Hargus Hurryhouse Adventures - Book 1, Chapter 2

"Ag, you need to lighten up. This whole straight-arrow thing really kills the mood. A good-lookin' guy like you shouldn't be so somber...". She smiled, trying to get him to return the smile. It was her way. Courtenay had recently been promoted out of one of the more prestigious schools of magic in Orsholon City. And she was no slouch at turning on the charm.   Agnese was another story entirely. Smart, wise, but no patience for the frivolous, he was well respected for his by-the-book demeanor and for his prowess with a sword. He also was well-known for his apparent lack of fear. Word was he could "stare down a hell-hound without flinching". He simply kept walking down the road. The smile Courtenay was looking for wasn't coming.   Ninette, however, was the dark, mysterious one. Ninette never showed a face - not even to their companions - rarely spoke, and always seemed a bit aloof. Not in a pretentious way. They had an air of nobility - and was skilled at some of the less savory tasks.   Rounding out the group was a mountain of a man, the Mosae named Beivalur.Traditionally, Mosae were fighters, warriors. But he found a different calling, as a form of support to the warriors. As a healer, he had chosen to keep his Mosae fighting brethren in the best of health. To do so, he left his tribe in the Rinzeremel Mountains and headed to Orsholon City to train in the restorative arts. There, he was able to indulge his insatiable desire for knowledge. A big man, a big heart, on a mission to heal.   "Nightglade, leave the man be. He has his path, you have yours. For now, all our paths have converged. They will, at some point, diverge once again. But for now, let us make the most of our meeting". Beivalur was doing his best to diffuse a potentially uncomfortable situation before it got out of hand.   "Hmmph. Just having a little fun" grumbled Courtenay.   They were an uncommon group. With the exception of Ninette, they had recently emerged from their respective schools, and as was the custom, spent a night in revelry and imbibing. Elindine Raelle had managed to get them all around one table, and after a few pints, was able to convince them it was in their best interest to travel to Lawcrane together. And so it was that around a table in the Enchanted Jackal Pub, that these four planned to head to Lawcrane.   As the suns rose over the Rinzeremel Mountains, three of the four gathered at the gate. The air was crisp and cool. The seasons had not yet turned warm, and the wind from the mountains was refreshing when shaking off a night at the pub.   "Where's the wizard?" Agnese was not one for waiting around. Or people being late. Or people who couldn't handle their liquor. Frankly, he was already questioning this idea. He didn't need help, the road to Lawcrane was fairly safe. And now he was waiting for an overly friendly magic-wielder.   Beivalur sensed the annoyance, as he himself had begun to get impatient. But exacerbating the situation would not help. "Oatspell, the day is still young. We'll wait just a few more minutes and if Nightglade does not show, we'll proceed ahead."   Agnese grunted. He'd wait just a bit more. But that's it.   Agnese was just about to start out when Courtenay showed up.   "Where did you guys get to last night? I remember talking about meeting here, then got...uhhh... involved with a trader from Lawcrane. Man, did he... never mind. So what are we waiting for?"   "You" grunted Agnese.   "Wow, good morning to you too. Head a little achy from last night? Or did you not get..."   "ENOUGH!". Agnese looked ready to explode. "Do you NEVER SHUT UP?"   "Alright, sorry."   The four picked up their packs and began their journey through the Orsholon City gate and onto the Orsholon/Lawcrane Road. If the weather held up, they would make Lawcrane in about 2-3 weeks on foot. The stables in the city had been overbooked, which was unfortunate. By horse, it would have been more like a 10-day trip.   The road was well-traveled and clear this time of year. There was still a significant snow cap in the higher elevations, but along the road, the worst they might find was a few muddy patches.   With Courtenay's attempt at lightening the mood set aside, the four walked on toward the Zeremel Forest. The first few miles through the forest were in the protectorate of the Royal Family of Orsholon and were filled with tall fragrant pines that gave way to stands of ancient oak. This was a place that was sacred to the Royals, and no logging nor hunting was allowed. Not even by the Royal Family.   Because of this, the forest was thick and lush, and the wildlife was abundant and relatively unafraid of those entering. The air was filled with the sound of birds singing and the scent of damp ground and foliage. In the thicker parts of the forest, the sunlight barely filtered its way through the high canopy of trees, with shafts of light streaming down and cutting through the mist in the morning.   The group would travel to the far edge of the forest and find a place to encamp there for the night.
