Appendix A: Chapter 16

[Editor's note: Chapter 16 of my 2008 NaNoWriMo entry.]

Roland slowly paced through the streets of Blackstone, lost in thought. The promise he had made to Anna weighed heavy in his heart. He felt himself bound to honor it, not merely from an obligation to follow through on a promise but because he felt at least in part responsible for Derek’s current condition, trapped beneath Castle Blackstone, the only person by his side powerless to help him.

Yet he himself felt powerless in this situation as well. Dalton clearly was not going to be swayed easily, if such a thing were even possible, and Roland doubted he would be granted a second opportunity to try in any event. But what else could Roland do?

The irony of the situation cast a heavy shadow on Roland’s heart. In the ruins of Castle Helioth, the very heart of the old evil that had nearly consumed every kingdom, Roland had had little difficulty securing Derek’s freedom. But here, where the kingdom of Telerand held firm control, Roland could do nothing to help him. Roland’s position in the Order gave him all the power he needed to smite evil wherever it lay, but gave him nothing to persuade a bureaucrat.

The setting did little to cheer him up. In every direction, the outer walls of Castle Blackstone loomed over the humble buildings of the town protected within them, blocking all view of the horizon. While those walls were obviously there for the town’s protection, from this angle they looked more like a cage, trapping him metaphorically in the same way that the dungeon walls trapped Derek literally.

As soon as the image had entered his mind, Roland shoved it aside and silently cursed himself for ever having imagined it in the first place. He reminded himself that though he may be lost, he was not powerless. He was still free to act; Derek was not. A true paladin would never give up just because things looked bleak; that was precisely the time when a paladin’s action was most urgently needed. And if Anna had lost her faith in Roland’s ability, that only meant that he must redouble his efforts to be the hope for those for whom all hope was lost.

The path was surely there, even if Roland could not see it. And if he could not see it, then he would need to consult someone who could.

—-

After searching the streets of Blackstone systematically, Roland finally found the Shrine of Yssindria, on the opposite side of town as the building which housed the Order’s sleeping quarters. He had difficulty recognizing it at first; having grown accustomed to the standard building design, he had almost overlooked the emblem of the Order on the curved wall of the building.

Roland entered the building, and stopped just inside the door, wondering if he had been mistaken after all. The room he found himself in was circular. The floors sloped slightly downwards towards the center, where upon a dais stood an alter shaped like a ring with a notch cut out of it. Wooden pews arced around the center of the room, with aisles radiating out from the center like spokes in a wagon wheel. Roland had never seen an altar without a statue of Yssindria standing behind it, and certainly not one where a priest was apparently supposed to stand within the altar itself. Yet this was indeed a shrine to Yssindria, as the images of scenes from the holy books that were engraved around the stone wall attested.

Roland slowly walked around the perimeter of the room until he reached a door on the opposite side of the entrance. Since it was the only other door set along the wall, Roland guessed that this led to the back chamber of the shrine. Roland knocked lightly on the door.

“The next services won’t be held until tomorrow morn–” a voice said from behind the door as it swung slightly inward, stopping once the head of someone wearing the usual vestments of a shrine acolyte poked through the crack. “Oh, my apologies, sir. I had thought you might be another villager asking about the schedule. Is there something I can help you with, sir?”

“Is the head priest in?” Roland asked.

“I believe so, sir. May I assume you wish to speak with him?”

“That is correct,” Roland nodded.

“What shall I tell him you wish to speak with him regarding?”

“I seek his advice on… some matters of pressing concern to me,” Roland replied, not wishing to burden the acolyte with his problems.

“Very well, sir, I shall tell him. Please, take a seat while I let him know a paladin is here to see him.” The door shut.

Roland turned around and began walking down the aisle facing the door. He suddenly found himself unsure of the protocol for approaching the altar. He had been trained to kneel before it to show his respect and obedience to the Lady, but since in this case there was nothing behind the altar other than additional pews, it didn’t seem as though there was anything to pay his respects to. Roland decided to take the middle road, stopping at the third arc from the front, bowing his head briefly, then silently sliding into the pew.

Roland allowed himself to once again become lost in thought about his current situation as he sat and waited for the acolyte to return.

“I never much cared for the layout of this shrine,” a voice next to Roland said softly, snapping Roland out of his thoughts. He turned to see a man dressed in the white and gold clerical vestments of the Order standing in the aisle, looking towards the altar. “But our sculptors could never figure out how to design a statue that looked right from all angles,” the man continued, idly stroking his graying beard. “Besides, putting one in the middle wouldn’t leave much room to move around between it and the altar, so I suppose it’s all for the best.”

“Then why design a shrine in this manner, if I may be so bold to ask?” Roland asked hesitantly.

“You’d have to ask the people who made it. It was originally used to worship one heathen god or another back in the old days, before the Order had ever set foot in Blackstone. And since the castle walls don’t offer much room to expand the town, we had to make do with what we were given when we moved in. Such is life. May I?” The man gestured slightly towards the pew in which Roland sat.

“Of course,” Roland said, sliding back to make room for the head priest.

“I hope you don’t mind if we speak out here, sir…?”

“Roland.”

“Sir Roland. I do have my office in the back if you prefer, but I must warn you the only view available out my window is of the latrine,” he smiled.

Roland shook his head. “Here is fine, your holiness.”

“Please, call me Jonathan. We are all equals in the eyes of the Lady, after all. Now, my assistant tells me there is something that weighs heavily on your mind. What is it that concerns you, Sir Roland?”

Roland explained everything that had happened since he had first met Anna during the fire at the Iron Flagon. Jonathan listened attentively, watching Roland as he spoke and nodding attentively at times, but keeping silent until Roland had finished.

“That is quite a tale,” Jonathan said once Roland became silent. “You have done well in the service of the Lady under difficult circumstances these past few weeks.”

“Even though I have been negligent in my official duties of late?” Roland interjected.

“I do not think anyone will blame you for helping someone in desperate need. Ultimately, the rules for those of us in the Order are to help us help those in need. The Lady will understand if they must be bent now and again if circumstances warrant.”

“Thank you, your holiness, but that is not my true concern. I fear my efforts have ultimately not helped Derek at all, merely changed the identity of his captors. The boy should be with his sister, rebuilding what is left of their family. He does not belong in a dungeon. Yet I do not see what I can do to fix that that I have not already tried to do, and failed.”

“And you wish to do more for him.”

“I wish to complete what I originally set out to do, yes.”

Jonathan leaned his back against the pew and closed his eyes in thought for a few moments. He then said, “There once was a wagon who worked in a farmer’s field. The wagon carried the farmer’s seed as he planted his crop. The wagon carried the farmer’s manure as he fertilized his field. But the wagon also carried the wheat as it was harvested by the field hands. And as the wagon sat unused in the barn that winter, it regretted not being able to have helped the wheat during the harvest.” Jonathan paused, then added, “You, Sir Roland, are that wagon.”

“I am afraid I do not understand,” Roland said.

Jonathan quickly shook his head. “No, I suppose not. Please forgive me, but my congregation here tends to relate to farming metaphors better than to stories from the holy books. The purpose of the wagon is not to help the crop, but to help feed the farmer’s family. Without it, the farmer could do nothing, but not all of the farmer’s work requires the wagon. The wagon does not understand why the wheat must be harvested, and does not see the wheat being milled and turned into food for the farmer’s family. Instead of seeing how he has helped the farmer, the wagon agonizes over what he has done.”

Roland again looked at Jonathan blankly.

“The wagon is you. The task continues, but your role in it is complete. The matter with the boy and his sister is now in the Knights’ hands, as it should be. You should be proud of what you have done for them, and ready yourself for the next job to be assigned to you. You should return to Telerand to receive your next assignment.”

Roland thought of Jonathan’s parable, and finally asked, “So Derek is the wheat?”

Jonathan nodded.

“But the wheat gets ground up in your story. And eaten. So you’re saying that Derek will be sacrificed for the greater good.”

“I… All parables are imperfect, and fall apart if you inspect them too closely,” Jonathan explained. “With more time perhaps I could have come up with a better one, but I did the best I could within the constraints I have. Just as you have done your best with the constraints you have been given. You must accept that and be willing to move on from there. Do you understand?”

“I think I understand,” Roland replied. “I’m just not sure I agree.”

“I suggest you sleep on it. All problems are lighter after a good night’s rest. And if not, I shall still be here.”

Chapter word count: 1,857 (according to wc)
Total word count: 29,509 / 50,000 (59.018% complete)

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Appendix A: Chapter 15

[Editor's note: Chapter 15 of my 2008 NaNoWriMo entry.]

Roland walked through the narrow hallway in the keep of Castle Blackstone, counting the doorways on the right-hand wall as he walked past. The clerk on the first floor had given him directions to the room that Anna had been assigned to during her stay at the castle, and Roland wanted to check how she and Derek were holding up.

As he made his way forward, Roland wondered if the keep had been designed specifically to confuse any invaders who breached the outer walls of the castle. The directions Roland had been given involved a long series of turns down corridors, none of which were clearly labeled. For some reason Roland had needed to climb five flights of stairs, navigate a series of hallways, then go back down two flights of stairs in a completely different stairwell, followed by another series of hallways, to reach this point. Roland had difficulty believing that there wasn’t a more direct way to Anna’s room, but he wasn’t about to get himself lost trying to find it. As undignified as it may be for a paladin to fall for some clerk’s prank, getting lost in one of the kingdom’s own castles was even worse.

Roland finally reached the eleventh door on the right-hand wall, which, assuming he had followed the directions correctly, brought him to Anna’s room. The number 476 carved into the stone next to the door confirmed it. He knocked lightly on the door and waited for a response. Receiving none, he tried knocking again, louder this time. Still no response.

“Anna?” he called, cupping his hands between his mouth and the door. Hearing nothing, he then placed his hand on the door’s handle and nudged the door slightly inward, just enough to feel the door stop against the locking mechanism.

Guessing that she was not in her room, Roland carefully reversed his twisting path through the castle until he reassuringly found himself back in the lobby of the Royal Knights’ barracks within the keep.

“Yes, sir?” the clerk looked up from his counter as Roland strode up. “Is there anything else I can do for you today?”

“Perhaps,” Roland replied. “There was no answer at the door. Do you know if they are in?”

The clerk shook his head. “No, sir. Sir Dalton has asked for her to have unescored access to the barracks, so we are not tracking her movements in and out.”

“So then I suppose you don’t know when they will return?”

“No, sir.” After a pause, he added, “They, sir?”

“Yes, ‘they.’ The girl Anna and her brother Derek.”

“One moment, please, sir, as I check.” The clerk’s head disappeared beneath the counter, and Roland heard the sound of papers being shuffled. “Here we are, sir,” the clerk called as his head reappeared, “Sir Dalton has assigned separate accomodations for the one called Derek.”

“Hmm,” Roland replied. “She may be with him, then. Can you direct me there?”

“Certainly, sir.”

—-

“It’s about time you showed up!” Anna shouted at Roland as he turned the corner. “What kind of sick joke is this?”

The outburst confirmed the fear that had been first formed within Roland when he had descended to the second basement level of the keep, grew when he passed a pair of armed guards, and surged as he passed prison cell after prison cell. As Roland approached, he saw that Derek was sitting on the bed inside the cell immediately opposite Anna.

“I certainly hope you can explain yourself,” Anna said, glaring at Roland.

“I… This…” Roland stammered.

“No, go ahead, I’ll wait,” Anna said. “The two of us have all the time in the world down here.”

“I have no idea what’s going on here,” Roland finally managed to get out.

“No? Then allow me to explain,” Anna continued, livid. “First, you ‘rescued’ my brother from some eccentric but otherwise harmless weirdo. Then you drag us through the forest for a week, rationing our food until there was almost none left, I might add. Finally you bring us to this place, tell us you’re going to take care of everything, and then disappear. Next thing I know, my brother is thrown into a dungeon, and some guy pretending to be a knight, after grilling me for two hours about everything I’ve been through since Doomhammer, warns me against leaving the castle. Does that about cover it?” she asked, turning to Derek.

Derek continued staring at the floor of his cell, silent.

“All I asked Dalton was to give the two of you accomodations until the two of you could get back on your feet,” Roland said quietly.

“Maybe you should’ve been more specific,” Anna replied. She strode up to him. “Well, why don’t you go tell ‘Dalton’ that I’m on my feet now, and Derek will be too once he’s allowed to walk anywhere. But for some reason I don’t think that’s going to be enough for him.”

Roland stood there, silent, trying to think of something appropriate to say. He wanted to say something to calm Anna down, but as far as Roland could tell, she had every right to be angry. He wasn’t sure he could even make the argument that despite being imprisoned, Derek was still better off here than he was in Castle Helioth.

“I’ll speak with Dalton about this,” Roland finally said.

“I’m sure you will,” Anna spat.

Roland looked into Anna’s eyes and said, slowly, deliberately, “I promise, I will see to it that Derek is freed.”

“Once you do, you’ll know where to find me.”

—-

“Ah, hello again, Roland,” Dalton greeted, extending his hand across the desk. “A pleasure to see you again.”

“Dalton,” Roland replied, returning a prefuctory shake before returning to the chair in front of Dalton’s desk.

“So, Roland,” Dalton said, settling himself down into his chair, “what is it I can do for you? You know, normally I don’t take guests on such short notice, but my aid told me you say this is of the utmost importance.”

“It’s about Derek.”

“Hmm, I figured as much,” Dalton replied, leaning back and resting his hands together in his lap. “I assume you’ve learned of the regrettable action we’ve needed to take?”

“You’ve imprisoned him in the dungeon,” Roland said, deliberately keeping his voice level.

“As I said, regrettable. However, technically, we have not imprisoned him. We have merely taken him into protective custody.”

“In the dungeon.”

“Yes, in the dungeon. But it was a necessary action, I assure you, to ensure his own safety.”

“From what, exactly?”

“Why, from the criminals who may be seeking to silence him for the assitance he has given, and hopefully will continue to give, us.”

“How so?” Roland asked, suspicious.

“As you yourself explained when we spoke earlier, the boy’s captors are active in the kingdom’s black market, smuggling contraband in and our of our villages and, yes, even some of our castles. It is very likely that the boy came into direct contact with the various local criminals involved in the black market, as he was taken along what we assume to be the smuggling routes linking Doomhammer to Castle Helioth and all points between. All this means that the boy can give us specific information about who is involved, when they meet, where they meet, and what they do when they meet. This information is essential for our operations to disrupt their activities and apprehend those involved.”

“Pardon my confusion here, but isn’t it the role of the town guards to deal with criminal activity in the villages? Why are the knights involved?”

“In the old days, yes,” Dalton explained. “But that was when criminal activity was confined to individual villages, when it was purely a local problem. But as I said, these smuggling networks operate across much of the kingdom. It’s no longer a local problem, nor one that each town’s own forces can adequately address. That is where the Royal Knights come in; we have both the resources and the jurisdiction to intervene in affairs that affect the kingdom as a whole.”

“But Derek has done nothing wrong,” Roland protested, steering the conversation back to the task at hand.

“He has done nothing wrong to us,” Dalton emphasized. “And if that were the only concern, I would have no problem letting him go free. But criminals do not play by our rules, and they certainly don’t play by yours. Nor can I assume that some of them won’t figure out where we’re getting our information on them once we start cleaning them out of our villages. After all, criminals are just as good at passing information amongst themselves as they are keeping it from us. As tragic as Derek’s circumstances are, having him available to us has been a godsend; it’s the biggest break we’ve had in the issue in quite a while. There are probably many out there who would do anything they can to stop him from helping us.”

“And Derek is helping you freely?” Roland asked.

“Yes, though I admit there have been difficulties getting him to offer information. But my associates are skilled at what they do.”

“How so?” Roland asked, warily.

Dalton held up his hands. “We are not monsters, if that’s what you’re thinking of. But you cannot treat children as though there are merely young adults. He’s too young to understand the rationale for being kept in protective custody, and his sister is too emotionally wound up over his prior captivity to see the reality of the current situation, which is why we’ve needed to act without her consent.”

“And how long will you find it necessary to keep him here.”

“No longer than we have to. But it will take at least several weeks to fully act on the information we now have. Plus, there is the concern that someone may act against him out of revenge rather than to merely stop him from continuing to assist us. So, realistically, if I had to give you a figure, I might say, a year, perhaps? Maybe less?”

