V10N1 FSFNET BITNET Fantasy-Science Fiction Fanzine X-Edited by 'Orny' Liscomb +lt;CSDAVE@

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Skeptic Tank!

V10N1 FSFNET BITNET Fantasy-Science Fiction Fanzine X-Edited by 'Orny' Liscomb Date: 012288 Dist: 510 An "*" indicates story is part of the Dargon Project All original materials copyrighted by the author(s) <>X<>X<>X<> X-Editorial Well, here it is, '7C4'x already! And FSFnet is beginning its fourth year of publication. This is, in fact, the 40th issue of FSFnet. Apparently it is a success, although I still find it odd that people think of FSFnet as an established zine. I guess, as editor, you lose some perspective as to how you are doing. But despite my pessimism, our readership has continually increased since early 1985, and the quality and number of submissions has been very high. We must be doing something right... and I'll do what I can to see that we continue to please the readership. If you have any comments or suggestions, please don't hesitate to drop me a mail file. The authors have been howling for some feedback, and it might convince them to keep them churning out stories... This issue not only is notable in that it is our third anniversary issue, but that we have two stories from Joseph Curwen, one of our best authors. Unfortunately, Curwen has also recently graduated, which will severely reduce the number of submissions we get from him. In this issue he has provided us with a fantasy short story and the next installment of his Atros series. We also have the next installment in Carlo Samson's Cydric tale. And the next issue will contain the conclusion of John White's 4-part story, "Treasure". And I suppose I really must talk about the SF short story contest (I've put it off two paragraphs already). Unfortunately, because I received no entries, there's no winner, unless you consider myself a winner, as I get to keep the prizes. Unfortunately, this means that we're lacking in SF stories, and could use some SF submissions in the immediate future. As always, anyone interested in submitting items, please feel free to contact me. And a reminder to all, back issues can be requested from the BITNET server LISTSERV@TCSVM's TCSSERVE FILELIST. Until next time... -'Orny' Liscomb <>X<>X<>X<> The Old Man He was old. Unbelievably ancient in our eyes. I shall never know how long he has lived in that ruin of a mansion on the high hill. It is said he existed in the Times Before, and perhaps even before that. The Old Man predated our meager oral history. He bore an air of antiquity about him in all ways: the sunken feral eyes, the wrinkled gray skin, the complete baldness, and the stooping and protracted gate. We know these as signs of age only through the picture books that have survived from the Times Before. No one has kept life more than twenty summers since those days. Our life is hard. We survive only barely. There is little food now. We are scavengers, eating what we can find. In other times we would be seen as animals. But if we are, we are proud animals, knowing that we are the masters of our desolation. All that exists is ours to do with as we please. That is what makes us men. Still, like the animals, our numbers dwindle with each passing winter. Sometimes, not even the strong can survive. But the Old Man lives on in his High House, as he always has and perhaps always will. He does not search for food among the stark wreckage of the ancient stone cities. He does not hunt the small quick animals which grow scarce even quicker than ourselves. He does not scratch the worn soils to grow plants under the withering sun. He lives in his High House. And he never wants for food. He has never been seen to bother with so simply a thing as survival. Perhaps that is why we fear him and avoid his lands. I would gladly have never met the Old Man, never have journeyed to his estate, and never have witnessed him as he is. My people were content to leave him and his house alone. We spoke of him little, and then only in whispered warnings to avoid the High House. It had been that way for generations. But for the first time in memory, the Old Man left his High House. Only once has he walked down the steep hill, across his valley, along the broken road, and into the wastes which are our home. It had never occurred to us that he could do such a thing. He had always stayed to his own lands. But looking back I realize that the Old Man could leave the High House whenever he had sufficient reason to make the long hobble with his thick cane. As I was to discover, I was that reason. One blistering afternoon I was hunting alone near the Northern Caves as I had perhaps a thousand times before and many since. As always the pickings were scarce. There was not so much as a rodent to stave off my hunger, and insects were never very filling, though hunting them kept my mind off the dull ache of my stomach. I was digging in a dry stream bed with a rusted piece of iron railing whose original function was now of little concern. The salty sweat streamed down from my tangled hair and stung my eyes. I began to hope that I might at least find some moist mud with which to cool my heated brow. After finally deciding that the bed was dry and devoid of life, I threw down my makeshift shovel in disgust, lifted my eyes to the opposite bank, and saw the Old Man for the first time. I was terrified. A horror of childhood stories stood before me. My fright was so great that rather than fleeing I froze, as I have seen a rat do sometimes when startled. I did not know how long he had watched me or how he arrived so silently as to catch me unaware. We stared at each other for a long moment. For the first time, I felt the awesome power and horror which age could wield. I could only think that he had come to strike me dead. How could such a thing as he exist? He was hairless, shrunken, bent, gnarled, and yet his clothes were finer and cleaner than any I had ever seen before. Surely they were reliques of the Time Before. I suddenly knew that I must run, must warn the others of the Old Man's presence. Perhaps we could find some hiding place and escape his wrath. I turned to flee, but the Old Man stopped me with a single word. He spoke my name. My mind screamed! It was too late. He held the power of my name over me. There could be no hiding, no escape. He spoke again. His voice was soft and soothing. "Boy, I need your help." My fear melted from me. Surely I thought, no campfire ogre could speak words such as these. But now, I realize that the Old Man stilled my fears, as easily as I might strangle a bird. "My eyes are weak. I need someone to read to me. You will have as much food as you wish. Come," he said, turning away to begin the slow trek back to the High House. Later I realized that this was to be most the Old Man would ever say to me at one time. I followed of course, proving once again that the dictates of our stomachs can casually overrule our minds. The Old Man walked slowly uphill toward his home. I followed some distance behind. I might have helped him, but even then I sensed his pride. My people understand pride. It sometimes seems at though it is the only thing we have left. During the long trek following the Old Man, I wondered what was to become of me. It was not yet too late to flee into the wastes, but strangely I felt no danger in this bogeyman of childhood tales. My fear had been replaced by a growing sense of wonder and excitement. I did not doubt that the Old Man could provide the food that he had promised. After all, he was the Old Man. His presence itself was a violation of all the laws of nature and reason which had governed my short but active existence. There was nothing beyond his capabilities. Thinking back, I realize that it was not so very strange that the Old Man had chosen me to accompany him. I held two qualities which separated me from all of my brethren. I could still bend the power of written words to my task, though perhaps not as well as my sire who had taught me as his sire had taught him. And as an outgrowth of this talent, I held a unusual curiosity about the Times Before. Though this was not forbidden knowledge, it was considered tainted among a people who lived daily with such grim