MAGIC AND MYSTERY
Our trials and tribulations were only beginning. After facing two different ambushes and falling asleep in the middle of the desert, we had a new adversity to gaze on. A huge storm. Ravenna corrected me. ‘It’s a sandstorm’ she cried. We had been taught about storms but this was my first time witnessing one. Never in Vereen were we fortunate enough to experience a storm. Most would frown upon my madness to see the misfortune in never having to live through a storm but it is kind of exciting. The winds bellowed hard and our horses struggled to move straight. The speeding dust was hitting our faces in such force that I felt my face tearing apart every second. We couldn’t see anything but Ravenna was prepared for this all along. She had all three of our horses tied up and had taken the lead.
“OI!! Get your ass up. Are you both hibernating?” Ravenna woke us both up with some outrageous banging and yelling. All that noise seemed enough to wake everyone up at the inn but she wasn’t one of those people who would care. My mother rushed to the door to let her in but she chose to stay at the door. “You both slept the whole day. I’ve never seen anything like it. The sun rose two hours ago. You better get dressed soon because the next town is over 12 hours away and the sooner we get there, the better. Travelling after sunset could be tricky so you better hurry up.” From the looks of it, she had just woken up too but had the nerve to come here and tell us to speed things up.
“Come on Ed, wash up your mouth” shouted my mom while rummaging through her luggage. I took a mouthful of Chlorol from a bottle and gargled intensely for a few seconds before spitting it out in the nearest pot.
“Hey, what’s that supposed to be?” Ravenna asked my mother. It looked like she already had an idea and indeed she did follow up. “Is that chlorol by any chance?”
“Yes” said my mother. “You rinse your mouth with this and wipe your teeth with a clean cloth. Have you never used it?” she asked her back.
“No. It’s usually used by the wealthy few. Royalty and other important folk. I’d heard about it but I’ve never seen it before. It’s not generally sold out in the open and even if it was, I couldn’t afford it.”
“How do you clean your teeth then?” I asked her.
“Like everyone else. Soak some Glader bark in water and chew it for a few minutes before rinsing your mouth with some water.” She said enviously. I hadn’t seen anyone clean their teeth without using Chlorol before. I hadn’t even heard of Glader trees before. “Would you like some?” I offered her a serving.
“Are you sure?” she asked while seeking approval from my mom. “It’s really expensive”
“Oh please. I brought lots of bottles with me. It might even last the three of us a year” said my mother cheerfully. But one year! Isn’t that overkill? What did she pack so much for?
Ravenna took a shy little sip and sloshed it inside her mouth before spitting it out in the same pot I used. “Aww this is so tasty!!” she squealed. “It’s so fresh and energising. I’m never chewing that stupid bark again in my life. I’m going to use those two crowns to buy me all the chlorol I need.” She was visibly blushing and prancing around, like a little girl on her birthday.
Soon after, we were all dressed up and ready to leave. This time around, she was wearing something different than what she wore yesterday. Yesterday, she was casually wearing some leather armour on her torso with some leather bracers on her forearms. She was equipped with a long mace and a slim stiletto dagger. Today however, she was padded to the teeth. The knee length leather boots and bracers were the same as yesterday but now she was wearing a sleeved chain-mail armour under her leather top on top of which she placed her steel shoulder pads. She was wearing an equipment belt and cross-tied it with every other component she was wearing to hold everything together. Instead of a mace, she was carrying two swords which she placed on her back, both tilted in one direction. She had a couple of pouches on her belt but I didn’t see any dagger. She was also wearing a cape, leather gloves and a scarf around her neck.
“You both should put on a scarf too. The desert can be an unpredictable place. The least you can do is avoid turning your mouth into a miniature desert.” We both pulled out a couple of scarves and wrapped them around our heads.
“Alright. I managed to pack plenty of water while you both were taking your good time dressing up. I’m wearing twice as much as you and didn’t even take half the time.” It was more bragging than complaining so we didn’t pay much heed it it.
