The moon hung heavily over the sleepy town of Nazris, frogs and crickets raising a raucous over their midnight deity. Fireflies danced about as most of the inhabitants paid no heed to them; all except four individuals were asleep that night. There was a light fog that was made visible by moonlight only. These four souls kept to themselves, separated by what seemed like whole worlds, when in fact they were in neighboring houses. All four of them looked up at the moon and thought sadly of their time on Exasta, wishing for the happier moments to have returned over the darkened shadows that hung deep in their hearts.
A young woman sat on the sill of her window, looking out over the village at the lights of Tiel Londo, the grand port city that seemed much closer than it actually was. Despite the journey not being too difficult, the fact remained that she would surely never see the busy streets, the crowded restaurants and bars, nor the lamp lights that mocked the stars when night fell. No, for her, life would always revolve around Nazris, and it sickened her to no end, seeing the same setting day in and out for the several years she had been alive. She would curse her sickly physique, then she would curse those around her that showed her pity, then she would curse those that she had never met for living the life she wish she had.
The elderly man that lived beside her looked out the window, not at the moon but at the fog and fireflies. His imagination played tricks with him and he saw not friendly insects but the eyes of his enemies, glaring at him from the safety of the fog. For more than half his life on this planet, he had spent it fighting those that were labelled an enemy by either himself or those superior to him. Now, in his old, tired age, everything was starting to blur, and he could feel his blood boil under his flesh. It riled him up, but he kept still, not wanting to show the enemy any sign of weakness. He knew, for Nazris’ sake, that the battle was only beginning.
Across the street from those two poor, unfortunate souls lie the other two. A brother and a sister, twins, laid on their bed, their eyes watching the twinkling stars. The light pulsing through the night sky that made them twinkle was the only thing comforting these children this night. The house they dwelt in was silent after a terrible fit of yells, screams, and items being thrown about in the other rooms. The children were terrified of what had happened, but they were sure they were the cause of it from the several times their names were spoken of. The boy held onto his sister, and she him, comforting one another as they wished for something different.
Of course, all four individuals were unaware of one another, but they were also unaware of a fifth body awake at this hour. His intentions were pure, slaving away in his study, but there were sinister machinations in place surrounding his work. As he enacted his plan, his room began to fill with light. Lacking any windows, it was contained, but it didn’t take long before the light began to dim. His eyes adjusted to see, lying on the slab of stone he had been working with, the fruits of his research. He could feel how visible his joy was on his face.
The moon continued its arc across the starlit sky, unhindered by the scenes unfolding below it. Unbeknownst to all involved, a strange beam of light shot out from the center of the village, piercing the light of the celestial form above as it reached its zenith. The moon began to glow blood red, staining the beam of light as it bled back down to the earth. Having done its job, the beam disappeared as fast as it appeared, surrounding the village in the crimson light of the moon for a few seconds before the lunar satellite’s color bleached back to normal. The same could not be said of Nazris, however.
Tiel Londo was a bustling port city on the continent of Velkind. It was known for its separate city levels, each acting as a separate, smaller city of its own, and being the center of trade for the entire continent. It was also the ruling seat for the western side of Velkind, where Magus Lamerou kept a peaceful watch over the towns under his protection. This early in the morning, shopkeepers were setting up their stores and stalls, readying themselves for the activity that would rise with the sun as it finally breached the distant horizon. There was also the returning champions, the adventurers that made the countryside peaceful for the citizens. After a successful campaign against the shadows of night, they were coming back for some well-deserved sleep. They didn’t do their jobs for the praise and glory, but more for the sake of making things better for themselves and everyone else.
Of course, not all of them were exhausted. There were some that took to far more dangerous methods of walking through the city streets, such as climbing walls and using the rooftops, or briskly gliding through the narrow alleys and avoiding the thieves that dwelt within the shadows. One such adventurer, a young woman by the name of Vlue Au’vier, did not have the luxury of either routes and had to stick purely to the sidewalks. To her, walking through the streets at this time of the morning was still hazardous. It was a forest of legs due to her short stature. This did not deter her though, and she deftly wiggled and climbed her way through towards her destination.
She made it safely to the stoop of the Sirensong, a pub that she had used as her base of operations since coming to the city. She supported herself against the wall, trying to catch her breath before moving in. Taking in one deep breath to steady her heartbeat, she checked her reflection, fixed the stray brown hairs that had come loose, and cleared her throat. “Presentation, Vlue. That’s what it’s all about. Presentation,” she said to herself, psyching herself up for what awaited her inside.
