Idiot's Graveyard

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic


Idiot's Graveyard is a sequel to Not Quite a Hero. This story first appeared in Mythical Doorways: A Fellowship of Fantasy Anthology, which is available free as an ebook on Amazon.

Submitted: July 28, 2018

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Submitted: July 28, 2018

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A gorgeous summer day was coming to an end as Dana Illwind and Sorcerer Lord Jayden led a small merchant caravan.They’d protected three wagons for eleven days, a task Dana had been certain would have been boring.After all, they were far from hostile borders and nowhere near wilderness areas that could harbor threats.To her surprise (and no one else’s), they’d had to earn their pay guarding the wagons.

“I still don’t get what they were thinking,” Dana said. She was a woman of fifteen, wearing a simple dress, fur hat, backpack and leather boots that came up to her knees. Dana had a knife and was giving serious thought to getting a better weapon.She had brown hair and brown eyes, and was pretty enough that men working the caravan had been a bit too friendly for her liking during the trip. She’d told two of them to stop and drawn her knife on a third.

“Bandits aren’t known for clear thinking,” Jayden told her.Jayden was a walking contradiction.He wore expertly tailored black and silver clothes and had long blond hair that was perpetually messy.Jayden carried no weapons, but as the world’s only living Sorcerer Lord was dangerous even empty-handed.He was handsome, confident, skilled and a wanted man for constantly harassing the royal family and their supporters.Smart men avoided him, which should have made their guard duty as dull as dry toast.

Dana counted off fingers, saying, “They recognized you.They knew about the manticore you killed singlehanded.You gave them a fair warning.And somehow they still thought attacking was a good idea.”

“They were likely desperate, stupid, drunk, or some delightful combination of the three,” Jayden replied.

The caravan’s owner winced from where he sat on the lead wagon.“And now they’re not anything.”

“You’ll find the road safer with their passing, as will your fellow merchants,” Jayden replied.The fight with the bandits had been brief, one sided and exceedingly messy. Dana had been repulsed by the consequences of the battle, but she couldn’t disagree with Jayden.Those men would have gone on to hurt others if he hadn’t stopped them.

That was the problem with being around Jayden. Dana liked him, in a sisterly sort of way, but he dealt harshly with foes.She’d decided to join Jayden on his journeys partly in gratitude after he’d risked his life for her town, but also to limit how much damage he might do.

And he’d done a lot of damage.Jayden had been the end to many threats in the three months they’d traveled together.Bandits preying on travelers, wolves and bears preying on livestock, and monsters that preyed on everything, he’d faced them and won.But Jayden had an intense hatred of the king and queen, one Dana didn’t fully understand and he wouldn’t explain.It had taken all her efforts to keep him focused on defeating dangers to the common man rather than going after the royal family like a starving dog after a bone.So far she’d guided him down the right path, but it was a constant effort.

The caravan owner stood up and pointed at a dim light in the distance.“That’s the town of Jumil.I’m afraid it doesn’t have much to offer.The inn is cold and cramped.Their blacksmith specializes in mediocre work.Salt is an exotic seasoning.And the residents, well, they try hard.”

“Yet you wish to go there,” Jayden remarked.

“They pay well for spices and produce good furs,” the owner replied.“I’ll make a fair profit here even with your ten percent share of the cargo.”

“Why don’t other merchants come here if it’s so nice?” Dana asked him.

“They used to, but the roads have been a nightmare ever since the civil war.”

Shocked, Dana said, “That was twenty years ago!”

“I wouldn’t lie to you,” the man replied.He tipped his hat to Jayden and said, “No offense, but you’re not the first to clear this road.It’s been done many times by many men, but monsters and bandits keep cropping up, drawn in by the chance to rob farmhouses and travelers.”

Jayden yawned as he walked.“Keeping the roads safe is supposed to be a job for knights. It’s a shame they’re too busy getting ready for war to care what happens to their own people.”

The caravan owner chuckled without mirth.“As far as they’re concerned, we’re as far beneath them as livestock.”

The town of Jumil was if anything less impressive than the caravan owner’s description.The houses looked sturdy enough and properly maintained, but there were no decorations, no boardwalks to keep people from walking in the mud, and pigs wandered the streets rooting through garbage thrown out windows.

If the town wasn’t pleasant, the residents were another matter.A cheer rose up when the caravan approached, and men ran out to greet them.Most of them were shopkeepers and homeowners eager to buy a share of the cargo, while some men came hoping to sell what goods they had.Still more people came to see the newcomers.It took Dana a moment to realize that a caravan’s arrival was a spectacle for them rather than an ordinary occurrence.

“You’re the first strangers here in a week,” a town guard told them.He studied Jayden’s odd clothing with some concern.

“And we are indeed strange,” Jayden replied.“Nevertheless, we come bearing only the best of intentions.”

The guard frowned.“You, ah, you’re the Sorcerer Lord, aren’t you?There are wanted posters for you in every town with more than fifty souls.”

“Is that going to be a problem?” Jayden asked.He looked relaxed, even bored.

More guards came, but only to escort the caravan inside town limits.The first guard made no effort to alert them, instead saying, “If you cause no trouble then there will be no trouble.No bounty is worth dying for.”

That cheered Jayden for all the wrong reasons. “Pray tell, what’s my head worth?”

“The price on you goes up by the month.The latest bounty is five hundred silver pieces.”