“I see.”

“Roland,” Dalton said, rising from his chair. “I understand how you may feel you have a personal involvement in this manner, after what you’ve done for the boy in Castle Helioth. I respect that. However, I’d like to remind you that this matter is now in the hands of the Royal Knights, and I’ve only discussed this much of it with you as a courtesy. While I’m appreciative of all you’ve done so far, I must ask that you leave the rest up to us.”

Roland took the hint and rose from his seat.

“Now if you’ll excuse me, I have other matters that demand my attention. Please ask the guard outside to show you out.”

Chapter word count: 1,799 (according to wc)
Total word count: 27,652 / 50,000 (55.304% complete)

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Appendix A: Chapter 14

[Editor's note: Chapter 14 of my 2008 NaNoWriMo entry.]

That night, Roland got some much-needed sleep in a proper, clean, well-maintained bed for what felt like the first time in months. While the Order’s facilities in Blackstone were hardly luxury, they felt close enough to Roland after weeks of travel followed by about a week of having no bed at all.

Now that the entire situation with Anna and Derek and Castle Helioth was officially handed off to the Royal Knights, Roland could finally focus his attention back on his original assignment. The detour to Blackstone had put Roland far behind schedule and well off his planned route to pass through the villages in the northwestern portion of the kingdom before returning to Castle Telerand and the Order’s headquarters there. But even sticking to the roads, the trip from Blackstone to the next village on his list would take another week at best, and Roland was hardly looking forward to pushing himself that hard to resume what would probably continue to be a futile task.

The other option was to simply write the entire thing off as a loss, return to Castle Telerand, and explain in his report to his superiors what had happened. Roland pulled the map from his pack and held it in front of him as he lay in bed. The journey from Blackstone to headquarters would take around ten days or so, and if he left now he would arrive a few days before he was due.

Roland was reluctant to set out immediately, a feeling he was only partly able to attribute to not yet wanting to get out of bed. A corner of his mind was still preoccupied with the encounter with Mattias, and Roland feared such thoughts would continue to nag at him unless he could prove to himself that there was nothing to worry about. He also still felt the need to make sure Anna and Derek were going to be able to settle in to their new life after their ordeal, and it would be impossible to tell until at least a couple days had passed in Blackstone.

Satisfied that he had adequate justification to delay his departure from Blackstone for at least another couple days, Roland rolled onto his side and went back to sleep.

—-

That afternoon, Roland found himself standing in front of a long, low stone building. Large windows were spaced regularly in the walls, though the glare from the sun made it impossible to see inside. A pair of stone pillars stood on either side of the entrance, but aside from that, little attention had been paid to decorating the building’s exterior. At first Roland hadn’t even been sure this was the building he was looking for, but it was the only one within the castle’s walls that matched the description he had been given.

Roland shrugged and stepped through the entrance, deciding there was only one way to be sure. He entered a small lobby, with a second set of doors leading into what Roland assumed would be the main section of the building. He stepped up to them and was about to reach for the handle when a voice behind him cried out, “Halt!”

Roland instinctively froze, turning to see a guard walking away from a desk at the side of the lobby. “Pardon?” Roland asked politely, unsure of the reason for being stopped.

“All patrons entering the library are subject to search for prohibited items,” the guard explained, “by order of the Royal Archivist. No exceptions.”

“A paladin is to keep his sword by his side at all times,” Roland responded. “Surely you do not believe I am going to go in there and–”

“It’s not the sword I’m worried about, sir. Now, if you would please remove your pack so I can search it.”

Roland reluctantly handed it over to the guard, who set it down on the desk and began rummaging through it. In hindsight, bringing his pack with him was completely unnecessary, but he had done it out of habit from his constant traveling of late.

The guard removed an unlit torch and pouch of flint stones from the pack, and with a look of smug satisfaction, said, “Incindiary devices are prohibited from being taken into the library. You may reclaim them when you depart.” The guard handed Roland his slightly lighter pack.

“Will that be all?” Roland asked, slinging the pack over his shoulder.

The guard nodded. “Thank you for your cooperation,” he said, returning to his desk.

Roland rolled his eyes and grasped the door handle, swinging the door open and stepping through into the library itself.

Roland froze after taking a single step. The room was nearly as bright as it was outside. Sunlight streamed in from every window and, as Roland saw as he looked upwards, from the countless windows that nearly covered the ceiling. The light reflected off the dust suspended in the air, revealing the outline of each individual beam. As he traced their path through the air, he saw that some of them fell on mirrors mounted to the pillars supporting the roof; these mirrors reflected the light down the narrow aisles between rows and rows of wooden shelves, each one crammed with all manner of books. Only now, once the initial shock of seeing the room wore off, did Roland notice the dozen tables immediate in front of him, with a few scholarly-looking men seated at them and staring at thick tomes opened before them.

“It’s an impressive sight, isn’t it?” a voice called softly from Roland’s right.

Roland turned to see a man standing behind a desk next to the door.

“It’s easy to tell first-time visitors to our library; they get that exact look on your face,” the man continued.

“It’s… certainly something,” Roland agreed.

“My grandfather designed it way back in the day. All the sunlight means we don’t have to have torches or anything set up to light everything up, which means we don’t have to worry about the whole place burning down some day. My grandfather didn’t keep this place running even through the Demon War just to see it all go up in smoke just because some careless visitor dropped his torch. Of course, it means we need a full staff of people just to keep all the windows and everything clean, but it’s worth it.”

“I see,” Roland said, absently.

“I’m the head librarian, by the way, in case you hadn’t figured that out,” the man added. “Is there something I can help you find?”

The question returned Roland’s mind to the purpose behind his visit. “Maybe. This might be something of an odd request, but do you have anything that dates back to the Demon War?”

“You’ll need to be more specific than that, I’m afraid; we have records all the way back to the founding of this very castle.”

“I’m looking for books or documents or something that might’ve come from Castle Helioth.”

“Oh? Oh!” the librarian’s eyes lit up. “We do have a few items in the special collection that might be what you’re looking for. Follow me.”

The librarian reach behind the desk for a ring of keys. He then led Roland to a locked door at the far end of the library, and opened it to reveal a small, darker, but still surprisingly bright, room.

“This is where we protect the historical artifacts that are too rare or valuable to leave in the open collection,” the librarian explained, as he led Roland through shelves. Unlike the ones he saw before, these shelves contained various valuable and not-so-valuable items along with a smaller number of bound volumes. “It’s rare for someone to ask for something we have here. Most of the time, we just get servants sent by one lord or another to look up some decree or deed or something. Ah, here we go: Helioth artifacts, Demon War period, shelf one of one.”

Roland looked at the shelf before them. Upon it sat half the hilt of a sword, a scrap of black fabric from what might have been a uniform, and a small leather-bound volume.

“It’s not much, but the valuable-looking spoils were probably sent off to Castle Telerand to be displayed as trophies,” the librarian sighed. “I’ll be over by the entrance in case you need anything. Let me know when you’re ready to be let out.” The librarian bowed slightly, squeezed past Roland, and walked back the way they came.

Slowly, Roland reached up and picked up the book. He carefully opened the front cover and saw, written in large letters on the first page:

Folzyej Gaguoghn Zaekvec
Sicopi Cnbui

Roland wasn’t about to try to wrap his tongue around those words, but their presence here suggested the journal Mattias had shown might not have solely been the product of a delusional mind. Roland turned another couple pages and his eyes fell on another passage:

14 Esgoc, 4 Zasoed

Cocydk ocbupwc meelaq. Vogwyv vuxomcy hajxexyr bizabu gapeetovh qaqbbal. Leujnoajehw ojguhivux cibxic qygt’c hjaj gag ka jjusoky muiz gvuj. Hajzloqvetw jujenbd nuxn kokc xuul’x gefxtoqw nagv. Cohh iz mqagcispu bicxuut xykz oqq vogwyv kva teina? Vuux zebkvaj dkehu.

Roland couldn’t read it either, but the handwriting looked shaky, as though the author was uncertain of what he was doing. It was almost as though the author had only recently learned to write, but the lettering wasn’t quite that rough. Many words were scratched out and re-written, and even though Roland had no idea what it said, he had a hunch that several words were misspelled.

Roland gingerly leafed through the book, seeing page after page written in a similar style. There was a sudden shift beginning with one page about two-thirds of the way through, with the passage:

23 Duqcycbik, 4 Fivueg

Didhydj! Nujhun og ebla bi hiuq efx djyki sobudcca et haru ngijmk ca yfcneufda at guxrkodaq geln gwuln. Blek dokc huhu poovvouqojx ngy bukaibqv baohtuc cidg yejuaj efx nydj ikjih-qkaju.

Ngod ots avwik juqiqb didhydjix ojguhivu qkywogubyatx bi coevqw ngy tetuc whabyqk duv mufov ewiuq iz khnugeny.

The writing suddenly became much cleaner, as though produced by a master scribe. Roland still couldn’t read it at all, though. He continued paging through the book until he came upon the final passage, after which came only blank pages:

1 Zily, 6 Fivueg

Y oh uzefxivyff vu bukaibqv. Zab jutbuut vajkvx vin ngy vogwyv ac cnu guxrkodaq geln gwuln bi ginofug hajkgic iz ngy gagnq va ha nej kjyjk iryby xuu yf ngy qokccu cumjehy, xbogyovh wuxbihuag iz pubvcix ciff jidk. Ngybu ux vi etsoqonoaj kvog geln tlotwy, jag gifu U sodqarybux u xey ni qyjqack kva lexuh ajqi ob lok myuf dugv.

E divqcesy vwoc bluka imelobyuk uju kai qyzcotocn ca qatcjic cij ecl mev kva lijn mided im vokpg, tag dnyqv ob yj tib gagcn vwi xbbouq ab uczabk ni tejn cnu powoq et cnu zukgv slutu. E kgikc mayw sikoiguh xekdg afug cnu coxb vogwyv, ec ivky aeb iz dejyakoba, bec O ra tib efnotysocy efy hneffa.

Roland carefully returned the book to its shelf. He had no idea how to even begin to interpret the passages contained within, but it did tell him one thing. Mattias had indeed found something in the ruins of Castle Helioth, and if he did have a way to read what Roland could only assume was some kind of dark writings, he could become very dangerous indeed.

Chapter word count: 1,909 (according to wc)
Total word count: 25,853 / 50,000 (51.706% complete)

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Appendix A: Chapter 13

[Editor's note: Chapter 13 of my 2008 NaNoWriMo entry.]

“Please step right in, sir, and take a seat. He’ll be in to speak with you shortly.”

The guard gestured towards the open doorway. Roland nodded in response and stepped through, entering a small gray room. “A seat” was accurate; a single wooden chair sat in front of the long wooden desk that dominated the room. A much more comfortable-looking padded leather chair stood behind the desk, Roland guessed that that one wasn’t the one being offered to him.

The door slammed shut behind him, and now the only light entering the room came through a series of narrow slits in the stone wall. The openings were much wider on the inner part of the wall than the outer. Though Roland knew little about archery — such matters were typically left to castle guards — he did recognize the basic design, allowing bowmen to fire out through the openings at almost any angle while making it exceedingly difficult for return fire to pass the other way.

Seeing little else to do, Roland sat down in the chair and surveyed the rest of the room, which didn’t take long. The left wall, opposite the windows, had a row of hooks mounted along the top for hanging tapestries, though none of them were currently in use. Along the far wall, behind the desk and to either side of the other door into the room, stood a pair of heavy wooden cabinets with locks on the front. Given the side of the desk, Roland guessed it too had storage compartments on the other side, probably also locked.

Roland briefly mused about a bureaucrat occupying the office, alternating his duties between shuffling papers and firing arrows at attacking armies outside the windows. Of course, office space was probably not the original purpose of the room. But whatever the intentions the designers of Castle Blackstone had for the room, the Royal Knights of the Kingdom of Telerand had other uses for it. Assuming the original designers had given it much thought to begin with; for a castle named Blackstone, there was surprisingly little actual black stone to be found in its construction.

Having looked at everything to be seen in the room, Roland fixed his eyes on the far door, through which he assumed his interviewer would eventually pass, and let his thoughts turn to his journey from the past week.

He had managed to lead Anna and her brother through the forests outside Castle Helioth. The ordeal had reminded Roland of how much his survival skills had atrophied since he had gone through the Order’s training program. He had come across little that looked even remotely edible as they passed through the trees, save for some mushrooms, and Roland remembered just enough about mycology to know he had no idea how to distinguish the edible ones from the poisonous ones. As a result, the three of them survived on the dried foods he had packed before leaving Derinham.

Between the challenges navigating beneath the forest canopy with few landmarks to orient around, the slowly but steadily diminishing food supply, the continued lack of signs of being pursued, and Anna’s frequent protests about not wanting to wind up dying lost in the woods, Roland had finally acquiesced, and the three emerged from the forests near the road between the village of Fairgold’s Bluffs and Castle Blackstone. In retrospect, Roland thought, at least his navigation skills hadn’t been too bad.

The three had spent the night at an inn along the road. Though he had taken a separate room next to Anna’s, he spent most of the night watching the hall for any signs of trouble. He was relieved when they finally made it to the castle, as now Roland would finally have a chance to rest and not have to keep constant vigil over Anna and her brother.

As he thought of the previous week, Roland considered how Anna’s brother Derek had said little, and hadn’t complained at all about what must have been a difficult journey for him. Roland had tried to engage him in conversation a few times, and while he was polite almost to a fault and seemingly appreciative of the rescue, and definitely happy to be reunited with his sister, he spoke little about his time at Castle Helioth, and to listen to him had hardly even minded his captivity there. Roland had been concerned that his behavior might be covering some kind of trauma, but Anna had insisted that this was simply how her brother had always behaved.

Roland briefly wondered whether Mattias might have been right about what he had said about Derek, that whatever power he had, it confused him or scared him, or both. Roland had tried a couple times along to journey to ask Anna about it, but each time she had quickly changed the subject, and Roland hadn’t pushed her on it.

Roland’s thoughts snapped back to the present as the door on the far side of the room swung inward, and a man passed through, clutching a small stack of papers. He closed the door silently behind him and stepped behind the desk.

“Ah, you must be Roland, paladin third class of the Order of Yssindria,” the man said, glancing down at the papers as he said Roland’s official rank. He stretched his hand over the desk towards Roland. “Welcome to Castle Blackstone.”

“Thank you,” Roland replied, lifting himself from his seat to shake the man’s hand before they both sat down in unison.

“I have been told you have an urgent matter you wish to discuss with the Royal Knights, correct?” the man began.

“Yes, but,” Roland hesitated, eyeing the man behind the desk. He was not dressed in the usual garb of a knight. If anything, the man’s clothes reminded Roland more of a merchant than anything. “I’m sorry, sir, but I had been told I was going to be speaking with one of the knights overseeing this region, and….”

The man smiled knowingly. “Yes, ordinarily that would be the case, but given the current circumstances, I’m sure you understand how most of the knights are rather tied up with other duties at the moment.”

“Sir?”

The man flipped through the papers he had brought, until hitting upon something that caught his notice. “Ah, right, sorry, you’ve been a bit out of the loop while you’ve been out on your latest mission. I suppose you’ll have ample time to get caught up on current events, but suffice it to say for now that I’ve been brought in as a sort of independent consultant to fill a few desks while the knights are off doing more pressing things. You can call me Dalton, by the way, no ‘sir’ necessary. Now, do you have any other questions for me before we get started?”

“Just one, if you don’t mind.”

“Not at all.”

“Shouldn’t the two I brought with me be here too to speak with you?”

“All in good time, Sir Roland. It’s more beneficial at this stage to interview each of you separately about what you know, so that people are more confortable telling their side of things, especially if there’s a disagreement or discrepancy in your stories.”

“You think one of us might by lying?” Roland asked.

“Not at all,” Dalton quickly replied, “but each of you surely experienced different things during the incident at Castle Helioth. It’s my job here to listen to the three different accounts, put them all together into a unified picture of what happened, and recommend to the Knights what action they need to take. Getting unfiltered testimony from each of you is essential for the process to work. Trust me, it’s what I’ve been trained to do, and it’s why I’ve been assigned to work this issue on the Knights’ behalf.”

