Copyright 1993 by Edward Keyes
Overlooking the peaceful farming village of Bourbafon was a mountain. Or rather a hill that evidently wanted very much to be a mountain, for it had adopted the standard mountain practice of not allowing trees upon its higher reaches. Rocky and lifeless, a mountain in miniature.
The earliest settlers hadn't really liked the looks of it, but the ground around was fertile and the seasons lovely, so one slight eyesore was permitted to intrude upon their paradise. As time passed, Bourbafon Rise, as it came to be called, gradually sunk from the consciousness of the villagers, becoming no more than a backdrop in front of which the events in their life took place.
And events indeed took place in quiet little Bourbafon. Young men grew up to marry the girl next door and continue the family farms for another generation. Reckless adventurers began heroic campaigns against the forces of evil that were always bothering people in less idyllic locations, some never to return. And old men, rich with their age and experience, told stories of their valiant adventures in years long gone by.
When a stranger from the south took a fancy to the place for some mysterious reason and decided to build a castle on it, the construction on Bourbafon Rise was not noticed for several months. Of course, aesthetically, the castle should match the mountain: barren, lifeless, and small, and so it was planned to be.
"It must be a duke's stronghold!" "But no one in their right mind would build a castle there!" "Maybe he's a stranger from the western deserts, used to wastelands." "No, it must be some great and powerful wizard, wanting to be left alone!" So the rumors of the town circulated for some time. Bourbafon Rise, so long forgotten, became the center of speculation and interest for the first time in its existence.
Inquiries with the builders proved enigmatic: either they did not know their boss or he chose to tell them very little. When finally the construction was finished and the workmen vanished, Bourbafon Castle stood there alone as an upwelling of the Rise itself, for it was built from local stone and tended to blend in a bit. No activity of any sort was observed, save for the supply wagon that arrived like clockwork once a month from the south.
The people of the town had expected the new residents of the Castle to visit the town, introduce themselves, and become a part of village life and culture. No one came. Months elapsed, and many began to think that the Castle was without tenants, except for the fact of the supply wagon.
Finally some reckless adventurers, although not so reckless as to actually want to leave sweet Bourbafon, decided that it was prudent to welcome their new resident to town. Four of them hiked nervously up the forboding Rise, and one bravely pounded on the door, the typical medieval greeting. The others were busy taking in the sight of the Castle, which seemed almost to have been constructed with the effect of its shadows in mind, and in fact it had. Irregular blotches of black threw themselves on the party of four as the outcroppings of the mountain and the Castle momentarily blocked the rays of the Sun.
The oppressive silence was finally lifted with the slight creak of the massive door being swung open. Though the area was deep in shadow, the man who answered the door blinked as if stunned by what little light did exist there. He stood calmly and silently, obviously waiting for his visitors to announce themselves.
The silence continued for a long second as the group of four took in the sight of this apparition. It was a man, taller than average but thin for his height, dressed in a flowing black robe. Regular black somehow seemed even blacker when he wore it, for it was contrasted with the whiteness of his hair and the paleness of his skin. But though his hair was white, he was not an old man, but rather one in the transition from youth to middle age: early 30's would be a good guess.
In all his person, beyond the black and white of his robe and skin, there were only two bits of color: the holy symbol on a silver chain around his neck, and his eyes. The former took the four by surprise, for it was a white skull on a background of bright red and yellow, the holy symbol of Wee Jas, caretaker of the dead. And the latter elicited even more surprise, for he was staring expectantly at them out of wide open eyes with irises of reddish violet.
"An albino!" someone muttered under their breath. "He must be Suloise," another muttered in response. If the man heard such comments he did not react to them. A tense moment passed, and then the self-appointed leader of the four drew in a breath, stepped forward, extended his hand, and announced:
"Greetings to you, friend, from the citizens of Bourbafon! Although you have picked an unpleasant site amidst the beauty of the Valley, we hope you will be happy here and look forward to your visits to the town. I am Dominin Kennere, and these are my associates, Simeon son of Marcus, Elena of Petravarden, and my brother Voriax."
A moment passed in which the man was expected to introduce himself.
Then he spoke, in a quiet voice, "Greetings to you all. I am Korel. Please accept my apologies for neglecting my social duties, for I have been kept very busy with the troubles of moving in and the demands of my work these past months."
Eying the holy symbol, Elena asked, "Your devotions?"
With a slight instinctive movement to touch the symbol around his neck, Korel smiled and replied, "No, the priesthood is mainly in my past. At present I am conducting independent thaumaturgical research."
The word "thaumaturgical" evidently was over the heads of the four, so Korel added, "Magic," by way of explanation.
A chorus of "ah, yes"s erupted. "Well, then, Korel, you should come with us and pay a visit to the town mage. Perhaps old Alvadale can help you out!" Dominin said with a smile.
Korel considered this for a moment. "Yes, you may be right. A visit to town is far overdue. I have some arrangements to make there at any rate." He turned around, extended his arm, and a staff flew into his hand from some dark corner. "Come on, Narabal," he said, and a small black cat trotted up out of the shadows and let out a quiet "mew" at his heels. "Lead on, then!" he said, and followed the four down the Rise, staff in hand and familiar by his side.
Later that week, Dominin and his companions were discussing those events in the town tavern, The Tipsy Owl.
"Has anyone seen Korel in town since that day?" Simeon asked.
"No, he just came, met with the mayor, the jeweler, and some livestock salesmen, paid an absolute minimum of social calls, then disappeared," Voriax replied.
"He just left?"
"No, I mean disappeared. As in 'into thin air'. He was talking to Joshua the butcher, then he concluded his business, bid him farewell, mumbled something under his breath, and just vanished. 'POP!' and he was gone. Scared the shit out of me, let me tell you!"
"Did you speak to Joshua?" Dominin asked.
"Yes, I did. He said that Korel had made arrangements for a number of live sheep and cattle to be delivered to his Castle in the next couple of weeks."
"Joshua wouldn't say, but I definitely got the impression that it was much more than one man and a cat could eat in a year, even if he was going to slaughter them himself."
"Maybe he's going to raise the animals to sell."
"No, he bought them fully grown. And besides, where would cattle graze on that lifeless rock?" Voriax said.
"Hmmm. Elena, did you talk to Alvadale?" Dominin asked.
"Yes," she responded, "he's convinced that Korel is indeed a magician. Unfortunately, Korel didn't say anything about his 'research' so we don't have any notion what his specialty is."
"Oh, come on, Elena! Think!" Dominin said. "He wears black. He has a holy symbol of Wee Jas, patron deity of magic and death. He's very secretive about his work. He's obviously..." Dominin paused for a second, glanced around and lowered his voice and whispered, "a necromancer."
This elicited a gasp of surprise, then murmurs of agreement from the three. "So what do we do about it?" Elena asked.
"Do we want a necromancer, a harbinger of death, in our peaceful Valley? Of course not. I'll tell you what we're going to do," Dominin said, then lowered his voice and began to outline his plan. The others just listened and nodded.
Across the barren heights of the Rise a horrible sound echoed as a soul was ripped from its body.
Deep in the heart of the Castle, in the natural cavern above which the Castle had been built, Korel stood. His feet were planted firmly on the smooth rock floor, within an elaborate warding pentagram engraved and inlaid into the stone.
One hand was raised high over his head, holding a large crystal that looked like smoky quartz. The other hand was placed on the forehead of a cow that had been firmly chained to the floor and wall.