“Why the cape?” I asked her
“It helps you ride better when it’s windy” she said
“Really?” I asked her with surprise because I’ve always wanted to wear a cape but never had any good reason to.
“Nah, it just looks good” she chuckled at my disappointment and walked forth to get the horses. We began our journey into the desert and everything seemed to go well for the first few hours. The sun wasn’t as bright as it was in the last two days and the unstopping wind kept us from sweating but slowly it started getting complicated. The wind was blowing at an accelerated pace and was hitting us face first. It started slowing us down and then we saw it. A massive cloud of dust swirling in the distance. It kept getting bigger as it slowly gained upon us. There was nowhere to run and getting engulfed in it was now inevitable. Fear had crippled us and our horses and we standing still on the sand, gazing at this monstrosity approaching us.
“We need to keep moving. Standing in one spot would make things even worse. It’s coming right from the front so all we have to do is charge head-on. Any momentum is going to help. Here, tie a hitch on your saddles with this rope. We need to stick together.” She passed us a rope that she had already tied to her horse. Mom made me the middle man and she tied the end of the rope on her saddle. Now the three of us slowly charged forward, bracing ourselves for impact.
“Are they going to be okay?” I asked Ravenna.
“Who’s they?” she asked me back.
“The horses. They look so scared.” I had never seen Diddy and Dixit look this horrified and yet they were moving forward.
“Yeah, you can navigate your horse through a storm like this if you know what you are doing. It’s not going to be easy for them but you look like you have a good handle on your horses. If you can get through it with your nerves intact, so can they. Just take control of the situation. We tightened the scarves which masked us better. Second by second, the cloud grew larger. We could feel a reduction in speed as the storm approached. The dust was hitting us now. Even though we were fully clothed, it felt like we were being poked by thousands of needles on the front. I leaned forward and tightly hugged Diddy. He was grunting in pain as he struggled forward. I felt bad for putting him through this but he kept advancing without hesitation. After what felt like an hour but actually turned out to be a few couple of minutes, the winds started getting weaker. The push-back was much lesser than before and we were gaining speed. The dust was still thick and blinding. We couldn’t see anything but brown-red sand engulfing us from all sides through the small open slits of our eyes. Slowly, things started to appear in our field of vision. The wind was less than half the speed from earlier and the cloud was vanishing quickly. Ravenna shouted and commanded us to untie the rope so that we could charge ahead and then take a break. After loosening the knots, we sped forward, gasping for cleaner air.
‘That was tough’ I said while panting heavily. The rest were as winded as me but Ravenna seemed to be calmer.
‘Yeah, it was. Let’s not stay here too long. We need to keep moving. This part of the desert is quite unpleasant. I don’t want to have to ride through one of those again.’ We agreed almost instantly. Without relaxing too much, we began continuing our journey to Braumchester.
‘How far is it again?’ asked my mom, who already seemed tired of the journey. We’d been on the ride for over four hours. Noon was past us and the sun was facing us now, making it the toughest part of the journey after the sandstorm.
‘There’s another town in the way. It’s pretty much abandoned so we don’t have to worry about paying for stay. Not that that’s going to be a problem for you anyway. We’ll get there by evening, so we’re still not even halfway through. Keep your masks on, it’s going to get hotter.’ We kept going ahead diligently. We made intervals between galloping and regular strutting to keep the perfect balance between speed and fatigue. Slowly, the sun started to set and dusk approached us. As the surroundings got cooler, we started stripping ourselves of extra clothing that was protecting us from the blazing sun. The cool fresh air felt like an elixir healing our immense fatigue.
We were now climbing a huge dune. Just as we reached the peak, we got to see a glimpse of our destination. It was a huge town, much larger than the ones we’ve been to these past few days. Judging from the span, it even seemed bigger than Vereen from where I was standing. Strangely, I’d never seen my own town from a distance. It happens to be physically impossible to spot given how it’s surrounded by forests and mountains.
