Friday, November 13, 2015


The Revenge of the Elementals, Chapter 3

An owl hooted. The bushes rustled. The forest rang out with the sound of a hunt reaching its completion, then settling back into the loud silence of chirping crickets and croaking frogs. Govad held his torch high, yet the trees and boulders that crowded the road blocked the light from reaching any farther than ten feet away from him. The shadows his torch created danced as he marched, creating the illusion of bodies darting around the corners as soon as he approached.

Govad took the final swig from his flask. He would have quickened his pace if he hadn't already reached his peak speed.

The road took another sharp turn as it made its way down a hill so steep it could have been given an award for effort in a class for cliffs. Govad was amazed that horse-drawn caravans could even make it through the forest with all the ups and downs the journey included. Then he noticed the wreckage of a wagon at the bottom of the hill.

He heard movement again in the brush to his right. It felt like something was following him. He pointed at it, but that didn't do anything. He had chosen to make this journey alone. And that was the right choice, he thought to himself. With someone else he would never make it out of the kingdom safely. Safety in the forest was traded for safety from someone discovering why he was trying to leave.


Got him,” Lorn said, lowering the dead body of the goblin stalker to the ground. Govad lowered his arm, and nodded for the group to press on through the trees.

Good ear,” Vilmos said. Govad smirked, but didn't say anything. His soldiers knew that he would protect them, even when they were neck deep in the enemy territory. Even when the enemies were the unpredictable goblins of Sievermlat.

Govad made a hand motion, and the team spread out. Ahead, past the thick trunks of the dense northern forest, Rhona had signaled that she had spotted the goblin encampment. The five soldiers and their captain crept through the snarl-branched bushes to encircle it.

Govad found a spot behind a tree on a small hill overlooking the camp. He could see goblins inside. They were strange creatures; some small, some big, some with two heads or three arms, all different colors. They moved about their own camp in random swathes, creating a vision of chaos from above which yet never knotted or clogged. They were always moving, pulsing with energy and the unifying drive to destroy whatever they deemed not goblin enough. In the past few months, that had been the kingdom of Cadereria. Govad was sent to one of the outposts to take it down, or at least report back with information.

He looked at the defenses the goblins had erected. They had chopped down some trees to build a wall, though that was the generous way of phrasing it. More accurately, they decimated a section of the forest and lashed together the resulting logs and sticks to make a border around their encampment. They fortified it with stones and support beams along the inside, but it was still a crude job at best. The goblins clearly didn't intend to stay here long.

He cupped his hands over his mouth and made a call that sounded something like a bluebird. Hopefully the goblins were unaware that no such birds were around in the autumn. It was the signal his team was waiting for to strike.

Vilmos charged in first, shouting and yelling before he even got close enough to strike. The goblins all across the encampment heard him and turned towards the source. Rhona came from the opposite direction, running without stepping on the leaves so that she didn't make a sound. While groups of goblins armed with spears and daggers were rushing out of the camp to confront Vilmos, Rhona vaulted over the crude wall, and became hidden behind one of the tents within.

Govad, Lorn, and Micah were next, suddenly appearing alongside Vilmos. The charging goblins faltered when, all of a sudden, the one adversary became four, and that was the opportunity Govad's team needed to carve their way through the front lines. Some goblins left their allies outside to die while they fled back into the encampment...right into the waiting blade of Rhona. She had already silently dispatched four goblins, and now was closing the gap between her and the rest of the team.

The four outside made their way through the gate of the camp's defenses. Goblins hidden behind the wall sprung at them from the sides. Rhona stabbed a short yellow goblin's neck and pushed it to the ground, moving to where it had been standing so that she could rejoin the group. The five soldiers formed a tight circle, beating back the goblin hordes that were assailing them.

There are more of them than I thought,” Lorn huffed.

The gate suddenly swung inwards, and Vilmos had to jump out of the way to avoid being stuck between the door and the wall. A goblin stabbed its spear into his shoulder when he was out of position. The gate closed, trapping them inside the encampment.

A few more, yeah,” Govad said.

