Roharvardenul walked away from the Fighting Unicorns well pleased with the deal he and Ka’en had made. Patting his side, where the book rested in the folds of his cloak, he walked slowly to the shadows of a side alley. Once hidden from casual observers, he let the ‘whore’ illusion that hid him fade, as well as the ‘man in brown’ one he wore under it. And he smiled in the knowledge that even should the missing book be somehow traced to that most capable thief he had hired, it could not be traced further – he did not believe in taking chances.
Vard (a name he much preferred to his given one for its simplicity – Roharvardenul was very difficult to pronounce correctly for one not raised with it, and he hated it when people mispronounced his name) moved even deeper into the shadows until he was sure that no one could see him. He began to concentrate on building up yet another illusion. This would be very difficult – invisibility was hard to achieve, and even harder to maintain, especially when moving. Vard had practiced long and hard under his erstwhile masters, and he knew his craft. Soon, even careful scrutiny of the shadows wherein he hid would not have revealed Vard’s presence – he was invisible.
When he had reached an equilibrium within himself, and he knew that he was ready keep the spell going as he moved, he inched his way out of the alley and around to the rear of the Fighting Unicorns, studiously avoiding the infrequent torch- or lantern-cast pools of light that were scattered about – hiding himself was hard enough; hiding his shadow as well would be nearly impossible. Placing his steps as noiselessly as possible, Vard crept into the Fifth Quarter and its concealing darkness.
Feeling more secure once he was three streets deep into the Fifth Quarter, Vard began to move faster, but kept up the invisibility. He knew that he couldn’t hold the spell much longer. He wanted to be as far as possible from the fringe Inn before he became visible again. He was already weaving the illusion that would replace the invisibility – he tried to be himself as little as possible outside the walls of his fortress home.
Curiosity has killed more than cats in the Fifth Quarter, but anyone with a little left might have seen a child, an urchin, appear running from nowhere, clad in scant rags and bare feet. An urchin was a common sight in the Quarter, the sudden appearance was not. Still, had it been seen, the incident wouldn’t have passed the lips of the observer, for the insane are dealt with even more severely than the curious in the alleys of the Fifth Quarter.
Threading his way through the maze-like inner streets of the Fifth Quarter, Vard eventually reached a blank, wooden wall at the end of a particularly narrow alley. The hidden catches were both difficult to find, even for him, and hard to press all at the same time (to prevent accidental discovery). Finally, the wall parted just enough for him to slip through, then slammed shut seconds after its opening, leaving Vard in total darkenss.
He stood in the darkness for several moments, letting the disguise he wore fade away. Here, he needed to be himself, for he had set traps to protect this secret way into the heart of his home from strangers. Filling his mind with the patterns the traps expected, he strode confidently through the utter lightlessness towards the inner sanctum. It seemed that hours passed in the minutes it took him to reach the final curtain, but finally he stepped into light.
The small room he had stepped into was deep below the streets of the city, although the gradual slope of the corridor was only barely detectable as one walked it. An ornate chair was set against one bare wall. There was a soft carpet on the floor, but the only other decoration in the room was a large pattern of lines surrounding what looked like a stylized door on the wall opposite the curtained real door. The decor of the room was completed by two lamps flanking the door, and a medium sized chest resting near the wall pattern.
Vard took a deep breath and relaxed – walking the gauntlet of that corridor made even him nervous. He walked over to the pattern which was more than a decoration. It was, in fact, a portal into the cellars of Aahashtra, his fortress home. With it, he could make the 40 league trip to and from Magnus in one step. It had taken a lot of effort to create the portal, but his frequent trips to the Crown City made it necessary.
Laying his hands within the terminal-circles at the edge of the pattern, Vard began to prime it, readying it for the activation spells. It was just beginning to glow faintly when he heard someone enter the room behind him. He whirled, fire beginning to limn his hands as an attack spell filled his mind, but he let it slip away when he saw that it was only his servant Qrun returning from his errand. Qrun bowed to his Master and took the wrapped bundle that he carried over to the chest. Opening the lid, the servant carefully placed the bundle on top of the many other oddments that filled the chest. He turned and bowed to Vard again.