The town was huge but it wasn’t dense. The houses were scattered far apart from each other. A couple of buildings were huddled together in different clusters making the town look like a honeycomb. Taking a look at the place sent a chill down my spine. It was cold and eerie and made me feel quite uneasy. Slowly, we trotted down the dune, making our way to the town.
This place was dark. Only a few houses were lit and there were a lot of creepy vagrants scattering out of our way to avoid attention. “What is this place?” I asked her.
“This is Pompadoon. It used to be a town of lumberjacks and timber traders but since the Waynecastle massacre, the entire forest surrounding the town started dying out and the townsfolk lost their livelihood. Most of them moved out to other places but those who were too scared to move have been decaying here ever since. People left behind good houses so this place has become a hot spot for all kinds of vagrants. Nobody bothers anybody here but we need to be careful in particular. We stand out and some folks might come snooping for a snack. Don’t worry though. I can handle most of what these weak goons can throw at me but I want to avoid any trouble if I can. Let’s just stay hidden. We’ll look for a decent hut and camp there for the night. We’ll start again in the morning and that way, we’ll be in Braumchester by evening tomorrow.”
For the most part we circled the edge of the town to avoid any unwarranted attention. As we cruised through the shabby streets, glancing across our camping options I saw a drearier reality about the world outside Vereen. The plight of this town was unimaginable. People losing their way of life, people losing their homes. I’ve only been out for less than a week and I am already so tired of being on the move. The last couple of days have been quite challenging. I wondered how it would have been for those people. The conditions of the current residents were rotten. They lived in squalor and looked sad and scared. It seemed as if living like pests made them behave like pests too. There were still plenty of vacant houses around but none seemed habitable, at least for “us” as my mother suggested. I couldn’t blame her high standards but every rejected housing option seemed to tick Ravenna off more and more. I felt a bit embarrassed for her choosiness and after a point, I was willing to spend a night in a pig sty if that would prevent Ravenna from exploding in a fit of rage.
“Ah! This is perfect! Sturdy door, working bolts, grills on the windows, a kitchen, a chimney and clean….. for the most part. Pass this one up and I’ll throw off a cliff, you choosy princess.” We finally came across a decent shack. “Hehehe. This is quite… sufficient” said my mother, laughing awkwardly. It took a direct death threat for her to realise how much she had pissed Ravenna off with her pickiness. We tied our horses up at the front and took shelter inside.
“Phew, what a day! I’m exhausted.” I cried
“Oh, shush now pansy. You should be embarrassed instead. This small rendezvous has sapped you out already? I’ve been on horseback for two days straight a few times. No resting in the middle. You pampered kids are too soft. You only understand how difficult life is once you step out of your castle in the clouds.” Ravenna grumbled.
It stung but there was some truth to what she was saying. Maybe I am too soft. What do I know of how life is out here?
“Hey, go easy on him. Also, Ed and I are quite vigorous. He spends most of his time out in the forests. I hardly ever see him idling around at home. I too work the farm all day but this has been much more exhausting. Maybe it’s because travelling is new to us. This must be a routine for you so I don’t think you can relate” my mom said in defence. It was a bit embarrassing but she was right. I used to run around the forests all day and that never tired me out. Horse riding has never been my forte so maybe that’s why I’m exhausted so easily.
“Hmph! Forests in the west and princesses working the farm. I don’t what kind of lame joke you’re trying pass up but I don’t wanna sit and humour you. I’ll go check if I can get some food for the horses. Bolt up after me and don’t let anyone except me in at all costs. Understand?” I couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t believe us but we nodded to her command. She left and we bolted the door shut. Mother was unrolling the beds on the floor while I was rummaging through our supplies. There was a lot of food to go around. Pouches filled with nuts, dried meat, cakes and so many fruits and veggies.
“We’ll eat the fruits first Ed. We don’t want them to rot. The rest of the things won’t perish anytime soon” said my mother. Just as I was about to pick out today’s dinner, I was startled by loud banging on the door.
