Rescue

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic
I'm bringing back Dana Illwind and Sorcerer Lord Jayden. The pair are looking for good intel from bad men, but sometimes you have to work with what you've got.

Submitted: December 27, 2019

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Submitted: December 27, 2019

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“I thought there would be fighting in a war,” Dana said.Jayden glanced at her, and she added, “The kingdom is at war with three nations at once, except you’d never guess it by looking around. Everything is so…normal.”

“It’s not surprising,” he told her.“Moving thousands of men hundreds of miles takes weeks, especially when they have to carry most of what they need with them.Even when they reach the enemy, there’s only going to be a few major battles and a number of skirmishes and ambushes.When autumn arrives, the fighting will stop until the following spring.”

“Assuming neither side wins,” Dana said.

It was a warm spring day as Dana Illwind and Sorcerer Lord Jayden marched down a lonely road.There were few farms or ranches, mostly pastures with fresh green grass.In time herds of cattle would be driven here to feed, but for now there was nothing but wild animals and the occasional traveler.

Dana had been following Jayden ever since he’d saved her village from a monster. She’d joined him in large part to try to redirect his fury away from the king and queen and onto legitimate threats. She’d thought that a sorcerer could do great good for the common man, making up for the lack of support from the throne. Too late she’d learned how much suffering the king and queen were responsible for.For years Dana had been afraid for her homeland.After twelve months traveling the kingdom, she’d come to be afraid of her homeland.

“What’s upsetting you?” he asked.

“It’s that obvious?”Dana frowned. “It’s just, I used to think the kingdom had problems, but nothing we couldn’t deal with.It was a bunch of little things people could overcome if they worked together.Since we’ve been traveling together, I’ve seen most of our problems are from our own leaders and the men they’ve surrounded themselves with.What can you do when tens of thousands of soldiers and their leaders are behind what’s going wrong?”

“We face no small challenge, Dana.Ending the war is a massive undertaking, made worse by the overwhelming number of men who serve willingly and embrace the chance to visit war upon neighboring lands and their people.Dealing with this threat is going to take years, and we will take enormous risks throughout that time.Make no mistake, we are trying to stop if not entirely remake a nation gone mad.”

In the last year he and Dana had done what they could to prevent the king and queen from going to war with Brandish, Kaleoth and Zentrix, three small neighboring kingdoms.They’d stolen armor, killed monsters, rescued child slaves, even defeated skeletal armies made by a now dead necromancer.They’d enjoyed far more success than Dana had dared dream possible, yet had failed in their mission.The king and queen had declared war on Kaleoth the preceding winter, and on Brandish and Zentrix early in spring.

Jayden had fought tooth and nail for decades to prevent such wars.He’d waged a one-man campaign against the royal couple, hurting them at every opportunity across the entire kingdom. His friends were few, his enemies were legion, and hope as rare as gold.Dana was just a farmgirl until meeting him, and was staggered at the risks he ran, even more so because he was the king’s son, long thought dead.Who could do this without breaking?

So far Jayden was holding up, but the strain was showing.The world’s only sorcerer lord had a fierce temper, and it was getting worse.His black and silver clothes were fraying at the edges.His backpack was getting thin as he spent more and more of his limited money. Jayden’s perpetually messy blond hair was even worse than normal, and he’d refused her offers to cut it.He needed her help to stay focused, but just as importantly he needed some shred of hope, a sign that they weren’t on a fool’s errand.

If Jayden was looking worse, Dana was improving.She was in good health and had managed to replace her worn out clothes weeks ago with new summer wear, simple but comfortable cotton clothes. Her long brown hair was tied in a ponytail.She was even armed, a rarity among peasants, and with a magic sword called Chain Cutter.

Chain Cutter had been crafted using dwarf rune magic, Jayden’s shadow magic, a chimera horn and a sliver of magic metal called uram.The short sword was black edged with silver, serrated ridges on one side and mystic runes near the base with a black hardwood handle.Chain Cutter had proven devastating in combat, cutting through nearly anything.Jayden was still giving her sword fighting lessons, and she was learning fast. 

“The war is heavily delayed, in part because of us,” Jayden explained. “We destroyed the only major bridge to Kaleoth, leaving them safe for the time being.Suzy Lockheart closed one of the mountain passes leading to Brandish. This will limit how much fighting can take place until the routes are clear.”

“What about Zentrix?” Dana asked.“We weren’t able to help them.”

“There are relatively few routes into Zentrix.Each one can be bottled up by small armies.Zentrix also has competent armies and generals.Barring disasters, they’ll hold.

“That is what gives us a chance, Dana.Maintaining three offensives requires huge numbers of men, leaving much of the country’s interior lightly defended.If we can find and destroy critical weak points such as supply depots, armories and bridges, we can slow or even paralyze the war effort.But we need to work fast.The late and unlamented necromancer Cimmox claimed the king and queen are flooding the kingdom with new followers, each one equal to him in depravity.Once they arrive in force, the war will be almost impossible to stop.”

“What are we going for first?”

Jayden paused.“I don’t know.Before defeating Cimmox, the heavy snowfall trapped us in a small village for two months. Much could have happened during that time I don’t know about.Even before that, we were focused for months on dealing with local threats.I don’t know what has been happening elsewhere in the kingdom.I need information before we can act.”

Dana reached into her backpack and pulled out a wanted poster with Jayden’s face on it.These posters were plastered across every village with more than a hundred residents, and the reward grew by the month.“Finding people you can talk to might be hard with this price on your head. It might be hard for me, too. These posters started mentioning me months ago, even if the descriptions are vague.Who can we talk to when we’re both wanted criminals?”

Jayden smiled, a rare and welcome sign.“Why Dana, I thought the answer to that would be obvious.Other wanted criminals.”

Dana stopped walking.“I’m not going to like this, am I?”

