The toast was heartily echoed by those around the table, and all lifted their flagons and drained them. Congratulations came from all over the taproom of the Inn of the Panther causing Kroan to beam brightly and toss appropriate replys back.
Je’lanthra’en leaned back against the wall and thought there must be something in the air. Just a month or so ago, she, Cefn and Kroan had attended the gypsy wedding of Maks and Syusahn, who was none the worse for her imprisonment in the Emerald Hand. Je’en remembered the ceremony with fondness, all barbaric splendor and exaggerated pomp and solemnity. The party afterwards, which had lasted a good three days, was wild enough to make up for the almost staid wedding.
And now, her brother was engaged to be married. The lucky lady was named Anorra. She was the daughter of a widower baker and was due to take over the family business. Kroan and Anorra had met over a shipping dispute six months ago, and it was love at first sight.
Je’en was quite happy for her brother. She had met Anorra, and they got along famously. Anorra was a small woman with long brown hair and a wide, expressive face, full of energy and life, and already a better baker than her father, who insisted he was proud to be leaving the family business to her. Anorra and Kroan made a beautiful couple, and Je’en echoed the toast again in her mind.
Cefn asked, “Why did you set a date so far away? Three months is a long time to wait, isn’t it?”
Kroan said, “I wanted Mother and Father to be here, and it’s a long way from Derenten to Dargon. I got their return letter just last week saying when they would be able to get here. As soon as I knew that, I talked to Anorra and we set the date. It’s…”
Je’en broke in with, “Wait! Mom and Dad are going to be at the wedding? Wonderful! Its been so long since I’ve seen them.” Her smile faded after a moment, and she said, “Oh, no.”
“What’s wrong?” asked Cefn.
“My parents don’t know about my accident, or that I’m not a bard anymore. I was meaning to tell them, but I just haven’t gotten around to it. So, they probably won’t even recognize me as I am now.”
Kroan said, “Well, actually, they do know. I told them when I wrote about Anorra. They know everything: the accident; your retraining; and the adventures you’ve had here in Dargon. They both send their regrets, and wish you good luck in your new life. I’m sure that they will be very happy to see you again at the wedding.”
“Oh, uh, thanks, Kroan. I’m glad they know now, and I’m looking forward to seeing them again.” Je’en let the topic be turned to wedding plans, then dropped out of the conversation. She slouched back in her chair and turned her thoughts inward.
She summoned up a mental image of herself just as she saw herself every day in the large piece of polished silver she used for a mirror. It was as complete and detailed as a painting: her bardic training had sharpened her powers of recall, and she was quite adept at seeing concrete images in her mind.
She looked at the picture of herself, clad in a comfortable leather tunic and breeches that went into knee-high suede boots. She still bore the marks of her ‘accident’ more than three years after the incident: a dark ribbon circled her throat to hide the scar there; her right hand hung uselessly from a black-wrapped wrist near the hilt of her sword, right-hung within easy reach of her good hand; and, most visible, the silver half-mask that hid the marks on her face. She presented a unique, mysterious figure, one that belonged in fantastic adventures that, perhaps, a bard would tell.
Then, she did something she seldom did. She called up an image of herself as she had been before the accident. No scars, no masks, Leaf-Killer on her left hip and Soft-Winds hanging at her back. She set the picture next to her present-day self, and compared the two. The one that went bare-faced was the one her parents would be expecting despite Kroan’s letter informing them of the events of the past three years. Briefly, Je’en wondered what she would look like now, without the mask. But she found herself backing away from the thought hurriedly. The silver mask had become a badge of her new life to her, and to cease wearing it was unthinkable.
As she sat comparing the two images, she began to feel strange. At first, she couldn’t identify how or why. Then, as it got worse, she was able to describe the sensation – it was like someone or something was pressing on her mind. It took a few more moments to realize that the sensation was almost familiar.
Instinctively, she began pushing back, concentrating on holding her mind together and resisting the intrusion. As soon as she started to resist, she felt the pressure lighten and then vanish.
The pressure had barely vanished when Je’en felt someone nudge her arm. She opened her eyes and sat up with a startled ‘Huh?’ that caused the others at the table to laugh.
Cefn said, ‘Wake up, sleepy head. Kroan has to get back to work and I thought we should toast him once more.” The cowled man lifted his flagon and said, “To Kroan and Anorra – a long, happy, and profitable life!”
Je’en reached for her mug of ale to join in the well-wishing. She found it difficult to get a grip on the thin handle of the mug, but finally she closed her fingers around to and raised it off of the table. As soon as she did so, she knew something was wrong. She felt the odd pull in the wrist, the pain, and then the splashing noise of ale sloshing all over the table.
She focused on the mug, and then on the faces of her friends around the table. She noticed that they were all staring at the mug dangling from her hand in shocked disbelief. She started to say, “Sorry…” but stopped when she realized why they were staring. She finally realized that the mug was dangling from the fingers of her right hand!
An ornate stone corridor shapes itself out of the greyness as she steps from the between-ways into the hallway outside the quarters of the man once known as Kyle BlueSword. She senses the pain emanating from the room before her, and she knows its cause. Slowly, almost reluctantly, she walks into the room and sees Morion writhing in pain on the bed. His arm throbs fiercely red in her ihr-sight, revealing the fact that the perenidth has invaded his body as far as his elbow. She can also trace the poison with her sun-sight, which reveals the greenish cast of the skin on his arm.
Concern and guilt flood into and over her as she watches by both ihr- and sun-sight the poison advance quickly up Morion’s arm. She walks across the room to him, and feels something break under her heel. Awareness comes to her that she has crushed the egg-focus, which will make closing the gate that much harder.
Before she reaches the bed, she sees consciousness fade from Morion’s body, but she can also see that his life force hasn’t slackened its fight against the drain of the perenidth.
She stands next to Morion’s now still form, and tries to examine the things she is feeling. She feels concern because she likes the fierceness of spirit of this fast-liver, and she does not wish him pain. He attracts more than her curiosity, and she has been hard pressed not to think of him ever since their first meeting. Now, her concern shades to fear; fear that she might be feeling what was the bane of her race – hoftanau, the fire love. Only a fast-liver could inspire the fire love in the slow living, slow feeling hearts of her people. When that emotion was ignited, it was usually fatal. That was where the guilt came from. She wasn’t sure that her last warning to Morion had been cryptic according to the pattern of Thyerin’s Dance, or if she wanted to avoid the destructive force of hoftanau.
Now she must decide whether to save Morion or to let the poison do its work. She reviews the last glimpse of the pattern of the Dance she had been given by Thyerin and tries to puzzle out the meaning of the threads that govern this part of the Dance. It is difficult. Finally she gives up – the strands are too tangled – and attempts to make the decision on her own.
She doesn’t have time to agonize, though. She can see that the poison has almost reached Morion’s shoulder, with tendrils pushing ahead of the mass of the evil substance, almost as if it is eagerly searching for the man’s heart. She knows that he doesn’t have much time. If the perenidth reaches Morion’s heart, she won’t be able to work fast enough to stem the flow of the poison throughout his entire body. If that happens, he will be lost forever, his body dead and his immortal self trapped in the other-space from whence the demon-poison had been drawn.
She looks into Morion’s tortured face and decides. She kneels beside the bed and takes Morion’s arm in her hands. As she prepares herself for the effort it will take to battle the perenidth, she feels the presence of Thyerin in her mind and she sees a part of his Dance made clear. She sighs with relief as she sees her strand and Morion’s entwined and continuing beyond the scope of the Dance. She has made the right decision.
