Part Five: The Problem
Je’en followed Maks, who followed Cefn, up the spiral stairs of the fifth and tallest turret. Previous turret rooms had been outfitted as sun rooms, studies, or libraries, but the last one they came to was very different. Cefn recognized various trappings that indicated it had once been a laboratory, but it no longer served that function. The walls were draped in heavy, black cloth, covering the windows that certainly pierced the outer wall of the turret. But it wasn’t dark here, either. The same pallid green light filled this room, and the source was obvious: the thing that sat on the massively built table in the center of the room.
The sight of the thing on the table obviously confirmed all of Cefn’s suspicions, but Je’en and Maks’ attentions were drawn to the two figures in the room. Against one wall, a low table had been draped with some sort of silvery cloth, and a black candle and holder had been placed at each corner. On that table, naked and lying supine, was a lovely young woman who Maks’ moan told Je’en had to be Syusahn. She was breathing very shallowly, and her skin seemed to be very pale, although that was hard to truly tell in the strange light. Standing by the table, near Syusahn’s head, was the shadow of a young man, or something like a shadow. It had the form of a medium height, thin, red-haired man, wearing a strange clothes, but it was translucent – they could see the covered wall through the figure.
Maks’ moan attracted the attention of the shadow-man, and it turned to face the three intruders. Je’en nearly flinched from the raving madness in the washed-out grey eyes.
When it spoke, its voice was like a whisper, but it echoed strangely in the room, so all could hear. “So, more new friends brought to me by my Hand? The woman one can stay, but you two must flee, or I will not like you, and you will die. Ha ha! Two women ones! So long alone, and now two woman ones. When the short one has joined me out of her body, then it will be your turn, masked one.
“Well, you two, what are you waiting for? Get out! I think I don’t like you. You better get out, before my Hand kills you!”
Maks had not stopped staring at his love on the table, and at the shadow’s words, he made to charge the shadow, and rescue Syusahn. But, Cefn flung out an arm across both Je’en and Maks’ path, and urged them to take a step back. He said quiet enough for only their ears, “I know what is going on now. Have either of you ever heard of the Glasmelyn Llaw?
Je’en gasped at the name, but Maks shook his head. Cefn said, “Long ago, a very powerful wizard enchanted the tower he had built to protect him from his jealous peers. But, the spell was too good. It protected him from everything, including age. I think that that shadow man over there is the magician Tarlada.
“Over the years, the tower had been doing its job. But, at some point, something happened, and it began to spread its influence. The vines outside are the tower’s way of taking control of the forest – they are its link to the land around it. And, it is spreading.
“That object on the table is the focus of the enchantment, almost the brain of the tower. If we can destroy it, we can both get Syusahn away from that poor madman, and free the forest from the encroaching evil. Stand back.”
Je’en and Maks took another step back as Cefn pointed his wand at the thing on the table. It looked like a cross between the tower, a man, and (perhaps) a tree. It was ugly, and glowed a bright and sickly pulsing green, and thin little green and blue and yellow strands of itself grew from it, across the table, and down into the floor. Je’en had been frantically trying to recall the tale of the Emerald Hand, because she had a nagging sensation that Cefn was making a big mistake by attack the core directly. But, she didn’t want to say anything, because he was, after all, the mage of the team.
Finally, just as a bolt of light pulsed along Cefn’s wand and flashed at the thing on the table, Je’en remembered. There was another tale that concerned the exact same spell as the one in use here which told of the only way to defeat the spell – and what Cefn had just done wasn’t it.
Cefn’s wand began to build up a charge again, even before the first had hit its target. Je’en shouted “NO!!”, causing the wizard to flinch. The bolt fired while the wand was pointed at Tarlada.
The first bolt hit the thing on the table. The thing pulsed brighter as it did, and then kept getting brighter and brighter. The oppressive atmosphere got worse, and Je’en knew that the presence was finally aware of them. Then, the second bolt passed through the shadow Tarlada, and the thing began to glow with an eye-searing brilliance. And a sound began, a subtle vibration at first, but getting louder by the second. It sounded like the tower was roaring, and that sound frightened Je’en.
