Chapter 8: Following in the Footsteps
"Do you guys realize how long we've been at this?" asked Alice.
"This is the third day, isn't it?" asked Suzanne. "It hasn't been that long of a trip."
"No, not this trip, I mean our whole journey, since we got permission from the king to break the seal on Aliahan," said Alice.
"We've been in the empire for about a month and a half," replied Ron. "And it took about two weeks for us to break the seal and get here. So I guess it's been two months already."
"This is our 64th day, to be exact," corrected Alice.
After a brief pause to figure out the date, Suzanne came to a realization, "Tom, isn't your birthday in two days?"
Thomas grumbled something unintelligible at the mention of the day.
Alice shook her head at Thomas' reaction, "Tom, you are too young to be dreading your birthday already."
"Just another year closer to death," Thomas grumbled.
Ron laughed gave Thomas a nice pat on the shoulder, "What is it, your 18th? I think you've still got some years left in you. Hey, here's an idea. Assaram is supposed to be a pretty happening place. Why don't we take a day off and celebrate? We'll arrive midday tomorrow, so we can get done what we need to and have the whole next day."
"Not to belittle Tom's birthday, but you know we're working against the clock right?" Suzanne asked.
"Come on, Susie! As our living calendar just told us, we've been hard at work for over two months! A single day isn't going to make much of a difference," Ron protested.
"I have to agree, I think we could use a day off," said Alice.
"Guys, we've got some large creatures ahead!" Thomas warned.
In the distance the group could see two large creatures making their way towards them. The creatures were covered in red-orange fur. They had arms and legs, but crawled around on their arms as much as they did on their legs.
"Those things are huge!" exclaimed Ron.
"I've read about such creatures before," began Alice. "They're called apes. But I swear the books didn't say they'd be that big!"
"Well it's not like we haven't fought giant monster versions of animals before," said Suzanne.
Suddenly, Thomas tackled Suzanne to the ground just before a brown almost man-sized flying creature could hit her. As the creature swooped back around, the group could see that it was a large cat that had wings between its arms and legs.
"Ron, we're going to have to hold off the apes! Thomas and Alice, you keep the flyer off our backs!" ordered Suzanne.
Ron and Suzanne met the apes with their weapons. Both of them dealt solid slices to the creatures, but the apes had great endurance. Ron narrowly ducked under a swipe from his foe while Suzanne was sent flying after being caught by her opponent.
Thomas and Alice kept their attention on the flying cat. The cat stayed in the air out of Thomas' reach while it prepared a spell. Alice was also preparing a spell but unfortunately, the cat finished its spell first. The group was once again engulfed in the strange energy waves of a spell-stopping spell.
"Dammit!" Alice yelled, after finishing her spell only to have it contained by the cat's spell.
The cat swooped down and charged at Alice. She threw herself to the ground but still took a bite to the shoulder. However, the cat made itself vulnerable in going to the ground. Thomas gave the creature a slice to its own shoulder before it could retreat back to the air. It almost fell to the ground but managed to regain its altitude.
After taking a blow to the leg from the ape he was fighting, Ron stabbed the creature square in the chest. He quickly got out of the way as the large being fell to the ground dead. Suzanne managed to roll under her opponent and crawl on its back. Before the creature could throw Suzanne off, she stabbed her foe in the head. She quickly jumped off as the creature fell and made sure it was dead before moving on.
Thomas watched the flying cat carefully as it circled above. Suddenly, the creature came down hard on Thomas. Thomas jumped to meet the cat and caught its claws to his midsection. However, he was rewarded when he stuck his sickle through its back and out its front. Both combatants fell to the ground. Alice quickly ran over and finished the creature with her knife.
After the fight, Thomas quickly made his rounds healing the group of their wounds. Everyone had taken a good hit in the melee.
"Damn those things can hit hard," complained Ron.
"I hate when monsters seal spells!" Alice chipped in.
"They made a good team," observed Suzanne. "The apes for the main combat force and the flying cat for support."
"If monsters keep working together like that, our journey is going to get a lot tougher," said Thomas.
"Could this be the power of the Archfiend?" asked Ron.
"We're still a good distance away from southern Tarasia, where Emperor Vilisik said it's set up shop," explained Alice. "Though I suppose it's possible its influence extends a good distance from there."
The group made it to the trading town of Assaram midway through the next day. Assaram was a prosperous town on the border of the Romalian Empire and the Kingdom of Isis. Since the two nations enjoyed a friendly alliance, Assaram had grown on the business the two had with each other. Although technically within the empire, Assaram featured citizens from both nations. Besides that, Isis even had a hand in making laws and policies in Assaram.
