Hey there!

If you've found your way to this page, it's because you either purchased a copy of one of the Four Kingdoms novels at my recent signing at Chapters in Brampton. This is a special thank-you I wanted to offer you for giving my books a chance.

Below is the first draft for a short story I will be submitting for the upcoming Realmwalker Publishing anthology The Legacy. It's a bit darker than what you'll find between the pages of my novels, but I had a lot of fun working on it. Please note that this is a first draft, and some of what you read here may either change in later drafts, or be removed outright. Also, I ask that, for legal reasons, you note that this short story is copyright 2015 Brandon Draga, and cannot be copied, sold, or redistributed without prior written consent.

Thanks again for your support, and I hope you enjoy the story!

"The Journal"

"Melmyr's Emporium of Oddities, Curios, and Other Such Goods in the Manner of the Arcane of Otherwise Occult-Inclined." Gashim read aloud the ornately illuminated words that hung on a sign above a door to a shop that looked paradoxically shabby and unkempt. This was indeed the name and location that the informant had given him, and this particular informant was a reputable one. At least, he had better have been for the coin that the young man had to part with in order to get information out of him. Still, Gashim had been expecting something else. He searched his mind to think about what he was expecting, exactly, and though he wasn't entirely sure, he knew that the grubby glass windows and old warped door that stood before him were definitely not it. At this point though, he mused, he was desperate, short on options, and getting shorter on coin by the day. Stifling a sigh, Gashim reached for the misshapen door's rusted iron handle, and gently pulled it open.

 

What lay beyond the door was an interior that appeared as unremarkable as the exterior. Shelves lined the walls that were either evidently dried out to the point of cracking, or warped and rotting, the latter causing a faint mildewy smell to waft through the air. The quality of the shelving was seemingly irrelevant, Gashim silently mused, noticing that most of the shelves were completely devoid of products. The few items that were sprinkled about were mostly small, unlabeled vials of different coloured powders and liquids. At the side of the shop opposite the front door was an unassuming, unadorned counter, behind which stood nothing more than a doorway, strings of beads hanging from it serving as the only barrier between the main area of the shop and blackness that Gashim assumed hid nothing more than a barren store room.

 

Despite the look and feel of dilapidation, if not downright abandonment, Gashim was unable to find even the slightest speck of dust anywhere in the shop. Whoever, or whatever spent its time here, it clearly prided itself in some kind of cleanliness. The curiousness of the notion, like that of a beggar with a neatly-combed beard but rags for clothes, sat with Gashim a moment, until his thoughts and the silence accompanying them were halted by a rustling from behind the bead-covered doorway.

 

Gashim quickly stepped to the nearest wall and pressed his back to it, hoping the tall old bookshelf that stood next to him would provide ample cover. Slowly, gently, he reached beneath his cloak to the small dagger at his belt. Gashim was never weapons-trained, and was unsure if he could even hold his own in a tavern brawl, but pulling the dagger from its sheath gave the young man a modicum of comfort nonetheless.

 

The shuffling eventually graduated to soft, padding footsteps, like those made by slippered feet. The footsteps were soon accompanied by a low, unintelligible grumble, the pair of which made their way ever closer to the doorway. As the clacking of the bead curtains parting filled the air, the mumbling became interspersed with a dry, sickly cough, before altogether halting for a moment. Gashim began to consider re-sheathing his dagger and looking out from behind his makeshift hiding spot when an old man's voice, presumably the same that had yielded the mumbling and coughing, spoke.

 

"You'll not find anything of value over behind that bookshelf, I'm afraid." The voice was tired, disinterested. "If you've come to rob me, good luck finding a fence that'll give you more than a couple coppers for most of this shit." The voice coughed once more. "And you can put the damned knife away, lessen of course you're some sick bastard who gets off killing weak old men, in which case just come over here and do it quick."

 

Gashim replaced the dagger and slowly turned himself away from the bookshelf to face the source of the voice. Standing behind the counter was an old man who looked so disheveled that, by comparison, made his surroundings look as inviting as a noble's summer manor. Grey hair enveloped all but the portion of the man's head that housed a sharp nose and a pair of eyes, one deep blue and the other the fogged hue of blindness. He wore robes that looked as though they had last been washed before Gashim could grow a beard, and stood with his gnarled, skeletal hands knitted neatly together on the counter top in front of him.

 

"How did you know where I was?" Gashim asked tentatively, keeping his distance.

 

The old man pointed up toward a corner-point of the ceiling, suspended from which was a small steel buckler. As with the rest of the shop, the buckler was clean and polished, so much so that its surface acted as a mirror that for one standing where the old man stood now, reflected back much of the shop floor. "One can never be too careful." the old man flashed a yellowed grin through his mess of a beard. "Now then, seeing as you put that knife back, I can guess you aren't here to kill me, and seeing as that cloak looks to be worth more than this whole shack, I can guess that you're not of a mind to rob me." He stretched his arms open welcomingly "So, welcome to Melmyr's! How can I help you, son?"

 

"Are... you Melmyr?" Gashim asked, now cautiously inching toward the counter.

 

"I am!" Melmyr clapped his hands together excitedly. "What were you looking for, my boy? Don't let the outward appearance of this old place fool you, I keep the real good in the back." he winked his blind eye knowingly. "Rough part of town and all that."

