24 March 2012

ELVEHELM: Eldisle VI - Questions and Answers

Sext – Early Afternoon

            Shimantrea knocked lightly on the door to the Duke’s study.  She was surprised to be summoned to the Palace in mid-afternoon, shortly after the mid-day prayers of sext.  She was similarly surprised that the summons had come so closely before the Feralis, and so soon after the horror that had exploded out of the green at the Lucum earlier in the day.  She was still quaking with terror at the memory of having been swallowed whole by a twisted parody of the life of the green.  Kaltas himself had healed her after the monstrosity had been blasted into dust by his guests, and once conscious, she had been able to mitigate the rest of her injuries.  She was as well as she had ever been – at least, in body.  Her heart and spirit, however – they were another story.

            She was surprised, too, to be met only by Kovakaunis, the formidable elf-woman who commanded the Duke’s personal guard.  She had expected an equerry, perhaps a butler or even a serving-girl.  She had not expected to be received and escorted into the Duke’s presence by so senior a retainer.

            “Do you know why he summoned me, Cohors?” Shimantrea asked as they ascended the tower steps to the Duke’s private study.

            “I imagine he’ll tell you that himself,” Kovakaunis replied.  She sounded a little surly.

            An instant later, she paused in her climb.  Shimantrea checked herself at the last instant to avoid banging into her escort.

            To her astonishment, Kovakaunis turned and sketched a perfunctory bow.  Excusatio.  That was impolite, especially in view of your courage and near sacrifice this morning.

            “What I ought to have said, priestess,” the warrior continued, “is that His Excellency needs your assistance in asking some questions.”

            “Really?” the druid was surprised for a third time.  “I am...er...not trained as an inquisitor, Cohors.  My faith does not permit me to wring answers from...from...excuse me, why do you laugh?”

            Kovakaunis was chuckling loudly.  “Believe me, priestess,” she chortled, “nobody wrings answers out of those whom my lord seeks to question.”

            Shimantrea looked puzzled.  “Who is it, then?”

            The warrior pointed upwards.

            The druid blinked.  “Ah.  I see.  And what does he wish to ask?”

            “That,” Kovakaunis replied stiffly, “he did not confide to me.  He will have to tell you himself.”  She resumed her climb, and Shimantrea followed obediently. 

            Moments later, the warrior was ushering her into the Duke’s sanctum sanctorum.  Without a word, Kovakaunis closed the door and locked it.  Shimantrea thought that that was somewhat ominous.

            “Welcome, daughter of the Forest Mother.”  Kaltas emerged from behind the door which led, presumably to his bed-chamber.  “Please, make yourself comfortable.”

            Shimantrea glanced around the room.  Like the tower that contained it, it was round, and all too obviously stood at the top of the structure.  The ceiling was a good four or five paces over her head, conical and steeply pitched, supported by heavy oaken trusses black with age.  The walls...gods above!  She had never seen so many books!  The tower’s circumference, which had to be a good thirty paces or more, was entirely taken up by bookshelves, most of them so high that a ladder would be necessary to reach them.  The continuous wall of tomes was broken only thrice: once by the door through which she had entered; once by the door to the Duke’s bedroom; and once by a fireplace big enough to roast an ox.

            The interior of the room was dominated by a large desk that was covered with a clutter of books, papers, bundles of scrolls and various impedimenta.  There was also a large settee draped in well-worn blankets standing before the fireplace.  Shimantrea settled herself on this, close to the welcome warmth of the fireplace, and found that it was soft and comfortable.

            “Would you like a drink, priestess?” Kaltas asked.

            “Yes, thank you,” she replied hesitantly.  She wondered whether she should volunteer her dietary restrictions; would it be rude to assume that he knew them, or rude to assume that he did not?  As a Champion of Larranel, he might not necessarily...

            Kaltas saved her the trouble.  “Wine or ale?”

            “Either,” she replied relived.  “Both are acceptable to...”

            “...to a daughter of the Forest Mother,” he interrupted, laughing at her discomfiture.  “Relax, priestess.  Don’t forget, my daughter is one of yours.  And so is my custodia, the Princess Myaszæron.”

            “I had forgotten,” Shimantrea replied, cursing herself.  “My apologies, sire.”

            Kaltas waved her consternation away with a grin.  “ ‘Gifts of nature only’,” he quoted with a chuckle.  “ ‘Fermentation is permitted, but distillation forbidden’.”  He filled two glasses from a silver decanter.  “Between the two of them, they’ve just about forced me to give up aqua vitae.” 

He handed her a crystal goblet, and raised his own.  “Last autumn’s pressing.  To your health, priestess.  And your courage today.”

Not knowing what to say, Shimantrea raised her glass and drank.  The wine was dry, delicious, and potent, and she nearly choked.

“Undistilled doesn’t have to mean weak,” Kaltas grinned.  He placed his glass on his desk and took a seat next to her.  “Did Kova tell you why I summoned you, priestess?”
            “Not entirely, sire,” Shimantrea confessed.  “She only told me that you had a question to ask.  Of the Powers, that is.  Not of me.”

Kaltas nodded.  “She told you nothing else?”

The druid shook her head.

“Good.”  He leaned back against the arm of the settee.  “Perhaps we should begin by doffing our cumbersome titles.  Call me ‘Kaltas’.  Do you prefer ‘Shimantrea’, or some truncation...?”

Shimantrea was so startled by the unaccustomed familiarity that she nearly choked again.  She did manage to say “Shima” in strangled tones.

“Shima, then,” the Duke nodded.  “Please understand, Shima, that I would not normally ask you to perform this service.  It is the Protector’s will that I seek to descry.  In a matter of merely personal import, I hasten to add.  But I have no priest of the Protector to hand.  Alorestes is gone, and I cannot ask Jianni.  Nor,” he added with a slight flush, “can I ask the Princess.  For reasons which, I am sure, will be obvious to you.”

“What is the spell that you wish me to cast, sire?” Shimantrea asked, greatly intrigued.

“I wish to see and understand the Path of Exaltation,” he replied.

The druid’s eyes widened.  “That is...no small divination, sire,” she whispered.  “It is one that I have never before attempted.”

“Is it within your power?” Kaltas asked.

“It is,” she replied.  “If only barely.”  Her mind was aflame with nervousness now.  That spell, once cast, would put her jiwa in direct contact with the Powers above – a precarious state of the spirit, one that normally came about only after death.

            “Excellent,” the Duke said, relieved.  “Then, the sooner the better. Nec?”

            “You are aware,” Shimantrea offered with extreme diffidence, “that that spell does not furnish the asker with any new information?  All it can do is grant divine insight, enabling the subject to make the best possible decision on the basis of that which he already knows.”

