VOLUME EIGHT NUMBER TWO FFFFF SSS FFFFF N N EEEEE TTTTT

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Skeptic Tank!

+-+ +-+ +-+ +-+--+-+--+-+ VOLUME EIGHT NUMBER TWO | | ========================================== +___________+ 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 *Winds of Change Becki Tants *Reunion Ed Murphy *The Treasure: Part 2 of 4 John L. White Date: 071587 Dist: 385 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 While there isn't a great deal of news to report, that is most probably due to the fact that this issue is being sent out no more than a week after the previous issue. For the most part, the news which was reported in the xeditorial for 8-1 is still current. We are still working on getting a mailing out to prospective postal subscribers, which is late due to the fact that I exploded my printer in the heat of our apartment. I have received some responses from readers who will be attending Pennsic, and also some responses from FSFnet writers who will be there. The only truly new news is that there has been a change in issue naming conventions. All issues now have the filetype of VOLxxNy, where 'XX' is the volume number and 'Y' the issue number. This change has been made on files on LISTSERV at TCSVM and CSNEWS at MAINE as well. When requesting files from those sources, please be careful to get the proper filetypes. In this issue we have part two of John White's "Treasure" story which was begun in issue 7-5, and two short stories from two new Dargon Project authors, Ed Murphy and Becki Tants. The next issue, 8-3, should be out near the end of July or early August, and will contain some startling information, as well as the long-promised (but is it long-awaited?) "Legend in the Making" which I've tantalized you with since February! -'Orny' Liscomb <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<> Winds of Change Ariel awoke that morning in a bed for the first time in weeks. It was a welcome, warm feeling that had almost caused her to forget the knock on the door that had awoken her in the first place. She blinked as the knock came again. In a brief moment of panic, she realized that no one should know that she was here. She knew no one in this city. Drawing her dagger, she moved silently over to the door. She was about to open the door when she heard the innkeeper outside it, saying "Ma'am, 'tis mornin'. Breakfast is ready fer ya down in the common room if yer up." Relaxing a bit, she listened as the footsteps went on down the hall and began the same strange procedure again. It occurred to her that this was not something that had ever been done in her father's inn, but she was quickly distracted from the thought as she looked around the room for the first time. Her quick flight there late last night and almost immediate collapse from exhaustion had given her no time to examine her rather rich and elegant surroundings. The carved wood furniture, beautiful wall hangings, painted ceramic wash bowl and pitcher, and the call to breakfast by the innkeep all led her quickly to the conclusion that she would have to find a job soon to pay for the place. She poured some water into the bowl, rinsed off her face to hide the tell-tale signs of her long, hard journey, and dressed quickly. Looking up at the polished mirror on the wall, the surest sign of how expensive the place was that she had seen so far, she realized just how much her defense these last few weeks had taken out of her. Her skin looked well tanned, but pale below the tan, a sure sign of the exhaustion she still was recovering from. The area underneath her eyes had some uncharacteristic lines caused by the stretching of her powers beyond her own limits of endurance in an effort to save her own life. Worse yet were her eyes. They still held the look of one hunted, betrayed, and forsaken in her direst time of need. The change was depressingly obvious, and had the effect of making her look much older then her mere 18 years. She quickly turned away from that other face in the mirror, but the thoughts of all she had been through still followed her. With her eyes not quite focused out the window into the early morning light, she began to think of all the things that had happened to her in the short 6 months that had passed since her 18th birthday. She had been working at the time for her father. He owned an inn in a small village and had eked out a meager living this way for many years. She did his books, waited upon the customers, and generally did whatever was needed. She provided 'services' for the more wealthy customers, as well as amusing herself by opening the locks on things without the keys. A very simple life, but not satisfying. At 18, she wanted to see more of the world. When a rich, handsome young man came into town, she was immediately very attentive. This one's name was Stefan. The rumor about town was that he was a mage of some sort and her father, hearing this, advised her to stay away from him. This just whetted her curiosity more. They spent much time together and soon, as he was leaving, he invited her to join him, saying that a young lady of her particular 'talents' could be very successful in a big city such as Dargon. Charmed by the young man so thoroughly, she left without a word to her father or a thought to the consequences. She quickly found the rumors of his magic to be true and convinced him to teach her. He agreed, thinking it a good chance to practice for him and an amusement for her. As they traveled he began to teach her the powers of the air. He soon realized that she had a strong streak of talent for this running through her, and sped up the training. As they traveled, practiced, and slept together, their relationship grew. Soon Ariel began to think she was in love with Stefan and he seemed to reciprocate this feeling. She began to hold great hopes for her life in a new city, a big city full of opportunities, and her life with Stefan. All too soon, however, the training was halted and her dreams were smashed. The cult of the earth god, Haargon, found out about the existence of the two mages and made their plans to attack. The rivalry between Haargon and Iliara, the goddess of the air, had long been fierce, but only recently had it escalated to such huge proportions. The cults had escalated it to blood-shed. Haargon's followers had acted first, killing one of the air goddesses high priests, saying naught but that he had blasphemed their god beyond permissible levels. The cult of the air goddess was quick to take its revenge. Of the existing earth mages, over half were murdered one night in their sleep. Since that night, the cult of Haargon had been killing any air mages found in an attempt to "even the score". Stefan had told Ariel about this cult before, so when they attacked in the middle of the night, she recognized them. Before she even awoke, Stefan was dead by the hand of their leader and they were coming for her. Calling all her fury and grief to play, she used everything she had learned so far to call up a wind strong enough to blow about the pine needles on the ground and pull the ones from the trees, giving her the cover to escape. She ran, but only far enough to find a place to hide before she collapsed in utter exhaustion. She had slept after that for almost 18 hours. When she awoke, still exhausted and emotionally drained by the death of her lover, but she found a bit of food and then began to travel toward Dargon. The face in the mirror told her that she had still not recovered. Since that night, almost 2 months ago, she had rarely been able to call anything more then a light breeze. Slowly, though, her power had been improving. For the first month after the fight, she had