The goblins pressed closer, but Govad and his soldiers fought back. Vilmos swung his mace, Rhona twirled her dagger, Lorn and Micah stood back to back casting spells, and Govad kept them working together and fended off goblins with his sword and shield. Still, they started taking wounds more often. They were growing tired, but the goblins they killed or fought off were replaced with fresh troops.

Govad looked at the gate. It was shut tight, a wooden beam flung down across it to prevent it from being opened, and the goblins were intentionally guarding it. His eyes then strayed to the wall they were almost backed up against.

Move over there!” he ordered. His team followed without question. After all, Govad had kept them all alive up until this point. While other squads suffered casualties when they were sent out on the front lines, Govad's team had never needed to replace a soldier, whether that be warrior or mage. Govad intended to keep it that way.

They were backed up against the wall. The goblins flung themselves at the soldiers, trying to knock them to the ground where they could tear their bodies apart with their rotting fingernails. Govad then gave the call to retreat.

He and Vilmos body-slammed the wall of the encampment, sending it toppling to the ground.

The timbers were fortified from the inside of the camp, but the goblins hadn't considered the possibility that someone might want to go through it from that direction, so there were no braces put around the outside of the wall. The wall smashed to the ground, and Govad's squad bolted back for the protection of the forest. Goblin slings and arrows clattered uselessly into the trees around them as they made their escape, while the others in the squad whooped and hollered at their success and survival. Govad just grinned as he ran behind them, holding his shield up to protect them during their retreat.


The bushes trembled again. Govad was now walking in squiggles down the path, half from attempting to lose whatever was following him and half from drunkenness. It came as no surprise when a small creature leaped out at him, holding a dagger and a rope. He couldn't see them well, but there were apparently more of them, as he stumbled backward and was tripped by something, falling into the waiting clutches of scaly claws. He was scratched and stabbed a bit, but not killed. The creatures tied him with rope, bound his mouth and eyes, and hoisted him into the air. He could feel a dozen tiny hands lifting him, carrying him away from the safety of the path and into the heart of the forest. Govad writhed a bit to escape, and was again not surprised when he felt something heavy come down on his head and knock him into unconsciousness.

Friday, November 6, 2015


The Revenge of the Elementals, Chapter 2

Audrie watched the knights ride north, the banner of Cadereria flapping behind them. The sun was starting to set to the west. She took in a deep breath.

She didn't see what happened to the masked man after he left the library. He might have been killed in the fire. He might have been killed by Abbot Lazar, who was now at this moment searching for her, and everyone was safe and worried for her, and...

No. Audrie put her head into her hands. She stood under the roof of the porch, at the town's only tavern. A cloud drifted in front of the sun, making the breeze chill. Audrie shivered. She didn't need to see it to know that Lazar was dead. Melanie was dead. All the others were dead. She would never see them again.

So she had to complete what they had set out to do long before she joined them. She had to find the Four-Cornered Staff. Before the masked man.

She turned and entered the tavern, where she had just penned the letter, now on its way to the capital city of Raylea. It had gotten much busier since Govad left, as the farmers and loggers returned home after the exhausting day. Nothing felt better for them after a day in the sun than sitting down with your mates over a mug of ale. The last thing they wanted was a monk asking them to head out into the forest.

“Please, I wouldn't last a day in there alone. You have experience with the Shadir!” Audrie pleaded to a burly woman wearing clothes covered with dirt.

“That's why I won't go,” the farmer replied. “I know what that forest is like. The land is all crunched up like its covered with teeth. The beasties are always watching, waiting for you to go to sleep so they can strike, covered with teeth. And then there are the druids.”

“Are they covered with teeth too?” Audrie asked.

The farmer harrumphed. “I dunno, I never saw one. But they're real. My cousin Hank got jumped by a druid in the forest, nearly got turned into a bush.” She took a swig of ale and turned back to face her companions as a signal that the conversation was over. “Find a place to stay in town, your masked man won't get you here.”

Audrie shook her head, not wanting to argue further with someone who wasn't interested. She turned to the room and shouted. “Will no one help me stop a murderer?”

