The next morning saw most of Torenda’s Troupe reloading the wagons and cleaning up the clearing by the way-cabin where they had spent the night. Meanwhile, Orla, Naka, Elin, Kend, and Thanj were sitting around the table that had been fetched from inside the cabin, and debating their next move.
The odd stone that had been found in the cabin rested on the table in front of Elin. Its marble-like surface gleamed in the sunlight, and the metal and glass bands that crisscrossed it sparkled like new.
Thanj was staring at the stone fragment, tracing the paths of the silver, gold, and glass bands. He idly wondered what the original sculpture had looked like. He reached out and traced a few of the lines as they wove under and over each other. Then, on a whim, he licked his finger and ran it along one of the glass strips. To everyone’s surprise, a clear ringing tone issued forth and he snatched his hand away in haste, wondering what he had done to the thing.
Naka’s interest was immediately piqued by the note Thanj conjured. Ignoring the restarted conversation, she pulled the stone fragment closer and tried to get the glass strips to make noise. Thanj finally had to show her the trick. Once she had it, Naka found that every single glass band on the stone produced at least one note, and often several. Upon close examination, she discovered that instead of being continuous like the metal lines were, the glass ones were really segmented into smaller lengths and held in place by wedges of wood.
Curious, Naka tried ‘playing’ the metal pieces in the same way as the glass strips, but the metal did not respond to rubbing. Trying the next logical thing, she tapped on them with her finger, to no result. Finally, it was Kend who took his dagger and tapped a band with its hilt to produce a bell-like tone. Naka thanked the wood carver, fished in her pocket-pouch, and found a piece of metal she proceeded to use to tap on the metal strips.
She found that each band, while obviously continuous along its length, was somehow segmented within so that several different notes could be conjured from each length just like the glass strips. While she delicately tapped at the stone to determine what notes could be found and where, the discussion continued around her.
So far, no one had been able to produce a convincing argument for either proposed course of action: continuing on south or returning to the original path and heading for Roebsach.
Orla was in favor of continuing on south. “After all,” she said, “we may have been intending to visit Roebsach next, but we certainly don’t have any commitments there.”
“But we just don’t know where this path leads,” argued Elin. “It’s so run down and overgrown that it certainly hasn’t been used regularly in quite a long time. Why? What if it doesn’t lead anywhere any more?”
“You know, this speculation would be moot,” put in Kend, “if we hadn’t managed to lose our only map of the south of Farevlin.” The woodworker looked at Thanj when he said this, since it had been the illusionist who’d had that map last, but Thanj was listening to Naka play random notes on the stone and didn’t even hear Kend’s gibe.
“Still,” Kend continued, “the weather has been nice and it’s early enough in the Autumn. We only really have to worry if the path actually vanishes, and even then we could still pull the wagons back out by hand. But the path most likely leads somewhere eventually, and we have plenty of provisions for the trip. I say we continue on south.”
Thanj had torn his attention away from Naka’s playing to hear the end of Kend’s opinion and was about to add his own when they all heard hoof beats coming along the path from the south. Moments later, a rider sped past the clearing. They only had a glimpse of a person in a dusty tan robe on the back of a large brown horse, and then the rider had galloped past and was gone.
The five of them looked at each other, and at almost the same time they all shrugged and returned to their previous pursuits.
Thanj said, “Yes, the weather is nice and yes, we have plenty of provisions. And this portion of Farevlin is just as heavily populated as the rest of it, so we can’t go all that far without coming across a village or town eventually.
“But are we explorers, or actors? Should we strike out into the unknown of south Farevlin without any idea of where we are or might end up? Or should we just go back the way we came, get back onto the road we shouldn’t have turned off of in the first place, and end up in nice, safe, planned-for Roebsach?”
Before anyone else had a chance to rebut Thanj’s cautionary stance, they all heard hoof beats again, this time coming from the north part of the path. Heads all turned, and sure enough, what looked like the same horse and tan-robed rider soon came into view.
