This novel is limited to 100 free copies due to its part in Inkitt’s Novel Contest.
I suppose it’s too much of an inconvenience to tell you my life story, and how I became a warlock bound to a life of servitude to the guardian Rathas. I’ll save that tale for another night. So, I had best start with the last time I was here in Arahad. In this very tavern, at this very table, come to think of it.
I had just come in for a drink. I may serve Rathas, hellbent despite her divine nature to keep me on the straight and narrow, but I’m a human being. And after an afternoon of being interrogated by Imperial inquisitors, I was eager to blur the day’s memories and fall into bed for the night.
Maybe it was some cruel form of punishment for sullying her host body with alcohol, but Rathas was having none of that, and I wouldn’t get a proper sleep for months. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I sat right here, enjoying the stylings of a local bard, when Rathas decided to rear up inside of me. She drew my eyes upwards to the second floor, to a figure who leaned upon the railing that wrapped around the room. I only looked for a moment. And in those few seconds, I locked eyes with them. An elf, I realized; and not a half-elf, but a full-blooded one, by the length of their ears and their wide eyes of a single, sharp white. By the time I tore Rathas’ grip from my consciousness and pulled my gaze back to the bard, it was too late. They had noticed me.
I hazarded a sneaky peek back up to the railing a few moments later. They had disappeared. The hour was late, and most of the patrons had made their excuses and returned to their homes. I assumed that the elf had retired to their room for the evening. Slowly, the alcohol muted Rathas’ influence. At last, I let myself relax.
It wasn’t ten minutes later that one of the chairs at my table pulled out, and the elf sat down beside me – one space away, but close enough that when he whispered, I could hear him clearly.
“A warlock, yes?”
My eyes dipped over him. He wore plain leathers, a tunic of crisp white, and an oiled cloak that rippled brown here and green there as the firelight danced across its supple surface. No Imperial insignia. No signs of any affiliation with any organization at all.
“Yes,” I answered at length, and turned by attention back to the bard, who was now dancing around the fire pit, impersonating a demon.
“What kind?” he pressed.
“What’s it to you?”
“Call me curious.”
“I’d call you nosy.”
The elf laughed, as if he had heard the insult many times before, and he leaned back in his chair. His palms open to me, he said, “Let us say I have a potential job for you. But I need to know what schools of magic you specialize in.”
“Who said I need a job?” I snorted at his presumptuousness.
“That coat’s seen better days. And those boots. And that staff. I thought I would help you.”
A part of me wanted to get up and walk away. Climb the stairs, lock the door, and go to sleep. But another part of me (probably the Rathas part) couldn’t see the harm in telling him my skills, and perhaps earning a little coin.
“Holy Light and fire.”
He clapped his hands together. “Excellent. I’d like you to meet my crew, and we can –“
”Wait, wait. I never agreed to anything.”
“Of course not! You need to sign the contract first.”
“No, I mean I don’t even know where you want me to go or what I’m doing when... When I... What do you mean, contract?”
The elf grinned at me. “Having all the legal aspects taken care of is beneficial when dealing with this sum of money.”
I cocked an eyebrow. “How much are you after?”
“Perhaps there is no gold where we are going, but there are enough treasures that, when sold, are worth enough coin to drown a dragon.”
I’m not a greedy man. But I have to admit, the very image made my mouth water a little bit.
The elf must have seen my change of mood, as he offered me his hand. “My name is Althessan, but my friends call me Thessa. How about you come and meet them? Let us say... an hour hence? Last door on the second floor.”
At the time, the prospect of a new job with such a high payout had me clamouring to get started. But, when you’ve been bound to a guardian for as long as I have, you have to take certain precautions.
I set down my cup. “Are any of your friends Imperials?”
Thessa raised one shoulder in a shrug. “Not that I know of.”
“We only just met earlier this week.”
A mix of disappointment and dread washed through me, and I frowned. “You’ll understand, as a warlock, why that concerns me.”
He waggled his eyebrows. “Ah, on the wrong side of the law, are we? So long as you have no outstanding bounties on your head, there should be no trouble.”
“Unless one of your own is a loyalist to the Imperial Crown, who takes crimes committed against their king as personal insults.”