Korel was breathing deeply, recovering from the shock and ecstasy of the transfer, his white hair and black robe flowing in a breeze, even though there could be no breeze this far underground.
The cow was slumped lifelessly on the ground, its eyes wide open, staring in mute terror at its killer. Korel glanced into its eyes, which formerly had been big and brown, typical of Valley cattle. Now the irises were gone, totally drained of color. Only the wide black pupil remained in the field of white.
Korel now looked at the brown crystal in his other hand, which had formerly been clear. The soul, and the life-energy, of the cow was there now.
Finally the transfer had worked. Korel fingered the rapidly healing scars on his face and hand, given to him by an exploding crystal the first time he had tried.
When he had set out upon this series of experiments, wanting to find a way to create life-energy storage, he hadn't anticipated a lot of what he found. As is widely known in the thaumaturgical community, all magic takes a toll on its creator. Lesser spells leave the magician somewhat drained of energy, a little tired, but no more than physical exertion does: recovery is swift. But higher magics can take a heavier penalty. It is said that the most powerful spell known, the "Wish", drains you of five years of your life.
For Korel, who one day intended to learn and use that spell, this was too high a price. There must be some way, he thought, that life-energy from another person or creature can be drained instead of his own. And so he began his research, trying to find a way to take and store souls in gems for later use.
Back at the Academy, such talk was strongly prohibited. The taking of life was not an option for a white magician, as the Academy trained students to become. Even those few friends whom he trusted enough to share his thoughts with were doubtful of the method's success.
But today he had finally succeeded with an animal. He glanced once more at the poor beast's eyes. He really hadn't anticipated the phenomenon of the eyes. It took him by surprise the first time, staring into those clear irises where once had been blue or brown.
Evidently there's more to do with the eyes than just seeing. Perhaps the nature of the soul is visible there, he thought.
"Now is the time to move on to humans," he muttered to himself. Narabal mewed in agreement from the corner. Of course, Korel thought, this must be handled very delicately, for although humans and humanoids were the most powerful and useful source of life-energy, they were also intelligent and couldn't be bought and sold like cattle. A pity, that.
Matters of pragmatic need filled Korel's mind, but not once did a moral thought cross it. His quest was power, and if he needed to take life to reach that goal, so be it.
Overcome with the success of the experiment, Korel raised his arms and head and laughed out loud, and the laughter echoed around the cavern.
Yes, the eyes are the windows to the soul, and Korel's were blood-red.
Korel had considered his position carefully. Unfortunately, Bourbafon was a close-knit community: simply taking a few of the inhabitants for his experiments would be bound to cause problems. Yes, they were docile farmers, and with any luck they would remain that way. He would have to look elsewhere for subjects.
In neighboring towns the rumors started to fly. In rough taverns across the county people muttered about the terrible necromancer, the Wizard of Bourbafon Rise, and the unspeakable horrors he had already accomplished before coming here to menace the Valley.
News of the far-off Red Death even became connected with Korel. No longer merely a necromancer, his reputation had inflated into the very embodiment of evil, creator of plagues and bringer of death to all that beheld him.
Of course, not one of the adventurers who heard such tales, even the few that believed them, would have guessed that most of the rumors had been started by Korel himself, acting through magical means to carry rumors on the whisper of the winds to distant towns.
It will begin soon, Korel thought. All was going according to plan. If he couldn't get subjects from Bourbafon, he must get them from far-away places where they will not be immediately missed.
And who other than the ubiquitous adventurers, wanderers in search of a challenge, could be better for that purpose?
With the fortress-like walls of the Castle around him and his own arsenal of magic at his fingertips, he wasn't afraid of whoever might answer his challenge: after all, adventurers always came in relatively small groups.
He glanced over at Narabal, dozing on one of his many bookshelves. The only problem, he thought, is having to keep some of them alive.
At least until he could complete his experiments, that is.
All in all, the performance was going rather well. Danwald Allander Johando Rickmantolde, Minstrel of Hookhill, a.k.a. "Silver Fingers Johando" or "Allander, Master of the Five Daggers" (Dan to his friends) risked a break in his concentration to give the audience a good once-over. Usually it didn't really matter to him who listened to his playing, but eye contact was always good for a few extra coins in the hat, so to speak.
Actually he was pretty pleased with this audience. For most first performances in a new town, he had resorted to the old "Instant Audience" conjuring trick infamous among bards of lesser talent and scruples. But this one was genuine: they wouldn't disappear after a performance when no one was looking, and the money they put out would stick around for a while, too.
Actually, he didn't understand it. No one should have heard of him here, but the audience was larger than typical for a town this size. Then he looked a bit closer, almost missing a chord on the harp in his division of efforts. Most of these people look like travelers, he thought. There must be something going on in this town to draw them here, besides the promise of an evening of music, that is.
He had plenty more songs left, for he had concentrated on the more popular tunes in this backwoods town, but an internal clock told him that he should cut the performance pretty soon. For one reason, that would leave him something new for tomorrow night, when the informal reviews from tonight had circulated the town. And secondly, he could feel his magic control over his instrument slipping.
So he wrapped it up, took his bows to more than courteous applause, and went backstage to where he had put his backpack containing all his possessions (at least those not hidden on his person).
The beautiful harp in his arms began to melt.
In the course of a few seconds, it had reformed itself into a fabulous golden flute, which Dan started to disassemble and put in its case. An ordinary bard wouldn't have needed such a fancy flute, but such high quality was needed in a small instrument to correspond to the needed quality in the much larger harp when he transmuted it. Magic might defy logic, but it was not without rules.
In the midst of packing, Dan allowed his mind to wander. In a different world, he thought, magic would be my life instead of just one tool among many. With a different childhood, now he would be sequestered in some tall wizardly tower instead of out on the wilderness trails of the world.
In a way, it was probably the greatest service his parents could have done him to have abandoned him the way they did, for right now, he wouldn't trade the open road and the open sky for all the books in the world. Once he thought differently, cursing his parents for not having the courage to accept a half-breed and fuming when he was turned down at the Abradene Magic Academy for lack of proper sponsorship.
Well, in his own way he had shown them, for he knew some tricks now that no pale-skinned, world-ignorant bookworm could have picked up, both magical and otherwise.
Now he was a bard, quick of fingers and quick of wit, jack of all trades and master of a few, carefree, seeing the wonders of the world.
And he wouldn't go back to Abradene now even if they offered him the Sorcerer's Chair.
Dan always kept a finger on the pulse of a town, and this one's beat was more frantic than usual. Adventurer types apparently were converging here from quite some distance away, and table talk seemed to concentrate on some necromancer a few towns over.
Everyone was wondering which group would be the first to go after him. Would it be the warriors, the Band of the Jeweled Sword? The thieves, the Gang of Crossed Daggers? The all-wizard group, the Wandering Wandsmen? Or any one of the little-known and all but nameless adventuring bands put together more by chance than conscious effort?
"If only the Ahk Del Xundus were here..." someone was saying. That legendary band who once took care of six necromancers, in the Vale of the Mage, no less! Indeed, one pitiful necromancer couldn't stand a chance against them! But, sadly for bards everywhere, the group had apparently disbanded after that event, no doubt to live like kings on their treasure, although there was some talk of several of the members perishing in the attempt.