“'Ow do we know yer not the murd'rer?” one drunk dwarf shouted back.

“What?!” Audrie gasped.

“Yeah,” another man said. “You could have burned down your own monastery and are trying to get us to believe you're innocent. And then you want to take a few of us into the dark forest? Sounds mighty 'spicious to me. I saw it happen in a play once,” he added.

Audrie sputtered. “This is not fiction!”

Another bar patron joined in. “See, she's getting angry. Wouldn't get angry for being called a murderer if she wasn't actually a murderer.”

Audrie looked around, and saw every face in the tavern starting to nod in agreement. The friends of the dwarf joined him, and their friends joined them, until every person was inching away from the monk in case she lashed out in a murderous frenzy. Audrie took a deep breath, although she couldn't wipe the frown off her face. She turned to the bartender.

“Some ale, please,” she requested.

“What are you going to pay with?” he grunted back. She reached up and took the pin from her hair so that it spilled down to her shoulders. Bangs fell over one of her eyes, but she didn't move it out of the way, continuing to stare at the bartender. He glanced down and saw that the pin had some engravings in the metal, and could probably be sold for at least a couple copper coins. He took it, put it in the pocket of his apron, and slid her the drink. Audrie snatched it up and strode to the back of the room. She sat down at an empty table against the wall, and took a gulp from the ale.

She winced. At the monastery, they gathered clean water from a well that pulled from a spring underneath the mountains. The few times she had traveled, it had been to a bigger city where they had wizards and clerics who could purify water. Out here in the farming towns, alcohol was the only way to make sure there were no diseases in your drinks. It had been years since Audrie had ale. It made her throat feel awful. She took a smaller sip the second time.

Somebody moved into the seat across from her. She quickly wiped at her eyes before looking up to see a half-orc wearing billowing robes staring back at her. The man's gray beard curled in snarls out from each side of his face, looking like they hadn't been combed in ages, but his chin was shaven smooth. His mouth was curled into a frown, with two short tusks poking up from his lower jaw. His yellow eyes stood out from his brown-gray skin, glowering at Audrie unwaveringly. She stared back for a few moments before she started to become anxious under his gaze. “What?” she finally snapped.

He took another moment to complete his analysis. “You are not a murderer,” he said at last. His voice was gravelly, and sounded even older than he looked.

Audrie held her mug with both hands, and didn't break eye contact. “Thank you,” she said.

“If you did burn down the monastery,” he continued, “then came here to pretend you were a victim, you must be a very calculating person. Only someone who plans far in advance would think of such a scheme. Someone that intelligent would have noticed the girl who slipped out when talk of a murderer began and ran in the direction of the sheriff's house.”

Audrie took another drink.

“So unless you are layering so many plots on top of one another that even I cannot keep up...I believe you.” The half-orc leaned back, assuming a more comfortable position in his seat. The simple gesture made Audrie instinctually relax as well. “In addition, I am familiar with the dangers – and the secrets – of the Shadir Forest. I am not surprised there may be an artifact hidden there.”

Audrie perked up. “So you will join me to find it first?”

“Yes,” the half-orc said. “On the way there, you can fill me in on the details of what we're after, and where it might be.”

“We just need to get a few supplies...”

“No need,” the half-orc waved his hand. With the other, he reached behind him and grabbed a staff that was leaning against the wall. “As I said, I know the forest well. I'm a druid by the name of Eremurus.”

Audrie glanced around to make sure no one had overheard. She looked back at Eremurus. “I trust you, but from what I've gathered today not many others here will.”

Eremurus nodded. “That is why we should be off before the sheriff arrives.” He used his staff to stand up, and Audrie realized that, despite appearing quite old, he was still almost seven feet tall. “I have a place on the border of the forest where I store some things that will aid us in our search.”

Audrie stood up as well, and the two headed for the door. “I am glad you approached me. I would have guessed one such as yourself would not have been so willing to help a stranger.”

“You would have guessed correctly,” Eremurus said. Audrie wrinkled her brow. “I do not make a habit of revealing my nature to those I met mere minutes before. However, this masked man you described...He was covered from head to toe in leather, and had eyes that were red like the flames at the edge of a bonfire?”

