DargonZine 12, Issue 5

On the Prowl Part 2

Yuli 4, 1013 - Yuli 5, 1013


This entry is part 2 of 1 in the series On The Prowl

Note to the Reader: This story takes place in Magnus in the summer of 1013, before the beginning of the Baranur-Beinison war. This is a prequel to “Rifts” (DZ v7n6). For a better understanding of the Bardic College and the bards, it is recommended the reader explore John White’s “A New Life” (FSFnet v5n3) and “Treasure 1″ (FSFnet v7n5). The history of Codex Araltakonia can be followed in Carlo Samson’s “Unwelcome Encounter” (DZ v2n3), “Reluctant Revelation” (DZ v3n9), “Take From the Tower” (DZ v6n2) and “Resolutions” (DZ v6n5).

 

Yuli 4, 1013 — Bardic College, Magnus

 

The whole idea of breaking into the Bardic College was absurd. It was the type of place that no one contemplated pilfering. The few who had, it was rumored, still rested in the catacombs of the compound. There was a rumor, though, among the thieves, of a man who just a year ago had come and left and carried out a magnificent treasure in the process. Pike had no idea who that had been, but if there was indeed such a man, he was idolized by Pike, having embodied the traits that he now needed.

 

Worse yet, unlike his other jobs, Pike could not afford to have anyone find out what he was doing here. Not only could he not be discovered in the College, but even after he left — which he hoped to do in one night — no one could ever know who conducted the theft. The bards of Baranur were legendary and with their skill and power came lore that, blessed by M’Kivar himself, they were invincible. Lore aside, Pike knew that the College as an enemy would be rather damaging to his career. For that alone, he needed to remain invisible.

 

The scaling of the wall was trivial. Since the College was crushed between the crowded streets of the Royal Quarter, there was plenty of concealment to enable him to challenge the walls. And with the College’s reputation, no one dared enter the compound with so bold a plan. Besides, the secrets were in the buildings, not the gardens, and with them, the traps to deter intruders.

 

Lying flat on the top of the three foot wide wall, Pike glanced into the bardic garden. It was dark, but the light of the moon allowed him to see all that he needed. Rows of apple trees lined the walks and flowering plots marked the intersections of paths below. A fountain gurgled in the distance, with a pale blue light emanating from beneath the pool of water at its base. There were only two large buildings that Pike focused on. One was the Great Hall, where shadows danced along the windows, even at this late hour of the night. If nothing else, Pike knew the bards were a celebratory bunch.

 

The other building was the library, on the north side of the compound. It was far enough from the wall that he would have to climb down to make his way there, but climbing down at the base of the wall was something he superstitiously wanted to avoid. On his hands and knees, Pike crawled the length of the wall, coming to a stop across from a small building. The two-story structure stood just a few feet lower than the wall and given a good leap, its flat stone roof would make a perfect invasion point.

 

Up to now, Pike had merely been a curious citizen of Baranur, having climbed a wall to look in. No real crime, except the lack of common sense, but with one leap, he changed all that. His feet landed solidly on the small building’s roof and he tucked and rolled, coming to a rest not far from the opposite edge of the roof. Getting caught now would be a bad thing.

 

Pike took a moment to study the garden. It was dark and quiet below, with the exclusion of the fountain in the center of the garden. The glow emanating from the water attracted Pike’s attention, but he knew he hadn’t the time to play that game. Each moment he took to do something other than his job was a moment he risked being discovered. If he was caught, he knew he would never leave these walls again.

 

Another short building sat across the walkway below. It was maybe a little over a dozen feet away, risky if he missed his footing, just fine if he did not. Taking a deep breath and several running steps, Pike made another leap through the air, landing on the other building. He was now well into the garden and still undetected. Now he would need to climb down to make his way to the library. Grasping at the rough stones that made up the wall, Pike descended to the ground and took a few moments to look about, making sure he was indeed alone. The sound of the fountain had masked his leaps and descent and continued to aid him as he rushed across the garden to the library wall.

 

The library was tall — about fifty feet for the building. Perhaps seventy feet tall at the tower. Going in, as he understood it, was best accomplished through an indirect approach. Having checked his gear, Pike started his climb up the stone wall. Like his descent menes before, he climbed without ropes or special precautions. That increased his risk, but also enabled him to move faster and be less visible. A rope hanging the length of a building was far more a marker than a man in black clothes clinging to a wall high in the air. Pike was thankful he was a good climber and had no fear of heights. Perhaps if he did, he would have chosen a safer, more reputable career, but with this job came adventure and he quickly discovered that he needed to live with the thrill and the risk. Or rather, he could not live without them.

 

The ascent of the Memorial Hall took more time than the rough wall of the compound. But this wall was also rough, with stone mortared into place exhibiting jagged edges that could be grasped and offered a multitude of footholds. The roof, when he reached it, was sloped, decorated with colorful windows that looked in on the interior of the Memorial Hall.

 

“Perfect,” Pike muttered. This was the place he wanted to be and since the Library was uniformly tall, finding the right section left some doubt in his mind as to where the right place to climb was. He checked the garden below, then crawled up along the sloping roof to the nearest window, where among the multicolored pieces of glass, several clear ones offered a view into the building. The white marble floor and walls disclosed no people. An advantage in his plan, should the area remain unoccupied long enough.

