DargonZine F10, Issue 2

The Treasure Part 4



This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series The Treasure

Part 4

 

Tandi’s Quest

 

Tanandra wearily folded her “acquired” bedroll after yet another night without sleep. The rising sun provided enough illumination for her to prepare a meager meal – the rations she had acquired along with her bedding were nearly gone. She sat facing south-east while she ate, looking deeper into rising foothills. Her goal was near, somewhere among those hills. That was part of the reason she had been sleepless for the past six nights: the nervousness of actually facing someone with enough power to delve into the Forbidden Art – the magics that could bring the semblance of life to a corpse. The other reason was the brand in her mind that led her to this place – the magic of the gorfodd that had been intended for Cefn, but now forced her ever onwards. She would have quit this insane course had she been able, but the geas wouldn’t let her.

 

The brand flared briefly and somewhat painfully and Tanandra’s confidence tried to slip even lower. The normally constant burning throb that led her to her goal would at times flare into a higher intensity. Something about the magic that created the brand told her that each flare indicated an increase of the ability of the one she pursued. She fervently hoped she reached that person soon, since what little power she had of her own was fast being eroded by sleepless nights and exhausting travel.

 

***

 

Little more than three hours had passed when Tandi was led off the game trail she had been following. So weary was she that she didn’t even realize the change until she came to a narrow crack in a sheer hillside. The brand urged her to follow it, and she was barely able to comply by turning sideways, inhaling deeply, and squeezing painfully at times through.

 

She came out of the narrow way into a very dreary tiny valley. She knew she had reached her destination for two reasons. First, the brand was now flaring so brightly in her mind that she was sure it could be seen behind her eyes. And second, the demi-castle built into the far wall of the valley could only belong to a reclusive person – perfect for someone who would dare to venture into the Forbidden Art.

Adrenalin pushed back her fatigue, and she dropped her no-longer- needed pack behind a rock then worked her way carefully closer to the walls of the castle. It had not been constructed for defense, and looking around, Tandi could see why: there was no easy way into the valley. Each side of the dell was sheer and high and, unless there were any other small cracks like the one she had pushed through, they were unbroken. No armed force of any size could penetrate to threaten those walls.

 

The gate was at least 10 yards wide and half as high. A tall, thin tower rose to either side, too thin to actually house even a single sentry. Carved in fanciful runes over the lintel of the gateway was the name “Aahashtra”. One of the pair of doors was open halfway as if in invitation. Behind the almost ornamental wall was the castle itself, or at least as much of it as wasn’t carved into the hill that rose behind it. The builder had taken the only non-sheer wall of the valley and had integrated the castle into the rolls and folds of the rising hill. Towers sprouted from several points along the box-like main building, as well as from odd points along the hill. Shorter turrets and balconies filled up more wall and hill spaces, and in places the hillside was augmented by out-thrusting rooms. It looked like a mad-man’s maze, and Tandi was (for once) glad of the brand that would show her the way through it.

 

Drawing all of her strength together, she cast upon herself her best spell – that of maximum non-detection. She was very proud of the spell, which was less exhausting than full invisibility but more complex. Of course, it was also not as effective as invisibility: it simply placed about the subject an aura of unnoticeability which could deflect all but the most intensely directed search. It was perfect for moving through crowded streets (if someone bumped into you while you were non-detected, they might curse or apologize and then forget about you) or slipping past even the most alert guards.

 

As she neared the gate – the only way she could see to get into the castle without more help than she could summon – she grew ever more uneasy. She could feel her own power-reserves draining far more rapidly than they should and she could only hope that she would be able to maintain her spell long enough to reach and stop her target. How she intended to stop him she wasn’t sure, but she was unconsciously fingering her belt knife as she slipped along the outer wall.

 

She reached the edge of the open gate, and peered cautiously through into the courtyard. It seemed empty so, still nervous, Tandi made a dash for the castle’s main door. As she crossed the sandy pavement of the courtyard she felt a tingle run through her. She wondered briefly about an alarm of some kind, but she was certain her spell could divert the abilities of any alarm, magical or otherwise, she had ever heard of. (She was partially right – the alarm rigged in the courtyard was almost fooled. But the owner of Aahashtra had devised his own type of alarm and it was like nothing Tandi had ever seen before. It didn’t quite detect her presence, but it was able to warn the reclusive conjurer that something was wrong.)

 

She should have been warned by the fact that the front door was unbarred. Even in the wilderness, secluded in a tiny valley, it was suspicious to leave one’s front door unprotected, especially when the gate was also open. But Tandi had other things on her mind, like sustaining her spell (which was growing harder and harder), and the distraction of the brand almost pulling her toward her target, so she didn’t even notice the easy access she gained into the castle. And that was her downfall.

 

Her non-detect spell was useful against trap-doors and other such devices, but it couldn’t do a thing about a simple illusion. So, when the brand led Tandi across the large reception hall and down the only corridor that led off it, she was delivered right into one of the simplest traps that the owner of Aahashtra had set – a pit covered by the illusion of a floor. The fall wasn’t far, but Tandi hit her head as she went down, and was knocked unconscious.

 

***

 

She awoke strapped to a table in a laboratory. The gorfodd brand burned in her mind with a painful intensity and she struggled with her bonds as it goaded her to eliminate the source of that pain. She heard sounds around her, voices talking and chanting, but she was too concerned with the driving geas to take the time to concentrate on what was being said.

 

And then the pain was gone. As if it had never been, leaving not even the memory of it to torment her. She felt the cancellation spell fade away around her, and looked up at the one who had freed her from the gorfodd.

 

The man standing before the vertical table was known to her. The Elders had been right. The experimenter into the Forbidden Art was Roharvardenul, once a pupil along with Cefn and herself. But Vard had always been a troublemaker, and a duel between Cefn and Vard – an activity proscribed by the masters – had gotten the latter evicted from the college. It was his specialization in control magics that had earned Vard the mistrust of all in the college – such knowledge could only be used for ill, and the masters had tried to discourage Vard from his research into that avenue of magic. But the man had disobeyed, vowing to become the most powerful wizard ever when he was forced from Tarenha Isle.

 

“And what brings little Tanandra into my demesne, hmm?” asked Vard. “I don’t think you need to answer,” he continued. “I could tell from the parameters of the spell I just cancelled. You have come to stop me from learning the Forbidden Art. How noble. How did the Council manage to rope you into this? I recognized the magics of several of my old foes in the gorfodd you bore – it was very powerful. But it was also the most formidable magic you have ever borne, not that you could actually use it, and now its gone. How did they think that a compulsion would help you defeat me? Fools!

 

“Actually, they’ve helped me more than they could imagine. I’m almost ready to move into the final stages of my research and I actually need some help for this. Come and let me show you how far I’ve gotten.”

 

Vard turned and walked over to the far side of the laboratory and the table Tandi was fastened to followed. She wondered if it were being pushed by someone she couldn’t see, or if it moved by magic. Her senses were so ravaged by her recent ordeal that the fact that she couldn’t detect any magic about the table didn’t mean there wasn’t any.

 

Vard stopped in an area cleared of all but a book-stand and a low pedastal. The table jockeyed itself up next to him in such a way as to allow Tandi full view of both objects. On the book-stand was a large, iron (or was that lead?) bound tome with red leather covers and spidery black lettering. And on the pedastal was a lump of black crystal that had a sickly-glowing purple core. The sight of that lump made her almost violently ill and she was deathly afraid of its purpose, knowing the legends of the Forbidden Art.

 

Vard gestured proudly and said, “Behold, the first mivorn amulet to exist since Ciraledwen the Great!”

 

Tandi winced to hear that evil Elder given such an exalted title. What she had feared was true – that lump of black stone was a mivorn amulet, used to sustain the undead creations of a practitioner of the Forbidden Art by draining the life-force of those fused to it. And she began to realize just what Vard had planed for her.

 

“It has taken me long to create this amulet,” Vard said, “and long to attune myself to it once created. But now I am ready to put it to its fullest use, and for that I need a source. You, my dear Tanandra, are to be my source. I don’t intend to use the Forbidden Art for conquest, at least not at the moment, but I do need to resurrect someone to further my world-conquest plans and you should last more than long enough to see me to that end. Now, to link you to the amulet…”

 

He opened the book and flipped through the pages until he found what he was looking for. Reading from the page he had turned to, he began to chant in a language that hurt Tandi’s ears even though she couldn’t understand a word of it. A sick feeling began to grow in her stomach as she tried to summon to her aid any magic at all. But either from something Vard had done or plain and simple exhaustion, she couldn’t find even the barest trickle of power to fuel the few and simple spells she could think of. She was trapped and nothing could save her from Vard’s schemes.