Most of her senses were instantly assaulted by her full body stepping across the threshold of the pub. The laughter and yelling of some of the patrons made her own thoughts bounce about in her skull, while the pungent aroma of sweaty bodies returning from several nights out in the wild clogged her nostrils. The several sizes and shapes of adventurers that flocked the Sirensong made her feel so short and weak in comparison, but then she would often see others of her stature or shorter and instantly perk up. There was a clear path between her current position and the booth she frequented. She covered the distance as fast as she could to avoid running in to trouble, sliding into the leather seat with some difficulty. As she righted herself up into a sitting position, she saw that the booth was already occupied. Sitting on the other side of the table was the hulking figure of her colleague and close friend, Kastanell Weiyran, reading an unmarked book.
He was an imposing figure, with his beastly features outlined by the blonde hair and the piercing golden eyes, but she had seen that he was far kinder than his outwardly appearance let on. “Hi Kas,” she chirped happily, waving to him. He smiled at her, the crease in his cheeks bending the markings on his face. “Where’s everyone else?” He only shrugged his shoulders before returning back to the book. He was usually quiet in the bar, which made him stand out even more among the roaring laughs and loud voices. She had come to admire his silence at times. She looked around the rest of the bar scene, wondering where her other accomplices were. She had some important news to share with them and she wanted to make sure that it was said once and be done with it, rather than repeating it constantly.
“Teiris may be a bit late,” Kastanell said over his book. “She’s dealing with something, but it won’t take her too long. Lendrith, however… it’s hard to keep him to a schedule.” He flipped a page, keeping his place as he spoke to her. Vlue understood what he meant about Lendrith, but didn’t fault him for it. Tiel Londo was definitely the place to escape from your former life, and she could only imagine that, like her, everyone else lived here to do the same. She fidgeted about on the seat some, wishing she had grabbed a booster seat before sitting. She grabbed the menu and browsed through it some, wondering what she should have to eat for breakfast while they waited.
“Sorry, sorry,” a red-haired woman apologized as she touched the table, bracing herself to catch her breath. Vlue knew her as Teiris del Tamicar, her pointed ears denoting her Fyris blood. Vlue waved at her as a sign of greeting, scooting over to let their friend in. “The streets were packed by the time I got out. I wanted to try and get here as soon as I could, but I almost got mugged taking one of the shortcuts!” Vlue gasped, her hands flying over her mouth in an overexaggerated display of shock. Teiris sat down and brushed her hair with her fingers. “I taught the guy a lesson in thievery myself.” She tossed a wallet onto the table, chuckling a little. “So when we get done here, I have to hunt down who this wallet actually belongs to and make sure it gets back to them safely.”
“That’s nice of you,” Vlue said, bobbing her head from side to side, appreciating Teiris’s kind heart and, at the same time, dreading meeting her in an alley. “Did you see Lendrith out there?” Teiris shook her head, her red hair sweeping the left side of her face. She caught a few loose strands and pinned them back with a bow as the conversation died. Vlue went quiet and looked at the menu some more, thinking that an egg and sausage biscuit sounded quite delectable right now. She motioned to the bartender, who sent the waiter at their table. Kastanell ordered a few chicken biscuits while Teiris simply asked for some tea, and Vlue was content with her breakfast choice. As the waiter left, a messy-looking man with brown hair slipped by, stopping in front of the table.
“Guess I’m the last one, again. Does that mean breakfast is on me?” Kastanell closed his book, sliding it into a bag that he had hidden beside him on the seat. He looked up at their final comrade, Lendrith, and smiled.
“Looks that way,” he said, sliding over to let him sit with them. “But it’s not like you’re too late, so I’ll at least pay for my own breakfast. You should probably treat the ladies for making them wait, though.” Vlue and Teiris laughed, though they weren’t going to deny a free breakfast. Lendrith laughed as well, knowing it wasn’t wise to argue with Kastanell over the idea. “So, you said you needed us gathered for some special announcement, Vlue?” Kastanell looked at the short Liru, watching her blush in embarrassment now that their gazes were fixed on her.
“Uh… well, yeah. See, before I got here, I got this message…” She procured a wrinkled letter from her pockets, unfolding it. The back had been sealed with wax, the seal of some important official having been broken. “It’s from Magus Lamerou, the head of the city.” Teiris gasped, her excitement visibly shown as she inched closer. “Well, see, it’s a summons for an audience with him. You know how rare this is?”
“Hrm, well, I can only imagine. I didn’t even know that he summoned adventurers, let alone anyone in the city. You know, being a bigshot ruling the city would mean you don’t have a lot of time talking to the lesser folk.” Lendrith picked up the menu, looking at it some. “What would he want with us, anyway? It’s not like we’re famous or anything.”
“I’d agree with Len on that one,” Teiris said. “What would the Magus want with us?”
“Why don’t we go and find out? I mean, he summoned us, so it’s better to ask him than speculate.” Kastanell grabbed his bag and hoisted it over his shoulder. “Was there any specific information in the summons?”
