Ch. 9: Westmeade
Updated: Feb 22, 2021
Cora stumbled up the flight of stairs leading from the common room of the Savory Salmon to the guest rooms, softly humming the refrain of Lady Stole My Heart. The hallway ahead of her was deserted, as were the stairs below, for the tavern had closed several hours ago, and she was quite possibly the only one awake. Courtesy of the thieves, good Dokarien ale coursed through her veins, and lots of it, making even a smooth floor difficult to navigate, never mind a staircase.
They had won a significant victory, and celebrations were in order. Calloway’s stolen goods had been recovered along with many things missing from the village. After steaming baths and a change of clothes, the barkeep declared them honored guests and gave them all they could eat “on the house.” Cora mostly drank.
The door key evaded her fingers, just always out of reach, until she finally grabbed it and forced it to hold still. The lock eluded her as well, shifting across the door as she tried to shove the key inside. When she finally leaned in, scraping the key across the wood and into the keyhole, Cora stood tall and staggered back, proud of her accomplishment. Humming the refrain again, Cora turned the key, entered her room and collapsed against the door as it closed behind her. The floor swelled and swayed beneath her feet like a small boat on The Deepening, and Cora braced against the door for support, clinging to the latch until the motion stopped.
Celindria leaned back in a chair with her fingers locked behind her head, staring silently at nothing across the room. A single oil lamp burned on a small table beside her, casting dancing shadows of the reeve against the back wall. At least, to Cora, they appeared to be dancing…
“Um…hello, Shin—er—Shlin [hic],” Cora slurred, “I thought you wash goin’ out.”
“What, in this place? There’s only about fifty people here, Red. Not exactly a hotbed of activity.”
“Well, we shur [hic] had a good time downshtairs.”
“I can tell,” the reeve remarked blandly.
“Ya shoulda been there. [hic] There was shingin’…and danshin’. Cuauhtie told shtories ‘bout hish people [hic]…you know, all them panther people…how they all go [hic] kill a panther an’ how that ish where Cuauhtie got hish…panther…[hic]” Cora squinted in thought. “Izzat too many panthersh?”
Without responding, the reeve got up from the chair and flopped across her bed, bouncing a couple of times on her back before settling in with her eyes locked onto the ceiling. Cora shrugged and began disrobing for the evening, wrinkling her nose as she fussed with the buttons of her blouse. She didn’t remember them being this difficult before.
Celindria sighed. “I don’t know, Cora.”
“Don’t know what?”
“I don’t know…all of this,” she said with an aimless wave of her hand, “I don’t know if it’s worth it.”
“What are you talkin’ [hic] about?” Cora said with confused frown, “We just fount all the shtuff, an’ we get our pick of the litter. Real [hic] gold, an’ shum magic shtuff, too. We made a lot of folksh happy…an’ thash really shattashf [hic] shashtifah [hic] really good. Sho…fortune, fame…howsh that not worth it?”
Glumly, Celindria reached across her bed and brought into the light the clothes she had been wearing that morning when they raided the thieves’ guild. It had once been a pale yellow but was now a dull brown, and the front was mottled with a variety of unpleasant colors. The whole set was cut, ripped, and splotched with crimson stains. She laid the unhappy garments across the footboard of Cora’s bed for the songsage to see. “I nearly died today. Twice. I’ve vomited on myself in the past two days more than the rest of my life put together. And for what? I’m not after fame, Red. That’s your moronic goal. I’m after vengeance, and I don’t see how this is helping me accomplish that.”
Cora was silent for a moment, turning over the reeve’s comments in her muddled head. I really need some kaffe if I’m going listen to this. “I don’t unnershtand. I mean, we kilt the feefshs—the ftheefths—the bad guysh and [hic] shaved the town, right?”
“I’m after all the rinkin dragonkin, not some bloody thieves.”
“You wanna kill all the rink[hic]in dragon-bloodsh?”
Cora pinched the bridge of her nose. “In the world?” Her brain hurt.
“What…[hic] in a week?” Definitely a splitting headache.
The reeve paused. “Well…no, it’ll take a while.”
Cora gave up on unbuttoning her blouse and flopped back on her bed. “Then you’re right on track, ash I shee it. We kilt a rotlark.”
“I didn’t kill it,” the reeve muttered.
“Are you serio[hic]…really?” Cora said, shoving her arms toward the ceiling. “We’re a team, Shelindria. The dragon-bloodsh are [hic] dead, an’ jush becaush Ordin kilt it doeshn’t take that away from you. He wash helpin’ you, jush like he’sh [hic] helpin’ me. An’ we’re helpin’ him an’ Cuauhtie. Everybody’th [hic] helpin’ everybody elth. Help, helpie, help, help…[hic]”
Cora released a prolonged yawn and continued. “Look, we need you. If you weren’t with ush, none of thish could have happened. An’ Cuauhtie wouldn’t be ridin a horsh if not for you.”