But to this, Thessa waved his hand dismissively and scoffed. “It’s no issue at all. We’ve an ex-Imperial among us already. Come and meet them, at the very least. I guarantee you that you will walk away with no harm done, no matter how this night should end.”
I said nothing, so consumed was I in my own worries. What if this was all a setup? Could this Thessa actually be an Imperial in disguise? Luring me into a trap with the promise of reward?
When I didn’t reply, the elf spoke in a voice reserved and conclusive, “I’m not at all a religious man, but I firmly believe we are put in situations because some higher power has pushed us into it for the greater good.” He rose and clapped his hand over my shoulder. “I think our meeting this night was more than just chance. Hardly anything to do with a warlock is mere luck.” He squeezed my shoulder and let go. “If you agree, my friends and I will be waiting. But we leave tomorrow morning at first light. And we are punctual. Good evening, ah...”
Thessa smiled warmly and touched two fingers to his forehead in a casual salute. “A pleasure, Elias. Enjoy your evening.”
And just as quickly as he had appeared, Thessa strolled away. Back up the stairs, along the railing, to the very last room. He didn’t look back before he entered and shut the door behind him.
A silent war broke out in that next hour, between myself and Rathas. She, of course, wished for me to follow Thessa. She knew exactly how the quest would end. Being divine, she had foreknowledge of everything. And, whatever end this would be, she wanted it. I, paying closer attention to my instincts than her desires, argued against going.
If you’re unfamiliar with warlocks and binding oneself to a patron, then let me explain. When a warlock binds themselves to a spirit (a departed soul), demon (an evil energy), or a guardian (a good energy), then they are sworn to serve. If a demon wants its servant to slaughter an entire village, then it will be done. Similarly, if a guardian wishes for its servant to sacrifice themselves in battle or kill a corrupted leader... Well, it’s not easy to deny them.
I had no idea what Rathas wanted of me. At the end of this quest, would I be a martyr? Or simply a very rich man?
Whatever it was, there was no use arguing over it. Rathas is a being whose sole existence is dedicated to the pursuit of peace and justice. If I were to die serving her, she would find another host and continue her mission. And I gain nothing by asking her not to use me as a tool for her purpose. I only delay the inevitable.
And so, I finished my drink, sat for the bard’s last set, and slowly made my way to Thessa’s room.
Adventure isn’t meant for big groups. This I learned early on, when friends from my adolescence decided we would all go on an epic quest for treasure we thought sat in the woods
outside of our village. Not only do extra people slow the entire group down, four people may go unseen while ten will draw unwanted attention.
As such, the groups I’ve been a part of have consisted only of those that are necessary to the objective. A single healer, a rogue, two warriors – one to deal damage and the other to take it – and a spellcaster. That’s me. Being the only one able to perform a specific task comes with no small degree of pressure. If the rogue you’ve brought along through peril and terror cannot open the lock on the chest you’ve been searching for over the past five months, then the rogue is the one with a blade to his throat.
Thessa needed fire. That much told me he was either headed someplace cold or simply enjoyed watching his enemies burn. And Holy Light. That would mean healing power. If I find out he’s hired a shadow priest, I thought to myself as I made my way to his room, I’m out. Rathas wouldn’t have liked working with someone corrupted by demonic forces, after all.
There I was, only a paper-thin oaken door standing between myself and Thessa – or what could have been a trap. Was Rathas luring me into sacrificing myself, my death being the spark that ignites the war against the Imperial Crown? Or would this simply be yet another noble quest?
I rapped three times on the door, and waited. Two seconds later, it was flung open, and I was pulled inside.
“Elias!” cried Thessa, a smile in his voice. “Good to see you decided to show! We were just talking about you. Let me introduce my friends.”
He pointed to a woman who sat upon one of the beds (of which there were four that ran the length of the room on either side), who looked to be of distant elven descent by her wide eyes and petite frame.
“This is Ramona, our clever little hunter. I found her on the woodsway, skulking around the foot of some mountain. This strapping young lady over here,” Elias stepped away from me and slapped the back of a short, stocky dwarf, “is Demitria, a warrior of unmatched prowess.”
“Well met,” the warrior muttered with a nod towards me before going back to polishing her sword.
