Appendix A: Chapter 30

[Editor's note: Chapter 30 of my 2008 NaNoWriMo entry.]

Roland pulled his cloak tighter around himself as he walked through the plains east of Doomhammer. The torch cast a pale circle of light around Roland, revealing the barely perceptible path through the tall grass. The path was not strictly necessary; Roland could begin to see the faint outline of the small, squat building that sat at the end of the path. And even if that were not the case, having made the journey once a year for each of the five years following the First Doomhammer Conference, he figured he could probably follow it from memory.

The outline against the stars resolved itself into a small wooden house as Roland approached. Outside, illuminated only by a fire burning only slightly more than a smoulder, stood a pair of astronomers hunched over the telescope they were calibrating.

The site had been established in the Doomhammer Accords as a joint endeavor between Telerand and Lantaria, a symbol of the spirit of mutual trust and cooperation that the treaty attempted to codify in the aftermath of the incident five years prior. As the kingdoms’ respective kings had explained at its signing, the tiny observatory was to serve as a model for future cooperative efforts.

In particular, the Accords called for an annual event where representatives of the two sides would come to the observatory to witness collection of a new set of data for a study on the long-term movements, if any, of the stars. In practice, at any other time of the year the observatory was staffed only by a few astronomers from the Independent Principality of Doomhammer.

The building served as storage for astronomical equipment and a few beds for whoever might be working there at any given time. It was just large enough to accomodate everyone attending the night’s ceremony, though if previous years served as any indication, all of the witnesses would choose to leave as soon as possible instead of staying the night.

Roland passed the pair of astronomers without a word and entered the building. He was met by a guard from Doomhammer wearing a suit of armor.

“Name?” the guard asked.

“Roland, paladin third class of the Order of Yssindria, Kingdom of Telerand,” Roland replied.

“Weapons?”

Roland unhooked the sword from his belt and laid it on a nearby table.

The guard then picked up a small piece of paper rolled into a tiny scroll and handed it to Roland. “You may pass,” he said.

Roland nodded and walked through to the next room. The carpet which normally lay in the center of the floor had been rolled back, and the floor boards it would have covered had been removed, revealing a ladder leading down into a tunnel.

The facility underneath the observatory’s house was only mentioned in Appendix A of the Doomhammer Accords. The content of Appendix A, as well as its very existence, was a closely-guarded secret known only to a handful of individuals.

Roland climbed down the latter into the tunnel. The walls, ceiling, and floor were made of loosely packed dirt, held up by a series of interconnected wooden braces spaced just far enough to prevent the tunnel from collapsing. The tunnel itself was just wide enough for two people to walk through side by side, which made it easier for Roland to walk down to the other end without accidentally brushing against the wall and triggering a collapse.

At the end of the tunnel stood another guard in front of a opened door. The guard took no notice of Roland as he passed through. The walls of the chamber he entered, as well as the door itself, consisted of a layer of the same fractilicite-based alloy used to make Roland’s sword, sandwiched between two layers of stone. Inside were the three other witnesses of the ceremony. Tateweil, dressed in a gray robe, paced back and forth along the stone floor. Dalton and a man Roland only new as another representative of Lantaria leaned against opposite corners, watching each other suspiciously.

“Ah, welcome back, Sir Roland,” Tateweil said when he noticed Roland’s arrival.

“You’re late,” Dalton muttered, keeping his eyes fixed on the other man.

“No matter,” Tateweil replied, “the man of the hour has not yet arrived anyway, so there is nothing to do but wait. Which reminds me, Sir Roland, have you heard of any news of locating a successor for him?”

Roland shook his head. “Not that they’d necessarily tell me if they did. How about on your end?”

“I am afraid not. One might suspect that in a land where magical prowess is cultivated, we ought to have had some success by now. But alas, magic is still a poorly understood thing, even in Lantaria.”

Roland sighed. Having only one person capable of performing the rite was problematic. If something ever happend to him, Roland didn’t want to consider the consequences.

“Tell me, Sir Roland,” Tateweil continued, “aside from that, how go things back in your homeland? Well, I trust?”

“Same as usual,” Roland said vaguely, not wishing to get dragged into another round of smalltalk with Tateweil but seeing little alternative if he didn’t want to appear rude. “You?”

“Oh, can’t complain. They won’t let me, you know,” he said with a chuckle. Tateweil was the only one who seemed to find humor in their situation. “And how about yourself?”

“I’m not used to not having my sword with me,” Roland said, his hand resting where its hilt ought to be.

“Ah, but you know the rules. No weapons allowed in the sanctum, lest–”

“Yes, yes, I know,” Roland said, waving his hand.

Appendix A laid out strict rules for security precautions for the event. It was what required four witnesses, two from each kingdom, to be present. It specified the design of the sanctum and the tunnel leading into it, and required the placement and duties of the guards from Doomhammer.

Roland heard a creak from down the tunnel as the fifth person descended the ladder.

“Finally,” Dalton said, taking a step away from the wall. The man opposite him grunted in agreement and did likewise.

“Hello, Roland, everyone,” Derek said as he entered the sanctum.

“Hello,” Roland and Tateweil said in unison.

Derek stepped into the center of the room. Roland noticed the young man grew another inch taller every year. “Are we all ready to begin?” Derek asked the group.

“Whenever you are, kid,” Dalton said. Roland and the other two nodded.

“Guard, we are ready to begin,” Derek called out.

The guard gave a loud shout down the tunnel, and a few seconds later the guard upstairs shouted a reply. Roland knew that was the signal for the astronomers outside to record the positions of a few key reference stars in the sky, and thus establish the precise time the ceremony took place.

“You all remember the procedure for when you’re done, right?” the guard asked.

“We do,” Tateweil said.

“We did last year, and the year before, and the year before that,” Dalton muttered.

“Very well,” the guard said. “You have ten minutes.” The guard swung the heavy door shut, and Roland heard it lock into place.

Derek took a deep breath, and began, “You would think the Demon King would be clever enough to figure a way out of this trap by now, but that’s just the latest in a long list of failures….”

At the Second Doomhammer Conference, one week after the destruction of Doomhammer Hall, a closed-door session was held to discuss how to defeat the Demon King once and for all. There had been no clear evidence in the ruins of the building to determine whether or not the Demon King had survived, and given his revival then, the attendees had to work under the assumption that he still existed.

The question of how to kill something with no true physical form, and which could hop from host to host seemingly at will, stymied every mind they set before the problem. Ultimately, they concluded the only weapon they had against the Demon King was the same which had apparently been the true reason for his defeat in the Demon War: summoning him through time, thus effectively banishing him from existence over the interval in between.

The site Roland and the others were in existed solely to summon the Demon King at regular intervals in as safe and controlled a manner as possible. The idea, described in Appendix A, was to repeatedly summon him once a year, so that he only existed for a few seconds before being pulled forward through time again. The sanctum where the rite took place was completely sealed, and openable only from the outside. The walls, ceiling, and floor were lined with the fractilicite alloy, in the hopes that it had an intrinsic ability to smite evil. But in case it didn’t, the guards outside would collapse the tunnel after ten minutes without the all-clear signal from inside. The collapse would be explained to the public as a sinkhole that opened without warning beneath the observatory, and some scheme would be put in place to prevent anyone from approaching the area. Meanwhile, Roland and the other four would quickly suffocate as the breathable air in the room was defeated, leaving the Demon King trapped forever with no escape and no one alive to possess should something go wrong.

And if another summoner couldn’t be found, eventually something would go wrong.

“… and can’t do anything without relying on some sucker to do all the heavy lifting for him…. He’s right behind me, isn’t he?” Derek finished.

The all-too-familiar swirling mass of darkness hovered behind Derek a few seconds. It reared back as though ready to strike before quickly fading into nothingness.

Tateweil breathed a sigh of relief and knocked on the door. “All clear,” he said. He then unrolled his strip of paper and read aloud, “Password: lugubrious salad.”

Roland and the other two in turn each approached the door and did likewise, reading their own passwords from the papers they had been given. All four were needed before the guard would open the door. Had something gone wrong, they were supposed to immediately light the paper on fire, preventing it from being read.

The door creaked open, and the five filed out, one after another.

“Remind me to thank you sometime for ever having dragged me into this,” Dalton said to Roland as they walked down the tunnel.

“Another successful ceremony,” Tateweil said cheerfully as he walked in front of them. “Nothing to complain about with that.”

“Except that we have to do it again next year.”

“Better than the alternative. Ah well, see you all next year.”

Chapter word count: 1,786 (according to wc)
Total word count: 54,808 / 50,000 (109.616% complete)

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Appendix A: Chapter 29

[Editor's note: Chapter 29 of my 2008 NaNoWriMo entry.]

“You will not–” Roland yelled as he turned around, until something slammed into his side and fell on top of him. He shut his eyes and winced as he landed painfully on his back. He felt the weight of whatever hit him pressing down on his chest.

Disoriented, Roland slowly opened his eyes and saw Anna leaning over him. “Are you OK?” she asked.

“What happened?” Roland struggled to say. His head throbbed and his back ached.

Anna’s hand ran through Roland’s hair and came to rest under the back of his head. “That was incredibly brave thing you did back there, challenging the Demon King all by yourself just to save Derek. I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to thank you.”

“I–” Roland started to say.

Anna leaned closer and whispered into Roland’s ear, “Actually, I do have a couple ideas, but they’ll have to wait until later, when we can be alone. Unless you’re into that sort of thing.”

Anna lifted her head slightly and stared into Roland’s eyes and smiled. Roland tried to piece together what was happening, but was now having even more trouble thinking clearly.

Suddenly, Anna lifted herself off of Roland and stood up. She turned her head to the side and shouted to someone Roland couldn’t see, “He’s clean!” She then turned back to Roland and stretched her hand toward him. “Do you think you can get up?”

“Huh?” Roland asked, his mind starting to clear.

“Sorry about that just now, but I needed to make sure it was just you in there,” Anna said, looking slightly flustered. “You remember how my ability works, right? I mean, not that I wouldn’t want to, um, I mean, it’s not like I wouldn’t be willing if you, er–”

“I think I can move,” Roland interrupted. Anna looked relieved. He took Anna’s hand and slowly rose to his feet with her help. Roland looked around and saw he was standing in the street outside. “How did I get out here?” he asked.

“That was me,” Derek said as he ran up next to Anna.

“He summoned you out here just before they started,” Anna explained.

“Started what?” Roland asked.

“That,” Anna said, pointing towards Doomhammer Hall.

Roland looked where Anna was pointing and saw Doomhammer Hall engulfed in flames. A tower of black smoke rose straight up from it and climbed high into the sky. Somehow, the fire seemed not to be spreading to any of the nearby buildings.

“I’m sorry about all those things I was saying about you,” Derek said.

“What things?” Roland asked.

“About how you were a failure, and were going to lose to the Demon King, and all that.”

“So that was you I heard when I was in there?”

Derek shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t know what it feels like myself. I just know how it happens, and that whoever I summon is usually really angry by the time it’s over.”

“Which is why I kind of, well, slammed you into the ground before you did anything to Derek before you realized what was happening,” Anna added.

“So why did you summon the Demon King in the first place?” Roland asked.

“It seemed like a good idea,” Derek said. “After everything that happened, I didn’t know who else to turn to for help except Mattias. I’m glad I was wrong, though,” he smiled.

Roland watched the fire as it consumed Doomhammer Hall.

“Do you think that’ll be the end of it?” Anna asked.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “I don’t even know if the Demon King is something that can be killed. And even if it is, I don’t know if that’s going to do it.”

“But wasn’t the Demon King killed back during the war?”

Roland shook his head. “From what I saw of its mind when I was in there, I think it got summoned here just before its host was killed. In a way, it might’ve been Derek who ended the Demon War. I think. It’s all still pretty jumbled up.”

By this time, a crowd had formed to watch Doomhammer Hall burn. Roland saw that remarkably, the fire still hadn’t spread to any of the surrounding buildings. Looking more closely, he thought he saw something swirling around the building.

“Why isn’t the fire spreading to the rest of the town?” Roland asked.

“That would be Tateweil,” a voice said to Roland’s left. He turned and saw Lord Caldwell standing there with the other nobles.

“What?” Roland asked.

“Who,” Lord Caldwell corrected. “He’s an elemental mage we brought with us in case something happened.”

“Against the agreement,” said Lord Kent.

“Yes, yes, but I’m willing to call it even,” Lord Caldwell conceded. “Besides, it’s a good thing we did. None of us wanted to see anything to happen to Doomhammer. That’s why we came here, after all: to try to work something out before our kings did something foolish. Look, you can see Tateweil over there.”

Roland looked where Lord Caldwell was pointing and saw a man bracing himself against a corner where two buildings met near Doomhammer Hall. He seemed to be focusing intently on the winds swirling around the hall.

“Some kind of air mage?” Roland asked.

“Nitrogen,” Lord Girardeau corrected.

“If you’ll excuse us,” Lord Arundel said, “we must be off. Once the immediate threat of the fire subsides, people will want to know what happened. We need to figure out what to tell them without sending them into a panic about the return of you-know-what.”

“Thank you for your service, sir…?” Lord Calvert said.

“Roland,” said Roland.

“Sir Roland. We shall be sure the King is aware of what you have done for us when we return to Telerand.”

“By the way,” Lord Stoddard asked, “what was it you wanted to warn us about?”

“That,” Roland said simply.

“Ah. Very well, then.”

The Telerand nobles briefly bowed their heads towards Roland, then walked off with the Lantarian nobles.

“So I guess everything is going to work out after all,” Anna said happily.

Roland shook his head. “I’m still going to have to answer for what I did back in Blackstone, regardless of what happened here. And we have no way of knowing if the Demon King is going to survive that. If he does, the worst may still be ahead of us.”

“But at least you got the nobles to stop bickering with each other and start working together,” a voice behind him said. “At least for now, but it’s a start. Things might work out after all.”

Roland looked behind him and saw a crowd of villagers behind him, but no sign of who had spoken. Roland turned back to watch the fire.

“Plus,” the voice continued, “seeing the true form of the Demon King confirmed a few of the translations I wasn’t so sure about, so I ought to thank you for that as well.”

Roland spun around immediate, but didn’t see Mattias anywhere.

“Come now,” he heard Mattias say, “you think you’re going to pick me out of a crowd when you didn’t even recognize me at the meeting?”

Roland reluctantly turned back to face the fire. “You’re awfully glib about what just happened,” he muttered.

“It wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for, but it could have been worse. The nobles know a threat may still exist, and that might be enough to keep at least some kind of truce in place.”

“At the cost of nearly getting everybody killed.”

“For your information, this was Plan B.”

“And what was Plan A?”

