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Unread 17th of August, 2009, 12:13
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·····Subchapter 11c- The Long, Lonely Road

A fish breaks the surface of the pond, taking a bite at one of the numerous flying insects skimming the water's surface in the deepening shadows of dusk. Ripples radiate out from the point its head breaches, reflecting back when they reach the small pine cone bobbing on the surface of the water. Tied around the cone is a thin piece of string. One end of the string leads down into the murky brown of the ponds depths, while the other trails back to the shore, where it is firmly tied to the end of a willow branch.

Keiron Druche sighs in frustration. He has been fishing for the better part of an hour, but while fish are breaking all over the pond, none seem interested in the grub attached to his hook. Wedging the pole into a stony crevice on the water's edge, he pulls his hands back under his heavy fur cloak. The full wrath of winter may not be here yet, but there is a definite chill in the air. Shivering slightly, he leans back and returns to watching the pine cone. A fish chooses that moment to bite the pine cone itself.

“Now you're just messing with me, aren't you?” He sighs again and stands up. If the fish aren't going to bite, at least he can get his trail journal and write down today's entry. Today I once again wandered the road aimlessly. No sign of Myra and the others, nor of the bastard who destroyed my family in a single day. Another wasted day in an increasingly wasted life. He shakes his head at the melancholy mood that has descended on him, but between the cold and eating trail jerky for the past three days he isn't in a happy frame of mind. He had hoped some fresh fish might raise his spirits, but...

Letting his worries run through his head, he walks slowly back towards the clearing over the hill where he has built a fire pit and left his things. But as he draws near the top of the small knoll, he hears voices on the other side. He freezes and listens for a moment.

“Well, who d'you think these are?” The voice is low, a rumble of thunder in the early evening calm.

Another voice answers, too soft to be heard. Was that a woman?

“Doesn't matter; they ain't here and we are. Let's see what they have.” That will be the leader. There is a simple authority in his rough voice, like that of a local gang leader or an abusive husband. The voice says, 'Obey or else,' and holds the promise that the 'or else' won't be pleasant.

It was stupid to leave his possessions unattended, but Keiron had just been glad to get off the road for a time. Now he is being robbed, and his weapons are all on the wrong side of the knoll. Still, he is alone and the would-be thieves are unaware of his presence. “Dofheicthe,” he says, his hand twisting in the air in front of him. A new type of chill runs down him, one that courses through his veins like flows of ice, and he disappears from view. Walking softly, he crests the hill and creeps towards the small camp he has set and the three men currently rummaging through his stuff.

“Did you hear something?” This is the soft voice he hadn't heard properly before. It belongs to a pale man with bulging eyes in a too-thin face.

“Nah,” the small mountain of flesh next to him rumbles. “You're just paranoid.”

“Shut up and search that pack.” The leader is the tallest of the three, and the only one openly carrying a weapon. The sword on his hip is short and looks like it is a bit rusted, but it would still be enough to lay Keiron low if he wasn't careful.

Keiron circles the camp, trying to move at a decent pace without making much noise. Luckily, the sound of Tubby rummaging through Keiron's pack is enough to mask the sounds of his passing.

“Bloody 'ell, look at the size of this pack! Is this a child's camp, you think?”

The leader shakes his head at his fat friend. “This far away from a town? Not alone, it ain't. And there's no other packs. No, this is something else.”

“Maybe a goblin?” Googly-Eyes asks, glancing around as though afraid to see one nearby.

The leader takes two steps and smacks him atop his head. “If it was a goblin, we'd have smelled it. Damn things don't shower their whole lives, unless they get caught in the rain. Besides, you ever actually seen a goblin? They ain't what you'd call common.”

Keiron finally reaches what he was headed for: his crossbow, leaning just where he had left it. He crouches down so that his cloak covers it and picks it up. It vanishes as soon as his hands wrap around the stock. A bolt is already in the groove, but it needs cocked. He grabs a second bolt as well and backs away from the fire pit. He doubts he will get a third shot if he needs it. Slipping around behind the leader, he cocks the string as quietly as he can.

Not quietly enough. “Shhh!” The leader glances around, trying to find the source of the sound. He looks right through Keiron, his eyes seeking something they couldn't hope to see.

Keiron takes aim and lets his finger slowly take up the pressure of the trigger. Remember, he hears his father saying in the past, squeeze the trigger, don't pull it.

The leader stops his visual search of the nearby area, shrugging. “Guess it was nothin'...” Six inches of steel and wood slam through his head, finishing his sentence with a brutal finality.

There is a moment of shocked silence from the other two. Keiron, not wanting to waste such an opportunity, quickly reloads and lines up his sights on Tubby. Soon, both men are staring at the now-visible halfling who had managed to kill their friend so easily.