“Finally, we have Kimber. Cleric, scholar, and first to join our company.” With a sweep of his hand, Thessa gestured over to the opposite end of the room, where a tall, muscled woman stood before a window, observing the rain that pattered against the pane.
“Everyone, this is Elias, a warlock of fire and Holy Light.”
This seemed to catch Kimber’s attention. While Demitria and Ramona mumbled their greetings, the cleric turned to face me and cocked one blonde eyebrow.
“A warlock? Whom do you serve?”
“The guardian Rathas,” I replied proudly.
Kimber smiled knowingly. “I have read of her feats. You are very lucky to have her as your patron.”
I chuckled. “Honoured, to be sure, but unlucky.”
“Why is that?” asked Ramona, her voice as soft and shy as a kitten’s mewl.
“Every warlock she’s ever taken as her earthly champion has died for her cause at a young age.”
Kimber squinted in confusion. “Then why did you vow to serve her?”
I shrugged, not wishing to divulge such personal secrets. “She called to me, I suppose.”
I was worried Kimber would ask me more questions, but Thessa stepped between us and waved his hands wildly.
“Whilst I am sure we’re all excited to talk about why Elias does what he does, but right now we’ve a journey to plan.”
Demitria nodded sternly and hopped off of the bed she sat on. “Althessan is right. If we’re to beat that bastard Riordan to the loot, we’ve got to begin at once.”
“Who?” I asked.
The dwarf made a noise of dismissal. “Ah, just another goon after the same treasure we are. Nothing to worry about.”
“Unless we run into him,” murmured Ramona, picking at a thread on her bed sheets.
“Yes, well, we’ll just have to make sure that we do not run into him, now won’t we?” Thessa let out an exasperated sigh. “Can we get to the plan?”
Kimber strode over to the centre of the room, plucking a large, slightly tattered scroll from the backpack at the end of the nearest bed as she came. “Twill be a long journey.” She knelt on the floor and unfurled the scroll – a map, I soon realized – pinning it down with a spare shoe and a sheathed dagger. “Normally, I would advise that we follow the woodsway south to Yaras, and then brave the jungles to the Temple of Jada.” Kimber ran her finger along the red ink that marked the woodsway and the Garoa Causeway.
“But?” prompted Thessa as he knelt beside her.
The cleric frowned deeply and tucked a lock of golden hair behind her ear. “Riordan will likely take the same path. And if we should reach Yaras unharmed by him or his company, such a diverse party will not go unnoticed or unquestioned, especially when we are headed straight for the temple.”
“You’re not suggesting we take the long way around.” Demitria stood over Kimber and crossed her bulky arms over her chest. “That will add three days to our journey, barring any delays. Which are practically guaranteed if we should follow this path.”
“Tis exactly what I am suggesting, Demitria.” The cleric traced an impromptu line along the woodway which veered east to the Chrysal Forests. “We wind around the Violet Mountains and around Yaras, only entering the city if we need supplies. From there, we can make for the Temple of Jada.”
Thessa shook his head. “No. That’s going to take too long.”
“Would you rather die before we even reach Yaras?” Ramona grumbled. “Kimber is right. In fact, I suggest we scrap the woodsway entirely. Head along the lifeline towards Perandas, then turn south at the last minute and make our way between the mountains, through Chrysal, and south to the temple. That way, we can avoid any danger on the woodsway altogether.” The hunter raised her eyes from the bed, and shrunk away from us. “But that’s just... my opinion,” she added timidly.
“No,” Thessa decided at once. “Time is a major factor here. If we encounter anyone on the woodsway who dares question the purpose of our travel, then we’ll take care of them.”
It was then that my curiosity gave way to worry.
“Two concerns,” I cut in. “The first: what happens when the Imperial soldiers that stalk the woodsway come calling?”
The elf turned to me, still crouched, and shrugged. “They die just like anyone else. I’m certain you, of all people, would know that. Am I wrong?”
“Fair enough,” I relented. “The second: why are we being questioned? What kind of mission is this?”
“You haven’t told him yet?” Kimber smacked Thessa in the arm.
Thessa swatted her hand away. “Elias, how familiar are you with the Temple of Jada’s history?”
“I know it’s the oldest structure in the south, and the oldest religious structure in the world.”
“But do you know what lies within?”
I shook my head. “Nobody knows. All those who have entered the temple never came out.”
