Brother… you have to… help me…please!”
Calm down my son and catch your breath. Sit here and rest awhile." He motions toward a bench worn smooth by countless others seeking the temple's comfort. The cleric adjusts his brown robe and lowers his oversized girth next to the panting young noble and smiles reassuringly, "There is plenty of time to tell me your story Mr.…?”
Just Alex, no Mr. or anything.”
The cleric raises his bushy eyebrows but lets the odd response slide. “Well Alex, you chose a very good time and place to come. All of Ashke's temples are built on the edge of town so that we may see the trees that she loves so much, but at this temple the morning sun shines at just the right angle to make the leaves shine as though lit from within by the fires of creation itself. Look, it is beginning.”
Alex notices the top leaves are already vibrantly shining. As the sun begins to appear from its concealing hill, each leaf separately bursts with warm radiance. The effect travels from top to bottom like a wall of fire, but it is short lived. Even before the bottom leaves have been relieved of their darkness, the top ones have faded to embers of the flames they were a moment ago. All too soon the sun becomes too bright to look at, and the leaves are left as silhouettes.
In a voice that amazingly does not disturb the moment, “Now that you have your wind back, what are you in such a hurry about?”
I can't get this cursed ring off.” Alex, winces at his mood jarring voice and indicates his grease-covered hand. “I don't know when it's going to activate again or how to stop it if it does.”
In my 20 odd years of being a cleric I have had plenty of experience with curses.” This statement, even more than the prayer-like experience of the sun rising over this holy place, infuses Alex with a relief like a benediction.
Just start at the beginning, and leave nothing out.” The priest conforms his body to the bench a bit more making ready for a long story, and even his eyebrows assume a more comfortable position.
Well,” Alex begins, “it all started the other night…
A bauble for the young lad,” croaked a voice from nowhere.
I peered into the dark recesses of the shadowy alley to find the source of this unexpected utterance. A hobbling, dirty huddle of rags with eyes shambled forth.
A young lord should have jewelry befitting him.” The creature reached out a gnarled four fingered hand and in his palm lay an unadorned gold ring shining despite the darkness.
Surely, that is a wonderful ring you have offered me.” I had no use for the ring, but I wished to help out the vagabond in some way. “Please allow me to buy it.”
The man seemed to read my mind. He placed the ring in my hand and said, "You may think you have no use for the ring but I know I have no use for your gold.” And with that, he stepped back into the shadows.
Wait! Come back!” I hurried into the shadows after the old man and smacked right into a wall. The ground, after my impact with the wall, seemed almost soft by comparison. Not wanting to loose my quarry, I quickly tried to pick myself up. My head swam with so much pain that I immediately lost strength and dropped to the ground with a second thud much more painful than the first. Feeling that prone was probably my best choice for the moment, I took the time to study my latest attacker, the wall. It was an ordinary wall with no sign of a door. The man with the strange offer had simply vanished, leaving nothing but the shadow and the ring behind.
As I gathered my senses, I examined the old coot's ring. It was a plain gold band much too large for me; my fingers, like the rest of me, were rather thin. Closer inspection revealed nothing remarkable about it at all. People rich enough to wear this much gold did not bother with plain rings, nor did it have the marriage markings on it. Wizards I speculated were the only ones who used such things. Given the strange circumstances around it, I was convinced that not only was it magical, but that someone had gone through a lot of trouble to give me this ring. Cursed rings sometimes required the wearer to do very elaborate rituals to remove them, and many could not be removed at all. Unbidden the image of a dirty four fingered hand offering a ring popped to mind and sent a shiver down my spine. There was no way I was going to put this ring on. The only question was how to dispose of it. That was a question that would have to wait for later; it was time to get going. Just lying around the streets in the middle of the night would definitely begin to attract the wrong type of attention. This time, I stood up very slowly, unsteadily left the ally, and turned a corner into another mistake.
Let me tell you, that was definitely not my day. Had I known I was going to spend so much time lying down; I would have stayed abed and avoided the whole thing. The person I had just bumped into was still standing. He must have been having a better day than I, but with the look the massively muscled man gave me it was obviously not what he thought of the situation.
