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Animagusurreal's Prose, Escapia Fantasy Novel, Ch.3 - New!

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Animagusurreal's Prose, Escapia Fantasy Novel, Ch.3 - New!

Postby animagusurreal » Wed Sep 03, 2008 4:40 am

Hi everyone. I've got an artwork thread, but I'm posting this in a separate thread because it's this big looooooooooooong block of prose, and I figure people looking at an art thread want to see art :).


I'm trying to decide whether or not to go forward with my prose fantasy novel project. It's about a quest guide in an early-Renaissance-era fictitious kingdom.

Here's chapter one, a work in progress. It starts out with a lot of humans, but there are some magical creatures featured prominently later on.

I'm not really concerned about grammar so much at this point as I am about story and characters.

It's difficult for me to tell how it reads, since so much of it is dependent on not knowing what will happen next, and I always know what's going to happen next.



"Escapia: A Fantasy Novel"

PART ONE: "Questers' Sunset"

CHAPTER ONE: “Curiosities”





The town's real name was Ellalay - but nobody had called it that in years. It was known to one and all as Quester's Corners, due to it's proximity to four different types of magical wilderness - forest to the North, the sea to the West, desert to the South, and the foothills of the great Lumin Mountains in the East. The kingdom's quest guides had discovered its useful position some years earlier and adopted it as their capital. Now, only a row of small farms between the town and the forest were left to remind anyone of the Ellalay's simple agrarian past.

For those of you who do not reside in the Kingdom of Quintessentia (or, for that matter, in the early 16th Century), quest guides (or “questers”) were transient, mysterious men and women who lived lives of uncertainty and danger so that others might know security and peace. Nobles paid hefty fees for unicorn horns from which they could drink their wine without fear of poison, for a sackful of priceless, fiercely guarded dragon treasure, or to have the monster that had terrorized their land slayed in its own territory and its head mounted upon their wall.

A river of remarkable people flowed in and out of town, as steadily as the ale flowed in the city’s many taverns. But one regular visitor was singled out:

Master Sequiel, the greatest quest guide in Quintessentia. And he was rumored to be coming there that very day.

*****

Scarlet streaked a deepening blue sunset sky over Quester's Corners - but nobody was watching the sunset.

Instead, they were watchingyet another nondescript carriage pull into the town square, stopping in front of the Quester’s Inn.

They could not wait until the carriage ground to a halt and the door swung open, revealing who rode within. Could this be the one that carried Master Sequiel?

The door creaked open to reveal – tourists, and poor ones at that. Probably come to gossip about and gawk at Master Sequiel, just like everyone else.

Just about the only ones in the square not talking about him were the street bards – they were singing about him. But they were starting to run out of songs, forced to improvise:

”Good Master Sequiel
Of him…speak we well…”

Even some of the street merchants, with their clattering carts full of questing aides and phony magical items, had fallen into gabbing about Master Sequiel instead of hawking their wares.

"Are you sure he's coming in a plain carriage?” said a street merchant. “Surely he can afford the best."

"I dunno,” said the innkeeper. “He seems to like things plain. Don’t even stay at my inn when he’s in town – and we all know mine’s the finest – he camps out in the woods.”

"Is he coming in a carriage at all?" said the tourist, immediately picking up on who the conversation was about. "I pictured him riding around dashingly on a noble steed."

"No noble steed, no band of merrie men, no servants, not even so much as a dog travels with him,” the inkeeper said, reaching own to stroke the head of his own dog, who sat obediently at his heel. “He's a lone wolf, he is."

"Did somebody say he's a werewolf?!"

"No, I said he's a lone wolf - though I wouldn't discount the possibility of him being a werewolf, too, mate."

An wild-eyed elderly man was standing nearby, ranting.

"Though to you he appears to be a mere quester - or as I have heard some slanderous tongues say, a werewolf - in truth he is a savior sent by Lord Brigadion to rid our land of magicals and the chaos they bring!"

"Last time I checked, old man,” said a young quester, “saviors don't ask for payment."

"He's not in it for the money - or to win heavenly points with Lord Brigadion. I can tell. He's like me. A slayer. Sticking your sword into the most powerful creatures in the world and watching all that power drain out at your feet. Ooooh! Don't spread this around, mates, but I'd do it for free."

"How do you know what he's like? Have you ever quested with him?"

"'Course not. He doesn't let other questers come along with him. I know. I've tried to follow him, or slip in amongst the questing party - he can smell his own kind a mile away. Dammit, I want to see him in action! I hear he's vicious. You see this scar? I got it in a fight with some bloke who said that Master Sequiel was a tougher quester than I was - and that bloke fought like he meant it!"

"Oh, were you in that fight, Mr. Scraglior?” said the young quester. “It’s legendary!"

"You think that fight is legendary? You should have been in the Owl's Talon Tavern when 56 drunken men became embroiled in a brawl over whether or not Master Sequiel has a strange golden toenail on his left foot that helps him detect magical creatures."

"Hey, I was in that one!” said another quester. “Of course he doesn't! He has a unicorn's horn that sprouts out of his head when no-one is looking."

"Well, I don't care how many fights are fought in his name, he doesn't fight any himself" said a young knight. "I have been on a quest with him - for my master, Lord Dublian. We got to the dragon's den - Sequiel and a half-dozen of my Lord’s men, including me - and he told us exactly how to slay it - sort of trained us on the spot, you might say - but wouldn't take any part in it himself.”

”Are you calling Master Sequiel a coward?” said Scraglior, growing red in the face. “He’s slain more dragons than you’ll ever pretend to have slain, young whelp!”

”I don't know if it was cowardice,” said the knight evenly, “or laziness or he just didn't want to get his hands dirty – but that's when…” he lowered his voice, “well, that’s when I became convinced that he must be a noble…like my master.”

Scraglior was about to continue badgering the knight, but was cut off by a grocer:

"Oh, come off it! No noble would spend half their life tromping around the woods without their candelabras and doilies and other trappings."

"Not if they can help it,” said a fishwife. “But what if his family chucked him out?"

"That's what I heard,” said the innkeeper, “only it wasn't so simple. I heard he was the son of a fine elven lady, but he was banished from the realm of the elves for all eternity when her husband saw his rounded ears - the ones he inherited from his human dad."

"Ooooooooooooooooh..." said everyone within within hearing distance.

“That’s why he spends all his time looking for magicals – he’s trying to find his way back home.”

"Well, wherever he gets his features from,” exclaimed a giddy young milkmaid, “they certainly are fine!"

"I suppose so,” said a young noblewoman. “But he's always wearing those black clothes - it's depressing!"

"No it isn't!” the milkmaid insisted. “It reminds me of...a dark, mysterious moonless night, where lovers meet in secret!"

“Lovers?” said a barmaid. “Master Sequiel’s a virgin.”

”He’s the very definition the tall, dark handsome stranger! He’s got a lover in every town!”

”He’s a virgin! How d’you think he attracts them unicorns.”

”Magic,” said the tourist. “He’s a sorcerer, ain’t he?”

“No!” said the grocer. “The Brigadionists chased out all the sorcerers in the Inquisition of 1313. He just uses good ol’ fashioned wits - like Captain Corpalot did when he slayed the Great Sea Monster of Wango Bango single handed with nothin’ but a short sword! “

“There weren’t never no sea monster at Wango Bango,” said a grizzled old sailor. “I sailed there meself a hundred times without incident. That were just a whaddayacallit – alley-bye, ‘cause he was really plunderin’ a ship off the Cape of Good Hope.”

“Corpalot is not a pirate!” said the merchant. “I do business with the man. A swindler, a chizler, a liar and cheat, to be sure – but he makes enough money off of me that he wouldn’t have to bother with actual piracy with swords and cannons and such.”

“What d'you spose their quest is about?" said the tourist. “Sequiel and Corpalot.”

"Last time it was just a standard treasure grab-and-go,” said the young quester. “Although I did hear there was a dragon-slaying involved."

“Maybe they’re going to slay the Dragon King?” said the inkeeper.

“I hope so,” said the grocer. “With our ol’ king gettin’ madder by the minute, I don’t trust him to protect us from them dragons.”

“I’ll thank you not to talk about his majesty that treasonous manner!” exclaimed the young knight.

"I hear it's even bigger than that,” the tourist interjected. “Their quest, I mean. Something to do with the Dracophoenix of Legend,”

"Brigadion help us!” cried the fishwife. “They'll bring about the end of the world!"

"Nay! Nay!” said the old Brigadionist. “They're going to slay it!"

"Don't be foolish, the Dracophoenix can’t be slain,” said Scraglior. “Even I admit that.”

”Yes it can,” said the tourist. “Temporarily.”

”How can you slay something temporarily? Either it’s slain or it isn’t.”

”Well,” said the inkeeper. “if anyone could find a way to truly slay the Dracophoenix, it’s Master Sequiel…”

And, as if waiting for this ideal moment of introduction, the nondescript carriage that actually held Master Sequiel pulled into the town square.

As the carriage door swung open, the great hubbub died instantly, like a dragon with a sword stuck in just the right spot in its chest.

It was clear to one and all in the Town Square that Master Sequiel, his fine figure framed by the carriage doorway, was just as full of excitement as they were. However, by the time he stepped on the little stool the carriage footman had placed at his feet, it was apparent to the throng that his excitement had nothing to with them. In his mind, he was already on the quest. He was always on the quest.

Oh, but he could spare them at least a moment to stand there on his little pedestal with imposing poise, wearing a distant, quizzical expression on his face, the way magicals sometimes looked at him when they found he was observing them. Hopefully that would be enough to get the townfolk through their dreary, unicornless days until he returned with a bounty of tales from his latest quest, and to spur the other questers onto glorious quests of their own.

It lasted just a few seconds, and then he trotted away. The stool stood there alone and forlorn for another moment before the footman scooped it up. The carriage was now just another dingy carriage-for-hire.

As he pushed through the crowd, to anyone who said, "Good day, Master Sequiel," he returned the greeting, but quickly strode away before they could say any more.

“Offer you a drink, Master Sequiel?”

“No thank you.”

“How 'bout a nice hot meal, Master Sequiel”

“No, thank you.”

“Come up to my room later this evening, Master Sequiel. Free of charge.”

“No, thank you”

“How’d ya like some fresh gudleyroot, Master Sequiel? Attracts the pixies.”

“No thanks, I pick my own.”

“Heard you captured three more unicorns since you were last here, sir. Care to tell us about it?”

“Soon as I come back this way, lad. On my way to meet a client, he’s waiting for me.”

Only one man looked incontrovertibly insistent enough to make Sequiel slow his stride and allow the man to walk beside him.

"Ah, Quester…Brivald, isn’t it?” said Sequiel uncertainly, “Leader of the Quester’s Guild now, aren’t you?”

The man nodded.

“I'm on my way to meet a client," said Sequiel. “He’s waiting – “

"A client –“ Brivald interjected. “we all know it's Captain Corpalot. Now what's the quest all about?"

"Confidential."

"Come off it, Sequiel. You love to talk about your work. Hell, it's all you ever talk about!"

"In this case, I don't know myself yet."

“Well…” Brivald lowered his voice. “I know something…”

Sequiel began listening more intently, as Brivald went on in a low whisper.