“To let them have their meeting! Which was going reasonably well until you showed up and wrecked the little bit of trust I had managed to help them establish with each other, thank you very much. I was doing just as well as the person they actually hired to run the meeting would have done.”

“And when it didn’t, you went ahead with the summoning.”

“In my defense, I didn’t think it was actually going to work. That’s why Plan C was for me to come out and pretend to be him. It’s not like anyone there knew anything about what he looked like other than the stories people tell.”

“And what about their guards?”

“The great thing about mercenaries is that they work for the highest bidder. They’d throw the battle if I showed up, let me laugh maniacally for a bit, then I’d leave threatening doom and destruction.”

“And what if they actually bought it and came after you.”

“I hadn’t quite worked that part out yet. Look, the situation was escalating quickly. I didn’t have years to put a good plan together, so I did what I could with the opportunity that presented itself. The meeting was the best chance I was going to get.”

Roland remained silent, watching as the fire began to die down. He tried looking for a black shape escaping what was left of Doomhammer Hall, but even if it were there, it would be impossible to see against the black smoke.

“Anyway,” Mattias continued, “if I were you, I’d get out of here before word catches up with you about what happened down at Blackstone. I suggest the two of them head someplace where they can just fade in with the rest of the population. It’d be a shame if someone nefarious tried to take advantage of the boy, after all.”

“So I’ve noticed,” Roland spat.

“Well, you’re free to stay if you like, but I’m getting out of here. With any luck, we’ll never see each other again. Though I suppose you were never going to see me anyway.”

Roland didn’t hear anything else from Mattias after that.

“He’s probably right, you know,” Roland said to Anna, “about you and Derek not sticking around here. The two of you have been through more than enough.”

“And what about you?” Anna asked.

“The plan I had ever since we left Blackstone,” he answered. “Await here for whatever my fate might be.”

Chapter word count: 1,675 (according to wc)
Total word count: 53,022 / 50,000 (106.044% complete)

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Appendix A: Chapter 28

[Editor's note: Chapter 28 of my 2008 NaNoWriMo entry.]

Everyone in the room stared at Derek. Roland suspected that if the summoning worked, something was about to happen. Instead, though, Derek just stood there looking around the room, his face a mix of confusion and deep thought.

“What just happened?” Roland asked softly.

“I’ve had enough of this,” Lord Calvert said to the guards, pointing at Derek and the wizard. “I’ll pay double to whoever gets those two out of here.”

“Triple,” Lord Caldwell added.

Two guards on the far side of the room ran to the wizard and grabbed him the same way Roland and Anna were each still being held. The two others charged towards Derek.

As they approached him, Derek suddenly sprang into action. Roland had difficulty seeing exactly what was happening, but he did hear the sound of two swords being drawn, followed by what Roland guess to be the sound of hammer-on-sword fighting as the guards circled Derek, lunging forward and jumping back. Soon, however, they backed away, and Derek stood there calmly, holding a sword in each hand.

“Get him!” Lord Arundel screamed.

The six remaining guards released their prisoners, drew their swords, and charged Derek. Over the din of clashing swords, Roland asked Anna, “Is that’s how summoning is supposed to work?”

“I don’t get it,” Anna replied. “The Demon King should’ve been standing behind him when Derek was finished.”

“All I saw was some black… thing… behind him. And now all of a sudden Derek is fighting six armed guards by himself.” Roland looked across the room and corrected himself, “Well, only four guards now.”

“I don’t know where he would have learned to do that.”

Roland thought. “What if the Demon King isn’t corporeal? What if it’s… inside of him now?”

The sudden silence at the other end of the room caught Roland’s attention, and he saw the last guard, now unarmed, running towards him and away from Derek. Derek kicked a couple swords away from his feet and slowly stepped towards the table. He studied the faces of each of the nobles sitting there, staring back at him. Derek remained silent.

If Derek was posessed by the Demon King, Roland couldn’t let him establish a foothold in Doomhammer, or anywhere else. He considered his sword, now lying on the floor where one of the guards holding him had dropped it. But Derek was still in there, somewhere, presumably. Roland couldn’t bring himself to seriously consider fighting Derek. But what else could be done?

Roland watched Derek carefully. Now that Derek was no longer fighting for his life, he again looked to be lost in thought. Roland wondered if the Demon King himself — itself? — was still trying to figure out what to do. Roland tried to think of how he would conquer the world if he were a young boy, but couldn’t come up with anything plausible. But Roland knew he didn’t have the luxury of time to consider it too fully.

And that gave Roland an idea. A desperate one, to be sure, but it was marginally better than standing by, watching the beginning of the end of the world.

“Anna,” Roland said quietly.

“Yes?” she replied.

“I’m going to draw the Demon King’s attention. When I do, get everyone one else out of here. Including Derek.”

“But won’t he still–”

“Not if this works. Once everyone else is out, see to it that nobody, nothing, escapes this building alive.”

“How am I supposed to do that?”

“You’ll think of something. Collapse it, burn it down, something. The nobles might be petty but they aren’t stupid; they can probably help somehow. I’ll buy you as much time as I can.”

“But what about–”

“Don’t worry about me,” Roland said as he approached the table.

The nobles continued to sit there, watching Derek. Apparently none of them were willing to make a move against someone dual-wielding swords who had just defeated eight guards single-handedly.

“So this is the best the Demon King can do?” Roland shouted towards Derek. “Posess a little boy and use him as his puppet?”

Derek turned to stare at Roland, as did the nobles seated at the table.

“So what is it exactly that you’re going to do now?” Roland continued. “Or do you not know? What good is all that power you supposedly have if you don’t know how to use it? And you’ve handicapped yourself with the least powerful person in this room. Hardly a promising start. Or perhaps that is all you are able to do after all these years?”

Derek glared at him.

“Have you nothing to say for yourself?” Roland continued. “Oh, sure, you fought off a few guards, but what happens when they send armies after you? I think you’re going to need someone a little more powerful than a scared little boy. So why don’t you take me instead? Maybe you remember what happened last time you tried to fight a paladin? Are you so afraid to face me that you hide behind a mere child? If you really are worthy of all those stories they say about you, why don’t you fight me yourself?”

Derek continued staring directly at Roland. Slowly, a cloud of darkness took shape around Derek and rose into the air above him. As soon as it was no longer touching him, Derek fell to the ground. The cloud swirled in the air above the table.

“Anna, get everyone out of here, now!” Roland shouted behind him.

The cloud lunged towards Roland.

—-

Roland found himself alone. He couldn’t see anything, but wasn’t sure whether his vision was being blocked or if there was no longer anything to be seen. Roland was aware only of himself, and a presence that surrounded him.

Roland said a silent prayer to Yssindria for help. Not to save himself from the Demon King, but to save everyone else. Roland had spent the last couple weeks ignoring his instructions from the Order, slulking about like some common thug instead of the noble paladin he was supposed to be, even going so far as to turn his sword against his fellow soldiers. Destruction at the hands of the Demon King was probably the fate that Roland deserved, and he was not going to be so bold as to suggest to Her otherwise. If that was the cost of preventing another Demon War, then so be it.

But what if She doesn’t listen at all? Roland shoved the fleeting thought out of his mind as he felt the presence outside him grow closer and stronger.

Roland focused on his faith that Yssindria’s light would hold off the encroaching darkness long enough for Anna to get everyone to safety. Roland knew in his heart that he was still virtuous, even if he had done unvirtuous things. That light would hold the Demon King at bay. The Demon King would never be able to corrupt that.

Unless Roland had already corrupted himself anyway. Roland stifled that fear as best he could.

Roland now felt the presence begin to creep inside his mind. Roland focused his thoughts on the great Temple of Yssindria in Castle Telerand, picturing the statue of the Lady that towered within it. It was not a sword that slew the Demon King decades ago; it was but a conduit for Yssindria Herself, smiting the foul demon through it. Roland did not need a sword to win this battle; he merely needed to allow Yssindria to act through him.

Isn’t making yourself a vessel for the Lady awfully presumptuous? Roland tried to ignore the thought.

Roland replayed the story of the defeat of the Demon King in his mind. Normally, he pictured it as though he were overhead, watching the battle unfold below him. This time, however, he pictured it through the eyes of the Demon King himself, watching the horde of knights charge through his ranks, being led by a paladin holding aloft a sword giving off a blinding light. The sword approached his position, and…

And then I was here, the thought flickered on the periphery of his mind. No blow was struck, just pulled into the hall.

The Demon King is already drawing you in, the fear bubbled forth from the pit of Roland’s stomach. Roland refused to listen to it.

Roland countered by remembering the decades of history he had learned that passed after the fall of the Demon King. The liberation of the fallen kingdoms. The growth and ascendancy of the two remaining kingdoms, the victors of the Demon War. A world no longer under the shadow of the Demon King, a world where the Demon King was nothing but a distant memory.

Still more distant memories rushed into Roland’s mind. The careful, deliberate, relentless expansion of the Demon King’s armies as they spread out from Castle Helioth. Before that, the long sessions spent planning and strategizing the decades-long campaign. And still before that, years on end spent huddled over dusty tomes full of histories of battles now long since forgotten, fought between kingdoms whose names no one no longer knew. Four lifetimes’ worth of memories, leaping from one body to the next as age took its toll.

And you’re next on the list, Roland’s gut told him.

Roland challenged the presence as he felt it press ever inward. What did it hope to gain through conquest? Through laying waste to dozens of villages, countless lives? Telerand and Lantaria would fight to the last man to stop it. If it did conquer them, there would be nothing left to rule. What then?

Because that’s what the Demon King was created to do, the presence told him. Conquer the world and deliver control to its creator. The Demon King would continue until its purpose, its reason for being, was complete. It was nothing personal.

For a master who died half a dozen lifetimes ago?

The presence insisted it could probably figure a way around that when the time came. And even if it couldn’t, the Demon King could no more stop its conquest than an ocean could stop being wet.

You’ve given up on trying to stop the Demon King and are now trying to reason with it, the growing fear shouted. And you’re even failing at that.

Roland resolved himself to fight until the very end, if nothing else than to delay the inevitable.

Resigning yourself to failure so quickly? You failed to follow orders, failed to protect the boy, failed to live up to your vows. You had become all too familiar with failure.

Roland struggled to shove the voice of doubt away as the presence grew stronger within him.

Somewhere, in what felt to be a long distance away, he thought he felt a hand reaching for a sword.

It used to be your hand, the doubt told him. Now it’s the Demon King’s.

Roland refused to give up. Everyone was counting on him. The kingdom. Both of them. The people in Doomhammer. Derek. Anna. He couldn’t let them down.

Too late, the doubt countered, drowning out Roland’s own thoughts.

Roland screamed.

Chapter word count: 1,849 (according to wc)
Total word count: 51,347 / 50,000 (102.694% complete)

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Appendix A: Chapter 27

[Editor's note: Chapter 27 of my 2008 NaNoWriMo entry.]

“You can’t be serious,” Anna said, staring at Roland in disbelief. “The Demon King has been dead for decades.”

“But can you guarantee that it’s impossible for Derek to summon him anyway?” Roland asked.

Anna looked away. “Technically, no.”

“Well then,” Roland said, beginning to walk towards Doomhammer Hall, “I need to make sure he doesn’t. Or at least warn the nobles what’s happening.”

After a few seconds, Roland heard Anna’s footsteps as she ran to catch up. “Then I’m coming with you,” she said.

“It’s too dangerous. Maybe even too dangerous to stay in Doomhammer.”

“I don’t care,” she countered. “He’s my brother. I’m not leaving without him, and you can’t stop me.”

Roland knew continuing to argue was pointless. He stopped halfway down the street, removed his cloak, and flipped it back around so the emblem of the Order was once again visible.

“What are you doing?” Anna asked.

“They’re not going to listen to some random guy off the street,” Roland said.

“But if they find out what you did in Blackstone–”

“They’re going to find out one way or another. I knew going into this I couldn’t hide from the consequences forever. If that’s the cost of saving the world, I can accept that.” He hesitated, then added, “And even if the only one I save is your brother, I can accept that too. Come on, we don’t have any time to waste.”

Roland strode confidently down the rest of the street towards Doomhammer Hall, where he knew his fate, Derek’s fate, and maybe everyone’s fate too, awaited. With Anna following closely behind, he marched up the steps to the main entrance of the building and shoved the doors open.

Almost immediately, he found four swords pointed at him. The guards wore chain mail similar to Roland’s, but under them were uniforms Roland didn’t recognize. Two of the uniforms were dark blue, the other two dark red.

“Halt, intruders!” one of the guards barked at Roland and Anna.

“Step aside,” Roland ordered. “I am Roland, paladin of the Order of Yssindria. I come to deliver an urgent warning to the nobles inside.”

“Surrender your weapons!” another guard shouted.

Roland considered the situation. He thought he could handle a four-on-one fight, but Anna had nothing to protect herself with.

“Only on the condition that you allow me to deliver my message. After that you may do with me as you wish.”

“And the girl?”

Before Roland could respond, Anna said, “I’m going in with him.”

Two of the guards looked at each other, then shrugged. “Works for us,” the first guard said.

Roland dropped his pack to the ground. He then unfastened his sword’s scabbard from his belt and held it in front of him with both hands. If he had already resigned himself to his fate, what use did he have for a sword anyway?

One of the guards took the sword from him. Then two guards grabbed him by the arm, one on each side. He looked behind him to see the same being done to Anna.

“This way,” the guard to his left said as Roland was marched briskly through the inner set of doors into the main chamber of Doomhammer Hall.

They entered an impossibly large hall. Only after a couple seconds did Roland realize that the left and right walls were covered in floor-to-ceiling mirrors. The room itself was empty, save for a long table in the center of the room and a few ladders strewn about in the periphery, the latter of which were presumably there for the on-going repairs. Seated at the table were six men, three on each side. Roland recognized the clothes the men on the left side wore as the royal purple formal uniform of Telerand nobility. He was less sure of those on the other side, but they matched the description he had heard of how Lantarian nobility dressed. At the head of the table sat a man wearing a tailored beige outfit.

One of the Telerand nobles was speaking as Roland and Anna were escorted in. “–the boundary all the way back to the Elysium River is out of the question. There’s no way His Highness would ever agree to — What is the meaning of this?” he demanded as he noticed their entrance.

“Sirs,” the guard to Roland’s left replied, “these two say they have a message to deliver.”

“And you believe them?” one of the Lantarian nobles said.

“We hired you to be guards, not couriers,” added another of the Telerand nobles.

A second Lantarian noble stared at Roland, then pointed an accusatory finger towards him. “That man is one of your soldiers! What is it that you’re trying to pull, Arundel?”

“This is none of our doing,” countered Lord Arundel.

“The agreement was for each side to bring four guards and four guards alone,” the third Lantarian noble said. “Am I not mistaken that this new arrival now makes five from Telerand?”

