BK 3: Chapter Three: Answering the Call
Updated: Aug 13
The highway between the town of Westmeade and the free city of Cer Cannaid passed through the fertile soil of northern Alikon—the grain basket of Arelatha. Frequently watered by sudden storms that arose from The Deepening, this land sprouted an abundance of grasses, feeding an array of cattle, sheep, and other livestock. Golden fields had been harvested and lay speckled with sheaves of wheat, rye, and barley ready for the mills. And the brewers.
Cora gazed out the window of the stagecoach, her thoughts wandering back to Lorenvale. Tree-lined fencerows crossing the rolling hills reminded her of home. The quaintness and tranquility spoke to her, and filled her with yearning. She had not seen her family in many months, and their letters conveyed disappointment and concern for her safety. I hope they are not still mad at me. When they see the Sword of the Coast—surely that will be worth it all.
The coach lurched, and Elric snorted, pulling himself out of a deep sleep. He sprawled in the reverse seat in front, his legs draped over the excess gear piled on the floorboard between the seats. His fingers curled around the neckline of his dragon armor, a gift from the duke and crafted by Elric’s father. He had worn it every day for the past month, taking it off only when he entered someone’s house. And then only because Cora insisted upon it.
Squinting into the sunlight, Elric checked that his handlebar moustache still smiled up his cheeks. “Where are we?” he mumbled as his eyelids drifted closed again.
“About twenty miles out, I think,” Cora answered. “Maybe halfway to—”
Elric rumbled with a belch, and tendrils of light smoke curled from his nostrils. He grinned, then fell back asleep. As had been predicted, his armor provided more than bodily protection. It heated him internally and turned his breath smoky. And it provided him far more entertainment than Cora cared for.
She sighed and glanced over at Cuauhtérroc, who hadn’t spoken a word all twenty miles.
“Are you all right, Cuauhtie?” Cora asked.
He made no response.
“Hey, Cuauhtérroc, is everything okay?”
The Audric turned slowly to face Cora, then resumed his gloomy gaze out the window.
Cora tapped him on the arm. “What’s bothering you? I haven’t seen you this glum since you spotted the Amurraks in town. Things could be worse—you could be trying to ride a horse all the way to Cer Cannaid, right?” She provided him a wide, toothy grin. “Right?”
Cuauhtérroc sat up and faced her, his dark eyes shadowed beneath a scowl. “You make me dreenk dees poison.”
Her grin vanished. “You’re still miffed at me? I said I was sorry.”
Cuauhtérroc’s eyes narrowed as he turned back to the window.
“You must admit, though; that was kind of funny. You fell flat on your face. I’ve never seen someone pass out so stone-cold like that.” Cora chuckled.
“You know I do not like dees poison dreenk.”
Cora huffed. “Okay. I’m sorry. I’ll try not to do that again.”
The savage turned back to her, his dark eyes scowling. “Try is for dees weak peeple who do not care if dey leeve or die.”
Cora blinked twice. Is that an Audric proverb or a veiled threat? “Okay. I’m sorry. I won’t do that again.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Five days later, the free city of Cer Cannaid shimmered with a cascade of lanterns as the Dragonslayers approached. Strategically situated on bluffs overlooking the easternmost point where The Deepening narrowed and spilled into the Rae Serene, Cer Cannaid was a beacon to all who arrived by land or by water. But recent events had left the free city’s beacon shrouded, no longer welcoming but suspicious of all who entered.
Despite heightened security, they passed through the thick iron gates with ease. The duke’s letter—Elric was not allowed to carry it—acted as a pass through every checkpoint. Once inside, personal servants showed them to their guest quarters and attended to their road-weary bodies and clothes. It was the kind of treatment Cora dreamt of, and she didn’t have to risk their lives climbing cliffs and dodging Alliance traps to gain it.
In the morning, after a light breakfast of fruit and pastries, the Dragonslayers were summoned into a small anteroom. Duke Kurtis Lenair joined them, wearing a hunting tunic and trousers rather than formal attire. Even after presiding over the nation for two decades, he still revealed his preference for the forest trails.
“I hope you enjoyed safe travels from Westme—” Lenair sliced off his sentence with a squint. “You cut your hair.”
Cora smiled to hide her self-conscious worry. “Yes, a fresh look for a fresh start. And it was a pleasant journey…Your Grace.” It was tough to judge whether a formal title was required for someone dressed in hunter’s garb.