 

Pike fished in the pouch on his hip and produced a waxy ball. If it did its job, he would make it in.

 

Since the picture windows all looked much like the others, Pike chose to enter through the one he had perched on. He spread the wax on the glass, then lit it. In a few moments, the glass started to melt away, producing no drops, but only upward bound vapors. The unburned edges remained cool to the touch and the flame itself was never any brighter than the moon. If anyone, only the bats would notice his presence.

 

Anchoring a pin in the roof, Pike slipped the loop of a light cord onto it and dropped the other end down. The cord was long enough to reach the Memorial Hall floor and just strong enough to carry his weight. Pike checked the loop cast over the metal spike one last time and lowered himself into the empty corridor. The descent was rapid and once he was down, he flipped the rope, allowing the loop to slip off the spike and fall down to him. He would use a different escape route, as was customary in his trade. Now, unless someone looked directly to that picture window, no one would know he was in, and the chances of someone studying colored glass against the night sky were relatively slim.

 

Pike took residence behind one of the marble sarcophaguses and stripped off the black clothes he had worn to blend in with the night. The black made for a sharp contrast against the white marble and now that he was inside, he needed to make sure he did not stand out. A rich blue tunic and a green cloak soon replaced the black clothes. Unless someone was to look closely, he seemed much like any bard this late at night. Tossing his small pack behind one of the sarcophagus platforms, Pike proceeded down the corridor, towards the reading rooms at the south end of the building. This late at night they would be relatively empty, but because of the nature of the College, he expected to see students and attendants even at this late hour.

 

The vast Memorial Hall came to a doublewide door — a good five feet wide in each panel and no less than ten feet tall. “About right to move a sarcophagus through.” Pike glanced back. “What did people have to do to deserve being entombed in such a public place, their rest eternally disturbed by passing strangers?”

 

Adjusting his cloak to hide the lack of a rank pendant, Pike pushed on one of the door sections and walked through into a much smaller hallway. A sleepy young man shifted in place, casting a glance at Pike. His eyes widened and he drew himself to his full height, slightly shorter than Pike. His lack of a cloak indicated he was an apprentice, unlucky enough to have drawn night duty in the library.

 

“Sorry, my lord.”

 

Pike paused making sure his cloak did not shift out of position. He smiled, approaching the young man. “I was a student once, too. Learning during the day, doing chores at night. I won’t lie that it’s easy.” He glanced up and down the corridor. “The secret is tea leaves. Take the whole leaf and chew it while you stand here. It’ll help you stave off sleep.”

 

“Thank you, my lord,” the apprentice replied.

 

“My pleasure.” Pike turned and walked to the right, where the corridor entered the archive section. This wing, he understood, had three floors above ground and at least that many below. The top floors held the common books, with some recent historical chronicles. The floors below held the rare collections, the archives and the special manuscripts that so many outside scholars only dreamed of accessing. He needed to reach those lower levels where the tome he was after would be kept.

 

The echoes of his footsteps stopped at the main Library door and he stepped through onto a soft rug. Before him, reaching into the depth of the dimly lit room, were rows upon rows of bookcases, some shelves bowing under the weight of the texts sitting atop them. He glanced about.

 

On a balcony above the chamber, toiling below dimly burning oil lamps were a dozen scribes. Rumor had it that they were always there, working day and night, year round, copying histories and manuscripts for wealthy clients, every day of the year, except for the King’s Birthday. That one holiday of all others was a covenant that indicated the College’s support of the Crown.

 

Pike walked down a row of shelves closest to the wall, glancing into the alcoves where researchers would study. He had no hopes of finding what he needed and was pleasantly surprised when he discovered a sleeping man draped in a green cloak. Smiling at his fortune, Pike carefully approached, produced a small white capsule from a pouch on his belt and crushed it before the man’s face. The sleeper snorted, but did not wake up. Rather, Pike knew, he would be sleeping for bells to come.

 

Ever so carefully, Pike picked up the man’s head and removed his rank pendant. This was a Fifth Stave Journeyman, a midway bard, equally distant from the apprentices as from the masters. Adding the rank to his own costume, Pike proceeded down to the central chamber of the Library, where he located a penman arranging books.

 

“Brother?” he stopped a few steps short of the man, who must have been a senior apprentice, well on his way to becoming a Journeyman.

 

“How may I serve you, my lord?” the man stood up, dusting himself off from sitting on the floor. “I apologize for my attire.”

 

“I’ve just returned from the Harbor Master’s office,” Pike said. “A fortnight ago a thief took a Chalice of Kiliaen that was to be presented to the King. The militia requested our aid — they wanted to know how many of the cups are still about and a description to aid in their search.”

 

“I heard about that,” the man said. “It was a rather bold theft. I imagine the only way to outdo it would be in daylight.”

 

“Needless to say, the public nature of the theft has encouraged the Harbor Master and the militia to request our aid,” Pike went on. “We, likewise, intend to show a public face and keep the Crown in our debt. If you show me where to look, you can return to your … dusting?”

 

“Sorting, my lord. The Master Chronicler is always improving on the contents of the Library and the placement of the tomes. This way, if you will.”

 

Pike followed the young bard through the stacks to a downward stairway. The young man produced a set of keys that hung on a chain around his neck and opened the door. From this point on, Pike was venturing into the unknown.