“Five hundred?”Jayden looked at Dana.“It’s offensive.A cow fetches twenty silver pieces.A plow horse is worth fifty.I’ve bedeviled the crown for five years, robbing them, humiliating them, yet I’m worth only ten plow horses.Clearly I have to improve my performance.”

“Helping caravans and towns in need might bring the price down,” Dana countered.Jayden’s smile showed how little that mattered to him.“Settle up with the merchant and I’ll see about getting us a place to sleep tonight.”

“Agreed.”

Dana spotted the town’s inn and slipped through the growing crowd to reach it.She had to work fast.Jayden got bored easily, and when that happened his thoughts turned to harassing the king.She had hours at most to find something, anything, for him to do that would bring in cash and possibly magic.

The caravan’s owner had summed up Jumil’s inn quite well.It was clear they got little business with their few rooms, and would be totally unprepared if more than twenty visitors came to their town.There were a few men drinking at a table, so the inn wasn’t totally deserted.The innkeeper watched the caravan through an open window while a boy swept the floor.

“Hi there,” Dana said cheerfully.“My friends and I need rooms for the night.”

The innkeeper pointed at Jayden, still outside and happily talking with excited children.He did love attracting attention.Sounding more curious than worried, the innkeeper asked, “You’re with him?”

“Yes.”

“Listen, we don’t want trouble.”

“You already have it.We were attacked by bandits on our way here.”

One of the men drinking set down his mug.“It happened again?”

“It happened for the last time,” Dana corrected him.That cheered the men if not the innkeeper.“It was a paying job, and one that helped your town.We don’t have another job lined up after this one, though, so I thought you might be able to help.My friend is interested in old ruins, the older the better, but he’s open to other opportunities.Are there threats nearby?Monsters, bandits, problems you’d like to go away and never come back?”

The innkeeper’s brow furrowed.“There’s an old stone tower north of here.We don’t go near it, what with the howling at night.”

A man at the table waved for Dana to join him. “We know places you could earn some coins and do us a good turn.Innkeeper, get the lady a drink and put it on my tab.”

The next hour proved better than Dana had hoped for. The innkeeper provided directions to the tower and a history of the place going back three generations.More potential jobs came from the other guests. They had a litany of complaints, including thieves, highwaymen, walking skeletons and a wyvern responsible for eating cattle.They also knew of a nearby mayor fond of confiscating cargo from passing merchants. It was a good list that would keep Jayden busy and profitable.

Speaking of Jayden, the Sorcerer Lord was noticeable by his absence.Dana looked outside in the growing darkness and saw Jayden chatting with the guards. It was odd to see them so friendly with a wanted man, but she’d seen that people in isolated towns like Jumil took a relaxed view of the law.They worried about their families and neighbors.Anything happening outside their little world was beyond their control and of little interest.

Dana had been the same not long ago.Her father was mayor of a small town, and she knew firsthand how hard people worked just to put food on the table.If some injustice or disaster fell on people a hundred miles away, there was little they could offer besides their sympathy. And if a stranger came with a dubious past, men were willing to overlook it provided he behaved and had something to offer.

Jayden had a lot to offer.He’d learned the magic of the long dead Sorcerer Lords, and in a kingdom with few wizards that made him a rare and precious commodity.He could handle big threats, like when he and Dana destroyed the Walking Graveyard a month ago.If a man was desperate, had some gold saved up, didn’t mind property damage and had no connection to the royal family, he could hire Jayden.That might be what was happening outside.

It was so dark that stars twinkled in the night sky when Jayden finally entered the inn.The caravan owner and his men came next, laughing and with coins to spare. Their wagons were already loaded with furs and safely stored in an empty barn.The innkeeper cheered at the increase in business and readied rooms for his guests.

Dana and Jayden shared a table near the back of the inn’s common room.Smiling, Dana told him, “I found places we could go next, all within five days walking distance.”

Jayden smiled back.“Two hours in town and you’re already sharing girlish secrets with the ladies?”

“I spoke with men in the inn.”She frowned and added, “I don’t get along with other women. They’re always so catty, like my being there is a threat.”

“I imagine it has to do with having husbands with wandering eyes.You are efficient as always, Dana, but there’s a matter I have to attend to first.”

Worried, Dana asked, “What kind of matter?”

“We’ll discuss it on the road tomorrow.For now, eat, drink and enjoy what little this town has to offer.”

* * * * *

The next morning brought a sparklingly bright day. Jumil’s people were still giddy from having the road open to traffic and trade, and the innkeeper brought a simple but filling breakfast.They were still eating when an older and visibly drunken man staggered into the inn.

“What brings you, mayor?” the innkeeper asked.

Dana prepared for the worst.Jayden’s reputation meant there was no telling what sort of reception he’d receive, and the mayor might have come to arrest him. But the man brought no weapons or guards, and in his inebriated state he was a threat to no one but himself.

Steadying himself against a wall, the mayor took out a scroll and unrolled it.“This came last night by royal courier.It…you need to hear it.”

Reading aloud, the mayor announced, “By decree of His Majesty the King and his beloved wife the Queen, from this day forth there is a tax of one copper piece per person per day staying at an inn, hostel or hotel, to be collected and sent to the capital each month.”

“Mercy, you’ll bankrupt me!” the innkeeper protested.

Still reading from the scroll, the mayor said, “Furthermore, the owners and operators of these establishments must record the names and destinations of all customers, to be reported to the capital on a monthly basis and at the owners’ expense.”

