Lina stretched her arm high over her head and reached for the next available outcropping of rock. Grasping her fingers around the jagged protrusion, she hauled herself up another two feet along the frozen mountain slope. Pausing then for a moment, she sniffed and tugged up the collar of her cloak further around her mouth. To be able to use Raywing would have been nice, but also highly dangerous at such an altitude with wind speeds as high as they were.
“I’m getting too old for this,” she muttered to herself, carefully resuming her precarious climb.
At thirty-five she was not exactly ‘old’, but rather easily classified as a mature adult who by that point in her life had a pretty good idea of what she was doing, at least most of the time. No matter how many years passed by for the hot-headed sorceress, one thing she had not learned was that money wasn’t everything. The scent of a potential profit was still enough to catch her interest and drive her all the way to the highest, most remote peaks.
One well-calculated hoist after another, she ascended the rocky gradient until at last her next grip landed the palm of her hand against a strangely flat surface. Her fingers inched forward, followed by a full extending of her arm until she was once again able to pull herself up. This time she did not meet with the perpetually vertical mountain wall, but instead a nicely laid ledge that was wide enough for her to crawl upon.
Slumping onto the ledge, she laid on her side and curled an arm over her head. Just a bit further and she would be able to set up a camp before it got too dark. If the weather got too bad or the temperature dropped much more, it would be no problem for her to simply turn back, but she was not ready yet. She had come too far and was not ready to give up on the troves of orichalcon that were rumored to be buried within the mountain caves.
Once she had caught her breath, she climbed up to her feet and dusted the snow from her hair and cloak. Looking about, she saw that the ledge she had climbed on actually extended a good distance to her left and right.
“Odd,” she murmured and rubbed the back of her neck. If she hadn’t known any better than she would have labeled the ledge as a trail.
Drawing her cloak tighter about herself, she headed towards the right of the cliff to see just how far it extended, but no sooner did she take the first step than suddenly there came a soft, distant sound from somewhere behind her. The sound was heavy and continuous, not like the sound of footsteps or the sound of wind. It was lumbering and had a physical quality, an odd mixture of thuds and creaking.
Lina turned towards the noise, one eyebrow arched and her right hand held open at her side just in case the approaching effect turned out to be a threat. She was in no mood for a fight and could only hope that every other living thing in the vicinity felt the same way.
From amid the whiteness of snow flurries, a large outline came gradually into view. The form was of considerable size, and only when it had completely rounded the bend was Lina able to make out the familiar gait of two lazy cart horses followed directly by the cart and driver they pulled.
“All right!” she shouted with a bright smile, not yet thinking to be angry about the fact that she had taken the absolute hardest way up the mountain.
Lina waved her arms back and forth to get the driver’s attention. If she was fortunate then she would be able to get a ride to wherever the driver was going, which had to have been someplace close.
To her luck, the driver slowed his cart just in front of her. As the cart came to a stop, Lina saw that the back of it was filled with several large packages all covered with a thick tarp. The horses that pulled the cart were large draft horses, one black and the other brown and white. Their manes and harnesses were dusted with snow and their tails had been folded and pinned up. They looked like strong, healthy animals, but by the way they hung their heads it was obvious that they had been pulling the cart for quite a ways.
The driver himself was wrapped from head to toe in thick furs and leathers. Only his eyes were left exposed amid the scarf that was wrapped around his head. When he edged the scarf down, a full beard and mustache were brought into view from beneath it.
“Need a ride?” he exclaimed in an unnecessarily loud voice, his smile more heard than seen from behind his bushy brown facial hair, “Plenty of room up here!”
Lina grinned and brought a hand to the back of her head in a modest gesture.
“If it’s not too much trouble, I would appreciate it,” she replied happily.
“Sure, come on,” the man said and scooted over to make room for her on the driver’s bench.
Approaching the cart, Lina set her hands to the ledge of the seat and hopped up.
“What’re you doing all the way up here with this cart and these horses?” she asked, “Isn’t it a bit dangerous?”
“I was about to ask you what you were doing up here without ‘em. Hardly anyone ever bothers to come this way, but when they do they usually come prepared for the trip.” the man chuckled and offered out his hand, “By the way, my name’s Grei.”
“Lina,” the sorceress replied, seating herself on the bench and taking the man’s hand for a brief shake, “Lina Inverse.”
“Serious?” Grei arched an eyebrow as he readjusted his scarf back up around his face. With a flick of his wrist, he snapped his whip at the two horses who then continued their gradual pace up the mountain trail. “I think I heard some stories about you some years ago. Strange, though. From the way I remember them, I always imagined you looking like some kind of a girly little boy!”
“You watch your mouth!” Lina shouted and nearly shot up from her seat at the insult. It had been a long time since any mention of her girlish appearances had been made. She was now a grown woman, and even though she had never quite developed the breasts she had always been longing for, she had at least filled out with a nice hour-glass shape.
“All right, all right. I don’t mean to offend,” the man chuckled and lifted his free hand innocently, “Those stories couldn’t have been accurate anyway. They also described you as trouping around with an unlikely bunch, but apparently that wasn’t true either.”
Lina pulled the hood of her cloak up over her head and decided against making a reply to the mention of her previous traveling companions. For most of them she had parted on understandable terms, excepting the blonde swordsman who had been the subject of her elusive affection.
