke turned their attention to the door. The hair-clad man pulled on the handle, but it was clear that the lock had been fastened, so Homer began to search the burned bodies of the orcs, to see if they could find a key. While he was occupied in this way, there was a loud click from the direction of the door, and Moke gave a sharp cry, and then a groan.

Hender rushed over, and Homer could see that something terrible had happened to the other fighter. Moke’s face was bright red, and sweat poured down, although it was chilly in the cave, even with the burning remnants of the orcs’ belongings.

Anguish in his eyes, Moke collapsed to the floor, and Hender placed his right hand on the man’s head, holding the symbol of Pelor high with his other hand. He intoned words that were not in any language Homer knew, nor were they of the same sort as those spoken by Galbath, or by the old smith, Homer’s erstwhile master. There was a strange feeling of peace in the air as Hender spoke, and Moke’s body, which had been rigid in agony, suddenly relaxed as he slumped farther down onto the floor.

Homer stepped closer, and saw that Moke’s face had returned to its normal color, and the other man sighed deeply for a moment before opening his eyes.

“The lock is trapped,” Moke said, simply, resting prone on his back for a moment before climbing slowly back to his feet.

“A poisoned needle, apparently,” Hender commented, stepping back, now that his work had been effectual. “Praise Pelor, I was able to neutralize the poison before it took your life.”

Moke smiled in return. He rubbed a finger on his left hand: the only remaining hurt from the trap that had struck him. Then, he frowned and turned to the door.

“I could chop it down with my axe,” he offered, tentatively.

“You might draw the rest of the orcs down on us,” Galbath snorted, “all at once.”

“Do you know a spell to open the door?” Hender asked the mage.

“I do, but I did not prepare it before tonight’s outing,” Galbath responded. “Indeed, we had little enough time to prepare anything.”

“It’s a good thing not everyone is as forgetful as you are,” a woman’s voice said, from the doorway through which they had come.

The men turned in one motion, to see Lorissa standing there, still wearing the long green dress she had been given by Ralph.

The redhead swished forward, her skirts swirling as she walked in a mesmerizing fashion, somehow never quite close enough to one of the smoldering coals to set the fabric alight. She stopped only when she got to the door, then hiked the skirt up very high, revealing a long, supple leg with a garter belt strapped around the thigh. Before the skirt dropped again, Homer had seen a heavy dagger, but it was something more like a piece of wire that Lorissa plucked from the hidden store. She turned to the door again, and pressed her ear against the heavy wood while she probed delicately with the wire through the keyhole of the lock.

The men stood transfixed, unable to tear their eyes from the tumbled red hair, the gleaming silk of the dress, and the deft motions of the fingers as Lorissa worked the wire back, forth, and around. Hender seemed about to speak, when there was a click louder than the one that had sounded when Moke had been poisoned.

Lorissa stepped back from the door, and nodded to Homer, beckoning him with her chin. He moved forward and grasped the handle of the door, giving it a firm tug. It opened, creaking loudly on the iron hinges, and for a moment he couldn’t see into the darkness beyond, his eyes having become accustomed to the light. Then, he was able to see that the room was a storeroom, containing various supplies of fabric, food, and so on. There were also tubs and tuns, and boxes, and a large chest against the far wall.

Lorissa beckoned to Hender. “Some light, please, father,” she said. He obliged, causing a second light to appear on the ceiling of this chamber, and the girl moved forward cautiously, testing the floor and listening intently. Moke decided that he wouldn’t be needed in the storeroom, and recommenced the search of the fallen orcs, looking for anything of value that might reward their efforts here.

Homer held his breath as Lorissa reached the chest and began to probe it with her wire, checking the sides of the lid and the entire surface of the place where the lid met with the chest. Finally, she inserted her wire into the lock, and twisted, smiling demurely as a click announced her success. Turning to face Homer, she pulled on the lid of the chest, pleasure turning to surprise as she saw the expressions of horror and warning on Homer and Hender’s faces.

Rising out of the opened chest was a form that was more shadow than anything else, and a skeletal hand reached out and closed around the soft throat of the woman before the watching men could even shout a warning.

Homer reacted first, swinging the borrowed sword down in a blow intended to sever the animated bones of the thing’s forearm. There was a flash and a crash, and the sword blade snapped, blue sparks flying as a piece of metal flew off to the side and clattered against the wall.

Then, Hender found his voice, and he raise the symbol of Pelor high, speaking words in the strange language that were full of command and authority. The ghastly figure seemed to stare at the priest for a moment, soaking up the light in its black eye sockets, then it released the woman from its grasp, gestured with both hands, and was gone.

Lorissa collapsed across the open chest, and Homer dropped the remains of the sword on the floor and rushed forward to lift her in his arms. She was cold and lifeless, and he turned to the priest of Pelor with an ashen countenance. The big man stepped forward and took her from Homer’s arms, carrying her out to the other room where he laid her on the floor, stretching her limbs out so that he could examine her for wounds, or any hurt.

Homer shoved resentfully as Galbath moved in to the storeroom, blocking his view of the priest and the girl.

“We haven’t much time,” the fat man rebuked him. “I don’t know what you think you can do, but I can’t help the girl better than the priest. I want to find out if there’s anything worth recovering from this chest that cost her so much.”

Still resentful, Homer let the mage by, stepping back out into the large chamber to watch as Hender sang over the girl, moving the symbol of Pelor back and forth. He tried not to hear the sounds of the fat man rummaging through the chest, or the thud and tinkle as the mage dropped things onto the floor that he deemed of no use.

Suddenly, Galbath chuckled. “Oh, ho,” he said. “Who would have imagined that a scurvy band of orcs would possess such a thing?”

23 November

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He emerged from the storeroom turning a scrap of black cloth back and forth in his hands, grinning all over his broad face. Before Homer could ask what was so enthralling about a piece of cloth there was a gutteral shout from the direction of the entrance, quickly cut off and followed by a barely audible muttering.

Hender made a gesture and the lights faded from the ceilings of the large chamber and the storeroom, and Homer blinked as his eyes re-adjusted to the strangely lit gloom, where Moke, Hender, and Galbath seemed to dimly glow. His heart caught for a moment when he realized that Lorissa, spread on the floor before the cleric, did not glow at all, but he turned his mind away from such thoughts. Scanning the floor, he found a serviceable blade, whose balance was nearly true, despite its rough hammering out of cold iron. Like a panther, he crept to the right side of the doorway, nodding as Moke moved to the other side, his axe at the ready. He could hear the jingle of Hender’s harness, and a brushing of fabric that he interpreted as Galbath’s movement — certainly, the fat man was breathing heavily.

There was a soft step in the corridor, and then a pair of orcs came into view, running as quietly as they could. They must have seen Hender and Galbath standing in the chamber, for they charged straight ahead, and Homer and Moke brought them down without a challenge, their bodies falling with a clatter to the floor as their makeshift armor clashed on the stone floor.

A croaked query came down the passage to them, but they withdrew to the sides of the doorway again, pulling the bodies of their opponents with them, out of view of the passage. For a time, there was nothing more, and Homer began to feel his muscles stiffen as he stood, waiting for another foe. Suddenly, he realized that the stiffness was not natural, but somehow his body seemed to be enmeshed in invisible vines or webbing that sapped at his strength and sent an ache into every joint. Fear clutched at his throat as a dark presence advanced up the passageway, a skittering of tiny feet accompanying it. He strained his eyes with the enhanced vision given by Galbath’s magic, but he could see nothing in the entry way, though his other senses told him that the foe was near.

When he was at the point of dropping the crude orcish sword, in defeat, there was a roar that sounded like a song, and a blast of light like a gale, that also brought a sweet, fresh scent, blew past him and down the passageway. He could see a withered old orc, heads dangling from his belt by their braided hair, leaning upon a black, twisted staff as he waved his other hand in front of himself, tottering along towards them. Moke exploded into action, leaping forward and cleaving the orc in two before Homer could fully realize what had happened. The creature fell to the floor, a look of shock replacing the cruelty that had been present just a moment before, and Homer took a deep breath. Moke’s battle cry echoed in his ears, and he realized that there was a chanting coming from the other chamber, that they had come through before. Courage rose in him, even as the scent that had filled the place dissipated, and he moved over to cover Moke’s side in the corridor, gripping the awkward sword firmly.

The warriors moved forward together, conscious of their sword-brother’s presence at their side, and trusting him so that they only needed to be concerned for the other, outward direction. As they emerged into the other chamber, they were set upon by a swarm of arms and blades, orcs large and small pressing forward to attack. Homer cut, parried, blocked, and dodged, always keeping Moke to his left, and hearing only Hender’s singing, as it seemed. For a moment, Galbath’s tenor joined the priest’s voice, and Homer found his limbs sing with renewed vigor, and he pressed the attack back, moving with a speed he had never before experienced. Moke, too, was a virtual cyclone of steel, cutting down the orcish raiders left and right as the men moved forward into the chamber. As the last orc fell, Hender ceased his song and said, “Quickly now, before others come.”

The moved on, leaving the other passage for exploration at another time, Homer falling back to guard their rear as Moke led the way to the fresh, outdoor air. They soon emerged, but they hadn’t gone far before a sudden weariness came over Homer, and his sword drooped in his hand. He was about to comment on this when a veil seemed to pass before his eyes, and the night was suddenly darkened.

“My spell has ended,” Galbath informed them, pulling a round crystal from one of his pockets. At a word, it began to glow softly, and it rose to float above his head as they walked on, retracing their path to the castle. Although the spell was gone, and Moke and Galbath seemed no more than blacker shadows in the blackness all around, Hender the priest seemed to glow gently with a white light as he bore Lorissa along in his powerful arms. Homer wondered if it was an effect of the light that Galbath had made, or some property of the priestly garments, although he hadn’t noticed it on their way to the orcish cave.

There were lights upon the wall, and the challenge given sounded harsh in the otherwise quiet night, only the sound of the surf rising up from the far side of the place. Hender announced them, and the gate was opened, a crowd of men-at-arms jostling in the opening to repulse any attacker who tried to take advantage of the breach in the castle’s defenses. Soon, the party were inside the walls, and the gates clanged harshly to behind them, the great bar thudding down to secure it.

A captain stepped forward in their way.

“My Lord Ralph wishes news of your adventure, and also inquires of the Lady Lorissa —” His voice broke off as he saw the lady in question, lying still in Hender’s arms. There was no mark upon her, except a pale shape of a hand upon her throat.

“I will take her to the chapel,” Hender said, not asking, and he stepped past the man and continued across the courtyard. As the lady was borne away with him, it became clear that Ralph’s concern was not for the rest of them, and Homer, Moke, and Galbath each went to their separate chambers, silently.

Homer poured himself a cold bath, the water not having been heated in preparation, and he washed the filth of the exertion and the orcs from his skin, drying quickly in the cool night air, and then stepping quickly out onto the balcony. There was still a film of horror, as it were, as he saw the skeletal creature rise behind Lorissa again, in his mind’s eye. What was it? What had it done? And where had it gone? He was certain that while Hender had restrained the thing, it had departed by its own will, and had gone where it wished.

As he thought these things, he saw the flashing, blinking light again out away from shore. Was it a beacon of some kind? Homer had not even heard of such a thing as a light house or pharos, so he didn’t consider, particularly, that it might be a navigational warning, but he couldn’t think what purpose it could serve.

Dismissing it as an irrelevance in light of the night’s events, he re-entered the room and collapsed onto the bed, sliding beneath the blankets and falling quickly to sleep.

The sun was high, showing mid-morning, when Homer woke again, though he was not completely refreshed. His dreams had been haunted by the vision of the creature grabbing Lorissa by the throat, and his sword splintering and breaking on the thin bones of its arm. He rose and dressed, leaving the ugly orcish blade on the chair where had laid it out with his clothes. The boy was waiting in the hallway, and smiled broadly when he saw Homer.

“Good morrow, Sir Homer,” he said. “The whole castle is filled with the rumor of what you did last night! Did you really slay a dozen orcs?”

Homer smiled grimly in reply. “I didn’t stop to count,” he said, “though I think I killed as many as Moke. What word about the lady?”

Tristram’s smile faded. “My Lord Ralph is inconsolable,” he said. “He blames himself for his failure to keep her safely in the castle last night.”

This brought a larger smile to Homer’s face. “If Lord Ralph believes that he can restrain Lorissa with locks and bars, he doesn’t yet know her very well,” he said. “Is she still in the chapel?”

“Yes, Sir Homer,” Tristram said. Homer’s good humor seemed to cheer him, and he perked up a little again.

“Can you take me there?”

“Yes, sir, unless you’d prefer to eat first?”

“I can eat later — I’ve already eaten more in this place than I usually do in a week.” The boy seemed somewhat puzzled by this, but he cheerfully led Homer downstairs and through several passages until they came to the chapel.

Hender knelt on the floor, his head bowed towards the statue of Pelor that stood against the wall of the chapel. Nearby, lying on a table or slab, was Lorissa, covered by a white drapery that fell all the way to the floor. The only part of her that was not covered was her face and neck, the handprint still visible. Homer could see no movement of the sheet, no rise and fall that would indicate breath. He hesitated, for he thought that Hender might not wish to be interrupted in his prayers. Finally, he turned away, Tristram at his side, and returned to the small dining hall where they had their meals.

Here, Ralph was trying to tell a story about one of the forays he had led against the orcs, but Matthew kept interrupting to clarify that when Ralph said he charged, what he meant was that the horse reared away from the stench of the orc cave, and things of that sort. Moke interrupted from time to time to share details of the night’s assault, but was mostly content to shove food into his mouth. Galbath was nowhere to be seen.

Homer hesitated a moment, then apologized for disturbing the men. “I’m not very hungry — I’ve been so well fed, here. I’ll … I’ll go and see how Galbath is feeling.” The rest of the men took this statement without comment, and Homer headed for Galbath’s chambers, Tristram padding along at his side.

Galbath’s page was sitting on the floor in the hallway, tossing a knucklebone aimlessly, until he heard the pair approaching. Scooping the dice into his pocket, he stood to attention, and when Homer stopped in front of the door, quietly announced that Lord Galbath had not yet arisen, and was not to be disturbed.

Disregarding this, Homer stepped past the boy, ignoring the look of alarm on his face, and pushed the door open. There was Galbath, clad in the purple robe, squatting on the floor on the far side of a large, black hole. The hole was perfectly round, and Galbath was reaching into it, leaning so far that he seemed in danger of falling in. Homer couldn’t figure out how a hole like that had come to be made in the bedroom floor, and why he hadn’t noticed it before. There was certainly nothing like it in his own bedroom, which was otherwise similar to Galbath’s.

On the floor around the rim of the hole, and surrounding Galbath, were all sorts of odds and ends. Bones and bits of feathers caught Homer’s eye immediately, as being out of keeping with the furnishings of the castle, but there was also a rod of some crystalline substance, several jars like the ones Galbath kept in his satchel, and a curving scimitar that seemed to be made of gold. Galbath seemed startled to see Homer, and he straightened awkwardly up, pulling a length of rope up as he did so.

“What happened?” Homer asked, striding up to the edge of the hole. It began abruptly, and he could see neither the edge of the wooden floor boards nor anything he expected to be below Galbath’s room. However, there were things in the hole — bundles and packages and things, all neatly stacked on the bottom. It looked like it could be no more than ten feet deep.

Galbath didn’t answer, but he smiled, somewhat self-consciously. Reaching forward with the fingers of his right hand, he made a little twitch and seemed to fold a little piece of black cloth over the hole. However, rather than falling into the hole and hanging down inside of it, the black fabric sat on the “surface” of the hole, as though there were a solid floor there. The fat man twitched again and again, and with each twitch there was a black fold of cloth, and the hole began to shrink towards him. Soon, it was scarcely a foot across, and Galbath quickly folded it up the rest of the way, placing something that looked like a black handkerchief in the belt of his purple robe.

Homer stood, mouth open, as the mage did this trick, and then he reached out with his right toe and probed the wooden floor in front of him. The floor was solid, and held his weight, and he took a step closer to the fat man.

“So, is that something you did, or is it a property of that handkerchief?” Homer finally asked.

Galbath grinned broadly, and fished the black cloth back out of his belt. Giving it a flip, he spread it out on the floor in a slightly different direction than where it had been, since Homer was now standing there. Homer stared down into the hole, and the goods that were stacked there, at the bottom.

“You see?” the mage asked him. Homer nodded, slowly.

“It’s a hole you can fold up,” he said.

“A portable hole,” the fat man corrected him. Homer thought it came to much the same thing. He looked around at the things Galbath had spread around on the floor.

“Did all of this come from …?”

