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gaeleth:stories:sacrificial_bears

Sacrificial Bears

Introduction: Duke Henrik 'Prat' Kamus was once an assassin-turned-mercenary. During his misadventures, he was cursed with a version of lycanthropy that made him turn into a bear. Over time, he gained control of his lycanthropy, and used his were-bear abilities to aid him in his mercenary lifestyle. With his lycanthropy, the gift of magic was opened for him, and he began to study magic. In time, he became a powerful warrior, mage, and when necessary, were-bear. Something went horribly wrong, though, when his wife and children were destroyed before his eyes; Prat took to his bear form, and stayed that way for centuries, his lycanthropic curse and his magic giving him a long, long lifespan. At some point, the man within Prat the bear resurfaced – and he resurfaced with a vengeance. Quickly attaining the rank of Duke for the nation of Rakore, he leased his services to the King of Rakore as an advisor on magic, a duchal leader for a prison island, and more. But, the nation of Rakore fell under attack by an ogran army so vast that it flowed across the land like ants on the move. Prat is a master of magic, and yet even magic has its limits. Magic, in the lands of Rakore, has its limits – but within those limits, only the imagination, and the lessons of the past, limit those who practice the ancient arts.

* * *

Prat's mind… wandered… back to a far away time…

He snapped his mind back to the present, and activated spell energies deep within his mind. The energies built quickly into a deafening crescendo within his mind; he could feel his blood pressure going up so high his teeth and all his old wounds throbbed to the tempo of his over-sized heart. The energies begged for release, and he obliged them, stretching out his hand, and flexing it into a claw. The tips of his fingers tore through the barrier between the world and the arcane realms of power – and a moment later, Prat was elsewhere.

The cavern was much taller than it was wide, and yet it was easily hundreds of yards across. A gentle glow suffused the enormous cavern, highlighting a golden hoard of coins, jewels, and treasures beyond price. The hoard was knee-deep along the edges, and easily as tall as a man in the middle. Along the walls, mage-lights flit about inside globes of solid crystal spheres, each highlighting a unique item: an incredible suit of armor made all of some transparent material, a bow studded with gems, a pile of boots all more fantastic than any worn by mortal man…

Prat saw what he was looking for. A number of the mage-lights glowed above piles of books, scrolls, and parchments. He stepped up onto the hoard, from the entry way he had appeared in. The hoard responded.

Gold coins slithered over one another, growing into a towering juggernaut nearly fifteen feet in height. It took on a vaguely humanoid shape, with twin rubies the size of men's fists for eyes, and claws made from enchanted knives and swords.

Prat's mind wandered… to another golem… only it was rust-colored, and answered to the name of… Janx… His wife, had helped create it…

He snapped his mind back to the present as the treasure golem struck out, intending to cleave him in half. Prat let slip the hounds from his mind; he let go of his anger, and let it unleash. He leaped into the golem's attack, getting in closer, rolling into midst of the golem's defenses. He activated the spell energies deep within his mind, and this time, teleported the treasure golem as his clawed hand slashed into the monstrosity. The top half of the giant made of treasure simply disappeared, torn through space by the power of the spell. The bottom half collapsed into a pile of treasure.

Prat quickly stepped back into the entry way, and braced for the impact. A moment later, the heavy-weight creature's top, made mostly of gold, shattered into a million pieces as its journey from the top of the cavern to the bottom ended.

Bits of gold and treasure continued to rain down on Prat for a moment, and he negligently brushed the gold dust off of his shoulders and chest. He stepped back onto the treasure hoard – and the treasure golem began to reform again.

Prat snarled. I have no time for this! he thought. He rushed forward, drawing his swords and letting his anger blossom into fire along their lengths. He had wanted to avoid damaging the treasures of the hoard, for they were not his, but his needs overroad that caution. Prat let his blades explode into fire, both striking the golem from either side, just as it formed. The construct leaned back, as though to roar in pain – and fused into a single, solid piece of gold.

His mind wandered… He remembered another, golden statue… In another city, another time, another place…

Prat shook his head, focusing. He stepped around the golden statue, and moved towards one of the piles of books along the far side of the cavern's hoard. As his jack-booted feet stomped through golden coins, the dim golden light began to brighten. It slowly coalesced as Prat came to a stop.

The coalescing light vaguely resembled the shape of a dragon – a big dragon.

Prat sighed. “Dont' tell me 'no'.”

A resonating voice that spoke from everywhere, and nowhere, shook the treasure and vibrated the very ground itself. “Who are you?”

Prat sheathed his cooling swords, and sighed again. “I am Henrik Kamus, Duke of Hallis Island, Chief Advisor on the Arcane to the King of Rakore.” He reached up to his neck, and grasped a crystalline amulet that swung there. With a savage yank, the links of the amulet's chain shattered. Prat tossed the amulet out into the treasure.

The resonating voice shook the world again. “Ah. There you are. Prat.”

“You could save me a lot of trouble, and just tell me where it is.”

The voice was silent for a long moment. When it spoke, coins vibrated over one another in the hoard. “How did you find this place?”

Prat was quiet, thinking. He bent down to pick up a piece of the treasue – a golden coin with twelve sides. The coin reminded him… of something. Somewhere, really. He remembered the last time he had held one of the Karatikan coins – when it was newly minted… a long time ago…

“Prat.”

The voice shook him from his reverie. Prat said, “Your grandson. His portion of the hoard, came from here. I tracked it back, through its arcane… scent …here.”

“What you seek… Is not here.”

Prat growled up at the glow of the dragon, feeling desperation. “Where is it?”

The infinite voice seemed to turn away, as though peering into its own past. It echoed from a far distance. “It is not Here.”

Prat snarled. “Xynosalionisis! WHERE is it?!”

The golden glow began to fade, and the voice was barely 'audible', though it rattled a sword off of its hanging on the wall of the cavern. “Rabamos.”

Though gentle, the presence of the Dragon God had been profound. Despite the mage-lights along the wall, the cavern suddenly seemed as dark and frightening as the Abyss.

Prat's lips repeated, “Rabamos.” He had no idea what it meant – but it was a start.

He stared around at the vast treasure of Xynosalionisis, the God of Memories. Prat's eyes unfocused, and he saw another vast treasure hoard. He had not travelled alone, then… There had been others…

Prat shook his head, his uncut hair shaking about like a mane. He reached deep within his psyche and unleashed the arcane energies barely kept in check. He knew where to start looking.

* * *

Rabamos… Rabamos… The name echoed in Prat's head. His first hunch on what the word meant, had proven to be a stale end. Delbin Arcanus was the most powerful mage left in all the world, but he was frequently off skipping about the multiverse, seeing other worlds and other planes of existence. Prat had left a message for the slightly deranged elf-mage. After that, things became somewhat chaotic.

He needed to find it, and soon. But Prat also needed to help save Rakore. His ability to rip through space made him invaluable to the Rakoran resistance. Messages needed ferrying. Reconaissances needed doing. Prat also made an effective assassin.

Several times, groups of mages from Lok Magius would find overwhelming ogran resistance – and also pinpoint the location of one of the immense hatori. The huge desert beasts served as mobile command platforms for the ograns; Prat quickly made them targets of opportunity. He would fly above them and scorch their backs with his arcane powers unleashed. The commanders of the ograns were fast learning not to use the hatori, for they made enormous targets. The beasts also tended to go mad when attacked with enough fire – and no ogran could control them once they went berzerk. The hatori were doing as much damage to the ograns as all the mages of Lok Magius combined.

Teleport. Attack. Ferry. Rescue. Defend. Parry. Assasinate. Anhililate.

The king of Rakore used every resource at his disposal to resist the invading ograns, save one. Prat had sat in on several of the council meetings, sometimes while blood and ichor dripped off of his tunic and boots. The king's advisors, dukes and priests and mages alike, those few who knew of the secret weapons, all encouraged the king to use them. But King Feldspar Graniteshoulders was adamant. Despite the loss of so many, many more yet survived – and the use of those terrible weapons left over from the Storm Wars would bring the entire world down against Rakore. The weapons could wipe out entire armies, whole cities, in a searing, blinding flash of fire that swept out for tens of miles, and rained destruction and death on people and land for miles more beyond that.

No, the king argued, Rakore was not in so bad a spot that the Storm Hammers were needed. Yes, it looked bad, on every front. The Stonehelms – the mightiest of the Warkore clan of dwarves – had nearly been wiped out. They fought a holding action in the mountains of the king's throne – though the throne had sat cold for some weeks, since the king had evacuated to Prat's towers on Hallis Island. Loregard, the most immense fortress ever built in the west, had fallen. The ograns had free reign over most of Rakore. Another Rakoran enemy, the zealots of Nabrol, controled what little was left. The maps of Rakore showed only islands of light amongst the darkness – a few fortresses still holding: Basilisk, Sadic, Lavanor, Lok Magius and Mount Rilan, Stromgard and Teras. Nothing besides remained, save the islands offshore of Rakore. And still the king argued that the Storm Hammers were not yet needed, Must Not Be Used against the ogran invaders.

The king's council was rapidly losing faith in their sovereign. The king knew it. Prat knew it. And Prat, perhaps more than they, understood why the king was right. If the king were to unleash the Storm Hammers against the ograns, then the Inquisition would raze all the remaining population to the man. The great majority of the Rakoran citizens still survived – evacuated to the great fortresses, or hidden away in ancient ruins. Rakore had never been a great nation to begin with; at best, it had held only 300,000 people. Yes, many thousands had died, fighting holding actions during the invasion – but the majority were safe. A seige had begun. The seige, both Prat and the king feared, would be the true test. Lifting the seige of Rakore would be difficult, if not impossible.

There had been prophecies. One of the latest of the Lesser Prophecies had foreseen the days through which Prat endured, but as near as he and the king and council could determine, they were failing that prophecy.

Prat felt that if he only had a moment, he could see through the latest prophecy to an answer. Or find Rabamos. Or do enough damage to the ograns to force them to retreat. Or find a final plan to let the king use the Storm Hammers. If only there was another moment.

Teleport. Attack. Ferry. Rescue. Defend. Parry. Assasinate. Anhiliate.

He gorged when he could. He slept not at all. Food was fuel, and nothing else. Sleep was a time-waster. Prat knew the lack of sleep was getting to him. He would snarl at his subordinates. He scared his staff – battle-hardened warriors – into retreating. He never would remember what happened to make him destroy his favorite desk, and hurl it through a solid stone wall, shattering the desk and the wall in the process.

Time and patience were running out.

And then a note arrived, carried in the claws of a sparrowhawk. The note was simple, written in a childish scrawl Prat had come to recognize as the handwriting of the greatest mage of the common era. “Rabamos, Eed. Que pasa, senor?” The last half of the message made no sense to Prat… probably a language from one of the myriad worlds Delbin visited. But the first half of the message told him all he needed to know about where to find out what Rabamos was, and where.

* * *

Prat could hear the beat of the minstrels' drums down in the dining hall. His recently ventilated office afforded him an excellent ear to the evening meals, wherein the king held both meals and awards. Rakore's young dwarven king had learned early the hardships of rule; the days were for work, but the nights were for rest, else the pace of battle would not be sustainable. The king set policies; his generals enforced them. The court had time for rest, but the generals never rested, save in death.

The Duke of Hallis Island put his head in his hands for a moment, trying to clear the bitterness. His closed eyes desperately cried out for sleep, but the fires within him continued to burn.

Rabamos, Eed.

During the War of the Undead, the dwarf king's minions had raced across the world from Vault to Vault, hoping to get there ahead of the Dark Mage. More often than not, they were late, and arrived to find the landscape twisted and molten, cooling from the intense heat, and still glowing in the night, from the Storm Hammers. The terrible weapons of the Storm Wars were used as self destruct mechanisms, to prevent anyone not of the Inquisition from obtaining the secrets and objects contained in each of the Vaults. The dwarf king's minions, FireStorm, had found out about the Storm Hammers at a terrible price – they activated the security prayers in one of the Vaults, and barely escaped with their lives. It was then that the FireStorm realized that the minions of the Dark Mage knew how to bypass the protective wards and prayers around the Vaults. Then the real race began.

The rhythm of the minstrels' drums vibrated in time with the headache deep within Prat's skull.

Prat had spent many nights going through the reports of the early kingdom. His dukedom had been granted well after the founding of the kingdom, and he had felt the need to play catch up, to become a contender with the other dukes. Some of those reports had mentioned FireStorm's activity near the Vault of Olorin. Water-based weapons and caches of fluidic items filled the Vault, taken from the mages of the deeps. And after FireStorm had taken all of those items for Rakore, they had activated the Storm Hammers, to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Dark Mage.

He rubbed his brow, thinking. The Inquisition had made use of the Storm Hammers when they had first built the Vaults. After that initial purge of the mages, the Inquisition had intentionally lost the Vaults, scattered as they were across the face of the world. The Inquisition had not been able to make the Storm Hammers, for they were arcane products of the greatest mages Gaeleth had ever produced – but the Inquisition had used the Storm Hammers to secure the Vaults. The question, then, was how many of the Storm Hammers did the Inquisition still possess? That question frightened Prat. He was sure that the king and court who knew of the Storm Hammers had shied away from that possibility.

Rakore had acquired the Storm Hammers only after the seaport of Tulish had been vaporized – as a test by a rogue sect of the Inquisition. FireStorm had tracked them down, and taken from them the dozens of Storm Hammers they had accumulated. After the War of the Undead, FireStorm and Rakore and everyone had forgotten about the emptied Vaults – and their Storm Hammers.

Prat massaged his brow. He was getting off track, in his thinking. Eed. The Vault of Olorin had been out near the tip of the Eed Peninsula, in the reports. During that cataclysmic time when the Granitetor Mountains had sunk, forming the Sea of Kiriath – half of the Eed Peninsula had also fallen into the sea, though it was half a world away.

Where, then, to find a place or person known as Rabamos, on the Eed peninsula? Rakore had never claimed the peninsula; in fact, it was closer to the ogran lands than Rakore, and the ograns had not developed bureaucracy or even writing until well after the peninsula sunk under the waves.

The ograns might have oral histories of the Eed Peninsula, but Prat felt that the answer was older than their oral histories. What he sought dated back to the Storm Wars, and before, when great mages had strode across the world.

He abruptly raised his head from his hands, peering intently through his walls, seeing in his mind's eye a repository of written knowledge from that era, that might yet still survive. He had seen it mentioned in a history of the 'old world', the lands across the Granitetor Mountains.

The fortress of Rhythis Keep… It had survived the death knell of Refterdardes – a fiery blast greater even than the Storm Hammers. Refterdardes had killed Avard Karatika, the Council of Nations, and many thousands more. Refterdardes had thousands of his followers commit suicide, and he channeled their deaths through prayers to Nabrol and his own arcane powers, and in so doing had beheaded the victors of the nations of the Storm Wars. The Karatikan Alliance had shattered – but Rhythis Keep itself, predating even the great mages – had survived.

The library had survived Refterdardes… Prat remembered that the Inquisition had even used the library – until the War of the Undead, when the mountains had sunk – and, supposedly, the keep itself. Prat stood to his feet, realizing that he could not be the first to remember the keep, or its library. It would surely be guarded. The Sea of Kiriath was supposedly haunted by the most vile of undead; Rhythis Keep would make a fine fortress for them.

He knew where he had to go, but going in blind would be suicidal.

His long steps quickly took him out of his offices, and down the spiral stone stairs.

It wasn't long, before he found his high priestess, Etre'iya Vamusa'rayeem. Prat had never been a very religious man, but he understood that many of his followers were, and that they occasionally needed divine guidance. Etre'iya was also the headmistress of the Burning Sun monastery, a cloistered outpost devoted to the study and destruction of the undead.

Etre'iya was a tiny waif of an elven woman, with raven black hair, purple-trimmed black robes, and a commanding presence. She was seated at a separate table from the king, reserved for Duke Henrik's people. They sat quietly together, keeping the island running despite the army of the king's retainers that were there.

Etre'iya and her table grew silent as Prat drew near, his entrance almost hidden by the minstrels' excellent drum performance. Her dainty eyebrows raised in polite appraisal, as he bent his head low to hers, that they might hear one another over the beat of the drums. She asked, “Will you join us for dinner, Lord Henrik?”

He glanced around at the other members of his table, and smiled a bit for their benefit. “Just a quick question, Etre'iya,” he said, and the others would have to read lips. “What can you tell me of Rhythis Keep?”

The color drained from her face. She quickly glanced around the table, and moved her chair back as a page rushed to perform that function. “Not here,” she said. She looked to each of them in turn, put on her best smile, and strode away with Duke Henrik – dwarfed by his massive frame.

* * *

Prat looked up into the heavens, seeing a clear night's sky, and the twinkling of stars across the great Sky River. He could only look up, now and again, as he tended to his sloop – but the view was breath-taking. Moderate waves scoured themselves against the hull of the sloop, a vessel intended more for shallow-draft rivers than deep ocean going.

His destination was a dark spot on the horizon. All around him, the 'land' moved, waves blown by a strange wind. The stars blanketed half the world, unbroken on the horizon save for the one dark spot, growing slowly larger as Prat maneuvered the sloop towards it. The forward jib sail was all Prat used to carry him straight towards the dark spot; any more sail, and the sloop would capsize in the steady wind.

None could scry on the island of Rhythis Keep; no teleportation worked within range of it. Yet, Prat had been able to scry out the winds, talk with a few ship captains who had braved the Sea of Kiriath… The use of Rakore's Tower to transport himself and the sloop as close as possible to the Sea of Kiriath had been easy, and while the sailing was tricky, it was fun. The Duke of Hallis Island cracked a smile, and then laughed, enjoying the simple challenge, as he raced towards his doom. The wind, the water, the night skies, all reminded him of a simple, happy childhood – the younger son of a fleet merchant from a world long removed.

The sloop crashed into something, and nearly threw Prat from it. His grip on the rail left a permanent indention in the brass. Half a dozen tentacles, each as thick as a full-grown oak tree, burst out of the water near the bow of the sloop. There was a crunching sound from beneath, as the beak of the kraken began to crunch through the hull.

Prat had prepared for as much as he could. He reached deep within himself, and found the spark of arcane power there – and let it loose, as he chanted the words to one of the oldest of mage spells. His blades were out, and fast, having never left his belt. His slices against the kraken's tentacles, the two that groped blindly above the water, were defensive. His attacks were against the holdings of the sails. Rope trailed out as the jib sail was cut loose. Prat grabbed it, and then he was yanked off his feet, and over the rail.

The spell he had unleashed called a bit of board to him from where it had been stored on the deck. The people of the Sholin had plied the seas for millennia, and learned to ride the waves. With the wax-polished and steam-curved board beneath him, Prat hit the back of a wave moving quickly, the jib sail and its trailing ropes barely holding above the rim of the wave. Another bit of arcane magics from Prat directed the sail further aloft, giving him far greater control.

Behind him, his ship shattered as the undead kraken roared in frustration; there had been no souls aboard the ship for it to feed upon.

Prat focused, concentrating solely on the feel of the waves, and feeble light about him that helped him see the sea as it changed, undulating like a herd of great water whales. And Rhythis Keep loomed nearer, blotting out more and more of the stars.

Ghostly phantoms raced beneath the surface of the waves, and Prat shivered, uttering a prayer to Xynos. He had not gone back to Xynos' hoard to retrieve his amulet, but had instead received a gift of Etre'iya: an amulet that would shield him from the undead, and make him invisible to them.

Minutes raced by, and even the vaunted strength of the Duke of Hallis Island began to wane. His speed was great, though, and he had neared enough to Rhythis Keep to make out the shape of the vast fortress. It had once had walls hundreds of feet high, made of one, single stone – that had been melted in places. Some parts were destroyed by Refterdardes' work, and others by the immense forces that crafted the Sea of Kiriath.

A startled ghost floated above the waves; the sail passed through it with ease, but the blades about Prat's waist burned it with a fiery light, even though they were sheathed. The ghost wandered further out to sea, confused by the pain the sail caused it.

Prat let go at the last possible moment, riding his Sholin board in as close as he could to the shale and scree beach surrounding the cliffs that led to the fortress. The waves engulfed him for a moment, and he went tumbling end over end, before finding his feet, and surfacing. He sloshed out of the sea onto the beach, and knelt upon the shore, regaining his strength. A quick assessment of his tools assured him that the amulet, his swords, and more, were still with him.

He abandoned the Sholin board. The tide was out. When it was in, the waves would be pounding against the nearly vertical cliffs, rising a hundred feet over his head.

Prat had been unable to scry the fortress itself, but long ago he had been an adventurer, tackling the unknowns of the world. From a purse off his girdled belt, he pulled crampons, pitons, and rope.

A shell of a crab scuttled by, its innards long ago eaten by something. The undead crab paused at the vibrations from pitons going into the fortress, and then it scuttled quickly away.

Prat's climbing was furious. The tides would rise quickly, and once they did, he would have to move quickly. He had a number of arcane spells at his disposal, but those he had to save for his escape – if he could find what he sought within.

His arms began to burn with his work, and still he soldiered on, refusing to slow his pace, or rest. Rakore was waiting on him. People died, while he panted, fighting for more air. He could hear their screams. The further up the cliff he travelled, the more he could hear the dying – and the dead.