This time the rider reigned in and steered the horse over to the group by the table, who could now see that the rider was a woman with long black hair and a strong-featured face, handsome rather than pretty, but just now exhausted.
The woman halted her mount a few paces from the table, and everyone around it stood up. “I … can you … ah … help … ?” She gasped out these unintelligible phrases, and swayed atop her horse. She took a deep breath and scanned the whole clearing. What she saw seemed very disheartening, though, for she bowed her head with a little sorrowful sigh-almost-sob, said, “Not war …” and fainted.
Orla caught her as she fell from her saddle, and then called for help to carry the rider over to the benches around the table. Players were sent to fetch water and some food while the woman was stretched out on two benches shoved together side by side. Orla used a wetted cloth to wipe the woman’s face clean, which revived her. After a few sips of water, the woman sat up slowly, leaning her back against the table and staring up warily at the strangers who surrounded her.
Kend, kneeling down next to her, said, “Take it easy, friend. We mean you no harm, but you fainted off of the back of your horse and we just wanted to be sure that you are all right. You also said something about ‘help’?”
The woman shook her head and said softly, “Help I sought, and help I have not found. But still …” She looked around at the five faces directly around her, and the others crowding in behind that first ring. She said, “Help you may not be, but neither do I think you could be harm. So.”
She sat up straighter, drank the water Kend offered her, and after a moment spoke. “I am Virrila, one of Tchad Zarilt’s students of the Way. The Tchad, who is also the Treasurer of Farevlin, has gathered around him people to whom he is teaching his philosophy of simplicity and serenity: this is the Way.
“Two evenings ago, word came to the Treasury that an invasion was imminent. A former student of the Tchad, who now styles himself Warlord Adamik, is said to be intent on one of the objects housed in the Treasury. You have, of course, heard of Hekorivas?”
Everyone nodded. The legends of the Staff of Unity were widespread throughout Farevlin. The gist of most of them was that Hekorivas belonged in the hand of the ruler of a unified Farevlin.
Virrila nodded in return, and said, “Good. Adamik seeks Hekorivas, and knowing the man as I do, he will do anything that is required to get it. Adamik also knows something of how well the Treasury is protected, so he knows he cannot just walk into the vault and take it from its table. He has something planned, of that I am sure.
“Tchad Zarilt has stated that he will not actively resist Adamik, and he has also forbidden the students from attempting to do the same. The Way is not about strife or combat, of that I have always been aware. But he also will not flee to leave the Vault to protect itself. This is understandable — he does have his duty as Treasurer. And, though he has given his students leave to seek safety, they have chosen to stay with him. I do not know whether they think he can protect them, or whether they all accept the Way enough not to be frightened by the threat Adamik represents.”
Virrila paused to take another drink, and to collect herself. Everyone around her was hanging on her every word, and she liked the feeling of being paid attention to like that. But she also had a mission, one that seemed doomed to failure. Hope still lived, however, and these people around her were that hope. So, she continued her tale.
“I, however, *am* frightened by that threat. I do not believe that Adamik will stop short of harming any or all of the Tchad’s students if he thinks that will bend his former teacher’s will. So, I left to seek help.
“I hurried to Bluebell Rock, the village nearest to the Treasury, and got a horse. Then, I rode. I’ve been riding since. I was trying to get to Hofrusk or Redtree Grove, where it was likely that I could find some soldiers, or guardsmen, or even some rowdy farmers’ sons eager for trouble. Someone to help against the upstart Warlord, someone to protect the students from Adamik’s enmity.
“About midday yesterday, somewhere south of here, I took a wrong turn. A trick of the light, or maybe I was just tired or over-worried, but somehow the signpost was pointing north along what becomes this path here. I had thought to continue east, but followed the sign automatically. By the time I realized that I was not on the right road, it was too late to turn back. I could only hope to find some town along this path in time.