“Ah, Qrun, what did you find today? Anything of special interest? Have you completed your rounds?”
“Master, yes, I have visited all the shops you told me to. These last items are the most interesting I found. They registered eight on the meter.” Qrun unwrapped the bundle in the chest, displaying a leather-cased harp and a slim-bladed sword. “See, Master, even a little above eight.”
The servant produced a strange device from the pouch hanging at his belt and held it next to the harp and sword. It was a simple rectangle of black wood, with a tube of glass set into a little trough on one side. There were lines etched across the glass at regular intervals, and a number was graven into the wood next to each line. As the device neared the two objects in the chest, a bright bar of yellow light began to move up the tube from below the mark labeled ’1′. When Qrun held the device almost touching the harp and the sword, the yellow bar had pushed past the mark labeled ’8′.
“Very good, Qrun, very good. These items will serve me well! Let’s see if they have any identifying markings, eh?” Vard lifted the harp case from the chest and examined the silver-decorated leather carefully. He opened the case and removed the beautifully wrought harp and examined it. Plucking a few strings that sounded marvelously in tune, he said, “It names itself ‘Soft-Winds’. Beautiful name, eh, Qrun? Wonder who the owner was? Belike some bard, down on his luck. Well, his loss is my gain, right?” He placed the harp back in its case and set it back in the chest. He picked up the sword. “Matched set, these were,” Vard said. “I can feel they had the same owner. Wonder what could have parted a bard from both his livelihood and his protection?” He peered closely at the carvings on the sheath and drew the blade after unfastening the peace-bond. He read the runes etched among the delicate leaf pattern that chased up and down the center of the well crafted blade. “And this weapon hight ‘Leaf-Killer’: an odd name for a very fine blade. It belonged to a south-western family at one time, and was transferred from son to daughter last, if I read my runes correctly. So, the bard who lost these was a woman! No matter, they will serve as well in any case.”
Vard placed the re-sheathed sword back in the chest beside the harp, and bade Qrun secure the chest for travel. While his servant attended to that, Vard returned to the task of activating the portal. Presently, the pattern built of special tiles and set into the very fabric of the wall began to glow strongly, with a slight, pulsing beat. The portal was open.
Vard took one last look around the room to be sure that it was empty. With a wave, he extinguished the lamps by the door, and by the light of the pattern he followed his servant into the portal and vanished from Magnus. Immediately after his form vanished into the pattern, its light went out, leaving the secret room in darkness until the next time Vard had to come to the Crown City.
Lights sprang on of themselves in the room in Aahashtra that mirrored the one hidden under Magnus as first Qrun and them Vard stepped through the center of the glowing pattern. Vard said, “Take that to the sorting room, Qrun, and take care of its contents. Tell Eirul to bring me something to eat in my study, if she hasn’t already.” As Qrun carried the chest through the curtain at the far end of the room, Vard followed him as far as the first side door. There, the magician turned aside from the long hall and went through the door and up the stairs behind it that led to his study.
He found a bright and cheery fire burning behind its screen in his study and a tray of tarts on a table in front of it. He bit into one and smiled. Eirul was a superb cook. The tarts were a specialty of hers and a favorite of his.
Vard removed the Book from the folds of his robe and set it reverently on his reading desk. After lighting several of the lamps that stood around it he went over to a tall bookcase to get down some reference volumes. He settled into the stiff-backed chair at his reading desk and opened the book to the first page. He was pleased to find that it was written in what was called Middle, or Pure, Fretheodan, the language of that empire’s most productive period. He was conversant in the language, so he began to read, not taking the time to look up words or usages he didn’t understand. He wanted to get an idea of what was contained in the book before analyzing it.
Pausing only to nibble at the food he never saw Eirul bring, he read the book from cover to cover. By the time he had finished it, almost a full day had passed and he was sure that the Tome of Yrmenweald was exactly what he had hoped it was. It contained the secrets of a vast powersource that the Fretheod Empire’s wizards had managed to harness. It gave details on how to duplicate the feat, and exactly what could be accomplished with the harnessed power. Vard was sure that he could put the Yrmenweald to as good a use as had the Fretheod. He had always dreamed of being the most powerful wizard in the world, and with this book he could be.
