This time Popper and I were determined to make it to the Tafeld monastery. No getting sidetracked by mysterious airships, no turning back halfway to escort apprentices home. We had a sample of well water from Bitterwater and one from the Veltan farm. If anyone had a chance of figuring out how to cure the poison and save the villagers, it was the monks.
Jethram was sick now, too, and it sounded like the same sickness that shopkeeper had when we killed her. Since she had started eating people Jethram had to be locked up. I heard smashing and crashing from his room all night. Annekina stayed up all night worried about him, so there wasn’t any food in morning.
We got breakfast at the tavern instead. Riktri was there and he pulled us aside to tell us a story. I was in a rush to leave, but I could tell that this wasn’t a story for entertainment. This was one of those stories Master Enloe tells me that he wants me to remember. Stories about the nature of the universe.
Riktree said it was a story of his people. His people don’t write things down, but share memories. He told about the “Agent of Change.” His people don’t know much about what it is, but they know how it behaves and what kinds of effects it has. It possesses people and causes them to do things that lead to, well, change. Not good change – disaster, destruction, war. True chaos that undermines creation.
Once the Agent of Change relinquishes its possession, the person get sick and start to behave strangely. They usually die, but only after causing harm to those around them. Riktree thought the Agent of Change possessed shopkeeper Mindim and made her poison the well, and the sickness after is why she went mad. I agree. Nobody just wakes up one day and decides to start eating people. Not in Bitterwater. But it looks like Jethram has it, too.
Riktree thought the Agent of Change had been here …but poisoning a well, while really bad for Bitterwater, isn’t the grand machinations his people say the Agent of Change does. There’s going got to be more going on. And we don’t know what Jethram did when he was possessed.
We had a lot to think about. I couldn’t wait to tell Master Enloe a story that he doesn’t know.
Now we had another reason to go to the monastery. Jethram wouldn’t recover on his own, but there’s a chance that powerful healing magic could help.
Popper and I borrowed horses. We stayed very quiet on the road. We knew there were corrupted Veltan in the forest.
We were expecting giant fully grown Veltan, but were surprised along the last leg by some smaller plant monsters – two of them woven around skeletons like we had fought before.
he plant monsters chased us all the way to the river where the bridge to the monastery was raised. We yelled at the watchers on the walls to lower the gate. The guards shot them from the walls as the bridge slowly and creakily came down. Popper charmed one of the plants and it fought with the evil skeleton inside it, getting tangled up and falling over.
Inside the monastery there was a huge congregation of people from all over the Urdash Republic, maybe some from outside, too. There was another chitrik, and a kobold! Everything was in chaos, and before we could figure out what was going on, the abbot came out to meet us. He seemed hurried, and after we explained what was wrong in Bitterwater he told us three words that we needed to say to get the artifact that can neutralize the poison. One word to enter, one to leave, and one to activate it.
He shepherded us toward the chapel right as an ominous buzzing started and shouts came from the walls. More and more plant monsters were coming out to attack. Warped Veltan were with them, many more than we could fight, and giant bugs. The abbot insisted we get the artifact and get back to Bitterwater.
Popper and I fled into the chapel and spoke the word in front of the fallen knight. The lid of the crypt slid back and we descended some narrow stone stairs.
Beneath the chapel was a small stone room. It was chilly and dusty, and felt much older than the rest of the monastery. The friezes on the walls! They were so fascinating I almost forgot about the fighting and our quest. They showed all the races in the First Land arranged around the chamber, some familiar, some ancient, and there were some I had never seen or heard of before.
The buzzing was getting louder and louder. A warrior monk appeared on the stairs, pursued by an army of giant insects. The ants were larger than my hands, beetles the size of small hounds, and the mosquitoes sloshing and squishy and horrifying. He shouted at us to get the artifact and go before the monastery was overrun.
Popper spoke the second word. In the back of the chamber the round table made a grinding sound and a huge stone column started to rise, slowly revolving, from the floor. It rose. And rose. It looked completely solid, and moved so slow. There was no artifact, and we were trapped.
The bugs skittered into the room around the monk, and then slowed. I blasted some back with thunder, threw acid. Popper fought with axes and summoned a badger to help us, but a beetle snapped it in half with a single bite.
The monk held out a long time for us but got overwhelmed. The bugs crawled and flew past him, but the column just kept climbing. It was into the ceiling now, still slowly spinning upward. Finally, we saw stairs at the bottom, hidden inside. But we still didn’t have the artifact, and we didn’t know whether out meant going up or down.
Then I heard a sound that sent chills up my arms. It was like the laughter of a little girl, but sinister and cold. The creature that descended into the crypt was no normal child. It looked like an animal skeleton clothed in a thin, battered robe, maybe a little larger than one of Popper’s badger friends. It clutched a ragged little doll in bony fingers, and its eyes glowed.
We had to leave now. I glanced back and saw an indentation in the column, up past Popper’s head now, but still within my reach. I jumped up and snatched the artifact out of it. It was a crystal, larger than my firerock focus but so light that I thought I was going to break it.
Up, we decided, right now, and bolted up the stairs. The bugs marched after us. We reached the top well ahead of them. I had to crouch down in the tiny staircase. We were still trapped, but could feel the column still slowly spinning. I hoped it would reach the surface soon.
We blasted the bugs to pieces and kicked the pieces down the stairs until a sliver of light appeared above us as the column finally reached the surface. Popper squeezed out first, then me. The column was partially embedded in the monastery’s outer wall and it dropped us just outside. We heard fighting continuing inside and on the other walls.
We wanted to return and help the monks, but we couldn’t let the artifact fall into the hands of our enemies. The abbot insisted we take it and go. So we left them. We ran into the woods and the falling night. It was too risky to attempt to travel at night, so we found a safe place in the brush and slept, cold and damp.
In the morning Popper climbed a tree to scout out the monastery. Things had calmed down on the outside, but we weren’t sure whether there was still fighting inside.
Now we didn’t even have horses. Along the long walk back to Bitterwater we stopped a few times to hide and let giant wasps pass overhead, trying not to fight more than we had to.
We were stopped when we arrived back at Bitterwater. At first I was indignant, but it was because the mayor’s assistant had finally started organizing people! There were barricades set up to protect the town manned by watchers and guards.
Popper and I cleansed the well by saying the third word and pouring water over the artifact. He taught the monk who had stayed in Bitterwater how to use it. We spread the news and got organized ourselves. Everyone got a bucket of pure water to carry – if you threw it on a warped Veltan it cured them of the poison. The veteran led a group back to the monastery and broke the siege. The little animal skeleton was long gone. Only Popper and I had seen it.
Everyone seemed to think that the worst had passed, but I remember what Riktree said about the agents of change. We still didn’t have the cure for Jethram. The Illfang mine had brokered a deal with the Air Guild because of all the recent attacks, and weren’t going to trade the firerock through Bitterwater anymore. That made the lady diplomat really angry, because firerocks were needed elsewhere to help with the war. And everyone had seemed to forget about Mindim raising zombies in the basement and the hill giant Wruclug’s discovery of undead hands…
I think this is only the beginning.