23 March 2013

ELVEHELM: Starmeadow XXI - Tools of Spite and Darkness

Karrick was about to enter the room in his usual inimitable style – barging – but thought better of it.  She might be resting, he reasoned.  He tapped lightly at the door-post instead.

The reply was muffled by the heavy oak planks.  “I’m awake, Karrick!”

Snorting in amusement, he banged the door open with a shoulder.  “How’d you know it was me?”

Amorda smiled wanly.  “My people have a slightly lighter tread.”  She was sitting up in her bed, propped on a stack of pillows and cushions, with a silken bed-jacket over her gown.  Her hair was uncharacteristically tousled, pulled out of the way into a single bushy pony-tail, its midnight sheen contrasting sharply with her snow-pale features.  “You’re the only man I know who stomps in house slippers.”

“Least I’m not wearing the army boots any more,” the warrior replied, glancing down at his feet with a sour expression.  “Not that these are exactly my style.  A little too girly, if you get my meaning.”

The elf-woman chuckled.  “Nobody makes socci in your size.  I had to order them.  The cobbler sent his apprentice back three times to confirm the size.”

“Couldn’t take a simple measurement, eh?”

“No, he wanted to know if I was renting out rooms to ogres,” she smiled.

“Hah!” Karrick laughed.  “Amateur.  Ogres have four toes.  Everybody knows that.”

“I guess it’s not part of a boot-maker’s corpus of knowledge, here in the realm,” Amorda shrugged.  “Is the fit all right?”

“They’re fine,” he shrugged.  “Just so’s you don’t expect me to dance in them.”  Belying his words, he extended his arms, went up on his tip-toes, and minced thunderingly across the floor-boards to her bedside.

The floor-boards creaked, and the bed trembled.  Amorda put her hands flat on the stragulum to steady herself.  “Never fear,” she tittered.  “Although I’d pay good money to see you ask Inscia onto the floor at the next palace ball.”

“I’d do it, too,” the warrior nodded.  “Just to piss your old boyfriend off.”

“Good for you.”  Nodding at a small book that he was holding in one hand, she said, “That’s the one.”

The book in question was thin, narrow, and bound in some sort of hardened, stained leather, smooth, glossy, and midnight-black.  The warrior flipped the volume in his hand, bowed, and laid it across his forearm.  “As Milady requested.”

“Thank you.”  She hesitated only a moment; then, with a little moue of disgust, she took the tome.  “Do you happen to know where my husband is?” she asked.

“In the forecourt with Kalena,” Karrick replied.  “Joraz is in the dining hall with Salus’ wife, Onyshyla.  Breygon asked her to come down from the College, and she brought Kalena with her.  Seems they know each other from working for Kalestayne.  They’re going through the stuff we brought back from that White Fire shrine.”

“They’ll be busy awhile, then?”

“I imagine.”  Karrick sat on the edge of the mattress.  The bed-frame creaked alarmingly.  He nodded at the book.  “I took a look inside.  I thought it was written in Beszéd, but it isn’t, is it.”

“No, this is in a darker tongue,” she replied pensively.  She looked up.  “You speak Beszéd, do you?”

“Yeah.  But I usually only use the cuss-words,” he admitted.  “Orc-talk’s great for swearing.”

The elf-woman dimpled.  “You should teach me some of them.  I could use them to shock my lord husband.”

“I’m not sure how many more of your ‘shocks’ your lord husband can take,” Karrick snorted.  “But yeah, sure, if you like.  Anything in particular you want to know?”

Flushing a little, the elf-woman beckoned him forward and whispered something in his ear.  Karrick cocked an eyebrow.  “Really?”

“Why not?” she giggled.

“Okay.”  His brow furrowed.  “Near as I can figure, that’d be ‘Eke, mint egy kukoricatábla, hegyes fülek!’”

Amorda repeated the phrase under her breath several times.  “You’re sure?” she said at last.  “I don’t want him to think that I’m ordering him to…to weed the garden, or something.”

“Trust me,” Karrick deadpanned.  “Look, can I be honest with you?”

“Of course.”

He reached out, took her hand, and tapped her wedding ring.  “This was a bad mistake.”

She smiled prettily.  “Sirrah!  I did not know thou had’st set thine aim upon me!”

“I’m not joking,” he growled.  “And I’m not talking about your wedding.  The boss wasn’t a big fan, but I could care less.  You and the half-elf wanna get hitched, more power to you.  I meant that stupid ‘friendship ring’ you conned Breygon into wearing.”  He shook his head.  “That was a bad, bad move.”

Amorda’s face darkened.  “Tread lightly, my friend.”

“I’m not the one who’s ‘treading lightly’,” the warrior shrugged.  “Your man is.  And it’s going to get him killed.”

“I know you’re not a mage,” the elf-woman said pointedly, “but I assure you that our rings spare him harm.  I bleed in his place.  That gives him greater strength.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Karrick replied.  “It weakens him.  Because instead of focusing on the fight, he’s thinking about you.  He’s worrying about not getting hurt, in order to keep you safe.  It makes him less effective in combat.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Amorda snorted.

“You think so,” the warrior said bluntly, “because in spite of everything you do know about, you don’t know shit about fighting.  You especially don’t know shit about the way your man fights.”

“You’re not making sense!” she retorted.  “How could this harm him?”

“By making him hang back, and avoid risks.  That’s not how he works,” Karrick shrugged.  “I’ve been in a lot of battles.  But your Breygon’s not a soldier, like me and the boss.  He doesn’t fight in groups.  He’s a hunter. A killer.  He’s used to fighting alone.

“Soldiers can hold back, keep a reserve, husband their strength,” he went on as what little colour remained in the elf-woman’s face slowly drained away.  “Hunters don’t.  Killers don’t.  They can’t afford to.  They have no fall-back position, no reserve, nothing to save them if things go wrong.  They either win, or they die.  Forcing them to hang back, to guard their strength instead of throwing everything into the fight – that just makes it more likely that they’ll lose.

“It could be worse,” he went on, holding up a hand to forestall an angry interruption.  “It could be a lot worse.  He’s pretty damned deadly with that bow, so sometimes it helps us to have him hang back a little and shoot things.  But it’s not always going to be like that.  He’s going to get cornered again.  Like your old dy…like your friend Szelly cornered him.  And then it’s going to be ‘kill or die’.  And if he’s trying not to get hurt in order to spare you…he’s going to end up in the ground.”

“Then so will I,” Amorda said defiantly.

“And so will you,” Karrick agreed.  “But that bothers me less.  I like you, sweet cheeks, but those three fellows are trying to save the world, and that’s more important to me than what might happen to you along the way.  Your trick rings…you might’ve meant well, but it was a mistake.  For you.  For him.  And for everything he’s trying to accomplish.”