But, first things first. Vard had gotten the gist of what the Tome contained. Now he wanted to know exactly. It was essential that he understand, word for word, the instructions left by the wizards who had harnessed the Yrmenweald the first time. Patience was something Vard had learned long ago, along with thouroughness, and now he put both to work studying the Tome.
First, he translated the Tome into the trade language that the Fretheod Empire had created. It was a language that was able to express complicated ideas very clearly while still being easy to learn because of its logical structure: its rules had no exceptions since it was not a naturally evolved language. He was able to clarify to himself what certain passages meant by the way they read in the trade tongue. Then he translated the trade version into his own native tongue, gaining even more insights into the text. The last step was a detailed examination of all three versions, comparing them and finalyzing the exact meaning of the Tome. He was aided here by his collections of material from the Empire’s history, including maps, journals, and books written by Fretheod scholars. This helped him pin down geographic references and fit them into his own frame of reference. It also helped to clear up idiomatic usages, obscure (to him) literary references, and the other little things that kept him from total understanding of the Tome.
He learned that the source of the Yrmenweald had been found by a team of explorers who were charting the continent they called Gereon, which was south of their homeland and east of Vard’s. One day, the native guides they employed showed them a taboo area where a stone had fallen from the sky. They were told that the first people to go near the place, soon after the sky-stone had come down, had been burned to death by the heat of the earth. Several weeks later, when the earth had cooled, another group of people had tried to get to the sky-stone. These had been driven off by strange lights in the pit where the sky-stone rested. When they died later of a strange, wasting sickness, the area had been declared taboo.
However, the Fretheod explorers insisted on seeing for themselves. The tales of the sky-stone were several years old, and they persuaded their guides to stay with them by suggesting that perhaps the ‘evil spirits’ inhabiting the place had gone by now.
Jarl Hremon, the leader of the expidition, entered the depression created by the sky-stone first. Burried in the earth, he found a wall of silver metal that sparked feebly when he neared it, then went out. He tripped on a clod of dirt and fell against the metal. When he did, the entire wall shimmered and faded into nothingness, revealing a large, dark cave.
Hremon got a torch and led his men into the strange cave. They found much that they could not describe or understand, but they did find – well, something. The Tome used a strange symbol for what they found that seemed to be enough description for them. No mention was made of exactly what it was, or what it looked like, or where the symbol came from. Vard could find no other reference to a symbol of that type anywhere in any of the books he had collected. For his own convenience he assigned a sound to the symbol. He called it ‘keseth’.
Somehow, Hremon had recognized that there was potential in the keseth. He had a permanent camp set up around the pit, and sent a man back to the capitol with a message informing the King of their discovery and suggesting that the Court’s wizards send someone back to further examine what had been found.
The King sent a full legion of his army to Gereon, escorting most of the Weavers in the capitol including Swithwald, their master. It was Swithwald who closeted himself with the keseth for many days. When he emerged from the cave, he knew what the keseth was capable of, and to what use it could be put to.
Swithwald left for the capitol after instructing his wizards in what preparations to make for the keseth’s transportation. When the Master Weaver was home, he set about building a place for the keseth deep in a long disused mine. He had the full support of the King once he had informed the monarch of his plan, and being able to draw on the resources of the whole Empire made the work go quickly. Soon the vault was ready. In an exhausting exhibition of magic that required the services of every Weaver and a good many of the lesser mages, the keseth was transported from the pit on Gereon, into the vault that Swithwald had made where it would be safe and available for study.