“At any rate,” she none-too-casually digressed from the subject of her celebrity, “Where’re you heading to anyways?”
“Back to my home village to deliver some supplies. We’re getting ready for a festival that we hold every year to celebrate the continuing peace and prosperity in this area.”
“Oh? Was your village involved in a war?” Lina inquired with a hint of genuine interest. She had never been anywhere even remotely close to this area in her entire life, so far beyond the barrier it was.
Grei shook his head. “Not exactly, but we were under attack. I actually wasn’t living here at the time, but I’ve heard a bit from my neighbors. A powerful entity swept through the entire city and almost everything was burned right to the ground. Many lives were lost, but it’s really not something we like to talk about. We celebrate the recovery, not the tragedy itself.”
“I see,” Lina nodded and redirected her attention to the road ahead, “Do you know anything about the caves in this mountain?”
Grei laughed and slapped his hand once to his knee.
“Is that why you’ve come up all this way?” he nearly shouted through the thick barrier of cloth around his mouth. “Guess I shouldn’t be all that surprised. Yeah, I know something about ‘em. I know they’ve been lost for a good many years and that no less than three adventuresome gold diggers die during each of those years in pursuit of ‘em. How they die, I don’t know. I just know that once they head up the Northern pass from our city, they never come back.”
Lina smirked and folded her arms over her chest.
“That just means that the treasures of the caves are probably still there. A little threat of death from exposure isn’t enough to stop me.”
“Suit yourself,” Grei replied, “At least those parts of the rumors were true. Your appetite for gold is as big as your one for food. Speaking of which, how would you like to join the city for our festival? There’s guaranteed to be good food, drink, and dance, all of it free of charge.”
Lina immediately perked from her slouched position as the ‘food factor’ of her brain went haywire with activity. The neurons shot and buzzed their energy, sending a message at the speed of hunger to the rest of her body that caused her eyes to light up and her lips to pull back in an endlessly happy smile.
“Well if you absolutely insist, I suppose that I can spare a day or two and do my part as a fellow peace-loving citizen!” she exclaimed brightly. After several days of living on nothing but trail rations, the thought of a decent meal would have been enough by that time to make her forego even a direct profit. Postponing her journey for a bit would definitely be no problem.
“Great! The festival starts tomorrow. We’ll arrive there tonight just in time to get you set up at an inn.”
Upon arriving at the city, Lina was rather surprised to see the size and density of it. For being so secluded and in such a difficult location, the city’s population was large enough to require urban expansion for several miles. For the most part, the buildings within the city limits were not spaced out, but rather built within close proximity, allowing room for only the occasional alley between them. The roads were cobbled with stone and seemed to run on a peculiar grid system. Towards the outskirts of the city, the roads ran horizontal and parallel, but further towards the center of the city they began to curve and form a pattern of inlaid circles.
Grei dropped Lina off at one of the local inns. As he watched her climbed from the cart, he pulled his scarf down and waved to her.
“Hopefully I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said, “Don’t forget to visit the city shrine and pay a service to our symbol of triumph!”
“Sure,” Lina smiled and waved at the driver with no real intention of doing such a thing. The city’s victory had nothing to do with her and she therefore had no homage to pay. Turning, she made her way into the tavern with thoughts of food items dancing ceremonial circles around her head.
The tavern was already bursting with life. Nearly every table was filled, as were the seats at the bar. By that time in the evening, anyone who had gone to the tavern with the intention of getting drunk had long since reached that goal and was gradually approaching the line to either physical aggression of unconsciousness.
On her way to an empty table, Lina brushed past a group of men who were engaged in a game of cards. Judging by men’s behavior and the conversation they presently shared in, it was obvious that the exact rules of the card game had been lost some time ago. The men hardly looked at the cards that were placed, and the only time a round was called was when one man ran out of cards to front.
“I said I’d kill her, that’s what!” one burly man with more hair on his arms than Lina had on her head slammed his hand to the table and tossed his cards out, face up.
“Come off it! She’d blast you into a thousand pieces before you took your first step!” another man, just as large as the first but dressed considerably better in a thick grey tunic, laid down one of his cards and took up another from the hand that had been tossed, “You have the strength, but you don’t have the motivation!”
“The Hell do you mean? My house and my job weren’t motivation enough? I lost everything!”
“But you had no family to lose. My brother and my daughter were killed.”
The third man at the table, shorter than the other two with more muscle than pudge, sighed and leaned back in his chair.
“Why are you guys arguing about it? It doesn’t matter!” he said.
“Like Hell it doesn’t matter!” the first man shouted, “You know what Lord Silos said! He predicted that it could happen again, and so far his predictions have been right!”
The second man interjected. “Look, if it happens then it’s not gonna happen in our life time. You know how that kinda stuff works.”
“But if it does, I said I’d kill her and that’s what I’d do. None of this symbol crap.”
Curiously Lina eyed the men as she sat down at a table near the bar. Pulling back the hood of her cloak, she then unfastened the cloak itself and removed it from around her shoulders. From underneath the article, her black cape and dark green tunic ensemble were brought into view. Over the years she had not changed her style of dress much. Tunics, pants, and boots were what she was most comfortable in and she wasn’t going to risk buying anything flashier only to have it get in the way when she got into trouble, which was still more frequent than she would have liked to admit.
