A/N So here's the second to last chapter of Fool's Gold. You excited? I'm in Tennessee again, how history does repeat itself, and I felt it right to post a chapter. I'm doing my best to finish up Chapter Ten, but when you're taking notes on thirty some page chapters of US History every weekend and then add on some Calculus things get tight. Bear with me I will not abandon this story.
The caravan set out at noon sharp. The courier had some follow up business in Greenest before setting off for the Sword Coat. He happily obliged to travel off route a few miles when a certain amount of coins greased his palm. Ascanor covered the cost for all of them. He felt a sense of responsibility for them even being there, thanks to his father's unnatural whims. Luckily, the carriage was quite the affluent ride, so the price met the value.
The interior remained bare in the cargo hold, the rough and splintery planks bare and foreboding over the sacks of goods. A plain door separated it from the posh, but cramped cabin in the front. A U shaped bench faced the door, wrapping around the rest of the cabin. The bench had been lined with thick, porous cushions, but their support only lasted a few minutes on the rattling, winding rut.
The crowd huddled in the cabin while the courier steered the horses on a bench on the open front of the carriage. Sharyas grunted as the wheels struck another rock, knocking her head into Ascanor's shoulder. Ascanor felt like saying something, but when you've bribed your way onto a ride, you really are in no position to complain. Also, that last transaction felt like it lightened his coinpurse. He decided to follow Alandil's suit and tuck his own nose into a book. Not that he had any better way to pass the time, every time he leaned back to nap his horns clacked on the wall.
His eyes scanned the page and several pages passes before he realized he had no idea of what he'd been reading. He tossed the book into his knapsack disgustedly and turned his attention to the rolling, monotonous prairie outside. He leaned over the bench and poked his head out where the courier sat. "How do you ever stay sane out here?"
"It's best to not think about it." His tone ended the conversation.
Ereven's hydra yawned and rolled over on the floor. Over the past day its size had almost doubled, and it could no longer ride in his backpack. The rangers barely smuggled it on board. It took a lot of luck, some gold, and a barrel of pickled fish, but they managed to keep the beast a secret until they left town. On their first night in the wilderness the courier had gone to a salted meat crate and found his dinner taken by an unwelcome stowaway. Ascanor reluctantly parted with more gold, but the courier decided it best to keep his mouth shut. The hydra took up more room in the front than it did in the back. At the rate it grew, they'd be riding it to Demonsfell Manor rather than the carriage.
He couldn't deny the creature had an odd cuteness in a monster sort of way. He kept a close eye on it, it was a wild animal after all. A careful eye, and a hand on a knife, not the best way to live. But he desired living more than being ambushed. After a few hours passed, or maybe just a few minutes, he couldn't tell, Ascanor gave up on trying to pass time and let it move on its own plodding pace. His head began to slump and he inhaled sharply when he fell forward. A flask plopped into his lap.
"It helps to keep you awake. Also helps you pass the time." Ereven smiled.
Ascanor took a polite sip, but passed on the booze. The liquid razed his tongue and scraped like a steel hairball down his throat, but it tasted good, like an oaken forest on a dewy night. The alcohol dropped into his stomach like a lead weight, warming his esophagus. Ascanor didn't feel any more awake, and he feared how it would help him pass the time. With great relief, the sun's repeated exposure had finally baked enough drowsiness into him for sleep to take over.
Shadows draped him when his eyes opened. He still sat within the carriage, and the silhouetted figures on the rest of the bench meant none of his friends had moved either. He raised up and peeked out the window. They'd made camp in a barren patch on a small crest. The waves of grass blown by the gentle, lukewarm breeze in the pale moonlight swept across the plains and met at the base of the hill. Ascanor looked down, a small campfire smoldered while the horses grazed over at the scrub tree they'd been tied to. A lumpy bedroll next to the fire told of the courier. Ascanor smiled. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been up before dawn, able to enjoy the tranquil isolation of the wilderness in the sleepiest time of the day. His mind drifted to times where he'd been hard at work before bed, and when he nestled into the pillow he couldn't bring his mind to rest. Instead, he'd spent the rest of the night working, reveling in the belief this was his time, a feeling only those who enjoyed the night could feel. It'd always been easier on his eyes anyways.