She turns back to her task. Placing her hands about his shoulder, she concentrates to place a barrier within Morion’s flesh that the perenidth cannot pass. She first makes sure that all vestiges of the poison are on the arm side of the barrier, then she begins to force the barrier, and with it the perenidth, back down and out of Morion’s arm. It isn’t easy. The perenidth seems almost to fight back, to resist being expelled from the body of its victim. She struggles tenaciously until finally Morion’s hand cups a small pool of the vilest looking fluid imaginable, much more than could have been stored within the tiny egg.
She relaxes for a moment, gathering her strength for the final effort. When she feels herself ready, she again concentrates on the barrier that now protects Morion’s hand from having the fluid re-enter it. The barrier, invisible to sun-sight but barely, bluely visible to ihr-sight, closes around the perenidth, sealing it in a bubble. The bubble begins to rise, floating slowly up from Morion’s hand. When it is a safe distance away from him, she begins to force the bubble to shrink. This, in turn, forces the demon-poison back through the gate to where it came from. When the bubble disappears, she turns her energies to closing and sealing the gate that the egg-focus had housed.
When the gate is permanently closed, she slumps back and closes her eyes, nearly exhausted. But, she knows that there is more to do. The perenidth had been removed from Morion’s body, but the damage it did while it was there must still be repaired.
Wearily, she opens her eyes and tries to guage how long it will take to properly heal the fast-liver. She estimates at least three weeks of deep, healing sleep should suffice, which will leave very little time to deliver the circlet. As she worries, she sees a possible solution in the pattern of the Dance. The King of the land that Morion calls home will celebrate the anniversary of his birth just a few days before the deadline. Such an event should bring enough power-users together that, with her help, they may be able to find a way to send the circlet in time.
She decides to leave speculation for later. She thinks that Morion will know more about who will likely attend his Monarch’s 36th birth anniversary. She needs to start the healing sleep soon, before the damage increases and destroys their chances.
She arranges the still slightly suffering fast-liver more comfortably on the bed, and then settles herself next to him. She places her hands on his temples and tries to communicate directly with his mind. She finds it easy, and pleasurable, to read his mind but she must go deeper. She probes for the healing centers of his brain, and finds them. She stimulates them to increased effort and ties the energy generation areas of her own body in to his to provide the necessary building and healing energies. She feels the drain, and allows herself to fall into the same healing sleep as Morion. Now, even should she wish it, there is no way to prevent hoftanau between them.
Ka’lochra’en kissed Gillin one last time before giving her a hand up onto her horse. He stared after her as she rode back home, and reflected that she was probably the best thing to come out of this, his latest assignment.
Ka’en had come to this northern corner of Baranur when he had heard news on the grapevine that one of the border Barons of Duchy Dargon was looking for someone discreet to do a job. Ka’en’s pockets were nearly empty, so he decided that he would look into the venture.
Ka’en had travelled to the Barony of MountainSpur in the guise of a minor, unlanded noble name of Lord Kennet’. It had taken some convincing to get Baron Kayden, the man looking to hire a thief, to believe that he was suited to the job. It wasn’t as if Ka’en had a detailed history of past accomplishments to expound on, especially since most of his best work had yet to be detected. Ka’en had been forced to extract a few choice items from the Baron’s personal treasury to convince the man that he had the necessary skills to do the job.
So convinced, the Baron had confided in Ka’en. Kaydin intended to annex the lands of his neighbor, Baron Rombar. Rombar had insulted Kaydin some years before by refusing to allow his daughter to marry Kaydin’s eldest son. To get even, Kaydin intended to depose Rombar by discrediting him and having him and his family removed as rulers of the barony by Clifton Dargon himself, acting as the due representative of the Crown of Baranur. The method of discrediting was devious and complicated. Ka’en’s part involved some very important documents stored in the very lowest vaults of Dargon Castle. The ones Ka’en was to steal were both the Primary Charter for the Barony of Fir Lake, and the High Charter for Duchy Dargon itself. Baron Kaydin would provide a doctored version of the Primary Charter of Rombar’s Barony that would remove Rombar’s family from the Barony. Taking the High Charter to the Duchy was a little insurance on Kaydin’s part since without that specific piece of parchment, Clifton could, legally, be removed from the Duchy as easily as Rombar from his Barony. Kaydin intended to force Clifton into supporting him in his claim to the land of Fir Lake when the Barony was disolved.
It was all just too much politics and legalisms for Ka’en’s tastes, but he agreed to do the job. One of the convincing arguments was Kaydin’s youngest daughter, Gillin. There was a strong mutual attraction between them, and Ka’en had recently begun having thoughts about settling down. Gillin was pretty, intelligent, and excellent company. Ka’en hoped that she wouldn’t mind moving away from MountainSpur, since he refused to live anywhere that there was danger of him being exposed as a thief and Gillin’s father certainly knew who he was now.
Ka’en cleaned up the little glade wherein he and Gillin had said good-bye, repacking his bedroll and the now severly depleted bag of rations he had brought along for his trip to Dargon. Fortunately, the Ducal city wasn’t more than four days away and Ka’en was sure he could make the remnants of his food last that long. Besides, it had been well worth wasting the time and food to say farewell to Gillin. Well worth it.
Ka’en spent a week researching a way to infiltrate Dargon Castle. Baron Kaydin had offered a few suggestions, but no real help in getting him near the secret vault. The details were up to Ka’en.
It didn’t take him long to decide on a course of action once he had explored all the possibilities. He had even been given a tour of the Castle in his masquerade as Lord Kennet’. He had determined that there was no possible way for a guest or resident of the castle to penetrate the dungeons – there were just too many guards. So, he decided to be a guard.
Given enough time, it was conceivable that Ka’en could have become a Castle Guard by the normal route. But he didn’t have the three years or so that that would take. Instead, he would have to fake it. And the first order of business was to make a copy of the Castle Guard’s uniform.
The uniform was a simple one. The Guards wore a black thigh-length tunic over black trousers that went into black knee-high boots. Silver and gold bands added color at the neck, cuffs, tunic hem, side seams of the trousers, and the saddle of the boots. A sash of silver and gold triangles was fastened to the right or left shoulder by a pin of the Baranur Star. Rank was displayed within a small red square on the chest. Additional ornamentation was provided by small black buttons bearing a gold caltrop at strategic places on the outfit.
Ka’en didn’t want to buy enough fabric at any one store to lead an inquisitive mind to link the purchase with an extra guard at the Castle. So, he searched the second-hand stores for cloth, either in old clothes or in bolts, and for the various decorative elements he would need.
He was in a slightly seedy but well stocked little shop bargaining for a child’s show cape made of cloth-of-gold that he could cut up for the sash, when he heard the door open. An almost-familiar voice said, “Mergant, did you get in any….Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you had a customer. I’ll wait until you’re through. Pardon me, m’lord.”
Ka’en turned to look at the person who had spoken. He was sure he knew the voice, but when he saw the speaker, he was just as sure that he was mistaken. He didn’t know any left-handed women who wore silver masks, of that he was definite.
Ka’en was concluding his business with the shopkeeper when the woman stepped up to the counter next to him and said, “Excuse me, but aren’t you Ka’lochra’en?”
Ka’en turned and stared into the eyes that were partially hidden within the mask, wondering how this woman knew him. It was rare that he went by his contracted name in Baranur, much less his full name. Finally, made slightly uneasy by the blankness of the mask, he said, “That depends to whom I’m talking.”
“Of course, you don’t recognize me. How could you, after all,” said the woman. “I looked quite different the last time you saw me in Derenten. I’m your second cousin, Je’lanthra’en.”
“By the Blood of Argan, you are!” Ka’en finally recognized the voice, the figure, the bearing, and even the set of the jaw. “What happened to you, Je’en? You’re not a bard any more?”
