The Song of Crystal

The Song of Crystal aran Wed, 11/19/2008 - 03:38

Sing me, oh muse, of the dawn of time
Of sun's first light, and the roaring sea
On the shores where the first-born dwelled.

These were the People of the Living Rock:
The Crystal-Carvers and Master-Craftsmen
The Undying, the Life-Shapers,
Of these, oh muse, sing.

Volume I - Encounter

Volume I - Encounter aran Wed, 11/19/2008 - 03:39

The Vahnatai are ancient beings that have mastered both the shaping of magical crystals and that of life itself. This is their world, and they are the only ones who dwell here.

Or are they?

Aidra, a young student of magic makes a series of unfortunate mistakes and stumbles upon a secret that may yet shatter the centuries-long peace.

Prologue

Prologue aran Wed, 11/19/2008 - 03:41

It was a whisper in the void. A soft shiver, a movement, barely a breeze, the breath of existence.

It came from nowhere and went nowhere, but in its movement the one place became unlike the other place, and there was Space, and boundaries to space. It had never been, but would always be, and in its existence one moment was unlike the one before, and there was Time, and beginning and end. And in dividing, it divided itself, and made many what had been one. These many were the Principles, the spirits of creation, the harmonics that resonate in the fabric of the void.

They consisted of nothing, and their whisper of movement held no force. But when they came, they struck discord into the fabric of new existence, for difference could not be without strife. And the Principles spun their power into solidness, and hurled it through the endless abyss, and this was Matter. And the Principles twisted their spirit into light, and sent it crackling through the dark eternity, and that was Energy. And so the Universe was born amidst an inferno of chaos and war.

After a long time of chaos, at last, the Principles had exhausted their strength, and warm, dark entropy reigned over the endless reaches of space and time. The Principles settled down to rest, and silence sank at last over the world. But it was not the void that had been before. The spark of life was in it, and the darkness would not last: There would be a dawn.

And at length, there was yet more whispering in the dark world. Thought sped from one end of creation to the other, for in their battle, the Principles had become conscious. They saw what they had become, and decided that they were good. But they also saw what they had wrought through their strife, and decided that it must not remain.

Chaos had borne them, and they themselves had brought chaos to the world, but chaos could not endure. Entropy would at length cool out what had shone so brightly at first, and at last nothing would remain save the void that had been before all. The spirits of creation wanted nothing less than to be eternal, and so they conferred amongst each other how to bring about the perfection of creation.

And so, from the warm bed of entropy and by the will of the spirits that create, a World was conceived. The world was a sphere that shone in a brilliant blue, glittering as sapphires from the ocean that covered it, and they named it Olm, or Water. It was made to orbit a bright star, and to turn about itself, so there were Night and Day. And the axis of its rotation was set askew, so there were Summer and Winter. Lesser spheres of rock and ice were made to orbit the blue sphere of Olm, and so they spun around and around each other in the endless cycles of a vast clockwork. And time that had before been unmeasured was fragmented into days, moons, seasons and years. Then the land was made to rise, and the oceans to recede from the land, and there were patterns on the face of what had been one unbroken blue, and space was fragmented into longitudes and latitudes, continents, mountains and islands. Such was the way of Order.

From the heady vapours of the warm stew of primal chemicals rose life; fish in the ocean, then things with legs that walked and flew over the dry land. These beasts of the air, sea and land preyed upon each other, and each became part of the immeasurably complex system of life. For such was the way of Chaos.

And at length, the spirits of creation, the Gods of Olm, looked upon the dawn of their world and saw the splendour of what they had wrought. For the cycles of its spheres were the endless melody of order, while the teeming life in its oceans was the strident cacophony of the discord, and they were well-pleased with their work. But they saw that it was yet incomplete: The sea and the stars were worlds apart, and did not touch upon the other. The beasts were dynamic, but unstable, and the cycles were stable, but incapable of changing. The principal instrument of balance, that which would promise Eternity to the Gods of Olm, was yet to come. And so the Gods met upon the shores of Olm to take counsel together, and they took physical form that they might better understand the function of what they had wrought. And for a long while, they conferred amongst each other how to set the crown of perfection to this jewel they had fashioned out of the abyss of lukewarm entropy.

Then the one named Rehlko - for with thought and physical form, they had taken names for themselves too - rose up to speak. He was mighty, and his hand had guided the cycles, the lives of stars and suns, the clockwork of eternity. He appeared as a man of tall stature, robed and hooded. The Gods were neither men nor women, but even then they cloaked themselves in names and forms that they felt suited them.

"Hear me, ye Mighty!" he spoke to them. "The forces of chaos and entropy do ever gnaw on this our creation, and should they not abate, the void will take all. Behold," quoth he, and in his hand he held up a glittering diamond.

"Thus order is contained in the simplest of shapes. Perfection, immutability and structure. To keep our world ordered, we must needs keep it still. Change is the essence of chaos, entropy the fruit of chaos, the void the inevitable destiny of chaos. Make Olm like this diamond: Flawless, unchanging and eternal."

And there was great assent among the assembled, for Rehlko had spoken with wisdom and forethought. Here at last would Order come again, and Chaos defeated forever: And many of the Gods suggested at once to purge Olm of the life that now crawled upon it, and to refashion it into the diamond Rehlko had shown.

But there was doubt and disagreement from others among the Gods as well, and another rose to speak as Rehlko sat. This God bore the name Dahrnai. She, too, was mighty, for her mind had conceived the formulas of ever-changing life and evolution, the song that never repeated and never grew stale.

"Wise are thy words, Rehlko, for unlike Chaos, Order holds no seed of its destruction and is therefore eternal. But see also what kind of eternity you speak of: The endless cycles of thy clockwork hold no life, the flawless structures of thy diamond hold no meaning! The spheres are spinning and dancing, but who is there to see? Is thy diamond not after the nature of the void itself - empty?"

Then Dahrnai too raised her hand, and lo! between her fingers he held what appeared to be a grub, a tiny worm. It wriggled in her hands, and it had no intelligence, but the Gods could all perceive the infinite complexity of the cells it contained. And Dahrnai spoke again.

"Change is the essence of chaos, but it is also the essence of existence. We ourselves were fashioned through change, our universe was fashioned through change, and even this blue jewel of Olm could not have been but for the change of creation.

"Behold then that Order lieth also within life. And it is a dynamic order, a pattern that never repeateth, but that nonetheless danceth to its own endless rhythm of the quest for persistence and perfection. A self-growing order, a self-stabilizing order, a self-repairing order.

"Behold also that we have set limits on the lives of these creatures, and the patterns that govern them. They graze and hunt and flee, but they do not think. Should we but lift these limits, Olm shall give birth to beings that will become even like us in time! This, then, shall be the nature of eternity, for creatures like these shall know no boundaries nor end, and their life, once planted, shall endure forever."

And more of the assembled Gods gave their assent to Dahrnai, for they perceived the wisdom in her words. In truth, they marveled at the intricate dance of nature she had conceived, and were loth to end it as Rehlko had suggested. And they proposed, hastily, to immediately lift the limits that lay on evolution, and speed it along, that the new race of godbeings might come.

But Rehlko spoke again, and the assembled Gods could hear the restrained scorn in his voice. For with the physical flesh, the Gods had taken on mortal emotions, and were driven by lesser natures than the spirits they had been at the dawn of time.

"Wise is Dahrnai," quoth he, "but look closely at that worm thou art holding, and the false promise it doth contain. Behold the paradox of power: Thy race of mortal gods shall be vain and proud; they shall grow to resent their mortal nature; they shall lust for power the more they possess it; they shall make war among themselves, and they shall lay waste and ruin to this our beautiful jewel. This must not be. Thy mortal gods shall be the doom of Olm, and as all life shall come to this in the end, it must not be allowed to prosper."

And the Gods were troubled, for they were blessed with foresight, and could see that Rehlko's words were prophetic.

"May we ourselves not stay to dwell among these, to guide and teach, and keep them from destroying themselves?" Dahrnai asked, hopelessly.

"And may we not make new diamonds too, whenever it pleases us?" Rehlko retorted.

But then another rose, whose name was Orin. He counted for little among the assembled, for he had wrought nothing himself. But his helping touch and counsel had been on all things that were made, including the works of mighty Rehlko and Dahrnai.

"That we cannot," Orin said. "The chaos that bore us flows in us still, and our merest touch may corrupt this world we have made. Once more, and once only! can we raise our will to work in Olm, and then we must depart here forever, solely to observe, lest our presence ruin all. That is the gravity of our decision, for once made, it cannot be unmade. Should we choose wrongly, the world will come to doom and nought can save it. Furthermore, know that the time grows short: The hour approaches when we must choose, or choose nevermore, and nevermore thereafter."

And the Gods grew more troubled, for they knew they had to choose now, and what they chose could not be undone. They could purge away all that lived, trusting in the eternity of the spheres, or let these creatures ascend the long path toward divinity, trusting in the eternity of the complex patterns of life. For a while, there was discord among them.

Then Zaratis rose to speak. Like Orin, Zaratis had wrought nothing, but Zaratis was accounted the greatest among the assembled, for Zaratis was the first who had begun to give names to the things in the world, when they were all still the Principles. Zaratis spoke simply and without pretense or even mortal form, for Zaratis had no need of such.

"Wise is Rehlko," Zaratis said, "and wise is Dahrnai, and each has counseled us after their own nature. You are right, Rehlko, your crystal is the only way to maintain flawless perfection, and Dahrnai, life is the only thing that can heal itself from the wounds it must inevitably suffer. But neither Stasis nor Chance can provide the balance that must govern our eternal universe. They must combine, and in combining reveal the third path."

Zaratis then took form for the first time, but only by necessity. For Zaratis, too, held something between two fingers, and the Gods marveled at the curious sight: For what Zaratis showed them was a crystal like Rehlko's, but it glowed with an inner light, and it pulsed and flickered as if alive. And the Gods could sense that within its blue facets slept an intelligence and complexity deeper yet than that which Dahrnai had shown forth with her worm.

"Behold then what you must do," Zaratis said. The words of Zaratis were command. "I have seen it. You shall fashion a new race of beings. They will themselves be hardy as stone, yet light as the airiest geode. They will be nimble and quick as diamond dust on the wind, yet unbending as the bedrock of Olm. They will be masters of the mind and subtle energies, and knowledge shall be their quest, for the search for power is doom, but the gain of wisdom shall bring eternal balance.

"Master craftsmen of the gemstones they shall be, and the creation of life itself will be in their power. For of all things they shall hold these two highest. They will themselves be mortal, but after their allotted time they shall take the form of eternal stone. And you shall name them the People of Living Crystal."

And as Zaratis had spoken, it was done so. The People populated Olm and kept it ordered, and the Gods looked again upon the world they had wrought, and beheld at last that it was Good. For the Chaos had given them life, and they had in turn brought Chaos to the universe, but this their final creation would keep Order eternally. The Gods knew that the time had come to leave Olm and the People to their own devices, and they departed from the universe, nevermore to act in their creation, but to observe from afar only.

And the People lived and prospered, and fashioned rock and plant and beast, and their quest for knowledge and learning endures eternally. They keep the world whole and bring it to a higher order, and thus they remain forever the pinnacle of Creation.

The Sage

The Sage aran Wed, 11/19/2008 - 03:44

...of Creation.

With a small scratching sound, the tall quill ceased to quiver and then lifted off the densely covered parchment. The hand that held it was dry and hard. In the dim red light of the ruby lamp, it appeared grey and mottled, and it betrayed the writer as exceedingly old. And yet, no wrinkle was in that smooth grey skin. Indeed, the hand had a distinctly alien appearance with its seven long spindly digits. The face that now looked down on the small, spidery script was dominated by two saucer-sized green marble eyes and neither hair, nose nor ears stood out to disrupt the spherical smoothness of his grey head.

The elderly Vahnatai at last lifted his gaze off the book he had been writing in, and stared blankly at the opposite wall of his study. Like the rest, the wall was covered by ancient maps and charts. His gaze moved over the star-chart and then lingered over one that showed the coinciding phases of the two moons. Where no parchment hung over the wall, the rough grey rock was instead marked with hundreds of etched runes and painted symbols. In the otherworldly red light from the glowing jewel on the desk, they shimmered and looked alive.

The Vahnatai's huge eyes traveled from one wall to the next, all equally filled, as if searching desperately for the solution to some riddle standing there in the midst of the enchantments. But his gaze went through these, and as the enlightenment failed to appear to him, he was glaring into empty space, uncomprehending. At length, not without some distaste, he resigned himself to bend over the open book again, of which only the first few pages had been filled so far. Again he read what he had written, as if seeing it for the first time. His lipless mouth curled slightly in a grin.

...remain forever the pinnacle of Creation.

"Or that is what we tell ourselves," he muttered, sarcastically.

Zadal was a traveler, an explorer. He had wandered

not nearly as old as he looked in the dim red light, but today he felt at least as old.

The Teacher

The Teacher aran Wed, 11/19/2008 - 03:47

"... of Creation. Ha!" The single laugh was a shouted bark, loud and clear.

"I sense some cynicism, my young friend." Eyebrows raised.

"I have no idea what you are talking about, Olidra, I'm sure!" The first speaker's round grey face looked completely innocent, but a mischievous twinkle entered his eyes.

"And some sarcasm, too, I believe," Olidra replied, drily. "You are not normally in so humorous a mood, young Aidra. I gather that the text seems to trouble you?"

"You could say that!" the student snorted. "It is troubling me in the sense that I find about a third of it to be empty mysticism and another third to be untempered hubris."

"And the third part?"

"Utter dhuralom," Aidra retorted. This word, literally, might be translated to the picturesque phrase of "the sweet scent of the freshly processed meal of a giant lizard", and should not require idiomatic explanation. "But that is unimportant. The mysticism and the dhuralom alone would be a wonderful story, but what troubles me is the megalomania."

"It does seem to be somewhat... self-flattering," the teacher drily agreed.

"Self-righteous drivel would be more apt," Aidra replied, directing his anger suddenly at his old friend as if he had written the passage, or even defended it. "We are supposed to occupy some mystical chief place in the balance of creation, but just take a look at our recent history. Is it not true that the

Volume II - Quest

Volume II - Quest aran Wed, 11/19/2008 - 03:50

Chaos reigns at the magical academy of Oriath: The halls of examination lie ruined, a student has perished inside. While the feared auditors of the jabit-kadhrel, the Office for Magic Misused, are still in the dark, teacher Olidra has suspicions he dare not voice. He begins to make his own investigations.

Meanwhile, the exiled Vahnatai apprentice Tam sets out with the Nephilim, the mythical cat-people, to explore an ancient ruin and shed light on the ancient past. But they soon realize they are not the only ones searching - and their rivals are merciless killers.

Fire

Fire aran Wed, 11/19/2008 - 03:53

Fire.

Tiny crimson tongues lick at the stone walls of the tunnel, seeping along them like an oozing liquid. The air shimmers like a badly cast illusion. The sudden hiss of heat, crackling and flickering flames behind her. All around, the artificial light is dimmed by the orange glow, and the red-lit tunnel takes on a decidedly menacing atmosphere. The inferno is raging onward, spreading far too fast for a fire with little but bare rock for fuel. Already, she feels a warm breeze on her arms and neck, and the stone floor beneath her feet no longer seems cold. Her innate arcane sense is running haywire, for this is no natural conflagration, as if there was any doubt: Magic is hissing in the air as loudly as the flames.

Quickfire! Stalra, the running flame, the dying curse of Korrol-Bok, last of the Abyssal Circle. Ancient and powerful magic, and by some counted the most deadly spell in existence. For the fire does not stop, it does not pause, but it spreads and devours all in its path. It does not even starve, for its nourishing fuel is not the feeble combustion of earthly matter, but the all-pervading arcane energy of the fiery element. Only after days of confinement is it quelled, or the touch of direct sunlight may halt its greedy expansion, for it is the deep fire of Hell.

This was to be expected, she knew. She was being tested, and the exam did not just test for magical ability or knowledge: Her speed would be essential for her survival. How the first-years had laughed when her senior class had all but cut classes to meet for long-distance running to steel their constitution, but none of them had cared: They knew what to expect in the forachid examination. Let them laugh now!

But she did not run, not yet. She was steadily quickening her step, but still walking. For the fire was not very fast. This was something they were taught several times in the survival and pyromancy courses, but few students could remember it when they actually faced the terrible flames.

Then they panic. And panic is the enemy of reason, and the prelude to death. She could be walking a lot faster, but she needed to control her adrenalin right now. I must not panic. It is supposed to be like this. This is a test. I agreed to this when I enrolled at Oriath. I knew what I would face in these halls. Nobody has died here for years.

Well, months. Sonahn recalled the news that had shocked the campus back during her preparation courses: One of the examinees had gotten himself gored by the insect monsters that infested these caverns. But the poor fool had had it coming, skipping weapons practice as routinely as he did. Close combat was an inevitable part of the trials on the first level, and if you don't know which end of a waveblade to hold on to, you have no business taking on a fully grown chitrach. She still shuddered when she thought back to the terrible pincers and mandibles of the green terror: The nasty insects are fast as lightning, their serrated claws like hardened diamond, and their very body emits a dampening field so it is nigh impossible to cast spells in their presence. Cold steel and great skill alone are a defense against them, and she had barely survived. Her mastery of the iksal, the small razor-sharp throwing discs, had fortunately spared her a test of raw physical strength in hand-to-hand combat, which she lacked.

But enough of reminiscing now; the fire is too close on my heels to get careless. I must not panic, but neither do I wish to be the first Vahnatai ever to die from not taking Quickfire seriously. In truth, however, she was walking for other reasons than to keep back the rush of panic: She greatly feared the possibility of missing a turning, some fork in the corridor that led to the exit, and being then trapped by the flames in a dead end. For there was no way back through the flames, not even running.

The stalra was as hot as ordinary fire at its advancing front, but behind it, she could see the orange-red glow in the air fading away into bright yellow, then a blinding white incandescence. The heart of the Quickfire was a furnace of plasma, burning as hot as the sun. She might survive the first faint touch of the yellow flames with third-degree burns, but once it had closed off her escape, she would be dead before taking three steps through that brilliant white heat.

Another cross section ahead of her, another choice. She looked down each of the two tunnels: Rough stone passages that disappeared into the murky twilight. Then she looked back at the tunnel she had come from, where a faint orange glow around the corner marked the approach of death. Without slowing down, she made a few mental calculations and estimated her position relative to the stairway to the lower level. When she had reached the crossing, she chose the left tunnel and disappeared down it. For an eternal, agonizing minute as she was walking, she fought the terrible doubt, the unreasoning urge to go back to the crossing for another analysis. I know this is the right way. I know it! Then the orange glow heralded the Quickfire's arrival at the section, and she knew her choice was sealed, for good or for ill. This was almost comforting.

This is how they taught us to handle it. Calm. No panic. The fire is implacable, but not inescapable. It is utterly lethal, but slower than its name suggests. Even somewhat less dangerous than most ordinary fires, for its advance is more predictable and there is no poisonous smoke to inhale. Do not hesitate. Do not slow down. Search calmly for the nearest exit. She felt better, recalling the words of her survival instructor. She was all right. She was not about to die. It was a mantra, more of a prayer, but she managed to persuade herself at least. Her heart was still pounding, but the panic had ceased to rise in her chest.

Do not panic. Panic leads to doubt, doubt leads to hesitation, and hesitation is death. Choose the right path and do not look back. Panic is the weapon of the stalra. Panic and fear. She paused. And heat, of course, Sonahn added drily. I suppose heat's the most dangerous one.

Her good spirits held for a few more turns and forks, but when the fourth section appeared in the distance she realized that she had nothing but very vague guesswork to guide her now. Shavhor! My sense of direction is gone completely! She needed to subdue her panic to keep track of her position in the deadly maze of tunnels, but right now she was not even sure which direction she was facing.

North? Northwest? West, even? The directions were arbitrary definitions, of course - she had declared the long stairway down to this level to be facing north, just to have a label to pin on her mental compass. But where am I facing right now? Did I just make two left turns or only one? And was that last tunnel subtly bending to the right, as it had seemed for a while, or did it make no measurable difference? She was almost sure (Completely sure! Please! Let it be so!) that the maze was designed to work with a greedy strategy, so that no student would be required to retrace too many steps: The time pressure and threat of panic alone was sufficiently dangerous by far. So as long as she was pointed more or less towards the exit, she was going the right way.

But that is useless sophistry. I have absolutely no idea which way I am going or where I am, she angrily dismissed this line of thought. I have to play my ace. After all, I can do magic. Strange, how in the face of the terrible flames she had all but forgotten what this examination was supposed to be testing.

The proper spell to use here was the mental map, the friend of dungeon-crawling mages the world over. Sensing the specific mass of the matter surrounding the caster, it was able to detect hollow spaces and tunnels to quite a distance. The resulting vision was hard to make sense of, being little more than a penetrating gaze through the walls, but interpretation was as much part of the magical scrying courses as casting. Given quill and parchment, Sonahn could sketch a map of this place in a jiffy. She didn't have that, of course: Her memory would have to do.

The small pouch at her side tinkled when she opened it with one hand. All Vahnatai mages carry a bag of jewels, because most of their spells require a crystal or gemstone of some kind, such as the smoothly polished sapphire that the young student was now taking out. Many spells use these stones merely as a focus for the arcane energy, but the spell she was about to cast didn't. As soon as the vision arrived, the sapphire would dissolve into the air, her aura having absorbed the structure of the stone. That, of course, was why she had waited until now to cast it, hoping to avoid using up her most expensive materials. Sapphires were imported from the mines far to the east at prohibitive cost.

But whatever the price of sapphires, my most valuable possession is still my skin, so let's get cracking. By now, Sonahn had reached the forking tunnels that had so easily shattered her confidence, and perforce, she stopped in order to cast the spell. The Quickfire was not too far behind, but she reckoned she had about five minutes until she had to make her decision. The spell would take at least one of these to cast, and then as much time as she needed to memorize what it told her. The vision could be held in place almost indefinitely, but only while she was standing still, so she had to hurry before the flames caught up. It's just like the last-minute cramming before the written test, she joked, except that Rabon-Ka never burned anyone alive for failing to remember something.

Not to my certain knowledge, anyway, she cautiously amended this. Rabon-Ka was quite a piece of work.

Her fingers held the glittering deep-blue stone up to her face, and she gazed deep into it. She did not normally require visual contact to work this spell, but with the time limit and her current state of mind, she did not dare take any chances. Her sight was lost in the depth of the sapphire, and it seemed to pulse with a strange inner light as she focused her will on the spell.

"dwiltis", she croaked aloud. It had been a while since she had used her voice down here. The caverns seemed to abjure all sounds, even now that the Quickfire was loudly roaring in the tunnels. She cleared her throat, her mind sinking deeper into focus. "dwiltis". A minute passed. For some reason it was difficult to gather her energy, but that might have been due to the problem of concentrating in the face of death. The greatest fear was not that of running out of time, but of the awful possibility of an earlier mistake: If she had erred on the last section, it might well be too late to return now, and she would have to wait for her inevitable death in the dead end while the Quickfire would draw near with cruel slowness, the air gradually getting unbearably hot and cooking her alive...

When Sonahn was almost ready to surface from her trance in a panic, the spell finally took hold. The blue that filled her eyes and her mind parted and coalesced into curious shapes and lines, and the surrounding tunnels were outlined in ghostly form. Turning and twisting the vision this way and that in her mind, she did her best to edge it into memory on such short notice. Fortunately her magical training had required so much memorization that she had a nearly photographic memory, and casting this spell came as a second nature to her even without parchment.

Even her scrying teacher, who was generally famed to have never forgotten a thing in her life, had advised her to avoid doing this whenever possible: "Have writing equipment ready whenever you cast this spell, Sonahn. Your memory can fail at the most inconvenient time, and the cost of a sapphire is the least that you risk to lose in such a case." Except that she had brought no writing equipment. Rather a conspicuous oversight, but she had been so relieved to have passed the theoretical examination that she had subconsciously repressed the thought of having to write again.

Finally, she was sure that she had the twists and mostly rectangular turns of the maze etched into her mind. Even as she surfaced from her trance and the blue lines faded from her sight, a grin spread on her face. Relief flooded her, and she quickly stepped into the third corridor from the left: She had been walking the right way all along, and the exit lay straight ahead.

The rest of the maze was easily traversed thanks to her certain knowledge of the tunnels, and she was able to gain back the lost time and much more by picking shortcuts she would not otherwise have tried.

At last, the exit lay ahead: A big, circular hole in the ground at the end of the tunnel, down which a solid stone stairway spiraled in narrowing circles, ending in a funnel and a small doorway at the bottom. Safety beckoned!

It seemed a very flimsy idea of safety, of course. The Quickfire would not stop for a mere stairway, or a wooden door. Both of these would be quickly burned away by the flames. But she remembered the big slab of black basalt rock that had slammed shut when she had entered the maze, a lifetime ago. The flames must be prevented from spreading back and filling the whole cavern. Down here, all that burned were the disposable wall-hangings, which were expendable and must probably be re-conjured for every student. The lengths they go in order to give us some authentic atmosphere..., she marveled. But up there, delicate doorways and mechanisms, let alone the monster breeding pits, would be devastated by the purifying stalra.

It stood to reason that another slab of basalt would clang shut behind her once she left this place, leaving the Quickfire to rage in these impervious tunnels until it had burned itself out. This could take more than a day, she remembered. Hazardous biomagical laboratories were sometimes cleansed of contamination in this fashion, the fire purging it of everything organic, leaving only the bare stone behind.

Looking at the ceiling, she could see the place: A slit of darkness in the unbroken grey, about half a meter wide. Below it, there was a shallow indentation in the ground, and similar grooves scored the walls. This was to make the gateway shut tightly without leaving the tiniest gap. If it was but an inch open, the evil fire would creep through the gap and run free, spreading destruction where it went.

The circular stairway stood ahead, waiting. Knowing that the stone gate would detect her passing, Sonahn briskly walked ahead. She quickly passed under the slit, hurrying to get past as if worrying that it might close too soon and crush her. Fortunately, the mechanism was designed safely: Nothing happened until she was more than five steps past the gate, after which she heard the ominous deep rumble behind her. Then there was the dull, grating boom or stone meeting stone, and the roar of the Quickfire was cut off, giving away to silence.

After turning to see the stone slab, Sonahn entered the spiral staircase and quickly walked down it. She was only halfway down it when she suddenly felt the exulting realization that she had survived! This was the most deadly part of the cavern, if you had managed to fight off the monsters, and it lay behind her! From now on, the going would be a cakewalk, she thought with relish. Riddles, she snorted. I heard that some of them are really tough nuts, but none of them are deadly as long as you don't get overconfident. There is no penalty for a delayed answer, even if you take the full three days for the rest of the examination.

Giddy with relief, it was only now that Sonahn noticed her heart had been beating triple-time for the entire duration of the last level. It did not calm down very quickly, though the enormous sense of safety that had suddenly overwhelmed her did wonders. Even as she reached the bottom of the staircase, she felt well-rested and alert, aware of every detail around her in that curious mood that comes with a near-death experience. She felt suddenly as if she had drained a pint of idradhu, the foul-smelling infusion that she and the other students had almost constantly been drinking to keep alert during their late-night revision. This was too much at once, she realized. She had to sit down.

And so she did, letting herself fall to the cool stone floor at once. She waited at least three minutes while her breathing slowly grew less ragged and more regular again.

But even after three minutes, she would not have stood up if she had not noticed something odd out of the corner of her right eye. But when she turned, she saw nothing. Something had moved back there, behind the door she had come from. She was sure of it! And there it was again.

After going through what she had just seen, she was not yet capable of feeling afraid again. She merely felt curious. So she walked toward the open doorway, looking interestedly at the gloomy shadows that now danced and flickered.

Flickered?

The caverns were lit by magical lanterns, which gave a gloomy yellow light. They were not very bright, but the light they gave was steady and unmoving. And yet as she approached that door, the circular stairway ahead seemed to flicker as if lit by a fire. Somehow, she knew then, of course, even though she had not fully grasped it yet. Even the dull roaring failed to convey the full meaning of what was happening. But then she stepped through the small archway and into the narrow center of the stairway that spiraled up and up above, and she saw.

She blinked uncomprehendingly at her doom. "What is happening?" she murmured aloud, watching the terrible flames creep down the sides of the stairwell. Behind the orange haze that was descending, the top of the stairway faded into a bright white light, shining like the sun. The inferno raged through the stairwell. She was looking up into the maw of Hell.

Before she had time to grasp the implications, the explanation came through to her. The basalt did not seal completely. It must have left some invisible sliver of a gap. And the quickfire had crept through it, betraying her safety.

Then, slowly, hesitantly, she realized what would follow.

For if this protection failed, then all the levels below her would be consumed as well. No part of the forachid down here was built to hold off stalra. She would have to run, and keep running. If she could solve the riddles in time, she might yet stand a chance before the fire reached her. If she hesitated even a brief while, the fire would overtake and consume her. She ran.

Within only seconds, her escape was cut short. With a dull roaring clang, another slab of basalt dropped to the floor just ahead of her. She stood, transfixed, unable to credit it. A secondary system, doubtlessly, triggered in case of emergencies to block off the flames. She was not certain it would prove effective - after all, it was the twin of the first gate, whose effectiveness was disproved directly by the flames now pursuing her - but either way, it made very little difference to her. She was on this side of the barrier. The side that would shortly become very hot. What did she care if the fire would get past after she was dead?

"But this makes no sense!" she shouted. There was no escape! The way forward was blocked, the way back was blocked. She was stuck.

And then the panic that she had managed to keep down all this time began to rise unchecked within her. She had nowhere to go. She could not run away. Within a few minutes, the fire would reach her and kill her.

"I'm going to die," she said in bewilderment, the words sounding unfamiliar. No exaggeration this time. Cold certainty, though cold was the wrong word to use here. She was going to be very, very dead in a very, very short time.

"Shavhor! Who gets paid to maintain the safety in here anyway?" she raged. "There will be hell to pay for when word gets back." It would be satisfying to see those idiots at the academy sacked collectively, but the feeling was dampened by the knowledge that she wouldn't be around to see it.

"And what about my work on the amplifying effects of saline crystals on magic shields?" By now, she was raving with desperation. For some strange reason, her mind kept turning back to what she had up till now jokingly called her life's work, as if she would be busy with that thesis until the day she died. In a cruel irony, she realized, that was exactly what had happened. And it wasn't even bloody finished!

From the jumble of anger, confusion and despair, she then suddenly felt a new feeling: Determination. Her self-preservation instinct was finally kicking in.

If her brain didn't get her out of this one, and soon, it was going to fry.

Think.

Use your mind. You can beat this too. Remember how.

She focused on her normally vivid memories of the survival lessons. Right now, the only thing that remained clear was an old snatch of rhyme. Some mnemonic verse, apparently. The rhyme was silly, but it had the words, the three crucial things that could ward off Quickfire: karam, mehd, krytark. Sunlight was out of the question. She was many meters below the surface, buried in stone. Stone, the second thing, had just failed her, and she had no way of getting any more stone. She could collapse the tunnel, of course, but that would kill her very certainly, and stood only a marginal chance of sealing the cavern.

krytark was a barrier of magical force. They were difficult to conjure, but they were known to be indefinitely permanent and completely impervious until dispelled. Quickfire could unravel the lesser fire barriers with its arcane tendrils, but a well-built force barrier would block it just as solid rock did.

She had produced krytark only a very few times before, and never well. It was a feat of supreme magic, and her teachers had been astounded that she had managed to conjure one of any strength at all. Only half a dozen students of her year had been able to do the same.

This time, her life depended on it.

She opened the gem pouch again and took out a round opal. Binding and blinding, hindering and blocking, closing and hiding, were its chief uses. Grasping it lightly, Sonahn touched the stone first to several spots along a line across the floor, rather more tightly spaced than she did usually. Her hand went up the wall, doing the same, then reaching to the ceiling. Thanking the powers that be for these low tunnels, she brushed the gem across the arching stone above her. Soon, the circle was complete. Muttering the words for closing and hindering, barring pathways and blocking progress, she moved the stone in a wide arc inside the circle she had marked out.

"ozkrytarkshalasbet," she pronounced the tongue-breaker. "ozkrytarkshastalrabet. krytarkshabet." The points she had touched gradually came to life, bright pinpoints of blue light. Further circling and muttering was required, and still the anchorpoints glowed more intensely.

This was draining work, she remembered. Not ceasing her circular motion and incantations, she reached for the last flask of the restoring elixir of power that remained to her, draining it in quick gulps between the words. As she worked, she saw the orange glow by the stairway become more intense, more palpable, until the wooden door burst into flame. She had less than five minutes now, she knew. And still the barrier did not form.