Her interest in the conversation of the three men lasted only until a waiter, a lanky blonde man no older than twenty years of age, approached to take her order.
“Welcome,” the waiter said, pen and pad held at the ready as he came to the side of her chair, “What’ll it be?”
“Three large dinner plates and a tankard of ale please,” Lina replied without hesitation.
“Huh?” The waiter blinked, his grip on his pen somewhat faltering.
“I said three large dinner plates and a tankard of ale please,” she repeated happily, casting upwards to the young man her smile of innocent hunger.
The waiter quickly shook his head and scribbled the order down.
“Sure. It’ll just be a minute,” he said and walked off towards the kitchen.
Lina folded her hands behind her head and leaned back in her chair, basking in the tavern’s warmth that permeated through to her skin. Closing her eyes, she directed the attention of her ears back to the table across the way where the three men had finally given up on their card game.
The first man pushed up from his seat and rested his hands to the table’s surface.
“I’ll say this much,” he rumbled in a half drunken stupor, “We have a lot to owe. A debt we’ll never be able to pay off for as long as we’re still alive.”
“Right,” the third man said as he also got to his feet. “It’s borrowed time, but ya know, it’s almost a shame.”
The second man had shuffled the cards together into a neat stack and then slipped them into his pocket.
“What is?” he inquired of the third man as he stood and grabbed his coat from the back of his chair.
“That none of the other women in this town look as good as an evil sorceress.”
The first man roared with obnoxious laughter and slapped the shorter man on the back.
“My thoughts exactly,” he exclaimed, “If we got her, maybe killing her off right away would be acting a bit too hasty, yeah?”
“Gotta admit that’s something I’ve always wondered, you know what I mean? That damn icon!” the second man chuckled as he made his way to the door.
“Yeah. Me too.”
Lina peered open one eye and watched the men as they shifted and stumbled their way from the tavern.
“Evil sorceress?” she mumbled to herself.
Her presence in the city was proof that even people who were more dependant on magic could have made their way there if they really wanted to. However, if the other citizens were like the three men in that they equated ill-intended magic users with physical beauty, then they obviously hadn’t been exposed to very many sorceresses, evil or otherwise.
When the waiter returned with her order, she straightened and grabbed up her knife and fork, watching the three plates as they were placed on the table.
“Thanks!” she exclaimed, already digging into the first plate before the jug of ale had been set down.
The waiter looked a bit wary as he watched the red head begin to scarf down the food as though it were nothing.
“Call if you need anything else,” he replied as politely as he could.
“Oh wait!” Lina suddenly dropped her knife and turned to grabbed the elbow of the waiter’s shirt just as he started to step off, “What do you know about evil sorceresses?”
“Sorceress?” the young man stopped and canted his head in confusion. Tucking his serving tray under his arm, he averted his gaze for a moment before suddenly snapping his fingers and smiling. “Oh! You mean Etra?”
Lina swallowed her mouthful of food and let go of his shirt. “Um, I guess. Yeah.”
“Yeah,” the waiter replied, his eyes growing bright like those of a man speaking of his favorite kid, “She’s at the shrine in the center of the city. You should go and see her! She’s a great source of inspiration to all of us during this time of year.”
Using his elbow to pin his tray at his side, he reached into the pocket of his apron for his pen and pad. He wrote a series of lines and arrows onto the paper before tearing it from the pad and offering it out.
“Here are the directions to the shrine,” he said.
Lina took the paper and examined what had been written. A small box depicting the tavern had been drawn in the upper left hand corner, and by way of a few arrows and street signs, it was connected to another box towards the center of the page. Written next to the second box was the name ‘Etra’ with a little smiley face and several hearts. Lina looked at the hearts and then slowly turned her gaze up to the young man who flashed a goofy smile.
“All right,” she sighed, “Thanks.”
She tucked the paper into her front pocket. The shrine must have been the same one that Grei had told her to visit, but Grei had not mentioned anything about a sorceress. A supposedly evil sorceress who was seen as a ‘symbol of triumph’ and a ‘great inspiration to all’ was definitely worth a small detour for her own reference.
An hour and a half later, a very full and satisfied Lina Inverse pushed open the tavern door and stepped out into the cold night air. Refastening her cloak about her shoulders, she gazed upwards and squinted against the glare of a nearby street lamp. The sky above was partially clouded over, but beyond the clouds she could see a background of hundreds of thousands of stars. The weather would have been perfect if not for the gentle snow that had just recently begun to fall.
By that hour of the evening, the streets were mostly empty. Merchants had packed up their carts and removed them from the market centers, and everyone who worked away from home had long since made the trip back to their houses.
Bringing out the map that the waiter had drawn for her, Lina unfolded it and held it up to the light of the street lamp. Taking a moment to gauge her position, she looked about for the appropriate road and then set off. She could have waited until the following day to visit the shrine, but if the festival was really going to revolve around the idea of Etra, then she could only assume that the shrine was going to be overflowing with people going in and out of it. If she was going to visit the shrine for the sake of getting a good look at it, then she preferred to do it when she wouldn’t have to deal with crowds.