“Oh, its a long story, Ka’en. Much too long to tell without a tankard of ale to ease the telling. But, no, I’m not a bard anymore. I am an adventurer along with my partner, Cefn, who is a wizard. Why don’t you come down to the Inn of the Panther tonight, and we can talk then, okay? Good. I’ll be there around dinner time and after. See you then.”
Ka’en took the cape he had just purchased and left the store as Je’en asked Mergant about some special lanterns for which she was looking. He wondered what had happened to Je’en. She was so changed. The mask, her voice, the strange bracer she wore on her right hand. An adventurer, eh? They could be problems. At least the only adventurers that Ka’en had ever dealt with had been problems. He wondered if her presence in Dargon would complicate his business.
Moonlight filters into a shuttered and dark shop through warped boards and air vents. The silvery light glints off large glass jars filled with herbs and potions revealing the shop to be an apothecary.
A shadow among shadows moves slowly and cautiously. It inches its way over to the jars and, after a pause to be sure it is alone, it begins to fill several cloth bags from the large glass jars.
Suddenly, its movements lose their fluidity, like a marionette whose operator has just sneezed. An elbow strikes and dislodges one of the jars and it crashes to the floor, shattering. The shadow freezes, and then, under control again, begins to hurriedly complete its mission.
The owner of the shop, who lives on the second floor, has been awakened by the noise. He comes down the stairs armed with a large club. The shadow seeks a way out, its mission now done, but the stairs are closer to the door that it is.
The owner opens a shopfront shutter, flooding the tiny shop with moonlight, and catches sight of the shadow, formless and dark no more. Light glints off of a silver mask, the owner gasps out, “Je…”, and a sword weilded sinisterly slides between ribs. As the owner slumps on the stairs, the shadow closes the shutter, wipes its sword on the owner’s nightrobe, and slips stealthly out of the shop.
“So, where is Je’en, anyway?” asked Ka’en.
Cefn said, “I don’t know. She’s usually here by dinner unless she has something else to do, and she didn’t mention anything to me. Still, she has been acting strange lately…. I’m sure she’ll be around eventually. Could you explain again, Ka’en, why the middle part of your name isn’t the same as Je’en’s if you’re related to her?”
As Je’en’s cousin tried to explain the complexities of southern family trees and their special naming conventions, Cefn wondered with more concern than had been in his voice just where Je’en was. If Kroan hadn’t recognized Ka’en when he entered, the poor man would be sitting in a corner wondering where his relative was. It wasn’t like Je’en to invite someone to meet her at the Panther, and then not show.
Ka’en’s dissertation was interrupted by the bells on the door, and a few shouted greetings that indicated that Je’en had finally arrived. When she finally reached their table, Cefn noticed by her manner that she was a little distracted. She said hello to her cousin, appologized for being late, and yelled her dinner order – “The usual!” – to the cook. She took her seat, and joined Ka’en in trying to explain the name thing.
Cefn listened with far more interest now, but eventually the conversation returned to Kroan’s coming marriage. Cefn retreated from the discussion for the same reason he had tried to side-track it earlier: the topic made him nervous.
Yet, his mind refused to let him just forget the word. He tried to deflect the thoughts of being tied for a lifetime to one person with thoughts of Je’en and her increasingly odd behavior. But, that tactic didn’t work, because Je’en was the reason that the thought of marriage disturbed him. Perhaps not marriage itself, but rather what went with it: love. Cefn was even more disturbed by love than marriage, and thinking of Je’en in that context just made him even more nervous.
Cefn had been in love once, long ago while he was still an apprentice. The relationship had lasted for almost a year before it disintegrated messily. The breakup also resulted in the destruction of their partnership, which had almost been worse than the breakup.
Now, Cefn was feeling the beginnings of what could well be love for his partner Je’en. And he didn’t want anything at all to happen to their friendship, which was why thoughts of marriage made him nervous – he had recently been daydreaming of spending the rest of his life tied to Je’en.
Conversation soon turned to the celebration of the King’s Birthday three days hence. The celebration in Dargon would be token, with the Court Ball held by Duke Clifton being the most lavish demonstration scheduled to take place. Je’en and Cefn had an invitation, and they discussed what they would wear to the event. When Cefn offered to wangle Ka’en an invitation, too, the young man declined politely, saying that the atmosphere would be far to rarefied in the Ballroom for him to be comfortable.
Eventually, Kroan had to leave as it was getting late and he had work the next day. As Kroan left, Ka’en also took his leave. Cefn expected Je’en to stay with him for a little while, but she rose from the table directly after her cousin and bade Cefn farewell very distantly. Cefn looked after her as she left the Inn, and wondered what had gotten into her lately.
Feeling uneasy, Cefn bought a bottle of wine and went home. He activated the golden globes he had had installed in the town house he had purchased and made sure that all of the windows were properly sealed. He then removed his protective cowl and hung it on a peg by the front door. He took the bottle, got a glass and his cards, and went to the study to do a reading on Je’en to relieve his uneasiness.
He shuffled, cut, shuffled again, and was ready. The first card turned over was the Twelve of Swords reversed. Trouble from the start. He swiftly layed out the rest of the Bent Star, the frown deepening on his face. When the layout was complete, he filled his glass, drained it, filled it again, and drained most of it. Then, he looked at the layout again. Nope, it hadn’t improved.
It was one of the worst yet non-commital readings he had ever seen. It indicated danger – disaster, even – all around, but it couldn’t identify the source. Every bad card or position had shown up in that reading, but in such a way that it told him little.
Topping off his glass again, Cefn reshuffled the cards. It took some time before they felt right, and when he layed them out he found out why – the entire layout was, card for card, the same as the first one.
Eyes wide, Cefn sat back in his chair and drank from the bottle, leaving the glass on the table. He had never heard of an exactly duplicated layout actually happening before. He wondered what it meant and whether Je’en would survive the forces gathering around her.
Tanandra en’Elerch lifted the simple brass door-knocker and hesitated a moment. As she finally let it fall to strike against the shiny plate it was hinged to, she wondered what it would be like to see Cefn again. It had been so long since the last time…
She waited for several minutes before taking the knocker in hand again, but as she did so, she could hear noises just inside the door. Hastily stepping back, she composed herself and waited for the door to open.
When it finally did open, there was a moment of silence before Cefn spoke. “It’s… good to see you, Tanandra. Come in, please.”
Tandi wished she could see inside the cowl that Cefn had to wear. She couldn’t quite fathom the tone in his voice, and she was sure that if she had been able to see his face she could have interpreted it.
She stepped into the entry hall of Cefn’s town house and turned as he shut the door. With a gesture, the single candle lantern that had been shining in the little hall went out, and the golden globe at the ceiling took over illumination duties. Cefn removed his cowl and hung it on a peg by the door, then led her into his study.
Tandi took in the scene in the study while Cefn asked her if she wanted anything to drink. She noticed the spread of cards on the table, and even though she knew little about their meanings (she hadn’t chosen to study them), she could tell that the layout was a bad one. She also noticed the bottle on the table, and wondered at it since she knew that Cefn didn’t do much drinking at home.
As Cefn handed her a glass of cider, he asked, “Well, how have you been, Tandi?”
Before answering, Tandi took a good look at Cefn. She decided that time had treated him well – he still looked as good as when they had been …apprentices together, if not better. She also realized that she still has some deep feelings for him which suprised her; she thought she had left him behind all those years ago.
Firmly pushing her uncertain feelings out of the way, she recalled the reason she was visiting Cefn. She set the glass down and placed her forefingers and thumbs together, forming a crude circle. She hummed a low note, and the space within that circle began to glow with a swirling green-blue light. She said, “I have come on business from the Council, Cefn.”
The blue-eyed mage’s smile of welcome vanished at the sight of the sigil that the swirling light had formed between Tandi’s fingers. Cefn said, “I no longer serve your masters, Tandi. You are wasting your time.”
