Forgotten Lore (Updated M-W-F)


Chapter 156

Tamrek’s words had cast a pall over the gathering, but after a moment’s pause Konstantin continued his tale.

“There exists a book of magic,” Konstantin continued. “It has many names. We called it the Elderlore Libram. In some accounts it is referred to as the Tome of Secrets.”

“I have heard the latter name,” Quellan said. “But only as a vague legend.”

“We have preferred that it remain that way,” Konstantin said. “But in this case, the legends only impart a small fraction of the ultimate truth.”

“The book is incredibly ancient,” the wizard went on. “The consensus of the scholars among us is that it was written several thousand years ago, during the height of the Mai’i Empire. There are some fairly definitive records that reference it from that era, at least. Some say it is even older than that, and that it existed when the Mai’i first established the kingdom that would grow, over the course of three thousand years, into the Empire.”

“That’s pretty old,” Glori said.

The Gavelmaster continued the account. “When the Mai’i fell, the book was lost,” the aged gnome said. “But it turned up again some centuries ago, on the Weltarin continent.”

“The new lands?” Glori said. “But… how did it even get there? The first expeditions to the other continent didn’t even happen until the Mai’i were long gone.”

“We do not fully understand it ourselves,” Konstantin said. “But the early explorers found ruins of an ancient civilization on Weltarin that date back thousands of years. The Libram was found in one such place by a Syvalian explorer.”

Several sets of eyes flicked briefly to Xeeta, before Konstantin continued.

“The book passed through several sets of hands before it ended up in Arresh. We tried to piece together the histories of those to whom it traveled before it found its way to us, but the only common thread that we could gather was that all of them perished in an unusual and notable manner.”

“Wait a moment,” Glori said. “What is this book, exactly? What’s in it? Is it some kind of spellbook or something?”

Konstantin nodded as if he’d expected the question. “Of sorts. The Libram is a collection of ancient lore. Magical knowledge of incredible richness and detail. The book contains an incredible number of secrets of the multiverse and how it functions.”

“Multiverse?” Kosk asked.

“Planar lore,” Quellan said. “Otherworldly entities; gods, demons, and everything in between.”

“So summoning spells and the like,” the dwarf said.

“That is definitely part of it,” Konstantin said. “Though that is only a fraction of what the book includes.”

“If it’s as old as you say, it must have been really hard to decipher,” Glori suggested.

There was a pause, then a meangingful side-glance between the wizards.

“Go on,” Bredan said. There was more than a hint of command in his voice, and again Glori started at the changes her friend had undergone since they’d set out from Crosspath what seemed like so long ago.

“Part of the nature of the book is that it wants to be understood,” Konstantin finally said.

“You speak almost as if it is alive,” Xeeta said.

“Not precisely,” Konstantin said. He looked thoughtful for a moment, then added, “The book came to us at a critical time for the kingdom, and for the entire continent, really,” Konstantin said. “Its power was instrumental in the defeat of the Dead King. The histories focus on the physical might of the Three Armies—humans, elves, and dwarves, all working together—but in the end it was potent magic that enabled us to overcome the dark power of the death lords.”

“But the alliance didn’t last very long, once the threat was over,” Quellan said.

“No. The Libram, in fact, was part of the reason. It was too rich a prize, and the elves and dwarves feared what might happen if the human kings were allowed to maintain permanent possession of the artifact.”

“So it’s got some powerful spells in it,” Bredan said. “You still haven’t answered Xeeta’s question.”

Javerin replied before Konstantin could craft an answer. “The contents of the book change,” she said. “It rewrites itself. That’s how we could read it despite the gap in language. The text shifts to suit the needs of the user. Sometimes in ways she may not even consciously understand.”

“It is intelligent?” Quellan asked. “Is that even possible?”

“I do not think it is intelligent in the way that we think of the term,” Konstantin said. “But the wizards who worked with it quickly learned that the text would read differently based on the reader. The differences were subtle at first but became more significant over time. Over time, they also began to notice changes in those who used it frequently.”

“What kind of changes?” Glori asked.

“Shifts in mood. Odd behaviors. In a few cases, symptoms of mental illness. Those closest to the book seemed to become almost addicted to it, as if it was some sort of drug that they came to crave. There was more than one attempt to steal it. There are some accounts that suggest that the disease that claimed King Alephron’s mind was related somehow to the book. There are multiple accounts of him consulting it repeatedly in the latter stages of the war.”

“You couldn’t control it,” Bredan said. “Its knowledge, the power it represented, it was too dangerous.”

“The alliance—already starting to fragment at this point—agreed that the book was too dangerous to leave freely accessible. Alephron’s son, King Galvis, knew that his people could not withstand another war, not so soon after the suffering wrought by the Dead King’s minions.”

“The leaders of the three nations collaborated in one final task, an effort that would remain secret to all but a very few. They sealed the Libram in a magical vault, hidden under Severon. The dwarves built the place, using all of their canny knowledge of engineering. The elves provided a potent warding, a living magic that sustained itself against intrusion. The humans pledged to guard the site, keeping the place secret and secure against a future date when the power of the book might be needed again. Those protections have never failed, and remain in place to this day.”

“If this vault is so secure, how did they plan to get it open again, if and when this future danger appeared?” Glori asked.

“The creators of the vault also created a magical key in three parts, all of which were needed to bypass the physical and magical locks and open it. One of the pieces of the key went to each of the three races. This way, they would all have to agree in order to access the interior of the vault and the book.”

“If these seals are so strong, how do you even know the book’s even in there?” Bredan asked.

“The creators of the vault added one final feature,” Konstantin said. “The highest wizards among both the elves and the humans collaborated to create a magical tablet. They called it the Revelation Stone. The Stone was connected to the Libram, a binding that remained in force even after the doors of the vault were sealed and the warding put in place. The Stone was installed outside the vault. It allowed wizards to inscribe queries upon the Stone, and the Libram would respond.”

“Communication!” Quellan exclaimed. “That would indicate intelligence, would it not?”

“The exchanges were not true conversations,” Javerin said. She seemed to be getting irate at the length of Konstantin’s explanation. “The Stone was more of an index, to allow the wizards to access the knowledge in the book.”

“How did you keep all of this secret?” Quellan asked. “There must have been hundreds if not thousands of people involved in this project. The construction of this vault alone… people tend to notice large construction projects taking place in their neighborhood!”

“There was still a lot of rebuilding going on in the aftermath of the war, so there were ample opportunities to conceal the true purpose of the work. But you’re right, it was quite difficult, at least early on,” Konstantin acknowledged. “But as the years crept on into decades, and the decades into centuries, people went about their lives and forgot about the Libram. The wizards of the Apernium were responsible for maintaining the guard on the vault, and they knew that obscurity was as useful a tool as armed sentries.”

“But you had the sentries as well,” Bredan said.

“Yes,” Konstantin said.

“A specialized force, to guard the vault where you kept your book hidden.”

“It was not ‘our’ book, but yes,” Konstantin said. “And before you ask, yes, that was the genesis of the Silver Gauntlet.”

There was a moment of silence at that announcement, as the companions digested that nugget of information. Finally Glori asked, “So what went wrong?”

“I’m sorry?” Konstantin asked.

“Obviously something went wrong, or we wouldn’t be here talking about this,” Glori said. “So what happened next?”

“For centuries, nothing happened,” Konstantin said. “Only a very few individuals within the Apernium even knew of the vault, and just a handful were authorized to use the Revelation Stone. Occasionally an emissary from the dwarves or elves came to Severon to petition the king for access, a right included in the secret addendum to their final treaty. But the Stone proved to be an imperfect medium for transmitting information. Without the direct connection between the book and its user, the lore it provided was fragmentary and confusing. The elves and dwarves accused the humans and each other of interference, but ultimately they had to admit that the flaws were inherent in the nature of their construction. For a time, it looked as though they might agree to reopen the vault, but as the relations between the three nations continued to decline the likelihood of that faded. With each passing decade there were fewer visits to the vault, and finally none at all for over a century, except by its guardians.”

