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1 +-+ +-+ +-+ +-+--+-+--+-+ VOLUME TEN NUMBER SIX | | ========================================== +___________+ 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 Servant of the Silver Blade Ron Meldrum *Cydric and the Sage: Part Five Carlo N. Samson Date: 042688 Dist: 631 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 Shifting uncomfortably before his terminal, the young man tentatively taps out a sentence, then pauses. Minutes pass before another coherent thought is slowly composed, worded, and dedicated to phosphor and magnetic media. After several moments of careful contemplation, he uses the block delete feature of his editor to remove the text, and begins again. The ritual begins yet again, perhaps the fifth time today. For the editor of a magazine, there is no feeling quite the same as when he views an empty editorial page with nothing to say. An editorial column is an opportunity to communicate directly with your readership, to share your opinions, your plans, and a little of yourself, with people who share the same interests. Yet it is also an intimidating thing, because there is a responsability to inform and be entertaining to the reader, not merely pontificate. After having considered many topics that might be of interest, I remain at a loss. After all, how interesting would an editorial be if it went into detail describing the geogrpaphical distribution of its readership, or mentioned that there is, on the average, approximately two readers per node? And I certainly need not mention the coming of springtime or impending finals, or that this will be the last issue in Volume 10 before the summer volume begins. I have similarly been unable to shift my responsabilities onto other parties, after having no response to an offer to Dargon authors for a 'guest editorial' column. Well, luckily for me, we have plenty of good fiction in this issue, and there isn't room enough for a more substantial editorial. I am quite sure that the two excellent stories in this issue will go over very well (hopefully better than the editorial, I'm sure). The figure rests his head in his hands and takes a beep breath. He pauses, then reluctantly exits the editor. Now begins the process of sending the issue out, which although tedious, at least doesn't require any amount of creativity... -'Orny' Liscomb <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<> Servant of the Silver Blade Durach wiped his greasy fingers across the front of his smithy smock, leaving dirty streaks on the crest of Beartas embroidered on it. The chicken had been good, especially good since he knew it was the last meat he would have for a week and a half. In one smooth movement the thin but sturdy man pulled off the smock and stretched his arms, then heaved a long sigh, expelling all the worries and labors of the day at the forge. He dropped his dirty smock on the table and lowered himself heavily into a creaking chair by the hearth. Catching sight of a dull glow on the wall above the fireplace, he heaved himself to his feet again, the ancient wooden chair creaking loudly beneath the force on its arms. Brushing his straight, dark hair off of his forehead, Durach stepped over to the fire and examined a dull grey sword, the origin of the gleam, hanging horizontally above the brick fireplace. He pulled a precious, half-used candle from a fixture just below the weapon and stooped to light its wick in the flames below. Straightening his aching back, he replaced the lighted candle in its fixture. Silver light burst from the hanging sword and shot throughout the dim, one-room hut. "Ahh, better...better," Durach breathed, his wide eyes following the length of the blemishless blade. He then returned to the chair, which groaned and shrieked as usual when he lowered himself into it. Leaning back, he lifted his eyes exultantly to the shining sword. Someone was knocking at the door. Durach stared dreamily at his beautiful weapon, either not hearing the sound or choosing to ignore it. The knocking persisted. Annoyance flickered across his face as Durach pulled himself from his reverie. He slowly pushed himself to his feet as the knocking continued. A small, hooded man, at least a full foot and a half shorter than Durach, was standing patiently on the wooden doorstep as the door swung open. He wore a long, grey cloak made of a fine material Durach didn't recognize, and his hood concealed most of his head except his face and a couple of curls of black hair. A strange but friendly smile and deep brown eyes, sparkling with amusement, looked up out of the hood. It was a starless night, and there was a light drizzle falling, but the stranger said nothing. He stood on the doorstep smiling, the drizzle clinging in beads to his grey cloak. Shaking off his drowsiness, Durach spoke. "Enter, stranger," he said with as much hospitality as he could. "I don't have much, but my house is warm. If you are hungry I have a little chicken broth but nothing more." "Thank you," the short man said and stepped past Durach into the small hut. His eyes glanced about the room, standing for a moment on the sword, then continuing their inspection of the place as Durach closed the door. He turned to his host and said, "Well, kind sir, where is the broth?" Durach picked up a small metal pot of broth from the table. "I'll warm it up for you," he offered. "That won't be necessary," the stranger said. He boldly reached out and took the lukewarm pot from the startled Durach. The small man then pulled himself onto the wooden table top and, with his legs dangling, put the pot to his lips and drank. Durach watched curiously as a small stream of broth trickled down from one corner of the man's mouth. "Not bad," the man said with a light sigh as he lowered the empty pot. He leaned back on his elbows and looked up at Durach. "So," said the stranger, "what's your name?" "Huh... my name? Oh! I'm Durach, the son of Dochas son of Gorach. I work at a smithy in town but my father was..." "What a nice name!" the man exclaimed. "Durach," he repeated the name with a smile. Durach, slightly annoyed by the man's interruption, took a deep breath, then asked, "What is your name, stranger?" "I'm Calman. Calman of Gliocas. You don't know me. May I stay here tonight?" "Sure," said Durach, a hundred questions coming to mind. "Where are you from?" "I told you," the man replied. "From Gliocas." "I've never heard of any Kliogas..." "Gliocas," Calman corrected him, still smiling. "Okay, Gliocas. Where is this city?" "It's not a city. It's much more." "Kingdom, then." "It's not a kingdom." "What, then, is it?" Durach asked, annoyance in his voice. "It's just a place," Calman replied, apparently ignoring the other man's tone of voice. "Where is this place?" "Out there," said the short man with a vague flick of the wrist. "It's a long, hard trip and most people never find it. Nice place you have here." "What? Oh, yes... I mean, it's all I have." "Where'd you get the knife?" Calman had removed his eyes from Durach, but still wore the smile. "Knife?" Durach followed the man's gaze to the sword on the wall. At the sight of it, all traces of annoyance and frustration were gone, and he began to speak. "Oh, Iarann. My father gave him to me. My father, you know, was the champion of Lord Uan. He gave him to me before he died. He died of a broken heart. When Lord Airgid took over, my father was stripped of his rank and soon fell sick. He was given Iarann by his father, my grandfather, of course. I don't know where Sire Gorach, that was his name, got him." "Him?" Calman spoke up. "Him, Iarann," Durach said, pointing to the sword. "Oh, okay," the other man said, slightly amused. Ignoring him, Durach continued. "Someday I will carry him into battle and earn him glory as my fathers did. I have already, once. During the war with Cumach ten years ago, when I was young, I carried him into battle gloriously." "No, you didn't," Calman said. "Huh?" said Durach, startled. "Don't you ever listen? I said 'no, you didn't!' You didn't carry the knife into battle." He was still smiling. "Well," Durach stuttered, surprised by the other man's statement. "I almost did. They trained me, and I was about to go to battle when peace was resolved. They trained me, though." "How long?" Calman asked. "Well, for a day. But that doesn't matter. They trained me." "Oh, okay," the other man said, smiling. There was silence for a while. Durach stood by the table musing over the sword while Calman sat on the table musing over Durach. As