by The Lemon
And now the heroes embark to save Princess Anne. Will they be able to do so?
| “Wake up! Why are dwarves so lazy? Get up!”
Grom opened his eyes and saw a blurry image of Cloey beside his bed. He rubbed his forehead and tried to blink away the fuzziness that clouded his senses.
“What time is it?”
“It’s time to go, come on! You’re the one who got us into this in the first place. Are you going to help us or not?”
Cloey reached forward, wrapped both hands around Grom’s wrist, and grunted from the strain to try and pull him from the bed. Not budging an inch, he just laid there like a two-ton boulder. He attempted to mask an amused grin as she continued her futile tugs and tiny grunts of frustration. After having a private laugh at Cloey’s expense, Grom shook the sluggishness from his mind and sat upright in bed. He gave her a light-hearted smile and swung both legs from the bed to plant his feet solidly on the floor. Meanwhile, Cloey retreated a few paces to allow the robust dwarf some room.
“Now get your gear all together and meet us down in the main hall.”
She flashed him a confident grin and made her way towards the bedroom door. Grom finally pulled himself from the bed, and he began to gather his gear and prepare for their departure.
* * *
A light breeze swept through the front doors of the castle into the main hallway. Rays of sunlight raced inward through the open entryway of the hall and warmed the bodies of the waiting group. Inside the entrance to the castle, Isac leaned against one of the open doors and gazed out into the bustling town. His arms crossed over his chest, he watched the passers-by with minimal interest. A plain wooden staff, more of a walking stick than anything, rested in the crook of his arm. Prescott, who was preoccupied with all the little details of their journey, sat cross-legged in the center of the hall and looked over a map of the region. A sheath made of dark, leathered skin, which covered all but the black wooden hilt of his sword, hung at his side. Cloey faced a wall opposite of Prescott and eyed a colorful painting. Tapping her lips with her forefinger, she silently regarded the painting’s worth in the marketplace.
Grom marched down the curved flight of stairs with his trusty axe secured across his back. Prescott looked up from his map and acknowledged him with a bow of his head. Cloey briefly glanced at Grom and then turned back to further regard the painting.
“So, you are up. It is surprising to see my brother up and ready before you,” Prescott spoke with a slight smirk.
“Yeah, you were the one who dragged us into this. Now you make us wait,” Cloey countered without turning from the painting.
“Bah! Let’s not waste any more of our travel time with chitchat,” Grom responded with a wave of his hand. Annoyed with his impatient companions and their constant ridicule, he stomped past them and almost made his way outside the doors, but then another voice rang in from behind.
“Arguing will accomplish nothing. Your victory will be guided by your teamwork.”
Grom recognized the voice and stopped in mid-stride. He turned around to see Jonathan walking down the stairway. Hands planted on his hips, Grom glowered at the captain as he advanced. Jonathan stepped in front of Grom and glared back at him.
“I’m still opposed to sending unknown adventurers out to secure the safety of the princess. If I had my way, I’d take my own men through the woods; however, I must put my trust in our king’s judgment. Bring Anne home safely.”
Grom’s demeanor softened at the mention of the princess’s name. He nodded his head and turned his attention toward Cloey, Prescott, and Isac, then back at Jonathan. “I promise you that we will return with her.”
Without speaking another word, Grom made his way through the iron-bound doors at the front of the castle and strode out toward the town. Prescott followed right behind him as did Cloey and a more reluctant Isac.
Word had spread like wildfire about King Gregory’s new recruits, and the townspeople gathered in the square to watch the four march toward the front gate. Some shouted out encouraging cheers of good luck, but the majority watched with faces of uncertainty. Hushed whispers of suspicion and worry lingered and drifted through the crowd. A cold chill crawled over Grom’s skin, and he felt as if they were marching straight to the gallows. They passed the morning venders and cozy cottages until they reached the front gates of the city. The guards gave them little acknowledgment as they walked through the newly-repaired doors and onto the cobbled road.
