Wednesday, June 8

On the Instructors

We all traveled back to town together and checked into the inn. A few of the houses were burned, but because a pair of powerful mages were already staying here, the damage wasn't too extensive. It was mostly confined to the outskirts of the town and outlying farms. How could something like this happen? I shudder to think how bad this would have been if Magus K and Celon weren't here. Oh, and he writes his name like the letter, not the name. He's kind of interesting, but I get this cold feeling from him. Up close, he's nearly seven feet tall! He's not actually a full professor at the Academy, more of an adjunct. But I saw him shoot some sort of ray, so he must be a powerful mage, right? Even though Magus Celon is his superior, he seems to be in charge of the travel. When I asked about it at dinner, the Magus laughed, and Mr. K made a noise that I guess could have been laughter.
“Mr. K knows every inch of the world better than the back of his hand. He teaches geography.” The Magus explained. I don't know why that's funny. Geography. How completely boring. I thought we were going to be learning spells and things. As though reading my disapointment, Mr. K told me that he also teaches Planar Geography. As in The Planes, the worlds beyond. Which is pretty cool, I guess.
Gloria asked if he had traveled a great deal, and all enigmatic and mysterious, he said “My heels have pressed the earth on many worlds.” So I guess that is a yes. But a Planar Traveler. Wow. I had a million questions, but he's like a statue. That was the longest sentence he said all evening.
Magus Celon teaches more advanced magic theory and practice. He is an Evoker, which is a special kind of mage. He can only cast certain types of spells. I asked him a bit more, but all he said was that I would learn well enough in Spellcraft, and that I should be patient. He is an honest to goodness Elf, so I guess I can't be surprised by that answer. I've never met an elf before. He seems very nice. He's clearly a mighty wizard. He's from the great forests far to the west, but the Elves are complete isolationists. They appeared in the world briefly during the War of the Gods, led by their Goddess and firing arrows made of pure magic. Then, they were gone. When the third age dawn, the other People found that the Elves had disappeared back into their woods like mist. There are exceptions, of course. Adventurers ply the roads, and some of them are Elves, but Elves and Humans have a bad history. Worse even then with the Dwarves. I've heard that elves are immortal, that they do not age. I wonder if it's true, but I don't think I could ask him. Grandpa said that he knew some elves that were hundreds of years old, and didn't look more than 20. So, there are two mysterious gentlemen that I'll be traveling with, one tall and dark, one short and fair. It looks like it won't be a boring journey! Our ship leaves tomorrow! I can't wait!