reminders of Man's failure and fall. I had learned much of our history in my wanderings, but I was careful to keep this to myself out of fear of appearing too different from my fellows. As I walked I set about examining the unique landscape about me. Broken rock roadways were common enough in the wastes, but as we progressed farther north I began to notice a gradual change in the landscape which none of my people had ever discussed. As the road rose, the land grew, if anything, more moist and fertile. There were more scattered brown weeds and with time I could hear a steady hollow buzzing which could only mean that insects were growing more plentiful. As we passed over a rock ridge before beginning our temporary descent to the valley below, I could see a delicate greenness of vegetation which was all but forgotten to my people. The unharvested lushness of plants filling the valley floor was almost a crime in the eyes of a member of a starving tribe. I could only wonder how was it that none of my brethren had ever reported so rich a find. It seemed fear of the Old Man had robbed us of many a meal. But if I was impressed by the abundant grasses of the valley, I was totally unprepared for the clumps of trees which dotted the slopes of the steep hill upon which rested the High House. I could barely imagine plants large enough to dwarf a man. Only later did I learn that most of a tree is inedible to man. As we continued up the steep slope, the Old Man's progress slowed. I grew tempted to help him once more, but I knew even then that I should never touch him. Instead I took the time to marvel at the High House which stood perched upon the highest crest of the hill, some distance from even the nearest clump of trees. It was a thing of wood, stone, and glass several stories in height. I'd seen taller buildings in my scavenging trips to the dead cities, but nothing so fair as the mansion where the Old Man lived, even with its peeling paint and tattered shingles. It seemed to be built of triangles of cream, dark brown, and black interspersed with wide windows, through which the unguessed marvels of the House's treasures could be glimpsed. It had a certain mysterious way of engrossing the eye so that the viewer was left momentarily entranced by even the shortest of glances. Even at the slow pace of the Old Man, I was often forced to run in order to catch up after such an interlude. When we finally reached the High House, the Old man veered and circled around to its backside. I followed. He lead me to a clustering of small buildings which were made of rough wood. Seeming to select one doorway at random, he pointed and said "You will stay here. Do not enter the house. Food will be provided." With that he turned and hobbled slowly off. I stood and watched him return to the High House. After a few moments I entered the shack and discovered it to be occupied by several long handled tools which I took to be for farming. But these only took up space along one wall. Opposite them was a low cot-like bed which seemed to be attached to the wall. While I was trying to imagine what animal could possess a hide large enough to drape a bed, I heard my name called from outside. I went to the doorway and looked out to receive yet another surprise. It had not been the Old Man. It was a woman. A woman much older than any that I'd seen before or since, but unlike the Old Man she bore no wrinkles, baldness, or crooked frame. She was very tall, very broad, and very proud. There was a certain beauty about her face with its sharp nose, withered cheeks, and long dark tresses. She wore a tight single piece dress of some stark blue-black thinness I'd never seen before. Around her neck was a necklace of tiny blood red spheres laid end to end. She was as hard and as beautiful as a cold starry night. "Food is available in the kitchen through the servant's entrance in the back of the house. But you will never enter the house without the permission of myself or the Master. And you will never go beyond the kitchen outside of our company. Do you understand this?" she asked not pausing long enough to obtain a response. "A bath and fresh clothing will be provided. You will take advantage of these or leave our service. Understood?" She spoke with a slight nasal quality while seeming to look upon me as if I were some sort of pet that her child had dragged home, and she, the mother, that would be required to care for it as long as it survived. So began my service to the Master and Mistress of the High House. I would be admitted to the house twice a day to eat standing and alone. There were no other servants. It seemed the Mistress managed the household, though I never saw her lift a hand in doing its chores. Though she was never cruel to me, in time I began to dread my Mistress' voice, even when it announced my meals. She never made any attempt to hide her contempt. It seemed social amenities had died long ago in the High House. Each morning I would wake at sunrise and enter the one wing of house which was made entirely of glass. This large room contained many colorful plants which I could not identify. In time, as my hunger passed, I began to appreciate the plants as something more pleasing to the eye than to the stomach. There were many delicate blossoms of bright hues and dark green stalks of towering strength. I would wait in my place on a small wooden stool surrounded by the fragrance of the rich damp earth until the Master arrived and sat beside me on his broad wicker throne. Then he would pull a ancient handwritten tome from the drawer of a nearby table, which supported a pot of black flowers. Without speaking the Old Man would open the volume to the page where we left off the day before and give it to me to continue reading aloud. After sometime, he would take the book from me, return it to the drawer, and leave. After that I would be free to spend my time as I liked. I would roam the countryside or hunt for nostalgia's sake. But as time past, I spent more time among the plants thinking and dreaming away my idle hours. I know now that reading that book had some effect on my mind. At first, I only spoke the words as best I could without any understanding of their meaning. But with time, my skills improved, my mind sharpened, and the words of the book began to seem more profound to my thoughts. Slowly, I grew to understand that the tome was a journal of unfinished poetry written ages ago by the Old Man. And the images of those fragmented poems were utterly fantastic. There were scenes of birth, of war, of love, of pain, and of death. There was much that I could not comprehend. Lines that spoke of fast spinning spheres of near infinite weight, limited encroachments on selective being, and whirling pools of aggrandized thought. But what I could understand seemed the most wondrous acts of art imaginable. Their only flaw being their incompleteness. Often I would stumble onto a half blank page and the Old Man would break the silence to mumble "I'll finish that one some day." But I knew that the Old Man's days of creation had long since passed. Time passed and I grew lonely. The Old Man and the Mistress offered very little companionship, even to each other. I'd been bred to endure physical hardships alone, but I could no longer stand the long hours of simple comfort and idleness. Finally, I drew up enough courage to interrupt our routine and spill forth my loneliness to the Old Man during one of our reading sessions. He was silent for so long a time that I feared that I had angered him. But when he did reply, he gave me curt permission to return to my people for seven days if I must. In my joy I filled the air with blessings upon him and upon his house, but still I hesitated to touch his hand. On the following morning I left the High House and cheerfully set out down the broken road. My season long absence would of course be noticed, but there would be no real concern until the first frost. I found my people preparing for winter in the warren where I was born. They were surprised by my fine clothing but were even more astounded by my being so well fed. They crowded around me and showered me with questions until I agreed to tell my entire tale before a full gathering of the