Chapter Ten, Part Six
“Some of us are still hurt, our Wizards have used up most of their spells, and we are out of healing. Even though it is still morning, do any of you feel we should camp in the woods before we enter the keep?” Melias asks.
Shaking his head, Rastorn answers, “For all we know, the keep is deserted. Why should we camp out in the rain, when shelter is so near? We should scout out the keep today, even if we don’t journey inside until tomorrow.”
“I still have my first level spells, but I have to admit I am still in pretty rough shape. I’ll follow whatever you all decide, but don’t expect me to go jumping into any large battles,” Claire says. “I’ll be using my crossbow.”
“Rest seems like the prudent course,” Orjulun agrees. “We could take shifts in watching the keep and our surroundings and enter tomorrow.”
Arturus nods. “I have to agree with Orjulun. We need rest first.”
Within an hour, the group reaches the end of the forest. They estimate it is four hours before noon, although the cloudy sky keeps the sun hidden from view. The sky is black directly above the walled courtyard and a thunderstorm continues to brew there. From the forest, they survey the road leading to the front gate. Near the bottom of the hill, forty feet away, they spot a burn pile. Metal and wood and what looks like mossy flesh can be seen in the now cooled, blackened mass. The fire must have been very hot to have burned in this downpour.
The road to the keep is cobblestone, lined with unlit, ground-level lanterns. The front gate is hanging from one hinge, but ‘Taber’s Keep’ is carved into the stone arch over the gateway. No one can see past the gates from their present angle. The wall is twenty feet high and built from gray stone. The left side is covered with moss, but the right is clean, except for minor cracks. There is no movement on, in, or around the keep.
Percy whispers, “Should we all go or send a scout ahead or do you think it is safe to camp here without first investigating?”
“If we are to get our spells back, we are looking at spending another twenty four hours here in the woods with a thunderstorm over our heads,” Rastorn whispers. “Another day of the world being in peril.” He looked at Percy as he said the last part.
“I’m really in no condition to fight,” Clarie says. “With that Priest jabbering constantly, it isn’t like we can sneak anywhere.”
“Maybe we can’t all go, but I don’t want to waste an entire day just waiting around,” Rastorn counters. “Listen, I picked up an Invisibility spell while we were in ASU. I could cast it on Melias and he could investigate the outside structures of the keep and maybe find a few windows to peak into. He’ll have to stay low or the rain bouncing off him will reveal his presence, but even a less subtle person could sneak around in the noise of this storm.” He looks each person in the eye, to gage their reactions. “It wouldn’t even have to be Melias. Even Percy or I could go. It’s not like the noise of the rain and thunder looks to be letting up soon. I can cast on a couple of us. Look, there is bound to be other structures within the walls in addition to the main house. We may be able to reach one of those and use it for cover and spend the day searching there. It would be better than waiting out here all day and night without accomplishing anything. I, for one, do not wish to be here if that tornado returns.”
Claire shrugs and says, “I’m not going there until someone can prove to me we won’t get ambushed the moment we walk through the gate.”
“Whoever does that will be completely alone. I think in this area we should all stick together. But someone that’s invisible would have a great advantage. I say the person that goes should get the best of what we have to offer. They should carry our best sword, armor, and so on. When they return they can give the items back to their owners,” Arturus suggests.
“You know I will go, if that is what is needed,” Percy responds, “I could strip off my armor and wear Orulun’s bracers to make me less . . . clunky.”
Arturus frowns, then says, “Are you sure you’re up to that? I was thinking of going myself. I think it should be someone that can fight if need be, so that means you, me, or Melias. SeLiem is just a little too loud at the moment.”
“Since he has two invisibility spells, Melias should go, too, so he can disable any traps. Actually, maybe Melias should go alone. I could give him my Gaseous Form Potion, in case he is attacked,” Claire suggests.
“If we decide to follow this plan, perhaps it is best if two people go. There is a better chance of one returning that way,” Rastorn says. “Claire, SeLiem, Orjulun, and Arturus should stay here. They are either injured, Cursed, or low on spell power. That leaves Percy, Melias, or myself.” He holds his arms out, as if the decision is obvious. “We should hand over whatever advantages we can give them and send Percy and Melias. Percy is in full health now and Melias is our best scout.”
“Sounds good. Could I use your bracers, Orjulun?” Percy asks, as he starts stripping off his armor. “What else can anyone give us?” he asks.
Claire asks, “How long should we give them? Should we set up some sort of signal?”
“You aren’t afraid to go, are you, Melias?” Rastorn asks. “We’ll keep a close eye on the keep. If you are in trouble, we’ll come to your aid immediately. Just don’t delve any deeper than you need to while you are there and everything should be fine.”
Percy quits taking his armor off and looks at Arturus. “If you would rather go, I’m fine with that, too. I know you are still injured and SeLiem cast a Heal spell on me. I’ll do whichever you’d like. Just say the word. I have no problem allowing another to receive the glory.”
“I suggest myself over you mainly because I’m lighter and quieter. I’m used to going through the forest being as quiet as possible and now that I’m a lot lighter, I can probably do it even better,” Arturus says with a smile, waving her hands over her new, more petite form.
