Melissa A. Joy. Fantasy writer and Blackheath Dawn consultant writer.
A group of four adventurers sat in a quiet but busy tavern in the town centre of Gaventon. The dimly lit taproom lacked space, and as Janne sat by the aisle between tables, he couldn’t escape the smell of old sweat on the burly labourers as they pushed past everyone else to whatever seats they could find. That kind of stench, mixed with smoke and spilled ale, was more offensive to his nostrils than he cared to admit. Regardless, they were here to put their plan into operation and this tavern happened to be friendlier than most of the others – in their experience. Kila’s sarcasm, coupled with that of Zachary’s, had made them quite infamous in most of the taverns in the centre of the town.
Janne ran a hand through his mousy brown hair and looked down his long nose to the boy in the corner. “When you’re quite ready Micah,” Janne sighed, watching the black-haired and tan-skinned boy flip a coin back and forth across his knuckles. Micah looked up to see all three of them staring right at him.
“Oh! Sorry Janne.” Micah grabbed the coin and thrust it into his pocket. “I’m ready, go on.”
“As you all know,” Zachary began, blond ponytail draped over his right shoulder, “we heard about the artefact supposedly hidden in the ruin in those woods up at the hilltop. Word is there’re now bandits lurkin’ about up there.”
“Can we take ‘em out?” Kila chimed in. She leaned on the table and cupped her chin in her hands. The way her choppy dark brown hair fell across her face apparently made Zachary’s cheeks turn red. One brow arched, and then he smiled.
“I was then getting to that,” he assured her. Janne and Micah exchanged knowing glances. “If we got rid of them, then we’d be town heroes wouldn’t we?” Kila grinned from ear to ear.
Janne wasn’t so sure this was a good idea. Bandits weren’t typically just a crude bunch of uncivilised outlaws; they knew how to be brutal and they had no idea how many there would be.
“Think about this for a moment,” he piped up. “Do you know how many there are? There are only four of us and we’re still amateurs in exploring.”
“And looting lost relics of ages past from deep, dark and dangerous ruins!” Micah added with excitement.
“Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” Kila reasoned. “If we don’t take a few risks every now an’ again, we won’t improve, will we?”
This reasoning was something Janne couldn’t argue against. Kila was right, of course, but he still considered taking on a group of bandits with just the four of them was not a wise plan. That was, of course, until a figure wearing a black cloak drew up a chair and seated himself at the table with them. His leather clothing was also black, studded and high-collared with matching bracers and greaves. The cowl of the hood and a black scarf hid his face. Only a few strands of black hair and a pair of blue eyes could be seen of his appearance.
“I call this bravado,” the stranger said darkly. His voice was very smooth, cultured and calm. “However, I believe I can help you win your fame while you also find your treasure.”
“Who are you?” Kila demanded. “Who said you could just butt into our private conversation like this?”
“If your conversation was supposed to be private, then a public place is not the place to have it,” the figure countered. He revealed a pair of blades hidden at his wrists. “If you wish to succeed, then I strongly suggest you take me along. Your friend here-” he pointed to Janne “- is wise to point out such dangers to you.”
“Might we know your name?” Zachary asked. Micah looked scared.
“Shayd,” the man replied.
“It suits you,” Kila yawned, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
“And your payment?” Janne enquired, considering nobody else had mentioned it. “What are you asking for?”
“Just my fair share of course,” Shayd answered with a casual shrug. “That would also include whatever you take from the bandits.”
“What say you all?” Janne asked his friends. They all glanced around at one another.
“Just one question,” said Micah. Shayd turned his head to the boy. “Why would you want to help us anyway?”
“The bandit chief is a target on my hit list,” Shayd admitted. He smiled beneath his scarf as he watched the blood fade from their faces.
They left for the ruins at dusk after their evening meal. Shayd met them by the town gate. The gatekeeper warned them the gate would be closed at midnight, and that no exceptions would be made. Any later and they would have to spend the rest of the night outside the walls at the mercy of any vicious beasts that may be lurking around. Not ten minutes after they’d started their walk up the gently sloping hillside it started to rain, and a chill wind blew in from the coast. To Shayd’s surprise, the one who complained wasn’t Kila. It was Micah. The boy hadn’t yet done much in the way of adventuring outside the city. It was all new to him – he had much to learn.
In the brief space of time Shayd had known these people, he began to understand more about his own solitude. Micah was enthusiastic – unless it rained of course, Kila was judgemental and sarcastic, Zachary was either very interested or completed disinterested, and Janne was the sceptical voice of reason. He recognised all of these traits in himself, though in a more reserved manner, or so he thought. He’d been alone for much of his young life, and even back at his employer’s headquarters it was strict and unsociable. He found himself both respecting and envying them, and wondered if anything could change.
After several minutes of trekking into the woodland, Shayd spotted lights flickering in a nearby clearing and looked over his shoulder at the group. “Allow me to get their attention,” he advised, looking at the campfires and the figures sat around them. “There are five around each fire, and there are five more sentries guarding the camp. I can just make out the ruins a short distance beyond the camp. That makes twenty, plus their leader.”
“You’ve a keen eye,” Zachary observed. Shayd nodded at the acknowledgement.
