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1 +-+ +-+ +-+ +-+--+-+--+-+ VOLUME SEVEN NUMBER FIVE | | ========================================== +___________+ FFFFF SSS FFFFF N N EEEEE TTTTT | ++ | F S F NN N E T | ++ | FFF SSS FFF N N N EEE T | | F S F N NN E T |_________| F SSS F N N EEEEE T /___________\ ========================================== | | BITNET Fantasy-Science Fiction Fanzine ___|___________|___ X-Edited by 'Orny' Liscomb <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<> CONTENTS X-Editorial 'Orny' Liscomb *A Difficult Recovery: Atros 6 Joseph Curwen *Two Journeys Rich Durbin *The Treasure: Part 1 of 4 John L. White Date: 042787 Dist: 352 An "*" indicates story is part of the Dargon Project All original materials copyrighted by the author(s) <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<> X-Editorial Well, as opposed other recent issues, we actually have a rather significant amount of news. Firstly, I've taken the plunge and bought myself a new Amiga 1000 personal computer. Very nice. But that's really not FSFnet material, now, is it? The big news is that after some consideration and deliberation with the Dargon authors, it has been decided that in the near future subscriptions to FSFnet will be available via standard non-electronic mail. This policy will enable persons with no network access to get the zine, and permit people who lose their accounts but wish to continue receiving FSFnet to do so. I also will be printing up issues using desktop publishing on the Amiga, and possibly including artwork. Of course, because postage isn't free, I will have to charge postal subscribers a distribution fee, which will basically cover postage and printing costs. At this point the costs of postal subscriptions is unknown, and I'll be setting up a policy regarding them in the next few weeks. If you are about to lose your account, and are interested in a postal subscription, you might drop me a mail file with your postal address, and I will forward you the information as soon as I get it all ironed out. I will also be announcing the official policy in FSFnet, for those of you who might be interested. Well, that's all the news for now. Remember, if your account is going away, please drop me a line so I can remove you from the distribution list. Now, on to the issue! -'Orny' Liscomb <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<> A Difficult Recovery: Atros 6 After an instant, Atros awoke on the rough pallet in Pravo's house. The full light of the sun bore down upon his face through a high window. Atros shielded his eyes in the shadow of bundle of roots hanging in the window to dry. He guessed that was very late in the afternoon. Pravo must have let him sleep through the morning. Atros was still wrapped in his tattered gray cloak, which he now noticed was spattered with black mud. He had even slept in his high, calf skin boots. A myriad of small untreated cuts lay across his arms and chest. His arms and back were very sore from the exertions of the previous night and the ravages of the hard pallet. Atros wondered at this. Pravo had been so meticulous in his care for Darla, spoiling her with a luxurious down bed and an expensive physician, while ignoring Atros entirely. Hadn't the physician been concerned for a bleeding man lying across the entrance to the house? Yes, Darla was a more serious case and should be treated first, but wouldn't it be natural to see to him after she had been dealt with. It was very puzzling. He wished to question Pravo though he was uncertain whether he should draw attention to Pravo's oversight. But now, he must see to Darla's health. He rose carefully but was still rewarded with fresh stabs of pain. He would pay dearly for over spending himself last night. Seeing that he was already dressed, he could avoid going through that morning ritual, at least until after he saw Darla. It was rather obvious that he would need a fresh change of clothing soon though. Still, it would worry Darla unnecessarily if she saw so much mud and dried blood. Trying not to make too great of a mess on Pravo's floor, Atros quickly brushed off the cakes of dry mud from his clothing. Availing himself of the pitcher and basin he found on the shelf next to the low pallet, Atros washed his face and hands. Fortunately, most of his wounds appeared superficial if painful. He was very glad to be spared tortuous treatments of stitching or cauterizing. Having thoroughly prepared himself, he set out to find Darla. With a few quick strides down the narrow back hall and around the corner, Atros arrived at the closed doorway to Darla's room. He knocked softly but heard no response, so he slowly inched the doorway open and almost instantly gasped. Darla lay motionless, breathing only shallowly. The portion of her face not covered by thick gauze was white with pallor. The sight caused intense memories to overwhelm Atros momentarily. Memories of another life. He entered the white and gray semi-private room slowly, timidly. The hollow echo of his footsteps had haunted him since leaving the elevator. The partial translucency of the fringeless partitioning curtains muffled the light of the drab, overcast day visible through the distant window. He passed the first partitioned bed without trying to glimpse one of the contributors to the intermittent buzzes and beeps plaguing the ward. His steady stride faltered and stopped as his eyes fell on the tiny, pale figure lying rigid on the wide, white mattress next to the low window. For a moment the sight paralyzed his his body and mind in a flood of contradictory emotions: compassion, disgust, sympathy, terror, love, loathing, satisfaction, and remorse. But his mind choked them down. How could she have deteriorated so much overnight? (A sleepless night for him, apparently something much worse for her.) The hospital frock dehumanized her in its half effort to allow modesty. It would have been better if they hadn't made any pretenses. Her back was arched unnaturally upward in a tense strain. She seemed so much like a turtle that lay upset in the middle of the highway, waiting motionless..stunned for the next in an endless series of inconceivable abuses. He glanced at the pain stricken face peeking out from under the thick, restrictive bandaging, but he quickly looked away. Her eyes were open, staring unfocused at the wall lamp above her head. "Mother..." he said softly, tentatively. She did not respond. "Mother..." he called again, taking her hand in his own. It was cold...lifeless. The fatty flesh of her arms hung loosely from her bones. He saw a flicker in her eyes, almost a response. "Mother..." he repeated leaning close to her ear, clutching her hand in his own. "Dewar...Dewar," she murmured turning her head from side to side, her eyes still unfocused. "No, Mom, it's me, Statsul...your son. Can you see me?" But it was no use. She squirmed and thrashed about, so that Statsul was afraid she would pull the sensors off her neck and chest. He released her hand and it dropped to her side. She continued to call out "Dewar" for some time...the name of Statsul's father, dead for more than a decade.... Finally, she became calm again. It was as if nothing had happened. Statsul shrunk from the room and into the hall. Hands trembling, he took a plastic bottle from his coat pocket. He fumbled for a moment, took two capsules from the container, and popped them into his mouth. With the open bottle still in his left hand, he triggered the stainless steel water fountain with his right and swallowed the pills as the water gushed into his mouth. He turned and she was there, he choked. The ward nurse, a dark, middle aged woman with a once stunning figure and tired eyes. She took the bottle from his hands, glanced at it, closed it, and returned it to Statsul. "Don Diagoros?" she said. Her accent was hardly noticeable. "Yes...hmph...What can you tell me about my mother's condition," he stammered. "We're not allowed to discuss the patients, Don Diagoros. You'll have to see a physician or an ablegate. The Legals, you know?" "Oh," he resigned and began a hesitant turn. "But if you won't tell anyone. I guess I can help." The same qualities that made her a good nurse prevented her from not helping this man. "Dona Diagoros... I'm sorry, but she's not responding to the medication, transvection treatments, or microsurgery. I'm sorry, but it doesn't look good." She hadn't fully considered what she'd have to say when she agreed to help him. She was out of practice at this sort of thing. "Oh..." he whispered barely audible. "Her a..illness is just too advanced. If we'd only known sooner.. She should have had a genome map done years ago." Statsul mumbled something about her being a Dissenter. "I see...Well, that's her right...I'm sorry Don Diagoros but I must go now. The patients...." She made a brisk half turn on her flats and was gone in a blur of blue and