Chapter 35: Too Much Hope
Word spread quickly throughout Brecconaly and Tantegel that the four had recovered the Shield of Heroes. A crowd formed around the group as they tried to make their way through the town. Suzanne was swarmed with townspeople who wanted to look at the shield.
"Do we have any idea why this shield is considered so special?" asked Suzanne at the top of her lungs, struggling to talk with her companions.
"All we know is what Larry told us and what we've seen for ourselves," answered Alice.
"I think we should get out of here!" warned Thomas. "We've seen how crowds around here can get nasty in a hurry!"
"I don't know," said Ron. "They don't look hostile. Many look like this is the first good news they've heard in forever!"
After some time a host of guards came over and cleared a path for the four, leading them to the castle. One of them walked up to Suzanne.
"King Raosu would have a word with you four. Come this way!" ordered the guard.
The group had little other choice. The guards were providing them with their only way through the crowd. After some time they arrived at Tantegel Castle to find that another crowd, though smaller, had assembled there as well. The guards led the heroes straight up to the throne room.
The throne room was not as decorated as other throne rooms the four had seen. There were not portraits on the wall of past monarchs or epic battles. There were only a few banners hung in the room. The banners had the same golden bird that appeared on Suzanne's shield. The four realized they had not yet seen the standard of Alefgard; perhaps it was that golden bird.
The man sitting on the throne was modestly dressed compared to most monarchs. Instead of expensive robes he wore light armor that had a little bit of silver as decoration. The most decorated thing he had on him was a sword and scabbard he had on him. The scabbard was gold with rubies in it. The cross-guard of the sword was shaped like the golden bird. The man himself looked thin and tired. He looked to be in his fifties though the four wondered if exhaustion and stress had added to his age. Standing next to the man was Tracy.
The group was brought before the king. The guards introduced the man as King Raosu. They did not know the names of any of the four and so they were introduced as "the ones who had the Shield of Heroes."
"So these are the warriors who retrieved the Shield of Heroes," said the king. "I would have your names." Suzanne introduced herself and her companions.
"Now I must see for myself," said the king. He motioned to one of the guards. The guard took Suzanne's shield and demonstrated his inability to use it. The king then motioned again. The guard brought the shield to the king. The king was also unable to use the shield. He looked a bit disappointed at this. He showed the shield to Tracy who examined it for a few minutes. She cast a few spells to help her examination. The group waited in silence. Finally, Tracy whispered some words to the king. After another motion from the king, the shield was brought back to Suzanne.
"I hear that you are able to use the shield," said the king. "Show me."
Suzanne did as she was commanded. She strapped the shield to her arm and did a few exercises, demonstrating her mobility with it equipped.
"Few are those who are able to use the Shield of Heroes," declared the king. "You are a blessed individual indeed. No wonder you have caused such unrest among my subjects."
"We did not mean to cause any trouble, Your Majesty," apologized Suzanne. "We did not realize the significance of this shield. We still do not."
"How did you come by the Shield of Heroes?" asked the king. Suzanne told the story of their adventure in the magic-sealing cave. The king asked for extra details on the fights Suzanne had participated in while using the shield. Then the king motioned towards Tracy.
"As you have seen for yourself, the Shield of Heroes is an extraordinarily powerful shield," began Tracy. "Its strength and mobility are superior to any other known shield in the land, offering its wielder superior protection. But, as you have also seen, only a select few are allowed to use the shield. The shield chooses its wielder and to this day we still do not know how the shield decides who is worthy to use it."
"The shield was one of three pieces of treasured equipment that used to be kept in the castle," said Tracy. "The Shield of Heroes, the Armor of Radiance, and the Sword of Kings. The Master Archfiend Zoma stole the shield and the armor. Until you showed up today with that shield it had not been seen for over a century, perhaps two centuries. Many have come to believe that all but the sword were mere legends; stories made up to try and give hope to the people."
"Why did people believe in the sword?" asked Suzanne.
The king spoke up, "Because the Sword of Kings has been passed on through the royal line of Alefgard for generations." He unhooked the scabbard at his belt and held it up. "This is the Sword of Kings."
"Does the sword choose its wielder like the shield? Are you able to use the sword, Your Majesty?" asked Suzanne.
"It is particular about its owner but I am able to use it," replied King Raosu. "All those of my line can use this blade. When Zoma tries attacking the castle it is the duty of my family to defend the people using this sword. And it is the most potent weapon that can be found in the land."
