Banner art by Artmetica.
You can find the whole cover art here- the art is gorgeous!
There's also a mix/soundtrack that goes with this story- you can find that here.
Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Deleted Scene)
Word Count: 23,207
Summary: A powerful magical artifact has been unleashed! Unfortunately it has fallen into the unlikely hands of a hapless young priest who is now bound by its bizarre curse. This is the tongue-in-cheek tale of a half-elven cleric who is trying to locate and free the unwitting victim from said item's grasp with the help of his mischievous (and not always competent) brethren. Along the way there will be magic, intrigue, mischief, and a talking dog.
It is a much overlooked but well-established fact that in order to excel at world domination, overlording, or even to just be particularly irksome in a fantastical setting, you need to get your hands on a magical item- if you can create said item, this is even more effective. This theme pops up so frequently that perhaps Magical and Evil Artifacts 101 must be a requirement to graduate from ODU (Overlords and Despots University, of course), with Item Invention as an optional lab-based minor. This certainly would explain why evil minions are so inept: they haven't gotten their tasseled hats yet.
Or perhaps there is some deity out there who gets his or her kicks out of sending out a telepathic memo to their flock, demanding some useless doodad, then laughing as the Plucky Hero subsequently Overcomes Adversity and those rather inept minions to destroy the "insert flavor of the week bauble name here", likely under the jurisdiction of an opposing god. Presumably this deity enjoys assigning the Good Guys mutually time-consuming quests to balance things out; there must not be a lot on television in the Great Halls of Whatever. They say that gods play games with the fates of men, which may be true, but there has to be a balance between the alignments so the entire world doesn't implode. ("Men" here doesn't necessarily mean "male" or even "human"; likely there's a kobold deity who sends his pawns on prolonged quests, as well, but since kobolds are too inept to be more than Haphazard Wicked, no Methodical Righteous have had to balance them out... which is fortunate, because that sounds more like a battle of the bands than a good plot point.)
Whatever the reason, artifacts end up in the hands of the bad guys nine times out of ten (but don't trust my math on that one; I may have forgotten to carry a one. My original calculation was twelve times out of seven, but surely that can't be correct) and it will always fall on the individuals of reverse alignment to achieve balance.
This is a story where that equilibrium has been knocked off-kilter.
Centuries ago, well beyond memory of any human but within range of the longer-lived races if they cared about such things, there was one such baddie. He was not a king, or an overlord, or a dictator, but he did desire power and knowledge; knowledge so he could usurp power, to be exact. He was also an adroit mage under the disguise of a harmless courtier, and, having a degree in Item Invention (or perhaps catching the eye of the deity on the Evil side of the seesaw), decided to forge an item of epic proportion to aid him in his endeavor- or, rather, penned an item of portable size since he was more scholarly than anything else. What he created was essentially a map, but not just any map. No self respecting would-be villain would be content with just a piece of parchment; can you imagine an antagonist trying to get himself situated and holding the map upside down and cursing at a compass because he thought Cartography was a boring subject? Of course not. This was a map made from the finest parchment, written with a feather of a gryphon and imbued with power, stored in a protectively magical case; not content with just a mere town-and-river affair, he crammed it with magic, the core spell giving the map the ability to tell him where to find the information he desired for blackmail and gain. This ability was assisted by spells allowing the bearer to coerce anyone into telling him the truth and locate any object, as well as any other spell the mage thought interesting at the time. Since he was a show-off with a lot of time on his hands, these were a lot.
With the help of this map, the sorcerer was able to wreak his particular brand of evil by drawing out information from the unsuspecting public. During this time many an innocent farmer or townsperson awoke with a bad headache after being tapped on the shoulder by a hooded figure, unaware of the knowledge they had just passed on- and those were the lucky ones. The truly unfortunate were the ones who knew something vital to the mage, who were able to block the mental assault to some degree, or who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was never said that this spellcaster was a nice person, if you recall.
Unfortunately, the more he learned, the less satisfied he became; he found that the knowledge he acquired was never enough to reach his goal, was never enough to give the necessary blackmail for his plan. He became careless and began sneaking into places he shouldn't have entered and demanding information from individuals too high ranking, which is always just about where plans start to go awry; it's never smart to mess with people possessing power or wealth lest they take notice of you. Word began to get around that a wizard of some sort was looking for uncomfortable information regarding the king, and the mage was eventually caught and imprisoned, his prized possession seized. No longer possessing the map, tied to his soul as it had become, the mage quickly lost what was left of his mind and spent the rest of his days convinced that he was invisible- which, since he was ignored in case his insanity was contagious, turned out to be somewhat accurate. The scroll case was carefully labeled as dangerous and it and the artifact it contained were added to the royal treasury for safekeeping; the court's wizards weren't sure what it did exactly or what was in the case, but were smart enough to toss it into a neglected corner of the vault rather than trying to explore it further. The possibility of going mad is frequently a good deterrent for curiosity.
Time passed, the throne changed hands (well, regal behinds), and no one noticed when this particular item eventually went missing. What's one more scroll case to monarchs who have a collection of them?
Here enters Jonathan, the helpful novice of a good (but mischievous) religious order, whose career would have continued rather normally had the dice not rolled a critical miss, the balance not been tottering madly, and a sudden rainstorm not caused a particular cart to get stuck in a ditch, sending its contents flying. Yes, chaos caused by a lack of paved roads; one of those time-consuming quests for a passing Good Guy should have been to invent concrete, perhaps by combining a fireball spell with a stone giant. (It makes one wonder why magic doesn't get used for useful purposes. Do wizards have to take a vow of eccentricity rather than practicality?)