  Traveling through the Zeremel Forest along the Orsholon/Lawcrane Road can be a peaceful, serene experience. The sound of birds singing, the wind through the trees, and the rays of the sun that peeked through the canopy high above felt like you were walking through Nature's cathedral.   Not this day. Courtenay was in rare form.   "Does this forest never end?"   "I have to pee."   Courtenay hadn't stopped talking since they entered the forest. Beivalur was beginning to wonder if she ever took a breath.   "By all the gods, when are we gonna stop to set-up camp?"   Of all people, Beivalur was the calmest, most gentle of the group. So it alarmed all of them when...   "DO NOT BLASPHEME, NIGHTGLADE" His voice had the tone of someone who had lost all patience and Courtenay had crossed a line. They all looked first at him, then Agnese and Ninette looked at Courtenay. Agnese smirked, the closest any of them had seen to a smile on his face.   Courtenay was startled by the outburst as well. She fell silent for the first time in hours. But not for long.   "Sorry, no offense meant. I just think we need to get settled in before it gets too dark. I mean, we need to set-up camp, get a fire going, all of that stuff."   "We'll stop when we reach the edge of the forest, and not before. If you don't like it, turn your arse around and head back to Orsholon." The smirk on Agnese's face had turned to a snarl.   There's an old saying: If you find you've dug yourself into a hole, the best thing to do is to put down the shovel. Apparently, Courtenay had never heard the old saying.   "Well who died and made you the boss?" she quipped.   Almost as quick as she finished her taunt, Agnese had the point of his sword under her chin. "No one, yet. Volunteering?"   Courtenay's eyes got huge. Her "No" was almost a whisper. The glare in Agnese's eyes was enough to tell her she shouldn't push him any further. He continued to glare at her, his eyes like stiletto blades. It seemed to last forever. Finally, he lowered his blade and sheathed it. "I thought not. We'll continue to the edge of the forest." He turned around and began to walk.   As he did, Courtenay mocked a salute. He snapped his head towards her, hand on the hilt of his blade. She brushed the hair from her face and lowered her head. Agnese turned his head back to look ahead. The smirk was back.   Beivalur shook his head. "Nightglade, my apologies for my outburst. But you should learn to hold your tongue lest someone else makes sure you lose it."   The next hour of travel was back to the peace and quiet of the forest, the only sounds breaking the atmosphere being the footsteps of the party. At one point, they were passed by another party headed to Orsholon City. Simple nods were given and the forest returned to its peaceful quietude.   As the suns began to go down, they could see the forest beginning to thin. In short order, they had reached the eastern edge of the Zeremel Forest. In a small area north of the road, the trees formed a semi-circular wind-block that would keep them protected from the chill winds that were still coming down from the mountains. After the suns fell below the horizon, the winds could get very cold and make for, at best, an uncomfortable night. But the trees would keep the winds from their camp and let them have a night of rest.   The light was fading quickly as they set-up camp. Courtenay pulled a small, glowing gem from her waist pouch, and with a few words, her hand began to glow. She touched a rock near the center of the encampment site, and the rock became a glowing source of light.   Ninette had wandered off a little further into the forest to retrieve wood for a fire, while Beivalur formed a ring of stone near Courtenay's glowing rock. The ring would contain the fire. Agnese scouted the surrounding area to make sure there were no surprises. The forest, since it was protected by The Kingdom, was relatively safe, but there was no sense in being careless.   By the time the suns had left the sky, the fire was roaring and the glow of the "light rock" illuminated the camp. As they unpacked their bedrolls and looked for comfortable spots, it was inevitable that Courtenay would try to strike up a conversation with the least likely to speak.   "So, Ninette, where ya from?"   The quiet one answered, "Nowhere you would know."   "Really? Try me! I'm pretty good at geography!"   Ninette shook their head.   "Ok... well, why are you headed to Lawcrane?"   