Galbath nodded. “And there’s more farther down, but I can’t reach it.”

Homer slid to the edge of the hole and lowered himself carefully to the bottom, more in care for the unknown treasures than out of fear, for if he had been that afraid of the hole he would never have entered it at all. He found it dimmer, inside the hole, but no more than would be expected had it been a natural space in the floor of the room. It smelled of cedar, and open spaces, and the sharp smell after a rainstorm, and the hidden smell of a wardrobe. Homer picked up a bundle and handed it up to Galbath’s waiting hand. While the other undid the wrapping to see what it was, Homer looked around to see if there was something particularly interesting.

Most of the goods seemed to be long-storage foodstuffs. There were sausages and salamis, and hard-bake crackers. He found several bottles of wine, and a small keg of what was marked as ale. He refrained from uncorking it. Near one of the sides of the hole he found a bundle that escaped his notice at first, for it was wrapped in black cloth that blended exactly with the color of the hole itself. It was nearly the length of his arm, and heavy, and he passed it up to Galbath as soon as the other man had announce that the previous package had contained “bath salts”.

The black wrapping was not tied to this thing, and it quickly fell clear, revealing a shining, silvery mace. Homer couldn’t see what the details were, but it was clearly embellished with filigree and possibly some pictures or runes. Galbath murmured in appreciation, as he lifted the mace clear, and set it with a thump on the floor beside him.

Over the course of the next half hour, Homer had found a set of scroll tubes, a leather bag filled with flasks and bottles, all filled with mysterious liquids, and a dagger that glowed and hummed when he drew it from its ornate silver sheath. He thought of Lorissa at once, and how she would demand that dagger as part of her share of the loot, and he sighed as he looked through the rest of the things for something to cheer him up.

One of the last things he found was underneath another package. It was a broad leather belt, hairy on the outer surface, and fitted with a crude iron buckle. Homer would certainly have worn it if he had needed a belt, but it did seem to blend better with Moke’s habitual outfit, and he passed it up to Galbath without interest or comment.

Finding the hole empty soon afterwards, he jumped up to grab hold of the edge and pull himself out. Instead, he found his hands were full of black fabric, and the hole collapsed around him. No, he had to admit, it hadn’t collapsed. There was no pressure on any side of him, and he didn’t even feel the soft press of fabric that he might have anticipated. A moment later, the hole opened up above him and he saw Galbath spreading out one of the edges.

“As you can see,” the mage told him, “the hole can be folded up from inside, as well as from out. Can you climb a rope?”

Homer answered affirmatively, and Galbath lowered a soft, silken rope to him. A moment later, the fat man said a word, and Homer was able to climb up the rope, even though it didn’t seem to be fixed to anything at the top end. He swung easily to the floor, finding place for his feet with some difficulty amidst the large pile of things they had removed from the hole. Galbath took hold of the end of the rope, said another word, and it dangled limply in his hand, to be pulled from the hole and coiled on the floor. Then, Galbath took an edge of the hole and pulled it from the floor, quickly folding it and tucking it away in his belt.

“Thank you for your help, Homer,” he said with a sincerity that took the warrior by surprise. “I have honored the path of knowledge, and the power of ideas, but you are helping me to see that an active body can be a useful tool, and that it need not produce a surly temper.”

Homer smiled wryly at this last comment, for he thought it must refer to an experience the mage had had before their meeting, but he didn’t find it necessary to respond, and simply nodded his head.

“There are some things here that I must examine more closely, but the mace clearly should be given to the cleric of Pelor.” He indicated the shining thing where it lay on the floor. “Would you be so kind as to take it to him? It may lighten his mood, some.”

Again, Homer was struck by the tone of this comment, for on the mainland Galbath had not impressed him as someone who cared about people in any way, except as a means to an end. He picked up the mace, impressed with its weight, and turned and opened the door, surprising the two pages who looked like they had had their ears pressed against the wooden surface just a moment before.

Pausing after closing the door, he asked the boys, conversationally, “Have you ever seen a gryf-hound?” The pages nodded confirmation, and he smiled. “Remember that over-large ears can be docked…”

Leaving the sentence hanging, he headed for the stairway down to the main hall, and Tristram hurried to catch up with him.

When Homer returned to the chapel, it was little changed from his first visit. Hender still knelt in prayer before the statue of his god, and Lorissa still lay like death to his side, covered, except for her neck and face, with the white shroud. This time, however, Hender seemed to hear Homer’s step in the hall, and rose stiffly to his feet to greet the young warrior.

The greeting died on his lips, however, for he strode forward with a cry of pleasure and amazement. Stretching out his hands, he took the mace from Homer, not even asking if he could, or what Homer intended with it. Indeed, Homer now saw that the symbol of Pelor had been worked into the filigree, and there were other symbols that looked like runes which spelled words of which Homer had no idea. His eyes, shining, Hender looked up to meet Homer’s eyes, and smiled broadly.

“How?” was the only word that escaped the priest’s bearded lips. He was stunned in a way that Homer had seldom seen him, even on the beach when he had lost his holy symbol.

“That is part of the loot from last night,” Homer replied evenly. “Galbath and I have been going through some of it.”

“Some of it? How much is there? As I recall, we left the orc-cave carrying little more than Lorissa’s body and some looted coin.”

“Galbath found what he calls a portable hole in the chest that —” Homer’s voice broke off. “In that chest,” he managed, finally. “Within the hole was that mace, and many other things.”

“It is patterned after the dawnstars,” Hender said, reverently. “It is a gift that any cleric of Pelor would be blessed to hold. It is, perhaps, a sign from Pelor that we may yet save Lorissa.”

“Is she … How is she?” Homer managed.

“She lives,” the priest sighed, lowering the mace and looking at the still form of the girl. “That creature holds her life in his hand, and so far he is content to leave it there. I have placed her in a sanctuary, so that she may not be killed as long as her body lies in this chapel. Thus, our enemy is linked with our companion, and he draws strength from her, even as he is prevented from fully feasting on her life.”

“Who … who is our enemy?”

“That is something that I would dearly like to know,” Hender said, and he laid the borrowed mace down on the altar and hung the newly-acquired mace at his belt. “Let us go speak with Ralph.”

They found the lord of the castle in the courtyard, fussing about the state of one of his hawks. He turned to greet them as they approached.

“How fares the Lady Lorissa?” he asked.

“Poorly, my lord,” Hender replied. “Her life is held by something evil — perhaps even a lich. I have bound her to the chapel, so that the creature can no longer harm her, but we will need to destroy it if we are to return her smile to our company.”

Homer almost smiled at this expression, but he saw that Hender had correctly judged its result upon the other man, for Ralph looked so mournful that Homer nearly felt sorry for him.

“What can be done?” the lord asked, absently rubbing his hands on a cloth presented by one of the servants. “How can the creature be destroyed?”

“It can only be done by the stoutest of heart,” the priest replied, “and it may require a magical weapon which we do not currently possess. I will need to consult further with Pelor in order to be sure.”

Ralph paused, while he considered the cleric’s words. Then, “Please let me know what must be done,” he said. “Anything you require of me, I will supply.” Homer kept his smile to himself, not doubting the lord’s sincerity, but he wondered where they were going to find a magical weapon, if the mace of Pelor was not sufficient.

There being nothing further to do, Homer went to the practice yard, where he found a number of men who were interested in sparring with him, or in speaking with him about blade technique. He sent Tristram to the room for the orcish blade, but learned that the men-at-arms were happy to supply him with whatever he needed for training or demonstration. When the page returned with the blade, there were several who eagerly inspected it, and then asked Homer how he came to use such a sword.

“It was not by choice, I’m afraid,” he recounted. “We had penetrated the orc cave not far from the castle, but in the inmost place we met a foe unlike any I have ever encountered. When I hit it, my sword shattered, which I am afraid I will have to make good with the quartermaster before I leave.” There was some chuckling at this, for nearly every man had experienced the misfortune of losing or damaging equipment at some point.

“The priest used his powers to compel the thing to flee, but we were shortly afterward set upon by a large number of orcs, and I needed a weapon that wasn’t broken off a foot from the hilt. This sword had been abandoned by its previous owner after my companion Galbath had sent fire among the orcs, so I found it ready to my hand. You will notice that the balance is poor, but it is heavy enough to strike hard, and the edge is keen.”

The men-at-arms passed the sword around, many of them taking the chance to swing it experimentally, to see if they could tell how poor its balance was. One of the men, a sergeant, asked, “With the balance towards the hilt like that, how were you able to overcome the orcs and return to the castle alive?” He held the sword out to Homer, perhaps expecting him to demonstrate what he had done to correct the poor balance of the weapon.

Homer laughed, and the men reacted variously with either surprise or relaxation as he showed himself to be at home among them. “You’ll see how you instinctively correct for the poor balance,” he said, “leading with the point, and putting more energy into your shoulder as you swing. However, you need to remember that the orcs used weapons as poorly made as this, and so they had no advantage over me.”

The men received this piece of wisdom with appreciation, but the sergeant persisted. “But the orcs can see in the dark, it is said. If you had to carry lights, they would have seen you long before you saw them.”

Homer smiled. He was enjoying the attention, and he noted that Matthew, the particular friend of Ralph, had joined the back of the crowd. “You are correct, my friend,” he said, “though it is also true that the lights can be harsh on the eyes of the night-loving orcs. However, Galbath has more than one trick, and before we arrived at the cave, he changed our eyes with the use of his art, so that we could see as easily in the dark as the cursed orcs. Thus, when we met them in the blackness of the cave, they were hindered by their large numbers, for they could not attack us many at a time, by their poor weaponry, especially as compared to Moke, who wields a battle axe like none I have seen before, and by our experience in combat. In fact, the first of their party to come upon us so little expected humans in the dark that we slew them before they had a chance to call challenge or warning. I cannot say how Galbath does the things he does, and it may be that some day we will have to pay a price for dire alliances that he has made (although I trust the cleric of Pelor to warn us if that is the case), but it is a foolish man who refuses to see that the skills of others have a place in battle, though those skills be not related to our weapons of war.”

There was a considerable amount of discussion at this point, most of the men agreeing with Homer, and explaining to their friends, in their own words and anecdotes, ways in which Homer’s words had been proven correct again and again. The sergeant stayed to speak with him, and they sparred for a bit, sometimes one, sometimes the other using the orcish sword, and Homer explaining techniques for minimizing the effect of the poor balance of the blade, though he admitted that it was more tiring to use than one of the well-balanced swords from the castle.

At length, it came time for supper, and Homer was now ready to eat, having fasted all day by his late sleep and other errands.

The other men were present, though Ralph was distracted, and Hender seemed distant. Only Galbath seemed himself, as he asked permission to be moved to a room at the top of one of the towers.

“Why do you want to be up there?” Ralph asked him. “I would have thought, with all due respect, that you would prefer to climb fewer steps to get to your room.”

Galbath smiled in a friendly fashion. “That would, indeed, be true, normally, but I have spoken with Master Hender at some length today, and there are some experiments I need to perform in order to assist our preparations for the deliverance of young Lorissa. These experiments require an intense precision, and also a clear view of the heavens in every direction. With the distractions caused by people coming and going in the hallway, I would lack the precision, and my current room only looks at the sky in one direction.”

Ralph agreed that this was sound reasoning, and made arrangements to have Galbath’s things moved while they finished the meal, and conversation turned to other topics.

24 November

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That night, Homer was restless. He didn’t have the fatigue of the night before, and the vision of the skeletal creature rising out of the chest and grabbing Lorissa kept coming to his mind. He also thought about her lying cold and lifeless in the chapel, and he finally rose, dressed, and went down to the chapel.

As was typical for shrines to Pelor, there was an oil lamp burning in a niche, spreading a warm, yellow light throughout the room. Lorissa was unchanged, as far as Homer could see, and when he had gotten the nerve to touch her face with his fingers, he regretted it, for she was as cold as a corpse. He stood there for a while, looking at her — quite the opposite of the picture she had always presented: vivacious, seductive, scheming. Now, she lay still and cold.

He turned and saw the statue of Pelor. It, too, was cold and still, for it was carved from stone, but somehow the god seemed to be looking over to where Lorissa lay. Homer thought perhaps that was why Hender had placed the girl there — so that the god would be looking at her.

The bearded face was calm and peaceful, but Homer thought there was a depth there of grief resolved. Compassion, perhaps, was what he was seeking in that stony face, and because he sought it, he found it. Or, had the sculptor known that grief — known that people would seek the god for comfort?

Homer had never spent much time in temples — he had not had much time to himself in any case, and for all the help the gods had been, he figured he was on his own. Now, this problem was bigger than he was. In his mind, he began reasoning with Pelor, explaining to him that they wanted Lorissa back. Perhaps she was more devoted to Olidammara or some such god, but surely Pelor could intervene? After all, he couldn’t have many priests more worthy than Hender, right? He scrambled, mentally, looking for an angle that he could use to put pressure on the god, but he realized that there was no particular reason Pelor should listen to him. Homer was not a great hero, and had not earned a place where he could make demands of the gods.

He looked back up at the carved face of the god. Surely, he thought, there was compassion there. And if it was present in the carving of the face of Pelor, was it too much to hope for it to be in the face of Pelor himself?

Homer crept quietly out of the chapel, and strolled through the darkened castle. Here and there a torch burned, or even a candle, and he met a number of pages or guards who were circulating on one errand or another, or who had simply heard him and were looking to see who he was, and what he was seeking. One of these guards opened a door for him that let out into the courtyard, and he wandered over to the stables. The smithy was next to them, and the quenched-iron smell always made him feel like he knew his place in the work.

The anvil was quiet, of course. The only time it would be busy at this hour of the night would be at a time of war. Homer drifted in and ran his fingers over the battered surface of the anvil. It had seen a lot of service for many years, and was well-made enough to serve for many years to come. He looked up at the sky to see the position of the moon — to get an idea of the time. There, poised against the starry sky, was the tower that Galbath had moved to. There was a light within the windows, and it flickered and flared, flashing whitely in the darkness. If there had been the sound of hammering, Homer would have believed that the mage was smithing something up in his tower room. Smiling at this thought, he returned to his room and lay down, finding that now, he could sleep.

He woke as dawn was beginning to color the sky outside his window. There was a scent of rain on the breeze, and he hurried to the balcony to look at the sky. Dark grey clouds were moving up from the west, but the wind was still low, gusting through the curtains in fits and starts.

Tristram was waiting for him when he emerged, and accompanied him on his descent to breakfast. Moke staggered in a short while later, but Hender and Galbath did not appear, though Homer stayed at the table longer than was his habit. Throughout the meal, Ralph spoke much to him, asking him for stories about Lorissa, and wanting to know her history, back on the mainland. Homer had little to say, for he had not known her for long before the embarkation on the ship, and the stories he knew from that short acquaintance did not strike him as likely to be received favorably by the lord. He tried to get Moke to participate, but after one inappropriate anecdote involving a merchant, a locked chest, and a wheel of cheese, he was happy that the other fighter was focused on filling his belly with food and ale.

The day passed slowly, with rain just before lunchtime that lingered on into the afternoon. Homer sat in his room or wandered the hallways of the castle, but everywhere he went he could hear only the drumming of the rain on the slate roof and the gurgling of the gargoyles as they spewed the water away from the foundations. Hender was not in the chapel, nor was he to be seen elsewhere in the castle, and the flickering light — harder to see in the daylight, though the dark clouds behind the tower helped — was the only evidence he saw of Galbath. When Homer asked Tristram, the lad commented that he had heard that food had been sent up the tower at one point, but he knew nothing more.

The rain stopped shortly after sunset, but the clouds persisted, and still the silent flashing and flaring came from Galbath’s tower windows, and Hender was nowhere to be found, and Ralph’s conversation was tedious and Moke’s was inappropriate. Though Homer was tired, he couldn’t sleep, and he spent a short vigil in the chapel as a way of calming his nerves and focusing on someone other than himself. Lorissa lay, unchanged, and it was this that gave him some hope, for if she had been dead, the processes of decay would have set in by now, but she seemed to be frozen, and that made Homer think there must be a way to unfreeze her, as well.

When he descended to breakfast on the next day, he was surprised to see Galbath and the priest at the table, clearly into their second helping as testified by the bread crusts and cheese rinds that surrounded them. The mage looked shrunken, like a raisin, with dark circles under his eyes, and his dingy black robes didn’t seem to fit him as closely as they had. The priest looked fierce, his beard bristling and his eyes intense, a rigidity across his shoulders that spoke of an energy waiting to be unleashed.

