Survival

Aeryn stared up the hillside at the temple, the structure silhouetted against a dimming sky, the first indication that night was almost upon them.

The girl looked at the two-story building on the hill above them, it was doubtless a beautiful temple in its day. After decades of neglect, the temple was deteriorating. The expensive wood was old and pitted, cracked and decayed. The windows were huge, and most of the shutters were missing; the few that remained were broken, banging open and closed in the wind, hanging crookedly from a single hinge. The wrought iron gate that blocked the path leading up the stone steps to the temple was intricate, but rusty—rusted through in some places.

Aeryn put one weary foot in front of the next as she climbed the stone steps to the temple, the old man leading them up to the gate at the entrance and pulling it open enough to let the group through one at a time. The corroded hinges screamed in protest—the screech muted by the howl of wind and rain—and they stepped onto the path that led up to the double doors. Ivy shrouded the right side of the wall and continued around the east side of the building, an image of disrepair fallen into despair. Aeryn saw no lights shining through the windows. The temple appeared empty, and the walls looked sturdy enough to keep out the worst of the weather.

Seekate pushed open one side and ushered them into the building. When the last of the group had entered, the old man shoved on the door, trying to close it. Natsu stepped in to help as the wind kept forcing the door open against Seekate’s feeble efforts. When they finally shut the door, Aeryn was grateful that the entry where they stood was shielded from the wind.

As the girl examined the room before the door shut, she saw what appeared to be a small, antechamber littered with wind-blown rubbish. Two sets of double doors were its only features, the west entry leading outside and the other, on the east wall, further into the temple.

After a few moments standing in the dark entryway, Aeryn’s shakes and shivers eased, and her eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness. She was beginning to warm in the absence of the persistent icy wind and could almost feel her fingers and toes again.

“Aye, aye, follow me, wills ya,” she heard Seekate say as he moved further into the temple, “and watch yer step, those god’s damned monsters done busted ev’rything up.”

Following the mutterings of the old man, Aeryn grabbed Evie’s hand and told her to keep the old man in sight while she linked hands with Denaryus, and the elf held on to Senisalma. She only assumed that Natsu held Senisalma’s hand. As the group followed the sound of the old man, Seekate opened yet another door that lead into a more substantial hall. Aeryn couldn’t tell how big the place was, but she could feel that the emptiness was more extensive than the room they had just left. The echo of the old man’s voice told her that the ceiling had opened into something much more significant.

When the party was through the door and into the room, the entry closed behind them as Aeryn heard the old man grab broken sticks of furniture and rubbish.

“Aye, a fire’s what’s we need,” the old man said almost cheerfully.

“Let’s look around the temple first,” suggested Denaryus.

“If ye’s insist,” Seekate muttered, disappointment and something else—fear?—thick in his voice.

Aeryn heard him rummage around in the dark for a moment, then a light flared, leaving spots dancing in her eyes. When she was able to see again, she saw Denaryus take one of the few remaining torches out of a nearby sconce and light it on the makeshift torch Seekate now held.

“Maybe we can find a room with only one exit,” said Evie, looking around at the chamber. “Something not quite so … exposed?” her gaze swept the room. “I saw three doors leading in here, not to mention what’s on the other side of the pillars over there,” she continued, pointing toward the north wall.

“This,” Seekate announced as if the elfling hadn’t spoken, awe edging his voice as the second torch flared, “is the hall of the goddess.” As the old man spoke, the echoes of his voice convinced Aeryn that the room was much bigger than the torch glow suggested. The floor was cold beneath her bare feet and felt like polished stone but with regular shallow grooves; pieces of wood that felt like broken furniture beneath her feet littered the floor, she had to step carefully through the rubble.

“Them no-good orcs done this,” the old man said, voice shaking. His arms swept the damage to the room—the smashed furniture, the soiled walls. “They done all this when they was searchin’ the temple, lookin’ for treasure. They was mad ‘cause they dinna find no gold, so’s they tried to wreck it all. They’d ‘a done more, but the storm came, and it scared ‘em away.”

As the torches illuminated the area around them, Aeryn saw the nearby walls had once been plastered smooth and painted with frescoes of the goddess in all her aspects. Over the years, the paint had curled, and the plaster was broken and peeling. The girl ran her fingers over the large cracks in the plaster, places that had probably cracked from the foundation settling over the years. Her face grew hot when her fingers felt the indents where someone had taken a club to the walls. When Denaryus had lit the torch, and she saw the thick gouges and tears in the plaster and places where the walls had been smeared with waste, her ire rose.

The large chamber was two stories tall. Broken furniture littered the tiled floors. The wood looked aged, but Aeryn saw that the breaks were all fresh. Everything had been smashed recently. In the middle of the south wall was a closed set of double doors. On the west wall was the set of double doors by which the party had entered the chamber. On the east wall, at the south corner, was a small, all but inconspicuous access. Incredibly, this room still had all its doors—and plenty of firewood if they needed it—but no furnishings.

