Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Chapter Eight


Speculative Fiction
Approximately 33,000 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1990. All rights reserved.

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After Gildegarde Brisbane had become a Knight of Farchrist, it was his duty to scour the land of evil and ensure the safety of the King and his subjects. This he did without quarter, defeating threat after villainous threat with his blade and with his wits. When Gregorovich Farchrist II decided to send a small party to Dragon’s Peak to dispatch the evil Dalanmire from his place on this earth, it included only the King’s own son, Gregorovich III, a dwarven ambassador to function as their guide across the Crimson Mountains and Desert of Despair, a high priestess of the Royal Temple of Grecolus to ensure a moral commitment to the quest, and Sir Gildegarde Brisbane. When asked if he feared for his life in such an endeavor, Brisbane answered by saying that in his experience, the bravest deeds often sprang directly out of fear.

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They stood before the wall of the oasis in a small group. There had been little discussion that morning. All had seemed occupied with their own thoughts. They all appeared ready for battle. Roundtower and Shortwhiskers wore their chainmail and carried shields. Brisbane wore his studded leather jerkin, as was becoming usual, and held the short sword that had been given to him before him like a torch to light his way. Roystnof wore no armor, but he had been studying his spell book since sunrise.

Once the group had crossed the wall and entered the garden itself, what little conversation there had been ceased completely, and they made their way through the trees and shrubs in silent determination. Shortwhiskers took the lead because he had seen in which direction the small stone structure sat from his perch the day before. Roystnof followed the dwarf and, in single file behind them, came Brisbane and finally Roundtower.

As soon as Brisbane’s feet touched the soft earth inside the wall he began to worry about coming across the basilisk. But now, added to his fears was the knowledge of what the basilisk could really do to him, the prison he could be shut in. His rational mind told him that even if he was turned to stone, Roystnof could turn him back just as quickly. But his fear told him that Roystnof would be unable to work the magic if something got to the wizard first. More than ever, Brisbane told himself, he would allow no harm to come to his magician friend. He did not want to spend eternity alone with his thoughts.

They trudged through the undergrowth as quietly as possible and Shortwhiskers led them with deliberate directness to their goal. They were going deeper into the center of the garden, and the trees became thicker and thicker as they went. Eventually, the canopy of leaves blocked out the sunlight altogether, and Brisbane found himself walking through a small forest.

Brisbane’s nerves were tense and they twinged at every snapped twig and rustle of leaves. He kept a firm grip on the short sword and kept his eyes open and roving. He saw no other life-like stone statues along the route and spotted many small furry woodland animals. He took both of these as signs that these woods were not patrolled by a platoon of basilisks, and that the one Roundtower had seen was a solitary beast.

Then, suddenly, Brisbane could see the glow of sunlight far ahead at the end of the makeshift path they were following. As they approached the light it became obvious that the trees were going to break into a large clearing. Brisbane could see over the heads of Roystnof and the dwarf, and his glances showed him that the small stone building which they sought stood in the center of that clearing.

Shortwhiskers reached the clearing and stepped aside to let the rest of the party in before advancing. Roystnof walked out into the sunshine followed closely by Brisbane and Roundtower. The four stood on the rim of a circular clearing about one hundred yards in diameter. In the center stood a twenty foot cube of stone with a black doorway facing the group. This was the structure they had come to see but now, none of their eight eyes were fixed upon it. They all looked at the human figure of stone that stood immobile in front of the structure.

Shortwhiskers spoke. “I think we have found the den of your basilisk-creature, Roystnof.”

“I’m not so sure,” Roystnof said. “That’s no natural formation of rock. Somebody built it.”

Shortwhiskers nodded. “Somebody that died long ago and when the basilisk found it empty, it moved right in.”

“The basilisk is not here.”

The voice belonged to Roundtower. The other three stared at the warrior.

“How do you know?” Shortwhiskers asked.

Roundtower kept his gaze in the distance and shook his head. “I’m not sure. But I can feel it. There is something in there, something evil, but it is not the basilisk.”

Brisbane did not understand how Roundtower could know this, but his voice carried the conviction of truth. Shortwhiskers was shaking his head, as if he thought the warrior was crazy, but Roystnof seemed very interested in whatever it was that Roundtower was sensing.

“Can you feel anything else, Ignatius?” the wizard asked.

