by Jon H.
(Winner, 2nd Place, 2015)
A group of Loreseekers break into the tomb of the God of Traps, and quickly regret their decision.
It was, at first glance, an unassuming sight – a statue of a wizard. It was uncracked, unweathered, and devoid of graffiti; the first two could be attributed to its magical origins, while the third could be attributed to the abandoned state of the village it was in the square of. Nearly every path was entirely overgrown, save for animal trails weaving around through half-collapsed homes and workshops.
On closer inspection, the statue was somewhat unsettling. He was wrapped in heavy chains inlaid with finely carved runes and studded with onyx. The chains were, in turn, affixed to the ground, held in place by spikes driven deep into the soil. The man that the statue depicted was somewhat young-looking, but good looks were spoiled by a crazed look in his wide eyes that the stone perfectly captured.
The scene was perhaps a little eerie, but on the whole, the class was unimpressed with what seemed to be the least interesting field trip ever. Four days of walking through the ridiculous unpleasantness of Sindran wildlands, and their final destination was a ghost town. They wouldn't even be paying a visit to the Skyfall ruins that the town once existed to provide easier access to, something that bothered students both academically inclined (think of what they might see!) and not (it's so boring here!).
Ms. Gi heard the grumbling of her students, and decided to ignore it in favor of having them sit down in the shade of a modest-sized mushroom within sight of the statue to have dinner before the day's lesson began. Candles laced with an oil that insects despised the scent of (and Man found only marginally more enjoyable) were lit and placed all around, blankets were set down to serve as a bit of padding, and the salt that everyone was required to bring was once again temporarily confiscated. It wasn't meant for the food.
After the students had rested their blistering feet and quieted their complaining stomachs, Gi led them over to the statue, bidding them to sit near, where they could see him clearly, and started to finally address her class – to share the lesson that brought them so far from home. “Those of you with sharp senses will doubtless have noticed by now that this is no mere statue – but a wizard, turned to stone by his own hand. And all of you will recognize the name, for the wizard is none other than Ilimatar you give me that ink-pot right this second or I will feed your gibbons to my sharks, you untrustworthy little fiend.”
Ms. Gi didn't actually have any pet sharks. Sharks wouldn't come anywhere near Ballicazar, not with all the things lurking beneath the waves that were twisted by the city's magical runoff. But, as the only Daughter of the Sea teaching at the Most Prestigious Academical Institution by the Grace of Our Lady the God Reyalia, rumors tended to follow her around anyway. Why correct such a useful lie?
(Ms. Gi also did not know what gibbons were, but neither did her students, so that was okay.)
“...As I was saying. The wizard is none other than Efarazar. I know you've all heard the abridged version of his tale from your parents, but it's time you learned the full story. Perhaps it will stop one of you from repeating his mistakes Ilimatar go sit by that wall and don't move an inch until I say you can.”
The air was, perhaps surprisingly, largely dust-free. The regular Sindran wild magic mixing and mingling with the entirely-deliberate array of extremely deadly traps meant that the only well-explored parts of the heaven-tomb of Veigle the Runt were the handful of rooms initially tunneled into. Those rooms were dustier, glowing chalk marking the locations of every razor and pitfall. Each inch of safety there had already been paid for in blood.
Efarazar and Decaralan were far deeper than the safe rooms, and were not interested in adding their own blood to that spilled by the fallen heaven of the God of Traps, so they kept a sharp eye out and proceeded forward only when they were absolutely certain it wouldn't result in loss of life or limb. This caution hadn't been quite enough for the originally four-strong party, but Mellurian had been fortunate enough to lose only a couple fingers, and Velavoros had taken her back to town to treat the injury. So it was only Decaralan that carefully outlined a vulnerability into their destination in chalk, and it was only Efarazar that willed the ancient stone into dust and let it crumble away for the sake of avoiding the doors.
Efarazar stepped through first. Veigle's heaven was dotted with treasure-rooms to serve as bait for his traps. Most had never been opened since the jealous god stashed some prize away, and the senior Loreseeker wished to see just what their prize would be. Decaralan followed, eyes shining with joy as he raised his torch – he was more interested in the inscriptions on the walls. Just imagine what we'll be able to learn!, he'd so enthusiastically told the others. Veigar's studies of the other divinities could give us revelations we'd never be able to discover any other way!
The only things Decaralan learned that day were that you aren't safe just because you made it to the treasure room, and that a few moments of pain can stretch out to an eternity before death grants its release.