not even been able to stir the breeze. "Soon," she thought, "soon, I will be my old self". But this thought had been losing its power to console her. She was beginning to think that she might never regain what she had lost. Still, the cult continued to follow her. Not as viciously, but they were watching, and she had to keep her eyes open. "But first I must eat." she said to herself out loud. Splashing her face with water once more, quickly, to get the dreamy look out of her eyes, she headed down to breakfast. As she came down the stairs, she was all but overwhelmed by the smell of the fresh cooked bread. She hadn't smelled anything that good since she had left her father's inn. It seemed like ages ago. "It was." she told herself. But the scent was strong enough that she hurried the rest of the way to the common room, her mouth watering. The meal was plain, but wholesome. Ariel hadn't realized how hungry she'd been until the innkeep put the fresh, warm bread, ripe apples, and sharp cheese before her. The food tasted fantastic. After so long on the road, any fresh, warm meal was welcome. She was just finishing up when a small child, approximately 6 years old, wearing dirty, torn clothing and no shoes, came running in from the street. He scanned the room and, spotting Ariel, came running over. He looked her over carefully for a moment, then, without a word, dropped a note and a leather pouch before her and ran out of the inn. Startled, Ariel reached for the note and the pouch. As she opened the pouch and emptied it's contents, her face went white. Stefan's ring, the one that he said helped him to concentrate, lay there on the table before her. Dragging her eyes away from the ring, she opened the note. "Ariel; Air Mage....... This ring belonging to your friend will help you to overcome those who still watch and follow you...Be wary, for they will not give up easily. I cannot interfere directly, so you must have faith in your own abilities. Stefan has taught you well. Overcome this obstacle and you will be brought into our fellowship. Until then, take care, and trust in your own strength. Cyrrwiddyn; Priest of Iliara......." As she read the last words in amazement, the writing on the parchment disappeared. Startled, she sat with the now blank parchment in her hands, wondering how these people had found her and where she could find them. She had so many questions. But the letter had given no clue. She had no ideas on how to find the Priest. Soon her attention turned back to the ring. Placing it upon her finger, as one would a wedding ring, she was surprised to see it fit perfectly. Stefan's fingers were nowhere near her size. Quickly however, she realized that there was magic involved here and that she should not question the ways of the Gods. "Stefan," she whispered, "They took you away from me too soon. I will extract a price on them for this. But please, give me the strength to live long enough to do it." Finishing the last of breakfast, she got up and left the inn, heading out in search of a job, but with the words of the letter still buzzing around in her mind. So occupied was she that she failed to notice the shadowy figure that moved away from the wall as she went by and began to follow her. -Becki Tants <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<> Reunion Gellan left the forest just after dawn. The dew was still dripping off the trees but the chill was leaving the air as he strode across the meadow just outside the city. He stood for the moment at the crest of a small hill and looked over the expanse to the city walls of Dargon. Dargon. It had been a long while since he had seen Dargon and its high buildings and crowded marketplaces. The first time he saw Dargon, he was a young lad, not even had he seen his tenth year. He dimly remembered looking in wonder at the great colorful banners of the duchies and kingdoms, for it had been the time of the great Festival that was given in Dargon every year. His view now was not one of awe, however. He had been through much in the seventeen years since his innocent days of childhood. He shifted the pack that was slung over his shoulder and settled into a steady gait made his way to the main road that led into Dargon. The morning traffic had picked up while he had been approaching. As he walked along the side of the road he drew stares from the coaches and wagons that passed. He chuckled softly to himself as he thought that they probably considered him some type of barbarian due to his homemade clothes and unkempt hair and beard. But he had never really cared about others or what they thought about him. That had been one of the reasons he had left his village, family and all the security that those things implied. If only they'd understood... if only... ah, well. He had come to the archway of stone that was the entrance to Dargon. He walked through the high entranceway and was astounded by the density of the people and the buildings. The people! It had been so long since he had seen so many people bustling and crowding in one place. He walked down the streets and alleys of Dargon and was only able to gaze in wonder at the large city. "Well, " he thought to himself, "I'd better take care of business first. I'll be here quite long enough to sightsee...". Then he was off to look for a place to live during his stay in Dargon... Night was falling over the city of Dargon, and most of the businesses in the lower part of the city were closing. The 'most' however didn't include the bars. The city was going through the metamorphoses that happened every night around dusk. The nooks and alley-ways used during the day to get from place to place in the city were now shunned at all costs. A man could lose much more than his purse at night in Dargon, especially in this district. Merntik was making his way to Belisandra's for a night of general debauchery and ruthlessness which was usually what he did, when he wasn't planning on taking some poor merchants livelihood. The salt air was drifting in from the water as always. Merntik entered the pub and immediately grabbed the first serving girl that came within reach. There were cries and whoops from all around. "Hi Mern!", a group called from the end of the bar. He waved and made his way to the counter. "Ale!, the strongest and darkest you got, lady!" he yelled and then turned with a twinkle in his eye. That, among other things is what had made him famous. Nobody knew just exactly how he did it, but there are those who say that he could make his eyes sparkle in pitch black darkness. After reciving his mug he pushed his way through the crowd at the end of the bar. "So, you are looking as ratty as ever, Gauld!", he said and delivered a resounding slap to his comrade. "What has the night brought this way?" "Bah, only you, you old abandoned horse," Gauld said with a grin, and then continued, "but, nothing else as yet. It has been a slow night thus far. And how have you faired today? I saw you earlier on Ramit Street talking to a couple. I assume you were 'helping them'?", and then his grin broadened. Merntik let a little twinkle enter his countenance and replied, "Well, they were lost! And not from this city, I had pity on them. And besides, I had no idea how well they would pay for a guide to get them to their hotel", he took a gulp of the dark ale, "as a matter of fact neither did they!" He laughed loudly as he ordered another round for the group and threw the gold coin on the counter. Time went on as he and the men drank, laughed and played games. The serving maids knew enough now to stay out of reach of the group as the night wore on but always managed a tease now and then by coming just out of reach. The night wore on and Merntik decided that he had had quite enough frolic to sustain him for this night. "Besides," he thought to himself, " I do have an early day tomorrow, no telling how many people I will have to 'help'." And with a chuckle to himself, he rose, said his goodbyes and left. The cool night air did little to raise him out of his drunken stupor. He didn't even notice the small dark figure that followed him from the front of the tavern. Merntik turned to walk down a side street that led to his living place and that was when the man appeared in front of him. "Stop there Merntik...". That voice was as familiar to him as any ever would be. "Jernan, what finds you here this late at night? Scraping for your dinner in the gutter?". As any could guess, Jernan and Merntik did indeed know one another, and they held more hate towards the other than any thought possible. "Ahh, Merntik. You're tongue still has a fork I see. I have so missed your conversation. And will forever, after you are dead." Every once in a while Jernan had tried a futile attempt to kill Merntik. They had studied under the same master when they were young, but Jernan became impatient with what he thought were monotonous studies and left long before he was ready to face the world that a thief must face. And as could be expected, he was soon arrested and imprisoned for a number of years. After he got out of the Lord's prison he once again delved into the criminal element where he found that Merntik had made quite a name for himself. The jealousy that he harbored toward Merntik along with a few meetings since then was what caused Jernan's obsession with the elimination of Merntik. Merntik, tired and not wanting to allow Jernan first blood feinted to the left and produced a dagger from beneath his cloak. He then did a quick recovery and lunged after Jernan. But missed. He ended up going tripping over his cloak. As quickly as he could, he got to his feet and managed to strip his cloak off increasing his maneuverability. Jernan had already drawn his knife and whirled around. Jernan stabbed at Merntik. If he had been a bit faster, Merntik might had taken it in the stomach. As it was, he felt the steel enter his leg. Jernan gave the knife a twist and the shock was too much for Merntik. His knees buckled under him, and he was suddenly on his back facing up at Jernan. Jernan walked over slowly and kicked Merntik's dagger further down the alley. "I would have thought that when this time had come you would have given me more of a fight. Tsk.... It seems that you slipped once too often, Merntik." He walked over and Merntik saw him take a foot long steel pipe from the ground nearby. "There is really no need to be gentle about this I guess..." and with that he grabbed Merntik by the collar of his tunic, lifted him up, and hit him in the stomach. The pain was almost to much for him as he tottered on the brink of unconsciousness. His drunken state and the loss of blood had left him unable to focus. He never should have travelled alone on this night. His mistake might have just cost him his life. Jernan pulled back for another blow when a hand came out of the shadow. The third man grabbed the pipe and wrenched it from Jernan's hand in one swift move. Jernan whirled around redrawing his dagger and jumped for the man but his hold on the blade was broken as the stranger brought the pipe down with blow that could have only broken Jernans hand. The stranger then brought the pipe down on Jernans neck and the would be murderer crumpled, like paper, under the blow. Merntik had seen this all from the ground where he had fallen when Jernan released him. The stranger, his face hidden in shadow, walked over to Merntik and knelt down beside him. Merntik could only mutter, "Thanks..." before he was overtaken by unconsciousness. The young thief awoke an unmeasured amount of time later. His wounds had been cared for and he was bathed and lying on a cot. He tried to sit up on his elbows to further survey the room but his body had already decided that it was in control at this particular time, and his stomach, bruised from the previous skirmish, had knotted together. He could only groan and fall back in the cot. He heard a movement from across the room and turned as far as he could and said, "Hello? Who is there?". He was silently wishing he had so much as a bobby pin for protection. Then he heard the clinking of dishes and the smell of an obviously strongly seasoned stew waifted over from somewhere. He was suddenly ravenously hungry. Still the man had not yet come into view, so Merntik thought to get him to speak. "Who is there? I want to thank you for you help, I was sure that I had had my last drink.... Hello? Please, I would like to pay you for your help....". At last he heard steps coming toward him and his eyes opened wide as a look of recognition came over his face. "Mern. Now how would it look if I took money for helping you.... brother", Gallen said as he knelt down beside his brother with the steaming bowl. "Oh my God...", was the only Merntik could think to say. Then he smiled and reached out to hug his brother, but fell back in agony once again. "You always were headstrong when you were sick", Gellan said, as he offered a spoon on the stew. "Where have you been? What have you been doing? Why did you not come home?" Merntik asked, "I mean, Gellan... Seventeen years!...." "Shhhhh.. Mern. I am here now. I will tell you everything but first you must eat. Then we will talk of me." -Ed Murphy <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<> The Treasure Part II The Magician Roharvardenul walked away from the Fighting Unicorns well pleased with the deal he and Ka'en had made. Patting his side, where the book rested in the folds of his cloak, he walked slowly to the shadows of a side alley. Once hidden from casual observers, he let the 'whore' illusion that hid him fade, as well as the 'man in brown' one he wore under it. And he smiled in the knowledge that even should the missing book be somehow traced to that most capable thief he had hired, it could not be traced further - he did not believe in taking chances. Vard (a name he much preferred to his given one for its simplicity - Roharvardenul was very difficult to pronounce correctly for one not raised with it, and he hated it when people mispronounced his name) moved even deeper into the shadows until he was sure that no one could see him. He began to concentrate on building up yet another illusion. This would be very difficult - invisibility was hard to achieve, and even harder to maintain, especially when moving. Vard had practiced long and hard under his erstwhile masters, and he knew his craft. Soon, even careful scrutiny of the shadows wherein he hid would not have revealed Vard's presence - he was invisible. When he had reached an equilibrium within himself, and he knew that he was ready keep the spell going as he moved, he inched his way out of the alley and around to the rear of the Fighting Unicorns, studiously avoiding the infrequent torch- or lantern-cast pools of light that were scattered about - hiding himself was hard enough; hiding his shadow as well would be nearly impossible. Placing his steps as noiselessly as possible, Vard crept into the Fifth Quarter and its concealing darkness. Feeling more secure once he was three streets deep into the Fifth Quarter, Vard began to move faster, but kept up the invisibility. He knew that he couldn't hold the spell much longer. He wanted to be as far as possible from the fringe Inn before he became visible again. He was already weaving the illusion that would replace the invisibility - he tried to be himself as little as possible outside the walls of his fortress home. Curiosity has killed more than cats in the Fifth Quarter, but anyone with a little left might have seen a child, an urchin, appear running from nowhere, clad in scant rags and bare feet. An urchin was a common sight in the Quarter, the sudden appearance was not. Still, had it been seen, the incident wouldn't have passed the lips of the observer, for the insane are dealt with even more severely than the curious in the alleys of the Fifth Quarter. Threading his way through the maze-like inner streets of the Fifth Quarter, Vard eventually reached a blank, wooden wall at the end of a particularly narrow alley. The hidden catches were both difficult to find, even for him, and hard to press all at the same time (to prevent accidental discovery). Finally, the wall parted just enough for him to slip through, then slammed shut seconds after its opening, leaving Vard in total darkenss. He stood in the darkness for several moments, letting the disguise he wore fade away. Here, he needed to be himself, for he had set traps to protect this secret way into the heart of his home from strangers. Filling his mind with the patterns the traps expected, he strode confidently through the utter lightlessness towards the inner sanctum. It seemed that hours passed in the minutes it took him to reach the final curtain, but finally he stepped into light. The small room he had stepped into was deep below the streets of the city, although the gradual slope of the corridor was only barely detectable as one walked it. An ornate chair was set against one bare wall. There was a soft carpet on the floor, but the only other decoration in the room was a large pattern of lines surrounding what looked like a stylized door on the wall opposite the curtained real door. The decor of the room was completed by two lamps flanking the door, and a medium sized chest resting near the wall pattern. Vard took a deep breath and relaxed - walking the gauntlet of that corridor made even him nervous. He walked over to the pattern which was more than a decoration. It was, in fact, a portal into the cellars of Aahashtra, his fortress home. With it, he could make the 40 league trip to and from Magnus in one step. It had taken a lot of effort to create the portal, but his frequent trips to the Crown City made it necessary. Laying his hands within the terminal-circles at the edge of the pattern, Vard began to prime it, readying it for the activation spells. It was just beginning to glow faintly when he heard someone enter the room behind him. He whirled, fire beginning to limn his hands as an attack spell filled his mind, but he let it slip away when he saw that it was only his servant Qrun returning from his errand. Qrun bowed to his Master and took the wrapped bundle that he carried over to the chest. Opening the lid, the servant carefully placed the bundle on top of the many other oddments that filled the chest. He turned and bowed to Vard again. "Ah, Qrun, what did you find today? Anything of special interest? Have you completed your rounds?" "Master, yes, I have visited all the shops you told me to. These last items are the most interesting I found. They registered eight on the meter." Qrun unwrapped the bundle in the chest, displaying a leather-cased harp and a slim-bladed sword. "See, Master, even a little above eight." The servant produced a strange device from the pouch hanging at his belt and held it next to the harp and sword. It was a simple rectangle of black wood, with a tube of glass set into a little trough on one side. There were lines etched across the glass at regular intervals, and a number was graven into the wood next to each line. As the device neared the two objects in the chest, a bright bar of yellow light began to move up the tube from below the mark labeled '1'. When Qrun held the device almost touching the harp and the sword, the yellow bar had pushed past the mark labeled '8'. "Very good, Qrun, very good. These items will serve me well! Let's see if they have any identifying markings, eh?" Vard lifted the harp case from the chest and examined the silver-decorated leather carefully. He opened the case and removed the beautifully wrought harp and examined it. Plucking a few strings that sounded marvelously in tune, he said, "It names itself 'Soft-Winds'. Beautiful name, eh, Qrun? Wonder who the owner was? Belike some bard, down on his luck. Well, his loss is my gain, right?" He placed the harp back in its case and set it back in the chest. He picked up the sword. "Matched set, these were," Vard said. "I can feel they had the same owner. Wonder what could have parted a bard from both his livelihood and his protection?" He peered closely at the carvings on the sheath and drew the blade after unfastening the peace-bond. He read the runes etched among the delicate leaf pattern that chased up and down the center of the well crafted blade. "And this weapon hight 'Leaf-Killer': an odd name for a very fine blade. It belonged to a south-western family at one time, and was transferred from son to daughter last, if I read my runes correctly. So, the bard who lost these was a woman! No matter, they will serve as well in any case." Vard placed the re-sheathed sword back in the chest beside the harp, and bade Qrun secure the chest for travel. While his servant attended to that, Vard returned to the task of activating the portal. Presently, the pattern built of special tiles and set into the very fabric of the wall began to glow strongly, with a slight, pulsing beat. The portal was open. Vard took one last look around the room to be sure that it was empty. With a wave, he extinguished the lamps by the door, and by the light of the pattern he followed his servant into the portal and vanished from Magnus. Immediately after his form vanished into the pattern, its light went out, leaving the secret room in darkness until the next time Vard had to come to the Crown City. The Book Lights sprang on of themselves in the room in Aahashtra that mirrored the one hidden under Magnus as first Qrun and them Vard stepped through the center of the glowing pattern. Vard said, "Take that to the sorting room, Qrun, and take care of its contents. Tell Eirul to bring me something to eat in my study, if she hasn't already." As Qrun carried the chest through the curtain at the far end of the room, Vard followed him as far as the first side door. There, the magician turned aside from the long hall and went through the door and up the stairs behind it that led to his study. He found a bright and cheery fire burning behind its screen in his study and a tray of tarts on a table in front of it. He bit into one and smiled. Eirul was a superb cook. The tarts were a specialty of hers and a favorite of his. Vard removed the Book from the folds of his robe and set it reverently on his reading desk. After lighting several of the lamps that stood around it he went over to a tall bookcase to get down some reference volumes. He settled into the stiff-backed chair at his reading desk and opened the book to the first page. He was pleased to find that it was written in what was called Middle, or Pure, Fretheodan, the language of that empire's most productive period. He was conversant in the language, so he began to read, not taking the time to look up words or usages he didn't understand. He wanted to get an idea of what was contained in the book before analyzing it. Pausing only to nibble at the food he never saw Eirul bring, he read the book from cover to cover. By the time he had finished it, almost a full day had passed and he was sure that the Tome of Yrmenweald was exactly what he had hoped it was. It contained the secrets of a vast powersource that the Fretheod Empire's wizards had managed to harness. It gave details on how to duplicate the feat, and exactly what could be accomplished with the harnessed power. Vard was sure that he could put the Yrmenweald to as good a use as had the Fretheod. He had always dreamed of being the most powerful wizard in the world, and with this book he could be. But, first things first. Vard had gotten the gist of what the Tome contained. Now he wanted to know exactly. It was essential that he understand, word for word, the instructions left by the wizards who had harnessed the Yrmenweald the first time. Patience was something Vard had learned long ago, along with thouroughness, and now he put both to work studying the Tome. First, he translated the Tome into the trade language that the Fretheod Empire had created. It was a language that was able to express complicated ideas very clearly while still being easy to learn because of its logical structure: its rules had no exceptions since it was not a naturally evolved language. He was able to clarify to himself what certain passages meant by the way they read in the trade tongue. Then he translated the trade version into his own native tongue, gaining even more insights into the text. The last step was a detailed examination of all three versions, comparing them and finalyzing the exact meaning of the Tome. He was aided here by his collections of material from the Empire's history, including maps, journals, and books written by Fretheod scholars. This helped him pin down geographic references and fit them into his own frame of reference. It also helped to clear up idiomatic usages, obscure (to him) literary references, and the other little things that kept him from total understanding of the Tome. He learned that the source of the Yrmenweald had been found by a team of explorers who were charting the continent they called Gereon, which was south of their homeland and east of Vard's. One day, the native guides they employed showed them a taboo area where a stone had fallen from the sky. They were told that the first people to go near the place, soon after the sky-stone had come down, had been burned to death by the heat of the earth. Several weeks later, when the earth had cooled, another group of people had tried to get to the sky-stone. These had been driven off by strange lights in the pit where the sky-stone rested. When they died later of a strange, wasting sickness, the area had been declared taboo. However, the Fretheod explorers insisted on seeing for themselves. The tales of the sky-stone were several years old, and they persuaded their guides to stay with them by suggesting that perhaps the 'evil spirits' inhabiting the place had gone by now. Jarl Hremon, the leader of the expidition, entered the depression created by the sky-stone first. Burried in the earth, he found a wall of silver metal that sparked feebly when he neared it, then went out. He tripped on a clod of dirt and fell against the metal. When he did, the entire wall shimmered and faded into nothingness, revealing a large, dark cave. Hremon got a torch and led his men into the strange cave. They found much that they could not describe or understand, but they did find - well, something. The Tome used a strange symbol for what they found that seemed to be enough description for them. No mention was made of exactly what it was, or what it looked like, or where the symbol came from. Vard could find no other reference to a symbol of that type anywhere in any of the books he had collected. For his own convenience he assigned a sound to the symbol. He called it 'keseth'. Somehow, Hremon had recognized that there was potential in the keseth. He had a permanent camp set up around the pit, and sent a man back to the capitol with a message informing the King of their discovery and suggesting that the Court's wizards send someone back to further examine what had been found. The King sent a full legion of his army to Gereon, escorting most of the Weavers in the capitol including Swithwald, their master. It was Swithwald who closeted himself with the keseth for many days. When he emerged from the cave, he knew what the keseth was capable of, and to what use it could be put to. Swithwald left for the capitol after instructing his wizards in what preparations to make for the keseth's transportation. When the Master Weaver was home, he set about building a place for the keseth deep in a long disused mine. He had the full support of the King once he had informed the monarch of his plan, and being able to draw on the resources of the whole Empire made the work go quickly. Soon the vault was ready. In an exhausting exhibition of magic that required the services of every Weaver and a good many of the lesser mages, the keseth was transported from the pit on Gereon, into the vault that Swithwald had made where it would be safe and available for study. Years went into that study. Swithwald bent all his energies on harnessing the power that the keseth held. Finally, he found a way to keep the keseth bound while allowing it access to its power. The discovery of cwicustan by another exploration team probing into the northern wastes of their own continent was the deciding factor in harnessing the keseth's abilities. After much research into the strange, almost living, crystal called cwicustan, it was discovered that any part removed from the whole was still affected by some things that happened to what remained. It was thought by the researchers to use cwicustan as a magic channel, for a spell cast at the heart-lode would emanate from any and all fragments of that lode. Swithwald heard of its properties, and set teams of researchers to finding out how to apply that ability to the keseth. Finally, the connection was made, and the Master Staff was formed. The Son Staves that were formed from the master were linked to it, and the Master Staff was linked to the keseth enabling anyone with access to a Son Staff access to the power of the keseth. And that power was, in the main, farseeing with incredible clarity. Commanders could keep an eye on enemy movements from a considerale distance. Explorers could view the terrain they would be crossing well before reaching it. Ship captains could spot land from afar, as well as keep an eye on weather patterns using another minor ability of the keseth. And it was the power of the keseth that turned the agressive and formidable Fretheod Nation into a world-spanning, invincible Empire. Finally, both Swithwald and the King decided that they needed to safeguard the core of their newfound power. Once Swithwald was certain that the keseth was safe and secure in its vault, he sealed it and took a map, one of his servants, and the key across the sea to one of the nation's outposts. In the cellars of a watch-keep named Wudamund he he burried for safekeeping the map to the vault, the key to enter the vault, and the servant who knew the traps guarding the vault. He then instructed the Tome to be written, to hold all of the knowledge of the Yrmenweald (as they came to call the power that the keseth gave to Fretheod), the keseth, and the Staves. And lastly, he and the Weavers worked a greater magic than the one that had moved the keseth. All knowledge of the keseth, its whereabouts, and the source of the Staves' power was removed from the minds of all the Fretheod people. Only those with access to the Tome would know the real power behind the staves, and only someone able to raise the dead could gain access to the vault where the keseth was bound. With the Tome entrusted to the royal bards, both Swithwald and the King were sure that the secrets would be kept safe. No one imagined that treachery from within would finally end the Empire. It was almost by chance that Vard had come across the one thing that would enable him to take the Yrmenweald for himself. He had purchased what turned out to be the seachest of Tarhela, the last Skaldric of Fretheod, from an illiterate hoarder who didn't know the value of what he had sold. Among the shreds of rotted clothing, and more intact books, he found the Skaldric's journal. Within the journal was the only written reference to the Tome of the Yrmenweald in existence. Vard immediately began a magical search for the tome. He traced its path through history from the shipwreck of Tarhela's ship, to its final resting place within the walls of the Bardic College in Magnus. Trickery, magic, and a lot of favors had eventually gotten him the keys to the vault where it was stored. It only remained to hire Ka'en to steal it from under the noses of the Bards without their knowing. And now, Vard was even closer to ultimate power. He knew that Dargon Castle had been built on the partial ruins of the watch-keep that the Fretheod had called Wudamund. With a little research of his own, he knew he would have no trouble unlocking the secrets hidden in the cellars of Clifton Dargon's home. The more difficult task would be to find some cwicustan, for he knew that he would have to begin from scratch in constructing a Master Staff of his own and that required his own supply of the living crystal. He decided to make that his first priority. Crystals It was only an hour from sunset as the good ship Morcyfaill dropped anchor in the harbor of a small fishing village called Hadrom on the east coast of Duurom, the present name of the continent that was once the center of the Fretheod Empire. The longboat was lowered over the side. Owain Garothsson took his leave of Captain Camarond, and he and his men climbed down into the boat and were ferried ashore. No amount of gold Owain could offer would get Camarond to sail farther north. Owain was resigned to making the rest of the trek afoot. Vard watched the disembarkation from a special room in his fortress. It was a small chamber at the top of a squatly conical tower, with barely enough room for himself and a chair and table. The only light in the room came from an oblong of translucent stone that rested between two silver plates on the table and glowed with a faint turquoise light. Vard's hands rested lightly on the silver endplates and his eyes were closed. He watched the far off scene in Hadrom in his mind, checking on the progress of his pawn. The blue-green bar of glowing stone bound Owain to Vard's will by means of a property of magic known as Contagion. Stated formally, the Law of Contagion stated that 'Things once in contact continue to interact from a distance after separation'. This allowed Vard to use control magic on an object that had once been in Owain's possession, and thereby control Owain. Of course, this ordinarily wouldn't have been enough for him to completely control a person from such a distance. The Law alone wasn't strong enough to allow him to control someone who was just across the room from him. But Vard had discovered more about the intricacies of the Law of Contagion than any other mage whose works still survived. He had learned that the stronger a person's emotional bonds were to the object, the stronger the Law bound the two. Once he had isolated that property in the object, he had found a way to magnify that property so that he could use his control magic on the object with an almost overwhelming effect on the subject. The strength of the modified control depended on the degree of the initial attachment, but if that attachment was strong enough Vard could be assured of complete control with a minium of effort. At some point in his career, Owain had lost a bamboo transverse flute that had meant a great deal to him. Vard had invented a measuring device that codified the degree of attachment between object and former owner. The tube of yellow light in the black wood rectangle had reached midway between the marks labeled '7' and '8' when held next to the flute. Once Vard had located the flute in his sorting rooms, where all of the items he and his servants collected were stored, he had processed it to magnify the attachment property to usable levels. The result was the turquoise bar that rested on the table before him in his control room. More than eighteen months had passed between the time Vard resolved to obtain some of the cwicustan and the day he sat watching Owain and his band disembark from the ship that had carried them to Hadrom. The time had been spent first finding a cache of cwicustan, and then finding a way of getting hold of it. Vard never did such things for himself as they were far too dangerous and there were easier ways of getting them done. Even if he had desired to venture into the northern wastes of Duurom himself, he had no patience with traveling the hard way. And there was no way to use his magic to travel the distance with ease. Teleportation was a difficult spell and it required either vast amounts of power and strong enchantments, or precise and exacting knowledge of the destination. Vard had neither at hand, although one of the uses he could forsee for the Yrmenweald when he had harnessed it was as an aid to teleportation. With the ability to view distant places in amazing detail he would be able to transport himself anywhere on the face of the globe with little more than a thought. He would be revered and respected for having such power. The thought crossed his mind to hire an adventuring team to retrieve the magical stone, but he knew that wouldn't work. He couldn't afford to pay the team enough gold to insure that they would return the stone to him. Cwicustan had enough visibly strange properties to give an experienced adventurer ideas about selling it in a better market. When he had hired Ka'en to steal the Tome, Vard knew that the thief would have no use for an old book, and so would not try to double-cross him. Vard had to search for someone whom he could control. Where money might fail, his magic wouldn't. Using specially developed future-scanning spells designed to locate an object that fulfilled the requirements of the castor, he had searched his storerooms, eventually finding the flute belonging to Owain. The process of refining the flute into a useable form took six months. Fortunately, he had no trouble taking control of Owain once his aparatus was ready. Ocaisionally, a very strong will could put up a fight, and he had to take care (and much time) to insinuate his control carefully into the subject's body and mind. The rest of the elapsed time was taken up in waiting for the expedition Vard had caught Owain in the middle of preparing for to be diverted to Duurom, and then for the two month sea voyage to Hadrom. He had had no trouble getting Owain to change the object of his adventuring, even over the objections of his fellow explorers. He was also able to keep the man from revealing the reason that they were suddenly going north into Duurom, instead of south on Cherisk into the Skywall Mountains (which wouldn't have involved any sea voyaging at all). He didn't have the materials to control all eight of the adventurers, so he had to keep the cwicustan a secret. As the longboat was rowed to shore by ship's men, Owain looked over the seven he had with him. Two of them had been with Owain on other adventures. In fact, Auvgin and Telrmun were two of his closest friends. But not one of the adventurers was quite sure just what they were doing in a boat bound for a fishing village. Sometimes, that included Owain. Owain was an adventurer. That wasn't the only thing he had ever done: only the lucky or short-lived could make adventuring their life's work. Owain had held many jobs, from guarding merchant's caravans to hauling goods in a warehouse. He did those other things to amass enough money to go adventuring. He hoped one day to bring back such a big find from some ancient temple or ruined city that he could retire with his riches and be remembered forever for his final accomplishment. Six months previous, Auvgin had come to Owain with enough money saved up to fund almost half of the stake required to outfit an adventure to investigate some maps and tales of strange happenings in the heart of the Skywall mountains. After some negotiations, it had been agreed that Owain would put up the rest of the money needed to investigate the rumors of vast treasure that Auvgin had heard. With the skill of much practice, Auvgin and Owain had soon put together a band of people and the necessary supplies to follow Auvgin's plan. And then, almost on the eve of their departure, Owain had changed that plan. Now they would be traveling to the northern wastes of Duurom. He had refused to tell them why, except that he had heard even better rumors than Auvgin had brought of easy treasure to be had there. Since he had the most money invested, it was easy for him to quell the grumblings of Auvgin and the others, and they headed for Duurom. The reason Owain hadn't told the others why he had changed their plans was because he couldn't. Something had told him to go north into Duurom, enticing him with visions of a strange crystal that grew there. What was really frightening was that he couldn't resist the order. He had no choice. He would have gone alone if the men in his expedition had refused to go. But, he couldn't even tell anyone that he was being forced to go north. Whatever was cooercing him was preventing him from talking about it. As the longboat manuevered alongside the dock, Owain looked first back at the Morcyfaill and then north beyond Hadrom. He wondered if whatever was forcing him after the crystal would let any of them come back alive. Hadrom was well prepared to outfit travelers going north. It was the northernmost village on Duurom's east coast, a week away by ship from its southern neighbor due to an archipelago that contained too many shifting shoals and shallows to chart, forcing ships to go around, and a month away overland due to the mountains that grew from the sea along the line of the islands and continued inland across half the continent. The only pass thru the mountains was two weeks away from each village, although a desperate man could find a shorter though much more dangerous route. The self-sufficient fishing village also served as an outpost from which to explore northward. It offered goods and services needed for an expedition at reasonable prices, enabling explorers to travel light until they reached Hadrom. Owain and his band spent a day and two nights in Hadrom getting supplies and information for their trip. When Auvgin suggested hiring a guide, Owain flatly refused. The force driving him informed him that it would be their guide to the cwicustan, but it left it up to Owain to provide a reasonable explanation to his followers. They left Hadrom on the second dawn since their arrival on Duurom. Day after day, which became week after week, they walked, ever farther north. Duurom was no longer settled much above Hadrom. Owain saw no indication that it had ever been inhabited save for the occasional rune-marked obelisk which were identical to several he had seen at home. When six weeks had passed, the grumbling among his men was getting dangerous. It got worse when Owain informed them that they were still at least a month away from where they were going. And then, as they were gathered around the camp's fire, the bird-thing attacked. It took everyone by suprise. Having spent six weeks traveling with not the slightest problem had dulled their reflexes enough for the bird-thing to stoop down on them unawares, its long and sharp talons grabbing hold of Telrmun and piercing his body as it lifted the screaming man off of the ground a short ways then dropped him. Telrmun gave out a little cry as he hit the ground, then lay still and soundless, splashes of red dotting the front of his tunic. The rest of them were slow enough drawing steel and nocking arrows that the bird-thing, its beak now open and producing a noise like no normal bird any of them had ever heard, was able to latch its talons into Druorn. That young man was able to take a swing, the first of the party, but his blade didn't even nick the glistening silvery hide of his attacker. Owain tried to get an idea of what the bird-thing looked like as he attacked it during its screeching swoops. It was huge, larger than a man by half. It had no feathers, but rather thick pebbly skin that protected it from all but the strongest and truest of blows. The bows of Maloc and Eergna were useless - their pull wasn't strong enough to drive their arrows into the hide. Its wings were stiff and didn't seem to move at all. Its head was long and pointed at both ends, and it had large intelligent-looking eyes. Owain was sure that it wasn't a natural creature. Owain and his men were able to finish off the bird-thing without losing anyone else. After burying Telrmun and Druorn, the six remaining decided to put their grumbling behind them and continue the expedition in a more careful manner. The remaining weeks passed with no more arguments about where they were going or why. The far northern wastes were populated with all kinds of strange beasts and birds, none of which seemed quite natural, so that they were kept too busy staying alert for trouble and defending themselves to argue. Owain was reminded by them that the Empire which had once spanned all of the land they were traveling through had been well supplied with magicians and wizards. He supposed that the monsters were byproducts of magical experiments. He might even have been right. Finally, they came to a rather small range of mountains that the voice in Owain's head indicated was their destination. The six spent a night at the foot of the smallest mountain in the chain, and were up bright and early the next morning to find the treasure. Owain led the way up and over the mountain that was really a medium sized hill. On the other side was a valley that ran down the center of the whole range. It looked just the sort of place for a hidden temple or ruined city - always sources of fabulous wealth. It was heavily forested, mostly by conifers which meant that the valley floor was carpeted with green even in the semi-eternal winter of this frozen land. They soon reached the floor of the valley and turned east at Owain's lead. The valley was full of ordinary sounds as the adventurers moved silently through it. Birds cried in the trees, and there were rustles in the undergrowth indicating small animal life. There was absolutely no evidence of man in the valley, not even an obelisk anywhere. The small fauna seemed to have no fear at all of the six humans slipping through their forest. Owain even saw something that looked remarkably like a deer just standing in the shadow of a tree, and it didn't flee when they walked by. It took two hours to reach the east end of the valley. The forest grew right up to the foot of the tallest mountain in the range and no further. The slopes of the mountain were bare of everything but rock. Owain pointed at a dark hole in the mountain's flank and said, "That's where we are going." The voice in his head told Owain that the crystal grew in the back of the cave, but it also said that there was danger in the cave. It still refused to let him tell about the crystal. As he hesitated about just how to get into the cave while avoiding the danger in it, the voice commanded him to