In our final installment, Eathen discovers the Secret of the Holy Crystal—and a world of trouble, too!
“You’re soaking wet,” said Sister Drindel. “What in Lensae was so important to bring you out in this weather?”
They stood together in one of the monastery’s small contemplation chambers. Murals of pastoral landscapes in muted colors covered the walls, fragrant vases of fresh-cut flowers sat on pedestals in the corners, and a warm, crackling fire burned in the hearth. A circular bench sat in the center of the room, offering a place to sit and meditate on the paintings.
Eathen cleared his throat and then said, “I have concerns about your account of the shadow creature’s attack.”
The monk looked at him, eyebrows raised. Her crystal’s light wavered before she replied. “I’m not sure I understand. We’ve given you a complete retelling of everything that happened, more than once, in fact.”
Halie stepped forward. “I know I am only an acolyte, but if you will forgive my candor Sister Drindel, the story told to Master Eathen is impossible.”
The monk looked at her and pursed her lips. “I do not forgive you for this claim, as it is highly inappropriate, and exactly the sort of behavior that led to your current scullery duties for Matron Underdown. It would appear that you wish to extend your time under her supervision.”
Halie started to reply, but the monk raised a palm to cut her off. “But,” Sister Drindel continued, “I am curious why you think our account is impossible. It is, after all, what happened, meaning it is anything but impossible.”
Eathen noticed the monk’s crystal flickering now, as if it were a reflection of her growing agitation. The strange pulsing was unlike anything he’d seen during his interviews with the monks. Glancing at Halie, he noticed her gaze locked firmly on the monk’s forehead, a look of deep concern on her face.
Hoping to draw the fire away from Halie, Eathen stepped up. “You see, Sister Drindel, the problem is that the story you told me is precisely the same story as ‘The Forgotten Hope’ from Tales of the Western Isles by Essem Blane. This is what makes the account you and your brethren shared with me impossible. It is almost a word for word retelling of Blane’s story.”
Sister Drindel tipped her head, clasped her hands behind her back, and let out a long sigh. Eathen and Halie edged closer to one another, and Eathen could hear Halie’s breathing quicken in the quiet of the contemplation chamber.
The monk raised her head, her face impassive. The crystal flickered so furiously now that it made Eathen dizzy to look at it. “I’m afraid neither of you are suitable for our purposes,” she stated flatly.
Eathen felt his knees weaken, and found himself unable to look away from the crystal. He reached out for something to brace himself with, but his hand found only open air, and he began to fall. Halie stumbled slightly, and he knew she was feeling the strange effect as well. He blinked hard, trying to focus on the monk and keep his footing.
“As such,” Sister Drindel continued, “I’m afraid we have no choice but to—”
There was a tremendous crash, and Sister Drindel crumpled to the floor. Like a fresh spring breeze coming in through an open window, Eathen’s head cleared, and he regained his footing.
Sister Drindel lay face down amid the shattered remains of a vase. Her head and shoulders were soaked, and the floor around her was strewn with yellow belleyes.
Eathen looked at Halie. She stood over the monk, appearing both terrified and furious all at the same time. “We have to get out of here,” she gasped. “What one knows they all know. If they aren’t already outside the door, then they’re on their way.”
They raced to the door and flung it open. As they were about to leave, a weak voice cried out. “Wait!”
They halted and looked back. Sister Drindel rolled to her side, raised her head, and reached a hand out to them. She still wore the silver headband, but her crystal was shattered. Blood trickled from the spot where the crystal had been.
“You can’t…go that way,” she gasped, blinking rapidly as if she struggled to focus on them.
Halie rushed to Sister Drindel’s side and rolled her onto her back, cradling her head.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she choked. “I didn’t want to hurt you.”
“No…you were right,” she said. “Get out…get help…use the grotto.”
“We’ll take you with us.” Eathen hurried over and started to lift the monk. “Can you get to your feet?”
“No time,” she gasped. “Go!” The monk’s eyes closed, and she slumped in their arms.
“Is she dead?” Eathen asked.
“I don’t think so,” Halie answered, swallowing hard and choking back a sob. “But she’s right. We need to get out of here. Something is terribly wrong.”
The sound of footsteps echoed from somewhere not far away. Carefully, they lay the unconscious monk down, and then ran out the door.
“What did she mean about the grotto?” Eathen asked as he ran down the hall behind Halie.
“There is a sea cave on the east side of the island,” she answered. “I’m guessing the monks aren’t guarding it.”
“A sea cave?” Eathen pictured the waves thundering against the cliffs all around the island. “How are we supposed to escape that way?”
At a t-intersection they cut sharp to the left, only to skid to a stop when they saw a group of four monks armed with iron shod staves charging down the hall toward them. Eathen went right, with Halie close behind.
“We can still get there,” she called. “Turn left at the next intersection.”