            “I know,” he replied.  He grinned self-consciously.  “Indeed, it describes my dilemma perfectly.  I have all of the facts at my command, but I cannot descry the divine will necessary to decide what to do about them.  This is why I need you.”

            The druid nodded.  “I cannot cast it before dawn,” she said.  “I have never prepared it, and so will need to cleanse my jiwa, and seek the Forest Mother’s benediction before granting your desire.  This I customarily do in the hour before the Lantern ascends.”

            “Dawn will be fine,” Kaltas replied.  “Indeed, dawn will be perfect.”

            “You, too, must prepare,” the priestess added.

            “Really?” Kaltas was surprised.  “How?”

            “No meat between now and then,” Shimantrea replied, mentally ticking off the requirements for a clean casting.  “No ardent spirits.  In fact, you should avoid wine and ale, too, just to be safe.  You must bathe; ensure especially that you approach the Powers uncontaminated by blood.  Also...” she flushed slightly.

            “Yes?” Kaltas asked, eyebrows raised.

            “Er...from now, until the ordeal is completed,” she said, sounding embarrassed, “you must remain chaste.”

            “That shouldn’t be a problem,” the Duke said.  “At least, for tonight.”  There was a very peculiar expression on his face.

            “Well enough,” the druid murmured, obviously relieved.  “Also, you must wear only white or green.  And no leather, worked stones, or metal.”

            “If you want, I’ll come buck-naked and wrapped in a bedsheet,” Kaltas promised.  “Anything else?”

            Shimantrea shook her head.  “That is all, sire.  But a moment’s meditation ‘twixt now and then would not be amiss.  Shall I attend upon you as soon as practicable after dawn?”

            “Yes, please,” Kaltas replied.  “But not here.  I would ask that you cast the spell at the Lucum Aeternus.  At the memorial to my late lifemate.”

            She started.  “Sorry, what?”

            “At the Lucum,” the Duke repeated.  “That won’t be a problem, will it?”

            “No,” the druid said slowly.  “But it is a little unusual.  May I ask why, sire?”

            Kaltas looked stubborn for a moment.  Then he sighed in resignation.  “It has to do with the question that I intend to ask.”

            “And that is...?” Shimantrea prompted.

            Kaltas was silent for a long, long moment.  Then he sighed again.  “Earlier this evening,” he said in a low voice, “the Princess Myaszæron proposed that she and I enter into the bonds of lifemating.”

            The druid’s eyes bulged out.  “The Princess?” she gasped.

            The Duke made a calming gesture with both hands.  “This must be kept in strictest confidence,” he warned.

            “Of course,” she replied.  She tried desperately to organize her thoughts.  “Ah.  I see.  You wish to ask the Protector whether the Queen is attempting to bind you to the throne by blood, is that it?  Or if this is some plot of the Grim Duchess, to throw the succession into further doubt?  Or whether the Princess herself is seeking allies, perhaps in a bid to oust...”

            “No!” Kaltas exclaimed, laughing out loud.  “Not at all!”

            Shimantrea’s eyes narrowed in confusion.  “Well, sire...then, what do you wish to ask the Protector?”

            The Duke saw her consternation and realized how ridiculous he was being.  “Nothing so weighty,” he smiled.  “I merely wish to beg my lifemate’s forgiveness for letting her go at last. 

“And,” he added with a sheepish grin, “to ask Larranel whether I was right to obey the dictates of my heart.  Because, you see, I said ‘yes’.”


Compline – shortly after midnight

            Head down, shoulders hunched against the driving rain, Lallakentan stomped down the Piatella, the high street that ran from the Ducal palace down to the harbour.  Mud splattered beneath his boots; the close-set cobblestones and generous draining ditches flanking the broad roadway were designed to handle the torrential rains that periodically afflicted the south coast of the Eldisle, but the nature and duration of the present downpour defeated even their superlative engineering.  Instead of gutters, he and his companion were walking between roaring rivers.  If it was this bad atop the palace mount, he could only imagine how nasty it was further down the slope.

            “Would you mind shortening your pace?” Kalena asked, a little waspishly.  She was walking alongside him, and was obviously struggling to keep up.

            “I’m sorry, Kallie,” the old soldier obliged at once.  “Are you feeling all right?”  Two hours earlier, the woman had been paralyzed, felled by a blow from a weapon of dreadful magical potency.

            “I’m fine,” the wizard replied.  “The druid’s touch was entirely efficacious.  You simply have an impossibly long stride!”

Lallakentan grinned.  The Hîarsk wizard was close to his height, but she had a tendency to walk (he thought of it as “mince”) using scholar’s steps, while centuries under arms had accustomed him to a soldier’s more purposeful pace.

            Not that the storm was causing her any particular discomfiture.  Unlike him, she was entirely dry.  Lallakentan shot a glance at her slippered feet and shook his head in frustrated wonder.  With each step she took, the deep puddles seemed to shrink away, creating temporary dry spots for her to walk in. 

He looked behind, and laughed aloud; the spots filled in as swiftly as her feet left them.

            “What?” the woman snapped.

            He pointed at the phenomenon.  “That spell would’ve come in handy at the Priory,” he snorted.  “The month before Duncala.  Kaltas and I - and Syllo, too – we were arse-deep in mud for two weeks while the Hand Knights waited for dry ground to charge over.  My small-clothes nearly rotted off me.”

            “Fascinating,” she sighed, sounding not at all fascinated.  “Do you have any other tales concerning your undergarments that you wish to share?”

            That made him laugh out loud.  “You’re in a rare mood tonight, Kallie,” he chuckled.  “What’s warping your staff?  Other than a gut-full of steel and poison, that is.”

            “I’ve asked you before to use my proper name,” the woman growled.  “As to your question, it is an hour past midnight. I am tired.  And my feet hurt from wearing heels and dancing with oversized clods.”

            “Thanos step on your toes?” the warrior asked with a wink.  “Shame.  You looked to be enjoying yourself.”

            She ignored him. 

            A moment later, he asked, “Did you have an opportunity to examine that blade?  The one young Calperyso used on you and the warcaster?”

            “As you gathered me up at the infirmary,” the wizard replied stiffly, “where Shimantrea had only just restored my vitality, then I would venture to guess that the answer is ‘no’.”

            “Not even a cantrip?” he jested.

            “I generally keep the vision spell prepared for contingencies such as that one,” she explained, unbending a little.  “However, it is a draining theurgy, and I am no condition to wrestle with the flux at present.”

            “You’re in a rare mood,” the old warrior clucked again.

            “I am cold,” she grumbled. “I am wet, my back aches, I am behind in crucial researches for the Duke, and in the past three hours I have been stabbed, poisoned and paralyzed.  In a word, old friend, it has been a long day.” 

            “At least,” she sighed heavily, “I am no longer drunk.  Shima’s spell was effective there, too.”

            “The Duke would...” Lallakentan began. 

