On the 9th of Puca in the year 2013 Fort Birchwood had visitors. The fort was not notified in advance and thus was frenzied. The visitor was the Grand Knight Marshal himself, Asa Murica. Samwell Gafferson recognized him instantly even though he had never seen him before. There weren’t many people in the realm who wore the Marshal’s crest with the distinction of Captain Murica. Samwell did his best to restrain his excitement and went about his regular duties. Or at least he tried to.
He had read before of the exploits of Asa Murica and the “Heroes of Himmelveil.” It began with infrequent reports and stories coming out of the Battle of Himmelveil and the White Dragon invasion, but it was difficult to know what the truth was amongst all the powers, successes, and inconsistencies. Did they really save the city singlehandedly? Don’t even try to convince him they fell through a hole in the sky! How could only ten individuals defeat an entire horde of attacking dragons?
At the end of the day they were just stories. Samwell preferred to believe what he saw with his own eyes.
But the War with Hydran brought even more stories: the killer archer, the elvish gods, the invisible assassin, the strange mage, the eternal wolf, the flying captain, the red sorceress, the green beast, and the re-born priest. There were too many tales to believe them all, but there were too many tales to believe there wasn’t something true behind them.
And there was something special about the priest turned paladin. His strength of leadership, his consistent example, his impeccable integrity, and his spiritual morality all deeply appealed to Samwell. In all the tales, he heard again and again his mother’s lessons of the Nameless One and his father’s character-building. Or maybe it was something else entirely. But regardless, Asa Murica the man called to something deep within him.
And there he was: the newly appointed leader of the Marshals, Samwell’s ultimate superior, and the man Samwell looked up to and emulated, surprising them all at the fort, and striding purposefully through their gates. So don’t blame Samwell if he didn’t get much done. He wasn’t alone. Despite looking busy and running around frantically, all of Fort Birchwood buzzed with wonder.
From his place by the stables Samwell tended to Redwing, his roc and animal companion, but he glanced sideways at the visitors, trying not to be obvious. Redwing chirped at him. He knew Samwell wasn’t giving him his full attention.
“Good luck, Cy,” Samwell muttered with a laugh, glad it was left to Captain Cynero Glass, the fort commander, to greet Grand Marshal Murica and his companions. Redwing squawked this time.
As Samwell watched, Captain Murica walked and demanded attention. His shining mithral plate armor shone under the overcast sky as if reflecting a sun only it saw. His white cloak billowed behind him. A large, adamantine shield emblazoned with an image of the sun peeked from its perch on his back as it moved. A sword of unknown worth was buckled at his side. But beyond his gear, there was stature in his bearing which validated all that had been told about him. Was it regal, perhaps? It was certainly confident. There was aggression in his stride but simultaneously there was peacefulness or contentment which belied the violence of his exploits from the war. This truly was a dichotomy of a man. Samwell shook his head with wonder. He was impressed. He hoped he’d have the chance to meet him.
Asa’s companions, whom Samwell recognized as some of the “Heroes of Himmelveil,” were an odd, eclectic bunch, but Samwell could tell that they belonged together. Samwell had seen something like it before.
As the War with Hydran brewed back east, Samwell was tasked with creating small units of mounted flying cavalries. These strike forces could fly in and fly out and were greatly successful wherever they were used during the war at dispossessing Hydran soldiers of their timing, their organization, and ultimately some of their lives before escaping back to base to fight again another day. Like any elite unit, they were built out of the best riders and fighters at Fort Birchwood. And like all soldiers they didn’t always get along. They came from different parts of the land with different backgrounds, races, and life experiences. But Samwell’s leadership brought them together and they found a way to put aside their differences when it was required of them to take the fight to their enemies and work as one. Samwell believed this group had learned likewise.
The mage Quarion was tall and gangly, with bright eyes, mischievous almost. His dark hair was slightly mussed, swept back and tucked behind his pointed ears but he had an immaculately clipped and maintained goatee. He walked breezily, holding a staff and moving it as if using it as a walking stick, which he was obviously not. For he was so lithe and comfortable on his feet it was almost as if he were floating across the top of the earth. Samwell looked twice to make sure he was actually walking. He smiled at the thought and hoped no one saw his double-take. Quarion looked happy to be there, just along for the ride.
Two knights walked with Asa, too, one on either side.
The first was the recently appointed leader of the Wardens, Caroline Hala. Samwell didn’t know much about her but he recognized the insignia, for Fort Birchwood welcomed wardens from time to time as they traveled to or from their posts along the borders of the empire. They did this in the spirit of cooperation, of course. There was friendly jesting and competition if the visits allowed for some recreation, but the standing orders at the fort were to always lend them comfort, rest, or aid whenever called upon.
Captain Hala walked confidently at Asa’s side, purposeful and direct. She was a striking woman with beautiful, flowing blond hair, nearly platinum in color. There were tight braids along the sides above her ears, tied back and holding her hair away from her face. An interesting blue tattoo, like claw scars, was drawn across her left eye. Samwell wondered what the story behind it was. Her expression was one of constant determination and it was clear she’d defer to no one. Samwell couldn’t imagine she had to prove herself to anyone. After all, one couldn’t rise to this level of authority without some evidence of competency. Perhaps she simply knew better than to take anything for granted.
On Asa’s other side trudged the other knight, as if the weight of years lay heavy upon his shoulders. Ah, those pauldrons! It was Galon, the Wolf of the Empire. His gait was tense, dogged, perhaps. His legs were slightly bowed and his knees bent as if ready to pounce. Old scars marked his face and a long brown moustache trailed down his cheeks towards his chin. His expression was grim. Samwell wondered if he always looked so dour. If Samwell had the chance, he’d speak to him directly and look him in the eye. Why risk anything else? Be about your business and all will be well. Samwell respected his focus.
The last of Captain Murica’s companions was a woman, tall and graceful in her brown leather armor with flowing red hair. She carried a bow. She seemed elvish, but different somehow. She wasn’t like any elf Samwell had ever seen. Compared to the mage, anyway, her features were a little sharper, a little lighter, airier maybe? That was the word that came to Samwell’s mind but even he didn’t know exactly what he thought by it. Samwell had read of an archer who travelled with Asa. No one ever seemed to learn her name; just that she was a devastating killer. She dealt more death with her bow than all the others combined. It seemed that way, anyway, if the stories were to be believed. Samwell saw that she was light on her feet and calm of expression, but the threat was ever present in her blue eyes. Tread carefully. Don’t give her a reason to nock an arrow.
Redwing chirped at him again, breaking the spell. Samwell, laughing, returned his attention to the roc and blushed a little, self-conscious at being distracted by these mighty heroes in his midst. Redwing trilled a little and fluttered his feathers. He was anxious to fly. “Soon, friend,” Samwell said, smiling, and got back to brushing him down.
Finishing a brushstroke, Samwell was startled by a throat clearing behind him and jerked upright.
“Got a sec?” Captain Cynero Glass said. The Captain was Samwell’s best friend at the fort and his commanding officer.
“Yes, sir,” Samwell said as he sheepishly turned to face him.
Cy had a twinkle in his eye and a smile crept in at the left corner of his mouth. He put his hands on the gate of Redwing’s pen and leaning in said, “Come with me. There are some people I want you to meet.”
Asa and his companions slowed at the approach of the two men. Samwell walked beside, but slightly behind Captain Glass, in deference to his rank and leadership. His stomach was tight but squirrely. He was anxious but tried hard not to show it. It was important that this man, above all others, saw something in him to respect.