Walking through the streets, she took particular notice of the buildings that made up the city. All of them were fairly simple as far as aesthetics were concerned. There were no designs inlaid to the wood beams or stone stairwells, but what the buildings lacked in artistic appeal they more than made up for in durability. Each of the buildings looked as though it had been raised on a platform of cement blocks and then sunk down into the center of the platform, creating an added barrier that rose about four feet. The architectural technique gave the buildings a layered appearance. It was Lina’s best guess that if she were to actually take a look, the door frames of the houses would be very thick in consistency with the buildings’ depths.
Upon rounding the first block, Lina looked ahead to see that a large banner had been strung above the street between two rooftops. Across the banner, the words ‘Long live the Savior Silos’ had been written. Further down the road, other banners and posters of similar messages became a more frequent sight. They were hitched to lamp posts, appeared in windows, and on large placards at almost every intersection.
At the last turn on the map, the road that Lina had been on suddenly connected to a large, polygonal courtyard. The courtyard measured about one hundred yards across and seemed to serve as a meeting point for the city’s main streets. At the center of the courtyard there was another building, significantly larger than all of the other establishments and of a very different quality. Instead of being squared and made of wood, the structure had a circular base and was made of carefully chiseled stone. The building was several stories higher than the average house with a lot of the height being owed to its domed top. There were four entrances to the structure, none of them with doors. They were taller than the average doorway and faced directly North, South, East, and West. Above each entrance was a symbol that had been carved to indicate the direction in which they faced.
Lina stepped into the courtyard and looked up towards the top of the temple. No doubt that this was the shrine she was looking for. By default, people tended to put more effort into projects that had more omniscient significance.
At that moment, three forms emerged from the South end of the shrine, the side that the Lina stood facing. The forms were those of a mother and her two children, a boy and a girl, one held by each hand. In their free hands, each of the children held some kind object made out of folded paper. One looked like a small pyramid and the other looked like two pyramids that had been connected by their bases.
“She didn’t wake up!” the girl exclaimed happily to her mother, “It’s good luck this year again!”
“That’s right,” the mother replied, “Now let’s hurry on home so we can get up early tomorrow for the festival.”
As she passed by with her children, the woman smiled to Lina and nodded her head in a silent greeting.
Lina grinned and returned the gesture before looking back out to the courtyard.
The moonlight shone down into the open area and cast a shade of transparent blue across every tangible object. There was no one else around to be seen, no other movement occurring besides the gentle drift of falling snow.
Lina continued on to the path that soon brought her to the temple’s South entrance. There she paused and rested her to the thick frame of the opening, the sound of her last step echoing up into the shrine itself. Slowly she allowed her gaze to follow the sound, starting first at eye level and then working upwards.
As exquisite as the temple looked on the outside, the inside proved to be even more elaborate. Around the vast room were eight white pillars, each measuring about four feet in diameter. On the wall between each of the pillars were paintings of landscapes and wildlife, most of them baring an image of an attractive man in a brown robe with thin gold rings around each of his wrists. The man looked to be in his forties, and in each of the pictures that portrayed him he was shown with a gentle smile and open arms. There was a kindness in his gaze, a certain gentleness that Lina, for reasons that she couldn’t quite pin point, had not expected.
At the ceiling, in the very center of the dome, a perfect circle had been carved out and left open. At three spots around the circle, three thick chains had been secured. Those three chains connected at a single iron link, and from that link a fourth chain dangled down into the room.
Looking at the focal point of the temple, Lina’s eyes grew wide and she couldn’t keep her lips from parting gently. The object at the shrine’s center was a pedestal consisting of three stones blocks placed on top of each other, decreasing in size from bottom to top. On top of the smallest block was a life-size statue of a woman.
The statue portrayed the woman as being dressed in a skimpy ensemble that looked like a two-piece bathing suit. The woman was on her knees with her legs parted by several inches and her back arched at an odd angle. Her head was thrown back and her arms were extended fully above her, one wrist crossed over the other and tied with rope. Connected to the rope was the fourth chain that hung from the ceiling. The woman’s eyes were concealed with cloth and her mouth was similarly bound. Around her neck there was a thin collar and at her feet there was a pool of material. Presently, the statue had accumulated a thin layer of snow along the tops of its shoulders and thighs due to the hole set directly above it.
The detail of the statue was ineffable. Every fold of cloth and separation of hair had been created with nothing less than absolute realism in mind on the part of the sculptor. The flesh of woman’s obnoxiously endowed breasts was seen to expand slightly over the material of her top, and a direct difference of texture could be seen between the cloth over her eyes and the one on which she knelt. Even the form of the body itself seemed to have been molded with the intention of conveying a specific idea. Attention had been paid to the tendons in the woman’s neck and the muscles of her arms and stomach. One could tell that the woman was not tensed, but merely hanging like dead weight held up only by the good grace of the chain secured to the ceiling. Her shoulders were synched up against the sides of her head and her fingers, instead of being tight against her palms, were curled inward with the natural position that fingers took when the person was unconscious.
“What in the name of…” Lina whispered, her already softened tone fading to nothing as she stepped forward.