She cut him off.  “He would have preferred to do this himself, I know.  But he is standing vigil tonight, against some theological exigency.”  The wizard pulled her cloak tighter about her narrow shoulders.  “I would have accompanied him, and so I am accompanying you.  Which is why I am stumbling about the marketplace, instead of lying in bed wrapped in heated blankets.”

            “Blankets?” the old soldier laughed.  “Why?  Thanos have other plans?”

            “I know you think you are being funny, my friend,” the woman growled, “but if you jest about that again, the Duke will have a second murder to investigate tonight.”

            Lallakentan put up his hands in surrender.  They walked on.

            The high street was dark and quiet; doors were closed and windows shuttered against the rain.  Apart from the street-flares, which were never extinguished, there was no light, and between the cloud cover and the driving rain, it was difficult even for the far-sighted elves to make out the signs hanging before the shops.  Lallakentan, however, was familiar with the place to which they had been summoned, and knew what to look for: a wooden plaque decorated with a stylized crown, beneath a trio of virgae regina - the bundle of lictors’ rods that signified royal patronage.  The fact that the door to the shop stood open, letting light fall in a broad trapezoid on the street, made identification that much easier.

            A tall figure stood in the doorway, beckoning them in.

            The old soldier ground his teeth.  Iniustus Nugo was one of the oldest and most respected craftsmen in Joyous Light, and his shop, Domus Nugo, one of the wealthiest in Eldisle.  A killing behind closed doors was more than a crime; it was indignity and dishonour, for the city as much as for the merchant, and, therefore, for the Duke.  Fortunately, Nugo had thought to send word to the palace via a messenger bearing a sealed note.  Such a thing could not, of course, be entirely concealed; there was a perpetrator (or perpetrators), there was a body, there would have to be a trial at the Ducal court…one way or another, word would get out, and it would make its way willy-nilly to the capital, faster than any horse could travel, ship sail, or bird fly.  Nothing in Elvehelm was swifter than news of a scandal.  The last thing Kaltas needed right now, the arms-master thought bleakly, was more jaws wagging at court.

            Lallakentan was unsurprised when the figure at the door turned out to be the elderly craftsman himself.  Iniustus Nugo was so old that he made the soldier feel young.  The two were about the same height, but the jeweller was so thin that Lallakentan - still muscular despite his advancing years - felt short next to the man.  And where his own hair, although greying, still contained a few comforting streaks of black, Nugo’s was as white as sun-bleached linen.

            Not surprisingly, the man also looked drawn and exhausted.  Lallakentan bowed.  “Magister.”

            “Captain.  Welcome to…to House Nugo.”  Obviously distraught, he seemed to choke on the words.

            The old soldier nodded.  “Kalena, may I present -”

            The wizard swept her hood back.  “Master Nugo requires no introduction.”  She held up her right hand.  A ring - a marvellously intricate confection of mithral wire capped with a trio of blood-red stones - glittered on her middle finger.  “Your work, sir.  The pride of Domus Nugo.”

            Nugo took her hand and bowed over it.  “I thank you for the kind words, magus,” he murmured.  “Although I fear the pride of Domus Nugo will be sadly diminished after tonight.”

            “The sooner we know what happened,” she replied crisply, “the sooner we can evaluate the damage to your reputation, and see to the mending of it.  Where is the body?”

            The old man nodded at a heavy wooden door - one of three that stood at the rear of the building.  “The work-room.”

            As they navigated the shop, weaving their way through the dozen or so heavy, glass-topped wooden display cases, Lallakentan shook his head in wonder.  The wealth on display was staggering.  Each of the cases held a prince’s ransom in beautifully-wrought jewellery.  “Magical protection?” he asked Kalena softly.

            The wizard was looking intently around the shop, pausing every now and then to focus her gaze on a particular spot.  A soft blue glow emanated from her eyes.  “You’ve no idea,” she whispered.  “This place is positively dripping with abjurations.  Don’t touch anything.”

            The warrior nodded, keeping his hands near his sword-belt.  “What about surveillance?” he asked as they reached the rear of the shop.

            Kalena swept the room once more.  “Nothing,” she said, sounding surprised.  “Odd.”

            “Why is it odd?”

            “Well, normally, when there’s this much at stake, there would be at least a few foci for scrying on...oh, I see,” she said, her tone changing in mid-sentence.  “The entire building is warded.  I suppose that makes sense.”

            “You’ve lost me,” the warrior said, crossing his arms.

            The wizard waved a hand at the walls and ceiling.  “Instead of scrying sensors, the building is warded against any form of scrying.”  She chuckled.  “That means that there’s so much money at stake that Nugo thought it was more important to prevent others from looking in, than to look in himself.” 

She shook her head.  “This must have cost him a bundle.”

            “Must be nice to have that kind of coin,” Lallakentan grunted.

            “It’s not nice for us,” Kalena sighed.  “It means that there’s no way anybody could have seen the deed.  Unless they were here when it happened.”

            The old warrior shrugged.  “Then we do it the old-fashioned way.  Body first.”

            “Body first,” Kalena agreed.  She conjured a wisp of azure light; the spark tagged along behind them. Together, they followed Nugo into the work-room.

            Less than a minute later, Kalena bolted back into the shop, gagging and looking for a suitable receptacle.  Finding nothing, she fell to her knees and vomited across the expensive carpets.

            Lallakentan wished that honour would allow him to emulate her.  A lifetime of battle had accustomed him to the brutality that often accompanied death, but it had been many long years since he had seen something this unpleasant.  The body - that of a male of the Third House, and a relatively young one at that, perhaps seven- or eight-score years old - lay splayed out in the centre of the workroom floor, arms and legs akimbo.  The corpse was well-dressed, in evening clothes - snug hose, a fashionable black doublet with silver lacing, low shoes of some sort of shiny material that he did not recognize.  Beneath the doublet, a silver-chased belt of black leather encircled the man’s waist.  The soles of the shoes, Lallakentan noted, were, like his own, damp, although not with blood.  Which was surprising, considering that the body lay in a pool of gore at least two paces in diameter.  Under the harsh blue of Kalena’s magelight, the fluid looked black, and was slowly congealing.

            Walking around the body, the old soldier saw a hilt protruding from beneath one hip.  It looked to be a pugio, and it appeared as though the blade were still in its scabbard. 

His eyes narrowed briefly.  The hilt of the knife looked familiar.  In fact, he had seen it earlier the same evening, at the Feralis.

            Reluctantly, he shifted his gaze to the corpse’s shoulders and beyond.  The thing that had set Kalena off was the fact that the body, for all intents and purposes, had no head.  The head was still there, more or less; but it had been smashed, beaten into shards of bone and gobbets of bloody flesh, none of them bigger than a plumb.  A long, blood-drenched braid, fragments of skull and jaw-bone, and a few shattered teeth were all that remained.

