Ye Olde Foundation
rating: +26+x

Adrian Light sat on a stone near the creekside, quietly sharpening his blade on a whetstone. His eyes were closed, his movements guided by practice and muscle memory. A few short paces away, his bearded companion Ser Foster McNair eyed the wooded grove in the distance. The trip across the plain had been a tedious one, and though they had gifted themselves a moment's reprieve, their destination loomed over them and stole any ability they might have had to truly relax.

An older man sat between them, his eyes furiously pouring over a scroll. Several others lay open nearby. His pack was packed to the brim with even more, but this one specifically had caught his attention. He adjusted his spectacles from time to time, and his lips moved silently over the words. After finishing one, he reached into the pack and pulled out a thick book bound in leather, and proceeded to do the same with it.

"We shouldn't stay here too long," McNair said, his brow furrowed. "We're exposed."

Light did not look up. "And so will be anything approaching us."

McNair looked down at him. "I don't like it. We're easy prey if the beast is as fast as we've been told."

"I don't think the beast is so quick to leave those woods," Light said. "It has done a fine enough job at isolating itself from the rest of the world. I doubt it is so eager to meet us."

"All the same, I'd rather not wait. Night approaches."

"So it does," said Light, "and we shan't waste the opportunity. I'm not keen on this journey either, far too long and far too far from a tavern," he coughed, "or a bed."

The older man nodded. "Agreed. You won't have to wait long, Ser Foster. Before the sun sets, we have work to do."

Without further discussion, the three of them quietly packed their belongings and, along with their horses, started across the last stretch of plains towards the grove. The winds whipped at their backs, and the blue star dipped lower in the sky.

When they reached the grove, each set upon their task. Light gathered the torches they had brought with them and began to circle the treeline, planting one and marking ten steps to the next, then planting another. McNair strung a long thread of firewire between them, taking care to not agitate the hostile material. The old man stood between a gap in the torches, twenty paces wide, and began to mark the ground in chalk and salt, muttering quietly as he did so.

As the star dropped lower in the sky, McNair and Light assembled next to the torchline and watched the old man laboriously draw out runes and figured in the dirt. Every few steps he would drop a leaf of mint, or whisper a phrase in an ancient tongue, or empty a vile smelling liquid from a flask at his belt. As the star reached the horizon, he stepped back and wiped his brow, admiring his work. Light nodded slowly, but McNair raised an eyebrow.

"And this will do the trick?" McNair said, his voice dripping with hesitation.

The old man shook his head. "No, not quite. But it should give us time, and there are other magicks available," he laughed, "some more costly, and not so stationary."

McNair shrugged and pulled his sword. He planted it in the dirt and fixed his gaze on the trees. Light moved to the first of the torches. The old man watched him as he did.

"Careful, Adrian," he said. "We must not give ourselves away just yet. The beast may be deaf, but it is certainly not blind. Wait for my word."

Adrian nodded and pulled a torch of his own from his pack. He readied his stone and steel and waited.

The night drew upon them quickly. The star dipped below the hills in the west, and the sky darkened. The winds drew still, and suddenly every sound felt amplified. The vastness and emptiness of the plains around them were more apparent than ever, and all three of them felt it. A pressure built, and even Light could feel the hairs on his arms start to rise.

Then there was a sound from within the grove. Weak at first, but it slowly grew in intensity until it was unmistakeable. McNair grabbed his sword and looked to the old man, who stood silently and gazed intently at the wood. McNair turned to Light, but found him doing the same. It was the sound of whimpering, of weeping. McNair had heard it before, on battlefields and in infirmaries across the world. It was the sound of the wounded, of one in pain. It was the sound of hurt, and it grew louder and closer.

Just as McNair was about to call out to the old man for instructions, there was a flash of white at the edge of the grove.

"Now, Adrian!"

Light struck his stone and steel, sending sparks cascading across the dirt around them. The whimpering turned into a screech and began to retreat through the grove. Light took the now flaming torch and pressed it against the one closest to him, which erupted in blue fire and ignited the firewire. The cord burst into flames and sped along its length, turning the remained of the torches into similar balls of fire as it circled the grove. Light threw the torch in his hand towards the trees, where it began to catch the dried underbrush.

The screeching became a roar, as the creature within tore across the treeline in every direction, desperately seeking a way to escape the encircling fire and finding none. As the fire within the grove intensified, there was suddenly silence. McNair shifted unsteadily.

The trees before them exploded, and the beast within emerged. It was like a man, but longer in every direction and milk white. It strode towards them with terrifying speed, sprinting like a beast on its long arms and legs. It screamed and wept and gnashed its teeth, and closed at the three men standing in the break between the torches. Light unsheathed his sword and held it nimbly in his left hand. McNair gripped the hilt of his own with both. The old man looked to the ground and shouted out to the others.

"Don't look at its face!" he said, his voice barely audible over the din before them. "Keep your eyes away from its face!"

