The Madrigal's Tower (Adventure III)
1075 SC, Fifth of Stormwall
“Why’re you plannin’ to build here, anyway? They don’t call this place The Crag because it’s good for foundations you know.”
Deep down, I knew the man was right. The Crag, as the locals called it, was a bleak area in an already desolate land. The gently rolling hills closer to Elmwatch gave way to rough, sharp breaks in the terrain, with ravines and harsh outcroppings pockmarked all about. Still, something had drawn me here, and I intended to find out what. Besides, from what the man told me, nobody comes around here unless absolutely necessary. Exactly what I needed.
“Why do you ask, hm?
The guide shrugged. “A man has a right to his curiosity.”
“And a man also has a right to his secrets,” I replied.
“Indeed he does, I suppose.” He sighed and rubbed his face as the wind whipped through his hair. “D’you need anything else from me, or will you be able to make your own way? I heard you mention you had some experience in little jaunts like this despite your… uh… age.”
I smiled at the guide and fished through my pockets, finding the coin I was looking for. “I think I should be okay from here, sir. I would never dream of keeping you from your family for long.” I flipped the coin in his general direction, counting on his keen eyes and quick reflexes to handle the rest.
“Much obliged,” he said as the coin disappeared under his leathers. “If you’re going to be building something all the way out here, that means you’ll be staying a while. Might I get your name?”
“Of course,” I said, extending a hand. “They call me Madrigal.”
The man shook his hand. “I’m known around these parts as Cavril.”
“Are you known by something else in other places?”
Cavril grinned. “A man’s entitled to his secrets, is he not?”
I laughed heartily, something I hadn’t done since I came to the Moor those scant few months ago. Not that the people I had met were unpleasant, there had simply been more troubling thoughts swirling around my head as of late. “He is indeed, Cavril. I have no doubt I will be seeing you around, then.” The guide departed, leaving me alone with my thoughts and plans for the future.
I shucked my pack from my shoulders, stretching as I did so. As a rule, myself and others like me tried not to get too accustomed to a life of luxury, as it was assumed it would hamper our ability to go out and do the things we were born for - dull our razor edge, so to speak. Despite that doctrine, walking several hundred miles over the course of a couple of months still took its toll.
Every self-respecting wizard needed a place to operate. Somewhere to store their esoteric tools and ingredients and rest in between bursts of activity. Looming over a town of uneducated farmhands was just a bonus. However, I had grown up in one of those tiny towns, although it lacked an ominous tower in the distance. I wasn’t about to impose myself upon the folk of the Moor in such a way so soon after my arrival. Yet another benefit to my location; far enough off the beaten path to not be in anyone’s way, but the trip could be made easily if someone required my assistance.
I donned a pair of leather gloves and began the grueling process of clearing away all the rocks in my chosen area. The smell of freshly exposed earth filled my nostrils as I tossed away the stones, helping to clear my head. There is some truth in what people always preach about manual labor being good for the soul, but some people find out sooner than others. I had a number in my head about how large I wished my tower to be, and after pacing the circumference I realized my mistake - I should have paced the area beforehand, and now I still had more rocks to clear.
I sighed deeply and wiped the sweat building on my brow, watching as the sun began its descent behind the horizon. I would likely only get a few more hours of work done today, but tomorrow would bring with it a fresh start. My work would certainly be cut out for me, especially since building much of anything was entirely foreign to me. Using the stones I had relocated I built a small fire pit and simple lean-to, giving me a shred of shelter from the cold nights the Moor was known for.
My old mentor had impressed upon me the importance of routine, and that stuck with me over the years. I ate my meager dinner of dried meats and a broth I had bought back in Elmwatch, then went through my usual pattern of stretches, alleviating some of the day’s discomfort. Soon, my pipe was lit and I could simply relax and stare into the dancing flames in front of me. Despite the menacing doubts and fears that had built up over the years in my mind, being alone with them was still one of my favorite things. After all, it’s impossible to fight and overcome something if it remains hidden and unknown. My demons held no power over me any more, they simply existed, not caged or chained, just passing through. Catalogued and noted, but no longer tearing at my psyche like they had in the past.
It was at this serene moment that I felt the tug once more. Whatever drew me here was powerful, immensely so. I closed my eyes and relaxed, stretching out my senses, so to speak. I muttered a few quiet words and reached out, trying to find any magic around me. Of course, the air practically hummed with it. Chaos was part of the world, and we just lived among it. I tried to live and breathe it as well, and was only marginally successful. The life around me glowed with its own sort of power; the grass, the small animals scurrying through the darkness, each of them bore their own aura. Beneath my feet, however, was where my mind drew me. It was a river of flame, a vein running through the very soul of Aulain. Resplendent in its glory and terrifying in its power.
“A leyline,” I muttered, not opening my eyes. I dipped my senses into it, like a child checking the temperature of a stream with his toe. The current of energy swept me away without a moment’s hesitation, and I could feel the power thrumming through the earth, extending far beyond the Olupina Sierras to the far north. I managed to tear my mind away before I was too far gone, drawing back into my body with a shudder.
“Well,” I said into the darkness outside the dull light cast by the fire, “at least I know what drew me to this place.” My order had an interesting relationship with fate, to say the least. Some of us regarded it as one universal truth, while others spurned it entirely. I believed that I fell somewhere in the middle. Fate has a design for us, I’m sure, but it's up to us if we follow that design or deviate from the path. Currently it seemed as though I had both feet firmly on the cobblestones laid out for me.
I let both my pipe and the fire burn out into nothing as I curled up under the shelter I had made, eager for what the next day would bring.
Dawn came sooner than I had hoped, as it felt like I had been asleep for only a short few moments. The first rays of sun burned away the morning fog that had a tendency to accumulate in the Crag, and the view was more pleasant than I had imagined. Once my tower was built, I was sure I’d be able to see Elmwatch as well as the lake from the top. I was stiff and sore from sleeping on the ground, and I debated skipping my usual morning routine. Decades of habit won out in the end, and I stripped off any unnecessary items from me as I prepared for a run. Traveling alone or by caravan didn’t allow for it, but if I was planning on making my home here I figured I might as well map out the good routes to and from my future accommodations.
