Okay, this is almost entirely unchanged from its previous version. I got really into trying to reshape and reform the chapter to introduce new characters and subtler plot points. But that didn’t happen. So I went back and reread the original chapter and decided I like it. So it stayed.
Chronicles of Koeleth
An Old Friend
Tom was leaning against the heavy wooden door at the entrance to the White Tower. After a peaceful night and an uneventful morning, he and Collin had finally reached the monument to a bygone era. Collin was immediately absorbed in his studies, leaving Tom to keep his vigil. For the past three hours, it had carried on in that fashion and the day showed no signs of changing. Tom had searched every inch of the tower for any signs of bandits or ruffians, and he found nothing. Feeling that they were safe, he had allowed himself to relax some. He hadn’t totally forgotten his duties, however, and decided that the entrance to the structure would be a wise place to perch himself. That was how he arrived at his current position. With the exception of an occasional excited outburst from Collin, the tower was quiet and peaceful. Tom was daydreaming when the wooden door burst open. Despite his shock, Tom quickly went into action, rushing out the door and swinging the butt end of his halberd out at his perceived assailant. Much to his surprise, a small round shield calmly pushed the blow away.
“Holy crap!” Tom exclaimed. “Don’t sneak up on me like that!”
“I hardly think opening a door qualifies as sneaking up on someone,” a woman’s voice mockingly responded. “You shouldn’t have been leaning on the door. But, dude, you should have seen your face, Tom! Funniest thing I’ve seen in a long time!”
“Well, you should have knock – wait, did you just say ‘Tom’? How do you know me?” Tom took a good hard, look at the woman talking to him. Average build; a few inches shorter than Tom; light brown, curly hair, same color as her eyes. Realization dawned on time and a crooked smile split his face in two.
“What? You don’t recognize your oldest friend? I’m offended!” The woman laughed at the blundering warrior.
“Ah, how shameful of me! Of course, I remember you! It’s been too long, Amelia!” Tom responded, wrapping the woman in a bear hug.
“It’s only been five years! How’ve you been?” Amelia volleyed back, returning the gesture.
“Only five years! As if that was nothing. I’ve been great, how about you?”
“I’ve been pretty good, too. Just got back from Besalgan, after a two year mission trip. Figured I’d say hi to an old friend.”
“Right. Besalgan is a dangerous place for foreigners. How’d you fair?”
“Well, I’m still alive, so that’s something. It went relatively well, thanks to Neutral Party and my Linguist,” showing off her heater and a hunting bow.
“Alright, I remember the shield from when we left our village. Right after we left, you had your Erscheinung. Man, you were so lucky. As I recall, Neutral Party is a group effect. All your allies gain a small boost in energy and strength as long as you remain in a group, right?”
“That’s right. It’s useful.”
“I don’t remember the bow, though.”
“Ah, yes, Linguist is a recent addition to my arsenal. Normally, I try to avoid violence, opting for more peaceful methods, but Besalgan called for more assertive strategies. I implored my guardian, Empathae, to help me, and she provided me with this bow. It fires off invisible arrows, super helpful when you are trying not to be noticed.”
“I thought Compassia’s Hand was supposed to be a peaceful organization. What were you doing?”
“It was a more personal mission, actually. I’ll tell you about it a little bit later. In the meantime, I think I hear someone coming. Your client, I presume?”
“Tom! Tom!” Sure enough, that was Collin running down the stairs. “Is everything alright?”
“Yeah, everything’s fine. Why?”
“I heard you scream, and I was scared so I hid! When it got quiet, I decided to see if you were okay. Thank goodness everything’s fine. Sorry I was such a coward, though.”
“No worries. I’m the one who has to be brave, here. At least you did come to check. Some of my clients would have left me for dead.”
“Right, right. Oh. Who’s this? A friend of yours?”
“This is Amelia Worldwalker. She’s a missionary for Compassia’s Hand, and she’s also my childhood friend. I’ve known her longer than anyone.”
“Howdy,” Amelia chimed, waving at Collin.