“You go too far!” the elf-woman cried.

“I calls’em like I sees’em,” the warrior shrugged.  “You don’t like it, tough.”

Amorda glared at him.  Her obvious rage might have made more of an impact if she hadn’t been sitting in bed. 

At last, though, all of the defiance bled out of her.  “You’re right,” she whispered, staring down at her hands.  “I know.  You’re right.  It’s…it’s why I asked you to find this for me.”  She laid a hand on the book.

Karrick wiped a trickle of sweat out of his right eye; he’d been watching her hands closely, preparing to duck.  “Okay, then.”  He blew his breath out in a relieved whoosh.  “Good to get that off my chest.  Now, do you mind if I ask you a couple of things?”

“Go ahead,” the elf-woman replied calmly, looking down at the book in her hands.  It had an unpleasantly compelling feel to it.

“Great.  First…” he reached over and tapped the book with a finger.  “You haven’t handled this in a while.  It was tucked behind a bunch of other books, and had cobwebs on it.”

“I’ll have to speak to Cayless about the cleaning staff,” Amorda mused.

Karrick crossed his arms and waited.

After a long pause, the elf-woman sighed.  “No.  You’re right.  I haven’t handled it at all, in fact.  Not since I acquired it, and…and found out what it was.”

“Yeah, that was my next question,” the warrior growled.  “What the hell kinda skin is that?”

“Are you sure you want to know?”


“Elf-skin,” Amorda murmured.

“Really?” he asked, perplexed.  “Dyed?”

“No.  But that’s not the most disturbing part.  This is.”  She flipped the cover back and ran a finger down the inner liner, shivering a little.

Karrick frowned.  The inner side of the cover was also made of fine leather, this time so light as to be nearly white.  Unlike the outer cover, however, which was unmarked, the inner cover was stamped with…

He leaned closer, but couldn’t make it out.  “What’s that?”

“That,” Amorda said softly, “is also elf-skin.  And the marking – it’s faded badly, but you can still make it out – is the Bound Maiden.”

Karrick blinked.  “The Disciples?”

The elf-woman nodded.

“The Disciples skin people to make books?” he asked, incredulous.

“You misunderstand.  That is not a printer’s mark.  It is a tattoo.”

The warrior’s face darkened noticeably.  “Somebody skinned one of the Disciples to…to make a fornicating book?  What’s wrong with you people?”

“Oh, this wasn’t made by ‘my people’,” Amorda sighed.  “Or, at least not in the way you imply.  It was made...elsewhere.  As the language in which it is written suggests.” 

“I was wondering about that,” he said, pointing at the inscription in the frontispiece.  “What does that mean?”

Librin e Lëkurës,” she replied.  Her voice was steady, and she was a little proud of that.  “It means ‘The Book of Skins’.”

She closed the cover again and leaned back into her pillows.  “There’s a bit of a tale behind this thing, if you want to hear it.  It might answer your second question.”

The warrior frowned.  “And what is my second question, lady?”

She waved the book at him.  “You were going to ask me why I wanted you to find this for me, instead of sending one of my own people to get it from my own library.”

Karrick grinned.  “Yeah, alright.  You got me.  I was kind of curious about that.  Let’s hear it.”  He looked around.  “Got anything to drink in here?”

There was a pitcher and tumbler on a sideboard.  As he sniffed it, Amorda said, “I wouldn’t recommend that.  It’s medicinal.  A restorative.”

Karrick made a face.  “Gah!  Who puts fruit juice in wine?”

“The same people who make books out of elf-skin,” the elf-woman said grimly.  “Pour me a glass, if you please.  For you…there’s some winter-wine under the board, if you’ve a mind to try it.”

He followed her instructions, passing her a brimful goblet before tasting his own.  His eyebrows shot up into his hairline.  “Finally!  Something worth drinking!”

“Better than fæculerum?” Amorda snickered over the edge of her cup.

“Much better!” he crowed.  Then his eyebrows drew together.  “Wait, how’d you –”

“Kalena likes to talk when she’s drunk.  It’s how I kept tabs on Kaltas when I was in Eldisle.”  She tipped her glass at him.  Salutis!”

Karrick raised his cup in reply, emptied it, and refilled it.  “How d’ye make this stuff?”

“It’s winter-wine,” Amorda said in surprise, as if the name were its own explanation.  “Don’t you make winter-wine in Ekhan?”

“Never heard of it.” Clang.

“Well, as I understand it,” she shrugged, “the vintners simply take strong, dry wine and leave vats of it out at night, in winter-time.  Under cover, of course, to keep the snow out.  When the ice forms on the top of the vat, they cast it off.  Repeat the process a few times, and it concentrates both the flavour and the aqua vitae.”

“Sounds a lot more complicated than distilling.”

“It’s easier, actually, but it does take longer.  And it only works in cold weather, of course.”

She tapped the book again.  “Do you want to hear about this?  Or shall I go on about winter-wine?  Viniculture’s a passion of mine, and I could ramble at you all night.”

“Sorry!”  He refilled his glass a third – fourth? – time, leaned back against the foot of the bed-frame, and put his enormous, slipper-clad feet up on the spread.  “I’m all ears.”

Amorda shot a meaningful glance at his gargantuan clod-hoppers.  “I beg to differ.”

She put her goblet down and picked the book up.  Flipping it open again, she tapped the interior of the cover.  “This, as I said, is elf-skin.  To be precise, it is the skin of an elf of the Third House.  A Disciple of the Maiden, named Dareo Hister Terriloquus.”

“Isn’t that a Duodeci name?” Karrick asked, surprised.  “And for that matter, isn’t Dareo a man’s name?”

“Yes, and yes,” Amorda nodded.  “Terriloquus is one of the lowest-ranked of the Twelve Houszes...today.  But in the middle of the last age – around about the time your empire, my friend, was expanding to the north and west, making ill-advised (if I may say so) forays into the Niriam Vale and what is now Gasparr – it was one of the top three.  House Æyllian and several of the others had fallen on hard times, and the Terriloquii were within reach of the Throne.

“But,” she went on with a disapproving set to her lips, “the College still supported the Æyllianii.  And the magisters swing a lot of political weight in the realm.”

“So I’ve noticed.”  Clang.  “You need a refill yet?”

“I’m fine,” Amorda sighed.  “Thank you.  Archduke Navio, head of House Terriloquus, decided to try to outflank the College by seeking magical support elsewhere.”

“Elsewhere?  Like, at another college?”

“That might have been an option,” the elf-woman replied, “save for the fact that the other Colleges, in theory at least, all owe allegiance to the Master Magister of the College of Stars.  Even if they don’t really support him, very few other magisters would cross the Star-Master.  So the other colleges weren’t an option for Navio.  Especially as he didn’t have any powerful magi in his own family.”

