Chapter 37: Hope From an Unlikely Source
Snow began falling in large amounts around the area. The four had intended to travel to the city of Rimuldar to the northeast but the snow put a hold on their plans. They would have had to travel through the mountains to the north to do so and the snow would make such travel nearly impossible. The group decided it would not be worth the risk.
Instead, the heroes stayed in Cantlin and continued trying to gain information. Suzanne, Thomas, and Alice spent nearly every day in the libraries trying to learn about the Armor of Radiance and, more importantly, about Zoma. Unfortunately, they found their search frustrating and unfruitful.
Meanwhile, Ron focused on talking with the people of Cantlin. Despite the warnings of Suzanne and Thomas, Ron also began playing his flute to try and cheer up the city. He even teamed up with Garin to put on performances. This led to more arguments with Thomas.
"Well, well, who would have seen this coming," said Ron, gloating one day. "The constable came up to talk to Garin and me today. He appreciates the work we're doing here. Doesn't seem like we'll be getting kicked out after all."
Thomas said nothing in response. Ron decided to continue, "So let me ask you, Tom, what have you and all your precious research been accomplishing?"
"Don't be so proud of your little concerts," responded Thomas. "We still see the people as we move around the city. You cheer up a relatively small group for an evening but you're hardly lifting the depression from this city."
"I'm doing more than you are!" said Ron. "At least some people are getting cheered up! It takes time to lift such a cloud of depression from over such a large city!"
"And it takes time to find and learn information!" returned Thomas.
"Face it, Tom! You were wrong. You and Susie," accused Ron.
Ron and Thomas continued to argue for a time until Suzanne came from the other room and broke up the fight. Things did not improve between Ron and Thomas from there. The two would not speak to each other unless absolutely necessary. Ron even became mad at Suzanne, accusing her of always taking Thomas's side.
Soon enough, a month had passed. Suzanne, Thomas, and Alice would sometimes take trips to Tantegel to cross-reference with the libraries there but they were still no closer to finding the Armor of Radiance or any other facts that could help against Zoma. The group became increasingly frustrated and unfocused in their efforts. Alice was spending more and more time studying at the indoor park. Thomas would sometimes take days off from research to go to the houses of healing. Like the rest of Cantlin, many of the city's healers no longer had the will to work. Thus, Thomas would sometimes go to a healing house only to find himself the only healer working there, with more than enough people to tend to.
Suzanne was not exempt from these effects either. She found herself thinking more and more of her father. It had been nearly two months since the group had heard his name mentioned by one of the clerics in Tantegel. At the time she had kept herself focused and did not consider the possibility that he might be alive. He was dead, and had been for over four years.
But now with their task going so slowly and the group's focus waning Suzanne had little to distract herself with. She wondered if it was possible that Ortega was still alive. Could he be wondering this bleak world, looking for a way to defeat Zoma, as Suzanne and her group were? If they could find him would he join them and give them the guidance and hope they needed right now? Or would he also be feeling the weight of this world's hopelessness coming down on him?
Somehow, Suzanne doubted that. She found it hard to think of her father growing depressed and hopeless even given what she saw day after day in Cantlin. It had been over nine years since she had last seen her father. She wondered if her ideas of him were unrealistic given that she was only a child when she last saw him. Surely he must have had doubts and fears, like any other person. But Suzanne could only think of the shining leader that her father always had seemed around her, the man her mother had spoken of with great pride even years after he had left.
"Dad, I wish you were here now. I wish you could show me what to do," Suzanne found herself thinking.
It was at that moment she remembered the beginning of her journey. Specifically, she was thinking of the words that the king of Aliahan had said to her when she had requested that Aliahan be unsealed.
"But what happens when you are cornered on all sides by vile beasts and all hope appears gone?" he had asked. "Will you continue your quest?"
Suzanne's reverie was broken as Alice came into the library crying. She had been spending more time in the Cantlin park. She did not appear to be injured. However, given the situation in Cantlin Suzanne could think of any number of things that could have upset her friend.
"What's wrong, Alice?" Suzanne asked.
Alice was so upset she struggled to get the words out at first. Eventually she had a coherent answer, "It's the plants!" she said. "They're just like everything else in this world!"
"What do you mean?" asked Suzanne, confused.
"I've been wondering what keeps the plants of this world alive," explained Alice. "I've been studying the plants in the park for the past month or so. They're being kept alive by malevolent energy!"
"What did you mean when you said, 'They're just like everything else in this world?'" asked Suzanne.
"They don't want to live," answered Alice. "The energy sustains them but it's not how they were meant to be. It leaves them suffering, pining for the light of a sun. That's why the Cantlin park is so unnerving. That's why the plants of this world have been unnerving since the start! They resent being alive! They are forced to continue with this existence for Zoma's pleasure!"