            The reek of spilled gore was overpowering.  The old warrior took shallow breaths, very, very glad that he had drunk and dined sparingly at his master’s table.

Something near one of the work tables caught his eye.  Bending down, he saw a short, heavy rod, about the size and shape of his forearm - narrow at one end, thick at the other.  It was covered in blood and gobbets of flesh.  A number of hairs clung to the thicker end.

            With the toe of one boot, he teased it out onto the floor.  “This may be the murder weapon,” he said, his voice dripping with irony.  He dropped to his haunches, inspected the thing without touching it.  It had an obvious handle, but looked terribly unwieldy.  “I don’t recognize it.  Some sort of club?”

            “It’s a pestle,” the old craftsman replied.  He swallowed thickly.  “It goes with the large mortar in the back.  The one we use for grinding quicklime and other caustic substances.”

            Lallakentan glanced up at the old craftsman.  He harrumphed to clear his throat of a sudden rush of bile, and asked, “Who is he?”

            Nugo grimaced.  “He was,” he said, emphasizing the past tense, “Irasco Salax.  My most gifted apprentice.  He’d been here four years, and was nearly ready to pass on to journeyman.  His family lives here in town.”

            “Have they been informed?”

            The craftsman shook his head.

            “Do you have any idea who did this?” the old warrior asked.  He looked back at the body and winced.

            “Of course,” Nugo murmured.  “I thought that was clear from my note.  I have the murderer in custody.”  There was a marked quaver in his voice.

            Lallakentan’s eyebrows rose.  “What?  You caught him?”

            “Not ‘him’,” the craftsman averred. “Her.”  He nodded towards the back of the workroom, where two door stood side-by-side.  One was marked ‘Stores’; the other, ‘Lavatory’.  The latch of the store-room was equipped with an iron lock, with a key in it.

            “A woman?” the old warrior said, surprised.  “Do tell?”

            Before Nugo could reply, Kalena returned, a handkerchief pressed delicately to her lips.  Excusatio.”

            Purgare,” Lallakentan quipped.  The wizard shot him a withering glance.  In the elven tongue, the verb had two meanings - one being to excuse one’s comrade, the other being to void one’s stomach.

            “Did I hear you say the murderer is a woman?” the wizard asked, sounding horribly nauseated.

            The old craftsman nodded.

            Kalena shot a glance at the corpse, and then at the murder weapon, and shuddered.  “I find it difficult to believe that any female of our race could do that sort of damage with so cumbersome an implement.”

            “Ah,” Nugo replied, grimacing.  “Well, you see, there you touch upon it.”  Stepping over the puddle of gore, he strode to the back of the workshop and spun the key in the lock.  Instinctively, Lallakentan put a hand on the hilt of his dagger.

            The jeweller opened the door to reveal a long, narrow room lined with thin shelves, stacked floor to ceiling.  The shelves were covered with a massive assortment of uncut gemstones.  The far wall was unrelieved rock.  There was no light until Kalena’s blue spark followed them into the room.

On the floor, huddled in a small heap, was an elf-woman.  The stones behind and beneath her were stained with patches of drying blood, although not nearly as much as surrounded the corpse outside.  She was clad in some sort of simple dress, a belted shift.  It appeared to be torn, and was spotted and stained, with other substances as well as with gore.  She was unmoving, and the old soldier wondered for a moment whether she were asleep, or perhaps even dead.  Then he saw her eyes blink in the sudden light from the workroom.

            She was small; nearly a head smaller than Lallakentan himself, and he was no giant among elves.  He shot a glance at Nugo.  “That’s your killer?” he asked dubiously.

            The jeweller nodded, his face grim.  “We found her by the body.  Her hands were covered with...with...well,” he stammered, “just look at her!”

            “She’s a torva,” Kalena said suddenly.

            “Of course she is,” the jeweller shrugged.  “What else?”

            Lallakentan blinked.  How on earth had he missed that?  The eyes he had noted were wide and staring, but they were a soft red-brown rather than emerald green, while her hair - what he could see of it through the matted clots of gore - was likewise rust-red.  He was himself weathered and sun-burnt by elven standards, but her skin was a shade darker than his and - he looked more closely - mottled here and there with reddish-brown patches.  Her heritage explained her stature; the wilder elves were, on average, a good hand-span shorter than their Third House cousins. 

            He took a step closer, watching her carefully.  Her eyes flickered towards him, wide and staring, but she did not move.  At the next step, however, her eyes shot to him and remained there, and she began to tremble visibly.  He stopped moving, holding up his hands, and dropping to his haunches.

            Without taking his gaze off her, he asked, “Do you know her?”

            “Of course I know her.  I bought her contract a six-month since.” 

He frowned.  “Contract?”

“As a general labourer, with an apprenticeship clause,” Nugo shrugged.  “The usual thing.”

“Has she been trouble before this?” Kalena asked, staring at the girl with narrowed eyes.

“Not at all,” the craftsman replied.  “She’s quiet, and a good study.  Strong, too.”  Then he frowned.

“What is it?” the wizard asked.

“Praetrepido…my factor,” Nugo mused.  “Yesterday, he told me there’d been an problem while I was away at a customer’s residence.  The girl had upset a vat of polishing compound.  And there was a bit of a scuffle.”

            “ ‘Scuffle’?” the warrior asked.

            “Nothing serious,” the artisan shrugged.  “Strong words and shoving.  Apparently Salax got knocked about in the melee.  Praetrepido ended up taking the cane to her.”

            “And the girl,” Kalena asked, her voice taking on a frosty note.  “What sort of contract did you buy, Sieur Nugo?  Famula est? Ab concubina?”

            “No, no!” the old jeweller averred, holding up his hands in alarm.  “No! Nothing like that!  She’s just a...you know - a labourer.  I’m training her, too.  She’s just like any of my other apprentices!”

            “Except that you don’t have to pay her,” Lallakentan snorted angrily.  “Or, evidently, provide her with decent clothing.”  He looked at the girl again, and hissed between his teeth.  He hadn’t noticed it before, but one side of her face was swollen.  Her eye was purple, and her lip split. 

“Another advantage?” he spat angrily.  “You can beat her whenever you like?”

            “I’ve never laid a hand on her!” Nugo objected strenuously.

            “Someone has,” Lallakentan snapped.

An uncomfortable suspicion was forming in the old warrior’s mind.  He knew all too well how many of his house viewed the torvae - as less than Kindred; as creatures lying outside of Dior’s law.  As some sort of sub-elven race, one worthy only of servitude and contempt.  If nothing worse. 

He also knew that far too many of his own kind saw them as playthings.  Especially their women.  He’d heard other tales, too – things almost unbelievable.  Such as nobles hunting the tribesfolk like animals.  Not in Eldisle, of course, but…

            “Praetrepido!” Nugo said suddenly, looking uncomfortable.  “He told me he’s had to...to switch her several times.  For...disrupting things in the shop.”