The king then gestured at Tracy. "It is said that only with the use of all three items can the Master Archfiend be defeated," she continued. "We believe that is why it took away the armor and shield."
"And so I have a request for you, brave warriors," said King Raosu. "I want you to find the Armor of Radiance. With luck, one of you will be able to use the armor as well. Do you accept?"
Suzanne took a quick look at her comrades. They nodded at her. "We accept, Your Majesty."
"One last thing," said the king. "You must not tell anyone of your quest. And I would request that you cover or hide the Shield of Heroes when you travel through towns and cities, including Brecconaly. Should you fall in your quest, the news would increase the despair of the people."
"We understand, Your Majesty," answered Suzanne.
"Very good. You are dismissed," said the king.
The group left Tantegel Castle and found a large portion of the crowd in Brecconaly remained. Thankfully, enough of the crowd dispersed that the four were able to move around the town. A few people approached the heroes to look at the Shield of Heroes but Suzanne had taken King Raosu's advice and covered it. Those that came up to her left disappointed.
Suddenly, people began to point up into the air. Up in the sky the group could see some figures flying. They were monsters by the look of it.
"They can't seriously be thinking of attacking the town, right?" asked Ron. "There can't be more than four of them up there. They'd get destroyed."
"More like a recon group," said Suzanne. "Alice, can you blow them out of the sky?"
"Nope," answered Alice. "They're too high up. They need to descend a bit."
"Looks like you'll have your chance, with one of them at least," said Ron. One of the figures began to descend towards the town. Alice readied a spell.
"Alice, wait!" cautioned Suzanne. "That figure isn't descending, it's falling. Something is wrong here."
As the figure continued its descent the people realized that it was a human falling from the sky. Several in the crowd reacted with alarm and some screamed. The human was going to meet a horrible fate for sure but Alice cast a spell to slow its fall. The human fell to the ground gently, suffering no harm. The four went up to investigate. Alice recognized the human.
"Oh my…that's Bert!" she gasped.
Although Alice's spell had saved the storyteller from further harm the man was already dead. His clothes were torn and scars and burns could be seen all over his body. He was missing both his feet and his face was horribly disfigured; had he survived his wounds it was clear he would never see, hear, or speak ever again.
A group of horrible cackling voices could then be heard, "Remember your places, humans! This is what happens to those that overstep their bounds!" Everyone looked up to see the figures circling around high in the air. The crowd began to disperse; all were too afraid to remain outside.
"Monsters!" roared Ron in anger. "Come down here and fight you cowards!"
"This is your fault!" yelled a man as he was rushing by. "They say that man told you how to get the Shield of Heroes! He was tortured for helping you!"
"But he didn't!" protested Alice. "He didn't tell us anything about the shield!" The man just angrily shook his head and, with a quick glance into the air, ran away.
"Somebody help me move him," said Thomas, picking up Bert. "We have to give him a proper burial."
Suzanne helped Thomas move Bert and they brought him to the local graveyard. The graveyard was badly organized and there was no sign of a graveyard keeper. Then the four saw a sign that said, "Pick any open spot and bury your dead." That sign explained the disorganized nature of the graveyard. With no visible keepers around there were many signs of vandalism and disrespect for the dead. Nevertheless, they had no other choice but to bury Bert in one of the open spots. The four then returned to the inn to collect their thoughts.
"Do you guys think Bert is dead because of us?" asked Alice.
"We didn't kidnap him, torture him, or kill him," answered Thomas. "Those horrible acts were committed by the monsters."
"It does concern me," admitted Suzanne. "Will any townsperson that gives us information be brutally murdered?"
"I don't think this has anything to do with us," said Ron. "Alice, didn't you say that Bert tried to tell uplifting stories to any who would listen? Maybe he was targeted for trying to lift people's spirits."
"Then what about us?" asked Thomas. "Before Bert's body was flung down it seemed as though the people that saw Susie's shield were feeling pretty good. And remember, Tracy said that it is said the Shield of Heroes is a key to beating Zoma, not to mention that it was Zoma that stole it. The Master Archfiend will surely come after us when he finds out we have the shield."
"Let it come!" challenged Ron. "I prefer it that way! Then we can settle this immediately!"
"I doubt it would come personally," said Suzanne. "More like it would send a hoard of minions or try to ambush us. We must be cautious."