white. Statsul began a slow return to his mother's bedside. Atros was recalled from his flashback by the force of the door slamming into him from behind. While his mind had been distant, his body had walked into the room and closed the door behind him. He did not know how long he had stood there staring at Darla. "Atros!" Pravo nearly shouted. "You startled me. I didn't hurt you, did I?" Pravo asked entering the room after Atros had been jostled forward, allowing the door to open completely. "No..." Atros stammered then recovering his composure added, "Do you have some fresh clothing and perhaps some food?" "Yes, of course, how careless of me. The clothes first. You're a mess... Through here in your room. I pointed them out last night. Don't you remember?" Pravo asked leading Atros back to the room he had occupied. "How is Darla? Has she awoken?" Atros responded with a question. "Don't worry, she'll be fine. She's just lost a great deal of blood. She's slept since you left her last. The drugs the healer gave her for the pain make her sleep." Pravo opened a chest in one corner of the room. "Hhm....good. She would be in a great deal of pain now," Atros said. "This one?" Atros asked pointing to a blue-gray woolen shirt. "Yes, that's fine. I have not worn that in years. Nearly since I was your age." Atros dressed himself in silence. Minutes past. "You killed a man last night, didn't you?" Pravo asked suddenly. "Yes,no...no. I fought two but I killed no one." Atros finished dressing, closed the chest, and sat on the lid. "But you were involved." Pravo's stance was very tense. "Yes, I was protecting myself." "And Darla?" "And Darla." Atros was uncertain. His hand unconsciously moved toward his boot knife. He pretended to tighten the lacings. "It wasn't a simple mugging, was it?" Pravo asked forcefully. "You seem to know a great deal about it." Atros still hoped to diffuse the situation. He tried to appear relaxed and calm, though if anything he was more anxious than the older man appeared. "The word of murder in the streets travels quickly. And you told me something of it last night." "I did?" Atros paused. "Yes, I suppose I did." "But it wasn't just a mugging, was it?" "No, I don't believe so," Atros responded tentatively. He still couldn't predict which way the confrontation would go. Pravo sighed then admitted, "Atros, I've debated betraying you to the city guard since you arrived last night bloodied and torn." "Why didn't you? I am really just a stranger to you." "I don't know. I'm harboring a murderer and I don't know...." Pravo's voice softened as the tension of the past few moments began to drain from his pores. "At first, I couldn't because Darla needed immediate help. Later, I saw how much she loves and trusts you. I just couldn't....." Pravo shuffled his feet and brushed back his straggly graying hair. He was so occupied by his own thoughts that he had missed Atros' flinch at his mentioning of love. "Also, you intrigue me. We are alike and yet unlike. I've studied legends and myths all my life yearning for the mysterious and the exotic, and you appear on my door step late one night. I honestly don't know what I should do." "But it's not just that, is it?" "No, it isn't. But you'll have to let me keep my own secrets," Pravo said with a touch of humor. Atros chuckled and agreed. "You promised last night to tell me your story. Maybe that will help me make my decision." "You've already decided or you wouldn't have said anything to me," Atros accused playfully. "Maybe," Pravo smiled broadly, "but you still owe me that story." "I owe you a bit more than that, but if it will make you happy, I will try. You will pardon me if I omit details to protect myself?" "I doubt that I could force a full confession from you," Pravo responded a bit sarcastically. "True. Well, where should I begin?" Atros said settling back. "How did you learn so much? Where were you educated?" Pravo was suddenly transformed into an over eager schoolboy. "I was the third son of a minor lord on a manor far to the east of here. I was trained to read and write by the parish priest because I was supposedly destined to the ministry, though I never really felt a religious conviction. I was more interested in scholarly pursuits even then. My childhood was relatively normal, though I had little time for anything but labor of some sort." "That is hardly what I expected," Pravo interrupted. "I thought you were a street urchin or at least a city resident." "No, not until much later," Atros began, paused, and resumed, "I lived quite contentedly on the manor until my late childhood. Then, I began to experience peculiar dreams. Frightening dreams. The dreams changed me." "What were the dreams like?" Pravo tooking a stool opposite Atros. "Oh it is difficult to remember specifics now. I was very confused at that time. But most the dreams were about other places and other cultures. Upon awakening I could remember bits and pieces of things which were very unsettling. "At first I told everyone about my dreams. Slowly, my family and friends grew frightened of me. Frightened of the strangeness in my dreams and the reflection of this strangeness in me. Rumors of possession spread quickly. My father decided that I should be sent to a distant monastic retreat. I assented, of course. I would never have gone against my father's wishes. Not then.... But the retreat wasn't dedicated to scholasticism as I had been lead to believe. I discovered that it was a prison for undesirables: the diseased...the deformed...and the insane. I was kept in that place for many months. I will not tell you what the conditions were like, but during that time I lost a portion of my sanity. The boundary between dreams and wakefulness slipped away. I lived fully and completely in my dreams." Atros paused for long moments. "You eventually escaped?" Pravo prompted after some time. "In a way, I was released. I convinced the jailers to free me." The volume of Atros' voice trailed off in mid sentence. "That easily? You just spoke to them and they released you?" "Yes, something like that. Over the years, they'd grown rather shaky of mind themselves. I played on their fears until they complied with my wishes." Atros paused then continued, "My mind was still very disordered. After leaving the asylum, I drifted, inhabiting slums and deserts, doing things I now regret. With time reason returned. I fought to drive off the dreams and I have continued that fight ever since," Atros said finishing up quickly. "But where did you read so much? What library has so many books?" "I hoped to find release from my dreams in research. I traveled widely and searched broadly." "You understand this, don't you?" Pravo asked in Cantonian, a long dead tongue of the region. "Yes, I've picked up a number of languages," Atros admitted without thinking. "You could not have learned that from books, the Cantonese used runes not an alphabet. Who taught you such a thing?" "Perhaps your friend Baughis?" Atros suggested. "No, Baughis is too lazy to learn ancient languages. Who taught you, Atros?" Pravo nearly demanded. "To tell the truth, I don't remember. I simply understood your meaning. The tongue is related to the dialects still spoken in the far east where I have traveled. I picked things up as was necessary." "I'm not entirely satisfied with your answer, but I realize that I'm not likely to get any better response... You still have many secrets, Atros." "Yes, they are necessary." "Have you had any sorcerous training? I'd think you'd have a talent for that sort of thing." "No, only theory. I know nothing useful." "Unfortunate, if true." Pravo was deciding that vague answers were more annoying than mysterious. "Perhaps it would be even more unfortunate if I did." "I don't get your meaning." Pravo paused, but Atros did not volunteer anything. "Well, then never mind. You're not planning to leave the house today, are you? Captain Koren is searching the streets for someone of your description." "Then last night's fight was seen by someone?" "No, apparently only your bandaging of Darla after the combat." "Hhm. Well, they did ambush us." "So you say. Who was the man who helped you with Darla? A short elderly man in a light coloured cloak. A physician of some sort?" "An ally who most probably saved our lives." "Hhm. Then he killed the men found in the street?" "Men? There was only one body when I left." "Two dead they say." "Two? Hhm...possibly..." Atros drifted off into deeper thoughts. Growing tired of Atros' show of cryptics and poetics, Pravo was rather glad to remember his hunger. An offer of food was quickly accepted by his guest. They spent several minutes in the preparation and consumption of a large, early dinner. After the meal was completed, Atros and Pravo settled in comfortable chairs in the study just off the main entryway. Atros' soreness lingered on, but the worst of his pain was already over. In any case, the