“I’m surprised you can even count that high, Caldwell,” retorted one of the Telerand nobles.

“Gentlemen, please,” the man at the head of the table interjected. “I’m noticing that there’s a lot of negative language being used right now. I’m concerned that we may lose some of the progress we’ve been making since yesterday. May I ask that we all please continue to follow the behavioral norms we all agreed to yesterday morning?”

“We see now how well these ‘nobles’ are able to follow rules,” muttered one of the other Lantarian nobles.

“Lord Girardeau, please, we agreed to refrain from such language. Now, I believe Lord Calvert may have something productive he wishes to say?” the man at the head of the table said, nodding toward one of the Telerand nobles.

“I believe that we should at least listen to what they have to say,” Lord Calvert suggested.

“OK, we have a suggestion to set aside the issue of the border through the Elysium Hills for the time being and instead turn to our unexpected guests. Let’s go around the table with that. Lord Stoddard, do you accept the proposal?”

“I think that it’s inconceivable we can trust any agreement we come to here given how Arundel, Calvert, and Kent can’t seem to keep to their word,” the Lantarian noble said. “I knew this whole meeting was a waste of time.”

“Gentlemen, I’m afraid that if you are going to continue behaving in this manner, there is little I can do to help you come to a mutually acceptable proposal for resolving the Doomhammer issue,” the man at the head of the table said as he stood up. “When you decide to stop this sort of behavior which we all agreed yesterday was unacceptable and counterproductive, you can find me in the next room.” He walked out through the doors at the other end of the hall.

“Well done, Stoddard,” Lord Kent said, clapping sarcastically. “I knew you wouldn’t miss a chance to sabotage these talks.”

“Bold words from someone who sent his lackey here to threaten us,” Lord Stoddard retorted, pointing at Roland.

The two sets of nobles continued shouting at one another across the table. The commotion brought the other four guards into the chamber through the far doors. Roland guessed they had been guarding the side entrance.

“I think I see why your two kingdoms were never able to get along,” Anna muttered. “They’re both run by children.”

“Technically they’re run by kings,” Roland corrected. “The nobles generally have limited authority.”

“No wonder.”

“Silence!” a voice thundered from the far end of the hall. The bickering at the table stopped as a person wearing a long dark blue robe and pointed hat, both covered with arcane-looking sigils embroidered in gold, stormed into the room.

“You have the gall to say we violated the agreement, and now we see you send in one of your wizards?” Lord Arundel shouted across the table.

“He’s not one of ours,” Lord Caldwell retorted.

“Somehow I doubt that,” Lord Calvert said.

“He’s a walking stereotype, is what he is,” Anna muttered.

“Enough!” the wizard shouted. “I serve no mere mortal, and your petty disputes do not interest me.”

“Guards, apprehend that man,” Lord Kent ordered, pointing towards the wizard.

“Finally, something we can agree on,” Lord Girardeau added.

The wizard waved his hand, and the guards remained motionless. “Your words hold no sway over them; they are under my power now,” he said. “You sit here thinking you can redraw your insignificant little map. Instead, you shall be the first to witness the rebirth of the one true world order. Enter!”

Derek entered through the doors behind the wizard, holding a small hammer, a look of grim determination on his face.

“Derek!” Anna shouted.

Derek turned towards her and gave her a forlorn look. He then walked under a ladder and towards the wall of mirrors on the right side of the room. He began striking each mirror with the hammer, sending cracks spreading through the surface of each.

“Derek, stop this!” Anna screamed.

“What’s he doing?” Roland asked Anna.

“You thought your puny little weapons could stop him,” the wizard intoned as Derek continued breaking mirrors. “But all you could do was forestall your inevitable destruction.”

“Bad luck,” Anna said grimly.

“Breaking mirrors? That’s just a superstition,” Roland replied.

“He has been biding his time, growing ever stronger, waiting for his moment,” the wizard continued.

“You don’t understand,” Anna said.

“Understand what?” Roland asked.

“Summoning is powered by bad luck,” she replied.

“And now is that moment!” the wizard shouted as Derek struck the last mirror. “Witness the rebirth of the Demon King!”

Derek turned to face the room and closed his eyes. “I don’t see why anyone would want to bring the Demon King back anyway,” he said. “He’s a failure. Everyone knows what happened to him. The one time someone got close to him, he got killed in seconds. He didn’t even put up a fight! We’ve all heard the stories. He just laid on the ground and did nothing. And that’s when he was surrounded by his army. What’s he going to do here, alone? He’ll probably get mugged walking down the street, and that’ll be it.”

Roland was confused. “What’s he doing?” he asked Anna.

“He’s doing it,” she said, her eyes wide with fear. “He’s actually doing it.”

Even despite everything Anna had been through in her search for Derek, this is the only time Roland could remember her showing fear.

“And what kind of name is ‘Demon King’ anyway?” Derek continued. “It sounds like something out of a cut-rate novel. How long did he spend trying to come up with that, anyway? You’d think with all the decades it took for him to creep his armies forward, he’d have a chance to come up with something better.”

Roland thought he saw some kind of black mist or smoke beginning to take shape behind Derek.

“The worst part is,” Derek continued, “it’s still better than his real name. Will of Valfeas. It’s true. Didn’t people stop using ‘of’ in their name centuries ago? No one’s even heard of Valfeas these days. An incompetent poseur from some no-name town, that’s the Demon King for you…. He’s standing right behind me, isn’t he?”

Derek turned around to face the formless black shape that had grown behind him. It reared back and lunged into him.

Chapter word count: 1,906 (according to wc)
Total word count: 49,498 / 50,000 (98.996% complete)

Appendix A: Chapter 26

[Editor's note: Chapter 26 of my 2008 NaNoWriMo entry.]

Roland entered Swinnerton-Dyer’s Birchwood Inn. He recognized the basic layout of the first floor as a tavern, but all the details were wrong. The walls not the standard splintery bare wood, but were smooth and painted a light blue, and covered with framed paintings of pastoral scenes. The tables were square instead of round, and each had a flower standing in a tall narrow vase on it instead of being strewn with empty, occasionally upright tankards. The floor was not just clean, but actually polished. Roland wasn’t aware rooms like it even existed outside the Royal Court.

Roland stepped up to the bar. Along the wall behind it he saw expensive-looking bottles of wine neatly arrayed along a mirrored shelf. Roland saw a well-groomed man kneeling behind the bar, adjusting things on shelves out of Roland’s view. The man seemed to be oblivious to Roland’s presence.

“Excuse me, sir?” Roland asked politely, trying to get the man’s attention. The man look up at Roland, then returned his attention to his work for a minute before standing up and walking towards Roland.

“Is there something I can assist you with?” the man asked in a slightly condescending tone.

“Do you have any rooms available?”

The man looked Roland up and down. “We do have a few of our lower-tier rooms on the second floor available,” the man answered reluctantly. “Though I shall require payment up front. No offense.”

Roland plucked his coin pouch from his belt and emptied its contents on the counter.

“Yes, this shall be enough for one night,” the man said, sweeping up enough coins to pay for three nights at the inns he had been staying at along the way. He reached behind the bar and laid a key on the counter. “Your room is number 203, up the stairs to your left. Will you be requiring anything else?”

Roland picked up the key and the few coins remaining. “No, thank you, sir.”

“Indeed,” the main said.

Roland turned and climbed the stairs to the second floor. Out the corner of his eye, he saw the man watching him carefully as he went up, as though he didn’t quite trust someone like Roland in his immaculate inn. Roland found his room, which was decorated in a similar manner as the first floor.

If Lord Arundel was indeed in town, he would probably be away doing whatever it was he was doing. That gave Roland time to catch up on some much-needed sleep. He laid down on the bed, the first time he had been able to do some in far too long a time, and soon fell asleep without even bothering to close the curtains in front of the window.

—-

Roland awoke to see the sky beginning to redden as the sun began to set. He was still tired and his body wanted to stay in bed for another few days at least, but Roland reminded himself he was here to gather information, not to recuperate from the journey. He washed his face and changed into a clean set of clothes. He considered leaving his cloak and chain mail on the bed, but that would make it far too obvious he was carrying a sword, and he wasn’t willing to leave that behind as well. He grabbed a couple of maps from his pack and brought them down to the first floor with him.

Roland took a seat facing the entrance at an empty table along the side wall. He considered ordering something to eat, but decided it would be best not to completely deplete his funds when he still had a little food left in his pack.

He casually studied the maps, but kept most of his attention on the entrance to the inn. There were a few people at some of the other tables, but none of them looked like the sort of people Roland was watching for.

An hour passed, and Roland was beginning to wonder if maybe he had slept too long and missed their arrival, assuming this was even where they were staying, and assuming they were in Doomhammer in the first place. Roland was beginning to wonder if he had wasted his day when a group of seven people passed through the door, each of them wearing heavy brown hooded cloaks.

Roland straightened slightly in his chair and held a map in front of him, just low enough so he could see past it as he watched the group. The entire group walked up to the bar, and someone in the middle began talking to the man behind the bar. Roland noticed that while the three in the middle were turned to the bartender, the other four spaced themselves around the cluster and were looking at the rest of the room.

Roland quickly lowered his head to stare directly at the map. Roland’s gut told him the group was made of four bodyguards protecting three people. Roland thought it best not to not look like he was watching them, lest he start being scrutinized himself. Glancing occasionally up from the map, Roland saw the group begin moving away from the bar and towards a set of empty tables. As Roland suspected, the three who had been talking to the bartender took one table, with the four suspected bodyguards pairing off and sitting at two tables nearby.

Roland was too far away to overhear the conversation at the main table, and certainly wasn’t going to move to a closer one, so he had to content himself with a few furtive glances in their direction. From their behavior, the three at the middle table seemed to be upset or frustrated about something, but it didn’t look like an argument. After about five minutes a server came by and poured three glasses of wine for them. The man lowered their hoods as they drank and continued their discussion. From the angle between their table and Roland, he couldn’t see two of their faces, but the one he could see had an unmistakable unibrow.

Was that Lord Arundel? Roland didn’t have much of an idea what he looked like, but guessed that it was. Presumably he had found someone to guard him and his companions — other nobles, perhaps — on their trip to Doomhammer. No other explanation for the group readily sprang to mind.

Satisfied he was going to learn all he could from watching them, Roland gathered his things and returned to his room. The bed tempted him, but instead he cracked the door just wide enough into the hall to let him watch the stairs. After some time had passed and the last light of the sun had vanished from the window, he saw seven cloaked figured climb up from the first floor and continuing to one of the floors above. That confirmed that they were indeed staying at the inn. Roland gratefully returned to the bed, knowing he needed to get as much rest as he could for the coming day.

—-

Roland awoke again early in the morning. He ate the last bit of food left in his pack, got fully dressed, gathered his things, and again stood just inside the door to the room, watching the stairway again. Roland eventually saw a group of seven descend from above down to the first floor. He nervously waited for a few moments, then followed.

The group was just heading out the door as Roland reached the first floor. He walked up to the bar and returned the room key to a relieved-looking bartender. Roland exited Swinnerton-Dyer’s Birchwood Inn and followed the group at what he hoped was a safe enough distance to avoid being noticed.

The group headed directly to the village square, then on for another block until they entered a side door in a large building which Roland guessed to be some sort of town hall. The building stood at the edge of what had escaped the great fire. He noticed that wooden supports had been stood up along the wall facing the fire, suggesting the building had just barely survived it.

Now that he knew where the presumable group of nobles were at, Roland retraced his steps to the village square, and noticed Anna leaning against the back of the statue’s pedestal impatiently.

“Finally,” she sighed as he approached.

“Sorry,” Roland said, noticing that it was at least an hour after sunrise. “I was a little busy with some business of my own.”

“Which was?”

“You go first,” Roland said. “How’s the search for Derek going?”

“Not too badly, I guess. A few people think they saw someone who looked like him. They said he was traveling with someone.”

“With who?”

“They didn’t say. A man, but none of them were able to give me a better description than that.”

“Where did they see him at?”

“Here and there, but mostly around Doomhammer Hall.”

Roland frowned, thinking.

“I don’t know why anyone would be taking Derek there, though,” Anna continued. “It’s been under repair since the fire and hasn’t been opened again yet.” She shrugged. “That’s about it.”

“Doomhammer Hall wouldn’t happen to be over there, about a block away, would it?” Roland asked, pointing in the direction of the building he saw the group of seven enter.

Anna nodded. “You’ve seen it?”

Roland desperately wanted to be able to explain it away as coincidence, but the idea seemed increasingly remote. Why would Mattias’s goons take Derek to the same place where the nobles were going? Or was it Mattias himself? The lack of description would certainly fit. But why Doomhammer in the first place? War could erupt here between Telerand and Lantaria any day. Unless…

“Anna,” Roland asked quietly, “what you said about Derek’s abilities. Is there a limit to what he could do with them?”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Is there anyone he wouldn’t be able to summon?”

Anna stared into the distance for a moment. “I don’t know. It’s something he tries not to do at all. Why do you ask?”

Roland bit his lip, a terrifying realization taking shape in his mind. “Remember back in Helioth? How Mattias was telling me he wanted to fake the return of the Demon King, to get Telerand and Lantaria not to fight each other?”

“Yes…” Anna said slowly.

“If Derek’s helping him, he might not have to fake it.”

Chapter word count: 1,735 (according to wc)
Total word count: 47,592 / 50,000 (95.184% complete)

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Appendix A: Chapter 25

[Editor's note: Chapter 25 of my 2008 NaNoWriMo entry.]

Loose dirt and dry leaves fell into the hole as Roland swung the hatch open. As expected, it opened into a wooded area. Roland stuck his head out to check his surroundings. To the left in the distance, just barely visible in the darkness and through the trees, Roland could make out a row of faint lights he knew to be atop the outer wall of Castle Blackstone. If he could see them, Roland knew that their own torches would be visible from there if the guards were looking in the right direction.

Roland extinguished his torch and held it out for Anna to see. He looked down and saw her extinguish her torch in return. Without the torchlight, Roland found himself plunged in darkness. He waited several minutes until his eyes adjusted to the meager moonlight that filtered through the tree branches. It wasn’t much to see by, but it would be enough to move around with. Roland remembered from the map that if they traveled north, keeping Castle Blackstone roughly to their left, they would eventually reach the road that would lead them to Doomhammer.

“From here on,” Roland said to Anna below him, “we need to keep silent. I doubt there’s going to be any guards out here looking for us right now, but we can’t risk it. I’ll let you know when it should be safe to talk again. Take the torch with you; we don’t want to leave behind any more evidence we’ve been here than necessary. Follow me.”

Roland climbed the rest of the latter out of the hole, then turned and offered his hand to Anna as she did likewise. Once they were clear, he carefully shut the hatch and kicked some of the surrounding dirt back over it. Having hidden it as much as possible, he waved to Anna and began walking north.

