He heard someone voice his name only distantly, deep in the dream as he was. In his dream, he relived a nightmare that at one time had been quite real.
Aegan was deep in the hold of the bloated galleon Scarlet Skies. The ship's hold was dark, save for the flickering light of fire roaring around the hatches. The deck above creaked and groaned with a fire that seemed alive, and the chaos of their captors battling boarders. The smoke inside the hold was thick, choking not just Aegan, but all the others that were chained together with him, and to the planked walls of the inner hold. The heat of the fire could be felt, even through the smoking, blackening wood of the deck above them. Battle raged in all its terrifying chaos, while chains of unbreakable iron held them all.
The Scarlet Skies was moving, however slowly, and a grinding noise panicked them. Boards and panels within the hold buckled, shattered, and gave way. Someone near to Aegan died with a gurgling of blood from their lungs, pinned by a massive splinter of wood that broke off and plunged forward, missing Aegan's nose by scant inches. Water began to flood the hold, even as flames leaked through the deck above, as though the deck were a sieve letting liquid fire through.
The terrible nightmare grew worse, as the warm water spilling into the hold began to grow chilly, and his breath began to frost in the fiery-lit hold. It was getting cold. Very cold. So very, very cold.
“Aegan!” shouted the voice with such volume, that the young man started awake.
He was out of his nightmare, in his small dormitory room. The only light came from a lamp held high – a light that illuminated a chilling scene: frost covered every surface in the room, and Aegan's breath steamed from his mouth in the light of that lamp.
The holder of the lamp rushed forward, and laid a hand on Aegan's shoulder. Master P'Arkon, the Dual-Minded, was one of the instructors at the academy, and had chosen Aegan as his apprentice. The instructor was dressed in sleeping robes, and stood bent over his apprentice with a look of feverish concern in his dark, almost black eyes. P'Arkon's raggedly short, graying-black hair was in disarray, indicating that he had been sleeping but recently.
Aegan took several deep breaths, watching his breath fog and steam in the cold, cold air. “Master Arkon?” he asked, in a thickly accented tongue.
His master spoke as though he was slightly hoarse – a common problem for the instructors at the academy. “I've told you, drop that 'master' business, or I'll turn you into a toad. Are you all right? The voices said you were in trouble!”
Aegan blinked away the last of sleep, and the nightmare. His normally brown eyes took in the the room.
Master P'Arkon claimed to hear the voices of his forefathers – his demonic forefathers – in his head. He admitted that he could be insane, but the voices had never let him down. If, indeed, he actually heard them at all, or just imagined them; hence, his title of 'the Dual-Minded'. Despite the 'voices' in his head, Master P'Arkon was there, and the room was iced over.
“Aegan. Are you all right?” His eyes were intense, and perhaps tinged with madness.
“D'yes, Master. I'm… fine. It vas just… a nightmare.” He sat up in his bed, and put his hands underneath his arm pits, trying to restore warmth to his fingers. He shivered in the intense cold, and wondered how Master P'Arkon could ignore it so.
The instructor snaked a long leg out and pulled Aegan's writing stool over beside the bed. He set the lamp on the writing desk just behind him, and started warming up Aegan's legs by rubbing them through the blanket.
“You dreamt of the Scarlet Skies, again, didn't you?”
“D'yes, Master.” Aegan shivered, again.
Aegan was a young man of perhaps twenty years, with broad shoulders and a powerful build. His dark hair was cut short, and dark stubble covered his strong jaw. He had been a journeyman blacksmith, before his powers manifested – before he was chased out of his homeland, taught to mutiny, steal, pirate, kill, and more. He shuddered from more than the cold, as memories born of terror and fear coursed through his veins like ice.
Master P'Arkon sighed, and gave up on trying to warm Aegan's legs. He jumped up, upsetting the stool, and touched one wall with his hand. There was a surge of greenish light from the instructor's hands, and the frost that covered the walls and ceiling fell down in a crescendo of light, icy hail. The lamp was extinguished as ice fell onto the wick.
The sound of wings swept into the suddenly dark room, as though some enormous bird circled the tiny room. There was a clap of thunder, a bright flare of green fire, the surprised and indignant squawk of a raven, and the sudden curses of the Dual-Minded one.
An eerie green light seeped up through the floors, and the frost shards and crushed ice on the ground began to melt, some of it sublimating instantly into steam. Next to the extinguished lamp was Master P'Arkon's familiar, a huge raven he called 'Equal'.
Aegan smiled faintly. The chaos was typical of his master, and the humor of it all eased the icy dread in his heart.
Master P'Arkon suddenly glanced to one side and tilted his head, as though listening to voices – and, perhaps, he might have been. “They say you'll be fine, now. That – I should get to some rest.” He looked at Aegan. “Yes! I should get some rest, now. You'll be fine. You'll have no more nightmares, tonight.” He turned to his familiar. “Come, Equal! We shall both rest, now!” He held up his arm, and the enormous raven hopped up lightly to it.
The raven cawed, and said, “Rest, now! Rest, now!”
Arkon looked as though he had had a revelation from the gods. “Yes! We shall rest now!”
Aegan's instructor glanced around as though trying to remember something, and then backed quickly out of the room. He paused inside the doorway with one hand on the door latch, looking intently and wildly at Aegan, and then closed the door in a hurry.
Aegan Smithdanovich smiled in the faintly glowing green light. The light was fading, leaving only small puddles of water behind. He sometimes thought himself in a madhouse, and that perhaps he had lost his mind, but, somehow, the sheer madness of his instructor left him grounded and centered. Also, the voices in Master P'Arkon's head were rarely wrong. If they had said that he would have no more nightmares that night, then he believed 'them' – whoever 'they' were.
Finally warming up, he slid back down under the covers, contemplating his life – and the nightmare.
The young sorcerer had no doubt as to the cause of the nightmare; the event that spawned it had happened barely three nights prior. He had escaped the hold, along with all the other mages trapped there. The fire that had raged on the deck above had been no accident; it had been the work of their rescuers, knights of his new homeland.
The journeyman smith and apprentice sorcerer sighed. His entire world had been turned upside-down, such that few things made sense. The one bit of reality and sanity he had to hold onto, was his master's insanity. It was the only thing that felt right in a world seemingly gone mad.
Aegan's mind wrapped itself around the many strange things going on, and that had happened to him. He had been a journeyman blacksmith of no small skill, when the woman of his dreams had been set upon and raped. Aegan had had a crush on young Milli Kaldaemoch for the six months he had been in the town of Gimore. Milli had withdrawn, and had seen all men as potential predators, after the rape. The injustice of the attack, and the way it had changed the impassioned woman into a cowering girl left Aegan's heart in a fiery heat of Need. Aegan had needed justice, for himself, if not for Milli.
His tools had begun to shatter in his hands. Projects that he worked on shattered, as though cold-forged of cast iron, instead of bellows-forged of the finest mithral.
Aegan flexed his powerful hands, as though aching to hold a hammer once again. His passion for smithing was forever taken from him, by his cursed powers. Master P'Arkon said that, perhaps one day, when his rage and his emotions were contained, he could return to the forge – but until that day happened, he would continue to shatter metal, wood, stone, and even flesh with his icy emotion-fed powers.
The young sorcerer could suddenly feel the temperature of the room chilling, again. He reigned in his anger at his situation, and forced himself to calm down. His powers had grown so much so, during the terror on the Scarlet Skies, that he had to keep his temper reigned in at all times, less his hot anger feed his cold powers.
The other smiths had talked in those seemingly long-ago days of Gimore, but none suspected the true cause of the 'bad mithral'. Aegan discovered that he had powers by horrible mistake, and by horrible intent. He had overheard Ponsh Labikol's drunken confession to 'enjoying Milli Kaldaemoch's tender young thighs' at the Red Bull tavern, one night. Ponsh's cronies urged him to be quiet, and then asked for more details of the rape. Aegan, unable to take anymore, had set his tankard down with calm deliberation, and left the tavern without paying his tab.
Outside the Red Bull, he waited in the cold, spring night's air, watching around the corner for Ponsh Labikol to come out. Ponsh's cronies were with him, but it mattered not to Aegan. When they walked past, the smith yanked Ponsh into the alleyway so hard that he threw the man close to ten feet away. Aegan turned and advanced on Ponsh so quickly that the stunned men in the street could only stare in confusion.
The memory of what happened next was another of Aegan's nightmares. He had straddled the addled Ponsh's body, and with one hand, lifted the rapist up far enough to deliver blow after blow from his right fist.
Aegan's breath was steaming in the reddish moonlight that filtered into the alleyway. Frost crawled up the alleyway's sides and along the ground. The blood from Ponsh's nose and mouth began to thicken, and congeal. Frost began to cover the face that was being hammered.
When Ponsh's head shattered into a thousand fragments of ice, all of them colored red by the hue of the moonlight, Aegan realized with crystalline clarity that his anger was powering something deep within him. The realization made his fury turn to icy dread.
Mages were outlawed. Mages were hunted. Mages were executed. Mages were feared. Mages were responsible for all the death and destruction of the Storm Wars. Mages had killed thousands, perhaps millions of people. Mages had raised armies of the dead. Mages were the boogiemen with which parents frightened their children into behaving. Mages were blamed for every illness, every evil deed, and every wont in all the world. Mages were the embodiment of evil.
And Aegan realized that he was a mage.
Ponsh's cronies set upon him from behind, unable to see or grasp what had happened, with Aegan's back to them in the alleyway. Aegan's mind was glacially calm, like the time one of the other smiths had had molten lead run down his arm. Aegan had taken care of everything, then, with ruthless, thorough efficiency, saving the smith's arm, and earning his gratitude, and that of his family.
A push against the wall resulted in one man's skull cracking against the alleyway; the man went unconscious immediately. A sucker punch to the gut had the second man wheezing and gasping for breath. Aegan directed his attention to the third man, and knocked out several of his teeth in one mighty strike to the face. The second man found an elbow in his face, and then a wall at the back of his skull. The combination knocked him out, as well. The third man received a second punch to the face, and then a third, and a fourth, until he, too, went out cold from the attacks.
Aegan glanced out into the street and saw no one else out. Without a backward glance, he walked out of the alleyway and towards the smithy to gather his things, and leave.
Lying in his dormitory room, he sighed. He had gazed longingly at his tools, and left them there in Gimore. The small town had been an insignificant outpost on the edge of the Vridaran Empire. Without the tools of his trade, Aegan had become just another migrant worker, taking on odd jobs, and working his way further and further north, away from Gimore. He had had no clear destination in mind; he had sought only to flee the murder of Ponsh, and the horrible realization of what he was.
No stories followed him. No rumors of a man killed by a mage circulated the towns. At least, no more than the usual rumors that laid the blame for everything on mages.
The only thing that hounded Aegan was his own guilt: the guilt of murder, but worse, the guilt of magery.
He rolled over in his small bed, pulling the blankets more tightly about him. Aegan closed his eyes to the memories. The guilt still hounded him.
What gnawed at him, even worse, was that his new, adoptive nation was asking him to kill, again – and use his powers to do it.
Only Master P'Arkon seemed to understand that he couldn't kill again. Some part of him had been left behind in Gimore, along with Milli, and Ponsh's grossly-beheaded body. He could close his eyes, but he could not seem to close his mind.
He had wandered for close to three months, before any real rumors of 'mage' surfaced. He thought, at first, that the rumors were wild distortions of what he had done back in Gimore. The rumors turned out to be about another mage entirely.
Eshir Anyalethelis had been a respected elder of Lamental, but the rumors said he had been exposed as a mage, and worse, an agent of the nation of Rakore. Rakore was a far distant, vile land that harbored and protected mages. The Rakorans were led by dwarves, and the people of Vridara, like most of the Inquisition-aligned nations, feared an alliance between the historically disciplined dwarves and the fury of magic unleashed.
Aegan felt evil, and despicable. He had begun to hate himself, and all that he was. Most of all, though, he hated magic, for what it had done to him, and what it had cost him.
He calmed himself down, rolling over in his bed. He felt that the last thing he needed was to frost the walls of his room, again. The apprentice sorcerer idly wondered if any of his spellbooks had been damaged by the frost, and subsequent melt. He sighed, and turned over, again, failing to get comfortable. He drifted off into a doze, his restless mind playing odd tricks on him.
He dreamt of snow, on a high mountain pass, with glaciers in a valley below him…
* * *
Aegan leaned up against the ramparts, the rising sun at his back. The peak of Mount Rilan soared into the clouds up above and ahead of him, and immediately before him were the open grounds of the Mages' Academy. The large fortress was virtually unassaultable, standing as it did on the steep side of a mountain, with only one wagon-navigable trail up to Lok Magius, as the dwarves called it.
The journeyman smith and apprentice sorcerer had his arms crossed, and stared in disgust at what was happening on the grounds. Living statues of plate mail, which the mages called 'shield guardians', carried boxes, crates, tents, and other logistics of war. The mages of the academy, whether they were apprentices, journeymen, or masters, were being organized into teams, to be dispersed into the regular Rakoran army, and to perform covert operations against an invading army.
A blue flash of light was followed by a ring of brilliant blue expanding into a gateway nearly ten feet high, on one corner of the grounds. Shield guardians shouldered enormous burdens, and followed a dozen mages through the ring. When the last one was through, the ring collapsed in a flash of brilliant blue.
Aegan sneered at the young mages below. Most were young men and women that dreamt of glory, thinking that their defining moment would be to lay down mage fire against their enemies. Most of them were more boys and girls, than adults. The smith thought that, once they had had a real taste of murder – for that was what he saw war as – then those boys and girls would be much less likely to look forward to using their gifts.
The wind ruffled his hair, bringing with it the gentle smell of the deep Rakoran forests, far down the slope. So high up along the mountain, Lok Magius was nevery warm, despite the heat of high summer, but the enchantments of the academy kept it tolerably warm inside, though less so on the parapets. Irritably, the slight chill the enchantments let in only reminded him of the night before, and his nightmare, and his powers.
Unlike the young hellions on the grounds below, Aegan would only use his powers in self defense. Because of that, he, and many like him, were to remain at the Mages' Academy, to guard it against infiltration by the enemy.
Aegan snorted at their concept of 'the enemy'. Several bands of orcs had invaded the mage-friendly nation of Rakore. From the accounts Aegan had heard, the bands were considerably large in number – perhaps enough to warrant the feverish motivation seen on the grounds below – but they were still just orcs. No matter their numbers, the Imperial Vridaran Army would have turned them into dog meat with ease, especially armed as it was with mithral armor and swords.
The reminder of his former smithing days angered him, again, and he reigned in his control. Then, realizing there was no need, he simply let go of the stranglehold on his emotions. It mattered little, up on the ramparts, if he lost his temper and iced up the walls.
It mattered little to him, if the children went to slaughter a bunch of orcs, and feel like heroes. He had seen heroes, working as he did along the fringe of the Vridaran Empire. He had crafted weapons and armor for real soldiers, real knights, and real warriors. He knew what he wasn't; Aegan knew he wasn't a hero. He also knew he wasn't a warrior. He just wished he weren't a mage.
He sighed, and looked down onto the grounds. Another ring expanded into position, and another group of mages and shield guardians strode through it to make war upon a tribe of stupid orcs.
Aegan continued to stand with his back against the ramparts for some time. Perhaps a quarter of the academy's mages were leaving, and it took time to organize them, and file them. Aegan's anger was cooling into calm derision, when something went wrong down on the grounds.
A ring expanded into a brilliant blue circle, but instead of mages and shield guardians flowing in, something flowed out.
A large beast, a lizard with forward-swept horns, raced through the gate. Something was on its back, but Aegan had no time to look, as two more beasts ran through the gate, before it was shut. The lizards were enormous, with heads nearly five feet in length, and horns nearly eight feet long. Atop the first lizard's back was a creature in plate mail that was nearly twelve feet tall; it's width and girth indicated the rider was enormously powerful. The rider leapt off the lizard with a two-handed axe sized to fit, and instantly cut three young mages in half with one swing. The lizard roared, and shook a mage off of its horns, gored into place during the first mad dash through the ring.
Shield guardians and mages sprang into action after a terrified moment of surprise.
The other two lizards each had a smaller rider upon them, but along their sides, in cleverly designed straps, were more riders wielding what looked to be short bows of some kind. They shot arrow after arrow into the crowd of mages, even as their riders directed them to run over shield guardians, mages, and more.
One of the huge lizards exploded in a hellish bombardment of fire from the inside, and Aegan heard Master P'Arkon's distinctive, insane laugh above the tumult below.
The big armored behemoth with the axe was suddenly airborne, as a conjured hand of equal size to the behemoth threw him over the wall – and far down the side of the steep mountain-side.
Mage bolts, levin bolts, magical missiles, flaming arrows, and more were flung at the remaining foes. What scared Aegan the most was the deliberate, careful aim of the mages; there were no accidental deaths, as each mage ensured that his destructive energies struck his aimed target, and no one else. The concentrated firepower completely obliterated the remaining attackers, and the giant lizards.
Aegan took a step forward, and heard a crunching sound that went with an odd resistance in his step. He glanced down, to see the whole of the walkway covered in ice; the crunching sound had been his boot tearing itself free of the thick frost.
A fireball went straight up, engulfing a figure in midair. Several lightning bolts followed it, and a flaming giant plummeted towards the earth. The conjured hand, easily five feet wide, easily caught the flaming giant, keeping it from landing on several mages.
The smith stared in awe and fear. It was the first time in his life he had seen the great mage-powers of old unleashed in deliberate violence. The powers at the disposal of even the apprentice mages was far more than he ever would have considered possible. He began to understand, then, just what kind of fear the mages of the Storm Wars might have engendered – for mages during that time had been as plentiful then, as were the priests of the churches were in the Empire.
Equal swooped in, forcing Aegan to duck, and landed on a buttress nearby. “All right? All right?” it cawed in question.
The apprentice sorcerer blinked stupidly at the raven, and then dumbly nodded his head. “Yes. Yes, Equal. I'm… all right.” He shook his head, and stared back down onto the grounds.
There appeared to be several injured mages, still, and several also had died. The clerics that were down on the grounds with the mages were helping the injured, as the powers of mages rarely tended to be useful for healing matters of the flesh. The 'stupid orcs' suddenly did not appear quite so stupid.
The nagging thought was only reinforced, minutes later while he walking among the organized chaos of the grounds. The bits of armor that were left were being studied extensively by Master P'Arkon and a few of the other mages that would remain. Some of the armor had even been restored with various spells, and was standing on manikins, arranged against one of the walls.
“Ah, Aegan! There you are,” said his master. “You're all right, yes?”
The smith nodded his head in the affirmative, and glanced at the other mages working with Master P'Arkon. One of the people there was Kendemon, the Master Groundskeeper. While not a mage in any conventional sense, the elder elf with white hair and a gentle disposition never-the-less possessed a kind of power over plants that even priests of the Harvest God envied.
One of the mages with Kendemon, who was examining a shard of the armor in his hands, was pretty young elf with deep lavender eyes that matched her lavender and blue dress. Her appearance, from her lean build to her raven-black hair, had caught Aegan's attention several times. The smith knew only that she was an illusionist, but had never caught her name.
“Aegan?” Master P'Arkon was suddenly before Aegan, with both hands on the brawny smith's shoulders. “You didn't get hit in the head, did you?” His wide, mad eyes bored deeply into Aegan's, even as the instructor turned his head from side to side, his eyes never leaving his apprentice's.
“I'm fine, Master Arkon. I vas up on the wall, when I saw it happen. Vhat vere they? They vere orcs?” Aegan cursed his thick accent, for as he spoke, the pretty elf glanced at him from the corners of her eyes. He had never really learned the common traders' tongue, preferring instead his native Vridaran. Most people the world over learned the traders' tongue, but it was a difficult language to learn, and could not deal with the complexities of working mithral and steel.
“Orcs?! Where?!” Master P'Arkon jumped back as though expecting an attack, and looked about fearfully, as though expecting one to appear at any moment. Equal, upset by the apparent fright, launched into the air with an indignant squawk.
Aegan, knowing how to deal with his master, turned his instructor's attention elsewhere. “That thing, that… giant, that vas in the air, up above. Vhat vas that, that came through the…” He searched for the word for a moment, and even before he said 'portal', Master P'Arkon was rapidly answering.
“An ogremai also came through the gate. Crafty, it was, but I spotted it anyway! The voices warned me that something else came through!” The Dual-Minded one suddenly paused and appeared quite calm. “Some of us have the ability to search for, and detect, all forms of magic. Such detection powers can even be used to find invisible opponents – such as an ogremai.”
Master P'Arkon blinked, and leapt to one side. Greenish bolts flew from his hands to strike one of the manikins that had the orcish armor on it. Pieces of the armor exploded off in shrapnel and dust. People slowly began to stand back up, from where they had unconsciously ducked.
He pointed at it, and exclaimed, “It moved! I saw it move!” The way Master P'Arkon said it, though, left no doubt in anyone's mind that the armor had not moved. There was some indefinable aura of intelligence within the man's madness that fascinated Aegan.
The display of raw power taught more in a several blasts of magical missiles than any amount of explaining would have done, and Aegan sometimes secretly wondered if Master P'Arkon only acted insane.
The journeyman smith's instincts took over, as he inspected the plated armor his instructor had shot at. His fingers ran around the holes, and his boot toes absently pushed aside bits of debris and shrapnel. His instincts, his training, and his reason examined the armor in ways none of the mages could understand without having been raised as a Vridaran blacksmith.
The armor was not metal, but metal-like. It had not been hammer-forged in any capacity, but had an organic look to it, and its binding ends and parts were where holes had been bored through the material. The overlapping design of the plates looked to be almost natural, and with a shock, Aegan mentally lined up several marks from the plates; almost every piece of the refitted armor had at one time been one large sheet of material, which has been chiseled crudely down into the constituent pieces.
He asked himself, eyebrows raised, “Vhat is this stuff?”
A beautiful voice, like a mellow bell interwoven with bright chimes, answered him. “It's srik armor. Hide, rather. When the orcs kill a srik, they use its carapace to make armor for themselves.”
Aegan turned to the young elf in blue and lavender robes, with those vividly lavender eyes that could only be found in an inhuman race. He asked, not really comprehending, “Vhat? The orcs take it from some other creature?”
Her dainty eyebrows drew into a frown that Aegan thought would stop his heart. “Has no one really explained what's going on?”
The smith shook his head. “I know that ve are at war with the orcs.” He looked at the armor, bits of the brief battle raging through his head. The armor was as strong as cast iron, but had the give of good steel.
The elven maid arched one eyebrow. “What do you see, in the armor?”
Aegan struggled through the torturous traders' tongue, and muttered under his breath in Vridaran, “Lalcht brech dicth von.” More aloud, he said, “It is strong, like hard iron, but bends, like steel. It vas all one piece of armor, before heavy chisels broke it down into smaller pieces. The only vay to really hurt a varrior veraing such armor, is to punch through it, vith, say, a rapier. From vhat I know of orcs, that vould take a long time to kill one, unless it vere poisoned, or you hit a vital part, like the heart.” He beat a fist against his chest, to emphasize his words.
She nodded her head, again, and asked, “And what kind of magical spells would most easily burst through this kind of armor?”
The smith blinked, and took his brown eyes away from her lavender ones. He settled his eyes, instead, on the armor, and its small, jagged holes where Master P'Arkon's magic had torn into it. If only to impress the pretty elven maid, he wished he knew more about the magic he hated.
Aegan shook his head slowly. “I've no idea. I'm not a-” He swallowed, having almost said that he wasn't a mage, and continued, “I am only an apprentice.”
The elven woman laughed, and it sound like a peal of bells that made his heart warm. “Perhaps. But whether you're an apprentice or a master mage, you still have to study magic, to learn about it. Since you arrived, I've not seen you once go into the libraries.” She then blushed prettily, perhaps at seeming so bold as to say she'd been looking for him.
Aegan, having stolen a glance at her out of the corner of his eyes, and seeing her blushing, began to feel a blush creeping up his cheeks, as well. He was saved from the awkwardness of the situation, by Kendemon.
The Master Groundskeeper's voice was lyrical, like the young elf maid's, and Aegan supposed that it was because of the elven tongue. Kendemon spoke for a moment in a flowing, musical language that the smith had come to recognize as High Elven. His question was directed at the young elf woman, and she listened in rapt attention. After a moment, she translated.
“Master Kendemon says that the srik grow quickly, and that he was hoping a smith like yourself would see a structural flaw. But if not, perhaps one of the alchemists might be able to study the armor here, looking for a weakness.”
Aegan was thunder-struck for a moment, and looked appraisingly at the Master Groundskeeper. The elder elf looked back at Aegan with unblinking, blue-flecked, green eyes that belied centuries of wisdom and intelligence.
With one meaty hand, Aegan lifted up the armor from the manikin, his muscles bulging beneath his simple clothes at the weight of it. He turned to the young elf maid, and asked, “Vhat is your name?”
She glanced from the armor, to his eyes, and replied with a slight frown and a slight smile upon her delicate face. “Eriel Enelidalithan. I'm… an apprentice illusionist.”
“Eriel, please lead me to the laboratories,” he pleaded with his thick accent.
She glanced at Master Kendemon, and also at Master P'Arkon, who was intently studying a blade of untrampled grass at his feet, and then turned to lead him towards one of the towers of the academy. As she walked briskly towards Danaka's Tower, she glanced at the human that walked beside her.
He was strong, even for a human. The one hand that held the armor over his shoulder was dealing with close to three stone of weight as though it were a small bag of coins. Eriel had enjoyed the company of humans in the past, and let a subaudible purr of pleasure escape. What intrigued her the most about this human, though, was his mind.
The moment the refugees from the Scarlet Skies had arrived, Eriel had begun to observe them. There were only a handful of human mages at Lok Magius that hailed from the Vridaran Empire. One of them was the head instructor, although Mistress Brin was only half human – and half elf. The other human mages from that distant empire showed similarly advanced power and abilities. Vridara, apparently, bred powerful mages – despite the fact that it was a bastion of Inquisition-led anti-mage sentiment.
Of all the humans that had come in from the Scarlet Skies, only one had the predator's gaze she so admired in their race. She had learned his name immediately, hidden as she was by her illusions. An apprentice she might have appeared to be at Lok Magius, but her powers ran deeply, and she had practiced with the spells she knew for close to a century. A small, ferile twitch of her lips made her anticipate educating Aegan; the way he treated her made it obvious that he thought her no older than fifteen or sixteen years. She was closer to a century older than that, long lived as she was, like all elves.
Aegan blushed, feeling Eriel's eyes occasionally on him, assessing him. He knew he was missing something, but could not figure it out. She led him into one of the inner towers, and up a massive staircase. At the next landing, she went through two sets of large, double doors, and then paused inside of a strange room.
The room was filled with glass containers, roots and herbs hanging from the ceiling, and shelves of bottles, liquids, and drawers. There were four other people in the laboratory, mixing strange chemicals or dealing with the odd items. One of them was a small woman of medium age with lightly-browned skin and long, black hair bound back in a pony tail. She wore a large visor of thick, protective glass across her face, and was using a small flame to shape glass into small tubes, with the flame between her and the two apprentices that had just walked in.
The woman did not glance up, but called their attention with a commanding voice. “What can I do for you, Eriel?”
“Mistress Danaka, this is Aegan Smithdanovich of Vridara, recently arrived to Lok Magius. He is an apprentice to Master P'Arkon, and a journeyman smith, as well. Master P'Arkon and Master Kendemon thought that he might be able to discover a weakness in the srik armor the orcs wear.”