“So what’d he do?” Karrick asked, intrigued in spite of himself.

Amorda laid her hand on the book.  “He used his son, Dareo.  And he sent him to the one covey of magical masters among our folk who do not owe allegiance to the College of Stars.”

When she did not continue, the warrior waved a hand to prompt her.  “And that was…”

“The Sobrintrii.  Our dark cousins,” the elf-woman replied soberly.  “The Drow.”

Karrick blinked in astonishment.  “I thought you lot hated the Drow?”

“Hate is relative,” Amorda shrugged.  “In Navio’s case, he coveted the Throne more than he despised our subterranean kin.  They offered him a way to increase the power of House Terriloquus to the point that he would be able to neutralize the College of Stars, and challenge the Æyllian king – it was Rabirian at the time, the great-great-grandfather of Allarýchian, Ælyndarka’s father – for the crown.

“Navio, as I said, sent his son Dareo to Qëtëvaditur, the capital of the Hidden Realm that lies far beneath the earth, in the Deepdark; the place we call Aquaetaceo, or ‘Silent Waters’ in the traveling tongue.  The son was sent in the guise of an ambassador to the Weeping Chair, which at the time was occupied by Dyshue II.”

“He any relation to that Glycomondas chap we killed in the Deeprealm?” Karrick asked, interested despite himself.

“Only in the sense that all Drow are related,” Amorda replied, her brow furrowing.  “The Weeping Chair changes hands regularly, as often by assassination or rebellion as by succession from father to son.  Or daughter.  Dyshue, if memory serves, was the fourth king of the Ilum Dynasty.  There’ve been half a dozen dynasties since his time; they rise and fall and rise again in the Hidden Realm, and the only thing they all have in common is that all candidates for the Chair must be able to prove their descent from the Kinslayer.  Not that that poses a problem, of course, in view of their…ah, common ancestor.” 

She paused, then added, “And of course, the claimant must possess the Crown of the Hungry Earth.  I can’t imagine what they’re going to do about that now that you fellows have done away with it.”

“Yeah, well, I guess they’re going to have to find a way to finesse that part of the coronation ceremony,” the warrior snickered.  “Or learn to live without a king.  Who’s the ‘Kinslayer’, by the way?”

“Mærglyn,” the elf-woman sighed.  “Only someone who can prove that they descend, in lineage direct, from her, Bîardath’s fiend-child, can make a claim to the Weeping Chair.  But as I said, most Drow can do so.  Unless they’ve allowed their family trees to lapse.  Few do.”

“How can so many of them be descended from one person?” the warrior wondered.

“Because of how their race came to be,” Amorda replied.  “Do you know what the other name for the Drow is?  Here in our realm, I mean?”

Karrick shrugged.  “Assholes?” 

The elf-woman cocked an eyebrow at her guest.

The warrior belched, put a hand to his mouth, and said “Sorry.”  He placed his cup carefully on the floor.  “Strong stuff,” he said apologetically.

“Indeed.  To continue,” she went on, “when we speak of the Sobrinatrii here at home, we occasionally call them the Terdecii.  Or the ‘Ides’.  Can you think why?”

“I know that word!  Heard it in a play!” Karrick replied.  He held up his hands, wiggled his fingers, and said in an ominous voice, “ ‘Beware the Ides of Vintersdyb!’”

“Ceorlinus,” Amorda nodded.  “Odd you should mention that one.  ‘The Tragedy of Rabirian’ is a masterpiece, and it was written precisely about the events I am attempting to recount to you.”

Karrick nodded enthusiastically.  “I saw it in Whitefields once, but I never got the ‘Ides’ thing,” he shrugged.  His eyes lost focus for a moment.  “Hang on!  Didn’t you and Breygon get married on ‘the Ides of Vintersdyb’?”

“Very good,” Amorda smiled.  “Most people think the ‘Ides’ fall on the fifteenth day of the month.”

“Only in months with solstices,” Karrick said solemnly.  “The rest of the year, ‘the Ides’ fall on the thirteenth.”

“Right again.”  She eyed him oddly, astonished at the breadth of his knowledge.  “So, as you can see, our wedding day was auspicious in many ways.”

“That’s the understatement of the age,” the warrior grunted.  “Anyway, you were saying?  About the Drow?”

“Yes, the Drow,” Amorda sniffed.  “We call them ‘the Ides’ not just because they portend ill omens – although they certainly do, as Dareo found out – but in obedience to tradition.  The whole ‘thirteen’ thing is really an allegory.  When the soothsayer in the play cries out ‘Beware the Ides of Vintersdyb’ to King Rabirian, he’s really saying telling him to beware the ‘Thirteen’.”

“The thirteenth of the month?” Karrick asked, confused.

“No, the Terdecii,” the elf-woman sighed.  “The thirteenth house of the Duodeci.”

The warrior stared.  “I don’t get it,” he said at last.  “I thought ‘Duodeci’ meant ‘twelve’?”

“It does.  But do you recall what defines the ‘Divine Twelve’?  Do you know why those twelve families are, and have always been, the great houses of the realm?”


“The Divine Twelve are the bloodlines that descend in lineage direct from Tîor Magnus,” Amorda explained.  “They all can claim a share, however dilute it might be, of the divine blood of his grandparents – Hara Sophus and, on the other side, Bræa Lightbringer, the Holy Mother herself.”

Karrick spread his hands.  “I’m still not seeing your point.”

“The Drow – all of them, every last one,” the elf-woman continued, “are descended from Mærglyn and her immense stable of consorts.  And she was the daughter of Bîardath, who was born of Xîardath, who was Tîor’s son.”

The warrior laughed aloud.  “They’re all Duodeci!  That’s it, isn’t it?”

Terdecii,” Amorda nodded.  “The Ides.  The Drow are the Thirteenth of the Divine Houses.  And unlike us, where perhaps one in twenty count our descent from the gods, every last one of the Drow is by definition descended from divine blood.  Even the most base-born Drow is, by our laws, as noble as the Queen herself.

“And that,” she went on as Karrick picked up his cup again, “is why Navio hatched the plan he did.  He sent Dareo to Silent Waters to seek an alliance.  Not with Dyshue, the King; but rather with the most powerful magus in the Hidden Realm: Dyshue’s eldest daughter, Burkura Padurueshëm.  The High Priestess of Vilyacarkin, their blood-thirsty goddess of evil and oblivion.”

“An ‘alliance’?” Karrick asked, raising a sceptical eyebrow.