The companions traveled northwest from the town along a path as wide as a horse-drawn carriage. The lush vegetation, which consisted of a variety of wild grasses and overgrown bushes, spanned from the sides of the road and continued until they met the rising and falling hills in the distance. After a while of walking in silence, Cloey turned and saw the town as a small speck in the background. She sighed to herself, but it went unnoticed.
Several hours of steady traveling had passed before Prescott finally broke the silence, “This road forks in two directions here. The northeast road goes through the forest, and the southwestern branch heads to a series of farms near Lake Dev. We must stray from these roads and make our own path farther northwest. Our journey will lead us away from settled lands into the untamed expanse of the forest. It will become a bit more difficult to traverse, but this will be the most direct route to reach the old temple. The edge of the forest is only a few more hours from here.”
“That sounds like a lot of work,” Isac groaned, leaning heavily on his staff, “How about we take one of these roads around the forest instead?”
“We could venture around, but this will save us many days of travel,” Prescott replied.
Grom ran a hand through his long, black beard before looking up from the path, “Sounds good to me. A change in scenery might do us some good.”
Prescott guided them away from the road and into rolling grasslands covered with bright green blades of wild grasses and variegated patches of wild flowers. After another few hours of steady walking, they sighted the green leaves and thick trunks of trees in the distance. The dense line of timber towered before them like a barrier between the soft plains and bristling forest.
The sun had beat down on them in unmerciful waves throughout their travel, and the heat combined with the exhaustion of their trek began to wear on them. Upon reaching the edge of the forest, they found relief beneath the tall succession of trees, which helped block much of the harsh rays. Cloey dropped the backpack that she carried with her at the base of one of the trees and collapsed beside it. She openly welcomed the coolness of the shade. “I’m too tired to go on! Let’s take a short rest, ok?”
Isac nodded in agreement, reaching at his side for a waterskin that he had received before departing. He pulled off the top and took a long drink of the water within. He let out a satisfied sigh and licked his dry lips.
“Bah, only a short break. We have important matters to worry about,” Grom grunted while leaning his back against a nearby tree.
“While we may run into some difficult terrain, traveling through the forest will give us a chance to escape the heat. The trees here are tall and shade much of the ground from the sun,” Prescott said to reassure the group.
“I’m thankful for that,” Isac said as he put his waterskin away, “I couldn’t handle smelling Cloey’s sweaty armpits wafting up in my face this whole way.”
“Excuse me?” Cloey snapped back. Her eyes were piercing daggers directed at the frail half-elf. “A lady doesn’t sweat. A lady glows.”
“I don’t care what you call it. Just keep your glowing armpit stink away from me,” Isac replied with a devilish grin.
Cloey let out of an agitated squeak and decided to ignore Isac’s rude comments. She looked up toward Prescott and whined, “How much longer until we get there anyway?”
“Although the forest is my home,” Prescott began, “I do not know every stretch of land beneath its many trees. I would estimate that we should reach our destination by our third night of travel.”
Grom crossed his arms over his chest. He had hoped to reach their destination much sooner. He could only imagine what the princess had been subjected to while being the captive of this mysterious thief. His troubled thoughts were soon broken by quarreling voices behind him.
“Hey! Give that back!”
Cloey gulped down some of the water from Isac’s container, which she clenched with both her tiny hands. Isac grabbed through the air for it, but she jumped back out of his reach.
“Come on! You need to learn how to share! Classy ladies aren’t used to all this traveling and deserve a bit of water, too.”
“Then you should be used to traveling,” Isac muttered and snagged his skin back, stopping up the top with its cork and fastening it to his belt.