“There's been a rumor passing amongst the questers. Supposedly, if you go on this quest, it will mean the end of questing as we know it - possibly, the end of questing period. And we all know the Brigadionist Elders would love that."

"How exactly is one quest supposed to do that?"

"Er - don't know exactly. But frankly, there are those of us who are concerned...who would prefer you didn't go."

"Well, before you told me this, that might have been a possibility. But a quest to end all quests - literally - that's far too intriguing to pass up!"

"Very well, Master Sequiel. Don't say I didn't warn you."

"Warn me of what? Come now, Brivald. Surely, if you know one thing about me for certain, it's that 'the end of all questing' is the last thing I would want."

"True, true..."

"There's bound to be something unique about this quest that inspired that rumor, though. I’ll tell you all what it is next time I’m in town. Well, good day!"

And with that, he dashed off down the dirt lane that led out of the town, his black cape flapping behind him.

As he had no permanent address, Corpalot's request for his services had reached him in the manner of most such requests - passed through the gossip grapevine that grew wildly all over Quintessentia.

Most often, Sequiel met clients in taverns (as it had been with Corpalot the first time), occasionally at their homes, but never before had he been asked to meet one behind an old barn. This promised to be a unique quest.

Perhaps this was why, as Sequiel stood waiting by the backside of a weathered wooden building, he found himself touching a small crystal ball, which hung in a pouch on his belt - something he would not ordinarily do in such a very bucolic, human location. Sequiel felt a familiar, but always thrilling, tingling sensation run into his hand and up his arm. With excitement, he began to sense a certain presence.

"There are magical creatures in there!" he exclaimed to himself.

"Indeed," said Captain Corpalot, strolling up behind him. Sequiel could already tell that two years on dry land had not lessened the sailor's accent.

Eschewing a proper greeting, Sequiel turned and immediately demanded, "And what are they doing in there?"

The barn admitted nothing unusual to the ordinary senses - the sharply banal smell of animal dung pervaded the air, and a cow's faint mooing was all that could be heard from within.

Sequiel looked fit to chew through the wooden wall like a rabid beaver in order see what was inside.

"You'll find out when the rest of Quintessentia does," replied Corpalot with calm finality. "But the meeting I've arranged may be considered a preview. Come. Along the way, I'll swap ye a few tales of adventure on land for tales of adventure on sea..."

“How about tales of what you've been doing on land the past year?”

"That ain't adventure, man...it's business."


Corpalot led Sequiel into the edge of the woods, to a clearing where a small, ordinary-looking campsite had been set up-- a few plain tents arranged around a fair-sized campfire.

"I was expecting you’d lead me to a castle or a manor house," said Sequiel. "I am relieved."

Corpalot grinned his crooked, piratey grin.

As they rounded the fire, Sequiel saw that there was someone sitting by it: A short, frail-looking young man, a few years younger than Sequiel, with straight, straw like dirty-blonde hair that made it look as if a broom had been shoved down upon his head. His brown cap, vest and pants and his off-white shirt were plain, handmade and well-worn - a poor peasant's garb. He was softly strumming out a tune on a battered old lute - but stopped when he saw Corpalot and Sequiel approaching. He looked up at Sequiel, obviously wondering who he was.

Corpalot loves his surprises... thought Sequiel. Even I’m one of them.

"Ah, Mr. Hayne, I’m glad you found the campsite,” Corpalot said, wringing the lad’s hand. “Sequiel, I'd like you to meet Mr. Sondrew Hayne of Paromdon.”

"A musician," Sondrew quickly added, as he rose to greet Sequiel.

"Mr. Hayne, this is the legendary Master Sequiel,"

It was clear that Sondrew recognized the name; he shook Sequiel's hand and was not impolite, but Sequiel distinctly noticed Sondrew lacked the awe most Quintessentian lads would have clearly shown at meeting the most famous quester of all.

Perhaps he idolizes famous musicians instead, thought Sequiel, not minding the slight, merely making an observation to himself.

Foremost in his mind, however, was what Corpalot had said about a preview of what was inside that old barn. What is this lad a preview of? He wouldn't look out of place in a barn, but an ordinary barn - not one harboring magicals. He’s certainly not a quester. Perhaps he's a shapeshifter or a wizard in disguise?

Sequiel gently touched the crystal ball - there was a gryphon somewhere in the area - perhaps something to look for after this "meeting" - but that was all.

“And where is --” Corpalot began.

“He’s on his way,” answered Sondrew.

“Ah, splendid,” the captain replied. “Would have thought you’d arrive together but...well, so long as it comes.”

Perhaps he’s a servant thought Sequiel. The servant of a quester who’s bringing something important.

Sequiel took a seat on the ground by the fire a few feet from Sondrew, but Corpalot remained standing, towering over them.

“Meanwhile,” said Sondrew to Corpalot “perhaps you could elaborate upon…”

"I sense your impatience, gentlemen,” he said. "Rest assured, all will be made clear when the others arrive."

This was directed with a particular sting at Sondrew – presumably regarding the absence of his master.

“In the meantime, Mr. Hayne…know any sea shanties?”

He's enjoying this, thought Sequiel, keeping us in the dark as long as he can.

At that moment, another man came into view, running towards the campsite. Sequiel stared at him, hungry to see the first of the "others," but as he came into the firelight, Sequiel realized he was just a messenger.

Corpalot waited for the messenger to come right up to him before snapping, "I told you not to interrupt me here unless it was an emergency!" He looked fit to make the poor lad walk the plank. The messanger leaned in and whispered into Corpalot's ear.

"Sir...small emergency...factory..." was all that Sequiel caught.

"If you'll excuse me, shan't be a moment" said Corpalot to Sequiel and Sondrew, in his polite voice again. He paused, observing the apparent uneasiness between his two guests, and appearing satisfied, left with the messenger.

What the devil is a factory? thought Sequiel.

"You don't happen to know what we're doing here, or what this quest will be all about?" Sequiel asked Sondrew, once Corpalot was out of earshot.

"No," answered Sondrew. "So I'm guessing you don't either, then."

Sequiel shook his head.

“Who was Corpalot asking you about?”

“My musical partner.”

“Oh…I suppose you’re…entertainment, for the meeting?”

“Could be for all I know.”

They both dropped into silence for a few moments, then Sequiel asked, "So...you're from Paromdon?"

"The Zoho Bridge," said Sondrew. The Zoho Bridge was Paromdon's most famous Bohemian artistic district. "Actually, a ledge under the Zoho Bridge. You?"

"Master Sequiel's home is everywhere and nowhere."

"I see..."

A longer silence followed - one that threatened not to end until Corpalot returned or these mysterious "others" arrived. Sequiel focused on the fire, toying with the idea of looking around for that gryphon the crystal alerted him to, but not wanting to appear unprofessional or unfocused in case Corpalot returned.

Sondrew meanwhile resumed his gentle stream of lute music.

Suddenly, there was some slight movement in the branches above them, but as the perceptive Sequiel glanced up to see what it was, Sondrew asked,

"Do you have a favorite song? I'll play it for you while we wait. One of the ones about your exploits, perhaps? I'll admit, they have written some pretty good ones."

"Don't suppose you'd know any Gryphonic songs?" asked Sequiel unhopefully, unsure why he even bothered, since no human bards ever did. ”You know…songs that gryphons sing…”

Sondrew looked at Sequiel with great scrutiny.

Perhaps he’s trying to decide whether or not I’m mad for even thinking that gryphons sing, Sequiel thought.

"A few," answered Sondrew at last, suddenly sounding very suddenly excited - how Sequiel had expected him to sound when they met. "But my partner knows them all."

He rose suddenly enough to startle the stalwart Sequiel and gestured towards the sky with his lute in a showmanlike manner.

"Pre-senting the the Taloned Talent, the Winged Singer, the Catbird Bard, the Aoelan Avian Feline, Mister Ballad Quill!"

As suddenly as Sondrew had risen, a creature dove towards them from above, a great "FWOOSH!" of wind swept through the campsite. It momentarily flared the fire and wound around it in a whirlwind, twisting it upwards like a unicorn's horn. Leaves fluttered through the air and pine needles fell like confetti. Behind him, Sequiel could feel the wind toying with his cape.

The source of the enchanted wind, however, impressed Sequiel far more.

A magnificent golden gryphon with a shaggy red mane landed gracefully in the midst of the maelstrom - wearing a brown cap and vest in the same style as Sondrew's. Ballad nodded to Sequiel in greeting, and the wind died down at once.

It was instantly apparent to Sequiel that the gryphon - this "Ballad Quill" - was worthy of Sondrew's grandiose verbal fanfare.

Sondrew should have seemed even shorter and frailer standing next to a creature twice the size of an ordinary lion, yet he somehow stood taller and stronger since Ballad’s entrance.

"We're makin' this too easy on him, Sondrew," said the gryphon jokingly. "Master Sequiel! He shoulda had to try and find me, he should." While his voice danced between deep growls and high-pitched squawks, the only thing marring his Quintessentian pronunciation was a thick Zoho accent.

"Does he live...?" Sequiel began.

"Under the Zoho Bridge, in the heart of old Paromdon-town, with Sondrew!" exclaimed Ballad proudly, puffing out his chest and fanning his wings. "Have for almost two years."

"The panic you would cause!" Sequiel said with amusement, which quickly shifted to concern: "You must have to be in hiding most of the time!" The thought was frightening to him, as he spent so much of his time traveling in the open.

'Well, we do have to be careful," said Sondrew. "But there are a few places owned by fellow Bohemians that let us perform."

"Generally where the clientèle is too drunk to know whether or not I'm real."

"Once, I overheard someone say that the gryphon puppet was true-to-life, all right, but the human puppet needed some work." Sondrew chuckled.

"Anyhow, what I don't get to see - " He flexed his great gryphon ears. "- I can hear. I can hear everything that goes on over our humble abode, every whisper - every accent - and, more importantly, every song. Ah, but I heard you had a hankerin' for one of the melodies from me wild childhood! How's 'Awk Roarrrrawk Rawwk Riik Riik' for you?"

"One of my favorites," said Sequiel. "This will be the first time I'll hear it when I'm not hiding behind a rock or a bush, watching from afar."

Ballad’s song was robust, inescapably powerful. It was as though Sequiel was being attacked with joy.

He used his wings to further craft the sound after it had left his beak.

After a few bars of the song, Sondrew joined in with a traditional Quintessentian folk song, the lilting, lyrical “The Maiden of the Mountain”. The two songs, to Sequiel's surprise, went together like werewolves and their raven familiars.

A few moments later, Sequiel realized some change had occured, but he was so entranced by the song, it took him a moment to realize what it was - Ballad had taken up the Quintessentian song, while Sondrew had switched to the gryphonic one.

As Sequiel applauded exuberantly, Ballad made a sound that combined a purr and a coo, and Sondrew beamed.

"How did Corpalot manage to get such a pair of mysterious minstrels involved in this mysterious quest?" Sequiel asked.

"Well, we used to work for him -" Sondrew began.

"Slave for him, more like," said Ballad.

"- in his magic mill - factory, he calls it. It's how Ballad and I met. We escaped it together."

"So that's what's happening in that old barn!" exclaimed Sequiel triumphantly. When the rest of Quintessentia finds out,' my eye!

"Magic for Everyone!" Ballad crowed. "That's what he called it!"