—-

Over the course of a week, they pushed northward along the road as quickly as they could. They traveled only at night to minimize the chances of being seen. During the day, they stayed at the closest inn available, sometimes in the towns they passed through, sometimes at lone inns along the road.

Roland insisted that Anna not do any of her performances; the last thing they needed was to leave a trail of people talking about a magician and the man traveling her. Without that option as a source of income, they shared a room wherever they stayed, Roland letting Anna have the bed each time and sleeping on the floor with only his cloak to use as a blanket.

Whenever they left an inn or traveled down the road, Roland watched for any signs they were being followed, but never saw any signs that they were. With any luck, assuming they were being pursued, they were keeping ahead of anyone who had been sent after them. Of course, that would require Dalton to have guessed where they were headed, unless he sent knights out after them in an ever-expanding circle from Castle Blackstone.

The only time Roland and Anna broke their pattern of movement was when they approached the last town in Telerandian territory. Roland knew that by this point it would be filled with knights ready for the seemingly inevitable war over Doomhammer, and if orders reached them to capture Roland and Anna, Roland knew he had no chance of fighting off an entire garrison. Instead, they traveled a wide circle around the town, only returning to the road once they had crossed the border into disputed territory.

—-

“This is it,” Anna said as they crested a hill and saw Doomhammer before them, lit by the morning sun.

As they approached, Roland could see the effects the great fire had had on the village. There were large stretches of flat ground still covered in black soot, and scorch marks could be seen on the buildings that would have been next had the fire not finally been brought under control. There were signs of new construction taking place to rebuild what had been lost, but those buildings looked to be half-complete at best. Roland guessed it would be years before the town fully recovered. If war did break out here, its fate would probably be sealed.

“You know,” Anna said as they came to a stop at the edge of the town, “we’re not going to be able to hide here. At least half of the people here are going to recognize me, and soon everyone will start gossiping about my return.”

“We might be OK,” Roland replied. “The knights have orders not to cross the border. If they do, it’d probably start a war; the Lantarian army is probably waiting along the other border. Either they’ll have to leave us alone, or they’ll be too busy fighting the enemy to worry about us.”

“I guess that’s good news for us, then,” Anna said warily.

“Hopefully it won’t come to that.”

Roland stood still along the road. He had been so occupied with keeping Anna and himself safe along the journey that he hadn’t given much thought to what they were going to do once they actually arrived.

“Well,” Anna said, breaking the silence, “I’m going to see if anybody’s seen Derek come by here.”

“I have some things I need to check on here myself,” Roland said. Had Lord Arundel come to Doomhammer after all? And if he had, why? Roland couldn’t shake the feeling that it was somehow connected to Derek returning here, but couldn’t think of a reason why that might be the case.

“Let’s meet tomorrow, then,” Anna offered.

“Where at?”

“How about the statue in the village square. Trust me, you won’t miss it. I’ll meet you there just after sunrise tomorrow,” she said, stifling a yawn.

“I’ll see you then,” Roland replied.

Anna turned and walked briskly into town. Roland followed from a little distance behind. Anna soon darted down a side street, and Roland continued following the main road through town, guessing that it would pass by the village square. Roland wanted to get his bearings in Doomhammer before he started doing whatever he was going to do.

Superficially, aside from the effects of the fire, Doomhammer looked pretty much like the other small towns Roland had visited along his recruiting mission. Roland knew, however, he would find some key differences if he explored enough. He knew the Order didn’t have a shrine here, and the Royal Knights obviously didn’t have any kind of encampment here, so lodging for the night was going to be up to him. Also, since the Doomhammer town guard would effectively function both as the local police force and as its army, they would have a larger presence in the town than the local guards did throughout Telerand.

While Roland was considering this, he wandered into what looked like the village square and saw the statue that Anna had mentioned. It was indeed difficult to miss: twelve feet of solid marble atop a three-foot pedestal in the center of the square. It depicted a hulking, muscular man clad only in boots and a loincloth. In his raised hand he clenched a massive hammer, the head of which was larger than the man’s own. A heavy chain, also carved from marble, ran from the handle of the hammer to the handle of another held in the statue’s other hand, held close to the chest.

Roland circled around the statue to its front and read the bronze plaque set in the pedestal:

Theodophilous Geldegarde Antaroflaxidan
“The Doomhammer”
Slayer of Ten Thousand of the Demon King’s Horde

If the statue even remotely resembled its subject, the nickname “The Doomhammer” certainly seemed appropriate. Roland suspected its sculptor had taken significant artistic license with his creation, however. Roland couldn’t imagine someone charging into battle almost completely naked, even looking like that. And while The Doomhammer’s weapon looked terrifying enough, Roland couldn’t envision how it would actually be wielded in battle. Why chain the hammers together in the first place? Did he hold one and swing the other around his head? It seemed like something more dangerous to the wielder than whoever he was fighting, though Roland suspected that’s what the sculptor would have depicted had his material been able to support the weight. Roland had no experience in hammer-based combat, and tried picturing how he would fight if he had two swords chained together in a similar fashion. Roland guessed he would quickly lacerate himself if he tried to do anything with them.

The statue did at least explain why someone would name a town “Doomhammer.”

Roland shook his head and refocused himself on the task at hand. He needed to find out what Lord Arundel was doing in a town on the verge of becoming a battlefield, if he in fact was here at all. But where to begin?

Roland assumed for the sake of argument that Lord Arundel had come to Doomhammer. Given the length of the journey from Blackstone, which Roland had become all too familiar with, Lord Arundel must be spending the night somewhere. And given that he was a noble, he would no doubt be staying at the nicest inn available in town.

Remembering the conversation in the knights’ mess hall in Blackstone, Lord Arundel would no doubt be traveling with at least a couple bodyguards. And if what Roland had heard was true, he would be trying to stay inconspicuous. Guessing that the nobility had even less practice sneaking around than he had himself, Roland ought to be able to recognize a group of people in a fancy inn, attracting attention by going out of their way not to attract attention.

It was as good a place to start as any.

Roland began exploring the streets of Doomhammer, navigating in widening circles out from the village square. Roland supposed an expensive inn would be nearby, with the central location being another feature they could charge guests for.

After an hour of searching and taking a few notes on a spare piece of paper, Roland concluded his best bet was a building two blocks from the square. Its perimeter was conspicuously lined with ornately trimmed potted plants, and unlike most other buildings in Doomhammer, its walls showed not even the slightest sign of smoke damage from the fire.

According to the meticulously painted wooden sign handing above the entrance, it was the Swinnerton-Dyer’s Birchwood Inn. For Roland, the pretentious-sounding name sealed the deal.

Chapter word count: 1,750 (according to wc)
Total word count: 45,857 / 50,000 (91.714% complete)

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Appendix A: Chapter 24

[Editor's note: Chapter 24 of my 2008 NaNoWriMo entry.]

Roland knelt down next to the hole and lowered the torch inside. The hole extended about eight feet down, with no apparent ladder or other footholds available. An underground passageway began at the hole, but from this angle Roland could see little more than the lack of a stone wall where it began.

Roland stood up from the hole. He picked up his pack and slung it down into the hole with enough forward momentum to ensure it landed in the passageway. He then turned to Anna, who was standing next to him.

“I’ll go first. Give me time to move out of the way, then follow. It’s a straight drop down, so be ready for that.”

Anna nodded hesitantly. Roland sat on the edge, paused briefly, and slid forward, dropping into the hole. He landed safely in a crouch. Now that he was inside, he saw that the ceiling of the passageway was about half a foot too short for him to stand comfortably in. He bent forward and took a few steps forward.

“Ready?” he called.

Roland heard some motion above, then saw Anna land at the bottom.

“Are you OK?” he asked.

“Yes,” she replied. “Now what?”

“There should be some kind of switch or lever or…” he trailed off has he held the torch in front of him and scanned the walls of the passageway. “Here,” he said, seeing a crank.

“What’s that do?”

“Step away from the hole,” he cautioned as he began turning the crank. The first few turns offered no resistance. The crank then stiffened suddenly as the mechanism somewhere inside the wall seemed to engage. Roland continued turning it, more slowly now, and heard the now-familiar sound of stone moving against stone. Suddenly he heard a resounding thump from above that echoed through the corridor and felt a brief gust of air push through, away from the hole.

“Check the hole,” Roland said to Anna.

Anna took a couple steps backward and held her torch upward. “It looks like it’s closed.”

“Good,” Roland said, relieved. “With any luck, the switches will have reset too. Let’s get moving.”

Roland led the way down the passageway, torch in one hand and map in the other. The air was stale but breathable. If Roland’s information was correct — and up until now it had been — air shouldn’t be a problem until they reached the exit.

He heard the footsteps of Anna behind him as she followed. “How did you know this was down here?” she asked.

“Like I said up there,” Roland replied, keeping his voice low to minimize any echos, “the town’s library has a lot of the designs from when the castle was originally built in its archives. I went there this morning to see if there was anything there to help me figure out a way to get you out, and found this.”

“Who puts an escape tunnel inside a cell, though?” Anna asked in disbelief. “It doesn’t make sense.”

“It does if you want the prisoner to escape,” Roland replied.

“That doesn’t really answer my question,” she protested.

“From what I gathered in the library, the king who originally created the castle was extremely paranoid. He was afraid the peasants might some day revolt against him, and had the bottom floor of the dungeon put in as a sort of backup plan. If there were a successful revolt, they’d put him in the deepest, darkest part of the dungeon and leave him there to rot, or at least until they killed him. So he made sure the cell looked impossibly secure, and connected it to a secret escape tunnel out of the castle.”

“That’s… huh…” Anna said.

“Everything that looked like it made the cell more secure doubles as a way to hide an escape. The heavy gate and winding passageway hide the cell from view and keep sound from reaching the entrance. The area around the cell is too small to station more than a couple people, and the passageway is too narrow to move people in and out easily. And you need to press two switches in the wall simultaneously, so it’s hard to find it by chance if you don’t know exactly what to look for.”

“So why did they put me in there in the first place, if I would be able to escape?”

“I assume they didn’t know about it. The cell was built to look incredibly secure, after all. I imagine the truth would have been a closely guarded secret of the royal family. It would’ve died out with them, too, if the documentation hadn’t survived. If we’re lucky, no one up there now will think to check them, if they even know they exist. The longer it takes them to figure out what happened, the more time we have to get away.”

They continued in silence. The passageway branched several times, and Roland relied on the map to tell him which route to take to the exit. He kept an ear out for any sounds that weren’t coming from the two of them, but didn’t notice anything, which suggested they weren’t being followed.

“Why did you do it?” Anna asked. “Rescue me, I mean.”

“There was nothing else I could do,” Roland replied.

“You could have left me there.”

“No, I couldn’t. You didn’t belong there. Oh! That reminds me.”

Roland stopped and set his pack on the floor. Setting the map aside, he reached into the pack and removed the folded letter from it.

“I was telling the truth when I said I had a message for you,” he said, holding it out to Anna. “I was hoping the guard would let me hand it to you directly, but he didn’t, so I had to resort to Plan B.”

“What was Plan A?” Anna asked, taking the letter.

“You’d use the physical contact from handing you the letter to read my mind, where I’d be telling you to fake an illness to get the guards to open the cell and distract them that way.”

Anna looked at Roland. “Good thing you had a Plan B, then; that never would have worked.”

“Why not?”

“First, it takes more than a second for me to see someone’s mind. The guards would’ve seen what was happening immediately, especially with how paranoid they were about anyone getting within arm’s reach of the cell. Second, they wouldn’t open the cell without first summoning additional guards. They know better than to fall for that hackneyed ruse.”

“How do you know?”

“Because,” Anna said, turning away, “the second day there I got sick to my stomach from whatever slop they were feeding me, and it took them two hours before they even did anything.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. But anyway, this note,” she said, unfolding it. Her eyes widened as she read it. “Where did you get this?”

“You’re not the only one who can do a little digging, you know,” Roland replied with feigned nonchalance. Given how things had played out at Seb’s, he figured he was best off not going into too much detail about that night. “Come on, we need to keep moving.”

“So what happens now?” Anna asked as she followed behind Roland.

“Does the letter tell you anything about where Derek might be?”

“You didn’t read it?”

“Only enough to see what it was. I didn’t want to invade your privacy. It wouldn’t be right.”

“You’re willing to fight your own guards to break me out of there, but you draw the line at not reading other people’s letters?”

“What happened back there was necessary,” Roland said, his heart heavy. “But the alternatives were even worse. And I’ll pay the price for it soon, I’m certain of it.”

“I’m sorry,” Anna said softly. “I never should have gotten you involved in all this. And here after those things I said to you the other day–”

“Don’t worry about it. What about Derek?” he asked.

“Right,” Anna said, sounding a little relieved. After a pause, she continued, “It says he’s going to say ‘hi’ to Mom and Dad for me, so I guess that means he’s either headed to Doomhammer, or he thinks he’s going to, um…”

“Doomhammer,” Roland said. “Something’s going to happen there soon, I’m sure of it. That’s where we need to go.”

“What’s happening there?”

“I don’t know, but at least one of the nobles was trying to get passage there for something, even though we’re about to go to war with Lantaria over it. Doomhammer must be the key to whatever’s going on, somehow. And when we get there, I’ll need your help to figure out what.”

“OK,” Anna said after a pause. “I do owe you that much, at least, considering what you’ve done for me.”

“There’s something else I need to know.”

“What is it?”

“Do you know how Derek managed to escape?”

Anna fell silent.

“It could be important. And if he’s going to be a danger to himself or anyone around–”

“I do. At least, I’m pretty sure I do.”

“And?”

Anna sighed heavily. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, it’s just… this is something that’s hard to trust anyone with. I mean, I was afraid when I heard Derek had been taken away that someone found out about him.”

“I need to know.”

“OK,” Anna said. She stayed silent for a few moments, as though struggling with how to explain something. “He’s a summoner.”

“A summoner?”

“A pretty powerful one, too.”

“He seems awfully timid for someone like that.”

“He’s timid because of it. It’s difficult for him to control that power. He has to be careful constantly not to let it get away from him. It’s not fair for someone his age to have that kind of burden, but there’s nothing anyone can do about it. I was the lucky one; my powers are hardly much of anything, and I can’t hurt anyone with them.”

“But that’s what happened to the guards when Derek escaped?”

“No. The danger is to himself. From what I heard when I was being interrogated, it sounded like he must have summoned someone who was able to break him free. He must have been desperate to do that; I don’t think I’ve ever seen him summon anyone deliberately.”

“Who would he have summoned?”

“I don’t know. It would have to be someone he could convince to help him, and who would have the kinds of tools necessary to do the kind of damage that was done to the cell.”