“The Gauntlet,” Glori said, with a glance over at Bredan.

“Yes,” Konstantin said. “The trouble began with some of the guardians of the vault. They began acting… strangely. Eventually a faction within the Gauntlet formed a plot to break into the vault and steal the Libram.”

“How could they get into it, without the key?” Glori asked. “You said the place was impenetrable, between the dwarven engineering and the elves’ magic.”

“Nothing’s impenetrable,” Kosk said. “If living hands built it, living hands could find a way to get through it.”

“We never did learn the full details of the plot, or how they intended to bypass all of the protections of the vault,” Konstantin said. “The plot was revealed before its leaders could put their plans into effect. It was loyal members of the Gauntlet who eventually detected the treason and brought into the attention of the wizards. One of those loyal ones was your father, Bredan.”

“And you rewarded him by throwing him out,” Bredan said.

“It was not that simple,” Konstantin said. “Your father chose to leave, after the Gauntlet was disbanded. He was still young, and we would have found him something else, another outlet for his skills, but he’d done his duty and wished to move on with his life.”

“So, since you disbanded the Gauntlet, who’s been guarding the book?” Glori asked.

“We’ve shifted to magical surveillance of the vault,” the Gavelmaster said. “Augmented by more mundane security measures. We still have guards, they just keep their distance.”

“And you’re not concerned about having something in your city that makes people go bleeding nuts?” Kosk asked.

“With all due respect, I think we have more expertise in the matter than you, master dwarf,” Javerin said dryly.

“What made you decide to track my father down again?” Bredan asked.

“Excuse me?” Konstantin asked.

“I assume that’s how you found me,” Bredan said. “You said that you had been sent to find me specifically, both in the Silverpeak and just now, at the start of the meeting.”

“Ah,” Konstantin said. “No, that’s not exactly what I meant.”

“Why don’t you tell me what you meant, then,” Bredan said. “Why am I so important? Why did you come looking for me?”

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Chapter 157

The wizards shared another look before Konstantin responded. “A few months ago, a periodic visit to the outer chamber in the vault found that a message had appeared on the Revelation Stone. It was the first known communication from within the vault in over sixty years, and the first on record when no question had first been posed. The following words were etched into the surface: ‘Bredan Karras, Crosspath.’ The tablet itself was cracked. I was personally part of the team that confirmed that the enchantment upon the object was gone, ruined.”

“But the vault remained intact?” Xeeta asked.

“As far as we can tell, the physical seals and the magical wards are as strong as ever,” Konstantin said.

Bredan had grown pale; Glori reached over and took his hand in hers. “So… you’re saying that these messages I’ve been getting… the magic, the changes that have been happening to me… it’s all from some weird ancient book?”

“We don’t know that,” Javerin said. “The Libram should not be able to affect the reality outside of the Vault at all.”

“Tell that to those guys from the Silver Gauntlet,” Kosk said.

“This is different,” Javerin insisted. “If such a connection happened—”

“If?” Kosk spat.

“If such a connection happened,” the wizard continued, “It happened over time through close proximity. We’re not saying there’s no connection; we wouldn’t be telling you all this if we didn’t think there was. But it’s more likely that the power that is being revealed in the world of late… the power in this shrine you encountered, the remnants of the Eth’barat and other Mai’i legacies… that power and the book are all part of the same phenomenon. The Libram is a lens into a greater reality, a window that has been closed to us for a long time now.”

“But why is this power stirring now?” Quellan asked. “The Libram has been sealed away for centuries, and there have been plenty of treasure-hunters combing the wilds looking for the fabled lost lore of the Mai’i. You can’t say it’s just a coincidence that Bredan picked up a book when he did, or that he just happened to be the son of one of the Libram’s former guardians.”

“We are well past the point of believing in coincidences,” the Gavelmaster said.

“I’m only a guest here,” Xeeta said. “But it seems like it’s past time that you took a look inside that Vault.”

“The thought had occurred to us,” Konstantin said.

“What about Pentar?” Bredan interjected. “How does he and his band of crazy bastards fit into all of this?”

“We’ve believed for a long time that there was still a remnant of the Gauntlet operating within Severon,” Konstantin said. “For years there was no indication that they were still active, but of late there have been a few rumblings through our network of contacts, nothing definitive.”

“So you figured Bredan and Glori could do you a solid by flushing them out,” Kosk said.

“That was not our intent,” Javerin said. “We told you not to do anything until our investigations and testing were complete.”

“Let’s leave that aside for the moment,” Glori said, before Bredan could respond. “What more can you tell us about this ‘Pentar’? Bredan said he had magic like his, that he conjured a weapon out of thin air.”

“He was old, but he was good,” Bredan said. “Very good.”

“If you’d had your armor and been fresh, you could have taken him,” Glori said, but Bredan did not respond.

“He must have been a young man, back when the Silver Gauntlet was dissolved,” Quellan said. “To spend forty years chasing a dream of power…”

“It’s not a dream,” Bredan said.

“I didn’t mean…”

“He said he knew my father,” Bredan said. “That he knew what was happening to me. He said that I was not his enemy. He said that it was the wizards who were lying to me.”

There was a long moment’s pause. “What do you think?” Konstantin asked.

“What was my father’s real name?” Bredan asked.

This time Konstantin did not stop to look at his colleagues before responding; all four of the wizards sat united against Bredan’s harsh stare. “Your family name was Karrathas,” Konstantin said. “Your father likely changed it to escape notice when he left the capital. I was telling you the truth when I said that we had no idea who you were when we first saw your name printed on the Stone. It was only later in our investigations that we found out the nature of your bloodline and the connection to the Libram.”

Bredan sagged in his chair, breaking his connection with the wizards for the first time since he’d entered the room. For a moment they all just watched him. Then his hand tightened on Glori’s, an acknowledgement of the support she’d lent to him.

“They took me prisoner,” he said. “They told me I’d killed by best friend. I’d have killed Pentar, if I could have.” His head came up again, and if the edge in his gaze had eased, there was still a cold determination there. “But with that said, you haven’t exactly earned my trust.”

“I hope that you will give us a chance,” Konstantin said. “If what’s happening to you is in fact connected to the Libram, then we’re both looking for the same answers. And the answers to those questions could prove to be of critical importance to the whole kingdom, any beyond.”

“So, what happens now?” Glori asked.

“Your colleague’s suggestion earlier is a point that has been the source of much discussion,” Konstantin said. “There are difficulties involved in accessing the vault, of course.”

“I don’t imagine the elves and dwarves would be willing to just hand over their keys, given the current nature of the relationship between the three nations,” Quellan said.

“Indeed, that is the crux of the matter,” Konstantin said.

“Can I see it?” Bredan asked. “The Vault. I know you can’t get inside, but I’d still like to see it, the outer part at least.”

Konstantin deferred to the others, and finally Tamrek inclined his head. “We will make arrangements,” the younger wizard said.


Chapter 158

When the huge stone doors began to shake, the hidden mechanisms working for several moments before the giant slabs began to split apart, Glori could not help but be impressed. The doors opened slowly, ponderously, as if resisting yielding up what they protected.

It had been two full days after their meeting with the Circle before the wizards had summoned them again. It had occurred to Glori that they might have been trying to put them off, and she’d worried that Bredan might react poorly to the delay. But her friend seemed calmer now, as though the wizards’ revelations had taken something out of him. She’d offered to talk it out with him, but he hadn’t been interested.

She’d spent the added free time training. With Bredan apparently interested only in solitude she’d sought out a martial instructor she’d met earlier during their stay, a veteran swordsman who offered private lessons primarily to the extra children of the local nobility. He was able to fit in several sessions that were enough of a strain to allow Glori to forget all that was looming over them, at least for a little while. The instructor, Garrett, offered praise for her speed and skill, but she couldn’t help but think back on all that they had faced and what dangers might lie ahead.