“Only that he wanted to see us as soon as possible, and it was rather urgent.” Vlue flipped the letter around and pulled out the letter. It was brief, stating something similar to what she had already said, but the seal of the Magus was once again formed on it in wax. The waiter brought their requested orders by and they ate in silence. Vlue kept looking up at her comrades, wondering what they were thinking about as she nibbled at the egg and sausage. She slid the letter back into her pocket, thinking about the reasons why they would be summoned. With it being so formal, there was no way it was anything bad, she thought carefully.
With breakfast finished, they decided to walk to the office of the Magus, located on the fifth city level. As a shortcut, they decided to take the city elevator rather than walking the spiralling city street all the way up there. While they were walking to it, Teiris kept watching over her shoulder as they walked, an expectant reaction of her in public that the others had become used to and never asked about. Kastanell was still reading his book, deftly avoiding any that would remain in his way that wasn’t run off by his broad figure. The rest of the group were trailing behind him, using him to pave their way without having to mess with the crowd. They cleared the way to the elevator and met with little resistance on the upper level of the city.
By the time they arrived at the office, Lendrith was already complaining about the walk. Despite this, he still marched along with the rest of them through the office doors and into the regal interior. The upper level of Tiel Londo definitely had the sophisticated air of superiority about it, which seemed to pollute the air to those who hardly travelled up this far. Vlue produced the letter bearing the Magus’s seal to the guards, seeing them into the viewing chambers of Magus Lamerou for them to wait.
“Phew, quite an exquisite taste the Magus has,” Lendrith said, occupying his time by examining the intricate details on the paintings that littered one of the walls. Teiris sat rigidly in one of the chairs, showing how uncomfortable she was to be up here. They had all noted that her posture and paranoia had shifted since they stepped off the elevator. Vlue hopped onto the seat beside her and tried to calm her down. Meanwhile, Kastanell sat stiffly in another chair, finishing the book and then taking stock of their surroundings.
“Well, you can definitely note the difference in class between the lower levels and this one,” Kastanell added to Lendrith’s earlier comment. Len turned to look at him, rolling his eyes with the obvious statement. “What? Just trying to make a conversation.”
“Well, find your own topic. That one was dead the moment it left my lips. Look at this painting.” He turned to point at an oil painting of Magus Lamerou and his adopted daughter, the Seer Emilia. “Who is vain enough to commission a painting like this?”
“Someone requested to paint that. I wasn’t initially going to pay for it, but I felt generous after they took the time to do so. They did an excellent job, if I may say, given that neither Emilia nor myself were even there for them to model for them.” They all turned to see Magus Lamerou, an elderly gentleman with lengthened eyebrows to compete with his long, thin beard. He had entered without Lendrith knowing, allowing him to make an ass of himself without even trying. Vlue hopped right out of her chair and began to apologize for her comrade’s indiscretion. “Hehe, think nothing of it. I agree, it does make me look a bit pretentious to have it here. But I didn’t want to hurt the person’s feelings by hiding it away in my private chamber.”
“It does look like you, right down to your spindly eyebrows,” Lendrith remarked, which made Vlue gasp. All Lamerou did in response was laugh before beckoning his guests in. His private chamber was far less spacious than the viewing room, crammed with books and scrolls. Vlue noticed a smaller door partially hidden by some stacks. The Magus merely mentioned it was his living quarters, though it didn’t look like it had been used for a short time by the amount of books in front of it.
“I thank you for responding in a timely manner to my summons,” Lamerou began as he sat at his desk. The four adventurers stood before him. The door to the living quarters pushed open, the books sliding along with it, as a young woman stepped out. They all identified her as the seer, Emilia, as she carried a tea tray. She set it down, offering some to everyone before she stood beside Lamerou. “I know this is rather informal, but I do believe introductions are in order. You are all aware of our names, but we do not formally know yours.”
“My name is Vlue. Vlue Au’vier, m’lord.” She did a dainty curtsy before the Magus, smiling politely as she did so. “These are my friends and colleagues. The brutish figure is Kastanell Weiyran, but please don’t be intimidated by him.” Kastanell simply nodded his head in greeting before the two of them. “The Fyris woman is Teiris del Tamicar.” Teiris curtsied with greater grace than Vlue had. “And the oaf is Lendrith Gremory.” Lendrith nodded his head upwards, trying to play it cool.
“The second,” Lendrith remarked. “I’m Lendrith Gremory the second.” Vlue rolled her eyes but nodded, repeating what he had said. Lamerou’s face wrinkled from the smile on his face, looking at the four of them.
“We’re known as Etude in the guild, sir,” Vlue finished the introductions. Emilia bent down and whispered into the Magus’s ear, which he responded with a nod. “Was there something you needed us specifically for that you couldn’t contact the guild for?”
“Quite so, I’m afraid. But where are my manners. Etude, this is my daughter, Emilia. I’m sure you’re aware of her position, yes?” Kastanell, Teiris, and Vlue all nodded, but Lendrith was too busy looking at everything else to respond. Lamerou took that as a lack of knowledge and decided to share the information. “As a seer, she was gifted with the ability of a second sight. This was a blessing to her, as she was born blind, sadly.” Emilia placed a hand on Lamerou’s shoulder. As he looked up at her, he smiled and nodded, letting his daughter continue.