“Grand Marshal Murica,” Cy said. “Welcome to Fort Birchwood. I’m Captain Cynero Glass and this is Colonel Samwell Gafferson, my flight training master. We weren’t expecting you. I assure you we’re ready for your inspection. Allow me to show you around.”
“Yes. I’ve heard good things of your organization here, Captain Glass, but I’m not here for an inspection. I have other business in the area. Do you have a moment to speak privately?”
“Yes sir. Let’s go to my office. If you’ll follow me?”
Asa motioned for him to lead the way and they followed the captain indoors. Captain Glass snapped his fingers at his aide while offering to get Asa and his companions some refreshment, but they declined. He motioned to a seat. Asa deferred, but Quarion sat down immediately, crossing his legs in front of him and smiling grandly.
“What can we do for you?” the Captain asked.
Asa, somewhat awkwardly, proceeded to tell Captain Glass about his mission. It was something of a personal quest for Asa. Some documentation had just surfaced and was shared with Asa by Empress Issobelle indicating the organization Blackwatch had, years ago, sent a man called Jacques Simmons to Fort Birchwood on a mission called Operation Black Talon. He was sent to infiltrate and investigate an organization called the Black Talon, and a man named Elir DeMonde.
Samwell and Cy both started at the mention of the DeMonde name and shared a quick glance. They’d had some run-ins with the DeMondes. Samel DeMonde was the local lord and the oldest son of Elir. Unfortunately, Samwell had done them a bad turn.
For Samwell had “stolen” Rosario, the arranged fiancé of Jean-Piero DeMonde, Samel’s youngest brother. It was an arranged match. Rosario agreed to the courtship at first, mostly out of honor to her father, but she was not invested in the match. JP was unappealing and a bit of a blowhard. One night, when she met Samwell at the local watering hole, they had an instant connection. Rosario never gave JP another thought and left the match behind, repercussions be damned.
Over the recent years JP’s oldest brother Samel had presented difficulties for the fort. He (though more typically it was the brutish JP) never failed to lord his position over the soldiers there, especially Samwell, whenever there was opportunity.
If DeMonde and the Order of the Black Talon were involved, they knew it couldn’t be good. The Order of the Black Talon was founded by the DeMonde family around 200 years ago. They had been granted sanction by the Theosian church and the Empire to practice the dark arts of necromancy. One had to tread carefully if infringing upon the DeMondes and their domain.
Asa now believed that the man called Jacques Simmons was in fact Stephen Murica, Asa’s father, believed dead and lost when Asa was just a small boy. So he and his companions came here to see what they could discover about this Jacques Simmons, or Stephen Murica, and the outcome of the Blackwatch mission investigating the Order of the Black Talon.
There was silence when Asa finished. It was sobering to Samwell to hear the pain and uncertainty in Asa’s voice. The slight tremulousness when mentioning his father, believed to be dead so long ago. Asa hadn’t thought of his father for thirty years. What was he obligated to do today? What was he supposed to feel?
“Our information mentioned something called the Black Reach,” Asa said after a moment. “We understand that is near Fort Birchwood in the Plains of Alcarin. We would appreciate any information in Fort Birchwood’s records regarding Jacques Simmons, Stephen Murica, and the Black Reach, from approximately thirty years ago. And if you have someone who could guide us there…”
“Yes, sir. Absolutely. I’ll get my aide on that right away, sir.” Captain Glass snapped to it. He hollered for Private Saison, who opened the door instantly as if listening from just outside. Glass barked out the words he presumed the private already knew: “Records. Blackwatch. The Black Reach. Black Talon. Elir DeMonde. Jacques Simmons. Stephen Murica. Circa 1983. Go.” And Private Saison was off. “And here,” Glass continued, gesturing towards Samwell,” is my best tracker. He’ll guide you to the Black Reach whenever you’re ready to go.”
Samwell snapped to attention when Cy mentioned his name. He fixed his gaze on Captain Murica, who simply nodded. There was appreciation in his eyes, but a hint of sadness, too, as if he were fighting against something deep within.
Samwell rose well before dawn. Rosario stirred when he got up and he stopped to look at her and the way the bedsheet sloped up and down again over the curve of her hip. Her breathing was light and easy. Wavy black hair nested around her face, which was turned to the side, her lips slightly parted. He reached out and brushed away a loose strand of hair from in front of her closed eyes. She stirred again and Samwell pulled away. It was hard to believe they’d been together for four years. Simultaneously, every day was new yet he felt like they had known each other all their lives. Perhaps, Samwell thought, it was because he scarcely remembered what life was like without her. Damn, he was happy.
He ate a quick bite of jerky and drank a half-pint of water in the dark of the small kitchen area. He shook off the last respites of sleep with some light calisthenics. He dressed warmly and prepared for the ride out to the star stone. Private Saison had found records of the visit of a Jacques Simmons, but not much more. Everything pointed to Blackstone, a seven-foot tall obelisk of star stone standing quiet and desolate in a field about two-hours from the fort as the bird flies.
Samwell knew where it was but he never went there. No one did. There was darkness there and most were content to simply stay away.
He dressed and then unpacked his leather armor. The armor was brown, with swatches of red tinting and some additional detailing of feathers and falcons. It wasn’t grandiose in the way of the Wolf’s glorious pauldrons or Asa’s shiny plate, but it was art and Samwell was blessed to own it. Deliberately he strapped it on, piece by piece he hooked hooks and clasped clasps and readied his mind for the day.
His crossbow and longsword were waiting by the door where he left them and he picked them up on his way out. The fort was quiet. There was a pair of guards posted by the gates and one or two others jogging around the courtyard. Samwell walked briskly toward the stables. Redwing squawked when Samwell entered. He was raring to go.
Samwell prepared him for flight. He brushed him down before placing the riding blanket and securing his military saddle. All the while Samwell spoke to him, comforting him, encouraging him, telling him about the day ahead. The fluttering, twittering and chirping increased as Samwell told his tale. Redwing was excited. When he was ready, Samwell took him for a quick flight around the walls of Fort Birchwood. They didn’t need checked; the guards were attentive. It was simply a quick run to warm him up. When Samwell returned Redwing to the stables, the sky had begun to lighten. Dawn was approaching. Samwell asked the stable attendant to prepare some additional rocs for the travelling party in case they were required. Content that he had prepared for the journey as best he could, he walked out into the courtyard and saw the heroes gathered.
It was time to go.
The sun rose across the eastern horizon as the team flew across the plains of Alcarin and towards the Blackstone. Asa and Galon hopped on one of the fort’s other rocs while Quarion and Natasha and Caroline all flew magically. Samwell understood such magic; he had wings himself he could use to fly if need be. But there was something primal about riding a roc, about controlling a beast, feeling its heart beat and blood rush, becoming as one. He preferred it to almost anything else.
The sky that morning was clear. The air was crisp. There was a slight breeze blowing from the northwest, bringing with it some of the chill of the northern mountains. With the dawn, the smaller fowl in the area had started their morning chirping, searching for their morsels. Samwell spotted some deer walking across the plains up ahead and thought about mentioning it, but just before he did so the buck froze sensing their approach. Its head turned slightly and then it sprang off into a brilliant run, the others interrupting their scavenging and following quickly behind. Samwell smiled. He loved this place.