Audrie began to nod, then stopped. “Wait...I never mentioned anything about his eyes.”

Eremurus nodded once. “I saw him not three days ago, heading northeast. Shortly after, I found the ruins of a small caravan, all dead, presumably his work. I came here specifically to pick up on his trail of ruin and track him down. You are the missing piece I was looking for, and I can only apologize that it wasn't until after the destruction of your home.”

“'s not your fault,” Audrie said. They stepped off the porch of the tavern and walked together down the south road, the Shadir Forest looming ahead in the growing darkness. “I'm just impressed that you could have seen what he could do, and...the look in his eyes, and want to seek him out again.”

Eremurus stopped walking and looked back at Audrie. “Then I would guess you've never met a druid.” He paused, then laughed and began to lead the way down the road. His smile lasted long enough for Audrie to see, behind his lips, each of his pointed yellow teeth.


The Rise of the Elementals, Chapter 1

If everything in the world were combined, it would probably be the color of mead. Murky, crumby, and vaguely brown. Govad swirled his drink around, looking at it from underneath his cloak's hood, watching the salty chunks of fruit bob up and down in the thin liquid. The world was a lot like mead when you thought about it, if you really thought about it. Especially after drinking it.

He placed the drink on the counter and looked around the tavern. Several of the other patrons, almost all human, dwarf, or elf, stared back when he glanced at them. He drew his long sleeves down over his hands, covering his ashy gray skin. Hilldale was a busy town, situated on a major road between two big cities, but was still small enough that everyone could tell an outsider when they saw one.

The bartender tapped the counter, and Govad looked up to see his stern eyes glaring at him from underneath bushy brows. “Make it last, 'cause that's your last one,” he said. “We don't want you getting drunk and causing trouble.” Govad felt dozens of eyes watching his back, waiting and expecting for him to make a scene. His cheeks flushed, turning a darker smoky shade. He downed the last of his mead and stood up. One drink wasn't nearly enough to get him as drunk as he wanted to be. He didn't have the coin to pay for more anyway, though. He walked out of the tavern without another word.

Govad shambled down the street, searching for a place to stay the night. He would leave first thing in the morning, away from this distrustful town. If they would let him get that far, at least.

A hand suddenly pushed back Govad's shoulder. He staggered to the side before catching himself. He looked up to see three men standing in his path. They were your average troublesome, burly types who had a bone to pick with the world even though they already chewed off all the meat. The human who had shoved him leaned down to look under Govad's hood. “Where do you think you're going?” he said.

“Forward,” Govad replied. “Which was already proving to be a bit difficult.”

“Listen,” the man continued. Govad saw his stance was wide, his legs slightly bowed. His muscles were firm but his body lean, often used. However, he was unshaven, and not in a tame sort of way; his hairs grew wildly away from his chin as if even they couldn't stand to listen to him speak. He must spend a lot of time on horseback, constantly working to make ends meet, and not have enough time to spend on himself, much less his family.

“And that's why we've got to teach you a lesson,” he finished.

Govad blinked, one eyelid lagging a bit behind the other. “I'm back in boot camp now?” he said.

“You're gonna get my boot all right,” the human grumbled. He stepped towards Govad, and the two other cronies circled around to prevent escape. Govad wouldn't have been able to run if he tried, but he silently applauded their teamwork. He stumbled backwards to avoid being grabbed, and in doing so, his hood fell back from his head.

The three men tensed, the leader clenching his fists and teeth in a way that made him look more like a caged animal than a bully. “I knew it!” he said. “It's an elemental!”

Govad's dim gray skin was revealed to the afternoon sun. Silvery lines stretched up and down his body, ending in swirls at his cheeks and the top of his bald head. His baggy eyes were solid gray as well, missing the pupils and irises that humans were used to seeing. Govad sighed. He knew of the distrust that his appearance brewed, and constantly explaining himself had begun to grow tiring.

“Elementalborn,” he said.

The human wrinkled his nose. Clearly he was not used to hearing words with more than four syllables. “What?” he said.