I believe that an apology by me to you is in order. However, judging by your look and the arm reaching for me, it doesn't seem like it would HHHEEELLLPPP!!!!” The first part of my apology came out as I was being launched into the air. The last part was punctuated by my impact with yet another wall and then the ground. Neither the wall nor the ground were as forgiving as the human catapult, who seemed content now to continue on his way with no further displays of displeasure. I, after a small adjustment, was once again prone. I was quite content to stay on the ground this time because bad things seemed to happen to me whenever I was up. I took a quick inventory of myself, and found more bruises than I cared to count, a few new scrapes, and no ring in my hand. I didn't have to look far to find it. The plain gold band was snugly fit into place on my finger. I heard a groan which sounded remarkably like mine but, I couldn't bring myself to care. No doubt about it the ring was magical. It had sized itself to my finger and was probably not coming off until I died or cut it off as the previous owner had. I went through the formality of trying to take off the ring but the results were just as I suspected.
How long I stayed wallowing in my own misery I don't know but when I heard the Guards coming for morning rounds I managed to get my body up, bruises and all, and muddled my way back to my room at the Raging Red Inn. Thankful for the warm bed, I fell onto the covers and into a deep sleep just as the first rays of the sun seeped through my window.
The morning sun roused me from my slumber. I must have slept exactly a day. The pressure of my bladder, the rumbling of my stomach and the complaining of my parched throat confirmed this and gave me reason enough to get out of bed. A few minutes later I was walking down the stairs to the common room. Upon arrival I expected to be filled with the wonderful aromas of the inn's kitchen. Arrival, however, did not provide the expected result. The room was motionless, not because there was nothing to move but because everything that should have been moving wasn't. The serving girls just stood there; the patrons just sat there; the innkeeper, Red, motionlessly poured a drink that did not pour. Even a bird visible out the window was stopped in mid flight. Dumbfounded, I stepped outside only to find passersby that did not pass. The world, it seemed, was magically frozen in time.
Thoughts of magic brought my mind once again to the ring. Could a simple looking ring have stopped time? It seemed unlikely but that was all I had to go on. I know that a magical ring has power only when worn so I tried again to take it off. No luck. No surprise.
Grease might make it slippery enough to come off. I proceeded to the kitchen. I had to reach past the motionless chef to get to the grease. When that didn't work I tried raw egg. Time was still frozen, and to top it all off, the egg and grease hung in the air as if waiting for me to get on with it. Thirty minutes of oil and countless other liquids and all I had to show for my efforts was a sore finger and kitchen full of debris that hung frozen in mid air. I needed to wash off the gunk and come up with a better solution than hacking my finger off. Images of a dirty four fingered hand kept passing through my mind.
I dipped my hand in the wash bucket and nearly jumped across the room as the gut wrenching impact of time slingshoting back into place hit me with full force. The noise of everyday life returned like thunder to my quiet adjusted ears. The mess I had made over the last pseudo 30 minutes splashed to the floor with a wet splat. Seeing the grease disappear and a stranger appear sent the cook running from the kitchen screaming. Red came charging in to investigate. A glance at the mess, a look at me and the proprietor became the Raging Red his inn was named for. Once again a hand reached in my direction.
Not wishing to be personally introduced to yet another wall, I thrust out my hand, and screamed “Don't touch me! I've got a cursed ring.”
The innkeeper instantly reversed the direction of his towering bulk and drew back in alarm. “Stay away from me.” The once raging Red now pathetically pleaded as he backed further away. “Get out. Get away from me. Don't come back till you've seen a cleric.”
I ran here as fast as I could, and here I am.”
This is quite a story you have laid before me." The holy man pauses to think for a moment. "I have some magic in my office that may be of some help. Come with me." He stands and unruffles his robe. "You will of course make a donation to the poor box?”
Oh, yes, of course.” In Alex's gratefulness for any help at all, he leaves the coppers and silvers in his belt pouch and drops a gold piece in the box.
Once inside the office, Brother John motions Alex toward a well worn chair and carefully takes a small leather satchel containing scrolls from the bookcase. "Just give me a moment to organize things and then we can set about removing your curse," he reassures Alex who, despite his earlier optimism, begins to fidget nervously. Pulling his chair closer, Bother John starts to examine the hand and attached ring. "I am going to begin by trying to detect if it is evil; this is one of the powers granted to me by my goddess and is perfectly safe." He chants for a moment but nothing seems to happen. "I will try more detection spells; these are all safe so just sit back and relax."
Despite the constant reassurances, Alex can not sit still. He finds the once comforting bushy eyebrows anything but after seeing a furrow appear in them following the “detect evil” spell.
After another moment of chanting a glow begins to emanate from a few of the items in the room. Alex notes that his few magical items glow. The ring and his belt pouch both shine with blinding radiance, but the ring takes his entire attention.
Brother John reaches for the first of the yellowed scrolls. A flowing, flowery, and unintelligible language comes from his lips as he reads aloud. With each syllable magical flames sear a portion of the writing from the page leaving more and more if it unmarked. The brilliant light that surrounds the ring violently shifts from color to color until it seems to be all colors and none at the same time. With a last flickering flame, the scroll empties. Light drains from the ring, bursts through the blank parchment and slams into the cleric's forehead. Hands grasping the remnants of the useless scroll, his limbs convulse as more and more light pumps into his body. Alex tries to reach out to the man, but only his unringed hand responds. His other sits paralyzed by the sheer force of the ring.
After what seems like an eternity, the light fades and Alex can move. He launches himself at the falling bulk of the cleric, but only succeeds in pinning his own hand under the man. Carefully rolling the motionless cleric onto his back and off of Alex's hand, he shakes the unconscious form. "Brother John? Can you hear me?" A moment later the bushy eyebrows twitch and the eyes flutter open.
"Water," he croaks in a dry voice. "Need water."
Frantically, Alex rushes out to find some. Thinking that speed is more important than sacrilege and desperate for anything that can help he grabs the challis from the altar which he fills from the pan of holy water at the entrance to the temple. He makes his way carefully back to the office, and reentering the room finds Brother John propped up against the desk. Seeing the cleric's robes of office, reminds Alex of his irreverence in handling one of the temple's prized relics. "This is all I could find quickly," he offers in a feeble attempt to explain his sacrilege.
"Thank you." He can say no more until he finishes the entire goblet. “Have no fear. My goddess will not punish you for helping one of her chosen.” He pulls himself back into a chair and motions for Alex to do the same. "Your ring has an interesting if short history. I was totally unprepared for the effect my spell would have on it. But, I believe the information gained is worth the effort.” He punctuates his statement by wiping the sweat from his furry brow with the sleeve of his robe. “I was given so much information I can barely think straight. It might take days for me to sort it out. I can tell you this now; the ring is not the curse you thought it to be. It is a very powerful magical item with many powers. The ring's power to stop time, which you have already discovered is only one of those and is easily controlled."
Alex's relief knows no bounds. He leaps to his feet knocking over his chair and almost toppling the poor cleric. "Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!" He sweeps Brother John into a bear-hug that lifts him out of his chair despite the cleric's oversized build.
Even with the jumble in his head John can't help but be infected with a smile by such a display of youthful exuberance. It reminds him of when he had been accepted as a novice at the temple. "While you sleep, the ring stops time.” He paused for a moment, trying to find a pattern in the chaos. “Water is the key to controlling this. Wet the ring to restart time or you can keep the ring wet while you sleep to prevent the effect altogether.” A second pause, then a slightly frustrated sigh, “There is so much more to this but that is all I can tell you now. Come back tomorrow to give me some time to rest and organize my thoughts. Until you know the full story, I recommend you keep the ring inactive."
"I can't thank you enough! You risked your life and suffered so much. How can I ever repay you?"
"I am just tired; I will be fine. The poor are always in need. Direct your thanks to them."
"I will! Oh, I will! Thank you Brother!" His excitement turns every sentence into an exclamation. He fumbles around in his tiny belt pouch for something to donate. His hand withdraws holding a gem much too large to fit into such a small bag and presents it to Brother John. "Let this help the poor. I will give more when I can.”
After all of today's surprises not even a gem almost twice the size of his hand could raise the cleric's eyebrows. He just thanks Alex and watches him go with a smile. So unlike his father, he thinks.
By Ben Warmus
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