An Interuption

The crossbow still works.
I didn't notice anything was wrong until Dad told us to get down and stay hidden. The village was visible, but still tiny and far away on the blasted plains. The cart was slowing. The houses were squat, domed structures made from the earth of the plains. They rose like hills with chimneys, bellowing smoke. Too much smoke. Then I saw the licks of fire, and the distant sounds of battle, massacre, pillaging? It doesn't matter what they were. We had stumbled into the middle of a bandit raid. Dad was resting the crossbow on the front rail of the cart. He had one hand on the trigger, and the other on the reins. This was the closest I had ever seen him to anything adventurous or violent. It felt wrong. I looked over at Gloria. She was still deeply absorbed in her book, mumbling the words to herself. I reached over and tried to pull her down. She just looked up at me and shook her head. Then she went back to her book. I let it go. She was small enough to hide if it was bandits.
Bandits. My Grandfather fought them all the time. He never really hunted them or anything, but every so often a bunch of greenhorns would cross his group's path, and find out that it was a lot tougher to intimidate travelers with a broken jaw. Listening to his stories, I always thought the idea of fighting bandits was kind of romantic. It was just something an adventurer did from time to time. When he wasn't robbing others. But those were almost always bad guys, who deserved it, thus squaring the cosmic balance. But this wasn't anything like those fire-side tales. This was desperate and sordid. From somewhere in the direction of the village, A horn was sounding. I couldn't tell what it meant, but soon the steppes were thundering with hooves and paws, They were an entirely mismatched band. They were largely human, with assorted members of the lost races, goblins, bugbears, ogres, even some orcs, all riding mounts of their size. Mostly horses and ponies. Some of them had bundles on their backs, others were carrying struggling women or children behind them. All of them were dirty, ragged and scarred. I could smell the fire now, and it had something else in it, something that made me want to throw up.
“People are burning to death.” My father said. “There are at least twenty of them, and we have nothing but open ground between us and them. Get down, and stay down.” I did. Gloria wasn't concerned. I tried to find that thing inside me. That dragon hiding deep in my soul. I needed more fire. Fear, that was the key, I thought. Fear of losing Dad, fear of dying, those were things that had triggered my “episodes” in the past. I was terrified now. Nothing happened. There was nothing there. I think I've never felt more alone. I was sure I had it. Knew what I was doing. But it was gone again. There wasn't anything there at all! I felt myself crying without really being aware of it. Then I heard the sound of something like a dragon and a stream of silver fire lit the sky. Dad fired the crossbow. I looked up in time to see the bolt slam into the neck of the horn player. He fell, and his horse went wild. A few of the ones nearby bolted as well. There were still too many of them, though,
“Dad! We have to get out of here!” I screamed. The fire in the town was dying, but the riders were still coming. Sixteen of them now. They would be on top of us in no time at all. Dad was loading another bolt into the bow and reeling back the string.
“Where would we run to? And how far do you think we'd get?” He didn't look at me, he was focused on the battle. As if to punctuate his argument, a pair of arrows slammed into the side of the cart. One of them fell a few feet from Gloria. She look at it for a second, then went back to her book. Some people aren't bothered by anything. “These aren't just raiders, Liz. Look at what they're carrying. They've got people trussed on the back of their horses. Ha!” He fired the second round. It flew like a silver comet, sparking with the mystic power of the bow, willing the tiny bolt to go straighter, faster and farther than it had any right to. It slammed into the riding hound of a goblin leading the charge. It whined, buckled, and collapsed, throwing the rider. The other fifteen rode past him. One of them rode over him, in fact. “These are slavers. And I won't let you get caught by them. I certainly won't show them my back. I may not have turned out to be a hero, but I owe your Grandad this much. I'm not going to put his training to waste.” He loaded the third round. I couldn't do anything but watch as the slavers closed in. I tried, again and again to use it, that thing inside me, but I couldn't find it. I prayed, like I did under the hill, but heaven was silent to me. If I can't use my power, my curse, whatever it is I have, when I need it, what good is it? I took out my knife. At the very least, I could defend myself with it if I needed to. Dad fired again, but the riders were getting better. The horseman he was aiming for jumped suddenly, and the arrow slammed into the dust at its feet. The riders closed in. Dad stopped the cart completely, and focused all his attention on the bandits. This was the last stand.
The circled us in a tightening noose. Dad picked off one with the bow, but he stood back up and marched in for the kill. The others followed him. The women and children tied to the backs of their saddles struggled and looked at us with hopeful eyes. I felt sick. This was totally different from the skeletons. Those were just things, mindless monsters. These were people. People that were going to kill me or worse, just to survive. One tried to get into the wagon, and Dad hit him with the stock of the crossbow. He went spilling backwards, but more took his place, with axes drawn. Gloria shut the book.
One of the raiders, a gnome by the look of him, with a gristly beard and a filthy blue cap, climbed into the back of the wagon. I stuck the knife out between us, but Gloria gently pushed my hand away and smiled. It was the first time I had seen her smile since the fair. She was chanting something, but I couldn't make out the words. She reached out and grabbed the tiny highwayman by the hand. He looked as surprised as I was. Then things went strange.
She said two words in clear, ringing common. “Shocking. Grasp.” There was a pop, and their hands flashed blue for a second. Then he was suddenly on the ground, smoking and shaking. The jolt had sent him flying backwards out of the cart. His hat was singed. In the front of the cart, Dad was still holding his own, but barely. One of the bandits caught him from behind, and stabbed him in the back. I heard him wince, and I shouted. That's when the lighting appeared.
It rushed forward like something alive, a squealing, screaming tiger of power. It leapt from one bandit to the next arcing and sparking. I felt my hair stand on end. I looked at Gloria, and she looked at me. “Chain lightning. It's highly advanced magic,” she said breathlessly. Half the raiders were dead, and the rest were in chaos. Mounts were bolting right and left. I reached over Dad, hoping that he was alright, and took the reins, Struggling against the horses. The spell ended, and the slavers fell down dead. Those still upright broke ranks and fled. They didn't get very far before a tall, statuesque bald man with dark skin appeared from nowhere. He raised his finger, and a black ray of inky darkness sprang forth. The remaining villains collapsed, and we were somehow still alive.
A second, silver-haired man descended from the sky in front of the cart. He whispered something to the horses, and they stopped. Beneath from beneath his streaming hair, I could see pointed, elven ears. He approached us and grinned warmly. In seemingly no time at all him companion had joined us. Without a word, the man checked my father's pulse, reached into the pocket of his blue robe, and produced a potion of some sort. He poured a tiny drop into my father's throat. Dad sputtered, coughed, and sat upright. Satisfied, he went back next to his companion. It was the elf that greeted us. “Good Afternoon,” he said as though sitting down to tea. “I am Magus Celon, and this is my associate, Mr. Kay. Would I be mistaken in identifying you as Master Vernes and his charges?”