“I'm not an elemental, I'm an elementalborn,” Govad explained. “Windborn to be specific. I know, we really need a better name for it, but to be honest my head is swimming right now and I'm not capable of that kind of creative thought.”

One of the men spat, the splotch of saliva striking the ground next to Govad's boot. He frowned.

“You need to leave before you cause damage,” the man said. Govad turned to look at him, but his eyes had trouble focusing. “Your kind're always destroying stuff.”

Govad grumbled. “No, you're still thinking of elementals. See, a wind elemental, now, that would actually be made of wind. And yeah, it would blow stuff down and generally cause a big ruckus. I'm not an elemental, see?” He held up his hand. “Skin.”

The human in the lead had clearly had enough debate about semantics, because he swung his fist at Govad. The windborn was too slow to react, and received the full blow on his left cheek. Govad toppled to the ground. His head had been swimming before; now it seemed that it had swum into a whirlpool.

The man bent down and brought his nose close to Govad's eye. Govad could smell his sweat and the dirt that he had collected over the past several days of work. “You're a danger, that's what you are,” the man said. He spit, and this time the gob landed on Govad's face. He grimaced, but stayed silent. The man straightened up and gave Govad a kick to the stomach, forcing a moan out of him. The three then walked off, presumably back to the tavern to brag about their victory.

Govad resigned himself to spending a moment to recuperate. He didn't want anyone to see him in that state, but he didn't trust his legs enough to hold up if he tried to stand right away. When he heard footsteps approaching, he started scrambling to right himself.

“Are you okay?” a voice said. Govad, halfway towards pulling himself up with the help of a wooden fence, turned to see who was addressing him. When the two people he saw finally blended together into one, he found a young human woman with long black hair staring at him with concerned, tired eyes.

Govad cleared his throat. “I'm in ship shape,” he said, using one of his favorite phrases. He liked it because it was already slurred, so he wouldn't sound any worse than he was.

The woman offered her arm, which Govad took because the fence wasn't putting any effort into getting him off the ground. The woman was wearing strange robes, Govad noticed. They were adorned with several different colors, which stood out starkly against the brown and beige of Govad's cloak and tunic. Around her neck was a circular pendant depicting a key and scroll, the symbols of some god that Govad probably heard of before but couldn't recall at the moment. He also noticed that she was still staring at him.

“I saw what those men did to you,” she said, and winced, her hazel eyes focusing on his cheek. “You don't look that good. Let me help you.”

Govad smirked and took his arm out from hers. “How do you know I didn't deserve it?”

“No one who fights someone three on one is ever in the right.” She smiled, though still clearly thought of Govad as a crazy tramp. Govad resented that slightly, even though it wasn't wrong. “My name is Audrie,” she added.

“Hmph,” Govad said, and started walking away. Audrie watched him for a moment before striding briskly to catch up. Govad quickened his pace (at least the punch had sobered him up enough to walk straight), but her legs were longer and she maintained his speed.

“You're heading out of town,” Audrie said. Her hands were folded in front of her as she walked, her thumbs nervously staging an acrobatic battle. “Wouldn't it be better to head back to recuperate?”

“You saw where those three were headed right?” Govad said. “Bad idea for me to do the same.”

“Well, you're walking towards the forest.” Audrie stared at Govad, but he kept his eyes focused forward. She pursed her lips. “The Shadir Forest? It's dangerous and filled with monsters, from all accounts?”

Govad chuckled dryly. “I'm the dangerous one, by all accounts. Shouldn't you be afraid of me, if you trust what everyone else is saying?”

“Why, because of your skin?” Audrie said, grinning. “Please, my boss is a half-ogre.” Her smiled faded. “Was.”

Govad sighed and stopped walking, then turned to face Audrie next to him. He wished he were able to grow a beard so he could appear more old and wizened, but he settled for licking his front teeth and sticking out his jaw. “If you must know, yes, I am heading into the Shadir Forest. That's the way I need to go and I would like to involve as few people in my journey as possible, dangers be damned. Is that what you wanted to know?”