Coming right up to the base pedestal, Lina canted her head to get a better look at the features of this oh-so-revered icon that looked more like an image out of a dirty magazine. She could only assume that the woman depicted in the statue’s form was Etra, the supposedly evil sorceress of whom the waiter had spoken, yet within the first moment that she had looked upon the statue, the name of Etra was not the first one that had come to her mind.
Risking a heavy amount of trouble, she climbed up onto the base pedestal and brought herself directly in front of the statue. Eyes narrowed pensively, she dared to reach forward and place her hands to the sides of the statue’s face.
With as much detail as was given in the piece, the important parts of the woman’s true identity were concealed. A more appropriate determination of Lina’s suspicions could have been made if only she could have seen the woman’s eyes, or even her mouth.
Carefully Lina mapped the stone contours of statue, running her fingers over the hair and down the jaw line, then up the arms to feel over the wrists and the rope that bound them.
“This isn’t…” she whispered with a slow shake of her head, “This can’t be.”
She would have been stupid not to pick up on the similarities of Etra and another certain ‘evil’ sorceress with whom she had been acquainted in her early teen years.
Over twenty-two years had passed since she had last set eyes on Naga the Serpent. Unlike most names and faces that came and went with a person’s everyday experiences, the image of Naga was not one that faded with time. Were Lina to think hard enough about it, she would have been able to recall many details about Naga including hair and eye color, approximate height, stature, personality, favored accessories, habits, and above all, that ridiculously obnoxious laugh.
Every detail that she could see of Etra was an exact equivalent to Naga. The only things missing were the spiked shoulder guards, the cape, the earrings, the headband, the leg band, and the bulky skull necklace that Naga had been so fond of. Etra wore only some kind of a collar around her neck. Since it was very possible for Naga to have simply removed her accessories, there was no other evidence to say that Etra and Naga were two separate people.
After a few minutes, Lina jumped down from the statue and propped one hand to her hip, pinching her chin with the index finger and thumb of the other.
“What’s going on?” she muttered. She couldn’t decide if the statue was one of the most gorgeous pieces of art she had ever seen, or if it was a ridiculous symbol for a town to center itself around.
“That sounds like a question!” an ecstatic voice replied to her musings from the other side of the statue.
Lina started and whirled around to face the voice, a small flame of pinkish energy appearing at the palm of her right hand.
“Who said that? Come out!” she demanded. It made her angry in the first place when she was given reason to believe that she was being spied upon, and it pissed her off even more when she failed to realize when she wasn’t alone.
From around the pedestal, an elderly man peered out and smiled at the red-headed woman.
“Just me,” the old man said, “My name’s Forn. I’m the keeper of this shrine.”
Forn came out from behind the statue and smiled. Looking to be in his seventies, he was dressed in a ceremonial white robe, complete with grey belt and simple brown slippers. His beard was long and had been tied into two braids, as had the remainder of his hair at the back of his head. He didn’t walk with a cane, but rather a short staff made partly from wood and partly from metal.
Eying the old man from head to foot, Lina hesitated a moment before finally deciding that he was definitely no threat to her.
“All right Forn,” she straightened and set one hand to her hip, pointing her other hand at the statue, “Perhaps you’d be kind enough to tell me who served as the model for this statue?”
Forn chuckled and brought his staff in front of him, gripping it with both hands and leaning his weight to it slightly.
“Sorry, but there was no model for it,” he replied.
“You mean the sculptor created this from an image in his head?” Lina smirked dubiously.
“Not an image,” Forn said, his voice rising suddenly. He lifted his staff and held it aloft in a grand manner, giving it one perfectly executed butterfly spin before slamming the base of it back down to the stone floor. The snap reverberated off the shrine walls as he shot out the palm of his left hand and confronted the woman with a large, toothy smile. “A prophecy!”
Hardly impressed with the display, Lina arched an eyebrow and scratched the back of her head in confusion.
“Huh?” came her appropriately short response.
Forn’s dramatic pose wilted and his eyes went wide.
“You mean you don’t know?” he nearly gasped the words in utter disbelief, his haughty countenance fading.
“If I did, then I would be spending the time to-“
“Well then stand right there!” the old man interjected, “Everyone around here knows the story so I hardly ever get to tell it anymore!”
Forn stepped up onto the base pedestal and turned to face Lina. Rolling up the sleeves of his robe, he cleared his throat and took a deep breath.
Lina watched him with a vague sense of anxiety. Judging by his actions, Forn looked as though he were about to deliver an entire lecture on the status of every single modern society, and really she did not have that kind of time.
“Wait a second, sir,” she said and held up her hand to stop him before he got going, “I didn’t-“
“Shh!” Forn silenced her with a finger to his lips. Closing his eyes, he frowned and bowed his chin to his chest to gather his thoughts.
Lina sighed and shifted her weight to her right foot in the hopes that her assumptions were wrong.
Suddenly Forn shot his head up and looked Lina directly in the eye. He stretched out his arm and swept his hand, palm down, in a horizontal line through the air as though to lay out a scene from his mind.
“Many years ago,” he began dramatically, “before the birth of my father or his father or his father, this city, the prosperous city of Potegia, had been under auspicious favor. The peace we enjoyed was continuous. Our harvests were good, our families were healthy, and the reign of our king was just.”