Roland nodded in acceptance.

“Good. Now, why don’t we begin at the beginning.”

Roland related the tale: how he had met Anna, how he had learned about her brother’s captivity, how they traveled to Castle Helioth, how they got separated, how he fought Mattias, what Mattias had told him of Derek’s kidnapping and his ultimate plans, and how the three of them had escaped the castle and made their way to Blackstone. All the while, Dalton sat at the desk, nodding silently and writing something on the papers he had brought with him.

“It’s certainly quite a story,” Dalton remaked once Roland had finished. “You did the right thing bringing this to our attention. Now if you don’t mind, I have some follow-up questions before I let you go and bring in the next person for their account.”

“Not at all.”

“Good. Let’s start with the basics. How many men do you believe are at Helioth?”

Roland thought, replaying events again in his mind and counting the number of people he encountered. “It’s hard to say. There was Mattias himself, of course. And there was one standard guard over Derek, presumably the whole time, so that’s two. And at least one to kidnap Anna, so three. At least three. Probably more, but that’s all I saw.”

“I understand. Now, think carefully. Tell me everything Mattias told you about his connections to the black market.”

Roland tried to remember. “Not very much, other than that he was involved in it somehow.”

“Did he mention any specific villages? Any numbers? Routes? Goods? Any details you can remember would help us greatly.”

“Well,” Roland replied slowly, “he did say he was in Doomhammer the day of the fire. Something to do with establishing connections there.”

“I see,” Dalton replied, writing a bit more quickly than before. “Did he say who he was meeting with? Or what the outcome of those negotiations might have been? Anything else that happened?”

“Um… no. Just that he was there, and that he fled the town as the fire spread, taking Derek with him.”

“Mmm,” Dalton frowned. “Any other villages he had dealings with in the black market or in criminal syndicates? Anything like that.”

Roland shook his head. “Not that he said explicitly. But if I had to speculate–”

“Please do.”

“If I had to speculate, he at least has to have some kind of contacts in the towns between Doomhammer and Helioth, since that’s how he must’ve had to travel. And Anna managed to track him, or rather track Derek, through word of mouth back along that path.”

“Did she tell you how?”

“Not really, no. I know she at least worked sometimes at a tavern, and as an, um, street performer, but I don’t know if that had anything to do with it. I was never around when she was collecting information.”

“Well, I’m sure she’ll be able to fill in those details for us. Anyway, I believe that will be all the questions I have for now, but I ask that you keep yourself available for a follow-up session. Did you have any plans to leave Blackstone anytime soon?”

“Um, no,” Roland replied, feeling a little confused. “Did you want to ask about Mattias’s plans to start his own war against the kingdom? Um, sort of?”

Dalton smiled and shook his head. “Delusions of grandeur or the ravings of a madman, no doubt. It’s hardly anything to worry about. You didn’t see anything there that suggested he actually had the ability to do such a thing, did you?”

“No,” Roland admitted. “But what about his magical abilities?”

“We’ve dealt with other criminals that were good at hiding. He won’t pose a problem.”

“But I saw how he–”

“It was dark,” Dalton interrupted. “You said so yourself. It was hard to get a good look at him. I understand that. But you shouldn’t put too much stock in tales like that. Criminals love to spread stories about themselves; it helps keeps their victims from putting up too much resistance.”

“I suppose,” Roland said, unsure. “But I do have one request before I go.”

“Yes?”

“Anna and Derek have been through a lot, and they don’t really have anywhere else to go. Would it be too much trouble for the Knights to give them someplace to stay while they’re here, at least before they can get back on their feet?”

Roland thought that Dalton, for a moment, looked slightly taken aback, but quickly regained his composure. “Oh, no problem at all. In fact, I was going to insist. I’m here to do whatever I can to help, after all.”

“Thank you.”

“And thank you, Sir Roland, for you assistance in this matter,” Dalton said, standing up. “We’ll be in touch.”

Chapter word count: 2,098 (according to wc)
Total word count: 23,944 / 50,000 (47.888% complete)

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Appendix A: Chapter 12

[Editor's note: Chapter 12 of my 2008 NaNoWriMo entry.]

Roland stepped into the doorway of the room. Inside, he saw Anna bent down on one knee, hugging a young boy he assumed to be Derek. Looking around, the room indeed didn’t look so much like a prison cell as it did a makeshift bedroom. A bed, with a missing leg propped up by a couple of stones, stood in the far corner of the room. Several upended crates, some with clothes slung over them, made up the rest of the room’s furnishings. An old wooden bucket and a man standing guard just inside the doorway completed the scene.

“You see,” Mattias beamed, “completely safe and unharmed.”

Roland grunted. “It’s hardly an appropriate place to raise a child.”

“Well, I never said it was a long-term solution. And to be fair, this is one of the few rooms that hardly leaks at all when it rains. Besides, it’s not as though he weren’t free to roam about within reason.”

“You have him under guard!” Roland protested.

“Surely you aren’t suggesting I let a boy run around, unsupervised, in a bunch of dark, decaying ruins,” Mattias protested. “He’s more of a babysitter than anything.”

“And if he wants to leave?”

“I’d encourage it, in fact, now that she’s here to watch over him. Don’t get me wrong, he seems like an OK kid to me, and he did help out a bit with exploring a few of the less-dangerous areas, but taking care of him has been slowing us down, even if he does mostly keep out of trouble.”

Roland turned to look at Mattias. “If you’re really so concerned about the boy’s welfare, why did you bring him here of all places?” he finally said, exasperated.

“Hmm. Well, I suppose I never did you give a straight answer to your question back there of what I’m doing here, did I?”

“No, you didn’t.” Roland glanced at Anna and Derek, neither of whom seemed to have noticed their presence at the doorway to the room yet.

“OK, it’s like this. Have you ever wondered why Telerand and Lantaria have been at each others’ throats ever since the end of the Demon War.”

“No,” Roland signed, chiding himself for having expected Mattias to actually give a straightforward answer to a question.

“Or, more to the point, why they weren’t at each others’ throats during the Demon War?”

Roland stared at Mattias, making it clear the answer was obvious.

“Exactly! They faced a common threat, and had just enough sense to put aside their petty squabbles long enough to fight it off.”

“The disputes between Telerand and Lantaria are hardly petty,” Roland protested. “If only the Lantarians would listen to reason and–”

“Please,” Mattias said dismissively, raising his voice. “Tantrums about on which side of Doomhammer a line on a map should be drawn when the two kingdoms are too large to manage the territory they conquered in the Demon War as it is? Or the ever-popular argument of whether those of us with magical abilities should be forcibly conscripted into the king’s armies or merely shunned from society? You’re right, they’re not petty, they’re asinine. And the two sides seem to be increasingly eager to go to war to prove who’s right. And if you think Doomhammer was devastated by a fire, imagine what’ll happen when two armies start fighting each other in towns all along the border.”

Mattias paused, taking a few slow, deliberate breaths before continuing.

“Sorry, but even if I did think once side or the other was undeniably in the right, no offense, and even if a war was going to settle it instead of triggering a cycle of revenge like the ‘good old days’ before the Demon King, the damage done still wouldn’t be worth it. Now tell me, good Sir Roland, if you had a chance to prevent all that from happening, wouldn’t you take it?”

“I’m listening.”

“History has shown that the only thing that will make Telerand and Lantaria be civil to each other — or at least start leaving each other alone — is if they’re too busy fighting some common threat. Therefore, what they need is a common threat.”

Roland worried that he was starting to see where this was going.

“Legends are notoriously unreliable, but here, I should be able to dig up enough information, no pun intended, to learn what the so-called Demon King actually did, and more to the point, how he actually managed to accomplish it. And armed with that knowledge–”

“You’re going to start a second Demon War?” Roland exclaimed. “You’re mad!”

“Frustrated with the status quo, actually,” Mattias corrected. “And no, I’m not actually going to start a new Demon War; that’s probably the only thing worse than the inevitable war we’re lurching towards now. No, I’m going to make the powers that rule this land think I’m starting a new Demon War.”

Words failed Roland. Except one. “How?”

“That,” Mattias admitted, “I haven’t quite figured out yet. Maybe some kind of phony magical doomsday device that both kingdoms will somehow need to work together to stop from being activated? Mind you, this is a long-term goal here. I’m talking years, not days. Whatever it ends up being, it’ll have to be something that looks like it poses an existential threat to everyone yet will keep the actual bloodshed to a minimum.”

“A minimum?”

“Well, ideally that minimum would be zero, but I’m not naive enough to think that nothing will go wrong. Really, the whole destroy-or-conquer-the-world thing is intended to fail, so something has to go wrong, right?”

“I’ve heard enough,” Roland said, raising his sword. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t kill you right now and make sure your foul plans never succeed.”

“I’ll give you several,” Mattias replied, seemingly unintimidated. “If you really intended to kill me, you’ve had ample opportunity to do it, so you’re clearly just posturing now. Second, you don’t think I could actually pull such a crazy-sounding plan off. Third, we’re really on the same side, you and I, trying to save as many lives as possible. Fourth, deep down, you know I’m right about the coming war, and just don’t want to admit it. Shall I continue?”

Roland reluctantly lowered his sword and returned it to its sheath. “Don’t misunderstand me, I just don’t want to traumatize the boy by spilling your blood in front of him.”

Mattias smiled. “Whatever you say; I’ll just have to make sure I personally escort the three of you safely back the way you came, then, won’t I? Speaking of which,” he continued, turning to Anna and Derek, “I believe the two of you ought to start heading back before it gets too dark out. A place like this is no place to raise a young boy, after all.”

Mattias led the three back through the series of narrow halls. Anna followed behind, holding Derek’s hand firmly as he walked beside her. Roland stayed at the rear, keeping one hand on the hilt of the sword, ready if Mattias or any of his men should try anything.

“Well, here we are,” Mattias said when they had reached an opening in the outer wall, different than the one Roland and Anna had originally entered through. “Do be careful out there; the two of you have been through so much already. And Roland,” he added, “having a set of eyes and ears in your Order would help me out a lot. Don’t, I know what you’re going to say, but my offer still stands should you reconsider. I’m sure you’ll figure out a way to get a message to me if you do. And with that, I bid you good day.”

Roland let Anna, still clutching Derek’s hand, lead the way as they walked away from Castle Helioth. Roland certainly wasn’t going to take his eyes off of them until they had put a good long distance between themselves and Mattias’s henchmen.

“Don’t say anything, just keep walking straight,” he said.

And they did, down one hill, up another, and then back down. Roland occasionally chanced a quick look behind them, waiting until they were double the distance it took to be out of sight of the castle before he said anything else.

“If we head south from here, we should come to a forest,” he finally said. “We should go that way.”

“But Derinham is up ahead this way,” Anna said, pointing forward with her free hand.

Roland shook his head. “It’s not safe there. You learned yourself it’s a waypoint in the castle’s supply lines. We can’t risk Mattias’s men finding us there. Or out here, in the open. We’ll be harder to track in the forest.”

“Are we being followed?” Anna asked, her voice hushed.

“Maybe. I don’t see anyone, but Mattias’s men know this area a lot better than we do.”

“Hang on,” Anna said, her voice back at its normal volume, “why would they be following us anyway? That guy, what was his name?”

“Mattias.”

“Right. He let us go.”

“He’s up to something. He has to be. Normal people don’t live in ruins, normal people don’t abduct children, and normal people definitely don’t fight you and then let you go as if nothing happened.”

“He seemed OK to me. Well, relatively.”

“You didn’t spend much time talking to him, did you?”

“No. Why? What did he say?”

“Don’t worry about it.” He doubted Anna would believe him. Really, he didn’t believe it himself. But whatever Mattias really was up to in there, Roland was sure it was trouble, and it had to be stopped. But he wasn’t going to be able to stop it himself, especially not with two people that needed protection.

Anna threw up her hands in resignation. “Fine, we’ll go to the forest then. Come along, Derek.” She turned to head south, and Roland followed. “So if we aren’t going back to Derinham, where are we going?”

“Someplace where you’ll be safe,” Roland replied. “And someplace where they’ll be able to take care of Mattias, no matter what he tries.”

Chapter word count: 1,687 (according to wc)
Total word count: 21,846 / 50,000 (43.692% complete)

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Appendix A: Chapter 11

[Editor's note: Chapter 11 of my 2008 NaNoWriMo entry.]

Roland stared at Mattias in disbelief. Only minutes ago, he had been fighting for his life against the man before him. Now Mattias was offering a handshake and grinning, seemingly oblivious to the glowing sword Roland held poised to strike him down at a moment’s notice.

“Roland,” he replied warily, opting not to extend his hand in return. “How about you explain to me why you consider kidnapping a defenseless young boy to be saving the world.”

“OK, two points there,” Mattias explained. “First, the kid really doesn’t have anything to do with the whole ‘saving the world’ business. And second, I didn’t kidnap him; I rescued him from Doomhammer when the place was on the verge of burning up. Or burning down. It’s hard to tell which it is when you’re in the middle of it.”

Roland saw this was going to be a long and painful interrogation. “Normally when you rescue someone, you don’t carry then off halfway across the kingdom and lock them away in a dungeon somewhere, hiding them away from the only family they have left.”

“Ah, yes, I can see how one might get that impression. I suppose it is partly my fault for letting those kinds of preconceptions get the better of you,” he chuckled. “It was all for his own protection, I assure you.”

“Really.”

“I suppose a little background might shed some light on the situation. I was in Doomhammer the day of the fire, trying to establish some… connections with the locals, shall we say. But that part’s not important. When the fire started spreading uncontrollably, we got out of there as fast as we could. Along the way, though, we came across a boy standing in the street by himself, crying his eyes out. Everyone else was too busy running around to notice, and I could hardly leave him there when the entire city was about to go up, so I did the only reasonable thing and brought him with us.”

“And locked him away in a dungeon.”

“Technically, these are ruins, not a dungeon. I suppose there were dungeons around here at some point. I mean, what kind of castle doesn’t, after all? And he’s hardly ‘locked away’ at all; he’s free to leave whenever he wants. Well, almost whenever; I’m hardly going to let him wander off alone. It isn’t safe.”

Roland gave Mattias a pointed look.

“Right, sorry. Why I brought him here. Those ‘connections’ I mentioned? They’re sort of the… black market variety. And since I assume someone as respectable as yourself doesn’t have much dealings with them, I should explain that one of the commodities that sometimes get traded on the black market are… well, I don’t see any nice way to put this, so I’ll just come right out and say it: orphans.”

Roland sharpened the point.

“Now don’t get the wrong idea,” Mattias quickly added, raising his hands defensively, “I stay clear of that bit. I stick to dealing in goods that aren’t getting to where they need to go, because of taxes or shortages or whatever. But you see why I could hardly go around asking, ‘anybody lose a child?’ And when I started getting word through my chains of contacts that a young woman was snooping around asking about a kid who matched his description, and their description of the woman matched what the kid said his sister looked like, well, I decided to let events run their course. I figured anyone just looking to scam a kid off of me would give up long before they got here. And hey, it all worked out, didn’t it? They probably had their tearful reunion right around the time you were slamming me into the floor.”

“If that’s so, why don’t you take me to them,” Roland said, his voice making it clear it wasn’t a so much a request as an order.

“Not at all,” Mattias replied, picking one of the torches up off the ground. “Follow me.”

Mattias began leading Roland through a series of passageways. Roland kept his sword drawn and at the ready, not sure if Mattias was being sincere or just leading him into another trap. As a nice side effect, though, the sword cast its own light on the passages around them.

“If you don’t mind my asking,” Mattias began.

“I mind,” Roland interrupted.

Mattias continued anyway. “How do you make your sword glow like that?”

“The blessings of the Lady Yssindria, divine protector of this kingdom, imbue it with the power to smite evil.”

“Yes yes, I’ve heard the story before, but that’s not what I asked. How do you make it do that? It obviously can’t detect evil; it’s a piece of metal with a handle stuck on one end. And even if it could, since I’m not actually evil, that wouldn’t work anyway. Furthermore, since you think I am in fact evil, it must be something you’re doing to it. Is it some kind of magic, perhaps?”

“Hardly,” Roland spat. “The Order does not stoop to such trickery.”