people. That night I discovered how much I had changed. Not only could I enthrall an audience more deeply than any known tribal story teller, I saw my fellows in a different light. Those I had looked to in respect or fear in the past, I could not even begin to hold as equals. And the primitive ways and ignorances of my own people appalled me. I kept these feelings to myself, but I knew they would require much thought. After many hours of recounting the splendors I had seen and the wonders that I had glimpsed, I wandered off to contemplate in solitude. After some time I knew that I was no longer a member of the people and that I would return to the High House well before my seven days were complete. But it seemed that my people had been making plans of their own in my absence. Perhaps I had been too truthful in telling of the richness of the High House, because upon my return I discovered my tribe organizing a raiding party against the house of the Old Man. My own appearance was the only urging that so many empty stomachs needed. My acquaintance with the Old Man seemed to have weaken the awe which my people had held in him for generations. I tried with all my might but I could not dissuade them with threat or guile. Finally, to prevent disaster I agreed to guide them to the High House, hoping that I could somehow provide food for my people without angering the Old Man or the Mistress. They were hungry, we left the following morning. I spent the long walk in silence hoping against hope to discover some solution to my problems. My people were too stubborn and too resourceful to be led astray. They knew the way almost as well as myself. We walked through the day and well into the night. Long after midnight, we began to scale the hill of the High House. I had asked them to wait in the lush valley below, but their eyes had caught the light of the riches of the house above. They agreed to follow me silently, but they would not be left behind. Those last steps passed too swiftly for me. Only too soon did we arrive at the summit, and I still possessed no plan. I paused but it was all I could do to keep the mob I led from rushing forward. I asked that they let me enter the house alone to speak with the Old Man. After many warnings, they agreed. The sun was rising in the east, as I stumbled unhappily forward and entered the glass wing of the house. It was the only portion of the house which I could enter uninvited with a clear conscience. The fragrance of the house's riches was as deep and as rich as I remembered it. I had no plans for what I should do next. I hoped that the Old Man might arrive here soon, but I had no reason to believe he would follow our routine in my absence. While I sat waiting, an outward door opened. To my horror, my people had reached the limit of their short patience. They entered quickly and surged forward to ransack the indoor garden. They began devouring the flowers and overturning tables. A roar of triumph rose from the first to find the treasures of the hidden drawers. There was much gold and many gems. My people scrambled and argued over the pretty things while the ancient books fell in tatters. In moments the room lay in shambles. At that point a dark shadow fell from the east. The Old Man stood motionless beyond the window before the light of the rising sun. He hobbled awkwardly forward to press his arms and face against the glance, thereby framing a ludicrous pose. My fellows fell silent in fear, and after a moment they snatched what lay before them and fled out the door to the west. In an instant I was alone. The Old Man entered the broken garden, slowly crossed the strewn wreckage, sat upon the untouched wicker throne, and motioned for me to take my place upon my stool. I fell down beside him and poured fourth my story with my head downcast, avoiding his gaze. I tried to explain the extreme hunger, desperation, and ignorance of my people. Interspersed with tears, I pleaded for mercy for the crimes of the people who were no longer my own. After many moments, I grew silent and still the Old Man did not speak. I waited and waited, but I was met only by silence. Finally, I lifted my head to find the Old Man slumped forward in sleep. Then for the only time in my life, I touched the Old Man. I gently nudged his sleeve. Slowly, he lifted his head and gazed upon me with his wide, sad eyes. After a moment, recognition showed in his eyes. He turned, retrieved the tome, opened it, and gently handed it to me, motioning that I should read. With tear filled eyes I read the final incomplete page. It spoke of age, of dissolution, and of ever present and unyielding decay. My voice broke several times, but I continued through to the last unfinished line. Then I lifted my eyes. The Old Man nodded, took the book from me, returned it to its place, and returned into the depths of the High House. I sat sobbing for a very long time. Finally, I rose and walked out of the wreckage. The Mistress met me at the door. She stood blocking my path contemptuously. "What's wrong child? Unable to bear the truth?" she pronounced cruelly. "How could it have come to this?" I sobbed. "It is the way of things, dear. You are the poet. You should know what this place is." Hers was an endless font of sarcasm. "I am no poet, I only read for the Master." "You are as much a poet as any who has ever mouthed his words," she sneered. "Think! Who is he and who am I?" In that moment, a wild thought came to me. One that I instantly denied but one that could explain much that I had seen in the High House. Could symbol be solidified into form? I grew lost in thought. "Yes," she interrupted, "you have it now. We are two sides of a single coin." The Mistress had effortlessly pulled that thought from my own brain! It seemed my worst suspicions had been confirmed. I made a half turn and dashed passed the Mistress being careful not to even slightly brush her. I fled across the smooth lawn, down the steep slope of the hill, and into the wastes which were my home. I was never tempted to look back. In the six intervening summers since that time, not one of my people have returned to the High House, though we know that the Old Man and the Mistress still live. On clear nights we can sometimes see the bright white lamps of the High House. In these six years, I've tried many times to forget the time of my service to the Old Man, but again and again I am called to recount the tale before the tribal fire. I see now that there must be a record of the story, so I am training my son to read these words. The words will serve as a warning to my people to avoid the High House and its broken and bitter God: the Universe's Senile Creator and its Cynical Maintainer. -Joseph Curwen <>X<>X<>X<> Cydric and the Sage: Part 4 THE STORY SO FAR: The synopsis for parts 1 & 2 can be found in FSFnet VOL09N1. In part 3 (chapters VI-VII), Cydric wakes up the next morning uninjured from the skull blast. As he recovers, Corambis brings him a few books. He reads about the Dreamrealms, other dimensions only accessible by magical means; about a mage called Nephros and of his quest for the Amulet of Hanarn (a device used by the ancient Mystics to open a Celestial Archway and physically travel to the Dreamrealms); and about Bahz and the conflicting stories concerning his banishment to the Dreamrealms. Cydric is dubious about the whole thing, but the Sage tells him, "There comes a time when one must stop asking questions and start looking for answers." After breakfast, Cydric and Corambis go the marketplace, where the Sage conducts his business of casting peoples' horoscopes. Corambis introduces Cydric to Thuna, who also works as the Sage's assistant. After watching Corambis give a casting, Cydric leaves but stops to talk to Thuna. Thuna attempts to seduce some information from him, but it doesn't work and Cydric hurries off. After a while, he returns and the Sage offers to take him to lunch. They head over to the docks for some of Simon Salamagundi's stew. Corambis sees a friend and stops to talk, sending Cydric on ahead to get the stew. A man bumps into Cydric, causing him to drop the bowls. Cydric demands repayment for the spilled food, but the man refuses. They are about to fight when a crossbow-wielding