 

The chant rose to a harsh peak, and Vard reached down for Tandi’s arm. He released its bond with the flick of a finger and pulled her arm, palm first, toward the amulet. The mivorn began to glow a brighter and slimier purple as Vard continued to chant. With a three syllable invocation, Vard pressed Tandi’s palm hard against the crystal. Immediatly, she felt a shard of the amulet break off the mass and burrow like something alive into her flesh. It burned worse than the gorfodd brand had for a few moments, then it stopped. Vard released her hand and began to wind down the chant. Tandi looked at her palm and wasn’t surprised to see in its center a lump of the black crystal. She could feel its presence within her hand and arm, and she tried to pry it out like she would a splinter but it wouldn’t budge. Vard glanced over at her when his spell was finished and laughed at her antics. He said, “It cannot be pried from your body, little one. I could withdraw it, and I might when I’m through with you if there’s anything of you left. So be nice to me or I’ll use you all up!” Vard’s mocking laugh rang in her ears as she continued to try to rid herself of that black crystal tap on her very lifeforce.

 

Je’en’s Task

 

Je’lanthra’en made her way from Dargon Castle with no trouble at all. The guards she had drugged would sleep for several hours yet, and she had a few of the sleep-balls left in case she met anyone in the upper levels of the castle. But she made it out of the castle and across the causeway with not a single encounter.

 

Her horse was where she had left it, already fully provisioned for a long journey. She secured her treasure-pouch among the saddlebags, mounted, and rode away from Dargon, heedless of the lateness of the hour. She had a mission to complete and she couldn’t put it off.

 

Once she was miles away from Dargon and any hope of capture, the compulsion set on her by that presence in her mind eased up and she was able to think again. And for the first time since the attack she realized just who had been on the other end of that sword. Inwardly, she cursed and wept for her cousin Ka’en, whom she believed dead. She didn’t stop to wonder what he was doing in the vaults, she just railed against the presence in her mind that had forced her to silence the person who had discovered her theft.

 

There was, at that time, enough left of Je’en free in her mind to do that. But just a few days later the mental hold was so tight on her that she had no thought but unswerving loyalty toward her master. She rode swiftly, taking only the minimum rest necessary each night before continuing on in her mission. This way she made it to those same foothills in far less time than it had taken Tandi even accounting for her horse.

 

She abandoned the animal when she came to the crack. She knew the words that would widen it so that she didn’t have to squeeze through as had Tandi. She walked boldly into the valley, through the open gate labeled Aahashtra, and across the courtyard which had its alarm turned off temporarily since the owner knew that Je’en was on her way. She passed through the front door and the reception hall but ignored the only hallway evident. Instead, she went to the wall bearing a mosaic of a hunting scene and pressed the downed stag’s eye. The whole mural swung back, admitting her to the interior of the castle.

 

With knowledge so automatic it seemed her own, Je’en threaded her way along the maze that was Aahashtra and to the rooms that the owner called his own. Before she got there, however, new orders arrived and she changed direction. Back down, over, up, then down again, and she came to the laboratory. She walked over to the man standing by a book stand, knelt, and offered him the only thing she had taken off her horse when she freed it – the sack containing the treasure from the crypt beneath Dargon Castle.

 

“Ah, my slave, you have arrived,” said Vard. “Just in time, too. I have been so anxious to try out my new source that I was ready to rob a grave for a subject. But here you are with the things I need to conquer the world. And I can start with this skull right here.” He had emptied the bag onto the bookstand and, ignoring the key and the map, he was holding up the skull as if it was some long lost friend. “You may stand over there, Je’en, while I prepare to revive this poor man trapped so long ago by his master.”

 

Je’en obeyed, and took the opportunity to look around at the lab. The only comparison she had was to Cefn’s lab, and this one was both larger and more impressive. But it was evident that most of the recent activity there had been in the corner with the bookstand and the pedastal that bore some kind of ugly, evil stone on it.

 

Vard had removed the extraneous objects from the bookstand and was leafing through the pages. He had just found the right one when a small man came in leading a woman by a chain attached to her waist. She didn’t look well – she was thin unto gauntness, with circles under her eyes and stringy hair that might be quite pretty if washed and combed. Her tunic and pants seemed made for someone three sizes larger, and they were dirty and torn. She was constantly rubbing at something on her right palm, paying attention to nothing else around her.

 

Vard looked up and saw the woman, and smiled evilly. He said, “Ah, Tanandra, finally I have a use for you. Take your place, please.”

 

The woman listlessly stood between the bookstand and the pedastal, then sank into a cross-legged sitting position, her right hand open and palm up on her knee. Je’en could see the lump of black crystal that pulsed there in time to the purple light within the ugly rock on the pedastal.

 

Vard said, “Qrun, take this skull and place it on the floor next to Tanandra. Then you may go.” The small man complied, then left by the door he had come in by. Looking around to make sure he had done everything necessary, Vard took a satisfied breath and began to chant.

 

Je’en had been with Cefn while he cast his magics, but never had he used so painful a language to listen to. Je’en shivered where she stood and would have followed the small man out had she been permitted. But Vard had given no such order, so she was stuck watching and listening.

 

The rock began to glow brighter and to pulse in rhythm to Vard’s chant. Tanandra’s hand clenched around the rock in her palm but didn’t obscure it. She began to grimace as well when a thin purple thread crept from the small stone toward the skull. At the same time, a much larger lance of purple light was connecting the big crystal to the skull. When the two lines met the skull, it too began to glow. Vard’s chant grew in volume, and to Je’en’s horror flesh began to form over the skull. She watched as, with increasing speed, the skull she had taken from Dargon was restored to the body of a man!

 

Ka’en’s Search

 

It took Ka’lochra’en far less time to lose his patience than it did the glacier-calm Cefn. So it was that Ka’en had been pacing and fretting for more than a week when Cefn finally lost it. Unfortunately for most passersby, when Cefn lost his patience, people noticed!

 

Ever since the day Je’en had disappeared after robbing some hidden crypt within the secret vault beneath Dargon Castle, Ka’en had followed the mage around as they both tried to fathom what had happened to her and where she was. Ka’en’s first urge, to ride out and follow her, was put aside by Cefn. He had said that Je’en had a long head start on them, and could be anywhere in almost any direction by then. His first action had been to return to his house and play cards.

 

Actually, Ka’en knew foretelling cards when he saw them, although he had never seen a set like the one Cefn used. He got to know them well, however, because the mage spent the whole night using them, all to no effect. All Cefn would say was, “Something’s blocking them. The twelve of swords, Je’en, is crossed by the Prime of Staves every time. Beyond that, there is no pattern, no similarity in any of the layouts I do. I cannot reach her with these.”

 

So they had tried every method of divination available within the precincts of Dargon. Every palm-reader, every amateur card-layer, bone-spiller, and tea-dregs-diviner in the city. Not one could tell them anything. Only one in six had the true gift, a fact that Cefn made sure to ascertain quickly. He never stinted with the money they demanded, but he knew when he was getting truth and when the fortune-teller was just giving them air.

 

It took a week and more to visit all of those who promised a reading of the future that existed in Dargon. It was at the last of these that Cefn lost his temper. It was in a dock-side tavern that both Cefn and Ka’en met with the palmist. Ka’en had sensed that the man was a fake from the first, but as usual, Cefn gave the man a whole gold crown to read his palm.

 

The thin, shifty-eyed man across the table from them looked at the crown as if it were a dead fish, although Ka’en was sure there was a glint of avarice deep in his tiny eyes. With a pass of his hand, the gold piece vanished; a simple prestidigitator’s trick that might impress some, but not a real mage like Cefn, or a real thief like Ka’en. Besides, thought Ka’en, I could do it better and with more coins.

 

The palm reader took Cefn’s left hand and peered intently at the deeply creased palm. He studied it for several minutes, muttering to himself and tracing the various lines, folds and creases there. Finally he straightened up, took a deep breath, and began to propound on what he had seen of Cefn’s life in his palm.

 

Ka’en listened wearily to what he had heard many times before. Very little of it was true, but there were several schools of palmistry, and those with similar training saw the same things in the same palm, true or not. Ka’en thought very little of palmistry, and very little of divinations, but Cefn believed and he was paying.

 

The thin man had finished describing Cefn’s past life, his character and his intelligence, and began to answer the question that the mage had asked. He used a different part of Cefn’s palm to illustrate the recent departure of a dear one. He pointed to three tiny lines crossing what he called the ‘relationship line’ and said, “These indicate that the one you have lost has run away with another man. I can see herein that your loss is deep, but I cannot see where your loved one has gone – his life is no longer reflected in your palm. My advice is to forget him and concern yourself with new relationships.” The palmist leered sideways at Ka’en, who reacted to the insult by reaching for his knife. But Cefn reacted faster and far more violently.