 

"I... uh..." Gashim stammered. He had never dealt with anything remotely clandestine before this whole thing. Were there codes? Hand signals? The informant was fairly straightforward, although the path that had led to him was anything but. Beaumont wasn't so large a city that a middling military brat wouldn't be able to breach its seedy underbelly, but it was large enough that doing so had left Gashim with little in his coffers. So far, the sound of coins passing between palms seemed the only language in which both Gashim and those he had needed to associate with were equally fluent. Reaching down, the young man pulled his coin pouch from his belt and weighed it in his hand. Less than a dozen silver marks were left from what he had left home with, but looking at the condition of both Melmyr and his establishment, he assumed it might just be enough. He placed the pouch on the counter top and looked the old shopkeep in the eye. "I'd like passage into the ruins of Ellesmere Manor."

 

Melmyr's eye did not leave Gashim's gaze. The old man's mouth changed shape quickly, the friendly, if near-toothless smile snapping into a thin, straight line that stood in disquieting contrast to the crook-backed shopkeep and his shop's rows of empty, misshapen shelves. "I'm afraid you've come to the wrong place, son." he said, suspicion creeping at the edge of his voice. "If you're new around theses parts, needing a map to find your way to and fro..."

 

"I am from Beaumont." Gashim replied more testily than he would have liked. "I am looking to search Ellesmere Manor, and I was told that you..."

 

"Whoever told you that is either mistaken, mad, or just plain full of shit." Melmyr cut him short, now wearing his anger openly on his weathered face. "Now either you want to buy something, or I want you out of my shop. I've got no time for loiterers."

 

"But I paid good coin to..." Gashim began to protest.

 

"Someone other than me for faulty goods." Melmyr finished for him. The old man had a calm, almost apologetic demeanor about him once more, as though the small outburst was all he could muster. "I'm sorry, boy, but I can't help you." He turned and began to shuffle back toward the bead curtain, adding "Truth told, it's probably for the best."

 

"Wait, wait!" Gashim's mind began to race. He had not come this far to see the only lead he'd found slip away so easily. "I want to buy something from these shelves!" He looked hurriedly, grabbing the first item he could and placing it down on the counter in front of him.

 

The shopkeep stopped, made a noise that Gashim could not distinguish as either a chuckle or a cough, and turned around, a wry smile reappearing through his mess of a beard. "You do, eh?" He looked down at the jar Gashim had placed on the counter, then back up to Gashim. "Pickled pig's liver, interesting choice."

 

"Why is that?" Gashim couldn't help himself from asking.

 

"Because not many men your age would admit that they have that kind of trouble in their pants."

 

"What? No, I don't..." Gashim paused, realizing that he did not much care for the old man to elabourate. "Look, I will buy this, and whatever else in this place I can afford with the coins in that pouch. I just..." desperation coated his words now, but he did not care. This may very well have been his only chance to find the answers he was looking for. "Please just answer me one question."

 

Melmyr looked at Gashim a moment, saying nothing. The boy had begun to worry that he had reached one final dead end in his search, when the old man began to slowly nod. "Alright, son." he said quietly, barely more than a whisper. "Ask whatever question you will, and I swear to answer it as best I can."

 

Gashim nodded his thanks and swallowed, damp mouth and dry palms having apparently decided to switch places. "Twenty years ago, there was a man, an artificer for His Majesty's Royal Army. Treyan Andevard. He led a research expedition to Ellesmere Manor and never returned." He looked into the old man's singular blue eye. "I was told that you were the one who gave his party passage there."

 

Melmyr hobbled out from behind his desk and stood to face Gashim. The old man raised a gnarled hand and took Gashim's chin into it gingerly, staring deep into his eyes. He nodded knowingly, almost approvingly, after a time. "I'd wager you're much more your mother's son," he said, maintaining the quiet, contemplative countenance he had just displayed. "But I see him in you, to be sure. You've his eyes, his determination." He dropped his hand and began to walk back behind he counter, saying nothing. Gashim found that he had been silent as well, immobile as he stood transfixed on the curious old shopkeep, who had at this point motioned him to stay where he was, disappearing behind the bead curtain. Gashim was unsure of how much time had passed until Melmyr returned, a small leather-bound book in the hand that did not hold the cane. The old man shuffled back to his side of the counter, and laid the small book down.

 

"Now I want you to listen carefully to me boy." Melmyr's voice was still quiet, but there was something else to it now, not so pronounced as nervousness or anxiety, but present nonetheless. "I was paid to lead your pa and his team onto the grounds of Ellesmere Manor, and return one week later to pick them up and bring them back to Beaumont. When I returned, only one of them was at the rendezvous point. She said nothing the whole trip back, and I think she'd have said even less had I asked. When we returned to Beaumont, she handed me the remainder of my payment, as well as this book, and walked away. There was something in those eyes that shook me, boy, to my very core." Melmyr coughed and shuddered, and Gashim was unsure if the latter had anything to do with the former. "Last I had heard the poor girl wound up in the city sanitarium, put a knife ear-to-ear across her neck not a year later." He slid the book toward Gashim. "I never read it. Been too damned scared to, if I'm an honest man. If you want any kind of answers, this is more than likely the best place for you to look."

 

"I... Thank you." Gashim answered, though not sure if it was the appropriate one. "How much?"