woman appears and forces the man to pay up. As the man leaves, she introduces herself as Kittara Ponterisso. The Sage returns, and Kittara slips away into the crowd. Cydric and Corambis go to Belisandra's Tavern for lunch, where Thuna apologizes to Cydric for her earlier behavior. Corambis then asks him why he has not mentioned anything about himself, aside from the reason for his coming to Dargon. Cydric tries to evade the question, but the Sage manages to drag it out of him. Cydric reveals that he is the son of Khysar Araesto (the Duke of Pyridain and King Haralan's Royal Treasurer). He says that he had been planning to leave the capital and travel the land, but his love for Lysanda (the King's niece), prevented him from doing so. But when the vision started appearing to him, he made up his mind to leave. Corambis asks why he did not identify himself as a noble; Cydric replies that he has given up that sort of life. They then finish their meal, and leave the tavern. VIII. Prelude It was late afternoon when Corambis decided to close up the booth for the day. The setting sun cast a pinkish glow over the sky as he and Cydric started home. Most of the shops they passed were starting to close as well. They had walked for a few blocks when Cydric realized that they weren't on the road back to the Sage's home. "Oh, I know that," Corambis replied when Cydric pointed that fact out. "I want to do something before we head home." A few minutes later, they arrived in what Cydric guessed was the temple district. He recognized the symbols of the major Baranurian gods that were inscribed over the entrances to the various shrines and houses of worship that lined both sides of the street. "Well, which god do you pay homage to?" Cydric asked Corambis as they passed a group of prayer-chanting monks. Corambis frowned at the young man. "You sound as if you do not worship a god yourself," he said. "There is no law that says you have to, is there?" replied Cydric. "In any case, I personally have no need for religion." "I suppose you doubt the existence of the gods, as well?" he said. "I just do not see why we must worship them. After all, we are the ones who control our destinies, not them." The Sage said, "Do not be so sure, Cydric. And you would do well to keep such opinions to yourself, especially around here." They came to small white-stone temple. "This is the House of Cahleyna," said Corambis. "I shall pray for a safe journey for us. You may wait out here, if you wish." He turned and went inside without waiting for Cydric to reply. The young man sat down on the steps that led to the temple's entrance. "Why does he bother?" thought Cydric. "There seems not to be any benefit in worshipping the gods." Just then a shapely blonde altar-maiden in a short white tunic came down the steps of the temple. "Blessings of Cahleyna be with you," she smiled as she passed him. "But then again..." Cydric murmured as he watched her walk away. After a short while Corambis emerged from the temple. He said little as they made their way back to the house. "If I have offended you, I would like to apologize," said Cydric. "Well, perhaps it is I who should apologize, for being rather short with you," replied the Sage. "I realize you have a right to your own beliefs, or lack thereof. Let us speak no more of it." Cydric agreed. They soon arrived at the house. The water clock in the study showed that it was seven and twenty-past. After a light supper, Corambis went upstairs for a short nap while Cydric retired to the study. He spent a while browsing among the bookshelves, but found himself unable to concentrate on reading anything. He took a pipe from the rack above the fireplace, intending to have a little smoke to calm his nerves. But after a while he gave it up, the pipe failing to relax him. He looked around, found a charcoal-stick and a piece of parchment, and started to sketch. After about an hour he began to feel a little tired. He settled in front of the fireplace, watching the flames dance and flicker. He closed his eyes for a moment, then felt a hand on his shoulder. "Are you awake?" Corambis asked. "Of course I am," Cydric replied, eyes open. "You did not seem to sleep for very long, though." "Not for very long? It is but half an hour until midnight." "Half an hour?" echoed Cydric. It had been a little after nine when he finished his sketching. "I must have dozed off." Corambis examined the parchment on the table. "Very nice," he said. Cydric had drawn a tall stone arch situated in the middle of a windswept desert; within the arch was a lush forest. In the foreground stood a beautiful young lady, surrounded by little animals. She gazed at a cloaked figure who appeared to be stepping through the arch while looking back at her. Cydric thanked him for the compliment. The Sage took the chair next to him, then said, "Well then, are you ready for this?" "I suppose I am, though I don't see how one could prepare for it." Corambis nodded. "There is some dried fruit in the kitchen," he said. "Perhaps you should pack it along--there may not be a marketplace where we are going." Cydric grinned, then got up and headed to the kitchen, grateful for something to do. He took his time, and when he returned it was nearly ten to midnight. IX. Through and Beyond They waited, and when the water clock in the corner indicated twelve exactly Cydric said, "It is time." He looked around the room. "So where is this Celestial Archway?" "Hmmm..." murmured Corambis as he drummed his fingers against the arm of his chair. "Maybe it is all an elaborate joke of some kind," Cydric mused. "Though why anyone would want to do this to you I..." His voice trailed off. The chrysoline ring on the Sage's finger had started to glow a bright blue. "Hoho, it is time, indeed!" Corambis said, leaping to his feet. Cydric watched in fascination as a bubble of blue light separated from the ring, rose into the air, floated to an empty space, then burst with a dazzling brilliance. Thousands of tiny multicolored sparks cascaded outward like a liquid rainbow, then began coalescing to form a large top-rounded rectangular frame. Moments later, the Celestial Archway fully solidified and floated in mid-air a few handspans off the floor. "By the Seventh Sword!" breathed Cydric. The view within the Archway was cloudy at first, then it cleared up and afforded Cydric and Corambis their first look at another world. They saw a vast blue sea bordered by a beach of black gravel. A range of low rocky hills stretched away to the horizon. Sulfur-yellow clouds drifted across an azure sky. There was no sign of life. Cydric walked around to the other side of the Archway and saw the same image, but in reverse. Intrigued, he gingerly touched the surface, and the scene rippled. "Amazing," he said. He went back to the other side where the Sage stood. "The moment is upon us, Cydric, are you truly ready?" Cydric nodded. "Forth in the name of Cahleyna," said the Sage. He checked his belt pouches, then stepped through the Archway. There was a brief sparkle of light, then he was gone. Cydric started forward, paused, then hurried to the other side. Drawing a deep breath, he stepped through. Cydric felt a sharp coldness shiver through him, then suddenly he found himself standing on the gravel beach. The Sage was nowhere to ben seen. "Milord Corambis!" he shouted. Something touched his shoulder. He whipped around, startled. "Why were you facing that way?" the Sage asked. Cydric relaxed, relieved that it was not some strange flesh-eating creature. "I went through on the opposite side," he said. "Fascinating! I must remember to ask the Elder about that when we see him." "So now where do we go?" Cydric asked, looking around. The rocky hills, which ran parallel to the seashore, were blackish-gray in color and devoid of vegetation. He scooped up a handful of the gravel, then tossed it away in disgust. A thick coat of slime lingered on his palm. Corambis held up the hand which bore the chrysoline ring. He pointed it in various directions, until the stone began to glow. "This way," he said, pointing up the beach. He started off in the indicated direction. Cydric wiped off the slime on a corner of his cloak and followed. "Absolutely