The doors were still leisurely grinding open. Glori could see now that they were very thick. She glanced over at Bredan, who even now remained a few steps apart from the rest of them, subtly separated from the group. He’d taken advantage of the delay to buy a new suit of chain mail and have it fitted. Glori had to admit that he looked more like himself in it, even though both she had Quellan had left their armor behind along with their weapons. Maybe to him this little expedition was no different from the many dangerous situations that they’d faced together. Glori herself felt a bit naked without her lyre, but Konstantin had been very explicit about what they would be allowed to bring with them into the underground complex where the Vault was situated.

Perhaps sensing her attention, Bredan briefly looked over at her. Glori tried to give him a reassuring smile, but no doubt he could sense the concern in her eyes. For a moment he looked uncertain, but then his jaw tightened and he turned his attention back to the slowly-widening gap in front of them.

Konstantin didn’t wait until the doors were fully open before he led them forward. The wizard carried a traditional oil-based lantern, a contrast to the magical lights commonly used throughout the Apernium, and a reminder that the place they were visiting was not typical. The wizard had warned them against trying to cast spells in this place, noting that the wards crafted by the elves centuries ago could react strongly to such attempts.

Glori was not interested in casting spells. She was worried about Bredan, and what he might find in this dark and alien place.

After the guards they had passed to get here, the various barriers that had culminated in the vast stone doors still grinding open behind them, the outer chamber of the Vault seemed less than impressive, even mundane. It was fairly spacious, and Glori could still make out faint marks where additional furniture had likely once stood. That was consistent with the wizards’ tale of pulling out all the inner security after the rebellion by the Silver Gauntlet, those trusted to keep vigil over this place. The thought of spending long periods of time in this room made her shudder.

She went over to Bredan, who was staring at the inner wall of the Vault. It didn’t look like much, just another wall made up of the same huge slabs of stone that constituted the rest of the complex. If there was another door or hatch or something she couldn’t see it. There was a low platform just off to the side. Konstantin had headed over in that direction, obscuring her view of what was there.

“What is it?” Glori asked, her voice little more than a whisper. Somehow in this place it didn’t seem right to disturb the quiet. Even Kosk seemed uncharacteristically pensive. “Do you sense something?”

“No,” Bredan said. “I sense… nothing. It’s a bit… eerie.”

“That word seems apt here,” Xeeta said. She had left her rod and her amulet behind, but her left hand kept drifting to her throat seemingly of its own accord, as if expecting to find the latter there. After seeing her for so long in her altered form it was a little jarring to see her natural features, Glori thought.

“Over here,” Konstantin said, calling them over to the platform.

As she approached Glori could see more of it. The platform itself was made of wood, the slabs thick but otherwise unremarkable. But at its center there was an opening through which a pedestal of dark stone rose to slightly above waist height. The top of the pedestal was beveled so that what it supported faced into the room.

From the wizards’ briefing she’d expected a book, and at first glance the object somewhat resembled one. But the heavy leather sheath that surrounded the Revelation Book was more of a cover in the traditional sense of the word, and it came away completely when Konstantin tugged gently at it.

The interior of the book was a broad slab of pale stone as wide as her forearm, with a grainy texture that set it apart from the pedestal and the rest of the construction of the room. Its outer frame was coated in a rime of bright silvery metal, as though the entire thing had been dipped into a molten font during its construction. Perhaps it had, Glori thought. The thing in front of her was hundreds of years old, but the metal shone brightly in the light from Konstantin’s lamp, as if had been forged yesterday. But there was damage, and as she drew closer she could see a deep crack that extended across the face of the tablet. A complex landscape of subsidiary cracks spread from that initial point of disruption. It looked almost as though the thing would fall apart if disturbed.

Bredan stepped forward, and for a moment it looked like he was going to finish the job of ruining the ancient artifact. But he only reached out a hand, indicating a set of marks along the top of the tablet that Glori had missed at first. She edged to stand beside him. She leaned in to to read the writing, already knowing what it would say.

Bredan Karras, Crosspath.

The words were etched into the stone, the letters smoothly formed as if written by a quill on parchment instead of hacked by a chisel. Bredan let his fingertips slide over them, his lips moving soundlessly to form the words. Glori watched him, put a hand on his arm for support, but after a few moments he just turned away and stepped clear to let the others take a look. Konstantin just stood there, holding up the lamp so they could see.

“What about the keys?” Kosk asked the wizard. “I don’t see any locks or other mechanisms here. Or are they hidden?”

“There is more machinery built into the walls, or so I understand from the ancient accounts,” Konstantin said. “But the keys—or rather the key, as the three pieces all form part of a whole—operate more as a trigger than like a mundane object working a lock. In essence, this entire place is the lock.”

“And the book, this Libram, it’s on the other side of this wall?” Xeeta asked.

“According to everything we know,” Konstantin said.

“A hedging answer,” Kosk noted.

“It’s there,” Bredan said. The others all turned to look at him, but he was walking away, not even glancing at the interior wall.

“Bredan?” Glori asked.

“I can feel it,” Bredan said. “It’s waiting for us.”

Glori looked back at Konstantin, but if the wizard was alarmed by the warrior’s words he was keeping it well hidden. “So, what do we do next?” she asked.

“We’ve sent messages to the elven and dwarven courts,” the wizard said.

“That could take a while,” Quellan said. “They’re not exactly close to Severon.”

“We have means of communication left over from the days of the alliance,” Konstantin said. “The difficulty is not in sending messages. Rather, it’s in getting them to respond.”

“Did you tell them what’s been going on?” Glori asked.

“They are not ignorant of the broader course of events,” Konstantin said.

“Another wizard-answer,” Kosk said.

“Have you told them about the spellcasters involved with Murgoth’s forces?” Quellan asked. “The sources of power we found in the Silverpeak Valley, and elsewhere?”

“They may already know some of it,” Glori said. “Remember Starfinder, all the way back in Crosspath? She was an elf.”

Konstantin looked like he was about to say something, but he was interrupted by the distant sounds of the outer door opening, followed by the tread of someone approaching swiftly from the main corridor.

The companions all turned as one toward the entry. Glori noted that Bredan’s hands twitched, almost as if he was considering summoning his sword. She wondered if his power would work here.

Konstantin did not appear to be alarmed, though he too looked surprised at the interruption. He stepped forward just as the woman wizard from the Circle, Javerin, appeared at the opening in the outer doors. From her slightly disarrayed hair she’d been running, but she quickly regathered her usual gravitas.

“What’s happened now?” Kosk asked.

Javerin barely acknowledged the dwarf with a flick of her eyes before focusing her attention on Konstantin. “We’ve had a response to our diplomatic queries,” she said.

“The elves, or the dwarves?” Glori asked.

“Both of them,” the wizard replied.


Today's post marks the end of Book 7 of the story. Book 8 begins Monday.

* * *

Chapter 159

Their second meeting with the Circle was in rather plainer surroundings. The small meeting room was located on the first floor of the great tower, with only a single window that opened onto an empty courtyard. Tamrek and Ostrick were already waiting for them when they arrived, and Konstantin and Javerin went immediately to join them around the central table. The gnome was taking notes in a leather folio as they entered, which he closed as the others came in.

“No observers today?” Xeeta asked.

“Messengers have been sent to the Palace and the Aureate Circle,” Ostrick said. “But we thought it might be useful to discuss a few matters with you first.”

“The fact that the elves and dwarves responded so close together,” Quellan said as the companions took the vacant seats around the table. “Does that suggest that they have been communicating—and coordinating—amongst themselves?”

“It could just be a coincidence,” Konstantin pointed out.

“Nothing else has been thus far,” Kosk said.

“During the days of the Alliance, relations between the elves and dwarves were poor,” Ostrick said. “There is a long historical antipathy between the two nations.”

“Perhaps having a common rival has brought them together,” Xeeta suggested.

“Arresh is hardly a rival,” Konstantin said.

“The kingdom has expanded the most since the days of the Dead King,” Quellan said. “The borders of the elven and dwarven kingdoms have remained more or less static. There may not have been any direct clashes, but they cannot help but note that, even leaving aside the issue of the humans’ control over the Libram.”