Years went into that study. Swithwald bent all his energies on harnessing the power that the keseth held. Finally, he found a way to keep the keseth bound while allowing it access to its power. The discovery of cwicustan by another exploration team probing into the northern wastes of their own continent was the deciding factor in harnessing the keseth’s abilities. After much research into the strange, almost living, crystal called cwicustan, it was discovered that any part removed from the whole was still affected by some things that happened to what remained. It was thought by the researchers to use cwicustan as a magic channel, for a spell cast at the heart-lode would emanate from any and all fragments of that lode. Swithwald heard of its properties, and set teams of researchers to finding out how to apply that ability to the keseth. Finally, the connection was made, and the Master Staff was formed. The Son Staves that were formed from the master were linked to it, and the Master Staff was linked to the keseth enabling anyone with access to a Son Staff access to the power of the keseth.
And that power was, in the main, farseeing with incredible clarity. Commanders could keep an eye on enemy movements from a considerale distance. Explorers could view the terrain they would be crossing well before reaching it. Ship captains could spot land from afar, as well as keep an eye on weather patterns using another minor ability of the keseth. And it was the power of the keseth that turned the agressive and formidable Fretheod Nation into a world-spanning, invincible Empire.
Finally, both Swithwald and the King decided that they needed to safeguard the core of their newfound power. Once Swithwald was certain that the keseth was safe and secure in its vault, he sealed it and took a map, one of his servants, and the key across the sea to one of the nation’s outposts. In the cellars of a watch-keep named Wudamund he he burried for safekeeping the map to the vault, the key to enter the vault, and the servant who knew the traps guarding the vault. He then instructed the Tome to be written, to hold all of the knowledge of the Yrmenweald (as they came to call the power that the keseth gave to Fretheod), the keseth, and the Staves. And lastly, he and the Weavers worked a greater magic than the one that had moved the keseth. All knowledge of the keseth, its whereabouts, and the source of the Staves’ power was removed from the minds of all the Fretheod people. Only those with access to the Tome would know the real power behind the staves, and only someone able to raise the dead could gain access to the vault where the keseth was bound. With the Tome entrusted to the royal bards, both Swithwald and the King were sure that the secrets would be kept safe. No one imagined that treachery from within would finally end the Empire.
It was almost by chance that Vard had come across the one thing that would enable him to take the Yrmenweald for himself. He had purchased what turned out to be the seachest of Tarhela, the last Skaldric of Fretheod, from an illiterate hoarder who didn’t know the value of what he had sold. Among the shreds of rotted clothing, and more intact books, he found the Skaldric’s journal. Within the journal was the only written reference to the Tome of the Yrmenweald in existence.
Vard immediately began a magical search for the tome. He traced its path through history from the shipwreck of Tarhela’s ship, to its final resting place within the walls of the Bardic College in Magnus. Trickery, magic, and a lot of favors had eventually gotten him the keys to the vault where it was stored. It only remained to hire Ka’en to steal it from under the noses of the Bards without their knowing.
And now, Vard was even closer to ultimate power. He knew that Dargon Castle had been built on the partial ruins of the watch-keep that the Fretheod had called Wudamund. With a little research of his own, he knew he would have no trouble unlocking the secrets hidden in the cellars of Clifton Dargon’s home. The more difficult task would be to find some cwicustan, for he knew that he would have to begin from scratch in constructing a Master Staff of his own and that required his own supply of the living crystal. He decided to make that his first priority.
It was only an hour from sunset as the good ship Morcyfaill dropped anchor in the harbor of a small fishing village called Hadrom on the east coast of Duurom, the present name of the continent that was once the center of the Fretheod Empire. The longboat was lowered over the side. Owain Garothsson took his leave of Captain Camarond, and he and his men climbed down into the boat and were ferried ashore. No amount of gold Owain could offer would get Camarond to sail farther north. Owain was resigned to making the rest of the trek afoot.
Vard watched the disembarkation from a special room in his fortress. It was a small chamber at the top of a squatly conical tower, with barely enough room for himself and a chair and table. The only light in the room came from an oblong of translucent stone that rested between two silver plates on the table and glowed with a faint turquoise light. Vard’s hands rested lightly on the silver endplates and his eyes were closed. He watched the far off scene in Hadrom in his mind, checking on the progress of his pawn. The blue-green bar of glowing stone bound Owain to Vard’s will by means of a property of magic known as Contagion. Stated formally, the Law of Contagion stated that ‘Things once in contact continue to interact from a distance after separation’. This allowed Vard to use control magic on an object that had once been in Owain’s possession, and thereby control Owain.