Again, Ninette answered with a polite, if short, "Personal business".   "What kind?" asked Courtenay.   "Personal."   Beivalur let out a long, hearty laugh. "Nightglade, you certainly have a gift for missing the obvious. Our friend here has no desire to talk about their personal matters.   Ninette nodded slightly toward Beivalur. "Thank you."   Agnese spoke up. "I'll take the second watch. I'll let the chatty one have the first watch." He walked to where the light faded and laid down on his mat next to a tree, sword in its sheath lain propped up, ready to be drawn. The light would keep away most of the more curious night denizens of the forest, and he would be in a perfect position to challenge any that approached. As he lay back and closed his eyes, he could hear Courtenay and Beivalur talking. Ninette rose, bid the other two a good evening, and retreated to their bedroll.   "Well then, big man, what's your story?" Courtenay obviously did not want to spend her watch by herself.   He laughed. "What would you like to know? I reserve the right not to answer."   Courtenay laughed as well. "Fair enough... You're a from a Mosae clan, aren't you? What brought you down from the heights? And your name doesn't sound all fierce like most Mosae I've heard of."   "My nickname, the one you usually hear a Mosae referred to, is Feverbreaker. Beivalur Feverbreaker Godthiraskime. I was much better at the healing arts that I was a fighter, at least by Mosae standards. To remain, I had to show my value to the tribe. So I healed warriors who were injured. Since the Cataclysm, the only real fights are those between Mosae. No tribe wants to take on an army they cannot defeat. They won't tell you that, but it's the reality.   My skill at healing had its limits. I knew that I could be better and more useful to my tribe if I could improve my skills, so I convinced our tribal leader to let me go to school in Orsholon City. He had previously dealt with King Roigos II of Orsholon and found him to be a fair man. I wouldn't say they are friendly, but I think they each care deeply for their people. In any case, I studied healing arts and have now found I need to refine my skills by traveling and helping when I can. I understand that Lawcrane has need of healers in the rougher parts of the city. I believe I can go there and help heal. And what about you, Nightglade?"   "Little old me?" asked Courtenay, affecting an obviously made up modesty. "My folks never thought I'd amount to much. We lived in Orsholon City - they still do. But I met this guy who was working in the academies in the western part of the city and he got me interested in the magic arts. I kinda schmoozed my way into one of the schools and found out that I really have a knack for it. I know most folks have some ability, but to really put it to use got me thinking I might do something and show my folks they were wrong. Probably sounds silly to a guy like you."   "Not at all". Beivalur knew what she felt. "I often felt less than worthy of my tribe. My father died a warrior not long after I was born. My mother frowned on my interest in learning and the healing arts until I was able to show how it helped the tribe. But I still want to go back and show them that there is value in knowledge."   "Well, maybe you and I are more alike than we would have thought, big guy!"   "HA! Maybe so Nightglade, maybe so!" Beivalur laughed. They continued to chat into the night and heard the rustling of Agnese rising for his watch.   "Have a good rest, Oatspell?" asked Beivalur.   "Not with you two chattering away like monkeys. Go get some rest, we'll break camp when the suns rise."   As Courtenay and Beivalur lay down for their sleep, Agnese stood guard. He had performed this duty many, many times. Tonight would be an easy one.   At one point, however, he saw a dark shadow passing overhead out of the corner of his eye. Or so he thought. But as he turned to look, it was gone. Not a sound, nothing to see. Maybe he didn't get enough rest, thanks to those two chatterboxes.   He put it out of his mind. It was likely a bird or an insect that flew close to his head. Nothing to be concerned about. Still...   Agnese continued to stand watch. As the first light of the suns rose across the plains to the east, he woke the rest of his party and they began to break camp. It was at least five days to Tremer, where they could resupply and get a good night's rest. And some ale.