“That's where I'm going as well,” Audrie said. “There is something in there that I need to find before someone...a murderer gets to it.” Tears began to well up in her eyes. “I lost everything and everyone I had last night, and maybe it's just hitting me now, or maybe it hasn't hit me yet, but the only thing I care about right now is stopping the man that destroyed my home from getting what he wants. I can't do it alone, though. If you are headed in that direction...will you help me find the Four-Cornered Staff?”

Govad blinked. “Nope.” He turned and started walking down the road, south towards the forest. “Nope, nope, nope. Not getting involved in that. Good luck, but nope. There are plenty of people in this town who want to humiliate dangerous people, though, maybe try one of them.”

Audrie sighed and went back into town. She clearly hadn't expected such a tall order to work anyway. He shrugged to himself. Sometimes, problems had to be ignored. He pulled his hood back up, despite the afternoon sun beaming down on him. He looked down the road ahead of him, with the dark forest at the visible end. He then noticed two horses riding from it towards Hilldale. When he saw the flag that was flying from one of them, he stopped short. “Oh, no.”

Audrie gasped when Govad suddenly grabbed her arm from behind. “On second thought, you know, that is a noble cause that I should certainly not deny. I would be honored to join you on your quest.”

“Really?” Audrie said. Her stoic expression turned bright again. “Thank you! You don't know how much this means to me.”

“We should act quick,” Govad said. “Let's be off! You can tell me more about the situation on the way. Let's take the path around the fields instead of the main road...”

“Hold on,” Audrie said, grabbing Govad's shoulder before he could walk to far ahead. “We should gather some supplies. And you were right, there might be others in town who are willing to join us. The larger our group, the safer we'll be.”

“Yes, yes, quite true,” Govad said, glancing from Audrie to the road south and back. “But I think we would be wasting too much time. You did say the word 'murderer,' that's pretty serious.”

“Exactly, but...oh, here are some of the king's men! They must be informed.” She dashed off before Govad could stop her towards the knights that were approaching from the south. Govad stayed back, trying to lean against the fence casually.

“Excuse me!” Audrie said. The guard closest to her waved a hand to his companion, and the two stopped. He looked down at the monk expectantly. Audrie bowed. “Greetings, sir knight. I am a monk from the Eirian Monastery to the northeast. Last night it was burned to the ground by a man disguising his appearance with a leather hood. It being within the kingdom of Cadereria, this news must be brought to the capital and a search begun for this man! I believe he seeks to cause yet more destruction.”

The guards exchanged a look that told how they were not expecting to deal with this sort of thing today. The closest looked back down at Audrie. “That is...horrible, to say the least.” He spent a moment grasping for words. “But...we cannot stray from our current path. We are riding for Raylea, however, so we can pass on a message to the king so he can address the issue.”

The corner of Audrie's mouth twitched downward, and it looked like she might cry again. “That will allow him time to escape. Still, it must be done. If you will wait for me, I will write a letter to give you, so you can pass it along in Raylea to someone who is able to offer help.”

“The king himself will read it, my lady,” the knight said.

They spurred their horses and continued towards Hilldale. Audrie walked back to Govad, who carefully avoided making eye contact with the guards. “Well, as soon as I finish this letter, I will be off. Will you join me?”

Govad looked at the knights again. “No, turns out I won't be able to. I've got to head off as soon as possible.” He stepped forward, gained his balance without the help of the fence, and adjusted his cloak around his shoulders. “Good luck with your...murderer.”

Audrie frowned and didn't say anything, so Govad started trudging towards the forest. He put one hand on the hilt of the sword he had concealed under his cloak. It was going to be a long journey. He put his other hand on the flask he had in his pocket. Good thing he had his mead.

Monday, November 2, 2015


The Revenge of the Elementals, Prologue

The wind rattled the glass panes of the windows in their frames, disturbing the silence of the monastery's library. Audrie closed the cover of the book she was reading with a heavy sigh. She picked it up and brought it back to its place on the shelves, latching an empty chain to the metal loop on its spine and locking it in place with a key on a leather strap around her wrist. She then walked slowly out of the room.