The main reason the group had planned on stopping in Assaram was to buy new equipment. In their recent adventures within the empire, the group had accumulated a good sum of money. Assaram offered top-notch goods from both nations, though at a high price. Besides that, Suzanne was curious about what she heard in Noaniels about her father. She wanted to investigate what he had done in Assaram.
The group decided to split up for the rest of the day. Ron and Alice went through the equipment shops looking for good deals.
"You've got some experience in negotiating prices right?" Ron asked.
"Of course. I always found all the best deals back in Aliahan," Alice bragged.
"Good. Apparently, the shop keepers here try to take people on a ride. From what I've heard, we could spend all the money we've gotten on a single piece of equipment," Ron explained.
Alice laughed, "There were some merchants like that in Aliahan too. Remember Bill?"
At the mention of Bill's name, Ron laughed as well, "Oh come on. Bill is an extreme case. That man's one love is gold."
"I wouldn't mind seeing Bill again. Hey maybe we should spend our day off in Aliahan and celebrate Tom's birthday with him. It'd only take a couple of teleportation spells to make the round trip," Alice suggested.
"I don't think so. Tom was never fond of Bill. You can ask him if you want though," Ron said.
Alice shook her head, "Nah, I think I'll try not to piss him off today or tomorrow."
The two came to an equipment vendor who gave them a grand smile at their approach. "Ah, my good friends! Welcome to my store! I'm sure you will find what you need here!" the man greeted enthusiastically.
"Find something you want, but don't act like you want it," Alice whispered to Ron.
The man had some excellent pieces of equipment for sale. Ron saw a large axe displayed behind the counter and asked to see it. The man pulled out an axe he had chained to the counter and allowed Ron to look at it. Ron looked at the craftsmanship of the axe and gave it a couple small practice swings. Although Ron was impressed with the axe, he made sure not to let the shopkeeper know. Ron whispered his opinion to Alice and Alice began to deal.
"This isn't too bad a weapon. It's a little slower and duller than what we're used to, but it's some of the best we've seen so far around here. What's the price?" Alice asked.
"You've got good eyes, miss! That is a fine weapon indeed. And for only 10,000 gold, this piece of fine craftsmanship can be yours, my friends!" the shopkeeper replied eagerly.
Alice gave the man an eyebrow and said, "I don't have the best sense of humor. I ask again, what is the price?"
The man laughed at Alice's reply, "Yes, yes, yes. Sorry for the jest. Its real price is 6,000 gold."
Now it was Alice who laughed, "For this? Really? We've bought far better weapons than this for far less."
"I assure you, my friend, that is a fair price for such a fine piece of equipment. But since you are my good friends, I'll lower the price. 4,000," the man replied, beginning to sound less eager and happy than he did a few seconds ago.
Alice motioned for Ron to put the axe down and to start leaving. "I can see there's no reasoning with you. We'll be on our way," she said.
"Wait, wait!" yelled the merchant. "You know if I lower the price any more, I'll lose money!" When Alice and Ron started to turn around again, the merchant stopped them, "Wait! You are my wonderful friends. I'll let you have it for 2,500."
Alice thought about the offer for a little bit and then answered, "Fine, we'll take it." She got out the money and paid the man. The man went into his back room and brought out another axe. After Ron made sure it was of the same quality of the one the man let him examine, the two went on their way.
"Well, nobody here has heard of Ortega either. I wonder if he did ever come here after that key?" Suzanne said, after she and Thomas had asked around at their third pub of the day.
"I'm sorry miss, did you mention someone coming here over a key?" asked a man at the next table.
"Yes. His name was Ortega, have you heard of him?" Suzanne asked the man.
The man shook his head, "Name doesn't ring a bell. But I might still be able to help. Was he after a magic key?"
"That's what I heard," answered Suzanne.
"We used to have a fellow or two come here looking for a magic key. Not here though. It's in the pyramid in the kingdom of Isis," said the man.
"What's the pyramid?" asked Suzanne.
"It's a great structure that the people built to bury dead rulers in. That's all I know," answered the man.
"Hmm, thank you for the information," said Suzanne.
"That's rather convenient," said Thomas. "It seems that your father's next destination may have been on our way."
"Yeah," answered Suzanne. "It's kind of funny really. It's almost like we're retracing his steps."
"That bothers you, doesn't it?" Thomas asked.
Suzanne sighed, "It does. As far as we've ever heard, my father never met with much success. He hardly ever got to talk to any leaders and usually only got laughed and scorned by other people. Much like how we were treated in the elven territory. If we're going down the same path he is, will we meet with any more success?"
