Chapter 12 of my newest book
Feedback is appreciated
The redheaded swordswoman-turned-tavern owner found herself once again sitting on her bed, facing the white-blond elf and listening to him tell her why he had been afraid to tell her of his past as an assassin. Something seemed different than how she remembered it, though, but she could not place it. Was it something about her room? Did it seem darker, maybe? She shrugged it off and let the dream unfold, listening again to Loren tell her how he had been afraid of losing her. She doubted she would ever admit it to him, but she rather liked that reason.
The events in the dream played out just as she remembered them, until the point where she told Loren he was her best friend and that she wanted no one else but him with her. Once she told him that, Loren looked her deep in the eyes. She found herself getting lost in his dark brown eyes, even forgetting that she was dreaming.
“Althea...” Loren said softly.
What she heard in his voice, coupled with the look she saw in his eyes, left her speechless. She managed to say his name, though, when he startled her by suddenly taking her in his arms. Althea had no idea why but, as she watched Loren's handsome face draw closer to hers, all she could think was, About time!
Then a dark, obscure figure stepped up behind Loren. He suddenly gasped and stiffened, his eyes wide with shock. Althea watched in horror as his hold on her loosened and he fell to the floor at her feet, a bloody wound on his back.
“Loren?” she called out in fright. “Loren!”
Althea dropped down beside him and, crying, cradled his head in her lap. He looked up at her tear-streaked face.
“Althea,” he said weakly, and reached up to brush a tear from her cheek. “I'm sorry. I...I lo...” His hand fell from her cheek as his voice faded away and his eyes closed.
“Loren! No!” Althea cried out and hugged his body tight.
“You should have sent him away,” a voice said from in front of her. A familiar, female voice. Her voice.
Althea looked up from Loren's body. Through her tears, she saw the dark figure
that had killed Loren. As she watched, the darkness hiding the figure faded away, revealing it to be...Althea, holding a bloody dagger in one hand - a familiar, small, silver dagger with a skinny, narrow blade. It was one of Loren's daggers, one he claimed was given only to Heinrich's assassins.
“You should have sent him away,” the second Althea repeated. “Now look. He's dead. And it's your fault. You killed your best friend.”
Althea shook her head. “No. No! I didn't! I would never...”
“Maybe not intentionally. But what's to stop him from giving his life for you? Because you know he would, without a second thought, the moment you're in danger.”
“I know,” Althea said softly with a sad glance at the body she still held tightly in her arms, reluctant to let him go.
“So wouldn't it be better to send him away? That way, he'll be safe, and you can fulfill your destiny.”
“I...I suppose... Wait! Fulfill my destiny?” Why would she try to talk herself into fulfilling a destiny she was trying to avoid? Althea looked up from Loren's still form to the other Althea, and for the first time noticed the all-black eyes. “Aerith!” she spat angrily.
Aerith just smirked.
Althea placed Loren's body gently on the ground and stood up to face the Goddess of Destruction with a frown. “I don't know why you chose me or why you want me to be alone,” she said to her double with defiance coloring her voice, “but I'm not going to send Loren away. He's my friend and partner, and I won't lose him. We're staying together, and we'll do everything we can to stop you from using me to take over the world.”
Aerith laughed. “Do you really think you can stop me, girl?” she asked with smug confidence. “I think not. You can try all you want, but you will be mine soon enough. There is no stopping it. And through you, I will awaken, and the world will be mine.”
Aerith laughed again, and Althea sat up in bed, yelling “No!”
“It's alright, Althea,” Loren said from beside her, placing a supportive hand on her shoulder. “It was just a dream.”
Althea turned to look at him. “Loren?” she said, only slightly surprised to see him standing beside her bed. She threw her arms around him in a fierce hug. “It was more than a dream, Loren,” she told him as silent tears fell from her eyes onto his chest. “It was Aerith. She...she tried to get me to send you away, but I refused. And she said there's nothing we can do to stop her and that she'll take me over soon. I...I'm scared, Loren.”
Loren sat down beside her on the bed and placed a comforting arm around her. “I know you are, Althea,” he said gently. “Anyone would be. But don't worry. I'm not going anywhere. I'll be with you the entire way. And we'll find a way to stop her before she can take you over. I swear it.”
“Thank you,” she said, leaning her head against his shoulder. A few moments later, she fell back asleep.
“You're welcome,” he said softly, and gently kissed the top of her head.
Carefully, so as not to wake her, he settled Althea back down on her bed, then he laid down on the floor to sleep, wanting to be near in case she had another nightmare.