* * *

No man can stride across the flagstones of Rhythis Keep, and retain all his sanity. The souls of the damned number in the hundreds of thousands, if not more, and they are drawn to the keep from all across the Sea of Kiriath, and beyond. Many were awakened during the War of the Undead, when the Dark Mage misused the powers of creation to his own end, and forcibly tore so many souls from their peace. The damned of Rhythis Keep walk, float, and glide about the sagging towers – forever angry, forever tainted, forever insane.

Prat held the amulet of Etre'iya in one hand, and his own hand upraised with a mage light hovering above it to light his way. The Keep was dark, even in the first rays of sunlight. Thunderheads so thick that not even the power of the Day Star could penetrate them appeared before dawn, and shielded Rhythis Keep from its purifying light.

All about Prat, the dead and the damned cried out their eternal pain and misery and suffering. The clamor was nerve-wracking, always almost running into him, always growing and then shrinking, always shrieking of violence, and insanity. Bits of beeswax were stuffed in his ears, and it was not enough. Prat felt sick to his stomach. His 'fight or flight' responses were on hair-trigger, and he was drenched in sweat, despite the chill of the keep's stone.

He wandered through the keep, searching for the libraries. Etre'iya's monks had several books of Rhythis Keep, from before the War of the Undead and the formation of the Sea of Kiriath, but there was nothing since. The keep itself seemed changed from their accounts, perhaps even ever-changing. To Prat, it felt like a thing alive. Though the amulet was designed to shield him from the undead, Prat felt as though the keep were watching him with malice-filled eyes, always out of sight.

Nothing lived within the keep's walls. The husks of spiders played at being alive, spinning webs in their undead state. The corpses of rats scurried around the walls. Prat even passed through a swarm of undead mosquitos, and he wondered at the horror they could infect the living with.

There were others there, at Rhythis Keep. He had to pause, once, and extinguish his light. The glow of a phantom guided the stiff movements of a skeleton with bits of hair still stuck to it. The two held a conversation, together, in the old tongues. They were unaffected by the damned, and they seemed almost… alive …save for the pure evil that seemed to emenate from them.

At last, he found the great stone stairs that led deep into the dungeons of the keep – stairs wide enough for a dozen men abreast to march down. The column in the center was as wide as the stairs, and the stone steps were worn with millennia of use. Prat felt that, many times, giants must have walked the stairs as well as he. Their images walked the steps, as well as the images and phantoms of living trees, and other beings for which Prat had no names.

Down, down the stairs he travelled, until he came to the landing at the bottom, where an arch some twenty feet wide opened onto three other sets of great stone stairs, each as large and intimidating as the one he had travelled down.

The books had not spoken of this, and so Prat made an educated guess. Through the keep, the right-hand passage more often led to functional rooms, such as privies and stairs. The stairs themselves were rarely made for defensive reasons, and often spiraled in left-handed patterns – to give right-handed people use of the rails on the right side. Prat knew that coming off of the stairs, the greatest volume of traffic would go in one direction. He chose the middle stairwell, figuring that the left-most one went down into the storage and servants areas, and the right-most would be the one least used, the dungeons. He hoped.

After a long decent, he was proven right. The giant stone stairwell opened onto another landing, with another great arch. With his mage light held high, he could see the rows and rows of book cases and book stands, cubby holes for parchments, and more. All out of his reach. There was also a reflection of his mage light on the barrier between him and the library. Obsidian glass had filled the great library of Rhythis Keep.

“No…!” Prat whispered to himself. He let his hand drop, his mage light extinguish, and he was plunged into darkness.

He was confused, unsure of what to do. The after-images of his mage-light danced in the darkness, until he realized that it was not after-images at all – but the phantoms and ghosts of the undead, unhindered by the solid obsidian that occupied the library.

Prat was a mage of considerable power, but he knew of no spell that could undo what had been done. At some point in the past, the barriers protecting the library had been breached by fast-flowing lavas. The lavas had been unable to burn the library itself, protected as it was by the ancient spells. The lava had cooled quickly, its energy leached out by the spells warding the books and the entrance into the library. Even if he could breach the energy barrier under the arch way, he would still have to deal with obsidian glass. If he shattered even a piece of it, the shards would be sharper than any razor, and would cut him to ribbons. Even if he could somehow phase into the glass, he would be unable to open the books or unroll the scrolls.

It had all been, “For nothing,” he whispered.

From behind, there was the unmistakeable sound of steel being drawn. A dark, gravelly voice said, “I wouldn't say, 'for nothing'.”

Prat quickly drew his twin longswords, and spoke the words of command that ignited their blades in a wreath of orange and yellow fire. On the stairs behind Prat stood a blackened skeleton garbed in black armor and a black, hooded cloak. The skeleton held in its hands a massive two-handed blade of pure darkness. And then the skeleton moved, faster than any normal man could move. It leaped at him, sword back to cleave Prat in two.

His twin longswords came up together, crossed, and absorbed the majority of the impact. The dread knight's strength was incredible, and Prat was already tired from just getting to the keep. In the back of Prat's mind, his terror screamed into his brain that the dread knight would never tire, it would just keep coming, and coming,andcoming,andcomingandcomingandcoming-

The flight response gave way to fight response, as the embers of anger were fanned into flame. Prat let loose the beast – complete with all the spell enchantments Etre'iya had given him. Prat changed into a half man, half bear creature, longswords looking more like flaming shortswords in his massive, thumbed paws. The beastly Prat snarled in rage, and struck back with a strength and speed more on a level with that of the dread knight. The enhancements of the enchantments Etre'iya had woven in, protections that would only activate in the presence of bear fur, further increased Prat's strength, speed, clarity, and power against the undead.

The longswords became wreathed in a black, oily smoke as they found Something to burn as they struck out at the dread knight. The skeleton responded as quickly as possible, moving out of the way for some blows, blocking with others, but the massive two-handed sword was not a defensive weapon, despite its darkness and insubstantial weight. The black skeleton dove out of the way of one of Prat's swings just in time, and the flaming longsword cut through the energy barrier and plowed through the obsidian glass, leaving a trail of molten lava behind it.

Fur sizzled from where the hot sparks had jumped out of the wall, and from the furry paws too close to a source of flame. Prat did not care. He had come for knowledge, and it had been denied him. He was angry. He had endured the buzzing madness of the keep's sounds for too long, and he gave in to bloodlust and rage. And yet he held onto his training with the longswords, his attacks automatically going where they should, the dance never wavering.

The dread knight opened its jaws, and a visible Yell of darkness engulfed the furry man, diminishing the brightness of his blades. For a moment. And the noise only made Prat angrier. He tapped into his arcane spark, and brought forth one of the Olde spells.

Future Prat, Present Prat, and Past Prat, each only seconds from one another, attacked. The dread knight was besieged by six independant, whirling blades of angry fire, three pair of jaws that slavered at him, snipping and striking, six legs that propelled the three torsos that were one in any direction he chose. The three Prats fought as one, understanding one another intimately, each knowing the others thoughts, and all three occupying the same place in space, and time.

The blackened skeleton flung its cloak wide, engulfing Prat in the darkness – and suddenly it was gone. And so was everything else.

The Prats growled, whirling their blades this way and that, some turning around so that the beast had two heads in one direction, and a third watching behind. There was nothing, in the darkness, to see. And then the fire of his blades went out, extinguished by dread knight's powers.

And the fear within the Prats was back, and growing, gnawing holes in their hearts, growing larger from within, terrifying them, engulfing all of them with fear.

And then there was nothing.

The cold.

Silence.

Peace.

“I want to kill you, Duke Henrik, but I am not allowed.”

“Who are you? Where am I?”

“I have been instructed, however, to give you something.”

“What happened?”

“Be glad that She wishes you to stay alive. For if the decision were mine, you would be dead.”

“Who is She?”

Silence.

And then lapping of the waves, upon the shore, in the distance. And growing stronger. A wave lapped at his feet, and a seagull cried out in the evening sun.

Prat sat up, stunned and disoriented for a moment. He was on a sandy bar, with the tide slowly going out. Dense green vegetation grew on the dunes, some hundred yards from the sandy bar and the little cove of water behind hit.

Etre'iya's amulet was still about his neck, and his longswords had been stabbed into the sand nearby, hilts upright. Near them, was a book, bound in a dark red leather, with gold lettering upon its face. The writing was scriptive and one of the old tongues.

Prat's mouth was dry, as though he had awoken from a night of binge drinking, again. He slowly got to his feet, his head pounding. He felt he knew what was in the book: an answer. But he was beginning to gather more questions.

The cry of a gull reminded him of the cries of the damned at Rhythis Keep, which reminded him in turn of the cries of the dying and the damned in Rakore. He scooped up his swords and buried them in their scabbards, trusting the enchantments to keep them clean. He picked up the book, and held it in both hands for a moment, to stare at it. Then with the book in his left hand, he reached deep within himself for that spark of arcane power, and unleashed his claws.

* * *

Prat sat on the aft castle deck in a portable chair reading his book, while the crew of the Iron Bear went about their duties. The waters were choppy, but nothing the experienced crew couldn't handle. The translation Prat had obtained from the book indicated Rabamos had been a trading city of some 50,000 elves calling themselves the 'Dharveil'. The book was written in an old and obscure form of high elvish, and many of the words and concepts eluded him, even with arcane spells to aid in translation. The one map within the book was millennia out of date, and did not match the maps of that part of the world, from before the collapse of the peninsula. Over 500 miles of the peninsula had sunk into the sea, much of it only a hundred feet below the waves. Finding Rabamos would not be easy, and time was of the essence.

A call from the crow's nest of the Iron Bear sang out, “Shoals! Two miles, ten degress off the starboard bow!” Something beneath the water, at low tide, was disturbing the flow of the waves. Prat hoped that it was the ruins of the city of Rabamos.

One of the crew up on the poop deck stared into the sun along the lines of his sextant. A thick block of obsidian glass protected his eyes from the glare, and made his measurements more accurate. He called out, “Thirty-three degrees, five minutes!”

Prat knew that the latitude was close as possible to the old maps of Rabamos.

Captain Shiarre, a Sholin man bigger than Duke Henrik, called to his first officer. “Change course, move to within a quarter mile of the shoals. Give me continual soundings.”

The first officer turned to relay the orders to the appropriate crewmen, as the captain moved towards Duke Henrik.

Prat closed the book, and stood up, stretching. “I heard, Captain. Let's hope this is it.”

“Aye, milord.”

The Iron Bear and several of its contemporaries had been fighting off Nabrolian triremes, and losing a galleon for every trireme. Captain Seamus of the Rattler had reported that many of the Nabrolian triremes had been broken apart, and used to build forts and billets for the Nabrolian force, easily numbering more than 50,000 men, plus hill giants and Nabrolian priests. That still left plenty of triremes in the sea to harass the waters around Rakore. The Nabrolian commanders acted chaotically, simply doing as much damage as possible before withdrawing. Pirates, at least, would sack and pillage for gold and women, and be held in position for awhile. The Nabrolians simply shed as much blood as possible, before withdrawing with children to sacrifice to their bloody god, and women to rape at their leisure and indoctrinate into the Nabrolian way.

The captain had wanted to resist Duke Henrik's orders, but he understood that Duke Henrik thought more strategically than did most of the nobility. He and the crew were curious, but none had dared ask just what their liege sought in the ruins of a city that was long abandoned even before it fell into the sea.

“Captain Shiarre,” Prat said. “Don't endanger the ship.” He looked to the mid-morning sun and the setting Maroth. “Give me until the next low tide, and then pull up anchors and head for Hallis Island as quickly as possible.”

“Aye, milord.”

Prat felt a kinship with Captain Shiarre. He ran a good ship, with a good crew. Prat wondered if, in another time and place, that might have been his destiny – to captain one of his father's merchant ships. He shook the thought away, and listened to the wind and the sea, and watched as Captain Shiarre went about his business. The massive Sholin man had spent his entire life at sea, and the last ten years of it learning the ways of the great sailing ships or Rakore. He was good at what he did, and his confidence in himself was tempered with humility at the ways of the sea, and its goddess Olorin.

One of the crew called out, “Eighteen fathoms!” A moment later, “Mud!”

Captain Shiarre called out, “Mister Oxley, trim the sails a quarter.”

The first officer called out to the sailors still in the rigging, “Trim the sails! One half sails!”

The sails were meticulously rolled from three-quarters full to one half full, though the jibs were left full open for maneuvering.

The Iron Bear was a big island of a boat, but she could still make almost 16 knots with a good wind and calm seas. Another member of the crew called out, “Nine knots!” after the first mate asked for a check.

Prat was impressed. The ship was making nine knots with only half sails.

The lookout called, “Shoals! One mile, twenty degrees off starboard!”

Captain Shiarre spoke to the woman at the wheel, “Turn her starboard, twenty degrees.” Louder, he called out to his first mate, “Mister Oxley! Trim the jib sail, full to port.”

The crewman at depth called out, “Sixteen fathoms! Sand!”

The Iron Bear turned right towards the shoals.

“Mister Oxley!” called the captain, as soon as the jib sail was set. “Reduce sails one half, prepare anchors.”

“Aye, sir!”

From the crow's nest came, “Shoals! One half mile, dead ahead!”

The sails were being completely furled as the man at depth called out, “Thirteen fathoms! Stone!”

The captain told the woman at the wheel, “Hard starboard. Gimme everything you've got, lass.”

“Aye, captain.”

Captain Shiarre called out, “Come about! Jibs full to starboard! Drop port anchor!”

There was a slap as the massive anchor hit the waters and began dragging chain through its deck hole at the bow. The ship began to turn ever so slowly in the wind. The anchor caught on something and went taut, and several crew leapt to the chain to secure it to the windlass. The Iron Bear heaved and strained against the anchor, and continued its turn about until the shoals were directly behind it, easily visible Prat. The top of a stone tower braved the clear light of day, its roof long since removed by the sea. Water seemed to boil and roil as the waves went over the tops of many more such stonework. Even the top of a shattered tree could be see in the water.

The captain called out, “Drop starboard anchor!” just as the crow's nest called, “Shoals! One quarter mile, due aft!”

The man at depth called out, “Twelve fathoms! Pebbles and sand!”

Suddenly the ship was still and quiet, as they all turned to the captain, who turned to Duke Henrik.

Captain Shiarre said, “Duke Henrik. I will loiter in this vicinity until the tides again go low. My anchors are not long enough to stay here at high tide.”

Prat nodded. “Understood, Captain. Have one of your crew fetch my equipment from below decks.”

Duke Henrik turned to look off the back of the aft castle deck, gauging the size of the city from its ruins. It had fallen into the sea only eleven years before, and already the sea had, by all accounts, destroyed half the shoals, and presumably half the city. The book had only mentioned Rabamos in passing, devoting two pages to the city, as the author had stayed there several nights while his companions sifted through the ruins, and were shot at by savage orcs. The only thing the author and his friends had found of any real interest, were the crypts deep beneath the city; they had been sealed shut, from inside the once solid iron doors. The doors had long since rusted away, but the debris and rubble remained, blocking the crypts. A day's fruitless digging at the huge stone blocks had yielded nothing but frustration, and it was obvious that the orcs had been digging at it for years. The author and his friends had left Rabamos with nothing.

One of the crew approached the captain, scared to go near the duke, and handed the duke's items over to Captain Shiarre. The captain, in turn, approached the duke from behind. “Your gear, milord.”

Duke Henrik turned his attention away from the shoals. “Thank you, Captain.” He took his helm and his spear, and the over-shoulder bag. The helm would allow him to sea and breathe underwater, and the spear would be far more effective than his flaming swords. The over-shoulder bag contained a number of items that would help him, beneath the waves.

Prat put on his helmet, and unbelted the sword sheathes from his girdled belt. Those he handed to Captain Shiarre, and then buckled the helm underneath his chin. From there, he turned and vaulted over the side into a dive, and disappeared beneath the waters.

The first mate came to stand beside the captain. “Sir? Is he Mad?”

Captain Shiarre shook his head. “I don't think so, Mister Oxley. I don't think so. I hope that what he seeks is there, because I have a feeling that the war depends on it.”

Oxley shook his head, arms crossed. “Mages.” He said it, almost like an epitath.

Captain Shiarre reached for the amulet about his neck, and whispered in the Sholin tongue. “Olorin, I beg of thee, watch over this strange man that enters your waters. May he find what he seeks from thee.” In the common tongue, he turned to his first mate. “Well, Mister Oxley? Why is the crew standing around? Isn't that top-aft sail in need of repairing?”

Oxley scowled and threw the captain a dirty look – but a smirk on the corners of his lips belied the threat. “Aye, captain.”

* * *

Prat knew he'd made a mistake as soon as he hit the water. Had he not been wearing his helm, he would have died. As it was, he nearly hyperventilated in the cold, cold, COLD water that sucked his breath away. It took every bit of his will to get his breathing under control, and then the shivering set in.

He let himself sink, the water getting colder and dimmer, while he thought. The water was cloudy with sand and mud and debris, a result of the waves rolling up on the fallen peninsula and striking the ruins of a once fair-sized city.

Prat could think of no immediate solution to his problem, and resigned himself to using the last of his strength – when the time came – to teleport back to the Iron Bear. If he could. Given how badly he was shivering, he wasn't certain that he'd be able to.

He was so cold!

He growled at himself. The cold was sapping his brains, as well as his body heat. He cast through his mental spell repertoir, which was not inconsiderable, and found the spell he needed. As his feet struck bottom and sunk into the mud, he concentrated, getting his shivering under control. Knowing that he had a solution helped fight the cold. The hand motions were jerky, but aparently accurate enough to channel the spark of arcane energy that he unleashed – and the cold began to eb away as a gentle field exerted its force through his body. It was a low-level spell, and one he should have thought of before he even entered the water. Prat mentally kicked himself, and let himself shiver a bit more, rebuilding lost body heat.

Then he trudged on towards the sounds of the shoals.

The currents were strong, and limited visibility, but Prat only had to find enough of the town to get his bearings, from the drawings in the book. The author had been only a fair artist, but had captured the layout of the town – and the location of the collapsed crypts – well enough to guide another to it.

The first mate of the Skate was a woman named Nathamra. She had both the arcane gift, and the piety to follow Olorin, the Goddess of the Seas. Nathamra had managed to find a rare and sacred set of texts that spoke to both sides of her abilities, and she had helped the mages of Rakore translate a number of spells for use under water. Prat had with him only two of those translated spells, and he hoped it was enough. One was a version of the typical flight spell, that would allow him to direct his movement underwater; the other was a version of the gaseous spell.

The gaseous spell was a favored escape means among mages, and would allow them to turn into a form of aerous aether, so that they could move into any space air could get into. The gaseous spell was incompatible with water, but Nathamra had found a way to change that, and incorporate fluids into the spell. When cast, the spell would transmute the caster's body into semi-liquid state, bordering on gelatinous. Nathamra had nearly died, before learning to incorporate osmotic differences between the salty sea water and the slightly less salty body into her formula.

Prat found a corner of a large building, its stone corner rising up out of the sand and covered with barnacles and sea creatures. There were pebbles all about, gouging the stone in the wave action, and the power of the surf banged Prat painfully into the roughened wall several times before he learned to anticipate the water. Visibility was still poor, though some light filtered down from above. A shadow passed over him. A shark. He ignored it, being forced to concentrate on his mission. He did, however, get a tighter grip on his spear haft.

He followed the edge of the building until he found another edge, guestimated the size of the building, and then moved away from the corner into the swirling, booming, underwater cacophony. He found the edge of another barnacle-encrusted building, and followed it to another, to the ruins of another, past the fallen tower of a larger building… slowly but surely building up a mental map of what he was finding, and comparing it against the map from the book, which he hoped he had memorized accurately.

At last, he could compare the two maps, and figure out where he was. It was, indeed, Rabamos. They might have never found the ancient city, had not the author included the navigational data of his ship, but found it, they had.

Prat slowly struck out across the sand in the direction of ancient church that had housed the crypts. A forest of kelp was growing over the leeward side of the town from the currents, and Prat felt the powerful flow of the water ease up as he moved into the forest. The landscape was surreal.

He missed it, twice, but finally found the ruins of the church in the forest of kelp. Prat realized he was beginning to shiver, and his spell of protection from the cold had run out. And he did not have another to replace it with. Gritting his teeth, he moved into the ruins of the church. Inside, he startled a school of fish, each as long as his forearm and flashing silver. They exited the church in a mass, lost in the underwater forest.

It was much darker inside, and Prat reached into his shoulder bag, using his trembling fingers to find a perfectly smooth orb. When he found it, he pulled it out, and its bright blue light spilled out into the ancient church. Starfish and sea urchins moved along the walls, and the sand and pebbles shifted in currents against the floor – a floor that was ten feet deep.

Prat groaned. Sand would have filled in the stairs all the way to the collapsed crypts. It would be impossible to dig out the sand; there wasn't time; and the liquid form spell was untested, so far as Prat knew, against sand.

The water leaching his strength faster and faster, Prat rapidly went through his mental repertoir of spells. He had one or two that he could foresee creative uses for, but none that would quite fit the bill. If he had prepared a different set of spells… Prat sighed, and cast the liquidation spell, his fingers and hands trembling. From a tiny pocket built into his tunic, he removed a bit of preserve jelly fish, and let loose the spell activation sequence – consuming the material component of the spell.