Homer sat down next to Hender with a simple word of greeting, but he waited for the other man to speak, for the two spellcasters had clearly collaborated on some great discovery, but seemed unready to share it. The buttered eggs were as delicious as always, but Homer almost thought he couldn’t taste them, as he waited for the two silent companions to speak. Even when Ralph, Matthew, and the others came to table, the priest and mage did not speak, not even in greeting, but slowly and methodically ate, choosing thoughtfully enough that Homer didn’t think they were in a daze, but rather were working under a burden of knowledge or news.

Finally, Moke came in and sat down, grabbing a hunk of bread from a serving trencher and beginning to stuff it into his mouth. As though it was the signal they had been awaiting, Hender and Galbath seemed to see and acknowledge the other men for the first time.

“Praise to Pelor, we found it,” Hender began, without any explanation of what they had been seeking. “Friend Galbath is deep in the ways of magic, and with his insight we have found the weapon that can free Lorissa.” Galbath nodded slightly as he took a sip of hot cider from a pewter mug.

“There was a city in ancient times whose foundations are not far from the orcs’ cave,” Hender continued. “I know not who the people were who lived there — they were not Flannish, and their city flourished long before the Sueloise and Oerridians came to these lands.”

“They may have been Olven,” Galbath muttered through a mouthful of biscuit.

“Yes,” Hender agreed, “they may even have been related to the Lendorian elves who currently inhabit these islands. In any case, in the distant past, they created a weapon that was made for the destruction of unnatural creatures, like the one who took Lorissa from us.” The priest paused a moment to wave away another plate of sausage brought by an eager attendant. “This sword was imbued with magic power and the light of goodness, and will surely be capable of ending the foul being who is trying to extend his life by taking Lorissa’s.”

Moke pulled the ham bone out of his mouth and swallowed the huge bite of meat with difficulty. “How do we get the sword?” he asked.

“We believe that the sword is kept in a chamber in these ruins,” Galbath said, dabbing at the corners of his mouth with a large white napkin. “We cannot tell for sure, for one of the enchantments on this blade is a protection from scrying magic. Liches are notorious for protecting themselves with clairvoyance and other sorts of scrying, and so this sword cannot be seen magically at all. Using Hender’s craft, we were able to witness the beginning of its forging, before those specific enchantments were wrought into the blade, but for most of its history, the sword, and its location, have been invisible to us.”

“Then, it may not be there at all!” Ralph exclaimed, dismay in his voice.

“You speak truly,” Hender said, quietly, “but I believe Homer and Moke will accompany us in this, with the hope of delivering Lorissa from her bondage. The traps and protections around this sword will undoubtedly be many and dangerous, and we could not ask strangers to help us, even though you have given us such great hospitality.”

Ralph opened and closed his mouth, but though Matthew snickered at his side, he found nothing to say.

Homer tossed an apple core onto the trencher in front of him. “When do we start?” he said. “I’ve done nothing but walk the halls for two days. I’m ready for some other action.” Hender smiled, and Galbath nodded, while Moke tore a chunk of bread off of a loaf with his teeth. Homer had spoken for him as well, and he didn’t see a need to repeat it.
Starting, of course, is never as quick as desired, for preparations are many when the dangers faced are unknown. Homer helped Galbath to pack the portable hole, filling it with not only food and drink, but weapons and armor, and various magical items in Galbath’s possession. Some of these he had found in the hole to begin with, and part of his work over the past two days had been to examine them and determine their function. There were a few items from the hole that were set carefully by in the tower chamber. They might prove useful at some later date, but for this expedition they would be more of a danger than a help. The quartermaster was eager to supply them with the materials they required, and the smith gave Homer permission to use the forge and anvil. With Tristram pumping the bellows and wilting in the heat, Homer took three of the best swords he could find in the castle (not taking swords from personal use, of course, but only such as were issued to the garrison). He hammered and heated and quenched the blades, finally blending two of them into a single sword with a single edge. He worked the metal for three days, stopping his work when the sun went down so that he could help Galbath with the provisions in the portable hole, and always visiting Lorissa in the chapel before he retired for the evening. He found his conversations with Pelor were easier these days, as the god had given Hender a direction for them, and Homer was more likely to converse casually with the statue, sharing updates on the forging process, or speaking of what he had learned from Galbath.

Finally, the sword was ready. It was an ugly, hand-and-a-half sword with a mottled sheen along the blade, but Homer was certain that it would break for nothing short of a magical barrier, and the balance was perfect for his hand. Moke proclaimed himself to be impressed, but was satisfied with his battle-axe, and didn’t want to delay their starting any further. Hender had the gleaming mace of Pelor, that he had named the Evening Star, and the party set out early on the following day.

Moke had found a suit of chainmail that he could wear under his shaggy leathers, and he had bound the hairy belt from the portable hole over it. Homer had consented to wearing banded mail, and had added a shield to his equipment, though his sword could also be used two-handed. He walked with a spring in his step as he looked forward to the real test of his new-forged blade. Hender, as before, wore chainmail beneath his robes of Pelor, but Galbath refused all armor, saying that the weight of metal would interfere with his magic, and he was carrying enough weight already. He was back in his black robes, the portable hole tucked into his belt, and the leather satchel over his shoulder. They went without mounts, for if they found their way into the tunnels of the ancient city they would not be able to take the animals with them, and they didn’t know how long they would be beneath the surface of the earth. With their early start Hender hoped to arrive at some sort of entry before evening.

The weather had cleared again, and they made good time down the road that wound through the forest. When the got near the orc cave, Homer wished they could pause to investigate it. He hoped that they had killed enough of the monsters to keep them from causing trouble again. However, Hender was concerned that they not be above ground at nightfall, so they continued on, finally leaving the road about a half mile from the cave. The woods were relatively thin, with a high canopy and little undergrowth once they got away from the road. They had no map, but Hender seemed certain of his direction, and it was only an hour or so past noon when they came to a tumbled pillar covered with moss and lichen.

The priest examined it carefully, and even borrowed Homer’s belt knife to scrape some of the covering vegetation from it, but there were no words or symbols that they could make out. Never the less, the priest was encouraged, and they continued on, only slowly realizing that they were surrounded by the humping ruins of buildings.

The forest had consumed the city, and few walls were more than a few feet high. Even those that were taller tended to be covered by or penetrated by trees that clawed with their roots for the spaces between the stones. Occasionally, they came upon yawning pits where cellars had been exposed, but these were only a dozen feet deep, and were as full of vegetation as the rest of the area. It was late in the afternoon that they came to a small hill and Hender asked Moke and Homer to clear the screening vegetation. Moke did better than Homer, for his axe was suited to the work, but they had soon pulled a huge mass of vines down, revealing a solid stone structure with a stone doorway. Whether it was made of only one stone, or whether the stones that it was built from fit together more seamlessly than the other buildings in the ruined city, Homer couldn’t tell. The doorway had been screened by vegetation, but the climbing vines had long ago eaten away the wooden door, and the black entry gaped like a toothless mouth in the side of the structure. They could see no other openings for windows or other things, and Galbath produced the light crystal from his pocket before they cautiously stepped into the doorway.

Just inside were wide stone steps leading down into the darkness. They were not choked with vegetation because the light had been blocked for many years, but there were heaps of dead leaves and piles of dirt from the decay of the leaves and other vegetable rubbish over the years, so the men took their time and descended slowly. Moke and Homer held their weapons ready while Galbath held the crystal high to light their path. Hender was holding the mace of Pelor, but he held it almost as a water witch holds the divining rod, rather than as a weapon.

Homer thought they descended fully forty feet before the stairs stopped in a large, low room. Drifts of leaves and dirt clung to the corners and edges of the room, probably the last place grasped by the encroaching forest above. The smell was of dank earth and wet stone, and Galbath’s light scarcely illuminated the more distant walls. Hender spoke a word in the priestly language, and his mace began to glow brightly, casting its beams far — even down the three passageways that opened off of the entry chamber. As Galbath slipped the crystal back into his pocket, Hender leaned down to him and spoke a few low words. The fat man nodded once, twice, and gestured towards the right-hand passage, and the priest began to walk in that direction, holding the mace high, as though it were a torch.

Homer hurried forward to walk at Hender’s right side, shield on his left arm and sword in his right. He listened intently for any sound other than the breathing of the four men and the jingle or creak of their harness. While their feet padded on dirt and leaves in the chamber, when they had entered the passage their boots clattered on stone, and everywhere was the stale, cold scent of the stone.

They walked like this for what seemed hours, though Homer knew it was not so long. Hender led the way, with Homer at his side, and Moke followed after Galbath, looking this way and that and listening to the uncanny darkness that surrounded them on all sides. Hender led them mostly straight, though from time to time he took a branching passage left or right. He investigated none of the open doorways that they passed, and he gave them no time to investigate the glimmering, winking refuse that beckoned to them from some of the abandoned rooms. They occasionally passed a withered corpse, sometimes decayed to the point of being a skeleton, and a few of them bore obvious marks of violence, either before death or after. At one intersection, only half a skeleton sprawled on the floor, its bones disarranged as by a wandering predator.

Finally, the priest stopped in front of one of the rooms, and peered inside. Satisfied by what he saw, he beckoned the others to join him, and they filed in to a chamber that might have been hewed out of the rock, but its walls were covered with dressed stone. The ceiling was low, but not so as to be uncomfortable, and it was completely empty except for some ancient spiderwebs and dust.

Galbath threw the hole onto the floor, and Homer had soon fetched a bundle of firewood from its depths, which they placed nearer to the doorway than not. Moke got the fire going with his tinderbox, supplied by Ralph’s servants, while Galbath looked through his jars until he found the powder he wanted to create a ward. The process was much simpler and shorter than it had been in the glade, for he only warded the doorway, and Hender had provided them with some cheese by the time the mage was done. They toasted the cheese over the fire, and then washed it down with a bit of wine. Homer thought that Moke did not complain, though they rationed the food and drink here in a way it had not been done in Ralph’s castle. He supposed that Moke had learned patience with sparse fare during his adventuring, and knew that he could make it up when they returned to the castle upon the successful completion of their mission.

They lay down on bedrolls around the fire, and soon slept, though not deeply, for the crackling of the fire was the only sound apart from their breathing, and the silence of the tunnels was oppressive. When Homer woke, he couldn’t tell how long he had slept, for he was not rested as he normally would have been, and there was no change in the surrounding darkness. This was relieved only by the dim glow of the coals from the fire, and the white gleam of the ward in the doorway. Since the others were not rising, he lay back down and considered his thoughts. Back at the castle he probably would have gone to the chapel, to see Lorissa and speak with Pelor. Since he couldn’t do the former, he began to speak in his mind to Pelor, explaining the progress they had made, and expressing his hope that Pelor’s priest was leading them correctly, since they would soon lose their way in the tunnels without sure guidance. As usual, there was no response from the god, but Homer felt more peaceful than before, and drifted back to sleep.

When he woke again, the priest had built up the fire and was heating wine. He also had some sausages that were ready to grill above the fire, and Homer took the skillet and poised it over the coals. As the smell of cooking filled the room, Moke yawned and woke up, and Galbath opened his eyes where he lay facing the fire. It didn’t take them long to eat, and few preparations were needed to pack their things away in the portable hole, which Galbath then folded up and placed in his belt. Hender lit his mace again, and the mage dismissed the ward in front of the door, and they began to travel again, always in the similar passageways, passing empty doorway after empty doorway.

They had stopped to eat and relieve themselves in one of the side rooms and traveled on for some time, when they came to a new kind of place. The passage opened out into a vast chamber, so tall that the light from the mace didn’t reach the distant ceiling. The utter darkness in that area convinced Homer that it was not simply the night sky. Across a vast space in front of them they could see the twinkling reflection of some kind of metal, and Hender led them directly towards this reflected light.

Homer soon saw that it was a pair of massive doors with large brass rings to use to pull them open. Hender stopped while they were still a distance away, and turned to the mage.

“Lorissa would be greatly appreciated here,” he said, and the mage nodded agreement. Pulling some powder from one of his jars, he tossed it into the air in front of the party, muttering and chanting in the language of magic. Then, we walked slowly forward, tentatively placing his foot ahead one step at a time, until he reached the door. Then, he turned and nodded to the priest.

“I think it’s safe,” he said, “and it doesn’t look like it’s locked, either.”

Homer, Moke, and the priest came forward, and the two fighters took the rings in their hands and pulled. Slowly, the doors swung open, filling the echoing halls with a bass roar as the hinges squeaked in a very low register. Finally, the last echoes died away, and Hender led the men through, and into the hall beyond.

This new hall was different than the places they had been. It was floored in what looked like marble, and gleaming marble pillars supported the roof. These were carved into the shape of stately women, robed in folds of cloth expertly formed from the stone. Cressets on the walls showed that the place had been lit with torches, but nothing remained of the lights that might have been present when the city was abandoned. The passage was wider than the ones they had traversed previously, and ran straight ahead, so they followed it slowly, Galbath now in front with Hender, moving almost as a blind man would, with his hands and feet leading the rest of him. Hender walked boldly, but he seemed to look frequently to his left, to observe his friend, and Homer had no doubt that Galbath was either finding their way, or was searching for the traps and defenses that the priest had spoken about before.

They finally reached the end of the hall, and found a door made of corroded copper. The film on the door surface was so thick that Homer thought for a moment it might be some kind of moss. At a word from Galbath, he reached forward and pulled the door open, revealing a room beyond that was much smaller, even than the hallway. It was empty except for what looked like an altar in the center of the room, and on that altar some precious stone cast back the light from Hender’s mace in sparkling fractures of light.

They moved into the room, and approached the altar. Homer could see that it was a sword that lay on the top of the stone, with an elaborate sheath covering the long blade. Gems in the guard and pommel winked in the light from Hender’s mace, and the four men gathered around it silently. Moke reached, suddenly, for the hilt of the sword just as Galbath shouted, “Stop!”

The fighter froze, his hand less than a foot above the shining hilt of the sword, and he looked at Galbath quizzically. Galbath stared, as though he were looking at something that only he could see, and he moved his arms slowly through the air, as though sweeping invisible cobwebs away from the top of the altar. Finally, he sighed and turned to Hender. “What do you see, father?” he asked.

Hender stirred, and holding the mace before him, began to pray quietly to Pelor, eyes closed. When he opened them, he said, “This ward was not laid by the makers of the blade, but by those who wished to keep it from being used. Step back, friend Moke, for I know not exactly what enchantment was placed here, nor how it will react to my attempt to remove it.”

Moke stepped quickly back, lowering his hand and demonstrating a relief in his face that Homer shared. Hender began to chant in the language of his faith, and the hair rose on Homer’s arms as a deep red glow began to appear in the air above the sword. The chanting continued, and the glow intensified, and Homer took a step back, and then another, and saw that the mage was also putting space between himself and the altar. Cords of light danced and twisted in the air above the altar, colored in red and gold, and they seemed to twist around each other, like snakes fighting one another. Suddenly, there was a clap of thunder and a blast of air that blew all of the dust in the chamber into clouds that scattered towards the wall.

Hender smiled, and lowered the mace. “Light always casts out darkness,” he said. “The way should be clear.”

Galbath moved forward, scanning with his head, and moving his arms through the air, feeling each step with his foot out ahead of himself. He finally nodded. “The malevolent magic is gone,” he agreed.

Moke stepped forward and grasped the sword by its hilt, then dropped it, screaming, back onto the altar. His palm smoked in the still air of the chamber, and he collapsed to his knees, his left hand tightly holding his right wrist. “There’s some kind of magic there,” he gasped, as he put the palm of his hand onto the stone side of the altar to cool it.

Hender nodded, concern on his face. He muttered and prayed, then held his hands out over the altar. “It is not a trap,” he said, finally. “It is the sword, itself. It does not accept you as a wielder, Moke.” He reached forward and lifted the sword by the scabbard. Nodding slightly, he slid the thing into his pack, and then turned to Galbath. “It will be easier to evaluate in the castle,” he said.

The magician didn’t answer, for at that moment there was a sound from the outer corridor — a clashing of stone and the sound of heavy footprints. Then, “If we can get there, it will be,” he agreed.

25 November

Homer strode swiftly to the door, but he could see nothing in the room outside because of the thoroughgoing darkness. He could, however, hear that the sounds were coming nearer, and some of the loud crashing sounds had the rhythm of footprints. He slammed the doors to and found there was a bar to one side that he quickly drove home. He had scarcely done this when a blow from the far side knocked the doors cleanly off their hinges, and doors, bar, and Homer all went crashing to the ground.

Meanwhile, Hender had come to Moke’s side and invoked healing as he reached for the fighter’s hand. To his surprise, the flesh still steamed in the still air of the stone chamber, and he could see no change after the application of his prayer.