 

Melmyr shook his head somberly. "I've wanted that book gone since the day it came to me. Seemed wrong to burn or bury it, though." He turned once more to move toward the beaded curtains. "Just take your coin and head home, son. The cost of looking for what lies there is more than you, me, or even the damned king himself could ever pay."

 

***

 

A single small candle burned on an old bar stool that had been repurposed as a nightstand in Gashim's room in the smallest, most inexpensive inn in Beaumont, providing just enough light for the young man to strain through the yellowed parchment pages of the small book, and little enough light that he could imagine that he were somewhere far less dingy. His father's handwriting as he leafed through the pages was unmistakeable, the refinement of a learned man coupled with the efficiency of a soldier. The book appeared to be a field journal of some kind, no doubt meant to be handed to Treyan's senior officers upon his return to Beaumont.

 

Gashim's father did not return, however. That had been a decade ago. His father had never told Gashim exactly where he was going that time. As an artificer in the royal military, Treyan was oftentimes away for weeks at a time, looking for some artifact or another, something that could be used by the military. Sometimes it was a certain stone from the great northern temples that possessed magical healing properties, sometimes it was a rare deep forest root that, when used as a component in a ritual, imbued extraordinary strength. For as far back as Gashim could remember, his father would always excitedly tell him of the places he was exploring next. Always, except for that last time. Gashim wasn't even sure if his father had told his mother his plans. After Treyan did not return, after his superiors had come to their small cottage near the barracks and explained that he was presumed dead, Gashim's mother had been a shell of her former self. She had tried to remain a rock for her son, but as Gashim grew his mother's strength dwindled. He had asked her once when he was twelve if his father had told her where he was going on that trip from whence he did not return, and she wept the rest of the day, and was completely silent all the next. He never brought the matter up again, not that it would have mattered in the last year. By the time she finally allowed herself to die three months ago, Gashim's mother had become little more than a shell, unspeaking, barely eating, existing more out of habit than of any actual will to live. Gashim visibly shuddered at the thought of the last year of his mother's existence, deciding to focus finally on the journal's first page.

 

- 18 Apinae,

 

Today we set off. After all the planning, the debates, all the blasted headaches, the expedition is finally afoot. Most of the team is not as enthused as I; something of an ongoing theme of the events leading up to today. The Ellesmere family is known throughout Sarandor, for good or ill, and I myself was ecstatic when the team was handed down the task from General Ramenth to attempt to locate what remained of the family's famed palatial manor.

 

Others were slightly more... reticent Ander in particular caused enough of a fuss than one might have suspected we had been given orders to assassinate Lady Beaumont in broad daylight. Silly bastard tried to convince us all that the place was haunted, had said its location was lost because it had been overtaken by the spirits that resided there. Kith and Samera weren't so vocal, but I've no doubt that Ander nearly put the fear of the gods in them. Thankfully he quieted some when I told him what we were being paid for the trip. It's a funny thing with intel men: so many of them are pardoned thieves put to use by us, so they all tend to be as superstitious as they are covetous. Thankfully for the job, the latter outweighed the former.

 

Lehna was the only one other than myself that showed any sort of enthusiasm and I am glad to have her along on the expedition. Granted, she is still my apprentice, but it will be a welcomed change to have a second artificer with whom I can confide nonetheless. The girl has been at my heels like an excited puppy for years, trying to get me to allow her along on one of these excursions. Admittedly I anticipate that this job will be more dangerous and difficult than any in recent memory, Lehna has proven herself capable and wise beyond her eighteen years, and so I've every faith that she will perform admirably.

 

Ahn was concerned, as she always is when I leave on such jobs. Like Ander, my dear wife is a portrait of superstition. She had pleaded with me to forgo the job, claiming anything tied to the Ellesmeres has wrought only misfortune. I only wish that there were some way to make her understand how great an opportunity for my research this was! Never mind that the remuneration I will receive upon completion will be a great help for us. I did concede for her sake not to tell Gashim the details of the expedition. It was difficult withholding from the boy information that he so craves, though I am sure that when I return home safe, Ahn will be less hesitant to let me divulge to our son all of the great discoveries I will have made.

 

For now, I sleep, though my excitement will no doubt leave me restless. Tomorrow we are meant to make for Beaumont proper, where Ander believes he can find a contact to aid in our mission.

 

In the months since his mother's death, since he had begun this mission of his own, Gashim had never expected to come across anything akin to what sat in his hands. After his father's disappearance and presumed death ten years ago, the Royal Armed Forces had practically ransacked Gashim and his Mother's home in the barracks, taking all his father's research, his equipment, his personal journals, nearly everything that had remained of the man. The decade that followed left Gashim with nothing but hazy childhood memories of his father, memories that only became hazier as Gashim traveled further from them through the fog of time. The young man was not expecting to find so whole a piece of his father intact, and reading the journal was like having the fog lift, the memories of the kind, intelligent man who had raised him made clear for the first time since Gashim had been a boy. He smiled, a countenance equally sorrowful and joyous, and lifted a trembling hand to turn the page to the following entry.

 

- 20 Apinae,

 

I had planned on recording the events of yesterday, however to have called said events negligible would be charity, and I've not the ink to spend on such. Though today was only marginally more productive, I am certain that General Ramenth will wish for some explanation as per why several nights' stay in a Beaumont inn will be added to our expenses.