The caravan owner and other guests at the inn edged away. If the king knew who you were and where to find you, he could tax you.Rates started at twenty percent and went up from there.The king could also take offense at where a man went and who he did business with, resulting in fines, arrest, imprisonment and possibly execution depending on royal whim.

“Hold on, now,” the caravan owner began.

He needn’t have worried.The mayor rolled up the scroll and said, “So for legal reasons none of you were ever here.Just, you need to know what’s going on, and that other mayors might obey this foolishness.” The man looked despondent as he left, muttering, “I used to like this job.I’m sure I did.”

“Every innkeeper in the kingdom just became an informant for the crown,” Dana said.

One of the men at the table grimaced.“This wouldn’t have happened before the king remarried.He’s not the same man he used to be before that wench and her clan got their hooks into him.The kingdom’s been a dark place since the old queen passed away and her son was exiled, and growing darker by the day.”

“Truer words were never spoken,” Jayden said. He smiled in genuine friendship rather than his usual sarcastic grin.“It pains me to leave such good company, but we’ve work to do.I bid you good day, gentlemen, and wish you luck.”

Dana followed him out onto the streets, where he headed north.“Jayden, you said you’d tell me what this was about when we got onto the road.Where are we going?”

“I accepted the job to help those merchants for a reason I didn’t share with you before.I’d heard of a company of infantrymen marching the same road we took to reach Jumil.I want to know where they’re going and why they were sent here.I spoke to the town guards last night.They confirmed the company’s arrival two months ago, and which road they departed on.”

“We’re going after an entire infantry company.” Dana put a hand over her face. “Jayden, you’re strong, but you can’t fight eighty men.It’s insane!” Nearby people turned and stared when she shouted.Lowering her voice, she said, “I like you.I respect you and know what you can do.I don’t love the king any more than you do, but one man taking on a kingdom is insane.You’re going to get killed.”

“Possibly.Dana, the king and queen are planning a war of conquest against neighboring lands. Why would they send away troops they’re going to need?Why send them to a part of the kingdom that’s more or less safe?”

“Less safe than more,” she told him.“There are monsters in the woods.”

“So many they need eighty men to defeat them?” They left the town limits while Jayden spoke.“I’m not an idiot, contrary to all appearances.The adventures and opportunities you’ve found for me all take me away from more civilized parts of the kingdom, places where I could strike at the king and queen.I don’t mind, as your leads have produced gold and two inscribed spells of the Sorcerer Lords that enhanced my strength.But my goal has not changed.I intend to either bring down the throne or hurt it badly enough to prevent it from visiting the horrors of war on other lands.”

“This isn’t a good idea.”

Jayden shrugged.“The alternatives are worse.You are, of course, not obliged to join me.I’m sure your parents would be glad if you returned home.”

“I’m trying to save your life!”

“I know.”Jayden was uncharacteristically polite.“I appreciate your concerns and the risks you’ve taken on my behalf.No one else has done the same, and I have helped many in the same way I did you and your town.It nearly cost you your life when we fought the Walking Graveyard.”

“That thing only ate my shoes,” Dana said.“I liked those shoes.”

“It could have taken your feet.You remained with me after that happened, and I’m grateful. Dana, if I’m right then something is dreadfully wrong and could get much worse.I’m not sure I can prevent it, but I must try.”

Dana hated this.She’d tried her best, but Jayden was dead set on taking on the army, a force far worse in character than it once was.The kingdom was short of manpower even since the civil war, so short that citizens were only obliged to join local militias rather than become soldiers. The king got around that by hiring mercenaries from other lands, brutal men whose loyalty depended on monthly pay.

“So where are we going?” she asked.

“The men went north to an unpopulated and isolated region.”

Dana stopped in her tracks.“Wait, north?There are ruins of a stone tower north of here.The innkeeper said nobody’s gone near there for decades because of weird noises.”

Jayden rolled his eyes.“I normally don’t hate being right.”

* * * * *

Dana and Jayden traveled the entire day, leaving farmland far behind and entering rolling hills and forests.The road they followed was narrow and winding, but there were fresh wagon ruts and countless boot prints in the dirt.Men had come through in great numbers.

“The innkeeper said the tower is all that’s left of a larger ruined settlement,” Dana told Jayden.“It was always in bad shape, but long ago there was a flood that took out everything but the tower.People used to go there to scavenge bricks for their houses.They stopped when they heard weird noises with no source.”

“Have livestock or people disappeared?”

“Nobody got close enough to risk it.They’ve been shying away from this place for generations. The only men who came close were fur trappers, and their traps stayed empty no matter how long they were out, the bait drying out instead of being eaten.”

Jayden frowned.“The duration of the problem suggests powerful magic is involved.Whatever it is, it hasn’t been freed yet, a blessing indeed.If these mercenaries dig up the source of the power, they risk causing devastation across a wide area.Thousands could be in danger.”

“Could this be magic from the old Sorcerer Lords?” she asked.The original Sorcerer Lords had died out over a thousand years ago, torn apart by internal divisions and finished off by the elves of old.Long gone they might be, but they’d left behind ruins, artifacts and monsters that survived their creators’ passing.

“Possibly.They produced horrors the likes of which this world hadn’t seen before, and some of their evil lives to this day.Such willingness to commit terrible deeds is far from unique.Many have perpetrated equally foul acts since the fall of the original Sorcerer Lords and could be responsible for this problem.”

The countryside became ever more wild, with tangled weeds and trees twisted in unnatural shapes.At the same time there were few animals present and no signs that men lived here except the road itself.