Fool! she silently cursed, suddenly. You have to speak the releasing words now, or you will merely pour power into the anchors! This final incantation was almost impronouncible. No wonder the barrier was so hard to bring forth. She took a deep breath, and then spoke.

"Kryratistark...," she had to pause for a while to recollect the rest, "...shacrybelasoztark." Quite a mouthful.

And suddenly, just like that, lightning hissed in the air. Sonahn quickly drew back her fingers from the searing haze of energy that grew in the circle, letting the hot opal drop from her fingers. Bright blue lines criscrossed between the anchor-points, forming a dense mesh of force that quickly blocked her sight of the tunnel behind it.

At length, the barrier had formed completely, and Sonahn stood before it in admiration. It was a beautiful piece of craftsmanship, to be sure. Her last one had looked like a badly woven spiderweb, but this... this would be completely impervious.

Sonahn realized what had happened: Her delayed release of the barrier had allowed it to gain far more energy than it usually did. She had all but poured her life into the anchorpoints before allowing the barrier to form, and her accidental omission had made the barrier far stronger than normal. I have to remember that, she thought. It's an interesting trick, and I don't understand why none of the conjuring teachers taught us to overload the thing like this. Powerful mages must do it that way, because their barriers are always strong.

By now, the fire had reached the barrier, and she was relieved to find that it had been halted.

She was still trapped: Imprisoned by impregnable basalt on one end, and crackling force on the other. But she was alive, and for the moment, she would remain so. Someone would come to rescue her soon, she knew: Three days were all that was allowed for the examination, and after that time, they would have to check on her if only to give her the failing grade. The corridor she was confined in contained enough air to last several days at least.

For the second time in the space of only fifteen minutes, Sonahn felt giddy with excitement at still being alive. Then the strain of her spells caught up with her, and she sank down and slept like a stone among stones.

Darkness

Darkness aran Wed, 11/19/2008 - 12:59

She is walking through the woods. It is close to sunset, and the ceaseless sound of cicadas is softly filling the evening air. From the light and the temperature, she knows it to be late summer. She also knows she is late. She has an appointment, and miles to go yet. This delay is unwise; it might even be dangerous. They could be close behind her, even now.

They are a nameless terror, evil and deadly. But if she reaches her destination in time, she will be safe.

Where is this destination? Where is she anyway, and how did she get here? She has to have been walking for quite a while, for she is surrounded by miles and miles of deep forest.

Shadows are hovering at the edge of her vision. They move, sinuously, between the trees, waiting for the right moment. And now, they strike. Arrows appear out of nowhere, silver blades flash in the red light of the sunset, and she falls, mortally wounded. Her last thought is only confusion, a desperate failure to understand. What is happening? And then the world ebbs away into darkness.

Blank!

Awareness came first, but little followed. She could see and hear nothing. She did not know where she was, nor, for a moment, who. Was she dead? Her arms and back still stung from the terrible slashes and arrow-wounds... but no, that was only a dream, she now realized with her waking mind. She was lying on her back on a cold stone floor, and her back was aching from what must be hours of sleep in this uncomfortable position.

Awake, the questions that had accompanied the end of her dream returned in full strength. What was happening? Where was she? How did she get here?

Memories flooded her. The forachid! Fire! The caverns filled with the terrible flame. Her escape cut off. The barrier she had created in a desperate last attempt at survival.

But around her was only darkness, and she perceived no difference whether her eyes were open or shut, so that for a moment she feared she had gone blind. Surely no darkness could be this impenetrable? Still, the stone floor was enough to tell her that she was still where she had fallen asleep: A short, blocked-off segment of a tunnel deep in the bowels of the forachid cavern.

Why was it so dark? Where were the artificial lamps that had given this place dim, but discernible light earlier? For that matter, where was her barrier that had hissed and crackled so brightly, lighting the walls in blue? The silence was so complete that her blood was roaring through her ears.

Volume III - Descent

Volume III - Descent aran Thu, 11/02/2006 - 09:13

The Keepers of the Academy of Oriath are facing a riddle: What force has destroyed the ancient examination halls? The trail seems to lead to an abandoned laboratory claimed to hold the key to a powerful magic.

Meanwhile, the young apprentice-turned-outcast mage Aidra is starting a new life among a tribe of Nephilim. A research expedition takes them to a mysterious cave that promises to contain a terrible secret.

The ruins are vast, old and unbelievably dangerous.

And then the lights go out.

Prologue

Prologue aran Wed, 11/01/2006 - 09:58

Fire.

Tiny orange tongues licked at the stone walls of the tunnel, seeping along them like an oozing liquid. The air shimmered like a badly constructed illusion, flickering and glowing in waves of orange heat. The greedy flames hissed where they came into contact with dirt, wood, or anything organic to feed on, and behind it, the blaze turned from an angry orange first to a bright yellow, then pure white. These tongue were but the forerunners, while the core of the fire shone with the incadescent fury of the sun. The tunnels were lit with daylight as the inferno raged onward. Spreading.

Far too fast, for a fire with little but bare rock for fuel. These were no ordinary flames.

Stalra.

It must have filled half the level already. She was not sure where or when it had started. She had just come past a cross-section when she had seen the dull glow emanating from it and heard the crackling hiss and roar that accompanied its movement. Turned right and – there it was. Now she stood face to face with it.

The Swift Flame – the terrible curse of Arontav, last of the Abyssal Circle – was a sight to inspire fear and panic in the greatest of wizards. But as she saw it, noticed its implacable movement, the slow, majestic pace at which it spread to fill and consume the air around it, all she could feel was a curious sense of detachment.

I should be panicking. Instead, she had calmly turned around and walked away from it. She might be in shock, but did it really feel like this?

Another cross section. Another choice. She quickly looked around – into all the tunnels branching off into murky twilight, then right behind her, where a dim orange glow in the distance heralded the progress of death. Without ever slowing down her walk, she mentally estimated her position and those of the gateways, and began to walk purposefully along the second tunnel to the left, ahead of the flames behind her.

This is how they taught us to handle it. Calm. No panic. The fire is implacable, but not inescapable. It is lethal, but slower than its name suggests. Less dangerous than most normal fires, for there is no smoke to inhale. Do not hesitate. Do not slow down. Search calmly for the nearest exit. Recalling the words of the survival instructor, she felt a little better. She was all right. She was not about to die.

It is supposed to be like this. This is a test. I agreed to this when I enrolled. I knew what I would face in these halls. There is no danger. Nobody has died here for years. I have nothing to fear. It was a mantra, and she was persuading herself of it more than being convinced of it, but it worked. Her heart was still pounding, but the panic that she had felt rising in her chest stayed down.

Do not panic. Panic leads to indecision, indecision to hesitation, and hesitation is death. Choose the right path and do not look back. Panic is the weapon of the stalra. Panic and fear. A pause. And heat, she added, grimly. Couldn't do anything without the heat.

----

Her good spirits held for several more turns, but at the third cross section she realized that she had no idea where she was going. Shahv'hor! My sense of directions is gone completely. She was trying to subdue her panic to be able to keep track of her position – and had yet failed to remember even the direction she was going in. North. She had declared the long stairway down to this level to be facing North, just to have a label to pin on her inner compass. But where was she facing now – two left turns or three? Did the tunnel subtly bend to the right just a while ago?

This is no use. The wrong decision would kill her as certainly as hesitation could only hope to. Time to reach for an ace.

In mid-stride, she reached for the bag of cloth hanging at the side of her belt. The gem sack. Fingers working nimbly to untie the leather string. The fingers reached in and returned with a sapphire as large as a small bird's egg.

She would need to concentrate for this spell, but she could think and walk at the same time.

"Dwiltis." Her right hand waved slowly over the left, which was holding the blue stone.

My scrying teacher would go berserk if she saw me using a mapping spell without even a piece of parchment handy, she reflected. Her memory would have to do.

The student closed her eyes for a few seconds as the sapphire warmed up and then just disappeared between her fingers. The vision came in a sudden flash before her mind, lighting up her face briefly as emotions flickered over it. Confusion, surprise, pondering – and finally, insight. The years of cramming spells in the academy hadn't been for nothing. Concepts, words and even the details of an image or a map she could commit to memory within seconds.

A smile spread on her face as she opened her eyes again and quickened her step. She had been heading in the right direction all along.

-----

Hours later - or at least it seemed like hours, but had more likely been a few minutes - she had reached her destination at last. A circular hole in the ground beckoned her onward from the end of a long, narrow passage. She heard a scorching hiss, but a glance over her shoulder reassured her that the flames were not in sight yet. She forced herself not to break out in a run - she would need to conserve her energy a bit longer, and if she unnecessarily strained her stamina, the next tests would be harder. Instead, she non-chalantly strolled down the passage, like someone without hounded by the flames of hell on their heels.

All right. She had arrived at the end of the passage and stared down the narrow, circular stairway. Safety beckoned. Deceptively. The flames could climb stairs just as well as they could burn without fuel. Time to pull another trick out of the bag. Here we go.

The gemstone she retrieved from the pouch this time was shimmering in rainbow colors. Opals were the preferred focus for locking and barring, hindering and shielding. She turned around, touching her fingers to different points of the stone wall in turn. Her hand holding the stone high, she shouted the formula.

"Oztark'sha'lasbet!"

Her hand described a wide, slow circle as thin blue lines of energy sprang up between the chosen anchor points, criss-crossing like lightning to form a web spanned right across the tunnel. Again and again, her hand circled with the stone, and more and more lines were added to the thickening web, until it was glowing a bright blue, too dense to see through. Eventually, she stopped - too much energy could destabilize the barrier, even cause a devastating fizzle.

Her eyes lingered over her handywork for a moment. "Astonishing work, even if I say so myself. Radnok-Ta would be proud of me."

The stalra was contained. It was no match for a force barrier, not one as strong as this and securely anchored in foundations of stone. Time to leave.

She took a few moments to rest and compose herself. There were unlikely to be many moments in this examination during which she was not under time pressure, and she was going to make the most of it.

Then she descended.

-----

Wrong! All wrong! Her first thoughts were not of panic, but of confusion. Annoyance. How could this happen? This cannot be just another test!

The flames in front of her must be covering the entire level by now. Behind the orange glow, the blaze extended as far as she could see through the tunnels, before fading into white brilliance. She was staring into the entrance of hell.

"But it makes no sense!" She exclaimed aloud. There was no escape! She could not get past these flames - the lower levels were blocked to her.

And the upper levels she had just sealed off to stop the fire behind her. Fire above, and fire below. The way forward blocked. The way back blocked. She was stuck.

It was only now that the panic began to rise unchecked within her. She had nowhere to go, nowhere to run. Within a few minutes, the fire would have reached the barrier and cleared the way of any obstacles - like her. I'm going to die. Bewilderment. Ak'shiht! Anger. Who was responsible for this? There will be hell to pay for... Rage. I had no idea this morning would be my last. And I didn't even get to write the novel I had planned. Desperation.

And then, determination. If her brain didn't get her out of this one, and soon, it was going to fry.

Think.

Use your mind. You can beat this, too. Remember.

Another barrier? Hah. True, your opal was not used up. But like any focus, it needs to rest hours before being used to channel this much force again. And you're drained. What barrier are you going to call up in this state?

The fire hissed as a piece of a ragged wall-hanging was caught and consumed.

Okay. First things first. Gain time.

She turned around and ran back up the stairs to the force barrier. The sound of crackling had drawn nearer from the other side, but it had not reached the barrier yet.

Shahv'hor! You could have placed the barrier much farther back and now have more time left! Useless thoughts. The barrier could not be broken or moved by a much stronger force than had been used in the making, let alone be remade, and she was not too hot on getting fried by the stalra on this level, either.

Instead, she looked back down the spiral stair case, the bottom of which was lit in a flickering orange light.

Think. You have made it halfway already. Instead of being caught between the flames, you have your back to the wall. An old saying about rocks and hard places came to mind. Just stop the other front as well, and you are safe.

Or somewhat safe, anyway. There was no way she was getting out of here anytime soon, not past the fire. But she could stall.

"Stalra, whose crackling whispers draw near
Fries you to bits and feeds on your fear
Burns all and spares none that stands in its way
Save stone and force, these can keep it at bay."

"I appear to be fresh out of force. I wonder..."

Not all kinds of force, however. Destructive power is a lot easier to wield and handle than defensive – unless you are talking about barriers.

The flames were licking up from the distant bottom of the stairwell, rising up the walls. Time was running low.

The third gemstone her back yielded was a blood-red ruby. She held it briefly in her left hand, muttering, then cast it down the staircase into the gaping maws of the inferno. Fight fire with fire. How ironic. Then she remembered to hit the dirt - or rather, the floor.

The irony evaporated in the roar of the explosion.

For a brief, terrible moment she feared that it might have been completely ineffective. That the stone was too strong. The architecture was magically impervious to damage. Then the rumbling started. Like a sleeping giant yawning, the sound increased until the floor shook.

Ak'shiht. It is too much! The entire level will collapse! But at least it would be a swift death instead of a slower, fiery one.

The rumble stopped again. But instead here was a dull crack in the floor beneath her.

Assured that now the explosion was over, there would be no projectiles flying upward, she hastened to look over the edge of the hole and was just in time to see the walls begin to peel off and collapse inward. Tons and tons of rock fell down, falling onto the fire from above, blocking her view.

And the third awful thought appeared. Stone blocks it. Not rocks. The spaces between the boulders are wide enough for the fire to seep through.

But evidently, the smaller pebbles and grit filling the spaces were enough to seal the blockade; or possibly the falling rocks had smothered even the magical fire. Whichever it was, the orange glow made no re-appearance.

It took her a while to realize that she had done it. She was safe, or as safe as she could be in these circumstances. But at a cost: She was imprisoned; blocked on one end by a force barrier far too strong to dispelled by herself, and on the other end by tons and tons of collapsed rubble.

She had sealed herself in the cavern.

-----

All around her, the blaze spread on. Through the tunnels, around corners, creeping at a steady pace and scouring the walls and floor of everything but the bare polished stone. Magical laboratories sometimes sterilized contaminated rooms this way – sealing the exits and letting the flames rage until they died out days later.

Metal machinery that was in the way was heated to orange, then red-hot brilliance, as the metal sank into itself and spread as a puddle on the floor, shimmering, a deadly flow. Here and there, even the rock was too weak to withstand the heat, as it cracked and splintered under the pressure and the tunnels collapsed. The loss of the metal supports in one of the tunnels started a chain reaction, and the entire level collapsed in a roll of thunder.

The thunder was audible even in the moonless darkness outside, where the stars shone softly down upon the ominous slanted door set into the ground. The cavern was sealed, but the heat forced a cloud of steam and dust up through the cracks, rising as a billowing cloud against the nightsky.

Chapter One

Chapter One aran Thu, 11/02/2006 - 22:39

Olidra-Ka, teacher of crystal carving at the academy of Oriath and part-time adventurer, is worried.

Changes have come to the academy in the last few weeks.

And months have passed since he last saw his friend Aidra, the apprentice who got expelled from the academy after failing his exam...

I. The City

I. The City aran Wed, 11/01/2006 - 23:16

The morning sun dazzled on the blue roofs, breaking off into brilliant beams of white that were almost blinding. The namesake of the Sapphire City, the wide and flat campus buildings of the Magical Academy of Oriath, glittered against the lighter blue of the sky. Not a single cloud was in sight, and although the temperature was that of an icy morning in winter, the weather woke memories of a late summer.

The mineral that covered the roofs glittered like the precious stone that gave the city and academy its name, but was of course a cheaper material. Named ker'al'vahsh, it was a quite soft and ductile substance made appealing for builders because of the ease with which it could be molten and shaped into solid plates, and its resistance to corrosion or oxidation.

And because of its decorative color, of course. Olidra grinned as he shielded his eyes from the glare of the nearby roof. Show-offs.

He had always wondered why the city was named after a material it didn't even have anything to do with. Avtris. Why the Sapphire City? There are not even any naturally occurring sapphire deposits nearby; the import prices are staggering. And the roofs and the stone have nothing in common but the color. And Keralvahsh sounds more pleasing anyway. A ridiculous notion, of course, but for some reason it had always been the first thought to hit him when he gazed at those brilliant blue roofs.

The streets were almost empty at this time of day and year. It was a free day, and few had business to attend to outside. And nobody who could avoid it would spend much time in the cold weather, blue skies or none.

Thus, Olidra had the morning to himself as he wandered through the deserted streets, enjoying the crisp autumn air. He was warmed by a heavy, but comfortable robe and a weak heating spell, and the wind whistling through the trees above him felt only refreshingly cool on his skin.

But the weather did not take his mind off the worries gnawing at it.

Subtle changes were going on at the academy. Students would not notice, and outsiders less so, but some of the more perceptive staff - like Olidra - had become aware already.

Take the new faculty heads, for example. The old headmasters had been ousted only months before in a move that could only be compared to a coup d'état. One day, the enforcers of the jabit'kad'hrel, the order of magical research had arrived for a surprise audit claiming to have responded to a tip-off. Within a single day, they had finished their examination, declared the heads of many of the faculties unfit for employment, and sacked them. Vahnatai society was governed by independent, isolated city-states like Avtris, and the centers of learning were nearly autonomous, but magical research was tightly controlled by a central authority due to the dangers it presented.

The school board had narrowly avoided dissolution – think of the scandal that would have caused, Olidra commented drily, having the entire school effectively closed and put under new management – but was still being monitored and advised by a number of jabit'kad'hrel auditors who had evidently come to stay, putting up permanent residence in the staff housings.

Precisely what were the reasons for the dismissals of the heads of department appeared to be a closely guarded secret. Olidra had heard nothing of it, although the usual rumors abounded. Accusations ranged from illicit experiments through corruption right up to applied necromancy. But the official sources remained stolidly silent.

The usual opportunists that were drawn to a change in management like sharks stayed away from this one; Olidra privately suspected that the presence of the auditors held them off, as well as the overall unpopularity of the change. The old faculty heads had had enemies, to be sure. But the faculty heads that were newly installed, though selected from the staff itself, had managed to alienate most of the rest of the teachers within days of their office terms.

And the staff meetings have suddenly become a classified topic, Olidra grimly thought. A soh'pinna research laboratory could not be more secretive.

Turning his mind away from this, he concentrated on a more personal worry: The fate of his friend Aidra.

It had been nearly two months since he had last seen him. It had been that fateful morning when Aidra had returned from the forachid, battered and tired. And – wait. Later that day, when he had stood outside the grand halls and waited to congratulate him, but being instead surprised when the young apprentice had fled from the hall in tears and enraged. He had been expelled on a technicality, it seemed – the time limit exceeded by minutes, the equipment not meeting standard policies, the protocol of heading to and returning from the testing halls not observed properly. Such were the rules, naturally, and a panel of examiners could disqualify the candidate for any of them. But it was still odd that Aidra had had the book thrown at him, when these rules were usually broken with as little care as they were enforced.

Which was why he had not warned Aidra of them, leaving him to run unhindered into what must have looked to the expelled apprentice mage like a treacherous trap. The gaze he had shot at him as he ran from the building had been murderous.

Olidra had hoped to be able to find him, that Aidra would return soon so that he could advise him on what to do next. He had played out the scene a dozen or more times in his head. The things he would have said to cheer his friend up, the suggestions on his future career options.

Mages do not need to pass the forachid to practice wizardry, only to teach or lead research. They just need to finish their education without being expelled for misdemeanors, which you did, Aidra. Your handling of the examination was exceptional, and the reason for your failure a technicality. You could go into the enchanter's guild or become an adventurer without difficulty.

But he had not returned. And after a week of worrying, Olidra had hesitantly persuaded himself that Aidra had made it to Mehdav, the nearest town, and settled in for now. His own work had caught up with him after that. The beginning school year, combined with the continuous stress of reporting to the auditors, were enough to keep him far too busy to worry, let alone check up on Aidra.

And I should do that soon. I cannot go on letting him think I betrayed and abandoned him completely.

With that thought out of the way, he turned around a corner to walk back to his quarters. He had tomorrow's elementary carving class to prepare, and liked to get work done with early. That leaves the rest of the day free for-

A loud, urgent sound interrupted his thought. Clattering hoofsteps increasing rapidly in volume, racing towards him. Olidra lifted his gaze from the ground it had lingered on in reflection, and saw the source almost right in front of him. The lizard rider had spurred his steed into a swift gallop, and was racing directly at him!

II. The Lizard Rider

II. The Lizard Rider aran Thu, 11/02/2006 - 22:37

"Shahv'hor!"

With a nimble leap to the left, Olidra was able to jump out of the way of the galloping giant lizard, which trampled along the street and would have resembled an enraged prehistoric monster had it not been for the rider on its back.

Olidra sat on the ground, his bones aching from the fall, and stared after it in annoyance and confusion. His surprise was not at the rider's choice of steed - giant lizards were the most common and easily tamed beasts one could find in this climate -, but more at his hurry and seeming disregard for the safety of those around him.

"Just where the hell do you think you are going!" he shouted angrily after the rider, but the man was already too far away to hear him.

Shaking his head and grumbling angrily, Olidra stood up, brushed himself off and began his way home. His bad mood did not last for more than a few minutes in the clear weather. The traffic around here is murderous, he chuckled to himself as he surveyed the empty street. Even when there is hardly any of it.

-----

The rider, already several blocks away, kicked the lizard's flanks to urge him on to even more speed. The lizard hissed in irritation as he felt the sting in his scaly hide, and the rider stopped kicking - an irritated lizard was one of the most dangerous animals to ride on. Instead, he slackened the reins a little and let the lizard race on.

"A bit further, Varnax," he placated the steed, which had been running like this for more than an hour already. He could sense the reptile's powerful muscles beginning to tire. "Extra chitrachs for you tonight, I promise." He patted the lizards scaly neck, but that was a mostly futile gesture since the scaly hide was almost as tough and unsensing as the ridge of horn on his tail.

He was already in sight of his destination, and he stared at it, his grey eyes tearing in the cold wind. The building was rather taller than the others: As the only house in Avtris besides the Academy Tower, it had a second storey above the ground. Unlike the other structures, it was also covered entirely in the blue mineral. The Council.

Sohra-Ka looked up at the clock tower; he had been gone for only a few hours. Bad news can outrun the wind itself, he remembered the saying went, and Sohra-Ka was bearing the worst news the academy had received for at least six weeks. That was when the auditors had arrived. Truly, the events in the past month were a change of perspective, but what he had seen today topped it still.

He drew level with the entrance to the building and reined in Varnax. Normally, the lizard would be brought directly to the stables, but there was no time today. The news would have to be delivered before anything else. They had to know.

The doors were unlocked, saving time. Though half again as tall as he himself, the heavy wings of the gate yielded to a single sharp push, and he was in. The council chamber was on the ground level, and although the council was not in session today, several of the council members were present.

Thus it was that the message had spread through the rest of the building within the next half hour.

"The halls of the forachid have been destroyed."

-----

The forachid, the Test of Mind and Body. It was the ultimate exam for apprentice wizards and warriors. Its expansive subterranean structure included a dozen levels, each with their own dangers and tests to pass, each requiring skill, strength, power or intelligence to survive. Some of them were halls full of various magically created monsters to be overcome in battle, others were intricate mazes that were to be crossed in limited time, and still others were simply series of chambers with various riddles to solve.

Forachid was known among students and teachers alike for its difficulty and the lethal danger it could pose to the unprepared candidate. Injuries and even deaths were not uncommon, and although passing it was the final step, the keystone in the education of an apprentice mage, there were many who delayed it or prudently chose never to take it at all. It was not a requirement to practice magic, unlike the other, more theoretical examinations, and while the academy demanded it from its teaching staff, there were plenty of professional mages who had never set foot inside the halls.

Besides its difficulties and dangers, the test was also extensive and tiring. Even the best of candidates took the better part of a day to reach the end, and many did not finish it even then, and had to seek a quiet place in the cavern to rest. Marks were deducted for the time taken to complete, and the test had to be finished within 3 days for a passing grade. Custom dictated that on the morning of the fourth day, one of the examiners rode out to the distant, isolated testing caves by himself. He would then enter the halls to either advise the candidate of their failure, often having to rescue them in the process, or to gather up the remains.

Sohra-Ka had ridden out before dawn today, in a sombre mood.

Sonahn had been a brilliant student, and her previous examinations had been passed with the skill of a master. What could have defeated her? he had idly wondered. Surely nothing that required magical art or quick thinking. A useless thought. He would find out soon enough, and there was nothing to be done about it anyway. He had been the bearer of bad news as soon as he set out - either to tell Sonahn she had failed, or to return to report her death to the masters of Oriath. A pity.

His journey to the testing halls had been swift, but not hasty. He was uncomfortably aware that if Sonahn had come to harm, after the last two days she was either in no immediate danger or already dead. But if the time limit were any shorter, most candidates would never make it at all.

What had I expected? he asked himself a bit later. A student on the road, desperately running back to Avtris to make it in time, but having failed? The time limit, unfortunately, included the journey back to te city – unaided. Trapped or injured somewhere in the lower levels? A heap of ash and charred bones in the stal'ra maze?

Certainly not this.

-----

The destruction had been apparent as soon as he had arrived. Smoke and dust was still rising from the slanted gateway, blown partly open by what must have been a tremendous blast. He dismounted and walked over to the hole in the ground. The gates were jammed firmly in their hinges and wouldn't budge; fortunately the crack was wide enough to enter.

Summoning a globe of soft white light that shone in the pre-dawn darkness like a miniature moon, he first tested the hole with his feet, then let himself slide through the hole, before dropping onto the ruined staircase. The light globe illuminated the cavern around him only slightly, but it was enough.

Walls cracked. The ceiling partially collapsed. Dust, debris everywhere. He did not realize what he was looking at for a few moments, but as he turned around to face the hallway – the tunnel he had walked down so many times to fetch the candidates who had failed, never knowing what he would find – he saw it had collapsed entirely. Huge chunks of the ceiling had fallen and now blocked the way further into the halls. There was no way he was going to get inside there, not without a lot more power than he had. And the walls were blackened with soot – he ran his finger along it and watched the greasy smear come off. Looking closer, he gasped. The stone partially melted.

There was nothing to do here. Sonahn could not have possibly survived the collapse – let alone the tremendous fire that must have caused it.

Shaking his had sadly – his memory lingering on each of the times he had had to carry a corpse out of here – he pulled himself back out of the hole and walked back to his lizard Varnax. It was not until he had ridden a short distance that the full meaning of what he had seen kicked in.

The halls have been rent asunder. By a disaster of awful power. The council must learn of this. Varnax protested softly as his rider spurred him on to even more speed.

-----

And yet, as he walked through the building, having arrived only minutes ago, the conversations in the corridors gave him the feeling as if he were the last to have heard the news.

„Destroyed.“

„--destroyed.“

Round a corner.

„The halls of--“

„--a fire--“

A doorway stood halfway open; he could hear the voices echoing along the length of the hallway.

„--utterly. An earthquake, I hear.“

„Your hearing is off. They said quite clearly demonic forces were responsible.“

„And you are being a fool. What demons, pray tell? There have been no reports of activity for nigh on half a century!“

„Oh hush. You know what the auditors--“

The auditors what? This one is a bit more interesting. Sohra-Ka debated with himself whether to listen in further, but he was already out of earshot of the heated conversation, and there were plenty more along the way. With a bit of imagination, he could hear whispers throughout every corner of the council building, angry and nervous like a beehive under attack: Flustered and busy Vahnatai-sized bees were buzzing in and out of offices, meeting rooms, talking to each other, passing on a mixture of facts and rumors.

He was relieved that people seemed not to recognize him as the source of the news, for nobody accosted him on the way. But those hopes were shattered when he reached his office: Waiting at the door, side by side, eyeing him with a mixture of curiosity and excitement, were what must be a dozen of Vahnatai. Here to hear it right from the lizard's mouth, he wrily realized, grimacing.

One of them – Sephina-Ta, teacher of the advanced Crystallomancy class, it went through his head – prepared to speak, but he cut her off. „I know nothing more than what I said, and a good deal less than I heard on my way here.“

„But surely the perpetrators--“

„Perpetrators? How can you say--“

„--an attack by a rival college--“

„--natural manifestation of--“

Silence!“ That hiss was usually reserved for unruly examinees, but it worked on his colleagues.

„The ceiling had collapsed. Signs indicate both a strong magical fire and a series of explosions. The damage is severe. The entrance is blocked by debris only a short way in. The last one to enter was Student Sonahn, three days ago. This is what I know.“ He tried to brush past them to enter his office, and they hesitantly dissipated. But they were not the last to visit today...

It was almost a relief when an official message at last made it through the jumble of conversation: The staff was summoned to an emergency meeting to be briefed by Sohra-Ka on what had happened, and to decide their plan of action. The session would not be for some time yet, but the building grew quiet again as the various teachers and bureaucrats settled down in anticipation of the hour of the meeting.

III. Revelation

III. Revelation aran Sat, 11/04/2006 - 19:07

„The principal cut. It is the first major incision made after the crystal has been cleaned of impurities and is ready for carving. Many more cuts will give it the final shape, but the decision of what structure you will make is taken in this one cut. No two structures are alike, and nor are their principal cuts.“ A pause, waiting for the slow writers to finish. „Are you all taking this down? If even this first cut goes awry, the crystal is ruined as surely as if it had been smashed to a thousand pieces. To cut, we use the second largest diamond blade, the an'gah'khris. Wield it with care.“

„Like so.“ The life-like magnified projection of the area beneath his hands was working and would allow even the students in the hind row to see perfectly. The knife descended on the raw crystal, in a single delicate movement. It was shaking slightly. Concentrate. The blade touched, stone met stone. „Apply pressure... a bit more...“ and suddenly, shards went flying everywhere, landing on his desk and scattering on the floor.

„I see I will need to practice a bit more before teaching this subject,“ he drily commented, looking up at his non-existant students who were breaking out in laughter inside his head. The magnified projection faded away at a wave of his hand, and he was staring at the bare wall of his living-room.

He took up another stone – these were cheap del'tai, quartz crystals bought by the dozen, and provisioned to the teachers for free – and raised the knife again.

„Like so.“ His hand closed in on the stone, but then slowed down. He stopped halfway through the movement. Hesitantly holding the knife up for a moment, he lowered it and set it aside on the table, where the rest of the tools lay in precise arrangement, prepared for carving.

This is useless. I cannot focus, and there is no way to cut stone without giving it the sole attention of every fibre in your mind and body.

Olidra sighed and put the crystal away as well. There was nothing to be done about it now – not that he needed to worry. He had taught the class many times, and only once had he shattered the crystal, to the great amusement of his students. It would go well tomorrow, provided that he would be able to concentrate.

He hardly noticed that he had stood up and begun to pace around his room. A circle, then a figure eight, a complex weave around the furniture.

Aidra.

Where was he now? Even for an unemployed mage down on his luck, it was trivial to send a message from Mehdav to Avtris. It was at most a week of casual riding there, three days if one pressed the steed. And Aidra had been gone for more than two months.

I need to go there and make sure he is all right. Tomorrow's class out of the way, and then I am off to Mehdav. The thought was comforting. I have no courses for a week, and Tamin can substitute for the Carving classes after that; I can call in a favour. In summer, Olidra had stood in for Tamin for a month while she was taking care of her sick husband.

But it was not enough. No matter how much he tried to put the matter out of his mind, it bounced back in place within seconds, interrupting his thought process. This is no way to act for a crystal crafter, he angrily thought. Focus, determination and concentration are the three virtues of cutting stone.

And suddenly, his pacing stopped as his thoughts turned back, now unhindered, fully to the fate of his friend.

I still have no idea why he was rejected. To set an example? Examples are not made this way, not without far more publicity than his exam received. Aidra had been practically spirited away in the night. If it hadn't been for Olidra's presence at the hall of judgement on that day, and if he had not known Aidra personally, he might not have learnt of the outcome for another week. That was the time it took someone to ask, in an off-hand comment, what had happened to The Reader (a nickname Aidra had earned within his first week at the school), and Olidra answering, in a similarly detached tone: „Oh, he? He failed. Violations of procedure.“ And that was that; no uproar, announcements or even a memo that the rules would be enforced without pardon from now on. The pacing resumed.

And why didn't I hear from him for a week before the test? he wondered. That had been a sore point. He had tried to find him to wish him good luck, but the student had been nowhere to be found.

-----

His steps were gravitating somewhere, and when he noticed, he knew immediately. The closet. Memory struck in the form of lightning.

After he had noticed that Aidra had left without even bothering to go back to his quarters and pick up his possessions – silly, that; he had a right to fetch it and they could not have kept him out – he had taken on the task of cleaning out the room himself before the caretakers came around and trashed it all.