The head of the laboratories glanced up at Eriel and Aegan, and nodded. “Perhaps. We've already analyzed several samples of srik armor, and found nothing unusual, per se. The odd amount of iron and silicate in the chiton is part of its strength, but it's also an organic, giving it a considerable amount of resilience.” She set aside the small tubes to let them cool, and came from around the glass-burning flame.
Mistress Danaka appraised both Eriel and Aegan with her eyes, and asked Aegan, “Did you understand… Did anything I said, make sense?”
Aegan clenched his jaw for a moment, and asked, “Did you try an acid test?”
The small woman nodded. “Yes. We tried several. The chiton slowly breaks down in strong acids.”
“Chiton? This vord, I do not understand.”
Mistress Danaka responded patiently, “Chiton is the exoskeleton of insects. It's what makes a beetle's shell hard, or covers a spider's body. Most insects use it to some degree to protect their bodies.”
Aegan frowned. “Insects? The srik grow insects, for armor?”
Eriel's lips twitched, and she caught Mistress Danaka's eyes. The young elf said, “Let me show you, Aegan. Turn around.”
With the double doors open to the laboratory, there was enough room for Eriel to begin crafting a spell. Her hands performed an intricate dance, as she quietly intoned words of power. A bit of fleece appeared in her delicate fingers for a split second, and then was thrown out into the hall.
There was a slight surge of something that could only be described as magic, and the hairs on the back of Aegan's arms and neck stood up in near terror.
Where the fleece flew, a hideous ant-like insect nearly eight feet long, and five feet tall, appeared in the hallway. The creature's main color was tan, with slightly darker yellows and ochres at its joints. Two antennae, each three feet in length, waved in the air. It's six legs ended in long, scythe-like points, and the front two legs had a jointed, additional point that moved about, like a thumb. Claws the size of Aegan's large hands surrounded the mouth of the beast, and they moved in an independent fashion that indicated they could tear flesh from bone.
One of the laboratory workers in the back dropped something of glass, and gasped in horror. “Srik!”
Mistress Danaka raised a commanding hand at the worker, who paused in the casting of a levin bolt. “It's an illusion, Gregory.” She turned back to Aegan and Eriel, and instructed Eriel, “Make it attack.”
Eriel's fingers began their intricate dance, yet again, and the words of power forced the beast to move.
In a split second, it reared up on its four rear legs, and lunged forward at Aegan, its two fore-legs striking to either side of him. Had he shifted an inch to either side, illusion or not, the fore-legs would have had him. The jaws of the creature were inches from his face, and the antennae seemed to be caressing him, almost touching him, but not quite. A glistening sheen of some thick gel covered the jaws – and the tiny mouth parts and smaller jaws inside.
The multifaceted eyes of the srik never moved, but there seemed to be a change in focus of all the eye parts, so that real menace was conveyed through them, and there was no doubt in Aegan's mind that the eyes were looking directly at him.
Mistress Danaka said, “This, Aegan, is a srik. It's stronger than any man, faster than any beast, smarter than most dogs, more cunning than a rogue mountain lion, and harder to kill than…” She sought for an analogy for a moment, and then said, “Harder to kill than a horse in plate barding – for its chitonous exoskeleton – its skin – is as hard as steel.”
Aegan had not breathed. He knew it was an illusion, but his eyes were telling him something else. The details – like the thousands of tiny hairs all over the underside of the creature, and along its legs – left his legs quivering.
Eriel said softly, “The srik rarely attack, alone. Dozens – perhaps even hundreds of them – will take anything that lives back to their nest, where they feed it to a fungus that lives deep in each colony. The srik only eat from the fungus, and the fungus can eat almost anything but the srik. This is what the orcs and the ogres of the deserts have been battling for close to a decade, now.”
The creature disappeared in a puff of lavender mist, and Eriel laid a gentle hand on Aegan's forearm, to get his attention. When his eyes met hers, she noticed with surprise that the human's eyes had turned an intense shade of green. The moment they locked with hers, though, the brown began to return.
“Aegan. That was but a drone. There are other srik, like the warriors, who are much more deadly.”
Mistress Danaka took up the lecture, “We had thought the srik, arrayed along the northern border with the ograns, would keep them contained. The… food-fungus, of the srik, can only exist in the desert. They'll never leave their desert. The ograns have lived in the desert for centuries, and had nowhere to go, but over the Avris Mountains – or here, into Rakore.
“For the last five years or so, the pressure from the srik has been so enormous that the ograns couldn't field much in the way of even border guards against Rakore, or along the Avris Mountains. Either the ograns are retreating, and putting everything they have into an advance on Rakore, to escape the srik, or they've found a way to best the srik.
“We've had several samples of srik armor brought to us, and found no weakness. It's as good as steel, if a bit lighter. Larger pieces of the right shape and size for a humanoid are hard to come by, and so the pieces tend to be more in the line of scale mail, or field plate.”
Eriel blinked. “So, there are no spells that work against srik armor, Mistress Danaka?”
“I never said that.” She rubbed her chin. “Spells that shatter regular objects, work against srik armor. So do spells that work against regular armor. Spells that heat metal, or only affect metals, fair poorly against the srik chiton.”
Aegan spoke, garnering the attention of both women. “You said that the srik only live in the deserts. Did you try vorking vith extreme cold?”
The armor that had been over his shoulder was suddenly outstretched in one hand, dangling at the end of his arms. His fist clenched, and the armor shattered into a thousand pieces.
It was then, that the elven maid and the laboratories instructor realized how cold the room was, and they could see a layer of frost on the floor in a circle around Aegan, thickening towards his boots until it was almost an inch deep.
His fear of the illusion had fueled his powers to such an extent that he had sucked all the latent heat of the armor into his hand and his shoulder. Though he could not see his own eyes, the flare of green in Aegan's brown eyes had come from his power, sucking up heat to fuel his fear, and his anger.
Eriel's mouth hung open in awe of Aegan's power, and his barely contained rage. She had seen fear in a man before, but never fear wielded with such rationalization and power.
Mistress Danaka blinked several times, looking at Aegan's clenched fist. Bits of the srik armor were still clenched in his hand, and a layer of ice several inches thick entombed other flakes of the armor about that fist.
She said, “Surely… Surely someone thought to try cold spells, against the srik.” She looked around, not really seeing the laboratory. “Gregory! Find me all of the srik armor we have! Tinian! I need the Jar of Liquid Air!”
The instructor continued to see without seeing, until her gaze returned to Aegan and Eriel. “Stay right here.”
* * *
“Oh, ho, my boy!” Master P'Arkon smacked his hands onto Aegan's shoulders, squeezing them fondly. “Good job,” the instructor growled, shaking the smith with surprising strength. “Good job.”
Aegan scowled, more at himself, than at his master. “It vas not vhat I set out to do. Or prove. My anger made it happen. Not my mind.”
The robed and cowled instructor slid into a seat at Aegan's table, in the back of the academy's tavern, catering almost exclusively to mages.
Master P'Arkon scowled, and his voice carried throughout the room, “So! You think that your mind determines who you are! But what of this,” he asked, putting a hard finger in Aegan's chest. His voice rose even further. “Does not this make you more? You would Deny, who you Are?”
The smith scowled, considering his master's somewhat loud words. His arms were crossed, and he tilted his chair back slightly, thinking harder.
Equal flapped his wings as he landed at the table. The raven tilted his head from side to side, to look at Aegan and Master P'Arkon, before sticking his beak in Aegan's ale for a quick sniff. The fumes of the relatively strong ale made the bird wobble almost instantly, and it began circling the center of the table in a drunken shuffle.
The Dual-Minded one stared at his familiar with dark eyes, their edges surrounded by white in the mad eyes of the sorcerer.
“Master Arkon,” Aegan said at last.
The instructor's gaze snapped to Aegan's face lightning fast, the whites of his eyes still showing around his dark irises.
The student thought for a moment longer, and said, “I think you are right. But…” He gestured helplessly. “I do not know how to call my powers, save in anger, or fear.”
Master P'Arkon continued to stare at Aegan's face, his eyes wide with madness. After an uncomfortable time had gone by, the sorcerer asked in a cautious voice, “Are you… Angry?”
Before Aegan could answer, his instructor turned his head to both sides, listening for the source of… “Yes? Fear?” He suddenly leapt forward across the table towards Aegan, his nose only inches from his student's. “When was the last time you were afraid, they ask?!”
The smith frowned in confusion. “Today. Vhen Eriel conjured – the illusion of a srik.” He blinked, not understanding where his master was leading his thoughts.
Master P'Arkon's face and eyes lit with a mad smile. “Yes, yes. I see, now! You are a weapon! The chill weapon of Reason against the srik! You were Right!” he said, to the voices only he could hear. He suddenly ducked, cowering. “No! No Prophecy! NO!” He let loose an almost inhuman scream of suffering.
Aegan looked on in horror, as the hairs on his forearms and the back of his neck stood up in abject terror. The background clamor of a bar that catered to mages fell suddenly silent or leapt to their feet, as all stared at the mad, fearless instructor cowering in terror of something only he could hear.
The dread word 'prophecy' hung in the air, and lingered in the mind.
A tankard at Aegan's table popped open, its metal hoops no longer able to contain the ale that had frozen solid, expanding outwards against the wooden slats that held in place. His breath frosted in the air, and a layer of frost was creeping slowly away from him, along every surface he touched.
A deep voice reverberated from the very walls, as Master P'Arkon the Dual-Minded un-crouched slowly, standing up to his full height. His eyes were no longer dark, but lit from within by an eerie green light. His breath was visible in the suddenly chill air, and it seemed the vapors were tiny ghosts swirling in agony, each crying for freedom before being snuffed out. The words he uttered were no language issued from the lips of man, rattling and then shattering the block of ice on the table.
Words in a foreign tongue twisted Master P'Arkon's mouth in ways it should not have been able to move, forming words that no human could dare speak.
And worse, those words echoed and reverberated within Aegan's skull, forever to be trapped there.
And then Master P'Arkon feinted, his eyes rolling back up into his head as he slowly crumpled onto a stone floor covered in several inches of ice.
Equal let loose a shrill squawk and instantly molted all of his feathers.
The Presence was gone.
Everyone exploded into action. One mage instantly wove a spell that gently lifted the feinted sorcerer up on a large hand of insubstantial light. Another mage rushed forward, intoning the words of power, and throwing a small glass marble up into the air over the Dual-Minded one. The marble halted in mid-air over Master P'Arkon's abdomen, and the mage used the marble to scan the instructor for broken bones or other trauma.
Someone called out, “What did it say? Did anyone catch what it said?” Another called out, “A linguist! I need a linguist!” Someone else called, “Call Mistress Brin!” “Norion! Where's Norion?! He was just here!” Chaos ensued.
As mages and guards and healers rushed in to help Master P'Arkon, Aegan slowly was pushed back. He was stunned to the depths of his core, and recognized that he was in shock.
A gentle pair of hands from behind guided him to a chair, and forced him to sit down in it.
Eriel's concerned lavender eyes stared down into Aegan's unseeing, pasty white face. Her hands hurt from where she had touched Aegan, and she feared she might have frostbite. She couldn't lay a hand on him to reassure him, or take him out of the spell he was in, so she snapped her fingers in front of his face, and called his name. “Aegan!”
The smith closed his mouth, and swallowed. He slowly brought his eyes up to hers, and she saw that they were switching colors, from brown to green, and back again, as though two molten liquids bubbled and roiled within one another.
She put a hand to her lips at the sight, and involuntarily backed up a pace.
Equal suddenly landed on the table beside Aegan. The raven familiar cawed once, and looked intently at Aegan.
The young smith asked with a very thick accent, “Is… Is Master Arkon, all right?”
Eriel could swear the raven smiled every so slightly.
The bird cawed, and said, “All right! All right!” With unnerving intelligence, the bird stilled, and was no longer a bird. The familiar spoke with the bird's voice. “And now you have heard the voices, too.” The bird squawked, and was airborne in a flurry of molted feathers.
The elf maid, and two nearby mages, were stunned by the bird's words. Aegan merely sat there, staring at where the bird had been.
An elderly mage laid a gloved hand on Aegan's shoulder, and whispered in his ear, “Your master will be all right, young Aegan. He's just a bit overwhelmed by the Voice speaking through him. Why don't you go get some rest?”
The smith nodded, and the elderly mage toddled off, following the crowd that carried Master P'Arkon. Something in the young smith's eyes smoldered, though. Green fought with blue, within his eyes.
Aegan stood with deliberate intent, like a tree rising from the ground where it had fallen. He looked into her eyes and said with his thick accent, “Lead me to the libraries. Now.”
Eriel nodded slowly, her hand lowering from her mouth. She swallowed fearfully, and blinked, staring into his eyes for a moment. Then she turned, and moved so fast she nearly fled him, leading him out of the tavern, and further into the academy.
Stairs of thick oak, oak-planked floors, stone-capped floors, stone steps and stone stairs – all became a blur to her, as she trusted her feet to take her to Selera's Tower.
The great double-doors to the tower were open, and inside was an antechamber covered from floor to vaulted ceiling in books, some stacked, some in shelves, and some covering several desks. Beyond the desks was a large iron-bound door that led into the actual libraries. From the antechamber, Lore Mistress Selera and her apprentices controlled access into the libraries themselves, by means of several spells linked to the iron-bound door.
Mistress Selera herself was on duty, standing from behind her desk. The Lore Master stood with arms crossed and her scowl firmly in place. Selera an Hakiel was an older woman with thick, muscular legs that were shown to her advantage by the skin-tight black breeches she wore. Her once raven-black hair was mixed half-and-half with lustrous white, and the fine lines about her dark eyes lent her a character as implacable as the will that shown behind her eyes. Her short robe of black silk, woven through with runic lines of fine silver, made her seem menacing, and indicated the power she possessed as Lore Mistress for Lok Magius.
Eriel paused, her mind a confusing tangle of thoughts. Aegan had no such confusion. He gently brushed the young elf aside, and growled at Mistress Selera.
The Lore Master spoke in a surprisingly silken voice. “What languages are prophecies spoken in?”
Aegan growled. “I half no time for riddles, Lore Master. I must translate. Open the library door.”
Eriel gasped, realizing her situation. The apprentice sorcerer was threatening one of the most powerful diviners of the mages. Mistress Selera commanded great power, and greater knowledge. Aegan was no match for her in a battle of wills, or of magic – and only Mistress Selera or her apprentices could grant access to the libraries.
The Lore Master asked gently, but with iron resolve, “What languages, are prophecies spoken in?”
Eriel shook her head, afraid of what might happen. She was torn between watching, between rushing for help, and between pleading with Mistress Selera to just let them into the libraries. The Lore Master's rules were ironclad, though; for whatever reasons, no one entered the libraries without answering one of her questions, or that of her other librarians.
Aegan scowled at the older woman, who barely came up to his chin. She stood defiantly behind her desk, unafraid, and dangerous. He did not know the answer, and knew what would happen if he answered wrongly, or not at all – the Lore Master would ban him from the libraries for the whole of the day.
After careful consideration, Aegan answered, “Prophecies are spoken with the voice of the will behind it, and in the language of the power that binds it. It speaks the language of the blood, or faith, from which it comes.”
The apprentice illusionist's eyes widened. What Aegan had said, meant that demons had spoken through Master P'Arkon. The fact that even the Lore Master had felt the power of the Prophecy all the way from the shielded libraries, and known it for what it was, told the young elf that Master P'Arkon had been right to fear a Prophecy being visited upon him.
Mistress Selera gestured, and the great door to the library slowly opened of its own accord.
Eriel let out a whoop, and threw one fist into the air in victory. The sound startled Aegan, much to her enjoyment, and she skipped around him to the opening door. The smith, after blinking stupidly for a few moments, slowly began to follow her like a glacier building up speed.
Inside, the large tower that housed the combined libraries of a thousand mages was intimidating. Shelves reached from floor to too-tall ceilings, and aside from forty or so tables at the front, the wooden casings dominated everything, leaving barely enough shoulder-width to walk between them. A balcony overlooked the tables, showing more bookcases beyond. Several people milled about in the library, quietly studying while surrounded by books or scrolls, or in one case, by tablets of clay.
Aegan swallowed, having never seen more than a few hundred books together in one place, in all his life. He wondered just where to start.
Eriel, having been at the academy for close to a year, knew precisely where to go. The books were organized by topic, and the books on languages were kept closest to the tables. She found the row of books, easily enough, and began to search for any translations of the demon tongues. After several moments, she found an entire shelf on the demon tongues. Unfortunately, it appeared that there were a dozen different dialects, and many of the books were translations written in languages unfamiliar to her.
She curled her hands, wanting to scream with frustration. For there she was, caught up in the momentous activities of a Prophecy, given in time of war, and she found herself powerless to aid the target of that prophecy. She wondered, then, if it had been such a good idea to go straight to the libraries without telling anyone. The delicate elf bit her lower lip, hoping that Master P'Arkon was all right, and hoping that he had not revealed any more of Prophecy without them present. She dismissed the notion, for had he spoken again, everyone would have known. She found it vaguely disturbing that the people in the libraries must have known a Prophecy was spoken, and yet paid it no heed.
Aegan looked at the spines of the books, before slowly pushing Eriel aside, and placing a finger atop the spine of one in particular. He read it, slowly, before pulling it down from the shelf.
A smooth tenor of a voice from the stacks of books said, “Ah, yes. Trikvelkimham Yurshelvitak. An interesting choice, to translate the Prophecy of a demon.”
Eriel and Aegan both watched as a figure in the aisle on the other side of the books walked down the aisle and towards the tables. When he cleared the aisle and moved to stand where they could see him, Aegan tried hard not to stare.
The man was a trifle tall, and skeletally gaunt. His pasty white skin was covered in hideous scars – one of which went through his right eye. The undamaged eye was a pale gray in color, but the eye damaged by whatever had done the scarring was a bilious shade of yellow-green, and slit like a cat's eye. His dark hair was cut to shoulder length, including his bangs, which were pulled back behind his ears – one of which was notched from where something had ripped off a part of its top. The scarred man wore beautifully crafted breeches and a short robe, with a matching cloak of exquisite craftsmanship held in place by a silver brooch of breath-taking quality. Over it all, he wore a dark, cowled cloak that covered his shoulders. The man's clothes seemed to be a marked contrast to his physical appearance.
“Allow me to introduce myself. I, am Norion, journeyman wizard. My master is Delbin Arcanus, Extraplanar Studies instructor for Lok Magius.” There was a harsh, guttural quality to the way he said 'Lok Magius', as though the inflection was that of the dwarven tongue from which the name was taken. “I am the closest thing to an expert on demons that we have, here.”
Aegan assessed the man, noting his shrewd eyes. He analyzed the workmanship that went into the clothing Norion wore, and noticed also a light crossbow hanging from Norion's belt, hanging off to one side and slightly behind the wizard, hidden by the folds of his cloak. A case of quarrels, padded in an odd fashion, was strapped to one of Norion's legs. The smith felt that the wizard was prepared for combat, and had perhaps even seen combat with a demon, by the way he held himself. Aegan knew when he looked into the eyes of a warrior, for he had seen their eyes often enough. Despite the one deformed eye, Norion had a similar look in his eyes, tinged by knowledge no mere mortals were intended to know.
The smith asked, “Did you hear, what it was, that Master Arkon said?”
Norion looked at Eriel and Aegan. “No, I did not understand all that he said while we were in the tavern. It's a dialect unfamiliar to me. I came here, to translate the Prophecy with what I had – when I saw you come in. I recognized enough of the words to know that the Prophecy spoke of you, however, and stood aside to see what you would do.” He reached forward with one hand, expectantly asking for the book in Aegan's hands.
The smith made a brief decision, and handed the tome he had chosen over to the strange, scarred mage. Norion turned without further ado, and went to the nearest table. There, he sat down with the book, opening it to its beginning. To Eriel, he said, “I'll need parchment, and quill and ink. And bring sandstone, as I may make mistakes, translating this.”
The wizard motioned for Aegan to join him, dismissing the apprentice illusionist as though she did not exist.
Eriel feared the apprentice of Master Delbin, as did most of the wizards of the academy. Master Delbin was an ArchMage – a mage of such power as had not been seen since the Storm Wars five centuries passed. That Master Delbin traveled the planes beyond their world, moving through the veils between worlds to explore things that only gods saw, was a point of keen interest for the sylvan Eriel. Unfortunately, she had once seen through the veil when Master Arcanus had brought something back with him from his travels. The nameless thing had caused havoc in the academy for several hours, destroying several shield guardians with ease, before Master Delbin had eradicated it as though it had been nothing but an insect.
There was a wall in the keep where the outline of the nameless creature had been made by the powerful blast of Master Delbin's magics. The walls itself were slightly molten, blackened, and burnt around the outline of the strange six-armed, snake-like creature. The four swords and two long knives that the creature had wielded had been blown into the wall, and the metal evaporated from the indentations, by the force of the magical blow.
It galled the elf maiden, the way the young human had treated her. She wondered, deep down, if Norion was even trustworthy. But for some reason, she trusted Aegan's judgment, and she quickly returned with parchment, ink, and several quills from a side table in the library.
As Norion quietly began writing in a demonic script, he asked Aegan in a near-accusation, “So. You're a frost mage.”
Aegan, intently studying what Norion was writing, albeit upside-down, nodded absently. “Ja. A sorcerer vith no control over my abilities, either.”
The smith recognized several of the words that Norion was putting down beneath the demonic script. The journeyman had put down a phonetic pronunciation of the Prophecy in the common tongue, where he could; some of the sounds Master P'Arkon had made had no equivalents in human speech, and there, Norion used special symbols that almost made sense to Aegan, but were frustratingly alien.
Norion glanced up to meet Aegan's eyes. “There are an infinite number of layers to the Abyss – the place from which all demons once came, and do so once again.” He continued writing, occasionally re-inking his quill from the well, even as he flipped a page of the tome Trikvelkimham Yurshelvitak. “Some of those layers intersect with other planes, and the veil between that layer of the Abyss, and that other plane, is treacherously thin.”
He studied what he had written for a moment, the feather of the quill brushing against his nose. He thought better about something, inked a line through a word, and rewrote the word. “It's possible,” he said in a dreadfully quiet voice, “That one of your ancestors came from one of those layers of the Abyss.”
Aegan's blood ran ice cold. “You are saying that vone of my ancestors was a demon.”
Norion met and held his gaze for a moment. “It's possible.”
The journeyman went back to translating the Prophecy. “A very long time ago – five millennia before the Storm Wars – there was another great battle between Order and Chaos, Good and Evil. One of the sides to that battle – evil and chaos in one – was led by the demons, and the Demon God Argunas. It was then, that many of the demons of Sharareth escaped from their imprisonment on our world. One of them could have, say, raped a great grandmother of yours. It's also possible that your demonic heritage goes back even further than that.”
Aegan scowled. “You are so sure that my power comes from the blood of a demon?”
Norion set the quill in the ink well. “This would seem to say so.” He gathered up the several sheets of parchment he had used, and enclosed them in the book. “I have to show this to Mistress Brin. Both of you, come with me.”
The journeyman was silent, as he led them through the halls of the academy. His skeletal frame had surprising speed, though at the top of each landing, Norion had to pause for a moment to catch his breath. At one point, he slowly began to tell them his story, by way of explanation.
“When I was apprenticed, to a mage in Kashin,” he said, trying to catch his breath. “A demon escaped from my master's control. He was experimenting with dark powers, beyond his understanding. He thought the demon was under control, but it was not.”
They began to pass other mages, some talking excitedly about the war, or even about the Prophecy. A very few recognized that Aegan was Master P'Arkon's apprentice, but few really paid them any attention. Most saw Norion, and moved away from the frightening mage.
Frightening as he was, he seemed to have an inner calm, and an inner resolve that Aegan respected. Norion continued, “The demon savaged me considerably, and I spent three months in bed, recovering.” He glanced at them. “I never found out who the demon was, and I've spent the last three years trying to discover who did this to me.” There was an anger in his eyes – especially the demonic one. “I've studied demons, since that time, in an attempt to find the one that did this to me, and extract my revenge. And I intend never to let another demon savage me, or anyone else.”
Aegan shared a glance with Eriel, and wide-eyed elf swallowed, showing fear in her eyes. She rarely feared anyone, but Norion had a quality to him that frightened her to the core of her being. The elf maid could only trust that Aegan saw something she did not – something he had done quite often, in the mere hours she had known him.
As they continued their journey towards the largest, inner tower of the academy, Eriel felt herself blush, watching Aegan out of the corner of her eye as they slowly hurried along.
Norion bypassed several guards with a scowl, and proceeded to lead them into the main administrative tower – Brin's Tower. As they proceeded up several flights of stairs and down a short hallway, Eriel considered what little she knew about the headmistress of the school.
Mistress Brin was a half-elven woman of young years, but had an aura of power about her that forced the elf maid to respect the head mistress, even though she was of mixed blood. Headmistress Brin's power was considerable, but what had earned her the position through a long decade of service in the King of Rakore's elite fighting forces. Mistress Brin was a Battle Mage – one of those rare wizards whose spells, studies, and practice made her a formidable force of destruction and protection on the field of battle.
Two guards stood on duty, before the head mistress' office doors. Norion's scowl proved insufficient to move them, and so he stopped before them, and said merely, “I have a translation to the Prophecy.”
One of the guards, a sergeant if Eriel remember the rank, thought for a moment with intelligent eyes that scanned all three mages. Mage though she was, Eriel wondered if the three of them would be able to counter fast-moving steel, should the sergeant decide they were a threat. Eriel had never really considered any of the guards a threat, before, and smiled to herself. Aegan's company was drawing her agile elven mind down new pathways, and she reveled in the sensation of having her mental eyes opened that much further.
The sergeant nodded to his partner, and opened the door for all of them, gesturing for them to go through.
Inside the headmistress' office was a small fireplace that threw off a cheery glow. Several oil-burning lamps were hung about the room, and the shutters were thrown open on a starry, summer night's sky. There was a large desk, a serving area with drinks and finger-foods, and another door on the other side of the room. Bookcases covered several walls, and odd decorations were scattered about the room, especially on the small table along one wall. Two small couches flanked the fireplace, leaving the center of the room dominated by a large, circular carpet with archaic runes of power, and a concentrating spiral sewn into it in fine threading.
Mistress Brin was behind her desk, surrounded by paperwork, and looked up at them as they entered and, following Norion's lead, strode to the center of the carpet.
To Aegan, the headmistress seemed a somewhat tall woman with a thin build and a delicate build, somewhat like Eriel. Her ears were slightly pointed, holding back a wealth of dirty-blond, straight hair. Her blue eyes held the power of life and death in them, as well as compassion and kindness. Her blue robes were rather simple and plain spun, and the smith wondered if she still fancied herself an adventurer, rather than an administrator.
The headmistress barely paused to look at them, analyzing them in an instant, and then her attention went back to the parchment before her. She inked her quill, scrawled something on the parchment, and then set it aside, placing the quill back in the ink well. “Yes, Norion?” she asked in a surprisingly lovely voice.
The journeyman mage inclined his head in a slight bow, and said, “I have a translation, Headmistress. It's not as accurate as I would like, but a more accurate translation would take several days.”
“A translation?” He pursed her sensuous lips for a moment, and then understood. “The Prophecy was demonic, then?”
“Yes, Headmistress.” Norion stepped forward and laid the parchment on her desk, and then stepped back, to allow her to read it.
She read the translation for a moment, her fair pace paling somewhat. When she looked up, she looked at Aegan and Eriel both.
The look sent a chill of terror through the elf maid. She had been wondering what was in the Prophecy about Aegan, but she suddenly feared that there might have been something in it about her.
“Norion,” the headmistress said. “Who are the others?”
The journeryman glanced from Aegan to Eriel, and then back to the headmistress. He sighed, and said, “I have no idea.”