 

The mage stood and easily pushed the heavy table away from himself, pinning the palmist in his chair. When he spoke, Cefn’s voice was so full of anger that even Ka’en backed away a pace. “How dare you tell me such lies! The one I am searching for was not a man, and she left with no one! You and your kind will say anything for a copper.” Cefn was gripping the table with glowing hands, and Ka’en thought he could detect a bit of smoke curling up from around them. He also noticed that there were little flashes of light beginning to show through Cefn’s robe. The mage continued, “I’ve been all over this city and all I’ve gotten from the likes of you is fanciful tales of kidnapping, or runaway lovers, or visits from gods. I’m sick and tired of lies! People like you should be banned from the city limits for deluding innocent truth-seekers!”

 

Cefn lifted his right hand from the table to point at the palmist, leaving a charred handprint behind. His hands were glowing brightly, the flashes beneath his robe were growing more frequent, and Ka’en thought he could detect a faint haze rippling the air around the mage. Ka’en tried to draw Cefn’s attention to what was happening, but the mage was too caught up in his anger to listen.

 

Cefn continued, “All I want is the answer to a simple question. I don’t care why she left, I don’t care what caused her to steal those things. I just want to know WHERE JE’EN IS!” With the last word, he slammed his fist down on the center of the table with cataclysmic results.

 

***

 

The fire burned down the bar, and a good portion of the wharf. No one was injured – the rantings of the wizard had cleared the bar of all other patrons, and the two people with the wizard had been rescued by him shortly after the fire began. The ships moored at the wharf had cast off from the dock and had survived unharmed. The bucket brigades formed hadn’t been able to save the bar, but the supplies sitting out for on- or off-loading had been swiftly moved into a nearby warehouse. A fire break and constant watch had saved the warehouse and contained the fire to just the immediate area.

 

There had been no mistaking the wizard who had started the fire – a man who always wore an unnaturally dark cowl is easily recognized. So when the captain of the City Guard arrived at Cefn’s door, he found the entry hall filled with chests, each chest filled with gold and gems. The restitution was readily accepted and both Cefn and Ka’en avoided prison.

 

Ka’en sat with Cefn in the taproom of the Panther later that day trying to figure out what to do next. He was just about to suggest that they try to track Je’en out of the city along a week-old trail when a young boy walked in the door. He stood looking around for a moment, then hurried over to the table where Ka’en and Cefn sat.

 

“Are you Wizard Kevin?” the child asked. Cefn nodded, and the child handed him a folded piece of paper sealed with red and blue wax. He said, “An old lady asked me to deliver this to you. She said to meet her tomorrow after sunset in the first traveller’s rest clearing along the west coastal road. She said that the paper would convince you to come.”

 

Ka’en watched Cefn break the wax seal and open the folded paper. He either took a long time reading it, or he was disturbed by what it said because he just sat there seeming to stare at it (Ka’en couldn’t tell which – it could be difficult to be teamed up with a man whose face you couldn’t see!). When he realized that the mage wouldn’t be replying to the child, Ka’en said, “When did you get this paper, son?”

 

“Yesterday, ‘fore nooning, in the market. She gave it to me and told who to give it to and what to say. Said ‘do it tomorrow to give me time to prepare’.”

 

“Does ‘meet tomorrow’ mean today, since you got the message yesterday?” Ka’en was worried that they would miss the appointment as sunset was in an hour or so and the first traveler’s rest was at least half a day’s ride away.

 

“Naw, don’t worry. The old woman, she said, ‘say just what I tell you to, and assure them that I mean for us to meet the day after next’.” The child beamed and stayed right where he was. Ka’en realized that the urchin was hoping for a little something for delivering his message so well. Smiling because he knew that the child had surely been already paid by the old woman, Ka’en reached into his belt-pouch and withdrew his coin purse. He fished around in it and came out with the smallest coin he possessed.

 

The child took the coin, gulping when he recognized it. He said, “Thank you, good sirs. And luck to you, too.” Then he turned and ran out of the room in case the over-generous Ka’en should change his mind. Still smiling, Ka’en turned to Cefn and asked, “So, are we going to meet with this woman tomorrow or not?”

 

Startled out of his reverie, Cefn said, “Um, yes. Yes, I think we should see her. We’ll set out before noon tomorrow. See you then.” He rose and left, leaving the paper on the table. Ka’en, curious, picked it up and read it. It was filled with words, but he could understand only the few at the top of the page. They said, “I know of the one you seek, and if you agree to meet me I think that I can find her for you. Below is some information that should convince you I am of the Gifted.” There followed the strange words that Ka’en couldn’t puzzle out, and the note was signed “Madame Zeefra”.

 

***

 

They set out after noon the next day, but they still reached the travellers’ rest area almost an hour before sundown. They set up camp and waited for the gypsy to arrive.

 

Shortly after sunset, a brightly painted wagon was drawn into the clearing by a pair of very black horses. The driver of the wagon was a middle-aged man dressed in the manner Cefn recognized as belonging to the Rhydd Pobl. He knew it was unusual for one of those roaming people to be this far north so late in the season, but here he was.

 

The man on the wagon paid no attention to the two already occupying the clearing, but went about feeding and watering his horses, situating the wagon just so within the clearing, and starting a large fire next to it (ignoring the fact that Ka’en had already started a modest blaze near their own tents). By the time the gypsy’s camp was fully set up, it was full dark, and Ka’en began to wonder if the wagon truly held this Madame Zeefra, or if the gypsy just happened to be passing through.

 

The man went into the wagon for a moment, and came back out carrying a bow and a quiver. He vanished into the forest quietly and quickly, and Ka’en wondered if all gypsies arrow-hunted by night.

 

When the man was gone, a light sprang up within the wagon, showing through the curtained window in its side. Both Cefn and Ka’en rose from where they had been sitting and went over to the wagon. Ka’en knocked on the door over the tailgate and called out, “Madame Zeefra?”

 

The door opened, revealing the perfect picture of a gypsy fortune teller, metalic, be-coined headdress and all. She didn’t look at all old to Ka’en, just weathered and experienced. Kind of pretty, too. She said, “You are the wizard Cefn, and you the thief Ka’lochra’en. Come inside and we will see if we can find your lost Je’lanthra’en.”

 

Shaken to the core by the woman’s naming him thief, Ka’en warily followed Cefn into the wagon. It, too, presented the perfect picture of such a place – small, but with enough room for the three of them to be comfortable, cluttered with odd, mystical things as well as the everyday necessities of life. Ka’en wondered what relation the wagon-driver had to the woman, and if they both slept back here.

 

Zeefra settled herself behind a table, throwing her very black hair off her shawl-covered shoulders with a gesture that set her multiple bracelets clinking musically. She spread her beringed fingers on the ivory tablecloth and said, “Give me your hand, mage.”

 

Hesitantly, Cefn offered her his hand palm up, and Ka’en tensed, fearing a repeat of the day before. But Zeefra turned his hand over and closed it between her two, then closed her eyes as if seeking something that lay within her.

 

She said, “It is as I sensed. The one you seek, this Je’en, is beset by strong forces. She is not herself, and is thus protected from most scrying and divination methods. That is why you have had no success within the city in finding her.

 

“However, there are ways older than anyone in Dargon even remembers. But my people keep our heritage alive, and we have ways both simpler and more powerful than many others.”

 

She released Cefn’s hands and reached beneath the table. She brought out a bowl filled with sand, and a smaller, cut crystal bowl that was empty. Reaching again, she produced a roll of very thin parchment. With one of her rings, she cut a square from the roll large enough to cover the tabletop.

 

She turned to Ka’en and said, “You are blood to this Je’en, right? Give me your left hand.” Ka’en extended the indicated hand and was suprised by the power of her grip. She briefly clasped his hand as she had Cefn’s, eyes closed, then ‘humphing’ in a pleased manner, she used the same sharp ring to slice a long cut across his palm. He cried out and tried to pull away, but he couldn’t free himself. She held his hand over the crystal bowl and let it bleed freely therein. When a small pool of blood covered the bottom of the bowl, she placed an odd smelling pad of cloth over the wound she had created and closed his fist around it to hold it in place. She released his hand then, and began sifting sand from the large bowl into the smaller one, slowly filling it. Ka’en, spooked, sat back nursing his hand and watched as she lifted the small bowl with one hand, and stirred the contents with the other until the sand turned a pale shade of pink, crooning softly the while.

 

When the blood was thoroughly mixed with the sand, she poured it out into her hand, the entirety of the bowl fitting neatly within her single palm without spilling even a single grain. Setting the crystal aside, she cupped the sand in both hands and held them above the square of parchment and began to sing louder, spreading her fingers to let the sand through.