The stuff – basic equipment, books and even a small amount of money – had been packed into a crate and stored in the closet. That had been back when he thought Aidra just needed to cool off for a few days. Then he had waited, sure that Aidra had moved to Mehdav and would soon return to claim his abandoned possessions. And then, as he shamefacedly realized, he had forgotten about it entirely. I should at least have sent out a message; he probably just assumed that the stuff had been thrown out. Taking and keeping is still stealing.

He was still trying to sort out his various worries, feelings of guilt, plans of action mixed in with tomorrow's lecture, when he remembered the diary.

The diary. He kept it thoroughly. It was one of his most basic habits, leaving an hour each evening to summarize his experiences and events. And then: If there is any hint regarding his actions and the circumstances of his examination, this is where they would be.

He hesitated. Keeping it was one thing. Reading it was quite another, and so far he had taken great care to respect Aidra's privacy. Leaving aside even the ethics among friends, it was the height of impropriety for a teacher to dig this deeply into the personal life of one of his students.

I need to know what happened. No, he didn't, he reminded himself. He wanted to know. This is pure nosing. He could be in danger. Yeah, right. A timely thought indeed, after two months. It was not as if it was hard to write a message, and yet he hadn't bothered to do so in all this time. Irrelevant. I am caring now. He would ride out to Mehdav tomorrow. He would be there in a few days up to a week, and after two months, what was another day?

Peace of mind, that's what. He pulled the crate out of the closet and opened it.

It is not as if he is writing about his crushes or composing mushy poetry in this. It's a simple journal, the kind you could hand out to someone to give them an idea of what you have been working on. I know that because he did so, once.

His doubts gone, he reached into the crate and pulled out the slim volume. It was bound in a dark green leather cover, which was scuffed and rough in some places, but kept well. The sort of book one would imagine to have lived through a thousand perils, to have accompanied its bearer across moonlit deserts, dry grasslands under the stars and vast oceans, coated in brine. The kind of book that held the records of all those travels, and a hundred experiments and treatises on the nature of magic and science. Olidra smiled. The furthest Aidra had been gone from his home town was a week's journey away, and his greatest discovery was a slight modification to the common pattern of fire spell that increased its efficiency by fourteen percent. Quite a novel idea, but he had been unable, even after months of theory and testing various alternativs, to simplify the modification to take less than ten minutes of preparation.

And for a fire bolt, these are usually the ten minutes that make the difference between being alive and being already on the way out of a predator's digestive system, Aidra had commented in frustration.

He opened the book in the center, taking care not to damage the delicate sheets of papyrus or the string that tied them. The book was somewhat brittle, and frayed after long use. Paging on to find the last entries, he scanned over Aidra's narrow, regular handwriting – that of a man decades older. Phrases like “the sun rose behind the hill two hours later, dousing the blue roofs of the city in a purple shade” met his eyes – the closest it came to poetry – followed later by “the tests are progressing finely. Increasing the concentration of the saline solution appears to be the key – flakes of brine are settling on the edges of the crystal, which somehow increase its susceptibility to the resonance field.”

He had misjudged the place in the book he was looking for – it was nearly full. I just hope he didn't close it more than two months ago. But upon skipping ahead a few pages, he was looking at an empty page at last. One page back, another, and he had found the last entry. Curiously, it was dated nearly a week before the day he had begun the forachid – Aidra, who otherwise wrote daily, had not touched his diary for a week. More curious still. Olidra turned back to the beginning of the last day.

Kal'ain, Shehvo, pil'tah'ain'en
So close. The day of the test will be upon me in another week. The pinnacle of all I have achieved so far – or the most resounding failure ever. My preparations have been extensive, in so far as I can prepare for something I hardly know about – the exact circumstances of the test are a closely guarded secret. The only thing they will say is that the exam will cover physical strength and speed, as well as magical power and knowledge.
The only disquieting thing about it is the constant warnings that the test will be dangerous. I was convinced this was a joke, but I am no longer so sure. Is it true that more than a dozen are maimed or killed every year in the cavern? It is something nobody seems to talk about.
Olidra advised me against it. He acts like a concerned father, and I'm grateful that at least someone is watching out for me--
Olidra looked up from the text and smiled to himself. Aidra had lost both parents to a magical accident at a young age. Though he was able to live perfectly independently, Olidra had on occasion filled the role of a surrogate parent. Nothing raises your spirits like reading good things about yourself in someone's diary. He read on.

--out for me. But he may be taking too much care here, and worrying too much. Surely I am no less qualified for the examination than the other students in my grade? And it was not easy to schedule this test date either – if I do not go now, it will be months before I can get a new one. The other students are already queuing to take their examinations in half a year's time. I think he's just letting his paternal instincts cloud his judgement.
-----
A conerning thing happened this morning. I was in the lecture halls – in the hal wing, where the pin'na classes are held. The shortest way to the library is through there, and I was going to get several scrolls for studying. I was walking through the corridor that adjoins the laboratories of the second floor, and one of the doors was ajar.
I heard voices arguing inside; a very heated discussion. It seemed like a simple dispute concerning an experiment – Dahrnai knows these scientists can get excited. But as I drew closer, I could make out words through the door, and it did not sound like it concerned science. I will set down the part of the conversation that I could hear, as I recall it.
- “--a fool. What does he know?”
- “I am not so certain. How do we know it is safe?”
- “Safe? That amount of power is never safe. We can contain it, however.”
- “If they abandoned the project, they must have had a reason. Why else stop working on something this powerful?”
- “Love of Rehlko, Korvah, these people we are talking about lived centuries ago. They had a fraction of our power and knowledge. How can you think there is anything – anything at all – they could make that we could not control?”
- “By remembering our limits, Pinra. We are not gods.”
- “With this power, we will be as close to it as--”
I had meant to ignore the voices at first, but confess that it captivated me so much that I had found myself slowing down and stopping at the level of the door, standing idly in the corridor to listen. At this point in the conversation, unfortunately, the men seemed to have become aware of my presence, because the one named Pinra stopped talking in the middle of his sentence. I heard footsteps and quickly resumed walking, trying to look non-chalant as two robed men stepped out – dark red robes, I remember seeing out of the corner of my eye, those of masters at the academy. But I could not turn for a look at their faces; it would have looked suspicious.
I'm not sure if they bought my acting, but they did not follow or challenge me, although I could feel their stares boring holes in my back all the way down the hall, and I imagined them following me all the way to the library.
-----
My next week will be filled with practice and revision for the test. I am afraid I will not have time to write in this book until after the forachid is over – one way or another. If it does kill me, this may well be my last entry. I joke.
-----

Olidra closed the book and set it down, pondering in silence. Mildly interesting at first, the diary had provided a stunning revelation. His thoughts were still flowing around aimlessly, all in disorder – he had to try to make sense of them. Think.

Here is what we know, he summarized. A week before Aidra's exam, he had witnessed a conversation that sounded as if it was not meant for other ears. And when he had finished the exam, he had been rejected based on a trivial rule. But can I conclude causal relation?

To take this amount of influence in the examination of a student – what was more, the forachid, the most important exam there was – the two men needed to be have much political power indeed. Or money – but the examiners were notoriously unbribable.

Aidra had spoken of dark red master's robes. Could a master have held such sway on the assessment? Not when it came to unjustly rigging the outcome. But... technically, there was no injustice. The rules were broken. Could a master have held enough sway to pressure the examiners to throw the book at a rule-breaker? Possibly, given persuasive skill.

But that detracted from the real issue sitting at the back of Olidra's mind. Pinra and Korvah. I thought I knew all the masters of the school, but I have never heard these names. Were their names fabricated? Pin'ra, the Flame of Learning. And kor'vah, the People's Leader. Presumptious names, both – not that you can talk, Flame of the Dreamer's Mind, he grinned sarcastically – but that didn't need to mean anything. Given names could sound just as unusual. Still, he should consider the possibility of pseudonyms. Which, without having seen the faces, could imply anyone in the academy. An uneasy thought – what was the true reason for the audition at the academy?

And what is more, what should I do next?

The answer came almost immediately.

I need to find Aidra. Now.

If there was a remote possibility that Aidra had been deliberately expelled to discredit and silence him, the result would be a scandal of the first order. They might not reconsider his score, since he actually had violated procedure, but they could certainly invalidate the test result and let him try again.

If what Aidra had witnessed had actually been the complot it had sounded like – the dangerous, mad grab for an unknown magical power, centuries old and possibly banned – then that would interest the auditors greatly. They need to be stopped. Ancient powers are not to be meddled with, everyone knows that.

There was nothing else for it. He would need to ride to Mehdav immediately – hopefully, Aidra was still there. If he ever reached it at all.

IV. Preparations

IV. Preparations aran Sat, 11/04/2006 - 22:43

“Half a dozen sapphires, if you would be so kind. And... wait,” Olidra unfolded a small piece of parchment and looked at it, “one ruby. And a bag of piercing crystals. That will be all, thank you.”

“Big buyer, I see.” The trader commented as his hand went over the various bags and boxes to remove the requested wares. “Don't they issue you this stuff at the school?” A glance at Olidra's robes had identified him as a teacher.

“Technically, they are supposed to. But I need them urgently and cannot jump through a dozen hoops to get the requisition approved,” he quickly fabricated, “bureaucracy, you know how it is, I'm sure. Next thing, they will be wanting written applications for new quills and precise documentation of bathroom breaks.” He laughed. The shopkeeper laughed with him, but it was more out of politeness. Olidra knew that he had been a self-employed merchant most of his life and knew nothing of bureaucracy.

“That will be two hundred sav'ihv and twenty vop'ihv.” The trader smiled, a well-restrained reflection of the jubilation in his mind. Even in this profitable season, when the new schoolyear began and all the students were buying supplies, Olidra had more than doubled the day's revenue.

Olidra was also smiling, but it was a pained grimace on his face. He counted out the sizable heap of gold and smaller heap of copper that the jewel trader had asked for, knowing as he handed it over that the better part of this month's savings had just passed over the counter. “I hope I can get the administration to reimburse me on that,” he joked. They would not, of course – Finances was every bit as strict about requisitions as he had just said, and unless “searching for and looking after expelled students” had been declared a legitimate expense, Olidra would have to foot this bill himself.

But there was a cheerful side as well – now that this purchase was out of the way, the rest of them taken together would not cost half as much. The price of gemstones these days is atrocious, he bitterly thought. It's not as if the things are hard to find or to mine, but because they are shiny and powerful, people act like they are worth their weight in gold. If this trend continues, jewellers will soon make more money than weaponsmiths! Which reminded him: He still needed a good blade and several ik'sal – small steel disks surrounded with razors, a throwing weapon.

An adventure once again, at last, Olidra relished the thought. Not to Mehdav, of course. The week's journey to the city was literally a walk in the woods – a straight, open road, no dangers apart possibly from wild animals, easily driven off.

But he had been thinking for a while to consider the alternatives. Where might Aidra have gone, if he was not staying at the nearby town, or if he had not reached it at all? The possibilities were varied, and several of them were quite dire. There were a few comforting ones: He might have stocked up in Mehdav and gone on to his way, possibly even to find another magical academy that would teach him again – rivalry between schools was rampant, and an able student cast out on a technicality might be accepted elsewhere. Olidra did his best to keep his mind off the worst options – surely Aidra would not have been so dense as to run off into the uncharted wilderness that lay northwest of here, with no supplies or equipment whatsoever, at this time of year!

But he had to prepare for the worst, and so he had decided to stock up with enough supplies for a month or two in the wilderness. If worst came to worst, the unnecessary supplies could be resold at a small loss, and the expensive gemstones were always useful to have.

He cast another glance at his list. The gemstones he had already crossed off, and there were four more points remaining. He would buy rations for two weeks – these would be impossible to resell, so he would rather not take much more than he was sure to need. Even this late in the year, one could forage for more supplies in the wilderness.
Next was a warm blanket. It's amazing how many people forget to get that on their first journey. Well, he wouldn't freeze. The final point on the list was a small number of alchemical herbs, useful for healing.
Did I miss anything? He went over the mental checklist of the seasoned (though out-of-practice) traveller: Food, shelter, healing, weapons, exploration. All taken care of, then.

-----

Getting the rest of the supplies was a lot cheaper, but it made up for it by being a lot more troublesome. The alchemist had been the first obstacle. The regular one was closed to business today, and Olidra had reluctantly gone to a street peddler. The man had a sleazy look about him, and constantly looked around with shifty eyes, scanning the street.

He grew more nervous at the sight of a teacher at the academy – and after a cursory look at the small wooden table where the enterprising trader had spread his produce, Olidra could plainly see why.

I've never seen so many imitations on so little a space. About half of these ingredients are common herbs and weeds superficially similar in appearance. The “mandrake root” was especially audacious. Burb root; a toddler could see that. Does he even care that if someone falls for the scam, they will be spewing bile for a week? He could kill someone with that stuff. A quick tip to the Guild of Alchemists would get this shifty fellow banned from selling any kind of plant, or even run out of town, but Olidra had no time. At least all the plants he wanted to buy seemed to be the real thing – apart from the graymold, but he could do without that.

“That will be seventeen gold pieces, sir,” the trader growled. Outrageous. Even the real plants aren't worth half of that.

And then another thought crossed his mind. I have some bargaining power, after all.

“Oh, and some graymold, please,” he added as if as an afterthought.

The trader lazily grabbed some of the dark gray, almost black lichen out of the tray and made a motion to fill it in one of the paper bags.

“Wait.” A gesture that nearly turned into a grapple hold on the man's arm stopped the filling process. “Could I take a closer look, please?”

“What do you want?” The peddler asked in an annoyed voice. “Buy or leave.”
“That graymold looks odd.” When the traders hand closed over the stuff he was holding, Olidra simply took the tray off the table and held it under his eyes, then sniffed. Common mildew, no doubts about it. “What are you--” the trader made to snatch back the tray.

“You call this graymold?” Olidra put on a strict face. “Where did you pick this? Are you just plainly incompetent, or a crook?”

“Look, sir, there is nothing wrong with this graymold. The color can vary, you know that.”

“It can. The smell, however, cannot. I know the smell of graymold, and this is not it. But if you insist...” he shrugged, and casually pocketed the tray, “I am sure the Guild will have a thing or two to say when I show them this.”

The trader's face took on the color of ash. “You would not...”

“Oh, I certainly would. If there is one thing I cannot stand, it is swindlers like you defrauding the apprentices. You lot should be kicked out, with your fake and overpriced herbs.” Real subtle, yes.

The man licked his lips, desperately looking for a way out of the situation. “I... I will give you a rebate. The other herbs are real.”

“I can see that. Do you honestly think you could escape justice by bribing me with a small discount, good man?” Olidra drew himself up to full height. I'm no better than a crook for blackmailing him like this, he selfconsciously realized, but it's what he deserves, and I can have some fun. He grinned a shark's smile.

“Take... take them,” the trader almost whispered. “On the house.” Olidra beamed. As a show of good will, the tray with the “graymold” was positioned back on the table, and he was off. I don't think I've ever haggled more effectively, he grinned in satisfaction as he walked down the street, although I should watch my back for a while now. The trader had looked at him with a stare like daggers.

-----

The other supplies had been no less difficult to acquire, but far less satisfying.

How could I have known that a simple woollen blanket would be so hard to find? Olidra wondered in frustration. He had had to ask in three different shops before he fnally found what he was looking for.

At least this was the final stop, he thought in relief as he paid for the blanket. The weapons had been easy, but the food had been unexpectedly tricky.

“Taking a journey?” the middle-aged, matronly Vahnatai had asked when he asked for the rations. Olidra had shaken his head at first, but then reluctantly nodded in admission, which triggered another barrage of questions. “Oooh, where to?” had been answered tersely with “Mehdav.” Olidra had paid and hoped that the conversation was over now, but in fact it had only started. By the time he had managed to leave the store, he had been introduced to all second and third degree relations she had in and within a day's ride of Mehdav, and promised to give her regards to all of them. Finally, he had muttered a parting and fled.

That's the supplies taken care of, he concluded as he got back home. A good thing, too – it was already beginning to get late, and the winter sun would set in another hour or two. Only one thing remained to do: Taking out a quill, he wrote up a short note that would be delivered to his colleage Tamin later tonight.

Tamin, s'ka kal!
I apologize for this inconvenience on short notice, but I urgently have to leave town for at least two weeks, possibly more. You are the only one I can think of right now of who could teach the Carving classes for the first year students without much preparation.
If you could do this for me, I'll owe you a big favour. Thank you and, again, I am deeply sorry for troubling you with this. I will try to be back as soon as possible.
Regards,
Olidra

V. Sunset

V. Sunset aran Sun, 11/05/2006 - 22:14

''The wind and rain for company, and yet I'm filled with bliss,'' Olidra silently quoted a Vahnatai travelling song. He felt in the mood for singing out loud, but was all too aware of his lack of ability in that respect. The silence of the evening around him had its own appeal, and he did not want to break it with his voice.

The lizard he was sitting on seemed to be in equally high spirits as her rider. Excited to leave the city in what must be – Olidra quickly calculated – over a year, she was eagerly pacing ahead, hardly able to hold herself back as he reined her in to a slow walk. Urgency or not, he wanted to have some time to take in the countryside and enjoy the sights a bit.

Or what little was remaining of the sight. The sun had sunk until it was perched on the horizon behind him, and the land was already turning to a a dark grey. He was riding on the road that ran up the side of the hill east of the city, and hoped to travel a lot of the night through.

Once he arrived at the glade ''ieb'hron'' around midnight – likely before then, at his current pace –, he would camp there. The road was completely safe until it went deeper into the woods, and he could venture that far without daylight. The Windy Forest glade was an excellent spot for a traveller to rest, well sheltered against the wind despite its name, on solid, dry ground.

And close by the testing caves of the ''forachid'', too. The entrance was only a few minutes away from the road that led on to Mehdav, and lay past the glade. ''It was here that Aidra slept on the evening before the exam, which got him expelled,'' he remembered, and all the worries were suddenly back.

''Where has he gone?'' The further away he was from Avtris, and the more he thought about it, the more flimsy his hope that Aidra had reached Mehdav looked. ''And what about the plot? These conspirators... Pinra and Korvah... what are they up to?'' At least that was one worry he could firmly put at the back of his mind. ''Find Aidra now, worry about the academy later.''

He had reached the top of the hill and looked around him. Behind, the view of the Sapphire City: Its roofs now mirroring the midnight-blue sky above, the streets were empty in the darkness. The town was quiet, but hundreds of little pinpoints of light where shining through its windows, showing that it was not entirely sleeping. Ahead, the thinly wooded plain, divided by the straight road leading northeast. He rode on.

-----

The plains were eerily silent apart from the sound of his hoofsteps, and Olidra drew his cloak tight around himself to fend off the cold that was beginning to invade his body in spite of the weak warmth charm he had put around himself. Above the trees, the twin gibbous moons hung low above the horizon, at the same time soothing and menacing.

Kuhvi, his lizard, had been slowed down by the cold at first, but another, stronger warmth charm had done well for the cold-blooded steed, and she was presently galloping along quite fast. In another two hours, he would have reached ''ieb'hron''.

''All in a single day,'' he marvelled. Had it really been only this morning that he had been walking through the streets of Avtris, and only midday when the study of Aidra's diary had given him the revelation that should have come so many months ago? So much had happened in the intervening time...

But the day would soon be over, he realized from the position of the two gibbous moons. ''They are like the hands on a clock,'' he remembered teaching the astronomy students himself. ''Their phase can tell you the time of the month, their position the time of day. The comparison of their relative phases can reveal the season and would even tell the year if necessary.'' It was getting close to midnight. He had been riding more slowly than anticipated, but he was gaining now, and would be arriving soon.

The silence and darkness left no distraction to his mind, and his thoughts were running freely. ''What about the conspiracy?'' The laws of magic were strict. Two men would have to be very bold indeed to plan their violation within the heart of an academy as reputable as Oriath. ''Why the inquisition? Why would the agency send in auditors when none of the locals had any suspcions?'' Could Aidra have been not the only one who had become witness to suspicious incidents? Or had someone turned their cloak?

''With the audit still in progress, with how much paranoia will they regard strange behaviour?'' Olidra suddenly had a nagging worry. ''I left under the cover of darkness on short notice with no explanation whatsoever – will that not look suspicious?'' His only hope was when he returned, accompanied by Aidra as a witness, any such suspicions would lose their base as he could reveal the true conspiracy. Assuming it ''was'' the conspiracy that the auditors had come to investigate, of course. And assuming the auditors didn't take enough of an interest to follow and hunt him down before he returned.

His thoughts turned back to the events of today. The people he had met... ''how easily can I be tracked?'' He realized with sinking spirits, that he had been about as discrete in today's preparations as a child playing at being a spy. ''The lady at the food store can tell them everything, assuming the auditors have enough patience to sift through the stories of her extended family. They will know I am heading to Mehdav.'' The fake herbalist could prove more difficult to talk to, unless he was offered money. The crystal trader and blacksmith would be only secondary sources, as they knew nothing of his journey, but their information would be interesting – the amount of supplies he had acquired were for more than a simple trip to the next town. ''Who else did I see?''

The memory of the lizard-rider was like another revelation.

“How could I have been so stupid? This is still the middle of the examination season! There was another test scheduled three days ago – it was the morning of the fourth day, and the Proctor was returning from the ''forachid''!” He was so agitated that he had begun talking out loud. He did not care, and just went on, holding a one-sided conversation with Kuhvi.

“He was alone, and on the way back from the cavern. That means the candidate died,” Olidra commented sadly. “Yet more potential claimed by our merciless testing system.” He did not know who the candidate was – only the members of examination board themselves knew the names – and was only aware of the schedule by which the tests were held.

“He need not be dead,” he tried to calm himself. “If he was sufficiently bitter, he might have decided to leave without returning for his assessment at all.” But then why the great hurry? “From the way his lizard almost ran me over, there was something really urgent about the outcome of this particular test. I can't think how it was something other than a death...” he trailed off, lost in thought.

It was two full hours until he reined in Kuhvi and dismounted. The glade lay there in the moonlight before him, each blade of grass lit in sharp contrast even in the depth of night. He renewed the warmth charm on himself and Kuhvi, then spread the blanket on the ground, wrapping himself up in it.

The winter sky above was clear enough to show what seemed like over a hundred stars, and the sight of them, as Olidra stared upward into infinity, stayed with him in his dreams as he drifted into an uneasy, but very restful sleep.

Interlude

Interlude aran Tue, 11/07/2006 - 02:15

Silence.

And darkness.

It is really amazing, how much of the world consists of noise and light when you get down to it, Sonahn mused. You don't notice that every day, just when they're gone.

And now here she was, and what little remained of her world was restricted to touch. There was hardly any smell here – her nostrils had accustomed to the sharp, chemical smell of the fire by now. The sound was gone, too – sometime in the last days... hours... the flames raging on the other side of the barrier had faded. And when the barrier was not being assaulted by the stal'ra, its light dimmed until it was utterly dark. This was not the darkness of a clear moonless night, or a pitchdark room. There, a source of light would sooner or later be enough to see by, once the eyes had accustomed. Here, the darkness was utter and ultimate. There was nothing around her but things to bump into.

And on one end of the corridor, the darkened barrier, invisible, hardly there. Deceptive. The barrier was still active and would flare up at a touch. Impregnable, unbreakable. She had cast it with exceeding excellence and strength. The masters of Oriath would be proud of me. Even a teacher could not break through it now without strong magical tools at his disposal, or wasting quite a number of barrier-breaking crystals.

She had created a masterwork – and now that masterwork had turned into her tombstone. The irony stung like her dehydrated throat, making her eyes water. You fool. It is not the stal'ra that will kill you now; it is the protection of your own devising.You have bagged yourself like a professional. If her eyes were not as dry as the rest of her body, she would have been close to tears, but as it was, she was just wracked with a sobbing cough that tore through her lungs. Fool.

That is nonsense. You could not have done it differently, she reminded herself. Look at yourself; you have been cornered by the wandering flames and survived! But for your brains and power, you would now be a heap of blackened bones disintegrating in that corridor.

Yes, but survived for what? A slow death, rotting away in a sealed chamber of stone, deep beneath the surface. When they found her – if they could ever find her – she would be a dried up husk, her bones in little better a condition than they would if she had been scorched to death. Already, the pangs of hunger were making it hard to focus, and she could sense another cough about to shake her.

There is still hope. In here, without light or sound, there was no way to tell the time, but she was sure that the three days of her examination had passed by now. She had failed - a pang of disappointment, but next to the exhileration of breathing, she hardly notice it. And if she did not return, they would send a Proctor to investigate. The Proctor would enter the cavern and rescue her.

I just hope they arrive in time...

Chapter Two

Chapter Two aran Sun, 11/05/2006 - 22:16

Meanwhile, Tam, the exiled apprentice, has almost fully recovered from his deadly trek through the wilderness, being treated by the healer Mh'repha of the Claw, of the Nephilim.

This morning, he has been summoned to an audience by the chieftain of the tribe, Sophromh', and is about to enter his throne room.

VI. Audience

VI. Audience aran Sun, 11/05/2006 - 23:30

Tam stepped through a pair of grand wooden doors and entered a hall that looked different than all the other buildings he had seen in the village of the Claw so far. It was at once great and lavish, but also had an air of spartanic minimalism about it. Or perhaps it might just be his preconceptions causing that appearance: The wooden interior, back among his people, would have been the mark of a poor dwelling – only the poorest of the poor could not afford stone. Here, in the village on the cliffside, where most buildings were simply hollowed out of the raw stone, wood, not rock, was the luxury material. He tried to imagine the grand logs that formed the ceiling being laboriously transported up the cliff – how had they done it? Surely, no matter what technology they had used, it must be one hell of a job. This room was richly decorated.

But on a second look, the throne room looked bare and cold again. A long table, possibly for a banquet, filled one side of the room, and an elevated chair stood at the far end of the hall, its back to the wall, its front to a large desk, occupied by several papers. The occupant of the chair was bent over the desk and apparently studying these papers, occasionally using a quill to write on another piece. In front of the table, another Nephil was sitting, her back on the door he had just entered through. She did not turn around, but he could recognize her. So Mh'repha is here already, he thought in relief. The prospect of being here with her was far less intimidating than having to face the chieftain alone.

Just then, Tam closed the door he had opened behind him, and his presence was noted. Just a point of pretension, he realized; surely it was not possible to enter the throne room undetected for even a moment.

Sophromh', the chieftain of the Nephilim, looked up from the desk and directly at the newcomer. His face looked surprisingly young. He seems far too literate for a warrior, Tam thought, and realized he was applying stereotypes that simply did not work here. This culture is far more complex than it seems at first glance. Just then, the chieftain spoke, a warm smile on his face.

“Greetings, young Tam. Please sit down. We have much to discuss.”

Tam was glad to comply. His last sleep had been long and restful, and the potion Mh'repha had made him seemed to have fixed up the weakness in his legs well – whether temporarily or for good would remain to be seen – but he still felt a bit tired and was eager to take a seat.

“Greetings, your...” he fumbled for a bit. What do you call the chieftain? I should have read more in Zadal-Ihrno's book while I had the time, he chided himself. “...Majesty”, he finished a bit lamely. There, can't make any mistakes aiming too high.

He had, evidently, because Sophromh' laughed for a moment. “Tam, I am not royalty. Among our people, a chieftain is an administrator more than anything else. If you must honor me, you may call me mhraw, which closely translates to 'leader'.

“But in any case, I would much prefer if you called me just by my name. Your friend Mh'repha does so as well, and I believe that it might do much more good than harm if we can keep this meeting on a less formal level. Please be seated. And do try one of these.” He moved a small plate with what seemed to be a Nephil snack or delicacy over to his side of the table.

“Thank you, Sophromh',” Tam said, indicating a short bow with a nod, and smiling.

As he sat down next to Mh'repha, she also looked up from the desk and around at him, her face suddenly lighting up like a clear day after the clouds have passed. “Hello, Mh'repha,” he got out, remembering too late that when one was already smiling, cranking it up by a few levels was a recipe for a very goofy exression. Fortunately, Mh'repha appeared to ignore the stupid face and simply returned the greeting.

“Hello, Tam. How nice it is to see you walk among the living once again.”

“Yes, I think your last potion put me out of action for a while. It has worked like a charm, however, in restoring my health.”

“That was generally the plan. You see, our chieftain Sophromh' here was most eager to speak with you, and I am afraid that the hardball I played with Phamh'rir could not be applied to him. So in the absence of a bed with wheels, I just had to get you back on your feet in a minimum of time.” She looked at him intently. “But I must tell you that the effect is temporary. You will likely feel somwhat exhausted once it wears off, but since you are close to recovery anyway, it should not take more than another few days before you are as good as new.” It was just a simple effect of the light, but her green eyes seemed to sparkle as she smiled again. Tam felt his breath catch for a second. To cover his reaction, he took one of the offered pieces of the golden brown... cakes? It did seem to be something baked – which surprised him, as the diet of the carnivorous cat race had so far struck him as mainly meat-based. This tiny cake, however, appeared to contain only a variety of spices, which caused a somewhat sharp, but also sweet and pleasant flavour. He suddenly realized that the lack of a breakfast had left him ravenous, and he practically wolfed down the rest of the piece he was holding, hardly pausing to enjoy the taste. Sophromh' and Mh'repha appeared to notice that, and they politely waited until he finished, even while he ate a second one.

His hunger partly stilled, he looked up again, wiping his somewhat sticky fingers at the leg of his tunic. He paused a while, picking up the thread of the conversation left half a minute ago.

“If that is so, we should not keep Sophromh' waiting any longer.” Tam reluctantly turned away from those sparkling green eyes to face the chieftain's friendly expression. “What is on your mind, Sophromh', that you needed to talk about with such urgency?”

“Many different things, Tam. It has been unbelievably long since a visitor from your people last found his way to us – fifty years are not much to one of you, but they are more than a generation to us.

“We shall start with a question Phamh'rir may have asked you already.” Tam was a bit taken aback. No comparing of notes? Or do they just want it from the source directly? “Where exactly did you come from, and how did you reach us, and why?”

Tam, now rested and under the influence of Mh'repha's tonic, was able to answer with a bit more clarity than he had done last time. “My home lies southeast of here, likely around three weeks of journeying on foot.” He did a little mental calculation, but then quickly noticed that his memory of his travel here, half starved and half frozen, gripped by despair and lack of direction, was a complete blur. “Or slightly less. I was ill-prepared for the journey, and travelled quite slowly.”

“You journeyed long and through unknown land, but did not prepare yourself?” Sophromh' wondered.

Tam hesitated before his answer. There it was once again – the shame you have tried so hard to bury. “I... had not anticipated going far. I was cast out of the magical academy for a failed exam. I tried to reach the nearest town to find other work, but on the way there, I was surprised by a storm and lost my way.” There, and was that ever a tale to be proud of, he bitterly thought.

Sophromh', if he thought the same, kept it well-hidden. In fact, his face did not show any reaction as he took it in, and went back to the paper he had been looking at, on his desk. Tam glanced at it, and saw that it was a map. Unfinished. Only a few rough lines hint at the outlines of mountain ranges and rivers; a Cartomancer would be required for more precise surveying, he noticed.

“Thank you, Tam, for your open answer. I can see from your bearing that you did not give it lightly.”

Tam waved it off. “It shames be in the telling. I would much rather forget that part of my past now than continue to dwell on it.”

The chieftain looked on in astonishment. “Then all the better for you to have told it now. Wounds like this can fester and will, years later, turn you into a lone wanderer, driven only by vengeance. But why should you seek to forget it? Mh'repha told me that your curiosity and thirst for knowledge is unmatched, young Tam. There is great knowledge in experience – and in errors as well. Do you not embrace your experience of travelling outside?”

Starving for two weeks in the wilderness, I think not! Tam kept himself from retorting. He remained silent for a while, staring into the emptiness past Sophromh's head.

Why should I seek to forget it? He echoed the Chieftain's last question inside his head. Why indeed?

The answer came swiftly. It pains me to remember. Shame is an injury too. Forgetting is bliss.

And so is ignorance. But why would I seek to embrace that? He thought, more angrily. Why would I seek to renounce knowledge rather than endure the pain of acquiring or keeping it? And Zadal-Ihrno... his thought trailed off. When Phamh'rir had questioned him the other day, he had also recounted his first and last meeting with the Vahnatai explorer who had been the only other one to reach the Claw. In the following night, when Mh'repha had given hm the sleeping draught, Zadal had spoken to him in dreams.

The dream had been in perfect clarity when he had had it, and it was the only one Tam had ever had which he could remember in full when he woke up, but it had already faded in the brief time he had spent getting dressed and walking through the village to the chieftain's halls. Now, only a vague scene remained: Sundown. He told me that ignorance had killed him. And that... what? My curiosity was... a flame. No, a flame of the mind. Fire of curisity burning in the mind... Aidra!

