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Kneeling before the Knight, Edwin accepted the scroll with great honor. It was such an odd thing he held; one of the likes he had never experienced before. The parchment was cold to the touch and made from leather of the deepest black. It was absent of moisture. Still, it felt slick and slimy in his hand as if it had been pulled from the river, rotting and decayed. He shivered at the thought of the animal whose hide hailed its origin. The parchment was rolled tight with a clay seal upon its surface. The emblem embedded in the clay consisted of sharp lines and gashes. The boy knew little of matters of magic and wizarding, but he had enough sense to see that dark curses and wicked hexes did this crest bind.
“Arise boy! Make haste and do not delay your departure. Word will soon reach the Enemy of the Scroll’s discovery. The time of reckoning fast approaches! The sacrifices made to deliver that evil thing into our grasp cannot be wasted with indecision!” said Sir Leonidi, Knight of the Fourth Realm.
With great effort, the young boy tried to remove any hint of apprehension and fear from his voice. “Yes my Lord,” he answered.
“Heed my words and do not deviate from my instructions. Head South and ride hard across the plains and through the Scorched Hills until you reach the Sunken Mountains. Avoid the main paths and stay hidden until you reach the gates of the White Keep.”
The Knight put a large hand on the boy’s shoulder and said with a lowered voice, “The item you carry is dangerous and will betray you if given the opportunity. Never must darkness fall upon it. An hour before nightfall, build yourself a fire and with green salt must you encircle the Scroll to ward off any dark spirits and shadows that call to it. If you must draw your sword, you strike to kill! Trust no one! Do you understand me?”
The boy swallowed and gave small nods of affirmation to the Knight.
Satisfied with his response, the Knight continued, “I ride East in the morning with every sword and shield that would answer the call to follow my banner.”
Sir Leonidi paused and looked affectionately down at the boy, “My dear Edwin, I fear this may be the last time we speak, but if fortune favors us, we will attract the attention of the Enemy’s eyes and draw their numbers toward us. You will pass through the lands undetected.”
The boy took leave of the Knight. He swiftly made his way to the supply hut within the encampment to gather all he would need for the journey. He was lost in thought as he saddled his young steed. He thought of the war that tore through the land from an enemy that came from the stars. He wondered about the object openly displayed in the daylight upon his saddle bags. He pondered what would come to pass if the rays of the sun no longer fell upon the Scroll. So focused on the dark Scroll was he, he took no notice of the hooded figure that approached from behind.
“Such a mighty quest for such a tiny boy. Are the times so dire that it comes to this? Well, one cannot deny that the Fates do not have a sense of humor in matters such as these. Wouldn’t you agree, little one?” he bellowed a jolly laugh.
The boy turned and clenched his jaw at the insult but held his tongue when he saw the robes of a nobleman. He bowed his head and said with as much respect as he could muster, “I do what is commanded of me, Sire.”
The man laughed again, “Do not take offense, young one. I merely saw an opportunity to jest with you. Although, it might be wise to avoid such things until a more appropriate time, wouldn’t you say?”
The man’s eyes suddenly narrowed as if truly seeing the Squire for the first time. To the discomfort of the boy, the man approached. He circled Edwin several times, inspecting him up and down. Once satisfied, he knelt before the young man, meeting his gaze as equals and said, “Yes! Yes, I have chosen well. I have chosen well, indeed.” At this, he removed his hood and revealed his identity.
The Squire immediately bowed, recognizing the face of the Wizard and gasped, “The Old One!”
The old man smirked, but still held humor in his eyes, “Hmph, If I were able to conjure the name of the bastard who thought up that title, I would curse his children and his children’s children. The whole lot of them would sprout tails of a pig from out of their bottoms!”
Jokti, Wizard, and advisor to the king returned his attention to the Squire and gently lifted the boy back to his feet and spoke, “Nay! Brave, brave child, arise. You bow to no one after this day comes to pass.”
For a moment, the old man’s attention seemed to drift to other matters. He lifted his head as if listening to voices only he could hear. After a time, his eyes cleared, and they fell upon the boy. He hurriedly began helping to load the Squire’s equipment and supplies on the horse. He said, “Time is precious. So little of it remains and you have so far to go. However, do not despair, my lad. You do not go into the wilderness without defense and unprepared.”
The Wizard reached into his robe, removed several objects and presented them to the boy. He held a torch, a dagger, and a leather pouch.
He said, “I give to you the eternal Torch of El Anan-dor’ah. Darkness will flee from the light of the flames it shines. Bathe that wretched thing you carry in its glow, and you will be safe.”
Next, the Wizard held up a sheathed dagger of silver and blue steel. He spoke, “This is the blade A’Noelaa Teh Ra. It fell from the hand of our Goddess the day she succumbed to the Enemy and was stolen from us. May it give you sight in your darkest hour. Respect this blade and it will serve and protect you well.” He placed it in the boy’s hand.
He lifted up the final item and gently laid it in Edwin’s hand, “Long ago, a mortal and an angel formed a friendship during the War of Daemoni. So deep was their bond that it surpassed death and immortality. At the end of the mortal’s life, the angel wept silver light and offered up his wings to exchange places with his dear friend. Moved by this act, the Goddess called back his friend from the afterlife and made each into a star. She put them in the night sky where they would stand next to each other for all eternity; never to be separated. As they ascended, each shed joyful tears of silver that fell to the ground.”
“My dear boy, I now give to you this pouch. It holds the very last of our most treasured possession, silver salt from the tears of those two old friends. It is but a pinch, but it is all that remains, and no more will there ever be after this is gone. Use it wisely and as a last resort.”
The Wizard led the horse to the encampment’s edge and helped the Squire mount his steed. He spoke, “Accompany the Scroll and personally place it in the hands of my sister, Aliadria. Tell her you carry the Scroll of Ne’Kra Toratum. She will know what to do.”
Trying to feign as much courage as possible, he asked the old man, “My Lord, why does this Scroll carry such importance? Why do you entrust its charge to me? I am a mere squire who has barely seen the edge of battle.”
The Wizard gazed sadly at the child and said, “My boy, I am afraid your questions must be put aside for another day. The less that is known to you the better. If it were up to me, a garrison of our mightiest men would accompany you, but this quest is for you and you alone. I have foreseen it. As I said, the Fates do have a strange sense of humor.”
With that, he slapped the rear of the horse and sent the two racing off towards the smoky, black Southern horizon. The Wizard turned and softly said to himself, “Yes, I have chosen very well.”
As the Squire was an obedient servant as there ever was, Edwin followed his master’s instruction to the letter. He rode hard and swift through the Scorched Hills and faithful to the Knight’s word, not a sign or hint of the opposition’s forces did Edwin encounter. Each day, the boy was ever so mindful of the position of the sun. He always gave himself sufficient time needed to prepare the Scroll before nightfall came. He carefully sprinkled the emerald salt around the Scroll and set ablaze the sacred torch. There he would sit until morning, with his dagger clutched tightly in his hands.
It was not until he reached the passageway to the Sunken Mountains did misfortune eventually find him. A company of troops occupied the mouth of the slender pathway. Never before had he laid eyes upon soldiers of the Enemy. Even from a distance, they filled his heart with terror and dread. Long and slender, they stood motionless along the rocky path. Stalks of pointed nobs protruded from their brown and black rotting flesh and grew like that of moss upon the trees of the swamp. No hint of eyes did they possess except for pinprick glints of silver like that of a coin. Their mouths slowly opened and closed, reminding him of a fish plucked from the waters with gills gasping for breath.
Consulting his map, the boy confirmed what he already knew. Only one other path could he take. Determined to complete his quest, he continued South and followed the river. When night approached, Edwin repeated his ritual of protective spells and brought his beloved horse into the safety of the torch’s comforting glow.
Edwin shuddered at the thought of his new destination- The Devil’s Maw. It is said, in the Age of G’oah Teh, a great Hellmouth had formed in those lands. The Goddess sprung forth a forest and commanded the trees to bind this new evil. The good trees performed their duty but eventually came to feel betrayed and abandoned. They turned away from their mandate and betrothed themselves to the Hellmouth. The caverns consumed the trees and merged to become a forest of wood and petrified stone. Now, all men are warned to steer clear of its boundaries for dark spirits look down upon them with unimaginable hate and ill intent.
In two days time, the boy stood before a treeline of bark and gnarled trunks at the mouth of a gaping cave opening. Massive twisted branches of black and green stretched as far as the eyes could see. Stalagtites and stalagmites jetted up and down the stone floors and roof, giving it the appearance of jagged fangs. No sound could be heard. No bird sang, or animal stirred within the dark wood and cold stone. The silence and absence of movement were oppressive upon the young boy’s spirit.
He took what supplies he could carry, unsaddled his beloved horse and removed its reigns. He took a handful of hay from deep within his satchel and held it up to the horse’s snout. It caught the scent of the feed and ate gratefully from the boy’s hand. Edwin spoke, “This hay comes from the stables to the Nobleman’s steeds of the Keep. Follow its scent and continue South along the edge of the forest and caverns until you stand before the walls of the White Keep. My fate lies on a path you cannot follow, my friend. If the grace of the Goddess is upon us, we will meet again.”
Terrible loneliness laid heavy upon the boy’s brow as he wished his companion good fortune and set his loyal horse free. With the Torch of El Anan-dor’ah in one hand and a sword in the other, Edwin entered the Devil’s Maw; alone as the Wizard foretold.
By the Squire’s calculation, three day’s time would it take to transgress the narrowest part of the forest. He would emerge on the morning of the fourth day with only a quarter of a league to travel. The silence was maddening the first full day in the belly of the beast. True to its word, the Torch of El Anan-dor’ah burned brilliantly. Never did its wood burn down nor was its oil consumed by flame. The trees looked down with such hatred and rage. Root and twine writhed on the ground, unable to penetrate the glow of the torch. Thorn and thistle scraped along bark and rock waiting for a chance to pierce and puncture skin and flesh.
On the second day, broken was the silence. Stirred was the stillness. Whispers emerged and called out from the darkness behind the deep groans and moans of tree trunks swaying in the windless night. The vast branches beaconed for a champion to come hence to handle this transgressor and acquire this hidden thing that tingled the ground it passed over. At last, a guardian emerged from the dark caverns of the Hellmouth that lay below. The call of the giant masters had been accepted.
Upon the evening of the third day, weariness and despair weighed heavy on Edwin. He poured the last of his precious emerald salt around the wicked Scroll and sat before it, with his dagger in hand. Fatigue overcame him swiftly, and the Forest saw an opportunity to strike. Masses of twisted and gnarled vines approached from above, carrying droplet of mildewed water within its crevices. Drip by drip, water fell upon the Torch. The flame singed and hissed against the moisture, but slowly its light grew less. With the last droplet of water, Edwin opened his eyes wide, and the last of the light was extinguished. All was plunged into darkness.
In the darkness, the Scroll gave a heavy sigh then silence fell. A scream pierced the night from the cursed object. It shrieked with the voice of a hundred women and infants merged into one. It hurt the boy’s ears and filled him with terror. The wail slowly faded, and in the distance, something answered the Scroll’s cries.
The Edwin unsheathed his dagger, and it cut through the air with a slash. A yellow wave of light shot forth in every direction illuminating the area. In the distance, he heard branches breaking, rubble fall and leaves trampled from the one who answered the Scroll’s call. Not knowing what else to do, he placed the Dark Scroll into his satchel and buried it under what green salt he could scoop off of the ground. He hung the pouch of silver salt around his neck and nervously gathered his essential belongings. Beyond the amber glow, he heard the sound of ripping and tearing coming from the ground. A large black root had emerged from the wet, stone ground. Blackthorn covered its body and glistened in the yellow light as it reached for the boy. More thorned roots emerged from the grotesque plant and rattled in the cold air.
The boy fell to the ground as similar ripping sounds began to emerge from his left and right. The sound of galloping feet grew closer from the woods. The black root curled itself into the shape of a scorpion’s tail, preparing to strike. The Edwin pushed himself off the ground with only moments to spare as the black root shot towards him. In a burst of speed, the boy ran toward the direction that would lead him out of the forest and caves.
He ran without letting up, occasionally slashing at vine or thistle that moved towards him with the bloodlust of an enraged animal. The footsteps of his stalker were relentless in its pursuit. It stomped on the ground and then leapt to the trees and back to the ground. The boy scrambled to the top of a ridge and saw a cluster of vines not yet afflicted with the forest’s curse. He grabbed the vines and swung across the open gully to the other side. He quickly cut the vines to prevent anyone from following. He turned to leave when the sound cut through the air.
The scraping of two metal blades rung out from the darkness. It kept its distance just beyond the mystical golden light that surrounded the blessed dagger. It continuously scraped its knives together, over and over again. The sounds grew louder and faster. Panic filled the boy. Just as he was about to turn and flee, the scraping stopped, and the beast emerged from behind the flickering shadows of the trees. It stood at the edge of the ridge, and its stare fell upon the boy.
It was a dwarf; not the dwarves recited to children in tales of fantasy and delight. These were ancient, evil creatures who despised the very existence of man. They infested the outskirts of each of the twelve known Hellmouths and greedily excavated the caverns for jewels, diamonds, and other precious metals.
The creature stood hunched on all fours. It was half the size of a man, naked and emaciated. Its flesh was white and stretched tight over its bone. Every manner of metal rings hung from its flesh and nails pierced its skin. Filled was its mouth with two rows on top and bottom of needle-thin teeth. Upon its head sat the only clothing it wore, a pointed hat, stained brown and red and made from the skin of human flesh.
With a smug confidence, it turned and walked away from the ridge’s edge. Turning, it bellowed a loud howl and ran at full speed towards the ravine. The boy turned to flee as the beast jumped high into the air landing a short distance behind him. Edwin suddenly stopped and swung his weapons in an attempt to surprise his foe. The white creature easily batted away each strike with its two short and twisted blades. The boy swung and jabbed, but the pale beast evaded each slash and every attack. It hopped from the ground to the branches of the trees then back to the ground with speed and grace. Cackling, it was now just playing with the boy.
From behind, it jumped onto the boy’s back and buried its needled teeth into the boy’s shoulder. He howled in pain and stumbled backward until he slammed the creature into the trunk of a tree. Its teeth shattered and broke off in the boy’s flesh. The wounded Edwin was losing this duel, and he knew it. He then looked past the dwarf and saw the ground sloped downward and heard the sound of running water. A glimmer of hope crossed his eyes. He broke the bindings of the pouch around his neck and poured its contents into his hand. With all his might, Edwin charged at the dazed creature. He slammed hard into the dwarf sending the both of them spiraling out of control down the wet hillside and towards the running stream’s edge.
They rolled and tumbled for what seemed like forever until crashing hard at the hill’s bottom. The beaten and battered Edwin slowly crawled towards the water’s edge to make his escape, but the dwarf was unfazed and pounced on the boy. He landed hard on the boy’s body, submerging his head under water. It grabbed a handful of hair and yanked Edwin’s head back roughly to expose the child’s throat. It laughed in his ear and spoke insults to the boy in its strange tongue. The Edwin could feel its hard member dig sharply into the small of his back. He felt the cold steel pressed up against his neck; blood already beginning to trickle from the cut of the blade’s sharp edge. The dwarf lifted its head and howled a cry of victory.
Before the breath from dwarf’s yell of triumph had entirely left its mouth, Edwin turned his head around and spat a mouthful of water directly into its face. Silver beads of light erupted upon contact with the dwarf’s face. It clutched its face! Flesh fell away in mushy clumps and seeped between its bony fingers. Oily black and green blood bubbled over its cupped hands and oozed down its arms. Its eyes were expelled from its skull with such force, the dwarf’s head snapped back sharply, breaking its neck.
Paralyzed, it wailed in agony from the silver salt eating into its face. Unnoticed, the boy had put the salt into his mouth before his head was plunged underneath the cold water. Triumphantly, the young boy picked himself up and stood over the broken body of the fallen dwarf. In the distance, light from a new dawn broke through the forest’s edge and the boy smiled. Sir Edwin tightly grasped the hilt of his sacred dagger and with two mighty swipes, he took the head and manhood of the conquered dwarf.
On the Fourth day, Edwin emerged from the cavern’s treeline and fell into the arms of the beautiful Sorceress. She had foreseen his arrival and anxiously stood with the boy’s faithful steed, awaiting his approach. With his final breath and the last of his strength, he reached into his bag and gave the Scroll of Ne’Kra Toratum to Aliadria as the Old One had commanded.
Aliadria fell to her knees from grief for this had not been foretold. The Fates had once again made a mockery of the pain and struggles of a mortal to satisfy their need for entertainment. She looked down at the child and mourned the loss of one so young and brave. It surprised her when the boy’s loyal steed came forth and nestled its nose against the dead boy’s face. Never had she witnessed such bonds of affections from a beast towards a human soul. If she were to render a guess, she would swear it too was grieving the loss of its companion. She could not help but feel pity for the animal. Her thoughts were interrupted when a glint of silver sparkled and caught her eyes from within the child’s mouth. Hope ignited within Aliadria as realization ascended upon her. The reunion between two friends had created a moment powerful enough to find the tiny granule of silver salt.
Aliadria smiled as she saw the depth of friendship these two dubious characters shared. The Sorceress quickly took out her wand and waved it in circular motions over the boy’s body. She said, “Not yet, child. We beg you not to leave us! You have so much left to do in this world. Come back. Come back.”
Edwin’s body began to shudder, and the lids of his eyes fluttered. They snapped opened with awareness and life and Edwin took in a deep breath of air. Tears of joy filled his eyes and flowed down his cheeks in streams. Trails of moisture glistened with magnificent light from the silver salt they held. He clasped the beautiful Sorceress by her hands and said, “She is real! She led me through the darkness towards your voice! She spoke of the Scroll and revealed its secrets to me! I know how to use it!”
“Be still. Of whom do you speak, child?” asked Aliadria.
“The goddess, my Lady!” said the boy. “I know where she is imprisoned! I can find her and break the bonds that restrain her!”
Edwin stood shakily to his feet, his face now ablaze with light from the silver salt of his dried tears. He spoke with such joy, “She gave me a message to deliver to the Old One!”
“Speak child. What was the message?” Aliadria asked.
Edwin looked at the Black Scroll in Aliadria’s hands and with the sight of a seer and the strength of a knight he spoke, “She said, ‘Prepare. The day of the prophecy will soon be upon us. The return of our champion grows near. The time has come to rid the land of the Worm!'”
Author’s note: The Squire and the Black Scroll is meant to be a companion to the story “Day of the Worm.” Although the plot of TSATBS is adequately contained in itself and reads well as a stand-alone fairy tale, its true intent is to build upon the beautiful and rich world that was created in “Day of the Worm.”