 

Only, at first it didn’t fall. Ka’en thought that it might be caked by the blood even though it didn’t really seem wet. It just wasn’t ready to leak out. As the gypsy’s song continued, the sand began to seep out, slowly at first and then faster and faster. Even though the woman’s hands didn’t move at all, the sand scattered all over the whole square, forming lines and patterns and two words in simple and ancient runes that Ka’en knew because his first master had used them to pass secret messages to his charges. The first word spelled out Je’en as nearly as it could. The second word was ‘keseth’, but that word had no meaning to Ka’en.

 

By the time the sand had all fallen, the parchment was covered with sand. Zeefra looked at the patterns, pointing to the words with satisfaction but disapointed with the overall layout. She finally said, “It did not work as well as I had hoped. The patterns say she is to the south and east, but not how far, nor exactly where within that general direction. Parts of this pattern seem blurred, as if the tie just wasn’t strong enough.”

 

She looked first at Ka’en, and then at Cefn. Finally, she said, “We’ll just have to try again. I’m not sure that this will be any better but perhaps your ties to this Je’en are stronger than blood, Cefn.” She picked up the square of parchment and poured the once-again-white sand off it into a bucket on the floor. Ka’en saw that the parchment had somehow leached the blood out of the sand and into it, preserving the pattern of the sand on the cleared square. Setting this first square aside, Zeefra cut another, placed it on the table, and then took Cefn’s left hand.

 

As the mage bled into the small bowl, Ka’en looked at his own palm which had stopped hurting sometime during the sand-casting. He was astonished to see that nothing remained of the wound at all – the pad of cloth Zeefra had put on it had healed it completely, without even a scar.

 

He returned his attention to the old woman to find her stirring sand that was turning blue. Ka’en looked strangely at Cefn, then went back to watching the ‘casting.

 

It went as before, although the patterns were different – much different. Four words were spelled out in runes, and a very detailed map occupied the center of the square. The lines of the map glowed with a pale blue light when the sand was brushed off, and Zeefra seemed well pleased.

 

She said, “Excellent! These four words first – Je’en, as before; the strange word ‘keseth’ as before; and the new words ‘ugurth’ and ‘Vard’. And the map. Just what you will need. It indicates right now exactly where Je’en is and where she is going.” On the map, she pointed to two dots glowing slightly brighter than the rest of the markings. One was moving along a road, and the other was set among some hills. “But, it is more than just a marker for Je’en. Take it up, Cefn. It will show you exactly what route you need to take to reach her.” Cefn lifted the map, and the lines changed into a map of the area around Dargon. The west coast road was highlighted, as well as the Central road that led back to the center of Baranur. “With a thought, you can turn it back to Je’en to monitor your positions relative to each other. This is the most powerful use of the sand-magic possible, and I have only ever heard of it happening before. You must be favored by the gods to be given such a talisman.”

 

Both Ka’en and Cefn thanked the gypsy profusely. Cefn tried to get her to accept gold as payment for her help, but she said, “No, I did not aid you for a reward. I helped you because my gift urged me to, and to take a reward for that which came freely to me would be wrong. Go, and know that just your thanks are enough for me – more than enough. Why now my name will be passed down with all the others for having created a sand-map!”

 

Ka’en and Cefn retired to their tents and fell immediatly asleep as if drained by the evening’s activity. The next morning, the wagon was gone without a trace. As Ka’en ate his morning meal he watched Cefn study the sand-map. And he wondered if they would be quick enough to save Je’en from whatever drew her on – the moving dot was very close to the one in the hills.

 

Vard’s Travels

 

It wasn’t easy communicating with the dead, as Vard found out very quickly. The Forbidden Art hadn’t been created as a means of gathering information: it was obvious that the Fretheodan wizards had had another, better means of resurrection at their disposal.

 

It took most of two days for Vard to learn how to get what he needed out of the re-animated skull. It took another day to make sure that the skull knew everything he needed it to know, which it did. It remembered each and every trap from the mine adit to the door of the final vault wherein was sealed the Yrmenweald. Now it just remained for Vard to discover a way to get across the ocean without taking the weeks it would to go by boat, not to mention the time it would take to get TO a boat to begin the journey. With the Keseth so close to his grasp, Vard was far too impatient to wait that long.

 

The solution came from an unexpected source and unwittingly, too. Vard was musing on how to proceed after getting the last details of the location of the mine from the skull, and Tandi, much wearied after being drained yet again to revive the skull, said flippantly, “Why don’t you just fly there?”

 

Ignoring the sarcastic tone in her voice, Vard took the suggestion seriously. Fly. Of course, how simple. But how? Grow wings on everyone? He had no such magic, at least none powerful enough to carry him, Tandi and Je’en across the ocean. Then something else must fly and carry them. What? First he thought of an artifact. Did he have a flying machine in his vaults? He had Qrun check even though he was pretty sure that he didn’t. The box kite that Qrun returned with didn’t amuse Vard much, but he let it pass for the moment. So, not a machine. Then, an animal. A bird. What bird was large enough to carry three human beings and a load of luggage? A rukh? They were said to have existed once, but Vard had never seen one, nor had he heard recent reports of one. So, not a rukh. But an idea struck him. Myths of large flying animals. A dragon!

 

Vard had no idea where to procure a live dragon even if any still existed which he doubted. But he remembered purchasing the skull of one of those giant flying lizards ages ago, and he could, with his new-found skills, bring the skull to almost-life and have it carry him across the ocean.

 

While he searched his treasure vaults for the skull, Qrun and Eirul made preparations for the journey so that by the time Vard found the skull everything was ready to go. Vard didn’t know how the effort to reanimate such a large creature would effect Tanandra and he didn’t want her giving out while they were over the ocean. He intended to load the dragon and be away just as soon as it was once again ‘alive’.

 

It took everyone’s efforts, including Tanandra’s, to get the huge skull out to the courtyard – it was twice the size of a man, after all. Once it was in position and all of the provisions had been brought out along with the mivorn amulet and the bookstand, Vard began. Tanandra had been strapped to a chair since she had rebelled at the idea of being used to fuel the rebirth of a dragon. Je’en and the servants stood by the castle’s front door, well away from the powerful magic that would bring the lizard back to life.

 

The purple lines of light met in the dragon skull, and it began to glow faintly. Vard’s chanting continued, the light kept pouring into the skull, but for the longest time, nothing happened. Then, slowly results began to show. Just patches of scaly skin at first, then a great cat-like eye was restored. A ghostly skeleton of the rest of the body began to appear, filling the courtyard to overflowing. No one noticed it when Tandi began to scream in mortal agony, so enthralled were they by the emerging majesty of the dragon. No one noticed that, as the dragon drew closer to life, Tandi was drawing closer to death.

 

Cefn’s Journey

 

Very swift horses, line-of-sight teleportation hops, body-sustaining spells and day-and-night riding – Cefn used all of the tricks he could come up with to speed Ka’en and himself toward Je’en, but it just wasn’t fast enough. The sand-map showed them a day from Je’en who had been at her destination for three days. He and Ka’en were studying the map when the dot representing her suddenly shot at an incredible speed right off the page. Cefn was trying to re-orient the map to her when a deep crashing sound like thunder echoed out of the hills. It rolled swiftly towards them and past, leaving them both shaken a bit. Cefn wondered if the sound had anything to do with Je’en’s means of travel away from them – it certainly hadn’t behaved like thunder, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky either.

 

Cefn recovered himself and switched the sand-map’s focus. He was suprised to see that the map redrew itself in the shape of the better part of the continents of Cherisk and Duurom. He could make out the location of Magnus, the Darst range, and Dargon on Cherisk, but he didn’t know the names of any of the features of Duurom, only that it had once been the seat of the Fretheod Empire. The speck of light moved across Cherisk at a speed that Cefn could barely imagine even from his guess of the scale of the map. It tended east by north, and another glowing dot at the very edge of what the map showed of Duurom seemed to be the moving speck’s destination. Cefn began to despair – there was absolutely no way he could imagine that he could reach such a far away place in less than months!

 

He communicated his deductions to Ka’en and he agreed to push on to Je’en’s first destination in hopes that there would be something there to help them. Cefn applied yet another sustaining spell knowing that their bodies had already passed the safe limit of such over-extension. They mounted up and rode, following the re-focused map into the hills.

 

***

 

If not for the versatility of the sand-map, Cefn probably wouldn’t have ever found the nearly hidden way into the valley that held Aahashtra. Fortunately, it was able to magnify its scale once he and Ka’en were close enough to Je’en’s original destination, and with some careful study the tiny crack was found.

 

Cefn had been expecting Aahashtra, actually. The second sand-casting Madame Zeefra had done had come up with the name ‘Vard’ and the rune ‘ugurth’ and the connection was too clear. Ugurth was a word that meant ‘undeath’ and linked Vard, his old foe, with the mission that had brought Tanandra to him. He also knew that Vard was very adept at controlling magics, which answered some very puzzling questions about Je’en. It was odd that both quests, Tanandra’s and his own, had Vard as their targets. He knew that Vard had named his hidden castle after the stronghold of the man that had caused the Council of Elders to be formed. What he hadn’t expected was its look of total lifelessness. It was nearing dusk, but not a single torch nor lamp shone – the entire castle was dark.