“That’s a convenient euphemism,” Amorda shrugged.  “What they intended was something a little more elemental.  Dareo was a shining example of High Elven manhood, noble of brow, clear of eye, and a duellist of renown.  But he was more than that.  He was one of Miyaga’s elect.  A Disciple of the Maiden.”

Karrick’s nodded.  “That’s why his name confused me.  I thought only women could serve Miyaga!”

“Whatever gave you that idea?” Amorda asked, astonished.

“Well…I mean, we’ve only ever seen…you know...”

“Of course you’ve only ever seen female Disciples,” the elf-woman sighed, exasperated.  “You know what their skills are, and how they operate!  No male Disciple would ever approach you.  There’d be no point.”

“Why not?” Karrick asked, utterly baffled.

“Because they only reveal themselves to targets they hope to entice,” Amorda said.  “And none of you…er…swing that way.”  She frowned.  “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  That said, Thanos and Mahanirion did…of course, you know…”

“Look, seriously, you’d better drop that,” Karrick interrupted.  “The boss is touchy about it.  Don’t even joke with him unless you’re looking for a fight.”

“Very well,” Amorda smiled.  “But you see my point.  Navio sent his son to seduce the heir to the Weeping Chair.  The Archduke hoped to bring Burkura to Starmeadow as his son’s bride, relying on her status as a descendent of Tîor to qualify her for the crown, and using her powers as high priestess and arch-mage – and her knowledge of dark, terrible magic – to neutralize the college, and win the Filigree Throne for House Terriloquus.”

“Ballsy,” Karrick grunted.  “And Dareo managed to do it?  Seduce her, I mean?”


“Even though…I mean, I thought Vilyacarkin’s priestesses had to be…er, celibate?”

“They do,” Amorda nodded.  “And most of them are pretty strong-willed and adamant about it.  But most eventually slip.  And the Disciples can be very, very hard to resist.”

“No kidding,” the warrior muttered, thinking about Vejborg, and the Countess Ildran Gasterbarn.  And about certain ladies he’d met in Norkhan.

Amorda fell silent.  Karrick pondered her words for a long moment, then said, “I’m not an expert in Elven law…”

“Yet,” Amorda interjected.

“…but all of this sounds an awful lot like treason to me,” he finished.

“It’s only treason if you lose,” the elf-woman snorted.

“So, did Navio lose?”

“Oh, yes.  But not for the reasons you might suspect.”  She emptied her goblet and waggled it at him for a refill. 

He obliged.  “What were the reasons?”

“Dyshue caught the two lovers in medias res,” Amorda shrugged.  “Drow nobles strictly forbid mingling their blood with ‘lesser races’ like us, and Dareo and Burkura were apprehended in flagrante delicto by another member of Vilyacarkin’s hierarchy.  Burkura’s deputy, if I recall correctly.  She had just happened to bring along a dozen witnesses; and, as a consequence of Burkura’s degradation, she immediately succeeded to the post of High Priestess.”

“Ah-hah,” Karrick snorted.  “Now I understand.  Church politics.”

“Oh yes,” Amorda laughed.  “Their apprehension served Dyshue’s purposes, too; his daughter had been amassing power a little too quickly for his liking, and she had been on the brink of orchestrating a full-blown rebellion when her ‘perversion’ with a ‘blackhair’, as they call us, became public knowledge.”

“So much for Navio’s ambitions,” Karrick laughed.  “I guess little Dareo went home empty handed.”

“Oh no,” Amorda said grimly.  “Our dark cousins don’t work that way, my friend.  Dareo and Burkura were tortured to death, side-by-side on Vilyacarkin’s altar; he for defiling a priestess of the Dashnorrej, and she for allowing herself to be defiled.  It took days.”

“Her father allowed that?!” the warrior exclaimed.

“Allowed it?  He ordered it,” the elf-woman replied.  “The scandal gave him the opportunity to eliminate a dangerous rival, and to promote his daughter’s deputy to the purple, giving him a new and deeply-indebted ally in the hierarchy of the Dashnorrej.  A win for him, all around.”  She shivered with disgust.  “All it cost him was his child.”

“Gods,” the warrior muttered.

“Dyshue even sent a note to Starmeadow, thanking the High Elves for aiding him in cementing his hold on the Weeping Chair,” Amorda added.  “But in true Terdeci fashion, he didn’t send it to Navio.  He sent it to King Rabirian instead.”  She tapped the black-bound book with a slender finger.  “And he sent this along with it.”

“A book,” Karrick snorted.

“A spell book,” Amorda corrected, “containing the most terrible spells known to the Drow.  A spellbook that gave to the Æyllian King the magical knowledge that Navio had hoped to gain for House Terriloquus.

“A spell-book,” she went on softly, regarding the ancient tome with a mixture of revulsion and awe, “bound in skin torn from the living body of his daughter Burkura, and of her paramour Dareo, the Terriloquus heir.  And written in their mingled blood.”

“That,” Karrick said firmly, “pardon my Elven, is just fucking horrible.”

“I quite agree,” Amorda said, her voice faint.  “But it’s not unusual for the Hidden Realm.  And it was a masterful stroke of diplomacy.  Dyshue’s message could not have been more clear.  What Navio, for all his treason, had been trying to do was rejoin the sundered Third and Fourth Houses of Harad.  Dyshue’s message, delivered in his daughter’s blood, was that there would be no reunion.  No reconciliation, no peace; no mingling of the blood of the estranged Houses, save only in agony, torment and death.  He was saying as clearly as anyone could want that the future held nothing but eternal enmity between his folk, and ours.  Eternal hatred; eternal war.”

“So why’d he give your king the spells?” Karrick asked.  “I mean, if it was to be war, why would he arm his enemy?”

“Pride, mostly, I think,” Amorda shrugged.  “The Drow deem us fools for our scruples; for believing that there are some powers too terrible to wield.  No magical might is beyond the pale in their eyes.  I think he might have been challenging the King to…to sink to their level.”

“I’d do anything to win,” Karrick said bluntly.

“You’d murder children?” the elf-woman asked, her eyes wide.  “Traffic with demons?  Slit your own daughter’s belly open while she writhed and screamed, tear her entrails out, and –”

“All right!” the warrior snapped.  “All right, I get your point.”

“There’s more,” she went on bleakly.  “I think Dyshue meant to show our King what he might have faced, had Navio’s scheme succeeded.  I think he was hoping to prod Rabirian into launching a blood feud against House Terriloquus.  He was trying to spark civil war in the Realm, if he could.”

“Hmm,” Karrick grunted.  “That’s clever.  Did it work?”

“No, Rabirian was too cunning a ruler for that,” Amorda allowed.  “But it’s not like he didn’t react.  He did have Navio kidnapped.  And he did use one of Dyshue’s spells on him.”

“Which one?” Karrick asked.