Aegan cleared his throat, and strode to the desk. He held out his hand, silently asking for the translation with a nobility that belied his years.
The lead mage of the academy handed over the parchment without a moment's hesitation, and clasped her hands together, supporting her chin as the subject of the Prophecy read it several times.
When Aegan had read through the parchment several times, he handed it wordlessly to Eriel. His eyes had a dangerously green tint to them in the dim lighting, and the elf maid swallowed, suddenly feeling all of her century and more of age.
Eriel's lips read as she silently whispered the words of Prophecy:
“One of our blood, and not of our blood, shall arise when the Sons of Mazripos fall upon the Fourth Bastion. He whom we name 'Gahle liSear', shall find the heart of Her Sons in the Halls of the Pixie Queen, and shatter the Shell Guardians. Gahle liSear shall take with him the Raven Liar to scent them, the Cargdin Mithral to bait them, and a Stolen Thief to retrieve their hearts; else, the Fourth Bastion falls, and the Elder Sister with it in the time of the Harbinger.”
Eriel could feel the blood draining from her face.
Aegan said softly, “I do not understand, this code you call Prophecy. Many of the words are not used… right.”
Mistress Brin sighed, her face still pasty white. “The words are used as Prophecy always is. They make perfect sense, if you understand the context of the words.” She looked to one side, thinking of something. “Aegan, you know the tale of Tot Modree?”
“Aye. It is from my homeland, of Vridara.”
The half-elven headmistress nodded. “I know. I'm from Vridara, as well.” She waited a moment for the stunned Aegan to digest it, and then asked, “Would anyone not from Vridara understand it if you were to say, 'Eat of the fruit from the foot of Tot Modree's tree'?”
The journeyman smith's muscles strained against the fabric of his shoulders, as he tensed them. “No, Headmistress. But I know that it is a mushroom that grew at the foot of the tree.”
“Exactly. The words of Prophecy are given in plain words, but sometimes they don't make sense until after the fact – if we don't understand the context and the translation.”
Aegan drew his brows together. “Vhy, then, vould Norion translate the Prophecy as he did?” The smith and sorcerer looked to Norion.
The journeyman sorcerer asked, “You mean, why didn't I just write the understood translations – for instance, substituting the word 'orcs' for the 'Sons of Mazripos'?” At Aegan's nod, he answered, “Because that way lies mistakes. Sometimes the translations have multiple meanings.”
In the silence of the words Norion was next contemplating, Mistress Brin said, “Aegan. Mistakes have been made, by using too literal an interpretation of Prophecy. Grave mistakes. The gods have gotten rather strict about those translations.” She said it with eyes that had seen the deaths of uncounted numbers of dead, and it made Aegan tremble with the hurt seen there.
Eriel Enelidalithan said in a trembling, little girl's voice, “If we fail, the world ends.”
Aegan looked at her in alarm, and then glanced back to Norion.
The journeyman said, “The 'Fourth Bastion' is alternatively interpreted to be Lok Magius, or Rakore. Either way, the 'Elder Sister' is always interpreted to be our world, sometimes called 'Gaeleth', earth, Mother Earth, Gaeia, Terra Firma, and whatever the local dialects or languages call it.
“If you fail in this, Gahle liSear, then this world is doomed.” The journeyman sorcerer's eyes – particularly the demon-touched eye – were deadly serious.
The journeyman smith glanced to Eriel, who looked about to feint, and gently took her arm to support her. His head and eyes turned to the headmistress, and then to Norion. “Vhat is it, that this 'Gahle liSear' means?”
Norion ensured that he had Aegan's full attention, and then said, “It's another language. A dead language. Something not in Selera's Tower. It doesn't translate into the common tongue. The Prophecy has given it to you as a message, and a warning. When the time comes, the meaning will make sense.”
The Arch Mage's student turned to his superior. “Headmistress, I believe Aegan will know the Cargdin Mithral and the Stolen Thief when he sees them. He will need considerable training that we have not the time for. I recommend enforcing a familiar. In the meantime, I will prepare their supplies – but with a war going on, I will need your authorization to draw the appropriate materiel from storage, or have it made.”
The headmistress nodded. “Do it.” To Aegan, she said, “Both of you – get some rest. We'll work on this more, in the morning. Out.”
Aegan nodded to the headmistress, and followed Norion to the door. The elf maid remained behind, and Aegan paused at the door, glancing from one to the other.
To the headmistress, he asked, “How is Master Arkon?”
Mistress Brin said, “He'll be all right. It was just… a traumatic experience, for him. But he'll be all right. He's in the infirmary, where he'll stay until dawn.”
Aegan nodded his thanks, and then shut the door.
Eriel remained standing in the center of the strange rug, and as the door shut, she transformed.
Her trembling lips and frightened expression became savage and frustrated, and her demeanor changed significantly. She conjured a phantasmal glass into her hand, and threw it at the wall, just to hear it shatter, before it disappeared into mist. Eriel growled at the fire in the fireplace, before whirling to talk with Brin.
“Don't get me wrong! I've got no problem saving the world, Brin, but baby-sitting a frost mage I was thinking of seducing?! What the hell is Brigain thinking?”
Brin crossed her arms. “Who says Brigain has anything to do with it. You heard Norion. It's demonic.”
Eriel tried several times to talk past her anger and frustration, her brows drawn tightly together. “This is – is ridiculous! Four people named by Prophecy are supposed to save the world? For the Demon God?! What the hell is so important out there in the desert that it deserves a Prophecy, and…” She sputtered to a halt.
Mistress Brin muttered to herself, “This is bull.” She had already lost many friends to the orc invasion. More loudly, she said, “But I agree. I've already had two visitors today, and I'm surprised we got through that without another one dropping in on us.”
As if to emphasize her words, there was a nauseous feeling in the pit of her stomach, and it seemed the whole world lurched somewhat. Eriel put both hands to her abdomen, looking slightly green, indicating that the feeling wasn't just within the headmistress. There was a flash of light, and a strange tearing noise, and the two of them were no longer alone together.
The man that stood before the fireplace was tall, with broad shoulders and a strong countenance. His rugged features were shadowed from being backlit, but his hair and beard were cropped close, and showing gray at the temples. He wore leather armor, a long sword at his left hip, and another over his shoulder with the grip up over his left shoulder, with a cloak that stretched across his shoulders, and reached down to his knee-high boots.
Eriel immediately moved to one of the couches, touching one hand to her head, and one to her stomach. “Lord Prat! Your teleports…!” She sat down gingerly, pained by the magical energies his teleportation had used.
Duke Henrik 'Prat' Kamus growled in a bass voice, “There's been another Prophecy. The Baron-and-the-Bishop tells me it was one of your sorcerers, that had it?”
The headmistress nodded, recovering from the lurch caused by his teleport. “Yes. Prat, there's blood on your armor!” With her eyes recovering from the flash of the teleport, the oil lamps were once again enough to illuminate the room, and the duke was spattered in blood from head to toe. His gray eyes had a haunted look to them that made the gray in his hair and leathers look as though they had been bleached out, instead of dyed that way.
The duke nodded absently. “None of its mine. At least, none of it that matters.” His face took on a pained look for a moment, and then he recovered. “Everyone with the gift felt the Prophecy, and we were clear up on Mad Dog Island. Whatever this Prophecy is, it's powerful. Now, what is it, so that I can brief the king.”
One of the most horrible aspects of a true Prophecy was the fact that once heard, it could not be forgotten, even under spells or in the throes of disease.
The headmistress repeated, “One of our blood, and not of our blood, shall arise when the Sons of Mazripos fall upon the Fourth Bastion. He whom we name 'Gahle liSear', shall find the heart of Her Sons in the Halls of the Pixie Queen, and shatter the Shell Guardians. Gahle liSear shall take with him the Raven Liar to scent them, the Cargdin Mithral to bait them, and a Stolen Thief to retrieve their hearts; else, the Fourth Bastion falls, and the Elder Sister with it in the time of the Harbinger.”
She let the duke absorb it for a moment, as he was no doubt replaying key parts of it in his mind. After a moment, he spoke, “I know where the Halls of the Pixie Queen are.”
Eriel sat up, transfixed.
Mistress Brin coughed, and said, “It's out in the Choranil Desert, but we're not sure where. We think it's beneath one of the srik nests.”
The king's advisor on magic shook his head. “No. I know exactly where it is. You remember Seamus Stonehelm?” At her nod, he said, “He and the half-dragon, Xzaxilathalanus, have both been there. In a way.”
The headmistress tilted her head to one side, waiting for the rest of it. The duke merely asked, “Do we know who the 'Gahle liSear' is?”
She nodded. “It's a frost mage. He's still an apprentice, though. He's one of those Vridaran mages you sent to us a couple of days ago.” She frowned. “Damn. Three days ago. Four. I can't remember.” She massaged her brow, muttering again about the 'damned war'.
“Prepare him to battle the undead.” The duke took several strides forward, and pulled the quill from its inkwell. He scribbled some numbers in the margin of a sheet of random parchment. “The Halls of the Pixie Queen are there. They're mentioned in the Prophecy of Al Mudim. The two might be tied together.”
Eriel, finally standing, said, “The Prophecy of Al Mudim was not a 'true' Prophecy, as it were. It was never verified.”
The king's advisor shrugged. “Perhaps. Al Mudim was a weapon of terrible power. I'm already taking measures to safe-guard it. It could, conceivably, be used to destroy our world. Or any world.”
The elf maiden shuddered at the implications. “Lord Prat,” she said, curtsying, and moved to the door. To the headmistress, she said, “I'll keep an eye on our savior. When did you want to tell him what Gahle liSear means?”
The duke asked, “He doesn't know?”
Mistress Brin shook her head. “No. And we're keeping it that way, until further notice.” She turned to Eriel, and said, “You're mentioned in this Prophecy. It's up to you to tell him. I think you'll know when.”
The elf maid slipped open the door, and then slipped out. There was a horrid feeling in the pit of her stomach, and one of the guards just outside the door had to catch her arm to keep her from falling. The Duke Henrik Kamus's teleportation spell was a gross overuse of power that could be felt for miles by anyone sensitive to the gift, though it tended to affect some more than others.
Aegan was waiting for her, outside, and also moved to help her, even though he, too, was showing the effects of the teleportation of the king's advisor out of the office.
When she had recovered and recomposed herself, she put on her sweetest and most vapid smile, and said, “Thank you, Aegan.”
She escorted him to his small dormitory room, one hand on his arm the entire trip. He said nothing, other than to ensure she was all right, and she let the silence lay between them. The elf maid took comfort in the unstrained silence, having already become enamored of the young human's looks and gifts – and then, too, his involvement in a world-shaking Prophecy.
She bid him good night, and ensured him that she would be fine, and could make it back to her rooms without any problem. Once his door was closed, she wove an illusion to hide it, and then hid the room itself from divinations of any kind. After her work was complete, only gods and their minions would be able to find Aegan until he chose to come out. She left several invisible watch-dogs, and just in time, as two students turned the corner of the hallway.
Eriel smiled vapidly at them, fuzzing their minds, and then leaving a spell-weave on the entire hallway. None who entered the hallway would find anything amiss, and their minds would simply glaze over the concept of there having ever been a door there – ever.
She skipped gaily down the hall, gaily maintaining illusions that few could see through.
* * *
Eriel was waiting for Aegan the next morning, when he strode out of his rooms. He was hungry, desperately needed to visit the jacks, so he only nodded quickly at her as he stalked by, heading for the jacks. His hunger would have to wait, though, until he saw to Master P'Arkon. Aegan hoped that, with a war going on, the kitchens would be working at all hours, and not just for regular meal times.
The illusionist fell in beside him, a slight scowl on her face. She knew herself to be attractive, and rarely had such a cool response from a man she knew was interested in her. Aegan seemed intent, however. She greeted people she knew, as they passed, but stayed by his side until the jacks, where she waited outside.
He then strode towards the infirmary, thinking furiously. He suddenly asked Eriel, “Vhat do you know, of the gossip that goes on here at the academy?”
The elf maid seemed taken aback by the question. “Gossip? How do you mean?” She smiled up at him, hoping to understand his question.
“Ve must find the Stolen Thief. The answer may be simple. Vhat is it, that is most often stolen from people, and yet is given away in the theft of it?”
His gaze was strong and certain, and she had no idea what he was talking about. “Ah…” Something in the way he had said it gave her the clue she was looking for. “Love? A heart!”
He smiled with his eyes alone, and turned his attention back to getting him to the serving hall.
Eriel's mind raced furiously. It was obvious, then, that the reference meant the thief's heart was stolen. She knew of no thieves in the academy, however, or even how to find one. Gossip… She started, realizing that he meant not to find a thief, but to find someone who's heart had been stolen.
They spoke quietly with the healer that oversaw the infirmary, and discovered that Master P'Arkon was sleeping quietly. He had been well all night, and was probably sleeping better than he had in some time. Equal sat on the foot of the bed, ruffling his fathers at anyone that approached or was too noisy.
Together, Aegan and Eriel went to the main dining room, which was only a short distance away from the infirmary. The dining room was large enough for close to three-hundred mages to sit down and eat at once, or for a standing room of nearly two-thousand. That morning, it was nearly empty, with huge tables of steaming foods set up on one side, where anyone could help themselves to as much as they liked.
As Aegan served himself a hearty breakfast from the buffet, Eriel's mind continued to race furiously. She picked a table, and sat down at it, thinking on all the gossip she had heard, and trying to remember who had fallen in love recently, or had their heart broken. The list seemed endless, as there was an almost equal mix of males and females of all races, among the hundreds of mages at the academy. She back-tracked, realizing that she was sifting through the gossip of the mages, and shifted her thinking to the gossip of the non-mages – of the academy's staff, guards, cooks, and other workers.
Aegan sat his tray down, and dug in with gusto, hoping to get the meal out of the way. He trusted the 'Raven Liar' to find the 'Stolen Thief', and felt confident about it. The Prophecy still bothered him on a number of levels, and he realized his lack of education in magic was hampering him considerably. Something as simple as mistaking his master's familiar for the Raven Liar, instead of the raven-headed illusionist across the table from him, would be disastrous. Something about the elf maiden, however, made it seem appropriate in his mind that she was the Raven Liar. He didn't trust her, for one.
By the time he was finished, and washed it all down with a light ale, Eriel was shaking her head back and forth in denial. “I have no idea who the Stolen Thief could be, Aegan.”
He shrugged, and after dumping his tray and dishes, led the way out of the serving area. “It's all right. I think I know how to find the Cargdin Mithral.”
Eriel missed a step, and then fell in beside him again. “You are full of surprises, this morning.”
“I have qvestions, though.”
She peered up at him as they walked towards the libraries, she realized. “What kind of questions, Aegan?”
Instead of Mistress Selera, the lore mage on duty was a journeyman wizard by the name of Corunderum. The man was somewhat short, with a thin build, dark hair and eyes, and a strange tilt to his eyes. He asked them, “Why is the range of most detection spells no more than twenty yards?”
Aegan blinked, and looked helplessly at Eriel. She replied, “The length is thought to be linked to the height of the first casters, times ten, but is in all probability more likely a result of amount of magical energies directly translated to distance, relative to the amount of inter-veil power directed through it.”
Corunderum nodded, and signaled to the door to open.
Once inside, Aegan leaned closely to her, and whispered, “I'm glad you knew the answer. I had no idea.”
Eriel smiled up at him. “Be glad that the war might preclude you from suffering through the mathematics involved, for awhile, anyway.”
He shook his head, and then led the way to a side table. He motioned for her to sit, and she took a seat with a slight frown on her face.
She asked, “What books are you looking for?”
“I'm not. At least, not yet. I'm more interested in Prophecy. I vant to know the general answers, first, and then ve can begin a search through the books.”
He seemed calm and determined, with an edge in his eyes that Eriel craved in her human lovers. She blinked several times, and focused her mind on the topic at hand. “What kind of questions do you have?”
Aegan looked down at the table, preferring it to looking deeply into her eyes. “Is it… Trolklecht.” He clenched hands that had bent iron bars in the past, grasping for the right words in the common tongue. “Is it something that must happen? Something that vill happen, no matter what we choose?”
Eriel looked into his rich brown, highly intelligent eyes. “Not necessarily. The gods have given us all freedom to choose our own destinies. Think of the Prophecy as a warning, instead. It's given in just the right phrases, and just the right words, for the people intended to hear them. That way, you still have the choice, but more often than not, you're persuaded to perform to fulfill the Prophecy.”
Aegan squinted his eyes, thinking through her words. “Then vhy vas it in some demon tongue, and not in Vridaran, or the common tongue, or one of the Toomaran dialects?”
She blinked in surprise. “You speak Toomaran, too?”
He brushed the question aside. “Vhy vould it require a translation?”
Eriel took in a deep breath, and then blew out her cheeks, thinking quickly. “I don't know. I do know, that if you don't do what the Prophecy says you'll do, then this entire world will be destroyed.”
Aegan lifted a finger. “No. The Prophecy… The translation said that the vorld vill fall – not that it shall be destroyed. There still might be hope, elsevise.” He scowled. “Ah. I know vhy it vas in a demonic tongue. At least, sort of.” At her inquiring look, he said, “The vording – 'Vone of our blood, but not of our blood'. Vone of the demonic blood.”
The elf maid shook her head. “I don't see how that's really possible, truthfully. Demons just aren't… cold!”
He shrugged. “Very vell. So, this Prophecy comes from Brigain – the God of Destiny?”
She nodded. “Yes. We know it's a genuine Prophecy, and a strong one, because everyone who hears it, remembers it. And it was felt as far away as… distant places, from what the mages said.”
If he noticed her hesitation, he did not remark on it. Instead, he asked, “Vhat if the Prophecy came from demons, and not from the God of Destiny? I mean, vhy speak in the demonic tongue?”
The elf maid looked at all the books in the libraries, realizing that she was not cut out to be a teacher. She said, instead, “Because, my…” She swallowed, catching herself. “Because whomever intended… It had to be Brigain, because he's the God of Destiny. It's understood that all Prophecies come from Him.”
“But vhy? Vhat if, instead, it were a demon? Or… Are there demon gods?”
She slowly nodded her head. “There is one, but he's been quiet for a long time.”
“Vhat if He meant that, vhen I succeed, the vorld will be fall to the demons? Or, in failing, fall to the demons?”
Eriel's mouth moved, but no words came out, as the elf maid tried to wrap her mind around several concepts at once. To her, everyone knew that proper Prophecies came from Brigain. The God of Destiny dictated Prophecy, and His priests and prophets were highly feared and highly respected. Aegan was asking questions that just were not ordinarily asked, and she knew she had not the philosophical training or expertise to argue the finer points of the accords of all the churches of the lands.
Aegan smiled at the situation, and she flashed her teeth in a smile that was not friendly. Instead of a sharp retort, she asked, “And what books were you wanting to study, while you were here in the libraries?”
He chuckled, and slapped his hands on the table, shaking the stout lumber. “I need books on metal-vorking. Specifically, mithral.”
She nodded, realizing that he meant to find the 'Cargdin Mithral'. She had to ask one of the other librarians for the location of any texts on mithral, and she then led Aegan to the far back of the libraries, and up several flights of stairs. After finding several rows of books on mining, Aegan began to pull seemingly random books off the shelves, fingering their spines and their titles, or pulling them open long enough to glance through the first few pages.
He wound up at a table with nearly two dozen books on it, and several scrolls. Eriel randomly looked through books, searching for the word 'cargdin', but unable to find it. Everyone knew what mithral was: it was a metal worked by the dwarves, and by the human smiths in Vridara. No one else in the known world dealt in the light, super-strong, very durable metal. Some of the mages even wore mithral chain, because it was light enough for them to still cast the hand-portions of their spells, and a sort of non-metallic that did not often interfere with spells gone awry.
Eriel had seen a mage that wore steel-banded leathers, and when one of his spells had misfired, the metal had cooked the mage. She wrinkled her nose at the horrid smell of burning hair, and the odd smell of burnt pork, as the memory worked its way up to the surface. Because of that, few mages wore metal of any kind, but mithral was sought out by those few that did.
Aegan went through several books, reading passages, glancing through some, and cross-referencing others. He got up several times from his seat to reference other books, and even brought a book in the Dwarven tongue back to the table at one point. She arched one eyebrow, but he did not notice, so intense was his search.
After the time candles throughout the room had burned down several marks, the sun was almost up to mid-day.
“It's a dvarven vord,” was all Aegan said.
The elf maiden blinked at him, having gotten lost in a strange tome about how acids were used to treat metals, remembering the day before in Danaka's Tower. Much of it had been unfamiliar words for her, but she understood enough to be entranced by Aegan's world.
She slowly gathered her wits, and realized she was hungry. “You're sure?”
“Aye. I do not speak the dvarven tongue, so we must needs speak with a dvarven smith. I've heard only a farrier's work, here at the academy. Are there any blacksmiths, here?”
Eriel shook her head to clear it, and said, “No. The nearest dwarven smiths would be at Lok Giran – on the other side of the mountain. It's where the Baron-and-the-Bishop lives. I'm sure someone there would know about smithing mithral.”
“Then ve must leave immediately. There are things here that I have learned, but not vhat cargdin mithral is.” He put one fist to his lips. “Vhat about someone here, that speaks dvarven? Vould they know, perhaps?”
The illusionist pursed her lips. “Perhaps.” She flashed him a smile. “Let's go find out!”
Two hours later, Eriel was nowhere near as dapper. It seemed that almost anyone who spoke dwarven in Lok Magius knew next to nothing about smithing, and so lacked the definition of the important word 'cargdin'. That included the few dwarves in Lok Magius that were left – each had backgrounds that were scanty in smithing, or lacked the definition of the critical word.
Eriel and Aegan sat on a small, curved bench that faced a circular water fountain, on one of the grounds between the middle walls and the outer walls. The area was filled with thick, ankle-high grass, lush gardens, orchards with a variety of fruit, and bees in abundance. Goldfish swam in the pool of water beneath the fountain, whose magical powers kept the water continually recycling.
Eriel sighed, and put one cheek in her hand, her elbow on her knee. “Well? Should we go to Lok Giran, then?”
Aegan sniffed at a red rose he had cut from a bush, and absently pulled thorns off of it – his callused smith's hands unaffected by the big thorns. “I have another qvestion. About Prophecy.”
Eriel straightened up, her vivid lavender eyes coming alive. She was learning that when this human asked questions, it was wise to think about the answers. “Go ahead, Aegan.”
The smith absently plucked another thorn off the rose, and stared at some of the goldfish swimming in and out from beneath a large lily pad in the pool. “How did Norion know to translate the demon-tongue as he did? Vhat if his translation is wrong?”
“That's easy. Because we remember the translation, as easily as we remember the original demonic Prophecy. He probably had to test each word as he translated it, to make sure that it… 'felt right', in his head.” He looked curiously at him, trying to get inside his head and understand where he was going with his questions.
Aegan was silent for a moment longer, and then said with his accent, “I've gone through both translations of the Prophecy in my head, several times, and the vord 'cargdin' is only in the translation in the common traders' tongue. Where did Norion get it from?”
Eriel blinked at him, two questions pulling at her mind at once. “You said, two translations? There's another?”
“I've not completed the second translation – because I do not know vhat 'cargdin' means. But I think I've mostly completed a translation into Vridaran.” He turned to meet her eyes, the brown color in them intensely intelligent.
She was stunned for a moment, and nearly forgot her second question. She remembered it, barely, and asked, “Okay. So… Do we go find Norion? To translate the word for us?” It had never occurred to her to translate the Prophecy into Elven. She had been thinking in the common tongue for so long… She was both furious and ashamed with herself.
Aegan nodded. “I think not. Norion and several other mages left earlier, to reinforce the garrison at Kashin.”
Eriel was again amazed at the human. As much of a gossip as she was, she felt she would have known if the horribly scarred Norion had left the academy, especially to return to Kashin – the very city where he had been scarred. “How do you know?”
He looked at her as though she were daft for a moment, and then responded patiently, “Because there is a list of who vent vhere. I saw it on the Headmistress' desk, when you and I and Norion took the common translation to her. Norion was scheduled to go this morning. It's possible, though, that he's still here. Ve can find out, rather quickly, I imagine.”
He stood up, and offered her a hand. She gingerly took the hand, once again marveling at the strength in the smith. She was beginning to feel that the human was as much of a challenge as anyone she had ever met, and vowed to figure out what it was about him that was so alluring.
Aegan proceeded to go through the gate in the middle wall, and into the main courtyard. There, he asked one of the guards who was in charge, down in the yards, of the mages going in and out of the gates. A Sergeant Valcone had a copy of the list Aegan had seen, and confirmed that Norion, along with several other young mages, had gone to Kashin earlier that morning.
The smith understood that his only hope of translating the Prophecy lay at Lok Giran, but he worried about the timing. He also still had his doubts about whether he should obey the Prophecy, or shun it, because it might be from a demon.
Aegan thanked the grizzled veteran Valcone, and went to find the academy's steward.
Krevlikair Arthmodine was an older Vridaran gentleman that shared Aegan's accent, as well as his somewhat biased way of thinking about the common tongue. The two spoke in a rapid, guttural Vridaran that Eriel had no hope of understanding without a spell. Unobserved, she cast a spell to do just that, hoping to catch enough of the conversation to understand more about her Vridaran charge.
The steward was dressed in a fine tunic of bright red silk, with golden runes in the trim about the edges. He spoke with a soft tenor, “With a war going on, apprentice, I find it highly unlikely that you'll be allowed to travel to Lok Giran. Large flights of rocs have been sighted long before the war – and now, I fear, they could be anywhere. On the mountain road, you'll be too visible.”
Aegan nodded. “I understand, elder sir, but this has to do with the Prophecy spoken of by the Dual Minded. With the Chaotic One's student gone to Kashin, I cannot translate the Prophecy into action without the dwarves of Lok Giran.”
The steward's face took on a faint look of distaste, but for what, Eriel could only guess. Aegan knew. Like the smith, the steward shared a bit of disapproval of dwarves. The Vridaran mindset and training put dwarves in a similar, evil light to mages. Both men knew the hypocrisy of the situation, however, and worked to keep their disgust to a dying habit, and nothing more.
After a moment of studying the smith, the steward nodded slightly. He continued in the Vridaran tongue. “There is wisdom in your words, apprentice sorcerer. I will ensure that the headmistress is informed of your decision. I assume that you will be needing supplies, since you have come to me. What kind?”
Aegan turned to Eriel, and asked in the common tongue, “Vhat supplies do you think ve vill need, to get to Lok Giran? A day's vorth of food, packs to carry it in? Vhat else?”
The illusionist said, “We shouldn't need anything else. Lok Giran has food in abundance, and regular patrols between here and there. It's only a half day's walk, if that, along the road.”
The smith nodded, and turned back to Krevlikair Arthmodine and spoke in Vridaran. “I would like a sword, then, as well as armor, elder sir. If the rocs are active, then I'd prefer to be prepared whether the dwarves patrol the roads or not.”
* * *
Only one road supplied Lok Magius – the mages' academy – with all its food, luxuries, and supplies. The academy was situated on the east side of the mountain, on a slight pinnacle of rock, with only a narrow bridge connecting it to the mountain itself. On the other side of the bridge from the academy, a number of towers of various types of rock stood as silent guardians to the bridge, each tower constructed of a different type of stone. The dozen towers of different heights and thicknesses were the original mages' academy, until Lok Magius, the Fortress of Magic, had been finished by the dwarves of Rakore. The road continued through the towers, and then turned south to wander along the south face of the mountain, slowly dropping, and occasionally switching back and forth to ease the grade of descent.