Tubby is the first to speak, anger turning his face red. “You... you son of a...”

“Shut. Up.” Keiron's public voice, the one he is using now, is much deeper than his real voice. He has found that speaking deeper commands respect in a way that a normal halfling voice just can't. It works now, as Tubby breaks off whatever insult he'd been ready to hurl at Keiron's mother.

“How did you... where did you come from?” Googly-Eyes asks, his voice little more than a squeak.

Keiron shifts his aim briefly to the thin man and says, “It's a halfling thing. Now you shut up as well, son.” He shifts his aim back at Tubby, whom he deems to be the bigger threat of the two. “Drop anything of mine you might be holding or have pocketed, or join your friend.” His pack falls to the ground, as does some trail jerky Tubby had pocketed.

Glaring at the men for a moment, Keiron decides that was probably all they had of his. Jerking his crossbow towards the road, he says, “Get away from me. And don't come back.”

Googly-Eyes starts for the road, but Tubby stops him with his hand and asks, “What of Jon?”

Jon? They were following the lead of a man named... Jon? Keiron glances down at Jon's body. There is no pack on him, but he has that sword on his belt and what looks like a pouch tied to the other side. Crouching carefully and keeping his crossbow trained on Tubby with his right hand, he awkwardly undoes Jon's belt with the left. That done, he steps back from the body. “Take him. Belt stays with me as idiot tax.”

Tubby looks like he is about to argue, but another glance at the crossbow shuts him up. He picks up Jon's body with ease (The man's a bloody orc!) and follows Googly-Eyes out of the clearing towards the road.

Keiron stays still, listening to the sounds of their passage fade into the distance. Once they are gone, he lets out a huge breathe of relief. Now that the danger was passed, he can let his nerves show. It is with shaking hands that he gathers his supplies together again. The camp tidy once more, he pulls Jon's belt to him.

The sword is as rusty as it had seemed at first glance, but the edge is still somewhat sharp. Keiron is glad he'd avoided a fair fight this time. Tossing the sword aside, he opens the small pouch. Inside is a silver and four coppers, as well as a scrap of paper. He pockets the coin and unfolds the paper. It is a note.

Jon,

Be careful on the road, love. I know you think you and Pol can look after yourselves, but it's a dangerous world we live in. I'll be waiting anxiously until you can come back safe. Keep this note as a reminder of who's waiting for you at home.

~ Miriam

Keiron folds the note back up and, deep in thought, goes to retrieve his fishing pole. At the pond, he finds a fish had finally taken the bait and, while he was distracted by the three men, drug the pole into the pond as well. Another fish hook lost, it seems. Returning to the camp, he settles in with cold trail jerky and begins writing in the trail journal by the light of a small fire. Miriam's note had made excellent kindling.
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Unread 30th of August, 2009, 05:22
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Keiron pulls his cloak tight around himself as he walks down the road. The winter winds brought a storm north with them, and icy rain has soaked Keiron through to the bone. He needs to get off of the road and to shelter soon, or he risks catching a cold or worse.

The lands around him are dotted with the occasional tree, but there is no shelter to be found in rolling hills and saplings. He forces himself to keep moving, mind intent on reaching the chimney smoke he had seen on the horizon the night before. If he is right, the smoke was rising from a small hollow just ahead. "Two more miles, two more miles…" he mutters. Each word falls on a step, giving the repeated phrase a chant-like quality to it.

***

It turns out to be more like five miles, but eventually Keiron reaches the crest of the hollow and moves into it. He can see the house now, a simple one-floor structure built to house three or four people. The road runs directly in front of the house, separating the house from a small clearing on the other side. A garden, desolate in the face of the approaching winter, wraps around the back of the house and a small barn stands nearby. Keiron walks to the front door and knocks, almost missing the door with his first knock from the shivering in his hands.


The door is opened by a middle-aged man. His frame is a powerful one, but Keiron can see the slight stiffness in the man's movements that comes from age. It is a problem Keiron knows all too well himself.

The man looks over Keiron's head at first, expecting a normal-sized person. Keiron's chattering teeth draw the man's attention down, and Keiron could see the recognition in the man's eyes. It is a common reaction, in Keiron's experience. The recognition always comes when a person first realizes they are face-to-face with a halfling. It is almost as though Keiron can read their minds when it happens. First is the surprise, followed quickly by the remembrance of stories about halflings. Following that is the realization they should say or do something, and what comes next is the measure of a person. Keiron has seen many different final reactions. Some drop their hands to their coin purses, while others pretend to be cultured and act as though they know many halflings. Keiron usually can tell the heart of a person in how they react during that moment.