 

Cefn reached into his pouch and withdrew a magic-sensitive device. He used it to scan the area between them and the outer walls of the castle and found nothing but a faint background reading. Motioning Ka’en to follow him, he crossed the open space in front of the walls as quickly as possible, halting beside the open gate.

 

He scanned the area between the gate and the castle’s front door. His magic-sensing device picked up a very strong reading across the entire courtyard, right up to the edge of the gate. He could guess that it was some kind of alarm spell – at least that was what he might have used in the same situation.

 

“Doesn’t look like anyone’s home, eh?” said Ka’en, who was crouching behind Cefn wondering what was going on. Cefn said, “Looks aren’t truth, especially when there’s a wizard involved. Take this empty courtyard for example. It’s actually one huge intruder alarm, and we have to cross it to get any further.”

 

“Can you break the spell – you know, cancel it out so we can cross undetected?”

 

Cefn thought about the suggestion. It wasn’t one he would have thought of, but then, he knew more than Ka’en about magic and how it worked. He cataloged what was in his belt pouch, and made sure that he didn’t have the tools with him to decode and reverse the spell. His pouch was much larger within than without, but it wasn’t of infinite size so he had to choose carefully what implements to carry and all-purpose spell-breaking tools were fairly bulky. He said, “I don’t have the equipment to do that, but I do have another way to get across. How is your sense of balance?”

 

He had fished out of his pouch an L-shaped piece of white stone and he placed the shorter arm to the ground, aiming the longer arm at the front door of the castle. He began chanting the activation magic and felt the short arm anchor itself into the ground. When it was secure, the long arm began to glow brighter and brighter until finally a bolt of light shot from it and struck the step before the door, leaving a trail of light behind it forming a bridge less than an inch wide across the trapped courtyard.

 

He didn’t wait for Ka’en to ask questions, but stepped up on the light bridge and paced lightly and swiftly across. When he reached the door, he turned to see that Ka’en had followed close behind him, walking as nimbly as he had done. When his partner was with him on the doorstep, only slightly shaken, Cefn bent down and touched the bridge, cancelling the spell with a word.

 

Ka’en had tried the door and found it open before Cefn could check for further traps. Fortunately, there didn’t seem to be any and he followed the thief into Aahashtra. The entry hall was huge, with highly decorated walls and only one corridor leading off of it. Ka’en was already striding towards it, and Cefn shouted, “Wait! Come back here.”

 

When Ka’en had returned to his side, Cefn said, “Now look, this castle belongs to a very powerful and devious wizard named Vard. Among other things, this means we do not just go wandering around aimlessly. There are bound to be traps galore in here. Let me lead the way, and don’t get impatient – it could take time to be sure we are going in the right direction. Now, that corridor looks suspicious, but its the only obvious way. Let us check it for magical traps first….”

 

***

 

It was close to dawn by the time they reached the laboratory that had seen Vard reanimate the ancient Fretheodan. Both Ka’en and Cefn were exhausted from the trials of winding their way through the halls of Vard’s crazy castle, and Cefn’s belt pouch was half as full as it had been at the start of the adventure.

 

Sounds from the room ahead had alerted the pair that they weren’t alone in the castle. The light from the room had led them there, and Cefn hoped to get some answers from the person in the room. He edged up to the doorway, Ka’en on the opposite side of the corridor and doing the same. He peeked cautiously into the room and saw a short man sweeping the floor of what seemed to be a laboratory. The room was very well lit, and Cefn didn’t think that anything but speed would catch the man. However, Ka’en was making motions of sneeking in and capturing the fellow, so he signaled the thief to go ahead and try.

 

Cefn was amazed at how easily Ka’en was able to use benches, tables, and the few small shadows to hide his progress across the lab. At times Cefn lost sight of him, and only found him again when whatever he was hiding behind exposed him to the back of the room. Ka’en got nearer and nearer, until finally, when the small man turned around to rearrange a low table of equipment, Ka’en leaped out and tackled him to the floor.

 

The small man was no match for the young thief, and by the time Cefn crossed to the two, the man was firmly trapped beneath the weight of Ka’en sitting on his chest, pinning his arms with his knees. The knife at his throat further encouraged immobility.

 

Cefn hunkered down next to the pair and said, “Greetings, good sir. Could you tell us whether Master Vard is at home, and if he’s not, where he has gone?”

 

“He is not here. That I can tell you, as you probably know that already. Anything more I dare not let you know. My master would punnish me severely if I did.”

 

“Then we will have to use other means.” Cefn reached into his pouch again and withdrew a tiny slate-colored stone ring. He placed it on the man’s temple and twisted it a bit so that the serrations on its side bit slightly into the skin there, causing the man to cry out at the sudden pain. Cefn said, “I’m sorry to have to use this device – it isn’t subtle in forcing the truth out and will cause pain in doing so. But my friend and I have neither the time nor the patience to worm the truth from you – we must have answers quickly and accurately. Now, tell us where Vard has gone and why!”

 

***

 

The device worked wonders, although Cefn wasn’t proud of that fact. The little man was in much pain by the time Cefn had learned all he needed to know about Vard’s recent experiments with cwicustan and mivorn, his probings into the Forbidden Art, what he had done to the two women he had ensnared, and what he intended on Duurom. He offered sanctuary to the servant, who said his name was Qrun, in return for the information he had given. When he learned that Qrun had a wife also in Vard’s employ – they were his only servants – he extended his offer to both of them. He then had only one small problem remaining: how to follow him across continents and oceans?

 

Ka’en’s suggestion was the only idea he had. After Cefn had teleported Qrun and his equally small wife, Eirul, back to his house in Dargon, the thief had suggested that they simply teleport after Vard. It had taken several minutes to explain to Ka’en that such random teleportation was almost impossible. The person casting the spell had to have exacting knowledge of the site he was teleporting to in order for the spell to have any chance of success. He had been able to teleport to his house because he knew exactly where his destination was. There was almost no way to do the same now.

 

It was several hours before Ka’en picked up on the ‘almost’ in Cefn’s answer. In the meantime, they had wrestled with the problem from every angle they could think of without coming up with anything even remotely feasable. Then Ka’en said, “Wait. What do you mean ‘almost no way’. ‘Almost’ isn’t ‘none’. What don’t you want to admit?”

 

Cefn wearily said, “There is one very unsecure method of moving from here to there in less than a month or more without knowing exacting physical details – planar travel. But I cannot take my physical body into the required plane, so it is useless to us.”

 

“But you could go there and learn what you need to teleport us there, couldn’t you?”

 

“Well, probably. It should be possible to descend to the first order for a long enough time to get my bearings. But I need rest first. We both do – we cannot live on boosting magic for much longer.”

 

“Check the map first,” said Ka’en. “If Vard’s undead dragon is far enough from its destination, then we’ll take a little nap.” Cefn unrolled the parchment of the sand-map and focused it on Je’en. The swiftmoving dot that was Vard and his dragon was nearing the Duurom coastline. A hasty estimation guaged the wizard less than two hours from the hidden mine. Ka’en said, “We don’t have time to rest now. One more sustaining spell won’t kill us, not right away at least. Better get busy finding out how to teleport us to that mine.”

 

***

 

Cefn hated what most people called astral-projection. The third order of form was a chaotic place where corporeal matter couldn’t exist, but mental energy was virtually unlimited in any way. There was still distance to be covered between the place where his body lay in Aahashtra being watched over by Ka’en, and where Vard and his dragon would land on Duurom in less than an hour. But if he wasn’t disturbed he would be able to get there and back in plenty of time for Ka’en and himself to be there waiting to ambush the undead dragon before it landed.

 

So he sent his astral-self speeding toward Duurom. He watched with a slightly disorienting omni-vision as the roiling, cloud-like nothing passed by on all sides at once and sped away behind him with only a silver cord linking him to his unconscious body. Every once in a while, he noticed little islands of pseudo-reality, places created by mental energy as places of rest for those with the education and ability to do so. He had thought about doing such, but he didn’t even really like the astral plane so the figured that trying to rest on it wouldn’t be very restful.

 

He sensed he had reached his destination and stopped his mental motion. Then, concentrating fiercely, he projected his astral body down to the first order of form, what passed for most people as ‘reality’. He arrived at the mouth of the unsused mine and tried to collect the information he would need to successfully teleport to this location. It wasn’t easy in his non-corporeal state, but eventually he had the coordinates firmly in mind and he let himself succumb to the slight tug of the silver cord trying to drag him back to his body.

