Authors: Stephanie Beavers
“Esset?” Lors asked when he didn’t speak for several moments.
“Are we sure this equipment was destroyed?” Esset said, suddenly looking at his father. Mr. Esset gave a bewildered shake of his head.
“Andarus said the workshop was destroyed, but if the apprentice had these,” Esset held the scroll aloft. “Why not some of the equipment?” It was a thin hope, but hope nonetheless.
“Or, maybe the apprentice made diagrams of the instrument even though Atah didn’t,” Mr. Esset said; Esset knew he was just as desperate for any shred of hope to cling to.
“Let’s ask Andarus,” Esset said. He’d already sprinted up two steps before remembering Lors.
“Thank you, Lors!” he called back, twisting to wave. Lors looked half-hopeful as he waved back, but he let the two Essets vanish through the doors ahead of him.
They found Andarus exactly where they’d left him, next to the Atah scrolls with his nose buried in the scroll.
“Andarus, how much do you know about Atah?” Mr. Esset asked as they approached. Esset went over to the table to sort through the Atah scrolls again, hoping there was something they’d missed there.
“Andarus?” Mr. Esset asked again when Andarus didn’t reply. “Andarus!”
“Hm?” Andarus finally looked up from his scroll. “I thought you left.”
“We did leave, but we came back. This diagram, it’s only half of what we need.” Mr. Esset briefly explained their problem. “What do you know about what happened to Atah and his workshop?”
“Not much, I’m afraid,” Andarus replied. Esset felt his spirits sinking again. “From what I recall, he died during one of his experiments, an experiment that also caused most of his workshop and its contents to be destroyed. As I mentioned previously, he did have an apprentice, but the apprentice was reluctant to come forward with any surviving material. Rumor at the time had it that someone had actually killed Atah and staged the workshop’s destruction to cover it up. Why, I hesitate to succumb to conjecture, but his work is now a rare thing, so more’s the pity. I know we would love to have more of his collection here.”
“Where was this workshop, and where’s the apprentice now?” Esset asked.
“Oh, the apprentice is dead. His name was… Hm, let’s see, his surname was Garson, if I recall correctly. He and Atah precede your father and me by a couple generations. But he and Atah did their research on the northern edge of what’s now Symria.” Andarus paused before continuing. “I can’t remember what the name of the kingdom it used to be before it was annexed by Symria.”
“That’s fine. We’ll just have to take a look at some maps before I go,” Esset said. He was already combing over the scrolls to double-check the apprentice’s name.
“It will be the only town in the northwest corner of the kingdom,” Andarus said.
“Thank you, Andarus,” Esset said. Then he found what he was looking for. “Ah, here it is, John Garson.”
Andarus gave Esset a little nod and looked back down at the scroll in his hand.
“Okay, it’s time for me to go visit this town and find Mr. Garson’s descendants, if he has any,” Esset said to his father.
This time, they didn’t bother saying farewell to Andarus—he was clearly already lost in the scroll again—but they left the mess for the scholar, just the way he liked it.
Mrs. Esset walked in on her son packing his travel bag.
“What are you doing?” Her voice was barely above a whisper.
“I told you, Mom. We may have found a way to lift a geas. I have to find what I need and then go get Toman.” If he was still alive.
Mrs. Esset started shaking her head. Her hands clenched the plate of snacks she’d brought for her son, her grip so tight her knuckles were white. Esset rose and put one hand on her shoulder and the other on the plate.
“Here, let me take that.”
Mrs. Esset relinquished the plate, and Esset sat his mother down on the bed before setting the plate on the bedside table.
“I just…you just came back, and I thought we’d have more time before you left again,” she said.
“I’ll be back again before you know it,” Esset said, sitting down next to her. He scooped a sweet roll off the plate and pressed it into her hands.
“Please don’t go,” his mother said, but Esset shook his head.
“I have to. Toman has been in Moloch’s hands for long enough.”
Mrs. Esset squeezed her eyes shut, and Esset wondered if she were wishing everything were all right again. Esset had done enough of that himself.
“It’ll be all right, Mom. I’ll make it all right,” he promised. “I’ll find out how to break the geas, then go get Toman. I’ll take care not to run into Moloch. I’ll sneak Toman out before he even knows I’m there. Once Toman is with the Nadra, we’ll lift the geas and you’ll see us
Mrs. Esset simply stared at the food in her hands.
“I have to do this, Mom.”
“I know.” Mrs. Esset finally lifted her eyes to her son’s. On impulse, she dropped the roll and wrapped him in a hug.
“Come back safe,” she whispered in his ear before releasing him. Esset nodded as his mother collected herself, wiping unshed tears from her eyes.
“Just look at the mess I’m making,” she said, bending to pick the roll up off the floor. “I better clean up and get you ready to go. You’ll need food for your trip and clean clothes. If you’re leaving tomorrow, I’m getting as much food into you as I can in the meantime.”
Esset smiled, letting her fuss. In his head, he prayed that he’d be able to bring Toman back like he’d just promised.
Mrs. Esset bustled out of the room and Mr. Esset stepped in.
“Hey Dad,” Esset greeted him. Mr. Esset came down and sat beside him.
“Son…” Mr. Esset reached out and placed a hand on Esset’s shoulder. “You know I have the utmost confidence in you, but I still want you to promise me that you’ll be careful.”
“And remember what I told you about power,” Mr. Esset said.