 

Ander had spoken to the team of not one, but many contacts that he had in this city, several of whom have aided my teams on expeditions before. Of them, I was certain that at the very least one would be of some assistance in helping the team gain passage to Ellesmere Manor. Sadly, the fact that I am writing this entry is evidence that this has not been the case.

 

What troubles me most is the way these contacts have reacted, each and every one. I accompanied Ander on each of the rendezvous, and each time there seemed more than simple superstition and denial in the eyes of the contact. A queer look overtook them, the sort of fear I have not seen in the faces of those whose occupations daily place their lives at risk. By day's end today, Ander was out of connections, and so I resorted to bribing information out of the last one with whom we had met. It was a desperate measure, I admit, but I am willing to receive whatever reprimand I am due in order to have my opportunity to discover what lies amid those hidden ruins.

 

I am thankful that, even amid these complications, Lehna's spirits have yet to dampen. Both last night, and again only just moments prior to my writing this the young girl came to my room from her own, claiming an excited inability to sleep, and leading to our enthusiastically discussing the finer points of artificery far longer into the night than it is perhaps wise to do. Though I ought to be concerned by the propriety of a young woman entering my room and leaving several hours later, the atmosphere of my team's current accommodations leaves me of the mind that few in the area have any concern for propriety. Further, my talks with Lehna these last two nights have been nothing short of bolstering, and as I write this I find I am already anticipating further discussion with her tomorrow night. I shall be sure to offer my formal commendation for promotion into the Royal Military upon our return from Ellesmere manor.

 

Gashim had found that it was becoming increasingly difficult to read the writing on the pages, and looked over irritably to see the candle that he had purchased had melted down to no more than a stump of wax, and was only moments away from snuffing out. With a heavy sigh, he leaned over and puffed out the remaining flame, engulfing the small room in pitch darkness. Sleep came surprisingly easy for the young man, despite his anticipation to continue the journal, which he now clutched unthinkingly, as he had clutched his blanket as a young boy in need of comfort.

 

***

 

Gashim awoke the next morning to the bright light of early dawn piercing the small window slit of his room. The last remnants of a strange dream flitted about his mind like the flecks of dust made briefly apparent in the ray of sunlight that shone into the room. He had been in a forest, thick with tall pines. Eventually, the pines began to become sparse, dead. A clearing then, and Gashim stood in the centre. He spoke words, he could not remember how many or which ones, and then...

 

The young man shook his head in a desperate attempt to remember, but in doing so only woke himself fully from his half-slumber, losing the remainder of the dream completely. He grumbled a low curse, in part for his inability to remember the dream, in part for his being so upset over the former, and in part for that damned sunlight shining right on his face. He squinted, rubbing the sleep from his eyes as he sat up. Looking down he noticed his father's journal in his lap, and remembered that he had fallen asleep with the small book. It sat open in front of him, turned to a page that Gashim did not recognize. The page, or rather both pages, consisted of a map , relatively crudely drawn, depicting what looked like a forest. Pine trees, marked by thick arrowhead shapes, took up the whole of the first page and a good portion of the second, eventually tapering into multi-pronged arrowhead shapes, no doubt meant to signify the corpses of trees long dead. the top right hand corner of the map was left blank but for a thick circle demarcating where trees ceased altogether, its interior containing some manner of strange symbols Gashim had never seen before.

 

Gashim felt a shudder pass through his whole body, goosebumps causing his hairs to stand on end. He quickly seized the book and flipped back to the first few pages, resting upon the entry upon which he had stopped the night before.

 

- 21 Apinae,

 

I write this entry on the road from Beaumont, traveling east toward Albenth Forest. Ander was finally able to strike a deal with an individual to whom one of his contacts referred us, a scraggly old shopkeep by the name of Melmyr. The man is more than likely a fence for many of Ander's contacts and former associates, but to date he has been the only one willing to escort us to where we need be, though only as far as the outskirts of the forest itself. I have instructed this Melmyr to return to our drop off point one week from our arrival tomorrow. I am of the mind that, even with little clue as to where in Albenth the manor ruins might be, my team ought to be more than capable enough to split up and find its location in no more than three days, leaving us at least four to excavate and research the remains. At the very least I shall do my best to map out the forest, so that further expeditions need not suffer similar setbacks to this one.

 

On a personal note, there were some minor complications that arose last night following the completion of my journal entry. Lehna, too my surprise, returned to my room for what I had assumed was further discussion, but to my dismay her visit had turned out to be of much more amourous intent. I declined as politely as was possible, hoping to convey that, while flattering, the proposition was ill-conceived and unprofessional. Her disappointment was evident, and she has since not spoken directly to me. I had not anticipated this; Lehna has always seemed mature beyond her years, and I had hoped she would have been better than to entertain such flights of fancy. It is my hope that she is able to return to her senses, lest my rejection result in the loss of one of the most promising young artificers Sarandor could hope for.

 

Gashim paused briefly, flipping back through the small journal until he reached the map that had lain open before him when he woke. Albenth Forest was vast, acres upon acres that were still in the midst of being explored and mapped out. Its southwestern most point could not have been more than a day's ride from Beaumont. How deep into the woods could his father's team have possibly ventured if the one member had returned to meet with Melmyr?