Along the north wall, three steps led up to a line of pillars. Between the columns, Aeryn could see that ratty and sagging cloth had been hung, blocking the view of the chamber beyond.

“Denaryus, bring that torch over here,” said Aeryn, as she pushed her way through the tattered hangings to enter the chamber beyond.

“These were once fine velvet tapestries,” said Senisalma, wonder in her voice. The cloth had long since aged into a colorless brown, “I can’t tell now what the embroidery represented, but in their day, they must have been exquisite.”

Ashja eased the tattered tapestry aside and entered the chamber, Seekate on her heels.

“Behold,” he stated, reverence in his voice. “The Goddess Ashta’Qi.”

Of the two items that occupied the chamber, the statue of the goddess Ashta’Qi, sitting on her throne, dominated the room. The striking sculpture looked down into the hall; her expression thoughtful, with the faintest trace of a smile on her lips. The sculptor must have been tremendously talented, for the figure was naturally posed, head slightly lowered, right hand extended in a gesture of blessing, left hand gripping the arm of the throne. But the carving, too, was in shambles. The nose and left hand had been broken off, and a great crack ran across the torso.

Aeryn moved around the chamber, eyes on the statue near the back. Seekate kept himself between her and the figure as if guarding the effigy against the girl.

“Th’ Lady protected this island,” the old man sobbed. “Fer years, she watched, kept me safe.” He whirled on Aeryn, stabbing a finger into her chest guard. “But then!” the old man hissed, “you and them monsters showed up and ruin’t everything!”

The old man took a deep breath and muttered what could have been an apology. He calmed and stepped away from the girl.

The other item in the room, an altar, rested on its side in front of the effigy of the deity. No traces of blood, new or old, stained its surface.

“It must have been an altar for offerings instead of sacrifices,” said Denaryus.

“Oh, aye,” complained the old man beside the elf. “Them nasty orcs done all this. They’ll pay, they will. Ashta’Qi will see to it. She done told me so.”

Using some of the ruined furniture, the group fashioned a few more torches and continued exploring the lower floor of the temple. The main exit from the hall led the party into a long corridor with two doors in the wall opposite them, a door at the end of the hallway to their left, and a flight of stairs down the hall to the right.

The right-hand door across from them led to a series of small alcoves that could have been offices, judging by the piles of shredded parchment, shattered bookcases, and broken writing stands. These simple rooms had scarred paneled walls and ruined furniture was scattered about. Ivy had forced its way in through the shutters here and there, and the walls had been hacked up by orcs looking for secret panels and passages. Except for more firewood, the group found nothing of interest.

“OOO, juicy rats!” exclaimed Seekate as he sprang to life, chasing a nest of rats from the offices. “Catch ‘em! Catch ‘em!” he screeched.

Exchanging looks with the group at the old man’s increasingly odd behavior, Aeryn dashed out the door after him, to the left and up the stairs to the top floor of the temple, followed by the rest of the group. They caught up with him at the top of the stairway. He had a limp rat in one hand, which he crammed into his tunic as the group approached.

Aeryn thought she heard him mutter, “Mine! Not sharing!” as she reached the place he stood.

Instead of leading the group back down the stairs, Seekate led them around the upper level of the temple. All the chambers were ruined quarters. As with the lower level, the rooms were demolished, with remnants of furniture, chamber pots, clothing, hacked up walls, and torn out paneling strewn about. The floors were coated with mulch, rat-waste, and living rats. They found nothing of value in the wreckage.

Thirty minutes later, the group descended a matching set of stairs on the north side of the temple. This area looked much like the floor above, except it was adorned with rough-hewn wooden walls rather than the elaborately carved hardwoods. The party listened as Seekate nattered on about the various servants that used to live in the rooms. Not much of what he said was positive. As with the upper level, they found only firewood—of the less expensive kind.

Leaving the servants’ wing, they passed through a door that led into a hallway with intricate, if clubbed and battered, carvings on the doors and supports. The walls were adorned with weathered plaster, peeling paint, and more signs of orcish activity. Halfway down the hall, a door banged on its remaining hinge; a slow, uneven rhythm echoing through the corridor.

As they approached the door, Aeryn saw a small forest slowly rooting its way into the temple. She stepped through the door into a jungle of flowers and shrubs. The paving stones were broken and grown over. The group followed the path through the looming and untamed garden until they found a small well. They pulled up bucketsful of clear, cold water easing their thirst and filling the water skins they had seized along the way.

Setting the bucket back on the well-hook, Aeryn led the party back into the temple to continue their explorations. Their search took them back to the original hallway with the priest’s offices. The door to the left proved to be the kitchen, it was a large room with heavy wooden tables pushed up against the walls. A large, recessed fireplace on the south wall was as large as a small room, big enough to mount a cross-bar and roast a bull within while cooking other dishes at the same time.