effects of a thick, warm mead helped deaden what discomfort remained. "Pravo, I must go...." Atros said slowly. Pravo interrupted, "I thought we'd been over this. You are not well and the city guard are looking for you. You will go nowhere, it's not safe." "No, Pravo, hear me out. There is more to it than that." "Okay, what is it?" "I must go... and I must stay. I'm still being sought after both by the guard and by the men who attacked us last night.... They want me, not Darla. By being here, I endanger her. If I leave I will draw them off. But I also must stay and protect her. But my being here is likely to attract notice.... What did you tell the healer of me?" Atros asked suddenly. "Why, nothing. He never saw you." "But I lay in the entryway last night.?." "Yes, but I brought him through the servant's entrance. It was more convenient. He never saw you." "How did you explain Darla then? He did see her." "Yes, of course. I told him that she is my servant and that she had fallen in the cellar. He has his own ideas no doubt, but they don't matter. I can trust him, he will say nothing to anyone without first consulting me." "How can you be so certain?" "He's kept my confidences in the past, besides he cannot afford my displeasure even at the expense of lying to the guard." "It's not the guard of whom I'm concerned...You do trust him completely?" Atros belabored the point. "Yes, as completely as is reasonable." "Good. And I am forced to trust you....You will take care of Darla should I decide to go?" "I still think you should stay, but yes, of course, I would not let you move her. Not so soon." "Good. I don't think anyone could trace us here except through your healer..whom you trust..Our meeting last night was fortuitous." "Yes, it was." "You haven't suggested that I should turn myself in.?." "No. My impression was that my suggestions carried little weight." "No, I am still considering. I am taking you for your word in the matter of the healer, the weakest link in our safety. Don't think that I don't appreciate what you've done. It's just that there is much more to this business than you know...more than you could know. In the end the decision is mine." "Then I will leave you. I will be reading by Darla's bedside." "Good, call me if she awakes," Atros said to Pravo as he departed. Atros tried to reason out his situation. Though he would not insult the old man by saying so, he believed Pravo was poorly qualified to protect Darla, though he did seem devoted to her care. To leave and continue his investigations, he must find someone capable of guarding her well. But he must leave to find such a person. He knew that in the end he would serve both Darla and himself better if he tried to uncover the parties involved rather than waiting for them to find him. He could not entrust his errands to anyone else. Also, though he denied it to himself, Atros wanted to leave Darla and Pravo. He had exposed his own weaknesses to them last night and now felt shame. But though such feelings influenced his decisions, Atros would never admit them in his carefully ordered patterns of reasoning. Finally Atros decided that he would leave Darla and Pravo, at least temporarily, on the basis that since he was in poor condition himself, he could not hope to defend Darla alone. His immediate presence or absence had little effect on Darla's safety. He realized that he would be taking a chance if he went abroad now, particularly since he would have to return to some of his recent haunts, but he believed that the benefits outweighed the potential hazards. Rising, he went to Darla's room and told Pravo of his decision. He promised to return before morning unless he was being followed. Pravo once again tried to dissuade Atros from leaving (he half expected never to see Atros again) but fell silent once he realized that Atros could be more stubborn than himself. Atros left using the servant's entrance, which proved to be more discrete. He wore a short brown cloak with the hood up, which did not unduly attract attention as the night had already grown cold. He proceeded to the tenement where he had been staying through an indirect route over well traveled streets. He saw groups of city guardsmen twice (Where had they been last night?) but passed by them without incident. Arriving at the inn, he was recognized by the landlady which gave him a momentary start. The landlady seemed to know something was in the air because she quietly signaled him into a covered stairway for a private conference. The grubby matron told Atros that men had broken into his apartment that morning but were gone now. As soon as she completed that statement Atros launched himself up the stairway and through his front door. The sight which greeted him wrenched at his gut. The room had been ransacked for some unknown purpose. The simple wooden table Atros had used as a desk was overturned, the stiff back chairs broken. Papers splattered with dried ink lay everywhere. But it was the absence of the piles of books that drew Atros' attention. Looking about the rummage he could see a few scattered about, but not nearly enough to account for them all. With fear in his heart Atros turned to the stone fireplace, the view of which was obstructed by the overturned table. As he dreaded, the charred remains of dozens of volumes were apparent. Atros sank to his knees, his hands sifting idly through the remains of the irreplaceable tomes. Atros' head fell back, his voice a screech of pain. "FOR THIS THERE WILL BE BLOOD!" he vowed to the heavens. For long moments his ears were filled by the sound of his agonized heart and the dry sobs of his breathing. Then he heard the drone of a voice, some one had been addressing him for sometime. He turned to see the landlady had entered the room. She was explaining why she hadn't called the guard yet, why it wasn't her fault that they got in, why she couldn't be expected to protect her tenants from armed men. Atros didn't care. He asked her to completely describe the men. She said that there had been three. It seemed she had an eye for detail. But after much questioning, Atros was sure that their leader had been the man who had struck Darla last night. They all seemed to be hired swords, he could try the local mercenary groups and taverns. Still, his chances were rather dismal in a city as large as Dargon. Atros told the landlady that she had been right not to involve the city watch and that he would be paying for the damages and vacating as soon as he sorted through his things. She left with a few more coins in her greasy bodice, satisfied. Atros first discovery was that the vandals had been careless. A few of the most ancient tomes were proof against fire and had survived unscathed. Some others were only partially consumed. Atros sorted through the ashes with a full inventory of the room's contents in mind. It did not take long to realize that about one third of the books were still missing. These seemed to be either highly ornate tomes or books written in the script of Baranur, which included several of Atros' personal journals. Obviously, an uneducated ruffian had chosen which books to steal and which to destroy based on superficial appearances. Atros would teach that person what it was to play god. Atros quietly gathered his salvageable belongings. In doing so he noticed a note which had lain face down on the floor. The note was on high quality vellum but was written in a rough hand. It read: Raffen Yeggent, We grow tired of pursuing you. Now it is your turn to come to us. Go to the abandoned millery east of Dargon as soon as you are able. We don't have to tell you not to involve outsiders. Balthus Atros decided it was about time to see a friend. He left that boarding house for the last time making sure that he was not followed. The burden he carried from that place weighed heavily on his weakened frame. -Joseph Curwen <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<> Two Journeys Injury Nathan half supported and half carried Lana through the streets of Tench. He espied his goal and made way to the door. After a few brief raps an older man, balding with a salt and pepper beard answered. His eyes opened wide at the sight of the bloody mess that was Lana. "Quickly man, bring her in and lay her on my table here" he gestured. "Doctor, please, help her" Nathan pleaded. The doctor pulled out a small knife and began to cut away the ragged clothing hanging over and in the wounds. "What the devil happened! She looks like she's been mauled." "It was her twin" he replied "she had some sort of giant ferret with her, and sicced it on Lana. The bitch didn't call it off til it had nearly killed her." The doctor frowned as he worked over the wounds, he hadn't seen anything nearly as bad since he was a doctor with Morion's company years ago. Still, he knew what had to be done. He looked up "Nathan, fetch the headsman, and tell the blacksmith