“When I rode past this clearing, I barely recognized that it was peopled. And then, when I realized, I hoped that you would be a company of guards or a band of mercenaries that I could hire. You were my last possibility to find someone in time.
“Adamik will be at the Treasury by tomorrow, maybe the next day at the latest. He may give the Tchad time to consider before trying to coerce him, which may give me more time. Is there any village close by up this path? Anywhere I could find help we so desperately need?”
The way the silence stretched for a few moments gave her the answer, even before Elin said, “Well, the village of Tilting Falls is three days east, but you’d find no help there. Roebsach is maybe a day to the west, but that was our destination before we, too, became lost, so we don’t know what kind of help might be available there.”
“If any was, it would be help that was too late,” said Virrila. “A day to this Roebsach, time to muster help if it exists, and the time it would take to ride back, as a group will ride more slowly than one, means that Warlord Adamik will have Hekorivas before we could possibly arrive. Which is also true of doubling back and taking the correct road from that traitorous signpost.
“So, it falls to you to help us, or to no one. Is there any aid you could offer?”
Orla said, “I do not wish to disappoint you or thwart your loyal efforts, but we are actors, Torenda’s Troupe, though I fear our fame is not great enough for it to be likely you have heard of us.” Orla introduced herself and the other four immediately around Virrila, and then the rest of the company with a sweep of her arm and a simple, “and our players.”
Silence fell again, and Virrila rose and started pacing. Eventually, she said, “I don’t suppose you could … well, *play* warriors, could you?”
Naka laughed, and Thanj said, “Given that we could play warriors, which we could, we don’t number enough to scare someone at a distance who calls himself Warlord. And our wooden swords and knitted chain mail won’t fool him up close, either, so to try to out-bluff him face-to-face is also not an option.”
Virrila sighed in resignation, and said, “That makes sense, unfortunately.” She turned in her pacing, and noticed the stone fragment on the table. She walked over to it, stared at it, reached out but didn’t quite touch it, and finally asked, “What’s this?”
Kend walked back over to the table and said, “Well, we don’t know. We found it last night in the way-cabin; it was among the belongings of a traveler who died there. Ordinarily, we wouldn’t loot a body, but this fragment … it was different. I know I felt like it belonged to me when I saw it. Well, to us,” he said as he gestured at the other three people who wore the blue earrings.
Elin added, “It was like something I, we, had been searching for for a long time, without even knowing it was lost.” Elin reached over and touched the stone, not to take it or hide it from Virrila, but just to reassure herself that it was still there, still real.
Naka added, “And, it’s musical. See?” She began tapping at the metal bands, and sliding a wet finger along the glass bands, playing a simple children’s game tune, fingers and hand darting around the piece to hit notes that weren’t in any normal instrument’s pattern.
Virrila listened for a moment, fascinated by the tune, but then she remembered why she had been drawn to the piece.
“But,” she exclaimed, “there’s one of these in the Treasury! Not exactly like this — it is bigger, and has a cat as well as a falcon on it, but it is otherwise just like this one. Same kind of interlaced bands, same kind of marble-like stone, same fragmented sides. They might even be related — if they somehow fit together, they would make half a circle, I’d bet. I wonder what they could be?”
There wasn’t even a vocal decision made. Orla, Kend, Elin, and Naka looked at each other, excitement welling up inside of each of them, and nodded. Orla turned to the players and said, “Finish packing, we’re leaving as soon as possible.” She turned back to the people gathered around the table and said, “I don’t know what help we can be, Virrila, but we are going south at least as far as Bluebell Rock. Maybe we can think of some way to help as we travel.”
Zarilt stood in a very different-looking vault and gazed at the treasures laid out on the altar-like table at the front of the room. The wooden floor of the vault had been removed square by square, as had the covering panels on the walls. But that removal had not revealed the bare structure of the cave: instead, another floor had been hidden beneath the wooden ones, and other walls behind the plaster-smooth ones. Some of what was on the formerly hidden floor and walls was attributable to the artistic bent of a former Treasurer; the rest served as evidence of the vault’s protection.