Samwell knew the general direction of the Blackstone but not the exact location. He hoped his sense of direction wasn’t too far off. Samwell continued to spot the occasional wildlife during the beginning of the trip, small flocks of songbirds or geese crossing the sky above them, hares and deer skipping through the grasses below. Then Samwell realized something. His sightings were becoming fewer and fewer until there was nothing there at all.
They were getting close.
Around two hours after leaving the fort the team saw the Blackstone jutting from the earth. The team saw nothing except the obelisk, a single thin piece of star stone standing seven feet tall, wider at its base and tapering towards the top like a blade. It was as if some massive beast stabbed the earth from beneath before discarding it as a reminder to those above of what lurks beneath.
With the stone in sight, Redwing and Sharpclaw (the roc Asa and Galon rode) wheeled almost simultaneously as if they could go no further. They resisted all attempts to correct their courses and Samwell was forced to settle them down a short distance away. They sensed something awry. Samwell was embarrassed. He didn’t remember the last time Redwing had not taken his instruction, but he was clearly disconcerted and would not continue closer.
From their landing site the team approached the obelisk on foot. Approaching with caution, they all began to feel the same uneasiness which afflicted the rocs even though there was nothing visible threatening them. Then they saw that even the earth rebelled. All the grass surrounding the stone grew dark and sickly, bending away from the stone. It couldn’t help its location, but it knew it didn’t want to grow there.
Samwell observed that the bottom of the obelisk and the area surrounding it was covered with moss of nightshade. Galon stepped forward and kicked some of it away. At the disturbing of the moss a spike of unease spread over the group as if a wave of evil was released from the stone itself. Samwell shuddered and momentarily wanted to flee, but held firm. Galon seemed to start but then also stood still. Asa and Caroline seemed unaffected. Quarion bolted. Natasha quickly realized what was happening, flew after him, and restrained him. Asa and Caroline approached Quarion, calmed him and removed his fear. “Stay close to me,” Asa reminded him, and all of them, really.
Calm though still unsettled, Quarion was the first to notice that under the moss ancient symbols had been carved into the stone. He started to say something and then stopped.
“What is it Quarion?” Galon said. He saw Quarion looking down at the stone, looked and noticed the writing. “Do you recognize these?”
“Of course I do,” he said and paused as if that were answer enough. He was trying to be brave and Samwell thought he was feeling slightly embarrassed at having run earlier. But Samwell knew it was magic which had caused the fear; he didn’t think any less of Quarion for it.
Galon growled when he realized Quarion wasn’t going to say anything else. “Well?”
“Oh, yes, I forgot you weren’t there that time with the balor. They are the same symbols we found on the fount of Ashtur in Himmelveil. It’s the sign of Stefin.”
Caroline tensed at the mention of the balor. Samwell didn’t know why and no one bothered to explain, but there was most certainly a story there. He hoped to hear it someday.
Still growling a little at Quarion’s impertinence, Galon cleared off the rest of the moss around the stone. More text was revealed. He looked at Quarion who began to read it aloud, like a poem.
“Keep me with you to survive
In fields of death few keep alive
I am like a tailor knife
Deadly ‘nough to end a life,” he finished.
“A riddle?” Galon said.
“Seems so,” Asa said. “Any thoughts?” Samwell stayed quiet. If they needed his help, they’d ask.
“What’s that?” Caroline asked, pointing towards the base of the obelisk. “Is that a gap in the stone?”
All eyes followed where she pointed. She was right. There was a slot beneath the obelisk about three inches long and half an inch wide. Without hesitating, Galon reached into his bag and pulled out a mundane sword and slid it right into the slot. A low rumble of stone upon stone greeted the insertion and the small slot widened into a hidden passage. There was a hiss of escaping air, stale and dead and cold. They saw the beginnings of a spiral staircase leading underneath the obelisk.
Everyone exchanged a glance. The trail led underground. “Let’s go,” Galon said and started down.
“I’ll go dismiss the rocs,” Samwell said to no one in particular, though Asa nodded in response. Samwell jogged back to where the rocs were grazing and instructed them to return to Fort Birchwood. They were trained well and Samwell trusted them to find their way home. It was clear the team didn’t need them where they were going.
Asa followed Galon down the stairs, followed closely by Quarion and Caroline and Natasha. Samwell caught up after jogging back to the rest of them and started down. The chill deepened at each step especially after the sliver of light from the morning sun faded into the blackness below. Samwell found the others waiting on a platform at the bottom of the stairs. Asa had his sword drawn; it wasn’t because of a threat, but to illuminate the space as if they were outdoors at midday. Unfortunately it didn’t end the oppressive chill Samwell felt, just gave him a little comfort.
The platform was small and closed off. The walls were formed from stone. From its quality and seamlessness, it sure seemed dwarven. This was confirmed when they discovered more text carved across the top of the walls. Samwell didn’t recognize it, but thought it was dwarven, too.
“It’s a prayer,” Quarion chimed in. “Read it and blow the horn three times.”
“I see the horn here,” said Galon, pointing towards the far wall.
“Are you going to read it or not?” Caroline asked, looking at Quarion.
“Of course,” he said and read it aloud. When he finished he looked proud; Galon knew it was over. He blew on the horn. Upon the first blow there was no sound but air moving through a metal tube. Then there was a grinding of chains and gears, and a portcullis no one had noticed lowered itself slightly out of one of the walls, opening towards another passage. There was another hiss of escaping air, rotten and sick and chilled. Galon quickly blew the horn two more times. After the third blow the portcullis was lowered completely and there was now a bridge into the next room.
It was a smaller room than the last one, like an antechamber to something larger. Scraps of metal and cloth lay on the floor. Galon began to cross the bridge.
“Wait,” said Quarion, casually and without much urgency. Yet Galon froze with one foot in midair. He stepped backwards towards the others. “There’s an illusion here.”
“Can you dismiss it?” Caroline asked.
“Not sure. Let me look a little closer. Perhaps it’s only hiding a trap we can disable.”
Galon and Caroline stepped close to the entrance and looked around for a trap but couldn’t spot anything. When Quarion wasn’t forthcoming, Galon again took a reserve sword and waved it inside the room and pressed it against the floor, but nothing happened. Perhaps if there was a trap it hadn’t been restocked and was empty.
Galon stepped into the room and crossed it without incident. “Seems safe,” he said. The rest of the team safely followed him through and proceeded down another set of stairs.
It grew colder still as they descended into the depths of the chamber. It should have been dark here too, but it wasn’t and not because of Asa’s sword. It was true that he was illuminating their way, but there was an eerie glow coming from below. Samwell wasn’t certain if that was what was also making it colder, but it was not pleasant. The air was getting thicker, too. It was oppressive both physically and spiritually. Samwell shuddered, glad he was in the back and hopeful the others didn’t see him shiver. Outside of Quarion’s bolt up at the top no one showed any signs of fear, or doubt.
The stairs emptied into a square room with three archways leading left, right, and straight ahead. A low moan reached their hearing, emanating from the right. Galon jogged up to the right archway and stopped, peeking around the corner and jerking back.
“There’s a woman in white, older. She flickered.”
“Ghosts,” Quarion and Caroline both said simultaneously. Quarion seemed excited, Caroline not so much.
“Did she seem threatening?” Asa asked.
Galon shook his head. “I don’t think she’s aware we’re here.”
“Let’s keep it that way,” Caroline said.
“Let’s start here,” Asa said motioning to the left.
