chapter 4 of my newest in-the-works fantasy novel
The sun had just crested its zenith and begun its downward journey across the bright blue summer sky towards the western horizon when Althea and Loren crossed out of the forest and saw the walls of the city of Maarkess stretching out across the grassy plain before them, not more than a few miles away. Long queues of people, pack animals, and horse-drawn carts and wagons streamed in and out of the city’s gates. They were far enough away that, to Althea, they appeared to be no more than ants, but Loren’s keen elvin sight allowed him to see them distinctly.
“Look, Loren!” Althea exclaimed happily with a big smile on her face and a bright gleam in her jade green eyes. A gentle breeze blew a lock of her long red hair into her face, and she brushed it aside without a thought. “It’s Maarkess! We finally made it!”
“Yes,” Loren said unenthusiastically. “We’ve arrived at last.”
“You don’t sound all that excited, Loren,” Althea said with an accusatory look at her elvin companion. “Can’t you at least show a little enthusiasm? Just look at Anju. He’s happy to see Maarkess.” She pointed to the white wolf sitting beside the blonde elf. The wolf’s tail whipped back and forth, his tongue lolled out, and he panted happily as he gazed at the distant city with his pale blue eyes. “Are you going to let a simple wolf show you up?”
“He’s probably just thinking about all the street vendors he’ll be able to try to steal food from,” Loren replied.
“Maybe. But at least he’s happy to see Maarkess. How about you? Aren’t you happy?”
“Of course I am, Althea. I’m looking forward to some home-cooked food and a nice warm bed for a change.”
Althea frowned slightly. “Is that all you’re looking forward to, Loren? What about the tavern?”
“The tavern?” The elf turned a stoic gaze on the swordswoman. “Look, Althea, about the tavern. I’m happy that you’re happy. Seeing Maarkess means that you’re close to fulfilling that dream of yours, and I can appreciate your enthusiasm. But let’s be practical here for a minute, can we?”
“Practical? Okay, I’ll bite. What are you getting at?”
“Have you considered the possibility that there might not be a tavern, inn, or whatever for sale here? I’d hate to see you go in there with your hopes up only to have them come crashing down around you.”
Althea sighed. “Oh, is that all? Well, I appreciate your concern, Loren, but it wasn’t necessary. I’ve already thought of that possibility. But you don’t need to worry. I know we’ll find a place here. I don’t know how I know. I just do. It’s a kind of feeling I have, like I’m destined to be here or something. Do you understand?”
Loren nodded. “I think so.”
She smiled. “Good. Well, if you’re through worrying, let’s head into Maarkess and see what we find.”
Loren returned her smile. “Let’s go.”
The trio set off down the road toward Maarkess and, maybe, destiny.
* * *
Maarkess. Situated along the Aarrus River, it is the largest city and biggest commerce center of the Aalmaine Provence. It is not the capital, though. That honor had been bestowed upon the smaller city of Nevaar, south of Maarkess. The Aalmaine Provence is a rarity. It is one of only a few regions in the whole world in which all of its leaders are officials directly elected by the populace. All other regions are ruled by a king or some sort of overlord who fills positions of power through appointment.
Althea attempted to explain this and other details to Loren as they made their way into the city, but her companion was not paying attention. He eyed the roving, noisy crowds with an air of distraction.
“...Laars Niven is the current Governor of the Aalmaine Provence,” Althea was saying, “and Maarik Raand is the Guardian of Maarkess...” She trailed off as she noticed her companion’s distracted manner. She stopped walking and grabbed the elf’s arm, bringing him to a halt. “Are you listening to me?” she asked him tartly.
Shaking off his distraction, Loren looked at Althea and feigned innocence. “Huh? Of course I am, Althea.”
Althea crossed her arms. “Really?” she said, not convinced in the least. “Then who did I just say is Governor of the Aalmaine Provence?”
A blank look crossed the elf’s face. “Uh...”
Althea sighed. “That’s what I thought. I’m really disappointed, Loren. Here I was, trying to explain to you some important information about what could very well be our new home, and you weren’t even paying attention. That was very, very rude of you.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“What had you so distracted, anyway?”