“A control that seems doubtful at the moment,” Glori said. “That could have them worried.”

“Maybe you’d better just tell us what they said,” Kosk said. “Javerin wouldn’t tell us anything on the way over here.”

“For now, we are being cautious about who knows about this,” Ostrick said.

“Word will get out,” Glori said.

“That is likely,” Konstantin. “But even so attention to security is prudent.”

“Well, we’re in a secure room now, presumably,” Kosk said. “You wouldn’t have brought us here if you didn’t have something to say. Let’s start with the elves.”

Ostrick opened his book and briefly consulted his notes. “We were contacted by an official of the elvish court, name of Majerion.”

Glori felt a cold fist clench in her gut. She didn’t think she’d betrayed anything in her face, but before the gnome could continue Tamrek said to her, “You know him?”

“Yes,” Glori said.

“I’ve heard you mention his name a few times,” Quellan said. “He was your mentor, wasn’t he?”

Glori could feel her heart racing, but she willed her features to remain calm. “Yes, that is true.”

“Would you say that he is an honest man, in general?” Konstantin said.

“I have never known him to say anything untrue,” Glori said. That didn’t stop him from abandoning me, she didn’t add.

“That’s good, having a personal link might be useful,” Konstantin said.

“We have another one, a person here in Severon who has a connection to the elvish royal house,” Javerin said.

“You are from Tal Nadesh, are you not?” Tamrek asked.

“I was born there,” Glori said. “Not in the city, one of the border settlements. But I left when I was very young, and haven’t been back.”

“Do you wish to return?” the aged wizard prodded.

The others are looked at her, but it was Tamrek’s gaze that held her. There was more to that question than it first seemed, and she wondered just how much the wizards knew about her past. “I would like to go,” she heard herself saying.

“Are you sure?” Bredan asked. If the wizard’s eyes held judgment, Bredan’s held quiet support. Glori took his hand and squeezed it. “Yes,” she said.

“I will go to Tal Nadesh as well,” Kosk said. Glori turned to the dwarf in surprise, but his expression held only firm commitment.

“We’ll all go,” Bredan said.

“That cannot be,” Tamrek said.

“Why not?” Bredan asked.

Tamrek nodded toward Ostrick. “The message from the dwarves said that they would accept an embassy, on one condition,” the gnome said.

“What condition?” Glori asked.

“That Bredan Karras be part of it.”

The companions all shared a stunned look at that. “Me?” Bredan asked.

“How do they even know about you?” Glori asked.

“I assume that you did not mention his name in your original communication,” Kosk said.

“We did not,” Javerin said. “Nor do we know how they learned of him.”

There was something in her look that had Glori straightening in her chair. “You’re not saying that you think it was one of us.”

“We’ve made no such accusation,” Konstantin said.

“It could be that the dwarven court has a source of information in Severon,” Xeeta said.

“We have not ruled anything out,” Ostrick said.

“What could they want with you?” Glori asked, turning to Bredan.

“I suppose there’s only one way to find out,” he said.

“There is a temple of Hosrenu in Ironcrest,” Javerin said. “I believe that the authorities of your church would endorse the idea of you joining the embassy, Master Emberlane.”

“The dwarves are not particularly friendly toward those who have orcish ancestry,” Quellan said.

“Nor are the elves, or the humans for that matter,” Glori said.

“I’ll take Quellan, and Xeeta,” Bredan said. “If they want me, then they can host my friends as well.”

“We have already prepared a proposal,” Ostrick said. “We just wanted to get your approval first.”

“You should go with them,” Glori said to Kosk. “I’ll be fine, it’s not like the elves are going to do anything to me.”

“I can’t go to Ironcrest,” Kosk said. He looked across the table at the wizards. None of them said anything, but it was obvious in their faces that they knew the reason why.

“If we have to split up, I’d rather each of us has someone to watch their backs,” Bredan said. “Are you okay with that, Xeeta?”

“Better than staying here alone,” she said.

“So, what do we do, just show up and ask if we can borrow their key to the Vault?” Glori asked.

“There will be a formal emissary accompanying each group,” Javerin said. “I will be the one going to the elves, Konstantin to the dwarves. We will be leading the negotiations.”

“The crown will just go along with that?” Kosk asked.

“Unless they can manage a teleportation spell on their own, I would imagine they would have to,” Xeeta said. “Or at least I assume that we will be using an expedited means of travel.”

“The dwarven city does not have an arrival circle within its environs, but that is essentially the case,” Konstantin said.

“And if they refuse to turn over their keys?” the tiefling pressed.

“Well, we certainly cannot compel them,” Konstantin said. “But we all have a common interest in dealing with the threat posed by these Blooded, and if the book is somehow connected with their activities…”

“So, hope for the best, is what you’re saying,” Kosk said.

“You have placed yourself in the middle of all this through your actions,” Tamrek said. “If you still seek the answers you said you wanted, then I see no other course but to see this through to the end.”


That's one of the titles of this book!

We begin by revisiting an old friend...

* * *


Chapter 160

It took Kurok the better part of a month to get back to where he had started.

For a time, he wasn’t sure he would make it back at all. The wound in his back became infected, and he spent a week in a cave with a high fever, tormented by vicious dreams and subsisting on bugs and lichens.

It was a different man who returned to the valley where Murgoth’s staging camp had been situated. In place of the powerful, confident warlock that had cowed a dragon was a gaunt, furtive figure, engulfed in the now too-large drape of his cloak that he clutched tight with thin and trembling fingers. But the fire still burned in his eyes, and if it took more time to scramble over the uneven rocks that rimmed the valley, he did not falter.

He did finally pause when he gained a crest that gave him a view of the site of the camp. The valley was mostly empty now, though the debris and detritus of an army that no longer existed remained. A few scavengers were visible here and there, but none of them paid him any attention.

Kurok’s focus was on the one remaining structure, the black tent that still stood atop the rise on the far side of the valley. The standard that had once fluttered atop it was gone, and there was no sign of any activity in or around the tent. But after a moment Kurok started in that direction, moving carefully down the sharp descent to the valley floor.

A few birds scattered at his approach, only to return once he was gone. Kurok tried not to pay too much attention to what they were feasting on. In addition to the heaps of trash and broken gear there were signs of hastily-dug graves throughout the site. He could imagine the scene when the remnants of Murgoth’s defeated army had returned here on their way back to the clanholds deep in the mountains, beyond the vengeful reach of the Arreshian king. The warlock had encountered a few of those fugitives on his long journey back, and they had given him a somewhat fragmented account of all that he had missed. As it happened the side-mission that Zorek had given him might have saved his life, as very few of the Blooded that had accompanied Murgoth had survived the warlord’s crushing defeat at the hands of the human armies. A few of the survivors had cautiously inquired about his plans; apparently the end of Murgoth had already begun a process of resorting as the surviving clan leaders jockeyed for power. Fighting over the crumbs, Kurok thought. He had no interest in getting involved in those squabbles, and in each case the fugitives he’d encounter had let him be, continuing on their flight back to their homes.

The warlock continued his slow trek across the valley floor. This time there were no marching formations or old memories to stand in his way. He still was not quite sure why he had returned. He was somehow not surprised to find the tent still standing, but he doubted that Zorek would have any answers for him. He could still feel his power, burning in his very blood. Was that why he had come, to extract revenge from those who had sent him away to die? He did not know himself.

A few mangy dogs scattered as he neared the far side of the valley. He must have looked like a tempting morsel to them, slow and weak as he was, but perhaps they could sense the wrongness that radiated from him, for they gave him a wide berth before returning to their scavenging. At one point he spotted a solitary goblin digging through a pile of trash with a pointed stick. The pathetic creature gave him a look of challenge as he passed. Kurok ignored him and kept on.

Climbing the far slope took three times as long as the descent. When he finally gained the shelf where the tent stood Kurok paused to catch his breath. The front of the tent stood open, the loose flaps fluttering in the wind. It looked like the interior had been cleaned out, or at least there wasn’t anything to see from his current vantage. Resisting the urge to conjure the Armor of Agathys, the warlock made his way inside.