“Thanks, father,” Moke grunted, and stood to his feet, gripping his axe with his off hand. When the doors came in on Homer, he threw himself towards them, seeing only vague, gigantic forms in the darkness. He muttered a curse as he struck what looked like a giant arm and felt the axe rebound. The arm swung at him, but he blocked it with his right arm, laughing as pain shot down from his palm to his shoulder.

By this time, Homer had gathered himself under the fallen doors, and with a mighty shove he threw them off and rolled to his feet. He saw Moke, wielding his axe left-handed, engaged in combat with a gigantic woman who seemed to be made of stone. With a cry, he leapt forward, grappling the thing around the waist and trying to hurl it to the ground. Unfortunately, he found that he lacked the weight to do this, and a moment later was flung off, smashing into the stone altar where he came to a halt.

Hender raised his mace high and called commandingly, the room flooding with golden light. In the brilliance, Homer saw at least three others of the stone women stooping to enter the room from the hallway. They were dressed in flowing robes or gowns that somehow draped and swirled like fabric, though they appeared to be made of stone. The priest strode forward and swung the mace in an upward arc, striking the first creature in the face with a blow that made it reel backward.

Galbath now seemed to return to himself, and he spoke a single, harsh word, and the second of the creatures, as it stooped under the low doorway, collapsed in a pile of dust. Homer got to his feet, groaning, and moved to block the doorway before the next creature should enter. Moke drove his right palm into the belly of the stone woman he was fighting, and with a loud crack punched clear through, stone chips flying in every direction.

Meanwhile, Hender followed Moke’s attack by smashing the thing on the back of its head with his mace, knocking the head cleanly off the neck, upon which the entire creature collapsed on the floor with a thunderous crash. Hitting the hard floor, it splintered and cracked, the folds of “fabric” being particularly vulnerable to this damage, as it seemed. Hender took a close look at Moke’s hand as he pulled it from the hole he had punched in the animated statue’s torso. The skin was inflamed, as though he had suffered a burn, and it was slightly swollen, but the steaming had stopped.

Homer swung his sword at the arm of the creature that was trying to enter the room. The blade rang loudly as it cleaved through the stony extremity, the arm crumbling to the floor at it was removed from whatever magic animated it. The monster howled with the sound of wind through a keyhole, and swung its other arm at Homer’s head. He was expecting a counter, however, and ducked under it, levering his shield against the doorjamb and pushing as the thing got to the back of her swing. Unbalanced by the loss of an arm, the awkward position of pushing through the doorway, the missed swing, and Homer’s push, it fell over backward, collapsing on the floor, but immediately climbing back to its feet.

Moke joined Homer in the doorway, and together they charged at the unbalanced statue. Moke grabbed it by its remaining arm, and to his surprise as well as Homer’s, tore the limb clear, the stone crumbling and breaking in his grip. Homer was so astonished that he only reacted at the last moment, catching the blow from another of the statues on his shield. It still knocked him over, but Moke jumped over his flying body and embedded his battle axe in the head of the monster, snapping the shaft off as he followed through on his stroke. He only looked at the handle, useless in his hand, for a moment, before he charged at the next guardian statue, tossing the useless axe handle aside and grappling the stony woman around the waist. As she reached down to pummel his head, he joined his hands behind her back and squeezed, the stone cracking and splitting, and the statue fell in pieces to the floor.

Homer was now on his feet again, though Moke hardly needed his help. With a whirl of his hairy garments, the man was upon the final animated statues, and he hurled one of them into the other one, smashing them both to pieces. Panting somewhat heavily, he turned back to where Hender and Galbath emerged from the room, the priest’s mace held high to illuminate the hallway. The spellcasters looked this way and that at the scene of devastation, the fallen statues lying in pieces in every direction.

“Do you think the ceiling will hold?” Homer asked, unexpectedly.

Hender looked around the chamber again, and realized that the pillars they had passed on their way in were missing. “Clever,” he murmured. “To hide the guards in plain view.” Then, he seemed to hear Homer’s question.

“Yes, son,” he said. “They were never intended to hold up the ceiling, but only to appear so. Still, it might be best if we traveled on.”

They hurried down the hall to the far doors, and passing through these, they entered the vast chamber. A shambling crowd filled this space, creatures with claws for fingers and slavering fangs pressed forward, as though they had been waiting for the outcome of the conflict within the hall. Hender held up the mace even higher, the smiling face of the god in the sun pointed forward, at the encroaching creatures. The first group turned to dust before him, and he turned, presenting the symbol to another group. This group, too, turned to dust, and he moved forward, turning this way and that to ward off any of the clawing creatures that came too close.

Homer marched to his left, holding his shield ready to protect both of them, and Moke strode behind with Galbath. He had left the chipped axe in the head of the animated statue, and he flexed and swung his arms, indicating that he was ready for any of the fiends that made it past Hender’s mace. Soon, however, these menaces had been utterly destroyed, and the party entered the narrow passageway on the far side.

Though Homer and Moke had been exerting themselves, and were sweating in their armor, Homer began to feel a chill, and he looked to see what might be causing this change. Soon, his breath was frosting the air before him, and he shivered in his banded mail, even as perspiration dripped down from the rim of his helmet. Hender, too, slowed, and he turned the mace back and forth, as though seeking the source of this unexpected chill.

A choking gurgle from behind them made them turn, and they saw Moke sliding to the floor, a creature like the ones they had passed in the huge chamber chewing (somewhat ineffectually) on his shoulder while its talon-like claws were sunk into his arm. Hender gestured with his mace and the creature disintegrated, but its effect had been made, as Moke lay inert on the floor, only his anguished eyes testifying that he was not dead, but only paralyzed. There was a skittering of claws on the stone floor, and while Hender went to attend to the fallen fighter, Homer swung out as another of the creatures leaped from a shadowy doorway.

The reforged sword cut cleanly through the beast, and though he felt a scratch as the clawed finger flew past his face, it seemed to have lost its ability to paralyze. Then, he was busy, blocking with his shield and hacking with his sword while Hender prayed over Moke. Finally, the big fighter gave a sigh and began to climb back up off of the floor. The priest turned, and as though seeing Homer’s predicament for the first time, raised his mace and the attackers fell as dust.

“We must be careful,” he said, returning to Homer’s side. “The ghouls are more of a nuisance than a threat as long as I can turn them, but if I am paralyzed, or if they overwhelm us, we may be overrun.”

“Can you not return us to the chapel?” Galbath asked, bottles clinking in his satchel as he made a selection.

“Not all of us,” Hender replied. “I lack the power to move so much mass.”

Moke flexed the hand that had been injured when he grasped the sword. “That sword gave me power,” he said. “We’ll come through.”

Galbath smirked. “The belt gives you strength,” he said. “We did not give it to you simply because it matched your habitual garments. I still would feel better had you not left your weapon in the other chamber.”

“It was broken, anyway,” Moke grumbled. He seemed deflated to think that the power he had shown did not come from the sword. He pulled two daggers from their sheaths and sighed. “Let’s get moving.”

Homer and Hender began walking again, Homer seeking to protect the priest’s left side, Hender following the map in his mind that had brought them to the magical sword. The temperature began to rise again, and Homer smiled at the thought they had left at least one danger behind.

Not much farther along the way, Hender led them into one of the chambers that opened from the main corridor. This was actually a suite of rooms, and they explored all of them to verify that there was no other entry before they returned to the “front” room and began to prepare a camp.

Homer was glad to take off his helmet when Galbath had cast the ward on the doorway. His hair clung, damply, to his forehead, and moisture dripped from his hair onto his neck. Moke was having trouble removing his armor, and Homer hastened to help him.

“How goes it?” he asked, in a low voice.

“My hand still burns,” the fighter replied in a similar tone. “Father Hender’s healing seems to avail nothing for it.” He looked at his palm which showed an angry red.

“Perhaps we have a salve we can use,” Homer said, and stepped back as Moke lowered the chain mail, jingling, to the floor.

Homer removed his own armor, then explored the portable hole that Galbath had spread in an open space. He found another axe for Moke, and a jar of thick, greasy ointment that he brought to the other fighter.

“Here,” he said. “Let’s see if apothecary can help when the gods refuse.” Indeed, it seemed that the ointment eased the pain, and they wrapped the hand carefully to avoid getting the greasy substance on everything Moke would handle. Homer returned to the hole, and began to prepare dinner, since Hender and Galbath had retreated to a corner where they held a hushed discussion.

The smell of cooking sausage and melting cheese soon filled the room, and Homer was relaxing when the ward at the door chimed. That sound had found a home in Homer’s psyche since the night in the glade by the beach, and he immediately looked towards the doorway. At first he couldn’t see what it was that lurked on the far side of the glowing curtain, but then he realized that there was a sinuous shape moving back and forth in loops on the far side of the ward. Its tongue was flickering in and out of its mouth, and it was easily as big around as Homer’s thigh.

Setting the skillet down on the stone floor, Homer took up his sword and went to the doorway. The creature seemed unable to penetrate the curtain, and it moved back and forth across the doorway, occasionally stopping to look in past the barrier.

On a whim, Homer stabbed through the curtain, his blade passing as easily as the trident had done. The giant snake writhed and twisted, but it could not find a purchase on the sword, and in a moment it retreated, disappearing into the darkness of the corridor. Homer returned to the fire and cleaned his blade before returning to his cooking duties.

Moke sat against the wall, a skin of ale in his left hand, for he still resisted using the right. The priest and mage continued their conference in the corner, so Homer began to eat, rinsing the food down with a mug of beer he had pulled from the hole. When he had finished, he brought a plate to Moke, and the big man took it silently. Homer wasn’t sure if the other man just didn’t want to put the ale down, or if he was discouraged by his injury.

“It’s strange to be unhealed so long after the battle,” Homer suggested, squatting near Moke as the other lifted cheese and bread to his mouth.

“Messing with magic causes many problems,” the other offered around his mouthful. “Galbath is fine, in his own way, and Father Hender is a better man than I’ll ever be, but it galls me that a solid steel axe can’t fix Lorissa.”

Homer nodded. “Steel is something I can understand,” he agreed, “but a weapon is a weapon, and a weak weapon breaks on the enemy.” He saw again the flash of sparks as the sword snapped on the undead creature’s arm. With this thought, he left Moke to his meal and walked over to where Hender’s pack sat near the fire.

The hilt of the magical sword protruded from the corner of the pack and Homer looked at the gems as they twinkled in the firelight. There was no otherworldly glow, and he would have dismissed the weapon as an overly-ornamented piece of frippery for a noble if not for the welt on Moke’s hand, and the obvious wear on the wrappings around the hilt. This was not an unused, untested weapon, but had been used before it had been left in that strange shrine.

Would this sword be able to cleave the creature that had somehow grabbed a part of Lorissa? More importantly, how could they use it if it wounded the man who touched it? He decided that those questions were to be answered by the spell weavers, and made up his bed roll near the fire.

It was some time later that Galbath and Hender came to the fire and picked up the pan of cold sausages and re-solidified cheese. They ate quietly, until Moke came over from where he had been sitting, leaning against the wall.

“We are likely to face more opposition as we journey out,” Galbath said conversationally, nibbling at some cheese.

“We fought nothing on the way in,” Moke said. Homer opened his eyes and sat up.

“True,” Hender said, “but the taking of the sword seems to have animated both the defenses of the ancient builders and the forces placed here to keep the sword from being used.”

“Why do you say that?” Homer asked.

“The ghouls are creatures of evil, and it is unnatural for their to be so many of them in a small space. They feed on corpses, and there can’t have been many corpses down here for many years. Either they have been frozen, waiting for someone to take the sword, or they have been kept fed by some one, or they were sent here magically when the sword was taken.”

“And you think the enemies have done this.”

“Well, the sword was designed to fight against enemies like this, so I don’t think they would have been sent by those who made the sword.”

“Are you sure this is the right sword?” Homer asked. “So far, the only thing it’s done is harm Moke.” He glanced across at the other warrior’s bandaged hand. He seemed to be cradling it less.

Hender smiled at Homer’s frustration. “Yes, I’m sure,” he said. “It is the sword we saw being crafted. It is a weapon of Good against Evil.”

“Then why did it attack Moke? He’s not Evil.”

Hender hesitated, but Galbath spoke. “No, Homer, Moke is not Evil. He is, however, a trifle Chaotic, as you may have noticed. I suspect that the makers were wary of the sword being used improperly, and built in that very safeguard.”

“Is that why it didn’t hurt Hender?”

“Possibly, but Hender took it by the sheath, which would have protected him as well. Since we were under attack by the guardians of the sword, he thought it best to experiment later.”

“So, the giant stone girls were guardians of the sword?”

“Yes, they were magically created constructs designed to attack anyone who would improperly remove the sword.”

“But we need it to kill that thing that hurt Lorissa! What could be more proper?”

“You ask good questions, but we must remember that we may not look like the correct people, magically speaking. Moke was not aligned with the sword’s purpose when he took its hilt. He then threw the sword down violently. Also, we were accompanied by a large crowd of undead, though the magical defenses did not understand that we did not bring them intentionally.”

“So, who will use this sword? Will we give it to Ralph?”

“I don’t think Ralph has the proper qualities we are looking for,” Hender said, delicately. “He strikes me as the sort of man who could be run off by a couple of cleaning maids.” He smiled as Homer stared, wide-eyed at this assessment of their host. “No, I rather think that you will be the man to use this sword.”

Homer glanced at the jeweled hilt protruding from the backpack. His hand itched at the thought of the welt he had seen on Moke’s palm, but he nodded as he remembered that the ointment seemed to help.

“Why couldn’t you heal Moke?” he asked, reminded of this puzzle.

“Pelor will not grant the ability to heal what the Powers of Good have chosen to smite,” he answered. “Moke will recover in good time, and I am pleased that the salve seems to be speeding his recovery. Nevertheless, it is because the sword is a tool for Good that I am unable to heal Moke’s injury. Now you can see why we hope so much from this weapon, and why the makers were so concerned that it not fall into the wrong hands.”

Homer nodded. It did seem to make sense, though it was frustrating to be stuck down here and to have to fight past friends as well as foes.

They lay down soon after, for they were all tired from their exertions, and it was uncertain what they would face when they continued their journey. Hender said that he would wake them when great Pelor rose again in the sky, for that would signal a return of his depleted spells, and an increase in the power of Light.

Homer slept soundly, the bruises he had gotten from the battle with the stone maidens almost homely, as he had gone to sleep similarly bruised many nights at the smith’s.

He woke with a deep sense of peace, and saw the priest kneeling by the ashes of the fire, his head bowed in earnest prayer. Homer smiled, and thought how glad he was that the priest was with them. Then, he thought about their conversation of the night before. His eyes wandered over to the sword that protruded from the cleric’s backpack. Standing up, he walked over the the emergent hilt, and grasped it with his hand.

Homer half expected to feel stabbing pain through his palm, but instead there was an “opening” in his mind. It was as though a voice was explaining to him the use of the sword, and telling him that its name was Deathsmiter. He wondered if that name had sounded better in the language of the makers, but there didn’t seem to be anyone to ask. The presence in his head was not a person, but like a message from the makers — like a carving on the altar, or a note stuck to the pommel.

He quickly undid his swordbelt and mounted the scabbard of Deathsmiter in place of his own. It never occurred to him that he could sheath the magical blade in another scabbard — the two had been made for each other, and together they would stay. He set his own sheath on the floor, and nodded when he saw the open question in Moke’s eyes. As the other fighter reached out and pulled Homer’s own sword to himself, Homer drew Deathsmiter slowly from its sheath.

The blade sparkled and shone with a cold radiance in the dark room, and he knew, instantly, that there were undead not far away. The names they were given meant nothing to him, but he knew that the blade would lead him to them, and give him victory over them. He saw Hender had stood, and was leaning near, peering at etching on the tang of the blade.

There were runes there, though to Homer they meant nothing at all. Hender, however, nodded his head, and straightened up. He looked Homer up and down, and then bowed slightly to him.

Homer was surprised at this, but saw no mockery in Hender’s face when the priest stood erect again.

“Homer,” the big man said, “you were well chosen, when we asked you to come with us on this venture. Praise Pelor we did not lose this opportunity.”

The warrior nodded slightly, in awe, himself, of the weapon he held, and he slid it back into the sheath, although it almost felt as though it resisted the movement. Once it was firmly sheathed, that pressure disappeared, and Homer looked around as in a daze.

Galbath had produced some eggs that had been carefully packed in the hole at some time when Homer wasn’t around, and the smell of eggs and sausage brought him fully back to the present moment. The men ate quickly, but not hurriedly, and then packed away their things, Galbath tucking the portable hole into his belt again when they were through.