 

“Is there anyone I can count on if I need help?”

 

“At this time of the night? No. There are just three of us here this late, but we’re all upstairs. If you need something, come get me.”

 

“What about the door?” Pike asked. “I have no key.”

 

“That’s right,” the apprentice sighed. “You’re one of the representatives to the Crown.” He looked at the rank pendant, thinking all the while, then shook his head. “No. I’m afraid I can’t loan you my keys. Knock on the door when you’re ready and I’ll come and unlock it. I’ll try not to stray far from this area.”

 

“I suppose that will work,” Pike agreed.

 

They proceeded down into the lower levels of the Library, through rooms overcrowded with shelves and busy with works of art. Pike made a mental note of remembering where everything was, but suspected that smuggling a single book out would be hard enough.

 

All of the rooms and corridors were dimly lit by wall candles and Pike had to wonder if this was common lighting or what was done for the night, since there was clearly little traffic through these parts at such a late hour.

 

Two levels down, they came to a large room. The plaque on the wall read “Baranurian Histories”.

 

“Any particular method I should use for searching?”

 

“The archive list is here,” the young bard pointed to the first bookcase on the left. “The volumes with the gray spine are catalogs from two years ago. The blue spines are ten to fifteen years old. Until the scribes are caught up, the two sets complement each other, but neither is precise in its content. Be sure you replace everything where you found it. The extra candles and torches will be in the containers along the walls. And, although I’m sure you’ve had this lecture many times, make sure you don’t catch any of the books on fire, my lord. You know the consequences as well as I do.”

 

“Of course,” Pike answered, although he had no idea what he was being threatened with.

 

Left alone in the Histories room, Pike went through the archive list books, trying to understand how books were referenced. In most libraries he had visited, the works were simply put into sections by category — histories on one wall, sciences on another, fiction, if any, in a small box by the fireplace. Here, there were books to say where other books were stored. It took some time to understand the method, but time was something Pike had plenty of right now. This far underground, he could only guess at which bell of night it was in the city, but having entered the library in the fourth bell, he knew there was plenty of time to get the job done, one way or the other.

 

Having deciphered the system used to catalog books, by floor and room and row and shelf, Pike located several Kiliaen histories and tithe listings and spread them out across a table, leaving the impression of a researcher at work. Then he picked up a stack of archive list books and went to work on finding the location of Codex Araltakonia, his ultimate goal this night. He knew that since the book arrived here only a few days before, it could not have possibly been listed, but he knew the subject he was after and assumed that finding the right area would make for an easier search.

 

He returned to the table, sat back in the chair and having kicked his feet up on the table, started flipping through the archive lists. By the looks of things, Pike needed to make his way one floor down and research the Ancient Histories collection. At least that was the place the lists indicated books on the Mystics and pre-Fretheodean history would reside.

 

Leaving the mess of things on the table, Pike returned to the stairs and proceeded one level deeper in to the dungeon. He understood this third level was the lowest one in the building and the most important of books were kept here, under lock and key. Rumor had it that the unspoken histories, the mystical truths and the outward lies were all safely deposited here, safe from the prying eyes of the outside world, beyond the reach of the Crown and the scholars of Baranur. With the door locks of each successive level he was taken through becoming more complicated, Pike assumed that the very bottom was going to be the toughest of them all. He was not disappointed.

 

The stair widened at the bottom, opening to what appeared to be a metal door. The floor between the last step and the door was a checkered pattern of black and white, making no particular design that could be understood. This was a deviation from the simple stone and marble floors in other areas.

 

Pike stopped on the last step. If there really were mystic truths and conspiracies that found a home so far underground, with so easy an access to the two levels above, a smart master would create complicated systems of locks for the actual treasure. Granted it would be hard enough for a bard to get here and probably impossible for a non-bard to even get into the library, but there was always that enterprising thief who would defeat all expectations and for that an architect needed to learn to think like a thief.

 

Pike knelt, examining the floor. “And the thief will have to learn to think like an architect.” Nothing in the pattern stood out, but the floor was just wide enough that it had to be stepped on to reach the door. Pike looked up. No handholds on the walls or ceiling, no way to reach the door by other means. How, then?

 

He lowered the candle to illuminate the stairs. They were perfect, as if cast from a single mold. Each smooth and straight and flowing across one another, like a waterfall. Except for the last. The bottommost step held a seam in its edge. A possible crack due to age or … Pike prodded the stair, then the wall, being careful not to touch the floor. In moments, he found an imperfection in the stone that turned into a groove, which turned into a lock. He studied the lock. It was narrow, slotted. Nothing like the string of keys the bard who took him here had carried. Perhaps even he had no access here.

 

Pike took the extra fine picks he hardly ever used from his belt and inserted them into the lock. With some effort, the pins caught and the picks turned the cylinder and the bottom stair slid forward, nearly making Pike fall onto the floor.

 

Although the extended platform did not reach all the way to the door, it was now close enough for Pike to place his picks into the next lock and open the door into the last level of the Library.

 

The dim corridor inside had the same checkered floor, but no visible ledges or footholds or wall breaks to allow someone to walk across. Another deception? Pike hesitated, then moved to step on the threshold to take a closer look. He considered himself a clever thief, but one trap was never enough to deter someone who was truly determined. A false trap, though … His foot froze just short of the threshold. The floor was the same, but if there was a trap, it would have to be different. The pattern in the floor was merely a design, not the mechanism of invocation.