Snaking out from the stone-block table were large root-like limbs that crawled across the floor and walls. These limbs coiled and curled, moving up, down, and sideways in the space beneath the transparent floor. But each limb, no matter how twisted and convoluted, eventually connected with a large, blue crystal. These crystals were usually beneath or behind the level of the coiling limbs, and as such were mostly concealed by the limbs themselves.
The floor continued to be smooth to walk on, and the walls were just as smooth now as they had been when covered. The space that the limbs existed in was either trapped beneath a layer of what looked like clear, very hard glass, or they were completely encased in that crystal-hard substance. In various places, intricate mosaics had been inset into the surface of that substance. Some of those mosaics were complimentary to the objects below the surface, reproducing the twisting limbs in other colors or shades, or creating pictures out of twisting limbs; others were completely at odds with them, as if to deny their existence and cover them up with normal scenes of lakesides, or forest glades, or city walls.
Zarilt knew nothing of what the blue crystals were, nor what the limbs were. He was fairly sure that no one in Farevlin did. The vault had not been constructed by those who had set up the Treasury, but had rather been usurped for the purpose. What had the creators of this cave needed the crystals and limbs for? What strange rites had the altar-table been used for? Sacrifices? Fertility rituals? No legends told those stories.
He did know that those crystals and limbs formed the protection around the table. The mosaics had been done at a much later date, around the time when the carved stone fragment had come to be one of the five treasures.
He understood why another former Treasurer had asked that the wood and plaster coverings be constructed. Zarilt had only once been in the room when it was bared like this, and that was when he had become Treasurer himself. He had always felt that the room looked impressive, but upon spending some time in it now for longer than the brief confirmation ceremony, he felt that it was growing more spooky and sinister. He certainly didn’t think that his meditation sessions would have gone well in this version of the room.
But meditation sessions were on hold for the foreseeable future, as were most of the normal day-to-day activities of his school. It had been four afternoons since word had come that Warlord Adamik was on his way. By now, he could be here at any moment, and though almost all of his students had remained with him, few were able to continue their daily routines in the face of looming disaster.
Zarilt remembered Adamik as being strong and resourceful, but superstitious and headstrong. He had no idea what had brought such a person to his school, but it hadn’t taken long for there to be trouble. In those days, he hadn’t had as much of a grasp of the temptations his students offered to the unscrupulous, and Adamik had been able to carry out his tiny empire-building efforts for longer than Zarilt had liked. But eventually he had been caught and expelled, like Fessim had been only a few days past. Only now Adamik was back, with plans that did not include adopting the Way.
Zarilt looked down at the five treasures. The one called Hekorivas was what Adamik was after. The Scepter of Unity was short, only a quok long, the span from a man’s fingertips to his elbow. On each end, encased in a wood lattice, was an irregular oval lump of some kind of whitish crystal. What was even more odd, there was one in the middle of the length as well. Not attached to the side of the staff, but actually in the middle of the wooden staff. It looked as if the wood had been softened somehow and cut into strips. These strips had then been stretched outward to leave room for the crystal lump to fit within. Then, the strips had been twisted and braided somehow to form lattices like those on the ends. Zarilt had never been able see the joins that had to be in the wood to get it into that shape. But then, there was only so close that he could get without r emoving it from the table, and he would not let curiosity sway him from his duty.
The seams could have been concealed by the carving on the wood itself, of course. The object was a work of art, but it was also possessed of a powerful history and legend. It made a sort of twisted sense that Adamik would try to get his hands on Hekorivas, but that just wasn’t going to happen. The Treasury had never been plundered, and that wasn’t going to change now, Adamik or no Adamik.
The door on the other side of the room slammed open, drawing Zarilt’s attention away from the altar. A student dashed through and managed to stammer out, “He’s here!” but he needn’t have bothered for Adamik was striding confidently right behind him.