"You forget, we've already met with more success. The Romalian Empire has already promised to support us on our cause, even promoted one of us to its leader for a time. By the sounds of it, the Kingdom of Isis will also agree with us," Thomas said.
Suzanne shook her head, "But we've seen how Emperor Vilisik acts. He's young and, as we've seen, sometimes foolish. Isis is a desert country made of towns and villages that often can only survive, much less prosper. And we still know very little about the Archfiend. But by the looks of how monsters have been behaving, its powers are already affecting lands far away from its land."
"You're right. We've made a step towards our goal, but it's only a step. We've got a long ways to go and who knows if we'll be successful in the end. But that doesn't mean we should give up. The key to finishing a big task is often to think of one step at a time, rather than look ahead and see how much still needs to be done," Thomas explained.
Suzanne smiled, "Thanks for the pep talk. If you don't mind me saying, that's a lot more positive than how you usually see things."
"Not really," Thomas argued. "I've always had respect for life. That is essentially what our journey is. Just as our task may seem long and bleak, so is life. All life ends eventually. At the worst times, we wonder what the point is. Many wise men have tried to answer that question. But one things sure, we can always accomplish things before the end. That's just like our journey. We may be doomed to fail, but we can still do some good before that happens."
The group was outfitted with new equipment by the end of day. Suzanne and Ron got full plate armor and iron helmets, along with the axe Ron got and a new broadsword for Suzanne. Thomas also got a new iron helmet and an iron spear. The group spent the next day as planned celebrating Thomas' birthday. To Ron's dismay, the group did not go to see Assaram's belly-dancing girls.
The group went southwest towards the Great Isis Desert. It was a day and a half's trip to get to the desert. The group found the heat of the desert to be difficult to travel in. They made sure to pack a great amount of water for the journey.
"My goodness, I've never felt such heat!" exclaimed Alice.
"That's funny, because I wasn't aware you were walking around encased in metal," replied Ron.
"Hey, you've got padding in your armor! It's not like the hot metal is touching your skin!" retorted Alice.
"Because not feeling the hot metal directly on the skin means that it doesn't make the person any hotter of course," said Ron.
Suzanne decided to put a slight change on the subject, "Actually, this reminds me of the heat wave we had two years ago."
"Thanks for the reminder," said Thomas. "I got a crash course on how to deal with heat stroke that year."
"Uh, we've got something guys!" warned Ron.
Suddenly, four huge green crabs unearthed themselves out of the sand. Three of them lunged for the group and were met by the blades of Suzanne, Ron, and Thomas. All three struck their targets, but found the creatures' tough natural armor difficult to get past. Thomas' attack was completely turned aside while Suzanne and Ron managed minor hits on their foes.
Alice finished casting her stronger stream of fire spell on the creatures. The two wounded by Suzanne and Ron fell dead while the one that hung back took serious burns. However, the one Thomas failed to wound took the flames on its armor and did not appear hurt at all. The one that hung back finished a spell of its own and both its friend and itself were engulfed in a bright yellow light.
"They've enhanced their armor!" yelled Alice, recognizing the spell. Ron ran at the wounded crab and tried to finish it, only to find his blade turned aside. Suzanne and Thomas stopped the unwounded one from going at Alice, but Thomas got caught by the creature's pincer on the arm. Both Suzanne and Thomas were unable to harm the beast.
Alice sent a bolt of ice at the wounded one, finishing it. Thomas disengaged from the beast and cast a spell of his own, engulfing the creature in a purple light. The creature could now be harmed again, as Ron and Suzanne combined to finish it. After the fight, Thomas went on his routine healing trip among the group.
"Damn those creatures were invincible after they cast that spell!" Ron said.
"Not if you've got magic on your side," said Alice.
Suzanne looked at the creatures and came up with an idea, "Thomas, next time we see those things you should see if you can seal their magic. They're tough to harm even without that spell, but at least they still can be."
"That is assuming they can be affected by that spell," replied Thomas. "That one took no damage from Alice's spell."
"It got lucky," said Alice indignantly.
"I am Queen Calasta of the Kingdom of Isis. I thank you for delivering to me the message from Emperor Vilisik of the Romalian Empire. From that message I have read that you four have a request for me and my kingdom," greeted the queen.
"We do, your Majesty," replied Suzanne. "I'm guessing you've heard of the Archfiend?"
After the queen nodded, Suzanne continued, "We are trying to forge a coalition between the human nations. We all know the history and legends of Archfiends in the past. Only through cooperation can we conquer this threat. Emperor Vilisik has already agreed to such an arrangement. Will you join such a group?"