“He still doesn’t ride a horse,” Celindria said sardonically.
“Tho, shtay with ush…” Cora mumbled sleepily, “there’sh a whole lot more…dragon-bloodsh…to kill. I promish.”
Celindria remained silent for a time. “I’ll think about it,” she replied without emotion, “I’ll stick arou—”
Cora was snoring.
Ten minutes later, Celindria left the room.
The reeve trudged along the Milorian Bridge and grasped one of the many cables supporting the structure. With a heavy sigh, she leaned over the edge and peered down the roaring waters. As tears began to brim, she pulled the sapphire pendant from beneath her blouse and studied it at length, absently rubbing the gem between a finger and thumb and recalling the wisdom of the reeves that had raised her. They had trained her in archery, tracking, and surviving the wilderness. They had taught her to hunt dragonkin, stoking her hatred for the accursed offspring of the Great Dragon. And they had instructed her to revere the Maker of Creation, who promised salvation from the Dragon’s corruption. But there was much still missing in her instruction, things she had avoided. Things she hadn’t wanted to face. I know I’m supposed to believe. I said I did. I promised them to hold the faith. But how can the Maker be right when everything around us is wrong?
She cursed aloud and spat into the azure flow below. The waterfall cascading over the bluff beneath her feet would have instilled a sense of wonder in most people. But Celindria only wondered if jumping would kill her. “Why?” she called out over the roaring waterfall. “Why all this pain and misery? Why me?” Would it hurt much?
A slight swaying in the bridge gave her pause, and she backed away from the rail. “Where are you, Maker?” she cried out. “Where is this ‘love’ you’re supposed to have for your Creation? Why would you let the Dragon ruin everything…and kill my family?”
The reeves had taught her that a life of devotion could channel her hatred into focused precision. But I don’t need precision; I need answers. “My life has been nothing but pain, Maker! If you’re supposed to love us, why don’t you love me?”
Celindria Matherthorne knelt and quietly wept. “Why doesn’t anyone love me?”
It was late morning before Cora woke up. Her head pounded as she shuffled bleary-eyed into the common room. The homey smells of bacon frying immediately whetted her appetite, so she sidled up to the bar and ordered a hearty breakfast and a never-ending pot of kaffe.
“Anyone seen Celindria?” she asked as Ordin and Cuauhtérroc were brought in the items they had recovered from the thieves’ lair.
“Nope,” Ordin said as he set down an armload. “I figured y’all were chattin’ it up in your room.”
Cora wrinkled her nose and turned back to her kaffe.
As morning turned to afternoon, the villagers of Azure Falls and many farmers from the surrounding countryside came by the Savory Salmon to search through the small collection of retrieved goods. Though some tried to pay them, Cora insisted they keep their hard-earned coin and be blessed.
Later that afternoon, when the pile had been reduced to a few rusty trinkets, Cora had planned to deliver a speech to her company, celebrating their success and continued good fortune. But the reeve was still missing.
Ordin shrugged and picked at a fingernail. “It ain’t my day to keep up with her.”
Cora huffed and pushed away from the table. “Let me see what’s keeping her.”
The songsage dashed off to her room, and barely a minute later, she returned with a frown etching her brow and a scrap of parchment in her hand. “Well, what do you know…”
“What?” Ordin replied.
Cora slid the parchment across the table and plopped down in her chair, hanging her arms loosely at either side.
Ordin took it up and quickly scanned the flowing script. “So,” the mystic began, “she’s gone?”
Cora nodded numbly. “Looks like it.”
Cuauhtérroc looked up from a bite of sausage. “Where deed she go?”
“I don’t know,” Cora replied, “I mean, her horse is here, but her gear, her clothes…it’s all gone. And she left that note. I guess it had been sitting on her bed all day.”
“What do eet say?”
Cora leaned in and snatched the paper from the table. With a sharp sigh, she read: “‘Red, Whitey, and Jungle Boy…’” She can’t even leave us alone in a letter. “‘I left the Greenbrier reeves to pursue dragonkin, and I thought vengeance would be cause enough for me to push through any hardship. But I have puked on and bled through literally everything I own. I wasn’t ready for this. I’ve learned a lot about myself, and now I need to retrace some steps I think I missed, simplify and get back to basics. Do what you want with my horse; I won’t be needing her anymore. Don’t bother trying to find me. CM.’”
