DargonZine 18, Issue 3

Liberated Hope Part 1

By: Ornoth
Yuli 24, 1018 - Yuli 26, 1018


This entry is part 5 of 27 in the series The Black Idol

Pain lanced through Darvale’s sweating body as a half ton of solid rock balanced precariously on his shoulders.

The smith took another rapid breath and yelled, “Heave!” The edge of the disc-shaped millstone bound for Carron’s new gristmill nearly caught the edge of the dock; another hand width and they could rest the stone on the dock and slide the rest of the millstone off the barge. It was foul luck that the river was low because of the lack of rain. Had the barge been riding higher, it would have been much easier to get the millstone up onto the dock.

“This is it! Heave!” The stone moved a hand-span onto the dock, which creaked under the weight, while the barge rode a bit higher in the river than it had before. Darvale and the three men helping him unload the stone could rest their aching muscles for a moment.

Until now, the people of Northern Hope had laboriously ground their meal by hand in a quern, or used their dwindling supply of coin to import bread and meal from the downstream towns of Asbridge. Carron, with the help of many of the settlers, had built a new gristmill, and everyone in town had parted with silver to have the millstone ferried upriver from Miass.

The rest of the stone slid easily onto the dock. The final bit of work was to have a team of oxen lift the disc so that it stood on its edge like a wheel and could be carefully rolled out to Carron’s new mill.

The workers wedged an iron bar the thickness of Darvale’s arm underneath one side of the stone, then looped a rope from the oxen through the hole in the middle. Two men were ready to lever the wheel with the iron bar, while Darvale and another man stood by to steady the stone on its way up. All was ready for the oxen to pull the stone up onto its edge.

Darvale signaled to Carron, who was tending the team. He got the oxen moving with a stinging blow from a heavy whip. The rope tautened, everyone heaved, and slowly the edge of the millstone rose to a 45-degree angle.

Darvale moved under the stone and pushed with one hand, while signaling encouragement to Carron.

“Heave!” Carron’s whip cracked as Darvale used both hands to lift and guide the stone. As the stone came closer to vertical, the lifting got easier, and Darvale signaled to Carron to stop the team.

Darvale watched as the stone balanced on its edge, barely registering one more crack of Carron’s whip. The oxen were still pulling, threatening to yank the millstone right over!

Knowing he was already too late, Darvale yelled, “Carron! Stop the team!” as he watched the millstone, now standing taller than the tallest man in the village, tilt, teeter, and topple. The hundred twenty-five stone grinding wheel crashed through the wooden dock, accompanied by the lightningbolt crack of half a dozen wooden beams shattering under its impact. Everyone scattered, and the men either fell or jumped into the river as their footing collapsed beneath them.

As quiet returned, Darvale walked up to the jagged edge of the dock and peered down through the hole the millstone had made. Beneath the remains of the wooden platform, the muddy water roiled with silt. As he watched, the silt gradually washed downstream to reveal the millstone lying flat on the bottom of the river, less than a fathom beneath the surface. He looked back up the landing toward the town’s main street, choked by frustration and anger at the ill luck that had befallen the refugees from Pyridain in this chilly, inhospitable wilderness.

***

Anarr followed the boy who had offered to carry his belongings from the barge he had arrived on. The lad trudged up the dusty road and approached a wooden building with a sign depicting a cat standing on its hind legs, wearing a white tabard with a scarlet letter ‘A’. The young porter stepped ahead of Anarr to hold the door and announced, “Welcome to Lord Araesto’s Cat, milord!” After arranging for his stay and ensuring that the boy had delivered his things to his second storey room intact, he gave the lad a couple Bits and went down to the tavern on the first floor.

Anarr stepped up to the bar and waited for the bartender, an aging man who was in the midst of a conversation with a local. Interested in learning what he could about this town, Anarr used the pretense of waiting for the bartender and listened in on their conversation.

“But is living here any better than living at home with a Beinison lord? They’ve occupied Pyridain, but at least we wouldn’t be living under a curse! It’s only a matter of time –”

“But this is where King Haralan put us,” interrupted the bartender. “We are his subjects, and he has mandated that we settle here. We can’t just go somewhere –”

A head was poked into Lord Araesto’s Cat. “Hurry! Darvale needs help; the millstone fell into the river!”