He snapped out of his reverie when something squealed softly behind him. The infant hydra scrambled up onto the seat next to him and peered out over the window. Its heads poked into his hands and pockets, where Ereven ordinarily stored treats. Ascanor held out his hands to show them empty. "I don't have anything for you." It squealed a groan and flopped down unhappily onto the windowsill.
Ascanor looked pitifully at the beast. "Can't sleep either? You get that with an evil heritage."
The hydra cooed as Ascanor rubbed the scales of its chin. He smiled. "You're pretty cute after all." The hydra nestled against his side, purring softly. Ereven's word floated through his conscience. As soon as we get to the client, it'll be their problem. He had his doubts Ereven wouldn't hold up his word, but still, he couldn't let this poor creature fall into his father's claws. He scratched off a flake of wood and rolled it between his fingers. What could be done?
Sharyas startled him as she rose silently to her feet beside him. "You're up early."
He gestured to the sleeping hydra. "Both of us were."
"You know, you're getting closer to that thing than I thought you would."
"I guess in some way, he's almost like my brethren. We share a demon bloodline so, he's almost like a brother." He sighed. "We can't give him to my father."
"Why is that?"
"You don't...can't...know what he'd do with it. My father is...eccentric, I guess. If we leave it with him...well there's no telling what he'd do."
"Come on, Ascanor. It's a living being. He wouldn't do anything irrational like-"
"You don't know that!" He clapped a hand over his mouth as the other two stirred behind them.
Ereven rubbed his eyes and looked at the floor. "Where is he?"
Ascanor stood to the side. "Right here." The hydra looked up and saw his patron awake. It squealed happily and leapt into his waiting arms. He stuck a hand into his pocket and pulled out some of what was left of the salt beef. The hydra snapped it up and began to tear at it with its mouths.
The courier had awoken outside and began to kick up the coals and pile on new wood. "I'm making coffee. Anyone interested?"
Ascanor raised his hand, and Ereven and Alandil voiced a desire as well. Sharyas' nose wrinkled up before he even opened the sack of beans, and she quickly hurried off to scavenge what prey she could find in the stringy, tough prairie grasses. Ascanor took a swig of coffee. Ereven had provided the cups, and though the wood still aerated booze, the rich, cloying smell of the coffee masked it like a black brewed cloud over the sun. He watched with humor as the baby hydra sidled up slowly to the pile of coffee grounds and took a small bite. The creature reeled back with a disgusted squeak, spitting clouds of black grit as it attempted to rid its mouths of the bitter grounds as quick as possible.
Ascanor and Ereven shared a laugh. The tiefling smiled. "It looks like curiosity is as lethal to hydras as it is cats."
The warrior nodded. "Little guy's got to learn the world beyond the temple isn't going to be an easy adventure."
Ascanor's eyes departed from attention. "Mmm."
"Oi." The courier had tossed his gear up on top of the carriage. "If you guys look ahead, you'll find our first stop, Greenest."
Ascanor raised a hand over his eyes against the freshly birthed sun. "Can't be more than a half day's ride away."
"That's...correct. How did you-?"
"It's on the edge of the horizon away, correct? From this height, that can't be more than a half day away on horse."
The courier nodded. "Good to know." His voice betrayed a lack of interest. Ascanor's hand reached for his coinpurse, debating whether the gold it'd hemorrhaged was worth it after all.
They all jumped as Sharyas cleared the windowsill in one bound and polymorphed as she landed on the seat. She curled up in a huff. "Let's go before I set this measly place ablaze."
"Hells lady, if you hadn't taken off so quickly I could've told you there ain't nothin' out there to catch. Why'd you'd want to catch prairie mice anyways is beyond me."
As if in response, Sharyas' stomach audibly protested. Ascanor handed her a piece of salt beef to tide her over until they made it to Greenest. She took the shriveled piece of meat in her and sniffed it, taking a small nibble. She gagged on the first bite, sticking out her tongue at the saltiness, but finished it without complaint.
