Banner art by JackOfClubs (jack_spire on livejournal).
You can find the whole cover art here- JoC did a great job on it!
There's also a great mix/soundtrack that goes with this story- you can find that here.
(Prologue, Part 1, Part 2, Part 4)
The young man inched around the wall, careful not to make a sound. He was lurking here because of a quest given by his master. A quest, he grumbled internally, Right. To find some stupid item that he only heard rumors about. So of course the apprentice has to go on this fool's errand.
To make matters worse, leads that he had followed had led him to believe that it did in fact exist and was located here, in the same place as a group of orcs and who knew what else. Phillip knew, though, that if he came back empty handed, or at least without bearing word of its whereabouts, his master would not be at all pleased- and that would be an understatement. The old wizard had never been particularly kind, but over the past year or two he'd become downright... well, evil, in his apprentice's opinion, although "crazy," "paranoid" and "shady" would be other words said apprentice would throw into the mix, although most definitely not while in his master's presence. He liked his feet where they were, thank you very much.
As inane as this task was, perhaps if he retrieved that magic amulet for his master it would allow him to lose some of that horrible paranoia and return to normal... or at least to the level of eccentricity normal for a spellcaster. If nothing else, maybe it would please the old man enough that he'd finally advance his apprentice to full Illusionist, meaning Phillip could get as far away from Bluecoast as possible and never have to deal with that madman again.
So maybe this search wasn't so pointless after all.
Phillip had heard no sound coming from within while looping his way around most of the wall so he was surprised when a ruckus of clangs and thumps sounded from nearby. Stepping away from the wall to look around the curve of the stone, he spotted something that surprised him even further: a male centaur slamming an iron gate with what the young man could only think of as a tree. As he watched, the stallion- was that a term for someone with the top half of a human?- tossed the large log aside and with a growl of frustration, began pulling at the gate with his bare hands, accomplishing nothing more than rattling the iron.
Most of Phillip was telling him to quickly head the other way, as far from this angry beast as possible, but curiosity led him forward. Still moving silently in his soft boots, the young man crept forward, stopping a few yards away just as the horse-man gave another shout. As he watched, the centaur seemed to deflate; he gave one more shout of frustration, then bowed his head low, bringing his hands up to his head to pull at his already disheveled brown hair.
Unsure of what to do with a very distraught centaur, Phillip cleared his throat. Instead of jumping, as the young man expected he would, the centaur just turned slowly to face the sound. As the human got a good look at him, he realized why: for all the strength the centaur had been exhibiting, he appeared to be utterly exhausted.
When the centaur spotted the young man, his bleary brown eyes widened. Before Phillip could say anything, the centaur spoke up. "Please! Your aid I need. My sister in there be!" And here was another surprise: the pleading centaur spoke his language. Heavily accented, but perfectly understandable.
Understandable, but also unfortunately demanding. "Woah. Hold on," Phillip said, his arms held out in front of him. "There are orcs in there. I can't just wander in and ask they hand someone over."
The centaur shook his head hastily, his long hair flying. "No! Gone most of them should be. Her kin cleared them out and left, but never did she leave."
That didn't sound too hopeful. "But how do you know she's-" Phillip began to ask.
The centaur glared at him with enough hostility to cause the young man to take a few steps back. "Their injured they removed and with them she was not. Inside she must then still be. Get her, I would, but," he now directed his glare at the gate and Phillip was almost surprised not to see this one melt like what had apparently once happened to the one to the west, "enter I cannot."
Biting his lip, he again turned to look at the human. "Gone the orcs all should be. For now. Get her out before more come, I would like. For her please look."
Phillip sighed. This was not how he wanted to spend his day and any other time he'd have hurried away from such a request, but... he did have to get inside anyway, especially if it were true and the orcs were all vanquished at the moment, so this would be a chance to appear to do something heroic without that being his actual goal. And a small part of him actually wanted to help... he chose to ignore that voice and said, "I could try, I suppose... but how would I get in?"
The centaur turned and pointed to a rope dangling from the wall to the west which Phillip hadn't noticed. It blended so well into the grey of the stone that unless you knew it was there, it wouldn't be seen. "To get in that did she use." There was such intense entreaty in his eyes that Phillip had to look away. "So look for her you will?"
Phillip nodded slightly and the centaur gave a whoop and a swish of his tail, the human noted, and said, "Wait for you here I shall."
The young man walked over to the rope, tugging it to be sure of its strength. It seemed okay, so he quickly tied back his long hair and tucked his robe into his belt and began to scale it. It wasn't until he had reached the top of the wall, stored the rope on his pack and located a set of stairs leading down into the town that the thought occurred to him, Wait, how did a centaur get over the wall using a rope?