Dan had heard something of this tale, probably more so than many people, since he had travelled among the bards near the Vale for some time. He decided the time was opportune for an appropriate musical tale. Drawing out his flute, he mumbled something under his breath, and the flute melted and reformed into a beautiful silver lute. He plucked a few chords on it to see if it was still in tune, cleared his throat for a little attention, then began:
The Vale of the Mage had a problem, you see,
Half a dozen evils, those necromancers six.
So the kings of the realm sent out a great plea:
"Help us, oh help us, we're in such an awful fix!"
And a cry came up from the peoples of the land:
"Protect us from these six horrors among us!"
To answer this call came none but one band,
The brave adventurers of Ahk Del Xundus.
Great were the treasures they had found,
And great were the battles they had won.
Now the four to the Vale of the Mage were bound,
Led by that master of stealth, the Dark One.
To the tower they went, six wizards to kill,
And the halls of the tower stained with red,
But when battle stopped two wizards lay still,
And the other four in terror had fled.
The band gave chase, the wizards did fly,
And finally found courage, finally turned to fight.
Swords pierced the air, magics cut the sky!
And horrible Death was out in force that night.
The Dark One had made a solemn pledge:
To rid the world of these six was his vow,
Though he came right up to Death's edge,
Six heads in a bag had he now.
The conclusion to the tale brought thunderous applause amid a rain of coins, most of which ended up in Dan's wide-brimmed hat, specially selected for its large coin-catching area. The musician in him was very pleased with the song, particularly the meaning of the structure of the song: six stanzas of four lines each, symbolizing the struggle of the four adventurers against the six necromancers.
The audience was calling for more, so he strummed out a tale of another necromancer, a veritable king of the undead in the sewers of a city to the east, as told to him by a bard who had actually been on the adventuring party to dispose of him. And so his evening was spent, much like it always was, at the center of attention in some seedy little tavern far from the evils of the world.
As he was singing this next song, he thought of that bard who had told him this tale. Dressed all in black he was, and amazingly good with knives. What a great experience it must be, he thought, to actually live out the songs you sing, to be a part of epic battles of good against evil!
Perhaps he should see about going along with one of these bands going after the newest necromancer.
It would certainly provide a wealth of new material for his act.
When Dominin arrived at the town of Trementa, he was stunned that the people of the town were already talking of Korel, though not by name. He was now "The Wizard of Bourbafon Rise" to them.
Dominin cursed to himself. His cunning plan of spreading rumors to bring adventurers to Bourbafon was totally useless: someone had beaten him to it. Visions of him leading the charge (from a safe distance) with two dozen fierce warriors to confront Korel were now nothing more than dreams. Who would hear the as-yet-untold tale of "Dominin the Brave Slayer of Necromancers" now? Who would accept him as leader when they had already heard the rumors from someone else?
Time to drown his sorrows in drink, and perhaps think of another plan.
The evening was winding down. Patrons of the tavern were staggering home to their wives and kids, all of whom were hopefully in bed by this hour. Dan was finishing up an encore presentation of "The Black Six and the Dark One" and decided to call it a night.
He arranged for a room upstairs and ordered a late-night snack. Ordinarily he would be sleeping under the stars, but the comforts of a mattress were not to be lightly overlooked, and if fate should bring him to Trementa, why then he should stay in town a little while.
He had made some discreet inquiries among the patrons of the bar, asking if any band might have use for a bard's skills. Unfortunately, most of the bands here seemed well-established and unwilling to take on a newcomer at this late stage.
Some of the lesser-known bands might have been willing, but Dan felt it was imperative to be among one of the bands which would attempt the adventure first. After all, it was no use joining a band now and arriving next week to find the necromancer already dispatched last Thursday. This might work for simple plunderers, but plundering was not fit for song.
The one thing working in his favor was talk of the terrible terrain around the Castle, of pits and chasms hidden from view by nature and magic. This delayed those parties which would have already set out. Guides were much in demand: trackers and those who claimed to be locals.
Although many patrons of the bar had left, Dan noticed a few still lounging around. One in particular set off his finely-tuned "pick pocket target" sense, an obviously drunk fellow sitting by himself off in a corner. On an ordinary night, Dan might have felt obligated to relieve the fellow of his prominently displayed money pouch. After all, if you aren't smart enough to hold on to what you have, you don't deserve to keep it. But tonight the tips had been generous, and Dan had no particular love of money besides its value in obtaining his necessities of life, which were modest by most standards.
On an impulse, Dan took his snack over to the man's table and tried to start up a conversation, hoping the man looked more drunk than he was.
"Hey there, friend," he said, "I'm Johan the bard, Silver Fingers Johando they call me. Mind if I have a seat?"
Dominin looked up from the rim of his mug to see a bright sight in this dreary tavern. Through his slightly blurred vision he saw a short, light man dressed in a maroon tunic with streaks of yellow and navy. He wore a wide-brimmed hat with some sort of feather in it that did not do much to contain his longer-than-average blonde hair. "Looks like a fairy," he thought, and his befuddled mind did not really know which type of fairy he meant. "Must have some elf in his blood."
His gaze fell next on to the silver lute the man was carrying. That's right, he said he was a bard. Dominin hadn't been paying much attention to the entertainment this evening, torn between his failed plan and the call of the ale. Suddenly the lute began to melt in the man's hands. Dominin sat bolt upright, startled and suddenly much more sober. As he watched in fascination the molten mass of metal reformed into a golden flute, which the bard calmly put away.
Open-mouthed, Dominin swept out his arm in a gesture of acceptance. "Pull up a chair," he said, "but if your hat starts to melt, I'm going to have to switch to a different brand of ale!" They both laughed. Dominin was no stranger to magic, having watched old Alvadale alter his own features at will. But he hadn't seen the stranger's lips move. It was a powerful mage, indeed, who could do magic without spoken incantations.
"So what brings you to town?" Dominin asked by way of conversation.
Between munches on his snack, Dan replied, "Oh, I'm a traveler at heart, although here I seem to be only one among many. All this necromancer talk has sure brought them out of the woodwork."
"Yes, I know. Actually, I've just come from Bourbafon, my hometown. Dominin Kennere's my name. 'Twas I who stupidly welcomed Korel to town, bid him come to town to meet the mayor. What was I thinking?"
"Did he then lay waste to the village? Enslave the mayor as a mindless zombie?"
"What? No, nothing of the sort, just ordered some cattle and left."
"Well, when did he release the plague of poison mosquitos?"
"Huh? He never did anything like that."
"What has he done, then? Are any of these rumors true?"
"No, he just seemed content to be left alone. Of course, having a necromancer around is like a delayed-blast fireball in my opinion. You never know when he'll just go off. But so far he seems okay. Wouldn't mind getting rid of him, though. Doesn't fit in with Bourbafon's image, you know." In his tipsy state, Dominin was telling the truth. Sober, he would have spouted lies about Korel's plans to steal the souls of everyone in the town, never knowing that the lies would have been very much closer to the truth.
As Dan absorbed this news, a powerfully-built man approached them and addressed Dominin.
"Excuse me, sir, but I couldn't help overhearing your claim that your are a native of Bourbafon. Is this true?"
A little taken aback, Dominin only managed, "Yes, it is." Dan immediately saw where the conversation was heading and quickly thought how he could turn this to his advantage.
"In that case," the man continued, "I am Urthur, leader of the Band of Steel Heart. We are planning to leave for Bourbafon in the morning and are in much need of a guide. I will offer you two hundred pieces of gold for your services."