“Master Lamerou found me on the streets one day and adopted me. He was fully aware of my ability and saw the potential I had. Since then, I have served at his side, using my abilities to help the city and its outlying villages prosper under peace. But about that... “ Emilia turned her head away for a bit before returning back to view them all. “There was something troubling that I saw last night, and for this, I need to elaborate on something else first. Master?”
“Are you aware of the small farming village of Nazris, about three days journey on foot from here to the northeast?” Lamerou sipped from his tea as he waited for a response.
Kastanell was the only one to respond. “It’s the main source of the continent’s teaberries, right?” Lamerou nodded.
“Well, Emilia here has reason to believe something has befallen the town, and I am wanting to hire you personally to investigate and remedy whatever may be problematic with the location. I do so love my tea, after all,” he said, taking another sip. All of Etude looked down at the tea cups, and Vlue wondered if that was the only reason they were called specifically.
“Last night, I was awakened by the sound of screams. It sent chills up and down my spine. All I could see was the town being enveloped in red, then white, and then nothing. Master has sent guards to prevent anyone without the proper permission to pass through the roads, but they were told to not venture further in. It’s… not for them to discover.” Emilia looked down, her gaze slanted towards the tea tray. Vlue wondered if the seer’s second sight allowed brief glimpses into her future surroundings. “I saw you four breach the border into Nazris and then disappear, so I can only piece together what must be done. And there was another thing… shadows. It enveloped the light and made the entire vision fade before showing the four of you.”
“Suffice to say, Emilia’s visions are never wrong, and we often have to get them moving for the sake of peace. She assures me that seeing the four of you in the vision was a positive sign of peace, and she has never failed in stating that, either. But ultimately, I suppose, it would come down to your decision.” Lamerou opened a drawer on his side of the desk and procured an envelope, placing it on the table. “I am prepared to compensate you for your task, but only upon its completion. But there is something we can offer now if you take it.”
Vlue reached on top of the desk, taking the envelope by standing on her tiptoes. Opening the envelope, she saw a several hundred crid bills, crisp and clean. Her eyes widened, looking at the amount, as she showed it to the others. They all gasped in the same fashion, surprised that such a basic deal was paying so much so early on. “Is there something you’re not telling us about this job?”
“You know as much as I do, I’m afraid,” Lamerou placed his tea cup down, the clank of porcelain echoing how empty it was. “I can understand the risk associated with going into an unknown situation such as this. Even Emilia is unable to divine the condition of Nazris, and since it’s surrounded by woods, I’ve instructed my guards not to venture any further than the forest outskirts. So I cannot guarantee that this would be something as simple as visiting the village.” Vlue nodded at Lamerou’s concerns, looking back at the money. She placed the envelope, money still inside, back on the desk and asked for the rest of Etude to gather together to discuss their options.
“It’s a request from the Magus. Do you really want to be known for denying him?” Kastanell argued.
“Did you see how much money he was offering? The risk is too great for just the four of us,” pleaded Teiris.
“Risk nothing, sweetie. We could afford to buy a lot of supplies beforehand and be prepared for anything,” was Lendrith’s response. Vlue took all of them into consideration with her own thoughts. She was aware of the risk of the blind assignment, and as Lendrith mentioned, they could use the funds to prepare appropriately. An uneasiness settled within her stomach, making her start to feel a bit nauseous with the thought of the mission, but she had to agree that it wouldn’t bode well for their adventures should they deny the Magus his direct request to them. She turned back around to face him and, with a shaky smile, she nodded.
“We’ll take the job, sir.”
“Excellent. I can understand the hesitancy, and if it weren’t for the urgency of the vision, I would’ve at least requested for you to consider the option over a few days. I trust that the payment will suffice for now?” Magus Lamerou watched as Vlue took the envelope in hand and confirmed that the fee was acceptable. “Excellent. If there’s anything that we can do to help you on your preparations, let us know.”
“We will, thank you, sir,” Vlue said, swallowing down the concerns she had. For all she knew, she could’ve just been feeling the spiciness of the sausage in her breakfast. They withdrew from the Magus’s chambers and made their way back to the Sirensong, making mental lists of the supplies they will need for the journey and emergencies after they got there. She divided the crid up between everyone and told them to meet her at the northeast gate within a few hours. They gladly went their separate ways, Lendrith the most excited to depart with spending money, but Kastanell lingered a bit before he left.
“Are you sure about this?” he had asked her, showing some concern over her actions. She calmed his worry by saying she was confident in their abilities to deal with any situation. Satisfied with that response, he dismissed himself and left her on the street. She felt the crid in her pocket, wondering what she really needed as she walked to the shopping districts of the lower levels.