Lina fought the urge to roll her eyes. The words that the old man spoke were obviously those of a script that had been memorized long ago and practiced to near perfection. She only hoped that the script had been less than three pages in length.
“But one day,” Forn continued, seeming not to notice the redhead’s desire for a quicker response, “when my great grandfather was still a very small boy, a sorcerer named Hume came to Potegia seeking food and shelter. Hume had no money and he was too old to work, but in exchange for comfortable surroundings in which he could live out his last remaining days, he promised that on his last day he would give the city a wonderful gift. The people were suspicious of this, and it was only by the kindness of an outcast miner named Cant that he was given a warm place to stay.”
Finally Lina waved her hand to get the man’s attention and asked “Is all this really necessary? I just asked a simple question!”
“Don’t interrupt!” Forn shouted, clenching his hands tightly.
“But I just-“
“Well, fine. If you really don’t want to know then I’m not going to waste my time.”
Forn hopped down from the pedestal and rolled his sleeves back down to their original state. He grabbed up his staff and turned to make his way from the shrine.
“Hold on!” Lina said and rushed to grab his arm, “I give, all right? I’ll listen to the story!”
Forn paused and looked at the gloved fingers that had clenched into the material of his robe. From the grip he looked scornfully up to the sorceress, and finally shrugged her off.
“All right, but just be quiet and listen!” he said, resuming his place on the base pedestal.
Lina stepped back and folded her arms. If she wanted to get her answers, it looked as though she would just have to bite the bullet and get them the long, hard way.
Forn cleared his throat again and continued. “About a month went by until one day Hume called the miner to his bedside and said that he didn’t have much longer to live. Cant had been a good host, and in exchange for the hospitality, Hume gave him the gift he had promised. He told Cant that one day the entire city would be destroyed by an evil sorceress seeking the power and wealth hidden within these mountains. Cant asked how he knew this, and Hume said simply to trust him. Cant then asked how they would know this evil sorceress, and Hume said that they would recognize her on sight. The sorceress would be a woman dressed unabashedly in clothing as shameless as her trade. Her eyes would freeze any who caught her wrong and her voice would burn any who dared to oppose her superior skills.”
“Now wait just a second!” Lina broke in, “You mean the city actually believed that? How do you know that Hume guy wasn’t just looking for some gullible person to take advantage of?”
Forn frowned at the woman and snapped back “Of course there were skeptics! The town was practically divided in half because of it! Some didn’t believe it at all, others did, but in the end we all know what happened. It happened only twenty years ago that a sorceress, Etra, did indeed come to Potegia with the intention of locating the mountain’s wealth. At once we had known her to be the sorceress that Hume had spoken of. Just by looking at her one could tell that she was evil to the core. She demanded the submission of the townsfolk, and when we refused she set upon the city with horrible, destructive magic. She blazed buildings with her words and froze villagers with her eyes just as Hume had said she would! She then erected massive golems that crushed entire districts. Anyone who got in the way was killed off instantly. However, Potegia was not completely unprepared for her appearance, for by that time we had been fortunate enough to have acquired a sorcerer of our own, the great Lord Silos. Master Silos had been living in Potegia for several years at the time. When he had gotten wind of the destruction, he immediately set out to confront Etra. There was a terrible brawl, but at last he overpowered the witch with a spell so strong that it instantly knocked the sense right out of her! She collapsed unconscious, and it was then that Lord Silos bound her and brought her to the ceremonial plate that had once stood in this very spot. In front of hundreds of surviving witnesses, myself as well, Etra was stripped of her armor and weapons, and not only her physical ones. Lord Silos severed her ability of speech with a magic collar that he himself had designed. Her eyes and mouth were also bound as a precaution of Hume’s prediction to ensure that she would not freeze or incinerate another individual ever again. At last Potegia had wormed out from under the black cloud that had been hanging over our heads for so many decades. Now every year we celebrate this wonderful change. No longer do we have to fear the coming days or worry for the future of our children. Hume’s prophecy came true, and by the good power of our great Lord Silos, we can live in peace.”
“That’s great,” Lina said with another roll of her eyes, “but I didn’t ask you about all that! I wanna know who made this statue and more importantly, who served as the model!”
“I told you before, there is no model. After disuniting Etra’s senses, Master Silos chained her up and touched her forehead with one of the gold rings from his wrists. In an instant, Etra was gone forever and the town was instead blessed with this statue of her as a memorial of the dark omen we had overcome. If you want to speak in terms of creators, you could say that Lord Silos is the craftsman to thank.”
Lina blinked and looked back up to the stone form.
“So the statue is Etra?” she said more to herself than the old man.
“The very same. Hasn’t moved one bit for twenty years, and Lord Silos willing, she’ll remain that way even when my great great great grandchildren are old and withered like me,” Forn laughed as he climbed down from the pedestal.
Lina frowned and stepped towards the statue once more. That the statue was really the petrified form of an actual woman explained the incredible detail of it. What it didn’t explain was why Etra looked so much like Naga. However, if Forn’s story was accurate, it would make more sense to believe that Etra and Naga were different people. Lina remembered Naga well enough to know what she would not have intentionally destroyed an entire city and killed so many people.
“Hey,” she turned to the old man who had made his way to the Northern exit.
“Yes?” the keeper replied, looking over his shoulder.