Dominin was obviously calculating his wages as a blacksmith against this offer, a bit of math made no less easy by his inebriation. The result evidently pleased him, for he smiled and said, "That sounds like a very generous offer, and I would be happy..."
"...to have you discuss the matter with his agent," Dan cut in, flashing a look and a wink at a stunned Dominin. "Who happens to be me."
"Uh, Very well," Urthur said, glancing from Dominin to Dan and back.
"Of course, I will have to accompany Mr. Kennere."
"Of course, if you insist."
"I'm not sure if you are aware, Arthur..."
"Whatever. I'm not sure if you are aware of the demand for competent guides to Bourbafon, particularly those who know the ways of the treacherous Rise itself and have lived to tell the tale. Mr. Kennere already has an appointment with the Seven Swords."
"Oh, I see. Well..."
"But the Seven are not planning to leave for three days, and Mr. Kennere is eager to return home and rid the land of this foul plague. So if you could match the Seven's offer, we'd be happy to accompany you instead."
"Five hundred gold pieces up front and a tenth of the treasure recovered."
Dominin had been playing along mainly because he was drunk and this seemed like fun, but that sum seemed pretty steep for a guide. He was tempted to cut it off right there and take the two hundred as he tried to do before, but he couldn't get a word in edgewise past the quick-talking bard.
"That is absurd!" Urthur roared.
Dan retained his calm. "If you cannot accept those terms, I'm afraid we'll have to stay with the Seven's offer. I do hope you don't get waylaid by bandits or fall into a chasm when you go, though. We'll look for your bodies when we come by a few days later in case any of you is still alive."
"Oh, did I mention that Mr. Kennere knows the necromancer by sight? Silly me. Yes, he went on a reconnaissance mission to the Castle last week. Why, the tales he told almost turned me to stone!"
"Well, in that case, I am prepared to offer you..."
At this point Dan jumped up and savagely whispered in Urthur's ear, "If you are about to bargain with him, I wouldn't try it. These countrymen consider it a great offense for you to lessen their worth by offering less than they ask. Take it or leave it, but for goodness' sake don't try to make a deal!" Then he sat back down and resumed his pleasant demeanor.
Urthur seemed stunned, but cleared his throat and said, "Very well, Mr. Kennere, I accept your offer. Five hundred gold pieces payable tomorrow when we set out and ten per cent of the treasure, but no magic items, understood?"
At the phrase "no magic items" Dan cringed and slightly shook his head, simultaneously poking Dominin under the table so he started as well. Dan glared at Urthur, clearing his throat.
"My mistake," Urthur said, bowing a little to Dominin, "I meant to say ten per cent of the treasure and an equivalent cut of the magic items. Satisfactory?"
Dan turned to Dominin, who muttered, "Yes, very well."
"We will see you at dawn tomorrow here outside the inn," Dan said. At that, Urthur nodded and left.
Dan exhaled. Then he turned to Dominin. "I hope you see how I helped you out here."
"Yes, thank you, I think, but how did you know I knew my way up the Rise?"
"You said you welcomed Korel to town. You must have gone to him, right?"
Dominin smiled. "Of course. Shall we split our cut fifty-fifty?"
Dan smiled even more broadly. "You shall have four of our five hundred gold pieces and three quarters of our share of treasure, but I lay claim to our magic items, for I can use them while you, I assume, cannot. Agreed?"
"Agreed." Dominin was very pleased with the deal. As the bard left, he reflected on the good this had done. What was his name, Johan? Anyway he had doubled the fee coming to him and obtained a cut of the treasure besides, all at the cost of some few magic items he wouldn't know what to do with anyway. He must remember to thank this Johan when they set off for home.
Dominin was about to buy another drink to toast his success when he noticed that his money pouch was missing. No doubt stolen, he thought. Oh, well, he already had a room, and there would be four hundred gold pieces coming his way tomorrow morning.
Still, he didn't remember anyone getting close to him but this Johan fellow.
"Nah, couldn't be."
In his room that night, Dan rejoiced in his luck. Not only had he been able to talk himself into a band going after the necromancer, but one leaving tomorrow morning at that, before most of the parties were planning to set off. And besides that, they were playing him to come along, and giving him a share of treasure and magic items besides. The gods must be smiling on him tonight: he hadn't even needed to charm Urthur with a handy spell.
Now back to business, he thought, and got out the pouch containing his earnings for the night, proceeding to count it and add it to his main moneybag. "Not bad," he said to himself. "It's a shame I'll be leaving tomorrow."
Then he reached inside his tunic and brought out a familiar-looking pouch, dumping its contents on the bed for sorting, noting with pleasure an expensive-looking ruby.
"Sorry, Dominin, I couldn't resist."
That first band was pretty pitiful.
Korel didn't even have to leave his tower to dispose of them. Just one well-placed fireball was all it took as they snuck up from the north, unaware that their quarry was watching their every move. Even the stealthy scout lay revealed under the scrutiny of Korel's detection spells.
Actually, he was pretty disappointed. Even he, pale from lack of sun, and horribly out of shape, could survive the average fireball from the most powerful mages in the world, even if he wasn't smart enough to lie flat on the ground and avoid the brunt of its blast. These guys must really have been out of their depth.
He hurried down from his tower to see if any of them could be saved for later use.
Someone who might have been a priest was burnt to a crisp.
A couple of warriors died even as he approached.
The party mage, who should have known better than be caught in a fireball, was salvageable, but he had no wish to take a mage into his Castle. Those guys could be really unpredictable, so he left the mage to die or recover as the gods willed. Korel made a mental note to search the body for interesting items if it was still here in the morning.
The only other member of the party was the scout. He evidently had enough wit to stop, drop, and roll when the fireball hit, and had come out of it with much less severe burns than the others. But he was young, and not too hardened by time and battles, so would probably die soon.
Yes, this one will do.
Korel quickly searched the boy and stripped him of his weapons, including a dagger cunningly hidden in a scabbard strapped to his lower arm, inside his tunic.
Then he held up his arms, muttering a prayer, and put his hands over the boy's heart. A jolt seemed to travel through the boy, and some of his burns seemed less severe as the blessing of Wee Jas became evident.
The boy's condition was no longer critical, but he was still unconscious, just as Korel had intended. Reaching into his cloak, he brought out a little metal trinket, muttering a few guttural phrases. As the trinket disappeared, he gestured toward the boy, and watched as the body floated into the air. Wizards never carried a body when they could levitate it.
Grabbing the boy's boot, Korel guided the still floating form into the depths of the Castle, already thinking of the experiment he had planned.
The dungeon had its first tenant.
Shanna woke up chained tightly to a wall. It was very dark, but her eyes had long since adjusted to it as well as they could. There were no windows, but the glint of metal appeared on the walls around her, probably reflecting off of other chains around the room.
She tested the shackles holding her wrists and ankles to the wall. Very strong, unfortunately. Not rusted, either. At least they didn't hurt her hands too much.
With a bit of alarm Shanna suddenly realized she was naked. This was a relatively minor point considering her larger situation, but it alarmed her nevertheless.
Her disguise was nothing now. She had signed up to be the Roaring Tigers' scout dressed as a man, knowing from her previous experience that a girl, however street-smart, stood very little chance of getting hired as a scout.
The last thing she remembered was going up a mountain, looking for traps on the way to a castle where a terrible wizard lived.
Oh, shit. The wizard.
There had been a terrible burning sensation, and she had dropped to the ground out of reflex. Funny, but she didn't seem to be burned now.