if reaching some unspoken decision, Calman said, "Okay, I'll go to bed now." With that he dropped from the table to the floor in front of Durach and walked over to the fireplace. After a glance up at the sword and another back at his host, the man lay down and curled up in front of the warm flames. For several minutes Durach stood wondering about his curious guest. Shaking his head, he strode over to the fireplace. Being careful not to disturb Calman, he stretched his right arm and with one finger extinguished the candle. The interior of the hut suddenly dimmed. Leaning over the man on the floor, Durach stoked the fire, then walked to the door and bolted it. Retiring to the corner where he usually slept, he removed his crude wooden sandals and his cloak, then lay down to rest, spreading the cloak over him for a cover. Lying half asleep already, he looked across the room at the silent, unmoving figure silhouetted by the unsteady firelight. He wondered who the stranger was, and where his Gliocas was. Durach quickly drifted further from consciousness. He awoke just after dawn the next morning. The door was wide open, and bright sunlight was streaming in, flooding the room with an irrepressible sense of bliss. Someone was humming quietly, and the smells and sounds of cooking ham reached the awakening man. He sat up, looking around the place. Calman was kneeling in front of the fire cooking meat while humming a merry tune. On the table was the partially butchered carcass of a small pig. Blinking confusedly, Durach looked back at the man by the fire. His eyes raised habitually to the sword and his mind cleared. Stretching his stiffened muscles, Durach yawned loudly. Calman stopped humming and turned to him, wearing the familiar smile. "Hello, want some breakfast?" Durach looked at him a moment, then nodded dumbly. The short man turned back to the fireplace and took up his tune again. Durach climbed to his feet and put on his cloak and smock. He never put on his sandals before it was time to leave for work. "Where'd you get the pig?" he asked. "Oh... down the road," Calman replied without turning around. The tune became a battle march. Durach's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Down the road?" he asked. "Yes, that's what I said. Sometimes I don't think you people ever listen." Durach didn't question what he meant by the ominous "you people." "Did you steal it?" he asked bluntly. "I don't steal." "Where did you get it, then?" "Down the road..." "I know that!" Durach interrupted. "Where down the road?" "In a shady spot next to the roadway," Calman evaded. "Was it just sitting there by the road?" "Yes, just sitting there. I simply reached over the fence and picked it up." "So, you stole it," Durach said, more as a statement than a question. His voice was quieter, but still shaky. "No, I told you, I don't steal," Calman said, laying some more meat in a flimsy frying pan. "Then the owner knows," Durach said, relieved. "What owner?" the other man asked, still not turning from the fire. Durach fell back into frustration. "The owner," he said. "The person who owns, or owned, the pig!" "I didn't see any owner when I got there. All I saw was a bunch of pigs in a fenced-in mud hole, next to a large house." "A house!" "Yes, yes! Must I repeat everything?" Durach dropped the subject and, shaking his head, seated himself in the groaning chair. Calman turned and grinned devilishly at him, then returned to his cooking and tune, which became a moving dirge. The two ate together in silence at the table. Since there was only one chair, Calman was more than happy to sit on the table top with his legs dangling as he had the night before. The ham tasted good to Durach, who hadn't eaten breakfast, much less ham, in many months. Then there were those curious white roots. They were excellently prepared and Durach couldn't complain about the taste, but he was always leery about eating things he didn't recognize. After they had eaten, Calman dropped from the table. "Well," he said with a sigh, "I must be going now." Without a farewell he stepped to the door. Then a backward glance caught the sword, gleaming in the sunlight at its station above the fireplace. As if suddenly remembering something, he wheeled and said cryptically, "Oh, yes. Happiness and glory to you!" He grinned his familiar grin, then the smile faded momentarily and his eyes had a distant look. Refocussing on Durach, he smiled a subdued smile and was gone out the door. Durach worked at a smithy in the central district of the city of Beartas, which was no more than a mile form his home. Progress was normally slow as he walked to work once he entered the city proper, for the narrow streets were usually clogged with people. He disliked crowds and thus hated the segment of his path that took him through the city streets. This morning was different, though. Durach was late, due to the fact he had eaten breakfast with Calman. Then, after the stranger had departed he, of course, had to polish his sword. By the time he reached the city he found only a few people on the streets. He smiled to himself and decided to make it a point to be late more often. At this time the laborers were at work and the rest of the city was still asleep. Waiting for him in front of the small, open-faced smithy was its owner, one of Durach's longtime friends. Durach had taught him to read a little, since he himself had been lucky enough to learn his letters while his father still held a station at the court. His friend, Caraid, had inherited the smithy from an uncle. The place wasn't great, but it did have a good location in the central trade district and a reputation for quality. The smithy consisted of two rooms, one of which was open to the street. The open one had a small stone forge at its center. Only Caraid, his twelve-year-old son, and Durach worked there. Caraid seemed to have been waiting for Durach, for when he saw him coming down the street, the forge owner hustled over toward him carrying a folded sheet of paper in his huge left hand. Caraid's large, smithy-hardened body dwarfed what few other people were on the street. "Durach," he rumbled in his deep voice, holding the paper aloft. "I need your help with this." He apparently ignored the fact that Durach was late. Caraid handed the paper to him and the two strode back to the smithy where Caraid's son was straining under a load of scrap iron. Durach unfolded the paper, the huge Caraid peering anxiously over his shoulder at it. "What's the problem?" Durach asked scanning the list on the sheet. "Well," his friend's voice was subdued, "I recognized the words 'horseshoes' and 'hammer heads', but what are these others?" He poked one of his large fingers awkwardly at the bottom part of the list, and Durach examined it. His eyes lit up as he read aloud. "'Spearheads'! And 'Pikeheads'!" There was a sharp intake of breath as Caraid realized the significance of his friend's words. "Spears and pikes?" Caraid asked in a low voice. "We've never made weapons for the Lord before!" Durach read the heading at the top of the sheet. Indeed, the order was issued by the treasury of Lord Airgid. His heart jumped at the implications of the castle ordering weapons, but he calmed himself by saying aloud, "They're probably just refurninshing the old armory. It hasn't been refurnished, you know, since before the reign of Lord Uan." Caraid didn't look convinced. "We'd better get started," the big man said. "It's a big order and the Lord wants it next week." "Next week!" Durach protested, looking down the list again. "That's impossible! We can't do this much in such a short time! Its.." "Nor will you have to," a new voice said, emphasizing "nor". Durach and Caraid wheeled around to see a clean-shaven man in a dark blue robe standing just off the road by the smithy. In one hand he held a book with several loose sheets sticking out form inside the front cover. Before the smiths could say anything, the man continued. "I am Searbhanta, third treasurer of his Lordship, Lord Airgid." He paused and looked around to see if anyone reacted to his title. Seeing no one take note, he frowned indignantly and resumed speaking. "The order given you this morning has been retracted. Your services are no longer required by his Lordship. He has found the larger smithies more suitable to his needs at present." "But..." Caraid protested. But the man in blue turned and left. The large smith furiously kicked the nearest wall, which promptly cracked upon impact. Durach's attention, however, was drawn away