“I guess she won’t be eatin’ supper, then,” Ordin said. “I’ll give it to Shinnick.”
Cora stared at the note, dumbstruck. I thought she was going to stay. “What did I do wrong?” she asked, her eyes pleading.
Ordin shrugged. “Nothin’, I don’t reckon.”
“You did not do dees,” the Audric said. “Celeendria is a sad female.”
Cora nodded absently. Her victory speech suddenly felt inappropriate.
As there was no constable in Azure Falls and Gravin the Steward wanted nothing to do with law enforcement, Ordin and Shinnick spent the next morning marching the thief they had captured back to Calloway’s wagon to repair the missing wheel. They hitched Celindria’s mare to the wagon, then Ordin sat down on the open tailgate and called Shinnick up to join him for a late morning snack.
“Whatcha gonna do with me?” the thief asked. He was no longer bound, but with the gray wolf constantly eyeing him, he had no intentions of trying to escape, especially with a broken arm.
“Well, I could let Shinnick play with you for a while before he eats you.”
“What?! No, please!”
“Simmer down, man. I’m just jackin’ with you.”
Ordin offered him a small block of cheese. “Here. I ain’t gonna kill you.” He scanned the surrounding countryside and sighed as a smile spread across his face. Nature was power for Mystic, and he was soaking it in. “What I’m gonna do is let you go.”
“Yeah. I ain’t supposed to, but the way I see it, you’ve already done your fair share of fixin’ things. So, here’s what you need to do. Day after tomorrow, go into Azure Falls and get a job, buy some land, marry a cute girl, have a bunch of kids and live a productive life. You might even feel a need to become the village’s next Steward.”
“You ain’t still jackin’ with me?”
“Deadly serious, but you gotta do it, or as these trees are my witnesses, you’ll die a truly horrible death. But…this needs to be your idea—your repentance—not somethin’ I made you do.”
“Well…cripe, I don’t know what to say.”
Ordin chuckled and popped a slice of dried apple in his mouth. “Then shut your pie hole.”
The next morning, they packed the wagon for the trip east to Westmeade in the Duchy of Alikon. Cora lobbed her pack into the wagon while staring at the mystic tightening a rope on the other side.
“Why’d you let him go?” she asked suddenly.
“The thief. He went with you to fix the wheel, but he didn’t come back with you. I know better than to think he got away.”
Ordin shrugged. “I dunno.”
“There was bonus payment for apprehending and turning in the thieves. Did you forget about that?”
The mystic laid a blanket over some foodstuffs and stretched a rope over it. “Nope.”
Ordin looked up from his rope, his icy blue eyes displaying a look Cora had not seen in him before. “Everyone deserves a second chance, I reckon.”
Cora stared at him, her right eyebrow slowly raising in unbelief. Is that about the thief? Or you?
As soon as their gear was secured with Calloway’s goods, they bid Azure Falls farewell. With the fearsome night of Tarchannen approaching, The Grottoes were the last place anybody wanted to be. The untethered dead had a horrible tendency to rise and roam the land on that night. Tarchannen was the darkest night, the Night of Nights, the dreaded evening of no moon, few stars, and endless hours before the dawn. It was as if the clouds were summoned on that night, as if the Void itself blanketed the land. Some thought it did.
Cora brightened gradually as the day wore on, slowly becoming aware that the reeve’s absence was salve to her soul. I really thought I was getting through to her, but all she did was vex me and leave us high and dry. Maybe it’s better this way.
A rumble of thunder in the distance to the north caused Cora to look warily at Ordin. He shook his head slowly as if to say “I’m not going to be struck,” but the gesture also seemed to convey an unwillingness even to discuss it.
By midday, dark clouds hung threateningly overhead, casting a gray gloom over the land. The distinct odor of petrichor wafted in on the increasingly stiff and cold breeze, and the growing electrical activity made Cora fidget in her saddle. When thunder exploded from beyond a nearby knoll and the lightning that barely preceded it illuminated the skies around them, she demanded that they seek immediate shelter.
In an area filled with caves, finding shelter from lightning proved an easy task, and they were successful just as the first waves of driving rain began to soak them through. Their chosen cave was just large enough for the wagon and all their horses, and they shoved in to wait out the storm.
“The good news is,” Cora shouted over the din of pouring rain, “that these storms pass over and die off almost as quickly as they arise.” At least, I certainly hope this one does. We simply must reach Westmeade before Tarchannen.
Over an hour passed as they waited for the storm to blow over. Foreboding clouds gave way to wisps of white, which quickly vanished to clear blue skies. Storms formed by The Deepening always fascinated Cora, as they seemed to come and go solely at the whim of the lake. It was as if they were out of place with normal weather, an interruption to the regular wind currents and cycles of precipitation, almost as if the lake created them.