Prescott sighed at his brother and turned away from the rest of his companions to further survey the tract of land ahead. Traversing into the wild several paces, he knelt down on one knee and ran his palm over the blades of grass and a few fallen leaves. He lifted one between his fingers and brought it up under his nose. Quickly scurrying to his feet, he placed two fingers to his lips. Grom turned his head and watched the tall, slender half-elf produce a loud, echoing screech. As the shrill whistle rose upward into the air, the sounds of rustling branches and falling leaves above caught Grom’s attention. Descending from the leafy canopy flew a dark-colored, spotted owl. Grom flinched as the bird skimmed just over his head and landed gracefully on Prescott’s shoulder. Prescott cooed and stroked the feathers atop the owl’s slightly tilted head, and the bird hooted as if offering a sort of reply. Grom watched with some amazement at the strange conversation between bird and half-elf. Letting out a final, resounding hoot, the owl ruffled its feathers, flapped its wings, and flew out of sight into the forest. Prescott dropped the leaf, and he trod back toward Grom.
“A friend of yours?”
Prescott smiled and nodded his head, “Yes, he has been of great aid these last few years. He keeps watch of the landscape from the skies, and in return I help to keep him safe from predators. His name is Vision, and he is my second sight.”
“I thought owls only came out at night,” Grom said, scratching at his bearded chin in confusion.
“I am impressed by your knowledge of the wild,” Prescott replied, his smile widening a bit, “I have raised Vision since he was merely an owlet. During our time together, I have used my training and magic as a druid to help him adapt to daylight. This little bit of magic allows him to aid me at all times.”
“And what did you just send him to do?”
“He’s going to make sure our trip is a safe one. The forest is no place to be traveling after nightfall. He will help us find a safe place to set up camp once the sun sets.”
“In that case, we should get moving. Isac, Cloey, ready to go?”
Grom turned his head to see Isac holding the waterskin over his head while Cloey jumped up and down, frantically trying to grab it. Mumbling to himself, Grom turned and headed off under the cover of the woods, followed by Prescott. Cloey turned her head and noticed that her fellow travelers had disappeared into the wilderness. She gave Isac a hard kick in the shin and rushed off after them.
“Oww! Why you little . . .” Isac muttered and hobbled after her.
* * *
Prescott proceeded to guide the party through the dense forest. The first few hours of travel went by smoothly. The surrounding woods were calm and quiet. Unaccustomed to spending much time amongst nature, Grom marveled silently at the simple elegance of the variety of vegetation. For a dwarf raised as part of a mining community deep within the mountains, the sheer depth and vibrancy of the landscape filled him with a sense of intrigue.
Noticing his dwarven companion’s childlike countenance, Prescott slowed his pace to fall into step alongside him. “This is quite divergent from the subterranean environments of the Kirthar Mountains, is it not?”
“Personally, I prefer the depths of the dark mines to this maze of overgrown weeds,” Grom stated.
Prescott merely nodded once and returned to his role as their guide.
Grom stared forward at the endless tangling of limbs and branches and sighed. He didn’t want to admit openly that their surroundings were a welcome change to his previous life. Dwarves lived in mountains and made their living at mining. They didn’t run off to travel through the cities of men, and if they did, they often never returned to the mountains. Despite his desire to discover what else life had to offer, he did not want to acknowledge the truth out loud to some nature-obsessed half-elf.
As the day wore on, the travelers faced more difficult terrain. They were forced to scale a rocky break in the woods too wide to go around. They spent a substantial amount of time dragging themselves over the rocky obstructions. Cloey had the worst time of it. Her skills as a thief granted her a considerate level of swiftness, but her smaller size hindered her ability to climb over the rocky territory. More than once Grom or Prescott had to lift the tiny halfling over steep climbs on the rock.
Once they managed to get across, they arrived at a ravine several feet wide and waist-deep with coursing water. Prescott left to scout the banks above the waters and returned some time later to lead them several miles downstream to an uprooted tree that served as a crude bridge to the other side.
Despite these obstacles, nothing could stray them from their course. As night approached, Vision returned to counsel with Prescott. The others watched with anticipation. They were all tired and hoped for some much needed rest. When Vision flew back off into the night, Prescott motioned for them to follow. They traveled for about an hour, and their progress was slowed by the diminishing daylight. The shadows of dusk crept forth to obscure their surroundings. They marched toward a massive tree with thick and twisted roots that snaked above ground due to the crowded soil below. The wide tree trunk rose high into the canopy, and its leaves rustled in the cool, light breeze.