Orjulun removes his Bracers and hands them to Percy. “See me before you go. I’ll have a spell ready by then to help you out.”
SeLiem continues to contradict everything said.
Melias does his best to ignore SeLiem and carefully examines the approach to the keep. Without looking away, he asks, “Will someone please take that ring off SeLiem’s finger already?” He turns to face the group and says, “I have no problem going in, but I believe it’s trapped . . . magically. Everything we’ve seen here shows this keep sends out terrible waves of violence – the trees, the burning pile of flesh, Orjulun’s dream. I don’t think being invisible will help. It’s too bad SeLiem is all out of whack, we could use that Commune to get some answers before we try anything. It’d be nice to know if there is a back way in . . . some path less guarded.” After glancing at Arturus he says, “I’ll accompany Percy or I’ll go alone or Percy can go with Arturus if he wants, but I’m not going with someone I cannot trust.”
“Now who’s crying and thinking of themselves and not the group? So much for practicing what you preach. It’s alright for you to think of yourself, but not for me? Hypocrite. Then sit down and do nothing. I plan on going,” Arturus says.
“If I went out there, I’d be in as much danger from you as I would be from the keep’s defenses. Call it what you want, but I call it self preservation,” Melias states matter-of-factly.
“Fine. I’ll go alone. Percy is too big and will be easily seen even invisible in the rain.” Then Arturus realizes who she is talking to and turns away from Melias to address everyone else. “I don’t need anyone’s weapons or armor, just give me that potion and I’ll be off.”
Melias scoffs and shakes his head. “Must be nice to be impervious to harm. Size isn’t going to matter. That thing’s on automatic, I’ll bet. Anything that moves is going to be fair game. Watch where you step.” He looks upward and crosses his arms, tapping a finger to his chin as he says, “Gee, it’s too bad you wasted that Potion of Flying and the Superheroism just because you were feeling uppity. I bet those would have come in handy on your little expedition. Feeling dumb yet?”
With a smile, Arturus says, “Around you, I always feel dumb. About the potions . . . yes, especially the flying one. I would really like you to accompany me. Just like the old da- or like last week.”
Melias tips over a rotting log, his back to Arturus and the rest looking for some semblance of shelter for the night. “Not a chance,” he mutters.
“Fine. Your choice. But know this: I did not know SeLiem was Cursed, I thought he was just being a jerk. Yes, it was sudden. Hence why I took such offence. I leveled my bow at his throat and told him I’d shoot. I admit that was stupid. I know I’m a good archer and that’s why I aimed over his shoulder, but as dumb luck would have it I actually missed my target and scored a hit. It’s funny even SeLiem can get over it and you’re the only one who has a grudge. Obviously, there’s something else bothering you.” She tells Percy to stay and that she’d be alright.
“That still doesn’t explain why you are so quick to sell me out as a backstabbing bastard to Rastorn, but nice try.” Melias begins collecting strong, straight sticks to form a lean-to like he saw by the ocean earlier.
“Oh, all I did was tell the truth about something that was a very loosely kept secret. I’m sure Rastorn already figured out you don’t trust him. I’m the one who flat out said that I should’ve pushed him out of the chariot. The funny thing is that if I had done it you sure as the Hells wouldn’t have been upset. It’s not like I told him you were a woman trapped in a man’s body and wished to go frolick amongst the tulips or anything. What I said was true. You know it as do I. There are also other things I have not mentioned and shall not. So if you wish to end our short lived friendship, then so be it. I wash my hands of you and I will think no more of you.”
Rastorn pulls Orjulun aside and whispers, “I was just thinking how much fun it would be if the two quarreling lovers there went scouting together, when it suddenly dawned on me . . . we can’t let Percy go! Imagine what he would do if he saw something he thought was someone in danger or a sworn enemy or . . . really anything!” He stared at the young Mage, then continued, “Orjulun, if there is a trap up there he will find it, set it off, and probably create new traps as he blunders out of the real ones! We can’t risk having the same person who thoughtlessly charged a sinking ship scouting for us!” He calms a little, looks around to be certain nobody overheard, then continues, “I don’t think sending Arturina alone is a good idea, either. She might snap again or just run off or send the enemy at us. Face it – he’s not dealing with being a she very well.” He smiles and whispers, “We’d all like to get these two back being friends again, right? Maybe it’s fun watching them squabble like an old couple right now, but I’m not going to put my ass on the line with these two hating each other. For the good of the group and our mission, we have to get these two on good terms again. The best way to do that is to force the two lovers to have to work together! Think about it – everyone wins! They kiss and make up, the party has the best two people scouting for us, and – best of all – they are out of our hair for an hour, or so! They really are the only two who can do it. I certainly don’t trust Melias to go alone!” He pauses in thought a moment, then says, “And if one of them dies on the mission, well . . . no more arguments! All you have to do is convince Melias to go with Arturus.”
The two Mages whisper back and forth for a full minute, while everyone else, including Arturus, waits.