The man simply stands to the side. "You better come in; tonight is a bad night to be on the road." Keiron nods and enters the house, a large trail of water following him. The house is built with one main room surrounded by four smaller rooms leading off of it. All four have their doors open. Besides the man who had let him in, the sole occupant is an older girl, perhaps twelve. She is sitting near the fire, scratching the stomach of a large dog. Two puppies circled the pair, tails wagging furiously.

When Keiron enters, the girl stops scratching and looks at him. Again, Keiron sees the emotions play out and groans inwardly when a large smile splits her face. It is a reaction he has only seen in girls, but all too often in them. She thinks he is cute, much like she probably thinks the puppies are cute.

"Sit by the fire," the man says. "You need to warm up. I'd offer you fresh clothes, but I doubt you'd fit anything I own."

"Thank you," Keiron says, and follows the man's advice. "I have a spare set of clothes in my bag. I just hope they stayed dry."

The waxed backpack had kept the worst of the rain out, but the spare clothes still got a bit damp. Putting them by the fire to dry, Keiron sat himself beside them, close enough to the fire he was in danger of catching himself. The warm felt uxorious, and he spent a minute just soaking in the warmth.

One of the puppies wanders over, and Keiron holds his hand out to be sniffed. After a few tentative sniffs, the pup begins licking his hand. When he tries to pull away, the puppy pounces on it, pinning his arm to the ground. He could pull away if he wants, but for now he lets the puppy have its fun.

While you dry out, can you tell us your name?” The man followed Keiron to the fire, and is now between Keiron and the little girl. He'll let me in, but still has the foresight to shield his daughter. Smart man.

My name's Keiron. I was just passing through when that caught me unprepared.” He gestures vaguely at the storm raging outside. “If I could, I'd like to stay the night. I've coin.”

The man frowns at that. “Well, winter's coming and food's a bit scarce, even with just feeding two...”

A Dragon,” Keiron says, pulling the coin from his pouch. “I eat light and sleep wherever, and I'm gone by midday tomorrow, no matter the weather outside.”

The man is still hesitant, but in the end pragmatism won him over. “Ok, done.” He takes the coin. “You can stay in my son's old room; he left long ago because... well, what's important is his room's available. You'll get dinner and breakfast. Do we have a deal?”

Keiron grins. “Only if you'll share your name as well. I don't deal with anonymous men.”

The man grins in return. “Fair enough. My name's Roland Tilley, and this is my daughter Greta.”

Keiron shakes the puppy free of his hand. “Well, Mr. Tilley, I thank you for your hospitality.” He holds his hand up for Tilley to shake.

That night, the puppy follows Keiron to bed, its tail wagging in anticipation of the possible lick fest to follow.

***

It is the puppy that awakens Keiron. Pulled from dreams that vanish as consciousness returns, he hears the pup whining and scratching at the door.

"What is it, boy?" Keiron drops from the bed and stands beside the pup, stroking its fur. He feels goose bumps rising under the soft hair. "Do you smell something?"

The puppy turns to Keiron, still whining. Its ears and tail are both drooping, and its eyes show a fear of whatever is on the other side of the door. Keiron grabs his dagger and, dressed only in his pants, opens the door.

The room beyond is dark and quiet. It is hard to imagine this is the same room he had been in just a few hours earlier. Tilley and Greta brought the room to life when they were in it. Now, it is a space waiting to be a room again. Keiron feels like an intruder.

The pup creeps through the room, still quietly whining. When it reaches the front door, it scratches at it weakly with its paw. Whatever it is that has the puppy spooked, it seems to be outside.

Keiron moves to the window beside the door and, standing on his tiptoes, looks outside. The rain is still falling, but everything looks in order. There is no one on the road or on the porch. He is prepared to go back to his room when a flutter of cloth pulls his gaze to the far side of the clearing across the road. A woman stands there, dressed in a plain woolen skirt and a short-sleeved blouse. If the cold and the rain were bothering her, she is not showing it.

She'll freeze to death out there, Keiron thinks. He opens the door and steps onto the narrow porch. The rain is as cold as he remembers. He waves at the woman. "Hey, are you insane? Get inside!"

The woman gives no indication of moving or of answering him. The wind blows again, and her skirt and hair drift with it. Keiron steps to the road, wincing as a sharp rock nicks his heel.

"Didn't you hear what I… what I…" Keiron trails off as he realizes he can see her hair blowing freely with the wind. Wet hair doesn't do that. It clumps together and hangs heavily, only moving for the most persistent of gusts. The woman's hair looks completely dry, as though the rain can not reach her. Her clothes are dry as well. She seems to recognize his shock, and a small grin plays across her face.

Keiron walks the rest of the way across the road and stops a few feet in front of her. This close, he can see the rain falling through her. He traces a quick pattern on his chest with his index finger and whispers, "Zauber." His spell shows him the magical energies swirling around her. It is an old magic, one that doesn't fall under any of the usual classification he is used to. Lines of force run from her to the ground. Keiron thinks they may be tethers.