The fireplace was in good shape. The window’s shutters were closed and secured, but ivy crept in through some of the many holes. The tables, to Aeryn’s surprise, were undamaged, it looked like the orcs had not spent much time here.

“I like this,” said Evie, “one door, one shuttered window, and a fireplace.”

“We should be able to barricade the door,” Aeryn said. Glancing at Seekate, she saw him shoot a quick glance toward the fireplace before huddling himself under the table farthest from the hearth and closest to the door.

“Sounds good to me,” said Denaryus, heading toward the door. “Anyone want to help me get enough wood to build a fire?”

“I’ll go,” said Natsu, dropping his gear on one of the tables and following the elf.

“What’s behind the door at the end of the hall?” asked Evie.

“Just a couple o’ storerooms,” muttered Seekate, eyes drifting back to the fireplace.

“Let’s check them out while the others are getting wood,” suggested Aeryn, pulling the folded sail-pack off her back and setting it on one of the tables near the hearth. She felt downright light now that she didn’t have that extra weight on her back.

Sure enough, two storerooms were at the end of the hall. The first was a large room with no windows and a sound door, albeit with a broken locking mechanism. Broken casks and moldering sacks littered the floor. The muted and musty odor of rotted grain hung in the air.

The second storeroom was a single large room with no windows and a sturdy door, also with a broken locking mechanism. The walls in this room were thicker as if extra layers of bricks or stone had been laid in and plastered over, so the room was smaller and colder than the other storeroom. Evie shuddered when she saw the large meat hooks attached to the ceiling and turned on her heel and hurried back out into the hall. The hooks were rusted with brown stains caked on them. The faint smell of death and rotting meat clung to the plaster. Aeryn bolted from the locker, jerking the door shut behind her. The smell brought back a vivid memory of the slaughterhouse back at the farm with her family. It was her least favorite time of year.

A few minutes later, the group assembled in the kitchen. Denaryus started a fire in the hearth while Aeryn and Evie told the party about the remaining two storerooms. Without warning, a black shape flew from the chimney and landed a few feet in front of the hearth. The creature faced the party, a low growl escaping its jagged-toothed maw.

Seekate dove under his table and crawled in a corner near the door. Aeryn grabbed her sword and jumped toward the creature. Denaryus lunged for the crossbow she had set on the table behind her, while Natsu flung himself out of the way of the monster, reaching for the spear propped on the table along the wall on the right side of the hearth. Evie drew her dagger and moved behind the fiend. Senisalma stood near the door, frozen.

Aeryn twisted and swung the sword. By a stroke of luck, she struck it with the pointy end, slicing into the monster’s torso. It turned, clawing at the girl. She dodged to the side just as Natsu stabbed with his spear, hitting it in the leg. Evie sliced at its lower leg just as Denaryus loaded a bolt, aimed, and pulled the trigger. The crossbow bolt slammed into its chest, knocking it back into the table on the right side of the fireplace. The monster slid to the floor, dead.

“What the hell is that!?!” squeaked Aeryn, nerves on edge, heart racing as she scrambled away from the thing now lying on the floor in a heap. She looked over at Seekate, his brows knotted together as in displeasure when they killed the ghoul, not elation. You knew!

The creature had two arms and legs, with blotchy, rotting, hairless skin stretched tight across its bones. Its now-blank eyes were set in sunken sockets. The smell made Aeryn gag.

Senisalma, finally able to move, took a hesitant step forward.

“I- I- I th-think it’s a- a- a gh-ghoul,” the woman stuttered, terror widening her eyes.

“Let’s get it out of here,” said Aeryn pulling the collar of her tunic up over her nose, “it’s stinking the place up.”

They dragged the remains into the storage room that had once held the meat and slammed the door. As the party cleaned the kitchen and their nerves settled, Aeryn watched the old man. He looked up at her as she and Natsu returned to the room. She couldn’t read his expression, but the girl didn’t like what she saw in his eyes. She didn’t trust the old man and vowed to watch his every move.

When they finished cleaning, Evie went out and set several simple snares, hoping to catch a couple of rats. Luck was with them that evening as she came back with six hunks of unidentifiable meat. Denaryus found pieces of wood they could use as skewers among the wreckage in the temple.

Before long, the smell of roasting rat filled the kitchen. Seekate refused to let them touch the rat he had caught earlier. He kept mumbling “ruinin’ good rat” to himself as he ripped pieces of the raw rodent with his teeth. After they finished their unsavory meal, they drew lots to stand guard. Aeryn pulled the last watch, so she jumped up on the table nearest the hearth and curled up to sleep.