Tandi had expected this reaction, and was prepared. Sternly, she said, “The Elders never acknowledged your debt as paid. You performed a great service for the Council when you finally eliminated the last followers of Jhel and the Sword of Cleah. Even so, the services they have rendered you have not yet been repaid.”
Before he could interrupt, she continued, “The Council has detected certain experiments into the Forbidden Art. They lay to you the task of finding who is learning the Art and stopping him. There is every indication that the experimenter is Vard.”
Cefn paused a moment, pondering the situation, before answering. He said, with a forced calm that Tandi could see through with ease, “I cannot help. I…I am otherwise occupied. Something is wrong here in Dargon. There is a threat hovering over my partner, Je’lanthra’en. She’s been acting strange lately – out of character. I must stay and help her – after what I have already put her through.”
He turned away, but not before Tandi read the love in his face, and the pain of that secret. She reflected that going around with one’s face hidden by a magically dark cowl didn’t give one much reason to learn to control one’s facial expression. Cefn probably didn’t even realize how open his face was. She felt the remnants of her own love crumble in the face of his deep feelings.
Sadly but forcefully, Tandi said, “Cefn, the Council has empowered me to order you into this; even to lay a gorfodd on you – they knew you would resist. But, I don’t want to force you. Listen, I know what Je’en has been through. You were monitored during that mission, as were the events you set in motion. But, she has survived admirably. She redirected her life without any help at all, which is remarkable considering the loss she sustained. She will be able to cope with whatever awaits in her future.
“Cefn, you are the only person currently available for this mission. The others are all elsewhere, or not of sufficient ability to deal with someone able to delve into the Forbidden Art. Please reconsider. This IS important. You know the possibilities of an adept of the Art. Remember Ciraledwen.”
In the silence that followed, Tandi knew that he was remembering. The story of the most infamous Elder in history was an early lesson, and one that was drilled into every student of the Council. Ciraledwen had, through study of the Art, become able to reanimate whole armies of the dead – an invincible force. The only limit to her power had been the number of lives she could tie to her focus – humans enslaved to her will body and soul, and used to infuse the corpses with artificial life. It had taken a tremendous combined effort of the normally reclusive Elders and all of their students to finally breach the shields she had built to protect herself and destroy the evil Ciraledwen.
When Cefn finally turned back to face her, Tandi could see the struggle he was undergoing on his too-expressive face. The concrete threat of a practicioner of the Forbidden Art had to be balanced by the vague threat against his partner and love.
Finally, he decided. He said, “I…I cannot.” His resolve firmed as he continued, “Je’en is more important to me than a vague threat. You are easily powerful enough to go against Vard, if he is truly involved and his name wasn’t used just to try to lure me into this mission. After all, you have been under the tutelage of the Council for all these years since I left. You must be far more powerful than I by now.
“Please understand me, Tandi. I will not go of my own free will, and I cannot allow myself to be forced by either you or the council. It’s been good to see you again, Tanandra. Good bye.”
Cefn turned away again and went over the the table where his bottle still sat. Tandi watched him pour another glass full and drink half of it in one gulp. Sorrowfully, she began to concentrate on the sheet of light filling the circle still formed by her fingers. The identifying sigil had been given to her by the Elders of the Council, and with it had come a latent spell, a gorfodd, or compulsion. It was far more powerful than one she could cast herself and (so the Elders hoped) more powerful than Cefn could break.
As she concentrated on the sigil, the light that formed it began to change from green-blue to red-purple. She watched the spell focus as it strengthened. She considered Cefn’s suggestion that she go in his place. She had offered herself to the Elders, a fact that Cefn couldn’t know. And she had been rejected as not able enough. True, she had spent the years since Cefn had gone out on his own with the teachers of the Council but she still was not as powerful as Cefn. It wasn’t her fault. She just didn’t have Cefn’s ability. Not everyone could master the forces of magic to the same degree, and she just couldn’t do as well as some. Certainly not well enough to combat someone able to delve into the forces required to master the Forbidden Art.
The spell was ready. Cefn hadn’t turned around yet – he was filling his glass again. Tandi said, “Cefn, forgive me but I was ordered.” And, with a Word, she released the spell.
Cefn may not have turned around, but he must have suspected something. He whirled at the sound of her voice, and Tandi gasped at the sight of the hoop he held between his hands. He stretched it to about three feet in diameter, the silvery strands threaded across it actually weaving closer together as the hoop grew. By the time he faced her, the hoop was a shiny mirror held before Cefn’s head.
The purple-black sphere of the gorfodd spell struck the hoop-mirror and bounced. Tandi gasped again when she saw that it had been perfectly reflected, and would strike her. Before she could react, the spell hit her, and she felt the cold tingle of the compulsion magic settle over her body and mind. She immediatly felt the compelling need to go find the person practicing the Forbidden Art. It was like a physical presence inside her, forcing her to move. Its little voice whispered to her, ‘Get moving, find the man!’
As she turned to leave, she heard Cefn say, “Tandi, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean for the spell to return to you. Will you be all right?”
She opened Cefn’s front door, knowing that he couldn’t follow her because of the moon- and lantern-light on the street. She called back, “Of course I’ll be fine. Good bye, Cefn. Good bye.” She didn’t close the door behind herself, hoping that that tactic would gain her enough time to get away. Now that she had taken the gorfodd, she wanted no help or hindrance to her mission. She would find the man, and she would destroy him, all by her self.
She didn’t even hear the other tiny voice in her mind, the voice of her reason, saying, “I’m dead if this quest succeeds.”
He awoke feeling totally disoriented, almost as though was in two places at once. Slowly, almost painfully, he sorted out the sensations and realized first that he wasn’t dead. He wondered why, considersing the vivid memory of the pain the poison had caused him. Morion could still feel slight twinges from his arm, and it hurt to close the hand that had held the tiny, lethal egg. Of course, he couldn’t account for the general stiffness of the rest of his body by the effects of the poison – if its effect had reached that much of him, he wouldn’t be around to notice the results.
Then he realized that he wasn’t alone on Kyle’s bed. He looked at the sleeping form of the strange blue haired woman who had called herself Kimmentari and realized that there was now a rapport between them that had been instrumental in saving his life. Somehow, he knew things about Kimmentari that he couldn’t possibly know – things even lovers wouldn’t tell each other. And he knew that she was helplessly, perhaps fatally, in love with him.
The first stirrings of returned feelings propelled Morion off the bed in fear and confusion. How could he possible be in love with such an alien creature? He had never even heard of her kind before. He…he just couldn’t really be in love, could he? She was beautiful, in an exotic way, and she had saved his life. Still…
Thoughts came to him, memories and dreams. They weren’t his, weren’t even human, but they were entrancing. He saw Thyerin, the god Kimmentari’s people worshipped, and the Dance he laid out as a pattern for his followers. He saw what hoftanau meant for one of Kimmentari’s race, and how deeply the fire love had already burned into her. The thoughts were remnants of the healing bond that had followed her ridding his body of the poison, not actual mind to mind contact. But, Morion remembered the instant of his waking and seeming to be in two places at once. And he knew that if someone could know him on so intimate a level as to have actually been in his mind, and they still cared or loved him, he wouldn’t refute that love. And, he knew that he loved Kimmentari.
He looked for a long time at the silken-clad body of the alien woman, then reached out tentatively to touch her shoulder. As his hand touched her, he felt a brief reprise of the joined sensation and she opened her eyes. He stared into the deep red of her eyes, willingly getting lost in their depths. He settled slowly onto the bed, bent over, and lightly kissed his saviour on the mouth. Her response was slow and hesitant, as if she didn’t know how to respond. But soon, as their mental rapport re-established itself, her reactions took on more passion.
