Torenda’s Troupe, plus one student of the Way, traveled south at a much slower pace than any of them wanted. It was nearing the end of the same day Virrila had come across the troupe in the clearing of a way-cabin. They had listened to her story of the Treasurer of Farevlin, who was also a teacher of some kind of pacifist philosophy, and of a renegade warlord intent on conquering the thousand lands of Farevlin with the aid of one of the artifacts in the Treasury. They had decided to go south to help the teacher against the warlord, but they didn’t yet know how. What made their decision even stranger was that it had not been made solely out of concern for the students endangered by the warlord’s will, but more because of the news that the Treasury housed another carved and ba nded stone fragment like the one they had found, and found so important, in the way-cabin.
The four leaders of the troupe, Kend, Naka, Orla and Elin, were walking at the front of the caravan with Thanj the illusionist, and Virrila, the student of the Way. The rest of the players and the troupe’s three wagons followed behind. Though the need for haste was evident, their current pace was a sedate walk. Trying to maintain a soldier’s ground-eating pace for long periods of time was too difficult for the actors and the philosopher. Their slower pace, however, allowed those in the lead to discuss how a score and a half of actors could contrive to defeat or scare off a warlord determined to reach his goal.
Orla said, “‘Scare’ is what we need, right? Because we can’t actually confront the man and his army, so we need to make him run away, not kill him. So, what would frighten this Warlord Adamik?”
“A bigger army, I should think,” said Naka. “Someone to challenge his might and power. Right?”
Virrila nodded. “That sounds right, Naka. Superior force would easily make him run. But where are we going to get enough people for that kind of army?”
Elin said, “Thanj, what about your illusions? I know we have never tried to multiply a single person, but could your magic make one person seem like two, or five or twenty?”
Thanj thought the idea over, then said, “I think I could probably make one person look like as many as a score, perhaps more with a well-carved image to work from and if the illusion did not need to move. But, I couldn’t possibly make one person look like ten score, nor could I make ten people each look like twenty — I could not stretch my magic so far. I could make our company look twice as big, but we would never be a fearsome army.”
“But …” said Kend, who then paused as if thinking something through before continuing, “Wait, wait! The key phrase there was ‘fearsome army’, yes? But that doesn’t have to mean a large army!”
Orla asked, “What do you mean, Kend?”
He explained, “Well, remember Sir Nathrik? His army would qualify.”
Virrila asked, “Who? Sir Nathrik?”
Elin explained, “Sir Nathrik was a famous knight about twenty years ago, in the north-eastern part of Farevlin. He gathered a group of exceptionally skilled warriors around him, no more than a double-dozen all told, and then rode all through the states championing just causes. Some people even called him Farevlin’s Champion. I’m sure that some of the stories about him are exaggerations, but I’m equally certain that he wasn’t some empty legend, since I met him once.”
“Exactly,” said Kend. “So, Virrila, is there anyone here in the south with that kind of reputation? Anyone whose appearance alone would scare Adamik away?”
Virrila thought about it, then said, “Well, the school doesn’t get every scrap of gossip that passes around a market-center well. But if anyone besides Adamik himself had gained enough of a name hereabouts to frighten by sight, news surely would have reached us. I can’t think of anyone. Sorry.”
Thanj said, “Just our luck. Oh well, I don’t suppose we could just disguise ourselves as Sir Nathrik’s band. I mean, I know that he died over ten years ago, but maybe Adamik wouldn’t know that. Or maybe Adamik would think that Farevlin’s Champion had returned to save the Treasury.”
Kend brightened at the suggestion, but Orla saw the problem with it first. “No, that wouldn’t work,” she said. “Adamik would never believe that, not even with someone to suggest it to him. I’ve never heard of any legends attached to Sir Nathrik that would suggest something like that. And a suspicious mind would find it easy to believe that someone could just duplicate the knight’s banner and try to usurp Sir Nathrik’s fame. No, I don’t think that one is going to work.”
Everyone nodded their agreement, and turned their attention to searching for ideas again. Only a short time had passed when Naka spoke up again. “Wait! Maybe Thanj *was* on the right track. We can’t craft a convincing natural enemy to frighten Adamik, but what about a supernatural enemy? Perhaps not Sir Nathrik returned from the dead, but something else?”
Virrila turned to the musician and said, “Wait, you might have something there! I remember Adamik as being very superstitious! He wore charms and trinkets all the time, and was always chanting litanies meant to keep the attentions of evil spirits away from him.
