The egg Rien held in his hands was much larger and harder than that of a chicken, but it in no way revealed itself to be that of a dragon. He carefully turned it over, hoping that somewhere there would be an indication or marking that would brand the egg uncommon, but not finding anything he looked at the wizard.
Gerim smiled. “How will she know? Trust me, this is just what she needs.”
“What do you want for your ‘advice’?”
“Ah, it may have come across as advice, but for me it was just another adventure.”
“Sir,” Rien sounded vexed, “I do not like carrying debts. Before I accept this, what is your price?”
“No price,” Gerim said. “Let it be my good deed to you.”
“You don’t even know me,” Rien pointed out. “We only met last morning.”
“I saw you in the tavern two nights ago,” Gerim corrected. Actually there was also that time in the forest two weeks before…
Rien still looked at him, unsure of what to do.
Gerim waited, thinking what he could offer as collateral, in this unstable and lopsided business deal. “When I was your age,” the wizard spoke, unconsciously bringing his hand to his ear and making Rien’s gaze jerk up, “I had a friend who was poisoned by a snake bite.” Rounded ear — no evidence of elf blood. “They told me there was no cure and I watched that boy waste away in a matter of hours.” Boy. In the elven tongues there is no distinction of age, just gender. “I see a similarity here and perhaps this time I can do something to help…” Gerim spread his arms out as an offering of peace. “Please, I travelled half the world in one night.”
“Very well,” Rien finally nodded. The wizard seemed sincere. “I wish I could express my thanks. You’re saving two lives, not just one.”
In a week and a half Rien and Kera made their way to the path where the hidden trail to Maari’s house lay. Their rushed pace had taken its toll and they made camp a half day’s distance from their destination, to rest and regain their strength.
“I’m a little worried,” Kera mentioned to Rien, over the early evening fire.
“I’m anxious too,” he answered. “I want to get this over with.”
“I keep thinking that she won’t help us,” Kera continued, staring into the fire. “What if she tries something?”
“That’s a possibility,” Rien said. “Something to be aware of, but at times it’s best to hope for the better.”
“How are we going to pay her?”
Rien shook his head. “I don’t know. I refuse to sentence anyone to death.”
“What if that means our death?”
“I can make that choice for myself, but not for you.”
Kera moved herself to sit next to Rien. “I remember a while back you told me you saw nothing wrong with killing someone if your well being was threatened.”
“Nothing wrong with killing an individual who threatens my well being,” Rien corrected.
“I am sure we can find one,” Kera smirked.
“I couldn’t condemn an individual to the kind of death that Maari has in mind,” Rien sighed.
“Can you condemn yourself to lycanthropy?”
“At this point I am not desperate enough to say ‘no’.”
Kera leaned back into the grass, looking up into the darkening sky, with the first stars beginning to appear above the forest. “What day were you born on?” she asked abruptly.
“A cold one,” Rien smiled.
“Don’t be silly,” Kera laughed. “When?”
“Under the great oak…a green one, in unseasonably cold weather.”
“Naia 27,” Rien said.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Kera sounded hurt.
“Wasn’t important,” Rien said. “There were too many other things to worry about, particularly Maari’s request.”
“Melrin wasn’t much of a holiday either,” Kera agreed. “I’ll just have to surprise you sometime.”
Rien put his arm around Kera’s shoulder and pulled her close, in an attempt to comfort her.
“You remember the weather you were born in?” she asked.
“Not really. My mother told me it was a little too cold for the event.”
“She should have had the windows closed,” Kera laughed.
“It was outdoors,” said Rien.
“Doesn’t sound very private,” Kera said, “but then you did say morals weren’t much where you came from.”
“It’s traditional,” Rien explained.
“Well, there’s your Oak,” Kera said, pointing up to the constellation of Valonus, materializing slowly in the almost dark sky.
“When were you born?” Rien asked, sitting up and throwing some dirt on the fire.
“Eighth of Janis,” Kera said, sitting up as well. “I’m sure it was seasonably cold.”
The fire went out, leaving the clearing covered by the bright light of the almost full moon.
“What happened to your parents?” Rien asked.
“When I was young, Liriss told me that I was found abandoned. I stopped believing him after a while…after seeing how he deals with people. I guess my parents got in his way and he had them killed and took me.” She again leaned back into the grass, admiring the moon. “Not having known them I really can’t say I that miss them.”
Rien leaned back in the grass next to her, also looking at the moon. “Aren’t you even curious..?”
“I’m curious who they were, but…if they are still alive, I don’t think I’d want to meet them.”
Rien lay quietly, staring up at the sky. “What about your parents?” Kera suddenly asked.
Rien remained quiet for some time. “My mother lives in Charnelwood,” he finally said.
“What about your father?”
Rien shifted uncomfortably on the ground. “He was killed by a Dopkalfar hunting party before I was born…before he found out I would be born.”
“I’m sorry,” Kera whispered.
“There’s nothing to be sorry for,” Rien answered. “In spite of how we feel, life comes and goes. We’re not all friends on this planet. Some of us simply don’t belong.”
Now it was Kera’s turn to fall quiet. The two lay next to each other in the dark for a long time, then Rien heard Kera’s breathing become more even. Exaustion had taken its toll. Carefully pulling his arm from under his companion, Rien relocated himself to the other side of the clearing.
Kera woke up in the morning to the smell of a roasting rabbit. She looked around the clearing to see Rien managing a small camp fire with a rotisserie set up over it. “Why didn’t you wake me up?” she asked.
“You needed the rest,” Rien answered without turning around.
Kera shuffled around on the ground, then got up. “Let me do that,” she indicated the rabbit. “I already smell it burning.”
Rien moved away from the camp fire.
“How did you ever survive in the wilderness alone?” Kera asked, taking his place.
“I don’t discriminate against raw meat,” Rien said, “even if cooked is better. Besides, I know that it’s fresh if it’s raw.”
“Gross,” Kera mumbled. “I’d rather eat it burned.”
“I know,” Rien smiled. “I thought the smell of burned flesh would get you up.”
Kera laughed and continued preparing the food. “It will all be over today, won’t it?” she asked a bit later. Her voice suddenly somber and serious.
“I hope so,” Rien said. “One way or another.” He moved to face Kera and continued. “Listen, I’ve been thinking. When we get to Maari’s home, I don’t want you to dismount. Just stay on the horse and if anything goes wrong, leave.” Kera tried to protest, but Rien continued. “Don’t argue. Like you said, this gets resolved today and I don’t want you to get hurt. If a fight starts, if a spell is cast, go. Don’t worry about me.”
“I’ll agree to this now,” Kera said, “but I may not do it when the time comes. My best chances are with you and in the end I’m sure you agree that it’s purely my decision what to do in a situation like that and you certainly won’t be in a position to argue if it comes to that.”
Rien nodded approvingly after a moment. “Well said. You’ve been paying attention.”
Kera smiled back. “I was hoping you’d like it.” But in some way it appeared to Rien that the smile was false and there would be a lot more to do before all would be resolved.
After breakfast they mounted their horses and in the building heat of the afternoon summer sun made their way to Maari’s dwelling. They rode their horses onto the hidden path, cautiously guiding their animals through the thick grass until the roof of the witch’s hut appeared in the distance. Rien stopped his horse and checked the egg one more time; a final inspection in the unlikely event that he had missed something previously.
Kera stopped next to him, shifting restlessly in the saddle. “Maybe we should spend some more time preparing…” she said.
Rien looked up in mid turn of the egg. His companion’s voice sounded shaky. “Are you alright?” his concerned eyes focused on her.
“Just a little nervous,” Kera smiled awkwardly.
“You look downright scared,” Rien said. He replaced the egg in its pouch and moved his horse closer to Kera’s. “Get down before you shake yourself from the saddle,” he said, dismounting to help her.
Kera half slid, half fell from the saddle and Rien helped her to a shaded patch of grass beneath a tree. “What’s wrong?” he asked, gently pushing her down.
Kera leaned back against the tree trunk, trying to regain her composure.
“Relax,” Rien took Kera’s hands in his own. “I won’t let Maari do anything to you…” He was beginning to understand what her problem was.
Kera violently shook her head in response.
“Nothing will happen,” he insisted again, taking Kera in his arms. It did not help. “All right,” Rien said after a minute, releasing Kera and rising. “We’re not going to see her. Mount up. If we push the horses, we can make it to Magnus in little over a month.”
Kera looked up at him, her shaking not as strong as before. She tried to smile. “I’m alright,” but it didn’t look convincing. “Let’s talk to her,” she managed to say.
“Are you certain?” Rien knelt before her. She still seemed on the verge of a breakdown.
Kera nodded and started to get up. Rien hurried to help her to her horse, but as Kera grabbed the saddle, she looked towards the barely visible hut among the trees and again broke into a shaking fit. “I can’t,” her voice shook with fear. “She’ll kill me!”
Rien recognised himself as part of the problem. To Maari, he was worthless, but Kera could provide exactly what the old witch wanted; a soul to experiment with. He took Kera in his arms again, holding her up against the horse. He permitted himself to realize just how much he feared and hated humans who practiced magic. He turned Kera around, his now grey eyes searching for an answer in hers. Kera held still, not understanding what the changes in her companion were. Her fear of Maari lessened, replaced by that of Rien, who suddenly thrust her away, tore the saddle bag with the egg off his horse and disappeared in the direction of Maari’s hut.
Kera stood still, holding onto her horse, watching Rien leave, then, her curiosity and concern winning over her fear for herself, she advanced forward, with her mount obediantly following her lead.
Making his way to the clearing, Rien looked around. “I have your egg, witch!” he shouted. A moment later Maari appeared from around back. She seemed completely unprepared for his visit. “I have the egg!” he yelled again, triumphantly holding up the saddle bag. He patiently waited for her to approach before dropping the bag to the ground and drawing his sword.
“Bitch!” he stammered, ready to swing.
Maari answered something in anger, making an unseen force throw Rien backwards to the ground. She fell on her knees before the saddle bag, tearing it open, to get to the precious egg. It was whole. With triumph in her eyes, Maari got up, egg in her hands. “Fool,” she looked at Rien’s unmoving body. “There never was and never will be a cure!”
She turned to leave, when the egg in her hands disloved to a glob of slime. It covered her hands and spread slowly to her body, in spite of her loud protests, as Kera watched from a cluster of trees at the edge of the clearing. As the witch transformed into a puddle of slime on the ground, Kera advanced from the trees, for a better view. Her fear was completely dominated by curiosity and when she spotted Rien’s motionless body, she ran towards him, in spite of what she had just seen.
“Don’t touch him, girl,” a pleasantly accented voice sounded above her, as Kera reached Rien’s body. She looked around, startled, seeing Gerim not ten feet away. How did he get there?
“Don’t touch him,” the wizard repeated. “I can only change the chain of events if you do what I say.”
Kera took two steps back, looking at Gerim in disbelief, to shocked and surprised by the turn of events to ask any questions.
“He was an innocent victim of poor planning on my part,” the wizard continued. “Hurry, bring me the large black book Maari has in her house.”
Kera bolted before the instructions were complete. She tore into the dark two room hut, tripping over a chair and winding up on the floor. A large black cat hissed at her from the corner and quickly disappeared into the darkness of the second room. Kera got up and looked around. Her heart beat faster, now that she realized where she was. She held onto a chair for support. Dark blinds and furniture decorated the spartan main room of the witch’s dwelling. A heavy, murky smell hung in the air, making Kera think of the blocks beneath Liriss’ private pier. She slowly scanned the room, fearing to walk in any further, when she came to face a human skull — she assumed it to be human, anyway, — which lay on the table behind which stood the chair she used for support. She jerked back in surprise, looking at the empty sockets that somehow seemed to look back. The lack of a bottom jaw made it appear as if this horrid creature had something to say.
Barely forcing herself to look away from the skull’s empty gaze, Kera realized that beneath it lay a thick book, covered with black leather. She cautiously stepped forward, then dashed for the book, pulling it out from under the skull, causing the relic to fall and roll on the floor and ran out as quickly as she ran in.
Outside Gerim looked up from the puddle of what was left of the witch. “Ah, the book,” he said, taking it from Kera.
Kera watched restlessly as Gerim opened the book and started flipping through it. After a while he found what he needed and pronounced an incantation. Kera felt her back grow cold, as the spell grew to its climax. A low rumble sounded in the cloudless sky and Rien’s hand twitched.
Gerim closed the book and let it fall to the ground, kneeling before Rien.
Kera cautiously approached, fearing that the wizard would still forbid her to come near. Noticing that, Gerim called her over, saying that it was all right.
“How is he?” Kera asked with a shaky voice.
“He’s fine,” the wizard answered. “He’s lucky not to be human. Elves pay for their long lives by not having a soul. Maari could not kill him. She was no more than a necromancer.”
Kera took Rien’s twitching hand into her own.
“Give him some time,” Gerim suggested. “His system will overcome the shock.” He got up to leave, but turned to look back at Kera. “You two did me a great service, but I’m afraid I have nothing to repay you with. I wish you luck with your quest. May you find what you need.”
With those words the wizard retired into the woods. Rien’s hand grasped tightly around Kera’s.
Liriss stared coldly at Tilden, who stood before him. This fool had the gall to fail and return to tell of his losses. That took guts, but certainly no brains. Then again, most of his men had no where else to turn and knew no more than mercanary work. “I sent four men to bring back two people and what do I see before me?” Liriss asked after considering the trapper’s story. “I see a bedraggled fighter who lost his companions, weapons and mount. I’ve got half a mind to send you off to the blocks.”
Liriss walked a wide circle around Tilden, waiting for fear to set in. The man remained motionless, but became noticably more nervous. Liriss made a second circle, smiling when behind Tilden. The feeling of power can at times be intoxicating and an offer of mercy a god-like act. “I should send you to the blocks,” Liriss came to face Tilden again, “but I won’t. I’ll assign a real man to do your job and in the mean time you can get some simple guard work done.”
Tilden released his breath, which Liriss imagined he had held for quite some time. “Thank you, sir.”
The crime leader walked over to the window and looked into Dargon. “Return to your quarters. I will have your new orders sent down.”
Tilden left the room with another sigh of relief, permitting his master’s female attendant to come back inside. The girl closed the door and waited patiently for Liriss to notice her. He finally turned, looking at her thoughtfully. “Rene, find me Kendall and have him come here.”
“The assassin?” she asked. “You said you didn’t want to see his face again.”
“I don’t,” Liriss nodded solemnly, “but at least he’s reliable.”
Gerim’s loud footsteps sounded in the great hall of the keep. “Nagje’,” his voice boomed above the loud echos. “Prepare to vacate your chair.”
As he approached the large table at the far end of the great hall, three gazes met his.
“I told you,” Gerim looked at the man in the center, “once Maari is dead, I’ll be seeking a council position.”
“Explain to us one thing,” the wizard on the left said. “The elf was dead. Why did you interfear?”
“He was caught in the struggle through my intervention.”
“He would have gone to the witch anyway.”
“He would not have gone to her in anger with a dragon egg!”
“Dragon egg my ass, Gerim! You brought life to a dead man!”
“I reunited an elf with his spirit, a much easier task than a man with his soul!” Gerim stopped, realizing he was now shouting. “I tricked him into helping me and repaid him as best I could for the services he offered, risks he took and damages he suffered.”
“You broke the rules,” Elaff insisted.
“Whose rules?” Gerim snapped. “Rules of three hypocrites who do not follow the advice they give others? There is nothing more to discuss. Prepare for the challenge.”
With those words he left the keep.
Rien and Kera sat by a creek, looking through the leather book that once belonged to Maari. “It’s a very old script,” Rien said, explaining the writing. “I’ve seen this on old calendars, the ones used before the current one was introduced.”
“I wish I could read it,” Kera said.
“So do I,” Rien answered. “I never had the time to learn when there was an opportunity.
“So if we can’t read the book, then why are we trying?” Kera asked.
“I was hoping there’d be pictures,” Rien smiled. “Just curious of what’s in it, I guess.” He flipped a few more pages. “You may have heard that those who use magic keep notes on their knowledge and experiences, not just a list of spells. Look here,” he pointed to the open page. “See how messy this is? I’d gamble this isn’t a spell, but a memo or a description. And over here…” he flipped a few pages back. “See how neat and evenly spaced the text here is? This I can’t say is a spell, but I’d guess it requires care when reading or performing.”
“But if you can’t read it, why bother with it?” Kera asked.
“It’s worth something to someone,” Rien said. “It may be good to us.”
“You probably didn’t have much experience with this sort of thing, but information can at times be more precious than money.”
“Like blackmail?” Kera asked.
“It’s an example,” Rien nodded. “There are other types. It’s like an old book, valuble beyond the price of money and sometimes life.” He closed the volume with a smile. “This maybe such a book.”
“And you’re hoping to find someone in Dargon who has use for it?” Kera asked, going back to the conversation they had before arriving at the creek.
“It would do us little good in Tench,” Rien said, “and Magnus is too far away at this point. Dargon should give us a safe margin of time to apply what we learned…may learn.”
“I heard Maari say that there was no cure,” Kera said.
“I guess I was out by then,” Rien said. “That was foolish of me to charge out after her like that. She could have killed me just as easily.”
“Does your head still hurt?” Kera asked.
“It’s not as bad as it was,” Rien smiled awkwardly, “but I’ll remember it for quite some time.”
Kera put her arm around him sympathetically. “What if there is no cure?”
“I don’t believe that,” he answered. “If there is a way to induce a condition, then there is a way to reverse it. There are two faces to every coin. We’ll find something. Tomorrow. It’s getting too late to go any further tonight. Let’s make camp here.”
“Good, I wanted to take a swim,” Kera said. “Why don’t you join me?”
“That’s all there is,” Alicia said. She and Mija stood over a dark green patch of ground, after unsuccessfully searching Maari’s house.
Mija sat down on the grass next to the dead patch and poked with a branch at what looked like a piece of an egg shell. He watched it crack and break under the pressure before tossing the branch away.
“What are you doing?” Alicia asked.
“Thinking,” he shrugged. “Can you figure out what got spilled here?”
Alicia sat down next to Mija, with a thoughtful look on her face. “Ever feel helpless without your notes?” she smiled.
Mija shifted uncomfortably, pushing himself back, as Alicia started on a semi-familiar spell.
“Certainly wasn’t a normal potion,” Alicia said a while later, finishing with her spell. “I never saw anything like this.”
Mija stood up behind her and helped her up. “Something’s wrong. Maari knew we were coming. Let’s inform the coven.”
The pair quickly disappeared in the woods.