With the terrain being so unfamiliar, I had to constantly remind myself to keep a more sedate pace than I normally would, lest I turn an ankle or end up breaking something. Even with my increased caution, I almost took a spill off the edge of a rather steep ravine that Cavril had carefully navigated us around. I cursed myself for not bringing paper and charcoal to map out the surrounding area, but I knew I would have other opportunities to do so.
Not surprisingly, I met no one else on my run. The trail was shared between me and the wind, with the odd hare or curious deer watching me from afar. My expectations of solitude were shattered when I returned to my tiny camp and saw a figure poking through the coals of my fire. I slowed my pace and crouched behind a rocky outcropping, hoping whoever was rifling through my belongings hadn’t noticed me. My hopes of waiting them out were dashed when the person simply adjusted their hood and settled in against the stones I had piled, seemingly content to wait.
I took a moment to examine them as best I could from a distance, and was surprised at what I found. They wore what seemed to be well-made armor, stained or dyed in a particular way to perhaps blend in with foliage. In fact, the only bare skin I could see was on their face, and the close beard told me it was a man. The hooded cloak he wore seemed to carry the pattern of leaves, and a simple sword was at his hip. What appeared to be a walking stick at first glance turned out to be an unstrung bow, due to the notches at either end.
So, a confident and well-armed stranger had made his way into my camp and had most likely gone through all of my belongings, and was now waiting for their owner to return. The only way to get close to my weapons was to confront the man, although I could technically use some magic against him. Being new to the Moor, I decided my best option would be to simply talk to the strange man.
As I stepped out from behind the rocks, the man’s eyes snapped open and locked with mine, alert in moments. “Good morning,” I said with a smile, raising one hand in greeting while keeping the other in easy view.
The man nodded at me. “I hope it will be. Spotted your fire late last night and decided to pay you a visit, if you don’t mind my straightforwardness. Are these yours?” he said as he gestured to my pack and sword, carefully stowed in my shelter.
“That they are.” I stopped a respectful distance away, close enough to not need to shout, but far enough that it would be difficult for either of us to quickly close the distance. Not that you needed to be close for most magic, but the man didn’t need to be clued into that just yet. “You must have very keen eyes to have seen such a small fire.”
A soft chuckle came from beneath the hood. “Sharp eyes, indeed. Planning on making a little homestead out here, then?”
I smiled. “Something like that, yes. It would be nice to have a place of my own to sleep, and I would rather not disturb the good folk of Elmwatch.”
“And why would you be disturbing them, eh?”
I hadn’t quite meant to guide the conversation down this path just yet, but if he had gone through my things he could most likely extrapolate the information he needed. “I am a wizard, good sir. I would hate for any experiments or overeager trainees to cause a ruckus back in town, you know.”
The man shrugged and seemed to fiddle with this sword, unsheathing it a couple inches and then reversing the motion, over and over. “I wouldn’t know much about wizards and their dealings, I’m afraid. We don’t see many of your ilk around these parts.”
I bent down to scratch at my calf, discreetly palming a small rock as I did so. “No? We can be incredibly useful, you know.”
“Aye, I’m sure you can be,” the man stood up straight and took a single step forward. “Unfortunately, the few wizards that come through here are often running from something, and are more of a nuisance than useful.” The man narrowed his eyes. “And they’re usually the combative type of nuisance.”
I shrugged, eager to deescalate the situation before someone had to die here. “I am not sure how I can convince you otherwise, I am afraid.”
The strange man smiled before closing the gap between us, holding out his hand. “I suppose we’ll have to take your word for it, for now.” The move was fluid and graceful, he never once stumbled over anything between the two of us. As he came closer, I narrowed my eyes slightly. His features were ever so slightly alien, neither too familiar nor different. A half elf, then. Odd.
I had to quickly drop the rock I had procured in order to shake the man’s hand. “That would be most agreeable, I think. Perhaps you will see how useful I am in the coming months.” His grip was firm and proper. “If you pardon my asking, what happened to those other nuisances?”
As he turned away and started departing from my camp, he waved his hand in a circle. Two previously unseen archers who were dressed similarly to him appeared from the rocks surrounding us, as if by magic. “They’re buried out here. We’ve got a map somewhere,” he laughed. The three of them moved back towards the east, their footsteps nearly silent.
I watched for a long while, simply thinking and not actually watching their departure. It was not lost upon me just how close I could have come to disaster. I train hard, and I prided myself on being a swift spellcaster, but would I have been quick enough to defend from targets I hadn’t even known about? Maybe I was losing my edge. In my younger days I never would have missed them. Just another worry to blend in with the others at the back of my mind. Right now, I had no time to waste.
With the circle I had designated finally clear of rocks and other obstructions, I could begin the process of forming the foundations of my tower. It was never something I was proficient in, but I figured the best way to improve at something is to do it more often. Sinking to my knees, I dug my hands into the soft earth in front of me. Technically, neither of these things were necessary, but I felt as though they made a difference to me. Sometimes that was just as important as the actual technique. This skill was hellishly difficult for even the ones who invented it, and as far as I knew, most didn’t bother to learn.
Dwarves are longer lived than humans by a wide margin, and of the one particular group I was fond of, only a handful decided to learn the strange art of stonemoulding. Almost all the other dwarves of this clan preferred to have a tool in their hand, actually carving something out of a simple block. I had heard tales, however, of a secretive and possibly extinct group of dwarves on this side of the sierras who had taken stonemoulding to its absolute peak, creating entire halls from their own willpower and artisanship.
As it was, my skills in this matter were bordering on pathetic. Not like that had stopped me in the past, so it wouldn’t here. I slowed down my breathing, focusing on building a pattern and sinking into it. Similarly to how I found the leyline, I reached out with my mind, caressing the different slabs of stone hidden beneath the topsoil. With a deep breath, I willed them to move up, to push through the earth and take the shape I was holding in my mind.
After several minutes of hard concentration and labor, absolutely nothing had changed other than a sweat breaking out on my brow.
Sighing, I sat back onto my heels and fruitlessly scanned the circle for any sign of rock having moved upwards even a fraction of an inch. I reset myself and dug my hands deeper, trying to feel each individual root I was breaking up with my fingers. I once again held the shape of strong, powerful foundations of stone in my mind and reached out into the ground. When the dwarves - or rather, one particular dwarf - taught me about stonemoulding, he mentioned it was sometimes akin to picking up a particularly slippery piece of ore. Some pieces would be heavier than others, some would resist being grasped. He then told me that if it felt like that, I was doing everything wrong. Stonemoulding was meant to be like using a cart to transport rock and ore instead of carrying it or dragging it along the ground. You’d get to the same end result, but with less backbreaking labor.
