In the cold light of the following dawn, their rickety raft lumbered its way through the frothing water. At its blunt prow, Knox did his best to guide them towards one of the staircases hewn into the sand coloured stone of the wall looming almost twenty feet overhead. Hulbard crouched on one side of the craft with Trastgor opposite, their oars scything into the powerful waves to drive them forward against the powerful current.
After so long spent picking his way across crumbling rooftops, balanced above dizzying drops to the depths below, the warrior was eager to spend some time on more solid ground. He was also keen on a change of scenery after crawling through the dregs of Dalághast for the last few days and could tell his companions felt the same. There’d been a tense air of silent expectancy hanging over them all morning and Hulbard felt it spike as Knox plucked up one of the ropes attached to the nearest corner of the raft and leap across to the staircase. He splashed down into the shallow water lapping at the lowest steps but quickly braced himself and hauled against the rope.
With Trastgor and Hulbard working to stabilise the leaking wooden boat, the archer hauled them closer until the prow thumped softly against the wall. He held it in place while Shankhill, Semekt, Skye and Quintus all clambered out. Trastgor and Hulbard spent a moment passing all their packs across the gurgling gap below before following suit. Once the raft was empty, Knox released the rope and they all watched as the lob sided pile of wood was dragged quickly from view.
“There goes the best boat I’ve ever had a hand in building,” Knox said with a mournful sigh.
“That says little enough about your carpentry skills,” Hulbard said dryly, already scanning the rooftops they’d left behind, “Don’t worry though. When we get out of here, you’ll have enough gold coin to buy a fleet of ships if you want”.
“That is very true,” Knox hummed, licking his teeth, “Might just do that, now that you mention it”.
In the quiet that followed their exchange, they stared back the way they’d come, past the half submerged tower to the buildings beyond. After an uneventful night and a successful crossing, Hulbard heaved a relieved sigh. Whatever else, they hadn’t been shot at from on high or dragged over the side by something lurking in the murky water below and that counted for a lot where he was concerned. Combined with the generous breakfast Shankhill had prepared for them in the tower, eggs, pudding and sausages all fried up in a pan, it marked as good a start to the day as he could have hoped for.
He turned to look up the shadow veiled steps, already unconsciously preparing himself for what might be waiting for them ahead. In the grim dawn light, he started up them with a long, purposeful stride. They were done with the flooded docks.
Hulbard’s armour rattled softly with every step he took up the weather worn staircase. Below, the soft gurgle of rushing water grew fainter, replaced by the low keening of the wind through cracked stone above. Reaching the top of the staircase, his cloak snapping in the breeze, Hulbard was met by a wide roadway leading deeper into the city, flanked by buildings far more humble in their design than those they’d left behind. Gone were the tiered terraces and sweeping bridges soaring over the roadways. Instead, the buildings before him now were lower and more uniform in their shapes and sizes, crowned with cracked and broken tiles in a dozen different designs, patterns and colours.
The balconies dotting their faces had long since fallen to rubble and dust over the years, littering the tiled streets below and leaving gaping openings in their place. Elsewhere, doorways and windows had succumbed to the same fate, reminding him of the ruins they’d explored in the past, though Dalághast remained on a scale wholly new to all of them. It spread away into the distance on all sides, as far as the eye could see. Buildings rose above the others in the distance, but they were too far away for him to make out much beyond vague shapes.
The others gathered around him and they surveyed the sight for a long moment with not a word spoken, only a low whistle of awe from Shankhill.
She was standing so still, Hulbard mistook her for part of the ruins until he saw her cloak rippling in the raking breeze. Their spectral guide stood with her back against a nearby wall, her arms folded over her chest, raven hair fluttering around her pale features at the whim of the wind. Her head turned as he noticed her, emerald eyes regarding them without expression. She stared through the group of sodden, cold adventurers, out to the sunken waves beyond them wreathed in morning gloom.
“There’s your friend,” Hulbard said, gesturing towards the woman.
“So it is,” Quintus hummed.