Rain began to fall, filling the monastery with a dull rumble as it pelted the roof. Audrie knocked on the archway leading into the abbot's front room. He looked up from a scroll at her and smiled. “Yes, Audrie.”

“The Sylva Umbrosa was another failure, Lazar,” Audrie said. Her voice was distinctly duller than the abbot's.

Abbot Lazar shrugged, maintaining his smile. “We must expect to fail, or else success will not spur us forward.” He chuckled quietly. “There I go spouting made-up wisdom. I really am turning into Abbot Vibianus.” Audrie laughed out of politeness, never having met the former Abbot. She didn't think it very wise, however. In her opinion, expecting failure only encouraged it.

“It is late,” Abbot Lazar said. “You have put in more hours than asked of you, as usual.”

Audrie nodded, but in order to remain humble, said, “I'm a slow reader.”

The abbot chuckled again. “Then get some rest. Tomorrow none of us shall work. We all need some time off.”

Audrie nodded and turned towards her own room a few archways down the hall. Expecting failure encourages laziness too, she thought. She planned on continuing her research with some of the unexamined tomes tomorrow, despite what the abbot often said about overworking leading to the work being useless.

She lay down on her cot, but although clouds blocked the light of the stars and moon from shining through her window, she could not fall asleep. Something was nagging at the back of her head, something about the Sylva Umbrosa. It was an old book, to be sure, but not nearly as old as some of the other tomes they had collected at the Eirian Monastery, so she hadn't expected it to help them on their search. Still, she had read the entire thing from cover to cover, just to be sure, and sure enough found nothing. Yet something she read was keeping her up, and she couldn't figure out what it was.

Audrie sat up. She threw off her blanket and stood up. If something was keeping her from sleeping, then she would indulge it. Barefoot, she tiptoed back to the library.

She lit a candle on a table by the entrance, and held it close to her as she looked for the shelf to where she had replaced the Sylva Umbrosa. Open flames in rooms containing hundreds of dry books were not typically recommended, but the candle holders they used were designed to prevent spilled wax and tipping over. Still, she didn't want to outstretch her hand and run the flame directly into some paper.

When she found the book, Audrie brought it back to the nearest reading table and flipped through, searching for something that would catch her eye, or the attention of the nagging feeling in the back of her mind. The Sylva Umbrosa was several decades old, and detailed the area that was now known as the Shadir Forest, situated several miles to the southwest of the mountains where the monastery stood. The forest was treacherous to explore, due to the jagged terrain and wild beasts, but this book did its best to catalog the flora and fauna, as well as map paths through the woods. It helped create important trade routes for the kingdom of Cadereria. It was not helpful, however, in locating the artifact that the monastery was founded to find.

The windows rattled again from the gale outside. A storm seemed to be growing. Audrie found herself staring absently at a map of the forest. She had always possessed a knack for research, and it never let her down. There had to be something she was missing. There was a thud from elsewhere in the building. Someone must have left a window open and the wind knocked something over.

The artifact had eluded the monks for centuries, despite their thorough research and dedication to Know, the god of knowledge (his name being where the word came from). It was the Four-Cornered Staff, a relic for which references could be found dating back to the Elemental War that nearly destroyed the world centuries ago. It was lost shortly thereafter, and all of their searching at the Eirian Monastery only turned up legends. It may not even exist, Audrie thought.

There was another noise, and Audrie looked up. It had sounded like footsteps. “Abbot Lazar?” she said, peering into the dark library entryway.

There was movement, and two glowing red dots stared back at her.

Audrie gasped and rose from her seat. Suddenly, the dots were closer, they were the eyes of red goggles, and their wearer was upon her, forcing her back down into her seat and clasping a hand over her mouth. There was a peal of thunder, and the rain fell even harder against the roof.

“Make a sound and you die,” the man said.

Audrie's knuckles were white, her hands clenched on either side of the book. She tried to get a better look at the man, but he stood in the shadows, with her own body in between him and the candle. He reached a hand over her shoulder to point at the map she had been studying. He was wearing long sleeves made of tanned leather, his hands gloved in brown as well. “It seems that we seek the same thing,” he said. “Tell me where it is, quietly.”