Meren groggily opened her eyes and blinked dazedly at the dim light. Where am I? She thought sluggishly. She groaned and sat up, rubbing the back of her head. Ugh, I feel like a building fell on me... as she looked up at the small hole in the wood ceiling that was letting in the fading evening light, she recalled that it technically had. Groping around for her backpack, she found it near her feet. This she began digging through but quickly threw down with a frustrated curse. She'd left her grappling hook and rope behind on the wall, hadn't she? She'd been in such a hurry to explore that not only was it now no use for her, anything could use it to get in... but who would want to get in to a village of orcs?
Right, orcs, that's why she was here! Rubbing her head again, she stood and listened for any sound. Nothing. She could call out, but would alerting monsters to her location be wise? Probably not. But as the light faded, she now cursed the lack of something else in her bag: a torch, a candle, anything that lit. She'd never needed one before, being able to see fairly well in moonlight, so it had never occurred to her to carry a light source. Maybe there was something here she could use?
Dropping to the ground, she began poking around, her hand finding shapeless and unidentifiable debris, but nothing that had potential for fire. Poking around further, she located her bow, thankfully still in one piece; this she unstrung and tucked into her quiver, as it was little use at the moment and she didn't want to lose it again. Returning to her exploration, something sharp brushed her finger. She snatched her hand back and wrapped it quickly in the fold of her tunic. Now realizing that it was stupid to fumble around blindly, she half stood so she could feel along with her boot- then immediately fell back over when she tripped on something that rolled. Reaching down to see what she'd kicked, she instantly regretted it. It was smooth and cool; it felt like bone. Grimacing, she prodded forward and, yes, that was a skeleton, alright. Ugh. She wrinkled her nose in disgust. About to climb back to her feet to get as far away from this as possible, her hand knocked something that skittered across the dirt floor. Torn between disgust, some amount of panic at being underground, and curiosity, curiosity won out.
On hands and knees she went across the floor, now on the lookout for more glass and dead things, and soon found what she'd flung away: some kind of cold stone thing on a chain. Unsure of why she did so as it was absolutely no help in the dark, she dropped the chain over her head. Not knowing what else to do, she inched her way over to the wall. Was it really that close? Hadn't the area seemed... larger a moment ago? Was it a moment ago? How much time had passed since she fell down here? Meren shut her eyes tightly and grasped at the stone lying against her chest. Morning had to come soon, right? Perhaps in the light she'd magically be able to to see a ladder out of here. Right, she thought, and 'Ro will lead a centaur rescue party that's magically able to climb walls. May as well wish for the unattainable.
Light shining off some sort of mirror on the floor and into Meren's eyes woke her. Stretching out kinks from sleeping in a corner, she stood. Her view was no better by the filtered slight light of morning. No magical ladder or grappling hook- or centaur rescue party- greeted her. What she did learn, however, was that the skeleton had been staring at her all that time. This made her shudder and take a step back against the wall. Judging from the shape of its skull, it had been some sort of goblinoid. This didn't bother her too much at first, but as the day wound on and the little light filtering through the crack in the ceiling began to fade again, something was really starting to bother her: the lack of sky, trees, fresh air, locations without dead goblins... Would alerting potential monsters be any worse than another night spent underground? At this point, that would be a definite no. Unable to help herself, she started calling out. She shouted her brother's name, general pleading and cursing in shifts, anything to catch the attention of something, anything.
But this was to no avail. Shouting until she was hoarse and exhausted, Meren grasped for her waterskin, drinking the last few drops. She needed to do something to alert Kryro that she was here- he had to still be out there!- but nothing was down here except some trash and a goblin skeleton. That grinned at her somewhere in the darkness. Underground in a space that seemed to be getting smaller by the minute... Oh no, what had she gotten herself into?
Exhausted and starting to hyperventilate, she sunk to the ground directly under the gap in the ceiling, trying to get as far away from those walls as possible. Again she clutched at the stone laying against her leather armor; it was something vaguely green and gold, as she'd been able to make out in the dim light of day. She began to feel it grow warm and figuring she was growing delusional from being caught in the one place a wood elf would never voluntarily go, or possibly delirious from lack of water and that knot on the back of her head, she ignored this and instead called in a cracking voice, "Kryro, get help! I'm here!" Something made her point up at the bit of moonlight and she was shocked to see a bright flickering of flame shoot out of her hand. That got her to stop stressing about being underground. Staring at her hand in utter disbelief, she wondered if she was truly going mad. Elves don't spawn fire... she muttered to herself in a daze. She could almost hear that ex-goblin laughing. Covering her pointed ears with her hands and closing her eyes tightly, she silently willed her brother to get her out, Somehow, please! He always called himself her protector which she'd begrudgingly went along with, not feeling as though she had need of one. But at the moment? I take back every time I glared at you for saying that. Just get me back to the forest! With her eyes closed, she failed to notice that now some light did exist in the old cellar. The amulet had turned a shining green.
Part 4 can be found here.