“You made it,” she stated in a voice as soft as silk, pushing away from the wall and walking towards them at a stately pace.
“And in one piece too,” Shankhill spoke up, “Will miracles never cease?”
“Then you are one step closer to your goal,” she told them, “The ‘Star’ you seek lies at the very heart of Dalághast in the Skullborn Keep, where King Magnus even now holds his eternal vigil”.
“Been a long vigil,” Hulbard commented, but she ignored him as she came to a stop in front of them and meticulously smoothed down the front of her dress.
“Beyond this point is perilous and requires care,” she continued instead, voice soft and cultured, “No mere cultists stalk the way ahead. They only inhabit the flooded ruins for fear of what dwells within these streets. They are little more than children begging for scraps of purpose in the wreckage of what was once their home, unable to achieve anything beyond simply existing. They created idols out of ancient statues to worship in a vain effort to give meaning to what they are, but they have none”.
She turned towards the surrounding buildings and encompassed them with a wave of one slender hand.
“What you see before you now is the remnants of the once world renowned District of the Arts,” she declared.
“I’ve read about this place,” Quintus hummed thoughtfully, “Several pieces of art were smuggled out before things got too hectic . They’re considered some of the most valuable treasures the Libraries have been able to ever get their greedy hands on”.
“As well they should be,” the woman told him, looking back at the Sorcerer with the barest hint of amusement, “Everything from the flesh to the soul was bared in this place. Though not as lavish as the docks in appearance, it was designed for the artist, not the visitor. In this place, gilded halls rang with the sound of symphonies the likes of which have since been lost to ruin. Theatres held performances that lasted days. If you could create, you could forge your fortune here. Words helped craft Dalághast and no place worshipped them more than here”.
“Never been much for words,” Hulbard heard Trastgor mumble under his breath.
“Three great patrons of the noble arts thrived here,” she continued with a scathing glance at the Kurgal, “They were families of the utmost wealth and influence. Where once people flocked to their halls, now they are to be avoided at all costs”.
“It’s been a few years, but I’m sure I read about them as well,” Quintus stroked his beard pensively, “Can’t remember their names though”.
“The Gales were known for their mouth watering banquets,” she supplied in a grim tone, “Before they poisoned their guests. The Vantershands were renowned for their contributions to stage work before it became blade work. Last, but not least, the Airestalds had been praised for their paintings before they began to use the human canvas. Each and every one of them fell to Magnus’ nightmare in time”.
“Did any of them set their sights on the Star?” Quintus questioned, eyes narrowing shrewdly, “Families like that tend to appreciate the finer aspects of life”.
“You mean by buying a bunch of glittering stuff to look at?” Knox hummed.
“Shards of the shattered crystal found its way into public hands,” she replied serenely, “Though they are little more than chips from the great stone itself”.
“Probably impossible to track down,” Shankhill mused thoughtfully.
“Difficult, at the very least,” the woman bowed her slender neck in a shallow nod, “But I’m not here to guide you towards such a pittance. Instead, I am here to tell you that one exists in this place that might help you reach the Skullborn Keep, where your real prize awaits”.
“Oh, this should be good,” Hulbard said with a glance towards Knox.
He received a raised eyebrow from their visitor for the comment, awkwardly cleared his throat and averted his gaze like a child caught speaking out of turn in a classroom.
“A coven of Sorcerers saw the rot taking hold of their city and sought a sliver of the King’s stone in the hope that they could reclaim the docks from the rising tide,” she told them, “At that time, they were master practitioners of the oldest Arts known to the civilised world, rather than the foulness that had already taken their King. Once they got their hands on a piece from the great gemstone, they set about splitting their souls asunder in an effort to become akin to a God. They tried to harness the power within that ‘Star’ but in their hubris, were harnessed by it instead and forged into a new form altogether”.
“Though far more powerful than before, they failed in their efforts to free Magnus from his sickness. Instead, the King realised what they were doing and imprisoned them in their own tower. There, they remain to this day”.