“But what kind of supernatural figure? A ghost? One of those red-eared hounds from the Mavratal legend?”
Elin said, “No, not frightening enough. I … wait! I’ve got it. Not red-eared hounds, but invisible hounds! Do you remember the first night at the Headless Sheep, in Tilting Falls? The stories that were going around?”
Virrila was mystified as her walking companions all got looks of enlightenment on their faces. Then Orla explained how they had overheard tales of a certain local legend, and Virrila started grinning with the rest of them.
“You’ve got something there, Naka,” said Virrila. “A supernatural threat mean enough to turn a powerful but superstitious warlord into a coward. *If* you can make him believe.”
Orla, well acquainted with the strengths and weaknesses of her troupe, said, “It won’t be easy, but we do have some time to prepare. I think we will be able to put on a production fit for a duke!
“Thanj, your illusions will be at the heart of this play. Kend, you will have to supply the main focus, so start carving. Elin, I know that it won’t be a proper stage, but perhaps with Virrila’s knowledge of the land around the Treasury, perhaps you can rough out some movement directions for the action. I’ll work on the script, such as it is, and come up with the other supporting parts.”
She raised her voice and said, “Let’s pick up the pace again, everyone!” To her walking companions, she continued, “We have the beginnings of a plan, and a day to whip it into production shape. Shall we get to it, then?”
Low, rolling hills spread across a portion of the southern border of Farevlin, where it met Drigalit. At the end of a slight notch in one of those hills, almost too small to be termed a valley, was the passageway that led beneath the hill and into the cavern that was the vault of the Treasury of Farevlin. But the Treasury was more than just that one room where the treasures were actually stored. Aside from the few other underground rooms that served as the Treasurer’s quarters, the Treasury also comprised the several hectares of land around the valley entrance. The hill provided good grazing on its gentle slopes and large meadows, while the flat land around the base of the hill was divided into several small fields that had been harvested by this time of the year. It was a league between the entrance valley and the beginnings of the forest to the north, and all of the cleared land between belonged to the Treasury.
Warlord Adamik stood in front of his troops and surveyed this land. He remembered tending the herd animals that belonged to Zarilt’s school, leading them from their pens up onto the hillside, and back down at the end of the day. He remembered toiling beside his fellow students in the fields, sowing, tending, reaping like any common peasant. He scowled at the memories, and was tempted to spit the foul taste of his past out of his mouth.
It hadn’t been hard work. Even in the early days of Zarilt’s school, when there had been fewer students, there had been fewer animals and fields to tend. But it had always rankled him ever after that he had once scrabbled in the dirt to earn his keep. He had always had large dreams, and this day he would one step closer to fulfilling them.
Adamik fingered an amulet at his belt to appease the fate sprites at his presumptive thought — it was never a good idea to set the fate sprites against you by assuming success in an undertaking. He pushed the thoughts of his past away, and turned to look at his troops lined up in neat ranks behind him. These were the elite of his forces, though, in truth, they were the bulk of his forces as well. He had left about two score troops with his most trusted lieutenant, Eliian, to keep his conquered lands safe, bringing the rest of his army here to underscore his resolve to get his wish. The men and women standing in ranks were armed and armored as if for a pitched battle, the better to help intimidate his enemies.
Adamik thought it fittingly ironic that the people who had flocked to his banner could just as easily have ended up among the ranks of Zarilt’s students who were now lined up in rows in front of their barracks building. Both groups of people were the outcasts of Farevlin society — third or fourth children of minor nobles with nothing to inherit; sons and daughters of merchants or tradespeople who didn’t want to follow in their parents’ footsteps; the kinds of people who couldn’t find their places in normal society. The chief difference between his people and Zarilt’s people was that the students of Zarilt’s Way were peaceful, willing to be led like the herd animals they tended into a pattern of belief that left them helpless and ineffectual, total ciphers in the greater scheme of things. Adamik’s soldiers, on the other hand, wer e going to help him conquer Farevlin. Whether their individual names would be remembered by history or not, they were going to leave their mark by helping him become famous.
Absently fingering his fate-sprite charm again, Adamik turned back to the Treasury’s entrance valley. The overcast sky was beginning to darken as evening approached, hastened by the rain-heavy clouds that were slowly appearing from behind the hill. He was waiting for Zarilt to answer the summons that he had sent just after gathering all of the students into rows. He hoped the teacher wouldn’t keep him waiting — he didn’t want to have to conduct this final interview in torchlight in the rain.