So, with remembered lessons fresh in my mind, I bore down once more. Great effort on my part and no small amount of cursing finally brought forth the desired result. The stone had formed into a disk, filling the area of the circle I had mapped out. If I reached out to the stone, I could feel the foundations reaching down several feet into the earth. I was mollified, until I spent the time to actually examine the base I had formed for my tower. It was heavily lopsided and rough, filled with tiny fissures and imperfections that would spell doom for anything I placed on top of it.
Then I did the thing I obviously should have done in the first place and prepared to bring in a professional. I quickly traced out a crude teleportation circle on my disgusting attempt at a foundation with a chalk I had developed on my own. Normally, teleportation circles required a lot of hard work and esoteric materials. The other limitation was having to actively ‘link’ two circles together. In other words, wizards could travel the entire breadth of Aulain in an instant, but only if they had physically been there in the first place to carve an endpoint. The chalk I created held enough of those strange and hard to acquire ingredients that it functioned well enough on short notice and wasn’t likely to shred someone’s body down to its constituent elements. ‘Good enough’ was the reasoning behind it, and I had removed myself from several handfuls of dangerous situations with it in the past.
I crouched down on the circle and pressed a few fingers into the carefully drawn lines, hoping that it wouldn’t rain between now and when I returned. I held my destination firmly in my mind as I had done so many times in the past before uttering the key phrase, tearing me from my place in the Moor and roughly depositing myself at the other end, miles and miles away.
I shook away the small headache that always came with using such a simple circle and stood up, promptly smashing my head into a low-hanging wooden chandelier, dumping a couple half-melted candles onto the rug beneath my feet.
“Stars above,” I muttered, rubbing my head and finally taking notice of my surroundings. A squat bed was in the corner of the cozy room, with furs piled high on it to act as blankets. The chandelier - which was casting a bit less light after my unexpected collision - hung in the center of the room, and to my right was another table well suited for the two dwarves who were sitting on it, enjoying a simple yet hearty meal. Their forks hung limply in their hands, halfway to their slack-jawed faces. “Uhh… morning?” was all I managed to muster before the male dwarf launched to his feet and produced an axe from beneath the table.
“Back, you! How… how did you get in here?”
I held up my hands in what I hoped was a calming manner, hoping to placate the understandably angry dwarf. “I am Madrigal, this used to be my room way back in the day. I sincerely apologize for the intrusion.”
“You’re a human, and this has been my home for nigh on forty years. You would’ve had to be naught but a pup if this was your room!”
“I mean… yes, that is essentially how it was. I was rather young when I spent time under the tutelage of Babak.”
“Ol’ Babak, eh? How do I know you’re telling the truth?”
“Well, if he is still around, you could ask him.”
“Ask about a strange man appearing in the middle of my dinner, smashing into my chandelier, and claiming to be an old friend from back in the day? Yeah, that sounds reasonable.” The dwarf’s voice was practically dripping with sarcasm.
I was preparing my next rebuttal when something that felt suspiciously like a cast iron pan connected with the back of my head.
I awoke with an absolutely splitting headache, which wasn’t surprising after being incapacitated by a heavy frying pan. It’s impossible to tell time by normal means within a dwarven hold, but my mouth wasn’t entirely dry yet, so I figured I had been out for fifteen minutes at most. Not paying attention, I tried to stand and immediately slammed my already woozy head into the ceiling of a cell that had been built to house the stocky dwarves.
“Still haven’t learned to keep your center of gravity low, eh? Always rushing about to puff yourself up like height means something.” The voice was gravelly and rough, but carried a fatherly tone.
“It means something to us humans, usually. Everyone is intimidated by the largest man in the room.”
“Mhm, you sure are.” The short man folded his arms under his chest and stared down at me with a bemused expression. “What brings you back to these parts, Alastair? I figured you’d be off gallivanting across Aulain, solving problems nobody knew existed in the first place.”
I rubbed the back of my head and checked for blood, pleased that there was only a small bit. Damn, but that dwarven woman could swing a pan. “For the most part, I have been. I just figured it was about time I made a home of my own, and quite frankly I am a bit desperate for help in that regard.”
The dwarf nodded slowly, taking in the tiny details; the dirt under my fingernails, the simple clothes I was wearing. “Tried your hand at stonemoulding, did you?” I nodded, and he continued. “Didn’t go quite as well as you had hoped, so you came running back to old Stonewhisper, eh?”
While not as graceful as I would have put it, the old dwarf was right. Abram-Babak Stonewhisper was one of the first dwarves who was willing to accept me in my younger years, and even went so far as to train me in the many arts native to dwarven culture. Which is to say, he repeatedly threw me to the cold stone floors of the wrestling arenas while also attempting to teach me other, more worldly aspects of his craft.
“Let us just say that I am going to be incredibly ashamed when I show you my attempt at building a foundation.”
Babak laughed heartily and fished out a set of keys, unlocking my cell. “I’ve watched you trip over yourself for years, I’m sure it won’t be that bad. Let me finish up a few things here and you can whisk me off to some strange locale to see what you’ve made.”
Some time later, the two of us stood outside the boundary of the foundation I had tried my hand at, the cold wind whipping through our cloaks. Babak pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed heavily. “Maybe I was giving you too much credit, boy. This is… impressive.”
“Impressive?” I said, briefly questioning my former teacher’s sanity.
“Yeah. Impressive in how badly you’ve managed to muck it up,” he said with a derisive snort. He paced around the edge, running his hand over the bare stone. “Did you crouch down like you used to?” he asked, his mouth turning up in a slight smile.
I could feel my face turn bright red and I tried my best to stare down the dwarf. It lasted all of two seconds before we both burst out into raucous laughter. Back when he was first teaching me stonemoulding, he recommended that I get on my knees when trying my hand at it in order to make myself more ‘dwarf-like’ and thus increasing my ability to shape the stone. Of course, he had an incredible sense of humor and had just been saying that to mess with me, but the strange piece of advice had securely nestled itself into a habit.
After we collected ourselves, he walked over and patted me on the arm. “Ah, at least you gave it a shot. Were you planning on asking me to make the whole thing?”
