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May 18

A Beating Heart of Stone Part 2

The Captain followed his compass due east, passing between towers of wood amid a floor of fallen leaves. The cool scent of near autumn filled the air alongside the pervasive sound of rustling wind and the occasional birdcall. The place looked surprisingly little like a warzone.

“About how much longer?” Maria asked from his side.

“We should be there within the hour.”

The Captain glanced back at the others, noting Alexia walking a few steps behind Gehard and Adrian.

A stone pillar emerged from among the trees, so large it seemed itself a part of the forest. The Captain stopped and brushed some leaves from the crumbling structure, noting the circular patterns carved into its side.

“We’re getting close,” he said, “The ruin’s a short ways north of here.”

Maria looked up at the pillar, its apex lost amid the leaves. “Who built this?”

“The Great Mytonian Empire,” the Captain said, checking his compass. “Most people here just call it the Old Empire though. It ruled this continent for a thousand years.”

“What happened?”

“It collapsed,” he closed the compass and slid it back into his belt. “Fell into civil war. The place is nothing but warlords and fiefdoms now, all fighting over the rubble.”

“Of course,” Adrian said as they continued walking. “We can’t just explore ruins, we have to explore ruins in a warzone.”

“Stop complaining,” Gehard said, “We’ve been through worse.”

“Besides,” the Captain cut off Adrian’s response. “This area’s under stable rulership, for now at least. We’ll be safe.”

A man dressed in dark clothing leapt out from behind a tree, followed by a half dozen more.

The Captain found himself staring down the point of a sword. “Adrian, I retract my previous statement.”

“Hands up, away from your weapons,” one of the men said in Gallini, the common tongue of Eudanin.

The Captain studied the man. He had a typical Eudaini complexion, light skin, dark hair, elongated jaw. “If you’re intent on robbing us,” the Captain said, prodding the boundaries of their encounter, “I assure you it will not end well.”

“You think we’re highwaymen?” the man spat at the word. “We’re above that filth. We work for the king!”

“So you’re government employed highwaymen,” Gehard said.

“You’re not helping,” the Captain turned to his captor, looking fearlessly into his eyes. “If you’re not bandits, what do you want from us?”

“I can see you’re not from around here, so I’ll make it clear for you. These lands are off limits, by decree of His Royal Highness King Demac.”

Maria whispered behind him, “did Carter tell you about this?”

“No, he didn’t mention it.”

“Stop whispering!” the man shouted. “You are all in violation of royal decree, punishable by death.” He held his blade to the Captain’s cheek, his face so close that the Captain could smell the bad ale on his breath. “Unless, of course, you provide me with sufficient motivation to ignore your offences.”

One of the men scratched his head. “What did you just say boss?”

“He wants us to bribe him,” the Captain explained.

“Right,” the man nodded.

“It sounds much better the way I said it,” the leader said with growing frustration. “Anyway. Pay us, or die. Your choice.”

The Captain noticed a flicker of excitement pass between the men, nervous glances, barred teeth. They wanted to fight, to kill, regardless of justification or reason. They only held back for fear of a bigger fish.

Then I play to that.

“You mean you haven’t heard?” the Captain asked, adding a carefully measured layer of indignation to his voice.

“Heard what?”

“We’re on business for the King. Very important business. I’d assumed he told you about it.”

The man looked confused, “W-what business?”

“We’re official messengers,” he said, “Bearing news of the battles to the south.”

It was a clever lie. In Eudanin, there were always battles going on somewhere. Still, the Captain could see anger building behind the man’s eyes, meaning he would have to walk a fine line with his deception. Such a person was easy to manipulate when angry, but even easier to set off.

“Official messengers?”

“Yes, now that we have that settled,” the Captain went to walk away, but was stopped by a blade against his back.

“You can’t work for the King, he doesn’t allow outsiders in his court.”

“That’s because we’re not from his court,” Alexia said, her Gallini broken but comprehensible. “We’re from the south, remember?”

“Yes, we’re here to deliver your King news from our lord.” The Captain said, giving Alexia a subtle nod. “Now please, let us through. The King will not be happy to learn you’re keeping us from him.”

The man lowered his sword and tightened his brows, thinking. His eyes widened as an idea struck, followed by a sinister grin. “What lord do you serve?”

“What?”

“What lord sent you?”

The Captain wracked his mind for the name, any name, but none came.

“We were, um, sent by . . .” Alexia stammered.

“You weren’t sent by anyone, were you?” The man raised his sword to strike.

The Captain sighed. “So close.”

With a thrust of his hand the man was sliding into a tree.