Several people lived in the older towers, and the guard kept one of them as a barracks. A paddock around a short, squat tower held ox-sized beasts that lumbered on two legs, and whose huge, square heads held wide mouths. The beasts used the tower as a barn, and the paddock of solid, well-fitted stone seemed barely adequate to hold the creatures, whose tails were thick, fat, and easily as long as a man was tall. Dwarven guards tended to the beasts, yelling at them in the guttural dwarven tongue, and occasionally prodding one of them with a spear.
Other mages walked back and forth amongst the towers, apparently unconcerned with the war going on, far to the east.
The noon-day sun was bright, and from the south, but provided little warmth at their high elevation. Though they hoped to reach their destination by sunset, Aegan had brought a pack with a sleeping roll, torches, tinder, food, and more. Eriel, not to be out done by anothers' paranoia, also had a pack, although significantly smaller. At Aegan's side was a long sword on a baldric; otherwise, the two had no weapons.
Above the two of them, in the clear afternoon sun, the snow-capped peak of Mount Rilan was a massive sentinel that guarded the huge forests that spread all the way to every horizons.
Eriel, full of bright cheer and her lavender eyes sparkling in the sunlight, grinned in good humor.
Aegan seemed distracted and icy, however, and the elf maid's good cheer soon cooled as close to a mark went by. Master P'Arkon, as soon as he had awoken in the infirmary, had locked himself in a tall tower of the academy and refused to come out for anyone.
After they had traveled in silence for a little ways along the cold, wind-swept road of stone blocks, Aegan broke the silence. “Vhat is magic?”
They stepped to the side as five dwarves, all riding along the spine of one of the two-legged beasts, came up the the road. The beast's huge maw looked to have been wide enough to swallow a man whole, but Aegan could tell from the set of the bridle and build of the jaw that the creature was an herbivore. The beast passed them, and the dwarves merely nodded down to the two travelers as they went by.
Eriel's grin nearly split her face, and her eyes lit up. “Well, that's a tricky question,” the elf replied. “How much do you know of magic?”
Aegan smiled at the pure joy in her face, and then turned thoughtful eyes back to the road, and then out to the forests far below them. He thought for a moment, organizing his answer, and then replied, “I know that there are two different types of magic. I know that vone type comes from within, and is a gift of the blood. The other type, is something that is studied, and learned. Vone born vith the gift can do both, but vone vithout the gift can only do the other.”
The elf maid gave Aegan a side-long glance out of her big lavender eyes, a smile on her lips. She twitched one pointed ear, and said, “Correct. You've just described the difference between a sorcerer, and a wizard. Wizards have to study the magic, to cast it. They memorize spell patterns that draw on the energies all around us, and then complete those patterns with simple words, gestures, or even little things that can fit in their hands.”
Aegan glanced at her, studying her for a moment, and then nodded, his stride unbroken.
Eriel continued. “Sorcerers draw their power from their blood, but its because that component of the blood is magical – drawn from the magic of the creatures in their blood lines. For instance, some sorcerers have an ancestor that was a dragon, or a demon, or even a fairy.”
The smith scowled. “How, or why, do people mate vith these creatures?”
Her mouth puckered. “You, my friend, have certain prejudices that you are going to have to overcome.”
He snorted. “You cannot stop love.” He was silent for a long moment, and then said, “If people fall in love vith these creatures, then so be it. If they are born of rape, then that happens, too. Vhat I do not understand is how or vhy a dragon vould mate vith a woman? Or a man, I suppose. Aren't they huge?”
Eriel smirked, and said, “These creature are magical. Like a dragon – it has inherent magics. It's more than some huge creature that flies in the sky; it's a cunning, thinking being that can draw upon its magic. Dragons, and many of the magical creatures, are natural sorcerers.” She smirked at him, waiting for him to make the connection.
Aegan nodded to himself. “That makes much more sense. They can change the people, or alter themselves, or possibly impregnate them with magic.”
She blinked, having never considered the last aspect, before. Eriel nodded to herself, considering the possibilities. She suddenly wondered if some mage or creature could do that to her, and almost put a hand to her belly. The thought was… chilling. She shivered from the cold air off the mountain.
The two of them continued to stride down the road, as the occasional wagon-load of supplies or food trundled up to Lok Magius, or an empty wagon or patrol went back down the road. Most of the patrols were mounted on the strange beasts the dwarves favored, and some of them had chain barding rolled up on the ends of their long, five-man saddles. The dwarves themselves seemed alert and observant, watching to both sides of the road, and even behind themselves, as well as up, into the skies.
“Vhere does this… energy, for magic, come from? The gods?” asked Aegan.
One side of Eriel's mouth twitched in wry humor. “The magic that wizards use comes from energy that leaks through the barriers. All around us exists a barrier, and on the other side of that barrier, lies all the Ethereal and all the other worlds the gods and the ancients have created.”
“Ancients?” He seemed genuinely curiously.
Intrigued, Eriel smiled reassuringly. “There are others, other than gods, who have made worlds. Some of the most powerful wizards, even, have made whole worlds of their own. Often those worlds go on long after the wizards die, and so they continue to grow and develop.”
She looked into the distance for a moment, as they made a switch-back. As she continued on, she said, “Not all of the worlds border ours, simultaneously. Not all of the barriers between the worlds are alike, either.”
“How do you mean?”
“All worlds border an Ethereal, almost mist-like world where things are quite unlike here. There is no gravity.” For a demonstration, she picked up a pebble, and tossed it down the road. “In the Ethereal, that rock would have simply sailed on forever. If my mind were strong enough, I could force it to return to me – or fall up, or even fall down as it's supposed to.”
Aegan's eyes were distant as he looked inward, and then his eyes glanced about, taking stock of the world around them. “The Ethereal borders all vorlds, and all vorlds border the Ethereal; and the Ethereal is dominated by the mind. It sounds like the soul, then, and not the mind, is the true power.”
Eriel nodded. “Very good! The energy of the soul is what determines the ability of someone to shape the energies that leaks onto our world, from the Ethereal. On the Ethereal, our minds can dictate things without the use of spells, but here, where the energy is weaker, we have to harness that energy, and…” She smiled, “Beat it and forge with our minds, first, before getting results.”
He grinned his appreciation of the smithing analogy. “So I draw upon this energy, each time I make things grow cold? My blood, draws this energy in, and transforms it, into cold?”
The lithe elf chuckled. “Yes. In a sense. Although, really, cold is just an absence of heat.” She frowned in thought for a moment, and muttered to herself, “I might do my thesis in Ethereal Dynamics on you, because there's an energy problem if the cold is being drawn out of the air – maybe into the Ethereal.”
Aegan frowned, not quite understanding the unfamiliar words in the common tongue.
Eriel just smiled up at him. “No worries.” More seriously, “The Ethereal supplies all of the energy necessary for magic to work, and on some worlds, the barrier is so strong that there's almost nothing available for magic. On others, magic is very powerful. Here, we have a happy medium.”
The smith asked, “This… Ethereal energy. Is it the same source of power for the Church?”
Eriel shook her head. “Yes, and no. The energy itself is, essentially, the same – but it's not… forged, by anything of this world. Those energies are forged and… beaten out, by the gods, and their servants.”
Aegan frowned in confusion, and so Eriel explained: “Mages deal with the raw energy of the Ethereal – whatever leaks from the barrier. Priests on the other hand have the spell-forms handed down to them by archons – angels and other servants of the gods – and then the priests unleash the completed spell-form. That's how they can heal injuries, and… do other things.” She said the last in a sort of distant, haunted way.
The smith left the painful memory alone, and asked a different one. “This means mages and priests are not so different from one another.”
She shouldered her painful memory aside, though some of it remained in her elven eyes. “Not so similar as you might think. We mere mortals smith our spells rather poorly. The gods, on the other hand, turn out some rather fine work. They're not even considered spells, though the energies are from the same stock. A priest's prayers, when answered by his god, are considerably potent.” She glanced at him, and said, “It's like the difference between a stone knife, and a knife of mithral.”
He frowned. “Then vhy even try, if the products are so inferior? Vhy should a mage attempt to access such power?”
Eriel smiled at him. She murmured something under her breath, her head bent down in determination as she came to a stop. The air around her exploded with butterflies of blue and lavender hues, and then continued to flutter around her in a beautiful whirlwind of beating wings, each catching the sun's light and refracting it.
Aegan was startled by the effect, but the effect to be one of the most beautiful things he had ever seen. After she coyly watched the effect it had on him for a moment, she let the butterflies fly up into the sun, where they disappeared in its brilliant light – their shadows growing tinier until they disappeared.
The ice mage was stunned into silence for a long time, as the wind rolled down the mountain with its cold shivers.
Eriel sweetly asked, “Is it so inferior? Not a one of those 'butterflies' was real! They were all illusions – illusions crafted by my inferior mind.” She arched a delicate eyebrow at him, challenging him to dispute her claim, based off of his statement.
Aegan's face broke into a big smile, and he shook his head, chuckling. He turned, and continued on down the road down the mountain. He gestured for her to join him, and as she skipped up beside him, he asked her a question with a smile still on his face. “How did you do that?”
The elf maiden in her blue and lavender robes continued skipping beside him in short hops, and then settled into a walk with her knee-high brown hiking boots making no sounds on the paved rock of the road. From a wide, brown leather belt at her waist, she pulled book only as large as one of Aegan's hands from… Nowhere. There wasn't a pouch hanging on the belt, but she pulled the book from the pouch, none-the-less.
Eriel held out the book to him with both hands, as though she were handling an ancient relic of immense value. She said with some reservations, but resolute determination, “This is my spellbook. Please be gentle with it.”
Aegan stopped in the road, and gently placed his hands over hers, slowly taking the book from her. He looked from it to her lavender eyes, and then back to the book, studying it. It was dyed in lavenders and blues to match her eyes and the skies above, leather-bound with beaten-copper reinforcement bands that were green from exposure. The clasp on the copper binding was undone, and Aegan saw that there was a, odd-shaped key depression which was required to open the clasp.
“Open it,” she said.
He reverently opened the book, finding inside extremely high-quality parchments, all bound together at the backing with heavy thread and strong glues. The first few pages were all in a beautiful script he had come to recognize as elven. There were places and pages where symbols that were not elven were written. There were beautiful diagrams of things Aegan could not understand, and there were things written in the book that called to him – and others that repulsed him. He turned to a page about half-way through the book that had a sketchy, inked version of Eriel standing with butterflies circling about her. Next to the image were the strange runes, linked together, and seeming to point to the image.
Eriel met his questioning eyes. “Those words, there,” and she pointed with a delicate elven finger, “Are the words to the spell I just cast.”
The smith examined the runes carefully. “So you say these vords, and the spell…” He searched for the words. “Forms the energy between the vorlds, into the butterfly illusion?”
“Yes, and no. In order to cast that spell…” She smiled. “I'm having to think in terms the instructors use, and I'm not used to that.” She stood there for a moment, one leg out, and one hand on her delicate chin. “I have to memorize all of this,” and she waved at the words in the book. “I don't say anything aloud, however, until I'm ready to cast the spell – then I say the final words, and make the gestures, and spell-form completes.
“When I'm memorizing the spell, I'm drawing the energies into my mind, and wrapping them around my soul. The words that you hear, and the gestures, and sometimes the material components – those are just there to complete the spell-form's pattern, and cause the spell to go off.” She looked at him quizzically. “That's a crude way to say it, but are you with me, so far?”
Aegan nodded. “These runes, then, show you the words, and the gestures? Or are they separate from the memorization – from the forming of the spell pattern?”
She smiled gently at him. “Again, yes and no. The spell is written in several parts, and the writing itself has a spell bound to it. You can't just throw down runes, and create a spell – you have to craft a pattern into the runes as you write them, and they you can use them as a template of sorts to memorize the spell, later.”
The smith frowned, staring at the book, thinking.
Eriel gently took the book, and put it back in her invisible pocket. She strode off down the road, and he easily strode beside her.
Aegan said, “So, the spell-form – the template – for new spells is already vithin me, as a sorcerer? I do not have to memorize these runes from a magical book, because I already have them, in a vay, vithin me?”
The illusionist beamed a smile at him. “Very good! The runes aren't within you, though. Make sure you understand that. It's just the spell-form is already within you. Your blood sings with them, and you probably have a lot more within you. Almost all life does, actually, but rarely is there the spell-form to release the magic. That's one of those things critical for a sorcerer to develop his power. Otherwise, he'd never be able to get the magic out of him.”
He scowled. “Vhy does not the Inquisition stamp out these spell-forms, or people vith them? I mean, if that is all it takes to be a sorcerer, then vhy allow these spell forms to be in the… public?”
Despite a layer of warming silk beneath her robes, Eriel shivered again, wondering if perhaps she would not have to pull her heavy cloak out of her pack. The questions the young human was asking were astute!
She said aloud, “It's very difficult to determine what spell-forms are within a person. Their soul is a bright source of energy and power – much more powerful than any spell-form. There is a way to see spell patterns, but it carefully avoids looking at souls; otherwise, it would be blinded by souls. Thus, the Inquisition, thankfully, can never find out who carries the abilities for socerers within them.”
He shook his head. That there were energies – and even entire worlds – all around him, unseen, but present none-the-less, was a strange realization. In a way, though, it fit in with the world-view that the Church espoused. Each Worships' Day, he had gone to the temples with most everyone else. The priests would heal members of the congregation on those days, and sometimes perform other spectacular acts. And they had always said that the gods were always watching – were always around them. The priests also said that mages were all around them, hidden in plain sight, and that the common man must be ever vigilant for mages.
Unbidden, the Inquisition Prophecy came to mind. Lo! The mages shall be silent for five centuries, lest the Dark God return. And in his return, he shall plunge the world into darkness for all time, bound by his minions and in death.
The Inquisition had been born from those words, spoken as they were by many voices all over the world. Aegan knew that men of power could feel Prophecy, whenever it was spoken – mages and priests alike had felt the Prophecy spoken all over Gaeleth.
The Dark God had, indeed, been reborn. Ten years prior, the world had been plunged into darkness as a necromancer – mage with control of the undead – raised an army. The necromancer had come from the west – and most of the Church taught that that meant the necromancer had come from Rakore. The necromancer had gone on to raise the Dark God in service to mortal man, and the world had trembled at the legions of undead unleashed in that act.
Luckily, the Chosen of the Sun God, Arpelos, was there. The Chosen of the Sun God managed to slay the Dark God reborn, and his allies cut down the necromancer and many of his ill-conceived underlings. In that victory, something miraculous had happened. Instead of two tiny moons to give scant light, there was now a huge moon that gave off a dim red light most nights – not enough to ruin night vision, but enough to see by.
Aegan had begun to see a schism in the churches, when some of the priests taught that it was a punishment, scent to bath the night in blood, and show the world its folly for allowing a mage to walk the earth and gain dominion of the Dark God's rebirth. Other priests taught that the new light, called Maroth, was a gift of the gods, and sent to give light during the lonely nights. Of course, for two days out of the month, now, Maroth blocked the sun from rising, it's huge form blotting out even the sun's rays.
Aegan shook his head. He knew not which of the two stories was true – even if either one was true. He was learning that many things that were taught as truth, were not.
The smith said simply, “I am ready to learn, now. Teach me your truth.”
Eriel met those brown eyes, and quailed within the depths of her soul, for there was something infinitely dangerous there within his eyes. They were the eyes of someone who would change the world forever. She blinked, realizing that the Prophecy had as much as said so. She knew the Inquisition Prophecy as well as he. For humans, the Prophecy had been almost twenty-five generations ago – 500 years ago. For her, it had occurred in her grandfather's lifetime.
She took a deep breath, and began to teach him magic as best she could.
* * *
They wiled away the afternoon, walking along the road down the mountain. Occasional patrols or wagons passed, and at one point, a detachment of nearly a hundred soldiers went marching up the mountain past them.
Eriel continued to teach the basics of magic theory to Aegan, sometimes using illusions to illustrate things. Passersby gave them wide berth whenever she was casting illusions, and Aegan kept a steady eye on them, as though expecting them to accuse them all of violating Prophecy and needing to be put to death.
Rakoran history was different than Vridaran history. In Rakore, the mages said that they were the allies of the Chosen of the Sun God, and it was they who had worked to stop and block and destroy the necromancer. He had not been one of theirs, and had they not acted, the necromancer would have won.
A dwarf by the name of Nodrom Fistforger was one of the main leaders in the war against the necromancer. While the War of the Undead was spreading across the planet, it was Nodrom Fistforger and his friends that figured out what was going on, and led the Chosen of the Sun God to where the Dark God was being raised. The dwarf and his allies were also responsible for finding the Godslayer – an ancient sword named for its ability to slay gods – and getting the Godslayer to the Chosen of the Sun God.
Aegan and Eriel were moving along the road on the mountain towards Lok Giran – where Nodrom Fistforger lived. The dwarf had been promoted to a Baron within the ranks of the kingdom, and he also was a Bishop for the Church of Galgiran in Rakore. Known as the Baron-and-the-Bishop because of his unique station, and nicknamed 'Dwarfendale' by his people, Eriel built Nodrom Fistforger into the image of a towering hero, a figure with a beard turned white by the touch of Galgiran himself. Lok Giran itself was a dwarven term, meaning, “The Fortress of the Soul.”
The smith began to feel completely unprepared for the role of Prophecy. While he felt the dwarves that lived at Lok Giran with the Baron-and-the-Bishop would know what 'cargdin mithral' was, he began to fear that he was being unhinged from reality. In some ways, he longed for the safety and obscurity of Gimore. It had been a good, safe little town, completely disconnected from the world of magic and mayhem.
With a grimace, he realized he had put away his memories of ten years before. The Season of Death had touched everyone. Even Gimore had been affected, for six freshly interred bodies of townsmen had gotten up out of their graves. Two of them had cut down members of the guard that were summoned by the high-pitched screams of women and children. As the wave of death rode over the city, the two dead guardsmen also got right back up, answering the unspoken summons of the necromancer.
After that, other undead things had come out of the forests, now and again. Few actually attacked Gimore, and the small temple to Yatindar had been more than adequate to protect the people. Aegan sighed. He rarely brought those memories out – as he suspected many of his people did. It was easier to remember the good, when reminiscing.
The large shadow was all the warning he had, as a roc flew over. The roc was a hawk whose wings spread for nearly one hundred feet tip to tip. Its coloration was a rich brown, speckled with a dun to ochre smattering of feathers, and its head was large enough to support a beak that could snap a man in half, or eviscerate an ox with equal ease. Upon the roc's was a strange saddle that let an orc control the beast, and behind it sat six other orcs, three down each side of the great hawk's spine. Even as the wings beat to stall the creature, the six orcs behind the rider were leaping down to the ground or throwing out ropes.
Aegan glanced back over his shoulder, seeing two more rocs landing nearby. The smith drew his sword, knowing that he would have to somehow defeat the rocs, and the orcs they carried.
Eriel gasped at the drawn sword, and growled out the words to a spell, even as her hands fluidly, frantically moved through the motions of a spell. A moment later, a bubble of energy popped into being around the two of them – and then they both disappeared.
Aegan looked down at where he knew his hands and the sword had to be, but it was nowhere to be seen. He could feel its weight, and knew it was there, but could not see anything.
Eriel laid a hand on his arm, and growled, “This way. Don't do anything but move with me.”
Aegan said, “We have to attack! If we don't, they'll cut off the road to Lok Magius!”
Even though he couldn't see her, he knew where she was from her voice. She used one hand to blindly grope the front of his tunic, and then pulled herself up to his face to growl. “You cannot defeat them yourself. You are one man, with a sword. I can keep them from seeing us, but if you attack, they will see you, and they will kill you!”
An arrow fired from a shortbow crossed right between them, the fletching brushing Aegan's chin. He started, and moved in the direction Eriel led. He made sure the invisible sword wouldn't strike her by accident, keeping it close by his side and away from her as she led him by the hand off the road, and further up the mountain.
She wished she could see him, to better understand Aegan. He had gone from far wiser than most humans she had met, to a simple child, in the space of a few heartbeats. Off the road the mountainside was rather steep, and they were still above the tree line, though it was only five hundred or so feet below them. The near-cliffs provided them a bit of protection as she pulled them around a corner. From the slight crevasse, they could only see one of the rocs, its crew already at work loosening the stone with special tools. A harness was being unfurled, and carefully attached to the roc.
Aegan guessed that they would use the huge rocs to pull aside slabs of the roadway, where they would plummet down the side of the mountain. He glanced at the sun, and figured that it would only take a half mark, or less, to dislodge the first slab of stone.
Eriel blindly reached for his tunic, and found the front of it. She drew the collar closer to her lips, whispering at him. “Don't make a sound. Those rocs have good hearing, and they might hear us.”
She felt him move a bit, and realized he was foolishly nodding while invisible. He caught himself, and whispered, “Aye.”
Other than the whisper of the wind, it was eerily silent – save for the clack of the roc's immense talons on the stone, the grunting of the orcs as they swung their tools, and the sound of sledge hammers hitting pitons being driven into the slabs of rock, some fifty feet away. Two orcs looked curiously about for the invisible pair, but they stayed close by the rocs.
Eriel whispered, “What were you thinking? Do you even know how to use that sword?”
Aegan was silent for a moment, and then carefully said, “Nowhere near well enough to make a difference. I might could have taken three. Maybe four.” There was an odd sound, and she realized it was his sword sliding into its scabbard, muffled by his hand around the scabbard's mouth.
“Then what were you thinking?” she repeated, whispering fiercely. “Why throw your life away like that? Did you forget the Prophecy?!”
He gently grabbed her fist, clenched around his collar, and disengaged it. He whispered fiercely, “The orcs know that this road is the only way to supply food and supplies to the academy. If it is cut off, then the academy will starve. They vill be forced to move, or veakened, so that these rocs can attack en masse. You told me the numbers of the orcs are… almost beyond numbering. If they take the academy, or veaken it, they strengthen their side.”
She was silent for a moment, breathing hard, and thinking. “You're right. But… Rushing to your death wouldn't stop them! Are you suicidal?”
He was silent for an uncomfortably long time, and she reached out blindly to assure herself that he was still there. She found his arm, and he tensed slightly when she did so. His skin was warm to the touch, and that frightened her more than the rocs. It meant that he was completely unafraid of the huge hawks, and the orcs. Aegan was either more foolish that she could have imagined, or was somehow keeping his fear in check.
The smith said, “Ve have to distract that crew – the vone ve can see – long enough for the dwarven artillery crew to get into position.”
Eriel blinked madly at him. He had lost his mind. “What artillery crew? There was no crew out here!” Her fierce whispering was almost a shout, and the roc they could see turned its head so that one of its great eyes looked in their direction.
Again, he disengaged her hand. Aegan gave an odd grunting sound, and then suddenly appeared about ten feet away. His sword was still sheathed, and he had a large rock held to his chest in his huge, muscular arms. He caught the orcs completely by surprised, and the suddenly hurled rock smashed into one with a strange crunching sound, completely crushing the orc's rib cage. Aegan swept up the sledge hammer the crushed orc had been wielding, and spun around, sweeping a second orc's head off its shoulders. His sword was suddenly out, drawn by his left hand, upside-down, and it sliced open a third orc's throat as the smith continued his mad spin.
The remaining orcs finally realized the danger they were in, and began to toss away their tools, and draw sheathed weapons.
Eriel wanted to scream. If she used any other kind of magic from within her bubble of invisibility, then the bubble would collapse, and she would be vulnerable. Instead, she had to spend a moment casting a stronger spell that would shrink the bubble down to her size, and reinforce it against further magics. The spell cost her valuable time, and she had to concentrate on casting it – hoping that Aegan would stay alive long enough for her next spell to be of any use.
When she opened her eyes, two more orcs were dead, and Aegan's left arm hung down uselessly at his side, blood covering the forearm and splashing onto the ground with every hop, swipe, or parry. He stubbornly held onto the sword in that hand, while his good arm wielded the sledge with deceptive ease.
The two remaining orcs that had come from that roc were squaring off against Aegan with small shields and a spear and a short sword. The one wielding the short sword was blindly reaching behind him for the reins to the roc, dangling not far away from his fingers. The immense hawk, for its part, was feasting on the remains of one of the orcs, pulling great gobbets of entrails from its carcass.
An arrow thunked into Aegan's back, lodging into his shoulder blade. Another thunked into his calf, and went half-way through, fletching sticking out on one side, and a bloody arrow head sticking out on the other. Aegan skipped back from the spear-wielding orc, snapping off the head of the arrow as he scissored his legs. The orc with the short sword turned to grasp the reins, and gave them a mighty yank – garnering the attention of the roc hawk.
Eriel furiously spilled the words and gestures that she needed, cursing the need for every syllable and every movement of her graceful hands, because the spell was simply not fast enough no matter how she wanted it to be faster. The spell circuit finally completed, and the pattern unleashed itself in a blaze of blue and lavender bolts of magic that tore into the orc holding the reins. The orc staggered from each bolt, blackened and burnt skin sloughing off from the impact areas of each strike. The orc collapsed under the fury of the bolt storm, the hand holding both a short sword and the reins half-severed, with bits of blackened bone jutting out.
The roc jumped back from the display of magic, dragging the dead orc along with the reins. The remaining orc threw itself onto Aegan, landing heavily on the smith, and beating him with the edge of his shield.
The illusionist screamed, “No!” and rushed towards Aegan.
Aegan clumsily swung the sledge-hammer with one hand, but the procine humanoid blocked the strike with its short spear, continuing to hammer the smith's head between the edge of the shield and the rock underneath. Aegan dropped the hammer, and grabbed the orc's throat with one hand. The creature grinned, a runnel of drool falling from its lips, pulled back from porcine tusks. The runnel of drool froze solid.
The roc exploded in a flurry of feathers.
Eight, nine – Eriel had no idea how many orcs – rushed in towards Aegan, and froze in shock as the roc fell back off the mountain with two arrows of impossible size buried to the wooden fletching in its body.
She looked to the side, seeing the other two rocs and their riders. More orcs were coming, some with bows ready, and others with axes or swords suddenly dropping in their lax hands.
To her other side, crashing down the side of the mountain, came three of the two-legged dwarven mounts known as hippotauns. The hippotaun cavalry carried dwarves with crossbows at the ready – and behind them, two large creatures that moved on four legs, with armored shells and clubbed tails. Mounted on the armored shells of the two beasts were ballistae and their crews, which were already fast at work recranking the huge crossbows, and loading two more gigantic arrows.
In the bare second it had taken her to turn her head from side to side and assess the situation, Aegan had managed to freeze his enemy solid. The orc shattered into a thousand pieces as his fist clenched about the orc's throat. Red, pink, and green ice shards fell everywhere around the smith, as he wearily rolled over, and struggled to his knees.
Behind him, the hippotauns roared on the run, surging forward in a burst of speed. The orc advance ground to a halt, and they all brought up their shields to form a powerful defensive line, weapons just jutting out from the shield wall.
The dwarves fired crossbows even as the hippotauns charged forward. Most of the bolts from the crossbows stuck into the shields of the orcs, but a few went into soft flesh. The orcs stood their grounds, bolts and all, as the hippotauns crashed into their line.
Eriel had had to dodge one of the beasts on its way back, and its mighty tail had knocked her into the struggling Aegan. The two of them rolled over a few times, before he got an arm out, and stopped them – right before the edge of the road. His blood coated her invisible form, making it easier for him to push her back away from him.
She gasped at the raw, searing pain of the touch, falling back from the pain.
He gasped, “Stay back!”