“Aidra!” He spoke out loud without realizing it.

“Sorry?” Mh'repha was first to speak, but the Chieftain looked similarly confused. Drat.

“I am sorry. I just remembered my name.”

“Your name...” the Chieftain's confusion remained for a while, then he seemed to remember. “Ah, yes. Mh'repha told me that Tam is not your true name, that you adopted it upon meeting our hunters when they found you in the wilderness. Did you truly forget your real name?”

“That I had, while in the delirium of starvation. I was so exhausted that I could not remember my name, and instead blurted out the other. When I later woke up and was addressed by that, I found I had forgotten the old one entirely.”

“That is a curious thing to forget. It is part of your identity – the central thing about yourself, is it not?” Sophromh' asked with interest. “What does 'Tam' mean?”

Tam hesitated for a while. No harm in telling. Truth be told, he was beginning to trust Sophromh's calm demeanor. “Nothing.”

“It---” Sophromh' began, but Tam interrupted.

“I mean, it literally means 'nothing'. Nobody. Emptiness.” He noticed with some dismay that he had just interrupted Sophromh', but the chieftain took no exception.

Mh'repha looked interested. “You didn't tell me that, Nothingness.” Her whiskers twitched mockingly, and her eyes twinkled. “And yes, I did ask. Right on the day you first awoke.”

“I hadn't got my wits together at the time, Mh'repha. And I suppose I didn't want to be reminded of it...”

“The loss of your home has pained you, has it not?” Sophromh' asked kindly. “You felt that nothing was left to you in this world, and so that is the name you took.”

“I suppose that sounds about right,” Tam agreed.

“On to the next question. What does 'Aidra' mean – that was the word you just blurted out, was it not?”

“It is. It closely translates to 'The curious flame of the mind'. Fire of curiousity. Or some such...”

“A fitting name, I should say,” Mh'repha chuckled. Turning back to the chieftain, she explained: “I do not think anyone has picked up our language with such ease as he has – even Zadal-Ihrno, in his journals, wrote that it was a pain to get used to distinguishing all our consonants, and it was months before he could speak fluently. T-- Aidra here practically devoured the books I provided to him.”

Aidra. a'id'ra. Aid-ra. It was hard to get used to, somehow. Was he Aidra? It sure doesn't feel like me. He experimentally began probing his consciousness: Who am I? The answer came promptly. I am Tam.

He must have looked somewhat lost in thought, for Mh'repha and Sophromh' were both eyeing him expectantly.

“Mh'repha, if you do not mind, I think I would like the new name better. I am Tam, not Aidra.”

“All right then, Sir Nobody. I actually thought the other name sounds rather nice.” She thought a bit. “Ancient and magical. Powerful. Mysterious.”

“Yes, and I am none of them,” he laughed. It felt good to laugh. Unfamiliar, too. When did I last laugh? The answer came quickly. Just this morning, silly.

Sophromh' smiled with him for a moment, but then turned serious.

“Ai-- Tam, I am about to come to the reason why I called you here. Contrary to what it seems like, it was not merely to eat spicebread and talk about the value of learning from mistakes.” He paused.

“Then what was it about?” Aidra asked when the pause had continued for a few seconds.

Sophromh' hesitated a while, casting a side-long, apprehensive glance at Mh'repha. Mh'repha looked back, a similarly apprehensive look in her eyes. Don't look at me. You're the chief here. And what you have in mind had better not hurt him, those green eyes said.

At last, the chieftain spoke again.

“Tam, my hunters have discovered a strange building that might be connected to your people. Nobody among us has any experience with the Vahnatai – we can hardly speak your language, and know next to nothing of your culture.” He hesitated.

“We would like to explore it. I believe it would be beneficial if you joined the expedition.”

VII. Objection

VII. Objection aran Wed, 11/08/2006 - 01:47

Mh'repha smiled sweetly. The effect would have been even sweeter had she not bared a shiny row of sharp teeth.

“Excuse me Sophromh'.” she said, with perfect restraint, belying the fire that was fiercely burning in her glare. “I am certain I did not hear you correctly. You are suggesting that Tam be sent with our hunters to an expedition of many days, creeping through the underbrush? When at present he requires alchemistic aid to even walk a short distance?”

“Yes, you heard that correctly, Mh'repha.” Sophromh' answered calmly. If he was alert to the menace in her voice (and Tam did not doubt he was, given his experience and Mh'repha's lack of subtlety), he chose to ignore it, forcing Mh'repha to initiate the offense. She gladly complied.

“It is an utterly ridiculous notion, Sophromh'!” she practically shouted, her restraint evaporated like morning dew on a summer noon. “You are taking gambles with my patients, and I would like you to stop! You first sent Phamh'rir to question him when he was barely conscious, and now you are asking him to take a dangerous journey while he has yet to recover fully!” Somewhere through this, she had jumped up of her seat and was pointing at the chieftain with a furious expression. “You should know better than to overrule my judgement when it comes to those in my care, Sophromh'-mhraw.” That seemed to be the formal address, Tam noticed in a detached way. The title is attached after the name, like we do it among my own people. The more different things are... His mind snapped back to the conflict at hand. She is deliberately using the formal name for hostility. How will he react? This situation could easily escalate in a game of power.

Fortunately, Sophromh' appeared to be far above that. His voice remained perfectly level as he responded. “Mh'repha, please be seated. There is no need for rash words.”

The healer remained standing for a moment, hesitated, then slowly backed down and took her seat. Her rage spent, she slumped in the chair, but her eyes continued to glower. After she sat down, the chieftain continued.

“Tam is in your care, but I believe you need not speak for him.” He turned toward Tam, questioningly, and waited.

Mh'repha was seething, Tam saw out of the corner of his eyes, but remained silent.

Caught in the middle, he thought wretchedly. I can either take Mh'repha's side and try to avoid this task – and in the long run, that is not a good way to start off my new life here. Or I can agree with the chieftain, despite Mh'repha's better judgement. Apart from her being probably right about my condition, it would make her angry. He did not want to make her angry.

He remained silent a while, lost in thought. Perhaps, by ignoring the problem they had cast at him, he could will it away. But after several seconds of the loudest silence Tam had ever heard, Mh'repha and Sophromh' were still looking at him expectantly. Like two quarrellers locked in struggle, waiting for the arbiter to judge. And that happens to be me. A most pleasant task. Finally, he spoke, hesitantly.

“Sophrom'h, what time did you have in mind for this mission you speak of? Would it be within the next week or the one after that, or tomorrow?”

Mh'repha' sent a calculated gaze of poison in his direction. First round, negative score.
Sophromh' looked a bit crestfallen as he answered. “Not immediately, but I fear it is sooner than Mh'repha would want it.

“The main limiting factor is the weather. A part of the journey will be made by the river, which has been known to freeze over in parts in mid-winter. The journey would need to be taken this month, or be postponed for many more, well into next year.

“And before you speak, Mh'repha, such a postponement would be highly unwise.”

“You read my mind, oh mh'raw,” she replied testily. “But you cannot avoid my objection that way. Why would it be unwise to take this journey in a warmer season with healthier weather? The ruins, you say, have been lying there for several centuries. They will not disappear over the next few months. Nothing about the situation will change in that time.”

“I am afraid this is not correct.” Sophromh' answered. “I would have preferred to get to this later, but the unfortunate fact of the matter is that we are not the only ones interested in the ruins.”

He turned his head slightly to the side and made a signal. Somewhere behind Tam and Mh'repha, a silent guard acknoledged it, passed it on soundlessly, and closed the doors. Another one – Tam turned his head and watched with interest – appeared to use magic to detect any other presence within the throne room, watching for eavesdroppers. A quick nod toward the chieftain – all is clear, Tam mentally translated – shortly followed, and Sophromh' continued.

“The Greywraith clan also discovered the ruins, shortly after our hunters had left. It is my belief that they will soon launch an expeditionary force themselves, hoping to explore the ruins before us. They believe that the cavern may hold an ancient magic that will prove of great significance and power, and that will further their goals and improve their status within the group of clans.

“Given what we know of them, I do not believe that they would stop at anything to accomplish their goal. You know what I speak of, Mh'repha.”

Mh'repha looked flabbergasted for a second. Quite a bombshell to drop, Tam thought. An exploratory mission... which, oh I forgot, happens to be also a race for magical supremacy against a ruthless rival clan. But Mh'repha seemed to be surprised by something else.

“How the hell do you know that?” Her tone was slightly incredulous, but mostly shocked. “The Greywraith clan are feared and renowned for their secrecy. It is they who know everything that goes on in our clan a day before we ourselves know it – not the other way around. How can you find things out with such certainty? What good are our best spies against the shadows that stalk among the Greywraiths?”

Sophromh' looked a bit smug, if that was possible. “Not spies. Reasoning. I know what they are going to do, because I know what they want – of course I know; all the clans want it. It is power I am speaking of – power in magic, knowledge, and political power among the community of nearby clans.

“And I know that they are going to investigate the ruins because I know they have found them – that is just about the only thing I did not reason out.

“And do you know why I know this?” He practically had to keep from laughing.
“They told me. They told me right after they found it, because they were so awfully arrogant and smug about their discovery that they forgot how to keep their mouths shut. Isn't that hilarious? The spies turned blabbermouths in an instant by pride and arrogance.”

Mh'repha was not convinced. “Sophromh', are you sure you are thinking straight? The Greywraiths are not only noted for the skill of their spies, but also for their reclusiveness. They would as soon catch mice and purr as tell us anything about what they did or discovered, no matter how smug. Are you sure it is not a trap?”

“Reasonably sure, Mh'repha. Because, in spite of what I said, they did not tell me as such. Not directly, and not intentionally. Dikhar sent a message to old Hmh'arr of the Ratbane clan. Those are just about the only allies he has left, and that is just because the Ratbane clan controls his access to the river and is large enough to defend itself.” He grinned mischievously.

“Unfortunately, the Hmh'arr has less trust in the Greywraiths than they do in him. He knows that if they had the power, they would not hesitate to rid themselves of the Ratbane. Remember that while the Ratbane are not a minor player by any means, they have not the strength to gain real independent power against a strong alliance. Thus, their strategy is to play the bigger clans against each other, hoping to pick up scraps.”

Mh'repha's eyes lit up in understanding. “And so he has chosen us to set against the Greywraiths. What an honor.”

“Indeed. And this gives us a very valuable advantage. The Ratbanes' message to me was not intercepted – old Hmh'arr is a master at what he does. We now know that the Greywraiths are moving on the ruins, but they do not know that we know. That keeps the competition less fierce, for now – and it means they will hopefully not expect a fast move. If we did not know of Dikhar's ambitions, we would have no reason to rush.

“And that is why I hope you will understand that we need to press our advantage by leaving this month.”

“But I cannot allow--” Mh'repha began, and then interrupted herself with a side-long glance at Tam, remembering that Tam had not yet made his decision.

Tam had to pause for a bit to take in what had been said. It seemed there was no possible way out: The task had to be done now, and it was either with him, or without him. And without him along, they had little chance of deciphering the ancient symbols, or analyzing the magical structures they came upon. He was their only expert on Vahnatai lore.

And what if the Greywraiths win? he wondered for a bit. All I heard from them has come from the Claw – I can hardly expect to get an unbiased view of them. Then he remembered: That doesn't change that I am presently with the Claw, pretty much for good or ill. Barring outright treachery, this is my side. Also, there is Mh'repha, he silently added.

So that was decided. He had to help the Claw, and to do that, he had to come along. But – wait. There was one thing he would insist upon, and given Sophromh's predicament, he had little choice but to grant it...

He began to nod, slowly. “I will go.”

Mh'repha turned on him furiously, but her expression sagged as she realized that the decision lay beyond her control now. It was more in a tone of exasperated despair that she added: “Under the condition that I may come along as well.”

Tam laughed. “I was going to insist on that. There is no way that I am going anywhere without you. That is my condition, Sophromh'. I will help your expedition if Mh'repha can be there to watch over me.”

It was Sophromh's turn to laugh.

“Much time could have been saved, had you not interrupted me earlier. Mh'repha, I would not dream of sending away a patient of yours without the proper care – I was going to ask you to join the expedition too.”

VIII. Tam's Quest

VIII. Tam's Quest aran Thu, 11/09/2006 - 06:45

The next two weeks were a blur. Mh'repha had reconciled herself with the idea that Tam was going to make the journey, and was buzzing around making her own preparations, most of them directed at getting Tam's health back. With the number of potions and medicines he was made to take now, he noticed he was apparently being given the express treatment, aimed at recovering him as quickly as possible.

Amazingly, it seemed to work. He had never felt so much better over such a short time, and by the fourth day he could walk without the need for the stimulant or even the crutches Mh'repha had given him.

“Why didn't you give me this earlier?” Tam asked Mh'repha as she approached his bed in the morning with another tray full of flasks and bottles. The normal ritual of taking his medicine in the morning which he had grown used to over the weeks was expanding into a full ceremony, several minutes long.

“There was no need,” Mh'repha answered curtly. “I would not treat anyone with this if it were not necessary.”

Tam raised his eyebrows questioningly, and Mh'repha explained in response to the unspoken question.

“The first reason is that these potions are woefully difficult to make. The ingredients are rare and hard to find, and some of the processes take fairly long to finish – it is just luck that I keep a large stock of the potions in case of dire need, or it would not have been ready for another month or more. I don't like the thought of using up the stores so utterly in a season when the new ingredients won't be ready for many months, but we have no choice if you are to wander about again so soon.

“The second reason is that, like the stimulant I gave you earlier, these medicines are intended to be fast, not thorough. Fancy alchemy and magic can patch you up in no time, but your body still needs time to heal no matter how powerful the aid – real time that is measured in weeks, even months.”

Tam interjected: “But not with these potions?”

“These are what I would term 'shortcuts' to health. If you need to be up and about in a few days, this is what to take, but for real recovery, you will need at least another month of rest.

“But there will be plenty of time to rest after we return from this mission, so there is no problem. You can fully recover afterwards; for now we need to see to it that you survive the trip itself.” The explanation finished, she pushed the tray in his direction, and he began the slow process of drinking each of the half dozen brews.

-----

Tam's own preparations did not begin until several days after that, when he could walk unaided.

On his first foray out of his room, he felt little better than the very first time he had stepped outside it – weak-kneed, uncertain, and awfully lost. Mh'repha had come and left earlier, and it was up to him to go out alone.

Unlike the first time, the weak knees resulted less from his poor health or frailty than from the awful uncertainty and apprehension that he felt at exploring the village of the Claw alone. At least I can speak the language, he told himself. They have never seen a Vahnatai before, another part of his mind reminded him. Wherever you go, you had best get used to being gawked and pointed at, because you will get a lot of it today. Hah, curiousity! How could he blame them for being curious, when he himself was?

And he was, he realized. Even as he went down the corridor, his knees buckling at the reluctancy to go outside, he felt the giddy excitement of an explorer about to be making a new discovery. And will I ever make one, he thought. I will see what only one other Vahnatai, only the great Zadal-Ihrno, has seen before. Who died, the other part of his mind tried to argue.

“I'm an explorer. I would say that's one of the risks that come with the job,” he muttered. His steps grew more confident and firm at the thought, and he felt ready to face anything as he reached the end of the corridor.

The end of the corridor – the curtain that he had stood behind only a week ago, when Phamh'rir had come to question him. He chuckled when he thought back to Phamh'rir, whom he had so grossly misjudged back then. He came in as a ruthless military commander, ready to invade the hospital in order to question me. He went as an old man, having told me one of the deepest and darkest stories of his life.

The curtain he had exited a second time the next day, going to meet the chieftain Sophromh', accompanied by Ninoamh'row – that idiot, it shot through his mind, although he was probably doing the man an injustice. He simply did not know how to act around an alien, and used his excuse for humor to cover up the uncertainty. Cultural shock can leave us all floundering like stranded fish on the shores of social contact. He should probably remember to write down that last idea some time; it sounded like something deep.

As before, he went up the long spiral staircase until he reached the wooden doors that were the entrance to the hospital. He marvelled at the speed and progress of his recovery, because while the first time he had gone up here, it had been a dizzying walk even under the effect of the stimulant – but now, he did not feel a thing as he climbed up the stairs – dozens and dozens of them, with stone doors leading to different tracts in the building, different corridors. He counted at least four floors with the one he had lived in, and was again astonished – such a great hospital implies a vast town, quite possibly as large as Avtris or even larger!

They opened easily, and he still felt the dizzying height and the cold autumn wind blowing in his hair like the first time. Back then, it had taken all his willpower to step out of the cliff-side door and onto the narrow walkway that connected the different parts of the town of the Claw together. I really need to ask Mh'repha what the town itself is called. 'Town of the Claw' is getting rather cumbersome, he thought.

The first time he had stepped out here with Ninoamh'row, the path had been a straight and short one – straight ahead, perhaps two hundred paces away, the throne room of Sophromh' had lain. What is it called? 'Palace' was hardly appropriate, 'town hall' implied less authority, while 'throne room' implied royalty, which Sophromh' had insisted he was not.

From what he understood of the Nephilim hierarchy, they were ruled by two authorities. The first one was the mh'raw, a single leader – usually a young warrior who had proven his prowess already. The office of the mh'raw was non-hereditary, but once elected he remained in power until death, resignation or the successful challenge of another warrior in the clan. “That rarely happens in our clan,” Sophromh' had assured him. “We have a less warlike attitude than some of the surrounding clans, and our leaders usually rule wisely enough so that nobody feels ambitious or discontented enough to take over by force.” The last time the mh'raw of the Claw had been challenged lay back thirty years and several different leaders who had alternately perished in battle or resigned to make way for successors. The challenge had not succeeded.

The other authority, and one Tam felt a lot more apprehensive about, were the armh'shar, the council of the learned shamans. They led the spiritual aspects of the Nephilim culture, but it was also they who were in charge of all education, research and knowledge. They delt in matters alchemical and arcane, but they were a conservative and stubborn lot who did not think much beyond tradition.

They saw him as an enemy, Mh'repha had warned him. More as a nuisance than a real threat, it seemed, and their hostility was limited to a cold distrust, but he should not seek for friends among them.

Mh'repha herself was an apprentice to the armh'shar, apprenticed in the arts of healing and alchemy. She had advanced quite far in her education, however, and for all practical purposes she was now single-handedly in charge of the hospital as their chief healer. The armh'shar refused to acknowledge that she had concluded her apprenticeship until she had passed her fortieth year of age, a distant point in the future that she had resigned herself to await when it came, and not to anticipate too much.

In the constant tug of war between the mh'raw and the ahmh'shar, the clan was led more or less in the right direction, changing every now and then when it was necessary, but being kept in check by the traditionalists.

Tam gazed out over the valley that the cliff faced – more than two hundred feet below him. Then he looked back toward the cliffside... and stumbled at the sight.

Hundreds of little windows and doors, of all shapes and sizes. Most of them were set directly into the rockface, but there were a few free-standing buildings here and there. There must be more than a hundred dwellings here! And, as he could see now, that was far from all – above and below him, there were further levels and walkways that spanned the curved mountain side and connected the houses together. Nephilim were walking here and there – some walkways were more busily travelled than others, but there seemed to be people in every direction he looked, walking along the mountain side paths and the free-standing planks. In some distance, the mountain side curved sharply inward, and Tam could not see around the corner – but as far as that, the rock face was still scored by the signs of habitation.

Almost all of the windows were circular, he realized – and so, amazingly, were the doors! It struck him as very odd that a doorway should not have a flat treshold – but it probably kept the wind out a lot more effectively than the rectangular, loosely fitted doors that he was used to. The circle shapes did not end there: Most of the free-standing buildings, too, were roughly spherical or a collection of spherical rooms. Nephilim architecture seemed to have an affinity for the circle. Perhaps it was more stable or built more easily.

Why do they build in rock? He wondered. The Nephilim seemed to be living a lot closer to nature – even their primary field of magic dealt in plants and natural products – and were originally hunters and gatherers. And yet, rather than construct their dwellings out of wood and thatched roofs, the Claw had decided to carve a habitation out of the bedrock of the mountain side. Did the other clans do this? He made a mental note to ask Mh'repha about it later. For now, he had a lot of exploring ahead of him.

Where to start? The sheer size of the “village”, as he had originally thought of this place, was overwhelming and disorienting. A stranger could lose his way in here as easily as on the streets of Avtris, the Sapphire City he called home.

I should have waited for Mh'repha, he chided himself. But then: It would not be the same. There is nothing like wandering through and getting lost in a new place without anyone to guide you. It would be cheating otherwise.

He just wanted to see how far he got alone.

So. Where do you want to go? Use your eyes.

He scanned the mountainside for structure and appearance. The buildings were far from homogenous: Near one side, he could see a large cluster of small, regular dwellings side by side. Few of the Nephilim were walking there – he assumed it was a residential area. Simple houses were not that interesting, and if he walked into a private dwelling by accident, he would get himself into trouble right from the beginning. Now where... he turned his eyes, looking at the relative number of Nephilim walking around in the various areas of the town.

There! On the level immediately below him, a little distance to the left, he could see the walkway widened and joined a large platform that extended a ledge on the mountain itself. He counted dozens of people walking along them, easing their way around and past each other with the skill of an experienced inhabitant of the cliffside town. The platform continued for a short distance, leading past several doors and buildings. Tam strained his eyes, and could see signs hanging outside the buildings, suspended over the doors. At least two of them sported a large mug with froth at the top, another one was shaped like a shield and had a thin, curved scimitar painted on it, and a third one was decorated with a bow and arrows.

Clearly, this was the shopping district, and if he was going to start getting to know the town, he might as well start there. He walked on down the wooden path, stopping at the nearest of the ladders that connected the levels at regular intervals. Only one can pass at a time. The infrastructure must be very ingenious to be able to function with such a bottleneck.

Tam looked down at the corridor below him to see if anyone was about to climb up or approaching the ladder – he was not familiar with the social traditions of preference and ranks, and wanted to be careful – but did not see anyone. Here's the hard part. Trying desperately to overcome his disorientation and fear of falling, he approached the ladder and placed his hands firmly on the top bar. He twisted his head toward the rock face and slid one foot after the other over the edge, turning himself to face the mountain. Here we go. He felt with his feet for the next bar below, stumbling for one awful moment, sure that it were only his hands that kept him from falling to his death on the ground that was so awfully far below him. When he finally found it, he was about ready to collapse with relief. But he held firmly on, placing his left hand on the rung below the other, following it with the other hand, then the left foot, then, finally the right.

It seemed like an eternity until he finally reached the lower level. In spite of the cold air, he felt flushed and sweaty, and wanted nothing more than to be back in his bed and resting.
Explorer. Not wimp. Gathering his determination, he turned away from the ladder and toward the platform he saw in some distance.

-----

The place was larger once he was up close, of course. Amazingly, the whole ledge was partially carved into the mountain itself, leaving it bounded on three sides by the rock face – and even on the fourth side that looked outward, a row of spherical buildings had been constructed, completing the scene. Tam stepped off the wooden platform and onto the ledge, and realized it was as big as the market square back home! He no longer felt out in the open, and if he turned away from the depth and faced the mountain, he might as well be in any Vahnatai town.

By now, unfortunately, the townspeople had noticed him. How did they notice I'm a tourist? He wondered sarcastically. The glaringly colored scanty clothing? The camera and holiday expression on my face? Or maybe just my grey skin, triple-jointed limbs and plate-sized blue eyes?

Fortunately for him, they seemed to have heard the news of his arrival some time before, and he was spared the first reaction of mass panic. Moving on to the next step – insatiable curiousity. But his fears were unfounded in that respect, because far from being immediately trapped by a crowd of gawkers, the people kept their distance, muttering and pointing. He wondered for a while about the reason for this reaction, and then realized it: The armh'shar.

Of course! They said I was dangerous and an enemy. Apparently the apathy, combined with the curiousity, combined with their distrust of him, was doing a nice job of making them leave him alone. Perhaps too nice a job – he had looked forward to conversing with a few people, now that he had mastered their language fluently, but he was given a wide berth everywhere, and could not have approached and talked to anyone without being very invasive. And so he desisted.

Instead, he looked around at the shops that surrounded the square – the signs made it easy even for the non-literate to recognize what was being traded, and he could probably have found his way without knowing even a single word of the Nephilim language. But that would have caused big trouble when trying to buy anything, so it was just as well that he had.

Mh. Tavern, blacksmith, alchemist, hairdresser, fletcher. He would have liked to just walk into one of the shops to look around, but he did not need anything: He had his own blade, he did not even know which part of the bow to point toward the enemy, he had no hair on his body, and Mh'repha was probably a better alchemist than the one running that shop.

At least the problem of money did not exist. He had filled his pockets with the little bit of Vahnatai currency and his supply of crystals when he had left his room in the hospital this morning – gold and jewels were a universally accepted currency. Except that the bartender will be less than amused when I try to pay for an ale with that ruby there, he wrily thought, but he would work something out. The smaller gold pieces were surely enough to serve as change.

He looked around some more, and his eyes fell on one of the more unusual signs: A single wooden crescent moon, painted yellow, hung over one of the doors in the mountain side. Do they sell moons? he grinned. But no – the shop was a tavern, and the moon was its mascot. He read the partially faded letters over the sign:

The Riwan Moon

He did not know what riwan meant, but safely assumed it was probably a property commonly associated with the moon. Although the Cheerful Chitrach back home kind of collides with that theory, he mentally added.

After some hesitation, he bravely decided to try the most difficult shop: The tavern. There are going to be people in there, and they will be drunk and look at me oddly. All in a day's business. And if he had the misfortune of being attacked, he had a few spells ready that would cause sufficient confusion for him to escape the situation, run back up the ladder, back into the hospital, and go hide under his bed until Mh'repha came. There was no danger at all.

Having encouraged himself in this way, he braced his shoulders, took a deep breath, and entered the Riwan Moon.

IX. The Riwan Moon

IX. The Riwan Moon aran Sat, 11/11/2006 - 22:50

The first that hit him was the smell.

It was not unpleasant, but more unexpected – in fact, it was unexpectedly good. The whole room had a wholesome scent in the air, which seemed to emanate from the drinks being served. Cats have sensitive noses, he reminded himself. Of course the Nephilim would drink beverages that were at least as appealing to the nose as to the tongue.

The second thing that surprised him was the sound. Again, it was not that the tavern would have been especially noisy – rather the opposite. Unlike the Vahnatai, the Nephilim seemed to be mostly quiet drinkers, and although he heard intense and concentrated conversation echoing from each corner of the room, the slurred shouting and arguments that had stuck to his mind on the first and last visit to the Cheerful Chitrach were non-existant here. A very pleasant atmosphere, he commented. It was the kind of place where he would be able to relax even as the only Vahnatai these people had ever seen or heard about in their lives, because he was sure that nobody would bother him here.

He looked around for an empty table, and was just about to go sit at an empty one in the corner, when, out of the corner of his eye, he caught a figure with light grey fur. Turning around suddenly, he was looking on the familiar face of Mh'repha, who was sitting at a larger table together with six other Nephilim, apparently in deep conversation. They had not noticed him yet, because they were hunched over the table... or rather, as he realized when he looked a bit more closely, they were looking down on a map that was spread out between them, pointing at it and tracing their claws over it while lost in discussion.

Tam decided to approach their table, and he had only gotten a few steps towards it when the one sitting opposite Mh'repha looked up in response to a movemen in the corner of his eye, and saw the Vahnatai walking toward them. He looked straight up at Tam, and Tam responded with a friendly smile, waiting with his greeting until he was closer. To his surprise, the Nephil seemed only marginally congenial, eyeing Tam instead with an expression of doubt and more than a little distrust. But he nodded courteously, if a bit curtly, in Tam's direction.

This gesture, in turn, was caught up by the other Nephilim at the table, including Mh'repha, and they all turned around to look at the one he had just greeted. With some surprise, Tam recognized the face of Phamh'rir as he turned. The reaction to his arrival was mixed – two more looked as doubtful as the first had, but Phamh'rir and one other of them looked at him with interest, and the one sitting next to Mh'repha appeared to be fascinated with the sight. Mh'repha's eyes twinkled in a mixture of surprise and wry amusement.

armh'aharo!” She was the first to break the silence. “I am glad to see that you are already on your feet! Although I would have advised you to wait with your exploration until I was there to guide you around. Your arrival in the town has sparked mixed feelings, as I'm sure you've noticed on the way here.”

armh'aharo,” Tam pronounced the words with practiced ease, looking at each of the assembled Nephilim in turn, who acknowledged the greeting with a slightly surprised nod. Apparently he had learnt their language with a skill that more than exceeded their expectations.

Mh'repha drew out the empty chair that was next to her – trust chance to make its little arrangements when you least expect it, Tam happily thought while he sat down. He faced Mh'repha again. “I see that you are planning the expedition we are going to take?”

The gazes around him suddenly hardened slightly, and Mh'repha leant in to whisper something in his ear – in Novah, not in the Nephil tongue:

“Tam, please be very careful about what you say. Remember what Sophromh' said about the spies of the Greywraith clan. They are literally everywhere and we must assume them to hear everything we are saying. We are not planning a real expedition here.”

Aloud and in her first language, she added, “Indeed, the trade caravan will leave in half a week and we hope to have our cargo of arrows ready by then. As you know, in return we will be picking up a shipment of fish and seafood from the Ratbane on our return trip.” So the cover was to be the usual – a trader caravan that happened to be headed in the same direction as the exporatory expedition. I don't see how they could justify having me on board there – I'm not exactly easy to overlook in this place full of Nephilim, but I suppose they might not be too suspicious. And lizards might fly if they had wings, he added sarcastically. There was no way that the spies would fall for the cover, but it was probably best to play along for now.

“I should introduce you. Sirs, this is Tam, about whom I do not doubt you have heard much about in the last few days.” They nodded. “Tam, these are the hunters who will accompany us on our journey. The one sitting opposite you, who saw you first, is Chamh'rov. While their group does not have a leader as such, he is the one who is in charge of most the organization. The ones next to him, Iiphromh' and Sharnoch, are among the best bladesmen that our clan has, while Mh'rowan and Phamh'rir”, she pointed at them both, indicating as Mh'rowan a short, sable furred female who at first sight looked far too delicate to be a warrior, but whose fierce gaze told a different story, “ are both masters of the bow. Finally, there's Mh'ariimh' here,” she indicated the second female Nephil in the group, the one who sat next to her, “who is not actually one of the hunters. She is a...” she hesitated. “She does research, and will be coming with us to do a few studies on historic sites down in the river bend near the Ratbane town.” Mh'arriimh' looked at Tam meaningfully, and he realized that she would actually be researching the ancient ruins together with them – the ruins that they could not speak of. “armh'aharo, Tam.” Mh'arriimh' was the first of the group to address him directly. “The history of our people fascinates me, and by my studies I hope to unveil some of their origins. My specialty lies in languages and dialects. A pinno'ot, as you would say,” she grinned as she easily pronounced the Novah term for a linguist. Tam was slightly surprised, but realized that it was not that unexpected that the more learned of the Nephilim should be familiar with Novah, given that they still possessed several books of the Vahnatai.

Mh'repha spoke again. “We will leave in three days. Our journey will take us first to the Bhardrow clan.”

“Indeed,” Chamh'rov added. “The journey will be over land for two weeks, until we get to the port of the Bhardrow, where we will be moving the entire cargo to a ship for a journey down the river. That will take about seven more days before we arrive.”

Mh'repha leant in closely again to speak. He tried to listen, and did his best to concentrate, but at the same time he realized it was quite distracting. He could practically feel her nose on his cheek next to his ear, her breath tickling the side of his face, and while his rational mind was still complaining to him that for goodness' sake she's covered in fur!, his emotions told a different story. But he had to listen – and hope it would take a long time to say. Every second that she held her face that way seemed like an eternity of bliss.

“--days until the ship arrives, he is saying. But we will not be making the entire trip with it. Our landing point is about three days down the river from the Bhardrow village, under the cover of night. With some luck, we could make it close to the cavern without being spotted by the Greywraith spies.”

And the cold wind was blowing mercilessly, rattling the window pane. He could not concentrate. He felt regret as Mh'repha's face distanced itself and pulled away again, but there was nothing to be done. He could hardly ask her to stay there, because that would be highly embarassing to everyone present, and it was also rather likely that she herself hadn't realized it yet – and even worse, might not be returning his feelings for her at all. And that would really be embarassing, he realized. Nothing to be done. Back to the task at hand now.