Keiron asks, "What do you want? Why are you here?"

"She won't answer you." Keiron turns to find Tilley behind him, dressed in a cloak but no shirt. The driving rain makes it difficult to tell, but Keiron thinks tears are in Tilley's eyes as he gazes on the strange woman. "She can't."

"Who is she?"

Tilley smiles sadly down at Keiron. "My wife. She's my wife. Or at least what's left of her."
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Unread 15th of September, 2009, 10:41
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"It was maybe three years ago," Tilley says. "We were trying to plant wheat out back, on the hillside, when Lari found a hole in the ground. She made the kids stay away and came to get me." He takes a sip of tea, looking out into the morning storm at the spot where his wife's apparition had stood.

Keiron shifts the logs in the fire. Sparks cascade as one of the smaller logs collapses into the embers. "That was her name? Lari?"

Tilley nods without looking back at Keiron. "Larimora Guilo Tilley. She likes people to call her Lari; says Larimora sounds like the name of a plant." He sighs and sips again at the tea. "The hole looked like it was maybe a badger den, but when you went inside it was bigger. Much bigger. The first time I went down, I found myself in a cave a family of bears would be very comfortable in.

"Lari went in a few times. I told her it was dangerous, that she might hurt herself down there. When I suggested tying herself off to a rope, she laughed. Said the rope wasn't going to be near long enough. When I asked what she meant, she took me down the hole with her. That was the second time I went down there, and it was much different.

"Now, it opened onto a huge room, maybe six hundred feet to a side. On the back wall was a waterfall that fell into a narrow chasm. Moss and weeds grew on the floor, and several tunnels led off into the earth. Lari pointed at one and told me she was nearly done exploring that branch.

"The strange thing was, I wasn't welcome there and I knew it. I could feel a pressure on my skin, pushing me towards the hole out and my skin felt like it would peel right off. Lari tried to convince me to stay, but I couldn't. I left that hole and didn't go back in for months. Lari told me I was being foolish, but there was nothing I wanted less than to go willingly into that hole. Well, almost nothing.

"The third time I went down there, Greta found me in the fields and said Lari had gone down hours before and not come back up. I assumed she had fallen while exploring, so I grabbed a torch and set out. When I dropped into the hole, I was back in my bear cave. No waterfall. No tunnels. No Lari. I tried again and again over that week, but every time I went in I just got the cave.

"I stopped trying a week later. That was the first time we saw Lari across the way, as you saw her." He stops and glances at Keiron's face. "Naturally, you don't believe me, do you?"

Keiron sits back, keeping the emotions off of his face. The story was crazy, but he had seen the woman. It is a curiosity, and he has no pressing business to attend to. "There's an easy way to prove or disprove the story. Show me the hole. It still exists, right?"

Tilley looks at Keiron for a long time before responding. "Aye, it still exists. I'll show you after breakfast, but won't go down there. If you find the waterfall, Lari was probably in the first tunnel on your left. Will you look for her for me?"

Keiron nods. "Of course."

***

No waterfall waits for Keiron, but it isn't a bear cave he drops into either. The walls are made of volcanic rock, and the ground feels thin, as though it is covering a deep chasm. A tunnel branching off to the rear is the only discernible feature Keiron can see.

He looks up at the hole, where Tilley's head is outlined by the clear sky. "No waterfall, but there's a tunnel."

Tilley nods. "I think it might change for whoever is going in. Good luck."

***

The tunnel opens after a hundred paces into another large opening. His torch reveals a smooth cavern of the same volcanic rock. There is no waterfall and no other tunnels leading off. It takes only a moment to take in the room, and Keiron decides there is nothing here. It's an interesting cave for sure, but proves nothing. He turns to leave, only to find the tunnel entrance gone.

Turning in place, he shines his torch all around him. It's just a room, no exits visible. This is magic. He sketches a quick sign on his chest. The arcane energies of the room nearly blows the back of his head out, and he collapses to the ground in sheer agony.

Sensations return slowly out of the red that his thoughts have become, and he feels dampness on his cheeks. He'd been crying, apparently. Keiron sits up and wipes at them, only for his hands to come away dark. Blood, he realizes through the mother of all migraines. I'm bleeding from my eyes. A quick check shows that blood also was leaking from his ear, nose, and mouth. The pressure of the magical backlash had been massive.

He realizes he can hear sounds. Crickets, and the sound of wind whispering through branches. Wha...? Standing unsteadily, he sees a tree growing at the far end of the room, patches of grass coming up around it. The room, whatever it was, is changing around him. He staggers through tufts of grass and weeds that spring up at his feet to the tree, and touches it. It's real. A horse whinnies behind him and Keiron spins, the motion making his abused head swim. The sight finishes the job, dropping him to his knees.

