Authors: Stephanie Beavers
“They’ll get over it,” Raf said. Teheba already had hers standing still, although the poor beast’s eyes rolled and its skin twitched.
“Come to pay us back?” Teheba called, smirking over at him.
“I wasn’t expecting to see you again so soon,” Raf added.
“Me either, but I need your help,” Esset said. All three scowled at him, although Beow’s no-doubt-snarky response was forestalled as his mule was still trying to turn around and run back down the road.
“We’ve helped you once already,” Teheba said, patting her mule on the neck. The mule was looking less agitated; the same couldn’t be said for Teheba.
“I know. But you’re my only lead to finding any more of Jionar Atah’s work, and I need to find the other half of a spell diagram to save my brother,” Esset said.
“So pay us, and we’ll help.” Raf crossed his arms.
Esset wilted, although the demand for reward wasn’t unexpected. He just didn’t have much money. Then again… Esset straightened. Did he dare give them Garson’s work on natural energy healing? It was invaluable.
“How about a trade? There will be conditions, but it will be worth your while, I promise,” Esset offered.
Raf’s eyes narrowed. So did Teheba’s. The family resemblance was uncanny. Beow was finally able to calm his pack-beast, but he didn’t turn around.
“What kind of trade?” Raf asked.
Esset pulled the small chest from his side bag. “This. This contains the works of Atah’s apprentice. I’ve never seen or heard of research like it, and it’s invaluable. My only condition is that you take it and sell it to Symria’s royal library in Sedina. If you tell them what it is and that I sent you, they’ll buy it for more than a fair sum.” Esset hoped everyone would win in this situation. The Heregas would get their reward; the research would go somewhere it would be put to good use. And Esset would get the information he needed. Hopefully.
“Where did you find that?” Raf asked, his eyes locked on the chest.
“Atah’s house,” Esset said.
“Impossible,” Teheba objected. “We got everything there was to get in there.”
“Not everything.” Esset grinned at her. “There was a second-story room you couldn’t access.” Her scowl confirmed that they’d tried and failed to access the room.
“Very well.” Raf was smiling now. “You give us the chest, and we’ll sell it to the royal library in Sedina.”
“And tell me whatever you know about anything I ask,” Esset added.
“And that,” Raf agreed. Esset was a little suspicious about the scavenger’s sudden geniality, but then again, Raf was getting what he wanted.
“And we’re square.”
“And we’re square.”
“Okay then.” Esset couldn’t ask for more than that. He held out the chest to Raf, who took it and clapped him on the shoulder.
“What do you want to know?” Raf asked.
“You found other things in Atah’s house, right?” Esset asked.
“We did. A few funny metal instruments and a couple scrolls. It wasn’t much of a load, but it fetched a far better price than we expected,” Raf said.
“Who did you sell it all to?” Esset asked. Only a few instruments and scrolls; he wondered what the odds were that one of those few items would hold the answers he needed.
“The collector who set us on the trail. His name was Father Nabus—man of the cloth and noble-born, if I’m not very much mistaken. He had a small but very fancy little church in a small town just west of Symria’s border. Furthest point west, you know where I’m talking about?” Raf asked.
Esset nodded—there was one point on the border where it extended further west than anywhere else. That would be where Raf was talking about. It was clear across Symria from where they were now, but at least it wasn’t any further south.
“I’ll warn you up front, the guy was a little kooky. Kept ranting against magic, which we thought was weird since he was buying magical artifacts.”
Esset couldn’t help but smile. “‘Hypocrisy on the part of the researcher doesn’t invalidate the work,’” he quoted.
“What?” Raf asked.
Esset shook his head. “Never mind. Anything else you can tell me?”
Raf shook his head. “Nothing I can think of. Teheba? Beow?” Both shook their heads.
“I don’t suppose you remember anything about the content of the scrolls, or remember the equipment well enough to sketch it?” Esset asked.
Teheba looked over at her brother. “Beow? Think you could manage that? You spent enough time looking at the stupid things.”
Beow scowled. “Did not.”
Raf sighed. “Come on, Beow, we all know you can draw that stuff from memory.” Raf grinned. “Show off a little. You look at any map twice and it’s memorized. The gold it’s saved us…we can’t begin to count. Show this guy what you can do.” He jerked his chin at Esset, whose face had lit up.
“Art’s for sissies,” Beow grumped.
“Beow, master cartographer! Nothing silly about that. Your memory is perfect. You’ve never led us wrong!” Raf said. Esset thought he was laying it on a bit thick, but he wasn’t going to complain if it worked.
“Drawing some stupid mage stuff ain’t cartography,” Beow said.
Teheba cut through the song and dance. “No, but we’ve been paid to do this job, and this is part of it. Nothing sissy about keeping our word.”
Beow scowled. “There ain’t enough light here to sketch.”
It was Esset’s turn to grin. “How much light do you need?”
Beow’s scowl deepened. “Just gimme both lanterns.”
Esset’s grin widened.
A few hours later, Esset was impressed despite himself. While Raf and Teheba had created camp on the side of the road, Beow had sketched. Bribed with the promise that he’d get to ride one of the two mules the next day instead of walking, Beow sketched all three instruments with startling detail and even copied down the scrolls to the best of his memory. Judging by the feel of the wording—it sounded very similar to Atah’s other writings—Esset guessed it was accurate.
Esset read the parchment sheets as Beow finished them. When he got to the diagram of the third instrument, he started getting excited. Reaching into his side bag, he pulled out Atah’s diagram and compared the two. Beow had neatly labeled parts of the instrument, and those parts lined up perfectly with the points on the diagram. Now Esset knew what the diagram should look like in three dimensions, thanks to Beow’s sketch. He rushed over to the surly scavenger.