“If it’s any comfort, I won’t either.Years ago, I visited a small outlaw community called Weirdwood in the wilderness near the border with Zentrix.It is an indescribably foul place filled with the worst examples of humanity you could have the poor luck to meet.Such communities are sadly common in isolated places, sprouting like mushrooms after a rainstorm, only to be destroyed by the authorities or infighting until new ones arise.This one has stood for fifteen years and is considered almost stable.”

“If it’s full of criminals, they won’t have information you can use. They’d be chased out of nice parts of the kingdom.”

He looked at her curiously before saying, “I keep forgetting your peaceful upbringing.Dana, it’s a sad fact of life that the criminal element is welcome in society if it stays in the shadows.Smugglers, gamblers, thieves and poachers can find unscrupulous men eager for their wares. Communities like Weirdwood are frowned upon, but ignored so long as they are useful rather than damaging.The men I need to talk to will have traveled far and wide, tolerated if not welcomed.”

“You trust wanted criminals to be honest?” she asked skeptically.

“Honor among thieves is a rarity, but I have certain advantages in securing their cooperation.I have funds enough to buy their services, and such men appreciate hard currency.I also have enough power to inflict horrific retribution should they betray me, a point I made very clear on my last visit to Weirdwood.”

Dana put a hand over here face.“How much damage did you do?”

“It was severe but localized.”

As day transitioned into night, they passed scattered farmhouses on their way to Weirdwood, all of them built to resist attacks with brick walls, tile roofs and arrow slits.Men traveled armed and in groups, and they gave Dana and Jayden wary looks as they passed. Jayden nodded to a few of them and continued without incident.

“They don’t look happy to see us,” Dana said.

“Most of Weirdwood’s residents have the good sense to limit their crimes to distant lands, but there are always a few drunken idiots eager to cause trouble. Honest men living near Weirdwood are always ready for trouble.”

“Why don’t they tell the king and queen where to find this dump and let the army burn it down?”

“The king and queen don’t care about small farms like these any more than they did your friends and relatives back home when you first called upon my aid. If a few dozen or hundred people live in fear, or don’t live at all, it’s nothing to the crown compared to cities with hundreds of thousands of people.”

“You said this place has been around for fifteen years,” she pressed. “That’s a long time to ignore a problem.”

“They’ve ignored problems far greater for far longer.”He hesitated before saying, “It makes me wonder if a member of the royal court is protecting this pigsty.A rich man could make himself even richer here, if he was careful and heavily armed.”

Jayden pointed at lights in the distance.“That’s our destination.There are no friends where we’re going, Dana.We must take precautions before going further.”

Dana saw him take cloth wrappings from his bags.“Wait a minute.”

“This won’t take long.”Jayden covered her face with a cloth mask with narrow eyeholes.He handed her gloves that reached up to her elbows and leggings to cover what little skin her skirt and boots didn’t hide.“I am known and feared in Weirdwood.You, being an attractive young woman, will be seen as prey. You run a lower risk of being bothered if you look mysterious.You also don’t risk someone describing your features to the authorities.”

“Lots of soldiers have seen me with you,” Dana said as she pulled on the gloves.

“If you check your no doubt excellent memory, you’ll recall those meetings were almost exclusively at night where visibility was poor.The only exception that comes to mind was our attack on baron Scalamonger’s estate with Lootmore.In that instance, enemy forces had been drinking heavily before they saw you. I doubt they could describe your features after the hangovers they must have suffered.For your own safety and that of your family, please put these garments on.”

Dana finished putting on the clothes and checked her reflection in a nearby pool.She did look more intimidating.“I’m just glad you’re not trying to leave me behind.Sometimes you get too protective.”

“No place this close to Weirdwood is safe, and we won’t be safe inside the town. No matter what, eat nothing, drink nothing and stay close to me.If anyone looks dangerous, they are.Avoid speaking if you can help it.”

“Are we torching this place on the way out?”

“Don’t tempt me.I was weaker the last time I visited this cesspit, with fewer spells mastered.My progress has been considerable, but not enough to destroy a town.”

They approached Weirdwood slowly, keeping an eye out for danger.When they finally saw the town, it met Dana’s low expectations.The community was a collection of ramshackle buildings made of cheap lumber and scrap wood. None of the shops had signs advertising their services, nor were there street signs.Light from open doors illuminated much of the street to reveal a cast of miserable characters.Most were humans, although Dana saw an elf and some dwarfs.Like many places they’d visited, Weirdwood stunk of wood smoke, dung, livestock and body odor.

Then there was the noise.Dana heard shouting and laughing, more than she would have expected for a town this size. Animals brayed, neighed or in some cases growled.Music came from what she thought was an inn, but she didn’t recognize the tune or even the instruments.

A woman in a store called out, “What’s your pleasure?Stay awake, put you to sleep, open your eyes to other realms. I’ve got brews for whatever your fancy is.”

“Pass,” Jayden replied.The woman cursed at him before offering her vile concoctions to another man.

A man pointed at Dana and asked Jayden, “You selling or renting?”

Jayden cast a spell, and moments later a giant black hand with claws scooped up the man and hurled him onto a nearby rooftop.The hand dissolved back into the shadows, and after that no one on the street bothered them.

Jayden led her through the streets without hesitation.Their passing drew considerable attention, but no one tried to bar their way.They reached a dingy bar and went inside to find a collection of the dirtiest, loudest and most heavily armed people Dana had ever met gathered around a bar and cooking fire.

One of the men banged a ladle against an iron pot over a fire.“Boys, it’s our old friend, Jayden!It’s been years.What’s brought you back to Weirdwood?Still fencing stolen horses?”

Jayden strode fearlessly into the room.“Not this time, Clevner.I’m buying rather than selling.”

Clevner was a tall man, rail thin and filthy.His leather clothes looked like they should have been burned rather than washed, and his collection of knives and daggers were tarnished and rusty. He gave Jayden a lopsided grin and gestured for the other men in the room to make space.

“Now that depends on what you’re buying.We’re light on stock at the moment, which is why I was happy to see you.”