“We’ll make camp here tonight. Vision has scouted ahead, and this area seems relatively safe to stop until morning,” Prescott said.
“Good,” Isac said, dropping his backpack and collapsing to the ground. He fumbled around inside his bag and pulled out a tall, unlabeled bottle half-filled with clear liquid. He pulled off the cork, but before he could taste its contents, a tiny hand wrenched it away from him.
“Me first! I’m thirsty!” Cloey shouted and took a long swig. The moment the liquid hit her throat, she sputtered and coughed, splattering the liquid onto the ground and Isac’s legs. “This stuff is awful! What the hell is it?”
“That’s my own homemade brew!” Isac shouted, grabbing the bottle back from Cloey’s quivering hand. He lifted the bottle and eyed the contents. “Don’t you dare waste any of this!”
“Brother,” Prescott began. His words came out the same raspy, irritated tone that Isac had become accustomed to over the years. “Don’t poison your mind and your body with that swill. We need to remain alert in case we are forced to act during the night.”
“I’ll leave all the acting to you,” Isac replied with a slight smirk. His scrutinizing glance never left the bottle. “Me and my best friend here have some catching up to do.”
Another set of hands pulled the bottle away again, but this time they belonged to Grom. He turned the bottle upside down, and Isac was forced to watch in absolute horror as his beloved liquor splashed against the ground. Isac fell forward to try and catch some of the liquid in his eager mouth, but Grom pulled the dripping bottle away.
“Your brother is right. We need you sober,” Grom said, tossing the bottle against the side of the tree.
Paralyzed, Isac stared at the wet spot on the ground. As Grom turned his back, Isac dug his hands into the moist dirt and tried to collect what remained of his drink. Cloey watched for a moment with a disgusted face and quickly went back to preparing her bed for the night.
The rest of the night passed without incident, save for Isac pouting over the loss of his “best friend.” Grom rested his head against one of the above-ground roots of the tree and took in the sights, sounds, and smells of the forest at night. The movement of the branches in the wind kept his eyes busy for several hours after the rest of his companions had fallen asleep. He listened closely to the insects and tried to pick out each different resonance, and the sweet and mild scent of forest herbs put his mind at ease. These simple things that he had never experienced before overtook his mind and gave him a brief respite from thoughts of Anne.
Prescott roused the others early, and they were soon gathered and traveling on foot again.
“Would have been nice to have a little breakfast,” Isac grumbled to no one in particular. Out of the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse of Cloey sneaking something into her mouth. Noticing his glance, she turned and stuck out a tongue covered with chewed up bread. Isac’s face twisted with disgust, but it soon returned to normal when Cloey offered him a piece of bread.
Their second day of travel went by much easier than their first. The companions encountered some small woodland animals along the way, such as a fragile fox that peered at them from the security of its den and a pair of gray squirrels that scampered up a tree. Near the day’s end, Vision returned and guided them to a clearing in the woods. They made camp and started again once the morning light returned.
During their third day of travel, all but Prescott seemed fatigued from the constant pace. Thanks in part to complaining from Isac and Cloey, they made far more stops to rest and eat. Prescott tried his best to keep them moving, but he ultimately gave in to their whining each time.
“How much longer?” Cloey asked, glancing upward through an opening in the forest. Night would approach in a few more hours, and they had stopped for a quick dinner of bread, dried, leathery jerky, and berries Prescott had picked along the way.
“We should be getting close,” Prescott replied. Suddenly, his pointed ears perked up, and he stopped in his tracks. A soft flutter of wings could be heard, and then Vision flew down from a high oak branch and landed on Prescott’s shoulder. The owl let out a few low hoots, and with a pat from Prescott, he flew off again into the shadowy surroundings.