With a quick snap the courier sent the carriage into motion and they were on their way to Greenest. Ascanor watched as the titanic walls rose over their heads before they were swallowed by a gate like the mouth of a magnificent monster. The tapered portcullis even appeared as a uniform row of fangs in the midmorning gloom. A row of torches illuminated the way through the thick walls, and as quickly as they entered, the sun erupted the scenery around them into a glittering show of electrifying colors. The carriage passed rows upon rows of tents every color of the rainbow selling Faerun's finest goods. At least, they made you believe so.
The courier pulled the carriage around the back of an inn. Two men promptly exited the kitchen door and backed the carriage to the door. The courier dropped down into the cabin and opened the cargo door. "Once we unload these goods we'll be on our way to the place you're goin'. Without this weight we'll be there before sundown. This'll only take a minute. I'll be back." He disappeared into the cargo hold.
Ascanor sighed and looked out the window at the lovely view of a brick wall. On the outside, Greenest appeared to be a gem embedded in the plain, but up close the hideous truth of the city reared its ugly head. Even the blue sky had a smeared paleness to it in the city's haze of smoke. Someone shouted gratitude behind them and footsteps began to clap the wooden floor of the cargo hold. The courier quickly burst through the door and pulled himself up onto the outside bench. During their time inside, the horses had been detached and cared for. They stood firm at their bridles, their thin-cut coats gleaming with a new shine. The courier snapped the reins and with a flurry of metal on cobbles the carriage was on its way to Demonsfell Manor.
Ascanor's home sprawled between two rising hills. A long, graveled path marked the only presence of residence beyond the rutted, dirt road that had meandered off the main road for at least ten miles. The gravel road met the dirt run at its very end, before it too disappeared into the rolling, forested hills for another mile, where it opened up into a panoramic valley. A rusted, wrought-iron fence lined the property, marked only by two brick pillars that held the gate. A demon squat on both brick plinths, glaring down maliciously at everyone who passed the gate. A hulking golem stood on either side of the gate, a spear clasped between their sausage-sized fingers. As the carriage approached, their spears crossed over the gate.
Ascanor instructed the courier to stop back a small ways, and as quickly as they departed the carriage sped off back to more familiar roads. Ascanor used the opportunity to take a deep breath of familiar, fresh air. He hadn't realized how rank cities were until he'd left this. He strolled up to the golems and stared them in the eye. He smiled. "Evening, Dalgi, Celas."
Their spears parted. "Master." The gate opened and Ascanor beckoned the others inside.
Alandil caught up to the tiefling. "You have golem sentries?"
"The entire staff is made of constructs. Helps to cut down on the expenses. They also can't say no, and they're capable of vastly more than any of us."
Alandil nodded in thought. Beyond the gate, the gravel path continued to wind up a hill to the house. Along the way, various shrubs had been manicured into various shapes and designs. A row of hedges had been squared off and followed the gravel drive a foot off in the grass. At the foot of the house, a half-circle of white marble telescoped up to the wide, black oak door. Ascanor reached up, grabbed the brass knocker not unlike the one of his father's study, and sent echoing raps into the house. Iaris promptly opened the door, his glowing green eyes scrutinizing the tiefling for a moment. Its lips parted in a jagged, stony grin. "Good to see you sir. I see you've brought company. Your father has prepared the guest rooms. Please, do come in." It beckoned them in with a wave of its hand.
Ascanor waited patiently as they gasped at the vaulted, sloping ceilings. Alandil came up to the banisters and rubbed the metallic scales of the demons that squat on the tops. "Who was able to sculpt them so lifelike?"
"They're lifelike because they're real. Look around the neck." He pointed to the throat of a demon, where a thin, barely visible collar bound the demon to a chain embedded into the banister. As if on cue, the demon's eyes rolled to look at the tiefling, its snarl curling into a look of hatred. "Just about every sculpture on the property is a contained demon. They serve as another form of guardians. If someone does beat their way past the constructs, one spell will release all of them."