With Hender leading again, Homer at his side, they walked directly up to the ward which dissipated just before they touched it. Homer wondered, again, what would happen if he tried to pass it, and asked himself if Galbath had deliberately dispelled the ward at this time, seeking the most dramatic moment to make that take place.

Once they were in the hallway again, they walked as quickly as they could. Moke had strapped Homer’s sword on, but he held it now in his hand, the bandage making his grip a little bit awkward. Homer did not draw Deathsmiter, but he seemed to feel it nagging at him every time his shield arm dropped just a little, bringing his left hand near to the hilt.

They had gone quite a way when a feeling of dread began to creep up upon Homer. He found himself looking quickly around, as though to see something that was trying to sneak up on them. Moke, also, twisted and turned, and a cold perspiration began to form on his brow. Galbath, too, seemed affected, and he began to clatter the vials in his satchel nervously, as though unsure which to use for an as-yet unknown threat. Hender began to pray, but even this only reassured the party a little bit.

The passage emerged into a large, low room, and Homer thought for a moment that he recognized the entryway, when he realized that there were many, many figures standing in the darkness. One of them gestured, and the light of Hender’s mace was swallowed up in a darkness that was more than darkness.

Moke cried out, and with a flare the mace lit again, to reveal the warrior engaged with a number of skeletal, rotting forms, their limbs and faces wrapped with many windings of strips of cloth, and loathsome worms crawling from eye sockets and mouths. The heavy sword swished and sliced in the warrior’s hand, but the places where the creatures were cut sealed themselves almost instantly, and in the meantime they were clawing at Moke and pulling him down to earth.

Homer grabbed the hilt of Deathsmiter and pulled it free, and the blade blazed with a fury that outshone the light from Hender’s mace. All of Homer’s instinct and experience as a warrior seemed to be amplified as he stabbed and cut at the hideous creatures that now pressed in on all sides. Each one he struck quickly fell, and upon falling it was consumed by a cold, blue fire until there seemed to be nothing left. Homer charged about the room, striking with an energy like he had had when they were leaving the orc cave, and when he had cleared the area of enemies, he returned to find Moke huddled on the floor, Galbath crouching nearby.

Hender turned an anguished look at Homer. “They have been drained of life energy,” he said. “Even with the belt of strength, Moke can scarcely stand.”

Homer, acting on an instinct, as it were, reached out with the blade of Deathsmiter, and touched Moke on the shoulder. The man sighed deeply, and then rose to his feet as Homer turned the blade to Galbath. Once again, the touch of the blade seemed to restore the man to himself, and the party quickly re-established their marching order and headed for the stairs that were now visible in the gloom.

26 November

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They emerged into the grey of late afternoon, and Hender paused, debating whether they should rather return to the tunnels where they would be able to find a defensible position in a room, but Moke didn’t want to spend any more time in the deep dark, and it was true that the enemies had gathered in large numbers down there.

Instead, they pressed on, and when the sun set Galbath cast his spell that allowed them to see in the darkness. Homer sheathed his sword, for the light from its blade would be visible for a considerable distance, even in the woods. Hender’s mace, also, no longer glowed, as they didn’t need its light. Even before Galbath cast his spell, it seemed to Homer that the woods were full of light in comparison with the lightless tunnels.

It was impossible for them to move silently, as they were all clad in armor, except Galbath. This latter, however, huffed and puffed as they hurried along, so he was not much more silent than the other three.

Mere instinct caused Homer to duck a moment before an arrow whizzed past his head. He then spun, positioning himself to Hender’s right as he caught another arrow on his shield. It was only then that his vision cleared and he realized that he couldn’t see their attackers. Not only that, but the attackers could only see them if they had darkvision.

“Orcs?” he grunted, shifting position to try to see more broadly without exposing himself or Hender needlessly.

“Could be,” Moke answered in similar fashion. He didn’t have a shield, but he still stood between Galbath and the enemy, presuming that they weren’t surrounded, and that the enemy were off to the right. That was certainly where the arrows had come from.

“Too well-aimed to have been by chance,” Hender commented, hefting the mace and mentally running through the spells he had memorized. Galbath was silent, and seemed to still be processing the fact that they were under attack. It was not unexpected, since he was out of breath and had been struggling just to keep up with their pace.

There were sounds of stealthy movement, and Homer pivoted slightly, trying to keep the priest covered with his shield. Galbath had finally stirred, and was clinking bottles in his satchel. Finally, he uttered a strange word and there was a flare like a meteor that flashed into five trails up into the undergrowth to their right.

“Only five?” Hender asked.

“There may be more. I wanted to be sure I hit hard enough to leave a mark.”

“Understood,” the cleric smiled. Gesturing with his mace, he called aloud to his god. Fire answered from heaven, roaring down in a column roughly where the magical missiles had struck.

Now, the wood there was ablaze, and the light was almost too much for their enhanced vision. Cries of pain and terror were also heard, and Homer drew Deathsmiter as he charged towards the burning undergrowth. An orc appeared through the bushes, running right at him, and Homer raised his shield and slammed the monster in the face, putting as much of his weight behind the blow as possible. The creature went down without a sound, other than the loud thump of the shield smashing into him. Homer leaped over the body and continued up the hill.

Moke was charging, off to his right. The warrior bellowed a challenge in some language of the far north, and there were crashing sounds that sounded too heavy to have just been bushes he was running through. Another volley of the magic missiles came flying by, and Homer noted that there were only three targets, this time. He altered course, slightly, and soon was in view of a pair of orcs, panting in terror, and looking back and forth as though seeking an escape. They both had burn marks (clearly visible in the light of the burning vegetation) on their clothing, and one of them was holding a short bow, arrow on the string, but the monster only began to bend it as Homer came into view.

Homer stabbed the nearer orc, bracing himself for the point-blank shot of the other, when a tree stump came flying up from the right and flattened the creature against a tree. The orc Homer had stabbed fell soundless to the ground, and the young warrior turned to return downhill, and perhaps recover the orc he had hit with his shield.

The monster was still unconscious, and Homer sheathed Deathstriker, after first cleaning the blade, and lifted the stinking foe across his shoulder. A few moments later, he was rejoining Hender and Galbath, and he could hear Moke thrashing around in the woods up the hill, probably looking for other foes.

Homer dropped the monster on the ground before the cleric, who looked at him in surprise. “Would you have me heal his wounds?” the priest asked.

“I thought it might be well to know if they were lying in wait, or if they stumbled upon us,” Homer replied. He indicated the fallen creature with his chin. “I think this is the last one capable of answering questions.”

“It won’t be able to answer for a while, unless I spend healing magic on it, which I am loath to do.”

“You could kill it, and use Speak with Dead,” Galbath commented carelessly. Hender shot him a withering look. “I didn’t think it likely that you would,” Galbath said.

“Hey Moke, I think we got them all,” Homer called in the direction of the sound of breaking twigs and branches. “That was a good throw, by the way!”

There was no answer, but the crashing came nearer, and Moke finally emerged onto the path a few feet back from where they stood.

“I wonder if they have any ogres in this land,” he commented. “Orcs are too easy with this belt of strength.”

“Good,” said Galbath. “I don’t want us to have any fair fights until after we’ve rescued Lorissa.”

The others were in broad agreement with this sentiment, and they all began to walk again, somewhat slower than before because the fighters were still catching their breath, and Galbath didn’t press them.

It wasn’t too much longer before they came to the paths they had taken to the orc cave, and soon after that they stood before the castle gate. A light was called for, and Hender lit the mace of Pelor, upon which the gates were opened and the party allowed to enter.

Ralph was still at supper, so Moke took the stunned orc he had been carrying and delivered it to a wide-eyed jailer. The others each went directly to their chambers, where they bathed and changed their clothes before going to the dining hall. Moke, on the other hand, preceded them, for he went directly to the dining hall from the jailer.

Ralph was clearly relieved to see the other men, for Moke had not said much, and what he had said had confused the lord.

“But you did recover the sword, did you not?” he inquired, for about the third time.

“Yes!” Homer replied, and stood on weary feet to show that he wore Deathsmiter at his side.

“That — that looks like a prince’s weapon,” Ralph stammered.

“It may have been, long ago when it was forged,” Hender replied. “We know so little about those people that it is hard to say. In any case, it has proven itself to be everything we had hoped, for we battled hordes of undead on our return journey.”

“Hordes …” The lord looked pale, and Matthew commented, “I’m sure the magic sword helped them to defeat their enemies.”

“Indeed, it did,” remarked Hender, as Homer sat back down and began to eat. “Now we will need to find the lair of the fiend who attacked Lorissa.”

“Don’t you know where it is?” asked Ralph, in surprise.

“No,” the priest replied. “It certainly did not lair in the orc cavern, but it must have used the dimensional weakness caused by … an item in the chest to teleport there and attack us.”

“Can you use the demon-shun weakness against the fiend?” Ralph inquired.

Hender concealed a laugh behind his hand, and selected a stuffed olive, while Galbath had proven unable to hide his mirth and was coughing and spluttering from the inhaled wine.

“We will have to consider whether that is possible,” the priest said after a moment. “I suspect friend Galbath and I will have several more sleepless nights before we have answered that question.”

The adventurers finished eating soon after, though Moke could have stayed at table for another hour if the others had not risen to leave. Bidding their host farewell, they went their separate ways, though Homer accompanied the cleric to the chapel, where Lorissa still lay on the cold slab.

Homer realized that he had hoped the sword would be able to restore her, as it had Galbath and Moke in the tunnels, but as he walked towards her he realized that this was not one of the blade’s powers. Indeed, in this holy place, it resisted being drawn, and he left it sheathed as he knelt at her side.

“We found it,” he whispered to her. “We don’t know where the creature is, who took your life, but when we do we’ll come for you.” He realized that Hender was behind him, and stood, awkwardly.

“Don’t worry,” the priest told him. “We all want Lorissa restored.” Homer smiled, embarrassed, and left the chapel, returning to his chambers.

He was soon asleep, and he didn’t even think about the light that blinked, on and off in various rhythms, off the coast.
In the morning he rose and bathed and went to breakfast, and he was somewhat surprised to see Galbath and the priest arrive separately. They were dressed in castle-fashion, and they sat down to eat without preamble.

“I thought you would be in the tower,” Homer said, trying not to sound annoyed. “I thought you would be scrying, looking for the creature.”

Galbath darted a glance at him, and Hender smiled. “We are doing what must be done,” he told the young man, “but it is not always possible to do everything at once. The lich we are pursuing has webbed himself with spells, and it is difficult to find him, either in space or time. If we knew his name, we might be able to look at his youth, before he made himself into this abomination, and then we might get an idea of where he is hiding.”

“So, we…” Homer waited for the other to finish the sentence.

“So, we are looking into it,” the priest answered him, indicating the mage and himself. “If you want to smith, or walk, or train, please feel free to occupy yourself as you see fit, but we must do what only we can do, and you must trust us. Perhaps you could remember that we have worked with Lorissa for many years, and we care for her as much … or nearly as much as you do.”

Homer glanced at Moke to see his reaction to the priest’s words, but the big fighter was busily devouring a cold pheasant from dinner the night before, and didn’t seem to hear.

Homer tried to follow the priest’s advice, and indeed the smith was glad of his company. Together, they honed the hand-and-a-half sword that was now Moke’s weapon, and Homer explained the techniques he had used to get such strength and flexibility in the blade. He went to the practice yard and sparred with the men at arms, working until he was tired, and was in danger of injuring them by mistake. Finally, he borrowed a horse and rode down to the beach, riding as far as the little stream and the glade in which they had camped that first night.

The sands were smooth and clear, all of the wreckage from the storm having been swept back into the sea, or collected by — he paused for a moment and wondered. Would the sea devils have cared about the goods from the ship? Would they have collected the salvage from the storm? Were there other people who lived down in the other direction, who furnished themselves from the jetsam? Or, might it be Ralph’s people? Perhaps that was why the lord and his men had ridden down to the beach that morning — to survey the wreckage and to identify likely salvage.

His mind turning these questions over and over, he rode on until he came to a point where the beach from the far side came around to meet his. There were no people in this direction, in any case, he thought. Turning the steed around, he thought he saw a furtive movement by the half-buried tree — the last remnant of the storm to still be on the beach.

Its bark had been stripped off by the movement of the waves, and all of its leaves were long gone, but the tangle of branches and twigs that remained held it firmly in place, and there was even a hollow beneath it where the waves had washed away the sand.

He rode near, but kept the horse at a distance until he could identify what it was that had caught his notice. It would not do to be attacked by dogs, for the horse was not trained for war and might be injured by their attacking fangs. He circled around to the landward side of the tree, and then to the seaward side, but if there was something hiding by the tree, it kept itself out of sight, and he finally turned the horse towards home. Feeling somewhat foolish, he urged the beast into a gallop, and the tree was soon lost in the turnings of the beach, and the cliff on which the castle was built soon loomed over him.

The ride had filled some of his time, but he was still restless, so he went to the chapel and sat. Hender was not present, or was in some inner room, so he felt at ease to speak to the god, and to the girl, without worrying about what others would think. At length, he took the weapon from his belt and held it out, still in its sheath, before the statue of Pelor. Motivated by he knew not what, he laid the weapon on the altar beneath the statue, and then knelt on the floor, his head bowed before the god.

Time passed, and hunger stirred in his belly, but he felt that he should wait, and he stayed in his place, on his knees before the altar. The light from the windows faded, and soon only the oil lamp lit the room, and still Homer knelt before the god. His silent conversation was stilled — he was not asking questions nor sharing information, but only waiting, and he knew not why, or for what.

He realized, at one point, that an acolyte entered the chamber and refilled the oil reservoir of the lamp, but it was not Hender, and he felt that his vigil was not yet over, and so he didn’t move.

His muscles stiffened, and he felt the hardness of the floor as an oppression, but he didn’t move, and it seemed to him that the glow of the lamp upon the face of Pelor was more glorious than the glitter of the gems in the hilt of the sword.

Tristram came a couple of times to find him, to tell him of a meal or other occupation, to urge him to retire to bed, but something in the stillness of the warrior gave him pause, and he left without a word each time.

The moon rose, and its pale light joined with the light of the lamp on the floor of the chamber, and Homer still knelt. The moon passed on, until its light no longer entered the chamber, and still he knelt. In time, the light of day began to creep through the window, giving a rosy hue to the face of the god, and Homer raised his head. Looking up at that face, he bowed down to the floor, then rose and went to breakfast.

At the meal, he didn’t speak, but seemed to be in a daze, and the others soon ignored him. Moke, indeed, had conversation enough to make them wish for a silent meal, and Hender and Galbath were not present. After eating, although he had neither slept nor bathed, Homer returned to the chapel and resumed his silent vigil before the altar.

The day passed as the previous evening had done, and then the night came. Again, Tristram came to attend him, but left him, almost afraid of disturbing him. Again, Hender made no appearance, and again, Homer was focused only on waiting. No conversation played in his head, nor did he engage in a mental monologue. When the night had passed, he went to eat, and then returned to the chapel.

When he arrived, on this third day of the vigil, Hender was waiting for him by the altar, a flask of shining yellow metal sitting on the altar next to Deathsmiter. Homer looked at him quizzically, but said nothing, as there seemed to be nothing to say, and when Hender said nothing either, the young man quietly knelt in the place he had occupied, and bowed his head as before.

Homer heard the quiet swishing of the cleric’s robes as the man stepped towards him — Hender was not wearing his armor, and his mace was not at his belt. The priest moved until he stood right before Homer, between him and the altar — between him and the god. Hender moved slightly, and a smell came to Homer’s nostrils of spices from the far Bakluni lands. Immediately, he felt the priest’s fingers on his forehead, and the smearing of an oil that ran down his face, carrying the aroma of the spices past his nose.

The priest spoke softly, quietly, conversationally, but the words were in the language of his religion, and Homer didn’t understand them. However, he seemed to feel that Hender was approving of his vigil, and the anointing oil seemed to confirm to him that this was the place he should be, and the thing he should do.

The priest touched his head and shoulders, rubbing more of the fragrant oil on his shirt, and then stepped back, and out of Homer’s view. There was a swish of robes and the soft footfall of a sandal, and then Homer knew that he was alone again. The door of the chapel, which had stood open from his first visit, closed softly behind him, and he heard the soft sound of a bar being placed across it. He wondered at this, but he was content to stay where he was, as he was, and to wait whatever it was that he had been waiting all this time.

The day passed, but no one came to ask him to meals. The sun moved across the sky, but no acolyte came to refill the lamp. The sun set, and the lamp guttered, the golden light flaring and fading as the last of the oil burned, and the wick began to consume itself.

