Banner art by Artmetica.
You can find the whole cover art here- the art is gorgeous!
There's also a mix/soundtrack that goes with this story- you can find that here.
(Prologue, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3,
Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9)
It turned out that Raff's fear was relatively unfounded, or possibly a well-armed and rather feral-looking elf at his side kept Charity from reacting too badly. She was frustrated at the news, of course (Raff got the feeling that she was thinking "Great, I'm still stuck with these fools?"), but the group now had plenty of time on their hands to sort out another plan while Jonathan recovered from his shock. They really didn't want to move on until he'd finished frothing at the mouth and staring vacantly into space, which, horrible as it sounds, Raff was willing to admit was an improvement on the boy's previous personality.
After much debate between the four Messengers and the wood elf which consisted largely of:
"Melt it with fire?" - "Couldn't find one hot enough. That's why we looked for a dragon in the first place."
"Bury it?" - "It would eventually get dug up by an animal or a treasure-seeker."
"Keep it at a Messenger's mosque?" - "Be realistic; everyone would be far too curious for it to be secure."
"Have Raff carry it around?" - "Very funny, guys. It's evil and weighs about fifty pounds."
and "Find another dragon?" with a much-echoed "No!", Mina finally hit on "Could we toss it into the sea? It would be least likely to get picked up there, right?"
Unable to find a better rejection than "Maybe someday a sentient sea creature may find it", the general consensus was that this would be the best course of action, especially since they were only a few days' journey from the southern coast.
The trip to the coast was uneventful; perhaps the lingering aroma of evergreen-scented dragon snot was enough to keep any possible danger at bay. Even Jonathan remained quiet in his recovery; he was less moody and demanding, but still frequently stared off into space. From that expression on his face and the strange questions he asked about recent events, the others had come to the conclusion that he was trying to piece together what had been happening to him for the past year or two, as though his experience was now a jumbled jigsaw puzzle and he was still short about half of the pieces. He was especially surprised to find all those undelivered letters and scrolls in his backpack, but after some prompting, coaxing, and a bit of compelling magic from the others, was able to deliver one as they traveled past its intended destination without appearing particularly attached to it.
What surprised everyone the most, however, was that he seemed completely oblivious of the fact that the large stone of amber that Raff now lugged around was the cause of his fractured memory, which, as the miles dragged on and the stone seemed to be gaining weight, bothered the half-elf considerably.
I'm entrusted with your problem- your rather heavy problem- and I don't even get a 'thank you'? Raff grumbled to himself, glaring tiredly at the youth. He realized that his burden being ignored was likely a good thing in this situation, but a little recognition of his valiant effort would have been gratifying.
"'Valiant effort'?" Raff heard the dog send mentally; obviously it was able to tell the direction of his thoughts, which would have bothered the half-elf had he not been too exhausted to fret. "You have a ball. You should be glad to carry a ball."
And here I was thinking that having a dog would be easier than talking to a mouse. Are food and play all animals think about? Raff thought. He paused to blow a loose strand of hair out of his face before answering, "It's far heavier than a ball, ye know. If you want to play, go bother Mina's dog."
"She's boring. Doesn't really talk and just wants to be carried by her human," the dog sniffed disdainfully before adding, "May as well be a cat."
The half-elf snickered but didn't have a chance to reply further as they'd finally reached their destination. Everyone, minus Mina's dog which had curled itself up on a sunny rock to nap, and Caledhrad, who looked terrified, inched their way over to the edge of the cliff to stare down. Even Raff's mouse glanced down before squeaking and returning to the cleric's pocket.
"No rocks. Good. That means the amber shouldn't smash when it hits the surface," Charity observed.
"Amber sinks, right?" Tomas asked. When the others stared at him, he blushed and said, "Hey, just wanted to check. The last thing we'd need would be an evil buoy."
"Yes, it will sink," Mina assured him, but then negated that answer by adding, "Although it may possibly act differently than we expect because the artifact was magical and the stone was made by something magical, but it shouldn't come back to the surface."
"Aye, that statement was reassuring," Raff commented sarcastically. When the younger cleric frowned at him, he sighed. "Sorry, Mina; I didn't mean t'be snippy. I'm just tired of carrying this thing around. Can I still toss it in?"