The rest of that day and the next wore on drearily. There was little to do other than trudge along by day and watch over Ordin by night. The mystic’s nightmares continued to haunt him with increasing regularity and intensity as the night of Tarchannen approached. Shinnick guarded him with a fierce faithfulness, protecting them from his random violent outbursts. By morning, Ordin knew what had happened, but no one discussed it. They rode quickly along, anxious to reach Westmeade before the dreaded dark night.
The eve of Tarchannen arrived, but the morning dawned with Westmeade nowhere in sight. Ordin dragged himself back to camp after a harrowing night slashing at invisible Roark and filling the night with his fearful screams. With bleary eyes, he shuffled back to his tent. “I reckon y’all oughtta go on without me. I got no hope for tomorrow night.”
“Nonsense,” Cora answered. “We load up and we ride on. All of us.”
“Don’t be stupid, Cora.”
“I’m not. If the Void touches you tomorrow night, you will need us at your side. I don’t know what your purpose is, but it’s not to be swallowed up by the Void. Ride with us. If we make it to Westmeade, then you’re safe. If we don’t, then we face it together.”
Ordin nodded, as he had no energy left to argue.
Slowly the miles passed, until it became clear that theirs was a race against the sunlight. As the sun set behind them, a wonderful sight simultaneously lifted their spirits and depressed them. Vast fields of grain, spreading out to the east from the foothills of The Grottoes, were ablaze with golden light. Cora felt her breath catch from the view. They could finally mark the last of The Grottoes, and within another hour or so they would be on level ground. But the town of Westmeade was still a great distance in the background. It was a lot farther off than she thought.
Cora fell back and rode alongside Ordin. “What do you think?”
“We won’t make it by nightfall,” he said blandly.
She had hoped for more optimistic news, but she knew better than to expect a positive answer from the mystic. So, she provided one: “We won’t abandon you.”
They rode on in silence. When the sunset turned reddish-orange, the fields of grain lit up as if ablaze with fire, the illusion amplified by a breeze that swayed the sheaves in an undulating dance. But with the evils of Tarchannen on her mind, it was hard for Cora to feel completely happy about the vibrant scenery spread out before her.
“So,” Cora said quietly to Ordin, “do you know if Westmeade will let us in after night?”
The mystic shrugged and yawned. “I think so. I hope so.”
In the dead of night, beneath the oppressive gloom of utterly blackened skies, the trio of road-weary travelers finally reached the city walls of Westmeade. A pair of worried guards quickly bolted from their sentry booths.
“Quick!” one of them shouted. “Get in ‘fore ya get took!”
The other one blanched as his torch illumined Ordin’s pale complexion. “By the Light!” he exclaimed, while the torch began to tremble in his hand. “It’s a phantom! Be gone!”
Cora spun in her saddle, eyes wide with alarm.
“He means me,” Ordin muttered. He explained his condition as best he could, but the guards backed warily toward the presumed safety of their enclosed booths.
“Do phantoms ride horses and pay a toll to enter town?” Cora reasoned with the edgy guards.
The guards remained skittish, nervously clutching their weapons and torches.
Cora leaned over and punched Ordin’s arm. “Would I be able to do that to a phantom?”
Slowly, one of the guards steeled himself, as if suddenly ashamed of his flimsy spine. “No,” he said, but his eyes remained fixed on the mystic. “No, I reckon he ain’t no phantom. Now get in ‘fore the real phantoms take ya!”
They rode in by sheer willpower, and on the advice of the gate sentry, they stopped in at the aptly named Crossroads Tavern, a large and unadorned two-story structure among many others just like it. But no one rented a room that night. Instead, Ordin and his wolf stayed with the wagon and horses in the stable out back. And Cuauhtérroc and Cora kept watch over him all night.
It was late into the morning when Cora awoke. Ordin sat against Calloway’s wagon with Shinnick curled beside him.
“Shh,” he cautioned with a finger to his thin lips, “Cuauhtie’s sleepin’.”
Cora looked up see a pair of boots hanging off the tailgate and a woolen blanket draped haphazardly across the sleeping form of the savage. Then she turned abrupted to Ordin, as a sudden realization flooded her mind. I slept all night.
The mystic smiled at her. “Slept like a baby.”
“No. You did. Cuauhtérroc practically had to beat me up. Shinnick bit me in at least a dozen places, and we fought for hours right over the top of you. I was screamin’ obscenities and he shouted all kinds of Audric curses at me. I’m surprised you never noticed.”