She had had a momentary vision earlier, she thought it was a nightmare, of a pale man in black bending over her, looking at her with horrible red eyes.
She was probably a prisoner in his dungeon now, and had nothing to look forward to but death.
She glanced down at her naked form and shivered.
Death ... or worse.
Korel reached for the decanter and poured himself a glass of Turtlebay wine.
This day had just been one surprise after another. First, the fireball's great effectiveness, and then his prisoner.
The boy who turned out to be a girl. Good grief.
He had healed him ... her completely after drugging her with a mild sleep poison he had learned from some assassin along the way.
And then had stripped her in preparation for the ritual, discovering his mistake in the process. He had seen a fair sample of female flesh in his day, both dead and alive, and this was a fine fine specimen of femininity.
For a second he was tempted to put the experiment off for a few nights to perform some rituals of a different type in the interim, but discretion had prevailed. He might take her soul without compunction, but her body would be a different matter.
This would be a strange way of thinking to some people, but for him it was obvious. He needed her soul for his work and therefore was entitled to it, but her body was of no use to him professionally and therefore he had no claim to it.
He sipped the wine. "Work must take precedence, eh, Narabal?" he inquired of his familiar, getting the usual "mew" of agreement in reply.
At least the healing had gone well. Other wizards would have been hard-pressed to keep her from dying, even with their tremendous spells. Some might have animated her after death as a zombie, but that wouldn't work for his purposes. He needed her soul intact and in prime condition.
In his early years he had signed up for the priesthood. Not an ordinary occupation for a man of his interests, to be sure, but Wee Jas had called to him and he had answered the call, becoming an acolyte in the service of the patron deity of death and magic.
With his intellect he had advanced rapidly in the ranks of the faithful when the stultifying hierarchy of the church had stopped him in his tracks. The loner in him rebelled and he had sought guidance from Wee Jas.
In a vision, he saw himself hiking alone under a full moon at night, staff in hand. Interpreting this vision himself, he knew that he must strike out on his own to succeed. But his fascination with life and death that the priesthood had nurtured had not wavered.
He finally decided that magic was the answer, and enrolled in the Abradene Magic Academy with the blessing of several of his superiors eager to get rid of an ambitious young priest before he became a threat.
At first it had been a terrible temptation to use his priestly powers on the examinations, but his instructors rightly said that his reliance on Wee Jas was holding him back. So he vowed not to use the powers granted by Wee Jas until he had graduated from the Academy.
Finally the day had come and he accepted the scroll of graduation. Re-establishing himself with Wee Jas had been easier than he thought. Evidently his interest in black magic was pleasing to the Power.
Since then he had used his wizardly and priestly powers whenever needed, for he had progressed to the point where he could separate them in his mind and was no longer confused as he had once been. And together they made him a force to be dealt with, someone who could take you to the brink of death and back again on a whim.
This was Korel's goal. Power was his thing. Control. And the ultimate control was over who lived and who died.
He reached over, kindly brushing Narabal off a weighty book, which he then took and opened. This would require some careful study before he was ready to act.
It was time to exercise a little power tonight, he thought.
Dominin awoke seeing the dawn sun shining on his face, hearing someone pounding on the door, and feeling someone else pounding on the inside of his skull. Hangovers and early mornings never mixed.
Nevertheless, the thought of gold pieces jingling in a bag gave him the strength to get out of bed, stumble over to the door and stare Dan right in the face. That's funny, he thought. Johan looks totally fresh. Does he get up at dawn all the time?
"How'd you know my room?" he asked the cheerful apparition of the bard.
"Oh, come now, that was easy. No one else on the floor snored nearly as loud," Dan replied, chuckling. "Ready to go?"
"Sure." Dominin gathered up the possessions he had brought with him, stuffed them in a dilapidated backpack, and followed Dan downstairs past a few sleepy breakfasters and out into the early morning light.
The Band of Steel Heart was not hard to spot. They had a wagon of some kind parked outside the tavern, and Urthur, who was hard to ignore on account of his size anyway, was standing in front of it with his arms crossed, waiting for them.
"Ready to set out and vanquish some evil?" he boomed.
"Of course," Dan replied, holding out his hand.
Urthur nodded, called out something in a language Dan didn't immediately recognize, and one of the party members handed a few small pouches to him. Urthur said, "Five hundred as we agreed. Count them if you like." He handed the five small sacks to Dan, who immediately passed four of them to Dominin.
"Trust is the only valid basis for a successful partnership," he said, and put the bag in his backpack without even looking inside. Dominin was about to open his to count them, but followed Dan's lead and just put them away.
In truth, Dan was not a trusting sort at all, and would count his cut at the first opportunity he had to do so unobserved. But he had developed a good sense of money in his travels, and could tell from weight alone that the gold in his bag was within ten pieces either way of a hundred. That was good enough for now. There would be ample time to make up the difference on the journey if he had been cheated.
On the ride to Bourbafon, Dan and Dominin got to know the members of the Band of Steel Heart. There was Urthur, the warrior, big, strong, and very imposing when he was wielding his two-handed sword. He was the leader of the group, by virtue of his loud voice and seniority.
Fighting side by side with Urthur would be Pargrath, who made up in subtlety and quickness of sword what he lacked in brute strength. He was clearly uneasy about the task ahead, having an innate fear of what he did not understand: magic.
There was the beautiful elven archer and huntress, Nureen, dressed in green and carrying a long bow as tall as she was. She gave a few odd looks at Dan, evidently disproving of his obvious half-elf origin, but was polite enough to say nothing on the subject.
The scout, who preferred to be called just "Al", was a bit less reputable than adventuring thieves usually are. Dan kept a close eye on him for the whole trip, and once caught him in the act of trying to pick Dominin's pocket. He bluffed his way out of the accusation, but Dominin watched his back as well now.
The mage of the party, Rostran, was clearly out of his league. Fresh out of the Academy he looked: couldn't be a day over eighteen. He was nervously practicing a few sleight-of-hand tricks and a few magical effects Dan recognized as cantrips, those little things masters taught their apprentices as practice before learning real spells. Dan was probably a better sorcerer than this guy, even without any formal training. Oh, well, maybe looks were deceiving: Rostran could be just saving the big stuff for the showdown, conserving his energy.
Yr'turin, the priest, rarely said anything. It was obvious from his accent that he was not from this area, but he would say no more than "from the east" when asked about his home. Dan didn't recognize the holy symbol he was wearing, a silver crescent moon with a flower in the center. When he asked about Yr'turin's god, the result was some horrible series of guttural syllables that sounded like Arh'kabla'y'tre. There were probably more gods around than there were people to worship them, Dan thought with a smile.
With Dan the bard and Dominin the guide, the party of eight was complete. They didn't seem like much to go up against a master of the forces of darkness, but they would have to do.
On the way over, Dan was impressed about Dominin's theatrical abilities for the first time. Instead of the main road, Dominin had cunningly led them through side roads and overgrown forest paths to make Urthur think he had gotten his money's worth: surely the party would never have found the way without his help.
In truth, Dominin had intended to take the main road but had gotten lost. Luckily he knew enough of the area to bluff his way through to Bourbafon, though, where they arrived as the sun was getting ready to set behind Bourbafon Rise.
The Rise was an imposing sight from this angle, a rocky crag rising up from the ground, that seemed to want to impale the setting sun on one of its peaks. The group couldn't see the Castle at first, then Dominin pointed it out hidden among the peaks and chasms near the summit.
"Get a good look at it now, boys," Urthur said. "We won't have time for sightseeing when we go after the bastard tonight.
"We attack at midnight."
Shanna's keen sense of hearing picked up a set of footfalls coming in her general direction. A few seconds later, a door opened across from her and a dark robed figure stood silhouetted in the doorway. Then the door creaked shut and the room was dark once again. Good grief, didn't anyone use lights in this place?
She could feel someone in the room, though. He was walking over to her right...
Suddenly a torch blazed up next to her, and she was staring into Korel's eyes.
"Good evening," he said. "How do you feel?" Without waiting for an answer, he went around the room, which was a lot bigger than Shanna had thought, lighting the torches that were set into the wall every ten feet or so. Strange, but he wasn't using flint and steel: he just snapped his fingers and a flame came out of his thumb.
"Fine," she replied, trying to sound less scared than she was. "Aside from the chafing in my wrists, that is. Just what do you plan to do with me?"
Still lighting torches, Korel turned and said, "You ask, so I will tell you. I plan to take your soul from where it now rests and transfer it into this crystal." He held up some sort of clear gemstone for her inspection.
"So you plan to kill me," she said.
He chuckled a bit and replied, "It depends on how you look at it. Your body, to be sure, will die. But your essence may not. Perhaps you will cease to exist as a person and only your life-energy will be transferred to the crystal. Or perhaps your consciousness will go with it and you will still be aware inside the gem. I'm not sure. It's one of the things I mean to find out."
He paused, then meekly asked, "Do I have your permission to proceed?"
"Certainly not!" she yelled.
He laughed heartily. "Dear lady," he said. "I require neither your permission nor your cooperation. I was merely asking out of politeness." And he laughed again.
Korel had come closer to Shanna during this last interchange, so she spat in his face. The spit seemed to bounce off some sort of invisible barrier in front of him.
"At least you haven't lost your spunk," he said. "We may be making thaumaturgical history tonight, you and I. Well, mainly me, that is, since you probably won't be around too much longer."
Under ordinary circumstances, Shanna probably would have long since burst into tears, but the immense callousness of this man made her much too angry to submit. As his laughter echoed around the cavern, she was now determined to resist to her last ounce of strength, although she didn't know if it was possible to resist a devourer of souls.
Dominin was clearly having second thoughts as they started up the Rise. The larger of the two moons was nearly full, so there was plenty of light to see by. Still, he evidently hadn't thought of the fact that a guide had to be in front of the rest of the party to be effective. His horoscope hadn't mentioned anything about leading the assault on a master of darkness, and he was a bit scared. Nevertheless, he silently led the party up the Rise, skirting the worst of the chasms, just has he had done that day when they had foolishly welcomed Korel to town with open arms.
The huntress and the thief went up the Rise a bit more to see if there was a back door of some sort that might be used. It seemed foolhardy to just walk up to the front door and knock.
Or did it? Dan considered for a moment.
Dominin had said that the necromancer had not moved against the town yet. He might not be expecting a strike against him. Maybe a couple of them could pretend to be making a social call.
Then Al and Nureen returned. "Come quickly!" she whispered. The band trotted along behind her as she led them along the eastern side of the Castle.
"For the love of Arh'kabla'y'tre!" Yr'turin exclaimed.
They had found the remains of the first party, all those charred bodies lying in the center of a circle of scorched earth.
So much for the social call plan, Dan thought.
This was war.
Korel was standing in the center of his warding pentagram, located right in front of Shanna. He wasn't sure whether the ward was absolutely necessary, but every bit of protection he had from the magical energies that would shortly be released was probably a good idea.
He began chanting in a language that Shanna had not ever heard. There seemed to be a breeze picking up. A breeze? Here? Underground? Shanna thought.
As his chanting intensified, he began waving his arms around. Short blue flashes of light appeared around him. The motions of his arms were now more controlled: he was moving like a conductor of a great orchestra composed of the little blue lights, which were steadier now and whirling around him.
As his voice raised in volume, the breeze intensified into a wind and then into a minor gale, a tornado that carried the blue lights in a frenzied circle around him: now it seemed like some sort of electrical storm.
The chanting was approaching some sort of climax. Shanna just hung there in mute terror. Korel gestured suddenly at the tornado around him, and it seemed to collapse inward. He thrust one arm up, holding the crystal, and the blue lights gathered around it. Then with a dramatic gesture he flung his other arm out and planted it firmly on Shanna's forehead as the lights travelled down his arm and into her eyes.
It was a scream unlike any anyone had ever heard in sweet Bourbafon. A scream of absolute, mortal terror. A scream of pain sufficient to cause heroic warriors to fall to their knees and call helplessly for their mothers. A scream that went on and on and on without the need for breath to carry it. A scream that echoed and echoed throughout the halls of the Castle and down the Rise.
It felt as if someone were pulling out her still-beating heart and stuffing it into a thimble. It felt as if someone had grabbed her eyeballs and juggled them with hands of razor blades. It felt as if every one of her fingers and toes had been crushed under the weight of a building. It felt as if...
There is no other way to describe it ... it felt as if her soul was being ripped from her body, and in fact it was.
The scream echoed across the Rise and to the waiting ears of the Band of Steel Heart.
"Now!" bellowed Urthur, and ran towards the front door of the Castle with his sword raised high. He began hacking away at the wood as the others caught up with him.
"Open the damn door!" he yelled. "The wizard is obviously distracted! Al, you worthless son of a troll, get this door open!"
Al brought out his lockpicks and worked at the door. Time was precious now, and everyone knew it. The necromancer must be torturing some poor girl, from the sound of it, and now was the time to strike while he was busy with his evil pleasures.
The screams had just subsided when Al finally opened the lock. The eight burst forward, nearly tripping over each other as they passed over the threshold of Bourbafon Castle.
They were greeted with the piercing sound of alarm bells.
Korel was overcome with pleasure during the transfer. The strength of her spirit! he thought. The vitality! Oh, yes, the souls of these young girls were ones to be savored.
The throbbing in his hand disturbed his concentration for a moment. Something was wrong. The crystal was not holding.
Drat! Her energy was too much for it!
In haste, Korel broke the spell, tossing the crystal across the room and shielding his face.
In mid-air it exploded, the energies trapped within releasing themselves in a burst of green light. Her eyes had been green, Korel thought. Interesting.
Some of the light seemed to flow back into Shanna's still body, which stirred slightly. Excellent, he thought. Perhaps we can try again later if she survives.
"Next time I must use a diamond instead of these silly semiprecious stones, eh, Narabal?" he said. "Maybe even an emerald would work since she has green eyes."
His mind still reeling from the failed transfer, Korel was interrupted by the sound of his alarm spell.
"Drat and double drat!" he muttered. He glanced over at Shanna. "Looks like you'll have some company soon, my dear."
Still, he thought, this was not a good time for adventurers to come pounding on his door. He should have been in the tower to meet them properly.
The alarm had shut itself off. "Quick! Everyone split up!" Dan whispered furiously, taking charge when Urthur seemed disappointed that there was nothing to hack in two in the entrance hall. "No sense in letting him cook us all at once with a fireball like he did the last poor suckers. Yell if you find anything, and keep an eye out for the girl, too."
He dashed off into the shadows, moving as quietly as he could.
Urthur and Yr'turin bolted straight ahead, Pargrath and Rostran went off to the left, and Al and Nureen slipped off to the right.
Dominin glanced around and made his way cautiously outside again. No sense in me getting involved in this, he thought. I earned my share on the way up here. But I shouldn't go home yet: there's still the treasure to divide.
Korel hurried towards his library and laboratory. He could probably take these guys by himself, but it wouldn't hurt to have the help of some of the wands, et cetera that he had collected.
Damn these adventurers! They always come at the worst time!
Following a tortuous route, Al and Nureen dashed through the kitchen and a few side rooms. They passed an open stairway going down and heard moaning from below.
"Come on," Nureen said. "The girl's got to be down here!"
They made their way down the twisted stairway into a large cavern, and sure enough there was Shanna chained to the wall, the sweat on her naked body reflecting the light from the still burning torches.
Al noticed a slight crunching sound as he hurried over. Letting Nureen see to the girl, he bent and inspected it. Crushed rock, he thought. Some green stone. Strange.
"Get over here, you dolt!" Nureen yelled to him. "Get these shackles off of her!"
Al pulled out his lockpicks and took a look at the keyholes. "No problem," he said. "We'll have you out of there in a short second."
Shanna seemed to gather her strength, recovering more and more of her stolen energy. She breathlessly said, "He's a monster! A horrible horrible soul-eating monster! Ohhhh, the pain! The pain!"
As Al hurried with her shackles, Shanna had now recovered just enough strength to begin to cry.
Damn, thought Korel. I had to put the damn lab on the other side of the Castle!
He chanted a protective spell to himself while he ran, thinking he would probably meet someone on the long way there.
I'll sure remember this the next time I design a building.
Pargrath and Rostran made their way cautiously up the stairs they had found. Checking rooms left and right, they proceeded. Here a bedroom, there a closet, and so on. On one side of the hall was a much larger door, obviously important.
"Cover me!" Pargrath whispered, and kicked the door nearly off its hinges. It flew open, revealing a large room.
"Holy cow!" uttered Rostran. He had never seen so many books in his life outside of the Academy library. There must be tons and tons of great spells here! Entranced, he entered the room after Pargrath had burst in.
Eyeing a weighty tome on the table, Rostran reached for it.
The book sprouted short stubby legs and leaped off the table, scurrying into a corner, cowering.
Pargrath was busy checking for concealed doors as Rostran snuck up on the book, making a quick grab for it and holding on as it tried to fly away from him once again, sprouting wings. He finally got it under control and the wings disappeared.
Amusing. I hope that trick is in here somewhere, he thought as he opened the book to peruse its contents.
Across the room, Pargrath had found a secret door. He turned back to tell Rostran.
"Rostran, don't!" he yelled.
Urthur and Yr'turin burst through the secret door just in time to see Rostran be consumed in a bright ball of flame.
At one point Korel had trapped just about everything he owned, enchanting chests so they would run away from thieves and inscribing written works with exploding runes or some other devious measure.
At the Academy, he was determined that no one copy his homework, and no one ever did, after that one poor cheater was sent to the clerics after receiving some very heavy burns.
He had never taken the trouble to remove some of the traps, even when the danger of fire was much greater than the danger of copied homework.
That was a mistake, he thought, as he smelled smoke coming from his library.
Rostran was gone. The ball of fire had nearly incinerated him.
And now the rest of the room was on fire as well.
Urthur, Yr'turin, and Pargrath rushed forward, trying to put out the flames with cloaks or tunics.
Unfortunately, chests and books just ran away from them, defying every effort to be put out. In the books' efforts to get away, they were in fact spreading the fire to other rooms of the Castle much more efficiently than the fire itself could have done.
Nureen heard a soft explosion from somewhere above them.
"Come on!" she cried. "The battle begins!"
Hastily wrapping a cloak around Shanna, Al told her, "Get out of this castle now while you still can. Up the stairs, take two lefts and you're out! Gotta go."
And with a tip of his hat Al dashed up the stairs after Nureen.
Still a bit dazed, Shanna stumbled up the stone stairway.
"This is definitely not my idea of an adventure!" she mumbled.
As Korel ran down the hall a flaming book flew out of his library and headed for him. He caught it and quickly beat out the flames, looking at the spine to see what it was. It was a collection of his necromancy spells, one of his many prized spellbooks.
The fools must have set fire to his library!
Pargrath ran out the library door, in pursuit of some small flaming chest that ran along on little stubby legs. Suddenly he stopped, seeing Korel, drew his sword and charged.
Korel calmly put the book in one of the voluminous pockets of his robe and made a sudden upward motion with his right hand as a glass rod appeared in his palm, transported from a pocket of his robes quicker than he could have searched for it by hand.
Pointing the rod at Pargrath, he muttered a quick phrase as the warrior continued his charge.
A bolt of lightning struck Pargrath in the chest, stopping him dead in his tracks.
He stared down at the large hole burned through his chest and at the wizard's outstretched arm, too surprised to immediately realize what had happened. Then he collapsed and lay still.
Korel hurried on to the library, arriving to see it in flames, with two more people rushing around, oblivious to him in their haste to put out the flames. He readied a hail storm spell that would simultaneously batter the adventurers to death and put out the flames as the ice melted. He raised his arms to call forth the storm, and...
OWW! What the hell was that?
There was a pain in his right arm, a gushing wound, and a bloody dagger at his feet. The energies of the spell dissipated in a few sparks as his concentration was broken by the blow at the last second. He turned, another glass rod in his hand to do away with the thrower, only to catch a glimpse of maroon and yellow ducking into the shadows.
No matter. I'll get him later, Korel thought. Unfortunately, he did not have another hail spell handy to put out the flames. Some slower methods would have to be used. Drat!
He turned his concentration to the two in the room, Yr'turin and Urthur. The priest was readying a "hold" spell: Korel recognized it from the old days. Quickly he dispatched four magic missiles to break his concentration. They left four burn marks on Yr'turin's tunic, but otherwise he was not seriously affected.
Ignoring the charging warrior for a moment, Korel tossed a dart that had been soaked in the secretions from an adder's stomach at the stunned priest. Korel always took care of magic users first, since they were so unpredictable. As it struck Yr'turin, the magically enhanced stomach acid began to eat into his clothes and then his skin. That should keep him busy for a little while, Korel thought.
Urthur swung his mighty sword at Korel's head. His aim was accurate, but he had not counted on the invisible barrier around Korel. The sword bounced off at an angle and the sword missed by a few inches.
In a split second Korel had recovered from the dodge and another glass rod was in his hand. As Urthur brought the sword around a second time, now confident that he could compensate for the invisible shield protecting the wizard, Korel spoke the spell.
There was a bright flash of lightning, and Urthur flew back across the room, landing with a thud in front of a burning bookshelf. Smoke rose from his armor as minor discharges escaped the metal. He had not been killed by the bolt, though he was severely shaken.
Korel glanced at the half-dissolved body of the priest. The acid had done its job very well. Urthur was getting to his feet, recovering more swiftly than Korel had anticipated. That was a huge amount of electricity to pour into a person, but he seemed to be weathering it well.
Korel had only one bolt left, and he wanted to save it for that blasted dagger-thrower. So he resorted to a more minor spell, tossing another acid-soaked dart at the warrior. Surely that will finish him off, Korel thought.
"Korel!" someone yelled from the corridor.
How did they know my name? he wondered. That wasn't in the rumors.
"Come and get me, you coward! Does that dagger wound hurt? Ha Ha Ha!"