The tale of the magic crossbow, pt. 1

We're officially out of Lythia and in the borderlands! The official border between Lythia and the Dwarven kingdom of Paladine is the Blackwater river, but in the last battles of the war between Gods, Humans and Dwarves have been on poor terms. The borders were pulled back fifty miles in both directions, which seems a little severe to me. The towns in the middle, along the river, were pretty much abandoned by their governments. Lythia encouraged the river-folk to move inland, but mostly they stayed where they were. Lythia didn't use its military to force the issue, probably fearing the Dwarven response to such a troop build up. They'd have said they were converting the river towns to military bases, and they'd do the same, and the situation would have only led to war. So the people carry on much as they were, but I noticed when we were traveling today that Dad kept a crossbow next to him in the front seat. Bandits and monsters are more common in the borderlands, which has no armies except for whatever small militias the towns can throw together. The crossbow's old, but well made. It's ironwood inlaid with mithril. The weapon itself is worth a fortune. It belonged to my grandfather. Grandpa was a warrior, but my father isn't. I don't even know if my father knows how to use a cross bow. It might break to pieces if he pulled the trigger. It has to be at least a hundred years old, after all. I remember sitting on his knee when Grandpa told me the story of how he found it.

“I remember we were traveling, and it was just the three of us. It was me, Glorianna Boflin, who was still Glorianna Bywater at the time, and a traveling elven cleric who went by the common name of Rose Goodwind. This was just after that damn clever idiot Bindle Took got himself stuck on a kobold's falling log trap that he was “totally sure” was disarmed. Glorianna and he were originally to be wed, but after he died, things were never the same between them. The three of us had been founding members of the Traveler's Guild, as we called ourselves, so we were honor bound to get him raised. The problem, of course is that a resserection costs more money than most people see in a lifetime, hells, in ten lifetimes. Since our encounter with the kobolds of Blackhill forrest ended so disasterously, we were light on treasure. We didn't have long, either. You can only raise someone if their remains are whole. If he was buried, we'd never be able to get it done. So we went out looking for adventure, and one landed far too conveniently in our laps. For the next three nights, we hit every lead we could. Nothing really panned out. There were a lot of reward offers, but nothing serious, and nothing that would bring us the money in time. We needed a sure thing, and that's what Rose was. Or that's what she seemed to be. Never count on something to good to be true. Because...” He had paused there, for effect. I piped up with my eight-year old voice.
“Itsnot!” I shouted, and giggled. He looked down and smiled. It was a familiar sequence. I'm sure my mother was looking in from another room with disaproval. She always did. She didn't think Grandfather's stories were 'appropriate for a young lady.' She said they gave me 'ideas.' I admit she was right. His stories ignited lit a fire in me that hasn't gone out to this day. He made me want to see the world, even if it was full of danger. His stories are the real reason I agreed with this plan of my grandmother's. Someday, I'll be a real mage, and I'll go fight monsters and win treasure, just like my grandfather.
“That's right. But let me tell you about our poor, hunted heroine before we get to the twist. Rose was, as I said, an elf maid. She was in fact a Wood Elf, a tribe less flighty austere and serene than their magician cousins the High Elves. Wood Elves keep involved in the world, and patrol their forrest homes looking for poachers. It seems that another band of nasty elves, Dark Elves by nature, had crept into her forests, and it was more than her folks could handle. So she had made the dangerous journey to the city to seek help, or so she said. She found us.”