She said, “Run! We cannot stop it now – we don’t have the proper materials. Run – it knows we are here and intend to hurt it!” And she followed her own advice, turning and heading for the stairs.
Maks, though eager to rescue his love from what was sure to be a horrid fate, especially for one of the Wind Riders, also had an instinctive fear of magic. So, he followed Je’en without question.
Je’en reached the stairs, and went down three risers before noticing two things. The first was a horrible pressure on her head. No, it was not on her head, but on her mind – she could feel the essence of the tower trying to take command of her mind. And, when she turned around to see if the other two were in the same difficulty, she saw that Cefn hadn’t moved. She was about to turn back to get him, when she saw a ripple of light cover him, and when it was gone, there was a flakey stone statue of him in his place.
Her eyes went wide, and then she began to run again, Maks still at her heels. The pressure in her mind was getting worse, and she began to recite the first and second Measures of the first Apprentice Bard lesson to try and fight it off. She seemed to be successful – at least she was still running, and not a stone statue.
They reached the sixth floor, and headed for the next set of stairs. Je’en was very occupied with trying to keep the tower out of her mind, but she managed to notice something odd about the statues around the room. First, several were missing. And, another was moving. She watched as an inert statue began to shimmer, and then turn into a man. But, before he could raise his sword, he shimmered again, and fell to dust. One by one, the other statues in the room came to life, then fell into dust. As she passed those pedestals she had noted as being empty, she saw the little mound of dust that was all that was left of them.
Je’en and Maks hurried down the stairs past the fifth, fourth, and third floor, catching glimpses of powdering statues as the went, as the tower tried to use previous victims to snare the two remaining interlopers. As they reached the head of the stairs to the second floor, one of the statues that flanked it came to life, but it didn’t disintegrate. As it happened, it was one of the younger and more fit of the gypsies that the tower had captured earlier, and now, with a vacant stare, and a menacing sword, he tried to attack.
Je’en was startled to see the statue come back to life properly, but she was so keyed up trying to escape that her reaction was instinctive. Her sword came up swiftly, engaged the gypsy’s in a bind, and then riposted right into his heart. She was halfway down the stairs before the body hit the ground.
There were two more “alive” statues to be taken care of, but they posed little problem to one with Je’en’s reflexes and will to stay alive. When they reached the first floor, the door was still open, and they could see the vines that lined the path waving and thrashing madly, some even reaching blindly into the tower, feeling for their prey. Je’en took several seconds to get out her cutting knife, and then had an idea.
She dragged a table under the chandelier, and climbed up on it. She could just reach the oil reservoirs, and she was happy to find that they were not fixed to the frame (for easier refilling), and also that they were full. She took several down, and handed them to Maks. Then, she hastily lit one of the wicks with a spark-striker, and went to the door. Dodging out of reach of the thrashing vines, she took one of the reservoirs and hurled it out onto the left-hand vine-wall. Then, she threw another onto the right wall, making sure that the oil scattered. Then, she lit one, and threw it to the right, and another to the left, causing the oil already on the vines to catch fire. She was gratified to see that the vines weren’t fireproof as both walls flared up, the flames eating up the vines like they were kindling.
The tower howled, almost as if in pain, and the vines stopped darting around, and tried to beat out the flames, which only caught them on fire. Maks and Je’en waited for the right moment, and then dashed between the flaming walls of vines, unhindered except for the danger of the fire, and the heat it generated.
When they reached the forest, Je’en turned to look back at the tower. She saw the vines at the edge of the clearing begin to pull back from the forest itself, creating a firebreak. As the vines retreated from the forest, she also noticed that there were several mounds that ran along the ground from the tower to the trees. They looked like mole tunnels, or maybe shallow roots – and she knew that even without the surface vines, the tower was still in contact with its forest. She began to run again while the tower was busy trying to put out the fires at its base.
Part Six: Solution
Maks and Je’en slashed their way madly through the vine-infested part of the forest, and managed to reach their horses in under a day. Then, by pushing the horses and themselves to the limit and a little bit beyond, Maks and Je’en managed to reach Dargon in three more days. When Maks complained about the pace, Je’en just reminded him of the fate that was creeping closer to his love every minute that they were away from the tower. That made him shut up and hurry on in silence for a long while.