“Open up! Quick! Open up!!” It was Ravenna. I ran to the door and unbolted it. She lunged inside and starting repacking all our stuff. She looked terrified. “What is it?” I asked her.
“Necromancers. A whole bunch of them. Hurry, we need to leave!” I had no idea what she was talking about but her fear was utterly contagious. It seemed like my mother knew what these “necromancers” were but she also had confusion stamped on her face. I started repacking our supplies while mother rolled our beds back. I could now hear screams from outside. I turned to see what was happening out the door. People were running in one direction. Some tried to throw stones at whatever was chasing them but nobody spent any more time on a second hurl. The horror on the streets made me freeze up like I did in Hirridunn when Randall was facing off against those three men in black.
Ravenna slapped the back of my head to get me back to my senses. They were done packing already. “Oi brat. Can’t spare time to get scared now. Run to your horse and ride behind me as fast as you can. I don’t want you to hesitate for even one second. They’re almost here.”
From where I was standing I could see through the door. Not as many people seemed to be running now because most of them had fled. It seemed like a group of men were coming from the left. The light from their torches grew stronger as they drew closer. In front of the the house opposite ours, I could see an old hooded man sitting by the door, oblivious to the chaos outside. Was her drunk or was he asleep? How could he sleep through such commotion?
I ran out the door after these two. All of us looked at the incoming horde of people who seemed to be threatening the town. It was a large group of about thirty men dressed in purple robes, each of them hooded and cloaked. They were all holding daggers and torches in each hand and were chanting a strange language in unison. But that wasn’t the strangest thing in sight. Walking among them, were several undead!!
The undead army was slowly advancing on us. I saw a family of three in the midst of the pack, struggling to fight off this strange threat. A little girl and her parents were already surrounded by these men and the zombies. The father tried defending his family by swinging his sword around but it didn’t matter to the undead. They disarmed him with ease, bravely getting hacked by the sword as if it didn’t hurt one bit. One of the hooded men walked forth and stabbed this defeated man in the chest. His wife and daughter cried out at the sight of his death but a few seconds later he got up. He picked up the sword and walked towards his own family, only this time with the sword pointed at them instead of shielding them. He was one of them now.
The sight was gruesome. I noticed that Ravenna was already dragging me by the collar. She was saying something but I couldn’t hear anything. My eyes were fixed at the horror in front of me. The hooded men seemed to be the necromancers that Ravenna mentioned. I couldn’t understand what was going on in front of me but it was clear that the awakened father was now a zombie like the rest of them. Right when he closed in at his family, the necromancer who stabbed him stopped him in his tracks. He wiped his dagger clean and slowly walked towards the mother and daughter who were scared to bits. As soon as he grabbed the child’s throat, my body felt a jolt. Before I knew it, I was running into the horde of the necromancers. “YOU! STOP!!!” I shouted at the top of my voice.
I grabbed the attention of every single necromancer and the undead around them. Their chanting had stopped. The necromancer who held the girl’s throat let her go and waved his hand towards me, like trying to splash water at someone in a pond. Suddenly, every single zombie from the horde broke into an inhuman run. They charged at me at unbelievable speed which broke my own run. I was paralysed with fear. What was I thinking? Why did I run towards her? What could I have accomplished? A frail little boy like me. I could hear Ravenna and my mother running towards me while they were shouting something. I still couldn’t make anything out. Any moment now, it would be over. I had endangered not only myself but also my mother and our new companion. My gaze was still fixed on the scared little girl who was staring back at me. “RUN! NOW’S YOUR CHANCE. GET AWAY FROM HERE” I cried as hard as I could. Without hesitation, they made their escape while the attention of the necromancers and the zombies was fixed on me. I smiled knowing that they were safe now. Everything seemed to move slowly around me. The zombies charging at me looked much slower than before as if time itself had slowed down in my final moments. It seemed as if my very own body was caught in a much severe time freeze for I couldn’t even attempt a final escape. I closed my eyes, picturing my mother for I did not want to die with my last sight being of a grotesque zombie.