            “What sort of work did she do?” Lallakentan asked.

            “Cleaning, tidying, general labour.  Amongst other things, she crushed the quicklime,” Nugo shrugged.  “As I said, she’s strong.  Used the mortar and pestle all the time.  That’s why it wasn’t much of a surprise to see that she’d...that she’d killed Salax with it.”

            “It would explain the extent of the damage,” Kalena said slowly.  She was swallowing repeatedly, trying to keep her rebellious stomach under control.  “To the corpse, I mean.  The torvae are...are very muscular.  For their size.”

            “I don’t buy it,” Lallakentan murmured.  “Look at the braids.  And the mottling.  And the necklace.”  He pointed at the woman’s throat.  It was encircled by an intricately-woven web of leather thongs, with beads of glass, stone and bone.

            Kalena’s eyes narrowed.  “You’re right.  That’s a tribal luck charm.”

“Not a very good one,” Lallakentan said darkly.

The wizard shot him an annoyed glance.  “She’s lumbah, not suku.  Isn’t she?”

“Yes,” the warrior nodded.

            “What’s that supposed to mean?” Nugo asked, perplexed.

            “It means, Sieur Nugo,” Lallakentan growled, “that she’s from a runner tribe, not a hunter clan.  Unlike the suku – and unlike us – the lumbah never kill, except in self-defence.”  He glared at the elderly artisan.  “Something must have provoked her.”  He levelled an accusing stare.

            “I’ve done nothing wrong!” the man protested.  “She’s one of the lower order!  And the sale of indentures for their sort is permitted under the Codex -”

            “The Codex,” the old soldier interrupted, his ear-tips red with fury, “is a load of donkey’s bollocks.”  He turned back to the huddled woman.  “Hey, little one...what’s your name?”

            The woman did not move.  She only blinked owlishly.  Lallakentan didn’t think her eyes were even focussed on him.

            He turned back to Nugo.  “Her name?” he said coldly.

            “Rutilla,” the artisan replied immediately.

            “ ‘Little Red’,” Kalena scoffed.  “Really?  That’s the best you could do?”

            “That’s the name that was on the contract from the sequestor,” Nugo muttered.

            “You mean, ‘from the sanies’,” Kalena growled.  “You imbecile!  She doesn’t speak elven!  How could she ever agree to a contract?”

Nugo’s face went white.  Hara sophus!”

Lallakentan shook his head.  “Contract agents don’t deal in torvae.  Not the honest ones, anyway.  You bought her from a slaver, fool.” 

He glanced back at Kalena.  “How’s your Sylvan?”

            “Inadequate,” the wizard frowned.  “But we need her story, and we need it now.”

            The old warrior nodded.  He stood, extended his hand, and took a couple of steps toward the staring woman.  “Come along...er...miss.  Rutilla.  We’ll -”

            She shrank back against the wall, eyes wide and trembling.

            Lallakentan halted at once.  Sighing, he turned to the wizard and gestured toward the wilder elven woman.  “Kallie?”

            “Don’t call me that,” Kalena said automatically.  With slow steps, she approached the cowering elf-woman.  The brown eyes shot to her face immediately, but the woman made no other movements.  Relieved, Lallakentan backed up, giving the wizard room to work.

            The presence of another female appeared to help, but not enough.  Before Kalena reached the smaller woman’s side, the girl shrank back against the wall again, uttering a piercing shriek like the cry of a sea-bird.

            The wizard straightened up.  “This is ridiculous,” she snapped.  Gesturing swiftly with one hand, she murmured, “Nukahtaa!”

            The torva woman’s eyes rolled up and she slumped to the floor, insensate.

            “Excellent,” Lallakentan laughed.  “I wish I’d thought of that.  Now what?”

            “Now,” the wizard replied grimly, “we find out what really happened.”  Being careful to avoid the damper-looking of the bloodstains, she knelt by the sleeping girl.  With exquisite care, she placed her fingertips against the dappled skin of the girl’s forehead, and closed her eyes.

            Nugo sniffed.  “What in all the hells is she...” He broke off suddenly in response to a pointed glare from the old soldier.

            Kalena bent down, put her lips near the woman’s ear, and whispered, “Anna minulle ajatuksiasi.”

            The wizard had time to blink twice.  Then she screamed and doubled over, nearly falling to the floor.  Lallakentan’s dagger was out before he realized that there was no threat in sight.

            The torva lay still and silent, deep asleep, although her eyelids were twitching.  But Kalena’s body was writhing spasmodically.  She kept her fingers pressed against the smaller woman’s face, but her free hand flailed wildly in the air.  Instinctively, Lallakentan stepped forward and caught it.

            The horror of Kalena’s power shot through him like an arrow of ice, driving him to his knees.  Agony stabbed into him, through him; agony like fire, and fear, an abject, screeching terror, worse than anything he had ever felt.  Worse than wound of arrow, sword or spear; a burning, penetrating horror, wrenching and tearing - a symphony of pain, in his wrists, his throat, his legs, his loins.  He tried to draw breath to scream, and even that slight gesture provoked a tsunami of torment.

            Kalena’s slender fingers crushed his calloused digits until he thought his fingers might break under the strain.  He hardly noticed; compared to the searing torture flooding through the link, her touch was a gentle caress.

            “Do you see?” the wizard whispered, panting.

            He couldn’t speak; there was no air in his lungs.

            “Do you see!?” Kalena gasped.

            He drew a shuddering breath, the air shredding his lungs like claws.  “Yes!” he shouted.

            With an obvious effort, the wizard pulled her hand away from the sleeping woman’s brow.  She kept Lallakentan’s sword-hand clenched in hers. 

            The sudden absence of screaming sensation took him by surprise, as if he had reached with his toe for a step, and found it missing.  It was a blessing.

            Nugo was staring at the pair in complete shock.  “What...what was that?” he stammered.

            Kalena was still shaking.  Without releasing her hand, Lallakentan climbed unsteadily to his feet.  “It was...we saw it,” he said unsteadily.  “Saw it all.”

            “Did she do it?” the old artisan asked.  “She killed him?”

            “Oh yes,” the old warrior replied.  “She killed him.”  He nodded back towards the work-room.  “Waited until his back was turned, and gave him a good one across the back of the noggin with that stone club.  Your pestle, there.  Then, once he was down, she beat his head into pudding with it.”

            “So, then...she’s guilty,” Nugo muttered.  He was still dreadfully unnerved by what he had just witnessed.  “You...you’ll take her to the Duke, then?”

            “No,” Lallakentan said distantly, “no, I don’t think we will.  You see, there were extenuating circumstances.”