She had plenty of time to think as they rode dangerously fast through the forest. She wasn’t exactly sure of the fate of Cefn, but having seen him turned to stone, she figured that he would be safe for a while. After all, those of the gypsies that had been petrified had been alive when turned back – those that had turned to dust had just been statues too long, she hoped, and the tower couldn’t truly prolong their existence so far past their time of dying. She fully intended to rescue Cefn long before he reached that limit.
She knew exactly what she had to do to destroy the tower. The tale she had remembered told of something called ‘prenia’ which acted as an antidote, almost, to the specific kind of magic that had given a pseudo life to the tower. The only problem was that she had no idea just what prenia was, or even what it looked like. She could only hope that someone in Dargon did.
Pausing only long enough for a proper meal and bath when they arrived in Dargon, both Je’en and Maks began to scour the city for anyone who knew of prenia. They searched everywhere, in the markets, on the docks, in the business district, everywhere they could think of – and no one had so much as a clue to the identity or whereabouts of the thing called ‘prenia’.
Two days passed in their search for the mysterious element they needed, and they were both getting desperate. Then, Je’en had an idea.
The secretary in Kroan’s office knew Je’en, and admitted her with no trouble into his office. They hadn’t seen each other in a while, and they greeted each other warmly. Je’en introduced Maks to her brother, and then they got down to business.
Je’en told Kroan why Maks had come to her and Cefn (whom Kroan had met several times, and liked). And then, of what they had found in the tower, and what had happened to Cefn, and what was happening, hopefully very slowly, to Syusahn. And lastly, of the thing called prenia that would save them both. “I hope you know what it is,” said Je’en, “because no one else in this town does.”
Kroan searched his memory, but found nothing. He called in one of his employees, an inventory clerk, and asked the young man to quickly ask around about prenia. While the youngster carried out his errand, Je’en and Kroan talked trivially to pass the time.
Finally, almost an hour later, the clerk returned to Kroan’s office bearing no good news – no one in the employ of Fifth I knew what prenia was, either. Je’en sighed, and wondered what to do next as she rose to leave. Then Kroan said, “Wait, Sis. Did you talk to the local physician yet? His name is Aardvard Factotum, and he lives a little way from town to the east. He has the most knowledge in the area about things magical and/or ancient.”
The man’s name hadn’t come up before, but Je’en had heard that he was competent if a little ostentatious. She also knew that he was unlikely to part with any information he had for free, so, after thanking her brother for the lead, she went to the moneylender where she kept her savings and withdrew almost all of what she had left, converting the disparate currencies into gold marks. And then, with Maks still following her, they rode off to Aardvard’s cottage.
Ostentatious suited Aardvard and his home to a tee. Displays of his wealth were everywhere, and the cottage itself was almost a small villa. Je’en hoped that Aardvard was as knowledgeable as he was rich.
They were admitted to a large sitting room by Aardvard’s servant, Hansen, who then departed with Je’en’s request of an audience with the physician. Hansen didn’t return for a long time, and Je’en recognized the ploy from her years in Court circles. Maks, however, was not so learned, and he was pacing restlessly, fingering the various objects that adorned the tables, and wall shelves of the sitting room. He almost dropped a small, delicate china mouse when Hansen finally did return, saying, “Excuse me, m’lord and m’lady, but Aardvard will see you now.” With a frown at the sheepish Maks, who had returned the mouse to its shelf, Hansen led the way through the house to Aardvard’s receiving room.
Je’en studied the man sitting with his back to the only window in the room as she and Maks were offered seats, and then glasses of what looked and smelled like a delicate red wine, but which tasted, at least to Je’en, like grape-flavored water. Aardvard Factotum was as richly garbed as was his home, and he had the look of a rich man about him – well fed, a little slothful, perhaps even a little bored. But his eyes were keen and intelligent, so that Je’en wasn’t quite sure how much of what she saw was a front that he put on for his rich clients.