“Hello. I am Collin Softvoice. Scholar, architect, traveler. It is a pleasure to meet you.” He extended his hand for a handshake.
“Nice to meet you, too. So, what’s the deal here? Why did you hire this idiot?”
“Hey!” Tom exclaimed.
“I hired Mr. Riversedge to protect me during my passage to and from this tower. He was the only person willing to take on the job for such a pitiful sum of money. I am thankful to him, naturally.”
“He’s all you could get? Truly unfortunate.”
“Well, now. I’ll have you know that I’ve become quite an accomplished warrior since you saw me last.”
“Oh, yeah? I suppose I did notice something different. Last time I saw you, you had cleaner clothes, better armor, and a short sword. Now, the only thing that doesn’t look like you looted it off of a dead body is that fancy halberd there. That must be the Hardened Tear. You wrote me about it, but I don’t recall ever seeing it.”
“Yeah. It’s been a huge help to me.”
“So, were you two…?” Collin interrupted their banter.
Tom and Amelia responded in unison, rejecting Collin’s implications.
“No, no, no, no, no,” Tom began his defense. “We are just old friends! That’s it! We never –! I mean, we wouldn’t –! Heh…”
“Y-yeah. Just friends! Ha! What would make you think anything else?” Amelia continued.
“Alright, sure. Whatever you say…” Collin responded with doubt.
“A-anyways,” Tom redirected. “What brings you to White Tower, Amelia? How’d you know I’d be here? You certainly wouldn’t have gone to all the trouble of finding out where I was if you didn’t have something important to say.”
“Ah, how very perceptive of you! I did, in fact, have something I wanted your help with. You are a bit more…understanding than most people, so I think I can trust you with this. Come with me.” The young missionary led Tom, with Collin following close behind, outside of the tower to a small hollow a few yards into the woods. The hollow was invisible from the road. Unless you knew where it was, you would not be looking for it.
“How did you discover this place?” Tom asked.
“I didn’t. They did.” Amelia answered, motioning towards a group of strangers.
The curious congregation collectively raised their heads to observe their visitors. It was not a friendly atmosphere. Tom and Collin could feel the suspicion and fear in the air. Collin did his best to put Tom between himself and the group.
“These people are the reason I found you. They’re refugees, of a sort. They are also related to the personal mission I mentioned earlier.”
While she was talking, three members of the company approached them. The first was a tall man with short, sandy blonde hair. His vest, button-up shirt, and khaki pants were slightly tattered, as if he had been in a barroom brawl. Immediately to his left was a strawberry blonde woman with a similar outfit. To the right of the tall man was a smaller, weasel-like man, with greasy brown hair. His cloak, which covered his whole body, was just as tattered as the clothes of his companions.
“Is this the guy you were talking about?” the tall man said, looking over Tom disapprovingly. “He doesn’t seem all that impressive. Who’s the other guy behind him?”
“This is him. He may not seem that impressive, but he knows his way around a weapon.” The compliment from Amelia came as a little bit of a surprise to Tom. “The guy behind him is his current client. He followed us here on his own.”
“I’m sure he’ll be of great help to us,” the woman said. “Don’t you agree, Gabriel?”
“I don’t trust him. I don’t entirely trust Ms. Worldwalker, either, if I may be so bold,” the weasel man responded.
“I rather wish you wouldn’t be so bold, Gabe,” the tall man rebuked his smaller compatriot.
“With all due respect, sir, I—“
“Now, stop it, you two.” The woman said this quietly, but with an authority that both of them respected. “Dennis, don’t you think we should at least talk to the man before we make any hasty judgments.”
“I suppose you’re right, Grace,” the tall man conceded. “I am Dennis Starcurse, the leader of the pack. We are a group of nomads, making our living on the road. Gypsies, if you want to be insulting about it. Originally, most of us came from Behemoth, a small village on the western edge of Darwin’s Expanse. We were forced into exile, however, and took up a nomadic lifestyle. As we moved around, we absorbed more people like us, forming the troupe you see before you now. Ms. Worldwalker here told us that you were a trustworthy individual and a skilled warrior. Are you?”