“If you say so.” Mattias waved his hand dismissively. “But swords don’t glow of their own accord, naturally. Here, if it isn’t magic, then I should be able to make it glow too. Do you mind if I give it a try?”

“Try it and you’re dead,” Roland warned.

“Look, I’m not trying to trick you. Anymore, at least. How about this: have you ever tried to smite something that wasn’t evil?”

“Why would I do such a thing?”

“I’m just wondering if it’s somehow responding to your desire to smite something. Besides, anyone who’s ever studied philosophy knows how difficult it is to precisely define ‘evil’ anyway, so I doubt a piece of metal would somehow be able to make the distinction even if it could somehow try.”

Roland didn’t reply, hoping the silence would shut Mattias up. It didn’t work.

“But if it is magic,” Mattias continued after a brief pause, “well, that would be interesting. Tell me, have you ever studied the different theories of magical abilities?”

Roland tried again.

“Well, once you get past the part about it being passed through heredity, all the explanations floating around start to diverge. One of the more fanciful ones is that, long ago, a divine being of great power split himself into pieces and hid himself within countless mortals. There’s dozens of entertaining stories about why that might have happened, but that’s not relevant here. The theory goes, all those bloodlines manifest themselves as magical abilities, and they’re all trying to reunite with each other to resurrect that original being. I’m… not entirely sure I want to visualize how that would work. But I have it, and I think the boy does, which means his sister probably does too, and if you have it as well, well, the fact that fate seems to have brought us all together way out here does make you think, doesn’t it?”

“What power does the boy have?” Roland asked, curiosity finally getting the better of him.

Mattias shrugged. “Beats me. He doesn’t say much, and he hasn’t done anything obvious since we met, but something in the way he behaves reminds me of myself when I was his age. Whatever it is, he’s either confused about it or scared of it. Maybe both. Say, was I right about his sister, by any chance?”

Roland ignored him. “And what is your power then, exactly?”

“Why, haven’t you figured it out by now?” Mattias answered, bemused. “I am utterly unremarkable in any way. People just see that I’m there, and extrapolate everything else from whatever cues I might give them. Believe me, growing up it felt like I curse, especially with not being able to control it, but when you’re dealing in the black market, being able to leave a trail of eyewitnesses who can’t accurately describe a thing about you comes in pretty handy.”

It sounded ridiculous, but Roland reluctantly had to acknowledge it at least explained his experience fighting Mattias earlier. The armor, the flames — all of it had seemed real enough.

“Anyway,” Mattias continued, “I came across that theory of magic in my research into the Demon King, which is what originally brought me here in the first place. Some thought the Demon King was the reincarnation of that divine being. Me, I don’t buy it.”

“And why is that?”

“Well, I don’t see how a divine being — assuming they even exist in the first place, which is a whole other issue we could get into — could be killed by a sword. It also doesn’t fit with the evidence my men and I have uncovered while exploring the ruins here. Here, take a look at this.”

Mattias turned and, with one hand, clumsily paged through his notebook. He found a page and held it out to Roland to read. The margins were crammed with scribbles, and the words on the page were circled and underlined seemingly at random:

Cotomujnubyat og mitp. Bluga ibu ti qiqevyjkis tejix at otyaju vukyff cnu opocyky ca qahvijg “huhu pi u gefxdoqw” oqq losa blu kuvrnuhn esqaib aec at kva yvwik. Ojqoqbekuivd ots gi-qoncug “hupyq jijrj” oky vaa. Ivu qoq glaec “niqex riqex” ab “opkiqoxuzbo” ak “gniiulyjv igdeckihu” eqbyc aqy yj pneu et cnu zohy, geng vi uczyqk acnuh ngij caihyff nopu oq oreac.

Niniryb, nvub cofot qot sa yj uqmkiiqtu apbyqkk cnek onjuoxy ysekc. Blu iroruthy eknagvj ni blek, uvr ek evrekjevux. Mev nvub ehi jyisla, ot fac avwik amrihbd ka my cotorococyr? Gaag didg rinik ikja asyjn? Hij E uvriji vu Geln aj otiblug, xa vwoc bluuk iqkuivd oga vik xkofut mu vwioj int Dokc peb my ngy Geln at Vonmuok? O rbaqigu kvub yk duv. Vwux fiigqik jvuck jikku ok kyqags at py utleirycutcg yf ngod ogai. Ufx soqkocoif.

“This is gibberish,” Roland said.

“At first glance, yes,” Mattias agreed, “but I believe I have made some headway into deciphering it. And this isn’t the only sample I’ve recovered. I’m certain that these records, which seem to refer to someone called ‘William of Valfeas,’ hold the key to understanding the true power of the Demon King.”

“And that is?”

Mattias motioned towards a doorway at the end of the hall. “Here we are.”

Chapter word count: 1,717 (according to wc)
Total word count: 20,159 / 50,000 (40.318% complete)

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Appendix A: Chapter 10

[Editor's note: Chapter 10 of my 2008 NaNoWriMo entry.]

Roland slowly turned back around. He saw a figure at the other end of the chamber, holding a torch. The light from the torch illuminated the suit of blood-red armor that the figure wore, the light gleaming off the spikes that adorned the armor’s helmet and shoulders. The helmet’s visor was raised, but at this distance Roland could see nothing inside it other than darkness.

Roland instinctively moved his hand to the hilt of his word. “What have you done with her?” he demanded.

“She will soon meet the same fate as the boy,” the figure replied, motionless except for the light atop its torch.

“What do you want with her?”

“That is none of your concern.”

“Who are you?” A terrifying thought bubbled forth from the back of Roland’s mind. “Are you–?”

“The Demon King?” the figure replied, still motionless. “I am but his humble apprentice. When the appointed time has come, I shall succeed where he failed. None will stop me.”

“I will.”

“You? Here, alone? I think not. No, you shall renounce your oath and swear one to serve me. Or, you shall die. The choice is yours.”

Roland drew his sword and pointed it at the figure. Its blade glowed white, casting light throughout the chamber.

“I see the stories they tell of the paladins of Telerand are true,” the figure replied. “So be it.”

The figure slammed its empty fist against a stone, and the walls of the chamber burst into flame, cutting off Roland’s escape path. It then threw its torch to the ground, hefted a broadsword, and charged at him, more quickly and silently than Roland thought possible. Roland tossed his torch aside as well and darted to the side, out of the figure’s path.

Roland quickly assessed the situation. Given the figure’s movements through the chamber, Roland could probably assume that whatever traps there were in the chamber had either been set off already or had been disabled. The figure that now turned to face him again was not nearly as encumbered by his armor as Roland would have suspected, which suggested that some kind of magical power was at work, which could also explain the walls of flame it had brought forth. Roland put the flames out of his mind for now; he could worry about how to deal with that once he had defeated his assailant.

The figure advanced on Roland again, this time with measured, deliberate steps. Roland ran to circle around and swung his sword, aiming for a gap between two of the figure’s armor plates. The figure deflected it with its broadsword, and made an awkward attempt to strike Roland on the downswing. Roland twisted and dove to the side, leaving the broadsword to deliver only a glancing blow that his chain mail repelled. Roland let his momentum roll him once along the ground and then smoothly righted himself to face the figure again.

The figure had already hefted his broadsword and was beginning another swing, this time aimed squarely at Roland’s body. He quickly moved his sword to block the blow, but the impact caught him off balance. As he staggered back, his heel wedged itself in the gap between two stones in the floor. Roland fell backwards, landing in the middle of the flames blocking the entrace to the chamber.

Roland winced from slamming into the floor and instinctively shut his eyes, bracing for the searing heat. Only after a couple excruciatingly long seconds did Roland realize that the only pain he felt was from where his back had hit the floor. He forced his eyes open, and saw that the flames he had been certain were there moments before now seemed insubstantial.

In the light cast from his sword and the other walls, Roland saw the figure slowly advancing towards his position, readying its broadsword to strike the final blow. Ignoring the pain as best he could, Roland rolled towards the figure, catching it mid-step as he slammed his body into its leg. The figure stumbled forward, failed to right itself, and fell face-forward onto the floor with a dull thud.

Roland had expected the deafening clang of metal on stone, but it was definitely a thud.

Not worrying about the sound for the time being, Roland seized the opportunity to get back onto his feat. He ran to the figure’s position, still lying prone on the floor, and placed the blade of his sword, now glowing more fiercely than before, in the crack just below the figure’s helmet.

“Move and you die right here,” Roland commanded.

“Ow,” the figure replied. Its voice had lost the menacing booming quality it had had before.

“Drop your sword.”

The figure opened its hand, and the handle of its broadsword dropped a couple inches to the ground. Keeping the blade of his sword in place, Roland stepped around just enough to kick the broadsword, sending it skittering across the floor.

“What have you done with Anna?” Roland demanded.

“She’s unharmed, I swear,” the figure answered, a nervous tone creeping into its voice. “The boy, too. My men took her to see him, that’s all. Just let me go and I’ll explain everything, I promise.”

“You expect me to believe you?”

“Does it look like I’m in any position to take advantage of you? Take a look around you. Look carefully,” the figure stressed.

Roland carefully looked around the room, never letting his eyes leave his former assailant for more than a second. The walls were no longer on fire; instead, Roland simply saw rows of torches illuminating the room. Had the walls ever been on fire, or had it just been an illusion? Now that Roland was able to think about it, there hadn’t been any smoke at all, nor had he felt the heat of the flames at all even before he had landed in the fire.

Roland also looked carefully at the figure that lay before him. Its armor looked unusually dull and rough, almost as though it weren’t made of metal at all but rather… painted wood? With his foot, he pressed against one of the shoulder spikes, and it immediately snapped clean off.

“What, exactly, is going on here?” Roland asked in a voice that betrayed growing befuddlement.

“Like I asked, let me up and I’ll explain everything. You’ve probably figured out you could kill me just as easily whether I’m standing or lying here, right?”

Roland considered this for a few moments, then reluctantly removed the blade from the figure’s neck. The figure slowly rose to its feet, noticably wincing as it got up. Its arms slowly reached up and lifted the helmet off its head.

With the helmet removed, Roland saw clearly that the head was… definitely a head. Two eyes, two ears, a nose, and a mouth, all in the expected places. Its brown hair had been matted down by the helmet. But beyond that, Roland’s brain seemed reluctant to commit itself to any futher level of detail.

“I do apologize about the whole kidnapping and subterfuge thing,” the man explained, “but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get a little first-hand research done into how effective this get-up is. I’m sure you can under–well, on second thought, maybe you can’t, but that’s all right. Do you mind if I get rid of this outfit? Come on, I can’t see how you could object to your big enemy shedding his armor, right?”

Roland stared at him, glowing sword still pointed at him.

“I’ll take that as a ‘yes,’ then. I’m sure if you object, it’ll be obvious pretty quickly, right?” the man smiled as he started removing his wooden armor, revealing underneath what Roland could only describe as perfectly ordinary clothes underneath.

Roland continued to struggle with the situation he now found himself in. “How did you do that… thing… with the walls?”

“Ah,” the man’s eyes brightened, “pretty neat, isn’t it? I discovered it when I was first exploring these ruins. There’s a lever over there that activates a mechanism in the walls that strikes flints on each of those torches. It needed a little maintenance to get it working again, but it’s a pretty great effect, especially if you’re not expecting it. I would’ve loved to see what else like that there must’ve been around here,” he added wistfully.

“And the walls of fire?”

The man looked at Roland quizzically. “The walls of… oh, I see! Really? You’re even more succeptible to suggestion than I thought! Walls of fire, wow, that was a nice touch. I didn’t even know that sort of thing was possible.” He fished a leather-bound notebook and a pencil from his pocket and scribbled in it, reciting as he wrote, “‘possible field effect on certain individuals in some circumstances; further study needed to determine limits.’”

“What does that mean?”

“And here I was worried you were going to get suspicious of the whole thing. I mean, it’s such a huge cliche, isn’t it? Labyrinthine ruins, dark corridors filled with traps, the kidnapped damsel, the epic battle, oh, it was all just so perfect! And you just ran with it!”

Roland was still struggling to figure out what the man was even talking about.

“I mean, traps don’t make any sense anyway, when you think about it. Why trap your own hall? You’ll probably set it off on yourself half a dozen times by accident long before any intruders even get near it. Ah, but when you think about it,” the man continued, inexplicably pleased with how things were proceeding, “there really was a trap there: the trap to make you think there was even a trap there, distracting you long enough to nab the girl. Really, I should be thanking you; I would’ve hated to think all that time spent scraping away at the floor for a situation like this was all for nothing. I only regret my swordfighting skills have atrophied so badly. I had thought I would’ve lasted at least another couple minutes against you. I really ought to practice more, but there’s only so many hours in the day, you know?”

“Just, stop,” Roland said, holding out his empty hand before rubbing his temples. Tell me, in nice, short sentences, who you are, and what in Yssindria’s name you’re doing here.”

“Ah, right. Introductions. I’m Mattias. I’m here to save the world from certain doom.”

Chapter word count: 1,735 (according to wc)
Total word count: 18,442 / 50,000 (36.884% complete)

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Appendix A: Chapter 9

[Editor's note: Chapter 9 of my 2008 NaNoWriMo entry.]

“Hi,” a familiar voice said.

Roland lifted his armor’s visor and saw Anna standing in front of his rented booth.

“Greetings,” he replied.

“Having any luck?” she asked.

“Not as such, no.” Roland’s predictions had largely come to pass. While several people had approached his makeshift recruiting stand over the past couple days, they had done so mostly out of curiosity, rather than any genuine interest in joining the Order. And while it was nice to actually have a personal tale of heroism to relate instead of relying on the old stories of great deeds in days long past, the opportunity to receive severe burns didn’t have quite the marketing effect Roland would have liked.

In fact, ordinarily he would have cut his losses and be on route to the next town by now. However, he couldn’t quite bring himself to leave without having some closure on the Anna issue.

“That’s too bad,” Anna said. I wish there was something I could do to help.”

Roland shook his head, though the gesture was largely hidden by his helmet. “That’s not necessary. Besides, you have your own things to worry about. Speaking of which, are you still thinking of going to Castle Helioth?”

“I’m past the ‘thinking’ stage. I plan to head out first thing in the morning, after I stock up on a few things first.”

“Are you sure?”

Anna looked to either side, then leaned in slightly towards Roland. “Actually,” she said in hushed tones, “I’ve learned for a fact that someone’s out there right now.”

“How?”

“People talk; you just have to know how to find the right kind of people. Anyway, there’s apparently a wagon that heads out in that direction at night about once a week. I’d wager it’s supplies going to whoever’s there. The most recent one was last night, and I did a little exploring and saw it for myself as it left town. So yes, I’m sure.”

“And your brother?”

Anna frowned. “That part I can’t be entirely sure about. Like I said, I’m only guessing it’s supplies. For all I know it could be full of other kids being shipped over for who knows what. The people I talked to didn’t know, or wouldn’t talk about, what the wagons are for. But its possible that’s how they got him there, whoever ‘they’ are.”

Roland felt a pit in his stomach as he realized how this conversation was inevitably going to end. “If you’re right, and your brother is being held captive there, how can you be sure you won’t be captured too? Or that you’ll be able to escape even if you do find him?”

“I’ll figure it out,” Anna shrugged, “once I see what I’m up against.”

“But–”

“And I know what you’re going to say; I can see it in your eyes. You’re not going to talk me out of this.”

“And I can’t in good conscience let you go off and get yourself kidnapped, or worse.”

“So then we’re at an impasse. But you couldn’t stop me if you tried. If nothing else, I could outrun you. Especially if you’re wearing all of that.”

“I’m coming with you.”

“But–”

This time it was Roland’s turn. “I know, I know, you don’t know how you’d ever repay me. That doesn’t matter. If I expected to be repaid, I’d become a mercenary.”

They stared at each other across the booth’s table. Finally, Anna said, “I’ll be in the village square at daybreak tomorrow. Don’t be late, or I might just leave without you.”

—-

Anna and Roland spent the next day an half trekking through the rolling hills that separated Derinham from the castle. There was no road to follow, or if there was, it was well-hidden. Uneasily, Roland thought about how these lands were among the first through which the Demon King’s armies had swept decades ago. Even though that threat had long since passed, Roland’s imagination refused to stop.