from his friend by another development. There was a commotion in the street. One of Lord Airgid's criers, holding a rolled sheet of parchment, was climbing off his mount a few yards away. Unrolling the parchment he began to read as a crowd formed about him. "Hear all! Hear all! Due to crimes committed against the person and property of our liege, the Beloved and Mighty Lord Airgid, by the blackguards of the Castle Cumach, it is hereby decreed that a state of war exists between the people of Beartas and those of Cumach. All able-bodied men are required to enlist at the north garrison or pay a hundred Gold Royals to buy amnesty. Failure to do so will result in imprisonment. "Hear all! Hear all!"the crier droned, repeating the proclamation. Durach was excited. So much had happened so quickly. This was what he had been waiting for all his life. Now he could bear his fathers' sword proudly into combat. Caraid had recovered from his momentary anger and was listening carefully to the crier. He turned to Durach and said, "I guess I'm out of business for a while." He pulled off his smock and threw it down. "Shall we go to the north garrison together?" "I'll meet you here in an hour. Then we can go. I have to get Iarann!" Without waiting for a response, he took off running as fast as the growing crowd would allow. After passing through the city he sprinted, not noticing the strange gazes of onlookers as they watched the lean, middle-aged man bound gleefully down the road. He barged into his hut, lungs heaving, and stopped in front of the fireplace. Panting, he reached up and carefully removed the sword from the hooks on the wall. "O Iarann, I bring you glory!" he gasped. Forty-five minutes later he was standing in line with Caraid at the north garrison, waiting to enlist. "It looks nice," Caraid said gently, knowing fully the significance his friend put on the weapon. "Yes, he does," Durach agreed, proudly holding the sword, blade up at arms length in front of him. The morning sun glinted brightly off its silver surface. Surely they would make him a corporal when they saw the sword. They would recognize the quality for which it stood, and he would tell them that he had been trained before. Surely they would make him a corporal, maybe even a sergeant. They didn't. Though Durach awaited the assignment with held breath, he got just three words out of the man at the enlistment desk: "Name...Weapon...Next." He was, however, consoled by the fact that he and Caraid had been assigned to the same unit. The unit, comprised of fifty peasants with diverse weapons, was under the command of a hulking, chain-mailed, gauntleted, and mounted sergeant named Duine. Duine immediately let his unit know that he considered it below himself to work with such rabble, and that he was presently attempting to discover what he had done to offend the officials who had assigned him to the position. Training lasted half a day and consisted primarily of climbing ladders and ropes to the top of a high wall. Durach's unit trained side-by- side with five other similar units. There was no doubt what their job would be during the assault on Castle Cumach, and Durach beamed inside at the thought of scaling the enemy's walls, lifting Iarann high above his head, and bringing glory to the sword by routing the enemy forces. He awaited with anticipation the day they were to move on the castle. That day came too soon for many of the men in the army. There were the usual desertions, mostly peasant conscripts, which were invariably remedied by an arrow in the back of the deserter as he fled. The troops marched in a disorganized throng, moving slowly down the dusty road to death. Caraid, walking next to Durach, had a worried expression on his face. He was carrying the ancient thrusting spear the garrison had given him. All conscripts who had signed up without a weapon, as Caraid has, had been assigned some relic from Lord Airgid's armory. Durach spoke. "Why so grim?" Caraid turned his face to Durach. "I don't want to be a part of this. I just want to go back to the smithy. I'm not a soldier." "Ah," Durach said. "But look at it this way: this battle is a chance to earn fame and glory. Don't turn down the chance." "Only the nobles and friends of the Lord will earn fame and glory," Caraid mumbled. Noticing Durach's hurt expression, he added quickly, "and, of course, you and your sword will. But I have no such weapon." He brandished the spear. Its head shook loose and Caraid stumbled to catch it before it hit the ground. Ignoring the curses from a man behind, who had run into him as he stumbled, the big man straightened up and replaced the spear head. "That is a disadvantage," Durach sighed. "But your strength will carry you." Less than an hour later the high walls of the Castle Cumach began to rear themselves up ahead of the army. When the force finally emerged from around a low rise and saw the castle, the host slowed down to a crawl and looked on with awe. It was a large fortress, sitting proudly on the top of a low hill, red and green banners streaming from its towers. Half a mile beyond, in a shallow river valley, was the city the castle was built to protect. No troops were seen deployed outside the fortress, but its walls were briming with mail-clad warriors. A forest of pikes and long spears rose from the battlements, impressively catching the bright light of the afternoon sun. A noble to the rear of the host shouted, "Dost thou surrender?" The answering shower of arrows fell short of the troops but clearly expressed Castle Cumach's answer. The order came from the rear to storm the walls. The peasant units that had been trained with Durach's unit hefted the long, shabby ladders they had carried from Beartas and began moving hesitantly toward the ready pikes on the walls. Durach's sergeant, Duine, was no where to be seen. Several whips cracked somewhere behind and the mass broke into a disorganized charge. Durach tried to make his way to the front to lead the assault with uplifted sword, but his speed was no match for the younger members of the mob. About two hundred paces from the wall, nearly half of the people at the front of the charge fell to enemy archers. Another twenty or thirty fell at a hundred and fifty paces, at least forty fell at one hundred, and another forty or so at fifty paces. Then the mass was upon the wall. The ladders were thrown up and the attackers began to climb. Shower after shower of arrows swept the ladders clean. Durach shoved a man out of his way and leapt to the nearest ladder. As he began to climb, however, a pikeman on the wall pushed the top of the ladder away with his weapon and Durach fell backwards onto the ground. He scrambled to his feet and found himself facing the sloping field he had just charged across, and was shocked at what he saw. Beyond the hundred and more dead and wounded littering the field the armored regulars of the army of Beartas were retreating. A violent sense of betrayal surged through him. He wheeled and yelled to Caraid, whom he had seen nearby a moment ago. Durach quickly turned away with tears in his eyes as his friend screamed then crumpled under searing, boiling oil dropped from above. Durach ran. He made his way across the field to some trees on the other side. Most of the others were doing the same now. He ran until he couldn't run anymore, caught his breath, then ran again. His thoughts were not thoughts at all, but flashes of anger and surges of sorrow. By the time he reached Beartas' city limits, he had calmed down quite a bit. Skirting the city to get to his house, his face assumed a stone-like expression and he slowed to a walk, but his eyes held shadows of deep loss mixed with anger. Arriving home, Durach found he had left the door ajar, and a foul odor reminded him that he had left the pig carcass on his table. He stepped through the door and looked around. Nothing had changed. Slowly he looked up to the empty hooks on the wall above the fireplace, then to the sword he still grasped tightly in his right hand. Calmly, Durach walked over to the corner of the small room to the right of the cold fireplace and dropped the weapon to the floor. He stood silently looking at the cold, grey ashes in the fireplace, tears welling up in his eyes again. A sound behind him caused him to turn. Framed in the doorway was a familiar short, hooded figure. Calman pulled back his hood to reveal tangled, raven-black locks. His smile was gone, replaced by a look of deep understanding. He glanced at the sword on the floor, then spoke in a low