My completed draft of Round 1 entry for the Original Character Tournament.
|Time is running out. Besa presses herself against the cavern wall, using cool jagged rocks for balance, raising one knee and then the other, calloused fingers making quick work of the laces on her boots. She kicks them off and they land in light splashes, shallow puddles strewn across the cavern floor, dipping into the river stream where the Guide impatiently waits for her. Through the curtain of rain descending in a white mist shrouded rush over the entrance of the cave, Besa squints her eyes and sees the night’s darkness begin to lift, entering into the earliest hour of the morning.
“Hurry,” The Guide whispers, his hoarse call echoing across the dark water, and sloped walls.
Besa peels off her socks, stuffing them inside the boots, and nervously turns around to fling off her cloak, shivering as the cold draft haunting the cave lashes out and strikes her skin, goosebumps erupting on the dark caramel cream flesh. The unclasping of her belt leaves her feeling naked, standing barefoot on the hard cavern floor with nothing but her messy tumble of dark curls bound in a loose braid, and her tunic hanging loosely down her form, no longer tightened around the waist.
“What are you doing?” The Guide demands, wading in the water, the river stream splashing at his skin, small eager waves attempting to lure him deeper into the darkness.
Besa crouches in front of her belt, unbuckling one of the pouches and draws out the toy horse, raising it to her lips and pressing them tightly to the faded wood. She lowers it back down, intending to leave it, but the thought of pirates gives her pause, and though she has more valuable items in her possession (the modest amount of coins, the medical herbs, and the identity papers that gain its owner safe passage through certain soldier infested large cities and capitals), it’s the horse whose absence would sear a hole in her heart.
“About time, you fool.” The Guide growls, watching Besa splash into the water, his eyes narrowing at the clenched left hand she has curled in a fist, using it help to move clumsily towards him. “We haven’t much time before the pirates are due to arrive. Do not fall behind.”
He turns, sliding easily through the water, like scissors cutting through cloth. Besa clenches her fingers tightly around the horse, and urges her body forward, kicking hard and pushing her arms out, drawing them in, blinking through the darkness and water splashed against her face, clinging to her lashes, droplets patterned around her eyes. Gradually the struggle of keeping herself both afloat and moving forward provokes a flush of heat that sparks within her chest and spreads throughout her body. She is river flame, flickering in uncertainty and blazing with slow, ever-shifting purpose.
She keeps her eyes as best she can on the rippling muscles of the Guide’s bare back, both of them swimming parallel to the curved path of the sloping cave wall. Every so often Besa reaches out to grip the cave wall with one hand, her nails scraped across the slippery rock, gripping tight when the river increases its speed and tries to drag her off course. The Guide doesn’t inquire after her, assuaged by their two mingled breaths, his steady exhalations of air and her labored pants. Above them, a melody of bat wings and soundless song, guided by their vibrations that strike obstacles in their way, flapping hard and keeping to their dark stone sky.
“Help!” The river churns and Besa’s hand slips from the crook in the rock wall, her fist useless, clenched tightly around the wooden horse. For a brief moment she has no thought, propelled into the center of cold darkness...
“I have you!” And a strong hand reaches out, its grip tightened around her arm, and with a labored grunt drags her back against the cold rock wall. The call was strange, strangled and high pitched, almost feminine, but then the Guide talks again, his voice deep, and Besa lets the unease sink beneath her mind. “We’re almost there. Hang onto me.”
Besa takes a breath and struggles against the tide to get behind him, her arms thrown around his wide neck, her chest pressed against his broad back, the toy horse clenched against his throat. When he swallows she can feel it in her hand. He pushes forward and begins to swim, hard cuts into the water, and she hangs on for dear life.
Coe Luna rests on the water, its borders outlined by the mountain forest and wall of jagged rocks sloped into the sea. Wooden bridges are built between the cracks, leveled platforms stretched out into the crystal blue expanse, where ships are free to dock. Independent of both Dolmar and Malbetha, Coe Luna acts as a neutral port city, spared from the consequences of war as best it can, situated between the two kingdoms.
Off the coast there is a cave, where pirates are fabled to favor, hiding their stash of treasure, for the simple reason that no magical beings may ever enter, and those without mystical gifts cannot steal without painful sacrifice. Besa knows these stories from childhood, plopping down at a campfire while the merchant does business in the city, eagerly draining every legend from a story teller’s lips.
She’s rather confused, then, by this turn of events, dripping wet and stumbling back through the darkness, now lit by a torch casting shadows on the narrowed cave walls, watching as the Guide straightens up to his full height, and immediately begins to shrink. Dark brown hair sprouts into long ruby locks descending in waves over a slim distinctly feminine frame. A rich blue texture drapes the woman’s body, and one of the bats flapping overhead suddenly descends with a soft, crooning call, and lands on her shoulder.
“I - you - what are you?” Besa trembles, frightened. When it’s the bat who parts its mouth and offers up a reply, Besa shrieks and jerks back, her arms flailing, one of them struck against the hard rock wall, her grip loosening but unrelenting its hold on the wooden toy.
“Get a hold of yourself, dearie!” Jeremiah reprimands her, settled comfortably on his mistress’ shoulder, everything about her warm and comforting to his small body. “Of all the simpering minions available for use, why did you settle for this one?” He locks eyes with the crystal clear blue of his mistress, but she draws her gaze away without responding, letting it descend upon the girl crumpled on the ground, cradling her arm.
“My name is Nylah.” The sorceress steps forward, and all traces of the broad shouldered, gruff middle aged man are absent in the elegant fluidity of her movements. “And you have something that I need.”
“You’re a witch.” Besa swallows, pressing the curve of her back harder into the wall, willing herself to disappear into the rocks as Nylah draws closer, her shadow seeping through Besa’s own. “What could I have that would interest the likes of you?”
Besa is no strangers to witches. She’s visited a few old crones, trading locks of her hair or gold coins for small enchantments to help the crops grow, and cheap protection spells that last only up to a few hours. But the being looming above her is of a different class, a higher order, and Besa feels more fully the softness of her mortal skin, and the desperate youth of her age that flares beneath the buried rubble of heavy experiences.
Being a mother, having to care and worry and love Belastar so ardently distracted her from the last lingering years of her childhood. In his company, she is his protector, she is a knight, she is a warrior. It is in these moments, on her own, trapped between cold, damp darkness and the flickering heat of a torch, that she is but a mere peasant girl of twenty, hopeless lost, longing for her distant home.
“I am a magician,” Nylah corrects her, nose wrinkling at the child’s unsavory term. “And I require, from you, a sacrifice.” Nylah bends down in front of her, and Besa flinches as the woman - the witch - raises her hands, but her her warm palms merely press against the young girl’s arms, and a flood of warmth seeps through her blood, and the powerful shudders and shivers from fear begin to die down, her skin abruptly dry. “Though nothing so drastic, I assure you. If you do as I say, and in a timely fashion, rest assured you will not be harmed by my hand.”
“I don’t - I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” Besa calms down a little bit, the tunic still a little damp, her curls coming loose from the braid, dripping water on her front, but the heat lingering on her skin is delicious, combating against the cavern’s persistent draft. “The stories say that magical beings cannot enter this cave.”
“Yes, that is partially true.” Nylah grazes her fingertips along Besa’s arm, and the pain begins to fade. “This is as far as I am able to go,” She indicates the rock ledge they’re balanced on, where they’d climbed up the wall, their bodies scraped against the hard ridges, the river lapping at their ascending feet, trying to draw them back in. “before the established wards will strip away my magic. I need you to venture forward in my place.”
“What treasure do you seek?”
“The same as you.”
“I don’t know - ” But Jeremiah cuts her off.
“I overheard you talking with that old captain, dearie.” He flaps his wings, the soft fur brushed against Nylah’s cheek. “Back inside the city walls. You seek the map the pirates who stole the chalice left behind.”
“An ambitious little project for a child.” Nylah bares her teeth in a predatory grin, her voice lilted with playful amusement, not bothering to try and intimidate Besa anymore than she obviously already was. “Take pride in how you shall soon assist me, for you could not have hoped to get as close as you are now without my help. And no doubt you will not get much farther without me anyway. Aid me in this task, and I shall see you out the cavern safely. Go home to your family, and amuse your friends with tales of your failed misadventure.”
There is something both mocking and kind in the witch’s tone, her smooth voice, like the whistle in a winter’s breeze, bouncing off the ice. Besa turns the wooden horse over and over in her hand, Nylah’s shadow still cast over her, hiding the flare that has erupted behind Besa’s eyes. “How do I get to the map?”
Nylah smiles, satisfied with the child’s reluctant obedience. “How well can you climb?”
With the witch’s instructions bound across her mind, Besa hoists herself up over the ledge, grunting in pain as her stomach presses against the sharp rock, clenching her teeth on the toy horse she has cradled in her mouth. Fruit bats hang upside down, blinking bleary eyes, watching her climb before quickly losing interest, fluttering their wings and then going back to sleep.
Besa belly crawls, kicking at the air, clawing at the stone ground, and settles heavily on the highest level the cavern wall has to offer. For a second she listens to the rush of waterfalls spread throughout the cave, hidden by the darkness. Below her, Nylah is a shadowed speck illuminated by the dim flame of the torch.
“Hurry,” Nylah urges from several feet below, and Besa pushes up on the ground, her bare knees and thighs bleeding from thin cuts, her tunic riding up.
On this level, there is a stone tunnel, the walls sloped around her. Besa stretches her arms out, reaching blindly for the walls, and starts forward, running the witch’s instructions over again. Twenty two paces until the blood sacrifice. She counts her steps, silent whispers in the night, and hesitates on her twenty first, before swallowing and venturing forward.
“Ah!” Besa gasps, something white hot slashed across her cheek, and she can hear the droplet splash upon the ground. There’s a shudder, as if the tunnel has come alive, and then it stills. Her blood is that of a human’s, a non-magical being, she is free to move on.
Eleven paces, and then the sacrifice of faith. Besa quickens her step, hoping if she can somehow simple outpace the enchantment... something cold squeezes itself around her throat. Besa splutters, clawing at her throat, the wooden horse falling from her fingers, but the cold grip is intangible to her fingers, and she comes away with nothing but mist. Her chest begins to burn. Oxygen is drained from her brain but she remembers the witch’s instruction and forces herself to still, closing her eyes and giving in, forcing herself not to struggle, giving in, pledging her very breath.
The cold releases its grip and Besa doubles over, heaving air. A step between five and six, the promise of a sacrifice yet to come. She counts her pace, and hesitates after her fifth step, lowering her heel onto the stone in front of her, and just as she’s about to press the rest of her foot down, a whisper slithers into her ear, and suddenly the darkness shimmers, and the tunnel disappears.
“By the gods...” Besa gazes in open awe at the room that appears. Lush velvet carpets caress the marble floor, the walls lined with polished wooden shelves (inhabited by dusty tomes, bound scrolls and delicate objects) separated by paintings and lit torches. The ground is covered with piles of treasures; rubies, emeralds, silver and gold. Treasure trunks, toppled over and partly pried open, corner the room. She flexes her bare feet, toes delighting in the foreign softness of the carpet.
“You seek the chalice.” Besa startles, whipping around, dark eyes flared in fear, but they calm down, soothed by the cool whisper in her ear. She can almost feel its breath on her neck, but nothing is there.
“Yes, I was told there was a map. A pirate hid it here.”
“What would you give for it?”
“I don’t - I’m not sure.” Besa wets her lips, nibbling on the soft bottom flesh, glancing around the room, noting the absence of any door. “What would you ask me for it?”
“The thing you hold most dear.”
The room disappears and the tunnel emerges through the darkness. Besa winces from the sting slashed across her cheek, the fresh scabs grown on her knees. Light flares and suddenly her way back towards the ledge on the far end of the tunnel is illuminated. Besa pauses, and glances down at the map held in her hands.
I cannot escape this, she will best me if I try to fight. She will take the map from me, I cannot prevent it.
Dark eyes run over the markings. The map lacks a key, but it doesn’t take her long to disentangle the codes, wading through the language the crumpled parchment shows. Gradually she etches the markings into her mind, and crouches on the floor reaching for the jagged end of a small stone. Carefully she smooths the paper on the ground, and makes incisions with the stone, cutting off an essential corner, and converting a few markings, placing darkened circles and scrawled x’s where there shouldn’t be, the stone acting as substitute charcoal.
So let her have this map. Besa rolls the parchment up, and straightens up, hurrying forward once more, running over the original markings again over in her head. A sort of nervous excitement sends bubbles through her bloodstream. She feels herself begin to boil, a tentative smile edging through the wince haunting her face, provoked by the sore bruises on her abdomen, the shallow cuts that slowly fade, no longer insistently bleeding.
“Oh!” Besa trips on something wobbling beneath her foot, catching herself against the wall. The illumination of the tunnel’s sourceless light begins to fade, but as she bends down for the mysterious object she doesn’t need the light to tell her what is it. Her fingers stroke the wooden toy horse, a breath of apology and relief exhaled through her nose. Hey, lucky charm.
“You did well,” Nylah praises her, running her eyes across the map, a satisfied smirk teasing the edges of a smile, raising her gaze to Besa, now fully dressed but dripping wet again. Behind them, through the waterfall curtain, the sun begins to rise, pink and purple streaks staining the sky.
“Now you’ll let me go?” Besa tries to maintain a balance of indignation, resignation, respectful fear and personal pride. She doesn’t want Nylah to catch on, realize the map she’s been given has been tampered with, new coordinates forged, with Besa left with the only true path towards the Chalice (if the pirate who’d left the map was to be trusted).
“Yes, you’re free to go.” Nylah leads the way through the waterfall, the two of them emerging on the cavern’s beach. In the distance, Coe Luna sits peacefully on the water. Somewhere through the morning mist, the pirate ship is due to arrive.
Besa begins walking towards one of two wooden boats resting on the powder white sand. She leans forward, pushing on the nose, urging it into the water, and preparing to swing over and settle inside.
“I hate to do this,” Nylah murmurs, Jeremiah hiding his face from the light beneath the lift of his wing.
Besa stiffens, turning to glance over her shoulder, and a flash of light leaves her frozen, petrified with her ankles sinking into sand, water splashing on her calves, her fingers curled around the wood of the boat. She finds she can blink, and she can glare, her brow furrowed, her face stiffly facing Nylah.
“Don’t worry,” The witch breezes by, elegant cloak whipped along her slim frame by the wind, settling inside her own boat. “The spell will wear off quickly enough, in time for you to leave before the pirates arrive. I just can’t have you following me, you understand.”
Besa seethes, humiliated and impatient, but as Nylah becomes a speck in the distance and her limbs began to regain their function, the original images of the map flash across her mind and Besa can breathe. Be patient, my Belastar, I’m almost there, I’m sure of it. She climbs into the boat, and pushes off, drifting off into the mist.