The beast wasted no time in crossing the gap between the trees and the torches and was upon them in seconds. The old man reached within a pocket in his shirt and drew out a fine silver powder, and with a word he tossed it into the circle before them as the monster crossed into it. There was a flash of light, and all three were forced to look away.

When the light dimmed, they turned to see the beast shrouded in smoke, flailing against some unseen chains. It twisted and writhed within the circle, muscles bulging against the strain. A thick, luminescent sheen was wrapped around its head, as if it was beneath a sheet. As it fought, dark lines began to appear within the smoke pouring from the circle on the ground. The old man ran towards it.

"The ropes!" he shouted, "get the ropes! Quickly now, we haven't much time!"

McNair and Light each grabbed a thick rope from the canvas bags they had set out previously and began to work their way around the beast. As they started encircling it, the monster howled even louder and shook the ground beneath their feet with its resistance. The old man scurried about, draining flask after flask of liquid on the beast and muttering fervently.

They were interrupted by a resounding crack, as one of the creature's arms broke free from its entanglement and began to claw at its prison from the outside. More and more dark lines appeared, and suddenly large pieces of the smoky pillar started to fall away. McNair threw his rope around the loose arm in a loop and pulled, tightening the cord as he went. Before he could take a step, the arm jerked wildly and pulled McNair into the air. He spun as he flew and landed twenty paces away, his armor bent at the shoulder from the impact. He did not get up.

Light came around to the arm and slashed at it with his blade. The edge caught the tough, sinewy flesh of the creature and black blood began to seep from within it. The wound was short-lived and began to close as quickly as it was formed. The beast reached out and grasped towards Light, striking him across the chest and tearing open his arm. The man grunted in pain and gasped for breath, but turned towards the old man and shouted.

"Doctor! The pendant! To me!"

The old man reached around his neck and pulled off a thick iron chain. From it hung a wrought iron medallion, a notched circle struck thrice with arrows. The old man threw it towards Light, who caught it and held it for a moment. He said the words, took a deep breath, and plunged it into the wound on his arm. The metal seared and scorched him, and Light cried out in pain. He struggled to stand, but managed to move swiftly to the crumbling pillar of smoke and light with the pendant in his outstretched hand. It glowed magnificently, radiating with heat and smoking all its own.

Light reached through the barrier and pressed the pendant into the creature's back. There was the sound of hot metal on flesh, then the sound of an arm cutting through the air, and then Light's world went dark.

McNair awoke some time later, on a much softer surface than the one he had fallen upon. His armor was gone and replaced with thin, green robes. His shoulder was bandaged but aching, and his vision was blurry. He tried to sit up, but was gently pushed back down by an aged hand. As he shook his head to regain his senses, he heard a chuckle.

"Too eager, Ser Foster. Enjoy your rest."

He opened his eyes fully and saw the old man standing above him, likewise garbed in green robes. McNair grunted and slid up in the bedsheets to look around him. The room they were in was well lit with torches, each bearing fire as green as their clothes. The scent of flowers drifted faintly around them.

"Where are we?" McNair coughed, his throat still raw from the smoke. "What happened?"

"You were injured. The beast was contained, thanks to yours and Ser Adrian's efforts."

"Adrian? Where is he?"

"Gone, two days past. He too was injured during our engagement, and the Serpentise healers felt he would recover faster in the capital than he would here. He went with the caravan, and with the beast."

McNair contemplated the old man's words. "How?"

The old man sighed. "I was not expecting the beast to be so large, and so… impatient. We were not afforded enough time, I'm afraid. It was blood magic in the end, though I prayed it wouldn't turn to that."

"Light? Blood magic?"

"Aye. His injuries are a different sort, though the healers are more than confident that he will heal in time."

"What about the beast?"

"Locked and bound. I sent word ahead with a rider to alert The Foundation of its approach. The Lord Overseer will be undoubtedly pleased with the quick work you both made of it."

McNair shook his head. "We would've been torn to shreds. That, what you did, on the ground. It worked. It wasn't just superstition, it was real. Real magic, not just the kind you find in stories."

The old man nodded. "Our work sometimes requires the use of the very secrets we hide from the rest of the world. It is not clean, and it is not easy, but it is effective. Better that the rest of them think it's only the subject of stories, lest they dabble themselves." He laughed again. "If I had lost a finger every time I had made the mistake of thinking I understood magic, I would be asking for loans from half of the capital."

Foster took a breath slowly. "That thing in the woods, the beast… what was that? That was no animal I've ever seen."

"No, not an animal at all. Better for you to see for yourself than have it explained. That creature," he paused, "was a particularly tortured devil, one of many you're sure to encounter in the guard." He leaned back. "But enough of this for now. We will speak on demons and magic and assignments later, after you've properly healed up. When you're feeling well, we might even make our way downstairs. I'm told the Serpentise make a fine ale out of snakeskin and moon rain that can shake the spirits out of a corpse."

McNair laughed. "You're not what I took you for, Doctor Bridge."

Bridge smiled at him. "Welcome to The Foundation, Ser Foster. I think you'll find we're of a much different sort than you were expecting."

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