voice. "Perhaps with my aid, you may yet be able to find Gliocas." Durach nodded and followed Calman away from Iarann. -Ron Meldrum <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<> Cydric and the Sage: Part 5 Author's note: The complete synopsis for parts 1 & 2 can be found in FSFnet VOL09N1, for part 3 in FSFnet VOL10N1. THE STORY SO FAR: In part 4 (chapters VIII-X), Cydric and Corambis head back to the house at twilight, stopping momentarily in the temple district so that the Sage can offer a brief prayer to the goddess Cahleyna. Cydric questions the necessity of worshipping the gods; Corambis seems offended but later accepts Cydric's apology. When they arrive back at the Sage's home, they have a light supper and prepare themselves for the opening of the Celestial Archway. The midnight hour arrives, the Archway appears, and the two step through. They materialize in the other realm on a deserted beach. The chrysoline ring that the Sage wears points them in the direction of the Elder. They do not walk far when they are stopped by an invisible barrier. Corambis uses the ring to smash through, and suddenly the Citadel of Sorrows, situated on a huge floating boulder, is revealed to them. A transportal disc teleports them up to the Citadel, and they begin exploring. They notice strange translucent stones scattered about the courtyard; Cydric keeps one. The ring leads them through an armory filled with rusty weapons, an old tapestry room, and finally up into a tower where they find Bahz the Elder. Bahz appears incredibly old and decrepit, but when Corambis tries to help him stand, the Elder snatches the chrysoline ring away from the Sage and laughs. Green flames surround the Elder, and his true identity is revealed: he is actually Nephros, mage of ancient Quentrellia and the first to physically travel the Dreamrealms. He casts a paralysis spell upon Cydric and Corambis, and they lose consciousness. XI. The Servant The first thing that Cydric felt when he awoke some time later was a pressure on his head. He looked around and saw that the room was now empty, save for Corambis, who was shackled to a wooden post at the other side of the room. He tried to stretch, and found that he was similarly restrained. He gave the chains a hard yank, but they remained securely fastened. "Milord Corambis!" he called, trying to wake the Sage. After a few moments, Corambis lifted his head. "How do you feel?" Cydric asked him. "Quite fine," replied the Sage. "But--" he stopped, and his jaw dropped in surprise. "What? What is it?" Cydric said, looking around. "My goddess has heard my prayers! She has not forgotten us!" the Sage said joyfully. "What do you mean?" Cydric asked, not understanding the Sage's elation. Just then the pressure lifted from his head, and a bizarre-looking little creature settled onto his shoulder. "Gaaah! What the hellblaze is it!" shouted Cydric, trying to shrug it off. "Relax, Cydric, it will not harm you. That is the Tozu, one of the special servants of Cahleyna." Corambis addressed the creature: "Forgive my young friend, O Tozu, for he is not used to being in the presence of one so distinguished as yourself." Cydric looked closely at the creature. It was very much like an owl, except for its human head and tiny pair of arms. "His reaction is understandable. I take no offense," replied the Tozu in a small, low-pitched voice. "And you are correct, Sir Corambis. Mistress Cahleyna has not forgotten you; she has sent me to tell you of the important duty you must perform." "Uh, excuse me, Zotu, or Tozu, or whatever your name is; could you please sit somewhere else?" Cydric said, feeling a little uncomfortable with the owl-man on his shoulder. "Cydric! Please do not embarrass me," said the Sage. "If you don't mind, I'd rather sit here," the Tozu replied, somewhat testily. "Fine with me, then," Cydric said, shrugging. The owl-man flapped to keep his balance and gave Cydric a disapproving frown. "First of all," said the Tozu, "let me tell you about Nephros. You may know that over a thousand years ago, he was the royal sorcerer of the Island of Quentrellia, and that he was the one who discovered the Amulet of Hanarn and thus the first mage to physically venture onto the dreamrealms. To escape the Fretheod invasion of the Island he fled into the dreamrealms and wandered about for a time, eventually finding his way to the Nether Realm." He paused, seeing the Sage's eyes widen. "You don't mean...he made a bargain with an Exile?" "Indeed he did. He promised Xothar the chance to escape from his prison in exchange for the power to dominate your world." Cydric remembered the stories of the Exiles: once they were seraphim, living in Lordsrealm with the All Creator, until Xothar and his followers revolted and tried to seize power. The All Creator crushed the rebellion, stripped them of their astral form, and flung them into the Nether Realm where they have been ever since. "Why did Nephros wait until now to try and free him?" Cydric asked. "He has tried many times before, but with no success," replied the Tozu. "This time, however, he may finally succeed." "Of course! The harmonic convergence happens tonight," interjected Corambis. "If he has a means of tapping the power from the alignment of the sun and stars, he may very well attain his goal." "Very true," said the Tozu. "He does in fact have the means--the Amulet of Hanarn. Now, Mistress Cahleyna and the other gods have appealed to the All Creator, and he has agreed to let them destroy Xothar once and for all. But since Xothar is in the Nether Realm, they cannot harm him, just as he cannot harm them. The All Creator is loathe to destroy any being, but has made an exception in this case. So, when Nephros opens the Celestial Archway, the gods shall attempt to strike a blow at Xothar. This means, of course, that Nephros must be allowed to complete the summoning ritual." "Wait, do you mean to say that you are not here to rescue us?" Cydric asked, incredulously. "As I said, Nephros must complete the ritual in order to gather enough power to open an Archway in the Nether Realm. He needs your...assistance, for the ritual to work." "Well, don't the gods have enough have power to do that themselves? I mean, they are gods, right?" "The All Creator devised the Nether Realm as a prison specifically for gods and other divine beings. No resident of Lordsrealm has any power over that place." "But mere mortals do? Anyway, what about us? I mean, myself and Milord Corambis. Surely Cahleyna will not let anything happen to one of her worshippers?" "Naturally. But you do understand that if Xothar escapes, he will take the rest of the dwellers of the Nether Realm with him, as well as the other Exiles. He will make war upon Lordsrealm, and the universe shall suffer." "But you will help us get out of here after the ritual, right?" The Tozu hesitated. "Unfortunately, the Citadel will also have to be destroyed. This was once a place of great power, that is why Nephros chose it. I can't help you once the ritual is begun." Corambis said: "I understand, O Tozu. It will be an honor to die for my goddess." "She is not *my* goddess," said Cydric. "Anyway, I thought the gods were more powerful than any one seraphim. The battle will not take all their energy and concentration, will it?" "It may. Xothar will undoubtedly have all his evil forces waiting, and the gods have to send a combined power strike to insure their destruction." "So you are saying that it is up to us to make our own escape?" "In effect, yes." "Some divine being you are!" "Please, Cydric, do not speak that way to him," said Corambis. The Tozu stiffened for a moment, then said, "Nephros is returning from his preparations. The Convergence is near. Remember what I have said." "We will, O Tozu. Thank you." "Blessings of Cahleyna be with you." With that, the Tozu flapped his wings and flew off out the window. XII. The Ritual A few moments later, Nephros entered the room. "So, my friends, did you have a good sleep?" he asked. They said nothing. "What, lizard-man got your tongue?" he laughed. "Why us?" asked Cydric. "Why not you?" Nephros replied, setting the brazier he had been carrying down in the center of the room. "I mean, why did you go through all that trouble with the visions? You could have easily kidnapped us or something." "I needed you both to come willingly. Would you have come otherwise? I doubt it. I perceived that the old man would be interested in the story about Bahz, so I cast my bait, and you came right as I expected." Taking a jar of paint and a