At first, there was no change, but over the coarse of several agonizingly slow seconds, the cold stopped bothering Prat. He glanced to his hand, and could see it still grasping the glowing orb, but he could see through his hand; only the edges were visible. He could not open the hand that held the globe, nor open the hand that held the spear, and the spear was as transparent as he was.

With a shrug, he willed himself down into the sand, sliding between the bits of tiny silica and stone.

And the world went dark.

Crap.

Prat moved the sphere in front of his face, and couldn't see more than the faintest of glows. Perhaps it was even imaginary. Worse, there was a time limit; barely half an hour was left to Prat. If he didn't find his way into the crypt by then, or find his way back out into open water, he would die. Horribly.

He continued to will himself down, but he also willed himself forward, hoping to find the wall of the old church. And he did. He could feel the dead barnacles, buried in sand. He found that he couldn't squeeze his hand between the joints in the wall; they were either mortared in place, or too finely set. With the wall as his guide, he groped about as quickly as he could, willing himself down, along the wall. He found the floor, its flagstones buckled badly by the fall of the peninsula. And he slid through them, willing himself down further into the dark.

When he lost the wall, he moved back up a bit, tracing it, feeling himself ooze between broken flagstones. After several long, too long moments, he realized that he was doing a complete circumnavigation of the church's walls. The author of the book had never specified where in the church the crypts were; there was no more reference to them than 'down a set of stairs'. Working blindly, and working against time, Prat worked as quickly as he could.

Long moments went by. He wished he could sweat – because sweating was a part of nervousness that was denied him. His internal clock had never been very good. He could only guess at the time since he had liquified himself. Fifteen minutes. Maybe twenty. There! He felt… Spiral stairs, still well jointed in places. He quickly followed them down, lost them, had to retrace them, and realized that the landing to the crypts had collapsed – and likely the crypts themselves.

Growling fiercely, he slid about blindly, feeling the rough stone and the sand that filled in all the tiny spots between stones. He had to backtrack when he found soil, strangely icky to his senses. Time was running out.

He moved the sphere near his face as often as he dared, trying to use both hands and both feet as often as possible, hampered by the sphere and spear stuck in his hands, his sensitive palms and fingers useless.

And there! There was blue light! He was in between massive bits of stone, and the sand had not penetrated, though the saltwater had. He could see, if only for a little while. He rushed forward, seeking an end to the broken sand, backtracking when he hit the walls or found soil. There! His hand fell into a large room, illuminating it with its pure, blue light. Never had there been a more welcome sight to Prat.

A sword slowly cut an arc through Prat's forearm, nearly severing the gelatinous hand holding the sphere. Prat roared in fury and pain.

The remnants of a skeletal hand still held onto the dancing sword. The blade moved again, returning for another stroke, the skeletal hand barely holding on. Prat withdrew his hand, unable to hold it, knowing he was injured, and getting angry. He watched from the shadows of the broken stone that had prevented the book's author from getting into the crypts.

The sword threatened Prat, and then returned to the center of the room, waiting. A bone from the skeletal hand fell off, and drifted slowly to the floor in the near darkness, only thin shafts of blue light illuminating its fall.

Time was running out.

Prat assessed the room. It was a rectangular crypt, with the entryway along one of the narrow ends, each narrow end some twenty feet wide. The longer ends of the rectangle were about forty feet wide, and along that wall were niches. Some of the niches had collapsed, and dirt or mud was in them, but most were intact. In the middle of the main floor, four stout columns of stacked stone held up the ceiling; around each column were four sarcophagi – matching the sarcophagi in each of the niches. The crypt had been full, once – and it had been plundered, lids askew and elven skeletons half exposed.

The remains of another, almost giant skeleton, lay around the middle of the room, the skull staring at the entryway from its position on the floor, the jaw buried under the rib cage. The blade never wavered, hovering in the water about where it would be if it were held.

Time was up. Prat raced into the room as quickly as his gelatinous form could move, and willed himself to reform.

The sword began moving towards him, deadly, but slowed by the water.

Prat slowly, painfully began to reform, and the race was on. He watched as his forearm reformed, the damage undone by the restoration of the spell.

Just in time, Prat brought his spear up to deflect the blade, and tossed the glowing blue sphere into the middle of the room. The spear caught the blade, and Prat grasped the handle, crushing the old bones to powder.

The blade fought him, but he was stronger. It seemed to have a will of its own, trying to attack him, waiting for him lose attention, striking against his strength whenever he could. Prat opened his satchel and shoved the blade into it – and let go.

The room was suddenly much calmer.

Prat examined the room as calmly as he could, the cold once again seeping into his bones. It was obvious, once he fluttered his hands over parts of the crypt, that talons of incredible strength had done the plundering. The talons had gouged the stone of the floor where claws had strained to open the heavy lids of the sarcophagi. Talons gouged the stone of the sarcophagi themselves, and even left rents in the delicate elven skull of one sarcophagi. Prat checked as quickly as he could against the cold, and checked as thoroughly as he could against time. The crypt had, indeed, been plundered.

Whatever Xynos had sent him for in Rabamos, was gone.

The Duke of Hallis Island blinked, thinking. It was possible Xynos, while in dragon form, had plundered the crypt. His claws could have done the damage. But the duke shook his head slightly, his shivering almost forgotten in his slow-moving thoughts. Xynos could have altered his size, but he was an enormous giant of a dragon, one of the eldest, before he had ascended to god-hood. The rents in the stone were different, as though… He looked again at the crypt, in the blue light, shadows thrown everywhere.

Three different sets of talons gouged the floor. More than three sets of talons gouged the sarcophagi.

He felt calm. The need for more time… faded. He understood that he had plenty of time to examine the conundrum.

The blue light was… rather attractive. It lit the walls well. No barnacles grew there. It showed frescos, carved into the stone. Carvings of small elves with crowns, large elves with spears… He was growing tired. So tired… He closed his eyes. He hadn't slept in… Days? He knew a nap would do him good. He needed a nap. To conserve his strength.

So he could fight. For Rakore. For the king. Because they needed him to find it.

Prat closed his eyes, and took a deep breath, preparing to slumber for a long, long time, and then let his breath out.

Something pricked him. He felt it. He opened his eyes. Dark fluid was filling the water of the crypt. He felt another prick, and then INTENSE pain as the blade bit into his kidney.

Prat growled, whirling on his attacker, filling the crypt with his blood, more pumping out with every heart beat.

He whirled, shifting forms, setting the beast loose and letting the bear free… And his helmet popped off. Prat hadn't made the helmet, and so it had not been designed to shape change with him. Nor had he made the overhead satchel; its leathers stretched and broke, and it fell to the floor of the crypt.

Prat inhaled a lungful of water, enraged, and not understanding what was striking him. Whatever it was, hit him again in the back. His kidney was on FIRE and hurt, hurt, hurt! The water was filling with shadows as his blood blocked the light.

Something came out of the darkness to strike at his face, and he caught it, desperate more for something to hold onto while he coughed the air out of his lungs, than to block the strike. A dagger plunged itself into his palm, and some part of him recognized that it was a matching blade to the one in his satchel.

Prat touched the spark, and unleashed the rage, his claws tearing through space-time.

He landed on the poop deck of the Iron Bear, struggled to pull in air, and only coughed out water. Blood poured out of his many, many stab wounds, comingling with the water that had soaked his fur, and poured out of his lungs.

A cry went up among the sailors, and Captain Shiarre, down in his cabin, put his quill down.

He stood up of a sudden, his chair crashing over, as another cry reached his ears, a distant, “Captain Shiarre!” called in a panicky voice the likes of which he'd never heard from the first mate. He raced around the desk and sprinted out of his cabin, his hands working faster than the eye to catch up his Sholin spear from its niche near the door.

His amulet, a golden chain with a lapis and onyx amulet like the scales of a fish or the waves of the ocean, lay on the edge of his desk where he had left it, where he had been studying it in some detail. As the ship rolled over in a swell, the amulet slid off the edge of the desk and onto the floor, and then up under a nick in the furniture.

* * *

Prat rolled over in bed, listening to the waves and the gulls and the creaking of the rigging. He could smell bacon frying in the kitchen, and heard his father say something to his mother.

He blinked, and sat up, frowning. Something… wasn't right.

His brother Zeldron growled, and sat up, awoken. “What's wrong, Rick?”

Prat shook his head, looking around the room. “Dunno. Just… S'something wrong, Zel.”

A pillow to the face made him realize what was wrong! As the pillow-fight ensued, their mother opened the door with a mock-scowl on her face. Her eyes were smiling, but her tone was sharp.

“You boys are ruining good pillows! After breakfast, you'll stuff em right back up! Now it's time to break your fast!”

Prat grinned, and raced his brother out the door, past his mother. She caught him by the arm, though, and so it was Zeldron who made it to the kitchen, first.

Her eyes stopped smiling, and she spoke with a voice not her own. “Stop searching for it. It will only lead to your death.”

Prat stared into her eyes, not understanding. She released him, and he slowly resembled his race to the kitchen, confused.

He turned the corner in the hallway, but instead of the kitchen, it was a cavern covered with phosphorescent fungi, and three sarcophagi were arranged inside, side by side.

Delbin yelled into the cavern, “Show yourself!”

The lids to the three sarcophagi began to slide off, two one way, and the third the other way. A bony hand covered in an everbright gauntlet could be seen from the middle sarcophagi, pushing the lid off.

Delbin loosed a ball of arcane fire into the cavern, engulfing the sarcophagi with an inferno of light and heat.

The four of them stood together, watching through the inferno, and heard the three lids of the sarcophagi strike the stonework of the cavern's floor. Jynx and Delbin stood to one side of Prat, and to the other was Larson.

Prat braced himself for what was coming, seeming to know what was about to happen. Larsen grasped Prat's arm, and his blue eyes met Prat's. “You have to stop searching for it.”

Then the skeletal figure in blackened brightemail strode out of the inferno and pointed a finger at Jynx. It's skeletal jaw moved, and they heard a hiss of fire and wind speak. “Die!”

Jynx fell lifeless, his soul severed from his body.

Prat's anger overrode his fear, and he rushed forward, blades out, to attack.

Only he was attacking the green dragon known as Pond Scum. It was no larger than a horse, but it had altered its size, and was returning to its normal, house-sized mass, growing, growing, filling up the underground den.

The blades in Prat's hands were different, but blades none-the-less. He sloshed out of the knee-deep water and up towards the dragon, readying to force both sword-tips into Pond Scum's body.

The dragon reacted faster, dropping its head and blowing a horrid gas at Prat, knocking him back into the water. He had inhaled the corrosive gas, and water was in his nose and mouth, and he couldn't breath. He fumbled desperately at his purse, to pull out the enchanted, polished crystal that would save him.

Rake, still impossibly dressed in full plate, rushed up out of the water to attack the beast, attacking with only his sharpened gauntlets. The dragon howled, and dropped a huge claw onto Prat, pinning him in the water.

As Rake tore off scales and cut into meat, the dragon dipped its head through the cloud of green gas still filling the den, and said to Prat in a dragon's voice, “You must stop searching for it! You will die!”

Prat struggled against the claw, struggled to breath through the gas that seared his lungs and the water he'd inhaled. He struggled so hard he felt himself turning, transforming, becoming a bear in all but birth.

But the chains continued to bind him. He roared his frustration, and still he was held by Kilreptus' death chains.

There were high up on a mountainside, and it was so hard to breathe! Kilreptus' trap was sprung, and Prat was the bait. His friends had come to help, but the undead lich's power was too great, he had prepared for them all. Half the mountain had been hollowed out to serve as a gauntlet against which he would grind Jynx, Delbin, and Garalus to undeath.

Prat tried to roar a warning, dimly understanding his friends needed his help. He couldn't breathe! The chains held him!

And the lich laid its bony hand around Prat's arm and gripped it with suprising force. The skeletal jaws still had bits of dried flesh upon them, and they moved with the lisping words. “Ssstop thisss sssearch. It will only lead to death.”

“My husband,” his wife said. Her blasted body broken by the power of Carl Liss, father of the Dark Mage, and, ultimately, the master pupeteer that had orchestrated the War of the Undead and the ressurection of the Dark God. “My husband, father of my children.” He skin burned away from her skull, and her skull shattered into thousands of pieces, and then her body and the bodies of their children were destroyed, as well.

Prat could not even roar. Fire burned in his lungs, but he could not get it out! He tried so desperately to cry out her name, as she died, destroyed by Carl Liss…

The object of his hatred, and his madness, strode through the broken ashes that had been Prat's wife. He grasped Prat by both arms, and lifted him up. The cold, inhuman eyes that met his spoke plainly with a deep, thrumming bass. “Stop searching for it! Or it will destroy you!”

A Sholin man, tall and wide in the shoulder, but wearing clothes of the western lands, said, “I think he's coming round. Lord Henrik? Can you hear me?”

Prat sucked in a deep lungful of air, and let out a savage howl of pain and fear and loss. And then collapsed back against the deck of the ship.

Sailors stood gathered round, staring at their duke, whom had nearly broken free of the heavy cargo netting they had thrown over him. The deck was shredded by the claws of a bear, and slippery with blood.

Captain Shiarre lay panting on the deck next to Duke Henrik, and sailors helped them both up to their feet on the slippery deck. Prat was still bluish and shivering, but would live.

The big Sholin held in his hand his holy symbol, an amulet of gold and lapis and onyx – his badge of office as a priest of the Sea Goddess, Olorin. The amulet was covered in sawdust, and blood.

Prat was confused, and almost lost his footing as the ship lurched in a swell. A sailor tossed sand onto the blood.

“There was… a… sawdust..?”

Captain Shiarre looked rather abashed. “Duke Henrik, there was… an enchanted dagger that was attacking you. Mister Oxley managed to beat it down for you.” He motioned to the side, where three sailors were lying on top of several planks that were vibrating, as something underneath them tried to free itself.

Prat's eyes rolled back into his head, and he went over backwards. Several sailors caught him before he hit the deck.

Captain Shiarre said, “Take him to my… er… Take him to Mister Oxley's quarters, and make him comfortable.”

* * *

Prat awoke, coming suddenly to consciousness in the way of warriors. He listened, seeing little through the tiny window in his cabin, save for the red light of Maroth. The waves against the hull were calm, and the smell of sea air, coupled with the smell of well-tended wood and soap, wafted through the room. He was still dressed, and the bed he lay in was somewhat small for him – but then again, they always were. His curse had made him too large for the sea life.

He slipped out of bed, and left the room, moving for the open deck. The sea air was stronger, there, and revitalized him. The watch gave him a nod, and went back to holding the wheel steady. The anchors were up, but the sails were only a quarter full. From the look of the skies, and the position of the great giant Maroth in the sky, Prat guessed they were holding position about where Rabamos lay.

Prat approached, and the sailor on watch said quietly, “Lord Henrik.”

The duke of Hallis Island thought for some time, before he finally remembered the man's name. “Kenris. You served aboard the Cottonmouth, before it went down.”

“Aye, milord. You've a good memory,” he said, still being quiet.

“No. I have a horrible memory. I just happen to remember finances very well.” He chuckled softly. “How long was I out?”

Kernis listened to the sails for a moment, before adjusting the wheel a bit to left. “Ye were out for all o yesterday, an part o the day before that, milord.” He gauged his duke for a moment, before speaking again. “Beggin yer pardon, milord, but… did ye find what ye were lookin for?”

Prat shook his head. “No, Kenris. Someone beat me to it. Unfortunately.”

“S'a shame, milord. Ye nearly died for it, whatever it was.” Kensris was too good a sailor to ask out right what it was his lord was searching for, but Prat recognized the unspoken question for what it was. And, perhaps a bit of rebuke, as well.

“It's worth it, Kenris. I hope it'll help end this war.” He looked out to sea, the waters bloody in the light of the giant Maroth, three-quarters risen in the sky. “Now I just have to figure out who has it, now.”

The two drank in the night air for awhile longer. Prat gauged the time to be about four marks past midnight – still almost two marks to dawn. He was hungry. Famished, even, as he thought about it.

Kenris must have read his mind – or heard his stomach gurgling. “Cookie always keeps some lil bread-wrapped sausages and some onions an apples out where any of us can grab em, down in the galley, milord. He won't be up till dawn, with the rest o this sorry lot.”

Prat smiled, and said as quietly, “Thanks, Kenris.”

He went down below decks, finding the galley without too much difficulty. Captain Shiarre was as large as he was, and Prat wondered how the large Sholin man fit through all the small walkways and doorways aboard the modified galleon. As he stepped into the galley, though, he realized he wasn't alone.

“Lord Henrik,” said Captain Shiarre, as quietly as Kenris had spoken. “I'm glad to see you're up.” The skipper of the Iron Bear was pouring himself some beer from a tankard, and held the tankard up as though to ask 'want some?'.

Prat said just as quietly, “Sure. Pour me a stein.” He helped himself to a plate from its cupboard, and then a number of the bread-wrapped sausages, an onion, and an apple.

They ate in companionable silence for awhile, before Captain Shiarre wiped his face clean with his hand. “Ah…” he began, keeping his voice down. “We've been maintaining position over the city. We… I didn't know if you wanted to stay, or return, Lord Henrik.”

Prat swallowed his bite, and took a sip of his beer. “You did fine, Captain. We won't be staying, though. Come the dawn, you can set sail for Gridolin, and get back to patrolling the waters between Hallis Island and the mainland.”

Shiarre took the information in stride, and asked diffidantly, “So you found, what you were looking for?”

Prat stared off into the near darkness for awhile. “Perhaps. Someone beat me to it, but I think I can find them.” He took another sip of his beer, and then asked, “What happened to the dagger?”

The skipper smiled softly. “Ah, that. We embedded it in several sheets of planking, and then tied the handle to the planking. It's still there, quivering, in the armory.”

Prat nodded his head. “Tell Mister Oxley he did well.” He bit down into the onion, enjoying the way his eyes watered.

Shiarre nodded. “I will, my lord. Ah… I have a confession, to make.”

Duke Henrik slowly chewed on his bite of onion, and then said quietly, “Confess, then.”

“When you appeared on the deck… I almost lost you, Lord Henrik. I had left Olorin's token in my cabin. I sent a sailor back for it, while you… were thrashing on the deck, but when Malkins returns without it, I knew I had messed up. The token slid off my desk, during a swell, and wound up inside some of the furniture, where I couldn't get to it. We took an-”

Prat held up his hand, thinking. “As I recall, you are the only cleric aboard this ship. Is that correct?”

Shiarre looked glum. “It is, milord. Please, you ha-”

“I think, that you made a mistake you will never repeat. Why isn't your desk – why doesn't it have a lip, like this?” Prat ran a hand around the lip of the galley's table. Like most ship-side furniture, it had a lip on it to prevent anything from spilling off in a swell.

The skipper said, “It had been a rather special desk, Lord Henrik. We'd taken it off of a slaver's ship, during my first engagement as Captain, and I'd been rather fond of it. It was annoying, not having a lip, but I got used to it…” He dropped off, annoyed with himself and somewhat depressed that a piece of furniture had almost cost his duke his life.

Prat said, “Don't feel too bad. It was my own fault I wound up in the situation I did. You learned your lesson. And I learned mine.”

Shiarre looked a bit harder at his lord. “And what lesson was that, my lord?”

Duke Henrik grinned, showing his fearesome teeth, the canines distinct. “I learned that I'm no longer just a bear.”

The big sholin man looked a bit confused. “My lord?”

Still quiet, Prat said, “I spent a long while as a bear. Most of you know that. Unfortunately, I spent too long, as a bear. Bears are solitary creatures, for the most part. They don't form packs, or operate as teams. And I was still operating under the instincts of a bear – alone.” He pointed at Captain Shiarre. “You helped teach me differently.”

“I?”

“Yes, you.” Prat smiled softly. “Despite almost messing up, you didn't. I did. You saved me. I owe you – and your crew – my life. And perhaps a bit more.”

Captain Shiarre seemed to want to beam in pride and also stay humble at the same time.

Prat said, “You did just fine, Shiarre. Now. I'm going to need some time to go over my spellbook, and then I'll have to take my leave of you. Your orders, are to return to the waters near Hallis Island and the mainland, and patrol them for Nabrolian triremes, and any signs of ogran invasions or scouts.”

Shiarre nodded. “Aye, my lord. The Iron Bear is at your disposal.”

“You and your crew performed admirably, today, Captain.”

Prat left the small galley, munching on the onion, the apple held in his other hand. Small shafts of prism-brought red light kept the hallways visible at night, though Prat figured that the sailors knew the ship well enough to do without light for the most part, at night. He returned to the cabin he had been in – not the captain's, Prat realized. It dawned on him that Captain Shiarre must have nearly destroyed his cabin, searching for his holy symbol, the token of his oath to Olorin.

He pulled his travelling spellbook from the purse on his thick girdled belt, and then whispers the incantations to an old spell. The writing within the book lit up, though not so brightly as to damage his night sight. With that dim light, he refreshed the spells in his mind's eye, and prepared to do what needed doing.

* * *

Mistress Brin, head of Lok Magius, stood around the large table at the top of the tower, gesturing to places on a map. Her senior instructors and security officers were gathered around her, along with the king's representative, Duke Orcbane – as tough a one-handed dwarf as she'd ever met.