Finally, Adamik spied Zarilt walking calmly up the entrance valley towards his students. The warlord raised his arm, and with a satisfying clash, his troops came to marching attention. He then started to stride forward, focusing his attention on his former teacher and his plans for the man and the treasures he guarded. Thunder rumbled over the hill, and Adamik smiled grimly at the fitting accompaniment to his thoughts.
At about two dozen paces from the rows of students, Adamik signaled for his troops to halt. He continued toward Zarilt, who was standing before his students. Only his four officers, those who had accompanied him into the vault the previous day, continued with him.
Adamik stopped only a pace from his former teacher, and asked without preamble, “Are you going to surrender Hekorivas to me, Zarilt?”
“My resolve has not changed,” answered the calm man. “I will not give you the scepter; you must take it if you would have it.”
Adamik had not expected any other answer, and his own reply was ready on his tongue. “Yes, yes, and I know the price that would take; yesterday was an effective demonstration. Still,” he said, a nasty gleam in his eye, “I wonder how many the magic would kill before it wore down enough to stop protecting the treasures?”
Zarilt seemed puzzled by the question. “Why do you think that there is a limit to the protective capacity of the vault?”
“Because, old man,” Adamik replied, a nasty sneer in his voice, “nothing is unlimited. Everything eventually runs out. Draw water from a spring too fast, and it will dry up for a time. My advisors tell me that this should happen with the vault, as well.”
Adamik saw Zarilt glance at his officers behind him. The teacher’s face was as calm and serene as ever, but something about the way Zarilt’s eyes darted around between the five of them made Adamik wonder if he and his officers had really come up with the solution to the vault’s defenses.
Finally, Zarilt said, “Well, Adamik, you have plenty of volunteers behind you. Why don’t you escort them to the vault and have them test your theory?”
Adamik grinned evilly at his former teacher’s suggestion. He had no intention of sacrificing any more of his own people, at least not yet. Fortunately, there was an alternative plan to hand which had two benefits: it would test the theory at no cost to himself, *and* it would hurt Zarilt greatly.
The warlord turned his grin into a sneer and said, “Yes, I do have plenty of volunteers: they are not standing behind me, Zarilt, but behind *you*. I think your students will provide me a much less expensive body of test subjects, don’t you?”
He paused meaningfully before continuing, “Of course, you could just give me Hekorivas instead.”
Adamik watched his former teachers’ calm facade crack a little as he considered the warlord’s statement. There was a small hope that Zarilt would relent to save his students, but Adamik wasn’t gambling on that hope.
“Do what you feel you must, Adamik,” Zarilt finally said, his unruffled mien back, utter confidence in his voice.
Adamik was furious, despite knowing the likelihood of Zarilt giving in then and there. He had expected something more, perhaps a little sweat. It was as if the old man didn’t believe that he was ruthless enough!
“That’s *Warlord* Adamik, old man!” Adamik thundered. “Do you think I won’t do it? Do you think I don’t have the heart to slaughter these sheep that follow you? I will. Don’t believe that I won’t! I’ll take them one by one and throw them on the altar myself, if that’s what it takes. I swear by Harmett’s jawbone I will!”
Zarilt didn’t so much as flinch in the face of his tirade, which only made Adamik angrier.
Seething, face red, growling with anger, Adamik pointed toward the students. Two of his officers darted forward and grabbed a student from the front ranks. They brought the man over and stood just to one side of the warlord, between Zarilt and Adamik, holding his arms firmly. Without breaking eye contact with Zarilt, Adamik drew his sword in a short, angry movement, and thrust it into the student’s abdomen, then gave it a savage jerk sideways to clear the body it impaled.
The gutted student made no sound, but the students gasped, and some moaned. Zarilt never even blinked, and the slight smile never left his lips, as if he knew something that the warlord didn’t.
Adamik glanced down at the body of the man he had killed, and then back into Zarilt’s eyes. He reached for the fate-sprite amulet again, and rubbed it four times. He recognized the murdered man. It was Louff, who had been a student of Zarilt’s Way even before Adamik had joined. Anyone who had stayed with the Treasurer’s school for that long had surely absorbed Zarilt’s teachings into the very fabric of his being. Adamik had just killed one of the least likely among the students to have feared death. Just his luck.