 

He was about halfway back to Aahashtra, well over the ocean and nearing where Cherisk’s shore would be on the first order when he heard a sound. It was a soft, seductive chiming sound, startling in both its beauty and its impossibility. Such things shouldn’t exist on the third order – supposedly they couldn’t. Intrigued, Cefn followed the sound, becoming more and more bound up in the lovely chiming that grew louder and louder without hurting his mental ears.

 

The source of the sound was utterly unfamiliar to Cefn who had studied much but not everything. There on an island of reality amidst chaos sat a beautiful woman playing a three-racked set of what looked like glass wind-chimes save that she was hitting them with feathers to evoke their chiming sound. The woman was in three-quarter profile to Cefn and he couldn’t tell whether she was clothed or not because of her long, golden hair draped artfully around her body like a cloak.

 

There was no melody to what she played, just sound, beautiful sound. She played and played, taking no notice of the audience she had drawn. Cefn wanted to move around to get a better look at her charms – er, instrument – but he found that he couldn’t move. He was then able to tear his eyes away from the woman, and he noticed other astral-selves arranged in a circle around the instrument. Most were very thin and pale, looking as if something was draining their vitality away. Cefn gasped when he saw that most of the wraiths circled there were missing the silver cord that tied them to life. He realized that the playing woman was some kind of astral siren, put here to gather food for some creature on the first order to feed upon. It wasn’t long before he felt a drain on his own very low reserves, and he knew that he would have to get away soon, before he too became part of this eternally captive audience.

 

He turned away from the woman – as much movement as he was allowed. He concentrated on the silver cord that still bound him to his body and encouraged it to pull him away from here. Slowly, he focused every gram of energy he could muster into that activity, but he feared it wouldn’t be enough. Then, almost unbidden, Je’en’s face came into his mind and he heard her voice above the chimes saying, “Help me, Cefn. Help me!”

 

He didn’t know from whence that plea had come, but it spurred him to dredge up the very last of his reserves. Pouring everything he had into his link to life, he willed himself away from the siren. And slowly at first, he was pulled painfully away from the chime-playing woman. Farther and faster, chanting Je’en’s name to try to counteract the chimes, Cefn was drawn to safety.

 

The normally achy return to the body was magnified to roaring pain when Cefn came back. But the pain was good – it meant that he was still alive. But tired, so tired. He opened his eyes to see a concerned Ka’en standing over him. He said weakly, “Sorry, Ka’en, but…got to rest. Tell you when I wake….” He fell back into a deep restoring sleep, leaving the thief to fret and wonder whether the wizard had gotten what he needed, and then to fall asleep himself waiting for the answer.

 

The Keseth

 

They landed just in time. As soon as the huge reptile touched ground before the mine adit, it began to crumble. Its return to death was swifter and messier than its rise from the grave, leaving parts beyond just the skull to rot and moulder. Vard and Je’en scrambled out of the wreckage of the beast’s midsection, both upset at being covered with rotting dragon slime. Vard sent Je’en back into the mess to recover the chest that held most of what he needed – the remainder of their supplies could wait.

 

He sent Je’en back in to retrieve Tanandra. The thing she came out with was a withered husk, nothing like the healthy young girl that had arrived on his doorstep little more than a week ago. There was just a flicker of life left within her, not enough to keep the dragon reanimated any longer. Vard clucked sadly when he saw what was left of Tanandra. Not because he was sad that she was all but dead, but because he hadn’t been paying attention to her condition and if she had given out sooner, there could have been a bad accident. Vard had had no idea that the drain of reanimating the dragon had been so strong – it had taken only hours to use up the young woman. He briefly wondered if there was some impurity in his mivorn amulet because the manual had indicated that one person could keep ‘alive’ a whole army regiment for more than a week. Maybe a dragon was more costly that that many human corpses.

 

Now he would need another source to enable him to awaken his guide into the mine. Fortunately, he had another one ready to hand. He gave Je’en instructions to set up the amulet and the portable book stand.

 

He had no trouble getting Je’en to place her palm against the glowing black stone. She gasped when the sliver entered her palm, but after that she simply accepted it with no comment at all.

 

Next, he unpacked the skull of the guide and placed it on the ground next to the amulet. With now-practiced ease, he uttered the incantation that restored the skull to life without even consulting the book. Je’en withstood the purple light’s draining without a sound.

 

Je’en re-packed the chest and hefted it onto her back while Vard unrolled the ancient map and lead the way into the mine followed closely by the animated and re-embodied skull holding a torch in its grey-skinned hand.

 

***

 

Trap after trap, identified and defused or destroyed. Maze-like tunnels threaded only with the help of the ancient map. Without either guide or map, Vard would have been first lost then dead very soon after stepping into the mine. Those Fretheodan were ingenious, tenacious, and redundant – in places the passage was barred by four, five, or even eight separate traps layed under, on, and around each other. The most tiring part, however, was the time it took to get the necessary information out of the undead guide. It never volunteered anything, it only answered direct questions very succinctly and literally. Hours ticked by as the trio proceeded slowly deeper and deeper into the mine.

 

Vard had to marvel at the sophistication of many of the traps. Very few were magically oriented, but even those that were mechanical were usually created with a simplicity and efficiency that was laudable. Vard was careful to disable each and every trap he came across, but when it became harder and harder to get disarming information out of the guide due to the increasing complexity of the traps, he turned to smashing and destroying them. And as they went lower into the mine, even smashing the traps began to take finesse as they were made more ingeniously. Finally, when they had reached the level of the keseth vault, he had to take to disarming the traps again because brute force was no longer safe. They took as long reaching the vault as they had taken getting to the lowest level.

 

But finally they reached the vault. In a large cavern very far under the earth Vard, the guide, and Je’en faced a slab of strange looking metal with a large key-plate in its center. Vard let Je’en set down the chest as he withdrew the third treasure that had come from beneath Dargon castle – the key to the final vault.

 

As he strode over to the door, something made him turn and look at the guide. He was startled to see that it was smiling, which faded as Vard turned back from the door and stood next to the guide.

 

“Are there any traps remaining here?” asked Vard.

 

“Yes,” answered the guide in its toneless voice.

 

“How many?”

 

“One.”

 

Vard thought a moment, then asked, “On that key-plate?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“What kind?”

 

“Cave-in trigger, poison needle, gas, trap door, crossbow bolts from the walls, a…”

 

“That’s enough!” interrupted Vard. “So, they put everything they had in this last trap. Okay, that’s reasonable. Now, how does one get by these traps to open the door?”

 

“One does not,” said the guide, beginning to smile again.

 

Vard thought again, then he said, “I’ve got it. So simple, so common! That key-plate is a ruse, a lure for the foolish. Where is the real lock for this door?”

 

The guide’s smile turned into a pout. It said, “On the wall behind us, behind the moss-covered rock that isn’t covered with moss.”

 

Vard began to brush his hand across the slimy-green rocks until he came to one that was not slimy, though just as green. He pried at the stone and lifted it away, revealling a very plain keyhole. With triumph, he inserted the key and started to turn it. Then, thinking back to the complex instructions he had given to that thief who had brought him the Tome of the Yrmenweald, he asked the guide, “Which way do I turn the key, and how far?”

 

The guide replied, with a hint of disapointment in its toneless voice, “To the right three times exactly.”

 

Vard complied, hearing a click each time that the key made one revolution. He could feel that the key could have kept turning, and he wondered what nasty trap would have been triggered by the wrong number of turns. Leaving the key in its hole, he returned to the vault door, where a handle had appeared. Grabbing hold of it, he pulled the door open, unsealing a vault that had been closed up for more than a thousand years.

 

The first thing he noticed as he entered was the smell – strange, musty and musky and…he had no words for it. He walked into the dimly lit room, seeing large panels along one wall bearing small circles of glass in neat, ordered rows. Another set of panels, about waist high and horizontal, bore more circles of glass, and little twigs standing in rings of metal interspersed with larger square panes of glass.

 

Just as he was turning around, the room was flooded with light and the sight that was revealed almost made Vard’s heart stop. There, occupying a space four or five times the size of his laboratory back at Aahashtra was a – a thing!

 

Crisscrossing that part of the room in what seemed to be a random pattern were foot-thick rods of what was probably stone. Somehow bound between those rods was something that looked like a cross between a spider and a grasshopper magnified a thousand fold or more. And it was alive!

 

The End

 

Six hours after Cefn returned, he awoke refreshed. Not quite as good as new, but his rest had pushed back the overload effects of the sustaining magic he had been using and he was ready to go again. After locating Ka’en and rousing him from his little nap and raiding the keep’s pantry for food, they prepared for their journey to Duurom.

 

To Ka’en, who wasn’t as refreshed as Cefn but who was feeling better for his nap, being teleported was weird. He had always imagined that it would be instantaneous, but he was sure that they spent several minutes flying between Aahashtra and the mine on Duurom. When they arrived, to the night and double shadows cast by two moons, the first thing he noticed even before the second, smaller moon, was the rotting carcass of Vard’s undead dragon.