“I seek words rather than goods,” Jayden said.“I’ve been busy for the last few months and need up to date information on my favorite targets.You travel more than most and may have seen the opportunities I seek.”

A young man stepped away from the bar and pointed at Dana.“Hey, the sorcerer brought a pet.Ooh, all covered up like that, the pretty thing must be shy.”

“She’s none of your business,” Jayden said firmly.

The youth swaggered closer.“I’ll decide what’s my business or not.”

Jayden stepped up until he was within inches of the youth’s face.“You must be new to Weirdwood, or unbelievably stupid.Adults are talking, boy.Find someone else to amuse yourself with before I remove pieces of your anatomy.”

Clevner cleared his throat.“You’re right, he’s new to my little family.Go back to your drink, boy.I’d rather not clean your blood off the floor.”

The idiot looked at Clevner without fear, proof either of drunkenness or overconfidence.“He’s a tough one?”

“Last time Jayden paid Weirdwood a visit, a few blokes thought they could take horses he’d brought without paying for them.I buried them and bought the horses, for a fair price, I might add.”

Jayden turned his attention back to Clevner.“Armies are moving, threats and opportunities in equal measure to the man bold enough to act.I need to know where they are, how powerful they are, and if they’re leaving assets exposed.Words for gold, Clevner.You won’t get a better deal.”

“That might not the case.”Clevner casually took a sheet of paper from behind the bar and held it up.“See, we had a visitor just after the snow melted, and by we, I mean everyone in town.Tall fellow, fancy clothes, very nice diction.He made an offer on behalf of the king and queen.Anyone who swears loyalty and obeys orders gets a blanket amnesty for all past crimes.As of four weeks ago we became fine, upstanding citizens.”

“You must be joking,” Jayden said.

Clevner offered him the paper.“See for yourself.”

Jayden snatched it and read quickly.“What did you have to do to earn this amnesty?”

“Exactly what we were doing all along.Poachers hunt animals and rare monsters to sell the carcasses, smugglers bring in stolen goods, and slavers deal in human flesh.The only difference is, these days the king and queen pay us for our labors.”

Jayden’s face betrayed his disgust.“There weren’t slavers here on my last visit.”

“Weirdwood has been diversifying as of late, with new opportunities for the openminded.It’s not to my tastes, but I’m not in a position to throw stones.Back to our original topic.It’s too early to see if this will last, but for the time being we’re working for the throne, and the king and queen may not take kindly to us telling their secrets to an enemy, if that’s what you are.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he demanded.

“This part is a tad delicate, so curb your aggressive tendencies,” Clevner cautioned.“That same visitor who gave us this second chance thought you might drop by, your reputation being what it is, and he told us to pass along a message if we saw you.”

Jayden’s muscles tensed, and Dana grabbed the hilt of her sword.Clevner waved his hands downward and said, “Aggressive tendencies, Jayden.It’s an opportunity, not a threat.The king and queen are offering the same olive branch to you.”

“Do you take me for a fool?” he yelled.“I’ve harried the king and queen for my entire adult life!In the last year I’ve destroyed two noblemen’s estates, stolen a fortune in armor and killed their iron golem, Wall Wolf.”

Jayden’s outburst didn’t bother Clevner in the slightest.“Which is why they want you.You’re right, Jayden, it’s war, and wizards are a prized commodity in any army.The thinking goes anyone who kills an iron golem is a man you want on your side.If they hire you, that’s one less threat and one more asset.We both know changing sides isn’t rare for a man with skills in demand.”

Clevner took a cup off the bar and sipped it.“I and my merry band are temporarily useful to the king and queen, but if they win their war, they won’t need us any longer.Maybe their offer goes away when they can get respectable men to do the work.If they lose, nobody’s going to honor the deal.But you, well, sorcerer lords are a tad rare at the moment, so whoever wins is going to want you.

 “There’s more. Your wanted posters were undated. The cash offer is off the table. Instead the king and queen are offering a dukedom to anyone who brings you in, dead or alive.Seems a certain Duke Wiskver managed to upset the royal couple so badly they ordered his execution.He ran off a few minutes ahead of the sheriffs.I’m told his land is a bit of a mess and his followers fled. Still, it’s not every day a fellow can jump to nobility.Plenty of strong lads will take the chance.”

Jayden handed back the paper.“I’ve no interest in changing sides, now or ever.My goal remains the same, and I think you are bold enough to play both sides, especially when you admit your amnesty might not be honored.Allow me to make you richer in case the day comes when you need to leave with whatever you can carry.”

Clevner paused before nodding.“I’ve heard and seen a few things that might interest you, and there are men in Weirdwood who might know more.First thing’s first, we need to agree to a price before I say word one.”

Just then one of Clevner’s followers walked past Dana and ran his hand up her leg.She shrieked, and the men burst out laughing.Jayden raised his hands to cast a spell, no doubt flashy and massively destructive that would ruin any chance for a deal.

Moving fast, Dana kicked the man in the butt, knocking him over.The laugher doubled, and the man scowled as he tried to get up.Before he could rise, she drew her sword and swung it at the pot hanging over the fire. Chain Cutter spit out a cloud of sparks as it hacked through the iron pot top to bottom, spilling its contents on the fire and extinguishing it as both pieces of the pot landed with a bang.

The laughter stopped.

“Keep your hands to yourself, or she’ll take them off,” Jayden said.

“Outside, now,” Clevner ordered the man on the floor.When he tried to protest, Clevner said, “You’re ten seconds from getting killed, by the girl if you’re lucky and by the sorcerer if you’re not. I don’t much care if you die, but once Jayden starts killing men, he might not be in a mood to stop.Go.”

The man left, his face red and his fists clenched.Clevner turned his attention back to Jayden.“I need time to get the secrets you want.Come back tomorrow night with a hundred gold coins, no less.Don’t argue over the money.You’ll make it back ten times over with what I have to say.”