His breath fogged in the mountain air, turning into snow that drifted away on the wind. Sheets of sweat had coated his body from the pain of his wounds, but they were frozen solid – as was the blood frozen onto his left arm and his face. The tips of his fingers were clawed in icicles, one hand in the clear ice of sweat, and the other in the red ice of blood. Incredibly, the flow of blood had stopped entirely as it froze solid.
Worst of all were his eyes. Eriel's pain was forgotten as she stared into his eyes that were an intense shade of bluish-green – the kind found only in ancient and deep glaciers.
The rest of the battle continued on, with the dwarves slowly winning by sheer ferocity against the disciplined orcs.
Eriel whispered, “Gahle liSear!” Her lips trembled, and unbidden, the words tumbled from her. “You are the Gahle liSear!”
He stared at her from eyes that were limitlessly deep for a moment, his shoulders heaving in great gulps of air. Then his eyes rolled back into his head, and he fell forward like a giant of a tree falling in the forest.
She elf-maid was nearly crushed as she moved to try and catch the smith. She had never quite realized how much he had to weigh, and she did little more than slow his fall and bang herself up in the process. She turned to call for help from the dwarves, and found one of the four-legged beasts with a ballistae on its back not five feet away.
The driver gazed down calmly at her, even as the loader and the gunner were pulling out bandages, splints, and other medical implements from a pack just behind the rider.
The two dwarves in chain mail with plates of steel riveted to the suits, leapt down from the armored beast. They paused hesitantly, apparently wary of the blood-covered invisible form.
Eriel concentrated, forcing the spell pattern to go into a cascade failure, and her invisibility fell away like mist. She said in a struggling voice, “Help me,” as the heavy weight of Aegan slowly crushed her.
Both dwarves, one with a strawberry-blonde beard down to his belt, and the other with a rich brown beard half-way to his belt, knelt to ease the injured man off of her.
Eriel looked around at the rest of the dwarves, and realized that the battle was over. One roc had taken flight, though it flew in obvious pain, a huge ballista bolt sticking out of its gut. All of the orcs were slain, and several of the dwarves sported injuries. The remaining dwarves were slowly rolling out a canvas tarp, and covering two of their own, fallen in combat against their ancient enemy.
The dwarf with the strawberry-blonde beard tucked both of his hands under his arm pits to warm them. The one with the brown beard was looking at his hands in distaste. As he slowly clenched his fists, chunks of his skin bunched and shattered.
Eriel slowly realized that her cheek and one hand were very stiff, and she was having trouble catching her breath.
Several dwarves walked up to join them, and examined the dwarf with the brown beard's hands. They spoke in the harsh language of the dwarves with one another, using terse sentences and short words. They wasted little time on speeches or ramblings, and were well to the point.
One of the dwarves, with bright blue eyes and an auburn beard done in one massive braid mid-way to his knees, said, “I'm Brother Kurkin. Who be you?”
Eriel said, “Eriel Enelidalithan, Illusionist for Lok Magius.”
Brother Kurkin, also in chain, but possessed of plates that had strange ridges of sharpened metal, nodded seriously. “Well met.” He began to speak a sonorous chant, with his hands clasped in prayer, and a pendant on a chain about his wrist dangling beneath his hands. The ritualized chant completed, and a blast wave of warm air swept out, throwing hair and clothing about in a wind that originated from the pendant.
The elf maid realized with relief that the dwarf was a priest, and that Aegan was probably in good hands. Kurkin knelt down, and grasped Aegan without apparent discomfort or pain. He tapped with his knuckles at the sheets of ice and blood that covered the human, examining the extent of the wounds.
Brother Kurkin yanked on the chain about his wrist in a fluid motion, and the pendant was suddenly in his clenched fist. He spoke another sonorous chant, with his other hand held palm-down to Aegan's chest. When the chant completed, there was another blast of warm air, as though from a furnace, and a glowing red-orange glow slowly grew from beneath the dwarf's hand.
The ice that covered Aegan began to melt, slowly at first, and then more rapidly, as the glow continued to shine from beneath the dwarf's hand. Sheets of frozen sweat and blood began to crack off of the human's skin, and blood began to flow freely from his wounds.
The priest said, “Baelin, it's safe to bind his wounds, now. Colbut, fish out the rest of that arrow.” The other two dwarves moved to do as the priest had commanded, even as the glow from beneath the priest's hand faded.
Eriel asked fiercely, “Will he be all right?”
The priestly dwarf said, “He's taken some mighty blows to his head, lass. I dinnae have the power to fully heal him. We'll have to take him back to Lok Giran.” He raised his brows to emphasize his next words. “He may not make it. Stay with him, if ye be any friend of his, and talk to him. Mebbe yuir voice will keep him from going over to the other side.”
The elf maid swallowed back tears, and quickly grabbed Aegan's bloodied hand. “Aegan, listen to me. I'm… I'm going to finish your lessons,” she said, desperately casting about for something to talk to the human about. “We left off at necromancy, and how it's different from the other magics.”
She continued to talk to him, even as four other dwarves easily lifted the big man, and handed him up to two dwarves already astride one of the big hippotauns. The driver waited only long enough for Eriel to lightly leap up onto the beast's back, before snapping his reins at the hippotaun. It let out a deep gronk, and then began to slowly pad down the mountain road.
Eriel was afraid that the swaying motion would dump Aegan off to one side of the beast, but the two dwarves that were belted onto the beast's long saddle easily held the heavy human in place. As they passed a shattered wagon loaded with sacks of grain, the driver clucked at the hippotaun, and it lurched into a faster, smooth-gaited canter.
* * *
Captain Loren Razorbraid rubbed the stubble on her two-day beard, and once again contemplated letting it grow out fully. It would never grow more than a half-inch in length, but shaving it was a chore she had little luxury for since the war had started.
Loren was head of the Baron-and-the-Bishop's personal guard, and had also taken on the additional duty of being the head of the immense Lok Giran household.
Before the war, Lok Giran had held close to five-hundred dwarves, mainly from the Wirebeard and Rubynose clans. All had gathered at Lok Giran and sworn fealty to the Baron-and-the-Bishop Nodrom Fistforger because of his strength of purpose, practical acceptance of magic, and ruthless warrior's abilities. The Baron-and-the-Bishop – or just plain Dwarfendale as most of the dwarves called him – had even been touched by the hand of the Forge God himself. The experience had left Dwarfendale with snowy-white hair that belied his relative youth.
Loren and many others had fought by Dwarfendale's side, in the fifteen years they had known him. She fully expected to fight by his side for another century or more, before finally falling in battle. She was a warrior, and even her taken name showed it. Like most western dwarves born outside of holy wedlock, Loren could not take her clan name. She had, instead, earned it under the general onus given to such bastards as herself. The name 'razorbraid' came from the six swing-blade razors braided into her long hair. She had killed before with the braids, and she knew she would kill again with them – even though she preferred her trusted short sword, forged by the Baron-and-the-Bishop himself.
When the ograns invaded, Fortress of the Soul had shifted from making tailored weapons and armor of highest quality, to mass-producing the highest-quality armor they could. The forges had been opened up to full, to take advantage of the winds that assailed the western side of Mount Rilan. The captain did not approve of the change from quality to quantity, but she understood the reasoning. Lok Giran had also begun making preparations to evacuate the town of Rilan, at the base of the mountain.
The head of the guard growled at the security precautions that were being thrown off a cliff.
The guards she was overseeing were doing a fair job of checking wagons bearing supplies and coal and raw metal, without slowing down the traffic considerably. What bothered her was the sheer number of wagons, people, and equipment going in and out of the fortress. Little of it was above ground – no more than two huge towers to oversea the practice grounds, and a carved-out wall of the mountain with arrow slits and accommodations for less-dwarven visitors. Besides that, only the forges and wind-funnels were not buried beneath tons of solid rock.
Even as she thought it, she saw something that caught her eye. A human female strode up to the guards, clad in plate-over-leather armor, with a large composite bow slung over her back beneath a pack, and two quivers of arrows on either thigh. The woman had brown hair cropped short at her shoulders and bound back in a tiny pony-tail, and a strong, manly build. The metal of the partial-plate armor was a dark-blued metal that made it black, and when coupled with the darker leathers of the human, it reminded Loren of poor camouflage: noisy, smelly camouflage.
Loren shook her head at the silliness of combining partial plate armor with archery. The woman turned in her bow, quivers, and two large knives, and subjected willingly-enough to a search. The guards spoke with her, and scowled. That scowl, in turn, brought Loren moving towards the guard point in a huff.
When she was close enough, she asked in the dwarven tongue, “What's the problem, Torner?”
One of the dwarven guards with a scowl turned to her, and said, “She saw a roc with a ballistae bolt in it, down in the woods.” The dwarf turned back to the human that towered over him, and said in the traders' tongue, “This is Loren Razorbraid. Tell her whot ye told us.”
The human nodded, and pointed off towards the south. “I was on my way up to the mages' academy, and saw a huge bird sort of falling and gliding down into the forest. It crashed into the trees, and when I went to see what had happened, it turns out that it had a ballistae bolt in its gut. There was also a saddle on it, though there was no sign of orcs.” She had a nice timbre to her voice that the captain instantly liked, and because she liked it, she instantly hated it.
The head of the guard merely nodded to the human, and then turned to one side and put her fingers to her lips. She whistle shrilly, and waved people over three times in a dwarven signal for cavalry. Two dozen hippotaun riders began saddling up their beasts, herding them towards mounting platforms, or gathering up infantry.
Loren turned back to the woman. “Can you lead some of my people to the bird?”
The human nodded, and said, “Yes.”
Just then, a horn blared from one of the towers guarding the practice field. The ram's horn signal indicated a medical emergency, and by it coming from the south tower, it meant the medical emergency was coming down from Lok Magius. Loren scowled even further, bunching her dirty-blonde eyebrows almost together over her fierce blue eyes. Mages would have use a teleport or the like, if they were powerful enough. The patrols along the roadway up to Lok Magius, though, were another story.
Loren said to the human, “Stay here.” The dwarf pumped her short legs in a hasty march towards the great double-gates that led into Lok Giran. The doors were made of solid stone, crafted from the mountain itself, and so perfectly balanced that one dwarf could open or close each of the twenty-feet wide doors.
Brother Gawain Rubynose and close to a dozen other clerics were already running up to the great double-doors. When Gawain saw Loren, he barked in the dwarven tongue, “What is it?”
She answered, “We don't know, yet. It's likely one of our patrols that engaged a roc-borne raiding party along the road to Lok Magius.”
Gawain moved down to a walk, and waited at the massive doors with Loren. The other healers and clerics began pulling out bindings and litters in preparation for what might come. A wagon loaded with pig iron rumbled by, pulled by close to eight draft horses.
Gawain was short even for a dwarf, with an over-sized dwarven nose the color of too much mead and ale. His graying brown hair was thick and unruly, and almost the same color as the chainmail he wore beneath his clerical robes of office. A medallion with the symbol of the Forge God – a double-anvil – shown in mithril between the twin braids of his forked beard.
The cavalry commander rode up to Loren aboard his hippotaun, and they quickly exchanged commands and instructions. Loren had Gawain give the cavalry five clerics to ride out to meet the injured with, while the rest remained behind.
Minutes after the clerics had ridden out with two dozen hippotauns and close to a hundred dwarven infantry, two hippotauns and their riders returned, escorting between them a patrol mount with an odd crew on its back. It took Loren a moment to realize what the three dwarves, an elf, and a human on the hippotaun's back were about. The moment she understood, she signaled to Gawain.
The patrol mount quickly made it to the great entryway, and the driver saluted Loren.
Captain Loren said, “Report.”
The driver paused for a moment, as the clerics and priests surrounded the hippotaun mount, upsetting it. The clerics soon had the human down from the beast's back, and laid him upon a stretcher. The man's side was soaked in blood, and blood covered the saddle and the sides of the hippotaun. The driver had to fight against the beast for a moment, before it settled down. The elf leapt lightly down to the ground, and after a quick nod to Loren, followed the human further into Lok Giran.
Once he was confident his beast wouldn't bolt, the driver said, “We had three rocs an over a dozen orcs tryin tae take apart a chunk o the road, like usual. We were still linin up tae fire ballistae at the first roc, when the human appeared from nowhere. We'd seen him an the elf walkin down the road a mite before, an thought them clear of the rocs when we did'nae see them, but…” He shrugged. “He killed four hisself, usin a sword an a hammer.” He said the last with proud, and then spit at a change in the story. “The elf, she killed one, usin magic.”
The dwarven race had never been fond of magic, even though they saw the necessity of it. The Wirebeard clan, from which the driver came, was more against magic than most, but Loren couldn't fault his reasoning.
She asked him, “What of the rest of the patrol?”
He looked grim. “We lost two. The rocs bit Rothit Wirebeard in half. It took eight orcs to bring down Grambit Orcbane.”
Loren sighed. “Would they have died, had not those two gotten involved?”
“I think that, in Galgiran's eyes, the one wit the hammer done good.”
The captain nodded, and slapped the hippotaun driver's foot in respect. “Go get the blood washed off that beast. Hai!” She slapped one of the creatures short fore-limbs as it absently grabbed at her hand, and the driver pulled on the reins to turn the hippotaun about. Loren ducked as the massive tail went over her head.
The woman with the dark half-plate armor strode up to Loren. Her expression was a mix of concern and distance. “Victims of the party that fought the roc?”
The captain growled. “Aye. The fool human nearly threw his life away for nothing. He's lucky. Nearly as lucky as those shit-for-brains elves.” Loren appraised the human more closely. She was tall for a human, and strongly muscled. Her strong jaw seemed almost dwarven, and her eyes had the tint of one who had seen battle. The dwarf guessed the human to be no older than thirty, but reasoned that with humans, it was hard to tell.
“You got a name, human?”
The woman smirked, and moved to rest a hand on a long-bladed knife she wasn't wearing. Instead, she hooked her thumb into her belt, and said, “Anna Helldove. I'm one of Sir Bridar's people.”
Loren grunted. Sholkhan Bridaraarayus was one of the huge desert elves, long ago bred and magically altered for war by some forgotten empire of elves. 'Sir Bridar' as he was more commonly known was one of the Baron-and-the-Bishop's reeves, as well as Chief of the Guard in Rilan. The captain figured she had met all of Bridar's people; that she did not know this 'Anna Helldove' raised the hackles of her security-conscious mind.
The captain said, “Kneel,” and placed her hand on her short sword's handle, clearing the blade from the scabbard by an inch. Several nearby guards, perhaps responding to the tone of her voice, or the expression on her face, completely drew their weapons.
The human looked around with a warrior's eyes, and then reluctantly went to one knee.
Loren reached under her chainmail with her other hand, and brought out a medallion with the Forge God's symbol on it. She spoke softly and reverently in the dwarven tongue. “And when Nodrom met the duergar in the Hall of Ancestors, he spake with them in the Olde Tongue, and asked them why they came for the skeleton of Thromburgin. And the duergar answered, 'For the bones of our brother, have we come, for in his life, did he pledge himself to our god.' And Nodrom asked ye, Oh Lord, to know the truth of what they spake…”
The captain of the Baron-and-the-Bishop's personal guard felt the power of the Forge God's blessing fall upon her, and a hot wind blasted out from the medallion, before stopping at a circle that appeared in the stone of the ground. The circle writhed with the colors of a hot forge, but was as narrow as the blade of razor – seen only by a thin line in the afternoon sun.
Loren Razorbraid used her command voice: “Speak the truth. Do not lie. Tell us your name.”
The woman's dark eyes went from the circle that encompassed her and the dwarven woman, to the dwarf's blue eyes. There was menace, in the dwarf's eyes, and an odd sort of compassion. Swallowing, the human spoke the truth.
“I am Anna Helldove.”
Loren commanded, “Name thy master.”
Anna opened her mouth to speak, and instantly knew she could not lie. The area defined by the Forge God's blessing forced all within it to speak the truth – or be consumed by the heat of the forges. The human swallowed, again, and began to sweat. She could not seem to think fast enough, and knew that she was surrounded. Standing just outside the circle of truth were close to two dozen heavily armed veterans.
The human closed her eyes, and shook her head – refusing to speak for fear it would be the death of her, either from the dwarves, or from her true master. She was revealed, and she had not even managed to get inside of the fortress.
Captain Loren kissed the medallion, and whispered a prayer of thanksgiving to the Forge God. The circle of razor-thin fire flared, and then winked out. Her dwarven warriors advanced, and took hold of the human woman.
Loren said, “Since you kinnae name your master under Galgiran's blessing, you are named as our enemy. Attempt no magic, human, for within this keep, magic will kill you.” She gestured to the warriors, who began to drag her towards the southern great tower – and the cells it held there.
One of the dwarves watched them take her away, and then turned to the captain. “D'ye want her executed?”
The captain shook her head. “No. I want to know who her master is.” She looked the guard in the eyes. “See to it no one harms her, and she doesn't escape, Kaelwin. Dwarfendale will want to speak with her.”
“Aye, Loren.” He saluted with a clenched fist that rang off his master-crafted plate-and-mail.
* * *
Fear held him down. It kept his eyes closed, and his mind distant. Aegan was afraid of consciousness, but his disciplined, ultra-rational Vridaran mind refused to allow him to sit idly in the darkness of his skull forever.
Instead, his thoughts turned around his quest, even as pain lanced at the edges of his consciousness, where he fended them off with half his attention. The rest of his attention was mesmerized by the bits of Prophecy that fought within his mind. He was awestruck to see and feel and hear the words of Prophecy over-lapping in twin languages, cut up into proper word-order sequences by his subconscious. He realized that the demon-touched part of his soul was translating the Prophecy for him – and teaching him the words of the demons' tongue at the same time.
In horror, Aegan looked further within himself, even as something else ate away at the edges of his consciousness. Whether it was pain or something else, he totally forgot and ignored. Further down, within himself, he searched. It was no longer a retreat from the pain, or fear of the hurt, but a desperate need to see what else was there, within him. The Voice of Prophecy was speaking in his mind.
Like flotsam in a storm, bits of the terror of the Scarlet Skies swirled around his consciousness. Srik attacked from the darker recesses of his mind, and behind them, some sort of srik so huge that its shadow brought night to day. Behind it all, the great, huge form of bloated Maroth slowly rose into the background of his soul.
Something within his soul was unlike anything else in his mind. It was alien. It was not a part of him.
He touched it, horrified to find something within him that was not himself – something that reverberated with the demon tongue. He looked full at himself, eyes the color of green glacial ice, and saw himself through his own eyes – hair white with roots of that same glacial green, skin a pale green-blue, and a goatee of ice that snarled back at him. He saw what he was to become, and in fear, hefted his blood-covered hammer high to smite himself. His icy self raised fists with knuckles of icy blades, ready to smite him back.
There was fear in both sets of eyes, as he looked at himself through a pair of green eyes, and a pair of brown eyes – both afraid of what was to come.
He clawed to consciousness as quickly as he could, suddenly more afraid of what he saw within himself than he was of any mere physical pain. The pain exploded through his head, his back, his leg, and his side. He was vaguely shocked at the pain in his side, wondering where that wound had come from, even as he screamed in fear.
Two burly dwarves held onto his forearms, barely holding him down with all their body weight. A solid coat of ice nearly an inch thick covered their hands, and still they held on, the ice cracking with the force of their strain.
The sudden jolt of cold, from his body, and from deep within his soul, caused him to scream in agony.
Something in his side shattered, and merciful blackness claimed him.
Gawain Rubynose stood in dumb-founded silence as the human passed out. He said in an awe-struck voice, “Tdinael ock Morad'Din…!”
The two dwarven clerics holding the humans arms down could only grimace, unable to let go if they chose to, for all the ice holding their hands down. Worse, bits of their beards were caught in the ice, and they couldn't pull away from their hands to get a proper grip without yanking out beard hairs.
Eriel, unable to touch the freezing human, dared put her cheek to his mouth, desperately trying to feel his breath. She felt it, and it was icy cold against her cheek. The elf pulled back in a hurry, and looked at the spear shaft in the dwarven cleric's hands. The shaft had shattered off of the head, which had been ejected from the wound in a shower of metal – frozen so cold that it shattered within Aegan's side.
Gawain blinked numbly, and then looked down at the spear shaft still in his hand. He shook his head to clear it, and then threw the shaft over his shoulder. Intoning words of prayer to Galgiran for heat, light, and a merciful reforging of the body, he again set to work repairing the damage the orcs had done to the human.
The dwarf had respect for warriors of all races, but the human beneath his healing hands had earned the blessings even of Galgiran, as the cleric felt the power of the Forge God flowing through him. Despite the heat of a god, something within the human fought it, absorbing the heat, and sucking it deep down into him as though the Void existed within his heart.
Gawain refused to give up, so long as Galgiran granted him power, and continued the slow healing. He had felt the power of the Prophecy that had been spoken the day prior. The dwarf had no doubt in his mind that it was too much of a coincidence to be healing such an individual that day after Prophecy; the man beneath his hands was involved in that Prophecy, as surely as Galgiran's power flowed through one to the other.
On the other side of Gawain, another pair of lips invoked the power of the Forge God, and another pair of hands joined the dwarven cleric at his healing. Without looking, Gawain knew it was his twin brother, Garan. Garan's power added to Gawain's, and the unity of the two prayers, spoken in perfect harmony, only added to the power of the prayers to the Forge God for more healing power.
Minutes passed, with the twin Rubynoses chanting in unison, and even the two dwarves holding Aegan down adding to the chant, for they, too, were clerics.
Eriel shook her head, refusing to believe any of it. She was an illusionist – a master of trickery, subtlety, and sensory lies. She knew that, sometimes, it was possible to break an illusion, no matter how perfectly crafted, if only one truly believed that their senses were lying. She was desperately refusing to believe the evidence of her chilled skin, her fogging breath, her straining eyes in the dim room, and the smell of blood that alternately froze and boiled.
A hand on her sleeve nearly startled her out of her wits, and she looked over, and then down, to meet the blue eyes of the dwarven guard that had been in charge, when Aegan… Her eyes jumped to Aegan, lying motionless on the stretcher that had not even made it to the infirmary. The hallway was choked off on either end by dwarven guards.
The female dwarf grabbed hold of Eriel's robes in a gesture that brooked no argument, and drug her away from Aegan and the healers.
Loren hated dealing with flighty elves, and the one she drug away from the human seemed flightier than usual. The captain pulled the elf into a side room that was filled with offices that were normally busy – but the commotion in the hallway had scattered the occupants.
Loren growled, “Who is he?”
The elf stammered for a moment, and then said, “He is the Gahle liSear.”
“What in Galgiran's forge is a Gahle liSear?!” Loren grabbed the elf's collar and pulled it down to her level. “This fortress is warded against magic, girl. What's happening out there is not supposed to be possible!” The intensity of her blue eyes wavered for a moment, and then in a more calm voice, she asked, “How did he even survive long enough to reach the fortress? What is he?”
Eriel sat down on the edge of a desk, and tried to contain her emotions. “He…” She started as she realized she could see her breath in the air. The elf swallowed, and said, “He's the Gahle liSear. The Gla-…” She caught herself, and swallowed. “He's a sorcerer, with the blood of demons in his veins.”
Loren easily shook the slight elf. “That shouldn't be possible, girl! The power of his blood should be as muted as any other mage, within these halls!”
Eriel realized with sudden clarity that Aegan's powers were not coming from his blood. For his chilling powers to still function within the halls of Lok Giran, specifically warded against mages in order to better protect the protectors of mages, meant that the spell-forms within Aegan were crafted by a god.
The captain suddenly released Eriel's collar, and asked with a frightened voice, “What, girl. What d'ye see?”
The elf's eyes were wide, and their whites showed all around as she stared into the distance, seeing and understanding something terrifying.
Eriel whispered, “Argunas.”
Loren scowled. “The Demon God? He has no power within these halls, either.” She spit upon the floor. “Only those allied with the Soul Forger have power, here, in the Fortress of the Soul.”
The elf looked at Loren as though she were daft.
After a moment, the captain understood. The blood drained from her face, and she bolted from the room, her braids flying behind her.
In the hallway, the dwarven guards kept everyone else at bay, but most of those held back by the guards were not trying to get by, so much as they were trying to witness something alien in the Fortress of the Soul.
Loren built up as much speed as she could, and then bowled over Gawain with ease. She used the impact to change her momentum enough to shove Garan away from the human, as well. She raised one fist within the other, and brought it full down upon the ice holding one guard's hands in place. The ice shattered, and the guard staggered back, bits of ice still stuck to his beard and his knuckle hair. She did the same to the other guard's hands, freeing him from the ice that bound him.
Frost instantly began to form on the litter, and then creep up the walls and around the floor of the hallway.
Loren called out to the clerics, “Alvsavor's prayer!”
All of them grasped their medallions, and began to chant the prayer to Galgiran regarding Alvsavor, when he faced an ice dragon in the heart of an ancient glacier. The Forge God granted their prayers of personal protection from the cold with a blast of fiery furnace heat from each medallion, and a rush of hot wind that blew aside their hair and beards.
Eriel, peering out into the hallway from the door entrance, watched as ice slowly thickened around Aegan's still form.
Loren motioned the other dwarves back, simultaneously checking one of the clerics' hands to make sure he wasn't frost-bitten.
Silence existed for a moment, frozen in time.
Nothing happened, and no one moved, listening and watching the still human form.
He suddenly took a deep breath, shattering the ice around his ribs and chest, and then he turned onto his side, coughing up bits of warm blood. Ice continued to shatter as he moved, and his breath fogged in the cold air.
Aegan felt like he was coughing up a lung, and couldn't seem to breath past the thick mucous, vomit, and blood that seemed to clog his airways. Ice was everywhere, and though he felt numb from the cold, his side no longer hurt. His headache was gone, as well.
The young smith dimly wondered why all the dwarves were staring at him, and coughed up the last of the blood in his airway. He croaked out with his thick accent, “Does anyvone here know,” and he hacked up a bit of something he didn't want to think too closely about.. “Vhat 'cargdin' mithral is?” He coughed, again, covering his mouth with his fist, and relishing the heat of his breath on his hands.
* * *
Anna Helldove paced in a small circle within her small cell. The ceiling was only inches over her head, and the bed was sized for a dwarf. She had already tried to take a nap, but she had been forced to lay at a diagonal in order to stretch out, and that left either her head or her feet trapped up under the small bed.
She paused before the tiny, barred window that was barely large enough for her face to look out. She was on the fifth floor of the great tower, and she could see the sun setting on the distant horizon – and little else. A few wispy clouds captured the reds and golds of the sunset in beautiful colors.
Anna took a deep breath, and then sighed. She sat down on the small bed, and rested one hand on her palm, her elbow on her knee.
Her other hand tugged absently at the choker she wore at the base of her neck, half covered by her leather and half-plate. Inwardly, she cursed her stupidity. The choker would, supposedly, have protected her from the blessings of Galgiran that supposedly guarded Lok Magius against all spies and intruders. She had only to get inside and begin looking around – or so she had thought.
The mercenary stared at the floor, half-wishing she'd never taken the assignment. The up-front pay had been too good to be true. Her casual questions about Lok Giran had elicited too-eager speakers to wax loquaciously on the majesty and beauty of the inside of the Fortress of the Soul. She had even mapped out the fortress in her mind, noting escape routes (none known), areas of interest (all of the back of the fortress), and possible danger points (everywhere). She had volunteered for Sir Bridar's special rangers, who patrolled all the region of Mount Rilan. The huge desert elf, to whose arm pits she barely reached, had not only said no, but he had been watching her since she had arrived at Rilan from the city of Kashin.
Anna had not realized her mercenary activities were so well known that the reeve of Rilan would know her on sight.
She also realized that she, herself, was not so important in the grand scheme of the mercenaries operating out of Kashin, and that meant her current employer had been compromised.