“Grandpa, what's a dark elf?” I asked. This was also part of the story, part of the ritual of the story. He'd pause every time he got to a new place, or a new monster or such thing so that he could explain it, leaving no creepy or horrible detail out. Most children think there are monsters under their bed. I was probably the only six-year old girl in Hydraal convinced there was a terrasque hiding in the shadows at bedtime.
“Oh, Dark Elves are the nastiest, most cunning, and most evil of all the kinds of elf there are. Nobody else knows for sure where they came from, but legends say that in the Golden Age, the First Age, Elves loved the sky, and they loved most of all the stars. Most tribes of elves were faithful and unwavering in their duty to the old gods, but not the dark elves. So they were punished, and sent to the Underdark for their sins. The old gods made it so that they couldn't stand the light of the sun, the moon, or the stars. To this day, the dark elves appear only on dark, moonless nights, rising from their hidden homes beneath the earth to spread fear and missery, and to take revenge against the other elves.”
“Is that what they did to Rose?”
“Something like that. The Dark Elves had stormed into her little wood, casting evil magic and blotting out the sun. She didn't know if any of the others of party escaped. She was worried they would go back to her village. Rose was the chaplain for a group of patrolmen who protected the Ironwood Forests from loggers and poachers. Her settlement did its own share of strategic cutting and gathering, though. Do you know about ironwood?” He asked me, holding up the the polished stock of the crossbow.
“It's strong?” I guessed.
“That's right. Ironwood is as hard as stone, and just as heavy. You need special tools just to cut it. The thing about an ironwood tree is that it only lives about a third as long as a regular tree. The Ironwood only grows to about twenty feet tall.”
“Why's that, Grandpa?”
“Well, it's too heavy for its own good, my little darkmantle. It can't spread it's branches as far, or as tall, or else it topples under its own weight. The Wood Elves made a nice living gathering the fallen branches and trees and carving them. An Ironwood log is as strong and heavy as a steel bar. But we've lost track of the story. Where was I?”
“You just met the Elf maid Rose.” I pipped up.
“Quite right. Glory and I never thought to question her, and we knew that she could reward us in enough ironwood to pay for the spell to have our friend raised. Only Rose hadn't gotten away from her forest clean. Two Dark Elf warriors ambushed her halfway through the meeting!”
“What did you do, Granpa? Did you give him the Dragon Fang Strike?” Grandfather smiled. “Of course, I had to. Do you know the toughest thing about Dark Elves?” I shook my little head.
“They hate light, but are powerfully strong strong against magic. Gloria tried to freeze on in her tracks, but she kept on coming. By now, we had just accepted the job, so there was no going back. I stepped up to her partner, a big, white haired bruiser with a scimitar the size of you, little lady.”
“Did you give him what for?”
“Of course! but it was a close shave. I kicked the table out in front of him and smacked him with the butt of my spear right behind his long ears! That's a tricky spot for an Elf, you know. Wham!” Grandfather sliced through the air with his empty hands, as though he had taken a swing with his weapon. “But the big guy kept coming. He grabbed old Incisor by the heft and lifted me up for a killing blow. I thought I was a gonner!” With some difficulty, he mimicked getting lifted and stabbed.
I gasped in mock horror. This was another part of the stories, the part where my grandfather was in mortal danger, but was saved at the last minute. “Oh no! What did you do?”
“Actually, it was Rose that saved us. She prayed for a spell, and suddenly the inn room was as bright as day! The pair of them went scurrying off like roaches, vowing revenge. We set off for Rose's forest the next morning.” Grandfather would always only tell one part of the story at a time. I'll do likewise, because we're coming up on a town. I think we're stopping for the day. I'll finish this story later, if I have the time. It's time to catch a ship!