  As the party broke camp, the sleep seemed to have bolstered the general mood. Even Agnese seemed a little more relaxed. But he still was wondering about the shadow he saw overnight. He kept it to himself, as all it would do is raise speculation, and at this point, that would be unproductive. The mission was to get to Lawcrane, and anything that detracted from that mission was superfluous.   Bedrolls packed and a quick set of rations consumed, they broke camp and headed down to the road to continue their travels. The sky was clear, and the lack of cloud cover overnight let the little heat from the ground escape toward the stars. Beivalur enjoyed this type of weather. It reminded him of the warmer days with his tribe. While everyone else pulled their coats a little tighter, Beivalur felt it was downright balmy.   With everyone in a lighter mood, jokes went back and forth. Many were old chestnuts that popped up when someone had run out of jokes, others were a little off-color and new, like the one about the barbarian and the three shells. The day, and the miles, rolled along effortlessly. They stopped at a small hill on the road, and they all sat for a quick bite to eat. The scene was pastoral, with rolling hills of green and the occasional farm in the distance. Rumor was that this part of Orsholon - in fact, most of Orsholon - was part of a massive city that spanned the land from the Rinzeremel Mountains to the Nawal Sea. Most Orsholonians couldn't conceive of such a thing. How did they travel? How did they feed the masses? And where did it go?   Most believed it was destroyed in The Cataclysm. Orsholonians survived the 30-Year Winter by heading underground and into the caves north of Orsholon City. The caves were now closed off in deference to the lives lost so long ago, but surely there had to be some signs of this city. Or perhaps it was just a myth, like so much surrounding Orsholonian history.   The Cataclysm was something that people were afraid to discuss. The biggest taboo was the discussion of "Ene" It was considered an evil construct that could destroy worlds. It was feared by not just Orsholonians, but most of Arnathia. One group, however - The Heretics had tried for centuries to convince Arnathians otherwise. They were forced to hide and meet secretly as Arnathians did not want anything to remotely increase the chance of another Cataclysm. Magic they could accept, but not the abomination of Ene.   As they finished their mid-day meal, a herd of deer ran across the road toward the mountains. "I think that's a sign we should resume," chuckled Beivalur. And so it was.   The party gathered up their packs, and they set out again. The goal was to reach the Aka Forest by late afternoon. They should only need about 3 hours to get there, and the suns had just passed their zenith. The warmth of the suns on their shoulders gave the party a lighter step.   As the suns began to slowly move toward the horizon, the party could make out the edge of the Aka Forest in the distance. There were always rumors of strange things happening in the Aka Forest, and while Agnese put little stock into such stories, he didn't want to tempt fate by traveling through at night. No, they would encamp on the west side and travel through in the morning.   Near the forest's edge, a small road led off to the north, through a stone boulder wall. Beyond that, a small stone building. No signs, nor markings indicated what it might be.   "Hey, we've still got some daylight. We should go check that place out! Whaddaya think?" Courtenay asked.   Agnese responded, "I think it's not the road to Lawcrane, and we have no need to waste time on it."   Courtenay wasn't going to give up that easily. "Come on. We're gonna stop for the night in a few minutes anyway. Oh, wait, is the big man with the sword afraid?"   Agnese, for some reason, took the bait. "Get out of my way!" and pushed past Courtenay and headed up the side road toward the building. After a short rise, the road dipped into a depression. The nature of the building and its surroundings became clear: they had happened upon a graveyard. The building was a mausoleum.   Beivalur became uncomfortable. "We should leave here. We have no business on these grounds."   "Oh, come on! There's plenty of light out! We've got time. Let's check it out!". There was no question what Courtenay wanted to do. She was already walking toward the mausoleum.   The building was ancient. The stone had worn away over time, rounding what had once been sharp corners. There was a single entrance framed by tall columns. Inscriptions carved into the face of the building had also worn away, but could still be made out. The name above the entrance to the mausoleum read "Ormalt."   "This seems like a pretty big building for a family I've never heard of." Courtenay was hoping to intrigue the party. "Ring a bell with any of you?"   No one seemed to have heard of the family. But Courtenay had a point. It seemed that a family influential enough to have a mausoleum should be known to someone.   Beivalur was becoming more agitated. "We need to leave. This is a temple to Kimem. The inscription below the name - Qiweqo bia o aq ob amia - is the belief of Kimem. We are on holy ground. We should leave now."   Ninette suddenly caught something out of the corner of their eye. Turning to point at it, it was gone. It was a shadow, yet not a shadow, in the sky.   "What are you pointing at?" asked Agnese.   "Nothing, Agnese. Never mind." But Agnese saw it too. Just like the previous night. Yet he still said nothing about it. "Let's go, the light is fading, and we have to make camp."   "Seriously?? We walked all the way up here, and now we're just gonna leave without checking things out? Come ON!". Courtenay was egging them on, to no avail. "You want to stay and look around? Enjoy yourself," said Agnese as he, Beivalur, and Ninette made their way back to the main road.   "Zabelar!" was Courtenay's reply, a mild curse that would be unlikely to offend. Even in a graveyard. "Alright, wait up."   The party reached the main road and continued to the forest edge. They found a suitable camp spot near the main road, and the previous night's process of setting up camp was repeated. The camp was on a small rise, slightly higher than the area around the graveyard. They could see an amethyst fog creeping into the depression in front of the mausoleum. Within an hour, all they could see was the top of the building.   While the scene was in the distance, the sight of it crept into the party's senses like the fog itself. It left them uneasy. What was that unnaturally colored fog, and did it have anything to do with the graveyard itself? No one had any desire to go investigate after dark. This mystery would have to wait for another time.   The watches remained the same, and when it was time, Courtenay and Beivalur waited for Agnese to relieve them. "You two stay here for a bit. I need to relieve myself."   A little longer wasn't going to kill anyone, so Courtenay and Beivalur agreed to wait as Agnese walked into the woods.