“Fair enough,” Jayden said.“My associate won’t be joining me, as you seem to have trouble controlling your followers.”

The insult didn’t seem to bother Clevner.“I think that’s for the best.”

Jayden and Dana left the bar without another word.A drunken man saw them and laughed, saying, “Thrown out that fast?Guess he didn’t offer enough for the girl.”

Jayden didn’t break stride as he punched the drunk in the gut and doubled him over.He grabbed the fool by the collar and swung him head first into the bar’s front wall, and followed up by stomping on the man after he hit the ground.Bystanders watched with casual interest before moving on. Jayden continued as if nothing had happened, stopping only once they were far outside Weirdwood.

“That was really disturbing,” Dana said as she took off her disguise.

“It was, and I apologize.Weirdwood has degenerated even faster than the rest of the kingdom, and it was no pleasure to begin with.If this sort of depravity is acceptable even in a small corner of the kingdom, how soon until it spreads?”

“It might not.If Clevner is right, he and his friends might get thrown out with the trash when they’re not needed anymore.”

“They can do incredible amounts of harm before being cast aside.”Jayden scowled and looked back at the disgusting town. “In years past I was never happy dealing with such revolting people.I rationalized it as a necessary evil.Today I see that choice for the mistake it is, for if it was acceptable for me to deal with such men, it is no less so for the king and queen.”

“Can we get this information anywhere else?” Dana asked.

“Not in time.The peace and quiet we now enjoy won’t last.Armies will march soon, and if we are to do anything to stop that we have to know what to hit and where.We also need allies for the coming battles, and while the men of Weirdwood don’t qualify, they might be able to point out others who do.I don’t trust them, but I need them.”

They spent the night camped far away from Weirdwood in case its unsavory residents were tempted to collect the price on Jayden’s head.They spent the following day practicing with wooden swords. Dana wasn’t Jayden’s equal, but she was getting to the point where she could hold her own.

As the day wore on Jayden noticed more men coming into and out of Weirdwood. He frowned and said, “I need to find a safe place for you while I’m gone.Given how far the town’s residents travel, it would be better for you to be farther away.There is a village deeper in the mountains and the road leading there is difficult, so Weirdwood’s loathsome residents should avoid it.”

Jayden led her to a small walled village perched next to a river.The river flowed slowly through the mountainous terrain and frequently branched off along narrow channels.People had set nets across the water to snare fish and watched them warily, but thankfully didn’t panic at the appearance of strangers.

“It’s rustic, but safe,” Jayden said.“Weirdwood’s noxious residents avoid this place ever since some of their men came here and never returned.Whatever is responsible ignores less revolting people, and I feel certain no one will bother you.”

Before he left, she said, “Promise me you’re not doing this to keep me safe while you run off and fight those jerks alone.”

Jayden smiled.“I respect your abilities and judgement too much to go without your help.I will return as soon as I have finished dealing with Clevner.From there our journey will be more dangerous.Rest, and enjoy what little these people have to offer.”

Dana felt nervous as she watched Jayden leave.Not because she feared for herself.She was worried for him.Weirdwood was easily the foulest town she’d ever set foot in.Jayden was worthy of respect from friends and fear from enemies, but those villains might think surprise and superior numbers could win the day.She was tempted to follow him.

In the end she didn’t.There would be too big a risk that she’d draw attention from evil men, ruining Jayden’s chances to finish this deal, and possibly forcing him to rescue her.She was honest enough to admit she wasn’t ready to fight her way into or out of a town like that, especially since she didn’t know what dangers lurked there.They could have tamed monsters, golems, witches, wizards or any number of other threats.

A woman walked by, and Dana said, “Hello there.”

The woman mumbled a response and kept her head down.Dana tried talking to another woman and got the same reaction. Villagers went about their business as if she wasn’t there, shying away when she approached.She couldn’t figure out why they were so scared of her, but maybe they were used to strangers being dangerous.After all, they weren’t far from Weirdwood.

Dana had been just like these people only a year ago.The small town she’d grown up in was quiet and did its best to avoid attention from royalty and monsters (both being dangerous).She would’ve been wary at the approach of a stranger, not hostile, but cautious in case the person was dangerous.

Their apprehension would make finding a place to stay difficult.These people wouldn’t want to open their home up to a stranger, even a paying one.There didn’t seem to be an inn, either, but that wasn’t surprising for such a small community.Few travelers would come this way, and many would be the kind of men they wouldn’t want around.It looked like she’d be roughing it tonight.

Dana searched the area for good camping sites.Options were limited.Much of the land was too rocky, and every inch of flat ground was planted with grains or vegetables.She ended up going far down the nearest trail before finding a patch of tall pine trees she could make camp under.Fallen needles offered bedding of a sort, while the trees would provide cover.

She’d just begun to lay out a blanket to sleep on when she saw a woman of about twenty creep down the trail.The woman was pretty but simply dressed.Curious, Dana watched the woman go to a small branch of the river and set a straw mat onto the water.With this strange task done, the woman went back toward the village, never seeing Dana hiding among the pine trees.

This was odd enough to worry Dana.Once she was sure the woman was gone, she went to the river and found the mat slowly flowing downstream.The mat was thick enough it could float even with a loaf of bread, two apples and a smoked fish sitting on top of it.

“Who’s that for?” Dana asked out loud.

The current carried the mat away, and Dana followed it.The branch of the river was wide but not very deep, and it flowed between large boulders before going into a cave.The mat leisurely floated into the cave and out of view.

“This doesn’t make sense,” she said.“That’s not the kind of food you would give to an animal or a monster. That means there’s a person in there the lady is providing for.Why doesn’t he stay in the village?”

Dana peered into the cave.Was someone trapped down there?That didn’t make sense, either.If someone was stuck inside, the woman would get her friends and family to rescue them. Maybe the stranger was hiding in the cave and the woman had merely agreed to provide meals.That didn’t make even less sense.If someone was so scared they’d hide in a cave, it would be smarter to run to a safer place, and there had to be safer places to hide than a village near Weirdwood.