Several hours later, Morion again awoke to the now familiar two places at once feeling. He looked up into Kimmentari’s ruby eyes where she was leaning over him staring at his face. He wouldn’t have minded taking a few hours more to get to know his love even better, but Kimmentari laughed at his thought with a sound like silver bells, and said, “There will be time enough and more for that, my love, when we have danced our part of the Dance done. Or have you forgotten your mission here – the circlet?”
In fact, Morion had done just that. It took a moment for him to recall just how he had ended up where he was: the challenge by Kyle BlueSword, meeting Kimmentari on the road to Belliern, the fight in the village square, Kyle’s story of possession, Morion’s task to deliver the crystal circlet to his former pupil Je’lanthra’en, and, finally, the tiny poisoned egg that had been the revenge of the demon-thing that had possessed Kyle.
“Souls and swords, what day is it, anyway? How much time do I have to finish my task?”
“Calm yourself, my love,” said Kimmentari. “My thread has been joined to yours in this Dance – the task of delivering the circlet has become mine as well. This day is AvansDay of Harvest, just nine days from the deadline.”
“But, I…we’ll never be able to get to Dargon in nine days, that is unless you…”
Kimmentari smiled as she said, “I cannot move over such great distances any faster than you, my love. Alone, my magic cannot solve the problem. But I saw something in Thyerin’s pattern that might help.
“Just six days from now, your King Haralan will celebrate his six and thirtieth year of life. As I understand it, this is a cause of much celebration, and many people will gather in Magnus to help him commemorate the event. Among those present, there are sure to be enough persons skilled in the shaping of Power to enable us to devise a method to deliver the circlet in time. It seems that we should be able to reach the Crown City before the celebration, right?”
Morion said, “That depends on just where this citadel is. Or, will that ‘lens’ thing that Kyle used still work?”
“Its power has dissapated with the passing of the demon from this plane. We shall have to use more conventional means of transportation, I’m afraid. Still, I think we can make it. We have no choice, really.
“To be sure, we should leave as soon as possible.”
“Surely a little more…rest…wouldn’t hurt?” asked Morion.
Kimmentari laughed again, and answered, “Well, maybe not a little more…” and kissed him.
Near sunset of the day before the King’s Birthday, Morion and Kimmentari rode into Magnus on wild horses she had called out of the forest around Kyle’s citadel. The ride had been long and hard, and they had made it in just five days by leaving an hour before sunrise and riding for an hour after sunset every day. That didn’t leave much time for sleeping, much less other nighttime games, but their mission was serious. Morion’s rapport with Kimmentari had given him as much of an understanding of Thyerin’s Dance as he could grasp, and he saw what the Dance had planned out for Je’en if she didn’t receive the circlet in time: full mental possession by a power-hungry wizard.
Morion pondered what to do when they arrived in Magnus. It wouldn’t be easy to put Kimme’s plan into practice: unless very powerful, those persons able to harness the Power seldom made it generally known that they could, as magic-use wasn’t (in general) looked upon with much favor. Morion no longer had the contacts he once had in the Crown City. He had been away too long. He thought of just going to the Castle with the vague hope of meeting some of his old military friends when he hit upon the perfect solution. It wouldn’t be very nice to put an extra load on Coridan, since he would certainly be having a busy day as the Falcon Herald at an official Baranur function, but the young man was the only person that Morion was sure to know at Court.
He decided not to intrude on whatever last minutes of peace Coridan was likely to be having this celebration-eve, and he took Kimme to the Inn he stayed in whenever he was in Magnus. They made a noticeable pair as the warrior and the alien woman rode through the streets. At the Inn, Kimme drew some long stares, but the presence of Morion prevented any overt hostility her strangeness might have precipitated. The Inn had changed hands since Morion’s last visit, but its quality hadn’t suffered in the exchange and he and Kimme spent a very restful night making up for all the shortage of rest they had had on their ride.
Morion and Kimme set off to the Castle early the next morning: so early that the kitchen of the Inn hadn’t yet opened for breakfast, forcing the pair to leave without eating. Despite the hour, there were a good number of people up and about making preparations for the Celebration Parade that wouldn’t even start out from the Castle until high noon. It was dark enough in the pre-dawn gloaming that Kimme received no undue attention. Morion was careful, however, to go out of his way to stay out of even the fringes of the Fifth Quarter – he had no intention of risking his life for a few less minutes walking time.
Magnus was a huge city. Morion knew that it had no competition for the title of Largest City of Baranur. It could hold an infinite number of villages the size of Tench, and even cities the size of Dargon or Endeirion would vanish two or three times worth within the limits of Magnus. Morion and Kimmentari had several miles walk (not including the detour), and the sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon by the time they reached the outer wall of the Crown Castle itself.
The walk around and around the rings surrounding the Castle was as tiring as the walk from the Inn, and the sun was well up into the sky by the time Morion and Kimme reached the entrance to the Castle itself. More than an hour later, after bullying his way through more minor court functionaries than he could count, Morion finally found himself in the reception room of Coridan’s quarters. He made personally sure that a page had been sent to summon Coridan before allowing himself to relax and calmly await the Herald’s arrival.
After what seemed like days but was only about half an hour, Coridan appeared. It took a moment for Morion to be certain of that, though – the young Herald was dressed in a plain brown tunic and leggings, dress more suited to a page, or rather a house-squire because of his age. As Morion rose to greet him, the question must have been on his face because Coridan, after glancing down at himself and smiling, answered, “I am dressed like this because it makes it easier to spy. While most of the castle staff know me on sight, we have almost doubled the number of servitors in the castle for the celebration, and most of the new staff don’t know me from the king. So, I go around and make sure that things are getting done, and nothing is getting stolen. The guards are looking out for that sort of thing as well, but it makes me happier to see to some of it myself.
“Besides, you should hear the staff gossip when they think no one is listening! I get more news in this disguise than all of the king’s spies can ferret out. Why, I just heard that Lady Merritan had been seen…
“Sorry, Lord Morion. I forgot myself, please forgive me. Now, what brings you here with such urgent business, and who is your lovely companion?”
Morion said, “Master Coridan, allow me to introduce you to the Lady Kimmentari, a highborn of the Araf. My Lady Kimmentari, I present to you Master Coridan, Falcon Herald of Baranur.”
Coridan and Kimme bowed to each other, then Kimme stretched out her hand, and Coridan properly kissed it in greeting. Morion could see that Kimme’s strangeness fascinated the herald – the young man could hardly tear his eyes away from her when he said, “The Araf? I don’t believe I’ve ever heard mention of them. Where did you meet her, Morion?”
Kimme answered, “My people are a very secretive race who live in tune with the Dances of Thyerin. It was one such dance, that of Ahar’yKinel, that crossed the paths of Morion and myself and which brings us here.”
Morion continued, “I met Kimmentari on that quest you brought to my door so long ago. She appeared out of the rain one day as I was going to meet Kyle’s challenge, and told me about Belliern. She also said that there was a further purpose in my meeting Kyle beyond freeing him from the demon that had possessed him and protecting the villages of Baranur from his ravages – namely, that I retrieve a crystal circlet from his citadel and deliver it to one of my former pupils, Je’lanthra’en.
“When I had defeated Kyle, she appeared again, got the dying Kyle to explain what had happened to him. Then, she reminded me of my secondary mission and tried to warn me to be careful. I went to Kyle’s citadel by the same means that he had used to get in and out, and eventually found the circlet. But the demon that had possessed him had also laid a trap for anyone going after the circlet. That trap almost killed me, and would have if not for Kimme’s intervention.