He looked up at the rest of the assembled Nephilim hunters, who were looking at him expectantly now that Mh'repha had filled him in on the plans that they had been making so far. But what was he going to say? How did they even communicate – surely the evening's business had not been conducted by them all whispering in each others' ears? He shrugged and turned back to Mh'repha, muttering quietly:

“How do we talk here?”

To his surprise, the answer came immediately. “Hand and facial signals, she said under her breath, her lips hardly moving, even though it was quite safe – they were still conversing in Novah.

“Don't try to understand them, it takes a long time to understand the gestures. But they're a well-guarded secret. Look just now,” she shrugged slightly and waved an imaginary lock of hair out of her face while her other hand gripped the table, then tapped it in a complex sequence, “I have reminded them that you're not in on it, and we need to either go elsewhere to discuss or leave you out.”

“I don't mind,” he replied, his curiosity now sparked. That is an amazing density of information – a whole sentence in three simple gestures? Surely there need to be hundreds and hundreds of variations on them, and the order must be significant as well. What did she do with those tapping claws on the table just now – was that 'or leave him out', or was it just the 'l' or 'leave'? He watched in fascination. “I'll just sit here and lend you some company.”

“I'm really sorry,” she said. “Meanwhile, why don't we get you a drink?” She turned around in the direction of the friendly, slightly overweight Nephil who was standing behind the bar serving drinks. Without even having to break the quiet atmosphere of the tavern by calling, she gestured slightly to get his attention and smiled, nodding towards Tam to indicate that the newcomer to their round was in need of a drink. The bartender nodded and his assistant was at their table within a few moments.

Oh no, Tam thought. He realized that while he was perfectly familiar with the language, his ignorance of Nephilim culture extended to the beverages they liked. Apart from the fact that most of them were quite aromatic, he had no idea what to try. But Mh'repha had thought of that, apparently.

Addressing him in Novah, she said “What I would recommend for you to try is the omh'aph. It is one of the ones that contain no alcohol, which you should avoid for the foreseeable future for the sake of your recovering stomach.”

“Thank you. I don't drink anyway,” he responded and turned to face the waiter, who had been watching their foreign exchange with some curiousity, but beamed as Tam addressed him in Nephil. At least he does not raise havoc about my appearance, Tam gratefully reflected. In fact, it seemed that so far, the arrival of an alien in this establishment had caused very little trouble, far less than he would have expected from Mh'repha's warnings. But maybe that was part of the proper behavior in a Nephil bar – it seemed to be impolite to make a lot of noise.

While the waiter had gone to fetch his order, he asked Mh'repha, this time in the Nephil tongue: “Will I have problems with the currency here?”

She raised her eyebrows and said, “you don't need to pay for anything. I would like to invite you, but all our expenses are paid for anyway.”

“Not here; in general, I mean. I still have several pieces of gold, along with a few jewels I can probably part with in need. What do you use for money?”

“Within our tribes and clans, we have a currency carved on anything from seashells over stones to pieces of wood, which is backed by the chieftain's treasury. Between tribes, we use bartering to trade – I regret to say that a universal currency likely won't catch on until we lose most of our tribal identity and begin to think in a more unified way.

“Your gold will be usable if you really need to buy something, but I would recommend against using it. It would be...”, she looked for an analogy, “a bit as if you were trying to barter in a shop among your people. I assume you have a monetary system as well?”

“Just gold and other metals, minted and stamped for easier measurement and weighing.”

“Then if you were trying to pay for a drink with a ruby, it would be similar to what the bartender here would think if you handed him one of those pieces of gold. It just isn't done.”

“Then I am glad for the invitation.” Tam smiled.

The waiter arrived with a mug that Tam estimated to hold about half a pint. Aside from the pleasant, slightly sweet but also herbal smell that wafted at him from the mug, he noticed that it was also steaming.

“It is a beverage traditionally served in winter, as a means of warming up. Be careful when drinking it, it might burn your tongue,” Mh'repha cautioned him. Tam gingerly took up the hot cup and blew over the liquid, raising a cloud of steam that washed over his face. Amazingly, after the chill of the cold winter air outside, it was quite a pleasant feeling. But as he lifted the cup and experimentally brought a few drops of the liquid in contact with his tongue, he realized that the drink was still far too hot. He set it to rest on the table, resolved to wait a while to let it cool down.

He looked up and at the assembled round of Nephilim, who were still conversing with casual little gestures, muttering a trivial conversation at the same time to keep the scene inconspicuous. If Mh'repha had not tipped him off, he would not have noticed that they were actually using secret signals.

But at length, he noticed a certain structure to the code. He was watching their gestures carefully over the top of his mug, sipping at it in little gulps ever so often to avoid burning his tongue on the hot liquid, and noticed that a few of the gestures occurred more often than others, and some in combinations that repeated endlessly. His brows furrowed in thought as he watched Mh'repha reply with the same shrug she had used some time ago, then drawing her finger on the table in a circle – and Chamh'rov responded with a crinkled face and the raising of his nose, which Tam had seen a few times now.

His curiousity had been lighted once again with the fire that inspired his old name. There was a pattern here, he realized – and he was close to getting behind it. But it was still too cryptic – he had no reference by which to relate the gestures to anything that was spoken.

Just then, help arrived in the form of Mh'repha explaining, in Novah: “The important planning is long finished. We are now just working over minute details concerning the distances we will try to cover each day, and what additional supplies we may need. Mh'ariimh' asked for more writing materials, and Chamh'rov doubts they will be needed and wants to avoid too much load.”

“I can see his point,” Mh'arriimh' added in Novah, having followed their conversation, “but I am afraid what we have will not do. The time we will be spending in the cavern is not yet clear, and if they are any bit as expansive as we expect, the few notebooks I already have will not be enough, especially if we three -” she indicated Tam and Mh'repha, the other two whose main task would be research - “have to share them.”

Tam had barely been following Mh'repha's exchange, looking instead at the gestures they were making. Just now, Mh'arriimh' had drawn a sequence of gestures Chamh'rov had made only a little earlier, which was repeated by Mh'repha in her next sentence.

Gestures... sequences of gestures... and Tam was enlightened. Syllables. The gestures symbolize neither letters – far too slow - nor single words – far too many gestures to be remembered. They are syllables, which make up words. His mind was trained to think in syllables, which where the fundamental unit of Novah writing – pictographic runes existed for just about every single of the largely monosyllabic words of the language.

He watched with renewed interest. He had a clue now: The three-syllabic word that was the Nephil term for paper, appeared to be the combination that had been repeated a few times in the last sentences. And the syllables of the word for paper would be used elsewhere. His mind drifted off as he concentrated on this riddle...

-----

Mh'repha turned towards him again. “They would like to know your opinion, Tam. You are familiar with the magic of your people, and also what supplies you think will be necessary for any spells we may require you to cast.”

“I know,” Tam responded. Gemstones, sapphires most of all, if they are not too rare here. Facing Chamh'rov and catching his gaze, he slowly stretched two fingers of his right hand out and touched them to his chin. A quick nod, winking with his left eye, followed by the clenching of his left hand.

Chamh'rov and most of the rest of the group were speechless, but Phamh'rir and Mh'arriimh' just looked at him with renewed interest.

Chapter Three

Chapter Three aran Sun, 11/12/2006 - 22:33

Meanwhile, back in Vahnatai lands.

X. Olidra's Discovery

X. Olidra's Discovery aran Sun, 11/12/2006 - 22:34

On a small clearing in the middle of the plains northeast of the city of Avtris, a figure stirred and sat up. He yawned, his eyes still closed, and began shuddered at the onslaught of the cold wind that his blanket no longer shielded him from. His eyes opened wide as he noticed he was not at home, but then calmed as his memory returned to him, and he took in his surroundings.

The sky above him was a deep dark gray, here and there broken by a clear midnight blue. Between the trees, the horizon shone through, tinged slightly crimson by the rising sun.

Olidra habitually rose with the dawn.

His sleep had been surprisingly deep and restful, for having spent it in such discomfort. He rubbed his eyes to remove the accumulated grit, and rose completely. The blanket was swiftly rolled up and tied together, then hung from the side of his lizard, and he went off in the direction of the small clear stream he knew to be nearby.

-----

Feeling properly awake after he had washed off some of the dirt of the journey, but also nearly freezing to death as the cold air tore at his wet clothes, he renewed his warmth charm, casting it with a little more strength this time. He did not want to waste his power on a fire yet, since he did not intend to stay here much longer.

But there was time for a short breakfast. He took one of his three bags of rations from Kuhvi's saddle bag and removed two of the dried and stuffed mushrooms that were inside. The taste was not spectacular, but it felt good to have something in his mouth again, and the mushroom was filling.

Now busily munching, he surveyed the surroundings, beginning to plan out the rest of the day. Kuhvi seemed well-rested as well, and had already broken her fast on her lush grass that was still in the clearing. He would most likely be able to make good distance if he rode till the midday, and travel a third of the way between Avtris and Mehdav by nightfall – but he did not want to rush yet.

There was something nagging at the back of his mind, but he didn't find out what it was until he had saddled the lizard and was about to ride out northeast.

The rider I met yesterday – returning from the forachid. Why was he in such haste? Memory returned: He had planned to make a brief visit to the nearby cave tomorrow before he set out. Perhaps he could discover news about Aidra as well, though after these last two months he found that unlikely. That was what had been on his mind earlier.

“Turn around, Kuhvi,” he muttered while reining in the lizard to reverse her direction. “We will look at the testing halls before we go.”

The lizard took only a few minutes to cover the short distance, and Olidra could see the narrow slanted entrance from a long way away. Something is odd here, he saw, but did not understand what. But Kuhvi drew closer and the gate came into focus, its twisted frame now clearly visible, as were the shattered wings of the door itself.

“Devastation.” There was no other word for it. The door had been smashed – shattered into pieces, some of them strewn several meters from the gate. It had been destroyed by a strong explosion from within.

At least now I know why he hurried so... Sohra-Ka, wasn't it? Olidra tried to remember whose turn it was to oversee the exam in this week. The teacher had been with the college for many years and had overseen what must be hundreds of exams. What a delightful pinnacle to one's career.

He walked over to the door, leaving Kuhvi standing at the edge of the clearing. The shards of the door that had burst outward lay menacing in his path, and he imagined a deep red glow from inside the doorway – but it was utterly dark.

Olidra hesitated. I have no business here. If Sohra-Ka had delivered the news to the academy council already, they must already have sent a group to investigate. It would be left to them to clean up the place and find out what had happened. And retrieve anything that... remains, he reminded himself sickly. However the student had been involved in the events that had occurred here, it was impossible he or she had survived the cataclysm.

It could be dangerous. The entrance radiated residues of pyromancy and destructive forces still – no demonology, thank Rehlko! – and caverns that had suffered so much destruction were in constant risk of further collapse. It would be madness to go in without strong magical protection.

And if the investigators of the academy show up right about now, ideally with a few of the auditors along, I will have an interesting time explaining my presence here. The academy had just suffered another scandal, and there was nobody obviously at fault. Olidra knew from experience that in a case like this, standing within a hundred meters from anything that looked like trouble was an invitation to get the blame. He would be in trouble so deep that he might well drown in it.

But I need to know. Olidra knew that much could be gained on decisions made on the whim of a moment. Let's hope this is one of them.

-----

A snap of his fingers, and light glowed from his outstretched hand, a tiny silver sphere. The descent into the dark cavern proved quite easy considerig how badly the doorway was damaged.

The cavern itself was even worse. He slid his hand over one of the walls, its surface smooth as glass. Melted, he realized. In theory, there were a dozen things that could have done that, but he discarded most of them as too unlikely. What remained was simple.

stal'ra.” Quickfire: The deadliest of traps in a cave, and still one part of the challenges that candidates faced in the forachid examination – despite being responsible for well over two thirds of all deaths. They should have taken it out years ago, Olidra bitterly thought. It is part of what makes the test cross the boundary from fierce to lethal.

And if the auditors know their business, they'll put a stop to this atrocity. Olidra knew that Oriath was one of the few remaining schools who had not reformed their examination halls in the past century, while most colleges loosened their testing standards and stamped out the really dangerous practices. It gave their graduates a reputation for old-school toughness – the ones that survived the examination at least. Now that it had claimed the entire hall, along with at least one student, perhaps the council would be forced to stop it entirely.

But that did not solve the problem at hand: However it had happened, the stal'ra flames that were supposed to remain isolated on their level had penetrated the barriers and been left to spread freely throughout the entire maze, spilling onto the surface, melting the walls, blowing out the shattered door and then fading in the clear outside air after briefly burning--

Wrong.

The lush grass outside told a different story. The flames must have faded before they reached the surface – meaning they had been held in by the door that now lay shattered all over the clearing. But then what shattered it?

His foot trod on something, making a tinkling sound of breaking glass. He bent and held up a fine crystal, its aura still radiating fire magic. Part of a fire bomb, he analyzed. The enchanted crystal would explode with great force – force that was required to blow out the door. But not enough heat to melt the walls or collapse the cave. Someone had to have placed it here, and done so after the quickfire disaster. More riddles.

The rest of the cavern was all too quickly explored, unfortunately: He did not find anything else of interest, apart from the ubiquitous devastation that had reigned throughout the halls. The stairway that led deeper into this maze had been blocked off by tons and tons of rock.

Nothing to be done here. Except...

He knew even while he was thinking it that it was complete nonsense. There was no way that someone could have survived stal'ra when it was out of bounds – the whole maze had been flooded and purged bare of all living things.

But he remembered the dungeon of the lich king.

It had been years and years ago – before he had returned to Oriath to take up his post as a teacher. He had made his way around quite a part of the continent, travelling from one adventure to the next, earning his money as a treasure hunter and by ridding towns of minor infestations of monsters. The lich king's dungeon had been one of the most dangerous places he had ever been, even though he had never faced the greater undead himself.

The sights he had seen there... he shuddered at the memory. Faces of those tortured to death in his halls, people skinned alive, their skins nailed to the walls for decoration. But one of the most terrible sights had been the small stone cells set into the ground, the unfortunate tenants left to starve to death over weeks, being sealed inside tiny spaces too small to even turn around. Smaller than coffins... buried alive.

If there was even the slightest chance of the student being alive still, he could not abandon him to this fate.

He needed to know – and he had just the right way to do that.

XI. The Keepers of Oriath

XI. The Keepers of Oriath aran Tue, 11/14/2006 - 01:50

“Point two: Role has been called. Missing: Kahsh-Ka of the Elemental school – on sick leave, Sohar – paid vacation, Olidra-Ka – without leave. Please note this down,” Savas added, turning to the secretary keeping the protocol. Some of the assembled teachers rolled their eyes, but avoided groaning audibly. Savas took his job and himself very seriously, and that included the meetings.

“Point three. The purpose of today's meeting is to discuss our response to the disaster that destroyed the forachid chambers. Point four. We will have a full account of our current information of the disaster.

“Examiner Sohra-Ka is asked to please explain to the assembled what he saw upon his arrival at the caverns this morning.”

Sohra-Ka stood up reluctantly. Not that he was nervous about talking – in fact, he had had to explain what he was about to say several times already, and was more exasperated at having to repeat it yet again.

His nervousness was directed at something else that appeared to be a general source of apprehension to the other teachers too – including Savas, the chairman, although he did his very best to hide it behind his officiousness. At the back of the room, tightly grouped in a corner, sat three black-robed Vahnatai whose chests bore the insignia of a six-pointed star, encased in a hexagon, encased in a circle: The symbol of Law. The auditors had decided to send three of their number to listen in on the meeting after reacting to the news that the forachid had been destroyed with less surprise than a grim resolve. It was clear that they had been expecting something of the sort to happen.

The auditors – we must never call them inquisitors, Sohra-Ka reminded himself, they take that in very ill humor – wore hooded robes, keeping the hoods drawn over their faces even indoors. Their faces were partially hidden in the shadows, giving them a disconcerting appearance. Even though Sohra-Ka could not see their faces, he knew that their gaze held everything in the room, filing all observations away in their memory and passing them on to each other through the mental rapport that they allegedly kept going almost constantly. When they had first arrived at Oriath, Sohra-Ka had looked one of them straight in the eyes and had hastily withdrawn: The impression of the auditor reading his very soul and mind had been too much to bear.

He gathered his thoughts to the matter at hand, and prepared to recount his experiences at the forachid chambers yet again.

-----

“... and the path leading further into the levels seemed to have been blocked off completely. I doubt it would be possible to clear the passages without the aid of several geomancers, and even then it would likely take more than a day.”

“Your estimate of the damage is high,” Savas commented. “Are you saying that the cavern has been rendered completely unusable?”

“What remains of it will have to be seen once the way in is cleared and it becomes accessible. For now, it is as usable as anything with no entrance.”

One of the auditors spoke – the first thing he or the other two had said so far. “You mentioned stal'ra as a likely cause. What evidence did you detect for this?”

“Intense heat has been discharged in the halls, as I said. The walls have been sterilized by fire – scorch marks are visible in places – and the stone has even been partially melted. However, the destruction appears not to have been centered on a single spot as from an explosion. I do not know what other force could wreak that damage equally throughout the entire hall.”

“Where would---” the auditor cut himself short. “Right. You keep on using it in your tests. Safety regulations have not yet been drafted covering this, so the most I can do is advise. My advice is as ever.”

Sohra-Ka did not respond except with a nod of acknowledgement – he had nothing to add, and his authority did not allow him to decide on the way Oriath conducted its forachid test. Savas interjected instead: “Your advice has been noted.” And ignored, it lay on Sohra-Ka's tongue, but he resisted the temptation. There were far less stupid ways to end one's career.

“Let us then come to the next point. Point five,” Savas read from the agenda in the flat voice of bureaucracy. “Our immediate steps regarding the disaster will be the gathering of further information. We must find out exactly what happened in the testing halls and what caused it.”

He paused. “Jekkis-Ihrno, the word is yours,” he bowed slightly in deference to the venerable diviner who had raised his hand.

Jekkis-Ihrno was old even for one of his people, and his words were slow and somewhat wheezing. “It appears that the caverns are inaccessible physically. Making them accessible will take significant time. I would suggest that we conduct our preliminary investigation through remote divination without wasting time on hauling rocks around.” He sat down slowly.

A red-robed mage on the other side of the table raised his hand as well.

“Avjah-Ta, please speak your mind,” Savas addressed him.

“I respectfully disagree with Jekkis-Ihrno.” He licked his tongue nervously. “The chambers are still volatile, and it is well-known that the intense aura of stal'ra obscures the sight for days after.”

Jekkis-Ihrno spoke again. “With all due respect, your knowledge is out of date, Avjah-Ta. Advances have been made years ago that allow the mapping of places with a strongly saturated aura as well as anything. The stal'ra will be no problem.”

One of the auditors spoke. “It may not, but I would like to note at this point that the Agency will not accept the testimony of anyone but an accredited diviner from outside this institution. Fetching such a diviner will take longer than the clearing of the tunnels.”

Jekkis-Ihrno was fuming, but even he dared not argue with the authority of the auditors. He sat down yet again.

Savas went on in his agenda. “I would suggest sending a group of Keepers to the halls no later than tonight.” The Keepers were Oriath's own enforcers – each academy had their own, and they usually acted as investigators and judges in internal conflicts within the institution.

“Six Keepers should suffice, including any of the auditors who decide to accompany them.” A nod from the three robed figures indicated that they very much intended to.

“A vote among the whole staff is required before Keepers are sent on a mission beyond the boundaries of the campus. This is now Point five sub one. Staff is called to an open vote on the decision of sending the Keepers to the forachid.” Technically still inside campus grounds, Sohra-Ka realized. The vote was only required to allow the Keepers to act outside the tiny clearing that surrounded the entrance of the testing halls – an exclave that still belonged to Oriath.

“All in favor are asked to indicate thus with their right hand.” The decision was quickly made: If nothing else, sending the Keepers avoided the assembled staff having to spend hours coming up with another plan of action, and almost all hands were in favor.

Avjah's hand stayed down for several moments, but realizing he was outnumbered anyway, he shrugged and raised it. One of the auditors turned his head towards him and seemed to briefly examine his face, but then turned away again.

“The vote appears to be in favor,” Savas said after a brief pause spent muttering under his breath and counting off the various raised hands. “Please note this down.” The protocol keeper, having already written down the result after she had counted it herself, looked up in irritation, but did not say anything.

“Point five sub two. Six Keepers are to be chosen to be sent to the testing halls. Rabon-Ka, as present First Keeper you are asked to pick the ones you wish to send on this mission.”

Rabon-Ka did not need to think long. “This will be Korhem-Ka and Rahjis-Ka of the Elemental department, Avjah-Ta of the experimental biology department, Idris-Ka and Vahnol-Ka of the crystallomancy department.” He paused, then continued. “I will be going along myself.”

The list was strangely unbalanced, Sohra-Ka realized. Out of the many departments of Oriath, Rabon-Ka had chosen three from his own department. It seemed that only the geomancers were really needed to clear the rocks, and yet the group was made up of crystallomancers and one biologist.

But it was Rabon-Ka's prerogative to choose any of the Keepers – and besides, those who doubled as law enforcers as well as teachers were trained in all kinds of skills. The group would be competent.

The auditor who had been acting as spokesperson now added: “It is our will that two from among our number join your Keepers on their journey. By order of our commander, these will be Eedrah and Zifais.” He nodded first to his left and then to his right to indicate the auditors sitting at either side of him.

Zafas added: “Point five sub six. Note that down, please. The agenda has been covered. Does anyone have anything to add?” After a brief silence, he continued: “Very well. The meeting is adjourned.”

The squeaking sound of dozens of chairs being drawn over the floor, the shuffle of a hundred feet walking out of the room, the click of the door, and then: Silence.

XII. Mind's Eye

XII. Mind's Eye aran Mon, 11/13/2006 - 22:43

nol'na... za'tis... nol'na

The words were repeated endlessly, like a mantra, muttered at first, then whispered below his breath. The sapphire had dissolved already, its structure absorbed by the energy of the spell. A glue nimbus was building around him. Normally, he would have long released his vision at this point, stopping to draw a map of what he had seen. But not this time – he held the spell in place, trying to expand it to increase the area being scanned, and to watch out for the faintest signs of life in the surrounding area.

Olidra concentrated on the walls around him. The space he was occupying, and the empty spaces that surrounded his body.

His eyes had been tied with a makeshift blindfold out of his scarf. The feeling of blindness was frustrating and made him uneasy given his unsafe environment, but it was the only way. He waited while his awareness expanded – to first include the immediate space, then the entire room.

The range of the spell depends on the abilities of the caster to concentrate – and on the time he dedicates to its casting. Olidra knew that the forachid extended seven levels beneath the ground – well over thirty meters. On the level, this range was no problem – it was easy to imagine the whole area on a plane, and extend one's awareness over hundreds of meters horizontally. But to examine in three directions, to take in the space below him as well, required enormous skills in spatial thinking. And that had never been a strong ability of his.

At length, he felt as if he had lost contact with his body entirely. He was floating through the spaces between the stones, his mind racing along the tunnels of the forachid, rushing through walls, connecting chambers, seeking for the faintest signs of life – without expecting to find anybody.

At the edges of his awareness, he felt movement outside. But it was too far to make out – many kilometers away, and likely only wild animals. He had to concentrate on the cavern.

Match!

There was something. He had felt it only faintly while rushing past the destroyed maze. It was not a living aura – or at least not a pure one, instead mingled with the sense of a source of magic close by. But he could sense it through the spell now: Someone was alive there. But what? His vision was already beginning to dissipate, the power not enough to hold it in place.

Olidra needed to see to be sure – at this level of clarity, it could as well be an earthworm. Without releasing his spell, he groped blindly in the bag of gemstones, until his fingers closed over another sapphire. The distinct cut made it easy to distinguish the different stones without seeing them – essential in situations like this.

The sapphire warmed as he poured renewed power into it, then dissolved as the first one had. His vision focused again, and he scanned the place he had last found. There!

“Unbelievable”, he muttered, his focus unbroken. The life he had detected was a person – a Vahnatai. His vision was now sharp enough even to recognize her as female. Among the students of Oriath, men outnumbered women by well over three to one. He had simply assumed that the candidate who had been examined this week had been male. Unexpected, but irrelevant for now.

The magical source he had detected earlier was easily identified: A force barrier spell glowed blue before his minds eye, masterfully crafted. Force barriers keep off stal'ra, they are noted for it, he remembered. Could she have ingenuously saved herself with that?

At great cost, and without much hope for survival. The tunnels freshly mapped before him, he understood now what had happened. The stal'ra had been coming up behind the candidate, leaving her no choice but to block it off with the barrier. But in the process, she had been cornered in a dead end – the staircase that should have taken her to the lower level had been collapsed. A part of a series of vibrations that also freed the flames to reach the surface?

No, he answered himself. The level below the staircase was equally burned out, so the explosion had occurred some time after the fire had started – possibly at the same time as the barrier spell. Could she have collapsed the staircase to escape the flames that advanced from the other side too?

Regardless, he realized now that the reason the signs of life were so faint were not that his magic faded at this range – it was her life that was faint. After four – wait, four and a half – days sealed in this cave, it was a wonder she was still alive at all. Water could be summoned magically, but it sapped energy and strength. As for summoning food – his instructor in survival had put it this way those many years ago: “Consider taking a knife and cutting out a part of your own stomach in order to eat it.” The eternal rules of nature required conservation of energy, and made it impossible to feed oneself off one's own magic. Wizards could live for at least a week as they fought off dehydration, but they starved to death all the faster.

I need to get her out. But how?

His spell was beginning to fade again – he did not take another sapphire; he had learned all there was to know here. Despair was beginning to grip him. How does one move tons of rock out of the way – without much more power than I have at my disposal? He was about ready to dig his fingernails into the rocks that were in the way, but futility was something he was well-acqainted with.

- Who are you anyway?

His thoughts were still too disordered to notice something was off.

- What day is it?

When realization did dawn, it struck him like lightning. Those weren't his thoughts at all! Where do they come from?

- Here. I noticed your spell as it passed by. Who are you?

- I am Olidra. A teacher of Oriath. Although far outside his job description right now, and equally beyond his authority. Are you the lost candidate?

- Then where are the ones who are supposed to be here, if you are not? Of course, he realized, telepathy had the drawback of leaving no way to think thoughts not meant for communication – not for anyone but the most advanced of wizards, who controlled their thought process very firmly. I am Sonahn. I was trapped here while taking the test.

- It is the morning of the fifth day since you left, then, Olidra silently answered. The examiner came and went yesterday, taking you for dead.

- He did not even bother to try penetrating this barrier? Sonahn thought back, exasperated.

- I believe you don't quite realize the extent of the damage, Olidra responded. The cavern is entirely destroyed. Total collapse.

- That seems to have passed me by, she drily thought.

- The entrance and the paths to the lower levels are blocked. I am trying to find a way to clear them, but I don't think that is possible without much more force than I have. Despair crept back into his thoughts, tainting his mind's voice – quite audibly.

- Stop that. I believe I am desperate enough for two. Her mental voice hid it behind an air of exasperation, but one could still hear the hopelessness quite clearly. This still does not explain why you are here, and nobody else. If the cavern was too badly destroyed for the examiner to enter, would they not have sent much more than just a single teacher by now?

- I was passing by and noticed what happened. As for the academy, I would be surprised if they did not send at least a dozen Keepers here and left a single stone unturned in this maze. He paused. I fully expect them to arrive here in a week, and have cleared the way no later than another week later. Bureaucracy works at an unbelievable speed.

- In that case, you will have to either find a way to get me some food down here – a few potions would help, too – so I can await the clean-up crew, or we'll have to come to terms with the fact that what they'll take out of here is a skeleton.

- Then do not exhaust yourself with that telepathy spell. I'm thinking as fast as I can.

Silence was the only answer. Sonahn had taken his advice apparently, and was now conserving her energy instead of wasting it on hurling her thoughts across the space that lay between them. The silence was disconcerting, especially now that the last remnants of his farsight and life-detection spell had worn off, and his mind was resting securely and alone confined to the inside of his skull.

He opened his eyes, and noticed it was utterly dark. Did I let the lights go out, too? No, he remembered. Fool.

Tearing the blindfold off, he took a good look around, in case he had by chance missed any path that conveniently led down. He counted the exits. Then counted them again. Still only one – the one that led outside, away from this cavern, away from its prisoner who was starving to death.

It had been a long time since he had felt so inadequate and futile.

If there was only a way he could... teleport, his mind interjected. A spectacularly stupid idea, he amended immediately. It was practically impossible to do that without a lot more preparations than he had made, and much more power and skill than he possessed. If he tried it, he was lucky if nothing happened – the alternative was ending up smeared across the universe or embedded in solid rock

And even if I arrive, that still leaves the problem of leaving me imprisoned in the chamber down there, so I can lend some company to Sonahn as we starve together. Perhaps she can eat me.

“Or I could teleport her.” He abandoned that thought nearly as quickly. Even if he had the power to move himself, moving a remote object without a focal aid required powers that went beyond all but the most renowned archmages of history.

“Or I could use something to dig.” Things looked more desperate again, he noticed by the increasing stupidity that his ideas were beginning to possess.

Wait. It was idiocy to use a spade or pickaxe to dig up this massive layer of debris, but a wizard had more than such tools at his disposal. Take Tarai-Tel's Mystical Shovel, for example.A spectacularly stupid name for a spectacularly stupid spell, but he had exhausted all the intelligent options that were at hand.

The spell had been invented by an obnoxious colleague Olidra had had at work, and even among the faculty who had practically worshipped him until he finally retired, it was considered one of the most useless spells there were – much like most of what he had thought up, Olidra privately thought. Tarai, then still a Ta, had intended to revolutionize the mining industry by conceiving a spell that could be used to quickly dig up vast tracts of ground, leaving them open to extract minerals and gemstones from.

Apparently a wizard without any knowledge of mining was not the right one to try to invent technology for the craft. Tarai's idea had been to use an elemental amalgam of the forces of Wind and Water – movement – to move the stagnant Earth from its place. What he had not considered was that a flood wave filled with boulders was not a pleasant thing to get hit by if you happened to stand close by.

Fortunately, one of his aides had discovered this in a test before Tarai actually tried to sell the spell – poor guy, Olidra remembered, they never did find his body in all that wreckage.

Far from discouraged into giving up, Taira had realized that it was the Water that caused all the mayhem, and had tried instead to replace it with something less substantial. Wind and Fire could move the rocks just as fine, and unlike the devastating flood, the only thing that hit you was a scorching blast of air and an avalanche of rocks heated almost whitehot. A bit too[i] scorching, Olidra remembered. The aide who had tested the spell this time had been himself – in fact, it had been the first time he had worked with and gotten to know the Master, as he had henceforth sarcastically called him.

Without the transitional elements of either Fire or Water, as Taira had then tried to develop it, the spell took hours to make the kind of progress it previously made in minutes, but at least it was safe to stand close by. The spell was also no longer capable of actually breaking rock – it could only move what as already broken. In the case of this rockslide, that should hopefully be enough.

And safe to be in its way, he now considered as his mind went back to the task at hand. The forces of the wind were strong and relentless, but when applied to the solid ground they were not violent enough to hurl around people before they could escape.

But the spell would take most of a day to finish, so he needed to start it now if he wanted to get Sonahn out of the cavern in time. And I also have to warn her about what I'm doing, he realized. Olidra was clueless about mental magic and telepathy and had no way to initiate contact – he would have to cross that bridge when he came to it.

-----

The third variant of Tarai's Mystical Shovel took little time to prepare. All he needed was another sapphire – Air – which would not even be used up by this spell, but would need to remain in place as a focal point while the magic did its work. Presence was not requird, but advised to ensure the spell remained in control. And depending on how much power he infused the sapphire with, the spell would work no more than a day, leaving the rest of the dungeon intact.

Setting the sapphire on the ground before the collapsed cave entrance, he set about charging it with his energy, but was interrupted by an alien thought.

Found a way? So she was still alive, at least.

I am trying to use a digging spell. It's not the best one there is, I'm afraid. Are you familiar with-”

Sweet stones of Orin, not Tarai's Mystical Shovel? Even in the silence of his mind, the words were pronounced with a clipped voice, dripping sarcasm.

That is the one. No worries, the third variant is quite safe. In as far as stupidity could be safe, he added more quietly, aware that his thoughts were still being transmitted.

I suppose it may clear the passage you are trying to enter, but remember that the third variant no longer digs; it just moves debris. The barrier, Olidra realized. Even if the spell broke through the tunnel, and there were no other collapsed passages in the dungeon, Sonahn was still trapped behind the barrier she had created, and was now unable to destroy.

Is there any way past it? He desperately asked.

Only the collapsed staircase, and that just leads deeper in – there is no other way from here to the upper levels. A pause in the thought. Can you break barriers remotely?