Finally, startlingly, the lamp went out, and the room was plunged into darkness. Still, Homer knelt, knowing that the god was still smiling down, and knowing, too, that his wait was not yet over. The moon rose and cast a white square on the floor, and Homer was vaguely aware of the movement of this square across the floor as the night moved on. Eventually, it approached the wall and disappeared, the moon standing high above the castle.

It was soon after this that the light of the moon went out, and Homer could hear the wind sighing outside, the sound of the sea rising as the breakers crashed against the base of the promontory on which the castle stood. It began to be a wild night, and the moonlight came fitfully, when at all, gleaming and then disappearing as clouds covered and revealed the moon.

He thought that it must be midnight, when a new light shone in the chapel, and he heard a soft footfall. Although he felt that he should still wait, he found an overpowering urge to raise his head and see who it was. The door had not been unbarred, and he didn’t know of another entry to the chapel — it was designed to be a sanctuary of last resort if the castle were taken.

The step sounded closer, now, and there was the swishing of some fabric brushing against the floor. Homer’s head began to turn, slowly, by inches, as he longed to see who it was, and as he wondered how this person had entered the locked chapel.

Not a foot from where he knelt he saw the pale toes of a foot. He knew at once that it was a woman’s foot, and the rest of the foot was hidden beneath the dark hem of a long dress.

With a sigh, Homer raised his eyes to meet those of Lorissa as she stood over him, gazing down at him hungrily. There was a light in her eyes, but indeed, her whole body shone softly with a light where it was not covered by the dark fabric of the dress. Even her hair seemed to shine, though there was now no light at all in the room, for the moon was completely covered.

Homer’s breath caught in his throat as he looked at her. She had never seemed more beautiful, or more desirable, than she did at this moment, and she stood there silently, waiting for him to speak.

He tried to clear his throat, but he couldn’t seem to breathe, and as he strove to rise he saw her motioning to him to stay where she was. She moved a few inches closer, and he imagined he could feel her breath upon his hair, upon his face, although the room was completely still. His breath finally escaped, and the sound of it seemed loud in the stillness.

Lorissa reached forward, towards him, and he froze, anxious for her touch, but fearful lest some clumsy movement of his might break the spell of the moment. It occurred to him that the girl had not moved in days, since she had been attacked in the orcish lair, and he wondered, for a moment, how it was that she was standing there, now.

Her long, slender fingers, so deft with a lock pick or the contents of someone’s pocket, touched his hair and moved lightly towards his face, when they suddenly touched the oil that had been rubbed there by Hender.

With a hiss, Lorissa pulled back her hand, and Homer almost reached out to grasp it, to pull it back, to draw it to his heart. There was hate in Lorissa’s eyes, now, and Homer thought he should explain that they were trying to free her, that they would do so as soon as possible. He realized, suddenly, that her touch had been as cold as stone.

Now, there was another light in the chamber. It came from near at hand, and it was very faint. It puzzled Homer, as the light that came from Lorissa puzzled him, but as with the other light, he seemed in a daze, and couldn’t think why the light should puzzle him so.

Lorissa stepped back from him a pace, and he wanted to cry out to her, to tell her to come back. He wanted to plead with her, to hold her, to — he realized that the light was coming from the altar.

He turned his eyes in that direction, and saw that the statue of Pelor was no longer looking at the slab where Lorissa had been laid. Now, the eyes were fixed upon Deathsmiter in its sheath, and the hilt was glowing with a low orange light that seemed to fall, first, from the face of the god onto the sword. Homer couldn’t explain how the light could pass from the statue to the sword without illuminating the rest of the chamber, but it seemed, indeed, that it was only after it had fallen on the sword hilt that it was able to cast light about the room.

27 November

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As he gazed at the glowing hilt of Deathsmiter, he looked up at the face of Pelor, and he saw that the eyes were closed. He bowed his head and closed his eyes, seeking to follow the example of the god. He heard the whisper of the gown on the floor again, and a movement of air made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. He was certain that Lorissa was standing behind him, now. A moment later, he felt the sharp pressure of her fingernails on the back of his neck. Again, he was struck by how cold her fingers were, but he was overwhelmed by the pleasure that her touch gave him.

Gently, she stroked down to his collar, but as she brushed his shoulder, she again recoiled with a hiss, and he knew from the sound that she had taken several steps backward. He waited, hoping that she would come to him again, yet a certainty began to grow in him that, in fact, he should not desire this. He peeked at the face of Pelor, but the eyes were still closed, and he lowered his head again.

The soft sounds told him that Lorissa had moved around to his left side, now, and again she approached, but Homer found that he willed her to stay back. There was something uncanny about her, and although he had longed for this time when they would be alone in the chapel, and she could see his devotion to her, he realized that this was wrong. He set his mind against her and silently warned her to stay back, hardening his resolve moment by moment until he realized that she hadn’t approached him again.

He glanced up at the god and saw Pelor’s eyes open, looking at him. There was a smile on the statue’s face, and an embrace of Homer that he had never known before. He stood, and looked to his left, where Lorissa stood. She was ten feet away, and it looked as though she wanted to approach him, but was held back by some invisible force. She looked into his eyes, her strangely glowing eyes pleading with him, promising him joy and pleasure, but now he resisted those charms and felt his resolve settle on his shoulders like mail.

It was at this moment that the god spoke. “Look at her,” it said. Homer obeyed, and looked in a new way, that was more than looking. Before his eyes she became foul — he could not explain exactly how. Her outward appearance didn’t change in the least, but he could see that she was an abomination, filled with loathsome cunning and ancient evil. He reached out with his right hand and Deathsmiter flew into his grasp. With a motion, he pulled the sword from its sheath and the blade sang as it cleared the leather, blazing with a delight and fury that penetrated to his soul.

Lorissa didn’t quail before the magical weapon, but instead seemed filled with rage and hate, and in a moment Homer flinched, a hidden throwing knife tracing a path across his cheek as she drew it and threw it in one smooth motion. As the blood mixed with the anointing oil, Homer reached forward and drove the point of Deathsmiter through the woman’s chest. He knew a moment of anguish — a sense of unutterable loss — and then his resolve hardened again and he stepped forward, pushing the blade until the hilts were against the front of her dress.

The eyes blazed, now, with an angry fire, and the mouth, so close to him, smiled cruelly, the parted lips revealing teeth that were considerably sharper than he remembered. As she moved her neck to bite him with those sharp teeth, he shoved with his right hand and she fell back against the wall. There was no blood on the blade, and the wound seemed to close before his eyes, so he swung the sword in an easy arc and lopped the lovely head off.

Immediately, the glow left her body, and all Homer could see was the shining blade of Deathsmiter. The hilt no longer shone, and when he turned to the statue of Pelor, it was not more visible than a glimmer in the darkness, from the light cast by Deathsmiter.

He looked back at Lorissa, but could see nothing, even when he used the new way of seeing that Pelor had granted him. He stepped back to the altar, sliding Deathsmiter back into its sheath and placing the weapon back on the flat surface. Then, feeling very weary, he knelt again before the altar, although he could see nothing now that the sword was hidden. It was about a half hour later that the moonlight began to shine through the window, although it was not direct light, since the moon had moved to the other side of the castle. Still, the square of the window with the star-filled sky filled Homer with a peace and contentment, and he awaited the dawn with his face lifted, staring at the place where he knew Pelor’s face would be.

When dawn had begun to light the eastern sky, there was a sound at the door, and he realized that the bar was being taken away. A moment later, there was the ringing jingle of chainmail and the heavy tread of boots as someone entered the chapel behind him. The person went first to the lamp, and Homer heard the sound of oil being poured into the reservoir, and smelled the smell of the wick being lighted again. Then, the feet came to where he knelt, and stopped.

“How went the night?” Father Hender asked him, gently.

Homer blinked, and looked up at the bearded face, and the weariness of sleepless nights nearly overwhelmed him. He rose, somewhat unsteadily, and saw Lorissa lying still on the slab behind the priest. He looked quickly in the other direction, but there was nothing there — no body, and no blood to show that he had stabbed Lorissa through and chopped her head off.

Looking back to Hender, he smiled ruefully. “I don’t know what to say,” he said. “I thought that something happened last night, but now I’m not sure.” He glanced at the statue of Pelor and found it staring placidly at Lorissa, as it had always done.

“You have a cut on your cheek,” Hender said, reaching up to touch him there. Homer flinched a little, then allowed the priest to touch him, and examine the cut.

“She … she threw a knife at me,” he said.

“Lorissa?” The priest did not sound disbelieving. Homer nodded.

Hender looked at the still form of the girl. “How did that fight end?” he asked.

“I … I stabbed her through the heart, and then cut off her head,” Homer said, weakly. It sounded outrageous in the light of day. Then again, the sheet covered her, exposing only her head.

The priest reached over and drew the covering down. The head was still attached to the neck, and the neck to the body, and there was no mark on the bodice of the green dress. However, when Homer looked intently, it seemed as though there was a line across the palm of the pale handprint on her neck, where the natural flesh color showed.

“What happened?” Homer asked.

“You were tested,” Hender replied. “It takes a special man to wield a weapon like Deathsmiter. We had no paladins nearby, and so I asked the god what we should do. He told me to look for one who was dedicated and selfless, and yesterday he instructed me to anoint you in preparation for a trial.”

“So, she wasn’t real?”

“The cut on your cheek looks real,” Hender answered. “I would say that the thing you fought was real, but it was not really Lorissa.” He looked down at the girl, and then pulled the sheet back up to her chin. “And yet, I believe the two are linked. I think that the enemy was prompted to attack, last night, using his connection with Lorissa to enter this sanctified place. I don’t know what the rules of the combat were, but I know that there were rules, and I know that, because you are alive, you won.”

“I won?”


“Pelor won, I think,” Homer said. “Last night was not a contest between me and … and something that looked like Lorissa. It was a combat between Pelor and that creature of darkness.” This thought excited Homer considerably, and he explained all of the details of the night to the priest, as far as he could remember them. The priest nodded thoughtfully as Homer described the events, and smiled at times as he understood things of which Homer was ignorant. Finally, he clapped Homer on the shoulder.

“Take your weapon,” he said, “and let’s go eat. I think we have a way to find our enemy, now.” Homer, still puzzled, retrieved Deathsmiter from the altar and buckled it to his belt. The two men walked to the dining hall where they ate silently, and were finished before the other men had come down to breakfast. Hender sent Homer to his room, bidding him sleep, and then returned to the chapel.

Homer began to weave slightly before arriving at his room, but with Tristram’s help he undressed and bathed, and then collapsed into the bed, upon which he fell fast asleep.

The shadows in the room spoke of evening when he woke, and when he emerged in the hallway, Tristram informed him that it was time for dinner. He accompanied the page to the dining hall where the whole company gathered. Galbath greeted him politely, and Moke put his food down long enough to say hello, but Ralph stared at Homer as though unsure of who he was. Homer endured this attention as well as he could, and ate and drank, though not in a way to compete with Moke. He was hungry after his vigil, and when the meal was done, he found that he was tired again, and he had no difficulty in sleeping when he returned to his quarters.

The next morning things seemed to be back to normal. Hender and Galbath were both present at breakfast, and the conversation unrolled in the normal fashion. Apparently, Galbath had arranged a payment to Ralph for the goods they had used in their assault upon the orcish cave, and the additional supplies they had taken to the ruins. Ralph was not entirely happy with this situation, for while he wished to be recompensed for his investments, he felt rather that they were paying off their debt in such a way as would leave him with no leverage, once they were ready to leave.

Homer lacked direction again, for he felt that his vigil in the chapel had come to an end, so he went to the practice yard and worked with the young men at arms who always appreciated his advice and training. There were two of these fellows who were keenly working away when one of them broke through the other’s guard unexpectedly. The blunted sword struck the other man in the face, causing a cut right by his left eye. The man fell back, holding his face, while the other reached out impotently, wanting to take back the damage he had caused. Homer commanded the injured man to stand still, and hearing his tone, the man obeyed. Then Homer made him put down the hand, revealing the bleeding cut. He put his hand on the man’s cheek in the name of Pelor, and when he had removed it, the wound was healed, and the blood was gone. Even the man’s eye was undamaged, though this had been in doubt.

“How did you do that?” the one asked who had caused the injury.

“I didn’t,” Homer smiled. “Pelor is the one who gives healing.” However, he felt amazed that the god had heard him, and he went away to his room to ponder this development. In fact, there were many changes taking place in him, and he felt only a distant connection to them. At times, he wondered if he had been possessed by some spirit — perhaps from the sword — that was pushing him and prodding him to do things that he had never attempted before. At other times he felt a love and peace in the presence of Pelor that assured him that if he would but follow where the god led him, he would continue to be amazed by what the god would do. That promise intrigued him, and he spent some time in meditation and prayer in his room, seeking greater oneness with the god.

At the evening meal, Hender was back. He seemed tired, and Homer waited for him to speak, though he was strongly tempted to ask him what he had learned. Finally, the priest began.

“I have found where the monster lives,” he said, “but I don’t know how to get to it.”

“I don’t understand,” said their host. “Where is it?”

“Beneath this castle,” the cleric replied. “Precisely five hundred feet below the chapel is where the creature lairs, and it was up the sheer cliff wall that he sent his emissary into the chapel the other night, to confront Homer.” As he nodded at the young man, Ralph’s face became a study in confusion. The priest, however, continued. “Unless you have cellars in this place that go down five hundred feet, I don’t know what to do with this information. We can not burrow down to him through the solid rock, and if we could, it would be difficult to climb back up.”

“Bah,” Moke sneered, chewing on a mutton shank, “with ropes it’s no problem. And with this belt, I can carry the other three of you, if necessary.”

Galbath didn’t look relieved at this assurance, but he said, “That still does not address the problem, friend Moke. Even your great strength would be wearied by trying to burrow through the solid stone foundation of the castle, and their would likely be consequences for the stability of the fortress if you did.”

“Where do the garderobes empty out?” Homer asked. “Do they collect in the middens, or is there a sewer, of sorts, beneath them?”

“Above the ground, they collect in middens, but over the cliff they drop straight into the sea,” Ralph informed him. “It’s one of the reasons the guest chambers tend to look out over the sea — too many valuables have been lost by the family when they have been dropped in the garderobe. At least they can be recovered from the middens.”

Homer smiled at the thought that their host was not concerned that they lose their belongings in the sea, but then remembered that it was a good description of exactly what had happened to them. Of course, they had lost their belongings before coming to shore.

As he thought about the shore, he thought about the beach approach to the cliff, and how the water seemed to rise and fall throughout the day.

“Does the water go down every day?” he asked Ralph, who looked puzzled for a moment, but then brightened.

“Oh, yes,” the lord answered him. “The tide goes out every day, and then it comes in again.”

“Does it always go out by the same amount?”

“No. That depends on the moons, somehow.” Ralph seemed a bit flustered at this. “We had a scholar who visited once, who explained it all to me.”

“Might there be caves, below the castle, that are exposed at low tide?” Homer wondered if it was a foolish question, but he felt that he could only cure his ignorance by asking.

“Oh, there are certainly caves,” was the reply. “You can hear the water smacking them when the wind is right, and the tide is at the right level, and sometimes, when the dolphins play beneath the castle their calls echo strangely.”

Hender looked intently at Homer. “That’s a fine thought, young paladin,” he said, and Homer noticed that Ralph’s head jerked to stare at him at the use of the title. “Tomorrow at low tide let us go down to the beach and see what can be seen.”

Matthew yawned. “There’s a tides table in the library,” he said. “It should tell you what time the water will be at its lowest, tomorrow.” He then affected complete indifference to the conversation, as though he had commented only in passing, and not so as to contribute to the discussion.

Hender and Galbath immediately rose from the table and headed to the library, while Homer finished his meal in silence, for Ralph had lost any inclination to speak to him.

By bedtime he hadn’t heard from the spell casters, so he retired to his chambers and went to sleep, only to be awakened by Tristram while it was still dark.

“Please, Sir Homer,” he said. “The priest said I should wake you, and that it was time.”

Homer yawned and struggled out of bed, donning the banded mail and other protective gear, and taking up his shield. Deathsmiter had been buckled around his waist, and he descended to the great hall, and then went out to the courtyard.

Galbath and Hender were standing there geared for action as Homer was, though the mage, of course, wore no armor. They waited ten minutes before Moke joined them, yawning broadly and armed with Homer’s sword, the cutlass, and a battle axe, plus chain mail, his hairy leathers, and the belt of giant strength.

Seeing that the party was complete, Hender led them to the gate, where a guard let them out through a postern. Then, they walked around to the descending path, following the light of Hender’s mace that he held up to aid them.