“What makes you think they would help us?” Shankhill asked. “Besides you, everything else in this place seems to want us very, very dead”.
“The Coven wants the same thing that you do.” she told him, “They want their freedom and, released from their shackles, they would see Magnus parted from his trinket. I believe they will side with anyone or anything to see that happen”.
“Where are they?” Quintus chose the next question.
This time, a cold smile touched her beautiful lips.
“There is only one place your kind have ever resided,” she told him, “The very same place that has almost certainly been on your mind since you learned of this city’s location. The fabled Library of Dalághast”.
Hulbard cast the Sorcerer a sidelong glance and though Quintus’ expression was carefully blankl, he knew the man well enough to see the hungry glint in his grey eyes.
“So we have another part of the Star in this tower?” Hulbard asked, already scanning the skyline ahead, picking out the distant buildings rising above the rest.
“There once was, but nothing of it remains now that you would be able to lay your hands on,” she told him with a curt nod.
“Locked away in some kind of impenetrable vault just like the last one?” Shankhill ventured.
“Sealed away within a prison of flesh,” she corrected him, “Seek the Coven. Forge an alliance with them and they will be a valuable ally. They would gladly reap a terrible vengeance upon King Magnus for their internment. But beware. Only the Skullborn Keep is a more dangerous place in all this once great city”.
“If they are so keen to help take down Magnus, then why would we have anything to worry about?” Shankhill frowned.
“Sorcerer’s...” the raven haired woman paused, eyes roaming to Quintus as she chose her words with care, “Can often be interesting individuals. The Coven’s rites and transformation left their mental capacity questionable. In the years since they were first imprisoned, they have had little to do besides plot, scheme and grow more bitter with each passing day. They are surrounded by a legion of loyal acolytes, but have failed a thousand times over to find a way to free themselves of Magnus’ chains”.
“That wretch you encountered before, the one who so enthusiastically flung lightning at you, is little more than a babe swinging a wooden spoon compared to a master duellist armed with a sabre of exquisite craftsmanship. Believe me when I say that there is no comparison. Avoiding confrontation of any description should be considered of the utmost importance”.
Lifting a hand, she levelled a long finger at Quintus.
“Imagine, if you can, this man with access to the world’s wealth of Sorcerous knowledge,” she told them, “And with another hundred years to study it all. Imagine if he never aged, so that his body would not grow old and his power would never falter. If you can grasp that idea, then you will have some semblance of what the merest student is like in that place, much less the Coven. They were tutored by the greatest minds to have ever lived and have only continued their studies in the pale imitation of death they have endured ever since the fall of this place. If you can free their master, they may open the way for you. Or assault the Keep themselves. You need simply follow their lead but were I you, I would seek an alternate route into the Keep and let them offer a distraction in your stead”.
“Bullshit,” Knox announced, “Why would this thing not just take the Star for itself after we’ve freed it”.
“Make it known that this ‘Star’ would be your payment for freeing them,” she told him archly, turning her cold gaze on the hunter, “They are no mindless creature. They can, I would imagine, be reasoned with”.
“And will we be able to visit you before we reach the Library?” Quintus asked and Hulbard saw the question for what it really was; a lure to find out more information about their mysterious benefactor. “Surely you have some supplies we could benefit from?”
“I am too far,” she told him simply and seemed content to leave it at that.
“How are we supposed to free this thing?” Hulbard asked her.
She smiled, a soft and wan sight before speaking, “You seem like the resourceful types”.
Turning, the woman began to wander down the thoroughfare with her cloak trailing in along at her heels and, no matter how it fluttered or snapped this way and that, it made not a single whisper of sound. Hulbard frowned at the sight, more ill at ease with their elusive guide than ever before. They’d had a dozen guides in the past and plenty of them had been questionable in one way or another, but this woman, for all her beauty and grace, left him with a very uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach.
“Do we have a name for you yet?” Quintus called after her and she paused to look back at them.
“Ailasin,” she told them. “That name is as good as any other”.
