Val awoke to bright sunlight and almost fell to his death as he reached to close the curtains. Instead of his room, the rogue found himself on a rooftop, quickly steadying himself. A bleary-eyed scan of the area told him that he was on the rooftop of the Lily of the Morning. He had no memory of climbing up to the top of the inn where he and his companions were lodging.
“What are you doing up there?” Lucinde said in what Val and Iezecele had quickly dubbed her ‘Cosette’ tone. Still waking up, Val wondered how she had managed to find him. The answer came to him as he raised his hand to block the harsh sunlight, the ring. The three had been testing out the rings they had found in the caves of Kermis. Wearing it, he could unerringly determine the direction of Lucinde and Iezecele. When one concentrated, the direction and an almost perceptible sense of distance of the other two could be determined. More troubling was when he bribed a youth to wear the ring.
They had been in the middle of testing out the rings. At the stroke of the hour, Val and Iezecele put on their rings. Elsewhere, Lucinde wrote the direction she sensed the two. Then, Val and Iezecele would remove their rings and reposition for the next tolling of the hour. A thought struck Val around four. He bought a youth lunch in return that the boy would briefly put on the ring as the bells of Senna rang out. When the three compared their notes in the evening, neither Lucinde nor Iezecele knew where Val was at during the four o’clock tolling. It troubled Val, knowing that the rings only worked when they three were wearing them. He hoped that it was just as Iezecele suggested. The rings only worked for them because they had been the first to wear them. Val took hold of the eaves and tumbled back into his room.
“Channing Odo left for us with the innkeeper.” She sniffed, smelling scents that still lingered from previous night’s. “Get yourself together, we still need to get Iezecele from his tower.”
Val winced as he smelled down his shirt. He didn’t often appreciate the ‘Cosette’ tone, but couldn’t argue with Lucinde’s observation. He wondered if the tone was the reason why Iezecele had spent much of the week at the Arcanum Primus. His excuse was that he was researching and writing scrolls to help them with their travels. Maybe the truth of it was he just wanted to avoid the tone. Being an only child, Val never dealt with older siblings, but wondered if they were all like Lucinde.
The meeting with Channing Odo was brief. To keep the chances of someone recognizing Val, the three were ushered in quickly. He told them that the Church was concerned with the phrase “Forgotten Forts” that the three had brought to them on the magical piece of parchment. Never before had the string of forts along the northern border between Cosette and Cendrillion been mentioned. He explained that the Church had never sent explorers to the forts and wanted the three to inspect as many as possible.
Things moved quickly after that. Lucinde picked up her new set of full plate armor from the smithy. Iezecele gathered all the scrolls he had been scribing for the better part of the week. Val settled his bar tab. The three were seen off by Channing Odo as they received pack horses with supplies and letters of mark they could use to at churches along the way for resupplying. “Before you go, I would like to ask a question.” He eyed the rogue, “And I only want your honest answer.” He took their silence as an assent to continue. “Tell me, do you believe in the truth of the Prophecy?”
Lucinde, ever the earnest one in the group, “I’m starting to.” She knew through and through that the Church was a font of goodness in this world. While what she knew of this Prophecy was hard to imagine, Lucinde could not fathom a reason a Channing would actively mislead them.
Iezecele was more guarded, “The jury is still out.” The Willworker could accept many things.that had happened to them. After all, what was not possible through the Will? Long dead skeletons walking, land being shattered, that same land being reformed, all were possible with the Will. He was humble enough to admit that his knowledge, even the knowledge of the most powerful Willworker, didn’t encompass the entire breadth of what was possible through the Will. He was hesitant to attribute it to some deity.
“I believe that you believe in the Prophecy.” Val didn’t want to think about the Prophecy. I was too early in the day to be thinking heavy thoughts. He just wanted to be on his way, out of Senna, away from the nervousness he felt about the chances he would be recognized and dragged to Court.
The Channing moved closer to the rogue, taking hold of his horse’s reins. “Now, Val, after all the trust we have built between us, surely I have earned an honest answer.”
