Strife on the Northern Banks

By Gerry Torbert


...are we there yet...? are we there yet...?are we there yet...? Slayer, if you ask me one more time, I'll have a plow made outa ya... are we there yet...? no, you sound like a little kid; we're riding along the Lewis River, soon to be the Caembuhl River... don't tell me, we're going to stop and see them... that's right, THEN home...

Airdbuain was the most populous of the ten Creagish clandoms and by most accounts the richest and most industrialized. Some believed the Caembuhl clan to be the most industrious, and some explained their success as a result of the ruthless and aggressive nature of the ruling family. Some believed that the clan was better able to take advantage of situations presented to them, and others believed them to be the luckiest in their dealings.

Some simply hated them. Fighting between the Donalds and Caembuhls had gone on for hundreds of years, the histories of both sides peppered with specks of violence, massacres, and underhanded dealings. Mostly the ownership and control of the lush, fertile green plains that surrounded Loch Serpent were the sparks that ignited the flames of battle, but on more than one occasion the heat of discontent was driven by love lost and won and retaliations by families of star-crossed lovers. The stories that this fertile land bore would keep a writer busy for a lifetime of lurid plays.

Not that the Donalds were the only clan who felt the sting of Caembuhl aggression. The Stuarts often had to define their property by survey sticks or swords, and the Lewises often found Haigs, Humes, and Burns families squatting on their territory. Usually, the struggles with the former were fewer due to the rugged terrain separating Slaughbaetha and Airdbuain, but in the latter case, the intruding Sept clans were kept at bay by fine Lewis steel and a vigilant spirit.

But industrious they were, by any standards. The Caembuhl River, flowing from the higher lands of the Stuarts, became a meandering snake that wound its way through the Northern Greens only after descending from the hills in a series of high, powerful waterfalls that created perfect opportunities for water-driven sawmills, woolen mills and gristmills. Power hammers and grindstones were driven by the mighty wheels for the smithing trades, which were also fueled by coal mined and coked on the north shore of the river. It wasn't uncommon to see a fifty-foot wheel running all four trades from one huge shaft, and small towns were built around these natural powerhouses.

It was a long ride from the Battleplain through the Valley of the Sun to the Lewis River. Dairmad bid Darmon goodbye and headed for Chadlighe, while the first-in-line headed along the road along the riverbed to the land of the Caembuhls. It was a somber journey, but Slayer kept Darmon entertained as he related the thoughts of the soul of Elochad and stories of his life. They both knew that Dairmad's cousin was in good hands in whatever plane of existence he now occupied, sharing his stories with those who were cursed, damned or simply unfortunate enough to be there.

Darmon stopped by a farm along the way, near the nebulous Caembuhl/Lewis border, as the rain had started and showed no signs of letting up. He dismounted, walked to the front door of the humble wood log dwelling and knocked on the door. After a few seconds, he was greeted by a middle-aged farmer. "Good evnin' sir. It's a bad day oot 'ere, was wondrin' if I might stay over in the barn tonight an' get a good start in the morn."

The farmer looked incredulously at the mountain of muscle in front of him. He had scarcely thought he'd see anyone on a night like this, but he'd seen and heard stranger things. But he hesitated to invite a stranger into his house, as this was a wild land, and he knew of the Burns clan. "Well, mister, I guess ya can stay in the barn. There's some hay fer yer horse in one of the wagons, an' a water well outside the front door." He then looked Darmon over, noticing his size and strength, and added, "And there's two other wagons what got straw in 'em, need loaded off and tossed in the loft. I think that would be payment enough, don't you?"

Darmon smiled, then reared back and gave a hearty laugh, realizing the irony of the situation. If only the farmer knew he was talking to a clan leader's son... "Sure, an' it'll be fine, sir, then I'll be goin' on me way tomorrah morn. Have ya got a lamp?"

The farmer nodded and reached up to a shelf along the door jamb, then handed Darmon a few matches. "It's there on yer right of the two main doors, should have enough oil. Breakfast at sunup. I'll have me daughter bring ya out somethin' ta eat in a couple hours, soon as we get it cooked. Sorry, can't invite ya in, but we're out in the middle of nowhere 'ere... ya unnerstan..."

Darmon shook his head a little, and then scratched it. The idea of a "farmer's daughter" scenario seemed as unseemly as it seemed interesting, and although the companionship of a young lass was always welcome, he knew that nothing good could come of it. "I thank ya for the offer, sir, but I have some oatcakes an' jerky, so I'll be aright 'till morn."