It's his family's wagon. The dogs are laying at the fire, basking in the warmth of the glowing embers. They don't see the dark shapes Keiron does, creeping up to the wagon from all sides. One shape detaches itself from the mass, a dark figure of a man. He is cloaked, but a sense of power rolls off of him. He raises his hands towards the dogs and begins to mutter. The muttering rouses the dogs, but before they can do more than stand the muttering stops and an icy prison forms around one of the dogs, freezing it instantly. The others leap to the attack, barks ringing out, but the black masses move forward and cut them down.

Keiron's father and brothers pour out of the wagon, half-dressed and disoriented. A knife flashes from the darkness, embedding itself in Keiron's father's calf. He falls. Keiron's eldest brother draws a dagger and advances on the dark man. With a contemptuous wave of his hand, the dark man freezes him in place.

Seeing his brother fall shakes the shock from Keiron, and he takes a step forward. “STOP!” The dark man turns at Keiron's cry, and for a moment Keiron sees the gleam of teeth in a mirthless, deadly smile. Before he can unleash his fury on that smile, the dark man, the wagon, and the massacre all dissolve, crashing to the ground like waves on the ocean.

The ground under him gives, and Keiron falls into the deep of the earth. “Bloody crows...!” His torch is gone, lost in the fall of rocks, but all around him is a subtle glow. It radiates from the walls, and he realizes he can make out images in the glow. Again he sees his family's wagon and the coming of the dark ones. Before the slaughter begins, the glow shifts.

Now, he sees Jon's body, the bolt from Keiron's crossbow firmly embedded in his eye socket. Jon is walking around, even with the obviously fatal damage, and for a moment he turns his remaining eye on Keiron. The eye is all white, and clearly insane. Keiron falls on.

The glow shifts. Keiron sees himself, but younger. He's reading from a large tome by the light of an unseen fire. The young Keiron's shoulder shake slightly, a movement that could be mistaken for the subtle movement of the fire's light, but the wet splotches falling on the book suggest otherwise. Something in the book is of vital importance, but the pages are tilted in a way to prevent their reading. What is happening here? That never happened, so why does it feel true? Keiron falls on.

The glow shifts. He sees a group of people, people he has never seen before. A dark woman whose face is marred by a wide scar. A one-armed man. A man wielding a large shield, decorated with a silver fist. A half-orc. A slender woman to the rear. A man with a somewhat foolish knit cap. They all face Keiron, while in the background the dark man from the wagon attack looms, arms reaching for the group. Keiron falls on.

The glow shifts. His father is packing the wagon, and Keiron now can see the package taken during the attack. It is angular and wrapped in silk cloth, no more than the size of a human fist. The silk wrapping shifts, and on it Keiron can see the symbol of Pelor. Keiron falls on.

The glow shifts. Keiron see himself again, now much older. His hair is cut short and scars adorn his face. Fire rains around him as he traces arcane symbols in the air before him. Swords are crossed in the background, but the wielders are unclear. Keiron's cloak catches, the flames racing up to his neck. His face wreathed in flame, Keiron finishes the last sigil and a brilliant blue light flashes. When it clears, Keiron stands alone and naked in a vast desert. On his chest is the tattoo of a dove. Keiron falls on.

The last image fades, and now Keiron falls in blackness and silence. There is no wind, no sense of direction or perspective. In a way, it is as though he is floating through a vast void. Only the subtle pull of gravity in the pit of his stomach lets him know he is still falling. It is at the same time the most frightening, most exhilarating, and most relaxing sensation he has ever felt. As he falls deeper into the earth, he manages to gather enough sens of mind to wonder what will come next.

Moments later, Keiron finds out.
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Unread 25th of September, 2009, 02:44
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Keiron feels water engulfing him. He hears the splash as he plunges into a deep, cool underground pool of water. There's a familiar tickle at his nostrils where water attempts to plunge up into them.

But there is no water. Instead, he drifts slowly down to the ground, surrounded in the embrace of a phantom fluid. For a moment he panics, breathe coming in short, quick gasps as he fights to claw free of the not-water, but rationality soon reasserts itself. He is able to breath and in the darkness he can't see what he's doing. Running his hand along the ground, he finds a small rock. Holding it close to his face, he blows gently on it, whispering, "Gelinde." The rock begins to glow softly in his hand.

Keiron finds himself in a wide cavern. Around him floats the ghostly image of water, but it seems to be both there and not there. The reddish glow of the rock makes the water seem almost purple. The land he stands on slants upwards, and forms a small lake for the ghostly waters to fill. And standing at the water's edge, looking down at him, is the transparent figure of Tilley's wife, Lari. A sad smile sits on her face, and she gestures for Keiron to come over to her.