I could not even break a barrier if I had one iin front of me, Olidra bitterly responded. That's what I brought a bag of piercing crystals for. But those don't work over a distance. There was a period of silence while Sonahn contemplated.

I could break it, if I had any kind of power left. A thought seemed to occur to her. Have you ever sourced for a combined spell?

Not beyond my line of sight, he answered, but with enough power, it should not be a problem. Can you channel, then?

I can. But I doubt your power alone will be enough to break it. Can you-

-the crystals-

-about half-

in order or-

-all at once, that's the only way to do it. There thoughts were exchanged rapidly now, responses coming before they had even been completed. Olidra took out the twelve crystals – half of the bag, as Sonahn had advised – and sorted them out in his hand.

Are you ready? He sent down. Then let us begin...

XIII. Captured!

XIII. Captured! aran Wed, 11/15/2006 - 01:28

To channel, that is to take the magical force provided by another source and focus into a spell, is at once one of the most elementary and most difficult of skills to learn. On the part of the channel – the mage who casts the spell – it requires supreme powers of concentration, as well as the stability of the mind and aura that is necessary to wield great outside force without being destroyed by it. On the part of the source, on the other hand, it requires only two things: Endurance that allows the mage providing the power to drain himself to his limits without faltering, and unwavering trust in the channeler.Basics of Magic, Years III and IV.

What the textbook had not taken into account, Olidra reflected, was the possibility of the channeller and the source being separated by a distance of what came close to fifty meters – on a straight line – and most of those passing through solid stone. From the energy perspective, the contact was quite easy to maintain even over greater distances: The arcane planes worked to different laws than the physical one. From the perspective of two mages attempting to communicate, it was a daunting task: The first link had to be established without anything to start from. The textbook recommended physical contact to simplify the process, but in this case the only contact they had was the telepathic rapport Sonahn had been able to establish.

Holding the telepathic connecion, however, required too much concentration to allow Sonahn to also grasp at the line of power Olidra was trying to extend to her. And without it, Olidra was not versed enough in mentalism to establish the channel himself.

In the end, Olidra had to blindly spread out his aura everywhere at once – direction, too, was not easy to focus when operating on the higher planes. The strain was immense, and he was glad to have brought along, as a last minute decision, the two replenishing potions he had stored in his cupboard. But after what seemed to have been an eternity of him stretching himself as thin as a piece of parchment and filling the surrounding place with his own energy, he had finally felt the deft tug that indicated somebody had taken hold of it. A moment later, as she re-established the telepathic contact, he realized with more than a little relief that it was her: Leaving himself open in such a way made him vulnerable to anyone for quite some distance around.

“Ready?” she asked over the link, and he almost looked around at what he was sure was the sound of her voice. “Do not be alarmed. The link is far stronger now that it is reinforced by the channel. That is why you will sense my thoughts more clearly.”

“I'm--” he interrupted himself when he realized he was speaking out loud. “I'm ready. Can you cast the spell now?”

“As soon as you dissolve the breakers.” She was referring to the piercing crystals Olidra still held in his left hand.

“This may take a while.” Olidra had never before consciously absorbed a crystal – an innate ability of every Vahnatai, but one that usually manifested itself as a byproduct of another spell such as Farsight, which required the absorption of a sapphire. Fortunately, he was free to divert his mind to other tasks now that the link was in place: The channeller held the contact and broke or kept it at will; this was the reason the textbook had mentioned trust.

He was glaring at the crystals in his hand, as if willing them to disappear, but nothing happened.

“Pretend that you are already casting a spell. Find a focus to direct it at, and it will work much more easily. I will divert the energy once you have absorbed it.” She – a student – was teaching him, Olidra realized. You never cease learning, do you? His main subject had been Carving, not Crystallomancy – he did not normally bother with what happened to the crystals after they had been given shape.

A simple firebolt will do the trick. Look at the opposite wall, he told himself, the outcropping will be an excellent target. Concentrate... sweat started to run down his forehead.

Suddenly, he felt the rush of power! It flowed first through his clenched hand, seeming to burn his fingers, then it spread up his left arm, like fire in his veins. He felt like screaming as he felt the new force infuse his whole body and aura, and it was rushing around inside him with no place to go. The feeling was at once exhilerating and frightening – surely in another second he would burst, if the power continued to rage through him.

“NOW!” The urgency of Sonahn's thought made it register as a shout in Olidra's mind. “evk'tark anv'! anv'is dhaiv tark!” Olidra felt the power in him dissipating, being diverted elsewhere – first as a trickle, and then as a sudden rush. A fruit being squeezed, that is what it feels like. He was being emptied of every last bit inside him, left as a dry, abandoned husk...

And suddenly, it was over as quickly as it had begun. Olidra was left lying on the ground gasping for breath like a fish out of water, his strength seeming utterly spent. His light spell, too, had dispersed by now, leaving him alone in the darkness of the cave, wishing nothing more than to take a long, restful sleep.

But he could not rest now. There was still Tarai's Mystical Shovel to take care of – barrier or not, tons of rock still blocked the lower levels and would need to be cleared out before he could rest. He slowly, painfully got to his feet.

In the midst of the darkness, bright seas of color danced suddenly in front of his eyes, and he would have been sick if there had been anything in his stomach. Overdraining, he immediately diagnosed. The symptoms are nausea and disorientation, the after-effects can lead to unconsciousness, coma and death if left untreated. He needed to replenish his energy as soon as possible before he blacked out – even if he lived, it could be days before he recovered on his own.

He stumbled over to where he remembered he had set down his bag – the one with the potions. Feeling blindly inside, he was glad that he had packed only one kind of potion. His fingers closed around the bottle, hastily opening it, and gulping down the bitter, almost corrosive liquid within seconds.

There. I feel better already.

As his senses returned, he renewed his light spell and looked around.

Are you okay? he thought, hoping to be able to contact Sonahn. But the dissolving of the channelling link had taken with it the mental link, breaking contact. It was up to her to re-establish it, if and when she felt up to it.

Later, he told himself. For now, he needed to concentrate on the matter at hand.

Tarai's Mystical Shovel, in its third variant, technically required the constant attention of its caster to proceed. Its chief drawback and limitation – besides being able only to clear rock that was already broken – was the time a mage was prepared to sit facing a pile of debris, watching it being moved at literally mind-numbing speeds.

More recent advances, however, had rendered many of the old “presence required” restrictions obsolete, as the spell could continue to be focused by a specially prepared crystal, while the mage could walk off and do something more productive or entertaining with his time.

The only remaining obstacle was the time needed to actually prepare said crystal.

------

“There. It is done.”

Olidra held aloft the small stone, and it glinted in the magical light, shining almost like a diamond even though it was simply common quartz. He had spent at least an hour cutting and imbuing the gemstone – it is always amazing in how many situations this carving set can be useful, he commented – until it shone with a smooth, clear brilliance.

The spell was already residing inside the stone: It had grown inside the structure as it had taken shape. Now all he needed to do was activate it – it just took a small burst of power to tip the balance in the stone and induce it to spill its magic, activating the spell inside.

Olidra walked over to the mouth of the collapsed tunnel, where huge boulders lay heaped on top of each other, having broken out of the ceiling to crush into the passageway below. Here goes...

Putting the stone down in front of the wall, he took a few steps back – even the third variant of the spell was not perfectly safe to stand next to, as the boulders could be flung a few meters away. He raised his hand to cast the small firebolt that would activate the stone, but felt a sudden uneasiness wash over him. A sound. In the midst of the silence.

A lizard hissing nervously.

Kuhvi, Olidra realized. The lizard was still standing outside the cave entrance, having waited for her rider for several hours now. She is warning me.

He turned around, turning his back to the crystal and gazing in the direction of the entrance.

Footsteps.

His next sensation was that of his arms being pinned against his sides and his legs suddenly moving through treacle. Caught thus in an invisible cage of force, he could only stare in bewilderment at the Vahnatai who were facing him.

“Olidra-Ka.”

It took a while before it registered, but then he recognized them by their insignia. Keepers, all six,. Of the assembled, he knew only Rabon-Ka, their leader. Furthermore, three others were walking behind the Keepers, keeping in the shadows, their black robes hiding them well.

And as Olidra noticed, with a sinking heart, the insignia of Law that identified them as auditors, he realized just how deeply he was in trouble.

XIV. Interrogation

XIV. Interrogation aran Thu, 11/16/2006 - 22:53

“Why are you doing this to me?” Olidra asked, desperately by now. He had been first put under a forcecage spell and was now shackled by his hands and feet. His captors had remained curiously silent for the entire time.

“Olidra-Ka.” Rabon-Ka, the leader of the Keepers spoke coldly. “You have been found in a place that has been declared out of bounds. The forachid has been damaged, and until we have found the cause, the entire area is forbidden to all.”

He went on. “And yet, you are here. You were curiously missing at the briefing that was held yesterday – I presume you saddled your steed and came here as fast as you could.” Shahv'ot, Olidra thought. I was out getting supplies for my journey, and did not receive the summons. And I can't tell them that, either. He remained silent.

“Now why, Olidra, would you wish, in such haste, to come here, just after we learned of what has happened? One might almost think you were hiding something – or trying to meddle with evidence. What is your involvement in this?”

Olidra flared. “My involvement? I did not even know of the disaster when I rode out yesterday – as you said, I missed the summons to the briefing. How can you say I was involved when I only found out about what had happened after I saw it with my own eyes?”

“Peculiar. Most peculiar,” Rabon-Ka retorted. “For it throws up other questions. For example, why have you come here at all – taken a short walk to enjoy the weather?” He smiled thinly at his joke. “That is beside the point. I am not a fool, Olidra-Ka. Rumors of the forachid's destruction had spread throughout the offices of the academy of Oriath scarcely an hour after examiner Sohra-Ka returned with the news. You did not need to be present at the meeting to know. You had plenty of headstart – if you had left immediately after the rumors had reached you, you could still have left hours before the meeting started.”

“I was not even near the offices yesterday!” Olidra almost yelled.

“Restrain yourself, Olidra-Ka. I do not appreciate this tone.” Rabon-Ka's eyes narrowed to slits in the way that were the material of horror stories whispered among the students. “Curious. Had you taken the day off? You were missing without leave at the meeting – I believe the records will show that you went to work yesterday and absented yourself at some point before the meeting began.”

“In that case, I am sure you have witnesses who saw me come in that morning.”

“A more relevant point is whether you have an alibi for having been somewhere else. You were supposed to come yesterday, and it is not documented that you did not come, so the burden of proof lies on you.” An inexperienced man might have mistaken the drawn grin of Rabon-Ka for a a smile. Olidra was not one.

His mind began working feverishly. I can hardly get the crook who was selling the fake ingredients as a witness. Even if he were going to speak for me, he would not be trusted and would get me in even more trouble than I am in. The food trader, at least, should remember me; we did talk for more than a few minutes after all. His situation was not as grim as he had feared. Once back in Avtris, he could prove with ease that he had never known of the disaster before he arrived here.

And then I can return and dig Sonahn's bones out of this mess, he soberly reflected. Given time, he was in no trouble – or at least in no permanent trouble – but time was exactly what he lacked. Sonahn could not survive another week without food or water . He had studied the precise ratios and limitations long ago for his own journeys: Using magic to rehydrate oneself used so much food that one
could starve within two weeks, less if one used other magic on the side.

There was hardly enough time to ride to Avtris and back here. As for waiting for the legal process to begin, to find and question the witnesses and to find him innocent, he could reckon with at least a month of time wasted here.We are completely and utterly screwed, Sonahn. She would die waiting desperately for his spell to dig through the tunnel.

“You do not realize what is at stake here. There is a student in those caverns!”

“Student Sonahn, indeed.” Rabon-Ka replied. “A tragic loss of a promising mind. But there will be time to morn her after we have finished establishing your role in these events.”

“You don't understand! She is still alive! She is trapped in the caves, and must be--” he was cut off.

“Olidra-Ka, I am not sure how you get these delusions. We know what happened in that cavern – examiner Sohra-Ka was very clear in his report. stal'ra is not known for leaving survivors. The most she could have hoped for was a quick death.”

“But I--”

“You examined the blocked passage and assumed that the student must be alive behind it, I take it. Or maybe you scried down well over fifty fores--” meters, damn it! Olidra mentally chided him, “and detected her. I would hazard to guess she even talked to you. Olidra-Ka, your excuses are as thin as boiled water.

“Meanwhile, I am more interested in why you were in such a hurry to reach this cave in the first place – surely you did not sense a student in distress all the way back from Avtris?”

This was getting nowhere.

“Rabon-Ka.”

“That would be Keeper Rabon-Ka to you, Olidra-Ka.”

“Keeper. I was not present at the meeting, and I was not present at the office yesterday. I was passing by here on my way to Mehdav, where I had an urgent business to complete.”

“Very urgent, that you did not even think of notifying the academy – beyond that silly letter you wrote to your colleague. What business, if I may ask?” He remarked sarcastically.

“To find my former student Aidra. The one who left two months ago.”

“Who was expelled two months ago, yes. I do remember you were oddly attached to the fool. Incompetence seeks its mates, I presume.” Olidra wanted nothing more than to retort with a scathing remark, but knew that the Keeper had him utterly under his control, and anything he said would worsen his situation even more.

“Who was expelled, yes.” Olidra spoke, trying to keep calm. “I did notice that there seemed to be certain... irregularities in the way his examination was handled. I was trying to find out what was behind these irregularities.”

Rabon-Ka, who had been looking away, turned sharply towards Olidra; his gaze was pure poison. He said nothing for a while, while the three auditors stood silently nearby. They had been following the entire conversation.

“What do you know of this,” he hissed.

“Nothing more than I said,” Olidra lied. “I know only that Aidra slept on his way to the forachid, and then he slept again on his way back, and for that he was expelled. This was in spite of numerous students having done this before with impunity, and I wanted to find out the reason for this double standard.”

“There is no double standard.” Rabon-Ka said through clenched teeth. “What other students did is irrelevant. What this student did was a violation of the rules, and the rules state that the only consequence can be failure.

“Especially considering that student was close to---” uncovering a conspiracy within the school that got rid of him before he could say anything, Olidra thought. I cannot trust him. I cannot trust anyone, and I am not in a position of power. He needed to keep his mouth shut.

What about the auditors? They are not likely to take something like this lightly. If I can speak to them privately, the appropriate action may be taken. Olidra hesitated. He would be forever branded a snitch. But he would be able to clear Aidra's name, and if the conspirators were as ruthless as they seemed, then they needed to be stopped.

But right now he could not talk to the auditors alone. And if we leave, Sonahn dies. He needed to do something. He kept talking to cover his confusion.

“Close to a breakthrough in his experiments regarding the crystallization of brines on the surface of most common gems in a saline solution, and the effects they have on their conductive properties,” I am spouting rubbish, and I know it, he thought desperately, and so does everyone else present, “conductive properties, which would have revolutionized the theory of crystallomancy as we know it, Rabon-Ka, and you cannot tell me that you did not-” deliberately silence him, he stopped himself from saying, and continued, “-know of the implications this would have had on the subjects that--” he trailed off, realizing that nothing more could be gained, and he might as well stay silent. “Oh, I am so confused.” He made a motion to hold his head, but he was still shackled. Olidra swayed on his feet slightly. If I could only reach... Tarai's Mystical Shovel is ready to begin, if I could only touch the crystal again – or even just cast a spell close to it...

“Let us not get side-tracked here, teacher,” Rabon-Ka said in an almost soothing tone, evidently believing he had lost his wits. “We will now ride back to Avtris together. I believe you may be speaking the truth. You were just concerned about the poor bungling student, and ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now come home and drink a cup of tea to calm your--” the spark of desperation lit up in Olidra's eyes quite suddenly.

“No!” His arms struggled wildly, but remained shackled. He was wildly shaking, but managed to shout a formula: “nal'ra sha'niihv!

His nine captors still stood frozen in shock as a ball of purple lightning left his restrained left hand and flew at the cave entrance, then vanished with a hissing sound. Fortunately I can still aim without moving my hands, he noticed with relief.

With the disappearance of the magic missile, the Keepers seemed to unfreeze. They were upon him in another moment, tackling him physically and throwing him to the ground and barraging him with further restraining spells.

They were stunning him, he realized as his mind grew drowsy and distanced. But in his mind, he could still hear the faint rumbling sound that had begun with the hiss of the missile – and the second rumbling sound that followed it. That was the memory that flashed before his eyes as he lost consciousness and drifted off into a universe of red mist and dark clouds.

Chapter Four

Chapter Four aran Fri, 11/17/2006 - 22:29

Meanwhile, our hero and his Nephilim companions...

XV. Bhardrow

XV. Bhardrow aran Sun, 11/19/2006 - 18:42

Whew. I edited this slightly just now - formatting of the <> entities that made parts of the text invisible (and removed it from the wordcount, about 300 words).

There is a woeful unintentional double-entendre in there that I didn't notice before. It will probably be lost anyone who hasn't followed the Runescape thread on Spiderweb, so I'm not that worried.

But still, if you do see it, it was completely accidental. I swear.

--
Arancaytar

The town of Bhardrow was smaller than Tam had expected. From the tales of Mh'repha, the hunters and the traders who had accompanied them, it had seemed to him that the fishing capital of the Nephilim lands must be even larger than Harr – I did finally find out what the town of the Claw was named, he wrily added. Claw, in their language. But the town before him, the town they were about to enter, was less than a quarter the size of the mountain village they had left. Evidently, Harr was one of the most populous city-states of them all, and Mh'repha had eventually told him that no other city for many leagues around was as big an importer. The gold mines paid for it all, she had said, and were one of the reasons that the Claw was in a constant state of readiness for an attack by the Greywraith, who had been after the mines for generations.

The town before them was also named after the tribe that had built it – Bhardrow, which Tam was able to translate to something approaching “River forest.” The tribe was well-off from being the only provider of fish for a long distance around – a delicacy that was worth much to its trading partners.

Still, after seeing the large town of Harr, built into the very face of the mountain, Bhardrow's low and straw-thatched houses looked poor and provincial by comparison.

“You have not yet seen their ships, Tam,” Mh'repha said, seeming almost to read Tam's mind. “They may not build luxuriously, but they do have money to spend.

“They spend most of their time on their ships, you see. Fishing journeys looking for the best spot up and down the river for days of travel around – some of them even go as far as the sea, which is a journey of a month from here. When they do make landfall, it is only to go out again soon, so they like to build their ships more expensively than their houses. What we see here is more of an over-night place than a city.”

Indeed, as Tam now looked around him, he could see that the streets were curiously empty and deserted. They had yet to encounter more than three of the Bhardrow clan on their journey through the city, and that included the guards who had greeted them at the wooden gate. Tam had put the emptiness down to the early hour at which they had come – the sun was just beginning to poke over the trees to the east – but he now realized that the town would not be much more busy at noon than now.

“Where do we go next?” He asked Mh'repha.

“We are here,” she said aloud, her hands motioning for him to watch, “for a simple trading expedition. The traders will exchange some of the gold we have brought with us for fish, which they and their pack animals will bring back to Harr. They will also pay for passage south, up the river to the Ratbane city.” Her hands wove a different sentence in the curious secret gestures of the Claw. <we will leave half-way through the journey, where we have determined the cavern lies.> Aloud, she continued: “The hunters will continue the journey south, all the way to Ratbane. <On a diplomatic envoy that the Greywraith are not officially supposed to know anything about, but that will appear to be the secret reason for our journey. We are entering trade negotiations with the Ratbane, and are acting secretive about this.>

<All the hunters?> Tam asked with his own gestures. <I thought at least some of them would stay with us. Will all of the hunters go down to Ratbane?>

<None of the hunters will go. The envoy will be postponed with apologies, and none of us will go to Ratbane.>
<Have the Bhardrow agreed to play along?>

<Much as we regret stringing along one of our allies, the Bhardrow don't know a thing about it. They will be as surprised as our Greywraith observers when we disappear. The idea is not to keep our mission completely secret, only to keep it secret as long as possible.>

Aloud, Tam replied: “Then let us find a ship!”

------

Mh'repha's description had been an under-estimation. Once they saw the port district, Tam realized whee all the gold that the Bhardrow were gaining from their fish industry was being spent: Tall stone buildings – quaried miles away, possibly imported from Harr, for the ground was soft and muddy here – quays that extended for a long distance down the river, where a multitude of vessels lay anchored. Tam, whose home town of Avtris was far from open water, had only heard of ships before and was fascinated.

The Claw traders who had accompanied them had already gone about their own business, taking their part of the gold with them to conduct their fish trade. Meanwhile, Chamh'rov had taken charge of the hunters and had asked around for a fishing captain who was travelling up-stream past the city of Ratbane.

It had quickly transpired that the fishing season was bad this year. They had met the traders once again while taking lunch at the inn, and they had been fuming.

“They tell us the price has doubled this time. Everything – herring, salmon, mharron. We have been comparing prices all morning, and we'll be lucky if we can get half what we expected.” They had parted, both groups seeking desperately to lessen their costs. The hunters, too, had discovered it was not easy to find a ship.

“South?” The captain spat. “Only a fool would go there at this time. Everything with sails is headed down the river to the mouth of the sea; that's the only place to fish this year. Past Ratbane, you can find nothing.”

“We could offer more gold for the passage,” Chamh'rov suggested, but the captain shook his head.

“Not that much.” His eyes lit up. “But wait! I know someone you could ask...”

-----

Siphra was waiting in the Sea Tiger bar, as the grizzled captain had suggested.

If the other captain had looked like an old sea-bear who had been born on a ship, then Siphra took that to new heights. Her fur was matted and grey, and in some places rubbed bare by the wind and the salt. She sat in a corner, brooding darkly over a mug of ale. She hardly looked up when Mh'repha sat down at her table – Chamh'rov had stayed behind on the quay to ask other captains, and only Tam and Phamh'rir had come along –, but muttered something that might have been a greeting.

She looked incredulous at the offer.

“Down south?” She looked at Mh'repha's face for the joke, but found none. In spite of this, she let out a series of barking guffaws that sounded similar to a cough. It turned into a real cough, and she reached for a gulp from her mug.

“It must have been old Raphor sent you to me.” She laughed. “He didn't tell you what was up either, I am sure.

“So here's the story. My ship's... well, it's in some disrepair. I kept meaning to fix it, but then I fell ill early this year and wasn't able to lift a finger for months. As for my crew... they skipped out on me after the last journey. Not profitable enough, and after the last storm, people are beginning to say I draw bad luck.

“Once that happens, there's no way anyone will take berth on your ship again. Well, there are a few sailors here that aren't superstitious, but even they're not going to work on a ship that damaged – there are far better opportunities. So with a ship with one sail and no crew, I'm just about the only one who won't sail north to the sea this winter.

“Which means my ship is about the only one you'll find that could take you south. In a manner of speaking.”

Mh'repha raised her eyebrows. “What manner of speaking are we talking about here?”

“It's dirty, rotten and full of holes. And there's nobody to crew it. You're welcome.” She laughed again. “Raphor is a fool. He's probably thinking he tossed a huge opportunity my way. There is just no way that...” her head bowed down to the table again.

<I advise against.> Phamh'rir's gestures were swift and subtle. If Mh'repha hadn't been watching for them, she would have mistaken them for merely an itch he was scratching. <We cannot risk a disaster.>

<You're welcome to try and find a different captain,> Mh'repha responded. <You heard Raphor earlier.>

<Pray tell, how are we going to sail a ship without a crew?>

<We don't need a full crew where we're going. And there are eight of us.>

<Three of whom have set foot on a ship before, and none who have sailed one.>

Tam interrupted with a gesture of his own. <We should take Siphra up on this offer. The journey is short and will not require much manpower. Besides, it looks like she really needs that job. It's the only chance she has at staying in business,> he added with a side-long glance at the captain who was still staring at her ale, too far lost in thought (or stupor, Tam considered) to wonder why the three were remaining so oddly silent.

Mh'repha turned suddenly, looking sharply at him, then casting an appraising look over at the weather-bitten captain. After a moment, she raised her eyebrows, then she gazed intently at the floor, looking a bit sheepish.

Holy crystals and the blades that carve them, it hit Tam as he noticed the reaction. Is she jealous? He realized he needed to file that thought away for later, but his heart could not not help skipping a beat.

Mh'repha, meanwhile, shrugged and said aloud: “If you say so...” Tam sensed a determined decision to cover up her first reaction as best as she could. In her confusion, she had even forgotten to stick to the secret gestures.

Siphra perked up, the words seemed to have penetrated her lethargy. She looked questioningly up at the healer. “Say what?”

“We have decided. We need to reach Ratbane as quickly as possible, and any ship is better than none.” Phamh'rir scowled. <If you are going to decide this based on your--> Mh'repha calmly reached back and gripped his hand to prevent him from speaking on. “We can repay you adequately for the trip.”

“That is so kind of you,” Siphra said without much conviction. “Now if you can conjure up a crew that can man my ship too, you have a deal,” she bitterly added. “Because you three won't do. Even at the best of times, my brig needs more than five sailors to function. Now, with all the leaks, we have to man the bilge practically around the clock, and that requires two more.”

“There are eight of us. The leader of our expedition and the others are still at the quay, looking around for alternatives.” Mh'repha grinned. “I expect they shall join us presently.” And if not? If he's found another ship that's in better condition? She was suddenly strangely regretful of having to turn down Siphra's offer after having considered it before.

The line of thought was interrupted as the tavern door opened briefly to allow five Nephilim in, the best collective description for whom would probably be “bedraggled”.

“We've looked all over the place!” Chamh'rov said by way of greeting. “Nothing. No ship worth salt is going south for any sum of gold.”

Siphra grinned. “It looks like you'll have to put up with one that's not worth a grain.” She gestured at Mh'repha. “We may have reached a deal.”

Mh'repha hesitated briefly, evidently debating whether to talk to Chamh'rov in the Common or in the secret hand signals. Evidently, she opted for openness, for she said aloud: “Siphra here is willing to take us south on her ship. For--” she hesitated, and looked questioningly at the captain.

Siphra looked somewhat surprised at being asked to name her own price. She thought for a few seconds, calculating. “Eighty khershen, ten per passenger.” Mh'repha raised her eyebrows and signalled to Tam, who was looking a bit confused. <That's dirt cheap, if you must know, even for having to crew. We'd expected to pay more than five times that sum. It comes to about 10 pieces of the gold we're carrying.>

She replied, turning to Siphra. “But that's not all. We are going to pay you a bonus upon arrival of course. Of... she looked at Chamh'rov, judging his expression.

“Twice the original price, let's say. That should be sufficient, I hope.”

Then, she added: “The catch, Chamh'rov, is that there's no crew. We're going to have to do much of the work ourselves.”

Chamh'rov scowled for only a second, but realized a lost cause when he saw one. “That will be no problem.”

Mh'arriimh', indeed, looked fascinated. “We are going to sail the ship? That is wonderful, I always wanted to---” she cut herself off as she realized the looks the other Nephilim were giving her. Is she crazy? Siphra's expression seemed to say.

“Sailing a ship, dear Mh'arriimh, may not be entirely what you thought it to be,” Mh'repha hesitantly answered.

“We're going to spend half our time sweating, and the other half cursing,” Siphra drily added. “There is no way we can positively crew a ship with me the only sailor and eight of you lubbers, but we'll manage for the distance you want to go and no further. There is just no way we can possibly do this, but I'll be darned if we aren't going to try.

“Oh, and we are going to need two at the bilge,” she added.

Mh'repha smiled a fiendish smile, looking first at Tam and then at Mh'arriimh'. “I know just who is going to do that.”

XVI. Fair Winds

XVI. Fair Winds aran Sun, 11/19/2006 - 19:02

The sun rose on a day that was just like the one before it, only dirtier. Tam was woken by the crash of waves on the side of the ship – well, not entirely, since the sound had threatened to keep him awake for most of the night, and it had only been long after midnight that he had managed to fal asleep inspite of the noise. The ship heaved and rolled, and it was all Tam could do not to repeat his performance of the first two days and be copiously and violently sick all over the place.

“Wake up, sleepy-head!” Mh'repha's voice sounded through the door. Mh'repha, of course, had been awake long before sunrise, helping Siphra around the ship. Her promise of making Tam man the bilge pump had been forgotten, evidently, because she and Chamh'rov were now the ones who were down in the hold for most of the day, doing their best to make sure the ship stayed afloat in spite of the many holes it had that let water in all the time. It had been only half a day before she had come to check up on Tam, who was still busily pumping. Taking one look at him, she had decided firmly that “his condition was not improving, and he should probably be resting for a bit,” and taken over his pump without another word.

Mh'arriimh' had worked another five minutes, when Chamh'rov, in turn, had entered the hold and repeated Mh'repha's previous performance, relieving Mh'arriimh'. Now the healer and the leader of the squad of hunters were busily sweating at the pump handles stopping once every while to catch their breath.

“The things we do for love, eh?” Mh'repha had wrily remarked after looking over her shoulder to make sure the linguist had indeed left. Chamh'rov's whiskers twitched awkwardly as he realized he had been so obvious. He had shrugged and bent over his pump to mask his abashment under the exertion of work.

Meanwhile, the ship was making good progress. The winds were favorable, and it seemed hard to believe that the ship they were travelling on was barely sea-worthy and hardly adequately crewed. The vessel was speeding along across the waves, and while the single remaining sail was hardly enough to make efficient use of the wind, the lack of cargo kept the ship light enough to travel fast.

Tam, after his period of prescribed rest was over, but Mh'repha would still not work him the bilge again, took to wandering around the ship and helping the other Nephilim with various odd jobs. After His magic had already proved useful several times along the way: the wind that was now filling their sails was not entirely the product of nature.

I never expected to be able to summon wind, Tam reflected. He knew it to be a simple enough application of the elemental forces, but he had thought it should have been far harder to control or direct it. He had learnt it from Zadal-Ihrno's writings.

Indeed, a copy of the Book of Zadal he had brought came in very useful over the next few days. It covered extensive lore about the Nephilim, including the other tribes – the sea-faring Bhardrow, the trading Ratbane and even the secretive Greywraith, although he had not been able to learn much about them. And yet, what he had learned amazed Tam. Could it have been so simple to enter their innermost palace, the one constructed of black rock, which was said to entrap spirits and living souls alike within its walls, thus that one could hear the wailing of a thousand ghosts while wandering between its towers?

And yet, Tam had found this journal entry late into one of the books Mh'repha had obtained for him:

-----

Thirtieth of Withering, in the year 203.

A blood-red sunset. I gaze out over the plains to the west of my window, and see the crimson light filtering through the trees. Dense white clouds are wafting low over the ground, as always in this damp country. Shadows seem to flit through the mists. I cannot see for more than ten paces, but they have no trouble.

It is now the third day that I have been living among these creatures, so like and yet so unlike the Nephilim I have come to know earlier in my travels. Are not they, like their brethren, related to the cat as their common ancestor? But if the other tribes are gifted with the art of walking without sound, then these are not only unheard, but unseen, unsmelt and unfelt as well.

I feel like I am living amongst shadows.

Wherever I go, I sense that they watch me. But wherever I turn, they do not seem to be around – the corridors curiously empty. Only when one of them wishes to communicate with me do I see them; then they appear of a sudden before me as if growing from the ground or coalescing from nothing but the very mist that lies over all these buildings and this entire city in the midst of the moor. I see them when they wish me to see them. It does not happen often.

I do not even know what they think of me. Am I an intruder or a guest? Do they barely tolerate me, and their silence is hostility? Or do they welcome me, and they do not wish to speak much out of politeness, like my hosts among the Claw?

Sometimes I wander about the city and will come to a dark doorway. Out of nowhere, a Nephil appears before me, silently blocking my passage. I do not argue. Their gaze looks fierce and unquestioning.

-----

Tenth of Icefall 203

A grey dawn. The sun is obscured by the cloudy sky, but there is light enough to see by, and the ground is lit up – for once unobstructed by the mists that usually creep over the earth.

An amazing event has occurred. I have been able to enter the forbidden palace! I did not even intend to, walking instead where my feet took me, trusting my hosts to use their uncanny abilities to hinder me whenever I was about to enter a place I should not. But I was not hindered when I crossed a dark door and suddenly realized that the black walls about me could only be those of a single building: The palace has been constructed of an alien material that cannot otherwise be found in these parts. I asked them about it once, but they remained silent. The glossy black rock seems utterly impervious, it absorbs all light and seems constantly cold to the touch – but now, in winter, this is nothing unexpected.