“Just the foundation, if you please.” The foundation was easily the most important part. The rest could be torn down and fixed up as I needed to, but a defective foundation would ruin the whole tower regardless of how perfect I made the rest of it.
Babak nodded and continued his pacing, casting his eyes over to the pile of stones I had relocated. “You moved those from where you planned on building, I presume?”
I nodded. “Aye, I did.”
The old dwarf smiled again. “Why? It’s all stone, boy. Just more material to make your tower from. You could’ve just drawn it in with the rest of it.”
Cursing under my breath, I turned away. It made sense - stone was stone, no matter what it looked like. It was just another thing I had failed to think about in my haste to construct a tower for myself. I could feel my face redden yet again as the shame crept its way into my mind. I had spent years proving myself under this man, and here I was forgetting some of the basic tenets of what he taught me.
“Ah, don’t chip your chisel over it. You can just make a little, I don’t know, hut or something outside the main structure, that way your efforts won’t be entirely wasted. Your peers always said you had a bit of a green thumb.”
“They said that to make up for the fact that I was terrible at wrestling.”
“Aye, you were, but you never stopped.” Babak seemed to loom over me, despite his proportionally smaller size. “What’d I tell you about putting yourself down like that, hm? There’s plenty of other people in the world who’re more than willing to do that for you, no need to add to the pile.”
It was something my old mentor had often told me before he sacrificed his life to hold back some form of vile corruption that had been steadily creeping towards Leathad. He would often sit with me under the stars and try to impress upon me how important it was to be good and kind in the face of all that Aulain could throw at us. “There is more than enough misery in the world, Alastair,” he would say, “please do not be the kind of person who sees kindness as weakness.”
“Besides,” Babak continued, interrupting my thoughts, “none of them are terrifying mages now, are they? They’re all merchants or diplomats or somesuch.”
I smiled at my old teacher. “We prefer the term ‘wizards’, actually. Mages are untrained, chaotic little imposters.”
Babak snorted, a sound like a small rockslide. “They’re the untrained ones? Boy, weren’t you the one who accidentally created a stormcloud in my dining hall and had lightning strike one of my statues?”
“Yes, but I can do that on command now. That is the important distinction.”
Shaking his head, the old dwarf turned back to the foundation. “Well, I don’t have all day, so let’s fix this and show you where you went wrong.” His practiced eyes roamed around the rough terrain around us. “Aside from your location, that is.”
“I have my reasons,” I said defensively. I wasn’t sure if Babak knew anything about Ley Lines, but I didn’t want to get into a drawn out explanation and discussion to the detriment of building my tower.
“Mhm, you and everyone else who makes a mistake that they try to double down on.” He waved away any further discussion and set to the task of fixing my poor attempt at stonemoulding.
I sat patiently and simply observed him. All of my teachers throughout my life had stressed when one should sit down and shut their mouths, as it was a valuable skill that far too many people lacked. Babak worked tirelessly, patiently working the stone from one point before moving to observe it from another angle, yet another thing that had slipped my mind. I had been relying too much on ‘sensing’ the stone instead of using my own two eyes, which happened to be in perfect condition. I saw Babak looking at me as I pieced this together and realized he was doing this for my benefit; the dwarf could create wondrous works from stone in his sleep, and had literally done so on one famous occasion.
It took a large portion of the morning, with Babak occasionally taking breaks to reminisce about my antics as one of his students. It was a far more enjoyable experience than I would have thought, and I rarely had time to simply think about where I had come from. By the time the sun was just passing its apex, Babak had finished.
“Well,” he said, wiping sweat from his brow, “I think that’s that. How’s it look?”
With mock seriousness, I proceeded to examine the immaculate foundation from every conceivable angle, even going so far as to roll from one end to the other in order to determine if it was completely flat or not. Of course it was, and we both knew it, but it was amusing nonetheless.
“It will suffice, I think.”
Babak laughed, patting the perfect stone before him. “It’ll be a shame to see what garbage you heap on top of this masterwork after I leave.”
“That is precisely why I am never bringing you back here, old friend.”
“Thank heart and hearth for that small blessing.”
After a few more bouts of good-natured ribbing, I prepared another teleportation circle. The dwarven family I had previously dropped in on was more prepared this time, and it helped to have Babak with me. Not to mention on my way back through I managed to ‘forget’ a pack full of fine spirits and maybe a couple coins of varying value. Within the hour, I was back in my own lonely little slice of the Moor.
After spending time with a man I hadn’t seen in decades, suddenly the idea of work didn’t appeal to me as much as it did that morning. My head still hurt, and I could see storm clouds rolling over the horizon. With my luck, they would be overhead sooner rather than later, and I decided the best course of action would be to shore up my rather meager shelter. I did the best I could, but stacked rocks and a too-small cloth can only do so much.
I spent the next day and a half huddled in misery as the storm rolled through, soaking me to the bone. As I expected, my shelter may as well have been nonexistent. The only thing I did correctly was putting in a raised platform to keep myself off the ground, which was invaluable in the rain. I couldn’t even bring out one of the books I had brought with me, as taking them out of my waterproofed pack would spell doom for the delicate pages. All I could do was try to sleep, meditate, and attempt to develop a spell in my head that I could use to keep dry.
Trying to use stonemoulding to create a solid barrier between me and the rain had crossed my mind, but the thought of making a mistake and having the entire structure collapse on me was far too daunting. So, I sat and suffered through the rain and thunder, amusing myself by watching how the chaotic forces around me swirled and interacted with the immense power of the earth itself. For a few nerve-wracking hours, lightning slashed through the sky, splitting open the very heavens and spearing down towards the surface.
There were several times when I thought I could see a figure or figures watching me from a distance, momentarily illuminated by the streaks of lightning. As I could never catch a good look at them, I chalked it up to my mind playing tricks on me. I almost wished someone was actually out there, as a frantic sprint to get away from something hunting me would be a welcome distraction from my current misery. Of course, after having that thought I couldn’t get it out of my head, and kept my sword close by my side.
The blade had been a comfortable, stable part of my life since my mentor had bequeathed it to me. For a while, I had never known the story behind it, and when I did the realization had been shocking. It was one of the few times I had actually gone to visit a member of the clergy, as I rarely had a need for the Church to be a part of my life. I remember the priest, who had formerly been a knight for the Church, simply laughed and asked me if my boots were evil because they had been worn to places where evil had also walked. When I expressed my confusion, he explained that these things were just tools - they had no inherent disposition one way or another. The only way for a sword to be evil is if its owner used it for evil purposes. He did admit, however, that the scent of brimstone it gave off was rather disconcerting to him. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that was actually me.
