Shroud of the Avatar will be home to many adventurous souls; many of which will team up with others in their quest for glory and riches. And in the end, they may discover something more precious than fame and fortune; they might instead find lasting friendship. Thus, it seemed fitting that our next featured Tale of the Underworld be one of both adventure and fellowship. Presenting, “The Expedition” by Archaaz.
Noor sat silent and still upon a high outcropping overlooking the town of Niverale, nestled in the distant valley below. The sun had not yet pierced the horizon, and the world was still bathed in the gray miasma of early morning. A sudden late autumn breeze whistled down from the mountains above, and she pulled her woolen cloak tighter against the chill.
Her perch afforded a splendid view of the town, spread out along both sides of the narrow valley, split by the gentle river Vuryn- a river that would slow to a frozen trickle with onset of the winter snows, and swell to a raging torrent with the spring thaw. Smoke from a hundred chimneys curled upward, dissipating wistfully into the pale, predawn sky.
Noor had come to this town, to this world, a little over a year ago, by her calculations. She reflected on the world she had left behind- friends, family- lost to her now. The recollection brought with it the faint ache of mourning, for in that bygone world she had loved and been loved, had harbored great dreams for the future, had amassed an endless collection of cherished memories. Yet, the longer she remained in this new land, the dimmer those memories became, the weaker her ties to that previous existence. She was happy here. As strange as the notion seemed, she belonged here. She thought of that first day, the day of her sixteenth birthday, when she had gone to sleep in one world and awakened in another, and, as always happened when she recalled that time, her thoughts turned to the old gypsy woman-
“You’re early.” The words roused Noor from her reverie. It took her some moments to recognize the voice of her friend Jansa, dressed in the soft brown robes that marked her as an apprentice of the Mages’ Guild.
“I wanted to watch the sunrise.” said Noor.
“Wish granted.” said Jansa, gesturing toward then horizon as the first blinding sliver of sunlight broke above the distant mountains. The two friends stared in rapt wonder as the golden orb made its leisurely ascent, igniting the clouds in a dazzling conflagration of violet, crimson and orange.
“Any trouble getting away?” asked Noor.
“None whatsoever. My studies are finished, for a time at least. Two blessed weeks of freedom.”
“And what do they teach you, all cloistered away in that tower?” Noor had not seen her friend in the three months since she had been inducted into the Mages’ Guild, and was curious about her new life.
“Magic, of course.”
Of course, thought Noor. But Magic? Real magic? The idea was too ludicrous to entertain- her own situation, and the events that had brought her to this world notwithstanding. “Can you pull a rabbit out of a hat?”
“A rabbit from a hat?” Jansa‘s eyes widened a bit as she rubbed her chin in contemplation. “That is indeed powerful magic, though of perhaps dubious practical use. I am afraid we have yet to begin our lessons in conjuring. Is this what the wizards of your homeland practice, then? Rabbit summoning? Yet you are no mere Rabbit Summoner, Noor of the Southlands, but a warrior, born and bred. ”
“Me a warrior? Hardly. Why would you think that? You know I am but a poor farmer’s daughter.”
“What’s this then, at your side?” said Jansa, indicating the scabbard affixed to Noor’s belt.
“Oh, this.” Noor blushed. She had forgotten the sword. “If you are determined to go through with this insane plan, I thought I should have at least some form of defense.” She had borrowed the blade from her foster father, Estan Burwood, the blacksmith of Niverale, though she had neglected to tell him quite yet, about either the sword or this little adventure. Under his guidance she had even assisted in its forging. It was a fine, sturdy blade with few frills, but balanced and keen.
“Prudent, indeed,” said Jansa. “But a sword is only as useful as she who wields it. Have you any experience with such a weapon?”
“I have been practicing with Roderic in the evenings, when his duties are finished.”
“A finer teacher could not be hoped for,” said Jansa. Noor thought she could perhaps detect a hint of jealousy in the young mage’s tone, but could not be certain.
“That’s what I keep telling her.” A man’s voice. “For her sake, I hope she doesn‘t believe me.” The pair turned to find Roderic himself ascending the trail toward them, his strong, broad-shouldered frame clad in a lightweight suit of chain mail. His own sword, far superior to Noor’s, hung at his side in a fine scabbard.
“Ah, Sir Roderic.” said Jansa. “The final member of our little excursion.”
“Not sir,” said Roderic.” Not yet. Just a humble squire.”
“Humble…hrmph. Speaking of lessons perhaps you could stand a few on humility from your pupil.” Noor blushed at the praise and stared down at her shoes.
Roderic smiled at Jansa’s teasing and Noor‘s embarrassment. “I would no doubt benefit from such tutelage. Alas, my duties are many, and the days are short. And besides, I have other qualities that might be hindered by the addition of humility. Do you have the map?”
“Aye, that I do.” Jansa produced a scroll from her robes, and unfurled it to reveal a map, copied in her elegant, meticulous script. “It was no small feat procuring this copy. The High Mages do not readily part with their knowledge. The original was secreted away in a forbidden section of the library. Fortunately, a young scribe owed me a favor.”