Through the left archway they saw a decrepit barracks with rotted bed frames and tatters of mattresses and cotton, black with muck and grime. Beyond the barracks was an open area where the wall had given way revealing a natural cavern. A blue light flickered near a pool of water.
Upon closer inspection it was in the shape of a man wearing a uniform.
“What do you think, Caroline?” Galon asked. “Is that Blackwatch? It doesn’t look quite right.”
“Yes it is, though, older. It’s not what they’re wearing now, but maybe from sometime within the last hundred years?”
“Body,” the apparition hissed and pointed towards the water. Continuing the investigation as if he wanted it over as soon as possible, Galon didn’t wait for answers but followed the pointing finger towards the pool and jumped in.
Immediately the apparition faded and another being appeared directly in front of Asa, pale and undead with blue eyes and icy hair. Tongues of black flame rested in its raised hand. Surprising Asa, it bit down into his outstretched arm. He yelled at the pain of the cold fire as it burned into his flesh.
It was a wight. Samwell had never seen one before, but had heard tell of them haunting burial sites and cairns and the sort. Regardless of its original intent, this place was clearly now a tomb.
Seeing Asa attacked, everyone responded immediately. Quarion released a fireball engulfing the ghoul just before Caroline charged up cutting the wight with her sword. Natasha quickly grabbed two arrows out of her quiver and released them simultaneously into the wight, piercing it deep while Samwell released a bolt into its leg.
Samwell was almost startled when Natasha’s arrows flew past him. She was swift and proficient, a silent shooter, single-minded. Samwell couldn’t remember her saying anything as they made their way into the underground chamber, but here she was dealing death with a whoosh.
Asa then shook off the bite, extinguishing the wight’s cold black flames, and in a single motion cleaved down with his sword slicing it deep. It groaned in agony and fury.
A second wight then appeared drifting out over the pool. As soon as it brushed the top of the water, the surface began to freeze. Heedless, Galon continued his dive to the bottom of the pool. Peering through the murky dark Galon spied two bodies resting on the bottom. He grabbed onto them both and kicked back towards the surface before noticing the icy surface, hardening above him. He had to hurry.
Suffering from the furious onslaught of the heroes, the first spectre lashed out biting at Caroline and clawing at Asa. The bite found purchase on Caroline’s shoulder, similar black flames bursting from the wound. Quarion reached out his hand and threw another fireball at the ghouls. Samwell watched as the first one disintegrated into wisps of white smoke.
The second remained standing upon the water, the water continuing to freeze above the rising Galon. It roared a blast of cold wind shaking the intruders. Caroline dropped to one knee as the black flames burned and weakened her. With the nearby threat eliminated, she took a moment to heal herself, quenching the flames and regaining her strength. Natasha then littered the remaining wight with her arrows and it too was destroyed into mist. At its destruction the freezing ice broke up and melted allowing Galon to surface. He crawled out onto the cold ground pulling the rescued bodies behind him.
Like the ghost, which now reappeared, the two bodies each wore the older Blackwatch uniforms. Galon searched them gently, respecting their sacrifice.
“I … am … Verner … Dent,” the ghost said.
Asa was thoughtful for a moment. “I believe Verner Dent was one of the names in the paperwork the Empress provided me.”
Looking at the ghost, Galon asked it, “Do you know the other?”
“No,” it whispered. “No… perhaps, tis…” but it drifted off and disappeared.
Asa pulled out the paperwork and scanned it. “Verner Dent, yes. And Tiziano Fancio was another of the names. Do you think that’s what Verner was starting to say?”
“Perhaps,” Galon said. “What are the other names on the list?”
“Verner and Tiziano were two of the agents believed killed along with Cyril Portanova, Masahide Uyehara, and Edvard Nehls. Considered missing are Shaahir Onut, Ianthe Nardozzi, Kisa Sano and,” he paused before finishing, “Stephen Murica.”
“Perhaps we can at least give them peace,” Galon said.
“Yes. At the very least we should make the attempt.”
The companions agreed. It seemed the right thing to do. Then they moved on.
That was the first time Samwell got to see the heroes in action. He was certain it was a pitiful skirmish compared to what they were used to, but Samwell was glad to have seen it and even more glad to have been a part of it. His contribution was knowingly limited, but he hoped he could at least contribute with wisdom and courage when facing whatever else lay ahead.
Working their way back out, they passed the place where part of the floor had fallen through revealing a pit containing a body, partially covered by a pile of rubble. They stopped to investigate. Perhaps this was another Blackwatch. Looking closely, the corpse’s skull was jarred, shifting slightly. A ghostly form appeared overlaying the corpse saying “Pass my sword on to my son, Cyril Portonova.” The lower half of the corpse was buried under the rubble. Everyone lent a hand and they had soon uncovered the lower end of the body. There was an ordinary, unassuming scabbard holding a marked longsword. Galon removed it from the corpse and stowed it in his bag. The ghost said “Thank you” and dissipated.
Samwell was proud to be with them. This was good work they were doing. Samwell didn’t believe just anyone would take the time they were taking and respect the dead the way they were. It was honorable. The stories he’d read hinted at this but more often than not focused on the power and the might leaving the honor for between the lines.
The third Blackwatch was dismissed in peace.
Tracing their steps back to the entrance they found a storage room just off the rotten barracks. It was fairly empty, with brittle and crumbling shreds and tatters of rags. Unsettlingly, they discovered scratch marks on the inside of the storage room door around three to four feet off the floor.
The team exited the storage room through another access door and they ended up entering the room they would have accessed had they walked through the center archway. An old bed lay in the center of the room, or at least the remains thereof. There was an assortment of bones lying in the bed, but they didn’t appear to be a skeleton, but rather arranged haphazardly. Perhaps they were the remnants of discarded meals.
There was nothing else of note within the room, not even any bodies. At least there was that. Samwell wondered how many more they would find.
There were a couple exits from the chamber: doors to the left and straight ahead (from the entrance to the storage room) and some more stairs, descending deeper under the earth.
At the bottom of the stairs a hallway led to the left and the right. Looking around they saw an antechamber to the left; two sarcophagi were visible in the room beyond that. To the right was what appeared to be the beginnings of a stone labyrinth, its entrance flanked – or guarded – by two broken statues.
The team decided to check out the crypt first before tackling the maze. The crypt was bleak. It was disheartening to see the remnants of so much death; at least here it was recognized or honored, or it was supposed to be anyway. Moving through the antechamber the crypt opened up and was much larger than first realized. There were four sarcophagi to the right and six to the left. The crypt was “T” shaped at the far end with altars on each side and set of double doors at the intersection.
On the floor before the door was another corpse dressed in the uniform of the Blackwatch. Samwell caught a chill. As Galon approached, it came alive startling the group as it groaned and clawed its way across the stone floor. It stretched out its fleshless hand and began scratching at the doors.
Quarion said “I got this,” and motioned his hand as if knocking. A burst of green and black mist erupted out of the keyhole of the door in a wave of negative energy, troubling them all with dark thoughts and pain.
Even so, Caroline laughed a little, saying “I guess not.”
“I still got it,” Quarion rebuffed, preening a little.
“Just like the balor,” she muttered, though it was just loud enough for him to hear it.
“No, I do,” said Galon. He walked up, pulled a crowbar from his bag, and pried the door open. Behind the doors was another tomb, highly ornate and decorated. A sculpture of a shrouded dwarf was centrally located in the small room, holding an actual mithral dagger as if guarding the space. Not satisfied with clawing at the door the corpse pressed forward. It reached up and without checking for traps it pulled the dagger from the statue. It then held it to its chest as if repeating an oath and crumbled to dust, leaving the dagger behind.