When the lighting abated, I decided to continue working on my sword drills. I was already drenched to the bone, so what would the harm be in a little more water? At least I wouldn’t stiffen up this way. I stood on the center of the foundation and moved through the motions smoothly, building up speed as I fell into the familiar routine. It was rather exhilarating when occasionally, the strikes of my sword would coincide with a peal of thunder or flash of lightning. All the while, I had to fight off that feeling of being watched that had plagued me through the worst parts of the storm. I’m sure that if anyone had actually been watching me, the motions I was going through must have looked awfully strange. I had been the student of many teachers, some more violent than others. Over my life, I had slowly coalesced the myriad of fighting styles into one that suited me, and the result was a strange bastardization that any dogmatic swordmaster would have abhorred.
Towards the end of my drills, the rain slowly abated. By the time I was finished I was still sopping wet, but the rain had retreated and left a dark, steel gray sky behind. I built the fire into a slightly less conservative blaze and set up an area where I could dry my damp clothing after I had changed. Thankfully, everything within my pack was still dry and serviceable. It was supposedly waterproof, but I hadn’t really bothered to test it before now. It rained often around Leathad, but nothing like this. With most of the day having been spent huddled under my poor attempt at shelter, I didn’t feel up to the task of stonemoulding the first level of my tower. Still, I had to practice, so I set about attempting to make some of the rocks around me into what would pass for bricks.
The day passed slowly, but the simple and repetitive task of forming bricks was easy to get lost within. These things were often referred to as ‘moving meditation’ by some of my previous teachers. Formulaic tasks that you could move through without much thought or planning beyond the initial stages, and after a few hours of work you would simply come out the other side with a completed project and a clear mind. This was the case when the only light around me came from the fire, and I found I had gone well into the night, far longer than I had planned on. A sizable pile of bricks was next to me, and it looked as though it would almost be enough to build a small shed of some sort in the future.
Content in the knowledge that I had been at least somewhat productive, I gathered my now dry clothing and prepared to retire for the night.
As it always did, the strange melody that had once lulled me to sleep all those years ago and changed the course of my life came to me in my dreams. The sound was calming, but brought with it a deep feeling of unease which I could never place. That alone compounded the wariness I felt towards it, which made what came next all the more difficult.
“You’re getting close.” The figure was shadowed and ethereal, but I could recognize it in an instant. Whatever had decided to talk to me through my dreams had taken the shape of my first mentor, the man who set me on the path to becoming a Madrigal.
“And you have finally decided to talk to me instead of lurking in the shadows. An interesting development.”
The figure held out its hands. “This is all taking place in your mind, Alastair. It is what you make it.”
“Except that is not true, and we both know it! You weasled your way into my skull the moment I stepped into that shrine and heard your insipid little song for the first time. Like a damned waterfall flowing through a harp.”
I could see a sharp smile pierce through the veil that covered the stolen face of my beloved mentor. “That’s such a harsh term, you know. You would do well to speak favorably towards that which granted you life everlasting.”
“Everlasting with an expiry clause.”
Another shadowy shrug. “Everything comes with a price. Just because you found out when the debt would be collected changes nothing. You humans have always had just one final debt to pay, and you always pay it with your life. Nothing else you have has any inherent value.”
I screwed my eyes shut as the feeling of a spike being driven through my forehead suddenly came over me. I saw flashes of what seemed like a memory; A shattered doorway in a forest, a dark passage, a dead god at my feet while I slowly sank to the ground. This was the moment I would die, and I had seen it dozens of times in my dreams. I knew the images would fade as soon as I awoke, just as they always did.
Once I regained control of myself I faced the being again. “What do you have to gain from this, anyway?”
“Perhaps I am petty and wish to see one of my kind die for some minor infraction eons before your histories. Perhaps I am a benevolent protector of the mortal realm, desiring only to save those poor, innocent mortals,” the voice practically dripped sarcasm with that last point, and it stepped closer to me, although none of its features became any clearer. “Perhaps, most importantly, it doesn’t matter what my motives are. You have lived a long, healthy life. You have done many great things, both good and perhaps not so much. Now go and pay your damned debt!” The voice rose to a crescendo, threatening to shred my unconscious mind.
With great effort, I managed to stay standing and merely grimace at the figure. This was, after all, my mind. It would take more than the tantrum of some godling to break me.
I brought to my mind the image of a knife, which materialized in my hand. “Do not ever use his face again,” I said, my voice flat and emotionless.
The shadow scoffed. “What are you going to do with that, then? Threaten me?”
I shook my head and plunged the knife into my own heart.
I awoke with a start, nearly tumbling off the raised platform that served as my bed. As the wisps of a strange dream fled from my mind, I found myself almost uncontrollably angry. A rage that was both strange and familiar filled every fiber of my being, and I found my hands searching for a blade that was just slightly too far away. With my sword finally in hand, I stepped out from my shelter, seeking an enemy that didn’t exist. Once I realized that nothing was threatening me, I managed to calm my racing mind. Much to my chagrin, the simmering hatred within me didn’t dissipate.
The morning sun pierced through the clouds, starting to burn away the accumulated fog. With no idea what had come over me and nothing better to do, I strapped the sword to my back and went on my usual run. I took the same path I had before, but this time I kept on the lookout for any convenient landmarks I could use in the future. The landscape had a habit of blending together if you weren’t paying attention, and one pile of rocks looked like every other one unless you found something to focus on. For instance, there was an outcropping that looked almost exactly like a shield of some sort, if you had an active imagination. Upon further inspection, there was a tiny sigil carved into the stone itself, although it was worn with age and covered in moss. In a recess within the rock, there was actually a small metal plate with a handle. When I opened it I found the interior empty, although it looked large enough to fit a decent sized package.
“Must have been a dead-drop of some sort,” I said into the darkness. I carefully closed up the hatch and made a mental note of the carefully hidden compartment before moving on. The Moor constantly surprised me. After all, what would be the point of leaving something in such a desolate area? I went through the remainder of my run with no more interesting finds and returned to my camp in a pleasant mood, with the exercise having used up all of the hateful energy I had built up.