As the head was withdrawn, the handful of occupants of the tavern rushed outside: the burlier ones to assist, the remainder to gawk and gossip. In moments, the only people remaining in the emptied room were the bartender and Anarr.

The former looked at the latter and laughed, a little sadly. “Can I help you, young master?” Anarr huffed in response. While he was pleased to have recently been restored to the vigor and strength of his youth, it frustrated him when people more than 130 years younger than he treated him as their junior. It also reminded him of the damnably inexplicable events that had given him his black hair and his smooth olive skin, after he, then a feeble, elderly man, had finally accepted the inevitability of his approaching death.

“A mug of brown ale — your best.” When the order came, Anarr engaged the bartender. “So, does this kind of thing happen often?” he asked, nodding toward the door.

The bartender sighed. “I’m afraid it happens more often than it should. Sometimes this town really does seem cursed to fail, much as we all hate to admit it.”

Anarr feigned idle curiosity. “Cursed? Surely it isn’t as bad as all that?”

The bartender shrugged. “You can decide for yourself, young master. We’ve had houses fall into sinkholes, fires, storms, animal attacks, and now this happens. We’re already in the middle of a drought; we haven’t had rain in a month, and we haven’t been able to take water from Carron’s Stream, because we dammed it up to fill the mill pond above his new gristmill.” He set his elbows on the bar and spoke quietly and conspiratorially, “I really do wonder how long we can survive here.”

Anarr nodded. “Do people have any idea why these things are happening?”

The bartender’s shoulders sagged. “No. It’s a mystery. I guess it’s possible that someone in Asbridge might be upset about our being here, but really this was all just a wasteland before King Haralan settled us in this place. It’s poor land for crops and husbandry, and no better hunting than any other patch of wilderness out in the mountains. Who would even notice that we were here? But no, no one has found any reason for the curse.”

“Can no one do anything?”

The bartender snorted. “Who can we turn to for help? The king has more pressing concerns than the ill luck of a small refugee settlement. We’re deep in the woods, well into the foothills of the mountains, with only the river to connect us to the rest of Asbridge. We’re too tiny and remote for the duke of Asbridge, and he resents that King Haralan carved Northern Hope out of his duchy. The king said that we wouldn’t be beholden to any duke, but that means that we also aren’t under any duke’s protection. The nearest barony is tiny Castigale, but we don’t have much business with them, since they’re over by the Valley of the Thumb, and there aren’t any other settlements nearby. And where will this town find anyone who can lift the curse?”

As Anarr nodded and sipped his ale, the bartender narrowed his eyes. “So, sir, you seem awful interested in our town and its problems. What’s your business here? We don’t get visitors much up here.”

Anarr nodded again. “I’m going to solve your village’s little problem.”

The bartender frowned before offering a little chuckle. “And what do you hope to gain by doing that?”

Anarr thought back to his conversation with Parris Dargon, the second cousin of the ruler of Dargon. The man’s intent had been utterly transparent to Anarr; his ineptitude had only been surpassed by the arrogance of his desire to use the town’s curse for extortion. Still, one thing the fool had was gold, and Anarr needed money to continue his research. Parris would play his little game and maybe blackmail his betters, but Anarr would soon be able to resume looking for an explanation of what had happened to him that night on his deathbed.

He turned his attention back to the middle-aged bartender and gave him the same line Parris had offered him. “I have a friend who owns some land near here. His holding also suffers from this curse you have talked about. He asked me to come set things right.”

“Ha! And what makes you think you can do anything about it, lad?”

Anarr frowned. Whatever his appearance, he was not going to tolerate being treated like an adolescent. He stood and rested his hands on the bar, bringing him face to face with the skeptic. “I don’t think you understand, boy,” flinging the bartender’s erroneous word back in his face. “Two hundred leagues from here, in Dargon, I heard rumor of your town and its travails. I am fully capable of finding the source of your problem and removing it; I am just as capable of razing your village to the ground at a word.” As he said this, the wood around his hands gave off a burning smell and a little smoke. When Anarr stood back, the impression of his two hands had been permanently seared into the wooden bar.

The bartender stepped back, then stared down thoughtfully at the evidence burned into the counter before him. “Milord, if you can do what you say, you’ll have the lifelong gratitude of these thirty score souls.”