A few hours later, she jerked awake, scalp prickling. What? Looking around in the dim light radiating from the coals in the hearth, Aeryn realized that Denaryus was no longer in the room, and the door leading out of the kitchen was ajar. Quietly, she padded to the opening and listened. Hearing voices, she woke the others and the group followed the sound. They were back in the hall of the goddess climbing the shallow steps leading to the broken statue.

As Aeryn parted the rotted tapestries, she watched the statue subtly change: the filth disappeared, the broken nose and arm floated up and reattached themselves, the crack in the torso healed, and the figure moved to stand before the group, inhabited by the essence of the goddess.

Aeryn, overcome with reverence, fell to her knees at the sight of the restored statue and prostrated herself at the foot of the now animate figure.

“This is the result of the raid of the pirate orcs. They have despoiled my haven. When thieves came two generations ago, they slaughtered the inhabitants of this island, but let my temple be—as they should. Since then, my sanctuary has been subject to wind and storm, age and rot. I was not offended, for nature’s right is to strike down what men have built.”

Aeryn raised her head and looked up into the statue’s glowing blue eyes.

“But the desecration you see about you, my children, has affronted me. I will destroy this island, and all living upon it: a proper cleansing of the stain of the Ku’tara.” The powerful voice softened. “However, I see no reason for you to die for another’s offense. Especially in light of your ridding my temple of the specter. Thus, I will not cleanse this island this night, as I had planned, but will stay my hand until nightfall on the morrow. If by then you have fled, I will judge you worthy to survive, and the storm that destroys this place will not harm your craft. It will instead, carry you to safety.”

The girl looked around at her companions, sure that her expression mirrored theirs—shock and disbelief.

“It is a difficult quest. I see you have not willingly chosen your paths. So, this aid will I give you: find the items of power on this island. While you remain here, you have my blessing to use any object you find as if you were trained in its use. Should you find an object of magical power, use it wisely; perhaps it will help you toward your goal.”

“There’s a way off the island?” Aeryn whispered, finding her voice.

“Yes, my child,” the goddess answered.

“H-how?”

“That, I will not tell you. To prove yourselves worthy, you must find the answer on your own,” the goddess answered. “But this I will tell you: one among you has the answers.”

All eyes turned to Seekate as he tried shrinking into the dark.

“One last boon I will grant: when you return to your rest, do not fear. Rest peacefully, I will guard your sleep,” and with that, the goddess resumed her seat on the throne, and the glow faded, leaving, once more, an inanimate, and now undamaged, statue.

Having slept deeply and woken refreshed, Aeryn thought about the night’s events. The group had dragged themselves back to the kitchen each deep in their own thoughts, and she had crawled back up on the table where the chunk of sail was still folded. The next thing she knew, grey light was leaching through the holes in the shutters, lighting the inside of her eyelids.

The day had dawned overcast and cold, with the occasional splatter of icy rain. The air felt different this morning; the terrifying conditions of the previous afternoon were muted. Aeryn knew they weren’t facing death from exposure this day.

Maybe this is a gift from the goddess, she thought. As she lay there thinking, she heard the rest of the group begin to rouse. Sitting up and spying the old man, she asked, “Seekate, what do you know about these objects of power the goddess spoke of last night?”

“W’elp,” the old man looked down at his feet, avoiding her gaze, “I know summit about odd bits and pieces hereabouts,” he mumbled. “Milord had heaps o’ booty from his adventurin’ years afore settlin’ down here. Them first pirates ran off with most of ’em, but they didn’t know ’em all.” He looked up and scowled at the girl before continuing, “But one of ’em that he gave the queen was this stick o’ wood that was said to throb in your hand when it was near Milord’s funny treasures. I never bothered with it, these 60 years. Not my place to be meddlin’ with the treasures of the family. Yours neither, if t’weren’t that the goddess said to. But, I’ll show you where t’is, if you want,” he said, resentment tainting his last words.

“We want,” said Natsu.

“Manor house. Bottom o’ the hill,” the old man hissed.

“How do we get into the manor?” asked Denaryus, trying to placate Seekate.

“W’elp,” the old man began, pulling the leaf on which he had drawn the last two maps from his tunic. He wiped one side on his damp trews to clear the map of the island. “We take the path through the garden down to here,” he drew a rough sketch of a ravine that led to the manor, then the manor itself, with the charcoal end of a charred stick. “These here windows is busted out, and the bars is all loose,” he cast an appraising look at the various party members, his eyes resting on Aeryn. “But you look big enough to pull ‘em out enough for us to crawl through,” he said, a cruel tone in his voice.

The girl blushed, eyes narrowing at the insult. Her size and strength had always been an embarrassment. Her sisters had taunted that she was too tall and too muscular to be a proper girl. No man would ever want her, she was just too big and boyish.

“They’s other ways in, too,” he said, a glint in his eyes.

Aeryn narrowed her gaze at the old man, fingers twitching in the direction of her sword hilt.

“The easiest, with the least amount of attention, preferably,” she said through gritted teeth.

