Author’s note: The following story takes place about a year before the start of the Baranur-Beinison war.
QUIASHRION WOODS: Firil 30, 1013
The mid-afternoon sunlight filtered down through the tall trees, dappling the forest floor as Berk tramped along the narrow path, softly whistling an old drinking song. The sound of a snapping twig and a muffled curse caused him to turn around just in time to see his friend Kintrell stumble and fall to the moist ground.
“What happened there, Trell? Did a tree up and trip you again?” Berk said with a grin as he extended a strong hand to his younger companion.
Kintrell struggled with his pack as levered himself up to accept Berk’s assistance. “I–I think I saw a rat,” he stammered as he regained his footing.
“Wouldn’t surprise me,” Berk said, casually scanning the dense forest that surrounded them. “They say that the wizard kept a pack of crazed killer rats, which of course have now escaped.”
Kintrell’s eyes widened, but he kept a calm expression as he brushed a leaf out of his unkempt hair. “You think I’m afraid of rats? I’m not, you know.”
Berk gave a short laugh. “I know. It’s the mice that really scare you, eh?” He shifted his rucksack to a more comfortable position on his wide shoulders and continued walking. But the thirty- five year old adventurer understood his friend’s nervousness, for the patch of woodlands they were now in had a somewhat sinister reputation among the local countryfolk. Stories were told of a reclusive wizard named Tarlada who built a great green tower called Glasmelyn Llaw deep in the heart of the forest south of a town called Dargon. It was also said that those who ventured too close to the wizard’s home were never seen again.
Berk was sure that most of the tales were exaggerated, but didn’t exactly discount them, either. But he never seriously considered trying to find the tower until almost two weeks ago, when he heard a rumor that Tarlada was finally dead. Upon making further inquiries, he learned that a pair of adventurers–a woman in a silver half-mask and a brooding young mage–had invaded the green tower to rescue a gypsy woman whom the wizard had taken.
This news had served to pique Berk’s interest. It was common knowledge that wizards, especially reclusive ones, usually amassed great stores of wealth, and the thought of an unguarded wizard’s tower (ripe for the plundering) very much excited him. He was once again running low on funds, his last job having come a month ago as a hired sword on a caravan run from Magnus.
Berk then spent the next few days trying to convince his most trusted friends to join him in an expedition to the tower. None of them wished to do so, as they all believed that the wizard was still very much alive and would horribly torture anyone who dared approach his forest retreat. In the end he was only able to persuade Kintrell, a longtime friend and aspiring thief, to accompany him by mentioning that the wizard would surely have more than a few books in his possession. Although Kintrell was illiterate, the young man was fascinated with books and took every opportunity to try and teach himself how to read.
After a few more days spent interviewing various people to determine the most probable location of Tarlada’s tower, Berk encountered an old man who was able to provide him with the information he sought. Then, after buying provisions for the journey, he and Kintrell headed south out of Dargon into the forestland where the wizard was said to have lived.
Kintrell scrambled to keep pace with Berk. A drop of sweat beaded off the young thief’s chin and soaked into the stained maroon tunic that hung loosely on his skinny frame. “What kind of books do you think the wizard has?” he asked.
Berk, who had heard this question several times since leaving Dargon, rubbed the back of his neck and replied, “I keep telling you, Trell, wizards have lots of books. Mostly spell books, that’s for certain. Okay?”
“Do you think he’ll have one that can make me know how to read?”
“Well, we won’t know that until we get there, right?” Berk replied heavily, shaking his head. They had been walking for what seemed like hours after leaving their horses when the trail became impassable for the animals, and his patience was growing thinner the more weary he became.
After a few moments Kintrell asked, “Do you think the wizard really is dead?”
Berk had also heard this question several times. He was about to snap back an answer, when he realized that Kintrell had never really done anything potentially life-threatening in his twenty- three years, and was undoubtedly feeling apprehensive. He reached down the neck of his brown tunic and brought out the object that hung on a leather thong. “Remember what this is for?”
Kintrell looked at the crystal-and-silver pendant. “Sure, it’s to tell us if there’s bad magic around.” He paused a moment in thought, then said, “But what if the wizard’s not evil? I mean, what if he’s good, but just doesn’t want us to bother him?”
Berk let the pendant drop to his chest and put his arm around Kintrell. “Trell, my simple-minded friend, think for a moment about why we’re in this gods-cursed forest. The wizard is dead, right? And when someone is dead, they can’t hurt those of us who are alive, right?”
“Ghosts are not real, Trell.”
“I–I know, but if he’s dead, why did you buy the pendant?”
Berk smiled. Kintrell was showing signs of original thought. “A simple precaution,” he replied. “In ventures like these, it’s best not to leave some things to chance.”