Althea huffed. “‘Nothing’ again, huh? You’re certainly full of ‘nothing’ lately, Loren. Why don’t you try again, because I’m not buying it this time.”
“Fine. How about ‘It was probably nothing’?”
“Better. But I still want to know what ‘it’ is.”
Loren sighed. “All right. It was a funny feeling I had after we crossed through the gates into the city.”
“What sort of feeling?”
“I’m not really sure. It was just a sense that something’s going to happen here. Something big. Something important. But I’ve no idea what, or even if it’s something good or bad.”
Althea nodded. “We’re getting the tavern or whatever. That’s what it is.”
Loren shook his head. “No. It’s something else. Something bigger.” He paused. “But the feeling’s gone now. So it could have just been my imagination. Which is why I said that it was probably nothing. Are you satisfied now?”
“I suppose. Well, let’s go find where Anju’s wandered off to, then find a magistrate or whomever to see about buying a business.”
“Okay. But can we get something to eat along the way? We haven’t had lunch yet and I’m starving.”
“Sure. I’m getting a little hungry myself. But make sure it’s fairly cheap. We’ll need our money later to buy a dream.”
The duo wandered up and down the cobblestone streets of the large, busy city for the better part of an hour. All around them were buildings of varying size, purpose, and material. There were single-story buildings and multi-story buildings. There were homes and businesses, and some that functioned as both. There were buildings made of wood, made of stone, and made of brick, and even some made of combinations of materials. The farther into the city the elf and swordswoman went, the fancier and larger the buildings became.
Occasionally, either Loren or Althea would ask a pedestrian if they had seen a white wolf wandering around. Generally, this question would elicit one of two responses: a trembling finger pointed either up or down a street; or some variation of “Are you crazy?”
They finally found Anju lying across the top step of a big, three-story, well-kept red brick building. Next to the door, a small, shiny brass plaque had been attached to the wall. Engraved fancily into the plaque was the word “Magistrate”.
Anju had his head resting on his front paws and he watched the passing pedestrians uninterestedly. The pedestrians, for their part, eyed him warily and gave him a wide berth. When Anju saw Althea and Loren coming towards him, the white wolf stood up and yipped at them, his tail wagging. Althea imagined the wolf’s yipping as his way of saying, “About time you showed up! I’ve been waiting forever! Hurry up!” Then it occurred to her to wonder just how the animal had known exactly where to go, but shrugged it off when no suitable answer presented itself right away. And besides, Loren did not seem phased by it at all. He just walked up to Anju and started petting him and praising him, telling him over and over “Good boy” and “Well done”. Althea watched for a second, then shook her head slightly, gave a small shrug, and walked up the steps to stand beside Loren and Anju. Althea petted Anju briefly then took a deep breath, grasped the brass doorknob, and pushed open the door.
She stepped across the threshold into a wide foyer, Loren and Anju following her inside. They stood just inside the room and looked around. The first thing that caught their eye was a huge brass and crystal chandelier dangling from the center of the ceiling. The candlelight gleamed off the metal and crystal and illuminated the room with a soft glow. Portraits of various officials hung along the walls, honoring the men for doing their civic duty. Tall potted plants sat in three corners of the room. In the far left corner, a stairway led up to the second and third floors where, Althea presumed, the offices were, since there were no other doors in evidence in the foyer. A few chairs sat against the walls, patiently waiting to be of use. Also waiting to be of use, but not so patiently, was a middle-aged brown-haired man in a dark suit sitting behind a large oak desk. He had his chin propped up in one hand. The fingers of his other hand drummed on the desktop. He also had an extremely bored expression on his mustached face. Althea could not help but smirk at the sight, and Loren chuckled.
At the sudden sound, the man behind the desk started. His chin slipped out of his hand. He caught himself before his head could hit the desk. Gathering up what dignity he had remaining, he sat up straight in his chair, cleared his throat, eyed the newcomers at the door, and waved them in.
“Come in, come in,” he said, his tenor voice reflecting the embarrassment that he felt and tried to hide. “I’m sorry for keeping you waiting. How may I help you?”