“Oh, aye,” he said, the gleam dimming slightly, eyes narrowing, “this be it, then.”

The manor was two separate buildings, with a wing in the center that joined them.

“This here wing, was where the family lived. The stick’s in here,” he pointed to a suite of rooms labeled ‘Queen,’ “or it used to be, here in Milady’s rooms. They might be more o’ his lordship’s unusual treasures here, but they’s like to be orcs prowlin’ ‘round, too. The orcs come in through this door here,” he pointed at the north end of the hallway housing the family.

“This here’s the servants’ quarters,” he pointed to a set of rooms at the south end the west wing, opposite the door at the end of the hallway. “Me room’s here,” he labeled one of the rooms ‘My Room.’ “They’s no treasure here, so the orcs and goblins don’ come here. So’s, I think this would be the best place to enter.”

He looked expectantly at the group.

Aeryn eyed the old man with suspicion.

“If you lead us into a trap, old man, I will turn you over to Natsu,” said Aeryn.

Natsu grinned at Seekate, baring his teeth. The old man shrank back from the young half-elf.

The others stood menacing the old man, although Denaryus stood back.

When they had gathered their meager gear, they headed for the overgrown garden. Everyone drank their fill at the well, topped up the water skins, then searched for a place from where they could look down at the manor house, a hundred paces or so down the slope, with the least chance of being seen.

The mansion, just as the old man described, was a long and low building with two long wings on either side of a connecting arm. It seemed to be built of stone, possibly granite. The outside had weathered better than the temple. Unlike the shrine, all the outside windows had solid-looking, if rusty, iron bars protecting them, as though it was built for defense; but it was no castle.

Aeryn saw figures at opposite ends of the manor. A knot of larger shapes that must be orcs milled about the entrance to the northwest wing, with a trickle of foot traffic between the guards and the barracks, a little to the north and west of the manor. A somewhat larger band of smaller forms, probably the goblins, stood before the entrance to the southeast wing, along with a corresponding trickle of goblin traffic between the manor house and the stables, a little to the south and east. The ground rolled away from the structure in rippling waves, with large patches of grass, weeds, and scrub growing throughout.

“That there’s how I’d creep up to it,” Seekate murmured, pointing out a gulley that started at the end of the path several dozen feet southwest of the manor and ran almost to the southwest wing. “That there hollow. We could go in that door on the end,” he pointed to the southwest end of the building, “but them goblins,” he pointed at the southeast end of the building, “wud spot us in a second. Now, they’s a window on the west wall near the south side where the bars is loose. I imagine we can get in there.”

Aeryn and Evie scanned the area below them for a few moments, then Evie moved silently down the path ahead of the group, picking her steps and staying low to the ground. Aeryn followed a few paces behind, watching the small elf. Senisalma, Seekate, Natsu, and Denaryus kept pace in a line that snaked its way down the overgrown trail. Keeping their heads down, the group moved in silence to the ravine that led to the window Seekate had pointed out.

As the party approached the southeast end of the ravine, Evie dove to her stomach motioning the others to do the same. Aeryn and the others followed her lead, dropping to the ground, and remaining still. A moment later, an orc blundered down the side of the gully, almost tripping over the young elf.

Aeryn hauled herself to her feet as she pulled out her sword. Denaryus rose to one knee and set a bolt in the crossbow as Evie drew her dagger and slashed at the back of orc’s leg just above the knee. The orc turned toward his immediate attacker, and Aeryn thrust her sword into his side as he twisted. Denaryus fired the bolt and hit him in the gut. He fell to the ground, dead. They moved the body under a bush, removed his boots—this pair fit Aeryn—recovered the bolt, and concealed the signs of the scuffle with some of the surrounding brush. A few minutes later, they found the window Seekate had said would allow entry to the manor house.

Aeryn, with the help of Natsu, moved the bars out of the way enough to let everyone scramble through the opening. Evie climbed through first and made sure the room was clear of orcs, goblins, and traps. Denaryus followed and helped Senisalma and Seekate climb in the apartment. Natsu was next, and Aeryn scrabbled in last. When they were all inside, Evie crouched by the door and listened carefully. Hearing nothing, she cracked open the door and eavesdropped again. Still no sound in the hallway. Evie eased the door toward her.

As soon as the door moved again, Seekate skittered out the gap, took a sharp right and pushed open the next door down the hallway. The room was in shambles. The furniture had been destroyed and picked through.

“My ROOM!” shrieked Seekate. “What have they done!” he wailed. “The goblins, it was the goblins. Them little bastards, they steals everything. Everything I tells ya!”

Natsu stepped close, putting his face into the old man’s, “you either shut up, or I’ll toss you out the door, and you can take your chances with the goblins.”

Seekate slunk into the nearest corner, whimpering to himself.