brush from the brazier, he began marking out a large triangle, with Cydric at one point and Corambis at the other, humming as he did so. "Just what is this all about, anyway?" Cydric asked. "You certainly are an inquisitive one, aren't you? Well, I see no harm in telling. I am preparing to bring a being of immense power onto this plane. In return for that, he'll grant me supreme mastery over the world. Lord Nephros, Emperor of Makdiar--sounds great, doesn't it?" "For you, maybe. Just what do you need us for?" "Well, for this whole thing to work, I need a couple of sacrifices and a host body for the being--Xothar's his name, you know him?" "Legends say he was banished to the Nether Realm." "Not for long. At the Convergence point, I'll open the StarDoor into the Nether Realm, and he'll be freed, along with the rest of his friends. And then I'll have powers beyond all measuring--why, I'll be able to raze Dargon Keep in thirty seconds if the notion so took me!" He put the finishing touches on the triangle and stepped back. "Wonderful. Almost ready." "What did my vision mean?" Cydric asked. "Merely bits and pieces of your dreams and desires. I can't remember exactly." He threw the paint jar out the window, then brought out a leather bag. He emptied the contents into the brazier. "One last thing." He turned to the empty third point of the triangle and made some motions with his hands. A wooden post appeared in place. He moved to the window and glanced up into the sky. "Excellent. The Convergence is nigh." He chuckled. Cydric looked over at Corambis. The Sage had his eyes closed, and appeared to be meditating. "Now where did I put her? Oh yes, I remember." Nephros left the room, and came back a few moments later dragging a struggling young girl behind him. "No! Let me go! Help!" she screamed. "A nice virgin sacrifice," Nephros said. "Can't have a ritual without one." Cydric lunged against his chains. "Let her go, you bastard!" "Such fire and spirit. What a strong life-force. Yes, a prime sacrifice victim. I'll kind of miss her," Nephros said. "Help me please!" the girl sobbed at Cydric. "You let her go, or I'll--" "You'll what? Kill me?" Nephros smirked. He put his hand over the girl's eyes, and her struggles ceased. He placed her up against the wooden post and chained her hands behind her. "Xothar will like her. More than he'll like the old man, I'm afraid." "Not him too--" "This is a pretty big ritual, you know. Twice as many sacrifices as usual. It had better work this time." He moved to stand over the brazier. "Well?" he said, looking at Cydric. "No last minute pleas for mercy?" Cydric glared at him. "No, I guess not. I rather expected you to offer yourself as a sacrifice in place of the girl. Your type is always doing that sort of 'noble' thing. Well?" Cydric started to speak but bit down his reply. "I didn't think so. Anyway, I can't sacrifice you, since you have the honor of being Xothar's new astral form. I don't think he'd appreciate flying around in the body of a tired old man or a delicate young lass, now would he?" He grinned. "Now, if there is no other business, I say let the festivities begin!" A flame appeared in the brazier. Moments later, a cloud of purple smoke rose up into the air. Nephros reached into his tunic and brought out a small object on a chain. The Amulet of Hanarn, Cydric supposed. "Spirits of the sun, hear me!" began Nephros. "Movers of the stars, attend me!" The smoke formed into a rough sphere. "Powers of the void, grant me your strength. As the heavens come together in the perfect pattern, let their brilliance shine upon me!" He raised the Amulet above his head. There was a rumbling sound in the distance. "Oroc criat naestrum. Oroc criat naestrum," chanted Nephros. Cydric wanted to cry out, to distrupt the proceedings, but the words of the Tozu prevented him from doing so. He saw the Sage, unmoving on his post. The girl, a wisp of brown hair across her face, stood just as still. "Oroc criat naestrum," intoned Nephros with closed eyes. "Sun and heavens, moon and stars. Sun and heavens, moon and stars." The center stone of the Amulet began glowing. The room grew dark. The purple cloud lit up with an inner light. "Oroc criat naestrum. Sun and heavens, moon and stars!" The rumbling grew louder. The light from the Amulet started pulsing. The purple cloud twisted restlessly. "The time is near," said Nephros. He released the Amulet, which hung suspended in mid-air. He went to the girl, unlocked her chains, and motioned her to follow him. Glassy-eyed, she obeyed. Nephros made her hold her arm out over the brazier in the center of the cloud, and when she had done so, cut her wrist with a dagger. The blood mixed into the smoke, giving it a crimson tint. Cydric cried out when he realized that Nephros was using his sundagger. "Silence!" shouted Nephros. Cydric felt himself go stiff, just like the first time. Nephros waved the girl back to her post. He went over and released Corambis from his chains. The Sage opened his eyes and straightened at the mage's command. Nephros mixed Corambis' blood into the cloud as he did with the girl's, then motioned him back. Taking hold of the Amulet once more, Nephros resumed chanting. "Oroc criat naestrum. Oroc criat naestrum." The rumbling sound changed to a low pulsing rhythm that kept time with the light pulses from the Amulet. The sound increased in volume, along with the mage's chanting. "Oroc criant naestrum. Oroc criat naestrum! OROC CRIAT NAESTRUM!" A beam of light lashed out from the Amulet and struck the center of the cloud. There was a sharp crackle, and the Archway snapped open. "THE STARS CONVERGE IN PERFECT UNISON! ENTER, O XOTHAR! THE PATH IS CLEAR!" shouted Nephros. A strong wind rushed out from the Archway, ruffling everyone in the room but not affecting the purple cloud that obscured the view into the astral portal. "ENTER, GREAT XOTHAR! NEPHROS BIDS THEE ENTER!" Neprhos shouted above the screaming wind. Cydric watched in horror as he took the girl by the shoulders and shoved her into Archway. She vanished, then there was a brief sparkle of red. A dim form began to take shape within the Archway. As the form solidified, Cydric could make out claws, horns, and fangs. Nephros exclaimed joyfully. Suddenly, several other forms appeared in the smoke. They were human in appearance, but the brilliant radiance surrounding each of them marked them as gods. "No! Please, not now! So close!" Nephros yelled. The lead god, a woman, pointed at the grotesque form of Xothar. A shaft of pure golden light shot out from her fingertips and struck the Exile. The room shook with the impact. Nephros lost his balance and fell as a wrenching roar filled the air. Cydric slumped forward as the paralysis left him. Xothar raised his fist and a blast of red energy flared out. The room shook again as the fire punched into the group of gods. Corambis sprang forward and snatched up Cydric's sundagger where Nephros had dropped it. The Sage leaped onto Nephros's chest, pinning him to the floor. He took a gold key from the mage's pocket, then struck him in the head with the pommel of the sundagger. Cydric stared at the unconscious sorcerer as Corambis unlocked his chains. "Didn't think I had it in me, eh?" the Sage grinned, noting the young man's surprised expression. The room trembled with the force of the godly struggle. XIII. Escape From The Citadel Cydric and Corambis raced out of the room and down the stairs. Another explosion rocked the castle, and chunks of stone began crumbling from the ceiling. "Hurry!" said Corambis, handing Cydric back his sundagger. "The whole mountain may fall into the sea at any moment!" They ran through the corridors, reached the tapestry room, and stopped. Several large lizards lay sprawled across the mosaic floor. Upon Cydric and Corambis' entry, they turned and began crawling towards them. "We cannot go through here!" said Cydric. "We don't have time to find another way," replied Corambis. He took the bag of dried fruit from his belt and tossed it into the center of the room. A small lizard slithered over to it and took it into his mouth in one gulp. "Shield your eyes, milord," Cydric said, holding the sundagger in front of him. When the Sage had done so, Cydric closed his own eyes and silently gave the blade a command. A white light flared outward from the blade, flooding the room with brightness for a brief second. Cydric opened his eyes. The lizards had stopped in their tracks, but resumed their course after a moment's hesitation. "They should have been blinded by