Greetings, fellow travelers, weary souls and footsore wanderers! Gather round and –
I say, good innkeep, would you be ever so kind and stoke the hearth? The night is chill, and a story is every so much better when told by a merry fire. Ah, that’s much better, my thanks.
As I was saying…gather round and hear now my tale, one of laughter and sadness, tragedy and triumph, music and misadventure.
The story I tell is my own. I have stolen maidens back from the lairs of sleeping trows. I have spent a night in the Fae and left with both my sanity and my life. I discovered the lost crystal scepter of the One King of Reya, and bartered it away for the knowledge of the moment of mine own death. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep. I am a musician, a magician, and a knower of many things. My name is Kothe. You may have heard of me.
But alas, I have already gotten ahead of myself! For as all stories must have a beginning, so must we as people have beginnings.
My beginning was ever so humble, my parents simple farmers who tended their sheep and apple orchards on the great Golden Plains of Reya. Many happy hours I spent as a boy playing beneath those trees with my friends, or sitting high up in their branches, gazing out at the horizon and dreaming of what might be beyond it. I may have stayed in that life forever, were it not for my father. You see, while he might have been a man of little means and low birth, he was also a man of deep thought and passion for learning. Twice a year, he’d leave the farmstead and make the trek into the great market of Reya and carry back whatever books he could spare coin for. Countless hours he spent with me, in the dark hours of winter or lazy twilit ones of summer, reading and pondering those books. I was a quick-witted child, with a memory sharp as a razor and a tongue twice as sharp. It was his great hope that I would one day gain entry into one of the Universities of Reya, and become an academic – a man of learning and station. I love him for that, for having larger dreams for me than he could afford himself.
But it was not the books on history, or culture that intrigued me. The ones that stuck in my impressionable young mind were ones of adventure – of brave men and women who had left the neat corners of the map behind, and struck out to discover forgotten wonders in the wild reaches of the great fabric of creation. New knowledge. What hidden secrets and ancient mysteries might still exist, I wondered, and what glory for he who uncovered them! I harbored these unlikely hopes through all of my youth.
It is to my mother, however, that I owe my music. She had a voice like a flute – soft, high, lilting and lovely. Most nights after supper, I recall, my father would look at her with boyish eagerness unvarnished by the years and say, “Would you give us a song, Lessie?” And of course she would, accompanying herself on a well-battered lute, her graceful fingers flickering up and down the strings. I was 6 when she started teaching me to play (finally tiring of my begging). And for my 13th name day, she traded a fine woolen cloak that she’d woven herself for a lute of my own – the fine oak and cherry beauty that you see here in my hands this very moment.
The idyllic days of childhood slipped by in this manner, and it was out of nowhere when the next chapter of my life began. I was 15, nearly a man, and beginning to chafe under the comfortable bonds of home and family. The thought of staying forever in my country hamlet, or living cloistered in a dark and dusty library, filled me with equal amounts of dread, but I knew of no other recourse. It was then that Thom appeared.
Dear old Thom – minstrel, story teller, incorrigible rogue and ruffian. He arrived in the village on a fine spring day, patchwork cloak all a-flutter. People gathered from miles around to see him, entertainment being somewhat rare. He juggled and japed, told news from distant lands, and sang dirty ballads in a rough baritone. But it was his stories that captured me; he told them later that night to a crowd of awestruck children (myself among them) – stories of adventure and daring, sword fighting magic. Many of the stories were his own, happenings of his many travels. I was spellbound. I lay awake all night, wrestling with myself. Around midnight, I packed my things, and in the morning, I sought out Thom at the inn; though it was early, he was up and preparing to move on to the next village. I gathered my courage, and approached him. I told all of my aspirations to him, and begged him to let me travel with him. He was skeptical.
“I don’t take on strays or layabouts, son” he said gruffly. “If you travel with me, you pull your own weight. What do you have to offer a traveling player?” I quickly pulled out my lute, and flew through several chord progressions. “Ehh, you’re not half bad” Thom allowed, “and some accompaniment could certainly improve my rusty old croaker. Fine. You come with me, you perform with me, and I’ll teach you the tricks of the trade. Be ready to walk in half an hour.”
I was elated. I left a note with the innkeeper to pass on to my parents, explaining things and saying goodbye; I feared if I tried to say goodbye in person, my resolve would fail entirely. And so I became a traveling player.
For three years I roamed Pyrone with Thom, through rain and sun and snow, times both thick and thin. Good as his word, Thom taught me all that he knew – how to juggle his 6 colorful balls, how to tumble and posture, how to read an audiences’ mood and make them your own with a well-timed joke or a tragic ballad. He also taught me practical things, like how to tell if a fellow on the road is planning to shake your hand or beat you bloody and nick your coin, how to be wary of pickpockets, and stay on the good side of town magistrates. He instructed me in the ways of high court etiquette, and bawdry sailor slang. A wizard traveled with us from Attinbor to Chessae once, and from him I learned that I had a small aptitude for magic. He was a kindly man, and happy to teach an eager young pupil a few tricks.
