Promise of the Witch King



Arrayan had to pause and consider the question for a long while before answering. Where had she left the book? The woman felt the fool, to be sure. How could she have let something that powerful out of her sight? How could she not even remember where she'd placed it? Her mind traced back to the previous night, when she had dared start reading the tome. She remembered casting every defensive spell she knew, creating intricate wards and protections against the potentially devastating magic Zhengyi had placed on the book.

She looked back at the table in the center of the room, and she knew that she had cracked open the book right there.

A sense of vastness flooded her memories, a feeling of size, of magic, and a physical construct too large to be contained within.

"I took it out," she said, turning back to Wingham and Mariabronne. "Out of here."

"You left it somewhere beyond your control?" Wingham scolded, his voice incredulous. He leaped up from his seat, as if his body was simply too agitated to be contained in a chair. "An item of that power?"

Mariabronne put a hand on Wingham's arm to try to calm him. "The book is out of the house," he said to Arrayan. "Somewhere in Palishchuk?"

Arrayan considered the question, trying desperately to scour her memories. She glanced over at Olgerkhan, needing his always rock-solid support.

"No," she answered, but it was more a feeling than a certainty. "Out of the city. The city was... too small."

Wingham slipped back into his seat and for a moment seemed to be gasping for breath. "Too small? What did you create?"

Arrayan could only stare at him. She remembered leaving the house with the book tucked under her arm, but only vaguely, as if she were walking within a dream. Had it been a dream?

"Have you left the house since your return from your journey with the book?" Mariabronne asked.

The woman shook her head.

"Any sense of where you went?" the ranger pressed. "North? South near Wingham's caravan?"

"Not to Uncle Wingham," Arrayan replied without pause.

Wingham and Mariabronne looked at each other.

"Palishchuk only has two gates open most of the time," Mariabronne said. "South and north."

"If not south, then...." said Wingham.

Mariabronne was first to stand, motioning for the others to follow. Olgerkhan moved immediately to Arrayan's side, offering her a shawl to protect her from the chilly wind in her weakened form.

"How could I have been so foolish?" the woman whispered to the large half-orc, but Olgerkhan could only smile at her, having no practical answers.

"The book's magic was beyond your control, perhaps," Mariabronne replied. "I have heard of such things before. Even the great Kane, for all his discipline and strength of will, was nearly destroyed by the Wand of Orcus."

"The wand was a god's artifact," Arrayan reminded him.

"Do not underestimate the power of Zhengyi," said Mariabronne. "No god was he, perhaps, but certainly no mortal either." He paused and looked into the troubled woman's eyes. "Fear not," he said. "We'll find the book and all will be put right."

The city was quiet that late afternoon, with most of the folk still off in the south at Wingham's circus. The quartet saw almost no one as they made their way to the north gate. Once there, Mariabronne bent low before Arrayan and bade her to lift one foot. He inspected her boot then studied the print she'd just made. He motioned for the others to hold and went to the gate then began poking around, studying the tracks on the muddy ground.

"You left and returned along the same path," he informed Arrayan. The ranger pointed to the northeast, toward the nearest shadows of the Great Glacier, the towering frozen river that loomed before them. "Few others have come through this gate in the last couple of days. It should not be difficult to follow your trail."

Indeed it wasn't, for just outside the area of the gate, Arrayan's footprints, both sets, stood out alone on the summer-melted tundra. What was surprising for Mariabronne and all the others, though, was how far from the city Arrayan's trail took them. The Great Glacier loomed larger and larger before them as they trudged to the northeast, and more directly north. The city receded behind them and night descended, bringing with it a colder bite to the wind. The air promised that the summer, like all the summers before it so far north, would be a short one, soon to end. An abrupt change in the weather would freeze the ground in a matter of days. After that, the earth would be held solid for three quarters of the year or more. It was not unknown for the summer thaw to last less than a single month.

"It's no wonder you were so weary," Wingham said to Arrayan some time later, the miles behind them.

The woman could only look back at him, helpless. She had no idea she'd been so far from the city and could only barely remember leaving her house.

The foursome came up on a ridge, looking down on a wide vale, a copse of trees at its low point down the hill before them and a grouping of several large stones off to the right.

Arrayan gasped, "There!"

She pointed, indicating the stones, the memory of the place flooding back to her.