fascinating," Corambis marvelled, taking in the surroundings. "A whole other world, like our own and yet unlike. Most mages would give nearly anything for an opportunity like this." Cydric nodded. "Speaking of mages, you mentioned last night that you had no desire to become a full mage yourself, though you do have some ability." "True," the Sage sighed. "But my ability is not like that of other wizards and sorcerers you may have met." "Why not?" "It is not something I am proud of, but my grandfather was expelled from the Fellowship in Corvaira for breaking one of the Vows. He married a mortal woman." "Why should marriage be forbidden?" Cydric asked. "Oh, marriage itself is not forbidden; the prohibition is against marrying people who have no magic ability. It dilutes the bloodline, you see; my father had half the ability of my grandfather." "And your father married a mortal woman, as well?" "He did, and now I am merely a quarter the mage my father's father was." They continued on. Suddenly, Cydric walked into what felt like a wall. He recoiled a few paces back, then frowned; there was nothing in his way. He started forward again, but met the same resistance. "What is this?" he said, pushing against the unseen wall. "Some kind of magic barrier," Corambis replied, kicking at it. "I can see that, but why is it here? I thought the Elder wanted us to help him," Cydric said. He struck the barrier with the pommel of his sundagger, with no apparent effect. "Perhaps this is his imprisonment," said Corambis. "But then how did he get the skull, and our visions, to us? Indeed, why did he not use the Celestial Archway to escape if he had it in his possession?" "The answers obviously lie beyond this barrier," the Sage replied. "But how to pass?" He fell silent. Then his face lit up. "Pass... passport! Of course!" He held up his right hand. The chrysoline ring glowed fiercely. "If it can take us through the Archway, then it must also take us through this." He clenched his fist, then smashed it ring-first into the invisible barrier. There was a bright blaze of light, followed by the sound of shattering crystal. Cydric uttered an oath of amazement, while Corambis merely stared in wonder. The landscape was the same, but hovering over the beach in front of them was a huge mountain of rock, roughly the shape of an inverted cone. A multi-towered castle sat at the top of the massive floating boulder. Cydric estimated that the bottom of the mountain was over ten thousand cubits off the ground, and that the distance from their position to the top about three times that. "How are we supposed to get up there?" asked Cydric. "Do we fly?" "That spell I cannot perform, at least not on anything heavy," Corambis chuckled. Cydric noticed a large silver object on the ground nearby. He called the Sage's attention to it, and they went over to investigate. The object lay partially buried in the gravel. Corambis crouched down and brushed it off; it was a silver disc, with strange runes carved in it's surface. The Sage examined the face of the disc. "This is a 'transportal disc, according to the inscription. It is supposed to take us up to the Citadel." He paused a few moments, then straightened up. "Now then, we stand on the disc thus--" he stepped atop it and motioned for Cydric to stand next to him. "Very good. Now for the invocation phrase. 'Cael atya naqt yi hania atya suqt, egrer nezuhar hoa'st uul wes'huituf!'" The land and sky dissolved into a shapeless haze, then Cydric felt himself falling. He braced himself, then solid ground returned under his feet. His vision cleared, and he found himself staring at the majestic Citadel of Sorrows. X. The Citadel "Are you all right?" Corambis asked. Cydric nodded. They stood near the edge of the top of the hovering mountain, on a silver disc identical to the one on the gravel beach. A short distance away, the massive bronze gates of the Citadel stood slightly ajar. Cydric looked out over the rim. The bleak landscape ran unbroken for as far as he could see. Corambis offered a quiet prayer to his goddess, then they proceeded to the Citadel gates. After spending a few minutes marvelling at the bas-reliefs carved into the bronze doors, they passed through. They entered into a large courtyard. A marble fountain, long overgrown with weeds, stood in the center. Small translucent stones lay scattered about. Corambis moved over to the fountain. "Pure Arkathenian marble," he said, examining a broken piece. "The builders spared no expense." Cydric picked up one of the stones. "What about these?" he asked. Corambis took the stone. "Not diamond, but some form of crystal," he said after a few moments of examination. "Never seen it's like before, though." Cydric pocketed the stone. "Now that we are here, where do we find this Elder person?" Corambis reminded him of the chrysoline ring. The blue jewel lit up when the Sage pointed to a door straight ahead of them. They entered, and found themselves in a grand hallway. Glowing orbs fixed to the ceiling at regular intervals provided the illumination, and there were several doors along either wall. The ring led them through a door on the right wall, up a flight of stone steps, then into what appeared to be an armory. Rusty weapons hung in racks along the walls; thick dust covered the shields and other armor that lay on long wooden tables. Cydric picked up a battle axe. The head fell off and broke into small pieces. The rest of the items were no better. After searching in vain for anything usable, the two men left through the door on the other side of the room. They passed through a short corridor, then came to a large gallery. Torn tapestries hung about the room, and the floor was decorated with an odd mosaic. Corambis attempted to brush the dust from one of the few undamaged tapestries, but it crumbled away at his touch. "Such neglect," he tsked, "is truly appalling." Cydric studied the floor mosaic, which depicted several large lizards cavorting with a group of young maidens around a jungle pool. Corambis chuckled as he surveyed the design. "A highly unlikely scene," he remarked. "Kaladrongan rock lizards are anything but friendly." They left the gallery, came to an intersecting corridor, took the left branch, and proceeded up a flight of stone steps that began at the end of the passage. "We must be getting close," said Corambis. "The ring is brighter." The steps wound around and upward. They finally came to a landing and a large oaken door. The blue light from the chrysoline ring was at its brightest. Cydric drew his sundagger as Corambis prepared to open the door. "Put your weapon away," said the Sage. "I am certain he does not mean to harm us, after all his trouble to bring us here." "I would like to have it ready, just the same," Cydric replied, holding the dagger in a throwing grip. Corambis pushed open the door. A lone figure sat with its back to them in the middle of the room, bathed in the light from a single window. Books, papers, and various other things lay strewn about. The smell of decay filled the still air. "Hello?" Corambis said, cautiously entering the room. The figure neither spoke nor moved. "You are Elder Bahz, I presume," he continued, moving around to stand in front of the seated figure. Cydric remained in the doorway, his sundagger aimed at the figure's back. "I am Corambis deSaavu, Sage of Dargon. We have--" Suddenly he broke off and motioned to Cydric. The young man quickly moved to the Sage's side. "What is it?" Cydric asked. The Sage pointed to the seated figure. Cydric glanced down and let out a gasp of horror. Pale yellow skin hung off the man's face, as if melted. A thick slimy film covered his deep-set eyes. Saliva dripped from thin cracked lips, and a small worm twitched out from a nostril. "Is...is that the Elder?" Cydric whispered. As if in response, the man stirred. His mouth moved, but only a dry croak issued forth. Cydric grimaced in revulsion. "Can you understand me?" Corambis said, speaking slowly. "Are you Jehron Bahz, Seventh Elder of Quentrellia?" The man spoke again. "I...I am Bahz," he said in a soft brittle voice. "You have come." "Yes, we are here," Corambis replied. "Why have you summoned us?" The Elder's reply was barely audible. Corambis leaned