Her long blonde hair was tied back in a pony-tail, and she realized how badly it reeked as she put a stray bit of hair back behind her ear. “We had two rocs make scouting attacks, both coming from the southeast – one in the morning, and one in the afternoon.” He gestured at the directions, relative to Mount Rilan and Lok Magius, located up past the treeline and below the snowline on the eastern flank of the mountain. “The horde has moved most of its troops here, onto the northeastern flank of the mountain, but they're having a tough time of things.”

Duke Orcbane growled, “Tough? How so?”

Brin glanced at him, and smiled grimly. “Terra?”

Terra Gadlace was a dark-haired woman in form-fitting black leathers. “I'm a necramancer, Duke Orcbane. I animated ALL tha dead I could find at the base a tha walls.” She pointed to the eastern side of Lok Magius, where hundred-foot cliffs of stone protected the citadel – and where thousands and thousands of ograns had died attempting to climb Mount Rilan. The only way in was by means of a long stone bridge that the orcs dared not knock down, and the bridge was west of the citadel on the eastern flank of the mountain. “I sent tha undead around the horde, and they've been hittin tha supply lines. I managed to find the soul of a ranger, still bound to is body. The ranger – he was one a ours, that the orcs killed – he's leadin tha undead forces right now; hit and run tactics.”

Duke Orcbane snorted. “Well, s'long as they're hittin the orcs, an not us, lass.”

Mistress Brin nodded. “We'll likely loose all of them, but they're buying us some time.” She glanced at Terra. “Thanks.”

“Na problem,” said the necromancer. “I think I can that evera day.”

Brin nodded, thinking. “Good. Oh, one more problem, Duke Orcbane. The ogremai. Three hit us from above, today, but we hit them back just as hard; they're dead, with only one dead on our side. The biggest problem is still those damned lizards. Ordinarily, we'd be able to put light forces on the northeastern and southeastern walls – but every time we try that, another group of those minotaur lizards with their archers comes roaring up the side of the mountain. Usually we can kill them pretty quickly, if we catch em, but it's tying up resources.”

Duke Orcbane asked, “Can ye use caltrops? Somethin along those lines?”

Kendemon, an elf old even by their long standards, raised a hand, garnering everyone's attention. “If Mistress Danaka can make us some of that sticky tack that held up her classroom, last year – then we could just toss that down in a few places. It wouldn't work like Duke Orcbane suggests – but it would trap the minotaur lizards against the side of the rockface. It's strong enough, the lizards could die of starvation, before they get free.”

Brin grinned evilly. “Ha! I like it. I was just wondering how to get caltrops to stick to the side of a mountain.”

The duke asked, “Is it somethin that could be used elsewhere?”

Kendemon glanced to Mistress Brin, who shook her head. “No, the ingredients are rare, though the effects are large. Danaka discovered the stuff by accident, and it'll take her a couple of days and nights to put enough together to help us out.”

The tough dwarf sighed. “Ah, well. S'worth a thought.”

One of Duke Orcbane's aids startled; he had a better view of the entrance to the large hall atop the tower. “Duke Henrik!”

Everyone turned to see Duke Henrik stride into the room, with Etre'iya Vamusa'rayeem and Moror Stonehelm on either side of him. Etre'iya was still dressed in purple-trimmed black, her radiant black hair held back by a purple tie. Moror's blonde hair and beard were streaked with white that had set in just during the war, but he wore his plate and carried his battle-axe with pride.

Duke Henrik work his usual brown and gray leathers, his longswords on either hip and his arms bare, save for large wraps around his forearms. He called out to everyone, “Greetings. I'm sorry to interrupt, but I'm looking for Norion.”

Duke Travandale Orcbane looked at Duke Henrik like he'd grown a third eye or cut off the king's beard. “Prat! Ye haven't been seen in three days in the king's court, an ye show up here askin for someone I ne'er heard of?! What're you up to?” He left the table to shake Prat's hand.

Mistress Brin also moved towards him. She almost asked how Duke Henrik had arrived without everyone in the citadel knowing about it, but she realized that Etre'iya was a powerful enough cleric to have slipped them all in without anyone realizing it. When Duke Henrik teleported – every mage within miles felt it, if it didn't make them want to hurl from the vertigo it caused. Instead, she asked, “Why do you need Norion, Prat?”

Prat shook hands with Duke Orcbane, and clasped hands with Mistress Brin. “He's our resident expert on demons, and I need to talk with him about a few things.” He glanced at the others assembled for the evening war brief. “It's not something I can discuss aloud, I'm afraid, but…”

Brin said, “I'm sorry, Prat. He was… We lost him, last night.”

Prat looked incredulous. “Lost him? How? What happened?”

Brin answered, “He was part of a survey team further up the mountain, keeping an eye on the ogran advance. He and his whole team… Prat, we sent in another team, but all they found was blood, a broken golem, and bits of cloth. It looked like a roc-hawke got them.”

Duke Henrik growled, “We'll find them. You keep to your plans, and we'll go find your missing crew – if I have to pull Norion out of a roc's gut to do it.”

He looked livid to Mistress Brin, and she'd rarely seen him so… angry. Oddly enough, he actually looked more rested than normal. The past weeks of the invasion, he had been dressing in white robes, and just ferrying messages and people and spells – and looked tired, haggard, and worn for it all. Despite the long hours the war had put into them all, Prat looked more alive, at that moment, than he had… ever, once she began to think about it.

Brin asked him, “Prat, what are you up to?”

He had a glint in his eye, and cocked his head to one side, as though to say, “I can't tell you.” Aloud, though, he said, “Mistress Brin, I'm here to find Norion – and use and abuse him once I do. Now, do you have reports from the second crew that went out to find him? I'd like to talk with them.”

Mistress Brin told Prat who to talk to, and where to go to find the records of those interviews. As he and his two escorts left, Duke Orcbane growled, “I don't like it.”

Brin asked, “Like what?” as she guided them all back to the table.

The duke said, “I've nae seen him like that, before. He's up to somethin, he is. E'er since Duke Herod stabbed the king and disappeared, Prat's been after tha ogran-raised bastard. Ya think he's gettin close? Demons, though?”

Mistress Brin could only frown, and shake her head. “I have no idea…”

* * *

“Tanakh hrulgarth beh.”

To Norion, the orc words were gibberish, and he wondered at the meaning – before startling into full wakefulness. Orcs!

A heavy-handed blow to his cheek as he tried to sit up made Norion infinitely aware of his position. His hands were bound behind his back; his feet were bound; there was a gag across his mouth; he was cold, and could not feel his fingers or his toes, and did not know if it was because of frostbite or the tight bindings. An assault of smells staggered his conscious: his own unwashed smell, the cloyingly sweet smell of roasting meat, the horrid overtones of unwashed orcs, and the terrible musk of one of the great roc-hawkes.

The orcs spoke among themselves, before someone held his jaw so tightly, he felt a tooth pop painfully. The orog – half orc, half ogre – pulled Norion up off his feet, and they dangled nearly two feet off the snow-packed floor of the pavilion tent they were in. The orog was a mottled dun, brown, and green color, its skin naturally camouflaged by its parentage. It had the porcine tusks of an orc, the height of an ogre, and a nose that had been broken so many times it was little more than a suggestion on the creature's face.

It spoke in a broken dialect of the common tongue, its breath like rancid meat and its voice like rocks grating together. “So… Little mage we have. You, what are…?” it seemed to ask itself.

Norion had no answer for the orog, as he fought an urge to vomit. He realized he could taste the gag, and it was revolting – perhaps even something used to wipe the ass of an orc.

The orog peered at Norion closely, examining him, particularly interested in his scars and the eye that was damaged by a demon. That eye, unlike his regular gray eye, was a bilious shade of yellow and shaped like a cats with a vertical slit. The hybrid said, “Weird bitch you are.” It dropped him of a sudden, and walked away, towards the roasting carcass over the small fire.

Norion swallowed back vomit, as he realized the carcass on the spit was Nadine, a second-year student at the Mages' Academy. Her clothes had been ripped away, and she was tied to a pole that went in… Norion blinked back revulsion and fear. The pole came out of her shoulder, and her hair had long-since burned away, but the look of utter horror was still writ large on her sizzling cheeks, her eyes plucked out and sightless.

The orog cut off a piece of her buttocks, and chewed on it, while staring at Norion.

Norion was the one apprentice to Delbin Arcanus, the ArchMage of the academy, and Rakore's resident expert on extraplanar entities and travel. Norion had been places and seen things few others ever had even the opportunity for. The apprentice would be a journeyman in other circles, but he had chosen Delbin as his master to learn more about the realms beyond Gaeleth – and because Delbin was willing to tolerate Norion's almost obsessive need for power, because the ArchMage had a similar need for power.

The apprentice mentally went through his checklist of spells, assessing them for applicability. He also inventoried his belongings, wondering whether the orcs had gone through his pockets. He fought the revulsion he felt at Nadine's demise with all his considerable will, and glanced around the pavilion, taking it all in.

There were half a dozen orcs beneath the tent, with room for another half dozen. There was a pile of skulls in the corner – several of them still with enough flesh on them to… Norion swallowed back bile. He recognized one of the heads.

He saw no one else from Rakore in the tent, as the orog talked with two of its orcs. Norion knew half a dozen languages – none of them an ogran dialect. He growled, swearing to himself to learn another – after he had killed the orcs.

Norion's hands were numb, and he had trouble feeling anything, but he had the distinct impression that his tuning fork was still in the leather band that wrapped his forearm. The orcs had likely missed it, or thought it merely a knife. The helplessness of the situation burned Norion's eyes for a moment, and he had to close them, to concentrate. That the orcs thought him so helpless only served to infuriate him. He needed only to speak but a few syllables, with the small tuning fork in his hand, to save himself.

The orog pointed to Norion, and uttered something in their tongue. The huge beast shared a laugh with several of the orcs, before giving some quick orders. One of the orcs moved to a corner of the tent, and dug under a tarp covering a waist-high pile of objects.

Norion stared, as the head-sized silver sphere was handed over to the orog.

The orog swallowed the last of… the meat, and approached Norion with the sphere easily held in one large hand. The creature rotated the sphere until an indentation was seen on its mirror-like surface. Norion could clearly see himself in the image, and he realized he was bloody from head to boot. The orog pressed the indentation with its thumb, and spidery lines of liquid fire sped out across the sphere's surface.

The orog said, “Know what is?” and gestured with the activated sphere.

Norion's eyes were wide, and he shook his head.

The orog grinned evilly, showing a mouth of well-kept, harshly white teeth. “This… Mine. Bad magic mine. You magic, mine Poof. You die.”

The creature let that sink in for a bit, as Norion's eyes went wide with realization, and then the orog reached forward and yanked the gag out of Norion's mouth, torquing the mage's neck in the process. Norion spit out the taste of the rag, and the orog laughed, as did his orc companions.

The orog spoke again. “Now. Tell Grencher, what you is.”

Norion knew what the sphere was: a rikel mine. They had been manufactered in mass quantities during the Storm Wars, over five centuries before, at the height of magical powers in the world. Each mine, once activated, worked as a sensor for magic, and when it sensed it within range, would reach out and destroy it, violently. The mines would permanently destroy enchanted items, wipe clean spell patterns stored in a mage's mind, and essentially render a mage and all arcane magics, mundane. The only thing the mines did not work against, were other mines – unless the mines had been activated, as that one had. They were area-affect anti-magic weapons from a long-ago time. Norion had never seen one – only read about them.

The apprentice realized that that was how the ograns had caught them – with a rikel mine. It would have rendered their protective golem little more than a statue, and wiped the spells from their minds, as well as disjuncting all their magical equipment. He also realized that the spell patterns in his mind, were gone, wiped clean by the mine that had taken them by surprise. And Grencher knew it.

The orog laughed softly, and spoke to his comrades, who joined in his laughter.

Norion bit on the inside of his cheek, feeling his loose tooth, and then grinned. One of the orcs noticed the grin, and pointed at Norion in time for the orog to turn around, and see Norion toss back his head and scream. There was nothing magical about the scream, and the ograns began to smile. The scream was even answered by one of the roc-hawkes.

Norion drew a breath, and screamed again.

Grencher and his companions wanted to laugh at the quasi-human's feeble screams, but they were not screams of terror. The screams were distinctly lacking in fear, and the pink-skin's eyes were focused on the mine in the orog's hand.

The huge ogran held the mine up to his face, as the other orcs chuckled. One threw a well-cooked arm at Norion, and hit him upside the head, silencing him for a moment. The rikel mine appeared fractured, as always, when activated… but the color was off. Grencher thought back to all the other times he had used the mines. Usually the apparent fractures were a sort of orangish color that faded to not-silver, a sort of dark color that was inherently part of the mines. But the fractures on that rikel mine were still just-barely, almost glowing. As though… As though magic were already nearby.

One of the roc-hawkes screamed – in pain.

The orcs were stunned for a moment, as Grencher ran outside.

The sky was a light purple far to the east, where the sun was rising, though the world was bathed in reddish light from Maroth, setting behind the peak of Mount Rilan, and throwing a black shadow far out into the land. The air was crisp and cold and the stars bright, save for the occasional wisp of cloud. But instead of whitish snow, it was red with blood.

The rikel mine suddenly activated in a flash, expending all of its glowing-orange energy in a flare that exploded outwards from Grencher's hand.

Duke Henrik was more irritated than disabled by the detonation of the rikel mine, and one of his longswords took Grencher's head off from behind, with one stroke. The flaming blade had gone out the moment the mine went off, but it was still sharp enough to kill an ogran.

Etre'iya held her holy symbol up, and called to her goddess, Habrem, Mistress of Music. The ballad she brought forth was heavenly, but had an immediate effect upon the remaining roc-hawke. The huge bird simply squatted down in place, and tucked a head as large as a carriage under one of its wings.

The orc that had been upon the great hawke's back kicked at it, threatening to rouse it from its slumber, but a well-placed throwing axe from Moror knocked the ogran out of the saddle entirely.

Henrik cut through the lines holding the pavilion in place. Its white coloration made it near invisible against the snow, and as the tent collapsed, it smothered a cooking fire inside. The smell of burning meat assaulted the duke's nose – and he was appalled at its implications.

He called out, “Etre'iya, to me!” as he negligently cut down another orc.

Moror lopped the leg off of one, and then spun around, the great swing returning to bury the axe in the orc's rib cage.

The slight elven priestess was at Prat's side almost immediately, her boots barely sinking into the powdery snow. Prat quickly began lifting the tent up, exposing more and more of it, until he found… “Norion!”

The apprentice called out, “Prat! About time you got here.” He looked, though, not at Prat, but at something covered by the tent, where smoke was billowing out from under the edges.

Moror used his axe to lift up part of the tent, and saw the remains of the human woman, about the same time Prat realized he was kneeling on one of her arms.

Prat turned to watch the east, just as the sun's edge broke the horizon, some distance away. The woman, whomever she was, was lost to them. But Norion was still alive. Without his shout, they would have never seen the camp, nor found it, as they searched the high altitudes. The duke turned to look at the snoozing roc-hawke, its plumage white and blending in with the snow. The orcs, save for the green blood everywhere, were clothed in white hides to better hide them. The high elevation meant the smoke from the fire was swept away almost instantly, and dispersed.

Without Norion's scream, they never would have found him.

The duke turned back toward's the apprentice mage, who was massaging feeling back into his hands. “Norion. You all right?”

Moror indicated that all the orcs were dead, by slicing his finger across his beard.

Norion sighed, and stood up. “I'm fine. Is there…” He looked at a pile of skulls and heads that Moror had exposed when he pulled the rest of the tent aside. “Did anyone else survive?”

Prat shook his head. “No, Norion. I'm sorry.” He looked at the battle-scarred young man for a moment. “Do you know why they kept you alive?”

“No, I don't. Unless it was because of my charming good looks.” He swept his bangs back behind his ears, revealing his scarred face to the morning sun.

Moror held up one of the inactive rikel mines. “What's this? Some kinda egg?”

Norion raced towards the dwarf. “Stop! Don't touch it!”

Moror dropped the head-sized silver sphere into the snow. “What is it?”

Norion gently picked up the mine, careful of its activation depression, and said, “Prat… I think we have a problem. You know what these are, don't you?”

Etre'iya and Moror looked confused, but Prat sighed. “Yeah. I'd hoped to never see em again.”

Norion overroad Moror's question. “Where there is one, there are many. You've said it before, too damned often. These may be how they're planning on taking out Lok Magius; we have to find out if there are any more.”

“We will. Or rather, Brin's other mages will. For now, I have a new task for you,” said the duke.

Norion scowled. “Unless it involves you whistling for a flying carpet, I think that task will have to wait. We're going to have to hike down the mountain, and not get caught by any other roc-hawkes.” He pointed up at the fading stars, where a sharp-eyed roc was blotting out the stars, its side lit by the sun.

Etre'iya said, “Leave our escape, to me. Is it safe to bring those… orbs, with us?”

The apprentice grunted, and turned to the pile of orbs. “Yeah. Gimme a hand, here; we can put them all in a big sack…”

Prat simply picked up the tarp with all of the orbs in it. It was heavy, but he would be able to walk with it in the snow for a little ways.

Norion said, “One of these days, I'm going to make a 'strength of Prat' spell.”

Prat snorted, and merely said, “Iya?”

Etre'iya began to sing, spreading her arms to the rising sun, her face bathed in its warm golden light. As she sang, the pitch and harmony went subvocal, until they could only feel it in their bones, as the world around them seemed to become two-dimensional, as in a painting, and then its colors began to fade away.

* * *

The courtyard at Lok Magius was abustle with activity, even in the first rays of dawn. Though the yard was deep in a canyon of walls, plenty of mage lights were up – and blue lights occasionally shown, as the clerics of Lok Giran opened the Eyes of Galgiran. With the blue rings of darkness open, mage-led strike forces were returning from various missions, or leaving for new missions.

Prat set down the make-shift bag of rikel mines, and wiped his brow. The change in climate from the freezing summits of Mount Rilan to the heat of late summer and early autumn had broken the duke out in a thick sweat. As well, his girdled belt had been enchanted to make his great strength even greater – but the rikel mine the orog had used, had dispelled the belt. It would take time Prat didn't have to repair his magical equipment.

If enough rikel mines were to go off in Lok Magius, quite a bit of damage would be done. The golems would be destroyed, turned into so many statues. The enchanted defenses, including those against scrying, would fail. The keep itself was formidable, but would not hold out long against the massed horde of ograns with whom there was a stalemate of legendary proportions. If the spells of the wizards were wiped from their minds, then an assault by the ograns might just succeed.

Norion stopped the first senior mage he found, and forcibly made the man listen. Though only 'an apprentice', Norion held considerable power within Lok Magius – and he had a considerable force of will.

The apprentice turned, and said, “Mistress Brin will come at once. Now, while we're waiting… What's this 'task' you had for me?”

Moror's beard bristled at the tone the human used with his duke, but Prat's hand stayed him. “You're the expert on demons, and things from beyond. I have reason to believe that demons, or something like them, may have something I'm looking for. I want you to go over the evidence, and then find whomever took what it is, I'm looking for.”

Norion scowled, his cat's eye widening for a moment. “What is it, that you're looking for?”

Prat shook his head. “That, I will not tell you.”

Moror muttered, “Hell, he won't tell us, either.”

Duke Henrik gave the dwarf an exasperated look, and then said to Norion. “I think I have a way to end the war, but I need your help doing it. If I can find it, then I can end this war, and quickly.”

Norion countered, “And if you die, no one will be able to find it, and this war will drag on.”

“Then you'll just have to keep me from dying, Norion. This is big. Bigger than you can imagine,” said the duke.

The young mage countered again. “I can imagine quite a lot.”

Mistress Brin strode through the chaos, with Lilliana Ravenwind at her side. Lilliana was of the same sort of elf as Etre'iya, tiny and frail-seeming, with long black hair and very prominent, pointed ears.

The head of the Mages Academy asked, “And why would you need so much imagination, Norion?” Though her tone was rebuking, she gave the young man a hug of joy to see him again.

Norion was stiff, at first, and then relaxed. Apparently Brin was one of the few people in all the world he felt he could trust. His answer was still stiff, though. “Duke Henrik is searching for That Which Cannot Be Named, or some rubbish. He wants my help finding it, but won't tell me what it is.”

Mistress Brin looked to Duke Henrik, who nodded. The big, bearded man said, “I said I needed him to help me find something. I don't want Norion out on any more missions. I need him.”

Brin and Lilliana exchanged a look, and then both looked at Norion. Norion wondered whether they were sizing him up for a coffin, with those expressions.

The head of the Mages Academy stared full into Duke Henrik's eyes, assessing him and weighing things in her mind. She nodded curtly to herself, and said, “I understand.” She glanced to the rikel mines, and asked, “Now what of these? What are they?”

Norion shot out his hand towards the spheres, to keep Lilliana from nudging one with her feet. “Careful! These are rikel mines.”

Apparently their conversation had not gone unnoticed, for the moment Norion mentioned the dreaded rikel mines, an invisible cordon appeared within fifty feet of them, as mages and clerics and laborers backed away. Mages who knew what the mines were cautioned everyone back.