“Does it matter?” The elf-woman shuddered.  “I only opened the book once, and I’ve never looked beyond the frontispiece.  But I know enough of magic to be certain that, from the titles alone, they’re all awful.  There are very few that can be trusted with this sort of knowledge.”

The warrior nodded.  “So that’s why you wanted me to bring it to you, then?  Instead of one of your own folks?  So they wouldn’t know you were looking for ‘awful’ spells.”

“More or less.”

“Hmm,” he said again.  “All right, two more questions.  Then I’ll let you get back to your fruit juice and bed-time reading.”

Amorda smiled.  “Ask.”

He pointed at the book in her hands.  “If the King of the Drow sent that to the King of the High Elves,” he said bluntly, “then how in all the Hells did you manage to get your hands on it?”

She laughed weakly.  “The same way I’ve managed everything, friend Karrick, from earning my first groat, to accepting the rose and cup from the only love I’ll ever know: by being in the right place at the right time.”

She laid the book down on the bed-covers and slid it away from her.  “You mentioned ‘my old boyfriend’ a few moments ago.  We call it ‘side-wife’.  I was ‘side-wife’ to your friend’s uncle, Duke Bræagond, for a ten-year.”

“Yeah,” he said without expression.

The elf-woman shrugged.  “He’s always been a wastrel, with no end of gambling debts.  He knew I had connections in shady places, and he asked me to help him find a…er…specialist, to sell some possessions that, and I quote, ‘were cluttering up his quarters at the palace’.”

“He wanted you to find him a fence,” Karrick snorted.

“Precisely.  I did as he asked…but I went through the crates before I sent them on to the criers.”

“And kept what you liked,” he nodded.  “Smart.”

“No, that would’ve been stupid, actually,” she corrected.  “I said Bræagond was a wastrel.  I didn’t say he was an imbecile.  He would’ve noticed had anything been missing.” 

She grinned.  “I simply noted the things I thought would look nicer in my vaults than in anyone else’s, and I purchased them at auction through an agent.  Actually, through a long line of different agents.  Just to be safe.”

She tapped the book with a finger.  “That’s how I ended up with this.  It was one of many things that, I suspect, were ‘cluttering up’ places other than his quarters.  Like the Royal Library, for example.”  Her grin broadened.  “I also acquired a necklace that once belonged to the Treasury.  Diamonds and emeralds set in mithral.  It’s worth more than half a million orries, and I paid not a tenth of that for it.”

The warrior’s eyes bulged.  “I wouldn’t mind seeing something like that.”

“It’s with Kalestayne.  I’m having it enchanted for my own personal use.”  She winked.  “I’ve already had a jeweller alter its appearance just enough that nobody at the palace would ever recognize it.”

“Now, you see, that’s smart,” the warrior chuckled, tapping his nose with a finger for emphasis.  “So you’ve had the book for…what, forty years?  And never even opened it?”

“Other than to examine the frontispiece and the titles of the spells it contains, no,” Amorda replied.  “It’s been tucked away in my library ever since I acquired it.  Because the best place to hide a book is with other books.

“And besides, I…I don’t really like touching it,” she added in a tiny voice.

“Yeah, I get that,” he said fervently.  “And no one’s ever wanted to see it?”

“Just Kalena, Kaltas’ wizard.  She was doing research on mental domination, and wanted to examine the...the ‘mind-rape’ spell.”  She shivered.  “That was just after I’d bought it, forty years ago.  She’s the only one I ever let examine it.”

She grimaced.  “There’s more to my fear of the thing than just the…the binding.  You have to understand, most magical knowledge is generally harmless to the uninitiated.  But to those who know a little, but not enough…books like these can be terribly dangerous.  Especially books that contain such spells.  Most wizards would smother such a thing with abjurations.  This could be defended by terrible, terrible magic, and you would never know until you tried to use it.”

“If you’re worried, you should ask the boss about it,” the warrior suggested.  “He’s good at making magical problems go away.  And I’ll bet he’d like to take a look at some of those spells.”

“I’ll consider it,” she said unconvincingly.  “What was your final question?”

He put his feet back on the floor and leaned closer to her, his elbows on his knees.  “I don’t usually pry into other people’s affairs, mostly because I don’t care what other people do,” he said.  “But I’ll ask you just this once: are you planning something I need to be ready for?”

“Possibly.”  She wouldn’t meet his eyes.  That sent a chill down his spine.

He ground his teeth.  “Will I get any warning?”


“I love a definite answer.”  He stood.  “Get some rest, would you?  You look like a ghost.”

“I very nearly was a ghost,” she said with a wan smile.  She put a hand on the book.  “That’s sort of what this is all about.  I think there might be a spell in here that...that could help.”

“If you say so.  It’s your business, lady.”  He bowed sketchily and strode to the door.  “Think about what I said, though, will you?” he added.  “About Breygon, and doing something about those rings?”

“I will,” she promised.  “Karrick?”

He paused with his hand on the latch.  “Yes?”

“Ask Ony to step in to see me when she’s done, would you?”

“Sure.”  He lifted the latch.

“And, Karrick?”

Her voice was softer, smoother this time – more intimately insistent.  “Uh huh?”

“Keep this a secret, would you?  Just between we two.  All right?”

He thought about that for a long, long moment.  There was a heartfelt pleading in her tone that was most compelling.  He looked deep into her glorious eyes, saw all of her heart in them, and felt the touch of her gentle spirit on his own.  A tremendous surge of pity welled up in his breast, and he felt an overwhelming need to enfold her in his arms, and protect her from all the ills and misfortunes of the world.

Then he blinked, grinned, and said “Nice try, hot stuff.  But I don’t work for you.”




“You didn’t leave me very much to work with,” Onyshyla said, eyeing the charred contents of the crate with obvious annoyance.

“At least we didn’t throw it in the river this time,” Joraz replied evenly.

“Small mercies.”  She poked through the masses of burnt paper with the tip of her wand.  “Hang on, what’s this?”

“What’s what?” He leaned over the crate.

“This.”  She stabbed the wand into the heap of ash.  Instead of the crunch of crisped parchment, he heard a distinctive CLACK.

“That doesn’t sound like paper,” the monk mused.  He stretched out a hand.

The wizard rapped him sharply across the knuckles with the wand.

He pulled his hand back.  She glared at him. 

“Ow,” he said belatedly.

“That didn’t hurt!” she snorted.

“Didn’t even feel it,” Joraz shrugged.  “But I can take a hint, if it’s applied with a big enough hammer.  You don’t want me poking about in there?”

“I don’t want anyone poking about in there,” Ony confirmed.  “At least, not until I’ve gone over it for traps.”  She brushed the wand through the charred ash.  More traps, I mean.”

He sketched a bow. “Be my guest.”