“We’ll leave the road and travel near it for the next few miles,” Jayden said.“That way we may miss sentries posted by the mercenaries.”

Dana worried she might pick up ticks in the tangled brush, but she found insects and vermin just as absent as larger animals. Marching through the brush slowed their progress and left a trail even an idiot could follow.

“What do we do if they found whatever caused the trouble?” she asked.

“Steal it if possible, destroy it if necessary, or run for our lives if it’s as dangerous as I think.”Jayden smiled at her and added, “I dislike running, but it’s best when the alternative is dying.I’d like to put that off as long as possible.”

“I’d never guess,” Dana said dryly.The going was tough with the thick underbrush.It didn’t help that there were no animals to eat it, and it looked like dead briars and brambles weren’t rotting, either. She practically needed an ax to force her way forward.Casually, she asked, “Jayden?”

“Yes?”

“Do you think the man behind that tree is trying to hide from us?”

He glanced to their right.“The one behind the oak?”

“Yes, him.”

“I imagine so.It would be impolite to ask, but then I’ve never been accused of being good mannered.Hello!”

The raggedy man broke from cover and ran for the road. Now that he was in the clear, he looked like an escaped slave or prisoner.His long brown hair was tangled, his clothes torn and dirty, and he had fresh bruises.Jayden walked after him at a leisurely rate while speaking arcane words that formed a black whip in his hand.He swung it and the whip stretched wildly until it reached ahead of the fleeing man. The whip burned through the underbrush, hacking through curling trees and twisted brambles, finally cutting through an oak.The man skidded to a halt in front of the shredded plant life.

“I see you like a captive audience,” the man said in a polite tone.He held up his shackled hands and rattled the chains running between his wrists.

Jayden and Dana walked over to the man while the whip retracted and disappeared.Smiling, Jayden said, “Now then, what’s a fine looking gentleman like yourself doing on a lonely road?”

The stranger smiled back.“Trying not to die.It’s a full time job as of late.I suppose introductions are in order.I’m—”

Dana marched up to the man and poked him in the chest.“You’re Jeremy Galfont, the grave robber!My father has a wanted poster with your picture.You’ve desecrated graves across the kingdom!”

“I, madam, am an asset recovery specialist,” Galfont replied.“In my defense, the wanted posters got my bad side.I’m quite handsome when I’m allowed to shave, bathe and eat regular meals.”

Jayden cast another spell, forming a sword of utter blackness edged in white light.He pointed it at Galfont’s throat, making the man sweat.“That answers one question and demands another.You look like someone whose past caught up with him, but we found you on the road with no guards or men chasing you.Care to explain your situation?”

“Certainly, but would you mind pointing that sword somewhere else?It makes me nervous.”Jayden answered Galfont’s request by lowering his blade from the grave robber’s throat to hover between his legs.“That’s not much of an improvement.”

“It wasn’t meant to be.Answer my question.”

Galfont gulped before he began.“I’d like to start by saying this isn’t my fault.The lady’s description of me leaves a lot to be desired.I recover riches that would otherwise be of use to no one and reintroduce them into the economy.”

“You rob graves!” Dana yelled.

Galfont rolled his eyes.“Must you put a negative spin on it?My profession requires patience and skill.I do hours of research to learn which graves have valuables to recover.I’ve never hurt a man nor beast, and I always spread the wealth.”

“Jayden, can I hit him?”

“If his story doesn’t progress, then yes.”

The grave robber sighed.“No one appreciates the hardships I go through.Three months ago, I was spending hard earned coins in a tavern when a very polite young man came to my table.He said he was interested in hiring me.Despite the young lady’s poor opinion of me, I don’t hire to anyone. Employers either want the profits of my hard work, or they want me to do something dangerous and repugnant.”

“Like rob graves?” she asked.

“If I may continue,” Galfont asked peevishly.“The man knew a lot about me, never a good sign in my line of work, and promised a reward for my services.I thanked him for his offer, threw my drink in his face and ran out the back…where I found a number of men with swords.I was arrested and told my reward would be keeping my head and neck close friends.My work was to help dig up a treasure in an ancient ruin.”

“The stone tower north of here?” Jayden asked.

“The same.I was taken there with eighty mercenaries, men without any sense of humor, I might add.I work best alone, but they insisted on staying with me night and day.We spent months digging and sifting through the ruins. I told them it was pointless!It was clear to any with eyes that these were elf ruins, and elves don’t bury their dead with anything, not even clothes.”

Dana tried to imagine that and blushed.“That must make for awkward funerals.”

“Closed caskets are required,” Galfont told her. “The ruins were trapped with magic wards, old and very powerful ones.I got around them with one part skill, one part experience and eight parts blind luck, but early yesterday morning I found a hidden room in the tower containing a silvery box three inches across.My captors recognized it and were very pleased to get it.”

Jayden lowered the sword and pressed closer. “This is very important.Did they identify it?”

Galfont shrugged.“They called it Vali-something or other.I’d never heard the word before.”

“Validendum?” Jayden asked.

“No.It was harsher sounding than that.”

“Valivaxis?”

The grave robber snapped his fingers.“That’s it!Wait, you knew the word.Oh dear, that’s not good for me, is it?”

“It’s not good for anyone.How did you escape?”