Sharyas raised an eyebrow. "You've got...a lot of security here."
"Well I've never personally added it up myself, but I could say what we have in here is worth more than the house itself. Mostly kept in Father's study, but I've got a few things around here and there." He sighed. "I guess I ought to give you the tour." He beckoned them over past the right side of the steps and through the double doors. "This is the kitchen." He shouted over the clamor. "Here we can prepare food for at least one hundred guests. I'm not sure of the maximum capacity, we've never had more than that. Over there on the right we've got eight ovens. That door on the far wall leads into the freezer, cooled by a routine cone of cold to maintain a temperature below freezing."
He led them out and up the steps. He pointed to the wooden door on the opposite wall. "That's Father's study." He left it at that. Halfway up, the steps parted and rose to either corner of the foyer, where an open air hallway stretched between them before leading back both wings.
He began to lead them back the right wing when Alandil cleared his throat. "Ascanor, I've been wondering for a while. Where are all the windows? I saw them outside, but there's nothing inside."
"Father never accustomed his eyes to daylight, and over the years that sensitivity got worse, so when the manor was built, he didn't have any windows put it. But a flat facade wouldn't really blend in, so he had fake windows put it. I enjoy the sun though, so I've got some in my own room. Which is right here. The guest rooms are the other four rooms around mine."
"What about the other wing?"
"Those are Father's quarters." He procured a key from a secret pocket in his overcoat and unlocked the door to his room. He pushed the door and stood aside so they could see. "Not much to look at. Four poster bed, private full bathroom, same thing your rooms will have. He pointed to the window on the far wall. "Down there is the courtyard. If you ever need some place quiet, you'll find it there. Need anything else?"
They shook their heads and heading into their own rooms. Ascanor closed the door behind him and collapsed onto his bed. He rolled onto his side, squinting as the evening sun winked its daily farewell through his window. He sighed, sinking into the down padding. He hadn't realized how much he'd regretted leaving it. A bedroll, no matter how much down it had, could never replace what he had at home. Something didn't settle right in the pit of his stomach, but he ignored the growing feeling.
Someone knocked quietly on his door. "Come in." The door opened slowly and Sharyas stepped inside. She wore a short-sleeved tunic and baggy trousers. Ascanor's heart thudded against his ribs as his eyes ran down her newly uncovered curves. Ascanor hadn't realized how slim she really was underneath her billowing gowns. He shook his head, pushing those foolish thoughts out of his mind as he saw Sharyas turn crimson. He held up his hands. "Oh, no, I'm-I don't..."
"No, you're fine. I understand, it's happened before. I just wanted to, well, you've been acting strange since we got here. I just wanted to know if you were alright."
He propped himself up against the wall and smiled. "I wish I could tell you." He opened his eyes as she nestled against him. Her eyes turned up to him. "Please?"
He sighed. "I guess. My father and I don't get along very well."
"Really?" She slapped her hand against her open mouth.
"Funny. Well, I know I've been really strong while you guys have been around, but, frankly, I'm not, okay? It's all luck, and he knows it too." He sighed. "Alandil was right this whole time. I've been his slave and too blind to notice it."
"And you take that from him?"
"Well, yeah." He answered as if the answer was obvious, but Sharyas frowned.
"Why? Why would you possibly put up with that?"
"You don't understand. You can't."
She sighed, frustrated, but accepting. "Okay, serve him, but you don't have to. You can leave and come with us. You're one of us now."
He shook his head. "It just can't be that easy to get away from him. He has his ways. Sharyas, look, I don't know how I've possibly pulled this off as far as I have but at one point it's going to bounce back on me. And the longer this lasts, the harder the rebound is going to be and what if it's with magic? I showed you guys what happens when magic is overdrawn and-"
She pressed a finger to his lips. "It's okay. Everything has gone right this time, you know it. You're just being paranoid. You told me you're here for me, so I'll be here for you. We'll share our burdens together."