that!" said Cydric. "They are," said Corambis, "but these lizards hunt by scent also." An explosion shook the room. "Then we have no other choice. We must find another escape route," Cydric said, turning. "Hold on," said the Sage as he took out his pipe and filled it. "You do not have time for that!" "Call it my final smoke." The Sage puffed, then said "Shafan fazar!" He took another puff, then blew the smoke outward. The aromatic cloud rose into the air and quickly filled the room. The lizards hesitated, then started wandering aimlessly, as if confused. "Ha ha! That got 'em!" Corambis grinned. "Come on!" He started forward into the lizard-infested room. They carefully threaded their way past the lumbering reptiles. Cydric was almost to the other end of the room when a particularly large lizard caught hold of the end of his cloak. He kicked the beast in the head, but it stubbornly refused to let go. Cydric swore, then bent down and thrust the sundagger between the reptile's eyes. It twitched, then relaxed its jaws as it died. Cydric wiped the blood off the blade as he joined the Sage. "Nasty brute?" Corambis asked as they hurried down the corridor. They reached the armory. Cydric opened the door that led to the courtyard and was greeted by a horde of walking human skeletons, all made of crystal. He gave a cry of surprise, then shut the door. "What is it?" asked the Sage. The door shook as the skeletons began pounding on it. "You would not want to know," said Cydric. He slid a wooden bar across the door, then went over to one of the tables and turned it on its side, dumping the rusted weapons to the floor. He and Corambis slid the table over and shoved it against the door. They paused for a moment to catch their breath. Suddenly, Cydric felt a warmth in his pocket. He reached in and brought out the translucent stone he had picked up in the courtyard. It glowed brightly and gave off increasing heat. Cydric tossed it away. As it hit the floor, the stone shattered and a crystal skeleton sprang up in its place. "Now we know what those stones were," Corambis said grimly. The skeleton looked around, then bent down and picked up a sword. At the skeleton's touch, the rust on the blade vanished. It glowed briefly, then appeared like new. "Cydric! Don't let it pick up anything else!" warned Corambis. Cydric grabbed a nearby shield and threw it at the skeleton. It struck the crystal creature in the chest, causing it to stagger back. The skeleton quickly recovered and retrieved the shield which, like the sword, was restored to perfect condition. "Helldamn," muttered Cydric. He quickly scanned the ground, then took up a broadsword that appeared to have the least rust on it. Picking up a wooden shield, he strode toward the skeleton to engage it in battle. They circled each other warily, then the skeleton gave an eerie cry and struck the first blow. Cydric blocked with his shield, and was nearly driven to his knees by the force of the strike. He slashed, and the skeleton jumped back. Cydric regained his stance and went on the attack. They duelled back and forth in the center of the room, but slowly, Cydric found himself being driven back. He briefly reflected that the skeletons must at one time have been the flesh-and-blood guards of the palace. His shield suddenly splintered to pieces as his opponent's sword came down upon it. Cydric barely had time to parry the next blow with his own severely notched sword. The skeleton easily deflected Cydric's riposte, then lunged forward. Cydric avoided the strike and swung his sword at the skeleton's head. There was a sharp crack as the skeleton bit down on the sword and split it in half. With a look of dismay, Cydric dropped the sundered blade and jumped back. He barely avoided the skeleton's next slash, then found himself back up against the wall. The skeleton thrusted, Cydric twisted, and the blade struck the stone. Cydric brought his fists down on the skeleton's back, and it pitched against the wall. As it slid to the floor, Cydric gave the skeleton a solid kick. It flipped over onto its back, and the sword went flying. Cydric stepped over the skeleton to retrieve the blade, but a bony hand lashed out and grabbed his ankle. Cydric slammed into the ground. He tried to kick loose from the skeleton's grasp, but it grabbed hold of his other ankle. Cydric cried out in pain as it tightened its grip. He desperately stretched his arm out, trying to seize the sword that lay just beyond his reach. Just then, Corambis raced over, picked up the sword, and plunged it into the skeleton's back. The crystal creature let out an inhuman shriek, then exploded into a fine crystalline dust. "Can you walk?" Corambis asked, helping Cydric to his feet. The young man winced, then shakily stood unassisted. "I think so. They are only a little sore." A skeletal arm burst through the door. Corambis rushed over and hacked it off. "It seems our friends are becoming rather impatient." Cydric limped over to the door on the opposite wall and opened it. Several lizards from the tapestry room were making their way down the corridor. Corambis eyed the advancing reptiles, then reached for his pipe. Not finding it at his side, he searched the rest of his belt pouches but came up empty. "My pipe! It must have fallen back there somewhere," he said. Cydric shut the door and leaned back against it. On the other door, the skeletons were slowly breaking through. "What do we do now?" Cydric asked. The Sage made no reply as he surveyed the room. Then his eyes lit up as he thought of a plan. He handed Cydric the skeleton's sword. "Delay them as long as possible. I have an idea." "What do you plan to do?" "No time to explain, but if it doesn't work it won't matter." Cydric took a stand in front of the courtyard-entry door and proceeded to chop the limbs off any skeleton that threatened to break through. Meanwhile, Corambis shoved one of the wooden tables into the corner of the room farthest from the embattled door, turned another table onto its side and put it against the first, forming a rectangular box. He then gathered up some of the weapons and dropped them in a pile at Cydric's feet. "Now, Cydric, get under the tables over there. I'll join you in a moment." Cydric did so. Corambis opened the door to admit the lizards, pushed the table away from the other door, then finally hurried back to the wooden shelter, dragging a piece of plate mail behind him to cover the open end. "Now what?" asked Cydric. "We wait." Through a knothole in the table, Cydric watched as the lizards made their way into the room just as the skeletons succeeded in smashing down the door. With their eerie battle cry, the skeletons snatched up weapons and began to hack the lizards to pieces. As the last reptile died, a massive tremor ripped through the room. Cydric cringed as the ceiling and most of the walls collapsed inwards, crushing the skeletons beneath piles of rubble. Moments later, all was still. Corambis pushed aside the plate mail and crawled out. Cydric followed. "Thank Cahleyna the builders spared no expense in furnishing the Citadel," breathed Corambis. "Were these tables not made of heartwood, we would surely be under a great deal of pressure." Another tremor nearly jolted them off their feet. "I think we best get going," said Cydric. They started to climb out of the rubble, but after a few moments Cydric was forced to rest. "It's those ankles, eh?" said Corambis, crouching down next to the young man. Cydric nodded. The Sage brought out a vial from one of his pouches and rubbed the contents on Cydric's affected extremities. A few minutes later, the pain vanished and Cydric was able to walk again. Cracks started appearing in the ground by the time the two men made it to the front gates. Cydric looked back and saw large sections of the once-proud Citadel crumble away into ruin. "Hurry, Cydric!" called the Sage. They sprinted toward the mountain's edge to where the transportal disc lay, but just before they reached it a huge gash opened up the ground in front of them. They frantically scrambled back as a huge chunk of the floating boulder dropped away into space, taking the transportal disc with it. Cydric's heart sank. "That was our only way off this helldamned rock," he said despairingly. "Courage up, Cydric, there must be another way down," Corambis said, trying to sound reassuring. Just then, a weird cry caused them to turn. Several crystal skeletons, apparently survivors of the room collapse, were rushing toward them with weapons drawn. "I do not think we will get out of this