I entered the palace and was slightly relieved to see several lights hanging from the ceiling, illuminating the otherwise unbroken darkness. The lights seemed to be shaped like skulls, and I knew too much about my hosts to persuade myself they were fake. The wind whistled past the walls outside, producing a ghastly screeching, wailing noise that was a constant backdrop to the already grim and gruesome scenery. I could not have thought of a more unpleasant place to be in my life, even compared to the dungeons of the dead king Tahven-Bok, who, being denied the right to become a crystal soul, had turned himself into a lich and shaped around him a palace that was a mockery of life. At least Tahven-Bok's lair was not so terribly deserted. In this case, there was nothing: The mists did not part over any figure, and I met not a single soul as I wandered through the staircases.

Eventually, I lost my nerves at something. Even now, my hand is shaking as I get close to remembering...

Smudges of ink obscured the next few words, and Tam's breath caught.

dark, slimy, monstrous... no, I cannot find the words. Even now the memory escapes me, already feeling like a distant, bad dream as I am sitting safely here in my chamber. I do not even know if what I saw was real, or an illusion induced by magic, or simply my imagination fueled by the shadows and the constant wailing of the wind outside. I ran straight back home, not heeding if I was caught or thought mad by the Greywraith, for the shadow of fear lingered still. I have made up my mind to go home. The grey dawn has shown it very clearly to me: The cold, damp air now blows down my neck in an unwholesome way, the sounds of the wind are a new terror, and even the mists seem to hold a thousand ghosts. I cannot stay here, for every minute tastes of fear. Only slowly does my heart stop racing.

-----

Tam closed the journal and looked up from the rough wooden table of the ship's hold at the hourglass that was hanging from the ceiling, swinging on its chain. The third watch began five minutes ago. I am already late, he realized as he put down the book and quickly left the room. It was his turn to help at the sails, relieving Mh'rowan.

The archer looked slightly cross as he stormed across the deck, but only nodded to acknowledge his arrival as he took over. As on the days before, he felt completely overwhelmed by the mass of tangled ropes and rigging, and helplessly tugged at one or two of them until Captain Siphra looked over and shouted a few words over the noise of the wind. “Let out the main, four arms!” Adding, a moment later, “Third rope from the left!” He gripped the rope together with Iiphromh', the other hand at the sails, and they carefully let out about four armlengths of rope, loosening the sail to be filled by the wind. The brig swiftly glided over the waters, its speed belying the sorry state of the sale and the hulk, and Tam turned his face to the south, where the midday sun shone from behind the clouds. A spray of water hit his face, and he felt exhilerated like rarely before.

XVII. The Storm

XVII. The Storm aran Sun, 11/19/2006 - 22:23

The storm arrived ahead of a mist of silence.

The clouds were drifting across a dark grey sky, as if hunted by an invisible foe, speeding and tossing. The waves did not start immediately: The wind was only touching the treetops, bending them like an unseen giant, leaving the surface of the water itself calm and smooth as the Starfish glided along the river.

Then the river itself seemed to churn with the sudden arrival of the storm: The water took to bubbling and boiling, and the air was whistling through the gaps in the planks. Siphra had predicted the storm for some time and had accordingly ordered everyone to the sails to first haul them in and then lower them entirely.

“The wind will be coming up from northwest behind us. Normally it would be an excellent wind by which to go this way, so we'd need to set every handkerchief we have, but we're on a river and the wind is coming up too far west and not enough north. Even if we hauled the sail straight in, it would toss us right over or smash us into the rocky eastern shore. So we need to take them down entirely and hope for the best.” They had quickly complied, and the Starfish was now entirely bereft of sails. The stream began to toss them around and drift them slightly northwards, downstream, and Siphra ordered the anchor to be dropped. “We'll stay here for the night. We can't sail in this weather, and if we don't anchor, the river will take us right back to Port Bhardrow by tomorrow.”

The anchor hit the waves with a splashing sound; they waited for several seconds as the chain slid out and reached its limit, then it suddenly went taut and the ship gave a small jump that nearly took Tam to his knees. The Starfish rolled for a while, but the anchor chain held firm, holding the ship midstream against the current.

Siphra had overseen several more tasks that would ensure the ship would sustain as little damage as possible in the weather that was to come, but there was only so much they could do. Mh'repha resisted asking Siphra about the dangers and risks. The weatherbitten captain's concerned expression was unnverving, and against her usual optimism the worries were outright scary to her.

Finally, there was nothing more to be done, and the entire crew of nine had withdrawn below deck to wait out the storm. Eight, Mh'repha realized as she looked over the assembled faces, pale in the lantern light, knowing not what to expect. She swore.

-----

The spray in his face was getting colder and more fierce by the second, as was the wind that whipped around him. The clouds roiled above on the sky, and the waters churned beneath. It was a scene right out of a cyclopean nightmare, and it was completed when forks of lightning flashed on the horizon, followed several seconds later by rolls of thunder. Tam had to resist an urge to laugh madly in the face of the wind.

This had ever been his dream: Riding out a storm. He had sometimes took to night-time wanderings while it rained on the plains northwest of Avtris, but even the fiercest thunderstorm had nothing on the weather that was unfolding before his eyes now. The ship heaved again in the tossing waves, and when he closed his eyes, Tam could imagine that he was far out to sea, on a ship tossed by the fury of the storm, abandoned to the mercy of the winds.

As the storm begins to rise... Tam quietly muttered. Now he could not resist further. He lifted his face to the sky and let out a wild laugh, at once out of fear and joy. He felt wild and utterly at one with the wind.

A hand suddenly gripped his shoulder.

“Have you gone completely and utterly mad, you fool!” Mh'repha's face was as furious as he had never seen her before. “What has sparked your sudden deathwish?”

“I---” Tam tried to defend himself and explain, but words failed him as he felt the embarassment rise. He let himself be led, sheepishly, back below deck, where the rest of the crew welcomed the bedraggled Vahnatai with a mug of hot omh'aph.

He tried again to explain. “I had just never seen a storm before... not of this size...” and Mh'repha, who had still been looking at him sharply, softened her expression.

“It can be awe-inspiring, I suppose. It is also dangerous as hell. Do you wish to guess the number of seconds you would have had to live if a sudden gust had swept you over board?” Tam shook his head. “I hope you have had enough of a taste for now and won't try that again.” He nodded.

The rest of the night was spent sleeplessly. The wailing of the storm outside made it impossibly to relax, and the heaving of the ship did its part. Siphra was the only one of the lot who looked calm, but her serene exterior was deceptive. Tam had looked over at her a few times, and she seemed to be utterly silent and lost in concentration, straining to listen to the wind and the creaking of her ship's planks, as if fearing that the entire vessel would suddenly and fatally break apart midship.

The hunters were playing a game of some sort. Tam had tried to understand the rules, but the noise and the constant nervousness of everyone made it impossible both to explain and to listen. He had taken to watching the cryptic throwing of dice – rolled within an overturned mug to prevent them falling off constantly heaving table – and the exchange of little cards of paper and wooden chips. Ever so often, the players would gesture and mutter a few words, and occasionally they seemed to begin a new round, as evidenced by the redistribution of the chips.

The process was surely a lot more simple than the secret hand signals Aidra had grasped with such ease, but he was unable to concentrate in this weather. Again, the ship creaked in a low rumbling sound, and Siphra seemed to twitch as if expecting a crunch any second.

Mh'repha was staring off into the emptiness, seeming in part to meditate and in part to listen to the wind in abject terror. Tam hesitated, but shifted to the empty seat next to her and, when she did not seem to react, clumsily put an arm around her. For one nerve-wracking moment, she froze, then gratefully leant against him. Odd role reversal there, he commented, remembering the way the healer had cared for him earlier, when he had first arrived at Harr. So that question is answered, he realized, having reached his conclusion after days of wondering about her earlier unspoken offer to relieve him at the bilge pump.

And now, as another strong gust howled over the deck, shaking the ship, Tam realized that he needed the comfort just as badly. Siphra, meanwhile, had taken to pacing. Always a bad sign, Tam thought as he followed the captain's complex weave of an endlessly repeating pattern around the table and chairs.

At last able to stand it no longer, Tam addressed Siphra.

“What is it that makes you so nervous, cap'n?” That was what most of the crew had taken to affectionately calling her after the first day of their journey.

Siphra took her time to answer, lost in thought as she continued her weaving path across the room.

“I can not pinpoint it for sure. Something feels... wrong... about this storm, and I do not know what. It is far too forceful, and from the wrong direction, for this season – but these parts always have had an unpredicatable weather. Thyt can't be it. I'm snot sure what else it could be...”

“You are worried, however?”

“That I definitely am. You aren't aware of it, but the damage to the ship's hulk is much more serious than it seems to be on the outside. There are a few cracks in the bearing beams, and with enough force the keel could literally break off, leaving our ship to first be tossed around and then smashed apart like a box of matches on the waves.

“All it would take is one solid shock. That's what I'm constantly waiting for. It's unlikely – here, on the river, the waves do not reach as high as they do on the open sea, and there is not that much force to harm our ship. But the possibility is always there. And you know what they say about things that can go wrong.” She bit her lip, her tail twitching. “Perhaps they were right. I have drawn bad luck on every journey I've gone on lately.”

Mh'repha spoke for the first time in a while. “That is complete superstitious nonsense, Captain Siphra. There is no bad luck, here or anywhere.”

“Then you believe it normal that a storm of this magnitude would draw up from the wrong direction on such a crucial day, so unexpectedly, when the weather was previously so clear?” countered Siphra.

“You have said it yourself, captain. The weather is unpredictable in these parts. What more is a storm then?”

“Not as unpredictable as---” a sudden boom of thunder, accompanying a bright flash from above deck, interrupted her words. “Claws of the rakshih. The lightning is right upon us. Redhra grant that the masts withstand it.”

Too late – the splintering crash of wood told them all what had happened. Siphra stood in silence for a moment, then unfroze. “The mast has gone! I must---” She ran to the staircase above deck, but only made it as far as the trapdoor before she turned around. “I cannot. Death is out there right now. This isn't natural.”

And Tam very suddenly stood up. “Not natural! That is it!”

He turned around to face Siphra. “This storm must have been sent to us by someone – a spell!”

Mh'repha turned around crossly. “For heaven's sake, Tam, don't you start doing the same nonsense now! We will get nowhere with this superstitious--”

“This is real, Mh'repha! As real as the wind I called up earlier. I did that, and I am hardly an apprentice – a true adept at the arts could summon storms and command thunder with no difficulty at all. The difference is only in power,and there is power to spare in the crystals of my people – and surely elsewhere. What enemies do we have, who might prevent this journey?”

Chamh'rov, who had been listening with one ear over the game of cards he was playing, paled very suddenly. “The Greywraith. They are the most advanced in the various magical crafts. I would not put anything past them, least of all feats of might and power.”

“Then could they--”

The answer arrived in a sudden crash and another splintering sound. “The other mast!” Siphra shouted, but her expression changed as she registered something else. A low groaning sound, faintly vibrating, drifted up – barely audible to Tam, but somehow... wrong.

“OFF THE SHIP!” Siphra yelled, opening the hatch wide, allowing the rain and wind to freely enter.

Tam felt no terror. He felt hardly anything, except possibly numbness. He mutely stood up, still holding Mh'repha's hand. Mh'rowan cursed as she, Phamh'rir and Iiphromh' stood up as well. Chamh'rov and Mh'arriimh were the last to stand up, clinging to each other, and it was hard to tell in the pale face of the linguist or the set expression of the hunter who of them was feeling more terror.

“Off the ship!” Siphra repeated as they filed out of the door as quickly as they could. The movements of the ship had suddenly changed, Tam noted – before, they had merely been wildly tossed about by the waves, but now, there was something else. The ship was heaving only toward the left – like a gigantic dying beast breathing its last and tossing around in the throes of death. The deep groan only added to the picture, and the ship moaned like something alive.

“To the boat, all of you!” Siphra pointed at the single lifeboat that the Starfish had, and they all crammed into it. Fortunately, it was meant for a larger crew, and they easy found places in it.

“How are we going to get the boat off the ship?” Tam suddenly asked as he realized that they had gotten the order of their movements seriously wrong somehow. But the captain did not answer. Instead, she gripped a line and yanked on it. Once. Twice. On the third pull, the railing suddenly gave way, and the small boat slid out over board.

For a single half second, Tam had the dizzying sensation of falling, then they crashed on the surface of the water next to the dying ship. The oars were quickly manned as they pulled against the current to the western shore, which lay closer.

They had hardly gotten three meters far when, with a terrible boom, the Starfish broke apart as if wrenched in two by the claw of a terrible leviathan, and the ship leant toward one side, slowly sinking.

XVIII. Greywraith

XVIII. Greywraith aran Sun, 11/19/2006 - 22:59

The captain stood mutely at the shore as she watched her ship sink to the bottom of the river. She had been standing motionless for several minutes now, but could not tear her gaze away as the aft deck, last to go, vanished and the waves clapped over it.

She finally turned away, and one could see even in the rain that tears were in her eyes. She tried to speak, but closed her mouth again and remained silent. She lowered her head as they stood huddled together in the rain, the boat securely pulled ashore.

Tam stood transfixed, and hardly noticed Mh'repha walking up next to him. It was a while before he could speak again, and even then he was badly shivering, partly with the cold and partly with naked terror.

“What d-did we get off the ship in t-time?” He wanted to know.

Mh'repha shook her head grimly. “You saw us leave. Nothing that we did not have on us. Just about our clothes, and nothing else.”

“I'm in luck, for my part,” Tam responded. He pulled out a pouch from his tunic and rattled it. “I always carry them around with me.” The assembled hunters, he could see, were similarly lucky. They took a similar view regarding their weapons, which were secured by their sides without exception. Mh'repha swore and suddenly grasped her own pouch.

It rattled heavily with gold. “The wrong one. I left my potions and herbs aboard.” She looked crestfallen. “I'm useless without them.”

“Never useless,” Tam retorted angrily, but switching to Novah. Mh'arriimh would be able to understand them, but that at least he didn't mind. “How can you think that?”

Mh'repha shook her head and looked around.

“I don't even know where we are. We're utterly lost and stranded.” At that, Chamh'rov, who had been talking to Mh'arriimh', came over.

“No, we aren't.” He held up a map, very much the worse for wear after the rain and the wind, but drawn on enduring parchment and spelled to last. “In fact...” he pointed a claw at the map, and said nothing more. Mh'repha's eyes lit up. Filled with a sudden cheerfulness, she went over to captain Siphra, who was still speechless, and began talking quietly to her. Tam went over a bit closer to make out the words over the storm.

“---not succeeded,” Siphra was saying. “It is at least two weeks on foot to Ratbane from here. I've gotten you stranded in the wilderness.”

“No, you haven't,” Mh'repha retorted. “We have arrived precisely where we meant to, captain, and we are very grateful.”

Siphra looked at the alchemist with the expected reaction. “Have you gone mad or something? There is absolutely nothing here. We are half-way between Bhardrow and Ratbane, and the closest sign of habitation is miles away. We are lost out here.”

Mh'repha lowered her voice further and whispered in the captain's ear. Siphra looked suspiciously around at the bedraggled group, then whistled, understanding at last. “Secret. I see.”

“Yes. And I would like to thank you for getting us here so promptly. For this, and by way of an at best inadequate repayment for the Starfish, I would like to offer you this.” She reached for the pouch she was still holding. “Where we are going, we do not need money.”

Siphra looked at the pouch in disbelief. Inadequate was at best emotionally accurate – Tam realized that the sum still remaining was many times their original offer, and while it would not quite cover the cost of a new ship, it would go quite a long way towards it. Siphra protested slightly, but Mh'repha would not hear any of it. “The next question is how you will get back.”

“Oh, that will be no problem.” Siphra gestured at the boat. “You can always go down a river. It's up is the problem.”

“We have---” Mh'repha was cut short by Tam, who put a warning hand on her shoulder. She turned around towards him and he began to signal.

<foes. hiding in the bushes, perhaps within arrow range>

<how do you know?> Mh'repha signalled back.

<magic.> he gestured to his pouch. <greywraith, I would guess.>

<then why aren't they attacking us?> Mh'repha asked.

<no idea, myself.> Tam went over to Chamh'rov and the other hunters and, signalling, filled them in.

Perhaps they are waiting for Siphra to leave us so she has nothing to witness. Tam considered briefly. That did not sound at all like the Greywraith he had heard about, however: It would have seemed more likely that they would just kill them all and be done. Instead, they must be biding their time.

The storm was lessening slightly. Tam first thought it was merely a short break in the weather, but realized as it faded ever more that it was in fact ending as suddenly as it had begun. Clearly induced by magic then, he concluded. And that implies that the Greywraith planned this disaster all along.

Chamh'rov and the hunters were getting their weapons ready, while Mh'repha and Mh'arriimh', protesting, took up cover after Chamh'rov had pointed out, still signalling, that they had no weapons and would be immediate casualties in the ensuing combat.

Tam reached for a new crystal. He tried to remember where he had sensed the other presences. It had been fairly close, for he had not required much power to sense them, even though they had cloaked themselves rudimentarily.

There is a spell for this sort of thing, he desperately thought. An ambush. We are helplessly waiting for them to spring the trap, but we have one advantage. We know the trap is coming. They do not yet know we know. He debated further. If I use magic, I set myself up as an immediate target. 'Go for the robe' is a maxim as old as ranged weapons. Then he reconsidered. They already know I'm the mage from my appearance. After Zadal, they knew us Vahnatai for what we are. That meant the best advantage must needs lie in a quick offense, before they could take him out.

Arrows trained on me. Eyes squinting up to aim. It is dark... and their eyes are accustomed to that... he grinned. His eyes darted around to make sure that none of his own group were looking inward, toward him. They faced outward in a half circle away from the shore.

ka-tis'tam,” he whispered, clenching his fist over the crystal.

A silent explosion swept over the clearing, like frozen lightning, as the darkness was rudely torn open by the bright shaft of light. Shining Ones, did the armh'shar call us? Tam grinned again. Here's some shining for you. His figure was glowing brightly with the blinding light he had summoned up.

The clearing was immediately doused in daylight, and the surrounding bushes were brightly illuminated. Shouts of surprise echoed from the Claw hunters, but it could not match the yells of anguish of several of the Greywraith who had been looking too closely at him. At least several of their archers had been disabled for now, and the hunters, shouting a cry of battle, immediately took the initiative.

The fight initially seemed to go well for the Claw hunters. The Greywraith group did not far outnumber them, and four of their number were quickly dispatched by Phamh'rir's and Mh'rowan's arrows, which seemed to find their mark as swiftly and surely as was told of the arrows of their enemies. Iiphromh' was charging and felled another of the silent hunters.

By now, the Greywraith were recovering from the initial shock and blindness, and were fighting back. However, they were still at a disadvantage – Tam's spell held fast, and they had to fight while facing the light, being themselves in full sight the whole time.

Tam was waiting for the legendary 'fade and disappear' trick Phamh'rir had told him about and that he had read about in Zadal's journal, but either the old archer and the explorer had both exaggerated their claims, or the Greywraith were not able to perform their acrobatics while transfixed so utterly by his light.

Uh-oh. Battery's running low, he noticed. He wondered whether to end the charade right now, using the sudden surprise of darkness as effectively as the surprise of light, like Olidra had taught him. But he decided against. Firstly, he was convinced that the Greywraith could realign their eyes to the darkness more quickly than the Claw could, and secondly, if it was indeed what was preventing the Greywraith from disappearing and kicking their collective hindsights out of the shadows. The light was on the side of the Claw, but it was fading, and time was on the side of the Greywraiths.

He barely registered Iiphromh' falling – but out of the corner of his eye, he saw the fighter had been transfixed by at least three arrows at once. Dead. Time for the funerals later. Mh'repha, he was relieved to see, had not left her cover in the boat, and was safe from the crossfire.

Time is running out. The light was already beginning to flicker. It's a miracle they haven't managed to shoot me yet. Even without looking directly at me, they should--- an arrow grazed his arm. Hounds of Tindalos, that hurt! But even as the pain lit his arm on fire, he was relieved: They weren't able to aim properly. He had a chance still.

Time for some offensive. While the spell he had originally cast was using up the power he had drawn from the crystal, his own strength would still hold another few spells – just not another light spell, because this was the only crystal he had taken the time to enchant accordingly on the way here.

He spread his fingers in eight directions, and shouted for the first time. “Inf'ra lavih!” Little spheres of fire shot from his hand, seeking their targets among the assassins. Most of them missed – even while blinded, the Greywraith were experts at dodging – but he did manage to fell two of them.

The light was now fading irrevocably, and Tam decided to make the most of it. Quelling the spell, he turned the clearing as dark as, well, midnight – it must be long past midnight already, he realized.

He used the pitch darkness to quickly throw himself to the forest floor, and hoped that the other Nephilim did likewise, even as he kept his eyes open. Futile, for the moonless darkness was impenetrable now that the lightning had ended. Quite suddenly, he felt, rather than saw, the air filled with arrows, crossing back and forth. What kept them from shooting earlier? he wondered, but was too flabbergasted to think about it further.

Groans all around him told of terrible things. He feared to be able to see again, believing that he might well be the only survivor. But survivor I am, he knew, because no arrows had hit him yet.

But the groans were not those of the Claw hunters. Did they shoot each other? And then they faded away.

Silence.

Tam hesitantly lifted his hand and cast a light spell.

Emptiness.

Several bodies lay around him, but the Greywraith were only shadows fleeing into the night, away.

Tam wondered why for a second, when his answer came in the form of a single thunderclap that brilliantly lit the nightsky once more, and the shockwave that made the earth heave. He lost consciousness.

Chapter Five

Chapter Five aran Sun, 11/26/2006 - 19:29

Back to the Keepers...

XIX. Keepers Abroad

XIX. Keepers Abroad aran Sun, 11/26/2006 - 19:30

The tunnels stretch into infinity. All directions, everywhere I look, I can see these blasted caverns around me, never ending. How did I get here? For as surely as I must have entered, as surely I know that no entrance or exit exists in this cursed maze. By a portal? I run in circles. What does it mean?

I can hear the crackling hiss of quickfire. It is almost upon me, I know. Any moment now I will turn a corner and find it there, waiting to hold me in its fiery embrace and blow me to embers and ash.

But it is taunting me, I know. It is waiting, waiting, waiting, biding its time and frightening me with its hiss. Always hissing in the walls, wherever I run, never out in the open. I have no hope. I have to find the exit, but I cannot. I cannot even find the fire.

Ahead, I can see passages closed off by barriers. I am glad they are, for I fear to think about what might be hiding behind these barriers. I can only imagine it. The barriers cast a flickering blue glow through the tunnels, dousing them in an unearthly light. Other passages are collapsed. These, I know, lead to freedom. But they do not avail me.

The cavern is rumbling. Slow, deep thunder in the depths, as from a giant awakening. The rumbles repeat, constant and steady. Where to turn now? Where? The fire advances, licking hungrily...

Olidra awoke with a jolt.

Where am I? The age-old question. And no answer. Panic began to spread inside him.

Still. An inner voice ordered him. Think.

Number one. Come to your senses. Open your eyes. Olidra remained still. He was lying with his eyes closed, but the cold breeze brushing over his face was unnerving. Was he outside?

Of course, he suddenly remembered. He had left Avtris! He was seeking Tam in the town of Mehdav or nearby, and it was at least a week's journey to Mehdav from the Sapphire City. Accordingly, he must still be camping somewhere on the road. It was a beautiful winter morning, and what he felt in his face was the cold breeze, somewhat uncomfortable now that his warmth charm was beginning to fade away.

But what were these movements? He was rocking slightly, as if on a ship. Had he falled asleep on the back of his lizard Kuhvi?

He opened his eyes.

“Big mistake,” he muttered aloud. What he saw was not at all the familiar road to Mehdav. He was indeed lying on the back of a lizard – slung along the spiny ridge, several ropes holding him in place. And holding him completely immobile, he noticed. The ropes were not meant for his safety.

The lizard was also not Kuhvi, but an unfamiliar beast. It was walking steadily, rocking Olidra as he lay on its back.

The landscape was passing very slowly by. Olidra lay on his back, and he could see the light grey sky – it was a late morning, apparently – broken ever so often by trees, some of them bare and a few evergreens.
“You bet it was,” a voice next to him suddenly answered. Unexpected, that. I'm not alone. And I am also tied down. I don't like where this is going.

“Wha?” He managed to gurgle while slowly awakening completely. Memories of the day before – [i]or the day before that? - came back him one by one, a steady stream that made him feel worse by the second. It's like a hangover. Can you get hungover from a stunning spell? Yes, you could, he remembered. He had taught the class himself once.

So he was a teacher. At least that much was clear again.

“Tea... Teacher. Where?” He blubbered slightly, still feeling disoriented, also by the ropes that were holding him uncomfortably on the back of the lizard. As far as bad mornings go, this one surely tops the list of them all, he realized. Two decades ago, he had celebrated his graduation with his fellow students in a long night of intoxication. The morning after, he had woken up with red-hot nails of ice that were slowly being pounded into his brain. That one was no comparison – at least he hadn't woken up tied to a giant lizard without knowing where he was and who had caught him.

Keepers. Another memory returned now, and the stream came hard and fast. Forachid. Quickfire. Barrier. Student. Tarai's Mystical Shovel.

A brief pause, as he brooded again. Then: Keepers. Auditors. Captured.

“It is so relieving to see that you are coming around again, mage. The past three nights, we were beginning to fear we'd lost you. Shanov here had to give you water through a tube.” Someone else chuckled. “Silence.” The third voice was cold and uncompromising. Olidra recognized it as Rabon-Ka – the crystallomancer.

“You...” Olidra got out. “You... drugged me! Where are you taking me?” He tried to twist his head around to see the surroundings, but could only see trees in either direction.

“Drugging is perhaps not the proper term, mage. You have been subjected to a series of stunning spells. You attacked us with magic and we were forced to incapacitate you.”

“Attack? I would have known---” the shovel, Olidra recalled. The digging spell required a trigger, and he had cast a magic missile as a last-ditch attempt when they had taken him away. Had it worked? At the edge of his consciousness... those rumbles, were they real or the product of an imaginative conscience trying to minimize emotional damage? Had the digging spell worked?

It was no use wondering about that now. Three nights, four days. Sonahn had either made it out of the caverns, or she was dead.

“Dead.” The word sounded hollow in his own ears. “Dead.” The sound of it was intriguing. Like a judgement. A magic word, oddly final. Like Rest.

“You didn't kill anyone; we saw to that.”

Did I ever, Olidra disagreed. If Sonahn dies, it is the fault of nobody save... “You have no idea. Do you know what you have done?”

“You are asking a mighty lot of questions for someone who is meant to answer, mage.”

“Teacher.” Olidra spat.

“Mage. You remain a Ka, now and ever, and your title was tied to your position. And my man, when we get back, you could not be fired more utterly or quickly if the elders used stal'ra to do it. Whatever happens; after this you are out on your nether end before you can say shahv'hor.

“And you will be lucky if within a hundred miles you can find another school that will let you sweep the laboratory floor.” Shanov would have spoken on, but Olidra caught out of the corner of his eye a menacing gesture from Rabon-Ka that commanded the Keeper to silence.

“Mage.” Rabon-Ka spoke again. “Are you aware of what you have done three days ago?”

Not fair, I asked you that first, Olidra thought angrily. “What?”

“You absented yourself from the college of Oriath without leave during worktime. You missed a meeting where presence was mandatory. You were found at a place that has been barred off for security reasons, pending investigation. Upon being challenged, you made contradictory statements. Eventually, you resisted arrest and had to be subdued by force.

“You know that this kind of thing will not look too good in your trial.”

Trial. Olidra could imagine it now. The laws dictated a disciplinary hearing last no less than a week and be overseen by a jury of auditors, who were already present at the academy. How convenient.

And now that he considered at last the proportions of the deeds he was accused of – the suspicion cast on him, both as the conspirator at the academy itself, and the one behind the destruction at the forachid... he realized that the testimony of the few people who had seen him on the day of his departure in Avtris, who could testify that he had not been present at the academy, would not turn the tide by a long shot. Even if I wasn't there to hear the rumors – or especially because , my presence at the forachid grants weight to their claim I did it. If my suspicions are correct and there was tampering involved, their story will only be strengthened further.

Olidra had to concede that there was a remarkable smoothness to the whole affair. The conspirators could not have planned it better if they had set him up. The unfortunate truth of the matter, of course, was that nobody had set him up. The trap had been laid quite inadvertently by those who had sabotaged the testing halls, and he had walked right into it and given them all a scapegoat.

But wait! There was one thing that could still save him. Aidra's journal.

It would have been awfully unlikely for me to fake the thing – and there are spells that can determine the authencity of documents. They could claim Aidra had been my accomplice, but it would at least throw some doubt on their story. The only piece of evidence that would support his story, and not that of the Keepers.

It should still be in my pocket, he remembered. I took it with my after all, hoping to learn more from it.

His arms were tied at his sides, but not so tightly that he could not touch his cloak and feel around for--- he gasped, grabbing the outsides of his pockets.

It's gone.

XX. Survivors

XX. Survivors aran Sun, 11/26/2006 - 21:57

The same old sunset scene, like a thousand times before.

The old Vahnatai stands facing westward, his back turned. Solemnly silent, without moving. The sun sits calmly perched on the horizon. Above all the hilltops lies peace. Tam feels barely a breeze, rustling the grass below their feet, though the treetops are swaying slightly.

“Greetings, young Aidra,” the old Vahnatai says to the figure behind him without turning around. “Come to watch the sunset again?”

Tam is at a loss for words. Has the scene not replayed endlessly before? How long has it been since he really did meet Zadal on-- no, wait. He never met Zadal. He only heard a story.

“But stories can be powerful, more powerful even than memory,” Zadal comments. “More powerful even than truth. Is that not what lies at the heart of your dilemma? And that of the Nephilim – what do you think you are going to look for in the ruins? Is it not the truth – the final shatterer of the web of lies erected over the course of centuries? And what will you do when you find it?”

The ground they are standing on is different than the last time, Tam notices. There is no grass here; they are standing in the middle of an icy bog. Cold mists are wafting around his feet like ghosts. He can hardly see the earth beneath it, though the clammy coldness and the occasional splashing sound reminds him of the ever-present water.

The sun has set between the trees, and it is utterly dark. Even the slim sickle of the waning crescent moon is not enough to light up the mists amid the forest, and Tam feels a keen sense of unease as he realizes he is trapped in the darkness of the bog.

“Zadal!” he calls out to the Vahnatai who he hopes is still close by. “I cannot see!”

“You will never see while your eyes are closed, young Aidra.” Zadal's calm voice comes out of the darkness, reassuring him. “Open them.”

His voice grows more urgent as Tam feels hissing sounds around him, which he first believes to be the wind, but then realizes to be a storm of arrows. “Open your eyes!” The scene becomes blurry, if that is possible in complete darkness. A soundless explosion of light shakes the clearing. “Open your eyes, Tam!” He awoke.

Darkness.

Remembering Zadal's words, Tam tried to open his eyes, but failed. They seemed stuck at first, but then he realized that they were already open – it was pitch-dark. I am blind! Tam thought in panic, but then he remembered it was still nighttime. The events of the night came crashing back to his memory.

“rrr”, he tried to call out but only managed a weak growl. He swallowed, cleared his throat slightly, and made another attempt. “Mh'repha.” There was no reply.

Tam made an attempt to move, but his muscles would not obey him. It took a while before he regained control, and he could weakly stir. With control came awareness, and every nerve in his body seemed as if lit on fire for a few seconds. As he became accustomed again, he noticed that three places in his body seemed to be the epi-centres of the pain he was feeling: A piercing cold fire in his arm, where the arrow had grazed him, a dull throb on his head – what hit me there? – and a sick pressure somewhere on his chest and stomach. It did not surprise him in the least when he moved his uninjured left arm, touched his chest and noticed that the sticky wetness was not all due to the rain.

How bad is it? He could apparently move. He did not feel particularly close to death, even though he felt exhausted and drained from his long unconsciousness. His breathing came ragged and with an effort, however, and he felt the curious pressure on his chest with every heaving of his lungs.

His mind rising a bit further from the stupor, he grew aware of something heavy lying across his chest. His hand rose up and touched the weight, and came away again sticky. Fur. It took a few more seconds for his brain to make the connection, then he gasped. He was lying beneath a corpse, blood all over him. “Mh-- Mh'repha?” he choked out; endless glittering halls, she can't be... the darkness was too deep for him to tell.

Tam made another attempt to move, this time trying to drag himself out from under the dead weight of the Nephil who had falled over him. I need some light to see by, he realized.

The blinding spell he had used earlier was unavailable without a prepared crystal, but fortunately the most basic of magics could be accomplished with barely a snap of the fingers. Soft light emanated from his finger tips, briefly hurting his eyes, but quickly giving way to normal sight. He looked around.

Devastation.