Mariabronne, using a torch so he could see the tracks, was about to indicate the same direction.

"No one else has come out," the ranger confirmed. "Let us go and collect the book that I might bring it to King Gareth."

Arrayan and Olgerkhan caught the quick flash of shock on Wingham's face at that proclamation, but to his credit, the shrewd merchant didn't press the issue just then.

Mariabronne, torch in hand, was first to move around the closest, large boulder. The others nearly walked into his back when they, too, moved around the corner only to discover that the ranger had stopped. As they shuffled to his side to take in the view before him, they quickly came to understand.

For there was Zhengyi's book, suspended in the air at about waist height by a pair of stone-gray tentacles that rolled out from its sides and down to, and into, the ground. The book was open, with only a few pages turned. The foursome watched in blank amazement as red images of various magical runes floated up from the open page and dissipated in the shimmering air above the book.

"What have you done?" Wingham asked.

Mariabronne cautiously approached.

"The book is reading itself," Olgerkhan observed, and while the statement sounded ridiculous as it was uttered, another glance at the book seemed to back up the simple half-orc's plain-spoken observation.

"What is that?" Wingham asked as Mariabronne's torchlight extended farther back behind the book, revealing a line of squared gray stone poking through the tundra.

"Foundation stones," Arrayan answered.

The four exchanged nervous glances, then jumped as a spectral hand appeared in mid-air above the opened book and slowly turned a single page.

"The book is excising its own dweomers," Arrayan said. "It is enacting the magic Zhengyi placed within its pages."

"You were but a catalyst," Wingham added, nodding his head as if it was all starting to make sense to him. "It took from you a bit of your life-force and now it is using that to facilitate Zhengyi's plans."

"What plans?" asked Olgerkhan.

"The magic was in the school of creation," Arrayan replied.

"And it is creating a structure," said Mariabronne as he moved the length of the foundation stones. "Something large and formidable."

"Castle Perilous," muttered Wingham, and all three looked at him with great alarm, for that was a name not yet far enough removed from the consciousness of the region for any to comfortably hear.

"We do not yet know anything of the sort," Mariabronne reminded him. "Only that the book is creating a structure. Such artifacts are not unknown. You have heard of the work of Doern, of course?"

Arrayan nodded. The legendary wizard Doern had long ago perfected a method of creating minor extra-dimensional towers adventurers could summon to shield them from the dangers and hardships of the open road.

"It is possible that Zhengyi created this tome, perhaps with others like it, so that his commanders could construct defensible fortresses without the need of muscle, tools, supplies, and time," Mariabronne reasoned, edging ever closer to the fascinating book. "It could be, Wingham, that your niece Arrayan has done nothing more than build herself a new and impressive home."

Wingham, too, moved to the book, and from up close the rising, dissipating runes showed all the more clearly. Individual, recognizable characters became visible. Wingham started to wave his hand over the field of power above the opened book.

What little hair the old half-orc had stood on end and he gave a yelp then went flying back and to the ground. The other three were there in a moment, Arrayan helping him to sit up.

"It seems that Zhengyi's book will protect itself," Mariabronne remarked.

"Protect itself while it does what?" Wingham asked, his teeth chattering from the jolt.

All four exchanged concerned glances.

"I think it is time for me to ride to the Vaasan Gate," Mariabronne said.

"Past time," Arrayan agreed.

Mariabronne and Wingham dropped Arrayan and Olgerkhan at the woman's house then went to the south gate of Palishchuk and to Wingham's wagons beyond.

"My horse is stabled in the city," Mariabronne protested repeatedly, but Wingham kept waving the thought and the words away.

"Just follow," he instructed. "To all our benefit."

When they arrived at Wingham's wagon, the old half-orc rushed inside, returning almost immediately with a small pouch.

"An obsidian steed," he explained, reaching into the leather bag and pulling forth a small obsidian figurine depicting an almost skeletal horse with wide, flaring nostrils. "It summons a nightmare that will run tirelessly - well, at least until the magic runs out, but that should be long after the beast has taken you to the Vaasan Gate."

"A nightmare?" came the cautious response. "A creature of the lower planes?"

"Yes, yes, of course, but one controlled by the magic of the stone. You will be safe enough, mighty ranger."

Mariabronne gingerly took the stone and cradled it in his hands.

"Just say 'Blackfire, " Wingham told him.

"Blackfi - " Mariabronne started to reply, but Wingham cut him short by placing a finger over his lips.

"Speak it not while you hold the stone, unless you are ready to be ridden yourself," the half-orc said with a chuckle. "And please, do not summon the hellish mount here in my camp. I do so hate when it chases the buyers away."

"And eats more than a few, I am sure."

"Temperamental beast," Wingham confirmed.

Mariabronne tapped his brow in salute and started away, but Wingham grabbed him by the arm.

"Discretion, I beg," the old half-orc pleaded.

Mariabronne stared at him for a long while. "To diminish Arrayan's involvement?"

"She began it," Wingham said, and he glanced back toward the city as if Arrayan was still in sight. "Perhaps she is feeding it with her very life-force. The good of all might weigh darkly on the poor girl, and she is without fault in this."

Again Mariabronne paused a bit to study his friend. "The easy win, at the cost of her life?" he asked, and before Wingham could answer, he added, "Zhengyi's trials have often proved a moral dilemma to us all. Mayhaps we could defeat this construct, and easily so, but at the cost of an innocent."

"And the cost of our own souls for making that sacrifice," said Wingham.

Mariabronne offered a comforting smile and nodded his agreement. "I will return quickly," he promised.

Wingham glanced back to the north again, as if expecting to see a gigantic castle looming over the northern wall of the city.

"That would be wise," he whispered.

Just south of Wingham's wagon circle, Mariabronne lifted the obsidian steed in both his cupped hands. "Blackfire," he whispered as he placed the figurine on the ground, and he nearly shouted as the stone erupted in dancing black and purple flames. Before he could react enough to fall back from the flames, though, he realized that they weren't burning his flesh.

The flames flared higher. Mariabronne watched, mesmerized.

They leaped to greater proportions, whipping about in the evening breeze, and gradually taking the form of a horse, a life-sized replica of the figurine. Then the fires blew away, lifting into the air in a great ball that puffed out to nothingness, leaving behind what seemed to be a smoking horse. The indistinct edges of wispy smoke dissipated, and a more solid creature stood before the ranger, its red eyes glaring at him with hate, puffs of acrid smoke erupting from its flared nostrils, and gouts of black flame exploding from its hooves as it pawed at the ground.

"Blackfire," Mariabronne said with a deep exhale, and he worked very hard to calm himself.

He reminded himself of the urgency of his mission, and he moved slowly and deliberately, fully on guard and with his hand on the pommel of Bayurel, his renowned bastard sword, a solid, thick blade enchanted with a special hatred for giantkin.

Mariabronne swallowed hard when he came astride the nightmare. He gingerly reached up for the creature's mane, which itself seemed as if it was nothing more than living black fire. He grabbed tightly when he felt its solidity, and with one fluid move, launched himself upon the nightmare's back. Blackfire wasted no time in rearing and snorting fire, but Mariabronne was no novice to riding, and he held firm his seat.

Soon he was galloping the fiery steed hard to the south, the shadows of the Galenas bordering him on his left, the city of Palishchuk and the Great Glacier fast receding behind him. It was normally a five-day journey, but the nightmare didn't need to rest, didn't let up galloping at all. Miles rolled out behind the ranger. He took no heed of threats off to the side of the trail - a goblin campfire or the rumble of a tundra yeti - but just put his head down and let the nightmare speed him past.

After several hours, Mariabronne's arms and legs ached from the strain, but all he had to do was conjure an image of that magical book and the structure it was growing, all he had to do was imagine the danger that creation of the Witch-King might present, to push past his pain and hold fast his seat.

He found that Wingham's estimation was a bit optimistic, however, for he felt the weakening of the magic in his mount as the eastern sky began to brighten with the onset of dawn. No stranger to the wilderness, Mariabronne pulled up in his ride and scanned the area about him, quickly discerning some promising spots for him to set a camp. Almost as soon as he dismounted, the nightmare became a wavering black flame then disappeared entirely.

Mariabronne took the obsidian figurine from the ground and felt its weight in his hand. It seemed lighter to him, drained of substance, but even as he stood there pondering it, he felt a slight shift as the weight increased and its magic began to gather. In that way the figurine would tell him when he could call upon its powers again.

The ranger reconnoitered the area, enjoyed a meal of dried bread and salted meat then settled in for some much needed sleep.

He awoke soon after mid-day and immediately went to the figurine. It was not yet fully recovered, he recognized, but he understood implicitly that he could indeed summon the nightmare if he so desired. He stepped back and surveyed the area more carefully under the full light of day. He glanced both north and south, measuring his progress. He had covered nearly half the ground to the Vaasan gate in a single night's ride - thrice the distance he could have expected with a living horse on the difficult broken ground, even if he had been riding during the daylight hours.

Mariabronne nodded, glanced at the figurine, and replaced it in his pouch. He resisted the stubborn resolve to begin hiking toward the Vaasan Gate and instead forced himself to rest some more, to take a second meal, and to go through a regimen of gently stretching and preparing his muscles for another night's long ride. Before the last rays of day disappeared behind the Vaasan plain in the west, the ranger was back upon the hellish steed, charging hard to the south.

He made the great fortress, again without incident, just before the next dawn.

Recognized and always applauded by the guards of the Army of Bloodstone, Mariabronne found himself sharing breakfast with the Honorable General Dannaway Bridgestone Tranth, brother of the great Baron Tranth who had stood beside Gareth in the war with the Witch-King. Rising more on his family's reputation than through any deed, Dannaway served as both military commander and mayor of the eclectic community of the Vaasan Gate and the Fugue.

Normally haughty and superior-minded, Dannaway carried no such pretensions in his conversations with Mariabronne the Rover. The ranger's fame had more than made him worthy to eat breakfast with the Honorable General, so Dannaway believed, and that was a place of honor that Dannaway reserved for very few people.

For his part, and though he never understood the need of more than a single eating utensil, Mariabronne knew how to play the game of royalty. The renowned warrior, often called the Tamer of Vaasa, had oft dined with King Gareth and Lady Christine at their grand Court in Bloodstone Village and at the second palace in Heliogabalus. He had never been fond of the pretension and the elevation of class, but he understood the practicality, even necessity, of such stratification in a region so long battered by conflict.

He also understood that his exploits had put him in position to continue to better the region, as with this very moment, as he recounted the happenings in Palishchuk to the plump and aging Honorable General. Soon after he had begun offering the details, Dannaway summoned his niece, Commander Ellery, to join them.

Dannaway gave a great, resigned sigh, a dramatic flourish, as Mariabronne finished his tale.

"The curse of Zhengyi will linger on throughout my lifetime and those of my children, and those of their children, I do fear," he said. "These annoyances are not uncommon, it seems."

"Let us pray that it is no more than an annoyance," said Mariabronne.

"We have trod this path many times before," Dannaway reminded him, and if the general was at all concerned, he did not show it. "Need I remind you of the grand dragon statue that grew to enormous proportions in the bog north of Darmshall, and... what? Sank into the bog, I believe.

"And let us not forget the gem-studded belt discovered by that poor young man on the northern slopes of the Galenas," Dannaway went on. "Yes, how was he to know that the plain gray stone he found the belt wrapped around, and carelessly threw aside after strapping on the belt, was actually the magical trigger for the twenty-five fireball-enchanted rubies set into the belt? Were it not for the witnesses - his fellow adventurers watching him from a nearby ridge - we might never have known the truth of that Zhengyian relic. There really wasn't enough left of the poor man to identify."

"There really wasn't anything left of the man at all," Ellery added.

A mixture of emotions engulfed Mariabronne as he listened to Dannaway's recounting. He didn't want to minimize the potential danger growing just north of Palishchuk, but on the other hand he was somewhat relieved to recall these other incidents of Zhengyian leftovers, tragic though several had been. For none of the many incidents had foretold doom on any great scale, a return of Zhengyi or the darkness that had covered the Bloodstone Lands until only eleven years ago.

"This is no minor enchantment, nor is it anything that will long remain unnoticed, I fear. King Gareth must react, and quickly," the ranger said.

Dannaway heaved another overly dramatic sigh, cast a plaintive look at Ellery, and said, "Assemble a company to ride with Mariabronne back to Palishchuk."

"Soldiers alone?" the woman replied, not a hint of fear or doubt in her strong, steady voice.

"As you wish," the general said.

Ellery nodded and looked across at the ranger with undisguised curiosity. "Perhaps I will accompany you personally," she said, drawing a look of surprise from her uncle. "It has been far too long since I have looked upon Palishchuk, in any case, nor have I visited Wingham's troupe in more than a year."

"I would welcome your company, Commander," Mariabronne replied, "but I would ask for more support."

Dannaway cut in, "You do not believe I would allow the Commander of the Vaasan Gate Militia to travel to the shadows of the Great Glacier alone, do you?"

Mariabronne fell back as if wounded, though of course it was all a game.

"The Rover," Dannaway said slyly. "It is not a title easily earned, and you have earned it ten times over by all accounts."

"Honorable General, Mariabronne's reputation..." Ellery started to intervene, apparently not catching on to the joke.

Dannaway stopped her with an upraised hand. "The Rover," he said again. "It is the title of a rake, though an honorable one. But that is not my concern, my dear Ellery. I do not fear for you in Mariabronne's bed, nor in the bed of any man. You are a Paladin of Bloodstone, after all.

"Nay, the Rover is also a remark on the nature of this adventurer," Dannaway went on, obviously missing Ellery's sour expression. "Mariabronne is the scout who walks into a dragon's lair to satisfy his curiosity. King Gareth would have used young Mariabronne to seek out Zhengyi, no doubt, except that the fool would have strolled right up to Zhengyi and asked him his name for confirmation. Fearless to the point of foolish, Mariabronne?"

"Lack of confidence is not a trait I favor."

Dannaway laughed raucously at that then turned to Ellery. "Bring a small but powerful contingent with you, I beg. There are many dragon lairs rumored in the Palishchuk region."

Ellery looked at him long and hard for a time, as if trying to make sense of it all.

"I have several in mind, soldiers and otherwise," she said, and Mariabronne nodded his satisfaction.

With another grin and bow to Dannaway, he took his leave so that he could rest up for the ride back to the north. He settled in to the complimentary room that was always waiting for him off the hallway that housed the garrison's commanders. He fell asleep hoping that Dannaway's casual attitude toward the construct was well-warranted.

He slept uneasily though, for in his heart, Mariabronne suspected that this time the remnant of Zhengyi might be something more.

* * * * *

You are a Paladin of Bloodstone, after all.

Ellery couldn't prevent a wince from tightening her features at that remark, for it was not yet true - and might never be, she knew, though many others, like Dannaway, apparently did not. Many in her family and among the nobles awaited the day when she would demonstrate her first miracle, laying on hands to heal the wounded, perhaps. None of them doubted it would happen soon, for the woman held a sterling reputation and was descended from a long line of such holy warriors.

Ellery's other friends, of course, knew better.

Well away from the general, she moved from foot to foot, betraying her nervousness.

"I can defeat him if need be," she told the thin man standing in the shadow of the wall's angular jag. "I have taken the measure of his skill and he is as formidable as you feared."

"Yet you believe you can kill him?"

"Have you not trained me in exactly that art?" the woman replied. "One strike, fatal? One move, unstoppable?"

"He is superior," came the thin voice of the thin man, a scratching and wheezing sound, but strangely solid in its confident and deathly even tone.

Ellery nodded and admitted, "Few would stand against him for long, true."

"But Ellery is among those few?"

"I do not make that claim," she replied, trying hard to not sound shaken. Then she added the reminder, as if to herself and not to the thin man, "My axe has served me well, served King Gareth well, and served you well."

That brought a laugh, again wheezy and thin, but again full of confidence - well-earned confidence, Ellery knew.

"An unlikely continuum of service," he observed. She could see the man's smirk, stretching half out of the shadows. "You do not agree?" asked the thin man, and Ellery, too, smirked and found humor in the irony.

Few would see the logic of her last statement, she realized, because few understood the nuance of politics and practicality in Damara and Vaasa.

"Speak it plainly," the thin man bade her. "If the need arises, you are confident that you can defeat the drow elf, Jarlaxle?"

The woman straightened at the recriminating tone. She didn't glance around nervously any longer, but stared hard at her counterpart.

"He has a weakness," she said. "I have seen it. I can exploit it. Yes. He will not be able to defeat that which you have trained me to execute."

The thin man replied, "Ever were you the fine student."

Emboldened, Ellery bowed at the compliment.

"Let us hope it will not come to that," the thin man went on. "But they are a hard pair to read, this drow and his human companion."

"They travel together and fight side by side, yet the human seems to hold the black-skinned one in contempt," Ellery agreed. "But I see no weakness there that we might exploit," she quickly added, as her counterpart's countenance seemed to brighten with possibility. "A blow against one is a blow against both."

The thin man paused and absorbed that reasoning for a short while, and she was far from certain he agreed.

"The ranger is an excitable one," he said, shifting the subject. "Even after twenty years of hunting the Vaasan wilderness, Mariabronne is easily agitated."

"This is a relic of Zhengyi he has discovered. Many would consider that reason to become agitated."

"You believe that?"

"Wingham believes that, so says Mariabronne, and not for the purposes of making a deal, obviously, or the half-orc opportunist would have quietly sold the artifact."

That had the thin man leaning back more deeply into the shadows, the darkness swallowing almost all of his fragile form. He brought his hands up before him, slender fingertips tap-tapping together.

"Wingham is no fool," the shadowy figure warned.

"He knows magic, if nothing else," Ellery replied. "I would trust his judgment on this."

"So Zhengyi left a book," muttered the thin man, "a book of power."

"A book of creation, so says Mariabronne."

"You will go to Palishchuk?"

"I will."

"With an appointed escort of your choosing?"

"Of course. Mariabronne will lead a small group in the morning."

"You know whom to choose?"

Ellery didn't even try to hide her surprise when she said, "You wish a place on the caravan?"

The thin man tapped his fingers together a few more times, and in the shadows, Ellery could see him nodding.

* * * * *

"Your exploits have not gone unnoticed," Ellery said to Jarlaxle that night, back in Muddy Boots and Bloody Blades.

"If they had, I would be deeply wounded," the drow replied, tipping his glass and offering a lewd wink.

Ellery blushed despite herself, and Jarlaxle thought her red hair only accentuated the sudden color in her cheeks.

"I travel to Palishchuk tomorrow," she said, composing herself.

"I have heard of this place, Palishchuk - half-orcs, correct?"

"Indeed, but quite civilized."

"We should celebrate your departure."

"Our departure."

That caught the drow off his guard, but of course, he didn't show it.

"I am assembling a troupe to make the journey," she explained. "Your exploits have not gone unnoticed."

"Nor have they been accomplished alone."

"Your friend is invited as well."

As she spoke of Entreri, the pair of them turned together to regard the man who stood beside the bar, a mug of ale growing warm on the counter before him, and his typical background sneer hidden just behind his distanced expression. He wore his gray cloak back over one shoulder, showing the fine white shirt that Ilnezhara had given him before the journey to the Vaasan Gate and also revealing the jeweled hilt of his fabulous dagger, sheathed on his hip. It did not escape the attention of Jarlaxle and Ellery that those around Entreri were keeping a respectful step back, were affording him more personal space than anyone else in the bar.

"He has that quality," Jarlaxle mused aloud.

He continued to admire Entreri even as Ellery looked at him for an explanation. But the drow didn't bother to voice his observation. Entreri was far from the largest man in the tavern and had made no aggressive moves toward anyone, yet it was obvious that those around him could sense his strength, his competence. It had to be his eyes, Jarlaxle presumed, for the set of his stare spoke of supreme concentration - perhaps the best attribute of a true warrior.

"Will he go?" the drow heard Ellery ask, and from her tone, it was apparent to him that it was not the first time she had posed the question.

"He is my friend," Jarlaxle replied, as if that description settled everything. "He would not let me walk into danger alone."

"Then you agree?"

Jarlaxle turned to her and grinned wickedly. "Only if you promise me that I will not be cold in the night wind."

Ellery returned his smile then placed her drink down on the table beside them.

"At dawn," she instructed, and she started away.

Jarlaxle grabbed her arm and said, "But I am cold."

"We are not yet on the road," she said.

Ellery danced from his grasp and moved across the floor and out of the tavern.

Jarlaxle continued to grin as he considered her curves from that most advantageous angle. The moment she was out of sight, he snapped his gaze back at Entreri and sighed, knowing the man would resist his persuasion, as always. It was going to be a long night.

* * * * *

Looking splendid in her shining armor, shield strapped across her back and axe set at her side, Ellery sat upon a large roan mare at the head of the two wagon caravan. Mariabronne rode beside her on a bay. A pair of mounted soldiers complimented them at the back of the line, two large and angry looking men. One of them was the bounty clerk, Davis Eng, the other an older man with gray hair.

The two women driving the first wagon were not of the Army of Bloodstone, but fellow mercenaries from the local taverns. One Jarlaxle knew as Parissus of Impiltur, large-boned, round-faced, and with her light-colored hair cropped short. Often had he and Entreri heard the woman boasting of her exploits, and she did seem to take great pleasure in herself.

The other was one that Jarlaxle couldn't help but know, for her name sat atop the board listing bounty payouts. She called herself Calihye and was a half-elf with long black hair and a beautiful, angular face - except for that angry-looking scar running from one cheek through the edge of her thin lips and to the middle of her chin. When she called out to Commander Ellery that she was ready to go, Jarlaxle and his human companion - surprised to find themselves assigned to driving the second wagon - heard a distinct lisp, undoubtedly caused by the scar across her lips.

"Bah!" came a grumble from the side. "Hold them horses, ye dolts be durned. I'm huffin' and puffin' and me blood's bout to burn!"

All watched as a dwarf rambled across the short expanse from the gate, his muscled arms bare and pumping in cadence with his determined strides, his black beard wound into two long braids. He had a pair of odd-looking morning stars strapped in an X across his back, their handles reaching up and wide beyond the back of his bushy head. Each ended in a spiked metal ball, the pair bouncing and rolling at the end of their respective chains in similar cadence to the pumping movements. While that was normal enough, the material of the weapons gleamed a dullish and almost translucent gray. Glassteel, they were, a magical construct of rare and powerful properties.

"Ye ask me to go, and so I'm for going, but then ye're not for waiting, so what're ye knowin'? Bah!"

"Your pardon, good Athrogate," said Commander Ellery. "I thought that perhaps you had changed your mind."

"Bah!" Athrogate snorted back.

He walked to the back of the open wagon, pulled a bag from his belt and tossed it inside - which made a second dwarf already in the wagon dodge aside - then grabbed on with both his hands and flipped himself up and over to take a seat beside a thin, fragile-looking man.

Jarlaxle noted that with some curiosity, thinking that a dwarf would normally have chosen the seat beside the other dwarf, which remained open. There were only three in the back of the wagon, which could have held six rather easily.

"They know each other," the drow remarked to Entreri, indicating the dwarf and the man.

"You find that interesting?" came the sarcastic remark.

Jarlaxle just gave a "Hmm," and turned his attention back to the reins and the horses.

Entreri glanced at him curiously, then considered the obnoxious dwarf and the frail-looking man again. Earlier, Jarlaxle had reasoned that the man must be a sage, a scholar brought on to help decipher the mystery of whatever it was that they were going to see in this northern city of Palishchuk.

But that dwarf was no scholarly type, nor did he seem overly curious about matters cerebral. If he and the man knew each other, as Jarlaxle had reasoned, then might there be more to the man than they had presumed?

"He is a wizard," Entreri said quietly.

Jarlaxle looked over at the assassin, who seemed unaware of the movement as he clenched and unclenched his right hand, upon which he had not long ago worn the enchanted gauntlet that accompanied his sword. The magic-defeating gauntlet was lost to him, and it likely occurred to Entreri, in considering the wizard, that he might wish he was wearing it before their journey was over. Though the man had done nothing to indicate any threat toward Entreri, the assassin had never been, and never would be, comfortable around wizards.

He didn't understand them.

He didn't want to understand them.

Usually, he just wanted to kill them.

Ellery motioned to them all and she and Mariabronne began walking their horses out to the north, the wagons rolling right behind, the other two soldiers falling in to flank Entreri and Jarlaxle's supply wagon.

Jarlaxle began to talk, of course, noting the landscape and telling tales of similar places he had visited now and again. And Entreri tuned him out, of course, preferring to keep his focus on the other nine journeying beside him and the drow.

For most of his life, Artemis Entreri had been a solitary adventurer, a paid killer who relied only upon himself and his own instincts. He felt a distinct discomfort with the company, and surely wondered how the drow had ever convinced him to go along.

Perhaps he wondered why Jarlaxle had wanted to go in the first place.



Jarlaxle left Ilnezhara and Tazmikella excitedly discussing the possibilities of Zhengyi's library a short while after the fall of the lich's tower. As soon as he had exited the dragon's abode, the drow veered from the main road that would take him back to Heliogabalus proper. He wandered far into the wilderness, to a grove of dark oaks, and did a quick scan of the area to ensure that no one was about. He leaned back against a tree and closed his eyes, and replayed in his thoughts the conversation, seeing again the sisters' expressions as they rambled on about Zhengyi.

They were excited, of course, and who could blame them? But there was something else in the look of Ilnezhara when first she had spoken to him about the crumbled tower. A bit of fear, he thought again.

Jarlaxle smiled. The sisters knew more about Zhengyi's potential treasures than they were letting on, and they feared the resurfacing artifacts.

Why would a dragon fear anything?

The wince on Ilnezhara's face when he told her that the book had been destroyed flashed in his thoughts, and he realized that he'd do well to keep his treasure - the tiny skull gem - safely hidden for a long, long time. Ilnezhara hadn't completely believed him, he suspected, and that was never a good thing when dealing with a dragon. He knew without doubt that the dragon sisters would try to confirm that he was speaking the truth. Of course, as was their hoarding nature, the dragons would desire such a tome as the one that had constructed the tower, but that expression on Ilnezhara's face spoke to something beyond so simple and obvious a desire.

Despite his better instincts the drow produced the tiny glowing skull, just for a moment. He clutched it tightly in his hand and let his thoughts flow into the magic, accepting whatever road the skull laid out before him. Kimmuriel, the psionicist dark elf Jarlaxle had left to command his mercenary band, Bregan D'aerthe, had long ago taught him a way of getting some sense of the purpose of a magical item. Of course Jarlaxle already knew a portion of the skull's properties, for it had no doubt been a large part of creating the tower. He understood logically that the skull had been the conduit between the life-force of that fool Herminicle and the creation power of the tome itself.

All hints of color faded from Jarlaxle's vision. Even in the dark of night he recognized that he was moving into a sort of alternate visual realm. He recoiled at first, fearing that the skull was taking his life-force, was draining him of living energy and moving him closer to death.

He fast realized that such was not the case, however. Rather, the power of the skull was allowing his sensibilities to enter the nether realm.

He sensed the bones of a dead squirrel right below his feet, and those of many other creatures who had died in that place. He felt no pull to them, however, just a recognition, an understanding that they were there.

But he did feel a pull, clearly so, and he turned and walked out of the grove, letting the skull guide him.

Soon he stood in the remains of an ancient, forgotten cemetery. A couple of stones might have been markers, or perhaps they were not, but Jarlaxle knew with certainty that it was a cemetery, where any other wanderer who happened upon the place might not guess..

Jarlaxle felt the long-buried corpses, buried in neat rows. They were calling to him, he thought...

No, he realized, and he opened his eyes wide and looked down at the skull. They weren't calling to him, they were waiting for him to call to them.

The drow took a deep and steadying breath. He noted the remains of a dwarf and a halfling, but when he concentrated on them, he understood that they were not connected in any way but by the ground in which they rested and were connected in no way to the dark elf.

This skull was focused in its power. It held strength over humans - alive and dead, so it would seem.

"Interesting," Jarlaxle whispered to the chilly night air, and he subconsciously glanced back in the direction of Ilnezhara's tower. Jarlaxle held the glowing item up before his twinkling eyes.

"If I had initially found the tome and had enacted the creation power with my life-force, would the skull that grew within the pages have been that of a drow?" he asked. "Could a dragon have made a skull that would find its connection to long-dead dragons? "

He shook his head as he spoke the words aloud, for they just didn't sound correct to him. The disposition of the skull predated the construction of the tower and had been embedded within the book before the foolish human Herminicle had found it. The book was predetermined to that end result, he believed.

Yes, that sounded better to the aged and magically-literate dark elf. Zhengyi held great power over humans and had also commanded an army of the dead, so the tales said. The skull was surely one of his artifacts to affect that end. Jarlaxle glanced back again in the direction of the distant tower.

It was no secret that Zhengyi had also commanded flights of dragons - disparate wyrms, somehow brought together under a singular purpose and under his control.

The drow's smile widened and he realized that a journey to Vaasa was indeed in his future.

Happily so.

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