to heat his irons." "No" Nathan said unbelievingly, "not that." The doctor looked deep into Nathan's eyes "It's that or her life lad, I've seen wounds this bad before, and this is the only sure way to do it." Lana groaned again, fighting her way to consciousness. "Easy lass" the doctor said "you've lost much blood, just lie still." Nathan hovered near her, holding her good hand "just rest Lana" he whispered. Nathan stood, and with a last agonizing look, raced from the building to see to the tasks the doctor had ordered. A New City Tara packed up her equipment and carefully arranged it on her horse, Boxter. She shivered in the early morning damp. Running a cold camp the night before hadn't helped, but with the warnings she'd heard and Lana's threats on her life there was no point taking chances. Tara knelt down to check the bandages on Zed's ear. The shivaree didn't seem much worse for the wear considering that Lana had cut off most of his ear when he attacked her. Tara's own wound, a shallow slice across her chest just below her breasts was minor as well, the bandage serving only to keep the dirt out, and to keep her from scratching it when it itched. Which it did now with a vengeance. All packed up she worked her way to the road and headed towards Dargon, mounted on Boxter and with Zed trailing behind. Tara traveled this way for a week, occasionally scrambling off the road and hiding in the forest when a larger party came her way. The shivaree's keen senses detecting the groups long before they themselves were sighted. Finally after a week of careful traveling, cold camps, and preserved foods bought in Tench, they came over a rise and saw the sea, a town, and the three legendary spires of Dargon keep. Tara stopped at the crest of the rise, and stared at the bustling city she had set as her goal so long ago. Just a little over two weeks before bandits had raided her town, murdered her parents, a fired the farm, it seemed like a lifetime ago. She nudged Boxter into motion set forth on the final leg of her journey. She would arrive at dusk, too late to search for her uncle but in time to seek out an inn and a hot dinner. She reached the outskirts with no trouble. As she penetrated into the more populated parts of town the shivaree drew many stares and interested looks. Since she was exhausted from her journey Tara decided to go to the first inn she came to. This evening that inn happened to be the Inn of the Hungary Shark. She looped her reins around the hitching post and walked into the inn. The inside of the inn was set up more like a tavern. There was no typical desk as the other inn she had seen in Tench. There was already a small crowd gathered for drinks and good cheer. Tara decided to try the bartender. She walked up and took a seat at the bar. When the bartender approached her she looked at him with a hopeful smile. "You'll have to leave the ferret outside miss" the bartender told her. "Oh, yes, certainly" she answered "but perhaps I could have a room and stable space in which to put him. And he's not a ferret, he's a shivaree." "I see, it's a room you want" he smiled. He turned and called "Dilp get out here, we've got a customer." Presently a boy in his teens appeared "yes Thomas, you called?" Thomas the bartender pointed to Tara, "stable her shivaree and any other critters she's got, sign her in, and take her stuff to room 219, now hop to it boy." Dilp turned to her "This way please lady...?" he asked quizically. "Tara, just Tara" she told him. Soon Boxter was in his stall with fresh hay and straw while Zed was put in another pen with water and meat scraps on the way. Then Dilp took her to the bar where he pulled out a rather largish leather bound book. He opened it a little more than midway through, made some marks and asked Tara for her full name. "Tara n'ha Sansela" she replied. He made a few more marks and presented the page to her and handed her the quill, freshly dipped in ink. "Please" he said "put you mark right here" and he pointed down where he had just written. Tara scrawled an X there like there appeared at most of the other entries. Dilp then picked up the pile of her stuff they had taken off Boxter and showed her to a room upstairs. It was about fifteen feet deep and ten feet wide with an eight foot ceiling. There was a large feather bed and a dresser. The room was lit by an oil lamp which Dilp ignited after he put her gear down. "Do you wish to have dinner brought up here or will you be dining in the common room tonight?" Dilp inquired. Tara smiled "I think in the common room tonight, I haven't had much company lately." Satisfied with that he went down stairs to resume his duties. Tara used the wash basin on the dresser and attached mirror to wipe off the road dust she had accumulated on her trip. When she was finally satisfied she went down to the common room and with a word to Thomas had her dinner served at one of the tables. She enjoyed her dinner to the tune of a bard who was singing tonight. As she ate she noticed a sad looking woman with a silver half-mask covering her face, and her equally odd companion who's face was hidden in the shadows of his cloak hood. After dinner and early in the evening Tara returned to her room and fell into a deep slumber. Tench Lana awoke, blinking in the mid afternoon sunlight that was streaming into the room. Across the room in a cushion armchair slumbered a haggard looking young man, in twenties perhaps? He looked like he'd been there a week without changing. He had brown hair and a thin beard, a bit shy of six feet in height and slimly built. Somehow he looked familiar. Nathan. Now she remembered, she's had several dalliances with him the times she had been in Tench. Suddenly it came back to her. The girl who looked so much like her, and ruined her reputation. It would take a number of killings to remind people that Lana was not one to be trifled with. She'd have killed the girl if that giant rodent hadn't attacked her. Lana tried to brush her hair out of her eyes, but nothing happened. She looked where her left arm was supposed to be. There was nothing but a bandaged stump. Lana let out a tremendous scream of shock and rage. Nathan awoke with a start and tumbled out of his chair. He looked up and saw Lana staring at the stump where her left arm, her fighting arm used to be. They'd had to remove it, the damage was so great. The headsman had chopped it off with one true blow, while the blacksmith had cauterized it, stopping bleeding and infection. They still had almost lost her. Lana had lain unconscious for over a week. He stayed at her side, leaving only to relieve himself. After what they'd been to each other could he do any less? Lana stared at her stump, realizing that she'd be helpless in any kind of fight. Once word spread she'd be unable to come to Tench. Her enemies were far more willing to draw swords than her friends. It was all that little peasant girls fault, and she must pay! The young man sat down on the bed and held her to him. A pointless exercise she thought, but still strangely comforting. Looking For Uncle Tara rose mid morning, having slept uncharacteristicly late. Still, the journey was long and she had needed the rest. She dressed and went down to the stables to check on Boxter and Zed. Both were in fine shape, Zed never the less was pleased to see her. She checked his ear, which was healing quite well. Her own wound had scabbed over and ceased to itch. She returned to the inn and had a good breakfast. As she ate she reviewed in her mind what she knew about her uncle. He'd left their village some twenty summers before, seeking to make his fortune. The last they'd heard from him he'd become a guardsman in the city of Dargon. He'd also cast aside his peasant name of Glenn and started using the more aristocratic sounding Adrunian Koren. There hadn't been word of him since, but that night after the raid, her father's ghost had sounded so certain he would be here, unless it was after all, a dream. Tara set out into the city just an hour before the the sun reached it's highest point in the sky. She quickly located a shop where she could buy a new outfit, and then a bath house where she could clean the road grime from her body. Tara felt much better all cleaned up and with a fresh tunic, new boots, and a fine cloth skirt. She girded on her father's sword and set out to search for some guardsman to ask about her uncle. Before long she ran across a patrol making it's rounds through the markets. Tara hurried up to the leader of the group and caught his attention. "What can I do for you lass" he grinned. Tara curtsied and answered "I am Tara n'ha Sansela, and I am looking for my uncle." The officer laughed "I'm Lieutenant Kalen Darklen at you service, but I'm afraid finding misplaced relatives is a little out of our line of work. We're here to keep order. Where did you see him last?" Tara giggled "I've never met