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Caldera 6 – Evergate

July 10, 2007

The path allowed Caden and Tiernan to avoid the Baden troops, but once it had left the waystation they saw no sign of an actual road for a fortnight. The path skirted the Northern foothills of the Shevan Range, passing through several villages that were little more than collections of loosely joined dwellings with thatched roofs, huddling in the shadows of the forest. Only a handful of people made themselves visible, grizzled men with searching eyes, and they usually only stuck around long enough to sell Caden and Tiernan some dried fruit and meat.

Eventually the path widened to the point where the two of them could ride side by side, and signs of people became more frequent. Corners and edges of old paving stones started to appear, poking up from the dirt, and and by the end of the day the path had merged with a road that ran Northwest. The forest gave way to patchy farmland, fields hemmed in by trees, and several days later the towers of a castle came into view, poking up over the horizon. As they drew closer, a city that huddled around the castle’s walls became visible as well. The small buildings that made up the city contrasted sharply with the towering walls, making it look like some strange species of lichen. The city’s Southern edge was bounded by the river, and Caden could see scores of barges making their way down it towards the Kalmarian border.

“That’s odd,” Caden said as they ate a small meal of travel bread and dried fruit on the side of a hill overlooking the city.

“What?” Tiernan replied without looking up.

“The castle. Why aren’t the walls surrounding the town?” Caden asked. It can’t be defensible.

“It looks like war hasn’t touched this land in several generations,” Tiernan said. “Look at the forests, those trees must be at least fifty or sixty years old.”

Tiernan’s explanation made sense and the two of them packed up and rode on in silence. Why do the interior cities in Kalmar have walls then? He thought back to his first campaign, when Kalmar’s armies had taken several Asennan cities, redefining the border for the second time since he had been born. All of the cities in Kalmar had only recently been border cities; it had only taken a generation for Kalmar to expand from a single city to it’s present size. Baden’s Eastern border, on the other hand, was dominated by the Shevan Range, and probably didn’t shift very much.

Riding down into the valley that contained the city, Caden saw a sign that proclaimed it to be the city of Evergate, and soon they were at the it’s outskirts. The first houses they saw were small affairs built of rough wood, filling the gaps between the merchant’s warehouses. The road that they were on appeared to lead all the way to the castle gates. This would be impossible to defend. The broad, straight streets were a stark contrast to those in Kalmarian cities, where the streets were labyrinthine in their complexity, forcing any invading force to pay for every step in blood. Here, an army would simply have to march down the main road. But first they would have to make it through the forest, which would probably be just as bad as any Kalmarian city, Caden reflected.

Inns started to pepper the sides of the road as Caden and Tiernan approached the castle itself and they picked one called The Golden Tree. It looked cheap, but not dangerous, and it seemed close to the city center. There was no one watching the stables when they arrived, so they stabled and saw to their horses themselves. By the time everything was taken care of, it was getting dark and the approaching fall had put a chill in the air, so they went inside to get some sleep.

* * *

“Are you sure you want to come?” Caden asked. He had not thought that Tiernan was a religious man, so it had surprised him when his companion had asked to come to the temple with him.

“Yeah, its important,” Tiernan said, finishing the last of the bread that they had shared for breakfast.

Evergate’s streets were too busy to make riding practical, so they decided to walk to the temple. They followed the inkeep’s instructions, following the road they had come in on before heading South on a road that ran alongside the castle’s moat. When they had first been told to follow the moat, Caden had been apprehensive, every moat he had seen had been unpleasant, full of stagnant water and worse, but this one was nice, full of fresh water, it even looked as though there were fish in it. As they circled the castle they crossed a bridge spanning the river that supplied the moat with fresh water.

They continued on for another quarter hour, passing through a bustling commercial district, before the road led away from the moat. The street curved to the left ahead of them and out of the corner of his eye Caden saw Tiernan tense, head snapping up as he squared his shoulders, his hand going to the dagger that hung at his side. Then Caden heard it too, the muffled sound of shouts from up ahead. He glanced over at his companion, who met his eyes and gave a slight nod, both of them hurrying forward to see what was happening.