When he reached the next turn, he saw that unlike the other halls, there were no orbs of Aelos or torches lighting the way. He snatched a torch from the wall back in the main hallway, and then hurried after Halie, who was already running off into the darkness.
A moment later, they arrived at a narrow, winding staircase carved into the stone. With the footsteps growing closer behind them, they scurried down the stairs. Eathen’s breath burned in his chest.
“There!” Halie shouted.
Eathen saw a small door at the end of the stairs. He could just hear the crash of waves coming from the other side. Halie threw the door open, and they rushed into the cavern beyond.
It was large, as big as a good-sized tavern. The walls bore the sharp, wavelike curves that came from centuries of erosion by the sea. The cavern formed a little cove, and a short passage led out to the open water beyond. At some point in the monastery’s ancient history, someone had constructed a stone dock around the walls.
Moored beside the dock was a small ship with a dragon-headed prow.
“Oh no,” whispered Halie.
“This is bad. We have to get out of here and warn Matron Underdown and Pylas,” Eathen said.
Halie turned to respond but instead pointed at the door and shouted, “They’re coming!”
A light was coming down the stairs, growing brighter with each moment. Eathen ran to the door and slammed it shut. He stuffed the torch into a sconce on the nearby wall and then looked around for a way to bar the door. He found nothing. Someone slammed into the door from the other side. Eathen’s feet slid across the stone, but he managed to force it back closed. He braced his feet against one of the mooring posts.
“We have to lock it with something!” he cried.
Halie raced around the cavern. “There’s nothing here. It’s not supposed to lock from this side.”
She ran over and grabbed one of the ship’s mooring lines and pulled on it. “Maybe I can get one of these loose and we can tie it around the handle!”
Another boom echoed as more bodies crashed against the other side of the door. Eathen pushed as hard as he could, but the door started to open.
“I can’t hold it!” he yelled.
Halie rushed to his side. Together they managed to hold the door, but the shoving from the other side didn’t relent, slowly forcing them back.
“I’m sorry, Eathen,” Halie sobbed as she strained against the door. “This is my fault. I should have noticed something was wrong sooner. I wasn’t staying in the monastery, but I helped Matron Underdown serve the meals. I should have known.”
“It’s not your fault,” Eathen said. He groaned with effort as their opponents shoved again, forcing the door open a bit further. “How could you have known? If anyone should have noticed it’s me. Every story exactly the same? That’s ridiculous. Why wasn’t I more suspicious?”
Again their foes pushed, and again the door opened a finger-width further.
“They’re going to get in,” he grunted, pushing with all his might on the door. “Do you think we can get the ship untied? Get out of the cavern before they stop us?”
Again a push. Again the door edged open a little further.
“We’d never get it free in time,” Halie said. “We could swim for it. It’d be difficult, but I don’t know that we have any choice.”
Somewhere outside, a wave boomed against one of the cliff walls.
“I think it’s the only choice we have,” he said. “On a count of three?”
“One,” he said.
The door pressed open further.
The door opened far enough that a robed arm reached through the gap and grabbed at their arms, trying to pull them away.
Before he could finish, a scream cut him off, followed by the sounds of battle; thuds and thumps. Crashes and cries. The door slammed shut under their weight as their attackers stopped trying to push through. He and Halie stayed pressed against the door regardless, and stared at each other in wonder.
The sounds of fighting continued for another few moments, but ended abruptly with a clang like a temple bell ringing. For a few long breaths, they didn’t move.
Someone knocked on the door. “Hellooo,” a voice said.
“Matron—Underwood?” Halie asked, stepping back.
Eathen threw the door open. Standing on the stairs amid a pile of unconscious monks stood Matron Underdown and Pylas. Matron Underdown wore a strange outfit that looked something like armor, but cobbled together from a variety of kitchen implements. In her right hand she gripped a cast-iron frying pan. Beside her stood Pylas, his face scratched from where someone had clawed at him, but he appeared otherwise unharmed.
The four rushed to one another and embraced.
“How…why?” stammered Eathen and Halie together.
“When you didn’t come back, we were worried something might be wrong, so we came in through the dining hall to investigate,” said Matron Underdown.
“We ran into a couple of these jesters in the kitchen, but they weren’t too much for us to handle,” Pylas added. “Calm seas after that, that is until we heard the commotion coming from down here.”
Halie looked at Matron Underdown’s attire and laughed. “What are you wearing?”
“Now don’t you laugh, girl,” said Underdown, looking annoyed. “This is the uniform of a Kitchen Ranger, one of the proudest orders in the Grand Army of Gelendor.”
“You mean the Kitchen Rangers are real?” asked Eathen. “I thought they were a jok…er…I mean, uh, a legend.”
“I wasn’t always a cook and a housemaid, boy,” she said, puffing out her chest. “In my youth, I served in the frontier army, and fought against the goblin uprising at Windshome. I protected my soldiers, and made sure they fought on a full belly every night. I was even awarded the Golden Ladle for valor.”
“Well, that’s lucky for us then,” laughed Halie. “We thought we were done for. And thank you too, Pylas. Clearly you did your share.”
Pylas grunted. “Nothing to it. You’re looking at a four-time champion of the Castle Port Knuckle Breaker Tournament. These monkeys ain’t nothing compared to the drothmal I beat in ’33.”
Eathen’s joy at being saved faded quickly when he remembered that there were only around five or six monks on the floor there, but the monastery was home to more than fifty.
“There will be more where these came from. We should go. Maybe we can get out using the ship,” he said, picking his way over the bodies and toward it.
“Maybe,” Halie said, following his lead, “but it’s high tide. How are we going to get the ship out of the grotto?”
Pylas joined them, with Matron Underdown close behind. “It’ll be a trick, but I can do it,” he said. “I’ve navigated worse than this and lived to tell of it.”
Working as fast as they could, Eathen, Halie, and Matron Underdown untied the ship. Meanwhile, Pylas leapt aboard and started making preparations to depart. As Eathen uncoiled the rope from the mooring post, he took a moment to look back at the stairs and wonder how much time they had before more monks came.
At the foot of the stairs, he saw the old monk he’d interviewed earlier that evening. Lying there unconscious, mouth open a bit and his disheveled gray hair framing a thin, wrinkled face, the monk reminded Eathen of his grandfather when he’d fall asleep in his chair reading by the evening fire. Then he remembered Sister Drindle, and the look of pain and fear on her face when she’d been freed from the crystal’s power.
Eathan paused, his heart pounding in his chest. At last he said, “I…I can’t just leave them.”
“What’s that?” Matron Underdown asked.
Eathen looked at the stairs, and then back at the ship. This was the moment, he realized, the moment he’d written about so many times when recording the tales of those who had fought back against the Dark. The shepherd who chose to stay and protect his village from a pack of wargs with nothing but his crook. The soldier who remained on the wall in the face of the advancing endrori army. The adventurer that plunged into unexplored Deepland halls to hunt the creatures of shadow.
Were they as afraid as he felt now? And was their choice as inevitable as he realized his was?
“I can’t leave them,” Eathen repeated, his voice firm. “Whatever power is at work here, it has the monks trapped. Who knows what might happen between now and the time we return with help? And what about the adventurers? If the monks were going to kill Halie and I, the adventurers could be here somewhere, and in terrible danger. You said that when you told them about the trouble on the island, they didn’t hesitate to come to the monks’ aid. How can I leave them now when they might need us?”
Eathen headed for the stairs, grabbing one of the monk’s staves along the way.
“I’m going to see what I can do to help. The rest of you get to the mainland and send for help. I’m not sure that I’ll be able to do much, but I have to try.”
“Aw, hells,” groaned Halie. “He’s right. I’m going with him.”
Halie ran to his side and picked up a staff of her own.
Matron Underdown knitted her brow and nodded solemnly before joining them. “I’ve got a few scraps left in me still, and I’m not letting the two of you go in there alone.”
Pylas, standing alone of the deck of the ship, shrugged his shoulders. “Eh, I’m surprised I’m not dead already. What have I got to lose?”
He hopped off the ship and joined Eathen and the others. Together, with grim determination, they headed back into the monastery.
Grand Master Wineman read aloud from the sheaf of papers he held:
“—With the monks at their heels, they charged into main chapel. Standing on a golden pedestal in the center of the vaulted chamber stood the Holy Crystal. It pulsed with a blue light, and streamers of energy flowed from it, converging on four figures chained to pillars surrounding it.
“The adventurers!” Halie shouted. “That must be how the monks learned to fight so well.”
“No time,” Pylas coughed, his one arm wrapped around his belly and the other leaning on Eathen for support. “They’re here.”
A dozen monks armed with swords, flails, staves, and daggers poured into the room.
“Time to put an end to this!” Matron Underwood cried. With unexpected agility, the little halfling charged across the room and leaped into the air. Like a hero from the Age of Shadow, she swung her frying pan in a wide arc. It struck the Holy Crystal like a clapper against a bell and bit into the blue stone of the strange artifact. With a sound like a thousand glasses shattering at once, the Holy Crystal exploded.
As the sound faded, the monks gasped and clapped their hands to their foreheads. They tore off the silver headbands with a cry of both pain and relief. Eathen, Halie, and Pylas ignored them and raced to Matron Underdown’s side. The little halfling lay on the floor in a widening pool of blood. The exploding crystal had sliced every area of exposed flesh. At first they feared the worst, but her armor had born the brunt of the blow. She’d require the care of the priests of Alantra, but she would live.
Thus ended the enslavement of the Monks of the Holy Crystal.”
Grand Master Wineman set the stack of paper on his desk and looked over at Eathen with narrowed eyes. “Like a hero from the Age of Shadow?”
Eathen swallowed hard. “Yes, sir.”
The Grand Master looked at him with raised eyebrows before shaking his head. “And you say that the crystal itself had taken over the monks’ minds? That there was no corruption or other evil presence? That the whole ‘shadow creature’ ruse had been a trap to lure adventurers out to the island?”
“That is correct, sir.” Eathen shifted in the chair. It seemed to have padding in all the wrong places. He wondered if Master Wineman had the chairs specially constructed to make visitors uncomfortable, in order to gain an advantage when questioning them.
“As I noted in the report,” he continued, pointing at the papers on the Grand Master’s desk, “the crystal was originally discovered by explorers in the ruins of Old Erinor. Apparently the monks were attempting to influence the essential pattern of the crystal to make it easier to retrieve memories from it when something went wrong. They remember very little of the time between when the change occurred and when we freed them, and we still don’t know what the crystal was trying to accomplish.”
The Grand Master steepled his fingers and rested them on his chin. “You haven’t made this easy for me, you know. The fact that your story reads more like an adventure story than a scholarly work is the least of the problems we have to deal with.” He frowned down at the documents, and then turned his gaze back on Eathen.
“More importantly, your interference was highly inappropriate, and in direct opposition to our mandate to deliver objective and unbiased records. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that your actions have jeopardized any chance that you’ll be given a teaching assignment this year. After all, we are in the business of recording history, Master Winswood, not making it.” He shook his head and sighed. “As the Grand Master of the University Archive, I must condemn your conduct in this case.”
Eathen felt sick. He didn’t regret his decision, he’d never regret the decision, but he’d feared this moment for weeks.
The Grand Master lowered his hands and leaned back in his chair. His expression softened. “As a fellow citizen of this great realm, however, I commend you for your actions, Eathen. You showed courage in the face of great danger. I believe Lord Drakewyn would agree with me when I say that if more of our people stood strong against the forces that oppose us, we’d all be better off.”
He stood, picked up the papers, and handed them to Eathen. Eathen took them, a sudden sense of relief washing over him. He respected the Grand Master greatly, looked up to him, and knowing he didn’t think poorly of Eathen took a huge weight off his shoulders.
“As I’ve already stated, due to your involvement in this affair, it is unlikely that the council will grant you a teaching position this year,” the Grand Master continued. “I’m certain, however, that come next year, you’ll find yourself standing before a class of young students, eager for the benefit of your wisdom.”
The Grand Master walked around the desk as Eathen rose from his seat. Grand Master Wineman nodded to the door, and Eathen walked in that direction.
“And trust me when I tell you this: another year of travel isn’t the worst thing that could happen to you.” Grand Master Wineman placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. “You’ll find yourself trapped behind a lectern soon enough, my boy. Enjoy this time while you have it.”
Eathen turned at the door, smiled, and shook the Grand Master’s hand. “Thank you, sir. I truly appreciate it,” he said, and stepped out of the Grand Master’s office.
As the door closed firmly behind him Eathen let out a huge sigh.
“So, how did it go?” Halie asked eagerly.
Eathen smiled at Halie as she approached from the bench where she’d been waiting. She no longer wore acolyte robes, which made sense, seeing as the order she’d been pledged to no longer existed. Instead she wore a simple dress, perfectly appropriate for a student of the University. “Did he like the part about Matron Underwood looking like a hero of the Age of Shadow?”
“Um, he definitely noticed that part,” Eathen said.
“Ha! I told you he’d like it. Glad you left it in.”
He and Halie started off down the hall. “So, I’m guessing you won’t be getting a teaching post.”
“No, definitely not this year,” he said, and was surprised by the fact that this didn’t seem to bother him anymore.
“What are you going to do next?”
Eathen fished around in his pocket until he found the folded piece of paper there. He pulled it out, unfolded it, and handed it to Halie. It was one of the assignment postings the professors put up on the board for the travelling scholars.
“A complete accounting of the history and inhabitants of the honorable town of Thornwall, in the Duchy of Vaun,” she read aloud. “Vaun? Isn’t that way up in the north? Why would you want to go way up there? It sounds boring.”
“That’s exactly what I’m counting on,” Eathen said.
Thus ends the tale! We hope you enjoyed this visit to the world of Aetaltis. If you'd like to see where Eathen's journey takes him next, check out THE HEROES OF THORNWALL.
Discover Champions of Aetaltis...
And if you'd like to read even more stories set in Aetaltis, check out CHAMPIONS OF AETALTIS, an anthology of heroic fantasy adventures set in the World of Aetaltis!