“Roundtower slowly nodded, still looking off into the distance. When he spoke, it was as if he was talking in his sleep. “Yes. It is wrong. The evil is wrong. Not just in the way that all evil is wrong, but wrong because it is in this place. I feel this to be a place of such goodness that the evil festering here is nothing but the highest sacrilege.”

Brisbane stared at Roundtower’s chiseled face, remembering what the warrior had said the night before about the mistakes he feared he had made in the purging of evil.

Roundtower drew his sword and Brisbane saw the blade out of its scabbard for the first time. It was long, slim, and double-edged. The metal of the blade was of a type Brisbane had never seen. It had a sickly greenish tinge to it and appeared to glow a bit brighter than the strong sunlight could account for. The pommel was long as well, meant for two hands, but the weapon was quite obviously light enough to be wielded effectively with one. Set into the circular base of the pommel was one large emerald.

Brisbane felt an odd sensation wash over him as he gawked unconsciously at Roundtower’s blade. The weapon was strangely compelling to him, as if it bore some great significance in his life. Brisbane found himself wanting that sword, and a little voice inside his head told him that soon he would have it.

Roundtower suddenly stepped forward and began walking towards the structure. Brisbane looked at Roystnof and the dwarf, their faces saying that they could do nothing but follow the warrior. So, the small group approached the center of the clearing with Roundtower two or three paces ahead of the others. The darkness of the opening in the building remained an obscure void, and no matter how hard they tried to peer into its depths, it kept its secrets hidden from them.

Brisbane’s eyes scanned the circle of trees surrounding the clearing. He looked for any signs of movement, something that would reveal the monsters certain to be lurking in the shadows. But he saw nothing of any danger. He looked back at the building and was surprised to see how much distance they had closed during his glances about. The stone figure stood not ten yards away and the small building not twenty beyond that.

They gathered around the statue and began to circle around it like some totemistic children’s game. The statue had obviously been there for a long time. It was of a young man, older than Brisbane but younger than Roystnof, and its stone surface was worn and weatherbeaten. The man was dressed simply in a knee-length tunic and trousers. His hair was long and loose, and fell about his hollow face in stone clumps. He wore a backpack. He was devoid of any color as Roundtower had been, but his granite had a sickly gray-white stain in its pores, and it reeked of dirty rainwater.

“Another victim of the basilisk,” Roystnof said simply.

“How long do you think he has been here?” Brisbane asked, looking at the erosion running down the statue’s sunken cheeks.

Roystnof pondered. “Years, I would say. Perhaps more than ten. Perhaps even twenty. There is really no way to tell.”

Brisbane saw Roundtower shudder. He could only guess what the warrior was thinking after his weeks in solitary.

“Can you help him?” Roundtower asked the wizard?

“I can transform his back,” Roystnof said, “if that’s what you mean. But I don’t know if that would be wise now.”

“Why not?” Roundtower asked?

Roystnof pursed his lips. “Ignatius.” His voice was soft. “I know you may not want to recall it, but you know how your…well, how your sanity had deteriorated after only two weeks as stone. This one has been imprisoned for perhaps decades.”

The wizard’s words obviously had their effect on Roundtower. The warrior held his head low and had his eyes shut. Brisbane began to worry that maybe Roystnof had spoken too plainly when Roundtower brought his head up and spoke with clear eyes.

“The ordeal may well have driven him insane, but as long as he stays in this state, he will continue to suffer. I say you release him.”

Brisbane was a bit shocked at the tone of Roundtower’s voice. It seemed as if he was ordering Roystnof around. He looked at the mage with lines of concern in his forehead.

Roystnof offered a smile to Brisbane. “In our travels,” he explained, “my magical services have always been up to a vote of the party in circumstances such as this. Ignatius was only letting me know his feelings in this matter. Gil, I feel that you now have as much say as any one of us. What is your vote?”

Brisbane felt better about Roundtower’s reaction after this explanation. He still felt the warrior had been issuing an order, but he could reasonably attribute the tone of voice to Roundtower’s current state of mind. Brisbane himself did not wish to see the innocent suffer. But he also felt important now in spite of himself. Roystnof had more or less officially named him a member of their little group. He was tired of feeling like an outsider.

“I vote you free him,” Brisbane said with as much dignity as he could muster.

Roystnof turned to the dwarf. “And you, Nog?”