He’s not going to let this go. Val thought. The number of coincidences that had built around him and his two companions. He was loathe to label anything with Destiny. That was his father’s faith. Val wanted to believe in Freedom. The scales had tipped though. He knew that there was something to this Prophecy. Something bad was coming and Lucinde, Iezecele, and himself would have their parts to play in it. What was going to happen, what could they do about it, Val still couldn’t grasp, didn’t want to grasp. He leaned down in his saddle, close to the Channing, “I want to believe that your Prophecy isn’t true.”
“An honest answer,” Odo said quietly at first, as if it was also his truest wish that the Prophecy would never be fulfilled. “An honest answer,” more strongly he repeated himself, “from each of you. You each have my deepest thanks.” He raised an open palm in blessing, “May you shelter in the Creator’s Hand and Verite’ bring you back safely.”
Several nights into the first leg of their journey, Val was looking at the letter of mark that Channing Odo told them to present at the church in Dalis, the first city on their trek to the northern border of Cosette. Lucinde couldn’t believe that Val was again thinking about violating the trust the Church fostered. Yet she had traveled with Val long enough to be comfortable to entertain the rogue’s wandering thoughts. “It’s not sealed like the last one. You can go ahead and read it.”
Val, slightly surprised at Lucinde’s comment. He had, in truth, already read the entirety of his letter, and theirs, just to compare. “I was remembering a play that I once saw. It was about an evil Prince that had set two of his vassals up. He had given Crantz and Stern, those were the two vassals’ names. He had told them they were letters of introduction, but they really were an order to kill the bearers of the letter.” He put the letter back in his pack. “It got me thinking what type of play we’re in. It would really help.”
Lucinde thought for a moment. “Were not in a play, this is more of a song.” She remembered the songs of adventure her family sung as they traveled the roadways of the Isle.
“A song, huh?” The rogue responded, “There’s all types of songs. What type of song is it?”
“A epic song,” she firmly responded. “Full of strength and heroism!” She flexed her muscles as she mimicked combat.
Iezecele poked the fire to stir up the embers, “If anything, it’s probably a tragedy.”
Val smiled at the Willworker’s wry humor, “Honestly, I’d prefer it to be a comedy.”
Lucinde ended with a mock finishing blow and pointed at Val, “No, it’s an epic!”
Val appreciated Lucinde’s levity, but he couldn’t shake what he had told Channing Odo, “I don’t know, Lucinde. People die in epics. In comedies, even people you think are long gone are all smiles in the end. I’d like that.”
Later, in the middle of the night, Val and Iezecele were awoken by Lucinde’s alarm. “Up! This thing is attacking!” Sliding out of his bedroll, Val strained his eyes to see what had come upon them. It was large and dark amidst the woods that lined the road to Dalis. What remained of their campfire revealed rope like vines snaking from the woods equally grasping and striking at Lucinde. Instead of her usual flail, the warrior had opted to use her sword to hack at their opponent.
Val grabbed his spear and took a long arc around the plant-like thing to take up a flanking position. While he moved, branches swiped at his arms and weedy grasses grasped at his feet. As he reached striking distance, roots sprung from the ground, grappling him by the ankles.
Lucinde was starting to review her opinion of Kantorans. Where they lacked in courage and adventurous spirit, they seemed make up ground with their craftsmanship. Her newly forged armor had taken several blows from the heavy vines, but she remained safe. She edged ever closer with shield and armor to the wide center of the plant, looking for an opening to strike at its core.
Summoning the power of the earth, Iezecele pulled strips of bark from nearby trees and remade them into darts, sending them deep into the creature. It wailed in a wholly inhuman way, as if thousands of crickets had chirped in a dissonant noise.
Val let the winding roots have his boots. Slipping out of them, the rogue planted his longspear in the ground and used it to pivot away from the entanglement. First, slipping under a vine. Then slapping another one away with the flat of one of his short swords. He arrived at the core of the plant creature. As the plant wrapped its coiling vines around his right arm, Val struck with the short sword in his left.