“How sure are you about these labels and proportions?” Esset asked, pointing at the parchment.
“Sure,” Beow said with his customary scowl. Esset hugged him.
“Hey, get off, man!” Beow objected.
Esset let him go. “Sorry. Thank you. Really, thank you.”
“Yeah, yeah, no more hugging.” Beow looked him up and down with disgust. “Do you want me to finish this?” He waved at the last scroll he was working on.
“Yes, please,” Esset said, forcing himself still.
Before long, Beow had placed the parchment in his hand. Raf and Teheba were asleep, and Beow wasn’t looking very wakeful either. Esset was wide awake, too excited to even think about sleeping that night. Hope was driving him now.
“Thank you again. And thank your siblings for me too,” Esset said.
“Sure. Good luck.” That was probably the most affable thing Beow had ever said in Esset’s presence.
Time to stop wasting time. Esset walked a ways away so as not to wake Raf and Teheba and summoned his mount.
Now for the last piece of the puzzle; time to see if the Nadran Shapers could work the magic that he hoped they could.
Two days later, Esset landed amidst the rocks outside Salithsa, tired from the grueling pace he’d set but determined not to take any more time than he had to. Before banishing the summoned bird, he spent a moment studying it. Stronger, faster, and more obedient—what other new secrets did he have to learn about his own abilities? What new summons could he call on now? And what would the cost of those summons have been if not for the phoenix? The horses had to be able to run, the birds to soar, the wolves to fight…usually the price was straight-forward enough, but Esset knew that wasn’t always the case. The phoenix, after all, had asked for his life.
Casting the thoughts aside for later inspection, Esset banished the bird and walked over to the unobtrusive entrance to the Nadran city. The opening wasn’t exactly disguised, but it was difficult to find if you didn’t know where it was. Fortunately, Esset was quite familiar with the location. He stepped into the shadowy entrance, then decided to take a much showier approach; most any Nadra would know him on sight, but in the darkness, that would be difficult. The Nadra didn’t have trouble navigating in the dark, but that was because they could sense heat-signatures. He knew there would be guards further down the tunnel, and he didn’t want to be attacked. It was more difficult to distinguish between individuals by heat signature than by sight. Fortunately, he could make it really easy for them.
One incantation later, a fiery steed stood beside him. Its mane and tail were aflame, but its body was like a large, ashy black coal, cracked to reveal a molten center beneath. Its hooves left ashy scuffs on the ground and its eyes burned like beacons in the darkness. Yet for all its fiery ferocity, its body wasn’t hot enough that he couldn’t mount and ride the summon down the tunnel. The Nadra would recognize him from a long way off this way. Sure enough, he was a minute or two in when he was noticed.
“Hail, Summoner!” a female voice called ahead. Esset got the fire horse to pick up the pace until he could see the Nadra calling to him.
“Tseka, is that you?” he asked. By way of an answer, the scarlet Nadra launched herself at him, tackling him off the back of the fire horse. Amazingly, Tseka managed to contort herself before impact so that Esset landed atop her. The fire horse pranced to the side, and Esset sent it tearing back up the tunnel the way he’d come—although the requirements for summons were apparently no longer in place, he still felt better following them as guidelines. By the time the fiery being reached the exit, it would be banished. In the meantime, he had a mass of scarlet scales and sinew to deal with.
“Tseka!” he protested, but his voice came out stifled as he was mashed against her ample chest. Struggle as he might, Esset couldn’t escape Tseka’s enthusiastic embrace. The Nadra had deceptively powerful bodies; they looked like a cross between snakes and humans. In the end, Esset only got away because Tseka let him go. Esset scrambled upright and straightened his clothes while Tseka laughed and righted herself with a fluid sliding of scales on stone.
“You were always awkward and scrawny,” Tseka remarked, standing him upright and looking him up and down. “But now you’re even scrawnier.” To Esset’s relief, she retrieved a lantern from the darkness and opened the shutter on it so he could see.
Tseka was striking, even for one of the Nadra. Like all Nadra, she was a mass of slithering coils from the waist down, and from the waist up she was mostly humanoid, though still scaled. As a warrior, her scales were burnished to be dull instead of painted bright, but even so, her scarlet scales were a vivid hue. Not as vivid as her eyes though—her irises were blood red, adding to her fierce image and demeanor. Tseka’s hair was red-orange, and in female Warrior fashion, it was grown long and braided about her upper body to fashion a kind of harness around her breasts.
Tseka yanked Esset toward her for another quick hug; he made a startled noise that, thanks to her squeeze, came out as a squeak.
“You’re also awfully squeaky for a dead man. What happened?” she demanded. She was a friend, one made in the midst of their fight to save Salithsa two and some years ago. Every Nadra was an ally thanks to that struggle, but Tseka had specially adopted them when the fighting had ended.
“It’s a long story,” Esset replied, not really wanting to have to tell it more than once. Tseka prodded him in the side to suggest he tell her anyway. The other Nadran sentry came up behind Tseka. He smiled and nodded at Esset and placed a hand briefly on his shoulder. Esset didn’t recognize him, but that wasn’t surprising; there was a whole race of people in this underground city. Esset nodded back anyways as the sentry resumed his post, tacitly allowing Tseka to accompany Esset down to the city.
“Well, the short version is, we fought Moloch and lost. I used a magic that should have cost me my life—instead it only took two years of it. Now I’m trying to find out if Toman is still alive, and if he is, I’ll need the help of your mages,” Esset explained.