Velavoros and Mellurian were relaxing in the common room of the inn where the Loreseekers had rested, the latter working through her third beer in an effort to forget the taste of the healing-potion, when Efarazar finally entered – that he was alone and looking rather pale told his companions all they needed to know. Velavoros hustled over to direct Efarazar to a vacant chair, and shove a clearly needed drink into his hand.
“He rushed in,” Efarazar muttered. “He got excited, and rushed in, and didn't pay enough attention, and...” The sentence trailed off into nothingness, as Efarazar stared at his beer. He shook his head before finally taking a drink. “Too dangerous to recover what was left by myself. And it wouldn't be enough to try and have him raised anyway.”
The three remaining Loreseekers sat in uncomfortable silence, and ate in uncomfortable silence, and went to sleep in uncomfortable beds. One injury and one death so far, and they'd only been exploring for two days. The idea of returning to Ballicazar to report on what they'd managed to learn without risking further incident was looking more and more appealing by the second.
A few hours later, Velavoros stumbled out of the inn, into a howling gale that whistled between the buildings and chilled him to the bone. Shivering, he hurried along towards the outhouse to dispose of the night's drinks. Stumbling through the poorly-lit night, he tried not to let his thoughts wander to Decaralan, which naturally lead to him doing exactly that.
Deca was fresh out of the academy. This was his first expedition. He'd been doing so well, and then... In a heartbeat, it was over. As he pushed open the outhouse door and stepped within, he wondered if it hurt, or if Decaralan's death was at least quick. He'd been so happy to be out here... It just seemed wrong that-
His business finished, Velavoros opened the outhouse door again, and found himself face-to-face with Decaralan.
Last night's wind had died down a bit, but the skies were overcast as Efarazar and Mellurian inspected Velavoros's body. He'd been asphyxiated, if the blue hue of his face was any clue. There was an expression of wide-eyed horror on his face, but he'd died without any apparent injuries on him, not even on his neck. The tracks in the dust had been heavily obscured by the blowing wind, but as far as the two surviving Loreseekers could tell, the only footprints to or from the outhouse were coming from or going to the inn. Eventually, Mellurian spoke. “...Maybe he choked on his food?”
“Hours after we ate?”
Efarazar could hear the anxiety in her voice. Two dead... one after they'd already left, too. “Did you recognize anyone in the common room yesterday?”
“Neither did I. That, plus the lack of any sort of mark on Velavoros, says that it wasn't anyone at the inn. The likeliest culprit is some sort of delayed-onset trap he triggered in the tomb.” The suggestion that Velavoros wasn't the only one who triggered it hung heavy in the air. “...We're probably safe,” Efarazar added, “since we're still alive. Can you head to that Chapel of the Three we passed on our way in, and have them prepare Velavoros for travel back to Ballicazar?”
“...Yeah...” Mellurian's attention was clearly elsewhere at the moment, but she still glanced that way.
Efarazar sighed. “I'm going to go have a word with whoever's in charge of the town guard, then, and let them know we don't suspect any foul play. Just another accident. And then we're both going to go back to our room, and stay there until we're ready to leave.”
Efarazar and Mellurian were still alive in the morning. Unfortunately, Nerezathira wasn't. She'd been one of the night-guards manning the walls. She'd clearly fallen in the middle of the night... but the Loreseekers could tell just by looking that she'd already been dead when she plummeted.
Nerezathira died of asphyxiation. No obvious injures, but an expression of wide-eyed horror.
Efarazar had always been good at reading people; Mellurian lacked his talent in that regard. It worried her quite a lot that she could see Efarazar's anxiety. The man was sweating and fidgeting far more than he'd ever done so before. He did manage to settle on a course of action, though, turning to the guard that had roused them and brought them here. “Fetch a courier. And tell whoever does shift assignments that guards tonight are to travel in pairs.” After the man left, Mellurian asked if he thought that might prevent another death.
“No, but it will either give us an eyewitness or the knowledge that whatever is causing these deaths makes sure there are none.”
The courier was sent off towards Ballicazar on the fastest horse the town could procure, with Efarazar's report on the tomb and on the events that began afterward. Two days passed. Two more days... and two more deaths. The first was an old man named Romelian; he'd been killed in his bed. There was no one around to see it, as his wife had died last winter and his daughters had both moved out when they married. The Loreseekers were getting stares as they sat in the common room that day for meals, and all anyone was talking about was the rumors of a curse that had descended on the town – a curse that was squarely in the lap of the travelers.