“Someone he could trust?”

“Maybe, maybe not. But I don’t know who he would know that could’ve freed him.”

Roland thought about this. “Mattias’s men?” he guessed.

“It’s possible, I suppose.”

“Here we are,” Roland announced, as they reached the end of the passageway. A stone ladder built into the wall led up to a hatch in the ceiling. “According to the map I copied from the design plans, this should lead into the forest outside of Blackstone, a little past the castle wall. If we stick to the roads and travel as quickly as we can, we should be able to reach Doomhammer in about a week. We’ll need to keep a low profile to avoid getting noticed, and we have to assume news of our escape will get out soon, if it hasn’t already. Here, hold these,” he said, handing his torch and map to Anna.

Once his hands were free, he removed his cloak and reversed it, so that the seal of the Order was no longer visible on its back. He took back the torch and shoved the map into his pack.

“Let’s go.”

Chapter word count: 1,947 (according to wc)
Total word count: 44,107 / 50,000 (88.214% complete)

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For The Record

Queue of pending Appendix A posts

I just wrote six chapters and 10,701 words this weekend. (Seven chapters and 12,648 words if you count Friday evening.) I think I’ll spend the coming week doing whatever the opposite of writing is.

Appendix A: Chapter 23

[Editor's note: Chapter 23 of my 2008 NaNoWriMo entry.]

Roland took a few slow, deep breaths before rounding the final bend of the staircase leading to the bottom floor of the dungeon. Staying calm and focused on the task at hand was going to be essential if he was going to get through this. His churning stomach reminded him that luck was also a key factor, and he wouldn’t know whether it would work in his favor until it was too late to turn back.

“I’m here to see the prisoner,” Roland said to the guards in front of the gate, speaking in a voice a little deeper than necessary.

“And you are?” one of them asked.

“Sir Roland, paladin third class of the Order of Yssindria,” he replied.

“You may pass,” the other said after a few seconds pause. He repeated the same instructions as Roland had been given the previous two times he had gone inside before turning the crank to open the gate.

Roland entered, walking past the two guards stationed on the other side without looking at either of them. He heard the gate begin groaning shut as he began navigating the corridor as it wound back and forth, noticing the sound of the gate becoming quieter as he rounded each corner. He ran his fingers along the wall for a bit and felt the rough, uneven texture of the stone. Roland soon noticed that he could no longer hear the gate moving at all, nor did he remember hearing the final clang as it would have presumably locked itself back into place.

So far, so good.

Roland entered the chamber where Anna’s lone cell was located, precisely the same as he remembered it from his previous visit, down to the guards standing in the two corners opposite the cell itself. Anna was sitting on the stone slab that passed for a bed. She turned her head briefly towards Roland as he entered, then resumed staring at nothing in particular on the wall in front of her.

Roland shrugged off his pack and set it on the floor next to him. He bent down, opened it, and pulled out the foul-smelling cloak. Dropping it on the floor at arm’s length from him, he began making a show of rummaging through the pack for something. He grabbed the coil of rope and the loose pieces with one hand and pulled them out, setting them on the floor next to him.

“Here it is,” he announced to no one in particular as he pulled out the folded letter. He turned to one of the guards watching him and said, “I have a message to deliver to the prisoner.”

Roland assumed the guard was eying him, but it was impossible to tell for sure through the lowered visor on the guard’s helmet. “From whom?” the guard asked.

“It is… a personal note,” Roland replied.

“One of us will have to review it first to verify there is nothing inappropriate in it.”

“And then I may deliver it to the prisoner?” Roland asked hopefully.

“No, one of the guards will give it to her.”

“So I just give it to you, then, and you’ll walk over and hand it to her?”

“No. There must be two guards posted at all time, in addition to anyone approaching the prisoner. You will need to go back up to the gate and ask one of the guards there to come over and handle it.”

“Can’t I just call out to one of them from here?”

“They wouldn’t be able to hear you from down here.”

“I see. I suppose nothing can ever be that simple, can it?” Roland asked as he turned around and knelt down by his pack, returning the letter to its original place. It was not the ideal situation Roland had hoped for, but it could certainly be worse.

His stomach tightened, reminding him there was still plenty of time for things to turn worse.

Roland reached out to the folded cloak. With a flick of his wrist, he flung it towards the other guard. The cloak unfolded in mid-air and landed on his helmet, covering his head and most of his body. While this happened, Roland seized his brief moment of surprise and rushed toward the first guard, slamming his shoulder into the guard’s chest plate just hard enough to knock him off balance. The guard staggered back a step and began reaching for his sword, but Roland quickly grabbed the guard’s helmet and slammed it into the wall with a loud clank. Roland felt the guard go limp inside his armor, hopefully unconscious from the blow but at the very least stunned momentarily.

Roland turned around just in time to see the other guard flinging the cloak away with one hand and drawing his sword with the other. Roland responded by drawing his own sword and assuming a defensive stance as the guard charged towards him. Roland’s inner tactician quickly ticked off all the ways Roland was at a disadvantage. First, the guard was much more heavily armored than Roland. Second, the guard presumably had orders to kill, whereas Roland was unwilling to use lethal force. Third, Roland had fully used up his element of surprise.

Their swords clashed, and Roland moved to circle around the guard, not wanting to find himself trapped between the two should the first guard come around too soon. That was one advantage he still had, at least: he had better agility than someone in a suit of armor. Unfortunately, that was about it, as Roland soon found himself being pushed back towards the other wall as the guard advanced, swinging his sword.

Feeling the wall behind him with his foot, Roland quickly ducked down and circled back behind the guard. As the guard pivoted to face Roland, he suddenly froze as a wave of liquid splashed over him. Out the corner of his eye, Roland saw Anna standing right behind the bars of the cell, holding the bucket that had been in the corner. Roland knew better than to think about what had been in the bucket, and instead slammed himself into the guard’s back, knocking him forward into the vile puddle and landing on top of him.

Pressing his full weight down onto the guard’s back, or at least the armor protecting his back, Roland wrestled the guard’s helmet off as the guard tried to writhe his way out from under Roland. Once the helmet was free, Roland hefted it and slammed it down into the back of the guard’s head repeatedly until the guard went limp.

Roland breathed a sigh of relief and looked towards the far corner of the room to see that the guard there had still not moved. He then turned his attention to the door of the cell.

“One of them will have a key on a chain around his neck,” Anna volunteered.

Roland rolled the second guard over onto his back and reached down the neck of the armor, feeling for a chain. Find it, he yanked it free and carried it to the cell, unlocking it.

“How many more are there out there?” Anna asked, as she stepped through the door.

“Four, at least. Which is why we’re not going out that way,” Roland replied. “Take that rope and tie their hands and feet. Start with that one,” he added, pointing towards the first one he had incapacitated. “I don’t know when they’ll regain consciousness, and I don’t want them being mobile if they do. You know how to tie a knot, right?”

“I do know a couple rope tricks, so yes,” Anna said, with a couple of the short pieces already in hand. “Wait, what do you mean we’re not going out ‘that way?’”

“That cloak on the floor is yours now,” Roland continued, ignoring the question as rummaged through the maps in the side pouch of his pack until he found the one in the middle. “Put it on when you’re done. We can’t afford anyone recognizing you. Sorry about the smell.”

Anna finished tying the guard’s hands behind his back and was turning to do the same to his feet. “You mean the, uh–”

“If you’re lucky, it’ll cover up the yak smell. Don’t ask.” Roland walked through the cell door and towards the corner.

“If it gets me out of here, I don’t care what it smells like.” She finished with the first guard and walked over to the second. “Speaking of which, how did you say we’re getting out of here?”

“Did you have a chance to visit the library before you, um, were brought here?” Roland consulted the drawing and, sliding his hand along the wall, counted to himself.

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“They’re aren’t kidding when they say they have records that go all the way back to the construction of this castle. They even have some of the design documents available.” Roland hesitantly pushed against a stone in the wall with one hand while holding the paper in the other.

“I’m sure it’s fascinating. I’ll have to check it out sometime,” she deadpanned as she finished another knot.

“I’m afraid I won’t be able to take you there to show you,” Roland said distractedly. He held the paper in his teeth as he started pushing another stone in the wall with his other hand.

“OK, that takes care of them. Would you quit messing around in there? We only have about an hour until the next shift change, and that’s assuming there’s not half an army charging down the hallway as we speak.”

Roland shook his head. “Come over here and push this,” he said through clenched teeth.

“Excuse me?”

“It’s stuck, and I can’t push both hard enough. At least, I hope it’s stuck.”

Anna sighed, and Roland heard her footsteps as she approached.

“Push right there, straight into the wall,” he said. “Use both hands.” Roland moved his left hand to join his right as it pushed another stone.

“And if it’s not stuck?” Anna asked.

“Then we only have an hour.”

Roland’s feet slid on the floor as he put his entire weight against the stone. He heard Anna grunt as she presumably did likewise behind his back. Suddenly the stone lurched forward an inch, and Roland almost lost his footing.

“Keep pushing!” he shouted through his teeth as he shoved the stone farther back.

Nearby, he heard the sound of rock sliding against rock. He stopped pushing when the stone clicked into place, several inches recessed from the rest of the wall. He turned to see that the slab that served as a bed had raised up a couple inches. He walked over to the side of it and pushed it forward, rolling it on unseen wheels underneath as it revealed a hole in the floor.

“You’re kidding me,” Anna said next to him.

Roland ran over to his pack, hurriedly shoved the unused rope into it before throwing it over his back. He then lifted the two torches out of their holders in the walls.

“Take the cloak and follow me,” he insisted.

He looked over to see Anna putting on the cloak. It had been long on him, but on her the bottom of it just brushed the floor. He handed her one of the torches and plucked the map from his teeth.

“No time to dawdle,” he said, once again able to properly enunciate. “Like you said, we only have an hour head start.”

Chapter word count: 1,920 (according to wc)
Total word count: 42,160 / 50,000 (84.32% complete)

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Appendix A: Chapter 22

[Editor's note: Chapter 22 of my 2008 NaNoWriMo entry.]

As the sun began sinking below the horizon the following night, Roland was focused on cramming everything he had into his pack for the coming journey. Partly out of wanting to be able to pull necessary items from it without delay, and partly out of apprehension of where the path ahead was leading, he repeatedly removed and re-packed his possessions, trying to hit upon the optimal arrangement.

Roland shoved his spare clothes to the bottom and placed the newly-bought bundles of dried foods, enough to last him an entire week if need be, on top. He couldn’t think of a reason he would find himself in an emergency situation where he couldn’t delay in eating something or changing into a fresh shirt, so that seemed safe enough. Then the toiletries went in, since there was a little room down there they could be squeezed into.

Now the trick would be to fit everything else into the pack without making it too unwieldy. Roland carefully set Derek’s letter to Anna, folded back up, atop the bundles of food. Next went a pair of unlit and fully cooled torches; Roland touched the top of each with the back of his hand out of habit to double-check, even though he knew he hadn’t lit either ever since he arrived at Blackstone. But one didn’t need to hear too many stories of someone’s pack bursting into flames to take the little extra time to be cautious. Roland wondered how much truth there really was to some of those stories — he had trouble seeing how anyone could accidentally pack a still-smoldering torch, let alone a lit one — but with all the risks he was going to be taking now, he hardly needed to tempt fate.

Roland then turned to the long coil of rope sitting on the bed. He wasn’t going to be able to carry the entire thing anymore without leaving something else behind. He took the knife laying next to the rope and cut four lengths of a few feet each, then paused and cut a fifth for good measure. Taking care of that now was bound to save a little time later. As for the rest of the rope, he cut it roughly through the middle, coiled one of the halves, and put it into his pack. He then set the knife in the middle of the coil, and on top of it he put the five shorter lengths.

Roland stopped to look at the remaining space. There wasn’t as much room left as he had hoped, but he wasn’t willing to leave anything more behind. He walked to the corner of the room opposite the bed and lifted the yak cloak off the chair it had been stretched out over to dry. Cleaning it that morning hadn’t done much to neutralize the smell. Holding his breath and hoping the smell would rise up out of the pack and not down into the food, he folded the cloak as tightly as he could and shoved it into the pack, pressing his weight on it to smash it down enough to close the top of the pack.

Roland exhaled. He picked up a small pile of folded maps from the nightstand by the window and reordered them until the hand-drawn one he had prepared that afternoon was safely sandwiched between the others. He took the stack and shoved it into the little side pocket of his pack.

Roland briefly smiled at the progress he had made so far, then frowned as he turned his attention back to the bed. His leather armor and a chain mail shirt borrowed from the Order’s local armory laid at the foot of the bed, away from the remaining rope. Roland felt an odd sort of sentimental attachment to the leather armor, having worn it throughout this trip as well as the previous three. But even if there was still room in the pack, there was no way he could have folded it enough to fit, and he could hardly wear both at the same time even if he wanted to. Yet he knew that the chain mail would prove to be the better choice in the short term, and there was no point worrying about the extra weight in the long term if he didn’t last to make it that far.

Roland froze as that thought crossed his mind, then shoved it aside. The last thing he needed to do right now was to start worrying about all the things that could go wrong. He hardly needed to exercise his imagination to enumerate them, and he definitely didn’t want to dwell on what the consequences were going to be if he failed. To be honest, he wasn’t much looking forward to the consequences of success either. He felt a brief temptation to take the priest’s advice and just walk away from everything, but the thought of regret hanging on his conscience was the worst of all.

Roland focused himself back onto the task at hand. He picked up the chain mail shirt and pulled it over his head. Hopefully whoever straightened up the room after he was gone would be able to put his leather armor to good use somewhere. He leaned over to the headboard and lifted his good cloak off of it. He wrapped the cloak around himself and closed the front of it until there was no sign of the chain mail underneath.

Roland hung his sword from his belt, hefted the near-bursting pack onto his back, and surveyed the room one last time. In the flickering light of the lamb, no longer accompanied by any sunlight, he only saw the furnishings of the room and the items he was willingly, albeit reluctantly, leaving behind.

Roland silently shut the door behind him and headed down the stairs to the first floor of the little building. He nodded to the acolyte stationed near the entrance before he stepped out into the street. Glancing around quickly to gain his bearings, he set off towards the shrine.

Roland saw a few people exiting the building as he approached the front door of the shrine. As much as something could be considered a front door of a circular building, at least, Roland thought. But he was hardly inclined to walk to the next town over just to visit a more sensibly designed shrine.

Inside, there were a few people scattered throughout the pews. Roland guessed that evening services had ended a short while ago, with only the stragglers remaining behind. Even as a paladin Roland could understand why some people would skip out early before the closing benediction, but never fully understood why a few people — and in Roland’s experience, it always tended to be the same few people — would linger for as much as half an hour afterwards. In this case, they certainly weren’t staying to admire the decor. Roland thought maybe they felt they had some heavy spiritual burden that they needed help with, but were too timid or nervous or afraid to ask for help from a priest directly, and instead stuck around in hopes that something would happen for them on its own.