Norion said, “The orog Grencher used one of these to ambush my team, up on the summit. When the mine went off, it silenced all of our protection spells. Permanently.”

Brin asked, “Are they activated? Do they pose a danger, n-”

Norion waved his hands vigorously in a 'no' gesture, and shook his head. “They're harmless, right now, but, here.” He picked one up. “See the indentation? If I press it – the mine will activate. It's radius is small – maybe thirty feet, but two mines together, when they go off, have a radius of nearly twice that.” He looked introspective for a moment, before saying, “I'm not sure if its a geometric or exponential growth curve, yet.”

Mistress Brin grimaced. “How many more are there?”

Norion glanced to Duke Henrik, who shrugged. “These are the first rikel mines I've seen since the Storm Wars, but… If the orog and his team had them, then you can bet the ograns have more.”

Brin massaged her brow, and Lilliana spoke up. “How do we combat these… mines?”

Brin shook her head, some of her blonde hair falling into her eyes. “I don't know.”

Prat stepped forward, and spoke somewhat quietly to just the two of them. “The old ways of magic don't work against these things. I've seen the reports, on what Danaka and her apprentices have done, along with Jandor's work on taming the wild magics. Take some of the spheres, and see if the newer magics have any effect on them at all. Also… I'm willing to bet good money that the mines do nothing against sorcerers.”

Norion nodded. “He's right; sorcerers don't have spell patterns, but… It could render them… Permanently magic sterile.”

Duke Henrik shook his head to dispute that, but Brin interrupted. “Get them out of here.” She turned to find a face she recognized in the crowd holding back. “Dalvenar, gather up some students, and grab these mines. We'll put them in the grimoir room, so that if they go, they'll at least take some evil with them. Be SURE not to touch the indentations on them!”

As Dalvenar and several others cautiously moved forward, she said, “Quickly, quickly! Get the out of here!”

Prat put a hand on Norion's shoulder. “Brin, we have to go.”

The head mage of the academy sighed. “I know. I hope you find whatever it is you're looking for. Next time you visit, though, Duke Henrik – bring Norion back in one piece.” She moved forward and hugged the young mage again, in a matronly manner.

Prat said, “I'll do my best.” He turned back to Etre'iya. “Iya, get us to Gridolin, please.”

The elven priestess said something fleeting in the elven tongue to Lilliana, and then began to sing with a voice of perfect pitch. Before being called to the Goddess of Music as one of her annointed priests, Etre'iya had been a minstrel of considerable skills and talents.

Movement around the four of them slowed, and then changed, taking on the appearance of a strange painting that slowly melted away, before reforming as the Duke's Halls at Gridolin began to form around them. The painting began to slowly move, and then, as the last notes of Etre'iya's voice faded away, the painting… moved.

Several crossbows were lowered as soon as everyone was aware of whom had teleported into the same hall the King of Rakore was using to conduct his courts. The king was not present, his temporary throne empty, and most of the hall was cleared out, save for a few knots of noblemen and nights, and some of Prat's Kalen Corps eating late breakfasts.

A prim and proper man with a pencil thin mustache and a thinning hairline stepped forward. “Greetings, Lord Henrik. High Priestess. Captain. Welcome home. And who is this… interesting young man?”

Prat nodded to his chamberlain and the head of his household. “Mister Thatcher. We'll need a room for Mage Norion, here; he'll be staying with us for a little while. Put him in my room, if you have to.”

The chamberlain, a veteran of Duke Henrik's strange court, merely nodded his head. “Yes, sir. If there is nothing else, then you have quite a bit of paperwork awaiting you on your desk, my lord.”

Prat sighed, and ran a hand through his graying hair. “All right, you bunch.” He turned to Etre'iya and Moror and Norion. “Tomorrow at dawn, we're going under water to study a crypt that someone beat me to – and I need what was in that crypt. I think it was demons, but I could be wrong. Prepare for that, and at dawn… I'll take you directly beneath the waves.” He turned to Norion, and pointedly said, “Use my spellbook. Mister Thatcher'll show you where it is. I have some things I need to take care of, here.”

Norion looked intrigued, and his usually ascerbic attitude lifted, as he was led away.

Duke Henrik squared his shoulders, and headed to his office to do… paperwork.

While he walked towards his office, where the more mundane and day-to-day operations of his duchy were attended to, the chamberlain fell in beside him. “Unumbro is taking care of Mage Norion, Lord Henrik.”

Prat nodded, moving out of the great hall and towards one of the large spiral staircases. “How goes the ghost fleet?”

Thatcher easily matched pace with the much taller duke, though did somehow with poise. “There are only three galleons left to refurbish, and with two at the docks right now. The lack of a dry dock is seriously hampering operations.”

Prat sighed. “It'll have to wait, unless you can find more carpenters amongst the prisoners.”

“I'm afraid not, milord.”

“What of Kestaria? Didn't they have a carpenter?” asked the duke.

“Yes, milord – but you coopted him almost a month ago; he's busy working on the Coral at the moment.”

“Damn.” Prat continued up the stairs, to the top floor, and his personal suites. He snapped his fingers, and stopped. “Ah, yes. The Iron Bear will be in in the next day or two. Get with the crew, and have a flying dagger sent to the armory under heavy guard.”

Thatcher asked, “A flying dagger, mylord?”

“Captain Shiarre'll know what I'm talking about. It stabbed me in the back a few times.”

The chamberlain looked almost perturbed, as Prat resumed moving down the hall towards his office. The guard on duty moved quickly to open the door for the duke and his chamberlain.

Thatcher merely said, “The Soapstone papers are on the left, and the ducal papers are on the right. You've a stack there from the king, and he said it was urgent. Oh, and I quote, 'Tell that lumbering giant of a mage that if he doesn't start showing up for court meetings, I'm going to kick him in the ass, even if I have to get a step-stool', end quote.”

Prat asked, “How many have I missed?”

“Since your last missed one? About three, not counting emergency meetings. Mistress Brin and Duke Orcbane have been able to cover for your absences on the emergency meetings.”

Duke Henrik took his seat, and sighed, thinking. “All right. That will be all, Mister Thatcher.”

The chamberlain said, “Yes, milord,” and left smartly.

Prat began going through the papers, reading as quickly as possible, affixing his signet ring to melted wax when necessary, and putting his signature down, as well. The most pressing problem for the island was food – feeding the prisoners, for the island as a whole had been the penal prison system of all Rakore, before the war, plus food for the king's court, the duke's court, and now the reactivation of the reserve fleet. After food, was money; prisoners didn't need money, and were being offered chances to earn an early release with their service in the war, but everyone else had to be paid, including the duke's smiths who were forging weapons and armor as quickly as they could. And that required iron and steel and lead and coke and other raw materials that had to be scrounged for as quickly as possible, or bought.

There was a knock on his door, and Prat grunted, “Enter.”

He didn't even look up, trusting to his guards, as he looked at a document from the Soapstone Company, requiring a tax break.

A familiar voice said, “Lord Prat.”

Captain Seamus of the Rattler, Knight of Kestaria, and an annointed cleric of Habrem in his own right, was an elf with a bit of a goatee, riding boots with the thighs pulled down, a cotton tunic, a vest, and a large hat. He had a wickedly fast, enchanted rapier, and a mind just as wickedly fast as his rapier. Though an elf at sea, he had been raised a dwarf beneath the mountains. Seamus was a Stonehelm, through and through – and instead of fighting with his clan in the Warkore Mountains around Mount Basilisk, he had gone to sea as Prat ordered him to, putting the loyal captain to his best possible use.

Prat glanced up, and was suprised. “Seamus! This is a bit of a surprise.” He furrowed his brows. “I thought you were at Lok Magius, or at least at Rilan…” He stood from behind his desk, remembering something he had nearly forgotten. “Did you already make it to the Halls of the Pixie Queen, and back?”

Captain Seamus sighed, and seemed a bit glum. “I'm afraid not. Your mage was a no show, and while I was waiting for him to show up, Mistress Brin put me to work. After that, Rial ordered me to scout the areas where the Nabrolians had landed.”

Prat said, “I see…” He was troubled. Seamus' mission took precedence over many others, and he realized that he had failed to make Brin or anyone else understand that Seamus worked for the duke, and no one else. It bothered him even more than the ice mage had not been at Rilan. He quickly made a mental note to find out about that situation.

“The Nabrolians are still here,” Seamus said with a frown. He moved over to the wall where a tapestry map of Rakore was hanging. “I encountered one of their triremes about here,” he said, indicating a spot with his finger. “Captured it after a bit of bother… Got some prisoners for you, and some information; they're fanatics, but they love tae brag: seems they've broken up most of their fleet for wood to build shelter, I reckon about three quarters of their original fleet is gone. The ones that are left aren't pushovers though. Those damned priests and giants working in tandem are formidable.”

The Nabrolian triremes were monstrous floating ships with three tiers of oar banks on each side, and two hills giants often riding at the bow and stern of the ship. The giants could hurl boulders for enormous distances, and were a huge asset to the Nabrolians, at sea, and on land. On land, the brutish giants were used as riding beasts by the Nabrolian priests. The priests were a dangerous lot, as apt to slit the throats of one of their men, and use his blood sacrifice to power prayers to their mad god, as oft to use hellish prayers against their enemies.

Seamus continued. “It looks like they're concentrating on their land campaign, leaving what few ships they haven't broke up to fend for themselves.” He paused, thinking. “They seem to be patrolling off the mouth of the Pantherea river, and off Stomalin Keep. Didn't see much activity anywhere else.” He crossed his arms, done with the tapestry map. “The Rattler was damaged, and I'll be running her back to Terras for repairs.”

Prat asked, frowning, sympathetic to Seamus' stead-fastly loyal crew. “How bad was the damage?”

“We got off light considering that we got hit by a damned boulder.” Seamus replied with a sigh of regret, “It tore up a chunk of the main deck, and crushed a catapult. Killed two men outright.”

The duke sighed, glad the losses were so light, but still knowing how bad the loss of even one man hurt the elven knight. Like Etre'iya, he had been a bard before Destiny altered his fate.

Duke Henrik rifled through his papers for a moment, before coming up with one in particular. He inked his quill, and jotted something down on the back of the paper, before rolling it up and handing it to Captain Seamus. “Be careful, going to Teras – but when you get there, give this to Rial. How long do you figure it'll take to repair the Rattler?”

Seamus took the proffered scroll, noting the already setting wax seal that he knew better than to break. “I figure at least a month. Why?” He looked shrewd. “What're ye thinkin?”

Prat grinned evilly. “That,” he said, indicating the scroll, “Is your new command. While the Rattler is under repairs, I want you to take that ship, and put it to use.”

The elven sea captain scowled. “Lord Prat, what're ye up to?”

Duke Henrik showed his formidable canines. “Let's just say that I'm going to kill two birds, with one stone. Those damned Nabrolians are mucking up trade with the mainland, and I know of a prototype ship that needs a captain and a crew.”

Seamus glanced at the sealed scroll. “Can ye at least tell me her name?”

Prat said softly, “She's the Copper Kraken, a ship designed by gnomes, built by dwarves, and now about to be crewed by humans and an elf.”

The elven captain grunted. “Ain't that Rakore-like.”

Prat nodded. “Ain't it.” He shook hands with Captain Seamus, and said, “Now go sink me some triremes, Captain.”

Seamus touched the tip of the scroll to his hat in a salute, and said, “Aye, Lord Prat.”

As the elven captain swept out of the office, Prat paused for a moment before returning to his paperwork. He knew Seamus would do his job, and do it well, but it reminded him, that he needed to get back to finding it.

Seamus' family and friends, the Stonehelm clan, were holed up at Mount Basilisk, the seat of the king's throne. The clan was fighting a courageous holding action, making the ograns think the king was still there, but they were dying. At last word, nearly half the Stonehelms had been wiped out, along with nearly half the king's guard of Wakore dwarves. No reinforcements could reach them; they were surrounded; not even the Eye of Galgiran was able to do more than help the wounded out and clerics in, but they were fast running out of both.

Things were grim, for Rakore, despite the fair conditions at the Duke's Keep. Prat stared silently at the papers for a moment, willing them to burst into flame, and half afraid they would.

“Tomorrow. At dawn.” He growled. “I will find it.”

* * *

Norion asked, “Prat, will you stop being such an idiot, and at least tell me what Kind of a thing you're looking for?”

Moror's knuckles crackled and turned white as he grasped his axe, and he was livid, almost frothing. “That's it, Lord Henrik! Lemme kill him!” The tough dwarf pushed forward to open up the disrespectful mage's bowels with his axe.

Prat put his hand right in Moror's chest, and blocked him from advancing. The dwarf tried to get around Prat to the left, then to the right, and then looked at Prat in disbelief. “You're going to let him get away with that?!”

Duke Henrik said, “He's right, Moror. He does need to know what we're looking for.” He turned to Norion, and said, “We're looking for a spell. A very, very dangerous spell that will change Everything.”

Norion scowled, his cat's eye almost luminous behind his bangs. “If… No, nevermind. At least I know.” He glanced at Moror, and said delicately. “Duke… Henrik, I apologize for calling you an idiot.” The unspoken end to that was, 'if only to keep your guard dog from eviscerating me'.

Prat looked to Moror, who glared at Norion for a moment longer, and then relaxed.

Moror said, “Apology accepted.” He quickly glanced to Prat. “That is, if you accept the apology, milord?”

Prat nodded, and Moror muttered under his breat, “No dwarf works for an idiot.”

Etre'iya worked hard to keep from laughing out loud, and then asked Duke Henrik, “Are we ready?”

The duke looked over them all one last time, and nodded. “We're ready.” He sucked in a huge lungful of air, and held it.

The High Priestess of Hallis Island began to sing, and around the four of them, the world slowed to a crawl, and began to take on the rough, two-dimensional aspects of a painting, and then it dissolved into blues and indigos. A moment later it reformed into a painting of the crypt in Rabamos; the painting held for just a moment, and then, was real. They splashed into the waters of the crypt quite prepared for the cold, and any other suprises.

Moror bent down, his momentum a bit off in the water, and grasped at Duke Henrik's helmet. The strap dangled brokenly, and the dwarf pointed that out to his leige lord, as he tossed it towards him. The helm slowed too soon, and would have fallen short, had not Duke Henrik swum towards it, still holding his breath.

Prat placed the helm on, and waited a moment, before slowly letting his breath out. The helm still worked quite well, and with the utterance of a very small spell, he mended the broken strap. He turned around, and grasped at the over-the-arm bag that Etre'iya held out for him. That, too, he mended.

Etre'iya said in a strange voice, muffled by the water, “These crypts… There is a foul spell upon them. I must undo it, before we begin.”

The priestess sang, and then stopped, listening to herself in the underwater room. She sang, again, and modulated her voice to react better with the medium, and a soft, strange, wonderful song reverberated through the room. When she was done, the room seemed calmer, more peaceful.

Norion picked up the glowing blue orb, and looked around the crypt. From there, they began to look about in earnest, while Moror kept watch for any more dancing swords, or something more sinister.

Norion called out, the sound very muffled through the water, but recognizeable as speech. “Over here.”

The apprentice used the blue-lit orb for better lighting, tilting it one way and another, and showing off the scratches on the lid to one sarcophagi. The scratches were almost invisible when not lit from the side, but when lit from the side, seemed deep rents in solid stone.

Norion said, “Bebelith.”

Etre'iya asked, “What?”

The apprentice said, “It's a type of demon. An enforcer. An assassin. It's fearsome, even among demons.”

Norion turned, moving to the next sarcophagus, examining it in turn.

Prat was using a spell of light, given off by his palm, to read the walls in detail. Another small spell let him understand the language the glyphs were written in, and better understand the friezes carved into the walls.

Etre'iya, using hardly any light at all, examined each of the sarcophagi, and the skeleton that had stood in the center of the room. She picked up the skull, and examined it closely.

Prat turned at a startled, slightly muffled under-water shriek from Etre'iya. One of the skeleton's hands had her by the throat, and the skull floated nearly seven feet off the ground. Slowly but surely, the ribs and other bones were floating in the water, almost as though they had been kicked up by some wave – and they were assembling.

Moror roared, the sound strange in the water-filled crypt, and rushed at the tall skeleton as quickly as he could in the water, his axe out, and his feet being forced to bound. And bound. And bound.

Norion released a spell of darkness that flittered through the water to slam into the skeleton's rib cage, even as it formed – and the darkness went out. He yelled with too low a voice, “It's not undead!”

The eyes of the skeleton lit up, and it focused its attention on Prat, looking at his bag.

Prat strode towards Etre'iya, taking his time, sure of the skeleton's purpose from Norion's words, and the words on the wall.

Moror yelled, and let loose a heavy swing. The swing knocked the skeleton's pelvis out of position, and it went slowly sailing across the crypt with a notch in it. The skeleton turned, and used its other arm to shove Moror back in the water. It was missing a hand on that arm.

Prat arrived, and held out a hand to Moror. “Wait,” was all he said to the dwarf. He used one hand to pry Etre'iya free of the skeleton's grasp, and grasped the skeleton's other arm as it came up. Prat simply held the skeleton, even as it struggled against him, trying to push off with its feet, thrashing violently in the water – and doing nothing against the bear in a man's body.

Duke Henrik spoke to Etre'iya. “Talk to it. Tell it in elven, that we did not despoil the tomb. Tell it we seek those who did.”

The priestess looked at Prat as though he had spouted gibberish, but trusted him, and spoke in the elven tongue.

The skeleton turned its head, and listened. It's jaw opened and closed, as though it were speaking, but its tongue and lips and flesh were long since gone.

Etre'iya shook her head in confusion. “Prat?”

Norion snapped his fingers, the sound echoing in the water again and again. “It's a shah!”

Prat nodded, still holding onto the skeleton. “These were the crypts of the kings of Rabamos, a trading port for the Dharveil. This shah guarded the crypt, unable ever to leave, in death or undeath.” His muffled voice was clearly understood, and the skeleton had heard key words that it understood.

Norion scowled. “Prat, do you have enough force walls to seal this crypt off?”

The big man shook his head. “I've already run out of ideas, too.”

The skeleton relented, its remaining hand upright.

Prat let go, and the skeleton remained where it was, looking at him expectantly. Prat reached into his bag, and pulled out the sword that had attacked him, the first time he came into the crypt. The sword fought him and struggled against him, but the moment it came near the skeleton, it calmed – and when Prat let go, it calmly floated through the water to its master.

Prat nodded at Moror, who reached into his large purse. The dagger within fought him, but like the sword, calmed when near its master. Moror reached into the purse, and also pulled out a handful of bones that had once been attached to the dagger. It slowly reassembled into a resemblance of the hand it had once been.

The four stood around the skeleton, watching and waiting. It turned to Etre'iya, and mocked a speaker with the hand that held the dagger – indicating that she was to talk to it. The skeleton shook its head no, and then yes, and then it pointed at her, waiting.

Etre'iya glanced to Prat, and then to Moror, before collecting herself, and began to ask questions.

The skeleton nodded yes, or shook its head no, patiently awaiting her questions, occasionaly tilting its head when she needed to repeat herself, or even shrugging to several questions. At several points, it held up fingers, as though indicating numbers; at another point, it indicated something sinuous, and Etre'iya spent a number of questions identifying what it meant.

Norion and Prat patiently waited through the whole charade, while Moror merely waited, ready to bash the skeleton again, though its pelvis had found its way back to its position.

Finally, Etre'iya stopped, thinking. She turned to Prat, and said, “It was the shah assigned to the kings that were buried in this crypt. It was the one that pulled the deadman switch designed into the crypts, to prevent anyone from entering once the crypt was full. There were many things of value, buried with the kings of Rabamos – but they were taken, by four demons. The demons arrived, and one with six arms and the body of a snake cast a spell over the room that knocked the shah out. Its blades, however, were still animated with its last will.”

Prat rubbed at his beard, beneath his chin strap. “Did the demons come before, or after the waters filled these crypts?”

Etre'iya translated, and received her reply. “After.”

Norion cursed. “Dammit. That means any demon blood on the blades is useless.” He kicked at the very light sediment in the room, and whirled around, hovering a few inches off the floor before slowly descending through the water.

The priestess spoke with the skeleton for long moments, and it perked up. It marched slowly through the water towards one of the sarcophagi, and looked in; it then moved to another, also looking into the sarcophagi.

The skeletons in the crypt were mostly intact, and there even sparkled prescious metals inside. The demons had not been interested in gold or valuables. Prat suspected that they, too, were after what he sought – and he feared they had found it.

The enormous, animated skeleton, moved over to one wall, and pointed at a frieze of one of the kings of Rabamos. The frieze clearly showed an elf with a crown, wearing ornamental robes, and carrying a scepter with a large orb of some sort on it. The skeleton held up an amulet it had taken from one of the crypts, and showed it to Etre'iya.

The amulet swung lazily in the water, but finally drooped to show its face. It was made of solid mithril with inset flakes of gems, and depicted a scepter with an orb at the top. The detail was incredible, with shards of brown garnets for wood, and a polished diamond at its apex.

Moror drooled. “Mithril…”

Norion said, “The diamond on that scepter is Huge.”

The skeleton held out the amulet to Etra'iya, and as she reached for it, the skah knicked her lightly with the dagger, along the tip of her finger. It wouldn't let go of the amulet, either, staring intently at Etre'iya, willing her to understand.