The forest erupted into motion, the armed men attacked them from all sides

The Captain caught the arm of the first thug. He kicked out the man’s leg, twisted his arm onto itself and let him fall to the ground. Another came. The Captain sidestepped a thrust of his sword, then brought his hand around and his him with a wave of silvery magic.

A shout rang out and echoed among the trees.

“Stop!”

The Captain turned to see a man in a tan robe running towards them, waving his arms. There was something familiar about him, the way his eyes seemed to laugh even as he shouted.

“Stop fighting!” he shouted to the thugs, who, miraculously, actually listened.

They stood in a tableau of battle, arms poised mid strike. Gehard grabbed the arm of the man who had been clinging to his back and threw him off. Alexia held an orb of flame above her head, caught halfway between conjuring and releasing.

The gang leader slid his way up the tree, a hand raised to catch the blood dripping from his nose.

“Neive, call off your men. These people are with me.”

“Bloody hell, a mage,” Neive was muttering, looking at his bloodied hand. “A little advanced warning would have been nice.”

“I told you a group was coming today.”

“He didn’t say he was with you! They gave me some story about being messengers.”

“Keep your excuses,” the man said with irritated authority. “Take your men and go.”

Neive grudgingly gestured for his men to follow, leaving with his head held in the air. Trying to preserve some shred of his pride even as blood trickled down his chin.

The newcomer addressed the Captain. “It’s been a long time Cal.”

The Captain squinted. “There are only two people in Creation who are allowed to call me that.” A smile formed on his lips. “Seeing as you’re not an annoying old man, It’s good to see you again Carter.”

He clasped the man’s hands, right over left, left over right, the traditional mage’s gesture of greeting. A familiar energy flowed over his palms, bringing back memories like a long forgotten childhood scent.

“You’re the Captain’s friend from mage school,” Maria said, extending her hands. “It’s good to finally meet you.”

“The Captain.” Carter glanced at him scathingly. “You’ve got a new moniker.”

The Captain shrugged. “It works.”

“Why am I not surprised?” He motioned further into the forest. “We should be going, the camp’s not far from here.”

They resumed their trek through the ancient redwoods, Carter leading the way with the ease of familiarity.

“Sorry about the welcoming committee,” Carter said. “The local powers are at it again.”

“Did they ever stop?”

“There’s that sarcasm. For a second I was worried you’d turned serious on me.”

“Me? Never.”

“So,” Maria said. “How did you two meet exactly?”

The Captain looked to Carter, an imperceptible conversation playing out between their eyes. Old memories came rushing back, visions of exploits long passed, of secluded victories and defeats. Laughter came and refused to leave.

“Have I missed something?” Maria asked.

“Carter was my roommate while I was it the Order,” the Captain said.

“Roommate? Co-conspirator more like.”

“We had some,” another exchanged glance, “interesting experiences.”

“I wonder if Wizard Kingsley ever reversed that spell we put on his dog.”

“What did you do to the poor animal?” Maria asked.

“Nothing major,” Carter laughed, “Just a little colour alteration.”

Another bought of laughter seized the Captain as he remembered the look on the old mage’s face.

After some time they emerged on the lip of an outcropping, the trees thinning momentarily and giving them a view of the valley beyond. A great stone wall broke the green slope, a gutted tower rising above the canopy, it’s top broken and ragged. Wisps of smoke rose from amid its battlements.

“You’re going to love the place,” Carter said as he began descending the slope, plunging back into the towering forest. “We’ve set up camp in the ruins of an Old Empire castle.”

“And the ruins we’re exploring?” the Captain asked, noting the remains of a smaller tower as they passed by.

“A little farther downhill.” Carter paused, suddenly nervous. “Look, there’s something you should know. I wanted you here before I told you.” He bit his lip. “We sent a team in a week ago.”

“Let me guess,” Gehard said, “they haven’t come back yet.”

Carter forced a nervous smile, “No. That’s why I suggested the Order contact you. I told them you, of all people, could go in there and come back safely.”

“I was wondering why the request came so suddenly.”

“What do you think happened to them?” Maria asked.

“People have theories, but we haven’t had any volunteers to go test them. Since the team disappeared no one’s wanted to go near the place, that’s why we’ve set up camp so far away.”

“Great,” Adrian said, “people have a death trap of a ruin they want explored, they ask us.”

“We don’t know they’re dead,” Maria said. “They could be lost.”

“Either way, our primary concern is finding them and bringing them back,” Carter said, picking his way down a rocky incline.

“And if we can’t?” Gehard asked.

“Then we find out what happened to them and get out.”

“Mysterious ruins, completely unknown circumstances and possibly grave danger,” Adrian said. “What are we waiting for?”

Next

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