him, he left home before I was born." Seeing the look forming on Kalen's face she hurriedly added "but I know he 's a guardsman, or at least was one for awhile". Kalen looked thoughtful "what's his name then?" Tara looked at him "The name he uses here is Adrunian Koren." Kalen Darklen's eyes widened and several of the guardsmen mumbled to each other. Tara thought she heard someone say "Captain Koren", but she wasn't sure. She was positive however that these men recognized the name. "Well, well" the Lieutenant said "perhaps you'd better walk along with us, I just may know the gentleman you seek." The troop made it's rounds without incident, making it's way back to the guards quarters in Dargon keep. Kalen dismissed his men and bade Tara follow him. He led her through several passages and corridors to an office. In the office was a large man with Iron grey hair and a great walrus mustache. He wore a blue uniform jacket with gold epaulets and brass buttons. He looked up from his paperwork as Tara and Kalen entered. "Good day Lt. Darklen, what have you brought me today?" he rumbled, his voice seeming to come in a gravely way from the depths of his chest. Kalen answered "Captain Koren, this lady claims to be your niece." "Oh really now" the Captain said, focusing icy blue eyes on Tara "and what proof do you bring me that you're my niece? and what is your name anyway?" Tara was startled, she hadn't stopped to consider that she would have to prove her identity. "Um" she said brightly "your real name is Glenn, and your brother was Samuel." "Was?" he asked, looking at her strangely. "Yes, he and my mother and the rest of the village were murdered by bandits." He was staring at her sword, "let me have a look at that blade of yours". She drew her sword and handed it to him. The Captain looked up "Kalen, get my sword will you? the one the Bichu fellow got back for me." Kalen pulled a sword off the wall where it was mounted and handed it to Captain Koren, who then placed next to Tara's sword. After a moment a strange look appeared on his face. "Where did you get this" he asked, indicating the sword. "It was my father's, I took it from him when I buried him and mother" Tara replied, brought near tears by the memory. Koren looked at her "My brother and I were given these matching swords when each of us reached his majority. Come Tara my niece, come give your uncle a hug." And they hugged each other for a long time, as Kalen stood there, pleased to have made this pretty young girl, and his friend and commanding officer Adrunic Koren so happy by bringing them together. A Seed of Vengeance The smell of roast pheasant filled Lana's nostrils. Nathan was serving her dinner in bed. She was still too weak from blood loss and hunger to get up. Nathan had been treating her exceptionally well since she'd awaken. He was behaving better than any other man she had known. He had tried to take nothing from her, not her money, her body, nor had he tried to use her for her skills, ever. Nathan carefully sliced the pheasant and piled it high on Lana's plate. He knew she would only get better with plenty of rest and nutrition. He was happy to be taking care of her, but he didn't know what to do about her sulking about the loss of her arm. It was to be expected, the loss of a limb would disturb anyone, and especially a warrior like Lana. But he would continue care for her as long as she would permit him. "Nathan" she said, staring absently at the ceiling "the doctor says I'll be well enough to travel in another week. I have too many enemies in Tench, I'll have to leave." Nathan looked at her intently "but where will you go? what will you do?" "I'll go to Baranur, I have money, lands, and connections there. I'm been saving away for the day when I would have to retire. It looks like that day came sooner than I ever imagined." "Surely you knew something like this could happen any time, with the kind of life you lead." "Yes Nathan, but not this soon, and not because of some amateur. An amateur with my face! It wasn't even honorable, sending that overgrown rodent after me! And that Nathan, is why I am going to kill her. I can't go after her myself, but I am going to kill her." "But how Lana, how? You won't be in any shape to go after anyone for quite awhile." "I'm going to Baranur, Blastomere, is there. I have enough gold socked away to pay him. But I need your help Nathan, I need your help to travel to Baranur. I cannot go alone like this. Will you come with me Nathan?" Nathan sat in his arm chair for a few moments, deep in thought, not looking at anything. Then, his decision made, he turned to Lana "Yes, I shall go with you, and I shall help. I am yours to command." -Rich Durbin <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<> The Treasure Prolog Reference A "...toiled and wrought long and hard, and harnesser of the Yrmenweald, the great Master Staff, was completed after many, many cycles (1). Swithwald, the most exalted Master of the Clear Fire Weavers (2), completed the bindings between the (an untranslateable rune - a name?) (3) source and the Master Staff, and left the siring of the lesser staves to the rest of his brotherhood, being exhausted nigh unto death by his feat. And so was the way forged for us to become the most powerful ever seen in Keinald's Demesne (4)..." Reference B "...it was commanded by our King to set down herein the manner by which was hidden the access to the Source. Once my pen has darkened these pages with that information, then shall the Weavers remove all knowledge of what has been so recorded from the minds of the Sons of Aelther (5). Thus shall the might of our nation be safe from our enemies. This tome shall be in the keeping of my Office until time ends, and with it, the supremacy of Fretheod (6), and the Sons of Aelther." Reference C "The demise of the Fretheod Empire is an oddity. At one time, they were the masters of all lands, unconquerable, ever spreading their empire to all points of the globe. Legend has it that they maintained their supremacy through a magical construct, what they called the Master Staff, and a collection of lesser staves somehow linked to the Master one. The lesser staves, carried by all captains of war, and all exploring parties, could draw upon the power of the Master Staff, enabling the bearers to accomplish amazing feats of foresight. Where the Master Staff got its power, or exactly what that power was, no one now knows. "In the final days of the Fretheod Empire, civil war broke out - the first ever in the long history of the Sons of Aelther. Twins were born to the ruling monarch, Queen Earnfled. As the two sons, Osgeofu and Tilgeofu, grew to maturity, it became apparent that they were alike in only their looks. Everyone knew that Osgeofu, being first by mere minutes into the world, would inherit the Empire, becoming the next monarch. But, everyone wished that Tilgeofu would have that honor, being the more noble, kind, and strong of the pair. Osgeofu was petty, cruel, and just short of a coward. But the laws of the Sons of Aelther were inflexible, leaving only one way for the people to get the desired person onto the throne - revolution. "Tilgeofu did not instigate the civil war, but there was a large faction of the nobles who refused to submit to the reign of Osgeofu. They organized, planned, arranged, and finally struck. But, Osgeofu was aware of the unrest, and he had planned, too. So, the planned quick coup turned into a long and bitter battle, and eventually into a full war. "In the second month of the war, the Queen died. Osgeofu crowned himself, and declared Tilgeofu's followers outlaws. The war began to go against the rebel brother, but Fretheod was suffering more. "At the end of the Fourth month, the last remnant of the instigating faction, along with Tilgeofu, penetrated the Palace, and made it to the throne room. There, Tilgeofu confronted his brother. With the people loyal to him rioting in the streets, Tilgeofu demanded his brother's abdication. Osgeofu refused until Tilgeofu threatened him with Huaetec, the Royal Sword of State. The king, cowed by the threat, stepped down from the throne, but, before removing his crown he smashed the head of the Master Staff on the stone floor of the throne room, and then cracked the polished wood length across his knee. Then, laughing and shouting, "If I cannot have it, no one can!", he dashed to a window and leaped through it, still wearing the crown. He was torn to shreds by the mob outside. "Shortly thereafter, a neighboring kingdom, formerly in thrall to the Fretheod Empire, revolted, and attacked the barely recovered nation. Fretheod tried to hold firm, but something was gone out of the Sons of Aelther. They still fought as fiercely as before, and they had superior numbers, despite the harrowing war, but their masterful leadership was gone. Their generals made stupid mistakes, and were led into obvious