alive," said Cydric, raising the skeleton sword. "You may be right this time," Corambis said tightly. The skeletons drew nearer. Cydric braced himself for the onslaught. If he was to die, then let it be in battle. His mentor would have been proud. Suddenly, a small winged shape swooped out of the sky. "Look! It's the Tozu!" Corambis pointed. "Jump!" screeched the owl-man. "Did he say 'jump' ?" asked Cydric. "By the gods! Jump now!" "Do it," Corambis said, turning to the edge of the mountain. "Are you serious?" "Have faith, Cydric. Or face the alternative." The skeletons were mere seconds away. "But--" Cydric never finished the sentence. Corambis pushed him over the edge, then leaped after him. "Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!" Cydric's scream echoed through the heavens as he tumbled through empty air toward the beach below. He shut his eyes against the sky and ground that spun and whirled into a featureless blur. He was still screaming when Corambis landed by him on the beach. "Cydric! Stop that! We are safe," said the Sage, shaking him by the shoulders. The screaming continued. Corambis gave him another hearty shake, then slapped him resoundingly across the face. "Cydric! Listen to me!" The young man's outcries subsided to ragged gasps. A few moments later he sat up. "W-we're not dead?" "We are very much alive, as you can see. Are you all right?" "How?" "It was my doing," said the Tozu, coming to a hover nearby. "I am not without powers of my own. Now hurry! They are right behind." Cydric looked up. The skeletons had jumped off the mountain after them and were free-falling toward their position. "Won't they be killed when they hit the ground?" "The undead cannot be killed, only destroyed," the Tozu replied. "I'd suggest you not be here when they arrive." "But where do we go? How do we get back to our own realm?" "Leave that to me. For now, just get as far away as possible!" With that, the Tozu flapped his wings and took off. Cydric and Corambis started off down the beach. Behind them, the floating mountain slowly disintegrated. Great slabs of rock slid off and splashed into the water below. The first crystal skeleton off the mountain smashed heavily into the ground, breaking all of its bones. The skull, however, remained intact; it rose up from the pile of bones and flew off in pursuit of the two men. Cydric looked back and saw the grisly cranium give chase. Behind it, three more skeletons struck the beach and shattered; their skulls quickly arose and joined the pursuit. Corambis stumbled and fell. Cydric help him up, and they continued their desperate flight. Several moments later, Cydric felt a pain near his neck. He turned and saw the first skull sinking its crystal jaws into his shoulder. He cried out, then whipped off his cloak, throwing the skull to the ground. "Keep going!" he shouted to the Sage. He drew his sundagger and lunged for the skull, but it flew up and hovered just out of striking range. Cydric jabbed at it repeatedly, but each time it darted out of reach. Realizing that it was too quick, Cydric snatched up his cloak and flung it like a net at the skull. The cloth caught the fleshless head; Cydric fancied that it looked like a small blue ghost as it darted randomly about. Catching sight of more approaching skulls, he retrieved his dropped sundagger and took off at a run after the Sage. "I can't go much longer," wheezed Corambis as Cydric reached him. "I'm far too old for this sort of thing." "Where is that damn Tozu-bird?" Cydric cursed. He glanced back and counted at least eight rapidly-gaining skulls. He turned his attention forward and felt his blood run cold; a short distance away, the line of barren rocks that bordered the beach angled sharply into the sea. They were out of running room. Despair washed over Cydric as they came to a halt at the rocky barrier. "Blaze damn," he muttered darkly. Just then he heard a familiar flap of wings. The Tozu descended out of the sky, clutching the Amulet of Hanarn in its talons. There was a blaze of rainbow light as the Celestial Archway materialized at the foot of the rock wall. "Enter! Quickly!" the Tozu screeched. Corambis leaped through the portal. Cydric paused and looked back just in time to see a massive bolt of lightning lance down from the sky and strike the Citadel. There was a fiery explosion, and the huge mountain of rock began to fall toward the water. Seconds before the skulls reached him, Cydric turned and dived through the Archway. XIV. Return He landed in the Sage's study. For several minutes he lay there, panting and exhausted. After a little of his strength returned, he got up and found the Sage lying on the floor nearby. "Milord Corambis! Are you all right?" The Sage wearily sat up. "I'm fine, Cydric. I simply found the floor rather comfortable at the moment." "I shall get you some water," Cydric said. He started to rise. The study door flew open. A red-haired girl dressed in a black tunic and leggings came through, saw them, and whipped out a pair of throwing daggers. "Don't move, if you wish to live," she warned. Cydric recognized her. "Holleena! What are you doing here?" "Quiet!" Not taking her eyes off them, she called over here shoulder, "Thuna! In here." A nervous-looking dark-haired girl came in, holding a coil of rope. "Tie them up," Holleena commanded. "But Holleena, I don't think they--" "Do it!" As Thuna started toward them, Corambis whispered, "It seems that we have slipped from the dragon's teeth into the stomach!" Cydric grimly agreed. Epilogue After Thuna had bound them, Holleena relaxed her stance. "Who are you? Why have you invaded my house?" the Sage demanded. "Watch it, old man, or I'll do something very painful to you," Holleena said, putting away one of the daggers. "You promised you wouldn't harm him," said Thuna, nervously glancing at Corambis. "You're getting on my nerves, girlie. Now shut up and keep out of this!" Holleena shot back. She turned to Corambis. "Now then, old man, I understand you own a very valuable jewel. Mind letting me know where it is?" "What is this, Holleena? You didn't seem like the thieving kind," said Cydric. Holleena smiled, then delivered a slap across Cydric's face. "I seem to be getting a lot of that lately," he murmured. The red-haired young woman eyed her dagger, then looked straight at Corambis. "The Rainbow Stone, old man. Tell me where it is." "I have many stones and jewels. Take whatever you want and leave!" "You know what I'm talking about, old man. If you really are as wise as they say, you'll tell me where you've hidden it." "I have no idea what you mean," the Sage replied. "Very well." Holleena walked about casually, then seized Thuna by the hair and placed the dagger to her throat. "Does this help your memory?" "Please, Holleena," Thuna gasped. "I-I thought we were partners." The Sage went white. "All right," he said, a tremble in his voice. "But please, don't hurt her." "I knew you were wise," Holleena said, smiling a sweet, wicked smile. Just then Cydric heard a mechanical click, followed instantly by a soft *thunk*. Holleena gave a cry of pain and dropped her dagger. As she whirled away from Thuna, Cydric saw a crossbow bolt sticking out of the back of her shoulder. "Well, m'love, appears we made it here just in time," came a male voice from the doorway. Thuna backed away, and Cydric saw a man and a woman standing just inside the room. The woman lowered her crossbow. "Hello, Cydric, " she said, smiling. "Looks like I've saved your life yet again." After the woman had freed Cydric and Corambis from their bonds, the Sage removed the bolt from Holleena's shoulder and applied a healing salve. The crossbow woman's companion then took the young red-haired thief upstairs to lock her in one of the rooms. "This is the woman I was telling you about in the marketplace," Cydric told Corambis as they took seats around the Sage's table. "You don't know how glad I am to finally make your acquaintance, Miss Kittara," said Corambis. Kittara smiled. "Thank you, milord. I'm glad we could help." Just then the man who was with Kittara strode into the room. "The girl's doing fine. We should be able to question her in a bit." To Kittara he said, "You sure are a dead shot, love. Almost too good." She introduced the leather-clad man as her partner, Reyakeen Sylk. "Good to know you, sirs," Sylk said as he gripped forearms with the two men. "Sorry to trouble you this late." "That's quite all right," replied Corambis. "But tell me, Lord Sylk, how did you happen to be in this part of town? I do