“You found our accommodations acceptable, I presume?”
Cora nodded. “Quite so. Thank you, my lord.” That sounds better.
Lenair nodded to Elric. “Your father has great skill. But it’s not necessary to wear armor within these walls. We destroyed the labyrinth of tunnels beneath the castle, repaired the breach in our cellar, and tripled the security. You’re perfectly safe.”
Elric grabbed the neckline of his breastplate and shifted it back and forth. “I jis gotta break it in, milord. It’s still kinda stiff, like I’m a walkin’ box turtle.”
The duke nodded and rubbed his hands. “Well, let’s get down to business, shall we? I suspect you’ll want to take Selorian with you?” A hint of eagerness laced his voice.
Cora shook her head. “We’ve parted company, my lord. The savant—shall we say—overstayed his welcome.”
“He was instrumental in your recent victory, no?”
“Yes, of course he was, my lord. However, he was not a true member of our company. And…he had a certain quality that did not quite fit into our particular identity.”
The duke scratched his bearded chin beneath a sideways frown. “Hmm…I suppose he can stay at the castle for a while longer.”
“So, how is Selorian?” Cora asked.
Lenair shrugged and shook his head. “I can’t say. There are days when he is perfectly well-mannered, cooperative, and generally out of the way. And there are days when he is a complete…” He searched the ceiling. “…well, a complete arse, and I don’t mind saying it. On his good days, he reads from the library and engages the staff in highbrow arguments that makes them feel ignorant most of the time. The rest of the time he broods, and a pall settles over him such that the very light flees the room. All in all, he gives me too much to think about.”
“You do not like heem,” Cuauhtérroc said.
“I try to. Most days. But sometimes he’s unbearable. And yet, just when I think I’ve had enough, he demonstrates noble qualities, and I end up forgiving him of his bothersome traits…like twiddling with that purple fire of his.”
Cora pursed her lips. It sounded like the Selorian they first met, before he came into possession of the Slayer—more accurately, before he came to be possessed by the Slayer. “He hasn’t…caused any trouble, has he?” A wave of responsibility washed over her for bringing the savant into the castle.
“No, no…nothing I can actually pin on him. It’s hard to explain, and trying to makes me sound foolish.”
Cora smiled warmly. “No, I think I understand completely, my lord. I could never quite figure out what to make of him, either. He is an enigma.”
“That he is.”
“So…he’s behaving himself with the Lady Gretchen?”
Lenair nodded. “To be sure. In that regard, Selorian is a perfect gentleman. They are much alike, those two. They both dress in dark hues, and Gretchen has recently begun sporting a fresh tattoo across her right shoulder…”
The duke shook his head and held up his hands. “But that’s not what we’re here to discuss. You won’t be taking the savant with you, and I’ll get over it. What about Miss Muroe?”
Elric sat upright. “Kiyla? Oh, yeah! We gotta have ‘er…sir.”
Cora wavered and glanced at Cuauhtérroc for advice. She didn’t see much value in the pit fighter—nice girl, useful in the battle for the castle, but distracted by personal issues. Besides that, headlocks and body slams seemed ineffective against swords and spears.
Cuauhtérroc nodded. “She is good. She come weeth us.”
Cora turned back to the duke with a small shrug. “I guess she’s with us.”
Elric pumped his fist.
“I’ll let her know,” Lenair responded. “She has been staying in the castle with her mother. You did know Kiyla’s mother is a scullery maid here, right?”
Cora nodded and reached for a glass of water in the center of the table. As she sipped, the duke’s eyes grew distant. She set the glass down. “My lord, there appears to be something weighing heavily upon your mind. Is there something we can do?”
Lenair looked up, his smile touching only a corner of his mouth. “Miss O’Banion, I fear I am about to send you on a fool’s errand.”
“To the Brack?”
The forced his lips to finish the smile. “I have received nothing but rumor after bloody rumor from merchant seamen coming up the Rae Serene delta, and all of them touch on a common theme—apparitions, eerie wails, and a vanishing mansion. I no more believe these tales than the next person.”
“Perhaps there’s nothing to it,” Cora offered. “The saying is true: there is no fear like that of the bravest sailor.”