The map revealed that the distance was not long, but the way was steep. It took them some time to root out the trailhead, which was had long ago fallen into disuse and was overgrown, nearly indistinguishable from the surrounding forest.
The group ascended the narrow trail, following Jansa’s map. As they climbed, the dense forest gradually turned to scrub, and finally the landscape grew barren, dotted only with sparse clumps of grass and the occasional lichen-covered boulder. Roderic took the lead, playfully slashing away at invisible enemies as he practiced the various attacks, parries and feints of his craft. Still more boy than man, thought Noor as she admired the strength and precision of his movements.
At length the path evened out and crossed a stone bridge above a precipitous chasm before rising again on the other side. Jansa stopped at a small grouping of stones, the ruins of an ancient shrine. She knelt, placing one hand on the shrine. The other she brought to the small pendant she wore on a simple length of string around her neck. She appeared to utter some words, though Noor could not make them out, and then rose and followed Roderic across the bridge and up the sloping path. As she passed the crumbling monument, overgrown with the weeds of neglect, Noor saw that it was marked with a series of unfamiliar runes, worn smooth by time and the barely remembered caresses of untold pilgrims.
At last they came to the narrow mouth of a cavern. A well worn stone stairway lead down into impenetrable darkness.
“I don’t like this,” said Noor, peering into the gloom.
“Sir Roderic, make note of the Lady Noor’s trepidation.”
“Trepidation noted.” said Roderic, not bothering to look up from his work. He had laid out three torches from his pack, and was busy lighting one with his tinderbox. After some strikes of flint on steel, the torch flickered to life. He handed a torch to each of his companions and lit them with his own.
“Remember, Noor,” said Jansa. “You are a warrior.” With this the mage disappeared into the cave and down the stairs. Roderic trailed her. Turning back to Noor, he mouthed the word ‘warrior’ with as serious a look as he could muster.
Noor sighed and followed her companions into the narrow grotto and down the staircase into the bowels of the world.
The stairs descended some hundred feet, ending in a long passageway, which in turn branched into a number of winding tunnels. Jansa marked the walls with various runes, thus leaving them a path back to the surface.
As they meandered through the snaking cavern, Noor’s thoughts returned to the day of her arrival in this strange new land. She awoke in a dewy meadow, the morning sun still low in the sky. Disoriented, perhaps still thinking herself in the throes of a dream, she cast about for any sign of habitation. The wind carried the faint strains of music. As if in a trance, she followed the sound, through the meadow, across a dusty road, and into a copse of pines. There, in a small clearing, she found a camp of brightly painted, covered wagons. The music drew her to the largest of the wagons, which she entered through a small door.
Inside the wagon, at a small table, her face illuminated by a single candle, sat an elderly woman. She beckoned Noor to sit and offered her a cup of tea. In a voice like faded parchment, she explained to Noor that her old life was over, and that she was never to speak of it to anyone. She announced that they would invent for her a new past. She had been the daughter of farmers from the far south whose homestead had been overrun by bandits. Noor had been the only survivor.
Noor accompanied the caravan north, to Niverale, where the old gypsy introduced her to Estan and Stredda Burwood, who took her in as if she were their own child. In parting the woman kissed Noor on he forehead with thin, velvety lips, reminding her silently of her promise to keep her past to herself.
Since that day, Noor had thought on more than on occasion that she recognized something familiar in the face of a passerby, a secret connection, though she had kept her promise and not once revealed her true history. She recalled the ranting of a man some six months ago, claiming to have come from another world. He was never seen in Niverale again.
Noor’s thoughts returned to the present as the group rounded a tight bend, and the passage opened onto a broad platform. Closer inspection revealed it to be a ledge overlooking a vast abyss. What they saw next struck the three of them mute with awe. In the middle of the void, suspended by unknown means, floated the remains of an ancient fortress.
A cursory examination failed to produce any means of bridging the gap between the ledge and the fortress. Further inspection was delayed as a terrible cry rent the still air of the cavern. From out of the gloom emerged a creature Noor could not have imagined in her most horrifying nightmare. A great bloated head rested on a squat, powerful torso, its hide matted with coarse, black fur. In one knobby hand it held an enormous club riddled with cruel spikes. With a fierce roar the creature raised its mighty weapon and lunged at Noor.
The beast was fast, but Roderic was faster. In an instant he had positioned himself between Noor and the creature. Shield upraised, sword drawn, he prepared for the assault. The creature swung, even as Roderic ducked, the mighty club missing the top of his head by mere inches. Roderic retaliated, striking the creature a glancing blow to the shoulder, unable to penetrate its thick hide. Enraged the creature swung hard, splintering Roderic’s shield and sending the young squire hurtling through the air to land in an unmoving heap on the cold stone floor.