“The healing sleep she had to put us into wasted more than three weeks of the time before the deadline established by the pattern of the Dance to get the circlet to Je’en. That deadline is just two days hence: far too long to get to Dargon even by the fastest mode of transport available. And so we came to you, because Kimme had an idea about how to get the circlet to Je’en without us traveling there. Kimme?”
“I know an enchantment that will enable us to send the circlet by magical means to Je’lanthra’en,” said Kimme. “But to send the artifact so far will require far more effort than I, alone, can muster. In fact, it will take at least a score of human power-users to put forth enough effort to get the circlet to Dargon.”
“And,” said Morion, “I decided to come to you for help, because I figured that you know all of the magicians and sorcerers in the Kingdom, or at least who would know them. If you will help us, it will save valuable time in gathering enough people to power Kimme’s spell. So, will you?”
Coridan took his time pondering the story and what help he might possibly be. He believed it – Kimmentari’s appearance alone gave all the credence necessary to Morion’s tale. But magicians were mostly reclusive, and wary of letting knowledge of their abilities get out. In some parts of the kingdom sorcery wasn’t as frowned upon but here, in the Crown City, magic was looked down upon except where it was always beneficent, like the healers. For some, if the fact that they were users of magic became known, it would destroy them and their businesses. So Coridan thought long and hard before finally agreeing to help.
A discussion of details kept Coridan from his duties for a further hour. It was finally decided that a message would be given discreetly to all of the ‘power-users’ (as Kimmentari put it) that Coridan knew of to meet at Coridan’s rooms in the last hour of the day. Coridan would also distribute the message to the few people he knew that would have a broader acquaintance with users of magic. In all, Coridan assured Morion and Kimmentari, there should be well over a score of people to aid in the conjuring.
The time between Coridan’s leaving and the arrival of the first of the magic users late that night was occupied by three things for Morion and Kimmentari: eating (first, a large breakfast, then a moderate lunch not too long after the breakfast, a dinner at about the proper time, and intermittent snacks, mostly as the evening wore on and there was little else to do); preparing for the enchantment (which consisted of Kimme listing the things she and the others would need, and Morion sending pages looking for the items so listed in what, at times, amounted to a treasure hunt all across Magnus for the more esoteric needs); and, by far the most pleasurable pass-time for the pair, just being together. What with all of the travel and worry of the past days, the two hadn’t had much time to be alone together. Of course, they were more tightly joined than was humanly possible for a couple under normal circumstances: Morion could still feel the resonances of Kimme’s mind within his own when the conditions were just right. But it was still nice to just sit and touch and talk at times.
It was after midnight when Coridan arrived in his apartments and announced that there would be no one else coming. He joined Morion as the only other non-participant in the room over next to one wall where they would both out of the way, and watched the thirty-seven users of power, directed by Kimmentari of the Afar, begin the ritual that she had explained to the first few arrivals, who had then instructed those who came later.
The ritual was taking place in the largest of the rooms belonging to Coridan, which had been cleared of furniture as part of the preparation that Kimme and Morion had engaged in earlier. Cushions on the floor, and two chairs against the far wall were the only non-magical trappings left in the room. The 37 magicians were arranged in three patterned rings around Kimme. Within the inner ring where Kimme sat slightly off center was a forked candle stick mounted with a tall red candle and a much shorter purple one. The red candle had come out of the castle’s stores, but the making of the purple one had taken much time and many of the strange ingredients the pages had been forced to hunt for.
When everyone was seated comfortably, Kimme said, “The object of this conjuration has been relayed to each and every one of you. Most of the detailed effort shall be handled by me, as I have the best knowledge of the enchantment required, and I have as accurate a mental picture as is possible of the target, one Je’lanthre’en, a former pupil of my Lord Morion. The rest of you are to concentrate on the two candles before me. Try to keep both of them in focus, but of the two, the shorter one is the more important. I shall start a chant to get us all in rhythm – from there, each of you use whatever method you prefer to pool your power around the candles.
“Is everyone ready? Then, let up begin. Hmmmmm…”
Morion watched as the 37 magicians began to chant and sway. Slowly, they all began to speak and move as one. When they were as attuned as they could get, Kimme eased herself out of the chant-meld and began to conjure. She huddled over the silk pillow that bore the circlet. The pillow contained even weirder things than did the purple candle, and it was from those strange stuffings that Kimme was attempting to produce what she called an awyrdyn – a creature of another plane that could be bound to this one for a specific duration, such as ‘until the completion of a given task’. The necessity of the pooling of powers was that it was draining to open a planar gate (which was the function of the pillow and its stuffings), and even more draining to bind the creature so summoned to its task (in which the purple candle would aid). Kimme and her kind were strongly steeped in the useage of the power, but she needed to be sure that both the gate and the bond lasted long enough to get the awyrdyn all the way to Dargon safely with the circlet. It wouldn’t help the spell’s effectiveness any that the clearest impression/image of Je’en that Kimme could get from Morion’s mind was very vague and could almost as well be applied to any of Je’en’s family at least by the criteria that the awyrdyn was capable of using.
Time seemed to slow down for the two watchers. So little was happening, and what was was so boring. Coridan almost nodded off several times – but then, he had been up since very early and it was very late. Morion had had enough rest that he was able to resist closing his eyes, but the sameness of the ritual almost hypnotised him into unconciousness at least as many times as Coridan. A rough estimate of the time told Morion that more than half an hour had passed before he finally noticed the faint blurriness that was hovering like a small cloud around the small pillow.
After rubbing his eyes to be sure that they weren’t playing tricks on him, he began to pay close attention to what was developing on and around the circlet. The wavering cloud thickened until it almost blotted out the pillow and circlet, both visible as wavery outlines within the form of the wraith-like thing formed around them. It was vaguely human in shape, but there was no detail to its body – it looked like a wax shop mannequin before it’s been sculpted to look a little more natural.
The chant began to speed up a little as Kimme began the second part of the ritual, that of impressing the task on the awyrdyn, and she started drawing power faster. The red candle had burned rather rapidly until it was the size of the purple candle, at which point both began to melt at about the same rate (which was faster than a normal candle would melt). As the purple candle shortened, the awyrdyn seemed to grow darker in shade, from the milky translucence it began as to a deeper and deeper violet. Adding color to its form didn’t help its definition, though – in fact, making it easier to see was definitely disturbing. When it was indistinct, its formlessness could be accepted. Now that it was fully visible and purple, the utter lack of features was unnerving.
As the ritual continued, signs of fatigue began to show among those supplying the power for it. Sweat beaded the brows of most, and some were dripping from the exertion. A few of the marginally talented who had come only to show off their ability were seriously straining to keep up with the rest – they would have dropped out, but they all knew what that would do to the rhythm that had been built up.
Finally, both the red and purple candles were little more than stubs in the candellabra. Kimme uttered a command that grated on the ears of all who heard it – a decidedly unpleasant sensation especially from one whose voice was normally so music-like – and the awyrdyn began to rise to the ceiling of the room. The circlet rose with it, held within its body somehow. Of the pillow that had held the circlet, there was no sign. When the wraith-thing had vanished from the room, Kimme gave another, more pleasant command, and the chant stopped even though no one present could understand the language she used. The candles also extinguished themselves, and there was silence in the room for almost half a minute, until one of the magic users moaned loudly and collapsed.
Quiet chaos reigned in Coridan’s room as the overcome magician was taken away to be tended and the other power users filtered away to rejoin the celebration below. Finally, only Morion, Kimme, and Coridan were left in the room. Coridan said, “Did it work?”
Kimme, who looked tired but not exhausted, said, “It should have. There was enough power present, and enough time to prepare the enchantment properly. But I have not been able to see whether this will work within the weave of Thyerin’s dance, so we can only hope.”