Cora squinted at him, trying hard to remember. “Really?”
“By the Maker, Cora,” Ordin said with a roll of his eyes. “You’re too easy. Yes…I slept like a baby.”
“Ordin!” she hissed, “that’s not funny. I was truly concerned for you.”
“Well, I reckon bein’ inside Westmeade settled my mind. It’s probably the only redeemin’ quality of a walled city—the Roark never attack fortified towns.”
“So…” Cora considered his comment. “Tarchannen doesn’t concern you? I mean, no more than an unfortunate series of hallucinations?”
The mystic grinned at her. “Nice. Nah…I don’t put any stock in that ‘Void touchin’ the land’ nonsense. That’s just a stupid superstition. But I can’t help gettin’ a bit worked up each year as I recall those awful days.”
Cora fell into contemplative silence, fully aware that she had been spared the customary horrors of Tarchannen. But she also wondered if perhaps the whole thing was baseless legend. Perhaps the reason she had never actually seen any horrific annual activity for the past eighteen years had less to do with her being locked up tight each night than it did with the fact that there was literally nothing to it. But one could not take that sort of thing for granted.
Near midday, they shared a meal in the common room at a table against the wall. Looking through the window at the intersection bustling with traffic, Cora watched the people of this agrarian city, barely cosmopolitan enough to have an upscale side. She noted the people here possessed a stout Kedethian heritage—tall, lanky, fair-skinned and flaxen-haired. There was evidence of moderate wealth from what she could see of the architectural details, the cobblestone roads, and sharp livery in the local soldiers. But the town was also simple and modest, filled with farmers and ranchers making their plain talk in their plain clothing over their plain ale. It reminded her of her hometown of Lorenvale, and for a fleeting moment, she felt homesick.
Above the rooftops, the spires of a castle punctured the sky, and a smile played at Cora’s lips as her yearnings vanished. If they have a feudal system, I’ll be right at home. A castle means nobility at the very least, and if I can gain an audience with the nobility here, maybe I can make a name for myself.
“Well, guys,” she said after sipping the last of her kaffe, “today we finish what we started in Cer Halcyon. Let’s go visit Artus Calloway.”
An hour later, the three of them headed deeper into the commerce district of Westmeade until they came upon the elaborate façade of Calloway’s Emporium.
A small bell rang when Cora opened the front door. As the door closed behind her, she remained motionless, transfixed by what she saw. The building was lined from wall to wall with aisles of shelves that were filled with every sort of thing one could imagine. There were racks of weaponry, rows of practice dummies wearing armor of every type, cases filled with books on every topic, more cases filled with scrolls, shelves lined with small crystalline vials, and an entire section devoted to pure miscellany, which seemed to include at least one of everything a person might need for house, farm, or temple. Not only was there abundance, but everything was neatly arranged, clean, and in the best possible condition, as if it were all newly made. She was suddenly very aware of the inordinate influence Artus Calloway possessed in this small community.
In her awestruck state, she started when an attendant approached.
“May I help you?” he said formally.
Cora nodded and reached into her backpack. “We signed the commission to recover Calloway’s stolen goods.” She retrieved the signed document and placed it in the attendant’s hand as she continued. “We completed the task three or four days ago. His wagon is outside in the street, guarded by my two allies. We’d be grateful if we could see him and settle the matter of our compensation.”
The attendant looked over the paper and studied Cora’s face for a short time. He then reached for the door. “Excuse me,” he said as he pushed past her.
Outside, the attendant skipped over the formality of introductions and began taking inventory of the wagon’s contents. Sometime later he gave a satisfied nod. “It is all accounted for, except for a few sheaf arrows and some minor analeptics.”
“Oh yes,” Cora replied, “we were forced to use several of those after the pitched battle with the thieves.”
“Are we to presume that the porter and his security were slain?”
“I’m afraid we found no evidence of their survival,” Cora answered, suddenly shocked to realize that she had given no thought to the wagoner.
“And the thieves?”
“All were slain except for a few who fled.” And the one Ordin let go.
The attendant nodded and motioned with a sweeping arm, “If you will pull the wagon around back, you will find a place to tie off your horses. I will see that they and the wolf are cared for. You may enter through the back door and wait for Calloway to call for you.” He bowed to them and returned to mind the store.
Cora was quickly aware that this was a restricted area. Behind arcane wards was a selection of magical swords hanging in a glass-paneled case, each one expertly crafted and brilliantly polished. Many were studded with small jewels and more than one was carved with runes.