The farmer gave him a sly look, as if Darmon had just passed a test; then a smile crept across his face. "Don't put up a man wi'oot food, just my way. I'll bring ya somethin' meself." He nodded Darmon from the threshold and closed the door. He shook his head and smiled a little, to himself, after the door was closed, and thought, ...Darmon, there are some things you just don't understand, aren't there...?

Darmon walked away from the door, as well, thinking to Dragonslayer, you get the same feeling with this man that I do, old friend?... yes, there's something about him I don't trust... you're not thinking of striking a heartfelt conversation with him, are you?... no, although I'm sure he'll want to talk... just be guarded, Darmon...

Darmon walked into the barn, and in the flash of a lightning bolt he saw the lantern and struck a match. In a few seconds, there was light; it was a typical barn of that region, with hay wagons parked in the center, just as was promised. Tall poles of unhewn lumber stayed the center beam, and pinned in place were the slightly smaller floor joists. They held the sawn floor joists, and beyond the roof, purlins supported the rest, leaving a fairly large storage area for the straw. Hay was strewn all over the dirt floor and into the bin beside the door, so Darmon figured that would be the best place to bed down.

He decided to start his work, and tested the pitchfork for strength. He remembered the trick to this operation - throw the straw far back enough that it wouldn't pile up near the lip, or you'll be crawling up there to make room for the rest of it. Small wonder it was such an engaging sport at the Fall Games.

He led the horse over to a rail and tied him; unstrapped Slayer and leaned him against another rail; picked up a wooden bucket at the door, walked outside and filled it from the well. He returned and started to work on the straw, using his experience of the Games to his advantage. Soon, his imaginary cousin Eaomann was standing beside him, pitching forkful after forkful of straw as high as he could and daring Darmon to beat him. Darmon bested him with every throw, of course, and soon was totally immersed in the competition, however real it was. So immersed was he that he didn't notice the main door opening slightly...

The old farmer peeked through the crack made by the open door and saw the lamp hanging near the jamb. He reached in, unhooked it from the nail and tossed it onto the pile of straw at the foot of the door, watching to make sure it began to catch the dry chaff on fire, then he closed the door and let the bar down to lock it. He stepped back a few feet and reached his hand up in the air, where a hawk alighted on it. "Ahh... good, my friend, go now, to Faugas of Slaughbaetha, tell him of Darmon, and tell him Dohmra, his friend, sent you... go, now!"

The bird flew off toward the northwest, as Airdbuain's chief wizard concentrated on the doors of the barn and let his false image of the farmhouse disappear...

Darmon noticed the flickering, then the sudden brilliance as the straw caught on fire. He ran to the bucket and threw the water on the fire, but realizing it wasn't nearly enough, tried to open the door. It wouldn't even budge, so he ran away and turned to give it a full body block, but it didn't even bow out at the bottom.

He remembered the bar on the door from when he entered the barn, and thought it must had slid down into place when he closed it. Running over to Slayer, he picked him up and unsheathed him from the scabbard that was already singed. ...don't worry about me, Darmon, the fire won't hurt me... no, Slayer, I need to slip you between the door and jamb and lift the bar... He tried, pushing up with far more force than should have been necessary, but the bar seemed to be held down by a powerful weight.

The chaff under the straw began to burn, and darker smoke started to rise from the floor. It began to choke Darmon and cloud his eyes, and he could tell that he didn't have too long to go before he'd succumb to heat and suffocation. He thought momentarily of killing his horse, gutting him and climbing in the carcass, but dismissed it as quickly as he could. That's when Slayer began to think...

...Darmon - bring out the tooth... why, sword; what would that do... trust me... I think it might be what you need... Darmon reached into the pocket of his kilt and pulled out the enamel trophy, which had already started to glow. ...concentrate, Darmon... on what, Slayer...? on getting us out of here... just concentrate... Darmon closed his eyes and thought of the outside of the barn; of the image of looking at the barn from outside, and the tooth began to vibrate and get hotter.

The walls of the barn began to bulge outward at the middle, pins and nails cracking and pinging as they flew in all directions. Suddenly a blast of air burst from his hand, and all four walls blasted outward with a groaning, then a ripping and tearing roar. The horse whinnied and tried to hide its head, but the blast was all around them. Darmon then thought to look up, as the roof had to go somewhere. But he could see it fly off into the distance, off to one side to fall harmlessly in a field behind them. He reached over and grabbed the horse's reins to still him, and then he looked outward to where the door once was. Outside in the darkness of the night and storm stood a short man in a gray shirt and pants; where his head should have been was a globe of a head whirling with lights and sparkles.

Darmon sputtered as he tried to form the words he felt... "Tanarus! You blasted fool, you... you... half-god! Don't ya think I'm worth more than just a charred body? Are ya so afraid o' me ya gotta try stuff like 'is?"

The little man quickly held up his hand, and a blast of wind and rain slammed into Darmon from above, silencing his venom. "Silence, Darmon. Your rancor does me great injustice. Do you think that I can't find a better way to deal with you when your time comes, than encasing you in a burning barn? I'm much more creative. There is your culprit..."

He pointed to a hawk, leaving a nearby tree branch. "Dohmra. Foolish wizard that he is. You have far more than me to worry about, prince. Do you see a farmhouse, over there...?" He pointed to where the house was, and Darmon turned his head to see nothing there. He looked back to see Tanarus walking toward him, stopping a few feet away. The little man reached into his pocket and pulled out a small leather pouch, handing it to Darmon. "Here, take this. You'll know what to do with it when the time comes."

Darmon took the pouch and peered into the globe of swirling gasses, looking for all the world like a spinning galaxy of tiny stars. "Why would ya give me anything, devil-god; is it some kinda poison?"

Tanarus slowly shook his head, then laughed. "Let's just say I have my reasons; reasons you need not know." The Earth God then turned and walked a dozen steps toward the main road, where the sparkling ions swirling his neck worked their way down his body to create a pillar of particles, which then sunk into the ground. But a voice filled the air - "...besides, Darmon, it's not daylight..."

Darmon shook with anger - that type of anger that chills one to the bone. There wasn't much to be done about it now, so he placed the tooth back in his pocket, along with the pouch, and walked over to the door, which was blasted off the barn in one piece. He leaned it over and supported it with a broken pole, then grabbed armfuls of straw and tossed them inside the makeshift bedroom. Part of one wall of the barn still stood, so he tied the horse to where he thought he'd be best sheltered, and laid the blanket from his back over his head. He grabbed an armful of hay, filled the bucket and laid it all out for the horse, whom he decided to call Gollygem from now on. He rolled under the lean-to, clutching Slayer, and curled up for a sleepless rest. As Tanarus had said, he had more troubles than just the Sun God.

A long night with no sleep lends itself to a lot of soul-searching, and this one was no exception. He hadn't imagined that whatever underhanded dealings were being made, or whatever grand plans were being developed, could have transformed into an attempt on his life. His whirlwind tour of the clandoms, however well-intentioned at first, would now take on a more serious nature; even one of self-preservation. He had only recently been introduced to the fickle world of diplomacy; now he would have to lean heavily on his experience in the less-subtle realm of force and survival.

The First in Line usually took a little while to become incensed, but he had all night. Morning light presented a strange scene of destruction - a partially burned wooden structure thrown all over the landscape like so many twigs and boards, then covered over with wet straw. He rummaged through the barn's remains until he found a bag of feed, and Gollygem thanked him for the thought. He gathered what he could from the mess, including the lamp and, strangely enough, the pitchfork; he lashed the rest of the grain feed to the horse and was soon on his way, a little more incensed at his treatment since he awoke, and a little more each passing hour.

...big guy, are you thinking of seizing the day, as you did with the Tavishes...? No, blade, I promise to ask nicely first... Brian Ceambuhl is a distant relative, and our two clans have enjoyed relative peace for a decade or so... know my scabbard was singed, don't you... of course, I'll replace it... I was thinking of something with a little more flair... don't get too starry-eyed, forge fodder... okay, just a thought... after all, I almost was killed back there, I mean really killed...'re right, hero.... Faugas has something to do with this, all the wizards do... I know... and Brian has to be made aware... if he's still there, Darmon, if he's still there...

The road from the Lewis border to Airdbuain was sinuous and not well kept. It seemed that the Caembuhls had little regard for trade or other relations with the wild and crazy mountain folk, and the Lewises were happy with that. As the trail wound down from the crags to the huge Lock Serpent, the majesty of the huge body of water, as well as the low green grassy plains on either side, played out before them.

To the north, the Caembuhl River coursed down from the higher Hiding Valley and past mill towns as it descended into a meandering stream. The brightly-colored blue and green Castle Airdbuain loomed along the banks of the loch, with high war walls enclosing buildings of commerce. Farms were left on the outside, to fend for themselves.

Below him, Darmon could see another mill, this one on the last mile of the Lewis River as it fell through several waterfalls to the loch. Most of the mill towns had a reasonable inn or two, as they fed transients, businessmen, wagon trains and some of the mill workers returning home from work. As he entered this town, simply named Lewistown, he spied the perfect inn for a good breakfast.

The mill towns were built on whatever terrain the Gods afforded them; their planning exemplified the use of all available space. The mill wheel was the most important feature of the town, and roads were cut on either side to access the bearings and to work on any parts of the huge structure that needed attention. A sluice was built from a higher elevation to the top of the wheel, and flow could be easily diverted by a gate to run down the natural channel and under the wheel, if needed.

The main axle led to a cog house on each side, where gears drove another axle, called a cog train, hundreds of feet long - it was actually several logs cogged together at their ends - and fed various mills on the way down the hill. Houses lined the access roads down the steep hillsides, making them look as if they were hanging for dear life from the rocks.

Further down, products were taken, usually by winches also powered by the cog train, to the lesser slopes and flat plain areas, where they were processed or warehoused for transport. Horse-drawn wagon trains carried the goods to waiting boats on the lake or to other locations on the plains. The ropes lowering goods down the roads were counterbalanced by other ropes raising raw materials up, on the same road, alongside the other carts.

Darmon carefully guided Gollygem to the inn, bringing him to a halt just outside the front door. He untied the feed bag and tied it to his head to give him something to eat, and headed through the front door.

He found the bar to be relatively sparse, so he pulled up a stool and waved to the owner behind the bar. "What can I do fer ya, stranger?"

"Big breakfast, sir. Eggs, sausage, bacon, bread, the works. Top it off wi' a good whiskey for the road - maybe a Haig twelve year in a brandy cask. And half a loaf o' bread for the road. Sound okay?"

"We can handle that, uh..." he looked at his tartan, "...Mr. Stuart. Goin' or comin' home?"

Darmon smiled, realizing he was talking to a man who knew something of his homeland. "Goin' 'ome, been gone for a month or three. Time flies by, don't it?'

The bartender smiled and called in the order over his shoulder while wiping off the bar, never missing a beat. "Only when yer 'avin' fun, like I am. Maybe ya ain't heard what's been goin' on in Slaughbaetha, then?"

Darmon shook his head slightly, and asked, "So, what've ya 'eard? Faugas takin' over the reins, somethin' like 'at?"

"'Bout like 'at. Seems Dohmra's been talkin' to 'im lately, an' he's got connections with Farland and the wizards of Zel City."

Darmon frowned at this. "Is Brian Caembuhl still Clan Father 'ere?"

"Yeah, he's still here, tho a little less visible. Ya know 'im?"

Darmon nodded. "Ol' friend, removed. Thought I'd see 'im while I'm passin' through."

"G' luck wi' that." He stopped wiping the bar and reached for a glass for the whiskey, then stopped, turning to Darmon. "Relative? A Stuart? Only Stuart I know in Slaughbaetha is Adrin's ain't...?"

Darmon smiled and shook his head. "Ya didn't see me. I was never 'ere."

The bartender smiled and continued to pour the elixir. "Gotcha. Here's to a real 'ero, jus' between the two o' us." He slid the whiskey to Darmon, adding, "Food's on the 'ouse, Darmon." He whispered the name, looking around to make sure no one heard him.

Darmon smiled a little, then cupped his huge hands around the fine drink to savor the nose. The Haigs were known for their innovative distilling techniques, using different wine and brandy barrels for the final storage - this one was no exception.

Darmon ate heartily and thanked the bartender, leaving a tip large enough to cover the food anyway. He spent a few minutes feeding Gollygem the fresh bread, which he enjoyed, and saddled up for the trip to the castle.

He rode on to Castle Airdbuain, arriving at the gate mid-morning. Trade was heavy, as carts, pedestrians and one wagon train stood in line. Darmon waited patiently, making small talk with one of the train's drivers, and his turn soon came up.

"Ah, a Stuart", said one of the guards. He appeared to be the captain, as his sporran was adorned with longer horsehair and the familiar hogshead clan emblem was emblazoned on his military-style kilt, which was ironed to the hilt. "An' wha' business ya got here?"

Darmon shook his head a little, tired with lower guards who seemed to picture themselves as king of their little worlds. "Here ta see Brian Caembuhl, Clan Father. I'm a distant cousin, an' we 'aven't seen each other in a while."

The guard frowned. "Mr. Stuart, if I let everyone in 'ere who said 'e's someone special, I'd be..."

Darmon stopped him with a wave of his hand, motioning him to the side and out of earshot. "Captain, I know yer jus' doin' yer job, an' I hate ta pull rank, but I'm Darmon Stuart, First in Line. I already put four Tavish guards in the infirmary. I'll be peaceful, an' give ya a good word to Brian."

The guard bristled, but suddenly realized the importance of the visit, and remembered his training in protocol. "Sorry, Mr. Stuart, I didn't realize who you were. I expected you to be taller..."

Darmon smiled. "I get that a lot, Captain, er..."

"Haig, sir. Dairma Haig."

Darmon nodded. "I'll remember that, Captain." He turned Gollygem toward the gates.

The castle itself was an impressive structure. The blue limestone and green schist rocks were mined with great care from the surrounding hills; precisely cut; artistically patterned and firmly mortared in mortar made of finely crushed blue lime, giving the finished castle the look of a work by an impressionistic painter. But it wasn't just a work of art; all the appurtenances necessary for battles were there - strong merlons; arrow loops; wide allures; machicolations; drum towers and intermediate bastions were all both well-built and imposing. Even a canal was built from the Caembuhl River to a moat surrounding the bailey.

Darmon had been here a few times before, and walked his horse directly to the Main Keep. He got a few sideward glances, as his physical appearance was indeed impressive; ...and that sword.... He tied the horse to a rail and walked the steps up the motte to the main door - even this slab of wood was impressive - and with no guards to question him, he walked in. When at peace, the Caembuhls were all about commerce, and seldom turned anyone around.

Darmon walked from the seemingly endless path of foyers into the Main Hall, at which point he was finally stopped by a few guards; but only after the first to see him got the attention of two others. "Good day, sir. Can we help you?"

"Yes, guard. I came to see Father Brian Caembuhl."

"I'm afraid he's under the weather, sir. You can leave your name and..."

"Can ya tell 'im it's Cousin Darmon? 'E might perk up."

The guards snapped to and looked at each other; the first one looked back. "Welcome, First in Line. It's an honor, sir. I'll get right to 'im." really like that, don't you, Hero... yes, slab-o-steel, I do...

He made conversation with the other guards for a few minutes, as they had many questions concerning his wartime experiences, and of course, there was the inevitable query of life inside a fiery beast. Soon the other guard returned, but led a handsome middle-aged man in full blue-and-green tartan. The royal robe he wore, fringed with fox fur and quilted with animal patches that Darmon helped bag many years ago, seemed dwarfed in importance by the barrel chest and fire-red beard, let alone the heartfelt smile that graced his jaw.

Darmon was soon in a bear hug from his cousin. "You been growin' little cousin! How da ya get ta run all over the globe, fightin' orcs, an' I have ta stay 'ere on me throne an' make borin' decisions all day?" He looked to the guards, who were drinking this all in, and said, "You ever fight a mountain lion with jus' a knife? Well, yer lookin' at a guy who has! Come on in, Darmon. Tell me about all yer adventures - every one of 'em!" He led his cousin along the hall to his anteroom at the rear of the main hall.

Brian led Darmon into his room, a spacious and well-appointed quarter. Little expense was spared in reminding the current resident who he was, where he came from or the great heritage of leaders who preceded him. Of course it was nothing near as rich as the mansions of the King of Zeland, but it was luxurious for the Highlands. As he closed the door, one could see in Brians eye's the frustration and weary look of a troubled leader. Instead of sitting in the plush chair behind the desk, he sat cross-legged on a huge bear rug that guarded the middle of the room, and motioned to Darmon to do the same on another.

Brian reached back on the desk and grabbed a large bottle of a clear, amber liquid. Darmon knew what it was, and smiled. "Remember this bear, Dar? I bagged 'is one, not you! You were a foot shorter, and I doubt ya really wanted 'is one bad enough."

Darmon leaned back with the force of a hearty laugh. "Yeah, Bry, an' I appreciate the lion story back 'ere, for the guards. That lion was yers, an' ya know it. I was jus' too young back then."