When I ducked into my shelter to stow my blade, a parcel on my bed caught my eye. It was some sort of cloth or hide, bound with twine and inscribed with the same mark I had found on the rock during my run. I was getting awfully tired of having people enter my small camp without my knowledge, but curiosity won out and I opened the package. The texture of the cloth made me think it was waterproofed similarly to my rucksack, and it seemed to be large enough to replace the too-small tarp I was using for one side of my shelter. Wrapped carefully within was a warm looking and blessedly dry coat and a spare set of boots which were slightly too large.
As I had spent the better part of two months before my journey weaving enchantments of various sorts into my current boots, I vowed to bring the extra pair back to the dead-drop later on. The coat was a welcome addition to my wardrobe however, as nights in the Moor were slightly more harsh that I had planned for. I pondered who out here would be willing to both find one of these stashes and then bring its contents to me. The most reasonable answer would be the strange group of hunters who had come upon my camp during the second day, making thinly veiled threats about what could happen to me if I were a detriment to the Moor. Perhaps they had warmed up to me, if only a little.
Regardless of their motives, I made sure that nothing went to waste. I finally sealed my shelter from the elements, something that I should have done immediately. On my next run I made sure to return the boots and my previous cloth tarp, as well as an extra shirt I had packed away. I tucked them safely within the stash before finishing my well-mapped circuit around the Crag. Dry and warm for the first time in days, I figured it was long past time to overcome my trepidation and start forming the rest of my tower.
Much like how my first attempt at creating a foundation went poorly, it was the same with the first level. The sides were uneven, or too thin or thick at certain points, or more of an oval than a circle. I persevered through it all, tearing it down dozens of times over the course of the day before finally getting it right. That night I spent forming bricks over and over had helped solidify the basics of stonemoulding in my mind, and the thought of Babak looming over me and judging my work only heightened my desire for perfection. By the time dusk was approaching, I had a passable excuse for a first level, as well as a staircase and the beginnings of a second story. The area around where I had decided to build my tower had flattened out considerably as I pulled in stone from my surroundings to form the building. Once my tower was finished it would be the only landmark in the immediate area, but that suited me just fine.
I sketched out a few layouts for the first floor, planning on filling it with all the necessities I would need before heading out on my travels. Of course, I wouldn’t actually be willing to fill these rooms with anything until the final step of the construction was finished, as disaster was almost certain to strike at that point. I had lofty goals for my tower, and tying it to the leyline deep beneath the foundations was one of the riskiest things I would ever attempt. With plans and magical formulae flowing around my mind, I drifted off to sleep.
The figure was there, as it always was, wearing my mentor’s visage. Instead of another spite-filled rant, it simply folded its arms and shook its head from side to side. If I listened closely I could hear faint chuckling, as if it was amused with my actions. I made a rude gesture at it, which it gladly returned. I felt we had established some sort of rapport, so I made my move.
“As long as you are taking up residence in my mind, I am going to put you to work.”
“Is that so?” The figure still held a tone of amusement.
“Everyone pays to live somewhere. There are landlords in Leathad who would charge you exorbitant fees for such lofty arrangements,” I said, gesturing out towards the vast and rather formless expanses of my sleeping mind. “Mostly, I figured you would be selfish enough to prefer I avoid dying before I ‘pay my damned debt’, as you screamed the other night.”
The figure shrugged. “Alright, I’ll bite. What would you ask of me, then?”
I pointed down beneath my feet. “The leyline. I am going to tie my tower into it, once it is finished.”
A derisive snort came from the shadowed face. “You know, there’s a reason even we didn’t want to muck about with those things when we walked Aulain. And we were much more equipped to do it than you were, by the way.”
“But if you were to muck about with it, how would you do it? I am sure there is at least some theory you have had in the past.”
The figure blew away in a nonexistent wind, drifting away before my eyes. “You are too curious for your own good. All you humans are,” the voice came from behind me, and as I turned around to confront it, the sight before me stole my breath. The figure had created an image of what I assumed to be Aulain, but not just the simple map you could buy from any Assemblage library in existence. A globe hung in the air before me, with glowing blue veins criss crossing over the surface while it lazily spun in place.
“This… this is Aulain?” I said, mystified.
“Never seen her like this before, eh?” There was a sense of smug satisfaction in the voice, like someone showing a child how to start a fire.
I ran my hands over the spinning globe, picking out the continents I recognized, the Salaanish Isles, and even a few islands that I was sure hadn’t been mapped yet. “Stars,” I exhaled, entranced by the view. “There’s so many of these leylines. Far more than we originally thought…”
“It’s a damn shame you won’t remember any of this when you wake up, hm?”
I glared at the figure before turning back to the globe. I focused on my quaint little section of the Moor, easily finding the line I was planning on tapping into. I could see the area around it quite easily, but something bothered me. The whole system of ley lines were vaguely reminiscent of capillaries, from what I could remember of the few anatomical courses I had attended at the Assemblage. But to the east of the Moor, where one would expect there to be more of these veins, it was simply… blank. Dead. I tapped the area on the globe. “What happened here?”
Another noncommittal shrug. “I’m not sure. Or maybe I am. Does it matter? Will satisfying your idle curiosity bring you any closer to your goal?”
“I hate you.”
I felt more than saw the grin that came after that statement. “Of course you do. I’ll tell you what, I will think on this ley line issue, and if anything comes to mind, I’ll talk to you again when your tower is finished. I’ll even do you the favor of making sure you remember what I tell you, unlike this whole conversation.”
“Oh,” I said, clasping my hands together, “do not do me any favors here, you little godling.”
“As you so eloquently put it, it’s merely self-preservation at this point.” The figure waved its hand dismissively. “Go wake up and finish your tower, fool.”
“This is my own mind, dammit. You cannot just dismiss me from it!” I stood my ground and folded my arms. The figure merely met my gaze and arched an eyebrow. After a few minutes that seemed to drag on, I sighed. “Yeah, I know, I know.”
A condescending smile chased me from my own sleeping mind.
Upon waking, I had a considerable feeling of embarrassment with just a dash of shame, and I couldn’t seem to figure out why. Attributing it to another strange dream, I shrugged and went about my morning routine. I returned to the tower refreshed and alert, ready to begin my pet project once again.