 

The answers Gashim sought were no doubt in Albenth Forest, he reasoned. The thought came to Gashim so clearly, and with such conviction, that it had almost seemed as though it were not his at all. He would be lucky if he could find an old mare to ride with what little coin he had left, and every aspect of this journey so far had been so wrought with uncertainty so far that upon discovering the journal Gashim had seriously considered returning back to the barracks, claiming whatever inheritance he was owed and leaving Beaumont behind. The insistence of the voice that now was telling him to persevere, however, washed over that uncertainty like a spring rain over muddied snow, and without a second thought Gashim found himself dressed and exiting the inn, hoping he might be able to find an affordable old mare.

 

***

 

Gashim found himself on the trade road heading northeast from Beaumont less than an hour after leaving the inn. In a shift of fortune that the young man could hardly contemplate, a cooper whose shop was not far from the inn had been loading a carriage of wares to deliver to several farms east of the city. Gashim offered to help the old woman, a widow who had inherited her late husband's trade, hoisting the hefty oaken casks onto the back of the carriage. The woman had, in turn, offered Gashim a ride as far down the trade road as the farms of her patrons. Gashim happily accepted, needing only travel half as far as the old cooper offered. He sat now in the back of the carriage, his back resting against one of the barrels, and read the next entry in his father's journal.

 

- 23 Apinae

 

As evidence suggests, I have done a far poorer job of maintaining a daily journal for this expedition that I had planned. This is most certainly an anomaly in my career as an artificer, as journals of my past expeditions will show that I am a meticulous keeper of notes whilst on a mission. There was, however, no time for rest yesterday, much to the team's chagrin. I would like to say that I was aware of my motivations, of what drove me so headlong into the thick of these woods, but it was ineffable, as though I were not unlike a hound whose nose was filled with the scent of his quarry. For this reason, I cannot begrudge my team their unwillingness to march on through the night, as I had ordered. As I write this, Ander has yet to speak to me, no doubt resenting what he considers an "abuse of rank". He more than likely is of the mind that he is owed an apology, and indeed had our overnight march proved fruitless, I would agree.

 

We arrived shortly before dawn to an area of little discernible difference from the acres upon acres of pines we had traversed all day and through the night, save that what remained of these trees were but the pineless corpses, dry and brittle due to the late autumn air, and of start contrast to the trees that maintained a vibrant green through the rest of the woods up to that point. Though no one else could sense it, I was sure that we were nearing our destination. A five-mile hike through this strange evergreen cemetery, made all the more eerie by the glow of pre-dawn, led us to an immense clearing, vast enough that one need strain to see from one side to another.

 

I could hear the rest of the team behind me, various utterances of consternation sailing past me as I walked forward into the clearing. What happened next, I cannot find the words to describe, and so I ask that whomever reads this be aware that these are the words of a sane man trying to describe a decidedly insane event. Something, I know not what, overcame my senses. I found myself speaking words that were not my own, a tongue that I have never heard. Suddenly, by way of magical forces the likes of which I have never seen, the clearing was changed. Th tall grass remained, but had now become home to numerous man-made objects that had seemed simply to manifest from nothing. Before my eyes, the emptiness that had existed upon my team's arrival vanished, replaced by elabourate mason work, finely-carved statues and fountains, and at the centre of it a massive palatial manor. Granted, what appeared before me was in an apparent state of decrepitude, however such detail is hardly worth mentioning in the same breath as so breathtaking an occurrence. My hand trembles as I write this, for I cannot begin to describe the excitement with which I record the following words: I, Treyan Andevard, have discovered the lost ruins of Ellesmere Manor.

 

The expressions on the faces of my team were in and of themselves nearly payment enough for this journey. In Kith and Samera I saw utter astonishment. The pair are so seldom impressed with magic, and even more so with artificery, and to see them both s wide-eyed, much less by something wrought by my hands, was a welcome change. In Ander I saw a new found level of respect, but the thinnest layer of fear as well the latter of which does trouble me some. In Lehna I saw all the adoration of bygone years, when she was but little more than a child under my tutelage. I must be honest, her reaction affected me greatest, for I cannot help but admit that I had missed the earnest excitement and adoration she had used to exude, doubly so since our unfortunate misunderstanding some back in Beaumont.

 

Tomorrow we begin our investigation of the site, though I confess that in my excitement I did quickly peruse the courtyard, wherein I came across a small gilded amulet. I could not detect any magic emanating from it, and it is plain enough to be of little monetary value, and so I am quite sure neither the team nor General Ramenth would oppose my keeping the trinket as a souvenir.

 

Gashim, request that the cooper's widow let you off here.

 

Gashim blinked twice, shook his head, and looked back down at the page. There was no mention of him anywhere, and yet he was certain that he had read that last line. He wondered for a moment if he had simply imagined it. He looked back up and saw the thick wooded border of Albenth looming ahead. He shook his head once more, rubbing his eyes. He had thought that he had completely lost track of time. There would have been no way he would have realized where he was had he kept reading the journal, and yet the alternative was completely impossible...

 

Gashim loosed a long sigh. He decided that he had been pushing himself much harder than he had anticipated, and that his being so focused on this journal over the last two days had only exacerbated his exhaustion. He looked back up toward the sky, only just managing to spot the sun high through the thick overcast clouds.

 

"Everything alright back there, dearie?" The widow's voice, an aged creaking reminiscent of unkempt iron hinges, stirred Gashim from his thoughts. "You sound as though you've the whole world on your mind."