Anarr nodded. “That is as it should be, but also no concern of mine. Now, what more can you tell me of this? Is there any particular area that seems more cursed than the rest?”

This question stumped the bartender for a few moments. “Well, now that you mention it, the worst problems have been upriver, which is the southwest end of town, but then again, there was Vern’s barn. It burned four months back, and it’s on a pond half a league north of the river.”

“What’s the land like upriver? Is there anything different about it?”

Again the bartender paused, thinking. “Well, there’s a series of cataracts on the river itself, and I haven’t been beyond those, myself. I hear some of the townsfolk, like Dourg and Darvale and Kael, the regent, have been out there. Their word says that there are some big caverns out there, but they’re not safe, and there’s caves throughout these hills. Dourg — he’s courting Myla, a girl who waits tables here — he’s a failure, but fancies himself an explorer and has been up that way as much as anyone. He’s said that there’s an old settlement way out in one of the valleys at the foot of the Mariencap, but that’s most of a day’s journey, and a hard day at that. But that’s about it. I imagine the rest of it’s all just trees and rocks and whatever beasts can thrive on a diet of trees and rocks.” He smiled.

“Where can I find Dourg?”

“Oh, he’s here pretty much most nights. Hasn’t got much to do of a night but drink and gamble and stare at Myla, and she’ll be working tables this evening, so I expect he’ll be hanging about.”

“Thank you.” Anarr drained his mug and began to head upstairs to the room he’d been given. “Have a pitcher of that sent up to my room in two bells’ time.” He was partway up the stairs before the bartender called up to him.

“Sir?”

Anarr paused and acknowledged him on the first landing.

“Sir, my name’s Moritan, sir. If there’s any way for the townsfolk to assist you in your work, anyone here would jump at the chance.”

Anarr could see both the desperation and the sudden hope in the man’s eyes and wanted to reassure him. Once again, he felt pride in being needed and able to bring the mysterious forces of the world to heel. “Yes. I do not anticipate needing assistance, but I will certainly make my needs known.”

With that, he turned and continued up to his room.

***

The sun was well down when Anarr stood alone in a dark pasturage, a covered, boxlike package on the ground beside him. The familiar stars of the firmament provided a glittering backdrop for the large ovoid disc of Nochturon, which provided sufficient light to see.

Anarr stooped and swept away the black felt that covered the object, revealing a construction of thin metal bars that glinted in the moonlight. He opened a small door and thrust a gloved hand into the cage, grasping two short lengths of leather that were tied to an inky black bird. The bird flapped agitatedly, but the thongs, which were tied to the bird’s talons, held it so that it had to perch atop Anarr’s gauntleted wrist. He wouldn’t normally have caged the bird, but such precautions had been necessary during his journey from Dargon to Northern Hope, and served the additional purpose of hiding his methods from the curious townsfolk.

Having withdrawn the bird, a small hawk, from the cage and secured it to his arm, Anarr fumbled in a pocket and withdrew a small item that cast a feeble glow. Using his free hand and his teeth, he tied a small, translucent green stone to the bird’s leg. With a slight bob of his arm, he lofted the hawk.

Anarr watched as the Daeltis hawk climbed out of sight. He hardly needed the help of some peasant refugee to locate the source of the curse. The little night-loving Daeltis was perfectly suited for scouting the many mountain valleys, and equally suited to hosting the fragment of Anarr’s consciousness that was necessary to register what the bird saw.

After sitting down in the field, Anarr began to meditate, willing his eyes to see what the hawk saw, and his ears to hear what sounds came to it. As those senses came into focus, he also began to feel the wind as it rippled and flowed beneath his wings, something the magus had always enjoyed.

Anarr turned his attention to the stone that the hawk carried. It was a carefully selected gem that would function like a lodestone that sought magic. It would guide the hawk unerringly to the source of the town’s curse. At present, the bird was acting on a compulsion that located such magic a number of leagues west-southwest of the village, confirming the bartender’s report of the curse being more prevalent in that direction.

Anarr felt the hawk use a few quick strokes to gain altitude so that it could get a more precise idea of the object’s location. Just as Anarr turned his attention to it, the bird’s compulsion inexplicably disappeared and reappeared in another place, almost beneath him. That was something Anarr, in his hundred and sixty years of life, had never heard of, or even imagined possible. The normally graceful hawk suddenly swerved in mid-air, losing control momentarily as it responded to the sudden change in course that the stone had directed.