At nightfall they had set up a makeshift camp. Against Anna’s protest, Roland refused to set up any kind of fire, for fear of drawing attention to their position from anyone else who might be nearby. He had also insisted that they sleep in shifts to keep watch. Roland had taken the first watch, and left a groggy Anna to stand guard while he slept. Sure enough, he had awoken in the morning to find her asleep not too far away.

As they clearly had not been attacked, and in the darkness they should have been all but invisible to anyone nearby anyway, Roland tried to shake the feeling that we was being needlessly paranoid. But if the rumors Anna had heard were true, he wasn’t willing to risk it.

Around midday of the second day, they finally came upon what was left of Castle Helioth. Roland had always pictured it has having been almost completely levelled at the end of the war, and was surprised to see that although much of the castle had indeed collapsed, a few areas around the perimeter were still standing. The entire site was surrounded by the remnants of a moat, and the sections that hadn’t caved in or erosed over the years held a trickle of foul brown liquid that Roland hesitated to call “water.”

Roland didn’t see anyone standing guard, but with all the rubble and ruins strewn throughout the area, there were more than enough places for someone to hide. Roland and Anna followed the former moat around until they reached a relatively level section. Pairs of shallow wheel ruts in the mud suggested that Anna’s information had been correct; at the very least, someone had been here recently.

The two of them crossed the ditch a little further down in a rockier section to avoid leaving footprints. With Roland leading with Anna close behind, they crept from one piece of cover to the next, slowly advancing to one of the still-standing stone structures. They came upon a doorway in one of the walls. Roland motioned for Anna to stop, and slowly peered through it, seeing only darkness.

Roland turned to Anna. “Should we go in?” she asked.

Roland nodded. “It’s as good a place to start as any. It’s dark, so we’ll need to light the torches.” He paused. “Now, I know what your answer is going to be, but I have to say this anyway. Things could get very dangerous once we go inside. If you want to wait out here while I go on ahead–”

“Not a chance,” she replied. “We’re going to find Derek, and I’m going to be there when it happens. No matter what.”

Roland nodded. “The torches are going to draw attention to us, so if there’s anybody there, it’s essential that we notice them before they notice us. Keep your eyes and ears open for anything, no matter how insignificant. And keep quiet. The louder we are, the less we’ll hear. And most of all, stay by me. Don’t go anywhere unless you know for a fact that I’m with you.”

“Got it.”

Roland pulled two torches out of his back, and took out a couple pieces of flint from a pouch on his belt. He lit the torches and handed one to Anna. Even though he could still feel its weight on him, he patted the cloak covering the light chain mail under it, which he had borrowed from the armory.

Roland motioned for Anna to follow him, and stepped through the opening.

—-

Roland and Anna wandered through a pitch-black maze of passageways. Roland imagined that at some point these halls had been much more passable, but collapsed rock blocked off many of the available paths, forcing them to frequently retrace their steps. Roland divided his attention among remembering the passages they had already explored, keeping watch for signs of anything, and making sure Anna was always never farther than arm’s length from him.

The passage they were in suddenly widened, and Roland held up his fist. Anna stopped behind him, having learned after bumping into Roland a few times what that signal meant.

“What is it?” she whispered.

“I’m not sure,” he replied, “but something doesn’t feel right about it.”

“Nothing feels right about anything here,” she complained.

Roland held his torch forward to get a better look of the chamber. Nothing seemed remarkable about the walls, but the stones on the floor of the chamber were different. They were of uniform size and laid out in a regular pattern, unlike the floors of the passages they had spent the last half hour navigating, which had apparently been put together using whatever would fit. Roland lowered the torch towards the floor, and saw that the mortar around some stones appeared to be missing.

“It’s a trap,” Roland whispered.

“Seriously?” Anna replied.

“Looks that way. See these stones here? They look like some kind of switch. Step on one, and you activate the mechanism.”

“Which is?”

“I don’t know, but I’d rather not find out the hard way.”

“Would it even work after all this time?”

“I don’t know, but if someone else is here, they might have been keeping it maintained.”

“So we go back.”

Roland shook his head. “If it is a trap, it’s obviously there to keep us from going through here, which means that’s probably where we want to go.”

“Lovely,” Anna sighed. “So we go forward.”

Roland shook his head again. “I’ll go forward and see if I can find a way through, or some way to shut it off. There has to be some way past it, or else it would stop the people who put it here from getting through too.”

“But you said I should stay by you, no matter what.”

“Too dangerous. You might set it off accidentally.”

“So might you.”

“So watch me carefully, and if something happens, well…”

“Well what?”

“Don’t do whatever I did to set it off.”

Roland crept forward, only occasionally glancing up from the floor. He didn’t see any immediately obvious pattern to which stones looked like triggers and which ones were cemented into place. There might be a path through, but it almost certainly wasn’t going to be a straight line. Roland advanced one step at a time, testing each next stone gingerly before putting his weight on it. He stayed ready to leap back if anything happened. Roland worried that leaping back might land him on another trigger, but on the other hand, whatever the trap was, it probably wasn’t targeted with enough precision to miss him by virtue of being only a foot away from the trigger. Leaping back might be the less likely way to get killed.

Anna screamed, then went silent.

Roland spun around, but the light from his torch didn’t reach far enough to get a clear view of the passageway behind him. All he could see for sure was Anna’s torch rolling slowly along the floor. Roland heard heavy footsteps racing away from him down the passageway. Someone carrying Anna? Roland cursed himself for leaving her behind, but at the time it had seemed like the less risky option.

Roland’s thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a booming voice behind him, echoing in the chamber.

“It’s about time they sent someone!”

Chapter word count: 1,881 (according to wc)
Total word count: 16,707 / 50,000 (33.414% complete)

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Appendix A: Chapter 8

[Editor's note: Chapter 8 of my 2008 NaNoWriMo entry.]

Roland looked at Anna. She kept her head lowered, but her eyes kept glancing up at him, as though trying to judge his reaction.

“What do you mean, exactly?” he asked. “You’re saying you… can read minds?”

“Yes,” she replied. “Well, sort of. It’s not quite what you’re probably thinking, I mean.”

“What I’m probably thinking? You can’t tell?”

“Not from here, no. It really doesn’t even work at all without some kind of physical contact. So, it’s not like I’ve been reading your thoughts behind your back or anything like that.”

Roland tried to remember if Anna had touched him before. “But during the fire, when I was pulling you behind me, you did it then, right?”

“Oh, no!” she said defensively, shaking her head. “It’s not automatic like that. It takes effort. It’s just like… um… like you couldn’t accidentally duel someone just because you were both holding a sword, right? And back there I was kind of concentrating on not dying.”

“Hmmm.” Roland wasn’t sure how much of this to believe. She seemed sincere enough, but Roland had also learned by now she was pretty good at deception too. “But even if that’s so, if you wanted to, you could read my mind, right?”

“Well,” she began, “it’s like this: tell me what you’re thinking right now.”

“You don’t seem very good at this.”

“I’m serious.”

“OK,” Roland sighed, “I think you’re leading me on right now.”

Anna considered this. “Fair enough. But that’s not what I’d bet you’re really thinking.”

“Oh really?”

“No, it’s just what you think you’re thinking. You’re definitely thinking about the very act of thinking about something. And you’re probably also thinking about what you think of me in general. And about how much this conversation is going to delay our arrival at Derinham. And about whether you’re hungry right now, or thirsty, or tired. And further down, at some level, you’re thinking about balancing on your feet, and blinking, and breathing, and and and.”

Roland had never thought about thinking about things at that level of detail.

“You’re not aware of any of it,” Anna continued, “but it’s all in there, somewhere. I think we learn to tune it out most of the time, like how you can control your breath, but if you stop thinking about it explicitly you still keep doing it anyway. At least, that’s how I think it works. Anyway, the point is, when I see into someone’s mind, I see all of that, all tangled up. It’s a mess. It’s like a room full of people talking, and you’re trying to listen to what one of them is saying.”

“So, you can’t really read minds at all?”

“I can, but the trick is to make sure one or two of the voices starts shouting over everyone else, or to shut the other ones up for a little bit. In my act, I try to get the person to focus on one thing, then distract their baser instincts by my, um, outfit. Between those two things, I can usually tune out the latter, which lets me read the former.”

Roland could imagine how that sort of thing might work. Assuming she was telling the truth about it to begin with.

“So, why didn’t you tell me any of this before?”

Anna looked at him with disbelief. “You really can’t figure that out?”

Roland knew. As long as Roland had known, people with magical abilities were hardly welcome in the kingdom. He believed it was one of the legacies of the Demon War: it was said that the forces of darkness had legions of wizards or warlocks or whatever it was they really were. At any rate, people came to associate magical abilities with evil. The fact that the kingdom of Lantaria employed its own magicians during the Demon War, and supposedly continued to do so, probably contributed to how relations between it and Telerand had disintegrated after the fall of Helioth.

“You figured I might try to arrest you if I knew?”

Anna shrugged. “Maybe. I wasn’t sure how you might react. Probably just want to have nothing to do with me. And I didn’t think I’d get another chance to get help for Derek. I didn’t want to risk losing that.” Anna looked Roland in the eye. “But believe me, it really wasn’t my intention to deceive you like this. I’m sorry.”

“We should get going. We still have a lot of ground to cover.”

Anna smiled and nodded. “Thanks.”

They resumed following the road to Derinham in silence, side by side. After half an hour or so had passed, curiosity got the better of Roland, and he asked, “So how did you come by your…” magic? talent? witchcraft? “ability?”

“I’ve always had it, I guess,” she answered. “Or at least, as long as I can remember. It took a lot of practice before I figured out how to do anything useful with it.”

“Your parents didn’t teach you how to use it?” he asked, hoping asking about her old family life wasn’t going to touch a nerve.

Anna shook her head. “They didn’t have it. Probably wouldn’t have even known about it if I didn’t tell them about it. Abilities or ‘magic’ wasn’t unheard of back home, but it seemed pretty random what they could do, if anything. And even then, it was rarely much of anything. About the only think you could count on was that having some kind of ability tended to run in families, mostly.”

“And your brother?”

Anna’s pace slowed. “You could say Derek was unlucky. Always was.”

“How do you mean?”

Anna didn’t reply.

Roland tried another direction. “Do you think that might have had anything to do with why he got taken?”

“Maybe,” she said thoughtfully. “Sometimes I lay awake at night and worry that’s the case.”

“Well, whatever happened, he’s lucky to have someone like you trying to help.”

“You don’t…” she started, then gave a resigned sigh. “Nevermind. Let’s just get moving.”

“What don’t I–?”

“Forget it. Forget I said anything.” Her tone of voice made it clear she considered the conversation to be over.

Roland had no idea what he had said that was apparently so objectionable, but figured it best not to press the issue any further.

—-

After another several hours passed in silence, Roland and Anna reached Derinham.

“Well, we’re here,” he observed. He looked at Anna.

“That we are,” she agreed.

“So what are you going to do now?”

“Gather information. See what I can find out. Somebody here might have heard something, or seen something.”

“And then?”

Anna looked ahead with determination towards the town. “Then I’ll do what has to be done.”

“Castle Helioth?”

“Probably.”

Roland shook his head. “Whatever you decide, you should get some rest. Do you need anything for tonight.”

This time Anna shook her head and patted her pack. “I’ve got enough from last night to cover me for now. Don’t worry about me.”

“OK then. You know where I’ll be.”

Anna nodded. “Thanks again for everything.” Then she turned and headed into town.

Roland headed into a town in a different direction, looking for the local shrine. Back in the heart of the kingdom, they could usually be found near the center of the village, large enough to easily stand out from most of the surrounding buildings. They were the center around which the village grew, both figuratively and literally.

But out here, on the fringes of the kingdom, the shrines were built as an afterthought, arriving only after Telerand had assumed control. As a result, they could be found near the outskirts of towns. If they happened to be where new growth was occuring, it wasn’t because they were driving it, but rather because that’s where the new buildings were being built, and the shrine got added like everything else.

Sure enough, as Roland circumnavigated Derinham, he eventually found his target, nearly indistinguishable from its neighbors except for the usual signage out front. Roland stepped inside, and found it to be largely the same as the previous one, except for being a little smaller and a little less run-down. Roland found neither of these things surprising, since it probably was newer, and modern shrines tended to all be designed around the same basic pattern, yielding only to the constraints of the building in question.

Roland paid his respects at the front, then looked around for the entrace to the back rooms. He found it on the wall to the right of the altar. Roland walked up to it and knocked.

A few moments later, a squat bearded man opened the door. He looked Roland up and down disapprovingly. “You’re late,” he said, stepping aside to let Roland pass.

“Yes,” Roland said, a bit taken aback by the reception. “I apologize for that. It’s a bit of a long story.”

The man shrugged. “Whatever. Doesn’t matter much to me. I’m sure you’ve done this a dozen times by now, so I’ll cut to the chase. Amory’s there, your room’s there, latrine’s there. The door’s unlocked, so don’t be thinking you have to have me let you in all the time. Just let me know when you’ll be leaving.”

Roland stared at him in disbelief. “You’re the acolyte?”

“Guilty as charged. Last guy left, and someone had to do it. Not a bad gig all in all. Easy work, reliable pay, and far enough away from headquarters that you don’t have to worry about someone breathing down your neck all the time so long as you don’t screw things up too bad.”

“I see,” Roland said, unimpressed.

“Don’t get me wrong, now. It’s not like I have anything against the Order or nothing. I’m just, you know, not all about it.”

Roland looked at the acolyte. If this was all they could find to run the shrine, he didn’t hold out much hope for recruiting paladins. But thinking about long odds reminded him of something. “I do have one question, if you don’t mind.”

“Yeah?” the acolyte replied, not even bothering to feign interest.

“Have you heard anything about anyone being at Castle Helioth?”

“Probably just looters. Figure they can find some long lost treasure or something. As though the place hasn’t been looted hundreds of times since the war.”

“But has there been anyone there recently?”

The acolyte shrugged. “Beats me. You hear sometimes about how someone was up around there and saw lights moving around or something. Wouldn’t surprise me if they were just spooked about the old stories from the war, or just making it up.”

“I see. If you can think of anything else, that would be appreciated. But that will be all for now.”

“Works for me,” the acolyte replied, and scurried off around a corner.

Roland checked the guest room and found its conditions tolerable enough to not warrant looking elsewhere. He dropped his pack on the floor and laid down on the bed.

He wasn’t sure what was going to happen to him in Derinham, but he was sure he wasn’t looking forward to it.

Chapter word count: 1,856 (according to wc)
Total word count: 14,826 / 50,000 (29.652% complete)

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Appendix A: Chapter 7

[Editor's note: Chapter 7 of my 2008 NaNoWriMo entry.]

“This’ll work best if you don’t follow me around the room while I’m working the crowd,” Anna said. “I’m going to head up to my room once I’m through here. We can meet back down here first thing in the morning. Does that work for you?” As she asked, Anna started unbuttoning the first several buttons of her blouse.

Roland grabbed her by the wrist and asked, “What in the Lady’s name are you doing?”

Anna pulled her hand free. “I couldn’t find the right kind of outfit on such short notice, so this’ll have to do.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

Anna looked at him. “This line of work is all about making sure they aren’t looking too closely at these,” she said as though explaining something obvious to a child and holding her hands out in front of her. “And believe me, the easiest way to do that in a place like this is to keep them distracted by these.” She unfastened a few more buttons and tugged the two sides apart a little to widen the neckline. “There, that ought to work.”

“Aren’t you worried about…” Roland paused, trying to word things delicately. He lowered his voice. “About what kinds of ideas some of the types of people who come to places like this might get when they see a young woman walking around unescorted dressed like that.”

Anna rolled her yes. “You say that like I’ve never done this before. Besides,” she continued, taking on an artificially airy and whimsical voice, “if anything happens, I have my knight in shining armor to come to my rescue, right?” Roland remained unmoved. “If you’re really worried, you can stay back and watch. Just stay out of the way, OK?”

With that, Anna stood up, eyed a nearby table with four tankards of something separating two men, and sauntered up to them. “Hey there,” Roland heard her say, just loudly enough for her voice to be heard at the surrounding tables over their conversations, “you fellas play poker, right? How much do you want to bet I can deal a hand so that everyone gets a royal flush?”