Still, the move had unnerved the students. Surely, Zarilt would see sense now. Adamik gave his sword a practiced flick that cleaned it of most of the blood that coated it, and then resheathed it. It wasn’t clean, but his officers could take care of polishing it later. “*There!*” he shouted. “Now do you believe me?”
“I never doubted you,” was the soft, calm reply. “It was not me you were proving yourself to.”
In a twinkling, Adamik’s sword was out again, its tip touching Zarilt’s throat. “Maybe I should just kill you now, and rid myself of your smirking face for good. Then, I can throw your students to their deaths on the altar in peace. How about that, huh? Got any more words of wisdom, old man? Think you can save yourself with a glib tongue now?”
Once again, Adamik saw Zarilt’s resolve falter just slightly. Was that resignation in the teacher’s eyes? Was that despair? Almost before Adamik could be sure of anything, calm descended over Zarilt’s face again. Some decision had been made. Was it the right one?
Zarilt opened his mouth to say something, but he was preempted by one of Adamik’s officers saying, “Warlord, sir, we have visitors. Look.”
Everyone followed the pointing arm, and saw a wagon rolling slowly out of the woods along the only road that led away from the Treasury, the one to Bluebell Rock. Three people rode on its drivers’ bench, while two or three handsfull of people walked alongside of or behind it.
Thunder rumbled from behind the hill as Adamik said, “Who are they? Didn’t the people in Bluebell Rock warn them not to come here?” He removed his sword from Zarilt’s throat as he turned back to the teacher. “Do you know them, old man?”
Zarilt shook his head. “I have no more idea than you, Adamik.”
The warlord frowned in puzzlement rather than anger, and made some quick decisions. Pointing, he said, “You two take this body and hide it behind the students back there. You go back to the others and tell them to ready their weapons. At best, we have an audience; at worst, some more subjects for our upcoming experiment. Right, old man?”
A few of Adamik’s soldiers rushed around carrying out the warlord’s orders, while everyone else waited and watched the wagon and walkers approach slowly. Adamik took the time to compose himself, trying to look and feel in command of the situation. His efforts were hindered, however, by the presence of his former teacher by his side. Zarilt exuded confidence; he had a commanding presence even doing nothing other than standing there in his robe and smile. Adamik was almost minded to stick a knife in the old man’s back and drag him back behind the students with the other corpse before the strange travelers reached them. He fingered several of his talismans in turn and hoped for the best.
The wagon finally pulled up in front of the dormitory-barracks, next to the rows of students, and stopped. The people on the drivers’ bench stepped down, and then everyone walked over to where Adamik stood.
The leader of the group, a somewhat plump, raven-haired woman with one blue and one brown eye hailed Adamik and those standing around him. “Greetings,” she said. “I am Bifrorlani, the owner and manager of Torenda’s Troupe, the group of players whom you see behind me. We heard in Bluebell Rock that there was something exciting happening here, and as we wanted to see the Treasury of Farevlin ourselves in any case, we decided to bend our journey in this direction. I trust we will not be seen as an intrusion on the … ceremony? … going on here.”
Adamik thought for a moment, trying to adjust to this new element in his plans. He knew that he wasn’t always the quickest wit in the race, but he did have an image to uphold, and a warlord had to be decisive. Fortunately, this time an answer presented itself readily. “Players, you say? Hmmm. Well, players are not quite the same as skalds, but have been known to serve a similar function. So, Lady Bifrorlani, perhaps your players could do more than simply observe here. Perhaps you could take news of what happens here to other towns and cities, and spread my fame even faster than rumor.”
“And whose fame would we be spreading, then?” asked Orla.
“Warlord Adamik, unifier of Farevlin, that’s whose fame. Today, I mean to secure the proof that I will unite the thousand lands of Farevlin. Today, I will secure Hekorivas, the Scepter of Unity, for my own!”
Adamik’s fingers again caressed the fate-sprite charm, as Orla’s eyes widened almost theatrically. She said, “A grand plan, Warlord, and one that will surely be worthy of our troupe. But, is Hekorivas not one of the artifacts housed in the Treasury? What has the Treasurer to say about your plan?”
Adamik started to reply, but Zarilt interrupted him. “I am Zarilt, mi’lady, and have been invested with the duties of Treasurer of Farevlin. And Hekorivas is among the treasures I guard.”