As the hours passed on, the four of them reunited at the northeast gate carrying their loaded supplies for the trip. Teiris had already hired a wagon to take them to the outskirts of the forest, so they wouldn’t have to walk. Lendrith was laying in the back, propped up against his small bag of supplies. They didn’t load up on unnecessary items, having done the long trek several times now. They pooled together the remaining crid and asked Kastanell to hold onto it. He took out one of his books that he was bringing with him and placed them amongst the pages.
“Are you folks ready?” the driver of the wagon asked. All looked to Vlue for the answer. She panicked, waving her hands to try and have them look elsewhere, but the others of Etude looked to her as the leader. She sighed after remembering this and nodded. “Well, all aboard. It’ll take a day and a half for the ride, but we’ll get you there safely, guaranteed.” They loaded their supplies in, and then climbed in over Lendrith, who had fallen asleep since getting comfortable. Making sure everyone was in, the driver gladly readied his horses and started them on their brief journey to Nazris.
As brief as it began, the party was finding that their destination had come to them far faster than they expected. The wagon was slowing down as it neared the outskirts of Nazris, the forest that surrounded it. Guards had been placed on all trails leading in and out of the forest, turning away any that would come close to entering the region. Nearing the guards placed in front of them, the driver halted the wagon and let Etude get out. Kastanell helped Vlue hop down safely then began to unload the supplies, letting her run off to the guards.
“No one’s allowed beyond this point, miss. Orders of Magus Lamerou himself,” one of the guards said in a gruff, masculine voice. Vlue produced the letter she had retained, showing the seal of the Magus. “Huh? Why do you have that?”
“Magus Lamerou has requested that myself and my three colleagues enter to investigate,” she said, her chirpy voice breaking some as she tried to be as serious as possible. “Please, let us through.” The guards stepped to the side as Lendrith and Teiris took lead. Kastanell, with both his and Vlue’s supplies in tow, hoisted the Liru up onto his shoulders so she would keep up with them. They waved farewell to the wagon and the guards as they entered the forest. The shifting temperatures made Teiris breath out loud a sigh of comfort.
“Why can’t we just make a picnic here before we head further in?” she asked, crouching down to look at a drooping flower, trying to perk it up. “It’s so pretty and relaxing that I feel sleepy already.”
“That can’t be. You just woke up,” Lendrith said, tapping the tip of his shoe on Teiris’s rear to get her to move some more. “Besides, you can’t honestly expect me to want to sit down again so soon. That ride was way too bumpy.” He stretched out some as they followed the trail through the trees. Kastanell remained quiet, which worried Vlue some. She didn’t say anything either, just to try and figure it out on her own, but she could sense there was something different about this forest. “Hey, you two okay?”
“They’re probably taking in the scenery, or they would if you would stop yapping,” Teiris grumbled under her breath. The two of them began bickering over who was the real cause of the discomfort as they kept walking along. Kastanell took only so much of it before he spoke up.
“Alright, children. Calm down and listen.”
“Yes, sir,” they both said before going quiet. Everyone stood still for a moment, listening to their surroundings. Teiris turned her head, using her sharpened Fyris senses to listen at further distances. “I don’t hear anything,” she finally admitted, looking back at the duo. Kastanell nodded, using his head to nudge forward on the path.
“Exactly. No birds, no crickets, no wind. That’s not natural, even for a forest.” They marched on in silence, his words echoing in their mind as they neared the end of the path. The trees began to separate, showing the plains that Nazris inhabited, bit by bit. Vlue could visibly see the frustration Teiris was having by trying to remain quiet. Lendrith, on the other hand, had shuffled his hands into his pockets and was looking at the forest floor like a kid that had been yelled at. Despite all of their ages being near the same, she could definitely see the differences in maturity amongst them all. This made her smile some, though she tried to keep it hidden as best as she could from everyone else.
Kastanell came to a full stop at the edge of the forest, bracing himself against a tree with one hand. Teiris and Lendrith followed behind him by a few steps, but came to a full stop when they finally locked eyes on what had stalled him. Even Vlue found it hard to imagine, all of them looking at the same image. Amongst the plains, a patch of dirt void of grass was all that they could see. There was no sign of any farm plots, any buildings, or anything remotely resembling a sign of life from the dwellers. The village of Nazris simply ceased to be.
“That can’t be,” Lendrith said, starting to walk towards the empty area. “I came here a few months back for a… well, I came here and there definitely was a village. The innkeeper’s daughter was…” he kept stumbling over his words after realizing what he was fixing to say, especially in Teiris’s company. He wasn’t interested in feeling her burning gaze on the back of his neck, so he tried to keep quiet about the details. “There was an old church with a clocktower, the bells could be heard all the way on the other side of the forest. How could it all just disappear like that?”