Then their visitor turned back to the empty roadway and, with another stride, faded completely from view.
“Ominous,” Shankhill muttered.
“Bodes ill,” Trastgor said with a nod of his skull faced head.
“So what do we do now?” Hulbard asked, turning to his companions.
“Making any allies we can in this place seems like a sound plan,” Quintus said quickly.
“And there’s all those old, dusty books he’s just dying to get his hands on,” Skye smirked wryly at his shoulder.
“That too,” the old man admitted. “Calling them priceless would be an understatement”.
“And we all know how I feel about that word,” Shankhill spoke up, “We need to make our way to the Keep and get this Star before anything else goes wrong. We’ve been balanced on a razor’s edge since we got down here and I don’t fancy our chances poking around the kind of place she just described. We don’t know what kind of game that woman could be playing”.
“If we go to the Keep first, and find it locked up tight, then we’ll have to retrace our steps through a city crawling with monsters just to get to this Library,” Knox scoffed, “Going to the Keep first could cost us a lot of time, effort and supplies”.
“According to her,” Shankhill rolled his eyes dramatically, “She could be lying with every word for all we know”.
“She told the truth about the falcon,” Trastgor pointed out in a low growl.
“I don’t think we really have much of a choice,” Hulbard announced, “She knows this place. We don’t. If she says we need the help of these Sorcerer’s, then I think we need their help”.
“And the thought that she could be using us as bait to draw attention away from her while she seizes the Star never occurred to you?” Shankhill asked, tone dripping with exasperation.
“It’s possible,” Hulbard acknowledged, resisting the urge to throttle the smaller man, “But that seems like a risk we’re going to have to take. We go to this tower and barter with these Sorcerer’s. That’s what you do best, isn’t it Shanks? Bartering?”
“No!” he snapped back, “What I do best is keeping us alive, damnit”.
“I don’t care if your only discernible skill is masturbating,” Quintus cut in before Hulbard could respond, “You are all missing the point. This is the Library of a lost city. It is full of enchanted artefacts and tomes that no one has had a chance to loot for centuries. Even ignoring the power of such things, the Libraries out there would pay any price to get their hands on anything from that tower. What is waiting for us ahead is a treasure trove of items worth more than any mound of gold Cloves. We are going to the Library”.
Quintus paused, his grey eyes cold and implacable as he raked his gaze from one person to the next, giving his words a chance to sink in. When no one offered any further argument, he rapped the butt of his staff on the tiles underfoot with a note of finality.
“Then it’s decided,” he announced, “We came here for fame and riches. Both are waiting for us in that Library”.
“I do like the sound of riches,” Hulbard said, flashing a wolfish smile.
“Doesn’t everyone?” Skye was grinning hungrily, “Not to mention the fun little trinkets they could have locked away over there. Even I want to get my hands on them”.
“So be it,” Shankhill rubbed his chin dubiously, “But when we’re being torn apart by bloodthirsty Sorcerer’s, I reserve the right to be insufferably smug about the fact that I was right about this entire thing”.
“We expect no better of you,” Quintus told him coldly before peering ahead. “I see a tower in the distance. We’re going to make for it. If it’s the Library, I’ll know as we get closer”.
“Onwards then!” Shankhill declared, “To wrack and ruin!”
He started marching down the open roadway ahead of them with a swagger to his stride and Hulbard shared an exasperated glance with Knox before turning to look back at the sunken ruins they were leaving behind one last time. Whatever lay ahead, he couldn’t help thinking, at least they’d be dry.
I've been writing for as long as I can remember, mostly fantasy though I dabble in science fiction from time to time. I wrote commissioned pieces of work for several years but found that it was taking up so much of my time that I wasn't ever getting a chance to work on my own ideas so, deciding that life is simply too short, I left that chapter of my life behind and began dedicating all my free time to developing my own stories, whether they are short in stature or full scale novels.
At this point in time, I have several projects on the go and I'm mostly just looking for ways to branch out and reach a broader audience.