Anarr felt the hawk pull its wings back into its body and dive through the air. He was able to place the source of the compulsion down near the new and half-filled mill pond, but as he plummeted downward, its position moved once again, reappearing near the newly completed mill itself. Again, the hawk bobbled in confusion for a moment before its flight adjusted to the new direction by pulling out of the steep dive. Anarr felt its wings aching with the strain.

The bird was flying low and very fast, passing close by one wall of the mill. The inexplicably-moving object was just ahead, and in just a moment Anarr would finally know what was causing all of Northern Hope’s problems! As he glided past the water wheel that would soon power the town’s gristmill, the object suddenly shifted upward and to the right. The rapidly-moving bird attempted to recover and give chase, its hunting instincts fully activated, but the maneuver caused it to strike the water wheel’s paddle with a resounding ponk.

“Damn it!” Anarr rolled onto his side and clutched his head in pain. “Stupid, idiot bird!” He lay in a ball, holding his head, and it was several menes before the throbbing ache subsided enough for Anarr to analyze what had happened.

Although he’d initially concluded that the object could move from place to place at will, that obviously wasn’t right. The movements, themselves an enigma, when considered together added up to a clear intent to lead him to harm.

However, the real question was whether he had learned anything about the object’s location. Was the initial position southwest of the village a reliable indicator? It seemed that Anarr might want to have that talk with Dourg, after all.

***

By the time Anarr had retrieved the lodestone and made the painful trip back to Lord Araesto’s Cat, the tavern had filled up with locals. Everyone wanted news of the millstone’s recovery, the damage to the dock, and not least of all the combustible stranger who had promised to lift the curse.

As Anarr went toward the stairway, he felt the eyes of a dozen men following his every move. He stopped by the bar and caught the bartender’s eye. “If Dourg makes an appearance, please have someone wake me.”

The bartender pointed toward an angry-looking man at a side table. “That’s yer man right there, sir.”

Anarr rubbed his temples a moment before straightening. “Bring out another mug of that brown ale. Its quality is surprisingly tolerable.”

He straightened his attire and put the ache in his head aside, then strode purposefully over to the table that Dourg occupied.

“May I speak with you, Dourg?”

The man at the table only nodded, indicating the other chair at the table.

“My name is Anarr. I –”

“Save it.”

The magus did a double-take. “Perhaps you misunderstand me. I would like to ask you –”

“I said ‘save it’. Myla told me about your conversation with the bartender.” He nodded toward a scraggly, thin girl darting between tables.

Anarr nodded. The news of his arrival had spread among the locals, even to this disreputable little thug. As he watched the man’s eyes follow the woman across the room, Anarr remembered that the bartender had said that Dourg and Myla were a couple.

“She’s a nice girl. Are you planning on marrying her?”

The derisive laugh came out in a sudden burst. “Hah! What’s she to me? She’s just another roll. I’ll do better.”

Anarr laughed just as heartily and condescendingly on the inside, but showed none of it. Clearly the boy was pretending to be worldly, but all he’d seen of the world had been the view from a caravan of refugees fleeing their homeland.

“So, you want to know what’s upstream from here. How much are you willing to pay for it?”

“Pay for it?” Once again, the baseless arrogance of this peasant boy surprised Anarr. He clearly thought he was treating with a bumpkin like himself, rather than a magus bearing the accumulated wisdom of more than a dozen decades.

“I’ll not pay a Bit for it! Dourg, you have just one opportunity to make something of yourself. Look around: people are already gossiping about why I am talking to you, rather than anyone else in this village. Tell me what you know, and you will look like a hero to everyone in this town, but if you don’t, I’ll find the artifact that’s causing this curse, and I’ll do it without your help.”

The scrawny young man looked around the room, clearly calculating. “And what if I go and fetch it and destroy it or remove it myself? Then I’ll be the hero!”

Anarr shook his head. “No, Dourg. If that were so, you would have already done it. You can’t do it, and you know it. You need me to figure out how to get rid of it. Think about all the things it has done to your town already. How many people have died? I’ve already interacted with it myself, and I know how perniciously evil it is. If you pit yourself against such power, they’ll bury you just as surely as the others who have fallen afoul of its curse.”