"So what do we do?" asked Alice.
"I would be interested in going to Kol," said Suzanne. "However the maps I've seen show that there is no land route to get there. And it's almost winter and I would guess that icy waters in Alefgard are as dangerous as icy waters in the upper world. Probably more so, since the constant darkness would make it difficult to see ice in the water."
"Anyway," continued Suzanne, "I took some time to look at maps of the country. If we start going southwest we can start a tour of Alefgard. There are three towns south of here that have waypoints: the desert town of Hauksness, the fortress of Cantlin, and the river city of Rimuldar. We'll start going southwest towards Hauksness and work our way counter-clockwise around the country. We can gather information in each city and, if nothing else, expand our ability to travel around the country."
The heroes left Tantegel and went south. On the first day they came to a forest and had to camp out inside it. Over the night there were a few inches of snowfall. The second day had them climbing through the hills and then back into the forest. The third and fourth days saw easier travel as they left the forest and walked through mostly flat plains.
"Alice, what are you doing?" asked Ron. Alice had been walked while keeping her eyes on the ground, casting an occasional spell as she went.
"I just can't figure out how there's plant life here," answered Alice. "Without sunlight we shouldn't be seeing forests or grass about."
"Don't use up too much of your magic," cautioned Suzanne. "There are monsters about. We can study the plants anytime."
"I know, I know!" said Alice. "But there's something off about all this."
"We're in a world of darkness," said Ron. "Of course there's something off about all this."
"No, I mean…" Alice trailed off. After a brief moment, she continued, "I don't know, there's something not right about this, besides the obvious. Something…unnerving."
"Monsters!" warned Thomas, pointing to the sky.
There were four strange creatures flying low over the group. They were not very big; they had heads like birds but their bodies were scaly and worm-like. Their small size had allowed them to escape detection until they were almost upon the heroes. Two of the creatures took in deep breaths and unleashed flames upon the four. The other two creatures flew at the group.
Alice had to drop her staff as one of the monsters flew at her. She slashed the creature across its midsection but with its agility it held up on its dive and took only a shallow wound. Just as quickly it swooped in and went at Alice with its beak. Its head bobbed back and forth with the speed of a woodpecker, raining a flurry of blows. Alice managed to block the first couple strikes with her shield but took hits to her arm and shoulder from the monster's piercing beak.
The other monster flew at Ron. Ron patiently waited for the creature to reach him but, like Alice, was surprised by its speed. It rained a flurry of beak attacks on him as well, getting past his defenses. However, it suffered some cuts to the head courtesy of Ron's Swordedge Armor. The creature cried out in pain and began to retreat but its surprise caused it to pause before doing so. Ron took advantage by cleaving the monster in half.
Suzanne ran at the monster that had attacked Alice. However, the creature was already retreating and was able to fly away, narrowly escaping Suzanne's sword. One of the creatures that was flying out of reach flew down. Suzanne blocked several of its attacks but also took some beak strikes to the shoulder. However, she managed to return the favor before the monster flew away again, taking its head clean off.
The two monsters that were in the air unleashed another blast of fire at the group. Unable to reach the creatures, the heroes unleashed a magical assault. Two streams of fire, a large explosion, and a large whirlwind converged on the creatures. The monsters were taken apart and seriously burned; their corpses fell to the ground.
"Damn it, I hate flying enemies!" cursed Ron. "Just come down here and fight instead of running away!"
"That was clever use of your sword," complimented Suzanne. "It's good that we can all attack enemies that are out of reach now."
"We're getting close to the desert," said Alice. "I heard the monsters are a bit stronger there."
At the end of the fourth day they made it to the desert. Finally, on the fifth day they reached the town of Hauksness. On first glance the town seemed to have as many people but much fewer buildings than Brecconaly. But the group quickly realized that this was because there were fewer people hiding indoors. The town had walls going around a portion of it but there were several buildings outside of the walls.
Inside the walls the four came across a man with a shovel that was digging. Suzanne approached the man to ask what he was doing.
"Excuse me, sir," said Suzanne. "What are you doing digging in the middle of town?"
"I'm looking for some oricon," replied the man. "I heard that some has been found in this town before."
"What is oricon?" asked Suzanne.
"It's an extremely valuable and extremely rare metal," said the man. "You could make a fortune selling it to some smith."
"But why in the middle of town?" asked Suzanne. "Wouldn't any oricon in the town have been found?"