The sky outside the window was just beginning to lighten with the coming of dawn when Althea awoke. She yawned and stretched, ready to start a new day of running her tavern. She swung her legs over the edge of the bed to get up, and almost stepped on Loren's prone form asleep on the floor.
She watched him for a few moments and smiled, thinking how good of a friend he was and how he was always there for her when she need it. Then she recalled the dream from the previous night, and her smile faded as she again felt the pain of helplessly watching him die.
Tears started to form in her eyes at the thought of seeing it happen for real, and she considered sending Loren away after all. But as much as Althea hated the thought of watching him die again, the idea of being separated from him was worse. And she had no desire to again see the pain and sadness in his eyes that she had seen the night before when he had thought she was going to send him away.
“It's a little early for deep thoughts, isn't it?” Loren suddenly asked, startling Althea from her ruminations.
She smiled slightly at the touch of humor she heard in his voice and recalled saying those very words to him just a few days earlier. Now it seemd their roles were reversed.
Loren sat up and stretched, then crossed his legs in tailor fashion. “So, what were you thinking?” he asked.
“Oh, nothing in particular,” Althea replied nonchalantly, trying to get him to change the subject.
“Oh, no,” Loren said, not falling for it, and wagged an index finger at her. “That trick won't work on me, Althea. Don't forget, I'm a master of balking at unwanted questions.”
“I know,” she said, a little discouraged. “I know.”
“So tell me, what's bothering you?”
She sighed and looked the elf in the eye. He saw unshed tears in her green eyes, as well as poorly hidden pain. He wanted to ask her what had caused it so he could try to comfort her, but thought better of it, not wanting to make things any worse for her by having her relive something unpleasant. He was fairly certain her dream had something to do with it, though, and he steeled his resolve to stop Aerith so Althea could stop having nightmares.
“Promise me something, Loren?” Althea asked. “Please?”
“Anything,” he replied, wondering at the urgency he heard in her voice.
“Promise me you won't die on me,” she said as a tear trickled down her cheek.
Surprise flickered briefly across Loren's face. He reached out and gently brushed the tear from her cheek as he gave her a tender smile, then took her hand in his and gave it a comforting squeeze. “I won't die on you. I promise. Now come on. It's time to get up and get dressed.” He stood and helped Althea up from the bed. “We have a tavern to run, and Dani will be here soon.”
“Right,” she said with a smile. “Thanks, Loren.”
He returned her smile then left her room. As he shut the door behind himself, he hoped she was going to wear the green dress again.
Loren was downstairs, opening the wooden shutters on the windows, when Althea entered the dining room. He turned to greet her, and his eyes lit up and he smiled as he saw she wore the green dress. He quickly covered it by asking, “Feeling better now?”
“Yes, thank you,” she replied. “I'm going to go fix some breakfast.”
Althea headed to the kitchen while Loren finished opening the shutters. A few moments later, Tarn came downstairs and took a seat at a table. Loren joined the red-robed priest. Anju, who had been resting by the fireplace, came over and sat down beside the elf. Then a large black bird flew down from the rafters and landed beside the table. There was a brief flash of light, and Raven stood in the bird's place. The black-haired magic-user took a seat at the table.
“Did something happen last night?” Raven asked Loren.
“What do you mean?”
“You just asked Althea if she was feeling better. Did something happen?”
Tarn watched the exchange with interest.
“Just another bad dream,” Loren said. “That's all.”
“Bad dream?” Tarn repeated. “Was it just a dream, or more?”
“Well, she said it was more than a dream, that it was Aerith.”
Tarn frowned. “What happened?”
“I don't know exactly. Althea didn't tell me in detail. She just said that Aerith had tried to get her to send me away, and that she told Althea that we wouldn't be able to stop her and that she would take her over soon. Althea was pretty upset afterwards.”
“I would imagine so. Well, it looks as if we have yet another reason to be leaving Maarkess soon.”
Loren gave Tarn a questioning look. “Another reason?”
Before Tarn could respond, a knock sounded at the door. “Hello?” a voice called. “Good morning! It's me, Dani!”
Loren got up and let the young girl in. Just as he shut the door behind her, the kitchen door opened and Althea came into the dining room with a tray of fruit, cheese, bread, sliced meat, and a pitcher of water. As she made her way to the table, Dani grabbed mugs from the bar and joined the group at the table.
Loren resumed his seat at the table and everyone helped themselves to some food. Anju whined beside the elf and Loren gave him a few slices of meat, ignoring the displeased glance Althea gave him for feeding the white wolf at the table.
“So, what were you saying about another reason for us to leave soon, Tarn?” Loren asked as the group ate.
Althea paused in the middle of taking a bite and looked at the priest. “What's he talking about, Tarn?”
“Well, Loren told me about your dream last night. And I was about to tell him this when Dani arrived and you came in, Althea. You see, after the two of you went upstairs, Wren told me and Raven that there was someone traveling with the soldiers. Someone in dark green priest robes. That person is one of Aerith's priests.”
Althea and Loren stared at him, food forgotten, as they realized the implications of what he told them.
“They are, at most, a couple of days from here,” Tarn continued. “Wren is going to do what she can to slow them down and is hurrying here with the book. But we cannot afford to stay here much longer.”
Dani watched the conversation, totally confused as to what they were talking about. All she could understand was that her employers would probably be leaving soon for some reason, and she wondered what that meant for her. She recalled her father had mentioned something about them having to leave to take care of some business, and about her watching the tavern for them while they were gone, but she had thought it would be only for a few days or so. This sounded a lot more serious than just going to hunt some monsters for someone, and she wondered just how long they would be gone – and if they would even come back. She continued eating as the discussion around her went on.
Althea sighed. “I knew this would happen,” she said. “I just hoped it wouldn't be so soon. A few more days here would have been nice. So, how soon until Wren gets here, do you think?”
“Most likely, sometime today,” Raven replied.
Althea nodded. “Alright. For now, we'll wait for her and the book, and plan on leaving first thing in the morning. If she doesn't get here today, she'll just have to catch us up. We can't afford to keep waiting. In the meantime, there's a tavern to run, so let's finish eating and get to work.”
“One question first, Althea,” said Tarn. “If Wren doesn't get here with the book before morning, where would you have us go? We have no idea where to start looking yet.”
“Does it matter, as long as we're away from here before Kinski's group arrives? We can always figure out where to go later.”
“Uh, I have a suggestion,” Loren interjected hesitantly.
Althea raised an eyebrow in surprise. “You're not hiding something from me again, are you?” she asked with a small frown.
“I'm not. Not really. I've just been hesitant to mention it before now because I'm not sure how accurate it is and I wanted to see what was in the book first – and because you didn't know about my past. But now you do know, so I feel a little more comfortable bringing this up.”
“What is it?” prompted Raven.
“Well, a couple of nights ago, I dreamed about the time that General Kinski first brought me before Heinrich, when I was a boy. Heinrich's wife, Queen Gertrude, was there as well. Now, I'm not sure if this part of the dream is an accurate memory – it was a long time ago and I only saw her that one time, and briefly – or if it's just something my mind added to the dream, but Queen Gertrude wore a crown that looked like what Tarn had described to us earlier that night. However, I do seem to recall feeling a vague sense of familiarity when I heard the description.”
The others stared at Loren, speechless.
Althea found her voice first. “And you waited until now to mention this!?”
“So you're saying the Crown of Ascension is with King Heinrich!?” Tarn asked right after her, his eyes still wide in shock.
“Like I said, I don't know how accurate the dream was,” Loren said in response to both of them. “But yes, Tarn, that's what I'm saying is possible.”
Tarn frowned. “If it's true , then Aerith might already have the crown. After all, one of her priests is traveling with some of Heinrich's soldiers.”
“Then I hope it's not true ,” Loren said with a frown of his own.
“I hope so as well,”Althea said, “but I have a feeling it just might be. So I think we should plan to head for Rahtzberg first and search for any signs of the crown there - at least, until we see what the book Wren is bringing has to say.”
The others agreed and, with a decision on their next step finally reached, the group finished eating then set about getting the tavern ready for the day's business.
After the others had gotten up, Dani remained seated at the table, overwhelmed and confused by what she had heard. But at a sharp call from Althea, the young girl jumped from her seat and hurried to the kitchen. Anju followed her, hoping to get some scraps while she was cooking.
Unnoticed by anyone, Dani's empty chair seemingly moved on its own, straightening itself and pushing itself back up to the table.
* * *
Not long after dawn broke, Kinski and his group of soldiers ate a quick breakfast then broke camp. Once they were back on the road, he led them southward as quickly as the narrow dirt road through the forest would allow their horses to go. He watched the road ahead of him with an eager look in his dark eyes, his hand occasionally reaching up to rub the scar on his left cheek.
The green-robed priest followed behind Kinski, his black-gloved hands holding tightly to the reins of his horse. He still wore the cowl of his robe up, covering his head and face. As they rode, he would from time to time watch the sky and treetops, causing the soldiers behind him to wonder what he doing - and to also start looking themselves, though they had no idea what for.
After a couple of hours of riding, the group rounded a bend in the road and came to a sudden stop. A pack of six wolves stood in the road ahead of them, less than a hundred yards away.
The wolves bared their fangs and growled as they slowly advanced towards the soldiers. The horses's eyes widened in fear, and the animals whinnied and bucked as they attempted to flee the wolves. Kinski and his soldiers fought to gain control of their spooked mounts.
The priest and Kinski regained control of their horses and turned to check on the other men. They saw a few soldiers get thrown and trampled as their horses fled into the woods or back down the road, while other soldiers managed to stay on their mounts and were carried off by the frightened animals. The rest managed to remain seated and regain control of their horses.
In all, about half of Kinski's entourage was either down or had been carried off.
Kinski frowned as he took in the chaotic scene. He opened his mouth to issue orders to his remaining men as they formed up in line before the general, but before he could utter a word, one of the soldiers called out “Sir!” and pointed behind Kinski.
Bemused by the surprise in his subordinate's voice, Kinski turned and looked. The wolves were gone. In their place was a huge wall of branches, vines, and bramble stretching across the road.
Kinski's eyebrows raised in surprise. “What in the world?” he said as he stepped up the wall to inspect it.
The wall seemed very thick and tightly interwoven. They could probably hack their way through, he thought, but it would take a good while. Perhaps they could go around the wall instead by cutting through the forest?
Just as he was about to look around to gauge the denseness of the woods beside the road and around the wall, another soldier called out to him. Kinski turned around and found another wall of branches and vines had suddenly sprung up behind them.
“What?!” he cried out.
He quickly looked to the sides of the road and found the gaps in the trees blocked off similarly as well.
They were effectively boxed in.
“What's going on?” Kinski wondered angrily.
He turned to the green-robed priest to ask for answers and advice, but suddenly felt himself growing very tired. He glanced around at his soldiers and saw them falling asleep on their horses. A couple actually fell off to the ground, but did not awaken. Then Kinski's eyes closed and he knew no more.
The green-robed priest cast his gaze upward to the sky, muttered “Well played,” then rested his head against his horse's neck and passed out.
* * *
The door to the secret room in the library of the temple of Samaryu opened and High Priest Usiah entered. He lit the lamp hanging on the wall by the door, then shut the door.
The bald man in purple priest robes stepped up to a set of wooden shelves across from the door. From one of the shelves he removed a small glass sphere. He had sent Lenaeus off the previous morning to go after Tarn, and now Usiah wished to see what Tarn had been doing since he had last checked.
Usiah muttered a couple of arcane words as he gazed into the globe in his hand, but nothing happened. Brows furrowed in consternation, he tried again, but no image appeared in the globe and no sound issued forth.
An angry scowl crossed Usiah's face as he realized Tarn must have somehow figured out he had been spying on him and had managed to break the enchantment on the dagger. He tossed the now useless globe on the floor, where it shattered at his feet. Then another realization struck Usiah – if Tarn knows he was being spied on, he may eventually remember about the book, and there's no way to watch him now.
Usiah turned to a nearby set of shelves full of books. He reached out to one of the shelves for the large, leather-bound book with gilt lettering and edging that he had hidden there so he could hide it elsewhere before Tarn might come looking for it.
When he saw in empty space between two books where the tome he sought should have been, Usiah cried out and collapsed to his knees.
“It can't be!” he said disbelievingly. “It can't! How did he get it? When did he take it?” He cast his eyes upward. “Are you so determined to ruin the priesthood, Tarn?!”
* * *
Wren stood in the street, the late afternoon crowd bustling around here as they people hurried to finish up the day's business. A cool autumn breeze carried the smell of the nearby river to her nose and blew her bangs into her face. She brushed her brown hair out of her eyes and continued to stare at the rundown tavern in front of her.
“This is the place?” she asked uncertainly of the young, blond boy about ten years of age who stood next to her.
The boy nodded. “This is it.”
“What a dump.”
“It'll look better once it's fixed up.”
“I suppose. Well, thank you for showing me here, Vaan.” Wren reached into the bag on her belt and brought out five copper coins, which she held out to the boy. “Here's your payment, as promised.”
The boy grinned, grabbed the coins, thanked Wren, and ran off down the street. Wren chuckled, then turned her attention back to the tavern when she heard the door open.
Three men in well-worn linen shirts and pants stepped out of the tavern and down the steps to the street, where they then headed towards the riverfront. Before the door closed behind them, Wren caught a glimpse of the inside of the pub and saw it was busy. She saw full tables near the door, and almost every stool at the bar was occupied. Loren and Tarn were working the bar. She also caught a quick glimpse of Raven and Althea leaving the dining room through a door near the bar with trays full of dishes.
Wren considered waiting, since her friends were so busy, but she knew how eager they were to see the book, so she headed up the steps and entered the tavern.
Tarn and Loren looked over when they heard the door open.
“Wren!” Tarn cried out in relief when he saw the young mage step inside. He ran out from behind the bar, hurried over to her, and gave her a quick hug. “Thank Samaryu you made it,” he said as he let go of her. Then he got a good look at her and noticed her haggard appearance. He frowned slightly. “Are you all right? You look like you're about to fall asleep standing.”
“I'm fine, Tarn. Just a little exhausted. I flew straight here after leaving a little present for Kinski last night.”
“You didn't take a rest at all?”
Wren shook her head. “I wanted to bring you the book as quickly as possible.”
Tarn frowned at her. “That was stupid, Wren. The book is important, yes, but your health is more important. Come with me. I'll get you something to eat, then you're going to rest for bit. We can deal with the book later.”
There were a couple of empty tables, and while Tarn led Wren to one in a corner near the fireplace, Loren went through the door by the bar into the kitchen, where Raven and Althea were getting orders ready to take out to the dining room. He told them Wren had arrived and that she needed some food. They thanked the elf for telling them and he returned to the bar. Dani fixed a bowl of onion soup and a plate of sliced meat and cheese for Wren and gave it to Raven to take to her student.
As Althea and Raven headed back to the dining room, they met Tarn on his way to the kitchen to ask for food. Raven gave him the soup and plate Dani had fixed and told him she and Althea would meet them at their table once they had taken care of their customers.
With a nod of thanks, Tarn took the food and returned to Wren. As soon as he set the food down in front of her, she thanked him and immediately started eating. Tarn sat across from her and let her eat for a few moments before he began questioning her.
“So, what sort of present did you leave for Kinski, Wren?”
She smiled around a bite of cheese and swallowed. Then she told him about the fake wolves used to scare the horses, the wall of branches and vines, and the sleeping spell.
Tarn smiled. “Impressive. You've really come a long way in your studies with Raven.”
“Thanks. Too bad the spells won't hold them for long. The sleeping spell wears off after a few hours. They'll still have to find a way out of the box, though. The spell forming the box will eventually wear off, as well, but I think they'll be wanting free of it long before then. They can probably hack their way out, but that will take them a while.”
“Still, it's better than nothing.”
Loren, Althea, and Raven joined them at the table then.
“You look horrible, Wren,” Rave said. “Don't you know a lady needs her beauty sleep?”
“Thanks, Raven. Next time there's a book needing to be stolen and delivered in a hurry, you can do it.”
“Fair enough. It's good to see you, though.”
“Yes, it is good to finally meet you in person, Wren,” said Althea.
Loren nodded agreement. “Yes, good to meet you, Wren.”
“Likewise,” Wren replied. A yawn escaped the young mage then. “I think I'd better go get some sleep.”
“You can use my room,” Tarn offered.
“No, she can use my room,” countered Loren. “Anju and I will stay with Althea. I want to be near her in case she has any more nightmares about Aerith.” Althea gave him a small smile of thanks and the others nodded acceptance. “It's the first door on the right,” he told the young girl.
“Alright,” Wren said. “Thank you, Loren.”
Wren stood up. Before she left, she reached into the bag at her belt and brought out a small, leather-bound book the size of her palm. She whispered an arcane word, and the book instantly grew to the size of a normal book. She held it out to Tarn. “Here's the book you asked me to retrieve. I'll leave it with you so you can look it over while I'm sleeping. Just make sure you tell me later what you find out.”
With a nod of agreement, Tarn accepted the book. As Wren left the table and headed upstairs, Tarn opened the book and studied it, carefully turning the pages of the old tome.
After a few minutes he sighed and a frown of disappoinment crossed his face. “I can't read it,” he said. “I don't recognize the language. All I can make out is the name 'Aerith' a few times.” He set the open book down on the table and Loren, curious, stood up and leaned over to look. “Raven,” Tarn said, turning to the magic-user, “do you happen to know - ”
“I recognize it,” Loren said, cutting off Tarn's question. His statement, as well as the surprise in his voice, drew everyone's attention.
“You recognize it?” Althea repeated, echoing his surprise.
Loren nodded and slowly sat back down in his chair. “It's elvish,” he said unhappily.
The others stared at him, dumbstruck.