"A hallow question," answered the queen. "We share a border with the Archfiend. We have heard of what the monster has done to southern Tarasia. We are allies with the Romalian Empire. Their enemies are ours. Their coalition is also ours. But for the sake of formality, yes, we shall join this coalition."
"We did not mean to offend, your Majesty," Suzanne apologized.
"No, it is I who must apologize. So many assume that I am on this throne because of my beauty. But what becomes of such beauty, that will only rot away? I can see that you are not one of these that think so," said Queen Calasta.
"We thank you, your Majesty. Is there some way we can repay you?" asked Suzanne.
The queen thought about Suzanne's offer and then answered, "Continue your journey. Rally others to this cause. You are right. Only through cooperation can we conquer this threat."
"I heard from a man in Assaram about a structure in Isis called the pyramid. Could you show me where I can find a book on it?" asked Thomas.
Suzanne and Thomas were once again on the search for rumors and news of Ortega's journey. Suzanne had decided to talk to people in the local gathering places while Thomas went to the library.
"You're one of those treasure hunters I'm guessing?" asked the librarian. "That place has been looted out of everything it once had. The only things you'll find are traps and monsters."
Thomas glared at the librarian, "No, I'm not a treasure hunter. One of my friends' fathers was on a journey. We've been trying to find out what he did on his journey."
"So he was a treasure hunter?" asked the librarian.
Thomas was angry now, "No. He probably decided he needed the key for his journey, to get past magical barriers."
"Magical barriers that protect treasure vaults?" asked the librarian.
"You know what, never mind!" yelled Thomas. "I'll find the damned book myself!"
"That pyramid's been looted so many times, I'm surprised any treasure hunters come around here anymore," said the bard.
Suzanne was talking with a bard hanging around the oasis that went through the castle town. One of the reasons that the castle town had been built where it was and had grown prosperous was the oasis. It gave water to people living in an area otherwise scarce for water. Besides going for water, people often liked to hang around the oasis.
"If it's a treasure you want, you should look for the Meteorite Armband. It greatly enhances the speed of whoever wears it," continued the bard.
"I'm not a treasure hunter. I was wondering if a man named Ortega ever came around this region," explained Suzanne.
The bard shook his head, "I've never heard of anyone named Ortega. I'm sorry."
"Everything's going well now. Two nations have agreed to join their forces!" exclaimed Alice.
"Well, Isis was practically a given. Like the queen pointed out, she really had very little choice. Our next destination will not be so easy to convince. Portoga and Romaly do not share good realtions. Emperor Vilisik's endorsement could actually work against us," answered Ron.
"We don't have to tell the ruler of Portoga that we have the emperor on our side," pointed out Suzanne.
Thomas shook his head, "Because he's so much more likely to listen to us without some form of credentials."
"We'll have to worry about all that later. Just getting to Portoga could be difficult. The border between the two countries is closed off. No ships go between the two either," said Ron.
The group journeyed to the Romaly-Portoga border. They came to a small building on the river that served as part of the border. As they entered, they found one guard on duty. He was wearing the golden armor of the empire, but was sitting at a desk doing paperwork. He paid no attention to the four as they came in. Suzanne went up to him to get his attention.
"Excuse me, we were hoping we could go to Portoga," she said.
The man didn't even look up as he replied, "Rule is, if you can get through the door, you can go to Portoga." He gestured to the door to his right.
"Um, I guess the border is less closed off than I thought," said Ron.
The group went up to the door and tried to turn the handle, only to find it was locked.
"Perhaps it is somewhat closed off," pointed out Alice. "Too bad we have this."
Alice pulled out Baker's key and went at the door. However, the door refused to budge. She tried every button and mechanism on the key, but the door remained locked and closed.
"You're wasting your time," said the guard, who still had not looked up at the group. "You can't pick that lock no matter what you do. That door's magically sealed. You'd need a lockpick or key with some magic in it."
"A key with some magic in it," said Suzanne thoughtfully.
"What did you find out about your dad and that key he was looking for?" asked Ron.
"Apparently it's in something called the pyramid in Isis. That's all I know," answered Suzanne.
Thomas scoffed when he heard about it, "But I guess there's been a lot of people looting the pyramid. It's probably not there anymore."
"Well, we've got to do something. Maybe we can ask Queen Calasta if she knows anything. If it is still there, we can get permission to get the key at the same time," Alice suggested.
"Dammit. Here we are going off to all this trouble for a simple key again," complained Ron.