“Laura?” a man’s voice called out from the cave.

“Um, no, sorry, I’m not Laura,” Dana said.

“That is a relief and a pity,” the man answered.Dana heard him eating the crunchy apples.

“Why are you in there?”

“That’s not a story I am eager to repeat.Young lady, I am told there is a village not far from here.Tell the people Brasten sent you, and they will open their doors that you may spend the night in safety.”

“That’s very nice of you,” Dana said.“Wait a minute, you were told there’s a village nearby?It’s so close I can see the light from their cooking fires. How could you not know where it is?”

“I came here before there was a village, and have never left.”

The statement was mysterious, but it was also unbearably sad.“Canyou leave?”

“No.”

“The girl who floated the food to you, she’s Laura?She’s trying to be nice, but she can’t save you.”

“She has a beautiful soul and seeks to ease my confinement.I could survive without the meals she sends me, and without her company when she can spare the time, but it makes my stay more bearable. To hear tales of the world beyond is a pleasure and makes me feel like I am still a part of it, if only in a small way.”

Dana went through her baggage and brought out a torch.She lit it and held it in front of her as she stepped into the water.“I’m coming in.”

“I can’t guarantee your safety,” the man cautioned.“There is danger within this cave.”

“Then you need help,” she said as she waded through the cold water.It came up to her knees, but flowed so slowly she was in no danger of being washed away.

“Laura would like you.”

Dana only had to wade a short distance before coming onto a ledge.She found the straw mat in the water. Standing on the ledge was the man.

This man…oh my.He was the sort of that drew women’s attention, tall and lean with sculpted muscles. She guessed his age at twenty-five at the most, with dark hair and brooding eyes.His clothes were simple cotton, a tunic with short sleeves, pants that stopped just below his knees, and a sword strapped to his leather belt.

“Allow me to introduce myself,” he said formally.“I am Brasten the Unbeaten.Please forgive the lack of accommodations.I’m afraid the few creature comforts I could offer rotted away long ago.”

“Hi.”Dana was having trouble forming words at the moment.She held out her hand, and Brasten shook it with a firm grip.“I don’t want to be rude, but I don’t see what’s keeping you here.”

“It’s a long story and a sad one, but you have gone to some effort to meet me, so I feel I should reciprocate in some way.I fear my tale offers little hope.Come, and I will show you why I stay.”

Brasten led Dana through the cave to a large chamber, easily a hundred feet across.At some point most of the cave’s ceiling had collapsed to reveal the sky far overhead. There was dirt on the ground and grass grew to knee high.Dana saw the moon and stars shining above as bats left the cave.

“You can see in the dark?” she asked.“I mean, I have a torch, but you were in the dark before I came.”

“I have lived here long enough to know every inch of this cave,” he replied. “Dark or light matters little. Girl, you came here to save me, a noble goal, and proof of the goodness in your heart.I am pleased I should meet someone so pure they would save a stranger’s life.It pains me to say what you seek is impossible.”

Dana folded her arms across her chest.“I’ve seen lots of impossible things.You tell me what the problem is and I’ll help you find a way out of it. If I can’t help, I know a man who might be able to break you out.”

“Your optimism is refreshing.Forgive me, but the years have left me jaded.Girl—”

“Dana.”

Brasten bowed.“Forgive me, Dana.There is a chest at the opposite end of this cave.Do not approach it, for it is guarded by an implacable defender.”

Dana saw the chest, a beauty two feet long, one foot wide, a foot tall, and made of sea green bronze and obsidian carved in intricate patterns.She didn’t see the defender he’d warned her of. The room was empty besides her, Brasten and the chest.

“Where is it?” she asked.

“Not it, but whom.I have the displeasure and dishonor of defending the chest, a role I have played to my eternal shame for three hundred years.”

“Wait, what?”Dana staggered back.“You can’t be, I, no, I have a brother your age!”

Brasten tilted his head to one side.“My appearance is deceptive.I was born three hundred years ago, give or take a few decades.Forgive me for not providing an exact date, but after a certain point the years flowed together.”

Dana frowned.“This is weird, but I can deal with it.Brasten, sit down and we’ll talk.”

“I would like that.”

Both of them sat down on the grassy cave floor.Brasten piled up old straw mats and gestured for Dana to ignite them with her torch to provide both light and heat.Dana pointed at him and said, “You can’t have lived this long naturally, so there’s magic involved.Who did this to you?”

“Three hundred years ago, a small group of men and women uncovered spell tablets of the ancient sorcerer lords.They translated them to learn that long forgotten school of magic.My master was a lesser nobleman and one such new sorcerer lord.He and his fellow practitioners sought to form a kingdom of sorcerers as in the days of old.”

“I’ve never heard this before.”

“It did not last long or end well.My master gathered together many students and trained them in magic, so many the king grew concerned.He need not have been.Rival sorcerer lords grew paranoid.They worried he would forge his students into an obedient army to conquer them.”

Puzzled, she asked, “Why would they do that?”

Brasten shrugged.“I don’t know.My master argued incessantly that he was spreading their message and magic so they could one day overthrow the king, nothing more.It didn’t help.The stronger he and his students grew, the greater others feared him.One day they gathered together and waged war upon him. Sorcerer lord fought sorcerer lord, a tragic repetition of ancient history.Few survived.”

“Are you a sorcerer lord?”

He smiled.“No.I was a farm boy with a strong back and a weak mind.My master owned the land I farmed, and by law he ruled me.He wanted to teach me his magic, but I could never fathom the strange words and bizarre meanings behind them.He abandoned the effort when his fellow sorcerers turned on him.If I could not serve him as a sorcerer, I could serve him as a soldier.I excelled as a swordsman, becoming my master’s best and most favored warrior. He gave me the magic sword you see at my side.”

Brasten looked sad as he continued.“Warriors serving rival sorcerer lords grew to respect me, then fear me, then run from me.It shames me to say I once took pleasure in seeing the terror in their eyes.Please do not judge me harshly, for I was young and foolish, and I listened to wicked men rather than good ones.”

“Why is a feared swordsman trapped in a cave?”Dana winced and said, “Sorry, that was rude.”

“I take no offense.Many have asked the same question.My master held off his enemies for years until they rallied together with aid from the king to defeat him.His estate was razed to the ground, his spell library looted or destroyed, his wealth carried off.He and I escaped only with the chest you see before you.My master cast a spell called Eternal Guardian on me.He ordered me to stay here until his return, to not touch the chest, and to slay any who did with my sword Oath Breaker.” Brasten nodded to the sword sheathed on his belt.“I’ve carried out these orders for centuries, victim of my master’s magic.”

“The spell is keeping you young?”

“Just so.I thought it was an honor at first.My master had lost all his followers save me, and in reward for my loyalty he’d made me ageless.I could still die in combat, but the years did not touch me.Nor did I hunger or thirst, although I can eat and drink.I can’t sleep or even grow tired.”

Brasten stared into the fire.“He left, never to return.Perhaps he meant to and died before he could, but his spell ensured my imprisonment when he did not, a risk he was willing to take.I once gloried in battle, taking so many lives I can’t count them.I thought myself an honored servant, and that this sword was proof of the faith he had in me.Now I see the truth, that I was a vain fool in the service of a greater fool.This sword was his way to make me a more efficient killer, nothing more.I have come to despise it.I was his property, to be used or expended as he saw fit. Being ageless made my imprisonment an even greater burden, but in truth it is a fair punishment for my actions.

“My master would overthrow the king, and a new leader would replace the old one, but nothing would change.Men like myself would still be ruled by others, serving their masters onto death before being replaced with more expendable men.My master and his rivals mistook intelligence for virtue, and in their arrogance destroyed one another until the king could defeat the few who survived.”

Dana hesitated before asking, “Do you think sorcerer lord magic makes people turn on one another?I mean, they fought each other long ago, and the same thing happened again to your master.”

Brasten chuckled.“No, child, magic does not make a man good or bad.Before my imprisonment, I met noblemen, rich merchants, judges and sheriffs equaling if nor surpassing my master in their arrogance.Power corrupts men regardless of its source. Too many hunger for it, striving to be better than their peers rather than helping them.In my experience, it is a rare man who can turn down power or willingly give it up.Such men are to be cherished and protected, for their lives are often cut short by the ambitious.”

Tears formed around Dana’s eyes.“That’s terrible.You’ve been alone down here for so long.”

“Not entirely alone,” Brasten replied.“On rare occasions I have visitors such as yourself.I once spent weeks talking to a sage from a distant land who wanted to know more about sorcerer lords.Later still a monk spent decades meditating with me.I credit his help to my becoming a better person.”

“And there’s Laura.”

Brasten paused.“There is Laura.She entered my cave ten years ago, fleeing criminals from a town called Weirdwood. I protected the poor child from them.”

Hesitantly, Dana asked, “When you say protected…”

Brasten pointed to three mounds of earth and rocks at the edge of the cave. “I take no pride in the title Unbeaten I held so long ago, but it is accurate.I thought that was the end of the matter once the child left, but she returned time and again.Sometimes she would speak to me, other times like tonight delivering meals.She grew with time while I remained the same.Now a woman, she has twice expressed an interest in me.”

“Interest?” Dana asked.She saw Brasten blush and hastily said, “Oh, that kind of interest.I take it you said no.”

“What other answer could I give?I could not provide for her or any children we had together, nor could I protect them from harm if they were attacked away from this cave.She is a good woman, beautiful in body and spirit, and deserves better than what little I can offer.I had hoped she would marry another, but she continues to come to me. She reminds me of the fiancée I had so long ago.”

Dana perked up.“You were going to be married?”

“My master had selected a young woman to be my bride.She was a beauty like no other.She was also the worst cook I’ve ever met, and nearly killed me with food poisoning.Bad yams nearly did what a hundred enemies could not.”

“What happened to her?”

“She fled when my master’s enemies came for him.I take no offense at her choice, for it saved her life.”

Dana stood up and helped Brasten to his feet.“I’m getting you out of here.”

“Others have tried and failed, some at the cost of their lives.The Eternal Guardian spell forces me to defend the chest yet will not let me touch it, which includes moving it out of the cave. If any attempt to touch or move it I instantly kill them.I am compelled by the spell and have no choice in the matter.If you touch the chest, even accidentally, I would kill you before I even knew what I was doing.”

“Then I’ll have to be careful.”Dana approached the chest like it was a bear trap.“What happens if the chest is destroyed?”

“The chest is reinforced with powerful magic to both strengthen it and make it hard to detect.Any attempt to destroy it would likely fail, and would count as touching it, forcing me to attack whoever tried.”

Dana circled the chest.“What if someone threw a rope around it and pulled it out.Technically they’re not touching it.”

“The spell does not care for technicalities.I would strike the rope and then the person pulling it, as a certain thief found out to his sorrow.Normally I regret my acts of violence, but he was a revolting man.”

“What if an animal touches the chest?”

“A number of birds have done so over the years.They were quite tasty.”

Dana tapped her fingers against her backpack.“What would happen if someone touched the chest but you couldn’t see them? I mean, it’s got to be pretty dark in here, and you said you can’t see in the dark.”

“That has happened twice in my time here.In both cases I could sense the chest being touched even when I could not see it.The Eternal Guardian spell drew me to the chest, and I ended the lives of the rats that were crawling on it.I have no idea how I knew they were there, but I did.”

“If I threw something on the chest, what would you do?”

Brasten looked uneasy.“If it was an inanimate object such as a rock, I would treat it as you touching the chest and attack.If, however, you placed a living animal on the chest, I would be forced to attack the animal instead.That happened once when a witch tried to steal the chest.She threw her cat at me, and it landed instead on the chest. The spell forced my hand.”

“That poor kitty!”

“It was one of many deeds I’m not proud of.”

Brasten certainly looked competent, but Dana had fought skilled warriors before. How dangerous was he?She retreated to the grassy area in the cave and went through it until she found a worm.She carried it back and tossed it onto the chest.

She didn’t see Brasten draw his sword or him charge.One second he was behind her, and the next he was in front of her, his sword making a glittering arc before he returned it to his sheath. The worm was cut in half lengthwise.

“You see the reason for my concern,” Brasten said.“Should you even let your dress brush up against the chest, I would kill you no matter how much I don’t want to.Nothing could save you.”

Dana looked at the dead worm.That could just as easily have been her.Jayden’s training had helped her be a better fighter, but nothing she knew could stop someone that fast or skilled.She wondered if Jayden knew a way to break this spell.But would Brasten let him?The poor man had good reasons not to trust sorcerer lords and might attack Jayden.Introducing these two would be a mistake one or both might not survive.

“That was impressive, and massive overkill for a worm,” she told him.“Why didn’t you just squish it with your finger, or pick it up and throw it away?”

“If I only could be so merciful,” Brasten said sadly.“The Eternal Guardian spell forces me to draw my sword. I can’t do otherwise, even when another choice would be superior.”

“What were your master’s exact orders?” she asked.

“Brasten, last of my followers, I give you this duty to carry out above all others.This chest contains my last treasures from which I might rebuild my holdings.Stay in this cave and do not touch the chest, and if anyone ese dares to so much as touch it, strike them dead at once with your mighty sword Oath Breaker.”Brasten spoke the words with obvious distain.“Those were his orders before he left, and that is what I have had to do for centuries.”

“I’ve got an idea.”Dana dug up several worms and brought them to within four feet of the chest.She handed her torch, now burning out, to Brasten.“There’s got to be ways around those orders.I’m going to throw another worm at the chest.”

“I wish you wouldn’t.”

“Trust me.You said your sword was magic.I wonder if it’s part of the curse you’re under.I want you to kill it with the torch instead of your sword.Can you do that?”

“I will make the attempt.”

Dana threw the worm, and it landed on top of the chest.She felt a breeze as Brasten charged past her and sliced the worm into four equal parts.He sheathed his sword and handed back the torch.“My apologies, but the moment it touched the chest I was overcome with the need to defend it.I could not resist the urge to draw my sword.”

“You apologize a lot.”

Brasten bowed his head.“I have done much worthy of regret.Forgive my saying so, but you seem surprisingly at ease meeting a man centuries old.”

“This isn’t the weirdest thing that’s happened to me.”Dana frowned as she considered this riddle.Brasten’s orders insisted he use his sword to defend the chest.What would happen if he didn’t?“Have you ever attacked a person or animal that touched the chest with your fists, a rock, anything except your sword?”

“Never.”

Dana pointed at his sword.“Can I look at it?”

Brasten handed over his weapon without a moment’s hesitation.That surprised Dana.Then again, he’d said he’d come to hate it.She took the sword from its sheath and studied it.The blade was longer than hers and had words stamped into it that resembled the letters from Jayden’s spell tables.It was razor sharp and as light as a feather, and the blade glimmered when she swung it, leaving a short-lived trail of stars behind.

Dana handed Brasten the torch back, and without another word threw another worm at the chest.He had the sword out of her hands so fast she barely saw him move, and the worm met the same end as the other two.He handed the blade back to her along with the torch.

“If it helps, I’ve tried doing that before,” he said.“For years I left the sword far away from me, but I always come back for it when the chest is touched.”

“There’s got to be a way out of this,” Dana said as she handed back the sword. No point to holding it when he could get it back so easily.“What if I took it out of the cave where you can’t reach it?”

“A man tried that eighty years ago.He went fifty feet before the curse compelled me to retrieve the sword. Fortunately, he had spells in place to protect him long enough to escape.”

This was a tough riddle, and one that kept a good man enslaved to the will of a long dead master.She had to help him, but how?There had to be a loophole in his orders.She was sure Brasten’s sword was the key.He had to use it, no choice, so removing it might cancel the Eternal Guardian spell.But how? She couldn’t take it from him when he could reclaim it so easily.He couldn’t throw it away.Maybe she could destroy it with Chain Cutter, but the spell might force him to defend himself if she tried, and she had no illusions how that fight would end.What did that leave?

Wait.

“You hate your sword, right?”

“With a passion.”

Dana set aside the torch, now completely burned out.“I want to make an offer.I’ll buy your sword for a gold coin.”

Brasten raised an eyebrow.“Buy it?”

“Buy it.”Dana went through her pockets until she came up with a single gold coin.“I’m asking you to sell me your sword, not give it to me or just hand it to me.I’m not stealing it, either.You get a gold coin and I get your sword for keeps.Deal?”

“I don’t understand what you’re trying to do.”

“Work with me, Brasten.Am I buying your sword or not?”

“Very well, in return for a single gold coin I will sell you my sword.”He removed the blade, sheath and all, and handed it to her.

Dana handed him the coin.“No take backs.The fire’s getting low.Can you throw a few more straw mats on it?”

Brasten did as she asked, turning his back to do so.That was very trusting of him.An unscrupulous person might try to hit him from behind, which would fail. Dana had seen his speed and skill firsthand.She doubted a person could kill Brasten even when he was unarmed.

While he was looking away, Dana threw the rest of the worms she had onto the chest.

“Is that bright enough for you?” he asked.

“One more, please.”

“Done, but it is the last of them.”Brasten threw another straw mat onto the flame and turned around.“Why are you smiling?”

Dana waved for him to join her.“Look.”

Brasten walked back to her, and he gasped when he saw the worms wriggling on top of the chest.“That’s not possible.It can’t be!”

“One way to make sure,” Dana said.He pointed at the cave’s entrance and asked, “Would you like to go outside?”

Brasten ran off, laughing like a man who’d escaped the gallows.Dana heard him splash through the shallow water and then cry out in exaltation.Dana followed him and found him dancing across the trail leading to the cave.

“Free!Centuries of endless waiting, over!What joy it is to feel the wind on my skin, to breath fresh air, to see more than those cursed walls!”Brasten ran to her, dropped to his knees and kissed her hand.“Good woman, kindest of souls, what magic did you use to free me?”

“No magic,” she told him.“Your master’s orders were if anyone touched the chest you had to kill them with your sword, Oath Breaker.The sword’s not yours anymore.You sold it to me.The curse didn’t force you to fight with your fists or any weapon, only the sword.Selling the sword makes it impossible to carry out your orders.”

He stared at her.“Glorious child, you saved me.”

Dana looked down.“It may have come at a cost.If we broke the Eternal Guardian spell by letting you go, you may have lost the benefits you got from it, like not aging.”

Brasten stood up again.“You are right.I feel tired, sleepy, a sensation lost long ago.If that gift is gone then I must assume the others are, too.I can grow old and die as all men do.Do not pity me for the loss, for I have not known joy in the centuries I have lived.”

He took her hands in his and said, “You have done what no other could, even when I tried to discourage you.Name your reward, even if it is my life.I have little, but it is at your command.”

“Your master thought in those terms.I want you to be free to choose your own path.The only thing I want is for you to consider one thing.”

He sounded curious when he asked, “What is that?”

“You’ve outlived your friends, family, even your enemies.You’re going to have to start from scratch with nothing except one gold coin, but I can give you more.”

“Don’t.You have given me enough.”

Dana smiled at him.“Consider where you can go from here.The whole world is open to you, but I know of a woman who cares a lot about you.”

“So there is.”Brasten turned to leave.“You have my eternal gratitude.Keep the chest if you wish.After being trapped with it for three hundred years, I have no desire to see it again or its contents, whatever they may be.I pray that the good fortune you brought me may be returned to you a thousand times over.”

Before he left, Brasten looked thoughtfully at the night sky.“I was a farmer once.I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but it was a good life.I wonder if I can be one again.”

Dana watched him leave, happy that she’d saved a man.For a second she wondered if Brasten would suddenly age three centuries now that the spell was broken, but he went on his way happy and healthy.The entire kingdom was still in a terrible mess, but one person’s life was immeasurably better.It was small wins like this that made life worth living.And she did it without any fighting.Most of her victories with Jayden were extremely violent.

Once Brasten was long gone, Dana went back into the cave and tried to pick up the chest.It was so heavy she could barely drag it across the floor.She eventually gave up trying to move it, opened the chest and took out the contents.There were pouches of gold, a silver necklace set with rubies, and two sorcerer lord spell tablets.

“Oh my.”Dana put on the necklace.“Jayden can have the spell tablets, but I’m keeping this.”

Dana returned to her camp under the pine trees, hid the necklace among her baggage and tried to go to sleep.She’d nearly nodded off when she saw a light.She got up and rubbed her eyes.There was a bright glow in the distance.

“Weirdwood is burning!” a man shouted in the nearby village.

More people ran out of their houses and pointed at the light.Many danced and cheered, and a woman cried out, “We’re finally free of those criminals!”

Dana put a hand over her face.“I just can’t leave you alone, Jayden.”

Jayden returned to the village hours later, looking tired and smelling of wood smoke.“Ah, Dana, I didn’t expect to see you still awake.Lovely night, isn’t it?”

“You torched the place, didn’t you?”

“It wasn’t intentional.”

“Oh, good, you accidentally burned a town of lowlifes and thugs.”

“A sadly accurate assessment of the situation,” he told her.Jayden sat down beside her and dusted ash off his shirt. “The evening started well enough. Clevner had the information he promised, but before he could say much a large number of cutthroats decided to take my head.Clevner escaped while I fought my way through them, which unfortunately attracted even more men after my life.I set a fire to cover my retreat.Do you recall a rather vulgar woman in Weirdwood offering dubious potions?”

“I remember wanting to slap her.”

“That’s her.It turned out her questionable brews were surprisingly combustible, and they detonated when the fire reached them, spreading the fire across several blocks. Weirdwood doesn’t, excuse me, didn’t have fire fighters, and the flames spread across the entire town.”

Jayden turned to her and said, “It was a partial win at best.I spent a lot of gold for a little information, but Weirdwood is gone.Its criminal occupants fled without time to gather their ill-gotten gains.With no base of operations, goods, even food, they are a spent force little able to aid the king and queen.”

“And here you thought you weren’t strong enough to destroy an entire town.”

“Normally it would be a questionable achievement, but it was necessary. I should have taken you with me. Your absence didn’t ease the transaction, and your presence would have done much to speed my exit.Worse, we’re going to have to spend days guarding these people in case Weirdwood’s now homeless citizens come to steal food or other goods.”

“I think they’ll be okay without us.”Brasten the Unbeaten no longer had his magic sword, but Dana figured the man would be incredibly dangerous with a pitchfork, hammer or even a shovel.“Don’t feel too bad.I had a pretty good night.”

“Really?How so?”

Just then a woman ran up to Dana and embraced her.Tears running down her face, she cried, “Thank you!Oh, thank you!”

“Jayden, this is Laura.”

Jayden looked amused.“A pleasure to meet you.I’m curious what prompted such an enthusiastic greeting.”

Laura pulled back and looked at Jayden.“Brasten told me about you, but he didn’t mention a man traveling with you when you saved him.Is this your husband?”

“Oh dear God no,” Dana said.Jayden laughed.Annoyed, Dana tossed the spell tablets onto his lap.His jaw dropped at the sight of them.“Those comes with a sword, too.”


© Copyright 2020 ArthurD7000. All rights reserved.

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