“What did he have to say this time?” Grom asked as he stepped to Prescott’s side.
“There is both good and bad news. We are almost there, but Vision says that he saw others enter the temple. We should be on our guard.”
They traveled in silence the rest of the way. In the fading light, the trees began to appear farther apart, and they soon found themselves out of the forest and back amongst a field of thick verdure. From atop a grassy hill, they could see the tall spires of a dilapidated structure. Bits of rock and cracked foundations surrounded the one standing structure–remnants of a once thriving temple and town. The moonlight hit the side of the temple and cast a ghostly shadow over the secluded remains.
“Finally! I didn’t think we’d ever see the end of that forest!” Cloey chimed happily. She stretched her arms and let out a little yawn.
“Don’t tell me you’re tired already. We still have a job to do,” Isac added.
“Let’s go,” Grom said, urging them forward. The hill dropped downward, and he descended with his fellow companions. The sky was a dark canvas, speckled with twinkling dots of white light. The half moon disappeared behind a group of clouds, shrouding their path in near darkness. As they moved closer, the temple seemed to grow in size until they could see that it was at least two stories tall and rectangular in shape. Two rounded towers framed the crumbling fortification, and two wooden doors, warped from years of neglect, provided the only entrance into this derelict place. Upon further inspection, they realized that one of the doors was pushed halfway open. The fragmented and unkempt remnants of a crude brick road led up to the front doors. They continued on this road and slowed their pace considerably until they stopped at the threshold of the temple.
“Well, we’re here. Now what, Mr. Smelly Dwarf?” Cloey asked.
“How about we offer to trade you for the princess?” Grom shot back. When he noticed the sudden look of terror on the young halfling’s face, he laughed and continued, “Seriously now, let’s just head in there and see what we can find. It’s obvious that there is something of worth here and that others are also interested in whatever that may be.”
Grom pushed the door open completely and took a step into a spacious hall. The four pairs of echoing footfalls enlivened the dead room. A pungent aroma of mold infiltrated their nostrils, and dust dominated the already eerie surroundings. Darkness bathed the room, and only Grom’s keen eyes, accustomed to years of living underground, could discern anything of their surroundings. With the sound of a spark and a flicker of crimson, a crackling of flames rose from the hand of the halfling, who waved a lit torch from side to side. The sudden light illuminated the hall and revealed floors and walls covered with cobwebs and dirt. Roaches and spiders, startled by the bright flash, scrambled beneath their feet and up the walls. The stone walls were cracked and crumbling in places, but for the most part seemed to be holding up. The light stretched down the hall before it faded again into darkness.
“Follow me,” Grom whispered, his voice carrying much farther than he had wanted.
They crept down the hall, each keeping their eyes open for anything that might jump out at them. They found themselves treading into a relatively small, open room with a gigantic domed ceiling. Angelic beings flew eternally overhead. Among the seraphim at the top of the fading, crackled mural, a dragon, which was painted a sparkling gold, stretched its wings across the length of the ceiling. The dragon’s reflecting glow offered a feeling of comfort and shining warmth in the consuming darkness. In the center of the room lay a pile of rock, and amidst the rubble could be discerned a stone face, what remained of a former statue. Two dark entryways stretched to either side of the companions. In front of them, however, stood a set of undisturbed double doors.
“Which way now?” Isac began, but was silenced not by his brother, but by a voice that rumbled through the left entryway.
Prescott turned and took a few steps toward the opening. He closed his eyes and tried to listen for any other sounds. He turned his head back and looked a bit worried. His eyes locked directly with Grom, and he said in the lowest whisper possible, “We head this way.”
Prescott led them down the new corridor, and as they traveled, they heard more of the same sounds as before. When the voices became more audible, they stopped and listened. Isac and Cloey’s faces strained in confusion. Prescott looked to Grom and nodded his head while pointing to his ear. Stepping up beside Prescott, Grom reached for the axe on his back. A single word slipped between his clenched teeth, which sent a shiver coursing up Cloey’s spine.
