Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Part VI: Under Attack in the Underworld!
            They walked for what felt like hours.  It suddenly struck Balric that he hadnt once worried about their immanent deadline.  Well thats somethin to be proud of, he thought.  Instantly, his stomach roiled up as he began to worry about running out of time.             Balric exhaled and saw his foggy breath pass by the small lantern he held up in front of him.  It was bitter cold this deep in Saltana, but after walking in it for so long he still shivered.  No numbness had set in.  It was just as cold now as when they entered this part of the bazaar.  Instinctively, he moved the lantern from his right hand to his left and then buried his newly freed hand into his pocket.  He looked ahead on the road and squinted hard.  He could barely make out Declan ahead of him, but his master was still in sight.  It seemed the depths of Saltana held not only bitter cold, but near pitch darkness as well.  Well, if thats the worst of it then were awful lucky, Balric thought.
            Suddenly, the earth began to shake.  Balric was able to make out Declan ahead, tripping, before he himself fell forward.  The road beneath him felt like it was coming apart.  As he fell to his knees, a foul stench came up to greet him.  Up from below.  A hissing sound echoed all round, and Balric became completely disoriented.
            He shut his eyes.  There was just too much happening.  But one overriding thought grabbed hold of his mind and wouldnt let go: survive.  Balric crawled forward, one hand seeking out even terrain while the other gripped desperately to the lantern.  Slowly he made his way - no destination in mind, just forward.  The sounds of cracking rock and howling wind mixed together to create unearthly screams in the night.  Balric was sure he was about to die.  But he kept moving forward, expecting the worst at every moment.  Some seconds passed.  Any moment now, Balric thought.  But death did not come.  Just as the thought occurred to him that he might survive, the quakes slowly died down.  The ghastly noises all around him quieted, and the awful gases cleared away for the clean, cold night air.  All was silent now.  Balric opened his eyes.
            He was stunned.  He expected everything to be in ruin. But what he saw was the opposite: everything in order, just as it had been before the earthquake.  Stalls and carts were still up and whole, and the earth beneath his feet was still smooth and solid.  He sniffed, then breathed in; the air was clean. 
            Balric stood up and began turning in circles.  He was taking in as much of the land around him as he could see in the dim light of his lantern. Not even a rock was out of place.  Its like this place is alive, Balric thought.  And it hears what were thinking.
            Master?!  Balric remembered losing sight of Declan as the word came out of his mouth.  He began searching more frantically. 
            He moved quickly through the area immediately surrounding him.  He ran forward, where he thought he last saw Declan, and entered a small store that was there.  He combed the place, but there was no sign of his master.  He left and searched the next little store.  After hed been to all the dilapidated shacks in the immediate area, he ran deeper into the abandoned market place.  The main road was left behind. 
            Master?!  Balric called out again.  His voice echoed loudly; more so than it should have, it seemed to him.  Is this place makin me louder?  Balric thought. 
            He ducked his head into every store he came across, so as to leave no stone unturned.  He did not dwell long in any of these abandoned places; he only took the time necessary to search them as quickly as possible.  One abandoned stand followed another and with each one Balric became more and more desperate.  Finally, he came to the last little shop of the eastern quarter.  He turned back to the direction he had come from, or what he thought was the direction he had come from.  I must be a mile off the main road, if Im an inch, he thought as he searched in vain for the road itself.  Well, theres no turnin back now.  And times a wastin, he thought as he ducked his head into the shop. 
            Master Declan!  he said frantically.  Then his words caught in his throat.  For there, sitting at a small table in the center of the room was his master.  There was a faint glow to the young lord, and Balric felt the unease of foreboding.
            My friend, Delcan said with his signature smile.  I knew youd find me.
            Whats happened master?  Balric asked as he slowly walked to the table and unthinkingly took a seat across from Declan.
            Isnt it obvious my dear fellow?  Declan asked flatly.  Ive died.
            Balrics insides felt like they plummeted into his gullet.  He began to sweat, and the sweat felt cold. 
            No.  Master, it cant be, Balric said as tears began to well up in his eyes.  You were alive not half an hour ago.  How did this happen?
            I fell.  The earth shook, I lost my footing and tumbled down a precipice.  I reached out for you, but you werent there.  My neck was broken, Declan said.
            Oh master, but Balric had no more to say.  He just stammered there a moment, looking on the ghost of Declan.
            Im afraid its true, Declan said with a small smile.   
            I shoulda been there, Balric managed to get out.
            But you werent, Declan said plainly.  Oh well, no sense in dwelling on the past.  Better to look ahead.  What will I do to keep occupied?  I have an eternity here.  Maybe a game.
            No master!  Balric said forcefully as his focus came back to him.  What about the quest?  What about savin your sister from Martin La Foe?  How can twenty five years just end like this?
            Im afraid youll have to finish the quest for me.  Tell my sister I loved her.  And though we will never see each other again, I will always think of her, Declan said calmly.
            Never see each other again?  Balric asked.
            its the curse of dying here, Declan explained.  I am doomed to this place for all eternity.  So even when my sister dies, our paths will never cross.  The only way for us to be reunited, for me to pass on, is if someone volunteered their living soul.
            I volunteer, Balric said instantly.
            I cant let you do that, Declan said, emotionally pregnant.  Youd be stuck here in my stead.  Trapped.
            Sa good thing you cant stop me then, Balric said as he stood up.  Your story cant end here.  Not so long as Im alive. 
            He felt a chill as he looked down at this ghost of his master.  But Balric held firm and extended his hand.  I swore to do this.  I have to do this.  Keep that hand steady Balric, he said to himself.