“I was tied up and thrown into a wagon while the mercenaries broke down their camp.They’d only just started when there was a terrible scream.Something, and I’m glad to say I don’t know what, attacked their camp. I heard its death cry, a ghastly sound, and I heard them pile wood on the body and burn it.I gather they lost a lot of men.They got back to breaking down their camp and were ready to leave. This time I saw one of the men carry the Valivaxis.It got all glowy, and a shiny door opened in front of him.This, I’m sorry, I can’t describe it without using the word ‘thing’, came out and attacked.I broke free and ran.”

Frightened, Dana asked, “What happened to the men?”

“Some tried to fight and others fled.The ones who ran lasted longer.I know a few of them got away because I heard them stumbling around in the dark the same as me.There was a terrible screaming sound, so I think the second monster was killed.”

“We’re in trouble,” Dana said.

“We are, as is the town of Jumil and everyone else within five hundred miles,” Jayden said.“We have to close the Valivaxis before anything else escapes from it.”

“I doubt I’d be much use in my current condition,” Galfont said.He wasn’t lying.The man was unarmed and had obviously suffered during his incarceration.He held up his shackled hands and said, “I feel I’ve been of some use in this matter.Might I be so bold as to ask for payment, kind sir?”

Jayden cut through the shackles with his sword and allowed the black blade to vanish.The grave robber bowed, and before leaving said, “I’d tip my hat if I had one. Wizard though you are, sir, I’ll wish you luck, because magic alone won’t be enough.”

“Wait, you’re letting him go?” Dana demanded.

“We can’t turn him in for the bounty money given my own wanted status, nor would I want to considering the tortures he would receive. That means we either kill him or let him go, and I choose mercy when possible.”

Galfont made a hasty exit while Jayden walked onto the road and headed for the stone tower.Dana followed him and asked, “Jayden, what is this thing?”

“I’d read about the Valivaxis long ago.It dates to the Ancient Elf Empire, one of the many magic artifacts that survived its collapse.Its more common name is The Idiot’s Graveyard.”

“A grave for idiots?It must be full to overflowing.”

Jayden smirked.“The name refers to the royalty buried there.In elven society it’s considered a heavy blow for an enemy to desecrate the graves of your ancestors.Elven emperors were very worried about the loss of face they’d suffer if their dead were disinterred.They built the Valivaxis, a gate to an inhospitable world where they placed their dead.”

Puzzled, Dana asked, “Why is it called The Idiot’s Graveyard if that’s where they put their leaders?”

“The elves never got over the fall of their empire. They had to blame someone, and the emperors were a popular choice.”

Dana snapped her fingers.“The monsters that attacked the mercenaries came from the Valivaxis.They were meant to defend it, weren’t they?”

“This is why I like traveling with you, Dana. Yes, the ancient elves knew if someone stole the Valivaxis they could use it to dig up the former emperors.As a further safeguard, they stocked it with their wizards’ failed experiments, monsters created with powerful magic and too unstable to control.Elf wizards placed those abominations in a magical slumber, neither moving nor aging, wakening only if triggered to be a final guard against attack.Opening the Valivaxis is easy, but there is a specific way to do it to avoid waking its foul defenders.The mercenaries did it wrong and paid with their lives.

“And it remains open.The Valivaxis has only been opened once before, releasing monsters twice a day until it was correctly sealed.That one horrible mistake cost the lives of many good people before it was closed, however that was done.Now that it’s open again, it will continue releasing its guardians, horrors created by an ancient and debased people, and they will attack any and all they meet.”

Worried, she asked, “How many monsters are in there?”

“No one knows, and I’d rather not find out.”

Dana jogged in front of Jayden and asked, “But why would the king and queen send men to find it?What good are graves with no treasure and monsters no one can control?”

Jayden scowled.She knew him well enough to know he wasn’t mad at her asking the question, but instead at the answer he’d have to give.“There are two equally disturbing possibilities.The first is they didn’t know that the emperors were buried without even the clothes on their backs and hoped there were riches to recover.Vulgar as that is, I wouldn’t put it past them.”

“And the second?”

Jayden stopped walking, seething in anger. “They knew there is no treasure and want the monsters.Such an uncontrollable force can be a benefit depending on where they are released. Suppose a spy working for the king snuck into an enemy country with the Valivaxis and opened it.The monsters would attack the first people they met, sowing destruction and discord, costing countless lives.The royal couple could then send in their armies to finish off whoever survived and claim land now conveniently devoid of people.”

Dana felt a cold, empty feeling in her stomach at the thought.“They wouldn’t be blamed for it, either.No one could link them to the monsters.”

“I don’t know how they discovered the location of the Valivaxis.Perhaps they found some ancient texts describing where it last was, or they hired a wizard or seer to locate it.Once they knew the location, they seized Galfont to help recover it without heavy loss of life.It was a brilliant if revolting plan that would have worked, except one of their men must have accidentally opened it.And now we have to close it if we’re to save Jumil and all the towns nearby.”

* * * * *

Jayden and Dana spent the rest of the trip in silence. Dana was terrified of what they’d find. Two monsters had been freed from the Valivaxis and then destroyed, but eighty men had died to do it.She’d been worried how Jayden could fight so many mercenaries, but how could he defeat monsters that were able to win such a fight?Jayden, confident as ever, marched to a battle he might not win.

The land became ever more desolate as they progressed. The soil was rocky, so much so that boulders jutted up from the ground.Thin soil supported few plants, and even those were thin and sickly.By and by the road grew steeper until it took a lot of effort to climb up.Eventually the road leveled out and brought them to the ruins.

“I was wondering how a flood could destroy an entire ruin,” Dana said.

“This would do the job,” Jayden agreed.