 

Cefn, however, noticed Tanandra first. She was still alive, but even if she should survive it would be as a wasted wreck of her former self. She looked at Cefn with sunken and cloudy eyes as he knelt beside her, and said, “I guess I wasn’t strong enough for him, was I?”

 

Cefn, unseen eyes tearing at the sight of his former love, said shakily, “I’m sorry for forcing you into this, Tandi. I’m so, so sorry! I should have gone. I should have taken the gorfodd and gone after Vard before he could get this far into the Forbidden Art. I….”

 

“Cefn, love, don’t. You cannot change what is – just accept it and learn to live with it. Leave me and get after Vard. What I’ve learned about his plans…you must stop him. Go, catch him before he can harness the keseth…” Her voice trailed off and her eyes closed for the last time.

 

Cefn didn’t move for a long time, strangely colored tears falling from his cowl onto Tanandra’s withered flesh. Finally, he turned away to find Ka’en standing right behind him staring in horrified fascination at the remains of the brave girl. Cefn said, “She was known to me long ago – we were students together. Vard has killed her – she was consumed by the powers of the Forbidden Art. We must destroy him. Come.”

 

He took out the sand-map and shifted its focus. It became a copy of the ancient map that Vard had followed, showing the way clearly down to the final vault. Pulling a small clear globe from his pocket, he tossed it into the air. It began floating just above his head, casting a golden glow. Squinting carefully at the map, he entered the mine.

 

***

 

When Vard recovered from the shock of seeing the creature – what he assumed was meant by the symbol he had named ‘keseth’ – he turned his attention to the rest of the room. He was suprised by the rack of swords hanging on the short wall beside the vault door – they seemed out of place in this very uncomprehensible room as the only item he truly recognized. Against the wall opposite the door was the master-node of cwicustan attached to the framework the Tome had described as linking it to the caged and bound keseth. Vard went to work busily on that lump of stone, chipping away at it to remove it from the framework. He already had his own piece of cwicustan primed and ready to go into the socket. Once it was there, he would be able to communicate with the keseth and learn all of the mysteries it held.

 

***

 

Ka’en noticed more of the deactivated traps than did Cefn, and he, like Vard before him, marvelled at the work. He was certainly glad that someone else had blazed the trail through those traps – he doubted that his second teacher, a Master Trapper, could have found, let alone deactivated, half of the traps they passed.

 

The pair made much better time than had Vard’s group. Of course, all of the work had been done for them. All they had to do was follow the map at their top possible speed. The sand-map showed Je’en was already at the final vault – Ka’en only hoped that whatever this Vard person was doing there would take lots of time.

 

***

 

They came out into the last cave and saw the open vault door. Cefn could see both Vard and Je’en, as well as a rather grey-looking man. The latter two were just standing, statuelike, while Vard chipped away at a large piece of crystal while looking at a slot in the wall. None of the three had noticed their arrival. With a low whistle, the clear globe returned to Cefn’s hand and stopped glowing.

 

He returned the globe to his pouch and retrieved another item from it. He whispered, “Ka’en, take this and try to distract Vard. I don’t think you will be able to kill him but you can try. This disc should protect you from most any magic he casts at you but not for very long. When it starts turning black, it has been used up and is useless. Oh, one more thing.” Cefn reached back into his pouch and came out with the mysterious crystal circlet. He handed it to Ka’en and said, “I think that this will protect you from mental magics. Vard is an expert at mind control, which is why Je’en is in there and not out here with us. Okay, ready?”

 

“Wait. Why don’t you go after the wizard, eh? At least you can meet him on his own level.” Ka’en was looking suspiciously at the small clear disc he had been given.

 

“I want to see if I can free Je’en – she’ll make a useful ally for our side. Also, I’m a better fighter than you are if I can’t get her out of Vard’s control. Neither she nor I have swords, and I think I can handle her easily hand-to-hand. Satisfied?”

 

Not waiting for an answer, Cefn crept to the edge of the vault door and peered through. Ka’en came up beside him, holding the amulet like a very small shield in front of his body, the circlet perched on his head like a crown. At his signal, they both rushed into the room.

 

Unfortunately, the presence of the keseth was just as startling to the two adventurers as it had been to Vard earlier, and they were stunned into immobility by the sight of the giant insect. Je’en moved away from Cefn and crouched into a defensive posture. Her eyes flickered to the wall of blades, and she began to make plans while awaiting orders.

 

Vard looked up from his work and recognized both his old rival Cefn and that thief he had hired so long ago. He reacted quickly. First, he released the energies keeping the guide animated – he didn’t want anything to hamper Je’en. Then he said, “Je’en, protect me from these intruders.”

 

She knew exactly what to do. She executed a perfect diving roll, flashing past the slowly recovering intruders. She straightened up by the racked swords and plucked one from its place. It almost seemed to hum in her hand, and she delighted in its lightness and perfect balance. Dropping again into an en guarde position, she faced the two intruders ready to obey her master’s order.

 

Cefn recovered first and took in the new situation. Trusting Ka’en to continue on with his part of the plan, Cefn reached into his pouch for a wand. Drawing it and firing it in one motion, he ran toward Je’en and the rack of swords.

 

Je’en instinctively blocked the bolt of blue that had shot from the tip of Cefn’s wand. The bolt bounced off of the dull-grey blade, but the impact pushed her back through the vault door.

 

Cefn took swift advantage, dropping the wand to grab a sword from the rack as he followed his love out the door. In the outer cave there would be more room to maneuver, and he might have more of a chance to subdue Je’en.

 

There was one more matter to consider, though. He couldn’t fight effectively in his cowl. Reaching again into his pouch, he removed two spheres, one clear, one black. Juggling them one handed, he timed the toss and threw first the black one at the vault door, and the clear one back into the air. It began to glow bright golden as the black one shattered and enveloped the doorway in blackness. Cefn hoped that Vard didn’t decide to break the simple darkness spell – he shouldn’t even be able to see it as it was a one-way darkness like the one on his cowl and from the other side it should look like nothing at all was barring the doorway. With his eyes protected for the time being, Cefn lowered his cowl and faced his love across a pair of very fine, very strange swords.

 

He and Je’en had sparred several times in the past, but he really didn’t know the extent of her abilities. He knew that she was good; he had watched several fights she had been in, and he had watched her from afar as she was training at Pentamorlo. But to face her with that hard, serious look on her face – and, for the first time he realized that she wasn’t wearing her mask! That rocked him long enough for Je’en to launch an attack. Fortunately, it was only a series of feints, a test-pattern to determine the level of her opponent, and Cefn was able to reflexively block them. When the blades contacted each other, they gave off a louder hum as well as green and yellow sparks. Cefn wondered just what these swords were as he was turned and forced back into a wall. He dodged a thrusting blow that struck the wall behind him. He danced away from the entrapment and watched, amazed, as Je’en withdrew half of the length of her blade from the wall amid many purple sparks. When she came back en guarde, he could see no damage at all on her blade.

 

The fighting began in earnest then. Cefn tried to put everything from his mind, to reach the unity with sword that Je’en already had. As they fenced back and forth, he came closer and closer until finally there weren’t two people in the cave, but two extended swords fighting each other.

 

Back and forth, around and around, the dance of death continued, both parties so totally involved in the graceful battle that Cefn, at least, forgot who he was battling. It was almost as if it was truly the swords moving the people through the fight. Yellow and green, an occaisional burst of purple as blade sliced into stone, and a humming that grew and grew until it filled the cave and the people fighting.

 

When one of those blades met flesh, the resultant spark was long and crimson, a more startling color than the blood that the strike also drew. The dance faltered, and Cefn pressed his advantage. His opponent reacted as if far more injured that a little arm-scratch could account for. Without thought, he executed a maneuver that he couldn’t have described afterward and came up under Je’en’s sword arm. It wasn’t until he saw the double fountain of red – crimson light and red blood – that he remembered he wasn’t here to kill Je’en, just subdue her, knock her out. Vard was the enemy, not Je’en. But that didn’t convince the grey sword-blade half-buried in Je’en’s side.

 

***

 

Ka’en recovered his wits in time to see Cefn follow Je’en out of the vault, leaving him alone with the wizard Vard – the grey man had vanished somehow, leaving behind only a very old-looking skull. Ka’en faced Vard with the amulet disc held out before him. He had no idea what to do now. At least, he thought, Vard was distracted from what was going on in the cave outside.

 

Coils of blue light were wreathing Vard’s hands as the wizard chanted. Ka’en held the disc higher, but when the spell was released, the streamers of blue light by-passed the amulet and were absorbed by the circlet he wore. Vard looked puzzled as he said, “Put down the disc and come here.” Ka’en wondered why the wizard was trying to give him orders, and he just stood still.