“Yes, I know. The whole notion of vanishing mansions is ridiculous; there are only a handful of ragamuffin houseboats in the Brack—certainly no mansions, vanishing or not. I’m inclined to dismiss the tales outright. But I cannot blithely dismiss it as superstition while shipping traffic diverts to the Dragontail Canal and Cer Halcyon. Rumor or truth, something is keeping them at bay, and that’s what I need you to investigate.”
Cora rested her elbows on the table and folded her hands under her chin. “You think you’re wasting our time and talents by sending us down there to examine the claims of a ghostly haunting. My good Duke, have you forgotten Wilder Tower? We excel in routing out ghostly charades.”
Lenair chuckled. “Something like that. But my instinct tells me there truly is nothing to this.”
“We will determine that for you, my lord.”
The duke stood, and the Dragonslayers rose in response. “Very well,” he said, “I will see you off early tomorrow aboard a merchant ship to take you to a point south of the Cerion Forest. From there you will have to walk, but you can follow the banks of the Rae Serene easily enough. The Brack is vast, so be sure you are well supplied. You may use this writ of purchase for your needs, but keep it reasonable.” He removed a folded sheet of paper from a pocket and slid it across the table. “Is there anything particular that you need?”
“Yes,” Cuauhtérroc said, “I need dees army so I can keel dees Amurraks in my homeland.”
Cora cringed. No form of address and no connection to the conversation. “Cuauhtérroc, I hardly think that is what His Grace meant. And you need to remember to use proper—” An overtone in her voice rang familial, and she stopped short. Cripe, I’m becoming my mother.
Cuauhtérroc pressed on. “I see dees duke has dees beeg army when we fight weeth dem last two turns of dees moon. You say dees land has no wars for many years, so why dees army? I say dees men come weeth me to my homeland and we keel dees Amurraks for what dey do.”
Lenair nodded at the savage. “I like your passion, Cuauhtérroc. Because of your brave and selfless actions at Lady Karlina’s side, I would like to grant your request. But sending men to the Audric Jungle is an impossible task. It’s too far a journey, and too high a financial cost. But perhaps the greatest obstacle is the Nephreqin naval blockade. I have no doubt that a group of soldiers sailing through their territory would be seen as an act of aggression. I do not want to be the target of the Nephreqin again.” The duke shook his head sadly. “No, as much as I’d like to, yours is a proposition I cannot risk.”
Cora cleared her throat. “My lord, please forgive Cuauhtérroc. I promised him an army, but I would never have accosted you with such a request in this manner or at this time. If you are unable to assist, we are capable of gathering one elsewhere.” It was all she could think of to say; she hoped it was enough.
“That’s quite all right,” Lenair replied. “If there’s anything else I can do, particularly as it pertains to the task at hand, let me know. You may leave notice with the castle attendants, and we will make the necessary arrangements tomorrow morning.”
“Thank you, my lord,” Cora said with a curtsy.
The duke nodded and left the room.
Cora wheeled. “I can’t flaming believe you would ask for the duke’s army! That’s got to be the most foolhardy, impulsive breach of etiquette imaginable. What were you thinking? That one of the most wealthy, stable, and proud nations of Arelatha would serve up a slice of their military power just because you asked for it? That was…I don’t know…that was…just…”
“Awesome?” Elric finished with a grin.
“No, it was certainly not awesome. It was stupid. He could have dismissed us, tossed us out, banned us from the country—”
“What?” Elric frowned with disbelief. “He wouldn’a chunked us out the country. I mean, I thought he’s gonna bust up laughin’ at Cuauhtie fer a moment. He done said he thought ‘bout doin’ it. So mebbe it weren’t such a hare-brained idea. Mebbe it was a stroke o’ genius.”
Cora sat back down at the table with an exasperated huff. “I hope you’re right.”
Cuauhtérroc adjusted the black panther pelt across his broad, sun-bronzed shoulders. “He will geeve us dees army.”
Cora leaned in, expecting a supporting argument, but the savage turned and walked out, leaving her staring at the open doorway.
“Welp,” Elric said as he stretched his arms out, “I’mina go see Kiyla.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Elric found her in the kitchen, where she was peeling potatoes for the midday meal. Her dusty ash blonde braid hung around broad shoulders, as thick arms worked the skins off a pile of tubers. To see such a tough woman in a kitchen maid’s outfit seemed ludicrous, and Elric laughed aloud when he entered the room.
The head cook spun on her heels. “What the blazes is this ruffian doin’ in my kitchen?! Get out or I’ll heave a fryin’ pan at ye!”
Kiyla also spun around at the commotion caused by the cook, flinging her braid about her shoulders like a whip. In her hand she wielded the slicing knife, raised overhead and ready to strike.
Elric gasped and ducked behind a counter. When he peered over the top, Kiyla winked at him. “It’s all right, Flores,” she said to the cook. “I know him.” Her brown eyes and the point of her knife showed Elric the door. “Get out, Elric. You can’t be here.”
“Ya durn straight he can’t be here!” Flores clamored. “Now get! I got six roast ducks and ‘bout fourteen gallons o’ taters to cream and a veggie stew on the bile, and there’s the no small matter of a dozen pies what needs bakin’—Alerynne! You better be done rollin’ out those crusts! I swear, it’s as if I gotta—”
Kiyla ushered Elric away from the ruckus of Flores’ ranting. “Shouldn’t have come down here. Now she’ll fuss all day. She don’t like—” She paused to look Elric over. “Why are you wearing your armor?”
“‘Cause it’s the bestest thang ever. Also, I gotta break it in.”
Kiyla rolled her eyes. “I thought you were goin’ somewhere.”
“Well, we’re fixin’a take off on a quest fer the duke. Wanna come?”
“Maybe. Where to?”
“Oh…jis a little place called the Brack.” Elric put a skip in his step as they walked, then started dancing the shimmy-shaker down the hall.
Kiyla slugged him in the arm and sent him careening through an open doorway onto an interior courtyard, where he toppled down a short pair of steps and rolled onto the flagstone floor. He sat up and frowned at the brawler.
“I hate that dance,” Kiyla said. She sat on a bench facing the central fountain.
Elric crawled up to the bench to sit beside her. “That hurt.”
“Then don’t be a moron.”
“Whatcha talkin’ about?”
“The Brack ain’t a fun place. Lots of creepy stuff down there. Swamp creatures. Dragon-bloods for sure. Why are you goin’ there?”
“The duke says all the ship captains say all the sailors say there’s a missin’ house down there.”
“An’ ‘at’s why he’s runnin’ short on bread an’ stuff.”
Kiyla clapped Elric on his bruised shoulder, making him wince again. “The larder’s full, you lunk. Not like your head. But hey, good to see you. The armor suits you.”
Elric slowly rotated his shoulder, but he smiled at her. “I’m lovin’ this armor. It’s the bestest thang ever. Ooh, watch what I can do!”
A worried frown darkened Kiyla’s eyes as Elric began gulping down huge mouthfuls of air. He held the air in his stomach until the heat built to the point of being uncomfortable. Sweat beaded on his forehead, but he held fast. A tremor pulsed through him, starting in his legs and rippling up through his torso, but he clamped down harder.
Kiyla leaped from the bench and stepped away, concern deepening the lines in her forehead.
“Ya might wanna back up,” Elric grunted. “Gets a bit smoky…ungh…it burns!” He craned his neck forward, gaped open his mouth and released a long and raucous belch. But something was terribly wrong. Searing pain scorched his esophagus, and that had never happened before. What was supposed to be an entertaining puff of smoke felt like raging death inside. But he couldn’t show weakness to a girl, especially not a girl who could beat him up.
“What the rink!” Kiyla yelled.
Elric doubled over with a tortured groan and fell from the bench to his knees. His entire abdominal cavity felt seared with fire and pulsed with endless agony. Despite efforts to the contrary, his eyes watered and tears flowed down his cheeks. Cripe, it hurts!
“Elric!” Kiyla shouted with such energy that he forced open an eye.
An area before him crackled with tendrils of sputtering flames. Kiyla danced in their midst, stamping them out before they caused any damage. Beside him, a small decorative bush had been reduced to a spindly skeleton of charred twigs.
Through the pain, Elric grinned. It was no small puff of smoke he had showed off; actual fire had spewed from his mouth. That IS the bestest thang ever!
* * * * * * * * * *
The Dragonslayers met in the music room that evening to discuss their trip to the Brack. Elric remained uncharacteristically quiet throughout their discussions, which Kiyla explained as a bout of indigestion. “Something he ate.”