“I’ll take out the sentries first. Once I’ve done that, I’ll signal with a whistle, and two of you should flank me, and the other two should head straight for the ruins.” He looked around the group. They all looked at one another and slowly nodded. This guy obviously knew what he was doing. With twenty-one against four, the odds were very much stacked against them, but with a trained assassin on their side as well, they were sure to win.
Janne took Micah and crouched in the undergrowth while Kila and Zachary found spots groups of birch and oak trees to hide behind while they waited, careful to tread around fallen branches and twigs that may snap underfoot.
Shayd moved stealthily with such swiftness that none of the four could quite believe their eyes. If he made any sound at all the rain muffled it as it turned into a downpour. He whisked through the shadows and smothered the first of the guards as he dragged him into the bushes, sliding a dagger into his back at the same time. Withdrawing into the darkness again, he crept forward and ducked under some tall bushes and repeating the process but with a slit to the throat instead. ‘That’s two.’
He then slipped around one of the crumbling, moss-covered walls of the ruin and darted through the small maze and across into another cluster of bushes on the other side, taking down another guard in the process by leaping on to him and thrusting a dagger into his throat.
In less than fifteen minutes, all five of the guards lay dead, and Janne and Micah had dipped into the ruin without being detected. The bandits that had been clustered around their campfires had retreated into their tents or under the trees. The crackling fires had lost their vigour to the rain, and now only thin wisps of smoke drifted up into the sky. From the shadows, Shayd whistled, startling the bandits out of their tents. Arrows flew through the air from Kila’s bow, and Zachary rushed in with his sword as a distraction whilst Shayd took some of them out by rushing in from the side using a pair of hidden blades.
While the onslaught against the bandits ensued, Janne and Micah had discovered that the ruin was little more than the under-croft of an ancient church – or so they thought. In the pitch darkness, Janne squatted and worked at lighting a candle. Eventually he succeeded, and placed the candle inside a lamp. It gave them only a tiny amount of light, and Janne could see that Micah was trembling.
“I don’t…I don’t like this place Janne,” Micah stammered. “Can we get out of here please?”
“I know you’re scared, but we need to do this,” Janne objected. “We’ve come this far. Stay close to me, alright? This place doesn’t seem all that big and I can see there’s an altar ahead with something that looks like just what we’re after.” Micah took up the rear behind Janne, and stuck very close, glancing warily in all directions.
Janne couldn’t deny to himself that he also felt rather uncomfortable. There air was foul down here, and it reeked of evil. The smell of damp, ancient stone was strong, and there was also pungent smell of rusted iron emanating from a towering door just ahead of them. He came to the altar and gazed upon a sparkling crimson jewel adorning a golden sceptre fixed into a circular hole in the altar. He couldn’t help but touch it, and stroke it. Then came the whispers. The words were ancient and unintelligible, but they seemed to emanate from that door, and fear ran in great shivers down Janne’s spine. Micah was crouching next to him in front of the altar, biting his fingers.
Curious, Janne left the altar and approached the door. “Stay there Micah,” he advised. “I just want to take a look at something.” He tried to ignore Micah’s whimpering as he stood in front of the door, holding the lamp up to see what was portrayed upon it. From what he could tell, the image displayed on this rusty iron door was of a hooded being with its hands holding the sceptre and a great winged monster at its back. The whispers came again, harsh and understandable this time, and with them came a strong gust of air that chilled him to the bone; “free me, serve me, and you shall have what you desire.”
The voice was genderless, but he knew this was a place best left alone. He heard Micah’s rapid footsteps against the stone as the boy frantically bolted for the exit. He couldn’t help being drawn to what lay beyond that door, but the sense of foreboding knotting his gut made him think better of it, and he too turned and fled, feeling certain that he never wanted to return.
On the way back to Gaventon, Janne relayed what had happened in the ruin to his comrades, while Micah just trailed behind, his face white with shock. Shayd glanced back over his shoulder at the ruin. ‘What could be down there?’ he wondered. He looked down at the pendant he held in his palm that he’d taken from the bandit leader. ‘This may have been my last job in this line of work…officially anyway.’
While Kila and Zachary were disappointed that the treasure was not theirs, the whole group felt certain that doing away with the bandits was something they’d win credit for. And they weren’t wrong. Within days their names were the latest gossip all across Gaventon, and even the taverns they’d had problems with were no longer an issue.
Shayd had disappeared the very next day to report that his job was done, and the four of them thought they would never come across him again. Much to their surprise though, within a month of his disappearance, he once again showed up in the tavern they had first met him in. This time, though, he drew back his hood and removed his mask to reveal the most handsome face Kila swore she had ever seen with long black hair falling just below his shoulders. Zachary tried hard not to hide his disappointment, but Janne had tried to reassure him. Micah hadn’t quite recovered from the encounter in the ruin, but had sworn he wasn’t going to give up.
No-one spoke of the evil that Janne and Micah had experienced in the ruins that day though. Still, it preyed on Janne’s mind even though he’d not mentioned it since. There was something there that called to him, and though he told himself he didn’t want to go back there ever again, there was still a part of him that wanted to find out.
© Melissa A. Joy. Fantasy writer and Blackheath Dawn consultant writer 2014.