They were happy days, wondrous days full of new sights and experiences that I drank in with thirsty greed. But all good things come to an end. It was a woman that changed things, as is so often the case. She was the owner of a small but tidy inn, a widowed lady with bright eyes and long cornsilk hair that hadn’t entirely turned to silver. She had a booming laugh and knowing smile, and Thom was hopelessly smitten. The confirmed old bachelor became suddenly a teenage boy with his first young love; she seemed to feel much the same about my grizzled, dashing mentor. Our first night at the inn, they spent hours huddled close over the bar, all giggles and smiles and lovelorn looks. And thus Thom the Troubadour handed over his balls and tricks and patchwork cloak to me, and took up the noble profession of innkeeping. I played at their wedding not a fortnight later, and then bid them both a very fond farewell, Thom insisting in a wavering voice that I must come back and visit someday. I promised I would.
I was then rather at loose ends – 18 years old, enough coin to eat for a good while, and no obligations to tend. I thought back, then, to my boyhood dreams of exploring the dark edges of the map and writing my own legend. But where to start? I realized I needed, finally , to return to Reya. The library there would have maps and scrolls and references to half-forgotten myths that could point me in a direction. And so I returned; I stopped to visit my parents, who were equal parts furious and ecstatic to see me. Then I continued on the Reya. At the library, I got one of the scribes to direct me to the ancient history section, where I spent several days leafing through dusty manuscripts, searching for mention of lost ruins or buried treasure. I bought a map of pyrone, and made careful notes and on what I found – nonsense and conjecture, but one story intrigued me: the legend of the very first Temple of the Three. It was said that at creation’s first weaving, The Grey built at the center of creation a vast cathedral, carved of solid stone and covered with murals depicting the Three so that all might know of them and their workings. And in it, the story went, is the tomb of the very first ruler of Mankind who waits there to be reborn in the pattern.
So engrossed was I in my reading that I didn’t notice her at first, though she was standing right before me.
“Thinking of seeking the temple of the Three, are we?” said a cool voice.
I looked up, startled. Before me stood a young woman of about my age, with chestnut hair held in a loose braid and piercing dark eyes. She was wearing snug-fitting leather trousers, sturdy boots, and a practical jacket. There was a dagger strapped to her leg, and she stood with an air of casual confidence which suggested she knew well how to use it. She was glaring at me.
“I was…I was just- erm” I stuttered, sounding like an utter fool.
“Ah, a helpless newcomer to the game, marvelous” she snorted. “Well let me educate you – amongst treasure hunters, she who gets there first gets the goods, and no mercy will be shown to pretty young boys trying to beat a girl out to her prize. Discovering the temple will be mine. So go stick your nose elsewhere, or find it bloodied.” With that, she turned and strode gracefully away. I stared at her retreating backside in amazement. The thought of competition had never occurred to me, or that the competition would be so…sinuous.
My studies thus disrupted, I pushed them out of my mind for the time being, and went to see about earning some silver. The inn I was staying at was glad to have a musician to draw in customers, so I could stay for free and keep half of whatever take I made playing in the common room in the evening. Later that night, I was playing a spritely chanty to a cheerfully slathered crowd of locals, who stomped in time and sang along to the refrain (loudly, if very off key). The ending of the song involves a back-and-forth between a lonely sailor and his far away lover-fair, and should ideally be a duet for a male and female voice. As I had no partner, I figured the crowd would suffice. But as I launched into the verse, a woman’s voice rose above the din to answer mine. I sang –
Awaiting will you be for me? Be for me?
Oh, how I sit and long for thee, long for thee!
To meet you on the shore
And the answer came –
Yes, I am looking towards the sea, towards the sea,
May heaven turn and hear my plea, hear my plea
To bring you home once more…
Her voice was like golden honey and polished oak, sweet and rich. It rose and fell easy as bird in flight, harmonizing with my own. The song ended, and the audience thundered their approval. I looked out into the room, searching for my unexpected partner. I started. It was the girl from the library, standing and smiling knowingly at me near the bar. I grinned, and went over to her.
“How delightful to encounter you again, my fair songstress” I said with a small bow. “I hope you find this a more suitable occupation for my nose, as it is my main occupation.” She laughed, a little self-consciously.