traps. Tilgeofu sent his Skaldric, Tarhela, across the sea to get help, but Tarhela never returned. "It took a long time for Fretheod to die. Even after that first invasion razed the capitol and killed Tilgeofu and his sons it took many years for the far-flung colonies of the Sons of Aelther to fail, or to become nations in their own right. Eventually only the name remained.." Reference D "...I fear that I have failed my King. The storm that blew us off our course has only just died away, leaving the ship a near wreck, and us utterly lost. I watch now as the captain stands at the wheel, cursing the gods, the sea, the wind, even the King, as he brandishes one of the now useless Son Staffs upon which he used to depend. Such a storm would never have caught a ship of Fretheod unawares before Osgeofu's treachery. "I have in my posession the Tome of the Yrmenweald, passed down from Skaldric to Skaldric since the beginning of the Time of the Master Staff. It was the only hope my King had of regaining the power of the Master Staff and saving our people. But, we know not where we are, and so the chances of happening on the citadel that holds the secrets are almost none. Wudamund might as well be on the larger moon for all we can get to it now. Only by the will of Keinald will Tilgeofu and Fretheod now be saved..." Reference A - Translation of the "Tome of the Yrmenweald", by Hrothgrim the Skaldric, page 185. Reference B - Translation of the "Tome of the Yrmenweald", by Hrothgrim the Skaldric, page 421. Reference C - From the "History of the Ancient World", Volume 4, by Trenta, Historian and Chronicler to King Vulpa of Baranur, pages 231-233. Reference D - Excerpt from the personal log of Tarhela, Skaldric to Tilgeofu, page 642 (the second to last leaf). Footnotes: (1) A cycle is approximately the period of the Moon from New to New. It equates roughly to one month. (2) The Clear Fire Weavers were the cream of the crop of the wizards of the land, distinguished by passing a fatal test involving binding and controling elemental fire. (3) Not only is the figure untranslateable, but it resembles nothing remotely similar to any rune or figure in the entire lexicon of the Fretheod - it seems to be an alien inclusion, perhaps from another language. (4) Keinald is the Over-god of the Fretheod, and the world is considered to be his personal property. (5) Aelther was (in legend) the first man to set foot upon the shores of the land that became the home of the Fretheod. Thus do the people of the Fretheod honor the first of sailors. (6) Fretheod was, at one time, the foremost Empire in the world, spanning all the known lands of the time and finding more all the time. They were inveterate colonizers, and their markers - stone pillars or obelisks with sticklike writing on them - can be found in almost every area of the world now traveled. Part I The Thief Ka'lochra'en stood before the huge, intricately carven doors of the Bardic College, and wondered (as usual) if it would work. He was a skilled thief of a special type - he didn't snatch and run, but rather he spent a lot of time and preparation planning his thefts, and making them as perfect as possible. Often, that meant assuming a role, as he was now doing, or in some other way infiltrating the premises of his target openly and making sure that he was not a suspect in the crime. He found his own method of work to be much preferable to that of the average thief, and it meant that he could go after larger marks and enjoy the money he got for his services without having to hide from reprisals. But, no matter how foolproof his plans, or how perfect his impersonation was, he always worried just before he began a job. He let himself run over the details in his mind, reviewing his cover story, assuring himself that he knew the layout of the place and the exact location of the book. He thought that it was this worry that had kept him alive so long - he had been in the business for over 15 years, and had never been so much as suspected of one of his crimes. He was being well paid by a mysterious man to get a book out of the College's main vault. The man, who refused to name himself or give any details about the book, had provided the keys to the vault. Ka'en had wondered aloud why the man needed his help to get the book when he had the keys. The man had said that no one must know that the book was missing, and that Ka'en was renowned for making things disappear mysteriously. The number of gold coins that the man offered got Ka'en to take the job, despite his misgivings. Taking a deep breath and assuring himself that he was as prepared as possible, Ka'en continued up the steps. His green cloak was an exact copy of one worn by a bard. He wore a nondescript sword and a leather harp-case on his back, though the case was empty and padded. And, most importantly, he wore around his neck an absolutely authentic Rank pendant. He had gotten it from Bellen, a disreputable ruffian who, nevertheless, had ways of procuring certain things. He had proved to be reliable before, and so when Ka'en had put out feelers for a bardic Rank pendant, it had been just a few days before Bellen had turned up with one. Ka'en hadn't asked where he had gotten it, staving off Bellen's eager attempts to tell him anyway. He had given the ruffian the five crowns he had promised (which wasn't even a decent fraction of what he had already been paid for the book), and had continued to prepare. He knew that the Rank indicated was fairly high among the journeyman class. The owner of the pendant had completed Eight of the Ten staves required before advancement to Master class. That would make Ka'en's job both a little easier and a little harder. Easier, because he, wearing that pendant, would be taken for an important person. Harder, because there weren't all that many Eighth Stave Bards proportionally, and it might well seem suspicious that he was a stranger. But, the opportunity was too good to pass up; he decided to take his chances. A small nagging doubt remained in his mind - there was one thing that would undo all of his planning. His second cousin, Je'lanthra'en, a real Bard, would be able to unmask him if she happened to be in residence. As he pushed the well-counterbalanced massive doors open and entered the College, he decided to check on Je'en's whereabouts with the option of aborting the mission if she was in Magnus at that time. Ka'en assumed his role as he strode purposefully through an entrance hall as huge as the doors and tastefully ornate. It had only one other door, much smaller, which led into the College proper. Standing by the closed door was a young man wearing the red sash of a SongWarder over his blue tunic and white hose. "Greetings, brother," said Ka'en as he halted before the warder. The young man in blue and white bowed formally to the tall, tow-headed man in green cloak and proper pendant. "Welcome to the College of Magnus, my Lord," said the warder, and shifted his weight onto the plate in the floor that caused the inner door to open. "Enter, and may all your needs and wants be fulfilled within." "Perhaps you can assist me, brother," said Ka'en. "A friend of mine, a travelling companion for a time, said she might be here this month. I was wondering if you knew whether Je'lanthra'en was, indeed, here?" The face of the warder fell. He said, "I am sorry, my Lord, to be the one to tell you this. Lady Je'en is in town, but she has suffered an accident. Just this past week, in the Fifth Quarter. Her injuries were severe, and she is being tended by Master Enowan in the Palace. Did you know her well?" Ka'en allowed his face to show the sorrow he did feel at the news of Je'en accident, but he kept hidden the elation that he could continue his night's work without fear of discovery. "Yes, brother, I knew her well. I am sorrowed to hear of this. I leave again on the morrow, but perhaps I will delay long enough to pay her a visit. Thank you for the news, brother." And he passed through the inner door shaking his head sadly for effect. He never made the connection between the pendant he wore, the hints Bellen had tried to drop, and the news of Je'en accident. He went to see the seneschal of the College and got a room for the night. He was in time for dinner and he actually enjoyed himself at the meal, listening to the tales spun by the other bards and the students as well. He had to supply a few, himself, but he had no problem imitating the style of the others in the room. He also had a vivid imagination so he managed to entertain the whole group as well as any bard present. He pretended to drink overmuch and finally excused himself from the procedings with the excuse of needing sleep for his further travels. He wasn't the first one to leave, so his going wasn't unduly remarked. In other circumstances, he would have left with a woman, and, after a little fun, he would have drugged her asleep for