"We didn't understand everything he was doing," Sondrew explained, "but he appeared to be bottling the enchanted wind from Ballad's wings..."

Ballad flapped nervously once, like a spasm, and the fire and Sequiel's cape jumped.
"Of course," Sondrew went on, "he told us that if we joined this quest we wouldn’t be allowed to say anything about the factory to anyone."

"Whoops!" screeched Ballad exaggeratedly.

"Anyhow. we hadn't seen him since we escaped. Then all of a sudden one night he appears in Zoho, calling down to us from the edge of the bridge."

"Got me claws splayed, scarin' us like that, he did. Still don't know why I didn't just snatch Sondrew up and fly off afore he even started talkin'. Still don't know how he found us, niether."

"One of his kind, I imagine," said Sondrew, referring to Sequiel with a slight sting.

“We didn’t answer ‘im or nothin’, but I think he knew we were there. He just said to come to this spot on this date at this time of evening.”

"He must have promised you something amazing to get you to work for him again," Sequiel commented.

"Beyond a few coins," said Sondrew, "only that if whatever he plans succeeds, it would mean that Ballad could perform in public - in broad daylight - without getting slain."

"Without someone tryin' to slay me, he means," Ballad added.

"Quite a promise," said Sequiel.

"Indeed," said Sondrew on a sigh, "But he's the only one who's even promising it. And what did he promise you, Master Sequiel?"

"Nothing in particular. My sizable fee, of course. But, the last time I was with him...I realize you have just shared a confidence with me, but still I must ask, can you keep a secret?"

"I am a secret," said Ballad.

"No, I didn't just see a huge singing gryphon walk down this street, sir," said Sondrew. "A gryphon in Old Paromdon-town, are you mad?"

Getting their drift, Sequiel continued, in a whisper.

"The last time I went on a quest with Corpalot...I saw the Dracophoenix of Legend. Second time I've seen him in my life."

Now it was Ballad and Sondrew's turn to be impressed. The Dracophoenix of Legend - half-dragon, half-phoenix - was known and feared by humans and magicals alike - even dragons - as the most powerful magical creature in the world. King Saequiel the First had prophecized all the way back at the Dawn of the First Age that the Dracophoenix would destroy the kingdom - and possibly the entire world - as soon as it reached maturity. Rumors of sightings had persisted for centuries, but nobody seemed to really know if the Dracophoenix truly existed or not. Master Sequiel however, Ballad and Sondrew must have realized, was not some random drunkard or madman who had wandered into the mountains one night and came back raving about the Apocalypse, but the land's foremost expert on magical creatures.

"I've no reason to think my seeing him had anything to do with Corpalot - he wasn't there the first time I saw the Dracophoenix, as a child - but I've searched high and low for the past two years and haven't come up with any leads."

“My dam – my mum – used to sing me scary songs about the dracophoenix,” said Ballad, “Dunno if the whole thing’s true or not, but the songs’ll give you chills. I’ll sing some for you later.”

“I don’t doubt that you have reason, Sequiel,” Sondrew asked, “but why do you want to find the creature that might end the world?”

"Well, you had to be there, I suppose. Harbinger of the apocalypse or not, this was a fascinating creature - the magical to end all magicals. Hopefully not literally, of course. Though I must say, seeing a gryphon and human in matching hats and vests give me a personal performance ranks a close second in my experiences."

As Sequiel’s tale came to a close, he ceded the floor to Ballad. Apparently saving the dracophoenix song for a darker moment, Ballad sang a song about the warmth and reassurance of living in a prideflock.

Meanwhile Sondrew emptied a flagon of cider into a pot and warmed it over the fire.

He soon passed mugs of warm cider around.

A sense of camaraderie enveloped the group as they contentedly sipped their cider, their hunger for learning more about their mission momentarily sated by tasting one another’s confidences.

Sequiel spied a glint of light out of the corner of his eye.

Turning to face it, he saw a pair of radiantly glowing jade orbs floating mysteriously in the darkness just beyond the firelight's reach- the eyes of a werewolf, Sequiel quickly realized. The eyes of a hunting werewolf.

The instant Sequiel realized the eyes were focused on him, the werewolf burst into view.

In three swift strides she was upon him, her clawed paw-hand gripping his throat and lifting him a few inches off the ground.

Her elegant emerald cloak settled around her lithe frame. The hood of her cloak surrounded wavy auburn hair, framing her mahogany-furred face, lustrous in the firelight. Her brilliant gaze seized him as tightly as the paw-hand around his neck.

Sequiel realized that she could easily have killed him while she was at it - but she hadn't.

"What is Corpalot -" she began, but then she spied Ballad bristling. Sharply, she turned to him, "Wings down and beak shut, gryffie, or the human dies -"

Ballad growled some words with his beak clamped firmly shut. His statement was unintelligible, but Sequiel could tell it was not complimentary towards the werewolf.

Returning her gripping gaze to Sequiel, "As I was saying, what is Corpalot playing at, Master Sequiel- inviting you here? He promised no hunters. "

“Why don’t…you try this…very effective intimidation...on Corpalot himself?” Sequiel gasped. “I’d like to be there…when you do…and see what he says.”

“What he’s trying to say is that we don’t know any more than you do,” said Sondrew with timid determination.

“I know one thing, boy,” she said. “I know who Master Sequiel is, and that he’s not exactly a good omen for magical creatures, is he? Maybe you didn’t know that, gryffie, being all chummy with him the way you were.”

"He ain't done nothin' to me" said Ballad. "Didn't even see me comin'. Didn’t see you comin’, neither. I ain't even sure he is the real Master Sequiel. Maybe Corpalot's just after throwin' a scare into us."

Sequiel knew it was probably just a clever ruse, but his quester’s pride was a bit hurt anyway.

He couldn’t help thinking, You didn’t hear her coming either, did you Mr. Magic Ears? However, he was more vehement in scolding himself for letting his guard down to the point where he hadn't noticed the werewolf's approach.

“We’re all just here to work for Captain Corpalot,” begged Sondrew.

“That’s just exactly why I don’t trust anyone here!” answered the werewolf.

Sondrew and Ballad's expressions suggested that they concurred.

“Well, maybe I'll just hold you 'til Corpalot shows up,” the werewolf said to Sequiel.

"I must warn you, my lady,” Sequiel said, his usually smooth voice beginning to crack, “much like your own kind, I do not take well to captivity. Not even for a few moments.”

She sniggered derisively at this remark, but Sequiel looked directly into her supernaturally striking eyes. Though his eyes were an Earthly brown, a raging madness suddenly radiated out of them. He looked as if he might transform into a werewolf – or something – though no physical change took place.

The werewolf’s intense expression slackened in momentary fear – Which quickly became awe as she realized she had briefly been frightened by a mere human -- a human she held by the neck.

In the same instant, Sequiel pulled the drawstring from a pouch on his belt, releasing powdered wolfsbane.


Ballad flapped his wings once, sending forth a quick little gust of wind that blew the powder directly into her face.

The werewolf yowled in pain. Her grip on Sequiel’s neck loosened. She staggered back a few steps.

Sequiel seized upon the opportunity to spring out of her grasp, instinctively drawing his sword as he landed on his feet.

Freedom had cleared away his moment of madness like a fresh breeze blowing away a stale smell. He always took a certain satisfaction in the “zing!” sound that was made as the sword was drawn, and this time was no exception.

The werewolf dropped to the ground, groaning.

Sequiel's blade glinted in the moonlight.

He strode toward her with resolve, bent down and pressed his sword firmly against her neck.

“I have a few questions of my own, werewolf. How is it that you’re only half-transformed and it’s a full moon this evening?”

“I guess I’m just special,” she said sneeringly. “Does that make me more valuable to a hunter like you!?”

“Hunter!” Sequiel exclaimed, offended at the lowly title. “For all we know, you’re here hunting humans” he demanded insultingly.

“Don’t flatter yourself,” she replied scathingly.

“Well, if you’re not here to hunt, then what are you here for?”

She didn’t bother to reply.

“You seem like a formidable alpha-type werewolf,” Sequiel continued. “Where's your pack? Where's your raven familiar?”

At this, she smacked away the sword by the flat of its blade with her thick paw-hand.

His sword fell to the hard-packed earth with a horrible clatter – the absolute opposite of his beloved “zing!” sound.

She leapt up agily and knocked him to the ground.

Fangs bared, she sniffed vigorously at the other pouches on his belt, checking to see if there was anything else that could harm her. He managed to get in a couple of angry jabs at her sensitive nose before she nipped him on the fist.

There was no mistaking it now – this was a battle. Sondrew and Ballad stared at the two combatants like children watching adults fight.

Sequiel shoved the werewolf away, and scrambled to retrieve his sword.

The werewolf grabbed a large stick off of the ground and swung it at Sequiel’s head. Sequiel parried it with the sword.

The sword and the stick clashed loudly as the werewolf fought Sequiel’s expert strikes with her strength and surprising skill.

“Corpalot couldn’t intimidate you,” Sequiel said to the werewolf as he parried a particularly vicious blow “So he must have something you want,”

”He’s already given it to me.”

The werewolf batted forcefully at Sequiel’s legs.

“But whatever it is, he can take it away, can’t he? Can’t he?” Sequiel continued baiting her as he jumped high to avoid the blow.

The werewolf quickly produced an item from a pocket in her voluminous garment.

“What’s he give you, then? This pretty bauble?”

She held up his crystal . It glimmered in the firelight. She must have plucked it from its pouch while they were grappling on the ground.

“Give – it – back,” he demanded.

“Corpalot told me about this. You use it to find my kind, ” She said accusingly, studying the crystal.

“Yes, using tools is something we humans do.”

“Fetch!” she commanded tauntingly, lobbing the crystal into the darkness.

Sequiel was torn between dashing after it and attacking her. The werewolf leaped upon him in his moment of indecision, which helped him make up his mind.

Once more, they fell to the ground struggling with one another. Sequiel lunged at the werewolf with what would have been a death blow, but she nimbly avoided the strike, then lunged forward to shove Sequiel towards the fire.

“Thought you two’d get it outta your system, but enough’s enough!” announced a booming voice.

It was Ballad.

The gryphon strode with determination toward Sequiel and the werewolf. He now seemed an imposing figure, looking even larger than before with his wings spread wide.

The werewolf thrust a paw-hand into one of Sequiel's pouches and pulled out a handful of small blue spheres.

She sprang up and took aim at Ballad. Sequiel did not have time to stop her, but he did have time to make a startling recollection - she was indeed a special werewolf.

He remembered her.

Splat! The werewolf's aim was true. The wax-sealed spheres had burst on impact and now Ballad’s feathers and fur were drenched in a sticky indigo-colored substance – glomwood sap.

Ballad made the most horrible sound Sequiel had ever heard, before his voice lowered to a squeak and then dwindled to silence. Every magical creature had a weakness, and the sap of the glomwood tree was the gryphon’s. Not only is it simply dreadful to get out of feathers, fumes cause an immediate loss of the gryphon’s most treasured asset - his voice.

“See what Master Sequiel had in store for you!” the werewolf cried to Ballad.

“What in blazes?” bellowed Corpalot, who had just come upon the scene. “Have you damaged the gryphon, Master Sequiel?”

The gryphon’s despair was palpable. Sondrew immediately burst into tears at the terrible appearance of his friend’s suffering.