“Thank you.”  She gave the wand a brief flick and murmured a short, sibilant phrase.  A low hum issued from the short, gnarled stick.

Inside the crate, a sickly green aura sprang up.  There was an unpleasant buzzing, like flies clustering on rotting meat.

“Trap?” Joraz asked, curious.

“No, evil,” the wizard growled, hissing the word between clenched teeth.  “A lot of it.  An awful lot.  And magic, too.”  She squinted, concentrating.  “Conjuration magic.  And something else.”  She recoiled as though she had scented something foul.  Anecros?”

“Necromancy?” he asked.

She nodded.

“But no traps?”  He reached for the chest again.

This time he was actually shuffling through the burnt papers before Ony reacted.  She rapped him on the skull with her wand.  “Feel that one?” she snarled.

“I felt it,” he confirmed, pulling his hands back.  “Still didn’t hurt.”

“Of course it didn’t,” she replied coldly.  “It’s the hardest and least valuable part of your body.”  She pointed the wand back into the chest.  “What part of ‘an awful lot of evil’ did you fail to understand?”

“Evil doesn’t worry me all that much,” he confessed.   “And frankly, it takes an awful lot of anything to so much as make a dent in me anymore.  Aren’t you curious about what’s inside?”

“I’m more curious about how dinner’s going to taste tonight,” Onyshyla replied sternly.  “So I’d like to be around to taste it, if it’s all the same with you.” 

She made a few more fiddling motions with the wand.  At last she lowered it and slid it back into her sleeve.  “All right.  No traps,” she said with obvious reluctance.

He grinned, but didn’t move.  “Do you want to get under the table or something?”

The elf-mage rolled her eyes.  “Just go ahead.”

Joraz shuffled the charred scraps of parchment here and there, raising a cloud of choking black ash.  His fingers closed on something larger and he pulled it out.  His face fell when he saw that it was nothing more than a partially consumed bundle of bound parchment leaves.

He passed this back to Onyshyla.  “Here you go.”

She took the scorched sheets with obvious distaste.  “Oh, thank you.”

“You’re a wizard, it’s a book,” he shrugged.  “Sort of.  Enjoy.”

“You know, it’s that attitude that caused me to give up adventuring,” she snapped.

While he searched, she flipped through the damaged notes.  After only a few pages, she froze.  “Have you seen what’s in these?” she gasped.  “There are hundreds of names!”

“How could I?  I just gave them to you.”  He dusted his hands off and looked over her shoulder.  “ ‘Licia Faraj Hastafraxinus’?  Isn’t ‘Hastafraxinus’ one of the Duodeci families?”

Ony nodded, speechless.  “It says kishëtje beside her name.  I don’t recognize that language, though.”

Joraz felt a shiver grip his spine.  “It means ‘priestess’,” he said tonelessly.  “And the tongue is that of demons.  The denizens of the Abyss.”

Hara Sophus!”  She ran a finger down an intact list.  “Two more,” she said, tapping their names briefly.  “Both Terriloquus.”

Joraz smiled grimly.  “Look here.”  He tapped another name, this one abbreviated: B. Pcps.

Onyshyla choked a little.  “The Queen’s grandson?!”

“How can you tell?”

“That’s the abbreviation for Princeps.  You know any other princes whose names begin with ‘B’? 

“Just the one,” Joraz laughed.  “But I can almost guarantee that he’s not a member of the Lustroares.”

“This one is.”  She hissed something ugly under her breath.

“It’s not exactly a surprise,” Joraz shrugged.  “At least, not to us.”  He tapped another name.  “What does ‘Imp’ mean?”

Imperator,” the wizard groaned.  “Holy Mother, they’ve suborned a general?”  She flipped the page over.  “Where’s the rest?”

“That’s all there was,” the monk replied.  “The rest is burnt, I suppose.”

“Gods!  So we know there’s a general among the Lustroares,” Ony said, horrified, “but we don’t know who it is!”

“That’s typical,” Joraz observed blandly, to no one in particular.

He flipped through the crisped pages a final time.  “Not much else here.”  Handing the bundle of parchment to Onyshyla, he returned to the chest, sifting through the ash with his fingers.  After little more than a moment of rummaging, he froze.

Ony’s wand – a different one this time, long, slender, and silver – was in her hand a heartbeat.  “What is it?”

“Something big.” He grasped the thing he had found, and pulled.

Moments later he was blowing the dust off of a horned skull.  The skull itself was hardly larger than a man’s, but the horns were like those of a ram, enormous and curled.  It also had an elongated, equine snout filled with pointed fangs; deep, oval eye-sockets; and an oddly flat, polished base.

Joraz brushed ash from the bleached bone and held it up.  “What do you think?”

“I think it’s hideous,” Ony murmured.  “More to the point, what do you think?”

“I think it’s another demon,” the monk sighed.  He could feel the tearing oblivion of the Abyss radiating from the thing, leaching out of it like venom, oozing into the air, stinging his palms, his fingertips and his nostrils.  He set the skull carefully down on the table and stared at it.

“I don’t recognize the species,” Ony mused.  “It’s definitely a soldier-demon of some kind, because it’s not just a big sack of venom and pus.  Whatever it was had an endoskeleton and horns.”  She scratched her cheek idly.  “Maybe Kalena will know.”

“Why is it radiating evil?” Joraz asked.  “And magic?”

“Being a demon’s skull isn’t enough?” the wizard grimaced.  “If I had to guess, I’d say that this is probably an exaugurum.”

Joraz stared at her.  “I know those words, but...”

“A talisman of desecration.”

“A what?” the monk frowned.  He’d never heard of such a thing.

“Human magi would call it a ‘darkskull’,” she said slowly.  “It’s a profane item, created by the clergy of the Uruqua to hallow their foul rites.  It shrouds everything within a certain radius in a smothering miasma of horror.  Sometimes, they have spells implanted in them.”  She shivered involuntarily.  “That’s probably the necromantic aspect I could feel.  Can’t you feel it?”

He could feel it; that was the thing.  The force of the skull’s dark power throbbed against his consciousness, pressing inwards all around him, like foul water at great depth, probing always, seeking to seep into his soul.  But it did not penetrate his essence; it could not touch him unless he allowed it to.  He knew that it was there, but he declined to let it enter. 

Can’t you?” she pressed, her voice catching a little.

“I can, but it doesn’t bother me,” Joraz replied in soothing tones.  “Look, do you want me to destroy it?”