closer. "Help me...," Bahz said. He stretched out his arms and tried to rise. Corambis reached out support him. Suddenly, Bahz's hand shot out and snatched the chrysoline ring off of the Sage's finger. Letting out a hideous laugh, Bahz pushed away and stood up. "You fools!" he exclaimed gleefully. Cydric quickly recovered from his surprise and dashed the sundagger into the Elder's heart. Bahz only laughed harder. He pushed the chair out of the way and stepped back a few paces, pulling out the sundagger and casting it to the floor. He spoke a word of magic, and green flames enveloped him. A moment later the flames died and Bahz was no more. In his place stood a tall man in green garb, dark-haired and quite healthy. "Who are you?" the Sage demanded. The man grinned. "I am Ishar Nephros, late of Quentrellia and future sovereign of the terrestrial sphere!" "Nephros! What is the meaning of this? What happened to Bahz?" "That old relic? Dead for ages," he smirked. "You and the knife-boy over there acted exactly as I had hoped. I could not have planned it better." "You planned all this? For what purpose?" "Yes, explain what your purpose is," Cydric added, starting toward the wizard. "I need not explain anything to you, sand flea!" Nephros shot back. He held up a fist and thrust it outward. Instantly, Cydric felt his limbs stiffen. He tried to move, but his whole body refused to act. He began to panic as he realized he was totally immobilized. "Cydric!" Corambis cried. "What have you--" His words were cut off. Though he could not turn his head to see, Cydric knew that the green-garbed wizard had paralyzed the Sage as well. Nephros came forward and squeezed Cydric's arm. "Yes, you'll do quite nicely," he said. "He will indeed be pleased. Rest now, little flea; a greater purpose awaits you!" Cydric felt the mage's hand on his eyes, and then his thoughts faded into darkness. -Carlo N. Samson <>X<>X<>X<> Noble Favor: Atros 7 The guard allowed Atros through the outer gates of the Keep of Dargon without challenge. He was well known here in his guise as Raffen Yeggent, a young foreign noble and promising businessman. Still, he entered the small courtyard with a good deal of trepidation. Though the thick talc he wore should hamper his being recognized as the unidentified man wanted in connection with the recent street slayings, the sight of the dark granite Hall of Justice did little to calm Atros' growing anxieties. As it was early morning, the only other occupants of the small boxed-in area were several guardsmen out exercising their arms in mock combats on the straw covered flagstones. But even without these, the Keep was imposing in itself. It rose high above the outer walls and sprawled eastward toward the steep chasm above the river. In spite of the wishes of each generation of Lords to leave his mark on the historic edifice, it seemed that there was no longer room for the continual additions which had so expanded the Keep in past centuries. Actually, the whole structure bore the title of "Keep" only in deference to its humble origins, as it had long since outgrown this title. Atros crossed the open courtyard and identified himself to a watchman who escorted him up the wide granite stairs and through the ancient portals of the west wing, which had served as the main hall of the Keep until the time of Lord Cabot, the grandfather of the current Duke. Since Cabot's renovations, the west wing had been relegated to quarters of favored guests and courtiers. The role of Atros' friend, Kite, as unofficial ambassador to the court of Dargon kept him here much of the time. The house of Winthrop had retained apartments in the wing for generations, so Kite's fiancee could remain near him (suitably chaperoned, of course) during their stays in Dargon. After introducing Atros to a housemaid at the threshold, the watchman returned to his duties. To Atros' inquires about Kite and Pecora, the maid reacted only with a strange silence and unfathomable expressions. She appeared either to be mute or reluctant to answer his questions. Perhaps the servants were instructed not to speak with guests, as was sometimes done among the nobility. But Atros didn't recall any indication of such a restriction during his earlier visits. In any case, Atros decided that further attempts to make her speak would be futile. He followed her through the fore hall and into a small chamber hung with shields bearing the coats of arms of various families. Atros recognized those of Baranur and Dargon, but the rest were a mystery to him. With a slight gesture and a quick curtsy, the maid silently bid him to stay in the ante chamber and hurried from the room. The ringing of her heels on the stone floor echoed into the distance. Atros stood puzzled for many moments. This was not the reception he had anticipated. Finally, the stout wooden door opened. A tall, muscular man, who still retained much of his youthful appearance despite a carefully trimmed graying beard, entered. The exposed portion of the man's face appeared rough, angular, and somehow vaguely familiar. "Raffen Yeggent?" the man asked in a deep, resonant voice. After pausing long enough for Atros to complete his nod, he continued, "I'm Aspen Talador, Kite's brother," he stated simply. This was startling as Aspen's build and height were so unlike his brother's. "I don't understand. I came seeking Kite or Pecora." Seeing Aspen's expression, Atros added "Is something wrong?" Aspen cleared his throat and said, "Yes, I'm afraid so. It's a delicate matter. My brother left Dargon a week ago. Pecora has refused to see anyone since. It seems their engagement has abruptly come to an end." "That is surprising." Atros' honest concern and disappointment tinged his voice. "They seemed meant for each other... Kite just left her? It doesn't sound like Kite. They argued, I suppose?" "No, not really. That was the strange part. It happened very suddenly." Aspen was obviously having trouble discussing such personal matters with a stranger. "I don't mean to pry, but Kite and Pecora were friends. I'm naturally concerned." "Yes, of course. Both Kite and Pecora spoke of you. I don't think it would do any real harm to inform you. You know that Pecora fell ill a few weeks ago?" "No, I'm sorry. I've been out of touch since the festival ended. All seemed well then," Atros suggested. "Oh, well then. She was struck suddenly by a debilitating illness soon after the fairs. It seemed that her life was threatened. The healers could do nothing." "How terrible! I had no idea. But she has recovered now?" Atros asked. "Yes. Kite journeyed far to the southwest in search of some mystics rumored to possess a remedy. He returned with the cure, but it seems he had to pledge himself in service to these mystics in exchange for the remedy. He returned to the mystics soon after Pecora recovered." "Very bizarre. Did he say when he would be able to return?" "No, he said very little. I am afraid he may never return." Atros was speechless. One of the few bases of stability in his life had just been removed. "I partially blame myself. I was too busy with the healers and running the estate to take notice of Kite's intention to go on the quest. If I had accompanied him, perhaps things would have gone differently." "You can't blame yourself. Kite was obviously distraught by Pecora's illness. He probably wasn't thinking very clearly." "True, but I've always felt responsible for my younger brother. And the Winthrops and Taladors have been close for generations. I was Pecora's friend as well as Kite's brother. I should have found the time to go to the Winthrop holding in person when Pecora became ill. I should have seen Kite's desperation. I was thoughtless." Aspen was obviously a man to whom such matters as guilt, responsibility, and honor were paramount. "You've been thinking of going after Kite and bringing him back, haven't you?" "Yes, but I don't know if it would do any good. Kite is a very honorable man. He has given his word, I don't think I could convince him to break it. Besides... my brother was different when he returned from his quest." "Different? Different in what way?" "He was quiet... almost distant. These mystics have some sort of hold over him. He still cared a great