A curse spreads among the people; 'blight' ravages the land. (Old Draft.)
| Carl ran back and forward, like streaks of lightning, as he should. I maintained one tendril of power on him at all times, felt the effervescent force of his spirit touching mine. Drensen stopped at the entrance to the monastery and looked at the town, his chill blue eyes more distant than the horizon.
"Tell me," I said. "Don't keep me in the dark."
He reached out for my hand. "There is much yet to do. The conjured food will be vanishing with the rising sun, but our people's hunger will not."
"I hesitate to mention this," I said, stroking the edge of his shoulder plate. "We have one ally who might know what to do."
His cheeks turned red. "I have no objection to seeking Verdenten's help."
Carl giggled. "Daddy doomed to walk alone, forever wearing a pile of bone."
"Carl, please!" I said, noting flash of pain in Drensen's face.
Drensen shook his head, and we began the walk. "It's okay. I should tell you. He- Gregor, he threatened..."
I could feel something rising up in him. "You don't have to tell me, if you don't want to."
"You must judge me anyway." He shrugged, and let a long sigh. "Better you knew. Gregor could kill you at will, but me? As Carl said, I would never be allowed to join you in spirit."
He held his head high, trained his voice to smooth perfection, but I felt the horror behind his words as though they were my own. Learning of the Harvest had opened my eyes in many ways, and I knew that I was never any further from him than my own heart. "We have been tested beyond our power to resist."
"You do me too much honor, Carolie, my dear. You never wavered."
"You did not see it, but I did." I thought ruefully of my decision to learn The Harvest, to join the blight: I had intended to use it to destroy.
He pulled his hand away, and I felt him resist my tendril. He walked at the far side of the trail, half a pace from me.
I sent him a gift of energy, but his will resisted. He was not ready to forgive himself. It saddened me to watch him hurt like that, but I respected his decision.
We made easy time on our path to Verdenten's garden, walking in silence. I fell a few steps behind Drensen, who marched onward steadily as Carl raced ahead and fell behind, spreading his lightning everywhere he went.
Each step released a piece of the tension in my chest as my new mission pulled me toward Verdenten. He had been right to send me in there; he would be able to help me now.
As we walked up the final hill above Verdenten's Sanctum, Carl walked in front of me and stopped. "To black of night or ash of gray? The final question of the day." Then he ran off to check a few rocks.
Drensen shot a look at me. "I'm sure it's nothing."
"Nothing, like before? Is that your 'spellcraft' or are you trying to keep me in the dark?"
"I'm just as in the dark as you, at this point. I'm trying to keep your spirits up."
I smiled ironically. "If you're so keen on my morale, then accept my forgiveness. I've learned more than you think, today."
He gritted his teeth, and nodded back. "Yes, well. Nothing for it but to proceed, is there?"
Carl waited for us at the peak, his expression grim.
Drensen saw it first, and turned to stop me, too late.
Behind Verdenten's iron gates, the last haven for greenery, there was nothing... Darkness. It was black.
"They did this!" I said, running down.
Silent, Drensen followed me.
I ran down, through Verdenten's azure curtain. Once past the gates I fell to my knees, crying.
Drensen hummed. "Black or gray. Carolie, it's gray."
"I don't care what color it is."
He grabbed my shoulders, trying to shake me awake. "Carolie, don't you see what Carl was telling us? This is fire. Ash, not blight."
"He's still gone. I've known him all my life, and he's gone."
"Yes, but where?" He lifted my hand and poured some of the ash into it. "Carolie, Verdenten did this. That means he had time to escape.
"We can escape." That's what he'd said. "Oh, thank the stars." I put my hand on Drensen's upper arm. "He did get away. But, where does that leave us?"
Drensen smiled, the same sly smile he always showed when he and Kissla were planning a mission. "Right where we belong, my dear. Knocking on the doors of disaster."