"Why would Zoma want the plants to live?" asked Suzanne. "I wouldn't think the Master Archfiend would enjoy the scenery."
"Plants are necessary to keep other creatures alive, including humans," explained Alice. "They are kept alive that the people here may live. And the people here live as playthings for Zoma!"
"Calm down, Alice," urged Suzanne. "Maybe it's just the plants here. We never found the plants and grass in other areas all that unnerving. It was just in the park here. Perhaps it was cursed."
"I could find no sign of curses," said Alice. "And I examined some plants outside the park. It was all the same! Everything in this world exists for Zoma's amusement! Even us!"
"Us? But we're still new to this world. And we're hardly suffering," said Suzanne.
"But this is how it begins," said Alice. "We've been working for about a month to try and find more information. Yet we've found nothing! This quest for the Armor of Radiance is probably a fool's errand! Something like Zoma probably found it and destroyed it a long time ago! It controls everything here! It knows everything that happens here!"
"No it doesn't," said Suzanne, defiantly. "This depressing city is getting to us. Like you said, we've spent a month here. We should take a break. Perhaps return to our world so we can see the sun again. We'll do no good down here if we fall into the same depression that this world's denizens have. And it's Ron's birthday soon! We could have a celebration for him! That'd cheer him up too. How does that sound?"
Alice did not answer but continued to sniffle. At the very least her tears had stopped for the moment. She nodded her head.
However, Ron was nowhere to be found over the next few days. He did not return to the inn and he could not be found in the places where he and Garin would usually perform. The other three searched for their friend but to no avail. Garin had no idea where to find Ron either.
"What if he's been taken by agents of Zoma?" asked Alice.
"There's no evidence to suggest that. From what we've seen, agents of Zoma like to be rather boisterous when they kill someone," said Suzanne. "Let's just focus on finding him."
They finally heard from him on his birthday. He left a message for them at the inn where they had been staying. The message read, "Gone to celebrate my birthday. Don't look for me."
"'Don't look for me?'" echoed Alice. "What does that mean? We were going to celebrate his birthday together!"
"It means he has left us," said Thomas. "Whether he actually comes back or not is left to be seen."
"What if this note was just left here to throw us off?" asked Alice. "He could be in trouble and this note is meant to stop our searching for him!"
"It's his handwriting," noted Suzanne. "And he has been acting distant to us recently. Maybe he just needs some time to himself. Though, I do wish he would have at least stayed to be teleported to the upper world. We still could have let him be alone up there. I don't think he'll find cheer in this world."
"In any case," said Suzanne, "We should return to the upper world for now."
"What?" asked Alice. "Without Ron?"
"We don't know where he is," replied Suzanne. "We can leave a note for him. If he returns we can take him to the upper world and give him a proper celebration, if he wishes. But for now, it's clear we need a break from this bleak place."
Alice screamed, "It seems like you've just written Ron off, Susie! You're not even bothering to look for him!"
"What do you think we've been doing the last few days?" asked Suzanne, also growing angry. "Fact is, we have no leads. There's not much we can do to look for him."
"We've had no leads on this research you've made us do for the past month yet we keep pressing on with that!" replied Alice.
"Look, Alice," said Suzanne, "We need to calm down. This world is having an effect on us; it's making us more frustrated and depressed. We should take a break in the upper world and then we can think about this situation with clear minds."
Alice was hearing none of this, "What's the point? Zoma is coming for the upper world soon enough! Our whole world will look like this miserable place! Why bother leaving?" With that she stormed out.
The next couple days saw no return of Ron. Alice refused to leave Cantlin. She tried using any magic she could think of on his note to try and track him down. However, no magic she knew of could trace Ron's movements after he left the note behind. This left Alice depressed. She no longer had the will to search for Ron or to continue research at the city libraries.
Since Alice refused to leave and was the only one who could return the group to the upper world, Suzanne and Thomas were also left in Alefgard. Stuck in the dark world, Suzanne found the depression getting to her as well. She renewed her search for Ron at first but quickly became discouraged. She was even less successful than Alice. Then she tried to study at the libraries again but found her thoughts kept drifting back to her father, wondering how he would handle the situation and whether he could be alive. Thomas decided to spend all his time at the local houses of healing and was hardly seen by the other two over the next few days.
One day, Alice took a walk outside the walls of Cantlin. She could not handle it inside the city anymore. Seeing the people of the town consumed by their own depression had become too much. Further, she could not bear to be anywhere near the park. However, she was also aware that underneath the snow she walked on were grass and plants that hated their own existence. Whether it was plant or person, all were toys for Zoma and the thought made Alice sick.
Alice walked near the construction that had been planned for the fortress. The sight did nothing for her hopes. It was like a monument to the city's despair. A project had been started with hope and determination. The Master Archfiend had saw fit to put an end to such hope, leaving the construction abandoned in the snow.
