Sunday, May 28, 2017

Coffee

The Heroes of Fannen-Dar, Chapter 20

Chester set his cup back on the counter with a satisfying clink of fired clay on polished wood. He slid it forward and placed two silver coins next to it for the bartender to scoop up. "Another," Chester said, crisp and quick. He looked around at the town center market while the thick-bearded bartender refilled the cup with a piping hot, dark brown liquid. The outdoor bar looked out over the booths and stores that circled the well in the middle of Fannen-Dar. At an hour before noon, hundreds of people milled the market, shouting for deals and tyring to trick the others out of their money. Chester saw an urchin slip his hand into the pocket of a silk tunic worn by a dragonborn locked in bargaining with a jewelry merchant. He started to stand up, but stopped himself and grabbed his cup, slouching over the counter.

"There's no use fighting for good in this town," Chester said to the froth in his drink. The bartender raised an eyebrow. Chester took another sip and squinted into the sun as he looked again over the crowd. "The only criminals we can catch are the ones whose capture benefits worse criminals. The rest are protected by bribes and debts."

"Did you say something, pal?" the bartender asked.

Chester blinked. "I think so. Is this coffee stronger than usual?"

"I don't get all the beans from the same place," the bartender said, pouring another cup for a twitching elf who had just snagged a stool. "But it's a pride of mine to keep it on the menu."

Chester chuckled. "Your pride, my weakness. I'd managed to go without for months now, but I just couldn't take the stress of the job anymore. THe captain benched me, knowing I was on the right track. He's helping the very people we're meant to stop. I needed something to settle my nerves."

"Coffee does the exact opposite of that."

"Then I needed something to keep my nerves preoccupied."

The bartender wondered why this young guard didn't have a more normal addiction, like ale or gambling. "You know," he said, "I've always thought of the city as a force of nature, and crime is just part of the natural order. The guard is there to keep the peace, but to actually try and stop all crime is a futile endeavor. It'd be like trying to stop the birds from singing in the morning. You might get some, but there are always more, and people sort of rely on that."

Chester shook his head. "Birds don't threaten people by singing, and nobody relies on getting mugged. I can't accept that." He swigged the last of his coffee. "Get me another."

He looked back out at the milling throng, watching as vendors cheated their customers and thieves plotted their next targets, and he was just supposed to sit by and let it happen. He nursed his third cup of coffee. What good was following the law when the law was wrong?

Chester's eyes snapped to a particular face in the crowd, someone who looked familiar for some reason. She was being dragged around by an elf, shoving past the shoppers with more fervor than most. They were practically tripping over themselves. Chester then noticed two others catch up to them around the well. They looked panicked. He scanned the crowd to see if anyone else noticed, and spotted several thugs who had just entered the market and were trying to look over the heads of townsfolk, as if searching for someone. Chester saw colored tattoos on one in the symbol for the Bloodroot gang. The four around the well, seemingly fleeing from the gangbangers, started climbing into it. Chester nearly choked on his drink.

After the other three had climbed in, the woman looked over her shoulder in Chester's direction, and the realization hit him, much like she had the night before.

"The woman from the orphanage attack!" he said, shooting up from his chair. He looked back at the thugs. They hadn't seen where teh woman and her cohorts went, and they weren't paying attention to Chester since he wasn't in uniform. It might have been the coffee, but Chester started walking towards the well. He quickly swiped a couple of daggers from a weaponsmith as he passed.

After all, if the law wasn't working, he'd need to break it in order to put it back together.

<< Prologue, Heroes
<< Chapter 19, Ladder

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Ladder

The Heroes of Fannen-Dar, Chapter 19

Robin jogged through the Columns, her tongue lolling out the side of her mouth as she panted for breath. No one had bothered to give chase once they realized she hadn't actually stolen anything, but she still wanted to get back to the relative safety of the Plinth as soon as she could.

She pulled open the trapdoor and leapt down into the hideout, scraping her hand on the rough wooden floor as she landed. Hudtan stood up from Anzo's chair, looking at Robin with wide eyes. "You're back! I thought..." She paused. "Well, it's a good thing Anzo was right."

"What happened?" Robin said. "Why are you back here? Why did the trading house open so early?"

Hudtan raised an eyebrow. "I do not know what you are talking about." She and Robin sat on the floor, with Robin trying to catch her breath after her wild dash. "The job did not go well, to say the least. I got ready in my hiding spot, which should have been imperceptible, I might add..."