Keiron walks up the incline, feeling a slight resistance as he pushes through the false water. A transparent fish appears out of the gloom and swims through him, giving Keiron a small case of the shudders. He had felt the fish slide into his body, swim through him, and then leave. It was not a feeling he wanted to experience again.

As his head broke the water's surface, he realizes he had been having a bit of trouble breathing after all, as though he were trapped in a house filled with smoke. He nods to Lari and says, "Nice to see you again."

"You as well." The response is soft, almost inaudible, but in the silence of the cavern Keiron can pick it out.

Keiron does a double take. "I thought you couldn't talk?"

Lari's smile loses some of the sadness, and a hint of mischief gleams in her eyes. "Maybe I just didn't want to." She lets the soft joke drift in the air for a moment before sighing, and the levity is gone. "Down here, I can. But up there, I can hear what's said but can't speak."

"Up there?" Keiron looks above him for a way out, but see none. He can't even see the hole he must have fallen from to get here. "How do you get up there?"

"Not that way," she says, waving him towards the nearby wall. "It's over here."

Keiron follows her to the wall, noticing that her feet are sinking partway into the floor as they walk. At the wall, she gestures to a small niche. Inside the niche is a carved circle, inscribed with arcane runes of power. At a glance, Keiron can see runes for transport, binding, and planar crossing. "Stand here and think of going up," Lari says, "and you'll go up."

Keiron does as she directs, but not without some sense of apprehension. When he thinks up, though, he goes up. Fast. He's still trying to collect his stomach when he realizes he can see, through a deep green fog, Tilley's house. It's night there now, and no one is visible. How long was I unconscious, he wonders.

When Keiron tries to move, he finds himself fastened to the ground. He remembers the chains of magic he saw on Lari before and the runes of binding on the circle. He wants another look at the circle, and no sooner has the thought gone through his mind than he is plummeting again. In a moment, he's back in the cavern surrounded by the circle.

"Well?" Lari asks.

"It's night," he says, eyes focusing on the runes. The key to the circle was here, he knew it. Binding to hold them, and transportation to send them up. But what was the planar crossing for?

"Did you see my family?"

"No." Keiron drops his bag to the floor and begins rummaging through it, looking for his trail journal and spellbook. Maybe something in them would help with his unlocking the circle. "Listen, I might be able to do something with this, but it will take a while. Your name's Lari, right?" She nods. "I'm Keiron. And I'm getting us out of here."

***

It took three hours, but finally he thought he had the answer. Keiron stood from the circle and walked over to the water's edge where Lari was. "Ok, I think I've found a way out. The runes control the circle, so I need to control the runes. First, I'm coming over to get you, and then we'll get out of here."

"Coming over to get me?"

Keiron nods. "We can see each other, but can't really affect each other. That circle affects both of us because it's built to cross between planes of reality. If I can direct that crossing, I can bring myself all of the way over to where you are, where that water is."

"And then we get out? How?"

"The runes again. There are runes on there that tie us to this spot, which is why we never fully appear at the house. I'm going to overload those runes."

Lari looks hopeful, but not altogether convinced. "Is it dangerous?"

Yes. "No." The lie flows naturally from his mouth, as most lies do. In truth, the circle was either going to do what he hoped it would do, or blow up as soon as he starts tampering with it. In that case, he and Lari would be dead before they knew what happened. He saw no reason to tell her that. "Stay here while I try to come over to your side of things." He tries to pat her reassuringly on the shoulder, but his hand just drifts through the space where a shoulder should be.

Walking back to the circle, he gathers his things and stands in the center of the runes. Gods, let this work, he thinks, and focuses on the runes before him. Once his concentration is solely on the runes, he calls upon a spell he had ready for the day. "Nebel, nebel," he whispers, his hands curling in front of him. A fog begins to rise out of his pores, but before it can convalesce he stops the spell and slams his hands down on the runes, thinking of Lari.

Stopping a spell just as it's getting ready to finish is foolishly stupid. Usually, it's done on accident. A mage punched while in the middle of a spell might lose control of it, wasting the spell. But with enough concentration, a mage can stop a spell and keep the arcane energies flowing. Divine casters do this often, converting memorized spells into flows of healing magic, but they are protected by their faith. Keiron has no such protection, and the energies turn upon him. He feels the magic burning in his hands, his head, his very soul, but endures it and pushes that energy into the runes. There is a brief resistance, and then the runes flash once. Keiron hears, above the dull roar of pain, the sounds of a waterfall in the distance. He realizes he can truly see Lari now, and that the lake is right here with him.

Lari rushes up to him and drops to a knee. "It worked!" she shouts, and pulls the halfling into a hard hug.

Keiron flinches from the hug, but lets her continue. This was probably the first human contact she has had in a long time. When it looks like she means to kiss him on the cheek, though, he pulls away. "Ready to go?" he asks.