 

Pike leapt over the threshold, landing on the checkered floor inside the door. Besides the soft echo of feet landing on the floor, no other noise disturbed the corridor. Pike turned and examined the threshold. It was normal, except for a seam that ran down both sides of the frame. Whatever was behind those seams could easily have been activated by a careless step.

 

Pike studied the corridor on this level. The pattern of the floor was a distraction that made his eyes throb even in this dim light. He could clearly see several doors on both sides of the corridor. What traps did they hold?

 

He closed the door to the stairwell. No point to giving away that he had made his way this far down. He carefully proceeded down the corridor, examining the floor and the walls as he went along. Each door had a plaque on it, written in a language he did not know. Some sort of runes, perhaps the language that bardic ceremonial speech evolved from. Perhaps Fretheod, perhaps some other ancient tongue. Pike did not care. Did not really want to know. The problem now was solving which of the eight doors was the one he was after. The runes on the doors were his only clues and although he could try to open all of the doors and explore what was inside, he hadn’t the time to do that, nor did he want to take the unnecessary risk of activating a trap.

 

Opening the small list book he had brought down with him, Pike looked at the description of where the books would be. While some symbols were runic, forming a pattern was hard. Placing the candle on the floor, he sat down to read in more detail. Histories. He was after histories. The ones marked with runes appeared to be all different. There must be a different filing system on the inside, he guessed, one that uses the runes. That, too, was a disadvantage. The book he was after he could only reference by the runes on its face, and not being able to read them created a serious dilemma.

 

But he still had plenty of time.

 

Runes, Pike recalled, were to some extent an improvement on the ancient practice of communicating by drawing pictures. The runes could be grouped into ideas or concepts or things and sets of them represented a stream of speech. It was from this ancient intermediate that modern language had evolved. He tried to think back to his schooling, to remember more, but for now that was it. Conceptual sets. He again reviewed the doors. It seemed feasible, but he might as well have been looking at a modern foreign tongue. Again he opened the book and studied the runes and compared them to the writing on the doors.

 

“If I were a mage, I’d put my things here,” he confidently declared, standing before a door. “And art,” he turned to the door behind him, “would go behind you.” It was all a guess, but it was his only chance. Eventually, Pike felt confident he had identified the eight categories of the world as a bardic scholar might view them. He came to the door behind which he suspected the Codex would be and carefully examined the frame. There were no evident keyholes. There was no handle and no grip. Just a metal plate set into a carved stone frame. He’d seen door designs like this before. They were to trick the careless, not the smart. There was a method to use and patience to practice.

 

Many years before, Pike’s father had given him as a present a small Bichanese puzzle box that would come apart into dozens of slivers of wood. A careful man who could picture the puzzle in his mind could easily put the puzzle together again. The trick was to visualize the pieces and it took Pike many years to solve this simple mystery to the way things worked.

 

The world could also be treated like a puzzle box, but one with many more pieces to assemble. Likewise, this door. There could only be one lock that held it in place. Anything else would be a trap. Similarly, since there was no keyhole in the door, it would have to be in the frame. That was an old castle trick used to conceal secret passages. Pike ran his fingers up one side and down the other, feeling for indentations in the frame that would give access to a lock. He found two on his first pass. Two more on the second. The third yielded one. When no more locks could be found, Pike studied their placement. In order to open a door, the lock had to move a bolt. If there was no bolt, the lock was a fake. The trick was finding where the bolt entered the door. That was more complicated, since the seam between the metal plate and the wall was so tight. If he had time, he could use the flow of water or the direction of a draft to identify the right spot, but he had neither the time, nor the proper tools. But he did have an advantage. The door was metal and a hollow in the metal, where the bolt would fall, would echo. At least that trick worked with rock.

 

Pike took a lockpick from his pouch and using the metal tip, tapped on the door. The center was solid. So were the sides. He slowly tapped his way across the door, just inside the frame, listening for any changes in the sound. On the right side, at chest level, he heard a dull tap, indicating a hollow space. The spot he found coincided with one of the locks.

 

“Thank you, father!” he said with a laugh.

 

He placed the pick in the concealed slot and slowly worked on the lock. It was a tough lock, one many experts would have given up on, but Pike hadn’t the luxury, now that he had gone so far. Menes slowly passed, until he heard a barely audible click and was able to rotate the pick and the cylinder it now grasped. As he completed the rotation of the lock, a knob sprang from the door, aligned with another lock in the frame. Pike exhaled, realizing he had been holding his breath. Had he sounded the door in the other direction, he would have found the trapped lock first.

 

The knob also required a key, but it was a smaller lock, less complex. It took no time to pick. Pike stood up, looking over the door one last time. It was a complicated trap, but not beyond his abilities. Replacing the pick in his pouch, Pike turned the knob and pulled open the door.

 

The room inside was dark, barely illuminated by the candle he held. There was a table and a chair and further back and above them, a pair of golden eyes, looking back at him. He gasped, stepping back, ready to slam the door closed. The eyes also gasped, blinking once and tilting a little to the side.