“But,” Adamik re-interrupted, “he is about to surrender it to me, isn’t that right, Zarilt? We have unbiased witnesses now to preserve this historic occasion. You don’t want to be remembered as the loser here, now do you, Zarilt?”
Adamik was itching to press his advantage, not even realizing that his position was untenable from the start, but Orla broke in with, “Speaking of witnesses, I can understand the soldiers over there, since you are a warlord and all, Sir Adamik. But what explains the robed persons over there? I had thought that the Treasury ordinarily required no guards, and even so, no offense, but they do not seem very soldierly in any case.”
Zarilt was absorbed by looking at the group of players standing behind Orla, so Adamik stepped into the gap. “The Treasurer is also the leader of a misguided philosophical cult, and these are his students. If they have picked the wrong man to follow, at least they do no one any harm in it.”
“Philosophical cult, you say?” said Orla with excessive interest. “What kind of philosophy, if I may ask?”
Zarilt, recovered from his reverie, said, “Well, I …” but he was cut off by Adamik, who was beginning to thunder like the clouds behind the hill again.
“You may not ask, not right now!”
“But, I need to know, so that we can get the story right,” complained Orla.
Lightning flashed from the Drigalit side of the hill, trailed closely by rumbling thunder. Adamik said, slowly and forcefully, “I will tell you the right story when this is over. For now, stand back and shut up. The day is fading fast and there is a storm coming, and I want to get this finished!”
Orla backed away, her hands up in demonstration of her surrender to the situation. Adamik nodded, turned back to Zarilt, squared his shoulders, took a deep breath, and got back to the business at hand.
“Now, Zarilt, as I was saying, we have witnesses to this historic moment, and it is up to you how history remembers you. Will you be the person who handed the Unifier of Farevlin the Scepter of Unity, or will you be some fool who …”
“Look,” cried one of the players in the troupe. “What’s that?”
The voice was filled with enough startlement that Adamik followed the pointing finger without really thinking about it. His gaze was directed to the south and slightly east, to the top of the hill. Thunder rumbled again, and then lightning became visible. Except that the lightning came after the thunder, and it didn’t stop.
A small patch of lightning seemed to be rising over the top of the hill. Adamik felt the hairs start to rise on the back of his neck. He had seven different luck-charms hanging from various parts of his body and he fingered every one in turn, twice, as he chanted three verses from an ill-luck warding softly to himself. And then the figure appeared, riding over the crest of the hill and coming down toward the people gathered in the fields.
The figure was tall, and made taller by the fact that it was riding on the back of a stag that was larger than any deer anyone had ever heard of. The stag’s antlers glowed with lightning, its eyes were red, and everyone could see the fangs in its mouth even from that far away.
The figure seated atop the demon stag was just as fearsome. Crowned with lightning, the figure had a wild face — eyes that flashed with flame, hair and beard tangled and white, glowing with the flashes of lightning. The strong-looking body was draped with hides, most still with heads and legs attached. And despite its wild-man appearance, the figure held a sword aloft, a sword that was longer than two men were tall, and that rippled up and down its length with flame.
A faint sound then reached their ears, even over the thunder that was still on the other side of the hill — the baying of hounds. It didn’t take sharp eyes to see that the grass in front of the stag was rustling and being disturbed by the passage of something invisible.
Adamik knew every supernatural legend anyone had ever told over an open camp fire, so there was no question in his mind who the riding figure was. His mouth opened and closed as he tried to utter the name, but no sound issued from his tightened throat. His left hand clutched at one of his protection talismans so hard that finely-carved stone actually crumbled in his fist, while he rubbed the most powerful of his luck charms so hard that his fingertips started to hurt from the friction. His mouth continued to move like a landed fish, until his herald finally said, in a strained whisper that still carried over everyone standing there, “It’s Skrnahl, the Wild Hunter!”
Mutterings came from all sides, as students and soldiers alike wondered whether this could really be the legendary Wild Hunter Skrnahl, and if so, what was he hunting here? Adamik, however, knew: knew that it was Skrnahl, and knew what he was after.
The warlord had always harbored a deep doubt about what he was doing. He thought that conquering the many tiny states of Farevlin could only be for the good of everyone. And if it was better for him as that conqueror, well that was all right, too. But perhaps some of the lessons that Zarilt had tied to teach had, in fact, taken root in Adamik’s soul. Or perhaps that catalog of legends that the warlord had memorized just led him to believe the worst in any situation.