They all remained silent for several moments. Deep down, Cloey hoped that the noises would just go away, but they did not. Soon the sounds of their voices were interrupted by the clanging of metal and objects being shattered against the ground. Grom stepped forward and waved for his companions to follow him toward the end of the hall and the slightly-ajar door.
Standing at the doorway, Grom peered inward. Low light filtered through from the other side, and Grom could see the room and its occupants. Four forms grumbled to one another as they clambered throughout the moldy, disheveled room. They were as tall as humans and had broad, strong shoulders and pale green skin, which was covered in coarse, black hair. One of the orcs held a torch in hand and stood with his back to the door. The others, frantically searching for something of importance, darted around the room and pushed aside obstacles. Splintered wood from two broken chests was strewn about the room. The fragments of a large vase painted many different bright colors occupied one corner. An orc muscled over a warped bookshelf, and the pages of ancient tomes that once lined its shelves scattered across the floor. The largest orc, the one with the torch, tapped his foot impatiently as he watched the others scavenge and trash the rest of the room’s contents.
“I don’t see anything of value here,” uttered one of the creatures searching. The kicking up of the old dust overwhelmed his nostrils and caused him to sneeze. Luckilly, he carried a torn piece of an old, tattered tapestry that once decorated a wall of the room and reduced it to a handkerchief. Foul-smelling snot and phlegm covered the embroidered image of a gold dragon’s face.
“Keep searching the room!” the massive orc commanded. He gave the sniffling fiend a shove back toward the center of the room. “I want everything torn down and open!”
Annoyed by the slow progress, the impatient beast turned his head toward the door that Grom stood behind. His coal black eyes stopped, and Grom gripped the handle of his axe tightly in both hands. The orc grunted a command, and one of the others stopped his searching and lumbered toward the door.
Abandoning all rational thought, Grom brought the blade of his axe crashing through the door. The rest of the searching party turned their heads to see splintered pieces of wood flying about and the sharpened metal blade cutting deep into the chest of the advancing orc. Prescott hurried in after, drawing the sword at his side. Both Isac and Cloey faltered a moment before following suit.
With a snarl and a howl, the lead orc dropped his torch and drew a broad, rusted blade from his side and thrust it forward. The remaining two pulled crude axes from leather straps along their backs and charged. Cloey let out a yelp as one rushed forward at her. She cringed as the orc brought the axe upward with its massive arms and came down with great force.
The sound of clashing metal echoed as Prescott’s sword came into contact with the axe. Cloey opened a weary eye to see Prescott standing stoically in front of her. She stared with wide eyes, and a panicked cry escaped her lips. She dropped her torch and darted back toward the hanging remains of the wooden door. With amazing speed, Prescott thrust his blade upward and pushed the axe to the side. Losing his balance, the orc tried to bring his weapon back around for another swing, but Prescott’s blade cut through the thin layer of leather protecting his abdomen. After letting out a loud howl of pain, the orc dropped his weapon, clutched his bleeding stomach, and collapsed to the ground.
The other orc rushed toward Isac, who stood alone by the door. Isac barely dodged out of the way of a low swing from the axe. The beast turned and lunged once more, but Isac ducked underneath the high attack. Gripping his staff tightly, he swung it low, knocking it into the back of the orc’s legs. The orc stumbled, but the strike did not fell him. He barred his yellowed teeth and advanced again. Isac held his staff up to brace himself, but the orc’s face twisted in pain. A gurgled grunt escaped the orc’s lips, and he came crashing forward, almost atop poor Isac. Grom pulled his massive axe from the back of the fallen beast and turned toward the leading raider.
“Hmph, what is it you want?” the orc barked in the common tongue.
“You know why we are here,” Grom shot back, advancing forward, “Where are you hiding her?”
“What are you talking about?” the orc growled back, bits of saliva spraying out of his mouth and running in gobs down his chin.