Of course, this ordinarily wouldn’t have been enough for him to completely control a person from such a distance. The Law alone wasn’t strong enough to allow him to control someone who was just across the room from him. But Vard had discovered more about the intricacies of the Law of Contagion than any other mage whose works still survived. He had learned that the stronger a person’s emotional bonds were to the object, the stronger the Law bound the two. Once he had isolated that property in the object, he had found a way to magnify that property so that he could use his control magic on the object with an almost overwhelming effect on the subject. The strength of the modified control depended on the degree of the initial attachment, but if that attachment was strong enough Vard could be assured of complete control with a minium of effort.
At some point in his career, Owain had lost a bamboo transverse flute that had meant a great deal to him. Vard had invented a measuring device that codified the degree of attachment between object and former owner. The tube of yellow light in the black wood rectangle had reached midway between the marks labeled ’7′ and ’8′ when held next to the flute. Once Vard had located the flute in his sorting rooms, where all of the items he and his servants collected were stored, he had processed it to magnify the attachment property to usable levels. The result was the turquoise bar that rested on the table before him in his control room.
More than eighteen months had passed between the time Vard resolved to obtain some of the cwicustan and the day he sat watching Owain and his band disembark from the ship that had carried them to Hadrom. The time had been spent first finding a cache of cwicustan, and then finding a way of getting hold of it. Vard never did such things for himself as they were far too dangerous and there were easier ways of getting them done. Even if he had desired to venture into the northern wastes of Duurom himself, he had no patience with traveling the hard way. And there was no way to use his magic to travel the distance with ease. Teleportation was a difficult spell and it required either vast amounts of power and strong enchantments, or precise and exacting knowledge of the destination. Vard had neither at hand, although one of the uses he could forsee for the Yrmenweald when he had harnessed it was as an aid to teleportation. With the ability to view distant places in amazing detail he would be able to transport himself anywhere on the face of the globe with little more than a thought. He would be revered and respected for having such power.
The thought crossed his mind to hire an adventuring team to retrieve the magical stone, but he knew that wouldn’t work. He couldn’t afford to pay the team enough gold to insure that they would return the stone to him. Cwicustan had enough visibly strange properties to give an experienced adventurer ideas about selling it in a better market. When he had hired Ka’en to steal the Tome, Vard knew that the thief would have no use for an old book, and so would not try to double-cross him.
Vard had to search for someone whom he could control. Where money might fail, his magic wouldn’t. Using specially developed future-scanning spells designed to locate an object that fulfilled the requirements of the castor, he had searched his storerooms, eventually finding the flute belonging to Owain. The process of refining the flute into a useable form took six months. Fortunately, he had no trouble taking control of Owain once his aparatus was ready. Ocaisionally, a very strong will could put up a fight, and he had to take care (and much time) to insinuate his control carefully into the subject’s body and mind.
The rest of the elapsed time was taken up in waiting for the expedition Vard had caught Owain in the middle of preparing for to be diverted to Duurom, and then for the two month sea voyage to Hadrom. He had had no trouble getting Owain to change the object of his adventuring, even over the objections of his fellow explorers. He was also able to keep the man from revealing the reason that they were suddenly going north into Duurom, instead of south on Cherisk into the Skywall Mountains (which wouldn’t have involved any sea voyaging at all). He didn’t have the materials to control all eight of the adventurers, so he had to keep the cwicustan a secret.
As the longboat was rowed to shore by ship’s men, Owain looked over the seven he had with him. Two of them had been with Owain on other adventures. In fact, Auvgin and Telrmun were two of his closest friends. But not one of the adventurers was quite sure just what they were doing in a boat bound for a fishing village. Sometimes, that included Owain.
Owain was an adventurer. That wasn’t the only thing he had ever done: only the lucky or short-lived could make adventuring their life’s work. Owain had held many jobs, from guarding merchant’s caravans to hauling goods in a warehouse. He did those other things to amass enough money to go adventuring. He hoped one day to bring back such a big find from some ancient temple or ruined city that he could retire with his riches and be remembered forever for his final accomplishment.