While they waited, Cora drifted toward the swords. They reminded her of the Sword of the Coast that Durk Huxel held for her in Cer Halcyon. She wondered if they were all magical, so she closed her eyes and began to hum an intricate tune, the lyrics of which were interwoven with arcane text of revealing. She wanted desperately to learn how much magic was contained in this Emporium. When the song finished, she opened her eyes, fully expecting to see glamers surrounding the more powerful items, magical auras revealed by her spellsong.
But nothing happened.
Cora frowned at the sword display. That’s odd. Why would I not be able to sense the—unless…someone with this much arcane power in store had made it untraceable and highly protected. But that would mean Calloway is extraordinarily powerful.
An attendant called them for their meeting up a short flight of stairs to the loft, and Cora grudgingly left the magic swords for the second-floor conference room. As she ascended the steps, her mind raced with questions. Who are you, Calloway? Why are you here in this backwater town? Indeed, why would there be an “Emporium” in a place like this? There’s not a soul here who can afford anything you have.
Seated at the head of the long oak table was a middle-aged man with long graying hair that blended with a silvered beard and mustache to form a curtain of silver around his neck. He was handsomely attired, and he showed a kind, grandfatherly smile. Sitting to his left was a pleasant, matronly woman. They waited for the freeblades to be seated, then the man paused.
“Before I begin, may I ask the status of the Vashanti’s skin?”
Ordin folded his arms. “Look, if I had leprosy, I’d be peelin’ my skin off in layers right now.”
Cora scolded him and quickly explained. “He was struck by lightning and had all the pigment removed. I’m afraid he’s rather sensitive about it. Also, he’s only half-Vashanti.”
“My apologies if I offended you. My name is Artus Calloway, owner of this Emporium, former explorer, and now a collector of finery, magic, works of art, relics, and artifacts of all kinds. I am an alderman of Westmeade, and the Officer of Trade in Westmeade. This lovely lady is Lucella, my wife and business partner of thirty some-odd years. Doubtless you encountered your fair share of dangers in the recovery of my property, but I see that you have also proven yourselves not only capable and courageous but also trustworthy. Perhaps you ascertained the value of the goods you carried for me, but you may not have known that the personal value of several seemingly mundane items far exceeded their market value. You see, I am a collector, and I have in my possession many things that will not fetch a high price on the open market but which are entirely without parallel in my own estimation.”
Lucella Calloway lightly touched her husband’s arm. “Dear, these people would probably be interested to know their payment.”
He smiled back at her, somewhat sheepishly. “My, I do go on sometimes. I don’t know how Lucy has put up with me all these years. She’s a good woman; always has been. Cooks a mean cavendish pudding, which is hard to get in these parts. You must have the cavendish prepared in a little town in Yilasa, just south of the Spindles—” He turned to his wife. “What was the name of that place?”
Another light touch brought him around once more.
“I’m sorry. Please, before we visit the vault below for payment, would you, Miss Cora O’Banion, regale us with the story of your success?”
Cora stood and curtsied. She introduced each member of their freeblade company, then she launched into an adaptation of their adventures, beginning with their entry into Azure Falls and ending with their “harrowing” escape from the den of thieves and the “courageous” march through the dead of night into Westmeade. Most of the needless detail was omitted or substituted with an embellishment of what actually happened. Throughout the telling, Calloway and his wife nodded appreciatively.
“Thank you, Miss Cora,” Calloway said when she finished. “That is a tale we will not soon forget. It’s a telling worthy of a songsage. Reminds me somewhat of Devin Rhynn, does she not, my dear?”
Lucella nodded and prompted him patiently of the business at hand with yet another light touch to his arm.
Cora nearly gasped. He knows Devin Rhynn? He says I remind him of Devin Rhynn?! To be compared with her hero and mentor was more compliment than she had hoped for. Even if it was pure flattery, it mattered not. Cora sponged it with abandon.
“Well,” Calloway announced, “let’s shove off to the vault, shall we?”
They followed him downstairs and around under the staircase to another flight of stairs that led to a basement. It was dark, and Cora felt the hairs on her arms and neck stand on end, but not from any sense of fear. There was powerful magic here, considerably more powerful than what was showcased on the main floor.
Lucella followed her husband and breathed a soft arcane word into the air, illuminating the stairwell and several areas belowground.
Ordin hesitated on the second step as his subterranean phobia rappelled down his backbone.
“You coming?” Cora called back over her shoulder. She met Ordin’s gaze, but she stopped short when she saw the terror in his ice blue eyes. “I totally forgot. It’s not just the Roark; it’s the underground.” Cora approached the mystic with an outstretched hand. “It’s going to be all right,” she soothed. “Here, let me help you.”
A simple tune danced on her lips, gentle and soft, and Ordin’s disabling fears subsided.