The werewolf stared at the residue of glomwood sap on her paw-hand. Her expression seemed to say “What have I done?”

Seeing his opponent distracted, Sequiel dashed off in the direction his crystal and been thrown and began searching for it in earnest.

Corpalot could not believe his question had still not been answered. His face reddened with frustration and anger.

“Whatta slipshod crew...” he muttered.
Last edited by animagusurreal on Wed Feb 18, 2009 9:02 pm, edited 3 times in total.
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Chapter Two

Postby animagusurreal » Mon Nov 03, 2008 2:58 am

CHAPTER TWO

“Midnight Encounters”




Corpalot motioned the werewolf over to him. Though she showed great resentment, she complied. They spent several moments in whispered conversation.

Sondrew pulled an oversized hand-carved comb from his battered knapsack and began to scrape the sap from Ballad's wings. Between sobs, he hummed softly to his friend to comfort him.

“Don’t…Don’t go all sappy on me, Sondrew.” rasped Ballad, with something between a chuckle and a cough.“I’ll be alright. I’m young and resilient, and it’s not particularly strong glomwood sap. Nice try, wolfie.”

“Your feathers needed combing anyway,” Sondrew said as he strained to pull the comb down Ballad's wing. Ballad winced as the comb stuck and his feathers were yanked.

“I think we're gonna need some water to get this out,” Ballad said. “Let's go down to the stream.”

“But you promised no hunters!” the werewolf suddenly shouted at Corpalot. He continued to whisper. The werewolf didn’t raise her voice again. Apparently satisfied, Corpalot sat down by the fire and drained the rest of the cider Sondrew had prepared directly from the flagon into his mouth.

Sequiel vaguely absorbed the events that were happening in the clearing even as he frantically searched the edge of the woods for his crystal. He imagined it shattered into millions of tiny, useless shards. He imagined what it would be like to look at darkened woods like these and never know what magicals might be nearby. He didn’t know what would happen if the crystal had struck the ground with force. Ever since his father had handed it to him, he had always been very, very careful not to drop it.

And at last, there it was, lying in a clump of weeds – completely unscathed. Sequiel sighed in relief with all the force of a dragon breathing fire. As Sequiel's hand closed around the crystal, it tingled, letting him know that the werewolf was nearby. He looked up sharply and saw her approaching - but she clearly meant no harm.

“Hunter...” the werewolf began.

“Now that you've tried to kill me, you can call me Sequiel,” he said wryly. “And you are?”

Stone silence – except for the gryphon’s terrible cry still ringing in his ears, something he hadn’t been aware of while he was focused on his lost crystal.

“Or don't werewolves have names?” he added.

"I have a name," the werewolf said sharply. "It's for my pack to know. You can just call me 'The Werewolf' like Corpalot does."

"I've never known just any old 'The Werewolf' to be skilled at swordplay – and archery."

Her eyes looked as if they were staring at a silver arrow pointed straight at her heart. The way she had used the branch in their battle might have been called swordplay, but she carried no sword, nor bow, nor arrows – no weapons of any kind. Most werewolves didn’t.

"How the devil did you..."

"I get around the woods of this kingdom more than the average human. I've seen you practicing several times."

"Swordplay and archery, eh?" said Corpalot, overhearing. "Well, well. We'll add that to The Werewolf's list of uses. That'll save us hiring a swordsman and an archer!”

“I must admit,” Sequiel continued, now addressing The Werewolf as though she were a colleague, “I was also impressed that you not only identified glomwood sap and knew its use, but also recalled which of my many pouches it was in from that one cursory sniff you gave them.”

The werewolf stared at the ground a bit sorrowfully at the reminder of the glomwood sap incident.

“I meant that to be a compliment.” Sequiel said, but she was already striding back towards the clearing.

“Just a moment,” Sequiel called, “What did you come over here to tell me?”

“I thought I should say something to you,” she said, without stopping or turning around, “And now I have.”

She was headed towards the river, where Ballad and Sondrew had gone. Sequiel followed her at a safe distance, curious about her intentions.

At the river, Sondrew pulled the last glob of glomwood sap off Ballad’s wing. Ballad splashed playfully, preening his feathers. Sondrew beamed with relief at his friend’s resilience.

“Ya know somethin’, Sondrew,” Ballad said in a raspy voice, still affected by the attack, “Lookin’ into the river just now, when I was still covered with that sap - I was thinkin’…blue might be my color – for my costume, I mean.”

“Blue,” said Sondrew, nodding thoughtfully as he worked to pull tangles from Ballad’s feathers and fur.

Ballad turned casually to the woods on the shore and announced in a matter-of-fact tone.

“If you’re gonna throw anymore, throw it now. Don’t wait until I’m all clean and dry,”

The Werewolf emerged from between the trees and sidled over to Ballad.

“Gryphon…I should not have used…Hunter Sequiel’s tricks on you. I should have fought you like a real werewolf.”

“Ah, yes, if you attack me again, please use fangs and claws.” His tone shifted. “I must say, though, there’s nothing could get me more riled up than losin’ me voice when I finally got an audience that appreciates me work. So I’d stay outta my way ‘til you hear me singin’ again, right?”

The Werewolf nodded solemnly in agreement.

Ballad resumed splashing, ignoring her in a cat-like manner. Sondrew sat down on the bank of the creek and began to skip stones in a musical rhythm.

As werewolf made her way back to the camp, she noticed Sequiel in his hiding place and paused to glare at him incredulously.

An odd feeling crept into Sequiel – doubt about whether or not he should agree to sign on to this quest. Ordinarily, he would join any quest that sparked his interest, which this one certainly did, however…

First, there was Corpalot. Most of Sequiel’s clients would gladly hand command over to him once they were in the wilderness – that is, if they even came along on the quest at all. Corpalot was different. He wanted to seem in control even if he had no idea what he was doing, as Sequiel guessed was the case with this quest.

Far more troubling was The Werewolf – fascinating, of course, but within moments of meeting her, she attacked the only two things he couldn’t bare to lose – his freedom and his crystal. She had also managed to harm Ballad’s beloved voice.

On the other hand, he wanted to spend more time with Ballad and Sondrew – that is, if they didn’t hate him for what happened with the glomwood sap he had unintentionally supplied.

Well, it was their fault that the werewolf had gotten ahold of him - they didn't do it on purpose, of course, just distracted him by being so irresistibly friendly.

In his adventures, he had been chased, yes. Injured, yes. Come within inches of death, yes. What was adventure without a little mortal peril? But captured, never. Nor, he decided, would he ever be again.


*****************************

“Did I ever tell you, Sondrew,” said Ballad, as the pair returned to the camp, “what a strange mix of emotions water brings to a gryphon? Me eagle half loves it, but me lion half hates it!”

By this time, Sequiel and The Werewolf had also returned, and were sitting on opposite sides of the fire, purposely not looking at one another for fear of spoiling their shaky truce.

Ballad had managed to remain calm while speaking of Corpalot, but actually seeing him up close was different. The gryphon glowered at Corpalot as though the man were made of glomwood sap. He had not looked at The Werewolf half so fiercely.

Corpalot didn't flinch.

“Tell me, Mr. Hayne – has any permanent damage been done to the gryphon?”

Ballad just kept glaring down at Corpalot, smoldering in silence, so Sondrew answered.

“He doesn’t think he’s hurt badly, but I’m concerned. He’s only been hit with glomwood sap once before – as you know – and his voice still hasn’t – “

Corpalot

“Let me ask another way.”

He held up an ornate metallic lantern in the shape of a dragon’s head. The orbs of its eyes were filled with a strange bubbling liquid that kept changing colors. Two long horns sprouted out of the lantern on either side of the handle Corpalot held it by. A cube of glass was held between the top and bottom jaws. A fireball was suspended within it, its orange light tinged strangely with a faint aura of green.

“Is that…” began Sequiel.

“Aye,” answered Corpalot proudly. “Dragon fire….” He turned one of the horns and the fireball grew larger and brighter. He grinned brightly.

“But how did you -”

Before Sequiel could finish his question, Corpalot turned another knob on the back of the lantern, and a spurt of flame shot towards the gryphon from the dragon head’s nostrils.

Sondrew looked utterly appalled at Corpalot’s actions, but said nothing, confident in his friend’s ability to fend off the fire.

Ballad flapped once and buffeted the fire back into the lantern, but it instantly surged back towards him. He flapped again, and his wind blew over the flame, swooped down, wound its way into the lantern’s opening. The flame winked out of existence – for a moment, but then it flickered into being once more. One last flap from Ballad’s wings finished it off.

Sequiel was relieved that the gryphon hadn’t been burned, but he took the extroverted creature’s continued silence as a bad sign. Surely he would have made some sign of triumph at snuffing the lantern if something weren’t wrong.

“Well, I’m pleased to see it’s not as weak against dragonfire as it is against sap,” Corpalot chortled derisively, gesturing towards Ballad. “Still, whatever you did to tame the creature, boy, you’d better undo some of it, or we’ll all wind up roasted by the time it snuffs a real dragon’s heartfire.”

“I’ll try to ease up on him,” said Sondrew, with a subtle wink at Ballad. Ballad winked back, but it was just a quick snap of his eyelid. His expression remained severe.

"Corpalot," said Sequiel. "If this is just another dragon quest, I don't quite see..."

"...why we need a gryphon and a werewolf, and not just glorious you, Master Sequiel? Well, ya see, we're not just gonna grab gold and go like I did with you the last time. We're gonna have to get deep into dragon territory, an' we're gonna have to stick around a while."

"What are you planning to plunder this time?"

The word "plunder" obviously struck a chord.

"Nothin'," said Corpalot. He gestured around at the campsite and at Sequiel, Sondrew, Ballad and The Werewolf. "None of this is really for me. It's for Princess Prenzibeth."

"Prenzibeth!?"

"You're related to the Princess, ain't you, Master Sequiel?" Corpalot asked.

"Master Sequiel is related to no-one," said Sequiel. "He sprang to life out thin air one Friday the Thirteenth, under the eerie glowing ring of an eclipsed moon. Or so the legends say."

"Well, other legends say you're her second cousin, Sequiel of Escalon – the one who fled into hiding after he murdered his father.”

“Sequiel is a common name,” said Sequiel calmly, “assuming that is my real name.”

“We'll see if she says the same. Ya know, it ain't polite to disagree with a Princess, even if you're a Master Guide."

"Prenzibeth is coming here!?"

"The Princess is comin' with us," said Corpalot. "She's demanding to negotiate the trade agreement in person."

”Trade agreement?!” said Sequiel, already deeply disappointed in hearing those two deathly dull words linked to the quest – not to mention dismayed at all the exclamations of surprise he seemed to be making. “Trade agreement with whom?”

“Why, with the dragons, of course!”

"With dragons?!" squawked Ballad.

"Think it impossible?" asked Corpalot sharply.

"I'm a gryphon who wants to be a minstrel. I don't think nothin's impossible. But any sort of agreement with dragons is about as damn close to it as you can come!"

"I too must question what makes you think this will work," said Sequiel. "Have you actually managed to discuss this with any dragon, much less their king?"

“I managed a trade agreement with pirates,” said Corpalot. “Scum o’ the seas that they be, but I made it work. Convinced ‘em all it was easier to trade with me than plunder me ship and pay the price in blood. Dragons won’t be no different. Have a little faith! The ol' Captain's got it all planned out."