“Remember what the seer said, though? The town was enveloped in red, and then white? Perhaps someone simply made it invisible, or teleported it away,” Vlue tilted her head as Kastanell started walking, the situation still quite interesting. She knew of several spells that could have done such, but someone’s reason for doing any of them was something she couldn’t grasp at the moment. Teiris followed behind them, bunching her hands together in fear as they all walked towards the empty plot of land. “If this is the simple case of magic being misused, Teiris and I should be able to reverse it once we get to the center.” She raised her dainty little hand, pointing at the indiscernible middle of the dirt field.
“Why would this be that big of a deal to the Magus?” Lendrith kicked some stones out of his path as they continued walking. “It’s not like he’d have to worry about monsters or anything here. This place has been peaceful for a few months now.”
“Perhaps a monster’s the cause of this. It’d definitely be a first to see nothing left behind, not even bits of rock from the buildings, but it’s not far from being possible,” Kastanell wondered, looking at the ground curiously. Vlue held on to his head, his quick movements starting to make her a bit unbalanced. “Oh, sorry,” he apologized, but she simply smiled and shook her head.
They finally came to the exposed earth. Kastanell took his little friend off of his shoulders, allowing her to walk a few steps away before she began to focus on the energy around her. Teiris stepped in front of her and did the same thing, the two of them visualizing the energy of the land as a synchronized force. Vlue covered her mental world in darkness and allowed the flow of magic to paint the landscape in its own colors. Reds, oranges, blues, a veritable rainbow of magic cascaded around her, creating a vision of the forest off in the distance. However, once the forest was cleared, there was nothing but shadows, including the land directly beneath her. She squeezed her eyes closed tighter, trying to pierce the veil that she could sense around them, but there was only darkness. Darkness and the sound of whispers rushing around her.
She could only make out words like help, pain, anger, and stop out of the myriad of voices that called out to her. She opened her eyes but continued to see the magic energies around her, replacing the normal view she had. She looked around, unable to see her friends. Instead, she continued to see the shadows underfoot, though it began to lighten up into shades of gray. The etchings of a magical circle began to spread underneath, filling the length of the field and spinning about as if active. She went to gasp, but when she went to open her mouth, she could feel her breath being pulled from her. She grasped at her neck, choking on the air.
“Vlue! Come back to us!” She could hear Kastanell’s voice echoing around her. She tried to look around for him, but saw nothing but eyes. Crimson eyes, glaring at her from the shadows cast by the magic circle. She felt her body shake under their watchful gaze, but she couldn’t personally move. “Vlue! Vlue!” Kastanell’s voice grew louder until she felt a sharp sting on her cheek. She clenched her eyes tightly in pain, but when she opened them again, her view of the magical field was replaced back with the normal scene. Kastanell had been shaking her, trying to get her to come to. Lendrith had been doing the same to Teiris, who was sitting on the ground, dazed and wide-eyed.
“W-What was that?” Teiris said, her voice trembling along with her body as she wrapped her arms around herself. Vlue felt the same cold feeling right down to her bones, shivering. Teiris looked at the fellow caster and started tearing up. “Those voices, and that circle, what was that?” Kastanell shifted his gaze between the two of them.
“You saw something? What was it?” he asked, though he wasn’t as well versed in magic as the two of them were. He kept his wits sharp and read as much as he could, but even he wouldn’t know what the crest was, Vlue thought. In all of her studies, she had never seen the symbols that flashed in her eyes when she blinked. They moved about in the diagram, never staying one shape for too long, and there was something about them that made the contents of her stomach shift about. She took in deep breaths, trying to fill her lungs back up and relax herself. She grabbed hold of her staff, which she had been wearing behind her, and cleared her throat.
“What we saw doesn’t matter. We’re here to discover what’s going on, and that’s what we will determine. Clear the area some, give me room to work,” she said, a more serious tone, unusual for her, dripping off of her words. Kastanell and Lendrith helped Teiris up off the ground and the three of them gave Vlue some space to work. She tapped the heel of her staff onto the ground, creating a magical circle around her that began to slowly rotate. Thinking carefully of the words she’d need, she voiced off a few archaic terms. With each word, the circle became more intricate in designs and symbols, expanding around her and creating larger circles to contain the additional details. By the time she got done speaking in magical tongues, there were seven rings around her, the original creating a clear space while each expanded around the first. She raised her staff to the sky and brought the bottom down one more time, jabbing it hard into the ground. The force dispelled the circle from sight, shaking the earth violently. With no hesitation in her actions, she sprinted across the dirt patch towards her comrades.
“What’d you do?” Teiris asked, aware of only some of the terms used. They huddled around one another as the ground shook back and forth under them.