The cart hit the unfortunately-placed ditch and some of its cargo of old scrolls, books, and various written works spilled into the- for lack of a better word- road. The young man jumped off the cart and began gathering up the dislodged items, completely forgetting that this delivery was going to a wizard's college- he was lucky to not have anything blow up in his hands. Most priests are wise enough to know not to touch anything related to those eccentric spellcasters without a pair of tongs, some gloves, and possibly a passing clueless person to happen to do the poking about for them; word gets around when singed eyebrows are the most pleasant of results. Despite the risk, this recently ordained Messenger, whose only thought was to impress with his helpfulness, appeared to have remained unscathed.
...Or so it was assumed, even by the priest himself, for quite a long while.
The last scroll case of the scattered collection had fallen open and the parchment it was protecting was now exposed to the rain. Quickly rolling the paper back up, Jonathan gently shoved it back into the metal case, missing the warning of "-ot open, for the love of-" just barely legible under the mud. He also failed to notice that rather than having tossed the case into the cart with the rest, he had instead tucked it into his belt, hidden by his cloak, before climbing back onto the cart. This story would have been far shorter, or at least drastically different, had the older priest he was traveling with noticed this. Thankfully for this particular narrative, he did not; he was too busy trying to get the horse to drag the cart back onto the road to pay any attention to his fellow Messenger, trusting that the boy had his side of the problem under control. That inherent faith and confidence these particular priests have in each other turned out to be the youth's undoing- as can probably be guessed, that piece of parchment was none other than the mage-wrought map, which had already begun to place its control over the hapless cleric. If you hadn't guessed that yet, more fantasy reading is needed; horribly powerful items always fall into the hands of the most innocent and harmless.
The lad, upon later finding the map in his possession after the delivery was completed, was unable to hand it over to another Messenger to remedy the delay; he found that he could no more part with it than hand over a hand, and, as the months passed, the map steadily gained more and more control over him. It started with simply just reading all the messages and letters that he was tasked to deliver- certainly forbidden by both the priesthood and their god. Then it shifted to him erasing the writing on the scrolls he didn't like and keeping the juicy, secretive, or important ones for himself; why should anyone else have this information? he (or rather the map) reasoned, if it's in my hands, it's mine. Finders keepers. He made sure to never work out of the same mosque or any in a near proximity to the last one, always convincing the higher priests assigning the deliveries to give him one that would take him far away.
From there, it wasn't a large leap to hoarding all the mail that came through him, even the most dull bits. Possibly at first the small part of Jonathan that still remained in his head imagined this was keeping them safe, but after a while even that part was silenced.
A Messenger's chief and imperative duty is to deliver and protect the messages he or she is assigned; to not do this meant that the young priest quickly fell out of favor with his god. Hermes sent warnings, but they remained unheeded as the youth lost control over himself and the evil influence of the map took over. Being a lower-ranking deity than the one empowering the artifact, there was little the god could do to shift the balance away from Evil other than forsaking the fallen Messenger and removing all the divinely granted abilities the boy possessed (largely out of anger, but perhaps thinking if his once-devoted follower was no longer god-touched and instead was normal, the map might loosen its hold on him). This, too, the youth did not catch on to; whatever reasoning hadn't jumped ship assumed that his god-granted Charm ability had actually improved and that was why he could now convince all those higher priests to do what he wanted them to, little knowing that it was the map allowing him to do this. Hermes' last-ditch effort failing, this proved that even deities are fallible when it comes to that cursed balance that plagues mortals.
Soon the map/boy (the two being utterly entwined by now) decided the information he was getting wasn't enough; he wanted to know everything about everything. His reasoning changed to "if I can have all of the information, I can control all of the information" and just stealing his own deliveries wasn't giving him what he desired to fulfill this. He began disguising himself and tracking down and attacking other Messengers in the hope that he could steal theirs, as well. Luckily for them, this was not initially effective because of the combination of the once-priest being fairly physically weak coupled with a Messenger's extreme aversion to giving up their deliveries even under coercion. This was the one place where the map failed him; the boy found it impossible to coerce his once-brethren to do something so entirely against their nature- or perhaps Hermes was able to work through his loyal followers to give them some extra immunity. This plan failing, the boy/map retreated to create a new one.
At this time the map or whatever knowledge remained in his head realized two things: 1.) that there were a surprising amount of copper and silver pieces making their way across the country via the mail, and 2.) that the Messengers were eventually bound to notice deliveries going missing if they always occurred around the same person. He sneered at this realization: how unobservant and naively Good those priests were to not have caught on, and how equally trusting of the general population to send money though them! This would play to his advantage, though- if he couldn't charm his way into getting the priests to give him their letters, why not use that coin to hire a thug or two to forcibly take it from them?
If nothing else, this was the thought that proved that the young man had fallen so far down the alignment chart that he'd barely had time to bang his head against anything neutral before hitting the ground hard at the bottom. Had the young man still been getting the letters directly from a mosque, surely someone would have noticed by now that, hey, that kid emanates evil! Alas, this was a continuation in the series of bad luck for the good guys- he wasn't, so they didn't. Good isn't always the most observant; the bad guy could be be living in a black tower, wearing a mask, laughing maniacally, and raising an army of misshapen beasts and the hero would still go "Nice to see you again! Care for some tea?" or if they were feeling particularly perceptive that day, "Say, did you change the paint in here? Something looks a bit different." Good's gullibility is on par with Bad's ineptitude; they tend to cancel each other out, which is why Neutral is able to get anything done when it's the weakest of the three.
Finally realizing that something had gone terribly wrong and was causing even more chaos as the balance had become even more askew, a new tactic was formed. The deities (or the dice or the seesaw- someday we'll know what makes the world tick), in the hopes that this time there would be better luck or that the target would be less stupid, decided to focus once more on the Messengers; perhaps either Hermes had lost a bet or was being given the benefit of a second chance.