Tonight, Roland thought he might be able to sympathize with that.

Roland slowly paced down one of the radial aisles, hesitantly performed a half-kneel towards the empty altar, and sat down in one of the empty pews, leaving his pack in the aisle next to him. Reflecting on the task he had set before himself, Roland thought he wasn’t looking for guidance so much anymore but reassurance that he was doing the right thing. Deep down in his thought, Roland was fairly sure the answer was yes, though he reluctantly acknowledged he could argue a reasonably convincing argument to the contrary.

Roland lifted his head to look towards the altar, and thought that the sight would be a lot more reassuring if there weren’t a big empty space where a statue of the Lady ought to be. Roland looked back down at his feet and decided not to interpret it as a sign. Besides, the hypothetical statue, the altar, the images in the windows and along the walls, all of them were merely symbols to remind those inside the shrine of the underlying (overlying?) truths of the Lady looking down on them from above and guiding them as they each struggled with their problems as best they could.

And in the grand scheme of things, sitting here itself was just a symbol. The Lady wasn’t confined to a handful of temples and a scattering of shrines; she could be found everywhere, for anyone who would listen. This was especially true of a paladin such as himself; She was always with him, and he was always with Her. Roland did not offer a silent prayer as he sat; there was nothing he could say that he had not said to himself over and over as he wrestled with the paths before him.

Even if Roland was setting down on the wrong path, he was not doing so lightly. The Lady could see — how could She not? — the reasoning behind his choice, and would know he made it for the right reasons. When the rules of proper action contradict one another, one must fall back upon the fundamental principles from which those rules arise.

Be the light when all else is darkness. Be the hope when all hope is lost.

When the time came to face the consequences of his actions — and Roland was certain that time would come, probably sooner rather than later — he would be able to accept them with a clear conscience, knowing that he had done what was right even if he had done the wrong thing.

It wasn’t much, to be sure, but Roland knew it would be enough. He stepped back into the aisle, executed a full kneel-with-sword even without a statue of the Lady in front of him, picked up his pack, and headed for the exit.

He had a task to carry out.

Chapter word count: 1,686 (according to wc)
Total word count: 40,240 / 50,000 (80.48% complete)

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Appendix A: Chapter 21

[Editor's note: Chapter 21 of my 2008 NaNoWriMo entry.]

Roland pulled his new cloak tighter around his body. At least, the merchant had claimed it was a new cloak, but Roland had his doubts. For one thing, it smelled distinctly like yak. Roland didn’t know why he was so sure of that, not being able to remember any time when he had encountered a yak himself, but that was the image that flashed in his mind whenever he took a breath. Under normal conditions he would at least have washed it before wearing it, but at the moment time was a luxury.

Actually, under normal conditions he wouldn’t have bought a new cloak in the first place, since he had a perfectly good one back in his room, one that was not a couple inches too long and that didn’t reek of yak. But that one was also emblazoned with the emblem on the Order. Roland knew, unfamiliar as the thought was, that being readily recognized as a paladin would be a liability for what he was about to do. His hand instinctively felt for where his sword would normally be on his belt, still not having gotten used to not having it with him.

Roland went over the plan again in his mind to reassure himself he knew what he was doing. He needed information about what happened to Derek. The last time Derek had disappeared, Anna managed to follow a trail of rumors that had been left in his wake, by virtue of having been carried along supply routes of the smuggling networks Mattias was involved in. After escaping the dungeon, Derek wouldn’t have anyone to turn to in Blackstone safely except for those networks. Therefore, if anyone would have seen him, it would be the black market types. And since Anna had apparently spent a lot of time in shady-looking taverns when she had been on Derek’s trail, that seemed like as good a place to start as any.

Maybe the yak smell won’t seem out of place there, Roland wondered as he flipped the hood over his head and pulled it down as far as he could while still being able to see.

He stalked the streets of Blackstone, which was rather easy to do given that aside from the moon, the only available light came from the windows of the buildings he passed. Roland kept his eye out for a tavern that looked like the sort of place he would generally have preferred to avoid, not that he spent much time in taverns to begin with.

After walking a few more blocks, a sign that read “Seb’s” caught his attention, not so much because of the faded red lettering but for the accompanying image of a donkey lying flat on its back next to a jug marked XXX. Roland braced himself and entered.

A thick haze of tobacco smoke and the crunch of discarded peanut shells underfoot greeted him. Between the haze and his watering eyes, he had trouble seeing how many people where there, but from all the shouting and clanking of glasses he guessed it was pretty full. Roland carefully waded through the tables looking for an unoccupied table and, finding none, settled on a seat at the end of the bar and tried to look inconspicuous. Quickly realizing he had no idea how to do that, Roland settled for hunching forward slightly and trying to scan the room without moving his head around too much.

“What’ll it be?” the bartender, whom Roland assumed to be the eponymous Seb, asked him, absently wiping a glass on his smock.

“Um… ale,” Roland replied. He had no intention of imbibing — he was here to work, after all — but even Roland knew ordering water was going to draw attention.

“You’re going to have to be a bit more specific than that, bud. I’ve got twenty kinds back here.”

“Oh,” Roland said, struggling to hide his utter lack of knowledge when it came to alcohol. “What would you recommend?” he tried.

“You’re not from around these parts, are you?” Seb asked, giving him an askance look.

“No, not really.” If he couldn’t fit in, maybe he could at least try building a rapport. “That obvious?”

“We don’t get many folk here looking shady and reeking of yak. If you don’t want to tell me your business, boy, believe me, I ain’t going to ask. Here, I’ll start you off with some of the lighter stuff.” Seb pulled a jug off the back counter and half-filled the glass he had been wiping, then slid the glass over to Roland.

“Thanks,” Roland said, putting a few coins down on the bar which quickly found their way into Seb’s smock. “Say, if I’m not looking to get into any trouble, is there anyone in here I ought to be watching out for?”

Seb grunted. “You see that table back there?” he said, pointing into the room. Roland followed the finger to a round table where five rough-looking men were playing cards, with at least a dozen empty tankards between them.

“I see them.”

“I don’t know if you’re much of a gambler, but if you want to be able to pay for your next drink, I suggest not getting mixed up with them.”

“Because I’ll lose or because they’ll rob me?”

“There’s a difference? I don’t trust any of them farther than I can throw them. And believe me, I know; I’ve had to throw a couple of ‘em out before. But as long as they’re buying drinks, I’ll keep serving ‘em. Now if you’ll excuse me…” Seb trailed off and headed to the other end of the bar to attend to the customers there.

Roland shifted himself on the bar stool to get a better look at the table Seb pointed out. Were they in the black market? They certainly had money to throw around, and they fit Roland’s loose mental picture of scofflaws, but so did half the people in the tavern. They were boisterous between hands, but Roland could never make out what they were saying from where he sat. But would they be talking about their business here anyway?

Roland stifled a sigh. He wished he had asked Anna about precisely how she did this sort of thing, but it was too late for that now; Roland was on his own. He knew she had waited tables at the Iron Flagon at least, and Roland saw now how that would have given her a chance to mingle with all the tables and figure out who to focus on.

But staying at the bar and watching wasn’t going to accomplish anything. Roland took a deep breath, removed his hood, and made his way over, glass in hand, stopping when he stood behind an empty chair. The men at the table stayed focused on their game and didn’t seem to notice.

Roland made his move once one of them swept the coins in the middle of the table into the pile in front of him. “Do you gentlemen have room for another player?” he asked, pouring half the contents of his coin pouch in front of the empty seat.

The men accepted his offer, a little too willingly, he thought.

“I assume you know five card draw,” the one with the eyepatch asked.

“Doesn’t everyone?” Roland replied. Roland did know how to play, but didn’t get much practice. Despite what most people thought, playing cards wasn’t forbidden in the Order, but opportunities for games were few and far between, as people who liked to gamble tended not to sign up for a lifetime of service to the Lady.

Roland knew he had to enter the group’s confidence before he even tried to ask any productive questions about Derek. That meant lasting in the game a little while, which proved to be more difficult than Roland had anticipated. He won a couple small pots early on, but then hit a decidedly cold streak, as he watched the little mound of coins in front of him start to dwindle.

Roland started taking Seb’s warning about the men around him to heart. Having seen the sorts of things Anna could do with a deck of cards, he started paying more attention to the hands of the other players, hoping to catch them doing something suspicious. Roland found it difficult to focus on what five separate people were doing all at once, but he persisted anyway.

Finally, he noticed something out of the corner of his eye to his left. Or at least, he thought he noticed something. Roland focused his attention there as the man with the long black beard scooped up another pot and the next deal began. As each player drew cards, Roland saw the hand of the man next to him linger briefly at what Roland now noticed was a suspiciously large opening to his other sleeve.

“Aha!” Roland shouted as he grabbed the man’s arm and yanked it away. Roland reached into the sleeve with his other hand and pulled out a jack of spades. Roland held it up for everyone else to see. “This man’s been swindling you!”

The men around the table burst into laughter. Including, Roland was surprised to find, the man next to him, who seemed to be enjoying it more than the others.

“That’s the one you noticed?” the man with the beard asked Roland incredulously.

“Yes, he was — wait, what?”

“You mean you didn’t even notice when I swapped the deck for one with a completely differently colored back?” the man with the hat guffawed.

“Pay up!” the fat one said to him. “I told you this sucker wasn’t going to notice!”

“Seriously, you didn’t see me using this at all?” the man with the eyepatch said. He flipped it around to reveal a mirror and a perfectly normal eye.

“And I’ve been dealing from the bottom of the deck the last three deals!” the man with the beard added.

“Wait… you were all cheating?” Roland asked, confused.

“Of course!” the man with the sleeves replied. “You think I’m going to trust these idiots to play fair?”

“You’re kidding me,” Roland said, feeling any hope of getting any useful information out of any of them slipping away.

“Any fool can play cards,” the man with the eyepatch said. “But cheating everyone else at cards takes skill.”

“Especially if you don’t want to wind up with six aces on the table,” the man with the beard added.

“Well, thank you gentlemen,” Roland said as he stood up and grabbed his few remaining coins. “It’s been… educational.”

“Any time!” the fat man called after him as the five erupted into another round of laughter.

Roland headed straight for the door and burst out into the cool nighttime air. He groaned. After that performance, there was no way anybody there was ever going to take him seriously, which meant Roland was right back to where he started, with no clues and nothing to go on.

“Roland?” a voice behind him asked.

Roland turned around instinctively and saw the man with the hat standing just outside the door to the tavern, holding something in his hand.

“Well, what do you know,” the man continued. “I was thinking you kind of matched the description, except for the sword. And he didn’t say anything about the yak smell. But other than that, I guess it really is you. Here,” he said, holding out a folded piece of paper.

Roland stepped forward and took it.

“Here Bruno had bet me if anyone was going to come snooping around, it was going to be the girl. Good thing, though; now Bruno’s the one who owes me. Anyway, next time you’re in town and looking for a game, you know where to find us.” He tipped his hat, then went back into the tavern.

Confused, Roland unfolded the paper and read the first few lines, written in shaky handwriting:

Dear Anna,

I’m sorry for everything I’ve put you through. By the time you get this, I’ll be

Roland quickly skipped down to the bottom of the page:

Love,

Derek

Chapter word count: 2,023 (according to wc)
Total word count: 38,554 / 50,000 (77.108% complete)

Appendix A: Chapter 20

[Editor's note: Chapter 20 of my 2008 NaNoWriMo entry.]

Roland shuffled forward in line, absently drumming his fingers on the empty plate he held in his hands. It had occured to him as he left the lower dungeon, for what was technically the second time that day, that he wasn’t going to get very far in whatever he was going to do on an empty stomach. He had settled on eating at the knights’ mess hall on the ground floor of the keep, for no particular reason other than that it seemed like the most convenient option.

Roland took another half step as the line briefly lurched forward. As luck would have it, he apparently arrived near the end of the lunch rush, and despite having been in line for a good ten minutes still hadn’t received his food. Looking around, his impatience seemed to be shared by the knights in front of and behind him, though fortunately given Roland’s status as a paladin, they left a small gap immediately around Roland, preventing him from being jostled.

Roland felt full of nervous energy, wanting desperately to do something productive but having no idea what that something was. Dalton was certainly going to be of no help, and Roland couldn’t shake the suspicion that he’d gladly throw Roland in the cell next to Anna if given half a chance. Seeking further guidance from his superiors was also out; like with the priest he had spoken to the previous day, he’d probably just be told to let the whole thing go and resume his usual duties. And technically, they were probably right to say that; Roland was starting to overstay his welcome in Blackstone as it was.

The next half step forward finally brought Roland to the head of the line. He held out his plate and received a slab of what might’ve been halfway decent beef if it hadn’t been warmed over for the past hour and a scoop of green beans which stretched the definition of “green.” The empty pot suggested the cooks had run out of gravy already. Roland bitterly mused that even when it came to lunch, he couldn’t get a break from what was set in front of him.

Roland took his plate and walked over to one of the long tables where countless knights where finishing their meals and engaging in boisterous conversation with one another. He set his plate down in a relatively deserted section of one table, though he could still hear half a dozen people talking around him over the general din. Roland sat in front of it and began half-heartedly chewing his meal.

“… the old coot’s going to do if he gets to Doomhammer anyway,” he suddenly heard a voice somewhere nearby say. The mention of Doomhammer snapped his mind to attention, and he quickly looked around to see who was talking. The speaker appeared to be sitting on the opposite side of the table, two seats to Roland’s right, speaking to the person across from him.

“Pardon me, soldier,” Roland interrupted, leaning over to be heard over the noice. “What did you just say?”

“Sir!” the knight said, quickly straightening himself in his seat. “I said that I do not know what, um, Lord Arundel is planning on doing in Doomhammer, sir. If you thought I said something different, sir–”

“Don’t worry about it,” Roland tried to say reassuringly as he shifted to occupy the empty seat to his right. “Why do you say Lord Arundel is planning to go to Doomhammer?”

“That’s what we were talking about, sir,” replied the knight now next to Roland. “If you ask me, you’d have to crazy to — I mean, sir, one would be unwise to go there without a good reason these days. Not that it is my place to question the actions of the Vice Governor of Blackstone, of course, sir.”

“‘These days’?” Roland asked. “What’s happening in Doomhammer?”

The first knight looked at Roland quizzically. “You have not heard, sir?”

“I am afraid not. I have been traveling lately in areas where news does not reach quickly, and I have been occupied with… other matters since I have arrived here.”

“Well, sir,” the first knight began, leaning forward slightly as he spoke, “it began about six weeks or so ago.”