"It was behind a trash barrel, wasn't it," Robin said. Hudtan scoffed but nodded. "I would've done the same," Robin added.

"Well, the drug dealer had brought along some muscle, and one saw me hiding and grabbed me from behind," Hudtan continued. "Anzo insisted on identifying as Bedlam instead of Bloodroot, so the dealer got suspicious and wanted to cancel the trade. We were both captured, but I remembered that birdfolk (the dealer was birdfolk, by the way) are susceptible to high-pitched noises. It hurts their ears."

"That's...just not true," Robin said. Hudtan glared at Robin with her empty white eyes, and Robin shut her mouth.

"Well, I let out a high whistle, and the dealer turns to me. I suppose maybe he just wanted to see if I was calling backup, but I'm sure it stung his eardrums a little bit. Anzo took it as an opportunity to break free from his captor. Chaos ensued, I got free as well, but Anzo lost his weapon and the gold."

"Did you get the bloodroot? Did you kill the dealer?"

Hudtan shook her head. "We were lucky to escape at all. Gwynt caught up with us, saying that you and he had become separated, and he couldn't find you. This meant that we hadn't gotten any replacement gold either. Anzo and Gwynt went to meet the leaders of the Bloodroots and Night Lotus, respectively. Anzo told me to wait here for you, but I thought..." She trailed off.

"What?" Robin said.

Hudtan sighed. "I thought you had quit. The gang, us, everything. It seemed like it was too much for you. I apologize; I was wrong."

"Well..."

"So now we have to be the ones to tell the leader of the Axe of Justice that we let our target get away."

"Wait," Robin said, "we aren't seriously going to do that, right? Can you imagine what that dwarf will do to us when he finds out we failed? His entire gang, or club, or cult or whatever you want to call it, is based on the idea that criminals should be killed!"

Hudtan smirked. "Are you saying that you are scared?"

"YES!"

"Then stay here," Hudtan said. "You can watch the base while we are gone." She climbed up the ladder but stopped and looked over her shoulder when she was halfway up. "Unless you want to truly abandon us this time."

Robin shook her head, but couldn't come up with a better plan. She hoisted herself up into a hammock after Hudtan closed the trapdoor behind her. As Robin stared at the ceiling of the Plinth, she thought about her escape from the trading house. Had she really been so captivated by the jewel she found that she hadn't noticed two hours pass, or even the sounds of the merchants and workers starting their business? And why hadn't the workers noticed her until the trading house had been busy long enough for everyone to get set up? Something about that crystal was strange, and Robin wanted to find out.

This time, the hours stretched on as she waited for the rest of Bedlam to return. She took a nap, but then started getting bored and rummaged around for something to do. She poked around the remnants of Gwynt's alchemy station, but nothing seemed salvageable. She went through the bits they had stolen from the orphanage, wishing it were something more valuable. She removed the cloth from Anzo's stool to find that he was carving something out of a block of wood, though she couldn't really tell what. She covered it back up with the cloth.

She was hanging from a hammock and trying her best to exercise when Anzo burst down through the door. Robin yelped and slipped from the hammock, bonking her head on the floor. Anzo helped her up, eyes wide with urgency.

"Robin, we must move, now!"

"Urgh," Robin groaned.

"NOW! Negotiations did not go well. Broos Bellinger is incredibly irate, and he's going to come here to finish us off for ruining his plans!"

Robin let Anzo drag her out of the Plinth and they both set off running. They practically trampled Gwynt as he was heading the opposite direction.

"Gwyntmarwolaeth, the Plinth is not safe!" Anzo said.

"I was coming to tell you the same thing," he said as they continued running. "Rivka thinks she ought to try out a new poison on us for failing to follow through with her orders."

"I'll bet Hudtan'll say the same thing about the Axe," Robin said while trying to keep up.

Sure enough, Hudtan was dashing down an alley when she saw them pass, and ran towards them to catch up. "We're in trouble!" she said.

Angry shouts started coming from behind them. Windows on the nearby buildings were shut in response. The people of the Columns were familiar with gang violence erupting in their streets, and they knew that if they shut their doors and locked up, it would all go away eventually. For Bedlam, it meant that they no one would keep them hidden, for fear of bringing the wrath of a gang leader down on their home.

"Anzo, where are you leading us?" Hudtan said. Loud footsteps were echoing from the direction of the Plinth.