The next few days passed in a similar fashion. I would wake up, eat, run, and then form more stone for the tower. By the end of the week, I had actually completed most of it save for the roof. Four levels, each with their own purpose; The first level for provisions and other items needed to travel. The second was planned as a gateway room, as the rest of the Madrigals preferred to call them. Several doors that opened up into a closet-sized space, which would then be layered with magic and eventually open up into far away lands or perhaps other planes, depending on the wizard making them. The third level was quite possibly my favorite, as it would become my study. I had collected an immense amount of lore over my years, and having a place of my own to store it all was high on my list of priorities. Sure, the Madrigal’s Keep was a nice enough place, but it wasn’t the same. The fourth floor would simply be a comfortable room for sleeping, and the roof was mainly there for the lovely view one could get from it.
Once the spire was completed, I began the arduous process of layering enchantments into the formed stone. It was tricky, precise work to build up an overlapping lattice of spells without having them collapse catastrophically onto themselves after a certain point. Normally, these spells would decay after a scant few months, but hopefully tying the entire tower into the ley line would alleviate this not-insignificant issue and save me a lot of time and effort in the long run. My only issue was my complete lack of knowledge on the inner workings of those terribly powerful fonts of energy. I sighed deeply, realizing this meant more research on my part. Unlike many of the people I surrounded myself with, I usually preferred active participation instead of sorting through musty old tomes and scrolls. If I wanted to learn something, I could read through an immense amount of information in a short time. Being required to learn something was an entirely different story.
Still, the most physically taxing portion of my project was at last complete. Days upon days of stonemoulding had left me sore and exhausted, both mentally and physically. I decided that I had earned some respite, and told myself that tomorrow would be spent celebrating my first achievement in the Moor.
I awoke slightly earlier than I usually would, and packed a bit more for my trip than normal. My run was more of a leisurely jog, as I had a longer distance to travel for my plans today. My journey was far simpler once I had made it out of the Crag, as the land began to flatten out and I could travel on an already-broken trail. In a few hours, I came upon the sharp borders of farmland that marked the edge of Elmwatch. I paused to take in the view, as rolling fields of wheat and barley swayed in the breeze like an amber ocean, carrying the scent of tilled earth and fertilizer. I found a path through the fields and followed it into town, eager to end my trek as I was feeling much like a lathered horse.
I strode into town, nodding at the rather wary inhabitants as I passed through, searching for the telltale sign of an inn somewhere along the main thoroughfare. I stopped underneath the boughs of the elm tree that towered over the old stone church, happy to get out of the sun that just happened to be peeking through the clouds today. The church was a curious thing, a poignant reminder of an older time when humanity had built great structures from the stone they drew from the earth. It was old, but lovingly maintained, and interestingly enough it held no sigil over the doorway, or anywhere else that I could see for that matter. Normally, a church held the symbol of a region’s most prominent deity, and not having one was a rather sure sign that the inhabitants had been accused of some form of heresy.
“We have all been, these days,” I muttered to myself. As I turned around and looked across what passed for the town square, a gently swinging sign caught my eye. It appeared I had found the inn, as The Brook and Raven seemed to be calling my name. I crossed the distance swiftly, and the well-oiled hinges of the door made barely a whisper as they opened. A tiny bell above the door did herald my entrance, however. The atmosphere inside was warm and friendly, although the few patrons who weren’t out working only gave me cursory nods acknowledging my presence.
“Welcome in, stranger!” Bellowed a friendly voice from behind the bar. “You’re new here, so come sit up at the bar and leave the dark corners for all those poor souls shirking their work!” A chorus of laughter and jokingly derisive comments came back at him from the others drinking or eating quietly in the taproom. The man behind the bar was decidedly average, aside from the massive, welcoming smile he wore. From the looks of his wrinkles, that smile rarely left his face. He seemed like a man who truly enjoyed his chosen profession. Surprisingly, his dark skin contrasted immensely with the rest of Elmwatch’s populace. It wasn’t often you saw people with more than a light tan this far away from Leathad.
I sauntered up to the bar and slid onto a stool, sighing contentedly as I was finally off my feet. “I cannot refuse such an offer, can I?”
“It would be very impolite, I would think! Something particular I can interest you in? I can guarantee you it’s all local!” The barkeep laughed, as he most likely made that simple joke a dozen times a day. A small town like this would rarely be able to import fancy spirits or ale from places closer to the capital, doubly so since it was on the frontier.
I tapped my lip with a finger, pretending to be deep in thought. “Surprise me,” I said at last, “but I would also kill for a hot meal right about now.”
The barkeep stroked his blonde beard before nodding. “I think we can scrounge something up, if you’ll give me a moment.”
I nodded and slid a few coins onto the counter. “By all means, do what you do best.”
He pocketed the coins and disappeared through a door behind the counter. I could faintly hear humming over the sound of something cooking on a range, and before long the man had placed a cold mug on the counter in front of me, filled with a deep amber liquid. “Figured I should get you started with this before the food, you look like you could use a drink.”
After placing the drink in front of me, he began to fish out a few smaller coins and return them to me. I held up my hand to stop him. “Please, it is all for you. You are the only inn around as far as I can tell, so I am not going to lie to you,” I met his eyes and shrugged, “I am trying to buy my way into your good graces, since you will have to put up with me on a regular basis.”
The innkeep laughed heartily, something I assumed he did often. “I think I can put up with that, friend! The name’s Bertrand. If you see a little goblin running about anywhere, that would be my son, Graf.”
“A goblin, eh?”
Bertrand shrugged. “Every place has its folklore. Besides, if it fits… Destructive, mischievous, and filthy more often than not, despite the best efforts of his parents.” He turned around suddenly, muttering a curse and practically running into the back. Moments later he appeared with a plate that could have been created by the gods themselves. It was piled with steaming sausages, eggs, and a healthy cut of bread still warm from the hearth. “Damn it all. I hope you’re not too worried about a little char on your sausages.”
“It all just adds to the flavor, does it not?”
Another warm laugh. “A man of taste, I see! Well, enjoy it, friend, and holler if you need somethin’ else!”
I took my time savoring the first hot meal I had enjoyed in weeks, washing each bite down with an absurdly smooth ale. If this was the quality of food out here in the Moor, I was certain it would be a rather enjoyable experience. Unfortunately, I couldn’t spend all day ordering plate after plate of food, as I didn’t want to leave the fledgling tower unattended for too long. After I finished, I called over Bertrand to hopefully acquire a few items I was lacking.