He saw death everywhere he looked, as far as he could see – though with his weak light spell, that came just about to five meters. Corpses all around, strewn around the clearing. Most of them seemed to be Greywraiths – but Tam realized with a pang that many of his companions were among them.

Remembering why he had turned on the light in the first place, he turned back toward the Nephil who had been lying on his chest, and looked straight into the unseeing eyes of Phamh'rir. The archer had been pierced by four arrows, his chest lying in a pool of blood that had also soaked Tam's clothes. His gaze was not pained, hardly even surprised. Death had come swiftly.

Rehlko grant him peace, was the only thing that came to his mind, even as he was shaken between the sudden upsurging of grief, the relief that it had not been Mh'repha, and the realization that that particular discovery could still be waiting for him, somewhere around on the clearing, or toward the shore of the river. He stood frozen for a while, in shock, grief and utter disbelief at what had happened.

Finally admitting to himself that he would have to face it eventually, he walked around – limping; his foot had been hit by a stray arrow too, which fortunately did not go in very deep – and looked at the other Nephilim who were lying around. Death all around. Not a single of them seemed to be breathing, many slain by arrows, and some seeming to have merely been killed by a tremendous blast that had tossed them around like leaves on the wind. The explosion, Tam remembered. Just before he had fallen unconscious, the Greywraith had blown up a bomb or a grenade of some kind. The blast had knocked something at his head; that was the throbbing pain he was feeling now. He stumbled closer and examined some of the corpses. Both Greywraith hunters. Not much care for their own, he grimly concluded, noting that both had been slain by the black-feathered arrows of their own men.

The next one that he found was Mh'rowan. Her eyes, too, were wide open – she was looking at something terrifying. Even as he knelt down to gently close the golden eyes of the archer, he noticed Mh'arriimh' close behind, and came to the revelation that Mh'rowan had died in her defense. Riddled by arrows, her body had shielded the researcher from much worse than the injuries she had received. Incredulously, he noticed that Mh'arriimh' was in fact still alive: Her breath was shallow, and she was still unconscious, but she was the first survivor Tam had found.

Loth to leave her lying there, but remembering that he needed to discover Mh'repha's fate, he tore himself away at last, having cast a warmth charm over the linguist that would protect her from the cold winter air until she regained consciousness.

On his way, he also found Iiphromh', who he had seen fall earlier, as well as Sharnoch. He hardly ever talked, Tam reflected somberly, realizing he had never actually gotten to know the bladesman.

That makes four of us dead, and two alive, Tam counted up the tallies. Altogether very bad odds for Mh'repha, an uncomfortable feeling spread in his gut as he finally found her.

She seemed to have been tossed through the air by the blast as well, landing at last on the earth here, narrowly avoiding the tree close by. For one horrible moment, he gazed at her, unmoving, incomprehensive, until he grew aware of the rising of her chest, and collapsed in relief, weeping as if he had found her dead.

It took some time to raise her again, and Tam was grateful that she seemed to have brought a potion with her after all, a tiny flask in her pocket that was clearly marked as a healing draught. Even with it, he had to cast a rudimentary healing spell before she opened her eyes. She stared for a while, unseeing, then recognized Tam with a wave of relief.

-----

“No other survivors?” Mh'repha asked, still stunned by the deadly attack.

“Only Mh'arriimh, and I have not yet found Chamh'rov, so there might be four of us left. The others are dead.”

“Phamh'rir and Mh'rowan will be sorely missed back home,” Mh'repha quietly commented. “They were the greatest hunters our clan has brought fourth in a generation. That alone makes this expedition a disaster of vast proportions.

“What about captain Siphra?” She asked then.

“I haven't found her yet, either,” he somberly replied. “But...” he looked over a bit, strengthening the light that still issued forth from his hands, to be able to see better in the clearing. At first, the light sputtered and weakened, but by focusing, he was able to increase it sufficiently to illuminate the whole area.

“There she lies,” Tam said after a while, having recognized the captain's distinctive blue garb. “She is dead, too.”

They were both silent for a while. Poor Siphra... down on her luck, grasping the first chance of business that opened for her, and this is how she was repaid for her service: First her ship, then her life, Tam thought. There is nothing for it. We must find Chamh'rov, one way or another, and get what remains of our party back together.

Mh'repha seemed to think the same, because she rose up quite suddenly and tried to stand. But as she moved her left foot, her face grimaced, and she winced as she recognized the injury. “It's broken,” she whispered, “somewhere above the ankle. I don't think I'll be able to walk until we have time to tend to it.” Tam offered his shoulder, and she leant on it, both of them limping slowly over the field of battle – to find the last survivor, or the last corpse.

-----

Chamh'rov was alive.

Of the four of them, he had undoubtedly received the worst injuries – his chest had been pierced by arrows as well, and they could not say if he would survive, but by some miracle he was still drawing breath.

“He is comatose,” Mh'repha explained as Tam tried unsuccessfully to rouse him. “I do not believe he will wake up for another two days, if he wakes again at all.”

Mh'arriimh', amazingly, joined them soon after, having risen of her own accord. She knelt wordlessly beside the leader of the hunters, the pain in her face mirroring the ghastly injuries the arrows had torn in his chest.

XXI. Treachery

XXI. Treachery aran Wed, 11/29/2006 - 02:53

They could not have travelled for more than a few miles, but it felt to Olidra as if he had lain across the giant lizard for many hours now, the gently rocking motion making him simultaneously drowsy and seasick.

The Keepers had not spoken again after Rabon-Ka had made his remark about the trial, and Olidra had not exactly been itching to restart the conversation either. It seemed that every word he could say would likely only worsen his situation further, so he resolved to keep quiet rather than waste further speech on the ones who had already decided his guilt anyway.

Thus, the march had been conducted in silence, which had only been broken by the steady tramping gait of the steeds Olidra had still not seen. His gaze fixed upward at the sky, he had yet to look his captors in the eye again after his first encounter at the cavern.

His drowsiness increasing further, he decided to try to sleep for a while. It cannot do any harm now, he thought, and tried to slow his breathing and calm his thoughts, but it was futile. The bonds that were keeping him, combined with the movements of the steed, made it impossible to properly relax, and instead he was feeling ever more drowsy and ever more sleepless.

It came almost as a relief as the silence was broken by a voice.

“Keeper.” The voice had a cutting quality to it, and from the address, Olidra realized it must be the auditor.

Whoever was being addressed did not respond with words, for the only reaction was silence. But the auditor spoke on.

“I must say that I have learned curious things from this.” He must have been holding up something. Olidra heard the rustling of parchment. It can't be...

“Things that have been kept from us until now,” the auditor added. “By neglect or by intent.”

“What do you mean?” Rabon-Ka angrily retorted. “What secrets do you think we have hidden from you?”

“Guard yourself, Keeper. You may use that tone with your men and your captives, but you will not use it with me. Are we in accord?” The voice had gained an icy edge to it. “I am glad we are,” the auditor continued in response to an unseen nod.

“Then tell me now what you know – and all of it. Mage, I am talking to you. Olidra. Can you hear me?” The auditor had been addressing him, Olidra realized after a few moments of hesitation.

“Yes?” He said a little uncertainly.

“I would like you to tell me what you know of Aidra's departure from the school.”

“He---” Rabon-Ka's words were cut off immediately.

“I believe I was talking to the mage, not to you, Keeper. Be silent, I caution you once more. I will not warn you a third time.” If the auditor had been cold before, his voice was now edged with the very icy diamond of legends.

“Continue, mage,” the auditor added, in spite of the fact that Olidra had not yet begun to speak.

------

A long while later, the interrogation was seemingly over, because the auditor turned away from him and walked back toward the others.

What I would not give to at least see their faces right now, Olidra silently cursed, uncomfortable with the fact that he was positioned such that none of his captors were visible to him. But then, the auditor spoke again.

“Keeper, this throws up more questions than answers. You spoke of a rule violation, but you did not mention that of the twenty-three candidates this year, Aidra was the first who was expelled for this rule violation, in spite of being apparently the tenth candidate on record for this violation this year.”

“That is just a discrepancy in your grading and assessment; not my concern. That is, it would be my concern and would be very interesting to my agency, were I not already here to investigate something much more severe. Something that this diary”, he held up the book again, apparently, “appears to be related to.”

“Keeper, I wonder if you could explain to me what a Korfah'rijna is?”

What? Olidra was baffled for a few seconds. The auditor's question seemed like a completely unexpected non-sequitur. Korfah'rijna? Olidra could not think of anything to connect to this term, although it souded faintly familiar. It was certainly no common Novah term – the last syllable alone was something that seemed utterly alien.

“It---” Rabon-Ka hesitated.

“I will tell you. It is a ritual of creation, like the Korfah'vja.” Olidra understood this term, of course; it was right within his academic province. “Unlike the Korfah'vja, which celebrates the ability to carve crystals, the Korfah'rijna is related to the shaping of life.

“An art that was forbidden centuries ago for the unpredictable results that it brought. We cannot know what the consequences are of moulding the very essence of biology to our will – it has been documented very well in the relevant tomes what those first experiments turned into. The ritual has been forbidden along with it, both for the aforementioned reasons and for the perversion inherent in the ceremony.”

“Rabon-Ka, I have reason to believe that a Korfah'rijna was celebrated merely weeks ago at your academy. I know the set-up very well, as well as what it involves. You are familiar with the... sacrifice, I believe?”

Olidra suddenly shouted hoarsely. The term might have been alien to him, but he had read the stories. “The forachid! They must have changed--”

“This time, I ask you to keep your silence, mage. Do not interrupt me,” the auditor said with some severity, but thankfully without the unnerving coldness he had adopted earlier on.

“The path of wisdom, you call it, is that not correct? Your set-up of the test allows for the adaption with an amazing ease, apparently. stal'ra, the halls of battle... why, the only thing that is missing are the lethal traps. You know the ones I am speaking of, Rabon-Ka, do you not.”

It is amazing how quiet silence can sound, Olidra reflected. All of a sudden, not a sound stirs this forest.

“It would be fairly convenient to simply tack them on to your test – and hey presto, you have your sacrificial gauntlet. Merely a small redirection in the path could decide whether your victim ends up diverted into a chain of riddles of the most nasty kind, each failure lethal, or outside.

“Your problem,” the auditor continued, “would of course be that you cannot very well hide this in case your testing halls are ever inspected. You know what we watch out for.” He paused. “Wouldn't it be amazingly convenient if a candidate happened to meet with an unfortunate accident inside the halls that just happened to make them inaccessible? This stal'ra you are using... I believe if it got loose, there would be quite some havoc down there. Do you think anything incriminating would survive that purge?” His voice was very quiet now, menacing.

“These are ridiculous, baseless accusations,” Rabon-Ka angrily retorted. “You made similar accusations when you arrived, and remember how justified those turned out to be!”

“Those were not accusations, and neither is this,” the auditor's voice sounded almost congenial now. “I am only stating facts here, and asking questions. But now, Rabon, I am leaving the realm of facts and entering conjecture. Kindly signal me if you believe my reasoning is off-track, will you?” Olidra noticed something was wrong. As the Tahav-Tel continued, he realized it: Rabon-Ka's title had been ommitted.

“We have a cavern which contains a lot of machinery and traps that are not supposed to be inside. One of the levels of these caverns contains stal'ra. Now picture a tiny charge of explosives, laid at a crucial place where the walls are quite thin. The charge is blown, the walls collapse, and the stal'ra is free to roam.

“On its way through the cave, the fire destroys all the equipment and machinery. Finally, it reaches several carrying supports – metal, possibly even just wood – and either burns or melts them away. The levels collapse – a chain reaction. Perhaps the chain reaction is even helped along by further explosive charges that are blown by the fire.

“The end result is that the entire cavern is rendered inaccessible and is also emptied of anything but the bare rock of the tunnels – or those tunnels that still exist. Given that it would take most of a year to excavate the cavern, and even after this its contents could not fully be identified, any remaining evidence would be rendered useless.”

“A truly awesome deduction, Tahav-Tel. Now you just need to prove it.” But in spite of the sneering superiority Olidra could hear in the Keeper's voice, the rebuttal had a nervous edge to it. He sensed movement from several directions, but could not see what was happening.

“The proof, and the evidence that incriminates you, specifically, will be revealed to you in time, Rabon. For now, I place you under arrest by order of the Jabit'kad'hrel.” He addressed the other Vahnatai. “Keepers, you are hereby ordered to arrest Rabon.”

There was a long silence again.

“You are under my command, Keepers. Rabon is removed from his office pending the outcome of this investigation.” The silence continued.

Olidra felt a sudden rush of adrenaline, his heart racing. He opened his mouth to shout, but his voice failed him, and he was interrupted by a flurry of movements.

“What are you--” Tahav-Tel's voice, too, was cut off. A rush of magical force, followed by the crackling of intense heat, told Olidra of several firebolts finding their mark. It took him a moment to realize what had happened.

They killed the auditor, he thought, baffled. An unthinkable act that carried the highest punishment – exile or death. Only a second later he understood the implications. They cannot leave witnesses. I'm next. And he was still rendered completely immobile.

“Get the mage,” ordered Rabon-Ka, ex-ex-mage and exile-to-be. Olidra's heart continuing to race, he could only wait for his fate. Then, several things happened at once: He heard a loud smacking sound as of a thrown rock finding its target, felt a sudden shock in the muscles of the reptile whose back he was lying on, heard a shrill whistle sounding somewhere from the woods, felt the lizard took off running with a thudding gallop.

“Stop the beast!” the Keeper's shout was frenzied. Another crackling firebolt hit the flank of the lizard, but fortunately the horned reptilian hide was enough protection, the spell only serving to panic the lizard further. “Do not hit the steed! Aim for the mage, you fools!” was the last thing Olidra heard before the lizard's gallop had carried him out of ear- and hopefully bowshot.

-----

What caused it to run? Olidra pondered. It must have been hit by the rock he had heard. Where did that come from? But it was getting very hard to think with the lizard still galloping enormously fast, shaking the teacher through and through. I must get off somehow, or who knows where it will carry me? One part of his mind said, but another reminded him of the Keepers who were still behind him, determined to eliminate their witness. Anywhere where I can escape them.

He was still debating what to do when the decision was suddenly taken out of his hands: The knots that held him, not made to withstand the strain of the running lizard, rubbing and tearing at the rope, suddenly gave. The bonds fell away, and Olidra was lying on his back without a hold on a galloping lizard.

Half a second later, he had one horrible glimpse of the ground coming up to meet him, and a second later, he saw nothing at all.

XXII. Into the Deep

XXII. Into the Deep aran Wed, 11/29/2006 - 06:50

“We cannot stay here,” Mh'repha told them. “The Greywraith lost the day, but if – as I am certain – they were trying to assassinate us all, they will not give up this easily. I would give them a week at most before they can return with reinforcements; less if they have some way of magical communication.” With Chamh'rov unconscious and all the hunters dead, Mh'repha had become the senior member of their research party, as the one Sophromh' had granted his quest to.

“What I don't understand is why we are still alive,” Tam added. “They did not lose – the rest of them ran when all of us were incapacitated.”

“They ran because they had just thrown a bomb,” Mh'repha countered. “And they believed us all dead, so they did not return. We got bloody lucky back there – we should all be dead.”

“And yet we fear their reinforcements? I must confess I don't follow your reasoning there.” Mh'arriimh', feeling out of place without either combat or travel experience, had kept quite silent until now.

“To be precise, we fear their follow-up troop,” Mh'repha answered. “Remember our original purpose here: We wanted to examine a ruined complex that had recently been discovered, and we had to do so before the Greywraith did. That was the purpose of our secrecy – we had to keep it all hidden from their spies.

“For nothing, apparently,” she added. “Now the Greywraith sent their assassins to wait for us, and they believe us dead. Their next step will be to ready their own expedition, now that we are out of the way.

“The race is on. The first move has been made, its knowledge now open. They should have won this round, but a few of our pieces are left. It is left to us to close the match in our favor.” She paused. “Mh'asharra, I am beginning to talk like Phamh'rir.” She smiled involuntarily; the first time since the bleak events of the day before.

“Wait.” Tam cautioned. “How sure are you that the expedition has yet to come?”

“How do you mean?” Mh'arriimh' asked.

“The Greywraith had us, and they knew it. From beginning to end, their plan has progressed smoothly as anything – our journey to Bhardrow, finding a ship, travelling all the way to this river bend. They obviously chose this place for their attack: It is just about the farthest we can go from our home city and reinforcements without entering the cave. If we died here, it would be months before our fate was discovered.

“So why plan only this far? If they knew we would die, would they not send their expedition at the same time as their assassins?

“Would they not send a single group for both, even?”

There was silence for a while as they considered the possibility. Mh'arriimh' was first to speak.

“Regardless, we are going to encounter the Greywraith one way or another once we are in that cavern. If we wanted to avoid tussling with them, we shouldn't have gone in the first place.” It sounded like an uncharacteristic thing for the slim researcher to say, and she looked regretfully at Chamh'rov. With the aid of some new herbs gathered from the surroundings, Mh'repha had been able to rouse him from his coma, but he was still very weak and hardly communicative.

There was another uncomfortable silence. Tam broke it this time.

“And should we?” He uttered the thought that had apparently been on Mh'arriimh's mind as well.

“Look at us. In our very first battle against these hunters, we lost our fighters and nearly all died. Now our only survivors are either researchers or injured, and practically unable to hold our own in another battle. If we go into this cavern, do we not go in to die?” Tam felt uncomfortably self-conscious and even cowardly, but it needed to be said.

“You are forgetting what we were up against, Tam,” Mh'repha said. “We were badly outnumbered, and we were ambushed – and yet we survived, and the Greywraith lost more than we did.”

“It was not much of an ambush after I did the trick with the light,” Tam commented.

“And neither will it be when you do it the next time,” Mh'repha grinned. “You will have plenty of time to prepare another crystal. My point is that we stand more of a chance than you realize. For once, their group has been decimated as much as we have. For another, we truly have the advantage of surprise this time: If they believed us still alive, they would have come back to finish us off.

“And if the caverns really do hold the secrets we hope to gather from them, then we must not allow the Greywraith to reach them. Either the ruins hold unspeakable power, and they will use it for their own purposes and conquer us all. Or they hold the truth that Zadal-Ihrno was slain for trying to unravel – and then we must assume that they will try to destroy it. That cannot happen.”

Mh'arriimh' added, “I want to know the truth.”

“And so do I,” Mh'repha said. “I have to see. We cannot afford to lose this expedition,” she concluded.

Tam hesitated a while. And so do I. Zadal was right about me – I would risk everything to find out. He looked at his three companions. And I want to help them unlock the secret of their history as well. And, with a look at Mh'repha, and I want to go wherever she goes, too.

“Curiosity can conquer any fear,” he said with a smile. “I am with you. Let us go!”

-----

The journey to the entrance was amazingly short: Tam was right, the Greywraith really had planned the place of their attack exceedingly well, barely a mile from the cavern they wanted to enter. And I'll bet that this is where they went right afterward, possibly not even stopping to treat their wounds yet, he mused.

And at last, the entrance stood before them.

It was smaller and less imposing than Tam had expected. For some reason, he had imagined the old Vahnatai City to be a magnificent complex, built into the side of a mountain like the city of the Claw, or a tremendous set of tall marble buildings, glittering like a jewel on the horizon.

Instead, what they found was a low hill, barely high enough to be a burial mound, surrounded by a few stray trees and a ring of auspiciously arranged tall stones. Are they magical? Tam wondered, just before Mh'repha asked him the same question. He realized that he was finally about to do the job he had been meant to perform on this journey: He concentrated for a while, muttering the formulas for arcane analysis. After a minute, he opened his eyes.

“Not particularly,” he told them. “They do carry some weak background aura, but that may well just residue from the powerful magic that was performed here, or the mages who entered and left the place.

“I believe they were left here only to mark the place, not to fulfill any function.” He went closer.

“Wait!” he looked at the socket of one of the pillars. “This one has been hit with spells rather frequently. And---” he touched the base of the pillar for a moment, and a tiny mechanism seemed to come alive inside it.

“I do believe that's a lock. Not very secure, probably just enough to keep the local wildlife out. At any rate, it's useless now.” He gestured at the doorway that was set into the side of the hill. It was wide open, revealing the yawning darkness beneath. The doors lay shattered on either side of the opening; the stones of the frame lay scattered as well.

“The Greywraith must have blown it open,” Mh'arriimh' commented. Chamh'rov was leaning on her shoulder.

“So that part at least is cleared up,” Tam responded.

“Getting cold feet?” Mh'repha teased the young Vahnatai. “We can still turn back now...”

Tam just laughed. “I'm not scared. Come on!” and walked through the opening into the darkness ahead, waiting for them to follow. But as he did, he felt a cold blast of air come from the mouth of the cave, and felt chilled to his very heart. He ignited a sphere of light, and they disappeared into the ancient ruins.

Chapter Six

Chapter Six aran Wed, 11/29/2006 - 19:24

Even as the survivors of the Claw expedition explore the depths of the abandoned Vahnatai ruins, on the heel of the foes they are trying to avoid, Olidra is escaping the mad pursuit of the renegade keepers under Rabon-Ka.

The race is on.

XIV. Light

XIV. Light aran Wed, 11/29/2006 - 22:59

Darkness. Darkness everlasting.

Tam silently went over the words like a mantra. In his mind, they sounded at once frightening and reassuring. Odd. Why do I find the concept of darkness comforting, even soothing? He could not explain his reaction. His people did not like darkness by nature, and it was not for nothing that the Nephilim called the omh'phtah, the Shining Ones, for they lit lanterns of magic and turned the night to day wherever they could.

The more strange it was, then, that these ruins, an ancient dwelling place of the Vahnatai, should be so utterly dark. Surely in the days of its glory, there had been magic to light it – but where had it gone now? Had it simply faded away over the course of the centuries, leaving at last only bare emptiness and eternal night? Or did it simply lie dormant, waiting for another Vahnatai to re-activate it, letting the ancient buildings shine with light once more? He could feel, at the edges of his awareness, a faint aura of magic that seemed ever present, lying like a coat of dust over the entire place, but he could not identify it more closely.

“Or perhaps it is simply the background residue from long and frequent exposure,” he muttered. “Rehlko knows a lot of powerful magic must have been used in this place.”

“What are you saying?” Mh'repha asked with interest.

Tam had not noticed he was speaking aloud and felt slightly abashed. “Nothing. I'm just wondering about the aura in this place. Knowing my people, I think there might still be a powerful Light spell hidden somewhere here that could illuminate all these caverns. I would just have to find it, and we wouldn't need to mess around with this tiny thing here.” He gestured at the pathetic little sphere that was hovering over his hand.

“And would alert the Greywraith to our presence. No thanks,” she retorted.

XXIII. Fugitives

XXIII. Fugitives aran Wed, 11/29/2006 - 22:33

Fire crackles, hisses, he can smell sulphurous fumes.

Not the bloody maze all over again, is all that he can think of. Why will his nightmares repeat the same way every bloody time?

But as he opens his eyes, the scene is different. No dark, twisty passages all alike, shimmering with the heat of the stalra. The forest glade is brightly lit. Fiery shapes are dancing around, whirling and flying all around him, glowing with a fiery brilliance. Thick, oily clouds of black smoke are roiling from them; the grass under their feet blackens at their touch. Olidra keeps well away from the shapes. If he touches them, he dies.

And he needs to stay alive, or Sonahn is doomed.

At Olidra's feet, a blackened, scorched shape is lying. It is the corpse of the inquisitor – the only witness to Rabon-Ka's treason, and a vivid reminder of what happens to witnesses. He needs to get away from the traitors, or he will get the same.

A lizard is waiting at the edge of the clearing. He is on edge; the fiery figures frighten him a lot. All it would take for him to bolt and take Olidra to freedom is a whistled command and a thrown rock. He bends down, but there is no rock. Suddenly, he sees a figure at the other end of the clearing. The figure bends down, lifts up a rock, straightens up. She smiles. It is Sonahn! He has never seen her before, but he knows it is her without thinking.

She continues to grin, lifts the rock above her head, seems to lightly toss it across the clearing at the lizard. But her aim is off, and the rock hits his forehead. He feels a sharp crack, and the dream dissolves into a red mist of pain as he is sent down tumbling to the ground...

-----

Olidra awoke with a jolt. His head was hurting with a splitting pain, and he had trouble remembering where he was. Yet again. This must be the third time in a row I woke up somewhere strange. I must get used to adventuring again soon, or it will be like this for the entire journey. He scowled, gripping his forehead in his left hand as the pain continued.

He felt a nasty lump, but fortunately not the dried blood he had been fearing. The injury was less severe than he had expected. Where did I get that bruise anyway? He wondered to himself even as the dream picture of fiery ghosts and thrown rocks dissolved before his mind's eye. [i]And how did I get here?

The teacher managed to open his eyes at last, and cast a look at his surroundings. He appeared to be lying right next to a magnificent tree trunk, sort of wrapped around it as if he was propped up against a pillow. A hard, wooden pillow. Lying near him were a few lengthy pieces of rope, worn and frayed in parts. One of them was still partially wrapped around his legs.

Ye mighty shapers of rock and life, he realized, the lizard. I was tied on, and it ran. I fell off it.

Then he remembered what had happened previously. The treason! He was being pursued, and had narrowly evaded the Keepers for now. They cannot risk me getting back to Avtris as a witness. Right now, they could still claim an accident killed us both. Fire damage like the one that had killed Eedrah was not terribly common in the middle of the wilderness, but there were some rare monsters that could breathe fire and cast primitive magic. But it is implausible enough to arouse suspicions – especially if they don't have my body. Let alone the risk of having me turn up and denounce them as traitors; they won't leave a stone unturned until they've found me.

I need to get away from here, he desperately thought. Quite a hopeless task – he was still disoriented, he was injured, without provisions, and his pursuers were the most powerful force of the academy. How will I go about surviving this?

Think.

The first step was to find out what time it was. How long had he been unconscious? Minutes, hours even? Why had they not yet found and killed him?

A quick glance at the lengthening shadows and the sun that was low but still far from setting told him the answer: He had lost no more than half an hour.

They haven't gotten here yet, then. They're on foot, and the panicking lizard must have carried me for several miles at least before I fell off. A reassuring thought. If I only had been able to stay on the lizard a while longer... he mused, or, even better, gained control of the animal...

But he hadn't, and so he was lying here, on foot, like those who were pursuing him. But he had his ow advantages – unlike the Keepers, for all their magical power, he was no stranger to the wilderness and in his element when it came to adventuring. They will need rest before I do, injured though I am, he realized, and I can hide my tracks in ways they cannot follow without using their greatest scrying power. And scrying power was ever limited by sapphires – time and fatigue and nature itself was on his side.

For the first time in quite a while, Olidra managed to grin. “Let us see who gives up first.” He muttered a simple formula that would temporarily block the pain from his forehead – the wound would take some time to heal yet, and unfortunately he possessed no healing magic – and his headache deceptively seemed to clear up at last.

-----

Olidra had walked for about an hour – if one could call it walking and not running, for in spite of his effort to conserve energy by avoiding strain, he was going at a brisk pace. The sun really was close to setting now, though it was hardly even evening yet – it was getting close to winter, and the days had grown short.

He found that he felt remarkably little unease at not having the foggiest idea where he was going. Such thoughts could be postponed until later, once he had the Keepers off his heels. For now, he was walking away, not towards anywhre in particular, and as long as the distance to the Keepers was increasing, he did not mind where he ended up. He was heading west, that was all he knew – which meant that he must be going away from Avtris by now.

The forachid lay northeast of the Sapphire City, and the road to Mehdav would have led him further to the northeast. Instead, the Keepers had apparently begun to take him back home to Avtris, southwest, until the treason and the murder of Eedrah, when his lizard had escaped, speeding northwest judging from the tracks.

Olidra was no fool – he knew that the lizard's heavy footprints in the soft ground were pathetically easy to follow. Instead of trailing after the footprints, he had immediately turned westwards, taking care to walk over hard ground to avoid leaving tracks. His only worry was that his choice of direction might be obvious – but he could just as well have gone north as west, so that was not a significant concern. Why did I not turn around completely and head to Avtris? The answer came immediately: Because right now, he could trust absolutely nobody at the academy. Even if the Keepers didn't catch him, he might be running into a trap. This way was safe.

And yet, as he wandered, he was beginning to sense a strange entity. Probing.

A pity Aidra is not here, he thought. He was always the master at detecting scrying spells like these, identifying their casters and even tracing them back to their source. Olidra's own skill barely extended to realizing it when he was being magically scried.

In this case, of course, that knowledge was quite sufficient. There was no other mage around who could have been casting the spell, it was emanating from the Keepers.

Olidra felt apprehensive and extremely exposed and vulnerable at that knowledge. There was no way to escape the spell, and he did not have the skill or the equipment required to block their sight. While their crystals lasted, he was in their plain sight, and his only hope was to evade them long enough to waste all the resources they had brought. I will change my path as soon as their scrying spell ends to gain some distance and lead them astray. It may not help very long, but they can't have brought enough sapphires with them to last for a whole expedition.

But the scrying spell did not end, and Olidra felt more worried. His apprehension increased when he realized that the feeling was intensifying and becoming clearer. An indicator that the caster was getting closer – and getting closer far too fast for someone on foot. I'm in trouble.

All too soon, he heard the sound of distant footsteps approaching – clawed hooves, a lizard. The scrying spell intensified and then was abruptly cut off. Far from believing himself home and dry – a deceptive feeling – he knew that this only meant that he had finally been spotted by the rider, and no further scrying was required. Too late to hide. Any second now he will get me with a spell, and I can't even see him yet. And then: Where in the name of Dahrnai did he get the lizard? They had only one when they had caught me, their pack animal, and the escaped lizard surely could not have--

His thoughts were interrupted. The lizard appeared in view behind him, and when he turned around, he could hardly believe his eyes.

“Kuhvi!” His lizard let out a friendly hiss in recognition, and approached more closely. Only a few moments later did Olidra think to look up at the Vahnatai who was riding her. Now that the lizard was gaining on him and he was standing in place, he could see it was a young woman, who he did not recognize.

“Olidra-Ka, ska'kal!” She called out to him, and realization hit him all at once. It must be the student who got trapped in the testing halls earlier – Sonahn. It figures I would not recognize her when I saw her first; I'd imagined her looking a lot differently.

“Sonahn?” He addressed her.

“That would be me. So we meet in person at last,” she laughed. “It was a wise decision of you to leave your supplies lying in the cavern, and a less wise, but fortunate decision of these so-called Keepers to leave your lizard running free in the vicinity. That made it easy to follow.”

“So Tarai's Mystical Shovel did its work?” He grinned in relief. At least one of his worries was finally gone.

“That it did, although I'll never begin to understand what its inventor was smoking when he came up with it,” she shook her head in exasperation. “Wind and Earth, can you imagine? When you strike your thumb with a hammer, is the lesson you learn from it to drive nails in with your tongue in the future? But yes, it reached me eventually.

“The rations and potions that you so kindly left for me were enough to make me feel mostly alive again, and after that I found the lizard wandering around a bit aimlessly. He's missed you pretty badly, I think,” she added.

“She. Her name's Kuhvi,” he retorted with a smile. “But what I don't get is this: How did you follow the Keepers?”

“It was easy at first; you were heading back to Avtris after all, and they kept on the road for the most part. Their headstart wasn't that big; I think they dawdled for at least a day if not more before they left the Forachid again. What they did there I can't say – surely they didn't investigate the ruins any more closely.

“Plus, they were on foot, and Kuhvi can apparently ride very fast in return for a few treats. Anyway, I followed you all for a while and came just in time to see it all.” Her expression turned serious suddenly. “Things looked very tight, but I couldn't use any magic, or they would have caught me as well. Under the circumstances, the only thing I could use was a rather primitive way to set the lizard to running.”

“So you did throw that rock!” Olidra exclaimed. “I---” I dreamed of that,he nearly added, but noticed in time how silly that would sound.

“Yes. Fortunately, in the resulting havoc, they were so eager to go after your lizard that nobody stopped to see where the rock had come from, and I could follow easily.”

“And why--”

“Why I followed you instead of returning to Avtris myself? Well, firstly, you pretty much saved my life and I'd rather like to return the favor given an opportunity. Secondly, I saw what you saw, and I survived whatever they did to the Forachid, so I'm sure they don't want to have me around as a witness.

“If we're going to escape, we may as well do it together. What do you say?” She looked at him questioningly.

How quickly the fortunes can turn, Oldra marveled.

“What is there to say? We're in this together now, I guess. For good or for ill. This way, we might actually stand a chance against these traitors. And, of course, it helps that we have Kuhvi and some supplies.

“We need to move.” He grinned again. “And we should do so quickly before Rabon catches us chatting. So yes. Let's run away together.”