Dourg seemed to skip past Anarr’s argument and focus on one fact. “You’ve seen it?”

“No, I said I’ve interacted with it. I’ve seen its power, and have an idea what and where it is. I will find it, with or without you.”

“You know what it is?”

Perhaps now that he’d intimidated this thug, answering the boy’s questions might produce more cooperation. “I used a divination spell to get a general idea of the item’s location. It’s in a valley about twenty leagues southwest of here –”

“Twenty leagues? Is that all? That can’t be right …”

Anarr locked eyes with the youth, waiting for an explanation.

“Straight, it’s probably at the old settlement. It’s a good five or six bells’ travel through the hills. It might be twenty leagues as the crow flies, but it’s a lot more on foot. And you’ll never find it without my help …”

“That’s true, and that’s why I’ve come to you. It’s quite an interesting artifact. I am rather curious to see it.”

***

The following morning Anarr set off alone, the few belongings he had brought to Northern Hope stowed in saddlebags borne by a donkey. Although Dourg’s guidance might have made finding the artifact a little easier, he’d extracted enough information from the young man the previous evening to find his way alone. Moreover, Anarr didn’t know quite what to expect. It might take some time to determine how to properly ward the object, and the last thing he wanted was some impatient or curious — and obviously untrustworthy — villager distracting him. Only once it was clear that he had neutralized the object would he return to Northern Hope and hire someone else to carry it, if that even proved necessary.

The morning bells passed quickly enough, and Anarr enjoyed the sunny, quiet stroll in the woods. The terrain became increasingly broken as his path crossed or delved into the valleys between the ever-higher peaks of the Darst Range. It was in one of these high wooded valleys that Anarr came upon his first obstacle.

He’d already forded a handful of small mountain streams that had crossed his path, but from the shade of a copse of evergreens that thrived in one sheltered valley, Anarr looked down upon a small river that raged at the bottom of a deep, rocky gorge. It would be impossible to get the donkey down the sheer side of the chasm, even if the constant spume from the cascading torrent hadn’t made the rocks as slick as ice, and then there was no way to ford the powerful current that swirled at the bottom.

Anarr might spend a bell or two picking his way gingerly up and downstream, looking for a place where he could cross, but if he had to go back and forth finding places to ford every mountain stream between Northern Hope and the Mariencap, it would take him — as Dourg had implied — the whole day to get to the artifact; however, a hundred and sixty year old magus had many ways to travel from Northern Hope to the Mariencap faster than Dourg’s walking pace.

For example, Anarr might simply leap across, where Dourg couldn’t. It was a simple matter of using magic to ensure that his momentum didn’t deteriorate after he leapt; however, the donkey, with its stubborn lack of trust in magic, wouldn’t find that so straightforward. It was indeed a rare animal that would take a running leap across a forty-foot river gorge.

“Stupid beast! It’d serve you right to make you find your own way across, and I’ll wait for you on the other side!”

There were, however, other ways of getting his ass from one side of the river to the other. Anarr burrowed in his pack and brought forth a small hand axe. After taking a moment to survey the trees in the little grove, Anarr walked up to an immense cedar. After running a whetstone along the blade and passing his hands above it several times, he took an almost dainty swing at the mighty tree. The hatchet blade barely cut the bark, but with a loud crack the tree was cleft nearly asunder. A second crack came as Anarr took a second, higher swing. Where the two cuts met, a large wedge of wood fell from the tree. With its trunk undercut, the cedar began to fall directly toward the chasm. Anarr quickly stepped to one side and watched as his bridge was made for him.

As the tree began to come down, a sudden gust of wind from downstream slammed into Anarr’s back, causing him to take two steps forward to catch himself. The sustained force of the burst caught the cedar just as it was beginning to topple, and pushed it away from the river gorge. Anarr stared in wonder that rapidly turned to incredulity as he realized that the tree was about to fall right where he’d tied up his donkey.

The mage grabbed what strength he could at short notice and heaved an immense magical blow at the tree in an attempt to deflect it. Nothing happened! Impossibly, the tree kept coming down, in spite of the magic Anarr had hit it with. The magus watched in disbelief as it crashed to the ground, just missing the panicking donkey, which had torn its reins loose from the sapling Anarr had tied it to.