Her back blocked Roland’s view of what was happening, but he saw thw two men look at each other, say something, and then put a couple coins on the table. Anna did something with the cards, and a little bit later gathered them back up, along with the coins, bowed, and sauntered over to the next table.

Roland continued to study his map, but he increasingly looked up for it to see what Anna was up do. She had quickly drawn the attention of most of the patrons, and many of them watched from their tables as she moved through the room, doing some kind of trick or another. Once or twice Roland noticed she left some of her own coins behind after working a table. Roland wasn’t sure if that was because one of her tricks had failed, or if she deliberately threw one or two so as to not scare off all her other potential victims.

She eventually worked her way around the room and back to the table next to Roland’s, where a particularly gruff-looking man was seated. This time, Roland had a clear view of the proceedings.

“Well, sir,” she introduced herself to him, loudly enough to be heard by everyone, “I’m sure by now you’ve seen I’ve taken a nice little sum from the rest of these of the gentlemen here, and I think it’s only fair that I give you an opportunity to win it all back for them. For but a modest wager on your part, I will identify, sight unseen, which card from this perfectly ordinary deck you have selected. And if I fail,” she continued, turning around to face the rest of the room, “there shall be a round of the bartender’s finest for everyone on me! What do you say?”

The man looked suspicious. And wisely so, Roland thought. He at least knew how this trick worked, and knew the man at the table didn’t stand a chance if he accepted.

“And just to make things even more challenging for myself,” Anna continued, “I shall not touch these cards in the slightest until our little wager is complete.” She held up the deck, placed it and a small leather pouch on the table in front of the man with a flourish, and took a step back, hands outstretched at her sides. “Surely such a feat seems impossible, and you may well me right. But with so little to lose and so much to be gained, don’t you think it to be worth a try?”

The cheer from the crowd showed which side they were on. The man capitulated and placed a few coins on the table.

“Excellent, good sir. Now, you have the deck before you. Take all the time you need and pick any card you like from it. Make sure everyone else gets a good look at it too. We don’t want anyone here to think you might be trying to cheat a poor young lady out of her money, now,” she winked. She ceremoniously spun around and walked to the bar, standing there with her back to the rest of the room. “Just give a little shout when you are ready.”

Well, Roland had thought he knew how this was going to play out. He was hardly an expert in this sort of thing, but he couldn’t see how Anna could possibly be manipulating the outcome of the trick without even touching the cards. Roland doubted that she had scammed enough money from everyone else to afford to lose and still walk away with a profit, but he didn’t know how else she was going to pull this off.

The man rummaged through Anna’s deck, scrutinizing the cards until he settled, for whatever reason, upon the three of clubs. He looked towards Anna, but she was standing at the far corner of the bar, back to everyone, slowly rocking back and forth on her feet as she waited. Keeping his gaze on her, he showed everyone the card, then laid it face down on the table.

“Ready,” he grunted.

“Excellent,” Anna called in reply, still facing the corner. “Now, just to make sure I won’t be able to see the card at all, could you please place it in the empty pouch on the table and make sure it’s closed shut? Ready? OK.”

Anna turned back around and strode confidently back to the man’s table. “Now,” she continued, “I want you to concentrate on the card you chose. Maybe it has some kind of significance for you, maybe you picked it at random, I don’t know. But focus on it. See it in your mind. Don’t let it go.”

The room fell silent, everyone watching to see what happened. As she had done in the marketplace the day before, Anna leaned over across the table and placed her hands on either side of the man’s head.

“Good,” she cooed, “just like that. Push everything else out of your mind and think only of the card. Yes. It’s coming to me. I can almost see it. Just a little more.” She appeared to be concentrating hard on something. “Almost… almost… there,” she finished, letting go of the man’s head and straightening herself back up.

Anna looked around the room. Roland saw that all eyes were on her, waiting.

“Three of clubs, right?”

The man looked stunned. She lifted the pouch off the table, opened it, peeked inside as though she didn’t already know what she would find, removed the three of clubs, and held it up for all to see.

“Well done, good sir,” she said to the man, scooping up the rest of the deck, and the coins, and shoving them into her pocket with a single motion. She addressed the crowd, “I bet a lot of you are wondering how I knew that. I admit, it wasn’t easy. You should’ve seen some of the other things he was thinking about.” She leaned in conspiratorially towards the man, but kept talking loudly enough to be heard by everyone. “And while that does sound like fun, I’m afraid I already have my own room for the night. Maybe some other time,” she winked.

The crowd roared. Before anyone but Roland could notice, Anna had bounded up the stairs to her room. Roland waited a few minutes and watched the crowd settle back down, then went up to his own room for the night.

—-

Roland and Anna set back out on the road to Derinham early the next morning. They again passed the journey in silence, but now thoughts of Helioth and Anna’s brother were pushed out of his mind by the events of that evening.

“How did you do it?” he asked.

“Do what?”

“The trick at the end. It wasn’t at all the way you said it was done.”

Anna shrugged. “There’s lots of different ways to do that trick. I needed to finish with something big, and besides, I’m sure you didn’t want to see it done a third time.”

“So how did you do it this time?”

“A magician never reveals her secrets.”

“Yes you do; you did it back in town.”

“That was different.”

“Look, I watched you last night. You didn’t even touch the cards until the trick was over. You let that guy do whatever he wanted with the deck. There’s no possible way it could have been a trick. How did you do it.”

Anna stopped. Roland turned, and saw her staring at the ground in front of her. She swallowed nervously. “I suppose I knew we were going to have this conversation. And I suppose it’s something you were going to have to know eventually. It’s just, I was hoping there’d be some way around it.”

“Around what?”

Anna remained silent for a few moments.

Roland waited.

“It’s like this. Remember, back in the marketplace, how I said how the magic I do is all just tricks and lies?”

“Yes.”

“I lied.”

Chapter word count: 1,692 (according to wc)
Total word count: 12,970 / 50,000 (25.94% complete)

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Appendix A: Chapter 6

[Editor's note: Chapter 6 of my 2008 NaNoWriMo entry.]

Roland made his way through the crowds in the marketplace. Taking on traveling companion threw the entire routine he had fallen into out of whack. Anna was eager to get started, but had insisted on replacing some of the things she had lost last night. Roland could hardly argue with that; right now the only thing she had to wear that was halfway presentable was his cloak, and he did want to eventually get that back.

Besides, now that there were two of them, he needed to stock up on some more provisions for the journey. Twice the people meant twice the food and other consummables. Plus some more, since he wouldn’t be able to travel as quickly with someone in tow. With that and the delay setting out, his original plan to push on the whole way to Derinham non-stop was right out. They’d need to spend the night at an inn along the way, so that was another day.

Part of Roland was starting to regret his decision. But on the other hand, if he was a day or two late getting in to Derinham, it was hardly going to have an impact on his mission. It wasn’t exactly as though people had been lining up to sign up for the Order, after all.

Roland kept this planning on the back of his mind as he moved from shop to shop, stocking up on food and provisions that would hold up for the journey. That was another concern: more supplies and nights spent at inns instead of free accomodations at the regional shrine meant he’d be spending his allotment much more quickly than he had anticipated.

Once Roland had stocked his pack full enough for the journey to Derinham with a couple days to spare, he made his way to the edge of the town, as he and Anna had arranged when they left the shrine that morning. As he expected, he was the first one here. He set his pack down on the grass and sat down next to it. Even with only covering half the journey today, he was going to be on his feet long enough today.

As he sat there, his thoughts turned away from the logistics of his situation and towards what Anna had said about Castle Helioth. Not much of what she had said about her plan made much sense to him, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave her on her own. Not just yet, at least. Maybe he’d be able to talk her out of her plan along the way.

“Ready?” Anna’s voiced asked from somewhere behind him.

Roland nodded and rose to his feet. Gone was the pink dress from the night before, replaced with a light brown blouse and a dark brown ankle-length skirt. Roland’s cloak was once again draped over her shoulders, and a gray pack was lightly slung on her back.

Anna frowned. “I know, it wasn’t my first choice either. But it still beats the beer wench outfit I had to wear at the tavern.”

“You look fine,” Roland said, turning towards the road. “Let’s get going. Even though we’ll be stopping for the night, we still have a lot of walking ahead of us.”

They walked in silence for the next hour, Anna following behind Roland. The second hour proceeded in much the same way, until Roland heard Anna’s footsteps behind in stop to slow down.

“Can we stop for a couple minutes?” she asked.

Roland came to a stop and looked up at the sky. The sun had past its high point, but it was still several hours before nightfall. At the rate they had been going, Roland figured they would reach the point where his map said the inn was in plenty of time.

“Take as long as you need,” he replied.

“Thanks,” she said, sitting down on the side of the road. She slid one of her shoes up and started rubbing her feet. “Sorry, I’m not used to all this walking. Normally I bribe a cargo hauler to let me ride in the back of his wagon. Money well spent, I guess.”

After a little while she stood back up and nodded to Roland, and they continued. They passed the journey in relative silence, giving Roland time to consider how he was going to broach the subject about Anna’s rescue plans. She had seemed awfully idealistic about the whole thing this morning, and Roland wasn’t sure how to bring a more realistic perspective to it without taking away what he suspected was the one thing that kept her going despite everything.

“Finally,” she sighed with relief as a building appeared up ahead on the horizon. “Please tell me that’s where we’re staying tonight.”

As they got closer, the building did in fact turn out to be an inn by the side of the road. The sign hanging above the doorway had no name on it, just the image of a bed and a tankard. Roland mused that without any competition within a few hours, it didn’t need to put much effort towards marketing.

They entered the nameless inn. Like nearly every other inn in the kingdom, the bottom floor was a tavern, with a bar along one wall and round tables spread across the rest of the floor. A wooden staircase of dubious durability lead upstairs to where the guest rooms would be. Evening was still an hour off, so the tavern was empty, save for a man standing behind the bar. Roland strode up to him.

“Greetings,” Roland said. “My, um, the two of us shall be needing rooms for the night.” Roland put extra emphasis on the ‘s’, wishing to head off any possible rumors about why a young woman would be accompanying a paladin to an inn in the middle of nowhere.

The bartender looked up from polishing the side of a glass on a stained apron. “Two rooms, then? Payment’s up front.”

Anna strode up next to Roland as he haggled with the barkeeper over the price. After managing to bring the barkeeper down in price a little, Roland rummaged through his pouch for money. He looked up when he heard a few coins dropping onto the bar, and saw Anna’s hand moving away. He looked at her quizzically.

“I am planning on paying my own way, you know,” she explained.

Roland shrugged. “Suit yourself.” He fished out his half of the night’s rent and added it to the pile.

The barkeeper swept the pile into his hand, reached down below the bar, and placed two rust-colored keys in their place. “Five and six. Need anything else…” he trailed off.

“Well, I’m going to stay down here for a while, if that’s all right with you,” Anna said, picking up one of the keys.

“That’s fine,” he replied. “I’ll go up and check out the rooms.”

Roland climbed up the stairs, each one creaking under his weight. The upstairs hall was dark and grimy. He counted eight doors, and paced slowly down the hall until he came up to a door with a brass “9″ on it. On a hunch, Roland nudged the bottom of the number with his finger, swinging it around on its lone remaining screw until it became a “6″. He let go, and the number swung back down out of place.

Roland lowered his expectations appropriately, turned the key, and opened the door. It was definitely a room, there was no doubt about that. There was a bed, a chair, a table, and a window. And walls, a ceiling, and a floor. He had seen worse, but not normally after money was exchanged. He closed the door, locked it, and headed back downstairs.

He found Anna sitting at one of the tables at the edge of the room, her back to the wall, fidgeting with something. As he approached, he saw she was holding a deck of cards, moving them around between her hands in various ways that Roland wasn’t sure quite how to describe.

He watched her for a little while. She didn’t seem to mind or even notice; her gaze was fixed on the cards, and her mouth twisted slightly into a frown.

“Something wrong?” Roland asked.

“These cards are all wrong,” she replied, not looking up.

Roland looked more closely. “They look fine to me.”

Anna shook her head. “They don’t feel right. They’re too stiff, and they don’t slide around enough. See?” She plucked the top card off the deck and held it between the length of two fingers. She twisted her hand around, and now the card was sticking out between two other fingers.

“Neat trick.”

“I shouldn’t have to move my hand around so much to do that. I can’t do as much with these as I could with my old ones. It limits what I can do with them until they get broken in properly.”

“Is that important?”

“Money doesn’t grow on trees.” She looked around at the still-empty room. Out the window, the sky was taking on a slight reddish hue as afternoon transitioned into evening. “And this place isn’t looking too promising anyway. But we’ll see.”

As Anna continued working with her cards, Roland pulled out his map of the western reaches of the kingdom and studied it. From here, another day’s journey would put them in Derinham. From there, Roland’s itinerary then curved back around and headed east, through another series of small villages before he ultimately wound up back at Castle Telerand. Castle Helioth, or what was left of it, lay about a day and a half west of Derinham, with nothing but empty fields and forests in between. A detour to Helioth — as Roland found himself actually considering now — would add another three days round trip, with two nights of camping out somewhere overnight.

Roland looked up from his map at Anna as she continued practicing. He wondered if maybe the best thing to do would be to take here there after all, so she could see there was nothing there to be found. She probably couldn’t be persuaded to abandon her quest now, and if she did give up she’d probably spend the rest of her life wondering if she had made the right decision. Given the choice between two unpleasant options, in the long run letting her see for herself might be for the best in the long run.

By this time the tavern had filled up a little. It was still hardly full, but there were people at several of the tables now. Roland counted more people than rooms, and wondered if some of them were going to rough it outside to save their money for ale.

Anna finally looked up from her hands and scanned the room. “Well, this is as good as it’s going to get.”

“For what?”

Anna smiled. “Showtime.”

Chapter word count: 1,818 (according to wc)
Total word count: 11,278 / 50,000 (22.556%)

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Appendix A: Chapter 5

[Editor's note: Chapter 5 of my 2008 NaNoWriMo entry.]

In the morning — which, he was relieved to find out, actually was morning this time — Roland gathered his things and left his temporary accomodations. After a quick breakfast in the mess hall of runny eggs and something with the consistency of paste, and a brief discussion with the encampment’s commander about a few proposed revisions to the guards’ emergency response directives, Roland passed through the gate for the last time and, out of curiousity, headed back to the Iron Flagon.

The still-smoldering but largely burned out mound of black ash proved that, despite its name, very little of the Iron Flagon had in fact been made of iron. The walls of the neighboring buildings were charred, and a thin haze still lingered in the air, but overall the damage appeared to have run its course. There was a small crowd gathered in front of the wreckage as passersby stopped to gawk for a few moments before continuing on to the marketplace or wherever else they were headed. Life went on.

Roland worked his way through the series of side streets until he reached the shrine. He circled around to the back and knocked at the door. As before, an eye peeked out from a crack before the door swung open fully.

“Ah, Roland, sir, a pleasure to see you today!” the acolyte greeted him.

“And you as well.” Roland paused a moment to consider how to phrase his question, and not finding any elegant way to do it, simply asked, “How is she?”

“I haven’t a clue,” the acolyte replied. “She knocked on the door here in the middle of the night, and said something about you telling her she could spend the night here. I led her to the guest room and she promptly flopped herself on the bed and fell asleep.” He gestured towards the closed door of the guest room. “I haven’t seen or heard anything from her since then. I presume she’s still in there as we speak, but it would be improper of me to check for myself, and she seemed such a mess last night that I fear I shouldn’t wake the poor thing until she’s ready. What pray tell happened?”

Roland explained about the fire that night, and how he had rushed in to the burning building with little regard for his safety on the mere suggestion that someone might still be trapped inside, and how he had pulled her from it moments before the entire thing crashed down on itself. He struggled to recount the tale with the appropriate level of modesty, but as he mentally replayed the events for the first time, he couldn’t help but to be impressed at what he had done.

When Roland had finished, the acolyte remaked, “Quite amazing, sir! Truly the blessings of the Lady Yssindria were with you in that ordeal!”

“Yes, truly,” Roland agreed quietly. Changing the subject, he added, “One of us really ought to check on the woman and make sure she is well.”

Roland rose from the seat he had taken, walked softly to the door of the guest room, and rapped lightly on the door, barely loud enough to be heard. A few moments passed without a sound, and he tried again, a little louder this time.