Cora grasped his wrist and coaxed him down the stairs into the dimly lit cellar vault. His hair continued to bristle, much as Shinnick’s when enemies were threatening. But with a clear head, the mystic recognized that what he sensed was not the Roark but an incredible amount of magical power.
The basement of Calloway’s Emporium was practically living with magic.
The base of the stairs ended abruptly at a heavy iron door, locked in multiple ways. But with a simple word from Lucella, they all opened in a series of mechanical clicks, whirrs, rumbles, and snaps.
With a grin over his shoulder, Calloway pulled on the thick handle.
A whiff of something pungent greeted them, accompanied by a soft drone. Cora mouthed the words, “Oh my” as the interior of Calloway’s vault came into view. It seemed foolish of him to let complete strangers into his vault, but Cora had counted at least a dozen separate safeguards. And now, on the inside, she was impressed by even more magical wards. Stark gray walls stared back at them, each etched by thin lines that crossed in a hatch pattern around the perimeter. But the room was empty.
The door closed behind them with a resolute clunk, pitching them momentarily into total darkness. But the thin lines traversing the walls began to glow softly in a medium red, casting an eerie scarlet hue on the party’s concerned faces.
The savage placed his hand on the handle of his macana as his trust in Calloway began to waver. Ordin had already pulled his scimitar halfway from its sheath, cursing under his breath that he was shielded from communicating with the natural world.
Only a few brief seconds passed when Lucella whispered another set of arcane words, and the whole of the interior illumined brightly. The dull gray walls, visible under this new brilliance, appeared for what they really were—polished marble of the highest quality etched with glowing red lines, now slowly pulsing to a rhythmic hum.
“I apologize for the ritual,” Calloway began, “but I assure you it is entirely necessary for security reasons. You may replace your sword, Mr. Clay,” he added with a chuckle.
Ordin did so, but only with great reluctance.
“Now, let’s see what we’ve got here.” Calloway pressed his hand against a seemingly random spot on the sleek marble, and a small square panel depressed into the wall. Beneath this panel, a section of the marble wall pushed outward and continued until it had extended nearly four feet into the room. Calloway lifted a thin sheet of the marble from the top of this extension, revealing a hidden cabinet. To Cora, the whole setup seemed rather like a mausoleum, were it not for the extraordinary abjurations present here.
From the inside of the cabinet, Calloway lifted a silver tray, hand crafted with the images of angelic beings along the edges. In the tray was an assortment of crystalline vials sparkling in the glow of Lucella’s artificial light, nearly two dozen in a variety of colors, shapes, and sizes.
Calloway beamed with pride as he presented the collection. “This is an assortment of analeptics I set aside for the group that found my treasures. I think you will find the selection especially useful in your line of work. Besides that, the empty vials are worth a nice sum, or you could even return them to me for a discount on future purchases.”
Cora stared blankly at the tray of small bottles. “What are they?”
“Well,” Calloway began, “this row is all curative; this darker one is a bit more potent than the others. One imbues greater endurance—that’s the yellowish one. This brownish-red one increases your strength, and this dull blue one improves your agility. And—oh yes—three all-purpose antidotes to nearly every naturally-occurring poison. And this last one will make you invisible, I believe…it’s hard to see. Heh, heh.” He looked to his wife, who smiled and nodded supportively. “That’s fourteen in all, and a pretty good assortment for a freeblade group. I might have wished for such a collection back in my day.”
Cora felt like singing, but she remained mindful of Ordin’s lingering fears.
“On behalf of my party,” Cora interjected, “I accept this gracious reward for our service to you. Should you ever need our assistance again, be sure to contact Pathway and ask for Cora O’Banion specifically. Now, I believe our faithful mystic is feeling the call of nature. If you would be so kind.” She motioned to the door, and Calloway responded by swiping his hand across another bare spot on the dull marble. As he did, the open drawer on the side wall receded into its former position and clicked shut, once more hidden from view.
No sooner had the door opened than Ordin rushed up the stairs and out to the stables without a word.
Cora thanked Calloway again as they ascended the stairs, shaking his hand and giving his wife a courtly kiss on both cheeks. She was putting into practice all the arts of societal graces she had learned from both her family and her formal education as a songsage. And her training served her well, for Calloway slipped a card into her hand as they shook and gave her a knowing nod as they left. Cora had just made her first contact; they would be doing business again in the future.
When they reconvened again in the stables out back, Ordin glared crossly at her.
Cora stopped short. “What?”
“‘Feeling the call of nature’?” he quoted, his white arms folded across his chest.
Cora stared blankly at him and shrugged. “Isn’t that a ‘mystic’ thing?”