It wasn’t long before they reached the beach, and Hender led them left, towards the base of the stack, and the sharp, rocky teeth. He gathered them together and prayed for them, holding his mace before him so that they could see the smiling face of Pelor in his symbol. Then, he turned and walked into the waves, followed by Homer and Galbath. Moke hung back a moment, but then dashed to catch up with them, and he exclaimed when he realized that though the waves washed around them, wetting them as high as their chests, they didn’t sink beneath them.

The priest held his mace high, lighting the way as well as he could in the darkness and the splash and spray of the waves dashing against the spiny rocks. They were soon under the mass of the castle, itself, in the part of the cliff that had been eaten out over the centuries by the ceaseless movement of the water. It was hard to keep one’s footing in the constantly moving waves, and they seemed to be knocked into the standing tooth-like stones again and again, while the salt water drenched them and the cold wind blew on their soaking clothes.

Homer was reluctant to draw Deathsmiter, for he feared that his grip would be wet in the tossing waves, and he did not want to lose it in the sea, as he had his previous sword. Still, he wondered if it would give more light, as it had in the chamber of the undead in the ruined city. So, he went back and forth in his mind, trying to decide if he should attempt it, just a the waves washed back and forth across the party, first pushing them against the rocks, and then threatening to drag them out to sea.

After a half hour of struggling through the water, Hender led them back to the beach. “I think, if there is a cave,” he said, “it is higher than the water level is. We can try again in a short while, but after that my water walking spell will expire, and we will need to wait until tomorrow to try it again.”

28 November

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“Do you think they might have a boat, in the castle?” Homer asked.

“Do you think any of us knows how to use a boat?” Hender replied.

Homer laughed. “You’re right. We didn’t do so well the last time we were on a boat.”

The tide was at its lowest ebb, but it wouldn’t start rising for a while, so they returned to the castle and had an early breakfast. Homer took the opportunity to check his equipment, and Moke took the opportunity to drink some beer. The day dragged by, but it was finally afternoon, and they returned to the beach. The water was higher, and they set out amongst the stone spines to look for a cave.

The cliff jutted much farther out, here, for the waves only beat upon it half of the time, and they rounded it for a while until they found what they were looking for. It faced directly out to sea, and even had a wash of sand in the entry way. They splashed in from the waves, and Homer staggered a little when he could walk without being pushed back and forth.

The cave was fairly large, but what interested them were the passages that went farther in. Hender lit his mace, and the examined them, looking for signs of passage, or evidence that tools had been used to widen or flatten the tunnel. Eventually, they just had to pick one, and they hoped that it would not bring them lower, where the rising tide would overwhelm them.

Indeed, the passage led upward, into the stone, and it had not taken them far when Homer said, “Stop!”

The others looked at him in surprise, but he pointed to the passage ahead of them. At first, it looked like algae, dripping from some higher pool, but looking more closely they could see that it was green slime. Moke shuddered, for all had heard stories of adventurers who had been completely consumed by green slime that had dripped upon them from above, or into which they had stepped. They carefully inched around, hugging the left wall of the tunnel, until they were past the threat. Then, they continued on, grateful for the brightness of Hender’s light.

It was not much farther before they were set upon by a group of undead, like those who had attacked their camp near the beach. Hender raised his mace, and they were turned to dust which soon became a kind of mud in the dampness of the tunnel. Moke commented, “It’s not much of a challenge when all we face are undead.”

“We’re not here for the challenge or the loot,” Galbath remarked.

The next time the passageway turned, opening up into a larger room as it did so, they saw a troop of the undead, but they stood motionless against the wall.

“Do they know enough to refrain from attacking us?” Homer asked the priest.

“No, but their master has learned not to waste them.” He gestured with his mace, and the figures disintegrated. “My spells are granted by the god in limited numbers, but I have no such limit on destroying these abominations,” he said with some satisfaction. “Whether the monster was planning to use them to flank us later, or just did not want to throw away his tools, I have ended the sacrilege of their existence.”

The party continued on, working their way back towards the cliff face, as far as Homer could figure it. In fact, not too much farther along, they came to an opening in the wall, and the light of evening fell dimly on them, shadowed as they were by the cliff. Below them, the water gurgled and swirled around the stony spikes, and sea birds darted out of nests that clung to the underside of the cliff face.

“We must be above the high tide,” Galbath commented. “The birds would not nest here, otherwise.” Homer was relieved to think that they were finally safe from the rising waters. Other dangers seemed less terrible than drowning. After walking along with their left side facing the sea for a few feet, the tunnel turned back in to the darkness of the stone, and they were dependent on the light from Hender’s mace again.

The tunnel, in fact, climbed steeply from this point, and they were nearly climbing on all fours when they emerged into a large chamber. It stretched away in every direction, including up, and the light from the mace did not illuminate its farthest reaches. There was a glitter that made Homer think of treasure reflected far ahead of them, but between that treasure and them was a creature of nightmare. It looked like a stork, in many ways, but had naked skin instead of feathers, and cruel, curved talons tipped what would have been wings on a stork, but were instead twisted arms. Its eyes glowed with a malevolent flame, and a carrion smell came from it to the party.

Hender stopped and raised his mace, with the symbol of the god towards the creature. He called out in a commanding voice, but the creature laughed.

“I am not a pitiful undead thrall, to be banished by your word,” it said in a voice as old as night.

“Perhaps not,” Hender replied. “You are only the slave of a thrall.”

The thing was enraged by these words, and it darted forward to attack. Before it reached them, Moke had stepped forward and swung his battle axe in a great arc at its head. Not only did the haft crack, as had the one in the tunnels, but the blade shattered — bits of metal flew and tinkled on the ground. The creature backhanded Moke with its left arm, and Homer saw that it had a spur near the elbow which tore a hole in Moke’s chainmail. The big fighter fell against the floor with a smack and lay there, stunned.

Homer could hear Galbath clinking his vials together, but the creature was close, so he stepped forward cautiously, holding his shield defensively and drawing Deathsmiter from its sheath. The magical blade burned with its cold fire, but it seemed timid in comparison to the confrontation in the chapel.

He allowed the evil creature to come closer, and waited for its attack, which he deflected with the shield. Then, he slashed with his sword and cut the thing, ducking back rather than following up the attack.

The creature hissed with a sound of broken glass and retreated a pace or two. It looked at Homer with a respect it had not shown to Moke, or even Hender. It circled around, but Homer did not allow it to get between him and the spell casters, and chopped at a limb that was withdrawn before he could hit it.

The thing circled the other way, seeking, Homer thought, to draw him away from the priest and mage. Again, Homer attacked to keep it from passing him on that side, and again he missed as the thing withdrew.

They circled around to the left again, and this time, as Homer struck, the creature threw out its arm and hit him just above the wrist. His hand opened involuntarily, and Deathsmiter flew from his grasp, clattering on the hard floor on the other side of the creature.

“Homer!” Moke called to him, from where he was getting up from the floor. Homer glanced that way and caught the hilt of his sword — the one he had forged — as Moke flung it to him. With the same motion, and preserving the energy of the throw, he stabbed, piercing the thing between the ribs of its left side, the reddish skin parting and revealing a disgusting red flesh beneath. It howled in pain, but he saw the wound close again as it limped back, and soon there was no sign of the injury.

The creature’s face was not made for expressions, but it almost seemed to Homer that it smiled as it charged him, and he swung mightily, trying to cleave its head. The sword, which had pierced the thing’s hide, and had cloven through the stone guardian’s arm, snapped at the blow, but before he could throw the hilt away in disgust, the creature was upon him.

It bore him down to the floor, and he barely interposed his shield, keeping the sharp beak, with its incongruous teeth, from tearing out his throat. His empty hand flailed for a moment, and then closed around the warm hilt of a sword. Homer didn’t need to see it to recognize the feel of Deathsmiter, and he brought the blade up in an arc that severed the monster’s head, showering him with blood so hot it nearly scalded him. He shoved the corpse away and rolled to his feet, relieved to see Moke standing, and Hender speaking words that quickly made the pain go away.

“Thank you …” Homer stammered. “Steel failed me. Whoever gave me the weapon …”

“It came to you in your need,” Hender said, quietly.

They turned upon hearing the sound of someone approaching from the far end of the room. An enormous, scaly head came forward into the light of Hender’s mace and regarded them from crimson eyes with vertical slit pupils.

“How clever of you to defeat my demon,” the huge head said in a voice that made their ears ring. “Shall I summon another, or eat you now?”

Galbath smiled and stepped forward, one hand behind his back. “Are you sure you have the appetite for us?” he asked, looking up at the face that hovered over him, looming out of the darkness. “After all, there are four of us and only one of you.”

The dragon looked Galbath over and remarked, “You’re fat, but not as fat as that. If one of the fighters proves too tough, I’ll let him simmer until later.” It began to inhale, the air whistling in through nostrils the size of bucklers.

Galbath brought forth his hidden hand and cast a sparkling glitter of dust upward, upon which the huge head vanished.

“What did you do?” asked Homer. His wounds had been healed, but he was still breathing somewhat hard, and the thought of dragon fire had done nothing to slow his respiration.

“Dragons don’t summon demons, and they don’t lair in caves with tiny entrances,” he muttered. “It was a very convincing illusion in other respects, but you can tell that his mind has been gone for many years.”

Hender stepped forward. “Cautiously, now. He may have laid other traps with more cunning.”

They moved forward, spread out a few feet, each from the next. Moke was holding his cutlass — the last weapon he had before he had to rely on daggers. Homer and Hender were in the center, just out of melee range of each other, while Galbath trailed a little on the left flank.

The glittering began to resolve itself into shapes as they got closer, and Homer almost thought he could see a form on a large chair or throne when he became aware that Hender had stopped walking. Looking over at the priest, he saw the man poised in mid-step, his mouth open as though he were about to speak, the mace held high in the overall gloom.

A chuckle, dry as hundred-year-old leaves came from the chair, and there was a creaking and clattering of bones as the figure stood. It was tall, like a man, but there was something about it that told Homer it had never been a man. It advanced slowly, and an aura of fear seemed to precede it.

Homer glanced to his left, to see what Galbath would do, but the mage was similarly frozen, his hand in his satchel in its continual quest for the right powder. The creature reached Hender and struck him a backhand blow, the priest falling immediately to the ground. The light of the mace went out, and the only light that showed was the fire of Deathsmiter and the strange glow, like pale fire, that seemed to limn the evil creature.

It turned to him, and he no longer wondered about Moke, but rather how it was that he still stood, when Hender and Galbath had been frozen. The cavernous eye sockets bored into him, and he flailed out with Deathsmiter, finding his hand guided by more than just experience and skill. The point of the blade entered the creature’s face through the yawning mouth, and it collapsed in a heap of bones, as a chuckle whispered through the dark.

“Pelor, give us light!” Homer cried, and the mace illuminated, where it lay by the fallen priest.

Four creatures, like the one he had struck down, stepped out of the shadows, each clutching a jewel-studded mace and chuckling unnervingly, the lower mandible of the jaw vibrating with the evil humor. With a cry, Homer leaped forward and clove first one, and then another, taking the blow of a mace on his unprotected shoulder while another mace rang off of his shield. The remaining two creatures were soon felled, but the laughter rang out again throughout the chamber.

The skull he had first stabbed, with its cracked bones, rolled across the floor and joined with the shoulder blades of one of the other creatures. These seemed to summon the arms from two of the others, while two more complete constructs stepped forward, these equipped with curved, golden swords.

Homer didn’t wait for the one skeleton to reconstitute itself, but cut it in two with a horizontal slash, and then he was occupied with sword play as he parried and blocked the attacks of the two skeletal figures. These were implacable swordsmen, and they advanced on him, coordinating their attacks and maneuvering him backward. All the time, the hoarse laughter continued, although Homer couldn’t identify the source. It seemed to come from the figures he was fighting, and yet echoes of it seemed to come from elsewhere in the chamber.

He finally saw an opening and thrust through it, piercing the breast bone of the fiend on the right while he caught the other’s sword on his shield. Turning, he quickly hewed this one down, and then drove Deathsmiter through the fallen skull, splitting it in two. The remains of the creature burst into the blue flames he had seen in the tunnels, and he turned to find another of the figures swinging down at him with a mace. He dodged the blow and then clove its skull with an upward stroke, satisfied to see the remains collapse in fire.

Now that he had a strategy, he charged the other creatures, who had reassembled themselves from the pieces he had struck down. One of them seemed poised to kill Hender, and Homer struck it first, taking its skull and flinging it at another who was moving towards Galbath. The flung cranium knocked the other creature down, and Homer followed with Deathsmiter, cleaving the fallen heads and nodding with satisfaction as the remaining bones burned up.

Still, the laughter continued, though Homer hoped it sounded a little forced. He went back to Hender and touched him with the sword blade, willing him to awaken from the spell that had gripped him. Nothing happened, so Homer dropped the shield and picked up the mace of Pelor, holding the shining weapon in his left hand as he advanced on the throne.

There was, in fact, a mound of treasure here, of gold and other coins, and scrolls and other objects piled as he imagined a dragon would pile them. He wondered, for a moment, whether Galbath had been mistaken. Perhaps they did face a dragon who had unusual habits, and who had vanished at Galbath’s spell merely to play with them.

On the other hand, the laugh was very different than the laugh of the dragon’s head. He moved forward, closer to the treasure, to see if there was a hidden passage or buried structure. He moved the light back and forth, but all he saw were riches beyond his wildest dreams. There was the hilt of a sword of master craftsmanship, wound with silver wire. It was tarnished from long neglect, but his experienced eye knew it instantly. There was a hammer that would be both swift and sure to strike the iron, and he thought there might be an anvil buried near it, in chains of gold and other ornaments.

He poked with the toe of his boot, digging in the hoard, dislodging a ball of crystal that rolled into the darkness. There was a child’s top, made of clay and inscribed on the sides with strange runes. There was a true war axe, only to be wielded two-handed, and inlaid with red bronze and gold in geometric patterns. He stepped on the top and slipped and fell, climbing painfully back to his feet as he looked deeper into the piles of treasure.

All the while, the chuckling laugh continued. It was irritating, but it was also unnerving, for he knew not the source of it. It seemed to come from all around him, and it echoed throughout the chamber. He held the mace high and looked up, wondering if the foe were somehow hidden above them, but there was no glimmer of light returned from those heights.

Homer began to make a circuit of the room. He found Moke, cringing against the wall by the door. When he saw Homer he looked ashamed, but he did not rise and he said nothing, but continued to hold his hands above his head, as though warding off a blow. Homer passed him by and found an opening, from which he could look out over the sea. Night had fallen, and the waves murmured and hissed below him, but there was no further path, and he was about to turn back into the chamber when he saw the blinking light out over the water that he had seen so many times. He looked intently at it. It seemed to be about at the level of this cave, but straight out to sea. He moved the mace back and forth experimentally, but the blinking light went out and did not return.

He went back into the main cave, amazed at how quickly the sound of the sea was lost, and only the dry chuckle could be heard. The back of the cave was curved, and he found himself on the back side of the treasure heap, but there was no exit here, and he continued around until he came back to Moke, cringing by the door.

He returned to Hender, praying that the priest would have been restored to himself, but the man still lay still on the stones, and Homer lacked a way to rouse him. He found Galbath — hard to see in the dark clothed in his black robes — and the man was as rigid as a statue, though he was glad to see that his color was that of flesh, and his skin dimpled when Homer touched it.

He returned to the throne, and the treasure pile, and he stamped on a crystalline horse that shattered to dust beneath his boot. He saw the little clay top and remembered how he had slipped on it, but unlike the horse it had not been damaged. He stepped on it again, but could feel it pressing against the sole of his boot, harder than he expected. He sheathed Deathsmiter and picked the top up, examining it in the light of the mace.

It was crude, barely smoothed, and had letters of some form unknown to Homer, one on each of the four faces. It was slightly heavier than he expected, but what amazed him was its hardness. Although it looked to be made of baked clay, it had not crumbled when he stepped on it.

He set it on the floor and stamped, recoiling as it bit through the heel of the booth. He swung the mace down and struck the top squarely, but although chips of stone flew from the floor, the top was unharmed. Setting down the mace, Homer drew Deathsmiter again, and for the first time, the laughter faltered. He slowly lowered the point of the blade until it touched the little top, lying in a depression in the floor where the mace had struck, and he pushed.

There was a blast of heat and light, and a roar like the sound of thunder, and Homer was blinded and deafened for a time. Then, he heard a low moaning as Hender climbed shakily to his feet.

“A balenorn,” the priest said. “As powerful an undead as I have ever met. Indeed, he was powerful enough that he didn’t quail in the presence of the weapon crafted to end him.”