Six months previous, Auvgin had come to Owain with enough money saved up to fund almost half of the stake required to outfit an adventure to investigate some maps and tales of strange happenings in the heart of the Skywall mountains. After some negotiations, it had been agreed that Owain would put up the rest of the money needed to investigate the rumors of vast treasure that Auvgin had heard. With the skill of much practice, Auvgin and Owain had soon put together a band of people and the necessary supplies to follow Auvgin’s plan.
And then, almost on the eve of their departure, Owain had changed that plan. Now they would be traveling to the northern wastes of Duurom. He had refused to tell them why, except that he had heard even better rumors than Auvgin had brought of easy treasure to be had there. Since he had the most money invested, it was easy for him to quell the grumblings of Auvgin and the others, and they headed for Duurom.
The reason Owain hadn’t told the others why he had changed their plans was because he couldn’t. Something had told him to go north into Duurom, enticing him with visions of a strange crystal that grew there. What was really frightening was that he couldn’t resist the order. He had no choice. He would have gone alone if the men in his expedition had refused to go. But, he couldn’t even tell anyone that he was being forced to go north. Whatever was cooercing him was preventing him from talking about it.
As the longboat manuevered alongside the dock, Owain looked first back at the Morcyfaill and then north beyond Hadrom. He wondered if whatever was forcing him after the crystal would let any of them come back alive.
Hadrom was well prepared to outfit travelers going north. It was the northernmost village on Duurom’s east coast, a week away by ship from its southern neighbor due to an archipelago that contained too many shifting shoals and shallows to chart, forcing ships to go around, and a month away overland due to the mountains that grew from the sea along the line of the islands and continued inland across half the continent. The only pass thru the mountains was two weeks away from each village, although a desperate man could find a shorter though much more dangerous route.
The self-sufficient fishing village also served as an outpost from which to explore northward. It offered goods and services needed for an expedition at reasonable prices, enabling explorers to travel light until they reached Hadrom.
Owain and his band spent a day and two nights in Hadrom getting supplies and information for their trip. When Auvgin suggested hiring a guide, Owain flatly refused. The force driving him informed him that it would be their guide to the cwicustan, but it left it up to Owain to provide a reasonable explanation to his followers.
They left Hadrom on the second dawn since their arrival on Duurom. Day after day, which became week after week, they walked, ever farther north. Duurom was no longer settled much above Hadrom. Owain saw no indication that it had ever been inhabited save for the occasional rune-marked obelisk which were identical to several he had seen at home. When six weeks had passed, the grumbling among his men was getting dangerous. It got worse when Owain informed them that they were still at least a month away from where they were going. And then, as they were gathered around the camp’s fire, the bird-thing attacked.
It took everyone by suprise. Having spent six weeks traveling with not the slightest problem had dulled their reflexes enough for the bird-thing to stoop down on them unawares, its long and sharp talons grabbing hold of Telrmun and piercing his body as it lifted the screaming man off of the ground a short ways then dropped him. Telrmun gave out a little cry as he hit the ground, then lay still and soundless, splashes of red dotting the front of his tunic.
The rest of them were slow enough drawing steel and nocking arrows that the bird-thing, its beak now open and producing a noise like no normal bird any of them had ever heard, was able to latch its talons into Druorn. That young man was able to take a swing, the first of the party, but his blade didn’t even nick the glistening silvery hide of his attacker.
Owain tried to get an idea of what the bird-thing looked like as he attacked it during its screeching swoops. It was huge, larger than a man by half. It had no feathers, but rather thick pebbly skin that protected it from all but the strongest and truest of blows. The bows of Maloc and Eergna were useless – their pull wasn’t strong enough to drive their arrows into the hide. Its wings were stiff and didn’t seem to move at all. Its head was long and pointed at both ends, and it had large intelligent-looking eyes. Owain was sure that it wasn’t a natural creature.