Whichever and whyever, Adamik was sure that the Wild Hunter was after him. If for no other reason — and there were plenty of other reasons — than the killing of Louff, who had certainly not deserved to die today.
Adamik had actually started to shudder in fear, staring at the approaching apparition. He felt his officers gather around him, and his herald said, softly for once, “Warlord, sir, pull yourself together. We are more than five score, surely we can defeat this Hunter? He normally pursues lone prey, what can he do against so many? Even a sword as big as that can only slay one … maybe two … people at a time.
“Give the order, sir. We will all gladly die for your cause. Tell us to attack, and we will give that Skrnahl a taste of his own medicine. And won’t that be a tale to boost your reputation, eh, Dami?”
His other officers joined in, entreating him to give the order. Slowly, their words drew him back from his fear. Slowly, they convinced him that the Wild Hunter was a cowardly foe, and that Adamik’s army could beat Skrnahl without hardly trying. Slowly, his shaking stopped, and he stilled his frantic fumbling with his charms and talismans. Still clutching the crumbling fragments of the protection amulet, he straightened from his instinctive crouch, squared his shoulders, and thanked his officers for their encouragement, with an extra pat on the rump for his herald. He was himself again, ready to conquer anyone, or anything, in his way.
He turned toward his soldiers, ready to give the order his officers had suggested, when one of his troopers started charging toward the stag-riding figure that was now halfway down the hill. An instant later, a second soldier charged after the first, and the two somehow collided and fell to the grass. One got up and resumed charging toward Hunter. The other soldier didn’t rise.
The charging warrior brandished her sword at Skrnahl, shouting “Fake! Trick! Go away!” As she neared the waving, shaking grasses that preceded the Hunter, the figure pointed its sword at the running soldier. A tiny gout of flame flashed from the tip of the sword and struck the woman’s arm, setting it alight. The soldier’s shouts turned to screams.
And then, the baying of the hounds increased, and all around the warrior the grass was waving and dancing. The soldier began to rock from side to side as if she was being struck by something, perhaps leaping dogs. Blood appeared on her body, and then a limb was ripped clean off. The woman screamed louder, and then stopped as her throat was torn out by invisible teeth. The frenzy increased around the falling soldier, and in moments there was nothing left of her except, perhaps, a faint wraith-like image standing where she had last stood, fading around the edges. The Hunter pointed with his sword again, and a larger bolt of flame shot out, engulfing that fading image. A long, eerie wail echoed across the hillside, and flame and image vanished.
Adamik, who had watched the charge raptly, was stunned by the results. As the eerie wail faded away, he said as if to himself, “He destroys them, body and soul …”
Adamik’s men were already running. The warlord wanted to follow, but his fear, returned ten-fold, had paralyzed him. His officers, changing their pro-attack position in the face of bolts of fire and fierce, invisible dogs, grabbed Adamik, spun him around, and dragged him away. By the time he got back to the camp, he had recovered enough to mount his horse himself, and ride away as fast as he possibly could, leaving his dreams lying in the grasses surrounding the Treasury of Farevlin.
Adamik’s soldiers weren’t the only ones to run: most of Zarilt’s students fled too, some into their dormitory, most for the safety of the vault. Only a handful remained standing before the barracks with their Tchad and the several members of Torenda’s Troupe. Strangely enough, once the fear had set into Adamik’s soldiers and Adamik himself, the players had ceased acting fearful at all.
Those few students, the Tchad, and the troupe were the only ones to see the image of Skrnahl vanish about a hundred quoks from them, to be replaced by an ordinary sized man riding an ordinary horse. At the same time, nine people appeared in front of the rider from nowhere, as if they had been invisible. One of the nine was dressed like one of Adamik’s soldiers, and had what looked like blood smeared on her.
Orla walked calmly over to the newcomers, calling out cheerfully, “Great show, Kend!” The rider bowed. “You made a most convincing Wild Hunter. You and Thanj truly make an excellent team. And you others: superb hounds! Most convincing!.”
She reached the group, and clapped the one dressed as a soldier on the back. “Fantastic dance, Naka,” she said. “Music is not your only talent. But what happened at the start of your charge?”
Naka said, “Oh, apparently one of the other soldiers got the idea to challenge our illusory Hunter on his own. Fortunately, I was ready to go anyway, so I just tackled him, and hit him on the back of the head with my sword while he was down. I hope he didn’t disrupt things too much.”