Corpalot calling himself “The ol’ captain” amused Sequiel, for Corpalot was not much older than him.

“I'm not signing on to this quest unless you tell me exactly what you've got planned.”

“You'll sign on, or you'll find out when the rest of Quintessentia does.”

“I'll wait until Prenzibeth arrives before I tell you of my decision,” Sequiel replied, with an implacable expression.

“Very well, Master Sequiel – but consider this – this kind of quest has never been attempted before. Whatever quest guide does lead it will surely be considered the greatest quest guide in all Quintessentia.”

He picked up another dragonfire lantern, and handed it to Sequiel.

“A gift,” the merchant said. “No strings - yours to keep. From one legendary adventurer to another.”

Corpalot’s giving gesture couldn’t have meant less to Sequiel – such an obvious ploy. But the lantern itself boded of more unusual things like it. He knew he wouldn’t be able to resist, and, gallingly, he knew that Corpalot knew it.

“Thank you,” said Sequiel.

“There’s a tent for each of you, I suggest you get some rest. The princess will be here at the crack of dawn and I expect everyone to be presentable when she arrives – whether yer comin’ along or not.”


************************************

As Sequiel lay in his tent, one name kept repeating in his head: “Prenzibeth.”

She must have thought he was dead all these years. Strange to think that they had been betrothed when they were children – a situation both brought about and aborted for political reasons.

Sequiel’s brother, Lord Quesiel, was the only royal – the only person at all, come to that – who knew Sequiel’s true identity. Quesiel, who loved the pleasures of the court, didn’t remotely understand why Sequiel was so eager to give them up, but he didn’t much care what one did as long as one had a good time. Prenzibeth, on the other hand, was known to take a vested interest in other people’s lives. She might take it upon herself to bring about his return to royal society. He had no way of knowing that. He had know way of knowing what she would do when she saw him. People were a puzzlement to him. Magical creatures were often a puzzlement as well – he just seemed to have more fun trying to solve them.

And what about “Going deep into dragon territory” and “sticking around a while.” How deep? Stick around how long? There always had to be an escape route to the next adventure.

Sequiel awoke with a start. What was that noise?

The castle bells were ringing in alarm. Castle Escalon was under attack. He was running up a tall, tall spiral staircase, leading to the top of the castle’s tallest tower. His father was gripping his hand tightly and pulling him forward. He could barely keep up.

“You’ve got to learn to face reality,” his father said.

Reality was at the top of this staircase – and, from his father’s ominous tone, it was going to be terrifying.

They seemed to go on and on, around and up forever, but Sequiel knew that sooner or later they would reach the top. Then suddenly, it wasn’t a staircase he was climbing – it was a mountainside. Corpalot was behind him, signaling “onward” with his arm, mouthing the words, “what are you waiting for?”

And what was he waiting for? Now he couldn’t wait to reach the top - where the Dracophoenix’s cave was! This time, he wouldn’t let it get away. This time, he would unravel its secrets.. He climbed and climbed, but never seemed to get any closer. Then at last, he pulled himself up on the ledge, stepped into the darkness of the cave, raced through the curving path that led through mounds of dragon treasure, until he was certain that around the next bend would be the sleeping dracophoenix, just as it had been the first time. But instead, he found himself sleeping on the floor. He looked up – for he was now lying on the floor – and saw that it was no longer himself watching himself, but someone or something else…

Sequiel awoke with a start, , a crushing sense of dizziness and a to a brilliant blue light vauguely in the form large horse-like animal in his tent - with a long, twisted horn. A unicorn! Inside a tent! The creature disappeared in another disorienting flash of light. But

He knew he was good at attracting unicorns – but he’d never done it in his sleep! Had it all been part of his dream? Or was he starting to lose his sanity, like his mother?

Sequiel joked to himself, “perhaps he’s the Master Sequiel of unicorns, a unicorn who looks for questers.”

Many questers thought about the word “destiny” constantly – for Sequiel, this was the first time it really occurred to him that he might actually have one. His father used to say it was his destiny to be king – perhaps that was what chased the word from his mind. Perhaps it was his destiny to find the Dracophoenix. But for what purpose?

It occurred to him his entire legacy as a quester had just been a unicorn hunt here and a dragon slaying there. This quest, sensed, was it. The Big One. The question was, was he ready? For the first time in years, he felt terribly young.

At any rate, he knew he wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep, so he decided to go for a walk to relax.


*************************


Ballad growled into the darkness.

“Ballad, it’s me!”

“Sondrew?”

“Yes. I woke up and saw you were gone. Where are you going? What’s got you so distressed?”

They were in the woods, a few paces away from the camp. The gryphon’s mane was even more frizzed than usual from his high level of frustration.

“What do you think it is?” he replied. “Corp-a-lot! Dunno what I was thinkin', meetin' with that hiss-hiss-son-of-a-grrowlrrawk. Seein’ him right there, standin’ right there in front o’ me, where I coulda just reached out and –“ he slashed the air with his forepaw and foretalon and made a raspy attempt at a battle cry. “It brought it all back. I'm going down to that fac-tor-ree of his right now, blow it apart –“ he flapped his wings, setting the leaves on the trees tingling and a shower of pine needles plummeting down – “and set all the magicals free!"

“Ballad, you were attacked today…are you’re sure you’re up to -”

“Told you, I’m fine! Except me voice of course, dammit! And Corpalot, of course!”

"That factory is on the outskirts of Quester's Corners – a town full of questers. A lot of the creatures might be slain!”

"Better slain than captive. Anyhow, least they'll have a fighting chance."

Now Ballad’s wings were twitching continuously with agitation.

"Corpalot’s factory must have defenses against breakouts - especially since we broke out. Magical defenses. After all, Sequiel is the only quester who even realized the creatures were in there. Some sort of magic must be keeping them all from discovering the factory. I wonder if even the royals know it exists. Say, Ballad – what if we talk to the Princess when she arrives, and expose Corpalot’s prison for what it is?”

“And what if she’s in cahoots with him? What if she won’t do nothin’ about it?”

“Then I guess we figure out what the defenses are, face them, and blow it down. But…in a way…you’ve got to admit, setting up that factory is quite an accomplishment. No, wait, wait Ballad! I mean, who would have ever thought it possible? Maybe he actually can make it so the people of Quintessentia aren’t afraid of you.”

“Maybe you don’t think it’s so bad,” said Ballad in an even lower rasp “what he done to us.”

“What?! All I mean is, this might be the only way we could ever -“

“You’re used to being bossed around, you’re used to bein’ a peasant. When you're a full-grown male gryphon, you're pretty much either a king or a wanderer. 'Course, I'm a bit odd - I fancy myself a bit of both, but -"

”If you think I’m actually good at being a peasant,” said Sondrew, emotion rising in his voice, “maybe you should talk to my father - he’ll have a different opinion, I assure you.”

”I’m just sayin’ that…”

”Peasant. Don’t start taking out all your pent-up - ”

Sondrew slashed the air wildly and issued forth an exaggeratedly wheezy battle cry.

“- on me.”

Sequiel could tell this sort of a disagreement was rare between them. Their expressions reminded the quester of clients who had never seen a magical creature before, when they first caught sight of a lick of flame emerging from the mouth of a dragon’s den. Sequiel didn’t want to see it escalate any further. He stepped forward.

“I’ve been…eavesdropping,” he admitted.

They looked more surprised than angry with him.

“I’ve met Prenzibeth,” he went on. “What Corpalot said about me is true. Not the part about me killing my father,” he added hastily, “but the rest. I am the Princess’ second cousin, Sequiel of Escalon. She’s not like the other royals. If anyone would be sympathetic to your cause, it would be her. I’ll speak to her personally.”

*I haven't seen you since we were ten years old,* Sequiel imagined himself saying to Prenzibeth. *You had better not have changed too much.*

”Alirght,” grumbled Ballad, “Sondrew, you really need to do what you told Corpalot you would.”

”What?”

“Ease up on me, with your bizarre mysterious gryphon control powers.” He waved his forepaw and foretalon in a mystical manner. “I’m tired of agreeing with you..”

He winked – a big, theatrical wink this time – and then his ears pricked up.

“I hear wings flapping coming this way.”

“Friends of yours?” asked Sequiel hopefully.

“No, much smaller. A raven, I’d say. But no ordinary raven – a werewolf’s familiar.”

The trio saw Arix step into a patch of moonlight a small distance away.

“Kane!” she exclaimed, looking upwards.

She held out her arm – a little reluctantly – and the raven flapped into view and landed on it. She continued speaking to Kane in Lycanthropian, of which Sequiel understood well enough to know basically what she was saying.

“You shouldn’t have come!” she said, looking at the bird with tender concern. “You should have stayed with Beta Hwara. You are hers, not mine. They might kill you if they smell my scent on you. Now away with you!”

The Werewolf flailed her arm wildly, trying to dislodge the bird.

“Away! Away!”

The raven flapped his wings wildly and cawed with agitation, but clutched tightly to The Werewolf’s arm. She was strong enough to dislodge the raven if she had really wanted to – Sequiel knew that from his fight with her.

”Oh, Kane,” she whimper-sighed at last to the sleek bird on her arm, as she began to stroke his feathers. “I’m happy to see you, too.”
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Chapter 3: "The Princess and the Pass"

Postby animagusurreal » Wed Feb 18, 2009 9:00 pm

Once again, this is somewhat rough draft, but I just couldn't wait to post :). Some of the action stuff during the big multi-character action sequence at the end isn't detailed yet, as I'm just trying to figure out who is doing what where.

At this point, I'm more interested in how the story and characters are working than grammar.



Chapter 3 –

“The Princess and the Pass”



Sondrew rose early, before the rest of the party began to stir, and began to stoke the campfire to make breakfast. The fire was just cracking cheerfully as he noticed hoofbeats approaching. He raised his eyebrows curiously at the approaching party.

The glow of dawn was just easing into the early morning mist when Sondrew caught sight of Princess Prenzibeth, astride a white mare, and two male companions, a knight and a Brigadionist Panin (cleric).

The princess wore a dark goldenrod riding uniform with a short skirt. Her chestnut brown hair in a long, tight braid. As she got closer, Sondrew could see that her brown eyes bore something of a resemblance to Sequiel’s, which made Sondrew feel a bit more at ease.

In her bearing, she was undeniably feminine and undeniably noble, but “princess” was too frilly, too precious of a word to describe her; and yet “queen” was too austere for one so youthful. She required the invention of some new title. Or at least so it seemed to Sondrew’s lyrical mind.

Apparently, Corpalot had set out a display of more of the strange items he manufactured in his factory after the rest of them had gone to sleep.

A breeze tipped it over – gently, so that nothing broke – and Sondrew knew that Ballad must have woken up. Sure enough, when Sondrew turned around, Ballad was grinning at him. The gryphon yawned extensively, then crowed like a cockerel to awaken the rest of the camp, but choked, due the lingering effects of the previous night’s attack.

Corpalot erupted out of his tent and immediately said:

“Boy, can’t you make that gryphon look a little more…”

“Magestic,” supplied Sequiel, who had just emerged from his tent.

“..majestic?” Corpalot continued. “The princess approaches! And pick that display up!”