“If at all possible, I would be in your debt if I could buy a keg of this ale off you, and perhaps some food that will not spoil over the course of the day?”
“You have a place in town?” he asked. “A keg is heavy, you know.” He looked me up and down, pointedly examining my black hair that was becoming streaked with grey.
I smiled at him and placed a few more coins on the counter. “Humor me, if you would.”
“I’ll rig something up for you, but that’s the best I can do.”
“I am sure it will be sufficient, worry not.”
As it turns out, ‘rigging something up’ meant using some sturdy rope to allow the keg to be carried like a backpack. Bertrand helpfully taught me the knots he used, as well as how to adjust it for my frame. He helped me get the keg onto my back and handed me a small wrapped package, which he told me held several still-warm pieces of sausage. I gave him my thanks and began my return trip to my tower.
It was much slower going this time, being burdened by the keg. It had to weigh as much as a rather small adult, although the weight was more compact and firmly secured. Travelling through the Crag was even worse, with the constant sharp inclines and declines in the rocks threatening to send me tumbling to the ground. It was late in the afternoon before I made my way inside the tower and deposited the keg on the roof. I gathered a few of the bricks I had formed and used a bit of stonemoulding on them to turn them into what could pass as a stein. A bit of more conventional magic later, and the handful of mugs as well as the keg would stay cold for the foreseeable future.
With dusk fast approaching, I was surprised to hear a voice calling out to me from the base of the tower.
“Ho there, wizard! Might I have a moment of your time?”
I leaned over the edge, even more surprised to see who it was trying to strike up conversation. Three hunters stood below me, dressed exactly the same as the ones who had found me on that second day. I didn’t recognize any of them, however, so my curiosity was piqued. “Certainly, sirs!” I replied, “if you would just give me a moment, I will be down!”
I debated over strapping on my sword belt, but thought better of it. I had been distracted, and the men could have easily entered my tower and attacked me if that had been their goal. I exited the tower empty-handed, facing the three strange hunters. “What can I do for you?”
The man who appeared to be the leader stepped forward. He had a rough face, covered in the scars of previous battles. More interestingly, I could practically feel the magic radiating from his sword like heat from a forge. “Several of my brothers mentioned there was a new wizard taking up residence in our fair Moor, so I had to see for myself. Especially with the creation of this… new landmark.”
“A wizard needs a place to work, you know.”
The man nodded. “So he does. But if you’re planning on taking up residence here, I figured I should introduce myself.” He stripped off his armored glove and held out a hand. “I am Angruval, and these are my Farstriders.”
I shook his hand, and we both felt the strength in each other’s grip. “Farstriders?” I inquired, “I’ve heard some mention of you before. Rangers protecting those who cannot protect themselves.” I tried my best to act nonchalant. I had grown up on the tales and legends of groups who thrived on protecting the innocent and bringing foul men and beasts to justice. To actually meet one such group was awe-inspiring, to say the least.
Angruval gave me a lopsided smile, most likely caused by one of his particularly impressive scars. “That’s a bit of a clean description of us, but still fits I suppose. The bear of a man behind me is Sevog, and the lady is Calle. Two of my finest.”
Sevog stepped forward and shook my hand as well. I noticed the overly large sword strapped to his back, and the amount of corded muscle that showed beneath the fabric he wore. “You were a knight, were you not?” I turned his hand over, surprised by my own boldness. There was a small mark of an elm tree between his thumb and forefinger. “A church knight, then,” I amended.
“Perceptive,” he replied, his voice deep but almost whisper-quiet. “Looks like we’ll need to keep an eye on you.”
“Two, according to Sharpe,” spoke the woman - Calle - in a friendly tone. She glided up to me and shook my hand as well. “He’s the half elf you met before. You didn’t see me until we left that day.”
I was reminded of the two archers slowly melting out from their cover within the rocks. “Perhaps you will all teach me how to blend in like you do, someday.”
“Perhaps!” she said with a smile.
“Now,” I started, “I would hate to be inhospitable. I was planning on rewarding myself for the completion of my tower, and I happen to be in possession of a keg of ale from the Brook and Raven, if you three would like to partake.” I swept my arm out and gestured towards the open door.
The two Farstriders seemed to defer to Angruval. The man looked at them and shrugged, signalling the two forward. They smiled and entered the tower, although I noticed they cleared their corners and carefully made their way to the stairs as though they were entering a hostile environment. “All the way to the roof!” I called out after them. Angruval moved forward at a more sedate pace, walking beside me.
“I appreciate the offer, wizard.”
“They call me Madrigal, by the way.”
“They, hm? And who is ‘they’ in this case?”
“Pretty much everyone, to be honest.”
Angruval chuckled. “Very well, Madrigal. We’re always wary of new arrivals to the Moor, especially those with as much destructive potential as wizards. Don’t take it as an offense if it takes the others time to warm up to you. Eventually, I’m sure we can establish some sort of working relationship.”
“And if we cannot, then I get added to the map?”
The Farstrider snorted. “Sharpe told you, then? To be frank, I’d have to do some digging to find that old thing. It does exist, though. We simply haven’t had much need to add to it as of late.”
“I shall do my best to make sure that particular trend continues.”
Angruval clapped me on the shoulder. “Let’s join the others, then. I’m not sure either of them knows how to properly tap a keg.”
The rest of the day and a fair portion of the evening was spent drinking more than I had in a very long time, and the Farstriders assured me it was the same for them. Likely, we would all be paying for it the next day. We swapped stories and spun tales, and I would like to think they were as enamored with my exploits as I was with theirs. The sun had long since gone to rest, and the four of us were sitting in between the crenellations atop the tower, dangling our legs and simply watching the stars.
“It’s times like these,” said Angruval quietly, breaking the silence, “that the Moor reminds you it's worth defending.” There was a murmur of agreement from his companions, but nothing else was said for a long while.
“Everyone has a reason to be here, Madrigal. The people here are of a different sort. Born of conflict and strife, survival is in their very blood.” He turned to look me in the eye. “The Moor is the kind of place that folk would kill a god before giving up what they have earned.”
I finished off my ale and set down my mug. “Let us hope it never comes to that, then.”
The brisk wind carried our voices away, leaving us in silence once more.