“Have you ever heard of a sorceress named Naga the Serpent?”
“Hm,” Forn paused and stroked the braids of his beard for a moment, “Can’t say that I have. Why?”
Lina frowned. Perhaps she really was mistaken. She knew that Naga couldn’t have been the only woman in the world with long hair and huge breasts, and who walked around in skimpy clothing. Actually she knew that it was rather a guarantee. She would never be able to forget the clones that had been made of Naga, and the shadow reflection of herself for that matter. Still, Naga’s clones had been mere shells, unable to perform many tasks beyond those of eating, drinking, and laughing, and Naga’s shadow reflection certainly wouldn’t have lifted a finger to anyone. Whoever Etra was, one fact remained the same. She was not Lina’s problem.
With the weight of confusion lifted from her shoulders, Lina turned and exited the shrine through the South opening. She still planned on attending the festival the following day, but not for any purpose beyond that of free food and drink. The festival did revolve around Etra’s defeat, and while she was happy that the city had overcome their dark prophecy, she herself would not be paying any kinds of a respect to such a symbol, especially one that looked like Naga.
From the courtyard area Lina walked, taking a more casual pace now that she wasn’t searching for anything. Thinking about Etra subsequently turned the direction of her thoughts more towards her old traveling companion. It had been many years since she had even conjured the name of Naga the Serpent. At the very least, Naga had been expendable, often to her own advantage.
Naga had been downright shameless in her attempts to get ahead. Even when she fell so tragically behind, she never so much as missed a step, as though losing face was what she had planned on all along. Despite this annoying inability to be insulted, not all of the memories that Lina had of Naga were negative. Naga’s love of food, drink, and money matched Lina’s own in a way that served both of them. They had not been natural friends but had instead created their own definition of a working relationship. They cooperated when it came to gaining profit, always with the understanding that it was only for the money and not for the friendly association. Lina had hardly cared what happened to Naga, and the same had gone for Naga to Lina.
Returning to the avenue on which her tavern was located, Lina suddenly paused when she heard the sound of shifting snow caused by something other than her own two feet. Glancing over her shoulder, she scanned the main road and the entrances to all of the connecting alleys, seeing no shadows except those caused by the two rows of street lamps, and no motion except that of falling snow.
After a moment, she smirked and mentally admonished herself for making assumptions.
“Stray dog,” she grumbled and turned back around.
Her right leg extended to take the first step but never got the chance to connect with the ground. The motion that should have carried her forward was immediately halted when her face ran into some kind of surface that had not been there one second before.
Instantly she jumped backwards, one hand held to her injured nose and the other raised over her head with a giant orange ball in the palm of it.
“What the freaking Hell!” she shouted, one split second away from burning her potential offender to a rude little crisp. Looking ahead, she saw that the object she had run into was actually a man.
Standing straight, the man couldn’t have been anything less than 6’5”. His rather unshaven face was chiseled from time and his unkempt hair that had probably once been a healthy sheen of black was now mostly grey. Dressed in simple pants, a long sleeved tunic, and an armored vest that had definitely seen better days, his hard, gargantuan frame suggested that he had once been, or perhaps still was, in the business of saving or taking lives. His forehead was deeply creased with frown lines and his blue eyes were pale with consternation. Gripped in the muscled vice that was his right hand was a thick spear adorned with several leather ties around the base of the blade. The blade was chipped, but still noticeably sharp and there were notches carved into the wood below it. Connected to the leather ties was a series of beads and a few tattered feathers, blue and black in color.
“You’re Lina Inverse,” the man said and stepped towards her, his voice not as gruff as one might have expected from someone of his rustic appearance.
Lina snarled and clenched her fingers tight against her palm, diminishing the small flame ball she had created.
“Who the Hell do you think you are sneaking up on me like that!” she shouted, “What’s wrong with just tapping me on the frickin’ shoulder!”
“Shh!” The man scowled and brought a finger to his lips. “This is the only chance I have to speak with you and there’s not much time. I know this is sudden but I must make a demand for your help.”
Lina bristled visibly to the man’s audacity. Over the years it had been made apparent to her that she was preceded by her reputation in almost every area that she visited. All the time she was approached by people wanting her help for something or another. Sometimes the requested tasks were menial, and other times they were rather impossible. Still, with a few convincing words and enough money given up front, she was willing to try her skill at just about anything. This is did not, however, apply to individuals who mistook her for a common hand for hire. Helping others was not her job at all, but rather something she just happened to end up doing while in pursuit of her own goals.
“Like Hell I’m gonna help you!” she gnashed, “I didn’t come to this place looking for a job, so just don’t even bother!”
Giving one last rub to her nose, she stepped around the stranger and continued on her way.
The man turned and glared at the woman’s retreating back. His jaw tightened and his teeth bore just slightly. The leather wrap around the pole of his spear squeaked with the clenching of his grip about it. The last thing he had wanted to do was to get on the sorceress’s bad side, but at that moment he was teetering at the ledge of a heavy despondency that had been festering for two decades.
“It’s about Naga!” he called after her, cringing inwardly to the feel of the name as it left his lips.