Everyone bowed deeply except Ballad and Kane, who were studying Prenzibeth with great scrutiny.

Prenzibeth politely introduced the knight, Sir Arvin, and the cleric (her “spiritual advisor”) Panin Janek Diarsi. Corpalot, in turn, introduced his first mate, Mr. Razolo, and his “consort,” Miss Gabriana.

“And now,” Corpalot said, “allow me to introduce the legendary - ”

"Cousin!" exclaimed Prenzibeth. She leapt off her horse with such verve that the animal started. She turned to the knight.

"Sir Arvin, would you take him please."

The knight took the horse's reigns as Prenzibeth charged at Sequiel like a unicorn at a lyon.

"Cousin! You're alive!"

She threw her arms around Sequiel and hugged him so tightly, he was reminded of The Werewolf’s grip on his neck. The princess wasn’t nearly as strong - but she had ahold of his entire body.

"I always wondered if it was you - Master Sequiel, I mean."

"It's...an honor to see you again, your highness" said Sequiel, stiffening in her embrace.

"Come now, Seeky…" She refused to release him just yet. "Such decorum never suited either one of us."

"Yet you remain royalty, Prenzie" said Sequiel. "And I don't."

"Are you not the King of All Questers, as I've heard?" she asked.

"No," Sequiel replied plainly. "No quester holds dominion over another. I'm simply the best."

"We shall see..." she said, finally allowing him to pull away.

Prenzibeth put her hands on her hips and surveyed the campsite.

"Well, Captain,” said Prenzibeth to Corpalot, “I am surprised, to say the least. This appears to be everything you promised - your distinctive supplies and provisions, Master Sequiel,” she smiled once more at her cousin, “and friendly, obedient magicals."

"I'll take friendly," said Ballad, whispering to Sondrew loudly enough to be overheard. "Wolfie can take obedient."

"If I may be so bold as to ask: Why should this surprise you, Highness. I be a man of me word."

"You have been deceiving the palace for some time, Captain.”

"Only because of the - if you'll forgive me - stagnant ways of his highness, your father," (the knight raised an eyebrow) "and the Brigadionist Elders," (the cleric raised an eyebrow). "Had I known you was so much more...pragmatic, I'd have approached you you about this matter meself -"

"Before I threatened to have you arrested for secretly bringing dangerous magical creatures near a populated area?"

"Ultimately, a fortuitous occurrence for both of us." He bowed with a flourish.

"Let us hope so, Captain."

In a genuine whisper, Ballad commented, “She already knows about the factory.”

“She knows about it,” Sondrew whispered back. “But she may not know all about it.”

Prenzibeth spied a poor skinny lad in patched clothes who appeared to be cooking breakfast for everyone. Knowing the well-accepted fact that Sequiel kept no servants, she assumed he belonged to Corpalot. One of the captain’s trained creatures was seated dangerously close to him – a gryphon large enough to snap the lad up in one bite. This was the closest the princess had ever been to a magical creature, and she could not help feeling a certain measure of abject terror.

But, she thought, if that servant can sit there without fear and cook a meal, then I ought to be ashamed if I can’t even approach the beast for a few moments…or perhaps the lad is more afraid of Corpalot than he is of the gryphon. That thought fired her anger, which gave her the courage to get closer to the creature so she could speak to the lad.

"You there, young man,” she said to Sondrew. “I see you're cooking enough to feed an army. Does the Captain provide you enough to eat?”

"No," said Ballad. "I do."

"That's true, your highness,” said Sondrew. “Ballad fishes for both of us back home in…where we live."

Prenzibeth looked puzzled - it looked strange on a face that seemed made only to express a sense of serene wisdom.

"Ballad is the gryphon, your highness,” Sondrew offered. “ The one and only Ballad Quill." With his wooden spatula, Sondrew gave a more reserved version of the gesture he had used to introduce Ballad to Sequiel. Prenzibeth grinned at this.

"Anyhow,” Sondrew went on. “I'm not starved, I'm just…slight. And I'm not a servant of Corpalot's. He can't really be blamed for my impoverished appearance."

"Congratulations, Sondrew," said Ballad. "You found the one thing he can't be blamed for. Now, let me tell you what he can -"

But he was cut off by a laugh from Prenzibeth.

"This is impressive," she said, looking directly at Ballad for the first time. "And I don't say that lightly. Is it some sort of ventriloquism, or do you make him speak through…sorcery?"

"Ventriloquism" echoed Ballad's voice - from the general direction of Corpalot. Then, in an exaggerated version of Corpalot’s voice, it echoed, "Ask me about how I once enslaved Sondrew and Ballad, or the magicals I hold captive to this day." It concluded with an evil laugh, "Har, har, har, har, haaaaar!" Ballad's beak was shut, and a look of mock-innocence played across his face. Corpalot tried to pretend he didn't notice the voice that seemed to be coming from him, but his face flushed red with anger.

"He speaks for himself, your highness," said Sondrew.

"And so do you, I see," said Prenzibeth. "Something I'd like to see more often in the peasantry. Time is moving swiftly. I must continue my inspection now, but I would like to hear all you know of The Captain once our journey is underway – and of where you’ve been living with this creature. That does smell delicious...might I partake?"

Sondrew handed her one of the breakfast cakes he was cooking over the fire.

Prenzibeth asked Sondrew to have Ballad give a brief display of his abilities - which Ballad readily obliged. However, he did not display any particular attitude towards the princess – neither the iciness that had seized him when Corpalot shot fire at him, nor the bubbliness he’d shown when performing for Sequiel. He resembled a housecat looking out the window at nothing in particular.

When the demonstration was done, Prenzibeth then gave Sondrew a little curtsey, which he returned with a deep bow. As he did so, he felt that he might topple over from the pure shock that anyone – much less a princess – would curtsey to him.

Ballad nodded in response to Prenzibeth’s curtsey, but she didn’t notice. She strode purposefully towards The Werewolf.

"Well?" Sondrew whispered to Ballad, with slight trepidation – wondering if his friend would leap into the air right then and there, and soar off to attack Corpalot’s factory.

"As with Sequiel, only time will tell," said Ballad "Seems nice enough, called me ‘him’ instead of ‘it.’ But she did the same with her horse. We may have to go along with them to see whether or not to trust them. But let's decide what we think of ‘em before it's too late to turn back."

Sondrew nodded in agreement.

“I hope that they turn out to be alright people,” Ballad added with a wisp of wistfulness. “Not that you en’t the greatest, Sondrew, but I wouldn’t mind having one or two more friends - and audience members.”

******

The werewolf presented herself dutifully for inspection. She was used to being sniffed-over by alphas. She never liked it, but she was used to it.

This human alpha female approached. The Werewolf stood straight and still, presenting herself for inspection. She was used to being sniffed-over by alphas. She never liked it, but she was used to it. She knew that human alphas weren’t always the physical paragons of their kind – but it never failed to strike her as strange. She could snap this “alpha” in two with her bare paw-hands, if she so wished…however, the princess did have the slightest hint of the moonlight in her eyes – the kind of power that could wring a zealous howl from you if it so desired one. In some strange way, this princess reminded her of Alpha Tarrah, before she mated with Alpha Greku, before she turned vicious, before The Werewolf was forced to…She wondered if this gentle little Alpha would turn vicious as well, and how she would react to it this time.

A she-werewolf, thought Prenzibeth. In her mind, she scolded herself for assuming that the deadly werewolf warrior Corpalot had mentioned to her would be male.

Prenzibeth had hoped approaching the second magical would be easier, but the gryphon had looked downright jolly compared to this werewolf. She didn’t usually set much store in the superstitions that linked ravens with death, however, considering this one perched on the shoulder of a creature with fangs and claws, she was willing to give them a second thought. There was no convenient little human accompanying this magical, so the princess called Sequiel over.

“I’m so glad you got a chance to speak to my friends,” he said.

She smiled tenderly. Same old Sequiel. It was just the kind of thing he would say – calling a gryphon a friend, and putting that beast and that tender in the same category.

”What about The Werewolf? Is she your friend as well?”

“Well, she arrived later,” he rubbed his neck “haven’t had a chance to observe…to give a finite opinion on…she’s excellent at archery and swordplay.”

Despite her surly expression, the werewolf was just as compliant as the gryphon had been at giving a display of her abilities. It reminded the princess of how she felt when dutifully enduring royal pomp and circumstance, though she would not express it so openly.

“That’s a lovely garment,” Prenzibeth found herself saying to the creature, “Where did you get it…I mean, I didn’t know your kind wore…”

”We don’t…,” The Werewolf muttered back. “Unless…You see, some Betas were sent to find a wrapping of shame for me, and they found this hanging on a tree in the woods, where some human huntress must’ve lost it…they did a poor job, the Betas, because I think it’s beautiful.”

This last bit she swiftly, with a defiant tone, like a child slipping in a snide remark to a parent.

For the second time that day, an out-of-place look of bewilderment took hold of Prenzibeth’s face.

“Some wild werewolf packs believe their human side is shameful,” Sequiel offered in explanation, “the way that werewolves who live amongst humans believe their wolf side is shameful.”

It was surreal to The Werewolf to hear a human sum up her pack’s core belief in such a straightforward manner by an outsider. It made her feel as if there almost might be a possibility that it wasn’t true.

Prenzibeth was appalled at this revelation – not because she was insulted, but because it reminded her of the kind of negativism that had long the Brigadionist church.

*****

Once Corpalot had given her a display of the dragonfire lantern and other items from his factory, she said to him,

“Your preparations are exemplary, Captain. Shall we be on our way”

“Immediately, highness,” he replied graciously.

“Just a moment,” said Sequiel. “Contrary to what Corpalot may have told you, we haven’t yet agreed to go on this quest.”

Corpalot glared at him, but Prenzibeth nodded understandingly.

”I imagine he’s neglected to tell you why I want to open trade with the dragons,” she said.

In a royal announcement voice, so that all in the clearing could hear, she explained:

“For years, my father did nothing about the dragons. Now, out of the clear blue sky, he’s planning a full-scale military invasion of their territory in the Lumin Mountains. As it is, each dragon attacks individually. The intelligence from my sources suggests attacking the dragons on their own territory will be like smashing a hornets nest.”

“Except the hornets are enormous, incredibly strong, heavily armored and breathe fire…” Sequiel offered, obviously picturing it in glorious, vivid detail, and relishing the thought.

“Just so.”

“By the by, what are these ‘sources’ you speak of?”

“One source, actually…a sorceress.”

“Your source is a sorceress?”

Prenzibeth cleared her throat softly, indicating that she would say no more on the subject of the secret sorceress.

“I want to at least attempt a peaceful solution before we spark an inferno we can’t extinguish,” she continued. “Quintessentia was founded as a land of peace, a haven from the aggression of the outside world, and so it shall remain!”

Hearing how…proclamationy that sounded, she took a softer tone.

“I am not the ruler of Quintessentia and I am not acting on my father’s behalf. If you join me in this endeavor, you will all be guilty of high treason for interfering in his affairs. The least I can do is knight you all. In the event that I actually do take my father’s throne, your titles will become official.”