“After the fire?” Roland asked.

“Yes, sir, maybe a month or so after the fire. We started to hear stories that miners found a new vein of something in the mountains west of there. They were calling it something like Fracto… Fracti…”

“Fractilicite ore?” Roland guessed.

“That’s it!” the second knight said, snapping his fingers. “You’ve heard of it? If I may say so, sir, you don’t look much like the miner type.”

“I’m not,” Roland replied, “but part of our training requires us to be knowledgeable of many things.”

In particular, Roland knew, fractilicite was included in the alloy used to make the Order’s weapons, in particular the swords carried by paladins. Some of the Order’s scholars believed that pure fractilicite was somehow essential to channeling and harnessing the Lady Yssindria’s power to smite evil. Roland had no idea how that was supposed to work, but at the very least it didn’t seem to hurt.

“Anyway,” the first knight continued, “once the stories started making the rounds about the discovery, we started getting put through twice as many drills as normal. Pretty soon we started hearing what we all suspected by then: the Lanties were itching for a fight over it, and we’re going to give them one.”

Roland nodded. The only known deposit of fractilicite ore, as far as Roland was aware, at least, was near Castle Telerand itself. If Lantaria knew what the Order used it for, it would make sense that they would want their own supply to use for themselves. Of course, it would be useless since the Lady Yssindria was hardly going to lend her blessings to a bunch of heathens, but that wouldn’t stop them from trying. But given that Telerand categorically refused to trade fractilicite with Lantaria, even during the occasional period where relations between them had thawed, it wasn’t too surprising that Telerand wasn’t going to just let Lantaria seize it.

“Makes sense, I suppose,” Roland said, opting not to elaborate.

“I’d bet the Lanties don’t care about the mine at all; they just want an excuse to invade Doomhammer,” the second knight said. “They’ve been itching for an reason ever since the treaty.”

“Doesn’t matter to me either way,” the first knight added, pounding his fist into his empty hand. “I say, bring it on.”

“If you’re so eager to fight them, what are the two of you doing here?” Roland asked. “Shouldn’t you be out on the front lines?”

“No such luck,” the first knight replied. “They’ve ordered a regiment from here to fortify a couple towns near Doomhammer, but we’re stuck here on defense.”

“So, where does Lord Arundel come into all this?” Roland asked.

“Here’s where it gets a little weird,” the second knight said, lowering his voice and leaning in towards Roland. “A couple days ago I’m walking back from the Commander’s office, after having tried to convince him to send the two of us up the front. Anyway, I’m walking back, and a man in a hooded cloak stops me in the hall where there’s no one else around.”

“I’m telling you, there’s no way it was Lord Arundel,” the first knight interjected.

“And I’m telling you, I’d recognize that unibrow anywhere. Anyway, I pretend to not recognize who he is, because he’s obviously trying to hide his identity, and the last thing I need is for the Vice Governor to start coming down on me. Long story short, he tells me that he and a few of his associates are heading to Doomhammer, and asks if I ‘knew’ anyone who would be willing to ‘escort’ them there and back. Offered to pay pretty well for it, too.”

“And what did you tell him?” Roland asked.

“I told him no. I’m not an idiot. I’ve got my orders to stay here and guard the castle in case anything happens. Everyone knows it won’t, but orders are orders. Besides, even the groups that did get sent out are under strict orders not to cross into the DMZ around Doomhammer without explicit orders to do so. Believe me, the last thing I need is to get drummed out of here and go back to shoveling manure in the fields. No thank you.”

“So you think Lord Arundel has nothing better to do than to trick you into a dishonorable discharge?” the first knight jeered.

“Hey, I don’t pretend to know what nobles do with their time all day. Maybe he gets bored. I don’t know. But maybe he really wanted to go.”

“And like I was saying before you joined us, sir,” the first knight said, gesturing toward Roland, “what would he do if he got there anyway?”

“You’d have to ask him,” the second knight replied.

“Thank you for your time, both of you,” Roland said as he rose from the table, lifting his half-eaten lunch. “That does actually clear things up for me.”

“Yes, sir,” the two replied in unison.

Roland walked to the shelf near the kitchen door and carefully placed his plate on top of a teetering pile. He then turned and, nodding quickly to the two knights he had been speaking with, exited the mess hall.

It was a strange story, Roland thought, but it at least did shed a little light on why relations between Telerand and Lantaria had suddenly taken a turn for the worse, and why Dalton seemed convinced that the end was near if he didn’t do something first. Roland wondered whether he would be willing to let Lantaria get their own fractilicite mine without a fight, if the choice were up to him; even though he knew the material would be useless on its own, would he be willing to risk the kingdom on that belief? To be honest with himself, he was far from an expert in mineralogy and metallurgy; maybe the fractilicite alone would be enough.

He then immediately chided himself for so readily questioning the teachings of the Order. He couldn’t let what Dalton said the night before get to him.

Still, even though Roland had a little more information about what was going on, it wasn’t anything he could act on, and it certainly wasn’t going to help him find Derek or free Anna. But as he walked through the streets of Blackstone in the afternoon sun, an idea began formulating itself in the back of his mind.

Chapter word count: 1,719 (according to wc)
Total word count: 36,473 / 50,000 (72.946% complete)

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Appendix A: Chapter 19

[Editor's note: Chapter 19 of my 2008 NaNoWriMo entry.]

Roland passed the guards stationed at the entrace to the dungeon. They showed no reaction to him at all, other than the ones standing immediately in front of the doorway stepping aside as he approached, and stepping back into place once he was through. Their presence there reminded Roland of the orders Dalton had given them. It was probably fortunate that Dalton had said to use lethal force specifically against anyone trying to enter, not anyone who merely tried to pass through. From the looks of their faces, Roland guessed they were the type to take their orders seriously.

Being underground, Roland had no idea what time it now was. Roland could feel the fatigue creeping back into his body, but decided to ignore it for the time being. Instead of climbing the stairs, he descended to the bottom level, which turned out to be another two flights down.

Roland exited the stairwell to find two knights standing in front of a solid iron gate set in the stone wall. Unlike the guards on the main dungeon floor, these were dressed in full armor. The design was similar to that of a paladin’s suit of armor, but with minimal decorative embellishments and colored the standard silver.

“Halt! Who goes there?” the knight on the left said, his voice taking on a metallic echo from his lowered visor.

Roland quickly straightened himself and replied in his most official-sounding voice, “Sir Roland, paladin third class of the Order of Yssindria. I come to see the prisoner Anna. Sir Dalton has told me she is being held here.”

Roland stood motionless while the knight studied him. Finally, the guard said, “You may pass. Do not approach the prisoner’s cell within the boundary marked on the floor. Speak to the guards on the other side when you wish to exit.”

The other knight began turning a crank, and the heavy iron gate slowly began sliding to the side, groaning slightly. As it opened, Roland saw two additional guards, also wearing suits of armor, standing just inside the gate, facing the other direction.

Dalton was clearly taking every precaution with Anna. On the main dungeon floor, Roland had been able to move about freely with no problem. Here, however, the guards were carefully controlling access to the interior, though for whatever reason he was still being permitted to enter. Presumably Dalton was still holding out some hope that Roland might be able to get some critical bit of information out of Anna.

Once the gate was fully opened, the guards motioned Roland through. As soon as he was passed, he heard the gate groaning again, presumably as it shut behind him. Roland proceeded down a narrow hallway, only about one and a half people wide and which curved back and forth. Shadows danced on the walls and floor around Roland as he passed one torch set in the wall after another.

The passageway eventually opened up into a small chamber, with a single cell on the opposite wall. A line made of some kind of white powder stretched in front of the cell, about two arm lengths from the row of iron bars. As Roland exited the passageway into the chamber, he saw on the periphery of his vision two more guards, again in full armor, standing in the corners of the room opposite the cell.

The walls of the cell, along with the floor and ceiling, were made of almost perfectly rectangular stones, with only minute gaps between them. The iron bars separating the cell from the rest of the chamber looked much like those on the main floor, put packed more closely together and with horizontal bars running across for good measure. Inside the cell, the only furnishings were a squat wooden bucket in one corner, which Roland quickly realized it was wisest not to focus too carefully on, and an raised stone slab apparently meant to serve as a bed.

On that bed, Roland saw Anna curled up, using her hands as a pillow. Roland mused that she looked oddly peaceful as she slept, in contrast to the brutal surroundings. He stood there watching her for a few minutes, too reluctant to wake her from what was probably her only respite from her imprisonment. If he was going to speak with her, Roland would need to return later. Besides, seeing Anna sleeping was reminding his body that sleep sounded like a good idea too.

Silently, Roland turned and walked through the winding passage back to the iron gate.

“I am ready to leave,” he said to the guards. “I will return when Anna — the prisoner is awake.”

One of the guards knocked on the gate, leaned towards it, and lifted the visor on the helmet. “‘Spoiled holiday,’” he shouted through it, and in a few seconds, the gate began sliding open.

Roland exited the dungeon, climbed the stairs back to ground level, left the keep, and began his walk back to his quarters, growing more tired with each step. When he arrived, he flopped down onto his bed, not bothering to change first, just as the first light of sunrise began shining through the room’s window.

Roland closed his eyes and tried to sleep, struggling to push the events of the last couple hours out of his mind as best he could. As he finally drifted asleep, his last thought was hoping the priest was right about problems being easier after a good night’s rest.

—-

Roland returned to the bottom floor of the dungeon after he woke around noon. The procedure was much the same as before, the only difference being a slightly different voice spoken by the guard, suggesting there had been a shift change at some point after he had left.

When he entered the chamber holding Anna’s cell, Roland saw her lying on her back on the stone slab, staring at the ceiling. She didn’t seem to react to Roland’s entrance.

“Hi, Anna,” Roland said softly.

Anna leaned her head back slightly to look at Roland, then returned to her original position, saying nothing.

“How are you holding up?” he asked.

“Never been better,” she replied, her voice dripping with sarcasm.

Roland sighed, and struggled to think of something to say. He finally settled on, “Is there anything I can do?”

“Do you mean to help me, or are you capable of doing anything in general?” she replied, rolling onto her stomach and lifting her head to look at Roland. “Not that it matters; my answer’s going to be the same either way.”

“Look, I know things haven’t exactly been going well–”

“Oh, really? I hadn’t noticed,” Anna interrupted. “Though come to think of it, your goons did burst into my room in the middle of the night and grill me for hours before throwing me down here to rot.”

“They weren’t my goons,” Roland said. “I had nothing to do with any of this.”

“But that’s the problem, isn’t it? You haven’t had anything to do with anything that’s happened since you brought us here. It’s all been what’s-his-name running everything. Seems like the only person with less authority around here than you is me.”

“Look, I’ve been doing everything I can. It’s just been a lot more difficult than I thought it would be. And last night isn’t going to make it any easier.”

“Yeah, it certainly cut down on my options a bit. But apparently it hasn’t worked out nearly so badly for you; they’re still letting you run around the place. Lucky you.”

Roland saw that Anna was hardly going to stop criticizing his recent lack of performance, so he tried changing the subject to something that might be a little more productive. “Do you have any idea what happened with Derek last night?”

“So what’s-his-name sent you down here to interrogate me now?”

“Is there something he needs to know? Things are… a lot more serious than you might be aware.”

“That’s a shame. I’ve told him everything I’m going to tell him.”

“He says you haven’t told him anything.”

“Exactly. So I guess we’re done here, then.” Anna sat up on the slab and turned to face the far wall, her back to Roland.

“OK, I know you’re upset and frustrated with me. And really, you have every right to be. Things have just gone from bad to worse ever since I brought you here. I wish I could tell you that I’m going to get you out of here, and that we’ll track down your brother again, but I can’t, because I don’t know how I’m going to do that, if it’s even possible.”

Anna didn’t respond.

“But like it or not,” Roland continued, “I’m the closest thing to a friend you’ve got around here. And maybe I haven’t been able to do much lately to inspire a lot of faith in me, but the only thing I can give you right now is a promise, and that’ll have to be enough for now. I’m not going to give up. I’m going to do everything I can to not let you down. And I’m not going to just turn around and desert you, no matter how bleak things might look. None of what’s happened is my fault, but that doesn’t mean it’s still not my responsibility to set things right. And at the end of the day, that’s what we paladins are here for. We are the light when all else is darkness. We are the hope when all hope is lost. And whether or not you believe any of that, it’s true.”

Roland couldn’t tell if his clumsy attempt to raise Anna’s spirits had any effect, as she sat silent and motionless in her cell, looking away.

“You may have turned your back on me, but I’m not going to turn my back on you,” he finished. It was cheesy, and literally false since he’d have to turn around to exit the chamber anyway, but it would have to do until he could return with better news.

Chapter word count: 1,678 (according to wc)
Total word count: 34,754 / 50,000 (69.508% complete)

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Appendix A: Chapter 18

[Editor's note: Chapter 18 of my 2008 NaNoWriMo entry.]

“What I am about to tell you,” Dalton began, speaking slowly and deliberately, “is not to leave this room under any circumstances. You are not to repeat anything that we discuss here to anybody. If you do, you will be spending the rest of your life in a cell much less comfortable than these, and that’s if I happen to be feeling charitable. Do I make myself clear?”

Roland nodded.

“Body language isn’t going to cut it. I need your explicit verbal agreement before we proceed.”

Roland swallowed uncomfortably. He was hardly planning to go against his word, but Dalton’s degree of caution, if not outright paranoia, indicated that whatever Dalton was going to tell him, he thought it was very serious indeed. “I agree not to speak of this with anybody,” he reluctantly said, not knowing just what he was getting himself into.

“Good. Under better circumstances, I would have been content to leave you out of this entirely, but it seems you’ve managed to work your way into this far deeper than you realize, and fate has not seen fit to give me much time. But it seems now you need to know just what it is that’s at stake if we can’t regain control over the boy.”

Roland watched Dalton as he slowly paced back and forth, wishing he would get on with whatever he was going to say.

“You are no doubt aware,” Dalton continued, “of the increasingly strained relations between ourselves and Lantaria.”

“I am,” Roland said.

“And it would probably not surprise you to learn that the Lantarians are preparing for a war with us that they increasingly see to be inevitable.”

“Correct.”

“But you are probably not aware that we have reason to believe that Lantarian agents have been infiltrating the smuggling networks that have grown to reach most parts of the kingdom. We believe Lantaria has been able to place its agents in nearly every single village in the kingdom.”

“To what end?”

“We believe it is to strike at us quickly and decisively if, or more likely when, war is declared. Their goal would be to deal the kingdom a fatal blow before our armies ever engage one another on the battlefield, forcing us to focus on maintaining order and stability behind our borders instead of battling the external threat.”

“What sort of attacks would they be planning?”