Percy approaches Arturus and says, “Maybe they have additional magical protections they are figuring out to assist you on your mission. Those two are pretty smart, you know?”
Melias glances toward the keep, as he had been doing the whole time he worked on his lean-to, but, this time, something catches his eye. A green, clawed, and very large hand is moving in the burn pile. He’d seen this before. Someone had burned Trolls on that mound and now the Trolls are starting to reconstitute. It might take hours or days or even weeks for them to fully form, but these monsters aren’t dead. “Get a load of that,” he says, pointing. On that mossy burned carcass pile, there are Trolls piled there, and they’re coming back. Huh, make sure you take some fire with you.” He chuckles. “This whole place is an enigma.” Studying the pile in more detail, Melias notes some of the metal is armor. Big armor. Big enough for a Troll to wear. Heavy armor, too. Most likely plate mail.
When there is a break in their conversation, Arturus approaches Rastorn and Orjulun and says, “I’m ready; cast upon me what you will.”
Orjulun looks a bit confused, and glances over to Percy, but finally shrugs and casts Strength on Arturus. After he’s finished casting, he walks to Melias. “Trolls, you say?”
“A big Troll with big plate mail. Maybe we should give it time to reassemble and see what it does? Maybe we can get an idea of the defenses. Nah, I’m sure Arturus can handle it,” Melias says. “Say, SeLiem, I’ll bet you’ll never want to give up that Ring of Levitation, huh? It looks way too good on you.”
SeLiem shrugs, then nods, then begins babbling on again.
“In all the stories and songs, Taber’s Keep is always made to sound huge. I’m a little disappointed,” Claire says to whoever is in ear shot. When Arturus walks past her, she tosses him the Potion of Gaseous Form, telling him, “This is only for emergencies! I would prefer to get it back.”
Rastorn huffs, but casts Invisibility on Arturus, then sits and pouts. After a few minutes, he moves to a dryer area, pulls a cloak over his head, and reads his spell book.
Percy helps Melias with the blind. Looking around blankly, he says, “Arturus . . . wherever you are . . . you already have the best sword, so I think you are set. Be careful out there!”
Arturus was already nearer the keep, staying low, and being as quiet as she could. She pauses, as an answer to the mysterious mounds and furry creatures leaps to the forefront of his mind. She is convinced those creatures caused the destruction. They are slow moving now, but they are sleeping – perhaps hibernating. It cannot be a coincidence the damage to the forest ended where they decided to rest. So, what if they sleep so soundly because they exert an insane amount of energy when they are awake? They could be an army of little terrors eating and destroying everything in their path until they are exhausted, then they all dig a shallow hole and hibernate. That is not a unique ability. The legendary Tarrasque does the exact same thing. Perhaps the most deadly creature in existence, the Tarrasque wakes every so many years and wrecks havoc in a random direction, then burrows into the ground until the next time it wakes. She shudders. Normal weapons cannot penetrate its armor-like skin and its teeth and claws can slice through a man like a Vorpal Sword. The stories say it cannot be killed without an army of Warriors wielding magical weapons and an Arch-Mage casting a Wish spell. “I hope those miniature versions aren’t that deadly,” she tells herself.
Arturus stays off the road as she heads towards the keep. Once there she starts at the left of the door, planning to make her way completely around the keep. She wants to check the burn pile and the smaller buildings first, saving the biggest building for last. At the pyre, she spots the moving hand reaching out of the charred remains. It is definitely a Troll’s hand, although it is a long way from regenerating into a whole Troll. Studying the pile, she guesses there are three Trolls in full plate armor, a spherical wood and metal cart of some sort, a corpse the size and shape of a Dwarf, and an unidentifiable spherical object. The pile, she estimates, has been there for weeks. Arturus grabs and pulls a bit on the sphere. She knows that she cannot handle it too much or anyone watching the area will realize an invisible person is there. It is seven feet in diameter, with a large, perfectly-formed hole in the side facing her. Inside, she sees nothing but ash. The sphere is covered in black soot, but she can tell it is made of small, thick, bone-like, flat plates. Realizing she won’t be able to get it, Arturus makes a mental note of it and hopes for another chance to inspect it later. She heads toward the area left of the front gate, constantly glancing around. The lawn is soft, so she leaves tiny tell-tale signs of her passing, but nothing that can be spotted further than a few feet away. Once she is closer to the mossy left wall, she looks for secret or concealed doors and finds neither. The moss is black and shiny and stands just tall enough to wiggle in the breeze.
Arturus stops dead in her tracks and looks around in sudden confusion. “Where am I?” she says. Looking up at the wall surrounding the keep, she touches the moss in front of her trying to gain some familiarity with her surroundings. Rubbing her head in confusion, she closes her eyes, then jumps back surprised. She could feel her eyelids close, but she could still see. Glancing down, she looks at her hands and they aren’t there. She can feel them, but cannot see them. The last thing she remembers is eating in ASU. She believes she has been bewitched. “Evenliir! You’re doing this! This is some sort of spell!” Arturus draws her sword and shouts, “Evenliir, you bitch, where are you? Come out and play so I can kill you!”
Continued next week!
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