Although Sondrew was a Bohemian, devoted to questioning authority and tradition, he was also a great lover of the Paromdonian theatre, and a ceremonial knighting was like something right out of one of his favorite dramas. He had to admit, whether it fit her or not, she knew how to use the mystique of her royal title. If anyone was going to back out

Everyone lined up and kneeled before Prenzibeth. She borrowed Sir Arvin’s sword and
When she got to the gryphon – his front end “kneeling” with the rear end high in the air, his tail swishing – she looked amused and giggled lightly. Ballad seemed just as amused at the idea of having a human as his liegelord.

“I knight thee,” intoned Prenzibeth, “Sir Gryph - ”

“Sir Ballad Quill,” Ballad supplied, ventriloquizing in her voice. “Noblest of all my royal knights.”

When Prenzibeth reached Sequiel, he looked as if she was going to chop his head off with the sword. The princess nodded knowingly and said to him,

“Those who don’t wish to be knighted – or lorded – all you need do is say so.”

Sequiel was deeply moved by this sentiment – moved enough to request a private audience with his cousin away from the other denizens of the clearing.

*****

“Enough about the risk we’re taking,” said Sequiel. “What about you, Prenzibeth? As near as I can tell, you’re the one royal who’s even halfway fit to lead this kingdom, and it looks like you’ll get the chance very soon. Why do you want to risk that? What will happen to Quintessentia if you die?”

“It’s not a risk I take lightly. I weighed this as carefully as I could for as long as I could…If I’m wrong, Brigadion help us all, but I must do something now and this is the best course of action that’s presented itself to me. Besides, it’s not my job to see that I don’t die…it’s yours.”

Zounds. He wondered what about this quest had him spooked – now Prenzibeth had tied it up for him it two neat little words. He had been responsible for the lives of dozens upon dozens of men, with as few injuries and casualties as could be expected in this dangerous business. He tried to tell himself that this was the same thing – but it wasn’t.

“Why the sudden concern about the welfare of this kingdom?” Prenzibeth asked him.

“Quintessentia is where I do my questing, after all.”

”What…do you think of this plan, Sequiel? You were always my…well, my confidante, I suppose you’d call it, up until our families’ ridiculous feud got in the way.”

Sequiel shook his head and threw up his hands.

“I don’t know. Making war with dragons sounds crazy, but making peace with dragons sounds crazy, too. And even if Corpalot can convince the dragons to go along with this, you’ll have to come back here and convince your father…or depose him.”

“My charitable works have earned me many supporters in the military. And once the dragons are beholden to me, who will dare resist me?”

“Prenzibeth, you frighten me,” he said, half-jokingly.

“I frighten myself – it sounds so calculating. I would have rather waited until I simply inherited the throne. And I would have rather that day had not come for many decades.”

“I understand. I didn’t want to depose your father, either, no matter how much my father wanted me to.”

“That’s different. You didn’t want the throne, anyway – I do. Just not like this. It’s complicated...”

“Well, as your esteemed confidante, the only counsel I can offer is this: enjoy the quest. Remember when we were children and we played knights and dragons in the arbor at Castle Escalon? Well, this is just like that, only on a grander scale - and without a wall around us.”

Prenzibeth actually seemed excited at the idea.

“You almost make me feel guilty for my plan to outlaw questing,” she said. “Yes, the rumors are true. Dragons have started attacking more often since you and your people began plundering their treasure and slaying them in earnest. Perhaps if it wasn’t for that, this quest and the whole conflict with my father wouldn’t have happened...”

“You can outlaw questing,” he said matter-of-factly, “but you will never stop it. It will continue underground. It might even have more mystique that way. Besides, it’s your royal friends that pay for it. If my father had had a unicorn’s horn to drink from, he might never have been poisoned.”

Sequiel believed what he said – questing would never die. But he felt deeply wounded by the idea that Cousin Prenzibeth was trying to take away his crystal and smash it – figuratively speaking - just like The Werewolf had done.

“Corpalot’s products will provide that security. Come now, we can discuss this further during our journey.”

Prenzibeth, meanwhile, wished she could explain to Sequiel why she felt she had to do something. She saw herself not so much as a ruler as a steward – one of many stewards – of the vision of Lord Brigadion that Quintessentia would be a beacon of peace for the world. She didn’t think he would understand that.

Maybe Sequiel was right – maybe she couldn’t stop questing, or the dragons, or any of it. Perhaps she could only push it into the darkness, where it could fester further. But the only way to find out was to try…

“You are coming on the journey, aren’t you, Seeky?”

“Yes, Prenzie. I never could refuse you, a unicorn of destiny came and visited me last night in my tent, and besides – I want to find out what happens next.”

*****

Sequiel led the party deeper into the woods with strong, certain strides. This was not the bookish, daydreamy little boy Prenzibeth used to boss around. The humans rode horses, except Sondrew, who rode Ballad. The gryphon and the werewolf were on foot.

Prenzibeth had always thought the only distinction between “ordinary wilderness” (where they had been) from “magical wilderness” was that magicals lived in the latter. That day, she learned otherwise.

The forest grew steadily more twisted and gnarled; it grew ever darker and danker, yet the colors were richer. Where sun did peek through, swarms of light particles swirled in the air. Flowers grew more bizarre and complex; fruits were larger, heavier and more appetizing (And more likely to be poisonous.) The branches curled and twisted and interwove with each other. The patterns in the bark on the trees seemed to form some sort of unreadable writing.

Everyone found their attention being drawn towards The Werewolf. She was not doing anything in particular – it was actually the most serene she had been since pouncing on Sequiel the night before. Apparently, thought Prenzibeth, werewolves possessed some power other than fangs, claws and ferocity. It was not overt and showy, like Ballad’s power over wind. The forest did not miraculously sprout and grow, as in tales of nature faeries. But it seemed to be drawing on some energy from her, and she, from it, making both seem more mysterious, more foreboding, more alluring, more fearsome, more beautiful, more natural, more supernatural.

The Werewolf, meanwhile, noticed that a similar nexus of energy had formed around Sequiel.

He’s not a werewolf, she thought. What is he?

At the same moment, Sequiel and The Werewolf both detected a presence somewhere in the vicinity.

“Friends of yours?” asked Sequiel.

“My pack,” said The Werewolf. Myriad emotions swirled in her voice when she spoke those two words, like a cauldron full of volatile potions.

*****

They spent the rest of the day picking through the wilderness. Sequiel got the impression that the Werewolf’s pack was to be avoided, which forced them to take a few detours. Twice, Ballad flapped up into a treetop to take a cat nap, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. It was dusk when they came to a mountain pass known as The Gash. Sequiel quickly determined that the pass was devoid of magicals, though he could see signs that a large questing party had passed through, but that was not uncommon, since this was the main way into the mountains.

“The gateway to the Great Lumin Mountains,” he announced grandly to the rest of the party, “Our quest truly begins here.”

“Halt!” a deep, commanding voice rang through the pass. “You are surrounded! You are all under arrest for high treason to the crown!”

“They could have at least waited ‘til we got back,” Ballad whispered to Sondrew.

Archers rose into view on the crags above and aimed down at the party. Swordsmen marched in through the far end of the pass, blocking their way.

“There is no escape!” shouted the captain, from a crag above them. “Surrender now, and pray for mercy from Lord Brigadion and our King!”

“Captain Fikus, I command you stand down!” said Prenzibeth with firm authority.

Fikus didn’t go for it.

“My orders come directly from the king!” he went on. “If you do not surrender, we will have no choice but to take you into custody by force. You may rest assured of your own safety, your highness, but we will not be responsible for what happens to your companions if they resist.”

Ballad roar-schreeched and The Werewolf growled.

“And do not think your beasts will threaten us,” Fikus added.

Sequiel spied Brivald, Scraglior and several high ranking members of the Quester’s Guild sprinkled in amongst the royal troops.

“Brivald!” shouted Sequiel in surprise.

”I tried to warn you, Master Sequiel!” Brivald said.

“Ooooh, it’s a big one,” said Scraglior greedily, eyeing Ballad and fingering the hilt of his sword.

Fikus held up a small hourglass.

“You have until this expires to make your decision,” he said.

“Your highness,” Panin Diarsi whispered to Prenzibeth. “Perhaps in the guise of these men, Lord Brigadion is presenting you with an opportunity to turn away from this folly. Surely your father will not harm you.”

Prenzibeth considered her advisor’s words.

“I spent a great deal of time deciding to do this,” she said, “and I’m not about to give up at the first sign of resistance. Lord Brigadion may be testing us.”

She had managed to master her fear of the gryphon and the werewolf. She wasn’t about to give up now.

Sequiel and the Werewolf both started at the same time, for no apparent reason.

“Lord Brigadion has prepared one hell of a test for you today,” Sequiel explained. “There’s a large pack of werewolves headed this way.”

Sure enough, a few moments later, The Werewolf’s pack lumbered into the mouth of the pass. They were hunched over and looked much more wolflike – the way werewolves in the wild were supposed to look during this phase of the moon.

The omegas were wrapped in rags, the betas wore loincloths. The two alphas only had strands of wooden beads around their necks.

The alpha male was silver-furred, blue eyed, and wearing something between a snarl and a supercilious sneer.

The alpha female had raven black fur and yellow eyes. She was considerably younger than her mate, but her expression was a decent replica of his.

“Surrender, Omega” barked the alpha male, “for the unholy murder of Alpha Tarrah!”

“Alpha Greku!” The Werewolf yelped back at him, “Get the pack away from here! Hunters! Hunters! Hunters!”

“Surrender now,” Greku growled coldly, “and I will get the pack away. Do not subject them to harm for your sake. Come and take your rightful punishment!”

She hunched over submissively, as she had been when looking down at her glomwood-stained paw-hand. She had been struck by the memory of how it felt the silver arrow was loosed from her quiver. The echo of Alpha Tarrah’s yelp and whimper rang in her ears - mixed now with the sound of the gryphon’s cry – and then both dwindled into terrible silence.

But her memory worked backwards from there, slogging through years of the Alphas’ cruelty. The Werewolf could feel the hackles on her back rising, brushing against her cloak. On and on her memory went, though, back to her childhood, when Alpha Tarrah was kind…and now she was dead.

The Werewolf glanced to her right at Kane on her shoulder - steadfast Kane, who had been the pampered familiar of a high-ranking beta, but had sought her out; who had the freedom of wings, but chose to cling to her shoulder.

“Kane!” called the Alpha female, with authority. “Come, Kane!”

“Beta Hwara,” said The Werewolf. “Kane is your…Kane is free to do as he pleases!”

She put a paw-hand on Kane, but did not stroke him or hold him down – she just held it there lightly.

“It’s Alpha Hwara now!” the other she-werewolf roared haughtily.

Kane slipped out from under The Werewolf’s paw-hand and flew to Hwara’s shoulder

“Thank you, Kane,” said Hwara, stroking him tenderly. “You are a wonder. How ever did you find her?”

Kane just sat there, inscrutable. His feathers matched Hwara’s fur almost perfectly – he seemed to be a part of her now.

The enchanted woods had smiled upon her – she could tell that everyone in the group had noticed it, it wasn’t just her own delusion. So had they smiled upon Master Sequiel, who was entirely human and a Hunter, no less. She wasn’t sure what that said about the woods’ taste in sentient beings, be she decided to leave philosophizing for a moment she wasn’t in mortal danger, and go with the idea that it meant she deserved to live after all.

Her hackles rose once more.