The stone tower was on the very edge of a gorge going sixty feet down to a dry, rocky riverbed far below.Stone tile roads led to the edge of the gorge, showing where the rest of the ruins had been.Some long distant flood had weakened the ground so much that it had gone down the gorge as a rockslide, taking with it whatever buildings and roads had survived until that time.Now only a stone tower fifty feet tall and twenty feet across remained alongside freshly dug pits.

There were new additions to the ruins courtesy of the mercenaries.Flattened canvas tents littered the ground next to crushed wagons, smashed crates and broken wood barrels.Snapped spears and bent swords were scattered about.There were charred remains of two bonfires, one cold and the other smoldered with glowing embers.Dana spotted a ribcage three feet across in the older fire, and a mound of large, blackened vertebra in the second.Here and there some of the mercenaries’ property survived by luck or good planning. The pits still had intact digging tools in them, as if the owners would soon be back.

And there were bodies.Most had been placed in the pits and covered with a thin layer of soil. A few remained above ground.They’d suffered serious wounds, many crushed to death as if a great weight had fallen upon them.

“I’ve no love for mercenaries, but no one deserved this,” Jayden said as he walked along the edge of the pits.

Dana shied away from the fallen men.“I’d heard from my father that some of them had come from as far away as Skitherin Kingdom.Imagine traveling so far just to die.”

Jayden pulled open a destroyed tent and searched through it.“We have to work fast.The Valivaxis could open again at any time.”

Dana picked a spot far from the dead mercenaries and looked for the silvery box.“The grave robber said some mercenaries escaped.How long until they bring reinforcements?”

“The closest towns have small garrisons, too few to help.”Jayden found a pouch of coins and tossed it aside.“Gold.Any other day that would be a worthy find.Nearby town militias are too poorly trained to be of much use. Surviving mercenaries will have to travel for days to reach the nearest town big enough to offer help, then spend days further bringing them here.This assumes they don’t simply flee the kingdom after such a loss.No, we don’t have to worry about mercenaries in the near future.”

More searching turned up a host of loot. There were coins, rings, weapons, some armor and plenty of tools.Dana might be a mayor’s daughter, but her family was still of modest means.A pile of valuables like this would be worth a fortune to the poor people back home.But no matter how hard she looked she didn’t find anything resembling the Valivaxis.

Dana found a handsome blue cloak and bundled treasure into it.It bothered her to take things off a battlefield, and made her wonder if there was really a difference between this and what Galfont the grave robber did. True, he disturbed graves and left families of the dead traumatized, while she was taking what was freely available for any who walked by.She could live with the distinction.

“Some of these silver coins are tarnished black,” Dana observed.“I think the mercenaries found them while digging for the real treasure.”

“I’ve come across other antiquities,” Jayden told her. “There’s nothing of great value and no magic, but it’s still more than I expected.I’d thought all the remnants of the Elf Empire were long since looted.”

“How long do we have until the Valivaxis opens?” she asked.

Jayden overturned a damaged wagon and sifted through its contents.“The legends said it opened twice a day when activated.”

That news made Dana stop working and stand up.“Galfont said two monsters already came out, and that was yesterday.”

“Which means either another one has already been set loose or will be so soon.Keep looking.”

Dana searched with a renewed vigor.They had to find the Valivaxis for their own sake and for the people in Jumil.She could only imagine what would happen if a monster tough enough to fight a company of infantrymen attacked such a small town.It would be terrible!

Wait, what was that glittering in the bottom of one of the pits?Dana had missed it earlier because there was a body in it and she hadn’t wanted to touch it. Gingerly she climbed down and shifted the dead man aside.“Jayden, this might be it.”

Jayden ran over and climbed down beside her.The Valivaxis was in the hands of a younger man once handsome to behold and dressed like an officer.“This must be the man who arrested Galfont.He found his prize and paid for it.”

“Can you close it?” she asked.

Jayden took the silvery box and studied it.“The good news is it’s safe to touch.Once opened, the Valivaxis has no further defenses. The bad news is it will remain dangerous until closed, which I don’t know how to do.”

“Bad news seems to understate the problem.”

Dana and Jayden left the pit and sat down.Jayden touched a small panel on the Valivaxis and slid it over.“It’s a puzzle box.Arranging the panels in the right pattern will close the gateway to the other world.”

Jayden slid panels across the box from one position to another.Somehow the panels could move from one side of the box to another without coming off. Dana saw two panels together form a word in elven, but Jayden separated them and moved them into new positions.

“There is a pattern to it,” he said.“The dragons represent years, months and days, while the words list specific elf emperors.I believe the dates match important events for the emperors, birth, death or coronation. The problem is many of these dates don’t correspond to any of the three.”

This was far outside Dana’s training or experience. She left him to the box and kept an eye on their surroundings.After all, Jayden might be wrong about the mercenaries leaving.Survivors could return to reclaim their prize if they were scared to come back without it.There could also be a monster about, whether from the Valivaxis or one native to the kingdom.

“Why do you think people living nearby heard noises?” she asked.“I mean, the box was sealed and the monsters were asleep.”

“Sleepers stir in the night, and no door is ever entirely closed,” he replied.“Those noises might have been what alerted the king and queen to the presence of the Valivaxis in their land.Let’s see, slide this one here…no, that’s not right.Emperor Clastisin wasn’t born for another century.”

It had taken most of the day to get here, and even summer’s long days had to end.The sun began to set and clouds turned a lovely shade of orange.Dana rummaged through the destroyed camp and found food and water.She was eating a late dinner when she saw a glint far down the road.