 

"Oh no, I'm fine, thank you." the young man lied sweetly. "It's just that this is as far as I need to go, and the trip has been surprisingly comfortable." A truth to balance it out, he decided.

 

The old woman chuckled as she began motioning her horses to a halt. "You young'ns. You could be face down on a bed of old wood and rusty tacks and you'd still manage to sleep through the night and have a spring in your step come dawn. Enjoy it while you can, son. The body quits forgiving you quicker than you can believe."

 

Gashim smiled and thanked the woman once more before gathering his belongings and dropping off the back of the wagon, turning to watch it continue down the road. It hadn't been until the wagon was no longer in sight that Gashim had realized that neither he nor she had asked the other's name, nor had either offered it. He smiled again in earnest, thinking that perhaps the chance encounter and resultant acts of kindness were a sign of his fortunes beginning to turn. He started for the woods, deciding as he passed through the rich green threshold that he would make camp early, and perhaps forgo reading the next journal entry, allowing himself time to fully rest his body and mind before continuing.

 

Though trees of varying shapes and sizes dotted the miles of woodland that seemed to stretch out indefinitely as Gashim walked through them, it was the rows upon rows of pine trees that most stood out to him. A great many of the evergreens had reached so great a height that their needled boughs were ten feet high at their lowest point, causing huge stretches of forest where one could see straight ahead as far as one's sight would allow, but offering nothing in the way of landmarks, save the rows upon rows of nearly indistinguishable pines. It unsettled Gashim the more he thought about it, just how easily someone might lose their way in Albenth, finding oneself trapped in an omnidirectional labyrinth of sameness. Strangely, however, Gashim himself held no such feeling of confusion as he navigated the eerie forest, an almost intrinsic sense of direction causing him to make one turn after the next, unfazed by the complete lack of difference from acre to acre.

 

It was not until he had stumbled on a single errant branch on the ground in front of him that Gashim snapped from his trance. Looking about, he realized that darkness had fallen some time before, and yet he had continued walking for what must have been hours, without so much as a candle, and unable to see more than five feet ahead, yet all the while entirely certain that he was headed in the right direction. Stopping a moment to think on it, Gashim felt a wave of unease wash over him, deciding finally to rest for the night, in the hopes that the sensation would pass in the morning. A chill had begun to permeate the spring evening, or perhaps Gashim had just become aware of its presence. Nonetheless, as he made a makeshift camp for the night, he took the branch on which he had tripped, as well as other nearby suitable kindling, and built himself a small fire for warmth.

 

He sat huddled by the flamed, hands outstretched to their warming glow, and found his eyes drawn down to his pack, inside which sat his father's journal. The incident on the cooper's wagon was still fresh enough in his mind that Gashim was very much of the mind to leave the journal in his pack until he left the woods, perhaps returning to Beaumont to rent a room. He could likely reconnect with that cooper's widow and find work with her, he reasoned. Then, when he had his answers, when he could begin a normal life for himself, then he would continue reading the journal.

 

And yet, even as the thoughts passed through his mind, he found his hands reaching inside, and turning to the next entry.

 

- 25 Apinae

 

I write today not as a servant, but as a ruler. In these last few days, so much has been revealed to me; a clarity in place of the once blinding fog of complacency, of unknowing.

 

This manor, the surrounding woods, I have felt their presence since my arrival. Indeed, in my exploration of these storied, hallowed grounds, it is as if I have felt my kinship with this place, as though every stone were speaking to me. It began quietly, no more than barely perceptible whispers as I walked the manor grounds. Gradually, and with greater volume, the walls spoke a single resounding message: 'You are home.'

 

I should have seen it sooner, in truth. The ease with which I navigated these madness-inducing woods, my total assuredness as to the manor's location, and of course, my conjuration of the grounds upon which I currently sit. The grounds upon which I shall construct my new empire. My connection to this place, to the Ellesmere line, is indisputable. I feel in the very depths of my soul that I share some bond with the Ellesmeres, if not in blood then at least in spirit.

 

Indeed, the walls of the manor have told me, confirmed my destiny. The fall of the Ellesmeres was one of ill fortune and great hubris. I shall change that, though. I shall bring about the great resurgence of this once great house, and my achievements shall surpass even those whose names are most well-renowned. Indeed I shall see the rise of the name of Ellesmere as the great ruling house of all of Sarandor!

 

I shall, of course, be met by doubtless detractors, myopic fools who would sooner see their oafish king quash this once great name into obscure oblivion. Indeed, even in my first days as the last great scion of this house I have already encountered several who would see my reign ended before it has even truly begun. The walls of the manor showed me the true intentions of these vermin, supposed allies, and ensured that I was worthy enough to carry on the manor's legacy. I dispatched the villains with no more remorse than a man has driving rats from his stores.

 

Know now that I, Treyan, formerly of the name Andevaar, do officially don the mantle of Emperor Treyan I of House Ellesmere, first of my name, and first Emperor of the Great Ellan Empire.

 

The sudden change in tone, as well as the bizarre content of the entry, jarred Gashim, causing a knot to form suddenly in the pit of his stomach. These were not the words of his father, and yet there they sat before his eyes. The last two journal entries were but days apart. Could Ellesmere Manor have had such an effect on Treyan as to drive him mad in so short a time? Had he truly begun to believe that the very stonework of the manor was speaking to him, claiming him scion of the Ellesmere family? His father had claimed that the appearance of the manor sounded like the ravings of a madman, and only days later wrote these truly mad ramblings completely unapologetically.

 

A part of Gashim's mind wanted nothing more than to discard the cursed journal, leave it amid these gods-forsaken woods and return to Beaumont. He closed his eyes, gripping the small, leather-bound book, trying to force that part of his mind to the forefront. The other part of Gashim's mind, however, was more resilient. This part of his mind craved to know more, to know what truly drove his father to such depths, perchance to discover what his fate truly was. This part of his mind called out, demanding Gashim turn to the next of the journal's yellowed pages, to try and find meaning in his father's words.

 

A third part of Gashim's mind spoke, then. The voice was one Gashim had not known was there, and was so sudden it had almost seemed the thoughts of another. "Look onward." the voice spoke to him "You know your father's words to be true. Continue, discover his fate, and learn what you must do."

 

It was with this that Gashim opened his eyes, turning to the next page of the journal as he did so. The handwriting was different, not his father's at all. It looked hurried, sloppy. Gashim could only barely make out the words, but could tell almost instantly that they were those of someone in a state of absolute terror.

 

They are all dead. I remain, lost and confused.

 

He had seemed so overjoyed when we discovered the manor. Truly, it was an amazing sight, seeing him seemingly will it into being. His happiness had put me at ease. I had been overcome by the drink one night before we left Beaumont, made a fool of myself. We did not speak after that, my embarrassment getting the better of me. I had hoped that with the discovery made, the party at ease, things would get better.

 

They had, for that first day, anyway. He was alight with energy and excitement as we examined the manor grounds. Things changed so quickly, however. He did not sleep that night, and the next day began speaking and acting not like himself. He began to act possessive of the manor, constantly referring to it as 'home'. Not a day had passed before he slipped only further into madness, claiming the very walls of the manor were speaking to him!

 

The others approached him that night, concerned. They had all worked alongside him for years, and none had ever seen him in such a state. Ander recommended that we leave, approached him as a friend, and was met with wild eyes, and accusations of treachery. He was not outwardly angry, but there was an eeriness to his demeanor that unsettled me, and try as I could to fall asleep that night I could not.

 

I heard the screams. More than just the painful death throes of my companions, but something else altogether. Ethereal moans, the likes of which I could not describe if I dedicated the rest of my days to doing so. I do not know how long it lasted, though it felt like an eternity, and the following silence felt longer, still. So much so that when he came to me, I started more at the sudden break in silence than at his appearance.

 

He wore a smile that carried a strange serenity, a smile that chills me to think he had as he took part in whatever vile fate befell his former associates. He had no blood on his hands, nor anywhere else, and as I turned to meet his face I was certain that mine would be the first to stain him. Instead, he looked down at me and began to speak. The exact words are a blur, though I recall his claiming himself the long lost Ellesmere heir. He talked of being an emperor, as preordained by names that I cannot recall, though I am certain they are those belonging to the vilest of demons. He claimed it was they who slew the others, by his command and in his name. He looked upon me, a sickening desire in his eye, and said that they had proclaimed me his empress.

 

Fear overtook any rationale I may have possessed I feared the very sight of him, much less his touch, and yet my fear of what might happen if I refuse him was worse. It was out of that fear that I laid with him, that I gave myself to him. I never knew him intimately before that cursed night, but I knew as I reluctantly allowed him myself that this was not the same man I had learned under, the same man I had so admired. This was a man possessed of something not of this world, something of great power and greater evil.

 

He finally slept when he had finished with me, and he held me in his arms. I was silently thankful that he did not wake as I laid awake, shaking as I wept. By some miracle of the gods he eventually released me from his hold, still sleeping as dawn approached. I saw in this my chance for escape. I gathered my clothing and quickly dressed, hoping not to disturb him. As I finished dressing the shovel caught my eye. We had brought many excavation tools along with us, and this sat next to the dying embers of the campfire. I took it in my hands, feeling its weight. It was heavier than I had anticipated, and it took everything I could muster to raise it above my head once and bring it down across his head.

 

He moaned nonsensically as blood tricked from the wound I inflicted, and though I did not see his body move, the possibility that I may have only woken and angered him sent me into a panic. I dropped the shovel and started to run. I was certain I did eventually hear a faint scream, but by the will of the gods he either never followed me, or became lost as he tried.

 

Somehow, I made my way to the edge of Albenth Forest, where I was eventually met by our liaison. I sit now in the back of his cart and write this. If it is not Melmyr of Beaumont who reads this, then whoever you are, know that the remains of Ellesmere Manor do indeed reside in Albenth Forest, and know too that they are an evil place, and that I warn any who deign to look for them that they will find there only madness or death.

 

Gashim sat, unable to breathe, unable to think. Was this the great conclusion of his quest? Was all the time, all the money he spent all to discover that his father died in the woods a madman and a villain?

 

"Not a madman, nor a villain." the voice in his mind spoke, the one which had urged him to continue reading the journal. "Treyan was a visionary surrounded by weak-minded, traitorous fools."

 

It became apparent to Gashim then that this voice was not his own. He looked back down at the journal, remembering the words appearing and disappearing on the page. "You." he spoke, dropping the journal in a mixture of disgust and frightful realization.