It takes her less than a minute to pull together her meager belongings. A makeshift fishing spear, a small collection of mushrooms, and a crude stone bowl are wrapped in a small ragged cloak, and she returns to the circle. "Ready, Keiron." It seems to give her pleasure just to be able to call someone by their name, and Keiron wonders how she stayed sane during her time stuck down here.

"Stand in the circle and don't think of up yet." She joins him in the circle, and he turns his attention to the binding runes. Again, he calls upon a prepared spell and just as the fog forms, he interrupts the spell and drives the energies into the runes. There's much more resistance this time, and he can see tendrils of smoke rising from the edges of the runes. He can feel the energies fading, and they were still stuck.

Through gritted teeth, he shouts to Lari, "Think up!" In the same breath, he calls upon another, much more potent spell. "Unsichtbar," he gasps, and his hands begin to turn transparent. Before the spell can turn him invisible, he cuts the hand gestures short and again smacks the stone. Pain, sharp and merciless, washes through his body as the energies pours through him and into the stone. The strain is almost unbearable, and Keiron nearly gives in. But as his last fragments of resolve begin to fade, he feels the pressure of the runes giving, giving, breaking…

A concussive force envelops Keiron and Lari, and they find themselves lying on the grass across from the house. "Bloody crows, it worked…" Keiron whispers.

"Lari!" The shout draws their attention to the house, where Tilley stands at the door. His mouth hangs open and a now-forgotten load of firewood is in his hands. Like a man slowly waking from a dream, he begins to walk towards the pair. Each step is faster than the last, and by the time he reaches the road he is running. Lari meets him in a scattering of logs as their arms wrap around each other.

Keiron walks wearily past the lovers, headed for the house. He hopes Tilley keeps wine somewhere; he needs a drink. Badly.

***

Keiron adjusts the straps on his backpack, glad to be headed back for the road. Lari and Tilley had treated him like a member of the family during the last day, but he felt like an interloper. With morning here, he just wanted to be on his way.

"Thank you for rescuing my wife," Tilley says, one arm wrapped around Lari. The two had been no more than five foot from each other since her return the day before. It was like they were newlyweds again. Keiron learned he had been gone for almost a week, but only experienced a day's worth of time in the hole. Lari's time difference was even more extremely; missing for three year, she was only in the cave for a few months according to her recollection.

"It was… well, not exactly my pleasure, but it wasn't a problem." He shakes Tilley's outstretched hand and nods at Lari and their little girl. "Thanks for your hospitality, and keep out of strange holes in the ground, yeah?"

Lari grins. "Count on it, Keiron."

As he steps on the road, the question Keiron had yet to ask popped into his head again, and he turns. "Lari, I never asked you. While you were down there, did you see anything… odd? Like visions or something?"

She frowns. "No. Why, did you?"

Keiron pauses, deep in thought. Finally, he says, "Just memories. Things I hadn't thought about for awhile." Waving, he turns back to the road and walks on, the vision he had seen while falling in the darkness running through his head.
  #5  
Unread 2nd of October, 2009, 05:39
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"Ye wouldna know a vampire if it came in out o' the rain right now an' bit ye on yer scrawny neck, boyo!" The larger of the two arguing men slams his empty mug on the bar, where it is promptly filled with mead by the barkeep.

The younger of the two men, face thin and flushed with too much alcohol, shakes his finger in the other man's face. "Piss off! I've seen one, I have. They're all over the Duchies right now, moving through the empty night streets, and if you're not careful they'll snatch you right up. Of course, they'd probably spit you back."

"What, I hit a nerve, lad? Ye afraid I'll show our li'l guest here exactly how much o' yer knowledge is nothing but hogwash?"

"Two days, codpiece. I was in the Duchies for two bloody days not three weeks ago, and they're so scared of the bloodthirsty bastards up there, jewelers are making a killing designing pendants with essence of garlic vials built in to the…"

"Ahh, bullocks!" the larger man waves his hand dismissively towards the other, mead slopping over the rim of the mug and splattering on the floor. Only Keiron seems to notice. "Ye've been here in town here for over two months, so yer 'current knowledge' of what's happening in the Duchies is less than useless. And everyone knows garlic does nothin' but season the blood for a vampire. When I's a younger man, I met me a vampire…"

"Just 'cause you met a tart with pale skin that resisted your rather limitied charms don't mean she's a vampire. She's just a woman what needs to get out in the sun more, and who obviously has a bit of common sense about her."

This insult on his masculinity brings a fresh roar of protest from the large man, and he jumps into a boastful list of his sexual conquests. The younger man's mother, sisters, and wife all play prominent roles in said list.