“Mmmm?” came a voice from the other side.

“It’s Roland, the man who, um,” Roland paused. Saying “who saved your life” didn’t sound quite right, so he tried instead, “the man from last night. May I come in?”

“Yes.”

Roland slowly opened the door, just wide enough to slip himself through. The woman was sitting on the bed, hugging her knees. She was wearing the same dress from last night, which at one point had probably been pink, but was now smeared with soot and maybe even singed in a few places. She was staring through the tiny window near the ceiling on the far wall, at nothing in particular. She looked at Roland as he stood half inside the doorway, then turned her head back to the window.

“How are you holding up?” he asked.

“I’ll be fine.” Then, a little more emphatically, “I’m fine.”

“Are you sure? I can’t imagine what it must have been like, being in… going what you’ve been through.”

She shrugged. “I’ve been through worse, and I made it through that OK. I figure this isn’t going to be any different.”

“What are you going to do now? You said last night you’re not from around here. Do you have someone you can stay with until you can get things sorted out?”

“Same as I was doing before, I guess. Working odd jobs, busking, whatever, earning enough money to pay my way to the next town. It’s just going to take a little longer before I can get moving again.” She bit her lip, and added, “Hopefully not too much longer.”

Roland furrowed his brow. “‘Busking?’ What’s that?”

“You know, street performing. People do it in the marketplaces all over. It doesn’t pay all that well, but between that and getting tips working at taverns, I get by.”

Roland studied her face more closely, trying to remember something. Suddenly the association clicked. “You were the magician yesterday, right?”

“Hmm? Yeah, that was probably me. You know what they say, ‘do what you’re good at.’ Besides, you don’t too many other people doing that sort of thing around here, so there’s not too much competition. I wasn’t so sure about it at first, what with what I’d heard people are like here, but actually it hasn’t been that bad at all. Sure, you get the occasional crazy guy who tried to make trouble, but as long as you don’t let yourself get flustered they’re pretty easy to handle.”

“You mean like if they start calling you a witch?”

The woman’s head jerked up at that, and she turned to look at him again. Her gaze moved down to the leather armor vest he wore, and her eyes widened in something like recognition. “Oh, you were the paladin who was there at the end, weren’t you?”

Roland nodded.

She chuckled softly. “Sorry, it’s just that a paladin’s the last sort of person I’d expect to see watching me perform. It’s, well, you know.”

The woman’s demeanor seemed a bit more relaxed now that the discussion had moved away from the events of the previous night. Roland wasn’t sure whether that was ultimately a healthy thing for her or not, but erred on the side of letting her enjoy at least a little reprieve from things.

“Well, to be honest, the crowd didn’t give me a whole lot of choice at first, but from what I saw of it you weren’t too bad. Not that I’ve seen much to compare it to, of course.”

“Thanks. I’m Annabel, by the way, but everyone calls me Anna. Except when I’m performing, in which case I’m the Amazing Annabel. And you were… Roland, right?”

“That’s right.”

Anna looked down at the floor for a few moments, lost in thought. She then raised her head back up and asked, “This might sound like a weird thing to ask, and you’ve already done more for me than I could ever repay, but… you’re just passing through here, right?”

Roland tilted his head to the side slightly.

“I mean, I’ve been working the main street here all week, and I only saw you that one time yesterday, and it’s kind of hard to miss someone stomping around in a gold suit of armor, right? So, you’re not from here, so you’re probably going to be leaving here soon too, right?”

“Right….” he ventured, not sure where this was leading.

“And you’re pretty good at rescuing damsels in distress, right? And those skills probably work even on people who aren’t damsels, right?”

“Um….”

“I mean, I’m not an expert on it or anything, but I imagine it doesn’t matter too much who you’re trying to rescue, right?”

“Maybe you could just skip to what it is you’re asking for?” Roland suggested, hoping he didn’t come across too curt.

“Oh, sorry. I don’t know how you ask someone for something like this, but….” Anna stared at the floor again. She took a deep breath, held it briefly, and blurted out, “Could you come with me to Castle Helioth and help me rescue my little brother?”

Roland stared at her, not sure what to make of that. “Help you…?”

Anna turned back towards the window. The tone of her voice became much more somber, even more than it had been originally. “I said how last night wasn’t the worst thing that’s happened to me? Well, that happened a few months ago. You’ve heard about Doomhammer, right?”

Everyone had heard about Doomhammer. Word travels quickly when a third of a town burns to the ground.

“That’s where we were from,” Anna continued. “Last night was nothing compared to that. It was…. A lot of people gave up hope and abandoned the town when it looked like it couldn’t be stopped. Everyone else fought to save whatever they could, at whatever cost. When you’re at risk of losing everything you have, everything you know, well, sacrificing only most of it to save the rest suddenly doesn’t seem so bad.”

Roland opened his mouth as though to speak, but coudn’t think of anything to say.

“Our parents fought the fires until the end. They didn’t….” Anna brushed something from her cheek. “When it was all over, nobody knew what happened to Derek. I searched everywhere I could, but he wasn’t there any more. But over the next few days, as the shock wore off and us survivors started thinking about what to do now, I heard something from one of the villagers about how he thought he saw someone who looked like Derek on one of the wagons that fled the town. I don’t know why he would’ve been there, or who would’ve taken him, or why, but it was something.”

“But then, why…”

“I’ve been following the rumors ever since, and they’ve led me here, and they point to Castle Helioth. I don’t know if he’s still there, or if he ever was there, or if it’s even him, but I have to try. I’ve asked the local guards, everywhere, even the knights, but none of them are willing to do anything. You’re probably my last chance at getting help with this.”

She looked at Roland again.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “Really, it’s all right if you say no. I know it sounds ridiculous, or foolish, or whatever. I’ve heard it all before. But I’m not going to give up on everything until I see for myself, so it doesn’t really matter anyway. I just figured it was worth a try. You’ve already done more than anyone else has for me in a long time.”

Roland thought. “Well, my duties take me to Derinham next. If you’re really headed to what’s left of Castle Helioth, I imagine that’s where you’ll be going next. You can accompany me that way if you like. As for the rest…”

Anna smiled. “When can we start?”

Chapter word count: 1,863 (according to wc)
Total word count: 9,460 / 50,000 (18.92% complete)

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Appendix A: Chapter 4

[Editor's note: Chapter 4 of my 2008 NaNoWriMo entry.]

Roland awoke to the sounds of muffled shouts somewhere outside. He rubbed his eyes groggily and looked around. The room was bathed in a soft red glow.

“Can’t… knights… exercise… at a reasonable hour?” he grubled to no one in particular.

He lifted himself up and carefully got to his feet. He took a few wobbly steps towards the wash basin on the far wall. Sunrise already, yet it felt like he had only slept for a few hours. Roland couldn’t remember having problems sleeping that night. But if he did, would he have remembered, or would he just feel awful like he was now? Roland’s mind wasn’t nearly awake enough to try to untangle that one just yet.

Roland reached the basin and splashed cold water on his face, shocking his system to attention. Now that he felt a bit more awake, he noticed the shouts weren’t the uniform chants of knights going through morning exercises. These were too varied, too random, and didn’t sound close enough to be coming from around the barracks.

Furthermore, Roland remembered that he arose at sunrise yesterday, but the sunlight didn’t have the redness that illuminated his surroundings now. And come to think of it, didn’t the window of his room face west, anyway?

Roland ran to the window and yanked aside the thin gray curtain.

Fire, coming from somewhere just outside the gate.

Fully awake now, Roland rushed to the pile of his things in the corner. He grabbed his sword belt and fastened it around his waist. He then pulled out a heavy gray cloak, threw it on over his pajamas, pulled on his boots, and ran outside. He ran along the path to the front gate of the encampment.

“Report!” he ordered as he shoved the gate open.

“Area is secure, sir,” the knight on the left replied. “No suspicious activity to report.”

Roland had just woken up, but the guard didn’t have that excuse. “The fire! What about the fire? Over there?” he pointed emphatically, hoping to eliminate any possible ambiguity this time.

“We first saw it about ten minutes ago, sir. It’s a little hard to tell from this angle, but it looks like it’s coming from the Iron Flagon. From the shouts coming from that direction, it sounds like they’re aware of the fire.”

Roland resisted the urge to slap his head in frustration. Or the guard’s. “And…?”

“Sir?”

“Were you planning on doing something about the fire, before it spreads to the rest of the block and comes this way?”

“No, sir,” the knight on the right spoke up.

A corner of Roland’s mind suggested throttling as an alternative to slapping. Roland filed it away as Plan B. “And why not?”

“Three reasons, sir. First, the prevailing winds tonight are blowing the other way, and even if they weren’t, they aren’t strong enough for the flames to cross the fenceline into camp. And second, jurisdiction of the Royal Knights only extends thirty feet past the perimeter, unless under orders of a duly appointed officer or in extenuating circumstances.”

“And fire isn’t an extenuating circumstance?”

“No, sir, because of the first reason.”

Roland, against his better judgement, pressed his luck. “And if I ordered you to do something about the fire?”

“That raises the third reason, sir. The Commander has given us strict orders not to go to the Iron Flagon except under his direct orders, ever since the incident with the oxcart.”

There was a story somewhere in there to be sure, but Roland was pretty sure he was better off not hearing it. “Fine, then. You two, just… stay here and keep doing what you’re doing.”

“Yes sir!” they answered in unison, saluting.

Reflexively, Roland quickly returned the salute as he ran towards the red glow, which seemed be getting brighter.

Roland pushed his way through the crowd of spectators gawking at the spectacle and reached someone whose stern expression suggested he might be in some kind of control over the situation. Or at least, stuck with the responsibility of handling it.

“What’s going on?” Roland asked him.

“The fire started on the bottom floor. It spread quickly, but we’ve almost got it under control. The building’s probably a loss, though.”

Finally, someone competent. “Is everyone out?”

“Kurtzman there thinks there might still be one or two waitstaff in there somewhere, but we’ve got everyone tied up running buckets to keep the fire from spreading to the other buildings. Plus, at this rate, the thing’s bound to start collapsing any minute now. No one’s fool enough to run in there and get himself killed for someone who might not even be there.”

Roland stared at the building. Flames rose up from the door and the windows on the first floor, with dark smoke billowing out from the higher floors. His night-adjusted eyes couldn’t see past the brightness inside the door, and the roar of the flames overpowered any shouts that might be coming from within.

“Well, someone has to do it,” Roland said. He ran towards a peasant lugging a bucket full of water, grabbed it from him before the peasant could react, and dumped it over himself. A frightening thought flickered in the back of his mind. “Will this actually help?”

The man in charge shrugged. “Let us know if it does,” he offered.

Roland nodded, lowered his head, and charged into the Iron Flagon.

The first thing that assaulted Roland was the choking, pungent smoke pouring from every direction. Roland gagged and pulled the collar of his shirt up over his nose and mouth, which seemed to help a little. At the very least, it took his mind off trying to breathe and let him notice the searing heat.

Between the clouds of smoke and the bright flames, Roland’s eyes struggled to resolve anything useful. The tables, chairs, walls, and ceiling seemed to all be made of wood, judging from how they were all on fire. A loud snap and clang sounded to his right, and Roland saw a heavy wooden beam come crashing to the floor, helping the fire spread to the floor, which, as luck would have it, was also made of wood.

Roland wasn’t going to find anything at this rate, and wasn’t going to have long to try. “Hello?” he shouted as he creeped farther in to the building. He briefly pulled his collar back down and shouted again, louder this time without being muffled.

He thought he heard something farther ahead and towards the left, past behind what used to be a bar, but was still on fire. He pressed on in that direction, shouting every few steps but never being sure of a reply, until he reached a doorway. A fallen wooden beam leaned diagonally across it, blocking his way.

“Hello?” he yelled, lungs straining to be heard above the background roar.

This time, Roland definitely heard something other than fire and crashing building materials on the other side of the doorway. It sounded almost like… water splashing?

“Stand back!” Roland warned and drew his sword. It certainly wasn’t the ideal tool for cutting wood, but he didn’t exactly have any alternatives at this point. To Roland’s surprise, however, the beam broke in two after only a few chops. Either the fire had already done much to weaken the beam, or the beam had been cut from a particularly evil tree and his sword was effective at smiting it.

In either case, Roland almost tried kicking the resulting chunks of wood out of the doorway, stopping himself when his brain reminding him of what a bad idea that would be with leather boots. Instead, he leapt over, into what looked like it used to be a kitchen.

There, Roland saw a woman clutching a large bowl standing near a barrel. She plunged the bowl deep into the barrel and dumped it on the floor, towards a flame inching closer to her position. Steam rose from the floor as the flame hissed out, buying the woman a little more time.

“Out! This way! Now!” Roland shouted. The woman looked at him with a start, and relief spread across her face as she ran toward him. Roland heard a crash somewhere, and the entire building seemed to shudder against the load it was increasingly unable to support.

Roland grabbed her by the wrist and led her back the way he came as fast as he dared, shouting out behind him as he relied on memory to retrace his steps through the still-thickening smoke. “Watch the beam in the doorway! This way! Hurry! Keep your head down! Don’t stop!”

After what seemed like an eternity, Roland and the woman ran out through the doorway into what felt like freezing cold air. The crowd cheered their exit, and they collapsed on the ground, gasping for breath.

They sat in silence for several minutes, watching as the building’s first floor burned the rest of the way through. The bucket brigade had stopped, and the men were now standing by, holding buckets of water, waiting for the inevitable collapse and ready to put out any little fires that might get flung out as a result.

“Thanks,” the woman finally said, still breathing deeply.

Roland nodded.

“I… got caught in there… when the fire started…. I thought… if I just tried to… stay alive… something…”

“You’re safe now.”

The corner of the Iron Flagon collapsed, followed by the rest of the building, flinging sparks and embers in every direction. The men with buckets ran forward to douse the edges of the fire and let the rest burn itself out.

“Now what?” the woman asked.

Roland turned to look at her for the first time. The shock of the ordeal was leaving her face, being replaced with concern.

“I was staying in there. I was working to pay for my room. All my things were up there. What…” she trailed off.

Roland didn’t know how to answer. His only experience with this sort of thing was the stories he was told as a child of knights in shining armor rescuing damels in distress, but they always skipped directly from the rescue to the happily ever after. Finally, an idea hit him.

“You know how to get to the Shrine of Yssindria?”

The woman nodded.

“Go there, around to the back. Someone named Sigurd will be there. Tell him Roland sent you, and asked him to let you stay in the guest room there. It’s not a particularly nice room, but…” He thought of something nice to say about it, but could only come up with, “at least it’s not on fire.”

The woman stared at him for a few seconds, smiled, and slowly rose to her feet. “Th… Thanks. I don’t know how to repay you for all this.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Roland stood up, and noticed that the woman had also had the idea to dump water on herself as protection from the fire. “Here,” he said, taking off his cloak and wrapping it around her. “This will at least cover up, your, um, clothes, along the way. Oh! Here, I can escort you to the shrine if you like. Oh, but I’m staying at the knights’ camp, in case you were thinking I was…”

“No, no, that’s all right. I’m fine heading there myself. Really, you’ve done more than enough for me. I’m pretty good at taking care of myself.” She looked at the still-burning wreckage of the Iron Flagon. “Except for, well, that sort of thing.”

And with that, she was off.

Chapter word count: 1,931 (according to wc)
Total word count: 7,597 / 50,000 (15.194% complete)

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Appendix A: Chapter 3

[Editor's note: Chapter 3 of my 2008 NaNoWriMo entry.]

Roland finally worked his way to the far end of the marketplace and veered off onto a crooked side street until he reached the doors of the Shrine of Yssindria. He passed by and walked around to the rear entrance, rapping quickly on the shabby wooden door.

Roland heard a muffled shout from somewhere behind the door, and a few moments later the door cracked inward. An eye peeked through, widened in recognition, and the door swung open. “Ah, welcome back, sir!” the acolyte said as he waved Roland inside. “A good turnout, I trust?”

Roland considered his answer has he stepped through the doorway, ducking his head slightly to avoid banging his helmet on the lintel, as he had earlier that morning. “Better than expected, I suppose.”

“So that’s a ‘no,’ then?”