“Give Princess Anne back!” Grom screamed and swung his axe wildly, but his target quickly backpedaled out of the way. With a snarl, the orc countered and caught Grom across his left arm. He took another step back as Grom winced from the pain.
“You talk nonsense. You killed my soldiers, and now you die!” the orc growled and pulled back his blade for a forward thrust.
Before he could bring his blade through the gut of the dwarf, his entire body flew backward from a sudden concussive force. He fell backward against a table near the middle of the room and let out a low grunt. Shaking his head in disbelief, he looked toward the group, and his eyes fell upon Isac, who held his staff outward with a trembling hand.
Grom turned his head to the side and looked puzzled.
“You all right?” Isac asked, lowering his staff to his side again.
“Lad.” Grom’s face turned into a smile, and he laughed long and hard. “I knew you were good for something.”
“Err . . . thanks?” Isac replied with a shrug.
The orc pulled himself upright again, and the corners of his mouth turned into a sneer. Filling the air with a shaking howl, he raised his sword and rushed toward the group. He barreled past Grom, knocking him aside with a hard swing of his elbow. Prescott lunged into his path, but he collided into the humanoid’s shoulder and fell to the ground. Isac’s eyes widened as the beast charged straight for him. He held his staff in front of him for protection and clenched his teeth.
The orc leaped into the air and pulled back his sword. He let out another monstrous howl and descended toward the trembling half-elf. Before he came barreling down, his howl faded into a hiss, and he dropped his weapon and shifted in the air, affording Isac a chance to roll to safety. The massive orc came crashing face first to the ground, and a sickening sound of muscle and flesh hitting cold ground resonated throughout the room. He struggled to crawl to his feet and noticed that a dagger stuck through his wrist.
Realizing the orc’s disadvantage, Prescott rose and dove with his sword, slicing across the beast’s throat. It howled one last gurgling cry before collapsing to the ground.
Isac’s chest heaved with labored breaths, and he turned his head to see Cloey standing there with a hand over her mouth. He used his staff to pull himself up, and he stepped away from the dead bodies that rested around his feet.
“Bah,” Grom mumbled and rose from the floor. He looked around and saw Prescott pull the dagger from the leader’s hand.
“This belongs to you,” Prescott said to Cloey, handing her the bloody weapon. She nodded with a horror-struck expression and mechanically wiped the blood from it.
“You ok, lad?” Grom said as he approached Isac.
“I should be asking you that,” he replied, eyeing the slice on Grom’s arm.
“I’ll be fine. Just tell me, where did you learn to do that?”
“You know what I mean. That spell you cast to knock him away from me. It was amazing!”
“I don’t know,” Isac said with a shrug of his shoulders, “It’s just something that has always been a part of me. I didn’t learn it at all.”
“My brother may have a strong temper, but he has a lot of potential in him,” Prescott began. Isac glared at his brother, but Prescott countered with a smile. “Come now, brother. I meant nothing but respect. However, now is not the time for praise and celebration. We still have to find the Princess.”
“My thoughts exactly. Let’s head back and see what we can find in the main room,” Grom asserted as he turned back to the doorway. Cloey bent down and lifted her burnt-out torch and quickly followed, trying to block out the images of the room as best she could. Prescott patted his brother on the shoulder, and they both followed.
They returned to the first room, and Cloey once again lit her torch. Prescott moved toward the pile of rubble in the center of the room and lifted a large fragment. Isac ran a finger along a wall, pulling with it a film of dust. Grom stepped up beside Prescott and glanced down at the pile of stone.
“What kind of statue was it?” Grom asked.
“I’m not exactly sure,” Prescott answered. He brushed aside smaller chips and examined the larger slabs. “It seems to be a statue built in the visage of a god, but I am unsure what god was once immortalized here.”
“G-guys?” came a trembling voice from behind. Prescott and Grom turned to see Cloey staring past them. The torch in her hands began to quiver, and she took a slow step backwards.
“What is it?” Prescott asked.