Thessa pointed at me. “Precisely. They never came out, because something – booby-traps, puzzles, what-have-you – was protecting something else. Something worth keeping hidden for thousands of years.” The elf reached into his trouser pocket and withdrew a ragged square of paper. He handed it to me, and continued as I unfolded it, “There’s only one artifact in all of history that has never been found before, and has remained only a legend. The Sunstrike Dagger? Found, and destroyed. The Amulet of Zacharia? Found and lost more times than even the most learned of scholars can could.”
“Forty-seven times,” Kimber inserted. I swore I saw a satisfied smirk spread across her face.
“But this? The only record of it being in existence is that which those who built the Temple of Jada wrote.”
When I opened up the paper, I found a drawing of a carven pedestal, upon which there sat a sphere of turquoise. Along the top was written the words: “THE THERIMITE STONE”
“A stone?” I remarked in bored disbelief. “That’s what we’re looking for?”
Thessa leapt to his feet, closed the space between us, and gazed down at the drawing. “This isn’t just any old stone, Elias. Legend has it that, when ground into a fine powder and mixed with any poultice, it can heal any wound and cure any ailment – even those of the mind.”
I folded up the paper and handed it back to him. “And what are you going to do when you acquire this stone? Lug it back home and sell vials of it?”
The elf stiffened. “As difficult as it may be to believe, I happen to have loved ones who could make good use of the stone’s healing abilities. And, yes, if there is some left over, I would gladly open my doors to the sick.”
“The stone looked rather large. If this Riordan fellow is your reason for haste, then why not let him take his share and leave? There must be enough for the both of you.”
“Not exactly,” Demitra chimed in. “Riordan doesn’t want the stone to heal. He wants it to achieve immortality.”
“He’s already a powerful sorcerer. Without mortality to worry about, he could master each school of magic.” Thessa placed one hand on my shoulder. “Elias, you know that no being – mortal or otherwise – has done such a thing.”
“I would like to believe he could use that power for good,” Kimber said as she rolled up the map. “But considering what Thessa has told me of him, I doubt Riordan knows what ‘good’ even means.”
The elf nodded vigorously. “He could raise armies of the dead. Learn to leash demons to him as minions. Who knows what powers he might awaken after mastering all eight schools of magic?”
It was at that moment that I realized why Rathas had pushed me to join this company. Whoever this Riordan was, he had to be stopped before he had the chance to wreak havoc on the realm.
“I know I’m going to regret doing this,” I muttered. Then, louder, I added, “Do you have a plan?”
Thessa flung his arms around me and trapped me in a bone-crushing embrace. “Thank you, Elias! You will not regret joining our company. The Famous Five, they will call us!”
I cleared my throat. “The plan?” I pressed.
The elf dropped down from his toes and released me. “Ah, yes. When we find the Therimite Stone, we will split it into five pieces, and each of us shall take one. Then, we will flee to opposite ends of the realm. From there, you may do what you wish. Use the stone, sell it, give it to healers and the impoverished, use it to secure a lordship.”
“You promised me enough gold to drown a dragon,” I pointed out.
Demitria let out a bark of laughter. “One fifth of that stone is worth more than all of Arahad.”
“And any treasure you find in the temple is yours.” Thessa offered me his hand. “Well? What say you? Do we leave on the morrow?”
I only paused for a moment before taking his hand and giving it a firm shake. “On the morrow.”
It would have been – and should have been – a joyous moment. If it weren’t for the thud! that came from the other side of the door.
Thessa at once let go of my hand, stepped around me, and threw the door open. In tumbled a young man, his knobby knees knocking against the wooden floorboards and his mop of curly red hair falling over his shocked face. The elf stood over him, his dagger unsheathed and gleaning softly in the firelight.
“Who are you? What are you doing eavesdropping on us?”
The boy shifted so that he was on his knees and raised his hands over his head. “Whoa, there. There’s no need for violence.”
Thessa pressed his dagger to the boy’s skinny throat. “There is plenty of need. Now talk, before I cut your tongue out.”
“An odd threat, seeing as you’re aiming for my throat, but fine. My name is Jarrod.”
“How much did you hear, Jarrod?”
“All of it. I’m coming with you.”