Her blood, from the nick, slowed in its flow. Where it flowed, though, tendons began to form along the bony finger nearest her. Etre'iya went white in horror, finally understanding how they would have to get their answers.

“It… It needs blood!” she said in revulsion. “It's some sort of vampire!”

Norion scowled. “It's not undead!”

Prat grunted. “We need answers. It needs blood. I'll be back – wait for me.” He looked to Etre'iya. “Trust me.”

She looked at him aghast. “No! You can't mean to-”

It was too late. Prat ripped through space with his claws, and took the shah with him.

Norion asked into the suddenly silent crypt, “He's not going to do, what I think he's going to do… Is he?”

Moror grunted. His sodden beard seemed strangely sunken on the dwarf. “Ye don't know Prat that well, do ye?”

Etre'iya said angrily, “He's like a man possessed. He wants this, spell, whatever it is, as any cost!”

The dwarf shook his head. “No, lass… Not the spell.” His under-water words lent his next words even more dread. “He wants tae save Rakore, at any cost.”

* * *

Norion sighed, shook his head, and returned to examining the sarcophagi when it became obvious Prat would not return immediately. Etre'iya, and Moror, continued their vigil, waiting for their beloved duke to return.

The apprentice snorted to himself, as he continued examining all the evidence. Prat was a fair duke, and a fair mage, but Norion seriously questioned whether Prat was a survivor, the way he continually left on his own, leaving his allies in the lurch. The mage admitted to himself that it was probable that Duke Henrik would die during the ogran invasion, overstepping himself at some point. He turned to watch Etre'iya and Moror quietly for a moment. Prat's death would destroy them.

The mage snorted, again. He felt that such devotion to anyone or anything was too high a price, for survival.

To the expert on demons and extraplanar creatures, it was obvious that a bebelith, a maralith, and two grutches had sacked the crypts. Etre'iya had dispelled some sort of curse or desecration that had infested the area, and that kept the shah dead, or inactive, or whatever it was that shah's did when their skeletons couldn't even move.

Norion massaged his chin, thinking on that one for a moment. He did not understand the shahs, nor what they really were. They were obviously not alive, but they were not considered 'undead' – at least in so far as his spells were concerned. He had heard talk among the churches that they were angels come to earth, or spirits given the blessing of the gods. But whatever they were, they Could be understood; that much, Norion knew for certain.

He kicked at the light sediment along the floor of the crypt, exposing the flagstones as fine sand and mud rolled away from the motion of his foot through the water. It was then that he noticed there were slight alcoves on the inside-facing portions of the massive support columns that held up the crypt. The alcoves were rounded, so quite a bit of light got into them, and three were empty – but one held a chalice, as plain as day.

Norion drifted over to the chalice with short swimming motions, and examined it. It had been made of ivory, or some sort of giant's bone, and carved with texts – spells, Norion realized with a thrill – along its entire surface. As he reached for it, there was an all-too-familiar lurching feeling in his gut, as Prat teleported back in.

The apprentice put his hands on his knees, quickly, trying to keep from vomitting. “I really wish, you wouldn't do that, Prat.”

Prat ignored the young mage. “Etre'iya. This is Firlax: guardian of the crypt.”

Norion looked up to see a tall desert elf, nude except for a semitranslucent wet sheet of white cloth, and his weapons. The elf had light brown hair that was dark when wet, and piercing purple eyes that swept over everything.

The desert elf spoke to Etre'iya, and the two began a conversation in the elven tongue.

Moror said, “I take it ya found some blood for im.”

Prat said, “I did.”

As a recovered Norion approached with the blue globe in hand, more light was shed on them, and Norion realized how wan and pale and tired Prat looked. There were circles under his eyes that hadn't been there, moments before.

The apprentice tilted his head to one side, thinking furiously.

Etre'iya said, “Firlax caught one of the names of the demons, as they spoke to one another. He doesn't understand their tongue, but he did catch one word, used to address the snake-bodied one with six arms: Khrizizvol.”

Norion's thoughts reorganized themselves, quickly. “Khrizizvol is a title, in the demonic tongue. It means 'priestess', and likely implies a priestess of Argunas.”

Etre'iya translated for Firlax's benefit, and Prat asked Norion, the underwater reverberations becoming annoying, “Is it enough for us to start hunting down this priestess?”

Norion said, “Not yet, but perhaps with more information?” His exasperated answer was directed more at Etre'iya, who continued to translate, and converse with Firlax.

The desert elven shah spoke with the High Priestess of Hallis Island for some time, with her nodding or asking interogative questions now and again, the whole scene bathed in the blue light from the globe Norion easily held high in the water.

Etre'iya said, “They took the Scepter of Gyedaya, as well as other items of importance.” She held up the amulet that Firlax had handed her earlier. “A likeness of the scepter is here; that should be enough for us to find-”

Firlax interrupted her, his features animated and angry. Etre'iya translated disbelievingly. “He says he knows where it is, now – where all of the items are, right now.” Firlax spoke, again, for a moment, and then was translated. “He can lead us to them, but he is going with us, to reclaim the items.”

The priestess looked to Prat, who seemed pensive. When he spoke, he sounded tired. “Tell him that we will help him retrieve the items – all save one. It will be our price for helping him.”

Etre'iya hesitated, but did as her duke asked. Firlax snarled, looking to Prat, and then nodded his assent. “He says yes.”

Prat stared at the floor for a moment, gathering his wits, and then looked to Etre'iya. “Then let's go.”

Moror regripped his axe, both hands on the handle, looking concerned, but saying nothing.

The two elves spoke together for a moment longer, and then Etre'iya began to sing.

Firlax looked startled, and the expression on his face was awe-struck, as the world began to shift, and change, slowing into a painting, and then fading as the singing faded, to change as it changed, into something else again.

From nowhere Prat pulled an enormous bow and let fly an arrow that streaked towards a tarket, leaving a trail of embers in its wake, straight to the target.

A grutch – a whipcord lean demon as tall as the desert elf, with a ferocious set of teeth and a long, dog-like jaw – went down, clutching at the arrow that was burning its way out from the shaft. A second arrow joined the first.

Norion knew that demons bathed in normal fires, and resolved to find out what arrows Prat was packing – and where the bow came from – as soon as possible. He had other worries, though.

They were in a cavern deep under the ground, where the weight of the rock above was oppressive and tangible. The cavern was large, and lit in places by some sort of ethereal fires, each fire a different color and giving off only light without heat. There were bridges and buildings and a whole city inside the cavern with a sort of half-natural, half-unnatural feel to it. A lake nearby bubbled with hot gases, steaming the air and increasing the humidity. On the other side of the lake, a waterfall was frozen into stone.

Prat let loose another volley of arrows, but this time the cry of alarm was given. Other demons began to hiss, aware that intruders were in their midst.

Etre'iya sang softly, harmonizing with the battle, and extending the powers of her goddess around them all. She spoke sharply just one, interweaving the words with the songs. “Stay, near, me.”

Another grutch went down to Prat's arrows, as Moror growled. “Where to?”

Firlax seemed to intuit the question, and pointed to one side of the city.

Though strangers in many ways, Firlax and Norion easily fit into the battle rhythm long ago established by Moror and Etre'iya. Moror was the in-close support, keeping Etre'iya well protected, and watching their flanks as they moved from building to building, stalagmite to neolith. Prat used his seemingly endless supply of arrows to strike out at any demon that showed its head, keeping them withdrawn and unwilling to come closer. Etre'iya, for her part, kept up a steady flow of defensive prayers, and would occasionally lash outward with other prayers that stung the ears of the demons or distracted them for Prat.

Norion, for his part, analyzed, occasionally engaging a target with his crossbow, and then reloading with enchanted quarrels. The stone of the buildings, and everywhere around them, was covered in friezes partially lit by the strange, heatless fires. The friezes depicted demons performing savage acts, eating sacrificial victims, breaking free of containments, killing one another from behind, and along one wall, eating babies and tearing off pieces of toddlers to consume. The underground city had once belonged to someone else, but the demons had co-opted it, writing their own histories and magics into the old, old stones.

Firlax kept his blades close, and when necessary, would send his dagger around corners to catch would-be ambushers by surprise.

Norion watched the ebb and flow of the battle, and saw the pattern of the grutches. “Prat, above us!”

Prat aimed his bow upwards, and waited, seeing nothing – for a moment.

It leapt at them from over a building, landing in their midst despite Etre'iya's protective wards, and attacked the priestess outright. The demonic spider was as big as war horse, with legs that kept it eight feet off the ground, its front legs more like the pincers of a scorpion, and its abdomen curled down and forward, with a wicked barb. The slick black armor of the demon-spider reflected all the light around them, whirling as it jabbed its harpoon towards the priestess, its claws moving to capture her and tear her apart.

Firlax' longsword took one of the claws off at the joint. Moror took the tip of the abdominal harpoon off, and took the full brunt of the acidic blood as the abdomen slammed into him. Prat fired point-blank into the beast's many-eyed head, feeding its cavernous maw with arrow after arrow. Norion's crossbow finished the beast off, as its enchanted quarrel drilled deeply into the demon's shiny black carapace, and then exploded with a levin bolt unleashed from within.

Etre'iya rolled clear of the two-tonne body as it struck the floor, and then gestured quickly with her hands for them to gather near her, again. Her singing changed into a strange harmony wherein she sang with herself, as her hands repaired the damage to Moror that the demon's blood had done. The dwarf looked much better, with a beard, than without one.

Their progress was slow, but determined, and the lesser demons simply fled in terror after it became clear that not even a bebelith, the assassin of the demon world, could slow them down.

After a seeming eternity, they seemed almost on top of Firlax's goal. Norion said, “Prat, I'm out of quarrels.”

Prat grunted. “You got another weapon?”

The apprentice pulled from his pack a quarterstaff obviously far too long for the pack. The quarterstaff had one head of iron, and the other of silver. “Just this.”

The big man leaned his bow against his shoulder for just a moment, and moved his hands quickly in an arcane spell pass. Norion's staff glowed with a silvery tinge, for a moment, and then the glow faded to a mere twinkling along its length. Prat said, “That should hel-”

Another bebelith barreled down out of an alleyway, taking advantage of the momentary lul in Prat's firing. One of its claws grasped Norion and tossed him against a wall, as another tried to sweep Firlax aside. The stubborn desert elf buried its dagger into the claw, and hung on to the side, unable to be pinched by the four-foot long, serrated claw.

Etre'iya, though, had been ready – and let loose with a shriek that stunned even the demonic spider. Moror cut off two of its legs, as Prat calmly pulled an arrow, and fired into the monster from below.

Firlax stopped holding onto the claw, and nimbly let go, bounced off a rock edifice with his feet, and sprang up onto the monster's back, where he thrust his sword through the demon-spider's carapace and several eyes near its head.

Etre'iya, still humming to herself, rushed over to Norion – who was dazed, but not dead.

Moror growled, “How many of these things are there?”

Prat said, “Too damned many.” Looking all about for a moment, he leaned his bow against his shoulder, again, and began the pass for another spell. After a moment, nothing happened, and the warrior-mage picked up his bow again, settling another arrow into the ready position. “Reinforcements are on their way.”

Norion waved the priestess away, grumbling, “I'm all right, I'm all right.”

Etre'iya nodded, singing softly. “Just a minor concussion. He should be fine.”

Prat fired a warning shot at a bebelith behind another wall, a trail of embers streaking through the air. “Let's get going.”

Two blocks of careful movement later, with Prat keeping an eye on Norion, they managed to get into an open space along the edge of the cavern.

Firlax pointed at an altar placed before a flat panel of stone twenty feet tall. The flat panel was hemispherical, and ringed with a strange green metal. Prat said, “. A Gate.”

The Gates were old – older than even the oldest of the dragons, or perhaps even the gods. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands of them, all of various sizes, hidden throughout the world. The Gates went to different places, with many going to the great Gate Nexus in the Heavensbane Mountains, and just as many going… elsewhere. Prat had a bad feeling he knew where the Gate led. Luckily, the keys to the old Gates were as lost as the Gates themselves

The altar was more of a concern. A human woman, more of a girl, really, was placed upon the altar and wrapped in white cloth. Around her were several work benches with various tools, items, and equipment on them. Prat doubted that the girl was alive, judging from how pale her skin was. Something nagged at his subconscious, but he had to ignore it, to deal with the issue at hand.

Three bebeliths together were guarding the altar, and the maralith working frantically with three pair of arms. The snake-like demon had a long tail, perhaps thirty feet in length, that grew up to the girth of her hips, and from there up, she was a woman, save for her six arms, slitted eyes, and pointed teeth. Her large breasts were full of 'demon milk', and dribbled from her nipples to run along her body. Where it touched the stony ground, it sizzled and steamed.

The maralith gave them only a moment's notice, before ignoring them, continuing frantically with her work. The three bebeliths gathered closer to her, providing a strong defense. Several grutches were helping her in her work, constantly looking towards the bebeliths and the party.

Firlax readied his weapons, preparing the charge. Moror did the same.

Prat held them back, waiting, watching for a moment. He glanced at Norion.

The mage squinted, making out as much as he could in the dim light and the heatless fires of all colors. “Prat… They're building a Gate key!”

The warrior-mage sited along his bow, and the bebeliths moved in closer, ready to soak up the damage or attack altogether.

Prat began to count. “Fifteen. Fourteen. Thirteen…”

Norion asked, “What're you-”

Moror shooshed him, holding, waiting.

The maralith frantically continued to work, as Prat called off, “Three. Two. One.”

Nothing happened, and Norion looked to the warrior-mage quizically.

Prat said, “Etre'iya. We need silence – now.”

The small elf arched an eyebrow, but changed her singing to… Silence. They could see just fine – even see Etre'iya's mouth moving, as though she were still singing – but they heard nothing.

And then they felt it.

Huge, heavy footprints and a strange sliding vibration, through the soles of their feet, feeling them even up to their skulls, as the arhythmic vibration paused – and then rocks cracked. Though their ears were protected from the outside, they were not protected against the kind of pressure differential a full-grown dragon can make when it roars in an enclosed cavern.

They each had to put their hands to their head, trying to protect their own skulls from the vibration.

One of the bebeliths shat itself, and then raced off along the wall and up it, paused to stare at the dragon, and then continued on up and away along the wall.

Prat rushed towards the altar as soon as the silent roar was finished, firing arrows at the two remaining bebeliths, and trying to get a good shot in at the Maralith.

The grutches were backed up against the Gate's smooth and solid wall of stone, or cowering underneath the equipment benches that had been brought in.

The maralith held two arms up high, with something held in them over her head, as she snaked back towards the Gate. Her other four arms held weapons. She looked nervous, but determined, and Prat had a bad feeling he knew why.

Moror and Firlax were right behind him, their blades ready. Etre'iya held Norion back, and sang a different song; a prayer ballad to Habrem that changed and altered the light of the cavern around her. Arms crawled out of the light sources, followed by heads and bodies with wings, as they clawed and pulled their way through any light source they could find. The small archons were little larger than cherubim, but they were armed with blades of light, and looked intimidating despite their size. Etre'iya pointed, and they rushed in.

The battle with the bebeliths was short, with Moror taking one, and Firlax taking another. Prat went right up the middle, despite the spider-demons' best efforts. He grabbed the body of the girl from off the table in his arms, and then he saw it – he saw what he was looking for, what Xynos had led him to.

Prat snarled. The maralith might be an advanced spell-worker, using the materials of the crypt to build herself a Gate key, but she was still dumb. She was using what he sought as a power cell for her metallurgical smelter.

He was torn, for a split second, but knew his priorities. He left the object, and raced back towards Etre'iya with the girl's body in his arms, avoiding the battling bebilith, as his draconic friend, Artanus, advanced menacingly towards them. The dragon let loose a blast of its flame breath that went over their heads, and obliterated the maralith just as she reached the Gate.

The key the maralith had made activated for just a moment – and then was engulfed in white-hot plasma fire.

The Gate rippled with a greenish energy, and then faded back to stone, unactivated.

The grutches fled in terror or cowered in fear, those that weren't incinerated by the blast. The bebeliths died quickly, after Artanus helped Moror and Firlax finish them off.

Prat reached Etre'iya and Norion with the girl, and paused, panting, while the elven priestess examined the girl in Prat's arms.

The priestess scowled, and examined the face more closely. The silence, she had already let disippate, though the cavern was eerily silent, save for the breathing of the massive dragon. “Prat… She… This is Cleo!”

Prat blinked, and shifted the girl to get a better look, even as Etre'iya turned the girl's head.

Cleo was Captain Seamus' friend, lover, and bodyguard.

He had a flashback, a moment's insight… He remembered… He as drunk. It was the anniversary of… It had been his wedding anniversary, just a few months ago, and he had been drinking, as was his want when he remembered his long-dead wife. He had just met Seamus, whom he had been about to send off after pirates that had been harassing the island, just before the ograns invaded… That was when he had first met Cleo… No, he reminded himself, it had been the next day…

He shook himself out of his reverie, and looked full in the face of the young woman that Prat knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, was elsewhere, right beside Captain Seamus.

Etre'iya said, “Prat, there is no soul, here. This is only… her body. I can feel the link, to…”

Norion asked, “Is it her twin, this Cleo?”

The elven priestess shook her head. “No. This is… something else, again. Something horrible.”

Prat gently lay the body down, and stared at it for a moment.

Artanus asked in a surprisinly tenor voice, “Is she dead?”

Etre'iya moved to speak, hesitated, and then continued, staring at the body. “Yes. Yes, friend dragon, she is dead.”

The dragon sighed. “Then I was too late. I'm sorry, Prat.”

Prat stood up, hands on his hips. “No, Artanus, you were just in time.” He looked around, and then looked back to them. “Artanusalanthanth, Blessed of Arpelos the Sun God, this is the High Priestess of Hallis Island, ordained of Habrem, Etre'iya Vamusa'rayeem.” He motioned to Norion. “This is Norion, Delbin's apprentice.” He motioned to Moror. “This is Moror Stonehelm, Chief of the Kalen Corps and my personal bodyguard.” He nodded his head towards Firlax. “That… Is a shah of some sort, Firlax.”

Artanus nodded to each as they were introduced, though it turned its head with intent on Firlax. The dragon growled, “One of Them,” it spat in annoyance. Artanus spoke in the elven tongue for a moment, and the shah responded, gesturing to those things on the table.

As the two talked, somewhat angrily, Prat moved back towards the tables. It was almost within his grasp.

Norion moved to accompany him, taking fast strides until he caught up. “Is it there, whatever the hell spell it is you're searching for?”

Prat merely headed straight for it. He disconnected the leads to the metallurgical smelter, and picked it up. It resembled nothing more than a cylinder of porcelain, with strange runes etched on its outside, and it was no larger than a big scroll all bound up. The cylinder was hollow, yet its insides reeked of something that burned the nose, and hummed with power.

The warrior-mage looked carefully at the inscriptions on the outside, recognizing the elven script and style of Rabamos. On the inside, though, the script was vastly different. The porcelain was a coating over what lay inside – a tube of metal.

Norion asked, “What is it?” His sense of wonder was equaled with his lust for power, and he recognized something powerful indeed in the device, whatever it was.

Prat said, “This… Will end the war.”

He strode towards Etre'iya and Artanus, the cylinder in his hand, with a concerned scowl on his face.

Etre'iya said, “What was done, to this body, was most foul, Lord Henrik.” She indicated Cleo's small, waif-like body.

Prat had never noticed how tiny the girl was; she had a presence to her that made her seem larger than life. Or rather, her other body did. Things were getting confusing. The duke asked, “In what way was she violated?”

Artanus answered, “It had been merged and mated with one of the spider demons.”

Prat blinked, taken aback. “What?”

The elven priestess answered, “They merged one of the bebelisks, into the body – but Lady Cleo had died. Her friends, Captain Seamus among them, had found a powerful scroll of prayers – perhaps too powerful. When they… Prat, they brought Cleo back to life, without even having her body present. And her body was here, all along.”

Norion gawked. “Wait. What about the other body? The one that's animated and moving around, right now?”

Artanus and Etre'iya shared a glanced, before Etre'iya answered, “Do not speak of this, to anyone, Norion. Do you understand me? Right now, Lady Cleo is like you – touched, by demons.”

Prat asked, “Is that it? Just… touched?”

The elven priestess was grim, her lips pressed together. “I will have to look into it, my lord.”

The warrior-mage sighed, and shook his head. He had to focus on the bigger picture. He tossed the cylinder up end over end, and caught it as it came down. “And now the fun begins,” he said, without any feeling.

He glanced around. “Well, we can't just leave her body here. Artanus-”

The titanium dragon interrupted. “Actually, you can. I am empowered by Arpelos to consecrate these caverns, and seal them. They will remain inviolate, until such time as the Sun God relents.”

Etre'iya glanced to the shadows, where a bebelith still roamed, and where grutches still cowered. “I think there will be major cleaning to do, first.”

Artanus nodded his horse-sized head. “I agree.”

Prat said, “Then you two, clean this place up, however you can. Moror can stay with you.”

The dwarf looked aghast at Prat, his beard still wet from the crypts of Rabamos. “Ye kinnae leave me like that, again – I'm yuir body guard!”