“You told him I needed to pee.”
“No, I di—oh…I guess I did.” Cora bit her lip, trying to look pleadingly at him, but the more she thought about it, the funnier it became.
Ordin unfolded his arms, a smile forming on his stolid face. “Oh well, it got me out of there all the same. I hate bein’ underground.”
The next day, Cora went into The Estates district in hopes of gaining entrance to the castle, but not even a business contact with Calloway, one of the city’s councilmen, could get her past the front gate. From her conversations with the locals, she learned something of Westmeade’s political structure and its eleven districts. Each district was managed by an alderman who lived in an Estate House near the Lord’s Castle, serving five years before having to vie for reelection.
Rumors sifted in as Cora milled about: the aldermancy for Wilder District, infamous for its lower-class tenement housing, had been vacant for over three years. Not for a lack of trying to elect a new alderman, they said. Several attempts had been made, apparently, but each nominee had ended up dead.
The gossip of late was entirely concerned with Cer Cannaid, the free city carved into the eastern edge of the Duchy of Alikon. Duke Lenair’s eldest daughter, Lady Karlina, was soon to be married. Westmeade planned to send emissaries to the wedding, as were towns from all over the nation. Many people were planning trips to Cer Cannaid, if not for the wedding then for the parades, feasts, and a glimpse of the nation’s elite cavalry, the Sentinel League, in full regalia.
Cora thought it would make a great diversion from their freeblading to witness that wedding. A royal wedding, balls in the Duke’s palace, rubbing shoulders with the nobility and dignitaries of all the bordering countries. What an opportunity! And if somehow Calloway could connect me with someone who knew someone…maybe I could work in a lute solo or even accompany a famous vocalist on the harp. It was a long shot, indeed, and undoubtedly neither Ordin or Cuauhtérroc would care one iota about it. Still, Cora dreamed it.
In the meantime, they needed work, but it looked like Westmeade had nothing to offer them. After a day of hearing nothing of interest, Cora was ready to move on, perhaps back to Cer Halcyon or maybe onward to Cer Cannaid, where there was another branch of Pathway Adventures.
On a lark, Cora took her allies to Wilder District to inquire about the vacant alderman’s post. While she spoke to random people on the street, Cuauhtérroc wandered about, gathering a following of children and a reputation for handing out coins for the asking. Cora couldn’t help but laugh inwardly at the dichotomy he presented: a wild savage passing out coins to scores of poor townsfolk in Wilder District. She watched him with admiration. How does a savage become so kind and generous, especially considering what he went through?
As the sun began to set behind the western walls, the folks Cuauhtérroc unwittingly had gathered together with free coin began to clamor for the entertainment of a songsage. Begrudgingly, Cora regaled the people of Wilder District with a stirring version of The Ballad of Tanasha’s Keep adapted for lute. She missed her lap-harp back home and the great harp at the O’Banion School, but this arrangement was perfect for these people. Anything more would have been too ostentatious.
Following that opener, Cora played many more tunes until she announced that she had exhausted her repertoire and tucked her lute away in its case. To her surprise, several people offered her copper coins, and one or two tried to pass her a silver eagle. As much as Cora would have loved to reap the rewards due her, she couldn’t bring herself to accept what amounted to a full day’s wages for many of these impoverished people. No, applause would suffice for tonight.
With the sun behind The Grottoes, the stars glistened with brilliant radiance along the edges of the Expanded Creation. Cuauhtérroc held the people spellbound with stories of his homeland. The younger ones practically begged him to tell of wild animals and bizarre plants, fierce battles and grueling struggles against nature. Despite his limited vocabulary and thick accent, he did his best to hold them in rapt attention.
In return, a retired horseman from Alikon’s famous Sentinel League told a gripping tale about Terenon, the green dragon that once descended upon the town when the city was much smaller, hardly more than Wilder Tower, the Lord’s Castle, and a few dozen buildings between them. He related the events with such conviction and inflection in his voice that when he got to everyone’s favorite part—the sorceress Alinda Messling of Arvoria stood atop Wilder Tower and brought the dragon down—they cheered, even though they knew the story by heart.
After most of the young children had been put to bed, an older man named Gælan rose up and hushed the crowd. “Lemme tell ya ‘bout yon Wilder Tower!” he announced, wagging his cane toward the imposing structure looming behind a row of small houses. Some in the crowd groaned, as if his tale was taller than the tower itself, but everyone hushed as the old man stood ominously above the fire pit, as the flames cast dancing shadows up his wrinkly face.
“Wilder Tower is haunted!” he hissed, and a sudden silence washed over the street.They had not heard that one before.