They walked along for another hour or so, pausing once for a brief rest. The forest was calm and quiet, with only the occasional birdcall or rustle in the bushes to break the silence. Soon, the trail ended in a large clearing where stood the fabled Glasmelyn Llaw. Berk and Kintrell stopped and stood in silent amazement at the great tower, which seemed to be constructed of a single piece of green crystalline stone. Five slender turrets rose to various heights from points on the tower’s circumference, giving the structure the appearance of a giant green hand thrusting upwards from the forest floor.
“So this is where the wizard lives,” whispered Kintrell, gazing up at the dark windows slits. A shiver raced down his spine at the thought that some unseen lurker could be watching them from inside.
“Used to live,” said Berk, drawing his sword. He glanced down at the pendant and was reassured when he saw that the crystal was dark. “Come on. It doesn’t look like anyone’s home.”
The pair advanced across the clearing and paused at the entrance to the tower. The door was missing, and there appeared to be scorch marks around the frame. The hinges of the door looked as if they had been melted.
Kintrell unhitched his mace from his belt. “What do you think happened here?” he asked.
“Exactly what it looks like happened,” Berk replied. He cautiously made his way into what he assumed was the main living area of the tower–or used to be, he corrected himself. The room was completely burned out; all that remained were brittle piles of charred wood and a layer of ash covering the floor. He poked at a nearby pile with the tip of his sword; moving aside some of the larger wood fragments, he uncovered the twisted remains of a large chandelier.
Kintrell wandered over to the side of the room and squatted next to the remnants of a large bookshelf. He stirred the burned wood with the head of his mace; suddenly, there was a loud screech as the wood pile erupted in a flurry of motion. He cried out and flung himself backwards. Berk whirled around in time to see a bird explode from the pile and wing it’s way out the door.
Kintrell lay gasping, clutching his heart. Berk reached down and hauled the young man to his feet. “What’s the matter with you? It was only a wood grouse!”
“S-sorry, Berk, it just surprised me, is all,” Kintrell panted.
“Well, come on, then. Doesn’t look as if anything survived down here–let’s hope the fire didn’t spread any farther.”
The two made their way to the back of the room and up a flight of stone steps; Berk noted with satisfaction that there was no fire damage in evidence. Almost halfway to the next floor, his foot slipped on something and he toppled forward. He let out a string of curses as he pushed himself back to his feet.
“What happened?” Kintrell asked. Berk ignored him as he knelt down to examine the step he had slipped on. It appeared to be covered with a grey powdery substance; he took a pinch between his thumb and forefinger and rubbed lightly. “Feels like ash,” he said. He took a quick sniff of the powder and frowned. “But it’s not from wood. There’s a whole mess of it here.” He straightened up and scrutinized the walls; they were clean and unmarked.
“So what do you think it is?” asked Kintrell.
“I don’t know; the fire didn’t get up this far, so it can’t be from burning.” Berk picked up his sword and carefully stepped around the ash pile. “Come on–and watch yourself.”
The second floor was apparently a display room. A panoply of armor and edged weapons occupied a third of the wall space, while maps of various kingdoms and tapestries took up the rest.
“Would you look at this, Trell–this is what we came for!” Berk said with delight. “Now, what we’re looking for are valuable things that we can carry and sell easily. You understand what I mean?”
“Sure, Berk,” replied Kintrell. “Nothing heavy–like those shields, or those big swords, right?”
“Right. Now let’s get to it.” Berk shrugged off his pack and pulled out a large canvas bag; Kintrell did likewise. Berk moved over to a display case holding an assortment of silver tankards; finding the door locked, he smashed the glass with the hilt of his sword. Grinning, he began stuffing the tankards into the bag.
After they had ransacked the room, the pair explored the turret for that floor. It turned out to be a library, much to Kintrell’s delight.
“Ol’s balls,” the young thief murmured, gazing at the shelves of books and scrolls. “You think these are his magic books?”
“Probably,” Berk said. Ignoring the shelves, he began rummaging through the drawers of the desk in the middle of the room. Finding only a sheaf of parchment and a stick of sealing wax, he turned away from the desk and saw with horror that Kintrell was happily tumbling the books off the shelves into his bag.
“What in Xothar’s name do you think you’re doing?” he yelled, grabbing Kintrell’s arm.
The young man looked at him fearfully. “Y-you said I could keep any books we found!”
“I know–but you can’t take ALL of them! We have to leave room for the valuable stuff.”
“But books *are* valuable!”
Berk thrust Kintrell away from him. “Look, just take the books out and leave them here. All right?”
Kintrell winced and began to comply. Berk looked at his friend and felt a sudden stab of guilt. He sighed heavily, then said, “All right, Trell, all right. You can take one, and if we have any room left over, you can come back and get a few more. Okay?”
Kintrell brightened. “Okay, Berk!”
“Great. Just meet me on the next floor.” Berk shouldered his bag and left the room.
Kintrell continued taking books out of the bag, and waited until he heard Berk’s heavy bootsteps echo on the steps before rummaging around to see which book was worth keeping. Most of the tomes he examined had elaborately illuminated pages and neatly flowing script; one, however, was written with strange blocklike letters and contained no decoration. He looked at the book’s leatherbound cover and ran his finger across a large gold symbol in the center. Just then, he heard Berk bellow for him to hurry up. Making his decision, Kintrell stuffed the tome into his bag and scurried down the stairs.
Subsequent floors and turrets yielded items more to Berk’s liking. His bag overflowed with silver candlesticks, ivory statuettes, small gemstones, and the like. After a while, the two paused briefly for a meal, eating on gold plates and drinking from fine crystal goblets. By late afternoon, they had filled their bags and backpacks, and had to fashion new bags using sheets from off the beds in one of the sleeping rooms they found. Berk continually checked his pendant, even though he was certain that the tower was indeed free of the wizard. He also kept finding mysterious piles of ash on the various levels of the tower, but soon ceased wondering about their origin the farther up they progressed.
Eventually, they reached the top of the fifth turret. The room was completely dark, prompting Berk to instruct Kintrell to light a torch. In the flickering firelight, the pair saw that the walls of the room were covered with a heavy black cloth. Next to the wall stood a long low table draped with a silver cloth, and in the center of the room stood a massive table, on which was a dark cube- shaped object.
“This was probably the wizard’s conjuring room,” mused Berk. He eyed the object on the table; Kintrell moved to stand next to him and wondered aloud what the object could be.
“I’m not entirely sure,” Berk replied. Curious, he unsheathed his sword and was about to poke the cube-shaped thing when Kintrell cried out, “No, don’t!”
“I-I don’t think you should do that, Berk.”
“Why not? Think it’s evil or something?”
“It-it . . . ” Kintrell shivered and cast his eyes nervously around the room. “I think we should leave this place.”
“All right, Trell, no need to wet yourself,” Berk said. He sheathed his sword, glancing at his pendant as he did so. The crystal was still dark, as it had been ever since they entered the tower. It was supposed to glow in the presence of hostile magic, or so the jeweller he bought it from claimed. Then again, perhaps there were some forms of evil too subtle to be detected by magical means.
A quick search of the room revealed nothing special. Berk ripped down the dark heavy cloth, which served merely to block the light coming in from the window. Satisfied that there was nothing to be gained in this room, he indicated to Kintrell that he was ready to leave.
The young thief was staring out the slitted window next to the table by the wall, gazing out over the woodlands. At Berk’s call, he turned and said, “This is the last room, so that means we’re finished, right?”
Berk nodded. “Not a bad haul, I’d say! Get your stuff and let’s leave.”
Kintrell reached down and picked up his makeshift treasure bag, having left the backpack and canvas bag on the previous level. It resisted his pull; he yanked harder, but the bag remained fast. With all his might he gave the bag one final yank; the low table flipped over and Kintrell found himself tumbling backwards into the table in the center of the room. Berk dropped his bag and started forward to try and catch him, but was too late to prevent Kintrell from slamming down atop the dark cube. There was a crunching sound, and Kintrell screamed as he felt shards of the object dig into his back.
“Trell!” Berk shouted as he raced to aid his companion. “Are you–” His words were cut off by a thin, shrill wail that suddenly pierced the air, accompanied by a burst of bright blue light that flared out from underneath Kintrell, where the dark cube had been.
Berk helped his friend off the table. Kintrell moaned as Berk removed pieces of what looked like charred wood from the young man’s back. Just then, another wail split the air; moments later, a violent tremor rippled through the tower. The two adventurers were thrown against the wall. Berk reached out to steady Kintrell, but suddenly clutched at his head as a searing pain shot through his mind. It lasted for only a second; Berk dropped his arms and saw Kintrell still holding his head.
“Trell, are you okay?” Berk asked as he shook the young man by the shoulders.
“W-what’s happening, Berk?” Kintrell stammered, his eyes full of fear.
“I don’t know, Trell, but we’re getting out of here right now.” Berk picked up his bag and ushered Kintrell ahead of him down the steps. They hadn’t gotten far when the tower shuddered violently for the second time. A bolt of pain hammered hard into Berk’s brain, but this time did not subside. He let out a cry and pounded at the wall, squeezing his eyes tightly shut. He drew a deep breath and concentrated, fighting back against the mental agony. He opened his eyes and saw Kintrell hunched up against the wall.
“Let’s go, boy!” he shouted through gritted teeth.
“It hurts, Berk, it hurts!” Kintrell wailed.
“Come ON, damn it!” Berk growled, pulling the young man along.
The tower trembled again as they emerged from the turret onto the fifth level, and the pair were thrown to the floor. Kintrell landed next to his canvas bag, which had tipped over and spilled out its contents. Concentrating against the haze of pain that clouded his mind, Kintrell focused and saw the book he had taken from the library. He reached out and clutched it to his chest, just as he felt Berk pull him to his feet. As he stumbled along in front of his friend, he felt a stiffness begin to creep into his arms. His breath started coming in short, ragged gasps. The pain in his mind was unrelenting.
By the time they made their way down to the second level, the tower’s shuddering had become severe enough to cause cracks in the walls and floor. Kintrell could barely move his legs. He stopped, causing Berk to stumble into him.
“Keep moving, damn you! We’ve got to keep moving!” Berk screamed.
“I-I can’t!” Kintrell sobbed. Berk shoved him hard and shouted for him to get going. Kintrell started crying openly as he lurched into motion.
They finally made it out of the tower and blundered down the forest trail. The pain had lessened somewhat, but the stiffness in their joints had become unbearable. Still, Berk kept them moving as fast as they were able.
Kintrell’s legs felt like solid stone. His arms had long since frozen around the leatherbound book. He desperately wanted to stop and rest, but Berk was cursing like a madman for him to keep going. Eventually, Kintrell’s legs gave out and he crashed to the forest floor. He saw Berk stumble a few steps more, then fall heavily to the ground. Kintrell tried to will himself into motion, but found that his body no longer obeyed him. His arms were dead, useless, and he found that he could no longer even feel the book against his chest. *What’s happening to me?* he tried to scream, but his lips were locked together. The last vestiges of feeling left his body, and soon his eyes closed of their own volition. In a panic, Kintrell tried thrashing about, but it was as if he were encased in stone, or buried alive in cold, hard dirt. *Help me! Help me! OH BY ALL THE GODS THAT EVER LIVED, HELP ME*!!!
Mercifully, his mind ceased functioning not long afterwards.
A few days later, Jongur the Hermit was chasing a rabbit through the forest when he came upon the petrified corpses in the middle of the trail. With a gasp of horror he dropped his sling fled from the scene, eyes wide with fright. He stood panting against a tree for several minutes, until his curiosity overcame his fear. He crept back to the scene and peered at the bodies from behind a bush. They looked very much like statues hewn from a flaky light-grey stone; indeed, he might have assumed that that was the case, were it not for the items they held. One man lay on his side, clutching a bulging bag made of a heavy blue cloth; the other lay on his back, an expression of sheer terror frozen on his face, clasping a large book to his chest. Jongur estimated that they had not been there for very long, as he had crossed this trail seven days ago.
The hermit sat on the ground, considering the bodies. With a shock he remembered that he was near the old wizard’s green tower. For as long as he had lived in the woods, the area around the tower felt foreboding and sinister, as if some unseen force wished to keep everyone away. Then, of course, there were the strange vines that seemed to have a life of their own and a singular purpose to discourage people from approaching too closely. Jongur had learned to avoid the tower, until one day not long ago when he pursued a deer into the tower’s sphere of influence. The vines were gone, as well as the sense of the unseen presence. He assumed that the wizard had died at last, and with him whatever magic he had used to ward his home. He found that the game in the tower area was more plentiful than that patch of woods around his hovel, most likely because hunters avoided the tower as well.
But now, Jongur feared that the wizard was not truly dead, and had cursed these two for plundering the tower. The hermit had always assumed that if he did not bother the wizard, the wizard would likewise leave him alone. But with this direct evidence of the wizard’s apparent malice, he wasn’t so sure. He no longer felt safe in these woods; it was probably best that he leave and find another place to live. But where? Back in the town? He shook his head sadly at the memories: the fire, his family’s death, the months of begging on the street, the constant fear of being attacked by other beggars for what he managed to collect. No, he couldn’t go back, yet neither could he continue to live here. Unless….
Jongur eyed the blue bag that the man nearest to him held. Perhaps he had gotten away with some of the wizard’s wealth? Hope rose in his chest. He unsheathed his knife and slowly crept over to the man. A few pokes on the man’s arm with the knife caused small grey bits to flake off. Satisfied that the man was completely inert, he pulled on the bag, but it remained firmly in the man’s grasp. He then cut a slit in the bag and ripped it open. Various objects of silver, crystal, and gold spilled out onto the ground. Jongur let out a cry of delight; if he could sell these, he would be a rich man and could try to start his life over again. His mind raced with plans on how to carry the wealth back to his home, and how best to go about selling them.
He stuffed as much as he could into the burlap sack that he used to carry home his kills. He was about to leave when he caught sight of the book the other man held. He went over and pulled the book out from under the man’s arms, accidentally breaking one of them off as he did so. The strange gold symbol on the cover of the book fascinated him; whatever the book was about, he was certain it would fetch a good price. He tucked the tome under his arm and hurried home.