Iezecele looked at Lucinde and Val. They were far to close for him to unleash stronger attacks from his elemental magic. The two were still getting used to engaging enemies with a Willworker at their side. They were always rushing towards their enemy. He had no doubts in their combat skills, he merely wished they could be more economical in their strategy. His power at its full use could make these fights less cumbersome. He sighed and let loose another volley of deadly bark.
Though the ground itself stood against Lucinde, straining to take her off of her feet, the warrior pushed forward. She glanced over her shield and saw that this time, the rogue had distracted their opponent. As the thick tangle of vines turned its attention on Val, Lucinde planted her foot and pushed hard with her shield arm, breaking the defensive barrier of vines that surrounded the central stalk of the creature. She swung her sword arm with full force, severing the creature at its core.
Val drew his short sword out of the dead plant and examined the blade in the moonlight.
“Looking for something,” Lucinde questioned as she heaved the last of the vines off of her shield.
“Blackness, you know, like the giant wolf we faced.” He peered at the blade, seeing none of the oily dark that had effused from the wolf. “Just looking for a connection.” He shrugged, “you know, giant wolf, giant plant. Maybe it’s a giant theme that’s going against us.”
Lucinde poked at the dead plant and saw no blackness. She did see how it had twisted all the plants in the area to its murderous will. “See what it was doing? It was like a spell.” She poked its green flesh once more, " Was that thing a Willworker?"
Iezecele looked up from the branch he was inspecting. He, too was curious on how this creature had manipulated the surrounding fauna, but as a Willworker, that was just absurd. “Don’t make me smack you,” he chided sourly.
“Well it certainly looked like a spell.” Lucinde knew this creature was not a Willworker, but wanted to get a rise out of her normally dour companion.
Kicking the dead plant, “Does this thing look human?”
Iezecele cut the warrior off, “Then it’s not a Willworker!”
Chuckling at their friendly banter, Val searched along the tangle of roots at the creature’s base. A glint off of moonlight caught his eye. He cut through the roots and found a dead warrior. The body had long since decayed to bones. His armor and sword made brittle with rust. He fished a small pouch from the corpse’s belt and tossed it to Iezecele. “Well, that’s a relief!”
Izecele summoned a bit of light to search the pouch, happily seeing filled with gems and coins. “What, that the fight earned us some profit?”
The rogue nodded his head, the treasure was a bonus. “No, that this thing has been lurking here for some time. It didn’t sprout up and attack just because of us.” Val walked back to their camp smiling, “This fight had nothing to do with the Church’s Prophecy.”
Iezecele chuckled under his breath. Admiring how Val could see the upside to an assassination attempt by a plant.
“You never know, Val,” Lucinde nodded back to the skeletal corpse, “he could have been one of the Chosen.” The rogue was stopped in his tracks, waylaid by her logic . The warrior hunkered down by her bedroll and began stripping off her armor. “Anyway, it’s your watch now.”
Two days after their resupply in the city of Dalis, Val’s sighing was scratching at Iezecele’s last nerve. “You planning on being like this the rest of the journey?” He was trying to remember the Willform of the spell of silence that Master Bartlet had shown him back in Senna. The rogue had been going on and on since they had left the city. They had missed this and that, and, ‘oh, this show only happens once a year.’
“Iezecele’s right, Val,” Lucinde paused brushing down her horse, “we’re on a mission, not a vacation. You should be happy that we gave you two whole days.” She had appreciated some of the shows Val had dragged them to, but Lucinde was looking forward to crossing the border to her own country. Kantora was just too….Kantoran.
About to mention that they were missing the reenactment of the Lover’s Duel on the Bridge of Lost Hearts, Val clamped his mouth shut as his companions leveled their gazes at him. He hauled up the bucket of the roadside well for their evening meal. How he wished he had been able to see Desdemona and Tristan battle for their families’ honor despite the burning love they felt for each other. He poured the water into the pot, grimacing at the thought of their meager dinner. Even the food in Dalis were works of art. He looked at the water in the pot. Were the ripples impact tremors?