the bulk of the night, providing himself with a "perfect" alibi. But, he couldn't be sure that a bard wouldn't detect the drug in the wine - bards were spooky that way, sometimes. So, he would just have to rely on the image he had projected at dinner to prove he was who he said he was. He went up to his room in the sparsely populated Guest Wing (larger than both the Student and Resident Wings put together) and took a small nap, waiting for the college to fall asleep. The Job Ka'en's inner clock woke him shortly after midnight. The intricately maintained time-lamp on the wall confirmed that his personal alarm had worked properly, and the silence pervading the wing attested to his choice of times. With a little care, Ka'en would not be disturbed in his thieving. Dressed in the black clothes packed in his harp case, carrying the tools of his trade, and the keys to the vaults, Ka'en slipped out of his room and down the stairs to the Leafy Atrium - a little clear-domed hall that led from the work buildings of the College to the three living wings. He crossed the open space, dimly lit by moon light, and paused in the inky shade cast by the little garden in the center of the hall that gave it its name. He waited to be sure that no one was coming before moving on: the Atrium was where he was most likely to run into someone. He made it to the main building of the College without incident, but just as he approached the stairs into the cellars, he heard footsteps and voices. Hastily ducking into the nearest doorway, he waited until he heard the three person parade fade into the distance. Then, he heard a sound behind him. Turning lithely as a cat, and as soundlessly, he noticed that the room wasn't empty. It was a study room, adjacent to the main Library, equiped with a large table and rather comfortable looking chairs. Perhaps too comfortable, Ka'en thought. The sound he had heard was a stifled snore, which repeated itself a few times more. A student was curled up in one of the chairs, his candle burned down to a faint, blue glimmer amid a pool of liquid wax, and the book he had been reading was lying on the floor. Ka'en paused for several more minutes before easing the door open, and then shut again behind him, careful not to disturb the sleeper. Silently blessing his fortune, and overzealous, sleepy students, he padded to the stairs and continued down. When he reached the third landing, he passed through the archway into that cellar, leaving the mysteries of the still descending staircase for someone else to explore. There were more vaults in the cellars of the College than there were in the Crown Castle, some said, and they were probably right. Some also said that there was more wealth in the vaults of the College than in all of the vaults the Kingdom of Baranur considered its own. That, too, was probably correct, but there was more than monetary treasure in those vaults. The Bardic College collected knowledge, and art, and anything else that the wisdom of its leaders commanded them to collect. Like old books. Ka'en came to the correct door, just one of at least ten in the long hallway. It was of a dull grey metal ten feet tall and three wide. It stood out from the well carven walls of the hall even though there wasn't a crack around the perimeter as most doors had. There was also no handle, and no visible keyhole, either. But, Ka'en knew what to do. He took the first of the keys and measured its length eight times from the floor up the right edge of the door, and then one over. Two fingers' pressure moved a piece of the carving there aside, revealing the first keyhole. He had been told to measure carefully since the very similar carvings around the correct one were traps, which would set off an alarm as well as incapacitate the burglar in various ingenious ways. Inserting the measuring key carefully into the hole it had revealed, Ka'en turned it slowly to the left (right would have released another trap). There was a faint snapping noise. He could feel the key click as it turned. After the second click, he pushed the key in hard and felt it sink home. A louder snapping noise accompanied the appearance of the normal outline of a door on the grey metal, as well as three triangular holes in the general region of a normal keyhole. Taking the second key from his belt pouch, Ka'en measured up the left jamb of the now revealed door for nine of the shorter key lengths and then four lengths to the left. The end of the key rested on the center of one of many identical triangular projections, each with an indented circle within each point. He pressed the indicated triangle, and it sank deeply into the wall. There was a faint whirring noise and after a few seconds the triangle reappeared with the lower right circle glowing faintly. Ka'en inserted the second key into the lower left hole in the door, and turned it. The proper hole was different every time, or so his employer had said, selected randomly with the pressing of the carving and indicated on that same carving. The wrong hole or the wrong carving were, of course, traps. When the second key had been turned all the way around, a knob-like portion of the door popped out, just above the three keyholes. Taking the third key, Ka'en inserted it slowly into the center of the knob, deactivating the last trap on the door. He turned the knob and the thick, but not heavy, door opened inward. Relieved to have negotiated the complicated entry procedure, Ka'en slipped inside after removing the three keys. His employer had assured him that the door could be opened with ease from within, so he closed the door behind him. When it met its frame, he was astonished to see that it had become transparent. At least he would have plenty of warning if someone tried to enter. He turned his attention to the interior of the vault. This was one of the College's knowledge vaults, which was just as well - no temptation to take a little extra. The shelves and chests were arranged just as the mysterious man had said. He went directly over to the correct chest. It was the top one of a stack of four, so he wouldn't have to worry about moving it to gain access. Two more keys rested unused in his pouch; he retrieved the first. The very thin leather gloves he was wearing allowed him to trace the intricate lines graven into the side of the chest. He found the hidden keyhole and unlocked the chest - the large, normal-looking lock hanging where locks normally hung was yet another trap. He raised the lid and eyed the thick, leather-bound books arranged neatly within. Carefully lifting the first tray out by the handles, he set it on the floor and stacked the other three trays on top of it. Taking the last key in hand, he pushed aside the lining of the seemingly empty chest and released the hidden bottom. He slipped the last key into the lock that bound his quarry into the recesses of the false bottom of the chest with crossing straps of iron, much like a cage. He carefully removed the required book. It was light for its size and thickness. He traced the sticklike runes laid in gold on the very light-colored leather of the cover, making sure that they spelled out what the stranger had told him meant "The Tome of the Yrmenweald". Satisfied with his find, he placed the book in the other pouch he carried. He relocked the cage and replaced the contents of the chest as he had found them. With a brief glance around the vault, he went back to the door. He surveyed the corridor through the transparent door and eased it open without complicated precautions. When he shut it behind him, it again became a featureless plane of dull grey metal. Ka'en made his way carefully back to his room, sure that he had been undetected. He repacked his black clothes in the harp case, adding the book to the bundle, and settled back on the comfortable bed to sleep away the rest of the night. The Payment Ka'en left the College the next day with no suspicions trailing him about his midnight activities. Once again, he had pulled off a job successfully. He strolled casually out of town, following the route he had hinted at the night before at dinner. Around noon he reached his cache at the center of a stand of trees, sure that no one had followed him. He changed clothes, burying the bardic ones deep in the ground. Dressed as a nobleman traveler, he made his way back to Magnus. It was well after dark when he crossed the city limits. He made straight for the rendezvous point, an inn called the Fighting Unicorns. He knew that his employer would not still be there this night, as his own wanderings to throw off any cunning trackers had delayed him, but the inn was comfortable and cheap, and he wouldn't mind a night in one of its large rooms. The Fighting Unicorns was situated as near the Fifth Quarter as any legitimate business could be without being part of that warren filled with underworld characters. That was the reason that its