Noor cried out as her companion fell. Its attacker dispatched, the creature refocused its attention on her. She was aware of a faint chanting behind her as she fumbled for the sword at her side. The voice was undoubtedly Jansa‘s, though the words were in no language Noor had ever heard. As the beast advanced, the acrid smell of sulfur filled Noor‘s nostrils. A ball of brightly colored light exploded near the creature‘s head. It shrieked as if struck, bringing it’s clawed hands to its face to ward off the burning in its eyes. Blinded, it stuck out wildly in all directions, narrowly missing Noor with a broad sweep of its club. She at last managed to draw her sword, but stood terrified, transfixed by the flailing beast.
As its blindness wore off, the creature turned again to Noor, raising its club high over its head. Her heart sank in her chest. Her knees buckled beneath her. More spidery chanting from behind, the fetid breath of the creature replaced by the smell of garlic and a nauseous odor she could not identify. Noor closed her eyes, bracing herself for the coming blow that would, in all likelihood, end her life. The blow never came. After some moments Noor dared to open her eyes. The creature stood in the same pose, club upraised, face frozen in a snarling grimace of rage.
“That’s much better than a rabbit from a hat.” she muttered, her voice weak from a mixture of fright, awe and relief.
“Quickly,” cried Jansa, her own voice ragged with exhaustion. “Kill it! The spell’s effects are but temporary, and I do not have the energy to cast another.”
Despite Jansa’s warning, Noor hesitated. She knew that she should strike while the beast was still vulnerable, yet a certain reluctance stayed her hand. She had never killed anything, much less something in such a state of helplessness. She forgot momentarily the dangerous beast of a few minutes’ past, and instead focused on the flesh and blood reality before her.
“Damn it, Noor! What are you waiting for? Strike. Even now I can feel life returning to the beast’s limbs.”
Still Noor hesitated. Her grip on her sword tightened. She glance back at Roderic, unmoving, possibly dead. With an act of will, she quieted the pounding of her heart, stilled her mind, summoned her courage. She could hear Jansa shuffling toward her, and thought she saw the creature’s nose twitch.
Noor’s indecision shattered in an instant. She thrust upward with both arms, burying her blade to the hilt in the soft flesh of the creature’s neck. Shocked by the suddenness of her action, the finality, she released her grip on the sword. Reeling backward, she slipped on a slick patch of stone and sat down hard upon the unforgiving cavern floor. She sat in the flickering of the torchlight, awaiting the gush of blood that must surely follow such a wound, yet the creature stood frozen, her sword jutting from its neck.
Suddenly the spell expired, releasing a surge of foul smelling gore onto the ground and splattering the front of Noor’s tunic. She was surprised to find that the blood was red, like her own. The creature, quite dead from the wound in its neck, and freed of the spell’s effect, lurched forward. Noor leapt out of the way, narrowly avoiding being crushed as the creature fell heavily to the ground.
With the beast slain, the two young women rushed to the barely unconscious Roderic. Jansa examined his wounds, determining that the pain in his ankle was the result of a sprain rather than a fracture, and that, while his shield had absorbed the brunt of the impact, his arm was quite bruised and swollen, not to mention a bloody mess. She fashioned a sling for his arm from a bit of her robe, and applied a poultice to his wounds.
The condition of Roderic’s ankle made walking impossible, so Jansa and Noor supported the young man between them, each offering a shoulder. Though they strained under his bulk and the added weight of his chain mail, they managed to lift him. Noor held the single remaining torch. As they passed the fallen creature, Noor spied something glinting in the torchlight. Leaving Roderic in the temporary custody of Jansa, she bent to investigate and discovered a small pouch filled with gems and gold pieces, which she stuffed into the pocket of her tunic.
Slowly, cautiously, the three young adventurers made their way back to the surface, hoping all the while that they would not encounter another of the creatures- or worse- amid the winding tunnels. Jansa’s runes glowed a faint silver, easy to follow by torchlight, though supporting Roderic between them made negotiating the narrow passages a tedious, awkward affair. Hours passed as they inched their way ever closer to freedom.
They came at last to the staircase, and ascended into fresh air and sunlight. Relieved, they rested on the sparse grass. Jansa checked Roderic’s bindings as Noor prepared a hasty meal of cheese and stale bread she had brought from home.
“It appears you were right after all,” said Jansa. “This was little more than a fool’s gamble, born of the wild recklessness of youth. And dangerous besides. We could have- should have- been killed down there.”
Noor’s thoughts were still far below ground, lost among winding subterranean passages, lingering among the ruined glory of the underground fortress. They had survived the adventure, if not entirely unscathed, at least without permanent injuries. The treasure she had taken from the creature, even split three ways, was a small fortune. She could repay, at least in part, the debt of gratitude owed to her new foster family; a new bellows for the smithy, a heavy winter cloak for Estan, a fancy new dress for Stredda- and for Leana, her young foster sister, a new doll. She held a particularly large ruby up to the sky, admiring its radiance in the light of the afternoon sun. “Next time,” she said. “We will be better prepared.”
Her companions looked at her in surprise. “Next time?” they said in unison. The trio’s laughter followed them down the valley, toward the distant rooftops of home.