Keiron sips his beer, reflecting on the stellar information he'd just gained. It appeared that there may, or may not, be vampires in or around the Hundred Duchies. Also, the Crowing Man was not the drinking hole for the community's local intellects. He vows silently as the argument rages to never ask, "What news?" again.
  #6  
Unread 16th of October, 2009, 05:28
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Keiron holds his hands slowly up over his head and, in a purposefully deep voice, says, "Son, I want you to think very, very careful about what you just said. And I want you to think about how very, very stupid it was to say it."

The young guard lowers his sword menacingly, pointing it at Keiron's throat. "What did you say, you bloody thief?"

Keiron sighs. "I'm the old one here, yet you're the one with the hearing problem. I'm not a thief, and I couldn't have stolen a bloody cow last night."

The guard snorts softly. "Like I can trust you. Everyone knows that all shr… all halflings are liars."

Everyone knows that all shrubs are liars. That was the sentence he almost said. And Keiron knows ii. For a moment, anger at the slur rages in his breast but he keeps it off of his face. Here is a lad who needed a good beating, but here is also a guard who could throw Keiron in jail just on suspicion. And Keiron hates having to break out of jail cells.

Instead, he looks at the gathering crowd and collects himself. By the time Keiron's eyes turn back to the guard they're calm again. "Ok, then let's talk about this. Last night, after I arrived in town, someone broke into this Len's barn through the roof."

"Aye."

"And stole a cow, apparently without opening the doors. The only way in or out is that hole, right?"

"Aye," the guard says again, a frown starting to form on his face. Keiron hopes it meant he had gotten past the 'Of course a halfling stole it,' phase to the common sense phase of the conversation.

"Son, how much do you think a halfling of my age can lift? Because I'd dearly love to meet the halfling that can lift a bloody cow through a roof!" Keiron gazes for a moment at the idiot while the logic works its way through his brain, and then says, "Now, may I go eat some breakfast?"

The guard, flustered at being shown up in front of the morning crowd, just nods and stands aside.

As he walks away, Keiron hopes he will be getting closer to the Duchies soon. He is very tired of dealing with country yokels, especially ones who didn't know if a halfling wanted to steal something, it was stolen. Regardless of how much it weighs.
  #7  
Unread 3rd of November, 2009, 05:59
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For halflings, home is with your family. It's the feel of your wagon at night, the soft touch of your lover in the moonlit fields, the cool, wet nudge from your dog in the morning. Keiron long ago reconciled himself to the fact that his home was lost to him. But on nights like this he wishes there were some way to go home. Still days from the Duchies, he had come upon a halfling caravan. They were headed in the same direction, and it had been a long time since Keiron was in a caravan. For two days, he had been accepted into the caravan as one of their own. He watched the dogs, he steered along rough roads, and when a wagon axle broke he pitched in to fix the axle.

Tonight, an impromptu party is in full swing. Three brothers are demonstrating their abilities on the lute, and Mynn Byrne is alternating between singing along and dancing in bare feet through the nearby grass. A widow at 39, her feet still glide through the blades of grass with a youthful vigor Keiron has all but forgotten. She is the life of the party, and Keiron's feet twitch in a desire to join her.

"We reach the Duchies Fork tomorrow, Keiron. My offer stands." Keiron draws his gaze away from Mynn to her father, Trian. Trian is the caravan master, and a shrewd man. Keiron feels like he is talking with his father when he talks with Trian.

"I know, sir, but my path lies in the Duchies, not in circling them."
Trian nods in understanding. "I thought you might say that. Things are going bad in the Duchies. We've been hearing stories."

Keiron laughs softly. "Always stories around, sir. Have you heard the one about the vampires?"

"Aye, and worse than that. We've heard everything from plague to roving bands of undead creatures killing whole towns at a time. Just last week, we heard there was an army, maybe orcs, ravishing the whole of the Duchies. It's a bad place to be right now, regardless of what's true and what is not."

Keiron shrugs, putting into it every day of the long years he has spent on the road to get to this point. "It's where I need to go. What choice do I have?"

"There's always a choice, Keiron. There's at least one option for you here." Trian's eyes cut quickly to Mynn, and Keiron feels a blush rising at the unspoken suggestion.

Trian puts a hand on Keiron's shoulder, speaking softly with an urgency that cries out for Keiron to listen. "Stay with us, son," he says. "We could never replace your family, but you need to let your past go. It's driving you into the Duchies, into where I fear you may meet your death."

"Maybe," Keiron says. "But that's where my path leads tomorrow. Before then, though..." He stands and steps in front of Mynn, easily flowing into the dance. It seems that youthful vigor is not so lost to him at all.

"Can I have this dance?" he asks, basking in her sudden grin. And for one night, Keiron feels like he is home.
  #8  
Unread 17th of May, 2010, 21:23
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