*****

Meanwhile, at the same time:

“Highness,” whispered Diarsi. “I am loathe to give in to the demands of beasts, but could we not turn this werewolf over to its kind, and be rid of them? You are in enough danger here without their presence.”

Corpalot had said The Werewolf was vital to the quest.

But as a ruler, Prenzibeth thought, I will have to learn to make sacrifices, and work however little I must.

This was Sequiel’s area of expertise. She whispered Diarsi’s suggestion to him.

“Do you think we can do without The Werewolf?” she asked.

Sequiel put his hand to his neck again. He pictured his crystal being lobbed through the air into the darkness. Then, he recalled sensing The Werewolf (through his crystal) as the center of energy in the woods, and the curious way she looked at him at that moment, as if she was trying to figure out some great mystery.

“No,” he said. “I don’t think we can do without her.”

*****

Fikus’ hourglass ran out.

“Men, take the humans into custody!” he commanded, “But be gentle with the Princess, on threat of death by the King!”

“Leave the humans to the King’s troops!” commanded Brivald. “Slay the creatures!”

“Kirrurr thuff auroooo!” barked Greku, which meant, “Kill them all!”

“What the devil are ya waitin’ for, gryphon!” bellowed Corpalot. “Kill a bunch of ‘em! That’ll send the rest runnin’!”

“No!” cried Prenzibeth. “These are my father’s troops!”

“I en’t killin’ nobody, if I can help it!” screeched Ballad.

“Well, can’t he kill the others?”

“They’re my subjects!”

“I en’t killin’ nobody!”

”How about the werewolves?!”

“No,” barked The Werewolf, “they’re my pack!”

“FOR THE LAST TIME, I EN’T KILLIN’ NOBODY!”

Knights, questers and werewolves alike appeared emboldened by that statement.

The questers began battling the werewolves. The knights advanced on Sequiel’s party. The some of the werewolves broke through to attack The Werewolf and the questers followed them. While they were there, the questers then also began trying to kill Ballad and The Werewolf. The knights, fearing that the werewolves or even the questers might harm Prenzibeth, began battling them as well.

In short, The Gash became infected with pure bedlam.

Sequiel’s party formed a circle around Prenzibeth (at her insistence, Sondrew rode along with her on her horse, because she knew that everyone would try to protect her, and thus, by association, they’d protect him, too) With Prenzibeth, Corpalot and Sequiel issuing commands, they haltingly fought their way towards the other end of the pass, so they could attempt lose their many assailants in the mountains. Ballad took off to provide air cover with his wind powers.

Hwara fought her way through the chaos and pounced on The Werewolf.

“Werewolf!” Sequiel called out.

”You challenge me, human?” said another random werewolf, who came charging over.

”No, not you…The Werewolf!”

Knowing of course that the werewolf before him had no idea what he was talking about, and was going to fight him anyway.

The Werewolf defended herself valiantly, but Hwara was larger and stronger, and managed to bring The Werewolf to the ground.

“Look at you!” barked Hwara, as they struggled. “Not even a full moon can make a full werewolf out of you anymore!”

“I CHOOSE MY OWN FORM!!!” The Werewolf roared – in Quintessentian – snatching the moonstone at the end of a necklace she was wearing and shaking it violently. She rubbed the pearl-like stone and, for instant, flashed to her more human and more wolfish forms before returning to the form halfway in between.

Hwara was utterly shocked.

“Blasphemy against The Moon!” she cried, in Lycanthropian.

At that same moment, Kane sprang from Hwara’s shoulder to her muzzle and began pecking at her eyes. The alpha female screamed and struck Kane, knocking him to the ground. The Werewolf threw Hwara off of her.

Hearing the strange sound that accompanied The Werewolf’s transformation, Ballad was momentarily distracted. He gasped as three indigo streaks whizzed past, inches from his face, close enough for him to see that they were glomwood-sap-dipped arrows.

He dove, but an archer must have anticipated this move. Another streak zoomed directly towards his heart. The Werewolf leapt straight up and caught the arrow in mid-air. Landing back on the ground, she used it as a spear against Hwara (The sap had no effect on a werewolf, but the arrow was still useful as a pointy stick).

The streaks of indigo were soon joined by streaks of silver – the archers were now targeting The Werewolf as well.

“What’s the matter, Omega?” asked Hwara sarcastically, as she and The Werewolf battled while agily avoiding the arrows. “I thought you would find this storm of silver beautiful!”

The Werewolf roared and subdued Hwara with the blue arrow (not fatal for a werewolf, because it wasn’t silver). Unfortunately, Alpha Greku had fought his way over just in time to witness The Werewolf defeat his mate. Enraged, he leapt over Hwara’s unconscious body and attacked The Werewolf.

A group of knights got near Sequiel’s party, all calling Prenzibeth “highness” and pleading with her to come with them. Prenzibeth, meanwhile, was issuing commands on how to deter them. Greku understood enough Quintessentian to realize what this meant.

“This human is some sort of alpha female!” he exclaimed. “The Pack of the Pure is truly blessed! We will have the honor of slaying her!”

“Yes,” exclaimed The Werewolf. “She is my new alpha female.”

She battled Greku with new resolve.

*****

Ballad swooshed back up and blew the archers over with his wind, but more sprang up to replace them.

"Bring it down, but don't kill it!" Scraglior commanded the archers. "I want to finish it up close with my sword!"

He ran towards the spot where he figured the gryphon would fall. Bellowing a war cry, he drew a twisted sword and brandished it high above his head – and Ballad swooped down and snatched it up with his beak.

Scraglior was aghast.

“I’ll rip your feathers out one by one!” he screamed at Ballad, shaking his fist “I’ll drown you in glomwood sap! I’ll -”

Scraglior pulled his own bow off his back and was about to fire a glomwood arrow at Ballad, when he caught sight of Sequiel, who a short distance away, and had just successfully subdued a werewolf with a handful of wolfsbane to the nose.

"You and me," said Scraglior, as he ran toward Sequiel. "We could slay that gryphon together. Come on, Master Sequiel! You and me together! Forget petty loyalties! We are united as slayers! I’ve waited forever for this chance!”

He looked like an impatient little boy in line for a pony ride at the faire. Sequiel hated to bring anyone’s fantasies crashing into reality. Had ever since he had destroyed his father’s fantasies about him. He couldn’t help feeling sorry for Scraglior, so he said, “I’m sorry,” before punching him in the nose.

Sequiel picked up Scraglior’s bow and snapped it over his knee.

“They were right about you!” Scraglior wailed, lying on the ground, blood gushing from his nose, tears streaming from his eyes. “You’re not a slayer! The legends are all lies!”

Scraglior wiped his face on his sleeve, grabbed a sword from a fallen soldier, sprang to his feet, and moved to strike Sequiel.

“My legends, however, are true,” snarled Corpalot, drawing his own sword (Zing!)

Corpalot and Scraglior began to duel.

“What a winning prospect this presents,” commented Ballad, as he flapped overhead. “So long as at least one of them loses.”

*****

Ballad’s wind had knocked over and knocked out many of the attackers. He was now circling above Sequiel’s party, avoiding occasional volleys of arrows, and sending down winds to blow back any attackers that got too close.

Alpha Greku and the Betas pointed up at Ballad and their ravens darted towards him. They swarmed around him, trying to peck at his eyes and yanking at his feathers.

Ballad thought he spied Kane – apparently alive and well - flying amongst the ravens, cawing his head off, but it was difficult to tell whether he was trying to stop the attack or encourage it. But then, he wasn’t even sure if it was Kane at all amongst all the swooping and flapping around him.

A large male werewolf jumped from the cliff above onto Ballad, and began slashing and snapping at his wings.

With many of his troops out of commission, Fikus was now personally attempting to retrieve the princess. Sir Arvin battled him fiercely.

“I am appalled, Arvin,” Fikus said. “I never thought to question your loyalty!”

“I am still loyal to our king,” Arvin replied, “I’m just more loyal to our future queen!”

Not to be outdone by Scaglior and Fikus, Brivald began dueling with Master Sequiel.

“Sorry about this, Brivald,” Sequiel said, as their swords clashed, “I do fully appreciate your warning now.”

“You always were a rogue quester,” snorted Brivald. “You never showed up for a single Guild meeting. Not one!”

Razolo and Gabriana were fighting a pair of knights.

With her protectors otherwise occupied, a werewolf managed to slip between Sequiel and Diarsi, and headed for the princess.

Prenzibeth drew a dagger that was hidden in her belt.

Sondrew pulled out a dagger that was made of one of Ballad’s giant feline claws.

Sondrew and Prenzibeth both looked shocked to see the other holding a weapon

"These violent times we live in, eh?" commented Ballad, as he threw off his assailant and dropped him on the werewolf that was approaching Prenzibeth and Sondrew.

*****

Greku managed to swipe the blue arrow away from The Werewolf, and got another good swipe in that knocked her several feet away.

Diarsi stepped in and fought with astounding ferocity to protect the princess.

Through blurred vision and pain, The Werewolf spotted a bow and a quiver of silver arrows that had Ballad had inadvertently knocked to the floor of the pass while attacking archers.

She took hold of them, struggled to her feet and aimed an arrow at Alpha Greku’s heart.

“I have a right to survive!” she roared.

Kane flapped down from above and perched on her shoulder.

*****

Fikus, who was a seasoned military man, disarmed Arvin, but instead of continuing to fight the knight, he called over an underling to do it for him. Fikus himself darted directly for the princess. Over her protests, he plucked her off her horse and held her gently in his arms, hero-style. Sondrew still had his dagger drawn, but Prenzibeth held up her hand, indicating he shouldn’t try anything. She still had her dagger in her hand.

*****

”Do you think so little of questing,” Sequiel asked Brivald, as they dueled, “that you think it can be snuffed out so easily?”

“Remember your history?” Brivald shot back “The Inquisition of 1313? The sorcerers didn’t think it was possible, but they were all chased from this land!”

Fired by a desire to hear no more of this kind of talk, Sequiel knocked the sword out of Brivald’s hand and seized him. Sequiel held his sword to Brivald’s throat. Corpalot held Scraglior. They commanded the questers to stand down.

The Werewolf held Greku at bay, and the alpha male called off the werewolves. Sequiel had Sir Arvin (who had defeated his opponent) bind Greku with a slender silver chain.

Freed from their assailants, Sequiel, Corpalot, Arvin, Diarsi, Razolo, Gabriana, Ballad and The Werewolf all concentrated on Fikus, who was still carrying Prenzibeth.

Fikus did not look deterred.

“Eventually my father’s illness of the mind will become too difficult to deny or hide,” Prenzibeth said, looking up at Fikus. “You know it as well as I do. Then it will be I who wears the crown, and it will be you, Captain, who is guilty of high treason. Instruct your men to put away their weapons now, and when that day comes, I shall show you mercy.”

Again, Fikus didn’t go for it, so Prenzibeth drew her dagger, and turned it on her own throat.

“My father’s orders were that I would remain unharmed. Perhaps madness runs in the royal bloodline, Captain. Shall we see?”

“Stand down!” Fikus commanded. He set down Prenzibeth, and allowed himself to be tied up by Corpalot.

With their hostages in tow, the party made their way into the Great Lumin Mountains. There was no turning back now. At least not the way they had come.
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