Then Alice saw a curious sight. There was an old man standing along near some of the construction. Using magic, he was taking bricks from the site and stacking them on each other. He would cast some spells to lock them in place. More curious was that Alice could not figure out what he was making. He had made two piles of brick that converged to hold up one larger pile.
If nothing else, the man's work was a distraction from Alice's other, darker thoughts. She approached the man and asked, "Sir, what is it that you're doing here?"
So focused was the man that he hardly looked up at first. "I'm working on creating a monster."
Alice's hand went to her sword. Could this man be a minion of Zoma's, working brazenly right outside the town? She did not draw her weapon yet but pressed on her questioning, "A monster? Why would you want to create a monster?"
"It'll be a monster that protects this town," explained the man. "If I could, I'd build up the walls that they were working on here. But I am no expert on construction and even with magic a structure built wrong is hardly worth building. Thus, I decided that I could use the stuff here to make something more within my expertise. They've just left it lying around here anyway."
"Can you create a monster powerful enough to protect this town?" asked Alice.
"Not without something to help it," answered the man. "I believe I can create a great monster, a monster that could fight through a number of foes. But against a concentrated assault it would eventually fall."
"Then what is the point?" asked Alice. "Why undertake a project that will inevitably fail?"
"Better than spending all day feeling sorry for myself like everyone else here," answered the man. "My monster may not end up meaning much in the scheme of things. But if the people here got their acts together and got back to work then my monster would mean quite a lot. By itself, it could be taken down with a sufficiently large force. But what if construction was renewed here? What if the people worked together to make this city great like it once was? If this monster stood before the walls with men and women at its back willing to fight then it will be a significant contribution to the city's defense."
"I suppose this doesn't mean much with the city like it is," continued the man. "So I guess part of me hopes that the people will see me working out here. Not because I was forced but because I chose to. I'm working out here of my own will trying to make something for the city and its people. If other people see that maybe it will convince them to get up and do something too. It's a long shot but, like I said, I'd much rather this than moping all day."
"Wow, sir," said Alice. "You're one of the few here I've seen who think like that."
"Thanks, young miss," answered the man. "So if you could spread the word, tell the people that I'll need some help to make this monster of mine useful, I would appreciate that."
"I will, sir," answered Alice. "My name is Alice. What is your name?"
"Torin," answered the man.
"And your monster's name?" asked Alice.
"My monster's name?" asked Torin, confused.
"Of course! It should have a name!" said Alice.
"Hmm, I never thought of that," said Torin. "But I suppose you're right." Torin stopped to think for a moment.
"I know!" he said after a few moments. "I'll name the monster Golem!"
"That sounds like a good name!" said Alice.
The two chatted for a while and then Torin resumed his work. Alice decided to help him. The two discussed techniques for building the monster and Alice suggested some magic and enchantments to add to its construction. She spent much of the day working with Torin on the creation of Golem.
The work had a rejuvenating effect on Alice. As the day drew to a close she went back inside the city walls. She was inspired by Torin's work and hoped others would feel the same. Alice tracked down Garin as he was giving one of his performances. She told Garin about Torin working outside and asked him to make a song about him. Her hope was that Garin could share Torin's story with the rest of Cantlin and that this would finally convince them to work again.
After that, she returned to the inn. Suzanne and Thomas were both there.
"I'm sorry, Susie," said Alice. "I shouldn't have yelled at you the other day. I know you would never abandon Ron."
"Don't worry about it, Alice," said Suzanne. "And not everything you said was wrong. I did give up too easily on finding Ron. Just like I gave up too easily on him lifting the people's spirits after Hauksness. I became so focused on our quest I forgot about the people involved. Above all else, our mission is to help the people."
"It's alright, Susie," replied Alice. "You weren't completely wrong either. The best way to help the people is to stop Zoma and we need to figure out how to do that."
"All of our approaches had their merits," said Suzanne.
"And you were also right about the effect this world is having on us," said Alice. "We should definitely return to the upper world tomorrow."
The three slept through the night. The next morning they were treated to a welcome sight as they entered the lobby of the inn. Ron was sitting at one of the tables. The other three were shocked to see him. Ron got up and walked over to his friends.
"Hey guys," he said nervously. "How's it going?"
"Where have you been?" demanded Alice, already angry.
"Calm down, Alice," said Suzanne. "Getting into another argument won't help anything."
"No, she's right," admitted Ron. "I've been acting like a child. I didn't get my way so I ran away. Somehow I convinced myself that you guys didn't appreciate me and that you were ganging up on me. Stupid, I know."
"Don't be so hard on yourself," said Suzanne. "We were wrong too. We should have let you play your music from the beginning. We could've gotten past the authorities trying to get rid of us. Not that many in this city would bother trying."