Before he could answer, dark shapes suddenly stepped out of the shadows ahead of them. Anzo skidded to a halt, the other three bumping into him. Robin peered around Anzo's waist to see agents of Night Lotus blocking their path. The footsteps behind them caught up, and she looked over her shoulder at the men and women wearing the Axe of Justice insignia on their armor. The two rival gangs saw each other over Bedlam.

"Stay back, Axes!" a Night Lotus assassin declared, pointing his sleek dagger at the head of the pack. "This scum has betrayed Night Lotus and must pay for their actions. We know you, you'd just kill them and be done with it. We have plans to drag out their suffering."

"Betrayed you?!" an Axe of Justice cavalier bellowed. "They were working for us, and they couldn't perform a simple execution!" He turned to Anzo. "You double crossed us?!"

"You were meddling in our affairs?" the assassin shot back.

"We got there first, probably!" the cavalier replied.

Suddenly, there were more shouts from both sides. Members of the Bloodroot gang, combing the Columns after finding the Plinth empty, had found their enemies on both sides and, in typical Bloodroot fashion, had immediately started a fight. The Axe and the Lotus members turned to return the favor, leaving Bedlam stuck in the middle with no way out.

Anzo knocked on the door of the nearest Column, but there was no answer. He looked around at the fighting. "Whoever wins this, it means we're going to be next!" he said. "We've got to find a way out!"

Hudtan moved up to the house and started picking the lock. Robin heard a faint gasp and crying from inside. She felt her stomach sink as she grabbed Hudtan's arm and pulled her away from the door. Hudtan looked at Robin with a furrowed brow and a frown, but Robin shook her head. "We can't do that to whoever's inside. They don't deserve to be dragged into this."

Hudtan blinked, then her shoulders sagged. Gwynt stepped up and started climbing the ladder that was connected to the Column. "If we can't go through it," he said. "Then we'll have to go over it."

Anzo grunted but grappled the ladder and started climbing behind Gwynt. Hudtan followed, shooting up with ease. Robin looked up at the building. The tip was so far up it seemed pointed, and it appeared to be swaying in the wind. Whether that was a result of the faulty architecture or Robin's vertigo from looking straight up, she couldn't tell. She put one foot on the bottom rung, then heard a shout from one of the gangsters behind her. "Hey! Don't let them get away!" Robin started putting rungs below her as fast as she could.

Gwynt swung from the ladder above them, confident he wouldn't fall. He looked around at the layout of the slum. Shorter stacks of houses created longer alleys that the taller columns overlooked. "If we go down the other side, we should be able to lose them!" he shouted down to the others.

Robin looked down to see what he meant, and immediately regretted the decision. They had climbed much higher than she had noticed, and although her grip tightened around the ladder, her vision swayed and her stomach fluttered. They had to be at least seven stories above the ground, much higher than the two-floor drop she risked back at the orphanage. She then noticed that members of the Axe of Justice (or maybe it was the Bloodroots, it was hard to tell when they looked so small) were starting to climb up after them.

"We're expecting company!" she squeaked to her comrades above her. "Maybe you shouldn't shout our plans for them to hear!" She tried to catch up to the others, but couldn't climb as fast as before now that she had seen the lack of ground near her feet. She had to double check with each step that one of her hands was holding on.

Gwynt reached a platform that marked another separate house on the pillar. A window snapped shut by whatever brave soul managed to live at this height. Careful to keep close to the wall, Gwynt began shuffling around the side of the building.

"Gotcha!" a voice shouted, and Robin felt a hand tug on her leg. Her arm wrapped around the side of the ladder, catching on the rung and keeping her secure, but her other foot slipped. She dangled by her arm while the gangster below, a burly wood elf with several missing teeth, tried to pull her down. She yelped and kicked with her free foot, bludgeoning the elf in the nose. His hand flew from her foot to his face, and Robin fled from the ladder to the nearest platform. Hudtan joined the other two on the floor above her while the elf that had grabbed her started fighting with a rival gang member on the ladder below. If she returned to the ladder, they might try to pull her off again, and while Robin loved being on the ground, she didn't want to return to it very quickly.

Suddenly, the window next to her snapped open. “What's all this ruckus?” a voice said.

Old Man Scruthers!” Robin said. She hadn't noticed which column they had climbed.

His eyes widened as he saw the raggedy woman on his doorstep. “You!” he screeched. “You’ve come to take over my house! I knew it!”

“We’ve got a problem!” Gwynt shouted from above. He had his hand on the ladder as if he were about to proceed down. “They’ve surrounded us.”

Robin instinctively looked down again and wished she had learned her lesson the first time. She took enough of a glance to notice that the gang violence had found its way to the other side of the column. She then steadied herself by grabbing onto the ladder. The others on the next floor up were discussing their plan.

“We can make it to another column in this row, and maybe they’ll be distracted enough with each other that they’ll lose sight of us and we can climb down…” Anzo was saying.

“Assassins are already closing in on us!” Hudtan said. “They’ll catch us in no time. We have to get to another row.”

“That’s twenty feet away!” Gwynt said. “Even I can’t jump that far.”

As if to support Hudtan’s argument, a hand latched onto the platform Robin stood on, and a girthy human started to pull himself up. He then grunted in pain and was flung backwards by a sword from a rival gangster just below him. Robin tried to will herself to keep climbing, but she was frozen to the ladder in fear.

She felt something jab into her side, and turned to see that Old Man Scruthers was reaching his cane out of the window to push her away. She moved to the other side of the ladder so that his cane only thudded harmlessly into the wood. The geezer was stronger than she expected, making the ramshackle ladder lurch and shake with each jab. Robin was horrified to realize that the 25-foot ladder was only secured by being set into grooves in the wooden platform and tied with a single rope two floors above her.

“GIT!” Scruthers howled. “SCRAM! Get off my house!”

Robin looked again at the gangsters climbing up after her, then back at Old Man Scruthers.

“Make me,” she said.

Scruthers shouted incoherently, and Robin summoned her courage to climb the ladder to the top. She passed Anzo, Gwynt, and Hudtan as they tried to figure out what to do. She took out her dagger and cut the rope securing the ladder. Meanwhile, Scruthers was still using his cane to shove the ladder with all his strength. Without the rope, the ladder began to tilt backwards. Robin clutched to the handle for dear life as she fell backwards off the column.

Anzo shouted and reached out, but his fingers fell short of the rung. Robin closed her eyes.

She felt the wind rushing past her suddenly stop as she was jerked to a halt. The ladder bounced, then settled back down. She slowly opened her eyes to see that her insane plan had worked; the ladder was now spanning the gap between the two columns, and she was within arms reach of the platform.

Robin looked back at the other three, who were all staring at her with open mouths. She tried to tell them to cross the ladder and escape, but all that came out was a sound like a goat bleating. Still, they got the message, and once the shock of seeing their newest teammate almost fall to her death wore off, they scrambled down to the base of the ladder. Anzo was the first one down, by way of gripping the ledge and swinging himself onto the lower platform. He kicked an Axe of Justice on the way down, sending him into Old Man Scruthers's wall. Scruthers yelped and snapped his window shut. Gwynt and Hudtan lowered themselves down more slowly as Anzo walked up to the Axe member.

“We’re gonna punish you for-” the Axe started. Anzo punched him in the face.

Gwynt and Hudtan started crawling across the ladder. A small skirmish had broken out between the Bloodroots and the Night Lotuses on the platform below, allowing Anzo to start following when there was room. The three bodies moving across the wooden ladder caused it to buckle and shake, so Robin quickly latched onto the new column and pulled herself up. She crawled over to the other edge and peered over. Nobody was in the street below, and it was inaccessible from the one where the fight raged.

Gwynt was then next to her, urging her to follow him down to the ground. Robin gladly obliged, Hudtan and Anzo right behind her, happy to start getting closer to a nonlethal falling distance.

***

The Night Lotus agent dispatched the filthy Axe of Justice, pushing his limp body off the column. She and her cohort then climbed up to the next platform, where the base of the ladder was still balanced to create a bridge spanning the space above the street.

“Here now, we can still catch them!” the other assassin said, but the first agent put a hand against his chest.

“No, fool! If we go across now, they will reach the other side before we do. Then they will be free to toss the ladder off balance, sending us to our deaths!”

The other assassin blanched. “Of course. Good thinking.”

“Out of the way!” They were shoved aside by two Bloodroot brutes, who started rushing across the ladder towards their targets.

The Night Lotus grinned. “I suppose we could employ the same tactics I just mentioned.”

Her cohort chuckled. “Good thinking.”

***

Robin turned the corner where Anzo had just run and was suddenly grabbed and pulled up against the back alley wall of a small shop. They were out of the Columns, and the sounds of the fighting had given way to the busy din of the town marketplace just around the corner. Robin scrabbled against the grip at first, but then saw that she was being held by Anzo, who was listening for their pursuers. She quieted down, even though her heart was still racing a mile a minute.

“It seems we have lost-” Anzo began, but suddenly ducked as a dagger embedded itself into the wall where his head had just been.

“Consider that a warning shot,” Rivka said, standing up from behind a chimney on the roof above. “The next one won’t kill you either. But you’ll wish it had.”

“We did what the Night Lotus asked of us!” Hudtan said.

Rivka’s eyes narrowed. “Yes. And the Bloodroots. And the Axe of Justice. Both groups our dread rivals, and you dare to assist them in their schemes.”

“But if he hadn’t, they would have killed us!” Gwynt complained.

“That’s the plan!” came the voice of Broos Bellinger. He was standing in the alley in the direction of the Columns, walking quickly towards Bedlam. Rivka jumped down to block his path.

“We got to them first, so back off.”

“Actually…” Hudtan said, but was interrupted by a guttural roar. Robin couldn’t see down the alley it came from, but she knew that Tasgall, the leader of the Axe of Justice, was on his way to kill first and ask questions never. Rivka’s eyes darted to the side when she heard his shout, and Broos took the opportunity to attempt to shove past her towards the four cowering against the wall. Robin was the first to take off in the other direction, and the rest of Bedlam followed towards the town center.

Robin burst out into the marketplace and was immediately shoved aside by the bustle of several people shopping the stalls and looking for deals. Vendors shouted their prices and voices responded asking for better deals. Robin pressed on. She felt someone grab her hand and started until she realized it was Gwynt. He tugged her forward and she quickly followed.

She heard Tasgall yell again, coming from right behind her. Gwynt yanked her off to the right, diving into a group of chatting farmers. They huffed but couldn’t say much before the two were gone again. Gwynt jumped to get a quick vantage of the crowd, then changed direction again. “Rivka and Broos split up and are encircling us!” he said.

They skidded to a halt at the center of the marketplace, where the Well of Luck stood. The smiling statue of the goddess on the roof over the well seemed to be looking down directly at Robin, even though its eyes were closed. It seemed to say, “You’ve run far, but you’ve run out of me.”

Anzo and Hudtan ran in from the opposite direction. Anzo blinked. “Wait! If you’re there, and they were chasing us from behind here, then…”

“We’re surrounded!” Hudtan growled, and pounded her fist on the threshold of the well.

Gwynt looked through the crowd for a way out, spinning around on the spot. Anzo mumbled to himself, trying to think up an escape plan. Robin just stared at the statue, then looked at the bucket hanging over the entrance to the well. The rope hung over a pulley and was attached to a crank so that the bucket could be raised and lowered.

Robin grabbed the crank. “Get in,” she said.

Hudtan peered down the well, listening to the rush of water below. “It’s a long way down. The underground river likely is not that deep.”

“Grab the rope! It will slow our fall,” Robin said.

Anzo nodded. “Sudden impact with rock is preferable to whatever the Night Lotus and others have in store for us.” He held out his hand. “After you."

Gwynt grabbed the rope and nodded to Robin, who turned the crank so that the rope would lower the bucket and make room for Hudtan, then Anzo. By the time Anzo grabbed on, she could barely hold back the crank any longer. She released it, letting the bucket fall the rest of the way. She looked around as she heard shouting; their pursuers were closing in. Stuck threw one foot over the wall of the well, then the other. She gave one last look at the statue, said a little prayer to Luck, and slid down the rope into the darkness.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Fountain

Glass and Roses, Chapter 13

Laurence put his hands on his hips and beamed a smile at the rooftops peering over the horizon. “There's Abertswyth, the greatest city in the kingdom!” he said.

“Does Luck have any strictures against boasting?” Valdimer teased.

“Not a one!” Laurence said with a laugh. “She's the patron of gamblers, after all. It's why I believe your father was a very forward thinker to create an actual church for her. She's the only greater god who didn't already have one.”

“I always thought she didn't want one,” Berit said. She sat in the back of the wagon, balancing a dagger on her index finger as the wheels rolled over dents and lumps in the road. They had joined a small caravan as they got closer to the city, and the number of travelers had deterred bandits and raiders. Berit threw the dagger and caught it on another finger. “The Wandering Goddess, they call her. She doesn't want her followers to settle down, so having a church for them seems a little...”

“...Counter-intuitive,” Valdimer finished.

Laurence shrugged. “We do not function as a home so much as a consistent waypoint for travelers. Those of us who are actually clergy are always expected to leave the headquarters before staying too long. That is how we find pleasant surprises like you!”

“Except the high priestess,” Berit said. “You mentioned we can find her at the headquarters, so she must always stay there.”

“Well, yes,” Laurence said. “Someone must.”

Berit sheathed her dagger as the caravan approached the city gate. “Still seems a bit odd to me.”

Abertswyth was small for a city, but thrived on the trade brought in from travelers who came for the bath houses. The city was home to several natural hot springs that the citizens used as attractions for visitors. People from all across the kingdom heard of the soothing waters of Abertswyth, and the city raked in plenty of revenue from tourism. Laurence brought their wagon to a stop in front of a building that looked like one of the bath houses. “Welcome to the Abertswyth Temple of Luck!” he said.

Sure enough, when they entered, Berit, Valdimer, and Dror saw that the back of the cella was a bubbling pool. Instead of tourists relaxing in it, the occupants of the pool were robed worshipers of Luck, praying and making offerings to the halfling goddess. One of the worshipers turned when she heard the group approaching, and smiled at them. She stepped out of the water, removed her wet robe, dried herself off, and moved to greet them. “Rest, weary travelers,” she said. “I am Melantha, High Priestess of the Church of Generous Luck. Feel free to use our spring or worship in any other way you feel comfortable.” She gestured grandly around as she spoke, maintaining a smile on her round face. “We have clean robes if you wish them, but do not feel the need to change your clothes. Luck favors the road-weary, and will tend to your spiritual needs no matter your garments. And welcome back, Laurence,” she said, turning to him. “I trust your deliveries were successful?”

“They were, High Priestess.” Laurence indicated the other three with an outstretched arm. “On my travels, I encountered these three adventurers.”

“We're not really adv-oof!” Valdimer said before Dror elbowed him.

“They made fantastic companions, but you'll be interested in meeting the half-elves specifically. May I introduce Valdimer and Berit Rhosynglas.” Melantha's eyebrows rose, and Laurence nodded. “Madoc's children.”

“Indeed!” Melantha said. “I take it you are not here for worship, then.”

Valdimer flashed a thin smile. “Why would you say that? Our father founded this church. Aren't we likely to follow his religion?”

Melantha motioned for the group to follow her, and walked to a side passage that led to the back rooms of the temple. “Madoc and I are old friends, and while it was his idea to start the church, I am as close to the co-founder as you can get. He told me a lot about his life, even some that he kept secret from everyone else. I have heard much about you two, though in the stories you were both much younger.”

“Dad talked about us?” Berit said. “But he was never at home. We haven't even seen him since we were kids. That's why we sought you out. We hope you can tell us where he is.” She put a hand on Melantha's shoulder. “We just want to see our dad again.”

Melantha sighed and moved so that Berit's hand fell from her shoulder. “I wish I could help, my children, but I too lost contact with Madoc after he arrived in Velsea. I will reach out to my contacts and see what I can find, though. You are welcome to stay here for the night.”

She showed them to rooms in temple with small cots they could sleep on. Berit, Valdimer, and Dror thanked Melantha and bid farewell to Laurence, who returned to his own quarters on the other side of the temple. Valdimer started to unpack, but stopped before he had finished and repacked his bag.

Berit appeared in the doorway later that night to find Valdimer writing more of his memoir. He glanced up at her. “Can't sleep either?” he said.

“Something about all this still doesn't seem right,” she said. “I know it's been decades since we saw Dad, but he was never the kind of man who cared much about the gods. He always seemed to just think about himself.”

“Maybe he had an epiphany,” Valdimer said, but he didn't sound too convinced. He stopped writing and scratched out a line.

“I suppose it's possible.” Berit looked out the small window at the moon. “But then why wouldn't he come back to us and ask for forgiveness? We weren't the ones in hiding.” She sighed. “I just feel like he must have had a selfish reason for doing this. He only ever cared about himself and I can't see him changing enough to found a church without reconciling with his own children.”

Valdimer closed his notebook and put it back in his bag. “I noticed as we were being led here that there were no doors around the back of the cella.”

“That's because the hot spring was there,” Berit said.

Valdimer shook his head. “The wall that the pool was against didn't go back far enough to compensate for the extra room in the hallway on the other side. There's another room there with no entrance.”

“I wonder if they're hiding anything there.”