“I’d like to think so. I’m Thomas Riversedge, at your service,” Tom said cordially, despite the tension between the two men.
“Hello, Mr. Riversedge. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” This time the woman named Grace spoke. “Amelia has told us quit a bit about you.”
“Has she now?” Tom inquired, giving Amelia a suspicious look.
“All good, I assure you,” Grace responded, easing Tom’s concerns. “I am second in command around here, Grace Nightstalker. I hope you live up to Amelia’s recommendation.”
“I’ll do what I can,” Tom responded as he turned to the final member of the trio.
“I am Gabriel Shattersoul, advisor to the pack’s esteemed leaders. I’ll have you know right now that I don’t entirely trust you. You’d better watch yourself while you’re here.”
“You have my word he’s trustworthy!” Amelia interrupted.
“Well, I trust you, Amelia,” Grace smiled. “So, I can trust Mr. Riversedge.”
“Thank you, Grace.”
“I don’t entirely trust you myself, if I must be honest, Mr. Riversedge, but Amelia has recommended you, so I’ll give you a chance.” Dennis said.
“I appreciate your honesty,” Tom said, shaking Dennis’ extended hand, both men gripping a bit tighter than they should, their teeth clenched ever so slightly. “I still don’t know what I’m doing, though.”
“Ah, yes. I suppose I haven’t told you that yet,” Amelia said. “I offered your services as an armed escort to them. They are headed to Barren Reach, to a safe haven for people like them.”
“Exactly,” Dennis interjected. “We have fared relatively well on our own so far. However, recently, there have been attempts by a certain organization to hunt us down and eliminate us. A few months back, we heard about Cryptid Oasis, a community of similar outcasts in Barren Reach, and, when the attacks started, we decided our best bet was to make for the desert. It’s hard to move such a large group unseen, though, and Grace, Gabe, and I decided that it would be better if we invested in some extra protection.”
“Why me?” Tom asked.
“I didn’t choose you. We came to you purely on Ms. Worldwalker’s recommendation. I wanted to go out and find a couple warriors myself, but she suggested that might be unwise, given the target on our heads. The responsibility passed on to her, naturally, and she assured us that she would deliver a quality guardian. And what we got was you.”
“I’m not sure I like you’re attitude, Mr. Starcurse.”
“I’m not asking you to like it. You just have to deal with it.”
“That’s enough,” Collin spoke up. He tapped his staff twice on the ground, and everyone present felt a sudden sense of peace and comfort. “As a leader, you should be ashamed of yourself, Mr. Starcurse. As a businessman, you should also be ashamed of yourself, Tom. You two are discussing matters larger than you both, and yet you’re letting your own pride get in the way of smooth negotiations. Calm down.”
“What…what was that?” Dennis said, stunned. “All of a sudden, I felt serenely calm, totally different than the tension I felt just moments before.”
“Wow. Is that your power, Collin? That was amazing!” Tom said, awestruck.
“Yes. As I told you before, it is excellent for diffusing heated situations.”
“Best client I’ve ever had. Thanks. That was getting a little too aggressive.”
“Do not mention it. Now, continue your negotiations.”
“Yes, let’s. So, you are requesting my services to help you reach Cryptid Oasis safely, correct?”
“That is correct,” Dennis answered. “I was hoping for more than one person, but it will have to do.”
“You may not have to do with just one person. Tell me one thing, though. Why didn’t you go to the Valiant Blades or the Adventurer’s Guild or another guild like that? I’m sure they would be willing to help.”
“There are a couple reasons, actually. First, we didn’t want to start a guild war. We don’t want any blood on our hands. Besides, that would draw unwanted attention to us. Second, any mission given to a guild has to pass through several layers of approval. Even if we managed to get through to the guild master, by that time, too many people would know of our mission, and we couldn’t guarantee that someone wouldn’t betray us. Third, and possibly most important, we wouldn’t have any control over who was sent to accompany us. The members of the guild would be chosen without needing our consent.”