Galbath’s voice joined the conversation as he limped into the light of the mace, where it lay on the floor at Homer’s feet. “Indeed, the olven made a weapon to destroy that betrayer, but their civilization fell to ruin before they could bring it against him.”

“A balenorn is an olven undead wizard, a being of great power,” Hender explained. “They are sometimes created by a people to be their protector or counselor. Unfortunately, they can become evil over time, or — as I suspect — mislead the people as to why they want to become such a creature.” He shook his head. “How did it end? Did you cleave his bones as you failed to do in the orc cave?”

29 November

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Homer laughed. “I clove them over and over again. There were as many as six at one time, and however many of them I struck down, the evil laughter continued.”

“Then it’s true,” Hender mused, “many of these creatures hide their lives in another object, so that they can not be slain.”

“He must have hidden it in the top,” Homer said. “There was a small, clay top that would not break when I stepped on it, nor when I hit it with your mace, but Deathsmiter cut it, and there was a blast, and the laughing stopped and you came to yourself.”

Moke was standing shyly at the edge of the light, and the priest beckoned him to come closer. When Hender had examined them all, he cast such healing spells as were needful, and then he and Galbath cast many light spells to help them analyze the mound of treasure.

There was much that was of no use — silver coins that had moldered until there was more tarnish than silver; maps and scrolls in languages and of places that no longer existed; strange garments that would be out of fashion, even were they not rotten with mildew. There was, however, much that endured, including much gold and many precious stones, as well as jewelry and weaponry. Galbath inspected all of the crafted objects, and one group he packed on one side of the portable hole, while the other group were piled on the other side. Hender was also active, casting spells to drive out curses and looking for artifacts that would be sacred to one or other of the gods. Some of these things he placed in a special collection, to be destroyed once the party returned to the castle. They were devoted to evil things, and Hender would not cast them into the sea because of the proximity of the sea devils.

“It would only embolden them, and it might even empower them,” he said.

Finally, there was a great heap of coins that were too massive to fit in the hole, and could not be carried in their packs if they hoped to return to the shore. They made a fire and sat down to a meal, while they spoke about what had happened. Moke gradually lost the shame that he felt for falling prey to the magical fear that radiated from the balenorn. Hender explained that Pelor had taken Homer as his champion, and as such, the god protected him from magical fear.

“I still had to battle my own fear,” Homer confessed. “Those two blade-wielding fiends had me practically against the wall.”

Galbath muttered something low. When the others asked him what he had said, he replied, “With all of my preparations, I was not protected from a simple hold person spell. When I should have been most helpful, I was paralyzed, and would have been slain without the help of Homer.” He shook his head, sadly. “Perhaps I should accept that invitation to be court magician to the Count Palatine of Ulek…”

Hender chuckled. “You would constantly doubt that you were suited to such a station,” he said. “And you would chafe at the restrictions keeping you from the research that you love. Think how many scrolls and librams we found in this trove, and the delight you’ll have in the weeks to come as you analyzed them!”

Galbath smiled wryly. “You are probably right, my friend,” he said. “I suppose I just need to accept that there are some things that cannot be foreseen, and that there is no shame in having a warrior by one’s side.”

“It was not a warrior who aided you, Master Galbath,” Moke said. “I was cowering by the tunnel, and would have fled had not fear of the sea kept me from that course. Father Hender assures me that the fear was unnatural, and caused by magic, but it does not change the fact that, even with the belt of strength, my arms were of no avail against the foes we faced.”

“A holy knight, then,” Galbath said, inclining his head. “I did not suspect, when we asked Homer to join our crew, that he would turn out to be a paladin.”

Homer chuckled. “No more did I, myself,” he said. “I think I’ll have to thank Lorissa for getting me to go to the chapel of Pelor, for that is where I met him.”

Hender smiled in the flickering light of the fire. “Let us all sleep, then,” he said, “so that we can rejoin Lorissa, and thank her for the adventure she has given us.”

They woke as dawn was gilding the sky outside the cave, the light reflected from sea and sky entering the gloomy place and looking cheery after their adventure. With Hender’s mace lighting their path, they retraced their steps until they came to the place where the path overlooked the sea, and where the seabirds nested. Here, Galbath performed one of his more impressive incantations, and then stepped off into the air, beckoning to the others to follow him. When they did, they found themselves drifting down slowly, like feathers, and only Homer wet his boots in the surf as they landed on the beach.

It took them only a few more minutes to climb the stairs to the top of the spire, and they were soon welcomed through the castle gate, while the captain present pleaded with them to visit Lord Ralph in the high tower. Puzzled, they trooped up the winding stair until they came to the door of Galbath’s chamber, which they found locked.

Knocking on the door, they heard the voice of Ralph calling to them.

“Please let me out,” he said.

“Where is the key?” Hender asked.

“She threw it out the window!” the plaintive voice of the lord said.

Moke pushed forward, to smash the door open, but Galbath motioned him back. “Not only would it be inconvenient for me were you to succeed, friend Moke,” he said, “I fear that the charms I have placed on this portal would not be overcome, even by your great strength.” He motioned towards the door, intoning some words with great pomp, and they heard a loud click from the lock, upon which Ralph pulled the door open.

“Where is she?” he asked wildly.

“We came directly here upon our return to the castle, but I assume you’re referring to Lorissa?” Hender said.

“Yes, Lorissa! A plague upon Lorissa! What has come over the girl, is what I would like to know!”

Homer looked with some concern at Hender, but the priest was not troubled by these words. He handed a crystal to each of the three companions, saying, “We’ll split up to cover more ground. When you find Lorissa, break your crystal on the floor. The others will be notified, and given direction to where you are.”

“What about me?” Ralph pleaded.

“My lord, you will be just fine,” the priest soothed him. “Go and have breakfast, or play with your falcons. Don’t worry yourself about our companion any further.”

Ralph did not look pleased about this, but he bothered them no more, and Galbath shut the door of the chamber, locking it magically before they descended the steep tower stairs. When they reached the bottom, they went their separate ways, each according to his own idea of where Lorissa could be found.

Homer wasn’t sure why, but he went out into the courtyard and walked over to the smithy. The forge was cold, and the anvil was silent — the smith was not working today. On the far side of the smithy were the stables, and he walked down the row of stalls, counting horses.

One of the horses — a light mare who showed a good turn for speed — seemed unsettled, and Homer took her head and soothed her. There was a movement in the shadows, and then a bedraggled red head came into view.

Lorissa had changed out of the long green gown she had worn since their arrival at the castle, and had found the reddish-brown leathers that she had worn before their arrival here. Her hair was bound back from her face, but several of the strands escaped and flew about. There were smudges under her eyes, and dirt on her cheeks. When she saw Homer, she looked frightened.

Homer looked down, away from her sparkling green eyes, and waited a moment. Then, raising his head, he said, “We’re back.”

She approached the stall door and looked over it into his eyes. “Homer,” she said. “I’ve had the strangest dreams. Where did you all go?”

Homer pulled the crystal from his pocket, and dropped it to the floor of the stable. Smashing it with his boot heel, he said, “Let’s wait for the others to come, and you can hear the story properly.” He turned his head, and then glanced at her shyly. “Was I in your dreams?”

He wondered, for a moment, if she had heard him, for she didn’t answer, but then she murmured, low, “You were. You were in all of them.”

He turned back to look at her, and saw that her face was downcast, and he reached over and lifted her chin. “I’m glad,” he said. “Even if they were bad dreams, I’m glad that I was there.” She stared at him, then, trying to determine his meaning, when Moke came trotting into the stable.

“Homer, where is …” he broke off as he saw the girl in the stall. Homer dropped his hand and stepped back, inviting Lorissa to open the door and come out. As she did, Hender arrived, running almost as quickly as Moke had done.

“Lorissa!” he exclaimed. “Praise Pelor!” Standing at the entrance to the stable, he said nothing more, but leaned against the wall and breathed heavily.

Galbath was the last to arrive, panting and gasping, and Homer and Moke joined them at the entrance to the stable, while Lorissa came to the doorway and sat on the edge of a trough.

The girl spoke first. “The last thing I remember, we were all in that orc cave, and I had opened the chest for you. Then, everything went black, and I slept for a long time. When I woke up, I was all alone in the chapel and it was the middle of the night. Well, I returned to my room, because it was pretty cold with just a sheet in that chapel, I can tell you. In the morning, I came down for breakfast, but everyone was gone. Ralph was no help, whatsoever, and couldn’t tell me where you were. He also wouldn’t tell me where my gear was, so I tracked down Galbath’s room — I didn’t know you had moved to the tower at first — and then locked Ralph in.

“After that, it was pretty easy to search the castle. He had been a terrible nuisance, following me around and asking how I felt and so on, but he wouldn’t tell me where any of you were! So, once I found my gear, I figured you needed my help, like you had in the cave, and so I came to get a horse and see if I could find your trail. Only, you found me, and here you all are.”

“Lorissa,” Hender said, gently, “who was your mother?” She looked at him in surprise, and then shook her head.

“I don’t really know,” she said. “You know how it is…”

“And your father?”

“I think he was a cat burglar. At least, when he would come home at night he often had a kitten in his bag for me…”

Homer looked sharply at her. Her humor was always in an unexpected line.

“Why are you asking me about my parents?” She tilted her head to one side as she looked at the priest, waiting for his answer.

“I’m wondering if you have olven blood,” he said, quietly.

“Oh, yeah,” she said, brightly. “My great-great-great-grandfather got me out of jail, once.” The men looked at her in surprise, and a fair mix of disbelief.

“It’s true,” she insisted. “I was traveling through Celene, and I just happened to find something that someone else thought belonged to them. Well, those olven soldiers are no joke, and in no time I was locked up, and they said something about 10,000 years… I think they were probably joking?

“Anyway, I had been there for about a week, and this guy came along who looked like he was in his thirties, you know? He told me that I was the child of the daughter of the man who had been the son of someone or other — it got really twisted up — but somehow or other it ended up that he was my great-great-great-grandfather, and he was willing to get me out of jail if I promised never to go back to Celene.

“Well, you don’t get an offer like that very often; you know, ‘We’ll let you out of jail if you promise to stay away from the people who put you in jail’? So, I took it.

“Anyway, I didn’t think about it too much at the time, because I really needed to get out of Celene, and I also needed to get some stuff to replace the stuff that the other person said was theirs, so it was only later that I realized that I must be part elf. Maybe that makes me better at night, since I can see better in the dark? I don’t know; I don’t know how you would measure that…

“But, that still doesn’t answer why you were asking me that.”

Hender smiled at Lorissa’s typical way of talking, and he leaned back against the post. “The balenorn who attacked you seemed to single you out from the party. At first, I thought it was because you were the closest to the chest, but then I realized that it came through the chest to get to you.

“I know all of Galbath’s story, and most of Moke’s. Homer has been a delightful surprise. But you, Lorissa, have a way of keeping secrets, even when you seem to be revealing everything.” Homer blushed and dropped his eyes, but no one seemed to notice.

“I suspect,” the priest continued, “that the balenorn attacked you because it needed the life essence of an elf to sustain it. There have not been elves in this area for some time, as Ralph confirmed for me at dinner the other night. The directness of the attack, and the way it left the rest of us alone, made me think there was something special about you, Lorissa.”

“You don’t think it only attacks virgins?” she asked him, staring directly into his eyes.

“I rather think that there have been many virgins in this area, but you are the first victim of this creature in the memory of this castle.” Homer admired Hender’s delicacy. “It is your olven ancestry that attracted the balenorn to you, and it may be your human ancestry that kept him from immediately draining your life.”

Lorissa now had many questions about the balenorn, the attack in the cave, and the search for the magical sword. She asked Homer to show it to her, but was very careful not to touch the hilt or blade, having heard of Moke’s experience with it. Then, she wanted to hear about their other adventures, how they had managed to find the balenorn’s lair, and finally defeat the thing.

“So, Homer’s sword was created specifically to attack the balenorn?” she asked.

“So it would seem,” the priest answered.

“Then, why didn’t someone else kill it before now?”

“It’s not so simple, my dear. The balenorn had to be found, and in those early years, it had many elves from whom to steal the life, and to energize itself. For many years, now, it has hungered, surrounded by humans and orcs who can’t satisfy its cravings. It has been weakened by the years, despite the spells that it wove to endure for all of time. And, it has become mad, its mind even further unbalanced by its long sojourn in the dark. I suspect that it was stronger than those who came against it before, and it was weaker by the time we did.”

“The elves don’t serve Pelor,” Homer added, unexpectedly. The others looked at him, and it seemed that Lorissa, especially, stared intently in his direction.

“It was Pelor who guided us, and who provided the power to endure,” Homer said, looking at Hender, and then dropping his eyes to the ground. “The orcs had seized a mace of Pelor on one of their raids, but then we found it in the portable hole, and it gave Father Hender greater power than he had had before.

“Pelor forged me into a tool, working me on the anvil of my lo— our situation until I was ready to commit to following him. He kept my mind from fear when I was fighting the balenorn, although I would have fled as easily as Moke previously.” He glanced at the big man, but Moke’s face was peaceful — he had been reconciled to the experience.

“In short, it may be that the other champions failed because they did not have the light of Pelor to help them. Perhaps, without that light, they didn’t even try.”

Galbath looked at Homer in surprise. “Why do you say that?”

“Well, we found the sword deep in the tunnels under the city. If it had been lost in an attempt to kill the monster, it might have been anywhere. Would the forces of evil have brought it back to that place, protected by the stone guardians, if they had seized it from a fallen champion?”

The others nodded at this reasoning.

“No, I think the elves feared to use the sword, for they didn’t have the light of Pelor to guide them, and their civilization wasted away in fear until there was no one left. Then, the balenorn placed enchantments upon the blade and warded the tunnels with undead against the day that someone would come to claim the weapon and slay him.”

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NaNoWriMo 2019 – Firsts: Part 1 (The Mosquito)

I had given the kids a verbal version of this before NaNo, but couldn’t quite pull it out to a full day’s writing. As such, I started behind the 8-ball, and I didn’t finish it. In the original, the mosquito gets squished just as she’s fully exulting in her plan to change mosquito nature.

She hungered. Hunger was her world, and she sought blood. If you had asked her, and if she had been able to respond, she would have said that the blood was life to her, but especially to her children. The hunger drove her on, and it had a voice.

The voice did not speak in words. Rather, it throbbed. It throbbed with a deep, slow rhythm, so much slower than the beating of her wings. The throb filled the air around her, and was accompanied by a smell. The smell was, to her, the smell of blood, but she knew that it was not the blood itself. It was, rather, the smell of the place of the blood, the source of the blood.

Her wings carried her on, towards the blood, the throbbing of the voice filling her mind with nothing else. There was a barrier between her and the blood, and she explored it, tentatively. It was not thick, and her piercing, sucking mouth could have penetrated it easily, but it was too far from the blood. She moved on until she found where the curtain ended, and she began to fly around it.

That was when her life began to change. There was something hanging there. It, too, smelled of life. It had all of the smells of the place of blood, but it was cold. She landed on it, and probed. There were tiny crevices in the thing, and in those crevices there was protein. She knew the smell, and she knew the taste. It was not blood, but it was the same smell and taste she had every time she drank blood.

The eggs within her cried out, and she thought she should hurry on, but she waited another moment, lingering over this strangeness. The voice of the hunger told her she needed blood, and for her to drink blood there must be a victim. Now, she wondered. She could easily continue in the way she had always gone. The place of blood was near, and the victim unaware. However, what if there was another way?

The children were waiting. They needed the blood, or did they? What if she could nourish them with the victim’s protein instead? It lay in the crevices of this thing, waiting for her deft mouth to suck it free. There was moisture in plenty to ease it down her throat. What if she stayed here?

She regarded the victim hazily through the distance. Her eyes were not made to focus at those distances, but she could see its naked skin. How she would pierce that skin with her mouth, anesthetising with her saliva so that she could drink unmolested! Soon, her belly would be full, distended with the warm, rich blood. She would not be able to fly far, or fast, then. No, she would have to find a place to sit and digest, feeding the proteins slowly to her developing eggs.

What if there were a different way? she thought again. Her children might be fed by the proteins from this thing she was sitting on. Perhaps they would even be stronger than the children fed by blood. After all, could such a parasitic life be healthier than one of scavenging, or of harvesting the resources left by others?

Perhaps, indeed, (here she permitted herself a flight of fancy) the children might be different than the others of their kind. Perhaps they would learn — here she reminded herself that she would never see the children, knowingly, for they would hatch under water and by the time they emerged into the air again they would be indistinguishable from all others —