Reaping in Kale
By R. Krommydas
The air spat several indignant POPs as it was forced aside, a quartet of horses and their riders emerging from a central point of nowhere and spreading out to the compass points, almost immediately after being followed by several individuals on foot, the last of them leading her own horse through with considerably greater alacrity. For a second or two more, the sounds and smells of far-distant Bael drifted through the cut in reality, before the temporary portal healed itself shut and left the group standing outside a large stable.
"You have practiced this maneuver extensively,î Brokk said matter-of-factly. "I have only heard of such skill when it comes to moving great numbers through a circle. To actually see it, let alone participate, was not something I had ever thought would happen."
The leader of the riders, already dismounted, smiled back, "First time we had to account for more than just ourselves. We did perfectly, however, so congratulations to us, everybody! We are even more amazing than we thought we were!"
Whatever cheers and applause he might have been expecting did not come, or at least sounded only in his head, and the man-- Gareth, who had further named himself the marquis of Rentes-- pretended not to notice Aidan frowning at the lack of humility. Brokk, on the other hand, merely nodded and turned instead to talk more with the elegant woman whose music had flung them to the other side of the country in a matter of seconds-- with but a few sung notes, harmonized perfectly to the tune of her harp, to awaken the strange but potent magic of a true bard.
Strangely, and not a little rudely, she completely ignored him. The same could not be said for the interactions among the others. Isolde and the warhorse-riding halfling were chattering away like old friends, talking over each other and making reference to people and places that were unknown to the others, but clearly meant a great deal to the hositan. Nearer to Aidan, the elf-lord stood aloof and cold, his rigid posture suggesting formal courtesy would be offered to the adventurers, but no more-- and more than once Aidan caught him with a half-formed sneer of disdain on his otherwise fair features.
More worrying were the rumblings from the armored tiefling that had finally driven off the hellish gnoll Jaa'hla, and the answering growls from Embla as the two deliberately came this close to jostling each other, despite the ample amounts of open space they had. For several seconds, the pair held deliberate eye contact, then broke away at the same moment. Then they would repeat the performance with just a hint more open hostility.
Aidan was about to intervene when the Marquis du Rentes did so for him: "All right everyone, it has been a long day with far too much riding and far too much work. Everyone is hereby ordered to relax, fill their bellies, have something to drink, and so on and so forth. The stable hands will see to the horses, as soon as someone remembers to tell them we are back. Hamling, would youÖ HAMLING!"
The halfling did not even look around, or break off in his conversation with Isolde, as he calmly made an extremely rude gesture in the Marquis` general direction.
"Right, well, I guess I`ll do it myself then!" the Marquis exclaimed. "You can all find your way to the main hall without me. There are probably servants somewhere inside who can arrange food and beds for our guests. Arlgand, with me, assuming somebody around here is willing to take orders from their employer!"
The elf-lord fell into place alongside the Marquis as the two stepped away from the rest.
"They are definitely the ones you were told about? A pity. I consider them to be a disappointment."
"You find everyone a disappointment for the first hundred years," the marquis countered reproachfully, resisting the urge to look over his shoulder at the adventurers as they walked away. "And yes, they are the ones. They match the descriptions perfectly. But more importantly: what in the Hells happened back there?"
The elf-lord shook his head, expression becoming openly worried. "I don`t know. Lon o Gloralion, that`s never happened. That shouldn`t be able to happen."
"Your ward fell! I thought it was supposed to stay up until you said it comes down again. Or at least until something stronger than it beats it down. And the healing spells you used..."
"I know! Nothing should have been left on them. Not a scar, not a bruise, not a drop of sweat! They resisted it somehow. All four, even their hositan. Something incredibly powerful has them in its grasp, Gareth. Something we have not been told about by any source. You know what I think, don`t you? You`re thinking much the same, I can see it in your eyes."
The silence was affirmation enough. On entering the stables proper, the two friends briefly paused their conversation, instead reverting to the positions of nobility they actually held. As soon as they dispatched the stablehands to tend to the horses outside and were alone again, they hastily resumed where they left off.
"Gareth, we need to isolate each of them from the rest. We have no choice but to wait for the morrow, and for them to recover some of their spent strength, but we must delay no longer thereafter. Once we learn just what is going on with them, we can make plans based on that."
The marquis sighed heavily. "Well, since there is nobody else, I guess I`ll be the heroic leader who makes the tough but necessary choices. Damn it all. Whatever happened to the carefree rebel of my youth?"
"I think he grew up."
"Really? Because I feel more like I want to throw up."
The impromptu supper that night, hastily slapped together by very irritated chefs who would rather be clearing up for the night, was not a resounding success either, despite initially going fantastically well. In part, this was wholly Aidan's fault, assuming that those millennia-dead precipitants cannot themselves share the blame.
"To begin with, yes we did arrive at Bael in order to meet with you," Gareth said. "We didn`t expect that gnoll, I admit, otherwise we`d have brought more men. Anyway, that`ll have to resolve itself. Those letters, along with some other items of interest, came for you two weeks back. Quite why the High Potentate Burcan the White sent them here, I've no clue. Probably asked his god for advice after you all left Dragonspur."
Three of the four picked up the sealed letters next to their platters, Brokk also taking Embla`s when she stared blankly at it, then uncertainly opened and read them carefully. Great smiles and sighs of relief spread across their faces, as one by one they understood. Isolde was the first to speak, or rather squeal in excitement.
"The Silver Duke came through!" she cried half-disbelievingly. "The mad old bastard actually did it. Look: he got into contact with my parents. They`ve set up a secure route from Zeland into the Liberated Kingdoms. My parents expect to have most of the hositan in Zel City evacuated to the west by this time next year. The Silver Duke is using his dark folk to deflect all suspicion!"
"Ha! 'Recompense for the copper gift', indeed. The oracle Tarsus was right. I asked and I got. All this for taking away his cursed copper ring all those years ago. Worth every moment of doubt and fear and uncertainly. I think this very nearly puts me in his debt. Or maybe I am actually, truly, completely even with someone now...Brokk, you look like you got great news too. Talk man, don`t leave us in the dark."
Brokk laughed softly. "Remember Daven? Von Lanburg promised payment for services rendered. It looks like he`s been trying to get it caught up to us for months. Even went through Burcan back in Dragonspur, who modified it. There's a folio for me with the sigil keys for every confirmed still-active teleportation circle this side of the Wintervale, except for any that they set up themselves. No more endless days trudging through the wilderness for us! A week or two at most from now on, except when on our way into the middle of nowhere."
"And not just that. Embla, you continue to amaze and surprise me. You never mentioned asking Burcan about this. Well, he found what you asked about. Very powerful magic indeed, and normally extremely expensive. He went up to the Hynaphlund himself. That young centaur who lost his hand to you? Yes, he has it back. That is an incredibly selfless thing to offer someone. If it means anything, I am incredibly proud of you."
Embla smiled, almost shyly, brushing aside the compliment with a dismissive wave of the hand. Nonetheless, her cheeks seemed slightly flushed, as if she was blushing. Then they all turned to look at Aidan expectantly, wondering what news he had received.
For a little longer than perhaps was reassuring, Aidan kept quiet, re-reading his own letter. Conflicting emotions struggled for dominance and, at last, his face expressed a kind of weary happiness.
"I have a new sister, little Maeven," he answered slowly. "She is four this year. I`ve been away longer, and she`s so little still... it was difficult to conceive apparently. Well, there`ve been longer periods between our siblings. Our father does occasionally mourn his latest wife with tears. And our long-lost brother Cirne has returned to the Luvam."
He sounded distinctly saddened by that, however. His friends, who knew much of the story, had a vague idea of why this was, and it was confirmed soon enough.
"Cirne is, no, was, one of Zeland's Living Martyrs," Aidan explained. "He deliberately called upon the powers of fiends, of the very Hells, to give practical experience in fighting them to we who resist the Dark Occupation. Every instant risks his soul. Risked. Comatose. Maybe dying slowly, maybe already dead inside. He was prepared for this and worse."
"Our kin, when forced to acknowledge him at all, always claimed he was already lost to them. But as my full brother, I was perhaps closer to him than any other. And now he is home, among people who tried to deny he even existed. The joy of a new friend in Maeven, when eventually we meet, is somewhat muted by the latter revelation, you understand."
Confused murmurs of commiseration and congratulation, the listeners uncertain of which would be the more appropriate, were offered. Aidan accepted them all gracefully, but more and more his face darkened as he dwelt upon his unfortunate brother. Dark thoughts wriggled through his head, becoming more brazen and twisted as he did not turn aside from them. Perhaps sensing the shift in mood, the elf-lord hastily finished off his meal and began to excuse himself, citing the lateness of the hour.
He had barely finished standing up when Aidan said, in a deceptively innocent tone: "I thought you would have preferred the blackness of the night, Gray-Child."
The elf-lord froze, an expression of pure hate flashing into view before he got himself under control. Aidan, spitefully, pressed on at once.
"You have all been very good about speaking in Kelevan around us so that we understand, no matter how similar the language is to Kalais, but I know a linguistic corruption from Altarian when I hear one. 'Arlgand', or perhaps Larengand. To tell the truth, I have always wondered if any of yourÖ" He paused to spit in contempt. "Önoble House remained. It seemed too unlikely, for who would wish to marry into your family?"
Though everyone else seemed frozen in shock, the incensed elf-lord hissed back at him, "Choose your next words with extreme care, you oh-so-pure half-blooded whelp."
Aidan did so, his voice rising to a frantic and venomous pitch. "Who would choose to perpetuate your lineage from either Gloralion or Celustel, All-Traitor?"
Shrieking with apoplexy, the elf-lord lunged over the table to an eagerly awaiting Aidan.
As the elves wrestled furiously with each other, the half-blood visibly reining in his superior physical strength to prolong the fight, Gareth braced himself for complete chaos. At least Hamling would do nothing, even if ordered to-- not for nothing were his people known as Proudfellows-- unless the halfling woman he had been flirting with since and even during Bael tried to intervene.
A brawl was also not something Malevoxa would involve herself with directly, but since the few suppressant notes she could sing to soothe the combatants` anger were absent, she had clearly taken a voyeuristic interest and wished to see it continue. Her lips fluttered almost imperceptibly and her eyes shone with excitement.
This was doubtless the first manifestation of the Astral Harmony`s least problematic downside, and already he regretted encouraging her to attune to the dangerous harp once more. She was undoubtedly beginning to compose, and letting her finish, at least whilst still using the Astral Harmony, could only lead to disaster.
No, what Gareth dreaded most at this precise moment was the imminent rage of Tybalt, who still had all his armor bar the helmet equipped, and his axes at his side. The tiefling was by far the most deadly of his entire team in these close quarters, and the obvious aggression between Tybalt and the gigantic warrior-woman of the adventurers could only mean the two would leap into battle any second.
Any second. Any second...now. Gareth started in surprise as Tybalt, the biggest smile on his face, cheered encouragement to the half-elf Aidan! The warrior-woman joined in immediately, but instead calling out advice to Arlgand: "He never keeps his left up in hand-to-hand!" Arlgand reacted more swiftly than Aidan, and delivered a solid clout to the head before the half-elf could block the opportunistic strike.
And if Arlgand is genuinely not his House name as has been implied, Gareth thought sourly to himself, We`re going to be having some real words about that!
"Ten silver on your knife-ears," called out Hamling suddenly, to a derisive snort from the halflling woman. "Alright, I`ll throw in an oath before Bunga Proudfoot himself that I won`t steal it back from you after!"
She considered this intently, leaning back in her chair just enough to avoid a wild swing from Arlgand. Gareth hesitated too, and out of sheer habit wondered if there was any real possibility of coming out on top of this particular bet
His instinctive musings were interrupted by airborne crockery. Gareth ducked as a salad bowl flew past him, propelled by an errant kick. Arlgand had grabbed a serving ladle and was using it remarkably innovatively, mostly off-setting the physical disparity between him and his soup-blinded foe. Gareth thought this might even be enough to swing things in his favour-- to stop the fight, of course, Gareth hastily reassured his rusty conscience.
Then Tybalt reached into the ferocious melee and snatched away the weaponized silverware. The most welcome of the tiefling`s few expressions appeared as Hamling automatically praised his sense of fair play. This was enough for Gareth to relax fully, knowing that the crisis was averted.
Then everything simply froze in place, as if time itself had paused in its inexorable forward march. The only indication that time had not stopped, but only everything else that was in motion, was the fact that Gareth was conscious of the utter stillness of the world. Even pieces of food and droplets of drink hung paralyzed in the air, held unmoving by the colossal arcane might of the one Gareth, and indeed the rest of them, had overlooked.
"That is far beyond enough!" the wizard Brokk spoke with chilling softness that made his opinion on the debacle clear. "In a few moments I will release all of you but Aidan, and I expect your best behavior lest I bind you again, for the remainder of the night this time. This evening is ended. We will speak more, as civilized folk, tomorrow. Embla. Carry Aidan to his guest room and leave us. I have a lesson to teach."
As most of the subdued parties went their separate ways, Isolde was noticed to both finish her meal and disappear into the kitchens before being escorted to her room-- though all askance looks were aimed at the immobile half-elf being carried after the stern-faced arcanist who had so effortlessly brought the raucous evening to a close. For his part, the elf-lord Arlgand had to face the disappointment of his friend Gareth, to his added humiliation whilst Tybalt looked on at intervals during his ravenous consumption of the remains of the feast.
"Celustel, Arlgand?" Gareth asked coldly, righting a chair and sitting down on it firmly, without offering the same to the elf-lord. "What connection could you, an elf of the Summervale, have to the capital of the dark elves?"
Arlgand shifted uncomfortably under the intense interrogative stare of his friend. His strong voice wavered as he answered, and more than once he paused to swallow hard or stop himself from a barely-conscious motion of scrubbing at his hands.
"We elves of light do not care to admit it often. We are... distant... very distant cousins. My House just happens to be, um, less distant than most. When the Serpent of Twilight left its poison bite... I will tell you that tale another day... my House nearly perished of its venom, whereas our dark cousins did not survive. Afterwards we crawled, literally crawled, on our bellies as the worms we had become, back home to beg forgiveness."
He halted as a loud knocking reached them from the main doors, but Gareth continued to stare at him, ignoring the noise, and Arlgand knew that none of the servants would dare to pass by after an apparent fight, with Tybalt still present nearby-- no matter how calm the tiefling actually was, they quite rightly did their utmost to avoid him at all times. So Arlgand took a deep breath, trying to steady his nerves, and continued with his explanation.
"Her Imperial Grace Celewen granted us mercy. That was, um, not the same thing. Not two centuries later and even that would have been denied us. The First Battle of the Dark Pass stripped Her Cygnal Majesty of whatever mercy she had left after our shameful return. A mere fifteen generations of my House past... a pitiful fifteen thousand years gone... ten times more, ten times ten as many more, before the memory of elves allows us redemption."
The knocking grew louder and more insistent, but Gareth gamely continued to ignore it: "Your House name, then?"
"I never lied to you, Gareth," Arlgand said almost pleadingly. "My House name may as well be Arlgand, or Larengand, or any number of other phrases. We are, um, not really allowed to use our real one except in official documentation. We do not even wish to. Technically, legallyÖ" he choked back his self-disgust. "Öit is still Al-Dustriel. No elf wants to hear those syllables. I was merely... I mean I, um, it was not a deception exactly..."
"Good to know I`ve at least one creative interpreter of the truth under my roof," Gareth struggled to make himself heard, until at last the knocking grew too irritating. "Tybalt, could you get the door please? Thank you. Arlgand, let me be honest here. You know what a rarity that is. What upsets me most is that you were so easily baited by our guest. For one who has, and I`ll continue to trust your word on this, dwelt in the Summervale for centuries and followed the teachings of Tal-Allustiel for longer, I`d expected more self-control from you, no matter what accusations, especially if they are true, are thrown at you."
"I know and I apologize," Arlgand said, eyes downcast. "Most of the time you would be right. But he found the one thing I cannot hold back from. A weak point in my armor. That topic is an extremely sensitive one in my family. Our House name alone is shameful enough but forÖ"
Whatever he had been about to say was lost in the tortured scream of twisted metal and cracking wood. Moments later, Tybalt returned to the dining hall, carrying one of the great oak doors from the main entrance, clearly having torn it free from the wall by its hinges. Arlgand winced and hastily made his escape, leaving Gareth to look away from the sight before he lost what remained of his sanity, forcing the blankest expression he could muster to stay on his face.
In slow tones of infinite yet dwindling patience, he said: "Tybalt, I hope the explanation you are about to give is phenomenally good."
Tybalt thought about this for all of two seconds. "You said get the door."
"Yes, yes, I did," Gareth replied in the exact same voice. "Thank you, you did exactly as I asked. Just leave it anywhere, actually right there! Yes, there`s good. Perfect in fact. I`m going to bed. I`m taking this bottle with me too, since it`s the only one left."
"Good night," the tiefling answered blithely, going back to the devastated table. "Oh, before you go. There was a messenger at the door. Had a letter for you from Kale City again." Wordlessly, Gareth snatched up the letter, stuffed it down the back of his breeches, and stormed off to find a second bottle.
In due course, Arlgand found his way to the guest room where the dwarven wizard was being hosted. He had met his fair share of dwarves-- and wizards too, for that matter-- in his long life, and expected to meet many more in the centuries to come, but never before had he come across one of such raw power. He wanted to know more. Not least why Arlgand`s own magic, a holy gift from gloried Tal-Allustiel himself, had shrunk back from the wizard and his fellows.
The elf-lord had nearly reached the door when it opened, and two of the other guests emerged, though at first he only saw the giantess. Under her arm, however, was the half-elf who had roused him to violence, still held motionless by the awesome magical might of his dwarven ally. Arlgand carefully averted his gaze, instead courteously stepping aside to allow the giantess room to pass.
"Told you he never keeps his left up," she commented matter-of-factly over her shoulder. "And Brokk is waiting for you, just go right in."
Arlgand shook his head, wondering at the strange relationship these people had with each other-- he would never give combat advice to someone his ally was battling!-- and instead passed into the room himself. Despite long habit, he closed the door behind him, trying not to think of how easily he had sealed off his only route of escape should this meeting go no better than the last encounter.
He did not delude himself any longer into thinking he was a match for this old man. In a martial contest, certainly, he was the superior, but the moment any magic came into play, Arlgand knew he would be defeated with the first exchange of spells. The dwarf was seated at a reading desk, by lamplight examining a large stone tablet inscribed with runes that made Arlgand`s head ache to look upon.
"How long have you lived, child?" the wizard asked calmly, and Arlgand shivered to be addressed as such.
"I was born in the eighth reigning year of Zestor Half-Elven," Arlgand began. "Just over seven hundred years have passed since I became a man. Three hundred and seventeen since I last beheld the Summervale."
"Brokk is quite a common dwarven name, isn`t it?" Brokk asked rhetorically. "It was given to me for my maternal grandfather, who died in the defense of the Far City two hundred years prior. My family name is Ashknarzglimmsun. My hold was sometimes called the Halls of Plenty. So what do you know of the true dwarf-holds?"
"They were Liferock, Wawmar, Khallin, Mithhaud, and Dorlhaud," Arlgand replied promptly, though a little confused by the line of questioning. "Khallin and Dorlhaud remain abandoned, all but razed. The others are infested with orcs and other such beings, and Wawmar itself is the seat of the Lord of Greed. Some have called Sheltinobortannu, the hidden realm of the gnomes, the seventh true hold. In light of your two peoples` history with each other, naturally."
Brokk waited patiently, though his ancient craggy face seemed a little sad. Arlgand shifted uneasily under the growing weight of that disappointment, and the odd sense of resignation associated with it. He wondered if he had answered wrongly, but could not see how that could be the case. The histories of the dwarf-holds were easy enough to recall in broad strokes-- it was only remembering how to pronounce that blasted gnomish name that was tricky!
Nearly a minute passed in silence as the two stared at each other, deep in thought. At last, Brokk lifted up the peculiar tablet-- and it looked a weighty thing indeed, but he held it aloft with strange ease-- and offered it to Arlgand. No less bewildered than before, the elf-lord came closer and stretched out his hand to take it.
"All those who draw power from the gods react in much the same way," the wizard said, as Arlgand immediately yelped in shock and dropped the tablet, wringing his hands as though it had scalded him. "It seems they did not want their servants to get used to handling this sort of thing. Nevertheless, pick it up and hold onto it this time. I promise you that the sensation will not cause you any harm."
Not knowing quite why he did so, Arlgand reached down and forced himself to pick up the tablet, wincing as it filled him with an incredible aversion to even consider its existence. His eyes tried to force themselves away from it and only sheer willpower kept him from throwing the damned thing away.
"You called Sheltinobortannu the seventh true hold," Brokk said now, watching Arlgand intently. "What is wrong with that statement? You know the answer, priest of the Elf Father. What is wrong with that statement?"
The answer came to him now, as though it had always been there. "I named only five others! The sixth hold... its name... its name is there, somewhere... oh what is it?!"
"Find the answer, priest!" urged Brokk. "Find it and speak it, else you will only forget again. I`ve already given you more help than I thought I could get away with. What is the name of the sixth true dwarf-hold?"
A fog had descended on Arlgand`s mind, yet somehow he felt as though it was lessened by his awareness of it-- indeed, it had always been there, but now that he knew of it, it no longer seemed to be so impenetrable. His hands shook of their own accord as the mystic aversion to the tablet worked its way into his very nerves and muscles. In the final moment before the tablet wrenched itself free of his grasp, he cried out:
"Gabild˚m, indeed," confirmed Brokk after a shaking Arlgand had begun to calm down. "A great shame it has been lost to the world, washed away as insects before a flood and leaving no trace behind. Almost no trace. I am still here. I am still bound to this cursed thing."
"But where was--" Arlgand began, then reconsidered his question. "How was Gabild˚m lost so completely?"
Brokk indicated the stone tablet. "I joined a group of similar fools looking to decipher the secrets of reality. I came up with a cheat, a shortcut. But we were not ready to wield such power, the power of the gods themselves, to rewrite existence as we saw fit. Because I had misgivings at the last moment, the gods spared me from annihilation, instead burdening me with the weight of all the years snatched away from my hold."
The elf-lord started, looking more closely at the wizard, and understood somewhat. Every life that had been, that now was no more, had had its time impressed upon the hapless dwarf. He had not been allowed to die of this extreme ageing-- but neither had he been totally crippled by it, ensuring that he was still able to redeem himself for his hubris. Arlgand thought that he might have the tiniest sense of what such a thing would feel like, for he had seen the pained weariness in the eyes of his own immortal kindred as they grew too old to continue in the mortal world. Then Brokk continued his tale:
"Imagine my horror when I later learned that, to the rest of the world, Gabild˚m had never existed. In seeking to control the world, we had erased ourselves from it retroactively. Time magic is the most dangerous of them all, as I`m sure you`re aware. Not even that deranged jackal Seldorius dared to fool with it, at first. It is the provenance of gods and their tools, such as this tablet."
"Consider a library, where every document and file can only be accessed by means of a special key, and only by holding that key would their existence even be known. Our clumsy efforts destroyed the key to the documents detailing us. I am now an orphaned reference to these lost scriptures, horribly aware of them, and unable to enlighten others that they were once real. I live now in hope that when I am forgiven for my sin, when I translate the runes written in the language of Creation, that I will pay for the return of Gabild˚m with my life."
Arlgand stayed silent, awed by the magnitude of the wizard`s goals. He sat down heavily on the bed, suddenly noticing the great weariness that had descended on him. He felt ancient now beyond his years, as if speaking the name of the time-excised dwarfhold had cost him some of his own immortal time in the mortal plane. Perhaps that was the price needed to hold the memory of what had once been and not lose it again. Arlgand considered that, if this was the case, it was no great price to pay for such a regained memory.
"I know much of magic of all sorts," Brokk said at last. "Not everything, but more than many might consider possible for a mortal creature to learn. I know that your magic should have filled my friends and I to bursting with vitality. For my part, being attuned to this wretched tablet gives divine energies a certain aversion towards me. For the others, however, there are other explanations-- and I desperately need your help to cure the explanation in my friend Aidan, the half-elf paladin."
The ropes pulled tight around his bare body before he was fully awake, but then Aidan still nearly tore himself free of the bindings, until the tiefling seized his arms and began to squeeze. Of the other four of the monster`s entourage, only the Proudfellow hositan was missing. The treacherous Marquis du Rentes leaned nonchalantly by the door, at his side the bewitching woman who only now set aside her harp and the soporific rhythms that had kept Aidan asleep so long.
Maddeningly close was the Graykin, his fair features masking the intrinsic monstrosity of his soul. Most worryingly of all, a blank-faced Embla stood immediately behind the elf, watching him work with terrible dispassion. Aidan knew at once there would be no help from this quarter, and that she had thrown her lot in with the rest of this bastardly lot-- her own true nature revealed at last!
Aidan struggled mightily, but vainly, against his captors as the unguents were applied, and the elven priest spoke potent litanies. Then Aidan felt the cold touch of a knife to his flesh, barely cutting the skin, and he knew then that the halfling was behind him, carving him according to pre-issued instructions. Hate surged within the paladin, blinding, deafening, all-consuming. A distant agony, belonging to someone else, writhed in his straining muscles.
"I saw how you looked at me," Embla said slowly, the sound of her voice riling his fury even further. "As a beast to be put down. As one of a thousand putrid vermin to be exterminated. You think I don`t know what was in your heart, villtri? No so foolish after all, perhaps, for you have the right of it. The Wintervale will be only the first realm to fall to my people."
Aidan howled to hear his worst fears confirmed. The blood pouring from a myriad tiny cuts did not trouble him. The pain was not his own.
"Keep him wrathful!" urged the priest. "They must be agitated else I cannot locate them!"
The familiar shape of Isolde appeared at Aidan`s side then. He did not question her presence, or the strange pincer-like tool she held in a gloved hand. He was too far gone to care about such things. When she grinned salaciously at him, all but licking her lips, Aidan reached a new height of outrage.
"Keep flexing those muscles, big man," she said in husky, lustful tones. "Just like that. That`s what I like to see. Don`t disappoint me now, we`re so close."
One of the fresher cuts on his arm throbbed suddenly, birthing a bloody line that moved of its own accord. Had he been looking, Aidan would have seen a tiny, purple-black flat-worm desperately try to slither back into the wound. It did not make a single inch before Isolde closed the forceps around the vile thing and threw it to the floor. A ghastly squeal, almost inaudible, came from it in the second before Isolde stamped it to mush. At once, the merest fraction of Aidan`s incoherent rage began to abate, dissolving into nothingness along with the remnants of the worm.
"Keep watch and keep him angry!" commanded the familiar voice of Brokk, who now entered the room. "I estimate he`s got at least seven more hate-maggots crawling through him. Afej the Black was more than strong enough to infect him with that many. If we miss one, it will simply go into hibernation and spawn more in later years. Next time, it won`t be so easy to agitate them to the surface."
"You understand, don`t you, Aidan?" the wizard asked now in cruel, condescending tones. "We have to do this. We have to hurt you like this. You are making us waste our precious nights injuring you because you are too weak and too stupid to take care of yourself! Why did I ever agree to help you? Disgusting half-breed filth like you. Isolde should have left you strapped to that altar beneath Mavarra!"
Though Aidan`s anger had begun to subside, it was now roused fully as Brokk tore open the emotional scar left by their first real foray into the darkest horrors of the world. In his mind`s eye, Aidan saw again the brief flashes of melded things, living and dead, and the ruinous path that a berserk Embla carved through the dominated villagers of Mavarra.
Driven by mindless fury, he strained again to free himself from both rope and tiefling. Flaps of skin, barely healed over from where they had been previously ripped free by a lich`s torturous magic, now peeled loose once again, even more brutally than before. Muscles glistened wetly in the open air, riddled with minute pus-oozing holes his parasitic occupants had left behind in their feeding. The paranoiac poison they excreted continued its work on the unfortunate half-elf even now, as one by one they were plucked loose of their unwilling host.
The grisly work went on long into the night.
"Please, you know what happens when you complete a composition! This is a terrible idea, Malevoxa! And if they found out who you really are..."
His mind racing, desperately seeking options, Gareth tried a different tactic-- physically blocking the door to the recovering paladin-- and continued to plead with Malevoxa to absolutely no avail. Her mystical harp, the Astral Harmony, had her fully in its grip, rather than the other way around. There was no denying that her attunement to it effectively doubled the power of her bardic abilities, including her magical talents. Unfortunately, it also seemed to triple her creative impulses and quarter her willingness to resist them.
"He cursed us in the Dark Speech!" she argued back, bobbing and weaving in an attempt to duck past Gareth. "A paladin invoked the language of evil in hatred. I must incorporate that into my next masterpiece! My mind is awhirl with inspiration. I must know more about this. I simply must! He`s rested most of the morning already, wasted most of the morning already. Step! Aside!"
Gareth barely managed to stop her that time. Panting heavily, he braced himself against the door, wondering for the umpteenth time why he had agreed to take her in.
Oh right, because the king himself gave the order to, he bemoaned the answer. Now why did I put myself in that position in the first place? Oh right, I stupidly said that if he needed anything else, he had but to say it. Next time a vampiric assassin goes after him, his royal backside is his own to take care of. Why is doing everything right always the wrong damned decision? Oh right, the world hates me having fun without consequences.
"Malevoxa, I`m on my kneesómetaphorically-- here. You said it yourself. He`s a paladin, for some god`s sake! What are the chances he`ll be happy to meet you? I mean, really meet you? It`ll be bad enough taking him into Kale City when the time comes. Having to deal with him knowing who you arÖ aarghÖ oof!"
Suddenly finding himself lying on his back, looking up at his half-elven and half-asleep guest who had just opened the door and spilled him so gracefully to the floor, Gareth thought up a few inventive curses of his own. He already knew it was too late for any damage control. Malevoxa literally stepped over him to reach the paladin, and from experience Gareth knew her eyes would be shining with mad excitement.
"I hope I`m dreaming," the paladin said slowly. "Because I thought I heard him call you Malevoxa. But the only bard out of the Far City who ever had that name is dead."
Malevoxa, a foot still planted firmly on Gareth`s chest, shook her head furiously. "Exiled, not dead. Banished to the distant, uncultured backwaters of the known world. An even more tragic destiny! Ideal for the autobiographical triumph of my return to the grand stage. Oh to be appreciated once more! The adulation of the crowd! Applause. Cheers. Roses. Anonymous declarations of love from personages of mark. VINDICATION!"
She spat out a series of words that escaped Gareth`s comprehension, vomiting up her own spite at her detractors. Each syllable hurt the ear, for they were uttered in the Dark Speech, and as fluidly as any native speaker could have managed. Small wonder her birth name had been eclipsed by that given to her in acknowledgement of her vengeful and barbed tongue: Malevoxa, ìthe Evil Voice.î
Gareth knew only parts of her story for certain. Much of what she had told was undoubtedly embellished far beyond reality, so the retelling would entertain and horrify in equal measure. The trouble, of course, had started with her own temper. Then she had become attuned to the Astral Harmony, a double-edged sword of a gift from one of the Lord of Envy`s own heralds, riven with jealous at her natural talent.
Three months later, she debuted the first of her most infamous operettas: "Two Gentlemen Davonian," a biographical satire portraying Saithith the Bloated, the terrifying Lord of Gluttony himself, as an epicurist dandy of the most ineffectual sort, perpetually driven to distraction by his near-senile vampiric sire Kiborus. Other works, other compositions, had followed. Predictably, the last had been aimed at the Lord of Wrath.
Malevoxa had fled Farland almost immediately, and to this day continued to maintain that her artistry would have been hailed by all had the impatient fools only waited until the first performance, instead of publicly torturing her prized performers to death before rehearsals were halfway finished. Gareth, who had had the displeasure of sitting through a recital of this final play, privately agreed with the Lord of Wrath and his Hoths.
Most however, including the paladin Aidan, rarely cared so much about that aspect of her past as one very specific other: "Weren`t you outed as a handmaiden of the Cowled King after your disappearance?"
Malevoxa frowned momentarily, before her enthusiasm returned. "When openly praying for someone to die horribly, invoking He Who Ends by name is only reasonable! And his followers are such fascinating creatures. Besides, a true maestra can only be inspired by their gradual decline. What tragic darkness to exploit! What glorious symphonies of their despair can be written... ah, I have it!"
She lunged forward, grabbing a surprised Aidan by the shoulders, pulling herself up to his face. "I shall sing to you of them, and you shall tell me of how you learned such wonderfully crude oaths. I can compose new works of a magnificence to make the world shudder! Deny me not!"
Gareth, still flat on his back, somehow summoned up enough chivalry to keep his eyes closed as the hems of Malevoxa`s already-revealing gown swirled around his face. As startled paladin and obsessed bard wrestled above him, he sighed wearily. This was going to be a very long week.
Several rooms and corridors away from this, two other more serious conversations were taking place. The first of these was in a rather sparse study hall, wherein Arlgand and Brokk finished comparing notes on their respective magical examinations of Embla. It had taken this long in part due to the events last night, which had kept the pair from resting their minds and readying the necessary spells until it was nearly noon. The actual casting of the various divinations, however, lasted a matter of minutes.
"There is a very strange, ah how shall I put it?" Arlgand mused aloud. "Presence, I think, is the best word. Yes, there is a very strange presence located in your right arm. Concentrated in your wrist, but pervasive enough to reach past your elbow."
Embla shrugged. She knew of nothing that could explain that. Her arm felt no different than it ever had, albeit she had felt almost no pain from it despite the scorching it had suffered when she set Afej`s laboratory ablaze. The rest of her had continued to complain and ache right up until Arlgand`s initial attempt at healing in Bael.
"Beyond that, I can only deduce that it is not any kind of arcane energy," Arlgand continued. "Normally, this would only leave divine magic as a possible culprit, and yet...well, I believe Master Brokk can shed some light on that aspect."
Brokk nodded. "Magic is traditionally divided into the two prime categories of arcane and divine. An oversimplification akin to dividing swords into the categories of sharp and blunt. Broadly descriptive to someone who knows nothing of swords, or magic. What you have, Embla, is an extremely potent fey enchantment."
"Based on what I recall of our, ahem, less than collected retreat from Dessingrove, that enchantment has attached itself to the fragments of your old sword hilt. It was still lashed to your arm when we actually entered the lich`s lair. When you nearly immolated yourself, tiny molten pieces of your sword dripped into your flesh-- and something found them suitable to latch onto as an anchor."
Embla leaned forward from the bench, an eyebrow arched. "An anchor? What is it?"
"We think it has to do with the legitimate baron of Dessingrove," Arlgand began to outline the theory.
"No," she interrupted hastily. "I mean the word 'anchor'. What is that?"
Thrown completely by this question, the elf sputtered a nonsensical reply that Brokk quickly commandeered: "A bit of curved metal attached to a chain that is thrown overboard to hold a watercraft steady. Is that important right now?"
Embla only half-shook her head. "Now I have an idea of what you`re talking about. What do you think?"
Brokk conceded the point, and Arlgand resumed hastily: "Baron Harald Thodricsson. An immortal said to have been sustained by the fey magic of the Elk Forest, but who was supplanted the lich Afej the Black. In Master Brokk`s account of your battle with the undead, he made mention that your escape was covered by the intervention of the true Baron, whose temporary release you all helped to bring about."
"It is our opinion that before Baron Thodricsson succumbed to the lich once more," Arlgand concluded. "He passed on whatever power he had left to those he knew would escape. More specifically, to you, Madame Embla, as the last to flee the fort. Your right hand, holding the remains of your original weapon, has now become a vessel for an unknown power that has resisted all our attempts to discern it more clearly."
Embla nodded thoughtfully at this explanation. She leaned back, resting her head against the wall and looking up at the ceiling, deep in contemplation. After a minute or two, she offered up a suggestion. Cleric and wizard looked at each other, crestfallen, embarrassed by the oversight.
She had said: "Isolde once told me that the Elk Forest was the sacred homeland of her Proudfellow cousins. Why not ask your own Proudfellow hositan about this?"
Isolde circled him again, lightly tapping the thick plates with the hilt of a dagger and listening to the sound. She paused a few times to try sipping from a human-scale flagon of a steaming tea, grimacing each time at the heat, then returned to her inspection. The enormous tiefling Tybalt stood still as a statue throughout, with even less expression than most.
"Left knee, upper rear ligament," Isolde announced, and Hamling dutifully scribbled down a note. "Needs to be... half a finger tighter. Hositan finger. By far the worst chink in that mail. You keep it in beautiful condition, Tybalt. The best assassin in the world would struggle to penetrate through to flesh."
The tiefling beamed happily, a curiously child-like expression that lit up his face and made him a strange kind of handsome. For a second, his entire body relaxed its steadfast posture. Isolde looked over at Hamling with a grudging acceptance of his claim-- she had not entirely believed that this towering warrior could be so easily disarmed by simple praise-- and then gave Tybalt a friendly pat on the side.
He felt the vibrations and came to himself at once. Slowly, for even his great strength struggled to move the weight of his armor from a still position, he walked aside to doff it and make the necessary adjustment to its weakest point. The custom helm that granted the same protection to his head, without the need to sever his horns, was already waiting for a similar modification.
The two halflings sat down on the other side of the armory, barely troubled by the stifling heat, and watched him work. Hamling had seen it often enough before, when recommending changes based on his experiences as a cavalryman. He kept stealing glances at Isolde whetting her blades instead, with more than just professional interest. Without acknowledging the looks in the slightest, she continued to sip at her tea.
At last, Hamling spoke: "So, Ballussia? Might have guessed that old name would be hard to kill off."
"A bit like the children`s stories you can still hear of the Ghost Wood," Isolde answered carefully, still alternating her focus between dagger and tea. "No matter how clearly it is known that there was never any hame there and that even if there was, it is lost to all."
The Proudfellow growled deep in his throat. The relief at confirming that some vestige of his tribe`s history remained known to others was mostly eclipsed by the fullness of the tale told to him-- of the corrupted treant that had poisoned the waters and twisted the plants, subduing the vibrancy of the natural magic used by the Proudfellows and true fey to dwell in harmony with the wild, and reducing his tribe to exiles or fertilizer. Isolde spared him a sympathetic look, and permitted herself a rare indulgence.
"If ever the Ghost Wood was deemed a suitable place for a hame, however, I have no doubt that the Ballussias would respect any prior claim of the Proudfellows to that region. Neither of us want to see the place logged or levelled, after all."
Hamling smiled at her gratefully, knowing it was a dream that could never come true whilst any remnant of the Dark Occupation yet existed. Even if the forces of the Wintervale were hurled out of Zeland, and the necrotic infestation that had perverted the Ghost Wood excised and its scars healed over, there could be no hame for any Proudfellows there, even with the support of their Ballussia cousins. It would be too vulnerable to a vengeful evil from the chill east, even after the protective wards were re-established. The Wintervale itself would need to be cast down before his people could truly hope to return to their lost land.
"How did you end up with that Kalais rake, anyway?" Isolde asked suddenly. "I know an outlaw masquerade when I see one, and I can see clearly that your Marquis du Rentes is only playing at nobility, no matter how legitimate his title. To say nothing of your horned friend over there."
Hamling laughed softly. "I`m not sure Tybalt is anyone`s friend, even his own. Arlgand says it will take years yet to undo his wounds. Ah. No, sorry, the ones in his head, I mean. A story for our rake Gareth to tell. Mine though, well, it is a short and simple one, and scarce worth the telling."
Isolde pursed her lips at him, and Hamling sighed. "Alternatively..."
The boy squinted up at the clouds, wondering if the sun would bother to break out of them today. When it did not, he mumbled the worst swears he knew-- looking guiltily around just in case someone heard-- and clambered up, over the fence, into the paddock. A curious head lowered itself to inspect this tiny intruder, and Hamling swallowed hard, suddenly realising just how much bigger than him the warhorse actually was. A single kick from one of those hooves would turn him inside out, not merely kill him!
Then the same impulse that had brought him out here time and again to stare at the magnificent charger returned in full force. Without hesitation, acting on some racial instinct, Hamling jumped up with all his strength, gracefully bounced himself off the fence, and swung himself onto the horse`s back. The horse, a veteran of sorties against dark folk and more ordinary marauders alike, looked at him curiously, unafraid of the hositan child.
Hamling steadied himself. It was obviously impossible for him to force the horse to move as he wanted. The disparity in size alone, to say nothing of experience, was simply too great. But he was a Proudfellow, and once his people had been masters of the emishika. What was a mere horse compared to the legendary dire elks of old? Surely he couldÖ
Ölook up at the clouded sky, winded and wheezing, regretting his decisions. The horse snorted disdainfully and walked away from him, having barely bucked as a test of his skills. Only the worthiest would ride, and this undersized halfling was not among their number. Eventually, Hamling picked himself up and considered his options.
The horse screamed in surprise when Hamling landed again, scrabbling up to the head and planting his knees firmly in front of the broad shoulders. Hamling`s thighs protested the unnatural stretching, but he forced the discomfort aside and focused on the feel of the great steed beneath him. Perhaps he could use the pressure of his knees to encourage the horse to move in the direction he wished. Carefully, uncertainly, Hamling tried to apply some of his weight. The warhorse, growing irritated by his audacity, bucked again, this time seriously.
With a yelp, Hamling fell from the horse again, landing perhaps even more heavily than before. The luck of the hositan was with him still. Nothing was broken except his pride. As soon as he got his breath back and marshalled his courage once more, Hamling was going to try again. And again, if that attempt failed, and again after that, and again after that, until he succeeded.
A shadow fell over him as a pudgy human face appeared above. The stable master shook his head despairingly. Before Hamling could recover and escape, the man reached down, scruffed him like a disobedient kitten, and calmly walked out of the paddock with a dangling, red-faced hositan in his hand.
"Now listen very carefully, my boy," the stable master said sternly as he walked. "The king`s own horses are for the king to ride, not a grubby urchin like you. Last time I let you off with a caning. This time it`s a day in the stocks, after I cane you. You don`t want there to be a next time, understand me?"
Hamling whimpered his understanding. But still his head tried to turn back to the proud warhorse, standing there indignantly, watching him be carried off.
"Oh, that boy has been a pain since before he could crawl," the odious man oozed, and Arlgand sniffed hastily at the pomander about his throat before he simply gagged at the smell. "Sneaky little tricksters, those hositan. Can`t take your eyes off them for a second. Begging your pardon, milord, but what would a man of your standing possibly want with this troublesome brat?"
Arlgand peered through the bars again at the pale figure manacled within. The eyes that flashed back at him in the gloom were as fierce and noble as any elf`s. If he had not before, now he believed full well the stories that Proudfellows were cousins to the Summervale and to the elder fey. This young lad should have been beaten into submission years past, yet even now he sat with straightened back and challenging gaze. There was potential here, Arlgand knew, potential the likes of which he might need to wait another three hundred years to find again.
The bulbous stable master, never one prone to slimness, wiped his greasy forehead with a greasier cloth. He leaned in close, and Arlgand sniffed at his pomander again, almost overwhelmed by the stench of this obese human. Still, there was no harm in telling him the truth. In fact, it might even expedite this entire process, and allow Arlgand to get out of this reeking pit.
"You have heard the rumours coming out of the Wild Lands, I presume?" Arlgand asked, and the stable master nodded, looking distinctly worried. "Nominally, as a guest of the Kalais court, I am excluded from its concerns. But seeing as Belendale is as concerned for her neighbor as for herself, I have been asked to intercede. I do not think a cambion has truly come to the Wild Lands, but it is indisputable that a truly unnatural number of tieflings have been born of late. In the event of ill happenstance, reserve forces of talent and skill are advisable."
The stable master blinked at the cell`s occupant, trying and failing to square away the image of the disobedient child he had literally kicked out of his stables and paddocks on countless occasions, with that of someone who the royal court would consider talented and skilled. He was almost tempted to laugh and claim some practical joke was being played, but the elf`s stern features forbade such levity. Instead, he meekly handed over the key.
"Here is my offer," Arlgand said now to those wary eyes that glittered at him in the dark. "You become a partner of mine and work for the crown as directed. In return, you get all the tuition you need to become a true horse master."
A thoughtful silence from within the cell. Then: "Hamling Orannien. Treat with me fair and I`ll do right by you. That`s my deal, herb-sniffer."
The dossier was extensive and damning, but the redeeming facts could not be denied, less still a direct order from King Milon Dukalle himself. Hamling shrugged up at Arlgand and closed the folder resignedly. A light breeze whistled through the dead branches of the ancient yew tree presiding over this meeting. The grinning human seated opposite the pair only grinned the wider at their crestfallen expressions.
"Not every day you get to meet a living legend," he chuckled, taking a sip of some truly cheap-smelling ale. "Less still get to be assigned to his service by the only man more important than him in the whole kingdom! Spymaster of Kale and Marquis du Rentes... a double entitlement in a single day, earned with a simple stab of a stake."
Hamling grumbled under his breath, "Claiming the position of marquis, yes, but really? Everyone knows that the Most Honorable Chevalier Guillaime Louis Carolus du Marn-Bael is the king`s spymaster..."
Speaking over the muttering hositan, Arlgand made his own position somewhat clearer: "You are a rogue, a charlatan, an outlaw, a brigand, a lecher, and a defaulter on debts. It gives us no pleasure whatsoever to have to work with you, no matter what services you have offered the crown through sheer happenstance. "
The human frowned at that, and Arlgand pressed the point, "Nor is it appreciated that you effectively hold the Karpaten Incident and the allegiance of the Horned Khan over our heads as a club. The former might be forgiven as simple rakish opportunism, especially considering the testimonies of your allies. However, the latter is a far more troubling prospect for us and His Majesty to consider. It would take more than even the word of the esteemed Faunami DubaÖ"
A faint creaking only just gave the game away, and Arlgand threw himself to one side as a small branch fell from above, narrowly missing his head. The wood disintegrated into flakes almost as soon as it hit his upturned chair, and was carried away by the wind. A louder creaking began and when Hamling cried out in surprise, Arlgand turned his shocked stare upwards, to where the broken branch was already regrowing, slowly but visibly.
"Forgot to mention that you`re actually meeting with that crazy old bastard as well," the human commented. "Not that there`s much left of him now, even though he`s bigger now than he ever was back then. Careful what you say-- he still reacts to some words like he`s got a brain. Not, you know, a decent working one, but... "
A little reluctantly, Hamling sheathed his sabre. This came as less of a shock to him than to Arlgand. There had been something in the tone of the letter, encouraging the two to return to court and meet with this supposedly reformed outlaw Gareth urgently. The Proudfellow had not sensed death, exactly, but a type of weariness in the words. He was not entirely surprised, based on hints extracted from the reports, that a transformation of this kind had taken place. An evil force had needed to be contained and the cost of such was usually high.
Shame, Hamling thought. It would have been nice to speak to him about Proudfellows and fey magic again. He probably forgot more than I could ever learn. And I think that I`d better say something before Arlgand does...
"Well, now I know why you wanted to meet in a cemetery of all places," he said, trying not to sound like he was forcing good humour. "You didn`t strike me as the religious type. Not even a quick prayer to Bel. Alright then, marquis. We will help you as needed. In return, you stop getting your druid friend to drop his branches on peoples` heads. Deal?"
"Sounds good. I do have a question though-- weren`t there three of you mentioned?"
Even Arlgand chuckled drily at that. "You know his reputation? Well, he`ll show up as and when he wants to, not before. He has to cover a lot more territory than we do, after all."
A short while before Hamling finished speaking, Arlgand and Brokk entered the armoury in search of him, the latter immediately heading over to the haphazardly-heaped pile of metal that was Tybalt`s equipment. When the tiefling did not object, he picked up one of the runed axes-- struggling a little under their weight-- and began to inspect it carefully, curious as to the nature of the magic that had been placed on the pair.
When Hamling was done with his story, Arlgand began to ask him about Proudfellow history and fey magic, and Isolde promptly made her excuses and left, citing a need to find Embla and make sure that she was taking care of the orphaned baby. The men watched her leave in surprise and a little embarrassment, having clearly forgotten all about the infant that the adventurers had brought back with them.
"Might be a free-willed enchantment that was infused into her," Hamling suggested once he was apprised of the situation with Embla`s arm. "Not entirely a spell, not entirely a spirit. I know that sounds implausible, but if it is what you think, then it is almost likely."
"Most fey tend to ignore the usual laws of logic and sense that the rest of us are saddled with-- those connected to the Elk Forest, even more so. The Elk Forest was where Aeren Kabani found and freed Lord Halion Sarshayin, that ancient prince of the verdant fey-- and you`re back already. Forget something important?"
Isolde nodded, sighed in self-deprecation, picked up her still-warm tea, and walked back out without saying a word. Arlgand frowned, sensing he`d missed something about the exchange, but one halfling was already gone and the other was already speaking again.
"Yes, we Proudfellows and the fey magics of the Elk Forest have had a long history," Hamling continued, talking louder as the first ringing sounds of smithing came from Tybalt`s side of the armoury. "Now, unless I miss my guess, the Elk Forest chose a patron, or a champion, in this baron that the lich Afej overthrew. It invested him with power and abilities beyond any norm. I think that the baron tried to deputise Embla just before he was beaten again."
"Of course, she does not have the actual support of the Elk Forest, so whatever gift she has is dormant. Enough to interfere with your healing magic, Arlgand, but not enough to manifest in and of itself-- not without some kind of catalyst. I recommend keeping her away from anything overtly sorcerous, and definitely any magical weapon. Master Ashknarzglimmsun, I suppose you can be trusted with that?"
Absorbed in his study of Tybalt`s axes, Brokk gave a half-hearted acknowledgement, having heard his name but not the rest of the question. Neither Hamling nor Arlgand noticed this, being too unfamiliar with the wizard. Aidan, who had known him longer, who had seen how utterly dead to the world his senses could become when engrossed in scholarly activity, could have warned them of this.
Alas for many, he was still caught up with an obsessed bard.