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The Quest - Chapter 3by Glen Sprigg
The warhorse trudged through the slush that masqueraded as a road just north of Rollstone Keep, on the Shires-Karameikos border. The snow had not yet let up, and Alexius could not see very far ahead. Out of habit, he kept glancing to the east, toward the Blight Swamp. More than once he had been forced to fend off small raiding parties of orcs and goblins that occasionally preyed on unwary travellers.
Alexius did not feel any anticipation about seeing his homeland again; his feelings had been numbed since the death of his wife. He had paid no attention to the whispered comments at the Karameikan Court, nor the concerned glances of fellow members of the Order of the Griffon. Even Desmond Kelvin, who had never thought highly of Alexius, had offered him support. Alexius knew he didn't need emotional support. He just needed to see Ludwig von Hendriks' head on a pole.
The weather slowed the warhorse's pace to a languishing crawl. The wind began to pick up, but Alexius merely flicked the reins to tell the horse to push on. The hin soldiers had offered to let them stay at Rollstone Keep overnight, since the weather was expected to break the next day. Alexius had declined, feigning a homesickness he could not feel.
"I've failed you again, Serrah," he murmured. "Somehow, he's escaped me."
He lifted his head, his nose flaring as something stirred a memory. Serrah's perfume, he thought. Impossible, he thought as he looked around. He glimpsed motion to his right, in the direction of the swamp. He touched the horse's neck. "Hold up, Valen," he muttered. Valen snorted for a moment, and stopped.
His eyes still on the flickering movement, Alexius dismounted. He loosened his sword in its sheath, feeling its comforting warmth through his winter gloves. He motioned Valen to stay put. He knew the horse would obey; they had ridden together a long time now.
Alexius walked off the road, sinking almost to his knees in the snow. He pushed forward, keeping the indistinct shape in view. As he approached, he thought he could see it glowing. The knight advanced warily, drawing his blade halfway out of its sheath.
Then he stopped in his tracks, and a chill unrelated to the wind ran up his spine. He did not notice himself sinking to his knees in the snow. He did not notice that his sword had fallen from his grasp and slid back into its sheath. He did not notice the wind diminishing around him.
"Alexius, my love," said the spirit of his dead wife. "I've missed you so much!"
His throat had never felt so dry! His tongue was glued to the roof of his mouth, and his mind refused to form any words at all.
"I have so little time, my love," she said. Her voice seemed hollow, as if it came from somewhere far away. "Diulanna sent me to you. She heard your prayers, and has given me a chance to see you again."
"S-serrah? Is it truly you?"
"Yes, Alexius, it's me. Listen carefully, for my time is short. Diulanna will do this much, but no more. I know you want to bring me back to life, but the Immortals have already sent me to my eternal rest. I can't come back, no matter how many priests pray for me. As much as it hurts me, I know I will never see you again after this."
"B-but there must be a way-"
"There isn't, Alexius. Oh, how I wish it could be otherwise!" The spirit shuddered with weeping. "But the Immortals have decided."
His anger boiled over. "Decided? Are you some pawn in their cosmic games, then? You're taken from the playing field just like that? You were MURDERED!"
"I'm not the only person that Black Pigeon murdered, Alexius. But you're one of the few who gets to speak to the dead afterwards. Now, listen to me, please! I came to tell you this: I know how much you want to be with me, but I can't come back. And you can't join me, at least not now. You have too much to do on Mystara. So don't you dare think of killing yourself for my benefit. It wouldn't work, for you would be damned to an eternity in Limbo."
"The thought never crossed my mind," he lied.
"Of course not," she said in a sardonic voice so familiar that it nearly pierced his heart then and there. "You'd never do something like that for me, would you?"
He started to deny it, but his memories came back, unbidden. Memories of another time, when they were both young and immortal...
Garok fell to one knee, gritting his teeth against the pain of the arrow in his arm. Cursing horribly, the dwarf raised his crossbow and fired, catching the goblin in the throat. Two more arrows struck him, and he groaned as the pain overwhelmed him.
Alexius could not spare a moment to help the fallen dwarf; he was hard-pressed to defend himself against three goblin swordsmen. The Wolfskulls had ambushed them just as they were setting up camp. Alexius cursed himself even as he slashed at the goblin on his right. He should have been more careful; he should had set another guard. He couldn't have known that the Wolfskull lair was close by, but he should have assumed it. His mistake had already cost Serinyella her life, and perhaps Garok also. And Serrah...
Serrah had learned to fight in the past few months, and had no qualms about using her sword against goblins. She had chosen to stay with Alexius and his companions, rather than returning to Specularum with Erren. She had not regretted her choice so far, thought Alexius, but perhaps she was reconsidering it now.
A burst of light from behind him told Alexius that Merrick was still in the fight, although no one could come to the mage's aid. Brother Kanterius was fending off two goblins himself, and Alexius could not see Serrah. Merrick's spell was effective, though, as Alexius saw a goblin fall, its chest caved in.
"Fall back," he shouted, hoping to rally those still standing. He himself took a step backward, his sword cutting through the neck of one of his attackers. The other two snarled in hatred and redoubled their attacks, driving Alexius back even more. He felt a tree branch stabbing him in the back. He ducked away from one goblin's wild swing, and the sword sank into the tree trunk, sticking there. Alexius dispatched the goblin quickly, and turned his attention to the third.
"Ssstop, human!" hissed a voice from the side. "Alexius!" said Serrah, her voice broken. Alexius blocked the goblin's sword with his own and drove it aside, risking a glance toward Serrah.
He saw her lying on her back, a goblin sword at her throat. She looked at the goblin with a terrified face. The goblin who had spoken stood by Kanterius. The priest was disarmed and on the ground, as was Gorak with three arrows in him. Merrick was nowhere to be seen. There were five goblins still standing.
"Sssurrender, human," ordered the goblin again, "or they die in an inssstant!"
Alexius thought quickly. "Very well," he said. "I will surrender myself to you. But first you must release the woman."
"Why we do that?" sneered the goblin.
"I am a Karameikan noble," he said. It wasn't a lie; Lord Kaerin had sent word to Specularum, and Duke Stefan had made Alexius a Court Lord for his services. It didn't mean very much, but he was, technically, a nobleman.
"If you release the woman, she will carry your ransom demand back to Specularum. We are worth far more to you alive than dead."
The goblins laughed, but the leader silenced them. "How much you worth?"
"Enough to make it worth your while to let her go."
The goblin leader thought for a few moments. Alexius could almost hear the goblin's thoughts crawling slowly through his mind. Finally, the leader looked at him with a feral grin. "You sssurrender, give up your sssword. The Wolfskull tribe want two thousssand gold, or you all die!"
Alexius nodded. He saw Serrah looking at him, and returned her look with a small smile. At least she would be safe.
The goblin leader grinned and spoke to the one over Serrah. The goblin snarled, but moved his sword away from Serrah's throat. She propped herself up on her elbows, breathing rapidly.
The goblin standing over her turned back to his leader. Serrah moved like lightning, scissoring the goblin's legs and sending him tumbling to the ground. With catlike grace, she grabbed the goblin's sword and drove it into his gut.
Garok roared, pulled an arrow out of his arm, and stabbed the nearest goblin. It screamed in pain, but was quickly silenced as Garok grabbed it by the throat and squeezed it until he heard bones crack.
Alexius kicked the goblin in the stomach, then knocked its sword flying with a quick stroke. The defenceless goblin tried to run, but Alexius cut it down before it could even turn around. Alexius then turned to the last goblin, murder in his eyes. The goblin looked around for an instant, and fled into the forest.
The leader of the goblins roared in fury and turned to finish off the wounded cleric. Kanterius rolled aside, narrowly missing the goblin's sword as it sunk into the ground. The goblin raised its sword to strike again, and Kanterius had nowhere to go.
There came the twang of a bowstring, and the goblin leader looked down to find an arrow buried in his chest. With a moan, he slumped down atop the fallen cleric, his sword falling away harmlessly. Kanterius looked up to see Serinyella back among the trees, holding her side as she dropped her bow.
Merrick rushed to her side. He had run into the forest after casting his spells, and no goblins had followed him. "We thought you were dead," he exclaimed. The elven huntress shook her head in obvious pain.
"I let them think that; they were too eager to get at the rest of you." She winced as Merrick probed the gash in her ribs. "I was barely conscious as it was. I wouldn't have been able to help you in the fight, so I watched. If Alexius had really surrendered, I would have followed."
Kanterius moved to the dwarf, who was back on his knees. "You're too stubborn to die, Garok," said the cleric, wincing from his own pain. "Let me look at those arrows."
"If I let a pack of stinking goblins kill me, my ancestors would make me haunt the mines forever," replied Garok, grimacing despite himself.
Alexius strode over to Serrah, his eyes burning. "What did you think you were doing?" he demanded. "You could have been killed!"
Serrah looked at him in shock. "I knew what I was doing! They were thinking about all the money they were going to get for ransom. They didn't think I was any more of a threat."
"You shouldn't have risked your life like that," insisted the warrior. "You were lucky that time, and luck runs out sooner or later."
"What would you have me do?" she said, her anger now matching his. "You would rather I ran away and left you to die?"
"They wouldn't have killed me," he said. "They would have waited for the money."
She stopped, understanding creeping onto her face. "You would have gone through with it," she realised. "You would have surrendered yourself and let me go back to fetch a ransom." Alexius said nothing. "You would have been killed anyway," continued Serrah. "They would have killed you, and probably everyone else, right after they got their money."
"But they wouldn't have killed you," said Alexius. He began to say more, but then looked around the campsite.
The others were being careful not to notice the discussion going on between the pair, except Garok. He grunted as Alexius looked at him. "You going to kiss her now?" asked the dwarf.
Serrah stepped back, her face red. Kanterius gently elbowed the dwarf. "Do you think you could be a little more subtle?" suggested the priest.
"I'm a dwarf," answered Garok. "I don't do 'subtle.'"
Alexius blinked back his tears and looked at the ghost of his love. "I won't take my own life," he promised. "But I would give anything to be with you."
The knight closed his eyes, trying to control himself. When he opened them again, he was alone. "Serrah?! Serrah!!"
"Farewell, my love," came the echo of her voice. "I have to go now."
"Please come back!"
Serrah's voice faded to almost nothing. "Avenge me, Alexius. Avenge me..."
"NO!!" Alexius stumbled ahead through the snow, running to nowhere. He finally fell to his knees. The snow melted into his armour, chilling him to the bones. He wept until the tears froze to his cheeks, and he was blinded by them.