“All for the sake of protection, then? I think I can understand that. Well, I’m not sold on this yet. I want to help you guys, but I need time to think about everything you’ve told me. After all, you’re asking me to help a pack of abominations traverse some of Koeleth’s most dangerous lands to get to a safe haven that you’ve only heard about.”
“How did you know we were abominations?”
“Because of that wolf right there.” Tom pointed to a juvenile wolf hiding behind Dennis’ legs. “Wolves don’t have blonde fur. They also don’t tend to whimper and hide behind people. Young abominations, in particular, have trouble controlling their powers, and, in stressful situations, they often activate their powers unwittingly.”
“Hmph. So, are you going to betray us, like everyone else does?”
“No. Regardless of my decision whether or not to help you, I will not betray you. If I can’t help you, I will refer you to someone who can. And I won’t tell anyone what you are. I understand what being an outcast is like, I’ve been travelling a long time, and I’m not always welcome. So, I get it. You have it even worse, too. You’re not welcome anywhere. You can trust me.”
The little wolf calmed down enough that she transformed back into a little girl. She couldn’t have been much older than ten, Tom guessed, and her face seemed familiar to him. She had long blonde hair that hung down to her waist and crystalline blue eyes.
“Hey, there. You’re scared, aren’t you? Don’t worry, everything will be fine. I’m Tom, what’s your name?”
The girl didn’t respond.
“This is Rydia,” Grace said. “Rydia Howler. We found her in the wilderness of Darwin’s Expanse, and we adopted her into the pack. She didn’t have a family, so we gave her a name to call her own. She is mute, so you’ll have to excuse her if she doesn’t respond.”
“Understood. Hi, Rydia. Don’t worry. Everything will be fine, you have my word.” He smiled to the little girl, which seemed to bring her some comfort. “Now, Dennis, as I was saying. I need time to think this over, and I am currently on another mission for Collin. We will be at the White Tower until late tomorrow morning, and then we will head back to Ramsthrone, where I live and where Collin is currently based out of. So, I have a proposition for you. If you believe that your pack will be safe, you, Grace and Gabriel should join me in Ramsthrone. We can discuss things more in the privacy of my home. I have a few guest rooms, you may have to double up, but you can rest there. Amelia, you can come, too. I imagine you’ll be going with us.”
“I’m as committed to this as you are,” she affirmed.
“Good. This will also allow me to restock and prepare for the journey properly. I should warn you, I have a friend living with me, but he’s nothing to be worried about. I wouldn’t call him trustworthy, per se, but he has a vested interest in avoiding trouble, so he won’t be going to anyone with your secrets. Does this sound agreeable to you?”
“You seem to be reliable enough. I have no issue with this plan.” Dennis was surprisingly cooperative.
“Will you truly help us? Then, I’m completely on board!” Grace piped in.
“What if this is a trap?” Gabriel said, suspicious of Tom’s motives.
“Then you stay here and watch the pack, Gabe. I understand your concerns. If something happens to us, it will fall on you to protect the pack. Can I trust you with that?” Dennis asked his advisor.
“Yes, sir. I will trust your judgment. Please, be cautious, sir and ma’am.”
“Thank you, Gabriel,” Grace said on behalf of them both.
“Excellent,” Tom interjected. “Now that we are all in agreement, I must leave and continue my job. I hope to see all of you soon, though.”
Tom and Collin said their farewells and headed back to the tower.
“So, that’s Tom, huh? He’s cute. He needs to clean up his attire a bit, but he’s a good looking fellow. I can see why you like him, Amelia.” Grace looked at the missionary mischievously.
“It’s not like that! It’s never been like that. We’re just childhood friends, is all.”
“Sure, sure. Whatever you say…”
“I’m actually going to catch up with those two, so I’ll see you later, Grace.”
“See you later, Amelia.”
Amelia ran off to catch the warrior and the scholar. The rest of the day passed peacefully. While Collin continued his studies, Amelia and Tom stood guard, catching up on the past few years and recalling childhood memories. Eventually, night fell, and Amelia returned to the abominations’ camp to rest for the night, while Tom and Collin spent the night inside the safe walls of the White Tower.