A fourth Blackwatch was granted rest.
Investigating the dagger, Quarion learned that it was demon bane. The word mithralis was inscribed upon it; Quarion believed that was the name of the founder of the current ruling clan of the dwarves.
“I’ll keep this for now,” Galon said, “and we’ll make sure it gets to the dwarves.”
As Galon pocketed the dagger, Samwell watched as Quarion turned, walked past Caroline, clapped her on the shoulder, and she disappeared.
“What the hell, Quarion!”
“What have you done!?”
“Just a little plane shift,” he said, smiling, pleased with himself.
“Where did you send her, Q-ball,” Galon growled.
“Not sure, to be honest. Maybe the Celestial plane? I was thinking about that one.”
“Can she get back? Is she capable?”
“No idea. I can’t do any of that stuff.”
Quarion just shrugged.
“Can we find her?”
“She’ll be fine,” Quarion said and began walking out of the crypt towards the maze.
At that moment, Caroline appeared again in the crypt, haggard and furious. She glanced around and spotting Quarion, stormed after him. Asa stepped up to restrain her with a hand on her upper arm as she moved past him.
“Not now, Caroline.”
“That–,” she growled.
“Not now, Caroline,” Asa repeated, quietly but sternly. “We’ll deal with him once we get out of here.” She restrained herself. “Now, are you okay?”
She nodded, but didn’t look at Asa. She looked only at Quarion. She was responding to Asa, but it seemed as if she was truly giving Quarion a message, maybe: You’ll get yours. Quarion, all the while, continued to act smug and self-satisfied, though there was glint of fear behind his eyes, that impending sense that he had gone too far this time. It seemed he wished to shock everyone with his whimsy, but he certainly didn’t want a fight. Samwell could tell that much. But it didn’t instill a lot of confidence in his teamwork. That kind of behavior would’ve gotten Samwell kicked right out of the marshals. Samwell had watched during the exchange as Asa and Galon and Natasha got worried, then relieved, and now they were angry, too. But the others deferred to Asa’s direction and were willing to put aside their anger. At least for now.
There was a job to do.
After a moment of uncomfortable silence and heavy glares, Quarion walked off, saying, “To the maze, then?”
Samwell breathed. It seemed like they all did for the first time in minutes. Perhaps they had seen him do this kind of thing before, but clearly they were not amused. Yet they still followed.
The labyrinth was formed entirely of stone, its shaped walls reaching the ceiling. There was no moving around it or above it, only through it.
“Anyone good at not getting lost?” Galon asked looking around. “Besides me, anyway?”
“I’ve got a decent sense of direction,” Caroline said, glancing sideways at Quarion.
“I can hold my own,” Samwell said. It was the first time he had directly inserted himself into their conversation. He said it assertively but he tried to not sound cocky.
“Well, lead the way,” Asa said waving them all forward. “I’m no help at all in there.”
They moved around the maze making lefts and rights and continuing straight ahead. They changed direction a number of times and doubled back more than once. It seemed they even mistakenly went over the same ground at least twice before realizing it. It was difficult to proceed. The stonework was perfectly crafted. There were no seams or cracks or pieces mortared together. It seemed completely carved out of a single block of stone, expertly done. Samwell understood then, if all the dwarven statues and writings hadn’t made it obvious, this was a space created by the dwarves. And really, he shouldn’t have expected any different. Working underground was their bailiwick.
It took some time, they avoided a couple minor traps, but ultimately made it through, working together. Samwell was pleased that when asked, he gave his opinion and he was heard. Galon and Caroline treated him as an equal. Asa and Natasha deferred to their guidance. Quarion was along for the ride. Samwell figured he could have found his way magically if need be. Did he consider this kind of tracking beneath him?
And then the maze was over. There was nothing fancy waiting at the end, no fanfare or celebration, just a large, vaulted door, shut and locked. Quarion’s magic told them it was guarded, but he was unable to open it. He learned a little from the last one, then. He didn’t try without thinking.
There were some dwarven symbols in the doors, though. And there again was the name mithralis. Beneath the name, in the middle of the door was a small slot. Thinking about the entrance from up above, Galon muttered, “The dagger.” He pulled out the mithral dagger they found in the previous tomb and slid it into the slot in the door. It unlocked and the team was through the door.
The first thing they noticed was a gigantic, twelve-foot statue of a dwarf, armored and kingly, wielding an ax and caught in mid swing. And then more startlingly they noticed they weren’t alone. In the room with them were two living, breathing humans. Swords were drawn.
But then the team caught themselves and they relaxed; the man and woman were wearing the uniforms of the Blackwatch. The man was of average height, broad shouldered and blond, perhaps in his forties. The woman was slender, had long black hair, framing a pale face accented by high cheekbones.
They did not relent. They kept their arms raised, threatening them to proceed no further.
“We are friends,” Asa said. “We are friends of the Blackwatch and Kyn Wrath.”
Samwell saw them tense upon hearing that name.
“Knowing that name proves nothing,” the man said.
“No, of course not,” Asa continued, his hands raised, outstretched and imploring them he meant no harm. “I am Asa Murica, Grand Imperial Knight Marshal of Himmelveil. This is Galon, the Wolf of the Empire. Captain Caroline Hala here,” he said, motioning towards her, “is the Grand Imperial Knight Warden.”
“He wears the armor of the wolf,” the woman said quietly to the man. He nodded but stayed silent.
“This is Quarion Imalcrin, Imperial Magister and Arch-Mage of Himmelveil, and my fellow companion, Natasha. This is our guide, Samwell, a ranger from Fort Birchwood.”
“We came across a few Blackwatch soldiers on our way down here,” Caroline said.
“Alive?” the man said, startled, a look of concern spreading over his face.
“No, no. No. I’m so sorry. Just their remains,” she said.
“And we were able to give their uneasy spirits final rest,” Galon said. “Verner Dent and Cyril Portanova, we are certain we aided, and Tiziano perhaps. And then a fourth who’s name we did not learn.”
“Those were our friends,” the man said sadly. It was then the reality struck the heroes. These were two more of the Blackwatch from the original mission around thirty years prior. A couple of them shared a quick glance. “I am Stephen,” he said looking briefly and cautiously at Asa. “And this is Kisa.”
Samwell looked at Asa, but his expression was cold. There was sympathy in his eyes, but he didn’t react with any joy or amazement. He must know this was likely his father. Yet Samwell couldn’t understand how he didn’t react at all. Samwell had to maintain his composure. From the story told back at the fort, this was the man thought dead and now found alive! He wanted a happy reunion for Asa, but it seemed that Asa was a man of purpose – just like Stephen, it seemed – and there would be time enough for such happy things when this adventure was over.
“How are you still alive?” Quarion asked.
“It is as if we only just shut the door,” Kisa said. “We were preserved by magic to be awakened if ever the door was to be opened, to guard against anyone reaching what lies beyond. What is the year?”
“Twenty thirteen,” Caroline said quietly, awestruck.
“Almost thirty years,” Kisa whispered, looking at Stephen.
“You didn’t expect to find us,” Stephen said. “What are you doing here?”
“We did expect to, in a way,” Asa told him. “We are here to investigate your disappearance. The Empress provided me with documents regarding you,” he paused and stopped himself before quickly continuing, “regarding your mission here. To find you alive, that is what is unexpected.”