"Sharyas you could die if you're around me. Magic can't be trifled with in the way I do. I know I'm in too deep, but you, you're safe. Oh gods I knew it all along. Every single time something good comes into my life, someone comes and-" He cried out as she slapped him across the cheek.
"Ascanor you're acting delusional! Nothing is going to happen to you. Snap out of it!"
He shook his head. "You're right. I guess I've been in too many books in my life. I just, I've been in this house too much. I never realized how cooped up I was until I met you guys, heard your stories, seen your life. And I want that, so badly. But I just can't."
"Maybe not by yourself, but who said you still had to be alone?"
His eyes widened. "You mean you'd help?"
"Not just me. I'm sure the others would be glad to help. If not, well, I have my ways." She winked.
He clasped her in a squeezing hug. "Thank you Sharyas."
She squawked in protest but returned his embrace. When he let her go, he had a sly grin on his face. "You know, not everything I've recovered over the years is kept in my father's study." He leaned over the bed and reached underneath, pulling out a padlocked, plain wooden box. He took a book off the shelf next to his bed and opened it, sliding out a small, unmarked key. When he flipped the lid, an empty bottom greeted them too. "In fact, this box itself is a trinket." He thrust his hand into the box, disappearing up to the wrist as it passed over the brim. Sharyas gasped, and he reached down in farther until everything below the elbow had been swallowed up. "A pocket plane capable of boundless storage. And that's not all I have to show you." He grinned. As if on cue, something moved and snorted inside the bathroom. Sharyas started, but Ascanor settled her with a hand on her shoulder. "Come here."
They moved into the bathroom. Between the basin and toilet, a copper tub sat in a wooden box frame. Ascanor knelt down and slid aside a panel in the side. A reptilian snout stuck out of the darkness, its stark yellow eyes peered first at the kitsune, then at Ascanor, when it gave a cheerful cry as it leapt into his arms. The tiefling laughed, rubbing his fingers between the creature's eye ridges. "This is Ziggy." Ascanor said. "He's a psuedodragon. I found and raised him from an egg. For some reason he...likes being in the dark. I suppose it's his nature. Normally, they have poison, but Ziggy's fire here is special. Makes him perfect for the manor, eh? Anyways, he posed a threat to the manor with his fiery breath, so we found him a small home where he can breath fire normally and enjoy the dark. We don't burn as much coal this way as well."
"He's a...tub warmer?"
"Well...yeah, I guess so. He doesn't see it that way." The pseudodragon, now satisfied, trotted back into his dim nest and curled up in a small, round pillow, watching them with reflective eyes. He yawned, as if to note his impatience.
"Alright, Ziggy, I get it. You could use your sleep." Ascanor slid the panel back. He noted the twilight beyond the bathroom window. "I guess we should be doing so as well."
Ascanor hadn't realized he'd gotten back into bed and fallen asleep until the early morning light dancing through his window split his eyelids. He rolled onto his back, noticing for the first time the sleeping form of Sharyas with her back to him. He flushed with shock when he realized he'd been hugging her against himself all night. He couldn't believe she'd stayed in his room all night, more of a grateful, loving sense of disbelief than a bad one. Sharyas began to stir as he rolled out of bed, and as Iaris entered the room she promptly got up as well. The golem gave her almost no glance, despite her informal clothing and bewildered attitude.
The golem bowed in front of Ascanor. "Your father will be expecting you after breakfast, sir."
He sighed. "Fantastic."
The golem's stony brow wrinkled. "I'm sorry, sir. I don't understand."
"I get it. Be in his study after breakfast. Dismissed."
The golem continued to frown, but bowed and left. Sharyas looked worriedly at him. "You sure you're going to be able to go through with this?"
He leaned up against the windowsill and studied the slowly brightening countryside. How had things changed? How did coming home drive his stomach into a nauseous storm? Just the very thought of that heavy door downstairs, and what lay behind it, almost forced him back into bed, as if it were the only safe place left for him in this world. But in the massive swamp of dark feelings, a wavering light stood firm, and it was sitting on the bed looking at him. Slowly, he nodded. "Let's get this day started."