“I simply requested for the heavens to dispel any spells. But… But I didn’t expect this response,” she yelled as the roaring earth shook louder. Just as quickly as it started, the shaking stopped. They remained connected to one another, watching and waiting for any signs of change. A few seconds passed of nothing but silence before the sound of glass shattering accompanied the earth coming apart, rising to the sky. The ground broke off like flakes of glass as it soared above, dispelling the image of solid ground and revealing a pit underneath. As more of the earth revealed the truth beneath, a large, gaping hole was left where Nazris once stood, minus one detail. A small stretch of land had been left leading to a circular plate of dirt in the middle of the ground. The illusion dispelled, they were left standing near a large crater with the strip of land being the only detail that didn’t frighten them.
“So this is what happened to the town,” Kastanell said, looking down into the pit. Vlue held on tight as she looked over the edge, seeing it descend as far down as the light dared to venture. Trailing her gaze upwards, she saw it odd how the path and the plate of earth that disrupted the opening were suspended in mid-air, clinging to the land outside the pit. A flash of magic signaled from the middle of the plate, which drew her attention to it specifically. She tugged on Kastanell’s leg and pointed over at it. “Hrm? Do we need to go investigate it?” He lifted her up onto his shoulders and they began to walk their way around the edge, making their way to the ledge.
Kastanell placed Vlue down and braved the ledge, putting his full weight on it one step at a time. Teiris and Vlue readied their staves, preparing to cast magic to rescue him should it come to that. He stepped forward a bit more, this time making the earth tremble. He turned to make sure that his friends were ready and stepped ahead one more time. In doing so, a magic circle sparked into sight, the tip barely brushing against his boots. It spanned half the diameter of the pit, actively spinning around. He quickly jumped back to be with the others as the center of the circle produced a spiked tip. A few seconds without movement was interrupted as, in the blink of an eye, a large tower rose before them, climbing ever higher as it widened, eventually meeting the same width as the magic circle. The wind attempted to pull Vlue up with the tower, but Kastanell anchored everyone as he pulled them away, towards the trees.
The tower continued to rise until an entrance was revealed, stopping it as abruptly as the whole process had begun. They waited, watching the tower for signs of change. It seemed to alternate each floor by rotating like the gears of a clock, abruptly stopping and starting its movement in countering patterns. It disappeared far into the sky, blending in with the atmosphere and blurring where it truly ended. The entrance of the tower was decorated with a gothic image of gargoyles, demons, and angels, the scene appearing out of some religious text. Kastanell released his death grip on the others, letting them take in the sight of the fixture now as they stood before it.
“So… is this the cause, or is this not even its final form?” Lendrith asked, skepticism in his voice with everything that had transpired in the course of a few minutes. Vlue looked at the tower, unsure herself of how to answer it. She tapped her staff onto the earth, spawning another magic circle. Speaking in her archaic tongue, she summoned a mirror from out of thin air and grabbed it before it could fall to the ground. With it, she held it up, trying to look through it at the tower. Nothing but darkness would register on the mirror’s surface, though. She scanned the entirety of the tower, finding the same result. When she turned to try and see if it would register elsewhere, the mirror refused to change its image. She let go of it, watching it fall to the ground and disappear through the earth.
“Whatever it is, it’s got some powerful magic surrounding it. I can see why the seer couldn’t sense the village anymore. It was probably blocking her abilities, too.” Vlue put her staff away, looking at the tower carefully. She was combatting whether they should return to Tiel Londo and inform the Magus of the tower, or whether they should get an idea on the interior before returning. She considered both options. In regards to the first option, they would lose valuable time and who knows what else might happen with the surrounding area. They had just seen the earth give way and a tower pierce the heavens in a matter of minutes, and who was to say this was the end? However, should they enter, what if they were unable to escape, trapped within the confines of the sinister looking tower? She looked up, trying to gauge the most likely choice for success. Neither looked pretty right now.
Lendrith paced back and forth, waiting for the leader’s decision. She sat on the ground, spreading out her robes so she could have some leg room, and contemplated the options. She could see Teiris fidgeting about and Kastanell continued to look at the tower, his fists clenched. The only solution she could see causing the least amount of problems would be braving the situation themselves and dealing with whatever was inside. With any luck, they could remedy the situation and return the village to normal, or at least discover what really happened. She breathed in deeply and hopped up, dusting her clothes off as she exhaled loudly.
“Ok, listen up. Whatever this is, we were hired to solve the disappearance of Nazris. Given this is what was revealed when I broke the seal, this has to be the source, or at least the cause lies within. So, we’re going in.” She looked at their faces, judging their reactions and piecing together what she figured they were thinking about. Kastanell’s face remained expressionless, proving that the Radole lifestyle had tempered his feelings. Deep down, she wondered what he really thought about it, though. Lendrith and Teiris were far easier to read, excitement in his face and dread in hers.