Brian took his turn laughing. But Darmon could see the lines in his face; the graying of his once-bright eyes; a few flecks of white in the voluminous beard; the way his shoulders, once strong enough to carry that lion down from the steep steppes of Mount Stuart, slumped in exhaustion. The fine Haig Fifteen was passed and sampled; the friendly barbs were traded; the stories spurred long-forgotten memories - some that happened, some that hadn't.

But the feeling of awkwardness grew. As the stories filled the air, it became increasingly evident that the Clan Father was under a great deal of distress, and so it became even more evident that Darmon would have to broach some sort of subject. He knew how to relate to others in a more highly political situation, where issues could be examined in a more professional tone. But this was family; he had to give it his best shot.

"Brian, what am I getting' meself into, goin' home? What do I have facin' me? I've heard Faugas has taken over, I met up wi' Dohmra on the way here, an' he didn't suit me fancy much, either."

Brian's smile left him, and Darmon could tell it wasn't coming back without a little coaxing. "Ya hadn't told me aboot that, cousin, but I suspect 'e tried ta kill ya."

Darmon's heart skipped a beat. "Yer right, Brian. He gave it a good shot. But why?"

"My guess is, ya pose too much of a problem to 'em all; all the wizards o' Creagland, Darmon. Good money is on the sages from Farland; they're powerful, an' they're behind this, ya can bet it. You, alone, could lead 'is land into a rebellion the likes that Farland has never seen."

Darmon looked to the floor of the well-appointed room, nodding. "Yeah, an' my guess is the word is out on me curse." He looked up to Brian, who nodded and sighed. "Ya've 'eard, then? Seems like I'm doomed ta live a very long time, from what I gather. So they'll have a lot ta worry 'bout for a long time."

Brian lowered his head sadly, a lot more on his mind. "Yeah, I heard, but figured it was jus' a legend; guess not. An' ya know, it seems like Dohmra has his own plans, too. I can't seem to make any important decisions when 'e's around, like 'e's got some kinda power over me. I can't seem ta shake it off; it's like e's talkin' for me. I've made some decisions lately that I wouldn't normally make. I don't know what's goin' on."

Darmon's mind, even in his inebriated condition, began to race; he thought of the pouch. Could this be what Tanarus wanted him to use it for? Would this be another way to kill off someone he loves, someone near to him? Could Tanarus be trying to discredit him, as part of his curse? Or is it a way to shake Brian out of this trance? Why would the god possibly want Brian clear-minded; what would it afford him? Does he have a vested interest in helping the wizards, or hindering them?

Brian shook his head slowly, and Darmon could see the effects Dohmra's spell had over him. He got up, unsteadily at first, and Darmon could see the effect the whiskey had on him; he righted himself in a manner more fitting of a clan leader. "I... I gotta take care o'... I gotta whiz, Dar. I'll be back..." He stumbled into the back room and closed the door.

Darmon knew he had to think fast; but he wasn't too sure of what to think. Tanarus said he'd know when to use the contents of the pouch. He thought to Slayer, but the sword had no clue, either. He knew he'd have to act on his gut - an organ he seemed to be relying upon a lot more, lately.

He pulled out the pouch and untied it, dumping some of the contents into his hand. It was a pile of dried grass, from what he could figure. He crumpled it into dust and poured it into the bottle of what was left of the whiskey, swirling it around, and it disappeared. Brian staggered out of the bathroom, and Darmon stashed the rest of the pouch in the folds of his Great Kilt and got up.

"We better finish this off, cousin. Ya can't be seen stumblin' aroon all day." Darmon looked at the bottle and gauged its contents, then swigged down half of it, handing the bottle to Brian. ...if he's going to kill Brian, he'll kill me, too... Dragonslayer sighed.

Darmon wondered what he had just done as he watched Brian finish it off. The larger man put the bottle down on the desk and promptly collapsed on the bearskin rug.

Darmon raced to his side, kneeling over him. "Tanarus... what have you done this time?" He sensed something happening behind him, and he turned to see the smaller bear rug turning into a little man in gray pants and shirt.

"I've done nothing, hero. You did it all."

Darmon flushed with hatred and anger. "You bastard! You tricked me! But I took the poison too! Is that what you wanted all along?"

"Yes, Darmon. But it's not poison. Check him again." Darmon reached down to find a pulse, faint but regular. "If I wanted him dead, I would have killed him, plain and simple. You are both free and impervious from the spell now."

Darmon breathed a heavy sigh and felt a little different. "But what is it you're tryin' ta do, god? Jus' tell me!"

Tanarus began to shrink down and form the rug, once again. "You'll know, hero... you'll know..."