order the others into the cave. This would lure out the danger, and allow him to slip in and get the crystal. He had no choice. Even as the commands entered his head, his mouth was giving them voice. He followed his companions up the side of the mountain, slipping to the side as they reached the mouth of the cave. He listened to the others march confidently into the darkness; the voice had assured them through his lips that there was no danger at all within. The footsteps had almost died away when there came a cawing roar, somewhere between the sound of a lion and that of a huge eagle. On the heels of the sound came startled yells, one scream of mortal pain, and then running. Four of the five who had gone into the cave now came tearing out. They scattered as soon as they were in the open and turned back to face what they had found within the cave. As it bolted into the sun and spread its huge wings, Owain recognized one of the fabled gryphons of legend. Half lion and half eagle, it was majestic and terrible as it took to the air cawing its rage and lashing its lion's tail. There was blood on one of its taloned fore-feet and at the tip of the beak. Although Owain would have rather gone to help his companions, the voice had clamped down on him in total control. He could only look back as he was forced into the darkness of the cave to see the gryphon land amid the four men who were now armed. He didn't see the battle begin, but he could hear it as he went deeper into the darkness - the battle shouts of the men, the roaring caw of the gryphon, the sounds of wounds on both sides. Owain finally reached the nest of the gryphon. He was suprised to find that there was light, provided by a mass of strange-looking crystal against the back wall. In the dim light, he saw the dead body of Tellor lying where the gryphon had left it. The voice that had control of him cared not at all for Tellor, alive or dead. It directed Owain's body over to the glowing crystal, and had him remove a hammer and a delicate chisel from his belt pouch that he didn't even know was in there. After carefully examining the growth of crystal, he was directed to place the chisel carefully in two places near the base of one large mass and tap it lightly with the hammer. Placing the tools back in the pouch, Owain was then made to take hold of the mass of crystal and pull. Much to his suprise, it came away from the wall with no trouble at all. It was also very light for its size. Measuring three feet long by one around, it weighed no more than five pounds; an easy if awkward burden for the trek home. A bag was fished out of Owain's pack by his own unwilling hands. He could feel the voice's intent to leave the other four to the mercy of the gryphon. But, though he wanted to help in the fight with every fiber of his being, the voice's control was too strong. He had no choice but to place the crystal in the bag, secure it to his pack, and then make his way back out of the cave. When he reached sunlight, he saw that the battle was still going on. Telkor, who was Tellor's twin, had not survived his brother by much. Lorth was limping on a bloodied leg, and had hooked a crooked bleeding arm in his swordbelt. Of the three remaining fighters, only Auvgin was unmarked. The gryphon was faring better than its opponents, but it too bore wounds. Someone had managed to disable a wing, preventing the half-bird half-lion from taking to the air again. Owain hoped that his three remaining companions would vanquish the monster. As the voice controlling him forced him toward the saddle between this mountain and the next, he sent a silent 'good luck' back to the battle. It was a long time before the sounds of the conflict faded into the distance. The walk back to Hadrom was a nightmare for Owain. The voice was no longer in his head constantly, but it had laid a conpulsion as strong as a geas on him to return to the fishing village where a ship would be waiting to take him back to Cherisk. Detailed instructions filled his mind about how and where to go once reaching Marrak, the ship's first port-of-call on Cherisk. He finally knew that he was to deliver the crystal to a wizard named Vard. He secretly cherished a wish to be able to make the wizard pay for forcing him north, and leaving the three to make it home alone assuming they survived the gryphon. Vard was sitting in a rear booth in the Fighting Unicorns disquised as a somewhat tattered merchant when Owain strode into the bar. Vard had chosen this as a rendezvous again because Baranur was the closest city to Marrak wherein he had a hidden portal. Owain had been ordered to take a room near the river and clean up a little before coming to the 'Unicorns. It was a very presentable adventurer who settled himself across from the merchant. Only his eyes bore evidence of the six month plus trek he had undergone, half of it alone. False small talk was made about Owain wanting to hire out with the merchant on a caravan while one of the barmaids took their order and came back with their drinks. Once they were alone, Vard asked for the bag with the crystal to be passed under the table. Keeping up the chatter, Owain did so. Vard hastily checked the contents of the bag. Satisfied, he fingered two phials he was carrying in an inner pocket. One contained slow poison, and the other was a powerful potion that induced amnesia. He wasn't sure which to give the man who sat talking across the scarred and dirty table from him. Finally, he shuffled them around and took one at random. With the ease of a practiced prestidigitator, he slipped the contents into Owain's bell shaped stein of ale. He proposed a toast to seal their fake bargain, and Owain drained his cup in one swallow. Without waiting around to see which phial he had selected, Vard got up and left the inn, slipping with his usual ease into the depths of the Fifth Quarter and back to his fortress. Owain ordered and drank another ale before leaving the 'Unicorns. He made his way back to his own inn and collapsed on the bed in the room he had rented. Sometime in the night, two things happened. First, the control that Vard had exercised over him vanished as the wizard destroyed the transformed flute. And, all memory of what had happened to him from the time Auvgin first approached him about an expedition he was planning vanished. When he awoke next morning, he was very puzzled about why he was in Baranur and where the past year had gone. Vard set about preparing the cwicustan as the Tome instructed so that it would be ready for use when he finally found the keseth. When that was finished, he turned his attention to the next two phases of his quest for the Yrmenweald. First, he had Qrun delve into the deepest vaults of the fortress wherein were kept the most dangerous and powerful books of lore he had managed to acquire by fair means or foul. While his servant was so employed, he went into the Sorting Rooms and prepared a location spell to help him find an object he could use to control someone who could get the treasure out of the hidden vault in Dargon Castle. The ball of light he formed between his hands began to drift around the room when he said the last words of the spell. It looked like a drunk wil-o-the-wisp as it darted erratically around the room, from shelf to shelf, object to object. After making the rounds of the room three times, it finally settled around something. When Vard looked at the objects, he smiled. He picked up the sword named 'Leaf-Killer' and the harp named 'Soft-Winds' and took them upstairs to be processed. -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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E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank