Quest of the Keys, a new fantasy fiction book by author and leadership coach Scotty Sanders, which tells an intriguing and adventurous story while imparting personal development and success principles for young adults.
"Quest" tells of the journey of Decklen, a young man who left home in disgrace only to narrowly escape slavery and death in the Minca Silver Mines. Sworn to return for those he left behind and joined by an unlikely sojourner, he sets out for the majestic realm of Leonesse. Before striking out on his new journey, Decklen receives assistance from the sage Octavius. But rather than swords and strategy, Decklen is presented a locked golden cylinder containing an ancient scroll. Tasked with opening the scroll, Decklen and his companion find themselves on an unexpected path of danger and discovery, in search of hidden keys that unlock the true secrets to success…and determine the fate of an entire kingdom.
“This is all your fault,” the girl wailed again, tripping over her tired feet as he dragged her forward through the brambles. Even with the full moon, the massive branches spreading overhead blocked most of the light, and they were crashing through the underbrush more than picking their way through it. No time for stealth now. He looped an arm around the child, pulling her upright, but for a moment she was like dead weight on his arm before she forced herself to keep running. She somehow had enough breath to keep accusing him, though, striking a pretty steady rhythm with their footfalls: “Your—fault—your—fault—”
He grabbed the girl by the shoulders and dragged her down into the leaves behind a fallen log, a behemoth downed ages ago by one of the region’s legendary storms, now overgrown with velvety moss and forming a low barricade. “Your fault,” she panted out one more time.
Decklen pushed her head down out of sight, that massive explosion of tangled red hair still visible until he nearly flattened her to the ground. He ducked behind the tree with her, breathing hard and peering through a crack in the ancient wood back up the path they had forged, patches of silver moonlight rippling among shadows that moved like a thing alive. Is it possible we lost them?
Camberly struggled to sit up, to push him out of the way so she could see, but he did not budge. There was something moving in the moonlight at the far edge of his vision, some dark, stalking shape close to the ground. He knew there was more in these woods to fear than just the guards pursuing them. When the girl opened her mouth again—it never seemed to stay closed more than ten seconds, not even when sleeping—Decklen slid his hand over it to muffle her. She stuck her tongue out, and he grimaced and wiped his palm on her hair, where a splintered twig and several leaves were caught.
“All I’m saying,” she hissed, big hazel eyes narrowed to slits, “is that if we hadn’t stopped to rest we would have lost them for good.”
He half-turned to look at her shivering in the mud beside him, filthy with dust from the mines and dirt from the road, her ratty shoes nearly worn away, and her sweat-stained miner’s outfit of grey pants and work shirt torn in a dozen places from the brambles. She looked cold, malnourished, and exhausted, and his heart ached in a familiar way. “Cam,” he said softly. “You were ready to collapse.”
“Would have been fine,” she replied, pulling the twig out of her hair, “if you had kept on carrying me.”
“Then I would have collapsed.” He peered through the crack again, and the dark shape was gone. He wasn’t sure if this was a good thing or not.
“And that would be my problem how?” She raised her eyebrows, looking innocent, and he took her hand in his and pulled her back to her feet.
“Come on.” He squeezed her hand and started forward again, breaking into a jog and listening for any sounds coming out of the darkness. “It’s a long way back to Leonesse.”
The first time he met Camberly, he had been in the mines for three months and still had hopes of earning his freedom. In this third month, they had moved him farther into the mountain, down a shaft and through a corridor, to a new section previously unseen—a place where sunlight never penetrated, where the workers lived from day to day working in the pitch black or by the flickering light of lamp or candle. They slept here, too; unlike the previous levels, they were too deep in the mines to easily return to the surface, so there was no going back to the outside world at the end of the day, no gasping lungfuls of air at the close of an eighteen-hour shift. Here, the hours ran together and the days and nights were indistinguishable. It was a world of slick, curving tunnels, like the bowels of some enormous, ancient beast, and dark corridors filled with the sound of hammers, chisels, pickaxes, and the slow drip of water from rocks far overhead to others far below. On this level, he occasionally heard a strange, ominous rumble from somewhere deep beneath him. The workers lived here. Some died here. Decklen was determined he would not be one of these.
It had started with a wager over in Argyros. He had just spent the last of his coins, astonished at how quickly it had all gone, and before he quite knew what he was doing, he was holding out the only thing of value he had left—a locket that had belonged to his mother, which she had given to him before she died. Before he could take it back, it was on the table, the dice shaken, the cards turned, and it was gone. His panic was clear to all.
“Tell you what,” said the man with the winning hand, a sandy-haired, sharp-faced man with a silver-topped sword cane that he tapped up and down as he spoke, “if you come work for my master, Talmon, you can keep the locket. He offers honest work and fair pay, and he needs good men. We provide clothes, meals, and shelter. You might even strike it rich.” He spread into a smile and clapped Decklen on the back. The man was compact, not tall, but Decklen felt his wiry strength in that brief contact, like a steel trap held just in check. “The name’s Hadrien. Give me three weeks of labor and we’ll call it even. After that, we’ll pay you handsomely for your work.”
Like many others, Decklen had heard stories of others getting rich in the mines. There were rumors, of course, of things taking place deep in the mountains—dark things—but they were in the same category as the giant wolves of the Great North Wood or the fabled mushrooms of immortality. No one took them seriously. Decklen had burned up his inheritance money, which he demanded from his father soon after his mother’s death and just before he left for Argyros, and he could not bear to return home to Leonesse empty-handed. He showed up for his first day at the Minca Silver Mines, and when he did not have any tools, the same hatchet-faced gentleman—who was apparently an overseer here—said he would sell them to Decklen for an additional three weeks of labor. Six weeks later, thinner but stronger, his lungs thick with dust and his eyes grown accustomed to darkness, Decklen sought out the man to negotiate his pay.
“Pay?” Hadrien said, looking offended, as if Decklen had just suggested something inappropriate. “My boy, you owe us. The last six weeks Talmon has clothed you, fed you, and given you a cot to sleep on. These things aren’t free.”
Decklen felt as if he were deflating, all the air leaving his body. “You said you provided—”
The man’s lips curled back as he rounded on Decklen. “Yes, and the butcher provides meat, but he does not give it away. You assume too much. We’ve already spent far more on you than you’re worth.”
So Decklen began to eat less and work longer hours. As the days passed, he worked deeper and deeper into the mines, emerging fewer times to the daylight, and the “advisory” role of the foremen became increasingly hands on—first tongue lashings, then whips falling on those not working quickly enough, both young and old. And the guards talked, endlessly, of the debt the workers owed, of the impossibility of any other life, of the superiority of the owner of these mines and those who served him, and the pitiful weakness of other leaders in the realm. Decklen began to hear their words in his sleep until he almost believed them. He hoped to quickly pay back what he owed, but then the handle on his pickaxe sheared off on a shelf of granite, which set him back another three weeks; then another worker slipped and dropped a slab of stone on his leg, requiring bandages and a healing salve—another two weeks. Then they raised the price of meals—a half-day per plate of mealy bread and cold gruel—and though it was true he had the option to find food outside the mine, the time he lost on the hours-long trek to the surface and back rendered it unfeasible. By the time he met Camberly, he owed the mines a full seven months, and his optimism, though still present, had begun to fade.
It was darker in this newest level, and colder. He could feel the weight of the mountain above pressing down on him, all that stone, all the darkness like a pressure on his eyelids even when they closed. The foremen gave up all pretense of civility here, openly thrashing or beating any workers who slowed or slipped with the metal-tipped whips and leather truncheons they carried loosely at hand.
“Atta boy,” said Hadrien to one of the roaming guards, who had caught a worker sitting down to rest and had thrown the man into a wall. Hadrien seemed to be following Decklen wherever he was assigned. He rarely grew violent with the workers himself, but he would tolerate no slack for anyone, even the children—and there were more than a few of these. “No room here for the weak. The strong will rise, the strong will fight. Leave your weakness behind, all of you—leave who you were before. Become one of us. Become strong.”
Decklen was running calculations in his head of how many days he could shave off his remaining time if he worked an extra hour a day—he already worked nineteen—when a small, steel hammer fell into his field of vision, ricocheted off a rock outcropping, and struck Hadrien directly in the back of the head. The overseer staggered forward to his knees, one hand clutching at the back of his head as the other guards stopped to watch. Looking up, Decklen saw a raggedy, red-headed girl suspended on a platform held by ropes, where she could chip away at a vein of silver high in the air. Her hands were open and empty and her eyes were huge with fear.
Hadrien spun around, and on impulse, Decklen stooped and picked up the hammer, hefted it, and tossed it in the air once to catch it again by the handle. All eyes were on him. “Just wanted to get your attention,” he finally said. “Show you we’re not all weak.”
Hadrien’s eyes cut to the side, to the guards who were watching him. Decklen did not even see the first blow coming. One of the guards struck him from behind, slamming a club into his temple, and he was mercifully unconscious for the beating that followed. He felt it every day after that for the next month, though, when he walked or even breathed, which slowed him down enough that he soon owed the mines a full year. From that day on, he began to lose confidence. And from that day on, Camberly never left his side.