            Tell me what ya need me to do, sir.  And its done, Balric said.
            Oh my friend, Declan said, even more pregnantly than before.  You are, the best servant Ive ever had.  Very well, gladly do I accept your offer.  To seal the pact, all we have to do is sit together.
            Balric sat.
            And drink, Declan held out his hands in a gesture of presentation.  Out of thin air, a beautiful golden goblet appeared in front of Balric.
            Balric jumped a little in his chair.  He stared at the goblet for a moment.  It was plain, but it glowed with the same unearthly light the shadow puppets had.  Slowly, Balric reached out and picked it up.
            From the moment his hands touched the cup, Balric did not feel in control.  Slowly, but automatically, his arm brought the goblet close to his face.  Inside, Balric saw the rich, red wine that filled it almost to the brim.  Then he stopped moving the goblet a breath away from his lips.
            So, all I need to do is drink this an youre free?
            Yes, Declan replied with a smile.
            To your health then, Balric said as he lifted the goblet and tilted it toward Declan in a gesture of acknowledgment.  Er, not your heath, butwell, to your rest I spose.
            Thank you my friend, Declan said.  Now, drink.
            Balrics arm moved slowly toward his mouth.  The rim of it touched his lower lip and Balric struggled for a moment.  In that struggle, his arm stopped moving and he sat still.  A small breeze blew past as he stared at the wine.  Well, go on then.  Best not to hesitate an let yourself get distracted.  Remember why youre doin this, he thought. 
            Balric exhaled to steady himself.  He put his lips to the rim of the goblet and before he could think to move his arm, it had already moved on its own.  The cup tipped and the warm liquid filled Balrics mouth.  It tasted sweet.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Part V: An Interlude

       Balric kept his eyes fixed on the ground as he walked.  It was uneven terrain, with puddles here and there of a dark liquid that he could only guess was water.    
It got colder the further they went.  Balric crossed his arms tightly over his chest and hands, trying to warm what he could.  He started shivering slightly and tried to push his mind from his discomfort.  “Don’t think about coats.  Think about how we can keep track of our time here.  Let’s see…accordin to when we left, and factorin how long I think we’ve already been here, I’d say we want to be back at the docks when the sun rises.  Boy, I’d love a sweater right now.  Stop it Balric.  But there’s no way to know when the sun will rise from inside this place.  Ooh, socks would be nice.  Focus!”
But it was eluding him, so Balric chose to try and distract himself.  He looked up, at Declan, to see how his master was faring.  But if the lad was cold he showed no signs of it.  He kept walking, steadily on.
“Balric?”  Declan’s voice came back to him.
“Yes master?”  Balric asked.
“I hope that you are not upset with me,” Declan said.
Balric was taken aback.  “For what sir?” 
“For what I was about to, well, for what I asked you to do back there.  It was monstrous.  Sometimes, I get so blinded by my goal that I cannot see how best to achieve it,” Declan said solemnly.
“Don’t get teary,” Balric told himself to fight off the well of emotion that was beginning to bubble up inside.  “S’quite alright sir.  I didn’t even hear what you asked for, if I’m bein honest.”
“Nevertheless,” Declan said.  “A gentleman holds three things above all else; his honor, his family and his friends.  Tonight, I’m afraid I sullied two of those.  If you had sacrificed your soul at my asking for a simple watch, I would have regretted it forever.”
“Steady.  Steady now Balric,” he thought as the emotional pressure grew inside, threatening to erupt and wreak havoc on his insides. 
“Your silence speaks volumes Balric,” Declan said.  “You deduce I haven’t actually said what I’m trying to say.  Good man.  Good friend.  Let us beat no more bushes and come to it,” Declan stopped then and turned to his manservant.  “Balric, I am sorry.  Can you forgive me?”
The dam burst.  Tears fell from Balric’s eyes in such volume that it felt to him he was swimming.  “Forgiven sir!” he said as he hugged Declan hard.  “A thousand times over!”
“Thank you my friend,” Declan said as he struggled to breathe through the bear hug he was now in.  “Now, onward.  We must find the map to Miranga Island as soon as possible.  Do you have any idea how much time we have left?”
Balric let go of his master and stepped backward, wiping his eyes.  “I don’t sir.  Everythin about this place feels off.  Like you can’t trust your insides here.”
“I know exactly what you mean.  This land has a way of affecting us that goes beyond any preparation we’ve made,” Declan said solemnly.  “Oh well,” he smiled, a hint of excitement in his voice.  “We’ll just have to be extra vigilant, eh Balric?”
“How can you be so…I dunno…offhand about this master?” Balric asked.  “How will we know when we need to head back?  Who knows how long it’ll take given where we’re going.  For that matter, how far into Saltana do we intend to go?  When will we…”
“I don’t know Balric,” Declan said easily, but still with a smile on his face.  “That’s the answer to all your questions.  We either find the map, or die trying.  Together this time.”
“I don’t feel like cryin,” Balric thought, amazed with himself for managing to contain his tears at the prospect of a death pact with Declan.  He still felt anxious, but he took a deep breath and discovered he felt something else as well.  Excitement.  Genuine excitement.  Slowly, a smile spread across his face.
“Then I s’pose there’s no time to waste,” Balric said.
“That’s the spirit, chum,” Declan said.  “On.”
Declan turned and began walking.  Balric followed.  As they continued on silently, Balric studied their surroundings.  When he glanced down, he noticed a little puddle.  As he passed by, a shining light flashed across the surface of one of the dark pools.  He looked up immediately and saw a pale, ghostly imitation of a star flying across the night sky.

“Look at that,” he thought.  “Even in this dark place a little light can still manage to get through.”