Leaving Shadyborough

The cart was pretty much loaded by the time I got my trunk downstairs. I double checked the room to make sure I hadn't left anything behind after dragging my trunk into the hall, then one of the porters came and helped me. I had to get on the other side of it, though. We wound the thing down the main stairwell, and through the front office door. He went out the Halfling door by mistake, so I had to duck a little going through, but I managed it. By the time we had gotten out into the yard, things had quieted down a bit. Mr. Boflin took my end of the trunk, and they loaded it onto the wagon. It nearly tipped, and I heard a jingling clatter from the strong box. Mrs. Boflin was hugging her daughter tightly, wishing her goodbye. Dad came up and loudly told me we were going. He asked me, in public(!) if I had used the bathroom. I was so embarrassed I prayed to Hattori to open up the ground beneath me like the long-suffering heroine in that story. Of course, I'm not marrying an orc or anything, but the rules apply. I was waiting to say my farewells to Mr. and. Mrs Boflin when Tarry came up and tapped me, quickly and nervously, on the back of my elbow. I think he would have liked to have done me shoulder, but he couldn't reach it. He stood there silently, for a moment, looking at the ground. I thought he was being unusually shy. Finally, he mumbled what he had to say.
“I'm real sorry about yesterday. Uh, You got hurt, and it was my fault.” He said it to the dirt, but I'm sure it was meant for me.
“Don't worry about it. It's our secret.” I bent down. “But you're going to have to stop going off on your own like that. Your sister isn't going to be here to protect you, and she'll worry.” It felt weird talking like this to someone my own age. Maybe I shouldn't have said it that way, because he looked up at me fierce eyes.
“You don't get it. I'm not just running off. I'm being called to battle. It's hard to say how, I just know that I have to sometimes. The town's in danger! I just want to save everyone, but then my vision always goes red, and... and... he couldn't go any further. He broke down sobbing and I hugged him close. He was the same as me, and I didn't know what to say to him. I was going to learn about myself, but what would happen to him? Without his sister to protect and look after him, would they lock him up? I knelt down and let him cry on my shoulder. I knew everyone was watching us, but I whispered in his ear.
“You have a wonderful gift, Tarry. I saw it yesterday. But you owe it to everyone you care about not to let it consume you. Train, and study, and grow stronger. When your family really needs you, be ready.” I don't know why I said that, but it felt like the right thing to say. Tarry stopped crying and reached into his pocket. I thought he was going to pull out that fist of his, but instead, he came out with a long silvery chain. At the end, was a large pendant, about an inch tall, in the shape of a bird in flight. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. He pressed it quickly into my hand and whispered back in my ear.
“You saved my life with your magic, Lizeth. I found this in the ruins, but I want you to have it. When you come back, you'll see how much stronger I've gotten.” His eyes were still wet, but he broke into a wide grin. I stuffed the necklace into my pocket before anyone else could see. We broke the hug, and we both got on with our goodbyes. Gloria was watching me from the cart. I climbed into the back and wedged myself between her and the cart.
“What did Tarry give to you, just now? I couldn't quite see.” She demanded. I was put back by her tone. Tarry was right, after all. Even if I didn't know quite what I did, or how exactly I did it, I saved our lives last night. The future danger of accidentally blowing myself up or shocking a friend pales compared to being torn to pieces by war-mad skeletons. I decided that until we settled out our feelings on what happened the day before, I wasn't going to trust her with the pendant, as much as I wanted to take it out and look at it again. It is my first real present from a boy, even if he's not human and still a child. He was quite impressive under the hill. He might turn out to be a dashing little hero, with the right encouragement.
“Oh, nothing just a bit of shiny string he picked up. You know how kids are.” I brushed her off, but she wasn't satisfied.
“Yeah, but Tarry has a habit of picking up dangerous things in the ruins. Once he brought back a broken wand, and nearly gassed the house. I just hope Mother can keep him inside now that I won't be there to watch him.” She looked at her family and brightened They were gathering. She started waving and shouting, but I couldn't bring myself to do the same. She though Tarry should be locked up. What did she think of me? I knew then that I couldn't trust her with any more of my secrets. I couldn't count her as a true friend. I patted my pocket, and felt the weight of the silver bird. Dad climbed into the front seat, and cracked the whip. We were off once again, but the sun felt cold. What if the mages all were like Gloria? What if I wasn't going to be taught, but imprisoned, or worse, put down like a dire rat? I shivered and watch the inn shrink away. Soon, we turned against the hill, and they were lost to view.

Morning Checklist

Things look a bit brighter in the light of morning. There was a weird silence over breakfast, but the three of us mostly studied our breakfasts without saying a word. Our fathers made a joke of it, as usual. I'm a little bruised this morning, but it isn't anything serious. I'll just be a bit sore for a few days. I wanted to speak with Gloria and Tarry alone, but Gloria has been rushing around all morning, and I haven't had a chance to catch her. Tarry has been helping our fathers load the wagon. And I'm here double checking that I haven't forgotten anything before we hit the road once again. Here's the checklist:
Six pairs of stockings...X
Six shifts...X
My Feast day dress...X
Three winter dresses...X
Three summer dresses...X
My heavy lambskin cloak...X
My sunhat...X (I'm wearing it right now, actually.)
Travel leggings & tunic (also worn)
The strongbox...X
My jewelry box...X
Travel papers...X
This diary and pen...X
That should be it. Everything else will either be bought in Carabos or provided by the Academy. It's time to close up the trunk again. I can see that this is the last thing to go. Gloria is already in the yard, watching our fathers place a pair of leather bags on the cart. Those must be her luggage. Tarry is down there too. She's speaking animatedly at him, but I can't hear the words from out here. He's not paying attention. He just keeps patting his pocket and looking off into the distance, towards the hill.