“Someone’s coming.”

Jayden’s attention remained on the Valivaxis. “Tell them to wait, or better yet to leave.When was Emperor Laskimaxil born?”

The last rays of light struck the approaching figure. As it neared, Dana could make out a man wearing a suit of silver plate armor set with jade panels, easily the gaudiest armor she’d ever seen.As the man neared, she noticed elaborate etchings on the jade.The knight was unarmed and moved without haste.

“Someone weird is coming,” she warned.

Still looking at the Valivaxis, Jayden asked, “How weird?”

“His armor has jade on it.”

Jayden set down the Valivaxis and stood up. Studying the approaching knight, he said, “That isa strange suit of armor. It looks ceremonial with the jade. Wait, elves favor green jade above all other precious stones.They call them eternal leaves.”

The jade knight reached the edge of the ruins and destroyed mercenary camp.He stopped walking well away from Jayden and Dana but stood facing them.A sour, acidic smell permeated the air.

“Name yourself,” Jayden called out.

The jade knight answered with a shriek no man or animal could make.His shoulders shifted forward, and a sickening cracking sound rang out.Eight oozing green tentacles sprouted from his back and stretched out thirty feet to grab intact swords and spears.Armed, the hideous knight advanced on them.

“The Valivaxis must have released this abomination before we arrived,” Jayden said.He backed up and cast a spell to form his black magic whip.“Get behind me, and whatever you do, don’t let it touch you.”

Slime dripped from the jade knight’s back as he walked into battle.Dana ran to the left, and from there saw a crack running down the horrible creature’s armored back.Those tentacles sprouted from the crack, and inside it she saw what looked like pulsating organs.

“I’m not trying to enter the Valivaxis,” Jayden told it. “I’m trying to close the gate. You can help me do it.We can close the doors and keep the emperors’ graves safe.Do you understand?”

“Burning, changing, twisting, winding,” it hissed, and swung three swords at Jayden.Two blades came from the right and one from the left.He ducked two swords and struck the third with his whip.The whip burned through the sword and cut off the tip of a tentacle.The jade knight howled and backed up, but only for a few seconds.It grabbed a shovel with the disarmed tentacle and attacked again.

“I’m not your enemy!” Jayden shouted.

“Twisting words, bending thoughts, burning minds, winding ways.”The jade knight was totally mad, its mind as warped as its body.It pressed the attack with swords and shovel coming straight down.Jayden ran from it and swung his whip again.This time he caught a tentacle and the whip wrapped around it.There was a hiss as the whip burned through the tentacle.The jade knight howled again, but didn’t flee.Instead it ran at Jayden and swung its remaining weapons with wild abandon.

Jayden took cover behind a damaged wagon while the hideous knight dropped down on all fours and scuttled around it.More cracks appeared on its armor, this time on the legs and arms, and still more tentacles stretched out.It lunged at him, swinging a host of weapons, and Jayden barely dodged the attacks.He cut a spear in half and leaped over a sword aimed at his ankles.Jayden lopped off another tentacle, forcing the jade knight back.It dropped its weapons and grabbed the damaged wagon with its tentacles, then lifted it up and threw it at Jayden.He hacked the wagon in half, and ducked when the jade knight jumped fifteen feet and sailed inches over his head.

Quite by accident, that jump brought it close to Dana.

“Run!” Jayden ordered.

Dana grabbed a shovel, the only weapon at hand, and headed for the tower.The jade knight scuttled after her, its arms and legs splayed out like a lizard’s. Its tentacles swung at her and she swatted one aside with the shovel.When another grabbed her around the waist, she drew her knife and slashed it. The tentacle spurted yellow ichor and let go.

Jayden caught up and stabbed the jade knight in the leg.Black sword met shining armor, and the magic blade pierced deep.The jade knight howled and ran off fifty feet.

“Pay attention to the man with the sword!” he yelled at it.

The jade knight gibbered and howled, a frightening mix of random words and animal noises.Its tentacles grabbed tent poles, shovels, picks, anything it could use as a weapon, and it charged Jayden again.He ran to the left and it followed, leaving Dana safe for the moment.

This would be a good time to run for her life, but that wasn’t an option when this abomination was faster and tougher than she was.If it beat Jayden, it could come after her and there was little she could do to stop it. She took a step closer to the stone tower, wondering if there was anything in it that might help.That thought ended when her right foot got so hot she jumped back and cried out in surprise.She looked down to see that she’d stepped into the remnants of the second bonfire.Her leather boot was blackened where it had touched the still hot embers.

Thinking fast, Dana scooped up red-hot embers with her shovel.The jade knight had its back to her while it was fighting Jayden, and she saw those wide openings in its armor where the tentacles emerged.She ran after it, and just as it was attacking Jayden she threw the shovel’s contents straight into the hole in its back where those freakish tentacles sprouted.

The jade knight screamed a high-pitched screech of agony.It threw its weapons aside and flailed about, knocking Dana to the ground.It clawed at its back, trying to dig out the embers burning it from the inside.Jayden rushed in and drove his sword through the panicked beast’s chest, impaling it and lifting it off its feet.The magic blade winked out, and he let the jade knight drop to the ground.It twitched and squirmed for a few moments, then became still.

Jayden ran over and helped Dana up.“Are you hurt?”