The curve of the street muffled the noise of the crowd, and it quickly grew louder with their approach before the crowd itself came into view, all of them facing away from Caden and Tiernan. Caden slowed to a walk and joined the crowd while Tiernan kept on moving towards the edge of the street, skirting the mass of people. The crowd’s focus was on something that Caden couldn’t see on the left side of the street. He looked around and Tiernan had disappeared. He moved to get a better view and then stopped, the mob was formed around a temple.

The steps leading up to the temple were clear, and there was a well-dressed man yelling at a young looking priest on the landing right in front of the door. He must be the ringleader. Caden started to make his way through the crowd, keeping his hand on his sword. They didn’t seem to be well armed, only a few swords and clubs here and there, but that didn’t make them any less dangerous, he had heard stories of people being torn limb from limb by angry mobs, and it could happen here if things got out of control. It shouldn’t be long until the watch shows up, if there is a city watch.

Something caused the crush of bodies around Caden to stiffen, seeming to pull away from the temple for a moment before rushing forward with a new intensity. Most of the people seemed tired, as though they had been standing there for hours, but despite the mob’s renewed vigor it was easy for Caden to shoulder and elbow his way to the front of the crowd. He broke through and almost tripped as his feet tried to find their way up the smooth stone steps.

Sprawled out in front of him was the man who had been arguing with the priest. The man had fallen backwards and was laying with his feet at the top of the stairs. Caden looked up and the priest was standing there, unmoving with wide eyes, as though his feet were frozen in the stone. He must think that he’s about to die as well. When he looked back down, Caden could see the tip of a crossbow quarrel sticking out of the base of the man’s neck, right above the breastbone. Flecks of blood glistened on the man’s lips, and his eyes were open, staring up into the blue sky.

Caden turned to face the mob. Everyone’s eyes were focused on him. They must think that I’m with them. He took a step backwards, careful to avoid the body on the steps. Even though no one moved, he could feel the energy of the crowd pushing at him, forcing him back towards the temple. What the hell is going on here? He found himself having to set his feet and brace himself, as though he facing a strong wind, in order to stand his ground.

“Its over!” he shouted, not sure exactly what ‘it’ was but putting as much command into his voice as he could. “Go home!”

The crowd was stunned, and he heard murmuring. A man holding a partially unsheathed sword took a half-step forward, and Caden met his eyes, both of them tense. The man froze, and they stood staring at each other for a long moment. Finally, the man stepped down, melting back into the crowd. The effect was like a pebble thrown into a pond, the people near the steps starting to move away from the temple, creating a wave of confusion that rippled towards the crowd’s outside edges. By the time the city watch showed up a minute later the street was nearly empty.

“What happened here, Odran?” one of the watchmen asked the priest, gesturing towards the body of the man on the steps. The watchmen were all wearing green and blue uniforms that matched the flags that decorated the castle.

“We were arguing, then someone shot him,” Odran said. The watchman frowned. “You know me, Captain Herelas, you know I wouldn’t have a man killed.” The priest was older that he had looked from a distance. He ran a hand through his short, brown hair, although it didn’t seem to put it in any sort of order.

“By the three. Bloody priests . . .” the captain muttered as he turned around to address his men, who had drawn up a cart. “Load him up!”

“Caden, I presume?” Odran asked after the watch had finished loading the corpse into the cart and left. Caden nodded. “Thank Arkos that you came when you did. Things could have gotten very . . .” The priest couldn’t seem to find the words to finish the sentence.

“Yeah, they could have,” Caden said.

“What exactly happened back there? Why did they back down?” Odran asked. An acolyte who Caden hadn’t even noticed opened the door to the temple to let Caden and Odran step inside. The temple’s interior was simple and familiar, incense stinging Caden’s nostrils when he set foot inside. Odran led him to a small sitting room near the temple doors.

“I think that the man at the front of the mob knew that I’d kill him if he came forward. Most people aren’t violent, and if no one is there to lead them, they won’t fight.” Caden knew that what he had said wasn’t exactly true, he had seen ragged, unarmed people charge soldiers, but he didn’t have a better explanation. “What was the captain talking about, when he was muttering about ‘the three’?” Caden asked, eager to change the subject.

“Unlike Kalmar, Baden isn’t pure, they tolerate false religions here. Most of the people in that crowd were followers of Thanus, but I imagine that there were a few followers of Melchior as well,” Odran said, nearly spitting out the names of the other gods. Caden had heard of the other religions before, but people had always talked about them as cults, existing only on the fringes of society.

“So what were they upset about?” Caden asked.

“Last night a Thanusian monk was murdered. The leader of the mob thought that it had something to do with us.” When he spoke, Odran’s eyes seemed to wander and he shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He’s not telling me everything.

“You were expecting me, is there something that I need to do here?” Caden asked.

“No, I was only told that you would come at the right time. Arkos must have planned for you to be here today.”

After that, Odran didn’t have much more to tell Caden, and he left the temple. As he was walking back to The Golden Tree, Caden saw a temple devoted to Melchior. At first he hadn’t realized what it was and had almost walked past it. From the street it looked like a small forest of irregular pillars, but from Odran’s description he realized what it was. There were no walls or doors, and though each pillar was made of a sand-colored stone, each was inset with different elements.

The ground of the temple was covered in sand that extended to the outermost pillars, and a small path led from the road to the temple. Caden felt disgust at the thought of false religion, but his curiosity won out and he walked up to the path, where he was greeted by a young woman who he assumed to be an acolyte. She was wearing a dark green skirt that fell to her ankles and a white shirt that contrasted with her tan skin. When Caden looked at her eyes, the irises seemed to be entirely black. It must be the temple, some sort of trick.

She inclined her head briefly. “Sir,” she said, pausing a moment, clearly expecting a response. When he gave none she continued. “Is this your first time to a Garden of Melchior?”

“Yes. Is that OK?” he asked. She laughed, a sound like the ringing of small bells. Against her laughter, he felt his distaste for the place eroding.

“Of course. How would one join if they were not allowed to enter first?” she said. “The only thing that we ask is that you remove your boots.” She gestured to a small rectangle of stone a few spans off of the path that he hadn’t noticed. Caden hesitated. “Do not worry, no one will take them.”

He knelt down one one knee and then the other to unlace and remove his boots. He noticed that her feet were bare as well and that there were symbols embroidered onto the hem of her skirt. When he stood up, holding his boots, she indicated that he should place them on the stone.

“How familiar are you with the teachings of Melchior?” she asked, and led him into the temple. From inside the temple, it was clear that the pillars were set in a pattern, with the five smaller pillars arranged around a central pillar that appeared to be inlayed with pieces of obsidian. The outside pillars were regularly spaced, and the edge of the sand formed straight lines that formed a pentagon.

“I’m not, really,” he said.

“I’ll teach you the basics, then, if you want,” she said, and Caden nodded. “Fortunately there isn’t much to it, each of these pillars represent a different element, and we view the world as being comprised of relationships between these disparate elements.”

She led him around the edge of the temple, and as he walked, he felt as though the rough sand beneath his feet was pulling the tension out of his body. What would it be like to live like this? He then realized how much his guide reminded him of Lileas, his instructor at Blackwood. It feels like a lifetime ago.

“This pillar represents earth. This is where all things draw their strength from.” The pillar of earth appeared to be the widest, and was inlaid with angular patterns of speckled marble. Even though it couldn’t have been more than a few spans taller than he was, Caden felt small and insignificant standing in front of it. They moved on.

The next three pillars were similar, each one reflecting the element that it symbolized. Air was represented by a tall pillar inset with an opalescent stone, shimmering, so thin that it looked fragile. Water was represented with intricately faceted sapphires and fire with rubies that seemed to throw off heat. At each of the three his guide had named an attribute as well: serenity from water, passion from fire, and unpredictability from air.

“This pillar represents life,” the acolyte said as they reached the fifth pillar, which was set with a variety of rounded amber stones. The stones seemed to pulsate slowly, reminding him of how the forest had looked when he first woke up at the campsite after he had fled across the bridge into Baden. “Some have argued that life is merely a combination of the other four elements, but that is not so, even though all living things incorporate at least a little of each.”

“But wouldn’t that be a contradiction? The combination of all four elements?” Caden asked, and the acolyte smiled.

“Precisely. Life is unique because it contains contradictions. When life is extinguished, so too are the contradictions, the body becomes cold and air ceases to fill the lungs. Eventually all that is left is earth, the ashes and dust that used to make up our bodies.”

“So does the center pillar represent Melchior, then?” Caden asked.

“No, of course not,” she said, leading him to the center of the temple, where they stood in front of the central pillar. It was the largest of the pillars, taller than the air and wider than earth, although it was difficult to tell from a distance. Very little stone was visible between the obsidian settings, some of which were glossy, seeming to have an inner spark, and others which were flat, reflecting almost no light. “This pillar represents Void. It represents both the origin and final destination of everything, which is nothingness. It also represents the relationships between things. These relationships, although they have no physical existence of their own, are what give all things meaning.”

“So what part does Melchior play in all this?” Caden asked, disarmed, he would expect that the leader of a false religion would be more prominent in his own temples.

“He is merely the guide to a better understanding of the world around us. He is not actually a god, but he has been around for a long time, centuries, and some outsiders think of him so.”

“Interesting,” Caden said.

“You look tired,” she said. “You should get some sleep, perhaps come back some other time.”

“Yes,” Caden said, and they started to walk back towards the entrance. Without the tension to keep him going, he was starting to feel exhausted. “Thank you.”

It was a struggle to put his boots back on, not due to any physical reason, but because on some level he feared that the boots would kill the feeling of peace that had grown inside of him during his visit. The boots didn’t change anything, though, and he started to leave, after exchanging more thanks with his guide. It wasn’t until he set foot back on the street that he felt the serenity rushing away from him like a wave on the beach. He started to walk back towards the inn.

* * *

Caden arrived at The Golden Tree just as the sky was beginning to darken with the first signs of twilight. The inn was busier than it had been the day before, most of the tables were taken up and the low buzz of many conversations filled the air. He stood in the entryway, looking for Tiernan for a moment before finding him sitting at a corner table with a man that Caden didn’t recognize.

Compared to the rest of the inn’s patrons, the man at the table with Tiernan was well dressed, wearing a shirt and a vest that had clearly been tailored for him. His brown hair was slicked back and he had a goatee and bushy eyebrows. He was thin, huddling over the table as though he were trading in secrets, and Caden took an immediate dislike to him. He put a hand on the hilt of his sword and started to make his way towards his companion. He was halfway across the room when he was able to start making out snatches of conversation.

“. . . saw me,” Tiernan said. With all of the other conversations going on around him, Caden had trouble making out what was being said.

“. . . Doran. The . . . in . . . room,” the man said. Caden was still making his way forward, and Tiernan spotted him.

“Sorry,” Tiernan said, his voice louder that it had been a moment ago, “but we’re going to be heading West and then North.”

“Well, thanks anyway,” the man said getting up, his voice matching both the tone and volume of Tiernan’s. He turned around and nodded to Caden before making his way to the entrance.

“Who was that?” Caden asked, sitting down at the table.

“I was trying to find someone who would hire us to travel with them to Pons, but he was headed West and South, to one of the logging towns,” Tiernan said.

“Oh, I’m sure we’ll find someone,” Caden said, not wanting to reveal that he knew Tiernan was lying. “What happened to you back at the temple? I couldn’t find you.”

“I got mixed up in the crowd, ended up a bit lost. Sorry about that.” Tiernan took another sip of his ale.

“Its fine. I think I’ll head up for the night, though,” Caden said, getting up before the serving girl could make her way to their table. “See you in the morning.”

Chapter 7 can be found here.

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