My neck was extremely stiff when I woke up and threw some more wood on the fire. The others had lain down on the floor around me as I looked out the door. I guessed by the position of the full, blue moon that it would be another hour or two before sunrise and I decided to take a bit of a stroll before the town came to life and drowning itself in the noises of the day.
The morning dew had already iced the road and buildings and I walked down the road, smiling at the crunching of frozen dirt beneath my feet. A small portly man walked down the street a ways off. As my stride was longer than his I caught up to him just as he turned to walk into a building bearing the sign “bakery” over its door. The man noticed me and jumped a little. I nodded to him and waved as I walked by. He did likewise.
A few blocks further, I noticed two men in an alley. I did not want any trouble so I just continued walking, pretending I had seen nothing. It’s not as if they were fighting or anything.
I had not gotten another ten feet when a voice, low and menacing, called out to me from the direction of the alley. I turned around slowly, and looked over the wooden porch of a small inn toward the one who had spoken.
I failed to recognize the man who stood before me, as his silhouette was all I had to go by but a flash of something caught my eye and I recognized the badge hanging from the badly torn clothing he wore.
“Sheriff?” I asked.
I was answered with a snarl and the snapping of teeth as he took a step towards me. A bit of light reflecting off a window pane revealed the thick furry coat that lay beneath his shredded garments.
“Werewolf!” I yelled and turned to run but another stood less than ten paces behind me. Surrounded, I drew my blade.
My childhood lessons at Father Timney’s feet suddenly echoed in my mind. “Werewolves, undead, vampires… Monsters like these are nearly impossible to combat, my child. Pray that should you meet such creatures, you will be properly armed for the occasion.”
I stood there, knife in hand, as the two of them circled me. I heard them growling as they circled closer with every step. When the sheriff stood behind me, the one in front lunged forward. I brought my hand down on his muzzle, slamming his mouth shut with a loud “clack”.
The sheriff jumped and landed on my back. His jaws clamped on the thick wool of my cloak. I leaned forward and kicked the one at my feet several paces. The sheriff grabbed my cloak, jerking me backwards. I tugged at one of the laces on my cloak to untie it and turned, throwing my shoulder into him. He stumbled and fell to the ground
A window creaked open above and to the right of me, proving very nearly to be a fatal distraction as he flew at me, claws outspread, and pounced on my shoulders. I fell on my back fighting to keep him from latching onto me with his gaping maw. Raking me across the face and chest, he tore through the front of my tunic and blinding pain flashed through my body. He smacked my arms to the side, grabbed my right shoulder and face, pulling himself close. Time slowed as I watched in terror as his jaws flew towards my neck.
A sudden, sharp cry of pain shot from the beast, and the werewolf was knocked off me onto the street. I stood as fast as I could, but could not see where the other werewolf had fled.
A voice echoed down from over my shoulder. “I wonder at times like these whether I am favored or cursed.”
I looked up and saw her. Mara stood bow in hand on the roof of the small inn’s porch. She’d left her furs inside and, wearing naught but her leather undergarments, her nearly bare body shone white in the cold radiance of the moon.
“Likewise,” I replied, “that I should be aided against werewolves by one such as you. Get inside before you catch your death!”
With a snort, she turned around and crawled back through the window.
I turned around to get a better look at the werewolf. A single arrow had pierced the side of his head. The shaft gleamed silver.
I was about to pull the arrow out when I heard Mara’s voice through the door of the inn. “Innkeep, fetch your lantern. You’ve a fiend to witness.” I thought better than to have her walk out and see me holding her arrow, so I waited.
I lifted my cloak from the frozen cobblestone, dusted it off and had no sooner secured it on my shoulders then the door to the inn opened. Mara and an older man in a heavy robe walked out. The innkeeper held a small lantern and looked around; jumping backwards when the light he held brought me into view.
“Not him, old man. This one.” Mara, now dressed in her furs, pointed towards the large black mass of bloody fur at her feet.
With a second look at me, the innkeep turned and inspected the corpse, lip curled in distaste.
My clash with the monsters had attracted attention, and several of the windows of surrounding buildings were being drawn and lamps within were lit as people became curious about what was going on outside. It wasn’t long before a small crowd of onlookers had gathered around us.
Mara kicked its shoulder with a booted foot, rolling it onto its back. The old man raised an eyebrow speculating as he saw the small bronze shield on the tattered remains that still hung about it.
The barbarian then reached down, placing her boot on the side of its head, and yanked the arrow from its head and shook the worst of the bloody grey flesh off of it onto the ground. Upon doing so, the beast’s fur disappeared and the crowd gasped as the body shrank to reveal the nearly naked corpse of one of their own.
“It’s the sheriff!” One of the men in the crowd yelled. “We have fiends in Bridgeton!”
“Yes, you do,” Mara placed her foot on the body and continued, “And I will hunt them down and kill them for you… if a reasonable amount is offered.”
“That’s a matter for the town council,” The innkeep said nervously as the crowd began to disperse, ”but it is one I would desire to see addressed.” The old man stuck his free hand in the pocket of his robe and turned to go back into the inn. “Go to the Council Hall when it opens. This matter will have reached their ears by then, I’m sure. Place your offer there and they will decide what should be done.”
I turned; planning to walk back home, but a gloved hand grabbed me by the wrist. I turned and saw Mara there. She studied my face for a moment.
“Oh, you’re looking for the scratches… They’re already healed,” I assured her.
“What about your shoulder? It looked like he bit you.”
I pulled at my cloak and showed her what I could without completely disrobing. “He just got a mouthful of wool’s all.”
She pursed her lips, doubtfully. “I’m keeping you with me today, just in case.”
“But I’ve got things to do. I’ve got to…” I was about to say I had to train with Rat to fight her, but thought better of it.
She raised her palm, motioning me to stop talking. “Don’t worry about any prior engagements. You’re not going anywhere,” she said, eyebrows raised in nonchalance.
I was getting irritated again. “Okay, I might just stay with you today, but let’s have an understanding about something. Alright?” I stepped toward her and shook my finger. ”I don’t care who you are, what you are, or anything else. You are not my mother to order me about. I’ll do as I please. I didn’t get my ear pierced so that a girl I don’t even know could treat me like a child.”
I finished my little tirade a little more loudly than intended and she stepped back, eyes wide, and the color drained from her face.
I grabbed at the sides of my head and growled, wanting to die when she looked at me like that. Placing my open hands palm up in front of me, I asked, “What? I’m not going to hit you.” Unable to stand her expression any longer, I turned and started walking.
I lost track of time and where I was going as I walked. The gashes in my tunic let cold air in so I pulled my cloak around and held it closed. After a small eternity, I looked up, and saw that I was standing in the town square next to a fountain of the Angeli of healing, Gabru. The statue was that of a man wearing the ceremonial robes of a priest holding a jar that emptied into the pool below. A visual reminder that the blessings of The Unnamed never ran dry.
I thought again about the fountain the Stumpton council had tried to purchase and laughed. I bet that fountain is kept running by those underground rivers Rat mentioned. If the one we had planned for were modeled after this one, ours wouldn’t have even worked.
I walked over to the side of the fountain and looked in. The tiled floor of the pool looked like a map of Aercanaan.
When my eye caught sight of the pool’s bottom, I noticed a ringing in my ears and tugged at them for a moment. As I did so, I saw a strange, little rock that didn’t match the surrounding stone sitting next to the statue’s left foot. I reached across, leaning on the lip of the fountain as I did so, and grabbed at it.
Standing up, I looked at my prize. The small stone appeared to be a strange die, bearing twelve facets inscribed with a symbol. I held it only a scant few seconds before it suddenly became very hot, and I quickly dropped it, watching it sink to the bottom of the pool.
The ringing in my ears faded a little. I turned and walked away from the fountain, and about twenty paces away, realized the sound had ceased altogether. I turned for a moment and stepped back towards the statue and a faint ringing returned.
Reality spun on its toes as my senses suddenly reeled. I felt as if I had fallen through the street and into the darkness below. Some few moments later, I felt the spinning sensation stop. I looked around as my vision became accustomed to the darkness around me. The air here was thick with humidity and the smells of mold and mildew. The sound of rushing water drowned out all other noise. Looking around, I saw I was sitting in a man-made tunnel of stone through which a fast moving current of water flowed. The trough for the water was a few feet from the wall, allowing for passage on foot to either side of it.
I tried to stand but my body would not respond. A tall, gracefully muscled creature loped from the darkness beyond my vision and, glancing around, he removed a leather pouch from his pack. His carriage was strange, and his skin was covered in scales. From the pouch, he withdrew an amber colored egg about the size of a horse’s head. The “egg” was then placed next to the wall of the other side. After which, the creature spoke a phrase in a language I did not understand and the device began to glow brighter and brighter. The lizard creature ran off after once again looking around. I thought it odd that it was unable to see me. The light from the “egg” continued to grow brighter until it was not just bright but also putting off a great deal of heat. Still unable to move, I watched as the egg’s shell began to crack and the egg exploded.
Suddenly, I stood once more on the street a number of paces from the fountain. I realized then that it had been yet another vision.
I shook my head, violently. Do I have time?
It didn’t matter. I briefly looked at my surroundings and watched as my imagination completed the picture for me. Another charred ghost town spied back at me eerily.
I tried to think back to the dream, but did not know where the creature got into the aqueducts, and so I tapped the shoulder of a young man walking by. “Excuse me. Where do you get into the aqueducts?”
He gave me a strange look. ”They’re off limits to the public. Why do you ask?”
I looked down and shook my head before answering. “I think someone means to attack the city from there.”
He looked from side to side before responding. “Have you told anyone else this?”
“Come with me.” He said turning and walking across the square.
I followed him and we entered the town hall and turned right into a small office.
“Father? This man says Bridgeton is in some danger. I think you should listen to him,” he said as he entered the room.
A balding, middle-aged man raised his gaze from what he had been reading. A brief, suspicious glance was all he gave before he continued reading. “Well, well, well… trying to beat your barbarian friend to the punch, eh?”
I pulled the hood of my cloak back as I spoke. “I barely know her, and, respectfully, I have no interest in hunting fiends for you.”
He sighed and looked back at me. “Then what’s this all about? I’ve not all day to natter away with you, young man.”
“Someone has placed a destructive device in one of the aqueducts beneath Bridgeton.”
Raising an eyebrow, he looked at me, as if studying something. “Do you know who did it?”
“Yes, well, sort of. I saw… him.” I did not dare say in a vision for I knew I would be thrown out.
“What did he look like?” He took out a quill and dipped it in some ink.
“I didn’t get a really good look at him, but I know he’s covered with scales.”
“You mean he’s rich?” He asked.
“No, I mean like a lizard.”
He looked down at the parchment he’d been writing on and looked back at his son.
“I think I may know something of this creature. He was spotted by one of the townsmen earlier this month. He seems to be affiliated with the sheriff before he…” A brief sigh escaped his lips and he stood up, pushing his chair away from the large, cherry desk.
He placed his hands on the desk, and looked up at his son. “Dane, I need you to take this young man to the old millhouse. Try not to be seen going in. I believe some of the council members might be in on this, and I don’t want any of their factions to be aware of what we’re doing.”
“Yes, father.” The man beside me turned and nodded his head to me.
As we walked out of the building, Mara, who was sitting on the lip of the fountain, spotted me and walked up to us. The two of us had not been running as that would bring attention to us, and so I couldn’t get away as she started talking to me in a softer tone than previously.
“Rickter, listen, maybe I…”
“Um.” I looked to Dane and back. “I’m not trying to shut you up, Mara, but can this wait?”
I could tell she didn’t like being interrupted by the scowl that began to replace her look of supplication.
“I’m not trying to offend you, but I really need to take care of something. Alright?” I offered.
“Fine.” She said. ”I’ll just have to follow you then.”
“You have to be kidding.” Dane muttered.
Mara jumped in front of him and looked down at him. “What was that?”
Dane bit his lip, unable to look her in the eyes. “Oh, nothing. I was just talking to myself.”
Other than a short detour to Dane’s house where he picked up a lantern, we didn’t make any more stops as walked up the northern road all the way out of town.
The chill of the morning air seemed to ignore the sun and the only noise was that of the road as we crunched our way down the frozen highway.
“Well?” I looked over to Dane.
He looked over his shoulders and said, “Nobody…”
That was what I’d been waiting for.
“Can we run?” I asked.
“I guess.” He replied as he broke out into a loping jog. Mara kept pace with the two of us easily. At one point, she got a little carried away and ran ahead of us. Her outer covering of pelts left her long, white thighs exposed as she ran. Dane punched me playfully in the arm when he realized what I was staring at.
Mara heard the impact of his blow, and looked over her shoulder. Dane and I played dumb.
We had run for nearly a mile when we finally spotted the old mill atop a hill on the right side of the road. Knowing we would slow our pace when we reached the building, I sprinted for the last several paces, beating Mara by a stride.
I was a little out of breath as we walked around the large, red, brick millhouse to the large doors facing away from the road. Noticing they stood wide open Dane shouted as we got to them, “What? These were supposed to be locked… A young boy died a few years ago down in those tunnels. I have to tell my father about this.”
I leaned over a chain and an opened padlock on the ground, and picked up the padlock, before handing it to him. “Only the sheriff was allowed to carry a key to this lock.”
“Well, you go do what you have to. I’ll go down see what I can find.”
Dane held out his hand, offering me the lantern. “Here you go. I didn’t want you walking around down there without a guide, but the fact that someone unlocked this door is proof enough of your suspicions to me.”
He didn’t wait for a reply, but turned and ran back the way he came. I turned and handed the lantern to Mara who was standing behind me, arms crossed against her chest.
“What exactly are we looking for?” Mara asked as we walked into the millhouse.
I looked around an empty storeroom and spotted an open wooden door in the floor, leading to a granite staircase built into the ground. “I’m looking for a way into the aqueducts,” I said as I walked down the stairwell. “If you can find a way to light that lantern feel free to follow me, but I don’t need it so I’ll keep moving. I’m not sure how much time we have left.”
“Hey,” was all I heard as I ran down the stairway into the pitch black tunnel.
I felt as though I were about twenty paces down when the stairway bottomed out. The smell was not nearly as bad in reality as my ‘dream’ had led me to believe. I wondered at the meaning of that as I jogged down the narrow walkway beside the water at my left.
The minutes dragged by and I was eventually forced to stop jogging. My legs burned as I continued down the shaft, and after nearly an hour of walking, I came to a large, bowl-shaped room with a dam in the middle.
On the far side of the dam, the aqueduct split into three separate tunnels. I walked around and looked at the walkways where they split off, trying to find any trace of footprints. Seeing none, I peered down the three tunnels.
The familiar smell of rot wafted out from the middle tunnel. I cringed. Well, at least I’m fairly sure which direction he’d run.
Having caught my breath, my legs had ceased aching, so I began to run again.