"In any case," continued Suzanne. "We're glad you're back."
Ron turned towards Thomas. "I'm especially sorry for how harshly I treated you, Tom. I know you just did what you thought was best."
Thomas shook his head. "You were harsh towards me? I'm the harsh one in this group. Always grumpy and getting everyone down. It is I who should apologize to you."
Alice could not help but laugh. "Geez, guys! Listen to us! Everyone falling over each other apologizing! Where are the arguments, the good-natured teasing?"
"Finally, some laughter," said Suzanne with a smile. "There's been too little of that lately. We've been talking recently about how depressing this world is. We were going to take a break from Alefgard and go back to our world today."
"Before we do that, we should head back to Brecconaly," said Ron. "I went back there on my birthday and couldn't bring myself back to this depressing city for a while. Then I ran into someone who snapped me out of it. He's…well I think it'd be easiest if I just brought you to meet him."
"Okay then," said Suzanne. "Back to Brecconaly then."
Reunited, the heroes returned to Brecconaly. Ron led the group to one of the healing houses. He had a few words with one of the workers there who allowed the four to go upstairs. Ron went to a door and knocked on it. A raspy voice granted the group admittance.
The man inside was a somewhat larger man though he looked to have seen better days. He looked like he had not had enough to eat in some time and his skin was hanging off his bones. Further, the group could see numerous bruises and boils on the man.
"So, ya brought 'em back, Ron," said the man. "I don't imagine they recognize me either."
"Have we met before?" asked Suzanne.
"Ya," answered the man with a slight smile. "Not under the best of circumstances. I'm Kandar."
The other three gasped at the revelation. Kandar had been a large, muscular, and healthy man. His voice had been loud and boisterous. The man in front of them was large, but still smaller than Kandar had been. His voice was quiet and raspy and he was far from in good health.
"The blue paint," said Thomas. "Is that what did this to you?"
"Ya," answered Kandar. "Worst experience I'd ever had. Once that paint wore off…the pain was indescribable. I don't know how I survived. My body hasn't been the same since. It's like the paint made me heal quicker but after it wore off it had the opposite effect."
"How did you end up here?" asked Alice.
"Believe it or not, I went lookin' for ya guys," answered Kandar. "When ya fought against the Archfiend. I wanted to find ya and make amends. Got chased around by some monsters into some cave. Next thing I know I fell here."
"You went to the Necrogond alone!? In your condition!?" asked Thomas.
Kandar chuckled. It was a sad-sounding chuckle. "Maybe it wasn't ya guys I wanted. Maybe I just wanted to end it. I don't know."
"But then I came here," continued Kandar. "I see the people goin' around in their lives. They keep going, most of 'em anyway, despite all the bad that happens. Seein' that, I couldn't keep feelin' sorry for myself. So I've been tryin' to live an honest life working at the house of healing here. I ain't the best worker but I give it a try."
"Wow, that's very good of you," said Suzanne.
"Nothin' compared to the bad stuff I did," said Kandar. "But it's weird. Most people who fall here get depressed. Me, I just figured I got things better than most of the people here so I better not mope around."
"Considering what you must have suffered, I'm not sure you have things better," said Thomas. "But for you to continue on with hope is quite admirable."
"Thanks," said Kandar. "Anyway, you guys ever hear of the Stones of Sunlight?"
"We heard about them in Cantlin!" said Alice excitedly. "How do you know about them?"
"Oh, I don't know much," said Kandar. "Just rumors and bits here and there. Some say they're the key to ending the unending darkness of this land. Others say they can kill Zoma. Some just say the come in handy if your lantern's out. In any case, they sounded important. And when I heard about some group with some legendary shield around I got curious. When I heard the descriptions, I know it was ya guys. And I figure ya guys would know what to do with a mysterious, important item."
"You're giving us the Stones of Sunlight?" asked Suzanne.
"Well, I'm not, but I got a bud at the castle that has 'em," answered Kandar. "Don't worry, they're not stolen. Ya can even take them to the authorities if ya want! But I had a word with him and he agreed to give 'em to ya if ya showed up. Funnily enough, he has been using 'em when his lantern goes out!"
"How do you know they are the Stones of Sunlight?" asked Suzanne. "And if they are the Stones, why did he use them as a lantern if they're supposed to be so legendary?"
"Well if ya haven't noticed, most folk in Alefgard like to keep out of sight," said Kandar. "Getting' noticed by the people will get ya noticed by Zoma a lot of the time. He figures he has the Stones but doesn't want Zoma's goons comin' to his home to kill his family. Actually, he's glad to be rid of 'em as long as the exchange is discreet."
"I don't know what to say," said Suzanne. "Thank you Kandar. Despite your past, it seems like you are trying to be a good person."
"Thanks, but I know I got a long way to go yet," said Kandar.