“We have not yet been able to get conclusive evidence on that. However, many of us believe that the Doomhammer incident may have been meant as a warning to us of what they are capable of.”

“You think Doomhammer was arson?” Roland asked, dumbfounded.

“We were hesitant at first to attribute it to Lantaria. However, the information you provided us upon arrival here as helped to bolster the case. We now know, thanks to you, that there was activity in the black market there when the fire started. More importantly, though, there was also the fire the night you met Anna, and we know she was tracing the connections of the smuggling network trying to find her brother. That fire may have been started to destroy evidence, thinking Anna was somehow working for us. It could also have been a second warning to us, that they are also capable of striking against villages that are indisputably in our control.”

“That’s it?” Roland asked skeptically. “It sounds to me like a lot of guesswork trying to link together two events that might have just been coincidences.”

“That’s precisely what we’d expect if their agents are as skilled as we believe they are,” Dalton countered. “If they made it too clear they were behind the indicidents, we’d be able to accuse them of it openly, which would let us shift the balance of power in our favor. They need to let us have just enough evidence so that we suspect them, but not enough to call them out on it.”

Roland shook his head. “Even if you’re right about all this, I don’t see what any of it has to do with what happened here.”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Dalton replied. “The boy is powerful, and he has spent extended time with elements associated with the smuggling network, in particular with the one called Mattias. The kid was vulnerable and impressionable; he must’ve been turned to their side while he was being held at Helioth. He would be a valuable asset to them, and since he was acting alone when he escaped, he obviously wants to return to them of his own accord.”

“That doesn’t make sense, though. The way Mattias talked, it sounded like he didn’t much care for us or the Lantarians. Why would he be working for them?”

“And admit to a paladin serving the kingdom of Telerand that he’s secretly plotting the downfall of our kingdom?” Dalton asked, incredulous. “Please. You youself said you couldn’t trust what he said. You’re going to take him at his word now?”

Roland had to agree there was at least some logic to what Dalton was saying, but it still didn’t seem quite right. “So you believe that Derek will be pressed into service into Lantaria’s armies, and you’re trying to get him back so that won’t happen?”

“No, not at all! You’re not listening to what I’m saying. They’re not going to want to use him against our knights.”

“Why not?”

“Because they don’t want to fight our knights at all! Everyone knows our armies are about equally matched, so what is going to happen when they fight each other? Lots of bloodshed, lots of death, and no gains by either side. One individual isn’t going to change that, and putting a kid on the battlefield is just giving your enemy an easy target. Even your Order understood that, back before they lost their stomach for recruiting orphans.”

Roland kept silent.

“Armies clashing on the battlefield is all well and good if you’re trying to tell an epic story, but as an actual strategy it’s terrible unless you have an overwhelming advantage, which we don’t, and neither do they. That’s what everyone did back before the Demon War, and what was the result? Nothing! Kingdoms would fight, exhaust their resources with nothing to show for it except a pile of corpses, agree to a truce, and do it all over again in a year or two. It didn’t work then, and it certainly won’t work now.”

Roland noticed that Dalton’s speech was growing more and more emphatic as he went on.

“So what do you do instead?” Dalton continued. “Attack behind their lines, while their forces are off expecting to fight you directly! Wreck their economy, burn down their villages, and soon the peasants will revolt, demanding the king put a stop to it. And left with the choice of accepting the enemy’s demands or trying to fight both an advancing army and a revolution, what you do think he’s going to do?”

“What makes you so sure this is what’s going to happen?” Roland countered. “All you have is a handful of rumors and a couple coincidences!”

“Because it’s exactly what we’re going to do to them!” Dalton shouted.

Roland and Dalton stared at each other, silent.

“We’ve been working our people into Lantaria’s underground economy for a year now,” Dalton continued, his voice once again relatively calm. “The King doesn’t want to lose half his army fighting over Doomhammer, so we gave him a way to defeat Lantaria if they ever try to press the issue. We’d be naive to assume they aren’t smart enough to figure out the strategy we’re using themselves.”

“Who’s ‘we’?” Roland asked. “The Order would never stand for that, and I doubt the Royal Knights would either.”

“Which is why I’m not with either. The King established the Advance Guard a few years ago to handle these sorts of issues. The Knights here are merely providing me assistance with the less sensitive aspects of my job here.”

“I’ve never heard of any ‘Advance Guard.’”

“Yes, that’s the idea. And you still wouldn’t, if you didn’t need to understand how the future of the kingdom could be at stake if we don’t get Derek back, or at the very least know for certain precisely what he is capable of doing to us.”

Roland took a couple steps back. “You can’t expect me to stand for this. It goes against every ideal the Order is founded on!”

“And is it any wonder why the last time your Order did anything besides ministering shrines was during the Demon War? You are all very noble and idealistic, and I respect that, but the fact of the matter is, the world is neither noble nor idealistic. How many times have you actually led an army to fight evil on the battlefield like you were trained to do? The Order was always really about being the symbol of good leading the way, but with nothing to lead, all that’s left is the symbol. That still has its place, but it’s no longer on the front lines, because ‘the front lines’ today is more a metaphor than anything else.”

Roland fixed his eyes on Dalton. As terrible as what he was saying was, the worst of it was that part of Roland recognized it to be true. The only official duty he could remember ever having in the Order was to go on recruiting trips. Maybe the chronic lack of recruits was a sign that Dalton’s perspective had somehow become rooted in the general consciousness. Maybe the Order really was on the way to being obsolete.

“Where’s Anna?” Roland finally asked, wanting to think about something, anything, less distressing.

“She’s stopped even pretending to be cooperative ever since her brother’s escape. No doubt she knows how he did it, but she refuses to speak to us. We’ve had her moved down to the bottom level until she changes her mind, or in case her brother tries to come and rescue her. I believe we’re done here,” Dalton added as an afterthought.

Roland stood for a few moments, then silently turned and began walking back down the hall towards the entrance.

“If you do still want to help,” Dalton called after him, “you can try talking some sense into the girl. And remember our little agreement.”

Chapter word count: 1,720 (according to wc)
Total word count: 33,076 / 50,000 (66.152% complete)

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Appendix A: Chapter 17

[Editor's note: Chapter 17 of my 2008 NaNoWriMo entry.]

Roland awoke to the sound of someone pounding on the door. A look out the window suggested it was still in the middle of the night, and Roland’s body agreed. He groggily rolled out of bed, pulled on the cloak slung over a nearby chair, and stumbled towards the door. Blinking a few times to help focus his vision, he unbolted and opened the door, revealing two knights standing there, more alert than anyone had a right to be at this time of night.

“Sir Roland,” one of the knights announced, “we have orders to bring you to Sir Dalton.”

“What for?” Roland asked, rubbing one of his eyes.

“You will find that out when you meet Sir Dalton,” the other knight replied. In other words, Roland suspected, they had no idea either.

“Can it wait until morning?”

“We are to bring you before Sir Dalton immediately.”

“Can I at least get properly dressed first?”

The knights looked at each other briefly, before the first one replied, “Make it quick.”

Roland shut the door and let out a heavy sigh. As he hurriedly got dressed, the corner of his mind that wasn’t trying to fall back asleep wondered what was going on. He doubted that Dalton had had a sudden change of heart about Derek, and even if he had, he would have had no reason not to at least wait until morning. More worrisome, sending two knights to deliver the message instead of one seemed a little excessive.

Whatever was going on, Roland knew he would find out soon enough. Mostly awake now due to the flurry of activity, Roland opened the door and saw the two knights standing there, in the same positions as before.

“I’m ready,” Roland said.

“Follow us.”

The two knights led Roland through the dark, empty streets of Blackstone, heading directly towards the castle keep. Once inside, they led him not up to Dalton’s office, but down two flights of stairs to the entrance of the castle dungeon. Dalton was pacing back and forth in front of the doors into the dungeon when Roland and his escorts arrived. The knights brought Roland up to Dalton, then took a couple steps back to stand behind Roland as Dalton turned to face him.

“Tell me everything you know about the boy Derek,” Dalton ordered, “no matter how insignificant.”

“I believe I told you everything I know about him when we spoke earlier,” Roland replied.

“Then tell me again.”

“May I ask first what is so urgent?”

“No.”

Roland knew something was definitely going on, but it looked like the only way he might have a chance to find out what was to go along with Dalton’s request. “OK. Derek is Anna’s younger brother. He was abducted by Mattias during the Doomhammer fire months ago, and was taken to Castle Helioth. Anna tracked down where he had been taken, and I assisted her in rescuing him. I then brought the two of them here.” Part of Roland wanted to add, “where he was then imprisoned again against his or his sister’s will,” but he saw this was a very bad time to raise that issue again.

“I’m well aware of the sequence of events that brought him here,” Dalton replied dismissively. “But what do you know about the boy himself?”

Roland thought for a moment. “Not very much. He seems fairly quiet. Keeps to himself. He’s polite, almost to a fault. Never complains about anything. I was only around him for a week, though.”

“You had said his sister had some minor magical abilities. Does he?”

“I… think so?” Roland replied, hesitantly.

“What are they?”

“I do not know. I never saw him do anything while we were traveling through the forest to get here. If Anna or Mattias hadn’t said anything about it, I probably wouldn’t have suspected he had any to begin with.”

“What did they tell you about his abilities?”

“Not much.”

“Humor me.”

Roland closed his eyes, focusing on remembering the few times it had come up in conversation. “Anna always tried to change the subject whenever it came up. The only thing I can recall specifically is that she said something about him being unlucky, somehow, but she didn’t elaborate. She never did explain what she meant by that. And I think Mattias knew even less than I did. He was guessing that Derek had some kind of magic, but I don’t think he ever saw Derek do anything either. He did say something about Derek maybe being confused or scared about whatever it was, but I think he was just guessing based on Derek’s demeanor.”

Dalton leaned forward, scrutinizing Roland’s face. “And that is everything you know? You’re not forgetting anything or leaving anything out, no matter how insignificant?”

“No.” Roland wondered if Dalton was honestly trying to get more information out of him, or if Dalton was just testing him somehow.

“Then perhaps this might jog your memory. Guards! Follow me.”

Dalton turned and passed through the entrance to the dungeon. The pair of knights behind Roland nudged him forward, and kept close behind as Roland followed Dalton in. They walked past empty cell after empty cell, until they rounded the corner to where Derek was being held.

Roland immediately noticed that the door to Derek’s cell was lying on the floor of the hallway. The edges of the door, especially around the hinges and lock, were bent wildly out of shape, as though struck with great force. Roland’s attention then turned to the splatters of blood on the walls and floor of the hallway. As he slowly walked forward, surveying the scene, his foot slid briefly on some pebbles strewn about the floor. Roland guessed they were from a couple gouges in the stone wall opposite the row of cells.

“I suppose now you understand why I saw the need to keep the boy here instead of letting him go,” Dalton said matter-of-factly.

“What happened here?” Roland asked, trying to come to grips with what he was seeing.

“My men,” Dalton replied, motioning towards a few people in the hallway and in the cell, moving carefully and carrying small notebooks, “are working on figuring that out as we speak. But here’s what we do know for sure. I have six knights in the morgue right now, and four others being treated for severe injuries. Blunt trauma. And, in addition to the damage you can see, the boy is nowhere to be found.”

“So someone broke into the dungeon, came here, busted Derek out of his cell, then fought their way back out?” Roland guessed.

“That was our first guess,” Dalton replied, “but it doesn’t make sense. If someone wanted to silence the boy, it would be easier to just kill him here. Taking him with them would only slow them down and make it more difficult to escape. So the boy must be more valuable than even we had initially thought.”

Roland frowned. “That’s not a terribly convincing argument.”

“It doesn’t have to be; the evidence supports it. Look at where the door of the cell used to be, and tell me what you notice.”

Roland cautiously stepped forward towards the cell. Iron bars ran from floor to ceiling, forming three of the four walls of the cell. The bars along the sides of the door were bent out of shape, as though someone had smashed the lock and beaten the door off its hinges. But something about the damage seemed a little off….

“The damage to the door came from inside the cell?” Roland guessed. “The bars are all bent outwards, towards the hall. If someone on the outside tried to break the door down, the bars would be bent inward.”

“Exactly,” Dalton said. “Plus, the door itself is lying in the hallway, not the cell, so it must have fallen outward. Additionally, the guards outside the keep who witnessed the escape only reported someone exiting the keep, not entering it. The guards in the dungeon itself who might have witnessed what happened are all dead or unconscious. So I turn to you, good Sir Roland, to ask: how is it that a timid young boy, devoid of weapons or outside help, manages to break out of a cell and fight his way through nearly a dozen trained guards?”

“I… I have no idea,” was all Roland could say.

“I do,” Dalton said. “It’s clear to me that the boy is far more dangerous than he appears. Whatever magical abilities he has, it is something far greater than the little parlor tricks you’ve told me about. You had wanted me to let him go free? It seems that my mistake was not having thrown him into a maximum security cell under twenty-four-hour guard!”

“Surely you’re not somehow suggesting I had something to do with this?” Roland asked.

Dalton turned his back to Roland. “No, of course not. The only thing I can accuse you of right now is having bought in to his innocent-boy act. Something which, unfortunately, it seems we all are guilty of. But that is not why I summoned you here tonight,” he continued, turning back to face Roland. “I need to know if there is anything, anything at all, that you know which might tell us how the boy was able to do this, or where he might have gone, or what else he might be planning on doing. The safety of this castle, maybe even of this kingdom, is at stake.”

“You honestly think Derek may have some kind of ulterior motive? He’s still just a boy.”

“A boy who killed six men!” Dalton shouted, pounding his fist in the air against an invisible table. “Maybe ten, depending on whether the survivors are able to recover. Someone capable of that is capable of anything. I don’t care how young he is.”

“Even if he has killed them,” Roland said, raising his voice, “that doesn’t mean he’s evil! He’s been traumatized by everything he’s gone through: losing his parents, being kidnapped, imprisoned, and just when things start looking up for him, imprisoned again, with no hope of ever being free. He finally lashed out when he could no longer bear it. I’m not defending what he may have done here, but he needs our help, not an army treating him like an enemy to the throne! You say you should’ve treated him even more harshly? For all we know, that might be what set him off in the first place!”

Dalton glared at Roland, breathing heavily. Finally, he shouted, “Everyone, leave us. That is an order! Guards, secure the entrance. Lethal force is authorized against anyone who tries to get in until I tell you otherwise. Understood?”

The guards and investigators hurriedly made their way past Dalton and Roland, down the hall and out of view. Dalton stood there, silently, until the sound of the entrace to the dungeon being shut and barred echoed down the now-empty hallway.

“Well then, good Sir Roland, allow me to explain why I think otherwise.”

Chapter word count: 1,847 (according to wc)
Total word count: 31,356 / 50,000 (62.712% complete)

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