“Something’s coming,” Iezecele confirmed Val’s suspicions. He had seen a number of birds take flight a short distance from their camp. He saw a large tree shudder, “Something big.”
Lucinde shielded her eyes from the setting sun. Her height giving her a better vantage. She saw the hump of what she guessed was a huge wild boar. It was heading in a straight line for their camp. “That something big is charging at us!”
Grabbing his longspear, Val set it against the charging creature. He steeled his nerves as it came into view. The boar was gigantic, far beyond even its wildest kin. It was the height of a warhorse and had the breadth of at least two. Worse, its eyes and mouth dripped with the toxic blackness they had faced just before they first arrived in Senna. Even it’s tusks seemed infected.
Unknowing or uncaring, the boar charged straight into Val’s spear. While the point drove deep, the hulking beast proved too great for the rogue’s spear, shattering it to splinters. The boar’s charge carried it straight into Val. Though his leather armor saved his heart from being run through by the beast’s tusk, Val felt several of his ribs break.
No time and no space to prepare his larger spells, Iezecele knew he needed to get close to the boar, but he also remembered the festering wound the wolf had given Val. He summoned a portion of the earth’s weight, slowing and diverting any attacks that might be directed at him.
Lucinde was glad that they had just stopped for the night. She hadn’t yet taken off her armor for its daily maintenance. She aimed her blow at the boar’s shoulder. If she could break it, the beast wouldn’t be able to put up much of a fight. Her flail struck true, but not enough to break the massive bone.
The beast attacked in a terrible frenzy. The dominating power of the earth kept the boar’s hoof from caving in Iezecele’s skull as it kicked at him. As it whipped it’s head first left, Lucinde’s shield screeched as the boar’s tusk scraped along it. Empty handed and shieldless, Val’s right arm was gored as the boar’s head whipped right.
Pulling from the elemental power of the sky, Iezecele formed a small cloud in the palm of his left hand. Lightning arced throughout the miniature storm. He released all of the storm’s stored energy as he touched the beast’s bristling hide. It jerked as the electricity coursed through its body, but, like the wolf before it, the infected beast was unfazed by the attack.
Lucinde screamed at the boar as she put all of her strength into a blow to its flank. She had seen how badly Val had been hit by the beast’s last strike. The rogue was streaming blood from the wound in his arm.
The scream drew the boar’s attention, opening space for Val to attack. He winced as he drew his short swords. Barely able to control his breathing from the broken ribs and weakly holding the short sword in his right hand, the rogue lashed out with two quick strikes. Both blades hit, but Val’s waning strength gave the attacks no power to cause much damage.
The beast felt no damage, but Iezecele knew that it had to have physical limits. The black poison was still flowing through heart and veins. It’s animalistic thoughts and movements carried by nerves to a brain. Lungs pulled in necessary breath. Though not registering the pain it was experiencing, the boar was being damaged. He again summoned a tiny storm in his palm and struck. Iezecele’s magical attack channeled electricity through the beast. This proved to surpass the limit of the beast’s damaged body. Though it was overcome by some dark fury, the boar’s body died.
Val dropped his short swords in relief, “I must be the main character of this story. These things keep focusing on me.” He clutched his wounded arm and motioned for Iezecele for help with his wounds.
Inspecting the deep scratch the boar’s tusks had made in her shield, Lucinde laughed. “It went after all of us, Val. It’s just that your combat skill isn’t any good. You’re more like the comic relief.”
Val saw Iezecele pulling out his healer’s kit and began threading the stitching needle. “Whoa, whoa, can’t you just magic me better?”
Iezecele smiled his thin half-smile. “Well, if your the hero of this story, there’s no need to waste my powers. Hero’s are guaranteed to survive, so you’ll be just fine with some simple stitching.” He approached Val holding up the threaded needle, smile widening, “Now, mind you, I didn’t score the best marks in my healer’s training. This might be a little painful.” The Willworker shrugged, “But, you know, heroes are a tough bunch.”
“Ha, ha,” Val wheezed. “I get it. We’re in one of those ensemble stories.”