The physician said, “So, what can I do for you, Je’lanthra’en and Maks of the Gold Rim tribe?” Maks couldn’t hide the astonished look on his face when Aardvard addressed him by his full name – neither he nor Je’en had given so complete an introduction to Hansen. Je’en, however, was amused by Aardvard’s tactics, and kept a straight face.
She said, “We heard of your widely renowned knowledge, and we have a question to ask you. Do you know of something called ‘prenia’?”
Aardvard’s eyes narrowed, and he took a few puffs on his scrimshaw pipe. “What might you be needing with such a thing, my dear?” he finally said.
“There is a tower to the south and west of here called Glasmelyn Llaw. Long and long ago, a wizard enchanted it, and since then, that enchantment has begun to go awry. The tower is beginning to take over the whole forest. Prenia is the only thing that can stop it – and save our two friends, who have been caught by the tower. If you have any information about prenia, or even better actually have some, we are willing to pay for it.”
Aardvard got crafty at the mention of money. He said, “How much?”
“As much as you want, healer. It is very important to us, far more important that a few gold marks. Can you help us?”
“Perhaps. I think I have a book in my library that refers to this – what was it, ‘pranya’? But I’m not all that sure…”
Je’en pulled the pouch of gold from inside her cloak, and spilled it out on the table. “It’s ‘prenia’, healer, and is it worth thirty marks to you?”
“My, my, thirty marks is rather a lot for just a tiny bit of information, isn’t it. Here, keep ten, and I’ll go get my books.”
Aardvard quickly scooped up twenty marks, and hurried out of the room. By the time Je’en had stowed the remainder of her gold within her cloak, Aardvard had returned. bearing three large, musty tomes. He placed them on a table to one side of the room, and began leafing through them. Je’en rose, and peered over his shoulder. He seemed about to snap at her to stop it at one point, but perhaps the size of the payment cooled his temper, for he just turned back to the books silently.
He found what he was looking for in the first book, and, using some notations in the margin, quickly found what he wanted in the other two. He turned to Je’en, and said, “As, I thought I was right. Prenia is an ancient term for what we now call ice-wood. Its a kind of tree that has no color at all: you can see right through it. I’m afraid its very rare, though. I’ve never even seen a piece – its very, very valuable.”
“Ice-wood. Yes, I’ve heard of that – I’ve even seen it used as jewelry in the south.” Je’en frowned. “Well we now know what to look for. Thank you, Master Factotum. I was sure you could help us. Good bye.” She and Maks retraced their way through the house, and back to where their horses were tethered. Aardvard looked after them for a moment, then went to stow away the gold. He briefly wondered if it had been fair to take such a high price – but, she had offered it.
Je’en went straight back to her brother’s office when they got back to Dargon. If anyone would have something as rare as ice-wood, it would be a large merchant firm, and if Fifth I didn’t have any, then Kroan would know who did.
“We found what prenia is – ice-wood. Does Fifth I have any stored away anywhere?”
Again, Kroan had to search his memory, but this time, he found what he was looking for. “Yes, we do! But, gods, Je’en, do you know what that stuff costs?”
“I have a pretty good idea, Kroan. But, I have no choice. Ice-wood is the only thing that will save Cefn and Syusahn. And we need enough to make two small cages. I’ll find some way to pay for it, but I need it now. Please, Kroan, please…”
Kroan was not a ruthless merchant, and he knew that his sister was sincere. So, he said, “It will take a little time. I’ll bring it to your house, Je’en, in about two hours. Okay?”
Je’en hugged her brother. “Fine. We’ll be waiting. See you.”
As they walked their horses back to Je’en house, Maks asked, “Why do we need two cages? There is only one core up in that room.”
Je’en said, “I know, but we have to increase our chances of success. You felt the pressure as we were trying to escape, didn’t you? I don’t know why the tower was ‘asleep’ when we approached before, but it is sure to be awake and aware when we return. And, it will know that we are enemies. I think we can sneak into the tower, but the closer to the top room, and the core, we get, the harder it will try to capture or kill us.
“Because we are going in, and not out, it is going to be even harder to resist the influence of the tower. There is a good chance that, if you concentrate on Syusahn, you will be able to get through. I…I’m not quite as sure about myself. So, we will have two cages, one for each of us, so that whoever reaches that thing will be able to nullify it.”