            Nugo raised an eyebrow.  “What do you mean?”

            “I mean,” the old soldier said, his voice hollow, “that your young apprentice, Salax, violated her.  While three of his friends held her down and laughed.  And while your precious factor - Praetrepido, did you say his name was? - while he looked on.”

            The old artisan’s face went white.  “What?” he whispered.

            Lallakentan nodded.  He appeared calm, but his knuckles were white where they clenched the hilt of his dagger.  “They all took their turn.  Your factor, too; the others mocked him until he followed their example.

            “Though it was Salax,” he continued remorselessly, “who beat her.  After Praetrepido had slunk off and his friends had left, laughing and joking, and she was bleeding and helpless on the stones, he beat her senseless.” 

A trembling smirk touched his lips.  “Of course, then he made the fatal error of turning his back on her.  Not a wise decision, where the torvae are concerned.  Even one of the lumbah can be dangerous when cornered.”

            “You saw all this?” Nugo gasped.  “Through magic?”

            “Saw it?” Lallakentan hissed.  “I felt it!  I felt what she endured!  If yonder turd were still breathing,” he spat in the direction of the corpse, “I’d gut him myself.”

            Nugo fell silent, trembling.

            “So, old man,” the old soldier growled, “how do you feel now about Dîor’s law?  About what it permits, and what it does not?”

            The old jeweller put a hand to his mouth.  After a brief pause, he whispered two words: “Fax Albus.”

            The phrase was like a jolt of skyfire to Lallakentan.  “What did you say?” he snapped.

            Fax Albus Sylvanus,” Nugo repeated.  He spoke like a man suddenly awakening from deep sleep.  “The White Fire of the Woodlands.  Salax...and Praetrepido...they were...”

            “Your factor and your chief apprentice, eh?  Is that it?  Both of them, ‘white fire’ types?”

The artisan nodded slowly.

Lallakentan shook his head, marvelling.  “You knew they were sympathetic to the Lustroares...and you did nothing?”  He felt bile rising in his throat, and choked it back.  “Worse, you brought a torva into your house, knowing their...their beliefs?”

            The old artisan looked as though he had aged a century in the last minute.  “I’m sorry,” he whispered.  “I - I...”

            “You owe her the apology, fool,” the old soldier growled.  “Not me.”

            “There will be no apologies,” Kalena murmured.

            Lallakentan spun to stare at her.  “What?”

            “This never happened,” the wizard said softly.  “Be silent, both of you.”  Bending over the sleeping woman, she grasped her head in two hands, took a deep breath, and shouted “Mielen raiskaus!”

            The torva girl drew in a deep, shuddering breath.  Black, hissing power flashed between Kalena’s hands, and the sleeper howled tearingly.  Her scream was echoed by a shriek of rage and anger from the wizard’s mouth.  There was a slavering, fiendish fury in that shout, and Lallakentan felt a bolt of divine terror slither down his spine and turn his knees to water.

            Kalena’s face turned purple.  She choked and gasped repeatedly, her mouth gaping like a landed fish, as if she were trying to swallow something huge and unwieldy.

            The torva girl spasmed once, then lay utterly still.  At the same instant, the wizard released her head and fell backwards.

            The old soldier stared at the sleeping figure and felt the bile rise again.  Her cheeks bore two deep purple marks, the exact size and shape of Kalena’s hands.  Where the wizard’s fingertips had lain, the girl’s skin was blistered and bloody.  As he watched, the marks, to his vast relief, began to fade.

            Nugo had slumped back against one of the storage shelves.  His eyes were wide, and his knees shook uncontrollably.

            Kalena was shivering and retching on the floor.  Lallakentan helped her to a sitting position.  He knew exactly how he felt.  “What did you do?” he whispered.

            “Nothing...that any of us...will ever speak of,” Kalena gasped.  When her composure had returned, she leaned back on her haunches.  “I entered her mind.  I seized her memories, and...and destroyed them.  Not only of this night, but of this place.  Of everything that has happened to her since she was taken, a year ago.  Her life since then has been one long hell, but now it will be as though it had never been.”

            Lallakentan blinked in confusion.  “But then...what do we do with her?”

            “One feature of the spell,” the wizard said, exhausted, “ – the most dreadful one – is that I now know everything that she knows.  That she has ever known.  Her name, for example, is Cerdik.  She is of the Red Deer Tribe, the Rusa Rakut, from the mountains northeast of Convallis.  Her certificate of indenture was forged; she was taken by force from her people, sometime last summer.  Along with four others, all women and girls.”  She rubbed her temples, clenching her eyes tightly shut.  “Her captors were slavers.  Third House.  With hounds, nets, and potent physicks.  They beat her, used her, and sold her to a sanies, a slave-seller, who brought her here.”

            “Do we take her back there, then?” Lallakentan asked, surprised.  “To Convallis?”  He drew a breath sharply between his teeth.  That was a long way.

            “Too far,” Kalena murmured.  “And unnecessary.  The Lumbah Rakut - the Dolphin Tribe - they live near here, do they not?”

            The old soldier nodded.  “A day’s walk eastwards.  Along the coast, of course.”

            “Of course,” she smiled wanly.  “Well, she knows one of their elders, an old fellow called Panah Laut.  She met him in the market and thinks well of him; trusts him, even.  He’s the one who made that necklace.”

            Lallakentan nodded.  He recalled having seen the man – a cheerful, soft-spoken duffer who sold Wilder baubles in the high street on market days.

            “After Shima’s had a chance to heal her,” the wizard went on, exhausted, “we’ll take her to him.  I can keep her unconscious until then.  If her estimate is a fair one, he’ll care for her like she was his own daughter.”

            The old soldier nodded.  Kalena was clever and far-sighted.  He was so out of his depth in this situation that he was happy to follow her lead. 

            Stooping, he got his arms under the sleeping woman.  She was heavier than she looked; her body was well-muscled, firm, and lushly curvaceous.  It was easy enough to see why Salax and the others…

The thought sickened him.  He hoisted her into his arms with extraordinary care.

            “What...what about Salax?” Nugo stammered.

            Kalena turned a stony glare on the old artisan.  Raising one hand, she pointed at the corpse lying on the floor of the work-room and snapped “Hajotaa!”

            A coruscating flare of bright green power shot from her fingertip.  The body of Salax was limned in brilliant emerald energy, but only for an instant.  Then it dissolved into a fall of fine dust.

            Lallakentan whistled soundlessly, nodding his approval.  He turned to the old jeweller.  “Problem solved.  So far as you know, your apprentice left, and never returned.  That’s what we’ll report.”

            Nugo put his hands over his mouth.  “What of the...the mess?”

            “Find a mop,” Kalena grated.

            The rain had, mercifully, halted, at least for the time being.  As they left the shop, Lallakentan was still grinding his teeth.  Kalena knew what he was thinking, and spoke it aloud.  “The Lustroares, again.”