“So, what’s with these two groups,” Denaryus asked, changing the subject. “Why not just kill each other off?”

“It’s part of the pirate code,” said Senisalma. “When pirates meet in a neutral zone such as a free pirate port or unclaimed territory like this island, they are not permitted to wage actual war on one another, so they make excuses to kill each other off in the form of small insults that lead to fighting. Long ago, one of the most powerful pirate leaders of the Sea made a decree to quash the battles and skirmishes that would break out in the streets of the ports. It’s been part of the code since.”

“Makes sense, I guess,” replied the elf, thoughtfully.

“In neutral ports, pirates from competing crews may fight individual duels, like to defend themselves if attacked, and to attack if someone is caught stealing from them. The edict is sidestepped by those who only claim to have been attacked or robbed, but, in general, the practice keeps the neutral pirate ports more peaceful than they would be otherwise.”

“They seem to be keeping to the letter of that law, if not the spirit. Looks like they’ve both claimed the island and everything on it.”

“Let’s stay out of their way and let them insult each other to death,” said Aeryn. “The more they slaughter each other, the less we have to worry about.”

“Sounds good to me,” said Evie from the door. “I’d just as soon stay out of their way.”

The party gathered behind Evie as she pulled the door open and listened. Not hearing anything, the group left the room and moved down the hall to the left, toward the family wing. They had enough light to creep through the manor. Grey light leaked through the windows into the rooms on the right and most, but not all, of the chamber doors were missing or broken, giving the corridors enough light so that Aeryn could see where Evie was leading them.

Reaching another ruined door, she watched the small elf creep to the opening, and carefully peek around the doorframe to the left and right. Clambering back to the rest of the party, she gave her report.

“The hallway on the right has double doors on the left and right sides.”

“Milord’s study, the library, his gallery, and the small dining room,” supplied Seekate.

“To the left is another corridor that I think leads to another section.”

“Aye, the family quarters,” said Seekate, looking down at his feet to avoid Aeryn’s scrutiny.

Aeryn sensed he wasn’t happy about the party sneaking around the manor searching for his master’s “funny treasures,” but the old man did not give any overt indication of his resentment. She was sorry for him, but her life was at stake, and she wanted to survive this quest.

“You said the ruler here gave a trinket to his wife that would help identify the items the goddess mentioned,” said Aeryn.

“Aye,” growled the old man. “Last time I seen it, it was in Milady’s chambers, but that were years gone ago.”

“Are her chambers down this way?” asked Denaryus, pointing to the left.

“Aye,” sighed Seekate.

Evie led the way down the dusty corridor of the family wing, where the walls were lined with tattered cloth hinting that the walls once displayed elaborate hangings. The hacked doors led to various rooms and suites that must once have been lavishly furnished and richly decorated. Aeryn, last in line, kept an eye on the corridor behind them, watching for orc or goblin patrols.

When Evie reached the first doorway, she slid into the opening and to the left, keeping low to the ground, looking for enemies. The remainder of the group slipped into the room behind her, Aeryn bringing up the rear. The walls had been hacked with axes, the furniture was in pieces, and the floorboards had been pried up in numerous places making their footing tricky. This room once contained rich carpets and elegant wall hangings, all of which were now in shreds and tatters. Aeryn could see that the suite held more than one room, they had entered what could have been a sitting room. Another door across the chamber was slightly ajar.

As the group examined the room, Evie pulled up short near the partially-open door to the other room of the apartment. She turned to the rest of the band and motioned for silence. Denaryus and Natsu crept to the entrance and joined Evie as the young elf listened. Edging closer, she stuck her head around to peer into the room.

Crab-crawling back and pushing the group out of sight of the door, she whispered, “There’s three goblins in there arguing over a short piece of red, decorated wood.”

“They found Milord’s stick,” Aeryn heard the old man mutter, his voice tinged with indignation.

She unsheathed her sword as Denaryus cocked the crossbow and Evie drew her daggers. Natsu stood back with Senisalma and Seekate, his spear clenched in both hands.

At Aeryn’s nod, they burst into the room charging, the occupants. The goblins started at the sight of three armed humanoids coming at them when the group dashed through the door. The two arguing over the wand continued their tug of war, while the third brought his spear around to defend himself.

Aeryn rushed the spear-wielding creature. In two steps, she was upon him as he tried to bring the spear up to block the sword. The girl was already inside the range of his shortspear as she stabbed him in the chest. Kicking the dead goblin off her sword, she spun to face the remaining two. At the sight of their companion falling, the two remaining monsters dropped the stick and pulled their axes from their belts. They rushed to flank the tall girl.