“We’re strong, and it’s our responsibility to protect people. We’re strong enough to win without taking lives,” Esset said, but his smile was sad. Were they really strong enough? Their earlier loss to Moloch suggested they weren’t. Still, he believed in the sanctity of life with all his heart. He wouldn’t break his father’s faith in him.
“Taking a life is always wrong, even when it’s necessary. But…sometimes it is necessary.” Mr. Esset pulled his son into a hug. “Protect yourself. Come home to us. And if you can, bring Toman home too.”
“I will, Dad.” Esset hugged him back. “I will.”
The sun was setting as Esset circled over the northern town. It was of a reasonable enough size, but Esset still hadn’t been able to find a map that had actually named it and not just marked it “town.” Esset landed his fiery mount at the edge of the community so as not to create too much of a stir, and he walked to the inn on foot. The sign proudly displayed a black bird toasting a mug of ale, labeled “The Happy Crow.”
Esset entered and took quick stock of the clientele: mostly locals, and judging by their garb, the town was reasonably prosperous. A trade town. Recalling the number of sheep he’d flown over on the way in and the signs on the shops outside, he’d guess their main source of income came from wool. Only a few of the customers looked to be travelers.
A few people looked up as he entered and headed for the bar.
“A bowl of stew and an ale, please,” Esset said to the barkeep, pushing coins towards him.
“Staying the night, too?” the barkeep asked. Surprised, Esset nodded; he’d pegged the woman overseeing the room from the corner to be the innkeeper, and had planned to talk to her later.
“I’ll let Matron Laney know,” the barkeep said.
“Ah, thank you.” Esset grinned as a large bowl of stew was placed in front of him, along with a frothing mug of ale. Two bites into the stew, he found himself thinking that Toman would have liked the stew, and the thought cast a grey pall over his mood. For a single moment, things had felt normal; a new town, a new objective, a new adventure. But there was no adventure without Toman. It was time to get to work.
“You from around here?” Esset asked the man next to him.
“Shepherd Derek,” the man said, extending his hand.
“Esset,” Esset replied, taking it.
“Where you from, Esset?” Derek asked, clearly enthused to talk to someone new.
“Sedina,” Esset replied.
“Oh, aye,” Derek said. “We get enough of you coming up the trade road. Where you headed?”
“Here,” Esset replied, and Derek’s bushy eyebrows shot up to his hairline.
“I’m looking for someone…or something,” Esset replied.
Derek laughed. “Well if it ain’t making wool or made of wool, you won’t find it here.”
“I hope you’re wrong,” Esset said, but he was smiling back. “Do the names John Garson or Jionar Atah mean anything to you?”
“Huh.” Derek rubbed his beard. “They might not have, but just a month back there were some treasure hunters asking about that Atah guy. They found some stuff too, not sure what. They were quite happy when they left town to find someone to buy the stuff.”
“Treasure hunters,” Esset repeated. He remembered one of the scavengers who’d found him muttering something about magical instruments.
“Oh aye, three of them,” Derek said. “They asked around about Atah, then headed up to the old ruined house. No one goes up there except foolhardy kids, since the structure’s not sound, but they went up there anyways.”
“And you don’t know where they took the stuff they found,” Esset said. Derek shook his head. Esset figured that would have been too easy.
“These treasure hunters…was their surname Herega?” Esset asked. It was a long shot, he knew, but he needed a break.
Derek shook his head. “Not sure, but I bet the barkeep’ll remember. Two men and a woman though.”
“Thanks, Derek. Have a drink on me,” Esset said, figuring he’d reached the limits of the man’s knowledge.
Derek’s eyes lit up. “Thanks.”
Esset waved the barkeep over and confirmed the scavengers’ names: Raf, Beow, and Teheba Herega. Esset was pensive as he arranged his room and headed upstairs. Was this luck or misfortune? On one hand, if the scavengers had never come, there might have been something to find here. On the other hand, at least it was those particular scavengers, whom he’d have a chance at tracking if there were nothing left at the house.
Regardless, he murmured a brief prayer to Bright Hyrishal—a prayer of thanks if it ended up being a blessing, and a plea for help if it turned out to be another obstacle. The scavengers’ recent presence was an odd coincidence in any case.
In the morning, he’d search the ruined house for anything they might have missed, but the scavengers didn’t seem like the types to miss anything. No, more likely than not, he’d have to hunt them down to find out what they’d found, and who they’d sold it to.
Esset skipped breakfast and flew out to the ruins of Atah’s workshop with the break of dawn. It wasn’t hard to find; the large, two-story stone building was set apart from the rest of the town. Esset circled to study the building from above, noting that though the structure was thoroughly blackened by fire, the stone supports and main structure of the building were still intact.
Esset landed next to the building and banished the fiery bird. Plant life was well regrown around the building and was, in fact, starting to take it over. Vines crept up the walls, although Esset noticed there were a few patches where the vines had been torn away lower down, like someone had tried to scale the wall using the foliage and had not succeeded.
There were other obvious signs that the place had been searched, and relatively recently. Plants around the door had been hacked away, and footprints riddled the interior of the dilapidated building.
Thanks to the fire, nothing wooden had survived. Only the stone remained, which meant that though the walls stood, most of the second floor had collapsed down onto the first. Esset picked his way carefully through the rubble. Clearly some of the cave-ins had happened after the fire; he found a large chest broken on its side, the interior displayed but untouched. Recent indeed.
Esset tried to find a way upstairs, but evidently the stairs had been constructed of wood as well. Considering that most of the second floor had been burned or collapsed anyways, Esset supposed there was nothing lost.