Owain and his men were able to finish off the bird-thing without losing anyone else. After burying Telrmun and Druorn, the six remaining decided to put their grumbling behind them and continue the expedition in a more careful manner.
The remaining weeks passed with no more arguments about where they were going or why. The far northern wastes were populated with all kinds of strange beasts and birds, none of which seemed quite natural, so that they were kept too busy staying alert for trouble and defending themselves to argue. Owain was reminded by them that the Empire which had once spanned all of the land they were traveling through had been well supplied with magicians and wizards. He supposed that the monsters were byproducts of magical experiments. He might even have been right.
Finally, they came to a rather small range of mountains that the voice in Owain’s head indicated was their destination. The six spent a night at the foot of the smallest mountain in the chain, and were up bright and early the next morning to find the treasure.
Owain led the way up and over the mountain that was really a medium sized hill. On the other side was a valley that ran down the center of the whole range. It looked just the sort of place for a hidden temple or ruined city – always sources of fabulous wealth. It was heavily forested, mostly by conifers which meant that the valley floor was carpeted with green even in the semi-eternal winter of this frozen land.
They soon reached the floor of the valley and turned east at Owain’s lead. The valley was full of ordinary sounds as the adventurers moved silently through it. Birds cried in the trees, and there were rustles in the undergrowth indicating small animal life. There was absolutely no evidence of man in the valley, not even an obelisk anywhere. The small fauna seemed to have no fear at all of the six humans slipping through their forest. Owain even saw something that looked remarkably like a deer just standing in the shadow of a tree, and it didn’t flee when they walked by.
It took two hours to reach the east end of the valley. The forest grew right up to the foot of the tallest mountain in the range and no further. The slopes of the mountain were bare of everything but rock. Owain pointed at a dark hole in the mountain’s flank and said, “That’s where we are going.”
The voice in his head told Owain that the crystal grew in the back of the cave, but it also said that there was danger in the cave. It still refused to let him tell about the crystal. As he hesitated about just how to get into the cave while avoiding the danger in it, the voice commanded him to order the others into the cave. This would lure out the danger, and allow him to slip in and get the crystal. He had no choice. Even as the commands entered his head, his mouth was giving them voice.
He followed his companions up the side of the mountain, slipping to the side as they reached the mouth of the cave. He listened to the others march confidently into the darkness; the voice had assured them through his lips that there was no danger at all within.
The footsteps had almost died away when there came a cawing roar, somewhere between the sound of a lion and that of a huge eagle. On the heels of the sound came startled yells, one scream of mortal pain, and then running.
Four of the five who had gone into the cave now came tearing out. They scattered as soon as they were in the open and turned back to face what they had found within the cave. As it bolted into the sun and spread its huge wings, Owain recognized one of the fabled gryphons of legend. Half lion and half eagle, it was majestic and terrible as it took to the air cawing its rage and lashing its lion’s tail. There was blood on one of its taloned fore-feet and at the tip of the beak.
Although Owain would have rather gone to help his companions, the voice had clamped down on him in total control. He could only look back as he was forced into the darkness of the cave to see the gryphon land amid the four men who were now armed. He didn’t see the battle begin, but he could hear it as he went deeper into the darkness – the battle shouts of the men, the roaring caw of the gryphon, the sounds of wounds on both sides.
Owain finally reached the nest of the gryphon. He was suprised to find that there was light, provided by a mass of strange-looking crystal against the back wall. In the dim light, he saw the dead body of Tellor lying where the gryphon had left it.
The voice that had control of him cared not at all for Tellor, alive or dead. It directed Owain’s body over to the glowing crystal, and had him remove a hammer and a delicate chisel from his belt pouch that he didn’t even know was in there. After carefully examining the growth of crystal, he was directed to place the chisel carefully in two places near the base of one large mass and tap it lightly with the hammer. Placing the tools back in the pouch, Owain was then made to take hold of the mass of crystal and pull. Much to his suprise, it came away from the wall with no trouble at all. It was also very light for its size. Measuring three feet long by one around, it weighed no more than five pounds; an easy if awkward burden for the trek home.