Althea, Loren, and Anju walked up to the man at the desk. “We’d like to speak to the magistrate about the possibility of a real estate purchase,” Althea told him.
The man nodded. “Of course, of course,” he said politely. He stood up behind the desk. “Magistrate Hollaas is in his office upstairs. Please, follow me, and I’ll announce you.”
He led them up the staircase to the second floor and down the hall to a closed oaken door near the end of the hall, passing by more potted plants and portraits along the way, as well as an occasional stained-glass window.
The companions’s escort knocked on the door. “Yes, Mikel, what is it?” a gruff bass voice called from behind the door. Althea thought it sounded a little drowsy.
“Sir,” Mikel replied, “I have a couple of people here who wish to discuss a real estate matter with you.”
Loren’s keen hearing picked up the sound of a chair scrapping along the floor and of parchment shuffling behind the door. “Well, don’t just stand there,” the rough voice said, “show them in already.”
Mikel opened the door and ushered his charges inside. The room was spacious yet sparsely furnished. There were a few more portraits on the walls. A wooden filing cabinet stood in a far corner with a large chest sitting next to it. Two plush chairs sat in front of a large oak desk in the center of the room. Scattered sheets of parchment cluttered the top of the desk. A window framed the big blonde, bearded man in a tailored red velvet suit sitting at the desk and running his fingers through his hair in a quick grooming attempt.
“Sir,” Mikel said, “may I present...uh...” He turned to Althea. “I’m sorry. I forgot to get your names.”
Althea gave him a small, forgiving smile and took a step forward. “I’m Althea Morrigan,” she told the magistrate. “And these are my partners, Loren the elf and Anju the wolf. We would like to discuss with you the possibility of purchasing some real estate.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Magistrate Hollaas said with a smile. “Have a seat and we’ll get down to business.” As Althea and her friends approached the chairs before him and sat down, he looked at Mikel. “Thank you, Mikel. You can go now. I’ll call you if I need anything.”
“Yes, sir,” Mikel said. He gave Hollaas a quick bow then turned and left the room, closing the door behind him.
“Now then,” Hollaas said, turning his attention back to his visitors, “what sort of real estate purchase did you have in mind, Miss...Althea, did you say?”
Althea nodded. “That’s right.”
He took a closer look at the redheaded woman and her friends. “You wouldn’t happen to be the Althea?” he said after a moment. “The famous monster hunter?”
“The one and only.”
The magistrate stood up from his chair and gave her a quick bow. “I am honored by your presence,” he said humbly, and Loren rolled his eyes. Paying the elf no mind, Hollaas sat back down. “So, how may I be of service to you?”
“We’ve been considering...semi-retiring, I guess you could say, and would like to purchase an inn or a tavern, or the like, if you have any available.”
“Well, let me check my files, Miss Althea,” Hollaas said. “There may be something, though I’m sorry to say that I can’t recall anything being available at the moment.” He got up and walked over to the filing cabinet. Althea watched him with hopeful eyes while Loren and Anju just looked on expressionlessly.
Hollaas pushed up the sleeves of the jacket of his red velvet suit and pulled open the top drawer of the filing cabinet. He riffled through the sheets of parchment in the drawer for a few minutes as Althea watched expectantly. “Well, Miss Althea,” he said as he closed the drawer and turned back to the companions, “I’m afraid I didn’t find anything available.”
Althea’s hopeful expression turned to deep disappointment and Loren placed a supportive hand on her arm. “There’s nothing?” she asked. “Nothing at all?”
Hollaas shook his head. “I’m sorry.”
“We’re not choosy!” Althea said loudly, half rising out of her chair in her desperation. “We’ll take anything! Anything! Even the dumpiest, most rundown place!”
“Althea,” Loren said sternly, “calm down.”
“Miss Althea,” Hollaas said, his voice full of sympathy, “I’m really very sorry, but...” He trailed off and a gleam lit in his blue eyes. “Wait. I think I just remembered something.”
Althea sat back down and watched eagerly as the magistrate turned back to the filing cabinet and opened the middle drawer. He shuffled through the sheets of parchment for a minute, pulled one out, then shut the drawer and returned to his seat at the desk. Althea watched his every movement with anticipation.
“Here we are, Miss Althea,” Hollaas said, placing the parchment on the desk in front of the redheaded woman. “This is the title deed to a simple little dockside pub that has been for sale for the past ten years. No one has shown any interest in it for quite a while, so I had stuck the deed away, figuring that it would never sell. I had almost completely forgotten about it.”
“It’s perfect!” Althea exclaimed. “We’ll take it!”
“What?!” Loren cried out in shock. “Now hang on, Althea. Don’t go rushing into things. We don’t even know the price yet. Besides, I’d like to know what’s wrong with the place that it hasn’t sold in ten years. Wouldn’t you?”
Althea was silent a moment as she pondered his words. “You have a point, Loren,” she finally said. “Magistrate Hollaas, would you care to explain why the pub hasn’t sold? Is there something wrong with the building?”
“Wrong with the building? Oh, gods, no! It’s nothing like that. The building is structurally sound.”
“Then what’s kept it from selling?” Loren asked.
Hollaas looked directly at the elf for the first time. “Honestly,” he replied, “nothing but silly superstition.”
“How’s that?” Althea asked.
“To put it frankly, the place is rumored to be haunted.”
The color drained from Loren’s face, but Althea perked up. “Haunted? Really? How quaint!”
Loren stared at her with wide-eyed disbelief. “'Quaint'? Althea, are you crazy? The place is haunted! You do know what that means, don’t you?”
Althea looked at the elf and noticed that he had gone pale. She smirked. “What’s the matter, Loren?” she teased. “You’re not afraid of ghosts, are you?”
Loren opened his mouth to retort, but found himself at a loss for words. So he just closed his mouth and glared at her instead.
Althea turned back to Hollaas. “So, what’s the story?” she asked.
“Well, about twenty-five years ago, the original owner of the pub was killed in a bar brawl that got out of hand. About six months later, a new owner took over, and that’s when the rumors began. At first, they were simple stories – things moving by themselves, strange noises, glimpses of a ghostly figure, sudden chills, and the like – and the novelty was good for business. But then, as with all rumors, the stories became more elaborate - and more frightful – and business fell to the point that the owner had to close after only a year. A handful of people have tried to reopen the pub over the years, but the frightful rumors kept customers away and they all had to close in less than a year. For the past ten years, no one has taken an interest in trying to open the place again. But I’m pretty sure there’s nothing to the rumors. And even if it is haunted, I don’t think there’s anything to be scared of. The original owner was a reportedly nice man, and I can’t see his ghost being vengeful and violent.”
Loren and Althea were silent for a few moments as they considered what the magistrate said. Loren spoke first.
“Well, Magistrate Hollaas,” he said as he rose from his chair “thank you for your time, but I’m afraid...”
Althea cut in. “How much?" she asked bluntly.
“Huh?” the elf grunted, turning to look at her. “You still want to go through with this, Althea? After what he just told us?”
She nodded. “I think we’ll be able to turn things around for the place.”
Loren gave her a skeptical look. “Are you serious?”
“Dead,” she said, and Loren grimaced. She gave him a wry smile. “Sorry. Poor word choice.”
Loren stared at her for a minute and tried to think of a way to dissuade her, but came up empty. Althea could be very stubborn when it came to getting what she wanted, and she usually ended up getting it. This time was no exception. Loren sighed and turned back to Hollaas. “How much?” he asked with resignation.
Althea beamed a smile at the elf and Anju wagged his tail happily beside him.
* * *
“I can’t believe you did that, Althea,” Loren said to the swordswoman dejectedly.
The woman, elf, and wolf stood on the boardwalk down by the river docks. They face a weathered stone two-story building with a faded, illegible sign hanging over the door. Dockworkers and sailors passed them in either direction and gave them curious looks as they walked by.
“Did what?” Althea asked, not taking her blissful gaze from the building.
“Used all of our gold, plus one of my silver daggers, to buy this...dump.”
When Althea had found that she did not have enough gold coins saved to buy the pub, she had deftly reached under Loren’s cloak and pulled out one of his two silver daggers from his belt before he even realized what she was doing. He had loudly asked her to give it back, but she had ignored him.
“Oh, that,” she said nonchalantly. “Well, we’re partners in this venture, right? It’s only fair that you pay for part of it.”
“Yeah, right,” he said sarcastically.
She turned her gaze from the building to the elf. “You said you would do whatever you had to in order to help me make my dream come true . Is a silver dagger really all that much to pay for that?”
Loren sighed. “I suppose not. But why does your dream have to include ghosts?”
“Oh, come on, Loren,” she scoffed, “you don’t really believe in ghosts, do you?” Loren opened his mouth to reply, but Althea turned back to the building and continued speaking without waiting for him to answer. “Look at it, Loren. Isn’t it beautiful?”
“Yeah, sure, I guess so. For a rundown dump, I guess it doesn’t look that bad.”
She gave him a sidelong glance. “Well, what did you expect? It’s been unoccupied for ten years. You have to imagine what it’ll look like once we’ve fixed it up.” She reached into a pocket and pulled out a key. “Come on. Let’s go see what it looks like inside.”
Althea and Loren stood just inside the door and looked about them at the spacious room. To their left was the pub’s bar, a long oaken counter. On the wall behind the bar was a long shelf with bottles of liquor, glasses of various sizes, and mugs. At the end of the shelf there was a door that Loren figured must lead to the kitchen area. A dozen barstools stood before the bar. On the wall to their right was a large fireplace full of ashes. Tables and chairs filled most of the space of the room. Empty lanterns were hung along the walls. Across the room from Althea and Loren was a staircase leading, Althea thought, to the sleeping quarters on the second floor. Thick wooden shutters covered two large windows, one on either side of the door. Cobwebs and a thick film of dust covered everything.
Anju wandered off into the room with his nose to the ground, following a spider that had caught his attention and stirring up puffs of dust with every sniff and sneeze.
“What a mess!” Loren complained. “It’ll take forever to clean this place and get it ready for business.”
“Maybe,” said Althea as she ran a finger through the dust on the top of a nearby table, “but it’ll be a nice change of pace, don’t you think? Relaxing, taking our time, cleaning and repairing the place...”A wistful smile crossed her lips. “I haven’t done any real domestic chores since my time at the orphanage. I’m looking forward to this.”
“Orphanage?” Loren asked in surprise, taking his eyes from a large cobweb in a corner that he had been watching - where there was a rather large spider wrapping a moth up in webbing - and focusing his gaze on his partner. “You never told me you had been in an orphanage, Althea.”
“I didn’t? I thought I had. Well, I was. My parents died when I was ten years of age, and since I had no other living relatives to take me, I got thrown into an orphanage. I didn’t stay there long, though – only a couple of years or so. The caretakers were nice enough, but I was never able to make friends with any of the kids. I’m really not sure why. But when I think on it now, it’s almost like they were afraid of me for some reason. What reason, I have no idea. I was a nice little girl and did nothing to cause any fear. Anyway, the loneliness became unbearable and one day – my thirteenth birthday, to be exact – I managed to run away from the orphanage. I haven’t had a home since.”
Her frankness at answering surprised Loren. She must be in a really good mood, he thought. She’s usually not this open about her past. Taking advantage of it, he asked another question. “So how did you end up hunting monsters? I’m pretty sure you didn’t learn that at the orphanage.”
“You’re right. I didn’t. Not long after I ran away from the orphanage, I met a wandering hunter. He was a kind, older man who was nice enough to take me on as his apprentice and teach me everything he knew. But it wasn’t long before I was alone again. After a couple of years of apprenticing with him, he was killed on the job one day while fighting orcs. I continued hunting, to keep my master’s memory alive.”
Althea’s green eyes shimmered with unshed tears in the afternoon sunlight streaming in through the open door. After a moment, a tear finally trickled down her cheek. Loren instinctively reached out to wipe the tear away. “I’m sorry, Althea,” he said softly. “I didn’t mean to drag up painful memories. I...” He trailed off as a chair scraped across the floor behind him, and he jumped and turned around. “What was that?” he asked with a trace of fear in his voice.
“Anju probably bumped a chair while nosing around,” Althea answered as she wiped her eyes. “Come on. Let’s check out the rest of the place and see what supplies we have.”
Althea headed for the door behind the bar. Loren followed her after a moment. “Are you sure it was Anju?” he asked as he stepped through the door after his partner.
“Who do you think it was? The ghost?” she teased.
Loren scowled and did not bother to dignify her taunt with a response.
They did not see the mug that left the shelf, floated through the air, and settled down atop the bar – seemingly by itself.
Althea and Loren were not the least bit surprised to find that dust and cobwebs covered everything in the kitchen area as well. It was a modest-sized room that they were in, with a good-sized table directly in the middle. A couple of stools stood by the table. Lining the wall were cupboards that upon inspection were found to be empty of food, and only a couple contained plates, bowls, and dining utensils. In one corner of the room sat a cast-iron stove with a pile of logs of firewood. Knives and other cooking utensils hung from an iron rack dangling from the ceiling over the table, along with various sizes of pots and pans. There were two other doors besides the one they had come through - one directly opposite the door back to the pub and one on the wall to the right of it. Checking out the doors, they found that the former led outside and the latter led to a large but barren pantry.
“That has to be the most depressing thing I’ve ever seen,” Loren remarked as he followed Althea from the kitchen back to the pub proper.
“What? All the dust and cobwebs?”
“No. I was referring to the total lack of food. I’ve never seen a kitchen so completely devoid of foodstuffs before. It’s unnatural.”
Althea paused and turned to look at the elf. “You’re hungry again, aren’t you? I bet you were hoping to find a little something to snack on, weren’t you?”
Loren gave her a wry smile. “You know me too well, Althea.”
“Just be glad you didn’t find anything. Any food in there would have been ten years old and definitely not good enough to eat.”
“You’re right. I...” He trailed off as his eyes caught sight of something behind his partner. His eyebrows rose in surprise. “Althea, was that there before?” he asked tentatively.
“Huh? Was what where, Loren?”
He pointed over her shoulder. “That mug sitting on top of the bar.”
Althea turned to look. “Oh, that? I... I don’t know, Loren. It may have been. I wasn’t paying all that much attention to minor details earlier when we looked around.”
“Well, I was, and I didn’t see it there.”
“Are you sure?”
Loren nodded. “It wasn’t there before we went into the kitchen.”
“Well, then, if you were that certain, why did you ask me?”
“I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t mistaken.”
“Oh. Well, then, I’m sorry I couldn’t confirm your suspicion. So, Loren, if you’re so sure it wasn’t there before, how did it get there?”
“Well, obviously, the ghost put it there.”
Althea rolled her eyes. “The ghost. Uh-huh. Right. Couldn’t it be just as likely, Loren, that someone saw us come in here, and decided to play a little prank on us while our backs were turned? We did leave the door wide open, after all.”
“I suppose,” he conceded after a moment’s consideration.
“Good. Then let’s lock up and head upstairs to check out the bedrooms and get some rest.”
Loren looked at her as if she were crazy.
“What?” Althea retorted for the look. “You said you were looking forward to sleeping in a nice warm bed for a change.”
“Yes, but I didn’t mean in a haunted house.”
“You got any other ideas? We don’t have the money to stay at an inn, you know.”
Loren sighed. “I know.”
“Okay. Then let’s go.”
Althea gathered their leather bags together and started for the stairs, but Loren did not move from his spot. “Althea...” he began.
She stopped at the foot of the stairs and turned to face to the elf. “Now what?” she snapped. His childish behavior regarding the ghost was beginning to get on her nerves.
“I’m still hungry.”
She tossed a leather bag at him, and he deftly caught it. “Here,” she said flatly. “We still have some rations left. Munch on them. We’ll get some real food tomorrow.”
“How? We’re broke.”
“We’ll pawn your other silver dagger, of course. Now come on. Lock up and let’s head upstairs.”
Scowling, Loren watched her start up the stairs with their other bag. Then he headed towards the front door to lock up. Once the door was locked, he headed back towards the stairs. He had not gone more than a couple of steps in the dark when he felt the room grow chilly and saw movement out of the corner of his left eye. Turning for a better look, he saw the mug on the bar lift into the air, float over to the liquor shelf, and settle down – by itself. Loren just stood there, stupefied. Then, before his very eyes, a man materialized behind the bar. He was in his late forties, had short dark hair, and wore a simple white shirt, brown pants, and an apron stained by various foods and beverages. And Loren could see the wall and liquor bar through him. The man smiled and waved hello to Loren, then vanished.
Loren just stood there a moment, stunned. “A...A...Althea!” he finally managed to stammer out, and ran up the stairs.
Upstairs, Althea had lit a small lantern and had already opened three of the four doors along the short hallway. There were two doors on each side of the hall. She was just about to open the fourth door when Loren called her name and ran up the stairs. “Oh, now what?” she muttered and turned to face the stairs. A moment later Loren reached the landing and stood facing Althea. His slanted chocolate-brown eyes were wide and he was breathing heavily.
“What’s wrong now, Loren?” Althea asked snidely.
“I...I...I saw the ghost, Althea,” he gasped out. “He...He smiled and waved at me.” Then the elf fainted dead away, falling forward, luckily, and landing on his face.
Althea rolled her eyes again. “Oh, for crying out loud,” she muttered. “Anju!” she called, and the white wolf stepped out of the first room on the right of the stairs. “Take your silly master into his room and make sure he gets some rest. He’s hallucinating now.”
Anju took hold of the collar of Loren’s shirt and cloak with his teeth and gently dragged the unconscious elf into the room. Then Althea shut the door, picked up the bag Loren had dropped when he fell, and returned to the door that she’d been about to open - next door to Loren’s room - when she was interrupted. She opened the door and stepped into the room.
Althea’s room looked just like Loren’s room and the room opposite it. They were moderate-sized bedrooms containing a small bed along the left wall, a desk under the room’s single window across from the door, and a bureau and mirror along the right wall. Even here cobwebs and dust covered everything. The fourth room, across the hall from Althea’s room, was the lavatory.
Althea took one look at the bed and smiled. She took off her sword and tossed it and the bags into a corner, shut the door behind her, ran over to the bed, and threw herself onto it. Lying on her back, she heaved a long sigh. This feels so good, she thought, then drifted off to sleep.
* * *
Althea found herself in a forest. A vaguely familiar forest. Birds sang and crickets chirruped around her. She judged from the sunlight that it was late afternoon. Althea could not remember why she was there, or even how she had gotten there. Suddenly, she heard the sounds of battle not far off. She followed the sound of clanging metal and cries of pain and anger to a clearing. There she found a man with graying brown hair valiantly trying to fend off a group of eight orcs with a sword. She recognized the man instantly, and realized why the forest had seemed familiar.
“Master Liam!” she called from the edge of the clearing, where she stood watching the spectacle unfold before her, unable to do anything else.
The obviously one-sided battle continued, with neither the man nor the piggish monsters seeming to have heard her. The man swung his sword at a nearby orc, but he overreached and stumbled. It was the opening the orcs had been waiting for. They swarmed upon him and beat him down. After a few moments, he lay unmoving but still barely alive on the ground between the orcs. A whistle sounded suddenly, and the orcs stepped aside. A figure in a black cloak with the hood up stepped forward from the opposite side of the clearing. The figure walked up to the broken man and raised a sword that Althea instantly recognized as her own. The black figure plunged the sword blade into the man’s chest with a maniacal yet feminine laugh. Then it looked directly at Althea. Releasing its hold on the sword, the figure raised its hands and lowered the hood of the cloak. Althea gasped at the all-to-familiar red hair and face that was revealed. The only difference was the totally black eyes that replaced her jade green ones.
“It is time,” said the other Althea gleefully, with a mad grin on its face. “Time to awaken.”
* * *
“No!” Althea cried out as she sat up suddenly in bed. Night had fallen, and she sat there panting in the dark with sweat trickling down her face.
A knock sounded at her door after a minute. “Althea?” Loren called. “Are you all right? I heard you yelling.”
Althea forced herself to calm down so she could speak. “I’m fine, Loren,” she replied. “Thanks. It was just a bad dream. Nothing to worry about.”
“You sure? It sounded like it was a pretty bad one.”
“I’m sure. I don’t even remember what the dream was now. Go on back to bed. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“All right. Well, good night, Althea.”
“Good night, Loren.”
As Loren returned to his room, Althea sat on the edge of her bed and stared into the darkness. She wondered what the dream meant. Contrary to what she had told Loren, she remembered the dream vividly, and she did not think she would ever forget it. She replayed the dream in her mind and spent a few minutes trying to make sense of it, but with no luck. All she could gather from it was a sense that it had been more than just an ordinary dream. But what it was, what it meant, and who was supposed to awaken, she had no idea.
Althea yawned and, in spite of a strong hesitance about going back to sleep for fear of another nightmare, lay back down on the bed and drifted back off into slumber.
* * *
The fall of evening found the young red priest Tarn setting up camp in another forest clearing. He gathered nearby branches and twigs and fixed a small campfire in the middle of the clearing. Then he took out his small blue bag of chalk and walked a circular perimeter around his camp, sprinkling the white powder onto the ground and chanting as he did so. When the warding circle was completed, the chalk outline glowed softly with a pale blue light. Tarn returned to his camp. He did not notice the large raven that alighted in a nearby tree and watched him.
Tarn removed the bags and saddle from his chestnut stallion and brushed him down. The horse whickered happily, and Tarn fed him an apple from one of the bags.
“We should be there soon, boy,” Tarn told his steed while it munched on the apple. “We’ve been making good time. I would guess one more day, maybe two. I’m still getting that feeling of being followed, too. I just wish I could find out who it is that’s following us.” He sighed. “Well, no matter. Whoever it is won’t be able to get past that warding circle if they try anything.”
The horse finished the apple and Tarn patted him on the neck briefly before taking some rations from his bag and settling down beside the campfire. The horse grazed while Tarn ate and curled up beside the fire to sleep.
Tarn found himself standing in a different forest. It appeared to be late afternoon. Before he could wonder what was going on, he heard the sounds of battle nearby. He shrugged and followed the sounds to a clearing. There he found a swordsman with graying brown hair battling eight piggish humanoid monsters. Then he heard a woman’s voice call out “Master Liam!” Tarn looked around, and saw a pretty redheaded woman in black leather armor standing at the edge of the clearing to his left. Tarn instantly recognized her as his target, the monster hunter Althea.
The combatants continued fighting, not appearing to have heard her. Eventually, the man overreached on a sword swing and stumbled, and the orcs took advantage of it. They overpowered the man and beat him down. Then a whistle sounded and the orcs stepped aside, revealing the man’s broken yet still living body laying on the ground. A hooded figure in a black cloak stepped from the edge of the clearing on Tarn’s right and walked up to the man’s body. With a manic laugh, it plunged a sword into the man’s chest. Then the figure lowered its hood and looked directly at Althea. Shocked, Tarn gaped at the revealed sight of another Althea. Then he noticed that the new Althea had completely black eyes.
As realization dawned on Tarn, a crazed grin crossed the new Althea’s face and she spoke. “It is time,” she said excitedly. “Time to awaken.”
Tarn sat up beside his campfire, wide-awake and breathing heavily. It was past midnight, and his campfire had burned low. “Not good,” he said aloud to himself. “This is not good at all. Aerith is already beginning to make her move. Time is running out.”
Tarn got up and saddled his horse, startling the creature awake in the process. “Sorry, boy,” he said, patting the animal reassuringly, “but we need to go now. We have to get to Maarkess as soon as possible.”
Once the horse was saddled and the bags loaded up, Tarn broke his warding circle by scuffing the chalk. Then he put out his campfire, mounted the horse, and took off.
Not long after Tarn was back on the road, the raven that had watched him from the tree took flight, following after the unsuspecting young priest.