“Weren’t those doors closed when we first came in here?” she stammered and pointed at the large double doors. They were both pushed wide open, leading into darkness.
“Yes, indeed they were,” Prescott answered, standing from amongst the stones covering the floor. He stepped over the pile and moved to the doorway. Peering forward, he could see a faint red glow in the distance. He waved his companions forward and stepped cautiously into the hall.
They entered the corridor and realized that the glow emanated from lit torches that flickered and crackled along the walls. Grasping his axe in both hands, Grom stepped ahead of Prescott. Cloey followed close behind, trying to stay out of sight the best she could. Prescott looked uneasy and sniffed at the air.
Isac reached out and pulled one of the blazing torches from the wall. The flames danced at the sudden shift. “Where are we heading?”
His brother waved his hand to silence him. As they crept along, low voices began to rise.
“This wasn’t part of our deal. I thought I made myself perfectly clear, or is your simplistic human mind incapable of comprehending even the simplest of demands?”
“You better watch your tongue, you black-skinned freak! The plan changed the moment that I saw this beautiful young face.”
“The girl is not my master’s concern. You were sent to search our the artifact, not kidnap their princess. You’ve made this far more difficult than it needed to be.”
“Forget about the stupid trinket! We’ll make much more now in ransom money. King Gregory Delencor is loaded and will do anything to keep his beautiful baby Anne safe and sound. All we have to do now is figure out the price tag.”
“You still fail to grasp what I am saying to you. Unlike you, I have no need for monetary compensation. The sum of two thousand gold pieces was already agreed upon for the return of the artifact.”
“Two thousand? Princess Anne is worth ten times that amount! It’s a shame that you’re not on board with this because now I really have no need for you! Go find your own damn artifact. Our deal is off!”
“Funny. That was my exact thought.”
An ear-shattering wail followed these calm words. Fearful of Anne’s safety, Grom hastened down the hall, and his companions followed him into a spacious, shadowy room. Two torches hung at either side of a stone throne, shedding light on a man with his back turned to them. Long white hair, which was tied back in a single ponytail, ran down his lithe figure. Blood dripped slowly from the dagger clutched in his right hand, and each crimson bead fell not to the floor but onto the body of another. A deep cut ran across the victim’s throat, and his head rested in a scarlet pool.
Cloey pressed her hand to her mouth, and they all stared in shock. The killer turned and gazed at them in return. Contrasting his dark ebony face, his eyes drifted like two pale white pools. He frowned and turned back to the body. “If you are here for the princess, go ahead. I’ve already disposed of this trash.”
Grom took a step forward, the blade of his axe glimmering in the crackling torch light. “Where is Anne?”
The dark assassin chuckled and tucked a loose lock of hair behind a long, pointed ear. “Over there, shackled to the wall. My work here is done.”
Waving his hands in a strange series of gestures, the mysterious murderer whispered a soft word and disappeared in the next moment. The blood-soaked dagger bounced with a clang against the cold stone floor.
Grom stepped around the body and crossed to the other side. Isac followed with the torch, and the light revealed a hunched form with slender wrists locked in steel shackles. Long blonde locks covered a bowed face. Grom knelt down, dropped his axe at his side, and placed his hand underneath her chin.
Startled, the princess threw her head back. Her eyes were wide with fear, but as she realized that this face was not her former host, her panic began to dissolve She tried to say something, but her face fell again and her eyes closed.
“Is she ok?” Isac turned his head to Grom.
“Aye, lad. She’ll be fine. She’s very weak is all. C’mon, help me get these shackles off.”
“Let a thief handle this,” Cloey said. She crossed the room and pushed past the two. Pulling a pin from her strawberry locks, she poked around in the keyhole until the first cuff swung open. She did the same with the second, and Grom carefully lifted the princess into his arms.
“Let’s get back to Oneria,” Grom said, carrying her back across the room and stepping around the body sprawled across the floor.
The rest followed right away, except for Cloey. She stopped and lifted the killer’s dagger, tucking it away before rushing off after her companions.