“Finally, some action,” was Lendrith’s words as he slid his hands into his pockets. Teiris kept quiet, though, as she looked back at the tower, trying to follow its body as it trailed into the sky. Vlue climbed up onto Kastanell’s shoulder and took a deep breath before pointing forward. She had to remind herself of their mission, despite the uneasiness she was feeling in the presence of the building. She turned around casually, keeping an eye on Teiris as they neared the decorated doors to the building. Kastanell reached out to push it open, but before his hand could touch it, it slid backwards. The doors began to part, cogs and gears clicking in louder echoes as the door spread. They stood there, waiting for the doors to widen enough for them to pass through and letting them have second thoughts about what was awaiting them within.
The doors stopped with a loud click, wide enough for the light to shine through some feet. The interior of the tower was cloaked in darkness between them and what appeared to be a circle of pillars drenched in light. They could not see the source but it seemed to lie in the middle of the room with a strange, circular stand within it. One by one, they walked through the small light that filled the room, carefully walking on the shaded parts with weary expectations. Once they were far enough in, they heard the doors click once more as it started to close on them. Kastanell, Vlue, and Lendrith stood there and watched it inch closer to being sealed. Teiris began to heave her body in panic and, as the outside grew smaller, she darted into a rush to try and keep them open.
“Don’t close! No!” she cried out hysterically. However, she was too far in and started late in running, getting to the doors just as the hole between the doors was too small for even her to fit. She grabbed at the door, trying to hold it from inching any further, but it sealed shut just as she quickly let go. She beat at the doors while she slid down, sulking in the faint light their eyes had become used to. Lendrith walked over and grabbed one of her hands, casually dragging her with them to the pillars as she cried. “We can’t have you holding things up,” he muttered as they walked on. Kastanell shook his head at Lendrith’s way of handling women, knowing better but deciding not to say anything. The shadows lightened as they neared the pillars, illuminating the stone platform within. It appeared to be a table from a distance, but as they neared it, they saw how it was a utilization of technology, lines drawn into it that sizzled with energy regularly.
Lendrith dropped Teiris’s hand, making her fall completely onto the floor as he looked on at the table. Kastanell, eased Vlue onto the floor and stepped up to the table, familiar with technology such as this. It wasn’t common, but what little bit of advanced technology they had on Velkind was enough to give him the basics of operating the table. “It’s a map,” he said, pressing his fingers into a circle. An image of the tower popped out of the table, similar to how the original had swelled out of the ground. As with the original, too, this image also disappeared as it got taller. He bent down and spread his arms through the base of the tower, which expanded the map to showing a familiar setting: the floor they were on, though it seemed to also show the walls of the room. “Look, see, here we are. This… this is quite a massive tower. But it looks like we’re not the only things in here.” There were smaller images of themselves in the same position on the map, and as he zoomed out, he showed that there were monsters in the upper floors.
“So this is a monster factory, of sorts?” Lendrith asked, a bit excited to get into action. Teiris had risen from the floor, still sobbing a little as she looked at the map. She became quiet as she saw the creatures above them, though when Vlue turned to look up at her, she saw that her eyes, usually contrasting in one being blue and the other being green, had a slight tint of red to them briefly. It wasn’t long before it faded and she returned to the light sobs, looking back at the map.
“I guess? I’ve never read anything about a tower engulfing an entire town, though. And did you see how big it was? Surely it could be seen from Tiel Londo, if not from the other continents. So perhaps the Magus will end up sending us backup.” Kastanell played around with the controls some, trying to learn what they did. “So far, this map only registers the first ten floors, but it looks like there’s another map terminal up there.”
“Is there a way to open the door? I don’t want to be here. Something… something is wrong about all of this,” Teiris pleaded with him, dropping to her knees and clinging to his pants. He looked down at her, his golden eyes staring at her, unphased. “First, that strange nightmare, then the tower… now we’re sealed in the tower and there’s something in the shadows, watching us.” The others looked around to see if there was indeed anything around them. “Not literally! I mean… I can feel someone watching me... Don’t you feel it too, Vlue?” Vlue was hesitant to admit to it, but as she saw Teiris’s eyes stare at her longingly for a response, she slowly tipped her own head in agreement. “So, we should get out as soon as we can a-and have the Magus send an army in instead!”
“While that’s a good idea, there’s nothing we can’t handle here, and furthermore, I can’t activate the door. Whatever made it open for us wasn’t operated from here.” Kastanell dropped the map of the tower down and pressed another circle, lighting up the entire room. It was a rustic brown temple setting, the doors standing out with their lighter tone. Directly across from the doors, previously hidden by the shadows, was a set of stairs that spiraled up to the next floor. He withdrew his hands, holding them up. “I… I didn’t do that.”
“Relax, Radole. I did that,” someone said above them. All four of them looked up and saw a woman’s image floating above them, shades of blue and black composing her form. She stood there, her dress oversized in the sleeves as it cloaked her hands. Her long hair blended in with the top of her dress, exposing little flesh to them. “Well, I guess I’ll be the first you’ll encounter here. Welcome, travelers, to the tower of our lord. Hope you enjoyed the sun, for you’ll never see it again.”