His question was met by shrugs but no one seemed inclined to want to stop him. "Okay. If something disastrous happens, I'm denying all responsibility in advance. I'm just the messenger. No pun intended."
Taking the last step forward, Raff held the amber out over the cliff... and was startled to find that he hadn't let go. He stared at his hands in confusion; he wanted to drop this. He wanted this frustrating quest to be over so he could go home. He certainly didn't want this heavy, horrible piece of resin. So why was it still in his hands?
"Raff, what's wrong?" He hadn't even noticed Mina walk up next to him as he tried to convince his hands to open.
"I can't … drop it," Raff explained through gritted teeth, mentally fighting with his body. "Did the dragon do something?"
The half-elf sensed someone else approach on his left and glanced over to see Caledhrad, who still looked extremely pale under his green tattoos and who was pointedly not looking towards the sea. Distracted though he was, Raff knew enough about elves to realize that this wasn't a fear of heights- a wood elf afraid of heights would be nigh-useless- but likely an intense fear of water.
The wood elf took a deep breath and stared down at the object in Raff's hands. "Kerethiana may have done something to it, but I'm not sure if it was on purpose," he said quietly in elvish, his voice quivering, "Amber dragons have the ability to bespell metal to make it magnetic to whoever holds it. This could be reacting with the magic of the items encased in the resin- particularly that metal scroll case."
This impressed Raff even as he continued to try to dislodge the amber; this wasn't Caledhrad's quest, but the wood elf was braving what must be his biggest fear to help out people he barely knew. From what Raff knew about that breed of elf, this was a strange fact.
"But Raff's hands aren't metal," Mina pointed out in the same language, "Why would it stick to him?"
The wood elf shook his head. "That does not matter. It's magic- the state of the bearer is irrelevant."
"So how do I get that magic to go away?" Raff asked. Despite the gravity of the situation, he couldn't resist joking, "As much as I love this wonderful piece of dragon excretion being stuck to my hands, it'll surely be a crimp on my social life."
Mina grinned. "You're so worried about this that you've forgotten that we're magical. Hold still."
The young woman placed a hand over Raff's and began chanting, her attention focused on the golden orb. When nothing happened for a few moments, Raff began to fear that her spell would not work. Finally, though, the feeling gradually returned to his hands, but before he could try dropping it again, the stone was snatched out of his grip. He looked up to see that Jonathan had nudged Caledhrad out of the way and was now holding the large piece of amber.
"Oh no..." Mina muttered, then said, "Jonathan, give that back to Raff."
"Why?" the teenager asked, sounding genuinely curious. "He was just standing there. We're supposed to toss this, right?"
"Yes, but-" Charity began as she tried to tug the youth back to where they'd been standing.
"If he won't, I will." Giving a shrug, he lobbed the heavy objected into the ocean. The others leaned over to see what happened; sure enough, it did sink with only a splash and a few lingering bubbles, as Mina had predicted.
"Well, that was anticlimactic. No smoke? No fireworks? No angry dragons swooping down to grab it?" Charity commented.
As one, the humans- and elf-kind- looked up at the sky to find it empty except for a few clouds and Raff's bird. "I guess we really did it," Tomas said, relief evident in his voice.
Unseen by the distracted companions and only noticed by the brown mutt, the sea bubbled again where the amber had been dropped; if dogs could see color, perhaps it would have noticed another change, as well- but perhaps not. "Bubbles where the ball fell," it informed Raff.
The half-elf waved a hand dismissively then reached down to scratch the dog behind the ears. "Aye, bubbles happen when something sinks. Stop worrying about that ball. I'll get ye a non-evil one, okay?"
The distraction of ear scratches and a new toy pulled away the only creature paying attention. The dog trotted off happily as the map began its long trip to the sea floor. With the evil power sunk and its pawn being given the chance to atone for his misdeeds, the alignment balance began to shift back towards center. Mischievous Good may not be Evil's most powerful enemy, but sometimes it has enough weight to shift the seesaw.
((I know the ending is rather abrupt, but since that artifact will likely make another appearance, had to go for vague. ;) I'll be writing more about Raff at some point- I like him too much to stop! But right now I'm starting to work on Meren's story, so my focus is on mages, wood elves and centaurs, not mischievous clerics.))