He jogged quickly over to capture and calm his pack animal while he thought things through. He couldn’t recall any wind all day before the sudden blast. It was possible that it had been bad luck, and it might have been chance that nearly brought the tree down on top of his donkey. However, the residents of Northern Hope had probably thought their first misfortunes had been “bad luck”, as well.

Whether the curse was to blame, as seemed likely, or not, Anarr had to get across the river, so he applied himself to that problem. He considered moving the fallen tree into place, but he’d exerted much of his power trying to deflect its fall, and didn’t want to tire himself out with another half day of hiking ahead. Besides, the hatchet’s charm would still work for some time, so the most expeditious thing to do was simply to fell another tree … while he and his pack animal stood safely behind another.

Anarr approached a second, slightly smaller cedar and felled it with another pair of quick strokes. He watched carefully, but no gusts caught it on the way down, and it landed perfectly, handily bridging the chasm from one side to the other.

There was only one final step to perform. While Anarr could easily walk across the tree trunk, its curved surface would be treacherous for a donkey’s hooves. The mage walked up to the stump-end of the fallen tree and gave it a mighty whack with his little hatchet. With an immense crack, the entire tree trunk split lengthwise and each piece fell to one side, creating two broad surfaces to cross on, as perfectly flat and solid as if they were a bridge made of finished wooden beams.

The wizard straightened his clothing and put the hatchet back into the donkey’s saddlebag, then led the animal up and onto his newly-made bridge. It was certainly strong enough to bear their weight, and Anarr began leading the donkey out across the canyon, walking beside it with a firm grip on its bridle.

Since the top of the tree had fallen on the far side of the gorge, the further along they went, the narrower their bridge became, and Anarr stepped in front and began to lead the pack animal by the reins. As they got three-quarters of the way across, Anarr could see that the trunk hadn’t split perfectly in two, and one half of it was not as well secured as the other. The closer they got to the narrow end, the more the trunk flexed, bouncing up and down as they trod on it. With each bounce, the shorter of the two halves of the tree was sliding closer and closer to the edge of the gorge!

Anarr felt the plank beneath him fall. It only fell a hand’s span, but it was obvious that it wouldn’t hold long enough for them to get across. After another step, the left half of their bridge fell even further, now a foot lower than the stronger right-hand side.

Anarr coaxed the donkey up and onto the more secure plank, but as the animal jumped, the lower plank dropped another foot. The burro made it up to the safer surface and skittered quickly away toward the near cliff.

That left Anarr standing on the nearly fallen plank. He took one more step toward the far shore, but he could see that the trunk wasn’t going to bear his weight. When the donkey had leapt, his part of the bridge had fallen so far that now he couldn’t jump up onto the more secure plank himself, but had to carefully backtrack to where the two were closer together. After gingerly going back out over the churning river, he was able to put one foot up onto the stronger span. As he pushed off with his remaining foot, the lower trunk fell away behind him and into the chasm.

His heart pounding, Anarr regained his balance and stepped lightly but swiftly toward the shore. Meanwhile, the donkey had trotted to the far end and was hopping onto the rocky outcropping the tree had fallen on. However, that leap put so much weight onto the remaining half of the bridge that it, too, slid down about three feet. Out in the middle of the span, Anarr clung to the remaining tree trunk. Normally, his magic would give him the confidence to leap right across; however, the accidents and bad luck the curse had produced had left him questioning his own powers. If the bridge failed, would he be able to save himself, or would there be another sudden instance of “bad luck”?

Even as he stepped delicately toward the wooded slope that ascended on the other side of the canyon, his mind was filled with loathing. He hated being wrong, and already he had underestimated the pervasiveness of the curse, and had repeatedly made the mistake of relying on his magic, which was obviously subject to the curse’s malevolent effect. One didn’t live more than a century and a half by making imbecilic errors like that. He hated weakness of any sort, yet here he was, dangling above a fall to his death, actually afraid to exercise the power that he had spent lifetimes cultivating.

He tried to walk quickly but arhythmically, so that the oscillation of the tree trunk would be minimized. However, the upper branches of the tree began to slide down the side of the cliff face as he approached the edge. In a final, desperate leap, he landed on an outcropping about ten feet below the top of the cliff and had to clamber up, getting his hands and clothes dirty in the process.