“No!” the wizard snapped.  “No, don’t.  We need it intact.  We can study it.  Figure out who made it, and which god they served.  I just…I need to…”

She stepped back several paces.  Fumbling at her pouch, she withdrew a stick of charcoal and a small crystal phial stoppered with wax.  Moving swiftly but carefully, she drew a series of nested circles on the marble floor-tiles, inscribing complex symbols within their boundaries, stopping, erasing and fixing errant lines as necessary.  At last she un-corked the phial and, with exquisite care, poured its contents into the gap between the two innermost circles.

“What’s that?” Joraz asked.

“Powdered silver,” she replied, speaking slowly, her lower lip clamped nervously between her teeth.

“Not that.  I meant the drawings.”

Rhombos est.  A mage’s circle,” she said.  She straightened up and tucked the empty phial back into her pouch.

She nodded at the skull.  “Put that in the exact centre, would you?  Without disturbing any of the lines.”

Wincing at the unpleasant feel of the thing, Joraz complied.  When he stepped back, Onyshyla made a series of complex gestures and intoned seven harsh, echoing syllables.  Instantly a near-invisible dome of blue-white light sprang up, enclosing the whole of the circle.

The acid pressure of the skull’s presence vanished from his perception.  He could still feel the gasping maw of the Abyss behind it, but the overpowering stench of evil was gone.

The monk bowed deeply.  “Marvellously done, lady.”

“Thank you.”  Ony wiped a bead of sweat from her brow.  “But it’s only temporary.  I’ve bought us a few hours, nothing more.  We have that long to figure out what to do with the thing.”

“The sooner we sort this out, the better,” Joraz agreed.

“Yes.  We need to figure out where this came from.”  She bared her teeth in an uncustomary snarl.  “And then we can smash it into…”

The monk was shaking his head.  “That’s not what I meant.”

“What did you mean?” Ony asked, confused.

“Just that we need to get this thing out of here,” he replied with a half-grin, “before breakfast tomorrow morning.  Before Amorda discovers that we’ve turned her dining room into a shrine to the dark powers.”

“Ah.  Yes, well,” she elf-woman said with a wan smile, “so long as nobody sacrifices any virgins in the immediate vicinity, the desecration ought not to be permanent.”

Joraz winced.  “Maybe Karrick should sleep at the embassy for the next few nights.”




“Melt it down,” Kalena snarled.

“Why?” Breygon asked.  He hefted the golden knife in one hand.  It was an exquisite example of craftsmanship, but the style was entirely unfamiliar to him.  The hilt, for example, was heavy, formed of interspersed layers of gold and…something.  Some sort of smooth, carved stone.

“What’s this?” he murmured.  It was blue and yellow, flecked with tiny gold inclusions.

“Lapis Lazuli,” the wizard said.  “And I’m afraid I’m going to have to insist.  If you don’t destroy it, I will.”

The ranger gave her a mild glance.  “Is this the sort of aid Kaltas had in mind when he asked you to help us?”

The red-haired woman’s lip curled, and Breygon found himself involuntarily bracing for sudden, quick movement.  He didn’t want to harm the woman, but he had no intention of eating a fireball either.  He was fairly certain that he was quick and strong enough to slap her before she could get a spell off; but at the same time, he did not want to be the one to…

Kalena’s shoulders sagged suddenly.  Breygon released his pent-up breath.  He watched her carefully for another moment, then said, “You seem tired.”

That elicited a wry smile.  “It is difficult being house wizard to a traitor.”

The ranger relaxed.  “Everyone who matters knows the truth,” he said quietly.

“But a great many do not.”  She shook her head angrily.  “My reception at the College was…not warm.”

“That can’t have surprised you.”

“No,” she admitted.  “But things do not have to surprise in order to hurt.”

Breygon pursed his lips.  “If it would ease things for you,” he said, “you’re welcome to stay at Domus Casia.  Until the situation resolves itself.  Or as long as you like.”  He smiled narrowly.  “I know that my lady counts you among her friends, and would be delighted to have you under her roof.”

That earned him a wry smile.  “And once again, I am humbled,” the wizard murmured.

“How so?”

Kalena scrubbed her face with her palms, and Breygon noticed again how weary she looked.  “We magi of the book,” Kalena murmured, “count ourselves among the wise.  And more; we disdain those who lack the strength of will, the dedication, and the wit necessary to acquire through long study the secrets that are ours to master.”

“Yes, I’ve known a few wizards,” the ranger deadpanned, thinking of Qaramyn.

Kalena snorted.  “I only cultivated a friendship with your…your lady, at Kaltas’ suggestion, as a means of inserting myself into society at Joyous Light.  He knew I was unhappy at having been posted to Eldisle from the College – I once called it an ‘exile’, to his face – and he said that he thought that spending time with Amorda would…would show me the ‘brighter side of his beautiful island’.”

“And it did, did it not?”

“Yes,” the wizard allowed, smiling.  “But that had nothing to do with his real reasons for sending me to her.  He knew that Amorda had been set to spy upon him for the Queen, and he wanted to bring her into the fold, rather than force her to pry her way in.  He wanted to give her an entrée into his inner circle.  One that did not involve the Queen’s own grand-daughter, the princess, who had been appointed his custodes.  And for her part, Amorda was happy to play the friend to me; she was delighted to cultivate me as a source of information.”  She rolled her eyes.  “Do you see my point?”

“I think so,” Breygon chuckled.  “It must be galling for a wizard to discover that she’s not the cleverest person in the room.”

“ ‘Galling’ is not the word I’d use,” the Hîarsk woman grumbled.  “I’d’ve taught them both the price of my ire long ago, were it not – ”

“…were it not for the fact,” Breygon interrupted, “that Kaltas is the most honourable and trustworthy man you’d ever met, and that Amorda – her professional obligations notwithstanding – always treated you as a friend, and would have bled for you.  Is that it?”

“Aye,” the woman nodded.

“Nobody is just one thing,” the ranger observed.  “My – our – offer stands.  If staying here would simplify things for you, then this House is yours, for as long as you like.”

“You see?” she sighed.  “This is what I mean.  You’re all a lot of bloody scoundrels.  But you’re…”

“We’re your kind of scoundrels.”

“In a word, yes.”  She nodded as if coming to a decision.  “Well.  I thank you, but I must decline.”

Breygon blinked.  “Really?”

“Really,” Kalena nodded.  “I will not give the slanderers of my lord Duke the satisfaction of hiding from their calumny.  I will not permit them to sully his good name.”  She clenched her fists until the knuckles cracked.

“I shall just have to see,” she added ominously, “whether I remember everything that Kalestayne taught me about duelling.”

“Let us know when you’re going to begin,” the ranger chuckled.  “I’ll want to watch.”

“Of course.”  Her brow furrowed, then cleared. “If you do come, bring Karrick.  I find that his mere presence inspires me violence.”

“I know what you mean,” Breygon agreed.  “He’ll probably sell tickets.”

That earned him a tight grin.