The second death was that of a guard. Mellurian didn't catch the deceased's name, and Efarazar was more interested in knowing who the guard's partner was, running off as soon as he knew where to find the man. Mellurian couldn't do anything but slink after him, shying away from the accusatory glares of the other patrons still eating breakfast.
When she caught up, he was speaking with the rather pale guard who'd seen his friend's death first-hand. Or, well, he had been. Now, he was just laughing. It was a horrible laugh, entirely devoid of anything resembling humor, and with quite a lot of madness to fill in the gaps. Efarazar fled again, back towards the inn, still giggling to himself. Mellurian and the guard watched him go, then looked at one another in shared confusion.
“What did you tell him?” Mellurian asked.
The guard slowly recounted the story again – the wind had kicked up suddenly, howling... and then they'd realized that within the howling was a faint voice, one asking “Whyyyyyyyy...?” As they were searching for the source of the voice, his companion – named Lyraleria, apparently – was suddenly attacked by someone, who grabbed him by the throat and then just vanished as Lyraleria fell to the ground.
Mellurian asked what the ghost looked like, a sense of unease growing in her gut, and was disappointed but not surprised as the guard described Decaralan to her.
Following Efarazar after that was quite a task, as he ran all over town. Mellurian finally caught up to him at the inn as the sun began to set. He was still grinning as he tossed his belongings out of his pack one after another. “Efarazar, it's Deca! The killings are being done by the ghost of-”
“I know. Oh, believe me, I know.”
“But why would he-”
“Revenge, of course. Heh heh. He's a wraith!”
Mellurian thought back to her classes. Wraith... Wraith... A kind of ghost, out to avenge itself... Very confused, created when an innocent soul is betrayed and...
“...You killed him.”
“Yes! One easy little shove, when his attention lapsed. And now he wants to kill me back. He won't get me, though.”
“He was your student, Efarazar! Why would you have killed him? What could've been worth it?”
“This.” Efarazar held up a jeweled wand. It was... well, it was certainly beautiful, and doubtless valuable. He must've gotten it in the heaven-tomb (a thought that had Mellurian kicking herself, as she realized that she forgot to ask if he'd at least found anything in there). But simple greed? Greed was why so many had died? So Efarazar could get his hands on one of the finest wands she'd ever laid eyes on-
Mellurian almost didn't notice as Efarazar began to walk out, she was so transfixed on the trinket in his hand. It took a moment for her to follow, as he headed out into town. “He's not going to get me, though. I'm perfectly safe. Or, well, I will be in a minute. I found the perfect spot for...”
Efarazar stopped suddenly, in the center of the town square, and began to scratch a circle out in the dirt using the jeweled tip of the beautiful wand – a shame, it didn't deserve to be used for such dirty work. Once that was done, he dropped the wand and... froze for a moment. He just looked around... at the town, at Mellurian, at the wand, at the circle he'd drawn...
The wind began to howl.
That was enough for Efarazar to make up his mind. He intoned the syllables of the rite, and drew the energies of the earth into himself, and turned himself into stone – impervious to the ghost's touch until he became flesh once more, whenever that was.
That was enough for Mellurian to make up her mind, too. She snatched up the wand, and ran for the road to Ballicazar, and didn't stop running until the sun had risen again.
“...And that is the story of Efarazar, the forty-fifth week of the calendar,” Ms. Gi said. “All the proof is before you. Efarazar himself remains here. So does what's left of the town, though naturally it had to be evacuated due to Decalaran's wraith. The wand he found is under lock and key in a Loreseeker reliquary; its only power is to make those who see it covet it, so it's never exhibited. All it was was another trap.”
One of the students raised her hand. “Ms. Gi, why's he chained in place?”
The teacher smiled. “A very good question. Efarazar has been found to be a murderer, by his own admission. The wraith of the one he betrayed still returns every night, seeking revenge and slaying the first person he comes across until he gets it. Efarazar's sentence is that, when he finally returns to the realm of the living, he'll be waiting here for the wraith's nightly visit.
There was a bit of hubbub as the students discussed this, followed by a conspicuous silence as they all realized how long the story had taken, and how close the sunset now was.
“Now, come collect your salt,” Ms. Gi said. “It's time for a practical exam. Wraiths, like many spirits, cannot cross properly consecrated lines of salt. Anyone still alive in the morning gets a passing grade.”