Denaryus moved a few feet to her right, aimed, and fired at the nearest goblin just as Evie struck the creature in the low back, just below the ribs. He stumbled to the left, just missing Aeryn as he lost control of his swing. The remaining monster shouted something at them that they couldn’t understand as he swung his axe at her. She trapped the axe with the sword, snapped her wrists, and spun. The axe flew from the hand of the dumbfounded goblin. She continued her spin and as she came around the broadsword caught the creature in the torso just below his still-raised right arm. Aeryn saw Evie at knee-level, her dagger slicing into the goblin’s left hamstring.

Aeryn stared at the sword in her hand, amazed at her sudden skill. Then she remembered the boon granted by the goddess the previous night. “While you remain here, you have my blessing to use any object you find as if you were trained in its use.” She mouthed a prayer of thanks to the goddess.

When the last goblin fell, Seekate rushed into the bedchamber and grabbed the stick from the floor where the monsters had dropped it, Natsu and Senisalma following. The bedroom had once featured a four-poster bed and a settee with an actual glass mirror, now in pieces all over the room. A ceramic bath behind a shredded screen was lying in several large pieces, it had been painted with marine creatures, the paint now chipped and faded. Aeryn searched the wreckage and found a palm-sized piece of mirror. She tucked it in one of the folds of the sail.

“Hand it over,” said Aeryn. Putting her hand out to the old man, she motioned for him to hand over the wand. Seekate slapped it into her palm, resentment smoldering in his faded blue eyes. The girl looked at it, found nothing of interest, and gave it to Natsu. The young half-elf scrutinized it for a moment.

“It looks like a wand of some type,” he said as he tucked it in his make-shift belt.

“How did your master think that the manor could be defended, with all its windows and doors?” Evie asked Seekate as she checked the size of the boots the goblins wore.

Denaryus and Senisalma grasped what the younger elf was doing and checked for their own pairs of ill-fitting boots. They also searched the goblins for more useful items—water skins, honing stones, flint and steel, and the like.

“Oh, Milord had ‘is navy. It were right pow’rful, it were. His ships kept more pirates than we could count off us,” said Seekate.

“Yes,” added Senisalma. “The pirate lords don’t rely on traditional fortifications. My father has often described this sort of poor defense when the ruler never really expects enemies to make it to his front door. In the case of Lord Da’Velli, he may have been a bit overconfident in his navy.”

“I guess so,” replied Aeryn.

They finished searching the room but found nothing else of value. Padding back through the sitting room, Evie listened at the entrance to the hallway, making sure that the racket of the battle hadn’t attracted any orcs.

Hearing only quiet, the young elf peeked out the opening and looked to the left then the right. Evie crept across the hallway to the double doors leading into the master’s suite. One was missing, and most of the other hung from the single remaining hinge high on the frame.

As the group entered the room, Aeryn saw Seekate bob a quick bow. Like the quarters of Lady Da’Velli, the antechamber was decorated in once-exquisite decay. Aeryn saw broken sofas, shredded wall hangings, fouled carpets, pried up floorboards, and doors at both ends of the room leading into other areas.

She moved into the chamber on the left into what looked to have been the lord’s sitting room. It featured a broken desk, smashed chairs, and badly hacked walls. The destruction was particularly vicious in this place, more so than in the Lady’s chambers.

“They must have really hated this Da’Velli fellow,” remarked Denaryus.

“Oh, t’weren’t that so much,” replied Seekate. “They was thinkin’ Milord kept his best treasures here.”

“And did he?” asked the elf.

“Oh, aye, he did,” said the old man, his eyes flicking toward the remains of the desk. “But them pirates took everything they could find.”

Evie, noticing the glance, moved toward what was left of the desk, examining the pieces thoroughly. As her hands probed the remains, her sensitive fingers found a panel that moved when she pressed it. A compartment hidden in the fragment sprang open. It held a shiny dagger and a small flask. The double-edged fighting dagger showed no sign of rust, even after all these years. The black jeweled hilt was inlaid with gold in the design of cresting waves. Natsu examined the stoppered, sealed blue bottle, but had no idea what it could have contained. He seemed hesitant to break the seal not knowing if that would contaminate the contents. Evie picked up the dagger and checked its balance.

“I’d like to use this if you guys don’t mind,” she said. “I can use it with the other one I have.”

Poking their heads into the third and most interior room, they could see it had once been a bedroom, also decorated in the same decor as the rest of the domicile—deterioration, and decay. It featured more smashed tables, a destroyed four-poster bed, and damaged floors and walls.

Aeryn turned and walked toward the antechamber. She wanted to see what was behind the door in the south wall. As with many of the other chambers, what was left of the door hung by a single hinge. She ducked through a moldy tapestry into what might have once been a study. The shattered remains of desks, chairs, and tables were all that was left of the furnishings.

A doorway on the east wall led into the remnants of a library. The room was littered with toppled bookshelves and heaps of rotting paper and leather—hundreds of books, all utterly ruined; not one in good enough shape to recover, much to Natsu’s displeasure. Aeryn found it hard to breathe in this room because of the thickness of the mildew and mold wafting over the mulch.