 

Pike decided to stand his ground. He lifted the candle higher and advanced into the room. A sword would have been good to have right now, but the nature of this job required that he not be armed. The light slowly revealed a worktable with bottles and jars and flasks. A crucible stood on the corner of the table next to a small metal case. As he advanced a few steps, the light of the candle reached the back wall and revealed a dog-sized animal with leathery skin in a cage it could not possibly have been comfortable in. The animal sat upright, like a man, looking back at Pike, as if waiting for him to do something. Its face, far from human, expressed no readable emotion, merely offering a stare of anticipation. Rather than a pet cat, Pike had found some kind of an imp.

 

“What the …”

 

The creature’s head rose and it blinked. In a raspy voice, it repeated, “What the …”

 

That was more than enough for Pike. The room was clearly not a library and the beast was far more than he wanted to deal with. In fact, he would have been happier to find a guard with a sword. Pike backed out of the room and closed the door, having pressed the knob back into the body of the door.

 

Given a choice, Pike would have abandoned the job then and there, but he had gone too far, was too close. He could not afford to back away from the job now. Having wasted the better part of a bell eliminating one of the doors, Pike returned to the archive lists. He again tediously sifted through the listings, trying to match the runes to the labels on the doors. Eventually, he settled on a different plaque and again got to work on the door. This time, he knew what to look for.

 

First, he tapped out the door, finding the two spots that sounded hollow. One was the bolt slide and the other the knob. Each had a concealed lock in the frame of the wall, but there was no way of telling which was which and with these two in different positions than the two on the previous wall, Pike was not going to tempt fate by trying one randomly.

 

Returning to the first door, Pike studied the section where the knob had appeared. It was nearly impossible to see, but a seam in the metal, ever so faint, formed a circle in the body of the door. Pike traced the same circle on the second door and confirmed the placement of the lock. Again, he took the time to pick it, slowly placing the picks in the lock, so that the pins remained in position to allow the cylinder to rotate. The lock clicked and once again, a knob popped out from the door.

 

“These bards aren’t as mystical as they want the outside world to think,” Pike chuckled.

 

A few more moments and the lock in the knob was undone. Now it was time for another moment of truth and Pike was hoping that this dungeon was limited to a single imp, restricted to the room he had already tried. Granted the creature probably wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to him here, but it was sufficiently startling to force Pike to hesitate. Having mentally prepared himself for another surprise, Pike opened the door. Again, it was a dark room, but this one clearly containing shelves loaded with books.

 

“Please, Rozaquay,” Pike sighed and stepped inside, allowing the door to close behind him. To his surprise, the metal body of the door turned transparent, allowing him to view the dim corridor outside. “Perhaps there is still some mysticism left to the bards,” Pike muttered.

 

Picking a torch in a wall sconce, Pike held the candle to it, allowing its head to catch fire. The increased light illuminated the room, but not enough to reasonably see past the first few rows of shelves. On the left wall stood several tables and chairs, with books, parchment and ink bottles scattered across the tabletops. Pike cast a cursory glance at the books, then proceeded into the stacks, taking the first volume he reached off the shelf and flipping it open. The lettering was not runic, but it was a language Pike did not understand. He tossed the book aside and took another one off a different shelf. The embossed title on the rich cover read “History of the Ancient World”. Pike flipped it open to the middle and reviewed the text.

 

In the second month of the war, the Queen died. Osgeofu crowned himself, and declared Tilgeofu’s followers outlaws. The war began to go against the rebel brother, but Fretheod was suffering more.

 

He wanted to read further, but Pike realized he had not the time to make his way through all the books. If this tome was any indication, he had found the histories. Now he needed to locate the Codex Araltakonia. And keeping the size of the room in mind, doing that was going to be a chore.

 

Tossing aside the volume he held, Pike ventured into the shelves in search of his target. He hoped that the collection was organized in some sensible way. His own grandfather used to arrange books by title, but in later years he changed the ordering, having preferred to arrange the works by the names of their authors. Pike had never really took an interest in how books were best stored, but now he hoped the bards were good at making this complicated system an easy one to explore.

 

What complicated matter was that the Codex was not written in the Baranurian tongue. He had with him a copied image of the front cover, a series of runes that looked much like anything else he could not read.

 

Pike checked the first bookcase by the door, in hopes of finding the archive list, but there was no indication that such records had been kept in this room and the only hope of finding the Codex Araltakonia was to understand the shelving system in this room. A quick search revealed that the individual bookcases were ordered by eras of the world, covering specific wars, events and countries, but Pike knew nothing about the nature of the Codex Araltakonia and in this assortment of shelves and books, it could be anywhere. Perhaps it wasn’t a history at all. Its name sounded mystical. Could it have been a tome of magic rather than history?

 

In an act of desperation, he ventured back into the stacks, pulling books off the shelves one at a time, trying to find his target volume. Anything that was titled in Baranurian was ignored. Titles in Galician and Benosian, which Pike could not read, but could recognize, were cast aside. Same was the fate of any other book that did not have runes on the cover. The task was monumental and as time passed, Pike stopped his furious, fruitless search. The only thing he found that seemed interesting was a book titled “Chronicles of Voldronnai” and the only reason that title had caught his eye was because Mount Voldronnai was in his native Arvalia. In either case, the book was an excellent symbol of his lack of progress.

 

At the rate he was progressing through the room, Pike figured a complete search would have him here for the better part of Yuli, and his original plan didn’t have him here later than the eighth bell of the night. He needed a new strategy for resolving this impasse.

 

He returned to the doorway and looked out into the corridor. The transparent door was novel. It gave him a sense of security, locked away in the bowels of the Bardic College. He hoped no one would show up in this level of the dungeon and try coming in, although he would certainly have plenty of warning. He hoped, as he admired its appearance, that the invisibility on the door was not bi-directional.

 

Pike turned to the three reading tables next to the door. Just by looking at them it was easy to tell that this room saw a fair amount of traffic. Pike had hoped that that traffic had already delivered the Codex. The information he was given indicated that the book came to Magnus aboard the Storm Challenger, the same ship whose sail helped him escape from Fort Point a fortnight ago. Ironic that he and the book were in the same place at the same time, but he had no idea this job would be offered to him the following morning.

 

That same night, the book was taken off the ship and transferred to the scholars at the Bardic College, perhaps the only place the Crown felt the book could be properly appraised. The High Mage Marcellon, Pike was told, was visiting friends in Dargon. Otherwise, Pike would have been breaking into the Crown Castle, on the far side of the Magnus garrison. In a way, being a room away from a demonic imp seemed far safer than stalking the High Mage of Baranur.

 

If the Codex was not here, where would it be? Pike was specifically told to look among the ancient histories collection. This was the place. The question was where was the book?

 

He sat in one of the chairs and, kicking his feet up on the table, opened the book on Mount Voldronnai. Perhaps a page or two would be sufficient to distract him. True to personal tradition, he started reading the book from the middle.

 

With Fretheod poised for even greater accomplishments came contact with the Eelail of Zinisjebirma. As fate would have it, the contact occurred at the trouble-besieged Wudamund. A party of Dopkalfar warriors exploring the northern frontiers of their land came upon the Fretheod watchtower. The Emperor had personally charged the commander of the tower with the task of protecting it from any imaginable harm. The commander did not know what made the tower so important to His Majesty, only that the Emperor had said, “If Wudamund falls, so does Fretheod.”

 

The commander, seeing an armed party advancing on his tower, issued two orders. The first, to attack and kill the hapless ‘invaders’. The second, to send word to the Emperor that Wudamund was under attack.

 

Fretheod reacted swiftly. Seeing the base of Fretheod power endangered, the Emperor took no chances. Nearly all of Fretheod’s military might was brought down on the Eelail kingdom in the depth of Cherisk’s Darst.

 

For their part, the Eelail were confused by this unprovoked attack. The Ljosalfar wanted to escape from the invading hordes and hide in the trackless wilderness. Their Dopkalfar cousins were much less willing to give ground. Tension between the two groups reached such a high level that for a time it seemed as if the Eelail would be fighting one another as well as the Fretheod.

 

 

This was a history new to Pike. He sat upright, placing the book on the table. He was familiar with the story of the Fretheod, but he had never heard of the Eelail kingdom and for a moment found himself enthralled by the book. He remembered childhood stories of the Eelail, the spirits of the night that were brought upon the land as punishment for dishonoring the gods, but Dopkalfar and Ljosalfar were names unfamiliar to him and the concept of Eelail countries and armies was completely foreign. Spirits, he imagined, wouldn’t organize themselves into proper societies. And he had no reason to believe in the spirits themselves. They were a fiction fabricated to scare troublesome children, such as he was, into cleaning up after themselves and not going outside at night. Yet, the text had caught his attention. Flipping the pages to the beginning, Pike continued reading.

 

When the All Creator had formed Makdiar, He ordered Thyerin, the master of elements, to cast the molds that would give it character. Thyerin first gave weight to the earth and lightness to the air and let them separate the dimensions of the Creation. He then dug deep pools to allow the waters to hug the earth and flow through the crevices in the Creation’s face and as the All Creator punctured small holes in the fabric of the sky, Thyerin punctured identical ones in the earth that He molded. From these lacerations came the fire that gave warmth. The fire reached for the sky as the water seeped into the ground. They were the shapers of the land and the architects of its features.

 

The water cut the rock and refreshed the earth. It gave life to the plants that covered the Creation. It gave shelter to the fish and nourishment to the animals. And the gods cast man and woman into the land that they forged.

 

The fire reached upwards, covering the Creation in warmth. Its brightness cut the night from day and staved off the cold. And using it, the gods created a great ball of flame that would stand in the sky, casting its warmth and light on all the creatures below. And Makdiar thrived and flourished and grew so fast that the gods could no longer control it. They forced the wind to carry the fire and had it move across the land, so that no part of Creation would be allowed to grow unchecked. And they let the darkness bring cold and from the darkest magic of all, They created the Eelail spirits to own the night as man owned the day.

 

This was a legend that Pike was already familiar with and flipping a few pages ahead, he continued reading from the beginning of the next section.

 

The first recorded history on Makdiar is that of the Eelail civilization on Cherisk. While humans the world over were barely entering the beginnings of a structured tribal culture, the Eelail flourished. For three millennia the Eelail advanced in society, magic and science, ultimately rising to a position from which they dominated all facets of life on Cherisk.

 

The Eelail kingdom was not as stable as outward appearances indicated. Long-standing friction between the two tribes of Eelail, the northern Ljosalfar and the southern Dopkalfar, made the governing of the kingdom increasingly difficult as each tribe sought to take the kingdom in its own direction, the isolationist Ljosalfar wishing to let the rest of Cherisk develop on its own, the aggressive Dopkalfar favoring a direct method of influencing society on the continent. Somehow, the kingdom of the Eelail successfully maintained its hold on Cherisk, the internal bickering strangely lending energy to all the kingdom’s activities. Thus did Zinisjebirma, continue for the next millennium.

 

An event then occurred that was to have far-reaching consequences. A group of people who called themselves Azannoi arose in northern Duurom. The Azannoi civilization grew rapidly, from a tribal level to that of a highly-advanced kingdom, in the space of only three decades.

 

The Azannoi spread across Makdiar, studying instead of conquering wherever they went. What knowledge they must have amassed before their disappearance can only be guessed at. In their millennium of existence, the Azannoi forever altered the course of history on Makdiar. It is widely believed that magic as it is known at present, particularly mind sourced magic, is largely the legacy of the Azannoi that intermarried with the native populations they encountered during their journeys …

 

Pike lifted his head, trying to absorb what he had read. Arvalia, this book claimed, had roots on the other side of the world. He contemplated the text he had read. Did this mean anything to him personally? This could be just fiction. Reflexively, Pike glanced at the spine of the book, trying to determine if this was one of the ones that would grace the big bin just beyond the fireplace in his grandfather’s library. The black leather cover gave away nothing but the name of the work. He looked at the other books on the table before him. All leather bound, thick with yellowing pages and …

 

Realizing that his gaze was focused on a familiar seal in the spine of a book lying on the table, Pike jumped to his feet and flipped the book over. The front cover was labeled with runes, surrounding a large gold symbol in the center. Pike took out the parchment with the sketch that represented the binding of the Codex. The comparison of the two left nothing to be desired.

 

“I should have realized they’d want to look at it first,” Pike reflected.

 

He was now ahead of his schedule and ready for the next part of the plan. Taking out a knife, he carefully cut the tome from its binding, placing the two parts of the book to the side. He needed another book of a similar size. The Chronicles of Voldronnai, which had fallen to the floor, was about right. Pike picked up the book, glancing at the text on the pages that were opened by the book’s fall.

 

It took a full cycle of the moon for the Eelail to complete their escape. The cost was enormous. Fully half the Ljosalfar and two-thirds of the Dopkalfar had perished. The trauma of five years of bloody warfare totally destroyed the Eelail civilization. No longer would the Eelail Council chart the course of the Eelail people. Seeking safety in anonymity, the Eelail broke up into small family groups and established villages throughout northwest Cherisk in what is now Baranur’s northwest. With good reason, the Eelail turned their backs on the world and would have nothing to do with anyone, least of all humans.

 

With the victory over the Eelail, the Fretheod army came home and things began to return to normal, but five months after the victorious return of his legions, King Althweil died suddenly, leaving the empire to his pregnant wife, Queen Earnfled. Thus were the seeds of Fretheod’s demise planted.

 

In spite of wanting to read more, Pike picked up his dagger and carefully cut the leather binding from the pages inside. Personal desires conflicted with the job and only one right thing could happen now.

 

He placed the Chronicles of Voldronnai in the binding of the Codex Araltakonia and replaced the book on the table, among the other volumes there. He then quickly tidied up the bookshelves where he had conducted his search and, finally inserting the body of the Codex Araltakonia into the bindings of the Chronicles of Voldronnai, headed for the door. The puzzle that he had to solve to get into the room was easy to solve from this side. The knob was on the inside of the door and pressing it back into the transparent body forced the door to become opaque and open. Casting one last glance inside the room, Pike exited into the corridor and allowed the door to close behind him. It blended back into the wall, becoming a seamless metal plate.

 

At the stairwell door Pike paused again. Did traps coming out match traps coming in? Paranoid bards would want it that way. Pike examined the door, then satisfied that it was not trapped, pulled it open. The lip of the bottom stair extended part way across the landing and Pike stepped onto it, pulling the door behind himself closed. The stair retracted on its own, placing the wide moat between him and the inner sanctum of the Bardic Library.

 

“They certainly don’t want people to linger, do they?” Pike asked no one in particular.

 

He walked back up the stairs to the room he had started in. He had what he needed. Now it was a matter of carrying it out. He had not heard the bells of Magnus since he entered the Memorial Hall and ultimately that complicated things. But that wasn’t a big problem, either.

 

Pike quickly cleaned up the mess of books he had left spread out on the table, saving one for last. Again, using his dagger, he cut the binding off the Kiliaen book and switched its cover with the Chronicles of Voldronnai cover, containing the Codex Araltakonia. This muddled the trail even more, but not for more than a day and he still needed to leave the Bardic College before the switch was discovered. Long before sunrise, so that his wellbeing could be assured.

 

As Pike had feared, the Codex Araltakonia was far too big to conceal comfortably anywhere without drawing too much attention as he exited the reading rooms. Getting the book out would have to be done in a more forceful manner. Pike left the volume on a shelf, then walked back up the stairs and knocked on the locked door. Shortly, the penman who had let him in opened the door.

 

“Are you done, my lord?”

 

“Just about. I needed some help tracking down another reference and then I should be able to retire for the night.”

 

“More like morning, my lord. We’re just past the seventh bell now.”

 

Pike sighed. “I’d like to take that as a sign of getting a lot accomplished.”

 

“Have you, my lord?”

 

Pike turned back down the stairs, shaking his head. “I tell myself that, but I haven’t all the answers.”

 

“What exactly were you hoping to discover, if I may?” The scribe hurried to catch up to him.

 

“Things are traditionally stolen for two reasons — monetary gain or a personal collection. If stolen for money, there must be a market for the item. In this case, most likely a private collection.” Pike paused, looking at his companion. “Makes sense?”

 

“I suppose, my lord,” the man answered. He was clearly one of those that never saw the light of day over the books. There was absolutely no sign of street knowledge in him.

 

“A collection, as I’m sure you realize, must belong to someone who will meet two qualifications. First, they must have the money to make the purchase or theft of the item possible. Second, and perhaps more importantly, they must have an interest in what they have stolen or had stolen for them. No one would collect things they are not interested in.”

 

“So you’re looking for someone with cause and means,” the penman guessed.

 

“Exactly! But there is more here. Kiliaen was once a part of Quinnat. If you look at the maps, you’ll see where the border was cut. Three hundred years ago, Sir Duncan Tallirhan, the very first Duke of Quinnat and brother to the then King Stefan Tallirhan, was giving his daughter away in marriage. It was a political alliance with a tribal lord who did not recognize the Kingdom of Baranur. The marriage carried a dowry of land and with it the status of making the enemy an equal and a Duke. Over the years, each time a child was born to this alliance, a new chalice was commissioned to bind the ties for the two powers. There were eight.” Pike paused as they entered the Baranurian Histories room. He was rather pleased with himself for having gotten the bard’s ear. He indicated for the penman to sit.

 

“Over the last three centuries the Chalices became a symbol of Kiliaen and that placed them in high demand. It’s not really known when, but two of the Chalices were sent to Magnus early on. Two more disappeared during the Great Houses War. Now a third Chalice was to be given to the King. This would have given Baranur and Kiliaen an equal number. Instead, three are now gone.”

 

“So who’d want to do that?” the young bard asked.

 

“That’s the big secret,” Pike said. “And the answer is most interesting.” He reached into his pouch and took out another capsule. “In fact, this will go a long way …” He crushed the capsule before the bard and the man slumped forward.

 

“This will go a long way,” Pike repeated, “towards helping you not trust people you don’t know.” He pushed the bard back in the chair, making sure he would not fall over. “I’m sure someone will find you in a couple of bells and you can spin quite a tale for them. I’m sure you’re much better at this than I. Good night.”

 

Retrieving the bard’s keys and the book, Pike headed back up the stairs. He made sure that every door with a lock along the way was closed and when he entered the main stacks of the library, he placed the large tome under his arm and calmly walked out. The only witnesses were the scribes copying books and with all the squinting they did in the dim light, he did not think they would be credible in the morning.

 

In the outer corridor, Pike again ran across the sleepy guard. “Good night,” he said calmly.

 

“Good night, my lord. Or rather, good morning.”

 

Pike gave the young man a smile and hurried down the corridor, deliberately passing the entrance to the Memorial Hall. He could no longer use that chamber as a means of escape. The window above the hall was too high for him to reach and the large door on the other end exited directly in front of the Great Hall of the main building and Pike did not want to have any unnecessary encounters. He felt comfortable confounding bards one at a time, but faced with a large group, he did not believe he could sell them on who he was pretending to be.

 

The plan to get the book out involved a simple escape, assuming Rozaquay had been humored by his exploits in the night. As planned earlier, Pike had come in over the west wall, from a residential area, and his escape was to take him south, through the market, where getting lost in a mazelike environment was hardly a challenge at all.

 

The corridor Pike was in exited in the garden on the east side of the library. That put him behind the Great Hall and, with any luck, concealed from any prying eyes. He spun about, looking for anyone who might chance upon him in this early morning hour. Nothing moved in the garden, leaving only the gurgling of the glowing fountain and the rustling of the leaves on the trees. Not having had the opportunity to do so on his way in, Pike pulled an apple off one of the trees leaning over the path. It was a young, green apple, still a touch bitter and hard, but curiosity satisfied, Pike continued on to the wall. He would, he thought, leave the fountain for another day, so that he had reason to return to the Bardic College. For now, with his task accomplished, he needed to escape while he had the protection of darkness.

 

After the sun rose and the bards in the library started waking up, they would no doubt discover that they had fallen victim to a thief in the night. There would be plenty of witnesses and sufficient evidence, ranging from the pack left behind in the Memorial Hall, to the missing window, which would no doubt stand out as soon as the rays of the sun fell on the Memorial Hall. And then, they would find that he took a book. The Bardic College would be an interesting place to watch then, but by the time they discover what he had taken, he would be closer to Gateway than to Magnus.

 

Pike climbed the rough stone wall with perfect ease, reaching the top of it as the Stevenic Church down the street marked the eighth bell of the night. Before descending into the market, Pike turned and gave the Bardic College a parting glance. If there had been no others, he was the first man to break into and out of the College. If there were others, then he was in the company of a select few, whose tales would never be sung by the bards inside.

 

With a soft chuckle, he descended the other side of the wall and fled into the night.

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