live rather removed from the center of Dargon's activity." "Just call me Sylk. Actually, milord, it was no mere coincidence. Kittara and I had been following Holleena and the girl over there for the last few days." Thuna, who had been sitting apart from the rest of them, blurted out, "You must believe me, milord! I didn't want anything to happen to you. She promised she wouldn't hurt you, and she offered me so much money, I just--just--" she burst into tears. "There, there, my girl," Corambis said soothingly, going over and letting her cry on his shoulder. "What is she talking about?" he asked Sylk. Kittara replied, "You see, milord, Holleena is a professional thief. Like she said, she was after your Rainbow Stone. Since Thuna is in your employ, Holleena bribed her into helping break into your house. They had made a copy of your house key, and were planning to carry out the theft last night, but Cydric's arrival made them change their plans slightly." She brought out a small pewter key and handed it to the Sage. "I'm so sorry," wept Thuna. "Please forgive me." "Don't worry about it, my dear," Corambis said gently. He motioned to Cydric. The young man came over, and the Sage passed the weeping girl into his arms. "Take her to one of the guest rooms." "Uh, there there, Thuna, please don't cry," Cydric said awkwardly as he led her from the kitchen. "I'm sorry, I can't help it," Thuna said in a teary voice as they entered one of the ground-floor guest rooms of the house. Cydric sat her down on the bed, then turned to leave. "Please don't go." Cydric felt his stomach knot up. "Uh, yes?" "I'm very sorry if I've embarrassed you. I want to explain about what happened in the booth." "Oh, that. Really, there is no need. I understand. Now I--" "You don't understand. Please let me explain." She motioned him to sit next to her. Cydric hesitated, then sat down a chair. "You have someone else in your life, don't you?" Thuna asked. "Is it that obvious?" "It was when I first kissed you. You held back as long as you could. I'm sorry that I had to do that to you, but I thought you were just like the rest." "What do you mean?" "Well, you see, Holleena wanted me to help her steal that jewel they were talking about. At first I refused, but then she offered me more gold that I had ever seen in my life, and I...I..." She swallowed, then continued. "We were planning to steal it the night that you arrived in Dargon. I was surprised when you asked me about Master Corambis, but Holleena told me she would first find out why you wanted to see him. I suppose you didn't tell her anything, because the next day she came to the Tavern and asked me to try and find out. She took a deep breath, then rose and moved to stand by the window. Staring out at the moon, she said, "Men would just spill all their closest secrets to me when I revealed myself to them. I thought it would work on you as well, but you were different. I'm sorry if I've made you feel unfaithful to your girl, and I don't blame you if you're angry with me, but I just wanted you to know the truth." She sighed and turned to face him. "Can you truly forgive me?" "Of course, Thuna. Thank you for being honest." He cringed inwardly, thinking of how close he had come to falling for Thuna's persuasion, just like the rest of her men. "I just hope Master Corambis can forgive me as well. How could I do such a thing to him, after all he's done for me? I don't deserve to live here anymore." Thuna flung herself facedown on the bed. "He will understand. I know he will." Cydric tentatively patted her shoulder, then quietly left the room. He returned to the kitchen and found the Sage alone. "Where did they go?" he asked. "Kittara and her friend went up to check on Holleena. The poor girl can't be moved just now, so all three of them will be staying here for the night." "Thuna as well?" "Of course. It's too late to take her to the Tavern in any case." "Do you still trust her?" "I still have hope for her." Cydric looked out the kitchen window at the full moon that shone brightly down upon the city. His brow furrowed as he turned to look at the kitchen water-clock. "How long would you say we were in the other realm?" Cydric asked. The Sage poured two glasses of wine. "Well, it took us perhaps an hour to get to the barrier, and we spent another half hour exploring the Citadel. But I can't tell how long we were unconscious." "According to the clock, we were gone at most ten minutes." "Most amazing! Apparently, time passes at different rates in the other realms. That must be why Nephros did not appear to have aged very much, though he was certainly over a thousand summers old." Cydric took the glass from Corambis. "Did Kittara and that Sylk character tell you why they were following Holleena and Thuna?" "They said they were on some sort of mission for Duke Jastrik of Arvalia, as his 'special representatives'. They even had a gold Authority Seal." "Did they say what their mission was?" "It must be rather important, for they would not elaborate when I asked them. Sylk even asked that we not mention their visit here to anyone." Cydric drained the last of the wine from his glass, then yawned. "I think I will go to bed now. It certainly was an eventful day." "How right you are, Cydric. Rest well." In the morning, Cydric went down and found the table set for breakfast. He took a slice of bread and cheese and sat down, wondering why no one else was at the table. A moment later, Kittara came through the door. "Good morn, Cydric," she said, smiling. Cydric returned the greeting. The chestnut-haired woman piled some bread, fruit, and cheese onto a plate, then started to leave. "Aren't you eating here?" Cydric asked. "This is for Holleena. We're keeping her up in the room until we're ready to leave." She put a piece of bread in her mouth and left. Several minutes later, Corambis entered alone. "Where is Sylk and Thuna?" asked Cydric. "Sylk went outside for a while. Thuna will be up shortly." As the Sage helped himself to breakfast, Cydric said, "There is one thing that I haven't been able to figure out." "What would that be?" "The vision that Nephros sent me. He said it was made from my dreams and desires, but I am still not sure what it means." "Well, Cydric, I think you know enough to be able to interpret it. For instance, what do you think the golden sea represented?" "I don't know; the sun, perhaps? Gold pieces?" "Gold pieces, most likely. And why do you think the water lost its color when you went to drink it?" "You are not suggesting...that my breath has an odor?" Corambis laughed. "No, no. Bearing in mind what you told me in the tavern, here is how I would interpret your vision: The sea represents your father's position as Royal Treasurer, which deals with money, gold especially. It turned colorless when you tried to drink it, reflecting the fact that you did not wish to follow him in his profession. And the shining object on the horizon stood for your desire to leave home and have adventures." "Yes, it all makes sense. And all of it is indeed true." After Sylk and Kittara had left with Holleena, Corambis said, "Well, Cydric, I must be packing, as well." "Packing for what? You aren't leaving, are you?" "I am indeed, Cydric. This whole experience has made me aware of just how fragile our lives are. We could have died many times back there in the Citadel; it is only by the grace of Cahleyna that we escaped and lived to tell about it. Therefore, I am going to Shireton to visit my daughter. I haven't seen her in five summers." "Your daughter? I didn't even know you were married." "My wife passed away some time ago." "Oh, I see. I am sorry." "Thank you, Cydric. But perhaps you would like to come with me, eh? Trissa and her husband would be very glad to meet you." "I appreciate the offer, but I think I will stay in Dargon for a while longer. There is much I have yet to see." "Of course. Well, you may stay in my house for as long as you are in Dargon. Let me show you around first." "You are too kind, milord. How long will you be gone?" "For the winter, maybe longer. It depends on how Trissa is doing." "I shall take care of you house until your return, then." "Fine. I am sure you will like living here." "There is one thing, though: could you tell me how to get into the laboratory?" Corambis grinned. "I was wondering when you would bring that up!" They left the room, Cydric listening intently to the Sage's arcane words. -Carlo N. Samson <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>

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