A Simple Quest, Easily Fufilled
The smell of warm roast pig and the playful whisper of a lute assaulted me as I opened the heavy oaken door to the Stormsmont Inn in Runicvale. A roaring fire blazed in the hearth, and by the smell, the inkeep was burning cherry wood, adding its comforting aroma to the pleasant aura of the inn. Most of the tables were filled with couples and friends, toasting one another's health and draining their mugs in the name of good cheer.
It was the supping hour, so I was not surprised by the crowd, and the Stormsmont Inn was reputed to be a place that tended to make one feel at home. It was a place of good cheer and familiarity, so the bards said, a place that by its very atmosphere tended to keep those with ill intentions away. I was unused to such a place, I'll admit; I tend to be more comfortable in taverns and inns with names like "One-Eyed Jake's" or "The Limping Traveler". My senses were alert, as always, as I stepped into the warmth of the common room. There seemed to be no one here that would stick a knife into my back and make off with my money purse, but experience had taught me to be careful, all the same. I pulled down the cloak of my hood and decided to make my way to the bar.
I slid my hand down to the scrollcase on my belt, next to the hilt of my sword, and opened it silently as I walked. The bartender was a pudgy man of middle age, whose thin white hair was combed over the balding area on the top of his head. His smile seemed forced as he greeted me:
"Good day and good wishes, friend and traveler," he said, probably in the same tone he had said to a hundred different people he didn't recognize who entered his tavern. "What can I do for ye this eve? Draw ye a mug, perhaps, or a warm meal? Or would ye be needing a room for the night?"
I waved him off. "None. I require information only, sir, and if you can supply it to me, I'll bother you for nothing more."
He pinched his foremost chin between a stubby thumb and finger-- no small feat-- and a sly gleam came to his eye. "Information is scarce around these parts, friend," he said simply.
"And expensive, no doubt," I murmured as I pulled a silver ram's-head coin from my purse and placed it slowly on the bar. I extracted the rolled-up piece of parchment from my scrollcase and consulted it. "I must find those who call themselves the Order of the White Star. I have been told I can find them here."
He took the coin with a scoop of his hand and eyed it calculatingly. "I have heard of them, of course, but I am hardly their keeper. Why must ye be finding them?"
"My reasons are my own," I growled, "but rest you assured it is important. I have need of their services." I withdrew my hand from my pouch again and placed another ram's-head on the bar. Heavy. Golden. The barkeep's eyes shone with genuine delight. "Third room on the left is a private one," he said as he scooped up this coin as well. "Knock thrice, and say that Rurik sent ye. And I know nothing more."
I sat at the table, my eyes adjusting easily to the dim lamplight, as they all watched me carefully. This was the Order of the White Star. I had heard of them once or twice in my travels, but it is my business to know such things. One hears many such stories when one keeps their ears open in bars and taverns.
"Again," said Lady Renee, with a stern look of disapproval on her face. Her dark hair was bound into a ponytail, and her dark eyes flashed as they met mine. I had been told that she was a New Tamirean, a lady of honor who took the title of noble warrior: a paladin. It was said that faith in her god could help her divine any evil purposes and could guard her from such evil. Her blade was supposedly even called Evilsbane. I could feel that aura of goodness, even at this distance. I met her gaze evenly and recited what I had been told again.
"I am but a messenger. My lord, a man of no small title, wishes to hire you to fufill a service for him. In the caves a day's ride outside Runicvale, there is a magus by the name of Eldrith. The magus has been casting his dark magicks to blight my lord's lands. The crops are failing and much livestock has died as a result of these magicks. My lord implores you to end this menace and save his fiefdom. He offers this payment, plus a sum of twice that if you are successful." I gestured to the bulging pouch I had tossed onto the table the first time I had told my tale. Gold and silver coins had trickled from its mouth.
The sheen of precious metal had immediately caught the eye of Gwyndolyn, a red-haired beauty from Silverton, and she continued to stare at the pouch with undisguised desire. I had expected as much, based on my information. Gwyndolyn, from every story I had heard, was as much in love with gold as she was with herself. She was a con-artist, a swindler, and used her beauty to her best advantage. Once, it was said, she had a tryst with the Duke of Sandlear and had ended up robbing him blind. And the Duke was still so in love with her that he hadn't put a price on her head.
"Perhaps we should think about this, Renee," Gwyndolyn remarked, studying one golden coin with an appraiser's eye. "It does sound like a worthy quest."
"And a profitable one, by the light in your eyes," said the elfwoman Ahvielle with as much disgust as her musical voice could muster as she stepped into the light. I had never seen a wilder elf before now, and though I had heard stories, they didn't prepare me for the real thing. Ahvielle stood slightly shorter than Lady Renee, but was no less entrancing. She had straight honey blonde hair adorned with beads and looked at me with exotically shaped lavender eyes. She wore a deerskin halter and loincloth that showed much more of her tanned skin than was considered remotely proper by any cultured elfmaiden. She was well-toned and obviously strong, as many of her race were reputed to be, it didn't detract at all from her beauty. I might have assumed she was an exotic human, except for the delicately pointed ears that pointed up ward through the cascade of golden hair. It was said that she had slain a wemic by herself with only a spear, and by the hard look in her eyes as she studied me, I didn't find that at all difficult to believe.
But she was also a principled woman, if the tales were true. I expected admonishment from her, but I also expected her next response. "But the quest does seem a good and honorable one, if it be true."
"Agreed," said Lady Renee, watching me closely. She turned to the last member of the group, a pretty blonde whose head was slightly bowed. "What say you, Morraine?"
Morraine, a young priestess of Arianna, looked up slowly from her end of the table. Her ice-blue eyes were thoughtful, as if she had, up until recently, been looking within instead of at the table. She seemed preoccupied. "I feel no evil from this man. . . and yet. . ." She shook her head.
"And yet. . .?" Gwyndolyn pressed.
"The goddess does not answer me. I asked for an augury of this quest, but She has no answer for me."
Gwyndolyn let out a relieved breath. "Well, I daresay Arianna would want us to help this poor nobleman's fiefdom."
I must admit, I had counted on this somewhat. Gwyndolyn's love of gold was well known, and Morraine was fairly soft-spoken. Given that, I could have guessed she would vote out the priestess' suggestions that they wait until she could get a clear reply from the goddess.
Lady Renee nodded. "Then it is settled. We shall leave at first light."
I smiled and bowed, like a proper servant. "Very good, m'lady, m'ladies. I shall lead you."
By midmorning of the next day, we had arrived at the mouth of the cave. The morning had dawned a little chilly, and the horses we rode were still breathing plumes of white breath as we dismounted and tethered them to nearby trees. I consulted the rolled sheet of parchment again as they checked their weapons and armor.
Place the medallion around your neck and enter the cave.
A passageway in the back wall will lead into a large chamber.
The chamber is well-lit. Watch your eyes. You will understand.
Such odd instructions. But I would not question them, for I had been warned not to. I quickly palmed the medallion I had been given and nimbly wound the chain around my neck. The small disc attached to the chain was made of a bluish-green crystal that reflected the scarce sunlight back into my face. I made a show of releasing the piece of leather that held my sword in its scabbard and joined the ladies, nodding.
"This is it," I said, appearing to be breathless and more than a little frightened-- which was hardly a stretch, as it was. "The lair of Eldrith."
Gwyndolyn pouted as she investigated the entrance. "Why can't the evil magi and dark powers ever live in nice mansions instead of dirty caves and grubby towers?"
Lady Renee sparked up a lantern and stepped into the mouth of the cave. "It looks deserted. I see no signs of a magus in this cavern."
Luckilly, Ahvielle was blessed with the gift of elvensight. "There is a light further back," she said, with that musical voice. "I can barely see it from here. Let's take a look."
They followed her in: Renee, Gwyndolyn, and Morraine-- the last of which looked at me with an inkling of distrust as she passed. I followed behind, at a little bit of a distance.
I heard Lady Renee's voice from ahead of me speaking softly but echoing in the cold lonliness of the cavern. "You're right. There's a passageway here. Just big enough to get through. Ahvielle, you can see in the darkness. Take the lead. I'll be behind you."
The others murmured agreement, and we followed the passageway as it snaked along, growing brighter the further we traveled. Finally, it opened into a large chamber. As the note had predicted, it was well-lit in here, moreso than it could be by mere torchlight.
Ahvielle looked around the room, her spear at the ready. She said nothing, but I could sense her unease. Morraine voiced what I assume the elfwoman was thinking.
"Very odd," the young priestess said, holding her holy symbol. "The light in this room appears to be magickal. And the floor is tiled, not natural."
Indeed it was. There was not a stick of furniture in the room, and the walls appeared to be like the rest of the caven's natural walls, but the floor was tiled in marble, like the Library of Amersk itself. It was a great, bare room. No, not completely bare, for a single unmoving figure stood in the center of the room, a silent statue. It was large, but not humanoid. From the tips of its reptilian snout to its tail the was nearly seven feet long. It stood crouched on six legs, its eyes were closed as in repose.
"A lizard?" Gwyndolyn remarked with a smile. "Eldrith has a statue of a lizard in his entryway?" But she suddenly sucked in a breath as she saw the gleam of light off a gemstone beneath the statue's belly.
My own breath came short as I saw the six legs. Not just a lizard, I knew. Ahvielle was already checking for another passageway on the other side of the room. Lady Renee was making sure the rest of the chamber was secure. Morraine's head was bowed in prayer to her goddess. None of them noticed what I had seen.
Morraine's eyes suddenly shot open, and she whirled to look at Gwyndolyn. The young redhead was on her knees, trying to pry the gemstone from beneath the statue's stomach. What she did not notice, in her lust for the precious stone, was that the leg next to her was beginning to move.
"Gwyn!" Morraine screamed. "That's not a statue! It's--"
The magickal camouflage spilled away from the creature in rivulets, revealing what I had already assumed. It was not a statue at all, but a living creature which had been magickally altered to look like a statue. It was a real, living reptile. A basilisk, to be precise. I had already figured this much out as well.
There are those that, I assume for sake of seeming poetic, say that the basilisk has eyes the color of blood-red rubies. I will not purport to call them liars, but I will say that they are no more qualified to say that than would be to say that someone who has a dream they are falling will die if they hit ground before they awaken. Put plainly, no one who looks to see what color a basilisk's eyes are ever talks about it afterwards. Watch your eyes, as the note had said. Indeed.
Morraine did not have the luxury of such a note, nor did I have a chance to call to her that I had one. Even if she'd known of such a note, I doubt she'd have been able to puzzle out the meaning behind its cryptic message. She was too in tune with learning about her goddess, so I assume, to listen to tales in wastrel taverns about the creatures in the wilderness and what they can do to the unwary. This, again, I can only assume, based on the fact that she made no move to look away when the basilisk gazed upon her.
I never looked directly at the basilisk, but I could sense, in some strange way, that its eyes had locked onto Morraine's. She slowed in mid-step as she ran toward Gwyndolyn, and her eyes grew as wide as young apples. Her lips quivered for a moment, and I heard her voice a halting prayer of help to her goddess-- imploring Arianna that this fate was not to be hers-- before the rosy lips stilled and drained of color.
I had never seen such a sight. Morraine's slender form stopped stock-still, legs caught in the middle of a running stride, her blue robes whisking for a moment around her ankles and then falling still. Her face and skin blanched until it seemed an impossible shade of white, and then it kept losing color still, until it took on the hue of alabaster. Her light blond hair slowly became the same tint, delicate hairs hardening together in one mass and the curls becoming fragmented. I watched, awestruck, as her frightened, ice-blue eyes became lost in the background of the whites, which in turn became streaked with marble whorls. Perhaps her prayers were in vain; perhaps, as she said, the goddess was not listening. In any rate, she would not again be able to call upon Her. Morraine was now no longer a priestess, but a marble statue, as if handcrafted by an artist specifically to be placed upon the dais of temple and clothed in the blue robes sacred to her Goddess-- which I noticed did not change into stone with the young priestess' body, quite oddly.
Gwyndolyn, unaware of what had happened, heard the young woman's truncated warning, and followed her own instincts. With cat-like speed and grace, the redhead dove away from the creature and rolled along the tile floor, landing just in front of the unmoving form of the priestess. With one deft movement, she pulled a dagger from her boot and pulled herself into a fighting stance. Her training was good; too good, it seemed, for she made the mistake of gauging how much distance there was between her and the creature-- which naturally brought her to eye contact with the basilisk as well.
Gwyndolyn, quite unlike the marble priestess, probably had heard a few tales about the cratures known as basilisks... whether she believed them or not. The creatures were supposedly torn from the pages of legend: slow-witted, six-legged reptiles who are not known to be fierce fighters, even when provoked. However, it is also said they have no need to be fierce fighters, for any living thing which looks into the eyes of a basilisk is said to turn into stone.
Judging by the fact that Morraine looked like a sculptor's finished work instead of a living woman, such tales were apparently not exaggerated. Perhaps Gwyndolyn now knew this, perhaps not.
She tried to break the gaze at first, to no avail. She opened her mouth and let out a scream torn from the pits of her soul, the sound of which soon began to slow as if she was speaking through ice. The flame-red color of her hair faded, leaving instead a white hue streaked by grey. The light in her eyes died, as did the color of the irises and the pupils themselves. Her limbs locked into place as her last moments of movement were spent in a futile attempt to throw her arms before her eyes, only to have them stop midway to her face. Her pale skin became paler, losing color in waves until only chalky white remained. Within a few moments, two fully clothed alabaster statues adorned the chamber, as if some insane artist had deigned to dress his creations.
Her aborted scream had brought out Lady Renee and Ahvielle, who readied their weapons and stared for a moment at the scene before them. The basilisk's back was to them, so for the time, there was no danger to them. For a moment, I wondered if they would attack the creature as well and share their comrades' fates, but Ahvielle apparently knew the tales of the creature, as well.
"It is a basilisk," she cried, and although the voice was still musical, it was made discordant by fear and revulsion. "Do not look at it. Fight it blind if you must!"
With blade and spear, they advanced, keeping their eyes jammed shut and fighting by hearing alone. Unable to close my own eyes for the spectacle before me, I watched them circle the creature cautiously, listening for its movements and its breathing. For some reason I cannot fathom, the creature completely ignored me and turned to face what it must have perceived to be a greater threat.
That turned out to be its undoing. Lady Renee, hearing it scuttle nearer her, waited a long moment and swung her sword in a vicious arc, connecting with the creature's back. It roared in pain and anger, and the paladin struck it another blow. At the same time Ahvielle moved closer-- the elfmaiden apparently had better hearing than most humans-- and thrust with her spear, piercing the basilisk's head. It's final scream echoed from the hard stone walls of the chamber, and it flopped around miserably in its death throes.
I watched the short battle, stunned, my heart in my throat, as if the basilisk had looked at me and turned me to stone as well. When it was over, the two warrior women walked around the corpse of the basilisk and looked over their fellow adventurers, frozen forever in stone. They hesitantly touched the marble hands and stared at the hardened expressions of horror, as though they couldn't have believed such a thing had happened. And there we stayed, for several hours.
"We should go back," Ahvielle whispered, staring in sorrow at the two fully dressed statues-- their comrades. "There is nothing that can be done for them now, and we do not know how much lies before us."
"We should," Lady Renee said, but even before she continued, I heard the disapproval in her voice. "But honor demands that we avenge Gwyndolyn and Morraine. I will find this Eldrith, and make him pay."
As it turned out, her words could not be more well-chosen to get approval from Ahvielle. The wilder elves, from what little I've heard, hinge their lives upon honor. A wilder elf who is slain does not receive his or her place in the afterlife until their death is avenged. It is those stories which give rise to the beliefs in ghosts and wraiths.
The elfwoman nodded at her. "I did find a passageway on the other side of the room. It seems to lead further back. But there could be more traps."
As though she did not care about her comrade's last sentence, Lady Renee stood and strode purposefully toward the passageway in the back of the chamber. Ahvielle looked at me strangely as she stood up as well. "I notice the basilisk did not attack you at all," she said, as if blaming me in some small way for what happened.
I shrugged. "I don't think it saw me as much of a threat, to be honest."
The elfwoman considered, and nodded curtly, apparently agreeing with the basilisk's opinion of me. Then she joined the lady paladin and let me take the rear as we ventured onward through another set of winding passages, leaving the statues and the corpse behind to mark our passing.
The next chamber we entered was the last chamber in the caves, as far as we could tell. The roof strectched far above us, dome-shaped, like an inverted bowl. Again, the floor was tiled and the room was well-lit-- magickally, as the unfortunate priestess would have told us. Stalagtites and rockformations ran along the walls of this great cavern. Lady Renee and Ahvielle became instantly alert; the former's dark eyes flashed as she looked about the room for signs of the magus, the latter held her spear in a defensive stance, listening and watching.
"I do not like this," the elfwoman said, her lavender eyes narrowing. "Something is wrong."
I drew my short sword silently, and made a cursory glance around the cavern. Truth to tell, after seeing what had happened in the last cavern, I was more than half-afraid to look anymore than that. Something sounded just on the edge of my hearing. I couldn't quite make it out.
Ahvielle heard it too. She looked upward. "I hear wings fluttering," she said simply, pointing the spearpoint upward.
"Wings fluttering?" I asked, knowing as I said so that she was right.
"Bats," Lady Renee said, looking upward as well. Sure enough, two shadowed shapes were quickly descending from above, making a beeline toward us.
Bats? I wondered. Surely not. The shape was all wrong, more like a fowl. Bats' bodies weren't so big, were they, and surely they didn't have long, snakelike tails? Again, tales of strange mythical creatures found their way to the forefront of my mind: another creature only fools would fight, with the forequarters of a cock and the hind of a serpent. I had heard of one such creature in my travels.
"No," Ahvielle said, horror dawning in he voice, as she also understood the danger. "Not bats! Get down!"
I heard her and was already in motion, thought and action becoming one. I sprawled to the ground, hit hard and rolled, losing the grip on my sword and watching numbly as it danced along the tiled floor, out of reach. To my side, I saw the elfwoman dive for the floor as well. Whether Lady Renee did not hear, or could not force herself to move quickly enough, I could never tell. The appearance of the cockatrice had probably taken her by surprise.
Lady Renee, of all of us, was best suited to take on such a creature, for it was said that the touch of a cockatrice's beak on bare flesh would turn a man to stone. Lady Renee wore a steel breastplate, greaves, armguards and leggings, and was thus far better protected than me in my paltry leathers or Ahvielle in her barely-there halter and loincloth. However, even with such armor, she was not completely covered. And since the cockatrice had taken her by such surprise, she posed a perfect target.
The first one descended upon her, flapping its wings in her face and further confusing her as the second dove for her neck. Her unprotected neck.
Lady Renee slapped at her neck as the second cockatrice fell away to the ground and pecked at her feet. She snarled a curse and her eyes flashed dangerously, and at the time, I thought the creature missed her altogether. But then the curl of her lips died away, and her mouth opened and shut with no words coming forth. Her eyes lost their anger, then their shine as life drained away from them. Her hands curled as if she could see blood on them, and as I watched, they slowly locked into place and drained of all color. Her long, dark hair slowly took on the tone of pale marble, and soon, all her skin had joined it. Again, her armor and clothing did not change a whit, merely her body. In less time than it takes to speak about it, she had become a statue as truly as Gwyndolyn and Morraine.
Ahvielle screamed a flurry of elven epithets at the creatures and rushed to her companion's side. The first one pecked out at her, as well, but the elfwoman was nimble, and easily avoided the blow as she tried vainly to skewer the cockatrice. The second cockatrice was more than content to let her have at the first one while it rushed me.
Shakilly, I pointed my short sword at it, knowing that I was in serious trouble. I was not a warrior, as the other women were. I could hold my own with the sword, but in a fight against these creatures, I knew I was doomed to fail. I poked once at the one attacking me, and as my blow missed by nearly a foot, I saw Gwyndolyn's, Morraine's and Lady Renee's fate become my own in my mind's eye.
The creature never attacked. Instead, it stared at the blue-green medallion nestled on my chest, and cocked its head as though it was forgetting something. The it turned and fluttered along the ground to join its companion in dispatching Ahvielle.
The elfwoman heard it and turned to fend off this new attack, but as she did so, she saw me standing there and her lavender eyes became hot with anger. "Traitor!" She yelled, her musical voice again discordant to my ears. "I will kill you for this base betrayal!"
I have no doubt she would have, too, except for the first cockatrice, whose beak pricked her bare skin near her ankle.
Ahvielle gasped and lunged once more at the cockatrice, but already she was slowing and the creature easily avoided her spear's point. I watched the elfmaiden, entranced, as the onset of the cockatrice's petrifying touch caressed first her feet, then ankles, leaving them unmoving and slowly paling. Her legs locked into place as alabaster crept up her shapely calves and thighs, seeming to stop momentarily as it found its way beneath her loincloth, then moved slowly further up, to her bare stomach. Her arms moved once, weakly, before they too settled in their eternal position and lost all color, tan becoming peach becoming ivory and then pure white. The stoniness crept over her breast, and with her last gasp, the elf woman screamed.
"No!" She cried, a scream that was cut off as the stone found its way up her slender neck and covered her mouth and face, almost liquid-like. Her lips paled and became set forever in a silent entreaty. Her eyes became frozen, glazed, then marble as the exotic lavender of her eyes melted into the background of alabaster. The effect quickly stole the honey color from her hair, and made its way up, catching at last the sloped, pointed tips of her elven ears. And it was over. Ahvielle stood there, motionless, a perfect likeness of herself set forever into stone, forever entreating, forever wide-eyed and unmoving. A tableau of perfect horror and beauty, forever caught in an alabaster medium.
Were I an artist, I might have thought such a sculpture more perfect than any elven or dwarven artisan could ever hope to aspire to, but I shall be truthful: I was too busy thinking about how I would soon end up like that. To my surprise, the cockatrice showed no more interest in me than if they had already trapped me in stone as they had Lady Renee and Ahvielle. Curiously, I stepped forward. It was then that he spoke.
"And thus it ends for the Order of the White Star. Very good, I do say. Fril, Temenier, you may leave us." To my surprise, the two cockatrice seemed to bow as they scuttled past me and back into the passageway from which I had come. I turned to the stalagtites, where the voice had come from. A man in black robes stepped forth from behind, as if spawned by the shadows themselves, and pulled a dagger from the loop of his rope belt. Eldrith. He walked calmly to the statue of Ahvielle, his eyes appraising as he touched the cold stone of her arm.
"Not even an artist could have sculpted its like, wouldn't you say?" He ran a finger over the elfmaiden's cheek, grinning.
"Such a thing had crossed my mind," I said softly as he slit the elfwoman's halter and loincloth, letting the discarded pieces of buckskin trail down her alabaster body and flutter to the floor. Nude, even in her petrified state, she was more beautiful than any sight I had ever seen. I found myself longing to touch her small alabaster breasts, rub a thumb over the marble nipples. I even, in my mind's eye, envisioned myself tracing a line over the Ahvielle's stone nether area, which I could not help but notice was wonderfully bare and bore no hair-- elves have no body hair to speak of. Flushing at such thoughts, I turned away as he cast a spell of levitation to better move the statue of the unfortunate elfmaiden.
I could not help but speak up, though. "Why this way, though? If you wanted them dead, why not simply make your way into town and use your magicks to destroy them?"
He looked at me, and one eyebrow raised a half an inch. "Merely kill them? Surely you see the artistry in this. Let me put it plainly, my friend. There are nobles in Finlay and Karaborol that would pay their weight in gold for one of the great sculptor Eldrith's marble nudes. The elfmaiden alone will draw me enough for a large castle. And in her own way, she will have immortality."
"Of course, speaking of drawing gold. . ." He pulled a pouch from his belt and tossed it to me. I caught it effortlessly, despite the fact it was heavy with coins. "As I promised, the rest of your payment in full. There is a little extra there, for doing such a convincing job."
I hefted the pouch and a slow smile spread to my face. "My thanks."
"Very good, my friend. I may need your services again in the future. Will that be agreeable?"
My grin grew wider as the thought of another thousand gold pieces danced in my mind. I bowed low to him, like a proper servant. "Of course, m'lord Eldrith. I am always in m'lord's service, should he call."
After all, I am a traveller. And such travels must be paid for some way.