Morion said, “Thank you, Coridan, for letting us use your rooms for this, and for all your help in gathering the people we needed to make it work. Do you think there are any free guest rooms we could sleep in? It’s a long way back to the Inn…”
“Don’t even think of moving from this room, you two. You have done enough for one day, and you’ll take your rest right here. You know where the bed is – use it. I have duties elsewhere that I have shirked to be here to watch your Lady work. I have to get back to them now, so go ahead and sleep. And don’t worry about me – if I need a rest, I can find places more suited to a busy and single man than to a couple who want to sleep for hours. See you in the morning – or rather, later this morning. Pleasant dreams.”
As Morion lay letting sleep overcome him, arms around Kimme who was already asleep, he wondered whether Kimme’s enchantment would prove effective. Finally, he decided that it had to – there was certainly nothing he or she could do about it now anyway. Time to stop worrying about his old mission, and start thinking about his future with Kimme at Pentamorlo. With those pleasant thoughts running through his mind, he fell asleep.
Je’en stood in front of the mirror, a battle going on in her mind. Her body trembled from the effort she was putting into the fight. Her left hand was locked, white knuckled, on the edge of her mask, and much of the battle going on was over how to move that hand.
The room she was in was one of the lesser guest rooms in Dargon Castle. Sounds of merriment came faintly to her from the Ball in the High Court, and from the smaller celebrations that had been brought to some of the rooms in the guest wings. She was alone in the room, and no one knew she was there, which was as the thing in her mind commanded. The thing that had forced her there, and that was trying to force her to remove her mask.
The thing – the presence – in her mind had been gaining strength ever since that day that she had learned of her parents coming to Dargon for Kroan’s wedding. It had finally been able to force her into Abernald’s Apothecary just a few nights ago. Abernald had been killed that night. She wasn’t quite sure that she had done the killing – she didn’t remember. Perhaps someone might have slipped in through a door left open by her to do it. But she had a sinking feeling that the deed had been done by her – or the thing in her mind.
She knew that Cefn was worried about her. She had been aware of his concern for a long time, but the thing had enough control of her mind to force her not to react. She turned aside his questions, and simply ignored him when he got too insistent.
He had put on a good show of normalcy earlier that day when he had arrived at her house to escort her to the Ball. They were almost normal together. But she knew what she had in the satchel she brought, and had a vague idea what the thing intended for her to do. She knew that the Ball would be far from normal for her.
Somewhere around the 10th hour of the night, she broke away from Cefn at the command of the thing in her mind. She had been covertly eyeing all of the unattached males at the Ball, as per instructions, and had selected the perfect specimen for her deception. When she left Cefn without a word of explanation and latched onto her choice, she saw the hurt in Cefn’s stance – she had become very adept at reading her partner in ways that didn’t involve the face (which she seldom saw much of). His hurt hurt her, but she had her orders, and she didn’t seem to be able to disobey them.
The young knight, resplendent in his green jeweled belt and golden spurs, was much flattered by Je’en’s attentions. He willingly let her lead him around, especially when she led him away to what she said was her room. As soon as they were alone in the empty room, Je’en slipped from her belt pouch one of the small spheres she had made from the things taken from the Apothecary. It broke properly when dropped, releasing a fast-rising cloud of white powder that soon had the knight sleeping peacefully on the bed.
Je’en then slipped unnoticed out of that room, and made her way to another. She slipped into dark clinging clothing from her pack, and donned a hood. And then came the moment when she stood in front of the mirror fighting the presence in her mind’s command to remove her mask. Everything she had done at its command so far she hadn’t been able to resist, no matter how repellent to her. But removing her mask was too much of a violation of her self. She had to fight it.
The presence again commanded her to remove the bright silver mask. It was easily recognized, and hard to hide. Je’en again refused. It was her strongest link to her new self, and without it, she felt she would just be a songless bard with a maimed right hand. The presence insisted, and Je’en could feel the pressure on her mind increasing until she could no longer bear it. With a satisfyingly final gesture, her left hand moved away from her face, bringing the mask with it. A casual toss relegated the silver object to the shadowy corners of the room, where it was forgotten.
The once again fully controlled Je’en pulled her hood down over her face, hefted her satchel, and slipped out of the room, heading for the depths of Castle Dargon.
Three-quarters of an hour later, Je’en stood before a huge door in the deepest and oldest part of Dargon Castle. Few people knew about the sub-dungeons she now stood in, or that they had been built long before the Castle itself had. The somewhat faded Dargon Crest painted on the vault door before her covered, but did not well hide, the original markings on the door – markings in the runic style of the Fretheod Empire.
Six people normally stood guard around this most secret vault. All six had been taken care of by the dust in the spheres as easily as all of the other guards Je’en had passed on her way down. She walked up to the next obstacle in her path and examined the series of locks that bound the vault closed. From a separate pouch in her satchel, she removed a small wineskin that was filled with another special mixture. Placing the nozzle in the largest keyhole, Je’en gently squeezed the fluid into the locking mechanism. When the wineskin was empty, she stepped back and waited.
Soon, thin white smoke began issuing from the keyhole. Je’en still waited, until the smoke turned black, then ceased. She went back over to the vault door and lightly touched the handle. Finding it hot, as expected, she used the wineskin to protect her skin as she pulled the door open with ease. As it came open, a grainy grey powder began to leak out of the bolt hole – all that was left of the locking mechanisms.
The vault itself was huge, but mostly empty. Along the wall opposite the door was a small locked cabinet and there were some shelves on the left hand wall that bore some decrepit antiques, so poorly maintained that there was no telling what they had once been. But Je’en wasn’t interested in what was in the vault – she was looking for what was under the vault.
In the very center of the vault’s floor was an ornate inlay of what seemed to be a compass rose, save that the four main points were lettered in runic Fretheodan, and they didn’t point in the normal directions. Je’en didn’t even notice this, but went to stand on one of the lesser points. She gave the passwords that would open the vault-within-a-vault, three nonsense syllables in Low Fretheodan. The words came to her from the presence in her mind, and she repeated them out loud. When the last echo had died, a rumbling began. Slowly, the main axis of the ‘compass’ began to rise, bearing with it the treasure Je’en had been directed to retrieve – the map to the hiding place of the keseth, the key to unlock that hiding place, and the skull of the only person who knew how to get by the traps guarding that hiding place.
Ka’en changed into the Castle Guard uniform he had pieced together after entering an empty guest room as close as he could find to the servant’s wing of the Castle. Getting into the Castle hadn’t been as difficult as he had feared – he still retained some of the sneak-thief skills his first master had taught him.
He had spent as little time as possible at the Ball itself, mostly from fear of meeting his cousin and her friends and being recognized. He hadn’t accepted their invitation to go to the Ball with them because it would have complicated his mission to have to alibi himself to them when he vanished. He put the finishing touches on his disguise and slipped out of the room and down into the cellars.
Once into the under-levels of the castle, Ka’en began to walk purposefuly through the hallways, as if he were on an important errand. He came to the first set of stairs leading into the dungeons proper and was astonished to see the posted guard lying on the floor next to the portal. He knelt next to the prone man and noticed a light dusting of fine white powder on and around him. A touch to the side of the throat assured Ka’en that the man was just sleeping even though he was breathing so shallowly that he seemed dead to the casual glance. Ka’en wondered exactly who and what had happened to the man as he continued onward and downward.
By the time he reached the second sub-level, which was as far down as most people thought the Castle went, Ka’en was getting annoyed. Someone had preceeded him into the depths of Dargon Castle and without a shread of the subtlety that he had taken so long to insure. Each and every guard Ka’en had passed had been lying on the floor, covered in white powder, asleep. It was a crude but effective way to gain access to the lowest levels of the castle and it made Ka’en’s guard disguise utterly useless.