“Heal him, Iezecele,” Lucinde added, “He’s learned your point.” She smiled, joining in on the Willworker’s teasing, “Besides, having him more useless in battle than he already is would just be a hindrance to us.”
“Hardy, har, har,” Val wryly responded. He seized as Iezecele channeled his power into him, knitting his broken bones and closing the wound in his right arm.
The Willworker’s healing also delved into the rogue. Iezecele nodded, finding no trace of the toxic blackness that had infected Val after the wolf’s bite. He looked at the campsite, strewn with both Val’s and the boar’s blood. “We should move camp.”
Crossing the border from Kantora into Cosette carried less import than Val thought it would. Unlike his friends, he had never left his home country. He didn’t know why, but from all the stories he had heard from around the Isle, he felt that the land itself would feel different. He wondered if it was because the border town of Bailey had deep dealings with Kantora that the land felt the same.
After they had resupplied at the local church and continued on their journey north, Val shared his thoughts with his friends as they ate their dinner at their latest campsite.
“I know exactly what you’re talking about.” Lucinde nodded in agreement, “I mean did you see those border guards. Slouching at their posts.” She tsked, “I think I even saw one of them yawning!”
Iezecele, too, noticed the ease of passing from Kantora to Cosette. In a country famous for its defenses, there wasn’t much of one against the southern nation. The very gates of Bailey seemed to be rusted open. “I’m just glad they didn’t insert the stick.” He smiled his half-smile.
“Stick?” Lucinde paused eating.
“You know, the ones that all Cosetteans walk around shoved up their,” the Willworker was cut off by Val’s sudden warning.
While Iezecele was sharing his sarcasm, Val had heard something moving in the tall grass. “Quick!” He alerted the party as he swiftly got to his feet, drawing both his swords like quicksilver.
Just as the three were able to prepare for a fight, a giant praying mantis came into their campsite. Its long, scythe-like arms stretching out and it’s saber-like mandibles chittering an insectine rage.
Iezecele smile pulled at his scar as Lucinde and Val instinctively stayed back from the creature, each keeping an eye on him, waiting for him to deliver the first strike. The tactical conversations they had been having had paid off. He drew upon the molten heat that flowed deep in the earth and channeled it. A burning arc of fire spread out to encompass the giant insect. Its exoskeleton blackened and bent outward as the creature’s insides boiled.
Seeing the popped piece of the mantis’ covering just like a chink in armor, Lucinde thrust her blade. Greenish ichor poured from the wound, wetting the ground and sizzling in their campfire.
In rage, the towering mantis directed its attacks at Lucinde. The warrior’s own armored exoskeleton stood strong against the reaper-like swings of its bladed limbs. Uncut, Lucinde still felt the strength behind the creature’s blows. She knew she would be nursing bruises later.
Now that his allies had closed the distance with their attacker, Iezecele could not release his fiery attack again. He pulled on the strength of the earth, reinforcing the thin, tall grasses. He sent the blades of grass flying at the giant insect.
Val had taken their enemy’s tactic for himself. He had slipped into the cover of the tall grass and waited for the opening he knew Lucinde and Iezecele would afford him. As the mantis again focused all of its attention on Lucinde, he stepped forward and made his attack. His first blade awkwardly struck the insect’s hard exterior. Realizing how the creature’s exoskeleton reacted, Val quickly redirected his second short sword. This time, the blade pierced deeply. The giant praying mantis seized upright as the rogue cut into its vitals and fell dead.
After they were sure it was dead, Iezecele inspected its corpse. “No black toxin,” he murmured.
Cleaning off her blade, “Oh, I thought you were checking to see if it was male or female.”
“Female,” the Willworker absently responded.
“Huh?” Lucinde cocked her head.
“It’s female,” Iezecele spoke a little louder. “Female giant praying mantis’ are green. The male ones are brown.”
“How in the heavens do you know that?” She wondered incredulously at Iezecele’s knowledge.
The Willworker turned his head and smiled his half-smile, “Because I love bugs.”
Val watched the exchange and decided he had fallen in with an odd pair of friends.