“Not really, no,” Roland admitted, “but still better than it was in Glenmont, for whatever that’s worth.”

“I’m not too surprised,” the acolyte said, leading Roland into the shrine’s armory. “Truth be told, the shrine doesn’t see many worshippers these days unless something’s going on. Don’t get me wrong, we make do with what we have, and we’re thankful for it, Yssindria knows, but still….” He trailed off with a slight sigh.

“Well, you’re fighting the good fight, and the Order appreciates that,” Roland reassured him. “We need people like you out here keeping the faith and making sure the blessings of Yssindria reach the people, even when things seem bleak and lonely out here.”

Literally — even though the acolyte kept saying “we”, Roland suspected he really meant “I”, as he hadn’t come across any other attendants while he was here, and at the risk of sounding immodest, a visit from a paladin was probably the biggest event to have happened at the shrine in months.

“Thank you, sir,” the acolyte replied. “Now, is there anything I can help you with?”

“If you could draw a bath for me, it would be much appreciated. You can understand how hot these suits can get, I’m sure.” Roland began fidgeting with his gauntlets.

“Yes, sir, of course, sir.” The acolyte bowed quickly as he backed himself out of the room, closing the door behind him.

Roland began the lengthy task of removing the armor and standing it back on the rack, next to the two other suits in the armory. The hardest part, of course, was removing the first few pieces, before one had regained enough mobility to start unfastening the straps that kept everything together. By the time he was pulling off the boots, the acolyte knocked on the door.

“Perfect timing,” Roland said.

After a much-needed bath, Roland put on the change of clean clothes he had left himself that morning, when he had come by to borrow the armor. He returned to the armory to reclaim his sword and don his leather armor vest, when the acolyte returned.

“Will you be needing anything else, sir?” the acolyte asked.

“No, thank you,” Roland replied. “The knights have generously offered their VIP room again tonight, and it would be impolite to turn them down.” Nor was Roland inclined to argue; the guest room behind the shrine reeked of mildew. Roland hoped the acolyte’s own quarters were in better shape. “I’ll just go around to pay my respects and then I’ll be on my way before it gets too much darker.”

“Very well, sir. If there’s any other way I can be of service to you, please let me know.” And with that, the acolyte dismissed himself.

Roland double-checked to make sure he had all his things in his pack before exiting through the back door and working his way back to the front of the shrine. The public-facing facade was in somewhat better condition than the back had been, but still bore the weathering and patches of grime that indicated a lack of sufficient maintenance. Roland paid it no attention and grasped the bronze handles of the great wooden doors, pulling them open slowly in a futile attempt to keep the amount of creaking to a minimum.

Roland silently dropped his pack to the side of the door and, with a measured pace, walked up the center aisle until he reached the dais. As protocol dictated, he unsheathed his sword and knelt down, head bowed and sword held downward so that its tip just barely touched the floor in front of him. He held the pose for until the count of five, then stood up, put his sword away, and moved off to sit in the second row of pews.

He lifted his eyes towards the marble statue of Yssindria that stood behind the altar. In the morning, sunlight would stream through the yellow stained glass windows behind the statue, imbuing it with a divine glow that made for an awe-inspiring sight. But even now, as afternoon turned to evening and the windows were in shadow from the rest of the building, it was still impressive. There the Goddess Yssindria stood, arms outstretched, a shield held in each hand such that the shield itself faced backwards, towards the wall. Her long tunic flowed around her, blown by some ethereal breeze.

It was the “welcoming defender” pose, as Roland had learned during his training, one of the standard designs artists commissioned by the Order tended to use in their depictions of the Lady. He had always thought it odd to show the underside of a shield to begin with, and even a novice to combat could recognize that dual-weilding shields was a much less effective defense than the classic sword and shield combination. He understood the symbolism was that the Lady’s embrace would defend one from all troubles, but it still had always looked a bit off to him. But then again, Roland reasoned that if She were unpleased with the imagery, surely She could figure out some means to make Her thoughts known.

Roland shook his head and pushed his artistic criticisms out of his head, to focus on what he had come here to say. Lady, he prayed, I know it is not Your humble servant’s place to question Your will, but it would be greatly appreciated if You could somehow provide some assurance that this recruiting tour of the western kingdom would not end with nothing to show for it. Your servant knows You know he is doing all he can, but there are limits to what results can be reasonably achieved. Your servant appreciates the era of peace You have bestowed on us, yet wishes there was some more… paladinish way he could serve You other than other than training for battles that never come, interrupted only by journeys to call more to follow the same path. Not that Your servant wishes for a war of course, but… well, if Your servant knew the answer, he would not feel the need to humbly bring his concerns to Your attention.

Roland mulled that over for a bit and ended with a, But in any event, let Your will be done, and closed with a couple standard devotional prayers for good measure. He stepped into the aisle, bowed briefly, and walked back towards the entrance, stopping to reclaim his pack and drop a coin into the donation slot. He considered the condition of the guest room behind the shrine and added a second coin for good measure.

With that, Roland stepped outside and began making his way towards the Royal Knights’ encampment in the village. With his newfound mobility and the main avenue thinning out a bit as the early evening settled in, he was able to make his way to the encampment’s gate after only a few minutes’ walk.

The two knights standing guard on either side of the gate snapped to attention as Roland approached. “Sir,” they saluted.

Roland returned the salute. “As you were.” Though the Royal Knights and the Order were technically two separate organizations under the King’s command, in many matters paladins exerted some level of discretionary authority over knights.

Once through the gate, Roland followed the path towards the mess hall for a quick dinner. The evening’s meal was cut of some kind of meat, drowned in a pool of disconcertingly brown-gray gravy with a side of something that tasted passingly like mashed potatoes. After having seen some of the animals being sold for meat in the marketplace, Roland hazarded that it was best not to press too deeply into the question of what it was he was eating.

Roland sat alone at a small side table in the mess hall. Nothing prohibited him from taking a seat at one of the long rectangular tables where off-duty knights were shoveling down their food and engaging in boisterous conversation, but protocol frowned upon it. Roland figured that was probably for the best; the knights would have likely felt the need to be on their best behavior if he was in their immediate presence.

With dinner complete, Roland continued along the path towards the barracks, veering off when he reached the standalone VIP quarters positioned next to it. The sight of his bed reminded him of his long day in the marketplace, and he fought off a wave of fatigue as he studied a map of the western reaches of the kingdom to plan the next few days’ travels. Tomorrow he would set off towards Derinham. Roland was hardly looking forward to that, partly because of its proximity to what was left of Castle Helioth, but mostly because he feared that today’s efforts might have proven to be the high point of the entire tour. Nothing was more discouraging than the idea that as lousy as things were now, they would only get bleaker until he ultimately returned to Castle Telerand to report on how he had completely failed to meet his recruitment goals.

Roland put the map back into his pack and flopped onto the bed. Even though this bed for VIPs was ostensibly the “good” bed in the encampment, it still groaned under his weight.

Roland agreed with the bed’s assessment, and fell asleep.

Chapter word count: 1,684 (according to wc)
Total word count: 5,666 / 50,000 (11.332% complete)

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Appendix A: Chapter 2

[Editor's note: Chapter 2 of my 2008 NaNoWriMo entry.]

Roland slowly made his way through the the marketplace. The shrine stood a few blocks away from the far end of the main street. The morning walk from there to the booth the Order had rented out for him for today had been easy enough, but that was before the throngs of villagers, farmers, traders, travellers, and everyone else had descended upon it. Now, what had already been a narrow avenue between two rows of squat buildings was reduced to a wall of bodies alternating between crowding around stalls and shops and pushing their way through everyone so they could start crowding around somewhere else.

Wearing a suit of armor, one might think, would be an asset in such a situation. Roland had quickly learned from experience in the villages he had stopped at in the preceeding weeks, however, that it didn’t work nearly so well in practice. Granted, peasants were hardly eager to jostle or shove someone in full armor and wearing a sword on his belt, if only because simple physics assured the jostler would feed more of it than Roland would. Roland enjoyed a slim envelope of empty space immediately surrounding him as he creeped forward, one step at a time. But Roland couldn’t hardly press his advantage by forcing through the crowds, at least not without sparking a dozen tails of a paladin rampaging through a marketplace full of innocents, and even in an outlying area of the kingdom such as this word would soon reach his superiors.

So, Roland contented himself with moving forward a foot or two at a time, taking any opening to progress that presented itself as people shifted around one another. He considered trying his luck navigating side streets and back alleys instead of the main avenue, but the town map he had studied briefly the night before showed this to be the only remotely straight path available. In a testament to the need for effective village planning, buildings had been packed in haphazardly all around the marketplace with no apparent underlying logic or pattern, and Roland was hardly in the mood to risk getting lost until he got out of his armor.

It did give Roland an opportunity to take in the local culture, such as it was, as he waded through the crowds. The windows of each storefront were crammed with their finest wares arrayed on colorful shelves. These stores tended to stock jewelry or ornamental goods or anything else that wouldn’t hold up to the harsher environs of the vendor stalls.

Unfortunately, Roland noted, only rarely did food vendors opt to set up shop anywhere but an open stall, unprotected from the dust and flies and grubby hands that invariably accompanied the hundreds of people that passed by. The aromas that drifted across the street did smell appetizing, but Roland decided to stick with the less risky, and lamentably equally less appetizing, food available at the barracks mess.

And just as open-air booths were squeezed between the shops wherever possible, sometimes a makeshift table could be found crammed between two booths. These tended to be the domain of hucksters and confidence men trying to swindle passersby out of their coins. Here, the popular tool of the trade appeared to be the classic shell game. Roland had seen the con enough times in other towns to know that the man behind the table was never the only one involved. He noticed that either the player always hit a sudden winning streak or the man behind the table would suddenly take a break from the game, if not outright bold down the nearest alley, whenever Roland passed by.

And when there wasn’t even enough room to fit a table, street performers could be found, plucking an instrument and sitting next to an upturned hat. Individually, they didn’t sound too bad — though Roland expected a couple of the “performers” were little more than beggars holding a lute so as to avoid trouble with the town guard — but the different strands of music clashed jarringly the rare times more than one performer could be heard over the commotion of the crowd.

So far, none of this had been terribly different than what Roland had found in the towns he had passed through before arriving here. But then he came across something that he had rarely seen, at least not openly: a street magician. Roland inched his way towards the edge of the clump of people watching.

The young woman behind the table was in the middle of a trick when she entered Roland’s view. She was holding three large silver rings chained together. She was saying something Roland couldn’t quite make out over the background noise, but he watched as she held one ring in her right hand and shook it gently as the other two hung from it and swayed in response. She then grasped the bottom ring with her other hand and brought it up with the first, then reached down again and took hold of the remaining ring. Staring intently at the rings, she brought her hands up to the same level, two rings in one and one in the other, and shook them slightly as she slowly pulled them apart until the rings were free of one another. She quickly clanged the rings against one another to emphasize the point and bowed.

It was at this point when Roland first noticed the plunging neckline of the performer’s red and gold dress.

Roland found himself able to move slightly deeper into the audience to be within earshot, and heard the unmistakable clink of coins being tossed into a hat somewhere on the ground.

“Thank you, thank you,” she said as she dropped the rings someplace out of sight behind the table. She then picked up a deck of cards and with a sweep of her arm spread them face-up across the table. “Here as you can see I have a perfectly ordinary deck of cards.” With another sweep she gathered them back up and began shuffling. “For my next feat of mastery over mind and matter alike, I shall need the assistance of one of you. But not just anyone, I fear, no, it must be someone I feel a strong psychic connection with,” she continued, closing her eyes as she reached out towards the audience with the hand holding the deck of cards. “Someone whose thoughts are calling out to mine, someone like… you, sir, in the second row!”

She opened her eyes and gestured with her outstretched arm for the man to step forward. After a couple seconds, he pushed his way through past the person in front of him.

“Yes, thank you sir, now, before we begin,” she continued as she resumed shuffling the cards, “can you verify to everyone else that you and I have never seen one another before today?”

The man nodded.

“Excellent, excellent, I could tell you had an honest heart about you. Now, I will riffle through this perfectly ordinary and thoroughly shuffled deck of cards, like so… and you will tell me when to stop. Ready?”

The man nodded again. The performer riffled through the deck until the man said, “stop.”

“Ah, perfect, you do that like a pro, good sir,” she said, lifting the top half of the deck, placed it on the table, and handed the remainder of the deck to her newfound assistant. “Now, when I turn my back, I want you to take the top card, the one you just selected at random from the middle of the deck, take a good look at it, memorize it, and show it to the audience. OK? Good.”

The performer turned around, and the man lifted the top card, stared at it for a few seconds, and then showed it to the audience. The queen of clubs.

“Ready? Now please put it back on top of the deck so I can’t see it. Done? OK.” The performer turned around. Now, I want you to think of that card, see it in your mind’s eye, put everything else out of your mind and focus on it. Good. Now, I will use that psychic connection between us, the one that called out to me when you were in the crowd, and I too shall see what card you have chosen.”

She leaned forward and placed her hands on either side of the man’s head. She stared into his eyes, then closed hers and took on a look of deep concentration.

“Good, yes. I am beginning to see… a card… your card… a black card… spades, perhaps? No, no, not spades, clubs. Come on, now, I told you to focus,” she gently chided him. A few in the audience snickered, and she continued, “OK, now, I’m seeing a face card, yes, definitely a face card… it’s a… a queen. You picked the queen of clubs, didn’t you?”

She released the man’s head and straightened up. She then lifted the top card back off the deck, looked at it briefly, smiled, and turned it towards the audience. They applauded, and more coins dropped into the hat.

“Phew. It’s a good thing you did such a good job, sir, otherwise I only would have had a one in fifty-two chance of pulling that off. Thank you! Please, give him a hand too!”

More applause, until an old man’s voice shouted out from the back, “a witch! She’s a witch!”

“Ah, sir, please,” she smiled, “if you saw how my home looks, you wouldn’t even believe I owned a broom. Besides, if I really were some kind of which, don’t you think that paladin over there who’s joined us would have done something about it by now?”

The crowd turned to look at Roland. Luckily, wearing a suit of armor means no one can ever tell when you feel uncomfortable.

“But, you know what? I really shouldn’t do this, but since it’s my last day in this town, and you’ve been such a great audience today, why don’t I show you how that last trick is really done? Sir, why don’t you come up here and do the trick with me. After all, if I really was using a psychic link, it would surely fail this time, right?”

The old man resisted, but the crowd started cheering him on, and a few began nudging him forward until he finally made his way to the front.

“Ah, it’s great to see you’re such a good sport about this, sir.” She bend down to reclaim the top half of the deck, brought the cards back together, and began shuffling. “Now, ‘magician’ is just another word for ‘professional liar,’ after all. The real trick is completed before I ever start pretending to read the volunteer’s mind. Remember how I was holding the deck when I chose my last volunteer? I held it at just the right angle to see the bottom card. See?”

She held the deck up to show the audience the bottom card: this time, the nine of spades.

“Now, when I started shuffling again, like this, I did it in such a way that the bottom card ended up at the top of the deck, like this.” She showed that the top card was, indeed, now the nine of spades. “Unless you were watching very closely, you’ll have to figure out how to do that part on your own. The second part of the trick comes here, when the volunteer ‘picks’ a card, like this.”

She riffled through the deck again. She reached the end, cleared her throat pointedly, and tried again. This time, the old man grunted when she was part way through the deck.

“OK, now, with this top half, the trick is to quickly take all but the very top card and remove it from the deck quickly, so that the top card is still the top card of what’s left. Like this.” She put aside the top half of the deck and lifted the new top of the deck to reveal that, yes, it was also the nine of spades.

“So as you see, I knew what the card was going to be before I had even picked the volunteer. No magic, no mastery of the mind, just mastery of matter. OK?”

The old man looked grudgingly satisfied and moved back into the audience.

“And now that my shocking secret is revealed,” she smiled, “just promise me you won’t all run out and try it tomorrow, OK? Well, with that, I shall bid you good day. Thank you all once again for your generosity and attention!”

She bowed, triggering another round of applause and more coins dropped into the hat. Roland figured he had lingered long enough, and resumed working his way down the avenue towards the shrine.

Chapter word count: 2,139 (according to wc)
Total word count: 3,982 / 50,000 (7.964% complete)

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