rooms were so inexpensive - few dared to brave the proximity of the haven of thieves and murderers that was practically on the inn's doorstep. So, its few patrons were coddled, in hopes that good treatment would bring more business. It didn't - the dark alleys of the Fifth Quarter were more powerful than word of mouth - but Sir Hawk, the owner and proprietor, was an optomistic sort, so he kept up the treatment, just in case. Ka'en slept well and stayed in his room for most of the next day. As sunset approached, he went down to the taproom to have dinner and wait for his employer. The food at the Fighting Unicorns was as cheap as the rooms and the portions as large, so Ka'en ate more than his fill for just a few small coins. When he finished, he ordered a large tankard of the fine inn ale and settled back in his booth to await the completion of his mission. Sir Hawk did his best to make his inn very attractive to his few customers, so there was some very fine entertainment once the kitchen had closed. This night, there were several singers - not bards, but persons with the talent who simply didn't wish to undergo the rigors of full training - and two fine dancers. Ka'en was enjoying the show so much that he had almost forgotten why he was there. The ale, of which he had drunk less than half, had given him a slight buzz, and he was very relaxed and comfortable just drinking and watching the floor show. His comfort was interrupted when a very lovely woman approached his table. She was dressed finely, but manner of her dress and the style with which she had painted her face, indicated that she was one of the more classy of those who plied the horizontal trade. She attracted the glances and stares of most of the other male patrons of the tap, but her destination was firm, and she slid herself into Ka'en's booth across the table from him. He said, "M'lady, please, not tonight. I am meeting someone here and..." The woman smiled sweetly and said, "I know." She reached out a lovely slim arm and pulled the curtain of the booth closed, shutting the two of them in. Before Ka'en could protest, the woman smiled again and put a long finger to her lips, shushing him. She closed her eyes and began to shimmer. Her whole form wavered and glittered and the woman disappeared. In her place was the brown robed figure of his mysterious employer. The man said, "Very effective illusion, don't you think? You have the book." Ka'en nodded, and patted the large satchel resting beside him on the seat. "You have the money?" he asked. The man in brown nodded in turn, and pulled a very large black bag out of thin air and set it down on the table with a hefty and satisfying clunk. Ka'en lifted the satchel onto the table and pushed to toward his employer while pulling the bag of coins closer to himself. The two opened their bags of loot at the same time. Ka'en's eyes went wide at the sight of all of that gold. The man in brown drew out his newly purchased book and looked at it with almost the same degree of avarice. After fingering the locking clasp on the old volume, he put it away and looked up at Ka'en. "Is our deal completed to your satisfaction?" he asked. Ka'en nodded. "The keys I gave you are in the satchel, too?" Again, Ka'en nodded. The return of the keys hadn't been part of the deal and Ka'en had considered keeping them, but presumably they only opened that one vault and there was nothing of overtly monetary value in it. The man in brown smiled faintly, and said, "Then I shall take my leave. It has been a pleasure doing business with you, sir." And, without offering to shake hands on the completion of the deal, he closed his eyes again. With much the same effect as before, save now in reverse, the man in brown vanished, and the lovely whore reappeared. Though the man had been holding the satchel, it had seemingly now vanished. She/he opened the curtain and slid out of the booth. After leaning back in to give Ka'en a little kiss that utterly embarrassed him, she walked away with a "See you later" thrown back over her shoulder. Ka'en stared dumbly after the illusion of beauty long after it had vanished through the doorway. He had suspected, faintly, that his employer was a magician - who else would have that much of a need for an old book - but the proof was unnerving. He didn't like magic much - it was too unpredictable. And, he wondered again why a magician needed his help to procure the book. He didn't know that the College was protected from outside magic by the power of the Crystal of Oathes. When Ka'en recovered, he remembered that there was a large bag of money sitting out in the open in front of him. Hastily, hoping no one had noticed, he yanked it off the table and onto the seat beside him. Unfortunately, he had not been fast enough. Just as he was about to return to his room for one last night of comfortable sleep before moving on, someone else slipped quietly and quickly into the booth with him. Startled, Ka'en recognized Skar, the leader of the group of cutthroats that Bellen ran with. Skar, who was leering at him very unpleasantly, said, "Greetings, Kane. And good business come your way lately?" Ka'en, who was known to the underworld of Magnus as Kane, said, "What business might it be of your's, Skar?" "Well, friend Kane, perhaps we could share a little of that gold you just got from that fancy whore as just left. You know, share the wealth, eh?" "What makes you think that she brought me that gold, and why should I share it in any case?" "I know she brought it because you didn't have it when you came down them stairs earlier. And, 'cause if you had that much money, you wouldn't be staying here, now would you. "And, we should share, 'cause I know something that the town guard just might like to hear. I don't know just what that tart wanted you to do in the Singers' school, but I know that you bought a Singer's pendant from Bellen. And if the High Singers check real careful, I bet they find something missing, eh? "'Course, my yearning to do my civic duty just might be subverted with enough gold..." Ka'en was appalled. This gutter rat was blackmailing him. Of all the gall! What was worse, of course, was that his record was in jeopardy now. He just might be caught, finally, and all because of a little greed. Skar said, "I think about half of what's in that black bag there should keep my mouth shut - for a while, at least, eh?" Ka'en, a resigned tone in his voice, said, "I guess I have no choice, Friend Skar. How about a little privacy, though, so no one else decides that they need a little of my hard won gold?" So saying, he drew the curtain across the mouth of the booth, again isolating it from the rest of the taproom. Lifting the sack of gold back onto the table with one hand, he drew his last resort from behind his belt buckle. With the tiny dagger - not much more than a pin, really - carefully concealed in his left hand, he opened the bag and began counting out the gold into two piles. Skar greedily reached out for his pile after it had grown to six coins, and Ka'en managed to surreptitiously scratch his hidden dagger along one of those reaching hands. He continued to count for another minute or so. Then, Skar's head jerked up, his eyes wide with shock and fear. "What did y..." he began to say, but in mid word, he simply stopped moving. His eyes continued to blink, slowly, but the rest of his body was immobile. Ka'en returned the coins to his bag and his last resort to his belt. Then, he took his still half filled tankard, and put it between Skar's chilling fingers. Molding the thief like a wax dummy, Ka'en shaped Skar into the position of a solitary drinker - hands around the tankard, body leaned forward, head down and staring into the depth of his ale. He also managed to work the thief's expression into one of contemplation. Then, he eased himself out of the booth, opening the curtain and closing it again on the dying gutter rat. He was up well before dawn the next day, packed and ready to go. He hadn't been able to sleep very well, though - he didn't like to kill. He left two gold pieces on his pillow to settle (and much more) his bill, and slipped out the back way. He decided not to return to Magnus for a very long time. Skar was found, dead, just as dawn came, and the taproom closed. No cause of death could be found - the slight scratch on his hand couldn't possibly have killed him, according to the official reports. The authorities wanted to question one Baron Kanning, the last person to be seen with him, but the noble in question had left before dawn, leaving a hearty tip behind him. Skar was a known ruffian, and a denizen of the Fifth Quarter, so the inquest was closed after only a cursory attempt to find the Baron in question. Most felt themselves well rid of the thief. -John L. White <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>


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