Audrie cleared her throat slightly so that her voice would not crack. “We don't know. There is no proof that it even exists.”

“Then show me the closest thing,” the man said, his voice growing harsh but never rising above a whisper. “Show me where it is said to be.”

“I will need to stand up and find the right tome,” Audrie said.

The man stepped back, and she saw the flash of a dagger pointed at her in the candlelight. “Do it,” came his command.

Audrie slowly walked down the row of shelves. Her only hope was that one of the others had heard something as well and would come to her rescue. She had no weapons, no protection, and she had never taken her combat training seriously. She always questioned why it had been part of their regimen when it didn't seem to aid them in searching for the Staff, but Lazar had always told her the same thing. “There are many paths to the answers we seek.” Audrie knew that if she attempted the disarming technique that she vaguely remembered learning, she would find the dagger between her ribs rather than on the floor.

She found the shelf she was searching for, and moved down the row of books until she found the right one. It was much older than the Sylva Umbrosa, but it was just a storybook. Tales of extravagant characters with ridiculous premises that could not have been true, though the book presented so-called evidence for a few of them. One of those stories concerned the Four-Cornered Staff and the temple where it was housed. The illustrator had drawn an image of the temple, but no such iconography could be found in any other source.

Audrie used her key to unlock the chain anchoring the book to the shelf, then handed the tome over to the man without saying a word. He placed it on the shelf next to him, then suddenly grabbed her wrist and the chain. Before she could react, Audrie found that he had wrapped the chain around her arm and locked it to itself, preventing her from escaping. He quickly snatched up the key and the book, then moved back to the table where the Sylva Umbrosa still lay open.

Audrie considered if now would be a good time to scream for help, but she found herself watching the man's fingers flip through the pages and point from the picture of the temple to areas of the map of the Shadir Forest. Then it hit her; they had been looking for iconography from the temple, when they should have been examining the lay of the land around it to find matching landmarks on modern maps. That was what snagged Audrie's attention onto the map; she was aware of similarities between it and the storybook's pictures without being conscious of it. There were multiple images of the temple and the surrounding area in the storybook, and this man was beginning to use them to triangulate its location within the Shadir Forest.

All their searching would be for nothing if he found the Staff first.

Audrie started considered her circumstances, but realized that doing so was taking too long.

So she started to shout.

The man was in front of her again in moments, but he brought the candle with him. Audrie's voice grew high and strained when she saw his face in the light for the first time. His red goggles were fastened to his face by leather bands that were wrapped entirely around his head, so that not a single inch of his skin was exposed to the air. He wore skin-tight leather armor around his body, fastened with buckles and snares. The only features Audrie could see were his eyes, glaring with intense hatred from behind his red-tinted goggles.

“I could have let only you die once I had what I came for,” he said, his voice calm despite the rage pouring from his glare. “But now you force my hand. No one may know where I go to follow me. And no one will.” With that, he held out the candle, tipped it sideways, and lit the books around Audrie aflame.

Audrie struggled against the chain as he walked away, preparing his dagger for what she could only assume would be the deaths of everyone she had known for the last twelve years. The pages around her caught the flames quickly, thirsting for those fiery tongues to quench their dry skin. Heat rippled from the inferno and Audrie began to grow short of breath.

She reached with her free hand up to her hair, and pulled out one of the pins that held it in a bun on the top of her head. She moved the pin to the lock on the chain, trying to move it slowly while every ounce of her mind was screaming for quick action. Amazingly, the lock snapped open and her wrist was free. Audrie scrambled through the flames, saw the dark blue of the storm outside, and jumped towards it.

Audrie landed outside, the heavy rain cooling her scorched skin but pelting at the scratches from the glass window. She thought about going around the front to warn everyone inside, then thought about running into the man and his dagger once again. She remembered the look in his red eyes, the pure anger, and she started running away from the monastery. She did not stop running until the burning building was far behind her, the smoke could not be seen behind the sheets of rain, and the flames could not be heard above the cruel howling of the wind.

Chapter 1, Mead >>