“Are you willing to...to execute my principal request?” he said, hesitating a little.  He knew how much he was asking.

Kalena grimaced.  “I am willing,” she replied, “but at present I am unable.  I have not prepared the vision spell.  If you like, though, I can return tomorrow morning, and we can attempt it.”

“Will Shaivaun’s head be sufficient for a focus?” the ranger asked.  “Or would you prefer to cast the spell at my grandmother’s shrine?”

“The head should suffice.”  The wizard looked nauseated.  “I presume it is the demon’s actions you are interested in, rather than simply the events at the cathedral.  Yes?”

“Yes.  And tomorrow will be fine,” he said, relieved.

“Done, then.” 

Turning back to the table, she tapped the golden dagger once more.  “This is a haruspexiat.  A sacrificial knife.  It is enchanted, of course; but its greatest power is that it imparts to the wielder especial potency when shedding blood in worship of the wielder’s god.”  She shuddered.  “The wielder’s dark god.  Hence my initial reaction.  This thing is altogether evil; it ought to be destroyed.”

Breygon frowned.  “It’s a shame we don’t have a volcano handy.  That worked fine the last time we had a lot of foul trash to dispose of.”

“Magma does have the virtue of permanency,” Kalena agreed. 

She tapped the second of the three items that they had recovered from the viscid, feculent ruin of the demon Shaivaun’s corpse – the jewelled amulet.  “This is not evil, but it is a thing of tremendous arcane power.  In the common tongue, it would be called a ‘talisman of the multiverse’.  It allows the bearer to travel the River of Stars to the outer planes; but only to four, according to the colours of the gems with which it is crafted.”

She touched the sapphire first.  “Asgard, the mountain home of Esu, the Allfather of Men.”  Then the gleaming golden diamond.  “Cælum, the Bright Heavens, where Lagu toils in the Halls of Wonder.”

“Been there,” the ranger murmured.

Kalena looked up.  “I beg your pardon?”


She turned back to the amulet.  The third gem she did not touch.  “This ruby,” she said softly, “will take you to hell.  To the Nine Hells, to be precise; to the deepest pits of treachery and torment, where Zaman the Deceiver holds court.

“And lastly” – she nodded at the emerald – “that fell stone will take you to the bottomless expanse of the Abyss.  But where amid the infinite realms of horror and chaos it will take you…that, you cannot know.”

Breygon stared at the thing as though it were a live serpent.  “That’s a dangerous toy,” he said weakly.

“All the more dangerous,” Kalena nodded, “as there is a chance, however small, that the choice will go awry, and take the bearer somewhere he did not intend.  And, too, it can be used only infrequently.  The silver star at the centre of the device will return the bearer to Anuru if his journey goes ill; but it would probably not function immediately after one of the other gems had been used.  I counsel you to handle this thing as little as possible, and to use it only with caution.  If at all.”

“I don’t suppose you’d like to buy it?” he jested.

Kalena gave him a level glance.  “If you wish to dispose of it, you will have to find someone with more money and less wit than I.”

He pointed to the last item – the engraved torc of silver.  “What of that?”

The wizard hesitated for a long time, long enough that eventually Breygon turned and cocked an eyebrow at her.

“It is a thing of tremendous power,” she said hesitantly.  “A creation not of the powers of darkness, but rather of our woodland cousins, the torvae.  Which rather makes me suspect that…”

He waited.  When she did not continue, he prompted her.  “What do you suspect?”

“That I know what it is, and who wore it last,” Kalena replied.  She stroked the figured silver with a long finger.  “I would tell you what to do with it, save for one complicating fact.”

“And that is?”

You,” she said.  With the same finger she prodded him in the chest.  “The complicating fact is you.  You are Centang Lewat.  And if I understand legend and tradition correctly, you, and only you, may decide upon whom to bestow the title and the powers that once accompanied this torc.”

“I’m not following you,” Breygon said, frowning.

“I believe that this was once worn by the High Priestess of Istravenya,” Kalena replied.  She picked up the metal plate and ran her fingers over it gently.  “I believe it to be the Collar of Dardana.  She was a true daughter of the forest.  A torva, one of the clanswomen of the north.  She fell in battle with the orcs of Ensher in what the torvae call the Starving Time; the years that followed the Shadow War and the sundering of the earth, ten centuries ago.”

“What does she have to do with me?” the ranger asked, puzzled.

“If you wish, you may keep this, as spoils of victory,” Kalena said stonily.  “Or, if you so chose, you might bestow it upon the next High Priest or Priestess of the White Fire of the Woodlands.  But if you do so,” she warned, “you should know that you will be giving such a one more than a mere magical item.”

The ranger crossed his arms, frowning.  “What exactly do you mean by that?”

“According to legend,” Kalena began (Breygon leaned against the table with a sigh), “during the Darkness, when he walked the earth as the paragon of kesatuan, the Warden Arngrím was forced to confront a corrupt and decadent servant of the Forest Gods – the High Priest of Hara Sophus himself.  It was here in Starmeadow, in fact.  The Elflord accused the priest of simony, treachery, and traffic with the dark powers, and challenged him to single combat, offering him the opportunity to prove his worthiness to continue to administer Hara’s sacraments.”

“That was decent of  Arngrím,” Breygon observed stonily.  “What happened?”

“They fought at the Eternal Grove,” Kalena replied, “where the High Priest showed his true face, striking at Arngrím with forbidden magic – with the darkest of powers, gifted unto him by the Uruqua.

“Though he was badly wounded,” she went on, “Arngrím was vindicated, for he had forced the enemy to reveal himself.  Armed with proof of the High Priest’s perfidy, the Warden called upon the might of the forest, and the green rose up about them, and the powers of the High Priest were shorn away.  He was brought down, until he was nothing more than a man.  Arngrím took from him his staff of office; and at the Elflord’s command, the trees seized the miscreant, and bore him away into the forest, whence he never returned. 

“Then,” she continued, staring off into the distance, “Arngrím looked into the hearts of the High Priest’s followers, and he chose one of the junior acolytes, a pure and untainted soul new to the service of Hara.  To her he gave the High Priest’s staff; and upon her, he conferred all of the powers that the green, at his behest, had reft from the corrupted one.” 

She fell silent, watching him expectantly.

“Nice story,” he said at last.  “But I’m afraid the point escapes me.”

“The point,” Kalena sighed, “is that, according to legend, the Warden is empowered by his station to appoint worthy individuals to the highest ranks of the service of the Forest Gods.  Or, if necessary, to strike erring servants down, and strip them of their powers, expelling them forever from kesatuan, and from the eternal glory of the green.

“Or so ‘tis said,” she added blandly.

The half-elf wasn’t quite certain what to say to that.