Prat shook his head. “What happens next, is in the realm of sorcery. I'm going straight to Lok Magius, and from there to Gridolin. I'll be as safe there, as anywhere.”

Moror looked at Prat like he was stupid, and muttered, “Yuir kiddin me. Like anywhere is safe, now.”

Duke Henrik turned to his high priestess, ignoring Moror's muttering. “When you're done cleaning out this nest of demons… See to it Firlax makes it back to his crypt, with all his possessions, eh?”

The desert elf, hearing his name, moved closer. He looked at the strange porcelain cylinder in Prat's hand, and held his hand out for it.

Norion said, “Wait, you're not going to turn it over!” when Duke Henrik held up the cylinder.

Prat worked the cylinder in both hands, until the porcelain plating slid off, revealing a smooth metal cylinder. The porcelain had been baked onto the metal, and with a judicious spell, the two had separated.

The mage-warrior handed the porcelain over to Firlax, who looked at it reverently, and then looked questioningly at the metal cylinder. He asked Etre'iya a question, but Prat answered in the elven tongue.

“This is a spell from the First Ones, so dangerous that they protected it in this metal.” He looked Firlax straight in the eyes. “It can only be used, Once.”

Firlax nodded, understanding as only a Shah can.

Norion said in the common tongue, “Wait, so when could you speak elven?”

Etre'iya asked in elven, “What do you mean? Only used once?”

The look that Prat gave her chilled her to the bone.

And then he was gone, tearing a hole through space as only he could – leaving Norion clutching his stomach and muttering darkly about 'bear mages'.

* * *

The doors to Prat's laboratory were locked, and the hammering on the door was beginning to annoy him. The doors, reinforced against a cataclysmic explosion from the inside, were also proof against almost any kind of entry from the outside.

The banging stopped, and he relaxed a bit more, delicately working with the strange metallic cylinder. He had seen only two before, when he had been courting one of Vyrboth's apprentices, who would become his wife. The cylinders were spell sheathes, designed to protect spells from getting into the hands of common mages who did not understand them. Even the most basic of apprentices could read off a spell scroll, so many dangerous spell scrolls had to be protected from use. The secrets to unlocking the metallic sheathes and getting at the spell scrolls had been lost and found several times throughout history, as Prat had learned from Vyrboth. More often than not, a mage would finally, finally figure out how to get at the spell scroll inside of the sheathe – only to destroy himself by reading it, and often a large portion of the countryside along with him.

Dealing with the sheath was painful for Prat, on many levels. It reminded him of a happier time, and reminded him of all the pain that followed. It made him very, very sad, as though it were breaking his heart all over again.

A gruff voice was barely audible from the other side of the door, but Prat recognized it.

“Prat! Open this door in the name of yuir king!”

The Duke of Hallis Island sighed, and set the spell sheathe down on his work bench. He had hoped he would have more time to unlock the spell sheathe, before Feldspar arrived.

Prat unsealed the door enough for the young dwarf to slide in, and then resealed the door as soon as he was inside, despite the protestations of a number of people outside the door.

Feldspar was young for a dwarf, though old enough to have just recently celebrated his 90th birthday. Young he might have been, but he was an exceptional ruler, both in peace and war. King Feldspar Graniteshoulders, son of Ulrich, had united the feuding Warkore and Rakanus clans of dwarves, and also taken in all the humans and elves and anyone else caught between them, at the onset of the War of the Undead. Feldspar had been raised from chief, to king, during that time, as his leadership skills were put to the test again and again.

The king simply looked up at Prat's looming bulk for awhile, and then crossed his arms. “Prat, what m’I going to do with ye?”

The warrior-mage, realizing that the king was willing to listen rather than rant, moved back across his lab to the spell sheathe. “Feldspar… Tell Etre'iya to begin mobilizing the Storm Hammers.”

Feldspar blinked his blue eyes, and said, “Wha? I thought ye'd found a spell that would take the place of the Storm Hammers! That's why I've let ye slide out of so many damned meetings!” He moved across the lab, looking without touching at a number of the items and artifacts the duke kept in his rooms of the keep.

Prat resumed his work, delicately probing at the spell sheathe's auras, looking for the key zone. “It can only be used once, by any mage. After that…” He was silent for awhile, as the aura shifted from purple to green. “After that, the mage that casts this spell will never cast another spell, ever again.”

The king crossed his arms, stroking his blonde beard for a moment. “So after that, the mage'll effectively be, well… Just another person. The Inquisition might like tae get their hands on that spell.”

“They might, except for the… the destruction that the spell will unleash. It will be a hell storm comparable to that of the Storm Hammers. If you get them moving, now, then they can be in position to be unleashed on the ograns, once I initiate this spell.”

Feldspar said, “No. Have someone else take care o the spell; one o the lesser mages. He can set it off, and lose his powers. But Rakore needs ye. I forbid ye using the spell.”

Prat paused in his probing, and turned to Feldspar. “You don't understand-”

“I do understand. I kinnae have my chief advisor on magic, magicless. Ye'll let some lower mage use this spell, and Then we kin unleash the Storm Hammers. That way, we onla lose one mage.” The king seemed adamant, and his eyes bore into Prat's.

The warrior-mage growled, letting his canines grow. His fingernails lengthened, strengthening, darkening. The normally hirsute Prat rapidly became even more hairy, and his eyes slowly began to change. Feldspar backed up, for there was an anger and a ferocity in Prat's eyes that frightened more than his life.

Prat growled, “Now you listen to me, King Feldspar.” He used the word 'king' to indicate how low on the scale of things a king really was, to the warrior-mage. “I will use this spell, and see to it you can unleash the Storm Hammers to do what they were made for: destroying whole armies, cities, and even mountains. I will see to it that a copy of the spell is placed at Lok Magius. I will ensure that there is a paladin to witness my use of the spell, so that the Inquisition, and the Rest of the World, will think all our mages can do what I'm going to do. And NO ONE else is going to cast this spell, so long as I'm alive. IS THAT CLEAR?”

Prat's snout was inches from Feldspar's face, and the duke's form was somewhere between that of a great brown bear and a man, some sort of hybrid that made the worst evils of both forms evident.

Feldspar swallowed, and found his courage. In a low, cold voice, he said, “Are ye threatening yuir king, Duke Henrik?”

The werebear snarled. “I'm telling you I, and I alone, will unleash the spell of the First Ones. After I do so, you can do with me as you please – but no other mage will take my place in this. That's final.”

The king, realizing that Prat did not intend to rend him limb from limb, placed his hands behind his back, and gained a foothold on his rational thinking. “Duke Henrik… Verra well. I'll tell Etre'iya ta make the Storm Hammers move. It'll take a week an a half to get them all in position. Ya know that. So for the next week an a half, ya stay away from evera one. Ya don't threaten yuir king, and if ya can't obey your liege lord, despite yuir oathes, then ye'll be losing your title. Ya know that.”

Prat slowly began to return to his normal, human form. He looked haunted, tired, and somewhat mad, before he turned back to the spell sheathe. “I understand. I have only one request… my king.”

Feldspar took pity on the 500 year old mage. “What, my friend?”

“If…” He closed his eyes, focusing past the emotions. “If the gods see fit, to restore my grandson, then let him take my place.”

The King of Rakore looked upon his friend, and scrutinized him closely. He realized, then, just what the spell would truly do. “Aye. Aye, Prat. I'll see to it Genesee takes yuir place, when he's ready.” He was quiet for a moment, just watching Prat. “I'll do what I can, tae bring back yuir grandson.”

Prat nodded, returning his concentration furiously to the task at hand.

A negligent wave of his hand unlocked the door, and Duke Orcbane nearly fell in. “Feldspar! Are you all right, my king?”

Feldspar glanced at Prat with a sorrowful expression, and then turned to his right-hand man. “I'm fine, Travandale. Let's go. Duke Henrik has work tae do.” He crossed the lab without seeing it, already focusing on the tasks needed to be performed in just ten days. “Get me Etre'iya,” he said, as he swept out the door.

Duke Orcbane, one of the oldest, most grizzled of all the Warkore Clan of dwarves, gave Prat one look of mixed contempt and pity, and quickly slammed the door.

* * *

The door to Prat’s laboratories opened silently behind him, and he ignored it, working feverishly on the spell sheathe. He had never worked on one, himself, having only observed the workings now and again of Vyrboth and his assistant, an elven mage whose power, grace, and charm had captured the warrior-mage’s heart.

The tray of food was set beside him on the work bench, in a place he tried his best to keep free. He had to eat, slept only when minimally necessary, and devoted all his other time to the spell sheathe. He had been working on it feverishly for a week, and he feared that it would not be ready in time; he felt he was only half way through the aural translations, and had not even begun to undo the protective spells around the sheathe.

The bearer of the tray did not leave, as the other servants had, nervous and anxious to get away from the ‘madness’ many say had overcome him. The king’s announcement that the duke was not to be disturbed had sent the rumor mill into overdrive.

Prat glanced at the bearer annoyedly, ready to usher them out with a levin bolt if need be.

Etre’iya said sadly, “There is news you ought to hear.”

He closed his eyes, locking in place a half dozen auras in his mind, and turned to his high priestess, friend, and advisor. “What is it?” He knew she would not interrupt, unless it were truly important.

“Duke Herod… He used a team of ogremai, armed with rikel mines. They hit Lok Magius – and took most of the library.” Etre’iya waited, to see how Prat would respond.

Prat blinked at her for a moment, slowly letting the gears of his mind run wild, analyzing the event. “What books did they take? What part of the library did they strike?”

The elven priestess said, “I don’t have a list of what books they took, but Brin said a great many tomes of import were stolen. They came in on roc-hawkes, from above; they leapt off the birds just before they struck the library, and… That’s when they activated the mines.

“The ogremai are immune to the mines, Prat!” He nodded for her to continue, and she did so. “Habrem damn them! Herod knew exactly how to hurt us! He used enough mines to wipe out half the golems at the academy! Half the spells, the mages… Brin’s lucky the armory was deep enough that it didn’t get it. But things are going badly, right now, at Lok Magius. The real siege has begun. Lots of mages are dying, now.”

Prat nodded to himself, half speaking to her, and half to himself. “And with the books gone, we’ll have to split our forces, to go after them, to keep them out of ogran hands, and the Inquisition’s hands. And… That means half the spell resources of the mages are gone; they won’t be able to copy spells from those books, anymore.”

Etre’iya nodded, keeping a close eye on Prat.

He put his face in both hands, and sighed heavily. “I simply don’t have enough time to go after Herod, or find the books. I must… I have to work faster, somehow, to unlock this in time.”

The tiny waif of an elf moved forward and hugged her friend. “Prat, you’re killing yourself.”

He froze as though she’d stung him, and then eased his arms around her. “I’m planning, to kill a lot of organs.” He put her at arm’s distance, so he could look into her eyes. “Listen to me: this will all be worth it, if I can unlock the sheathe, and let the king use the Storm Hammers. Now… Any word on your brother?”

Etre’iya scowled, and turned away, angry. “Not good word. That pompous bastard Hireyesiye is still fidgeting, waiting to see if the King of Rakore can deliver on his promise to wipe out the Nabrolian fleet. Until that happens, the Banoc elves will sit in the forests and wait until the ograns wipe us out.”

Prat frowned. “Any word from Seamus?”

“He was here, briefly, before heading back out with one of the Storm Hammers. He’s taken down a trireme with the Kraken, but… There are a lot more left. There are rumors, too, that there may be another Nabrolian fleet coming; the Firlanders saw something, far out to sea.” Etre’iya shook her head. “It doesn’t look good, either way.”

The duke said, “Tell… Recommend to the king, on my behalf, that he appoint Seamus to commodore; he’s got a good knack for leading people, and he might be able to put the rest of the fleet to better use against the Nabrolians. We can’t keep picking at them one-on-one with our ships like we are.”

Etre’iya asked, “What about Captain Fourth? There’s talk on the council that he’ll be promoted to that task, soon, since we don’t have anyone other than Rial to coordinate the navy.”

Prat shook his head. “Fourth is a good captain – and he might make a decent commodore… But I know Seamus; he’s perfect for the job. If the council would bite off on it, I’d make him an admiral, but we’re a long way from that, yet.”

“All right. I’ll recommend it to the king, and the council. Your word doesn’t mean that much to them, right now, though.” She reached onto the plate, and instead of letting him reply, stuffed his mouth with a sausage. “Eat. I checked; you didn’t even touch breakfast.”

It was hard for him to retort with grease dribbling down into his beard, so he shut up and chewed.

As Etre’iya left, he tried to turn his mind back to the sheathe, but it kept slipping onto the problems at hand. There were too many issues to deal with, and only one of him, and not nearly enough time to handle all that needed handling.

He needed help, and had no idea where to go to get it. He couldn’t ask Garalus to intervene, because the sanctimonious ass would find a way to rub the king’s words in and make them stick, and he would be right, too. Delbin was unreliable to a fault, off gallivanting about the multiverse again. He had only made as much progress as he had… Because he’d been and apprentice. He snapped his fingers, and grabbed the spell sheathe.

Prat raced out of his laboratory, startling the guards on duty, moving to catch up with Etre’iya. He caught her, as he swallowed the last of the sausage and a bit of cheese. “I’m going to Lok Magius.” He bent down and whispered into one of her pointed ears, “The bottom drawer in my desk has a false bottom. You’ll know when.”

And with that, he touched the spark within himself, and let loose the raw fury of arcane magics that would tear asunder space. He teleported in over the town of Rilan, itself under a full and concentrated siege – and across the mountain from Lok Magius. The situation looked grim, with orcs dominating the north slope of the mountain, and more moving in to flank from the south all the time. Rilan was fighting a holding action, evacuating all its people up the mountain to Lok Giran, where the Baron-and-the-Bishop Dwarfendale had been preparing against the war for years.

Prat let himself fall, before touching the spark again, and uttering the words of arcane power that would let him fly. He dove into the city with levin bolts flying from his fingers, and hurling bits of arcane fire into the massed hordes, where they exploded with hellish power.

He made it to the center of town, and just beyond, to a small building. The streets near there were free of fighting, though a drow elf nearly fired at Prat before it realized he was not an ogremai. The door to the building was barred, and Prat uttered the spells necessary to let him slip through the door’s many tiny cracks and crevasses. Inside, he rematerialized from his gaseous form, and almost got a wand in the throat. A tall, elderly man with white hair and beard and a pointed hat, dressed all in silver, put down his wand quickly.

“Lord Henrik!” The mage looked a bit frazzled, and even a bit green around the gills, but the dozen armed drow inside the room did not; they quickly put their crossbows down.

Prat ignored the drow, knowing their weapons couldn’t hurt him. “Andrew, I need to get into Lok Magius, and quickly.”

The elderly mage nodded, and led Prat back into the building, through several wide hallways, and into a large room with a circle inscribed upon the floor in purest mithril. Silver had been poured into the stone-carved glyphs all around the circle, adding to the teleportation circle.

Inside the room, Andrew’s twin, Caleb, startled. “That was you, then!”

Prat’s violent teleportation likely made just as many of the ograns ill as Caleb and Andrew, but Prat had no time for anything else. “Token!”

Caleb tossed Prat one of the tokens required to activated the teleportation circle, and as he did so, the circle activated.

At once, Prat was within one of the basements of Lok Magius. A golem stood watch near the teleportation circle, as well as one of the guards. He tossed the startled guard the teleportation token, a tiny, silver gauntlet on a chain, and marched in.

The guard, having no idea who he was, said, “Halt!

Prat shifted into were form, half man and half bear, and growled. “I am Duke Henrik Kamus, Lord of Hallis Island.” He spoke to the golem in a strange, arcane language, and the six-foot tall creature of metal with a huge shield moved to stand in front of the guard.

The guard stammered out, “Lord Henrik! Of course!”

And Prat swept out of the room. He had no time for anyone or anything to get in his way, and he was prepared for a battle of wits with Mistress Brin – he wanted to borrow twenty of her apprentice mages.

Word of his appearance spread quickly, and Errol Helmbreaker, the captain of the guard, quickly found Prat in the massive, labyrinthine corridors beneath the keep. “Lord Henrik!”

Still in were form, Prat turned and answered. “Helmbreaker. Take me to Brin.”

The captain said quickly, “Right away, my lord. This way.”

The two fell in step together, and Prat resumed his more human form, towering over the captain by a good six inches. “How goes the war, Captain?”

Captain Helmbreaker said, “Not too well, with the library half gone. You heard about that?”

“I did, Captain. I have other, more immediate concerns, though I wish I had time to help you. Was it Herod?”

Errol nodded. “It was, my lord. The traitor even ran Mistress Selera through. She’ll recover, but she’s not doing too well.”

Prat snarled at the news, but continued moving on at a ground-eating pace, Errol almost running to stay in the lead, to guide him to Brin. They moved up, to the main tower within the citadel, and up the stairs to the top.

Mistress Brin and her cadre were still running the battle from the large conference room, only there were far more faces in the room, and many of them barely old enough to grow beards or bosoms. The room was in apparent chaos, but there was order to it, as Brin dictated messages, sent pages on errands, directed mages to redirect their fellow mages to other directions, and allocated resources and personnel as needed. There were large circles under her eyes, and she had sheared her hair off so that it was barely an inch long all over her head, to keep the hair out of her eyes and keep it from distracting her.

Captain Helmbreaker quickly elbowed his way to her side, where he grasped her arm, and pointed to Prat.

Before she could speak, he said, “I want twenty of your mages, now.” He pulled from the large purse on his girdled belt the spell sheathe, humming with so much power that it created that acrid smell of burnt air only found after lightning storms.

Brin could only point in astonishment. “That’s… a spell sheathe! One of the First One’s spells!”

The gentle roar of chatter in the room of chaos altered, as other mages became aware of what was going on – most with excitement, some with fear.

Prat said, “I know the basics of how to unlock it, but I need help. We have three days.” His tone was so grim that the rest of the room became quiet.

Brin spoke into the silence. “If it’s as powerful as the legends say, then it will turn the battle.”

“Aye, it will.” He spoke as much to her, as to the room. “And copies of this spell will be placed in the library’s vaults. Consider it my token for replacing what Herod stole. But be warned – any who read this spell, will perish. The spell converts the caster’s very being into energy – so much energy that it can wipe out entire armies. You’ve heard this spell being used once before.”

Someone whispered, “Xynos,” and awe and terror were echoed on the faces of much of the staff.

Brin asked for the entire room. “And who will wield this terrible spell, Lord Prat?”

“I will.” He held the cylinder up for all to see. “I will wield it, and leave copies here, for others to use if ever it must come to pass. But only I need d… Use this spell. Events have been set in motion, so that none others need die. A special cadre of mages stands ready, hand-selected by the king. They will finish what I will start.”

He had to choose his words carefully, so that he wasn’t lying, and yet wasn’t giving away the secret of the Storm Hammers, either. Brin understood the stakes, especially with Duke Herod Notimeh, the Traitor, still loose. ‘Where there was one, there might be many.’

At least, with Brin’s help, Prat could control who had access to the workings of the spell sheathe, and who could help him unlock the spell of the First Ones. Those that did learn how the spell operated, would not have access to it unless necessary, but like Prat, they would learn how to unlock the spell sheathe in time of need.

* * *

Mount Lavanor: Father Bryan Stonegrudge, High Priest of Rakore and Chief of the Rakanus Clan, stared into abyssal black waters in his holy sanctum. The large bowl made of stone held pure waters from deep within the earth, and over prayers to Galgiran, it showed him the nearby city of Kashin, falling. Kashin was the largest city in all of Rakore, with over twenty thousand inhabitants – dwarf, man, elf, and more. And it was burning. A large tear slid down Father Bryan’s cheek. He could look no more. He knew that he would be needed at the Prime entrance into Mount Lavanor, to help usher in the refugees of Kashin. Most of the city had already been evacuated into the vast undermountain fortresses of the Rakanus Clan, but many had remained behind, to safeguard the city and serve in the war to defend their homes. But Kashin was falling.

Stomalin Keep: Sir Winter’s sword lopped the head off of another Nabrolian, and still they kept coming, throwing themselves against the keep’s thorn-encrusted walls with abandon. Sir Winter’s armor soaked up another attack, and the blade killed yet another armored foe. To all appearances, Sir Winter, Paladin Defender of Yatindar, still stood upon the walls of Stomalin Keep, his bright, shining armor a beacon in the dark night – a beacon of hope and stubborn will – as the last of the townsmen and women and children were evacuated onto the Kur Maen triremes hopelessly mired in the muck. Until the tide came in, Sir Winter’s men would have to hold the keep to prevent the Nabrolians from getting at them by land. Fandremos sweated, inside of Sir Winter’s armor. He was overheating badly, but there was no time to stop. Slash, cut, stab, defend, shield up, sword out, shield down, sword up… Sir Winter was dead, but Fandremos refused to let the paladin’s death demoralize the simple farmers and make-shift warriors that held against… Another stone shattered against the great stone walls of the keep. Fandremos called to the archers, “Kill the giant!” Flaming arrows arced over the battlefield, illuminating hundreds, thousands more Nabrolians merely waiting their turn at the keep, and then the arrows converged on a twenty-foot tall hill giant with a boulder over its head. The giant tumbled over backwards, but its flaming carcass merely illuminated three more striding forward – and each of them had a Nabrolian priest upon its shoulders.