The interior was dark but held no secrets to Kurok’s eyes. He made his way to the partition that separated off the back part of the tent. His hand lingered as he reached out and took hold of the heavy fabric. It took him another moment to find the seam, his heart pounding his chest. He did not know what he would find behind that curtain, but he had an instinct that it was important.

When he finally pulled the divider aside, he saw something that he had not expected.

It looked like Zorek had been there for quite some time. The aged hobgoblin lay sprawled in his chair, his arms and legs spread wide. His face was frozen in an expression that might have been surprise, or pain, it was hard to tell with his skin drawn taut over his skull. Strangely there was no scent of rot. It looked as though the body had become desiccated somehow, almost like the way some of the southern cultures preserved their dead before sealing them in buried tombs.

“His heart failed,” a voice said from behind him.

Kurok spun and nearly stumbled as his leg got caught in the curtain. He had not heard anyone approaching, and usually his instincts were strong in that area. Perhaps his physical decline had also been accompanied by a hazing of his senses.

A man was standing in the outer entry of the tent. He looked to be a human, finely if not extravagantly dressed, with a broad cape of heavy linen embroidered with golden thread. The cape did not ruffle in the wind, which gave Kurok his first clue as to who this was, if his odd appearance was not sufficient. Even so the warlock was slow to lower his hand, and even slower to release the stored energies of the eldritch blast that he had reflexively summoned.

The human smirked as if he recognized exactly what Kurok had almost done. “It took you long enough to get here,” he said.

“I was not sure I would come back,” Kurok said.

“Where else would you go?” the other asked. He came into the tent and seated himself in a chair just to the right of the entry. Kurok was certain that the chair had not been there before, but he let that go.

“Your chosen appearance, as always, is unusual,” Kurok said.

“And as always, it has significance,” the other said. But this time he let it be, rather than shifting to a form more reassuring to his guest.

“I would not mind if we skipped the preliminary banter this time,” Kurok said. “It has been a long month.”

“I can see. Do not be nervous; I have not planned any punishment for you, even though your mission was a failure.”

“It is a miracle that I am even alive,” Kurok said. “You neglected to note that there would be other Blooded working against me.”

The other shrugged expressively and spread his hands as if to state that such things were of no consequence. “You survived, and thus remain useful.”

“It seems that you have few of your pawns left to you.”

“Ah, you play chess? We shall have to have a game sometime. You are correct in the short term, but remember that you cannot see the entire board. My masters are playing a long game, and the defeat of Murgoth, while unfortunate, was not unexpected.”

“So, the slaughter of several clans was just the necessary sacrifice of a piece that had gotten out of position on the board.”

The other chuckled, though something sharpened in his eyes. “Do not pretend that you care one fig for the fate of your people,” he said. “And remember that you too are a piece, though an important one, at the moment.”

“And if I grow weary of the game?”

“You can always rejoin your kin, if that is your wish. But remember, Kurok, where your power comes from. Those who give, can also take away. But with all your many friends among the clans, I am sure you would be fine either way.”

“Just tell me what you want.”

“I understand that you speak the Common tongue quite fluently.”

There was a time when Kurok might have been caught off-guard by the non-sequitur, but he was getting used to verbal fencing with this adversary. “It was required that all of us learn to speak the human tongue,” he said.

“But even in this, you were more than adequate,” the caped man said. “Our late friend Zorek frequently spoke your praises.”

“What killed him?” Kurok asked.

“His heart seized. I believe it was the strain of bringing me across this last time.”

“Your grief warms my heart,” Kurok said.

The other smiled. “Tell me, were you really going to kill him?”

“I don’t know,” Kurok said. That much, at least, was true. He stepped forward into the room, if only to keep from having the entangling folds of the curtain at his back. There was no second chair, but he doubted he would have felt comfortable enough to sit in any case. “So, you need me to speak Common, wherever it is you are sending me.”

“Yes. The focus of the game has moved to the south.”

“I may speak the language, but I doubt that I would fit in easily in the human lands,” Kurok said dryly. He drew back his cowl to fully reveal his face. His visage had been altered with the changes from his recent ordeal, his skin hanging loose around his jowls and neck and his eyes buried in sunken hollows. But there was no mistaking the deep reddish tint to his skin or the other distinctive features of his hobgoblin heritage.

“Still you doubt me,” the other said. He rose suddenly and stepped toward Kurok. The warlock drew back a step, his hands coming up again in reflex.

“Your wariness is wise, but we have come to a time of decision,” the caped man said. “Stay or go, but if you go now, then there is no coming back.”

Kurok hesitated, long enough that the other’s light expression faded into impatience. But as he opened his mouth to speak the warlock abruptly stepped forward.

“Good,” the caped man said, and without further delay he reached up and seized hold of Kurok’s skull with both of his hands.

Kurok has experienced the visitor’s touch before, but this time the connection was different. It still felt as though someone was tearing him apart from inside, but there was something else, a sensation like insects crawling around inside his skull. When the contact was broken, after what felt like minutes but could have only been a heartbeat or two, he could still feel the echoes of whatever had been done to him.

“What…” he managed to cough out.

“The Mask of Many Faces will prove useful where you are going,” the other said. “You will have a chance to practice, but first, I have something else for you. A companion for your journey.”

“Companion?” Kurok asked, again instantly wary.

“A boon friend, to watch your back and guide you through troubled times,” the other said. As Kurok’s expression deepened into obvious mistrust he laughed and clapped his hands.

The warlock’s eyes darted to the entrance of the tent, but the shifting form materialized out of the shadows behind the caped figure. Kurok’s enhanced vision had not seen him, and again he would have sworn that the space had been empty just a moment earlier, but he knew better than to betray any unease. That was difficult to do when the new arrival stepped forward into the light that spilled in from outside.

The thing was hideous. Its hide was a dusky gray, the color of old ashes. Its body was lean and muscled, but it was its head that drew instinctive attention, an oversized, bulbous orb without any hair covering its surface. Its features were thin and vague, as if a sculptor had started to fashion a man’s face but had lost interest halfway through. Its eyes were striking, dull red orbs without lids that fixed on Kurok intently.

“This is Drekkath,” the caped man said. “Show him.”

Kurok, still caught off guard by the creature’s terrible appearance, at first thought that the command was meant for him. But the creature began to shift, its body altering in form. It wasn’t like the smoother transformations wrought by the caped man; Kurok could see bones and muscles reforming under the creature’s hide as it changed form.

“You’re a changeling,” he said. “A doppleganger.”

The creature’s mouth spread into a smile even as his facial features began to take on definition. His skin formed into clothes, which took on color as it assumed the texture of the fabric.

It could not have taken more than a few seconds altogether, and when it was over Kurok faced a mirror image of himself. It was somewhat startling to see how much his physical aspect had suffered over the last month. He felt a gentle pressure upon his awareness, a brief caress that he might not have noticed if he hadn’t been on his guard.

“My name is Kurok,” the creature said, his lips twisted into a mocking smile. “I’ve been given power that places me far above my race, yet I am tormented with doubts and questions.”

“That’s enough,” the caped man said. Drekkath held Kurok’s gaze for a moment longer, then turned and offered a slight bow to the other. He reached under the cape and drew out a compact leather satchel that he offered to the doppleganger. “This contains everything that you will need. Identity papers, documents, maps, and enough coin to accomplish what you need to do.”

“And what is that, exactly?” Kurok asked.

“For now, travel south into Arresh. The maps will guide you, and there is a list of contacts who will have more information. Needless to say, that documents should be memorized and then destroyed before you leave the mountains.”

“I generally prefer to work alone,” Drekkath said.

“We don’t always get what we want,” the caped man said.

“I will work with you if I must,” Kurok said, stepping forward to confront his mirror image. “But listen to me, and hear my words, creature. Intrude upon my mind again, just once, and I will burn you out from within.”

Drekkath’s mouth spread into an impossibly wide smile, his jaw filling with row upon row of pointed teeth.

“Wonderful,” the caped man said. “So, we all understand each other. Let me add one thing. While you have been off the board, the other pieces have been moving. But the end game is fast approaching. We are coming to a time when a great prize will be within our grasp. You are only part of the forces that are being marshalled to seize control of the coming moment. But know this. Succeed, and the rewards that will come to you will be beyond anything that you might have imagined. Fail… well, perhaps you already know that death is not the worst that can happen, and that it will not in any way be an escape from the oaths you have sworn.”


Chapter 161

Their initial arrival was quite disorienting.

Glori doubted that she would ever get used to this form of travel. One moment they had all been standing in the ornate antechamber in the Apernium that contained the Arreshian wizards’ teleportation circle, and the next they were somewhere far away. That interval, that moment of nonexistence that filled the space between, was something that Glori did not want to think about.

Instead, she tried to focus on her surroundings. As the brief haze that had clouded her senses began to clear she realized that she was somewhere outside. The room in the Apernium had been brightly lit, but the natural sunlight here was nearly blinding. The air was warm but not excessively so, and she could smell both the bright floral scents of growing things and hear the faint buzzing of bees. They were in some sort of natural grove, surrounded by a curved white wall that blended discretely in with the trees and bushes that filled the space. The floor beneath her feet was stone, colored in markings that she realized were part of a large mosaic that filled a space several times broader than the room they had left.

She glanced over to see that her companions were making similar adjustments. Javerin seemed to have regained her composure; that made sense, given that it was her spell that had catapulted them halfway across the continent. The only other members of their company made an odd pair. Kosk looked more himself in his new robes and staff, but the woman next to him, though nearly identically dressed, remained something of an enigma. Glori knew from the wizards’ earlier comments that Embrae Kelandras had been asked to join the embassy because of her connections to the elvish leadership, but neither they nor she had revealed any more details. The elf woman looked to be a little tense as she looked around at their surroundings. She wore only her simple monk’s robe and soft slippers; she’d brought neither weapons nor any other personal belongings with her.

A hint of movement drew Glori’s attention and she belatedly realized that the elves had sent a party to greet their arrival. Blinking against the sunlight, she noted that there were six of them, dressed in an assortment of finery, their formal robes augmented with bright jewels in all of the colors of the rainbow. They all shared the ageless look common among the high elves that she remembered, but she didn’t recognize any of them specifically.

She was about to turn away when she saw him.

It had been years since she’d last seen Majerion, but he hadn’t changed a bit. He was not part of the welcoming committee but rather stood back near the entry to the area, leaning against an ornamental column. His tunic and breeches were perhaps less dusty and of rather finer cut, but he still wore his usual accessories, a rapier on one hip and a golden lyre on the other, with half a dozen bags and pouches hanging between. He caught her eyes and his lips twisted in a smirk that was so familiar that Glori’s breath almost caught in her chest. For all that she’d come here with the intent of confronting him, the sight of him actually standing there in the flesh was too overwhelming even for her anger to overcome.

She was so distracted that she nearly missed the initial round of introductions. Belatedly she heard her name being spoken and forced herself back into the moment. One of the elves had stepped forward ahead of the others, apparently the highest-ranking member of the group. But he barely acknowledged Glori or Javerin, instead stepping forward to bow deeply to Embrae.

“Princess, welcome back to your homeland,” he said.

Glori’s eyes widened, and even Kosk seemed briefly taken aback. Embrae merely looked uncomfortable, and when the other elf did not rise from his pose she said, “Advisor Lendelaine, I am not here in a formal position. For now, treat me as part of this embassy.”

The elf official straightened, but still inclined his head in a gesture of respect. Javerin, perhaps irate at being ignored, cleared her throat and said, “Advisor, we are on a mission of great urgency to both of our peoples. It is important that we secure an audience with King Gevalaine as soon as…”

“The King and the Royal House have removed to the summer estate at Seven Falls,” Lendelaine smoothly interjected, not quite meeting the wizard’s gaze. “Be assured that the Advisory Council has been given full authority to treat with you. We are in constant communication with His Majesty, who is aware of the full… situation.”

“Excellent,” Javerin said. “Then we can begin whenever you are ready.”

“In due time,” Lendelaine said. “You have waited decades to reach out to us, surely a few extra hours will not hurt. Come, we have prepared guest quarters and refreshment for you, to recover from your long journey.”

There was just enough of shift in tone with that last for Glori to recognize it as sarcasm, though she might have missed it without Majerion’s tutelage. As the elves gestured for their guests to follow them, she looked back over at where he’d been standing.

Her former mentor was gone.


Chapter 162

As the visitors made their way into the elven city of Tal Nadesh, they were greeted by one wonder after another.

Glori didn’t remember much of the city from her last visit. She had only been there a few times, the most recent after the death of her parents, when she’d hardly been paying much attention to her surroundings. While the village where the Leliades family had lived had technically been a part of the elven kingdom, theirs had been a border settlement, relatively distant from the shining sun of Tal Nadesh.

The city spread out to cover as much territory as Severon, but that was where the similarity to the human metropolis ended. The buildings were either made of white stone or woods that were almost as pale, but they never crowded together, and even the humblest cottage had a design that drew the eye. The architecture tended toward tall and narrow structures, with turrets and spires that looked almost impossible, that should have collapsed under their own weight. But even the remarkable buildings were not the most striking part of the city. What impressed Glori the most was the landscaping, the beautiful gardens, parks, and orchards that spread everywhere she looked. There was no grid of streets like in Severon, but rather a latticework of paved walks and gravel trails that wound through a sculpted world of natural color and living greenery.

A small river wound through the city, and the elves had put it to work as well, diverting streams that fueled tiered waterfalls and beautiful fountains, some formed to look natural while others sprouted water from elaborate sculpted designs. There were some that made Glori want to stop and stare.

But there were other features that drew her attention as well, and reminded her of why they were here. The soldiers were one. There weren’t many, and most were placed in ways that kept them out of casual view, but there were enough that they were never out of sight of at least one cluster. There was also the subtle way in which space was made for the diplomatic party. They saw elves, groups and individuals going about their daily business, but none of them approached their group or came close enough for even a brief encounter. A few did stop to look at the party as it passed, and Glori wondered what they saw.

Glori kept scanning the crowd for any sign of Majerion, though she doubted she would find any. Clearly, he had just been there to see her and to be seen by her. She remembered that he had a talent for evading detection. She would likely only see him again when he wished her to.

Javerin remained ahead with the bulk of their escorts, engaged in an ongoing conversation with Advisor Lendelaine. Kosk and Embrae walked behind her, with the last two of the elvish party trailing behind as shepherds—or watchdogs, perhaps. She toned out the chatter from ahead when she heard Kosk clear his throat softly.

“Princess?” he asked.

“It’s just an honorary title,” Embrae replied. They were speaking quietly, but Glori could just make out the words without making it obvious that she was trying to listen in. “I am something like thirty-first in line to the throne or something.”

“Still, you might have mentioned it.”

“It was not something I chose. It doesn’t mean anything.”

“Clearly it does to them,” Kosk said.

The two monks didn’t say anything more as they continued their procession into the city. Their destination was about half a mile from the teleportation circle, on the edge of a copse of tall trees. The stone buildings were clearly all part of the same complex, but again were spread out and connected by paths that wound through carefully tended gardens. They crossed a stream and continued over a walkway that passed a dozen rock-lined pools in which colorful fish swam placidly. Glori spotted a pair of peacocks on one of the lawns, and there were other birds in the trees that chirped as they walked past.

“Must be a beast keeping all of this clean,” Kosk muttered.

Lendelaine took them to a cluster of three neat stone cottages that backed up almost to the edge of the woods. “I hope that you will find these quarters comfortable,” he said. “Princess, obviously you will want to—”

“I will remain here with the embassy for now,” Embrae interjected.

Lendelaine looked almost physically pained, but he inclined his head and continued, “There will be a reception and dinner in a few hours to formally welcome you to Tal Nadesh. The cottages contain an assortment of attire that I believe you will find suitable. Kaesla here will be remaining nearby, just let her know if there is anything else you require.”

“Thank you, Advisor,” Javerin said. “I will say again that if there is anything that can be done to expedite the process of these negotiations—”

“I will pass on your concerns,” Lendelaine said.

“Until this evening, then,” Javerin said.

The members of the reception party departed along one of the paths, all save for the elvish woman who was obviously to be their minder. Trying not to be obvious about it, Glori tried to determine if there were guards or any other watchers nearby. She finally gave up on it; from what she knew of the elves their sentries could be a stone’s throw away and she wouldn’t see them if they didn’t want to be seen. That meant that the ones she’d spotted earlier had meant to be seen.

This was going to be a long trip, she thought.

“I believe I would like to get some rest,” Embrae said abruptly. Before any of the others could comment she went into one of the cottages. It looked like each one had at least a few rooms and Glori doubted there would be any issues with crowding.

“A sound idea,” Javerin said. She went into the second cottage. After a shared look Glori and Kosk followed her.

The interior of the cottage was furnished in a simple style, though everything looked to be of exceptional quality and craftsmanship. Javerin went over to a couch near the hearth and settled into it, though she waited until Kosk had closed the door firmly behind him before speaking. “Something on your mind?” she asked.

“What did you know about Embrae’s… status?” Kosk asked.

“Why, all of it, of course,” the wizard replied. “Why do you think she’s here?”

“What makes you think she’ll help you, if she’s a member of the royal house?” Glori asked. “In fact, why did she agree to come here with you?”

“I suppose you’ll have to ask her,” Javerin said. At the looks the other two gave to that statement she added, “Look, it’s obvious that she left her homeland of her own accord. You can already see that this is going to be a difficult negotiation. Anything that can help to grease the wheels is welcome.”

“What kind of leverage do you have over her?” Glori persisted.

Javerin’s eyes narrowed, but Kosk said, “I imagine the Apernium asked Abbot Anaeus for a favor.” The wizard didn’t confirm the comment, but she inclined her head slightly toward the dwarf. “We are all on the same side here,” she said. “Even the elves, though they might not see it that way at first. We are all facing a shared threat, and we are not the only ones seeking access to the Libram. The two of you are here because you have personal experience with that threat, and can hopefully communicate it to our hosts.”

“The elves might understand more than you think,” Glori said. “Remember Starfinder?”

The dwarf nodded. “I don’t remember seeing that name in your report,” Javerin said.

“She was a wizard who hired us to locate a Mai’i artifact, back in Crosspath. That was the first time that we—the four of us, Xeeta came later—met and worked together.”

“Ah, yes, the magic stone of the Eth’barat,” Javerin said. “I do not see how it is connected…”

“Starfinder was an elf,” Kosk said.

“There are many elves in the world, and not all are connected to the power of Tal Nadesh,” Javerin said. As Glori opened her mouth to speak again the wizard quickly continued, “I understand your concern, and share it. Any nugget of potentially relevant information is useful to our cause. The elves obviously have their own agenda, and we would be foolish to forget that.”

“Did you know that the king and his court would be on vacation when we came?” Glori asked.

“No, but I’m not surprised,” Javerin said. “King Gevalaine rarely meets with outsiders. That’s a practice that most of his predecessors have shared.”

“Is this Advisor fellow related to him somehow?” Kosk asked. “Or do all of the elves here just have similar-sounding names.”

“The members of the nobility are all connected in some manner or another,” Javerin said. “They place a great deal of emphasis on status, with elaborate rituals designed to save face or undermine a rival.”

“Not so different from humans, then,” Glori pointed out.

“You seemed quite impatient, earlier,” Kosk said.

“All part of the dance,” Javerin said. “We are here, so we have to play the game by their rules. I would be shocked if we actually got to the topic of the key in the first week of our visit.”

Kosk muttered a curse under his breath at that. “We may not have time for too many games,” Glori said.

“We will have to do our best to move through the preliminary steps as swiftly as possible,” Javerin said.

“What exactly do you want us to do?” Glori asked. “In between the receptions and dinners, that is.”

“They won’t keep us prisoner here, but just be aware that everything that you do, everything that you say, outside these walls will be monitored. Probably everything in them as well, but that cannot be helped. But you should feel welcome to mingle, to meet people. I understand that you have a particular talent in that area, Miss Leliades.”

Glori thought again of Majerion, and how little he had changed, outwardly, at least. “I understand.”

“And you, Master Stonefist?”

“I don’t suppose they brew good ale here,” Kosk said. “I guess we’ll have to make do.”


“And what about Embrae?”

“She is her own person,” Javerin said.

“That wasn’t what I was asking,” Kosk said.

“Nevertheless, that’s all I can tell you,” Javerin said.

“All right,” Glori said. “I suppose I’ll go see what is considered proper formal wear here. I just hope it isn’t petticoats, I hate those.”

She gave Kosk a subtle look as they were leaving. The two of them went to the third cottage, which looked to be laid out in similar fashion to the other two. Glori went to the window of the front room and pulled back the curtain to look outside. Kaesla was sitting in the shade of a nearby plum tree, reading a book, but she didn’t see anyone else watching.

“So, what do you think?” she asked Kosk.

“I think there’s only one person here that I trust,” the dwarf said. “And I think we should watch each other’s backs while we’re here.”

“They’re hardly friendly, but do you think there’s danger here?” Glori asked.

Kosk shrugged. “Why not? There’s been danger everywhere else we’ve gone.” He rubbed his jaw. “I need a shave.”

As he headed into the back rooms of the cottage Glori remained at the window, looking out into the bright sunshine of the day and thinking.


Chapter 163

Javerin, senior wizard of the Apernium, was tired and frustrated as she returned to her quarters the day after her arrival in Tal Nadesh. She did not let her feelings show—would not even when she was tucked into her bed—but that need only added to her unpleasant mood.

The day had been filled with meetings, punctuated by a luncheon where she’d barely gotten a chance to eat a few bites and an evening reception where she hadn’t even managed that. She’d met and spoken with over fifty people, none of whom had the authority to authorize her to take the key to the Vault of the Libram back to Severon. Her mission was no further along than when she had first arrived at the teleport circle more than twenty-four hours previously.

She had told Glori that it might take a week to get through the diplomatic preliminaries and begin the actual negotiations over the key. That was probably true, but at the moment the thought of six more days of this made her want to scream.

The door to her cottage was unlocked and swung open easily at her touch. There were no lights in the other two cottages but it was early yet. Glori, Kosk, and Embrae had been at the reception but had left early, no doubt tired from their own day exploring the city and doing things far more interesting than attending meeting after meeting.

Javerin would debrief them later, but right now she just wanted a snack and a glass of the fine brandy that the elves had left for their guests. They did not stint on the creature comforts, at least. They’d even laid a small fire in the hearth against the chill of the evening, though the mild summer nights in the elven kingdom made it hardly necessary.

She was halfway to the kitchen when she realized that she was not alone. She turned, her hand starting to glow as she called upon her magic.

A slender figure draped in a dark cloak emerged from the shadows of the hall that led to the back of the house. “Apologies, Ambassador,” the figure said. “I did not mean to startle you. The door was open.”

Javerin eased her posture but did not release her magic. The faint light of the fire revealed few details of the stranger, who wore a cowl that covered her face. Or at least Javerin guessed it to be a woman; she spoke so softly it was difficult to be certain.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“Merely a humble messenger,” the other said. “I have come with a gift for you from the Druid of the Wood, a small gesture of his regard.”

She reached under her cloak, and Javerin tensed again for a moment until the stranger drew out a plant in a shallow clay pot. It was a tree, or at least it looked like one, a detailed, miniature tree. Tiny pink flowers sprouted from branches that were otherwise covered in greenery.

“Ah, thank you,” Javerin said. She was not interested in owning a tiny tree, especially when it delayed her from getting her dinner—and her drink—but her briefings had mentioned the Druid, a figure of some importance in the elven hierarchy. When the cowled woman came forward and presented the tree, she accepted it with a slight bow.

“Ah… how do I care for it?”

“It needs very little,” the messenger said.

“Well, be sure to tell the Druid that I appreciate his gesture,” Javerin said as she bent to place the tree on the small table in the front room. “Will he be joining us at tomorrow’s reception?”
When she didn’t get an answer, she straightened and turned back with a frown. The messenger was gone. Javerin stepped over to the hall, but she wasn’t there. She must have exited by the front door; if she’d gone to the bedrooms in the back the only way out would be to crawl through one of the windows.

“Elves,” the wizard said under her breath.

She went to the kitchen and put together a plate of flatbread, cheese, and fruit from the stores there. She did not forget the brandy, pouring a generous portion into one of the bulb-shaped glasses arranged in the cupboard. She brought her dinner back into the front room and set the plate down onto the table next to the odd plant. She stared at it as she sat on the couch and sipped at her brandy. The thing was really uncanny, almost as if someone had taken a regular tree and somehow shrunk it down so that it was only a foot tall.

Well, weird gifts were probably just a part of being an ambassador. She straightened and started to reach for the food.

Something strange caught her attention. Had the tree just… moved?. Wary, she reached out a hand and brushed one of the tiny branches with a fingertip.

She felt a sudden jolt of pain and drew her hand back. A small bead of blood was visible on her finger. She carefully examined the branch and saw that the tree had tiny thorns that she’d missed earlier.

Figures that the elves’ gift would have a hidden threat, Javerin thought as she munched on a slice of cheese. She made a mental note to ask more about the Druid when she established communication with her superiors back in Severon in the morning. At least the elves had been polite enough not to place a Warding upon their guests’ residences, that would have made that daily ritual inconvenient. Of course, any such warding would likely have interfered with their ability to spy on their guests as well.

She finished the cheese and lay back on the couch. She was still hungry but felt suddenly tired. She closed her eyes, telling herself that she would just rest for a few moments. She still had to take down her notes on the day’s encounters and prepare her report for the morning link.

But within a few heartbeats a deep sleep had claimed her.


Chapter 164

It took Bredan and the others several days just to reach the border of the dwarves’ lands.

The first part of the journey took but an instant. Konstantin’s teleport spell brought the diplomatic party—consisting only of the wizard, Bredan, Quellan, and Xeeta—to a citadel named Five Spires, on the easternmost borders of the Kingdom of Arresh. The fort was surrounded by a harsh landscape of steep hills, but looming over all of it was a vast range of mountains that stretched across the horizon like a wall. Bredan knew without having to ask that within those mountains was their destination.

The first few days passed smoothly enough, though the road was hardly easy. The commander of the fort ordered that horses and supplies be made available to them, and even provided an escort to take them as far as the border. There were only a few settlements in the hills, but the Arreshian soldiers knew the landscape and they were able to cover a lot of ground. They spent the first night in a fortified tower through which they could hear the constant whistling of the wind throughout the long night. They got an early start the next morning, though as the day advanced the road become steeper and more difficult. They had entered the mountains proper, and when they looked behind them all they could see were more of the peaks that seemed to stretch out ahead of them for an eternity.

That afternoon the officer leading their escort called a halt. Bredan didn’t know what was happening at first, until Quellan pointed out the blockish stone stele the size of a cart that stood along the edge of the road. The warrior had thought it a boulder at first, but as he looked at it more closely he could make out the runes etched deeply into its surface.

“Wait, this is the border?” he asked. “That’s it? From what you’d described of the relations between the dwarves and their neighbors I thought there’d be at least a guard post or something.”

“The dwarves know we’re here,” Konstantin said.

Once the escort had departed, leaving just their four horses and one pack animal, the companions resumed their trek forward.

“This must be a rough road in winter,” Xeeta said.

“Hardly seems worth having a road at all, given the lack of travelers,” Quellan noted.

“The dwarven nation has little communication with other realms,” Konstantin said. “Though there is some trade within the mountains, and a number of settlements within valleys and other places where crops can be cultivated and animals pastured. Ironcrest is the leading city of the dwarves, but they do not all dwell within their mountain holds.”

“How much longer will it take to get there?” Xeeta asked.

“I am not entirely certain,” Konstantin said. “The route does not seem that long on a map, but as you have noted it is quite different in actuality. We will need to pass at least one more night in the mountains, however.”

“I suppose it would be asking too much to expect to find an inn along the way,” Quellan said.

“You’ve gotten spoiled from all that time in Severon,” Xeeta said.

“There are prepared stations for wayfarers in the mountains,” Konstantin said. “Or at least such are indicated on the maps. If not, we have tents on the pack horse.”

“Can’t you just conjure up a magical palace or something?” Xeeta asked the wizard.

“Sadly, that spell is not one that I have mastered,” Konstantin said. “There have been many cold nights when I have wished that was the case, however.”

“I wonder why the dwarves didn’t send a welcoming party,” Quellan asked. “After going through the trouble to issue an invitation.” He glanced over at Bredan, but the young warrior had seemed distracted through most of the trip, not participating in the various discussions that the other three had engaged in for much of the trip. Konstantin and Quellan had each read many books about the histories of the three nations and the politics between them, giving them plenty to talk about, and for her part Xeeta had a surprisingly diverse collection of knowledge given the relatively constrained nature of her upbringing.

They were making their way up a series of switchbacks when Quellan rode up next to Bredan. “How do you think the others are faring?” the cleric asked.

“Probably better than we are,” Bredan said. “They teleported right into Tal Nadesh, right? They probably already have their part of the key and are waiting for us in Severon.”

“Somehow I cannot quite picture Kosk as a diplomat,” Quellan said.

“Maybe he went up to the elvish ambassador and punched him in the face,” Bredan said. Both men laughed, and for a moment some of the weight that had settled onto the warrior since their experiences in Severon seemed to lift. But then a sudden cold wind gusted along the trail, forcing them to pull their cloaks tightly around their bodies, and the breeze seemed to take their levity away with it.

“It’s strange, being separated after so long together,” Quellan said after a moment.

Bredan looked over at the half-orc. After having gone through so much with the cleric it was easy sometimes to forget the impression he presented to others. The half-orc looked fierce, perhaps even feral, but Bredan knew that there was a sensitive soul within that harsh exterior. “I’m sure they’re fine,” he said. “Glori knows how to handle herself, and Kosk is, well, Kosk.”

Quellan smiled. “Yes, I’m sure you’re right. And I suppose we should focus on our own mission, and what the dwarves want from us in exchange for the key.”

“We’ll find out soon enough,” Bredan said. He hunched forward in his saddle as the road narrowed ahead, cutting off further conversation.

The sun was just touching the summit of the latest rise behind them when they found one of the waystations that Konstantin had spoken of. It was subtle enough that they almost missed it, a narrow opening in the rocks that had the look of a cave until one got close enough to see the heavy wooden door recessed within.

The waystation consisted of two bare stone rooms, one for the travelers and one for their horses. It didn’t look like anyone had stayed there recently, but there were caches of chopped firewood, water, and dry foodstuffs carefully wrapped in oilcloth pouches. A simple hearth had been cut into the stone below what looked like a natural chimney, through which the wind whistled softly.

“It may not be an inn, but it’s preferable to sleeping outside,” Konstantin said.

It did not take them long to get their horses settled and to build a fire to cook their evening meal. For all his rank and power, Konstantin was both willing and able to do his share of the tasks, even summoning a flash of magical fire to ignite the logs stacked in the hearth. The stored food was mostly root vegetables and ground meal, but augmented with what they’d brought with them it made a hearty meal. Mostly it was hot and filled their bellies, and after the long and difficult day of travel they were quick to retire to their bedrolls. Bredan offered to keep the first watch, so after checking on the horses he sat down next to the fire, situating himself so that he could clearly see the entry.

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