The so-called warlord hesitated just after crossing the threshold, startled by the change in the room that he thought he knew. Adamik recovered quickly, and looked around, taking in the ophidian splendor of the vault. “Very nice redecorating job, Zarilt!” he boomed out. “I wouldn’t have thought it your style, but it works, I think. Most impressive.”
Zarilt watched his former pupil, trailed by a handful of well-armed and armored guards, stride across the floor. Adamik was older now, of course, but otherwise unchanged. He was still thick-bodied, with strong arms and legs, and a pinched face on a head that had always looked a little too small for his body. His hair was still brown, but his jaw-framing, short-cropped beard had a light sprinkling of grey. He wore armor like his fellows, and carried a huge sword at his hip, but he also wore a surcoat and cape, and the woman directly behind him carried a ridiculously ornate helm that could only have been made for intimidation purposes. And, of course, there were the customary amulets and trinkets hanging from his belt and epaulets — Adamik had always been rather superstitious.
The warlord stopped five paces from the altar, and his soldiers fanned out to either side of him. The woman who held his helm advanced a step in front of him but still to his right, and announced in a surprisingly loud voice, “Warlord Adamik comes before you. Heed his words and obey, or face the consequences!”
She took two steps back, and Adamik laughed. “She’s a good herald, isn’t she, Zarilt? And that’s not all she’s good at either!” He laughed with his people, including his herald, who didn’t even blush. Adamik continued, “I wager you know why I’m here, Zarilt. You may not have spies of your own, but the information would have come to you anyway. But to make it formal, I am here to claim Hekorivas.”
Zarilt said, “No one may claim Hekorivas. It is one of the Treasures of Farevlin. Only the unifier of Farevlin can lay claim to Hekorivas, and such there shall never be.”
“There you are wrong, my old, *old* teacher. I shall unify the thousand lands of Farevlin, but I do not intend to wait until I do to take Hekorivas in my hand. With that scepter, I can convince maybe a third of Farevlin to accept me as their overlord without striking a blow, which is a third fewer lands I have to conquer by might. And the more states I control, the more likely that others will come to me of their own free will, especially if I am wielding Hekorivas. I need that artifact, old man, and I *will* have it.”
Zarilt stepped back a pace from the altar and spread his hands wide. “Then try to take it, if you must. I shall not stop you.”
Adamik had never expected to just be handed the artifact he coveted, but neither had he expected Zarilt to simply step aside, to offer no resistance whatsoever in his office of Treasurer. He glanced around the strangely-decorated room and wondered about the legends concerning the Treasury. No one had ever pillaged it in all its history. It made sense that there would be a reason for that, didn’t it?
Still, Adamik had a reputation to uphold, and an impression to make. If the vault really could protect itself, he had to see that for himself. And Zarilt had to know that he was serious about his demands. He *would* be carrying Hekorivas when he left the vicinity of the Treasury, or he was no Warlord worth the name.
Adamik gestured to his left. One of the soldiers standing there stepped forward. He looked at the Treasurer, and then at the fabled Scepter of Unity lying on the table in front of him. He would have looked back at his leader, but he knew what the warlord expected of him. He, however, also knew the legends of the Treasury, and he didn’t think he would be satisfying his warlord’s wishes this day. Knowing his duty, he reached for Hekorivas anyway, a faint plea for mercy on his lips.
As his fingers approached the top of the table, a hum built up in the room. A glance around would have revealed that each of the blue crystals was glowing behind the twisting limbs. Nearer, and tiny blue stones set into the vertical corners of the stone-block table started to glow one after the other, starting at the floor. Other gems also began to glow on the four faces of the table, and the hum grew louder. Finally, just as the soldier’s fingers were about to touch the staff, the top of the table flashed bright blue. The soldier screamed, there was a deep snapping noise, and suddenly the soldier was slumping against the far wall, back by the door. Tiny blue sparks darted around on his armor, and smoke drifted out from under it. The man was quite obviously dead.
Warlord Adamik turned to check the fate of his man, and to hide from his former teacher and current foe the way he was clutching at his amulets in fear. He had expected something less deadly from the vault, despite the legends, and to see the might of the response it had produced to the attempted theft rattled him to his bones. But caressing his amulets and trinkets calmed him, and he realized that he couldn’t let anyone see his fear. He took a few steadying breaths, composed himself, saying a silent ‘farewell and well done’ to Rinask, his dead companion.
Adamik then turned back to Zarilt, summoning rage to cover his momentary weakness. Bluster would be enough to cow the Treasurer, he knew; a show of continued determination and strength to back it up. He said, menacingly, “You tricked me, old man.”
“I did not,” replied Zarilt calmly. “I said ‘try’. I never said you would succeed. You did not trust me in any case, else it would be you lying dead over there.”
Zarilt’s placidity infuriated the warlord. “Turn it off!” Adamik thundered. “Release the scepter to me, or you will be sorry!”
“I can not. I will not.”
Adamik growled in frustration. Sword-rattling obviously wasn’t going to be enough. He hadn’t expected to get Hekorivas without a fight of some kind, but it troubled him that he felt like he was losing the contest of wills.
“I will give you some time to reconsider, Zarilt. Think well to what lengths I might go to gain what I want.” He turned and strode single-mindedly to the doors, scattering the handful of students who had followed him in. His soldiers started toward the body of their fallen comrade, but Adamik said, “No. Leave him to the teacher and his students. Rinask served me well in life but can no longer serve in death.” He stopped and turned back to Zarilt. “Until tomorrow, Tch — *old man*!” And he was gone.
Zarilt’s students crowded around him, all babbling at once in fright. None of them had ever seen the might of the vault displayed, but neither had Zarilt himself. He had known that the vault was protected and had trusted in the tenets of his office. The result of Rinask’s action had been as gruesome as the twisty limbs in the floor were, but effective also. His treasures were in no danger. His students … well, he just didn’t know.
He reassured those around him, and soon each had left except one. Ninya, who stayed by him behind the altar, asked, “Do you know what he intends, Tchad?”
“No, Ninya, I don’t. I think he may be even more ruthless than I feared, however. He sacrificed his own man to prove that he was serious in his desire for Hekorivas. What else might he be willing to sacrifice to gain that artifact?”
“Is that not reason, then, to resist? To take up arms, to stand in the hallway out there and hold him off? To send for help?”
“No, Ninya, it is not. Fighting is not part of the Way. Resistance to others cannot lead to happiness. Serenity will armor me against anything that he does, and any of my students who stay in the face of what Adamik represents must learn the same, and swiftly.”
“But, Tchad,” Ninya all but whined, “What use is serenity when you are dead?”
Zarilt looked her in the eye, calling upon all of his calm and confidence. He said, “If serenity is a worthy goal — and it is — then serenity is its own reward. If I were to die now, my search for serenity would still have been worth every moment that I spent on it. There is no result to be earned, no reward at the end. The result is happiness now, the reward is serenity today.
“Let me ask you a question, Ninya. Do you think that Warlord Adamik is happy?”
Ninya laughed a short, derisive laugh. “Of course he is! He is powerful, so he can have anything he wants. His army earns him his every desire. How could he not be happy?”
“If that is happiness, then how is it that I am happy? No, Ninya, he is not happy. His army can not bring him everything he wants, though he thinks it can. It cannot bring him Hekorivas, can it?
“There is a simpler test, however. I am happy in and of myself, and no one can take that away from me if I do not let them do so. But I ask you, Ninya, what of Adamik? He has a powerful army, and people respect and fear him. This gains him much, and makes him happy in a way. But his happiness is not of himself nor with himself. Others suffice to make him happy.
“So what happens, Ninya, where is his happiness, if Adamik meets someone who is powerful enough to take it away from him?”