Selorian joined them an hour into their planning, exiting the library with the Lady Gretchen close behind. A flowing, ruffled shirt swallowed his lanky frame, and a new runic tattoo curled around the left side of his neck. He dismissed Gretchen with an aloof wave of his hand, which briefly flashed a pale lavender hue. Much to everyone’s surprise, the duke’s daughter peeled off and exited the room, giving Selorian a final affectionate glimpse over her shoulder.
“Hello, Selorian,” Cora said with narrowed eyes. “Please tell me you’re not influencing her.”
The savant raised a single pierced eyebrow. “No, I hold no sway with her. Contrarywise, it is unreservedly perturbing that she shadows me in this coquettish manner.”
Cora shook her head. Unbelievable. “She clings to you? Does the duke know?”
Selorian collapsed in a chair. “His Grace was incontrovertibly lucid regarding my strictures. I cannot repudiate the notion that the Lady Gretchen is infinitely intriguing; however, she is verboten. Were I to countenance a prolonged dialogue with her, I would certainly be expatriated without ceremony.”
“So, why does she continue to follow you?” Cora asked.
Selorian shrugged his bony shoulders. “If pressed to speculation, I would postulate a residual influence from that sword yet enshrouds her. Perhaps it forged a link between us.”
Elric groaned from his fetal position on the couch. “Ain’t ya done chunked ‘at sword?”
Selorian stared at Elric, incredulous. “I had quite forgotten I suffer an aneurism with each opening of your mouth. Are you still absorbed in your omphaloskepsis?”
Elric clutched his stomach. “Shut up with yer poly-syllabastic poo-bah!”
“I am a sesquipedalian, thank you.”
“Nevertheless,” Cora insisted, “you did release the sword, right? I’d be surprised if it still held sway over either of you. I sure hope it doesn’t. You’re not winning anyone over right now.”
Selorian rested his elbows on the armrests of the chair and splayed his fingers together beneath his pointed chin. “Why should I renounce my heart? I am fond of Gretchen.”
Cora frowned. “Lady Gretchen. But you just cast her off.”
“As I said, harmonious relations are forbidden. The duke has graciously granted me a modicum of existence on the condition that I abstain from his daughter. How bitterly ironic, then, that she would affix her fascination upon me. I could not ward her off with a plank. And the demand is made doubly intricate because of my affections for her. My apparent coldness is merely a façade intended to protect us both from each other.”
“Ah…” Cora waffled between mocking laughter and pity. “And so you must live with the possibility that you may never be able to relate normally to her. How perfectly sad.”
The savant shrugged again. “I suppose it is well deserved.”
A chorus of comments danced on Cora’s tongue, pointed and scalding jabs equal parts true and unnecessary. There were a great many repercussions she believed the savant deserved, and the least of them was being denied a courtship with the duke’s fragile daughter. The bilious liquor brewed within her. For all Selorian had done, his sentence was remarkably light, and bitterness soured her tongue. What is wrong with me? Got to change the subject. “So…did you hear we’re being sent to the Brack?”
Selorian nodded. “And do I presume correctly that my presence is unwelcome?”
Cora’s face scrunched into a grimace. Some nerve. “No…no, you’re not welcome. I have to say it: you were a daily nightmare for me. For all of us. And yes, I’m aware that nightmares don’t happen during the day. I’m not going to say ‘nightly nightmare.’ I hope this little house arrest in the grandest castle of Alikon suits you well. Really, I hope you find whatever it is you’re looking for. But no, you’re not coming with us.”
Selorian smiled as if he had expected the charge. “I understand. Indubitably, the words will echo with emptiness, but I must disclose my holistic conversion. I am not the same man you first met. Point of fact, I owe you an apology for my incorrigible behavior in Heavener. And certainly a great quantity of similar offenses deserves equal contrition. I was an unparalleled arse.”
Cora regarded him for a moment. “That you were. But your testimony to the Council was invaluable, so…I also owe you thanks.”
“Hmm…I am tempted to divulge that it was all a ruse, a charade designed to—”
“Don’t.” Cora held up a hand. “I do have a little patience remaining; it would be best if I didn’t know anything more.”
Selorian nodded. “Can you forgive me?” His countenance, softened by humility, looked bizarre behind the multiple piercings, black eyeliner and reddened skin swollen around the edges of his fresh ink.
Cora didn’t trust it. She didn’t trust him. “I don’t know. Give it time. The duke has been gracious to you. I can promise to work toward that as well.”