 

"Indeed." the voice remained in his mind. "I had thought myself lost to your family forever when that whore had given the journal to the old fool, and yet somehow the gods have proven themselves just."

 

“What do you mean?” Gashim found himself asking the small book that now lay at his feet. “Who are you? What are you?! Am I going mad?” Gashim could not tell if that last question was posed to himself, or to the journal.

 

“I do not have a name.” the voice in his mind responded simply. “The dead have no need for such things.”

 

“What did you do to my father?” Gashim demanded, his voice echoing deeper into the woods.

 

“My dear boy,” the voice replied, its tone so smug Gashim could almost see the journal smiling back at him. “I was but a tool in setting your father on his rightful path, in showing him who he truly was. It was no mere mistake that your father was so skilled an artificer, boy. The Ellesmeres were always a bloodline renowned for their magical aptitude.”

 

“No...” Gashim shook his head. “The last of the Ellesmeres died generations ago. My father was...”

 

“Almost as naïve as you, it would seem.” the voice interjected. “True, the bloodline was muddied some, but the raw power your father possessed could not be mistaken.”

 

“I don't understand.” Gashim whispered, truly beginning to question his own sanity. “You possessed my father, claimed that he was capable of great things, and then decide instead to haunt a book?”

 

The voice laughed inside Gashim's mind, a quiet, self-assured laugh that chilled the young man to his core. “The dead do not possess the living. The living spirit is too great a thing to overcome without arousing suspicion. No, I manifested within the pendant, that small trinket your father simply could not resist pocketing for himself. From there it was simply a matter of suggesting, of bringing forth the very thoughts that nested in the back of his mind.”

 

“So why do you come to me now in this form?” Gashim countered, trying to find holes in the voice's logic, hoping that doing so would prove the voice to be no more than a figment of his over-exhausted mind.

 

“Your father was a man of great ambition and great potential, but also one of poor circumstance and poorer company.” the voice replied. “The young girl was a fine fit. Ambitious, fertile, and enthralled by him. His methods proved less-than-tactful, and the consequences of those methods no doubt led to his demise. Thankfully I was given time enough to inhabit an item which the girl had taken with her.”

 

“And you anticipated she would give the journal to my mother, and that it would find its way to me.” Gashim reasoned.

 

The voice laughed once more. “I was completely oblivious to your existence, boy. Truly, even had I known, I would not have wasted my time on you. Your Ellesmere blood is so diluted I sense only the barest traces of magical ability.”

 

“Then why leave these damned woods at all?” Gashim snapped back, surprisingly taken aback by the voice's words.

 

“The girl, you idiot.” the voice replied less with disdain and more with disinterest. “The girl was with child when she left these woods, with your father's child. The child of an Ellesmere and someone no doubt as unremarkable as your mother evidently begot mediocrity, but an Ellesmere and another magically-inclined individual? That child would have been truly remarkable under my tutelage. Sadly, her mother left the journal with that old fool Melmyr, who refused to so much as look at it twice on a good day, until you arrived asking about Ellesmere Manor.”

 

“So what of Lehna and her child?” Gashim asked.

 

“I've no way of knowing.” the voice replied bitterly. “Still, fate brought me to you. Though you are not outwardly remarkable, I am sure we can make you worthy of the Ellesmere name.”

 

“And if I refuse?” Gashim could no longer tell if he was still sane, and found that the fact did not bother him.

 

“Why would you refuse? What would you do, return to the cooper's widow and haul barrels the rest of your days? You left your home on a quest, and I offer you greatness.”

 

“You offer me madness and servitude!” Gashim retorted, picking up the journal and screaming at it. “I will not be a tool of the dead!” He turned and threw the journal into the small fire, the flames rising and hissing as the pages caught alight.

 

“Are you truly such a fool?” the voice asked, causing Gashim to startle, looking to and fro for its source. “That journal was but a vessel through which I communicated. I can inhabit whatever I see fit. I shall be here, in your thoughts, until you can no longer distinguish my words from your own.”

 

“No!” Gashim cried, crumpling onto the cold earth and clasping his hands to his head. “Go away! I will not listen!”

 

“You cannot help it.” the voice replied evenly. “You may either accept that I am here, and abide my will, or wait until madness overtakes you, and I am all that remains to guide your actions.”

 

Just then, as Gashim lay on the ground amid a torrent of despair, he rolled over and felt something in his side. Taking one hand from his head, he reached down and felt the small dagger still at his belt. He sat up, resting against the back of a tree, and drew the small blade from its scabbard, bringing it up to his face, a small sliver of his reflection glinting in the firelight.

 

“Excellent guess.” the voice spoke. “But do not think that you can cast this blade into the woods and be done with me.”

 

“I know better than that.” Gashim replied, suddenly completely calm. “I know that I cannot be done with you, no matter what I try. I can ensure that you are done with me, though.”

 

“What nonsense do you speak, boy?” the voice spat.

 

Gashim did not reply, except in lowering the dagger from in front of his face and placing it against his throat. The voice began to speak once more, perhaps some form of protest, but whatever words it had for Gashim were lost in the sudden coolness of the blade, combined with the sharp feeling of it being drawn across his throat, and the heat of his blood spilling forth before total blackness consumed him.