Ann leapt to her feet, and growled, watching the twilight of the west through her tiny window.
If the Baron-and-the-Bishop questioned her, she would have to give up her employer's name. She would have to choose, then, to either die by the hand of the Baron-and-the-Bishop, or by the hand of Doom Rex.
She banged her fist against the stone of the wall, frustrated with her inability to see a way out. Her choker would protect her against detection spells and prayers for guidance, and it was only as she was being led off to her cell that it would probably have protected her against the dwarf-woman's prayer to Galgiran. Anna had let her fear and lack of understanding of priests for just a moment, and it had cost her dearly.
The guards had not even bothered to search her. She pulled one of her many blades from beneath a plate of armor, and stared at it dully. The mercenary hoped she could get it into some dwarf's face, for their armor looked nearly invulnerable.
The door to her cell was a block of stone, hinged to the wall by five iron hinges bolted in – and it was on the outside of her cell. The door was held locked by a stone and steel bolt that was on the other side of the door, and completely inaccessible from the inside. The stone of the doorway's edges was angled and beveled, so that even if she could wedge one of her thin blades into the gap between the door and the wall, she could do nothing with it. The hinges themselves were the only things holding the cleverly cut stone door up, so that if someone were to disable the hinges or shatter them, the weight of the door would keep her sealed in.
One of Anna's hands went to a scar on her upper arm that her mind remembered more than her body, especially since it was underneath a section of her darkened metal armor.
Doom Rex had bested her without even looking at her, as though it had been beneath his dignity to recognize a warrior as poor as herself. Anna had killed over thirty men – five of them in hand-to-hand combat. The Doom had an aura of menace that indicated he could kill thirty times her thirty dead men, and not break a sweat.
His double-bladed sword was a weapon she could not fathom, and had never encountered before, and his full plate armor covered him from head to toe in steel. She had never seen more of him than his too-intelligent gray eyes.
Pinned as Anna had been on the floor, helpless beneath his seemingly negligent power to kill, Anna had understood that failure to accept the assignment would result in her ceasing to exist – and possibly worse. Anna's mother still lived in Takanal, with her younger sister. The Doom had twisted the blade in her arm, without even looking at her, and then stepped away.
Anna had been wounded before, and she knew that she would bleed to death quickly. As she began to feel light-headed and her blood poured out of her in a spreading pool on the ground, she had seen the kind of assignment in store for her. What had angered her the most, though, was her inability to convince herself to attack with the last of her life. Even knowing she would die, she had been unable to throw herself upon the Doom's blades and die like a warrior; his power over her, and her fear of him, had been that strong. She still hated herself for that moment of weakness.
She punched the wall, again, feeling the strength in the arm through which she had nearly bled to death. She felt the strength of her muscle throughout her body, and resolved to battle her way through the dwarves, or die trying.
As though the gods were granting her a chance at her wish, she heard the lock of the door clank open. The door slowly began to slide open, even as she pulled throwing blades from beneath her armor, slipping one between each knuckle, both hands behind her back and ready to deal death the moment she had a clear shot.
The room was nearly dark in the dim light of twilight, and no torchlight spilled into the cell to grant her a target or light to see by. Remembering that dwarves could see in the darkness far better than humans, she waited until the door was open only a few feet, and three two blades at what she judged to be face level on a dwarf.
She jumped back against the wall, and kicked off with both feet. She intended to use all her weight to force the door the rest of the way open, but as her feet hit the stone of the door, she realized she had made yet another mistake that day.
A huge, slender, tattooed hand reached in and negligently grabbed her entire head, the palm squashing her nose with the crack of broken bone. The hand pulled her momentum over her feet and let go, slamming her against the stone of the door.
Slightly dazed, Anna lashed out with both fists still full of blades. The blades met boiled leather that turned aside her strikes, and then two of the huge, tattooed hands easily pinned her arms. With a deceitfully easy grace, she was spun around so that her arms were pinning her against the torso of what had to be Sir Bridar, the tall desert elf from Rilan.
Anna thought she would have had more fire in her, but something in her just gave out. She collapsed, letting the giant elf hold her weight up, and just shook her head, amazed at her own sudden lack of fear, fire, or anything resembling will within her. She realized she no longer cared whether she lived or died; whether her mother or sister lived was out of her hands; all of her life was suddenly out of her hands. She was in the hands of a reeve – and authority figure – and simply did not care.
Sholkhan Bridaraarayus squeezed his hands, and forced the mercenary to drop her knives. One of the two she had thrown at him, as he had opened the door to the cell, was lodged in the leather of his hip. The blade had not even penetrated his thick leathers, and he ignored it for the moment, making a mental note to ensure that it wasn't poisoned. He had been right to have one of his rangers track the mercenary up onto the mountain, and it had given him more time to check into the woman's past.
One of the dwarven guards asked, “Want me to brain her, or d'ye have her?” He clapped the head of a morning star into a gauntleted hand, making a distinctly unfriendly sound.
The elven reeve said in a medium tenor, “No. I have her. Just shut us inside for a moment. I'll knock when I'm ready to come out.”
The dwarf shrugged, and said, “Yuir call.” He turned to his comrade, who continued to hold the horribly balanced door open. “Let it go.”
The door closed itself on Sir Bridar and Anna Helldove, and then the bolt slid home, locking them inside.
Sholkhan said, “I'm going to let you go. Understand, though, that any further attacks against me will result in your instant death.”
Anna remained relaxed in his grip, and when he let go, she took only a single step away from him, and then swayed slightly on her feet. She realized, in a dim awareness, that the helplessness she felt – even armored and armed as she was – was something that many of the people she had cut down must have felt in those last few minutes.
For some reason, a bandit woman she had cut down sprang to mind. The bandit's last breath had been an indrawn gasp of surprise as she had spun to face her attacker. Her grim determination had turned to instant regret and defeat as she had seen Anna's dagger already flashing past her throat. The bandit couldn't have been more than fifteen or sixteen, with freckles and a shock of short red hair peeking out from beneath her leather helm.
Anna's hand went to her throat, as though she had been the bandit, herself. Perhaps she saw the world from the other side, for the first time.
Sir Bridar was silent.
She turned, to look at him. He blended in with the dim shadows of the cell, despite his bulk. His bronze-colored skin was heavily tattooed with black, outline-breaking shapes. The desert elf's seven-foot frame was strongly muscled, beneath thick leather armor of camouflaged charcoal gray and rich brown – but in the dim light coming in through the single window, the only things clearly visible were his orange, slightly glowing eyes.
The mercenary took an involuntary step back, for the reeve's presence was powerful and intimidating, especially in such a confined space. He merely watched her, though, his orange eyes looking to her like some great predator's.
Anna stared at him, one hand still on her throat, and wondered not for the first time if the rumors about desert elves being magically crafted out of their own ranks was true. Some she had spoken with thought the rumors a lie, spread by the desert elves to hide demon blood, magical enhancements they made themselves, or veneration to some horrible god. The orange eyes that assessed her were chillingly familiar, for she had seen those eyes in the mirror, and in the face of every veteran she had ever served with.
His middle-tenor voice said softly, “Captain Razorbraid tells me that you cannot name your master, perhaps under geas. Or fear. We can protect you, if that is the case.”
A brief flicker of hope rose within her, and she ruthlessly crushed it. “You can't protect me, from him.”
He watched her for a moment without speaking, lightly resting with his back against the door, his legs bent to accommodate his height, his arms swept out and at the ready.
Sir Bridar asked, “If not me, then who?”
Anna struggled for a moment, her hand going from her throat to her broken nose streaming blood onto her lips. Her tongue refused to work, and she spent a few moments desperately trying to crush the hope that flared within her. She got a grip of her faculties, and countered him with, “And who could you get, powerful enough to protect… me. And mine.”
“If the danger is as great as you claim, then I can ask the Baron-and-the-Bishop to intercede.”
When he said nothing after that, Anna realized that she had to choose past the minor pain of her nose. If she chose wrong, then more than her life was on the line. She had made such decisions before in combat, but never with her family's lives hanging in the balance – in more ways than one. If Doom Rex failed to kill her family, then the horde of invading ograns might do so, if she couldn't find a way to protect them.
The defenses at Lok Giran – and the strength of the very cell she was in – tilted the balance within her.
She said, “His name is Doom Re–” and wracking pain engulfed her for a split second and then it was gone. She staggered, putting a hand to the wall, and another to her neck. The choker fell to ashes against her fingers, and she could feel slightly burned, tender flesh where it had been.
Sir Bridar's eyes narrowed, and he asked, “Are you all right?”
Anna blinked, assessing the pain. Stars and spots whirled in her vision, partially blotting out what little vision was left to her in the dim light. After a bit, she nodded tenderly, expecting her head to explode in pain.
Sholkhar said, “The geas that was laid upon you, is undone.”
Behind him, the door opened again, and the giant elf made to make room for the newcomer. No light spilled into the room, but the figure that moved in was plainly visible, as his armor – save where a dark tabard covered it – reflected every last bit of light, and his white beard nearly glowed in the feeble light. The dwarf was powerfully built, even for a dwarf, and probably weighed half again as much as Anna did, though he was a full two feet shorter than she was.
The dwarf pulled a hammer with a head as big as his own from over his back, and rapped the two-foot haft on the floor. The head of the hammer was engulfed in flame, illuminating the short dwarf and the tall desert elf, and reflecting off of golden rings set in the dwarf's gauntlet, and golden runes etched in polished mithral along the edges of his armor.
The dwarf's intense blue eyes had seen things that mere mortals were not meant to see, and it showed in the way she looked at her. A chill went down Anna's spine, as she realized who the dwarf was.
With a body that felt as though it did not belong to her, she knelt down, head bowed, before the Baron-and-the-Bishop of Mount Rilan, Lok Giran, Lok Magius, and the town of Rilan.
The Baron-and-the-Bishop shared a look with Sir Bridar and then turned his eyes on Loren. “An elven priest had a spell on you. What happened?”
Anna Helldove stared at the dwarf's armored feet, noting the intricate detail of his armor, and the tiny golden runes along the edges of each plate of armor. She swallowed, and said, “Doom Rex hired me to get into Lok Giran. He said that I could do it, where he could not. His sorceress made sure of it.”
She dared to look up and meet his gaze, nearly at eye level with her own, though he was standing and she was kneeling. “Lord Dwarfendale, my family's lives are forfeit, if… You have to help me.” A tear fell down her cheek, and she cursed her weakness, while at the same time begging him to help her.
The most powerful dwarf in the mountain tossed his fiery hammer to his other hand, and laid his gauntlet upon her bowed head. She felt a rush of heat flutter her hair, and a sharp crack as her nose realigned itself. The metal gauntlet upon her head was almost painful when she realized she could feel it, and then it withdrew. Her hand went to her throat, and she could touch it without pain. Her nose, too, was healed.
Dwarfendale tossed his hammer back to his dominant hand. Eyes lit by the fire-enshrouded head, he said, “I've got a war to run. But…” He looked into the fire for a moment, and then snapped his eyes back to hers. “Tell me where your family is, and I'll have them rescued. Tonight.” He turned to share a look with his reeve, and then turned back to the mercenary. “Give him the details, and we'll have them out tonight.” He pointed a gauntleted finger at her. “You stay here, though.”
The Baron-and-the-Bishop grunted, and then addressed Sir Bridar. “Pump her for the rest of it, after her family's safe. I'll have the twins waiting outside. Pump her for all she's worth.”
The dwarven priest-lord turned to look at Anna one last time, and his eyes were filled with weariness, and a kind of zealous light that she realized could crush anyone that stood in his way.
Outside in the corridor, Dwarfendale turned to Loren Razorbraid, who had stood just outside of sight. “The geas that held her was a weak one – bound with sacrificial blood. The spells that bound her were weak, too. And all of it felt like the Shadow Goddess' work.”
Loren growled out, “That elf bitch and her pet doom are getting on my nerves.” She hrmphed. “I already sent a runner for the twins. They're tired, from working on that frost mage, though.”
Dwarfendale grinned in an evil way that made the dwarf captain rub her hands together and smile. The priest-lord said, “Go with em. If they run into Fume Pex along the way, then so much the better. Take a hippotaun or two.”
Loren banged a gauntleted fist onto her tabard-clan chainmail, and grinned. “Yes, my lord!”
He scowled, and she grinned, knowing how much he hated being reminded of his many titles.
As the Baron-and-the-Bishop trumped off, he muttered, “Damned cargdins…”
Loren's eyes went wide with shock, and she sputtered for several seconds, unable to formulate words. “DWARFENDALE!”
* * *
Aegan was in heaven, and in hell. The hellish part of it was simple: his shoulder, his gut, his calf, and his head ached with pain unlike any he had ever experienced before. Had he not already survived it, he would have said that the pain was indicative of mortal wounds. The one in his gut burned in a way that had him worried, despite the reassurances of the dwarven clerics.
The heavenly part of it was the heat. He was up to his neck in hot water that seemed as though it should be boiling, and it steamed up into the air. He could feel sweat slicking his hair and the bandage across his forehead, and he inhaled warmth with every breath. The water itself had scented oils in it, and the smell of it was enough to distract his mind from the pain. He wanted to drowse, but his mind was too feverish to let him.
Aegan was in a room carved of solid rock. The room was not very high, and the only light seemed to come from two oil-lanterns set behind him. His back was to the door, and there was room in the hot-water pool for nearly a dozen others. The heat, he understood, was excess from the forges, and the concept had given him a focus for his frazzled and energetic mind.
He heard a sound behind him, and then a pair of booted feet. He frowned, for the tread and step were not dwarven. He smelled lilacs, and realized that it was Eriel.
The elf maid asked, “How are you feeling?” as she lay down several things just behind him and out of sight on the stone floor.
He took in a deep breath, feeling several cracked ribs responding, and slowly let it out. “Much better. Thank you.”
There was an amicable silence between them, though his curiosity began to get the better of him. He also dimly realized he wasn't wearing anything, and hoped that the dim light would keep that from the elf.
She said, “Close your eyes, and lean back.”
He did as she directed, and found himself having to rework his position, as his buttocks slid a bit on the stone bench under the water.
Aegan had expected Eriel to worry at the bandages that wrapped his head, but instead, she began applying something to his cheeks and his neck. He dimly realized that it was a shaving brush applying a thick lather.
Before he could work past the comfort of the hot, relaxing water to ask her a question, she had begun to strop a straight-razor. Aegan closed his eyes, prayed somewhat fervently that he hadn't irritated her recently.
One hand lay cool upon the side of his head, gently directing him as she quickly and expertly began to shave him. None of the thick lather reached the water, and he heard the slight splash of water from a bowl as she wiped off the last of the lather on his face.
Eriel looked critically at him for a moment, and nodded to herself. “Much better.”
Aegan said, somewhat uncomfortably, “Thank you. Ah…”
“The Baron-and-the-Bishop wants to see you. I managed to repair your clothes, and the dwarves even brought back the sword and the hammer you used.” Her tone was clipped, precise, and had an underlying anger to it that he could feel.
“Don't,” she interrupted him. “You're alive. Be thankful Captain Razorbraid figured it out when she did, or you likely would have taken three or four good dwarven clerics with you to the afterlife.”
He sloughed off the lethargy of the pool, icy dread prickly through his shoulders and his scalp. “What do you mean?” He began to sit up, and half turned to see her in the dim light.
Eriel knelt nearby, a shaving kit and a shallow ceramic bowl nearby. She policed up the kit, and stood up with a fluid grace, the bowl in one hand and the kit in the other. She motioned with her head to a bench along one wall, and said, “Your clothes are there.”
He followed her gaze, and saw his boots, his clothes, the sword and the sledge-hammer, and a towel draped over it all.
She turned in a swirl of her blue and lavender robes, and left the room without another word.
Aegan sighed, pulling himself up out of the water. He looked down at his side, and saw that there was an old scar, already long-since healed. His calf was the same way. He gingerly pulled the cloth aside on his head, and felt himself gingerly. He found only skin and hair beneath his fingers – and a thin strip of hairless scar going back into his hair line. Aegan had been in fights before, and half expected to find tender, aching flesh. That he was completely healed was a testament to the power of the dwarven clerics.
He paused, thinking through that. Something about what Eriel had said was nagging his rational mind. He stood there with the cloth bands in his hands for a moment, dripping water, and thinking. After a moment, he moved again, and began to towel himself.
When he was done, he looked over the heated room, and then strode out, sweat already soaking his clothing. Aegan had seen no sign of repairs to his tunic or his breeches, and so he guessed that Eriel had used magic to restore the material to its original, pristine condition. The sword sat comfortably but consciously at his side, and he merely threw the sledge-hammer over his shoulder.
Outside, two dwarves in chain mail shirts stood up when they say him. One said, “Nach hammure ondray,” and motioned with his thumb. One, with a brown beard, led Aegan out into the corridors. The one with the red beard followed, occasionally watching behind himself as though he felt hunted even within the Fortress of the Soul.
The corridors of the dwarven fortress were precisely seven feet wide by seven feet tall, and carved from solid rock in some places, and made of stone blocks cunningly crafted to look like solid stone in others. A band of frescoes and carvings lay along the walls about two feet in height, two feet from the floor. The carvings told stories about the dwarves, usually going forward on the left-hand side, and being looked at in reverse chronological order on the right-hand side.
Aegan knew that Lok Giran was barely ten years old, and yet the beauty of the carvings was amazing. The detail bespoke dedicated attention, and the young smith wondered at how the dwarves could put such carvings up, everywhere, in such beauty and so quickly.
The story in that particular corridor seemed to be about a grizzled dwarven veteran who raised his short sword to defend to rival dwarven clans. The dwarf with the red beard growled out, “Grithale,” when he noticed Aegan paying attention to the story.
The sorcerer turned back to give the dwarf an inquisitive look, but the dwarf was looking over his shoulder again.
The corridor branched, and the dwarf with the brown beard confidently led them to the right. After several more switches, and seeing other dwarves in the corridors – all armed and armored – Aegan quickly became lost. He had always prided himself on a keen sense of direction, but every available space within Lok Giran was used to its fullest, with doors of stone inset everywhere, and tunnels and corridors branching off everywhere, some at perfect right angles, and others at strange angles.
Aegan realized that the wall-carvings served as sign-posts; for instance, if someone were to ask him where the baths were, he would be able to tell them with confidence that they were in the Hall of Grithale – the dwarf that had raised his sword to defend a dwarf from another clan, and in so doing, begun the uniting of the two wary clans. Of course, the sorcerer realized he might not be able to find the Hall of Grithale, but he could probably puzzle it out from looking at the stories in stone along the walls.
The dwarf with the brown beard confidently led them between two guards on either side of a door at the end of one corridor. The dwarven guards in full-plate, armed with great-axes, looked each of them in the eye as they went past, but said not a word.
Inside was a large, rectangular room with several other exits, and a vaulted ceiling far overhead. Up on some of the walls were balconies to other floors, or huge stone frescoes or carvings of battles and stories told in epic stonework. The room was dominated by three wooden tables of stout oak – one of which had a battle-axe sunk into it. The tables were covered in paperwork, books, parchments, tankards, and odd items. Several dwarves came in and out ferrying in or out books, while some worked at the tables inking things in or perusing documents. Light fell on everything from torches and chandeliers that glowed with light that was obviously supernatural in its source.
Several other guards were scattered about the room, as well, watching all that happened with critical eyes.
At one of the tables stood two dwarves talking in quiet conversation. They stood out from all the others in the room because of their dress and their bearing. They were somewhat shorter than the other dwarves, but they had a presence that defined them as clearly as though they had been eight feet tall.
One of the dwarves wore an odd sort of scale-mail over his travel-stained brown leathers. His beard was as brown as his leathers, but his eyes were as green as the scale-mail. The armor was made of over-lapping plates of some forest-green substance with iridescent depths, like those of an insects' wings. The armor covered the dwarf's torso, his upper arms, and his thighs, and seemed as travel-worn as his leathers – but maintained in a lustrous condition with pride and care. The dwarf's green eyes had taken him in the moment Aegan entered the room, but had dismissed him as a threat immediately, continuing his conversation with the other dwarf.
The other dwarf, too, gave Aegan a similarly dismissing glance, and at first it infuriated him deep within his soul. Then Aegan realized who the other dwarf was.
The second dwarf was dressed all in mithral armor polished to a high gleam, but with what Aegan recognized as dwarven script written around the edges of each piece of the armor. The dwarf's beard was the kind of white that seemed to glow with its own, inner light, and his blue eyes were older than those of any living being Aegan had ever seen. The dwarf's eyes had seen things that were beyond his understanding, and the human knew that it was the Baron-and-the-Bishop himself he was being marched up to.
The dwarven guard in front said something to the dwarf with the green-scaled armor, and the smile in their eyes indicated a friendship or a camaraderie that made Aegan jealous. Then they were all business.
In the common tongue, the guard with the brown beard said, “Dwarfendale. Ahira. Aegan Smithdanovich of Vridara. Sorcerer – apprentice. Smith – journeyman.”
The two dwarven guards stepped off to the side, but were not far away. They felt no need to introduce the two important dwarves to Aegan, and the social gesture made Aegan realize just where he stood in the grand scheme of things.
He finally went to one knee, and said to the Baron-and-the-Bishop, “My lord.”
Dwarfendale said without preamble, “Yuir the one that wants to know what 'cargdin' means?”
Aegan smiled fiercely, having finally found the answer he sought. “Yes, my lord.”
The Baron-and-the-Bishop merely grunted, and instead of answering, turned to his companion, Ahira. “Go get that human Bridar's got in the South Tower. When ye all get back here, I'll explain something to ye.”
Ahira grinned fiercely, and looked once at Aegan, as though measuring the human's ability to be patient.
Dwarfendale turned to answer a question from a dwarven female with a thick beard of finger-length hair. Her robes were cut low enough for Aegan to see a patch of fur between her breasts, and Aegan swallowed at the sight.
The human sorcerer waited as patiently as he could, while the Baron-and-the-Bishop attended to matters of state. At some point, the priest-lord motioned to Aegan to get up – probably more to get the big man out of the way than from any sense of propriety.
Aegan watched in fascination at the way the fortress was run. The three tables handled three different types of events. One was for matters of the faith. One was for matters of war. And the other was for all the domestic things needed to keep the fortress running. Though the human understood none of the dwarven tongue, there were enough words in the common tongue that he occasionally understood what the subject of a conversation might be.
He also looked at the lights, and the various armors, and the metal-work of the weapons – and he learned.
After perhaps a quarter of a mark, Eriel swept into the room, stepping lightly around a dwarf with an armload of books and scrolls. She nodded her head at the Baron-and-the-Bishop, ensuring that he knew she was present, and then went to stand beside Aegan, without saying a word. She gazed at him critically from brow to boots, and then grunted in satisfaction that he was at least presentable.
Moments later, through another set of doors, came Captain Loren Razorbraid leading a human woman in half-plate armor – and behind her was the biggest elf Aegan had ever seen.
The elf was as tall as the corridors, and he stood up to his full height in the chamber with a languid ease that bespoke awesome strength and agility. The dark leathers and darker tattoos of the elf, coupled with his orange eyes, made the hairs on the back of Aegan's neck stand up on end.
Ahira stepped out around the huge elf, and came to stand beside the dwarven priest-lord.
No one spoke, until the Baron-and-the-Bishop had swept all of them in in his steady blue-eyed gaze.
The priest-lord said, “I felt the call of Prophecy, last night. All the king's advisors agree that the Prophecy will be accomplished sooner, rather than later. Prat's agreed to give this matter what aid we can, even over the ograns invading.” He looked at Ahira, and then Loren. “The king hopes, as do we all, that this Prophecy helps lead us to a way to end the war sooner, rather than later. 'The heart of Her Sons' has us all intrigued.”
He turned to the table beside him, and picked up a bar of some odd silvery metal with rainbow highlights deep within its depths. Dwarfendale set the bar upon the floor, and pulled his great hammer from its special attachment over his shoulder. With one hand, he swung down on the bar upon the floor, and the bar shattered into hundreds of pieces, many flying out across the floor in a star-burst pattern, to be stopped by boots, table-legs, or simply sliding to a stop from the friction.
Dwarfendale pulled a second bar from the table and, brushing aside the remaining shards with one steel-clad boot, made a space for it on the floor where the other had been.
The dwarven priest-lord pulled from his armor a chain with an amulet upon it. He kissed it to his lips, having to work around his white beard, and then held it in one hand. He began chanting in the dwarven tongue, and Aegan watched in awe as the dwarf's formidable build began to strain the confines of his armor. His bull neck became corded, its veins standing out in stark relief in the supernatural light. Power infused the the Baron-and-the-Bishop, and the human woman in half-plate took a half-step back – only to be stopped by the mass of the elven giant behind her.
Dwarfendale dropped his medallion, and with a mighty two-handed blow, brought it down upon the second metal bar. The stone beneath it cracked and spit out shards, some flying into the air – but the metal stood where it was. The strange rainbow luster within it was gone, to be replaced with a sort of darkness just beneath the surface – as though the metallic look were a glassy coating over something shadowy.
The lord and high priest of the dwarves of Mount Rilan stopped and picked up the bar of metal, and Aegan realized then what it was. It was a form of adamantine that only the masters worked with. In the Vridaran tongue, it was called 'shamathmae'. He realized with sudden insight that 'cargdin mithral' was the mythical equivalent of the shamathmae, but the concept did not work well linguistically with the common tongue. Cargdin was an adjective to describe things, whereas shamathmae was an all-encompassing noun. Cargdin mithral could not exist – except in tales of how a man's soul and spirit could be broken by small things, but made ever so much harder by great blows that shook them to the core of their being.
Dwarfendale stood there with veins bulging on the side of his forehead, and blood-shot eyes of intense blue, staring into Aegan's eyes with a will for him to understand that was inhuman.
The dwarven priest-lord said in a tired voice, “My part, is done, in this Prophecy.” He turned to the giant elf and Loren. “Get them whatever supplies they need, and a hippotaun escort. They'll be going to Rilan, next.” He turned to Ahira. “The Black Holly is down in Rilan. It's been in the docks there for a refit, and is just now serviceable. Ye think it's a coincidence?”
Ahira's grin brought a chill to Aegan's spine. The dwarf said, “Not by a long-shot.” He turned away, and moved off to make preparations.
The human woman asked, “What just happened?” She seemed lost, as though things were moving at far too fast a pace for her.
Dwarfendale asked in a tired voice, “Bridar. Her family?”
The huge elf said, “They are well taken care of. Doom Rex will never find them. They are safe.”
The dwarven priest-lord nodded, and turned to the woman. “Your family is safe. Now, you have to uphold your end of the bargain. You are the 'Cargdin Mithral', spoken of in Prophecy. You will go with the Gahle liSear,” and he pointed at Aegan, “And the 'Raven Liar',” and he pointed at Eriel.
The Baron-and-the-Bishop growled at Aegan. “I've learned that sometimes, you have to push Prophecy ahead of you. If you go by sea to the Halls of the Pixie Queen – somewhere along the way, you'll meet the 'Stolen Thief'.”
Aegan asked, “Vhy do ve have to go by sea?” A cold sweat had broken out on his forehead, and cries of terror from the Scarlet Skies began rising to the surface of his mind from his nightmares.
“Because, boy,” and the priest-lord's eyes were expressive of his vast knowledge and power. “If you go by land, the ograns will kill you. You think this invasion is a coincidence?” He moved closer, and though he was two feet shorter and more than Aegan, his presence was intimidating. “This Prophecy of Arkon's is our only ticket out of this war. And if we lose this war, then we lose all of the wars afterwards.”
The brown eyes of a human met the blue eyes of a dwarf, and they shared a quiet understanding. One began to understand the import of his mission, and the other poured faith into the enlightened from a cup that overflowed onto the boundaries of sanity.
* * *
Outside, in the hallway, Anna had had enough. “What the hell is going on, here?” She planted herself, and crossed her arms, refusing to move another inch until someone explained everything to her, her dark eyes blazing with repressed anger and fear.
Eriel said, “Aegan Smithdanovich, this is Anna Helldove – a mercenary of… ill repute.” Her tone was still acerbic, and Aegan wondered at the cause of it. “Anna Helldove, this is Aegan Smithdanovich of Vridara, apprentice sorcerer to Master P'Arkon the Dual Minded, and Gahle liSear of Prophecy.”
Anna scowled, arching one eyebrow dangerously at Eriel The 'ill repute' comment struck a cord within the woman, but she wisely held her tongue. “That gives me a name – and nothing else.”
Aegan held up a hand to forestall Eriel's caustic reply. He looked the mercenary in the eye, noting that she was only a few inches shorter than himself, and built very… solidly.
He said, “Last night, there was a Prophecy. It names four people who must journey to the 'Halls of the Pixie Queen' to find something out about the ograns. If we fail to do this thing, then Rakore vill fall, and vith it, all the vorld.”
She growled, “And I'm one of these people named by Prophecy? Are you sure?!”
Aegan nodded. “Aye. The Baron-and-the-Bishop has named you as the Cargdin Mithral. I feel it, in the Prophecy, though I do not know all his reasons.”
“So what the hell was the point in shattering that metal? And then not being able to shatter it the second time?!” She took a step closer to him, ready to lay him out flat if he said something wrong. He was one of the biggest men she had ever met, but she knew how to take down bigger men than herself.
She fought back an image of Doom Rex, who was almost exactly the same height and build as Aegan.
Though she appeared to be radiating danger and anger, Aegan was unphased, feeling that he could take her in hand-to-hand combat – and for some reason, most people overlooked hammers as weapons. His grip tightened on the haft of the hammer in his right hand. “Shamathmae krielmaul is a form of metal that, when struck by a light force, will shatter. When struck by a great force, it will, instead of shattering, cold-forge itself into a stronger metal that is nearly indestructible. In the common tongue… I believe you call this metal 'adamantine'.”
She said nothing, but some of the fire was going out of her eyes, to be replaced with something that blazed equally bright: curiosity.
Aegan continued, noticing that he had also caught Eriel's undivided attention – and Sir Bridar's, as well. “There are stories of cold-forging mithral, and it is a fable oft-told in Vridara, among smiths and metal vorkers. The stories are all false, though, for no one has ever done it. More often, shamathmae mithral is used to describe someone's soul. Some have the shamathmae – cargdin – soul. It can be broken and shattered with a single light blow, but it is strengthened into something unbreakable with a strong strike that should shatter lighter metals.”
Sir Bridar asked, “How common is this… cargdin… mithral? Or whatever it was that Dwarfendale shattered?”
Aegan swallowed, having not really contemplated the price of that bit of adamantine. “One bar, alone, is worth…” He performed some mental calculations. “At least several hundred pieces of gold.”
Anna made a face, the mercenary in her counting coins.
The giant elf, slightly stooped in the corridor, but seeming even more dangerous for it, said, “Uncommon, then.”
Aegan said, “Very much so.”
The elf nodded, his orange eyes uncannily wolf-like in the dim light of the corridors. “Anna Helldove, let's see about getting you your weapons back. And then we'll see what else you three will need, before we send you to Rilan.”
Anna scowled, clearly not liking or fully understanding the situation, but the Baron-and-the-Bishop had practically ordered her to accompany the Gay le Seer, or whatever-he-was.
Sir Bridar led them quietly through the corridors of Lok Giran, and they passed a few dwarves who only nodded in greeting. One stopped the giant elf, though, and spoke with him for a few moments in the dwarven tongue. The predatory desert elf answered in the same tongue, and then they clasped forearms before parting with slight smiles on their faces.
The stories of the corridors changed with every way, small stories for small corridors, and great stories for great corridors. After the two humans had begun to feel completely and thoroughly lost, Sir Bridar led them through a guarded doorway into the armory. The roof was out of sight above in the narrow, despite chandeliers of supernatural light high above. The walls were covered in suits of metal all the way up into the darkness, and far down the long room into a dim gloom. Weapons of all shapes and sizes were stacked on the main floor, and boxes and chests and quivers and pouches were everywhere, seemingly at random.
From the other side of the narrow room careened a tall ladder on a rail system, with greased wheels at the top and bottom of the ladder. An older, grizzled dwarf with several scars interrupting his beard slid down the ladder, and looked up at Sir Bridar. “What the fork do ye want, ye mangy backyard dog?”
Sir Bridar's orange eyes lit up, but his countenance was angry. “More out of life than you, you nasty piece of garbage that even a fungus wouldn't touch!”
The dwarf grunted up at the elf, and then swept in the two humans, and the sylvan elf with his dark eyes. “Well, iffen a fungus would'nae touch me, then it would get up and run screamin from these three. They dinnae look like they could hurt an orc, let alone a piece of scum like yourself, Sholkhan.”
He looked them over with measuring eyes, and Eriel blushed at the intense gaze that figured her measurements. She started to protest, when Anna took a menacing step forward. Though unarmed, the human woman conveyed menace.
Anna Helldove said, “You will keep your eyes where they belong, shorty, or you'll wind up about an inch shorter than you'd planned.”
The dwarf grinned fiercely up at the woman, and responded, “Only an inch? Ye dinnae have the dugs to take me down no further?”
She bared her teeth, and said, “One more comment about any part of my body, and I'll roast you, little man.”
The armorer grinned even more fiercely, and Aegan detected a very dangerous gleam in his eyes. “Really, lassy? You'd moan in heat for me, so hot burn yuir loins?”
Anna blindly reached for a long-knife she wasn't carrying, and found Aegan's large arm across his chest, blocking her from going after the old dwarf.
Sir Bridar and the dwarf both burst out laughing, stunning Eriel into confusion, and irking Anna all the more.
The armorer said, “I like her, Sholkhan! I like her. Where'd ye fine such a fine, spunky lass?”
The huge elf chuckled, and turned his orange eyes over the group, before responding. “These are instruments of Prophecy, Granif.” He gestured, and said, “Granif Stoneknuckles, Mastersmith of Lok Giran, Knight of Rakore – I present to you Aegan Smithdanovich, Eriel Enelidalithan, and Anna Helldove.”
Anna realized that, of course, the Reeve of Rilan would have to have an impressive intellect, as well as the size and strength of a desert elf, to be the Baron-and-the-Bishop's enforcer.
Granif was suddenly all business. “Hrm. These plates ye wear might be functional, lass,” he said, tapping on one of Anna's thigh greaves, “But ye need some chain under em.”
Anna pulled her leg out of his reach, scowling. She said, “I prefer the silence of leathers. Chain makes too much noise – like you.”
Granif ignored the insult, and grunted. He turned to Aegan. “What of you? Big young humans typically want full plate, shields, and long swords.” He looked critically at the sledge hammer hanging down in Aegan's hand. “But you're not typical, are you?”
The human said, “No, mastersmith. I'm not. A chain shirt will work just fine, if you have padding to go with it.”
The mastersmith noticed the smithing scars on Aegan's forearms, and nodded to himself. He went down one of the few narrow aisles in the armory, and disappeared into the dim gloom. He returned but a few moments later, carrying a large wad of silvery cloth in his hands. When he got closer, Aegan could see that the cloth was chain, but made of such fine links that he doubted a sewing needle could get through them.
The mastersmith handed the chain shirt over to the journeyman smith, and watched critically as Aegan held it in his hands.
No chain shirt Aegan had ever seen had been as finely crafted as the one he held in his hands. Each and every link was made of beaten mithral, instead of wire-drawn mithral. The flatter disc made the chain distribute blows better, and contributed to the almost cloth-like feel of the shirt. To his callused hands, the metal armor felt like very rough cloth that was matted up and slick with grease. His eyes told him that the metal was, indeed, mithral.
Aegan quickly calculated how long it would take a smith to make such a shirt. Were he to try it, it would take him most of a three month's solid work, from sun-up to sun-down. The cost of the raw metal alone, plus the cost of time put into it, would be on the order of at least a thousand gold pieces.
He looked up to meet Granif's cool appraisal, and said, “I can't.”
The dwarf, apparently understanding, said, “Yes, you can. A weight o the world rests on your shoulders, now. Ye will take that shirt, an wear it without padding, up under your clothes, as a gift from ole Granif Stoneknuckles.”
Mastersmith Granif turned to Eriel, and in a mocking voice, said, “Well, lil thing? Did ye want a suit o mail, or a suit o webs?”
“Web armor, if you have it, Mastersmith. If not, some throwing daggers of the Song Goddess will do.” Eriel's confidence shone, and it took Aegan somewhat by surprise.
The young smith had been given to understand that she knew little of combat beyond hiding and spell-slinging. But a great many things about the elf did not make sense – including her irreverence for rank, at least with the Baron-and-the-Bishop.
Granif nodded, and went back behind a small counter. From beneath the counter he pulled out a rolled bundle, and then set it upon the counter. As he unrolled it, blade after blade was revealed, folded up within the cloth. Most were of the finest steel. Some were of silvery mithral. Some were of some black metal that reflected no light at all. All were throwing knives.
Eriel studied them, picking out two blades of steel with small holes perforating the center line. She hefted the blades several times, while Aegan scowled. The holes in the blade would weaken it, and allow air to flow through it; he felt it would make a poor throwing weapon with those perforations, probably missing its target more often than not.
The elf maid's next motions changed his mind. With deceitful ease, she threw both blades into a wooden stand perhaps twenty feet away. For the brief instant the two blades had been in flight, they had made an eerie whistle that reminded Aegan of that awful howl a storm made just before a tornado formed. Both blades were sunk into the wood, each so close to the other that a sheet of parchment might have fit between them.
Eriel merely nodded at the mastersmith, and said, “They're adequate.”
As she walked over to retrieve the two blades, Granif rolled up the remaining blades, and then stuffed it back under the counter.
Next, the mastersmith brought out some white, wool-looking material. It was a thick mid-riff kind of shirt that Eriel tried on, after taking off her short robe. Underneath she had worn a sleeveless shift that was tucked into her blue-dyed breeches. Aegan blinked, and turned his eyes elsewhere from the form-fitting shift and breeches. The wool-looking material had his attention, however, and he found out why as the illusionist and the dwarf bickered at one another.
The armor was made from the webbing of very large spiders, but required the ultra-fine tools the dwarves made to card and weave it. The result was a form of padded cloth that could turn aside most short-blades, without interfering with Eriel's hand and arm gestures needed to complete her spells.
Aegan was quite glad when the elf put her short robe back on, and apparently it showed in his face, as the elf glared at him hotly.
Sir Bridar said, “This one has a decent composite bow, and some long-knives, back at the North Tower.” His gesture took in Anna, and the mastersmith nodded absently.
The grizzled dwarf said, “I'll have Loren put together journey-packs for them. Where are they headed?”
The huge elf said, “From the sound of things, they're headed out into the Choranil, through Rilan and out to sea.”
Granif turned to the three of them, and asked them, trying to figure out who the leader was, “D'ye know just where in the Choranil ye're goin?”
At the sheepish look he got from Aegan, the blank stare from Anna, and the hot look he got from Eriel, he threw up his hands in despair. “Sholkhan! They dinnae e'en know where they're goin, the krompshets!”
Eriel said, “Lord Prat knows where we're going, old dwarf. As does Mistress Brin.”
The dwarf turned his glower on her, though she seemed unfazed by it. “Oh, there ye go, lassy. Just leave the location back wit Lok Magius, will ye? Right bright yew lot are.” He snorted, and turned off to look down the aisles of weapons and equipment. After a moment, he turned back. “All right.”
He said to the desert elf, “Loren'll pack em up standard stuff, but I'll send a wagon down wit some mountain-climbin gear, plus extra quivers, dry rats, an water. An some other stuff. Which ship they takin?”
Sir Bridar said, “The Black Holly II has just completed repairs at Rilan, and the Baron-and-the-Bishop is having it made ready.”
Granif said in awe, “Galgiran's turds!” He stroked his graying beard, thinking, as he eyed everything in the armory. “I'll have to include a little something extra, then… Follow me.”
He led them all out of the armory, and through several more story-corridors. After only a few twists and turns, he stopped in front of a door with two guards to either side. All four guards looked at him as though they were ready to tear him apart, and none of them had any weapons.
Aegan realized with a start that their dark armor had ridges crafted into it, and the ridges were sharpened to razor lines. Some of the ridges were mithral-enhanced, so that they would cut through even chain mail were the guards to close in and grapple with an intruder. Their beards were braided, and tucked into their armor – and that alone let Anna know that these were dwarven veterans of a higher caliber than any she had ever encountered.
The lead dwarf's blue eyes twinkled in the dim light, and he spoke with a hoarse voice. Aegan realized that, at some time in the past, his throat had to have been crushed or nearly destroyed. “What d'ye want, bastard.”
“I want you four tae go take a flyin leap off the summit. What I'll take three o the rings Dwarfendale had made for dwarven sailors.”
Aegan understood none of the exchange, but watched as the lead dwarf drew back to consider Granif's words. After a moment, he snapped his fingers – a difficult task in those ridged gauntlets – and motioned one of the other guards to go inside the room.
The guard stood before the door for a moment, and then it opened of its own accord, from within. The door moved back, and then slid into the wall to one side. Beyond was blackness, and the guard strode in without fear, and probably turned a corner to judge from the sounds his armored feet made.
The journeyman smith noted that the grappling armor was still just as strong as full plate, but had to weigh a good bit more. The neck guards and braided beards could barely hide the immensely thick necks of the remaining dwarven guards.
Several minutes passed quietly, in which Granif and Sholkhan quietly traded spars and gossip in the dwarven tongue.
The other guard returned, then, with a small pouch. There was a rolled sheet of parchment in the guard's other hand, which he presented to the lead guard. As soon as the more junior guard had cleared the doorway, the stone door had rumbled out of the wall and slid back into place with almost no sound.
The leader looked over the scroll, and grunted, before handing it over to Granif. “Seems Dwarfendale was expecting you. I had the guard add the three rings to the pouch.”
Granif chuckled with mirth as he read the parchment, and then stuffed it under his belt. He opened the small pouch, and poured out liquid fire glowing with the warmth of the forge: three rings, and four platinum amulets on short chains of platinum, the amulets being the source of the light; in the center of each amulet was a small citrine stone that glowed like the light from a forge.
Granif pulled out an amulet, and a ring, and held it out to Aegan. He did the same for Eriel, and for Anna. The fourth amulet, he handed to Aegan, and said, “I've already heard the tales of the Prophecy, boy. Save this one for the Stolen Thief.”
Each held the amulet in wonder, hardly paying attention to the rings. Granif said, “Find a finger the rings fit on, before ye forget about em, moonin over a shiny like a dumb crow.”
Aegan tore his eyes away from the platinum amulet with dwarven runes etched in in purest gold, surrounding the small glowing gem in the center that was flat-faceted by a master. The ring in his fingers was of some kind of steel, blue-dyed in a strange pattern that reminded him of waves. After two tries, he found that it wouldn't fit on the pinky of his smaller hand, and when he glanced about, he saw Eriel unable to get her larger ring to fit even her thumb.
With a glance at Granif to make sure it was all right, he switched rings with her. Hers had been of a gold alloy, bevelled and faceted to richly catch the light with a motif like that of coiled ropes. It fit his pinky rather well, though he head never before worn a ring – or jewelry of any kind.
The mastersmith said, “Put the amulets on, ye knuckle-heads.” He held up one fist, as though he would sock any of them that would dare not to put the amulets on.
The short chain wouldn't fit over Aegan's head, and he found a clasp that was easy to work, though ingenious in its strength of construction and fine tooling. The chain barely clipped around his thick neck, and the shine from the jewel set in the amulet shown before him, though he could not see the stone itself directly.
Granif said, “Aln non Morad'din.”
The light from the amulets flickered and died, and the dead-end corridor with the four guards suddenly seemed cold and empty, compared to the warmth it had had.
The mastersmith said, ” 'Aln non' is 'thank you', in the dwarven tongue. Learn it. If ye thank the Forge God, he'll reward ye with light, and warmth, whenever ye need it.”
Aegan wrapped his tongue around the dwarven words. “Aln non, Morad'din.”
At first, he was afraid he had mispronounced something. He couldn't actually see the amulet around his neck, but he saw a slight gleam in Granif's dark eyes, and then the amulet exploded into warm red-orange light.
Aegan ran his fingers over the stone, and was surprised to find the gem-stone almost too hot to touch. He said again, this time with considerable meaning, “Aln non, Morad'din.” The light suddenly cut off.
The apprentice sorcerer gently ran his hands over the amulet, and then picked up the sledge-hammer from where he had leaned it against the wall.
The leader of the strange guards said, “Nook'kael dark aln, Morad'din.”
Granif looked to the strange dwarf, and then nodded.
Sir Bridar beat him to the translation, though, and the big elf said, “Go with Galgiran's blessing.”
Granif merely nodded, and turned to the rest of them. “Let's get ye out, an on the dark road tae Rilan. Tis a half-day's journey on foot, but I think wit hippotauns, we might kin have ye there afore midnight.”
* * *
The five hippotauns headed out of Lok Magius a couple of marks after sunset. Three of them bore dwarven infantry whose grim expressions and stoic refusal to understand common had kept conversation to a minimum.
Eriel and Anna rode together, talking quietly among themselves. Eriel was still icy cold to Aegan, and the young smith was beginning to feel the pain of her disapproval. He rode alone, behind one of the dwarven drivers, with gear and equipment behind the two of them on the hippotaun.
The beast's canter was a smooth gait, and Aegan appreciated that the dwarves had domesticated such a wonderful animal. The smith had been around war horses for much of his life, and although the hippotauns were huge and difficult to control, they had none of the inherent lust for battle that many war horses had; both required constant attention to prevent accidents or deaths.
Aegan glanced behind him. Two of the hippotaun escorts were behind him, and the great bulk of Mount Rilan was only partially obscured by the forest around them. The road up to Lok Giran was wide and well-built, affording quite a view. Behind Mount Rilan's tall spire, and obscured by the forests, Aegan knew the giant Maroth to be already well up in the sky; he could see the dim red glow behind the mountain's heights, and it lit up clouds in the upper atmosphere with an eerie red light.
He turned to look down the mountain. The stars were beautiful, and the two tiny moons of Gaeleth were both near the western horizon – lit partially by the sun, and partially by Maroth's red light, and looking decidedly pink. Below him, the road wound its way down through the trees towards a small city whose lights burned brightly in the night. Starlight reflected from the broad ribbon of a river that cut its way through the seemingly endless forests of Rakore.
There were a few wagons along the great road, but far fewer than there had been during the day. Most of the other traffic they saw were other patrols – some from Lok Giran, and others from the town of Rilan, below. The journey was sedate and calm, but the hippotauns made it deceivingly quick as they pounded around corners and switchbacks, and sprinted down straight-aways as fast as a horse at a canter.
By the time they had made it all the way to Rilan, the hippotaun mounts were decidedly surly. Most of them had plenty of scars near their front shoulders, and one of the hippotauns had to be freshly spurred to keep it from stopping to eat a dog that was barking at them from someone's front porch.
Rilan itself was mainly a trade hub, with warehouses and merchants aplenty. The small city was centrally located for all of Rakore, being half-way down-river for all of upper Rakore, and the only trading access for Lok Giran and Lok Magius. Few torches illuminated the cobbled streets, but the massive Maroth provided plenty of red light down most of the thoroughfares. Back alleys and cross-streets were especially dark, as the red light from Maroth allowed their eyes to adjust to the darkness without them realizing how dim it was.
Already Maroth dominated all of the sky, taking up nearly half of the sky with its red-and-brown- banded size. As Aegan glanced up, he could see the rapidly moving giant, glowing dimly with an angry red fire from within, gobbling up stars in the heavens.
Even as his eyes drank in the sight, and then turned to studying Teras, the young sorcerer compared Prophecies.
The heart of the Inquisition – and its ban against mages – was, “Lo! The mages shall be silent for five centuries, lest the Dark God return. And in his return, he shall plunge the world into darkness for all time, bound by his minions and in death.” The world had been plunged into darkness, if only for a few moments. In the release from that darkness, all the world felt the death cry of the Dark God, and saw his blood spilled into the heavens to become Maroth – Nabrolian (or so it was said) for Father Through Blood.
Even the stars in the heavens had been changed by the Dark God's rebirth and immediate death by the Chosen of the Sun God. When Maroth did not dominate the sky, the constellations were different than those of Aegan's youth. He knew the astrologers were having the hardest time of things, trying to rediscover the meanings of the heavens.
The hippotauns stopped in front of a large inn whose sign proclaimed it the 'Blue Tyven', complete with a picture of a dark-blue elven woman dancing nude with a sword in one hand, and a skeleton in the other.
The dwarven infantry dismounted, even as a strange creature strode out of the golden lamp-light inside to seek out the commotion four hippotauns and a thousand pounds of untalkative dwarven steel made. The creature was an elf whose skin was as dark as the shadows, and whose big blue eyes were visible even in the night. He was barely larger than Eriel, whose slight and fragile-looking frame was an embodiment of feminine litheness. He spoke briefly with one of the dwarves in their tongue, and the silent answer was surly but informative.
The black elf's gaze sent shivers up Aegan's spine, as the human realized that he was being looked at by a member of the Dark Race. The dark elves had once been the shock troops of the Dark God, before he had been killed during the Storm Wars of so long ago.
The dark elf's voice was a melodic tenor. “Welcome to the Blue Tyven. Please, come inside. I understand your journey from Lok Magius must have been long and tiring.” He gestured suggestively, and the aroma of foods and spices grabbed Aegan by the nose, hauling him inside as his stomach growled for food.
Ten of the dwarven infantry marched inside with the two apprentices and the mercenary, and the dark elf pointed out tables for all to sit at while he deftly orchestrated his staff. Despite the late hour, there were still a number of patrons inside, including a minstrel whose bass voice softly filled the air without dominating it. Merchants conversed quietly, and their entrance drew little more than curious glances from all corners of the room.
All of the servants and attendants in the large Blue Tyven were dark elves, and they deftly handled orders for ale, heaping platters of food, cleaning tables, and more. Aegan noticed about the black-skinned elves a sort of patience and wariness that was at once relaxed, and at the same time deadly. He saw the same moves and the same looks in Anna, as he had in many veterans, and he realized that causing trouble at the Blue Tyven would be a fatal mistake. Each dark elf was armed with at least a long knife, but most had short swords over their shoulders or at their hips, and not a few long swords and rapiers were evident.
Aegan, Anna, and Eriel were sat at a table by themselves towards the back, and quiet-but-watchful dwarves occupied all the tables nearest them.
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence as they sat together, before a dark elven maiden appeared at the table. Her words, like the one that had met them at the door, were musical. “What is it, then, that I can have brought out for you?”
Aegan's stomach growled again for food, and he said, “Steak. Potatoes. Bread. Beer.”
The dark elf smiled, and shook her head in silent refrain, even as she turned to Anna.
Eriel said, “You'll have to forgive my barbaric friend, here. He's not too bright, but he fights well.” She glared at Aegan for a moment, before turning to Anna. “I recommend a light meal. Have you ever sailed before?”
Anna shook her head 'no', and the elf maid turned back to the dark elven servant. “We'll both have inturiel kevask, if you have any.”
The servant nodded her head with a smile. “As long as you don't mind a slight bit of spice on your salad.” At Eriel's nod and smile, the servant asked, “And to drink?”
Anna said, “Mead.”
Eriel said, “Elven wine, if you have any. Sylvan.”
The servant nodded, and quickly left, leaving Aegan to scowl and fret, half in hunger, and half in the discomfort of Eriel's continual attacks.
He finally asked Eriel, “Okay. Vhat did I do?”
The illusionist looked at him in feigned surprise, her eyes wide. “Why? You don't know? How surprising! And all this time, I thought you were a studious young mage who understood Prophecy.”
Aegan's eyebrows bunched together in a confused frown. “Vhat?”
Anna turned to Eriel and asked, “Is he always like this?”
Eriel retorted hotly with, “I could ask the same of your whole race!”
Whatever fragile peace the two of them had had on the way down from Lok Giran was deteriorating quickly, and Aegan was getting exasperated. He stared at the three candles in the middle of the table, and sighed.
As he stood up, the other two both turned to stare at him. He ignored them, and walked towards the small stage where the minstrel was performing.
Anna asked, “What is he up to? I could hear his stomach growling over the hippotauns.”
“You're one to talk. You're almost as big as he is,” sniped Eriel.
“What is your problem, elf bitch?” Anna Helldove's eyes flashed dangerously, and both women assessed one another at some gut level, deciding that a fight would benefit only the human woman that weighed half-again as much as the elf.
Eriel buried her flash of anger – and fear – and reassessed herself and the situation. Her lavender eyes softened, and she said quietly, “I heard about what happened to you – and that your family was threatened. You have my sympathy, there. Doom Rex has been a thorn in our side for a long time.”
Anna, suspicious, asked, “Who told you about that?”
The dark elven servant returned, and set down their plates and drinks, all of which had been easily balanced on her strong arms. The dark elf smiled at Anna and Eriel, and handed each of them clean eating utensils. She set the empty place for Aegan, and moved off towards the stage to tell him his meal was set, a fork and a steak knife in her seemingly-delicate hand.
Anna, once the dark elf had moved on, asked, “Who?”
Eriel's anger flashed in her eyes for a moment. “I'm an illusionist, you tw-” and she bit off an insult. “It doesn't matter who or how. We have bigger things to worry about, like fulfilling the Prophecy. And keeping that barbarian from getting himself killed.”
They both looked to him, where he was in conversation with the minstrel. The minstrel, a human with lustrous blond hair bound back behind his head and bright green eyes, was still playing his guittern with as much ease and grace as though it had been born to his hands. The minstrel's eyes danced with merriment as he and Aegan talked for a moment, before the two parted.
Aegan returned to the table, and sat down to tear into his meal.
Eriel, picking at her inturiel kevask, asked, “What was that all about?”
The smith drank half his flagon of dark beer before answering. He said quickly, “Tram may know who the Stolen Thief is.”
Aegan's brown eyes had a hint of laughter to them that made Eriel instantly wary. She asked, “Who's Tram? The minstrel?”
Aegan nodded, and continued after swallowing a piece of steak with a low moan of pleasure. “Ve figured that the Stolen Thief vould be a thief, but ve vere mistaken.”
Anna blinked, mentally digesting the statement. “So who is this 'Stolen Thief'?”
Eriel growled, “He'll tell us when he's good and ready, and not a moment before.” She sipped at her wine, served in a thin, fluted glass of frosted green.
Aegan stabbed a bit of bread with his fork on the wooden platter, and said, “I'm not yet completely certain, so I'm vaiting for Tram to confirm it for me. He and his vife vill let us know by morning.”
Anna turned in her chair to look back towards the stage, where the minstrel was still strumming his guittern, and talking with a sylvan half-elven woman nearly as powerful built as herself. The half-elf had the hilt of a hand-and-a-half sword sticking up over her shoulder, and her raven hair and huge green eyes made Anna sighed in jealousy at the woman's sword, or so she told herself.
Eriel looked at Aegan with speculative eyes. She finally asked, “Where did you learn to fight, Aegan?”
The smith paused, a bite of steak half-way to his mouth. “Fight?”
“Yes. Where did you learn to use a sword like that?”
Anna turned her attention back to the conversation, and listened intently.
Aegan shifted uncomfortably under Eriel's lavender gaze. “I… alvays vanted to be a paladin, vhen I vas growing up.”
Eriel merely raised one delicate eyebrow, waiting for him to continue.
The smith shifted uncomfortably. “I used to practice vith tvin swords, like the paladins of Yatindar do, vhen I vasn't apprenticing as a smith. My mastersmith vas… But he had lost one hand against the Amarans, so…”
The elf was silent for a moment, as she delicately nibbled on an olive. “Well? Did your master indicate you had any skill? Did he offer to train you as an initiate for the paladinhood?”
Aegan's face turned red in the candle-light, as shame filled him. He idly pushed around a bit of potato on his plate, and sighed. “No. He said that my faith was too weak, and I did not follow the Justice God…” He shrugged, and put his fork down to pick up his flagon and finish draining it. “So, I stayed a smith.”
Eriel said after a long moment, “And so you practiced in secret.”
The smith snorted, unstung by the comment, because it wasn't true. “No. Master Mendelvich trained me vith the longswords. He said I might need them, to protect myself some day, but he had only the one hand vith vhich to try to train me.”
Anna interrupted. “You mean to tell me that you were trained in sword-play by a 'retired' paladin of Yatindar?”
Aegan tried to speak, mumbling, “Vell, aye.”
Eriel pressed the issue, trying to crack him. “That's forbidden, Aegan – for a paladin to pass along the Thriblade style. And paladins don't retire to become smiths – they become priests, but not smiths.”
Anger flickered within his eyes, as he rose to the defense of his old master. “He vas a paladin! He vas retired! And he could not-”
The illusionist pressed on, “To pass along the Thriblade to a non-initiate is to be a Black Guard.” The Black Guard served the Dark God and his successor, most being good, solid paladins of virtue that had been corrupted and debased to something unholy.
Eriel realized she had pressed too far when she saw green flaring in Aegan's eyes. He hammered a smith's fist into the table, toppling all three candles and rattling everything else on the table. Anna jumped back, as Aegan roared in Vridaran, “Hargan Toothvael nae chul!” More quietly he hissed, “He vas not Black Guard!”
He glanced around the room, his glare turning aside stares as easily as a shield.
He stood up and left the table, heading outside. Two dwarves rose from their table and followed him, after staring incuriously at Eriel and Anna.
Eriel sighed, and put her chin in her palm. “Well… Now I know who really raised Aegan.”
Anna said nothing, and the elf maid glanced at her, to see the human's gaze locked on the table where Aegan had been sitting. Eriel glance at the platter Aegan had been eating off of, to see the whole of that side of the table coated in a clear layer of ice. Even his chair had half-and-inch-deep black ice coating it.
* * *
Outside, Aegan looked out on the city streets. To his mind, being as he was from the Empire, Rilan was really no more than a large town. He shrugged, and moved towards the small park around which most of the city was built. Across from the Blue Tyven and the small park was a big cobble-stoned area that obviously doubled as a parade field. Lording over the parade field was a stone edifice that was obviously the local governmental building.
Aegan appraised the structure with an eye for construction, and grudgingly admitted that, like everything else in Rakore, it was built to withstand a siege.
The two dwarves with him were silent, save for the clanking of their full plate. They ignored the sound of their armor, and watched the streets and sides.
Few people were out at that hour, especially near the tiny park with its handful of large ever-greens and one old oak tree. Light spilled out from a few shuttered windows, illuminating the insects attracted to the light. The smith idly wondered what the locals used for a screen against the insects.
The door to the Blue Tyven opened, spilling with it light and the sounds of Tram and his wife singing. The figures that were shadowed by the light revealed Anna and Eriel, and the two paused only long enough to find him, before moving towards him. Four dwarves followed less-than-discreetly behind the two females, before they were plunged once more into dark red light.
Eriel led the way, with Anna reluctantly following. When they were only an arm's length away, Eriel said, “I'm sorry, Aegan.”
The smith smiled faintly, and turned to look back across the small park and the parade field. The red light that illuminated everything was dim, despite Maroth still rising, its leading edge well over half-way across the sky.
He said, “He vas a good man, before he gave up the paladinhood. He vas a better man, aftervards.”
Anna said nothing, but she looked at Aegan with the kind of fear he had often seen in his people, his fellow Vridarans, when they realized he might be more than what he seemed.
The elf maid glanced at her mercenary companion, and turned back to Aegan. “What was it, then, that made him give up the paladinhood? The loss of his hand?”
The smith gazed silently at the Blood of the Dark God swallowing up the stars. He finally said, “My parents vere killed during the Season of Death…” He labored to pronounce the common words clearly. ” 'The War of the Undead', as you call it here. That was vhen I vas but an apprentice smith, and Master Mendelvich took me in. His own son had been lost, during the fight vith the Dragon Nation.”
He sighed, and watched in silent admiration as a shooting star fell into Maroth, blazing a trail of bright white light, trailed by greasy smoke. Though the distance had to have been immeasurable, the sight was beautiful. Within moments, the star had died, and its black trail was torn to thin smudges by the alternating bands of red and red-brown that made up Maroth – like storms of vast power that destroyed everything in their path.
The sight was not unusual, and Aegan saw perhaps one a year. It was usually an omen of great import – both good and bad.
He swallowed, and changed the subject somewhat. “Vhy do you ask, Eriel? Mad at me, for almost dying ahead of Prophecy?” He turned to look at her, and gauge her reaction.
The delicate elf maid said, “Yes, actually. You've gone and spoiled all my fun. Why, though? Do you think the gods will protect you, because of that Prophecy? If that's what you think, then you're wrong!”
Aegan nodded, clasping his hands behind his back. “Aye. I know that I could still die ahead of time. To be honest, I miscalculated. I vas more concerned vith protecting the roadvay to Lok Magius, and buying time for the dvarves, than vith keeping myself alive. If I had to do it again, I vould lure more of them avay, instead of just going in like that.”
Anna asked, “What, exactly, happened?”
Eriel said, “Oh, our wonderful hero here charged in, killed a few orcs, and then got hammered by a dozen orc arrows, and almost got killed by a roc or two.”
Metal clanked on metal, and one of the dwarves was suddenly before Eriel. Short as the dwarves were, he still only reached her breasts, but his thick and powerful build and fiery red blond beard that was red in the light of Maroth could not be ignored.
The dwarf said in a thickly accented tongue, “Tha Gahle liSear 'as olready been made an hon'rary dwarf, elf.” He spit upon the ground, as though the word 'elf' was a curse word. “Dinnae 'sult him so.” He turned to Anna and said, “ 'E kill't six orcs. Froze one solit, an shatter't 'im. E's bless't by Morad'din an by Arg'Gunass. 'E took off the heads o orcs wit a hammer, an e's a smit. E' bought time for a 'toon o dwarfs tae bring down three full roks, an we norm'la get but one, an two escapes. E' 'as courage, lass. E' 'as a dwarf's heart.”
The guard, whom had been completely silent until that moment, had stunned Eriel. The dwarf turned to Aegan, and nodded at him, and without another word, tromped back away several yards to give them space to talk.
Anna struggled through the language, and said, “He said…” The mercenary glanced at the dwarf, and then at Aegan. “He said you were blessed by both Galgiran and Argunas… The Demon God?”
Where Anna's look had been wary before of Aegan's magic, it was positively charged with wariness and even a bit of fright after the dwarf's short speech.
Eriel looked at Aegan oddly. “That's why the dwarves couldn't heal you with Galgiran's blessing, because of Argunas' blessing on you. Your sorcery… Your demon blood, healed you; the ice within you was too strong for Galgiran's heat.” She turned to the dwarves. “But how is he blessed by Galgiran? Just because he's a smith, and Galgiran's the Forge God of the Dwarves, doesn't make him blessed.” She looked uncertain. “Does it?”
The dwarves shared glances with one another, and the one that had spoken, apparently their leader, said, “Ye've all been bless't by Morad'din, elf. E'en yew.” He cleared his throat, and said, “Shale dark aln, Morad'din.”
Aegan understood immediately, even as Eriel struggled through it. He whispered, “Our amulets. The fire vithin them is lit by Galgiran himself.”
Eriel's eyes went wide in the red light from above, and one hand went to the amulet about her neck. Her hand explored it in renewed wonderment, and she held it up to look at in the red light.
Anna merely checked to make sure hers was there, and then turned to Aegan. “So all he means,” and she glanced at the dwarven guard leader, “Is that because you have the blood of demons in you, you're blessed by the Demon God? Right? It's not like you're Argunas' right-hand man?”
Aegan shook his head, and the motion grabbed Eriel's attention before she could answer. Something about his demeanor frightened the elf.
The apprentice reached deep within himself, and confronted that other version of himself. For perhaps the first time, he calmly concentrated on the power within himself and willed it to the surface without need or desperation. He closed his eyes, concentrating, sucking the heat all around him into himself, channeling it, and using the image already in his mind as a template for the demonic powers within his blood.
Heat energy became magical energy. The energy used the template within his blood and bones, flesh and soul, and then sucked down even more energy to feed the bindings. A cycle of absorbing energy, and using it to absorb yet more energy began.
He took a deep breath, swelling his lungs, and then slowly let it out. His breath fogged in the summer air, lit red by the light from above. Ice crackled as it formed on his fists, and then from the middle of his chest, all over his chest, running in sheets that grew thicker and thicker with every breath, crackling and rearranging into plates of ice over the mithral chain he wore. The ice on his fists became short blades of ice, and it also began to form at every joint – even his jaw – forming spiked ice that would make every bit of motion hell for anyone trying to wrestle with him.
When he opened his eyes, they were glowing blue-green orbs that lit up their faces, and sent a shiver of dread through them.
Air flowed down off of Aegan, so cold that it was freezing on his skin, and then turning into fog as it flowed down his body. Ice crackled and popped as he flexed his knees, and then brought up one hand to look at in the red light from above, and the blue-green light from his eyes. His hand slowly closed into a fist, and then opened. Tiny spines of ice were on the insides of his hands, so that whomever he would grip would find tines of ice in their skin, giving the smith awesome purchase.
Aegan said with a voice that was deep, resonant, and chilling, “The blessing of Argunas means only that he has seen something that terrifies even the Demon God. The blood that runs through my veins is not his to control.” He took in another deep breath, ice ridges forming over his eyes to protect them and hood them.
“Argunas is my enemy, but he is also my willing ally. I do not seek to destroy a god. I have not that kind of power. I do have the power to get you two, and one other, into the Halls of the Pixie Queen. I will shatter the shell guardians. That is my purpose.”
Anna took an involuntary step back, as Aegan's blue-green glowing gaze swept over her. Her skin was prickled with goose bumps, and her hair was standing on end. Something within her screamed at her, and it was all she could do to hold her ground.
One of the dwarves shouted, “Ambush!”
A bolt of lightning flashed from the corner of a building, and it illuminated dozens of armed men on horses bearing down on the park. The riders fought to control their mounts as the lightning arced across the roadway and through Aegan.
The smith screamed as his back arched, and his arms swept up in agony, electricity arcing over him and around him like a living thing.
Eriel screamed in shock.
Anna Helldove knew nothing of magic, but she knew plenty about combat. Her bow was off from over her shoulder and strung before Eriel's scream died in her throat. The mercenary thought the elf maid a twit, and drew two arrows at once from one of her quivers. The dwarves had formed a defensive line, even as the rest of the dwarves began to boil out of the Blue Tyven's front door.
Two riders fell from their saddles as she let go, and then drew two more arrows.
Eriel forced herself to concentrate, willing herself to believe that Aegan would survive no matter what, and tore her eyes from him just in time. A flash of light from the corner of a building briefly illuminated the spell-caster, and then a tiny sphere of light zoomed towards them, trailing liquid fire behind it.
The elf maiden's hands quickly moved through the somatic components of a spell, and with a flick of material from one sleeve and several short, clipped and rising words of power, she released a bolt of lavender and blue magic right back towards the ambushing spell-caster.
The liquid fire and the blue-and-lavender bolt smacked into each other with a shockwave of power and light, briefly illuminating the riders before they struck.
Men with mail shirts and swords guided their mounts to run over the dwarves, saving their sword swings for the three members of Prophecy. Two horses went down in screams as the dwarves cut them down. One horse leapt over the dwarves, and one dwarf was bowled over in his plate – and in so doing, broke the legs of the horse that went over him.
The rider astride the horse that leapt was knocked out of his saddle by one of Anna's arrows, though she had to dive as the horse bore down on her. When she came to her feet in a half-crouch from the roll, a flurry of blue and lavender bolts of light ripped two more riders from their horses, and one of the riders was torn in half by the destructive energy.
Anna glanced to Aegan as she drew two more arrows, and saw Aegan place both hands out before him as though to physically stop the charge of a one tonne war horse.
The horse shattered as it touched Aegan, and the rider fell, startled, onto the frost mage. The startled rider couldn't even let out the start of a scream as his torso froze and shattered on the immoveable bulk of the frost mage.
Aegan's glowing blue-green eyes had a tint to them, as though from the heart of sun-lit glacial ice, and the growl he turned on the remaining riders was a primal howl of the elements.
A second horse rode by the frost mage, and the sword of the rider hit Aegan where his bull neck met his shoulders – the apprentice sorcerer went down, even as the broken end of the sword hurtled through the air with a whistling sound to plunk into the ground near Anna.
Eriel let loose another spell of blue and lavender bolts, aiming it at the dim figure of the spell caster just around the corner. The ambushing mage, in turn, let loose a counter-spell of their own, and the two spells met in mid-air in an explosion of power.
Anna tossed her composite bow aside, and drew the huge knives at her sides as one of the riders dove off his horse at her. The impact cracked one of her ribs even as she rolled with the attack, and angled one of her blades up under the man's belt. His sword never managed to strike her, as she parried it with the other knife, and then gutted her opponent.
A dwarf hauled the rider's body off of her, and stood back to back with her as the remaining riders rode around for another charge.
The remaining dwarves were forming up in an impenetrable shield wall, and Eriel turned to see the horseless rider that had taken Aegan down preparing to deliver a coup-de-gras over Aegan's body. Before the mercenary could throw her blade, a crossbow bolt from one of the dwarves caught the rider through the temple, and he went down in a heap over the slowly-moving Aegan.
A tense moment passed, and was gone.
Aegan, in a crackle of retorts and breaking ice, stood back up, liquid air once again streaming off of him. His blue-green glowing eyes were livid as he pointed at the riders, and beckoned them to come to him with his fore finger.
There was a scream from the corner of the building, and the Lord Reeve of Rilan carried forward the spell caster in one hand. The ambushing spell caster's feet were well off the ground, and Sir Bridar's dark leathers and tattoos made him seem a seven foot tall shadow of red-tinged death as he crossed in front of the light spilling out of the Blue Tyven.
The spell caster was plainly a woman, and at that sight, the remaining riders turned their horses and began to flee.
One dwarf casually raised his axe to kill a wounded rider, and Sir Bridar called out, “No!”
Before the desert elf could elaborate, the dwarf's head turned in the direction the riders had begun to flee.
A commotion there forced some of the riders to flee back towards the dwarves, or around them.
Most of the few remaining riders fled back onto the cobble-stoned parade field, but they were quickly being surrounded.
People poured out of buildings, armed and armored, increasing the number of those surrounding the riders.
Anna glanced about, and close to a hundred people were out in the streets, armed with swords, axes, bows, crossbows, spears, and even nets. Behind them, the roof of the Blue Tyven had close to a dozen of the dark elves crouching on it. A dozen guards boiled out of the governmental building on the other side of the parade field and formed up.
The mercenary swallowed, never quite realizing how militaristic Rilan truly was.
A hippotaun, with five dwarves sitting in the saddle along its spine, slowly advanced on the half-dozen remaining riders. Another hippotaun came out of a side street, where it must have been moving to get ahead of the riders, before seeing them already caught.
The riders threw down their weapons, surrendering.
Aegan fell in a heap.
Sir Bridar called out, “Don't kill anyone! We need them for questioning!”
Anna cried out, “Healer! I need a healer! A priest!”
Despite her reservations about mages, and Aegan's powers, the mercenary was at his side in a few short strides. Her gauntlet hands barely shielded her from the cold still seeping out of Aegan's body. She could find no pulse, which wasn't unusual in her leather gauntlets – but she also saw no breath spilling foggy and red from Aegan.
Eriel began to chant, invoking a quick spell. A moment later, a ball of blue and lavender light blazed above them, providing plenty of illumination.
What they had taken to be liquid air streaming off of Aegan had been blood from one of the rider's strikes. His neck and shoulder were awash with blood, and the sight sickened Eriel such that she immediately began to dry heave, and then throw up her inturiel kevask.
The light wavered with each heave, but Anna was grateful for the light, none-the-less. She wished she had her pack with her, instead of wherever the dwarves had taken it; instead of good cloth or bindings for wounds, she was forced to use the cape of the man that had done such damage to Aegan.
As she pulled the cape from the rider's body, she realized that he was wearing half-plate over chain mail, and that it was painted with the sigils of the Merchant God. As she unhooked the cape, she froze, seeing on the rider bracers of highly polished silver, and a strange pattern of ellipses laquered on in black. The rider had been a paladin to the Merchant God.
Anna moved quickly, folding the cape as best she could, again and again, back and forth, and then placed it gently over Aegan's wound. She was afraid to apply pleasure, for fear of causing further damage, but she knew that without pressure, the arteries had no hope of being slowed long enough for a healer to arrive. Aegan's wound was mortal.
A set of hands on Anna's shoulders nearly caused her to attack, and then she saw that a crowd of people in robes – elves, humans, and even a dwarf – had gathered. Several amulets, bracelets, and other oddments found themselves in the hands of the crowd, and faint murmurs in half-a-dozen different tongues joined into a tumultuous gathering of godly might.
Eriel screamed, “No! No! Stop!” Above them, her ball of blue and lavender light flared angrily. “Your prayers will kill him!”
She tried to push one aside, even as another priest, an elf, moved to grab her arms.
The elven priest turned to several of the dwarven infantry, and said, “She's frantic from the battle! Hold her!”
The dwarven infantry, however, pried her out of his hands. The escort from Lok Giran began slowly but defiantly pulling the priests away from Aegan.
Anna screamed, “No! He's dying! They have to heal him!”
Eriel frantically searched her memory, hoping beyond hope that she had memorized at least one spell having to deal with the cold.
A beautiful male voice asked, “Why would prayers kill him?” It was the bard from the Blue Tyven. His guittern was nowhere to be seen, replaced with a rapier with red blood covering its narrow blade.
The elf maiden said, “Ice! I need spells of ice! Something cold!” She flexed her hands desperately, trying to figure out how she could help Aegan. His wounds had been bad, before, but he had held on long enough to get them to Loren Razorbraid, who had understood. She cast about desperately, looking for Sir Bridar, but didn't see the giant elf in the sea of concerned faces.
The minstrel, whose name she finally remembered was Tram, called out in a musical language that was not elven, but close to it, to the dark elves. Several of them raced inside the Blue Tyven.
Tram said, concern and reassurance in his melodic voice, “We bring down ice from the top of the mountain, to keep the beer cold. Will that help?”
The dwarven infantry still had a firm grip on the priests, even as a few tried to get to the wounded human yet – blood having long since soaked through the teal-colored cloak.
Someone gasped, “That's Sir Camden!” and pointed at the fallen paladin nearby.
The slight elf in priest's robes shouted, “No! Joseph!” She rushed to the dead paladin, and examined him, hoping to find a pulse or a faint trace of breath. When she found nothing, knowing that she wouldn't with a crossbow bolt through the temple, she wailed, “Why?!”
“SILENCE!” roared a voice with such command authority that even the dwarven infantry quit clinking in their armor for a moment.
A human of moderate height and lean build, with skin permanently reddened by the sun, and a strong, straight nose strode into the light, escorted by several other humans in expensive half-plate and mail. The human wore a chain shirt under a tabard of rust-red, with a sigil on the left breast of a clenched, gauntleted fist with a gold ring on each finger – the symbol for the Baron-and-the-Bishop.
The human looked over everything, and glanced up at the blue and lavender sphere of light overhead. He asked of Aegan, “Why is no one healing this man?” His tone of voice held an accent to it that few could place, and his dark eyes were fierce in the light.
Tram spoke up quickly, “Baron Complan, he is a mage immune to normal prayers for healing. Only ice can help him.”
As if on cue, several of the lithe and lean dark elves elbowed through the crowd with huge blocks of ice. They hesitated before the baron until the man flicked his hand to indicate they should continue.
The black elves quickly arrayed the blocks of ice at Tram's direction, near the wound and under his arm pits, and between his legs. The last block he shattered with his rapier, and arranged quickly around Aegan's head.
Eriel helped him arrange the shards quickly, and then they both stepped back, waiting.
Baron Complan, apparently a man of little patience in combat, asked Tram, “What's going on? I have a dead paladin, a mage that cannot be healed, and dozens of dead bodies all over my door steps!”
Sir Bridar's voice was death as he said, “I believe she can answer your questions, my lord.”
He spoke from beyond the light of the bright ball above, and so seemed lost in the darkness. He strode forward, and in one hand he still had the mage suspended above the earth; his grip was tight, for she gasped for air with every breath. His other hand held her hands behind her back, and her back was bowed as though she were trying to escape the pain he brought to her.
Anna would forever remember the strange color of the giant elf's orange eyes in the blue and lavender light. She regretted ever having tried to pass herself off as one of his rangers, for the image was one that would haunt her nightmares for years to come.
* * *
The two guards in the dungeon glanced down at the gray short-hair at their feet, with a thin collar. The cat meowed again, and rubbed up against one of their legs, purring, its tail straight up except for the curled tip.
The guards exchanged a confused look, even as the cat moved over to the other guard, rubbing up against him.
He gently booted the cat away, and said, “Outta here, kitty.”
The other guard asked, “How the hell'd it get in here?”
A shrill human scream split the air, and the cat bolted off down the corridor in fright. The scream was a woman's, in pain beyond the capacity of sanity.
Both guards looked in the direction of the scream, and then sullenly resumed their post. They ignored the scream as best they could.
In one of the many thick-walled, thick-doored cells with slits only large enough for a food tray down at the level of the floor, someone whimpered – supposedly in sympathy.
Maverick leaned against the door, listening, and wishing he could close his ears against the sound. He was lean and lithe, a man in his mid-thirties that still had the speed of youth and the whipcord muscles of an endurance runner or swordsman. His clothes were shades of gray, from dark gray riding boots to a light gray vest, a darker gray shirt, and charcoal gray breeches. All matched the moods and colors of his gray eyes, and at that moment, they were the lighter gray of his shirt.
To those who knew him, it was the gray of frustration.
He dropped down to the floor again, and peered through the slat, hoping against hope that he had been wrong. He saw only the boots of the guards, and the slit in the wood on a cell door opposite his own. The rough-packed dirt floor hid nothing, and Maverick flexed his hands in frustration.
The cat was his, and carried with it his lock-picks. He had almost been able to get the cat, Claws, to drop his picks. Maverick had spent months training the cat, and training a cat was as hard and arduous and pain-staking a process as anything else in his cold life had been.
He cursed the desert elf that had captured him, and cursed himself for getting caught in Rilan – the spiritual heart of Rakore. Sir Bridar had known who he was, but how he had known where and when to catch Maverick still had the thief confused. He banged his fist against the dirt floor in frustration.
He'd sensed that the deal with the monks at the Star's End monastery wasn't right from the get-go – and he'd been right. The monks had wanted him to steal a special scroll from a temple in Rilan of all places! Maverick'd taken extra time and extra precautions to tour Rilan as a trader, and worked in the city for close to a week before-hand, just to ensure his chances of success, Claws in tow.
Another scream echoed throughout the dungeon. Maverick swallowed, and hoped he wasn't next.
One of the guards shifted his feet, as though he were about to push the cat away with his boot, again. Claws darted next to the door and meowed piteously. The gray short-hair lay down as though to be as far away from the guards as possible, and then tried to crawl into the cell by squeezing through the slit.
Maverick had just enough time to remove the picks from the inside of the collar, before one of the guards said, “No you don't!” and grabbed the cat by the scruff of the neck. Claws whacked her head against the slit in the door as she was pulled out, and Maverick's eyes went wide as eight claws suddenly came out of their sheathes.
There was a yelp from outside the cell door as Claws went crazy, then the thump of a cat hitting hard dirt, and bolting away.
One guard asked, “You all right, man? Damn, he got you good.”
“Shit. Look. I'll have to go get one of the healers, or I might get cat-scratch fever.”
“Damn. Hurry up, though, would ya? I hate being down here alone.”
Another scream, followed by loud whimpering, echoed through the dungeon. There was silence for a moment, and then the guard that had been scratched up said, “I think I'd rather be scratched up.”
Maverick waited patiently, and used the screams of the tortured woman to undo the shackles about his ankles. Free of those restraints, he tackled the lock on the door – a far more difficult process, with the lock inaccessible from the inside to most people. Maverick was anything but 'most people', having recently completed an apprenticeship with Arkumil Despot.
'The Master Thief' was how Arkumil was usually known. Maverick had been good, before working with Arkumil for half a year. After training with the Master Thief – a man simultaneously used and hunted by the intelligence agents of Rakore – Maverick had gone from good to incredible.
With a style distinctly his own, Maverick kicked open the door to his cell. The remaining guard started, not understanding how the bolt could be undone and unlock from the inside, and went to draw his sword.
Maverick rolled forward and came up with his feet in the solar plexus of the guard. The sword clattered to the dirt as the guard bounced off a cell door and then crumpled, his breath gone. Maverick picked up the sword and rose gracefully to his feet, the guard's key ring in his other hand.
Behind him, he heard a cell door open, and the expression in his gray eyes went from a gray of excitement, to the dark gray of fear, his pupils dilating and his nostrils flaring. The thief turned on the toes of his feet in the sudden silence, peering into the torch-lit corridor.
Bridaraarayus stepped into the corridor, his massive shoulders and enormous height snaking out of the cell behind his nearly luminous orange eyes. Those eyes bored into Maverick with a kind of anger and bloodlust that caused the thief's heart to skip a beat.
Blood ran darkly over the desert elf's tattoos and leather armor, adding a hint of red splashes to the black and orange-gold of his skin.
Maverick took in a short and shallow breath through his flared nostrils, seeing the torches sputter in slow motion, and the huge desert elf slowly begin to sprint towards him.
The cat, Claws, stood up on her hind legs before the desert elf, between Maverick and the rapidly approaching orange eyes. The gray-furred cat grew in size, proportions changing, until the thief was looking at the back of a naked woman with a thick main of platinum hair that hid her face from his view.
She held out one hand towards the desert elf, and said, “Prophay.”
Sir Bridar ground to a halt, before he had really begun to sprint, dismay and fear forming on his face.
Maverick wasted no time waiting for explanations, stories, information, or hints. He turned and sprinted up the stairs as fast as his legs would take him. He put aside from his mind the terror of the murderous rage in Sir Bridar's eyes, or of his cat Claws suddenly turning into a curvy woman with an hour-glass figure before him.
He burst out of the stairwell, and ran past two guards before they realized what had happened. The guards gave chase, and Maverick's training with Arkumil kicked in. He spun on the ball of one foot and slammed his elbow into one guard's forehead even as the pommel of the sword hit the solar plexus of one of the other guards. Arkumil trained hard in hand-to-hand and close-combat fighting, as well as cracking safes and stealing jewels.
Maverick wasted no time and disappeared into the shadows even as two more guards, this time with torches, ran around a nearby corner. They looked around frantically while aiding their comrades. But of Maverick there was no sign.