deal for Pecora and people of the duchy, but I sensed that he was almost anxious to return to these 'mystics'," Aspen pronounced the word with visible distaste. "Yes, I would very much like to talk with him now." "So would I, but my responsibilities keep me here. I must oversee the estate and see to Kite's obligations at court as well. Not that I'm complaining... I just feel a little powerless in this whole matter." Aspen's fist flexed subconsciously while he talked. Atros could tell that here was a man who was accustomed to authority. Helplessness drove him to distraction. It didn't look as though the aid Atros needed could be found here. Atros hesitated for a few moments, pondering his next course of action. He had no other friends in Dargon he could trust, and he did feel some vague kinship for this man, due to their mutual concern for Kite. He really wanted to accompany Aspen on a quest for his brother, but Atros had no time. He must make his rendezvous with his enemies soon. Atros felt like an intruder here. There was nothing he could do for this man, or Pecora for that matter. Only time would soften her loss. Aspen had politely inferred that she would not see him now, so there was little point in attempting that. It was best that he leave, and yet he felt compelled to linger. "You came for more than just a friendly visit. Is there something you want?" Aspen asked interrupting Atros' thought. "Do you just casually read minds?" Atros asked startled. "Well, that's part of being a landowner. I see petitioners almost daily. One learns to recognize an unasked boon," Aspen tried to coax Atros into making his request, but Atros remained silent. "You are a fair reader of minds yourself. You knew I wished to forsake my responsibilities here and follow Kite." "Yes, I suppose we are alike. We've learned to anticipate other's thoughts..." Atros stopped suddenly, catching himself. He did not like to consider Morpheus by day, but he was beginning to realize how much alike he and Morpheus were. "What is it, Raffen? If there is something I can do for you I will try. Kite spoke very well of you and I can see that there is much truth behind his words." "I am in trouble. I need someone I can trust to stand at my side. I thought perhaps Kite could help.... but I can't involve you. We've only just met and there is a great deal of danger. Perhaps, I should not have even expected Kite's help," Atros finished weakly. "I already knew that your request would be dangerous. Though you carry yourself well, your wounds are still apparent. They are not of the type that one would come by in an 'accident'." An expression of revelation crossed Aspen's features. "Wait, the street fight near the wharves last night! You were there!" At another time, Atros might have denied it, but now over wrought by the turmoils of the last few hours, he gave in easily. "You are too quick for me. Yes, I was there," he resigned. "Now, you have no choice, I am definitely involved. There was blood spilled, and what goes on in the streets of Dargon is of concern to me." The tiniest of hints of the potential anger in this man showed in his hard brown eyes. "I fought only in self defense." "There is no need to defend yourself to me. I know you are speaking the truth." "You trust me so readily?" Atros asked incredulously. "Well, I will have to hear the whole story, but I am a fair judge of character, as was, no, IS Kite. I will know if you lie to me. Besides, if you intended to ask for my brother's help, you certainly couldn't have been too far in the wrong. Kite is, if anything, moral to the point of naivety." Aspen began to chuckle then stopped abruptly. "I will have to hear the whole story. Sit while I fetch some wine. It looks like we'll be needing it. I'll give orders to the staff not to disturb us... And don't think about sneaking out in my absence. You'll not be allowed to leave until I'm satisfied," Aspen added stepping out the door. Once again, Aspen had virtually read Atros' thoughts. Slipping out had been a definite consideration at that point. Atros' fear of involving this unknown man in his business was growing almost as quickly as the begrudging respect he was beginning to feel for Aspen. Still, it really looked like he had little choice in the matter now. Somehow relinquishing the responsibility for involving Aspen seemed to relieve Atros' fears. Atros realized that he should be using this brief respite in the questioning to concoct and rehearse a clever story to cover himself, but he feared that Aspen might easily catch him if he lied. He had pondered this for several moments to no avail, when Aspen returned sooner than Atros had hoped. Placing two pewter goblets on the walnut table, Aspen began pouring. "I hope you will forgive me. It is a family wine. The Taladors have bottled it for generations; it really is quite good." "Yes, I know. I've had it often. It does seem underrated." "Thank you, but back to our discussion. You were about to tell me how you got involved in these murders." Aspen stared directly at Atros, sizing him up. "Well, uh... it is a long story, going far back into my past... and the past of my family." Atros finished with a smile. "Go on." "To put it in simple terms, it seems I've involved myself in an ancient feud between my family and another clan." "A feud... Yes, I can see that. While I don't condone such things, I can understand and sympathize somewhat as a fellow noble." "Believe me, my involvement is involuntary. I actually came to Dargon trying to escape the situation. But it seems I will not be allowed any peace." "What was the cause of the feud and what do your enemies want of you?" Aspen inquired pointedly. "I do not know the cause of the feud, yet. But it was pretty obvious that those thugs wanted my death." "What of your friends, the girl and the old man." "The girl is safe for the moment though she was badly wounded and is still under treatment for her injuries. The old man disappeared again. He comes and goes as he likes. I would hesitate to call him 'friend' though." "Now I understand the background, though you've omitted a great deal of the names and details." Aspen paused to smile. "What happened the other night?" "The girl and I - her name is Darla - were returning from a pub when we were ambushed by four hired thugs. I attempted to hold them off, but Darla was captured. While I fought the other attackers, Darla attempted to escape and received a bad head wound in the attempt. I tried to aid her but was badly outnumbered. Then the old man arrived and came to my aid. It was actually he who struck the fatal blows. We fled, while he covered our escape." "You're telling me that an elderly man killed two men without the aid of a weapon?" Aspen inquired with notable skepticism. "He appears feeble but is actually almost supernaturally strong." "That is difficult to believe, though I will not question your statement until I meet this man. Do you know where he might be found?" "No, as I have said he comes and goes as he pleases. I know only that he will be following me if he can." "What else do you know of this man?" Aspen asked. "Very little. It seems he is employed by the more radical side of my family to safeguard my life. He does not take orders from me." "Oh, I see. That explains his fortuitous appearance the other night. Hhm, you say you were ambushed. How is that your enemies knew your whereabouts that night?" "I do not know entirely. I was investigating a lead that my enemies might have used the Inn of the Hungry Shark as a meeting place. Perhaps I was seen there by one of their agents, but I do not think that would have given them enough time to prepare the ambush. I stayed in the inn for only a few moments," Atros added speculating. "Interesting. And did your lead turn up anything useful?" "Perhaps. A group of men did meet there for several days some time ago and it is certain that they were up to no good purpose...." "There is something important you're omitting," Aspen accused. "Well, yes. I hesitate to involve you but with your courtly connections perhaps you might be able to give me some information that would be difficult to obtain otherwise." "Ask your questions." "What do you know of the Court Magician?" "Brutsam?" Aspen