I felt a knot of fear in my stomach, and a bit of a rush. I had to admit, I liked being in on that smile.
Kissla's voice rang out from the gate. "You sir, have a great deal of explaining to do!" She ran up and hugged us both from behind, kissing us both.
Soliden stepped up to the gate. "Forgive me if my greeting is somewhat less aggressive, for my pleasure at your survival is equally profound. May I assume that you were victorious in your quest?"
At the sight of Soliden, Carl's eyes flashed with lightning. He drew Gregor's dagger and charged the good knight.
Drensen grabbed him, pulled away the knife. "No! You have no right to attack him.
"How many men will have to die because your knight believes a lie?"
Soliden's face paled, but he stood firm.
"Ancient prophets tell you true yet fail to tell you what to do."
Soliden took a deep breath. "I've heard this before. Perhaps you would be wise to listen to him."
"I've done enough dastardly deeds for one lifetime." Drensen sat Carl down. "We're not going to attack this man Soliden, are we?"
Carl shrugged. "It's okay, Dad. There'll be plenty of disaster without him."
"But can I kill him if he tries to kill Mommy or me?"
"I'll tell you when."
"I'll be big enough to decide for myself, Dad."
"I'm sorry, I don't know what's come over him. Gregor did something to him."
"It's quite all right. A man can never truly know whether he is destined for good or evil, he can only follow his heart." He fondled the symbol on his chest. "I only hope that they are wrong, and that I can do some small good in this world."
"Well said." Drensen said, holding out his hand.
Soliden took it.
Kissla walked up to him whispered in his ears.
"Prophets. All prophets hate me." He shrugged. "They never say why."
"I for one have had enough of prophecy for one day. Can you stifle it, Carl?"
Carl put his hands over his eyes. "Peekaboo!" He giggled and ran off in a random direction.
"I often wish I did not foresee the dangers of the future. What must it be like, to see all things laid before you? -and at such a young age." He shivered.
"A Knight of Sigrun ever shall find welcome in my home, though our hospitality may be stretched beyond even feeding ourselves."
"You depended on the gifts of Gregor's Cabal." He stroked his beard. "Perhaps you will find aid in the larder of your neighbor, the Count Aldredge?"
Kissla spoke with vehemence. "Not if Aldredge has anything to say about it. Though I'm all up for making sure he doesn't."
Drensen stroked his own chin. "Aldredge family stand for nothing but cutthroat villainy, despite the reputation of the younger count. I would swallow my pride to feed my town, but it may not come to that."
"But what else can we do? We can't return empty handed."
"We have no small amount of talent ourselves. Perhaps some artefact can be found that will allow us to forgo the charity of the Aldredge war machine."
I nodded; it sounded reasonable, and without their leader they would not face Drensen, let alone with Soliden and Kissla on his side. "Would you join us?" I asked Soliden.
He nodded, grimly. "I will accompany your entourage."
Kissla looked at him, sizing him up. I could tell that neither trusted the other, but I knew that either one of them would aid me in times of crisis.
As we climbed up the hill, Kissla noted the grass. She pulled some of it, and it fell to dust, yet landed in form. "Undead grass? What were they thinking."
Carl stopped behind her. "Vampires do not know how to dig wells."
She shivered. "Am I the only one that thinks that's creepy?"
"Since Gregor bled into him, he's been like that," Drensen said. "I can't make head or tail of it, but it seems harmless."
"It's nothing new. He's been seeing the future for some time, dreams mainly. I discounted most of it."
Kissla smirked at that. "Good call. Seeing how you've been kept in the dark, keeping secrets could hardly do any harm." Sarcasm rang in her voice, but I could not be sure if it was aimed at me or if she was mocking all three of us.
"Barren, the acolyte, said they killed seven men trying to figure the grass out." I shrugged my shoulders. "They did not know much of what they were doing, either." I led them into the place as if it were my own, which in a way, it was.
We walked through room after room. There were precious few books or arcane tools. "I don't think they were really sorcerers," Kissla said. "Sorcerers use stuff."
I thought about the writing on the wall, how the runes had worked their spell on me. Clearly, Kissla was right: the know how was not in here, not in common men who were in the monastery. It was long ago, and far away: in Soren, perhaps, or in his mythical mentor. I wanted to tell them what I knew, but felt shamed at what I intended. "I think that might be right, but there was one man. Soren seemed to know- the one you slew." I led them past the initiation chamber. "No, don't go in. Cursed runes."
"I'll be the judge of that," Kissla said.
"I'm serious, Kissla. Do you want to become one of them?"
She looked from me to Drensen, uncertain.
Drensen shook his head.
"We might have more luck in the drawing room. The leader— the real leader — was painting. I think he wrote on the canvasses, too."
In the drawing room, nothing remained save a few chairs. We checked the other room, where Soren and Gregor had died: also empty.
I checked Drensen's face. Seeing nothing, I felt deeper, and noted an air of concern.
Kissla stopped me. "Carolie, I'm not going to let you shut me out. What's going on? Should something be here?"
Drensen coughed. "A dead man, right here." He pointed to where the pool of blood should have been. "I cut him down: no blight there."
Kissla shrugged. "So, the others, you don't think they took him to bury him, do you?"
"I'd be very surprised if they took him at all. They seemed more concerned with running for their lives."
Soliden agreed. "These blackguards would not carry a thing if it were not valuable. The dead are merely refuse to them."
"I'm not supposed to be telling them." Carl chimed in, pulling at the pictures on the walls.
"Tell us what," Drensen asked.
"The old man says 'The Sore One will be joining us at length.' I told you, they don't like it when I tattle!"
Kissla snorted. "Need I remind you, we have a purpose here. We need to be searching. Carl's been the only one to do any of it!"
"Carl, I wonder do you know anything about this place- where we might find the means to conjure the food!"
The little boy tilted his head, and scrunched up his nose. He ran out of the room, and before we could even chase him down, he returned with a scroll. "I don't know if you want to read it!"
I took it from him, carefully, wondering if this could be trapped like the Harvest Text. "Will it help us get food?"
He looked at me with a mischievious smile. "Uh huh."
Drensen scowled, not liking Carl's expression. "Are you completely sure? I mean, you don't read magic very well, yet."
He chuckled. "I don't have to. I remember what it does."
Kissla cut in. "We don't have much choice in the matter. The boy's not been wrong yet, has he?"
I cleared my throat, and held up my hand. "The dragons haven't come to wipe out the town."
Kissla walked over and hugged me. "Thank you for keeping that little tidbit to yourself, Carolie, until this moment. I hope that was one of the before prophecies- before everything he said started coming true?"
"Kissla's right. Our second hope lies with Aldredge, and we know he's hostile."
"I might know an item that could help in reading." I thought of Verdenten's magic rope, wondered if it might be still functional. "It's in the initiation chamber, the one you wanted to check out. I doubt that I can take any more harm from it, but something Verdenten left me helped me read the runes on the wall."
Kissla squinted and bit her tongue.
Drensen nodded, and put his finger in front of Kissla's lips. "Makes sense to me. Go get it."
The magic rope still glittered in the second sight, and I picked it up gingerly and rushed back.
"He called it 'The key to knowledge' and cast a spell on it. When I untied it, I could read the writing on the wall. Only, more than reading."
I rubbed it on my hands and wrists as I looked at the scroll. Nothing happened.
Kissla rolled her eyes, and stood behind me. "Alright, this is going to sound strange. Stand up, shoulders back, and repeat after me. 'I know just what to do, how to make this work.'"
It was my turn to turn around and and give her a look like she was touched.
Drensen made a gesture to grab my attention, and placed it on the rope.
I rolled my eyes. "I think I can get this going."
She jerked my shoulders up. "Like you mean it. The rope's not going to feel sorry for you."
I gave a helpless look to Drensen.
"I know how it sounds. It's something Verdenten taught me. It's magic, real magic."
I took a breath of source. "I do know what to do. Something." I poured energy into the glitter. I stepped around behind her, and tied her wrists together.
I could hear the smirk in her voice as she said, "Carolie, I'm flattered. All you had to do was say something."
"This is how it worked." I pulled it tight, then laid the scroll out before her. "Open the knot."
She began to work it with her fingers.
"Try to will it open with your mind."
She stood for a second, turned her head left, and shrugged. Then she untied it by hand, and threw it down. "What was that supposed to accomplish?"
"You don't feel anything in your hands, don't see anything when you look at the scroll?"
She turned. "I felt my hands going numb, and I see lettering. Is that how it really worked— Verdenten tied you up, then it opened and you could read the writing?"
I shrugged and nodded.
Soliden stepped it. "I daresay the target was out of range." He sniffed, and nodded to Kissla. "Excellency, perhaps you have something in mind. When the key is broken, one might try the picks. With all due respect." He bowed, deeply.
Kissla rolled her eyes. "If you wish to ask me, can I trick the odd magic item, you may say that."
He looked hard and long at her, as if sizing up a dragon or a hostile emperor. "I recognize your calling mark, and do not wish to give offense." He clearly referred to the mark on her signet, the star on her flag. I felt a chill as I considered what it might mean.
"That was a long time ago. The armies are gone. Judge me by my dagger, if you must."
He nodded. "Can you do it?"
"That's better." She picked up the scroll. "I can pick out a few things, and might be able to wing it. No guarantees. That might be what Carl saw us do."
Drensen put his hand on Kissla's wrist, and gave her my look. "You know better than I do. This is important, but tell me if you..."
Kissla glanced in my direction and shook him off. "Anything's better than starvation. What's the worst that could happen?"
Soliden blanched at that question.
Drensen laughed. "We could be roasted by a room full of fire. Strange scrolls are no joke."
Soliden scoffed. "If that is the worst you can imagine, then I envy you. It could very well be that we will open the door for the black dragon king."
It was Kissla's turn. "Please."
"It is time. All the signs of his coming are here."
"Enough theory." Drensen waved him down. "I won't blame you if you refuse."
"Stand back, will you? I'm not sure what I'm doing."
We all retreated to the corners of the room. I reached out with a tendril. As it touched, Kissla's head spun back at me, with a lifted eyebrow and a smirk on the right, a glare on the left; she knew. Then, she began to study the scroll.
She muttered a word, and stuttered at another. A circle, she drew in the air with her finger, leaving a trail of stars. The energy, a great sizzling, filled the circle. A gigantic yellow crustacean with four legs leaped out at us, followed by rat spiders, and other brightly colored, monstrous shelled creatures.
The instant it appeared, Carl screamed with joy and struck with lightning, cooking the four-legged beast as it tried to jump on him. "I told you not to read it! I told you this would happen!"
Blades appeared in everybody's hand but mine as they struck down our visitors.
One of the rat spiders jumped on my dress. Big as my two hands clumped together, it had bright violet fur. I understood that they were quite edible, if properly cooked. "I was hoping for something a bit more goopy and with less of a face." I thought about Gregor's so-called food, and wondered if it had been really so bad.
"Ah, Care, that would take half the fun out of it," Kissla said.
Kissla, Drensen, and even Soliden took up formation, and seemed to be having almost as much fun as my little stormcloud, swinging their blades as he shot about with lightning. It looked almost like one of their games. As my stomach turned at the thought of this violence, I began to understand the real reason why they did not take me on their 'adventures.'
The storm of bug-things had been little more than a diversion for them, and most of the carnage they judged to be edible, even palatable. This misadventure did wonders for their spirits, but it would not feed more than our group for a day.
More had to be found.