Shortwhiskers, who had been unusually quiet during the conversation, looked up at the wizard through his thick eyebrows. Brisbane saw an odd and almost angry look in the dwarf’s eyes, and his jaw was set in a way Brisbane had not seen before. It gave him a queer feeling that all was not well and he irrationally found himself wondering why Shortwhiskers’ whiskers were short.

Shortwhiskers spat. “I don’t like the smell of his stone. Let him rot.”

Brisbane was startled at the dwarf’s gruffness and Roundtower ventured a quizzical look at his smaller friend, but Roystnof ignored the tone of his response and simply took the vote as a no.

“Myself,” Roystnof said, “I vote to transform this man back to flesh, so the matter his settled. But I think we should wait until after we have explored the structure. Agreed?”

Brisbane and Roundtower agreed that perhaps that was best but Shortwhiskers only grumbled that he thought it was a bad idea whenever they decided to do it. The party turned their attention upon the stone structure.

It was a twenty foot cube of stone constructed of four great slabs of rock set upright and a fifth placed heavily atop their edges as a roof. The wall facing the approaching party bore an opening, five feet wide and ten feet high, and around this portal were strange glyphs and runes, carved into the rock. Standing this close to the entrance, Brisbane could see a few feet of the stone floor inside the building before the darkness swallowed the sunlight.

Shortwhiskers made a quick circle of the structure and reported no other entrances. The dwarf then stood before the doorway, peered carefully inside, and scanned the interior. He reported nothing warm-blooded inside. Brisbane thought that was odd, but the dwarf had been very specific. Nothing warm-blooded inside.

Roundtower was lightly running his fingertips over the engravings that surrounded the entrance when he cried out.

“I know these markings!”

The others gathered around. Roundtower spoke more to himself than to his companions. “I have not seen them used in a long time. They are ancient.”

Brisbane looked closely at the markings. They appeared as no more than meaningless scribbles to him. “What do they mean?”

Roundtower looked about as if noticing his friends for the first time. “They were used in the old worship rites of Grecolus. This one here,” the warrior said, placing his finger on a series of wavy lines crossing a circle, “stands for peace and safe passage for all loyal to Grecolus. The others are more obscure and I do not recall their individual meanings.”

Roundtower looked about at the blank faces of his companions. “Don’t you understand? This is a shrine of some sort. A shrine devoted to Grecolus!” The warrior’s voice was becoming quite agitated.

“And what of this sensation of permeating evil?” Roystnof asked.

Roundtower sobered. “As powerful as ever. That such a terror should inhabit such a holy place…it makes my blood boil. This evil is powerful, and I can still feel its presence.”

Brisbane was wondering how Roundtower could be so certain of this sightless evil when an icy voice croaked from deep inside the small building.

“Just as I can feel the presence of your holy blade, paladin. Come, and I will drown you in your own blood.”

The party froze. Brisbane at first thought he had imagined the words, but now he saw by the fear in the faces of his friends that it had chilled their bones, too. Brisbane had never heard the word ‘paladin’ before, but the voice from the shrine spoke it as a venomous curse.

Roundtower picked up his shield, which he had placed against the building, and tried to enter the shrine. Brisbane stopped him.

“Wait,” Brisbane said, unable to think of a reason. He only knew he was afraid of whatever it was that spoke in that horrible voice.

Roundtower turned harshly to Brisbane, but quickly softened his posture. He gently shrugged Brisbane’s hand off his shoulder. “I have been challenged, Gil. It is now a matter of honor.”

“I feel fear in your heart as well,” the cackling voice cried from the darkness. “I have won half the battle already. Face me, coward!”

Roundtower set his jaw. “And now I have been mocked. I must go.”

“Yes,” Roystnof piped in. “But not alone.”

The wizard brought his hand up in a sweeping gesture and spoke a single magic word. The darkened shrine exploded with bright light, shimmering from no apparent source. Roundtower held his shield before him as he entered. He was closely followed by Shortwhiskers. Before entering himself, Roystnof looked Brisbane in the face for a full second and slowly nodded his head.

This is it, Brisbane saw the wizard’s eyes say. This is forever the end of your peaceful life in Scalt as the son of Otis Parkinson the tavernkeeper. Step through this portal with me and hold onto your sword. For you need only your weapon, your wits, and the magic I have taught you to survive. It is a dangerous place that you go, but take heart, for you are not going alone.

Brisbane followed Roystnof into the shrine.

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