“Quick thinking, and quicker action,” Orla complimented. “And, as I said, you made an excellent example of the fierce might of Skrnahl’s hounds.
“And now, let’s go meet the people we just saved, and reassure them that all is well again. Right?”
It was after dark when Zarilt led the representatives of Torenda’s Troupe, along with Virrila, into the vault. Explanations had been given and accepted, and Zarilt still marveled at both the ingenuity of these players, and how a few simple illusions had turned Adamik from his purpose.
He had already sent students ahead to reapply the coverings to the Vault’s walls and floor. There hadn’t been time to completely restore it to its normal appearance, but at least there weren’t quite so many twisty limbs to look at now.
The leaders of the troupe marveled at the sections of wall and floor still revealed. Elin, in particular, found herself fascinated by the mosaics that were not yet covered up: she thought they looked almost familiar, but she had certainly never seen them before in her life.
Soon, everyone was gathered around the low stone table that looked like an altar. Five objects still rested there, thanks to the efforts of the troupe, and Zarilt intended to reward them for that service.
Five objects, five treasures. The Chalice of Oronhil, a small, ornate cup linked by legend to the health of the Farevlin region somehow. The Scepter of Unity, Hekorivas, that strange piece of wood and crystal sculpture that fascinated Kend no end. The Orb of Sdanyip, a faceted metal egg suspended within a wire framework that supposedly contained the hand bones of a former ruler of Sdanyip, though no one knew to what purpose. The amber-oak, an exquisite work of art but legend less.
And last, the intricately carved stone fragment. Virrila had told Zarilt about the smaller fragment that she had seen in the possession of the players, and Zarilt had known exactly what he was going to do. The circle was complete, the wheel turned around. It was right.
The five representatives of the troupe gathered on one side of the table, and Zarilt stood on the other with Virrila. Four of those five were staring at the stone fragment that rested there: Kend, Elin, Naka, and Orla all ignored the other treasures for that carved cat and falcon fragment. Thanj alone was still examining the more impressive treasures.
“My new friends,” Zarilt began. “You have done an enormous service to the Treasury, to myself, and to Farevlin itself. Adamik has been forestalled in his efforts to steal Hekorivas from this vault, which he would have attempted at great cost of life without your intervention. As well, I believe that he has learned a lesson he greatly needed to learn — that there is always a greater power, a larger force. Perhaps he will give up his dreams of conquering all of Farevlin, and all those who might have died in his quest will be spared.
“I know that you did not do this for a reward; you did it because you felt it was the right thing to do. But I also know that you find one of the treasures here of particular interest. It is not one of the official treasures of Farevlin, however; it was left here many, many years ago as payment for a debt owed to a former Treasurer by a group of nomads called the Siizhayip. And now, I will give it to you to reward your services.”
Zarilt stooped and touched some of the stones on the side of the table in a certain order. There was no indication, no signal that the combination had worked, but Zarilt was sure of his knowledge. He straightened up, and reached for the large, carved stone fragment. He grasped it with no ill effects, lifted it from the table, and held it out to the people across the table from him.
Orla and Kend took the fragment between them as Elin withdrew the other fragment from the ornate bag at her belt. She held it next to the larger piece, and it was clear that they were from the same sculpture. Everything about them was the same: the bands of different materials, the size, the marble-like material. The two falcons were almost exactly the same, except that they faced different directions. Naka was tracing some of the bands on the large piece and almost by accident, she found herself tracing the continuation of a broken band right onto the smaller fragment Elin held and back onto the large piece. Fingers from all four hands started tracing bands and identifying matching points, but it wasn’t until Virrila said, “You know, I think I was right — these two pieces actually belong together!” that the others realized that she was probably right.
So, four hands reached in, and four hands pushed the two pieces together. Orla, Naka, Elin, and Kend all felt the slight jolt race up their arms as a flash of light obscured the two pieces. When their eyes had recovered from the flash, everyone was astonished to see that there were no longer two fragments of stone, but one large semi-circular fragment of some circular whole, bearing three carved animals — a cat and two falcons, and intricately woven bands that filled the middle of the piece and linked the three animals together as well.
The look of happiness on their faces as they held and gazed at the now-single fragment made Zarilt wonder if the stone was their own version of the Way. If so, he thought, he was glad to have given them more of it.