Soon, a knight approached them from the field side and told them to quickly cross the field. Just as quickly, a gaggle of maidens quickly hampered off through the path the knight made through the field. Words of seeing their betrothed or dream knight leaped from their tongues as they passed Mai and Desmond. “There they go again.” Mai’s tongue clicked before she pulled Desmond along by the arm as the rest of the host followed after the girls.
As the girls bounded after the knights, Randol and his men had reached the end of the field. They held their advance at the foot of a short but wide stone bridge that reached across a mildly deep moat. The moat itself was filled with rubble were parts of the outer stone curtain and crumbled. Either from the passing of time or from the city’s fall. The outer ramparts were topped with beautiful orange and golden trees who’s roots weaved in between the stonework. Small chunks interweaved between them as nature slowly returned to the city to the earth. Randol turned his attention to the gatehouse, or what remained of it, as it stood half destructed with its portcullis bend inward. After that, was a large heap of rubble, moss, and bushes.
Once he felt he saw enough, he turned his attention once more to the bridge. He bent over to examine the stones. A fine layer of dirt and moss had built over most of it, but enough of the bridge shined through to tell him that it was in fact, a stone bridge. From his experience, it had been undisturbed for a long time. He also noted that there were large collapsed sections further down the walls on either side. Monsters or people could have been using those openings.
After a few minutes of contemplating, he made up his mind and stood up. “Tell-” As luck would have it, the gaggle of girls caught up with the men. “Your Highness-” One of the girls, full of bravado and delight, called out loudly to Randol. Her voice was shrill and powerful, disturbing a flock of birds just inside the wall. Tens of blackbirds took to the sky, their startled calls just as loud and sharper than the girls.
All the knights brandished their swords on reflex and took a single line formation in front of the bridge; ready to kill whatever was coming from the ruins. It only took a few moments for the knights to realize what had happened and sheathed their weapons. The girls only giggled at their actions. “It was but birds, Your Highness.” Another girl spoke up, her voice full of dignity and grace, but her cheeks were red as roses as she looked shyly at the Randol. The person in question wanted to slap each of the girls for their behavior; it had not even been the first time they had done such things either.
“Lady Pricilla, daughter of Viscount Hammel, correct?” He stressed the title of her father while he gave a strained smile towards the young girl who was no older than fifteen. His eyes, however, were stone cold and unwelcoming. “Please refrain from such reckless behavior. I wish to remind you that we are in the middle of an expedition; not the academy.” While Randol was not speaking to the one who’d caused the situation, all of these girls, in particular, had worn his patience thin. The girls recoiled slightly, bowed and returned back to the flock. “You could have been harsher, Prince Randol.” One of the knights next to him huffed.
“Alas, I’m tired of having angry nobles coming to me to speak about how I spoke to their daughters. The damn pests.” Randol replied before he turned around. “Come. Let’s get this over with so my brother can complete his expedition. Gods know I hate these morbid places…” The knights crossed the bridge just as the students arrived. The rear guard took up security around the bridge in a much more relaxed manner than the front guard. Desmond put away the large parchment by rolling it up and sliding it into his robe were a satchel had been as to keep it from being caught on anything.
Mai sat on a large rock and pulled Desmond down to sit beside her. “C’mon. We’ve been walking for half a day now, take a rest.” She said as she gestured towards one of the students with a large sack. His robe was not like theirs, but grey with a sword and shield on it. “Squire Cameron, it’s time for everyone to have a meal while the knights secure the entrance.” Desmond did not refute and took off his robe, revealing hard leather armor beneath and a short sword. “These damn robes are going to get us killed.” Desmond grumbled as he folded the robe and stuck it in the leather satchel at his side.
“Don’t be like that.” Mai said as she took a handful of jerky from Squire Cameron and a waterskin. “Here, drink and eat. I don’t want you to collapse while we’re in there.” Desmond nodded and expressed his thanks as he took half the meat from Mai and picked at it.
The squires went about handing the rations out to everyone just as Randol returned. “Everything’s okay, but it’s a damn mess in there. Taking a break? Mai, how kind of you.” He said as he nodded his head to the vixen who only flinched his ear towards him as she munched down on her jerky. “Hey, what if it was my idea?” Desmond complained as more knights began to return and get their meals from their respective squires. “If Mai was not here, you would eat and shit; not to mention take a quick break.” Randol laughed as Desmond glared at his big brother.
A few of the other students, ones who’d been with Desmond on a few expeditions already, were well aware of this fact. “Nothing gets done without Lady Dragonfang, right?” One of the students jested and the rest agreed.
An hour later, the sun made its way towards the horizon and everyone had done what they needed to do. Thus, everyone filed through past the portcullis. “So, where too o’ great explorer?” Randol said to his brother as they slowly circled around the large pile of debris. “I want to head to the mountain.” He pointed to the large mountain that scraped the clouds that dared to do float over it. A few heavier clouds only smashed into the snowy rim. “No, we’re going to aim for the city center. From this map.” Mai held a large scroll in her hand, turned it sideways and unfurled it. It was a rough sketch of the city. Its large layout was straightforward and did not incorporate any confusing paths that most large cities did today.
“Hey, when did-” Desmond’s whine was cut short by Mai. “You forgot it while we were packing. So, I put it in my stuff.” She flashed a mischievous grin towards Desmond and continued on. “The city center looks like a great place to set up an exploration camp. The secondary location would be the cathedral by the mountain. If none of the above are useful, the field is the only other option.” She looked at the map once more before she looked up at the mountain. “Though, it shows there should be a river and a long set of stairs running up the mountain…” Mai had the best vision in all of the host as a beast woman, but her eyes did not see any of these pieces of infrastructure
They pushed that aside, as it was not that big of an issue at the moment, and focused on the ruins itself now.
The buildings towered as high as four stories while the shortest was a mere ten feet of pure debris. The street appeared to have been once paved with beautiful cobblestones, though it was now littered with craters and moss-covered bones. The rooftop, like the ramparts, was home to the autumn trees; their leaves and branches giving added more to the crawling shadows of the forsaken city. More trees grew sporadically within the street, as did bushes, and weeds. More often than they would have liked to, they had to snake through side streets and cross through ruined buildings.
Nowhere they went was free from the carnage. Deep gashes in the walls, craters in the streets. One crater took up an entire two city blocks of the ruins and had formed its own little small lake that primed with life. Desmond was in awe at how well preserved the most of the carnage was; untouched by outsiders for the longest time. Even the elven skeletons remained. Fey races and monsters were full of magical energy; thus their remains could live on for at least two thousand years.
Mai kept track of the routes they took while Randol kept a keen eye on the shadows. The other students, aside from those who aspired to be knights themselves, were plagued with boredom. While they were considered “scholars”, they were only there because of their lineages required them to be learned people. They chatted amongst each other, and a few knights even had to tell them to lower their voices.
They had not encountered any life aside from a few deer and plenty of birds. Though, Randol had noted that amongst the larger roads, something large had been prowling through. He made sure to let the other knights in on his observation.
Several spines towered over the head, close to thirty stories, all of which nearly equal distance from the other. That was until they noticed that a few had been toppled or halved in whatever battle had taken place here. Eventually, they found themselves back onto the main road after an hour of trekking through the city. They could finally see the ruins of the cathedral from where they stood, but a large stone blockade impeded their path. “I guess we’ll have to go through a side street again.” Desmond said as he looked at the heavily battered stones. “No, we don’t. There’s opening in that building. It’s small, but it might lead around.”
Mai chimed in and pointed to a hole big enough to fit two fully armored knights’ side by side through. “Yeah!” Desmond’s voice went high with glee until Randol stepped in. “Woah, not without us checking it out first.” Desmond nodded at his brother before he turned back to Mai. “Nice catch.” Randol and his knights went in without another word. Their figures disappearing into the dark interior of the building as if the void was swallowing them whole.
Ten minutes of tormenting waiting had been inflicted upon Desmond and Mai as they stared at the entrance. No word had come to them the entire time. Just went Desmond was about to go in and look for his brother, he heard the rattle of armor. Half a minute later, Randol appeared in the doorway. “You’re going to want to see this.” His face was stern and he only appeared long enough to speak before he turned back into the darkness.
Desmond and Mai jumped at his words and followed him into the darkness.
Their eyes quickly adapted themselves to the low light and found themselves inside what looked to have may have been a mansion or a store, but all things wood had long rotten away. All that was left was the rain stained walls and a roof woven from vines and roots. It took them a second to get their bearings before they found Randol slipping through another opening to their right. They followed after him and they passed through a line of buildings, all of which seemed untouched by the carnage outside. “Wow, these buildings are quite pretty.” Mai commented.
Each interior had been carved with beautiful murals of nature, elves, and animals. Some had the likeness of Cyril, but those were few compared to the rest. The one main point of each of the buildings was none lacked in stone art. “I wonder if every building had such murals in them. Too bad all the ones we had gone through were so wrecked.” Mai lamented at the beauty and made a silent vow that she would like a copy of these murals in her quarters back at the Academy. “This isn’t what I wanted you to see. It’s just a few more buildings up.” Randol called back to them.
Just like he had said, a few more buildings up, something unexpected was found. A small dragon skeleton entangled with a large golem that was just as tall as the building. The too appeared locked in battle before they both had been impaled to each other with a large rod that bad half-rusted away. “I think that’s… Mithril?!” Desmond gasped as he looked at it. The golem and dragon had appeared to have crashed into the building during the fatal blow, but the fact such a huge rod of mithril had been used so wantonly was too heart wrenching.
“What makes you say that?” Randol, who had stopped beside the large golem, appeared dwarfed by it. “Mithril is the only material that would have lasted this long in this form.” Desmond added hurriedly as he came close to the golem. The rest of the students began to file in and gawk at the sight, though most were uninterested. “Mm. Okay, well let’s move on.” Randol said and turned to go through another opening to his rear. “Wait, we’re just going to-” Desmond was cut off my Mai. “Yes. We’re leaving it for later.” She grabbed him by the arm and pulled him with her to follow his brother. “Get a palace!” One of the students called out to them and a chorus of laughter followed.
A few more turns and a single set of stairs later, the couple appeared on a dusty balcony overlooking a still plaza. Only the clicking of plate armor disturbed the still air as several knights made their way toward them from their left where the balcony was full of debris and hanging roots. To their right but only ten feet away was the main road and a missing section of the balcony that would have crossed over to the next building. A waft of crisp mountain air entered into their noses and filled them a small burst of energy. “I always forget how used to the musk of ruins I am.” Desmond said as Randol waved him over to a set of stairs to their left.
“That’s because you always have your nose stuck in some old scroll or a tome.” Mai complained as they went down the steps. “And put your robe back on” She added. “You could just take yours off too.” Desmond said without much attention to his words as his eyes scanned over the broken stone floor. Large piles of bones were pushed up against the left and right buildings of the plaza and there were almost ten large golems in fetal positions beside them.
“You bet that damn bitch would want a real man putting his nose between her legs.” A soft chuckle from one of the boys reached Mai’s ears. She felt her rage build up inside of her but she did not need to avenge her own honor – this time.
A swift metallic thwack reached her sensitive ears and a harsh reprimand. “Do not speak about Lady Redleaves could be your future queen!” One of the knights who had taken up a position at the top of the stairs hissed with contained rage. “Tsk, she’s a demi-human! My fa-” Another thwack, but louder, caught everyone’s attention this time. Everyone turned to see the commotion, even the ones by the altercation who tried to ignore it could not help but look now. Even Desmond’s attention was caught.
What everyone saw was one of the knights looking down on a boy no older than sixteen years of age as blood dribbled onto his fine blue robes. “H-How dare you! I am the heir to-” The boy was silenced by a loud booming voice from the bottom of the stairs “Enough!” Randol roared and the two looked at the prince. “Everyone, quickly come down the stairs. Mai, tell me what you heard.” Once Randol gave out his orders, not even Desmond dared to dally any longer at the bottom of the steps and quickly pulled the fox-girl over to his brother. “Did that damn child do it again?” Randol said, his eyes stern with his anger flexing in his cheeks.
Mai repeated what she heard and Randol only looked up. “Brother… Just… Leave it for when we’re back at the Capital, please.” Desmond pleaded with his brother. “No!” Randol said in a hushed tone, that was barely heard over the loud shuffle of feet as everyone tried to comply quickly with the angered prince’s order. “He has been degrading my sister-in-law; your future wife, the entire fucking way here!” Randol stared daggers at the now red checked teen that defied his order and kept himself at the top of the stairs but didn’t dare hold back the others. “Aren’t you going to say anything?! You can do something about-” Desmond waved away the suggestion.
“Look, brother. I know how you feel; however, I can’t just do as I like. You know that.” Mai looked at Desmond before they dropped in disappointment. “Fuck all about what Father would say about it. Mai is your woman!” Desmond wanted to refute his brother’s words but the words were caught in his throat. He couldn’t say it in front of Mai anymore. He was not that dense of a man. “We’ll talk about it later…” Desmond mumbled. “Lets…Lets just the current expedition over with and we’ll talk about… that…”
Desmond made himself scarce as he floated away quickly to avoid that topic from being furthered.
Mai looked up at the fleeting back of Desmond. “Hehe. See? I told you I’d help you.” The anger had left Randol the moment Desmond gave him the promise of talking further on the relationship. “I…” Mai was lost for words. Randol patted Mai’s shoulder as she was lost for words. “Do not speak of it. I wish the happiness of both of you. Just like I promised, I’d get him to face it. Sadly, I cannot give you any more words as I have to go deal with a dog who does not know his place.” His eyes gleamed again as they locked onto the child who was halfway down the stairs in an attempt to sneak by. A hopeless endeavor because he was flanked by the knight he had quarreled with.
He pardoned Mai to join with his younger brother. “Now, you and I are going to have a chat about your conduct during our trip.”
Mai quickly caught up to Desmond after many of the girls in the host had given her words of comfort to ignore him. She gave quick “Thank you”s and such before her arm clasped around Desmond’s left. Her smile radiated hope that Desmond tried hard to ignore. “Hey. Look, a statue.” He tried to take the attention away clumsily and Mai only smiled with a nod of her head.
The statue stood full of bravado with the figure standing tall at three stories tall. It depicted someone in full armor with a sword in both hands and its tip stabbed into the ground. No one could see the figure’s countenance as it was completely wrapped in a thick layer of moss with a few squirrels resting on the figure’s shoulders. The statue was a pale purple. “A complete mithril statue?” Desmond said in admiration. “I wonder if it’s a statue to Alistair…” He theorized as he approached it, careful not to trip on the broken stones until he noticed that there were none within five feet of the statue. “Hey…” He said as he bent down to touch the stones and felt the thick magic interweaved in them.
“I’m pretty sure that’s Cyril. See the paw on her chest? Cyril’s sigil is a cat paw.” She beamed at Desmond. “How so? Cyril is said to be a peacemaker, not a warmonger. These poses are for those ‘knightly’ people that go to war, right?” He turned to Mai. “Wel…” Mai gave him a defeated shrug as. “Besides that, it looks like a good place to set up a camp.” Mai quickly changed the topic to avoid answering any hard questions. “Hey, don’t just-” Desmond was cut as Randol came up to them. “She’s right. Have your quarrel later, but we should return now that our objective is complete. “
“But I want to see more.” Desmond said with a groan. “Last time we gave in, we spent an extra three days with completely ran out of supplies!” Mai quickly refuted his plead with Randol backing her. “Maybe if you brought more supplies, but we don’t have enough supplies for any extra days. We’re cutting it close. If you want, explore that statue.” Randol laughed at his last sentence, the kid he was scolding earlier trail slowly after the rear Knights with a swollen cheek. “Fine.” Desmond relented as his eyes followed the student before he joined the rest of the host a few meters away.
After a few more words about what they were to do, they agreed to spend the night in the row of buildings that led them into the city plaza. All the students broke off into their own small groups and either helped set up camps with the squires or explored the plaza with knights accompanying them.
Mai and Desmond examined the statue. Both of them examined the statue as Desmond pulled out another scroll from his satchel. With the setting sun, he did not have that great of light as he tried to look over the parchment. “Why don’t you just use Mage Light?” Mai asked as she brushed away layers of moss from its base. “Remember the last time I used that in an unexplored ruin?” Desmond responded without looking up from the parchment. “But we’re outdoors?” Mai said as she finally cleared away the moss at the boss and found an inscription. “Magical explosions are no less dangerous just because you’re in the open.” Desmond said mechanically
“Hey, Dessy. I found something.” Mai said as she pivoted on her foot and looked up at the prince. “What does it say? .”
[ Mother of all; Daughter of two.
Cast from her world into another.
Let this world rest with her in her tomb.
And should this world reject her,
Mother of the Light shall burn all life;
Father of the Dark shall reap all souls.
Only those with the stones of Heart step forth upon her place of rest.]
Mai read the inscription off to Desmond. “That’s a really shitty poem for a statue in an elven city.” He chuckled as he looked up from the scroll as he rolled it up. “Still got that stone?” He looked at her. “Yup.” She reached into her robe, rummaged around for a moment and pulled out a small palm-sized golden topaz. It was shaped as an artistic hard, polished to a water smooth surface that held not a single flaw. “Too bad you won’t let me keep it…” Mai pouted as she handed it over. “If it doesn’t get stuck or destroyed, you’re all the more welcome to have it.” Desmond said as he took it from her hand and looked it over in his hand. “Not what I meant…” Mai sulked even harder.
Desmond looked over the statue and found a small heart-shaped indent by the tip of the stone sword. With a steady hand, he slid it in and pulled his hand away. Nothing happened for a moment but then the whole city shook.