“I was a bit brash earlier, wasn’t I” she said ruefully. “My apologies. It’s just that I’ve had my work stolen from below my nose before. I’ve become a bit territorial as a result. Now I must ask though, why a traveling player is interested in a dusty old legend. It seems a bit beyond your scope.” So I told her about my dreams of exploration and discovery . In between songs, we talked more, and continued long after the last customer had gone home. Her name was Renna. At some point in the night, she asked if perhaps I might like to accompany her to seek out the temple; having a bard along would, after all, makes things easier for accommodations and such, purely practical. I emphatically agreed. We never found that temple (I don’t believe it actually exists, to tell you the truth) but I did discover her on that quest, which was more than treasure enough. Renna was brilliant, lovely, witty, fearless…and we never parted company a single day from then on. The coldest, darkest nights on the road were made warm and bright within the circle of our arms, and our love was a bond that could withstand the Unraveler himself.
Or so we always thought.
For 5 years Renna and I roamed the world. A more carefree pair of rogues you will never find, and the stories of our adventures and misadventures will be sung of for the age to come, I have no doubt. We sailed with pirates, hunted with jungle tribesmen, played for the Queen Mother of Reya herself, explored deep caverns, discovered ancient cities, reclaimed items of power and wonder…you get the idea. But in one of our excursions, we found what was to be our eventual downfall.
Deep in the northern mountains, we had found a crumbling ancient fortress. The long-dead builders of it had, of all things, worshipped the Sun. Inside this ruin were well-preserved scrolls. Amongst other topics, they spoke of a great evil, of men twisted into demons through the use of blood magic, and of a terrible danger they posed to the world that supposedly would return every thousand years or so, on what the author described as “the day without night, and night without day.” There were pictures, too, sketches of these creatures, and descriptions of their strongholds and rituals. There was far too much detail to dismiss it as pure imagination. Renna was intrigued; an ancient cult of blood mages, seeking to bring about the end of the world, heretofore unknown to academia would be a tremendous discovery. We decided to attempt to locate the stronghold mentioned.
It took another year of searching, translating, and frustrating dead ends, but in the end, we found it. Beyond the salt plains, in an arid landscape of jagged black rock and sparse vegetation, we located the well-hidden entrance to the underground lair – just as described in the scrolls from the Sun fortress. We were giddy with excitement. After checking the entrance carefully for traps, down we went, descending a massive stone staircase. There were carvings on the walls, depicting tortured bodies and ghouls of all sorts.
“Cheerful stuff” I noted dryly.
“What did you expect from an evil blood cult, a nice pastoral landscape?” Renna pointed out.
“Fair enough. But still, let’s go carefully. This place gives me the jeebs” I said, shivering a bit. I made a small orb of light hover over my hand as we went deeper into the blackness.
“Oh don’t be a giant baby” Renna scoffed. “No one has been here for probably 800 years.”
Something about that statement tickled at the back of my mind, troublingly, but I pushed it aside.
We now stood in a cavernous space, with an amphitheater-like edifice carved into the floor. There were rows of stone benches, and a round platform at the center. For blood-cultist meetings, no doubt. And we’d like to recognize Brother Altazaar, for his outstanding evilness this month…
Branching off from this main chamber were numerous corridors, like spokes on a wheel. All, but one, were unmarked. Directly across from the entrance was a large hallway with some sort of script engraved above it.
“What does it say?” Renna asked. “You’re best at these pre-ascension languages.”
I fumbled in my traveling sack for a moment, and then pulled out my notebook that contained grammar and vocabulary from the most ancient languages I’d yet studied. “Hrmm well, the script looks a bit like Sarcadian, with maybe High Goblin influences on the sentence structure….my best guess, it says ‘enter once and never leave’ or maybe more poetically ‘he who enters may never return’. My Sarcadian isn’t very good.”
Renna got a rakish look. “Let’s test that theory, shall we?” she said mischeviously.
A cold feeling clenched in my gut, uncharacteristically. “I don’t know Renna…I still have a bad feeling about this place. It could be rigged with something. Maybe we shouldn’t.”
“What’s gotten into you? Alright, Kothe the fraidy-cat. You stay here and watch out for danger. I’ll go in, have a quick look, and be right back.” With that, she made for the hallway.
I stood still, wanting to go with her, but still troubled by a sixth sense screaming a warning. I’d learned through hard experience over the years to trust my instincts. If you suspect your food’s been drugged, maybe it is. If you get the nagging feeling your coin changer is dishonest, he might be. And if you’re deep in an ancient ruin, full of forgotten secrets and unknown traps, and you feel like you’re in danger – I assure you. You are.
A minute passed, then two. I fidgeted. “Renna? What’s happening?” I called. My voice reverberated eerily in the cavernous space.
Then I heard her footsteps coming back up the hallway. I heaved a sigh of relief as she came back into sight. “There you are! Scared me, not answering back. What did you see? Renna…?”
As she came back into the circle of my orb’s light, I gasped. Her face was drawn, and white as a sheet. Her hands were clenched at her side, and one held her dagger. She strode swiftly towards the stairwell.
“We are leaving. This place is not abandoned. Someone has been here” she hissed.
It suddenly struck me what had been bothering me – the dust. There was no dust on the stairs, or in the chamber. What sort of ruin in a desert sits empty a thousand years without gaining a thick layer of dust? Cursing my idiocy for not realizing earlier, I hurried after Renna, but quietly.
Once outside again, Renna did not stop walking. In fact, we kept walking at a quick pace all the way to sundown, when we stopped to make camp and light a fire. Dangerous creatures, man and animal alike, roam in wastelands like that, and fire keeps away many of them. Renna had not spoken a single word in the entire time since we left the blood-cult lair, and I knew better than to press her. She sat with her knees drawn up to her chin, staring into the fire.
“There was a…a huge room down that hallway” she finally spoke. “It…it was some kind of ritual chamber. There was an altar in the center. On the altar, and on the walls, and in the floor…” she took a deep slow breath.
“ Bodies. Horrible, twisted, cut apart and pierced and carved into. Spikes to hold them in place on the walls, encased in plaster on the floor, the one fresh on the altar…so much blood. Some of the bodies looked ancient. Others, newer. Some very new. Oh gods, the faces!” She broke off with a slight sob.
I moved to put my arms around her, drawing her in close to me. “It’s alright, Renna. We’re out. We’re safe.”
She leaned into my chest. “No,” she whispered, “we’re not safe. Something followed us today, I felt it. I still feel it, out there, watching us.”
I glanced around, unnerved, but the night was still and quiet. “I didn’t see anything following us, Renna. You saw something terrible, unspeakable, and it’s effecting you is all. I’ll put snares and warning wards around the camp tonight, just to be sure. And you’ll feel better in the morning.”
“The cult, it still exists Kothe. It’s active, and it’s killing people. The scrolls, they talked about a cataclysm this cult seeks to bring. They’ve been working in secret all this time, no one knowing. We have to find out, and stop them. We have to stop them” Renna said with intensity.
I nodded slowly. “You’re right. If they’ve been operating for hundreds of years in secret, with no one to oppose them and no one knowing they exist, who knows what they might have accomplished. This isn’t just treasure hunting anymore though. We need more help.”
“We could go to the Queen Mother” Renna said thoughtfully. She sounded more like her normal self now, to my relief. My lets-make-a-plan-and-do-this Renna was back in charge.
“That would be a good start” I agreed. “She did offer us a boon last time, and she could give us access to records and resources we’d never get otherwise.”
“That’s that then” Renna decided. “We make for Reya immediately.”
After that, feeling calmer about our situation, we started preparing for sleep. I lay trip wire and what wards I knew around the area, and we bedded down for the night. I will never forget that night, for it would be the last time I held Renna in my arms, smelled the earthy scent of her hair, or kissed her soft neck. I would trade the fabric of creation itself to have those things back again for but a heartbeat.
When I woke the next morning, Renna was not beside me on our bedroll. Nor was she anywhere within immediate sight. I called her name, but there was no answer. Foreboding gripped me in a vice. I hurriedly rose, and walked around the campsite in widening circles. My wires were un-tripped, wards undisturbed.
I found her in a clearing of bare earth not far from the camp, behind a jagged screen of rock. What was left of her was barely identifiable as human, with limbs twisted at impossible angles, flesh torn apart and scattered across the ground as if by a rabid animal. A message was scrawled across the rocks in fresh scarlet blood – the same words as were written above the hallway in the lair, but this time in the common language:
None who enter may ever leave
I screamed with the unreasoning rage of a wounded animal, my pain to raw and visceral for words. I don’t know how long as knelt there over her remains, unthinking and inhuman in my grief, but the sun had set and risen again at least once by the time I finally came back to myself. Thirst drove me to leave, finally, and seek water. I returned shortly, and built a simple stone cairn over her. I found her dagger, and rammed it into the top of the cairn. Then I walked away.
It has been two years since. For most of these last two years, I avoided thinking about her or how she met her end. I merely drifted, losing myself in the currents of the world – performing here, traveling there, and caring for none of it. But now time has dulled the sharp edges of my memories enough to face them, and all I can think of is vengeance. Those responsible are still out there, taking more victims no doubt, and working toward their evil ends. And I…I may be the only one who even knows they exist. Why they didn’t just kill me too, I cannot guess. Even monsters sometimes have their rules, and those rules rarely make sense. I, on the other hand, have no rules. That gives me a small advantage, which will have to be enough.
They tore from me my world, so I shall tear from them their plan to end the world. I hunt. I seek. I sorrow.
My name is Kothe.
My story is not yet over.