Mount Basilisk: Yarbus Stonehelm, Chief of the Stonehelm Clan, grasped his axe a bit more fiercely. “Are ye ready, brother?” His brother, Kurrold Stonehelm, High Priests of Stonehelm Clam, grasped his hammer a bit more fiercely. “Aye, I’m ready, brother!” Together, they let out a fierce howl, the Clan Call of Galgiran, their patron god – and behind them streamed hundreds of the Stonehelm Clan – the meanest, toughest, craziest, and most dangerous dwarves ever to have existed in Galgiran’s eyes. They poured forth from the main gates of Mount Basilisk, the seat of the Rakoran Throne and a nearly unassailable fortress. ‘Nearly’ unassailable, because it had been under assault for a month by the fiercesome might of a million-strong ogran army. Huge engines of war hurled great stones at the mountain fastness, and uncounted arrows arced into the night sky – and still the Stonehelms charged. They were graced by some of the greatest armor ever made by dwarven hands, held some of the greatest weapons ever made by dwarven hammers, and carried some of the greatest hearts ever cast by a god’s will. But the counter-attack was merely hundreds – against millions. And yet Yarbus and Kurrold and their warriors accomplished their two objectives – to destroy the great battering ram the ograns were constructing, and to raze the hulking war machines that battered at the main gates. They bought time, for their brethren within – with their very lives; they bought time, for the king without, maintaining the illusion that he was still there. The slopes of Mount Basilisk ran green with the blood of uncounted ograns, yet there was a trickle of red within it, as the greatest of the Stonehelms perished.

Lok Sadic: The ogran catapults hurled a wave of stone across the distance, slamming into the great stone walls of the fortress named for its baron, Sadic of Brevit. The seven foot skeleton wore his battle armor, and waved a sword as tall as he was, directing counter-fire from his archers and his own catapults. Though magically constructed overnight, the fortress’ stone walls were not magical, and were falling to the massed assault by the ograns. Their torches and the lights of their camp fires stretched out to the horizon. Only the river to the south kept him from being overrun, and only the huge number of druids and lizard-like tomanths kept him from being overrun from the north and west. The hills just to the north of Lok Sadic were running red and green with blood in nasty guerilla battles. As another mass of ogran stones were hurled through the sky, the Baron Sadic gestured down into his courtyard. He had hoped to keep the great green dragon Vristilistalamar in reserve, but it was time. She rose from the courtyard on her hind legs, spreading her wings for a moment, and blaring a clarion call of defiance to the very stars themselves – and then she breathed a deadly gas upon her foes, her foreclaws upon the walls of the keep. A thousand ograns died, and the heavier-than-air poison continued to kill them as they ran against the walls of the keep. And then three roc-hawkes dived out of the stars, their claws raking deep rents in the old dragon’s scales. She screamed in pain, and the ograns shouted as one, relishing in her pain.

Mount Gaddis: The Kur Maens and too many civilians were trapped, boxed into a large valley in the flank of the mountain. Sir Heimel Ridorn, Paladin Protector of Yatindar, felt vastly unsuited for the job he had been handed. All his leaders had fallen, and the safety of nearly twenty thousand refugees from the Janis Plains and the nearby lands fell to him. His paltry force of perhaps twenty thousand Kur Maens was all that stood between the refugees – and the armies of the ograns. Sir Heimel and his men held the ridge-lines, but only because the thick forests there kept the roc-hawkes and the ogremai from killing them out right. The entrance to the valley was a blood-soaked battlefield covered in the bodies of men and orcs and ogres and kobolds, green and red with the blood of many species. They were out of food. They were out of water. They were out of time. Sir Heimel raised his sword high in the night time air, and grasped the reins of his charger, Gunter. Sir Heimel yelled, “For the fallen!” His small army yelled in reply, “For the fallen!” And another counterstrike to escape the boxed valley bolted forth against the impenetrable ogran lines. Ogres in full plate with pikes cut from whole trees buried the butts of the thirty-foot long pikes in the mud, and braced them with their feet. They had learned early on that the Kur Maen chargers were not normal horses, in any sense of the word. And they calmly waited for the latest suicide charge of the Kur Maens to spill its blood – for if the ogres fell, they knew there were plenty more behind them to hold the line.

Mount Rilan: The town of Rilan was burning. It had served its purpose, and the Baron-and-the-Bishop Nodrom “Dwarfendale” Fistforger watched grimly from his hidden position, as another wave of ogran infantry assaulted the twin towers that guarded the entry into Lok Giran. Dwarfendale had built ‘the Fortress of the Soul’ to withstand as grand a siege as he could imagine. Seeing the reality of hundreds of thousands of ograns made him wonder if Lok Giran was truly strong enough. He had even engineered the fortress back into the mountain, such that the face of the mountain could be brought down upon the keep to bury it, and protect it from its enemies. Tales of that failure at Mount Basilisk haunted his nightmares. The ograns had enough willing hands to excavate even the face of a mountain, to get at their foes. Lok Giran groaned with the population of Rilan. Food he had intended to last for a year-long siege was going to be exhausted in a quarter that time, even on short rations. His blue eyes seemed far too old, as he stared down at the legions of the ogran hordes. For the first time since he was a dwarf child of the Rakanus Clan, the Baron-and-the-Bishop felt fear stalking him.

* * *

Outside Lok Magius, the siege intensified. The northeastern slope of Mount Rilan was nearly denuded by the ogran army, as they built the weapons of war. The ‘new’ magics, and the mages that understood them, were all that kept the main gate of Lok Magius standing.

Prat wished there were more time – time to learn the strange new magic they wielded, time to refine the spells of the First Ones, time to finish the many things he had started. But he was out of time.

The spell sheathe had been unlocked. The material that slid out of the sheathe was strange by any definition of the word; it was a slick as the finest waxed paper, yet transparent, and made of a substance only Prat had ever seen before. He placed the strange scroll upon a white sheet of vellum a student handed him, and he could suddenly read the arcane spell that was written there. The symbols for the arcane magics had remained unchanged since the time of the First Ones, nearly ten thousand years ago. There were additional symbols that Prat had never seen before, though. It made no difference to him. The spell enclosed upon the transparent scroll was short, but to the point. It pointed the way for any mage to touch that source of the arcane spark within themselves – and set it off in a mass transmutation of matter, to energy.

One of the apprentices beside Prat looked at the spell, and argued, “You can’t do that. Matter isn’t energy; they’re two Totally separate things!”

Prat snorted. “I’ll bet on the Old Ones over you, any day of the week.”

Another apprentice said, “Ohmigod. Look at it with your Senses!”

For any of them to copy the spell, they would have to find the arcane thread woven within the writing, and link the symbols through that spell pattern. That spell pattern would form the basis for what they would need to know to cast the spell, and even to copy it. Prat touched the spark within himself, and spoke the words under his breath to unleash the spell form for magical detections.

The scroll in his hands glowed strangely, with a pattern of half a dozen spell threads woven through it. He had seen it done before, in Vyrboth’s lab, and he knew how to use, cast, and write the spell. And there wasn’t time to teach the younger ones.

Working quickly, he pulled his traveling spell book from his large purse. He opened it to the last few pages, kept blank for just such an occasion – and began to scribe a copy of the spell patterns, and the spell as a whole. The rest of his spell book had been rendered mute by the rikel mine that the orog had used against him, and he had not had enough time to restore those spell patterns from memory. But…

It took him a patient hour, and then it was done: there was a copy of the First Ones’ spell.

Prat said, “Esashi.”

The young apprentice from distant Rakani handed Prat a hexagonal rod of crystal, perhaps six inches in width, and nearly two feet long. Esashi bowed, as he handed Prat the crystal that the young apprentice had taken three days to laboriously create. Prat had never told him why he had to do so, but he had his suspicions, and never voiced them.

Duke Henrik ‘Prat’ Kamus looked over the twenty apprentices awake in the laboratory that had worked with him, and held up his closed book. “It is here. I recommend that it be hidden, and quickly. This is not something we want the Inquisition, or even rogue mages, to ever see.” He looked at each of their faces, as though memorizing them. “You’ve made Mistress Brin, and myself, very proud.”

He set the book in the hands of Esashi, and then strode through the room, the rod in one hand, the transparent scroll in the other.

Prat knew he couldn’t teleport out of Lok Magius, not while the defenders on the wall were all that held off the ograns. His teleportations could unnerve the magical defenders at just the wrong moment, and cost one of them their lives, if not more. So, Prat made his way to Mistress Brin’s office, to use her enchanted doorway there. He had expected to be dizzy, or tired, after three days and more with no sleep, hardly any food, and feverish work. Instead, he felt extraordinarily calm – more so than he had in a long, long time. It was as though the bear he had spent centuries as, were moving through him, and the human was no more than an instant in time.

In the corridors, a group of mages, soldiers, and a golem ran quickly to some other part of the citadel. The floor itself shook with a vibration for a split second, as one of the ogran stones slammed into the inner walls. Prat could smell the fire that raged through one part of the Fortress of the Mages, Lok Magius, but it only registered as information, and nothing else, even above the acrid smell of burning hair.

None stopped him or questioned him as he moved through the chaotic corridors. He moved into the chaotic courtyard that surrounded the main tower, and arrows thumped into the ground all around him. A wave of lizard-riders had made it over the south side of the citadel, and the dozens of kobold archers riding the huge minotaur lizards unleashed a hail of arrows. None hit Prat, as he strode through the battle calmly towards the central tower.

Of course, he was seemingly oblivious to the half-dozen mages that escorted him at a distance, their spells countering anything that got in his way. They knew what their Lord Henrik was going to do, and sought to make his task as painless as possible.

Inside the tower, Prat slowly wound his way up the spiral stairs, until he reached the level of Mistress Brin’s offices. The door was guarded by a shield guardian, one of the myriad golems, and it stepped away from the door at a command from someone behind him.

Inside Brin’s offices, only her Isboitan parrot, Oliver, was in residence. The parrot was agitated by the smell of smoke, and its feathers were all afluff. It squawked at him, and said, “Where’s the bear? Where’s the bear?”

Prat ignored Oliver, and went to a nondescript door, and opened it. Inside the door frame, a bluish light thrummed with hidden energies. Prat touched his hand to the energies, and attuned it to his preferred destination, and then stepped through.

The portal opened up into the Duke’s Keep, his own fortress at Gridolin. The half dozen mages that accompanied him followed him through the portal, ready to blast their way through hell if need be. Prat merely gestured negligently at his silent escort, both acknowledging them and ignoring them.

His mind felt crystal clear, but his body felt distant, as though it belonged to someone else. He tugged on the strings to his puppet body, and moved it through his suites, down the hall, down the stairs.

The king’s court was in session, but it was going on in the other wing. In his own wing of the keep, Mister Thatcher and his crew were maintaining the duke’s court as well as could be. Duke Henrik had always encouraged free thinkers, only yanking them back into line if they strayed too far from what he needed them to be. He rarely had to give orders, and had leaders with good initiative. And so it was that when he appeared in his own keep, looking haggard and more gray than they had ever seen them, they slowly drew themselves up to formal attention, placing one fist over their left breast, and looking solemnly at a man either mad or not too far from death.

The half dozen mages behind Duke Henrik were a diverse bunch, but battle-hardened, and just as unstoppable as the duke appeared, despite his strange affliction.

Prat looked slowly around, and saw one who would do. “Lady Sin Jena. Your services are required.” He looked without seeing, turning his head askance somewhat, and said, “Yours, and the Lady Cleo’s.”

To the rest of his court, he said only, “Do what needs doing. As do I.”

Lady Jena was a white-gold blonde with a full figure not easily covered by her clothing, but she had a warrior’s hands and the eyes of one who had seen too much, too soon. Though still a young woman, she was battle-hardened enough not to bolt, and she was a paladin of Yatindar; she could bear witness to what the duke had to do, bearing as she did the bracers of a Protector paladin. Like many of the paladins of Yatindar, Jena preferred the use of two longswords wielded together in perfect harmony. She had borne a son, who remained in the safekeeping of others for the duration of the war; her husband had set sail for his homelands, leaving Jena virtually a widow in all but name, and yet they all hoped the strange warrior from a foreign land made it home safely.

Lady Cleo was a smaller woman, with dark hair cropped along her jaw line, and dark eyes that saw much. And, when she chose to be, she was nearly invisible in plain sight, blending into whatever she could, whatever shadows were around. Prat looked at the younger woman, and was suddenly back in the demons’ cavern, looking at her body, violated by the demons and changed into something else – such that when Cleo was resurrected by Jena’s priceless scroll, the demon-violated woman had brought back some of that essence of demonics with her. Cleo was stronger than she looked – much stronger – and much more dangerous than she appeared. Cleo was the darkness, to Jena’s light.

The two of them had made it close enough to Duke Henrik that he could speak to them in tones that did not carry across the hall, even as most of the court remained at attention, and watched, knowing that something historic and strange was happening.

Prat said softly, “Lady Jena, Protector Paladin of Yatindar, Knight of Kestaria.” He looked into her blue eyes and was reminded of someone else, from a long, long time ago. “You will bear witness.”

Her brows were drawn together with concern, but she had no time to ask questions as Prat reached deep inside himself, to that spark of magic that was his and his alone – and then the three of them were violently torn asunder from Gridolin.

The half-dozen mages that remained behind grimaced, realizing they had been out-foxed, even as they recovered from the arcane violence of Prat’s passage.

“Cleo, keep her safe. She has to bear witness to this.”

They were upon a wooded skirt of the mountain that afforded them an easy view of the ogran army assaulting the entrance to Mount Basilisk. Their vantage point was excellent – and that was why several orcs had been using it to observe the battle.

Prat’s fist smoked from where the levin bolt had arced out, killing the orcs instantly. The crack of the bolt reverberated over the skirt, and was swallowed up by the sounds of the armies below.

Jena said, “Prat! Lord Prat, what’re you doing?” Her hand was pressed to her side as she asked, seeming to know what he was going to do, and willing herself not to believe. Cleo held onto Jena’s arm gently, eyes wide at the enormous forces of ogran might gathered together.

The ogran army spread across the base of the mountain and into the valley beyond, and even in the partly cloudy daylight, made the valley’s floor move with their mass. Four huge hatori were in the valley, visible as moving hills. Roc-hawkes patrolled the air. Enormous siege engines were being constructed, while others hurled boulders at the entrance to Mount Basilisk. Around the entrance was what looked like, at first, either snow or the rippling surface of water. It was the sparkling armor of the Stonehelms that had given their lives to protect the mountain fortress.

Prat held up the crystalline scepter, and the transparent scroll. “Tell King Feldspar that I do what needs doing. Now he must needs do what needs doing, too.”

With that, he lifted into the air, and flew across the valley towards the heart of the ogran army. A roc-hawke spotted him, and barreled in for an attack with its cottage-sized beak. It got instead a face full of fire, and veered off, blinded and burning. And then they couldn’t see him anymore.

Jena said softly, “No…”

Cleo said nothing, plunging one of her daggers into a startled kobold that had come to investigate the lightning strike. Cleo suddenly saw her shadow grow as long as that of a mountain, as the world was lit up from behind. She turned to look into light, and saw something… extraordinary.

The flash of light lasted almost no time at all, but its shockwave was a visible thing, racing out from the center of the ogran armies as a line of scything death that mowed down all in its path. And behind it, moving almost sedately due to the distance the two were viewing it from, rode the blast wave – a wall of fire that rolled across the battlefield in an ever-expanding circle. It struck one of the hatori – a crocodile-like desert beast nearly a mile long – and burned through even its bones as the circle continued to grow.

Jena could only stare in horror with tears in her eyes at what had been unleashed. Nothing would survive the blast. It was orders of magnitude greater than any arcane fire every produced. And then the first shockwave of sound hit them.

Cleo yanked Jena down as the blast went by, knocking the pine needles off of the trees, bending centuries’ old trees before its pressure wave. Cleo had only a moment to look at the shockwave, still expanding, but getting closer by the second. Though it was slowly dissipating, Cleo figured it was even odds on whether they would survive, if she couldn’t get Jena off of the skirt they were on.

Suddenly a half dozen mages appeared in combat positions. One of them said, “Hurry!” There were tears on a number of their faces, but the other faces were hardened, fiercesome.

Cleo drug the strangely numb Jena towards the mages, even as two of them together began intoning the spell necessary to transport them out and safely away. The spell barely completed as the blast wave arced up over the skirt of the mountain, felling the trees that had stood for as long as Prat had.

Cleo and Jena hugged one another, realizing what had happened, and what was being unleashed. They were in the midst of the king’s court, with the half-dozen mages about them in battle formation, while the king’s guards held crossbows at the ready.

King Feldspar stood quickly upon his throne. Several guards moved in front of their king, to shield him, and he shouldered them aside. “What’s the meanin o this?!” He was livid, half fearing the answer.

The battlemages glanced at one another, slowly lowering their hands, wands, staves, and orbs – and glanced at the ladies Cleo and Jena.

Jena found her strength, or perhaps Cleo, an old friend of hers, had found it for her. The brunette helped hold Jena up from behind without anyone being the wiser, her hidden strength the only thing keeping Jena’s feet beneath her.

With legs slightly numb, Jena said, “King… Feldspar.” She met his eyes, and used them as her focus and stepped away from Cleo's hold. The paladin straightened her shoulders and her voice was strong as she said. “Lord Prat said, that he did what needed doing. He asks… He asked, that you do the same. Do what needs doing, my king. Those were Lord Prat’s last words, before… Before he destroyed those … So many…”

She couldn’t get the images out of her head. She had never seen an army so large. A living sea of ograns, stretching from horizon to horizon. Dying from the ring of fire put out by Lord Prat’s death. The glittering of the dwarven armor in the shaft of sunlight that reached them through the clouds. She had seen death, before, but until that day had never imagined the Magnitude Death could achieve.

Jena’s face went white, and Cleo reached for her as Jena began to tremble. For a brief moment, Cleo suddenly understood the horrors of the Storm Wars. It was then, during that time of great mages, that the world had trembled – and the Inquisition had been born to hunt and hate mages. Cleo finally felt, deep in her gut, what the Inquisition truly feared. And she feared that Rakore would suddenly become a target for the Inquisition, no matter what.

But who could stand against men like Lord Prat, who would sacrifice themselves at will, to destroy any army that could be brought against them..?

The battlemages carefully, deferentially, helped Cleo and Jena to one of the big bench seats.

The entire court was in an uproar, but King Feldspar quieted it with a steely glare that he swept across them. “Duke Henrik… ‘Prat’ Kamus… did what needed doing. And now I must ask all of ye ta do what needs doin, too.”

As he spoke, a fishmonger by the name of Klarissa – and secretly a mage and member of the elite group Firestorm – said her prayers to her goddess as she grasped the Storm Hammer Captain Seamus had delivered to her. She had flown as far as she could on her spells, and her invisibility was fading. The ogran reinforcement army, accompanied by two hatori carrying only supplies, had moved more quickly than Firestorm had anticipated. Klarissa flew above the heart of the army as her invisibility faltered. An ogremai raised the alarm – and then there was a flash of light, and a storm of fire arced out from where Klarissa had been.

King Feldspar said, “An now, I need, tae do what needs doin.” He pointed a smith’s finger at Lady Jena, eyeing the bracers she wore upon her forearms. “Those be the bracers of a paladin, be they not?”

Lady Jena nodded, then stood and strode once more to stand before the king. “They are, my king.” She reached up and tore her sleeve away at the seam with a loud ripping sound. A pale blue light shown from her bracers as she held them aloft. Her voice echoed around the room as she spoke. “I am Lady Jena, a Defender paladin of Yatindar, Knight of Kestaria and sworn to…” She caught herself, and fought past it. “Duke Henrik Kamus.”

The king said, “Lady Jena… Wha happened?”

Jena’s eyes took a far away look as she seemed to gaze back to what she had witnessed, “Duke Henrik Kamus is dead. He sacrificed himself in a magefire that consumed the ogran army attacking Mount Basilisk.” She felt calm, like one who has finally accepted what was to be.

King Feldspar let Jena’s words sink in for a moment, before asking, “Do ye swear these words, as a Paladin of Yatindar, that ye may lose yer bracers if ye lie?”

Lady Jena’s eyes blazed and her bracers also glowed brightly too. “I do so swear, on my honor as a Paladin of Yatindar, the God of Justice.”

There were whispered murmurings from the court as it realized the full import of having a paladin witness, as well as the news she carried. Suddenly, there was hope. Lady Jena had brought them incontrovertible proof, that there was hope. Despite crushing odds, Rakore’s mages – and one of her preeminent mages – had found a way to take the fight back to the ograns. As word spread through the court and the keep, for many, it was as though a great weight had been lifted off of their shoulders.

King Feldspar moved towards Lady Jena, and grasped her hand, looking up into her face. Cleo sat nearby, ready to support Jena should her strength falter again, but she never did. The king and the paladin shared a look of understanding between them, both understanding that while there was hope, one of the great mages of Rakore had died to bring them that hope. The kingdom would live on, because of one man’s sacrifice – because of one bear’s sacrifice.

gaeleth/stories/sacrificial_bears.txt · Last modified: 2017/08/27 21:57 (external edit)