Kaellax looked the note over time and time again. I’m not sure what she thought she might find, but it was clear she was failing at it. Still, stare she did while I sat on my bed feeling like I might die from anxiety.
They had my uncle.
I had already lost too many of my loved ones to the wars of the past. I couldn’t bare the thought of losing the one relative that I had left.
“So what are we going to do?” I asked after giving Kaellax plenty of time to analyze the ransom letter. “I have gold back in Stonehaven. If they want money I’ll pay them.”
For a moment she gave me a sad glance, but then a smile started to form on her lips and a fire ignited within her eyes. She gave a slow nod, almost as if giving herself approval for whatever had just crossed her mind.
“The vault,” she said aloud. “Of course, we will need Maron back.”
“I don’t follow?”
“The Sepher vault is magical. Only your uncle can open it.”
Before I could finish my words, Kaellax snapped her hand over my mouth. “Yes, it is. As much as you want to give them the gold they demand, you and I both know that we need your uncle.”
Her plan spilled into my mind and I understood. People were listening. They were clearly here, how else did I get the note?
“I know,” I said aloud, probably louder than I needed to be. “I just wish they knew that.”
“Let me talk to some people in the area,” Kaellax said. “I might be able to find some connections to the kidnappers. If they know that Maron is the key to the fortunes of the Sepher family they’ll likely be willing to work with us.”
Kaellax rested her hand on my shoulder and I felt a warm comfort in her touch. The brief moment of feeling clever faded and I remembered that I was a young man in a strange town with a family member being held hostage.
“What can I do?” I asked her, almost pleading.
“You must rest,” she said. “I am certain we will have a clear path forward by morning.”
With that, she stepped out of my room and left me to wallow in my misery.
Of course, that didn’t last very long. Despite my best efforts, the day had been emotionally and physically draining. I didn’t make it very long before I passed out.
The next morning, however, I was stirred out of my slumber by an energetic Kaellax.
“Wake up, Sepher!” she grumbled. “We’ve got work to do.”
“What do you mean?” I asked as I tried to recollect where I was and what had happened the day before. The memories of my uncle’s kidnapping swirled into existence and piled up on top of my confusion. I nearly cried, but held it back in fear of looking weak.
“We’ve been contacted,” Kaellax said calmly. “The kidnappers have agreed to meet us today to discuss how we will acquire the gold to pay your Uncle’s ransom.”
“So they know I can’t open the vault without him?” I asked, trying to stick to our silent plan.
“That’s right. They want to meet outside the town.”
“Okay. I suppose I should—”
“There’s a problem,” she said firmly. “This paper is enchanted. It will only guide you to the meeting place.”
“If the magic detects that others are coming with you it won’t work. I’ve seen these kinds of spells before, but I don’t know how to counter it.”
“So what should I do?”
“You should go meet them,” she replied. “Then you can explain that you need Maron to access the family vault. I’m sure they’ll want to figure this out if they plan on getting any money.”
I reached out and took the paper from her. As soon as it touched my skin it started to glow and I felt it tugging toward the door. It would lead me along, hopefully all the way to Maron.
“What if they try to take me prisoner?” I asked.
“Then they’ll have two people to feed and be no closer to opening the vault,” she said bluntly.
I felt my stomach clench and my nerves kicked in, making a wave of nausea sweep over me. I kept a straight face, hoping to impress Kaellax with my calm demeanor, but I don’t know for sure that I was hiding anything very well.
“Trust me, Sepher,” she said with a slight grin. “This will be over very soon.”
I didn’t believe her, but I slid out of bed and quickly threw on my outfit before taking up the paper and letting it pull me out of the inn and toward our meeting place.
The road out of Grandview wasn’t anything special, cobblestone just past the walls and then quickly becoming crushed rock and finally just padded dirt.
The paper tugged every so often and I just followed it until I finally reached the large stone chapel and cemetery. The paper turned me right toward the chapel entrance and I grimaced at the thought of a holy structure being used for such a dark deed.
I stepped through the doorway and was immediately greeted with two swords, one settling at the base of my neck and the other crossing behind my head.
“Who are you?” a voice asked.
“Sionis Sepher,” I answered.
“That’s the one.”
The swords lowered and standing in the center of the chapel was an older man with a red bandana covering the lower half of his face.
“Welcome Sionis Sepher. I know this is all very confusing to you, but I’ve looked into your family tree. It would seem you haven’t been living in Stonehaven very long. I thought you might want to hear our side of this whole story before things devolve any further.”
“What?” I asked, feeling very confused by all of this. “You mean you want to explain why you kidnapped my uncle and tried to kill those guards?”
“Precisely,” the man said. “I’m fairly certain that once you know the truth, we can come to some kind of understanding.”
“Who are you?” I asked.
“My name is Berkain Boch,” the man replied, slipping his mask down so that I could see his clean-shaven face. “I am an architect by trade, and a member of the Stonemasters.”
I struggled to remember where I’d heard that name before. Sure, I knew they were bandits, the name practically screamed bandits, but I did recall there was a bigger story behind their organization.
“Do you know how Stonehaven was built?” Berkain asked me.
That’s when it clicked.
After the Yunai were pushed back, a the massive effort to reclaim Stonehaven was fueled by builders, engineers, and architects from all over Azirin. Many of them had done it for the pride, but many more had done the work expecting plentiful repayment for their time and skill. I hadn’t been around for this part of Stonehaven’s history, but I knew that the wealthy families in charge of the efforts became stingy about the lofty work, and cost, and many of those who had come to help Stonehaven recover left feeling betrayed. Some of them had decided to form groups to protest. The Stonemasters was one such group, it seemed.
I wasn’t apathetic to their arguments, but kidnapping my uncle didn’t help me understand their plight.
“Why didn’t you just ask?” I prompted. “I’m sure Maron…”
“He did give a paltry amount,” Berkain replied. “Back before we became the Stonemasters he shed his meager generosity on us. When we saw how much wealth he really had hidden away we saw through his supposed chivalry.”
“He was saving that fortune for me,” I replied. “That money belonged to my father when he wed and by extension it became mine when I returned to Stonehaven.”
“Of course,” Berkain said with a sigh. “So this fortune is yours, yet you need Maron to get to it?”
“It’s a spell my grandfather enacted,” I replied. “It was to prevent thieves like you from taking the gold away from its rightful owner. As you can tell, it worked.”
“If you are the rightful owner, shouldn’t you be able to open the vault without your uncle?”
“He was going to help me update the spell to work with me once I learned enough magic.”
I lied like a champion. I had already weaved a narrative about this as I had walked out of Grandview, but now I was trying to use my inflection to portray a false annoyance that I did not have access to the money yet, when in reality Maron had already thrust that responsibility at me.
“Very well,” Berkain said as he gestured to the guards at the chapel door. “Here’s what we’ll do. We’re going to release Maron Sepher, and in exchange for his release, you’ll turn yourself over to us. The ransom remains, but it is Maron who will pay us for your safety instead.”
“How about this,” I countered. “You release Maron and you let me leave here with him, and in exchange I will willingly give you three times your weight in gold to distribute amongst the Stonemasters.”
Berkain seemed surprised by the offer, but he didn’t stay shocked for long. “The current ransom is much larger than this petty offering. Why would I be tempted to do this rather than just force your uncle’s hand by kidnapping you?”
“Because I’ll be your public advocate.”
“I’ll tell others in Stonehaven that I have heard of your plight, that I spoke with you, and that you released Maron of your own accord. Surely you would have more to gain if the people of the city saw you as victims rather than bandits.”
Berkain looked dumfounded. “How could I trust you to do any of this?”
“Why wouldn’t you trust me? I asked. “Why would I make you this offer if I didn’t intend to follow through?”
The man tilted his head like a confused puppy dog. “Honesty,” he said with a chuckle. “I suppose I can live with taking the risk.”
With that, he gestured to his guards and they reluctantly lowered their weapons.
“I will release Maron,” he said. “I ask only that you fulfill your promise.”
“You have my word,” I said. “Trust me, you’re not—”
My voice drifted as the ground beneath my feet began to rumble. I saw Berkain’s face drain of any hope I had planted. What was left contained only fear and vengeance.
“You tricked us!”
I tried to deny it, but the door to the chapel exploded into millions of splinters before a word could escape my lips.
Dozens of Stonehaven guards rushed in while Kaellax led the charge. Her Yunai slipped through the empty sanctuary with a quiet rush of air and I heard screams of terror from the Stonemasters.
The fight lasted less than ten minutes. As they led the captured bandits out of the chapel, my spirit was lifted to see uncle Maron emerge from behind the large wooden pulpit. He smiled at me and I felt myself pulled to him. We embraced and there was a fire of love in my heart, a fire that can only burn for one’s family.
As they led Berkain toward the prison cart, I took the time to intercept their path. He looked up at me and gave a small smile. “You got him back.”
“You could have come to me,” I said. “I would have helped you.”
“Perhaps so,” the man replied. “Perhaps not. That was a good trick you pulled on me today.”
“I didn’t pull any tricks,” I admitted. “I didn’t know anyone was tracking me. I meant every word.”
The man just shook his head. “Well, it’s off to the stockades for me, young Sepher. If you ever decide to repay the Stonemasters, you know where to find me.”
“I’m sorry for the sins of the previous generation, but if the Stonemasters seek violence and fear, then I won’t stand for it.”
With that, the guards pulled Berkain onward toward his final destination.
When I stepped away from the prisoners, I found Kaellax waiting for me with a sinister grin.
“I thought you didn’t know how to break the spell?” I asked.
“I thought you knew I was a powerful magic user and a Shadowspeaker?” she rebutted. “They could have been listening to us. That’s why I said that.”
“Of course,” I said, realization dawning on me.
“I was honest about one thing,” she said, still grinning. “I told you it would be over soon.”
I couldn’t help but smile back. She was right. It was over and Maron was safe. We had done it.