"See, that's the thing," said the man, taking a break from his digging. "Nobody thinks to look in town. People like you have been giving me weird looks all day. Everybody just assumes that the town is off-limits so nobody has dug here. All the oricon has been found around the town in the various mines. But every so often a small amount of it is found in the city limits and I bet you the bigger yields will be here within the walls."
"And the city officials don't mind you doing this?" asked Suzanne.
"City officials?" said the man. "Bah! What good are they? You must be new around here. City officials are just like anyone else; they're only out for themselves. And the Master loves toying with the so-called 'keepers of the peace.' If someone goes too far in defending the innocent they'll go home one day to find their family dead. Nobody's going to risk detaining someone for digging if that's the price."
"I see. Sorry for bothering you," said Suzanne.
The four split up and gathered information in their usual ways. The group found that although the people felt freer to be outside in this town that the people of Hauksness still had their problems. Zoma had taken to attacking caravans and merchants going to and from Hauksness, especially those bringing food back. Food prices in the town were very high and many of the people looked unhealthily thin.
The heroes did find the shop sold some very high quality items. Wealthy merchants would buy Shields of Strength for their bodyguards. The well-made, magical shields were light and strong, like Suzanne's new shield but to a lesser degree. The group decided to buy one for Ron. Alice examined the shield and found that with a few command words the shields could heal their wielders when they were in trouble.
"It won't work unless you're in a fight," Alice explained. "It's enchanted to draw off the danger and violence of battle. Basically, you can use it to save you if you think your wounds will prevent you from finishing the fight."
As Ron was now more comfortable in playing for an audience, the group tried a new tactic in gathering information. Ron used the Echoing Flute to put on a show for a group of people at the local pub. Meanwhile, Suzanne and Alice went around the crowd interviewing people. Ron's performance made the people more at ease and thus more likely to share information. In particular, one middle-aged woman began a hushed conversation with the other three.
"You three came in with that young man, right?" said the woman.
"That is correct," answered Suzanne.
"You look like a powerful bunch," said the woman. "I'm going to let the lot of you in on a little secret but you have to swear not to tell anyone. Especially not to minions of Zoma."
"What is this secret about?" asked Thomas.
"Does it matter, Tom?" asked Alice.
"Of course it does," said Thomas. "What if her secret might have some benefit to the people of Alefgard? Would we be expected to keep from the people something that might help them in their struggle?"
"I assure you, good sir, my secret will not benefit most," said the woman. "I speak of a musical instrument; a flute such as the one your friend now plays. Most people, if they found it, would sell it. The minions of Zoma would likely destroy it. But a good musician like your friend there would be able to use the flute to do some good as he is now."
"That sounds reasonable to me," said Suzanne. "I promise to keep your secret. But are you sure you want to tell us? We are nothing more than strangers to you, after all."
"True, but I have a good feeling about you," said the woman. "And truth be told, I can't stand hanging onto this secret anymore, knowing that Zoma could strike me down at any time and the location of the flute would be lost forever. My late husband specifically told me I could not let that happen."
"You see, my husband was a great musician," explained the woman. "And he used a magical flute called the Fairy Flute. It is said the flute holds some great power; that it has a wonderful purpose that only someone playing the flute could fulfill. We never found out what it was."
"The Fairy Flute?" asked Alice. "We heard about that from Tracy!"
"I'm afraid I know not of the person you speak of," replied the woman. "But I imagine a few people still know of the Fairy Flute. My husband loved to talk about it to audience members that came up to talk with him. He would put on such grand performances. Then Zoma had him killed."
"My husband was also a wise man," continued the woman. "Towards the end he knew the worst was coming. He had me hide the flute and then flee lest the Master Archfiend's wrath find me too. Fortunately for me, I have no gift at giving the people happiness like my husband did. Zoma doesn't seem to have bothered with me at all."
Then the woman lowered her voice even further. "There is a public bathhouse in the town of Kol, far to the northeast of here. When I was sure nobody was looking I buried the Fairy Flute 40 feet south of the southern entrance. At the time, the spot was underneath some trees and obscured by bushes. I've never been back to Kol in 30 years so I know not if the trees and bushes still stand. But I'd stake my life that the flute is still there."
"Thank you for your information," replied Suzanne. "I promise you we will find your flute and use it for good."