paused for Atros' nod. "A passing acquaintance of an old Dargon family. From what I've been told he is both competent and perhaps a bit ambitious." "Then can you think of any good reason for him to go in disguise to the Hungry Shark at night and to meet with men seemingly engaged in some shady activities?" "No, I wouldn't think Brutsam would go into the wharf district at all after dark. He seems a bit timid. You're saying you think he may be involved with your enemies?" "It certainly appears so. I have the innkeep's word for it," Atros affirmed. "That is rather provocative information. I will have to think on it." Aspen paused to drain his goblet. "It grows late and I grow hungry. Would you object if I arrange to have dinner served? I can promise one of the house's finest repasts." "I could hardly refuse while you hold me prisoner," Atros accused wryly. "Yes, that is a bit unfair of me. You may leave if you really must, but I think I might be able to help you." "And why would you do that?" Atros asked abruptly. "Call it guilt over Kite. I was feeling particularly helpless before you came and distracted me. Or call it kindred spirits helping one another. With each passing moment I find even more similarities between myself and you." "Yes, frightening, isn't it?" Atros smiled. "You will stay for dinner, won't you?" Aspen asked. "I do not know. I have appointments to keep." "You haven't told me what favor you came to ask of my brother. Something dangerous...something to do with your appointments perhaps?" "Well, allright. I'll let you drag it out from me over dinner," Atros resigned. Giving Atros the choice to leave had broken down his defenses better than hours worth of badgering might have. "No, after dinner. I have a feeling that the conversation may not be the best for our stomachs. I will go arrange matters then." Aspen left for the second time. After a very long period of waiting, Atros was escorted by the housemaid to the old dining hall of the west wing. The dining hall was much smaller than the more modern one which had housed the celebrations of the Dargon Festival only a few weeks ago. It was arrayed in musty tapestries depicting the wives of former Lords of Dargon, women who were now only known as adornments. After a few more moments, Aspen joined them. They enjoyed a long leisurely meal of roast duck and small talk about books, hunting, and speculation on trading with Bichu. After the dishes were cleared, Aspen began his assault afresh. He began "What dangerous favor have you to ask me?" "Last night my apartments were violated and robbed by my enemies. They damaged and stole much of my most precious properties. In their wake, they left a note demanding a rendezvous. I am of the mind to take them up on this offer, but I cannot meet them alone. I am an indifferent swordsman at best. I had hoped that Kite, who was well practiced in the art of combat, might accompany me." "Oh, I see. Yes, that is certainly a dangerous task. You know that it will most likely be another ambush?" "Yes, but I cannot give up this opportunity to uncover their identities. It is my only lead besides Brutsam," Atros admitted. "Oh, I was meaning to bring that up. Just before dinner I made certain inquiries. It seems your Brutsam lead is a false one." "You did what!?!" Atros shouted rising from his chair. "You should not have acted in my affairs without my permission!" "Be calm. No harm has been done and much was gained." Aspen remained seated and calm, though quick footsteps could be heard in the hall outside the dining hall. "How can you know that?! Word of your 'inquiries' will spread." "No, Raffen. I spoke only to a dear and trusted friend who won't betray you or me. I asked him to keep the matter confidential and I am sure he will." "How can you be certain?" Atros said returning slowly to his seat. "I can trust the word of the Lord of Dargon." "You spoke to Lord Dargon?" Atros asked incredulous. "This is his keep and we are boyhood friends after all. And you should be grateful to hear that the city guards will not be searching for a man of your description after tonight." "What? Who knows what repercussions such an order will cause?" Atros accused his temper growing once more. "No, no, Raffen. There will be no order. Lord Clifton is more subtle than that. He will simply divert the men needed for the search elsewhere. It will be quickly forgotten," Aspen said calmly. "And Lord Clifton is willing to let the matter drop at that?" Atros inquired in disbelief. "He will let the matter drop only because I have chosen to involve myself personally. He is confident in my ability to right things with the minimum of turmoil." "So, I am not hounded by the guard only so long as I cooperate with you." Atros' features showed his disdain. "Precisely. I thought it a very neat coercion." Aspen smiled. "You are not exactly the type of individual whom I can trust implicitly - no offense intended. It's just that you are much too smart and much too guileful. You think too much like myself. It is difficult for me to be certain that you would return after leaving these walls." "You would not accept my word!" Atros asked insulted. "Yes, I would accept your word as a noble, but I notice that you have been careful not to offer it," Aspen said smoothly. "Well spoken. It does seem that you were born for politics," Atros admitted. "Thank you, but I think you are trying to distract me. But before we go on, I would like to relate what Lord Clifton has told me in confidence." "Which is?" Atros asked genuinely concerned. "That he is aware of the meetings between Brutsam and these other men and that they do not concern you in the slightest. He was rather noncommittal but it seems you've stumbled into something big which must be kept confidential at this time. So you see, you've as much reason to trust Lord Clifton as he has to trust you." "Interesting. I'm still very curious about the Brutsam matter, but I'll let it drop on the basis of Lord Clifton's word. You see, I too have heard that his oath is a good one." "Speaking of oathes, I was about to commit myself and my troops to aiding you in this meeting with your enemies," Aspen stated. "Your 'troops'? I'm not looking for a siege," Atros said sarcastically. "Any use of 'troops' would probably frighten them off." "Yes, of course, I was thinking of one man only. An expert crossbowman who might be useful to us." "He doesn't happen to be the same man as the one behind the aria over there?" Atros asked pointing. "How long have you known?" Aspen seemed surprised. "Since I raised my voice. He shifted his weight suddenly and made a silent ripple in the fabric. Later I noticed the peek holes." "Well, Glasker, come out and let me introduce you formally." The curtain parted at one side and a tall, broad man wearing a leather jerkin and carrying a stout crossbow entered the room. "Glasker is an old foot soldier and friend of the family. He is capable and extremely tight lipped, and as an additional bonus he has remarkable observation and memory powers. Glasker, how many times has Raffen drank from that glass this evening?" Aspen asked. After a moment Glasker replied, "Twenty-one sir, but he lifted it twenty-five times." "Amazing! Did you keep track all night?" Atros asked. "No, I recalled the entire evening from start to finish and counted," Glasker said slowly. "That seems a useful talent," Atros commented. "Thank you, sir." Glasker turned toward Aspen, "You were about to get to some sort of oath, sir." "Yes, thank you, Glasker. Raffen, I and Glasker will accompany you in your meeting with these enemies. Is that agreed?" It was clear that Atros had little choice. "Yes," Atros conceded. Both men had impressed him as being extremely capable and useful to his needs. "Then we will make plans, do you have the written challenge you mentioned earlier?" "Why, yes," Atros said smiling. "You could have avoided all this by searching me." "But then I would never have gotten your cooperation," he beamed. "Yes, of course. Let's get to work." Atros retained his smile for several minutes. Perhaps things weren't quite as dismal as they had seemed only a short time before. -Joseph Curwen <>X<>X<>X<>

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