All Maks could say in reply was, “Oh.”
By the time Kroan arrived at Je’en’s house, both she and Maks were pacing. Je’en was getting more and more worried. What she had told Maks was the simple truth. She knew that his love for Syusahn was great enough to sustain him through whatever mental influences that the tower might throw at him. But, she had no such anchor, or at least not such a strong one. Cefn was – well, a possibility. She was extremely fond of the wizard, and perhaps more, but there was no certainty, even within herself, much less between the two of them. So, she would have to rely solely upon herself to carry her through the attacks of the tower to rescue Cefn.
Kroan was carrying a large, iron, well-locked box when he knocked on Je’en’s door. He opened it, using three keys, and two secret levers, in her living room, revealing a much smaller cavity within that was full of four to six inch long twigs of wood that were transparent. They did indeed look like ice sculptured to look like wood. Je’en was sure that the box contained a kingdom’s ransom of prenia.
He also produced two spools of silver wire, and then set to work with Je’en and Maks to build two cages, each a foot high, and eight inches deep, with open bases. The silver wire served well to hold the ice-wood pieces together, and was sturdy enough to help the cages to keep their shape without a lot of wasteful cross-bracing. When the cages were completed to Je’en’s satisfaction, there was still enough ice-wood in the box to make, perhaps, a third.
Kroan locked the chest back up, kissed his sister good bye, shook Maks’ hand, wished them both luck, and left. Je’en said, “We had better get some rest. We leave tomorrow, as early as possible.”
Part Seven: Rescue
Je’en and Maks could feel the awareness of the tower as soon as they saw the first of the vines. The sense of an actively malicious presence was acute, and the vines themselves were far more active than they had been before.
It was difficult, but not impossible, to move at speed through the vine-forest. In about half a day, though, they had reached the point where it was impossible to keep going with the horses. So, they dismounted, secured the four horses, and went on on foot. Je’en didn’t want to further alert the tower to their presence by cutting through the vines, so, after a little survey work, she and Maks took to the trees, traveling branch to branch up above the ground where the vines were much less thickly interwoven.
By sunset of the day they left their horses, Je’en and Maks reached the tower. There was still enough light to notice the changes their previous escape had caused – mainly the absence of the matting of vines that no longer surrounded the tower. Apparently, it learned from its mistakes. Je’en could see that it had re-grown the vines that had been burned away, but now they grew straight down the wall, and into the ground.
They had come upon the tower directly across the clearing from the door, and Je’en was surprised and happy to see that the door had apparently burned away with the vines – all that was left of it was melted hinges, and some of the other fittings lying in the ashes on the ground. Fifty feet separated them from the open doorway, and Je’en could feel the presence of the tower already beginning to weigh on her mind, though it didn’t yet realize that they were there.
She signaled to Maks, and they both unlimbered weapons and the expensive ice-wood cages. Maks helped her attach her cage to the bracer on her right wrist – she hoped that she didn’t forget and try to use the bracer to block a sword-blow if there were any animateable statues left within.
Then, at another signal, they both began sprinting toward the tower. Almost immediately, vines began to spring up out of the ground and catch at their ankles. Je’en almost tripped several times, but managed to keep her balance and footing, and keep on.
Neither stopped running when they reached the door and entered the tower, but headed directly for the stairs. Je’en noticed in passing that the fire had been carried into the main room, and very little was left. It seemed that the tower didn’t have a very effective fire-fighting system.
Nothing physical hindered them inside the tower, but by the time they reached the third floor, Je’en could feel the pressure on her mind becoming almost unbearable already. She stumbled once on a step, but recovered and kept on climbing. The little concentration tricks that she had been taught as a bard helped, but the pain grew too great by the fifth floor, and she had to go on to something else.
She continuously glanced at Maks, who was still following her. There was a faraway look in his eyes, but it was a look of concentration, not the look of possession. They had both slowed down, now climbing the stairs to the sixth floor at little more than a walk, and both beginning to sweat from the effort of moving against the will of the tower, but Maks seemed to be having the better time of it.
A sword flashed in Je’en’s line of vision, and reflexes alone moved her own up in time to block it. She focused on her gypsy attacker, wondering how or why the tower had kept one in reserve. She attacked back, very glad that the man was very young, and not a swordsman. Though her movements were slowed by the tower, the gypsy was slower, and in two strokes, Je’en had disarmed him, and then disabled him with the flat of her blade on his temple.
Then she dropped her sword, and began ascending the fifth turret’s stairs, pulling herself along the wall with her good arm. Maks followed, oblivious of everything around him, his mind set on Syusahn who was being slowly robbed of her body in the room at the top of the turret. Je’en tried to concentrate on Cefn, just a statue, fated to be kept here and to be used against further intruders until the time when he would be reanimated, and fall to dust. It helped her, that image, but she still had to struggle, clawing her way up the winding stairs one at a time, with the tower beating incessantly at her mind.
By the time the topmost room came into view at the top of the stairs, Je’en and Maks were moving very slowly, with long pauses between movements. Je’en’s mind was moving in tiny circles, thoughts moving at random, her body moving automatically. The pain was intense, crippling, and only the briefly glimpsed images of Cefn that she had created before, but which she didn’t understand anymore, kept her moving at all.
Finally, with a sense of achievement that managed to pull her fragmented consciousness back together, Je’en reached the top step, and pulled herself into the top room. Little had changed here, unlike outside. Tarlada-shadow still stood next to the table where Syusahn lay, and the statue of Cefn was still in the room, though it had moved against one wall. But, the thing on the table was pulsing even more brightly now, and there was a throbbing that coincided with its pulsing that sounded a lot like a heartbeat.
She began to advance on the table, as slowly as she had climbed the stairs. Tarlada turned at the sound of her boots plodding across the floor, and he said, “Ah, the masked one returns! Good. Good. See, the short one is almost ready – I can free you very soon.” Je’en looked at the low table, and saw that Tarlada was right. Syusahn was even paler than before, and her limbs almost seemed to be as transparent as Tarlada. She took another step toward the table, and looked for Maks.
The gypsy was there, right behind her, still gazing off into nothingness, but his face had screwed up into a fierce mask of concentration. His steps were as slow as hers, but Je’en could sense that his determination to free his love was far stronger than her’s to stay alive and free Cefn.
Advancing a step at a time, she neared the thing on the table. Tarlada began screaming at Maks and her after they removed the cloths that had covered the ice-wood cages. Je’en’s cage had taken up the greenish glow of the core, and it began to glow on its own. She hoped it was supposed to do that.
The tower redoubled its efforts to halt Je’en and Maks, causing Je’en to cry out, and slow down. She could almost see the waves of force directed at her form the core. She could feel each one as it hit her body and sent lances of pain into her head. When she couldn’t take any more standing up, she went to her knees, and pulled herself along. But, Maks never wavered, and kept going.
Then, just a few more feet from the table, Je’en felt her control slip. Just for an instant, but it was enough. She was reaching out her arm to pull herself along another few inches, when she found she couldn’t move. Her head was up enough to see the table, and Maks, but she could no longer make any movement, not even to blink her eyes. Maks, though, was still plodding along, step by step closer to the thing.
The statue of Cefn was within her range of vision, and as Maks reached the edge of the table, she saw it come to life. The wand in his hand was still raised, and it pointed at the table. But, somehow his cowl had been lowered, and just as his body returned to flesh, and the wand began to glow, Cefn screamed, and covered his eyes with both hands, dropping the wand which ceased to glow.
Maks raised his left hand, which was holding the cage, with the same slowness he had moved. Now, his eyes were focused on something – the table against the wall, and the attenuating Syusahn. Sweat was streaming down his face, and his dark tunic was visibly wet from the perspiration that ran down his body, but still he moved.
Enough of the wizard remained in Tarlada to recognize the composition and purpose of the cage that was nearing the core. The shadow man finally moved from his position by Syusahn’s table, but he moved as slowly as Maks did. Curses streamed from his mouth, alternately directed at Maks and the tower itself. The core responded by glowing even brighter, and the waves of force it was sending out really did become visible. Je’en saw them hitting Maks, making him stagger a little or flinch, but they couldn’t stop him. The waves got thicker, and hit harder, but Maks was almost finished what he had to do. The cage was finally directly over the core, and, as the waves of force began to draw blood as they struck the gypsy, Maks began to lower it over the core.