            “Again,” the old soldier snorted.  “Twice in one night.  They’re becoming bold, even arrogant.  If they’re confident enough to show themselves, however clumsily, here in Joyous Light, despite the Duke’s explicit proscription...”

            “Precisely,” Kalena nodded.  “Then, how bad is it getting in the rest of the duchy?”

            “Actually, I was wondering about the rest of the realm,” Lallakentan growled.

            The wizard halted.  A look of shock spread across her face.

            “Contact Kalestayne,” the warrior urged suddenly.  “Ask him.”

            She shook her head emphatically.  “I dare not.  After the lamia failed in their mission, Eldarcanum will be watching this city more closely than ever.  If I open my thoughts to contact the College, I will also open them to the Grim Duchess.  Her power vastly eclipses my own.  One slip, one error, and she could do to me what I did to that poor girl in there, save that her touch would be neither well-intentioned nor benevolent.  She would be able to read my thoughts, or command them.  Or even destroy my mind.

“Only the Master Magister has the skill and power to gainsay her,” she said darkly.  “I must wait for him to contact me.”

            The old warrior shook his head.  “Sorry, Kallie, but that’s not good enough.  We don’t have time to wait.  If the Lustroares are getting this brazen, that means their power is growing, and it’s time to start taking them seriously.” 

He shifted the girl Cerdik to his shoulder and scrubbed his free hand wearily over his eyes.  “I don’t see any way around it.  We have to make the Duke see reason.  If we can’t report this to Starmeadow, then he has to go himself.  Or send a trusted envoy, at least.  He’s General of the Armies of the South, for Hara’s sake!  He’s honour-bound to ensure that these crimes – and the rape of Auranitoris by the forest, as well – reach the ears of the Grand Duke.”

            “He’s also honour-bound to obey the Queen’s proscription,” Kalena reminded him, “and to stay within his own borders until she summons him.  A crime of omission might earn him a censure, but a crime of commission is something else entirely.  Disobeying a royal command could cost him his head.”

            “I know, I know,” Lallakentan sighed.  “Frankly, I can’t tell which is the worse threat - a bloody-fisted necromancer lusting after the throne, or half of our people falling under the sway of religious fanatics.”

            “Nor can I.”  The wizard threw a sidelong glance at her companion.  “Kenta, I need to know – do you have any problems with what I did in there?”

            “What, you mean blowing the little bastard into dust?”  He snorted derisively.  “Hardly.  Saved me the trouble of hauling his corpse to the midden.”

            “I meant the spell I cast upon the torva. Cerdik.”  She was silent for a long moment. 

            “I thought we weren’t ever going to mention that,” Lallakentan huffed.

Kalena shook her head, dismayed.  “That was a dark and terrible thing I did.  Penetrating the poor girl’s mind and tearing out her memories like that.  There are hardly words for such a...a violation.  Especially after what she’d been through.”

            “I think you did her a mercy,” the old soldier said gruffly.  “You’re a lot smarter than I am, Kallie.  I trust you to see the right in this.”  His throat was aching with sympathy at what the little torva had suffered at the hands of his people.  Hara’s elect! The thought was bitter.

            “That’s why I did it,” Kalena replied.  “But it doesn’t change the fact of what I did.  That spell...you don’t know where it came from.  You don’t want to know.  But it is as horrible as any the Grim Duchess herself has ever wrought.”

            “ ‘Blame the craftsman, not the tool’,”  Lallakentan said.

            “Don’t quote Ceorlinus at me,” Kalena sniffed. 

            Lallakentan shifted the girl to his opposite shoulder.  They walked on in silence.

            “Do you really believe that?” she said at last in a small voice.

“Absolutely,” he replied.  Why always matters more than what.  The Protector judges us by our intentions, not our actions, nor by whether we win or lose.  Else,” he added with a grim chuckle, “we’d all be damned, and that right soon.  And He’d be pretty lonely.”

Kalena nodded, clearly relieved.  “So, then...you don’t think me evil?”

            Lallakentan shifted the torva’s body into a more comfortable hold.  “Are you joking?” he said.  “If you’re evil, then I’m the Dark Ender himself.  After what you showed me, I was ready to put every man in the city to the sword.”

            “You’ll get your chance,” Kalena said coldly.  “I have her memories now.  I can give you all of their names.  The ones who hurt her.  Every last one of them.”

            The old soldier held the little rusa more tightly as they neared the palace.  His face split in a savage grin.  “I guess I’ve got a busy day ahead of me.”


Matins – the hours before dawn

            Midnight was long past.  The torrential spring rain had ceased, and the battlements of the castle glistened in the moons-light as if they had been dipped in silver.  Even the winds had died down, and the sea, which had been whipped into ichor froth by the storm, was subsiding once again.

            Joraz sat cross-legged on the parapet, in the same spot he had occupied a couple of days earlier.  It had been such an inspiring and informative perch that when he’d ventured back out onto the parapet, he had taken it up again without hesitation.  This time, however, much to his disappointment, no one emerged on the balcony below to offer a distraction.  He was alone with his thoughts.  They were becoming increasingly difficult to bear.

            The Feralis had been less of a trial than he had expected.  Whatever other peculiarities they might express as a people, the elves certainly knew how to stage a celebration.  He was mildly pleased that he had been able to do credit to his fellow ‘round-ears’ on the dance floor, although given his native poise and his growing skill, he’d really had little to worry about on that score.  The coda to the evening’s events had been far more exciting, if distressingly brief.

            His analysis of the abortive scuffle differed in one significant respect from that of Karrick or his opposite number, the Duke’s bodyguard, Kovakaunis.  Joraz could not convince himself that the incident had been an assassination attempt.  For one thing, the ‘assassins’ had been laughably inept – pampered sons of privilege with rich clothing concealing poor coordination and muscle tone.  The fellow he’d run down had been subdued with ridiculous ease.  And for another, there was the weapon that had been used against Kalena and Thanos.  Although he was no mage, the monk could see at once, by the force of its effects, that it was a terrifically potent device, a magical item of immense power.  In skilled hands, such a weapon would pose a dreadful danger.  He could not imagine what it had been doing in the possession of a mincing fop like the lad that Breygon had gutted.

            These, however, were not the problems that were keeping him awake.  As was his custom, he had tucked his concern into a corner of his thoughts as he had prepared himself for sleep.  The instant he’d closed his eyes, however, he had been assaulted by a rash of images.  He had started from his bunk and, moving with the deliberate silence of his kind, had sought the solace of loneliness above.