A bag was fished out of Owain’s pack by his own unwilling hands. He could feel the voice’s intent to leave the other four to the mercy of the gryphon. But, though he wanted to help in the fight with every fiber of his being, the voice’s control was too strong. He had no choice but to place the crystal in the bag, secure it to his pack, and then make his way back out of the cave.
When he reached sunlight, he saw that the battle was still going on. Telkor, who was Tellor’s twin, had not survived his brother by much. Lorth was limping on a bloodied leg, and had hooked a crooked bleeding arm in his swordbelt. Of the three remaining fighters, only Auvgin was unmarked. The gryphon was faring better than its opponents, but it too bore wounds. Someone had managed to disable a wing, preventing the half-bird half-lion from taking to the air again. Owain hoped that his three remaining companions would vanquish the monster. As the voice controlling him forced him toward the saddle between this mountain and the next, he sent a silent ‘good luck’ back to the battle. It was a long time before the sounds of the conflict faded into the distance.
The walk back to Hadrom was a nightmare for Owain. The voice was no longer in his head constantly, but it had laid a conpulsion as strong as a geas on him to return to the fishing village where a ship would be waiting to take him back to Cherisk. Detailed instructions filled his mind about how and where to go once reaching Marrak, the ship’s first port-of-call on Cherisk. He finally knew that he was to deliver the crystal to a wizard named Vard. He secretly cherished a wish to be able to make the wizard pay for forcing him north, and leaving the three to make it home alone assuming they survived the gryphon.
Vard was sitting in a rear booth in the Fighting Unicorns disguised as a somewhat tattered merchant when Owain strode into the bar. Vard had chosen this as a rendezvous again because Baranur was the closest city to Marrak wherein he had a hidden portal.
Owain had been ordered to take a room near the river and clean up a little before coming to the ‘Unicorns. It was a very presentable adventurer who settled himself across from the merchant. Only his eyes bore evidence of the six month plus trek he had undergone, half of it alone.
False small talk was made about Owain wanting to hire out with the merchant on a caravan while one of the barmaids took their order and came back with their drinks. Once they were alone, Vard asked for the bag with the crystal to be passed under the table. Keeping up the chatter, Owain did so. Vard hastily checked the contents of the bag. Satisfied, he fingered two phials he was carrying in an inner pocket. One contained slow poison, and the other was a powerful potion that induced amnesia. He wasn’t sure which to give the man who sat talking across the scarred and dirty table from him. Finally, he shuffled them around and took one at random. With the ease of a practiced prestidigitator, he slipped the contents into Owain’s bell shaped stein of ale. He proposed a toast to seal their fake bargain, and Owain drained his cup in one swallow. Without waiting around to see which phial he had selected, Vard got up and left the inn, slipping with his usual ease into the depths of the Fifth Quarter and back to his fortress.
Owain ordered and drank another ale before leaving the ‘Unicorns. He made his way back to his own inn and collapsed on the bed in the room he had rented. Sometime in the night, two things happened. First, the control that Vard had exercised over him vanished as the wizard destroyed the transformed flute. And, all memory of what had happened to him from the time Auvgin first approached him about an expedition he was planning vanished. When he awoke next morning, he was very puzzled about why he was in Baranur and where the past year had gone.
Vard set about preparing the cwicustan as the Tome instructed so that it would be ready for use when he finally found the keseth. When that was finished, he turned his attention to the next two phases of his quest for the Yrmenweald. First, he had Qrun delve into the deepest vaults of the fortress wherein were kept the most dangerous and powerful books of lore he had managed to acquire by fair means or foul. While his servant was so employed, he went into the Sorting Rooms and prepared a location spell to help him find an object he could use to control someone who could get the treasure out of the hidden vault in Dargon Castle.
The ball of light he formed between his hands began to drift around the room when he said the last words of the spell. It looked like a drunk will-o-the-wisp as it darted erratically around the room, from shelf to shelf, object to object. After making the rounds of the room three times, it finally settled around something. When Vard looked at the objects, he smiled. He picked up the sword named ‘Leaf-Killer’ and the harp named ‘Soft-Winds’ and took them upstairs to be processed.