He wandered off to collect his ass, with redoubled resolution to track down and conquer the source of this curse.

***

Although Anarr’s path approached the Mariencap from the northeast, Dourg had been very explicit in his directions when he’d explained it in Lord Araesto’s Cat the night before.

“You’ll never find the settlement by chance or by climbing up the mountain.” He’d piled the mashed turnip on his plate into a watery hill and tried to explain. “It’s in a box canyon on the western face, and the only way into it is through a sinkhole at the base. The only problem is, the land around the mountain is pretty flat, so the sinkhole isn’t visible from the ground; you have to climb the shoulder of the mountain in order to get elevation so you can see it. See?” He gestured with his trencher at a promontory on the mound of turnip.

“From there you’ll need to mark well where that sinkhole is, because there’s a gorge that runs all the way from there to the settlement. No other way in, no other way out.”

Now, sweaty and dirty after spending most of the day trudging through the mountains like a common animal, Anarr gazed down at one of the most extraordinary sights he had ever seen.

He stood upon the rimrock of the large, slightly lopsided sinkhole that Dourg had described. At one side of the caldera was a mound of earth with a bubbling puddle of grey water, which then spilled in rivulets down a short slope into a much larger, restlessly churning pool at the bottom of the sinkhole. A clear mountain stream cascaded in a torrent down a ravine that led from the mountain, also flowing into the large pool at the bottom. Above the pool where the stream met the grey water, huge gouts of steam roiled, leaving the rocks that overhung the sinkhole dripping wet.

Anarr picked his way carefully down to the floor of the canyon, keeping his donkey in tow. As he descended, the air in the caldera became more and more humid, dripping moisture, and Anarr was soon sweating more than he had in many years. On his way down, Anarr had another brainstorm: he’d leave his things near the canyon that led up to the mountain, because it wasn’t as humid on that side of the depression, and wash the grime from his face and hands in the water of the pool. The donkey would be fine, left to refresh himself from the mountain stream.

However, he was also intrigued by the bubbling grey water that fell into the pool from the vent at the side of the crater. As he made his way over to that fountain, the air grew noticeably warmer. He cautiously bent and put his hand on the bare rock beside one of the rivulets, and noticed how warm the rock was: as warm as if it had been in direct sunlight all day. He put a finger in one of the rivulets for just a moment, but it was still too long; he pulled his hand back quickly from the scalding water, muttering to himself.

He moved quickly away from the oppressive air of the hot spring, which took him toward the mountain stream, where he breathed in the clean, cooler air. To soothe his slightly burned hand, he dipped it into this second stream. It quickly numbed the pain of his burn, but the rest of his hand quickly began to ache with pain from the extreme cold. This water was frigid runoff, probably no more than half a bell away from when it had been snow on the mountain’s icy peak! Anarr pulled his hand away, shaking his head.

However, Anarr thought, where two extremes meet, there’s usually a middle ground to be found, so he walked toward the pool where the two streams met. The billowing steam soaked him as he stood there, leaving him a little chilled. He put his hand into the pool’s churning water, and found it seductively warm. It didn’t take long for him to shed his clothes and step in.

With the mountain stream on his left and the rivulets from the hot spring to his right, Anarr found that by moving left or right, the temperature of the water changed noticeably. “Now this is just right,” he sighed as he finally found the ideal spot. As he relaxed in the pool, he daydreamed about how one day he’d return to the sanctuary where he usually lived and instruct the students to equip his quarters with streams of hot and cold running water.

***

Even despite the lengthy summer days, twilight had fallen by the time Anarr reached the abandoned settlement. The climb had been laborious, although not especially problematic. Anarr’s route had been clear: just follow the river gorge back up the mountain. It hadn’t taken long for him to trek above the deciduous tree line and onto the steeper, colder slopes where only conifers survived. As the trees subsequently began to give way to the hardiest shrubs, the gorge widened and become shallower, and this was where Anarr had found the “settlement”, as Dourg had described it.

In truth, it was little more than one dilapidated basalt dwelling, accompanied by a handful of stone circles that marked the foundations where buildings had once stood. A forty-foot hemlock grew in the center of what would have once been the largest building. Another tree had grown out from underneath the wall of a second building, casting foundation stones about at random. In a third, the rotten trunk of a fallen tree had toppled a wall. Of the half-dozen buildings, only one low, narrow doorway arch remained standing. Anarr avoided that building entirely; his training in the occult warned him of the possible dangers of mysterious doorways.

Then, incongruously, there was the single dwelling: the only sign of recent habitation. It was a moderately-sized stone building with a sagging thatch roof, from which were growing several small saplings. Although the place might have been inhabited recently, the roof showed that it had been neglected for several seasons.

Anarr poked his head inside and peered around. It appeared to have three rooms: a common room, a bedroom, and a pantry. What little furniture and belongings there were had been strewn around, as if the place had been ransacked. And there was the skeleton of a man who had been dressed in a cowled robe.

In the deepening darkness, Anarr didn’t bother to investigate further. Instead, he staked out the donkey and went about setting up his campsite. He found some firewood piled against the remaining building, built a fire, and laid his blankets out on the bare ground. It was sufficient that he was here, in the place the curse emanated from; solving mysteries would have to wait until morning’s light.

Morning came slowly to the western slope of the Mariencap, as the sun’s ascent remained hidden behind the mountain’s shoulder, but even the half-light revealed much to Anarr. Further uphill from the settlement was a large garden plot that had gone to seed. This year’s plants struggled to break free of the decomposing tangle of last year’s crops, their fruit having rotted on the vine. Whomever the corpse had been, he had been alive just two or three years before.

Anarr walked the perimeter of the village to make sure that he didn’t miss anything. He came upon a well-worn footpath that led off into the woods in one direction. Following it, he came upon the mountain stream, now tiny, where he rinsed his hands and filled his water skin.

He also came upon a second path, which ran off toward the woods lining the northern wall of the canyon. Here the path dead-ended at a vine-covered rock face, and the low, arching entrance to a cave. Anarr pushed the ivy aside and stepped over the threshold of the dark cavern.

Inside, the floor was uneven, but a footpath had been worn smooth. The ceiling, about four feet above Anarr’s head, was angled from right to left, in the same direction as the mountain’s slope. The cavern continued beyond the few paces Anarr could see. The rising sun was still on the eastern side of the mountain, but the setting sun might cast a little more light into the cave later in the day. Still, that was of no matter to a wizard like Anarr; conjuring up a foxfire had been one of the first and easiest spells he had learned as an apprentice.

As his right hand orbited his left in the requisite gesture, a sudden flash blinded him and went out. He couldn’t see! Foxfire would produce only a dim, blue light, having not even the strength of a guttering candle; stupidly, he’d forgotten that the curse had affected his magic ever since his arrival in Northern Hope.

After a few moments, Anarr’s vision cleared enough to make out the light from the cave’s entrance against the darkness. He made for that, vowing to fetch his lantern and return immediately. He felt certain that this cave would reveal the source of the curse.

Half a bell later, Anarr returned to the cave with his lantern. Once inside, there was a fairly regular passage, and as Anarr pushed on he studied the smooth, half-spherical depressions in the walls and ceiling. After a couple dozen paces, his light revealed a pedestal. Atop the pedestal was a low stone dais, and atop the dais was a statue.

Approaching the platform, Anarr also noted that the cave ended there. Then he slowly studied each of the three parts of the sculpture before him.

The pedestal was rough, and hewn from the same stone as the buildings of the settlement. It stood waist-high, and appeared otherwise unremarkable.

The dais was slightly wider than the pedestal it sat atop. It was of a lighter stone, and polished so smooth that it reflected the light from the lantern. It was also very regular in shape, with a wide but shallow depression in the center.

In that shallow depression sat a black stone statue of a man, seated cross-legged. Itself nearly half a man’s height, sitting atop the pedestal the statue’s head was a little above eye-level, bringing it face-to-face with Anarr. A silver sword rested across the figure’s lap, but the most stunning aspect of the statue was the face: its upturned visage screamed its anger unto heaven, its rictus agape, revealing ivory white teeth sharpened to spiky points. It was somehow both primitive and evocative, and Anarr smiled and nodded to himself in acknowledgement that he’d finally found what he was looking for. The first part of his job for Parris Dargon — finding the object — was complete.

The next step was the part that really appealed to him: determining what it was, and what he could do about it.

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