Demitria snorted and Kimber made a noise of exhaustion. All Thessa did was scoff and press the dagger further into Jarrod’s flesh.
“We do not need a boy greener than a summer morn lagging behind us, slowing us down.”
Jarrod grinned, revealing a row of perfectly white teeth. His eyes sparkled with knowledge. “Oh, you misunderstand. I’m no ordinary boy. I’m a bard.”
Thessa let out a hoot of laughter. “What will you do? Distract our enemies with riddles? Dance for us whilst we set up camp? Sing whilst we travel?”
“I could, if you asked it of me.”
The elf leaned closer, eyes narrowed, words ground out between clenched teeth. “We do not need a bard. Now go, and begin composing a ballad detailing our quest.”
“Wait a moment.” Kimber slid past me and stood beside Thessa, hands on her hips. “You can tell riddles?”
Jarrod nodded. “The very best in all the north.”
“Can you solve them as well?”
“I have yet to lose a game yet, mum.”
The cleric grasped Thessa’s collar, turned him around so that their backs faced the bard, and whispered to him, “If the temple is in fact guarded with puzzles, a second pair of hands to help me solve them, ’twould be of great use to me.”
“You have me!” the elf cried.
Kimber gave him a knowing look. At last, Thessa’s shoulders slumped. He looked to the three of us.
“What say you?”
Demitra waved her hand dismissively. “Whatever gets us through the temple faster.”
“Six travellers will not go amiss.” Ramona’s voice was quiet, but her words firm.
“Elias?” prompted Thessa.
I peeked between him and Kimber. Jarrod was still on his knees, hope brightening his freckled face.
“Less is more,” I concluded.
The bard’s entire body wilted. He got to his feet without a word. But before he left, Kimber grasped his wrist.
“My apologies, Jarrod. I –“
”No. I understand.” He smiled, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
With that said, Jarrod departed, closing the door softly behind him. Thessa let out a long breath and shoved his blade back into its hidden sheath.
“We should have taken him,” Kimber snapped.
“The vote was three against one, with one undecided. I am the leader of this company, and I say we have no need of a bard.” Thessa patted the cleric’s arm. “Do not underestimate your intelligence, Kimber. You’re smart enough to get us through.”
Kimber glared at him and pulled away from his touch. “We have an early start tomorrow. We should get some rest.”
If Thessa noticed her bitterness, he showed no indication of it. Instead, he happily opened up his knapsack – which sat at the foot of his bed – and withdrew another scroll. He threw it to me.
“Read it over and bring it to me, signed, before we leave.”
“And make a list of what you need,” Demitria reminded me. “We’re making one stop tomorrow, and then we won’t see a shop until we reach Yaras.”
“Sleep well,” said Thessa with a nod to me, and turned back to his bed.
I took my leave then, as I could see the tension between Kimber and Thessa. I hoped they would work out their differences before we left in the morning.
When I returned to my room and read through the contract, I found it reasonable. First, there were a few agreements that required my initials. Reminders of what could happen. Thessa really must not have known what the temple contained, as most of the page was filled with possible ends I could meet: death by crocodile, quicksand, giant hounds, scorpion pit, undead sentinels, toxic gas, various traps... Each bore the initials E.H.
I would receive one fifth of the loot. The next part was simple: name a loved one to inform of my death, should that be the case, and inherit my share. Or, at least, it should have been simple. I touched my quill to the paper, only to realize that I had nobody. My parents were dead. My distant relatives were unknown to me. I had no idea where my sister Emile was, or even if she was still alive. The Imperials who took me could have killed her, after all. And as for friends and partners? Those aren’t easy to make when you have a guardian controlling you.
A long moment later, I decided to keep that part blank. Nobody would care if I died. Nobody to remember me, or set up a vigil or a shrine. Nobody to pray for my soul. The realization was, of course, disheartening. I forced the thought away.
At the very bottom I found my company’s signatures, and a single blank space awaiting my own. Elias Huxley, I signed, and rolled it back up again.
It was done. Now all I had to do was make a list of what I needed and wait for morning to come. But it was already so late, and the evening had been nothing short of a whirlwind. As the storm calmed, and I laid my head upon my pillow to hear the last few voices downstairs fade and footsteps creak up the stairs, I quickly fell into a deep sleep.
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