"You have my gratitude, young lady," said the woman. "Now I must ask that you get away from me. You never know who among these people here serve Zoma."
The three heeded her words and left to talk to another group of people. However, a short amount of time later some guards came in. One of them bellowed out, "By order of Lord Belmont, this gathering is to be disbanded! All of you return to your homes! The exception is the newcomers, especially the man playing the flute! You are to come with us!"
There was some confusion and anger among the crowd. Then the guards began grabbing people and pushing them out the door. The four were worried that this would incite a riot, similar to at Tantegel Castle, but the people began leaving the pub with nothing more than some grumbling. The heroes remained as ordered, wondering what this Lord Belmont could want with them.
The guards said nothing further to the four. After some time, a well-dressed man appeared. Flanked by two bodyguards, he walked up to the four.
"So you are the newcomers stirring up trouble around here," said the man. "I am Belmont, mayor of Hauksness."
"Trouble!?" said Ron incredulously. "Only if making people happy is considered trouble!" Suzanne elbowed Ron.
"I assure you, you naïve young man, you were causing more trouble than happiness," said Belmont. "What would happen if the Master caught wind of your performance? It greatly disapproves of such hope being inspired among so many people. Hauksness has enough problems without gaining the Master's attention."
"So you want us to cease these activities?" asked Suzanne.
"I want you to leave," answered Belmont. He gestured towards Ron, "The people will remember his face, at least for a while. Some may even call for more performances. You may go on to put on such performances behind my back. I cannot have that. You are to leave Hauksness."
Ron was obviously still angry but kept his mouth shut. "Very well, Lord Belmont, we shall leave. We apologize for the trouble," Suzanne said.
The four immediately left Hauksness. Ron was still fuming.
"I can't believe this!" said Ron. "Thrown out for making the people too happy? That is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard! What kind of leader would keep his people from getting too happy, especially in a land like this?"
"Is it any different than what King Raosu said to us?" asked Thomas. "Remember what Welcome told us, 'You'd best forget all humor and happiness.' We originally thought Welcome was extraordinarily pessimistic but it seems there is some truth to his words. Bert tried to be helpful and as soon as he made a difference by helping us find the Shield of Heroes he was brutally murdered. Doubtless, Bert's tragedy is not the only such incident. The people have learned not to let on any sort of happiness."
"Bah! That might keep them safe for now but how will it help things going forward?" asked Ron. "If they ever want things to get better around here they have to be willing to take some risk. After all, what have we been doing this whole time?"
"It's easier for us because we are quite capable in a fight," replied Thomas. "How many people could have defeated those bird-dragon things we fought two days ago? They would need a large group of fighters and several would die in the battle."
"But purposefully keeping the people from getting a few laughs and smiles?" asked Ron. "That's not going to help things going forward!"
"I think we can all agree on that, Ron," said Suzanne. "But there's nothing to be done about it for the moment. If we try to force ourselves back into Hauksness it'll cause quite a ruckus. Seeing us openly defy the authorities may spur the people into a riot. Though he may seem cowardly it seems to me that Lord Belmont is trying to protect his people. The best thing we can do is continue our quest and make it so that one day there isn't a Master Archfiend to be afraid of."
"Fine," conceded Ron. "Anyway, I heard something interesting while I was performing."
"What's that?" asked Suzanne.
"Some guy came up to me and requested a song called, "The Light That Never Fades,'" Ron answered. "I told him that I'd never heard of it before. He told me he came from the world above; from the wild lands on the northeastern portion of the Zilcof continent. East of the empire and north of the river where we met Gerule."
"Huh, we've never been there," said Alice. "One of the few regions in the world above we've never visited actually."
"He said among his village there was a song about this great light that comes from a sphere," explained Ron. "A light which can never be hidden or darkened. He often finds himself thinking of that sphere of light ever since he got stuck down here."
"Another legend to chase after?" asked Thomas.
"Not enough information," said Suzanne. "And I don't know what use such a sphere would be to us. After all, what greater sphere of light is there than the sun? Zoma has darkened that."
"It might serve as a sort of symbol to the people, at least," Alice suggested. "Something to brighten their days."
"It would more likely serve as a giant target for Zoma," said Thomas. "I can't imagine it would like such a light source in this world of darkness and it'd be easy to find whoever owned it."
"If we find more information about it we can look into it," said Suzanne. "But we'll stick with what we know for right now. Let's be off to Cantlin."