“Hey, check this out,” said Evie peering at a panel propped against the far wall. As the rest of the group joined her, she pointed to the weapon. “Look.”

A full-sized carved wallboard, depicting a sailor drawing back his hooked spear to release at a distant behemoth, leaned in one corner. As Aeryn looked at the pane, she noticed something strange: the gaff in the figure’s hands was a separate piece, inlaid into the wood. Painted to look like part of the panel, the gilding fell away as she touched it, revealing the golden hue of a weapon beneath.

“Wait,” said Natsu, pulling the wand from the folds of his belt. Bringing the crimson shard near the javelin, Aeryn saw him start.

“What?” she asked.

“Here,” he handed the girl the wand, “bring it near the harpoon.”

As she did so, she felt the wand grow warm and begin to softly pulse beneath her fingers.

“Oh,” she said, startled. “I see what you mean. Evie, bring your dagger over here,” she turned to the small elf girl.

Evie drew the dagger from under the strip of sailcloth that served as a belt and brought it near the wand.

“Yes,” said Aeryn, “it’s magic also.” She handed the wand to Evie and watched as the elfling’s eyes widened.

“Woah,” she said as she handed the wand back to Natsu.

“What else have we picked up in here?” asked Natsu. “We should see if anything else has magic.”

At that, they all brought their armor, weapons, and items over to Natsu who held the wand. Only a few of the things they had found turned out to be magical: the dagger, the harpoon, and the bottle of blue liquid.

Out of the corner of her eye, Aeryn observed Seekate as they checked their items. The old man was watching the process through narrowed eyes. She didn’t trust having the old man at her back but did trust that Denaryus and Natsu would watch out for her.

Evie listened at the opening to the hallway while the group took a few minutes to discuss their next moves.

“Shhh,” the young elf hissed crouching by the door.

Aeryn backed against the nearest wall, looking for a tapestry shred to use as bare cover, glad that her clothing was a dingy brown that, more or less, blended with her colorless surroundings. She watched as Denaryus and Natsu backed to the nearest walls and Seekate scuttled into the closest corner. Senisalma again stood frozen until Denaryus peeled herself from her hiding place and took the woman by the elbow, moving her to the corner partially concealed by the wall plaque.

Barely breathing, Aeryn listened as one group challenged another at the opposite end of the hall. She watched a sextet of goblins rush past the door. As they passed, Evie detached herself from the wall and peeked around the corner, waiting until they heard shouts and the clash of weapons. The young elf motioned the rest of the band to follow her.

They picked their way across the littered library toward the door. Aeryn kept watch as Evie raced down the hallway, and turned left into, she hoped, an empty corridor. Evie gave a thumbs-up as soon as she looked both ways down each passage. Denaryus went next, followed by Senisalma. When the girl was halfway to the corner, Aeryn heard a loud “hey, wha…” Then the voice was cut off, she turned in time to see an orc pointing at the girl just as a goblin spear caught him in the throat.

Turning again to her friends, she saw Denaryus dash back around the corner and grab the girl’s arm, dragging her around the corner. Waiting a few breaths to see whether any of the other combatants had noticed them, Aeryn listened. Not hearing a new outcry, she peeked around the corner at the battle. Only half of the goblins remained, while four orcs pressed forward relentlessly. She motioned Natsu to help Seekate to safety.

Watching the battle, Aeryn saw she only had another moment or two before the skirmish would end. She scampered down the hall, grabbing Seekate’s right arm.

“Pick him up, let’s go,” she hissed at Natsu. The half-elf grasped the old man’s left arm, and together they lifted him off the ground, scurrying around the corner just as the sounds of conflict at the other end of the hall stopped.

The companions flattened themselves along the west wall, Evie on her belly at ground level, looking down the corridor for signs of pursuit. Seeing none, she motioned the group to move down the passage toward the room Seekate had marked ‘Go to katakooms.’ As they traveled past empty doorways, the ruins of desks, chairs, bookcases, scrolls, and writing materials, all covered in mildew and mold, greeted them.

Turning right into the second to the last room in the corridor, the party looked around for an entrance to the catacombs. Natsu found a couple of pieces of damaged, but still usable, parchment, an overlooked quill, and a miraculously sealed pot of ink.

“It’s here,” said Seekate. “The entrance to the catacombs is here under one of them bookcases on the north wall. All’s ya has to do is press the button on the bookcase.”

Aeryn stood on her toes, barely able to see the top of the shelves. Unable to see a button, she looked around the room for something on which to stand so she could see the top. Stacking a few broken pieces of desks into a rickety pile, she climbed up to feel the rear of the bookcase. Poking around, she felt a small square give slightly under her fingertips. Pressing down, she felt and heard a loud “click.”

Nothing happened. No grinding noise, no hidden door swinging open, nothing. The only sound they heard was a yell echoing through the passageway.