TCHL TCHL TCHL TCHL
A strong cold gust blew past me and the force knocked me down. As I got up, I saw a huge wall of ice separating me from the zombies. They were banging the ice, trying to break it down. Beside me stood the old hooded man I saw before. He was dressed in a similar fashion like those necromancers but he wore blue robes instead of purple. “Run now, young hero. Leave this mess to this old man.” He gave me a warm smile through his cold presence.
His palms were frosted and his breath seemed cold. Ravenna had reached me already. Without saying a word, she lifted me up on her shoulders and started running back to the horses. The zombies started coming around the wall. The old man waved his arms towards them with bizarre movements and froze them into blocks of ice. The wall he created broke as a result of overwhelming force applied by the huge swarm behind it. He waved both his hands across as if he was trying to topple a table and blew a drastic blizzard out of nowhere. The entire swarm was trapped in a giant iceberg. I could see the necromancers fleeing as he chased after them. I saw him disappear into the edge of the town.
I was now mounted on Diddy. My senses started coming back to me as the fear slowly dissipated. We were now riding into the desert and I could hear Ravenna cursing at me. “You damn idiot! What were you thinking back there? You almost got us all killed. Hmph. Running into a party of necromancers like you’re some knight.” I could faintly hear my mother crying. I bowed down in shame, realising now what I had done. I didn’t even think about them. I didn’t think about anyone. I just ran, hoping I could save that little girl and her mother.
“Thank the gods that damn mage popped out of nowhere. A warrior mage no less. You don’t get to see that everyday” she kept going on. I was so shaken by shock that my curiosity took a back seat. Necromancers, the undead and mages. There was too much to process but my mind was set one one thing. My mother, who was riding ahead of me hadn’t looked back at me once since we started riding. Her sobs were getting weaker and weaker now. We rode for hours without stopping. We were hungry and tired but the thought of stopping was too scary.
Our shock and fear faded once we felt the dawn approach. We stopped at a spot near a couple of pine trees. Ravenna was the first one to get down. She drew a bottle out and emptied it out before offering one for her horse. Me and my mother got down and did the same. She still hadn’t looked at me once. She went and sat under the trees, staring down at her lap. I couldn’t imagine what she was thinking about at the moment. Ravenna was sitting on the ground beside her horse. I took some cakes out of my bag and offered her some which she ate at a superhuman speed.
“Hey now, don’t look so gloomy kid. She’s not angry, just shook” she said very sympathetically.
“I know. But how can I face her now? I put all of us in danger back there” It was still eating me up.
“Sure you did. I can handle a bunch of bandits but mages and zombies are way out of my league. But no point in beating yourself up now. Just make sure that you don’t pull that hero card again. Do that again and I’m hauling ass. I don’t wanna turn into a pretty corpse for your heroic ambitions.” She managed to make me smile.
“Enough smiling. Man up and go talk to her. If you were brave enough to stand up to an army of the dead then facing her shouldn’t be all that difficult” she pushed me forward by slapping me on the butt.
“Ouch. Actually, this is much harder” I said as I slowly marched to my mother, afraid of what comes next.
Hot damn. We have magic too! Introduction to magic paired up with action? Even better.
Although it was only a tease, fret not because there’s so much more to come. There is another chapter after which the prologue ends. Then the real plot progresses. Role playing medieval games have had a great influence on me and I plan on introducing several elements from there into this story like magic, combat, items, quests, etc.
Btw, I really like Ravenna. I have noticed this trend. When authors are asked who they like the most from their own stories, they usually choose the characters who are more frank and direct. Ravenna is a cold badass and is also a really nice person. Any sane person would have fled but she ran to Ed’s rescue when an army of zombies were running in their direction. She knew that she had no chance but she chose to run to him anyway. Decisions made in times like these reveal the deep truth about one’s character. Sadly, she’ll be sidelined in the upcoming chapters.