“The Empress?” Again Kisa and Stephen shared a glance. “What of the Emperor?”
“He passed five years ago,” Galon said. “His daughter Issobelle was crowned as heir.”
“Daughter,” Kisa said with a little wonder. They never knew the Emperor had a daughter.
All were lost in thought for a moment and the room went silent. Quarion stepped into the silence, saying “You said you’re guarding ‘what lies beyond’? Of what do you speak?”
Stephen pointed to a doorway at the back of the vault. “The stairs beyond that door descend to an evil space, full of necromancy and darkness. As much as we are here to protect against anyone coming in, we guard against anything getting out.”
Silence again. Samwell felt a chill pass over him. He wondered if the others did too. He suspected they weren’t going to stop here but would follow this through to the end. Whatever end waited below. He didn’t think he wanted to go.
He was right. The team readied themselves and drew their weapons and approached the stairway to see what darkness awaited them. As scared as he was, Samwell prepared himself and followed. It was what Asa would do, after all.
They ran down the stairs and into the room. Crossing the boundary, a wave of negative energy crashed over them, restraining their rush. They pulled up short. A massive crag, a seemingly bottomless pit scarred the middle of the room. Across the span were four disgusting creatures. Two knights as if slain but raised from death were facing two large double doors along the far wall. They were paying attention to a symbol carved into the door and it looked as if they were attempting to scratch it out. It was the symbol of Stefin. A third being with gray skin, stretched tight across his bones stood beside them guiding their pursuit. Its rictus of sharp teeth seemed to smile as it turned its head to observe the intruders. The fourth beast was an undead female whose body parts appeared pieced together like a patchwork quilt.
She did not wait to dialogue but attacked immediately. The creature, whatever she was, turned and growled, snarling at the intruders, and then charged, sprinting with unholy speed and leaping with evil grace over the twenty-foot crevice focusing her fury upon Stephen, lashing out and clawing at him. Seeing the focus of the turned knights, Quarion instantly created a wall of force between them and the doors. With that in place, they wouldn’t be able to destroy the symbol of Stefin, at least for a while.
It was obvious to everyone who cared to look that Asa only had eyes for the gray-skinned man. There was heat in his stare and for the first time, Samwell thought he saw how the dichotomy of Asa revealed itself. He was passionate to destroy evil and filled with a holy fire to do so. But he was stuck. He took a half step before halting, glancing at the massive gap which lay between them. So Samwell acted. With pure instinct and a sense of duty, Samwell spread the hawkish wings he wore upon his back and flew. He grabbed Asa and carried him across the span and deposited him in front of the foul creature. Up close, Samwell saw that the man wore priestly garments and the crest of the Order of the Black Talon. Could this be Elir De Monde? Dark and twisted and unrecognizable after being trapped by darkness for thirty years, if it was Elir he was no longer the man he once was.
Galon saw them go and followed, leaping across and charging the dark priest. He struck him but the distraction gave Asa a chance to strike. Perhaps still unsettled from unexpectedly being picked up and flown, he missed his strike, his sword flashing past Elir but finding no purchase. Elir called out to his evil god and a burst of negative energy blasted out staggering the heroes again. Responding with fury, Asa called out to the Nameless One who sent his own burst of divine smiting energy into Asa.
Stephen responded to the mismatched woman by slicing her arm as two arrows impaled her shoulder. Natasha had entered the fracas. Caroline then stabbed at the ghoul, piercing her under her ribs. Screaming with pain at the onslaught, she clawed back at Caroline and Stephen.
Meanwhile, Kisa attempted to follow Galon across the gap, but she misjudged the distance. She reached out towards the far edge but fell short and with a yell departed from sight and dropped into the abyss. Quarion saw her plight and leapt to respond, taking flight and racing down into the abyss behind her. His quick decision saved her life. He grabbed her, flew her back to the surface and dropped her on the far side.
Samwell continued the fight against Elir but wasn’t able to land a blow against the elusive thing. He impatiently pulled out his sword, staggering off balance in his hurried approach. He worried Asa would be hard on him for his failure. His lips tightened into a frustrated scowl.
At least Galon didn’t fail. He struck true again, slicing Elir critically and giving Asa an opening to strike as well, crushing him under the smiting power of god. In his continuing fury, Elir called the knights over to defend him. One charged Asa but couldn’t knock him back and away from Elir. He held his footing and leaping back against the push, brought down his sword upon the evil priest, striking him down with a yell of righteous anger.
The second knight attacked Quarion as he released Kisa to safe ground. Seeing this, Kisa jumped to her feet and defended him against its mad fury.
On the other side of the gap Stephen and Natasha continued to fight the ragbag, striking her but unable to finish her. Caroline stepped up to counter her attack and pierced her again, deeply, and she crumbled to the ground with a dusty and groaning rattle. Not settling with the kill shot, she flew across the gap and joined the fight against the knight attacking the mage.
Quarion, startled and upset at being attacked attempted to disintegrate the knight, but failed to finish it off. Stephen wasn’t content to remain away from the fight and took his own leap across the chasm, just reaching the far side, catching hold and scrabbling up to the surface. With all the heroes on the far side (except Natasha) the fight took a frenzied turn as the whirlwind of magic and blades and arrows struck out at the two knights, surrounding them and ultimately taking them down.
With a moment to breathe, Samwell was awestruck. The utter power displayed by Asa and his companions was immense. They were quick, precise, and deadly. Maybe all those stories were true. Samwell was excited to have seen them in action, and not only to have seen them fight, but to fight right alongside them. The beginnings of a smile crept around the corners of his mouth.
Weirdly, Samwell thought he saw Asa, Galon, Natasha, and Caroline disappear for a split second before returning in the same place. He cocked his head like a confused dog but chalked it up to the passion of the fight, though he heard Caroline mutter the word “Robin” and shake her head. He wondered what that meant.
A pounding reverberated around the space, bringing them all back to their circumstance. Quarion dismissed the wall of force so they could approach and see the doors and investigate the symbol of Stefin. Was that knocking or ramming? Samwell shuddered when it thundered a second time.
“What is that?” he said, looking to Asa.
Everyone looked around, but no one seemed certain.
“It looked like those knights were attempting to destroy that symbol. Is that keeping those doors closed?”
“Yes,” Quarion replied, confidently, though his eyes shifted between Asa and Galon. “This appears to be a gateway like the one I destroyed in Himmelveil. That’s a balor trying to get out.”
“We don’t know that for sure,” Stephen chimed in. “But whatever it is needs to be restrained there and not released into our world. That’s what the symbol was doing.”
“Will it hold?” Galon asked.
“No,” Kisa said. “It needs to be re-sealed, but we don’t know the ritual.”
“Is it a ritual of Stefin?” Galon asked, looking at Asa.
“Yes,” Kisa said. Stephen nodded in agreement.
“I have the Book of Stefin,” Asa said, almost reluctantly.
Kisa and Stephen stood silent, exchanged their own glance, open mouthed in wonder. Finally, Kisa said into the silence, “You just carry the Book of Stefin around with you?”
“I shouldn’t, I know. I just forget it’s in there,” he admitted awkwardly, casting his eyes to the ground and blushing a little. “I do dishonor to myself.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Galon said. “It’s good we have it. Right?” he asked, looking at Kisa.
“Yes,” she said. “It will contain the sealing ritual.”