Now, seated on the damp stone, he closed his eyes and waited for the visions to return.  He was unsurprised when they appeared immediately, to the left and to the right, as if his mind were a coach storming down a narrow lane, led by a runaway team.  On one side, he saw the dark, watery pit of despair beneath the hidden temple of Vilyacarkin, deep in the bowels of Ellohyin, and the writhing, groaning shape of the angel Eliastralee – the minion of the Light that they had rescued from eternal bondage and torment, and whose crystalline tears they had found enshrined beneath her.  When that image faded, on the other side, he an entirely different place: an immense cavern, a cave so large that he could not see across it, a cave filled with light and wonder, where hundreds upon hundreds of dragons, wyrms of all sizes and colours, wheeled and spun in the air, and where the walls bore a thousand, thousand names, and upon which were writ all the deeds of every wyrm that had ever broken shell in Anuru.

            He sat straight up, eyes wide and staring, heart pounding.  When he relaxed and closed his eyes once again, the visions reappeared and disappeared in the same wise – in pairs, on opposite sides of a straight and narrow path.  To the left, a ship upon a great river, with battle raging on its decks, and a dark angel and her minions hovering above; to the right, sombre vaults of stone filled with shambling horrors, and a skeletal visage looming against the shadows, exuding the stench and sensation of incalculable magical might.  Another lurch, and to the left, he saw the fiery cavern of the First Forge, and the bulbous, floating horror of Fifth Child, lashing out with bile and chains of adamant, and roaring its void-spawned rage; then to the right, a vast fortress of sable stone, cloaked in shadow and sulphurous clouds, perched like a vulture above an endless fall of molten rock, while leather-winged fiends flapped and shrieked around its parapets.

            The images were both a terror and a temptation.  He could not close his eyes without fear of a new assault; and yet he wanted them, desired them, as a miser desires gold.  He wanted to see more, to understand what it was that they meant.  For so many long weeks, his only dreams had been of the end of the path; of empty corridors, and blank walls.  Was this some new manner of portent?  Was it some message from an unseen power?

            He closed his eyes a fourth and final time.  The path, white and gleaming, as narrow and sharp as the hairline edge of the half-elf’s sword, stretched out before him.  Two fallen cities appeared.  To the left, crumbled towers overgrown with vines and flowers, dwellings burst by magnificent trees, a town square oe’erwhelmed by verdure; to the right, a vast and once-glorious metropolis, with a magnificent palace perched on an island in a river, standing on a promontory like an upthrust fist of defiance – all glory ground down, worn away by time, overcome by the forest, brought low by the power of the green.  He recognized the first as Auranitoris; but he did not know what the other city was. 

Suddenly, both images faded from view, to be replaced by a third ruined city – a vast metropolis of lofty towers, cracked and fallen beneath a grim, grey dome of stone.  Trees and vines grew inverted from the sky, and water fell from vast cracks, exploding into mist.  Ancient creatures soared in the thick, humid air.  Somewhere beneath that dome beat a heart of stone, ancient and indomitable, clamouring for blood; and somewhere there, too, the Dark Queen herself, Ekhalra the Witherer, sat in state, with mighty servants hanging on her least words, their eyes averted from the mind-shattering horror of her visage, scrambling among themselves to glean the least fruits of her favour, and struggling to avoid the ravages of her madness.

            There was no time to reflect.  After the last, terrible image faded, he could see that there was an obstacle before him; a blockage on the narrow path.  It looked like a stone, rough and irregular, about the size and shape of a man’s head.  It had been planed smooth on three sides; and on these planed surfaces, close-writ characters, like the tracks of insects, wound tantalizingly across the rock.

            He approached the stone, trying to get a closer look at the writing.  But he found that he could not see it clearly; it was obscured by something.  A fog, perhaps; a mist.  It seemed thickest at the centre of the path.

            He stopped, wondering how he might proceed.  What is this place?

He was unsurprised when, out of the mist, a voice spoke to him: This is Moktavayaa.  You can go no further.

            He knew that this was not the real world; it was a dream.  He replied with his spirit-voice.  What is ‘moktavayaa’?

            It is the end, and the beginning, the voice replied.  It was cool, emotionless; disembodied.  Behind it, he heard nothing – only perfect silence.  It is the locked gate, and the open path.  The closed mind, and the unfettered spirit.  The barrier, and the wide road.

            This is the place of death, it added with utter dispassion, and of the life beyond death.

            That gave Joraz pause.  He had been dead once, and the experience had been unlike any description of the afterworld that he had ever heard.

            Temporizing, he thought aloud, What is the stone?

            It is Nizcaya-Tattva, the voice replied in the same bland, emotionless tone.  The Touchstone of Truth.

            That was less than illuminating.  What is its purpose? he asked.

            It illuminates and empowers the way beyond.

            The way beyond what?

            Beyond Moktavayaa.

            Joraz sighed inwardly.  Still imagining himself upon the rigid, blade-like path, he strode forward, and bent to pick up the stone.

            The mist halted him.

            It was not a blow; not quite.  Nor was it an impenetrable wall.  The glimmering cloud simply seemed to thicken all about him as he approached the stone, growing stronger and more impenetrable the nearer he came, until at last he could go no further.

            He stepped back a pace, and the mist released him.  And what are you? he asked, speaking to the glimmering cloud surrounding him.

            I am that which you seek, the voice replied.  Asmi Paariksha Saadris: the Test of Worthiness.

            At last, he understood.  What must I do?

            Esaana maanishiita tattvani, andi marsha moksha.  In his mind, Joraz heard: To obtain the wisdom of the stone, seek the freedom and liberation of the spirit through challenge, and rebirth.

            He nodded to himself.  So to obtain the stone, he said gravely, I must first past the test.  Is that truth?

            It is.

He had not expected anything like this; he had thought that the teachings of Tyrellus were an end in themselves.  But clearly, in order to proceed beyond them, to gain the greater understanding that was promised, he would have to overcome whatever challenge this entity posed.

            What must I do, he asked, to undergo the test of which you speak?

            Continue along the path that has led you to this place, the voice replied.  When you are ready, I will come to you, and together we shall strive to descry whether you have achieved the totality of understanding.  Of yourself; of your place in the Universe; and of the true nature of that which you purport to serve.

            Are you a person, then? the monk asked.

            Nothing.  The vision was fading; the path and the stone were gone.

            He blinked once, twice, and found that he was still seated on the parapet.  Clearly he had been there for some time; his back and thighs ached, and there was the faintest glimmer of light decorating the western horizon.  Dawn was not far away.

            I will come to you.

            So be it, he thought.  Come, then.  Victory or defeat, life or death; it did not matter.  All that mattered was that he knew, now, that his path did not end here; that, if he were strong or swift or wise enough, he could carry on, and learn his purpose in the Universe, and continue serve it. 

            He was content with that.  After all, it was more than most mortals were given to know.

            Unfolding himself from his seat, he descended the tower stairs and returned to his quarters, all but dancing with newly discovered purpose.