He entered the foundation levels of the castle quietly and cautiously, wary of whoever had drugged the guards since they could still be down there. The age and style of the architecture he passed through was lost on him – he didn’t have the experience to recognize ancient Fretheodan ornamentation or construction techniques nor the concentration to spare even if he had the knowledge. He began to hear noises from up ahead, strange sounds like conversation but not in any language he understood. He finally came to the end of the hall he had been following and saw the open vault door, the vault that was his own reason for being here this evening. He saw the small vault within the larger vault that held the papers he had been hired to procure; he saw the shelves on the walls with their strange, incomprehensible contents; and he saw someone dressed in black standing on the design in the center of the floor and watching a portion of that design rise slowly into the air.
When the hidden crypt had fully revealed itself, the person in black pushed back his – no, her – hood and squatted down to retrieve the contents. It took Ka’en a moment to place the familiar face, but when he finally recognized Je’en (the scar threw him off for a moment), he gasped involuntarily, realizing that she must have been the one to drug the guards. He wondered what was so valuable about the contents of the hidden crypt that would draw Je’en to steal them.
Je’en heard Ka’en gasp and whirled and straightened with a grace and fluidity that again astonished Ka’en. He knew that she was now a warrior but to see the skill in her stance and bearing proved what he had been told. She scanned the room looking for a weapon, since she hadn’t brought her own. Her eyes fell on one of the antiques, and she dashed over to it. Drawing it left-handed, she continued her dash right over to Ka’en. When he saw the murder in her eyes, his instincts overcame his confusion, and he drew his steel to meet her.
But Ka’en was a thief, not a warrior. He could defend himself against the types he was likely to meet in his job, but not against one who made a living by the sword. Also, there was the fact that Je’en was family to restrain his reactions. On her part, Je’en wasn’t pulling her blows for any reason, and Ka’en wasn’t even sure that she recognized him at all. He parried like mad, and tried the few disarming tricks he knew, but Je’en’s skill was too great. After only a few minutes of frantic battle, she slipped her borrowed blade deep into her cousin’s side.
Ka’en knew intense pain and his blade clattered to the floor, his body following it seconds later. His wound bled freely, and Ka’en could feel the warm pool growing against his side. He watched, too weak to protest or call for aid, as Je’en calmly pulled a bag from her satchel and filled it with the three objects from the hidden crypt. Then, she put the bag back away and walked over to the vault door, without even a glance for her cousin and victim.
The blood that drained from Ka’en’s side also drained his strength. He tried to pull himself after her, but he could barely even move his arms, much less his whole body. And then something happened to assure him that he was on his way to death. Just as Je’en reached the vault door, there was a faint *pop* and a beautiful silver and white circlet appeared, hovering about three feet off the ground. It wavered back and forth between Je’en and Ka’en, but she didn’t even notice it and kept walking. When she turned the corner to head for the stairs, the circlet seemed to make up its mind. It drifted quickly over to Ka’en and settled gently to the floor right in front of him. His efforts to touch it to see if it was real sapped the last of his strength, and he fainted dead away.
Cefn was getting ready to leave when the guards came to get him. He had only stayed as long as he had because of a conversation Kroan had gotten him into with a visiting Countess – he had managed to forget about Je’en’s peculiar behavior until Margreth had been called away. He was on his way to say good bye to Kroan when a man and a woman dressed in the uniform of the Castle Guards came up to him and asked him if he would come with them. Puzzled but not worried, he followed them as they led him down into the cellars, then the dungeons, then the sub-levels, and finally to a part of the castle he had never known about, a part obviously older than the rest. They had passed little groups of guards and other castle staff clustered about apparently sleeping guards on the way down, and there was a much larger congregation of guards and staff on the lowest level of the castle. Cefn was lead through the confusion of people and into what appeared to be a huge vault. He noticed the strange contents as he was lead through it and over to another cluster of people near one wall.
One of his guides said, “Sergeant Hammin, here is Lord Cefn as you requested.”
A woman rose from the cluster of people and smiled. “Greetings, Lord Cefn. We seem to have a little problem here. None of the Castle healers can be reached right now, and this man is very near death. I was wondering if you might be able to help him pull through so that we can find out just what went on here?”
As Hammin was speaking, the cluster of people broke up revealing to Cefn the bloody body of Ka’en. He immediatly stooped down and made sure that Je’en’s cousin was still alive. Cefn wasn’t a healer – his talents didn’t run in that direction. But he was good with artifacts, and he made sure that he kept some healing crystals on his person for emergencies. He quickly fished in his belt pouch and drew out three long green rods. He carefully rearranged Ka’en’s body so that he could get to the wound, and touched the first of the rods to it. It began to glow, and the blood stopped oozing from the wound. When the rod began to shorten as if it was being absorbed into Ka’en’s body, Cefn grasped the hilt of the sword firmly and drew it out of the wound. The first rod was soon gone, and Cefn used his knife to cut away Ka’en’s tunic from the wound. Then, he applied the second and third rods one after the other. As each rod was absorbed, the wound closed more and more, and Ka’en’s color improved from the deathly pale of heavy bloodloss, to an almost healthy (in comparison) slightly wan.
By the time the last rod was gone, Ka’en had begun stirring. The properly fatal wound in his side had been reduced to a bad slash and nothing more. Enough of his vital fluids had been replaced that he was in no danger of death – at least from his wound. From the looks of the guards, though, Ka’en had better have a good reason for being in the vault wearing a makeshift guard’s uniform.
Cefn left Ka’en to the care of Hammin for a moment, and went to examine the crypt that stood open in the center of the vault. He looked in the holding tray and saw that it was empty. He examined what he could see of the mechanisms, but could tell little save that they were very old and very well made. He could sense a subtle magic around the crypt, but it wasn’t a strong enough impression to determine type or purpose.
His attention was drawn to a knot of people around one of the sleeping guards, who did not seem to want to wake up. Cefn went over to where the guard lay, and noticed for the first time the white powder that covered him and the wall and floor around him. Searching carefully, he produced shards of what seemed to be unnaturally brittle wax. He brushed his finger through the powder, and sniffed it. Sleeping dust. He isolated the main ingredients in his mind, and realized that the most important one could only have come from Abernald’s – the shop whose owner had been killed not long ago after a break in. He told a guard what would act as an antidote, then went back to check on Ka’en.
Je’en’s cousin had recovered even further as the healing elements of the green rods continued to do their work even inside his body. Ka’en was sitting propped up against the wall, drinking from a wineskin someone had brought with them. Cefn checked him over again to make sure that he would be alright, and then Sergeant Hammin asked him just what he was doing dressed as a guard in the most secret vault in Dargon.
Ka’en circumvented the direct question by telling them instead about how he had seen Je’en open the hidden crypt and how she had attacked him and left him for dead, taking the contents of the crypt when she left. No one had even known that the crypt existed, and no one knew what signifigance the scroll, key, and skull might have to anyone. Then, Ka’en told about the appearance of the circlet. Cefn examined it as he had the crypt and again found faint but unreadable traces of magic, both on it and in it. From what he could tell, though, the magic he could sense on it was whatever had been used to make it appear in the vault. The magic within the circlet was like nothing Cefn had ever sensed before though if there had been more of it he might have been able to figure it out.
Cefn eventually managed to talk Hammin into letting him go after Je’en. He reasoned with her that he had more experience in chases like this would be, and that he had another motive for finding her – Je’en didn’t normally go around stealing things that no one else even knew existed. Something strange was going on, and Cefn wanted to find out what, and help Je’en out of whatever trouble she was in. Ka’en had more difficulty getting himself out of trouble, but he hadn’t even taken anything after all. When Hammin pronounced him free, he stated that he wanted to help Cefn help Je’en. They left the Castle together, both trying to figure out how to find Je’en.