“I’ll read it,” Quarion said, reaching out his hand towards Asa, ready to receive the ancient tome.
“I ought to,” Kisa said.
Asa reached into his bag and pulled out the book. It was covered with dark, aged leather, with intricate stitching and designs. One of which was the same as the symbol on the doors. Asa handled it carefully and respectfully and handed the book to Kisa.
She brushed her hand across the surface of the book, her fingers lingering on the symbol. She breathed deeply and opened the cover. The parchment rustled. Samwell could see, even from his distance, that there was old ink on the pages, colorful and artistic. Letters and characters Samwell couldn’t read; drawings of gestures and motions. The pages were wispy and dry and Samwell thought he heard the parchment cracking as she gingerly turned the pages until she found what she wanted.
“Here it is,” she whispered. “Gesture at the door a number three,” she began and raised her right hand holding up her first three fingers. She closed her eyes and sighed. “It requires three lives to re-seal the door. It’s blood magic.”
“I’ll do it.” Three voices chimed in immediately, nearly simultaneously. Samwell wasn’t surprised. It was Asa, Galon, and Stephen.
“Let me take a look at that,” Quarion said. Kisa looked at Asa. He noticed. “I won’t touch it,” he said, resignedly, his hands raised in peace. He walked to her and looked over her shoulder.
“It reads to me ‘the blood of three’ not ‘lives’,” he said. “And the door will be sealed for a thousand years. We need a stone bowl, stone pestle, stone mortar, blade, and the life blood of three. I’ll complete the chanting and then pour the bowl over the door. I’ve got all those things.” He looked up, smiling and satisfied and began to sort through his pack.
Samwell was nervous. He had never seen blood magic before and he knew enough not to play around with it. Some of the guys at the fort told stories about it as if they had seen it manifested in person. Samwell had always doubted those stories; just braggadocio over some ales. The typical talk of soldiers. He didn’t put much stock in them.
But this was going to happen. He stepped back to allow Quarion to perform the ritual, but kept his hands on his sword and crossbow in case they were needed.
Asa, Galon, and Stephen stepped up and reached out their hands towards the stone bowl, palms up. Galon’s left hand held a dagger, hilt out, to Quarion. Quickly, he took the knife and cut across the palms of the three men, precisely and not too deep. The blood flowed into the bowl for a few seconds.
“That’s enough,” Quarion said, and the three men withdrew their hands and wrapped a bandage around them. Quarion got on with it. He began the chant in an ancient tongue, or at least a dialect of a tongue Samwell didn’t recognize. He watched with fear as light within the room seemed to fade around the edges leaving only Quarion and the stone bowl illumined. The chanted ended. Quarion reached up and poured the blood over the doors and a wave of blessing crashed over them all. The symbol of Stefin was restored to wholeness; the scratches were repaired. The door was sealed.
No one spoke.
The reverberating pounding upon the door had ceased.
The group retraced their steps and cleared the remaining segments of the underground keep of the Black Reach. It was uneventful, for the most part. Kisa discovered a trap of poison daggers which she disarmed to enter a storeroom. Therein, Quarion discovered an illusion of a false wall and walked right through it into another room, older, with different stonework, more natural. It was a small space but filled with some magical weapons and gold.
The team stowed most of it. Seeing a bow, Asa picked it up and examined it, feeling its heft. It seemed sturdy and in good repair, even after all this time. He retrieved a quiver which lay beside it, turned, and handed them to Samwell with a nod.
Samwell motioned to himself as if to ask: For me? Asa nodded. “Thank you,” he said and took them. He tried to remain calm, but his blood raced. “He gave me treasure,” he thought. He was proud.
Back towards the entrance, the team encountered another fallen Blackwatch soldier, prone, stretching towards a table with tears in his shirt and a dagger protruding from his back. Black blood pooled under him, as if fresh.
Cautiously, Quarion walked near, but he didn’t react quickly enough as whatever inhabited the corpse whirled around, sat up, and clawed into Quarion ripping off his skin and putting it on over his own rotten flesh. Samwell retched. He had never seen anything so repulsive and he bolted from the room, following hard on Natasha’s heels.
Kisa responded quickly and stole Quarion’s skin back from the creature which then transformed into a large, troll-like beast. Frightened, Quarion’s skinless frame of bloody muscle, sinew, and bone ran away, too. It was unsettling to see those wide eyes and crazed smile take off across the room. With the focused assault, however, the beast didn’t last long.
The body which had been taken over by that skin-stealing creature couldn’t be identified. Too much damage from time or evil prevented it. They counted six more Blackwatch bodies in the room. Could they all be traps?
“Seal the room and leave them in peace,” Stephen said.
Everyone agreed. No need to take the risk of disturbing any others. The party retreated back towards the entrance and Asa used a magic green stone to stone-shape the entrance, marking it as a tomb of the Blackwatch. Near the entrance, they found Quarion wandering, awkward and skinless. Despite the earlier difficulty between them, Caroline comforted him and then used a powerful magic of her own to regenerate his skin and heal him fully. Samwell didn’t hear him say anything, but there were thanks in his eyes.
Wandering through the remaining rooms, they discovered only one more ghost of a Blackwatch wandering around the upstairs. Kisa recognized her as Ianthe Nardozzi. It seemed she only wished to find a way out of the old dwarven keep. Kisa instructed her to follow them and the team climbed the steps and exited the dungeon into darkness. Ianthe’s ghost wandered into a beam of moonlight and faded away.
The final Blackwatch soldier was granted peace.
They gathered around the entrance and looked on in silence. Galon removed the sword he had inserted nearly eighteen hours earlier and the star stone door creaked closed beneath the obelisk.
Asa knelt and placed a hand upon the earth in front of the stone. He prayed. As he did so, Samwell felt the darkness and death which oppressed the entirety of the Black Reach up to and including the grass relent and dissipate. The ground was now hallowed. Consecrated with the power of the Nameless One, it was no longer a place of evil. Demonic darkness was sealed below and the revered dead left behind were now honored and at peace.
The team flew back to Fort Birchwood, the flighted assisting or carrying those unable. They oddly returned from an uninhabited tomb with two more soldiers than they departed with, and all were haggard, dirty, and exhausted.
It had been decided that to avoid frightening the watch, they would land outside the fort and walk the last few yards. Yes, they would have to open the gates, but it was better than landing in the courtyard and prompting chaos. Yet the second watch was still startled at their approach.
“Halt!” one cried, not terribly firmly.
“Who is that, Private Trémaux?” Samwell shouted, craning his neck to see who called out from upon the ramparts. He smiled to himself. He enjoyed knowing his men, especially the new ones. And they were the ones most often suffering through the night shift on the gates.
Enzo and Pascal shared a quick glance.
“Gafferson?” Pascal whispered.
Enzo nodded. “I think so.”
“Colonel Gafferson?” he called down.
“Yes, Enzo,” Samwell said. “And tell Private Boutin to come down and open up the gates.“
“Sir! Yes, sir!” Enzo said. He turned to tell his friend, but Pascal was already gone. He didn’t wait, but laid down his halberd and climbed down the ladder in haste. He opened the gates and allowed Samwell and the Heroes of Himmelveil passage into Fort Birchwood.
Samwell stood by the gates as the rest filed past. “Pascal, go and fetch Quartermaster Lalande. We need quarters prepared for our guests.” Pascal stood motionless, in awe at the heroes, the worth of their gear, and the power contained within them. “Now, Pascal.” Samwell nudged him, amused. Pascal ran off.