Lina paused dead in mid step, feeling as though the name had crashed right into the back of her head. Just the sound of the word seemed to have been tugged directly from her memory and left open in the air, ringing into her ears and instigating a slew of dreadful thoughts. The first of those thoughts was that the stranger knew Naga. The second of those thoughts was that he knew of her associations with Naga. The third and worst of those thoughts was the realization that her previous recognition of the similarities between Etra and Naga was possibly based on something substantial.
“What did you say?” she inquired hesitantly, even though she would have preferred to end the conversation right there.
Seeing that he had at least caught the sorceress’s attention, the stranger took several steps towards her, the heavy mass of his body causing the snow to crunch and separate out from beneath the weight of his boots.
“You heard me,” he said, “I listened to what Forn told you, and I’ll tell you right now that it’s not true. At least not all of it. I don’t know who Etra is, but I can definitely tell you who she isn’t. The woman in the statue is Naga, and if you’ll just cooperate with me I can tell you of a way to release her from the-”
“Stop!” Lina snapped, swiveling on her heel to face the man sternly. She had heard more than enough gibberish for one night and was very close to disregarding the entire thing altogether. She had come to the secluded mountain range for one reason and only one reason, that being to profit from the hidden caverns of orichalcon. She was not there to celebrate anything, nor was she there to dig around in the past, even if it was in some way related to herself. If she heard nothing else for the rest of her time in the city, she would be able to move on with her life quite happily and never reflect on it again.
“Before you say another word,” she said calmly as she approached the stranger, “I want to know who you are, what you’re doing here, how you know Naga, how you know that I know Naga, and how you know that Naga is the woman in the statue!”
“There’s no time for me to explain all of that!”
“You’re right. I don’t have time to listen to it anyway,” she said with a shrug. Without a moment of hesitation she turned and started to walk off.
“Wait!” the man called after her.
Lina paused and glanced over her shoulder with an expectant frown. The man had not wanted to play games and neither did she. If she was going to lend any kind of assistance, it would be done on her terms, and those terms included sufficient information.
“I’m listening,” she stated.
“All right,” the man growled, “My name is Trek and I live here in the village with my wife and son. I know Naga from a very long time ago and it was through her that I know she was associated with you, ok?”
“No, not ‘ok’,” Lina turned back around to face him and set her hands to her hips, “If the woman in the shrine really is Naga, why do you want to free her? If she was the sorceress who destroyed this village then I say that she’s right where she belongs.”
Trek became visibly riled to the sorceress’s comment and for a moment he didn’t know quite how to respond. He had approached Lina under the assumption that she would have cared enough about Naga to help him, but this didn’t seem to be the case. He stepped forward, his free hand balled into a fist.
“It wasn’t her,” he said, now having to make a conscious effort to keep his voice down, “If you really knew Naga then you would know that she wouldn’t do anything like that!”
“And pray tell, old man, how do you know it wasn’t her?” Lina asked disbelievingly, even though she herself had already conceded that Naga was many things, but not a murderer.
Trek sighed. He had been hoping that he wouldn’t have to resort to bribes, but if Lina’s interest in Naga wasn’t enough to motivate her into helping him, he knew of one other thing that definitely was. There was only one thing that could have brought the world famous Lina Inverse to such a small and insignificant city, and presently he was so far beyond desperate for her help that he was willing to make whatever sacrifice of information that he needed to in order to obtain it. Everyone had their price and he was glad that Lina’s was notoriously easy.
“Look,” he said, doing his best to maintain a hold on his temper, “I wasn’t kidding when I said that I don’t have time to explain everything right now. Would you help me if I told you that Naga would know where the orichalcon caves are located?”
The mention of the caves did indeed catch Lina’s attention and hold it hostage, though she didn’t let onto it so easily.
“And how can I trust your word on that?” she asked.
“What if I gave you three hundred gold coins up front?”
“Three hundred coins when and where?”
Trek reached around behind him and unclasped one of the belts from around his waist. Attached to the belt was a thick red sack that he threw down onto the ground between them. The sack split open at the top and out poured his entire life’s savings, sheens of little golden discs that spilled onto the snow.
Lina stared at the coins and was unable to stop the dumbstruck grin that always plastered itself across her face when she was confronted with considerable sums of money. She leaned down and reached for the sack but was stopped suddenly by the butt of Trek’s spear that slammed into the ground between her and the object of her attention.
“By accepting my payment, you agree to help me tonight,” he said gruffly.
Lina only smirked and reached around the spear to gather up the sack and the coins that had fallen from it. Standing back up, she slung the sack over her shoulder and smiled.
“It’s a deal. But once we get Naga, she’s your problem.”
“All right. Meet me at the Eastern gate of the city in fifteen minutes,” Trek said. He swung his spear up across his shoulders and turned his back, heading in the direction from which he had come.
Lina scratched her head and watched the man until he disappeared around the street corner. Whoever Trek was, she couldn’t help but feel a small bit of curiosity. Anyone who preferred the real Naga to the stone one had to be a little bit touched. For a moment she wondered if three hundred coins were worth the price of having the one true Naga once again roaming the earth. Looking at her left hand which currently clenched the top of the coin sack, she realized that apparently it was.
“Whatever,” she sighed and headed on her way to deposit her funds into her room at the tavern. With any luck, in a few days she would be rich with orichalcon and this entire event would be set behind her.