“Bruised, but I’ll live.”She stared at the abomination shaped like a man.It was dead, a blessing, but many more could soon arrive.Even now it disgusted her in the way it parodied a knight yet had those awful tentacles growing from its body…growing longer.“Jayden, the tentacles you cut off, they’re healing!It’s getting better!”

The jade knight stirred.Its wounds began to seal shut, and it tried to get up.It got on its hands and knees before falling back to the ground.Dana realized now why the mercenaries had burned the other two monsters.Hard as it was to hurt them, they could recover if they fell in battle and had to be completely destroyed.

Jayden pressed his hands together and began chanting. The jade knight hissed and sat up. Its tentacles slithered about until they found idle weapons to grab.A tiny spark formed within Jayden’s hands and he continued chanting. The jade knight struggled to its feet just as Jayden finished his spell.The spark flew off and slipped inside the monster’s armored body through the crack in its back.

“Get in the pit!” he shouted.Dana jumped into the nearest pit and Jayden leapt down beside her.

BOOM!

The spark expanded into a fireball twenty feet across. When the flames subsided, Dana got up and saw that the jade knight had been consumed by the blast.Only shattered bits of jade and melted scraps of armor remained.Nearby tents and wagons were burning, as were some weapons.

“That’s a new one,” Dana said as she climbed out of the pit.

“It’s actually the first spell I learned,” he replied.He followed her and leaned against a broken wagon, this one not on fire.“I don’t use it often because it takes so long to cast. Enemies are rarely obliging enough to let me complete it.”

Something glowed to their right.Dana and Jayden turned to see the Valivaxis shine and its many panels slide about.

Dana stared at it.“You have got to be kidding me.”

A glowing door appeared ten feet in front of the Valivaxis.Dry, cold air spilled out of the opening, and they heard a multitude of growls.The magic door was only four feet across, but it widened as some new horror pressed forward.

“Can you close it?” Dana asked.

Jayden ran over and snatched the Valivaxis off the ground. He slid the silver panels on the little box, but the moment he took his fingers off the panels they immediately started moving again.“No! We’ve got another one to deal with, and soon!”

Countless clawed hands grasped the edges of the magic door. At first Dana thought it was a large number of monsters coming through at once, but as the slavering green horror kept pushing forward, she realized there was only one creature.The dozens of green, slimy, wide jawed monsters were connected, with limbs fused together to make a single abomination.The many heads had no eyes, only gaping mouths, yet they turned to face Jayden and Dana.

Jayden threw down the Valivaxis and remade his black whip.To Dana’s surprise, the magic door moved when he dropped the silvery box.She shouted, “The door is linked to the Valivaxis!It goes where the box does!”

“What?”

There wasn’t time to explain.Dana grabbed the Valivaxis and ran for the gorge.As she ran the magic doorway moved with her, carrying the monster along.The monster kept coming out, more and more horrible bodies like an entire crowd. She didn’t know exactly how big it was, but it kept crawling out of the magic door.She’d nearly reached the gorge’s edge when the monster figured out what she was doing.It grabbed at rocks and ruined wagons, trying to stop.Jayden struck it with his whip and it let go, allowing Dana to keep running until she was at the edge of the gorge, and the magic door was ten feet over the lip.

The monster tried to pull back into the magic door, but there was too much of it through already, and it fell screaming to its death.

Jayden looked down at the creature at the bottom of the dry riverbed below.“Dana Illwind, you are without a doubt my favorite person in the world.”

* * * * *

A full day had passed since their battle, yet Dana and Jayden had not left the ruins.Dana had gathered up a respectable pile of treasure while Jayden had covered every square inch of dirt with formulas and math equations.He’d spent the entire night and all of today trying to find the right combination of panels to seal the Valivaxis.He wiped a patch of dirt clean and scratched new numbers on it, and then scowled.

“Any luck?” Dana asked.

“That depends on your definition of luck.I have three configurations that might close the Valivaxis.The problem is there’s no way to know which one will work until it tries to open again.”

She walked alongside him and frowned.“What do we do when we close it?”

“Take a boat three days out to sea and throw the Valivaxis overboard.I see no alternative.”

“How soon until it opens again?”

“Two or three minutes, assuming this configuration is wrong.”He stood up and stretched his arms.“We’re running out of time.We have to be long gone before the king’s men come.Still, this is the best place to close the door without endangering others.”

Dana looked over the edge of the gorge and two ash piles at the bottom.Jayden had cremated the first monster Dana had dumped over the gorge, and then the next one that had appeared around breakfast time and plummeted to its doom.Would the Valivaxis open again and another monster fall to its death?They’d know soon enough. 

The sun began to set, and to Dana and Jayden’s frustration the Valivaxis started glowing.But this time something was different.The panels didn’t move across the box and a magic door didn’t form.The glow came from one side of the box and then another, as if it was searching for a way out.Finding none, the light died away and the Valivaxis fell silent, releasing no new walking atrocity upon the world.

Jayden gingerly picked up the Valixavis and wrapped it in a cloak once owned by a mercenary, then stowed it in a backpack with treasure he’d found in the camp.“Come, Dana, let’s be on our way.We dare not stay longer when the king’s forces could soon arrive.I’d tell you this is over, except our lives are in danger until The Idiot’s Graveyard is safely hidden where none can ever find it.”

“Whoever put it in the tower thought it was safely hidden,” Dana said, highlighting how hard their task would be.She followed him from the camp with all the loot she could carry.“Life’s never dull around you, Jayden.It might be short, but never dull.”


© Copyright 2019 ArthurD7000. All rights reserved.

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