Je’en watched, motionless and free of pain, as the cage slowly settled into place. She saw the waves being cut off as they struck the ice-wood of the cage as it covered more and more of the core. Slowly, with Tarlada beating his shadow fists ineffectually on Maks, and Cefn recovering enough to slip his cowl back on properly, the cage trapped more and more of the core’s essence. And, just as Cefn was groping for his wand, ready to make a last ditch defense of his master the tower, the cage touched the table.
When it did, the whole ice-wood construct flared a deep, healthy blue, and rays of light joined the base points of the cage, enclosing the core completely. Then, blue light bridged the open spaces between the lattices of the cage, rapidly enclosing the core in a solid form of blue light. As the last opening filled in with light, the whole tower shuddered, and screamed. Tarlada, getting even more transparent, added his thin voice to the noise, and then Je’en was so suddenly and completely free that she collapsed.
Relief washed over her – relief that she was able to move, and free of pain, and relief that the spell on the tower was finally broken. She picked herself up slowly, and looked around. She saw the blue box of light on the table, and noticed the vines that had connected the core to the floor of the room were shriveling away, having been severed from the core. She saw Maks, still bloody, over by Syusahn, who was still pale, but no longer fading in the extremities. And, she saw Cefn slumped against the wall, also surveying the room.
After resting up a few minutes, she stood up, and went over to Cefn. “Are you all right?” she asked.
“I think so. It was strange, though, to be in the control of the tower like that. Just a momentary confusion, and it had me. And then, I could see and hear, but not move. Even when I was attacking you two, I couldn’t feel myself move. The tower did it all.
“Well, think we should see about Maks and Syusahn?”
She helped him up – he seemed to be very weak, but otherwise okay. They went over to the table where Maks was trying to wake Syusahn up. Cefn knelt down beside Maks, and checked the girl’s pulse. Then he said, “She’ll be fine, but I suspect she needs a lot of rest. Je’en, if she could borrow your cloak…”
When Syusahn was bundled up, Maks turned to the cage with the core in it. “What about that thing?” he asked. “Will it be safe there, or do we have to do something else?”
Je’en said, “Once the cage is closed, nothing can open it again. The ice-wood will slowly leach away the magic in the core, and when it is all gone, it will disintegrate, along with the core. We have done all that needs to be done.”
“Good,” said Cefn. “Let’s get out of here.”
Maks carried Syusahn, and they all began descending the many stairs of the tower. On the fourth floor, one of the shelves standing next to a wall caught Je’en’s attention. She detoured over to it, and stared in open-mouthed amazement at what was there. She said, “Cefn, Maks, come look at this.” They were both as astonished as she was, but for different reasons.
Set up for display was an exquisitely carved King’s Crown game set. The board was made of dark, polished wood, with inlaid squares of what looked like some kind of ivory, and triangles of some lavender colored stone. One set of pieces were carved from what was probably sapphire, but the most astonishing thing about the set to Je’en was what the other set of pieces was carved from: firestone. Each delicately carved piece had an ember of fire imbedded deep within it, and she knew that that flame would respond to the touch by flaring up and filling the whole figure with fire.
Maks ogled the storage boxes for each set of pieces. They were each made of the same material as their pieces, but they were lined with ysgafn, a kind of soft stone that was a perfect cushion for the valuable game pieces. And Cefn, alone among them, recognized who had made the set – a Master craftsman from ages and ages ago, whose work was very rare and highly prized.
Je’en began picking up the firestone pieces, and putting them away. Maks followed suit with the jade ones, and found that they reacted just like the firestones, glowing palely as he touched them. Je’en said, “I wonder if Tarlada knew what a treasure this is. Well, he won’t be needing this now, will he. I think that this will do nicely in lieu of a fee, Maks – it’ll help Cefn and I through the lean winter months.”
Maks just smiled, and continued to help her pack.