Where was that sound coming from?
As he came out into the corridor he saw a brightly dressed man in a wide hat juggling three daggers.
"Come on, Korel, I dare you!" Dan yelled.
The third and last glass rod was in Korel's hand.
He was going to enjoy watching this one die.
Nureen and Al ran up the stairs, passing a few burning items along the way that scurried into a corner as they approached, setting a tapestry or curtain ablaze as they did so.
At the top they both gasped.
There was Pargrath lying on the floor, a look of surprise on his face and a hole burned clean through his chest.
And at the other end of the hall was Dan, juggling three daggers and making fun of someone in a black robe, obviously the necromancer.
"What the hell's he doing?" Al muttered as he readied his own dagger, still coming forward.
Nureen nocked an arrow and took aim.
The wizard was chanting something.
They both looked on in horror as Korel savagely launched a lightning bolt right at Dan's chest.
Korel's last lightning bolt passed straight through Dan's chest, splintering the door at the end of the hall. Dan only laughed. He hadn't even dropped one of his juggling daggers.
What the hell is this? Korel thought, staring at the bard.
Suddenly an exact duplicate of the bard stepped from the shadows directly before Korel, short sword at Korel's neck.
"Surrender or die," Dan said with a steely smile. His duplicate at the end of the hall took off its hat, made a sweeping bow, and vanished.
An illusion! How stupid of me! Korel thought.
"Did you think that you alone could defeat me?" Korel said defiantly. At the same time he deftly grabbed the sword, cutting himself a little in the process, and sent a significant electrical shock running through Dan's sword.
Dan jumped back, shocked in more ways than one.
Simultaneously, Nureen let loose her arrow and Al threw his dagger. Both lodged themselves deep in Korel's back.
"No, but the three of us can," Dan said.
Korel could feel a coldness in his blood. Poison! This is not good, he thought, but his mind was already reeling from the effects. He had time for just one more spell.
Dan was getting ready to swing his sword for a deadly blow.
This would be close.
Korel coughed out a single word, and Dan's sword swung through empty air as Korel disappeared with a slight "POP!"
"Hold it!" Dan yelled at his friends, who were about ready to fire again and probably hit him now that their target was gone.
"Where'd he go?" Nureen shouted, looking from side to side for a target and seeing only a small black cat disappear down the stairs and into the shadows.
"It doesn't matter. He can't get far now with that shit in his veins!" Al chuckled. "That poison kills inside of ten minutes, and there's no way he can get to a cure in that time! Come on, let's grab what we can and get out of here. This place is going up in flames as we speak!"
He dashed off, catching a few chests that jingled as they walked. The others did likewise, for the blaze was much too large to handle now.
They made it back outside with a few treasures, all three coughing from the smoke. A few seconds later, a large man staggered out of the burning Castle.
"Urthur!" Nureen yelled.
"Get this shit offa me!" he bellowed. "It stings like black dragon blood!"
Al tossed a little water on the front of Urthur's smoking armor, washing away the residual acid. Luckily Urthur had been able to deflect most of the splash when it hit him.
Shanna came up to them, recovering rapidly, and they watched together as the Castle burned.
"Rostran was an idiot," Urthur said. "But Yr'turin and Pargrath deserve better than this."
"I think we have enough here to give them a second chance at life," Al said, shaking a chest full of Korel's jewels and gold.
"Agreed," Nureen said. "But where's that worthless guide of yours?" she added, turning to Dan.
"Beats me," Dan replied.
When the smoke started pouring from the Castle windows, Dominin thought that it was probably time to go home, maybe hiring himself out as a guide again for the next group that came along.
As he was making his way down the mountain, something happened to him that had never happened to him before.
Korel was hunched over in one of the many overhangs of the Rise. He hadn't the skill to teleport himself very far, but this was sufficient.
Reaching behind him with a grunt, he pulled the dagger from his back. Rubbing garlic in his wound, he muttered a quick prayer to Wee Jas. That would delay the poison for a few hours, he thought, but I need to find a cure soon.
Luckily he was well-versed in the ways of healing from his priesthood days and could probably come up with a cure if he had the proper herbal materials. I need to get to town, he thought. They don't know what has happened yet, so they still trust me. His plan of leaving Bourbafon untouched by his experiments finally appeared to be about to pay off.
A few more prayers took care of his wounds for the most part, and he was ready to set off to town. Hopefully the adventurers were still occupied with searching for him and wouldn't have left for town yet.
He could sense Narabal somewhere near. Excellent, he thought. As the cat came into view, he felt better. Familiars were very dear to wizards.
Setting off for town, he spotted a lone figure a few peaks ahead of him on the way to Bourbafon. Obviously one of the adventurers, he thought.
The fireball that he had dared not use indoors now came in very handy.
Nureen found Dominin's scorched body later that night.
Dan was sitting by himself in The Tipsy Owl, sipping his wine and thinking of the events of the past week.
What a surprise it had been to go to the town clerics to arrange a resurrection for Yr'turin and Pargrath and find out that Korel had already been there for a poison cure!
Al had been adamant that his poison wasn't defective, and couldn't understand how the necromancer had survived to arrive in town. He even offered to kill someone to demonstrate, but they had talked him out of it.
Even after the steep resurrection fees, there had been plenty to go around. The Band had offered Dan more than what had been agreed upon due to his brave actions in battle, but Dan had declined. A few jewels was all he took as payment.
At first the townspeople had been surprised that Korel was evil, but Dominin's scorched body turned their opinions and their stomachs pretty quickly. They had given Dominin's share of the treasure to his family, but Dan wasn't sure whether or not it was enough to pay for a resurrection. And Urthur had refused to pay extra for a coward. So that was that as far as Dominin was concerned.
Dan had considered joining the newly-healed Band of Steel Heart who planned to go after the necromancer, last seen going west towards Dan's hometown of Hookhill. But the bard in him also heard the call of the open road. Perhaps sometime later on he would join another adventuring group for a while, but for now he had more than enough material to work with:
Johan was a great bard of Hookhill,
Who once joined a Band of Steel Heart.
They set out one day, a wizard to kill,
Who died not outmatched but out-thought.
Oh, well, he thought. It's a start.
Korel was hiking cross-country now, avoiding towns and walking at night as much as he could just in case those blasted adventurers were following him, as well as to avoid the glaring sunlight on his pale skin. At least the hiking was gradually getting him back in shape, he thought.
Though seeing his library going up in smoke had really gotten to him. All that work! All those years! Up in flames! And all because of an illusion, one of those pitiful little spells he had ignored on his quest for true necromantic power. Cast by a bard, even!
He would have to start all over again, rebuilding his research library a bit at a time somewhere else. But he didn't have near enough money to do it.
All he had was a small bag of coins, a dagger red with his own blood, and a book of necromancy spells.
"Mew," purred Narabal from his heels.
And Narabal, yes, he thought. I still have Narabal. And I still have my wits.
I'll just have to begin again, he thought.
He broke off a sturdy branch from a nearby tree and made himself a staff.
By the full moon he continued along the ridge, staff in hand and Narabal by his side.
Suddenly he realized that he was living out that vision Wee Jas had granted him so long ago. It hadn't been purely symbolic after all!
And in that flash of insight he knew how he could begin again. He knew how he could rebuild his wealth and therefore his library. He knew how he could obtain enough magic items to take up his research once more. He knew the true meaning of the vision now.
Korel would become an adventurer.