 

This seemed to infuriate the wizard. Rage suffused his face, and his arms went up, hands glowing a firery red. He said mysteriously, “You should have stuck to stealing books, you meddlesome thief!” With that, thick bolts of fire flashed out from each of his fingers, meeting before his face to become one very large bolt. Ka’en started to back away from the oncoming spell, but the bolt homed in on him – or rather the disc he held before him.

 

By rights, and without the protection he had, Ka’en should have been nothing but a pile of smouldering ashes after the bolt dissapated. But the disc amulet worked – mostly. It was able to absorb the destructive energy of the spell, so that Ka’en wasn’t killed outright. However, the amulet wasn’t strong enough to absorb the entire spell. Ka’en was hurled back by the force behind the energy. He was unconscious before he hit the wall beside the vault door, and he stayed slumped like that for a long time.

 

When he awoke, the first thing he was aware of was being alive. His hand hurt, but the rest of his body felt fine. He looked at his hand, half afraid that he would find that it was just a charred lump, but it looked perfect. He saw that the disc was now pure black and cracked around the edges. He set it aside quietly as now useless.

 

Next he noticed the humming coming from the cave. He eased himself into position to look out the vault door and was instantly mesmerized by the dance going on out there. He had never before seen such skill as was being exhibited by Cefn and his cousin – he had had no idea that either of them, Cefn especially, was so talented with the sword.

 

Finally, he remembered his mission. As he turned around, he heard the humming stop but he didn’t turn back to see why. He saw that Vard was fitting his lump of stone into the wall and was very absorbed by that activity. Old training came to the fore, and he drew his belt knife. He recalled just where and how to drive even so short a knife as he had to kill swiftly from the back. He centered his attention on that back, searching out just the right spot, and he began to cross the well-lit and empty room as silently as he could.

 

Closer and closer Ka’en crept. He forced hiself to ignore the keseth after glancing at it once and seeing that it was alive, its sides moving rhythmically and its many-eyed head seemingly turned in his direction. It took all of his concentration to look away and return to the task at hand.

 

Closer and closer…and just as Ka’en was beginning his leap, Vard turned around with a gasp of “What?!” The wizard tried to back away from the thief, but he was too close to the wall to maneuver. His hands went up again, beginning to glow with fire, but Ka’en ignored the distraction and re-aimed himself instantaneously. His leap continued and his knife slid into Vard’s chest just to the left of his sternum, angled in a bit. Steel grated harshly on bone, and Vard screamed.

 

Ka’en backed away from the wizard. Vard screamed again, and the power he had been gathering slipped away. Ka’en watched the fire flicker down his arms and spark around the knife protruding from his chest. Vard gave one last cry as his mortally wounded heart was shocked into stopping a little bit early by the mis-release of his own magic, and then he was no more.

 

***

 

Shock immobilized Cefn for several minutes. Slowly, reason began to return and his first thought was whether he had enough healing rods to save her. He knelt by Je’en’s side, frantically searching for the green rods in his belt pouch. He located five and breathed a sigh of relief; it had taken three to heal Ka’en of a similar wound.

 

Ready with the first rod, Cefn carefully took hold of the hilt of his sword and pulled. What he withdrew from the wound was only half a sword, though. The part that had been within Je’en’s body had…well, melted or something.

 

Cefn applied all five of the healing rods to the wound, but they didn’t seem to work as well on her as they had on Ka’en. After the fifth she still had a bad scar, and she seemed drained somehow. The flesh around both the torso wound and the slight scratch on her arm was of a sickly grey tone and Cefn was sure that the grey around the larger wound was spreading.

 

He was searching in his pouch for more healing rods when he heard a weak “Cefn?” He turned back to Je’en to find her awake, struggling to sit up. He helped her up to lean against his body and said, “I’m here, Je’en, I’m here.”

 

“Cefn, I’ve had such a strange dream. I…I wasn’t myself – it was like I was a marionette and this evil man was pulling the strings. I killed a man, maybe two, and I stole some old things from the basement of a castle. Then I was brought to a deep cave and I was forced to fight you and you…you won. Oh, Cefn, I feel so cold. My side hurts and my arm hurts and I’m very, very cold…”

 

Cefn hugged Je’en close and said, “I know, my love. It was no dream. All of that happened, including the duel. But I think that it wasn’t us fighting, but those strange swords. And I’m afraid that they were poisoned or something, because you don’t look well even after all of the healing I could give you. Oh, Je’en, I’m so sorry. I love you and I think I’ve killed you!”

 

Ka’en chose that moment to come out of the vault. He said, “Cefn, is Je’en all right? I managed to kill Vard: did that free her from his control?”

 

Je’en answered, “I’m almost all right, cousin, and I am free of that man’s control. Thank you, thank you both for rescuing me.”

 

Cefn said, “But you aren’t all right! I’ve got to get you to my laboratory. We have to find out what these swords do so I can cure you. Come on.” He tried to lift her, but found that he was too weak to manage it.

 

Ka’en said, “Why don’t we ask the keseth? They were stored in its vault after all, maybe it knows how they were used and how to cure their wounds.”

 

Ka’en had to help Cefn transport Je’en into the vault. Cefn was too exhausted to wonder how Ka’en had learned to communicate with the monster beast; he just hoped that it knew how to help his love.

 

They lowered Je’en to the floor of the vault, and Cefn knelt beside her to help support her. Ka’en went over to the now glowing crystal in the wall without even a glance for the dead wizard who had been moved into a corner. He layed his hands on the crystal and said, “We ask your help, Master Keseth.”

 

An eerie voice came out of the panels dotted with glass behind Cefn and Je’en. It said, “What service may I render?”

 

Cefn started to reply, but Ka’en said, “Wait, Cefn. It can only understand you if you are touching the cwicustan node. Let me. Master Keseth, do you know the function of the swords racked on that wall over there?”

 

“I do. They were the constructs of the Clear Fire Weavers, those wizards who helped to imprison me. They were used in executions and other rituals. The death they brought was said to be terrible indeed.”

 

“What death was this, Master Keseth? Is there a cure?”

 

“The death is a death by fading. The swords are made from a material which alters the state of matter. Mention was made of the etherial plane as well as the second order of form – these concepts mean nothing to me. The victim slowly fades from normal corporeal existence and the ‘Weavers knew of no way to reverse the process once complete. Also, there is no conventional cure.”

 

“Then there is no hope? Je’en is going to become a wraith, doomed to wander the etherial plane forever?”

 

“I can offer only one solution. Fretheodan legends spoke of a place where total renewal was possible – a body could be healed of all hurts and injuries in this place. Many expeditions were sent out to find this place, but none knew of any that succeeded. However, I do. One party managed to find what they were looking for. I can give you the location of this place if…”

 

Ka’en almost shouted, “If what!?! We’ll do anything we can for the chance to save Je’en. Tell us, please!”

 

“I have been trapped here for ages beyond reckoning. I wish only to return to my home. I will tell you how to free me in return for the location, but I must tell you that if you let me go, the Yrmenweald will go with me. The power that that other man came for will be gone.”

 

“We followed Vard here to rescue Je’en, not for whatever foolish dreams he had. We will free you – we would even if you didn’t have information we need. Just tell us what we need to do….”

 

***

 

Freeing the keseth had been easy – Ka’en and Cefn had pushed the twigs and bits of glass that seemed to be switches of some sort in the order that the keseth told them to. One by one, the scattered bars in the keseth’s part of the room retracted into the walls and finally it was free. It then caused the little rounds of glass to flash rapidly and randomly, after which a little door opened in one of the panels. The keseth said, “Within that compartment you will find a map of the location you seek. I have also supplied tablets that should lend your companion strength as you seek her salvation. They should retard the spread of the sword’s poison throughout her system. I fear, however, that she has only a month unless you find the restorative place.”

 

Cefn thanked the keseth for the help, and he and Ka’en helped Je’en out of the mine. Once they were clear, the keseth worked its way out using its own abilities and those provided by the cwicustan to force a way through solid earth. It came out of the mountain by blasting its own adit, and Cefn, Ka’en, and Je’en waved and called goodbyes after it as it crawled away. Cefn concentrated, drew up enough power to teleport all three of them, and with a thought they were safe back in Dargon, ready to rest a bit before continuing the quest to save Je’en.

 

Thus there was no one to see the falling star come down near the old mine. There was no explosion at its impact – in fact it settled to the ground quite gently. The keseth entered the silver ovoid and it rose majestically back into the air, carrying the keseth away from its long-time prison and back to its home among the stars.

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Dargon Things

Things are Dargon-specific characters, places, or items unique to the world of Dargon. The Things below appear in this story. You may click on one to see its definition and the stories in which it appears: