| 1: The Wraiths
Why do you hate them so?
Draida surveyed the charred areas of grass around him. Until a few moments ago, those blackened patches of grass had been goblins. Draida moved to a nearby oak tree and sat down, situating himself in a nook between a pair of rather large and twisting roots.
“What does it matter?” he muttered. “They’re goblins.”
They were perhaps, until you reduced them to ashes.
A flicker of a smile appeared on Draida’s face, but was instantly replaced by his usual dark scowl. The wind shifted, and a few leaves fell from the gnarled oak that he was sitting beneath. He glanced up and watched them drift lazily downward. One of the higher branches trembled ever so slightly even after the wind had stopped—and Draida sighed.
I would seem that your display has attracted more than just goblins.
“I can see that.” Draida replied quietly. He shifted slightly so that his arms disappeared within the folds of his cloak. Draida glanced left without turning his head and caught movement in the lower branches of a nearby sycamore tree. A slender man grinned down at him—and Draida’s scowl became even more severe.
You could make short work of this one.
Draida’s hand twitched, as if he were considering doing just that—but he seemed to think better of it. With a shake of his head, he clenched his fist.
“You’re wasting your time,” Draida said, looking up towards the bandit. “You should leave, I have nothing of value.”
The bandit’s grin widened. “Liar,” he replied. “I’ve been watching you for a while now, saw what you did to the goblins—he paused, as his eyes swept over the charred earth—You’re either the youngest sorcerer I’ve ever seen, or you’ve got an enchanted item.” The bandit’s eyes gave Draida the once-over, as if sizing him up. “I’m leaning towards the idea that you do possess something quite valuable.”
Draida outstretched an arm towards the bandit, causing his smile to falter. “Whichever the case,” Draida said, “I cannot imagine why I would give anything to you. You’re no match for me so don’t fool yourself into thinking that you have a chance—leave, or join them.” Draida nodded to the blackened earth around him.
The bandit seemed to consider this for moment, but then his wry smile returned. “You’re stalling. You exhausted your magic on the goblins. You couldn’t kill me if you wanted too.”
Draida lowered his arm and sighed. It was true that sorcerers became vulnerable when their magic ran low, but that wasn’t the reason for Draida’s sigh. He could raze the forest to the ground if he wanted—but that was just it; he didn’t.
Still thinking that he had the upper hand, the stubborn bandit spoke again. “Hand over everything you’re carrying and I’ll decide it’s value—and don’t try anything—I have a half-dozen arrows trained on you.”
Draida didn’t have to look around to know that that was quite impossible. The gnarled oak was quite large and located atop a steep ravine. From his position under the oak, there weren’t very many places that an archer would find a clear shot—and he already knew of the archer hidden above him.
“Besides yourself, and him—Draida nodded upward—I only see two of you. Leave now, or join the goblins.”
Not missing a beat, the bandits wry smile widened. “You’ll soon regret your words,” he replied, his voice rising in signal to his companions “still, it is easier to loot a corpse.”
The thief dropped from his perch in the tree as several men appeared from the denser places of the brush and moved into a semi-circle around him. “I am Cronin.”
Cronin waited hopefully, but Draida showed no recognition of the name. Cronin spoke a little louder—more to his lackeys than Draida. “I understand if you haven’t heard of me, because most who hear my name are no longer around to tell of my deeds.”
The largest of Cronin’s goons, an eight-foot giant of a man, moved into a defensive position between Draida and Cronin, and waved a heavy club in Draida’s direction. “I smash them,” he grunted.
Cronin’s confidence only grew then, surrounded by his thugs.
“Give me your valuables, and I’ll see that you are smashed quickly.” he said, as a scattered laughter arose from his men.
“You’re wasting my time.” Draida replied smugly. He climbed to his feet, and the giant tightened his grip on the club.
“My giant has torn through entire caravans by himself.” Cronin explained from somewhere behind the hulking mass. “Imagine what he’ll do to you.”
Draida ignored the threat, instead surveying the club and the muscled giant that carried it. The giant stepped closer—and so did Draida.
“Do you think you have a chance,” Draida asked, as he pulled the sleeves of his cloak back, “against the archmage?”
“Archmage?” Cronin laughed, stepping out from behind the giant. “He’s dead, and you don’t look like any mage I’ve ever seen. I—”
Cronin’s next sentence was lost as his voice faltered, and his eyes swept up the length of Draida’s exposed arms. Both of them were covered in magical glyphs that glowed, almost menacingly, in their own continual rhythm.
Draida smiled the very same way he had to the goblins. With glance in the direction of the gnarled oak, it vanished entirely and the startled archer toppled onto the ground with a muffled grunt.
A hush fell over the group and they appeared suddenly apprehensive. Even Cronin seemed to have lost his luster. His eyes were locked on the spot where the tree had just vanished. He didn’t seem to be very confident of his giant’s protection anymore.
“What are you waiting for?” Draida smirked to the giant. “Come and smash me.”
With a roar, the giant suddenly barreled forward and his club came down in a great heaving arc that would have surely crushed Draida—that is, if he had still been standing there.
Draida vanished like a mist, and the giant’s club hit only empty air. Too heavy, even for the giant to slow, the club hurtled into the ground. As it did, it became like ice and shattered into harmless vapor. The giant didn’t react quickly enough—still compensating for the weight of his heavy weapon—he lost his balance and fell headlong into the muddy hole where the tree had been.
Draida reappeared behind the group of bandits, the glyphs on his arms ablaze with a crimson radiance, and a cold scowl on his face. He could feel the energy building up inside of him. He could feel the familiar tingle of excitement creeping up his spine. The spell rolled easily off of his tongue, ready to claim the lives of all those that stood in his way.
“No!” Draida growled, falling to his knees and abandoning his spell. “Get away from me now or I will kill all of you.”
Even then, Draida did not appear vulnerable to the bandits, there was an unmistakable air of power that surrounded him and through his eyes came a cold and calculating confidence.
Cronin’s own confidence had vanished with the tree, and he didn’t need anymore convincing. “O-our mistake,” he stammered with a slight bow. “Let’s get out of here boys! You know my policy on not messing with archmages.”
Cronin and his bandits were long gone by the time the giant peeked back at him from within the hole. Covered in mud from head to toe, he surveyed Draida with a look of the utmost terror. “Can I—can I go too?” he asked, in a strangely pitiful tone for such deep voice.
Draida’s sinister smile returned, and with a wave of his hand, the vanished tree suddenly reappeared, and landed with a sickening smack into the soft mud.
The giant’s eyes popped open as he realized that he was still alive. Draida was watching him, his face blank, emotionless. “I shifted the tree as it fell so it wouldn’t kill you,” he said. “Perhaps the next time you decide to smash someone you’ll consider this moment—and how it felt when the tables had turned on you.”
The giant nodded vigorously—mud flying from his face in clumps as he did. “Yes,” he said, “I learned better now. I’ll smash no more!”
“Good,” Draida replied, glancing towards the fallen archer. “Now, collect your friend and leave.
Within seconds, the giant had gathered the archer, was trampling away into the bushes.
He glanced back one last time before he hurried off after his fellows.
I thought you would do it.
Draida replied slowly. “No, I’m finished killing.”
I don’t think the goblins would believe that.
“I don’t have to explain myself to you.” Draida muttered bitterly, as he watched the sun sink lower into the sky.
You do hate goblins don’t you?
Draida didn’t bother to respond, he walked over to the newly-replaced oak—which now sat a bit crooked in it’s place—and slid his hand across its gnarled trunk. Draida sighed, “I used to dream of becoming a sorcerer from beneath this very tree.”
Is that why you’ve delayed in this forest for so long?
Draida didn’t respond—the answer was obvious.
That is the past, Draida, and you’re wasting precious time.
Draida turned away from the tree. “I know,” Draida muttered quietly. “I should be moving on.”
He pulled his cloak close and started away, but as he did, he couldn’t help but let his mind wonder backwards, to a life that now seemed strangely separated from the present. Even the forest that had once held so much wonder and beauty seemed to have changed. But Draida knew that he had done the changing, and to dwell on himself, as he had been, seemed almost intrusive—as if he were spying on memories that weren’t actually his own.
* * *
Magic was everywhere, but not just anyone could use it. It was something that you either had from the moment you were born—or didn’t—and those who didn’t, had to pay for it. Be it by hiring a sorcerer, purchasing an enchanted object, or having your fortune divined, magic was expensive. But if you had it, you were guaranteed wealth and power—unless you were Draida.
He was one of the lucky few that still had the ability, but he didn’t live in a lakeside mansion in the nearby city of Lydia. Draida lived in a cave—in a forest, outside of the sprawling port town, a place that also happened to boast highest birthrate of sorcerers, witches, and archmages in the world.
Since most travelers stayed to the roads, nobody knew of his cave. Even if someone did stumble past, they’d never know it was there. At first glance, it seemed like little more than a shallow fissure on an otherwise unremarkable rock wall. Decades of moss and lichens clung to the rock, obscuring the opening, but just inside it widened into a large cavern.
Draida was sprawled out beneath his gnarled oak tree, watching the sun grow higher in the sky. His shoulder-length shaggy black hair drifted gently in the crisp morning air and his emerald green eyes glimmered with the colors of the lush forest around him.
A little stream ran unseen nearby so that the slow trickle of moving water could nearly always be heard through layers of lush green vegetation. Sometimes he would catch a glimpse of a wandering goblin or two, something that Draida regarded with more curiosity than fear—they never bothered with him. Raskas had always said that all intelligent creatures could sense magic, so Draida had always figured that they were afraid of him. They kept their distance and expected the same treatment.
He would glance over his shoulder, every so often, expecting movement from the small cave behind him. He lived there with Raskas—a fiery-haired, middle-aged man, and Sylvia, who was close to Draida’s own age—only slightly older. They were family, even though none of them were actually related.
Sylvia soon appeared from the cave and plopped down beside Draida with a yawn and stretched. “G’morning Draydaaa,” She managed to say through a yawn. “Have you seen Raskas today?”
Draida, suddenly feeling the need to yawn as well, shook his head. “Haven’t see him since yesterday.”
Sylvia glanced back towards the cave and a flicker of concern crossed her face.
“Try not to worry about him.” Draida said, noticing her dark expression. “He can take care of himself.”
“Something’s going on,” Sylvia replied. “I’ve never known him to act so strangely. He’s been disappearing more and more lately. Don’t you ever wonder where he’s off too?
Draida stared at Sylvia, as if amused. “I don’t have time to keep up with him,” he replied dryly. “While you were sleeping, I was down by the lake checking the crayfish traps.”
Sylvia perked up at this, and sat up instantly. “We get anything?”
Draida shook his head, and Sylvia frowned. “You did toss a liver in before you went in the water, right?”
“Uh, yeah of course.” Draida lied.
Sylvia smacked him in the arm. “Draida! You didn’t, did you?” she breathed. “I’m telling you you’re supposed to throw a liver in before you go in! When a kelpie gets you—you’ll wish you had.”
Draida rolled his eyes. “Come on Sylvia,” he said. “A kelpie? Isn’t that some sort of water horse?”
“Yes,” Sylvia nodded, “They make you ride them and then take you under and drown you.”
Draida couldn’t help but laugh, this brought in another swift smack to his arm.
“I’m serious, Draida!”
Draida smiled, despite his bruised arm. “Where did you hear that?” he asked.
“Ocelot, told me.” Sylvia said, matter-of-factly. “He said that liver is a kelpie’s favorite food, and he’s a fishermen.”
“Right,” Draida said. “Did anyone tell you that all fishermen are superstitious?”
Sylvia crossed her arms and glared at him, “They’re real.” She muttered.
Draida smiled, he couldn’t help but admire the way Sylvia’s almond eyes sparkled when she was mad.
“Maybe they are,” Draida conceded. “If one drowns me, then I’ll let you know.”
Draida dodged the next smack to his arm.
“Well?” she said after a moment of silence.
Draida raised an eyebrow. “Well, what?”
“Raskas!” Sylvia said, “Where do you think he is?”
“No idea,” Draida replied, “but it’s Raskas. Eventually he’ll lose interest in whatever he’s gotten into—if he hasn’t already.”
A disarming smile crossed his lips and Draida got to his feet. “Let’s go and find him,” he said, “and maybe even nab something to eat. Unless you want lumishroom soup.”
“Sounds poisonous.” Sylvia smirked.
Lumishrooms were a rare type of fungi that glowed as long as they lived; the cavern where Draida and Sylvia lived was covered in them. The running joke was that one day they would eat one to see if they could glow too—if they didn’t die of poisoning first.
Draida’s stomach growled. “Let’s find food first, then Raskas.”
Sylvia rolled her eyes. “The baker?”
“The baker.” Draida agreed. “Hurry up, we need to cross the river before the morning fog lifts.”
* * *
You’re doing it again.
“I’m thinking.” Draida replied smugly.
Some would call what you do daydreaming. Your memories draw you backwards, but it is forward we must go.
“We are moving forward aren’t we?” Draida growled.
We often travel at an achingly slow pace when you ‘think’.
Draida paused and sighed. “I know that my thoughts entertain you, but they are my own. Stay out of them. The idea of you knowing my every thought is discomforting.”
I find them interesting. Mainly it is because I have nothing else to do on our little adventure. It’s like watching a play for me. Each event plays out for me as you dwell on it, as if it were happening now, and I do often wonder how you ever managed to get yourself into this horrible mess in the first place.
“So do I…” Draida muttered as he came to the crest of a hill.
Looking down from the hilltop, the riverside city of Lydia sprawled out before him. He could make out the boats in the harbor as well as the more prominent buildings in the area.
Draida’s eyes were focused on one building in particular; a large mansion situated near a lake on the northern edge of the city.
I know that place.
“Yeah, that’s where this whole thing began.” Draida replied with a deep sigh.
* * *
Sylvia skirted down the alley behind Draida with the baker and a pair of guardsmen in hot pursuit. Draida had three of the baker’s largest sweet rolls tucked securely under his arm. The baker was famous in Lydia for his sweet rolls, and these particular ones were fresh from the oven.
The morning had become stormy, and that worked to their advantage in the alleys. These slippery paths were absolutely treacherous when wet, but both Draida and Sylvia knew them well and speed off with carefully measured steps, avoiding the slippery places on the stone. Soon enough, the pursuit ended with the sounds of crashing armor and muffled curses from the baker.
“Poor baker,” Sylvia said quietly, coming to a stop beside Draida.
“Sounds like the guards fell on him again,” Draida mused with a smile.
Sylvia laughed at the thought. “I feel bad for doing this to him so often.”
“Two guards today,” Draida laughed. “That’s one more than last week. Pretty soon they’ll have the archmage out to protect the bread.”
“We would have to make an honest living then,” Sylvia replied. “Archmage Demus may be old but he’s still powerful. I heard that he caught ten of the Pipers a few days ago. He made the street shoot up around them and…”
“And?” Draida pressed.
Sylvia shrugged. “Well …he crushed them with it. All of them.”
Draida pursed his lips, strangely impressed at the thought. If Draida and Sylvia were good thieves then the Pipers were organized professionals. They were infamous for their brutal crimes. No one wanted to get involved with them; they’d never been caught, let alone killed—especially in such large numbers.
“…Can’t say I feel bad for them, though.” Sylvia was saying. “I hate those guys. Without them we might actually live in the city.”
Draida nodded in reply. It was common knowledge that the Pipers periodically “recruited” children, especially parentless orphans, to sustain their numbers. Since both Draida and Sylvia were potential targets, Raskas kept them in the relative seclusion of the forest cavern—for “safety”.
The pair reached a great arching stone bridge that crossed the Sonets River. Graden’s Bridge, it was called, and it was the only path by land that merchants from other towns could use to enter Lydia.
For this reason, Lydian guards heavily patrolled the bridge so Draida and Sylvia never crossed it. Instead they took a winding path that led down to the river’s edge, directly beneath the bridge.
The morning fog was still thick on the water and the muddy riverbank sucked at their feet as they walked, but heavily trafficked bridge overhead blanketed the plop-plops and gurgling sounds of their sinking footsteps. Across the water were the forest and their home. Moments later, the pair pushed off quietly into the foggy water.
Draida leaned over the boat and placed a hand in the water. The boat gave a little start, and suddenly propelled itself across the dark water. This was but one of Draida’s collection of about three spells that he could actually cast—and it kept him from paddling, because he steered with subtle flicks of his submerged wrist. More skilled sorcerers could accomplish this without getting wet, but Draida wasn’t that far along just yet.
He navigated the boat carefully to stay hidden under the bridge. Faint voices carried down from the bridge above. Horses crossed loudly, sometimes hauling carts from the neighboring town of Vindell.
Overhead, the skies darkened and thunder rumbled angrily in the distance as the pair reached the opposite shore. They hastily dragged their boat onto shore, and Draida quickly changed it into what looked like a large wooden egg.
Sylvia clapped happily, “Good job, Draida! I think you’ve finally got it right!”
Draida frowned. “It was supposed to be a rock.”
Draida didn’t have time to try again, because, at that moment the sky crackled and flashed with lightning. They ran several yards down the riverbank before entering the forest and doubling back towards the cave. They managed to squeeze through the opening only seconds before the rain began.
“That was close,” Draida laughed as the rain worsened outside.
“I didn’t think we’d make it.” Sylvia replied. “I was worried that our breakfast would be ruined.”
Draida shook his head, and smiled.
After a tight squeeze through the caves narrow entrance, a brief and twisting path descended before revealing a much larger cavern. The cave was lit mostly by lumishrooms. The walls were covered in countless numbers of them so the room was always blanketed in a soft golden light. There were torches also, wedged into stalagmites, for whenever more light was needed. Sylvia and Draida made themselves busy lighting some of them while the thunder deepened outside.
“It’s getting bad out there.” Sylvia muttered. “Do you think the boat will be alright? I mean as whatever you turned it into—the egg, thing.”
“No.” Draida replied sarcastically. “The giant wooden bird has taken it away by now.”
“Or it’s floated away,” Sylvia cooed. “That’s what happened last time…”
“I’ve told you before, the goblins took it last time, and that was before I started hiding it with magic.” Draida replied.
With the torches lit, the two of them sat down and devoured the rolls. The topic of Draida’s goblin-theft soon fell away as the sounds of thunder rumbled louder outside. Draida leaned back in his chair listening as the rainfall echoed throughout the cavern.
“I wish some of your goblins would steal Raskas’s furniture.” Sylvia said, breaking the silence. “Some of it’s so old…”
Draida glanced around.
The furniture there might have seemed out of place to a stranger, but it seemed perfectly fine to Draida. It had all been handmade by Raskas. The crude but sturdy design of the furniture clashed violently with the many expensive cushions that covered them—all of which were stolen.
Several different rugs and carpets overlapped each other across the floor and in one corner a large fishing net hung between two stalactites, and no one, including Raskas, knew how it had gotten up there.
Sylvia’s bed rested against the rear wall of the cavern directly behind several stalactites. There were two reasons for this, the first was because Raskas had thought that Sylvia needed privacy, to be a girl, and secondly, Sylvia thought that the lumishrooms there gave off a slightly reddish glow, and red was her favorite color.
Draida and Raskas had their own beds closer to the entrance. The largest lumishroom in the cavern hung over Raskas’s bed because he liked to read at night, and behind that was a table full of his various ‘magical treasures’. Sylvia thought that it all needed to be thrown out, but Raskas looked positively heartbroken whenever she mentioned it.
Draida’s bed was actually a little boat that Raskas had fished out of the river shortly after he’d brought Draida home the first time. The seats had been torn out and the insides filled with fluff and scruffy blankets. The entire thing was wedged in between several stalagmites. It sat there, slightly crooked in its precarious perch and on some nights, Draida thought he could feel it shift a bit more, but he loved his bed. He thought that it looked like some odd little nest—either that or the product of the worst seamanship skills ever.
While the rain continued to pick up outside, the thunder seemed to be growing more distant. Sylvia seemed thoughtful as she eyed the only remaining roll on the table. Draida knew that her thoughts had circled back to Raskas.
“You think he’s okay?” Sylvia asked, right on cue.
Draida nodded immediately. “Sure, why not?”
Sylvia nodded, but her expression didn’t change. She got to her feet suddenly and glanced towards the door. “What if the guards caught him?” she wondered aloud.
Draida frowned thoughtfully and shrugged. “I guess we should find out.”
“Let’s ask around town—check with the guards. We’ll find out where he is. Somebody has to know.”
“Okay, after the rain eases up a bit we’ll leave.” Sylvia reasoned with a yawn. “Besides it’d be a pain to cross the river in this storm. If goblins haven’t stolen our boat again…”
“Or a kelpie took it for a ride,” Draida muttered, bringing a slight smirk from Sylvia.
Draida paced around for a few minutes but eventually climbed into his boat and sprawled out, staring up at the cavernous ceiling. The storm showed no signs of letting up anytime soon.