It hadn’t been that long since Samwell had felt his own awe in their presence. After the last day’s adventure, though, he nearly felt like he belonged with them. It was amazing how a little bloodshed and danger was enough to bring people together and forge long-lasting bonds. Samwell dreamed that this would be the first of many times he would fight with these heroes.
After Asa walked through the gates, last in line, Samwell took care to shut and bar the gates. The fort was secure. The heroes were home.
Quartermaster Lalande found bunks for the heroes, though Natasha and Caroline set up a tent in the courtyard for themselves. They invited Kisa to join them in what they called the “girl’s tent” and she agreed. Samwell thought that odd – the fort had a separate chamber for the ladies if they had desired one – but one finds one’s comfort wherever one can.
Once they were all settled, Samwell returned home.
It was late. He opened the door slowly, trying not to wake Rosario. He sat in the wooden chair just inside the door. It creaked. He froze. He heard Rosario breathing deeply from the bedroom. It was a comfortable breath and he was grateful to hear it. He chuckled when he heard her emit a short snore.
Piece by piece, Samwell removed his leather armor, nearly as patiently and respectfully as he had put it on almost twenty four hours earlier. It would need to be cleaned. So would he. He stood and walked to where they kept their ewer, disrobing along the way. He poured water out over his hands and ran them over his face and through his hair. Blood and grime dripped down onto the floor. Samwell continued little by little until he was at least refreshed if not completely clean. As he stood up following one last rinsing of his face, he felt a soft cloth embrace his shoulders. He closed his eyes and purred.
“I’m glad you’re home,” Rosario said. She wiped him down with the cloth and dried his brown skin, tenderly and with care.
“Me, too. I’m sorry I woke you.”
“I’m glad I woke up. Are you hurt?”
“Nothing that will last,” he said, “but I’ll be sore tomorrow.” He turned and faced her and she continued toweling him off, getting closer. “Thank you.”
“My pleasure,” she said. Even in the darkness, Samwell felt the smile and heat in her words. He stirred. And then he yawned. They laughed together. “Oh, my tired man, let’s get you to bed,” she said.
“That sounds good,” Samwell said.
She took his hand and led him to the bedroom. They climbed in; Samwell put his head down and slept almost immediately. Rosario lay awake for a while watching him, counting his breaths, seeing if he dreamed. He didn’t. After a time, Rosario returned to sleep, happy to have her husband back beside her.
Samwell slept well and deep into the morning. They all did. Even the elves, who didn’t really need it, slept as if they had been awake and moving for forty-eight hours.
When Samwell woke, their apartment was empty. Rosario was out, performing her duties around the fort, Samwell guessed. He stepped out into the living area and saw that his armor and clothing had all been cleaned already and set out to dry. She was an angel, he thought, grateful he had found her.
Then he heard some activity out in the fort and dressed to see what was abuzz.
The heroes were running the gauntlet. The gauntlet was Fort Birchwood’s training course and there were Asa and Galon and Caroline running the course and the troops were gathered around to watch. Everything seemed to be at a standstill as they frog-crawled under brambles and jumped small hedges and pools and climbed makeshift walls. There was Rosario, watching them go and cheering them on with everyone else from the fort.
Samwell approached her and slid his arm around her waist. She blushed, but turned to him, smiled and kissed him.
“Morning,” she said.
“Morning. What’s all this?”
“The Wolf suggested they set training benchmarks for the men to aspire to.”
“That’s a good idea,” Samwell said, nodding, “though I hope the men realize how special these heroes are.”
“Oh, they do,” she said. “Look at them.”
And he did. He looked around and saw them smiling and laughing and pointing and gaping as these soldiers, the elite of the elite, saw fit to give these trainees a little hope and joy and wonder even in the aftermath of yesterday’s discoveries. To be emulated, indeed.
They all gathered once again in Captain Glass’ office, giving him a brief report on the visit to the Black Reach and everything they discovered. Samwell didn’t speak much. It was Asa’s story to tell. Cy looked at him in wonder a time or two, especially when Kisa and Stephen were introduced, telling Samwell at one point that he expected his full report on the excursion by week’s end. Inwardly, Samwell groaned. He hated writing reports. He would do it, of course, but Samwell knew Cy was preening a little in front of the others. It was just as likely that he would ask for Samwell’s take over an ale before he ever asked for the report.
At the end of the story, Asa stood. He shook the Captain’s hand, saying, “Thank you for your hospitality. You run a tight ship out here; I’m happy to have seen it in person.”
“You’re welcome,” Cy replied. “Please come any time.”
Asa turned to his companions before turning back to Cy. They all stood and readied themselves. “We should be going,” he said. Asa looked over at Samwell, standing behind Cy and acknowledged him with a nod and what seemed to be a look of respect.
They all joined hands, Quarion said some words, and in a blink they were gone. Samwell wondered if he would ever see Asa again.
“That was something,” Cy said.
“Yeah, it was.”
“Let’s go get these trainees back into form.”
“Absolutely.” Samwell clapped Cy on the shoulder. A little too familiarly, perhaps, but no one else was there to see it. Laughing, they opened the door and walked out of the office and called the men to order as if it were any other day.
“Come closer,” it whispered. The figure was shimmering, translucent. Everything around her was dark, but she glowed as if from within. Samwell stepped forward but didn’t get any nearer to her. “Come closer.” Her ess stretched and lingered as the word escaped her lips ending with an exhale rather than an actual er. He shivered. He didn’t know where he was, and he didn’t really want to be there, but he couldn’t bring himself to run away.
Wispy fingers beckoned him. He took another step but was still no closer to her. Something clanged behind him, echoing and distant. He thought he recognized the harsh melody, but he couldn’t grasp hold of it. He turned to look but saw only darkness.
“Samwell,” she whispered, closer this time. He jerked his eyes back towards the sound of his name. The apparition was upon him. “Samwell,” she grinned, hissing a little louder. Her arms reached out for him as she rushed up on him. She grabbed him by the shoulders saying “Samwell” one last time.
Samwell sat up in the bed, sweating, breathing hard. Rosario’s hand was on his shoulder, nudging him. He reached a hand up to his eyes as if brushing away the ghostly fingers. The bedroom was dark. A candle lit in the living area peeked dimly through the cracked door. It was still early. The sun was not yet up.
“Samwell,” Rosario groaned. She buried her head on his shoulder. She was crying.
The cobwebs of his dream scattered instantly as he threw off the blanket with his free hand and reached for the dagger he kept under the mattress. “What is it?”
“She’s dead,” she sobbed.
He expected something else. He didn’t know what he expected, exactly, but not that. “Dead? Who’s dead?”
Rosario uttered, “The Empress,” and embraced her husband, sobbing.
Samwell was dumbfounded. The light from the candle flickered as if in response to the cold breath of the apparition, she calling him to come closer, but really only taunting him that even the most precious of lights are only fleeting and easily extinguished.
“Wha…” he tailed off. It was a short burst of breath, but it was all he could muster.
“I don’t know,” Rosario said. She knew what he was trying to say. She usually knew. He liked that about her. He didn’t have to waste words. The only problem this time was that there were none at all that he could possibly say.
It was then he heard the bells. They were discordant. Bells from both the fort and the temple competed with one another, each with their own message to spread.
The Empress is dead, it rang out. To arms, said the other.
The Empress is dead, it said again.
Prepare for war.