I have honestly changed this story's direction over ten times. I'm pretty settled on the idea of it, but I'm starting to hate the diary format. I may drop it and never edit these beginning chapters. Oops.
As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.
I have seen things today I never thought possible. But then, I have done things today I never thought possible. I guess the only explanation is that I never left Tipa and I've dreamed all this, or it's all real.
I'd camped at the crossroads, practically atop the signpost that led to the River Belle Path. In the distance Tipa's crystal glowed, shining a pale blue against the dark night sky. The moon was full, and I needed no lanterns to make my way about my tiny camp.
He walked into my camp from the night, it seemed, in a tattered brown cloak, cream colored shirt, and stained black trousers. He sat himself at my fire as if it were nothing, throwing the hood of his cloak back dramatically, then grinning at my wide-eyed gaze. "Hello," he said to me, and though his looks were typical, forgettable, his smirk was wicked. "Want to play a game?"
I stammered at the suddenness of it all. "Sure," I think I finally said. What do you say to a man who walks out of the miasma as if it were nothing?
He held up a die, it gleamed in the firelight. It was clear, it shone a light blue, it must have been carved out of a crystal shard. Smirk firmly in place, he tossed it up and down. "A game of chance between friends?" he asked after a moment.
Like a fool, I agreed.
"Oh, lad," the man said, smirk dropping into a frown. "You're making this too easy."
"What-" I asked, but he was too quick.
"All you have to do," he said, "Is roll higher than me. Simple enough, right?"
It sounded simple, but as I write this by lantern light, I could slap myself over and over for my stupidity. Every dice game ever made has been rigged in some way. There's no such thing as chance with a gambling man.
"All right," I said, taking the crystal die from him. He marked out a circle on the ground with his foot, then crouched at one side.
His eyes seemed to glow in the dark. How stupid I was! "Roll," he said, and suddenly unnerved, the die fell from my fingers.
It bounced a few times before at last tumbling to a stop, the six pips facing upward. I don't know why I felt so relieved at the moment, like I'd escaped a horrible fate. The man grinned up at me, reaching out to take the die. "My turn," he observed, and rolled a six as well.
Well, if the die was rigged, it was rigged in both of our favors. Much more at ease, I sank to the ground at the other side of the circle. He offered me the crystal die again, saying, "Winner takes all."
And I, more stupidly than I had ever been accused of being, agreed.
This time, he rolled first. Two pips shone up at us, and I grinned as I picked up the tiny, cubed crystal. What an easy roll to beat! Shaking the die in my palm, I looked over my closed fist to see the man focused intently on my actions. "Go on," he urged, and I let the die go.
I'd like to say that, as it fell, I knew something was wrong. But no, at the moment I was confident. I had an excellent chance at beating those two pips. So when the die came to a halt with only one pip showing, I didn't know what to say.
The man shrugged, reaching out to scoop up the cube. "Winner takes all," he repeated, then snagged my hand with his other. He placed the die in my open palm, then closed it around the tiny crystal.
"It's a compact crystal," the man said gruffly. His eyes were no longer cheerful, rather the hard, shielded gaze of a dangerous man. I tried to draw back, but his grip on my wrist did not weaken. "You'll need it."
"A compact...a what?" I asked, but the man was already standing, hauling me to my feet as well. "Wait, don't you need this? The miasma..." my voice trailed off to nothing as the man let me go, then turned and walked off into the night, vanishing as quickly as he had appeared.
Old Blueberry looked as calm and relaxed as I was disturbed. He munched on a few grasses as I went over to pat his neck, soothing myself with the gesture. "What in hellfire?" I asked aloud. "I didn't even win!"
Still, perhaps it would prove useful. I looked at the gambler's die, and noticed that it had a small hole drilled through it, perhaps to loop a string through? I found a spare lace from one of my shirts and soon had a makeshift necklace, which I hid under my tunic. Crystals were valuable, it wouldn't do to be seen with one.
I settled in for the night, and had no other visitors beyond the occasional mosquito.
By my hand, Eric.
I have to wonder if making and breaking camp would be easier or more difficult with more caravanners. Perhaps this is an odd thing to be musing about, but as I went about my numerous chores this morning, I had to wonder. Certainly an eight member caravan would require more food, water, space, and a larger latrine. However, they would also be able to do eight chores at once.
Perhaps, if I survive the path, I can return home and find myself a partner for this journey?
But no, this is wishful thinking. Most likely my parents will put me to grinding flour by pestle for the next decade, and let some other, more responsible adult take the chalice.
Like they should have in the first place.
By my hand, Eric.
Patrick laughs at that. "That's more of the Eric I know!" he said. "He always did have that sarcasm thing going for him."
I shrug offhandedly, flipping the page back and forth, eager to find out what that dice game had been about. "You're forgetting that this is a much younger Eric than the one currently living in Tipa. This was half a lifetime ago for him."
Sinna is counting something on her fingers. I look over to her. I'm feeling casual, easy. Maybe that's what provokes the nicknaming. "Whatcha figuring, Sins?"
She raises an eyebrow at my language but doesn't deign to speak of it. "Just counting the years. He was leader for nine years, he was fifteen when he started. That puts him at twenty-four years old, finishing."
"Then came Droma Wren," I say. This, I have personal experience with. "She led for four years."
"And after her, Kin, for another four years," Patrick finishes for us, and for once mentioning Kin doesn't send us fleeing into silence.
"So that would make Eric, right about now," Sinna trails off, eyes a bit unfocused as she thinks her way through the years.
Lian Cre has the answer. "Thirty-two, or so," she says promptly. Surprising, considering we were firing those numbers back and forth pretty quickly. Perhaps I'll let her keep track of the caravan's budget in the future.
"Hard to believe he retired so young," Sinna says.
I look over at Patrick, curious to see what he thinks of that, and am pleasantly surprised to find him looking at me already. I raise my eyebrows, he shrugs and rolls his eyes towards the ceiling. Do caravanners ever really retire?
The River Belle Path is supposed to be the easiest drop of myrrh Tipa's caravan chases all year. Leaders like Karl Olin, and before him Agethia, would take their new recruits through the path in order to teach them the basics of fighting, spell casting, and simply learning to watch each others' backs at all times.
Before Karl was hurt, before the caravan fell, I dreamed of being a recruit. I would imagine proving myself worthy of being a caravanner against the first goblin I saw, taking the monster down so quickly Karl would praise my speed, my strength. As a child I would beat fence posts and trees with small sticks I picked up in the village orchard, pretending I was a warrior like the tall, proud caravanners were.
Now, though, as I lifted chalice and axe, I started to wonder at the trivial things. What was I supposed to do with the chalice while fighting? Did I drop it at my feet? As empty as it is, it wouldn't matter if it should tip, but what about later? How the hell did caravans make this work?
You can still turn back, the voice belonging to the quiet, shrinking side of me whispered. They'll take you back. Mother will be so happy. Father will forgive you.
But how could I have ever forgiven myself? And so, I pressed on.
The path dipped down until I was at last close to the River Belle itself. No monsters yet, I shifted the chalice to a more comfortable position on my hip and continued down the well worn path.
There was a cleft in the road, and a sign. I stopped to peruse the sign, noting a drawbridge to one side. I was kitted out completely: pack slung high on my shoulders, axe in one hand, chalice in the other. I had never felt better prepared in my life. Surely I would be able to do this.
I truly was a fool, for I didn't see the goblin that silently descended from the embankment to the path behind me. There was only a hint of movement, a loud step, a laugh, and then my world went dark.
And that is how I died for the first time.
...I cannot believe I have actually just written that. I am surely not the only one. No one who reads my part of the chronicle will ever believe me. But it is true. That is all I know.
So, I died, just barely beyond the entrance to the River Belle Path, the biggest fool who ever became a caravanner. When I opened my eyes, I was in a space. That is so vague, but there is truly no better word to describe it. I was in a space that had no floor or ceiling. I had no sense of up or down, north or south. It wasn't so much that I was disoriented so much as that my internal compass had been closed off as if it had never existed. Yet somehow I was standing before an impossibly tall figure cloaked in a robe as dark as the night.
I see you have brought a game, the creature, who could only have been the Death God, gestured with one shadowed hand to my sternum. Its voice came from nowhere. My ears heard no sound, but my mind knew. Such a simple game on which to stake one's life.
I raised a hand to my breastbone unconsciously, only to touch a cord. I drew it from my shirt and was surprised to see the compact crystal die dangling there. Well, I'd never been much for games. A weary sense of the inevitable had overtaken me, a fog of lassitude, and I cared not that I had lost the night prior in the same game, when the stakes were so much lower. I untied the cord's knot and let the die drop into my hand.
Best roll wins, the god announced, an obsidian die with white pips falling from his hand. As it settled on the ground, I knew somehow without speaking or seeing that it had landed with four pips up, though I could not have pointed to where 'up' was.
Numbed fingers dropped my own die, and as it bounced I wondered what it would be like to pass on. Would I be able to see if Tipa prospered without me? Would my failure doom them? Yet when the die came to a stop, I knew, once again without looking, that it had landed with five pips up.
The Death God appeared confused for a moment, leaning forward to view both dice. How...fascinating, the god whispered in my mind. I expect to be seeing much more of you in the future. The gods always do choose such interesting avatars.
I was about to ask, "Interesting what?" when the world went dark, then bright, far too bright. I came to on the path, lying uncomfortably on my pack. The goblin that had killed me was nowhere to be seen, but surely he would be back with a friend to help carry my corpse to the cooking pots. I rose swiftly, ignoring my pounding headache. I had work to do, and much to learn.
I truly don't know what this means for the future. I retrieved the myrrh, though I had to roll against the Death God thrice more. I managed to sneak past or clumsily fight and kill the monsters that opposed me. Tipa will survive for a short time, long enough to choose a real caravan.
I will return home swiftly. Hopefully my absence has galvanized everyone into action.
By my hand,
Patrick's eyebrows are raised so high they are hidden by his hair. "What."
"An avatar of the gods?" Lian Cre's book lies abandoned on the floor. All of the tasks each of us had occupied our hands with have fallen to the wayside as we read and listen enraptured.
"I suppose we'll find out," Sinna says determinedly, snatching the chronicle for me. "We'd better, anyway." She flips the page and begins to read in a slow but clear voice.