“There's one way to find out,” Valdimer said. “Let's do a little investigation.”

Berit cracked a grin. “You're suggesting we snoop around a temple in the dead of the night?”

“Well, when you put it that way...”

“I like it,” Berit said. “Let's get Dror and go back to the main chamber.”

Dror was asleep, but when they told him they wanted to see if the high priestess was hiding something, he quickly got up and agreed to help. “Never met a priest I trusted,” he said. “Unless you count Zhihao as a priest. Does that make you a priest if you have a god inside you?” They went back to the cella, now empty and silent except for the quite gurgling of the hot spring. They examined the statuary and potted plants that lined the walls, but found nothing unusual. Valdimer sat down next to the water, then stood back up suddenly.

“There's something down there,” he said.

“Something alive?” Dror asked, gripping his sword.

“No,” Valdimer said, adjusting his glasses. “Some sort of valve. Why would a natural hot spring need a control?”

Berit waved him forward. “Well, go on. Val, valve. It was meant to be you.”

Valdimer frowned. “I hate swimming, you know that.”

“I'll do it!” Dror said, rolling his eyes. He waded into the pool, creating small waves that lapped against his maroon skin. He had to dive under to reach the depth where Valdimer saw the valve. He turned it, and the fountains stopped refilling the pool. A stone segment of the wall on the other side of the pool shifted, revealing a doorway to a dark stairway leading down. Dror swam back to the surface and caught his breath. “Did it work?” he said.

They crept down the staircase, holding their breath against the silence. As they got deeper, the quiet was slowly replaced with a deep hum. They finally reached the bottom to find a room that had been carved out of a cavern, where the spring that fed the pool in the temple had also created a small pool in the center of the room. Hovering above the water was a glowing node of energy.

“What is it?” Dror said, slowly approaching. Valdimer grabbed his arm.

“Careful,” he said. “It could be dangerous. It appears to be some sort of portal.” There was the sound of lightning as if from far away, and the portal flickered.

“This must be what they're hiding,” Berit said. “But why? What does it do?”

“The better question would be, where does it lead?” Valdimer said.

“That is a question you will never have answered,” they heard from behind them. They turned to see Melantha standing at the bottom of the staircase with armed paladins moving in front of her. They pointed their swords at the three travelers. “I knew you would not be satisfied with my answer, but I wish you had not been so nosy. Children of Madoc or not, you cannot be allowed to leave here with knowledge of the Fountain.”

Dror drew his sword, Berit pulled out her dagger and crossbow, and Valdimer readied his rod, but he hesitated. The paladins weren't making the first move. He still wasn't sure if their intentions were pure or selfish, and he didn't want to fight anyone with the favor of a powerful god if he could avoid it. He darted his eyes around the room, looking for another exit, but the staircase was the only one.

Suddenly, they heard another voice on the stairs. “What's going on here?”

Melantha turned to see Laurence standing behind her. He looked like he had just discovered that his parents had been the ones sneaking candies under his pillow, not the magical gift faerie like they had told him. “Where did this room come from?” he said, then saw the portal. “And what is that? Why haven't you told us about this?”

Melantha stammered. “Laurence, you were not ready for this knowledge,” she said. The paladins guarding Melantha shifted, unsure whom they should be guarding her from. “It's all part of Luck's design for us.”

“Luck doesn't have a design!” Laurence said, drawing his warhammer. “If the church keeps secrets, how can I know what I'm really fighting for?”

Melantha started to respond, but Dror tackled one of the other paladins. Berit and Valdimer rushed by in the sudden confusion. Dror quickly followed as the paladins scrambled to stop him. Laurence stepped in between them and allowed them to run up the staircase.

“Quick!” Berit shouted. “There are more paladins on their way!”

They burst out of the temple and ran until they were out of the city entirely. They stopped at the side of the road to catch their breath, but then heard heavy, metallic footsteps drawing nearer. They hid among the trees, but saw it was Laurence who was following them. Valdimer stepped out of hiding and clapped him on the shoulder.

“I don't know what was going on there, I swear,” Laurence said. “They were keeping that thing a secret from me just as much as you. You have to believe me.”

We do,” Valdimer said. “She called it the Fountain, but I've never heard of it. We're going to find our father and make him tell us.” They traveled a bit farther from the city before setting up camp to get what little sleep was left in the night. In the morning, they would head for Velsea, the city Melantha had mentioned was the last place where Madoc was known to be.