    While the woods in the Zeremel Forest exuded a sense of peace and tranquility, the Aka Forest felt foreign and unsettling. Same oaks and pines, same landscape, but the atmosphere was discomforting. As if there was always something just around the corner.   Agnese found a spot to "water the greenery," he heard something that sounded like water splashing. But in the middle of the night? He finished his business and began to move toward the sound. In the distance, he could see the shimmer of water in the light of the moon. He heard the splash again. His curiosity piqued, he made his way toward the water.   As he approached the water, he could see that it was a small lake, and at the north end, the same fog covering the graveyard seemed to flow into the lake, or perhaps out of it. On the far side of the lake, he saw the source of the sound: The figure of a naked woman swimming.   Agnese was mesmerized, so much that he failed to pay attention to his footing and tripped over some exposed roots near the water's edge. He fell, hard, onto the mud at the edge of the lake. And the woman disappeared.   He got up, the front of him covered in mud. He had a change of clothing back at camp, but he'd need to clean these before he put them in his pack. And how would he dry them? Stupid move, not paying attention to where he was going, he thought to himself. Then he realized: He hadn't seen the woman since he fell. Where had she gone?   Just then, he heard a quiet laugh. A gentle laugh that had the quality of a babbling brook. To his left was the woman, glistening wet in the moonlight. She was tall, taller than most women (and many men). And beautiful. Agnese was dumbstruck, speechless. Here in front of him was a beautiful, nude woman laughing at him.   "Clumsy fellow!" Her voice was teasing, playful. Agnese could not take his eyes off her, and she had noticed. "Do you always stare at someone you've just met?"   He finally gained enough composure to stammer out, "Who are you?"   "I could ask you the same question," she said. "I am Isase. And who might you be?"   Agnese caught himself continuing to stare and looked away, off across the water. "I am Agnese Oatspell, graduate of the Royal Guard Academy."   "Well, Agnese Oatspell, what causes you to traipse through the woods and trip in the mud?" she teased.   "I... I heard a noise coming from the water and came to investigate."   "So, am I a mystery for you to solve Agnese Oatspell?" she quipped. She was obviously enjoying his unease.   "What is this place? I mean, it's a lake, yes, but why does that fog roll into it? And what is that fog?"   "Agnese Oatspell, you certainly have a lot of questions for a man covered in mud. Let me see if I can help with that."   With a wave of her hands, his clothing - and the mud - began to dry. Within seconds, the mud had dried so much that it hardened and fell away from Agnese's clothing. His clothes were dry, and he was none the worse for wear. He marveled at the change, looking down at his vest and pants and seeing them looking clean. He looked up to thank Isase - and she was gone.   From the area where the fog met the water, he could hear laughing, and looked to see Isase in the water. "Perhaps we'll meet again, Agnese Oatspell" and she dove beneath the water, gone. Agnese was as confused as he was when he arrived at the lake.   Then he remembered he had left Courtenay and Beivalur standing watch. He made his way back to the camp. "Where in Qobal have you been?!" Courtenay was obviously annoyed. "We need sleep too, you thick-headed lunk!"
All Images created BY Kahuna the Elder, with source materials from Pixabay, Pexels, Unsplash, Artbreeder and public domain sources.


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